Queen of Jarilo

Cover Illustration by Meandraco: https://www.furaffinity.net/user/meandraco/

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:


Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: size difference, muscle, sweat, biting, scratching, vaginal, large breasts, kissing, long tongues, giant humanoid insects, orgy, aliens, deepthroat, femdom, rough sex, tentacles, bondage, living armor, boobjob, pheromones.


The admirals sat around a circular table in the conference room, poring over the data readouts that were embedded in the polished mahogany, scrolling past field reports and fleet logistics with their white gloves. It was rare to see so many admirals assembled in one place, brought in from every corner of Coalition space, some better rested than others as they waited for the briefing to begin. The great wheel that gave Fort Hamilton its nickname and provided it with artificial gravity rotated past outside the windows against the velvet-black backdrop of space. The Pinwheel was the largest naval base in human territory and security had been bumped up at the request of the security chief, as having so many high ranking officers in one place would present a juicy target. The engine trails of warships could be seen beyond the station as the metal behemoths drifted along their patrol routes.

One of the men stood, straightening his white dress uniform, his breast decorated with a dozen medals and insignias. He cleared his throat and then tapped in a command on his touch screen, a hologram of a planet materializing in the center of the table. It was beautiful and verdant, with sparkling blue oceans and continents covered in green vegetation, wisps of white cloud floating across the landscape in familiar weather patterns. Had it not been for the odd shapes of the landmasses, one might have mistaken it for Earth at a glance.

Two days ago, a Russian Federation survey ship that was scouting contested space along the Coalition border discovered a previously unknown Earth-like planet. They named it Jarilo.”

He tapped at his monitor, the hologram crackling as it shifted, lines of text and graphs appearing to display more information as the admirals leaned closer to examine the display.

Zero point nine eight Gs, an atmosphere composed of sixty-seven percent nitrogen and thirty-two percent oxygen, with the rest being argon and other traces gases. It has an active and very powerful magnetosphere that protects it from solar radiation, likely due to its iron core, and liquid water covers approximately sixty-two percent of its surface. The planet has a native biosphere, with carbon-based plant and animal life flourishing across its continents and oceans. It is a garden world, the most like Earth that we have ever come across.”

How did we miss this in our surveys?” one of the other admirals asked, visibly perturbed by the revelation. “I thought that we had mapped every habitable planet in Coalition space? We've been colonizing less and less desirable planets for years now because the astronomers and surveyors told us that we had run out of suitable targets. Hell, we've fought tooth and nail over planets like Kruger III and Hades, planets with only the barest capacity to support human life.”

The planet was hidden by the star's accretion disk. The system is a young one, but the presence of several large gas giants has kept it remarkably safe from debris. It was just bad luck, it was obscured relative to us on the galactic plane by this cloud of dust and asteroids,” he said as he pointed towards a map of the system and its planets. “It took a ship entering the system to spot it.”

And why have you convened this meeting?” another of the admirals asked. This one sported a long, grey beard that obscured some of his regalia. “You cannot have brought us all together in one place to discuss what could have been announced through the usual channels.”

You are correct,” the admiral giving the presentation continued. “Along with the discovery of Jarilo came the detection of a Betelgeusian fleet crossing into contested space and making a beeline for the system. The Russian survey ship fled as soon as they detected the incoming vessels, but our best intelligence suggests that Jarilo may already be under occupation.”

This planet may be more suited to human life than even our own homeworld,” another of the admirals added, “I need not impress upon you gentlemen the importance of securing it. This could become a second Earth, a spearhead in the fight against the Betelgeusians. The colonists there could thrive, rather than barely clinging to life, as has been the case in so many of our recent ventures.”

We cannot allow this planet to remain in Bug hands,” the man sitting beside him confirmed, slamming his gloved fist on the table and causing the hologram to flicker for a moment. “We must stake our claim and deny the insects a foothold there by any means necessary.”

There was a chorus of affirmations around the table.

We must assemble a strike force, and they must reach Jarilo as soon as possible. Every day that we spend preparing gives the Bugs more time to entrench and fortify their position. We have to hit them hard and fast, before they have an opportunity to make this planet a fortress.”

Can we spare the ships?” the admiral to his left asked, scratching his stubbly chin as he considered. “There are a dozen systems along the border where the Betelgeusians could make a push if we diverted ships from the front line. Our fleets are stretched thin as it is.”

The Thermopylae is currently in dry dock on this very station,” the man giving the presentation volunteered. “She's a carrier, just returned from quelling an insurrection on Hades. She's undergoing some minor repairs, and then she's slated to be redeployed to the front.”

Then we'll give her new orders,” the bearded admiral announced as he stood and leaned across the wooden table to glare at his colleagues. “The Thermopylae is to resupply and lead an invasion force to Jarilo. Their mission is to capture the planet with extreme prejudice. Who is the captain?”

That would be...one Captain Stavros.”

Stavros? I know the man, he's reliable. Make him the fleet commander on this one, and throw together whatever ships you can pull away from their duties. I know that I saw a battleship and some cruisers on the flight in. If it's docked at this station and it's spaceworthy, then I want it en route to Jarilo as soon as humanly possible.”


Walker swam, his muscles burning as he reached the end of the lane. He rested for a moment, catching his breath as the ropes to either side of him bobbed on their plastic floats in the blue water. He secured his white swimming cap, adjusted his goggles, then broke into a backstroke as he started another lap. He always liked to visit the pool whenever he had shore leave. There was something relaxing about letting himself float in the water, almost as if he was in zero gravity. It was great exercise too, cathartic, the water carrying away any sweat that he generated as he powered through it.

They didn't use chlorine on the Pinwheel, the Krell didn't like it, and so the Olympic-sized pool had that fresh feel and taste that reminded him so much of swimming in the lakes and rivers of his youth. There were a few of the giant lizards floating in the adjacent lanes, like oversized, bipedal crocodiles. They were covered in spinach-colored scales that could stop a bullet, around sixteen feet from nose to tail, inhumanly friendly and easygoing despite their fearsome appearance. They lazed, pushing themselves along slowly with their huge, oar-like tails. They weren't exercising, they just liked the water. One could argue that they were more at home inside the pool than out.

The rest of his squadmates had gone straight to the bar, but Walker liked to take care of himself. A weapon that was improperly maintained would fail you, and the human body was no different. As a scout sniper, he was often put into unpredictable and physically demanding situations.

He rested for a few more moments, his arms crossed on the side of the pool, watching the Krell as they floated sluggishly. They tended not to stay in their lanes, as large as they were. He'd have to keep an eye out for errant aliens on his way back up.

He plunged back into the water, a breaststroke this time, trying to exercise as much of his body as he could. Swimming was preferable to running in that way, it involved so many more muscle groups, every kick and pull was like a miniature resistance workout in itself.

As he reached the deep end of the pool, he felt a surge in the water beneath his feet, as if some large mass was about to breach directly under him. Something grabbed his leg and pulled him beneath the surface, giving him barely enough time to take a gulp of air before he was submerged. Through his goggles, he saw a Borealan grinning up at him from below.

She was eight feet tall, female judging by two breasts the size of his head that were barely contained by a two-piece swimsuit, the wet material black against her pale skin. She had strawberry-blonde hair that was cut short in a bob, her two round ears protruding from it. Her eyes were the color of amber, with feline pupils that glinted with amusement as she grinned at him silently through the water. Her body was clean of fur save for her forearms and her legs below the knee, where her thin coat began, the same color as her hair and decorated with faded markings that reminded Walker of a leopard. Her fingers were clawed like those of a cat and her digitigrade legs ended in paw-like feet that were similarly armed. Her tail floated behind her like a furry snake, long and flexible. Her developed muscles bulged from beneath her skin, a product of the harsh gravity of her homeworld, giving her the appearance of an athlete or a fitness nut. They were colloquially known as Mad Cats to military personnel, alien auxiliaries that were renowned for their combat prowess, not to mention their antagonistic nature.

She released his ankle from her fuzzy grip, bubbles escaping from her mouth as she laughed, exposing her sharp teeth. Walker swam to the surface and took a deep breath, his assailant rising to float beside him.

Your face, Walker,” she snickered. She slapped the surface of the pool with her dinner plate-sized hand and showered him with water. “For a scout, you're damned easy to sneak up on.”

Her people were mischievous at best and belligerent at worst. Their society was based around pack hierarchies, with members locked in a constant battle for dominance and status that was most often decided through violence. They were hard to get along with, but once you understood their way of thinking, they made firm friends.

They should keep you guys in cages when you're on leave,” he complained, her toothy grin growing wider. “Besides Kaz, you're my spotter, keeping a lookout is supposed to be your job.”

Come on Walker, let's go to the recreation center, I'll let you buy me a drink.”

She rubbed her flat, pink nose with the back of her furry forearm, floating there as she waited for a response. She was remarkably buoyant despite her sheer mass.

You don't need me to buy you drinks, you can scarcely handle one beer. Getting you wasted costs about five credits.”

Hey, how my species metabolize alcohol is my own business. Now are you coming or not?”

Fine, fine, just let me go dry off.”

Kaz had been assigned to him as his spotter. Borealans had better visual acuity than humans, and their sense of smell rivaled that of a bloodhound. They were certainly stealthy when they wanted to be, but crack shots they generally were not, and that was where Walker came in. With a human and a Borealan alone in the field for long periods of time, things were bound to happen. They were sexual creatures, and it was as much a part of their social interaction as polite conversation. Walker and Kaz had found a kind of equilibrium, it let off steam and reduced stress, so there was nothing to complain about. It took a firm hand to keep a Borealan in check, but Walker was a UNN Marine, being a hardass was in his job description.


Kaz sipped from a shot glass filled with a pink beverage, raises the hair they called it, some native Borealan drink that their bodies could tolerate without getting blackout drunk. The recreation center was crowded with humans and aliens alike, laughing and joking as they played pool and card games. The people sitting at the bar were packed shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a can.

Their jump carrier, the Thermopylae, had just unloaded its cargo of troops and auxiliaries after a pacification mission on Hades. It hadn't been much of a challenge. The local resistance had been comprised mostly of PDF conscripts, the majority of which had thrown down their weapons at the first sight of a Marine. Space travel was not expedient or easy, however. Hades was right on the fringe of inhabited space, and they had spent weeks stuck in cramped crew quarters. Now they were on a well-earned shore leave, the air was full of smoke from e-cigarettes and the smell of pub food carried over from the tables where some of the Marines were having their first meal in weeks that hadn't come in a plastic packet. Kaz was sat next to Walker, the bar stools specially reinforced for the heavier aliens and rigged with springs that would sink the seat down level with the counter. He took a draw of his beer, not much of a drinker himself, listening to the bustle around him as they decided what to do next.

We gonna get some food?” Kaz asked, nudging him with her massive fist and almost knocking him off his bar stool. “There's that food cart that I like down in the tourist quarter, you know, the one that sells kebabs?”

Are you kidding me? The last time we went down there you talked me into splitting the bill, and then I got a five credit sub, and you bought sixty credits worth of kebab meat. I think you ran the poor guy out of business, I'm surprised he didn't just let you walk away with the entire spit.”

I'm a growing girl, I need my protein.”

She rested her elbows on the wooden counter and leaned in close, her tone turning salacious as she whispered to him, barely audible over the noisy bar environment.

I'm asking you on a date, Earth boy. We've not fooled around since we were out in the field, so let's blow our paycheck on some good food, and then we can fuck until the sun lamps turn on. How about that?”

He choked on his beer a little, never any less surprised by how forward and vulgar she could be. Having a Borealan friend with benefits could be a handful, but nothing in life worth doing was easy.

Well, when you put it that way...”

She cackled, hopping off the stool and stretching her long arms above her head, her full figure practically exploding out of her skin-tight UNN issue jumpsuit. Walker slammed the last of his beer and stood to join her, but before they could set off, they heard a man shout over the ruckus. The room went silent as he repeated it, all eyes turning to him.

Crew of the Thermopylae, your shore leave has been canceled, you're shipping out again tomorrow. Everyone needs to report to their CO as soon as possible.”

Fuck,” Walker breathed, Kaz's round ears drooping. “No rest for the wicked, eh?”


The Thermopylae broke through the fabric of space like a bullet, a shower of colorful gases expanding in a cloud behind it as it left superlight, a dozen support ships following in its wake like a pod of dolphins surfing the bow wave of a ship. Only the largest classes of ship were big enough to house the nuclear generators required to power the jump drives, the smaller ships relied on carriers to tow them into superlight. They drifted for a moment, their crews temporarily incapacitated by the wracking energies of higher dimensional travel, the flight computers taking control to protect the crew from any ambush or threat during the brief period of vulnerability. The ship was over three hundred meters long, a hundred thousand tons of streamlined steel, painted in the traditional ocean grey and dotted with recesses in the hull where attack fighters and landing craft were housed. Its belly and flanks bristled with offensive and defensive weaponry, ship to ship missiles, orbital railguns and point defense turrets.

Captain Stavros gripped the command console with his hand, gloved in white, the insignia of fleet commander joining the many medals and commendations that decorated his uniform. The more jumps you did, the easier it got, but you never really got used to it. Stavros' ability to stand during superlight was considered superhuman by many of his crew members, and he steadied himself as his faculties began to slowly return. His vision cleared and the spasms in his muscles abated as he looked through the main viewport at the star field beyond. He was a swarthy man, with a dark beard adorning his face, a hat with a captain's wreath sitting proudly upon his head.

His bridge crew were strapped to their crash couches, plastic bits in their mouths to prevent them from biting off their own tongues, a few of them coming to and cradling their heads in their hands. The effects of superlight travel on the human body ranged from seizures to temporary insanity. It was like running your brain through a blender, but most people recovered after a few minutes.

J-Jump successful,” his helmsman stammered, rubbing his eyes as he examined the readout on his console. “We're just outside the area of operations, no enemy vessels on local scans. The fleet followed us through, all ships accounted for, but there's no sign of the-”

Before he could finish his sentence, the UNN Kartikeya popped into existence a few hundred meters to their starboard, a hulking mass of angular metal that housed enough weaponry to rival the rest of the fleet combined. It was a Martian battleship, one of the largest ever built, its tonnage nearing that of even the carriers. Where the Thermopylae was sleek and designed to handle limited atmospheric flight, the Kartikeya was a spacecraft through and through, it looked as if it had been welded together from giant pieces of sheet metal. The entire hull was split into two halves, built around a truly massive magnetic accelerator that served as a giant railgun, catapulting projectiles the size of a semi-trailer at relativistic speeds. The crew were forbidden from firing that thing near Jarilo, one miss and it might impact the planet with the force of a meteorite strike. Accidentally killing the world that they were supposed to be capturing would be an embarrassing field report to have to send home.

Speak of the devil,” the helmsman continued, “pride of Mars on our flank.”

The great vessel sprang to life after a moment of lethargy, righting itself and joining the fleet formation as its thrusters pulsed with blue flame, the cloud of technicolor gas dispersing behind it as reality healed the wound that the ship had opened. Its arrays of turrets twisted on their axis, the bay doors of its missile batteries opening and closing as if the vessel was itself flexing and stretching as it recovered from the jump.

The captain's voice came through on the comms, crackling with static.

This is Captain Chopra of the Kartikeya, on station.”

Glad to have you with us Kartikeya,” Stavros replied.

The dozen frigates and cruisers that had ridden in with the Thermopylae floated nearby, like a cloud of insects in comparison to the two flagships, missile destroyers and gunships readying their weapons for the engagement that was to come.

All hands to battle stations,” Stavros announced over the intercom, “get those CIWS frigates into position. I want a missile defense blanket covering the whole fleet, we all know how much the Bugs like their plasma torpedoes.”

The formation of ships burned into position, their main engines firing to match velocity, moving further into the system as they reached cruising speed. It would take a good hour for them to close the distance and reach Jarilo orbit, but jumping in any closer could put them at risk. If the Bugs had established orbital defense platforms as they were known to do, then even the larger vessels might be shredded. It was better to keep the engagement at as long a range as possible, and in space that could mean hundreds of thousands of miles. There would certainly be an ugly brawl in high orbit, but with any luck, they could use their missiles and torpedoes to take out the more dangerous vessels and structures before they reached spitting distance.

Get me long range scans of the system,” Stavros ordered, “I want to know the location of every Bug ship in this star's gravity well. If they didn't see the Russian survey vessel, then we may still have the element of surprise, but they'll have fortified regardless.”

The modus operandi of the Betelgeusians, once they claimed territory as their own, was to place orbital defenses to ward off UNN ships and to dig tunnels deep into the planet's crust that made them exceptionally hard to root out. Being so far underground made orbital bombardment ineffective, assuming that the Admiralty wanted the planet even remotely intact, and so ground operations were a necessity. Krell and Borealan auxiliaries had evened the odds somewhat, but while the UNN tended to dominate in space, the ground wars were a different beast altogether. The Bugs emerged from their hives to launch surprise attacks, retreating back into the maze of tunnels once the damage was done, their activities difficult to predict and even harder to effectively counter. It was a guerrilla war on a planetary scale.

The two species had much in common, at least biologically speaking, Humans and Betelgeusians shared the same basic chemistry and found similar atmospheres and temperatures to be comfortable. This meant that competition for territory was rife, with some heavily contested planets changing hands two, or even three times between the races. Jarilo was a rare prize indeed, and Stavros got the impression that this was going to be a long and hard-fought campaign.

After another fifteen minutes had gone by when the officer operating the long-range scanner alerted him to the presence of Betelgeusian ships.

It's a full invasion fleet Captain,” he said as he swiped the readout, the information transferring to the monitor that was embedded in the large viewport. The transparent glass became misted, the digital overlay flickering to life. “I'm picking up two hive ships and five torpedo boats. They've launched one orbital defense platform already, but I'm not showing any signs of activity from it. I don't believe that it's operational yet. Looks like we may have caught them with their pants down, sir.”

Stavros examined the readout, the computer matching the signatures of the enemy ships to known classes, more detailed pictures and schematics appearing beside the scan results. Hive ships were grotesque, bulbous vessels, nothing akin to the sleek lines of his prized Thermopylae. They almost looked like giant shrimps, sheets of metal plating like Medieval armor covering their hulls as an added layer of protection, dozens of spindly legs protruding from beneath the overlapping plates of the shell which allowed the things to make landfall. There was no viewport to speak of because the vessel was covered in biological eyes that served as cameras for the crew. There were innumerable sensors and antennae that resembled hairs from a distance, protruding from its nightmare body in every direction.

It was theorized that the Betelgeusians built a skeletal frame from alloys and then somehow guided the growth of biological material around it, eventually forming a living ship with a flight control system that more closely resembled a central nervous system than a computer. While they might appear primitive, there were some surprising benefits to building ships in this unconventional manner. Their vessels could self-repair, and they were remarkably reactive to threats. There was weaponry meshed into the living material that packed quite a punch, and their hides were thick with both biological and conventional armor. Much like a carrier, they housed dozens of smaller attack craft that clung to them like parasites, and they carried the ground invasion forces of the Bug armies. Information on them was scarce, it wasn't clear how they were piloted, or if indeed there was a pilot at all. UNN scientists had dissected the ruined remains of dead vessels, but no human had ever set foot on a live one, and so much of what was known was conjecture.

The torpedo boats were a problem. They were smaller vessels about the size of a UNN frigate that were chock full of long-range plasma torpedoes, nasty guided weapons that would burn through an armored hull like acid.

There were three primary means of engagement in space. Guided projectiles, which included missiles and torpedoes, those were used mostly at extreme range. Then there were railguns, magnetically accelerated guns that fired a solid slug at a percentage of light speed, destructive weapons for use at medium to close range and in ground support scenarios. The third were electronic weapons like lasers and electromagnetic pulse bombs. Far from melting through spaceship hulls as some people erroneously believed, such weapons were mostly used to fry an enemy ship's systems and effectively blind their sensory equipment. Being biological in nature, the latter were not of much use against Bug ships, so they were reserved mostly for non-lethal engagements against pirate ships and other forms of peacekeeping work inside UNN space.

Prepare to fire torpedoes,” Stavros announced, “aim for the orbital defense platform. I want that thing reduced to debris. We can't run the risk of it suddenly coming to life in the middle of the engagement.”

He looked to his right, his hands clasped behind his back as he watched the Kartikeya's torpedo tubes swing agape as the comms officer relayed his instructions, a dozen hatches on either side of its hull opening in preparation. The UNN ships had a longer scan range than the Betelgeusians, the smaller vessels would have time to evade, and the hive ships had point defense that would stop the majority of the projectiles. The inactive orbital station was defenseless, however. It was best to concentrate the first volley there, lest the hive ships move to defend it.

Fire,” he ordered with a wave of his hand.

There were flashes of light as the torpedoes slid out of their bays, hovering silently for a moment as their thrusters reoriented them, and then they were away. Stavros watched two dozen burning points fade and eventually vanish in the viewport. The planet was barely visible to the naked eye at this distance, let alone the smaller targets.

His eyes switched focus to the display, long-range sensors tracking the progress of the torpedoes as the carrier's telescopes zoomed in to get a view of the target vessels. They were floating lazily about the inactive platform. Who knew how close that thing was to being activated, it would have effectively denied them orbital access until it was destroyed through overwhelming firepower. It was a long tube ringed by a torus-shaped weapons platform, biological material clinging to it in ugly webs like meat on bone. The hive ships carried their component parts in their spindly legs, tucked beneath their bellies, ready for assembly upon exiting superlight. Now that they were in telescope range, he could see that one such disassembled orbital platform was clutched in the legs of one of the alien vessels, not yet deployed. The helmsman had been right, their timing was opportune. The bugs would have placed a dozen of them in high orbit if given the opportunity.

It took a painfully long time for the torpedoes to arrive, they were chemically propelled, little spacecraft in their own right as opposed to relativistic projectiles like railgun slugs. They finally impacted, the telescope cameras temporarily blinded by the glow, and when it cleared the orbital platform was breaking apart.

The Betelgeusian fleet scattered as they avoided the spreading cloud of debris, plumes of green flame spouting from engines embedded in their aft sections. Now the real fight would begin. They didn’t use radio or any electronic means of communication that the UNN was aware of, the ships instead signaling to each other with flashes of great, luminescent sails that glowed with colorful patterns.

That woke them up,” the weapons officer chuckled.

Be ready for return fire,” Stavros reminded him.

The Bug ships came about, turning broadside towards the fleet and unleashing a hail of missiles.

Looks like they spotted us, Cap'n,” the helmsman said.

The bridge crew waited silently with bated breath as the cloud of missiles drew closer. It took several minutes for the torpedoes to reach them at these distances, and finally, the silence was broken by the sound of a missile launch reverberating through the hull. The Thermopylae, along with the contingent of CIWS frigates and the battleship, loosed a storm of interceptor missiles. They were effectively anti-missile missiles, designed to seek out and destroy incoming threats, their warheads exploding into a cloud of shrapnel that would cover as large an area as possible and damage or destroy the enemy torpedoes that passed through it.

There were bright flashes through the viewport, explosions from neutralized torpedoes, and Stavros looked to the graphical interface to the right of the main display that showed the status of the projectiles. The cluster of blips had been reduced by about two thirds. That was a good result, he hadn't expected them all to be stopped.

The viewport tinted automatically, becoming darker as beams of red light flashed, protecting their eyes from the strobes that pierced the darkness of space. The lasers pulsed the optical guidance systems of the remaining missiles, hoping to fry or blind them, and several more deviated from their course.

The point defense turrets fired, trails of tracer rounds arcing out into space, shooting down as many missiles as they could. It was beautiful to see, mesmerizing, crisscrossing lines of glowing bullets painting the sky as they waved back and forth.

Only one of the torpedoes broke through, its guidance system directing it towards the largest profile that it could see, the Martian battleship. It exploded violently against the Kartikeya's hull, but the mammoth vessel weathered it, the bubbling plasma eating through only a few of its many layers of armor.

Give me a damage report, Kartikeya,” Stavros barked over the comms.

We’re fine,” Captain Chopra replied with a hiss of static. “Superficial damage, no cause for concern.”

We're closing into railgun range,” Stavros announced to the fleet, “I want the gunships to go after the Bug torpedo boats. The Thermopylae and the Kartikeya will focus their fire on the second hive ship, the one with the disassembled orbital platform in its legs. With any luck, its maneuverability will be hindered by the extra mass. CIWS frigates one through six, stick close to the carrier and keep us protected, I want the rest of you covering the gunboats.”

Jarilo expanded in the viewport alarmingly quickly, the bridge crew bracing themselves against their consoles as the retro thrusters fired and the G-forces tore at them, the fleet shedding velocity as they entered the planet's orbital footprint. In a moment they were upon the Bug ships, decelerating and turning their guns towards the enemy. They were still out of visual range, four hundred kilometers away, but in fleet engagement terms that might as well have been nose to nose.

The Kartikeya's gun turrets rotated in the direction of the hive ship, a dozen twin-linked railguns of impressive size brought to bear, their long barrels lined with copper-colored magnetic rings. The rocked back in their housings as the turrets fired, tungsten slugs accelerating towards their targets at relativistic speed, too fast to track and impossible to intercept. After a brief delay, there was a pattern of flashes across the hull of the target hive ship, not from explosive warheads but from the sheer kinetic energy that the slugs released upon impact. The Martian battleship fired another dozen torpedoes from its tubes, the enemy vessel's point defense stopping a few as they raced towards it, but a series of explosions wracked it and blew away chunks of what looked like meat and bone.

The hive ship shuddered violently, its layers of armor plating and chitinous shell doing little to protect it, the superconductive fluid that served in place of optical cables and wiring leaking from the crater-like wounds as if it was bleeding. Although injured, it was not yet dying, it would take a lot more damage to take it out of the fight.

The gunships burned towards the enemy, breaking formation as they fired volleys of railgun rounds at the Bug torpedo boats, a few of the CIWS frigates following close behind to shield them from return fire. The gunships took evasive maneuvers, rolling and tumbling as they avoided a salvo of missiles, more bright trails of point defense fire drawing curving lines across the sky. Their agility was deceptive. They danced in the microgravity of orbit, but each vessel weighed close to six thousand tons.

The Thermopylae joined the Kartikeya in another railgun salvo, the turrets on the carrier's belly turning to track the target. Stavros watched through the telescope display as what looked like buckshot peppered the enemy vessel's hull.

The other hive ship had finally locked on to them, drifting in front of its companion as if trying to shield it from further damage, returning fire. Along the broadside of the shrimp-like vessel was a line of gun turrets, embedded almost surgically into its living flesh, controlled by unknown means as they aimed towards the Kartikeya and their muzzles flashed. Where the UNN used railguns, the Bugs favored plasma casters. The magnetically-contained projectiles couldn't quite approximate the same velocity and force, but they had the added benefit of being extremely corrosive. The bolts would melt through hulls like a cutting torch, slagging metal as the super-heated gas transferred its heat to the material, the green color and splash of their impact reminiscent of acid.

They were aiming at the Kartikeya, the baddest looking ship on the field, and the battleship weathered the blows as the fluorescent plasma splashed across its hull. The armor glowed orange, sinking inward in the spots where the bolts had impacted, but the Martian warship was designed to handle this kind of punishment, and it did not falter. Now the engagement would become a slugfest, like two boxers hammering each other into submission until one of them breaks.

The gunships were tearing through the Bug torpedo boats, too close now for their missiles to be any real threat, the broken vessels resembling insects smeared on a windshield as they split apart and leaked conductive fluid.

A swarm of fighters launched from the hive ships like angry bees, detaching from the hulls where they had been clinging like fleas. They were more streamlined and beetle-like in appearance than the larger craft, their grasping landing limbs tucked under their bellies. They made for the gunships in a futile attempt to support the torpedo boats, the point defense fire and devastating railgun batteries turning on them instead. The Thermopylae had Penguin fighter-bombers docked in recesses along its hull, but it was not necessary to launch them. The gunboats would not have a difficult time dealing with the small spacecraft.

It seemed that this Betelgeusian fleet had been mostly defensive, they were not nearly as dangerous as the panicked survey ship had made them sound. Granted, facing down two orbital platforms would have been a challenge, but they hadn't had the time to activate either one of them. Stavros had been hesitant to charge in with so little intelligence, but the Admiralty had made the right decision. Swift action had averted a far more costly engagement.

Captain, detecting a third hive ship!”

Stavros switched his attention to the monitor, watching a radar blip rising from the surface of the planet, coming at them from directly below.

Why the hell didn't we see that on our scans?” Stavros demanded.

It was obscured by Jarilo's atmosphere, it must have been unloading troops on the ground. Shall we move to intercept?”

Negative, maintain fire on the previous target,” he ordered as he turned towards the comms officer. “Put me through the Kartikeya.” There was a brief fizz of static, and then Captain Chopra's voice came through over the intercom.

We see the third hive ship, fleetcom. Permission to engage?”

Granted, knock it out of the sky. We'll keep the pressure on the other two.”

He watched as the great vessel fired its thrusters, angling downwards relative to the Thermopylae, its railgun turrets rotating to face forwards. Stavros had been foolish to hope that they had caught the hive ships before they had unloaded their troops on Jarilo's surface, one had already done so, and it was likely that a second had too. Only the third, still clutching the dissembled orbital defense platform in its legs, had been prevented from disgorging its army of ground soldiers.

The Kartikeya hammered the rising vessel with railgun fire relentlessly as the magnetic rings that lined the barrels glowed orange with heat. The hive ship attacked from beneath, gunning for the Thermopylae, perhaps knowing that it could do little to damage the battleship without support. Its attack craft detached and accelerated towards them, their mothership's armored nose still glowing red as the heat that it had generated from its climb through the planet's atmosphere dissipated. It had relatively few plasma casters mounted on the bow, but it fired them anyway, Stavros feeling his carrier shudder beneath his feet as some of the bolts hit their mark.

Minor damage to the keel armor, Captain. We lost a couple of railguns.”

Ignore it, let the Martians deal with it. Weapons officer, keep your fire on the other hive ships. I don't want them escaping, they may have had time to charge their jump drives for all we know.

The one carrying the orbital platform is listing hard, Captain, I think we've disabled it.”

Don't make assumptions, Major. It isn't dead until it's breaking up. Stay the course.”

The gunships, now done with the torpedo boats, turned their attention to the hive ships. They maneuvered towards the massive vessels, fighting off the tiny fighters as they went, peppered with fire from smaller scale plasma weapons that melted holes in their hulls. Their engines and nuclear plants were housed in reinforced compartments that were lined with eight inches of steel and Kevlar, and the same was true of the crew compartment and bridge. It would take an exceptionally lucky shot to disable one of them. In return, their point defense turrets thinned the cloud of swarming attack craft, the CIWS frigates that trailed behind them hosing the Bugs with tracer rounds.

The hive ship that was attempting to shield its companion was forced to turn its broadside guns towards them, exposing the damaged vessel to more fire from the carrier. The weapons officer took advantage of the opening, concentrating his railgun salvos on the drifting ship, the slugs eating through its fleshy hull as they tumbled like bullets and dug deep wound channels.

The other hive ship fired at the incoming gunboats, but they were maneuverable, scattering to make themselves harder to hit. One of them was none the less splashed with plasma, starting to drift as its internal systems were fried and its hull warped under the searing heat, the UNN's first casualty in the engagement. Its fellows harried the larger vessel with railgun fire as they circled it, the hive ship's turrets unable to track them.

The Bug ship that was coming at the Thermopylae from below spun on its axis, letting momentum carry it as it fired a broadside spread at the carrier, and this time they felt it. The ship quaked around Stavros, making all kinds of worrying noises, metal screeching almost like a voice as the vessel sustained a wound.

Breach on one of the lower decks,” the helmsman announced, “closing blast doors to seal it off.”

Did we lose anyone?” Stavros demanded.

I don't believe so, Cap'n, looks like it hit a cargo compartment.”

The hive ship now presented a larger target to the Kartikeya, and the battleship hammered it with another salvo, its fire almost continuous save for the need to let the magnetic coils cool lest they melt under the stress. So much kinetic energy was transferred to the Bug vessel that its ascent was slowed, reeling under the force of the firepower. The green flares of its engines flickered, then died, gravity capturing the massive ship as it began to fall back towards the planet.

The Martians swung back around towards their original targets, satisfied that the third hive ship was sufficiently dead. Thrusters spaced along the angular hull flared brightly to push the behemoth into position, and almost immediately it began to fire again. There was only one hive ship left now, and it was turning to face away from them, Stavros recognizing the maneuver as a jump prep. It was pointing at its destination, probably somewhere that it could call for reinforcements. Stavros was not about to chase the damned thing across interstellar space.

Kartikeya, do you have a clean shot?”

Knowing what he meant, Captain Chopra sent a reply, his crackling voice dripping with anticipation.

Affirmative fleetcom, the target is sufficiently high enough that the slug will not impact Jarilo. Magnetic accelerator charging.”

Stavros walked past his command console, standing closer to the viewport as he watched the weapons on the Kartikeya stop firing, the barrels of the railguns retracting into their stowed position. The torpedo tubes closed their hatches, the main engines at the ship's stern petering out, all power diverting to the enormous magnetic coils that lined the barrel of the weapon that the battleship was built around. It was like a giant revolver, a cylinder that held three of the roughly one thousand ton tungsten projectiles rotating into place, too large to load through more conventional means. Firing it was a calculated risk, not only because of the potential damage that it could cause to a planet, but because the weapon drew power from the same source that the superlight drive did. The vessel would have to charge all over again if it wanted to jump away. The six nuclear reactors that powered the battleship could build up enough of a charge to fire only one round at a time, so they had to make it count.

The entire vessel maneuvered as it aimed, the giant railgun was static and built into the hull, the thrusters flashing as it made minute corrections. The hive ship was rising away from the curve of the planet, not a wise move, the remaining gunships calling off their attack as they scattered to get clear.

There was no sound in space, no medium for it to travel through, but Stavros could have sworn that he heard the titanic gun fire as the Kartikeya shuddered under the impact. The giant rings glowed red, they would only last four or five shots, after that they would need to replaced in drydock.

The projectile traveled too fast for the human eye to track, but Stavros watched the enemy vessel through the telescope feed, momentarily obscured by a flash of light as bright as a star that caused the viewport to tint. As it faded, he saw the hive ship, barely more than a cloud of expanding debris and molten slag. Everything around the impact point had been vaporized, and the two remaining halves of the ship were drifting apart, split down the middle as if dashed by the hand of God.

The gunships returned to the formation, helping to mop up what was left of the fighter craft, their plight hopeless without their support vessels. One hive ship drifted, the second was little more than a cloud of dust, and the third was burning up in Jarilo's atmosphere as it fell towards the planet.

Skies are clear, Captain,” the helmsman announced. “Nothing on the scanners.”

I want a full damage report, and get some tug Drones out there to bring in the damaged gunship, there's a possibility that some of the crew survived.”

Stavros clasped his hands behind his back and looked down at the blue planet beneath them, a touch of vertigo making his stomach churn as he picked out clouds and land masses. It was contaminated. There were likely two hive ships worth of Betelgeusian soldiers crawling around on the surface, digging tunnels into the planet's crust and making themselves as difficult to root out as possible. The orbital battle had been the easiest part, the real war for Jarilo was yet to come.


Walker made his way towards the dropship, Kaz following behind him. The hangar bay of the Thermopylae was bustling with activity as the ground invasion force loaded up. The bay was cavernous, open to the darkness of space save for a flickering, almost transparent force field that contained the atmosphere. There were squads of UNN Marines clad in their black, ceramic armor, carrying XMR modular rifles that could be configured for various battlefield roles and users. There were Borealan packs, groups of six or seven of the eight-foot-tall aliens that were clad in similar body armor save for their conspicuous lack of boots, their rifles customized with long barrels and tipped with wicked bayonets that made them resemble spears. Hulking Krell lumbered head and shoulders above the crowd, wearing heavy ponchos whose purpose was more to serve as supplemental armor than to preserve their modesty, the crocodile-like aliens having no external genitalia to speak of. They wielded XMRs configured as light machine guns, larger and heavier than a human could have hoped to carry, thick riot shields strapped to their arms to make them even more capable of absorbing enemy fire.

The Borealans were shock troopers, the tip of the spear, using their exaggerated strength and their penchant for violence to excel in breaching operations and close quarters combat. The Krell were linebreakers, whenever a stalemate or a bottleneck occurred they would break through like bulldozers, charging enemy positions and shielding their squads from incoming fire. Together they made up the Coalition, a multi-species alliance that had banded together to fend off hostile species like the Betelgeusians. Only the Brokers were absent, the mysterious founders of the Coalition, alien benefactors who were rarely seen.

The soldiers were loading into landing craft, vessels with stubby wings for atmospheric flight that could hold a dozen marines, a pack of Borealans and a couple of Krell. Under normal circumstances, the small craft would be housed in recesses along the carrier's hull, but those were full of fighter-bombers as the fleet had anticipated far more resistance. The hangar was instead packed with dropships and personnel.

The mission briefing had outlined their task on Jarilo, establish bases and secure territory, scout for Bug tunnels and call in enemy positions wherever possible. Fighting Betelgeusians on the ground was a reactive affair. You just had to wait and see where they would emerge, weather the attack, and then do your best to respond before they vanished again. As a scout sniper, Walker's job would be to search for tunnels and enemy patrols, exploring the alien landscape and mapping as much of it as he could.

He was glad to have Kaz with him. Her keen nose would detect the scent of Bugs long before his eyes did, and on cold nights in uncharted territory, it was a welcome luxury to have someone to share a sleeping bag with.

He checked the XMR that was slung across his chest, configured as a semi-automatic scout rifle. It had a railgun receiver and a long barrel lined with magnetic rings for increased velocity and accuracy. Flechette slugs with machined fins for stability ensured that the projectile would travel straight over long distances, with almost no drop off until the round traveled far beyond any range that he might be engaging at. Having become acquainted with traditional firearms at a young age, using .22 rifles to hunt rabbits on his family's country property, railguns almost felt like cheating. The slug would leave the barrel at five thousand meters per second, almost fifteen times the speed of sound. As long as his target was within about three miles, then it would be hit almost instantaneously.

Kaz carried a similar rifle that was scaled up for use by Borealans. Her people seemed to universally favor single-shot weapons, however, and they would tolerate the hit to accuracy if it meant using a bayonet. The way that she sharpened that blade was almost sexual. Mad Cats liked nothing more than getting up close and personal, licking the blood from their furry hands like a cat with butter on its paw.

They mounted the landing ramp of their dropship, buckling into crash couches that were bolted to the walls, stowing their weapons between them and sliding their heavy packs beneath the seats. The interior of the cramped troop bay was spartan and functional, a tin can of dark metal and red warning lighting with a checker plated floor, the splash of yellow from the seating the only thing that stood out.

Their comrades piled in, more scout sniper units, the Borealans ducking into the vessel and strapping into larger and more reinforced chairs that had cutouts for their tails. There were four squads that consisted of human spotters and snipers, two that were Borealans alone, and only one other human and Borealan pairing. Personality conflict was a big issue. The aliens were hard to get along with, but when an equilibrium was found, they made a formidable team.

While the standard-issue UNN armor was black and lined with ceramic plates to protect vital areas, the scouts wore camouflage suited to whatever environment they would be operating in. The landscape of Jarilo seemed to be comparable to the Pacific Northwest, remarkably uniform across most of the planet, with lush forests and mountainous terrain. Forest camo was the order of the day, splotches of green and brown decorating their armor, some of the Marines opting to wear ghillie suits. Many of the Borealans had natural camouflage, their fur and skin colors more diverse than their human counterparts. Some of them chose to leave the striped or spotted fur on their forearms and lower legs exposed, masking any uncovered skin with camouflaged paint.

Touching off in three,” the pilot announced over the intercom, the cockpit secured behind a door towards the front of the ship. “Strap yourselves in and get ready for a bumpy ride. Fleetcom doesn't expect anti-air fire, but we'll be taking an evasive route to the landing site all the same.”

You looking forward to setting foot on a newly discovered planet?” Walker asked, leaning closer to Kaz and nudging her with his elbow. “We might be some of the first people to land on Jarilo. Got any inspiring words prepared?”

Yeah, welcome to Jarilo, no Bugs allowed.”

Wouldn't it be great if insects hadn't evolved here? No flies or mosquitos, no roaches, no wasps and no ants to screw up our picnics. Some careless colonist would probably introduce them by accident at some point, but we might go a few precious years without having to wear insect repellent.”

Even Hades has insects,” she replied, “and that planet barely has any life.”

A man can dream,” he said as he checked the clasp on his harness.

They felt the rumble of the engines beneath their feet as they spun up, the dropship preparing to lift off, the troop bay door closing and sealing with a hermetic hiss. There was a mechanical clunk as the landing gear stowed in the belly of the craft, then the shuttle lifted off the deck and slid through the force field into open space. Walker felt his stomach lurch as they left the artificial gravity field of the carrier. There was a brief moment of weightlessness before the dropship's AG field kicked in, securing his boots back to the metal deck. He watched the grey behemoth that was the carrier diminish through one of the small portholes, their dropship banking towards the blue haze of Jarilo, so much like Earth from this perspective that it gave him chills. It reminded him of home.

They were followed by a swarm of landing craft holding troops destined for other drop zones, along with larger cargo landers carrying segments of prefab bases and defensive structures that would be serving as their home for the weeks or months to follow.

Before long the dropship began to shake and rattle, buffeted by the planet's atmosphere, orange flames licking outside the portholes and glowing through the window in the pilot's door. Excitement swelled in Walker's chest. This was what he had trained for, this was his element. An uncharted planet, unknown fauna and flora to tangle with, and license to kill anything with more than four limbs on sight. He could feel the energy in the troop bay, the scouts were bristling, alert and ready. So many of the recent battles against the Bugs had been fought over muddy hellscapes, frozen ice worlds, and inhospitable deserts. For once they would be pathfinding in an ideal environment, it was practically a fucking vacation. There was no sand or snow to contend with and no rebreathers or pressure suits to make every movement and every breath uncomfortable.

Jarilo was like a planet that had been designed for hunters. With any luck, there would be large and tasty game to supplement their MREs. The Borealans were always good at determining what was safe to eat and how best to cook it. Now that they were on their way, he scarcely cared that their shore leave had been cut short. He lived for this shit.

The dropship broke through into clear skies, weaving to shed velocity, gliding down towards the surface on its stubby wings. The Thermopylae had cleared an area of forest where the base was to be erected, one of many that were scattered about the region where the third hive ship had emerged, using her railguns to strategically bombard the terrain until only splinters and cratered mud remained. Not exactly ecologically sound, but it got the job done in a pinch, and the pilot spied their target clearing easily. Walker couldn't see much through the portholes, they were too small, but he got the occasional glimpse of what looked like mountains cloaked in coniferous trees.

Before long their gear hit the ground, the vessel bouncing on its suspension as it absorbed the impact of the landing, the whir of the engines fading as the scouts unfastened their harnesses. The darkness of the troop bay was illuminated by a sliver of light as the landing ramp opened, growing until Walker had to shield his eyes against the glare, blinking as they adjusted to it. The scent of the planet assailed them, flooding in through the opening along with a rush of cool air, like a pine forest after heavy rainfall.

They stepped out of the landing craft into a cool breeze, Walker removing his helmet and fastening it around his belt to let his dark hair blow in the wind, breathing in the pristine air of the untouched world. He felt as if all of the grime and dirt from living in close quarters on a carrier for weeks at a time had been washed away, like a cleansing wind, leaving him refreshed. His boots sank into the mud, cratered by railgun rounds fired from orbit that had impacted like micrometeorites, smashing trees and tilling the earth. He turned his head to watch as more dropships landed nearby.

If only he had a flag to plant.


Walker and Kaz stood on a rise that overlooked the base, watching as one of the cargo shuttles acted as a crane to drop a section of fortified wall into place around the perimeter. The outpost was slowly taking shape. There was a twelve-foot wall ringed with razor wire, metal grates lining the floor of the compound to keep the Bugs from tunneling up beneath them, along with a comms center whose tower rose above the walls like a control tower at an airport. There were also a series of barracks and storehouses that weren't visible from where they were standing. It was the third of five such bases that were spaced around the valley where the hive ship had landed, designated Base C or Charlie. There were Bugs here somewhere, busy building their own brand of fortifications. A deadly game of hide and seek was about to begin, and it was Walker's job to see that his side got the upper hand. The Bugs would be sending out patrols just as the UNN did, searching for enemy bases and relaying their coordinates back to the hive. The scouts were tasked with beating them at their own game. If that meant tracking down the Bug patrols and killing them, or rooting out their tunnels before they could launch an attack, he would be happy to oblige.

Walker tapped at a console mounted on his wrist, bringing up a holographic display of the valley that flickered with amber light. The area was unmapped, but they had aerial photographs and height maps of the terrain taken by the carrier's sensors. Their patrol route was marked with a looping red line that covered about fifty square miles, their mission was to search for Bug tunnels and to survey the territory in order to inform troop movements. They had heavy packs on their backs full of enough MREs to feed them during their deployment and the tools that they would need to detect the Bugs. The most important of which was a seismic sensor that could pick up unusual activity, such as Bugs digging or moving beneath the ground, a device shaped like a stake that would be planted at intervals marked on his display. If enough scouts placed enough stakes, then it wouldn’t be too difficult for Fleetcom to triangulate the source of any disturbances.

He leaned a gloved hand on one of the innumerable trees that made up the continent-spanning forests of Jarilo, the brown bark rough and textured, green pine needles from the coniferous branches littering the ground in the absence of grasses. It was so like Earth, uncanny, and yet the biggest difference was the absence of diversity. These pine forests blanketed every landmass, and he wondered idly if these trees had come to dominate a more biologically diverse environment over millions of years, or if this was a burgeoning ecosystem that had not yet undergone the intense competition of natural selection. The trees were somewhere between a redwood and a fir, massive, but not quite as large as a sequoia. He knelt and picked up a few of the needles, rolling them between his fingers. They looked like green plastic. The naked soil was populated only by something analogous to ferns. No, upon closer inspection they had cones. They were cycads, coniferous plants that were rare back home. They had round trunks with green fronds sprouting from the top, giving them the appearance of pineapples.

All things considered, this might have easily been mistaken for a Jurassic environment, it seemed that flowering plants and grasses had not yet evolved here. He didn't see many pine cones littering the ground, but there were red berries on some of the fallen branches and twigs. That must be how the great trees reproduced. That also implied that there was fauna to eat the berries, and where there were herbivores, there were always carnivores. This might be the basis of an entire food chain. He wondered if they were edible, but he wasn't about to do a lick test on a potentially poisonous fruit on his first day in the bush.

You done looking at plants?” Kaz asked.

Give me a break. We're on an unexplored planet, we're seeing these species for the first time. Once we drive off the Bugs, I'm going to go around recording and naming all of this shit before anyone else gets the chance. Sequoiadendron Ambulatea, how about it?”

Nerd,” she scoffed.

You know I was studying to be a zoologist before the war started, and spare me your whole bit about Borealan jungles, I've heard it all before.”

This place is a kitten pen compared to an Elysian jungle.”

A kitten pen?” Walker asked, raising an eyebrow as she looked down at him.

Yeah, you never seen a Borealan kitten? Trust me, five minutes alone with one, and you'll be begging for someone to come lock it up.”

If you put dangerous kittens in pens, doesn't describing Jarilo as a kitten pen imply that it's full of dangerous creatures?”

Shut up,” she replied, reaching down and lifting him by his heavy rucksack to place him on his feet. “Let's get moving.”


They had been walking for a few hours over the rough terrain, searching for the telltale signs of Bug tunnels and placing the seismic rods that would detect sub-surface activity as they went. Walker paused again to bring up his holographic map, the yellow glow illuminating his face in the gloom beneath the canopy.

Another one here,” he said, and Kaz sidled up behind him to rummage through his pack. She withdrew an electronic device roughly the size and shape of a large tent peg, hitting a switch on its flat top, and then she knelt to drive it into the ground. Walker tapped at his display, noting that the sensor was live and reporting, joining the growing network.

No sign of any Bugs yet,” Kaz grumbled, “I’m spoiling for a good fight.”

We might not even meet any Bugs,” Walker chided. “Come on, off to the next objective.”

They set off through the undergrowth, but Kaz raised her fist after a few steps, sniffing the air with her feline nose. Walker stopped, his hand moving to the rifle that was slung across his chest.

You smell something?”

Not Bugs, but I smell manure. Something living came through here recently.”

Walker crouched and brushed the dirt with his fingers, looking for anything that might be tracks, but the ground was hard and obscured by the perpetual rain of needles and cones from the various species of flora that they had encountered thus far.

Here,” Kaz said, gesturing to a pile of dung that was nestled between the roots of a tree. Walker stooped to get a look at it.

Small droppings,” he mused. “Whatever left these wasn't much bigger than a small dog. Looks like we've got confirmation of animal life. There are seeds in it, probably from the berries. Must have been a herbivore. Keep an eye out, maybe we can eat it.”

I hear that.”

They continued on their way. The going was tough, they were in the foothills of a mountain range, and the protruding roots ensured that they had to be careful where they put their feet if they wanted to avoid a broken ankle. Sometimes they had to feel their way beneath the blanket of ferns and cycads, so thick as to obscure the ground, Walker stumbling a fair few times. Kaz was more suited to this environment, prancing about on her digitigrade legs and feeling the earth beneath her padded feet, hooked claws digging into soil and wood alike for purchase.

The Bugs would have the advantage in this terrain, they could tunnel under it rather than having to pass through it. It was imperative that the scouts map any safe routes that they came across. An exhausted platoon of soldiers with broken ankles wouldn’t be winning any engagements.

There were no satellites in orbit and so they had no GPS signal, relying instead on their orienteering skills and the aerial scans to find their way.

Walker was having a ball. There was fresh air in his lungs, untainted by industry, and enough space to stretch his legs now that he was out of the stifling corridors and cabins of the Thermopylae. Setting foot on that ship was always a challenge for him. He loathed being trapped within its confines, like a metal coffin where you couldn't go one step without brushing shoulders with another person. Walker was an outdoorsman, always had been, but this part of the job made it all worth it.

No birds,” Kaz commented, her round ears turned towards the canopy.

Yeah, makes things kind of quiet.”

All the better to hear the Bugs coming.”

After a while, they came across running water, a stream that flowed down into the valley that was probably fed by melting snow on the peaks of the mountains. It was so clear as to be almost invisible, the stream bed lined with smooth rocks. Kaz crouched to fill her oversized canteen, then took a long draw, wiping her mouth with her furry forearm before stowing it on her belt.

It's clean,” she said, “freshest water I've tasted since I left the homeworld. None of that metallic aftertaste you get from the filtered stuff. I swear I can taste every inch of pipe in that damned carrier.”

She froze suddenly, gesturing downstream, her ears swiveling like radar dishes to track something. Walker spun his head, already shouldering his rifle as he dropped to one knee. He lowered the barrel, seeing that it was just some native animal. It looked like a fat tortoise with no shell, somehow more mammalian than reptilian despite its rough hide, leaning down on four stumpy legs that were spread apart like those of a lizard to drink from the stream with its beaked mouth. It was about a meter long, off-brown in color, with a short tail and long whiskers protruding from its face like those of a cat. It had two eyes that faced outwards, indicating that it was likely a prey animal. They were about two hundred meters downwind of it, and it hadn't noticed them yet.

Think that was the guy who left those droppings?” Walker whispered, Kaz's eyes locked onto it as her feline pupils dilated into dark circles.

Shall we kill it?”

Nah, leave it. It's too soon to stop and eat, and I don't want to lug the extra weight around until we make camp.”

Its appearance reminded Walker of an anapsid, a Permian-era group of animals that pre-dated the dinosaurs. They were archaic reptiles with mammalian traits. This planet was like a time capsule, as if he was looking back into ancient Earth's past. It was a naturalist's wet dream.

Walker spoke quietly into his computer so as not to startle the beast, recording a log of everything that he saw. Knowing that there was complex animal life on Jarilo would stop the Marines from getting jumpy and giving away their position when they heard a twig snap or when they glimpsed movement in the corner of their eye.

They continued on, keeping a careful lookout for more animals as they went, not to mention the roving parties of Bugs that might well be lurking between the trees.

Kaz and Walker didn't chat much when they were out in the field, not only could it alert the enemy to their presence, but there was something to be said for peace and quiet. They knew each other well enough that small talk wasn't necessary, able to spend time together in silence without it becoming awkward or uncomfortable.

Walker stopped to take a break, sitting on a rock that was lodged between two protruding roots. Kaz halted nearby, taking another drink from her canteen, watching as her human companion dug into one of his pockets and withdrew a protein bar. He unwrapped it and took a bite, then sprang to his feet in alarm. The rock had moved, and as he scampered away to turn his weapon on the thing, he saw that it had sprouted a dozen legs. It was an arthropod about the size and shape of a coconut crab, but lacking the grasping claws. It had natural camouflage it seemed, disguising itself as a rock until Walker had disturbed it. The thing rose up on its segmented legs and plodded away to a new hiding spot. Kaz stifled her laughter, patting him on the shoulder with her heavy hand.

Guess your dream of a Bug-free planet has been shattered.”

It's the size of a goddamned dog,” he complained, making no attempt to mask the disgust in his voice. “Watch where you step, Kaz. Those things could be everywhere.”

He doesn't look dangerous, he's more scared of you than you are of him. Look at him go,” she said as she gestured towards the crab-like creature, hauling its considerable mass over a root as it made its sluggish escape.

That thing looks like a crustacean,” Walker mused, “I bet the high oxygen content on Jarilo lets arthropods grow bigger than they do on Earth. Back in our ancient history, we had giant insects, but as the oxygen content in the atmosphere dropped it limited their size.”

Well I want to eat one,” Kaz replied, wetting her lips. “We could cook it like a lobster, crack the shell open with a bayonet to get at the meat inside. Can't be thick enough to withstand that.”

Gross, Kaz. For all you know it's a bottom feeder, what if its ecological niche is eating dung and carrion?”

You worry too much,” she said, turning to set off again. Walker followed behind her, glancing back at the creature as it dug a small furrow in the earth with its front legs, settling in and tucking its limbs beneath its round body to once again take on the shape of a rock.


The system's star was starting to get low in the sky, the planet's days only lasted thirteen standard hours. It wasn't quite dark enough to make camp yet, but the forest canopy contributed to the pervading gloom. Walker strapped his helmet back on, lowering the full-face visor and activating the night vision function, the forest illuminated in ghostly shades of green. Kaz didn't need night vision, she had her own natural variant. Her feline eyes were able to make use of what little light was available to them.

As they traipsed through the dense undergrowth, Walker felt Kaz's hand on his shoulder, turning his head to see her shushing him.

Blood's on the air,” she whispered.

Her hand was on the wicked combat knife that was sheathed in a leather holster on her hip. It had a fifteen-inch blade that made it practically a machete by human standards, serrated towards the hilt and sporting a cruel gut hook. She had claws that would have done the job just as well, but Borealans liked their blades.

The hypersonic crack of a railgun projectile breaking the sound barrier was impossible to silence, as suppressors worked by redirecting propellant gasses. Railguns used electricity in place of gunpowder, and so there were no gasses to redirect. Although the slug would kill the target long before the sound reached them, it could still alert enemies in the neighborhood to their presence. Better to avoid using them wherever possible.

He drew his pistol from its holster on his thigh as they made their way forward, screwing on its fat suppressor. It was a Heckler & Koch MK-23 chambered in .45 caliber. It would put Bugs down at close range, and it would do so relatively quietly. Unlike the XMRs, it was a conventional weapon that could be equipped with a silencer. He scanned the trees for movement, his onboard computer projecting a digital laser sight from his handgun as he waved it about. It lagged a little as the computer calculated the pointer's position, but it was a safer solution than using a physical one that might be detected by an enemy. While Walker had to make an effort to tread quietly, Kaz was a ghost. Despite her size, she moved silently on her padded paws.

There,” she said, pointing a clawed finger between two trees that had trunks with the circumference of a dining table. “It's not Bugs, something native.”

There was a dead anapsid lying on its side, like the one that they had seen drinking from the stream, the rotund body jerking as something chewed at it.

Predator,” Walker whispered, “be ready.”

A twig snapped, and the creature raised its head above the carcass, its reflective eyes glowing white through Walker's night vision. It was similarly built, obviously from the same evolutionary tree, with a head that was enormous and heavy in comparison to its body. Its snout was long and wide, two nostrils flaring as it sniffed the air, blood-stained jaws opening to reveal incisors rivaling those of a saber-toothed cat. Its maw was full of knife-like teeth, the muscles on its neck and jaw developed and prominent, reminding Walker of a pit bull. He could tell at a glance that this thing was evolved to bite and hold, using those wicked teeth and its muscular neck to tear flesh from bone like pulled pork.

It stepped over its kill, blood mingling with its saliva to hang in strings from its jaws. It had seen them. He noted that its legs were not splayed like those of a reptile, they were below its body to lift it off the ground and to give it more maneuverability, more like a mammal. It was big, two meters long from its nose to its stumpy tail, if not a little more. It was stocky, heavy, it might weigh almost as much as Kaz did. He couldn't see the color of its hide through the green glare of his night vision equipment, but it almost seemed to be covered in a layer of thin fur that failed to completely obscure the underlying roughness of its reptilian skin.

It loosed a pulsing, resonating call as it hopped over the dead anapsid and advanced towards them, Walker feeling it in his bones. A threat display, it was saying this is my kill, stranger. Fuck off. He took a few steps back, his handgun trained on the creature, but Kaz stepped forward.

She drew her long knife, brandishing it and baring her teeth, facing off with the thing.

