The Autumn War – Volume 2: Remnants

Cover Artwork by SickJoe:

© 2022 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This story includes graphic violence and scenes featuring sexual content, and is intended for adults only.


“New York, New York,” Fletcher announced as he crested the hill ahead of them. Gustave lumbered up to his side, Xipa peering out at the vista beyond from atop his shoulder.

They had crossed the residential band, and before them were the city limits, towers of white carbcrete that rose high into the sky. The streets here were flooded, the decorative lakes and rivers overflowing their bounds, making it look like the entire block was slowly sinking into a murky ocean. The formerly pristine facades of the buildings had been stained by the rise and fall of the water level over the decades, clinging aquatic plants that had been temporarily exposed to the air by the tide making them look like they were covered in red fur. Some of the structures were listing, their foundations eroded by water damage, a few of them leaning against their neighbors like they had been pushed over by a giant hand. Few of the windows that she could see were still intact, plants that had taken root inside them breaking through in search of sunlight, entire trees sprouting from the lower floors in places. Their seeds must have been carried there on the wind.

“I think we can make it through,” Bluejay said, peering through the scope of his rifle to get a closer look. “I don’t think it’s deeper than two or three feet, and it gets shallower.”

“The city is supposed to be level,” Xipa added. “This entire area must be slowly sinking. There are underground sewers and maintenance tunnels that have probably been flooded for all this time, which would have eroded the foundations. It’s like the legs have been cut out from under it.”

“Think it’s safe?” Fletcher asked. “I don’t really fancy falling into a sinkhole or having a building collapse on me.”

“There’s no way to be sure,” she replied. “Besides, what choice do we have?”

“Alright, let’s just get it over with,” Fletcher sighed as he set off down the hill.

There was no choice but to wade into the water here, the Earth’nay sinking up to his chest, pushing through the plants that floated on its surface. They had red, disk-shaped leaves, their white flowers blooming in clusters. Xipa remembered a time when they had cultivated these flowers in the lakes purely for aesthetic purposes, and now those same plants were growing over the submerged roads.

Ruza fared a little better, the water only rising to his waist, while Xipa was glad to be riding Gustave. Bluejay buzzed off into the air, soaring over their heads, heading for the nearest vantage point. He perched atop an old street light that was draped with red vines, his rifle in hand as he surveyed the route ahead of them.

“If we find survivors here, what should we do about him?” Xipa asked as she nodded in the insect’s direction.

“That’s a big if,” Fletcher replied, holding his rifle aloft as he waded through another patch of weeds. “Hopefully, he looks different enough from the native Bugs that they wouldn’t just shoot him on sight. That’s what I’d do in their position, though.”

“At the time of the invasion, my people had no idea that there was other intelligent life in the Galaxy,” Xipa continued. “Our scientists and philosophers concluded that it was a certainty, of course, but we had never encountered another spacefaring species before that terrible day. We come to their rescue with a team of five species, only one of which is familiar, and another that they know to be hostile. They would not know what to make of an Earth’nay, a Krell’nay, or a Borealan.”

“I guess we’ll just let you do the talking,” Fletcher replied.

“You will have no choice, as they will not speak English,” she chided.

“Hey, Bug boy,” Fletcher said into his helmet radio. “The Ensi says any survivors might be a bit trigger-happy, so try to keep a low profile, alright? We don’t want to lose our eye in the sky.”

They carried on through the water, making their way deeper into the city. Up close, the damage to the buildings seemed even more severe. The ground floors had been flooded, shoals of tiny fish swimming in and out of the broken windows, colonies of mushrooms filling the damp interiors wherever there was a surface to take root on. They passed by a scooter charging station whose glass awning rose only a meter above the water, a pair of abandoned scooters still anchored to it. There was scarcely a surface that the local plant life hadn’t strived to reclaim, the walls carpeted in weeds at the waterline, red vines draped over everything that they could reach.

“Looks like someone came through here with a giant can of red silly-string,” Fletcher muttered, the reference lost on Xipa.

“Movement, to the left,” Ruza growled. He shouldered his rifle, Fletcher doing the same, the Earth’nay stumbling in the deep water. Xipa heard a splash from inside one of the nearby buildings, raising her XMR, digging her claws into Gustave’s poncho for purchase as he turned in the direction of the sound.

There was a disturbance in the water, a ripple spreading across its surface as something wound its way through it, vanishing beneath the surface with a flurry of its furry tail.

“What the fuck is that?” Fletcher exclaimed, glancing down at the water as though he expected the thing to go for his legs.

“Relax,” Xipa said, lowering her weapon. “It’s just a native animal. They usually live by the shores of rivers and prey on fish.”

“Thing looked like the ugliest otter I’ve ever seen,” he grumbled, keeping one eye on the water as they continued on their way. “Do they bite?”

“Not unless you make them feel threatened,” Xipa replied, enjoying his discomfort.

“Fucking bullshit,” he muttered to himself, flinching away as a water weed brushed his thigh.

There was a buzzing sound as Bluejay returned to sit on a window ledge just above them, rustling the leaves of a nearby shrub that had made the opening its home.

“Not seeing anything so far,” he announced. “No Bug patrols, no natives, just a few birds nesting in the windows. Doesn’t smell like anyone’s been here in a long time.”

“The signal is emanating from the city center,” Xipa said, checking the display on her wrist. “There’s some distance to walk yet, but it shouldn’t take us more than a day to get there.”

“Unless we encounter obstacles,” Fletcher warned. “This place is falling apart.”

“These cities all have a similar layout,” Xipa explained. “If we encounter any blocked roads, I’ll be able to lead us around them.”

“I did spot a collapsed building up ahead that’s blocking the street,” Bluejay added, gesturing down the flooded road ahead of them. “There are alleys and side roads, though. Shouldn’t be too hard to get through.”


They continued down the street as far as they could go, the water gradually getting shallower until it was only deep enough to reach Fletcher’s knees. The first obstacle that they encountered was a row of abandoned vehicles of the same variety that they had come across on the forest road, maybe thirty deep. It looked like those at the front had been destroyed by plasma fire, and those behind had crashed into them in their bid to escape the carnage. Their chassis were covered in moss and weeds now, the silt that had built up on the asphalt slowly burying them. The blockage had acted as a kind of dam, capturing a great deal of floating debris like fallen twigs and decaying plant matter.

This helped reinforce Xipa’s earlier suspicion that this city had been attacked later than her own, and that some measure of evacuation had at least been attempted, despite its obvious lack of success. Just like before, there were no bodies in spite of the obvious battle damage. The insects had probably cleared out every last piece of usable biomatter after the initial attack had concluded.

Fletcher took point, climbing up onto the roof of one of the forward vehicles, his boots slipping on the corroded metal. Ruza followed after him, choosing his footing carefully, the old cars creaking under his weight. For once, Gustave’s size was more of a hindrance than a benefit, the reptile sizing up the blockade of vehicles. Xipa hopped off his shoulder, leaping deftly from car to car, turning to watch as he began to clamber over them. He was heavy enough to crush some of the smaller vehicles, his thick hide and his bony scutes protecting him from any jagged metal.

It took them a few minutes to make their way down the line, eventually arriving at the road again, the water here a little shallower than on the other side. They waited for Gustave to stumble his way over, then Xipa returned to her perch, the team setting off again.

After a few more blocks, they came upon the collapsed building that Bluejay had seen from the air. The structure was listing to the left, leaning against the adjacent building on the other side of the street, fallen debris piled up beneath it. The road had collapsed near its foundations, opening up a cavernous sinkhole that exposed the utility tunnels and sewers below street level. The water cascaded over its jagged edges, pouring down to join the quick flow of an underground river below. From the broken windows of the building spilled red vines that made it look like it was bleeding, while clusters of mushrooms grew in its shadow, making the piles of rubble their home.

“God damn,” Fletcher muttered, wading through the knee-high water. “That tower block has to be thirty storeys tall. It’s been knocked over like a fucking domino.”

“I fear for the integrity of the street,” Xipa added. “We should watch our footing carefully until we reach a dry area. There are kilometers of tunnels below-ground that could be exposed.”

“Like abandoned mine shafts,” Fletcher added with a nod. “Gustave, stay at the back. If anyone’s gonna fall into a sinkhole, it’s probably you.”

“We can go around it,” Xipa said, pointing down a nearby alleyway. In this moist environment, colonies of mushrooms abounded wherever there was shadow. There was a veritable forest of tall, spire-like fungi that were growing in the shade, taking root in the mud and dead leaves that had built up there. Sagging vines and foliage crisscrossed between the two buildings to either side of it, creating a kind of jungle canopy above. There was a whole ecosystem thriving here in the absence of the city’s builders.

They veered off the main street, the water giving way to wet mud as they trudged through the alley. Gustave merely shouldered through the tall mushrooms, sending clouds of spores swirling through the air. Strangely, his wide feet and his splayed toes made him more suited to walking in the mud than his far smaller companions, who were struggling in the knee-deep muck. It must be an evolutionary adaptation, spreading out his weight over a large area.

When they emerged on the far side, they were met by another street covered in about a meter of water, the asphalt long buried by the buildup of mud and silt. There was more of a current here, the water flowing noticeably faster, the fronds of the grass-like weeds that covered the bottom waving gently. More flowers drifted on its surface, silvery fish darting about beneath them. Right in the center of the road was a fallen street lamp, the metal covered in a fuzzy, red carpet of clinging algae of the kind one might find on rocks at the edge of a stream.

“This is surreal,” Fletcher muttered, pausing to take in the view. “I’ve seen war, I’ve seen battle damage, but I’ve never seen anything that was just left to decay like this before. It’s apocalyptic.”

“It was an apocalypse,” Xipa replied solemnly. “You can’t imagine what it feels like – to have seen streets like this teeming with life, only for them to be deserted. I barely recognize it anymore.”

As they made their way down the shallow river, they soon came across another obstacle. One of the elevated maglev lines that had once carried passengers throughout the city had collapsed, its supports eroded, the rail drooping down to block off the street. It was covered in the same slimy, red algae, partially submerged in the water.

“I don’t fancy trying to climb over that with all the slippery shit that’s growing on it,” Fletcher muttered.

“This city is becoming a maze,” Ruza grumbled, walking ahead of the group to inspect the blockage more closely. “There is no telling how many of these paths have been closed off. Should we not make better use of our scout, regardless of the danger?”

He leaned down, running his claws through the crimson gunk, the algae clinging to his fur in dangling strands.

“Maybe Bluejay can scout a little further ahead,” Fletcher conceded. “I don’t want him getting shot down by one of those Bug snipers or a pissed-off Valbaran hillbilly, though. I don’t think they can ship us a new one out here. Do Jarilans have an extended warranty?” he joked, Bluejay scowling at him from his perch on a nearby street light.

“Come see this,” Ruza added, leaning down to inspect the massive rail. Fletcher walked over to his side, the two examining the collapsed structure. “Do you think that we could duck under this low-”

The street beneath them collapsed, the two figures dropping out of sight, the river pouring into the jagged hole in the asphalt. Xipa’s heart stopped in her chest, Bluejay rising into the air on his gossamer wings, flitting over to hover above the sinkhole. Gustave was already moving, but a sputtering voice warned him back.

“Don’t come any closer, Gustave!” Fletcher warned over their helmet radios. She could hear rushing water making the mic crackle. “You’re too heavy!”

Xipa wanted to leap off the Krell’nay’s shoulder, to rush to their aid, but the water was already flowing in the direction of the hole. She was too small, too light. It would sweep her away, down into the dark, forgotten depths of the undercity. She frantically closed her visor, switching her view to the feed from Bluejay’s helmet cam. He was looking directly down into the hole, an opening maybe three meters wide, its edges made up of cracked asphalt. The ground beneath must have been eroded by the water, leaving only a thin crust that had given way under their combined weight. Below was a sewer tunnel, now exposed to the air, the water that was rushing in from all sides creating a surging river that coursed away beneath the city.

Fletcher was hanging there, one of his prosthetic arms gripping the jagged end of a broken water pipe that was jutting from the wall of the hole, maybe a meter down. In his other hand, he held Ruza by one of the straps of his rucksack, the feline dangling there helplessly. The walls of the sinkhole were too steep for him to find any purchase. The Earth’nay was grimacing through his open visor as the water poured over him, taking ragged breaths, trying not to drown. He didn’t have a hand free to close it. His face was red, his limbs straining against the Borealan’s weight.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed, spitting out a mouthful of murky water. “I can’t hold him much longer! He’s gonna tear my fucking arms right out of their sockets!”

“I can’t lift them!” Bluejay added, glancing over at Xipa. “They’re too heavy!”

The pipe that Fletcher was holding onto shifted, bending under their combined weight. If it didn’t break, then it would be the water that was cascading over Fletcher’s head that would tear him loose, sending both of them tumbling into the flooded tunnels.

Xipa tried to think, but she was paralyzed. There was no plan for this, and her people weren’t good at thinking on their feet. She cursed herself, looking around for something that might help them. Gustave fared no better, frozen in place not by indecision but by Fletcher’s order. He weighed as much as the rest of the team combined, and he would surely cause more of the road to collapse if he ventured closer.

“You must let me fall, Fletcher!” Ruza growled. “There is no need for us both to be lost!”

“I don’t know how the Rask do things,” the Earth’nay replied, gritting his teeth as his prosthetic limbs strained. They might be far stronger than their organic counterparts, but they were still anchored to fallible flesh. “But we don’t leave people behind!”

It came back to Xipa like a lightning bolt, a memory of her time in the City Guard, as clear as day. One of the duties of the organization had been responding to disasters and accidents, including fires. They had used fire-retardant fluid that turned into an expanding foam when heated, starving the blaze of oxygen. It was deployed via a long, flexible hose that was connected to a storage tank below street level, housed in conspicuous booths painted purple – the color of distress. There should be one on each block. She searched for a moment, then found one a dozen meters to their rear, the top just peeking above the water. It was partially obscured by red algae, but there was no mistaking that woeful hue. It didn’t matter if the foam had long been rendered inert – it was the hose that she needed.

“Gustave!” she yelled, tapping the left side of his scaly skull with her fist. “That purple thing over there!”

He didn’t need convincing, powering through the water so fast that she had to grip the collar of his poncho to save from being thrown off. He didn’t know what to do with the device when he got to it, Xipa leaping from his shoulders, plunging into the water. It was frigid, her suit doing little to insulate her from it. She felt the current tug at her, but Gustave curled his tail around her, creating a wall of scales to stop her from being washed away. She fumbled with the latches, trying to yank open the access panel, but it was rusted shut. Gustave realized what she was trying to do, hooking his claws into the groove and tearing it off its hinges. The coil of thick, insulated hosing spilled out, Xipa catching it in her arms.

“Bluejay!” she called, the insect swooping down to land on Gustave’s shoulder. Without needing an explanation, he gripped the nozzle on the end of the hose in his hands, soaring off into the air with it in tow. As he skimmed across the surface of the water, Xipa watched the coils slowly unspool, silently praying that there would be enough.

With only a few meters to spare, Bluejay hovered as low as he dared, tossing the hose into the sinkhole. Xipa couldn’t see what was happening, but something tugged on the other end.

“Pull them up, Gustave!” she shouted. The Krell’nay dug his wide feet into the silt, gripping the hose in both hands. His muscles bulging beneath his dark scales, he began to pull, placing one hand over the other as he heaved. He wasn’t only fighting against the weight of his companions, but against the flow of the river, the hose pulled so taut that Xipa feared it might snap.

After a few tense moments, Ruza rose up above the water, the other end of the hose wrapped tightly around his wrist. Fletcher followed behind him, still clinging to the strap of his pack. Gustave kept pulling until they were clear of the sinkhole, the pair able to walk on their own now, still clutching their lifeline. The group moved out of the flowing water, taking refuge in another alley, where an island of mud offered some respite from the current.

Fletcher and Ruza flopped down into the muck, breathing hard, Gustave and Xipa watching as they caught their breath. Bluejay hovered overhead, not knowing what else to do.

“Argh, fuck!” Fletcher yelled to nobody in particular, rolling onto his back. Xipa didn’t know enough about Earth’nay to tell if it was an expression of relief or of pain. “You weigh as much as a sack of fucking bricks, you mangy bastard.”

“You…saved me,” Ruza sputtered, coughing up a lungful of water.

Let me fall,” Fletcher replied in a mocking tone. He sat up, pulling off his helmet with shaking hands, more water pouring out of it. “Of course I did, you idiot. Save your noble sacrifices for when I don’t need you to do a bloody job.”

“Thank you,” Ruza added, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve as he turned to the rest of the team. “I thought that I would surely be swept away into the sewers.”

“It was all Xipa,” Bluejay replied, coming to rest on a nearby windowsill. “If she hadn’t found that hose, I don’t know what we would have done.”

“I guess Valbarans aren’t useless in a crisis after all,” Fletcher said, trying to rise to a sitting position. One of his prosthetic arms buckled, and he loosed a yell of pain. Ruza rushed to support him, his usual aloofness now absent.

“You are injured,” he said, Fletcher pulling his shaking arm away from the feline’s grasp.

“You need a PhD to figure that one out, doc?”

“Come,” Ruza said, helping him to his feet. “We must find a place to make camp.”


They made their way to the second floor of a nearby building that seemed intact enough to support Gustave’s weight. Falling through the floor was preferable to falling into a sinkhole. This had been an office building at some point, the faded schematics on the walls suggesting that they must have been working on some mechanical project. The rows of tables were lined with long-dormant hologram projectors, the padding on the chairs now playing host to mushroom colonies. Everything was stained with water damage, a hole in the floor above them letting in more of it. A cool wind blew in through the broken windows, not exactly creating a welcoming environment, but it was marginally better than being up to their knees in water.

Gustave tested the floor gingerly, then pushed some of the tables aside, clearing an area where he could lie down. He squashed a few patches of mushrooms that were growing on the damp carpet, seemingly indifferent to their presence.

Xipa found a chair that was relatively intact, taking a load off, while Bluejay walked over to a nearby window. He lay his rifle on the sill, keeping watch. Ruza stuck close to Fletcher’s side, even as the surly Earth’nay tried to ward him off. It seemed as though he had a new admirer. She watched curiously as they sat, Fletcher beginning to detach his armor plating. He lay his shoulder pads, chest piece, and vambraces in a stack on the carpet before starting to peel off his damp pressure suit. His pale skin was covered in old burns and scars, but it was otherwise smooth, with little hair to speak of and no scales. It looked shiny when it was wet, like it had been waxed. She understood a little more why they were so often compared to Valbara’nay males now.

As he pulled down his sleeves, Xipa saw where his prosthetics connected to his body, ugly surgical scars denoting where the technology had been implanted. Through the knitted flesh protruded what looked like a ball socket, and the artificial limb was anchored to it, tiny wires the width of a hair trailing into the closed wound.

“Are you even rated to work on these?” he grumbled, wincing as Ruza lifted his arm experimentally.

“I have some experience,” the feline replied. “There were many injured during the rebellion. I have implanted my share of nerve shunts.”

“Maybe if you’d eat a salad every once in a while, I wouldn’t have had my arms almost torn out of their sockets,” Fletcher grumbled. Ruza retrieved a medical scanner from one of the pouches on his rig, waving it across the Earth’nay’s shoulder.

“I am detecting hairline fractures on your clavicle and scapula where the prosthetics are anchored to your skeleton,” Ruza began, rummaging in one of his pouches again. “The strain of holding my weight is no doubt the cause. Your organics were the weakest link in the chain, and they sustained the brunt of the damage.”

“So, what?” Fletcher asked as Ruza brandished a tubular device. He pulled off a cap, revealing it to be a needle. “Can you fix it?”

“The only way to fix a fractured bone in the field is to rest and let it heal,” he explained, bringing the needle to Fletcher’s neck. Whatever substance he had injected, Fletcher quickly relaxed. Perhaps he had been administered some kind of painkiller. “I can do no more than this.”

“Just keep me hopped up on happy drugs, then,” Fletcher replied as he flexed a shaking hand. “I’ll fight through it until we can get out of here.”

“You will not,” Ruza replied sternly. “You still have the use of your arms, but that will no longer be the case if the injuries worsen. Firing an XMR, even your sidearm, would run the risk of shattering the weakened bones. If that happens, you will have to go through surgery all over again, and have an entirely new set of prosthetics fitted.”

“I’m not gonna have much use for my arms if I’m fucking dead,” Fletcher protested, but Ruza shook his shaggy head.

“If your prosthetics were to fail in a firefight, or while one of us was depending on you, the outcome would be worse than not fighting at all.”


“You risked your life for mine today,” Ruza added, his gravelly tone full of uncharacteristic sincerity. “Please, let me care for you as I would care for an injured Alpha. No harm will befall you while I draw breath.”

“Where’s this coming from?” Fletcher muttered, just as confused as Xipa was by Ruza’s change of tone.

“I will say only that if there were more packs that behaved as you do, the Rask territory might be a very different place today,” he replied as he glanced at each of his companions in turn. “I have been ordered to my death to satisfy the whims of a superior more than once. I have been left behind. No Rask crewmaster would ever risk injury to save a subordinate. No Rask unit would come together as you did today.”

He returned his attention to Fletcher’s prosthetics, doing a little fiddling with the wires that connected to his shoulders, holding up his wrist computer in a way that made it look like he was interfacing with the devices.

“There,” he said, seeming satisfied with his work. “I have reduced the frequency of the nerve impulses for stability, and I have undervolted the servos to help prevent accidents. You will feel a slight sluggishness in their response times, but you will adapt to it quickly. It should stop the shaking until a surgeon can reseat the connections.”

“Weaker and slower, got it,” Fletcher sighed. “Thanks,” he added, Ruza nodding.

“I have anti-inflammatories and medication that will dull your pain until we can return to the carrier. It should not be too uncomfortable as long as you refrain from exerting yourself. No shooting, no heavy lifting, no punching. Confine your activities to mundane tasks.”

“Shouldn’t be too much longer,” Fletcher said, raising his arm gingerly. “We’re not more than a day from the beacon. Once we find it, we can get out of here.”

Xipa wanted to interject, to tell him that their mission here was to search for survivors, but she knew that he had little faith in their task. Let him be proven wrong, then.

“You did good today.”

She turned her head to see that Bluejay was addressing her from his vantage point, his eyes still focused on the scope of his rifle.

“I can’t very well accomplish my goal if half of my team is dead,” she replied dismissively, but she could see that Bluejay wasn’t buying it.

“Fletcher and Ruza would probably both be dead if it wasn’t for you. No way we’d find them again once they fell into the sewers. You thought fast, and you acted faster. I can see why they made you an Ensi.”

“I made myself an Ensi,” she replied, but her tone wasn’t stern anymore.

“Of course,” he added with a smile. “How did you know that hose was there?”

“I remembered it from my time in the City Guard,” she explained, her chair creaking as she leaned against the backrest. Her tail was slotted through the gap at its base, trailing onto the floor. “We used them to put out fires. There was one on every street.”

“There’s that Valbaran memory doing its work again,” he chuckled. “Hey, can I ask you something?” he added, gesturing for her to approach.

“Alright,” she said, a flutter of curious yellow passing through her suit panels as she slid out of her seat.

“Do you know why Fletcher…doesn’t like me?” he asked, pausing to check that nobody else was in earshot.

“Oh,” she mumbled, having not expected such a personal question. “Why do you ask?”

“I felt like we were getting on alright at first, but especially over the last couple of days, he’s been taking every opportunity to take shots at me. He doesn’t even give me an order if he can’t get a jibe in at the same time,” he added with a scowl. “I was wondering if he’d said anything about it to you?”

She considered for a moment, wondering whether she should share what Fletcher had told her in confidence. Truth be told, she no longer felt the burning hatred that she once had for the insect. Not after the incident with the doll had proven that he was more than he appeared. He deserved to know some of the truth, even if she couldn’t reveal all of it.

“He has mentioned that he does not trust you,” she finally replied, Bluejay cocking his head.

“Why?” he demanded, seeming more confused than hurt. “I’ve followed every order he’s given, and I haven’t had a bad word to say about anyone. I don’t see how I could be any more cooperative.”

“When we talked in the abandoned laboratory off the deserted road, you told me that you felt that your purpose was to put your best foot forward,” Xipa began. “To earn the respect of the other species.”

“That’s right,” he replied, turning his eyes back to his scope. “Our whole species is judged based on the behavior of the individual. We have to be friendly, cooperative, useful. One lapse, and it reflects badly on all of us.”

“Being friendly and cooperative doesn’t always earn you respect, though,” Xipa added. “Perhaps the next time Fletcher insults you, you should confront him. Pride and dignity are traits that Bugs do not possess, after all.”

“I’m not here to be confrontational,” he sighed. “If I let him get under my skin, the minute I snap, that’s going to be how he sees all of us. That might even be his report to Vos. Thanks, though,” he added.

“For what?” she asked.

“I think that’s the first time you’ve ever differentiated me from a Bug.”

She didn’t reply, but nor did she correct him.

“How’s your leg?” Fletcher asked, watching as Ruza rolled up his pants. The bandage that he had applied was soaked now, and he began to remove it, applying a dry replacement.

“It is healing,” he replied. “There will probably be infection, but I can manage it.”


Mealtime was a communal affair these days. Everyone sat together on the carpet, forming a rough circle, exchanging food as they made small talk. Xipa had been skeptical of the Earth’nay’s MREs, but she had to admit that the wide variety of dishes made them something to look forward to rather than a chore. Today, she was sharing in something called pasta that was served with a red sauce, enjoying the texture of the morsels. Gustave was sleeping, as he had no need to eat as regularly as the rest of the team. Bluejay joined in more as a formality, as he couldn’t eat solid food, using his proboscis to suck his ration of honey from its little packet.

As she fished out a spiral of pasta from her packet, Xipa noticed that Ruza had withdrawn another syringe from one of his pouches, pulling off the cap to expose the needle. He jabbed it into his forearm, injecting its contents.

“What’s that for?” Fletcher inquired, still chewing on a piece of flatbread.

“It is an immunostimulant,” Ruza replied, tossing the empty syringe over his shoulder. “It will help prevent my wound from becoming infected.”

Xipa spoke up, getting their attention.

“Is that true?” she chirped, narrowing her one eye at the feline. “I saw you use the same syringe back at the abandoned lab, days before you were injured.”

“You are mistaken,” he added, polite but firm. “The injectors are all similar in their appearance.”

“I am not mistaken,” she continued, her feathers flashing an indignant red. “Each of your syringes has had different colored markings, and I have a photographic memory. That was the same one that you used when you walked off into the forest alone. You lied about having to relieve yourself. I saw you.”

“Ruza?” Fletcher asked, cocking a curious eyebrow at him. “I don’t see why the Ensi would lie. Do you have something to tell us?”

“If you are hiding a medical condition, it may negatively impact the mission,” Xipa added sternly. “We need to know.”

“I won’t order you to reveal your medical history,” Fletcher added, gesturing for Xipa to back off. “I don’t think that’s even legal. But, if there’s anything you think I need to know about…”

Ruza considered for a moment, seeming conflicted, then he let out a long sigh.

“You have all proven yourselves trustworthy packmates. Keeping the truth from you any longer would be disrespectful.” He shifted his weight on the carpet, perhaps considering where to begin. “During the rebellion, I was assigned to the Crawler Tornado, a superheavy cargo vehicle that the Matriarchy had repurposed for use as a mobile base. I was a combat medic – my job being to heal the wounded during battle.”

“You fought on the frontline, then?” Fletcher asked.

“Yes,” Ruza replied with a solemn nod. “The Matriarch believed that the UNN would not be able to track bases that were constantly moving through the desert, but she was wrong. One day, I left the Tornado as part of a raiding party that had been sent to harass the human forces. It was a massacre,” he growled.

“What happened?” Xipa asked. “I know little of this rebellion you two speak of.”

“It was a failure of leadership,” Ruza explained, making no attempt to conceal his disgust. “The hierarchy was rotten from top to bottom. The Matriarch gave her crewmasters unrealistic orders, and they relayed those orders to our Alphas in turn, who seemed to believe that courage and fervor were a substitute for anti-tank weaponry. They were afraid of their leaders, and so they forsook those that they had sworn to protect. The Matriarch was willing to spend the lives of her troops just to delay the UNN advance, to buy herself more time to shore her own defenses before they reached the city.”

“The Rask tried to fight the Coalition,” Fletcher added. “It went about as well as you’d expect.”

“My raiding party was all but wiped out that day,” Ruza continued, shaking his head. “We went up against Kodiak tanks with only a handful of anti-materiel weapons. So much death, all to buy what must have been only a few hours. I did what I could for the survivors, but we turned tail with less than half of our initial strength. Even our commander was killed – turned to dust by a thirty-millimeter gun. One of her subordinates, Datzi, had to assume her responsibilities. We made our way back to the Crawler, but when we arrived at the rendezvous point, we found that the Tornado was not there.”

“It had been destroyed?” Xipa suggested.

“Yes,” he replied. “We drove back to its last known position, and we found only wreckage. UNN vehicles scouting ahead of the main formation had discovered it and had called in an artillery strike on its position. Datzi led the rescue effort, which is commendable, I suppose. We sifted through the ruins for hours, but the humans had left none alive. Concerned for those that still drew breath, we headed for the nearest intact Crawler – the command vessel. It wasn’t until after we arrived and began to unload the injured that we realized what had happened to us.”

He reached into a pouch on his rig, brandishing one of the syringes.

“When the Tornado had been destroyed, the nuclear reactor that powered it had been exposed to the air and had begun to melt down. We were warriors – we knew nothing of atomic fission or radiation. Everyone who participated in the rescue had been exposed to a lethal dose – an invisible killer that had contaminated our very cells. Our deaths would be drawn-out and excruciating, as nobody in the territory had the skills or the equipment to treat us. Only the humans had that power.”

“That’s rough,” Fletcher sighed, sucking in a breath through his teeth. “Even with immediate rescue, the prognosis isn’t good if you’ve been dosed by an exposed reactor. I’ve heard of entire frigate crews having their DNA barbecued by a core breach.”

“The solution was obvious,” Ruza continued. “If we were to surrender and allow ourselves to be taken as prisoners, the humans would treat us. The Matriarch refused. She condemned us to a painful, unnecessary death purely to preserve some abstract idea of honor. It was only after a mutiny by the admiral that the war was ended, and we were finally given treatment.”

“So, that’s why you go it alone,” Fletcher mused. “Your command structure failed you at every level. The Matriarch started a war she couldn’t win, the crewmasters sent you on suicide missions, and your Alphas never stood up for their packs.”

“Indeed,” he growled. “I vowed that I would never again follow an order from a superior who had not proven their worth to me. I lied only by omission,” he continued, raising the syringe that he was holding. “My immune system was all but destroyed, and even after a series of painful bone marrow transplants, it remains weak. This immunostimulant cocktail keeps my white blood cell count at acceptable levels and helps my body fight off the cancerous cells that my damaged DNA creates. I will depend on it for what time remains to me.”

Xipa didn’t know what to say, but Fletcher spoke up.

“I know what it’s like to live with life-changing injuries,” he began, flexing his polymer fingers. “You know what they say – shit rolls downhill. When those at the top fuck up, it’s usually the people down the line that pay for it. generals and admirals don’t suffer the consequences of their bad decisions. Not directly, anyway.”

“It is over now,” Ruza sighed, returning the syringe to its pouch. “The Matriarch was deposed, most of her crewmasters are dead, and the former admiral assumed her throne. Things are better there, but I could not stay. I could not bring myself to live in a society that demands such subservience after what I had seen. You are different, though,” he added as he glanced up at Fletcher. “My crewmaster would never have injured herself to save my life as you did. You behave as a pack should,” he said as he turned to his companions. “Even if Vos was to deny me my pay, I would still fight for you.”

“I guess you really can’t buy loyalty,” Fletcher mused. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you told us.”

“Perhaps my people could help,” Bluejay added, Ruza cocking his head at the insect. “Jarilan genetic engineering technology is the most advanced in the Coalition. I’m not an expert, but I know that our doctors recently created the first hybrid children – Borealan kittens with elements of human genes. If they can do that, maybe they can fix your damaged DNA or splice it with someone else’s to patch up the holes.”

“I…did not know of this,” he replied, his yellow eyes wide.

“It can be a little hard to get a visa,” Bluejay continued. “But, I bet if you have Vos put in a good word for you, they’ll let you visit. After that, it’s just a matter of booking passage. I don’t imagine private contractors are too hard up for credits.”

“Perhaps I will look into it,” Ruza said, nodding to the Jarilan. “Thank you.”

Xipa watched Ruza curiously as he finished off his meal, seeing him in a fresh light. While it was natural to be concerned with the fate of her own people primarily, and to occupy herself with the most pressing problems, much had happened beyond the borders of Valbara’nay space that she knew little about. Wars had been fought, colonies had been founded and destroyed, groundbreaking technologies had been developed. She had always been too preoccupied to show much interest in foreign affairs. Was it too much to hope that she might one day have time to catch up?

She finished off her packet of pasta, then settled in to sleep, wondering what the hybrid children that Bluejay had mentioned might look like.


As they proceeded deeper into the city, the flooding finally gave way to dry ground, the team breathing sighs of relief now that they didn’t have to trudge through knee-high water. There were fewer listing buildings here, their foundations not subjected to the same kind of erosion, the edifices slowly growing larger as they neared the center.

That wasn’t to say that the buildings were intact. This area had been hit hard, evidence of plasma burns and uncontrolled fires visible everywhere Xipa looked. Where buildings had collapsed, it was because they had been destroyed, many of the streets blocked by rubble and debris. Once again, it complicated navigation, turning what should have been a simple grid of straight roads into a maze. Bluejay couldn’t scout too far ahead without potentially exposing himself to danger, so they played a kind of guessing game, moving from street to street until they encountered an impassable obstacle. It was adding kilometers to their journey.

As they rounded a corner, emerging onto a new street, they came across a downed skimmer. The single-rotor craft had black plasma burns on its white hull, the purple medical markings now almost completely covered over by red mosses and weeds. It had been shot out of the sky, cutting a groove in the building behind it. Xipa’s eye followed the channel that it had carved out of the carbcrete, spilling rubble onto the street below before it had cratered into the asphalt, digging a long trench. Its canopy was open, and there was no pilot inside – only a cluster of mushrooms that now sprouted from the padded seat. She knew better than to assume that they had escaped…

“What was this?” Fletcher asked, walking a little closer to examine it. “Looks like a helicopter. Thing’s about the size of a shuttle, though.”

“It’s a skimmer,” Xipa explained. “It’s what we used for fast response. Guard, medics, fire patrols – things like that. Those are EMT markings on the side.”

“Why would they shoot down a medical craft?” Ruza asked, leaning into the cockpit curiously. “What threat could it have posed?”

“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Xipa replied, the team moving past the downed aircraft. “Valbara’nay have little choice but to remember. When the hive ships appeared in the sky, they attacked everything that moved, everything that put out an energy signature. Ironically, for all their technology, they behave very much like insects. They are mindlessly aggressive, and they have no concept of combatants and non-combatants. If it moves, it is food. Sometimes, I envy your ability to forget…”

“Even we don’t forget things like that,” Fletcher muttered. “It stays with you. All of it…”

As they moved deeper into the city, they came upon an entire block that seemed to have been transformed into a forest. It began with weeds that were breaking through the asphalt, their slow growth creating cracks in the road where they sprouted. They gave way to shrubs, even mature trees, some of them large enough to tower four or five storeys into the air. They must be growing in the fertile soil between the underground sewers and the road, their roots reaching down into the flooded depths, fed by the rivers. It was strange to see architecture that had once seemed immovable so easily conquered, the steady growth of the plants warping and breaking asphalt and carbcrete in the same way that the gradual flow of a river could cut a channel through solid rock. Exposed roots tore through the road like it was paper, exposing more of the underlying soil, which allowed smaller plants to take root in the process. Mushrooms and carpets of red grass abounded, covering over the street, the abundance of vines that trailed between both sides of the road joining with the trees to create an overhanging canopy.

“How the hell did this happen?” Fletcher wondered as they walked into the shade of the red leaves.

“We had small parks and nature installations throughout the city,” Xipa explained. “They’ve likely overgrown their bounds over the decades.”

“Overgrown is an understatement,” he muttered, glancing up at the branches as they waved gently in the breeze.

There was a sudden rustle of leaves ahead of them, the team stopping dead in their tracks, raising their weapons. Something burst out of the bushes, racing from one side of the street to another, vanishing into an alley. Xipa got a scant glimpse of it, little more than a four-legged blur.

“What the fuck was that?” Fletcher demanded, lowering his rifle again.

“A native animal, I think,” Xipa explained.

The Earth’nay raised a finger to his helmet, Xipa watching him curiously.

“Looks like some kind of fucked up deer or antelope,” he said, apparently having scrubbed back through his helmet cam footage. “How did they get inside the walls? We had a hard enough time ourselves.”

Ruza walked up beside him, placing a furry hand on the barrel of his XMR.

“Remember what I told you,” he warned. “Must I confiscate it?”

“Alright, alright,” Fletcher grumbled as he let the rifle hang from its sling. “Doctor’s orders.”