Walker sighed, lowering his weapon and moving his finger off the trigger, walking backwards a little further to get clear of the brawl. She was insatiable, as if she had to prove that she was the biggest and baddest creature in the Galaxy. He wouldn't be able to call her off now that she had been challenged.

The alien lost its patience, charging towards them, its jaws open wide. It covered the difficult terrain between them with remarkable speed and ease, barreling past her as she dodged to one side and jabbed at it with her blade. It glanced off the creature's ribs, leaving an ugly tear in its side none the less, the beast coming about and readying itself for another go. It wasn't going to run then, it would stand its ground and fight, very territorial. That implied that there wasn't much territory to go around. There must be more of them, or perhaps other predators who occupied the same ecological niche.

Kaz circled it, readying herself for another attack, and again it lunged at her. This time it caught her, locking its teeth around her forearm like a bear trap and drawing dark blood, Kaz snarling as she tried to shake it off. As Walker had theorized, it held onto her, with a bite strength that would probably have crushed bones that were not those of a Borealan.

Walker made no move to intervene, she didn't need saving, a bite wound like that was little more than a scratch by her standards.

Her people were built like tanks, with bones as hard as steel that were almost impossible to break unless exposed to forces that would likely kill them outright, and they could heal wounds practically overnight that would put a human down for weeks. They had a high tolerance for pain, their fights for dominance invariably devolving into short and violent bouts that left the loser with a set of fresh scars, intercourse usually following. Borealans had an odd reproductive method. The loser of a fight was usually subjected to a brief and violent copulation, whereby the dominant genes of the victor were passed on. It obviously worked, just looking at a Borealan was proof enough of that, a result of tens of thousands of years of natural and artificial selection that had favored the toughest and most aggressive traits. They didn't mind, of course. They were glad to submit to their superiors, the all-encompassing pack hierarchy ruled every facet of their society.

It was part of why they were so hard to get along with, having to undergo integration training to weed out those who couldn't manage their instincts, and to teach the rest how to interact with humans. It was a widely known secret that the barracks on the Pinwheel were a hotbed of fraternization, and surviving a night of passion with a Borealan had become somewhat of a rite of passage for recruits. Overall it was good for morale and good for their integration, so the brass never came down on personnel too hard when they were caught doing the walk of shame.

When Kaz had been assigned to Walker their relationship had started off much the same way, the alien seemingly slighted by everything that he did and wasting no opportunity to try to establish her dominance over him. Over time he had earned her respect, then her friendship, eventually resulting in a truce that few Marines who worked alongside the Mad Cats enjoyed.

He watched as Kaz plunged her blade into the creature's thick neck, failing to mortally wound it despite the knife's exaggerated length, the beast finally releasing its hold on her and hopping backwards to prepare another strike. Its jaws dripped with her dark blood, the blonde fur on her forearm stained crimson, deep cuts from its serrated teeth visible beneath.

Far from being discouraged, she seemed invigorated by the injury, smiling as she took up a defensive stance. Blood poured from the creature's neck wounds, it wasn't spurting so she hadn't hit an artery, but it was losing claret. She waited for the next strike, the creature throwing all of its weight into her as it charged forward, knocking her off-balance as she fell backwards onto the dirt. It was on top of her in an instant, jaws snapping an inch from her face, and now Walker raised his handgun in alarm.

You shoot this thing, and you aren't getting laid for a week,” she huffed as she struggled against it. Walker lowered his weapon, rolling his eyes behind his visor.

Its feet scrabbled at the earth to either side of her prone body as it tried to find purchase, but she sank her claws into its throat and lifted it with her injured arm. She gritted her teeth against the pain, holding it at arm's length as she brought her knife up to plunge into its soft belly. It struggled, its spine weaving back and forth like a lizard, its clawed feet treading air as it tried to flee. Again and again, she stabbed it, burying the long blade to the hilt as blood rained down on her. She was relentless, harrying it with blows, the alien predator slowing its struggling and loosing a drawn-out wheeze as it finally fell limp.

Kaz rolled the heavy body off her, climbing to her feet and wiping her knife on her camouflaged pants, giving the creature a prod with her foot to make sure that it was dead. She leaned forward, hands on her knees, taking a moment to catch her breath.

We're eatin' this,” she declared, sheathing her weapon and rolling her shoulders to loosen her muscles.

Well at least let me get a look at it before you carve it up for dinner,” he said, “and make sure that you use the scanner on it so we know if we can even digest it. I don’t want a repeat of what happened with the mud crab on Kruger. I didn’t know a person could even hold that much vomit inside of them.”

Kaz laughed as she recalled the memory, and Walker hoped that the lesson had stuck. Don’t eat alien lifeforms before you know what they’re made of, that’s why they carried the damned scanners.

I swear, one of these days you're going to come face to face with something that's meaner than you are. Then what will you do?”

Probably shoot it with a railgun,” she laughed.


Gorgonopsia Jarilae,” Walker said, chewing on a skewered piece of meat as they sat between two huge roots. The beast was tough, but it tasted pretty good. Kaz was a wizard when it came to preparing food in the field. They couldn't start fires while they were on patrol, that would give away their position to the enemy, and thus their MREs used mostly chemical heating methods. They did come with little flammable gel packets, however, and those were safe to light. They could use them to boil meat in the little portable stoves just fine.

Wassat?” she asked, her voice muffled by a mouthful of monster steak.

That's what I'm calling this thing, Gorgonopsia Jarilae. It means Gorgon-face from Jarilo. I'm pretty sure this thing is some kind of therapsid.”

I'd call it a knife-tooth, those suckers can bite.”

Your arm ok?” Walker asked, leaning over to get a look at her matted fur.

It's fine, it'll be healed up by tomorrow night.”

You know, taking easily avoidable injuries in the field isn't very professional, what if it had impacted your ability to operate?”

You keep talkin' like a pussy, and I'm gonna impact your ability to operate,” she chided. She took a draw from her canteen and then upended some of the water onto her forearm in an attempt to wash away some of the drying blood.

Well you went toe to toe with an apex predator, are we done with the dick measuring now? Can we just shoot the next one?”

If I had a dick to measure,” she started, waving a piece of meat that was skewered on her knife. “It'd be the biggest one on the planet.”

Fortunately you're not a Krell, so we don't have to worry about that eventuality.”

He lay back against one of the thick roots, removing his helmet and placing it beside him on the dirt, peering up through the canopy at the stars beyond. There was no light pollution here, it was perfect. He could see the smear of the galactic arm that was spread across the heavens like the stroke of some celestial paintbrush. He knew all of the constellations, he used to lie on the grass as a child and use a virtual reality app on his portable computer to map them, but they were so far from Sol system now that the stars were no longer recognizable. He was light years from home, and he hadn't been back to Earth in years.

Hey, trade me a pop tart,” he said.

What have you got?” Kaz asked as she rummaged through her MRE.

He leaned forward and lifted the plastic packet, sifting through empty containers. There were the empty packets of beans and rice that they had eaten as a side with the fresh meat, along with a few snacks and protein bars. Her MRE was twice the size of his, and he doubted that even that was enough to satisfy her. Borealans consumed a monumental amount of calories in order to maintain their weight and muscle mass. Having access to edible game was a boon for her.

Oh, what's this?” Walker teased. He held up a brown plastic packet marked with block lettering. “Salmon steak, yum.”

She swiped at it, but he drew back beyond her reach, shaking his head.

I want a pop tart and your oat bars for this.”

She narrowed her feline eyes at him, then pelted his prone body with the snacks, leaning in to snatch the salmon as he shielded his face and laughed. She liked to play the hardass, but it hadn't escaped his notice that she always saved him her pop tarts whenever they turned up in their MREs. They had enough supplies left for three days in the bush, but they could extend that operational time by a couple more days if they came across more native fauna to supplement their diet.

He opened the silver packet of the snack and chewed happily. It was amazing how good a little frosting and jam tasted when you were out in the field, a little taste of processed crap to remind you of where you came from.

Kaz was tearing into the fish, the packaged meal little more than a mouthful to her.

If only we had some booze,” she complained, wiping her mouth.

We're surrounded by fermented berries,” Walker replied, waving his hand towards the fallen sticks that littered the forest floor. “But I'm not going to be the guinea pig on this one.”

I wonder what raises the hair made from those berries would taste like?”

Maybe you can retire here and find out, take a plot of land as part of your pension, start a brewery. Kazka's Own, genuine traditional Borealan wines.”

Borealans don't retire,” she chuckled, finishing off the last of the salmon steak. “We fight until something kills us.”

Hey, I never said you had to stop fighting. You could hunt these forests, beat up Gorgonopsia Jarilae...”

That name isn't sticking,” she complained, “knife-tooth just rolls of the tongue. I'm gonna start calling them that when we get back to base, I guarantee you that within a day, everyone will be saying it.”

I’d better report in before we get too comfortable,” Walker said, changing the subject as she smirked at him. He pulled up his display, tapping at the touch screen, then grumbled under his breath.

Bring your pack over here Kaz, the transmitter is acting up.”

She did as he asked, lifting her rucksack and depositing it at his feet. The damned thing was the size of a man and about as heavy. It contained their communications gear along with all of her food and supplies. While his onboard computer had wireless and radio capabilities, the dense forest blocked the signals from reaching the base. The solution was to use higher powered equipment to send a data packet directly to the carrier, which was somewhere above them in geostationary orbit. It was more expedient to let the Borealans lug the gear around where possible, the transmitters were bulky and heavy. Not so heavy that the human-only teams couldn’t carry them, but Walker was glad to have his mule.

He opened a large pocket on the side of her pack from which a long antenna protruded, the transmitter itself about the size and shape of a pizza box, flipping open a protective cover on the front of the device and messing with the dials.

Fucking things are always drifting out of sync,” he complained, holding his wrist display up to his face and checking the connection. “There we go.”

He transmitted their progress and the mission status, along with his logs and information about the hostile wildlife. Those things weren’t much of a danger to a Borealan, but they might catch a Marine unawares and do some real damage. When he was done he lay back against the tree, Fleetcom wouldn’t expect another report until tomorrow.

So, who's on watch tonight?” Walker asked. “Rock Paper Scissors?”

You always win that stupid game,” she shot back, but then her expression turned sly. “Just drop a motion sensor, it'll alert us to anything that gets close. You and me, we're gonna be busy.”

Ah yes, violence is your biggest turn-on.”

Combat was practically an aphrodisiac to the aliens. It made sense when you considered that most of the Borealan population had been conceived shortly after a fight, but it still came off as sadomasochistic.

She reached into her pack and withdrew a device the size of a golf ball with a stake at the bottom, flipping a switch and planting it in the dirt. It buzzed to life, a three hundred and sixty degree motion sensor activating to scan the forest around them. For all intents and purposes, it would do the job of someone on watch with the added benefit of never falling asleep or being distracted, but Walker preferred to have a person looking out for him while he was at his most vulnerable.

Kaz crawled over to him, straddling him and digging her sharp claws into the wood of the roots to either side of him. She perched on her knees so as not to crush him, but let enough of her weight rest on him that he could really feel it. There was already a growing erection in his pants, and she pressed it against his belly with her groin, smirking as he winced.

What if the Bugs roll up on us while we're...indisposed?” Walker asked. “Sometimes I think you play things too fast and loose, Kaz.”

We've not seen any signs of Bugs all day, we're safe, and the motion sensor will tell us if anything gets close. Now stop complaining and take your pants off before I do it for you.”

He hesitated for a moment, then his arousal got the better of him, his hands moving to his belt as he fumbled with the clasp. Kaz removed the armored vest that protected her torso, pulling it over her head and discarding it on the ground beside them, the ceramic plates too heavy for a human to carry. Beneath it she wore camouflaged fatigues, the sleeves of her jacket rolled up to expose her leopard-spotted forearms, and she caught the zipper in one of her hooked claws to drag it down slowly. Walker followed it with covetous eyes as breasts the size of bowling balls pushed the garment apart, barely contained within a grey sports bra. She exposed her milky skin, taut abdominal muscles rising from beneath, the high gravity of her home planet giving her a prominent six-pack that she could have used to sharpen the blades that she was so fond of. Her skin was wet with exertion from the fight, and Walker tore off his gloves before tracing the contours of her muscles with his fingertips, feeling her flex beneath his hand.

She stood, unfastening her belt and pulling her pants down, stepping out of them one leg at a time before they were thrown aside to join her vest on the ground. Walker shuffled out of his trousers and pulled down his briefs, his erection bouncing free to throb in the air, Kaz biting her lip as she stood over him. There was no reason to disrobe completely, they only needed to remove what was in their way.

She pulled her white panties aside, exposing her flushed lips, then came back down to close her steely thighs around his hips. They were almost as thick and as tall as a man, muscles like steel cables lurking beneath the layer of fat as he sank his fingers into her flesh, her skin as soft as velvet and as smooth as glass. She gripped his erection in her fluffy hand, his member swelling between her clawed fingers, guiding it towards her dripping loins. She rubbed his glans up and down her vulva, the pink flesh glistening with her excitement, strands of it falling to roll down his shaft. He took the opportunity to explore her familiar body, her breasts too far away to reach, but Walker was more of a waist-to-hip ratio man anyway. He followed the hourglass curve of her wide hips with his hands, feeling the hard muscles of her belly twitch at his touch, moving down to her round thighs as he clawed at her.

She placed her other hand on his chest, Walker only feeling it as pressure through his thick armor, and then she lowered herself down onto him. There was a moment of resistance, then he broke through with a pop, Kaz growling and sinking her sharp claws into one of the roots as she took him to the base. Despite her size, her muscle tone made her almost painfully tight, her slick passage closing around him like a fist gloved in wet silk. A tremor rolled through her body, Kaz exhaling as she shifted to get comfortable, every subtle movement making Walker flinch as his cock jumped inside her.

She started to rock slowly, moving her hips back and forth atop him, tentative at first but growing faster and more ardent as she became accustomed to the sensation of having him inside her. This was far from their first rodeo. Ever since their first deployment together they had ended most of their nights this way, Kaz had a sexual thirst that was seemingly impossible to quench. Walker was all too happy to oblige, it was a form of bonding that had quickly cemented their friendship, and she was a comely woman. To an outsider, they might appear to bicker constantly, but that was just the way that Borealans interacted with humans. It masked a constant background radiation of attraction that urged them to dominate their smaller companions and induct them into their pack.

This arrangement was relieving for the both of them. They blew off steam, reduced stress, and it allowed Kaz to concentrate on her work rather than on suppressing her instincts.

She began to bounce, rising and falling heavily on his shaft, coming down hard enough to bruise his hips as she drove him into the dirt. He sank his fingers into the meat of her thighs for purchase, the pair silent save for grunts of pleasure and drawn out sighs. They knew each other well enough that little communication was necessary, Walker's eyelids fluttering as she twisted her hips and ground her spasming walls against his erection.

He pushed up to meet her downward thrusts, their flesh clapping together, her juices leaking around his member to make their coupling slippery. She was relentless, never faltering as she fucked him like a machine, a satisfying ache permeating his shaft as it throbbed inside her.

You're holdin' out on me Walker, what's the matter? You still worryin' about Bugs sneakin' up on us while we're doing the nasty?”

She took a fistful of his hair in her hand, Walker gritting his teeth against the sting, and she leaned down close to press her puffy lips against his. Her long tongue slid into his mouth, near a foot of slippery muscle, tapered at the tip and rough like that of a cat. She had such fine control over it, the dexterous appendage painting his inner cheeks and the roof of his mouth with her copper-flavored saliva, Kaz subjecting him to a probing and salacious French kiss. His spine arched off the dirt, fingers digging deep into the yielding meat of her thighs, her tongue roiling inside his head as if it had a life of its own. She piled so much of it into his mouth that it bulged his cheeks. She licked the back of his throat, smirking as she felt him flinch.

He heard her chuckle as he swelled inside her, Kaz releasing his hair and catching his lip in her teeth as she pulled back, drawing a little blood. She wet her lips, making a show of tasting it, resuming her rhythmic rocking as Walker's face reddened.

Do I have your full attention now, Sergeant?”

Kaz could be rough in a way that really got him going. She knew how to push his buttons, grinning down at him as he redoubled his efforts.

Her powerful pelvic floor muscles clenched around him, rolling up and down his shaft in a cruel massage that threatened to wring his emission from him through sheer force. He wasn't to be outdone, however. Even sex was a fight to a Borealan, and he felt her mammoth body quiver as he drove his rigid member into her silken walls. She twisted her hips, gyrating as if trying to scratch some unreachable itch, fresh sweat making her exposed skin glisten in what little starlight penetrated the forest canopy.

Fuck it,” she grumbled, slowing her thrusting for a moment to hook her claws under the elastic of her sports bra and pulling it over her head. Her breasts fell free to bounce heavily, the size and weight of Walker's rucksack. They would have snapped the spine of a human woman like a pencil. He wasted no time, gripping her hips and pulling himself upright, burying his face between them. She placed a furry hand on the back of his head, her sharp claws pricking his scalp, Walker breathing in her musky scent and tasting the salt on her burnished skin.

He crawled his lips across one of her breasts, finding her hard, pink nipple and sucking it into his mouth. He weighed the fat globes in his hands, his fingers sinking deep into her flesh as if it was fresh cookie dough, Kaz speeding up as she rocked her wide hips back and forth.

He circled the firm nub of flesh with his tongue, catching it between his lips, feeling her taut muscles twitch and flex around his buried erection. She was so wet, the viscous fluid sticking to her inner thighs in strands, matting his pubic hair as it escaped from her burning loins. She was fever-hot, almost enough to scald him, her warm breath blowing his hair as she panted.

Come on Walker, I ain't no china doll,” she complained.

He bit her harder, alternating between gentle chewing and licking, digging deep into her flesh with his fingers as he sought out the firmer and more tender breast tissue that lay beneath. She shuddered, her long spine arching, a low growl escaping her lips that might have been intimidating had he not heard it before in the same context.

Fuck, I need this,” she grumbled. “I was going nuts on the carrier, can't even find a fucking maintenance closet for some quick head without being disturbed. They got us crammed together like sardines.”

Walker opened his mouth to reply, but she pressed his face into her breast. Her flesh spilled around his cheeks, almost plump enough to envelop his head.

Don't stop, idiot. I'm getting close.”

He dragged his hand down her firm belly, feeling the bulge of her abs beneath his palm, gliding on her smooth skin as the veneer of her sudor made her slippery. He found the tuft of fur on her mound, the same strawberry blonde as that of her lower arms and legs, silky and soft unlike that of humans. He sought out her clitoris, feeling her wetness beneath his fingers, her body tensing as they brushed her sensitive anatomy. She growled and dug her claws into his body armor, sinking deep into the Kevlar, Walker thanking his stars that it wasn't his flesh. He had more than a few scars that he hadn't earned in battle.

He rubbed her sweet spot with his thumb, and her movements became more erratic, his digit lubricated by her thick juices. Her long arms wrapped around him to pull him tight against her body, Kaz clinging to him almost desperately. His armored vest couldn't have been comfortable against her bare skin, but she was lost in her fugue, too aroused to care and nearing the peak of her excitement. He roamed his free hand down her back, following the deep channel that her muscles cut in her spine, finding the firmness of her rump and taking a handful as she bounced on top of him. Her ample cheeks were as soft as melting butter, and yet the flesh sprang back into shape when he released it. You could have bounced a grenade off her ass.

He felt the fur of her tail at the base of her spine, smirking to himself as he gripped it in his hand like it was a fluffy rope. He felt her insides tighten up, wincing as her sodden walls contracted like a vice, then he gave her tail a good hard tug.

She snarled like an angry tiger in a mixture of pleasure and pain. Pulling a Borealan's tail was a show of dominance, and it drove them wild.

He gave it another rough pull, and she rolled her head back, the sound of claws tearing the fabric on his back rising to his ears. He'd have to tell the requisitions officer that local wildlife was the culprit when they got back to the base, the UNN didn't much appreciate you messing up their expensive gear.

Harder,” she growled, leaning down to bite his earlobe in her sharp teeth. “I want it to hurt.”

He obliged, yanking her tail with all of his strength, feeling the tremor roll through her muscular body. Her pace became frantic, obviously on the cusp of orgasm, her erratic movements sending jolts of pleasure coursing through Walker's body like electric shocks. He couldn't concentrate, he saw points of light floating before his eyes, he felt like his skull was full of sparks. His hips were sore, his member aching, but a fire was welling inside him that threatened to push him over the edge.

She tore his hands away from her and planted them in the dirt, her fists closed around his wrists, pinning him as her thrusting reached a fever pitch. Sweat dripped from her body, raining down on him, her smooth thighs clamping down around him as if he was prey that might struggle free before she had her fill of him.

She moved down to bite his neck, more than a few tooth marks from their previous encounters hidden beneath his fatigues, but his armored collar was in the way. She bit that instead, her body shaking as she started to come, her passage milking him with cruel muscle spasms that were impossible to endure for long. He pushed up off the ground to slam deep inside her, her eyes shut tight as she sank her teeth into his vest, doubtless more satisfying than having to treat him gently by Borealan standards. Walker had never seen two of the aliens fuck, but he imagined that it must be bloody. Their whole bodies were a patchwork of scars and bites. Kaz had particularly prominent bite scar on her hip and another on her thigh that set his imagination ablaze with lurid scenarios.

She convulsed, her loins teasing out his own climax, Walker gritting his teeth as he shot a heavy wad of his emission into her eager passage. It was like fucking wet silk, intoxicating, his hot ejaculate flooding her reaches as his member jumped and throbbed inside her. He saw her flinch at the sensation, feeling its heat flood her, her grip on his arms tightening as she pounded him into the soil.

She released his collar from her sharp teeth, gasping as she wrung another load from him, their bawdy fluids mingling to spill from her hole and leak down his shaft. She didn't let up, her hips coming down on him hard and fast, her satin insides stroking him as they eased out one last aftershock.

He relaxed, seeing stars, dizzied from the powerful and much-awaited orgasm. As she had said, it was almost impossible to find time alone on a crowded jump carrier. His balls had been almost as blue as their uniforms.

Kaz panted, resting a little more of her weight on him than was comfortable, her muscles trembling as the last wave of her orgasm rolled over her. She panted, laughing as she slid off him, leaning against one of the roots as she rubbed her mound with her furry fingers.

If the roles had been reversed and Borealans had been the spacefaring species who came across humans,” Kaz chuckled as she licked some of the pearly fluid from her finger with her serpentine tongue. “We might have kept you as pets. Maybe I'll order you a collar, that'd be hot...”

Perhaps we can come to some kind of arrangement,” he replied as he caught his breath, awash with afterglow. “You remember when I said that I wanted to tie you up with some bungee cords? Would be nice to have you on your back for once.”

If you think they'll hold me,” she replied with a wry smile. “You know me, get me drunk enough, and I'm down for anything.”

Yeah, and that isn't exactly hard.”

A buzzing in his earpiece interrupted the thought, and he turned his attention to the display on his wrist. It was an incoming hail from Fleetcom. He set it to speaker mode so that Kaz could hear it too and hit the accept command.

Sergeant Walker here, receiving you loud and clear Fleetcom, go ahead. Over.”

We’ve detected unusual seismic activity at your location, heavily localized, what’s your situation? Are you under attack? Over.”

His face reddened as he glanced over at Kaz. The percussive force of their sex had obviously tripped one of the sensors.

That’s a negative on that, Fleetcom, we’re fine. No sign of Bugs so far. The sensor is probably just jumpy, we’ll take a look at it before we move out. Over.”

Fleetcom seemed satisfied with the reply, and he held his finger to his lips as Kaz covered her mouth with her furry hand, suppressing a laugh.

They cleaned themselves up as best they could, pulling their clothes back on and settling in for the night, sharing the same recess between the roots to pool their body heat. It wasn't always safe to use a sleeping bag, you couldn't get out of them quickly in an emergency, but the air was warm enough that they didn't get cold. Kaz wasn't much of a cuddler, nor was she especially romantic, but Walker got the impression that she appreciated his company as much as he did hers. It was rare to have a friend who you could sleep with without things getting messy or complicated, but Kaz was an exception. Maybe it was because of her alien ancestry, or perhaps it was just her laid back personality.

He rested his head on her soft chest, her armored vest still discarded on the ground. He kept his on, he wasn't quite as bulletproof as a Borealan, but he couldn't sleep with a helmet on. Besides, feeling the slow rise and fall of her chest, hearing the beat of her heart beneath his ear, it helped him get to sleep in the field.


Walker pulled up his holographic map as he tried to get his bearings. Everything on this planet looked the damned same, but the slant of the valley and the snowy peaks of the mountains glimpsed on the horizon gave him enough information to work with.

Another one here,” he said, Kaz walking up behind him to pull another seismic sensor from his pack. She stabbed it into the ground, and it lit up on his display, broadcasting its position. While comms were a pain in the ass in such dense woodland, the sensors created their own little wireless network, Walker able to see all of the ones that had been placed by every scout team thus far as they formed a web across the holographic terrain.

None of them have been tripped yet?” Kaz asked, leaning over his shoulder to get a look at the map.

Nope, where the hell are the roaches hiding?”

Maybe Fleetcom was wrong, and the hive ship on the surface never got the chance to unload its troops?”

No way,” Walker replied, shaking his head. “They wouldn't have taken off before dropping their cargo. The Bugs know that we always kick their arthropod asses in space, the only shot they have at holding Jarilo is making the ground war too much of a shitshow for us to handle. They're just being sneaky, they'll turn up somewhere...”

They moved deeper into the valley, on their way back towards the base now, the looping route that was outlined on their map covering as much ground as possible. The terrain wasn't getting any more forgiving, the whole valley was nothing but a tangle of roots and rocks. An army attempting to march through this dense undergrowth might be better served by simply taking a dropship over it. Sure they'd lose the element of surprise, but at least they'd get to their destination. That was if they ever found a tunnel entrance to begin with, it didn't seem like the other scout teams had come across any either.

Hold up,” Kaz said, “I got somethin' over here.”

Walker put a hand on his holstered pistol, scanning the dense trees for signs of movement, but he didn't see anything. He followed her forwards as she sniffed the air, drawing his weapon to cover her as she crouched to brush the dirt with her furry fingers.

This soil has been disturbed, recently.”

There was indeed a blanket of disturbed soil, some of it coating the leaves of the shorter plants. Somebody had spread fresh dirt rather than leaving it in a conspicuous pile. An attempt to conceal their activities no doubt.

What do you smell?” Walker whispered. “Is this fresh?”

Not very, but there are traces of Bug. They were here. One day ago, perhaps two.”

Shit,” Walker hissed under his breath, trailing behind Kaz as she followed her sensitive nose. They weaved between the trees, Kaz practically glued to the floor like a bloodhound. Betelgeusians communicated entirely through pheromones as far as anybody could tell, and their smell was even apparent to humans where it was strongest. All that he could smell right now was the forest, but Kaz had picked up their scent, and so he kept his eyes on the trees as they moved forward.

She stopped suddenly, standing upright and shouldering her XMR, Walker lowering his faceplate and switching on his night vision. Even in the middle of the day, the dense canopy made the forest gloomy. They edged forward, coming across something that looked like a sinkhole, a dent in the ground about three feet across that had obviously been dug out and later filled.

I know what this is,” Walker said, lowering his weapon as Kaz walked around the circumference of the hole. “It's a scout tunnel, they dug a branch off the main hive to let their scouts access the surface, then they filled it in when they were done.”

He holstered his handgun and flipped up his visor, bringing his wrist-mounted display up to his face and tapping at the screen, putting a call through to Fleetcom.

Stand still Kaz, I'm calling this in.”

It didn't take more than a moment for the operator to pick up, a female voice coming through with a hiss of static.

Receiving you Sergeant Walker, report. Over.”

We got a Bug hole, Fleetcom. We've found a scout tunnel that was recently filled in. My Borealan says they were here within the last forty-eight hours. It probably branches off the main tunnel network. They might be closer to base Charlie than we thought. Over.”

Roger that Sergeant, marking your position. Continue on your patrol as ordered, call in any anomalies that you see. Don't take any risks out there, Godspeed. Over.”

Will do Fleetcom, over and out.”

This stinks, Walker,” Kaz commented. “This place crawls.”

Our orders are to continue on our way, now more than ever we need to get these sensors planted. We may have stumbled across a branch of the main hive. Remember Kaz, hold your fire until I give the order, we don't want to throw rocks at the wasp's nest.” She didn't respond, and so he snapped his fingers at her, getting her attention. “Kaz, get your head in the game.”

She nodded, lowering her weapon.

You don't smell it, Walker, it's like they're still here.”

Come, let's keep moving.”


They spent another day walking, coming across nothing of note, and that night they slept in shifts to keep watch. Finding that hole so close to their patrol route had put them both on edge, the enemy could attack at any moment. Walker was glad of his Borealan companion. Bugs could smell him from a fair distance, or taste him with their antenna, whatever the hell it was that insects did. Her keen nose would alert them long before the enemy came into visual range in this dense forest.

The next morning they continued on their patrol, placing more of the sensors as they went, their pace noticeably faster. They hadn't come across any wildlife here, it was as if the animals had all fled, or perhaps the Bugs had killed them off. Kaz complained of the constant smell, their scent permeating the forest, and yet they never met any Bug patrols.

They stopped at another stream to fill their canteens, Walker taking the opportunity to take off his boots and rub his feet. They had been marching practically non-stop for days, and he was starting to get blisters. He longed to dip them in the water and let the cool liquid run between his toes, but it was a bad idea, it might leave him vulnerable if they were ambushed.

He pulled an oat bar from his pocket and bit into it as he watched Kaz drink. She consumed almost as much water as food, her requirements rising exponentially with her exaggerated size. One of her round ears flicked suddenly, and she dropped her canteen, the bottle hanging from her belt and spilling its contents as her hands shot to her rifle. Walker wasn't far behind, shouldering his XMR, looking to Kaz as she scanned the canopy with her yellow eyes.

What is it, Kaz?”


He heard it too, rustling branches, coming from somewhere in the tall trees above them. They hadn't seen any sign of birds so far, could it be some tree-dwelling native animal? Bugs didn't climb trees as far as he knew, but these were about two hundred feet tall, there could be a whole ecosystem in those branches that they might not have seen from the ground. He flipped down his helmet's visor, switching from night vision to infrared, scanning for any signs of life.

There's something in the trees,” Kaz hissed, “I heard it.”

They spread out, rifles aimed at the treetops, the forest silent save for the quiet trickle of running water. Walker spotted a heat signature, scoping in on the rustling pine needles, his XMR's sight linked wirelessly to his visor. It could be disorienting to the uninitiated, but he had trained with this weapon for thousands of hours. Closing his left eye would trip a sensor inside the helmet that would open a link to the rifle's scope and display its aperture inside the visor, meaning that he wouldn't have to remove the protective plate to use his XMR, and opening the eye would return the view to the camera that was embedded in his helmet.

He spotted a flash of blue material, shiny and reflective, making out a figure between the pine needles.

It was about the size of an average person, perhaps a little shorter at around five feet and six inches, with four arms and two legs. It was covered in a hard, shiny exoskeleton in striking azure, its pink flesh visible between the joints. Some of it was body armor designed to match the style and color of its natural shell, but it was impossible to tell where one ended, and the other began. It had three fingers on its hands that were grasping the branches and three toes on its feet, beetle-like horns protruding from its head, or perhaps that was just a decorative helmet. This set resembled the horns of a rhinoceros beetle, with a long stem and a flared tip, though the style of the Betelgeusian ornaments varied and Walker had never seen two that were exactly alike. Its features were obscured behind its helmet, two green, compound eyes staring back at him that he knew from experience to be visors. He had put slugs through them before and had watched them shatter like glass to reveal the flesh beneath.

It was just watching them, what the hell was it doing up in the tree? He resisted the urge to shoot it down, the supersonic crack of the railgun would alert every Bug within five miles of their position, but his .45 wasn't powerful or accurate enough to drop it at this range. It must be a scout, but why was it alone?

Kaz was bristling, hackles raised, and he waved for her to calm down as he kept his gun trained on the Bug.

Hold your fire, let's wait and see what it does.”

It cocked its head at them, its movements jerky and unnatural, reminding Walker more of a mechanical construct than a living thing. Should they let it go? If they shot it, that would immediately give away their position to any Bugs in the area. But if they let the scout escape, it would take time for it to return to the hive and relay its findings to its buddies. They'd at least get a head start.

We can't shoot it,” Kaz hissed, “if any of its friends are nearby they'll hear us. We should get back to base ASAP.”

We can't retreat,” Walker replied, “we have a mission to accomplish here. Unless we get those sensors planted, a whole swarm of Bugs could march right up to Charlie, and they'd be none the wiser until they were already under attack.”

The second this scout reports back to his hive, that swarm is gonna be on our asses,” she shot back. “We can't plant any sensors if we're Bug chow.”

We stay on mission, and we follow the route outlined on the map,” Walker insisted.

If we cut straight across the valley we'll be back at Charlie before nightfall, it will take us a whole extra day if we do it your way.”

I'm not asking for your opinion. We stay on mission, that's an order.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, and he sensed a Borealan tantrum coming on. If there was one thing that set them off, it was being challenged by someone half their stature. He knew Kaz, and he knew Borealans, now was the time to assert himself.

He walked over to her and punched her in the thigh as hard as he could. It might have floored a fellow human, but the giant alien barely flinched. Her muscles were like concrete, and he resisted the urge to shake his hand in order to dispel the pain, flipping up his visor to glare at her. They locked eyes for a moment, Walker's stare unwavering, and then she exhaled a somewhat sarcastic sigh and switched her attention back to the Bug.

Alright, we do it your way, tough guy. But if we get killed, I'm gonna be the one sticking your ass with a pitchfork in hell, and you know that I'll enjoy it.”

I gotta call this in,” Walker said, keeping his eyes on the Bug as it watched them from the branches. He had never seen one stay still like this for any period of time, and it hadn't made any attempt to attack them. He had seen them act as snipers, using their plasma rifles to kill Marines at range. It could have gotten the drop on them easily and killed at least one of them and yet it was not visibly armed.

He brought up his display and put a call through to Fleetcom, his gaze fixed on the Bug as he waited impatiently, swearing that he'd put a damned bayonet through the transmitter if it went out of sync again.

This is Fleetcom. Report, over.”

This is Sergeant Walker, we have a Bug sighting. Repeat, we have Bugs on the ground. Looks like a scout, he hasn't made any moves yet. Over.”

We've had nothing on the sensors Sergeant, are you sure? Over.”

I'm staring him down as we speak, Fleetcom. We're gonna stay on mission, try to get as many of these seismic sensors down as we can, but we'd sure appreciate you sending out a squad to meet us on our way back. Over.”

Is your position compromised? Can you fire on it? Over.”

That's a negative on that, Ma'am. Not unless we want the whole valley to know where we are. Over.”

Understood, we'll dispatch a team along your route right away. Over and out.”

They're sending backup,” Walker announced, Kaz glancing at him briefly before returning her attention back to the Bug.

Well, no reason to stick around here. Let's get moving.”

They lowered their weapons, Kaz pausing for a moment to refill her canteen in the stream before they set off. They upped the pace, but the difficult terrain made the going tough, foregoing caution could result in a nasty fall or a sprain. Kaz could have leaped through the forest with ease on her long, digitigrade legs, but she kept pace with Walker as she scanned the canopy for signs of the enemy.

The Bug turned its head to watch them as they left, and then it crawled higher into the branches, Walker losing sight of it in the canopy.


The sun was getting low in the sky, Walker running out of steam as the exhaustion got the better of him. A mile in this terrain was as tiring as ten on level ground. He knelt to place a seismic sensor in the dirt, taking the opportunity to rest for a moment, Kaz stopping to look back at him.

Don't flake on me now, Walker. We have to keep moving.”

He glanced behind him to scan the branches of the massive trees, seeing a glint of blue in the starlight. The damned Bug was still following them.

What the hell is it doing?” he spat, frustration getting the better of him for a moment. “It just fucking follows us, it doesn't attack, it doesn't report back to its hive...it just sits there and watches us!”

Maybe it's following us back to base so that it can relay the location to its friends. But once we're close enough to Charlie, we can finally shoot the bastard.”

You ever seen a Bug act like this?” Walker asked, struggling to his feet again.

No, never. Don't recall ever getting this close to a Bug that wasn't shooting at me. Damned thing stinks too, I can smell it from here.”

It's a two day march back to Charlie,” Walker said as he caught up to her, “if Fleetcom sent word that we needed help then we might be meeting our backup about half way.”

Tonight maybe, or in the morning,” Kaz confirmed as she hopped deftly over an exposed root. She turned and helped Walker climb over it. They hadn't had time to stop and eat since the previous night, the oat bars weren't doing the job, and his hunger was starting to weaken him. Kaz probably felt the same way, though she hadn't complained, and neither would he.

How is it even getting between the trees?” Walker mused. “I've not seen it touch the ground once.”

Just keep moving, we can figure out the details later.”


The sun had risen, its golden rays piercing the forest canopy, a little further towards the white spectrum than the yellow glow of Sol. They had been walking non stop over rough terrain for nearly forty-eight hours, finally reaching the last marker on their map. Walker took a knee, his muscles burning, and Kaz rummaged in his pack for the last sensor. She drove it into the ground, then stood, wiping her brow with the back of her furry forearm and taking a long draw from her canteen. She frowned, upending it, watching the last droplet fall to the dirt.

Her ears swiveled forward, and her feline pupils dilated, shouldering her rifle and aiming it into the forest. Walker followed suit, and after a moment he heard it too, the unmistakable sound of something moving through the brush. They took cover behind a massive tree trunk, it must have been twenty feet around, and Walker closed his visor. He shut his left eye, activating the wireless scope on his XMR and poking it around the trunk to get a view of the enemy without exposing himself to fire.

What do you see?” Kaz whispered.

Walker flipped his visor back up and breathed a sigh of relief, dropping his weapon to let it hang from his chest on its sling.

I see a squad of Marines, looks like we made it.”

He stepped out from behind the tree, waving to the soldiers, a group of half a dozen UNN Marines clad in black body armor emerging from the woods.

It's nice to see something with four limbs,” he called out, and a few of the Marines flipped their own full-faced visors open to greet him.

The brass said you guys needed some backup,” one them said, stepping forward to shake his hand. He must have been the squad leader. “You look like shit Sergeant. Wachowski, get the man some water. I'm Sergeant Andrews by the way, seventy-fifth expeditionary.”

You guys meet any roaches on your way in?” Walker asked as he took the canteen that was handed to him and unscrewed the cap. Kaz stepped forward to stand beside him, resting her long rifle on her shoulder as she appraised the newcomers.

No sign of any Bugs, no.”

We've got one tailing us. Couldn't shoot him, everyone in the valley would have been alerted to our position.”

Tailing you?” The squad leader looked confused, and Walker shared the sentiment.

Yeah, I've never seen anything like it. He's in the trees, out of range of my .45. He hasn't attacked, and he hasn't gone off to get reinforcements, as far as we know he's still up there.”

What the hell is it doing in the trees?”

Must have crawled up there, who knows. Kaz thinks he might be following us back to base, but now that we're close to home we can shoot the fucker down.”

I hear that,” the squad leader said as he waved a couple of his men forward, “won't do to let the flyboys have all the fun.”

They aimed their XMRs at the treetops, searching for signs of the Betelgeusian scout, and there was a sudden rustling in the branches.

There he is!” Walker shouted, seeing a flash of blue exoskeleton between the green pine needles. “Get him!”

The Marines lit up the canopy with automatic railgun fire, pieces of broken branches and pine needles raining down, but the insect was almost impossible to get a bead on. It was a hundred feet up and concealed by foliage, darting between the trees like a manic squirrel as the supersonic crack of their projectiles rang out. Walker expected to see its ruined body fall heavily to the ground, but as they ceased fire, he heard a loud buzzing that sounded like a motorcycle engine. As he scoped in his own weapon to take a shot at it, through the aperture, he saw the Bug rising into the sky. Its back had opened up into two halves like the shell of a beetle, a set of gossamer wings that must each have been four or five feet long moving so fast that they were little more than a blur. The damned thing was flying.

He took careful aim, but it knew that it had been rumbled and it was weaving back and forth in the air like a housefly. He exhaled and took the shot, a loud crack emanating from his gun as the copper-colored rings of the long barrel accelerated a tungsten slug to Mach fifteen. There was little recoil compared to a conventional weapon, and so he was able to keep the sights trained on the Bug, cursing under his breath as he missed it. It was just moving too erratically. It quickly vanished over the trees, Walker lowering his weapon.

It...flew away,” he said, unable to mask the shock in his voice. “Flying Bugs, I've never seen anything like it.”

A Betelgeusian with wings?” Kaz asked. “We need to call this in as soon as we can.”

We should get back to Charlie first,” Andrews said, “I don't like being out here with no intel.”

Agreed,” Walker replied, “my gut tells me that something big is coming and I don't want to be out in the bush when it happens.”

We'll escort you in,” Andrews said as he waved for his squad to turn about. “Eyes open men, I don't want anything getting the jump on us.”


They arrived at Charlie as the sun was setting. A twelve-foot wall ringed the outpost, the comms center and guard towers rising above them. They had put up Hesco bastions around the base of the wall to protect it from explosives, mesh and fabric containers that could be filled with dirt and gravel to act as sandbags. They did a pretty good job of stopping projectile weapons and shrapnel. The group approached the fortified entrance, concrete barriers shielding the two guards who were on duty, and they waved them through the open door. It was a forward operating base, with the Thermopylae acting as the main operating base for all of the outposts on the planet's surface, supplying and reinforcing them as necessary. For the moment at least, the carrier was untouchable, but they still needed boots on the ground if they were going to drive the Bugs off Jarilo.

Walker stepped through into the courtyard, his boots clanking on the metal grates that served as a floor and would stop the enemy from tunneling under their defenses. There were a series of prefab structures that had been dropped from cargo landers to serve as field hospitals, armories and the like, with the barracks and mess hall being comprised mostly of rigid tents. There was a guard tower on each of the four corners of the walls and raised platforms that would allow the soldiers inside to fire over it in the event that the Bugs attacked them. There were more bastions spaced at intervals between the buildings, separating them and diminishing the effects of any mortars or explosives that might make it over the wall.

The first line of defense against incoming mortars was the C-RAM system, an automatic turret with an onboard radar that could be deployed as a single contained unit, dropped into the middle of the compound. The gun itself was mounted atop a beige cube that contained all of its sensors and computers, about three by three meters, the turret on top able to rotate and pivot in order to track incoming projectiles. Once it detected a threat, it would use its gatling gun to fire a stream of twenty-millimeter, high explosive rounds that would hopefully destroy the target before it did any damage.

There were two landing pads, one of which was occupied by a dropship that was currently unloading its cargo of nondescript crates, and all around them were UNN personnel going about their business.

Go get yourselves a hot meal and a bunk,” Andrews said, “I'll report to Fleetcom and tell them about the flying Bug.”

I'm the ranking officer, I should file the report,” Walker said. Andrews shook his head.

All due respect Sergeant, you look like you're ready to keel over. You're no good to anyone if you're exhausted.”

He's right,” Kaz added, taking him by the upper arm and steering him towards the mess hall. “Let's get some food in us.”

Walker conceded, letting Kaz lead him over to one of the tents. She couldn't have know the layout of the base, as these structures had been erected only after they had set off on their mission, but she no doubt smelled the food. They stepped through the door, the interior fairly spacious with a ceiling high enough that Kaz didn't need to crouch, green fabric suspended on a metal frame making up the roof and walls. There were two rows of tables along the length of the mess hall, some of them occupied by soldiers, and a counter at the far end where a couple of cooks were serving food. They collected metal trays and waited in a short line, one of the cooks spooning bean soup into one of the recesses along with mashed potatoes and gravy, a couple of dinner rolls and what might have been turkey or chicken. To his surprise, Kaz didn't get very much more than he did. The fleet must be rationing until they could secure a supply line back to UNN space.

They shrugged off their packs and took a seat at one of the tables, the benches reinforced to handle the weight of a Borealan or a Krell, but not especially comfortable. The exhausted scouts ate in silence, too ravenous to waste valuable chewing time on conversation. Hunger was a spice that could make even the most basic meal taste like gourmet food, and so they didn't complain about its bland taste. The bustle and chatter around them was comforting. As much as Walker liked being out in the wild, the safety of the walls was a welcome reprieve after their unnerving run-in with the winged Bug. He was looking forward to a soft bunk, although at this point he could have slept like an angel on a bed of rocks.

Their meal was interrupted by a siren, the Marines around them dropping their cutlery and jumping to their feet, Walker pausing with a spoonful of mashed potato an inch from his mouth. He looked to Kaz, shaking his head in exasperation, then dropped it unceremoniously into his soup.

No rest for the wicked,” he grumbled.

They joined the soldiers as they flooded out of the tent, leaving their packs behind but keeping their weapons handy, what must have been a hundred Marines along with a couple of dozen Krell and Borealans filling the courtyard. The troops manning the guard towers were scanning the terrain beyond the walls with searchlights. Night had fallen, and all that illuminated the base were floodlights mounted on the interior walls and the glow from the buildings. The entrance that they had come in through was now sealed tight with a reinforced door that looked as if it could have withstood a damned nuke.

The noise of the siren and the speculation of the soldiers around them fell silent as Colonel Fischer stood on a crate to get their attention, waving for them to be quiet. The base commander wore UNN-blue fatigues and sported a bushy mustache that was greying with age, his breast adorned with his rank and insignia.

Two of the sensors in the valley have been tripped,” he announced, with a subtle German accent that betrayed his country of origin. “The delay between the sensors being disturbed and the timing indicates that the enemy is moving towards the base at a rapid pace. We expect them to arrive within two hours.”

Two hours?” Walker whispered to Kaz. “It took us the better part of a day to march back here through that terrain.”

She shrugged, turning her attention back to the Colonel.

I want men on the walls,” he ordered, his hands clasped behind his back. “There are flashlight attachments for your XMRs in the armory for those who don't have one already, don't let them use the darkness to their advantage. With any luck, you'll blind them too. You've all fought Bugs before, you don't need me to tell you how to do your jobs. One more thing. We've had reports from one of our scout teams that Betelgeusian units capable of flight have been sighted, and while we've not been able to verify these claims, you should make no assumptions. Keep an eye on the sky, don't let them take you by surprise. Dismissed.”

The crowd of soldiers fanned out, some climbing ladders and taking up their positions on the raised platforms that let them fire over the wall, others jogging off to the armory to retrieve their weapons and gear. It was easy to see the aliens, standing head and shoulders above their human counterparts. The Borealans leaped up onto the platforms with their long rifles, clearing the distance easily on their powerful legs, their bodies adapted to far higher gravity than that of Jarilo. The Krell were hefting their enormous shields, half a dozen of them taking up positions behind the sealed door. If the Bugs managed to breach it, then they would face an impenetrable wall of giant lizards armed with light machine guns.

Walker found himself wondering where the other scout teams were, and if any of them had made it back yet. If the encroaching Bug army came across them in the forest, then they'd have no chance of escaping.

He and Kaz were already locked and loaded, and so they took up positions on the forward wall, Walker trying to blink away his fatigue as he closed his visor and checked his rifle. In the field Kaz worked as his spotter, but there would be no carefully calculated shots taken at extreme range during a siege, and so she joined the line beside him. She rested her long rifle on the wall, dropping to her knees due to her exaggerated height, as standing upright would make the eight-foot Borealan an easy target. The searchlights from the guard towers played across the treeline, white circles sliding slowly across the terrain, perhaps fifty feet of blasted soil between the walls and the forest left over from the carrier's bombardment. It reminded Walker of the Somme, an ancient battle fought by now defunct empires that had left a landscape of ruined trees and cratered earth in its wake.

The soldiers to either side of them settled in, clad in black armor that contrasted with the scout's forest camouflage. Their XMRs were painted tactical black, while those of Walker and Kaz were colored to match their clothing. Now the wait would begin.

Recordings of battles and the outlandish movies that were shown to boost morale and improve public relations told of heroic engagements, Marines striding through enemy fire like actions stars, designed to capture the imagination and the attention of the audience. What you didn't see in the movies was the waiting, hours and hours of sitting around, twiddling your thumbs as you waited for an attack that could come at any moment. You could never relax, never let your guard down, and it could take days of tension and anxiety before it all came to a head in a short and brutal engagement that might only last minutes.

Should have gotten a coffee when I had the chance,” Walker grumbled, the man beside him chuckling beneath his protective visor.

I wouldn't be so disappointed sir, the coffee here tastes like ass.”

Figures, that's how it was on Kruger too. The instant coffee packets that came with the MREs tasted better than the gritty shit they gave us, so we'd save them. I tell you, the guys who didn't like coffee were drowning in junk food and cigarettes.”

There's a battleship in orbit that can destroy planets,” the faceless Marine mused, “but the Navy can't design an espresso machine that makes a decent cup of joe.”

Another glorious day in the Corps,” Walker replied sarcastically.


Walker wasn't sure how much time had passed, the minutes felt like hours, and his tired eyes played tricks on him to form shadows that lurked between the giant trees. His leg was starting to cramp, he had been standing in the same position for too long, and he needed a piss. He shook his head violently, slapping his cheek with a gloved hand, trying to keep himself awake. He needed to be alert, but the trials and tribulations of the last couple of days had drained him, he felt as if he was about to collapse. He wouldn't of course, he had trained for this, and he remembered an engagement on Kruger III that had seen him go for seventy-two hours without rest. They had pills in the survival kits that could keep you operating for long periods of time without sleep or food, but the Marines were heavily discouraged from taking them unless they were in a life or death situation. You'd have to weigh if staying active was worth destroying your kidneys, and the UNN preferred that you didn't get transplants on their dime if they could avoid it.

Kaz yawned widely, exposing her sharp teeth, shifting position and trying to get comfortable. Crouching for that long must be playing merry hell with her legs. The boredom was palpable, many of these Marines would have much preferred to go out into the forest and hunt down the enemy, but the most satisfying solution was rarely the wisest.


A Borealan voice rang out through the compound, the alien's finely tuned senses alerting him to something that the humans had not yet noticed. Along the line, many of the personnel pulled down their visors. The Borealans had them too, though they preferred not to use them unless necessary, and the Krell had hoods on their armored ponchos that they could pull over their elongated heads to protect them from environmental hazards. Some Bug fleets had been known to employ chemical weapons when plasma proved ineffective, and so all UNN ground troops were equipped with rebreathers of some kind.

You could have cut the anxiety in the air with a knife, Walker glancing to his right to watch Kaz affix her helmet and drop the full-faced visor. There were two slots for her round ears that let them protrude from the top, with caps that could be fastened to create a seal in a vacuum.

The whir of the C-RAM echoed through the compound, the turret spinning on its axis to track an unseen projectile, and then it began to fire. The barrel spun, spitting out so many tracer rounds that it looked like someone was drawing lines in the dark sky with a celestial pencil, so fast that it sounded more like an angry insect than a cannon.

Walker watched as it found its target, the trail of orange points impacting a mortar shell and causing it to explode in mid-air with a bright flash. The rest of the rounds continued on over the horizon, the line slowly fading. It was far from done, however. Almost as soon as it had destroyed its first target, the computer locked onto a second, another line of orange dots streaming up into the sky. This was a full on mortar attack, and Walker worried that it might not be up to the task of stopping them all.

His fears were confirmed when he heard a whistling sound coming from somewhere above them, and something exploded far behind them with a force that shook his teeth. He turned to glance back, seeing a cloud of dust and smoke rising from the trees beyond the far wall of the base. A mortar round had gotten past the C-RAM, the first shot had gone wide, but they had probably been range finding. They would no doubt try to soften the defenses before starting their main assault.

The automatic turret was going wild, twisting this way and that as it frantically tried to defend the base, loosing a short burst of gunfire and then switching targets again. The sky was a patchwork of tracer rounds, like the scribbles of a toddler with a crayon, slowly fading from view as they arced through the air. They must be throwing a lot of shells at the base if the C-RAM was having so much trouble. Just how many mortar teams were out there?

After a few moments, there was another high pitched whistle, this shell exploding violently inside the base towards the rear. It landed by one of the many Hesco bastion walls that had been erected to minimize damage in just such a scenario, much of the debris and shrapnel embedding itself in the tightly packed dirt.

Two more whistles pierced the night, shortly followed by two more explosions, one landing just beyond the forward wall. Walker felt the shock wave, the line of soldiers that manned the defenses ducking behind the fortifications in alarm and covering their heads as red-hot fragments of metal peppered the wall below, soil that had been thrown up by the blast raining down on them from above. The second scored another hit, this time landing right on top of the mess hall tent, tearing it to shreds and throwing shrapnel about the compound. The bastions didn't stop all of it, and Walker heard somebody cry out as they were tagged by debris.

He turned his attention forward, but the smoke from the mortar rounds was already forming an obscuring cloud, making it hard to see. He cursed and tapped at the side of his helmet, cycling through his visor's view modes until he reached infrared. It let him see through the smoke to an extent, and he watched the cooling crater where the round had landed below, hot metal scattered about to look like flecks of red paint through his thermal filter.

They wouldn't keep this up for long, they had to know that mortars weren't much use against fortified positions and their ammunition would be limited to what they could carry with them through this rough terrain.

There was another whistle, but no explosion this time. Instead, an ominous canister embedded itself in the soil towards the far end of the courtyard with a dull thud. Noxious, yellow-green gas began to pour from it, quickly forming an expanding cloud. It was probably phosgene. It was colorless under normal circumstances, but the Bugs used chlorine to help spread the denser and more lethal compound. It was no danger to anybody wearing a suit and using a rebreather, as it reacted with the mucous membranes to cause irritation and suffocation, but it was commonly employed as an area denial weapon to force the enemy to abandon their cover. The whole damned base would be contaminated, they would have to thoroughly clean everything and everyone that had come into contact with the substance. What a pain in the ass...

Another canister landed wide, the yellow cloud wafting between the trees to his left.

Airstrike, get down!” Walker heard someone shout. He ducked below the lip of the wall and covered his head, bracing himself against the metal. No way had they dispatched fighter-bombers already, the Thermopylae must be gearing up for a precision strike with her railgun batteries. He hoped to God that whoever had called in the coordinates knew what they were doing.

There was a flash of light that lit up the sky like a sun, fading slowly. Walker violently pulled down the Marine beside him who had foolishly raised his head to peek over the wall. Almost immediately a blast wave hit them, the wall shaking in its foundations, soon followed by a hail of debris that hammered them so hard that it rang against the metal like machine gun fire.

Stay down!” he shouted over the din, the Marine scrambling to get lower. Those railguns hit with the force of a small meteorite, releasing the equivalent of several tons of TNT in kinetic energy. That strike had been dangerously close.

He waited, the Marine looking to him in confusion, and then there was another rain of dirt and small rocks that had been thrown up into the atmosphere from the force of the blast. They came down hard, showering the base, dinging off helmets and clattering on the roofs of the prefab buildings.

Walker let the Marine up, joining him as he glanced over the wall, a pillar of smoke rising from the forest a few miles away. If the mortar position had been anywhere near that blast, then they were toast. They would have set up far from the main force, however. The defenders could not rely on the carrier for more support.

You gotta give the shit that the railgun impact throws up time to fall back down,” he explained, the Marine nodding his head vigorously. “Don't get up until then, or you might get clocked by a rock.”

Y-Yes sir, thank you.”

He couldn't really be blamed, there weren't many scenarios where orbital railguns were used as close fire support. Walker had half a mind to go find whoever had suggested it and shove their transmitter down their throat.

Get ready, they're coming,” Kaz hissed.

Dozens of flashlights joined the larger searchlights from the guard towers, illuminating the treeline in a white glare, casting dark shadows between the trunks that effectively did little to improve visibility. The Bugs had tested them with the mortar fire, probing for weaknesses in their defenses, so where was the main force? Why were they delaying their attack?

There was a flash of green light from somewhere in the adjacent treetops, one of the soldiers down the line to Walker's right tumbling backwards off the platform, his head snapping back violently with the force of the impact as a plasma bolt hit him square in the face. It must have broken his neck, as he didn't scream when the bubbling plasma melted through his visor and seared his flesh, his limp body falling to the metal grates below with a thud.

There was a moment of silence, the calm before the storm, and then a chorus of weapons fire and battle cries rang out.

They're in the trees!” Walker heard someone shout. “Aim for the trees!”

The chatter of automatic railguns was deafening, his helmet dampening the sound and attempting to filter through those that the algorithm deemed more important, perhaps thirty soldiers opening up on the forest.

They were answered by more sniper fire, flashes of green light betraying the enemy positions amongst the branches, more of the winged Betelgeusians no doubt. Railgun slugs impacted the tree trunks to send splintered wood flying through the foliage like shrapnel, glimpses of iridescent shells visible where the light of their torches caught them, the Bugs firing back with their long rifles. The aliens favored plasma over solid projectiles, their guns accelerating a magnetically-contained bolt of plasma to comparable velocities, with the added benefit of transferring the heat from that ionized gas to the target. The plasma burned at thousands of degrees centigrade and would melt ceramic armor like it was made of paper. Their suits actually did a pretty good job of dispersing the heat, all things considered, but a direct hit was never going to be pretty.

A few of the Marines were using plasma too, the XMRs had interchangeable receivers that could be swapped out to handle different munitions, as both methods could make use of the same barrel and underlying components. Railgun slugs were accelerated magnetically, while plasma was contained using magnetic fields and then fired through those same means, which meant that a trained Marine could switch receivers in a few seconds and be ready to fire whatever ammunition the situation called for. Everyone carried a spare receiver and two kinds of ammunition on them at all times as the Bugs were fond of using handheld shields that could stop a solid projectile, but could be overloaded by concentrated plasma fire.

The blue bolts of plasma from the UNN side splashed against the trees, quickly starting fires, the high oxygen content in Jarilo's atmosphere fanning the spreading blaze. The two guard posts on the forward wall fired their belt-fed grenade launchers, thirty-millimeter shells hammering the treetops in short bursts, knocking down branches and impacting the thick trunks in puffs of white smoke that were quickly carried away by the wind. Some of the thinner trunks were split in two, falling to the ground and bringing the fronds of green pine needles with them, Walker spying a couple of broken Bugs hitting the dirt as the branches came down around them.

A bolt hit the wall in front of the Marine to his left and made it ring like a bell, the metal sagging inward and glowing molten orange. Fortunately, the material was thick enough to prevent the plasma from melting all the way through. The Bugs were good shots, but they had lost the element of surprise, and the return fire was shredding them.

Walker rested his rifle on the wall, one hand on the trigger and the other on the buttstock, giving him a lot of stability as he closed his left eye and his computer switched his view to the sight. He searched for activity and spied something orange and shiny between two trunks, then fired, the slug hitting the target dead center and spraying green ichor along with fragments of its shattered carapace. It tumbled out of the tree, a Bug with a striking, orange shell and two horns protruding from its head that reminded him of a stag.

Unlike with humans, a headshot might not kill a Bug outright, their brain stem extended into their torso. The best way to drop one was to aim for the solar plexus, right between the two sets of arms.

Some of the Bugs were changing positions, they were indeed capable of flight like the one that had followed Walker and Kaz through the forest for so many miles. Walker pumped a few more rounds into the trees for good measure. His scout rifle was semi-automatic, suppressing the winged snipers as they tried to fall back. It was to no avail, however. The concentrated firepower had sealed their fate, licking flames spreading from tree to tree as they were pounded by grenades and hypersonic projectiles.

They were in full retreat, and cries of victory rang out through the compound, but Walker knew that the Bugs wouldn't just send a handful of snipers to assault a UNN stronghold. As the cheering died down, a new sound came from deep within the forest, a chittering that grew louder and louder until it became a cacophony. It sounded like rain on sheet metal, beads in a maraca, a sound that Walker was all too familiar with.

The glow of energy shields lit up the forest, a phalanx of flickering ovals, colorful plasma contained and shaped within magnetic fields to form a protective barrier. Drones, the foot soldiers of the Betelgeusian armies, swarming between the trees in all of their myriad hues. They each carried a shield in one arm and a plasma pistol in the other, their lower set of arms hovering near ceremonial daggers that were sheathed in molded recesses in their armored thighs, ready to be drawn once they closed into range.

They fired on the troops defending the wall, bolts of plasma splashing against the metal, lower power and velocity than their longer barreled counterparts but no less deadly. The Marines returned fire, but the superheated plasma that made up their shields melted the tungsten slugs harmlessly on contact, showers of sparks and flecks of molten metal spraying from the impact points. A few of the shots hit their mark, blowing out the legs from under the Bugs or slipping past shields to glance a shoulder. Walker and Kaz were already switching out their receivers, the Marine to their left doing the same, slower and less practiced than the seasoned scouts. Walker took a canister about the size and shape of a soda can from his belt, slotting it into the new receiver like a magazine. The container was full of the ionized gas that would be used as ammunition.

Focus fire on the shields!” he called out over the noise of battle, “overload them!”

The Bugs marched towards the wall, at least a hundred of them, interlocking their shields over their heads like Roman legionnaires. More covered them from the relative safety of the woods, popping out from behind the trees to lay down suppressing fire with their rifles.

One of the Bug shields overloaded under the focused plasma fire, flickering and fizzling out, half a dozen bolts of ionized gas splashing against the Drone beneath and making it melt like a plastic toy in a microwave. The hole in the formation was quickly filled, there were so many of them crossing the open ground between the base of the wall and the forest, their iridescent shells reflecting the flashlight beams.

They're movin' up to the door,” Kaz hissed, her six-foot long XMR braced against her shoulder as she fired it into the crowd below. The projectile was accelerated to such a high velocity due to the length of the barrel and the number of its magnetic rings that it knocked the target Bug off its feet, the creature falling on its back as Walker plugged a couple more rounds through its chest for good measure.

The exchange of fire was constant, green and blue plasma bolts shooting back and forth like strobe lights, the thirty-millimeter grenade launchers in the guard towers scattering the Bugs as they kicked up clouds of dust and smoke. It sounded as if similar gun battles were going on at each of the four walls. The Bugs were keeping them busy, but their target had to be the reinforced door.

They reached the concrete barriers and swarmed over them with relative ease, reaching the steel doors and piling on top of one another as they raised their shields to protect those below.

They're doing something to the door!” one of the Marines down the line called out. He leaned over, struggling to aim his weapon directly down, more of the Bugs forming up to shield their fellows. Many of the defending soldiers turned their attention to the door, noticing that the Bugs were trying to breach it, but the line was thrown into chaos as half a dozen winged Drones descended on them from above.

They dropped from the sky like paratroopers on their gossamer wings, plasma pistols and wicked knives drawn as they waded into combat, getting the jump on a few Marines and butchering them before they had a chance to defend themselves.

One dropped down beside Walker, its three-toed, chitinous feet landing heavily on the metal grate that made up the raised platform. He had been looking through his scope and reacted too slowly to its arrival, one of the razor-sharp, ceramic knives plunging towards his neck as the amber-colored alien lunged forward.

Kaz was on it in a flash, leaping over Walker on her spring-loaded legs, half a ton of angry Borealan knocking it to the ground. She pinned it with her immense weight, the insect grappling with her, surprisingly strong despite its small stature. One of the detriments of using a long gun was that it was unwieldy in close quarters, but that was where Mad Cats were most at home, Kaz tearing into the thing with her claws. It was very nearly holding its own, peppering its furry assailant with cuts and stabs, but such injuries were of no more concern than a paper cut to her kind. Her claws glanced off its curved shell, unable to find purchase, and so she drew her Bowie knife and plunged it into the Bug's chest. She put all of her strength into the blow, cracking the armor where she punctured it, ichor the color and consistency of mucous bleeding from the wound as the Drone ceased its struggling. The Marine to their left watched the scene, his visor down, but Walker had no doubt that his eyes were wide with shock. The damned thing would have diced the both of them if she had not been there to stop it.

She moved down the line, more of the Borealans abandoning their positions on the wall to tackle the winged Drones, bestial snarls and the cracks of smaller caliber sidearms ringing out across the compound.

Watch your goddamned fire!” someone shouted, no doubt alarmed by the impromptu firefight that was going on around them. The defensive line on the wall had turned into a fucking mosh pit, but Walker tried to focus, turning his attention back to the crowd of Bugs by the door. They were up to something, and the flying Drones had provided enough of a distraction that most of their shields were still up. He opened fire on them, watching one of the insects lunge to put itself in the way of his plasma, deflecting the bolts with its crackling shield. They were piled on top of each other, at least three Bugs deep, swarming and moving incessantly.

They really needed to put a stop to whatever the roaches were trying to do, but the thirty-millimeter grenade launchers couldn't hit them at that angle, and many of the troops on the forward wall were too busy engaging the flyers. He glanced to his right, watching a male Borealan skewer a Drone on its bayonet, lifting it clear off the ground before firing off a round directly into its midsection. The Bug blew apart, split in two as the soldiers around it were sprayed with green goo and fragments of its ruby-red shell. Just behind him, a wounded Marine was pulling one of their ornate daggers from his ribs, unloading a handgun into his prone assailant.

The Drones must have known that they couldn't prevail and yet they had sacrificed themselves, likely as a diversionary tactic. Damned zealots.

Walker pulled a grenade from his belt and primed it, many of the other Marines getting the same idea, and they pelted the roiling pile of Bugs with the explosives. Many were deflected by shields, but a couple of them found their marks, Walker ducking behind the wall as a series of blasts shook its foundations. He peeked back over the lip of the fortifications, seeing that the pile of Bugs was still mostly intact. Those on top had shielded those below from the shrapnel and had died in their stead. It was at times like this that Walker wondered if these aliens were even sentient, if they had any concept of individuality or whether they just functioned on instinct alone.

There was a flash of light beneath him, as if the rays of a sun were bleeding through the doorway, and he instinctively averted his eyes as the tinting function on his visor took a fraction of a second to kick in. He had expected shaped charges, some kind of explosive, but the steel doors sagged and melted under the heat as if they had been made of wax. It must have been some kind of directed energy weapon, probably plasma-based knowing how much they seemed to love it.

The Krell guarding the door backed away as the intense heat washed over them, their heavy ballistic shields raised. Fortunately, the breaching weapon seemed to have a very short range, and so they were not charred to a crisp. As the doors slagged and fell inwards, the Bugs swarmed over the glowing metal, the heat seemingly of no concern to them. They piled into the compound, the Krell moving forward and blocking them with their shields, firing their light machine guns into the crowd. The slugs tore through the enemy ranks, ichor and fragments of colorful exoskeletons spraying, the insects falling by the dozen under the sustained fire. The Bugs were defenseless in such close quarters, but they kept coming, climbing over their dead as more of them formed a bottleneck on the outside of the wall.

The Marines on the raised platforms fired down into the swarm, the Bugs lifting their shields above their heads in an attempt to protect themselves, and then Walker heard a cry that made his blood run cold.


More Drones were streaming in from the forest, and amongst them were two gigantic creatures, standing head and shoulders above their smaller counterparts. They were as tall as a Borealan but far wider and heavier, their bodies protected by thick, layered shells that ran down their backs to give them the appearance of a bipedal lobster or a shrimp. Their wicked mandibles moved ceaselessly, the compound eyes that protruded from their comparatively small heads glowing like those of the helmeted Drones. The monsters sported four crab-like claws that looked as if they could have peeled open a tank as if it was a can of tuna. They had shown up fairly recently in the war, first encountered on Kruger III. It seemed that the Bugs had engineered them as an answer to the increased Borealan presence on the battlefield. The Drones had previously enjoyed dominance in close combat, but the introduction of Borealan auxiliaries into the UNN ranks had turned the tide. Not even a Mad Cat could stand against a Warrior, however. They had to be taken down with heavy weapons, preferably at range.

Why are there so fuckin' many of them?” Kaz asked, her rifle rocking against her shoulder as she fired down into the crowd of Bugs. “How many critters did they cram into that hive ship?”

The Krell were holding them at the door for now, knocking them back with their heavy ballistic shields and cutting them down from the hip with their machine guns, but the sheer number of Drones would surely overwhelm the handful of defenders before long.

The grenade emplacements were firing on the Warriors, but the monstrous insects hunkered down, absorbing the shrapnel with their thick shells as the smaller Drones that surrounded them were blown off their feet. Even the railgun fire from the XMRs was not penetrating deep enough to stop them, plasma splashing almost harmlessly on their thick carapaces. If they didn't bring some heavier weapons to bear soon, they would surely be overrun.

The Drones were spilling past the Krell now, and so the Borealans began to jump down from the platform, engaging them on the ground. It looked like a medieval battlefield, knives, claws, and bayonets flashing as they tore into each other. The Krell were usually slow and plodding, but they were capable of incredible bursts of anabolic speed when the situation required it. The giant reptiles flew into a frenzy, knocking down swathes of Drones with their shields and their long tails, using their sheer weight as a weapon to crush and smash.

The sound of engines rose over the din of gunfire and the chattering of the Bugs, wind buffeting Walker as something did a low pass, blowing the tops of the trees as it shed velocity and came about. It was a Penguin fighter-bomber, so named for its stubby wings and bulbous hull, with sleek lines designed for atmospheric flight that somewhat resembled a swimming penguin at a glance. Its hull was painted UNN blue, a graphic of a scantily clad woman holding a can of Bug spray adorning its nose. Walker could see the silhouette of the pilot through the cockpit, placed high for maximum visibility. It hovered over the treetops, the thrusters beneath its belly firing to keep it level, a pod beneath the nose opening to expose a gatling cannon.

Walker knew what was coming, throwing himself behind the cover of the wall and bringing his Marine companion with him, many of the troops around them following suit. The Penguin fired its gun, a stream of thirty-millimeter shells leaving the rotating barrels in an almost unbroken line, strafing the Bugs below and kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke as they chewed into the earth. The noise was alarming even through his helmet's filters, the gun firing so quickly that it blended into a loud hum. The Drones were practically vaporized, blown into clouds of viscera or torn apart and thrown across the battlefield, white-hot shrapnel tearing through their ranks as the bullets fragmented on contact with the ground. The burst only lasted a couple of seconds, but it cut a swathe through the Betelgeusian army, the fortified wall the only thing protecting the Marines from debris.

It fired again, this time aiming at one of the Warriors and cutting it in half. While the larger vessels used railguns, smaller craft could not generate or store enough electricity to power weapons of the necessary scale, and so they used conventional weaponry for this role. That didn't make the Penguin's gun any less destructive, it threw out four thousand armor penetrating, thirty-millimeter rounds per minute that were designed to make light work of armored vehicles.

The Bugs must have known that trying to return fire with only their plasma pistols and rifles was pointless, and they began to disperse, scattering to avoid the Penguin's gun as it hosed them in short bursts.

The majority of their forces were broken and fleeing now, but the ones that had made it inside the base were still wreaking havoc. The Penguin could not support the Marines inside the walls. Even with the precision of a scalpel, the danger of friendly fire was too great. Instead, it fired into the forest as it pursued the fleeing Drones, the gatling gun powerful enough to fell some of the smaller trees.

The Bugs fighting in the compound did not seem deterred by the fact that their reinforcements had abandoned them, and they made no attempt to fall back, fighting tooth and nail. There were perhaps three dozen that had made it inside the courtyard, the Marines on the walls taking pot shots at them as the Krell and Borealans attempted to hold the horde back.

It was a bloodbath down there, a carpet of dead and dying Drones, their green bodily fluids pooling in the dirt beneath the metal grates. The Krell were like living tanks, their thick hides making them almost impervious to damage from knives and small arms fire, and the Borealans fought like demons. They used their long, bayoneted rifles like spears to skewer the aliens, resorting to their wicked claws when the Drones got too close. They were not unkillable, however. Walker cursed to himself as he watched one of the feline aliens get separated from its pack members, the Bugs working as one organism to drag it to the ground and butcher it with their knives. It vanished beneath the swarming insects, but their numbers were thinning now, and a lone Drone wasn't much of a match for a Mad Cat or a pissed off Krell.

Warriors were, however, and the second lumbered into view beneath the charred and ruined gate. The smaller Drones parted to let it pass, its massive, lobster-like claws snapping as if they couldn't wait to embed themselves in flesh. Its protective shell looked like Swiss cheese, peppered with plasma burns and bullet holes that were leaking ichor, but none of the rounds had penetrated deep enough to incapacitate it. There was no official UNN policy for taking Warriors down yet, beyond shoot them until they die.

The soldiers on the wall poured more fire into it, the beast unrelenting, half of its damned body must have been made up of tungsten at this point. It lunged towards one of the Krell, swinging a claw the size of an engine block like a hammer, knocking the ballistic shield out of the reptile's hand. The Krell unloaded into the creature's torso at point blank range, its XMR loosing a dozen slugs into the Warrior's carapace, but the insect brought the claw around and back-handed the Krell to send it barreling to the metal grates that made up the floor. Its fellows rushed forward, grappling with the oversized insect and trying to drag it to the ground, the powers at play so beyond human experience that Walker had little concept of just how strong they were. He was frustrated, he wanted to fire on it in order to help them, but he had to turn his attention to the Drones as the risk of hitting one of the auxiliaries was too great.

The Warrior threw the Krell aside, one of the one-ton reptiles landing on top of a Drone and squashing it like a beetle under a boot. The Warrior opened one of its flailing claws and snapped at the prone Krell, shearing off its right arm below the elbow, the wounded creature loosing a guttural rumble as it leaked blue blood from the stump.

One of its friends pulled it clear before the Bug could finish the job, a Borealan ducking in to jam a bayonet into the insect's segmented belly before leaping back out of range of its snapping claws. As the last few Drones were mowed down by the sustained gunfire and the merciless Borealans, the pack was able to surround the Warrior, darting in to stab at it with their long rifles and then hopping back to avoid its swiping forelimbs. The Bug seemed to grow frustrated, picking a target and charging forward, closing its claws around him as it knocked his friends aside like bowling pins.

It pinned him beneath its bulk, its claws working out of sight beneath its armored body, no doubt taking apart its victim as his howls of pain and anger rang out through the compound. The Borealans hacked at it, but to no avail, the cries soon falling ominously silent.

Walker noticed two Marines running across the compound from the direction of the armory, carrying something in their arms. The first dropped to his belly, extending a tripod from what Walker recognized to be a large caliber anti-material railgun, bracing it firmly against his shoulder and aiming down the sights. The second was carrying its blocky battery pack and knelt to hook a thick, insulated cable up to the receiver, the power source so large and heavy that it needed to be a separate component lest the weapon be made impossible for a human to carry. The barrel was enormous, rivaling the length of those favored by the Borealans, tightly packed with electromagnetic rings of far higher power than those commonly used in XMRs. On the infantry rifles the copper rings were spaced at intervals, but here they formed an almost unbroken tube. It would accelerate a three-inch slug to relativistic speeds, punching through armored vehicles like they were made of wet paper.

Once the weapon had been set up, the second Marine ran forward, waving his arms at the Borealans.

Get clear! Get clear of the Bug!”

They pulled themselves away with visible effort, the desire to avoid being vaporized by a projectile traveling at a significant fraction of light speed overpowering their bloodlust, but just barely. The Warrior rose off the mangled body of their comrade, searching for a new target with its glowing eyes, and then a deafening crack rang out.

The giant creature shuddered violently, the round hitting it like a hammer, passing straight through its body and digging a deep crater into the thick wall behind it. The sniper fired twice more. It was nice grouping considering the recoil that he was dealing with. Walker doubted that even a Krell could have fired that thing while standing.

The Warrior's movements slowed, viscous fluid oozing from the sizable holes in its chest, taking a faltering step forward before falling heavily on its face. It lay still, yellow-green goo pooling in the dirt beneath the grates, and one of the Borealans skipped forward to give it a quick jab with his bayonet. It was dead, as were all of the Drones, a carpet of chitinous bodies in various states of dismemberment and destruction littering the ground. Walker looked out over the wall at the muddy hellscape beyond. There must have been a hundred bodies between the base and the forest, the buzz of the Penguin's cannon still audible in the distance as it pursued the fleeing Betelgeusians.

There were a few wounded Marines, medics tending to their injuries, mostly knife wounds and a few plasma burns. The injured Krell was being helped along by its friends, on its way to the field hospital. There were a few shrapnel holes in the building from the mortars that had gotten through, but it was otherwise intact. There was one dead Borealan, his pack pulling his shredded body from beneath the bulk of the dead Warrior. It looked as if he had gone through a blender. Walker had not seen many Mad Cats die, it was jarring. They always came across as powerful, invulnerable, but when subjected to the necessary forces they were just as mortal as any human. It seemed that they had lost less than a dozen Marines, at least at first glance. Not a bad ratio considering how many Bugs lay dead. They couldn't have hoped for much more.

W-We won?” the Marine to his right asked, as if it had come as a surprise.

Yeah, we fought them off,” Walker confirmed as he sat down heavily on the deck. A fresh wave of fatigue washed over him, he needed to get to a bunk ASAP, or he might just collapse.

I've never seen so many Bugs in one place,” the Marine stammered, looking out over the cratered soil. “I mean, I've fought Bugs, but I've never seen them throw themselves at fortifications like that before.”

It's not too unusual,” Walker muttered, “overwhelming force is their preferred tactic. Outnumber and overrun...”

The Marine seemed giddy, excited, probably high on adrenaline. Walker was a veteran, and the rush of victory had worn thin over the years, now he mostly just felt relieved when a battle was over. He reached across and patted Kaz on her steely thigh, the Borealan standing to look out over the forest.

You good, Kaz?”

Yeah,” she said through her visor, her voice taking on a synthetic timbre. “Damned Bugs barely scratched me. Either they're getting sloppy, or I'm getting better.”

The Penguin flew overhead and drowned out their conversation, returning from its chase, its thrusters kicking up dust as it hovered low over the base. It tipped its stubby wings in salute, the soldiers below waving and cheering before its main engines flared, and it began its slow climb back to space.

There were already people starting to clean up the bodies, two Krell struggling to drag the dead Warrior outside the base, their many-toed feet crunching on Bug shells. Walker was a Sergeant, he could skip the grunt work. All he wanted to do right now was get his head on a pillow.

Below them, some men in white hazmat suits were spraying everything in sight with cleaning chemicals, housed in tanks that were slung over their backs. Walker sighed, realizing that they still had to go through a lengthy decontamination process. The poisonous gas from the Bug shell would have coated every surface and person in the base with toxic residue.

I hope you're ready to get sprayed with chemicals,” he complained, Kaz grumbling to herself under her breath.

Takes me days to get the smell of that shit out of my fur, but I guess it's better than having all of my mucous membranes melt.”


Walker stopped on the hill that overlooked the base, so small in the distance now that he could have covered it with his thumb. Kaz leaned against one of the massive trees beside him, the morning sun bleeding through its branches, watching as he brought up a holographic map on his wrist computer.

Do they have any idea where the attack came from?” she asked.

Vaguely, the first sensor was tripped...here,” he said as he pointed to a location marked with a red dot on the terrain. “The entrance to their hive has to be somewhere close, otherwise they would have tripped some of the other seismic sensors. It's a pretty big area, scout teams three and four will be searching to the North East and to the West, we'll be coming up from the South. If we find something, we report it and haul ass out of there. No shooting, this is observation only. Got it?”

Yeah, I got it. Just as long as we get to take the fight to them later.”

Don't worry, I'm sure we'll be paying them a house call once we have their address.”

At least we're out in the bush again,” Kaz said as she took in a lungful of fresh air, “couldn't get away from the stink of that cleaning fluid.”

Yeah, it's not very pleasant. It smelled like they'd dumped about ten gallons of bleach into the compound.”

If you found it unpleasant, just imagine how it smelled to me,” she said as she tapped her pink nose with a curved claw. “Your kind has five million olfactory receptors, mine has a hundred and fifty million.”

He chuckled, starting off through the rough terrain, hopping over exposed roots and wading through coniferous shrubs.

Come on Kaz, let's put that nose to use.”


Kaz and Walker crept through the undergrowth as they made their way between the towering trees, like gigantic pillars of wood that held up the sky, the velvet darkness above the canopy punctuated by the flickering of stars arranged in unfamiliar constellations. They had been walking all day, and now night had fallen, Walker viewing the world in shades of glowing green through his night vision visor. Kaz could see fine with her feline eyes, but right now she was following her sensitive nose, on the trail of something.

We've not seen any local fauna for miles,” Walker whispered, “have you smelled any?”

Some, yes, but the scents were old and fading. It's weird Walker, almost as if the whole valley is being slowly stripped of animal life. I can't be sure if they're fleeing the Bugs, or if the Bugs are killing them.”

Why would they do that?”

Bugs gotta eat too,” she replied with a shrug. “They can't have brought enough food with them on their ship to feed that many of them for so long.”

Do we even know what Bugs eat?” Walker mused.

Nope, and I don't care. All I need to know is how much tungsten it takes to kill them.”

They stopped near a particularly large tree, Kaz crouching to brush the bare dirt with her furry hand.

The trail stops here,” she said, “it's too weak to follow any further.”

You're sure it was Bugs?” Walker asked as he took a seat on a nearby root.

No doubt, and it was strong too. I think I know why that winged Drone followed us for so long without attacking. He wasn't intending to report our location, he was dropping a pheromone trail. That's why he smelled so bad, the little bastard was leading his buddies directly to us from the moment he first saw us. Even if we had managed to kill him, it wouldn't have prevented the attack on Charlie. If he had escaped or not, there would still be a roadmap that would have attracted every Bug in the valley. This is about where we first encountered him,” she said as she sank her nails into the bark of the tree, looking up into its branches. “It's no coincidence that the trail ends here.”

Good work, Kaz.”

Walker explored the area around the tree, searching for any signs of footprints or disturbed soil, but he found none. There were no animal calls, no rustling of branches, only the gentle sound of the nearby stream as it trickled over the rocks. They had expected to be able to follow the tracks from the fleeing Bugs back to their source, but once clear of the base they had mysteriously vanished. Kaz had posited that perhaps the Drones had taken to the trees, much like their flying cousins, hopping between the branches like squirrels so as not to leave any footprints that might betray the location of their hive.

Their behavior confused Walker. Sometimes they seemed as smart as a human, and at other times they behaved like mindless insects. There was no logic to it, no pattern. He might have been a soldier first and foremost, but his interest in zoology and natural history compelled him to find answers. If first contact with the Bugs had gone better, perhaps he could have been studying them rather than fighting them.

It was so many years ago now, but he remembered it like it was yesterday, the newsreels flashing in his mind as if he had downloaded them into his brain.

A human colony ship had reached the Betelgeuse star system after astronomers had detected a habitable planet there, a prime candidate for a new settlement. Humanity had been expanding under the banner of the UNN for quite some time, never encountering any sapient species. The eager colonists had found the world already occupied, but when they had attempted to make peaceful contact with this new and undiscovered race, they had been mercilessly attacked. Forty thousand people had been lost to space, their civilian vessel defenseless against the Bugs. It wasn't clear if that system was even the home of the Betelgeusians and that was increasingly unlikely, but the name had stuck. At the time it was not known why they had attacked, but as more worlds occupied by their species were discovered and humanity had more altercations with their ships, it became apparent that their default response was violence.

Not long after, a Broker ship had shown up in UNN space, the first encounter with an alien race that hadn't ended in bloodshed. The enigmatic creatures had invited Earth and her colonies to join their Coalition, a collaborative effort between the Brokers and the Krell to ward off Betelgeusian incursions. The UN had accepted, and thus humanity became the third member of the alliance, followed later by the Borealans. It turned out that the Bugs were a problem for everyone, a belligerent race that targeted any planet even remotely capable of supporting them, seeking to take territory by force if it was already claimed.

Walker pulled up his map and switched off his night vision, the amber glow illuminating the tree trunks around him as he checked the three-dimensional representation of the valley.

We're about a mile from the first sensor that was tripped. Let's stay on our toes, the tunnel entrance has to be nearby.”

Keep one eye on the trees,” Kaz muttered, “we don't want a scout taking us by surprise again.”


They had been searching for ten hours so far, and they hadn't found a single trace of the Bugs. Walker was starting to get worried, and Kaz was becoming frustrated.

Let's just make camp,” she complained, “blow off some steam. We're clearly missing something, and going over the same patches of ground another ten times won't make a Bug hole magically appear where there was none before.”

Cool it, Kaz,” Walker replied. While the prospect of blowing off steam was attractive, he wasn't about to let his libido get in the way of his mission. “They have to be here, keep a lookout for disturbed soil.”

I know what a Bug hole looks like,” she snapped, “and I'm telling you that I don't smell a damned thing. There are no Bugs here, and there haven't been any here recently.”

Have any of the other teams checked in?” Walked asked, gesturing to her heavy pack and the comms equipment within.

No, not so far.”

That's weird,” Walker muttered, his brow furrowing with concern. “Get on the horn to Fleetcom and see if they've heard from the other scouts. We're a little early on our report, but I can't believe that not one team has found traces of the Bugs yet.”

She sat on a raised root, tapping at the touchscreen on her wrist with her padded fingers. Her expression changed, first confusion, then alarm.

What's wrong?” Walker asked.

I got nothin', can't send or receive. The line is dead.”

What do you mean the line is dead?”

He walked over to her and brought up his own display, examining the connection status bar. It showed nothing, no signal.

The fucking equipment has probably gone out of sync again,” he grumbled as he opened the pocket on her massive rucksack, flipping open the protective cover on the blocky device and messing with the dials. “I swear to God, if this piece of junk keeps losing connection then I'm...”

No, it was properly synced. Walker turned up the volume on his computer and set it to speaker mode so that Kaz could hear it, playing back the radio channel. A series of bizarre bleeps and pops came through, it was interference of some kind.

That's EMI,” Walker explained, “something is jamming us.”

There's no storm,” Kaz said as she rose to her feet, her hand hovering near the rifle that was slung across her chest. “The planet is uninhabited, there's no way that this could be accidental.”

I agree, we're being jammed by someone. Have you ever seen Bugs do this before?”

No, never. They don't even use radio. They communicate using pheromones, and for ship-to-ship they use those big, luminescent fins on their hive ships to signal one another.”

Well, we need to get outside the range of whatever is jamming us. We should head back to Charlie, come on.”

Kaz stood, straightening her pack as Walker set off. But before they had gone more than a few feet, she raised her fist and hissed a warning.

Walker! Stop. I smell them.”

He flipped his visor down and drew his .45, switching to infrared as he scanned the trees for heat signatures.

Talk to me Kaz, what do you smell?”

Bugs, a lot of them, and they're close.”

Why didn't you smell them earlier?”

They must have been downwind of us, they knew we were here, and they used the terrain to their advantage.”

How close?”

Probably fifty meters.”

What direction?”

All around us...”

They couldn't call for help with their signal being jammed, and they couldn't run, it was time to fight.

Weapons hot,” Walker ordered, holstering his sidearm and shouldering his XMR. “We are not gonna let these creeps trap us, got it?”

Got it. These roaches went to a lot of trouble to corral a couple of scouts, they must really want to keep their hive hidden. Do you think they're attacking the other teams too?”

I wouldn't doubt it, but we can't warn anybody until we get out of jamming range.”

They stood back to back in the forest, Walker's visor and Kaz's feline eyes scanning the gloom, weapons ready to fire at anything that moved. They glanced up at the canopy, remembering that the Bugs had been using the trees to get around, and Kaz sniffed the air as her round ears swiveled like radar dishes.

A pair of reflective, compound eyes appeared from behind a tree trunk, as if they had manifested from thin air. More followed, until Kaz and Walker were surrounded by a ring of glowing eyes, a dozen Drones staring them down as the aliens emerged from the undergrowth. They weren't making any moves, their mouthparts twitching and flexing as if anticipating something, their surprisingly low body heat showing up as a dull smear of red through Walker's optics.

Even Kaz was confused by their odd behavior. They didn't attack, they just waited as if they were expecting something. She didn't fire, waving her long rifle between targets, her sharp teeth bared.

What are your orders, Walker?” she hissed through clenched teeth. “What do we do?”

Do you see any guns? I don’t see any guns.”

None of the Bugs were armed with their usual plasma weaponry, just the ceremonial daggers that they liked to employ in close quarters, and those were all sheathed. Why would they stage an ambush without guns? It didn't make any sense. Fuck it, whatever the Bugs were doing, it wasn't anything positive.

On my mark, you kill as many as you can,” he whispered. “I don't know what they're up to, but it can't be good.”

Just give the order, Walker.”

He felt a sudden, sharp pain in his neck, his hand moving to cover it reflexively. Kaz spun her head, eyes wide.

What's wrong!?”

Something...tagged me...”

He pulled a small dart from his neck, examining it as he rolled it between his fingers. It was like a hypodermic needle with fins for stability, almost like the ones they used to play games at the recreation center back on the Pinwheel. He looked up into the trees and saw a winged Drone with some kind of rifle. It wasn't a plasma caster, something else, had it shot him with something?

Walker, Walker!”

Kaz's voice was growing faint, as if heard from the end of a long tunnel, and he felt himself drop to one knee as if he was no longer in control of his body. He was confused, darkness creeping at the corners of his vision, fatigue greater than any that he had ever felt washing over him in crippling waves. There was movement around him, flashing blades, the crack of a rifle. He heard gunfire, but it was far away, of no concern to him. Try as he might, he couldn't rise to his feet. His muscles were failing him, and as he fell forward, his world finally went black.


Walker awoke to blinding light. He tried to cover his eyes with his hands, but found that he was unable to move them. It smelled musty, damp, and it was too warm. He blinked against the glare, the room slowly coming into focus. He could see a dirt roof and some kind of bright light bulb on a flexible arm. He couldn't remember anything, his mind was foggy, the memories escaping him like sand pouring between his fingers. What had happened? He had a cracking headache, maybe he was hungover and in the infirmary. He never could handle his drink.

No, something was wrong. He had a sinking feeling in his belly, as if his body knew something that his conscious mind had not yet grasped. He tried to turn his head to look around, but found that it was bound, what felt like a leather strap affixing it to some kind of hard table. His wrists were bound in much the same manner, and he felt a brief moment of panic as he realized that he couldn't move, quickly suppressing it as he tried to collect himself.

Slowly, his memories returned, and he remembered being ambushed by Bugs in the forest. Kaz, where was Kaz!?

He opened his mouth to call out to her, but no sound came, as if he was trapped in a nightmare. He saw movement, a shadow on the ceiling, and he turned his eyes towards its source in a desperate attempt to get a look at it. Something shuffled into his peripheral vision, something short and stocky, the glint of a Betelgeusian shell setting off alarm bells in his brain.

He struggled against his bonds, but to no avail, his eyes wide with fear as the table that he was strapped to was lowered towards the ground. The Bug loomed over him, like nothing that he had ever seen before. It was instantly recognizable as a Betelgeusian, it had the ornate horn and the four arms, along with the chitinous shell that reflected the light in iridescent hues of blue and green. Unlike its Drone counterparts, however, it was short and stocky. Perhaps four feet tall if you didn't count the horn. Where the Drones had four arms of comparable size, the upper arms of this alien were far stronger and stockier, while the lower pair seemed thin and atrophied. The Drones always wore their helmets with compound eyes that glittered in the light, but this creature's face was bare. Its eyes were expressive and remarkably mammalian, a striking blue in color, framed by pink discoloration. Its complex mouthparts were similarly discolored, and the mandibles opened briefly, a pink tongue that must have been a foot long shooting forth as if to taste the air.

It did not make eye contact with him, it looked over his body instead, examining him. Walker heard the clinking of metal, and his heart began to race as he watched the alien lift what looked like a scalpel or some kind of small knife in its secondary set of hands, surprisingly dexterous. He wanted to struggle, to cry out, but he could do neither as the insect brought the blade down towards his chest. He felt pressure, and he realized that the Bug was cutting open his armor. It skirted the ceramic plates that protected his chest and belly, cutting away the Kevlar as it moved down towards his belt. The knife must have been sharp indeed to cut through the material with such ease.

When it was done, it lifted the armored plates away with its upper set of arms. They must have been heavy for a creature of such small stature, but it set them aside without much difficulty. Walker heard it put the scalpel down on a nearby surface, and then he flinched as its hard fingers pulled open his fatigues and crawled across his naked skin. It was examining him, why?

The Bugs had taken him alive, they had planned it carefully. The ambush, the dart gun, what was their goal? The Betelgeusians didn't take prisoners, everyone knew that. Were they going to experiment on him in order to engineer some horrible bioweapon that would more effectively kill humans?

Its chitinous digits roamed up his neck and across his face, Walker shutting his eyes tightly as it pressed its fingers against his nose and forehead. It seemed to be probing for something, almost massaging the bridge of his nose and his cheeks. It withdrew, retrieving some other implement, Walker's fists balling in their restraints as it pushed something cold and hard up his nostril. He coughed, choking as the tool sprayed some kind of chemical into his sinuses. He didn't even have time to smell it before his whole face went numb. It was anesthetic of some kind, he could feel it all the way down his throat. His tongue was like a lump of lead in his mouth, and he found himself unable to open his eyes.

He felt pressure again, this time on his forehead. He had undergone surgery before, enough to know the dull sting of a blade felt through numbed flesh. Oh God, it was cutting his face. He couldn't move, and he couldn't call for help.

Walker passed out.


He awoke in a cell, a four-foot cube of packed dirt, the only entrance sealed with some kind of resin door that formed an irregular mesh. They were prison bars of a kind, designed to keep him in but to let those outside see into his cage. His head throbbed, and he cradled it in his hands, noticing that his scalp had been shaved clean. He touched his fingers tentatively against his face, feeling knitting scar tissue and a sizable swelling just above his nose and between his eyes. It felt like somebody had cut a jawbreaker in half and had slipped it beneath his skin. It was hard to tell if it was filled with fluid or if it was a solid mass.

What had they done to him, and why?

He couldn't smell anything, his nose was clogged with dried blood, and his sense of taste was dulled. There was a hint of copper in the back of his throat, but beyond that, nothing. At least he could see and hear. His eyes felt bruised, but they were in full working order as he looked about his cell.

Packed dirt walls, packed dirt floor, packed dirt ceiling. He must be underground, somewhere in the network of tunnels that lay beneath Jarilo's surface. Even if he was able to get past the resin bars, he would no doubt find himself lost in a maze with no way of orienting himself.

He stood gingerly, he still felt woozy, the lingering effects of the anesthetic no doubt. It was a miracle that he wasn't dead. It took a trained anaesthetist to administer the drug safely, even when they knew the correct dosage for the species in advance. It wasn't something that you could just eyeball. Still, anesthetic suggested empathy, at least of a kind. Why would the Betelgeusians take steps to minimize his suffering? He had been strapped to the table, they hadn't done it in order to subdue him...

He stumbled over to the resin door, wrapping his fingers around the bars and attempting to see into the dirt hallway outside. Although they were underground, it wasn't completely dark. What appeared to be luminescent pustules clung to the ceiling in clusters like moss, providing enough light to see by. They didn't seem to be electric, or even technological in nature at all. Could they be biological? Producing light through some internal means?

He opened his mouth to speak, to call out to his captors, but no sound came. His throat burned and his mouth was still somewhat numb, he might not be able to use them for a while. He hammered his fist against the bars. They felt like plastic, their appearance was crude and yet their construction was remarkably sturdy. He wouldn't be able to break them. He took the bars in his hands and shook them, seeing if he could dislodge the door's hinges from the dirt wall, but their construction defied logic, and they didn't budge.

He stepped back, frustrated, glancing around the room. The walls were only made of dirt, perhaps he could tunnel his way out? He knelt in the corner and attempted to dig his fingers into the soil. It was hard, coated with some kind of clear resin. He wouldn't be able to get out this way either. He was totally trapped, and why would it be otherwise?

He sat, defeated, touching his fingers against the lump on his face again. God, it felt unnatural, like it wasn't supposed to be there. He wanted to take a knife and cut it out. He wasn't worried about the scars, the medics could smooth those out in the time it took to get a haircut. But there was a foreign object embedded in his face, and he was acutely aware of it.

Suddenly he felt as if he was being watched. He glanced at the door, seeing a Bug standing just beyond it. It was one of the new variety, about four feet tall and built like a linebacker, its almost vestigial secondary arms hanging by its sides. Walker stood, staring it down.

It was holding something in one of its larger arms and Walker recognized it as his pack, his eyes widening. He hadn't realized how ravenous he was, and there were MREs in there, his canteen too. The Bug placed a chitinous hand on the door and pulled it open, there didn't seem to be a lock or a switch. It waited in the threshold for a moment, as if expecting him to flee, then tossed his pack inside.

It closed the door again as he walked over to the bag, rummaging through it and withdrawing one of the plastic packets marked meal ready to eat. He tore it open, his stomach rumbling, then realized that he should probably pace himself. He didn't know how long he would be trapped down here and it was unlikely that he could eat whatever it was that the Bugs fed on. He should ration this food, stretch it out and make it last as long as he possibly could.

Did anybody know that he had been captured? MIA where Bugs were concerned universally meant dead. They didn't take prisoners, or at least they hadn't until now. Would the UNN forces on Jarilo be looking for him? Had Kaz survived? Would she go for help, or was she trapped in some nearby cell too? Walker didn't hold out much hope of rescue, they would have no reason to assume that he was alive. Perhaps the Bugs had taken many prisoners, using them as guinea pigs in weapons research, and nobody had ever found out about it?

He ripped open the wrapper of an oat bar, finding that he couldn't smell it, and took a bite. He chewed, unable to taste, and then swallowed. It caught in his throat, his muscles still numb and unresponsive, Walker coughing as his body violently rejected it. He sputtered and choked, fumbling for his canteen and taking a long draw. The cool liquid was soothing, and he could swallow that. Might be a better idea to wait a day or two more before he tried to eat again, give his body time to heal.

Had they been so foolish as to leave him a weapon or his comms gear?

He searched through the bag, but found nothing of use besides the MREs. They had taken everything else of value. He sat, leaning against one of the walls, going over the options in his head. The best thing to do now was to sleep, accelerate his healing. They had left him his fatigues, and so he removed his jacket, rolling it up into a pillow and placing it on the floor. He lay down, careful with his head. It was still ringing as if someone had stuck it with a hammer.

He would rest, heal up. Once he got his strength back, he would find a way out of here...or die trying.


The next day Walker awoke to a new sensation. He opened his eyes and sat up straight, running his hands across his face. The scars were gone, he could feel no trace of them. His nose was unclogged, his tongue spry in his mouth, and the numbness that had so impeded his ability to speak and swallow was now absent. His shaved hair had even grown back to its original length. The lump between his eyes was still present, but it was no longer sore and tender.

Had he healed overnight? He was a human, not a Borealan, it should have taken him days to recover from such an invasive surgery. And yet here he was. Had the Bugs somehow accelerated his healing process?

There was something else too, a new...smell? No, a taste. Some combination of both? It was as if he could both smell and taste the world around him. He could see through the walls in a manner of speaking, sense what was going on beyond them. The world was awash with this new awareness. It was complex, however, he couldn't make sense of it. It was like trying to read the text of a language that he didn't speak. It was so strong, almost overwhelming.

It didn't take a doctor to see what they had done to him. The Bugs had grafted some kind of new sensory organ into his body, but how was that possible? Human medicine was still tackling the problems of organ rejection between patients, and yet these aliens had successfully implanted an entirely foreign sensory organ, tapping it into his nervous system to boot. Far from butchery or experimentation, his surgery must have been deft and intricate indeed, but why had they done this?

His questions would not be answered, he must find out for himself.

He felt stronger today, and he was certain that he would be able to eat. He retrieved the oat bar from his pack that he had opened the previous day, bringing it towards his mouth.

He stopped, overwhelmed for a moment by the rush of information, difficult for his brain to process. He smelled...or tasted every dried fruit, their flavors exploding in his head like fireworks. He sensed the honey and the oils, smelled the oats and grains, tasted blueberry and raspberry. What part of his brain was processing this new data? The olfactory bulb? The gustatory cortex? Had they operated on his brain and rewired it? What else might they have tampered with?

He took a bite, rolling it around on his tongue, his sense of taste distinct from this new one. He needed a name for it. Smaste would do, at least until he had the time to think of something better. He chuckled to himself as he took another bite, his stomach rumbling audibly. Nothing like a meal to raise one's spirits.

He sensed something, pausing his chewing as he sniffed the air. Something was coming.

He stood as a Bug appeared in front of his cell door, watching him with its striking, blue eyes. It was the same one as before, short and stocky, with mismatched arms and an iridescent shell in shades of blue and green. Walker saw it in a whole new light now, his smaste painting a picture in his mind, like a kind of synesthesia. His brain obviously lacked the specialized lobes that would have better interpreted these senses, and so they translated as colors and smells, not seen with the eyes but rather felt. If you were to imagine the colors of a rainbow in your mind or recall the taste of your favorite food, you might not actually experience them, but memory and imagination could approximate the sensations.

There was a color about the Bug, yellow, and Walker could have sworn that he felt a twinge of uncertainty or fear. A second-hand emotion, broadcast by the creature like a facial expression that was communicated through scent. It was nervous, afraid of him perhaps as it hovered outside the door. It opened his cell, waiting, the impression of color in Walker's mind shifting further towards the green spectrum. It was expectant, it wanted him to leave his cage and step out into the tunnel.

Walker took a step forward, the creature backing away as its mood shifted towards yellow again, it was as scared of him as he was of it. He slowly stepped out of his cell and into the corridor beyond, a long tunnel that extended perhaps ten meters to the left and right before curving out of view, gloomy save for the odd bio-electric lighting that clung to the ceiling. He took in a breath of the warm, humid air, his senses scrambling to process the new information. He could sense the passage of other Bugs as if they had left footprints in the dirt, a trail of scents of such complexity that he could distinguish between individuals and the time that had elapsed since their passing. Half a dozen Betelgeusians had trodden here and left their signatures behind. More than that, there was a map, strong scents that drew his attention down different paths like the painted lines on the floor of the Pinwheel that would direct pedestrians to the station's different quarters.

He cradled his head in his hands. The sensations too much to process, he felt like somebody who had been blind all of their life and was now seeing for the first time.

The Bug stood beside him, its aura green, waiting for him to make a move. It was not attacking, it did not seem to be aggressive in any way, its behavior defied logic. Walker had fought the Bugs for almost two decades, and he had never known them to respond with anything other than overt hostility to beings who were not of their race.

It released a scent into the air and Walker felt a strong compulsion to follow it. The feeling wasn't conveyed through any complex means but rather through an urge akin to the desire to sneeze or yawn. He could deny the impulse if he wanted to, but what other options did he have? The Bug began to walk away, leaving an invisible trail behind it that lingered in the air, and so Walker followed.

It all made sense to him at that moment, it was like someone had switched on a light bulb in his head. Pheromones. The Bugs communicated using pheromones rather than speech, that was why Borealans were so adept at tracking them and how Kaz had been able to follow their scent trails with her keen nose. She could smell them, but she couldn't read them as he now could. The scents contained a wealth of information that his new organ must be attuned to. The Bugs wanted to communicate with him. The surgery had given him a rudimentary pheromone sensing organ, a sixth sense that they had wired into his existing senses as best they could. Like a frugal computer technician, his surgeon had patched into the already existing systems of his brain, piggybacking on them to take advantage of their processing power. He could not see the world as the Bugs did, that might be impossible for him, but he was getting a rudimentary translation as his brain struggled to parse these new signals.


He followed the Bug for what must have been half a mile through a winding maze of tunnels that left him disoriented and lost. There were so many branching pathways and corridors, some verging left and right, others slanting up or down. He had to stop thinking with his eyes and start seeing the world with his nose. The passages had their own scents, a pheromone trail that acted like a subway map. Each tunnel had its own distinct smell, its own color in his mind, and while he could not yet read the language that they were written in he knew that the information was there.

His stumpy guide was following one such path, leading him to some unknown destination. Some nightmare laboratory where he would be subjected to further surgeries and experiments perhaps? Were they going to somehow turn him into a Bug? That might make a good horror movie, but it wasn't very likely. He wasn't being restrained, and he considered just running away, there was no way that this Bug would be able to catch him on its little legs. Where would he go, however? He didn't know which color, which smell marked the way to the surface. Perhaps he would be able to learn in time and use that information to make his escape.

Walker smelled something in the distance, a great number of Bugs and what might have been disturbed soil. The scent got closer and closer as they followed the branching tunnels, the pheromones of what had to be two dozen individuals bombarding him, their emotional states mingling and difficult to distinguish.

He followed the Bug around one final corner, and he found himself in a half-finished tunnel, the hollowed-out dirt ending abruptly some distance away. There were perhaps thirty Bugs milling about, the same kind as his captor, short and stocky with mismatched arms. The hues of their iridescent shells varied wildly, from azure blue to amber and gold, even reds and purples. Their horns were just as varied, some twisted and branching like those of a stag, others were prominent and flared like a beetle. They were digging, using the spade-like hands on their upper arms to burrow into the soil, a few of them hauling the mounds of fresh dirt off down the tunnel and out of sight.

It was remarkably primitive, Walker saw no sign of construction equipment or heavy machinery. The Bugs were capable of interstellar travel and yet they had not invented a backhoe? That said, the little aliens were remarkably adept at their jobs, their limbs seemed to have been either evolved or engineered for the very purpose of excavation. Walker had been deployed on Kruger III during the war to wrest control of that system from the Betelgeusians. He had dug trenches alongside in his men in that muddy hellscape, and it was immediately apparent that these Bugs could accomplish the same amount of work in a fraction of the time.

When they had finished excavating a section of tunnel, they smoothed it out, packing the dirt as tightly as they could. Then their complex mandibles opened, revealing pink flesh beneath the hard shell. A long, sinuous tongue shot forth from an opening that could scarcely be called a mouth and was barely larger than the appendage, some kind of thick saliva oozing forth into their cupped hands. They rubbed it on the walls, the drool seeming to harden on contact and seal in the soil beneath.

They stopped what they were doing for a brief moment, seeming to smell Walker, turning to stare at him as their mandibles clicked and flexed like fingers. They quickly resumed their work, leaving Walker to wonder why the hell he had been brought here.

He felt a hand on the small of his back, his guide urging him forwards, releasing a new scent. It smelled acidic, like lemons and citrus fruits, giving him the impression of lime green in his mind's eye. It wanted him to do something, it was expectant.

You want me to dig?” Walker asked.

The Bugs stopped again, turning to stare at him, their long tongues shooting forth as if to taste the air. They made no sound besides the creaking of their armored limbs and the clicking of their mouthparts. It was not complex enough to be a language, did they have none? The UNN had no record of verbal communication from the Bugs, but it was hard to imagine how a species that lacked one could evolve to sapience. Sure, they had their pheromones, but you couldn't record information in the long-term using scents. They would fade over time. How did they do math? How did they enter information into their computers without the written word?

Do you speak? Can you hear me?”

They ignored him, returning to their business. Hell, for all he knew they might not even have ears, maybe they felt vibrations in the air rather than hearing them as sound.

His guide shoved him forward again, Walker sensing a lighter shade of green from its pheromones now, impatience? Frustration?

He stepped up to a wall, rolling up his sleeves and wondering just what they expected him to do without tools. Surely this was not why they had gone to the trouble of taking him alive? What use would Bugs have for slave labor?

He took up a place beside one of the diggers, a Bug with a ruby-red shell that had a decorative horn resembling a rhinoceros. He watched it plunge its hard fingers into the soil, scooping out handfuls of earth and dropping them into a pile that was forming behind it, no doubt to be carted away once it reached the appropriate size. Walker resigned himself, he didn't have much choice other than to play along, and so he pushed his hands into the soil. It was surprisingly tough and damp between his fingers, there were small rocks in it that made the work harder. He noted that there were no roots. They must be deep underground, no plants had dug this far down. The roots of a tree could dig as deep into the earth as the specimen was tall, it was possible that the Bugs had planned out their tunnels to avoid them, but judging by the size and proliferation of the continent-spanning forests that seemed unlikely.

His guide again secreted a scent that was green, bordering on yellow, increasingly frustrated with him. It was adamant, and he had nothing else to do, might as well humor his captors.

He dug out a pitiful handful in comparison to his fellow workmen, dropping it onto the pile, his fingernails filthy with soil. The red Bug beside him halted, turning to look at the mound of dirt, its mandibles clicking frantically. It released a scent, orange in color, the emotion coming across as irritation. It leaned down and carefully scooped away the soil that Walker had deposited on its pile, placing it to one side, apparently wanting him to start a fresh one. It returned to its duties, completely absorbed in its digging.

Walker suppressed a grin, scooping out another handful of dirt and depositing it on his neighbor's pile.

The Bug turned once more, examining the knee-high mound with its blue eyes, its mandibles waving erratically in the air. It released another puff of orange pheromones, the smaste of it reminding Walker of bell peppers. Once again it carefully moved the soil from its pile to his, as if acutely aware of precisely how much dirt its own collection was comprised of, then returned to its duties.

Some of the Workers around him were glancing in his direction now, pausing as they dumped large handfuls of the soil, one of them halting to peer at him as the gooey resin that they secreted dripped from its chitinous palm. The pheromones were obviously disturbing them, the emotion conveyed within the scents drawing their attention as if their companion was in distress.

Walker dug a few more holes, now beginning to form his own pile, the smell from his neighbor shifting in hue towards the purple spectrum as it calmed down. Did blue hues indicate calm? Yellow seemed to be fear or anxiety, the scent and taste of citrus, harsh and acidic. That was the impression that he had gotten when his jailer had been waiting by the door to his cell. Green must be expectation, urgency, a fruitier smell. Green bordering on yellow might signify a blending of those emotions, the lime green that he had sensed earlier signifying frustration. What was orange then? Anger? Irritation?

Walker wondered if this was by design, or if it was merely his brain struggling with the new information that was available to it, running the sensations through familiar filters and drawing parallels wherever it could. He undoubtedly associated the color red with anger, and so if he managed to frustrate his neighbor enough, would its pheromones shift from orange to red? It was time to do some science.

He crouched and lifted as much dirt as he could carry in his hands from his pile, dropping it on top of his neighbor's. The Bug shivered, its complex mouthparts waving and twitching as it turned to look at the mound of soil. Yep, there it was, a fiery orange that bordered on red along with a bitter aftertaste. The hues that flared in his mind when he sensed the pheromones indicated emotion, a spectrum that his brain must be interpreting in the only way that it knew how, using his visual cortex and the memories of color to process the data.

The red Bug carefully scooped away the dirt from its pile, its mandibles clicking angrily, and returned it to Walker's tiny mound. He was disrupting the work on a larger scale now, the rest of the Bugs stopping to stare, the scent of confusion flooding the tunnel.

His guide stepped forward and took his wrist in its hand, its exoskeleton hard and dry against his skin, and it loosed a more complex pheromone. There was information layered in there, something that Walker couldn't parse, a language that he did not speak. It waited for him to react, but he had no idea what it was saying, and so it led him over to the wall and planted his hand against the packed earth.

The gesture was obvious enough, it was telling him to get on with his work, and so he continued to dig into the wall with his hands. Even with a shovel, he would not have been able to come close to the speed and efficiency at which the Bugs operated. They were like machines, single-minded in their task, tireless as they carved out this new extension of the hive. These ones were physiologically different from the Drones that he was so accustomed to fighting, could they be a class of Betelgeusian whose only purpose was to dig tunnels? No, his surgeon had been one of these, using its smaller pair of arms to operate on him with surprising dexterity.

His handler observed him closely, seeming confused by his lack of progress, as if the concept of someone being bad at digging was completely unheard of. Walker still did not understand the purpose of this exercise. Did they actually expect him to help excavate the tunnel, or was this a part of some larger experiment?

Walker continued to dig for perhaps an hour longer, his fingers starting to become sore, stained black with soil. His guide observed him the whole time, clicking its mandibles quietly as he struggled to form a pile. More Workers came to carry away the mounds of earth when they reached a certain size, and it must have taken Walker ten times as long as his neighbors before his own pile was taken away.

He watched as one of the Bugs collected the soil in its four arms and carried it off down the tunnel, then he slumped against a nearby wall, taking a breather and wiping his dirty hands on the leg of his pants.

His handler chittered angrily, releasing a scent that indicated frustration, scurrying over to him and attempting to pull him to his feet. Walker batted it away, the Bug confused by his reaction.

I need a break, you damned roach. Do you expect me to work my fingers down to the bone?”

It cocked its head at him, its mouthparts moving incessantly, some of the Workers around them stopping to stare. It gestured to the wall unhappily, its pheromones confused and anxious. It had probably been told to make him work by a superior, and his lack of cooperation was reflecting badly on it. Perhaps it would get into trouble if Walker didn't complete his task.

It approached the wall, digging its hard fingers into the dirt and scooping out a handful. It brought the soil over to Walker and presented it to him, expectant, as if assuming that Walker had somehow not understood his assignment. He glared at it, crossing his arms, and the Bug placed the dirt on the floor of the tunnel to form a new pile.

Ok, you want a pile? How about this?”

He rose to his feet and sauntered over to the red Bug's growing mound, scooping away about half of it, and carried the armful over to his own pile where he dropped it unceremoniously. The red Bug turned to watch in disbelief, practically vibrating with distress, this form of conflict and disruption perhaps entirely alien to it. These insects worked like machines, never deviating from their task. Walker had not even seen them rest or communicate with one another in any way since he had arrived. They couldn't process what was happening, they might never have known upset, never witnessed disorder before. All of the work in the tunnel had ground to a halt, the other diggers not knowing how to respond, the red Bug's aggrieved pheromones putting everyone else on edge.

It scurried over to his pile and attempted to recover its haul. It looked as if it would have counted every pebble if it had been able, pausing on its way back to retrieve a few clods that had escaped Walker's arms during his theft.

What was their deal? Did they get paid based on how much dirt they collected? Was it just animal instinct, like termites in a colony? Would they be punished if they failed to meet a quota?

Either way, Walker was done with digging, and he had apparently made a shambles of the whole operation. The rest of the insectoid creatures were standing about nervously, the red Bug hovering over its pile as if unable to decide whether it wanted to resume digging or continue to guard it. He could sense their stress and confusion, smell it in the pheromones that they secreted.

Emboldened, Walker made his way over to one of the other mounds, an amber colored Bug with antlers like a moose clicking with irritation and emitting a perplexed scent as he stooped to take a handful of its dirt. He scattered it on the ground, the alien's vexation palpable as it loosed a pheromone that smelled like bitter mustard. He kicked over the adjacent pile, chaos erupting in the tunnel. One of them ran away, perhaps interpreting the pheromone signals as the warning of an attack, others protecting their respective piles with their many arms. The rest stood around in confusion, not knowing how to respond.

Walker noted that despite his behavior, none of the Bugs became aggressive towards him. They were surprisingly innocent, as if the thought of violence or the use of force simply did not occur to them. It was a far cry from what he had seen from the Drones, the soldiers fought as ardently and as single-mindedly as these ones worked.

He returned to his seat by the wall, enjoying the disorder that he had sown, until the cavalry finally arrived. Three Drones appeared at the far end of the tunnel, no doubt drawn by the distressed pheromones, Walker bristling at the sight of them. There were Drones in the tunnels then, that might complicate his escape plan. These did not seem to be armed, there were no shield projectors on their wrists, and the plasma pistols that they commonly carried were absent. They had their signature knives, but they were sheathed.