They continued on, Xipa taking in the strange scenery as she rode atop Gustave’s shoulders. This part of the city must have taken the brunt of the invasion. There was battle damage everywhere, barely covered over by the thriving plant life. There was scarcely a building that didn’t have holes in it, weapon fire painting trails on their facades. Melted craters of asphalt where plasma cannons had impacted had filled in with rainwater to create stagnant ponds, their algae-covered surfaces disturbed by small amphibians that slunk beneath the water as the team passed by.

“How far off are we from the signal?” Fletcher asked.

“We have to make it to the city center,” Xipa replied. “You see those towers in the distance? That’s where we’re going.”

Through the sparse canopy, they could see the spires rising up ahead of them, far taller than the structures in this band of the city. No two were alike, the Valbara’nay architects having flexed their creative muscles in a competition to create the most extravagant skyscraper. One of them twisted into the clouds like a corkscrew, glass windows spiraling around it as they followed its sculpted contours, its roof culminating in a needle-like lightning rod. Another had great, oval-shaped holes in its superstructure, rising into the sky like a strand of DNA. Inside each of the openings was a helical wind turbine, one of them still spinning, while the rest had seized up without maintenance. Battle damage and weathering had impacted them, rusting metal and staining carbcrete, but they were high enough that they had escaped the ravages of the nature that flourished far below.

“When we call for pickup, every Bug in the region is going to hear it,” Fletcher warned. “We know they use radio, and they’ll come running. That’s if they haven’t already sent teams to investigate the distress signal. We need an open area, like a parking lot, with easily defensible positions nearby where we can create a secure LZ.”

“We haven’t completed our mission yet, and already you plan our escape,” Xipa chided. “We need to search for survivors.”

“What, do you want us to check every closet and sewer grate in the city?” he scoffed. “We’re not hanging around here for any longer than we have to. If we determine that the beacon has been active since the invasion, we’re out of here.”

Xipa held her tongue, but a confrontation was brewing, and it couldn’t be postponed for much longer. Fletcher had never believed in her mission, and she wasn’t about to cut it short after they had almost died on more than one occasion trying to get here. Even if it turned out that the beacon had been active all this time, she would still push for a cursory search of the area.

“Hang on,” Bluejay said, raising a closed fist in a gesture for them to stop.

“What’s wrong?” Fletcher hissed. “You smell something?”

“No,” Bluejay replied, pointing into the trees ahead of them. Xipa saw it too now, her heart dropping into her stomach. Draped over the branches was a thick web of silvery netting, its fine strands hanging down towards the ground like a curtain, as though designed to ensnare anyone unwary enough to walk through it. “More webbing.”

“Suddenly, giant spiders sound a whole lot more appealing,” Fletcher muttered. “It’s another one of those sniper Bugs – they’re inside the city. We have to pick up the pace.”

“Turn left here,” Xipa advised, pointing to an overgrown alley. “We should avoid using the main streets where they could fire on us from the windows. We can move through the buildings if we have to.”

“Keep your eyes peeled,” Fletcher grumbled, his prosthetic hand twitching near his holster. Xipa could tell how badly he wanted to draw his handgun. He had told her that he had turned himself into a weapon – that his only purpose was war. How must it feel for a weapon to be rendered defective?

They trudged through the dense undergrowth, the foliage that filled the alleyway making it nigh impassable. Eventually, Gustave had to take point, using his weight to smash through the obstacles. Wood splintered as he shouldered through branches and shrubs, tearing vines loose, Xipa closing her helmet to protect herself from debris.

When they emerged on the other side, it wasn’t much different from the area they had just left, the spreading forest reclaiming the streets. Bluejay led them on, as they couldn’t see more than about ten meters in any direction, trudging through the undergrowth as he used his antennae to navigate. As they passed a windowless building, he paused, his antennae waving in the air as he turned his head towards the naked door frame.

“What have you got?” Fletcher asked.

“Something…weird,” he muttered, shouldering his rifle as he made his way inside. Everyone save for Gustave followed him in, the Krell’nay standing guard outside, Xipa hopping off his shoulder as she trailed behind the team.

This place must have once been a restaurant. Chairs and tables were strewn about the room, a counter towards the back wall now covered with mushrooms, the carpet in a similar state of decay. There was a huge fish tank occupying one wall, the glass now completely covered over in a layer of gunk, whatever had once lived in it long dead. Xipa noted that some of the round tables had been upturned, and there were black marks on them that had melted through the metal, as though someone had been firing plasma at them.

“A squad of guards must have mounted a last stand here,” Xipa sighed, crouching to examine a burn mark on the carpet.

“No,” Bluejay said, shaking his head. “I smell…ichor.”

“We took out our share of Bugs that day,” Xipa replied, indignant.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” he explained as he knelt to brush his antennae against the side of the counter. “This is recent, more recent than the invasion. I’d say…weeks old, not decades.”

“Tell us what you sense,” Ruza insisted, watching as Bluejay began to crawl along the carpet on six limbs like an insect. He brushed his feathery antennae across the floor, picking out every chemical trace as he moved back over to the entrance.

“There was a squad of Drones here,” he began, pausing to scent the air. “Six of them, I think. They were hunting.”

“You can tell that from pheromone traces?” Fletcher asked skeptically.

“Pheromones convey emotions,” he replied. “I can get a sense of what they were feeling at the time, what they were signaling to each other, but it’s vague. They pursued something into this building,” he continued, slowly walking over to the center of the room. “I sense their anticipation, like they had something cornered. But nearer the middle of the room, there’s…”

“What?” Xipa asked.

“It smells like chaos,” he replied. “The pheromones are all scrambled, like…I don’t know how to describe it in your terms. Imagine a hundred people screaming in a tiny room, all shouting something different. There’s so much confusion, borderline nonsense. I can’t make any sense of it.”

“Were they afraid?” Fletcher added, walking over to join him.

“No, it’s not fear. I’m picking up alarm, warning signals, conflicting emotions. There’s such a high concentration, like there were a hundred Drones here all putting out different pheromones at once, but I don’t see any evidence that more than half a dozen came in here. After that, there’s just blood, death.”

“No bodies,” Ruza muttered, making his way over to a back room. He leaned through the doorway, giving whatever was back there a once-over. “They must have been taken away to be recycled.”

“I don’t see any evidence of that,” Bluejay replied. “All I can say is that they came in here, something fucky happened, and none of them came out. I can’t explain it.”

“Anyone got any ideas?” Fletcher asked, glancing at the rest of the team.

“Infighting, perhaps?” Ruza suggested. “We have never seen a colony this advanced in age and size. Could it be that their hive is fragmenting? That might be the true reason that they undertake their nuptial flights.”

“I don’t think that’s likely,” Bluejay replied. “Then again, we Jarilans don’t know much more about feral behavior than you do.”

“Survivors, perhaps?” Xipa added with a hopeful glance at Bluejay.

“I can’t say,” the insect replied with an apologetic shrug. “Their scent wouldn’t linger like Bug pheromones do, and I see no trace of anyone else.”

“There is more enemy activity here than we anticipated,” Xipa said, nodding to Fletcher. She was deflated, but she couldn’t allow herself to be distracted. “It would be unwise to linger.”


“We should make camp for the night,” Fletcher said, glancing up at the darkening sky. “It’ll be dark soon, at least as dark as it gets on Kerguela. I don’t fancy running around this place at night.”

“In here,” Bluejay said, pushing through the shrubs as he led them towards one of the abandoned buildings. “This one looks intact enough.”

“Should we not press on?” Xipa complained. “We can’t be more than a few hours from the city center now.”

“I’d rather move in daylight,” Fletcher replied, ducking through the doorway to take a look inside. “Those fuckers have night vision just like we do, so there’s no advantage to be gained.”

“Wait,” Xipa said, gesturing to a nearby alley. There was an old neon sign mounted on the wall beside it, just visible beneath a curtain of hanging vines. The bulbs had long burned out, and there was no power, but she could still read the swirling text. “There’s a basement over there. It would make a good place to take refuge for the night.”

“Works for me,” Fletcher said with a shrug. “Lead the way.”

They moved around the side of the towering building, traipsing through another overgrown alley until they encountered a set of stairs that sloped down below street level. At their base was a door that was overgrown with more vines, the decades of falling leaves creating a layer of mud that had risen a couple of centimeters from what had once been the floor. Without the sign, they probably wouldn’t even have been able to see it until they were right on top of it.

“Don’t look at me,” Fletcher said sarcastically, flexing a mechanical hand. “I’m not allowed to bust down doors anymore. Doctor’s orders.”

Gustave stepped forward, descending the steps in a single stride, tearing away the vines that coated the door. When that was done, he raised a many-toed foot, bringing it down on the metal rather than waiting for Xipa to try to open the lock. There was a crash as it was torn from its hinges, the sound noticeably dampened as it impacted the floor – likely by a carpet. He squeezed inside with some difficulty, having to turn sideways to slide through the empty frame, Xipa trailing after his dragging tail.

As her eyes adjusted to the relative gloom, her suit panels lit up her surroundings with a flash of surprised yellow. As expected, she was standing in an old lounge. The right side of the room was occupied by booths, walled off from one another for privacy, each one sporting a table that was surrounded by plush cushions where the patrons could relax. On the left side of the room was the bar, and towards the back was a small raised area – a dance floor where the males that the establishment had once employed could strut their stuff. What surprised her so was the condition of the place. It looked untouched, save for a little dust that coated the surfaces. There were no mushrooms here, and there was no water damage so deep inside the city. There were even drinking vials and a couple of hookahs sitting on the tables. It was like a time capsule, bringing Xipa straight back to the days before the invasion.

She remembered how her flock had been trying to court the boy who had worked in their local lounge – how they had watched his feather displays, tipsy on herb. He had looked so good in that tunic – the one that showed off his shoulders…

“You alright?” Fletcher asked, snapping her out of her stupor as he placed a polymer hand on her shoulder.

“I am fine,” she grumbled, pulling away from him.

“What is this place?” Ruza asked, sniffing the stale air skeptically.

“It’s a lounge,” Xipa explained, walking deeper inside. “This was where people would come to relax and unwind.”

“And to partake,” Fletcher added, examining one of the ornate hookahs that was sitting in the center of a nearby table. “Looks like they were having a good time before the Bugs arrived. They must have left in a hurry. If that ain’t a fucking shame…”

“These establishments weren’t always very reputable, and they rarely factored into city planning,” Xipa continued. “They were often built in abandoned or overlooked areas, so they’re not always easy to find if you’re not looking for the signs. It should make for a safe place to rest.”

“Only one way in and out,” Fletcher added, turning to glance at the doorway. “Seems safe enough. Let’s get settled in, I want to be out of here by first light. You’re on first watch, Bug boy.”

“But, it’s not my turn,” Bluejay protested. “I took first and last watch yesterday.”

“I didn’t ask if it was your turn. Is whatever you have instead of ears blocked?”

Xipa waited for Bluejay to transition from a scowl to his usual veneer of joviality, but this time, it didn’t come. He stared down Fletcher, standing his ground, the Earth’nay cocking his head curiously. This was what he had wanted, after all, but she was starting to fear that the reaction that he sought might be larger than he had anticipated.

“What’s your problem with me, Fletcher?” Bluejay demanded. His tone was level, but he was balling his lower pair of fists as he held his XMR in the upper. “The longer we’re in the field, the more you try to get a rise out of me. Are you bored? Are you taking out your frustration on me because you think I’m the only guy on the team who’ll take it?”

“You’ve been taking it so far,” Fletcher shot back. “It’s creepy, is what it is. You say you’re part human, that you’re not like the other Bugs, but you’ve got no self-respect. You just smile and keep at it like there’s nothing but genetic programming rattling around inside your head.”

“Self-respect?” Bluejay scoffed, his antennae wiggling angrily in the air. “You think I’ve been taking your shit because I lack the capacity to be angry? Let me tell you something,” he added, pointing an accusing finger at Fletcher as he took a step toward him. “I’ve been taking your shit because it’s my job. You’re my commanding officer, but more than that, you’re a human. I’m a Jarilan – everything that I do is scrutinized with a fucking microscope, everything that I say is evaluated and re-evaluated. When I do something wrong, it’s not just me who gets punished – my entire fucking species gets judged based on how I behave. If I don’t maintain appearances twenty-four-seven, if I slip up and give you a negative reaction even once, then all the goodwill we’ve built up collectively gets erased. Oh, he’s just a Bug after all. You tell your friends, you make a report, and then all of our progress gets erased. You have no fucking idea what it’s like to live under that kind of constant pressure, to always be judged collectively, to never have people treat you as an individual.”

“I’ve not had a problem with your soldiery,” Fletcher replied sternly. “But-”

“But what?” Bluejay demanded, spreading all four arms as he let his rifle hang at his side. “I’m too nice? I do my job too well? I don’t complain when you call me a fucking Bug? What do you want from me, Fletcher?”

“This was what I wanted,” he replied, watching the furious insect. “A reaction.”

“You want a reaction?” Bluejay snapped. “How’s this for a fucking reaction?”

He stepped into a punch, striking Fletcher in the jaw with one of his upper arms. The speed and force of the blow took Fletcher completely by surprise, sending him toppling backwards into a nearby booth. He crashed into the table, upending it, abandoned glassware shattering on the carpet around him as he was showered with drinking vials.

Ruza was on him in a moment, hauling him to his feet by his chest rig, staring down Bluejay with fierce eyes as if to dissuade a follow-up. Bluejay was still fuming, but he seemed to deflate a little once the realization of what he had done washed over him. He had struck a superior officer.

Fletcher stood unsteadily, reaching up to nurse his bruised jaw. Xipa and Gustave just stood there, not sure what to do or which side to take. When Fletcher opened his mouth, it wasn’t to reprimand. The Earth’nay began to laugh to himself, much to the confusion of everyone else in the room.

“Yeah, that was a reaction alright,” he chuckled. Now, it was Bluejay’s turn to cock his head, unsure of why he wasn’t being chewed out. He still had his fists raised, as though he expected Fletcher to come back at him. “I pegged you as a Drone that was just running on different software,” he continued. “Humans are emotional, they get angry, they have a sense of pride and fairness. That turn the other cheek bullshit isn’t going to earn you any respect. Now, I see that you’re exactly what you claim to be.”

“You provoked me until I hit you to…test me?” Bluejay scoffed. “You could have just fucking talked to me.”

“You might have just told me exactly what I wanted to hear,” he explained. “I needed to see the human in you for myself. You can’t fake a reaction like that.”

“So, what now?” Bluejay asked warily. “You gonna make a report about how I assaulted my commanding officer and get us all sent home?”

“No,” Fletcher replied, stepping closer as he warded off Ruza with a wave of his prosthetic arm. “I earned that lick. It’s on me.” He extended a hand, Bluejay eyeing it hesitantly. “If you can forgive me for being a dickhead, I’d be glad to have a Jarilan on my team.”

Bluejay still looked confused, but he took Fletcher’s hand, the two shaking on it.

“You’ve got a weird way of making friends,” Bluejay muttered, but he seemed relieved.

“I guess it’s my turn to take watch,” Fletcher said with a grin, making his way past Bluejay as he headed for the door. The insect turned to Xipa, giving her a shrug.

Broken circle, no good for anyone,” Gustave rumbled. The meaning was lost on Xipa, but he seemed pleased by the outcome of the confrontation.

She made her way to one of the booths, finding the plush cushions almost untouched by the ravages of time, shrugging off her pack before sinking into their soft confines. They were in a relatively safe place now, and she could finally relax completely for what felt like the first time in days. If only there was still a little dried herb left, but any stores they had in the back rooms would certainly have rotted away by now. When this was all over, and they had driven the Bugs off Kerguela, the first thing she’d do to celebrate was have a long smoke.


“We’re coming up on the signal now,” Xipa warned, the group stopping in the shadow of a towering building that pierced the clouds. Its ornate facade was carpeted in red moss, all of its windows broken, its off-white carbcrete giving it the appearance of some long-dead thing. Ahead of them, the streets converged on the city center, an open park area that covered maybe five or six thousand square meters. Just like what they had encountered in the prior bands, the plants here had overgrown their bounds, creating a thriving forest that spilled out to tear up the asphalt. Rising up from the dense canopy in the center was a sculpture of glass and steel, twisting into the air to form a giant seed. Most of the panels were broken now, but Xipa could still make out the way that they transitioned from blue to green, refracting the light to create a border between earth and sky.

“I don’t know about this,” Fletcher muttered, shielding his eyes from the sun as he glanced up at the tall buildings that surrounded them. “If I was going to stage an ambush, I’d do it here. There are a million windows that have a perfect view of the park. Someone could be standing on a roof with a fucking rocket launcher, and we wouldn’t even be able to see them from down here.”

“The transmitter is right in the middle,” Xipa replied. “We have little choice but to proceed.”

“Maybe I could take a look,” Bluejay added.

“If you’re going to do it, do it quietly, Jay,” Fletcher replied. Bluejay blinked back at him, taken aback by how he was being addressed now. “The last thing we need is you getting shot out of the sky.”

“Full-spectrum scan,” Bluejay suggested. “Infrared, FLIR, motion detection.”

Fletcher nodded, then began to raise his rifle, flinching away from Ruza as the feline tried to put a furry hand on the barrel.

“Calm down, you fleabag. I’m not gonna fire it.”

The team began to look through their scopes and visors, scanning the trees ahead and the windows that towered above them. Xipa switched to her visor’s heat mode, the world taking on shades of black and blue, increasing the magnification as she scanned the windows across the park. Nothing stood out to her, but she couldn’t check every damned window in the square. After a few minutes, they stopped, Xipa glancing to her companions from atop Gustave’s shoulder.

“I got nothing,” Fletcher announced. “Anyone?” Everyone shook their heads, and he sighed into his helmet. “There are too many places that a critter could hide. That sniper Bug didn’t even put out any body heat when it was stalking us. We’d never be able to pick it up at any kind of distance.”

“Let me lead the way,” Bluejay suggested, gesturing to his antennae. “I should be able to sniff out any ferals before they get into visual range. Not the snipers, obviously.”

“Watch yourself,” Fletcher replied, giving him a pat on the back. “I want everyone keeping their distance. Should make it harder for a boobytrap or an explosive to catch us all at once.”

They formed a loose wedge with Bluejay at its tip, Xipa hopping down from Gustave’s shoulder as they advanced, the team staying maybe five meters apart. Tension melded with her excitement. They were so close to their destination, but this was easily the most dangerous leg of their journey. There were almost certainly Bugs still inside the city walls, and they’d all be heading here.

She shouldered her XMR, sweeping it back and forth as she bobbed through the bushes, the red leaves rustling beneath her clawed feet. Gustave was off to her right, his massive cannon at the ready, while Fletcher walked to her left. He was unarmed, apparently heeding Ruza’s orders despite how naked it must have made him feel.

They pushed through the dense trees, the sculpture rising up in front of them as they neared the absolute center of the city.

“What is the purpose of this structure?” Ruza wondered, breaking comms silence.

“Decorative,” Xipa replied. “It’s supposed to represent the seed from which the city would grow.”

“Quiet,” Fletcher hissed. “Jay, anything?”

“Just plants and animals so far,” the insect replied. “There’s a lot of pollen in the air, lots of mushroom spores. Makes it a little harder to get a read.”

“There!” Xipa exclaimed, pointing towards the sculpture. “I see the beacon!”

Above the canopy was a small, yellow device – a box about the size of an MRE with rounded corners and a little black antenna. It had been attached to one of the structure’s exposed supports with what looked like electrical tape. A cable trailed from it, spiraling its way down the metal beam, taped in places to keep it from coming loose. It vanished from view inside the sculpture, Xipa hurrying closer as Fletcher extended a hand to stop her in vain. When she peeked through an opening that had once held a pane of glass, she saw that the insulated cable was connected to an emergency generator that was sitting in the middle of the mushroom-covered floor. She could hear it chugging along. It was an old portable model that ran on biofuel, intended to be used in areas where there was no electrical grid.

“I knew it!” she chirped, turning to glance back at the rest of the team as they closed in to get a look. “Someone jury-rigged this beacon to keep broadcasting!”

“What does that mean?” Fletcher asked, following the winding cable with his eyes.

“Don’t you see?” she demanded, practically hopping on the spot with excitement. “The beacon is positioned above the canopy! These trees weren’t here at the time of the invasion! That generator runs on biofuel – it couldn’t possibly have been left unattended for more than a few days. Someone has been coming here to refill it!”

Something landed in the tall grass at Bluejay’s feet, rolling to a stop.

“Grenade!” Fletcher yelled, the device exploding before they had a chance to react. A cloud of noxious gas erupted into the air, quickly carpeting the area in an obscuring shroud. It looked like a Bug gas grenade, Xipa leaping away from the swirling haze. Everyone had been wearing their helmets with the visors down save for Gustave and Bluejay. The reptile was already pulling his hood over his long snout, but Bluejay was writhing, clawing at his face with both pairs of hands as he stumbled backwards. He flailed, whipping around like he was swiping at invisible flies, his eyes wide and unfocused.

A far-off shot rang out, a sticky web expanding to coat the Jarilan in its shimmering strands, quickly tangling the disoriented insect’s limbs. He toppled over, still squirming in the grass. As Xipa spun around, aiming her gun at the source of the shot, she realized that they were surrounded.

All around the team, concealed hatches were opening up, the wooden panels covered over with grass. Figures cloaked in red foliage rose up from the dugouts beneath to aim weapons at them, Xipa catching glimpses of molded resin and shining magnetic rails. These were not Bugs, however. From beneath a cowl that was sewn with autumn leaves, she saw the green snout of a Valbara’nay.

There must have been two dozen of them, the team taken completely by surprise. Ruza slowly set his XMR on the ground, Xipa and Fletcher following suit, the barrels of the strange weapons following their every movement. They raised their hands above their heads, Fletcher glancing over at Gustave, who still had his cannon raised.

“Put that thing down, you oversized iguana!” he hissed under his breath. “You’re gonna get us all killed!”

Gustave seemed to consider for a moment, then gradually lowered the enormous weapon to the ground, raising his leathery hands in surrender. It was still attached to the drum magazine on his back via the ammo belt, but the gesture was enough to stop them from being ventilated on the spot. Their captors were climbing out of their dugouts now, their bobbing gait and their long tails confirming Xipa’s suspicions. Even with so many guns pointed at her, she couldn’t help but feel a flutter of relief and pride. She was vindicated.

“I hate being wrong,” Fletcher muttered as one of the survivors raised the magnetic rails of a Bug rifle to his face.

One of the strangers approached Xipa, the long cloak that she wore trailing on the ground behind her. Now that she could get a closer look, she saw how red leaves and mosses had been sewn into the fabric for camouflage, not dissimilar from how the sniper Bugs used their silk to blend into their environment. Beneath a shadowy cowl, Xipa could make out the end of a gas mask, a pair of large, square filters hanging off the snout. As the stranger pulled the hood back, she saw that it was a mask of the kind used by the City Guard when tackling fires, designed to filter out smoke and dangerous chemicals. The transparent visor was scratched in places, worn by use, but Xipa could see the wearer’s violet eyes peering back at her.

In the woman’s hand was a Bug plasma pistol, an amalgam of camouflaged resin and organic components, the magnetic rails shining in the dappled light that made it through the canopy. She pointed it at Xipa, who tried not to flinch away, keeping her sheaths under control.

The rest of the survivors had closed in, keeping the team in their sights, scrutinizing the strange aliens. Bluejay was only now recovering from whatever had been done to him, lying still as one of the camouflaged women approached him, his eyes tracking her warily. From beneath her cloak, she drew a savage weapon, a one-handed hammer of the kind one might have expected to find on a construction site. She wielded it like a pick, raising it above her head with the claw facing the ground, preparing to bring it down on Bluejay’s skull.

“Wait!” Xipa demanded, her suit panels flashing orange in alarm.

The masked woman raised a gloved hand, the feather sheath on her forearm fanning out in a wordless signal for her companion to halt. The hammer-wielding woman paused, waiting patiently for further instructions, Bluejay closing his eyes in silent relief. Xipa turned her eye back to the masked woman, slowly moving her hand to the visor release on the side of her helmet. When nobody told her to stop, she popped it open, grimacing as she caught a foul whiff of whatever they had hit Bluejay with.

“We heard your distress signal,” she insisted, watching the woman’s eyes play across her burns curiously. “We’re here to rescue you.” A flutter of amused lime passed through the woman’s exposed feathers. Apparently, she wasn’t impressed by her saviors. “A lot has happened since the invasion,” Xipa continued. “I have a lot to explain, but I can’t help you if you kill my flock.”

“Your flock?” the woman scoffed, her voice muffled by her mask. “What about the mealworm?”

“The insect?” Xipa asked, glancing over at the bound Jarilan. A half-truth would be more expedient than arguing for his personhood right now. “It is domesticated – a tool that helps us sense the enemy’s pheromones. It answers to me.”

“Unless you have a leash for your pet, it stays bound,” the stranger hissed. “If we find that it is poorly trained, perhaps we will boil it and serve it for supper.”

“You want to tell the rest of us what all those angry parrot noises mean?” Fletcher asked, one of the women jabbing him in the ribs with the pronged barrel of her Betelgeusian rifle.

“I’m trying to convince them not to eat you,” Xipa replied, keeping her unblinking eye on the masked woman. The stranger cocked her head at the sound, having never heard the Earth’nay tongue before.

“Oh, great,” he grunted as he resisted the urge to rub his side. “Lovely welcome party, by the way. Tell them that I appreciate their hospitality.”

“Shut up!” Xipa hissed.

“You will come with us,” the woman announced, giving another wordless signal with her feathers. Her companions began to force the team to move out at gunpoint, two of them gripping Bluejay by his legs, dragging him through the undergrowth like a sack of fertilizer. More of them retrieved the XMRs from the ground, pausing to relieve the team of their sidearms, confiscating everything that they could recognize as a weapon. They turned the strange guns over in their hands, inspecting the unfamiliar devices before stowing them beneath their cloaks. Gustave was surrounded by half a dozen of the cloaked Valabara’nay, who were all pointing rifles at him, the comparatively tiny creatures not sure what to do with the towering beast. Fortunately for them, he went peacefully, lifting his cannon by the barrel. They had little choice but to let him carry it, as even a whole flock wouldn’t have been able to move the thing.

They knew exactly where they were going, heading off into the park, the masked woman keeping her pistol trained on Xipa as they marched through the trees. Even as they walked, more hidden Valbara’nay revealed themselves, invisible in the foliage until they chose to move. More and more, they reminded her of her people’s distant past. They signaled silently to one another with their feathers, a tradition that still saw use in modern Commando units as a faster alternative to radio while in visual range, and they scaled trees just as their hunter-gatherer ancestors had done to avoid predation. This time, they weren’t hiding from animals, but Bugs.

She caught glimpses of their clothing beneath their capes as they moved. A few were wearing old guard uniforms, the precursors to the pressure suits now used by Commandos. None of them were intact, holes and burn marks covered up with patches and slapdash repairs. They were old, maybe as old as the occupation. Had they been maintaining them all this time?

Others wore a mishmash of civilian clothes and makeshift armor with thick padding that likely served as a kind of stab vest to ward off Bug daggers. There had been no military armor at the time of the invasion – no ceramic plates that might dissipate the heat from a plasma bolt like the ones used today. Some had guard helmets as part of their suits, many of them with cracked or damaged visors that had been crudely patched with sealant, others sporting all manner of gas masks and respirators. There were masks used by welders and construction workers, industrial cleaners, even a mask from what looked like a clean suit – anything that might stand some chance of warding off Bug chemical weapons. Those that had bright colors or identifying markings had been painted over in shades of autumn to match their camouflage.

They wore hand-crafted rigs and bandoleers from which spare ammunition and tools dangled. They each had some kind of melee weapon hanging from a loop on their hip, not the traditional knives, but claw hammers and cruel blades that were shaped like needles to better penetrate stubborn carapaces. Xipa marveled again at the diversity of their weapons. Many were wielding guns of insect design that must have been claimed from their enemies – easily identifiable by their organic components. Curious. Neither the Valbara’nay nor the UNN had ever successfully maintained captured Bug technology for any length of time. Their weapons were alive, and they quickly died in captivity without proper care. Many of the strangers had spare plasma canisters, which suggested that they could keep them working long enough to be reloaded, at least. There was even one woman holding one of the long, unwieldy rifles used by the snipers, which explained how they had been able to fire the net at Bluejay.

Others were wielding laser rifles – old models with integrated backpacks, the same kind that Xipa remembered using on the day of the attack. They were just as old and as scuffed as the rest of their gear, the trailing cables repaired with electrical tape where the insulation had worn away. It was a miracle that the batteries still held a charge.

When Xipa had imagined survivors, they had taken the form of frightened flocks subsisting in hiding, not as an armed force that prepared ambushes. How many Bug squads had they taken out to arm themselves so? The scene that Bluejay had happened upon back in the restaurant – that must have been their doing too. How had they stayed hidden all this time? More importantly, how had they escaped the wrath of the occupying Bugs?


Their captors led them through the ruined city, weaving through rubble-strewn streets and patches of wild forest. They came to a stop beside a collapsed building that had fallen over a road, blocking it entirely with debris, fragments of carbcrete and bent support beams scattered everywhere. The ever-present plant life had colonized it, mosses and lichens not able to distinguish the wreckage from boulders, trees taking root in the exposed soil where the massive fragments had shattered the asphalt.

Two of the women moved ahead of the procession, weaving between the massive pieces of carbcrete. They crouched, gripping rope handholds on the ground, Xipa watching as they dragged a wooden panel aside with some difficulty. It was covered in red mosses and plants, camouflaged so well that she’d had no idea it was there. Beneath it was a large hole in the street where it had given way beneath the weight of the building, leaving a gaping opening wide enough to swallow a good-sized truck. It wasn’t unlike the sinkhole that had nearly claimed Ruza’s life.

Xipa felt the prongs of a handgun against her back as the masked woman urged her forward, pushing her to the edge of the precipice as though intending to throw her off. As she looked down into the sinkhole, Xipa saw the exposed maintenance tunnels and broken water pipes, along with the open sewer below. Unlike the tunnels at the edge of the city, where everything had flooded, this sewer was dry. She could see the smooth stonework, a small trickle of dark water trailing out of view beneath the street. Someone had rigged up ropes that led down into the shadowy depths, knotted for climbing. The two women at the front of the group shimmied down into the tunnel, aiming their weapons up to keep a bead on those who would follow.

“We go down,” the woman hissed in her ear, giving her another push. Xipa crouched, taking the rope in her gloved hands, using the knots as footholds as she lowered herself into the sewer. When she reached the bottom, she felt cold water and wet stone beneath her feet, standing aside to clear the way as her captors eyed her suspiciously. Next came Bluejay, the survivors lowering him down into the tunnel via another rope, still cocooned in the sticky web. It was covered in leaves and twigs that it had accumulated while being dragged around, the expression on Bluejay’s face one of annoyed resignation.

More of the Valbara’nay descended, then came Ruza and Fletcher, the feline holding the dangling Earth’nay by his rig so as not to put any strain on his arms. The rope wasn’t going to hold Gustave, Xipa watching as he peeked his long snout over the edge of the hole.

Gustave must leap,” he announced, the tinny sounds of his translator drawing curious looks from their new friends.

“Clear the tunnel,” Xipa warned. “He’s going to jump down.”

The survivors did as she asked, aiming their weapons where he was going to land, still wary. With a shower of dust and small pieces of debris, Gustave came crashing into the sewer, having apparently dug his claws into the side of the sinkhole to help slow himself. There was an impact powerful enough to shake the ground beneath their feet, more dust raining from the curved ceiling above their heads. He shook his leathery hide, sending errant pebbles bouncing along the smooth floor, the cloaked figures sharing alarmed glances beneath their masks. What must they think of Gustave, having never seen a Krell’nay before? He was like an ancient legend brought to life. They didn’t know it yet, but if he had wanted to clear the tunnel, they would have been able to do very little to stop him.

“This way,” the masked woman said, gesturing down the dark passageway. Xipa glanced up to see two survivors pulling the wooden cover back into place over the sinkhole, plunging them into darkness. The pair must have another way of getting underground. If these people were using the sewer system to get around, as Xipa was starting to suspect, there could be entrances all over the city.

They began to walk, their feet splashing in the shallow stream of water, their footsteps echoing down the tunnel. Its circumference was just large enough that Gustave could walk without having to duck. They ignited flashlights, illuminating the darkness, Xipa sweeping the beam from her helmet around as she examined her surroundings. When the city had been thriving, the sewage of thousands of buildings would have come rushing through here, but it was completely empty now.

They reached a junction and took a left, Xipa noting that there were objects on the tunnel floor ahead of them. It was some kind of supply cache, crates and old containers that had been stacked one on top of the other. They were sitting on top of crudely fashioned wooden supports that followed the curve of the walls to create level platforms, lifting them clear of the trickling water. As they passed between them, she spotted wooden boxes full of spare plasma canisters and battery packs, along with what looked like canteens and jars of preserved food that were partially covered over by tarps. Perhaps they had caches like this near all of the entrances to the sewers. There was nothing slapdash about this – those platforms had been built to be used long-term.

The path that they took was winding and circuitous, the survivors leading them down side passages and around cave-ins that blocked the tunnels with rubble. The sewers and storm drains ran for kilometers beneath the city, and who knew how many had become damaged or flooded in the time since the invasion. It wasn’t just sewers, either. Their path eventually intersected with maintenance tunnels that housed the city’s power delivery system, plumbing, and information network. These passages were large enough for a whole flock of engineers and a small motorized cart to pass through, making them ideal for underground travel. Unlike the stained carbcrete of the sanitation system, the maintenance tunnels were whitewashed, cables and valves glimpsed through exposed access panels as the group passed them by.

“How are they even finding their way around down here?” Fletcher muttered, daring to whisper to Xipa. “It’s a fucking maze – it all looks the same.”

“A Valbara’nay would only need to be shown the path once to remember it,” Xipa explained. “They probably have the entire layout of these tunnels mapped. No documents can fall into enemy hands if you commit them to memory.”

“Does the same goes for you, too?” Fletcher added as he leaned in conspiratorially. “I get the feeling we might need to make a quick exit if your new friends don’t change their tune once they realize that we’re here to save their sorry arses.”

“They must have been the ones who set up the distress beacon,” Xipa replied. “I’m sure they’ll come around once I explain who and what you are.”

“Forgive me if I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt,” Fletcher grumbled, straightening up again as one of the women gave him an encouraging jab with the barrel of her gun.

“You needn’t whisper,” Xipa added with a sigh. “They don’t speak English.”

“They will soon if the rest of you are anything to go by,” he continued as he turned to glare at his captor.


They descended deeper, following the service tunnels far below the foundations of the city. They eventually came upon a closed door that was guarded by a pair of cloaked figures, the two exchanging alarmed glances as they saw the odd procession approach. They half-raised their rifles at the sight of the aliens, but lowered them again when the masked woman signaled to them with her feathers. They seemed to know her, stepping aside to let the group pass by, one of them pulling the unpowered door open for them on its creaking hinges.

Xipa followed her captor out onto a raised platform, the sight before her taking her breath away. She was standing on a catwalk that overlooked an expansive room, as large as a factory floor. Below her were two dozen massive vats that were partially filled with water. It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. This was the city’s wastewater treatment plant, an underground facility that connected to all of the sewers where the water was processed and recycled for later use. These round vats were the clarifiers that would once have held sewage, the lids and gas outlet systems that would once have covered them now removed.

The clarifiers were maybe five meters deep and thirty meters wide, the central columns around which the skimmer blades had once turned now repurposed. Branching off of each one was a series of a dozen tall shelves, which were long enough to reach the edge of the vat, and perhaps six meters high. They were vertical farms, plant life overflowing from them, creating walls of red and orange foliage that trailed down into the water below. UV lights mounted on tall stands that sat atop the central pillars fed them, long, insulated cables that were patched with electrical tape trailing off out of view. At least parts of the facility seemed to have power.

As she looked closer, Xipa noticed movement beneath the algae-covered surface of the water, seeing the silvery shimmer of a shoal of fish. These weren’t just farms – they were aquaponic farms, where the nutrient-rich aquaculture water was fed directly to the plants that grew in the vertical racks. Rather than use expansive fields to grow food and graze livestock as some other species did, the Valbara’nay did most of their farming in the industrial band of the city. Many of the 200-meter-tall structures housed hydroponics, aquaponics, and insect farms that produced the fruits and vegetables, fish, and insect protein that made up the bulk of the Valbara’nay diet. It allowed them to grow a lot of food in a very limited space and to minimize their impact on the local ecosystem.

The survivors must have raided those old farms for supplies, recreating them deep beneath the surface, out of view of the Bugs. The insects had no use for such things, so they would have been able to scavenge everything from ultraviolet bulbs to pumps and piping.

There were more survivors down there, too. They walked between the vats, checking on the systems, tending to the crops. There was a whole civilization living right under the noses of the Bugs. How were they generating power, and how were they reducing their emissions and waste enough to avoid drawing unwanted attention? An operation of this scale couldn’t have been set up overnight – they must have been surviving down here for rotations.