They made their way down the tunnel, stopping nearby him to taste the air with their long tongues, and Walker wondered what he looked like to them. Did they have orders not to kill him, did his new organ emit pheromones that identified him as a member of the hive? Their level of individual intelligence was hard to determine. His guide spoke to one of the soldiers as the other two tried to corral the upset Workers, communicating with complex layers of scents that Walker could not discern. It was a language of a sort, totally beyond anything in human experience, but these aliens were definitely talking to one another. He tried hard to identify the nuances of their discussion, but he was too inexperienced. Not only was it a foreign language, but his control over his new sensory organ was still tentative at best, it would take him time to master it.

Contextually speaking, the subject of their conversation was fairly obvious. The Drones had come to investigate the disruption, and his handler was currently explaining what had caused it.

Now that the two types of Bug were standing side by side, their differences became even more apparent. The Workers were a clear foot shorter than the Drones, stockier, with wider shoulders. Their upper arms were thicker and heavier set, with a lower pair that were atrophied and small, while the Drones had two sets of arms that were very similar in size. The legs of the Drones were more slender, the hips flared to give them an almost feminine silhouette, the torso longer and slimmer than that of their counterparts. Besides that, their physiology was remarkably similar, the two having clearly evolved from a common ancestor. Were they different races? Perhaps they were castes of one species, like many social insects on Earth. Ants for example had Warriors and Drones, Foragers and Queens, perhaps the Betelgeusian social structure was similar.

Walker had expected the Drones to bring order to the Workers through violence, perhaps cracking whips to keep them under control, but the opposite was happening. The Drones were calming the shorter Bugs, rapping their hard fingers on their shells almost as if they were petting them, releasing soothing bursts of pheromones in shades of cool blue that tasted sweet and pleasant. Empathy, compassion, emotions that Walker would never have ascribed to these armored killing machines.

Gradually the calming pheromones did their work, the upset and distress that lingered in the air like an evil cloud fading, the Workers resuming their tasks once more. Walker started to feel a little guilty. Perhaps he had taken things a little too far, but at least he had learned a lot about how they communicated. He was able to identify a fairly wide range of emotions now, the basis of a language, and if he could do that then perhaps he could do a lot more with practice.

He half expected the Drones to cart him away and throw him back into his cell, but once they had succeeded in calming the Workers, they simply left. He watched them round the corner at the far end of the tunnel, walking out of sight, leaving him in the company of his handler. The colorful diggers were carrying on as if nothing had happened, hollowing out more of the tunnel with their shovel-like hands and smearing resin on the walls, building piles as if they had forgotten their fear of theft. The Bug that had fled the tunnel crept back around the corner. It was cowering like a frightened animal, but once it sensed the placating pheromones, it happily returned to its duties.

Walker was left feeling rather deflated, sitting on his own as his handler watched him, wide-eyed and curious. After a minute or two it gestured to the wall again, loosing more pheromones to urge him on, as if to ask will you resume your work now?

He rose to his feet reluctantly, gesturing for the Bug to follow him, and it waddled behind him as he sank his fingers into the dirt. He pulled out a handful, showing it to the Bug.

I'm not good at digging,” he said, knowing that the creature couldn't understand him but making an attempt to communicate none the less. “My hands are too small, see?”

He took his handler's large, wide hand in his, comparing their size. It had two thick fingers and a thumb that were covered in hard exoskeleton save for the joints, pointed at the tip like dull claws. It was the first time that he had touched a Bug for any length of time, at least a live one. He had dragged many a dead Drone to mass graves on battlefields across known space. Its shell was hard, yet oddly flexible. There was some subtle give to it that wouldn't have been present on a crab or a beetle. If it was an intelligent creature, then surely it would understand what he was trying to convey? Its odd mouthparts waved, like four jointed fingers, its tongue snaking out to lick his arm. It was warm and slimy, leaving a trail of thick saliva, Walker pulling away in disgust and wiping the slime on his fatigues.

What the hell was that? No, look at the sizes of our hands, you dumb Bug.”

He could practically see the gears turning in its insectoid head, its expressive eyes examining his hand as it reached out to take it, prodding at his soft flesh with its firm digits. It was studying him, much as he had studied them, running its chitinous fingers over his palm. Everything about the Betelgeusians seemed sharp and hard. The Drones fought with the callous indifference of an unthinking insect, but now he was seeing a tender side to them that he could never have anticipated. This Bug was being gentle, careful, it was aware of him as another living being. That meant that they were a lot smarter than he had given them credit for, more social.

Walker wasn't sure if it had grasped the point that he was trying to get across, or if it had merely accepted that he was bad at digging, but it released a pheromone that conveyed a sort of calm resignation and indicated for him to follow. He felt his feet moving before he was even aware of having decided to comply. Some of the more basic pheromones carried strong impulses, he would have to be aware of their suggestive power in the future.


Kaz stumbled through the jungle, dark blood seeping from the knife wounds that peppered her body, soaking into her tattered clothes. The Bugs were expert knife fighters, they knew exactly where to strike in order to avoid the ceramic plates and pierce the Kevlar, some of the blows had gone pretty deep. She clutched her side where one of the ceramic blades had pushed between two ribs and punctured a lung, her straw-colored fur stained crimson. She had stuck an adhesive patch over it, leaving one of the four sides unglued so that air could escape. But the blood was sticking it to her skin, and she had to keep pulling it open with her claw.

Most of the injuries weren't too bad, she was Borealan after all, it took a lot to kill her kind. Most were merely more scars for the collection, but this chest wound was more serious, it might do her in if she didn't make it back to Charlie in time. She could move a lot faster without Walker, clumsy little human that he was, but she was starting to get short of breath now. That wasn't a good sign.

The Bugs had taken Walker, they had attempted to take her too. Why? What could Bugs want with live captives? They had taken Walker by surprise, hit him with some kind of dart that had knocked him out before she could react, and they had tried to do the same to her. Kaz didn't go down without a fight, however. Her Borealan metabolism had fought off the toxin, and she had shown those roaches why the humans called her people Mad Cats.

Once they had realized that she wasn't going down, they had tried to kill her instead. Emphasis on tried. She had butchered each and every one of them, they weren't the only ones who knew how to use a knife. Her prized Bowie had finally broken off at the hilt when she had embedded it in the chest cavity of one of the Drones, and so she had resorted to using her claws and teeth. They were near half her height and a fraction of her weight, her blows had shattered carapace, and her curved claws had rent their limbs from their bodies.

She had been too late to save Walker, however. They had carried him away, to where and for what reason she could not fathom. She had wanted to go after them, but she was too hurt, her only chance was to get back to the FOB and bring reinforcements. Whatever jamming technology the Bugs had used seemed to blanket the whole valley, her calls for help would not go through.

Kaz was beginning to get dizzy, tripping on roots, fatigue weakening her muscles. There was a powerful urge to lie down, to sleep. But she knew that if her eyes closed, then they would never open again.

The sun stung her eyes as she emerged from the treeline, feeling mud beneath her padded feet, seeing the grey walls of base Charlie in the distance. She was close now, she could hear muffled shouts, the sound of someone calling for a medic. She fell to her knees, but someone was there to catch her, the smell of a human filling her nose.

I got you,” he grunted, a second Marine rushing in to help prop her up. “What happened?”

Ambush,” she wheezed, “they took Walker.”

They took someone? What do you mean?”

Let's get her patched up first,” the other human said. “She's lost a lot of blood, and her lung has collapsed. We need to get her to the field hospital pronto, she can give a full report when we've got her stable. Get one of the Krell down here, I can't lift her.”

They took him,” she coughed, tasting copper on her tongue.

Don't try to speak, save your strength. You're one tough son of a bitch to make it back here in this state, we're gonna get you cleaned up.”

She felt relief for herself, but she still ached for Walker. He was her packmate, her responsibility, her friend. The instinct to keep her pack safe ran deep, coursing through her veins, but her body was failing her.

She felt strong arms lift her off the ground, muscle that dwarfed even that of a Borealan bulging beneath rough scales. A Krell was carrying her. She was going to be okay, they'd be able to fix her, but every minute that she spent in a hospital bed was a minute that Walker might not have.


Walker's handler led him down more snaking tunnels, the hive was massive, it was like walking through the inside of a giant ant farm. There were intersections carved into the planet's soil that branched off in five, six or even seven directions, slanting up and down at angles that made them difficult for a human to tackle. The Bugs dropped down onto six limbs to crawl up the almost vertical passages, Walker having to dig his fingers and the toes of his boots into the dirt for purchase.

He wondered where the Bug might be taking him next. They weren't going back to his cell, he was beginning to recognize the different pheromone trails, and these tunnels didn't smell the same. Scent was the only way to navigate, everything looked the same, endless tubes of dirt lit by that odd moss that clung to the ceiling and glowed with a dull light.

Walker smelled more Bugs, and something else too, like hot plastic. They emerged into a large chamber, a huge dome the size of a factory floor that had been hollowed out from bedrock, that strange luminescent moss clustering at the apex of the rounded ceiling to create a far brighter source of light. He could see the sedimentary layers in the walls, lines of colorful rock that gradually gave way to soil as it neared the roof. They must be deep indeed, and yet the temperature remained constant. They must be able to regulate it.

He looked out over the room, shocked by the sight. There must have been a few hundred Workers milling about the expansive chamber. There were tables and work surfaces made from resin, the same kind that the bars of his cell door had been made of, the Bugs clustering around them. They were making things, assembling weapons from what looked like printed parts, tempering metal in comparatively primitive forges that appeared to be made of clay and glowed orange with heat.

This was their production facility, he realized. Far from bringing all of their gear with them on their hive ships, they were making everything on-site, the insects hauling around raw materials that they must have gathered on the planet as their companions toiled.

The contrasts were remarkable. There were forges heated by wood and coal that looked like something from the iron age, yet not ten feet away there were Bugs building magnetic coils from copper wires to use on their plasma rifles.

His guide led him forward, Walker turning his head to stare at the sights, passing by a table where several Worker Bugs were building shield projectors. Their stocky upper arms hung by their sides as they used their smaller, more dexterous lower pair to fiddle with the intricate circuitry, licking their fingers with their long tongues and using their saliva as a kind of glue. Walker didn't know enough about electronics and technology to guess how the devices functioned, but he knew that a human engineer would have needed a magnifying visor and a soldering iron to perform the same tasks.

Others were fitting armor on a Drone who was sitting in a humorously human styled chair made from resin, the Workers bending sheets of what looked like colored plastic to fit its body. They seemed to have matched the material to its iridescent shell, the armor catching the light to shine in hues of gold and orange in exactly the same way that the Drone's exoskeleton did. The soldier turned its head to watch Walker pass as a Worker tested the fit of a shoulder pad.

So that was how they made their armor. It had never really been clear if the supplemental plating had been the result of some natural phenomena, or whether it was artificial in nature.

Walker bristled as he saw a Warrior lumber into the dome through one of the many entrances, stopping to stare at it from across the room, his handler seeming to sense his fear as it turned to look back at him. Its eyes begged a question, but it followed his gaze, seeing that he was fixated on the massive beast. There wasn't much that still frightened Walker, he had fought on a dozen planets and killing Bugs had become as routine as brushing his teeth, yet the sight of a Warrior filled him with a kind of primal dread. Images flashed in his mind of what the one that had breached the door at Charlie had done to that Borealan, pinning him to the ground and carving him up like hamburger meat.

They were berserkers, like feral animals unleashed upon the enemy, fighting with the fury and relentlessness of an enraged bull. He had always imaged that they had to be kept in cages, perhaps restrained until their shackles were removed and they were pointed towards their foe. This one walked peacefully amongst the smaller Bugs, however. Its enormous claws hung idle, half a dozen Workers trailing behind it.

There were recesses along the far wall, Warrior-shaped, he realized. It backed up into one of them, guided by the Workers. Once it was resting snugly in the hole, the little aliens began to affix flexible cables to its lobster-like body. They didn't look strong enough to restrain it, and the Warrior just kind of hung there, waiting for the Workers to complete their task.

Walker's eyes widened as he watched the Warrior split down the middle, its face breaking open into two halves, as if someone was running an invisible blade from the top of its head to its groin. Its chest broke in two like the shell of a walnut, its lower body following suit, strands of thick fluid breaking to fall to the dirt floor as it gaped. Something was birthed from the carcass, clear liquid spilling forth as it dropped out of the Warrior, tall and lithe.

It was somewhere between a human and a Borealan in height, perhaps seven feet if you didn't include the ornate horn, with a slim body and long limbs. It was a Bug, some new variety that Walker had never seen before. It looked like somebody had stretched out a Drone as if it had been made of silly putty. It rose to its feet, scraping away some of the goo that clung to it with its four hands, its fingers long and spindly like the legs of a spider. Its torso was abnormally elongated in proportion to the rest of its body, and the Workers reached up to pull what looked like umbilical cords from its long spine that connected it to the Warrior's husk. The fearsome beast was slumped against the cables, lifeless, and Walker concluded that this new form of Betelgeusian was its pilot.

Remarkable, the Warriors were not a caste in and of themselves, then. They seemed to be some kind of organic vehicle. A battle suit made of flesh, a mindless symbiote perhaps? The husk now seemed listless, there was no sign of movement from it, and yet they bled when they were shot. Perhaps it had no brain of its own, inanimate until the lanky Pilot climbed into it.

Everything was wet and slimy, organic, and it turned Walker's stomach to glimpse the cavity inside the Warrior's body. The cables that must somehow link it to the operator dangled like severed entrails, slime dripping from the split in its carapace. As he watched, the Pilot turned to examine its vehicle.

Betelgeusians were insects, they had no endoskeletons, their muscles were anchored to the inside of their hard shells to give them surprising strength and leverage. This specimen, however, had a line of what looked like brain tissue running down its back about where a spine would have been on a human. It protruded from beneath the protective carapace, exposed to the air, with a series of small holes that must accommodate those limp tendrils. Did the Pilot hook its own nervous system directly into the Warrior?

His handler urged him on until they stopped beside one of the resin tables, its surface scattered with tiny electronic components. It placed him on the production line between two colorful Workers who were engaged in assembling whatever the devices were.

They looked like battery packs, but Walker was no engineer, and so he could not be sure. They were small and blocky, contained within a resin or plastic casing, their innards a mess of wires and circuits. His guide released that same pheromone that he had become so accustomed to, expectation. So if he sucked at digging, maybe he was better at factory work, was that their logic? He turned to his handler, ready to complain, but it took his wrists in its larger forelimbs and placed its lower pair on top of his hands in order to compare their size. His hands were slightly larger than the alien's, but they were more comparable in size and shape than its bigger, shovel-like set of digging implements.

Little by little Walker was beginning to see things from their point of view, to understand their strange thought processes. He had compared their hands in the tunnel in an attempt to demonstrate that he was ill-suited to digging, but the Bug might have interpreted that gesture differently. Just as his brain was processing his new sense through a familiar filter, drawing parallels the only way that it knew how, so too did this Betelgeusian draw from its own experiences in an attempt to understand him. If he did not have large hands, then he had small hands, and what were small hands for? Factory work, apparently.

Walker rolled his eyes and turned to the table, sighing in exasperation as he sifted through the scattered parts. Excavation was one thing, nobody needed training or instruction in order to dig a ditch, but how did the aliens expect him to assemble complex electronics without so much as an instruction manual? Even building block sets that were designed for children came with a guide.

His handler made no attempt to instruct him, as if it expected the task to be self-explanatory, and so he looked to his immediate neighbors for inspiration. They were carefully placing the components into their plastic housing, their fingers as deft and as precise as a pair of tweezers, their fleshy tongues shooting forth to dampen their digits with a sticky resin that they used as an adhesive.

There seemed to be no method to their madness, they worked like lightning, so quickly that Walker could scarcely make sense of what they were doing. Their lower arms darted back and forth, picking out new components and slotting them into place with no pause for thought, as if the blueprint that they were following was programmed into them like a mechanical arm assembling cars.

It didn't look as if anyone was going to help him, and so he took a handful of the loose wires and carelessly crammed them into one of the cases. His handler leaned in to examine his handiwork, chittering as it loosed a frustrated scent. He was making its life very difficult.

He needed a name for the damned thing, he couldn't keep referring to it as his handler, perhaps something to do with its blue-green shell or its decorative horn. Though each of the Bugs had a unique smell that would serve to identify them as individuals, Walker had not yet seen two of them with the same configuration of horns and hues, which made the insects visually distinct in a way that was surprisingly convenient for a human who was still grappling with his sixth sense.

Its shell looked remarkably similar in color to the figeater beetle, a common garden pest, and so that would be its name. Fig.

The newly christened Fig reached past him, picking out one of the components and presenting it to him, something that looked as if it might be a lithium battery of some kind. Walker grumbled under his breath, removing the mess of wires from the resin box and taking the cylindrical device from Fig's chitinous claws, placing it inside. That seemed to please Fig, and the creature then pointed to the next piece, a copper coil that must have some magnetic purpose. Walker picked it up and placed it inside the box.

Fig loosed a frustrated scent, reaching inside to correct its placement. Walker could not have been less invested. He recoiled as its long tongue snaked out of the orifice on its face, hardly worthy of being called a mouth, the insect licking its finger and smearing the viscous fluid on the component. After a moment it hardened, Walker nudging the copper coil and finding that it was stuck fast. It was like super glue, how could they produce such a substance without it gumming up their innards and killing them?

Fig emitted an expectant scent, now you try.

I think you're going to be sorely disappointed by the quality of my saliva,” Walker muttered. He licked his finger, the Bug watching his short, pink tongue with intense curiosity. He smeared it on the battery, Fig waiting expectantly before reaching down to nudge the component with its claw-like finger, secreting an annoyed pheromone when it moved.

Yeah, I can't produce glue, go figure. I've got another organ that we could try, but you'll have to buy me dinner first.”

Fig turned towards him, taking his head in its upper hands, alarmingly strong as it prevented him from pulling away. Its lower pair of hands probed his face as if testing the elasticity of his flesh, before parting his lips with its fingers and pushing into his mouth. Walker loosed a muffled complaint at the impromptu invasion of his personal space, feeling the hard shell on his tongue, and he bit down. There was some give, but its carapace was far too tough for his teeth to damage, and it continued its explorations undeterred. He felt it pinch his tongue between its digits, trying to draw it out, but Walker finally succeeded in breaking away.

He rubbed his jaw, watching as Fig pressed his saliva between its finger and thumb, as if testing its viscosity. As strange as it was for a creature's saliva to harden on contact with the air, so too did Fig seem to find the lack of such a property perplexing.

It took Walker by the arm, leading him away from the table, a cloud of frustrated pheromones trailing behind it. If he couldn't make glue, then he couldn't assemble...whatever those devices had been. Time for a new job.


Tell us what happened,” Colonel Fischer said, leaning over Kaz's bed as she blinked away the lingering anesthetic. She was in the field hospital at Charlie, hooked up to a drip in order to replenish the fluid that she had lost, her collapsed lung now repaired by one of the base's surgeons. Everything was white, the floor and ceiling, the bed sheets and the gown that they had put her in. The room smelled of antiseptic. It was all so unfamiliar to her. Humans went in and out of hospitals every time they got a damned splinter, but if something could injure a Borealan, then it was usually enough to kill it outright.

We were...in the forest,” she replied, still woozy as she tried to collect her thoughts. “Looking for Bug holes as ordered. We followed the tracks away from the base, left by the force that had fled the siege at Charlie, but the footprints vanished perhaps a mile into the woods. I think the Bugs went up into the trees. So I followed a pheromone trail from the winged Drone that had tailed me and Sergeant Walker, but I lost the scent. We couldn't find any trace of Bugs. We were exactly where the seismic sensors had been triggered and yet there was nothing.”

What happened next?” the Colonel asked, “even small details might be important.”

We searched for a while but couldn't find anything, we got frustrated. We took a break and tried to call in, to see if any of the other teams had reported anything. We thought that maybe we were in the wrong place or something. But the radio didn't work, Walker said it was being jammed.”

Jammed? Yes, that's why everyone went out of contact. We thought maybe that an ion storm was interfering with the signal, we've not been able to reach the Thermopylae or any of the other outposts for hours. That was the conclusion that we came to as well.”

Just then I smelled Bugs, like they had appeared out of thin air, surrounding us. They didn't have their plasma weapons, and they didn't attack, they just stood there and...stared at us. One of them shot Sergeant Walker with something, some kind of dart gun, and he passed out. They did the same to me, but whatever toxin they were using doesn't work on Borealans. I fought through it and killed them. By the time I was done, I was too late to save the Sergeant, they had carried him away.”

You didn't see where they took him? Which direction?”

I was injured, dying I think. I didn't even see them take him. I figured that I could either die in the forest or try to make it back to base and bring help. I didn't abandon him, sir, I'd never do that. But I couldn't help him, I couldn't-”

Easy there Kazka, nobody is accusing you of that. Seeing the state that you were in when you showed up, it's a miracle that we're even talking right now. We already have search teams out in the bush, and we have our dropship doing low passes. We're going to find the teams that didn't make it back yet.”

There are others?” Kaz asked, attempting to sit up in her bed but wincing at the sharp pain in her side. She relaxed back onto the mattress, frustrated by her body's inability to keep pace.

Whatever is jamming our comms is affecting the entire valley. Two of our scout teams made it back, they headed home as soon as they lost their line to Fleetcom. We've not heard from the others yet. Kazka, are you sure that they took Walker?”

I'm sure,” she said, nodding adamantly. “They wanted him alive, and they tried to take me too.”

He clasped his hands behind his back, beginning to pace slowly back and forth beside her bed, his brow furrowed.

In all my years I've never seen a Betelgeusian take a prisoner, and I've never seen anyone turn up who had been declared MIA. The Bugs kill, that's all they seem to be interested in. It's not only a tactic, a policy, but it seems to be a reflex as natural to their kind as breathing is to ours.”

Walker is not dead,” Kaz snapped, immediately regretting the outburst and reigning herself in.

As you are well aware, Lance Corporal, the UNN makes many allowances for Borealans. Insubordination is not one of them.”

I'm sorry Colonel, I just...I know what I saw. It was strange, unlike anything I've ever seen before. If they had wanted to kill him then his guts would have been all over the forest, I would have smelled it. I know that he's still alive, I can feel it.”

Listen, Kazka,” Fischer said as he leaned on the edge of her bed. “I know that you Borealans have a special bond with your squadmates. You're like a pack of wolves, more of a family than a military unit. While that's beneficial in many cases, it's also a hindrance when it comes to coping with loss.”

She bristled, but he raised a hand to cut her off.

You had lost a lot of blood, you were badly injured, on death's door when you arrived. We immediately put you under, and the medics found traces of a chemical compound in your body that they can't identify, likely some new Bug bioweapon. I believe that you're sincere, but you've been through a lot. That kind of stress and hurt can make it hard to recall specific details. You said yourself that you never actually saw them carry him away, you're making an assumption.”

Kaz opened her mouth to protest, but again he cut her off with a wave of his finger. Was he doubting her mental state? While he was correct in that she had been practically delirious when she had made it back to the base, and that the Bugs had shot her full of some unknown compound, there was no doubt in her mind about the events that had transpired. It made her angry, but she recalled her integration training, trying to calm herself lest she make a regrettable mistake. Fischer was their Alpha after all, and his word was law.

Until we can ascertain exactly what happened, and until one of the other teams corroborates your story, I'm afraid that we can't commit our limited manpower to tracking down one MIA soldier.”

We can't abandon him,” Kaz pleaded, “what if he's still alive?”

Even if what you say is true and they took him prisoner, it's been forty-eight hours. We're going to find those lost scout teams, and I'll order the dropship to do some passes over the area where you were attacked, but I'm not authorizing any more operations until I know exactly what's going on in this accursed valley.”

But sir, I-”

That's my final word,” he said, rising from her bed. “Now try to get some rest. I have a feeling that we're going to need every last man in the coming days.”


I'm not good at this either,” Walker complained, Fig releasing another frustrated scent as he struggled to fit a piece of armor onto an increasingly irritated Drone. They had run him through seemingly every job in the factory, as if they were struggling to find a place for him in the hive. Walker still didn't understand what the point of all this was. They couldn't possibly need the manpower, why go to such lengths to integrate him? Was this how the Borealans felt when they first arrived on the Pinwheel?

One of the other Workers finally took the shoulder pad from him, Fig leading him away by the arm. Were it human, it would no doubt have been hanging its head in shame. Instead, its mandibles moved restlessly, clicking loudly.

Suddenly all activity in the factory dome seemed to halt, the Workers leaving their tables and moving towards one of the many exit tunnels. They dropped their tools and ceased their work, forming a large group, tightly packed but never bumping shoulders or jostling for space. It was as if someone had tripped a fire alarm. They all knew where to go and what to do at exactly the same time, and yet Walker had heard no sound and had smelled no unusual pheromones on the air.

Fig led him along, he was apparently expected to follow them. There were a handful of Drones too, and the tall Pilot that he had seen exit the Warrior's husk. It was downright spooky, they were all being drawn to one place, marching like zombies. Walker was head and shoulders above the smaller Workers, and so he could see over them, watching the column of Bugs snake down the twisting tunnels as if they were one organism. Fig kept a tight hold on his arm, Walker watching as more columns of Bugs joined them from branching side tunnels. They were so colorful, a thousand different iridescent shells sparkling in the dim light, the sound of their marching feet like thunder in the enclosed space.

Walker closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He wouldn't get anywhere if he kept relying on sight and sound to navigate this world. He tried to block out the noise, using his nose, making an effort to pick out any scent that might indicate where they were going. Every passage had its own pheromone trail, this one was obviously important, and so it must have one too.

There, layered below the myriad scents of the Bugs, a pheromone that smelled like sweet honey. He could almost taste it on his tongue. It was appetizing, his stomach starting to rumble as the aroma filled his nose. Were they heading towards food? Perhaps whatever passed for a mess hall in this hive? Was the honeyed smell making him hungry, or was the pheromone itself inducing hunger? It was sometimes so hard to tell the difference between a genuine impulse and one that had been provoked by some pheromone. He would have to be careful and stay aware lest he be strung along like a puppet.

The tunnel had a distinct downward slant, they were going deeper into the hive, further underground.

They eventually emerged into another chamber, this one of roughly the same size as the factory, lit by that same glow from a large cluster off luminescent moss that was clinging to the apex of the dome. His eyes widened as he surveyed the room. Far from being full of tables and kilns, this one was packed with...creatures.

They were huge, as tall as a Pilot. But where the Pilots were thin and lanky, these were bloated and swollen. They were physiologically similar to the rest of the Bugs, sharing the features that were common to all castes. They had a decorative horn, a shining exoskeleton in varied hues, along with the same configuration of limbs and organs as the others. What set them apart, however, were the clear sacks on their bellies and chests. The skin was translucent and filled with amber fluid.

The larger of the sacks was located on the lower abdomen, where the belly would have been on a mammal, the protective plates that commonly lined the torsos of the other castes were widely separated by the stretched skin beneath. It gave the impression that someone had drawn on a balloon before inflating it, and Walker wondered if the plates would return to their normal positions once the sack of fluid was drained. Their hips were flared, no doubt in order to carry the substantial weight, giving them an oddly feminine figure. What really turned his head were the two sacks on the chest. They looked remarkably like breasts in their shape and placement, but that was impossible, insects did not produce milk. They were like a pair of damned space hoppers, filled with that same golden fluid, the weight of it giving the sacks a distinct heft. There were maybe fifty of them leaning against the walls as they sat cross-legged on the ground, forming a ring around the room, their bodies so distended that it looked as if they couldn't move from their seats.

Honeypot ants,” Walker muttered. He had seen this before in a species of ant back on Earth. Many social insects collected and stored food in one way or another. Bees made honey and ants often grew their own food in specialized chambers in their colonies. Honeypot ants were unique in that they stored liquid food within the bodies of a specialized caste called repletes, their abdomens swelling to gigantic proportions, functioning as living reservoirs from which their hive mates extracted nourishment.

A Worker needed only to stroke the antennae of one such Replete if it wanted to feed, which would cause it to regurgitate the contents of its swollen body. The Betelgeusians were nomadic, traveling between the stars in their hive ships, it was a logical way for them to store and transport the food that they would need on their long journeys.

He watched as the crowd of Bugs separated like a shoal of fish, heading towards the lounging Repletes in pairs, Fig pulling him along as it made for one of the bloated giants. They were obviously going to feed. The pheromone trail that smelled of honey had brought them here, a map to the pantry. But how would they feed? Would these Repletes regurgitate the contents of their transparent stomachs into the waiting mouths of the Workers and Drones as if they were baby birds? Repulsive! Would he be expected to participate?

As they neared one of the Repletes, it opened its four arms to them in invitation, scents of sweet honey washing over him. The upper pair were long and slim, with a small blade that protruded from the wrist, its purpose unknown. The lower pair were thick and strong, with heavy, reinforced joints. Hunger tore at his stomach, a desire to feed scratching at the inside of his skull, the alien signals interfering with his brain. He found himself fighting them, rising above the almost instinctual urges that the pheromones instilled in him. This was not a form of mind control, they were not psychics. If he kept his wits about him, then he would not fall prey to their suggestive power.

Fig climbed into the Repletes lap, supported in two of its arms, the size of a child in comparison to the larger Bug. It leaned on the Replete's belly, like a beanbag chair filled with fluid. Walker watched in disbelief as Fig reached up and took one of the heavy breasts in its forelimbs, pulling it down to its face, its mandibles opening like grasping fingers as it sucked something that looked uncomfortably close to a teat into its mouth. It began to suckle, drinking down the amber fluid. The bizarre scene went some way to explaining why their mouth openings were so small.

The Replete held out its remaining arms to Walker, and he backed up, shaking his head.

Oh no, it'll be a cold day in hell.”

He looked around the room, seeing that the Bugs were all feeding, Workers and Drones alike. Even the Pilot was doing the same, sitting on the dirt floor and leaning close to the Replete as it drank. They waited patiently for their turns, forming orderly lines in front of the Repletes, the scent of confusion reaching Walker's nose as the Bugs that were queuing behind him stared. Fig released the Replete's breast, the bloated alien cocking its head in confusion. Once again, Walker's mere presence was disrupting the day to day operations of the hive.

Fig rose from the Replete's lap and took him by the hand, trying to lead him closer, but Walker refused. The Bug released a puff of concerned pheromones, not understanding why he was refusing food. Walker had no way of conveying how disgusting he found the whole situation. It smelled good, he could almost taste the sweet nectar on his tongue, but his human sensibilities would never allow him to feed in the way that they wanted. Especially when he had perfectly good MREs waiting for him back at his cell.

Fig tried to pull him, but he dug his heels into the earth, making it very clear that he wasn't going to cooperate. He smelled concern, expectation, urgency that bordered on anger. Fig finally gave in, returning to the engorged Replete, which took the Worker gently in its arms and cradled it as it ate.

The sight made Walker's skin crawl, but he had to keep reminding himself that these were not mammals. Convergent evolution might have arrived at a similar method for sharing nutrients, but these were not their children as far as he knew. Any maternal overtones were the product of his own human hangups. He was starting to get tired of this whole affair. He was trying to keep an open mind, but if his mind got any more open, then his brain might fall out of his skull.

Where did this honey come from? It must be rendered from something else, what was there to eat on Jarilo? His blood ran cold as he remembered Kaz's remarks about the animals, how she had said that the forest seemed to have been drained of fauna, as if the native species were fleeing the valley. This might be where they had all gone, eaten by the Bugs and rendered into nutrient goo to feed their army. It was only conjecture, but it seemed likely. The UNN was not too concerned about their ecological impact on the planets that they colonized, they were fighting for survival after all, but the idea of stripping an entire valley of life to fuel the war machine seemed monstrous to Walker.

He stood aside, letting the other Bugs pass him, a short Worker waddling past and climbing into the welcoming arms of the Replete. As more and more were fed, he could see the Replete's sacks visibly draining, shrinking as the fluid within them was consumed. Rather than leaving flaps of stretched skin, the material was remarkably flexible, retaining its shape as it shrank back down to its original size.

As efficient as the Bugs were, it still took a while for the whole group to feed. While the room was packed with individuals from every caste that he had seen so far, this could not be the whole hive, there must be many rooms such as this spread throughout the tunnel network. Just how big was this place? How many Bugs lived here?

Hive ships were smaller than jump carriers, and it had always been assumed that only a few hundred Bugs would have been able to live on one for any length of time, but that assumption relied on human standards of living. Perhaps they had been packed like sardines, making use of every inch of available space in a way that humans just wouldn't have been able to tolerate, or was it possible that they just reproduced at a rate that far exceeded anyone's expectations? In either case, the ground war did not look like it was leaning in the UNN's favor.

Feeding time seemed to be over, the Bugs had eaten their fill, and they were starting to file out of the room. The Repletes were mostly empty, their huge bellies and hanging breasts had shrunk back down as if they were made of elastic, leaving them with flat chests and abdomens that resembled those of their fellows. Not all of the food had been eaten however, a handful of the Repletes were still bloated with the amber fluid, reminding Walker of pregnant women as they held their heavy bellies and walked with a cautious determination. He was surprised to see some of the heavier ones drop down onto all fours, using their lower pair of legs to walk, their swaying bellies hanging beneath them. That was why their lower limbs were so heavily reinforced, to let them move about while at full capacity. They might be moving to another room to feed a different group of Bugs, or perhaps their stock of honey would be consumed the following day.

Now the different castes were breaking off into groups, the Drones going down one tunnel, the Workers and Pilots heading towards their own respective exits. There was an aura of fatigue about them, their relaxed pheromones instilling a desire to yawn in Walker as Fig took his wrist in its hand, leading him towards the group of Workers that was filing out of the room. It was impossible to tell what time of day it was in these dirt tunnels, lit only by the luminescent moss that clung to the ceiling, but he got the distinct impression that it was the end of their day.

Contrary to popular belief, ants did sleep. The Queens could slumber for anywhere up to nine hours, while the Workers took a series of short naps throughout the day, ensuring that the maximum possible number were awake at any one time. The Betelgeusians were sentient, far smarter than earth ants, and so it stood to reason that they would require more sleep. The Krell and the Borealans slept, the UNN had not encountered any species thus far that didn't. Although science understood little about the process or its purpose, it seemed to become increasingly necessary as the complexity of the animal in question grew.

It was intoxicating. Walker found his eyelids growing heavy as the sleepy pheromones washed over him, his body responding to the signals. He was ready to turn in, the day had been long and trying, but he had expected Fig to lead him back to his cell when they had finished with their alien job hunt. This was a different tunnel, however, Walker was becoming adept at identifying the different scents. If they weren't going back to his cell, that might pose a problem, his MREs and his water were back there. He hadn't eaten or drunk anything since Fig had come to collect him, it had been at least twelve hours or more. Fig had obviously expected him to feed with the rest of the hive, the concept that Walker might have done otherwise would not have crossed its mind. They lived regimented lives, and his divergent behavior seemed to be a source of perpetual surprise and frustration to the Bugs around him.

Could Walker make his way back to the cell under his own power if it became necessary for his survival? Yes, he was pretty confident that he could follow his nose. The more time he spent in this hive, the more the different scents and pheromones jumped out at him. He found that he was making a mental map of the tunnels that he traveled in much the same way that he would take note of landmarks and points of interest in the field so that he might orient himself in hostile territory. He was surprised by how quickly his new senses were merging with his old ones, his brain adapting to this new environment remarkably quickly.

As they marched down the tunnel the column of Workers narrowed, shifting towards one side of the dirt passage. Walker was a head taller than the Bugs, and so he could see over them, watching as a second column of Workers passed them to the right. These were alert, energetic, a few of them turning their heads to watch him as they walked by. Efficiency was the name of the game in this self-contained society, and Walker was certain that these Workers had just woken up. They would be resuming their tasks with a minimal delay as the different groups cycled through.

They continued down the winding passages, and Walker wondered how the Bugs planned them. It seemed random to him, chaotic, the tunnels rising and falling as they branched off in directions that didn't make any sense. What might a map of this place look like? He would have liked to make one, had they not confiscated his wrist-mounted computer.

They emerged into a new chamber made of packed dirt, smaller than the large domes that contained the factories, about the size of an average subway station. There was less luminescent moss clinging to the ceiling than in other parts of the colony, and while it wasn't completely dark, the glow barely served to light the room. It was even warmer and more humid here, bordering on unpleasant, but the Bugs seemed to like it. They spread out into the space, jostling as they found places to sit and lie down, personal space was apparently not in their vocabulary.

It was clear that they were going to sleep, and Fig led him over to one of the clusters of Bugs, shuffling into a pile of maybe five or six and trying to pull Walker in. This did not look like an environment where he'd be getting his regulation eight, and so he struggled, trying to pull away. Fig's grip was like iron, and the Workers around his handler reached out to grab him, two dozen pairs of hands gripping his fatigues as he fell forward into their midst.

Once again he resigned himself, sitting on the dirt floor as the Workers around him shifted and moved about, the ground surprisingly soft now that he thought about it. The resin that they usually used to seal in the soil was not present on the floor, it was fresh and a little damp from the humidity. He had slept in far more uncomfortable places in his time.

He wasn't sure what the Workers were doing, but whatever it was, they weren't sleeping. They began to fawn over each other, their many hands seeming to stroke their immediate neighbor's shells, brushing off dirt and rapping on each other's carapaces. It reminded him of the way that the Drones had calmed the upset Workers earlier in the day, petting them. Perhaps the Bugs found the percussive sensation somehow soothing. They were grooming one another like monkeys, fingers probing into the breaks between their chitinous plates, picking put any flecks of soil that might have become lodged in there during the day. Most of them were diggers who spent their time covered in dirt, it made sense for them to groom one another at the end of the day.

This must be how they bathed, and it might be a form of bonding too. Ants cleaned their antennae meticulously, and many species of insect were remarkably clean, like the cockroaches who so notoriously hurried away to wash themselves when touched by a human.

He felt hands grasping at his clothing, several of the Bugs exploring, seemingly confused by his fatigues. The Betelgeusians did not seem to wear clothes, but the Drones wore armor, perhaps they would be able to draw a parallel?

His suspicion was confirmed as they began to tug at his jacket, figuring out that it was some kind of artificial material and that his true body lay beneath it. He tried to fight them off, he wasn't being restrained in any way, but the sheer number of Bugs that were boxing him in and tugging at his garments made escape impossible.

He did not fear them, he knew that they meant him no harm. The Workers seemed to have no concept of violence, and their pheromones were reassuringly calm and curious. This was another line that he did not intend to cross, however. He had to make his displeasure known to them at some point.

Their claw-like fingers found their way beneath his clothes. They were dull, and the Bug's exoskeletons were somewhat flexible, reminding him of softer plastics. He shivered as he felt their hands pull open his jacket and roam across his skin, their expressive eyes wide and curious as they leaned in closer to examine his alien physiology. There were two dozen hands roaming across his chest and belly, more on his back, and he flinched as he felt one of them run its fingers down his spine. They would never have been this close to a vertebrate before, nor a mammal, a warm body with an endoskeleton must be a novel thing indeed.

They were gentle in their explorations, tracing the lines of his ribs, pausing at his nipples and his navel to examine them. His muscles were a curiosity to them, and they tested their firmness, prodding softly and letting his flesh spring back. More Bugs were joining the group now, leaning in to place a hand on his body, those that were too far away to reach him rubbernecking instead.

He twitched in surprise as he felt something warm and wet on the back of his neck, snapping his head back to see one of the Bug licking him, its tongue long and sinuous like a worm in its own right. It left a smear of that sticky saliva, Walker reaching an arm behind his head to wipe it away, and it clung to his fingers with the consistency of jelly.

Had the Worker just wanted to taste him? No, the other Bugs were doing the same, polishing each other's smooth shells with their winding tongues. It was like they were buffing a car, the strokes of their muscular organs cleaning away any dirt and giving their carapaces a bright sheen. These were such deeply social creatures, innocent in a way, and he had to admit that he found their care and nurturing nature somewhat endearing.

During the opening years of his military service, he had hated the Betelgeusians with a fiery passion. He had referred to them as roaches, buggers, reveling in his spite along with his fellow soldiers. The Bugs had deserved their hatred, they were needlessly aggressive, incapable of diplomacy and cruelly callous towards their enemies. They employed painful and unethical weapons against civilian population as well as against enemy combatants, respecting no rules of engagement and seeming to desire only the extermination of any foreign species that occupied their chosen planets.

Over time Walker had grown tired of hatred. As he had gained experience, so too had he started to see the war in a different light. You could not hold an animal in contempt, you could not expect civil or rational behavior from creatures so alien, and thus his malice had subsided. It had been replaced with a sense of duty. The Bugs needed to be removed for the safety of UNN and Coalition worlds, they were a threat to civilized life, and so he took on the role of an exterminator. His kills were clinical, methodical. When he shot a Bug he did not feel pride or enmity, it merely put him one step closer to solving a larger problem.

He was reminded of a famous quote from old Earth. A reporter had asked a sniper, embroiled in one of the many conflicts of the era, what he felt when he shot an enemy. The sniper had shrugged his shoulders and replied, recoil.

This new, more sympathetic side of the Bugs was making him reconsider his position. They were not mindless machines whose only desires were to kill and feed, and although he wasn't about to start regretting his military career, he would have to reevaluate his position. They were still the enemy, these new revelations did not diminish their abhorrent actions during the war in any way, but there was something deeper going on here. He would have to get to the bottom of it.

He was roused from his thoughts by an alien hand sneaking below his belt line, making him jump, and he batted the questing limb away. It was soon replaced by more, they had removed his jacket, and now they would remove his pants. He fought against them, but to no avail. Even if he was to punch one squarely in the face, it would do little against their hard exoskeletons. He didn't want to get violent with them either, he knew that they were just curious, trying to involve him in their daily routine as best they could manage despite his alien physiology.

He felt a tongue lash at his neck again, warm and wet with their special brand of viscous saliva, tickling his skin as it writhed. One of the Bugs was attempting to wash him, and though he had no shell, the insect was not deterred. Perhaps it enjoyed his taste, his skin was covered in salt due to the exertion during his brief stint as a tunnel digger.

They were fascinated by his hair, too. One of them ran its dexterous lower hands across his head, stroking him in a way that might have been quite pleasant under different circumstances.

Fortunately for Walker, his belt was an enigma to the aliens, an exotic locking device that they could not comprehend. Several of them crowded around, leaning Walker back against the Bugs behind him as they fumbled with the clasp, confused pheromones filling the air that only served to attract more Workers. They were curious creatures indeed, fixated on the problem at hand, Walker forgetting his discomfort as he watched them.

It spoke to their social nature. When the Workers encountered a problem, they released scents into the air that alerted any individuals nearby, two heads being better than one. Working together, they finally succeeded in unfastening the clasp, Walker protesting as they pulled his trousers down around his ankles. They had neglected to remove his boots, however, and again they crowded around as they attempted to solve the enigma of his laces.

They overcame the problem remarkably quickly, they were smarter than he gave them credit for, pulling off his boots and his pants along with them. He felt more hands on his legs, so unlike the jointed limbs of the insects. They seemed fascinated by the hair on his shins. He wondered what they could feel through that shell, how sensitive their fingers were. Did they approximate the human sense of touch or was it like feeling something through a thick glove?

He felt more tongues now, a Worker with a deep purple shell and a horn like an elk leaning down to drag the damp organ across his belly. The tip snaked into his navel, making him shudder, leaving snail trails of goo. Another was washing his inner thigh, its slimy tongue grazing his erogenous zones.

This was all becoming a bit much for him. There was a bulge in his underwear, Walker could never have been aroused by these alien insects, but his body was responding to them regardless of his feelings on the matter. One of them seemed to smell the dirt that still remained on his fingers, the tips stained black from when he had been digging earlier in the day, and he felt its tongue take hold. It guided his hand towards its mouth, its oral opening scarcely large enough to pass both his digit and its tongue, drawing his index finger inside. The Workers did not seem to eat solids, only the honey from the Repletes, their mouthparts looked ill-suited to much else.

It was warm inside, Walker grimacing as he felt fleshy walls close around his digit, the material similar in texture to the inner cheeks of a human. The alien's drool made it slippery and wet, and there was a powerful suction as the Worker cleaned off the dirt, again lending credence to his theory that all they ate was honey.

More of them crowded around, sucking his fingers, their long tongues glancing across his skin as they washed him.

It was so hot in this chamber, he couldn't think straight. The muggy air was making sweat pour from his body, and the aliens were licking it off him like he was a damned ice cream cone. They might be treating him as a living mineral lick. Many animals visited mineral deposits to lick away the nutrients and biometals in order to supplement their diets, it was common for farmers and hunters to leave out blocks of salt for their animals. Human sweat contained sodium and chloride, bicarbonate and calcium, along with other electrolytes and minerals. The Bugs might well be attracted to it, perhaps gleaning some nutrition from him that they could not obtain from their diet of honey alone.

He leaned back against the Bug who was sat behind him, its four arms supporting his weight effortlessly despite its smaller stature, its tongue roaming across his shoulders and neck. All around him were more Workers, curious hands probing, eager tongues tasting every inch of his skin.

Sparks were flying in his brain, his beleaguered body twitching and shivering at every touch, the sensation was overwhelming. His erection was beating like a heart now, straining against the fabric of his shorts, a purely physiological reaction. At least that's what he kept telling himself. More of them were coming over to see what all the fuss was about, as if Walker was the center of the room, every Bug clamoring to get a taste of him.

There was something else in the air too, something that was tickling at his new sensory organ. It was musky, thick, a scent like strawberries that came through pink and syrupy. It was so hard to describe, his brain fumbling as it passed the information through familiar filters, like a kind of synesthesia. With a start he realized that it was coming from him, seeping through his pores, pheromones that were piggybacking on his sweat. The Bugs seemed especially interested in it, tasting it on his skin as they licked, nipping at him with their hard mandibles and chittering. They became excited, the air in the chamber filling with their own scents, a reciprocity of pink pheromones. There were other emotions mixed in, expectation, urgency. What was happening?

Could it be possible that this new organ not only allowed him to sense pheromones, but to produce them too? Would it be possible to communicate with them directly as they did with one another?

He felt chitinous fingers tug at the elastic of his waistband, dragging down his underwear, his member bouncing free. The pheromones were clouding his mind, his breath becoming ragged, a heat rising in his cheeks. He had never been so aroused. His heart was hammering in his chest, his mind fogging as their scents washed over him.

The sensation was similar to the others that he had felt during his explorations of the hive, the signals in the pheromones inducing a powerful, almost primal urge in him. To eat, to follow, and now...to mate.

He could fight it, overcome it if he had wanted to, but when combined with his own brand of human excitement it was a powerful aphrodisiac indeed. He found himself making excuses like a horny teenager, anything to justify indulging the burning need that was rising within him. He told himself that nobody would ever find out, that the pheromones were controlling his mind, but deep down he knew that it wasn't true.

He felt as if the sensory organ had tapped into the deepest and most base recesses of his brain, bypassing his conscious mind as it communicated with his primal instincts directly, his evolutionary source code. The clouds of pheromones that the Bugs were emitting were making his mouth water, the scent of females powerful and prominent in his mind. It was not the Bugs themselves that smelled so enticing, but once again his brain was filtering the information as best it could, correlating the scents with his own memories and experiences. They flashed in his mind like a slide show, each smell linked with some long forgotten memory.

The smell of a lover's hair as he plunged his face into the nape of her neck, an orgasm wracking his body. The feminine musk of an ex-girlfriend's loins as he kissed her inner thigh, subtle at the time, now amplified tenfold. The perfume that his first date had worn, the flavor of her lip balm when she had kissed him. There was the taste of sweat borne from lovemaking, the scent of a woman, an entire language that had gone almost unnoticed in those fleeting moments. His conscious mind had barely registered them, his partner's bodies communicating with his own in ways that neither of them had ever been aware of, passing each other notes while their higher functions had been so distracted by lust and yearning.

He felt a tongue curl around his erection, a pulse of pleasure washing over him, powerful enough to force his eyes closed. A chorus rang out through the room, if a smell could have been deafening, then this pheromone would have made him cover his ears.


They knew what his erection was, what it was for, and the sweet pheromones that leaked from his pores served only to goad them on. They could literally smell the arousal on him, and he could smell theirs, creating a feedback loop of sexual signals that was building towards an inevitable crescendo. The Workers smelled this way for a reason, his brain was interpreting their scents accurately enough. They were all females.

Much like in an ant hive, the vast majority of the Betelguesians must be females, with the reproductive males housed somewhere else in the colony. The winged Drones, that must be the answer, they had to be the males of the species. On Earth, the winged males would leave the ant colony to find new Queens and fertilize them, their only purpose in life being to mate. The Drones, Workers, and Warriors were all females who were usually incapable of reproduction, but that depended on the species. It was the Queen who decided the ratio of males to females in her hive, secreting a chemical that retarded wing growth and ovary development in her larvae.

The Betelgeusian reproductive method must be similar, there must be a Queen in this maze of tunnels somewhere, laying eggs as she presided over her growing brood.

Why then were the Workers so excited by him, and by the prospect of mating? Was it his own fault, did the winged males have a high standing in this society, and were any needs that they announced tended to? Was Walker releasing male pheromones as a result of his arousal, and not by conscious choice?

Perhaps the females desired to mate at all times, and the winged males were kept segregated in order to prevent unwanted or unsanctioned reproduction? Perhaps this was a higher function. They were sentient creatures, after all, they might just want to get laid now that they had a male on hand.

In any case, he now had a foot of muscular tongue wrapped around his erection. The other Bugs watched their sister as they blinked their wide, blue eyes at him. There were two dozen hands stroking him, rubbing his chest and belly, massaging his shoulders. The Bugs liked to be petted, and so did humans, their methods were not so different. Every so often one of the Workers would lean in and nibble at him with her mandibles, pinching his flesh as she licked away his sweat, as if testing whether he was edible or not.

The Worker who had wrapped her sinuous tongue around his cock drew it towards her mouth, more of her sisters crowding to either side of her, their own organs shooting forth to wet his balls and his belly as their ornate horns jostled. Their probing was exploratory, curious, but no less stimulating as they left trails of their thick saliva that clung to his skin with the consistency of liquid soap.

He felt the Worker's mandibles crawl down his shaft like hard fingers. They looked sharp, but they were actually very dull. They might be vestigial, perhaps at some point in their evolutionary history, these insects had been able to eat solid food. Beneath the mouthparts was discolored flesh, pink and soft, the oral opening resembling a vagina now that he thought about it. It was a vertical slit, usually protected behind the closed mandibles, now splayed open by her tongue. Strands of thick drool hung from the orifice, falling to wet his member as it pulsed an inch from her strange lips. She pressed his tender glans against the hole, scarcely large enough to pass her tongue. As a jolt of pleasure rolled through him, he wondered if it would even fit. What was she even trying to accomplish? Was this the way that they mated, or was she actually trying to pleasure him?

She pulled him in, her coiled tongue and her finger-like mandibles gripping his member, now slippery with clear goo. The head of his cock broke through with a pop after a moment of resistance, the sensitive underside scraping against her smooth tongue, and he was met by a suction that forced a gasp from his lips. The fleshy inner lining of her mouth was pressing down on him from all sides, warm and coated in her saliva, slimy and with the consistency of gel. It felt like someone had taken a condom that was a size too small and had filled it with KY jelly, and now they were attempting to fit it over his member. Unlike a human mouth, the cheeks were not to either side, but closing around him in every direction. There was no jaw, no teeth, just a muscular tube designed for sucking out liquid food. She used that powerful suction to draw him deeper. She was like a damned vacuum, her muscles rolling up his cock in waves. She got about halfway down his shaft, that syrupy drool leaking from her mouth to wet his pubic hair. Their messy coupling would have been impossible without the aid of the thick lubricant. God, it was like the tightest deepthroat imaginable, and he was sharing the narrow passage with her roiling tongue. It was about as thick around as his member at the base, before slowly tapering into a thinner and more worm-like organ as it neared the tip. It was as soft and as smooth as the human equivalent, wriggling and twisting as it jostled for space, inadvertently licking and teasing as Walker loosed a pained groan.

Her sisters watched intently, their expressive eyes fixated on his member as it jumped and throbbed in her mouth, the rest of the group continuing their licking and pawing. He now noticed a definite affection in their fawning, it was no longer merely exploratory, now the soft strokes of their fingers on his torso and the wet kisses on his neck and belly were distinctly sexual. He smelled like a male, and that was apparently enough to draw the entire room to him, to lock the Bugs into a kind of reproductive trance. He hoped that they weren't all expecting a turn, he would pass out from exhaustion before he even got halfway through them. If that was their intent, then male Betelgeusians must be sexual powerhouses indeed.

He winced as his partner succeeded in pulling him deeper, her mandibles splaying open as she took him to the base, their dull points pressing into his thighs. She let her long tongue loll, hanging limply from her mouth, the slimy organ resting on his balls.

There was a back and forth to a conventional blowjob, whereby the giving party thrust the receiver's member in and out of their mouth in order to stimulate them, but there was none of that here. Rather than bob her head on his shaft, the Bug trapped him in there, taking him as deep as she could manage while her rhythmic sucking made stars dance before his eyes. It felt as if she was trying to draw his emission from his body through her suction alone, the fleshy tube that was her throat growing tighter and tighter as her muscles milked him in rolling waves.

The thick saliva was pooling on the soil between his legs, matting his hair and coating his loins like she was trying to cast a mold from liquid silicone. It was so viscous, so stringy, and yet it did not seem to be hardening. When they used their secretions to seal the dirt walls of the tunnels, it solidified into a tough material that resembled clear plastic. Now it was remaining in a liquid state, warm and gooey like hot glue. Did that imply that they had some measure of control over its properties?

Her lips were sealed around the base of his member, her sucking relentless, her tongue rubbing against his sweet spot in just the right way as it pressed against his glans from below. He wondered if she would ever need to come up for air, then remembered that insects breathed through pores in their abdomens called spiracles. She could potentially keep this up indefinitely, never needing to take a breath. She couldn't choke, and her entire digestive system was designed for drawing liquid from the source. Perhaps humans and Betelgeusians could find common ground after all...

There were a dozen tongues worming their way across his skin, seeking out his pheromone-laden sweat as if it was some kind of ambrosia to them. As fate would have it, the smell seemed to be concentrated around his erogenous zones, leaving him shivering and jerking as they dragged their slimy tongues across his most sensitive anatomy. He had given in to the pleasure now, his reservations forgotten. It just felt too good to resist. He had struggled to keep the attention of one woman in his life, never mind a room full of them. While his conscious mind knew well that they were giant insects, their scent was intoxicating, as if they had bottled the smell of femininity itself and were using it as a pungent perfume.

One of them loomed over him, its four hands stroking his chest, and it sat across his belly as its sister continued her remorseless sucking below her. Walker was propped up by the Bug behind him. They might only be around four feet tall, but they were incredibly strong. This new one put herself at eye level with him, her shell a light blue in color, with pink discoloration around her mouth and her wide eyes. They were not glassy and vacant like those of animal, they were bright and alive, and she met his gaze as she batted her long lashes. Her mandibles opened, her tongue slowly extending, ropes of her saliva hanging from it as it neared his mouth. He wanted to pull away, to turn his head, but her smell was so inviting at this range. The scents were accompanied by memories, the smell of an ex-partner as he pressed his face between her ample breasts, the taste of her sweat on his tongue.

The blue Bug took his face in her lower pair of hands, gentle and dexterous, her palms cool against his warm cheeks. She pressed closer, surprisingly tender, her long organ pushing against his closed lips as she sought a way inside. He gave in, opening his mouth and allowing her sinuous tongue to worm its way in, brushing against his inner cheeks and his palate as she began her clumsy explorations.

She pushed her face up against his, her mandibles gripping his cheeks like a hand, a shiver of pleasure coursing down Walker's spine as a foot of pink tongue piled into his head. Her flavor was sweet, with an aftertaste that reminded him of honey, and he suppressed a gag as she licked the back of his throat. Her drool clung to his chin, dripping forth to roll down his naked chest in fat globs, the kiss so deep and lascivious that it made his head spin. It was as if she had emptied a bottle of personal lubricant into her mouth before leaning in for the kiss, it coated her tongue in a slippery layer as it coiled around his own, woefully small in comparison.

All the while her sister nursed at his cock as if she was trying to pull it up by the roots, a tight tunnel of form-fitting flesh clinging to his member. He could feel every twitch, every spasm, shooting into his brain like a hot knife. He felt his hips thrusting of their own accord, attempting to push deeper, but she clung to him so tightly that her head simply moved in tandem. She was like a goddamned barnacle.

The salacious kiss dragged on, his eyes watering as the Bug pushed her way into his gullet, giving him no respite as she painted every inch of his mouth with her sugar-flavored slime. She didn't give him room to breathe, her mouth locked to his and sealed like two docking spacecraft. She might not know how lungs worked, and Walker felt fortunate to be able to breathe through his nose.

He felt another of the insects nibble his hip with her mandibles, her tongue darting forth to taste his skin, the one that was sitting behind him pushing her wet organ into one of his ears as she rubbed her face in his hair. Fortunately, her prehensile tongue was too thick to get very deep. They did not have ears that Walker could see, and they wouldn't be aware that sticking things in them was a bad idea. Instead, she withdrew, licking his neck and pinching his earlobe in her mouthparts as she fussed over him.

Someone's fingers were tracing his spine, he couldn't see whose, and another of the colorful Bugs was sucking one of his fingers. The stimulation was making his nervous system short-circuit. There were too many sensations at once, coming from too many sources. He was overwhelmed, awash in tingling pleasure, his mind taking a back seat as if to watch what was happening to his body from a safe distance.

The Bug that was straddling his belly finally released him from her sucking kiss, her long tongue sliding out of his mouth like a giant strand of spaghetti, linked to his lips by a thick rope of her saliva that broke and fell heavily to his chest. He felt something strange against his stomach, wet, and looked down between her segmented legs.

The Bugs had a conical structure on their groins about the size and shape of a small pear, and Walker had dismissed it as being part of their exoskeletons, a kind of chitinous codpiece. Hers was now opening, splaying wide to reveal pink flesh that glistened with moisture, like three fingers parting as they exposed her leaking hole. More clear juice flowed from it, the same consistency as her saliva, pooling on his belly. These were her genitals, he realized, so alien as to be barely recognizable. The three fingers were prehensile it seemed, pressing flat against his skin and seeming to kiss him, smearing her juices on his stomach as they sought out his member. She was out of luck, however, as his erection was still lodged in her sister's mouth, the eager Bug's muscular throat keeping up its ardent sucking.

It was becoming too much for him, and he felt a pressure welling in his loins, the incessant massage of her silky passage pushing him towards the edge. It was as if a firm fist was rolling up and down his shaft through the damp silk of her throat, the contractions and the rhythmic squeezing of her muscles enough to daze him, her tongue struggling for space as his swollen member filled her to capacity. His hips rose from the dirt floor, frustrated by the weight of the Bug who was sitting upon his belly, watching him intently with her alien eyes.

A jolt of wracking pleasure tore through him, causing him to arch his spine and grit his teeth, an orgasm so raw and intense that it could almost have been described as painful cramping his muscles.

He felt her react as a flood of his warm ejaculate filled her mouth, her cheeks squeezing tighter, drawing it out of him as he bucked impotently. He expected her to break away, to let the wad of milky come leak from her mouth, but she held him there as another wave of pleasure crashed over him. It was as if she enjoyed the taste of it, perhaps she liked the salt or the protein, who knew. What he did know, was that she was sucking the emission from his body with a force that made him feel as if his nervous system had been hooked up to a jump drive.

His muscles tensed over and over, burning as they expelled load after load into her eager throat, splashing against her velvet flesh in quantities that Walker would not have thought himself capable of producing. It just kept going, his body coursing with tingling electricity, every pulse and throb met with stronger and more ardent sucking.

It was finally over, and he awoke as if from a dream, his afterglow drowning him in euphoria. The Bug withdrew with some difficulty, his member leaving her mouth with a wet pop. It was swollen, he could feel it as it throbbed in the air, she must have drawn more blood into it with the force of her suction.

She had not spilled a drop of it, leaving him clean save for the slimy saliva that coated his lingering erection in a thick glaze, and he twitched as he felt several of the nearby Workers lean in to examine him more closely. Their prehensile tongues left their mouths, gliding across his skin, made slippery by the alien goop. They seemed disappointed, expectant. Their sister had been greedy, and she had kept all of his honey for herself.

The extra stimulation sent an aftershock rippling through him, making him groan as his body tensed one last time, releasing a bead of ejaculate that welled at the tip of his glans. Immediately they set upon him, their worm-like organs coiling and battling with one another as they jostled for a taste, scouring his tender flesh as he lay back and basked in the ecstasy of it.

Well, he had jumped into the deep end now. Fraternizing with the enemy was one thing, letting them blow you was quite another. This was one experience that he intended to leave out of his reports. He felt a little dirty, a little ashamed of himself, but it was a knife too dull to cut through his post-coital bliss.

The Bugs did not seem to be done, however. They watched him expectantly, the scent of their emotions filling his nose. They wanted something from him, expected more, and he was able to make out something new that was woven into the pheromones. It was more than a smell, more than a simple emotion, complex and nuanced. A word, a concept being communicated through the medium of scent.


The realization shocked him. It was language, he had learned his first Betelgeusian word. Elation added to his lingering sense of satisfaction and euphoria. It might not have been a significant achievement was this a language like any other, learning a new word in French or Elysian would not be anything to write home about. But this...this was a word learned through an entirely new sense, as if he had reached a hand into the aether and had plucked out an entirely new concept, a new frame of reference.

What they wanted was obvious, but his erection was diminishing, the Workers looking on in disappointment. Apparently refractory periods were not in their vocabulary either. The one who had drunk from the source so to speak, was sitting on the soil between his parted legs, apparently satisfied as she licked her mouthparts. The others crowded him, now knowing that he was capable of producing something that they wanted but unsure of how to make him do it again. The female pheromones were overpowering, he felt like he was in a trance, but his body would need time to recover. Fifteen minutes usually did the trick, and then he'd be ready for round two. There seemed to be no other option than to indulge the restless creatures.

Never the less, their hands roamed across his body, testing every inch of his skin. Fingers groped his thighs, traced the contours of his abdominal muscles, drew shapes on his palms and ran through his hair. They treated him as if he were a machine to be figured out, trying to find the button or the command that would spur him into action, make him repeat his feat. Tongues lashed at his neck and belly, more of the Bugs leaning down to examine his loins, their winding organs teasing and stroking as they fought each other for space.

If the Admirals themselves had shown up at the door and had ordered him not to enjoy what was happening to him, he doubted that he would have been able to comply.

He gritted his teeth as the Worker that was sat upon his stomach ground her hips against him, her strange loins still leaking their thick juices on his skin. The scent of it rose to his nose, like liquid desire, an invitation too tantalizing to resist as his brain associated it with all things luscious and enticing. It couldn't have been more than a few minutes, and yet he felt himself getting hard again, his cock bouncing with the beat of his heart as it flooded with warm blood. Her fluids were like an aphrodisiac, it drove him wild.

She reached behind her with one of her lower arms and took his erection in her hand, letting it pulse between her fingers, laying claim to it before one of her sisters beat her to the punch. They likely had nerves that extended far into their carapaces, she must be able to feel him throb or she would not linger in the way that she did. God, that scent was like a drug. The female pheromones had been one thing, but the sweet nectar that dripped from between her legs roused an unbridled lust in him, saliva pooling in his mouth.

Sex with aliens was not taboo, he had slept with Kaz as many times as he had eaten hot dinners, it was practically a tradition in the Corps at this point. Borealans were so like humans, however, their anatomy so deliciously compatible. Despite their size and strength, they didn't have anything beneath their jumpsuits that wasn't immediately familiar to a human.

These Betelgeusians were a different story, however. They weren't even mammals, their bodies were strange and alien. He wasn't sure if they would be compatible, who knew what a Betelgeusian penis looked like or how it functioned? He felt compelled to try none the less. He had come this far, and her scent was maddening, as if it was reaching deep into his cerebellum in order to stimulate his most base animal urges.

The Workers around her looked on with jealousy, Walker sensing the urgent need in them, but he got the impression that they were too social to squabble and fight over such things. Still they stared at him, a hundred eyes watching through the gloom with a covetous intensity as their sister shuffled down towards his member and poised over it, a thirst that could not be quenched.

His self-declared partner hovered over him, her strange genitals spread open, like three webbed fingers as they exposed the pink flesh beneath. It must close up to protect her loins, perhaps to keep them moist or maybe to deny access to errant males so that the population of the hive did not increase exponentially. He watched with drooping eyelids, her viscous excitement flowing from her opening in thick strings, falling to his member as if to lubricate it in preparation of their coupling. They might well need it, she was small, and he wasn't sure that he would even fit. The winged Drones were closer to human height, but of all the animals recorded by science, humans were some of the most disproportionately well endowed.

She did not seem deterred, perhaps his assumptions had been wrong, and he gasped as her fingers closed around the head of his cock. They were prehensile, gentle, she seemed to have fine control over them. While her bud was armored on the outside, its inner lining was as soft and as slippery as the inside of their mouths, and he shivered as what felt like satin soaked in honey rubbed against his skin. She used the finger-like appendages to guide him towards her opening, lowering herself down and skewering herself on his erection, so tight that he worried that his member might bend under the pressure before it broke through the resistance. Her tunnel gripped him with a strength that rivaled that of even a Borealan, and as she took him deeper, he realized that it was ribbed. It had ridges on the inside, like he was sticking his cock into a stack of donuts, and his eyes rolled back into his head as the fleshy ribs rolled down his shaft.

Every ridge that scraped across his glans sent a jolt of pleasure coursing through his body, like someone was shocking his pelvic muscles with a damned defibrillator. Her muscles squeezed around him so tightly that had her passage not been so wet, he feared that the friction would have taken off his skin. Her lower pair of hands rested on his belly, the upper pair reaching down to hold his hips for purchase, and Walker could not help himself but thrust up into her.

She was small enough that he could lift her off the floor, and he felt her hard fingers dig into him to keep her balance, pheromones that conveyed excitement joining the wonderful scent of her juices. He could have bottled the damned stuff and used it as an erectile dysfunction treatment. It was fogging his mind, making him feel like he was a horny teenager again. He gripped her flared hips for leverage, her exoskeleton hard beneath his fingers, yet pliant like soft plastic. Her shell was dry to the touch, but there was a warmth to her, her insides clenching at his touch.

He rocked his head back, gritting his teeth against the fresh surge of pleasure. She was crushing him between her velvet walls. Whenever he tried to pull back, she tightened around him, like a Chinese finger trap that someone had filled with butter. The three, finger-like appendages were pressed flat against his groin, but they curled as if trying to grip him. Perhaps the male was expected to ejaculate immediately, but that wasn't how humans did things.

He did his best to pull out of her despite her powerful hold on him, and she seemed to think that he was trying to break loose, one of the ridges catching behind his glans and making his head spin. He managed to get about halfway out of her, and then he tightened his grip on her waist, pulling her back down. He slammed his rigid member as deep as it would go, feeling her muscles spasm around him as she took him to the hilt, the Bug's mandibles opening and her tongue falling out to hang limply from her mouth. Her fingers dug into his skin, her small body twitching softly as a strand of drool fell to his belly, her armored thighs quivering as they closed around him like a vice.

The bumps and ridges of her sex were driving Walker crazy, he felt like he was foaming at the mouth, the urge to thrust was so overpowering that his body might as well have been put on autopilot. This time she used her strong upper arms to lift herself off him, quickly getting the picture, her creamy excitement escaping from her loins as they dragged up his shaft. She fit him like a glove, an ache permeating his member as she squeezed it, smooth alien muscle seeming to flex and ripple as it enclosed him. Again the head of his cock caught on one of her ridges, as if someone had reached inside the Worker and was squeezing his glans between their thumb and index finger, a grunt escaping his lips as the pleasure tore through him.

She dropped down on him, forcing his member deep inside her again. He must be stretching her to capacity, but she showed no signs of discomfort. Her tongue drooped from her mouth, mandibles twitching, eyes fixated on his body as he shivered beneath her. He felt her secondary hands stroking his belly, moving up to explore his abdominal muscles. She seemed quite taken with his alien anatomy as she slowly rocked her hips back and forth.

Walker could feel every one of the fleshy ribs as they slid up and down his shaft, almost painful in their intensity, as if each one was an independent ring of muscle that she could leverage to grip him. He remarked that his body temperature was a lot higher than hers. She must be acutely aware of that fact, his member was like a hot iron as it throbbed inside her.

His heart leapt as he looked down at her. She was surprisingly cute for a giant insect, her eyes were large and sympathetic. She had a flat chest, but her hips had a pleasant flare to them, and she writhed and flexed in the most enticing of ways as she sat atop him. He could see her pink meat moving beneath her hard carapace, notably on her belly, where the segmented plates seemed to shift as if they were floating on water. Her exoskeleton might be hard, but she was as soft as velvet on the inside, and he gritted his teeth as she rose on her strong upper arms again.

She was finding a rhythm now, slow and heavy, the walls of her exotic vagina sticking to him like a damned suction cup. He could feel the tug as she rose, then the resistance when she came back down, the wet squelch of their messy lovemaking rising to his ears. Shame was but a distant memory now, and he found himself pulling her back down, increasing the force of their coupling.

Walker had no idea if this Bug was capable of orgasm, or if her body worked even remotely the same way as a human woman's did, but he could smell the pleasure wafting off her like a sweet perfume. She wasn't just rutting like an animal, she was enjoying this in the same way that he was, her eyes meeting his gaze and begging for more as their bodies slammed together in a frenzied dance.

She was bouncing on his shaft now, Walker pushing up to meet her downward thrusts, the two of them finding a desperate pace as her sisters looked on enviously. He couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't think. The cloud of pheromones that permeated the room was inescapable, it was if he was feeling the second-hand emotions of every Bug in the chamber, their desire and their arousal adding to his own as they watched. He couldn't muster enough brain power to block it out, not with the Worker fucking him into the dirt. He was still sensitive from his first orgasm, and her textured loins were setting his nerves alight with a kind of harsh pleasure that burrowed into his brain like a drill.

Her passage clung to him so tightly that every tiny movement of her muscles translated into his member, her loins shifting and moving around him as they made every effort to accommodate his girth. He got the impression that he was at the higher end of what her body could tolerate. In the same sense, she was about the tightest thing he could possibly have gotten inside without tearing her apart. Was it not for her copious juices then they might have injured one another. Her thick fluids were forced from her hole with every downward motion. There just wasn't space for it inside her, and so it was pushed out of her, gluey and slimy as it glazed his groin and thighs.

They hadn't been going at it for more than a few minutes, and he had come once already, but it wasn't long before he felt a familiar pressure rising inside him. The bumpy ribs that massaged his cock were irresistible, gliding across his skin as they were eased along by her creamy emissions, her grip on him cruel and unforgiving as she drove him towards his peak. She was single-minded, as the Workers seemed to be in all of their tasks, her wide hips grinding and gyrating as if she was trying to wring him dry.

He tried to suppress the urgent feeling, wanting to savor every second of pleasure, but it was no use. She stopped dead in her tracks as his member swelled inside her, her hanging tongue curling and her dull fingers gripping him tightly as he lifted her into the air, his spine arching as he pumped a torrent of his ejaculate into her waiting loins. She seemed lost in a daze as she felt the heat of it spread through her most intimate depths, filling every crevice of her exquisite insides, her body trembling softly as she clung to him.

He felt a tremor in her velutinous walls, traveling up through her loins in waves, as if she was trying to drag him deeper inside her to ensure insemination. Another flood of his emission left his body, his muscles burning with the effort. It felt like somebody was pulling a knotted rope out of him. Each wrenching pulse was met with another crippling wave of pleasure that was driven into the core of his being like a nail through wood, a satisfied ache permeating his body in its wake. His brain was fizzing, as if somebody had replaced his brain fluid with seltzer water, electricity coursing up and down his spine like an optical cable.

The Bug stayed locked to him, taking every load as it came, a pheromone that was a deep pink in hue and smelled like vanilla washing over him as she shivered and clicked her mandibles excitedly. He couldn't be sure that she had climaxed, but she was certainly enjoying what was happening, seeming to delight in the sensation of his erection jumping inside of her as it pumped his essence into her welcoming tunnel. It felt like there was a firm hand coaxing more of it out of him, her ribbed insides rolling over him as they squeezed out one last, shivering ejaculation.

There wasn't much room to spare in there, and so it squirted out of her to join her sticky juices as they pooled on his belly, forming a scandalous concoction of their sexual fluids.

He gave one last thrust, the Bug's eyelids fluttering as he emptied the last of his emission into her tunnel, her powerful muscles milking him rhythmically as if to ease out every drop that he could muster. He fell back to the dirt, the Worker releasing her hold on him, the strange fingers letting go as his member slid out of her with some difficulty. The human penis was somewhat shovel-shaped, and Walker had trouble pulling free as she rose off him, his now hypersensitive flesh catching on her ribbed passage. Each bump drove a fresh jolt of ecstasy through his body, forcing his eyes shut as he dug his fingers into the dirt beneath him. Just when he thought that he might pass out from the intense stimulation, they uncoupled, a mass of their syrupy fluids sloughing from her loins. He felt the impact of it as it fell on him, his girth such that he had practically plugged her up, trapping many of her juices and his own ejaculate inside her during their brief and passionate intercourse. They were still linked by a thick rope of clear fluid with the viscosity of molten glass.

The bawdy mixture oozed forth in fat ropes, falling to his already sodden member and leaking down onto his belly, his partner reaching down between her thighs to catch it in her hand as it drooled out of her. She raised it to her mouth, her cupped palm full of the almost gelatinous mixture, and her tongue shot out to taste it as she sucked it up with her alien mouthparts.

Walker watched with a blend of seething arousal and mild disgust as she licked her hand dry, and then flinched as he felt one of the more opportunistic of the brood sneak in past her sister, sucking his still erect member into her mouth. The rest seemed to take that as a cue, lunging forward to get a taste. They lapped at the pool of fluids on his belly and scoured his thighs with their wriggling tongues.

He was too turned on to care, and so he lay back and enjoyed the sensations, the Workers cleaning the milky residue from his lower body with their mouths as the enthusiastic Bug sucked him dry with her vacuum-like throat.

Walker was ready to keel over and fall asleep, but the Bugs had other ideas, dozens of eager eyes peering at him through the gloom. Again the pheromones dredged up old memories, linked to scents and tastes, his brain scrambling to create a patois of their alien language. He was still hard, his member sore and aching, but lust was burning in him like a smoldering fire.

The green Bug that had been cleaning the sticky fluid from his member shouldered her sisters aside, gripping his hips almost violently with her upper pair of hands, the lower taking charge of his member and guiding it towards her loins as they opened up like an eager mouth. Her fluids dripped down onto his cock, stringy and thick, and he felt his organ surge as if it was trying to reach towards her of its own volition.

He doubted that he would be allowed to rest, at least until he could no longer perform. There was no way that he could satisfy the entire brood, there were a hundred of them, but maybe he could manage three or four before his body gave out completely...


Walker was roused by the chittering of Bugs, feeling hard shells moving around him as the pile that he had been sleeping in was spurred into activity. They slept clustered together, a dozen limbs draped over his naked body, colorful carapaces pressed up against him on every side. He rubbed his eyes groggily as he rose to his feet, stifling a yawn as he got his bearings. The Workers were filing out of the room, and it seemed that he was expected to follow them. He searched for his fatigues on the floor, stooping to pick them up and hastily pulling them back on. After what had happened the night before, he had expected to wake up covered in all manner of sticky fluids and emissions, but he felt as clean as if he had just taken a lengthy shower. The Bugs had bathed him in their own way, cleaning away every trace of their activities, though he couldn't quite remember when. It was all a blur, a soup of emotions and sensations. He could recall having sex with a few of them after his first encounter but not much after that. He must have passed out at some point.

He felt something tug at his wrist and he looked down to see the familiar horn and coloration of Fig as she urged him to follow her. He was still getting used to the idea that these creatures were all females, but it was undeniable after what he had seen a few hours prior.

Fine, fine, I'm coming. I guess taking a minute to read the news feeds and get a cup of coffee is out of the question?”

She hurried him along, barely giving him enough time to button up his jacket, and they joined the column of Bugs that was heading off down the tunnel. Before long they were passed by another group, and Walker was certain that these were the Workers who had passed them the day before, returning from their shift to sleep. The hive ran like a well-oiled machine, everything carefully timed and organized to ensure maximum efficiency. The routine would have been grueling for humans, but the Bugs seemed right at home in this environment. He found himself wondering where they would put him next, what manner of strange job they'd have him trying to do.

So far it felt as if they had been trying to find a place for him in the colony, trying to ascertain what his skills were, what humans were good at. It was hard to imagine that their motives were benign, but he couldn't figure out their angle, not for the moment at least.

Every caste that lived in the hive seemed hyper-specialized. Their entire physiology was geared towards accomplishing a handful of tasks, and nothing else. The Workers had shovel-like upper hands for digging and a pair of more dexterous hands below for doing finer engineering work. The Repletes were walking food bins. When swollen with that amber liquid they were ill-suited to doing anything beyond lounging around and feeding their hungry colleagues.

The Drones were obviously fighters first and foremost, perhaps acting as police or peacekeepers when they weren't at war. The Warriors, or at least their spindly Pilots, were still an enigma to him. He had only seen a handful of them, and their only purpose that he was able to ascertain was driving those organic machines around. Might they fly the spacecraft too? It was a reasonable assumption to make. There might be other castes that he simply hadn't come across yet, hidden away somewhere in this maze of dirt tunnels, but there was one thing that he could be sure of. There was a Queen hidden somewhere in this hive. These aliens shared too many characteristics and behaviors with the social insects of Earth for it to be otherwise, there must be a leader of some kind heading this operation and birthing new Bugs for the swarm. If he could figure out her location, maybe he could pass that information on to the UNN when he escaped, and they could deal a crippling blow to the Bugs on Jarilo.

Was that what he wanted now? To drive the Bugs off and see them all killed? The more he learned about them, the more sympathetic they became. They were capable of emotion, compassion, empathy. So why did they not express it towards other species? Why the violence and the aggression, the unbridled xenophobia? It frustrated him. He was still missing pieces of this puzzle, the best thing he could do right now was to keep learning.

They came to a fork in the tunnel, and to his surprise, Fig led him away from the column of marching Workers. Walker could smell the pheromone from the factory leading up the other passage, so where was he being taken now?


A pheromone from Fig, the Bug was growing impatient, and he had learned that resisting her was pointless. He followed her down this new tunnel, winding deeper into the hive as he trailed behind her. He was learning to navigate by smell now, mapping these tunnels in his head, and he sniffed the air in an attempt to ascertain where they might be going.

There was a trail here, yellow in hue, somewhat sweet. Yes, he recognized it, he had smelled this scent before! It was the one emitted by the Repletes, the pheromone trail in this tunnel marked the way towards food.

Was Fig going to try to make him eat again? He hoped not, but he hadn't eaten for a good while, and he was certainly starting to feel the pangs of hunger now. He needed to return to his cell, he had enough food there for a good week if he rationed it. Water was another, more dangerous problem that he would have to address soon. These Bugs might drink from underground streams or wells, or perhaps the honey created by the Repletes contained all of the moisture that they needed. It was a liquid after all, so the water content must be pretty high.

If only he could communicate, but his understanding of their strange, pheromone-based language was still rudimentary. He knew now that he could emit such pheromones as well as reading them. Perhaps with time, he would be able to speak as they did. But if he didn't get some water in the next forty-eight hours, it wouldn't matter because he'd be dead.

The smell of honey grew steadily stronger as they neared their destination. There was something else too, it almost smelled like foliage. Eventually, they emerged from the winding tunnels into a large chamber. It resembled all of the others in outward appearance, a rough dome carved out of the dirt and sealed with the thick saliva that the Workers secreted, lit by clusters of luminescent moss that clung to the curved ceiling. Only the scent served to differentiate it from the other rooms in the colony.

This one was populated by Repletes, some of them lounging as they cradled their bloated bellies, others trim and flat as they gorged themselves in order to replenish their stock. The floor was piled with plant matter, everything from the fern leaves that he had seen in Jarilo's expansive forests to the branches of the coniferous trees. The Repletes looked like panda bears, sitting on the floor as they ate slowly and methodically, using the specialized blades that protruded from the wrists of their upper limbs to strip away the pine needles from their branches and to cut up their food into manageable chunks.

Where the Workers had mandibles that almost seemed vestigial, these were razor sharp and packed with powerful muscle, designed to shred and break. The Repletes might well be the only caste that ate anything solid, acting as the mouths of the colony as they passed on the nutrition that they gleaned from their food to the other castes.

Fig led him into the room, and one of the Repletes rose to its feet, this one sporting a more modest belly and a pair of breasts that were more comparable in size to those of a portly human woman. It seemed to have only recently started eating, its subtle paunch a cloudy orange in color, the liquid visible through the near transparent skin of its pouches. It approached the newcomers, a head taller than Walker, and the two aliens exchanged a series of scents. Walker concentrated hard, trying to pick up the individual words, using context to determine their meaning.





The emotions associated with the words gave him clues as to their intent. Fig was presenting the Replete with something, and the Replete was expected to use it to find the answer to some question.

Fig turned and promptly left the way she had come, Walker watching her go as a mild panic rose in his chest. Was she leaving him in the custody of this Replete? Was Walker the thing that was to be given? When would he be allowed back to his cell? Suddenly he felt like a lost child in a shopping mall, out of sight of his mother.

Hey, wait! Where are you-”

The towering Replete reached out a hand and gripped his arm, assertive, but Walker sensed no malice in her. She released a pheromone that conveyed possession, an almost maternal care. Perhaps she too could sense the emotions that he was feeling? Was he emitting them without thought, as he had done when he had slept with the Workers? It was a form of communication at least, however unrefined.

She guided him towards the center of the room, foliage crunching beneath his boots, and then she sat on the dirt with her legs crossed. She released an expectant pheromone along with a new, more complex scent, and patted the ground beside her with one of her lower arms. It was a word, sit, that much was obvious from the context.

He sat down beside her, waiting for more instructions. Every day that he spent in the company of these insects was stranger than the last. It was best to just play along and do what they wanted. It was easier than trying to fight them on everything.

This Replete had a cherry-red, iridescent shell, and a single horn that resembled the stem of a fruit. He would refer to her henceforth as Cherry. If she was to be his new ward, then Fig must have run out of Worker-related tasks for him to accomplish. Based on what she had told Cherry, find, he felt pretty confident in the assumption that they were trying to figure out what kind of work he was suited to. These Bugs were so specialized, it might not even occur to them that humans didn't have jobs, not in the way that a Betelgeusian did. These creatures were engineered to perform specific roles, either through natural selection or genetic manipulation, while humans were versatile and could perform thousands of different tasks with varying degrees of efficiency.

He might not have limbs evolved for digging, but give him a shovel, and he'd do a fair enough job of it. He didn't have saliva that could be used as glue or sealant, but with some...glue and sealant, he'd get by. He wondered what the Repletes would have him do, surely they could tell at a glance that he couldn't process raw material into nutrient paste?

Cherry reached down and picked up a long branch from one Jarilo's titanic trees, bringing it up towards her mandibles and beginning to strip it bare. He watched with fascination as her mouthparts moved mechanically, cutting away every green pine needle, moving along the branch like a hedge trimmer. She was fast, efficient, and she rapidly stripped the foliage away in a matter of seconds. When she was done, she started on the bark. She dug into the wood with her serrated mandibles, chewing away anything that might have nutritional value, aided by the blades on her wrists.

He looked around the room, seeing that the rest of the Repletes were doing the same, some taking handfuls of loose leaves and cramming them into their maws as others gnawed at gnarled branches. Were they herbivorous? It didn't seem likely, the species of ant that they so resembled were all omnivores opportunists.

He examined Cherry's growing belly, peering into the swirling amber fluid, trying to see what was inside. It was not her stomach, he realized. He could see no organs. Her digestive system must be contained somewhere inside her body, and this translucent sack was merely where the end result of that digestive process ended up. Her belly was about the size of a beach ball right now, the armored plates that lined her torso slowly splaying apart as she consumed more matter. Her breasts were of average size right now, comparable to those of a human woman, their shape and firmness surprisingly similar...

He banished the intrusive thoughts from his mind. He had already succumbed to the advances of the Workers, he needed to keep his dick in his damned pants this time.

Cherry crushed a handful of fern leaves down into a ball in her hand and pressed it into her mouth. She lacked the jaws that were common to more evolved forms of life, but her mandibles were doing an impressive job none the less. Her mouth was like a damned wood chipper, her set of four mandibles moving mechanically as they crushed and shredded her food before moving the resulting pulp into her oral opening.

There were maybe fifty Repletes packed into the room, and they were all engaged in eating, not even pausing between mouthfuls as they hoovered up the plant matter that carpeted the ground. Where had it come from? Had the Workers collected it above ground and then brought it down into the tunnels? It seemed likely, in this society nobody expended energy on a task that wasn't completely necessary.

Cherry glanced down at him, seeing that he wasn't eating, and rummaged through the pile of leaves. She picked out a suitably sized branch with her lower arms, not even pausing as she continued to eat with her upper pair, and thrust the stick into his hands. He stared at it, looking up at her as she loosed a cloud of expectant pheromones.

I appreciate the thought, but I'm on a strict no-branches diet. Don't suppose you have anything with a little less...fiber?”

She waited, confused, and then suddenly reached towards his face with one of her hands. He drew back reflexively, but she caught his cheeks between her fingers, leaning in to examine him more closely as she chewed on some kind of coniferous cone.

He felt her squeeze his face, surprised by the elasticity of his flesh perhaps, her large eyes scanning him as she tried to figure out his alien anatomy. He had no mandibles and so she must be wondering how he ate.

He opened his jaw, and she blinked with surprise, pushing a long finger into his mouth to explore it. This was a little more personal than he liked, but she had a firm grip on him, her chitinous fingers digging into his skin. She felt his teeth, running her hard digit across them, then pressed it against his inner cheeks and the roof of his mouth. His tongue struggled around her finger, and she prodded it curiously. She pushed deeper, glancing the back of his throat, then withdrew in alarm as he gagged. She released him, cocking her head, and Walker didn't need to smell her pheromones to know that she was puzzled.

I'll show you,” he said, selecting an inoffensive fern leaf from the floor and placing it in his mouth. He opened wide to demonstrate how he ate, crushing the leaf between his teeth and rolling it around with his tongue. She watched the muscles of his jaw as they expanded and contracted, her curiosity palpable, and then he spat out the green paste rather than swallow it.

I don't eat leaves,” he tried to explain, but she couldn't understand him.

She picked up another leaf and pushed it against his lips in an attempt to feed him, but he shook his head and pushed her away. She sensed that his reaction was negative and relented, resuming her prior activities and leaving Walker to his own devices.

He waited for what must have been a half hour, becoming impatient. Did they just expect him to sit around and watch these Repletes as they ate? What was the point of this?

They were working their way through the food alarmingly quickly. What had been a carpet of plant matter when he had arrived was now mostly bare earth. He remarked that their lower limbs were bulky and reinforced, the more bloated of the Repletes using them to aid in locomotion and to support their massive weight as they crossed the room in search of more food, becoming quadrupeds when necessary. Their distended bellies hung below them as they marched along, their liquid contents shifting and wobbling. It was mesmerizing. They looked like they were carrying around giant water balloons. They moved with such caution, and Walker found himself wondering how fragile these creatures were. If he were to prod one with a stick, would the transparent material of the sack split and disgorge its contents all over the floor? It couldn't be very prone to breaking, because the skin was remarkably flexible. To be able to expand to such an inflated size and then shrink back down again was beyond the capacity of any organic materials that Walker was aware of.

He heard something coming down one of the tunnels, turning his head to see a group of maybe twenty Workers making their way towards the chamber. Their arms were full of greenery, and they deposited their cargo on the ground, some of the Repletes lumbering over to start on the fresh pile. Walker smelled blood, tasted copper on the air, and he watched as one of the Workers deposited a dead animal on the dirt floor.

It was one of the therapsid creatures from the surface, about the size of a large dog. It looked like a cross between a mammal and a reptile. It was lying limp on the dirt with an ugly tear in its side that was no doubt the cause of its demise. This one seemed to be herbivorous, it had a beak and two tusk-like teeth that must have been evolved for digging up roots. Its body was covered in tough scales and a layer of sparse fur that might have been used for warmth, or perhaps as camouflage. It was very much dead, and the sight of it confirmed Walker's suspicions about the abrupt disappearance of the animals in the valley. The Bugs were not gentle plant eaters after all.

One of the Repletes was very interested in this new morsel and made her way over to it, her considerable belly hanging beneath her body as she used her reinforced lower arms to walk almost like a gorilla would. When she reached the dead animal, her upper pair of arms came down to examine it, probing its flesh and sizing it up. Walker watched her with a mixture of awe and disgust as she lifted it off the ground, bringing the dangling creature towards her mouth, and started to eat.

Her mandibles opened wider than he would have thought possible, her oral orifice splaying open like a snake distending its jaw, so large that she was able to encompass the creature's head entirely. He half expected her to swallow it whole, but her mandibles closed around its neck and began to move. Her chewing was so mechanical and ponderous, he could see the bulky muscles that powered them swelling and flexing between the breaks in her colorful shell, the serrated points of her mandibles cutting through its tough hide and the flesh beneath with the efficiency of butcher's knives.

It was like watching a giant centipede eating a mouse, and before long he heard the crunch of bone. She had reached its spine. The dead animal's head came off, and it was apparently small enough for her to swallow whole. He watched her throat bulge as her muscles dragged it down into her digestive system, skull and all. She didn't miss a beat, taking one of its forelegs into her mouth this time and starting the process over again, going through bone and muscle like it was butter.

Nature was red in tooth and claw, inherently violent and often cruel, but something about seeing her devour the beast turned Walker's stomach. It was so brutally efficient, they didn't even take the time to strip flesh from bone or to remove the less palatable organs. The goal was to get as much of the prey animal inside them as rapidly as possible. The mandibles did not seem to be for chewing the food, but rather for shearing off huge chunks that they could then swallow. Their digestive systems must be just as efficient, breaking down everything from bone to scales and converting it into nutrient paste. That would explain where they got all of their proteins and sugars from.

The Replete was almost done, the body of the native animal was now nothing more than a limbless, headless torso. It was too large for her to get her mouth around, and so she began to use the blades on her upper arms to carve it up into smaller chunks.

Walker looked away from the macabre scene, turning towards Cherry as she sat beside him. She looked so serene as she munched on her pine branches. He had been suspicious, many species of social insects back on Earth were carnivorous. Now he had confirmation.

What did they eat? Would they eat a human? The list might be shorter if it was comprised only of the things that they didn't consume. Their diet might consist of plants, animals, perhaps anything that the foraging Workers came across.

He began to consider the ecological impact that it must be having on the local ecosystem, then he remembered that the Thermopylae had bombarded vast swathes of forest from orbit in order to clear away space for the bases, leaving a cratered hellscape in her wake. War was not good for nature any more than it was good for civilizations. They had crossed the gulf of space to reach this veritable garden of Eden, and their first act upon arriving had been to deforest it with railgun fire.

As somewhat of a naturalist himself, Walker worried about such things. Logic dictated that once the war was over, more care would be taken to preserve the wealth of natural beauty on planets like Jarilo, but there was no end in sight.

He glanced over at Cherry, remarking that she was swelling before his eyes. Her stomach pouch had gone from roughly the size and firmness of a beach ball to a sagging roll that looked large enough for him to have fit inside. Her breasts were following suit, going from shapely and appropriate to far heavier sacks about the size of a large watermelon.

The fluid that was rushing to fill them was not a result of what she had just been eating and was still chewing on as he watched, but logically from prior meals that her body was now done processing. They seemed to behave like many large mammals on Earth, grazing in perpetuity to keep up the constant stream of nourishment, like a panda or a lowland gorilla.

She set down the branch that she had been chewing on, seemingly done eating, and rose to her feet with some difficulty. Like the others, she used her lower limbs to walk on all fours as she stooped over, thick and with reinforced joints to bear the extra weight. She began to lumber towards one of the tunnels that led out of the room, moving with a slow determination, and she released a pheromone to indicate that Walker should follow.

He walked behind her at a leisurely pace. The Workers waddled about on their little legs like they were always late for something, but these Repletes took their sweet time. He didn't blame them, her body weight must have doubled by this point. Without the extra stability that her four-legged gait provided she could be in danger of suffering a nasty fall.

He noticed that a handful of the other Repletes were walking behind them, also loaded up with fresh batches of honey. They must be transporting the food to a new location.

The heat was getting more intense as they followed the tunnels deeper into the earth, the air becoming thick and soupy, such that the sweat that coated his brow could no longer evaporate and clung to him in a sticky sheen. He didn't want to go any further down this passage, he felt like he was walking into the mouth of hell, but Cherry was insistent. She noticed his apprehension, taking him by the hand, both to reassure him and to keep him on track.

Some of the chambers that he had visited had been humid, but this was ridiculous. It was like trekking through a swamp in the middle of summer. There were strange smells on the air, unidentifiable, like nothing he had experienced before. His brain had no parallels to draw, no way to process the new scents. The atmosphere down here was exacerbating his growing thirst too, it was starting to get distracting, and that wasn't a good sign. He might have to swallow his pride soon, along with something that might be considerably harder to stomach.

The tunnel before them grew and expanded until it became a large room, carved out of the ground in a style that was typical for the Bugs, perhaps the length and breadth of an average-sized barn. It was packed full of what looked like pale, plastic sacks, stacked against the walls in piles that almost reached the ceiling.

Was this some kind of waste dump? That strange smell permeated the chamber, not foul, just alien and hard to pin down.

Were the heat and the humidity starting to get to him, or were those sacks...moving? The closer he looked, the more they seemed to be shifting and warping, pulsating. His eyes widened as he realized that they were alive. These were Betelgeusian larvae, had to be, they looked like giant maggots the size of a toddler. His immediate reaction was revulsion. There were piles of the damned things, squirming and shifting as they lay atop one another. But the more he stared at them, the less offensive they became.

They were segmented, and they had a clearly defined head, a dark spot on one end of their cylindrical bodies with a set of underdeveloped mandibles and a pair of oversized eyes. They were almost cute in a way, and they shuffled their unwieldy bodies around to get a look at the visitors as the Repletes walked into the center of the room.

The larvae began to bob up and down excitedly, it looked to be about as much activity as their limbless little bodies were capable of, and the engorged Repletes reached down to take them in their arms. They sat heavily on the floor, nursing the babies two at a time, the larvae searching for a nipple with their grasping mandibles and then bringing it into their mouths. The Repletes were so gentle with them, treating them as if they were made of glass, contrasting strongly with the animal brutality that he had witnessed in the feeding chamber.

The muggy heat must have been for the benefit of their offspring. In termite colonies, humidity gradients were an important factor in the development of the young. They used an elaborate system of vents to cycle the air through the hive that worked like a kind of primitive AC system.

The Repletes must have known that Walker could not feed their young, and so what was the point of bringing him here? He watched as the bloated insects nursed the larvae. The little creatures were too small to consume very much of the amber liquid in one sitting. When they had eaten their fill, they were placed back on the pile, and another one was selected. Once fed, they became lethargic, closing their large eyes and seeming to fall asleep.

Cherry beckoned to him, and Walker inched a little nearer, somewhat apprehensive about getting too close to the things. She had a larvae suckling at each breast, supporting them in her four arms, and she emitted a more complex pheromone that had a layer of speech woven into it. He concentrated hard, trying to parse it. He had grasped the method by which they conveyed information now, but it was still a great effort to pick out even simple words and concepts.



He wasn't sure what she wanted exactly, but he steeled himself and came to stand in front of her, almost at eye level with her due to her stature. She was sat cross-legged on the ground, her fat belly resting in the recess between her legs. She reminded him of a statue of the Budai that were so common in East Asia. He watched one of the maggots draw honey from her breast, its dull mandibles clamped around the nipple-like opening, and Cherry cradled it with a care that could only have been described as maternal.

The baby Bug finished, relinquishing its hold on her, and she extended her arms to pass it to Walker. He backed up, shaking his head.

Oh no, no way. I'm not touching that thing.”

The larvae looked up at him with wide eyes, its tiny mandibles waving, and Cherry repeated the gesture. She was adamant that he should hold the creature. He rolled his eyes and mustered the courage to repress his mild revulsion, holding out his hands as she placed it gently in his arms.

He had expected it to be slimy, disgusting, but it was actually clean and dry. There was no foul mucous dripping from it, it felt like holding a plastic bag that had been packed with dough. Its flesh was springy, weighty, and he felt it shift and wriggle as it sensed a pair of strange hands under its body.

I don't think it likes me,” he complained, knowing that the Bugs could not understand his human speech but feeling the need to express himself none the less.

Why were they doing this? Walker was their enemy, their prisoner, and yet they had no qualms about handing him their precious offspring. It was such a fragile little thing, he could have popped it like a balloon if he had been so inclined, but the Repletes seemed to place a trust in him that he didn't feel that he had earned. He certainly wouldn't dream about letting a Drone hold a human baby.

It twisted its head around to get a better look at him, its eyes curious, intelligent. The two examined each other for a moment, Cherry watching with interest.

What are you going to be?” Walker wondered aloud, “a Drone or a Worker? Maybe a Warrior?”

He reached a finger down towards its face, slowly so as not to startle it, and it reached out its underdeveloped mandibles to bite him. It was too weak to break the skin, and he found himself chuckling at the attempt.

Definitely a Warrior...”


They finished feeding the infants, and then the group moved to a different chamber, still laden with honey. The amount that they could produce and carry around with them was truly remarkable, the innumerable baby Bugs had barely made a dent. They arrived in the new room, the dome rising high above Walker's head, and he recognized the smell of it from the day before. This was where Fig had brought him in an attempt to get him to eat. It must be lunchtime for the Betelgeusians. Many other Repletes were entering the room from side tunnels, their bellies engorged with amber nectar as they sat heavily against the walls.

He was vindicated as a few hundred of them poured into the expansive space, right on time. It was like the whole colony lived on a biological timer that was as accurate as an atomic clock. The logistics of organizing a comparable group of humans in this way were astronomical, and yet it seemed to be second nature to the Bugs. There were no soldiers eating coffee packets in an attempt to rouse themselves, or showing up late to roll call. They arrived exactly on time in exactly the place that they were expected to be.

The various castes of Bug lined up and waited for their turns, clambering into the arms of the Repletes two by two as they were fed, Walker watching with the same mixture of curiosity and displeasure that he had experienced the first time.

The evolutionary advantage of this system was obvious to him, as was how it had developed. Convergent evolution had bestowed breasts upon all of the species that they had encountered so far besides the egg-laying Krell. It was an efficient way to deliver nutrients to their young, and contrary to popular belief it was not only mammals that produced milk. While technically speaking only mammals lactated, there were some species of insect that produced a kind of milk in their brood sacks, cockroaches for example. The same could be said of marsupial species like the platypus, a creature that secreted milk through its sweat in order to feed its offspring.

Despite the distaste that he felt, his urgent hunger was starting to overpower it. He hadn't eaten or drunk anything for the better part of two days. If he didn't get some moisture soon, then his body would shut down, and it wouldn't matter what his opinions on the subject were.

Cherry was currently feeding a pair of Workers, and Walker reluctantly took a place at the front of the line as he waited. He cursed himself for his stupidity, he should have brought his pack with him or at least kept his canteen on his belt. Assuming that he would have been allowed to return to his cell had been foolish and anthropocentric.

One of the Workers was done, its mandibles disconnecting from the nipple-like opening, and it scurried away to return to its duties. Cherry held her arms out to Walker in invitation, and he stepped forward.

She placed her lower, reinforced arm in the small of his back to support him as he sat on her thigh, her bloated belly pressing against his side. He felt her upper hand in his hair as she cradled his head, bringing her breast towards his face. He grimaced, wracking his brain as he tried to think of an alternative, but nothing came to mind.

He pressed his hand into her breast, it felt like a heavy water balloon filled with gel, warm and smooth. The tissue spread between his fingers, and he brought up a second hand, the damn thing would have been impossible to lift with just one. It was as heavy as a military rucksack, and her belly must be multiple times this weight. No wonder they had to drop to all fours to walk around when they were full to capacity.

He had to shift his weight, trying to get comfortable. Her thigh was sheathed in a hard exoskeleton, and her belly was large enough that it was pushing him away from her. She held him close, pressing him against its elastic surface, his elbow sinking into it as the thick liquid beneath the transparent skin shifted and gurgled.

Her boob pressed against his cheek, now reddening with embarrassment. It was the size of a damned exercise ball. He felt her nipple on his lips, Cherry had studied his mouth in detail, and she knew how it worked. Walker finally gave in and opened up, feeling the fleshy protrusion on his tongue. To his surprise he did not need to draw on it, her tissue contracted to push the liquid into his mouth. He braced himself, anticipating an unpleasant taste, but what hit his tongue tasted remarkably like honey. Not only did it bear a visual resemblance, but the aroma was eerily similar, sweet and thick with a comparable aftertaste. He found himself drinking it down as more came, his body reacting strongly to it, full of the proteins and nutrients that he had been lacking. He needed the water content desperately, the electrolytes and the vitamins, and he felt a surge of alertness and energy in him as he swallowed.

It was like a concentrate of everything that the Replete had eaten, rendered down into its essential elements, everything that their kind needed to survive. They must have similar nutritional requirements to humans, because Walker was already feeling stronger than he had in days.

He drank until he could take no more, his stomach full of the liquid, his hunger pains subsiding. He got up from her lap, stepping aside so that the next Bug could take his place, feeling a little disgusted with himself. This wasn't any different from eating the bodies of dead passengers to survive after a shuttle crash in a remote area, he was only doing what he needed to do in order to survive. He'd take alien honey over human flesh any day, but this was another thing that he would prefer to leave out of his reports...

It was potent stuff. Better than an MRE, that was for sure. If the UNN could find a way to produce it, maybe it could be used as a replacement for field rations. You could fill up a canteen with the stuff, and it would keep you going for days.

It remained to be seen if his body would react badly to it in any way. His stomach might just explode for all he knew, but it wasn't as if he had any other options. He had no idea where his cell was in this maze, he had no way to get back to it, he hadn't yet figured out how to read the pheromone trails when he had been let out of his cage.

Right now he was feeling pretty good, and so he took a seat near Cherry to relax and digest as he watched her feed the rest of her customers. The bulky rolls of her belly slowly drained, her breasts remaining the same size and shape, as that was where the liquid was being drawn to. It was fascinating to see her shrink before his eyes, the swollen pouch on her abdomen receding as the honey drained away. She fed Workers, Drones, and Pilots, every caste that he had come across so far. In a way, it reminded him of the Pinwheel. These creatures might all represent the same species, but all of the different sizes and shapes brought to mind images of the station's torus, where all of the Coalition's races walked side by side in harmony. Well, for the most part. He had never heard the words harmony and Borealan in the same sentence.

Her sisters did likewise, and working together they were able to feed what must have been a couple of hundred Bugs in the space of a half hour. Walker spent almost that long eating a single meal, he couldn't even estimate how long it would have taken to feed two hundred UNN Marines in a mess hall of a similar size to the chamber. It was becoming easier and easier to understand how these outwardly primitive aliens were able to go toe to toe with the military might of the United Nations Navy. You couldn't drill this kind of efficiency and purpose into a recruit.

After a while, the crowd of insects filed out through the various tunnels, each group proceeding to their next assignment. The now considerably lighter Repletes rose from their sitting positions to make their way back towards the feeding chamber. Walker could smell the foliage on the air as he followed after Cherry, now walking on two legs at her full height.

Before long they arrived back at the feeding chamber, the floor now littered with a fresh layer of leaves and branches. The Repletes sat heavily on the floor and immediately resumed their gorging. Sticks were snapped, foliage was crunched, and bark was stripped as Walker settled in for another long wait. This seemed to be all that the Repletes did, eat food and then feed it to the rest of the hive, their appetites were monstrous.

He was glad to have his implant. If he didn't smell like a member of their colony, what might these Bugs have done to him? He remembered how one of them had torn through a whole therapsid in the space of a couple of minutes, imagining the same fate befalling a human. They might not differentiate between an enemy combatant and a prey animal, it was all protein and calcium to them, their soldiers certainly didn't seem to have any concept of humane warfare.

Chemical weapons had been outlawed in human society half a millennium ago, and until the war with the Betelgeusians had started, plasma casters had been banned in UNN space as weapons that caused needless suffering. A railgun was clean, an instant kill in pretty much any scenario, while plasma would leave horrific burns and melt armor to the skin beneath. The Bugs used both in abundance, having no regard for minimizing pain.

It was hard to hate them, however. They were such innocent creatures, going about their assigned tasks with seemingly little thought. Hating them would be like hating the loading spring in a gun. Sure, it was a component of the larger whole, but it had no say in who it was pointed at and when the trigger was pulled.


The Bugs consumed enough food to replenish their stores of honey, Cherry's transparent sacks hanging from her torso as she dropped down onto her reinforced limbs, some unspoken signal compelling the group of swollen creatures to move out. She loosed a pheromone, FOLLOW, and so Walker joined them as they lumbered down yet another tunnel. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their placement, as if the Workers had excavated them at random, but that couldn't be the case. There must be some logic to the structure in this place that he wasn't seeing. Perhaps they were arranged in such a way as to facilitate the circulation of fresh air, or to control humidity in the hive. He had noticed that different chambers and tunnels could have dramatically different climates.

They emerged into a new room, describing it visually was starting to become redundant as they were all essentially the same, just dome-shaped chambers carved out of the dirt and sealed with Worker spit. Walker was now seeing things differently, or smelling things differently as would be a more apt description, and so he used his new sense to examine the space. It smelled of their honey, and a strong scent of the Repletes lingered in the air, so he concluded that this must be their sleeping chamber.

Clearly, they expected him to spend the night with them, to socialize as he had done with the Workers the day prior. He steeled himself, determined to maintain his composure this time.

The swollen Repletes fanned out into the room, more entering through other tunnels that connected to it from different parts of the hive. Just like the Workers, the Repletes knew to return to this one chamber, all of them at the same time. He couldn't be sure if every individual within the hive had returned here. There might be many such meeting points spaced out within the colony, he had no real concept of how large it was or how many Bugs were living in it. Some were drained of their fluid, their bellies flat and their chests reduced to small lumps, others were bloated with a fresh crop as they sat tentatively on the dirt floor.

They arranged themselves in piles, many of the lighter Repletes resting atop the bloated ones, using their fluid-filled pouches as if they were water beds. The tissue was much stronger than Walker had initially assumed. They seemed unconcerned by the extra weight that was being put on them, and no care was being taken to ensure that the pointier parts of the Bug exoskeletons were kept clear of the transparent skin. The prospect of them bursting was unlikely, apparently.

Cherry led Walker over to one such pile near the far wall, comprised of maybe ten individuals, fat Repletes with heavy breasts and bellies resting at the bottom while the skinnier ones used them as pillows. They were just as social as the Workers had been, with no concept of personal space, and Cherry squeezed between two of her sisters as she tugged Walker along by the wrist. She used her reinforced lower limbs to support her weight as she lowered herself down onto the floor, leaning back against the dirt wall and pulling Walker off balance so that he fell down on top of her.

He landed on her belly, bouncing gently on its springy surface. It was warm to the touch and smooth like skin, and yet he could feel the fluid shifting beneath him. It was oddly pleasant, by far the most comfortable surface that he had so far encountered in the hive.

He made to roll off her, but more of them pressed in around him, and before he could react he found himself enclosed in a prison of hard limbs and soft protrusions. Cherry had pulled him to the bottom of the pile, where the fattest Repletes were serving as living beds. He felt hard limbs draped over his body as the thinner ones spooned with him. He shuffled uncomfortably, trying to break free, but Cherry sensed his struggling and wrapped her two pairs of arms around him to pull him closer to her.

Maybe she thought that he didn't know how to sleep in a pile, and he felt his cheeks reddening as she pressed his head between her weighty breasts, large enough to engulf him completely with room to spare. At full capacity, each of them was the size and weight of a loaded rucksack. Marines trained for months to carry half of what she did and that didn't even include her distended stomach.

Her transparent skin was smooth against his face, warm, though cooler than his cheeks. She smelled good, really good, and he cursed himself as he felt a growing erection straining against his fatigues and pressing into her belly.

A woman's breasts were firm when compressed, yielding under one's fingers only to a certain extent, yet these fluid-filled sacks were far more flexible. His head sank deep into them, the fluid spreading around as he displaced it, Cherry's fingers running through his hair as she held him between her wobbling boobs. His treacherous brain was associating the smell with prior sexual experiences again.

He reached up a hand and sunk his fingers deep into her bust, testing the elasticity of her skin and feeling the thick honey within bulge to fill his palm, springing back into its original shape when he let go of it. The Bugs were usually so hard, what with the chitinous armor that covered them from head to toe, but this new softness was too inviting to refuse. If anything, he would at least take advantage of it to get a good night's rest.

One of the skinny Repletes that was leaning on him from behind pressed in close, nipping softly at his neck with its hard pincers, her tongue lashing out to taste his skin. She was curious, trying to figure out what he was perhaps, and for a moment he feared that his implant wasn't doing the job and that he was about to be devoured.

Instead, he squirmed as her prehensile organ glanced across the back of his neck. It curled around his throat as if searching for something, tracing the line of his clavicle before snaking back into her mouth. He felt another swollen stomach pressing against him from the right, another of Cherry's bloated sisters shuffling close to him, the temperature rising as he lay buried beneath the pile.

He felt this newcomer's hands slide beneath his jacket, feeling naked skin and seeming to enjoy its texture, running her fingers up and down his spine as she followed his vertebrae. He writhed, more hands reaching towards him, his breath becoming ragged as dozens of curious digits tugged at his clothes and tickled him with their explorative prodding. He couldn't blame them, they had never seen anything like him before, at least not unless they had been eating it at the time.

Walker's skin was warm, and his hair was soft. Like the Workers before him, they seemed to enjoy his flavor. He flinched as he felt a long, dexterous tongue slide beneath his clothing and press its tapered tip into his navel, his erection now at full mast. If he wasn't careful, he would start secreting the male pheromone again, an invitation to mate. But he didn't have enough control over the strange organ to stop it. It responded to his emotional state, there was no muscle that he could clench, no mental command that he could give to prevent it. The only option was to remain calm, to ignore the fingers and tongues that were now tracing every contour of his body as Cherry's ample bosom wrapped his face. It was an impossible proposition.

The sensations were overwhelming, as if arcs of tingling electricity were dancing across his skin, no nerve left unscathed as the Repletes succeeded in tearing open his jacket and pulled it off him. Cherry rolled him onto his back, propped up against the large belly of the Replete to his right, joining their clumsy explorations as her four hands stroked his naked chest and belly. More of them pressed in from above, eyes wide, examining his alien physiology.

It was all happening again, his brain turning to soup as their questing tongues painted trails of sticky saliva across his skin, fingers digging beneath his waistband as they began to understand how his clothing functioned.

Unlike the Workers, these Repletes were not problem solvers or engineers, his belt was a barrier that they could not break through. Still, he felt the head of one of the Repletes rest heavily on his stomach, her tongue winding into his pants and licking his shaft, perhaps attracted by the heat or the smell of it. He lurched, stars dancing before his eyes, feeling her warm saliva leak from her open mouth in fat strands.

With shaking hands, he fumbled with his belt buckle, loosening it to let more of her thick organ pass. She curled her wet muscle around his member, sliding up and down his shaft, gripping his hip with her hard fingers as she roamed deeper to tease his thighs and balls.

Just a little, he told himself through the warm fog that had descended over his brain. I won't go all the way, but I'll let them do it just a little...

Another Replete leaned forward, hovering near his neck as if it was sniffing him, more of them drawing closer as they smelled something that enticed them. It was too late, sweat dripped from his pores as the heat and excitement got the better of him, laden with the male pheromone that had driven the Workers so wild. Half a dozen tongues reached out to sample it, their eyes lighting up, their curious touching and stroking imbued with a new and more lecherous purpose.

It was like an avalanche. Once started it could not be stopped, only gathering more power as it rolled down the mountain and swept away anything in its path. His resolve crumbled, his arousal mounting as the Bugs tormented him, feeding into his desire. His beleaguered body leaked more pheromones, which in turn encouraged their licking and stroking. He was locked in a death spiral with only one possible outcome.

One of Cherry's breasts rested heavily on his head, and her belly pushed against his body as she sat beside him, her face buried in the nape of his neck as she dragged her tongue across his skin. She pinched him softly with her mandibles, her hand running through his hair, the stubby fingers on her lower set of arms crawling across his belly.

Their pheromones flooded his mind with images and sensations as his brain matched the smells to memories, his every sexual experience bubbling to the surface. Suddenly the squashy breasts that were being thrust into his face took on the comely scent of previous female partners. Strawberry scented body wash, sweet perfume, an old girlfriend's shampoo. The smells brought him right back to moments in his past, each one linked to an experience or a sensation, a memory of lust.

Layered into the complex scents was speech, and even through his fugue of arousal, he made an effort to understand, to learn. They were not distinct words, but rather thoughts and impulses conveyed through emotion, run through a familiar filter as his brain attempted to parse them. The more he concentrated, the clearer their words became.






I don't,” he protested weakly, but they couldn't understand his speech. All they knew was what his body was telling them in spite of his mind, his arousal pumping out pheromones to goad them on.

His eyes told him that he was buried beneath a pile of giant insects, and yet his powerful sense of smaste insisted that this was a harem of beautiful, fertile women. While they could not speak, they whispered their desire in their own pheromone-based language, muttering to each other as they tried to figure out just what to do with him.

Pairs of breasts the size of beach balls were thrust into his face, the fluid-filled pouches of their distended bellies cushioning him, their transparent skin smooth and yielding. No matter what size they were, or how much of the amber fluid had been drained, they were all similarly firm and bouncy. The membrane that enclosed them shrunk to compensate, maintaining their shape and consistency.

Before he knew what was happening, he found himself nuzzling them, pushing his face between the nearest pair as the Bugs crowded around him. The Replete in question seemed to assume that he wanted to feed, cradling him in her arms she would have one of the Workers, her fingers delving into his hair to stroke curiously.

The others did not let up, their tongues and their fingers questing across his body, tasting sweat and testing the flexibility of his flesh. They found his relative softness enticing, squeezing his thighs and ass through his pants, prodding the firmer muscle of his chest and upper arms.

Fuck it,” he grumbled, reaching down to unzip his fatigues. As soon as they were loosened, the Repletes hooked their fingers around the garment and pulled it away, quickly following suit with his underwear. His erection stood in the air, swollen and hard, their expressive eyes drawn to this strange new organ as several of them crowded closer.