“You can admire our farms later,” the woman chided, leading Xipa down the left side of the catwalk. She heard Fletcher whistle in surprise as he walked through the doorway, the sound drawing the attention of a few of the farmers below, who paused to stare at the strange sight. The rest of the team were led off to the right, the masked woman blocking Xipa as she tried to go after them.

“Where are you taking my flock?” she demanded.

“To a holding cell,” the woman replied. “They’ll stay there until you’ve explained yourself to our satisfaction.”

Xipa wanted to argue, but she held her tongue, giving her companions a reassuring nod as they were led away at gunpoint. Her captor aimed her pistol at her again, and Xipa got the picture, continuing along the raised platform. They exited the room through another door that led off the catwalk, emerging into an office. It was filled with rows of consoles that must have once controlled the now inactive systems of the plant, their blinking lights and holographic projectors long since dark. There was a window that took up the forward wall, looking out over the vats, giving the occupants a view of the farms. The numerous chairs and desks suggested that a couple of flocks had probably manned this place when it was in operation. As an Ensi, Xipa knew of similar facilities in her own city back on Valbara, though she had never needed to visit one in person before.

There was a table towards the back of the room around which were sat three women wearing old civilian clothes. They fluttered their feathers in a formal greeting, one that Xipa returned after a moment of confusion, her suit panels approximating the display. Her masked jailer stepped aside, keeping her weapon at the ready as Xipa slowly made her way over to the trio. One of them gestured to a chair, and she sat down opposite them, sliding off her helmet and shaking out her sheaths. She felt as though she had just transitioned from a hostage situation to a job interview.

“Who are you?” the middle woman asked, her tone curt but polite. She looked to be about the same age as Xipa, maybe a little older.

“I am…Xipa’tla’nemi,” she replied, glancing between the three. “Ensi of Anabar and commander of the Consensus fleet.”

“What is the name of your ship?” another asked skeptically. This one had darker scales and an ugly scar on her lip that exposed some of her pointed teeth.

“I captain the battle carrier Vengeance,” Xipa said. The woman looked her up and down, examining what was to her unfamiliar clothing and equipment. The masked stranger stepped forward now, producing Xipa’s XMR from beneath her cloak, setting it down on the table. The scarred woman leaned over to pick it up, turning it over in her hands curiously.

“Why is an Ensi responding to a distress signal?” the first woman asked. “What are those…creatures that you brought with you? Why are you in the company of an insect?”

“Much has happened in the thirty rotations since the invasion,” Xipa began, wondering where she should even begin. “If you will allow me to explain…”

“That is why we have brought you here,” another replied. “We are the Ensis of this city, and we are the stewards of its people. When our gravitational wave detectors warned of a fleet jumping into the system, we worried that it might be another hive, but our telescopes saw a force made up of ships of unknown configuration.”

“Some of those vessels were clearly evolutions of Valbara’nay designs,” the scarred Ensi added, setting down the XMR that she had been examining. “Others were not. We debated how to proceed – whether we should attempt to signal this fleet – but consensus was reached when we saw you bring down the tethers.”

“The foe of my foe is a potential ally,” another added.

“We activated our beacon and waited, hoping that you would make contact,” the scarred Ensi continued. “After many days, what arrived was not a Valbara’nay flock as we had anticipated, but a collection of unknown alien species. Our scouts watched you as you made your way to the city center, and when you located the beacon, we sprung our trap.”

“You were watching us before we arrived at the beacon?” Xipa asked, narrowing her eye. “Why not announce yourselves?”

“What would you have done if faced with unknown aliens in the company of an insect?” another of the Ensis replied. “For all we knew, Valbara had fallen, and our kin had been taken as slaves by some marauding empire. We formulated a plan to bring you in for questioning, and here you are.”

“The Consensus is now a member of the Coalition,” Xipa explained with an exasperated flush of purple. “It is a military alliance of six distinct species who have banded together to counter the Betelgeusian threat. The insects,” she added, realizing that these people would have never heard the term before. “We jumped into the system with a combined fleet of Earth’nay and Valbara’nay vessels, and we fight alongside auxiliaries from several other races. Those strange ships that you saw were the UNN. They invested considerable resources into helping us liberate Kerguela.”

“You can understand our apprehensions, we are sure,” one of the Ensis replied. “We have posited that alien species are most likely to cull potential rivals as a preemptive measure, judging by our experiences with the insects. Our philosophers once believed that any species that could colonize planets would have no need to claim the resources of other civilizations, and so interstellar war was unlikely. Now, we know that the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest is not suspended once a species reaches space. The competition only becomes more brutal. We thought ourselves the intellectual and moral equals of anyone we might meet, but we are merely mice scurrying beneath the feet of Teth’rak. Remaining hidden has been our one saving grace.”

“Let me tell you a story,” Xipa began, steepling her fingers as she leaned on the table. “After Kerguela fell, and we retreated back to Valbara, we started a project to protect the planet from an invasion that we all knew was coming. We built new ships, designed orbital battlestations, raised an army millions strong. When the insects came for us, it was all for nothing. They would have smashed through our defenses and razed our cities just like they did here if it wasn’t for the Earth’nay.”

“Which ones are they?” the scarred Ensi asked.

“The furless mammals,” Xipa explained. “A UNN carrier and its escort fleet happened upon us during our time of need, and they didn’t hesitate, they didn’t ask anything of us. They joined the fight, and with their support, we were able to defeat the hive. There are aliens out there who are willing to help – who act selflessly based on the moral guidelines that our philosophers once outlined. The Bugs are an aberration, and we need no longer fear them now that we have powerful allies. We are equal partners in a Galactic alliance, and we came here to scour this moon’s surface of the insects, to reclaim it for our people.”

Xipa leaned back in her chair, letting her trio of interrogators mull over her words. In her bid to convince them of the Coalition’s value, she had heaped her praises upon the Earth’nay, too. When she had set out on this venture, she had been more resentful than grateful towards the aliens due to how they had invalidated her life’s work, how they had swept in to humiliate her civilization with their superior technology. Nothing that she had told these people was a lie or an exaggeration. The Earth’nay really had acted selflessly, and they really did embody the values that the Valbara’nay had once been certain would rule their interactions with other sentient races. Maybe it was petty pride more than any genuine grievance that had colored her opinion of them until recently. She had wanted to prove herself, to prove that her people could keep up with the aliens.

She had seen those pilots take down the hive ship in a daring raid over Valbara’s skies, and she had seen Fletcher all but tear his arms out of their sockets trying to save Ruza. How many thousands of Earth’nay had been killed in the fight to retake Kerguela so far?

“And…these other species,” one of the Ensi asked after a few moments. “What role do they play in this Coalition? Who rules them?”

“We share equal responsibility through consensus,” Xipa explained. “There is a security council, and each member is permitted to vote on policies. There are six members. The founders are the Brokers and the Krell’nay – the giant reptile that you no doubt saw on the catwalk. The Brokers are elusive, providing only technology and resources, while the Krell’nay are noble creatures of incredible strength and loyalty who they elevated. There are the Borealans, fierce feline warriors. They come from a primitive world, but they are valued for their fighting prowess and their keen senses. The Earth’nay rule a vast interstellar empire with dozens of colonies, and they have the ships and armies to police it. They are hundreds of rotations more advanced than we are, and we now incorporate their technology into our own forces. Then, there are the Jarilans, insects that have been domesticated and genetically altered to serve us. I was skeptical too,” she added hastily as she saw the Ensis exchange glances. “They have proven to be invaluable tools.”

She thought of Bluejay as far more than a tool now, but it wasn’t something she was about to admit to people who had been living under insect tyranny for thirty rotations.

“And, what is your role in this?” the scarred Ensi continued. “Why does the commander of a fleet put herself in such danger to investigate a distress signal emanating from a dead world? That is why you never returned for us, is it not? You assumed that we were all lost?”

“I was born on Kerguela,” Xipa replied, some of her usual fire returning now. “I was among the first generation raised here, and when the insects came, I was serving in the guard. That day is forever burned into my mind, and into my scales,” she added with a hiss as she gestured to her scarred face. “We fought our way off the moon, but I lost my flock in the process. I made defending Valbara my life’s work, and when the homeworld was secured, we turned our sights here. We didn’t have the resources or the technology to return until we joined the Coalition, and now, we have the might of their fleets at our backs. There are hundreds of ships in orbit and half a million troops waging a ground war to exterminate the insects as we speak. I recognized your signal as an emergency beacon from my time in the guard, and I made searching for survivors my personal responsibility.”

“It seems that you have succeeded,” the scarred Ensi replied with a hint of sarcasm. “We never knew whether the few ships that escaped that day ever made it back, or whether Valbara even existed anymore. With each rotation that passed, it became more likely that the homeworld had suffered the same fate as Kerguela.”

“How many of you are there?” Xipa added with an impatient flutter of yellow. “Are you in contact with survivors in any other cities? We elected to travel here through the forest so as not to draw unwanted attention, and on our way, we encountered enemy patrols that were heading towards your walls. We must organize an evacuation, and quickly.”

“Yes, they are investigating our beacon just as you are,” one of the Ensis replied. “They are attracted to radiation emissions, be they thermal, EM, or optical. We knew that we would draw them to us if we tried to signal you, but it was deemed worth the risk. We have survived this long by staying hidden, by ensuring that the insects never see us as a large enough threat to warrant a response. The odd Drone patrol or Hunter here and there is rarely missed, but their incursions have become more frequent since the beacon was activated, and insects from the nearby forests have made their way inside the walls. They know that we are here, and I fear that it will not be long before they come in force.”

“There are many living in this community,” another added cryptically. “We have made a life for ourselves beneath the city. Those that survived the invasion retreated to these tunnels, and in time, we learned to do more than just subsist. You have seen but a glimpse of what we were able to build here.”

“Our apologies if your first impression of our people was a little…adversarial,” the scarred Ensi said as she gestured to the masked woman who stood guard nearby. “A generation has been raised here that has never known a world that was not under the heel of the insects. They were born in these tunnels, and their lives have been one of constant struggle and danger. Some of them even have their own children now.”

“I was not expecting such an organized group,” Xipa admitted. “Frankly, I had to argue with my peers to convince them that your survival was even a remote possibility.”

“Understand that we know next to nothing about you,” another Ensi added. “About what you have become in the time that we have been isolated here. There are some who may not want to leave, who will wish to stay to defend their home. We have learned to be self-sufficient, to be independent. Do you intend to compel them?”

Compel them?” Xipa repeated, glancing between the trio in confusion. “You activated the distress beacon – you called for help. Why would I have to compel you to do anything?”

“We did not call you here to evacuate us,” the scarred Ensi replied. “If you are here to eradicate the insect infestation as you claim, then you can help us secure this city.”

“Secure the city?” Xipa scoffed, giving them a flutter of disbelieving yellow. “I don’t think you appreciate the situation that you’re in. We estimate that there are fifteen million enemy troops on the moon. They have advanced weaponry – armored vehicles, anti-air capabilities. The most successful tactic so far has been to use our assault carriers to hop tank battalions between objectives, then retreat back into orbit before the Bugs have time to respond. If you believe that there’s a Bug force moving on this city, then we need to get your people to safety immediately. Do you really want to run the risk of being overrun now, after all this time, just to avoid spending a few months on Valbara while we secure the moon?”

“Months could turn into rotations,” the scarred Ensi replied. “It will become apparent to you the more time you spend here, but we are no longer the same people that you left behind.”

She ended her sentence with a sting, one that pierced Xipa’s heart. She wanted to defend herself, to justify what had happened, but doing that now would only make her look as guilty as she felt.

“These last thirty rotations have changed us, and returning to some scenic residential band is no longer an option,” another of the Ensis added. “Most of us have never known that life and have no desire for it. We have bled for this city, and we will not abandon our posts now that the time has finally come to retake it once and for all.”

“So…you want our support, but you don’t want to be evacuated?” Xipa clarified with a skeptical flutter of her feathers. “What are you suggesting, that we deploy troops to secure the city, then hold it until the end of the conflict?”

“With all the ships at your disposal, is that unreasonable?” another Ensi asked.

“It’s not impossible, but we’re running a military operation here,” Xipa protested. “We’re attacking hundreds of locations all around the moon simultaneously. We might not have the resources to spare for your vanity project.” That gave the three Ensis pause, and they shared concerned glances. “If you care about your people, then let me evacuate them to safety,” she continued with a flash of frustrated red. “How many are there? I can establish a secure perimeter and shuttle them into waiting carriers before the Bugs even realize what’s happening.”

“And let them overrun the homes that we have kept safe for thirty rotations?” the scarred Ensi scoffed.

“We’ll clear it out and resettle you as soon as it’s safe,” Xipa insisted.

“This is our fight,” the scarred Ensi snarled, slamming a fist on the table. “We intend to see it through.”

“Perhaps you will see the situation from our perspective if you spend a couple of days living among our people,” another added, calming her colleague with a flutter of pacifying green. “You are an Ensi. You know what it means to represent your constituents. Speak to the people, and you will understand.”

“Two days,” Xipa replied, rising to her feet. “I dare not wait any longer. What of my team? I ask that they be released into my custody.”

“They shall be released,” the rightmost Ensi replied. “Save for the insect, that is. We cannot have it roaming the tunnels – it will terrify the people.”

“That insect is a member of my team,” Xipa snarled. “There are millions more like it – fighting on this planet and others. This is a reality that you will have to accept one way or another.”

“We cannot-”

“Release it into my custody, or I will leave immediately,” Xipa added with an icy stare. “If I find that you have subjected it to any mistreatment, you will have more than the insects to worry about.”

It was a bluff, of course. She had no intention of abandoning these people, but the Ensis didn’t know that. The three exchanged a few hushed whispers, then the scarred one spoke up.

“Very well. We will release the insect on the condition that you are solely responsible for it. If anything goes awry, we will hold you accountable.”

Xipa gave them an affirmative feather flutter, another of the women looking to the masked guard.

“Miqi, please escort our guest to the holding cells, then find some temporary accommodation for her and her team,” she said. “Will you be needing food?” she added, glancing back over to Xipa.

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Xipa replied. “We have supplies enough to feed ourselves.”

“Miqi will be looking after you during your stay,” the scarred Ensi added, sliding the XMR back across the table. Xipa picked it up, then slung it over her shoulder. “Please address any questions or concerns to her.”

She was to be their guard, then. It was something that Xipa had anticipated. She gave a respectful feather display, then turned to the door, Miqi following behind her. It was only when they emerged onto the catwalk that overlooked the farm that the woman finally pulled back her cowl and removed her mask for the first time, shaking out her sheaths. She was younger than the Ensis, maybe twenty rotations old, which was consistent with what they had said during the meeting. This woman must have been born after the invasion, and had lived out her entire life in the shadow of the Betelgeusians. A single day spent fighting the invaders had turned Xipa’s life upside-down – she couldn’t imagine living here permanently, contending with those stakes every day.

“So, you were born here too?” Miqi asked. “You saw the invasion, like the Ensis?”

“I did,” Xipa replied, gesturing to her burned visage. “We evacuated the Belomor spaceport on the first day of the attack, and we barely made it out. I lost all of my flockmates in the process.”

Miqi gestured to Xipa’s belt, where the Betelgeusian dagger was still sheathed. Xipa reached down to draw it, slowly handing it over to Miqi, who weighed it in her hand.

“This is an insect dagger,” she mused, admiring the flowing patterns that ran down its blade. “It’s old – they don’t use these anymore. You took this as a trophy before the evacuation, no?”

“Not exactly,” Xipa replied, reaching out to take it back. “This is the knife that killed one of my flockmates. I kept it. I wanted…to return it to its rightful owners.”

“I didn’t want to confiscate it from you,” Miqi added as they began to walk along the platform, their footsteps echoing through the cavernous chamber. “Nobody carries something like that if it doesn’t hold some special importance to them. What is that, by the way?” she added as she nodded to the XMR.

“It’s a kind of handheld coilgun,” Xipa replied, holding up the weapon. “It’s of Earth’nay design, but I’ve come to appreciate it. The recoil takes some getting used to, especially if you’re only familiar with laser weapons, but it packs a punch.”

“We take most of our weapons from our enemies,” Miqi said as she opened her cloak to show the pistol that hung from a loop on her hip.

“Miqi, how many people are living here?” Xipa asked. “I’d like to formulate some kind of idea of how long it would take to evacuate them.”

“About nine hundred,” she replied, opening a door for Xipa as they reached the far end of the catwalk. “They won’t go, though.”

“Why?” Xipa asked, pausing in the corridor beyond. “I understand that this is your home and that you’re protective of it, but it isn’t going anywhere. Wouldn’t you rather come back in a few months to find it completely free of Bugs? You could start to rebuild, to reclaim your lives.”

“We already have lives here,” she explained. “I think that’s what the Ensis want you to learn.”

“Where’s your flock, by the way?” Xipa asked as they continued on. “Are they…”

“They’re fine,” she replied, turning left down one of the identical hallways. “I’ve noticed that the older folks don’t like to be separated from their flocks. I suppose the younger generation has learned to be more flexible. There’s a lot of work to do, and not much of it requires six pairs of hands.”

“You have males here?” Xipa asked. “Children?”

“Of course,” Miqi chuckled, a flash of amused yellow passing through her feathers. “Wouldn’t be much of a society if we didn’t. The males work, too. I’m told that’s unusual, but we don’t have the resources to spare for people who don’t pull their weight.”

These people truly had diverged from the norms of the society that birthed them, shaped by necessity and hardship into something that was becoming less recognizable the more Xipa saw of it. They made their way through the spartan corridors, pipes and cables from the old machinery protruding here and there, eventually arriving at the holding cell. It was little more than an old storage area that had been sectioned off behind a barred door, two guards standing to either side of it. They looked up at Xipa as she approached, scrutinizing her strange clothing. At Miqi’s command, they opened the door, Xipa stepping inside to see her companions sitting on the empty floor. Nobody looked any worse for wear save for Bluejay, who was still trying to pick pieces of silk off his carapace. They rose to their feet, Gustave loosing a low, rumbling greeting that startled the guards. The ceiling in here was low enough that his scaly head scraped it.

“Are you all alright?” Xipa asked.

“It’s about time,” Fletcher grumbled. “Have you managed to convince our new friends that we’re not here to steal their canned food?”

“We’re free to explore the compound,” Xipa replied. “You have to understand that this is a lot for them to take in. They’ve never heard of the Coalition, and they never knew that there were aliens other than the Bugs until now.”

“I hope they’re fast learners,” Fletcher muttered, rolling one of his shoulders.

“What about me?” Bluejay asked.

“You’re free to join us,” she replied. “Just…keep in mind the situation that these people have been living in for the last thirty rotations. They’re going to be even more mistrustful of you than the rest of us. Maybe don’t wander off alone while you’re here.”

“Business as usual, then,” he sighed. “I’m really getting tired of starting from square one with everyone I meet.”

“Square negative fifty in this case,” Fletcher chuckled.

“I just had a conversation with the Ensis – the leaders of this community,” Xipa explained. “Come on. I’ll tell you everything that they told me while we go get your equipment.”


“So, they’re not going to leave?” Fletcher asked as he slung his pack over his shoulder. Miqi had led them to a nearby supply room where all of their confiscated gear had been piled alongside other sundries.

“Do they not realize the situation they find themselves in?” Ruza asked, checking his rifle. “They number only nine hundred. There is no possibility that such a force could repel a Betelgeusian attack of any size.”

“They seem to think otherwise,” Xipa replied with a shrug. “They’ve survived this long – something that everyone thought was impossible – so maybe there’s something we don’t know about them. I said that we would stay here for two days, and no longer. By then, we should be able to get a good idea of their capabilities.”

“You’re not seriously considering their proposal?” Fletcher scoffed, tightening one of the straps on his rig. “I mean…it’s doable, but it’s not part of Vos’ plan. We’re supposed to stay mobile.”

“I’m not ruling anything out,” she replied. “My primary goal is to convince them to leave, obviously, but we can’t just abandon them to their fate.”

“Well, I hope you’re persuasive, because none of us speak parrot.”

“Listen,” Xipa sighed with a flutter of frustrated red. “These people live a hard life, and one of the best ways that we can prove ourselves to them is to lend a hand. I know that you can’t communicate easily, but I’m sure you can find ways to make yourselves useful. This is a tight-knit community, and they need to feel like you’re a part of it if we’re going to convince them of anything.”

“If you say so,” Fletcher replied. “So, have they given us a place to stay? I don’t really want to be lugging all this shit around.”

“Miqi,” Xipa said, switching back to the Valbara’nay tongue. “Will you take us to our quarters?”

“This way,” she said, struggling to tear her eyes away from the aliens.

“I can see why they made this their base,” Fletcher mused as they walked through the corridors. “Looks like they dug it right out of the bedrock. It’s as much a bunker as a waste treatment plant.”

“The placement of the city above and its sewer system dictates the location of the plant,” Xipa explained as they passed by another pair of curious guards. “It is a happy accident that it had to be carved into the bedrock.”

“That probably helps block their emissions,” Bluejay added. “If they were running generators above ground, the ferals would pick them up.”

As they proceeded deeper into the complex, the tunnels grew less spartan and more lived-in. There were crates everywhere that were stacked on metal shelves. Some were old storage barrels, others fashioned from wooden slats. There were even old coolers and polymer tubs of the kind used for storing toys and household items. They were packed with supplies – everything from food and water to scavenged scrap, pieces of rusty metal and reclaimed wood. They were near one of the entrances, so perhaps these items were waiting to be moved to a more permanent storage area.

There were more people here, too. Xipa was inclined to refer to them as civilians, but the line between combatants and non-combatants was blurred. Most people were armed, either with salvaged Bug weapons or a dizzying array of hammers and knives – household and professional tools repurposed for offensive use. Many had the same camouflaged cloaks as Miqi, but most did not, clad instead in worn civilian clothes that had been sewn and patched to keep them usable long after they were intended to be replaced. Miqi had been telling the truth – there were males among the survivors. It wasn’t that males on Valbara were barred from taking up jobs, but as the physically smaller and far less numerous sex, they had historically been a protected class that was sheltered from dangerous occupations. The sentiment that males belonged in the home raising children and caring for their flock was still a very pervasive one, so it was odd to see them carrying crates or repairing pipes.

Everyone stopped whatever they were doing to gawk at the procession as they passed by, some of them abandoning their tasks to retreat into nearby side rooms, watching suspiciously through half-closed doors. As expected, the sight of Bluejay had many of them lowering their hands towards their belts and holsters, only the presence of Miqi preventing them from drawing.

After a short walk, they arrived at a long, wide corridor with a rounded ceiling that was lined with half a dozen doors on either side. It was lit by light strips in the ceiling, a fair few of them burnt out. It was still impressive that they had managed to get an electrical system up and running without tipping off the Bugs. Judging by the number of crates and boxes that were stacked everywhere, this was some kind of storage area. As they neared the far end of the corridor, they came across a group of Valbara’nay who were hauling crates out of one of the rooms, piling them onto a wheeled cart that was waiting just outside. They stiffened as the team approached, exchanging flashes of alarmed feather patterns at the sight of the strangers.

“Relax,” Miqi said, giving them a flush of calming green. “The situation is under control. These are our guests, by consensus of the Ensis.”

“Even the insect?” one of them asked. She was carrying a crate of replacement laser batteries in her hands, heaving it onto the cart to join the rest.

“So they told me,” Miqi replied. “Apparently, the off-worlders have found a means to domesticate them. We’ll keep an eye on it all the same, don’t worry.”

“At least they’re housing them in the storage area and not near the living quarters,” another of the women grumbled, helping one of her companions carry a wooden crate filled with jars of preserved food. “We’re about done here, Miqi.”

“Nice work,” she replied. “Get that stuff into storage.”

The four Valbara’nay hurried away, giving the group a wide berth as they wheeled their squeaking cart down the corridor.

“We’ve cleared out one of the storage rooms for you to live in during your stay,” Miqi explained as she gestured to the open door. “It’s not much, but I think you can appreciate how limited our resources are. It’s out of the way, so nobody will bother you,” she added. Xipa got the impression that they were more concerned about the team bothering the locals.

“They’re putting us in a storage closet?” Fletcher grumbled as he leaned inside to get a look. “I hope one of you doesn’t mind sleeping on top of Gustave.”

“There will be guards stationed by the door that leads to the rest of the plant,” Miqi explained, Xipa giving her a quizzical head tilt. “For your safety and ours.”

“And, if we want to leave?”

“Ask one of the guards, and they will fetch an escort for you.”

“I understand,” Xipa said. It was obvious now that they were prisoners in all but name.

Once Miqi had left, Xipa explained the situation to the rest of the team.

“I feel like we’re the only ones around here who need rescuing,” Bluejay grumbled.

“Yeah,” Fletcher muttered in agreement. “I’m kind of feeling like an EMS responder who just got shivved by a junkie over here. Next time someone asks me to save a Valbaran, I’m gonna ask if they have access to improvised weapons first.”

“This is going to work out,” Xipa insisted, trying to reassure them. “Just have a little patience. It’s like when we met Bluejay,” she added, gesturing to the Bug as he blinked back at her in surprise. “We were all skeptical of him at first, but we came to accept him once we knew him better.”

“Fuck, did we learn a moral lesson?” Fletcher added with an exaggerated grimace of disgust. “I’d better get hazard pay for this bullshit.”

“We should unload our gear, then we can figure out what to do next,” Ruza said as he made his way into the room. The rest of the team followed after him, Xipa stepping through the door to see the now-empty storage area. It was spacious, at least as far as underground bases went, large enough to fit them all comfortably. The empty shelves on one wall had been left there, presumably so that they had a place to store their equipment, while the bunks took the form of a pile of blankets and pillows that had been tossed against the far wall in a heap. Of course, as a flock, the Valbara’nay expected them to sleep together in a pile.

“Let’s get some sleep,” Fletcher said, tossing his pack onto one of the shelves. He began to pull out his sleeping bag, unrolling it onto the cold floor. “We’ll figure out what to do in the morning.”


“Please call the Russians and ask them why the Pavlov has turned an eighteen square kilometer patch of forest into a parking lot,” Vos muttered, watching the railgun barrages on his feed. “They do realize that we’re here to take the moon intact, right?”

Fielding entered the observation deck, approaching from behind him, Vos turning off his holographic display with a wave of a gloved hand. He greeted the captain, the two of them taking a moment to watch the red forests roll past beyond the windows.

“How goes the campaign?” Fielding asked, passing the admiral a steaming mug of coffee. Vos took it, giving him a grateful nod before taking a long draw.

“Progress is steady,” he replied, turning back to the scrolling feed of battlefield reports. With another gesture, he brought up a floating representation of Kerguela, the three-dimensional hologram flickering as it hovered in the air. The moon’s surface had been split into color-coded sections, and there was a cloud of IFF tags floating around it. Fielding leaned in a little closer, noting the dotted lines that gave some idea of where the various battalions were landing. “It’s a little difficult to keep track of sixty-four assault carriers, but the operation has been running smoothly. They’ve been running raids around the clock, striking ground targets and infrastructure, using their mobility to keep the Bugs on their toes.”

“How is the enemy responding?” Fielding asked.

“There’s not a lot that they can do. Despite their numbers, they can’t be everywhere at once, and there’s no way for them to get advanced warning of our attacks after we destroyed their global comms. In some regions, we’re just burning crops and collapsing tunnels for no strategic reason other than to divert their attention and stretch their resources. Friendly casualties have been within expected parameters, except in very specific areas,” he added as he waved his hand through the hologram. It shifted, displaying a handful of small, red circles.

“What are those?” Fielding asked, walking around the wavering globe.

“One of the UNNI agents assigned to the mission ran a statistical analysis of the raids that saw the highest casualties and the toughest resistance,” he explained. “She correlated the highest results from the data set, and what do you know, they create a very distinctive pattern that’s confined to specific regions.”

“The Kings?” Fielding suggested, Vos giving him a satisfied nod.

“There’s one in each of the five regions, and by using the data that the agent provided, we can track their previous movements. It’s a reasonable guess that they’re traveling in the company of large entourages that are able to respond more rapidly and with considerably more lethality to any battalions that happen to make landfall nearby. Most of them have been trying to protect vital infrastructure targets. We just had to pull the Musketeer’s battalion back into orbit after they encountered stronger than expected resistance at a tunnel nexus in the green zone. We suspect that the Green King launched a counter-offensive. By the time we brought in orbital assets, they were already gone.”

“Then, we’re honing in on them,” Fielding mused as he examined the display. “Every time they mount a counter-attack, we’ll be able to see where they are.”

“And to think that they told me Polar Borealans would make terrible spies,” Vos said, chuckling to himself. “The longer the campaign goes on, and the more we force them to react to our incursions, the easier it will be to pinpoint their locations. We just have to keep hammering them.”

“What about the Queen?” Fielding asked, glancing over at the admiral. “Do we have any idea of where she might be yet?”

“No,” he sighed, shaking his head. “She’s their most valuable asset, so we expected her to be well hidden. The plan right now is to focus on the Kings first. Once they’re all taken out, the zones they’re responsible for will fall into chaos with no command structure to keep them organized. That should make hunting down the Queen an easier prospect.”

“She’ll have control over her own region,” Fielding warned. “Those things are wicked smart.”

“Nothing we can’t handle,” Vos replied. “We’ve killed Queens before. That’s what the Trogs specialize in.”

“I see that you’re assigning another mission to the Omaha,” Fielding said, pausing by one of the data feeds. “How’s that ghost company of yours doing?”

“I don’t believe in luck, but I do trust my gut,” Vos replied. “Delta company has proven themselves to be unusually survivable. I think they’re prime candidates for some unconventional field work.”

“What did you have planned?”

“The Valbaran captains that the Ensi left in charge before she departed on her field trip are just as stubborn as she is,” Vos grumbled. “They’ve located a prime target – a biofuel plant in the blue zone that seems to be manufacturing a good chunk of the enemy’s fuel supplies – but they insist on taking it out themselves. I managed to convince them to let me send a battalion to support them, and the Omaha is my first choice. Destroying the plant from orbit would pose a serious environmental hazard, so the site will have to be secured from the ground before being safely decommissioned.”

“This should be interesting,” Fielding said, gazing down at the swirling clouds below. “Do you think the raid will force the Blue King to play its hand?”

“We won’t know until they respond,” Vos replied. “I’ll make sure we have assets available to support them if big blue makes an appearance.”


“So, what was it like?” Hernandez asked. He leaned a little closer to Evan, sliding his metal dinner tray across the table noisily. It was early morning, and the mess hall was packed today. The companies that had been deployed to the ground had returned the night before, and rumors were already circulating that they were going to be redeployed soon.

“I don’t know if she’d want me telling you,” he replied, keeping his voice low. “It’s kind of…personal.”

“Come on, man,” Hernandez complained. “You might be the first guy to ever make it with a Jarilan. You gotta understand my curiosity, at least.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Evan continued, giving him a friendly nudge. “Your advice was spot-on. Neither of us really knew what to do, but we kind of…felt our way through it together, and it all worked out.”

“Of course it did,” he chuckled, settling back into his chair. “How do you think I even survived a night with a Borealan? I know what the ladies want, man, be they scaly, furry, or covered in shell.”

“Uh-huh,” Evan replied with a smirk. “It went well, I’ll leave it at that.”

“I know it went well, ‘cos you guys were gone all night,” Hernandez added as he chewed on a spoonful of creamed corn. “Where is the lucky lady, anyhow?”

“She’s gone to pick up a new chest piece,” Evan explained. “They have to make them to spec, so she has to wait for her carrier to ship her a replacement every time one gets damaged.”

“What, do they grow ‘em in a vat or somethin’?”

“I dunno,” Evan replied with a shrug. “They’re made to fit each individual Drone.”

Loud footsteps drew Evan’s attention, and he turned his head to see Tatzi striding over to them, the smaller Marines making way for her. She sat down beside Hernandez, slamming a metal tray piled high with what looked like roasted meat onto the table, ringing it like a gong. Her chair was spring-loaded, her weight sinking it down to a more reasonable height, bringing her just about level with her neighbors. She began to stuff her face noisily, taking large, wet bites of something that resembled a leg of mutton. Hernandez sank into his seat as she reached over to ruffle his hair with a hand that could have encompassed his skull, a gesture that was at once rough and affectionate.

“Eat more,” she insisted, hooking one of the slabs of meat in her sharp claws. She deposited it on his tray, splashing his coveralls with droplets of grease. “You cannot fight on such a meager ration.”

“What even is that?” he wondered, giving the juicy meat a prod with his fork.

“Good meat,” she replied, taking another bite pointedly.

“If you insist,” he muttered, struggling to carve off a piece with his plastic fork.

“Evan,” Tatzi said, her low voice enough to make his bones shake. “You shared your bed with Jade last night, did you not?”

He almost choked on his meal, sputtering as he tried to compose himself.

“W-who told you that?” he demanded, red-faced.

“Her scent is on you,” the Borealan explained, pausing to chew. “This is good. A Borealan pack is tightly-knit, bonded. Our team will grow stronger because of it.”

“Always with the scent,” Evan muttered to himself as he stared at his tray, wide-eyed. “Gotta take a fucking shower every five minutes around here.”

There was a beep from his wrist, Evan looking down at his device to see new orders scrolling across the display. After a moment, Hernandez and Tatzi got them too, the Borealan grumbling as she wolfed down another mouthful of meat.

“I just sat down. Can it not wait even a moment?”

“That’s us,” Evan said, rising to his feet. “We’d better get our gear and report to the stern gate.”

“Any idea where we’re goin’?” Hernandez asked.

“Nowhere good,” Tatzi growled.


Jade returned while the team were donning their equipment, a pair of almost identical Jarilans following her into the armory. The more time that he spent with her kind, the more Evan had started to notice the small details that set them apart, letting him pick Jade out easily. The shapes of their branching horns seemed random at first, but they were just as identifiable as a human face once one knew what to look for. There were also subtle differences between their facial features, the sizes of their antennae, and the colors of their eyes. Presumably, they’d all have different colors of carapace if it wasn’t for the camouflaged paint that covered them from head to toe, too.

Everyone greeted them save for Foster, who stood conspicuously apart from the rest of the team, turning away from the newcomers as he secured his ceramic chest piece. The two new Jarilans seemed surprised by the relatively friendly welcome, Jade giving them a satisfied glance as if to say I told you so. She made her way over to Evan, giving him an affectionate pat on the shoulder. He could tell that she wanted to embrace him, but not in front of the others, even though most of them probably knew about their burgeoning relationship already.

“Glad you made it,” he said, slotting on his helmet. “I thought we might have to leave without you.”

“Jarilans are always on time,” she chuckled. “This is Aster and Cardinal. They’re filling in for my old team.”

“Hey, we finally got some reinforcements,” Hernandez said as he fastened the straps that held his shin plate in place. “You can never have too many Jarries.”

“Happy to help,” the one named Aster said with a nod.

Jade helped Evan put on his chest rig, securing the straps over his armor, using all four arms in tandem. It gave her an excuse to get closer so that they could whisper to one another.

“I see you got your new chest piece,” he said, Jade’s antennae brushing against his visor as she fastened one of the clips on his harness. “Try to keep this one intact for more than one deployment.”

“You weren’t complaining about me wearing that tank top last night,” she chuckled, her fingers skirting his crotch as she gave his belt an exaggerated tug to tighten it. “You were complaining even less about what was underneath it.”

“Maybe save that kind of talk for when we have a private channel,” he chuckled. “I’m pretty sure the Borealans can still hear us.”

“They can smell me on you anyway,” she replied with a smirk, sliding his sidearm into its holster in a way that was oddly suggestive. “Can’t hide anything from their noses.”

“Yeah, I found that out the hard way over breakfast.”

Hernandez leaned in to interrupt them, sliding open his visor.

“If you two are done makin’ out, we got a dropship to catch.”


Sergeant Simmons joined them at their IFV as it waited on its sled, now fully repaired after its brush with the Warrior. It was oddly fitting that even the squad’s vehicle had taken hits and had come straight back to the fight. Evan’s gloved hand moved to the back of his neck, feeling the outline of his implant through his pressure suit as he mulled over the idea.

“Is your implant hurting?” Jade asked, using a private channel through their helmets.

“Nah,” he replied, moving his hand back to his weapon. “I was just thinking about how our IFV is a real part of the team now. It’s about as busted up as the rest of us.”

The vehicles in front of them were loaded onto the dropships one by one, the team jogging alongside the IFV when their turn came up. It slid along the rails in the deck, slamming into place inside the vessel’s troop bay. They went through the practiced routine of securing themselves into their seats, the craft breaking away from the carrier, starting to fall towards the moon’s surface.

The anxiety that Evan usually felt during a drop was somewhat muted now. He had so much more to lose since the last time they had set foot on Kerguela – so much had happened in the interim – yet the night that he had spent in Jade’s company had filled him with a kind of vigor. The threat of death was ever-present. He could meet his end today, and he didn’t even want to consider what might happen if Jade got hurt, but there was a kind of catharsis in having already expressed everything that he had wanted to tell her. Everything was square, and he could march into battle without any regrets. It was a wonderful and somewhat novel feeling to not be wishing that he’d had the courage to make a move, or that he’d missed an opportunity that he should have taken.

“Bit of a late briefing on this one,” Simmons said, his voice coming through Evan’s helmet radio. “We’re being deployed to an island on the equator where Fleetcom has located some kind of fuel depot. Our job is to take it intact, because it’ll blow sky-high and dump toxic chemicals into the environment if they try to knock it out from orbit. We’re supporting the Valbarans, so watch your IFF tags.”

Turbulence buffeted the dropship as they hit the upper atmosphere, deceleration pressing Evan into the padding of his seat, the main thrusters shaking the deck beneath his feet. He felt the craft touch down with a thud, the ramp dropping like a ton of bricks to let bright sunlight flood into the bay. The IFV slid down the rails on its sled, kicking up a cloud of white sand, the squad leaping to their feet as they followed after it. Brooks, Donovan, McKay, and Garcia fanned out ahead of them, Borzka and Tatzi bounding down the ramp after them. Jade and her two new counterparts came next, followed by Simmons, Evan, and Hernandez, with Collins and Foster bringing up the rear. They covered the three vehicle crewmen as they climbed into the IFV, its engine roaring to life.

Evan glanced down the beach, his visor tinting automatically to shield him from the sun. They were standing on the shore of a large island, a band of pristine, white sand curving into the distance in both directions. It was big enough to make a suitable staging area for the dropships, some of them rising into the sky on plumes of flame as more descended, the familiar sight of tanks and transports freeing themselves from their sleds as they drove out onto the sand greeting him. Gentle waves lapped at the beach behind them, a few more islands visible on the horizon.

Their dropship took off again, creating a miniature sandstorm that made Evan glad of his helmet, the airborne grains whipping against his armor. When he turned to watch it climb, he noted that the sand had turned to glass beneath its four downward-facing thrusters, leaving a perfect pattern of shining craters.

Ahead of them was more forest, the plants here adapted to the equatorial environment. They resembled giant ferns and cycads with stout, prickly trunks. Their leaves branched out in wide fronds like those of palm trees, but their red and orange hues shattered that illusion pretty quickly. As always, the gas giant dominated the sky above them, bands of bright green and blue auroras streaking across the heavens. It would have been a view straight out of a dream if not for the tank companies that were assembling around them, their treads churning up the beach.

“I thought this planet didn’t have any oceans?” Hernandez said, Evan’s helmet dampening the chorus of revving engines so that he could hear him.

“It’s not an ocean, it’s a lake,” Simmons explained. “Freshwater.”

“What the fuck is that?” Collins asked, pointing to the edge of the forest. Evan followed his gaze to see what looked like a golf cart racing its way towards them. It was a small, squat vehicle with four wheels, its frame covered over with light armor plating that was painted in autumn camouflage. The thing couldn’t have been more than about three or four meters long, and its roof was about the same height as Evan. It had an angular windshield, along with a couple of oddly placed headlights that seemed too close together, situated behind a bullbar. There was a blister on the roof that sported a mounted railgun small enough that a human could probably have carried it without much difficulty. It bounced on its springy suspension, its honeycomb tires kicking up sand as it made a beeline for the company command vehicle.

When it skidded to a halt, four sets of panels swung upwards like the doors of a high-end sports car. There were two for the driver and passenger, and two larger panels for the four seats in the rear. Six Valbarans piled out of it, clad in tight-fitting pressure suits that were camouflaged with the same colors as their vehicle. They walked over to talk to one of the tank commanders with an odd, bobbing gait that reminded Evan of a chicken.

“Pretty sure I’ve seen ridin’ mowers bigger than that fuckin’ thing,” Hernandez chuckled, apparently amused by the tiny vehicle. He was exaggerating, but the buggy was still extremely compact. Perhaps the Valbaran dropships were more limited in terms of their carrying capacity than the UNN equivalents.

It only took another fifteen minutes for the rest of Delta company to make landfall, and by then, the Valbarans were apparently done talking to the company commander. They hopped back into their little buggy, powering up the beach and back into the forest, weaving between the spiky trunks of the trees with surprising agility.

Simmons put a finger to the side of his helmet, receiving new orders, which he soon relayed to the squad.

“Saddle up!” he said, waving them forward as the IFV’s troop ramp began to open. “The Valbarans are preparing to move on the depot, and they need heavy support from our Kodiaks. We’re going to push through the outer perimeter, then make our way inside the compound. We’ll be clearing the complex room by room, or whatever the fuck the Bugs use as rooms.”

They loaded into the vehicle, strapping into their seats, the three Jarilans gripping handholds on the ceiling as they stood in the aisle. Evan connected his helmet to the external camera feeds, watching as the procession of vehicles rolled out. They began to crash their way through the tropical forest, the trees here spaced wide enough that they didn’t pose much of an obstacle for the tanks.

As they proceeded deeper, Evan began to spot signs of a recent battle. The IFV drove around a smoldering wreck of a Bug anti-air tank, its eight legs lifted into the air like a dead spider lying on its back, its fuel and fluids staining the nearby ferns in mucous-green. There was a squad of Drones, too, their colorful ichor splattering the trees nearby. They had been torn apart by what looked like a high-caliber railgun, their bodies dismembered, wet pieces of them scattered around the forest.

“That explains why they didn’t try to shoot us down at the beach,” Garcia muttered. “Looks like the Valbarans cleared the LZ for us.”

There was more carnage the further they went, a few Valbaran vehicles joining the piles of dead Bugs. Evan spotted a Warrior slumped limply over one of the little buggies, crushing the frame beneath its weight. There was a tracked vehicle of unknown configuration, too, little more than a charred husk now. Whatever Valbaran casualties there were must have already been evacced.

Through the palm trees in the distance, Evan spotted a row of vehicles. They were hull-down, dug in behind the gentle slopes of a dry riverbed. They seemed to be hiding from whatever was on the far side, only their turrets peeking out. There were maybe a dozen of them, and there were just as many of the small buggies that they had seen earlier parked behind them. The crews of these buggies had dismounted and were taking cover between the tanks, lying prone as they aimed their XMRs over the lip of the natural trench.

As they neared, Evan got a better look at the alien vehicles. They were absolutely tiny compared to the monstrous Kodiaks, maybe four meters long and no more than two wide. They couldn’t have weighed more than four or five tons. Like the buggies, they were covered in sloping, angular armor plating that had been painted with autumn camouflage. Many of them were covered in cargo netting and bustle racks that were strapped to their hulls, filled with equipment and supplies, presumably because there was no space to fit them inside the things.

There were two varieties of turret that he could see. One of them was a thirty-millimeter railgun of the kind usually mounted as a coaxial weapon on many UNN vehicles – a high-caliber, automatic weapon used for anti-materiel purposes. The second was a twin-barreled missile system of some kind with blocky launch tubes and what looked like a radar system mounted between them.

The company pulled up behind the little tankettes, the twelve Kodiaks and eight IFVs rolling to a stop.

“Alright, everybody out,” Simmons barked. “The Valbarans are running the show on this one, so remember – they work in flocks. That means there is no one commander, and five or six of ‘em all share the same rank and responsibility.”

They filed back out of the IFV, milling around beside it. Evan noted that each of the other IFVs in the company had been assigned their own team of three Jarilans. They must have been reinforced at the same time that his team had.

Behind one of the tankettes, a little hatch swung open, a group of four Valbarans piling out. Hernandez gave him a nudge, prompting him to switch to a private channel.

“Fuckin’ clown car,” he said, chuckling inside his helmet.

The four little aliens bobbed over to them like a flock of pigeons, more squads crowding around, moving over from their own vehicles to attend what looked like it was going to be a briefing. They popped open their helmets, the visors opening like jaws to expose their scaly snouts. They looked like little velociraptors to Evan, their bright feathers currently concealed in something resembling rubber hoses that hung from the backs of their heads. Delta’s company commander had left his Kodiak and was making his way over to speak to them. Unlike the Marines, the vehicle crews wore only a flak jacket over their pressure suits.

There was another group of Marines that drew Evan’s eye, dismounting from a modified, six-wheeled IFV that looked distinctly out of place in the company. Unlike the reds and oranges of the vehicles that surrounded it, its hull was painted jet-black, and there was a full-blown turret on its roof instead of a blister. It wasn’t anywhere near as large as the ones on the Kodiaks, but it let the vehicle mount a far larger gun, probably an autocannon. It was bristling with tech and weapons. Evan could see a radar antenna, a blister mounted on top of the turret that had its own coaxial gun, and a guided missile launcher. There were smoke launchers and active armor systems all over the thing, along with slat armor that formed a kind of cage around it. It was expensive – that much was obvious at a glance.

As the men approached, he realized that they weren’t Marines. Their equipment was just as unorthodox as their vehicle, their mismatched armor and pressure suits colored in the usual UNN black. Some had heavily customized XMRs, while others were wielding older, caseless weapons that were not standard-issue. No two were exactly alike, but what they all shared in common was a full set of prosthetic limbs. They came in varying styles – some little more than skeletal, functional frames, while others were more elaborate to make them less jarring. There wasn’t a man among them who had lost one, two, or even three limbs. These guys were SWAR – a Navy special forces team.

“Listen up!” one of the Valbarans began, the strange flanging in her voice making her sound like a songbird imitating human speech. “Beyond this riverbed is a Bug defensive line. They’re dug in deep, with fortified earthworks and plasma nests protecting the perimeter of the chemical plant. We cleared the beach, but we don’t have the firepower to push through.”

“That’s where you come in,” another added, the two switching roles as though this had been rehearsed. “We need your Kodiaks to destroy those nests and punch a hole through the defensive line so that our Cozat’li tankettes can push through.”

“The Gue’tra armored vehicles will need protection as they move into the compound,” another added, presumably referencing the buggies. “Once we make it inside the perimeter, we’ll need to send troops inside the structure to clear it out and safely disable their systems. An uncontrolled explosion here would be devastating – it would spill millions of liters of contaminants into the surrounding lake. We know that they’ve been manufacturing fuel here, but they could also be making chemical weapons, so watch your fire.”

“Tune down your voltages for low-pen once you get inside,” the company commander added. “I want the Kodiaks loading hard-target munitions. Focus on the nests and try to minimize the return fire. The IFVs will move up behind the tanks. I want Marines and auxiliaries prepping for clearing operations. If the Bugs are as dug-in as we think, that means you might have to clear some tunnels and bunkers.”

“Trogs for a day,” Hernandez grumbled.

“We already lost two Cozat’lis trying to break through,” one of the Valbarans added. “They’re using plasma emplacements with a high rate of fire, and they likely still have some Scuttlers held in reserve. Those things can punch through even a Kodiak’s armor, so don’t get complacent.”

“Do we have CAS?” one of the Marines asked.

“Not so close to the facility,” the company commander replied. “One bomb or orbital strike goes astray, and the whole place will go up like the fourth of fucking July.”

“That’s everything we know right now,” another of the Valbarans chirped. “We can’t hole up here forever – so get ready to roll out.”

“Fleetcom thinks that Big Blue might be operating in this area,” one of the SWAR operatives added, his face hidden behind a visor that was patterned with a stylized decal of a cockroach. His helmet was covered in supplemental optical equipment, as well as a conspicuous comms package that jutted out above it. Curiously, his IFF tag didn’t list a name or a rank, just Roach. The rest of his team were the same. It looked like they were using callsigns. “Expect strong resistance, and call out any sightings of unusual Warriors or especially large Bugs. That could be our target.”

That meant that one of the Kings might be responsible for defending this facility, then. Evan flashed back to the ambush on the convoy, remembering the tall creature that had stepped out of its Warrior suit, how it had lifted that dead Marine to inspect him as though he weighed no more than a doll. If one of those things was on this island, then the Bugs would be more coordinated than those that they had faced in their previous engagements.

They dispersed, everyone returning to their respective vehicles, Evan joining the rest of his squad as they piled into their IFV again. Once he was secured inside, he could see through the external cameras that the Valbarans were mounting up, climbing into their tankettes and buggies. Their vehicles might be small, but so were the little reptiles.

The Kodiaks began to drive up the riverbank in a loose line formation, their weight collapsing parts of it, their treads churning up the soil. The IFVs followed behind them, then the Valbaran vehicles brought up the rear.

After only a few minutes, the ruined hull of one of the tankettes came into view, its armor slagged by what looked like concentrated plasma fire. The trees and foliage all around it were scorched, blackened by fires that had subsequently petered out in the humid environment. Almost as soon as the Kodiaks passed it, bright green streams of enemy fire began to pour out of the forest ahead. The glowing bolts splashed against the tree trunks, igniting the fronds of the ferns, impacting the front armor of the tanks. They weathered it, their turrets swiveling into position, recoil making them rock on their tracks as they returned fire. Evan couldn’t even see what they were shooting at from his vantage point, but he saw the torrents of earth that they kicked up in the distance, billows of flame rising above the treetops.

They kept up the forward momentum, the plasma fire posing little danger to the MBTs. Finally, a structure came into view. Nestled in a cluster of palm trees was a large mound of earth, covered over with a carpet of plant life. It would have been unremarkable was it not for the torrent of energy bolts that were spewing from a narrow slot on the near side. It was a concealed pillbox. One of the Kodiaks swiveled its turret to aim at it, sending a shell whistling straight through the opening. The gunfire ceased immediately, then an explosion followed a split-second later, lifting the structure into the air like the cap of a volcano blowing open.

As they passed the first line of smoldering bunkers, a sudden explosion tore through the forest, lifting the prow of the lead vehicle clear off the ground. A cloud of debris was thrown high into the air, shrapnel tearing chunks out of the nearby trees and shaking the canopy above, the tank dropping back down with a tremendous crash. Some of its ceramic tiles had been shaken loose by the impact, and both of its tracks had been thrown, but it still seemed to be operational. Whether the crew were even alive after that, Evan had no idea.

“Mines!” Simmons warned. “Full stop!”

Their IFV jolted to a halt, the rest of the vehicles in the formation doing the same. The rear hatch of the nearest tank popped open, a solitary crewmember leaping out. He ran around the side of his vehicle, moving to the prow, where he unfastened a length of cable that was attached via a thick spool. Holding the hook in one hand, he sprinted out into the open, ducking as another barrage of fire came in his direction. His tank fired on the target, the projectile zipping only a couple of meters above his helmet, creating another bright explosion in the distance. He slid to a stop behind the disabled Kodiak, clipping the cable to a bar just beneath the hatch to the crew compartment, then gave it an experimental tug. After a quick thumbs-up, he rushed back over to his own vehicle, which was already starting to reverse. He hopped up to ride on the hull as its treads dug into the soil, the cable pulled taut, the damaged MBT starting to move.

More of the tanks drove up to cover it, laying down suppressive fire with their secondary weapons, mortars and railgun fire sending shattered palm trees crashing to the forest floor. Once the damaged tank had been dragged clear of the minefield, an IFV pulled up beside it, a squad of Marines leaping out to rescue the crew.

The Kodiaks near the front of the formation employed their mine-clearing attachments, firing rockets from tubular launchers attached to the mounting points on their turrets, the projectiles spinning through the air on plumes of smoke. They draped spirals of explosive cable over the forest ahead, four of them exploding one after another, followed by secondary blasts from activated mines. Evan could hear airborne soil and fragments of rock raining on the roof of the IFV as the debris fell back down, the explosives scouring the path ahead.

As the tanks started to advance into the blasted wasteland that they had created, the other vehicles fell into close formation behind them, practically driving in their tracks to avoid triggering any more concealed traps. There were more pillboxes dotted throughout the forest, but they were of little concern, the Kodiaks rolling through them.

“I don’t like bein’ in such close formation,” Hernandez muttered, gripping the handhold above his seat as the IFV bounced through the uneven terrain. “Remember how they hit us on the road? They tried to disable the lead vehicles to trap the rest of the convoy behind them.”

“We’ve got no other choice if we want to navigate this minefield,” Evan replied.

“Yeah, and maybe that’s the way they want it…”

They stopped again as the lead Kodiaks fired off more line charges, another series of explosions rocking the IFV.

“Can’t they pick up the pace?” McKay complained. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”

From somewhere to their right, a bright bolt of plasma crackled through the trees, striking one of the lead vehicles in its side armor. The tank rocked under the impact, its heat-resistant paneling glowing white-hot as it dissipated the energy over a larger area. Before it could even turn its turret to face its attacker, a follow-up shot hit it, overwhelming its defenses. The superheated gas punched through, leaving a slagged hole in its wake, liquid metal pooling on the ground like lava. Its ammunition ignited, the blowout panels on the rack behind the turret erupting into a jet of bright flame as it cooked off. It wasn’t enough to save the vehicle, however, black smoke starting to pour from the molten hole in its side.

“Here they come!” Simmons shouted, turning in his seat to look through the external cameras. “Scuttlers on our three o’clock!”

Through the palm trees, Evan could see a trio of the crab-like vehicles marching towards the formation on their eight, segmented legs. They were the tank variants, equipped with massive plasma turrets and side-mounted rocket pods. One of them opened its beak-like prow as it advanced, extending its sensory apparatus on its long, flexible neck like a snail peeking out of its shell. Its off-blue flesh glistened in the light, slick with some kind of fluid. Another of them fired, this one aiming towards the rear of the convoy, trying to box them in. A stream of missiles impacted the light Valbaran vehicles that were trailing behind, overturning those that they didn’t immediately destroy. The things were far more resilient than Evan would have expected, their light armor warding off shrapnel and debris. Still, several succumbed, turned to burning wrecks by direct impacts.

The nearby IFVs and tankettes began to retreat to cover them, forming a protective cordon. As a second wave of rockets sailed towards them, the active protection systems on the UNN vehicles shot them out of the air, explosive panels on their hulls sending out sprays of shrapnel to intercept them. Some of the Valbaran tanks popped smoke, creating an obscuring, white haze that quickly enveloped the rear of the convoy.

The UNN tanks were responding now, pouring fire into the trees. Armor-piercing shells tore through the layered carapaces of the Scuttlers, blowing out chunks of wet flesh, splattering the nearby foliage with their bodily fluids. Gun pods chewed holes in them, cutting out their legs from under them, a guided rocket hitting one of them dead-center. The blast ignited its ammunition and fuel, making it explode in a brilliant flare of emerald and ruby, chunks of wobbling meat raining to the forest floor like whale blubber.

More of the alien constructs were closing in, a salvo of plasma fire striking the convoy from the left. It was another pincer movement, just like when the company had been ambushed on the road. They were ready for them this time, however. As an IFV took several shots from the Bug plasma turrets, the concentrated fire melting through its hull like wax, the nearby vehicles began to fire back. The thirty-millimeter railguns mounted on the roofs of the Pumas spewed molten tungsten, mortars and rockets joining them. They bathed the forest in fire, joined by the Kodiaks, their main guns tearing through the enemy armor.

Without the element of surprise, the Bug vehicles couldn’t get too many shots in, quickly succumbing to the convoy’s weapons. They slumped over, their limbs twitching as their fuel spilled out of them like blood, some of them burning with green fire as they cooked.

Hernandez whooped, pumping his fist in triumph.

“Look at those fuckers burn! You think we could eat that stuff? Just like baked lobster, right?”

“If you want to try, be my guest,” Tatzi replied with a hiss of distaste.

They began to move again, one of the Kodiaks pushing its burning counterpart out of the way. The crew were toast – there was smoke coming from every opening in its hull. A few of the IFVs and tankettes remained behind, covering the damaged buggies, Evan watching them diminish behind the convoy. Unlike the Bugs, the Coalition made efforts to rescue their injured comrades, which meant that even failed attacks could take a toll on the company’s overall strength.

More line charges fired ahead of the convoy, explosions echoing through the forest as the mines detonated. Each time they fired, they had to stop, prolonging the time the vehicles were vulnerable. The IFV suddenly shook around them, what sounded like one of the reactive armor panels on the roof going off. Shrapnel pinged off the hull, a barrage of rockets or maybe mortars peppering the surrounding area with explosions.

“Indirect fire,” Simmons explained, tightening his harness. “Brace for more impacts. They’ll probably saturate the area.”

Just as the sergeant had suspected, another barrage quickly followed, but this one exploded like a shower of fireworks above the canopy. Behind them, one of the company’s Kestrels drove into view, its camera dome scanning the sky frantically as it fired glowing streams of shells from its point defense guns.

“Come on, come on,” Brooks hissed. “Get moving already!”

Finally, they cleared the minefield, the next spool of line charges failing to trigger any explosives. The formation spread out, able to space themselves properly now, bringing more of their weapons to bear.

In the trees ahead, a Scuttler configured with a multi-barreled mortar launcher in place of a turret came into view, starting to scurry backwards as the Kodiaks turned their sights on it. A coaxial plasma weapon mounted on its side began to fire, but it was quickly silenced as two shells blew it open, sending its limp body slumping against a nearby tree. Its lanky pilot was birthed from an opening beneath its carapace along with a torrent of fluid, the creature struggling to tear itself free of the umbilical cords that still linked its spine to the vehicle. It was quickly turned into a pus-colored mist by the chatter of an IFV’s gun.

“I see the depot!” Evan said, the building coming into sight over the treetops ahead. He could make out a series of tall spires that rose high into the air, tapering into a subtle tip, kind of like a termite mound that had been stretched. Their walls were uneven, made from the same packed dirt sealed by hard resin that they had seen in other Bug structures. They were covered in a network of fleshy pipes, as though the entrails of some giant, disemboweled animal had been draped over them. They appeared to trail down to the ground, out of view from Evan’s vantage point.

“What the fuck are those?” Hernandez wondered aloud. “Chimneys? Distillation towers, maybe?”

They came across the perimeter wall, another giant earthwork that formed an impassable barrier ahead of them, maybe ten meters high. More pillboxes had been built into its base at intervals, presumably accessed from the other side, opening up on the advancing vehicles. The Kodiaks quickly took them out, firing one after another, smoke and debris billowing from them as they were obliterated by the bunker-busting shells.

“I hope they’re watching their fire,” Simmons complained. “If one of those shells punches through and hits a fuel tank, this whole island is going to be turned into a crater.”

“How are we even gonna get inside?” McKay asked. “I don’t see no entrance.”

“The Kodiaks are securing the perimeter,” Simmons said as the tanks began to split into two groups, driving around the perimeter wall. More explosions shook the ground as they took out pillboxes, disabling the rest of the facility’s defenses. “Once they’re done, we can try to find a way inside.”

“Can’t we blast our way in?” Brooks asked. “The walls can’t be that strong.”

“Probably, but not without the risk of blowing up the plant,” Simmons replied. “Tune your voltages down – minimum penetration. It’s not going to stop a direct hit, but it might stop your slugs from punching through several layers of wall.”

Evan did as he asked, accessing his XMR wirelessly via the display on his wrist, setting the voltage as low as it could go. A subsonic slug would still kill a Bug effectively, but it wouldn’t penetrate nearly as far.

It was a tense wait for the all-clear. They were sitting on top of a powder keg that could go off at any moment. Finally, new orders came through, Simmons relaying them to the team.

“Okay, we’re gonna dismount and see if we can find a way inside. Jarilans, it’s your time to shine. Go sniff out the entrance.”

Jade nodded, the three Drones jogging down the troop ramp, the rest of the squad following behind them. They fanned out into the surrounding forest in a loose formation, traipsing through the ferns, their Puma driving along behind them as they skirted the base of the vaguely circular wall. The seven other IFVs in the company split into two groups, heading in different directions, as did the Valbarans. The little creatures followed along in their buggies, their tankettes helping provide cover, crushing the undergrowth beneath their tracks. Evan could see one of the Kodiaks idling a few hundred meters ahead of them, its turret turned back to face the forest in case there were more Bugs lying in wait. There was a smoking pillbox next to it, the mound of soil and resin collapsed in on itself. A badly burnt body was lying beside it, partially buried in the rubble. It was a Drone that had tried to dig itself out, but it must have succumbed to its injuries in the process.

“What do you smell, Jade?” Brooks asked as he swept his rifle across the forest.

“A lot of alert pheromones,” she replied, her antennae waving in the air. “We definitely threw a proverbial rock at the hornet’s nest.”

“If by proverbial rock you mean a HE shell,” Brooks added.

Her two companions had moved further apart, covering a larger area. To their right, the other IFV teams were spreading out into the forest, expanding the search area as their Valbaran counterparts covered them. As Evan watched, a flock of the little reptiles dismounted from their buggy, moving in tandem as they fanned out to investigate one of the ruined bunkers.

There was a sudden chorus of gunfire, Evan shouldering his rifle. As he aimed it at the source of the sound, he saw that one of the squads had discovered some survivors inside a partially destroyed pillbox and were finishing them off. They were firing through a tunnel-like opening, a Marine leaning in to let off a few more shots into the damaged structure.

“I got something,” one of the Jarilans said. It was Aster, if Evan remembered correctly. He was probably the only person in the squad who could tell any of them apart. “Smells like a tunnel entrance, somewhere ahead of us.”

“Got it,” Jade confirmed with a nod. “It’s a ways East of us – carried on the wind, I think.”

Simmons called it in, the teams coordinating, moving in the same direction. They marched through the forest like a search party looking for a missing hiker, leaving no stone unturned. The tropical foliage was less dense than what Evan was used to, letting him see further and giving the enemy less cover. He felt a lot more secure with the armored behemoth that was the Puma rolling along behind him, its blister scanning the trees ahead for targets.

There was a sudden movement, Simmons raising a fist in a gesture for them to halt. The IFV ground to a stop, the team taking a knee, one of the Valbaran tankettes rolling up beside them to provide cover. One of the aliens popped her helmeted head out of a hatch on the sloping front of the vehicle, peering into the forest beyond.

A few hundred meters ahead of them, there was a familiar mound of earth, Evan quickly identifying it as a tunnel entrance. It was larger than some of the others that he had seen, maybe three meters wide and just as high. Something was wriggling out of it. A large, crab-like leg emerged, then another, the thing starting to drag itself out into the open like a trapdoor spider crawling out of its lair. The tunnel was remarkably strong, the soil sealed in by a layer of shining resin, undisturbed by the movements of the creature. As more of its segmented limbs caught the sunlight, Evan concluded that it was another Scuttler, but he was proven wrong when more of its body came into view. Like the alien tanks, it sported a set of eight limbs, and it was covered in an armored shell that matched its environment. It had no turret, however. It was elongated, resembling a beetle with a fat, swollen abdomen that seemed to fit the tunnel with only a hair’s width of clearance.

“What the fuck is that?” Hernandez asked, training his weapon it.

“Some kind of tank?” Evan wondered, watching the thing free itself from the tunnel. It began to march through the forest, the beak-like structure on its prow opening to let its sensory organ snake out on its long neck, its clusters of eyes and antennae taking in its surroundings. Rather than attack the observers, it turned away from them, quickening its pace. Evan could see now that the swollen abdomen was actually some kind of cylindrical tank, held in place by what looked like ribs of chitin that were gripping it like a giant hair clip.

There was a loud crack as the nearest Kodiak fired at the thing, the projectile whizzing over their heads, punching straight through a palm tree that was in its path. It traveled so quickly that there was no perceptible delay before it impacted, a bright flash darkening Evan’s visor to the point that he couldn’t see at all. He was deafened as his helmet muffled a loud boom, the ground beneath his feet shaking, a shockwave lifting him off his feet. He was tossed to the ground, the impact winding him, his visor clearing to reveal a mushroom-shaped cloud rising into the sky.

He sat up with some difficulty, seeing that there was nothing left of the alien vehicle save for a burning husk, dark smoke pouring from the charred remains as raging flames licked at the air. The trees all around it had been flattened by the blast, the nearby foliage burning. The rest of his team had been similarly incapacitated, groaning and cursing as they struggled to their feet, some of the nearby squads doing the same.

“Fuck, we’d be deaf if it wasn’t for these helmets,” Simmons said as he opened his visor to take in a strained breath. “What the fuck just happened?”

“I think it was carrying fuel,” Jade replied, Evan helping her to her feet. He steadied her, the Jarilan grimacing as she leaned on him. “Fuck, my spiracles…”

The Jarilans didn’t have ears, nor did they have lungs, so the pressure wave must have impacted them in other ways. He had no idea what she was feeling, but she seemed to be recovering quickly enough. A couple of Marines were helping her companions up, the insects unsteady on their feet.

“They must be trying to evacuate what fuel they can before we shut the place down,” Evan added. “How do they get off the island, do you think? Maybe they walk along the lake bed.”

“Probably more tunnels,” Jade replied, Evan releasing her as she seemed to recover her sense of balance.

“Anyone hurt?” Simmons asked, turning to glance at his charges. “Someone tell the Kodiaks not to be so fucking trigger happy. We’re lucky that thing didn’t take the rest of the facility with it!”

“At least we know how they’re gettin’ in and out,” Hernandez said, brushing some of the dirt off his armor. “You reckon we can get in through that Bug hole, Sarge?”

“Not with the vehicles,” Simmons replied, turning to appraise the IFV. “They’re too big. We’d have to go in on foot.”

“Those look about the right size,” Hernandez added as he gestured to the nearest tankette.

“We don’t know that the tunnel surfaces inside the wall,” McKay added, reaching up to straighten his helmet. “It could lead to some kind of underground loading area or something.”

“We won’t know until we take a look,” Simmons added, bringing a finger to the side of his helmet. “This is Delta-seventeen – we’ve located a potential ingress point.”

“I hope there are other tunnels because we’re not gonna be able to get near that one as long as that fuel tanker is burning,” Jade said. “What the hell is that? Smells like liquid methane of some kind.”

“Delta-five has found another one,” Simmons announced. “Looks like we have our way inside.”


When they arrived at the mouth of the second tunnel, the SWAR team were already preparing to venture inside. Their black APC was parked nearby, and they were checking their gear, one of them talking to the flock of Valbarans who had given the briefing at the start of the operation. Several Kodiaks had formed a protective perimeter, their engines idling as they stood guard, and a few of the alien vehicles had lined up nearby. It looked like Hernandez had been right – they might try to send them through the tunnel if the SWAR guys found an exit into the compound on the other end. The tankettes were slightly shorter and narrower than the tanker Bug had been and would probably be able to make it through.

“Here’s the plan,” Simmons said, relaying their new orders. “The Spec-Ops guys are going in first, and if they find a way through, we’re going in after them. Our job will be to secure the exit and lock it down until the Valbarans can get their vehicles inside the wall. If the tunnel leads to some kind of underground facility, the Valbarans will follow us in on foot, and we’ll start the clearing operation.”

Evan watched as the SWAR operatives lined up outside the tunnel, then moved into the shadowy opening one by one, their rifles at the ready. He noted that they didn’t have any Jarilans with them, despite the fact that every IFV in the company had been assigned a trio of the aliens. Did they have some means to detect pheromones on their own, or were they just that averse to working with the insects? They must have a lot more autonomy than the average Marine, judging by their unorthodox gear, so maybe that was a decision that they had the authority to make.

“I’m glad we’re not goin’ first,” Hernandez muttered, shifting his weight uncomfortably. “You ever been inside a Bug hole before, Evan?”

He took a moment to decide whether it was an off-color joke or a genuine question, eyeing his friend suspiciously through his visor.

“Nah, can’t say that I have.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time in hives,” Jade added, walking over to join them. “I lived in one for most of my life. As long as you can sense pheromones, you won’t stand any chance of getting lost, and it’s not as dark as it looks. At least back home, we had bioluminescent fungi that grew on the ceiling to provide illumination.”

“We have night-vision, so I’m not too worried about that,” Hernandez replied. “I just…don’t like enclosed spaces, y’know?”

“You live on an assault carrier,” Evan scoffed. “Your quarters are about the size of a walk-in freezer. How the hell can you be claustrophobic?”

“I dunno,” he replied with a shrug, eyeing the mouth of the tunnel warily. “Maybe it’s somethin’ about havin’ a thousand tons of earth over my head.”

Evan’s heart skipped a beat as the sound of far-off gunfire echoed through the tunnel. He exchanged a worried glance with his companions, sliding down his visor preemptively. After a few more minutes of tense waiting, the SWAR team reemerged. They looked none the worse for wear, though one of their number was splattered with Bug juice, the mucous-colored fluid sticking to his visor and his prosthetic forearm.

Delta company’s lieutenant and the flock of Valbaran commanders stepped forward, Evan listening in as the Spec-Ops team gave their report.

“The tunnel comes out into some kind of courtyard,” the man with the cockroach-themed faceplate began. “It’ll put us inside the compound, on the other side of the wall. We need to send in the armor first because they’ll be expecting us. We cleared the tunnel on our way through, but that doesn’t mean they won’t send more of ‘em in after us.”

“Then we shall send in the Cozat’li tankettes first,” one of the Valbarans said, turning to her companions as the panels on their suits flashed in colored patterns.

“They will form a safe perimeter and cover the infantry as they emerge,” another added.

“It’s all the cover we’re gonna have, so I hope those things can take a hit,” the operative replied skeptically. “And for fuck’s sake, watch your fire. You all saw how that tanker went up.”

“I will tell my Commandos to be careful,” one of the Valbarans said. “Don’t worry, they will do their jobs.”

“We could send in the Bugs first,” another member of the SWAR team added. He was clad in black Marine armor that had an exaggerated ballistic collar, the exposed forearms of his prosthetics patterned with elaborate tattoos that looked like they had been laser-etched into the polymer. He took a step forward, leaning his heavy XMR over his shoulder. It was configured as an assault rifle, but the attachments and tightly-packed coils made it look heavy enough that an unaugmented person would have trouble carrying it. Like his friends, his matte black visor was decorated with a decal – this one a stylized smiley face that came off distinctly sinister. “They’re expendable,” he added, nodding to Jade and her companions. “Let them take the first volley, then we can move up behind them and get a better idea of where the shooters are.”

Hernandez glanced over at Evan warily, perhaps wondering if he was about to start a fight with someone who could clearly rip his arms out of their sockets. Evan knew better now, keeping quiet as he stared daggers at the operative through his opaque visor.

“Not an option,” the lieutenant replied sternly. “The Jarilans are Coalition auxiliaries.”

“If you say so,” the operative replied with a shrug. No Marine would dare talk to a superior officer like that. Were these guys even part of the Navy’s chain of command, or did they answer directly to the admiralty?

“Alright, let’s get those tanks rolling,” the roach guy said as he waved the idling vehicles forward. “Leave the buggies – they’ll only get in the way.”

The Marines began to line up near the tunnel, the UNN vehicles covering them. The company numbered almost a hundred men, and that was without the Jarilans. Combined with almost the same number of Valbarans, there were too many people to make it through without causing dangerous holdups. The commanders chose around sixty people – three squads of Marines and their Jarilan auxiliaries, and two squads of Valbaran Commandos. The SWAR team would lead them. Six of the tankettes would drive ahead of the infantry to secure the exit, while the rest would follow behind.

“Of course we would get picked,” Hernandez grumbled as he checked the magazine on his XMR. “I’m startin’ to wish we weren’t so good at our jobs.”

“What do you think about the Valbarans?” Evan asked, nodding in the direction of the little aliens.

Two squads of six were gearing up nearby, loading PDWs and tightening the belts on their rigs. They seemed to have adopted mostly standard Coalition gear, but their outfits were nothing like those worn by UNN Marines. Their pressure suits clung to their figures, patterned with red and orange camouflage, sporting odd color panels on the forearms and on the twin cables that hung from the backs of their heads. The ceramic plates that they wore were mounted beneath the surface, only covering the chest and thighs as far as Evan could tell. Their helmets followed the shape of their snouts, with a dark visor that closed over their scaly faces like a jaw.

“I’ve heard that they’re stronger and faster than they look,” Jade said.

They were interrupted as one of the tankettes trundled past them, lining up with the mouth of the tunnel. There was a little less than a meter of clearance from the walls and ceiling, but it looked like it would fit.

“If anything tries to come down the tunnel from the other side, they’re gonna be in for a nasty surprise,” Brooks chuckled as he watched five more of them pull up to form a row. “Suddenly, making tiny tanks doesn’t seem like such a stupid idea.”

“Alright, move out,” the guy with the roach helmet shouted. He waved the tankettes on, the little vehicles proceeding down the tunnel carefully, the lead driver popping her head out of the hatch on the front armor to get a better view. The rest of them followed after it, then the SWAR team jogged behind them, disappearing into the shadows.

“Expect to face resistance on the other side,” Simmons warned, the column of Marines starting to move. “Keep your heads down, and for God’s sake, don’t shoot anything that looks like a fuel line.”

They made their way into the dark tunnel, their flashlight beams reflecting off the resin-coated walls. It was as smooth as plastic, transparent, with small imperfections here and there like plaster that had been spread around by hand. As Jade had posited, there were clumps of what looked like moss on the ceiling at intervals, the plants giving off an eerie, bioluminescent glow. Evan couldn’t see very far ahead, as the bulk of the tankettes blocked his view, and the same was true when he looked behind him. Slowly, the sunlight began to fade as they traipsed deeper underground, following the gentle downward curve of the tunnel.

“Even the floor is covered in that resin shit,” Hernandez muttered, aiming his flashlight at the ground as he walked beside Evan.