One of them reached out its sinuous tongue, Walker watching with bated breath as its pointed tip snaked towards his glans, giving it a tentative lick that sent a jolt of pleasure coursing through his body. Seeing that it was safe, her sisters pressed closer, seeking out the source of his enticing male scent.

While the Workers had flown into a frenzy when they had smelled his pheromones, these Repletes took their time, perhaps less interested in the prospect of sex than their far more numerous counterparts. Could the Workers increase their own population quickly through mating? It would make sense in scenarios where the Queen could not meet the demand alone, perhaps following some kind of disaster or mass die-off.

The Repletes were surprisingly doting and gentle with him. They were extremely heavy and much larger than he was, but despite their proximity, they were careful not to crush or smother him with their bloated bodies. He was enclosed by a wall of soft flesh on every side, hard fingers and wriggling tongues pushing between them to get a taste of him. They seemed almost as confused as he was, knowing that he was different to them, but similarly drawn by his familiar scent. He didn't look like a Bug but he sure as hell smelled like one.

He took the liberty of running his hands over the Bug's belly, or at least the swollen pouch on her lower torso where a belly would have been on a mammal. There were subtle rolls to it that lined up with the splayed abdominal armor, like tires of fat, but far more malleable as they were full of thick liquid rather than tissue. He noticed the Replete twitch, her long lashes fluttering, and for a moment he feared that he had hurt her in some way.

The opposite was true, however. The pheromone that it released was one of pleasure, as if it had enjoyed being caressed. He repeated the gesture, stroking his fingertips across its inflated pouch, the honey-like substance beneath it shifting at his touch. Her grip on him tightened, a shiver passing through her large body, and again she emitted an appreciative scent.

Odd. The stretchy, transparent skin that served to contain their nectar must be very sensitive when it was touched. Perhaps that was one of the reasons that they moved around so carefully when distended with food, despite how tough the material seemed to be.


The statement was punctuated by a flood of pleasant-smelling chemicals that were released into the air, conveying pleasure. One layer of their pheromone language transmitted concepts, another emotions. When combined they resulted in a kind of inflection. The more he heard them speak, the more he understood, as if the secret to being able to interpret their scent-based language was simply exposure to it. He was adapting, slowly. His brain was getting better at parsing the different signals the more he made use of the grafted organ.

The rest of the Bugs had mostly ceased their inquisitive groping to watch, crowding around with wide eyes, a few chitinous hands still resting on his body as the fat Repletes cushioned him.

Encouraged by her reaction, he reached his hands up and sank his fingers into the stretchy surface of her breasts, massaging the thick fluid beneath. While it was softer and more malleable than fat, there was a pleasant resistance to it. It was satisfying to play with, somewhat like a stress ball, encouraging his probing.

The Bug shifted, her eyelids drooping, her grip in his hair growing tighter. She was becoming aroused, he could smell the pheromones, shifting hues towards a deeper and more sexual pink. She liked what he was doing to her.

Because the pouches were full of liquid and presumably did not have nerve endings running through them, he was able to twist and squash her breasts to a much greater extent than would have been comfortable for a human. Her mandibles clicked, perhaps in an expression of enjoyment as he took one of her breasts in his hands and kneaded it like putty. Her skin was so sensitive, she was receptive, tender. He wouldn't have imagined that a giant insect could have looked cute, but watching her twist and writhe was getting him riled up.

He noticed that the syrupy liquid from within the pouch was being squeezed out by his mauling, a bead of amber fluid welling at her nipple. He licked it, tasting its sweet aroma, and the Replete pulled him closer. With her hand resting on the back of his head, she pressed his face into her breast, the teat-like opening pushing into his mouth. He drew upon it, playing his lips and tongue over the sensitive flesh, a flood of the nutrient-rich liquid within filling his mouth. It tasted exactly like honey, full of sugar and protein, his body reacting strongly to the ambrosial fluid as it slid down his throat.

The Replete seemed to enjoy the sensation, his human lips and tongue more stimulating than the comparatively simple mouthparts of the Bugs that were designed only for sucking. He trapped her nipple between his lips and his teeth, battering it with his tongue and drawing slow circles around it as he would have with a human lover. She responded strongly, looking down covetously as her pheromones betrayed her pleasure, drawing more of her sisters as they sensed it too.

Cherry pushed up behind him, shuffling closer, expectant. The Bug whose breast he was currently engaged in mauling was quite affected, holding him close with two of her hands while the others roamed across his body. Cherry seemed jealous. She thrust her heavy mammaries into his face, laden with nectar, offering them to him as her sister guarded him greedily.

Cherry's weighty breasts rested on his shoulder, weighing him down, deforming and spreading like melting wax as gravity took hold of them. He released the other Replete's nipple from his mouth, and she loosed a puff of disappointment as he turned towards Cherry, taking one of her chest pouches in his hand. Damn, he could scarcely lift it with both arms. She was still carrying more honey than her counterpart, and Walker struggled with her breast as she looked on eagerly.

She was perhaps even more sensitive than his previous companion, who was watching enviously, still holding him in her arms as Cherry pressed against him. The transparent sacks were stretched further to hold more fluid, and so that seemed to make them more tender. She twitched and writhed as he played his hands across their massive surface. He could have fit his head inside one three times over, she could give someone a concussion with one of these things.

He twisted and kneaded, sinking his fingers deep into the jellied substance contained with, delighting at their softness and flexibility. As soon as he let go, the displaced fluid rushed to fill the void, her breasts springing back to their intended shape almost instantly. Walker felt like a kid with a new toy, he couldn't keep his hands off the damned things.

He let the weighty boob fall to hang from her chest, wobbling as it settled, and ran a hand down towards her bloated belly. He was curious as to whether her stomach pouch was as sensitive as her breasts. He felt the hard sections of splayed abdominal armor beneath his fingers, roaming down over the smooth skin and finding one of her subtle rolls. He took it in his hand and gave it a squeeze, feeling the fluid beneath his digits shift and jiggle as she shivered appreciatively. She did indeed enjoy having her belly touched, and it was incredibly soft. It was made from the same material and filled with the same amber liquid as her breasts, making it equally springy and bouncy. He wasn't sure how much it weighed, but it was impossible to lift.

He felt one of her four hands roam down towards his belly, copying his gesture as she explored his alien anatomy. She reached his member, her eyes fixated on it, no doubt smelling the pheromones that he emitted as his cock leapt at her touch. He reached down and put his hand on top of hers, feeling her hard shell beneath his fingers, and he closed her fist around his shaft. He began to move it up and down, showing her what he wanted her to do. As he pulled his hand away, she kept up the rhythm, her grip just firm enough to be pleasurable. She seemed fascinated by his organ, and Walker couldn't imagine how those of the winged Drones might differ in appearance or function.

He lay back in her arms, enjoying the sensation as she stroked his shaft. Though her shell was hard and tough, she was gentle and affectionate, her slow movements making him throb and twitch in her palm. The Replete beside him leaned closer too, watching her sister's slow wrist movements as her three-fingered hand slid slowly up and down his cock. She rested a hand on his thigh, another probing his abdominal muscles. More of the Repletes were crowding around, but sandwiched between Cherry and her sister, there was little room for anyone else to get close.

Cherry's breasts hung tantalizingly in his face, and so he toyed with them again, watching the honeyed liquid contained within as it spread and shifted in response to his squeezing. Meanwhile Cherry kept up her slow stroking, one of her four hands rubbing his thigh as if she thought that it might have a similar effect. It did feel pretty good, he couldn't complain.

Her large body shuddered and twisted under his rough treatment as he kneaded her breasts, sinking his hands into their yielding surface almost up to the wrist as the fluid spread around them, trapping her sensitive nipples between his fingers. He sucked one into his mouth, teasing it with his tongue as he massaged the skin around it, chewing softly as her sweet honey leaked forth.

Cherry released more puffs of intoxicating pheromones, both to express her own pleasure and to encourage him. His new organ flooded his brain with sexual scents and tastes, like she was misting an aphrodisiac into the air. Walker would be remiss to forget about her belly, and he slid his hand across its stretchy surface as Cherry clicked her mandibles appreciatively. It was like the transparent skin was an erogenous zone, its entire surface as sensitive as the head of a penis.

Her sister leaned closer, examining his face, and she pulled his head out of Cherry's boundless cleavage to turn it towards her. She narrowed her eyes, prodding his lower lip with her fingertip, and then pushed her digit into his mouth. He lapped at it with his tongue, knowing now that the shells that had appeared so tough and hard were actually rich with nerve endings. Her eyes widened, and she withdrew, turning her head towards Cherry and emitting a confused pheromone.


Walker could have said the same about the Repletes, her huge mandibles were an inch from his face. He was almost glad that she wasn't trying to kiss him like the Workers had.

A jolt of pleasure caused him to buck involuntarily as he felt a finger graze his glans, Cherry smearing a bead of precome that had welled at the tip, watching the liquid spread curiously. Her sister was on it in a flash, perhaps wary of Cherry stealing the limelight again, and Walker groaned as he felt a sinuous tongue coil around the head of his cock. Wet, slimy flesh squeezed it, scouring his tender anatomy as she tasted his leaking excitement.


Honey, he recognized the word, the scent almost tasted of the fluid that they produced.

No, no I don't,” Walker protested. His complaint petered out into a moan however as she pressed down and opened her mandibles wide, sliding the tip of his erection into her moist mouth. It felt like the lips of a vagina, her mouth was a vertical slit with muscles that let her open, close and suck. Her throat was tight, although he had seen them swallow huge chunks of prey animals without any difficulty. Perhaps the muscles could expand, or perhaps they dragged the meat down into their digestive systems through sheer force alone.

Mandibles like scythes pressed against his belly, but the sensation was too powerful for him to lose his erection, the tube of slimy muscle that made up her throat sucking him deeper. God, the pressure was incredible, she was like a damned vacuum cleaner. His eyes nearly bulged from his head as she pressed lower, taking him deeper into her throat and sliding her tight lips halfway down his shaft. Her muscles pulsed rhythmically, she was trying to suck out his emission like milk from a teat. There wasn't much room for his member in her mouth, as narrow as her throat was, and so her serpentine tongue jostled for space as it slid up and down his length.

The stimulation was pushing him close to the edge already, the Repletes sensing the pheromones that his traitorous body was pumping out, practically drooling as they watched his body writhe. He felt Cherry's tongue snake out of her mouth to wet his cheek, tasting his sweat. She glanced down at her sister, her mouthparts waving in the air excitedly.



Of course, she could talk with her mouth full. She had no vocal cords, and she used pheromones to communicate. Hell, if she wanted him to come so badly, he wasn't about to stand in her way. He shuffled around, putting Cherry directly behind him and leaning back against the soft pouch of her distended belly, her heavy breasts resting on his shoulders and cushioning his head. He put her sister in front of him, her mouth leaving his member with a wet pop when she felt him moving.

He grabbed the Replete's breasts in his hands, her eyelids fluttering as he manhandled them, struggling with their weight as he wrapped them around his erection. Her skin felt divine as it pressed around him, as smooth as silk and warm to the touch. He took her upper pair of hands as she watched with bewilderment, pressing them into the sides of her boobs so that the was squeezing them together, applying a wonderful pressure as his erection throbbed between them. Every twitch of his member sent a ripple through her bust, making the liquid inside wobble and shake like a plate of jello. They were so heavy that they were pressing him down into Cherry's stomach pouch, it was like sinking into a beanbag chair.

The Replete didn't understand what he was doing, but she was too inquisitive to refuse instruction, and she looked down to see the pink head of his cock protruding from between her boobs. He began to thrust slowly, pushing his hips up into her, watching as the ripples traveled across the surface of her bust with every impact. She understood what he wanted her to do, holding her breasts together as her eyes followed him.

Cherry watched from over his shoulder, her breasts brushing against his cheeks, more of the Repletes in the room craning their necks to peer at the bizarre scene. Cherry's hands roamed across his chest and belly, feeling his muscles shift beneath his skin. She seemed to enjoy the way that they flexed as he moved, tracing them with her fingers almost absent-mindedly as her eyes lingered on his member.


The Replete's tongue slid out of her mouth, lapping at his glans as it emerged from her cleavage, a shiver running up his spine as her wet muscle cleaned it of fluid. She seemed to be enjoying the sensation of his shaft brushing against her sensitive skin, too. She watched covetously, the silhouette of his manhood just barely visible through the amber liquid as it vanished between her breasts, then reached out with her long organ to lick it when it reappeared again.

Walker reached up a hand and delved into one of the boobs that was resting on his shoulder, they would have been heavy enough to be uncomfortable was it not for the seating arrangements. It was like sitting on a waterbed, he could feel the thick fluids inside shifting beneath him when he moved, displaced by his body weight.

The Replete's ample bust slapped against his hips as he thrust up into them, his pace growing more frantic as he felt his orgasm nearing. They were so warm and cushy, it was like fucking two living water balloons. Whenever his erection surfaced between them, it was licked by her prehensile tongue.

She seemed fixated on it, as if she liked the taste. Their purpose was to feed, after all, their entire physiology was geared towards it. Maybe she liked the protein content or the salt, it was hard to tell. She had used the same pheromone to describe his emissions as they did honey, which suggested that perhaps the Repletes sometimes fed on each other, maybe when food was scarce or when one Replete had an imbalance of the necessary nutrients required to produce the right kind of food.

That familiar pressure was rising inside him, demanding that he hasten his thrusting. The Repletes were so docile and cooperative, and he wondered what he could get away with. As dangerous as those mandibles looked, the allure of her tight throat was overriding, and so he took her stem-like horn in his hand and guided her head down towards his cock.

His glans brushed against her lips, wet with saliva, and he pushed into her mouth with some difficulty. Once again he felt her smooth flesh squeezing around his length as he buried his erection to the base, her slimy muscles immediately seizing around it as they began their relentless sucking. Walker grunted like a beast, it was like fucking a latex glove full of goo. Despite how slippery it was it, it only got tighter as his hips rolled reflexively. Her face was almost completely buried between her breasts now, Walker using her horn as a handle, leveraging it to plunge the quivering tube of muscle. He could feel her worm-like tongue gliding against his skin, inadvertently teasing him.

Like the Workers before her, she could not choke, she likely had no lungs and breathed through her abdomen as most arthropods did. There was so much contrasting hardness and softness with these Bugs, it confused his senses. The shell that made up her horn was as hard as fiberglass, and yet her breasts were far softer and more malleable than those of a woman. Her mandibles were sharp and pointy, while the inside of her mouth made him feel as if his member was being wrapped in some rare and luxurious silk. He couldn't hold out for long, his abdominal muscles clenching beneath Cherry's curious fingers as her counterpart's pitiless suction sent a climax rippling through his body.

Her muscles milked him in waves, rolling up his shaft and wringing him of his emission, his body as stiff as a board as he doubled over and gripped the stem of her horn with both hands. He gritted his teeth, the pleasure so intense as to be almost painful, his legs trembling and his toes curling as he pumped her mouth full of his ejaculate. She drank it down greedily, the sensation of her swallowing around his member making him bite down on his fist to suppress a cry, his spine curving as tingling pleasure washed over him. His whole lower body felt numb, the Replete easing more out of him as her tongue lashed at his tender skin, trapping him in a relentless massage that made his vision blur.

She sucked him completely dry, letting his member fall from her mouth as she withdrew her face from between her breasts.


Apparently, the nutritional content was not to her liking. Oh well.

The crowd of Repletes seemed drawn to his scent, however, the air thick with his sexual pheromones. More were reciprocating now, pleasant smells of perfume and body wash rising to his nose, some muskier and more lurid than others.

Another Replete shouldered her sister out of the way, taking up her place, prodding Walker's diminishing erection with her hard finger. It looked like he was going to be in for another exhausting night.


Walker slowly opened his eyes, disturbed by movement around him. He blinked as his vision adjusted to the light of the strange moss that clustered on the roof. The Repletes in his vicinity were stirring, their day was about to begin. He was reluctant to rise from the nest of soft, fluid-filled pouches that he had been sleeping on. It was the first time since he had left Charlie that he had gotten a decent night's rest. He had eaten well too, and despite his lingering drowsiness, he felt invigorated.

Cherry took him by the hand, lifting him to his feet and tugging him along as she began to lumber towards one of the many exits. Walker was getting into the rhythm of life in the hive, the cycle seemed to be roughly twelve hours on and twelve hours off during a given day, or at least however many hours the days lasted on Jarilo.

He had spent some time with the Repletes, and now he was going to be passed along to another caste, at least that was what he assumed. What was left? The Drones? Pilots? The other castes were all new to him, and they seemed innocent enough, but he had seen first hand what the combat castes could do to people. He could scarcely look at a Drone without wanting to put a .45 through its helmet.

As Cherry led him around a corner and broke away from the larger group, he noticed something on the wall that made him turn his head to stare at it as they passed. It looked like a blob of green slime, as if someone had hocked a giant lump of snot at the wall. There was a dark spot in the center of the gelatinous mass that seemed to be moving. It was about the size of a marble, and though the goo wasn't quite transparent, he could make out what looked like a bundle of wires or maybe blood vessels that vanished beneath the soil. It was tracking him. He narrowed his eyes, watching the dark spot follow him as he walked down the dirt passage until it was out of view.

Had that been a camera of some kind? All of their technology seemed to be organic in nature, perhaps it was hooked up to some kind of surveillance system. Now that he thought about, whatever it was, it was small and unobtrusive. He had only noticed it because its movement had caught his eye. For all he knew, there could be hundreds, even thousands of them strewn throughout the hive. Who might be watching? That was the real question that was on his mind as he followed behind the lumbering Replete.

They traversed the winding maze of identical dirt tunnels that he was becoming so accustomed to. Walker hardly even saw the featureless walls of packed soil anymore, he navigated with his nose, seeing where was going and where others had been in his mind's eye. It was a multicolor map of smells and tastes, and he was growing more proficient at reading it. He could tell which direction would take him to food, he could smell traces of foliage and meat from the Replete feeding chamber, he could even determine which castes had been where. At least the ones whose smells he was familiar with.

He didn't know where Cherry was leading him, however, only where she wasn't. They weren't going towards the feeding room, and they weren't following the other Repletes, where might she be headed?

After what must have been at least half a mile of walking, they emerged into a domed room, this one identical to all the others at first glance. Walker bristled, Cherry's head turning to look at him as she smelled his fear. The room was lined with recesses dug into the walls, most of them occupied by Warriors. They were hanging from fleshy webs and organic cables, holding them upright as they stood limply, their bodies split down the middle to reveal their glistening innards. Tall Pilots were striding around, some of them examining or working on their organic suits, and numerous Workers scurried about beneath them at waist height in comparison to their larger counterparts.

This was some kind of garage, had to be. Were these Workers surgeons, or mechanics? Was there much of a difference in Betelgeusian society? There was...stuff all over the walls. It almost looked like someone had strung up entrails like Christmas decorations, but upon closer inspection, Walker realized that it was some kind of organic cabling. They ran between the recesses in the walls where the suits were housed and disappeared into holes in the dirt at intervals. There were also the usual light fixtures made from luminescent moss and other gelatinous objects of indeterminable purpose that clung to the walls like ugly growths.

The Workers connected and disconnected fleshy cables to the Warrior's carapaces, leaning inside the open cavities of the large, lobster-like suits and working on them with unidentifiable tools. They removed damaged sections of shell from the limbs, pockmarked with railgun fire or plasma burns, carrying them off to be replaced or repaired. It looked like battle damage, and Walker got a sinking feeling in his stomach. Had there been fighting since he had been captured? Were his comrades dying on Jarilo's surface while he was stuck down here, unable to help? Should he be doing more to sabotage the operations of the hive?

If this had been a hangar in a UNN base, then there would have been status readouts on computer consoles beside the berths, fueling lines running to the ships, and other loading machinery. There was none of that here, at least nothing that he could immediately recognize. There were work surfaces spread about the circular floor of the room, and large, blocky devices that seemed to be made from both organic and mechanical components. They looked like filing cabinets coated with slime to him, he had no way of knowing what any of it was for.

Did the Bugs even use computers? How would a species that only communicated through pheromones and had no written language to speak of write code, or input data? It was impossible for him to imagine a world without the microprocessor, without touch screens and integrated smart computers in everything from wristwatches to toilets. They must have math, you couldn't achieve space travel without the complex calculations required for things like orbital burns and superlight jumps, but how did they apply it?

His instinctual fear at the sight of the Warriors subsided slowly, they were all deactivated, or maybe asleep? He wasn't sure yet to what extent they were organic.

One of the tall Pilots noticed them, making her way over as the smaller Workers scurried out of her path, coming to a stop in front of Cherry as the two communicated. Walker concentrated hard, intent on understanding the exchange. It might reveal some clues as to what his purpose was here.



Cherry turned to leave, lumbering back the way that she had come in her four-legged gait as her heavy, fluid-laden pouches swayed beneath her body. Apparently, Walker was now in the charge of this Pilot. He looked her up and down, sizing her up.

She was about seven feet tall, lanky, with long and thin limbs. Her two sets of arms were comparably sized, ending in long, spindly digits. Her torso was elongated in proportion to the rest of her body, and Walker remembered the first time that he had seen them and how their spines almost seemed to be open to the air. Presumably in order to facilitate their connection with the Warriors and the other Bug vehicles. This individual had the usual ornate, distinct horn, and a carapace that was an iridescent yellow-orange in color. Tangerine would be a fitting name for her.

She seemed to be examining him too, her wide, blue eyes panning over him. He felt a little self-conscious, he must smell of honey and sex. The most thorough shower in the world wouldn't have fooled their sensitive noses, or whatever it was that they used to smell.


Her pheromone conveyed a commanding tone, which made sense, as the Drones and Pilots made up the military branch of the hive. Maybe he would get along with these guys better than he had thought.

Where Fig and Cherry had led Walker around by the hand like a lost child, Tangerine expected him to follow on his own, and so he did. He understood enough of their language now to take instruction, more or less. He wasn't sure whether she somehow knew that fact or if she was just indifferent. He noticed that while the Pilots were turning to stare in his direction, the Workers were not. They went about their business as if he wasn't even there, which Walker found unusual. In the factory room, they had been fascinated by him. Was it possible that these were the same Workers from two days prior, and if so, did that mean that the colony was in fact much smaller than he had initially believed? An alternative explanation was that the hive was separated into smaller sections, each with its own population of Workers, Repletes, and soldiers. That was essentially what the UNN did, perhaps he was currently inside the Betelgeusian equivalent of a city district or a military base.

Tangerine had said that he was supposed to learn, but about what? Were they going to put him inside a Warrior suit and see if he could drive it around? If Walker had an enemy combatant that he was holding captive, the last thing he would do would be to give them a guided tour of his hangar bays and teach them to use his weapons.

She walked up to one of the slimy filing cabinets, and Walker edged close enough to get a better look at it. It wasn't perfectly square, it almost looked like a termite mound. If you somehow contracted an ant colony to build you a four-foot tall tower, this is what it would have looked like. It was irregular and misshapen, made from some kind of hard resin.

In a lot of ways, humans had unnatural tastes when it came to design and decoration. They wanted everything to be smooth and clean, angular and with straight edges. They built all of their technology into precise shapes as if the entire species was afflicted with some mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Bugs shared no such concerns, valuing function over form.

Its vaguely rectangular surface was covered in pustules, not unlike the camera that he had seen watching him in the tunnel. The mucous-green, gelatinous blobs were affixed to the tower seemingly at random, some of them wobbling and shifting as if they were alive. As he watched, Tangerine began to interact with them, her hands hanging at her sides as she released a series of complex pheromones. Many of them were too subtle and too finely layered for Walker to parse, at least not yet, and some of the pustules writhed and wobbled in response. She was communicating with them through smell, and they were answering her. What the hell were they? Were they alive? Was this some new caste of Betelgeusian that was dramatically different from the rest, or was it just some form of Bug technology?

She turned her attention towards one of the tunnels and Walker bristled as he watched a Warrior lumber into the room. It was tall and wide enough to completely fill the passage with its armored shell, its crab-like claws hanging below its segmented belly as its compound eyes reflected the light from the ceiling, seeming to glisten as it moved. It came directly towards them, Walker standing his ground despite his fear.

There was no reason for them to harm him at this stage, he was expected to learn something from the Bugs, passing him between the different castes served some purpose that he wasn't aware of yet.

Had Tangerine called this Warrior to them using the pustules on the resin tower? Of course, those gelatinous blobs had responded to her pheromones, they must serve as keys or buttons. It was like a kind of voice-activated console, but rather than detecting the speech of the user via a microphone, it somehow sensed the smells that the user emitted and translated them into some kind of signal. Was that how their computers worked, and how they were able to store and access data without writing?

If that was true, it was remarkable. If they had managed to build and operate even rudimentary computers with no written language and no tactile interface, that would mean that they had skipped many of the steps that had led humans towards modern computing. It was like some kind of Smell-O-Vision.

It spoke to the psychology of the Bugs. He had noticed that they didn't make many gestures in the way that humans and other races did, they had very little body language to speak of. They also seemed to favor pheromone communication over more tactile interactions. There was no reason not to write, no reason not to develop a keyboard and buttons that could be pressed, unless the idea was simply foreign to them. It had probably never even crossed their minds, no more than smell-activated computers would have seemed obvious to humans.

What did their code look like and how did they write it? They must have some equivalent if they were using digital systems. It would be possible to produce this kind of system with existing technology, but creating it from scratch would introduce problems.

The Warrior stopped a few feet away, and Tangerine walked over to it, looking back at Walker as if to imply that he should join her. He had never gotten so close to one before, at least one that hadn't been shredded with heavy weapons fire beforehand. It was so large, there was so much mass to the thing. He felt as if it was going to fall over and crush him.

It barely looked alive. It had those same eyes that the Drone helmets had, glassy and expressionless. There was no space for a horn, because the shell overhung the small head like a protective cap, but it had two short antennae protruding from its forehead just above the compound eyes. The Bugs did not have antennae, at least not that he could see. Perhaps these served as a kind of sensor package, like scanners on a spaceship, in order to enhance the pilot's situational awareness.

The claws alone were almost as long as he was tall. Huge, armored pincers that could tear through metal like a can opener and that made short work of even Borealans and Krell if allowed to close in. Walker felt naked without a gun in his hands, but he had to keep reminding himself that he wasn't in danger. It made no sense for the Bugs to kill him, not right now.

Tangerine seemed to be waiting for something, and Walker got frustrated, shrugging his shoulders at her.

I don't know what you want from me.”

She waved her mandibles in irritation, one of the few gestures that they seemed to make.

What do you want me to do with this?”

She released a pheromone that he didn't recognize, it kind of smelled like burning wood, and suddenly there was a great shudder from the Warrior. Walker's instincts kicked in, and he leapt backwards, his hand darting to his hip reflexively but finding no sidearm to draw. It wasn't moving to attack him, however, it was splitting open. As if some invisible knife had run from its head to its groin, its entire body came undone, splaying wide with a grotesque cracking sound. Strands of fluid linked the two halves as they opened like a clamshell, sagging and breaking to fall to the dirt floor. It was almost enough to turn Walker's stomach, it looked like some kind of horrific injury had befallen the thing. He could see exposed flesh and organs inside the body cavity, wet and wriggling, surrounding an empty hole that would have been just large enough for a Pilot to squeeze inside.

He inched closer cautiously, craning his neck to get a better look into the gaping cavity. Its insides were coated in a sheen of glistening moisture, the nondescript bunches of muscle and what were probably organs were flexing and pulsing as if they were alive. It was an organic suit, so it must be alive, but how could it open up like this without dying? What about infections?

It was apparently capable of limited movement on its own, as there was no Pilot inside. Was this Tangerine's personal...suit? Vehicle? What was the purpose of showing him this?

She stepped forward, Walker taking a moment to get a look at the exposed flesh on her back, along with the plug-like holes that ran down it. It resembled brain matter, pink in color and detailed with small channels and lobes. He watched with a disgusted expression as she turned her back to the Warrior, then climbed inside of it. She used her four long arms to support herself, bracing them against the fleshy interior as she swung one leg up, and then the second. The Warrior's legs were hollow on the inside it seemed, and she slotted right into it, her arms vanishing into puckered orifices that no doubt led to the suit's limbs. He could hear the wet sounds coming from within as she shifted and wriggled to get deeper inside it, her chitinous body pressing into the thing's moist innards.

There was sudden movement from inside the Warrior's open carapace. Walker resisted the urge to jump back and get out of range of it, watching in alarm as a dozen dripping tendrils emerged from its glistening flesh. They were like tentacles, all in irregular sizes, slowly growing from the wall of meat behind Tangerine like fingers poking through latex as they snaked between her limbs and began to curl around her body. It looked horrifying to Walker, like an octopus that was about to devour its prey, but the Pilot seemed perfectly calm.

The muscular tubes wrapped around her neck and waist, winding around her upper arms and securing her thighs like thick ropes. He could see them tensing as they tightened. For a moment he feared that it would crush her, but the winding protrusions never got so tight as to be painful.

Tangerine was now completely locked inside the Warrior, like some kind of organic safety harness. She was engulfed by the strange protrusions to the point that half of her body was completely covered by them, her orange shell glinting between the off-yellow meat of the husk's prehensile appendages.

That is...repulsive,” Walker muttered, knowing that she couldn't understand him but finding catharsis in expressing himself all the same. Tangerine twitched, her segmented body bucking as if something behind her was causing her discomfort. Of course, the suit was hooking into her nervous system, he just couldn't see it. It must be pushing the fleshy cables into her spine, the same ones that he had seen being disconnected from the Pilots the first time that he had come across them.

She finally stopped squirming, Walker unsure of whether what she had just experienced had been at all painful, and she stared down at him expectantly.

When he had first arrived in the hive, he had gotten the impression that they were trying to find a place for him, trying to figure out what he was capable of. It was almost as if they had snatched him at random without having any real idea of who he was or what he did. Now it felt more like they were giving him a tour, showing him their technology and their capabilities. Why on Earth would an enemy do that? Who would invite a spy into their midst and then reveal all of their secrets to him?

It frustrated him, he had been living in the colony for days and yet he still had no real idea of why they had kidnapped him or what they wanted from him. Some scout he was turning out to be...

Perhaps if he focused on learning their language, he might just be able to ask. While he had made great strides in understanding their alien communication, he was still unable to say so much as a word. He could emit pheromones that seemed to be triggered by emotional cues, but he couldn't formulate speech in the way that they could. Was it something that he could learn to do with practice, or was it a limitation of his physiology? Maybe he just didn't have the right wiring for speaking Bug.


Tangerine was staring at him, the pheromones that she emitted edging towards the red end of the spectrum which indicated anger or frustration. Walker had no idea what he was supposed to be learning, and so he couldn't be of much help.


That was an easy enough command to understand, and so he shuffled a little closer to the inert Warrior. Her hard carapace was pressing right up again the slimy flesh of the suit's innards, it almost looked padded for comfort, but there couldn't be anything remotely comfortable about being enclosed in a prison of meat and organs.

When he got close enough, one of the mucous-covered appendages reached out, gripping his wrist and tugging him closer. It was strong, pulling him off his feet, and he had to reach out with his free hand to break his fall. It landed in wet meat with an audible splat, and Walker felt his fingers sink into the slippery flesh. It was like a wet sponge, warm and slimy, and he swore that he could feel a pulse beneath his palm. He tried to pull back instinctively, but the errant tentacle was wrapped around his arm with a grip like iron, his upper body mostly inside the Warrior's open torso. The smell was strong, surprisingly not unpleasant, and he found himself wondering if it would have smelled this way to his unmodified nose. The cavity was warmed by its body heat, and there didn't seem to be any blood, just slimy fluid that coated its exposed guts in a sheen. Perhaps it had antiseptic functions, that would make sense.

Okay, I'm looking. What the hell is that you want from me, you crazy Bug?”


He was pretty sure his translation was right, it wasn't like she was talking gibberish, but she wasn't making any sense. He paused to examine the thing more closely. His hand was already covered in slime, and so he ran it over the interior of the Warrior. It felt like wet guts, as if somebody had opened up a horse or a cow and had thrust his hand inside it before it had gone cold.

He moved aside as Tangerine stepped out of the Warrior one leg at a time, the puckered orifices releasing her limbs, ringed with muscle that would seal her securely inside it seemed. The tentacles uncoiled from her, slowly receding into the cushioned wall of exposed flesh, and now he got a better look at the plugs that were attached to her back. There were four of them hooked into her spine in a row, trailing behind her like tethers. She walked a few paces away from the Warrior's husk, standing with her four arms outstretched as strings of its goo dripped from her, as if waiting for something.

Walker watched in fascination as half a dozen of the Workers turned their heads in her direction, abandoning their tasks and scurrying over to her. Some of them began carefully removing the organic cables from her back, it seemed that she couldn't reach them on her own, while the rest crowded around her. Their mandibles opened, the long tongues that Walker had become so intimately familiar with shooting out towards Tangerine. They licked her clean of the residue from inside the Warrior's body cavity, their winding tongues pushing between the joints of her carapace and leaving not an inch of her colorful shell untouched. The tethers sprang back inside the Warrior's open carapace as if they were made of elastic, sucking back into its inner wall like strands of spaghetti into a hungry mouth.

It happened so quickly, and then the Workers were gone, returning to their usual business. Tangerine turned back to him, now shining clean and free of the tethers. She advanced towards him with her four arms outstretched, grabbing Walker by the wrists and hips as he struggled. Her grip was like steel, he couldn't break free. She manhandled him, spinning him around in her spider-like arms so that he had his back to her, and he shivered as he felt her hard fingers slide beneath his clothing. She ran them up his spine, tracing his vertebrae with her spindly digits, moving from the small of his back all the way up to his skull. He twitched, he was ticklish, and he wasn't sure how to respond. Yet again the Bugs demonstrated their complete disregard for personal space.

You won't find any plugs if that's what you're looking for. Just what the hell do you think I am, anyway?”

She spun him again so that he was facing her, looking down at him in confusion with her large eyes. She tugged at his jacket, yet again the use of clothing seemed to perplex them, and he batted her hand away as she clicked her mouthparts at him in irritation.

Alright, get off me, I get the picture. I'm not going to have you guys tearing off my clothes again. I've only got one outfit.”

He pulled off his jacket and his pants, keeping his shorts on as she cocked her head, her mandibles flexing. It must look strange to her, like he was removing a layer of his skin.

There, happy?”

Indeed she was, and she knelt to run her hands over his body. She seemed to be looking for something, probably searching for plugs. He wasn't a Worker, he wasn't a Replete, perhaps they thought that he might be a Pilot? Their entire world was built around the caste system, was it completely beyond their comprehension that an individual might perform more than one task? A human could be a Warrior, a Pilot or a Worker. They weren't limited by castes, they could perform a thousand different duties. They might not be as highly specialized as the Betelgeusians, but human pilots could shoot down Bug fighters, and human soldiers could hold their own against Drones.

Her hand roamed down towards his butt, her fingers slipping below the waistband of his shorts, and he knocked her arm away again.

That's not a plug, you'll just have to take my word for it.”

She tried to slip her hands into his underwear again, and this time he shoved her away. She stumbled, putting out one of her lower arms to steady herself, then rose to her feet to loom over him. A few of the nearby Workers had turned their heads, ceasing their activities as they sensed the angry pheromone that was leaking from Walker's pores.

Something about this Bug's attitude pissed him off. The Workers had been innocent and almost child-like in their clumsy explorations, while the Repletes had been doting and careful. This pilot was confrontational, rough, and it was getting under his skin.

Back off,” he commanded. The Workers nearby seemed afraid and confused, reminding him of the time that he had disrupted their excavation work in the tunnel. They chittered unhappily, glancing at each other nervously as Walker and Tangerine stared one another down.

Tangerine backed off, walking over towards the console, standing before it and releasing a complex series of scents and pheromones. Walker strained to understand, able to pick out only a few off the less nuanced words and emotions.

She was frustrated, complaining about him to what sounded like some kind of higher authority. There was an emotion there, a pheromone that had no real equivalent in human experience, his brain couldn't parse it. The closest he could get was reverence, maybe respect or deference. Whoever Tangerine was talking to was her superior, she was asking for instructions on what to do with Walker. Perhaps they had not been expecting him to be uncooperative after so many days living in the hive without incident.

Tangerine seemed done, the gelatinous blobs that were glued to the misshapen console ceasing their pulsating. As she walked back towards him, he noticed her glance at something to her right. He followed her gaze, narrowing his eyes as he tried to make out what she was looking at. It was higher than her, her head was tilted slightly upwards.

Movement caught his attention above the scuttling Workers, on the nearest wall of the circular room, about nine feet off the dirt floor. There was another camera peering at him. The black dot in the center of the mass of slime was pointed in their direction, it was watching them. Just like the camera in the tunnel...

Just who was on the other end of those cameras? Was it the same person that Tangerine had been talking to? It seemed likely based on the way that she was looking at it, almost as if she was afraid of it. Could this be the elusive Queen that Walker had posited to exist?

Tangerine looked determined, coming to a stop in front of him as he stood there in his underwear, his arms crossed defiantly.


She meant the Warrior of course, but he wasn't about to let those fleshy tentacles grab him, and he didn't want the tethers to drill into his spine. She released a red pheromone, it smelled acidic, stinging his nose and throat. Anger.

What was she going to do, fight him? He doubted that whoever was in charge would allow that. They had gone to great lengths to take him alive, they had brought him to the hive for a purpose.

I'm not getting in that thing.”


Go to hell.”

The Workers were becoming agitated again, disturbed by the confrontational pheromones that were floating on the air. Walker almost felt sorry for them, they were so easily upset. Tangerine stepped forward as if to confront him, but as Walker raised his fists, there was a sudden commotion from across the room that distracted the both of them.

Walker could not only smell pheromones, but his sense of smell had been dramatically enhanced both in range and intensity. He felt like a damned shark sometimes, able to pick out tiny particulates in the air. Now he smelled blood coming down the tunnel, the copper flavor of it pricking his tongue.

From one of the many adjoining tunnels lumbered a Warrior, emerging into the hangar as the Workers scurried towards it, scents of distress and anxiety filling the air. He watched as it stumbled forward, one of its four massive claws was missing and a second was hanging limply by its side. Its thick shell was scarred with plasma burns and pockmarked with railgun fire, the thing was Swiss cheese. There was a very large hole in its abdomen and Walker recognized it as an entry wound from an anti-material railgun, the massive rifles that had been introduced for the sole purpose of killing Warriors and destroying the engine blocks of armored vehicles. It had taken a hit in the gut, it was a miracle that the thing was still walking. Off-green ichor leaked from the hole, more like mucous than blood. Its smell was strong, unpleasant, and it made the Workers nervous.

There were three Drones following behind it, wearing their signature armor and helmets, their iridescent exoskeletons reflecting the light from the domed ceiling. Two of them were intact, but one was badly injured, her chest had been cracked open like an eggshell and organs that Walker could not identify were open to the air.

The wounded Bugs were met by Workers, the shorter aliens lying the injured Drone on the floor and crowding around her. Walker craned his neck to see what they were doing. The Workers were medics too, apparently, they served as doctors as well as engineers. He remembered that it had been a Worker that had operated on him when he had first been brought to the colony. There might not be a difference to Betelgeusians after all, so much of their tech was wetware, combinations of organic and technological systems.

They were licking their hands and smearing their saliva all over the Drone's open chest wound, and Walker knew enough about Workers to know that it would create a resin seal. It was a kind of improvised bandage, no doubt keeping the soldier's guts in her body and protecting them from infection. The Drone lay there on the floor, pretty calm considering that she was on death's door, barely reacting to the small hands of the Workers as they spread their saliva on her wounds.

Meanwhile, the Warrior was in far worse shape. The suit stood motionless, bodily fluids pooling in the dirt beneath it as the Workers surrounded it, frantically trying to pry it open. It seemed that either the Pilot was dead, or the mechanism that caused the torso to split open had been damaged in some way. It was a little macabre. Walker didn't want to get near the things when they were intact, never mind facing the prospect of being trapped inside a damaged one.

A dozen of the little Workers were pushing the pointed fingers on their shovel-like upper hands into the subtle break where the Warrior was supposed to splay open, trying to pull the two halves apart through sheer force. They looked like engineers trying to pry open the door of a broken elevator. There was a tangible urgency to it, the pheromones that the Workers secreted were anxious. Perhaps the Pilot was still alive?

They finally succeeded, the Warrior splitting open from head to groin like a clamshell. A flood of bodily fluids spilled out of it, splashing on the floor, the smell of gore almost enough to turn Walker's stomach. He had been on many a battlefield, he had walked amongst the dead and dying more times than he cared to remember, but his sense of smell was enhanced now. It was like being inside a damned slaughterhouse.

The Workers clambered up into the Warrior's open body cavity, Walker able to make out the figure of its Pilot past their colorful shells. She was tangled in tentacles, their purpose had no doubt been to secure her safely inside the suit, but now they weren't functioning properly. The frantic Workers tugged at them, trying to pull them loose, but they were coiled around her limbs and torso like the roots of a tree. She wasn't moving, and Walker was sure that the railgun slug must have hit her, but there was so much gore and viscera that he couldn't tell what belonged to her and what was coming from the Warrior.

They began to bite at the tendrils with their sharp mandibles, chewing through the flexible meat. They finally succeeded in pulling away some of the thicker tentacles, the smaller ones releasing their hold on the Pilot as they pulled her limp body from the suit. They lay her on the floor, and she convulsed, vomiting up some kind of yellow goo. She was still alive against all the odds. The Workers crowded around her and began to wash her with their tongues, cleaning away all of the fluids until finally, Walker could see her wound.

The anti-material railguns were not intended for use against personnel. Sure, you could shoot an enemy combatant with them, but that was not what they had been designed for. The energies at work would turn a human into a fine red powder. It seemed that the Warrior's thick armor had at least slowed the slug as it had passed through, absorbing most of the kinetic energy. Being inside that suit when it got hit would have been like putting a cooking pot on your head and then having someone strike it with a sledgehammer, it was a miracle that she hadn't been mulched.

There was a hole the size of a fist just below her chest, right where the solar plexus would have been on a human. The carapace around it was cracked, like someone had thrown a softball through a pane of glass. Walker was no Bug physician, but it didn't look good. Fluid coming out of the mouth was a bad sign, if you had two arms or four.

The injured Drone was being ferried away by a group of Workers, probably towards an operating theater of some kind, but the Pilot was in far worse shape. Walker couldn't see much of what was happening behind the group of little Bugs, but before long their panic seemed to fade. They stepped away from the Pilot as she lay motionless, clearly dead. They had failed to save her life.

Walker didn't really know what to feel. These were his enemies and killing them was his profession, but despite that fact, he never found joy in death. His work was clinical and detached, he wasn't out to punish the evil aliens or to take revenge, merely to neutralize the threat. Some of the younger Marines saw things that way, rookies fresh off the station, but that attitude never survived more than one or two engagements. War wasn't cool, it wasn't fun. It was shitty, dirty work, but someone had to do it.

The Workers scarcely spared a second for their dead comrade, leaving her lying on the ground in a pool of her own ichor as they turned their attention towards the Warrior's inert husk. Walker knew that the organic suits could walk under their own power, but the Workers set about toppling it over instead. They worked together to push it to the floor, scurrying back as the massive shell impacted the dirt, heavy enough to shake the ground beneath Walker's feet. They operated as one organism, sharing the weight between them as they hooked their hands beneath its carapace, lifting it off the ground and carting it off towards one of the recesses in the wall. With great effort they stood it up straight, securing it behind a fleshy mesh, intending to get to work repairing it no doubt. Would that process involve fixing its damaged machinery, healing its wounds, or some combination of both?

Something occurred to Walker. Why had the injured Bugs come here, rather than going straight to whatever passed for a hospital in the colony? The only logical explanation was that this was the nearest Warrior hangar to the surface. There was no way that an injured Pilot would take any detours. In that case, Walker was not somewhere deep inside the hive but relatively close to the surface. With his new nose, would he be able to smell fresh air, perhaps the scent of the pine trees? Could he find his way out of these tunnels on his own?

It was also safe to assume that whatever fight the Warrior and its Drone cohorts had been in, they had been soundly defeated. Was it possible that the Betelgeusians were losing their ground war against the UNN? What if there had been a fight nearby, could there be UNN troops walking around only a few meters above his head? The injured Bugs couldn't have made it very far in the condition that they were in.

Walker was moving before he was even conscious of having made a decision. Tangerine was temporarily too shocked to do anything about it, and by the time she had set off in pursuit, he was already entering the tunnel that the Warrior had emerged from. He could smell the blood that it had dripped on the ground, it was like a trail of breadcrumbs. As adrenaline surged through his veins, he realized that it would lead him directly to the exit.

He had never run this fast in his life. The wind was blowing in his ears, his heart pounding in his chest as he shot off down the dirt passage. Like all of the tunnels in this dark, humid maze, this one branched off in a dozen different directions. He knew exactly where to go, however, the trail of blood and fluids might as well have been a fluorescent arrow painted on the ground.

There was no dissent amongst the Bugs, no disruption to the routine. When something unexpected happened, they didn't seem to know how to deal with it. A prisoner of the UNN would have been held under armed guard at all times, and yet the Bugs had just expected him to be cooperative, as if the idea that he might take initiative and try to escape had simply never crossed their minds.

His feet pounded on the dirt, and he realized that he had left his clothes behind. What a sight he would be, emerging from a hole in the ground wearing nothing but his shorts, waving his arms and shouting frantically. He'd never live that down, they'd be telling jokes about it at Charlie for weeks. He turned a corner, his lungs burning, his body leveraging every scrap of energy that it had gleaned from the Replete's honey to drive him onward. He would run until he collapsed if necessary, that's what humans were best at, endurance running. The damned Bugs would have been better served by keeping him hungry and compliant, but he felt as strong as a horse.

He took a fork in the tunnel, every breath that he took refreshing his mental map of the blood trail. Besides the injured party that had made its way down to the hangar, no Bugs had been here recently, and he didn't smell the presence of any guards. The Betelgeusians were good at concealing the entrances to their colony, it probably wasn't necessary to post guards on them.

He noticed an upward slant to the passage, and he felt a breeze on his face, the air carrying the scent of pine needles. He had been right, this part of the colony wasn't more than a few meters below the surface of Jarilo. He was so close to freedom that he could literally taste it.

As he rounded a corner, he saw sunlight for the first time in days. There was a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, and he powered through his mounting exhaustion as he sprinted towards it.

Movement drew his attention. What had looked like a featureless section of wall was now sliding back, opening to reveal a cavity in the wall of the passage. It was a hidden door, built to conceal a room that was joined to the main tunnel. A trio of Drones flooded out to block his way, silhouetted against the bright sunlight behind them, their armor shimmering in hues of blue and green.

Walker skidded to a stop, swallowing hard as he panted, his eyes fixed on the light beyond. He was so close, so damned close to escaping. He'd never get another chance like this. The Drones were lined up with plasma pistols in hand and shield projectors on their wrists. He couldn't get past them, and he couldn't take out three Bugs unarmed.

He turned to flee in the opposite direction, hoping to maybe find an alternate escape route, but the way back was blocked too. Another secret door had opened behind him, and there were half a dozen Drones boxing him in. Now that he was paying more attention, he saw that there were many such doors built into the length of this tunnel. There was a blob of green slime beside each sliding panel, about where a keypad would have been if the door was of human design, a kind of chemical lock no doubt. There were many others spaced out along the tunnel at intervals. They might be barracks for the Drones, perhaps storerooms so that troops on the surface could resupply quickly without having to venture too deep into the hive.

No wonder they didn't post guards on the tunnels. If a UNN scout party ever made their way inside, they would be swarmed from all sides as the Bugs came flooding out of the hidden rooms.

The Drones began to close in, their weapons pointed at Walker, and he spun his head from left to right as he tried to figure out a way to escape. There was none, of course. He was trapped, and his short rush for freedom had come to an abrupt end. He exhaled a sigh, raising his hands in surrender, and then noticed a jellycam on the wall to his right. Its black lens was pointed at him, peering through the layer of gelatinous goo. He flipped it the bird.


The Drones carted Walker down a dingy passage, gripping him by the arms so that there was no chance of him escaping again. They were walking him deeper into the tunnels, far away from the scents that he recognized, as if they were trying to scramble his mental map of the hive. He assumed that they were returning him to his cell to spend the rest of his stay locked behind bars, but after a long walk that must have seen them descend hundreds of meters below the planet's surface, they came to a stop in front of what looked like a featureless wall.

No, there was one of the blob-like buttons, there must be a hidden door here somewhere. His suspicions were confirmed when one of his captors released a complex pheromone, the biological keypad seeming to wobble and flex in response. It opened the door, a dirt-covered panel that perfectly conformed to the curvature of the tunnel wall sliding to one side to reveal a hidden chamber.

It was domed, as were most of the rooms in the hive, but this one was fairly small. There was maybe twenty feet of floor space, and the ceiling was probably fifteen feet at its highest point. It was lit by the usual glowing moss, the air thick and humid.

The Bugs pushed him through the door, Walker noting that it was larger and wider than seemed necessary, and they had closed the panel securely behind him before he could pick himself up.

Well shit, he was in a cell again. Back to square one. At least it wasn't cold, they had never given him his fatigues back. He brushed himself off and walked over to where the door had been a moment before, now a flat wall. The construction methods of the Bugs seemed so archaic, hollowing out cavities in the soil and sealing them with saliva, and yet there was some remarkable craftsmanship involved. He ran his fingers over the dirt where he knew the door to be, but he couldn't detect so much as an indent beneath his fingertips, nor could he see anything that might have given away the panel.

There was a keypad in here, identical to the one outside, and he reached out a finger to prod it experimentally. It shifted as if trying to pull away from him, its slimy surface wobbling. It was like some kind of limpet or barnacle without a shell, clearly alive in some capacity. It must sniff out pheromones in the air and respond to commands, not unlike a digital lock. The difference was that rather than scanning the fingerprint of the user, or opening for a numerical code, it waited for the correct scent to be emitted.

Walker could not yet produce scents, at least not intentionally. He had no way of opening the door. Frustrated, he hammered his fist on the panel, hearing a metallic ring. Well, that was one way to detect the doors at least.

He wondered what the Bugs must be thinking of him now. He had cooperated until an opportunity for escape had presented itself, did that make him insane in their eyes? He was a deviant, a non-conformist, someone who did not blindly obey their orders like a mindless Drone. Unpredictability was his strength, he had to play on their biases. He might yet get another chance to escape.

Although Walker had expected to be left to stew for a while, he felt vibrations beneath his feet. Something was coming down the tunnel outside the cell, something big. He stepped away from the door as the dirt-covered panel slid open, his heart leaping into his throat as he saw the unmistakable pincers of a Warrior. Its bulk blocked the doorway, which was just barely large enough to let it pass, the panel snapping shut behind it before Walker could make a move to slip past.

He backed up against the far wall as it took a few lumbering steps towards him, his hands shaking. Was this it, then? Were they going to eviscerate him for his transgression? Was he standing in an execution chamber?

He relaxed somewhat as the Warrior split open, revealing a glint of orange carapace buried beneath a mass of tentacles. It was Tangerine. The slimy protrusions released her from the biological vehicle, and she stepped out, her shell coated in goo. There were no Workers present to lick her clean.

She looked as angry as the Bug's nearly expressionless faces could look. Her blue eyes were narrowed, and her mandibles were waving erratically. Clearly, he was making whatever job had been assigned to her a whole lot harder than it needed to be.


She reached down and gripped him by the wrist, tugging him forward as he dug his heels into the soil. She pumped out red scents, frustrated with his odd behavior, finally getting sick of his disobedience and lifting him off the ground by the underarms. He kicked and fought, but her arms were longer than the reach of his legs. She turned around and began to walk towards the Warrior's open husk, Walker straining to turn his head to get a look at the thing, as it was behind him now.

As she neared the lobster-like torso, half a dozen of its slimy tendrils reached out towards him, grasping at the air like the appendages of some mindless sea anemone. He redoubled his efforts, trying to break free of her iron grip, but he couldn’t get any leverage while she had him suspended in the air.

One of the tapered tentacles brushed the bare skin of his back, and he shivered, feeling the trail of sticky slime that it left in its wake. He felt like he was being fed to some horrible deep sea creature, its gaping maw swarming with feelers that would drag him down to his doom. Tangerine released him into the custody of the tendrils, and they wrapped around his body like sinuous ropes as they pulled him inside the Warrior, tightening around his limbs and his torso with their powerful muscles.

They were wet, coated in slippery mucous, and so their grip came from their tightness rather than their texture. Perhaps that method worked better for securing a Pilot's smooth carapace, but it felt disgusting against his skin, like they were giant slugs or tongues. At least they were warm, clearly alive as the tubes of muscle pulled him snug against the inner wall of the Warrior.

Its spongy flesh pressed against him from behind, soaking his underwear with slime, its exposed innards shifting and pulsating. He yelped as he felt one of the tethers press against the small of his back, probing for a plug with what felt like a tiny mouth, as if it was a lamprey trying to find a spot to latch onto. Three more followed suit, running up and down his spine as they searched for a way to connect. It tickled, and he squirmed, but the tentacles tightened their grip to keep him still in response. They seemed to be able to detect his spine, attracted to the neurological activity perhaps, or maybe the electricity produced by his nerves. They could find no way to hook in, however, and they eventually gave up their fruitless probing.

Tangerine seemed annoyed, and she stepped closer, leaning into the Warrior's open abdomen and sliding her long fingers behind his back. She traced his vertebrae, her touch made slick by the presence of the mucous, then loosed a cloud of irritated pheromones.

I'm not a pilot,” he grumbled, one of the tentacles tightening around his neck. “And could you tell this thing that mammals need lungs to breathe? It's getting a little tight in he-”

His complaint was choked off as the slimy muscle that had curled around his throat flexed, and he shut his mouth, concentrating on breathing instead.

The size of the Warrior put Tangerine at about head height to him, her face an inch from his as she lingered there. Now that she was closer to him and they were away from the myriad scents that had clouded the air in the hanger, she could smell him more easily. Something had piqued her interest, that much was clear as her blue eyes played over his bound body and her hard mandibles clicked curiously. Was she perhaps smelling the residue of his night with the Repletes? There had been no Workers to clean him up after the fact and so he likely still smelled of their honey and...other fluids.

He was wrapped in a cocoon of tentacles, nothing but his head open to the air as his limbs and torso were buried in slimy flesh. She seemed to have pheromonal control over her Warrior, not dissimilar to voice commands, but with scent instead of speech. She gave a command that Walker was not yet experienced enough to interpret and a few of the tendrils pulled away to exposed his chest and belly. There was a thick one still curled around his waist to hold him in place, and another wrapped around his neck to keep him from squirming loose. His limbs were held tight, too short to really fit into the holes that led to the arms and legs of the biomechanical vehicle, and so the Warrior had him firmly shackled with its appendages instead.

She ran her long fingers from his chest to his belly, testing the firmness of his muscles, fascinated by his alien physiology. Where the Bugs had hard exoskeletons, he had smooth skin and a layer of soft fat, with firm muscle beneath. Tangerine liked the texture, and his scent was changing the hue of her emotions from an angry and frustrated red towards a more covetous pink.


She pressed closer than Walker would have liked, her mandibles brushing his cheek as she examined his scent, a tongue as long and as flexible as those of the other castes leaving her mouth to taste his skin. Her demeanor had changed, and suddenly he felt more vulnerable than he had before.

She moved down, following a scent, and planted a hand on his stomach. His muscles flexed beneath her palm in response, flinching away from her touch, and she dragged her smooth tongue across his chest. The salt from the sweat that caked his body after his mad dash for freedom, the residue of the Replete's honey from the night before, there was so much that might tempt the inquisitive Pilot.

You're...going a little off-course there,” he said as her slippery tongue crept down towards his navel. “I thought you were all business?”

She didn't respond, of course, likely didn't even have ears. If she could sense anything at all, it would only register as vibrations to her. Her warm tongue lashed across his belly, skirting the waistband of his shorts, and he felt a pleasant tremor flow through his body. He wanted to push her away but his arms were bound, his vulnerable position making him hypersensitive to her touch.

She seemed confused by his underwear, running her hand across the fabric, and squeezing gently when she found something soft. A burst of unwelcome pleasure shot up his spine as she cupped his equipment, holding it through the cotton and watching him as he reacted. The Warrior's tentacles held him steady, preventing him from pulling away as she moved down his thigh, running her fingers across his exposed skin.

They all seemed so curious about his physiology, and why would they not be? They were sapient creatures after all, and curiosity went hand in hand with intelligence. Humans might work side by side with aliens on a daily basis, but these Betelgeusians were an intensely xenophobic race, they would never have had the chance to examine an alien so closely. At least one that wasn't on the wrong end of a gun.

Interested in what might lie beneath this barrier of fabric, her tongue slowly slid out of her mouth, winding its way towards his waistband like a pink worm. It pushed beneath the elastic, feeling its way along as it roamed down his shaft, glancing his balls as he struggled against his fleshy bonds. His member began to swell, the sudden twitching exciting Tangerine, her wet organ curling around his growing erection as if to measure its length and girth. That had the side effect of only arousing him further, his cheeks flushing and his breath growing ragged as the slimy tentacle gripped him by the throat. He couldn't do anything to stop her. His thighs were bound so that he couldn’t close them, as were his arms, and the wriggling of his hips did little to dissuade her.