“It’s Worker saliva,” Jade explained, Hernandez giving her a grumble of disgust. “They smear it on the walls, then it hardens into a rigid layer.”

“How do they dig these tunnels?” Evan asked as he glanced up at the ceiling.

“By hand, for the most part,” she replied. “Workers have shovel-shaped primary hands for that reason, and their secondary hands are usually much more dexterous, designed for fine work. They’ll build tools and weapons, perform surgery.”

“Surgery?” Hernandez repeated, turning his helmet in her direction.

“To a Bug, being a surgeon and a mechanic are pretty much interchangeable,” she said with a shrug. “Wetware and hardware are almost always intertwined.”

“So, what?” Hernandez continued. “They’d pop open the guts of a Warrior like a mechanic would pop open an engine compartment?”

“Essentially, yes. I’ve noticed that humans tend to associate manual labor with a lack of intelligence, so they often assume that Workers are simple-minded. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Without Workers constantly building and maintaining, the hive would collapse. Literally and figuratively.”

There was a crunching sound, Evan watching as the tracks of the tankette ahead of them rolled over a mess of green goop and shell fragments that was staining the left side of the tunnel. It must be one of the Bugs that the SWAR guys had taken out, run over by each of the vehicles in turn. He stepped around it gingerly, what must have once been a Drone now indistinguishable from a bug on a windshield.

The passage began to slope up, indicating that they were past the halfway point. Sunlight started to bleed past the chassis of the vehicles ahead of them, Evan eventually seeing glimpses of sky.

The tankettes began to accelerate. They would have to clear the mouth of the tunnel quickly and spread out lest one of them be disabled and block the path. While they were only expecting to face small-arms fire, it was still a possibility.

Evan heard the gunfire as the vehicles opened up with their railguns, bursts of automatic fire echoing down the tunnel. They might be far smaller than the cannons mounted on the Kodiaks, but they were still devastating weapons against anything but fortified emplacements. The infantry ran after them, the squads of Marines and Commandos pouring out of the tunnel mouth, emerging into an expansive courtyard. It was larger than he had envisioned, maybe two or three square kilometers.

The immediate impression that Evan got was that of an industrial park made of meat. The land here had been flattened by what must have been a huge earthworks project, creating perfectly level ground upon which the plant had been built. It wasn’t dissimilar from an oil refinery, a sprawling network of towers and tanks that were linked by networks of fleshy cables and pipes, more like a living circulatory system than anything resembling machinery. There were rows of bulbous, round containers that looked like giant bladders sprouting from the ground, joined together haphazardly by thick cords that seemed to pulse with a gentle motion. These were organic, made from flesh and resin rather than soil, their surfaces discolored and uneven. They were the size of houses, probably distillation or processing tanks for whatever the hell the Bugs were making here. They weren’t alone. He could see some that resembled water towers sitting on skeletal stilts and clusters of huge, spherical structures in the distance that looked like storage tanks of some kind.

He could see resin racks filled with the same cylinders that the Bug tanker had been carrying on its back, each one positioned beside a dugout that resembled a loading bay, where the vehicles would presumably take on their payloads. There were a few buildings here and there, either standing alone or reinforcing some of the larger organic structures, the same style as those that they had encountered at the anchor site when they had first landed. Instead of doors, their facades were made from branch-like supports that created uneven openings in the packed dirt, and termite-like chimneys rose from their sloping roofs. Some of them were clearly warehouses where they stored materials and supplies, long buildings arranged in seemingly random patterns rather than orderly rows.

Above it all towered the spires that Evan had seen during their approach. They looked like skyscrapers as envisioned by a madman, thick pipes that resembled intestines winding their way up towards their pointed spires, weaving inside and around them. Some were draped between neighboring towers like vines, sagging as they bridged the gaps. Evan couldn’t make sense of any of it. There was no pattern, no obvious logic, just a mass of interconnected structures. Save for some of the free-standing buildings, it didn’t look like there would be any rooms to clear. This was all machinery, technology – there was no inside in any real sense. Not unless it extended deeper underground.

The six Valbaran tankettes had formed a wedge to protect the tunnel exit, and the SWAR team were already taking cover behind them, firing over and around their armored hulls as they engaged Drones that were hiding in the mess of organic pipes. There was plenty of cover for the aliens, the creatures using the network of cables and structures like a jungle gym, climbing all over them to attack from unexpected angles. There were dozens of them, plasma bolts raining down from every direction, splashing against the armor of the vehicles.

The Marines and Commandos rushed out, diving into cover behind the tanks, popping up to return fire. Evan’s helmet dampened the deafening racket, his HUD picking out and tagging targets among the mess of flesh and machinery, struggling to help him make sense of the chaos.

“How the hell do they expect us to avoid hittin’ the refinery!?” Hernandez yelled into his mic, his XMR rocking back against his shoulder as he rose up to fire over the sloping hull of the nearest tankette. “They’re swarming all over the goddamned thing like ants!”

“Our slugs shouldn’t penetrate structures at these voltages!” Jade replied, ducking back down to reload her weapon. She held it in her upper hands, slamming in a new magazine with the lower pair. “Just try not to hit anything that looks important.”

“How am I supposed to know what looks important, Jade?” he said sarcastically as another shot from his rifle sent one of the defenders toppling a good thirty meters to the ground. “It looks like someone smeared a goddamned funhouse with roadkill!”

The Bugs suffered from no such constraints, pouring fire into the enemy, a hail of plasma bolts raining down on them. Evan put his back to the tank that he was using as cover as he reloaded, turning to see more of the little vehicles driving up out of the tunnel behind them. They began to spread out into the compound, some of the teams taking the opportunity to advance along with them, the tanks staying in close formation to protect their charges.

“We gotta push!” one of the SWAR guys yelled. “We can’t lose this beachhead!”

Three of the tanks and one of the squads remained to guard the tunnel, while the rest moved deeper into the compound, keeping the wall to their backs. The Drones couldn’t do much against the armor, dropping like flies as the Marines and Commandos took pot shots with their XMRs. Even at their lowest setting, the slugs traveled at around 300 meters per second. Rather than tearing the Bugs apart, the slugs behaved more like bullets, sending them crumpling to the ground. The tankettes couldn’t fire in the direction of the plant – not when they were loading anti-materiel rounds – so their guns remained mostly silent.

Evan and his team followed behind the SWAR operatives, two of the tankettes preceding them as they drove between the bladder-like containers. Now that he was closer, Evan could see that they were more rigid than they had appeared, the thick cables connected to them via organic sockets that made him very uncomfortable to look at. They must contain some kind of pressurized gas or fuel. As they made their way through the narrow gap between two of the three-meter containers, the tankettes had to drive over the trailing cables, which were fortunately fleshy and flexible enough not to split open. This place hadn’t been designed with wheeled or tracked vehicles in mind – the Bugs would just step over the obstacles.

A squad of six Drones rounded one of the containers ahead of them, the same variety that Evan had encountered before. They were covered in a spiky shell colored in autumn tones, their jaw-like mandibles clicking, their array of eyes spread around their helmets like those of a spider. They leapt onto the leftmost tankette, swarming over it like termites. They pried at anything that resembled a hatch or entry point with their chitinous fingers, firing their plasma pistols at the armor, trying to melt through. Before the humans had time to respond, the turret of the tankette swung left, the long barrel of the gun knocking a couple of them off the hull.

One of them tried to climb to its feet as the tank trundled past it, but a SWAR operative put it down with a controlled burst of gunfire that splashed the nearby container with its blood. The second never had the chance to get up, another of the augmented soldiers planting a boot on its chest, pressing it into the dirt as he took off its head with a couple of point-blank shots. Gore and shell fragments spilled onto the soil, the dense coils that lined his barrel glowing red with heat.

Another of the Drones climbed up onto the turret, turning its attention to the softer targets below, but there were two dozen guns waiting for it. The barrage of XMR fire took it apart, along with its remaining companions, the tank rolling over their ruined bodies as they fell beneath its tracks.

“We gotta clear this place out before we can think about shutting down production,” Simmons said, sweeping his rifle across the towers and raised platforms ahead of them. “There’s a lot more cover in there, but it’s gonna be close quarters.”

“That is why we are here,” Tatzi added, the serrated bayonet on the end of her rifle glinting in the sun as she marched along behind them.

As the tanks cleared the cluster of storage tanks and moved deeper, pipes and walkways crisscrossing over their heads, another squad of Drones launched their attack. They came from the right this time, firing down on the squad from a high perch on one of the raised platforms. Evan’s squad scattered, taking cover behind the nearest container, the SWAR team keeping pace with the tanks as they began to return fire. The right tankette’s gunner had a clear shot from this angle, the barrel of the cannon rising to point at the aliens. The little vehicle began to spew tungsten at them, the shrouded barrel telescoping back into its housing with each shot, the recoil making the tank shudder. The rate of fire was fairly slow, chugging, but it was firing 30mill slugs of the type usually used to take down small spacecraft and Warriors. They eviscerated the Drones, scattering their dismembered body parts in showers of gore. The rounds went straight through the platform, shattering the resin, sending a piece of it collapsing to the ground some ten meters below.

“Guess it’s not the size that counts, but how you use it,” Hernandez mused as he gave Evan a pat on the shoulder. They moved out of cover, continuing on, watching every angle. There was sporadic gunfire from other areas of the plant, but it seemed like most of the defenders had either been killed or were regrouping.

They marched further into the organic refinery, following a winding path through the maze of fleshy pipes and organic structures. There was no logic to the way that the Bugs laid out their facilities, no straight roads joined at right angles, no grids. The placement seemed random, meandering, even if it was probably very carefully planned. It immediately made Evan lose his sense of direction.

“What do you suppose is runnin’ through all these tubes?” Hernandez wondered, craning his neck to look up at the tiered levels of catwalks and pipes above. They were nearing the huge towers now, their spires rising some 50 meters towards the raging auroras.

“It looks like they’re distilling biofuel here,” Jade replied. “If I had to guess, I’d say that they were separating organic compounds for different applications. Fuel, weapons, who knows.”

“How do they expect us to shut it down without blowing it up?” Evan added. “Is there a big off switch somewhere?”

“It’s probably controlled by organic computers,” one of the Jarilans replied, Evan noting that her IFF tag identified her as Cardinal. “We had them back home – biological systems that were controlled through pheromone inputs.”

“So, what?” Hernandez asked skeptically. “It has a nose instead of a touch panel?”

“Basically,” the Jarilan replied with a shrug. “Humans use voice commands to operate a lot of their technology, and the principle isn’t really any different. Instead of sound patterns, they respond to scents.”

“We’ll let you guys handle the fart computers, then,” Hernandez muttered as he turned his attention back to their strange surroundings.

Evan now found himself on a kind of street – which was the only approximation that he could make in this wholly alien environment – just wide enough to let a Scuttler pass through unhindered. It was a winding dirt path that led through the bowels of the refinery, clusters of tanks and containers boxing the team in from both sides, the innumerable pipes and cables forming a kind of hellish canopy above their heads. To their right was the large base of one of the towers, the network of organic infrastructure trailing below ground like the roots of a great tree. There were buildings made of soil and resin surrounding it, probably control stations of some kind, none much larger than a prefab structure. The path was branching, leading off into the plant seemingly at random.

“I think we’re on the right track,” Jade announced, her long antennae wiggling. “I sense…authority, maybe some kind of command center. It’s near the base of this tower.”

“Alright, fan out and start clearing these buildings,” Roach ordered with a wave of his prosthetic hand. The SWAR team split into four groups of three, their weapons shouldered as they moved towards the soil structures. Simmons ordered his squad to stay together, and the group followed behind the operatives, watching the numerous angles carefully. They could be attacked from almost any direction in this mess. The two tanks remained behind, blocking the path, their engines idling.

Evan heard gunfire, turning his head to see that Roach and a couple of his companions were firing into one of the buildings through the branching openings on the nearest facade. One of them plucked a grenade from his belt, then primed it, tossing it into the darkness. There was a thud, then a billow of smoke and dust poured out onto the street, the three men rushing inside.

“You smell that?” Aster warned as the team prepared to breach a nearby structure, turning to Jade.

“Yeah,” she replied, putting her shoulder to one of the misshapen pillars of soil. “There are Bugs inside. Looks like one of the warehouses we saw back at the anchor site.”

“On my mark,” Simmons said, starting to count down from five. “Go!”

The squad poured inside, Evan’s HUD picking out targets in the relative gloom. Red outlines popped out of cover from behind containers the size of oil barrels, aiming plasma weapons at them, but the team was ready. The crack of railguns reverberated off the resin-coated walls as the insects were taken out, a few follow-up shots bringing down a couple of stragglers who were hiding at the far end of the room.

It was indeed another warehouse – racks of shelves filled with cylindrical barrels lining the room in rows, reaching from floor to ceiling. At the back of the structure was an open area with a dugout just beyond, presumably where the containers would be loaded onto a vehicle for transport. There was nothing like a forklift, no mechanical arms. The Workers probably did everything by hand.

They cleared the warehouse, stepping out onto a winding street that was no different from the last. Evan spotted some of the SWAR guys emerging from behind a large storage tank on their left, moving out into the open.

A sudden crack rang out – not from a railgun this time. Something hit the lead SWAR operative like a sledgehammer, his body popping like a balloon filled with gore. His two companions were showered with dark blood, turning their helmets in disbelief to glance back at the ruined corpse of their friend as it tumbled to a stop a few feet behind them.


Another of them took a round to the shoulder, the impact punching a fist-sized hole in him, sending his severed prosthetic arm sailing through the air. Whatever it was, it wasn’t plasma – his armor had been bored through like someone had taken a drill to it. As he fell to his knees, a follow-up shot divided him at the waist.

Everyone else was already taking cover wherever they could, diving behind support pillars and storage tanks, scattering before the unseen sniper. Through his HUD, Evan could see more IFF tags approaching, the rest of the SWAR team rushing to help.

“Stay down!” Simmons ordered, putting his back to one of the branching supports that held up the warehouse. “Anyone got eyes on that fucking thing?”

“What the hell are they hitting us with?” McKay demanded, Evan spotting his tag as the Marine used the shallow dugout like a trench. Brooks and Foster were with him, keeping their heads down as they used their rifles to look over the lip. Evan scanned the jungle of fleshy pipes above them, but he couldn’t see anything. Whatever it was, it had hit them from across the street.

The rest of the SWAR team arrived, the men forming a loose line as they took cover nearby.

“Smiley, get back here!” Evan heard Roach yell over the radio. He searched for the IFF tag, seeing that the man with the smiley face decal on his helmet was taking refuge a ways from the rest of the group, sitting with his back to a cluster of thick pipes that rose up from the ground before curving away towards the nearby tower.

“I’m fuckin’ pinned!” he replied, huffing into his mic. “Where the fuck is it!?”

Movement drew Evan’s attention, and he spotted something rising above one of the squat buildings on the other side of the path. It took a moment for his brain to register its scale, his eyes widening. Whatever it was, it was tall enough to see over the structure, putting it at maybe ten feet. Another appeared, rounding the side of the building, dropping low as it began to sprint.

As it emerged into the open, Evan got his first good look at it. At a glance, it was shaped like a Drone. It had the same body plan, the same arrangement of upper and lower arms, the same digitigrade legs. But where a Drone rarely exceeded five feet, this thing was twice that size. The camouflaged, spiky shell that covered its body was heavily reinforced, inches thick in places. The overlapping plates extended over its shoulders like pauldrons, trailing down its upper arms and abdomen in segments so as not to limit its range of motion. Even its joints were covered over with supplemental plating. Its build was stockier, its limbs as thick around as a man’s thigh, its weight probably even greater than that of the Borealans. Where the Drones had serrated mandibles, this creature had claw-like mouthparts that jutted from its jaw, covered in hooks that resembled the chelicerae of a scorpion. Like its smaller counterparts, its eyes were spread out around its helmet, the lenses glinting as it moved. Its horn was different, too, the trunk splitting into two sweeping points.

Supermajor!” a member of the SWAR team yelled.

They opened up on it, but too late, the thing covering ground deceptively quickly with its loping strides. In its upper pair of arms was a rifle of immense proportions, and in its lower was a mass of chitin atop a long pole – some kind of war hammer.

A hail of tungsten slugs sparked against its carapace as it made a beeline for the pinned operative, the thing weathering the gunfire, lifting its hammer. At the low voltages that they were using, the projectiles weren’t penetrating deep enough to hit anything vital. It was just too heavily armored. It darted around the man’s cover as he leaned out to fire at it, his cry of alarm cut off as it brought a hammerhead the size of a toaster oven down on his helmet. His body crumpled beneath it, the impact kicking up a torrent of dirt and viscera.

Without missing a beat, it raised a rifle that was longer than a man was tall – a blend of metal and chitin with a scope that looked like the compound eye of a housefly. Structures that resembled the gills of a fish ran down the length of its barrel, and there were no conducting rails to indicate that it had magnetic components, meaning that it must be conventional. It made a sound like a hammer striking an anvil as it fired, another of the SWAR operatives exploding into a shower of gore. Those gill-like structures fanned open, the air around them shimmering as they vented excess heat from the weapon.

Two more of the towering creatures strode into view from across the street, the crack of their guns ringing out as they fired. They hadn’t seen Evan’s squad yet – they seemed wholly focused on the SWAR team.

“What the fuck are those things!?” Hernandez hissed, creeping deeper into the cover of the warehouse. “I’ve never seen a Bug that big!”

“Sounds like the SWAR dudes have encountered them before,” Evan replied, sneaking another glance at them. “They called them Supermajors. Any comment, Jade?”

“We have nothing like that back home,” she replied, in awe of the creatures. “What are we supposed to do, Sergeant? Dial up our voltages?”

“We gotta do something,” Simmons growled, letting his rifle hang from its sling as he brought up his wrist display. “Those guys are getting torn apart out there! Fuck it – bump it up by twenty percent.” They did as he asked, tuning the voltages of their XMRs, and the velocity of their slugs along with it. “Fire at will!”

The squad opened up from their hiding places near the warehouse, catching one of the aliens by surprise. Their slugs splashed against its heavy armor, digging craters in its spiky surface, the thing raising an arm reflexively to shield its face. The hail of projectiles tore through the limb, turning it to Swiss cheese, but the thing didn’t go down.

Two of the Supermajors turned to face the squad, forcing them back into cover with a few rounds from their massive rifles. Evan felt splinters of shattered resin pepper his armor as a pillar nearby exploded into shrapnel, blown apart by the projectile. Those rounds were massive – it was like being fired at by an anti-materiel railgun.

It was enough of a distraction for the SWAR team to regroup. They began to spread out, keeping up their fire, peppering the giant insects with slugs as they repositioned. The projectiles punched craters into the thick armor of the Bugs, their ichor spewing from some of the deeper wounds, but it didn’t deter them. Maybe at full voltage, the XMRs could get through, but they were little more than bee stings to the Supermajors. The Bugs were resilient enough already, and one had to destroy a vital organ to put them down for good. With their armor and exaggerated size, it was going to take a lot more to stop them. They were large enough to blur the line between vehicles and infantry.

The lead Supermajor lifted its hammer out of the gory puddle that had once been Smiley, blood dripping from the weapon’s flat head as the creature turned its rifle towards the SWAR team. The augmented operatives popped up from cover, the withering fire making the thing take a staggering step backwards, fragments of shattered carapace and droplets of ichor raining to the dirt all around it.

Roach sprinted towards it, bursting out from between two of the storage containers, moving faster than any human should have been able to. His augmented limbs propelled him across the street, his boots kicking up clods of earth, his XMR trailing behind him on its sling. In one of his hands was clutched a machete with an onyx finish that looked heavy enough to cut a man’s arm clean off.

The Supermajor stepped in, maneuvering its hammer using its lower pair of arms, swinging it towards the ground like it was trying to hit a tent peg. The massive head dug itself into the earth, sending another torrent of loose soil sailing into the air, Evan feeling the thud as it reverberated up through his legs. Roach had sidestepped it, the weapon missing him by an inch, momentum still carrying him forward as he spun around. His feet dug into the ground to stop him, and he gripped the handle of his machete in both hands, swinging it like a baseball bat. The blade whistled through the air, cutting into the elbow joint on the alien’s lower left arm, sending the severed limb tumbling to the ground.

If the thing could even feel pain, it didn’t show it, spinning around as it swung the hammer with its remaining arm. It couldn’t use the gun at this range – Roach was too close. He ducked under the blow, the swing throwing the Bug off-balance when it didn’t make contact, making it stumble without a second arm to control the weapon. Roach’s machete bit into its leg just below the knee, but it didn’t sever it this time, the blade embedding itself in the thick armor plating like an axe into the trunk of a tree.

Another member of the SWAR team was already rushing to his aid, his IFF tag identifying him as Specter. He was unloading what looked like a caseless, suppressed rifle at its face, keeping the weapon remarkably stable as he jogged towards his target. The bullets stood no chance of penetrating, sparking off its helmet, but it was enough to make the Bug raise its upper arms to shield itself. Roach delivered a savage kick to its ankle joint, the limb buckling, the alien dropping to a knee. It released its hammer in a bid to support itself, planting its lower arm in the dirt. It swung its rifle this time, the stock catching Roach in the chest, lifting him off his feet. He was sent skidding across the ground on his back, but before the Supermajor could get back up to aim the rifle at him, Specter closed the gap.

His skid-like prosthetic feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground as he darted in, wrapping his skeletal hands around the haft of the hammer, using a blend of his augmented strength and his momentum to raise it off the dirt. He spun it through the air, his robotic limbs straining against its weight, driving the spike on the rear side of its heavy head into the creature’s helmet like a pickaxe. The sharpened point buried itself deep in the thing’s skull, the impact snapping its head to the side at an unnatural angle, sending it crashing to the ground.

Even as it fell, Specter drew a sidearm with the practiced speed of a gunslinger, aiming it at the Supermajor’s chest. It was an XMH with an extended magazine, the operative emptying a good fifty slugs into the thing in full-auto, his prosthetic arm struggling to manage the recoil. The projectiles dug a bloody crater in its chest, perforating its abdomen, the Bug finally going still. He was firing at full voltage, any bullets that overpenetrated digging into the ground harmlessly. His coils glowing red, he turned to see a second Supermajor raising its rifle at him.

There was a loud crack, but too late, Roach tackling him to the ground like a linebacker. The round narrowly missed, carving a crater in the ground behind them like a small asteroid.

Evan leaned out to provide what covering fire he could, but as he sighted the nearest creature, a blur of orange blew past him. Tatzi and Borzka were racing out of the warehouse, their rifles leveled in a bayonet charge. Their snarling war cry took their target by surprise, and it spun around to face them, but they were already too close. The two felines barreled into it, their combined weight and strength enough to drag the ten-foot alien to the ground. They pinned it down, harrying it with blows from their bayonets, using their XMRs like spears to impale it.

Even their ferocity wasn’t enough to kill the thing, the creature throwing Borzka clear with a swipe from one of its upper arms. He landed hard, even in the low gravity, his five-hundred-pound frame coming down near the rifle that had fallen from the alien’s hands.

The Supermajor overpowered Tatzi, rolling on top of her, holding her down with its upper arms as it reached for its hammer with the lower.

“Tatzi!” Hernandez yelled, stepping out of cover to unload his rifle at the thing’s back. The weapon chewed holes in the plating, but the Bug didn’t even react.

To its right, Borzka struggled to his feet, hefting the massive organic rifle in his arms. He managed to get a finger through what he thought was the trigger guard, bellowing a warning in his native tongue. All Tatzi could do was turn her head away as he fired, the recoil slamming into his shoulder almost hard enough to spin him around. The projectile blew through the Supermajor, lifting it off Tatzi and sending it toppling onto its side. Despite the fact that there was a hole in its torso the size of a basketball, it still tried to get up, Borzka walking towards it as he fired again. Like someone smashing a balloon full of paint on the ground, its guts spilled across the dirt, its chest blowing open like a watermelon on a shooting range. It collapsed on top of Tatzti, and she wriggled out from beneath its bulk, her armor drenched in its leaking fluids.

They weren’t out of the woods yet. The one remaining Supermajor had moved back into cover, a bulbous fuel container shielding it from gunfire. Had it figured out that the attackers were afraid to cause an explosion? It suffered from no such constraints, leaning out to fire down on the smaller targets. It narrowly missed one of the fleeing SWAR members, turning one of his prosthetic legs to scrap and sending him tumbling head over heels as the round impacted the ground right beside him. As it aimed the rifle at his prone body, intending to finish him off, something distracted it.

Further down the street, the two Valbaran tankettes rolled into view from a side-road. They must have heard the gunfire and had managed to find a way to reach them. The Supermajor reacted far more quickly than the drivers could, stepping out into the road to get a better angle, turning its weapon on them. The first shot bounced off the sloping front armor of one of the tankettes, the projectile sent whizzing into the air, but the second found its mark. It punched a hole in the plating, the vehicle rolling to an abrupt halt.

The other tankette swung its turret to face the Supermajor, the barrel rocking back in its housing as it fired. An anti-materiel slug hit it dead-center in the chest, its carapace shattering like glass, gore spraying out behind it. The railgun’s chugging fire rate delivered another trio of shots before it had even had a chance to fall over, one of them taking off its upper right arm, another severing its leg at the thigh. They packed just as much of a punch as whatever the Bug was firing, sending its ruined body toppling to the ground.

“Okay, we’re clear!” Simmons yelled as he looked out at the smoking body. “Let’s secure the area and get some help to those who need it!”

They moved out of the cover of the warehouse, joining the remaining SWAR operatives as they swept the nearby buildings and tended to the wounded. There was nothing that they could do for anyone who had been hit by a rifle or a hammer – their bodies were unrecognizable – but the man with the damaged prosthetic leg was dragged into cover as he cursed all the while.

Hernandez made a beeline for Tatzi, who was trying to wipe some of the gore off her armor. He displayed more concern for her than Evan had ever seen him show for anyone before, which led him to believe that there might be more to their relationship than his usual flings. She seemed alright – none of the blood was hers. Borzka was still standing there with his prize, not sure what to do with the enormous rifle. It was big enough that it even looked large in his oversized hands.

The rest of the team hurried over to the disabled tankette, the crew of the surviving vehicle already piling out through the rear hatch to render aid. Their counterparts had been densely packed into the cramped space, and while Evan didn’t take a look inside the crew compartment for himself, it was obvious from the dismay of the Valbarans that there wasn’t much left to salvage.

“We’re not done here yet,” Roach said, pausing to retrieve his machete. He put a foot on the dead Supermajor’s leg, giving the weapon a few hard tugs before it came loose. He wiped it on his thigh, then slid it back into the sheath on his rig. “We need to find a way to shut this place down.”

“You’ve seen these things before?” Simmons asked, Roach turning his opaque visor to the sergeant.

“Once,” he replied, pausing to reload his rifle. “In the Yellow Zone, up near the moon’s North pole. About twenty of the things fought an entire armored company to a stalemate for four hours until we arrived to help clear them out. We think they were covering the evacuation of the Yellow King. It means that Big Blue is probably operating in this area. These guys were part of his entourage.”

“Don’t think that the field commander is trapped on this island,” Jade warned, stepping forward. “The Bugs don’t need boats – they will have tunneled under the lake, and that’s where it’ll be going if it means to escape.”

“Yeah, we figured that out already,” Roach scoffed. He put a finger to his helmet, glancing up at the sky. “UNN Wizna, this is SWAR team zero-four. We have confirmation that the priority target is operating on the island. Please enact the cordon protocol, authorization code vega-one-seven-eight-nine-four-six.”

Hernandez glanced at Evan, who gave him a shrug in response. After a few moments, the ground shook, a tremor passing through the island.

“Did you feel that?” Evan asked.

“Felt like a small earthquake,” Hernandez replied. “Holy shit, look!” he added as he gestured to the wall in the distance.

Evan turned his head to see a mountain rising above the horizon. It was white, like a puffy cumulus cloud, but it was moving far too quickly to be a natural phenomenon. He soon realized that it was a torrent of water, maybe a hundred and fifty meters high. After a few moments, the dome of water erupted like a popped balloon, what must be millions of liters slowly falling back down towards the lake. More followed, creating a kind of barrier of boiling vapor, encircling the island. Some of them were preceded by brief flashes of light, the echoing sounds of far-off detonations soon reaching Evan’s ears as the lagging sound waves caught up with the action. Those were orbital railguns.

“He’s not going anywhere now,” Roach said with an air of satisfaction. “The carrier just pulverized the lake bed with an orbital strike. If there were any tunnels under there, they’re either collapsed or flooded.”

Roach rallied the remaining members of his team, and they dragged their casualties into the street, heaping what was left of them into a rather unceremonious pile. The guy with the severed leg seemed angrier that he would have to sit out the rest of the mission than about having lost what must have been a very expensive prosthetic.

After only a few minutes, there was a roar overhead as a dropship descended through the clouds. It was the same model as those used by the UNN, except it was painted matte black, and it had no tail markings. The pilot maneuvered it carefully, the width of the street giving it just enough clearance to land, the backwash from its engines kicking up a cloud of dust. They hauled their dead and injured up the ramp, then began to load up.

“Are they leavin’ us?” Hernandez wondered.

“Looks like it,” Evan replied. “I guess they have bigger fish to fry.”

“Your team is staying here, Sergeant,” Roach said as he approached Simmons. “I trust your people can handle shutting this place down?”

“We’ll take care of it,” he replied, Evan’s helmet muffling the sound of the idling engines so that he could hear them.

Roach jogged up into the troop bay, the craft starting to rise off the ground before the ramp had even closed. It climbed up into the sky, then transitioned to level flight, disappearing from view behind the Bug towers.

“I guess they’re redeploying to another area of the island,” Jade mused. “These guys don’t waste any time, do they?”

“Aren’t we goin’ after the big guy too?” Hernandez asked, throwing up his hands in disappointment. “If there’s some kinda Bug commander on the island, shouldn’t we stop ‘em?”

“Our mission is to clear out the plant,” Simmons replied. “It’s not our job to go chasing VIPs – not until Fleetcom says so. Hang tight and secure the perimeter. I need to call in some backup.”


Evan and his team locked down the area while they waited for reinforcements to arrive from outside the wall. Before long, another tankette accompanied by a buggy full of Valbarans came driving down the street. The little aliens eyed the dead Supermajors warily as they unloaded from their vehicle, a couple of them glancing over at the pair of Borealans who were standing guard nearby. Borzka was still holding the enormous biological rifle, and Tatzi was drenched in alien blood. She had picked up one of the chitin hammers, which would probably make a better weapon than her bayonet if they ran into any more of the things, which made for quite an odd sight.

Simmons went over to greet them, and Evan was once again surprised by the fact that their flock had no leader. There was no equivalent of a sergeant giving orders – all of the members were of the same rank and made decisions together. It was weird to have to address six people at once as if they were an individual.

“Never thought I’d see Spec-Ops dudes get pasted before us,” Hernandez said. He was standing beside Evan by the entrance to the warehouse, watching the Valbarans interact with Simmons. “None of us got a scratch – even Tatzi.”

“I guess the Bugs saw us as less of a threat,” Evan replied with a shrug.

“That, or there’s somethin’ to this ghost company shit,” Hernandez added. “I feel like Fleetcom is just gonna keep throwin’ us at problems until our luck runs out.”

“They will if it keeps working,” Evan chuckled.

Simmons seemed to be done with the Valbarans, and he ordered the team to regroup on the road.

“Right,” he began, addressing both his own team and the flock of newcomers. The little reptiles eyed the three Jarilans suspiciously, but they didn’t make any comments. “I just got a sitrep from the lieutenant. It looks like the plant has been mostly cleared of hostiles, and we can focus on hunting down the command center for this place now. Our job is to shut down production, preferably without sending the whole island sky-high. Jade,” he added, nodding to her. “We’re relying on you and your Jarilans to lead us there.”

“We’ll sniff it out, Sergeant,” she replied as she returned his nod.

“Alright, move out,” Simmons ordered. “And don’t let your guard down. Just because we’ve secured the area doesn’t mean there aren’t more critters waiting to leap out and stab you in the gut. There’s no shortage of places for them to hide in here.”

They separated into two columns, each one walking down one side of the twisting road, the two tankettes moving ahead of them as the buggy trailed behind. Evan paused to glance back at the scene of carnage. The three dead Supermajors were still lying in the street – it would probably take a Krell to drag one of them onto a shuttle so it could be returned to the fleet for dissection. The tankette that they had killed was sitting beside them, its crew entombed within its hull. He had no idea how the Valbarans handled burial rites, but they’d hopefully send someone to collect them soon.

The Jarilans directed the convoy, pausing occasionally to sweep one of the little buildings, but they didn’t encounter any more resistance. As they skirted the base of another of the giant towers, Jade’s antennae led them to a familiar sight. There was a mound of earth covering a hole in the ground that led down into the darkness.

“Oh, great,” Hernandez grumbled as he aimed his rifle at the opening. “Three guesses where we’re fuckin’ goin’…”

“Got a Bug hole here,” Jade announced, Simmons jogging over to inspect it. “Looks like it leads down below the plant. Knowing the Bugs, that’s probably where all the control systems are going to be.”

“That’s too small to get the tanks through,” he sighed. “Okay, looks like we’re going spelunking. I want the Jarilans up front. The last thing we need is a squad of Drones taking us by surprise. The rest of you – check your flashlights and watch your fire. It’s gonna be tight down there.”

The two tankettes and the buggy kept watch outside while the two teams filed into the tunnel. This one was much narrower than the one they had used to get inside the compound, just large enough that a human could stand up straight. The Borealans had to duck to avoid hitting their heads, crouch-walking along at the back of the group. Borzka had finally given up the unwieldy alien rifle in favor of his XMR, but Tatzi was still carrying her hammer. At these ranges, it would probably be more useful, assuming she had the room to swing it.

Like the previous tunnel, there was bioluminescent moss clinging to the apex of the curved ceiling above their heads, serving as organic light strips to illuminate the passageway. As they wound deeper and deeper underground, Evan felt the temperature drop, the humid air starting to mist his visor to the point that its automatic heating element turned on. The walls here were just like the rest, coated in a layer of rigid resin that reflected their flashlight beams, sealing off the soil beyond.

“There were Bugs here very recently,” Jade warned. “The tunnel network should open up as we get deeper, so watch out.”

Now, Evan was feeling a little of Hernandez’s claustrophobia, the weight of millions of tons of dirt bearing down over his head. They finally reached a kind of junction, the passage widening a little as it split into five different tunnels.

“Jade?” Simmons asked after a moment.

“Second to the right,” she said, gesturing down one of the passages with her upper arm. “It reeks of alarm pheromones down here.”

They turned, continuing on. Evan noted that the winding nature of the tunnels made it impossible to see very far in either direction. There were no clear sightlines. One thing that he could see were the cables that trailed along the left wall. They were packed into fleshy bundles, more like intestines than anything familiar. If he had to guess, these were probably data lines of some kind. If the Bugs used biological computers, then it might not be a stretch to imagine that their entire information network could be organic – with nerves instead of wires and neurons instead of transistors. As they rounded another bend, he noticed some kind of gooey pustule on the ceiling. A shiver crawled up his spine as he saw something within the jelly-like blob move. It was tracking him as he walked down the tunnel.

“Hey, Jade?” he asked. “What’s with that booger on the ceiling?”

“It’s an organic camera,” she replied.

“It’s watching us…”

“That’s what it’s there for, yeah.”

“Well, who’s on the other end?” he added as he moved beneath it.

“There’s no way to know,” Jade explained. “They know that we’re here, in any case.”

As they rounded another bend in the tunnel, they came across a door that was built into the right side of the passage. It was a panel made from earth and resin that matched the wall around it, following the same curve, but there was a distinct indent that picked it out. To its left was another blob of goo. Jade and her companions seemed drawn to it, and she raised a fist, readying her weapon.

“Fresh alarm pheromones coming from this side-room,” she warned.

“There’s something in there,” Aster added, taking up position beside her.

“Stack up,” Simmons ordered, the team putting their shoulders to the wall. “Jade – whenever you’re ready.”

She raised a hand to the fleshy blob beside the door, and it quivered at her touch as though it was alive. Her eyes narrowed like she was concentrating, the thing wobbling a couple more times, then the panel slid open. Half a dozen Marines rushed inside, their XMRs shouldered, finding themselves in a small dugout that was being used as a storage room. It was piled with small crates made from uneven resin, stacked high against the walls. Standing in the middle of it all, illuminated by the flashlight beams, were a dozen cowering figures.

“Whoa, whoa!” Jade exclaimed as she reached out to lower the barrel of the nearest rifle. “Hold your fire – they’re just Workers.”

Evan could see them now, one of the aliens rising to its full height, wringing its hands nervously as it looked up at Jade. They were small creatures, no more than four feet tall, their builds far stockier than those of the more lithe Drones. Their upper arms were more heavily built than those of their counterparts, with hands that sported a pair of wide fingers like the blade of a shovel, presumably used for digging. The lower pair were much smaller and more dexterous, designed for delicate work. Instead of autumn camouflage, their carapaces came in varied hues, shades of blue, orange, and green glittering under the flashlight beams. They peered at the Marines with wide eyes – more confused than afraid.