It was happening again. His body was betraying him, pumping out a pheromonal come-on that he had no way to stifle. He could smell it himself now, his grafted organ sending chemical signals coursing through his bloodstream, leaking out of every pore as if his skin was secreting an aphrodisiac. Contrary to popular belief, humans did produce natural pheromones, but they were so subtle as to go unnoticed. His new sensory organ seemed to piggyback on that system, amplifying it a million times over and feeding it chemical instructions that enticed the Bugs.

Tangerine licked his belly, enjoying the sweet taste, his member tenting the fabric of his shorts as she reciprocated. The Pilot released her own pheromone, his brain interpreting the signals as best it could. Scents of women and lust washed over him, sparking memories of sheets stained with sweat, of wet skin sliding against his own. The feeling of a soft breast deforming beneath his fingers as he kneaded it, the gentle sigh of a lover, her husky voice whispering obscenities in his ear as he plunged his face into her cascade of auburn hair.

It was irresistible, as if the very essence of sexuality itself had been bottled and then used as an alluring perfume. Tangerine was drawn to him like a moth to a flame, his taste and his scent overwhelming to her, the two adversaries feeding into one another's desire like some kind of infernal perpetual motion machine.


She knew where the scent was heaviest, tearing at his underwear with her hard fingers, ripping them like tissue paper to expose his member. It was hard and swollen, bouncing in the air in time with his heartbeat, a droplet of excitement welling at the tip. Walker couldn't move, couldn't defend himself. He strained against the rope-like protrusions that were gripping him, but there was no hope of breaking loose.


She wasted no time, her tentative explorations were over apparently. The Pilot lifted one of her jointed legs and stepped into the suit, the cramped space scarcely large enough for one of them, let alone two. With the carapace open, they had a little more room to maneuver, but it was still a tight fit. He felt her hard abdomen press against his erection as she slid her legs into the recesses, the tentacles that trapped him shifting and twitching as if responding to the presence of their master.

It almost felt as if the living walls of the Warrior's body were flexing and expanding to make more room, and Walker wondered if it was responding to the commands of its Pilot or if it had enough of a rudimentary intelligence to act of its own initiative.

Tangerine ran her four hands across his skin, wet with the Warrior's mucous, sliding her fingers across his ribs and roaming downwards to take handfuls of his ass. She was all over him, almost as bad as the damned Borealans.

As she pressed closer to him, pinching his cheek with her mandibles, her scent invading his senses with renewed strength. She looked like a giant insect and yet she smelled to him like the most beautiful and comely woman in all the Galaxy. He could scarcely stand it. He wanted to reach up and kiss her, his instincts telling him that he would be met by soft lips, but his higher functions knew that the only thing awaiting him were hard mandibles. Besides, the tentacle that gripped his throat would not have allowed it, and he felt it slither tighter as if it knew what he was thinking.

She wrapped her long fingers around his shaft, enjoying the sensation of it throbbing in her hand for a moment before pressing her hips closer to him. Her loins were identical to those of the other castes, a ribbed tunnel line with satin flesh, with a trio of finger-like appendages that opened to grant access. He felt them probe his member, the Pilot wasting no time as she used them to position his erection, her thick fluids leaking forth to coat his skin in a slippery sheen.

Not gonna buy me a drink first?” Walker grumbled, the tentacle flexing around his neck as if it sensed the vibrations. In his experience, some people were lovers, and some people were fighters. Tangerine was definitely the latter. She was fixated on her goal like a damned laser beam. No wonder the Warriors seemed so single-minded and relentless on the field.

The finger-like appendages that were spaced around her loins in a rough triangle slid down his shaft as she pressed closer, splaying open as she took him to the hilt. The savage ribs that lined her fleshy passage scoured him, sending bursts of harsh sensation tearing up through his body. He shivered and twitched, a pained groan escaping his lips before it was choked off by the Warrior's slimy tendril.

She was still for a moment, save for her muscles as they shifted and squeezed around him, savoring the feeling of his erection as it throbbed inside her. Her flesh was like wet silk, thick ropes of her fluids leaking from her tight hole to drip onto his thighs. Everything was slimy, the Warrior itself secreting strange juices that clung to his skin and made it slick.

She drew back, rolling her hips, those maddening rings that textured her walls catching on his tender glans as they gripped him. As wet as she was, the sex was rough, her copious lubricant doing little to ease his passing. It was like fucking a pocket pussy designed by some crazed engineer, the stimulation almost too intense to handle. He couldn't tell her to slow down, however, nor could he reach out and take her hips in his hands to guide her movements. The tendrils had him locked down, he could scarcely breathe, let alone move.

She slammed back down again, her muscles gripping him fiercely through her velvet walls, every bump of her ribbed passage sending an electric shock through his nerves and forcing his eyes closed. He bit his lip as they dragged over the exposed head of his penis one after another, fast enough that it almost felt like a vibration. The pleasure was so acute, taking the form of a wonderfully sweet ache, so unlike the sensations that he usually associated with sex.

Tangerine was completely absorbed, her blue eyes staring intently at his member as she drove it in and out of her, his pale skin visible for brief moments as it emerged from beneath her pink flesh and her orange carapace. Her pace was relentless, showing no concern for her human partner, his discomfort perhaps the only thing that was preventing him from blowing his load.

The Pilot thrust into him, driving him into the Warrior's spongy walls, its exposed meat yielding behind him as he sank deeper into it. He could feel the suit's living pulse on his skin, it was as alive as Tangerine was and it possessed its own kind of intelligence. There was no way there was a computer chip running this thing, it was some kind of organic control system, perhaps a brain engineered for the purpose.

This wasn't exactly how I pictured a threesome,” he grumbled, his tongue pretty much the only appendage that he could still move.

His Betelgeusian partner was lost in a fugue, pumping out pink, sexual pheromones and inescapable scents that brought salacious recollections to the forefront of his mind. It was as if someone else was reaching inside his head and hooking his memories on a fishing line. He had no control over what he remembered, nor when. His brain, the problem-solving machine that it was, had been thrown a hundred mismatched jigsaw pieces and was frantically trying to assemble them into recognizable patterns.

He smelled the flowery soap that a one night stand had used, the copper taste of his ex-wife's kisses, Kaz's feminine musk as she ground her hips against his face. Kaz...where was she now? Was she even alive? He had to hope that she had made it out okay, he knew her well enough to know that she could take on a whole swarm of Bugs on her own and come out on top.

He was jolted out of the thought by a particularly powerful thrust from Tangerine, burying him to the hilt in her spasming tunnel, her muscular walls wringing him like a damned kitchen sponge. His legs were going numb, both from the pleasure of their frantic coupling and from the tentacles that were wound tightly around his thighs and ankles. He had to admit, it was more than a little exciting. Kaz would sometimes pin him during sex, but the frustration of being completely immobilized added to his arousal in new and strange ways.

Their hips knocked together, her hard shell leaving him sore. She was so strong and vigorous, gripping him with her four arms as she moved, Walker trapped between her tough thorax and the soft wall of flesh that lay behind him. She slid her long tongue out of her mouth, tasting his skin as she rocked back and forth, captivated by his taste and his scent. If Walker had to guess, the males were rarely allowed into the general population, and unregulated mating very rarely occurred.

He felt the sinuous tentacle that had been gripping him by the throat slide away, leaving a smear of viscous fluid as it dragged across his skin, a shiver running down his spine. He took in a deep, unhindered breath as Tangerine watched him. She pressed closer, pushing her face into the nape of his neck, nipping affectionately at his skin with her mandibles. She must have given some command to tell the Warrior to pull away. The scent around his neck was especially potent, as if someone had spritzed him with cologne. She seemed captivated by it.

She bit and licked, not as gently as Walker would have liked, pinching his skin between her mouthparts and nuzzling as she rubbed her face against his cheek. She was scenting him like a cat, he realized, as if claiming ownership over him as she marked him with her pheromones. Her hands crawled across his body, running up and down his spine, squeezing his butt and thighs. She stroked the growing stubble on his chin, seeming to enjoy its texture. With so many hands she could be in so many different places at once, his alien body a playground of smooth skin and soft hair, fat and muscle that was unknown to the hard-shelled arthropods.

Her loins were another matter entirely, lined with what felt like fine satin, soft and squishy around his member. She was warm and slick inside, inviting, almost intoxicating when combined with the sweet and sensual aroma of her pheromones.

One of the Warrior's tentacles slid away from around his waist, freeing his hips so that he could move them, Tangerine sinking her hard fingers into his flesh to pull him into her thrusts. He found himself moving in rhythm, driving himself deeper into her ribbed tunnel as he matched her pace. With her lower pair of hands gripping his hips, she cupped his face with the upper pair, pushing her thumb into his mouth. He sucked it obediently as she prodded his tongue, exploring, her hard forehead pressing against his as she gazed into his eyes. She watched his reactions closely, the two aliens overcoming their language barrier, lingering looks and telling glances all that they needed to communicate.

Suddenly her open mandibles were pressing into his red cheeks, holding his head in a vice grip as she pushed her long tongue into his mouth. This wasn't new to him by now, his mouth was an endless source of curiosity to them, and he writhed against his fleshy bonds as her slippery organ roiled inside his head.

She bulged his cheeks, painting shapes on the roof of his mouth and tickling the back of his throat as she explored, Walker doing his best to meet her penetrating kiss. He was still unsure of whether the Bugs kissed at all, their fervid probing might be some other behavior entirely, and he would have no way of knowing. It felt good either way, it made stars dance before his eyes, her metallic taste mingling with half-remembered aromas from his past. Lipstick, the taste of cherries, the flavor of a cigarette...it was almost impossible to distinguish her natural taste and smell from the memories that flooded forth.

Her tongue was filling his mouth to capacity, there was so much of it, its smooth surface wet with her saliva. It was about as thick as his index finger, but it must have been close to a foot long, its tapered tip lashing at the back of his throat. It pushed deeper, sliding down into his esophagus, withdrawing when Tangerine felt his muscles close reflexively.

She released him from her hold, leaving red indents on his face where her hard mandibles had dug in, her tongue sliding back out of his mouth like she was sucking up a wet noodle. She batted her long lashes at him, her eyes oddly alluring, her gaze betraying a hunger that set his heart racing. She slid a hand behind his head, delving her long, jointed fingers into his hair. She stroked and tugged, more than a little painful as she stung his scalp, but he was too absorbed by the swaying of her hips to pay it much mind.

How could a creature so hard and tough be so inviting? How could such rough, callous sex excite him so? He was sore, but it was a pleasant kind of soreness, permeating him to the core in a way that was almost satisfying. She kept him teetering on the edge of orgasm for longer than a gentle, considerate lover would have been able, his wracking pleasure balanced by the discomfort of her cruel treatment. His senses were confused, as was his mind. Did he like this? If she had offered to stop, would he have been relieved, or would he have begged for her to continue?

She returned her face to his shoulder, nipping at his skin as she rode him, her tongue lashing out on occasion to taste his sweat. The room had been humid, but the Warrior's insides were like an oven. It was alive, and it was kicking out an enormous amount of heat. The whole affair almost felt like a kind of fever dream. Or was it a wet dream? Maybe a little bit of both...

Walker was always aware of the tendrils that wound around his body, perpetually flexing and shifting, slippery against his damp skin. He flinched as the one that was curled around one of his thighs slid upwards, dragging against his sensitive skin and glancing one of his balls. There was so much heat, so much sticky fluid both from the Warrior and from its Pilot that he almost felt like he was melting.

Tangerine was knocking the air out of him with her pitiless thrusting, driving him deep into the springy flesh that lay behind him. He was no longer struggling. The Warrior's tendrils were inescapable, and its ruthless Pilot would not release him from its clutches until she got what she wanted from him.

He tried his best to match her relentless pace, her spasming passage further narrowing as her excitement mounted, the already unbearable ribs of her sodden tunnel gripping him ever tighter. Each time one of those cruel bumps grazed his tender glans, his brain fizzed and popped with white light, as if his mind was a radio receiver and she was feeding it static. The pleasure was raw, harsh, and she never gave him a second of respite. He was sore, aching, yet his member was as hard as a rock as she plunged it deep into her slippery loins.

She gyrated her hips, twisting and shaking, driving him against her textured walls in new and exciting ways. She was enjoying herself, not merely rutting for the sake of some primal urge, but reveling in the sensation of his member grinding against her most intimate reaches. Sex with him must be so different from mating with her own kind. He was a mammal, his veins coursing with hot blood. She must be able to feel every throb and twitch as his manhood burned inside her like molten iron in a forge.

If an opportunity to mate was rare, then having an alien at her mercy was a one in a million event. She was enjoying every second of it to the fullest.

She wrung his emission from him before he was even aware that he was coming, a powerful orgasm wracking his body, making him buck and writhe against his bonds as he tried and failed to stifle a cry of pleasure. The Warrior seemed to interpret his impassioned squirming as an escape attempt, tightening its hold on him and returning one of its thick tendrils to his neck. It tugged his head flush against its wet meat, his hair matted with its slime, choking off his groaning until all that he could muster was a pained whine.

Tangerine was delighted by his reaction, her mandibles waving excitedly and her eyelids drooping as she took him deep inside her, shivering and clicking as he pumped his warm ejaculate into her eager tunnel. Her loins sucked at him like a thirsty mouth, trying to draw more of it out in a primal bid to ensure insemination, every tormenting throb arching his spine and darkening his vision. She clung to him with her four arms, like a spider clutching its prey, her muscular loins rolling up his aching shaft in inexorable waves that milked him with all the fervor of a machine.

Walker opened his mouth in a silent moan, the Warrior's tentacle squashing his windpipe, practically strangling him as it flexed. It was making him lightheaded, almost giddy, points of light floating before his eyes like motes of sparkling dust. This shouldn't feel good, why did it feel good?

It just kept going and going, his perception of time dwindling as if he had been plunged into a pocket dimension where it lost all meaning. Over and over his beleaguered muscles spasmed, driving another thick wad of his emission into her waiting passage, his slow suffocation somehow amplifying his pleasure. He was lost in a haze of euphoria. Good God, he felt like he was about to pass out.

He released the last throb of his ejaculate into Tangerine's waiting loins, the thick soup of their combined fluids leaking from her twitching tunnel to seep down his thighs. As his muscles relaxed and his consciousness began to fade, darkness eating at the corners of his vision, the tentacle released its grasp and allowed him a lungful of air.

Every inch of his skin was tingling, a deep and powerful satisfaction permeating him to the core as he caught his breath. He was bathed in a powerful and lingering afterglow, drowning him in ecstasy. It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. He twitched and sighed as Tangerine shifted, her slick passage dragging against his tender skin as she moved.

They remained locked together for a minute or two, wallowing in their post-coital bliss, her four hands roaming across his sensitive skin as she gazed longingly at him. Walker was ready to get down now, and he waited for her to pull away from him, for the Warrior's tendrils to release their hold on his limbs. It did not come, however. She remained mated with him, the warm, sticky result of their frantic lovemaking dripping from her velvet tunnel in fat strands as he stayed lodged inside her.

She took his waist in her hands again, beginning to rock her hips, and Walker's eyes widened as he realized that she was starting another round.

W-Wait,” he mumbled, “I need to rest. I can't go again so soon!”

She seemed determined to prove him wrong, thrusting down on him with renewed vigor, her upper pair of hands cupping his red cheeks as she pressed her hard forehead against his. Her gaze was salacious, eager, her blue eyes betraying a lust that remained unsatisfied. There was a hunger behind those eyes, selfish and greedy, and Walker couldn't help but bite his lip as she began to ride him again.

Fuck,” he grumbled, his member still tender. He was still hard, hard enough for her to make good use of him, and her mandibles flexed in anticipation as she fucked the mess that they had made together deeper inside her.


It wasn't like she was giving him the option to refuse, but the tone that was imparted by her bawdy pheromones was wanton, almost desperate. She wanted him so badly, as if there was a burning fire raging inside her that only he could quench. It was a demand that he found impossible to refuse.

Damned aliens are going to be the death of me,” he mumbled to himself, pushing up to meet her passionate thrusts.


You wanted to see me, Colonel?” Kaz asked, saluting as she stepped into the command tower's ops center. The circular room was filled with blinking consoles that were staffed by a dozen people, the large windows that ringed them looking out over the base, Jarilo's pine forests swaying in the breeze beyond the fortified walls.

Yes, Lance Corporal, at ease.”

She relaxed, clasping her clawed hands behind her back as she waited for further instructions. Fischer walked around a table in the center of the room, panels in its flat surface projecting a wireframe hologram of the surrounding terrain in shades of ghostly blue. He stopped, leaning on its edge as he examined the details.

We've managed to restore communications with the Thermopylae using laser transmitters. As you know, the Bugs are still jamming radio signals across the entire valley. The carrier is in geostationary orbit above the continent to maintain line of sight, which should make communicating with her a little easier, but restoring communications on the ground is priority number one.”

He began to walk around the circumference of the table again, deep in thought, Kaz turning her head to watch him.

We've had word back from Alpha, Bravo, and Echo. But Delta either hasn't found a way to get in touch with Fleetcom, or they've been wiped off the map. Alpha and Echo both reported significant Bug activity, but like us, they were able to fight off the attackers. Casualties have been pretty light, all things considered. I don't think that the Bugs can keep throwing Drones at us in the numbers that they have been, it's unsustainable. Panic tactics if you ask me.”

He straightened his white cap, the golden wreath on its brim glinting beneath the halogen lights.

I'm pulling you off scout duty, along with the rest of the Borealans assigned to sniper teams, and I'm making you the acting Alpha of a new squad. You are to make your way across the valley to Delta and find out what's going on over there. Borealans can move faster than humans over rough terrain, you'll make good time. Remember that comms will be down, so once you leave the walls of Charlie, you're on your own. Ascertain the severity of the situation and then report back ASAP. Only engage the enemy if necessary, your primary objective is to report back to me. Is that understood?”

Kaz saluted, standing up straight, her round ears brushing the ceiling.

Yes sir! We'll get it done.”

And LC...”


Something about this doesn't feel right. Gamma pack was stationed at Delta base, their Alpha goes by the name of Korza. He's a good soldier, reliable, he fought in the war to take Kruger and in the pacification of Hades. I'm told that security chief Moralez thinks very highly of his abilities. If he has not found a way to contact Fleetcom, then something must be very wrong. Keep your wits about you.”

Understood, Colonel.”


Kaz made her way through the undergrowth, winding between the gnarled trunks of the giant trees as her pack followed close behind her. There had been five other Borealans assigned to scout sniper teams, and now she was their acting Alpha, leading her new squad through the forest towards Delta base. She brought up the holographic display on her wrist-mounted computer, examining the map for a moment. They were a few miles North West of Charlie, on the right track. The Thermopylae had taken scans of the terrain from orbit, and those scans had been supplement by scout reports from the ground, at least while the comms had still been up. There were still some big holes in the map, however, unexplored territory that they would have to traverse.

Fortunately, Equatorials such as herself were evolved for jungle environments. Hopping over the occasional protruding root or fallen branch would not slow them down. The humans were plainswalkers, built for running long distance over flat terrain. She might have mocked them for their clumsiness in dense forests, but she had witnessed their impressive stamina firsthand.

Kaz had taken the Colonel's ominous warning to heart, and her pack were armed to the teeth. They had their long, bayoneted rifles and all of the ammo that they could carry, along with one of the rare and precious anti-material railguns from the armory. One Borealan carried the battery pack in his rucksack, and another had the massive rifle slung over his back. If they encountered any Warriors, they would at least stand a decent chance of defending themselves.

There seemed to be no life left in the valley, any animals that could escape had done so. The forest was silent save for the rustling of branches and the crunching of twigs underfoot as they made their way through the trees.

Her pack seemed cooperative enough. Fischer had ordered them to obey her, and so they had avoided the usual scuffle that happens when someone takes the mantle of Alpha and their subordinates want to test them. She was likely the strongest fighter here regardless, if anyone gave her any lip she'd carve a lesson in manners into their hide.

Fan out,” she said, “line formation. Try to keep the wind to your front, the weather favors us today. If you smell anything strange, be it a Bug or something that you don't recognize, call it out. I'm not taking any chances.”

There was a chorus of affirmations as they assembled into a rough line, weapons at the ready.

Move out, and let's make this fast.”

The pack set off into the woods at a brisk pace, striding over the rough terrain on their long legs. Kaz estimated that they would make it to Delta by nightfall.


The sun was setting as Kaz raised her fist into the air, indicating that her pack should stop. She leaned against a nearby tree, taking a breather and pausing to examine her map. They should be close to Delta by now, it was a good time to stop for a break, let the squad get some food in them before they went any further. If things went south, they would need the energy.

Take ten,” she ordered, “rehydrate and get a few thousand calories in you. We'll wait until night falls before we move on the base.”

They seemed relieved, taking seats on nearby roots and leaning against tree trunks as they unscrewed the caps of their canteens and tore open energy bar wrappers. They had been running pretty much full tilt since the morning, and while gravity on Jarilo was lower than Borealis norm, it was still pretty hard on them. They had made good time, however. Night was no handicap for her kind, and so they would advance on Delta under the cover of darkness.

She pulled a hunk of beef jerky from her pocket. The UNN produced brick-like hunks of the stuff for use by Borealans in the field, flavored with native oils from Elysia. It was nice to get a little taste of the homeworld, it seemed so far away. Many auxiliaries spent so much time in Earth-standard gravity and atmosphere that they became accustomed to it, the intense heat and gravity of Borealis becoming jarring in comparison. Weight training was the best way to maintain your muscle mass and bone density. Fortunately, the Pinwheel had a great gym.

Rest here, I'm scouting ahead,” Kaz announced. They hadn't smelled any Bugs in the immediate area, and the wind still favored them, so there should be no danger. She slung her rifle over her back and pulled her helmet over her head, crouching low and concealing her large body in the undergrowth as she moved forwards.

About two hundred meters from where they had made camp, she came across a rise. There must have been a landslide here at some point in the past, most of the soil had been swept away save for that which was held between the twisted roots of the trees. It would make for excellent cover.

She dropped to her belly, crawling closer and peeking her head over the wall of earth. She spied Delta in the distance, maybe half a mile down into the valley. Her position was at a higher elevation, perfect for observation. She activated the zoom function on her visor, adjusting the dial on the helmet to bring the device into focus. The visor zeroed in on the fortified walls of the base, a rough square in the distance, and she increased the magnification level with the press of a button.

The rays of the setting sun were obscuring her vision, its glare reflecting in the lenses, but she could make out some shapes down there. Remembering that the helmet had a tint function, she dialed it up, counteracting some of the glare from the sunlight.

Fuck,” she muttered under her breath. The terrain around Delta was a hellscape, littered with what looked like bodies. Dozens of dead humans, the bulk of a felled Krell, and more Bugs than she could count. Their colorful carapaces reflected in the light, gleaming like a macabre rainbow. The forest that had been cleared around the base's perimeter was pockmarked with craters, the land scarred by mortar fire and explosives. The metal walls were slagged here and there, painted with dark smears from plasma rounds.

She scanned right, trying to get a picture of what kind of shape the compound was in, but she couldn't see much from this angle. It was obvious what had happened. The Bugs were playing a game of divide and conquer. Without radio Delta would not have been able to call for help, leaving them alone against the horde. They couldn't contact any of the other bases for reinforcements, nor could they call in railgun fire or air support from the Thermopylae. Charlie had been on the receiving end of one such attack, and it was mostly thanks to the carrier's orbital strikes and the presence of a fighter-bomber that they had been spared a similar fate.

Whatever had happened, it had been a brutal battle. The Bugs must have thrown everything they had at Delta. She turned on her short range comms, but even that was being scrambled, her earpiece flooded with the loud hiss of static. She slunk away from the rise, returning to her pack to report her findings.

Their ears perked up when she emerged from between the trunks, the sound of low conversation and rustling food packets quietening.

Delta was hit hard,” Kaz said as she removed the stifling helmet and clipped it to her belt. “No signs of life down there, Bug or UNN.”

What are your orders?” one of the Borealans asked, a male with dark skin and spots like coffee stains on his brown fur. He obviously wanted to turn back, but was unwilling to make the suggestion himself, fearful that his initiative would be seen as a challenge to her dominance no doubt.

We move down into the valley, and we take a closer look.”

She sensed that he wanted to complain, but he held his tongue. This one had clearly been operating with a human partner for a long time and was forgetting the old ways. He might be in for a nasty reminder the next time he had shore leave on Borealis.

We wait until the sun sets, then we move out.”


The pack made their way into the valley under the cover of night, their black body armor concealing them against the shadowy foliage. Their feline eyes made use of what starlight was available, the Borealans preferring to keep their helmets off in order to make use of their sensitive noses. Kaz had put Gorza at the head of the pack, a young male from the Rask region who had a better nose than any of them. Their rifles were shouldered, scanning the forest for signs of movement. As they made their way down the slope, Kaz jogged forward, placing a clawed hand on Gorza's shoulder to get his attention.

What do you smell?”

Burnt meat and blood, Alpha. Some smoke and ash, residue from a firefight.”

Let's keep moving.”

They reached the edge of the forest, walking out onto the cratered mud, stepping over and around the dead as they advanced towards the foot of Delta's fortified wall. The field was a graveyard, mostly UNN Marines and Bug Drones with a few auxiliaries scattered here and there. The guard towers that were visible had been destroyed, leaving nothing but their sagging supports, and the control tower that rose high above the wall had been hammered by shells. The main door was melted through, likely by the same breaching device that the Bugs had employed at the battle for Charlie.

Kaz gave her pack a hand signal that indicated that they should stack, and they lined up to the right of the ruined entrance.

You smell any Bugs, Gorza?” one of the soldiers whispered.

Inconclusive,” he replied, keeping his voice low. “Lots of Bugs around, can't tell if they're alive or not. Lot of human too, and a lot of rot.”

Helmets on,” Kaz ordered, “the roaches might have used chem shells.”

They took a moment to pull on their helmets then Kaz waved them forward, the pack filing into the courtyard through the felled doors. Their claws clicked on the metal grating that made up the floor of the base as they fanned out, weapons at the ready. Delta didn't look much better on the inside than it did on the outside. Many of the prefab buildings had been hammered by mortars, and the tents had been either knocked down or burned.

Kaz knelt to examine the nearby body of a human male, slumped against one of the Hesco bastions that served to minimize mortar damage. They were large mesh boxes filled with soil that would block shrapnel and projectiles. The cause of death seemed to be puncture wounds to his chest cavity, a Bug must have gotten close and knifed him through the breaks in his armor.

There were plenty of Drones too, their alien bodily fluids leaving green and orange stains wherever they had fallen. This had been one hell of a fight, and she still wasn't sure who had won. The pack hovered around her, their heads snapping this way and that as they scanned the base for signs of life. Kaz stood, wiping her hand on the leg of her pants.

Search the place, three teams of two. Stay close, remember that the comms are down. Gorza, you're with me.”

They set off into the base, the bastions and ruined structures blocking their lines of sight. The layout was similar to that of Charlie, mostly prefabs arranged in a grid pattern. She could see the barracks, what was left of the mess hall tent, and the burnt out shell of the field hospital. She kept her rifle at the ready, Gorza watching her back as they crept forward, on the lookout for anything unusual.

They rounded a corner by one of the barracks buildings, Kaz taking a moment to peek inside and finding it empty. They continued along the building's flank until Gorza tapped her on the shoulder with his claw.

You hear that?”

She stopped, straining to listen. He was right, she could hear something. It sounded like crunching, something heavy moving around. Local wildlife maybe? Scavengers? They hadn't seen head nor tail of any animals on their way over from Charlie, it was as if the forest had been deserted.

Kaz gestured for Gorza to stay behind her, peeking around the wall and looking out towards the control tower. There was somewhat of a clearing beside the landing pad to give the people unloading cargo room to store it before it was moved to wherever it needed to be, and there was a dark figure occupying the space.

She narrowed her eyes, waiting for them to adjust as she tried to make out its shape. It was large, probably as tall as a Borealan, bloated and fat. Its back was to them, but she could make out a distended belly, four arms...

She shot back behind the wall, cursing under her breath. It was some kind of Bug, unlike any that she had seen before.

Bugs,” she hissed to Gorza, waving him away. “Go get the others!”

He nodded and vanished between two prefabs, Kaz leaning out of cover to get another look at the thing. It was covered in a blue shell, and its fat belly was full of almost transparent, amber liquid. It was hunched over, using its reinforced forelimbs for balance as it fiddled with something on the ground. What the hell was it doing?

A glint of color caught her attention, and she noticed two Drones a few meters to the creature's left, their weapons stowed as they examined the door of the control tower. They must be trying to get inside. They seemed at ease, and she concluded that all of the defenders must be dead. They were perhaps here to perform the same function that she was, scout out the base and report on what had happened. Was it possible that the two adversaries had fought each other to a stalemate?

Kaz's ears swiveled to point behind her, hearing the approach of her pack as they crept out from behind one of the ruined tents. They made their way over to her, Gorza crouching at her side with his rifle shouldered.

What are your orders, Alpha?”

Hold for now,” she whispered, “let's see what they do next...”

She peeked out from behind the wall to watch the aliens. The Drones were still by the door, and the larger specimen was still engaged in...something. The Drones were fumbling with a keypad on the door to the control tower, trying to gain access but failing. Why did they want access to the control tower so badly, and why didn't they just melt through the door as they had done to get inside the compound? Perhaps they only had a finite number of those breaching tools, or maybe this door was too small.

By the Great Mother, it's eating the bodies!” Gorza hissed. Kaz turned her attention to the large, bloated Bug, and her eyes widened as she watched it lift what looked like a severed human arm towards its mouth. She cursed under her breath in her native tongue, hearing the snap of bone as it fed, like some kind of ghoul from a story that mothers would tell their kittens to scare them into compliance. Be good and don't play near the jungle, or the monsters will feast on your bones...

Did you find any other Bugs?” Kaz asked, and the other pack members shook their heads.

Nothing, Alpha. The base is a graveyard.”

Complete with phantoms,” another added.

Alpha, we cannot let this travesty stand,” Gorza hissed.

Calm that Rask temper,” she shot back, “we wait and we watch for now.”

The giant Bug finished its macabre meal, standing on its forelimbs and lumbering along, walking with a four-legged gait due to its distended belly. It had fluid-filled pouches hanging below its body, swaying as it walked. At this angle, Kaz could get a better look at it. It had enormous mandibles, like damned shears, serrated for cutting through meat and bone. It located another fallen soldier, this time one of its own kind. It sat heavily and then began to use the blades on its long upper arms to slice into the breaks in the dead Drone's carapace. It carved off a leg, bringing the body part towards its mandibles and using them to crush and cut the limb into chunks that it could more easily swallow.

It was a cannibal, it didn't seem to care what it was eating. Its body was swollen with what looked like honey, but Kaz had no idea of what purpose it might serve, or what role it played in the Bug army.

There's another,” Gorza said, gesturing to her right. From behind a charred prefab on the far side of the compound emerged another one of the creatures, this one adorned with a purple shell, struggling along as it searched for more food. It didn't have to go far, the field was littered with bodies, friend and foe alike. Two more Drones followed behind it, were they guarding the ghastly beast?

One of the Drones, adorned with a branching horn and orange armor, broke off and began to sift through a collapsed tent. They were looking for survivors. Bugs didn't take prisoners, or at least that was what she had thought before she had lost Walker. She had to hope that the Bugs didn't prefer their meat fresh.

A sudden loud crack startled her, and she shot back behind the wall, her pack bristling as they shouldered their weapons. The Drone that had been sifting through the debris fell, its head broken open like a ripe melon, fragments of shell spraying as it keeled over. Its comrades raised their plasma pistols, their wrist-mounted energy shields flaring to life, Kaz narrowing her eyes as the glow stung them. Another shot rang out through the compound, killing the second Bug. It must have come from a higher elevation because it went over the shield.

The harvester creature seemed to panic, attempting to lumber away on its stocky legs, but it was slow and cumbersome. The hidden sniper brought it down with a couple of shots, one of them punching through its distended belly, sending a torrent of amber liquid spilling out onto the ground. The smell of it hit Kaz's nose, an oddly sweet odor, like someone had just smashed a jar of honey.

She spied movement in the tower, the barrel of a long rifle protruding from one of the shattered windows. There was a sniper up there.

The two Drones who had been fiddling with the door were now pressed flush against the wall, out of sight of the shooter. They raised their shields, emerging from cover and beginning to harry the control tower with plasma fire. The hot gas splashed against the concrete, scarring it with burn marks, the sniper retreating back inside.

Attack!” Kaz commanded, leading the charge as she rushed out from behind the barracks. She paused for a moment to aim her rifle, then fired, the copper rings that lined the long barrel glowing orange with heat as they accelerated a tungsten slug. She caught one of the colorful Drones in its side as its attention was focused on the tower, the projectile shattering its exoskeleton and spraying viscera. It screeched, collapsing as its companion swung its shield towards the new threat, the energy barrier quickly overloading and flickering off as the pack concentrated their fire. The second Drone fell, riddled with railgun rounds, and Gorza put a few holes into the ghoul for good measure.

They advanced towards the tower in a tight-knit group, swinging their weapons back and forth to cover every angle. Where one encountered Bugs, there were usually more. They reached the base of the tower, Kaz's pack setting up a defensive perimeter as she pounded on the metal door with her fist.


She waited for a moment, and then heard a click as the electronic lock deactivated, the door sliding to one side with a whoosh. She stepped back as a large, dark shape emerged from within. It was a Borealan, a large male with the orange fur of an Elysian. His long gun was hanging across his chest on a sling, the magnetic coils still glowing from the residual heat.

Reinforcements? What took you so long?”

You must be Korza,” Kaz said, “Colonel Fischer sent us to find out what happened to you.”

Korza waved his hand, gesturing for them to enter the tower.

Come inside, it's not safe. The gunfire will attract more of them.”

The pack filed in one by one, Gorza closing the door behind him as he backed into the stairwell. They climbed the tower and emerged into the control room, the floor was covered in shattered glass, and there was no power. The consoles were dark, and the table in the center of the room was not displaying its holographic map. They were greeted by two more Borealans, shock troopers by the look of them, sporting black UNN body armor. There was a human too, his white uniform and the gold insignia on his breast betraying his rank. He had seen battle, that much was clear by the crimson stains on his sleeves and the bloody bandage that was wrapped around his head, obscuring one eye.

The pack removed their helmets, Kaz shaking out her hair and taking a breath of unfiltered air. She saluted, as did her squad, and the man waved for them to be at ease.

Glad to see that Fleetcom hasn't forgotten about us,” he said, glancing out of a nearby window apprehensively.

Are you the only survivors? Colonel...” Kaz began.

Colonel Lopez,” the human replied, “and I'm afraid so. The Bugs hit us hard, and they hit us fast. They jammed our comms so that we couldn't call for help and started their attack before our engineers had a chance to restore them.”

The whole valley is being jammed, sir,” Kaz clarified. “We were sent on foot to find out why Delta had gone dark. My name is Lance Corporal Kazka, scout sniper division.”

The other bases, are they..?”

They're fine Colonel. Alpha, Beta, Charlie, and Echo have all reported in. There have been attacks at all of the forward operating bases in the valley, but they were all successfully repelled.”

Good, that's good to hear,” the Colonel replied with a sigh of relief. “If it wasn't for Gamma squad here, I'd no doubt be lying down there with the rest of my men. The Bugs threw an army at us, I've never seen so many in one place before. From up in the command tower it looked like the ground had come to life, like a living carpet. We fought hard, but they overwhelmed our defenses, whittled us down to the last man. Gamma squad retreated to the tower, and the remaining Bugs pulled back.”

Priority one is to secure VIPs,” Korza added, his baritone voice echoing in the control room.

Why are you still here?” Kaz asked.

We didn't know that anyone else was still alive,” Colonel Lopez said, leaning on a nearby console to take his weight off what looked like an injured leg. “Communications have been dark since the attack, we decided to hole up here rather than take our chances in the forest. As far as we knew, all of the bases had suffered the same fate as Delta.”

There have been casualties, but the other bases are holding. We need to get you back to Charlie, Colonel.”

That might be a problem,” Korza rumbled, Kaz turning her attention towards him. “They've been sending scout teams to the base, this is the third one that we've killed. Eventually, they're going to wise up and figure out that there are survivors here if they haven't already, and then they'll send a larger force to investigate. If they catch us in the forest, we're done for, but we have a defensible position here that we can hold.”

So what do you suggest?”

Send two of your fastest men back to Charlie, have them contact the Thermopylae and have Fleetcom send us a dropship for extraction.”

Kaz nodded, it was as good a plan as any.

Agreed, it shouldn't take more than a day to get back to Charlie, and the forest was clear on the way over here. I'll stay with some of my men and reinforce you, it sounds like you're going to need it. Colonel?”

The Borealans looked to their human commander for approval, and he nodded his head.

Authorized. One more thing, have the Thermopylae send a team to secure Delta and recover the bodies. I won't have any more fallen Marines made into meals by those...things.”

Yes, sir.”

What was left of Gamma squad returned to their positions by the windows, while Kaz picked her two most able scouts and sent them back down the stairwell. Sending just two of them was a risk, but if the entire pack went back to Charlie, then there might not be anything to rescue by the time they reported in. Borealans were evolved from ambush predators, they could be quiet when they needed to be, the scouts would be fine. The rest of her team took up positions by the shattered windows, resting their rifles across the consoles and getting settled in for sentry duty.

Something caught Korza's eye, and the large male walked across the circular room, tugging one of her scouts to his feet by his rucksack. The scout's ears flattened in submission as Korza examined the anti-material rifle that was slung across his back.

Very nice, this might come in handy. Do you have the battery?”

Kaz nodded towards the pack member who was carrying the battery pack, and he knelt to withdraw it from his bag, handing it to Korza.

Yes, this'll do nicely.”

He pulled the rifle from its strap, releasing the scout from his grip and hefting the massive weapon in his arms. He was strong, able to wield the gigantic railgun. Perhaps even strong enough to fire it without needing to use the bipod. He placed the battery pack on a console to his right and flipped open a protective cover on the rifle's receiver, exposing the plugs. He connected the power cables with a mechanical click, then thumbed the power button, the electromagnetic coils whirring to life. He hit the release on the magazine, checking the ammo count through the transparent plastic.

How many rounds do you have?” he asked.

Nine,” Kaz replied, “two spare mags.”

Enough for four or five Warriors,” Korza said.


Where are we going now?” Walker complained, “are you going to throw me off a cliff to see if I can fly?”

The Drones who were serving as his escort were tightly packed around him as they made their way down a sloping tunnel, winding ever deeper into the darkest recesses of the colony. The further beneath the ground they ventured, the warmer and more humid the air became, until Walker was sweating like he was sitting in a sauna. Fortunately, his fatigues had been returned to him that night after his lengthy and exhausting session with the Pilot, but his shorts had been unsalvageable. The Bugs had no need for clothing, no knowledge of it, and so his pants and jacket had become quite tattered and stained during his stay in the hive. His boots were perhaps the only thing that had endured.

It was odd when he thought about it. The Krell, the Borealans and the Betelgeusians all went barefoot. The invention of shoes, and the subsequent dependence on them, seemed to be a quirk that was entirely unique to humans. Deprive a man of his boots and a simple walk through a forest would leave him injured and bloody.

It was then that Walker smelled it. A trace of a scent that lingered on the air, powerful, somehow regal. The attitude of the Drones suddenly changed, not quite nervous, but certainly exhibiting a kind of quiet excitement that manifested itself as puffs of anticipatory pheromones and an eager clicking of their mandibles.

The scent was not entirely unknown to Walker, he had picked up traces of it back in the Warrior hangar when the Pilot had been communicating with her console. The feelings that it inspired in him were subtle, but they were there. It conveyed authority, status, he would have to keep his wits about him so as not to be unduly influenced.

He had some idea of where they might be headed now, it must finally be time to meet the ruler of this underground kingdom.

They walked for a while longer. As usual, the dirt passages were only distinguishable by their scents, this new smell growing stronger as they neared their destination. Walker began to notice more Bugs milling about in the tunnels, mostly Workers and a few of the lumbering Repletes. They seemed far away from their usual tasks, were they perhaps attendants of some kind?

Once again his brain was doing its best to translate the alien signals from his implanted organ, drawing parallels with memories and familiar themes. The new smell brought to mind images of admirals and generals, kings of old wielding finely embroidered banners and sporting ornate crowns that were inlaid with all manner of precious gemstones. He suddenly felt as if he would soon be brought before some president or admiral, and for a brief moment, he missed his dress blues. It didn't take a genius to understand what his new sense was telling him. He was being brought before the Queen.

The dirt tunnel began to widen, Workers scurrying out of the way of Walker and his party of Drones as they marched on, their colorful shells glinting under the moss lighting that clung to the ceiling. There were more cameras here, their round, black lenses tracking him as he passed by them. The eyes of the Queen no doubt, she must have been watching his every move since he had arrived.

What was her game? Why go through all of this trouble? Did they want to induct him into the hive, perhaps attempt to glean UNN secrets from him through what they considered to be kindness? The two races had been at war for decades, maybe they were growing tired of the conflict, and this was their way of seeking an alternate means of overcoming their enemy? As the old saying goes, it's easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.

The passage eventually widened into a large chamber, domed, but with a lower ceiling than those of the factory or the hangar. There were guards here, Drones armed with plasma pistols and shield projectors, along with dozens of short Workers. Repletes seemed to be coming and going. Some were full of nutritious fluid, their gait hunched and ponderous, while others walked upright with their pouches drained of honey. They were clearly delivering food to the Queen and her entourage.

Security seemed much tighter here, gelatinous cameras practically lined the walls now, and there were guards posted every few feet.

The party stopped before what appeared to be a sheer wall, about the size of an aircraft hangar's door. Walker knew better, and his assumption was confirmed as one of his escorts stepped forward to interact with a jelly-like mass that clung to the dirt like a limpet. Another organic switch no doubt. There was a rumbling as the wall split in two, a pair of sliding doors parting to the left and right like some kind of alien bank vault. They were thick, fortified. Despite his incarceration, Walker retained his military mind, seeing things through the eyes of a soldier. He imagined that if a UNN strike force made it this far, getting through these heavy doors would be nigh impossible, at least without carting down equipment that would be extremely difficult to transport through these tunnels.

They stepped through the opening, the doors quickly closing behind them, and Walker's mouth hung agape at the sight that lay before him.

Hanging from the ceiling like some kind of grotesque chandelier was a massive, fleshy sack, its pink surface glistening with moisture and shifting as if it was alive. It was suspended perhaps a foot off the floor by an armored cable that disappeared into the dirt roof, covered in jointed armor plates and no doubt packed with muscle. He recognized it as Bug carapace, a shade of iridescent blue, the hues shifting under the dull glow of the bioluminescent lights. It almost looked like a tail.

The great mass turned, twisting on its organic rope, coming to face him.

It was a Betelgeusian of impressive size, she would have been twelve feet or more if she had been standing on her long legs. Instead, she sat upon the fleshy pouch, as if it were some kind of living throne. Her upper arms were as long as a Pilot was tall, the second pair of lesser size as they rested on the fleshy folds of her organic seat. Her legs were long, with thick joints and round thighs packed with muscle that would support what must be considerable weight. It was as if someone had taken a Drone and blown it up to enormous proportions, the carapace of the torso and chest retaining its recognizable configuration.

The largest difference occurred above the shoulders. The Queen's neck was long and near as thick as her torso in order to support an imposing headdress, so large that several humans could have sat upon it and used her skull as a damned rowboat. It was flared into a rough triangle, with her face at the nearest point, the tips of which tapered into rounded antlers. Extending from her forehead was the most elaborate and ornate horn that Walker has seen thus far. It must have been three feet tall, with beautiful, branching prongs that had an almost fractal quality about them.

She had the round, blue eyes that were common amongst her kind, large and expressive. They were ringed by purple discoloration, almost like she was wearing a mask, the same coloring visible on her modest mandibles and between the joints of her armored carapace.

Extending from her back was a large apparatus that anchored her to the fleshy pouch, the pulsing meat vanishing beneath the hard exoskeleton like an armored rib cage. The stout cable was attached to it, clearly a part of her massive body. It looked as if the mass had been grafted to her back.

The fleshy throne was obviously a giant egg sack, a large ovipositor visible beneath her, its muscular opening clamped shut for the time being. The chamber was full of eggs, round, pasty spheres about the size of a soccer ball. The Workers were tending to them, moving them around and stacking them about the walls.

The Queen looked him over with her expressive, blue eyes, her mouthparts twitching gently.


Her pheromones were so powerful. It was like being hit by a wall of force, demanding subservience. He fought against his instincts, getting the feeling that he was committing some grave social faux-pas, but knowing better as he suppressed the unwanted impulses from his grafted organ. Ignore the underlying signals, don't let them influence you. Focus only on her words.

I do,” he stated, the Drones standing nearby with their weapons ready should he attempt to attack their monarch. “Though it won't do you much good, I can't speak your language.”


He was shocked, taken aback for a moment. She had understood him, how?


She was so eloquent compared to the other Bugs, was she just that much smarter than they were, or was she dumbing down her pheromones so that he might understand them better? He had made great strides in deciphering their language over the last few days, perhaps he had advanced to a level where he could make sense of the more subtle and complex scents that she exuded.

You have me at a disadvantage. You understand my language. How?”


The radio signals, of course. If she was able to jam them, then she could listen in on them too. Even so, learning enough English to hold a conversation in only a matter of days...it was an impressive feat. She was intelligent, perhaps moreso than he knew. Best to tread carefully.

I take it you're the Queen of this hive? The mother of these Bugs?”


We have social insects back on my home planet, you're not unusual. I had theorized that some kind of Queen must exist somewhere within the colony.”


You're an insect, that's your classification. You have six limbs, an exoskeleton, you breathe through tracheae in your abdomens. I'm a mammal. I have an endoskeleton, warm blood, I have four limbs, and I breathe through a pair of lungs.”


More than most.”


What do you mean?” Walker shot back, confused. “You know what I am. I'm a human, of the UNN. Our species are at war, this can't be news to you.”


What was she asking? Did she want his rank and serial number?

My name is Walker, my rank is Sergeant. I'm a scout sniper of the Marine Corps, currently serving under Captain Stavros of the Thermopylae.”


I serve a similar function to your winged Drones. My job is to locate the enemy and report on their positions and numbers, collect intelligence. Sometimes my job involves fighting too.”


Male? She must mean the winged Drones. Males seemed exceedingly rare in the hive, he had not encountered any thus far, only those that had been sent out into the field where they were similarly scarce in comparison to the larger numbers of females.

Why does that surprise you?”


My species reproduces quite differently to yours. Males have no more value than females.”

The Queen released a pheromone, compelling a Drone to leave its post and walk before her. Walker recognized the shell on its back that protected its wings, this was a male. Were all of her guards male? It would make sense, they could both defend her from incursions into the hive, and they would always be on hand to provide her with fresh sperm.


Fairly high. High enough to parlay, if that's what you're after.”


I can negotiate, make deals. I assume that's the only reason that I'm still alive?”


She seemed unpleasantly surprised, as if there was something important that he had missed.

I don't know why you kidnapped me, no. Your kind has never taken captives before. You only kill,” he spat, making no effort to disguise his contempt.


I have no idea what you're talking about,” he complained, becoming frustrated. “What do you mean, will it be of use?”


Walker's eyes widened, his heart seeming to stop in his chest.

S-Surrender? You're surrendering? I don't understand.”

If it was true, it could mean the end of the war on Jarilo, but no hive had ever surrendered before. The Bugs were practically mindless, fighting to the death in all cases regardless of the odds. That was one of the reasons that capturing live specimens for study had proven to be so difficult. The insects were selfless and driven, dying for their cause without any hesitation. Why would they surrender now, when they had seemingly pushed the UNN forces on Jarilo into a corner? Had the war on the surface been going far worse since Walker's imprisonment? It didn't seem likely.


Wait, wait,” Walker said as he tried to get his head around these new revelations. “You're implying that Bugs fight other Bugs? Why?”


Walker wanted to protest, to demand to know the reason behind such insanity, but then he remembered the early history of humanity. There had been countless wars between countries and factions, even wars between colonies in the early days of the expansion into space. It was not until they had encountered a common enemy that the human race had unified under one flag. Even today, some of those alliances were shaky. It was but a few months ago that he had fought to recapture a rebel colony on Hades.

Why is there conflict? Are you not united as a species?”


Like many ant species on Earth, the new Queens had to leave the hive of their birth and found their own colony, a nuptial flight. As a spacefaring species, that took the form of leaving the planet itself and crossing the interstellar void in search of a new home.

No wonder the Coalition and the Betelgeusians were at odds, their very method of reproduction created intense competition for fertile worlds. The Admirals had been laboring under the misapprehension that the Bugs were a unified threat, a ruthless empire that was encroaching on Coalition space. Instead, they were fighting each other for living space as much as they were fighting the rest of the Galaxy. It was an endless civil war that spanned across dozens, perhaps hundreds of star systems. This information could turn the tide of the war in the UNN's favor.

And why are you surrendering? What does surrender entail?”


Jesus, if this was a Bug hive at a fraction of its potential strength, it was no wonder that the war had been dragging on for so long. He steeled himself, trying not to sound as if this was a revelation to him. The last thing he wanted was to make the Queen think that her position was less precarious than she thought it to be.

You can't sustain your numbers, can't hold your position on Jarilo? So what exactly are you offering?”


Walker couldn't believe his ears, or rather his nose. To him, it sounded as if the Queen was making a bid to join the Coalition. She hadn't used those words exactly, and some of the meaning had no doubt been lost in translation, but that was essentially what she was asking of him.


I am certain that my superiors will accept your surrender.”

She loosed a relieved pheromone, as if she was exhaling a satisfied sigh.


Process?” Walked asked, confused. “What process?”


Wait, wait. Mate with you? As in reproduce?” Walker protested, waving his arms dismissively. “You're not going to create like...half-human, half-insect hybrids are you?”

He wasn't even sure if such a thing was possible, but their genetic engineering technology was far more advanced than anything in Coalition space. For all he knew, if he gave her his seed she could start popping out malformed monsters.


So what will be gained by our...mating?”


And how do I..?”


His face reddened a little, she had been watching him the whole time? He thought about defending himself, protesting that his behavior was mostly a result of the organ that they had grafted to him, but he held his tongue. These were aliens, who knew what moral standards they might uphold, if any?

He didn't see any consoles in the Queen's chamber, so how did she use those gelatinous spy cameras? He glanced up at the massive, armored cable that suspended her from the ceiling and wondered if her nervous system spanned throughout the hive. Was that the secret to their technology? Was the Queen herself the supercomputer at the center of this subterranean world?

Her words also shed more light on why the Bugs in the hive were so damned promiscuous. The Queen seemed to keep all of the males confined to this area of the colony, no doubt to supply her with sperm as necessary. At least when they weren't out scouting, which seemed to be more a tactic of desperation than one that would be employed under normal circumstances, as the UNN had never encountered them prior to the war on Jarilo. It seemed that all of the castes were capable of reproduction if it became necessary for the survival of the colony. Why had that not happened on Jarilo? Perhaps because, as the Queen had stated, they were not able to harvest enough food to feed everyone. Solving one problem would only have exacerbated the other.

Okay,” he said, steeling himself. “I'll do it.”

He'd better get a damned medal for this...


You ever fired one of those things?” Kaz asked, Korza kneeling beside her with his new toy braced against one of the computer consoles. The morning was nearing, and there was a chill in the air. It was a far cry from their native desert climate, and they had edged closer together for warmth.

No. But I've always wanted to,” he replied, keeping his yellow eyes fixed on the dark forest beyond the walls of the compound.

I saw one kill a Warrior back at Charlie, that was one hell of a battle.”

You'll have to tell me about it over a drink when we get back to the station,” Korza replied.

They were talking as equals, both were Alphas of their own squads, and there was no need to fight for dominance right now. Leave two Borealans alone, and it would happen eventually, but right now they had more pressing concerns. It was oddly refreshing, in some ways it reminded her of talking with Walker.

Kaz was quite taken with the Elysian, he was large and strong, of high rank. He was of good stock and an accomplished Warrior. Fischer had spoken of him by name, he must have fought in many campaigns. Perhaps she would start a tussle with him when they got back to civilization, she wouldn't mind bearing his kittens. The gestation period for Equatorials was short, and due to the nature of their reproduction, the offspring were often cared for communally. The only real exception was when the noble houses of Borealan society were grooming their heirs and successors.

There was only one thing that Borealans liked as much as fighting, and that was fucking. Courtship usually involved a little of both.

I got movement,” Gorza muttered, one eye closed as he looked through the scope of his rifle. “Two o'clock, over by the treeline.”

Kaz and Korza turned their attention to the forest, the light of dawn beginning to creep over the horizon, illuminating the sky in shades of red and orange. Kaz noticed it too, a green shimmer that lurked between two massive trees, watching them. A Bug scout no doubt.

Where there's one, there are always more,” Korza grumbled. “The roaches have probably worked out why their scouting parties weren't coming back. Looks like we're going to have a fight on our hands.”

The scout didn't know that it was being watched, and it emerged from the trees, scurrying low to the ground as it closed the distance and crouched out of view behind the perimeter wall. It appeared again as it poked its head through the empty frame where the metal doors had once been, sneaking inside the compound and slipping between two prefabs.

It doesn't know we're here,” Gorza muttered, keeping his railgun trained on it.

This one is behaving differently,” Korza added, “the rest came in small groups and wandered about the base. This one is alone, and he's being far more cautious.”

When they die, they release stress pheromones,” Kaz said as she kept her head low so as not to be seen. “It will be drawn to the bodies, and when we kill it, the rest will be alerted.”

The Colonel shuffled closer, crouching behind one of the consoles nearby to stay out of sight.

You have permission to fire whenever you deem it necessary,” he said. “We can't avoid a fight here. The extraction is going to be hotter than hell if your scouts ever make it back to Charlie and call in a bird, Lance Corporal.”

They'll make it sir, I have faith in them. We just need to hold out until evac arrives.”

There's a flyer to our ten o'clock, on the ruins of one of the guard towers,” one of the shock troopers announced. Kaz aimed her rifle in that direction, seeing the blue-shelled creature clinging to the slagged supports like some kind of multi-limbed monkey. Its gossamer wings twitched as its head snapped this way and that, with all the grace and fluidity of a clockwork toy. Another one of them appeared on top of the far wall, a plasma rifle clutched in its claw-like fingers as it scanned the compound for movement.

This situation isn't going to get any better if we try to wait them out,” Korza grumbled. “They'll just keep coming. If you get a clean shot, take it. We might as well get this party started.”

My scouts will be arriving at Charlie soon, the sun is rising,” Kaz said as she braced her rifle against her shoulder. “We have to hope that the Thermopylae has a dropship fueled and ready to go, a couple of Penguins wouldn't hurt either.”

Gorza was the first to fire, the electromagnetic crack of his rifle echoing in the control room, and the Bug that had been climbing on the melted guard tower supports exploded into a cloud of shattered shell fragments. Its limp body fell to the metal grates below, and scarcely a moment after its corpse had hit the ground, two more shots rang out. The remaining Betelgeusian scouts dropped, trails of smoke rising from the holes in their chests as they slumped over, like puppets whose strings had just been cut.

Clean shots,” Korza muttered, “that'll get their attention.”

Almost before he had finished his sentence, there was a burst of gunfire from the forest, bolts of glowing plasma shooting from the branches of the trees and splashing against the control tower. Everyone ducked in unison, the heat of the ionized gas singing their hair. A couple of shots made it through the shattered windows, the stench of ozone filling the control room as they impacted the back wall.

Buggers are in the trees again,” one of the scouts snapped, rising for a scant moment to pump a couple of slugs into the tree branches. He was followed by a chorus of gunfire, shock troopers and scouts alike hammering the fir trees with railgun fire. The hypersonic projectiles shattered wood and felled branches, a few of the more unlucky Bugs dropping to the ground as their fellows returned fire.

They know where we are now,” Korza snarled over the din, “there's only one way into the compound if they want to get to us! Focus your fire on the main doors, kill anything that dares show itself. The bottleneck and our elevated firing position gives us an advantage. Call out if you run low on ammo, we raided the armory before the cavalry arrived and there's plenty to go around.”

The shock trooper to Kaz's left called out as he slotted a new magazine into his XMR.

Here they come!”

The forest seemed to spring to life, a hundred Betelgeusians flooding out from between the trunks of the giant trees in a swarm of technicolor carapaces, the rising sun to their backs as its light reflected on their iridescent armor. They were throwing caution to the wind, charging across open ground in an attempt to reach the foot of the wall, where they would be shielded from incoming rounds.

The winged Drones that were hiding in the canopy peppered the tower with plasma bolts in an attempt to cover their comrades, trying to pin the Borealans with suppressing fire. Their shots were random, inaccurate, the green plasma flashing as it struck the tower harmlessly.

The Borealans took their chances, bracing their long rifles on the metal frames of the smashed windows, broken glass crunching underfoot as they rose from cover to take pot shots. Half a dozen Drones stumbled and fell, trampled underfoot by their brethren, but it was merely a drop in a very angry ocean of charging Bugs.

Their railgun fire almost sounded like music, percussive and rhythmic as they unloaded their weapons at the enemy, the magnetic rings that lined their barrels glowing with heat. Every so often someone would duck behind cover, leaning with their back to the wall or hiding behind a console as they reloaded.

The Krell favored rapid-fire weapons, light machine guns that would mow down dozens of enemies with horribly inaccurate and wasteful fire. Humans seemed to like a mix of assault rifles and longer range weapons, while the Borealans universally favored their single-shot rifles. They configured their XMRs to approximate the traditional powder weapons that were used in hunting and warfare back on the homeworld, making them large and heavy, their extreme length allowing for the inclusion of more magnetic coils for higher velocity and harder hitting shots. They were less useful in scenarios like this, but what they lacked in rate of fire they made up for in accuracy. Many of the Borealans had been training with such weapons from the moment that they had grown strong enough to lift one.