“So what?” Simmons asked, confused by her protest.

“Workers are harmless,” Jade explained. “They’re not combat forms. In fact, they’re incapable of harming us – it’s not part of their genetic blueprint.”

“What are they doing in here?” Hernandez asked, keeping his rifle trained on them.

“Hiding,” Jade added. “They’ve probably been conditioned to get out of the way if there’s a fight going down.”

“Again, so what?” Simmons continued with a dismissive shrug.

“They’re surrendering, Sarge,” Brooks said warily. “We aren’t supposed to kill non-combatants, right? They ain’t armed.”

“There’s no such thing as a Bug non-combatant,” Simmons replied sternly. “All Bugs exist to perform some function in the hive. Even if they’re not wielding a weapon on the front line, they’re fixing vehicles and machinery, they’re manufacturing munitions. Our orders are to kill on sight.”

“There are no civilians,” McKay added, nodding in agreement with Simmons. “Why do you think we can be so loose with RoE? They can’t surrender – they don’t even understand the concept.”

“But…we can’t just kill ‘em,” Hernandez said, lowering his XMR. “Look at ‘em – they’d be shittin’ their pants if they were wearin’ any.”

“That didn’t bother you when we massacred all those farmers a few days back,” Simmons chided.

“Yeah,” Hernandez admitted, hesitating for a moment before looking to Jade. “But that was before…”

“What do you propose we do with them?” Simmons continued. “You want to take them prisoner? Read them their fucking Miranda rights?”

“Can’t the Jarries come pick them up?” Evan suggested. Hernandez gave him a grateful glance, glad of the support.

“There are millions of them on this moon,” Simmons replied. “Where are they gonna house them? There aren’t enough ships in the fleet. How are they gonna feed them? Private Aster,” he added, turning to one of the Jarilans. “Can these things even survive outside of their hive?”

“No,” Aster replied, her gaze wandering between Jade and Simmons as though she was trying to decide which side she should take. “We saw what happened when we tried to recondition them back on Jarilo. All it did was frighten and disturb them. We ended up just putting them back to work because it was what they wanted. It’s what they’re made for.”

“Bugs aren’t Jarilans,” Simmons declared, addressing the dissenters. “Don’t make the wrong kinds of comparisons, and don’t let yourselves get all misty-eyed over the enemy. The Bugs on this planet have been engineered from the genome-up to kill anything that isn’t related to them. These ones might not shank us, but the moment we leave, they’re gonna turn all of the systems that we shut off right back on again.”

“If they’re responsible for this facility, then they’ll be single-minded in its maintenance,” Cardinal conceded. “They’ll try to repair any damage that we do to it.”

“Is there a problem here?” one of the Valbarans asked from the tunnel outside, her musical voice distracting the team.

“No,” Simmons replied, giving his squad a few moments of silence to voice any further objections.

Evan looked to Jade, but all she did was shrug.

“They’re right,” she sighed. “These Workers are probably more agitated by being prevented from carrying out maintenance than by having guns pointed at them. I wish there was another way, but we didn’t create this situation.”

“We’ve been held up long enough,” Simmons said, stepping to the front of the firing line. He aimed his XMR from the hip, holding down the trigger, a few of the Marines backing up in surprise as he emptied his magazine into the bunched-up Workers. The resin behind them shattered like glass, soil pouring through the holes to partially bury the dismembered bodies, their alien fluids pooling on the floor. “Come on,” he said, pausing to reload as the heat from his coils made the air around them shimmer. “We have a control room to find.”


They ventured deeper into the maze of tunnels, encountering no resistance save for a few stray Workers who were quickly cut down. The Jarilans led them to another door, but no matter how much they fiddled with the blob – which Evan had since learned was a kind of pheromone-based scanner – it wouldn’t open.

“Step aside,” Tatzi said, her head brushing the ceiling as she marched forward. The squad cleared some space for her, and she raised her hammer, swinging the heavy chitin head at the obstacle. It hit the door with enough force to shake it in its frame, ringing it like a gong. There must be metal under the soil and resin. With a few more earth-shaking hits, it finally dented, then caved in.

The Marines and Commandos poured into the room, Evan sweeping the chamber with his XMR. This one was far larger than the last, the domed ceiling rising some ten meters above his head, a large cluster of glowing moss clinging to its apex. It had been hollowed out of the earth and coated with resin, forming a kind of artificial cavern. The ground was covered in strange, irregular towers made from orange resin, each one reaching about shoulder height. They kind of looked like slimy filing cabinets. Their vaguely rectangular surfaces were 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’s surface seemingly at random, some of them wobbling and shifting as though they were alive. Organic cables trailed from them, sinking into the soil at their bases like the roots of a plant.

There were a few Workers milling about, standing beside the strange towers or walking between them. They looked up as the newcomers disturbed them, not even attempting to flee or protect themselves, and they were quickly gunned down. A stray slug hit one of the towers, shattering the resin. It severed it about halfway up its length, and to Evan’s surprise, it was full of what looked like offal. Guts spilled out onto the ground, fluids pooling as though the thing was bleeding.

“Organic computers,” Aster explained, making her way between them. “This must be the control center for the plant.”

“Can you shut it down?” Simmons asked, resting his XMR over his shoulder as the rest of the team fanned out to secure the room. The Valbarans were small enough that they could only just see over the towers, stalking between them like raptors as they hunted for more Bugs.

“They’re using a pheromone language that we don’t speak, as well as a programming language that would probably be even harder to decipher,” Jade replied as she approached one of the towers. She let her PDW hang from its sling, Evan watching as she examined the strange monolith. He expected her to reach out and start pressing the pustules like buttons, but her arms remained at her sides. “I’ll see what I can do, but no promises.”

“Aren’t you gonna try to find the off switch?” Hernandez asked, mirroring Evan’s thoughts.

“I am,” she replied. “These aren’t buttons – they’re pheromone-sensing organs that respond to scent inputs. They’re pretty similar to what we used back on Jarilo, but it’s like trying to navigate an unfamiliar file system in a foreign language. I don’t know the keywords that I need.”

“What if we just set the fucking place to blow?” McKay suggested, keeping his weapon trained on the door.

“I don’t know if that’s going to shut the plant down,” Jade replied. “It might just break the controls, or worse, prevent the system from self-correcting. We don’t know how carefully these systems are managed. If we shut off a subroutine that’s supposed to trigger an alert when the pressure in a storage tank reaches critical levels…boom.”

“Who decided that we were qualified for this again?” Hernandez grumbled.

“Just give me a few minutes,” Jade said. “Cardinal, come help me out here.”

The two Jarilans focused on the same tower, occasionally speaking out loud but mostly communicating via what Evan had to assume were pheromone signals. Perhaps it allowed them to share information more quickly than speech, or maybe there were just no English words to describe the concepts that they were wrestling with.

“Okay, I think we have it,” Jade finally announced. “I don’t see what else this output could signify if not a plant-wide shutdown.”

“Do it,” Simmons replied, Jade nodding her head.

“It’s done.”

“Great work, ladies,” the sergeant added. “You probably saved the engineers a whole heap of time. Now, we just have to clear out the rest of these tunnels. Let’s make sure that there are no more Workers waiting to come turn all this shit back on again. We’ll split into three teams,” he continued, waving Aster over. “One Jarilan will lead each group.”

The squad split up into two fireteams of six, while the Valbaran flock stayed together, Simmons assigning a Jarilan to each group. They headed off into the tunnel system, hot on the trail of any fresh Worker pheromones.


“I don’t know how the Trogs do it,” Hernandez complained, breathing a sigh of relief as he followed the procession of Marines and Commandos out of the tunnel. Evan’s eyes took a few moments to adjust to the brightness of daylight, the two Borealans stretching their arms above their heads, finally able to stand at full height again.

They had finished clearing the network of tunnels beneath the plant, and more reinforcements had rolled into the area in the meantime. There were squads on patrol now, Valbaran tankettes following along behind them, aircraft circling overhead. It seemed that the operation had been a success.

“Looks like we’re done here,” Simmons said, tapping at the display on his wrist. “There’s no more enemy resistance, and the engineers have confirmed that the plant’s systems are inactive. Good job, people. We helped deny the Bugs a very important asset today. They’ll be running dry on fuel and chemical weapons throughout the Blue Zone in no time.”

“Any word on the Blue King yet?” Evan asked.

“None so far,” Simmons said as he checked his display again. “I’m sure we’ll hear about it if they manage to bag him. Our orders now are just to hold the area in case the roaches try to retake it. All of the enemy forces on the island had been decimated, so that doesn’t seem too likely. Let’s find a place to hole up and take a load off. You’ve earned a little R&R.”


They found an unoccupied warehouse not too far away, settling in among the shelves of resin crates and barrels. As it turned out, the crates made for good seating, so they assembled a few loose circles of them in an open area of the building. It had been a long day, and everyone was hungry, so they began to fish the MREs out of their packs. They had no campfire, and the weather was balmy, but the portable stoves gave them something to sit around.

Morale was high after their victory, and it helped that neither Delta-seventeen nor the Commando squad had seen any casualties. The mood was relaxed, with people setting down their weapons and shedding their heavy gear, convening around the little clusters of stoves to make conversation. A few milled about nearby or wandered between the groups, the low murmur of their voices making for pleasant background noise.

The Valbarans had initially been wary of the team, likely due to the presence of the Jarilans. It seemed that they hadn’t been assigned any auxiliaries like the UNN had. After seeing the insects mow down Workers and Drones all day, they must have warmed up to them.

The little cooking circles soon became bazaars, with members of both squads trading food and sharing the contents of their MRE packets. As well as the usual swapping of preferred dishes and dessert items between the Marines, the Valbarans seemed enticed by the scents of hot food. All of their rations were in bar form – distinctly unappetizing meals wrapped in a kind of silver foil. Evan had to admit that it was hard to ignore the smells that were filling the warehouse, especially the sizable cuts of meat that Tatzi and Borzka were roasting over their stoves.

Hernandez installed himself beside Tatzi, and Evan pulled up a crate to join him. Jade wedged herself in beside Evan, as there was enough room on the crate for both of them. There were a few of the Commandos seated nearby, and Hernandez decided to strike up a conversation with one of them as she chewed on a ration bar with her needle-like teeth.

“So, is this your first rodeo?” he asked.

The alien glanced up at him with a pair of brilliant, violet eyes, cocking her head at him like a curious bird.

“Rodeo?” she repeated, mimicking his Southern accent in her high-pitched voice.

“I mean, is this your first deployment?” he clarified.

“This is the first time we’ve been deployed to another planet, yeah,” she replied as she tore off another piece of her ration bar. “The Consensus has that capability now, thanks to our new fleet.”

“Man, I remember the first time I set foot on another planet,” Hernandez continued as he shook a flameless ration heater to get it cooking. “It felt like a…watershed moment. Kinda loses its luster after you’ve visited a dozen different places, though. You seen one tree, you seen most of ‘em.”

“You have been all over known space, I suppose,” the Commando replied.

“Nine planets and countin’,” Hernandez chuckled. “The Navy gets around.”

“We stopped off at Valbara on the way here,” Evan added. “It’s a beautiful planet, and the people were very welcoming. I don’t think we’ve ever had such a warm reception.”

“My people are not shy about showing their gratitude,” she replied. “The names Fielding, Baker, and Jaeger have been spoken in every household on the planet by now. I know of several flocks who joined this operation solely because they heard that the Rorke would be leading the fleet.”

“The vessel has lived up to its namesake,” another of the Commandos added.

“What namesake is that?” Borzka asked, pausing to bite a chunk out of what looked like a piece of grilled steak. He chewed laboriously, showing flashes of his sharp teeth.

“Our ships are named the way they are for a reason,” Evan replied. “Didn’t you know that?”

“Humans name lots of things,” he replied with a shrug of his broad shoulders.

“The Rorke is named after an event from the Zulu wars of the late 1800s, a conflict between an empire and a warrior kingdom,” Evan explained. “A force of less than two-hundred defenders fought off four-thousand at the battle of Rorke’s Drift. I suppose it’s meant to inspire the crew to keep fighting, even if the odds are stacked against them.”

“What of our assault carrier?” Borzka added. “Does its name also have some special meaning?”

“Assault carriers are named after invasions,” Hernandez replied. “Ours is named after Omaha Beach, which was part of the largest amphibious landin’ until the South China Sea ops of the Sino-American War. Somethin’ like fifty-thousand troops invaded via the ocean, pushing up a heavily-defended beach.”

“My flock was stationed in Yilgarn during the invasion,” the Commando continued. “When we saw the drop pods start raining from the sky, we thought it was the end. After the hive ship was brought down, we must have spent half a rotation picking up pieces of it. We fought to defend our soil, and now we’re going to take theirs. We’ve come a long way.”

“What’s that you’re eating?” Jade asked, gesturing to her ration bar.

“Oh, this?” the Commando asked, hesitating for a moment before replying. “It’s a concentrated product made from, uh…insect protein.”

“Not anyone I know, I hope,” Jade joked.

“No, we farm insects for food. They’re a great source of protein with a very low impact on the environment.”

“I’d eat a Bug,” Hernandez added, Jade giving him a sideways glance. “What?” he added, shrugging his shoulders. “I bet they’d taste just like lobster.”

“You’ve brought that up enough times that I’m starting to worry you’re serious,” Evan added with a chuckle.

They chatted a while longer, Evan sharing his beef ravioli with a curious Commando, the little alien delighting in eating something that wasn’t in bar form. After a while, Hernandez spoke up, giving Evan a nudge.

“Hey, can I have a talk with you guys?” he asked, glancing to Evan and Jade.

“Sure,” Jade replied, Evan nodding. “Let’s take a walk.”

They got up from their crates and made their way over towards the rear of the warehouse, out of earshot of their companions, stopping by the opening that led out onto the street. Hernandez paused to glance at the auroras above, more pensive than Evan had ever seen him.

“Did we do the right thing today?” he asked, turning to Jade. “The Workers, I mean. Those ones we killed in the storage room, the ones in the control room, the ones we hunted down in the tunnels. Hell, those farmers we shot up when we landed. I’ve killed a lot of Bugs, but none that were unarmed. None that were runnin’ away like that.”

“No,” Jade replied with a shake of her head. “We didn’t do the right thing. The problem is, the options aren’t always right and wrong. Sometimes, the only options are bad and worse. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have had to kill those Workers, but that’s just not the reality of our situation. Simmons was right, Aster was right – those Workers would have repaired all of the damage we did to the plant.”

“I didn’t really think of the Bugs as…people before I met you,” Hernandez admitted.

“How smart are they, exactly?” Evan asked. “I hesitate to compare Bugs and Jarilans, but I don’t really know how else to quantify them.”

“It’s not that they’re more or less smart than I am,” she replied, pausing to consider for a moment. “Intelligence isn’t a linear curve, it’s more of a spectrum. There are different kinds of intelligence, and they’re not always applicable in the same ways. Me and you, we have egos, we’re individualistic. We have high intelligence when it comes to social behavior. Now, a Worker has no ego, no sense of self in the way that we do. That said, it can perform brain surgery or strip down a weapon with the same ease and intuition that you might cook a meal or drive a car. The Bugs are highly specialized, and they only have the attributes that they need to perform their function.”

“They’re sentient, though?” Hernandez asked. “They ain’t just meat machines?”

“No, they’re thinking, feeling creatures,” Jade replied. “They experience emotion, they have wants and needs, but the way that they see the world is fundamentally alien. Back on Jarilo, we have what the colonists call the first generation. They’re Bugs from the original nuptial fleet who survived the war. After the Queen surrendered, they were left without any real purpose. They were outdated models, so to speak.”

“Did that cause any issues?” Evan asked. “Did the old Drones try to attack the colonists or anything like that?”

“Oh, no,” Jade replied with a shake of her head. “The Queen made sure of it. That said, their old jobs no longer existed, and they were being replaced with Jarilans who were enhanced with human DNA. Imagine you’re a Worker, and your only job is to dig tunnels. You’re genetically engineered to be efficient at your job, your body was altered for that very purpose, and you’ve been conditioned to gain satisfaction and pleasure from performing the task. Suddenly, it’s gone. They don’t need you to dig tunnels anymore. What do you do?”

“Find another job?” Hernandez suggested.

“Ah, but you can’t get another job,” Jade added with a chiding wag of her finger. “The greatest strength of the Bugs is also their greatest weakness. They can adapt to almost any situation, any environment, but each caste is made for one narrow purpose. You’d be asking a drill to learn how to become a hammer.”

“But, you can choose what you want to be?” Hernandez asked.

“Yep,” she replied, a hint of pride in her voice. “Jarilans still have castes, we’re still tailored to perform certain functions, but our human genes give us more autonomy. I’m independent, I can make decisions for myself, I have an ego. If I wanted to stop being a soldier one day, I could do something else.”

“Do Jarilans retire?” Evan asked, chuckling to himself at the thought.

“I suppose we’ll find out one day,” she replied. “None of us are old enough to retire yet.”

“Thanks, I guess I feel a little better,” Hernandez said.

Tatzi called to him, her loud voice rising above the murmur of conversations.

“Come!” she insisted, brandishing a piece of steak.

“I’d better go,” he said with a nervous smile. “Tatzi has decided that I’m too scrawny, and she won’t take no for an answer.”

He jogged over to her, the Borealan placing a heavy hand on his shoulder, sitting him down on the crate beside her. She thrust the meat into his hands, patting him on the back hard enough that he almost fell out of his seat.

“I feel like those two were made for each other,” Jade chuckled.

“He needs a big girl to keep him in line,” Evan added, watching Tatzi laugh as Hernandez struggled to tear off a piece of meat with his teeth. “He’s bitten off a little more than he can chew.”

“So, looks like we survived another day,” Jade continued. She crossed her upper arms, then planted her lower pair of hands on her wide hips, giving him a sideways glance. “You want to celebrate?”

“Celebrate?” he asked.

“When I said I wanted to make the most of what time we have, I wasn’t talking about one night,” she replied with a smirk. “What do you say? There are a bunch of little side buildings around here where we could slip away for a little while. Nobody will sneak up on us,” she added, gesturing to her feathery antennae.

“You think we can get away with it?” Evan asked, his heart starting to beat faster. “If we get new orders, we’re gonna have to get back here pretty fast.”

“Then, we’d better be quick, hadn’t we?” She reached out to take his hand, pausing to give their squad one last glance. They were still sitting around the stoves chatting, too occupied to care about what Evan and Jade were doing. “Come on!”


Evan and Jade slipped out into the street, hurrying away beneath the glow of the auroras. There were a few tankettes sitting idle nearby, their crews perched on their hulls, talking or eating rations. They paid the pair no mind as Evan and Jade searched for somewhere out of view.

Jade led him to a small building made from soil and resin that was nestled between a cluster of those strange, bladder-like containers. It wasn’t much larger than a shed, Evan noting that there were a few storage crates and one of the organic computer towers inside. It was probably designed to control whatever systems were linked to those tanks. There was no door – just those strange openings in the wall – but they were out of view of the road here.

“This should do,” Jade said, releasing his hand as she turned on the spot in the center of the space. “It’s not quite as romantic as the observation room, but nobody will disturb us here.”

“Maybe we should have brought a sleeping bag,” Evan said, glancing down at the dirt floor. “I can go get one if you-”

Jade reached up with all four of her arms, popping off her chest piece. As she removed the shaped piece of chitin, Evan noted that it was lined with soft, white fur that was similar to the ruff around her neck. His eyes were drawn to her breasts as they bounced free of its support, her waxy, pink skin making them shine in the light that bled in through the openings in the wall behind him. Once again, he was enraptured by the way that they were firm enough to maintain their teardrop shape, but soft enough to quiver with each subtle movement that she made. It was like they were sculpted from some soft rubber or silicone, just large enough to comfortably fill a man’s hand, as though they had been designed for that very purpose. That might be the case, as they weren’t functional, the skin flush where the nipples would have been.

She leaned down to set the piece of armor on the floor, then removed the belt-like support that held her segmented skirt in place. Next, she popped off the plate that covered her stomach, Evan admiring the way that the muscles beneath her shining skin flexed as she stood back up again. This was as nude as she could get – save for the V-shaped piece of shell that ran down between her exposed thighs, dividing her flat belly from her mound.

“We don’t need a sleeping bag,” she said, smirking as his covetous eyes wandered across her exposed flesh.

Evan couldn’t restrain himself any longer, reaching up to unfasten the straps that secured his own chest piece as he crossed the tiny room. He tossed it to the ground, the segmented plates that protected his lower torso clattering. Jade embraced him as he drew closer, wrapping her upper arms around him in a hug, her supple breasts compressing against his chest. With her lower pair, she began to pull down the double-sealed zipper on the front of his suit, exposing the bare skin beneath it.

“Fuck, you’re already slippery,” she sighed as she ran her fleshy fingers across his damp skin.

“It’s a tropical island,” he protested, but he knew that it wasn’t a complaint. She adored the texture of his wet skin and the scent of his exertion.

The zipper ran all the way down to his groin, Jade peeling it open to expose the bulge in his shorts. She groped him through the fabric, feeling him throb in her hand, her enticing warmth bleeding through the cotton. She cupped his face in her upper hands, Evan marveling at the smoothness of her silky skin as she cradled his burning cheeks, Jade having to stand on the tips of her hoof-like toes to reach him. Her cherry-red lips met his, the two sharing a hurried, desperate embrace as they clung to one another. Her carapace yielded beneath his hands like soft plastic, her proboscis entwining with his tongue as she approximated a kiss as best she could, her fervor more than making up for her physical limitations. She tasted of the honey that she’d been eating only minutes prior, sweet and inviting, the way that her dexterous organ danced across the roof of his mouth and his inner cheeks making him weak at the knees.

Evan brought a hand down to one of her breasts, feeling her falter as he cupped it, weighing it in his palm. She was so sensitive, letting slip a lusty sigh as he squeezed, her rosy flesh molding around his fingertips like putty. It didn’t matter that her tongue was occupied – she didn’t need it to speak.

He let his hand wander lower, sliding it across her lightly-muscled midriff, the diamond-shaped opening in her carapace giving him easy access. His fingertips brushed the chitin v-string that covered her loins, and he pried at it, wary of using too much force for fear of hurting her.

“Just give it a tug,” she whispered in encouragement.

He felt it come away with a pop, and he glanced down to see that it was joined to her lips by a strand of her excitement.

“Don’t toss it,” she warned, snatching it from him with a lower hand. “I don’t want a crotch full of soil for the rest of the deployment.”

She paused to set it down on top of her chest piece, then took his hands in hers, guiding him over to the wall behind them. She put her back to it, encouraging him to press her up against the resin, his erection brushing against her stomach as he leaned closer to bury his face in her fluffy ruff. That familiar scent rushed through him like a bump of cocaine, her pheromones compounding the desire that he was already feeling until it felt like his heart might leap out of his chest. With a grunt of lust, he took her upper hands in his, pinning them against the wall above her head. A shiver of anticipation passed through her, but her surprise quickly morphed into a sultry smile.

“You forgot about the other pair,” she cooed, Evan lurching as he felt one of her lower hands grip his shaft through his underwear. She pulled at the elastic, letting it snap back, laughing as he lurched again. Finally, she stopped her teasing, pulling down his waistband to free his erection. Now, it was his turn to sigh as she took his manhood in her hands, starting to stroke him with one as she cradled his balls in the other.

“It feels even bigger in my lower hands,” she purred, letting his glans slide against her stomach as she massaged him. “I kind of want to just jerk you off until you come all over my belly,” she whispered, batting her long lashes at him. “We’d never get it cleaned up, though. Next time,” she added, punctuating her promise with another slow stroke.

“You know that everyone but the humans are gonna smell it on us anyway,” Evan grumbled, thrusting into her fist reflexively.

“The Borealans already know, and I don’t care if the other Jarilans find out,” she chuckled. “Maybe it’ll give them a taste of what they’re missing.”

“Do you mean that literally?” Evan asked.

“Kinda,” she replied with a smile, her antennae brushing against his face. “Come on,” she added, trailing her fingers up his pulsing shaft. “Take me up against the wall…”

So, this was why she’d told him that they didn’t need a sleeping bag. Evan decided to do her one better, reaching down behind her. He filled his wandering hands with the springy meat of her ass, feeling her taut muscles flex beneath her velvet fat. She gasped, releasing his member as he lifted her, sliding her up the wall until her belly was level with his face. Jade weighed next to nothing, and the low gravity made her even lighter.

He lifted her legs, draping them over his shoulders, all four of her hands coming to rest in his hair as he planted a teasing kiss on her stomach. She squeezed her thighs around his face reflexively, his cheeks sinking into their pillowy flesh, his lips wandering lower. While she had no lungs, he could feel her breathing harder in the way that her thighs rose and fell softly.

He mouthed at them, leaving lingering kisses as he roamed closer to her loins, the irresistible scent of her pheromones drawing him in. His tongue grazed her burning vulva, her taste just as sweet as her kiss, the springy muscles in her rump tensing in his hands as he held her aloft. Her legs crossed behind his head as he began to paint her satin folds, drawing shapes with the tip of his tongue, tracing her intimate contours as she took handfuls of his hair. Her juices dripped from his chin, his member throbbing in the cool air, aching and needy.

She was twitching, her opening closing around his tongue as he pressed into her, the blend of her excitement and his saliva making it too slippery for her to gain any purchase. He took his fill of her firm ass all the while, delving his fingers deep into the cushiony layer of fat, his every lick and kiss followed by a reflexive tensing of her muscles. She was at once soft and firm, the contrasting textures irresistible.

Every breath that he took filled his lungs with her intoxicating scent, her honeyed flavor playing across his tongue as he teased her, her hot flesh like damp silk beneath his roaming organ. She was so wonderfully reactive, gasping and squirming as he explored her, pushing away from the wall in an attempt to thrust against his face.

He knew where she was most sensitive now, a low moan filling their little sanctuary as he slid up towards her swollen clitoris, pursing his lips around the swollen bud of flesh. He felt her pulse against his tongue as he lapped and stroked, circling it, drawing it into his mouth gently. Her thighs squeezed around his head, her hands trembling as they gripped his hair, her hips starting to rock in time with his doting pace. She began to slide out of his grasp, so he pulled away for a moment, Jade letting slip a disappointed whine.

“Don’t stop yet!” she grumbled. “You’re just getting me going.”

He shifted her weight on his shoulders, finding a more comfortable position, the Jarilan yelping in a blend of alarm and desire as he bounced her into the air. She settled into his cupped hands again, the yielding meat of her pert cheeks spilling between his fingers, her armored back resting against the resin wall behind her.

Without a word, he plunged back between her legs, feeling her tug at his scalp as his questing tongue resumed its work. He left lingering kisses, crawling his lips across her glistening sex, sucking and licking as he went. Jade’s soft thighs quivered against his cheeks as he alternated between slow strokes and quick flurries, pausing to encompass her mound with his mouth, pinching her throbbing clitoris between his lips.

“I love your tongue,” she stammered, her voice faltering as he lashed at her sensitive bud. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since that night. I couldn’t wait for a chance to get you alone again, you-”

She tapered off, shuddering as he pressed his tongue flat against her burning vulva, dragging it up and over her smooth mound. Her skin was warm beneath his lips, so impossibly flush, her leaking excitement making it shine like it had been oiled. He lifted his head a little higher, trailing up her exposed belly, admiring the way that her abs grew more defined with each peck.

“I’m pretty sure it’s just some kind of…pheromone trickery,” he sighed, letting her flowery scent invade his senses again. “But, I can’t get enough of you. Just being near you makes my mouth water, and if I didn’t have that ceramic plate covering my crotch…”

She gave him a sly chuckle, combing his hair with her fingers.

“Standing to attention, are you?”

“When this is all over, we’re going to be stuck on the carrier for months with nothing to do but fuck. I hope you’re prepared for that.”

“It’s cute that you think you’ll be the one pulling me into storage closets rather than the other way around,” she chuckled. “I finally found something that I like as much as fighting, and I intend to get lots of practice.”

Evan returned his lips to her loins abruptly, locking her in a lurid kiss, flitting his tongue across her sex as though pleasing her was the only thing in the world that mattered to him. Anything beyond the tiny hut of dirt and resin might as well not exist.

Fuck, I’m getting close,” she groaned, her spine arching against the wall. “I don’t think I have a refractory period,” she added hurriedly, as though the thought had just occurred to her. “I can come as many times as you can make me, so don’t stop.”

Evan shifted her weight in his arms again, slamming her against the wall, Jade gasping as he redoubled his efforts. Her entire body was in motion, locked in a slow dance, enraptured by the rhythm of his tongue. Her taut abs flexed and shifted beneath her waxy skin as she writhed, her thighs tensing around his head, rubbery muscle cushioned by fat as soft as melting butter. When he glanced up from between her legs, he had an admirable view of her breasts as they bounced and swayed softly, quivering beautifully when his lurid attentions made her shiver or buck.

She let out a shuddering sigh, every muscle in her body seeming to tense up as though an electrical current was passing through her. A series of tremors rocked her, Evan keeping his mouth locked to her loins as she rode out the throes of her climax, the gasping tremors gradually growing less frequent. When she was done, she sagged into his arms, leaning back against the wall as her thighs and abdomen rose and fell slowly.

“Let me kiss you,” she whispered, Evan’s heart pounding as he slowly lowered her to the floor. She stood on shaking legs, leaning against him for support as she reached up to take his red face in her hands, guiding him closer. Her embrace was slow and adoring, her proboscis probing his mouth, entwining with his tongue as her soft lips locked with his own. She poured her desire into every stroke, her antennae brushing his wet skin, the fine hairs soaking in his pheromone-laden sweat.

Evan backed her up against the wall again, his aching cock grinding against her belly, her lower pair of hands lingering on his chest as she cradled his cheeks in the upper.

“You taste like me,” she purred, gazing at him longingly as he leaned over her. It was such a strange feeling to be able to sense the arousal that was coming off her, her pheromones connecting with him on a deeper, more primal level than language. He could taste her nectar with each breath, feel a little of what she was feeling, like a kind of wonderful synesthesia.

Her hands found his erection again, trailing up and down his length, tracing throbbing veins with her fingertips. She began to pump her fist slowly, letting his glans bump against her stomach.

“Your turn,” she whispered, turning to face the wall. She lay her upper pair of hands against the resin, looking back at him over her shoulder as she pushed out her rump, arching her back in invitation.

He took a moment to admire the view, her cheeks forming a perfect peach, her toned muscles creating dimples in her shining skin. With her lower hands, she parted them, her fingers sinking into her soft flesh as she exposed her glistening lips. She was drooling, her inner thighs wet with her syrupy fluids, a strand of her anticipation dangling from her rosy vulva.

Wasting no time, Evan reached out to take her hips in his hands, sliding his member between those pert cheeks like a hotdog in a bun. Her juices made him glide, her doughy flesh encompassing him almost completely, the rubbery tissue beneath greeting him with a squeeze as she flexed.

“Are you just going to tease me?” she asked, feigning annoyance. “You know, Simmons could call us away at any moment. Think how upset you’ll be if he buzzes us right before you’re about to-”

He tugged her closer, the sudden motion making her giggle. She spread her dainty feet a little wider on the dirt floor, shaking her hips back and forth in a slow, hypnotizing dance intended to entice him further. Evan took his shaft in his hand, sliding it lower, the feverish heat of her loins guiding him in like the landing lights on a runway. As his glans kissed her dripping, throbbing flesh, he felt a shudder of anticipation roll through her. His tip brushed her winking opening, and he pressed into her, confident that he had a good grasp of her limitations after their night of passion. With one hand gripping the hourglass curve of her waist for purchase and the other resting on her shoulder, he thrust into her reaches.

Jade cooed with delight as he buried himself to the hilt in her slick, seizing depths, pressing her up against the wall with enough force to lift her feet off the ground for a moment. If having her bare breasts squashed up against the resin was at all uncomfortable, she made no mention of it, her passage gripping him like a glove as she wriggled in a bid to take him a little deeper.

He pressed closer as he began to move, his slow thrusting sending a ripple through her cheeks each time his hips made contact with her round, springy ass. He leaned one hand on the wall above her head to steady himself, gripping her hip in the other, pulling her into him more forcefully. That primal need was rising up inside him again, igniting like a fire – her arousal feeding into his own as each breath brought with it a rush of her pheromones. Evan doubled over, burying his face in the soft ruff of fur that encircled her neck, letting her perfume cloud his mind in a sordid haze.

“Harder,” she hissed, starting to push back against him more vigorously. He could hear the clap off her butt as she impaled herself on his shaft, the wet, sucking sounds of their coupling rising to his ears. They engaged in a mock struggle, one that Evan quickly won, wrapping his arms around her tightly as he fucked her against the wall. He pulled her upright, trapping her in a hug, a gasp escaping her as her feet left the floor. One of his hands sought out her chest, and he filled his palm with one of her breasts, feeling her tighten around his buried cock as he squeezed.

As he thrust deeper, he felt his tip brush against something textured, a throb of desire pushing him onward. The forest of little papillae in her reaches welcomed him, the satin lining of the little chamber stretching over his glans, the soft nodules of wet flesh caressing him. A jolt of raw, stark pleasure made him double over her twitching body, the sensation seeming to please Jade just as much as it did him. Even if a call had come through that the plant was about to explode and they had to evacuate immediately, they probably wouldn’t have been able to stop themselves at that moment.

He felt her grip him tightly as he struggled to pull back, then he thrust into her again, her muscles rippling along his length as those cruel bumps grazed his head. She was even tighter than he remembered, her walls clamping shut tightly around him, parting before him as he pushed into her with a palpable reluctance that contrasted with her lusty moaning. He could feel her stretching, her muscles twitching and stroking as though struggling to accommodate him, but he knew that she could take whatever he could give her.

As if to illustrate the point, she began to push back against him more vigorously, slamming her pillowy ass into his lap. He had suspected that the papillae that lined her depths were sensitive, and he must be right, Jade grinding them against him whenever he hilted her.

Fuck, you can get so deep in this position,” she groaned with an almost drunken slur. “Don’t you dare slow down…”

With her upper pair of hands still leaning on the wall, she reached down with the lower pair. She caught a sagging web of her fluids, then smeared it on her mound, starting to rub frantically. Her slimy fingertips danced across her needy clitoris, polishing it as he upped his pace, her teasing contractions growing harsher and more frequent as her ecstasy mounted.

He crushed her papillae with each impassioned thrust, his cock sliding on a layer of warm, slippery fluid. The feeling of them raking over his exposed glans as her tight grip peeled back his foreskin made him falter, but he needed more.

He pulled her upright, hearing a whine of disappointment as he slipped out of her. He spun her around to face him, then pushed her back against the resin. She was short enough that her horn barely reached his nose, her antennae brushing against his face as they waved in the air. He drew closer, sliding his hands beneath her ass, raising her off the floor again. It didn’t take her long to figure out what he wanted, and she wrapped her legs around his waist tightly, crossing them behind him for purchase. The gaps in her thigh armor almost seemed designed to make the position more comfortable, her soft flesh cushioning her surprisingly tight grip. She was so much stronger than her size would suggest.

Her springy cheeks filled his hands as he repositioned himself, Jade glancing down, shifting her weight a little as his glistening member drew closer. She winced as he entered her again, wet enough that even her narrow passage provided little resistance. Evan let her fall a little, and she slid down his shaft, burying her face in the nape of his neck as he bottomed out inside her.

Leaning her against the wall, he began to move again, visibly lifting her with each thrust. She was light enough in this gravity that he could bounce her on his shaft, her pert breasts wobbling with the motion. She reached out to him with all four hands, taking purchase wherever she could, clinging to him as he fucked her against the wall. She draped her upper arms around his neck, the lower pair sneaking around his chest, her fleshy fingers sliding in the sheen of fresh sweat that coated his skin.

He dared to go a little harder, letting gravity do half of the work, her weight carrying her down onto his throbbing shaft when he let her fall. Each impact made her soft ass ripple in his hands, her pert breasts bouncing, clapping against her torso. The little chamber of papillae stretched over his glans like wet latex, hot and slippery, the undulating contractions of the muscles beyond her silken walls massaging him in a relentless rhythm. He could feel each ribbon of pleasure as it tickled her senses, reflected in her every fluttering squeeze, felt in each dizzying clench.

“I’m starting to think that I was made for this,” Jade gasped, her head lolling in time with his rutting. She let her antennae drape themselves over his shoulders, trailing a little ways down his back, Evan feeling his pheromone-laden sudor glue them to his skin. “You taste like you love me,” she sighed, gazing up at him with those green eyes.

“I do,” he replied, not even hesitating.

She batted her long lashes at him, her face plates rearranging into a warm smile.

“You couldn’t hide it from me if you wanted to, squishy boy.”

He pulled her tight, wrapping his arms around her, Jade returning his hug twofold with her four limbs. She pushed her face into his neck again, her proboscis snaking out to taste his burning skin, a shudder rolling through her as what must be the concentrated flavor of his desire assailed her. Her senses were many times more powerful than his own, and he must only experience a tiny sliver of what she felt when they made love. Even that was almost enough to drive him crazy.

“Come inside me,” she pleaded, the way that her voice cracked making butterflies swarm in his belly. “I can taste down there, you know…”

“H-huh?” he stammered, the revelation sending his head spinning. She didn’t reply, locking her legs around him instead, pulling him into her.

Their pace grew more desperate as they neared the limits of their endurance, their bodies joined in a relentless dance, the boundaries between them starting to blur. Evan could feel his hands slipping on her shining skin, wet with his exertion, like he was painting her very body with his scent. Her fluids dribbled down his shaft, dangling from her rosy lips in strands. It was hard to focus on anything other than the surges of pleasure that washed over him like the swells of a tide, each sharp rise followed by a few moments of respite that ushered in the next wave, the movements of his hips inexorably tied to that rhythm.

“Are you close?” he grunted, struggling to hold out as he pinned her against the wall like a toy. “I dunno how much more of this I can…”

“Don’t wait on me,” she giggled, her thighs trembling as she clung to him. “I already came like twice since we started.”

That was all the permission he needed, Evan casting all restraint aside, Jade letting slip a gleeful yelp as he sandwiched her between his heaving body and the cool resin. With her legs wrapped around his waist, he didn’t even need to support her weight, taking her upper hands in his. Their fingers interlocked as he slammed her hands against the wall, her secondary pair rising to rest on his shoulders. He pushed his face into her silky ruff, breathing deeply, her irresistible scent seeming to enhance his pleasure like some kind of drug. One of her hands rose to his head, delving into his damp hair as she held him close.

All it took was a few more pumps, and all of the tension that had been building inside him was released, his member flexing inside her as he drowned those teasing papillae in a thick spurt of his seed. He felt Jade tense up as his warmth flooded her, her seizing loins so tight that his emission had little place to go but back out of her. She shivered with each pulse of ecstasy that wracked him, her powerful thighs holding him close, her inhumanly narrow passage fighting against him every time he flexed inside her. Something primal demanded that he force the mess as deep as it would go, and Jade seemed similarly driven, grinding her hips reflexively.

They remained that way until the raging flames of their passion burned themselves out, euphoria smoldering like hot coals. A cloudy blend of their desire seeped down Jade’s inner thigh when he pulled out of her, those iron muscles reluctant to relinquish their hold on him. She reached up a hand to cup one of her breasts, her fingers delving into the velvet fat as she eased out one last pang of residual pleasure. Evan slowly lowered his trembling partner back to the floor, where she stood on unsteady legs, leaning back against the wall as though afraid that they might give out.

“Gimme your canteen,” she said, extending a hand. “I gotta get cleaned up before we go back.”

“Yeah, sorry,” he stammered as he unclipped it from his belt. “Guess I should have pulled out.”

“I wouldn’t have let you,” she chuckled, upending the container as she washed her thighs. Her waxy skin seemed to make it a little easier than it would have been for a human. “Did you mean what you said?” she added, keeping her eyes conspicuously on the canteen. “If that was just something that felt right in the moment, I won’t hold it against you.”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it,” he replied, Jade glancing up at him with a smile.

A sudden familiar buzzing sound distracted them, Evan lifting his wrist display.

“It’s Simmons,” he said. “Looks like we’re pulling out.”

“Poor choice of words,” Jade said with a smirk, Evan’s cheeks warming. “Come on, get your gear back on before he has to come find us. Where the heck is my skirt?”

“I got it,” Evan said, stooping to pick up the belt-like garment.

She snatched it from his hand, then turned on the spot, looking over her shoulder as she tried to reattach it.

“Having some trouble?” he chuckled, stepping in to help her.

“It’s a lot easier when there are Workers around,” she grumbled.

They hurriedly donned their armor, then made their way out of the little resin hut, Jade reaching up to straighten her antennae as a human woman might try to fix her bed hair. The Valbarans were still perched on their tankettes, paying the pair little mind as they walked past the idle vehicles, probably assuming that they had been on some kind of patrol.


It was hard to keep a straight face as they arrived back at the warehouse. Nobody seemed to have noticed that they had slipped away, save for the two Jarilans, their antennae immediately pricking up like the ears of a curious cat.

Most of the team were collecting their gear now, packing up the little camps that they had made as Simmons directed them. Hernandez made his way over to greet the pair, Tatzi loping along after him.

“What’s going on?” Evan asked. “Are we heading out already?”

“Word is the SWAR guys just bagged the Blue King,” Hernandez replied, Evan and Jade sharing a surprised glance. “They tracked it down to another area of the island, and the rest of the battalion fuckin’ deleted it.”

“Man, you mean we were only a few klicks away while this was going down?” Evan asked.

“You sound disappointed,” Jade said, turning to look up at him.

“I am, a little,” he replied with a shrug. “They had us guarding an empty chemical plant while one of the most important battles of the war was happening in spitting distance.”

“I’d rather not throw myself against the most dangerous enemies on the moon if it can be avoided,” Jade chided.

“Now that their leader is dead, the enemy forces in this territory will fall into disarray,” Tatzi added in her gravelly tone. “They are directionless now – a pack without an Alpha.”

“What about the plant?” Evan asked, turning to look at the spires outside. “Even if the critters can’t organize an operation to recapture it anymore, leaving it unattended seems like a bad idea. There’s still a lot here that they could salvage.”

“Technically, the Valbarans are responsible for the blue zone,” Hernandez replied. “They’ll stick around and keep an eye on it for us. We were only supposed to be helpin’ out.”

“Saddle up, people!” Simmons shouted. “It’s a bit of a walk back to the tunnel, then we’re riding the IFV to the beach for extraction. Your beer ration is waiting for you back on the Omaha, so let’s pick up the pace. I don’t want to be hanging around here any longer than I have to.”

“You guys gonna be alright without us?” Hernandez asked jokingly as their Valbaran counterparts came to see them off.

“We’ll be fine,” one of them replied confidently. “It was our tankettes that killed one of the Supermajors, if you recall.”

“They do punch higher than their weight, I’ll give ‘em that,” he conceded.

“As do we,” she added, giving him a flash of red that seemed like it was intended to be some kind of farewell or salute.

“I wish they’d give us a look at the King’s body, at least,” Evan complained as he stooped to retrieve his pack. “They probably loaded it into a shuttle and took it straight up to one of the carriers so the Ninnies can peel it apart.”

“You’re really hung up on that, aren’t you?” Jade asked as she slung her rifle over her shoulder. “We’ve been lucky so far, you know. They keep sending us into the thick of the fight, and we keep making it out by the skin of our teeth. Well, I don’t have teeth,” she added with a shrug. “I just mean that we shouldn’t push our luck.”

“I like a little downtime as much as the next guy,” he replied. “Especially when I’m spending it with you.”

That got a smile out of her, and she seemed to relax a little.

“I sense that there’s a but coming…”

But, those fuckers are responsible for the ambush that wiped out my original company. They killed your sisters. Don’t you want some payback?”

“Sure I do,” she replied, reaching out to tighten one of his straps as he stood up. “That payback doesn’t have to come from me, though. We’re not Spec Ops, we’re not SWAR, we’re not likely to get a crack at any of the Kings ourselves. All we can do is our jobs. In my book, taking out this plant is just as much of a victory as putting a slug in the Blue King’s brain stem.”

“It’s less satisfying, though,” he grumbled. “Especially being so close, but not being able to help. Still, I suppose you’re right.”

“You can buy me a schnapps when we get back,” she said, starting to walk backwards in the direction of the waiting Jarilans. “That’ll cheer you up.”


Vos watched the helmet cam footage play through the floating holographic display, the view shaking back and forth as its wearer ran through what looked like a tropical jungle. There was a battle going on all around him – projectiles whizzing through the air, slugs leaving molten trails as they cut through the foliage. Even through the speakers, the sound was constant and deafening. The blooms of explosions lit up the blurry surroundings, Vos catching brief glimpses of the SWAR team as they moved, lit by the flames. There were Marines, too, along with Kodiaks and IFVs that were advancing alongside them. The tanks crushed the trees in their path, their tracks churning up the undergrowth, their gun pods spewing tracer rounds.

Something massive emerged from the palm fronds to their right, leveling a rifle the size of an AA gun. It was a Supermajor, nine or ten feet tall, and heavily armored. The alien fired off a trio of shots in quick succession, punching a series of holes into one of the IFVs, bright sparks spraying from the near side of the hull. One of the rounds passed straight through, hitting a Marine who had been marching along beside it, turning him into a red paste. The vehicle ground to a stop, its blister going silent, the rest of the Marines scattering for cover.

The SWAR team rallied quickly, diving behind the damaged Puma, coordinating their railgun fire as they leaned around the perforated vehicle. A hail of XMR fire lit the creature up, the hypervelocity projectiles splintering its hard carapace just as they did the trunks of the nearby trees. The Supermajor weathered the blows, shuddering with each impact, viscous ichor leaking from the craters in its torso. It ran out of cover with a loping stride, another burst from its heavy rifle narrowly missing one of the men, throwing up a torrent of soil where the rounds impacted the ground only a scant meter away from him. As it neared the disabled IFV, it leapt up on top of it, the vehicle’s suspension sagging under its weight. It raised a chitin war hammer in its lower arms, preparing to swing it at the SWAR team below like a giant golf club, but a sudden crack rang out. The alien was torn in half, lifted clear of its perch, its ruined body sent tumbling into the ferns. The camera view spun around, revealing a Kodiak tank, its turret already turning to face a new target as it trundled past.

“Keep moving!” a distorted voice came through on the comms. “We got the fucker pinned at the shoreline! Drive the cunts into the fucking lake!”

“Go, go!” the cameraman yelled as he waved his team on with a prosthetic arm. The remaining Marines followed, running along beside them, another tank roaring past to their right.

They raced through the dense jungle, the sound of heavy breathing and gunfire all that Vos could hear as he watched. The SWAR team had been at the tip of the spear during the battle, leading the armored company towards their objective.

As they advanced, Vos saw a Scuttler that was lying on its side in the undergrowth, a collapsed tree draped over its red and orange carapace. The alien tank looked like a giant crab, its eight legs curled up against its belly in the manner of a dead spider. Its hull had been torn open, spilling guts and machinery all over the forest floor by what must have been armor-piercing shells from the Kodiaks. It had a missile system on its back, the organic eyes that served as its guidance system still tracking nearby targets with a mind of their own. There was a squad of Drones nearby, too, their broken bodies lying in the ferns alongside one Marine who was missing most of his torso.

The cameraman glanced up to see a Penguin gunship soar low over the treetops, the backwash from its engines tearing at the sparse canopy. It engaged its ventral thrusters, lifting its nose in a jarring aerobraking maneuver, shedding enough velocity that it could settle into a hover. It swung around to face some unseen target, the gun mounted beneath its nose spewing a bright trail of shells. Hatches along its hull popped open to reveal racks of missiles, the projectiles streaking out, leaving plumes of white smoke as they raced towards the ground. The explosions were close enough to shake the nearby trees, blast waves whipping at the undergrowth as the SWAR team pressed on.

“They’ve got no AA!” one of the team members announced over the radio. “Charlie company just put down their last emplacement!”

“Golf is calling in arty,” another of them added, ducking reflexively as the hovering gunship spewed another stream of rounds. “Echo and Bravo are flanking to the North and South to box them in on the beach. If Big Blue wants to get off this island, he’s gonna have to swim.”

“Tell ‘em to watch for Warriors and Supers,” the cameraman warned, pausing to reload his rifle. “They’re gonna pull out all the stops to protect the VIP.”

Above their heads, the gunship released a cloud of flares, the glowing points of light hanging over the forest as they slowly fell towards the ground. Through the smoke, Vos could see it peeling away, presumably because something was firing on it from below.

“Is that footage from the operation?” a voice asked, Vos turning around to see that Captain Fielding had entered the carrier’s observation deck. He made his way over to stand beside the admiral as the red forests of Kerguela rolled past beneath their feet, handing him a steaming cup of coffee.

“Indeed,” Vos replied, pausing the playback with a gesture. “I’m reviewing the footage to see if I can glean any information about the tactics these things use.”

“And for the catharsis of seeing a King get turned to Swiss cheese,” Fielding added, taking a sip of his drink.

“Maybe a little,” Vos admitted.

“The corpse was put on ice and transferred to the Pithia-class survey vessel that was called in, as per your orders,” Fielding explained. “UNNI is assisting with the dissection, and the Jarilans sent over some medics who should be able to help us make sense of its…inner workings. What exactly are we looking for, anyway? They seem rather susceptible to tungsten.”

“Anything that could give us an edge,” Vos replied. With a wave of his gloved hand, the footage resumed playing, the momentarily peaceful observation deck filled with the muffled sounds of shouting and gunfire once again.

He watched as the SWAR team advanced on the feed, heading towards the rising explosions in the distance.

“Two o’clock!” someone shouted, the camera view turning to see a squad of Drones come marching through the undergrowth. They released a volley of plasma fire from their rifles, crackling bolts of green energy igniting the ferns and shrubs as they passed them by. One of the Marines was caught out in the open, the hail of plasma melting through his ceramic armor, sending his smoking corpse toppling backwards into the undergrowth. The squad took the Bugs apart as they returned fire, the curving trunks of the tropical trees providing them with little cover, slugs chewing through wood and chitin alike.

More of them were coming, their camouflaged carapaces making them hard to pick out in the reds and browns of the forest, the many lenses that covered their helmets reflecting the emerald glow of their guns as they fired.

“Firebug!” someone warned, a stream of green flames spewing out into the forest. It ignited everything that it touched, what looked like chemical fuel clinging to the trunks of the trees, coating the ferns in burning fluid. As the air cleared for a moment, Vos got a better look at the creature. It was a Drone wearing a helmet that almost looked like a gas mask, a long, segmented tube descending from where its mandibles should have been. It had a pair of glittering, compound eyes that reminded him of a housefly. On its back was a large tank, connected to an organic weapon via fleshy, snaking cables.

As its companions covered its advance with a volley of plasma fire, it ejected another torrent of flaming chemicals to flush the enemy out of cover, this one finding its mark. A Marine flailed and screamed as he was coated in the substance, stumbling through the ferns like a human torch.

A nearby SWAR operative was splashed with the stuff, the burning fuel coating his arm as he raised it to protect himself reflexively. He felt no pain through his prosthetic, raising his XMR even as the flaming substance peeled away the sleeve of his pressure suit to expose the skeletal machinery beneath. He fired in full-auto, the railgun kicking against his shoulder, chewing through the Firebug. One of the rounds pierced the tank on its back, and it exploded in a brilliant ball of green fire, engulfing several of the nearby Drones.

As the man marched past the burning Marine, he turned the rifle on him, putting a round through his helmet. The two observers winced, Vos lowering his coffee mug from his lips, Fielding averting his eyes for a moment. The fact that it was a video recording did little to detract from the intensity of the violence.

They marched on, passing a smoldering Kodiak with a hole the size of a basketball melted in its side armor, a dead Supermajor slumped over its hull. There was a dead Scuttler nearby – the organic tank collapsed on the forest floor, its carapace blown open by what looked like a fuel explosion. The ground here was cratered with artillery shells, turning the pristine woodland into a moonscape, scattering the trees like popsicle sticks. Vos saw more destroyed vehicles and the remnants of dead Bugs as they advanced, torn apart by artillery fire and gunships.

“The place is a scrapyard,” Fielding muttered, taking a sip of his coffee as he watched the video. “How many vehicles do you reckon were in the King’s entourage?”

“More like a boneyard,” Vos added. “They probably pulled in all of the available resources on the island to protect him once the chemical plant fell. There’s enough there to match an armored company, at least. Probably a lot more that we’re not seeing.”

“Charlie has eyes on the VIP!” one of the men announced, the squad altering their course through the forest. They fell in beside an IFV that was driving alongside its squad of Marines, the troop carrier’s eight wheels struggling through the cratered terrain.

Ahead of them, the trees began to thin, giving way to a band of white sand. The pristine beach was stained with alien ichor, strewn with the burning wreckage of enemy and allied vehicles alike. It looked like the team had just missed a massive battle. A dozen Kodiaks and Pumas were scattered about the area, some of them partially buried in craters, others turned to smoldering husks by plasma weapons. There was an equal number of Scuttlers, their armored carapaces torn open, explosive shells gutting them like fish to spread their wet innards across the sand. There were Supermajors lying among them, too, along with the hulks of slain Warriors.

The tanks and IFVs could go no further, stopping short of the battlefield, the SWAR team moving into the maze of wrecks. They stalked between the hulls of the vehicles, moving past walls of ceramic armor that had been blackened by plasma and dead Scuttlers that resembled beached whales from the perspective of the cameraman. They stepped over the bodies of Marines and Drones alike, pausing occasionally to give one of the prone insects a kick with a boot to make sure that it was dead.

Something rose up from behind a damaged IFV ahead of them, the familiar profile of a Supermajor framed against the auroras that painted the sky above. It moved quickly – too quickly for something of that size – swinging its hammer at the man at the front of the group. He barely had time to react, a chitin head the size of an engine block slamming him into the sideskirt of a disabled Kodiak, denting the ceramic armor. The operative practically exploded, Vos hearing Fielding utter a quiet damn as they watched his blood paint the side of the tank. The Supermajor was already injured. One of its upper arms was missing, and the right side of its body was peppered with small holes that leaked mucous-colored fluid, likely wounds caused by shrapnel.

Before it could raise its weapon again, the SWAR team cut it down, concentrating their XMR fire on it. It stumbled, falling back against the IFV with enough weight to shake the vehicle, sliding down the hull as it twitched with each slug that hit it. The things weren’t immune from railgun fire – nothing was at those velocities – but they must have enough redundant organs to keep them alive and active even after being turned into pincushions. Nobody bothered to check on their fallen companion as they pressed on. There wasn’t much left of him.

They reached the water’s edge, and there, standing in the surf, was a Warrior. It looked like a bipedal crab, its camouflaged hull coated in thick, overlapping plates of organic armor. Its upper arms were equipped with plasma cannons that had been grafted into its living flesh, veins and cables weaving through the machinery, their barrels blackened by what must be repeated fire. The green glow of the superheated gas that usually bled through wasn’t visible now, the canisters that jutted from its arms seemingly empty. Had it expended all of its ammunition? The lower pair of arms were equipped with lobster claws, the chitin reinforced with scissor-like blades, the long antennae that rose from its back waving in the breeze that rolled in over the water. It was injured – or rather damaged – a two-inch hole in its shoulder leaking green fluid.

The cameraman leveled his rifle at it, the rest of the team following suit, forming a firing line. Rather than charge, it just stood there, the knee-deep water lapping at its jointed legs as it stared at them through its slatted visor. There were bodies in the lake – human and Bug – the gentle waves giving the false impression that they were still moving.

“Why is it just standing there?” Fielding asked.

“Maybe it knows it’s been caught,” Vos replied. “They’re tactical thinkers, these things. They aren’t driven by blind bloodlust like their subordinates.”

“Get a targeting laser on that Warrior,” the cameraman ordered. “Our XMRs ain’t gonna do shit if it decides to charge us.”

“It’s tagged,” another added, a green dot floating across the alien’s armored torso. “Just give the word, and I’ll drop a fucking ATGM on it.”

“We have orders to take it intact, if possible,” the cameraman continued. “Don’t turn it into chum if you can help it. I don’t wanna have to go in there with a net and fish out the pieces.”

A squad of Marines arrived, rushing into the cameraman’s field of view, joining the line as the Warrior scrutinized them silently.

“Orders, Cap?” one of the SWAR operatives asked. “What are we doing here?”

“What, do you want to cuff the cunt and bring it in for questioning?” another scoffed. “It’s out of ammo – let’s light it up.”

Trapped between the lake and the encroaching forces with no means of escape, the thing seemed to come to a decision, starting to wade back up the beach.

“Open fire!” the cameraman yelled, the operatives and Marines letting loose. Even under the hail of gunfire from two dozen XMRs, the Warrior kept coming, the slugs drilling holes in its carapace and chipping off pieces of glistening meat. It looked like it was disintegrating in real-time, its thick carapace and redundant systems keeping it on its feet for longer than should have been possible. It faltered, stumbling as a round sparked off something metallic, but it kept marching. It wasn’t more than a hundred meters away now.

“Fuck it,” the cameraman grunted, pausing to reload. “Just hit it with the goddamned missile!”

After a delay that dragged on for far too long, there was an ominous whistling sound, an anti-tank missile soaring over the treetops from somewhere behind them. It must have been launched from one of the nearby vehicles. It was hard to even see what had happened on the grainy video feed, the sensor suddenly blowing out as a brilliant explosion filled the scene. When it cleared, Vos saw dark smoke drifting across the beach, the sand peppered with fresh shrapnel.

The Warrior was lying face-down in the surf, its thick armor plating shredded by the red-hot fragments of metal, some of the ugly tears in its flesh still smoking. From this position, the observers could see the top of its body, where the shaped charge had hit it from directly above. The weapon was designed to defeat armored vehicles, but it did just as good of a job against organic targets. It had dug a crater in the Warrior’s torso, ripping open the shell to expose the soft meat within, doing enough damage to almost bisect the thing. It was little more than a mass of burned meat and shattered chitin now.

The squad moved in, keeping their weapons trained on it, their boots splashing in the shallow water as they neared.

“It’s still in there,” one of them said. “Did we reach the pilot’s cavity?”

“It’s gonna be dead either way,” the cameraman replied as he made his way around the left side of the hulking body. Even lying on its face, the thing was tall enough to reach his shoulders. “This thing is all meat – the blast alone should have liquefied its organs.”

“Secure the area,” another added. “Let’s make sure there are no stragglers before we call in the Ninnies. I don’t want to be relying on those desk jockeys in a firefight.”

The footage stopped with a wave of Vos’s hand, and he took another moment to examine the dead Warrior.

“One down, maybe four more to go,” Fielding commented. “They’re elusive, but they’re not invincible. If we throw enough firepower at them, they’ll fold like a house of cards.”

“It’s just a matter of pinning the bastards down long enough to catch them,” Vos muttered, taking a drink from his mug. “They’re very mobile, and they travel with a large entourage – a private army, really. Attacking the chemical plant drew the Blue King out of hiding. It couldn’t allow us to take out such an important strategic target without some kind of response. I think it’s safe to assume that the others can be drawn out in the same way. All we have to do is threaten important infrastructure, and they should come running.”

“Have you heard anything from the Ensi yet?” Fielding asked.

“No,” Vos replied with a sigh, closing the feed. “I hand-picked the team that accompanied her, and I trust them to keep her alive, but the lack of communication is troubling. They should have reached the city by now, and the plan was for them to contact the fleet once they discovered the source of the distress signal, whether they found any survivors or not.”

“Is it time to send in a rescue party?” Fielding suggested.

“The reason we sent in a small team to begin with was because we thought that landing a larger force directly in the city would draw too much attention,” Vos replied, walking over to the nearby window. “We’re achieving our strategic goals, yes, but we’re still vastly outnumbered. We can’t take the Bugs head-on – not yet.”

“I don’t think the Consensus is going to be very happy with us if we lose their admiral,” Fielding added warily.

“I won’t risk the lives of any more men to help the Ensi chase her dragons,” Vos muttered, gazing down at the curvature of the moon. “I gave her all the help that I could, and I made my objections crystal clear. I won’t deploy any forces to look for her until that zone’s King is deposed and it becomes safe to operate in. We’re already seeing opposition in the Blue zone crumbling now that its King is dead.”

“Is it that dramatic?” Fielding asked, moving over to his side.

“As we’d hoped, the Bugs are in disarray without a centralized command structure. Preliminary observation by our scouts shows that the larger forces and strongholds are just staying put and battening down the hatches. They’re likely waiting for new orders that will never come. What was once a unified army defending the region has been split into small, scattered pockets of resistance that should be much easier to deal with using conventional means.”

“Divide and conquer,” Fielding said with an approving nod. “How have the Valbarans been faring?”

“Surprisingly well,” Vos chuckled. “They plan their assaults diligently, and they seem to have a backup plan for every conceivable eventuality. We’ve had to supply them with heavy armor and air support on a few occasions, but they seem perfectly capable of holding their ground.”

“A few of the officers have a…bit of a pot going,” Fielding admitted. “They’re betting on whether the Valbarans can take out the Yellow King on their own.”

“Trying to get some insider information, are we?” Vos replied with a smirk. “I don’t think their pride would let them leave Kerguela without taking at least one head.”

“I’ll have my people keep a close eye on the Ensi’s city,” Fielding added, turning back to the door. “If they hear so much as a peep, I’ll make sure that you’re the first to know.”


“So, we have the run of the place?” Fletcher asked. “We can just wander around?”

He was sitting on his sleeping bag in one corner of the little carbcrete storage room that had become their new home. The rest of the team was nearby. Gustave was lying on the floor, Ruza was leaning against one of the walls with his furry arms crossed, and Bluejay was standing beside him.

“That’s what Miqi told me,” Xipa replied. “Remember, these are not normal Valbara’nay. The people living here have been isolated since before first contact with the Coalition. They’ve never seen your species before, and the only interactions that they’ve had with aliens have been negative, to say the least. We have to win them over – show them that you’re not a threat.”

“So, what?” Fletcher continued with a shrug. “We’re here to win hearts and minds?”

“I want to convince them to leave,” she clarified. “They don’t trust us because they don’t know us. If we can show them that we have their best interests at heart, maybe they’ll come around.”

“They are foolish if they hope to defend this city,” Ruza rumbled in his gravelly tone.

“They’ve survived so far,” Bluejay added.

“Survival alone is not enough,” the Borealan replied. “They crawl beneath the feet of their enemies like tiabad tunneling under the sand dunes, but that does not mean they can best a ruchaza.”

“Nobody knows what those are,” Fletcher added, narrowing his eyes at the feline in annoyance. “The hell are you babbling about?”

“They are tunneling rodents and winged predators from my home territory,” he explained with a growl. “I am saying that just because a prey animal is wily, that does not mean it can outmatch a predator.”

“Okay, well just say that next time, you clown,” Fletcher muttered as he leaned back against the wall behind him.

“I understand that tensions are running a little high,” Xipa began, but she was quickly interrupted by Fletcher.

“I’ll say,” he snapped. “We came here to save these dickheads, and they’re holding us prisoner. I feel like they’re about to wheel in a camera and have us read from cue cards about how we’re being treated well and given three square meals.”

All circles grow in time,” Gustave rumbled.

Fletcher balled up one of the MRE wrappers from a loose pile beside him and tossed it at the reptile, the piece of litter bouncing harmlessly off his scaly head.

“We are not confined to this room, at least,” Xipa sighed. “Go out and explore. Meet the people. Help them, if you can.”

“How are we supposed to talk to them?” Bluejay asked. “They don’t speak English.”

“There are other ways to communicate besides speaking,” Xipa replied. “I can act as an interpreter if need be.”

“I guess we don’t have much of a choice if they won’t let us leave,” Fletcher grumbled.

“I’m staying here,” Bluejay added, giving Xipa a glance before turning his eyes back to the floor.

“You’re just going to hide the whole time?” Fletcher asked, raising an eyebrow. “Fuck these people. They don’t know you.”

“Your role here is probably the most important,” Xipa added. “They will be skeptical of you, but if you can show them that-”

“I’m tired of it,” he sighed, his antennae drooping. “I’m tired of being back at square one with every new person I meet and having to go through the whole rigmarole all over again. They dragged me here in a net. Do you really think they’re going to warm up to me just because I help them pick crops or carry boxes?”

“I won’t let them hurt you,” Xipa added, but the Jarilan could not be swayed so easily.

“I know, but that’s not the issue,” he replied as he spread his four arms in exasperation. “These people hate Bugs. Some of them have been subjugated for their entire lives. I doubt there’s a person here who hasn’t lost a friend or a loved one because of them. They’re gonna put all that on me, regardless of whether it’s fair or not, and nothing that I can do is going to convince them that I’m any different. It took me this long just to get you guys to trust me,” he added, glancing pointedly at Fletcher as the Earth’nay rubbed one of his arms sheepishly. “I’m not going to sway an entire population of pissed-off survivalists in a couple of days, so why bother?”

“Will you at least accompany me on a tour of the facility?” Xipa pleaded, the surly insect glancing up at her again. “I realize that I’m in no position to ask favors of you – not after how suspicious I was – but I wouldn’t press the issue if I didn’t think it was important.”

“Nah, we’re square,” he replied. “I don’t hold it against you. I get it, I really do. I just don’t see any benefit in trying to convince these people of anything.”

“Those who know me would say that there are few who hate the insects more than I do,” Xipa added. “Even so, I now consider you a friend. The same can happen for these people. It must.”

“I won’t order you to do it, but I think you should,” Fletcher said. “Xipa is right – you’re the hardest sell, but they won’t trust us if they can’t trust you.”

“Alright, fine,” Bluejay conceded. “If it’s for the mission, I’ll do it. We’ve come this far…”

Thank you,” Xipa said with a flush of relieved green. “Wait here while I go talk to the guards.”

She made her way out into the hallway, and after a brief conversation with the two women, they sent a message to Miqi. When she turned up a few minutes later, she was clad in patchy civilian clothes instead of her pressure suit – a standard tunic and shorts that had seen extensive wear and repairs over the rotations.

“I hope you were able to get some rest,” Miqi said as she accompanied Xipa back to the storage room. “I realize that the accommodations aren’t what you’re used to, but it’s all we can offer you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Xipa replied. “I’ve been sleeping under the auroras, in abandoned research labs, and in bombed-out buildings. It’s nice to not have to sleep with one eye open.”

“Yes, I imagine that’s especially difficult for you,” Miqi joked. “I must again suggest that your…insect companion remains behind. It will be safe under the watch of my guards until you return. I don’t see any point in frightening people.”

Bluejay is part of my flock,” Xipa replied with a stern flutter of red. “He goes where I go.”

“Very well,” Miqi sighed. “The Ensis didn’t prohibit it, I just think it’s a bad idea.”

They arrived at the little room to find the rest of the team waiting for them, Xipa switching back to English as she addressed them.

“Miqi is going to give us a tour of the facility and introduce us to some of the people who live here. She means to give us a better picture of how they live and why they don’t want to leave. Our job, of course, is to convince them otherwise. If you see anything that you think might help sway them or give us leverage, speak up. I’ll be translating everything that she says, and vice versa…where appropriate. Stay together, and remember what I told you. These people don’t know you, so expect some colorful reactions.”

“Literally, in this case,” Fletcher muttered. “I take it we shouldn’t bring any weapons?”

“Obviously,” she replied. “Come on, and don’t wander.”

They exited the room, forming a loose group, Gustave’s heavy footsteps slapping on the floor behind them as they followed behind Miqi. Their first stop was a storeroom adjacent to the one that had been recently emptied to serve as their quarters.

“This is one of our storage areas,” Miqi began, turning to face them like a tour guide in a museum. “We have some limited manufacturing capability here, but we’re constrained both by the space available to us and by the danger of attracting too much attention. Most of the materials that we use are scavenged from the surface,” she added, leading them inside.

It was another room identical to the one they had slept in, this one filled wall to wall with shelves that ran from the carbcrete floor to the arched ceiling. They were stacked with tubs and crates of all shapes and sizes – anything that could conceivably serve as a container. They were filled with scrap metal that had been separated by type – everything from rusty ball bearings and springs to jars full of nuts and bolts that had been carefully organized by size. There were copper pipes, pieces of sheet metal stacked against one of the walls, and even a tub filled with old cutlery.

“This wing is mostly stuff like metal and polymers,” Miqi explained as she gestured to a wooden rack that was draped with old chains. “Some things we can use, but most have to be melted down or refined. We can smelt alloys to make tools or spare parts, and we can render down polymers and resins for use in printers.”

“Industrial equipment wouldn’t be as hard to find as you’re probably imagining,” Xipa explained after translating for the team. “There’s a band of the city devoted entirely to manufacturing and farming. We passed it on the way here. Assuming that they could reach one of the factories, they could disassemble something like a printer and move it piece by piece.”

“Like the old prank where you disassemble someone’s car and reassemble it in their office,” Fletcher said with a nod. “Only you’re hiding from Bug patrols instead of campus security.”

She led them on, and they left the corridor, passing by the two guards who watched them suspiciously as they turned off into the snaking hallways.

“We have other storage areas dedicated to things like food and medicine, too,” Miqi explained as she led them through the maze of tunnels. Xipa noticed that not all of the corridors were the same. Every so often, the white carbcrete gave way to patches of grey bedrock, exposed chunks of rough stone protruding from the otherwise flat surfaces. They were surrounded by small troughs that were filled with shallow water, and Xipa noted that they were wet, glistening under the harsh lighting. Red mosses and lichens had been allowed to flourish on their jagged surfaces, adding a touch of nature to the otherwise sterile facility. These must be holdouts from before the invasion that the inhabitants had maintained, presumably for their therapeutic qualities. If the engineers who had once worked here had found value in them, then they would be a boon for people who rarely had an opportunity to enjoy nature at all.

“Do those water features use any power?” Fletcher asked as they passed by one of them. “Seems like a waste of electricity.”

“They’re fed by entirely natural means,” Miqi explained. “The bedrock here is very porous and allows a lot of water to seep in from above.”

“Even their bloody sewage plants are designed like hotels,” Fletcher muttered, Xipa electing not to translate that part.

As they made their way along the corridor, they passed by a flock that was heading in the opposite direction. They were wearing pressure suits that had been patched and repaired dozens of times, along with the camouflaged cloaks and makeshift gas masks that Xipa had seen the day before. They were armed with a blend of laser rifles and captured Bug weapons, their leather rigs laden with ammunition and supplies. They were presumably on their way to some kind of surface excursion.

The sound of gunfire echoing down the hallway made Xipa bristle, a worried flash of purple passing through her feathers.

“Relax, it’s just the armory,” Miqi said with a calming flutter of green. “It’s our next stop.”

They arrived at another large, reinforced hatch that would have been right at home in a bunker, hanging open on its heavy hinges. Beyond was another corridor that extended left and right, giving access to a series of what looked like maintenance doors that were spaced out at regular intervals. They were narrow, pressurized, clearly not intended to be used often. Miqi led them over to one of the open doors, guiding them through, its aperture large enough that Gustave and Ruza could fit.

Inside was an expansive room that was much longer than it was wide, though it was far from narrow, another curved ceiling rising above their heads. The floor here was covered over with wooden boards, presumably elevating it above some kind of machinery, and the walls were oddly slanted. The longer Xipa looked at it, the more she got the impression that they were standing at the bottom of a giant trough. She could see marks where unneeded equipment had been removed to clear space, but there was a maze of pipes and pumps that still persisted high above their heads.

The near half of the wooden floor was packed with workbenches and racks, weapons of all imaginable kinds in varying states of disassembly strewn across the surfaces. Just like the containers in the storage rooms, the tables were all mismatched and scavenged, a few of them purpose-built from salvaged wood and metal. The racks were packed with laser rifles, Bug weapons, and stores of ammunition. There were tubs filled with the telltale emerald glow of plasma canisters, along with makeshift charging stations for batteries, masses of wires connecting them to the facility’s power system via worryingly crowded sockets. There were a few flocks tending to the weapons, making repairs or cleaning them.

The furthest half of the room was clear of tables and racks, cleanly divided from the rest of the armory by a low fence. Behind it was a makeshift firing range, longer than the one that Xipa had seen on the Earth’nay carrier. There were paper targets set up at varying distances, some of them hanging on ropes from the pipes high above, others mounted on crude wooden stands that had been scratch built. The steel wall at the far end was peppered with laser burns and holes made by plasma, but it wasn’t like the tank needed to be watertight anymore. The sound of gunfire was coming from the range, where half a dozen Valbarans were practicing, the scent of ozone and burning paper filling the air in the enclosed space.

“When we arrived, this was one of the sedimentation tanks,” Miqi explained proudly. “Sludge from the treatment process would settle in the bottom, where its weight would separate it from the water, and it would be evacuated via a system of pipes and filters. Those are under the floor now, of course, and we ripped out all of the baffles that once helped direct the flow. Now, we use it to maintain our guns and practice our shooting.”

“Impressive,” Fletcher said, walking over to one of the nearby racks. This one was filled with resin rifles – weapons of Bug manufacture. They were arranged on a custom-built wooden frame in neat rows, but there was something unusual about the assembly. Mounted at the top of the frame were a series of tubes and containers made from clear plastic, trailing down to connect to the weapons, almost like a charging station. This was not electricity, however. There was some kind of syrupy, yellow fluid seeping down the tubes.

“How did you manage to keep the Bug guns functional?” Fletcher continued. “We’ve never had any luck. By the time they make it back to a lab for study, they’ve usually died and begun to decompose.”

“They use organic components,” Bluejay replied before Xipa could translate. He made his way over to the Earth’nay’s side, startling one of the Valbara’nay who was working on a laser rifle nearby. She jerked away from him, glancing to Miqi with a flash of outraged red as if to ask what the hell is this? Miqi replied with an assuaging flutter of green, but it did little to reassure her, the woman moving away to a different table. “They have chemical batteries that need to be charged, but they also have living systems that need to be fed,” the Jarilan continued. “It looks like the Valbarans have managed to synthesize some kind of honey and are feeding it to the weapons.”