One of the shock troopers was not armed with an XMR however, and Kaz glanced to her right to watch him take careful aim with a short, stubby weapon. It was small, too small to be comfortable for a Borealan. It must have been made for human use. There was a dull thud as it fired, a large, round cylinder rotating like a revolver as it slotted a new round into place.

There was an explosion near the wall, a burst of orange flame spouting from the ground before it kicked up a cloud of dirt and debris, sending Bugs scattering like bowling pins.

Where'd you get a forty-millimeter grenade launcher?” Kaz asked, Korza grinning widely.

Told you we raided the armory.”

There was another thud as the shock trooper fired his grenade launcher, the projectile landing dead center in the doorway to the compound, kicking up a cloud of debris and knocking back the Bugs who had been attempting to breach.

Keep the pressure on them!” Kaz shouted, “hold the line!”

Lopez crawled over to one of the windows, keeping his head low, then drew a sidearm from a leather holster on his belt. It was an XMH, a modular handgun of a similar design philosophy to the larger XMR rifles. They had only recently been introduced, and they had yet to make it into the hands of most of the UNN forces.

Get back, Colonel!” Korza bellowed over the din. “We can't afford to lose you!”

I'll be damned if I'm going to hide behind the control panels while others do my fighting for me. I might be the base commander, but I did my time on the line, killed my share of buggers. I have thirty-two rounds, and I'm going to shoot thirty-two Bugs.”

He rose from cover for a moment, taking careful aim, then loosed a shot from his pistol. Conventional sidearms would not have been effective at this range, but his XMH was configured to fire railgun slugs. There were only two magnetic rings on the barrel, a limitation of its size, but it could still drive a projectile through an inch of steel plating. His aim was true, and Kaz watched a Bug's head disappear as it peeked around the doorway, its plasma pistol falling from its hand as the oversized insect dropped to the mud.

The Colonel ducked back under the window, the coils on his pistol glowing orange with heat. He was quite the marksman.

It will be as you say, Colonel,” Korza replied.

I think that spending time in a proverbial foxhole with you aliens is starting to rub off on me,” Lopez said as he rose to take another shot. “I might actually be starting to enjoy myself.”

He popped off a couple more rounds, a few of the shock troopers laughing at his comment. Kaz put her helmet on to cover her ears, the constant percussive noise of the railguns was starting to hurt them, and she flipped up her opaque visor. The smart noise dampening was one of the few features that she appreciated in the UNN's unwieldy headgear.

Phalanx!” Gorza called out.

She saw it too, a group of Bugs were forming a shield wall, advancing slowly with their plasma projectors interlocking. They made it through the breach, the railgun slugs that hit the superheated gas turning to bright sparks of slagged metal and failing to penetrate. They provided cover for the Bugs behind them, swarming through the opening and rushing to take refuge between the ruined prefab buildings and burnt tents.

I got this,” Korza called out, “fire in the hole!”

He stood, heaving to lift the anti-material railgun, the claws on his paw-like foot digging into the concrete for purchase as he braced his leg against the wall. He angled the weapon down towards the phalanx, pulling it tight against his shoulder. There was a loud whir of electricity as the rifle drained one of the battery cells from the portable bank, everyone else in the control room ducking and covering their ears.

Korza fired, the recoil nearly knocking him off his feet and the deafening crack shattering two of the windows that had remained intact on the far side of the room. The rifle accelerated a massive hunk of tungsten to at a significant fraction of light speed, hitting the phalanx dead center with the force of a meteorite, conveying enough kinetic energy to pass straight through their shields. There was a flash of light, the energy released by the projectile causing a small explosion. All of the Bugs that had been standing in a rough cone behind the impact point simply vaporized, while everyone in their immediate vicinity was knocked off their feet, sprayed with hypersonic shrapnel and debris. When the smoke cleared, there was a crater the size of a basketball left in the dirt. The metal grate that made up the floor of the compound had melted away, and two dozen Bugs lay dead or dying.

There were a couple more dull thuds as forty-millimeter grenades softened up the survivors, and then the chorus of railgun fire resumed.

Watch you don't melt your coils,” Kaz warned, ducking as a bolt of green plasma passed by an inch above her head. “Give it time to cool.”

Where one Bug fell, another took its place, it was a seemingly endless horde. How many could there possibly be? It couldn't be as large as the force that had attacked Charlie, could it?

Hold them back!” Korza shouted, his voice carrying over the din of the gunfire. “Cut them down before they reach cover!”

Kaz brought down a flyer that was lurking atop one of the walls, then ducked behind a console as she hit the release on her magazine and slotted in a fresh one. She had to hope that her scouts had reached Charlie by now, they wouldn't be able to hold this position forever.


So...how do we do this?” Walker asked, the gigantic Queen watching him with her blue eyes. She reached one of her lower arms down between her massive thighs, using one of her long fingers to open her loins, of a similar size and configuration to those of the other castes that he had encountered during his tour of the hive. Despite her impressive stature, her reproductive organs were not scaled up appropriately, no doubt so that the five-foot-tall males could still mate with her. It was odd to see such a comparably small organ attached to such a large creature, and he watched as the three, finger-like appendages that encircled her opening flexed and writhed in anticipation.

<COME TO ME,> she said, her four long arms outstretched in invitation. The rest of the Drones and Workers looked on, a hundred eyes fixated on Walker as he took a few tentative steps forward. Were they really just going to do it right here in the middle of the Queen's chamber, with everyone watching? Perhaps it was his human hangups talking, but he felt oddly embarrassed.


Come on Walker, man up. You might be able to end the war and save everyone on Jarilo with just a few thrusts.

Once he was in range, she reached down with her lower arms and gently closed her hands around his torso, lifting him off the floor. He was like a doll in her grasp. She was at least twice as tall as the average human, and her body was immense, her ornate headdress alone must have weighed as much as a man. She deposited him on the fleshy egg sack upon which she sat, it was soft and squishy, with the texture of foam. It had looked slimy from a distance, but it was actually dry, and he could feel the muscles shifting beneath him as he looked up at her.

Her torso was as tall as he was. If he were to stand up, his head would scarcely have reached her chest. She supported him with her lower arms, his legs splayed across the rounded surface of her egg sack, and she looked down at him expectantly.

Oh, right...”

He unzipped his pants, unable to remove them in this position, exposing his member. It seemed tiny in comparison to her, but he had to keep in mind that she was made for mating with the winged Drones, who were only a head shorter than he was. Talk about performance anxiety...he was having a hard time getting it up due to the bizarre situation that he had found himself in. When he had first joined the UNN, he had known that he would be making sacrifices for the cause, but he had never expected to end up in this predicament.

The fate of the planet depended on his ability to get an erection.

The Queen released a pulse of pleasant pheromones, perhaps conscious of his difficulties, and Walker found himself swooning as the scents washed over him like a tide. Suddenly he was in a field of flowers, the scents of roses, lilies, and daffodils wafting on a summer breeze. There was fresh cut grass and the smell of baking asphalt on the air, he could almost feel the sun on his face.

He came to, staring up at her as she blinked at him. She wasn't psychic, couldn't have known what her pheromones were making him smell and taste, but her intent had been to calm him. As with all of the other scents in the hive, his brain could only translate the information that was fed to it by his new organ, and this information had drudged up memories of relaxation and peace. How long had it been since he had last visited a botanical garden? How long since he had felt the warm rays of Sol on his face?

He had been quite fond of horticulture in his day, a natural extension of his interest in biology. He had almost forgotten that aspect of his own personality, lost to the years of war and turmoil, as if his brain was replacing old memories like a computer overwriting old files.

Walker had spent so many years fighting in mud, in lifeless deserts, on barren ice plains where no plant could ever take root. Jarilo was the only place that resembled Earth, the only planet that he had visited during his many tours of duty where there might one day grow roses and lilies. If humans were ever to live here, if civilization was ever to take root on Jarilo, then it would have to be alongside these aliens.

I'm ready.”

Her hands roamed across his body, even larger than those of Kaz, examining his clothing. She had seen what it was through her many eyes and she used her pointed fingertips to gently pry open his jacket to expose his chest. She ran them across his skin, cocking her enormous head, no less curious than the Workers or the Repletes had been.


You can call me Walker,” he muttered. If he was going to sleep with someone, they might as well be on first name terms.


It's my name.”


No, it identifies me as an individual.”


The Betelgeusians had no need of names it seemed, or rather each member of the hive had its own subtly different scent that distinguished it from its fellows.

Walker was no stranger to large women. Borealans were eight feet tall, and they weighed half a ton, but the Queen was even larger than that. It almost didn't seem physically possible to mate with her. Then again it made sense. Not only were the Queens of social insect species like termites and bees far larger than their male counterparts, but females could be dramatically larger than males in many other insect species too. In fact, when you considered all of the different animal species on Earth, it was the mammals who were unusual in their sexual dimorphism. Reptiles, birds, fish, and insects all favored the female over the male in terms of size and strength.

He was a little nervous, the Queen could have torn his arms and legs off like a child pulling the legs off a spider if she had been so inclined, but her touch was surprisingly gentle. Everything about her was hard and tough, from her armored carapace to her sharp fingers, and yet her demeanor was soft and considerate.

He shivered as he felt her long fingers run down his spine, pressing into his skin to trace his vertebrae as she roamed down towards the small of his back. Her hand was so large that her thumb and heel could rest on his chest as her fingers explored his back.


My spine,” he clarified, surprised by her apparent electroception. Bees could sense electromagnetic fields, and so it was not unheard of in insects. Still, she must be sensitive indeed if she could feel the faint electrical discharges produced by his nervous system.


It's kind of like a carapace, but on the inside. It protects my more delicate organs and nerves, and it serves to anchor my muscles, amongst other things.”


She seemed to be enjoying the texture of his skin, following the lines of his musculature with her fingers, her hard exoskeleton rich with sensitive nerve endings. She combed them through his hair, tickling his scalp as she examined him, her slow massage helping him to relax.

Walker was just as curious about her body, but he couldn't reach much of it. She towered above him, almost two storeys tall if she had been standing, more like some kind of monument than a living thing. Her parted thighs were the size of park benches, her waist so thick around that his arms would not have met on the other side if he were to wrap them around her.

He reached out and ran his hand across her belly, at least what he could reach, the top of his head barely skirted her chest plate. She had the interlocking armor that was common to the other castes, giving her a bumpy texture despite her carapace's smoothness.

The Queen began to release more of her pheromones, powerful and insidious, creeping into his brain like probing fingers. There was no need to resist her now, the deal had already been made. Besides, it might ease things along. He allowed the scents to wash over him, pink and radiant, a deeply sexual musk lingering in his nose. He could taste her in the back of his throat, sweet and comely, akin to the honey that the Repletes produced.

The pheromones had been powerful when he had been actively resisting them, but now they were overwhelming, tugging at his senses and playing with his memories as if someone had opened up his skull and was crossing wires as they pleased. It was euphoric, almost like being drunk but with none of the associated dulling of the senses.

He felt himself becoming hard almost immediately as the sordid scenes from his past ran through his head like an obscene slideshow. Fragments of barely remembered encounters seemed to flash before his eyes, felt as much as they were remembered. Humans were rarely aware of the fact, as weak as their natural sense of smell was, but scent was powerfully linked to memories and the emotions that were associated with them. The olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that processes smell, ran through the amygdala and the hippocampus. The two areas of the human brain that were associated with emotions and memories. While the senses of sight, sound and touch were far more developed and prominent, the areas of the brain that dealt with processing those experiences did not pass through this region. The phenomenon was very prominent in sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder especially, where certain scents could trigger vivid flashbacks that bordered on waking nightmares.

In Walker's case, he was treated to rich and detailed recollections, as if he was reliving the moments from his past. The effect had been strong with the other castes, but the Queen's pheromones were a cut above the rest, powerful and commanding by their very nature. It was like he was being given a double dosage, his body squirming in her grasp as the sensations washed over him.

He felt the silken skin of an old lover beneath his fingers, truly felt it, as if she was really there with him. He could feel the smoothness of her body, his hand tracing the subtle curve of her hip, made slick by her sweat. They were in a dingy room, it stank of cigarettes and fucking, but there was also the prominent smell of her lavender perfume. He remembered how she would spray it about her shoulders, Walker burying his face in the nape of her neck as he bit and kissed, her body writhing beneath his as she pushed up to meet his thrusts. He had been a young man back then, energetic and aggressive, naive. While their love had not lasted, the memories of it still lingered. He could almost taste the salt of her sudor on his tongue.

He was jolted back to the present as he felt the Queen's hand on his lower back, pulling him closer to her as her alien loins spread in invitation, the three prehensile fingers parting to grant him access. He felt as if he was in two places at once, two times, his visions so vivid as to challenge reality itself.

In one moment he was in the hive on Jarilo, his member pulsing as it neared the Queen's dripping opening. In the next he was back in a hotel room on some barely remembered space station half a Galaxy away, taking advantage of a day or two of shore leave to enjoy a local woman, some waitress who he had met that same afternoon. She was young and nubile, gyrating atop him as he sank his fingers into the soft flesh of her ass, her auburn hair cascading over his face as she leaned down to kiss him. He could smell the soap that she used, her flowery shampoo, he could taste the copper flavor of her passionate embrace as her tongue slid into his mouth.

It was like a dream, almost alarming in its intensity. Walker was not accustomed to being unanchored like this, not in control of his faculties. In a way, it was oddly liberating.

He forced himself into the present, reaching out to run his hands across the Queen's armored thighs, the tactile sensation grounding him amidst the flood of memories. He was at full mast now, harder than he could ever remember being. He was beside himself, his chest heaving and his heart pounding against his ribs, red-faced and wanting. The Queen had no velvet skin to caress, her body was hard and hostile rather than soft and yielding, yet the memories that she conjured had him longing for her touch.

He found himself pressing his cheek against her abdomen, his fingers resting on the hard shell as they traced the softer, pink meat between the plates. She felt alive, her body responding to his touch, warmer and more receptive than he had imagined her to be. He pressed his lips against her belly, not really knowing what he was doing, but caught up in the storm of desire and emotion that was roiling in his head.


Did Bugs have any concept of affection? The Repletes seemed to show affection when they nursed, perhaps the Queen too could feel affection for her offspring, an extended family that he was soon to become a part of.

Was this really what he wanted? What was he giving up by agreeing to the bizarre terms of her surrender? He was not qualified to make this decision, that was up to generals and admirals who would surely second guess any promises that he made, and yet they were not here. Only Walker was here, only he could make this decision, a decision that could affect the lives of every human on the planet and all those who might call Jarilo home in the centuries to come.

No matter what he was giving up, no matter how his life changed after today, it was worth the price. The lives of his comrades back at the base, the life of Kaz and the Marine that he had fought beside on the wall, the lives of all the personnel who were deployed on Jarilo...it was within his power to save them.

He felt the Queen's prehensile loins grip the tip of his member, a jolt of pleasure coursing up his spine to make him shiver. Her hands were all over him, gripping him in a gentle prison of rigid fingers, her fleshy egg sack shifting beneath him as she edged him closer.

Her appendages slid down his shaft, hard carapace protecting the outside, but flesh like luxuriant silk lining the inside. It was soft and wet with her juices, its texture reminding him of a tongue or the inside of a cheek. She pulled back his foreskin with surprising dexterity and care, as if she had paid careful attention to his anatomy, exposing his tender glans to the warmth that she radiated. The resolution on those cameras must have been quite impressive...

The head of his erection pressed against the moist opening of her tunnel, shockingly narrow considering her immensity. It was no larger than those of the Workers or the Pilot who had ravished him the night before. He sensed a fresh flood of pheromones from his royal partner, communicating arousal, pleasure. She smelled so much like a woman, as if the very essence of all that was feminine and alluring had been condensed into a perfume and bottled. It tugged at his most base instincts, his member surging with blood and throbbing against her womanhood, Walker practically salivating as he slid his hand across her torso.

It was frustrating in a way. His senses insisted that he should feel wet skin, taut muscle twisting and flexing beneath a layer of delicate fat. His impulse was to push his face into his lover's hair, taste her, sink his fingers into the doughy meat of her breasts.

Instead, there was only the Queen's immovable bulk, encased in armor that was as hard as plastic. There was a little give to it, and it was pleasantly smooth to the touch, but it was no substitute for the tender body of an eager woman.

She hooked her thumbs beneath his jacket, opening it up and sliding it off him to expose his torso, her eyes staring intently as she ran her hands across his body. She was so tactile, her four hands were roaming everywhere, Walker twisting and gasping as they glided across his skin. If she could sense the electrical currents in his nervous system, what else could she sense? She could smell his every emotion as his pheromones leaked from his pores, she could watch his nerves light up with pleasure like she was flipping switches, perhaps she could see his body heat or sense his blood as it rushed through his veins as well. He was completely naked, not in the sense that she was removing his clothing, but in the fact that he couldn't hide anything from her. Every twitch, every rush of excitement and arousal that coursed through him, she could read him like an open book.

Her hard fingers crawled down his spine, her hand cupping his ass, and she drew him closer. There was a brief moment of resistance, and then his member slid inside her, the first rib of her alien passage rolling over his exposed glans and sending a jolt of ecstasy coursing through his body. She felt him shudder, cradling him in her many arms, watching him carefully with her deep blue eyes in order to gauge his reaction.

She was so wet, her viscous fluids coating his member in a layer of slippery lubricant, making their coupling smooth and slick. The maddening bumps that lined her fleshy passage were barriers that must be breached, however, Walker gritting his teeth as she pulled him deeper. Each ridge of silken flesh was just firm enough that it dug into his tender head, pleasure of such intensity that it bordered on pain making him ache and throb inside her.

One, two, three and four. The ridges just kept coming, grazing his most sensitive anatomy, until finally the felt a dull thud as she took him as deep as he could go. He was pressed flush against her torso, his red cheek resting against the hard, cool plates of her thorax. He realized that he was clinging to her as if for dear life, his arms wrapped around her waist as far as they would go, his fingers failing to meet on the other side such was her girth. It was like hugging an oil drum.

Three of her massive hands rested on his bare back, tickling his skin as they caressed him, the fourth combing his hair with its hard fingers. Walker's heart skipped a beat, his member jumping as her muscular tunnel contracted, kneading him like a fist gloved in damp velvet.

It was...nice. Really nice. Maybe it was her pheromones playing tricks on his mind, or maybe it was her doting demeanor, but he was enjoying his encounter with her a lot more than he had expected to. He wasn't even paying attention to the Drones and Workers in the chamber, it was as if everything besides the Queen had melted away. She was beautiful in a way, regal, her eyes burning like a pair of sapphires when he dared to glance up at her. Her iridescent carapace shifted hues with every subtle movement of her towering body, refracting light as if she was coated in a layer of finely cut gemstones, from sky blue to navy and purple. She was mesmerizing.

Her pheromones were overpowering, so much more potent than those of the lower castes. It was almost like she had jacked directly into his brain. Her scent...it was the most wonderful smell that had ever graced the Universe. It was sexual and suggestive, reminding him of long nights spent in the passionate embrace of past lovers, the unmistakable musk of two bodies roiling together beneath sodden bed sheets. Yet it was also perfumed and clean, like rosewater, or the fresh aroma of a scented body wash. It was all the flowers of the world rolled into one breath, the taste of every fruit condensed into a mouthful, an ambrosial nectar that teased his senses with its unearthly perfection.

He knew what was happening, of course. Her body was putting out pheromones that were to be interpreted as good or desirable, and so his brain scrambled to collect smells and tastes that fit the criteria and jumbled them all into a rough approximation of her intent. The result was a wonderful synesthesia, it was like dropping acid.

He realized that he hadn't been moving, he had just been clinging to her, his member flexing and pulsing as it soaked inside her warm passage. Her immense size made her feel somehow untouchable, immovable, and yet her massive body responded to his every twitch. He could feel her loins contract and squeeze, her torso rippling as she began to succumb to pleasures of her own.

He wanted to thrust, his burning body demanding that he seek out more pleasure, but he was almost afraid of those cruel ribs. He had to pull back some time, he couldn't stay buried to the hilt forever.

The Queen made his decision for him, wrapping one hand around his waist and pulling him back slowly, each rib catching on his glans as he slid out of her. He shivered and pushed his face into her thorax, stifling an unbecoming whine, trembling as her tight loins dragged up his shaft.


N-No, I'm fine. I'm just...it feels good.”


She drew him towards her again, her hand resting on his rump, pressing him deep into her welcoming passage. Her slick muscles greeted him with cruel contractions that sent sparks flying through his brain, Walker biting his lip as her ribbed insides slid down his member. His hands roamed across her hard body, searching for something to grip onto, eventually coming to rest about her wide hips as he loosed a long sigh and sank into her embrace. He leaned against her, feeling the bumps of her exoskeleton as his red face rested against her torso. There was soft meat and firm muscle beneath her exoskeleton, he could feel it flexing and shifting tantalizingly beneath the surface, but he could not reach it.

She rested her hand on the back of his head, hugging him against her body as his hips began to roll of their own accord, the Queen responding to his slow thrusts with a gentle rocking motion of her own. True to her word, she was being remarkably gentle with him. It would not do to damage her only path to peace, after all.

The tempo of their coupling began to rise, their pace increasing as they ground their hips together, her loins pulling him in as if they had a mind of their own. She cradled him in her arms, like a child holding her favorite doll, her hands large enough to encompass almost all of his exposed skin.

Their position felt a little precarious, sitting on the giant egg sack that was suspended from the ceiling by naught but a single cable, though he doubted that the extra weight that he had added would cause it to fall. It swayed slowly with her motions, swinging gently as she thrust forward to meet him.

Walker gripped her more tightly, almost desperately, her pheromones dizzying him as they began to make love in earnest. She was driving him wild. She looked and felt like what she was, a giant insect that was twice as tall as a man, yet her alluring scent was that of Venus herself. Before his...augmentation, he had scarcely been aware of this aspect of his senses, pheromones had not even registered to him. Now it was all that he could think about, a sense that overpowered both sight and touch in its intensity.

He was already getting close, the incessant spasming of her loins as they engulfed his member to the hilt sending waves of pleasure crashing over him. He was acutely aware of every ridge and imperfection that detailed the inside of her silken tunnel, her damp walls closing around him with an almost prehensile skill and dexterity as they massaged his length. The three appendages that ringed her opening gripped the base of his shaft like soft fingers, guiding him in and out of her as their vigorous coupling dragged on.

The Queen seemed to be enjoying herself too. She wasn’t quite as taken as he was, but her eyelids were drooping, and her mandibles were twitching erratically. Her long body was gyrating, arching towards him as he clawed at her armored hips and ran his hands along the inner surface of her glass-smooth thighs.


Your females don't seem to share that sentiment,” Walker panted, his voice wavering as he kept up the pace. For a moment he wondered why she wasn't breathing heavily and why her voice was not cracking under the strain of their lovemaking, but then he remembered that she wasn't talking with her mouth. He had almost forgotten. This form of pheromone communication was becoming second nature to him now, so much so that he could scarcely tell the difference anymore.


Did the Queen really have such fine control over the genetics of her children? Were these procedures performed in some kind of laboratory, or within her very body?

Screw it, he couldn't hope to concentrate on such matters in this situation. His brain was fogged with seething arousal, and his mind was in a shambles. His head was flooded with flashes of memories and half-remembered sensations, while his body was under the thumb of the Queen, her every subtle movement searing his nerves with raw pleasure.

Their pace became frantic, Walker digging his fingers into her hard shell as they slammed their hips together, the Queen pushing forward to meet his thrusts. He could feel her insides clenching and rippling around his member, her already tight tunnel narrowing even further as his erection rubbed against her deepest reaches. She was remarkably sensitive, her muscular walls flowing up his shaft in wracking waves, grinding those harsh ribs along his length as if trying to milk him of his emission.

She was close to succeeding, tremors running through his body as his excitement mounted, the rising pleasure becoming too much to bear. His royal partner seemed to sense the pressure that was rising within him, his pheromones no doubt betraying him to her. She wrapped her hands around him, holding him tightly against her body, taking him as deep as he could go.

He teetered on the precipice for a moment, enclosed in a prison of long fingers, before her rhythmic contractions drove him over the edge. The moment the first wad of his emission hit her silken passage, he felt something new, his eyes widening as he was gripped by a powerful suction of such intensity that it dwarfed anything that he had experienced before. Her insides sealed around him as if his cock was being vacuum-packed, her muscles squeezing with such intensity that he feared she might crush him. They kneaded his erection from the base to the tip like a farmhand milking a cow, those cruel rings of muscles digging into his skin as they dragged out his orgasm.

The pleasure was raw and harsh, a deep ache penetrating him to the core, tingling sensations invading his extremities like he had slept on them wrong. He tried to arch his spine, tried to writhe, but she held him tightly against her. She had him pinned, keeping him as deep inside her as his length would allow, his nerves lighting up like a switchboard.

He buried his face in the twin rows of hard plates that lined her torso, loosing a bestial grunt, his conscious mind receding and the corners of his vision darkening as he endured. His muscles tensed and spasmed, his body struggling to meet the Queen's demand as her loins wrung him dry.

It wasn't stopping. Walker wouldn't have thought it possible that he could even store this much of it inside him, every wrenching compression of her slippery insides forcing him to give her another load. He was flooding her, ropes of his warm ejaculate flowing from him as her ribbed loins tortured him.

He should have anticipated something like this, she had been tailored by evolution and likely by genetic tweaking for a singular purpose, to breed. She wanted as much as he could give her and she wasn't going to spill a drop of it. It was brutally efficient.

Just when he thought that he might no longer be able to stand the ecstasy that was burning through his body like a wildfire, she relented, provoking one final shudder from Walker as he gave her the last of his essence. He panted hard, the Queen supporting him with her large hands. He felt like she had just sucked his soul out of him through his cock. All he wanted to do now was to lie down and bask in the afterglow that was settling over him like a warm blanket, to sleep. He had more pressing concerns, however.

I-Is it done?” Walker stammered, breathing heavily as he lay against her torso. She stroked his back with her large hands, almost apologetic, her claw-like fingers tracing his spine.


His stomach lurched as she lifted him off her egg sack, depositing him on the floor with her long arms, and he stooped to pick up his discarded jacket. He pulled it on, his legs still a little shaky, almost falling over as he struggled to get his bearings. The euphoria lingered, making him slow and giddy. As much as he wanted to enjoy the sensation, he had to push through it.

That was it then, he was now king of the Bugs. Time to get to work.

If there are any attacks happening right now, call them off. Bring every soldier that's out in the field back to the hive. I assume you have a way to contact them?”


I need to get back to my people and let them know what's happened,” he said, trying to wipe away some of the sweat from his brow on his sleeve. “Give me a Drone escort and have them lead me to the nearest UNN base. The nearest...hive.”


I have no doubt that my superiors will accept my decision, and your peace terms, but it may take some time to explain what has happened. I have to make them understand. During that time I don't want to see any Bugs on the surface, keep everyone inside the hive until I return. Any hostilities might be seen as a breach of the surrender terms.”

She released a puff of affirmative pheromones, the insect equivalent of a nod. Two of the winged males from her entourage sidled up beside him, their plasma pistols holstered in shaped recesses in their armored thighs. They were behaving differently now, no longer curious and wary of him. He sensed the same respect from them that they gave the Queen, a kind of deference. He couldn't communicate with them very well, at least not yet, but they would do as the Queen told them without fault.

Tell my guards not to draw their weapons under any circumstances, and not to respond to hostility in kind. This has to be resolved through communication, not violence.”

She relayed his instructions to the Drones and then they began to walk away, waiting for Walker by the large door to the Queen's chamber.


I'll be back soon, hopefully,” he said as he turned to leave. Was he going to come back? What would his life be like now? He could have the medics ferry him back to the Pinwheel, have the UNN surgeons try to remove his grafted organ, but would they be able to do that? Somehow he doubted that human doctors could hold a candle to the Bugs. Besides, did he want to have his smaste organ removed? Did he want to leave the hive? He felt an odd affinity with the creatures now, he was bound to them by blood. Or at least he would be as soon as the Queen started to birth a new brood that carried his DNA.

He would be a literal father to the hive, the originator of their genome in part. He couldn't abandon his children, forsake his promise to the Queen. Maybe it was just the insidious pheromones talking, clouding his better judgment, but weren't all emotions just chemical impulses in the brain? What did it matter what the origin of that emotion was, as long as it was genuine? He had come to care about them and their welfare, and it was only through his intervention that the two sides of this conflict could come to an understanding.

The Bugs would need an advocate, after all. A translator, an ambassador to speak on their behalf. There was nobody else, only Walker could ensure their survival, and lasting peace on Jarilo.


Keep them back!” Korza shouted over the din of battle, “don't let them reach cover by those prefabs!”

The defenders focused their fire on a squad of Drones that had been sneaking around the perimeter of the compound, hiding in the shadow of the wall. Before long their blood and viscera was staining the metal like splotches of green and orange paint, the Borealans switching targets as another group breached the entrance to the base and fanned out in an attempt to make themselves harder to hit.

They just keep throwing themselves at us,” Gorza muttered. “It's like they don't care about their own lives. It goes beyond valor, it's madness.”

This is how they overcame Delta's defenses,” Colonel Lopez added as he swapped out the spent battery on his pistol for a fresh one. Not only did their weapons drain ammo, but the batteries had been be replaced too after their electrical charge was depleted. “Wave after wave of Bugs came crashing against our defenses like a tide against the rocks. It took them a while, and it cost them more than any UNN general would have been willing to pay, but they broke through and overran us.”

They'll do the same to us if that damned extraction ship doesn't arrive in time,” Korza hissed.

They'll be here,” Kaz said as she tried to reassure her exhausted comrades. “My scouts will have made it back to Charlie by now. The morning has already come.”

I know the morning has come,” the gruff Elysian replied bitterly, “the sunlight is in my damned eyes. They're using it as cover.”

Then put your helmet on and tint the visor.”

I can't see properly with the helmet on,” he complained.

One of the scouts shouted over their argument, pausing between shots.

Phalanx incoming!”

Korza snarled and braced himself, tugging the stock of the anti-material rifle tight against his shoulder. He angled it down towards the line of Drones that was advancing through the breach, their shields raised in defense as they stepped over their dead comrades. There was an electrical whir as the rifle's capacitors charged from the portable battery pack.

Why do they keep coming?” the shock trooper to Kaz's left asked. “They keep trying to breach, and we keep stopping them. They've seen every phalanx that came before them be destroyed, yet they stay the course. Are they insane? Are they unthinking creatures with no ability to reason?”

It's simple,” Kaz replied, her tone dour. “They know that they have more men than we have bullets. They're counting on us killing them, and they'll keep throwing Drones at us until we've expended all of our ammunition and they can just walk right up to the tower.”

That's why we've got bayonets,” one of her scouts laughed, and he was joined by a few others. A little humor might raise their spirits at least, but Kaz was starting to doubt their plan. At this rate, the dropship would arrive to find a graveyard.

Fire in the hole!”

Everyone ducked and covered their ears, besides Kaz who was wearing her helmet, the smart sound dampening dulling the deafening crack as Korza fired his giant railgun. She watched it dash the shield formation, scattering those that it didn't immediately vaporize like multicolored bowling pins.

There was a thud as the forty-millimeter grenade launcher cleaned up the survivors, then its wielder threw the weapon to the floor and cursed in his native tongue.

I'm out of shells, Alpha.”

Take up a rifle, and make sure your shots count,” Korza ordered. “We're starting to run low on slugs.”

They had been firing continuously for hours, and even the considerable stockpile that Gamma squad had recovered from the armory was dwindling. Korza slammed the release catch on the anti-material railgun with his fist, the empty magazine dropping from the receiver.

Need a reload!”

Gorza rummaged through his pack, pulling out another three round mag and tossing it towards him. Korza snatched it from the air with his clawed hand, slotting it into his weapon with a mechanical click that echoed in the ruined control room.

Make 'em count, that's all we have left.”

I don't miss,” Korza spat, thumping his armored chest before returning his eye to the rifle's scope. Gorza bowed his head in deference, not wanting the Alpha to see his comment as a challenge. The atmosphere in the control tower was tense, desperate, but Borealans excelled under pressure. They were in their element, the lust for battle ran in their blood, and desperate last stands were the secret aspiration of anyone who took up a weapon to serve their Patriarch. Most of their kind died violently, Borealans came into the world screaming and covered in blood, and that was the way most of them preferred to go out.

Damn it, I'm out of ammo,” Lopez said. “Give me one of the XMRs.”

With respect Colonel, we only have Borealan rifles," Kaz replied. "The kick could break your shoulder."

I didn't ask for your opinion, soldier. If it's the choice between a broken shoulder and having these roaches overrun us, then I choose the broken shoulder.”

She passed him one of the surplus rifles, as long as the Colonel was tall. He struggled with it, bracing it against one of the windowsills, waving the barrel back and forth to clean away broken glass.

Kaz heard a grunt as Lopez took aim and pulled the trigger, the weapon very nearly jumping out of his hands as it slammed into his collar. He'd be badly bruised for sure, too many hits like that and his bones would break under the strain. He seemed unperturbed, however, collecting himself as he lined up another shot.

Korza had been wise to set up inside the control tower. It was elevated over the compound, the relatively small windows making difficult targets for soldiers on the ground. The structure was solid, and it was hard to demolish for an enemy that seemed to lack man-portable heavy weapons and armored vehicles. That wouldn't count for anything when they ran out of ammunition, however. They could bottleneck the Bugs on the staircase, but the smaller creatures would have an advantage in such tight quarters, the bulk of the Borealans would hinder them. Kaz was no stranger to the bite of Bug daggers, and she wasn't looking forward to going tooth and claw with the insects again.

Fire in the hole!” Korza shouted, loosing off two shots from anti-material railgun as the rest of the defenders ducked and covered their sensitive ears. The hypersonic crack shook Kaz's bones, and she felt the shockwave ripple through every soft part of her body. Just being near that thing felt dangerous.

The rounds felled a Warrior that had made it through the gate, the lobster-like creature keeling over as the kinetic energy turned its insides to mush. He only had one slug left now, Kaz had been counting. She was running dangerously low on ammunition as well, their stockpile had been rapidly depleted by the sustained gunfight.

I'm out,” Gorza shouted, “toss me a new mag!”

There aren't any,” one of the scouts replied, “what you've got loaded is all that's left.”

Gorza cursed in his native Rask dialect, rising to his feet and making for the stairs.

I'll man the door then. Anything tries to come through, it will be met by my bayonet.”

Damn it, had the scouts that she had sent back to Charlie not made it back? Had they been intercepted by a Bug patrol? Where was the extraction ship?

She turned her attention back to the battle, careful with her aim so as not to waste what little ammo they had left. The Bugs seemed to have slowed their advance, they were lingering around the entrance, hiding behind the slagged doors and the piles of dead that littered the battlefield. Kaz had never seen a Bug hesitate before, never seen them falter. Were they even capable of feeling fear?

Something is wrong,” Korza muttered, peering through his scope. “What are they doing?”

They're falling back!” one of the shock troopers shouted excitedly.

Impossible,” Kaz whispered in disbelief, her furry finger moving away from the trigger of her rifle. “They have us on the ropes, why would they stop now? They've been trying to waste our ammunition since daybreak, and they've finally succeeded.”

The few Bugs that had made it into the compound were inching back towards the exit, their bodies low and their heads bowed to make themselves smaller targets.

You ever seen them do this before?” Lopez asked, wincing as he tracked one of them with his oversized rifle. The man wasn't a paper pusher, Kaz would give him that. He had probably sustained a few fractures trying to control the recoil on that weapon.

Never,” Korza replied, watching them intently through his magnified scope. “I've only seen them retreat after sustaining massive casualties, and only when their objective is out of reach.”

The crowd of Drones clustered by the door to the compound, there must have been a hundred of them, their weapons lowered and any shields deactivated as they milled about. Kaz resisted the urge to fire on them, it wouldn't do to waste what little ammunition was left on Bugs that weren't an immediate threat.

Gorza appeared at the top of the staircase, a questioning look on his face.

What's happening? Why did you stop firing?”

He crouched next to Kaz and stuck his head up to look out of the window, his round ears twitching as he examined the strange scene.

There's something coming out of the forest, look!”

Beyond the walls of the compound and across the blasted no man's land, there emerged a figure from between two of the massive tree trunks. As he walked out from beneath the shadow of the forest canopy the sunlight cast its rays on him, Kaz realizing that it was a human. He was flanked by two colorful Drones, walking at his side like they were guarding him. She couldn't make out any details at this distance, and so she used the zoom function on her helmet, dialing it in using controls that were mounted on her temple.

The first zoom level revealed a man with dark hair wearing tattered fatigues, and the second...

That's Walker!” Kaz exclaimed, startling Gorza with her fervor. “They have Walker!”

Who is Walker?” Korza demanded, keeping his weapon trained on the approaching figures.

I served as his spotter, he's a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. The Bugs took him when we were on patrol. I told my base commander that he was still alive, but he wouldn't let anyone go looking. I knew he wasn't dead. Oh God, what have they done to him?”

He's a hostage,” Korza hissed, his voice dripping with malice. “It's a move so underhanded and devoid of honor that only a Bug could think of it. They're going to parade him out here and try to make us surrender in exchange for his life, no doubt. They must be sick of the taste of tungsten.”

Kaz turned her eyes back to her old companion, watching as the sea of Drones parted to let him pass. He didn't look like he was a hostage. He wasn't being dragged along by the arms, nobody had a gun pressed against his head. If anything it looked as if his guards were following his lead, and not the other way around.

Walker proceeded calmly into the compound, flanked by the two Drones, the same winged males that had tailed him and Kaz during their patrol. He came to a stop about a hundred feet away from the base of the tower.

There was a sudden movement from the rest of the Bugs. They turned about, walking off towards the forest. The defenders watched in disbelief as the hundred-strong army gradually vanished into the trees, leaving only Walker and his two guards behind.

My name is Walker,” he shouted, his voice ringing out over the eerie silence. “I'm a Sergeant in the UNN. I need to get in touch with Fleetcom on a matter of utmost importance.”

The Borealans all turned their heads to look at Lopez, the base commander nursing his wounded shoulder as he stared down at the man. They waited for a reply as he considered, his eyes narrowing.

Something about this feels wrong,” he muttered, then he directed his attention towards the aliens. “Your thoughts?”

Look at his clothes, sir,” Korza said. “He's filthy. His fatigues are in tatters, he's unshaven, his hair is matted. He looks like he's been tortured to me, held captive. Kazka, how long ago did you say they took him?”

I didn't, but it was days ago.”

What if they broke him, and he's acting on their orders? He might just be trying to get us to open the door and come out of the tower.”

There's no way,” Kaz replied, shaking her head. “He'd die first. I know him as well as my own litter, we've served together in multiple campaigns. Hades, Kruger, now Jarilo. I'd trust him with my life. Hell, he's saved it on more than one occasion. I say we hear him out." Korza began to protest, but she cut him off, the large male bristling at her challenge. “What other choice do we have? We're out of ammo, the evac ship hasn't shown up yet.”

He bared his teeth in a snarl, his brow furrowed, then he exhaled and lay down his massive rifle on a nearby console.

She is right, Colonel. Our situation is dire. We have few options.”

Alright,” Lopez said, his tone commanding. “Kazka, go down and talk to him. Gorza, lock the door behind her. The rest of you provide her with cover. If those Drones so much as twitch in her direction, shoot them. Take this Walker character alive if anything happens, I'm sure that Fleetcom will have a lot of questions to ask him...”

Kaz did as she was ordered, excitement overcoming her worry and fear. Not only had they repelled the attack, but Walker was alive! She had known it all along, she had felt it in her gut. If only Fischer had allowed her to lead a search party as she had requested, perhaps they might have been able to break him out of whatever prison the Bugs had been holding him in.

She reached the door to the tower at the base of the stairs, hitting the control panel and stepping outside onto the metal grates. She turned back to give Gorza a nod, and he returned the gesture, closing the door behind her with a mechanical click.

The Drones seemed skittish as she walked slowly towards them, Walker standing with his arms crossed as they stood guard to either side of him. They were armed, but they had not drawn their weapons, the compound eyes of their helmets twinkling as they watched her approach.

Kaz? Kaz is that you?”

Walker took a step forward, his eyes bright, but she put up a hand to ward him off.

Don't try to hug me, my buddies might shoot you,” she said as she gestured to the tower behind her. “Walker...everyone thought that you were dead. I told them, I said that you couldn't have been killed, but they wouldn't listen to me. I tried to come find you, I tried to-”

He waved his hand, indicating that she should cease her rambling, and she stood there sheepishly as she looked him up and down. He really did look like he had been dragged through the mud. He was filthy, his clothes were in tatters, he certainly looked the part of a PoW. He seemed healthy, however, alert and seemingly unhurt. His smell stood out to her, something was off about it. His usual scent was being masked by something...alien.

I know you would have come for me if you could, Kaz. In fact, I'm surprised that you're not in a brig right now for attempting to desert. I'm glad to see that you're alive, I feared that the Bugs who captured me might have killed you.”

No, I fought my way out of there. Whatever tranquilizer they used to bring you down, it didn't work on me.”

I'd expect nothing less,” he chuckled.

Now...are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on?”

Walker straightened up, his expression becoming more serious.

I need to get in touch with Fleetcom right away. I've come on behalf of the Betelgeusians living on Jarilo, to offer their surrender.”

On behalf of...surrender!?”

Kaz couldn't believe her ears, what the hell was he talking about?

It's kind of a long story, and I fear that I don't have time to do it justice right now. The Bugs aren't what we thought Kaz, we couldn't have imagined. What they want, how they live, we were way off. I've met their Queen, I've...their Drones will obey me now. I ordered all troops recalled to the hive and I'm prepared to negotiate the terms of their surrender.”

Walker,” Kaz whispered, her voice trailing off. “It's still you, right? They didn't...do things to you?”

You're asking if I was tortured, brainwashed,” he laughed. It was hearty, and it put Kaz more at ease. “Besides some fairly invasive language lessons, I'm fine, they've not mistreated me. I'm here of my own accord, for my own reasons. This is important Kaz, I can end this war today.”

You're still on our side, right?” Kaz asked. She stared at her feet, as if afraid of the answer that he might give.

Things aren't that black and white, Kaz. There are no sides, not on Jarilo. There are only those who want to see an end to the slaughter and those who don't.”

They were interrupted by the sound of engines, the two friends looking to the sky to see three ships break through the cloud layer, two Penguin gunships flanking a bulky dropship. They were coming in hot, their noses glowing orange as they shed the heat of reentry, winding to lose velocity.

Here comes the cavalry,” Kaz muttered sarcastically. “Looks like my scouts got back to Charlie.”

Guess I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Walker sighed. He waved to his Drones, and they bowed their heads, turning to retreat back the way they had come. It was probably for the best, they didn't want a Penguin pilot with an itchy trigger finger dropping his payload on their heads.

If you need a character witness,” Kaz began, shooting him a familiar toothy grin.

I'll come find you,” he replied, beginning to walk over to Delta's landing pad where the dropship was setting down. It kicked up a cloud of dust and dead pine needles that had blown in from the forest with its thrusters, the two Penguins circling above the forest overhead.

A squad of Marines thundered down the landing ramp, their XMRs drawn as they fanned out. They had been expecting to land in the middle of a firefight no doubt, but the courtyard was empty save for Kaz and Walker. Once the area was secured, their leader flipped up his opaque visor, making his way over to where Walker was waiting for him.

What the hell happened here?” he asked, looking around at the smoldering prefabs and the piles of dead bodies. “Who is in charge here?”

The base commander is up in the control room,” Kaz replied, gesturing to the tower with a clawed finger. “You guys are running late, you missed one hell of a fight.”

The door to the control tower slid open, and the rest of the defenders poured out with Lopez at their head, his white uniform standing out against the black combat armor of Gamma squad and the green and tan of the scouts.

The Marine saluted, and Lopez waved for him to be at ease.

Kazka, Sergeant Walker? I trust you're about to tell me why an army of Bugs a hundred strong just turned tail and marched home on the orders of a scout that has been missing in action for days?”

I would like nothing more, Colonel,” Walker replied. “Perhaps I can tell you about it on the way back to the carrier?”

Let's get out of here,” Lopez replied dismissively, straightening his cap and then wincing as the motion hurt his injured shoulder. “These soldiers have seen enough of this cursed planet for one day. Korza, Kazka, load up your men and we'll dust off as soon as possible. Marines, take this man into custody, Fleetcom will want to know everything that has happened.”

Walker had expected this, and he shot one last smile at Kaz before he was led away by two Marines, taking him by the arms and steering him towards the dropship.


What do you think of his testimony?” Captain Stavros asked, handing his tablet computer to Captain Chopra. The two captains were standing on the bridge of the Thermopylae, Jarilo's verdant surface visible through the large viewports. The swarthy Martian shook his head, his eyes scanning the text readout.

It all seems quite impossible to me, Stavros. Had it not been for the abrupt cessation of all hostilities, I would not have believed it. Where is Sergeant Walker now?”

In the brig for the time being, at least until we can determine the veracity of his story. I know the man by reputation, he's served under me before. I don't believe that he would defect. Hell, one cannot defect to the Betelgeusian side, they've never taken prisoners before. They've shown no indication that a defector wouldn't be immediately killed for the crime of having less than six limbs.”

So you believe that he met this Queen and that she offered him her surrender?” Chopra asked, setting down the tablet on a nearby console and clasping his hands behind his back as he looked down at the planet below them with a pensive frown.

I certainly have no other explanation for why the Bugs would suddenly retreat,” Stavros replied. “I was getting ready to pull back the Marines on the ground and wait for reinforcements in orbit.”

Walker maintains that we caught them early, and that destroying their hive ships deprived the enemy forces on the ground of the essential resources that they needed to combat us.”

It's true that only one of the hive ships made it to the surface, it makes sense,” Stavros replied with a nod. He walked over to join Chopra by the main viewport, looking out at the forests and shining rivers beneath them. The Kartikeya was floating nearby, Chopra had taken a shuttle over, as Stavros had wanted to talk with him face to face. “A bigger question is, do we trust the Bugs to keep their word?”

Chopra scratched his chin for a moment, considering.

I don't know that we have a choice, Stavros. The UN charter requires us to accept their surrender terms, and we don't have the forces that we need to root them out for good. By the time reinforcements arrive, they will have had the run of the planet for weeks, and they will have been able to rebuild their forces. We would lose Jarilo for sure. I'm certain that no man here would complain if we bombarded them from orbit, but the Admiralty was adamant that we secure Jarilo without destroying it.”

They would never have accepted a surrender from a human,” Stavros sneered, “I've seen them slaughter men who could have easily been taken prisoner. You've seen what they do to contested colony planets. I agree with your assessment, however. The UN charter binds our hands in this case. It was penned with belligerent states and rogue colonies in mind, nobody could have imagined that it might one day apply to an enemy like the Betelgeusians.”

A clerical error, then?” Chopra asked as he turned to his fellow captain and shot him a questioning glance.

A simple lack of foresight, I think. If the charter is to be overruled, only the Admiralty can give the order. They aren't here, we are. I see no choice but to accept the terms of surrender. I will send a message back to Fort Hamilton of course, but it may take some time for them to deliberate and send a reply back.”

At least Walker brought us some useful intelligence,” Chopra mused. “If what he says is true, if the Bugs are not a unified empire but rather a collection of warring factions, then sectioning off and reclaiming contested systems will become much easier.”

We've been fighting under the false assumption that the different Bug colonies would reinforce one another,” Stavros grumbled, beginning to pace around the bridge. It was empty of crew for the moment, he had cleared them out so that the two captains could have some privacy while they discussed these sensitive matters. “The battles themselves would not have been any easier or any less costly, but our overall strategy has been flawed from the start.”

Well, you are fleet commander, Captain Stavros. What are your orders?” Chopra asked.

Walker is our only line to this mysterious Queen. We have to release him, let him return to the planet and relay our decision to her. The medical staff had a look at that...organ that was grafted to his body. Its roots are deep in his brain, you'd need a team of skilled neurosurgeons to even attempt to remove it, and even then the operation would risk permanent brain damage.”

Do you think it's influencing him?” Chopra asked, “controlling his mind in some way?”

The doctors assured me that's not possible. It isn't linked to the areas of his brain that are associated with cognitive functions or reasoning, just the ones that deal with smell and taste.”

Chopra walked over to one of the vacant consoles and took a seat, removing his white cap and setting it down on the bank of buttons and displays.

And what of the situation on the ground?” he continued, watching Stavros pace up and down in front of the large window.

Delta was wiped out, but the other bases are more or less intact. We still have a significant presence on the surface, and we've begun reinforcing and resupplying. If the Bugs do decide to turn on us, we'll be ready for them. They're still confined to the valley as far as we know, and we intend to keep it that way. The terms of the surrender don't say anything about letting them expand their colony.”

And let's say that this all works out,” Chopra mused as he leaned back in the padded chair with a creak. “Do you think that a single citizen in all the united colonies will come to start a new life on a planet that's infested with Bugs?”

They live on Hades, don't they?” Stavros replied. “There are colonial outposts on Kruger III, where almost nothing will grow, and all you can see for miles in every direction are fields of mud. You come from Mars, where there's no air, and you can only live under the cover of the domes. Jarilo is a rare prize, it's a second Earth. They'll live here, and I don't think that having some six-legged neighbors will dissuade them.”

I guess if we can get along with the Borealans, then maybe we can share a planet with a few Bugs,” Chopra laughed. “But personally I'd take the crowded domes of New Chennai over having Bugs in my backyard.”

A backyard, in New Chennai?” Stavros said with a smirk. “Now that's more of a fantasy than humans and Bugs living in harmony.”


Walker stepped off the landing ramp of the dropship, breathing in a lungful of Jarilo's clean air. It was pine fresh, he picked up scents and qualities that he had never been aware of before. It was a beautiful planet, and at least for the time being, it was safe.

Delta was now bustling with activity. Engineers were hard at work repairing the damage that had been done over the last few days, fixing the massive doors at the entrance and rebuilding the ruined prefabs. The bodies of friends and foes had been cleared away, either burned in the case of the Bugs, or brought back to the Thermopylae for a burial at sea in the case of the Marines. There had been catastrophic loss of life on both sides, but now the war was over. The UNN had accepted the Queen's surrender, and all hostilities had ceased.

Not only that, but Walker had requested that the Jarilo hive be allowed to join the Coalition on the condition that they would share their technology and information with humanity. He had not asked the opinion of the Queen yet, but in her mind their two peoples had become one, and he knew that she would not object to the idea. A medical revolution might not do much to console the families of the dead, but it would ensure that their sacrifice had been for something tangible. Perhaps someday soon there might be Bug Workers on the Pinwheel, healing wounds and curing disease with their advanced knowledge of biology and genetics.

As he left the landing ramp and made his way towards the exit, he was stopped by a tall figure who blocked his path.

The moment you leave a Bug jail cell, they put you in a Navy brig. Kind of ironic, wouldn't you say?”

Kaz,” Walker said, smiling up at her. “Sorry I couldn't stick around, I got whisked away the moment I landed on the Thermopylae. Seems the Captain wanted to know where I had been for the last several days.”

And why you can talk to Bugs?”

That too,” he chuckled. “Walk with me.”

He continued on his way towards the exit, Kaz lumbering along beside him, keeping her gait slow so as not to out-pace him on her long legs.

So, looks like you ended a war,” she said. Her tone was aloof, she was making light of the situation, and Walker couldn't help but smirk at her. “You've been a stone-cold killer since the moment I met you, Walker, didn't take you for the kind of guy who would be breaking bread and building bridges.”

Someone had to do it,” he replied. “Just so happens that fate chose me. Or the Bugs chose me, either way.”

I can't deny that you likely saved every man on the ground. You certainly saved my ass, along with Gamma squad and my scout team when you showed up here. We were out of ammunition, minutes away from being overrun. If you hadn't turned up when you did...” She looked up at the treetops, the pine needles blowing in the breeze beneath the azure sky. “Man, I dunno.”

They reached the main entrance, and Walker stopped, turning back towards her.

You're not staying, are you?” Kaz asked. That much was obvious from the massive rucksack that he was carrying on his back.

No, I can't. I'm the only guy who can talk to the Bugs. I've been given permission to stay on as their ambassador. Their hive isn't far from Delta, I'll be traveling to and fro quite a lot I'd expect. If you're stationed here, I'll check in on you from time to time. Maybe we can share a few drinks.”

I'm in the Navy,” she replied with a grin, “who knows where they'll be sending me next. Do you think this arrangement is going to work out? Sharing Jarilo with the Bugs, I mean. The Marines seem happy that the fighting is over, but...”

There's a lot of bad blood,” Walker confirmed. “There's not a man here who hasn't lost a friend to the Betelgeusians at one point or another. You and me included.”

She nodded solemnly, and he gave her a pat on the thigh.

Chin up, Kaz. It has to end somewhere, and if we don't end the cycle of violence then who will? If not here and now, then where, and when? Don't worry, you're not out of a job. There are plenty of other hives out there. This war might be over, but there are others to fight.”

I feel like you're sacrificing yourself,” she said, averting her eyes. He had never seen her so timid before, it was unlike her. “You don't have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, you know. It isn't your responsibility alone. Can't they get some scientists down there, build some computers that will translate their language so that you don't have to leave?”

In time I'm sure they will,” he admitted, “but my connection to them goes deeper than that. I'm responsible for them now, and I'm the only guy that can do the job. I'm going to live with them, learn from them, I'm going to teach them and I'm going to help others to understand them. You act like I'm leaving forever,” he said, his voice taking on a reassuring tone. “I'm not their prisoner Kaz, you'll see me again soon.”

He took her furry hands in his, and she looked down at him with her amber eyes.

You're the best friend I ever had, and you're the best damned spotter I ever served with.”

And you're my pack,” she replied, trapping him in her huge arms and lifting him off the ground. She hugged the air out of his lungs for a moment, then set him back down, clearly blinking back tears but trying to look tough.

I'm quite privileged,” he said, turning to leave. “I've been a member of the Marine Corps, a Borealan pack, and now a Betelgeusian hive. Seems like everybody wants a piece of me.”

She waited until he had reached the treeline on the far side of the muddy clearing before shouting to him.

Don't be a stranger!”

He turned to wave to her, then disappeared into the forest.



Walker stepped through the massive doors that concealed the Queen's chamber, the guards no longer wary of him. He was a part of their hive now. The Queen was suspended from the ceiling, sitting on her gigantic egg sack as dozens of Workers milled about around her, stacking the football-sized eggs that she produced against the walls.

The UNN accepts your surrender, and I've requested that you be allowed to join the Coalition. The merger of our two hives is complete.”


There are a couple of conditions, however. They don't want you expanding your colony beyond the valley, at least for the time being. Territorial boundaries will be drawn up when they've been able to gauge the colonial interest in the planet, and you'll be expected to respect them. They also want you to share your wetware with their scientists, your knowledge of genetic engineering and your biological technology. It will benefit them greatly.”


They'll be sending some human scientists into the hive to study how you live and to gather information. I gave them strict instructions not to bring any weapons into the colony. Please instruct your Drones and Pilots to leave them be and let them do their work. They aren't dangerous.”


You can tell that just from my...DNA?”


Oh? What's that?”


Walker knew that they were practically wizards when to came to genetic engineering, but she talked about creating an entirely new creature like she was refitting a ship. Could it really be so simple for her? Was it just a matter of splicing a few genes here, editing a chromosome there?

So what you're telling me is that you think you can create a Bug that can speak as we do?”


Well that's good to hear, it will make integrating you into the Coalition a whole lot easier. If people can actually talk to you, they might not be so fearful.”

A translator caste, that would go a long way towards lightening his workload.


She was looking at the sizable pack that was on his back, and he turned around to show her.

Just some creature comforts. If I'm going to be staying here for a while, then I'll need a change of clothes. I’ll also need few dietary supplements to keep me healthy, a way to wash myself, and to keep clean. I also have some blueprints for you, I'm pretty sure that your Workers can build them for me. Just some furniture, chairs and desks, that kind of thing. You can make them out of resin or packed dirt, doesn't matter.”

She cocked her head at him, her pheromones indicating confusion. Of course, she didn't know what he was talking about, but he was here to teach as much as he was here to learn from them.

I'll need a chamber of my own so that I can have a little privacy, it doesn't need to be large. Something the size of my holding cell will do fine.”


It wasn't exactly as lavish as the Pinwheel, but at least his quarters would be larger than those that he lived in on the Thermopylae, and it was a damn sight better than using rocks for pillows out in the bush.

He realized that his dreams had been realized, in a strange, roundabout way. He had wanted to study the flora and fauna of this spectacular planet, and now he would have all the time in the world to do so, completely of his own accord. Once the Queen managed to birth some translators, he could cart some Workers around with him, have them lug his gear and help him in his work. He could bring Drones to protect him from the planet's more hostile predators and to help him catch specimens for study.

The UNN hadn't even begun their colonization efforts yet, and it would be months before rival scientists were wandering the woods. There was a whole planet of new discoveries ripe for the taking, not to mention the wealth of new information that he could glean from the hive and its alien inhabitants.

He felt like Darwin setting foot on the Galapagos islands for the first time.


He realized that his excitement was leaking out of his pores, the Queen smelling it on him as she watched him curiously.

There's no reason to delay,” he said. “Let's get started.”