“The insect is right,” Miqi added after waiting for Xipa to translate. “Though, we have not been able to synthesize their food supplement. The long-range patrols that are often sent through the area have rations, and we simply take them.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention, I suppose,” Fletcher said as he reached out to poke one of the rifles. He seemed disappointed when it didn’t try to squirm away from him.

Miqi led them back outside, and they moved on to the next sedimentation tank. There were four of them in a row here. The leftmost had been converted into the range, while the second along was being used to store food. The walls were covered in shelves, much like the storerooms they had seen earlier, though they were stacked much higher. There were ladders leaning against some of them, which would let the Valbarans reach the higher shelves. Most of it was jarred and preserved goods that they had recovered from the city. Miqi explained that even though they grew much of their own fresh produce in the old clarifier tanks, the city above was still full of untapped resources.

“Even after thirty years?” Fletcher asked skeptically. “How can there still be anything worth salvaging?”

“There were millions of people living in the city, and there are only around a thousand survivors living here,” Miqi explained after waiting for Xipa to interpret. “Due to the speed of the invasion, almost everything remains exactly where it was the day that the ships came. It’s pretty much impossible to go out on a patrol and not come across something useful. Of course, we do have to range further and further afield each time, which brings us into conflict with the insects more often.”

Xipa remembered the toys that had been scattered on the floor of the dwelling that they had slept in, the uneaten food in the kitchen, a knot forming in her belly. It had all happened so quickly – too quickly for anyone to really process. She remembered how the atmosphere in her home city had gone from confusion and curiosity to terror in only minutes.

“Back here is the refrigeration area,” Miqi continued, leading them to a walled-off section of the tank. It looked like a wooden shed, but the walls had been packed with thick foam insulation, and there was an electrical hum coming from within. She opened the door to show them the interior – a twenty square meter cube that was packed with scavenged ice boxes and freezers. There was also some kind of compressor pumping cold air into the space, maybe a climate control unit that had been sourced from someone’s dwelling.

She opened one of the freezers, showing the team the frozen fish that were stored inside it, which she explained had been raised in their hydroponic farms. Another had cuts of meat sourced from the native animals that they were able to catch during their hunting expeditions on the surface. It was still strange to think that one could hunt Kerguela’s wild game on the city streets and in the parks these days. In some ways, they were eating better than a lot of Valbara’nay back on the homeworld. When there were only a thousand mouths to feed, there was no limit to the animal products that one could eat. They would need a high-protein diet to live such a hard and physically demanding life. Other than what they produced or caught themselves, there was little in the way of other refrigerated goods. After the power had been shut off, frozen food would have been the first thing to spoil. Anyone who went looking for a meal in the city’s fridges would be met with a horrific sight.

“You guys are using a lot of juice to keep this place running,” Fletcher said as he examined a shelf filled with freeze-dried vegetables. “How are you generating this much power without drawing the Bugs right to you?”

It was cold enough that his breath was misting in the air as he spoke. Curious, Xipa turned to glance at Bluejay as she translated the question, seeing that a fine cloud of condensation seemed to hang around his body like an aura.

“We’ll visit the generators at the end of the tour,” Miqi explained. “They’re down in the deepest level of the facility.”

The rest of the tanks were also dedicated to food storage, so they moved on to another area of the plant. As they made their way along the corridors, Xipa noticed that they had begun to slope downwards, which suggested that they were moving deeper into the base. It would make sense to keep the more sensitive areas of the plant – like the civilian quarters – further away from the entrances.

There were many more side rooms and branching corridors, and the team encountered more people the further they went, every flock that passed them pausing to stare at the strange procession of aliens. Their reactions varied from curiosity to alarm, but Miqi was always there to give them a reassuring flutter of green. Most of the people they crossed paths with on the upper floors had been armed or were carrying supplies back and forth, but many people here were just going about their business. There were a few guards, but most were clad in what passed for casual clothes in the plant.

The tunnel soon opened up into a relatively expansive space, the curved ceiling rising some five or six meters above their heads. It almost looked like a miniature spaceport terminal. The floor was made from polished carbcrete that reflected the light strips at the ceiling’s apex, giving it a mirror-like finish, and Xipa could see the marks that had been left behind by the removal of the machinery that used to occupy the space. If she had to guess, it had been full of tanks and pumps. Now, it was a kind of town square.

There were planters running down the center of the tunnel, overflowing with shrubs and ferns, the red and brown foliage blowing gently in the breeze from the ventilation system. There were crates and containers stacked against the walls, many of them still sitting on carts waiting to be unloaded, and there were flocks everywhere. Some of them were walking to and from the doorways that ran down the length of the tunnel, while others were relaxing in the communal space, sitting on benches and stools that had been scattered about the area. Some were eating, others were using holographic displays, while others were simply socializing.

“So many colors,” Ruza mumbled, momentarily transfixed by the variety of flashing feathers.

The telltale shriek of a child at play drew Xipa’s attention like a beacon, and she saw a little group of children chasing a ball under the supervision of their parents. They were young, barely out of the incubator, three or four rotations old at the most. The sight filled her with both a surge of hope, and also a pang of dread. These people were defiant in the face of the Bug threat, young flocks starting families and propagating their species against all odds, but the sight of the abandoned toys in the dwelling still haunted her. All it would take would be for a single Bug scout to discover this place and make it out of the city to report its location, and this fragile world would come tumbling down.

“Is it a good idea to be having kids in this situation?” Fletcher wondered, mirroring her concerns. “Seems kind of irresponsible.”

“Not having children would be consenting to our extermination,” Miqi replied, her answer seeming to surprise Fletcher once Xipa had translated it. “This is our home, and we intend to treat it as such. An entire generation was raised in these tunnels, and more are on their way. You could argue that knowing nothing of a life without the threat of the insects literally hanging over our heads has disadvantaged us, but it has also made us strong and resilient. What did a life without war or strife get us?” she added, turning to face the Earth’nay. “It left us defenseless. Your people know war, if what Xipa has told us is true. The only reason that our cousins on Valbara survived is because you were combing the stars in search of conflict like someone checking their feathers for parasites. The insects ended our civilization in a day, but you…you hunt them for sport. We have learned to do the same.”

“I dunno if I’d say for sport,” Fletcher replied, fidgeting with his prosthetic hands conspicuously. “But, yeah, we’re getting pretty good at what we do.”

The presence of the aliens was already causing a stir in the crowd. The mellow greens and happy yellows of their headdresses were changing into worried purples and alarmed oranges as more of them noticed the newcomers. Some left their seats on the benches, snatching up their children and hurrying their flocks along, retreating into the side rooms. Others just stared, a few angry reds letting Xipa know that some of them were even less enthused about the visitors. The chorus of conversations quickly died down, giving way to a tense silence punctuated by hushed whispers.

She felt someone nudge her, turning to see Bluejay standing beside her, his long antennae drooping.

“I really shouldn’t be here,” he muttered, wringing both pairs of hands nervously as his eyes darted around the tunnel. “I want to go back to the storeroom.”

Fletcher reached out to place a prosthetic hand on his armored shoulder, and Gustave lumbered over to stand beside him, the loud sounds of his footsteps reverberating off the walls.

“We’ve got your back,” Fletcher said. “Well, more importantly, Gustave has your back. Don’t tell our tour guide, but I think he could eat half of the population like popcorn chicken before they figured out a way to stop him.”

Bluejay looked somewhat reassured, but Xipa could tell what was really bothering him. He wasn’t in fear for his safety – it was seeing families bundling up their children and fleeing at the sight of him that had him so anxious.

“They don’t know what you went through to get here, or what the other Jarilans are doing on their behalf,” Xipa explained. “They’ll feel foolish for acting this way sometime very soon. Trust me, I speak from experience,” she added with a weary chuckle.

It wasn’t enough to sway him, but it was enough that they could keep moving, Miqi glancing between them before leading them on. The crowd of people parted before them, keeping their distance, the colors that they displayed making even Xipa feel a little insecure. It was probably a disservice to refer to these people as civilians. While they weren’t currently wearing cloaks or masks, and they weren’t armed, every one of them probably knew how to handle a weapon. Even the males, if what Miqi had told her was true. The men here were certainly less meek than their homeworld counterparts. She’d never had a male flash her such an angry crimson before.

“You sure we’re safe?” Fletcher asked, Ruza loosing a low growl at a nearby female who maintained eye contact with him for a little too long. “Someone once asked me how many toddlers I could take in a fight as a thought experiment, but I’m not liking my odds right now.”

“They aren’t happy, but word will have spread by now that we have guests,” Miqi replied after Xipa had translated the less offensive part of his question. “You are here with the blessing of the Ensis, and nobody will disobey their decree.”

She led them over to one of the doors that lined the curved walls. These had clearly been made after the plant had been occupied, judging by the way that the rock had been chiseled out to create a short tunnel with a much larger aperture. Even Gustave was able to walk through it with ease. The carbcrete wall gave way to exposed rock, which gave way to more carbcrete in turn, soon opening up into a cavernous space.

“These are the living quarters,” Miqi explained, smiling at their surprised expressions. “This used to be a reservoir for storing potable water. Now, it’s the place our people call home. The floor space is about ten thousand square meters, and it used to be able to hold a hundred million liters of drinking water for the city above. There’s an identical one on the opposite side of the tunnel.”

“Looks like a fucking cathedral,” Fletcher added with an impressed whistle that echoed through the chamber.

The space before them could hardly be described as a room – it was far too large. As well as the immense floor space, the ceiling must have been ten meters high, and there were hundreds of support pillars spaced out at regular intervals. Every surface had been painted over with a blue substance that had the appearance of enamel, giving it an almost wet, reflective sheen in the dim lights that shone from above. It must be some kind of treatment to prevent corrosion from the water that had once been stored here.

Although its contents had long since been drained away, that wasn’t to say that the chamber was empty. Around most of the pillars in view were squat buildings, shacks made from wooden planks and other scavenged materials arranged in a circle, the sloping roofs joining to the support. Many of them were covered over with tarps and pieces of foam insulation, perhaps to help keep in the heat, as it was quite cold this deep underground. There were cables strung between the pillars, forming a messy network of drooping power lines that trailed down into the makeshift dwellings. Each of the buildings had crates and other supplies stacked just outside, contributing to the vast, underground sprawl.

“It’s an underground colony!” Bluejay marveled, the sight making him forget his unease for a moment.

“More like a shanty town,” Fletcher added. “It looks like they’ve built little houses out of scrap. I was expecting rows of bunks inside an old water tank or something, but this is…”

“It is a society,” Ruza said, his growling voice reverberating through the space. “They have not merely subsisted – they have staked their claim here.”

“You can come inside,” Miqi added, leading them deeper. It was relatively dark – the lights on the ceiling had probably only been used for periodic maintenance when this place had been functioning – but Xipa could see brighter light spilling out from between the gaps in the wooden boards that made up the little shacks. There were a few people milling about, some of them pausing to watch, while others retreated into their dwellings through creaking doors. It seemed that each flock had their own private home, not dissimilar from the residential band in the city above.

“How long did it take them to build all of this?” Fletcher wondered. “Well, stupid question,” he added. “It took them thirty years, obviously, but still. This is a lot of garbage to cart all the way down here from a Bug-infested city. Look, they even have power lines.”

“My home is this way,” Miqi said, taking a turn as they passed another squat dwelling. The spacing of the pillars almost gave the impression of streets. Xipa could hear their footsteps echoing through the cavernous reservoir, as well as the sound of muffled conversations, and even music. People were just going about their business down here in this subterranean settlement.

They soon arrived at a shack that was indistinguishable from the rest, the salvaged wood that made up its curving facade covered over with layers of plastic tarp that had been nailed to the planks. There were a few crates outside, one of them filled with empty jars and food wrappers, another containing bottled water. Miqi pulled open the door with a creak, then reached inside to hit a switch on the near wall, a naked bulb that was attached to the carbcrete pillar in the center lighting up the interior with a golden glow.

“Tell your flock to wait outside,” Miqi advised. “Those three are too big, and the insect…well.”

Xipa did as she asked, then followed her into the rickety structure. It was cramped, even by Valbara’nay standards, but there was still space enough for a flock to live relatively comfortably. One quadrant of the shack had been made into a sleeping area with mattresses and pillows that had been piled on the ground, and another was being used as a very basic kitchen with a portable stove. There were a few food containers stacked against the wall, but if Xipa had to guess, there was probably a larger communal mess hall somewhere else in the plant. There was also a small desk with a couple of holographic devices on top of it, and some shelves where the flock kept their clothes and personal belongings. The bare floor had been covered over with wooden boards, which had themselves been carpeted as much as the scavenged fabric would allow, keeping out much of the cold. There was a small space heater near the sleeping area, a power cable trailing up to the ceiling, but it was turned off. The pillar in the center of the room was covered in pictures, Xipa realized. She took a step closer, leaning in to examine them. They were mostly old printouts of scenes from the surface, along with a few hand-drawn portraits of what might be Miqi’s flock.

“When I set out on this expedition, the most that I expected to find was a handful of survivors cowering in lounges and basements,” Xipa began as she reached out to brush her claws against one of the drawings. “Even that was a hard sell. Nobody but me really believed that anyone could subsist on the surface for thirty rotations. Yet now, I find you turning empty reservoirs into residential bands.”

“Now, do you better understand why we don’t want to leave?” Miqi asked as she flopped down into a nest of pillows. “We’ve built a life here,” she continued, gesturing to her humble home. “No, we’ve clawed back a life from the mandibles of the insects. Everything that you’ve seen here was made with care and purpose. It’s the culmination of all of our ingenuity, our collective efforts, and it’s been paid for with the blood of friend and flock.”

“You were born in these tunnels, is that right?” Xipa asked.

“Yeah,” Miqi replied. “What of it?”

“Then, you don’t remember a time before all this, what the world used to be like before the Bugs came.”

“I see that world on every excursion,” she replied with a terse flash of red. “I see its luxuries, its wastefulness, the remnants that its people left behind. The Ensis and the other elders have taught us about how they used to live – about the mistakes that they made. It was a utopian society, and its people were full of hubris. They thought that they were the most advanced form of life in the Galaxy, that anyone they met would share their values, and it cost them everything.”

“May I sit?” Xipa asked, Miqi gesturing to the mattress beside her with a feather sheath. “I admire your tenacity,” she continued as she lowered herself into the cushions. “You have become a self-reliant people, and you remind me a lot of myself in many ways.”

“How’s that?” Miqi asked.

“When Kerguela fell, and I lost my flock,” Xipa began with a flutter of melancholic purple. “I resigned myself to a life of solitude. I told myself that I could become a one-woman army, that I had to rely only on myself from that moment on. I would protect Valbara entirely on my own. That didn’t work out, obviously,” she added with a dry chuckle. “Despite all of my efforts, it was the Coalition that protected my people, not me. I resented them for a long time because of it. I felt like they’d robbed me of my destiny, in a way. It was a petty thing to believe, as though the lives of a billion Valbara’nay were worth less than my pride. When they offered to help us retake Kerguela, I saw it as yet another personal project. I was going to return to the moon with a fleet at my back, and I was going to retake it – I was going to right the wrongs of the past.”

“Is that not what you did?” Miqi asked.

“The UNN – the Earth’nay – are doing most of the work,” she explained. “Our fleet is powerful, to be sure, but we couldn’t manage it without their help. When I detected the beacon, I argued and threatened my way into leading a team down to the surface to investigate. Once again, the great Xipa’tla’nemi was single-handedly going to swoop in and snatch everyone from the jaws of the Teth’rak,” she laughed with an exaggerated swing of her arm. “That was how I met my team. I resented them, I was suspicious of their motives, I was as uncooperative as could be. But, the more time I spent with them, the more I realized that I couldn’t do this on my own.”

“Well, you didn’t have a flock,” Miqi suggested.

“It wasn’t just that,” she explained. “They had skills that I didn’t, and they were able to see the world in ways that I could never. They saved my life and the mission more times than I care to count. They have become the closest thing to a flock that I’ve had since the day of the invasion. I have come to trust them.”

“And, the point of this story is that we should trust your Coalition in the same way,” Miqi added with a dismissive feather flutter. “I’m not a child, you know.”

“To me, you are,” Xipa chuckled. “I’m old enough to be your mother. My point is, I thought that I could do everything on my own, that I didn’t need anyone’s help. What’s more, I rejected help even when I did need it out of pride. Any task is made easier with more able bodies, and any decision is made wiser through consensus. Is that not the mantra of our people? Do they still teach that here?”

“They do,” Miqi replied.

“I spent the last thirty rotations telling myself that I didn’t need a flock, and I learned how wrong I was the hard way. We are stronger together, and these aliens have skills and technologies that we lack. They have made us stronger than we have ever been, strong enough to come back to Kerguela and bring the fight to the Bugs. Flock, Consensus, Coalition – these are just different terms for the same concept. We have to work together if we want to survive.”

“We’ve been doing just fine on our own,” Miqi said dismissively.

“Then, why activate the beacon?” Xipa asked. “Why send out a call for help if you don’t really need it?”

“We want your help to drive off the insects once and for all,” she explained with a flash of red. “We don’t want to abandon the home that we’ve fought so hard to protect. That’s what this tour is for, you know – to show you what we’ve built here so that you better understand our position. My parents didn’t run away like you did. They stayed behind to fight, and so will I.”

Xipa felt the sting of anger, but she suppressed it, taking a calming breath. This girl was young, impulsive, and she had no idea what Xipa had gone through during the evacuation. To describe the desperate bid to save as many lives as possible as cowardice was an insult that she wouldn’t have levied if she truly understood.

“I’m not asking you to flee,” Xipa explained calmly. “All I want is to move your population into orbit where they’ll be safe until we’ve exterminated the Bugs. What about that is objectionable? When the work is done, we’ll put you right back where we found you.”

“That’s what you don’t understand,” the girl snapped. “We’ve been fighting for those thirty rotations. You have no idea how many people have given their lives to make this possible,” she continued as she gestured to the wooden shack that surrounded them. “We won’t give those bastards any ground – not even an inch.”

Xipa could see that this line of conversation wasn’t going anywhere productive, so she let up, pointing to the central pillar.

“Those pictures,” she began. “Who are they?”

“My flock, mostly,” Miqi explained. “It’s nice to be able to see their faces when they’re off working. And, y’know, if something happens…”

“What kind of work do they do?” Xipa asked. “Most flocks work together closely in my society, so it’s unusual for them to split up.”

“That must be nice, being able to stay together all day,” Miqi chuckled. “There aren’t usually enough of us for that. There’s a lot of work to do, from moving supplies to patrolling the surface, and everyone tends to do a little bit of everything.”

“Where is your flock now?” Xipa asked.

“Off doing odd jobs, probably,” she replied with a flutter of uncertain purple. “The Ensis assigned me to mind your team, so I probably won’t see them again until tonight.”

“Sorry to be a bother,” Xipa said. “But, if they gave that responsibility to you alone, it must mean that they place a great deal of trust in you. As an Ensi myself, I know these things.”

“How are things on the homeworld?” Miqi continued, changing the subject. “How hard was it hit?”

“Some drop pods made it to the ground,” Xipa replied. “There were some skirmishes in a few of the cities, but casualties were far lower than they could have been. The main battle happened in orbit, where the Coalition fleet stopped the insects dead in their tracks. My defense stations did their part, but without the Earth’nay, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Valbara would have suffered the same fate as Kerguela.”

Miqi shifted her weight on the pillows, hesitating for a moment.

“So…how did they win?” she asked, glancing over at Xipa. “This Coalition of yours. Was it just a larger fleet, better technology? We saw their ships through the telescopes, and some of them dwarfed yours. They looked like a herd of giant Do’patli.”

“By the time the Earth’nay encountered the insects, they already had an established interstellar union with dozens of colonies,” Xipa explained. “They already had an expansive fleet – used to police their territory and to fight each other. You’re right about our outlook being overly optimistic. We assumed that any spacefaring species would have access to all the resources it could ever need, and so conflict would be pointless. After all, why take things like water or minerals by force when they’re available in abundance throughout every solar system? What we didn’t consider is that habitable worlds themselves would become the new flashpoint. Finding a planet with an environment suitable for complex life is rare, and comfortable ones are even scarcer. Bitter wars are fought over them. We might have left conflict behind us, but the rest of the Galaxy didn’t.”

“They were experienced in war, then?”

“Fighting the insect fleets is routine for them, yes. They have hundreds of rotations of experience with interstellar warfare and decades of experience fighting the Bugs. What’s happening on Kerguela is a large operation, to be sure, but it’s not out of the ordinary. Our own fleet has grown, and we’ve incorporated much of their technology. We will be able to police our own space now – maybe build our own colonial empire to rival theirs.”

“You agree that the old ways are to be abandoned, then?” Miqi asked as she cocked her head curiously. “That a pacifist society cannot survive in this Galaxy?”

“No, I don’t,” Xipa replied without missing a beat. “We don’t have to mobilize our entire species for war just to survive. Even if we didn’t have the Coalition backing us up and providing support, it still wouldn’t be necessary. We have learned hard lessons, to be sure, but we’ve built on the existing foundation rather than tearing it all down to start over. It’s possible to have a peaceful, prosperous civilian population while also maintaining a professional military. The society that you see above-ground still exists on Valbara. The only difference is that we now have war fleets protecting it.”

“You expect us to return to that kind of lifestyle?” Miqi scoffed.

“I don’t know,” Xipa said with a shrug. It was a gesture that she had picked up from the other species, and it seemed to confuse the girl. “When we kill the Queen and dismantle the hive’s command structure, there will be pockets of resistance remaining – Bug armies and patrols left cut-off and isolated out in the wilderness. My guess is that we’re going to need willing exterminators for rotations to come.”

“The Queen?” Miqi asked, suddenly becoming far more attentive. “We’ve theorized that there must be some kind of intelligence guiding them, much like lesser social insects. The Ensis will want to hear of this.”

They were interrupted as Fletcher poked his head through the front door, a scowl on his scarred face.

“Are you girls done with your bloody tea party? We’re freezing our balls off out here. Those of us who have balls, anyway…”

“It seems that my companions are ready to continue the tour,” Xipa said with a roll of her eyes. “We should get moving.”

“I’ll have to pick your brain for information about the insects when we’re done,” Miqi said as she hopped to her feet. “You must know a lot that we don’t.”


They left the underground shantytown and proceeded back out through the large tunnel. Word had spread quickly, and there was a sizable crowd of maybe a hundred people that had assembled to watch them. The sight of them made Bluejay visibly uncomfortable, and they hurried on their way. Yet another short walk through the facility’s corridors took them to their next destination. This one was built into a huge, cylindrical tank that was maybe eight meters wide and ten times that long, made from shining metal that reflected the row of lightbulbs that had been strung up along the ceiling. Much like in the sedimentation tanks with their sloping walls, the survivors had used wooden boards to create a more level floor, requiring the team to mount a small flight of steps to reach it. The steps were too small for Ruza and Gustave, but the aliens were tall enough to just step over them in one stride. The boards creaked worryingly under the Krell’nay’s weight, but they seemed to be holding.

The curving walls here were lined with individual bunks that were spaced apart, something that was unusual for Valbara’nay in any setting but one. This was a hospital. There was a frame welded together from scrap metal around each bed from which privacy curtains hung, and Xipa was surprised to see that they had all been sourced from an actual hospital. There was medical equipment, too, portable machines sitting beside many of the beds that Xipa couldn’t identify with her limited knowledge of medical matters. They were joined to the plant’s electrical system via a mess of hanging wires that trailed along the walls.

Most of the beds were unoccupied, though there were a few patients who were being tended to by flocks of nurses wearing white medical coveralls. Much like the pressure suits, these had clearly seen a lot of use over the rotations, and many of them had been patched together with insulating tape. At the far end of the tank was another refrigerated storeroom like the ones they had seen in the food storage areas, probably keeping medicines and perishable equipment cool. How much of that had survived the initial days of the invasion, it was impossible to tell.

Xipa turned to glance up at Ruza, whose ears had pricked up. As a trained medic, he would probably have a lot to say about their operation.

“This is the infirmary,” Miqi explained, gesturing to a nearby doctor who paused to stare at them in confusion. “While we’ve gotten very good at evading the insects, not every patrol is without incident. Couple that with accidents and illnesses, and we see quite a few patients here. We also have an ICU in the adjacent tank, but I can’t show you that, as it would be a contamination hazard.”

“Please tell me that you have a UV bay for sterilizing your equipment before you reuse it,” Ruza grumbled, looking over the room with obvious disapproval.

“Did any qualified doctors or medics survive the invasion?” Fletcher asked skeptically. “If they’re anything like human doctors, then they’re not exactly a dime a dozen.”

“You forget that we learn new skills far more quickly than your kind,” Xipa explained. “Still, experience is something that cannot be passed on so easily.”

She relayed his question to Miqi, who explained as she led them deeper.

“No doctors survived, no. Several nurses and members of the city guard did, however. With their training, they were able to establish the infirmary. Data is one thing that has been relatively easy to recover, and there exists a wealth of medical manuals and holographic guides in our database. The city hospital and the clinics were some of the first places to be cleaned out after the invasion.”

“Still, you must be severely limited in what you can treat,” Ruza added. He paused as they passed by one of the occupied beds, scrutinizing a sleeping woman. She was nude above the waist, only a towel that was draped over her chest preserving her modesty. A series of ugly plasma burns that had fused her scales trailed across her torso and down her left arm. They were being treated with cooling gel packs and some kind of blue paste that Xipa didn’t recognize. “There must be many machines in your hospital that are too large to move, and there are perishables that cannot even last a day without refrigeration. Vaccines, blood packs, gene therapy samples. There is no supply chain to replace these things…”

“We make do with what we have,” Miqi replied after Xipa relayed his concerns.

“A dismissive reply that leads me to believe she has little medical knowledge,” Ruza grumbled. “Fletcher,” he said, turning to the Earth’nay. “I ask permission to remain here to assist them. Coalition medical technology is more advanced than theirs, and while I have little in the way of supplies, I can probably do much to help improve their situation.”

“That’s a good way to make yourself useful,” Fletcher replied with a nod. “What about communication?”

“I have studied Valbaran anatomy, and I know how to treat them,” he replied. “I will send for Xipa if there are problems.”

Fletcher looked to Xipa for confirmation, and she nodded her head.

“My companion will stay here to help out,” she explained, Miqi looking Ruza up and down skeptically as he produced a pair of surgical gloves from a pouch on his rig. “He’s our medic, and he’s trained in Valbara’nay anatomy.”

“If you say so,” she replied. “I’ll let my people know.”

Ruza moved over to a patient who was hooked up to some kind of IV drip, then produced his medical scanner, a crowd of curious nurses gathering to watch as he began to sweep it across his perplexed subject.

“You’re…sure he knows what he’s doing?” Miqi asked warily. “He is rather large.”

“Don’t judge him by appearance alone,” she chided. “I’ve seen him heal wounds in the field that could have put a Valbara’nay down for good. He was hand-picked for this mission, so tell your people to be cooperative, and they won’t be disappointed. There are hospital ships in orbit, you know,” she added. This was another opportunity to drive her point home, and she wasn’t about to pass it up. “We could have a medical team fly down to evacuate your wounded in the space of fifteen minutes. Our technology is thirty rotations more advanced than yours, and what we’ve learned from the Earth’nay is hundreds of rotations more advanced than that. Observe Fletcher’s arms,” she said as she gestured to him. “These prosthetics are grafted directly to his body. They mimic and even exceed the functions of the original limb with no danger of rejection, and they even simulate sensation. None of your people need suffer a moment longer.”

“Nice try, but they were injured in defense of their home,” Miqi replied. “They don’t want to leave it any more than the healthy do.”

“Well, we can’t bring down a medical team to bring supplies and help out until the surface is secured,” Xipa shot back. “If any shuttles drop into the city, it’s going to attract every Bug in a fifty-kilometer radius of the walls.”

“So help us secure it,” Miqi replied with a smirk.

They left Ruza to tend to his new patients as they headed out of the infirmary and into the next tank. The smells of cooking food wafted over on the stale breeze from the ventilation systems as they neared the door. As Xipa had guessed, this must be the kitchen. This was an identical tank with an identical wood floor, but instead of hospital beds, it was lined with round tables surrounded by stools. At the back of the room was a food preparation area with refrigerators, what looked like gas-powered stoves, and some scavenged appliances. There was a flock of Valbara’nay wearing aprons who were dicing vegetables and tending to bubbling cooking pots, handing out dishes to the waiting patrons. The room was fairly crowded, most of the tables playing host to a flock or two who were chatting as they ate, the variety of scents making Xipa’s mouth water. There was some kind of vegetable soup, grilled fish and meats, fresh fruit. Suddenly, the idea of eating processed insect protein was distinctly unappetizing.

“At least they’re eating good,” Fletcher muttered. “Hell, they’re doing better than half of the colonies I’ve been to. You reckon they know how to make sandwiches?”

“I don’t know if the locals would appreciate sharing a table with us,” Xipa said, glancing around the room of stony faces that were peering back at them.

“Man, I don’t fucking care,” Fletcher replied. He raised his voice as though addressing the onlookers, even though he must have known that they couldn’t understand him. “I haven’t eaten all day, I’m fucking hungry.”

“Is there a problem?” Miqi asked.

“He’s just hungry,” Xipa sighed. “Could we stop to eat, perhaps? I realize that your supplies are probably limited, but we can compensate you, of course.”

“No need,” Miqi said as a wave of reassuring green fluttered through her feathers. “You are our guests, and there is plenty of food to go around. Except for him, perhaps,” she added as she glanced back at Gustave. “I fear there isn’t enough meat in our stores to satisfy a creature so large. He must have the appetite of a Teth’rak.”

“Don’t worry about him,” Xipa said. “He already ate this month.”

They walked over to the kitchen area, the room’s occupants giving them the same treatment as those in the tunnel. A few of them got up to leave, leading young children away, while others simply stared in stunned silence. Xipa noticed that Bluejay was pressing a little closer to their group, his antennae waving as he glanced around nervously.

“You ever seen a Wild West movie?” Fletcher whispered. “There’s always this part where they go into the saloon, and…never mind. The point is, someone usually ends up getting shot.”

“Do the aliens have any special nutritional requirements?” Miqi asked, the queue of Valbara’nay who were waiting to be served dispersing as they neared. “I don’t know what any of them eat.”

“Gustave doesn’t need to eat, though he might appreciate a small morsel of fish or meat,” Xipa explained. “Bluejay can only eat honey – he can’t swallow solid foods. Fletcher can eat whatever we eat.”

“Very well,” she said, turning to one of the baffled women behind the wooden counter. The stranger lifted her head to watch Gustave as he approached, the Krell’nay seeming to grow larger with each step until he was towering over her. “Hi, Tika. I’m giving the aliens a tour, and they want to sample your cooking. Give us three of your best dishes – whatever you have on hand.”

“O-okay, Miqi,” she mumbled. She half-turned to relay their order to her flock, keeping her eyes fixed on Gustave the whole time.

“How’s it going?” Fletcher said, giving the woman a nod as he leaned on the counter with his prosthetic arms. She recoiled, her feathers flashing yellow in alarm. “I’ll take the, uh…” He glanced up as though pretending to read from a menu, Xipa rolling her eyes. “The early-bird special, with extra bacon and a couple of eggs, sunny-side up. I don’t really care who laid them. Don’t burn the toast, now. I want that nice golden color.”

“Fletcher, don’t,” Xipa sighed. “They can’t even understand you.”

While Bluejay responded with anxiety, Fletcher seemed to be expressing his frustration through acting out. It was clear that everyone was growing weary of the lukewarm reception. Hopefully, a hot meal would help recharge their batteries.

They moved over to an empty table, a few of its neighbors vacating their seats as they approached. As usual, there was no room for Gustave, so he lay down heavily on the wood floor. Bluejay was more appropriately sized for Valbara’nay furniture, while Fletcher had to lean over a little to reach the table.

“I feel like I’m sitting at a fucking kid’s playset,” he grumbled to himself as he shifted his weight on the creaking stool. “Would it kill you guys to build chairs with backrests?”

“What’s he saying?” Miqi asked, watching him fidget.

“Nothing important,” Xipa replied.

It didn’t take long for the chefs to deliver their food, three of them bringing over steaming dishes from the kitchen. They placed them on the table, giving Bluejay a wide berth, then hurried off back behind their counter to watch from a distance as though they expected the aliens to explode.

Fletcher picked up a two-pronged fork, examining it curiously, but he seemed pleased by the meal. There were a pair of native fish that had probably been raised in the aquaponic farms, stripped of their scales and grilled, the marks from the rack seared into their meat. The dish was adorned with a side of leafy vegetables in the usual red of Kerguela’s native plants, along with some root vegetables that had been roasted until caramelized, then sliced into neat disks. They’d been drizzled with a white sauce that was filled with flecks of red spice. He speared one of the disks on his fork, watching a droplet of the sauce drip back to the plate, then popped it into his mouth.

“Mmm!” he exclaimed, nodding approvingly as he chewed. “It’s better than the shit they feed us on the carriers, I’ll give them that.”

Xipa sliced off a piece of fish, a flood of nostalgia sparking her memories as she chewed. She remembered the last time she had tasted this flavor. She had been back home, in her city, surrounded by her flock in their restaurant of choice. They had been talking and laughing, sharing dishes, their only concern how they were going to woo one of the dancers at their local lounge. Their faces were as clear as day, even the smells wafting in from the establishment’s kitchen burned into her mind. Despite her best attempts to suppress it, a flush of sorrowful purple flickered through her headdress.

“Don’t you like it?” Miqi asked, cocking her head. “I suppose tastes on the homeworld must have changed over the rotations.”

“No, it’s delicious,” Xipa replied. “I just…it dredged up some old memories.”

Miqi seemed concerned, but she didn’t press her for more details. These people lived a hard life, and grief was something that they understood all too well.

“Hey, Gustave!” Fletcher said as he held up one of the fish by its tail. “Open up!”

The reptile swung open his massive jaws, giving Xipa an uncomfortably intimate view of his gaping mouth. His mucous membranes were all a deep blue in color, just like his blood, his tongue as long as her arm. Fletcher tossed the morsel inside like he was feeding a captive animal in a reserve, Gustave snapping his maw shut, the sound of his interlocking teeth slamming together making some of the onlookers lurch in their seats.

“How is it?” he chuckled. Gustave loosed a low, appreciative rumble in reply, Xipa feeling the sound reverberate up through her stool.

“Does…does that mean it’s happy?” Miqi asked warily, leaning away from him reflexively.

“He’s very gentle,” Xipa explained with a chuckle. “You know, I think I like their people the most of all the species I’ve encountered. There is a strange innocence to them…”

“A handsome creature, to be sure,” Miqi said as she settled back into her seat. “Judging by the size of the gun it was carrying, I can see why you keep them around. We had to move it on a cart.”

Xipa went quiet as she dug into her meal. Her own rations were admittedly poor, and sharing in Fletcher’s MREs had certainly been a step up, but eating home-cooked food prepared by her own kind filled her with a kind of warmth that she hadn’t experienced in a long time. It was rustic, to be sure, but it was a hearty dish.

When she was nearly finished, she noted that Fletcher had cleaned his plate too. The serving might have been a little meager for an Earth’nay, as he was much larger than her people, but he had told her that his prosthetic limbs meant that he needed fewer calories.

“How does it compare to what you’re used to on Valbara?” Miqi asked, popping one last piece of root vegetable into her mouth.

“Too much of the food served in our restaurants is cooked to appeal to the eye more than the stomach,” Xipa replied, setting down her cutlery. “This is a welcome departure.”


When they were done eating, they left the mess hall, then headed for the next tank along. They had seen everything that Xipa could think of, so she couldn’t guess what might be in the last one. This door was closed, and as Miqi swung it open, a familiar scent greeted her with its acrid bite.

“Is that…herb?” she asked, Miqi giving her a smile.

“It grows well in Kerguela’s soil, as long as it isn’t in direct sunlight. Something to do with UV radiation. I dunno, I’m no botanist.”

This tank was just like the last, eight meters wide and maybe eighty long, with a raised floor made from wooden boards. The first thing that stood out to Xipa was the walls. Instead of shining metal, they had been covered over with fabric – curtains and drapes of varying colors and styles that must have been sourced from all over the city. They were attached via metal rings that had been welded to the sides of the tank. They were a little haphazard, not really conforming to the curvature of the metal, but it immediately made the place feel less sterile. The floor, too, was covered over with carpets that had been procured from the ruins above. There was something amusing about imagining flocks of hardy scavengers in their gas masks and cloaks rolling up carpets to bring back with them. Where most of the facility was lit with light strips and naked bulbs, these had shades that gave the light a warmer, more inviting quality.

They had turned this water tank into a lounge. There were booths separated by dividers to provide some privacy to their occupants, the wood cut to fit the walls snugly. Each one had a low table that was surrounded by stacks of cushions, hookahs sitting atop them. They were bulb-shaped devices with long necks and a bowl at the top, six flexible hoses trailing out of them, coiled on the tables. Some were made from blown glass that was embellished with colorful resins, while others were made from metal in shades of green and pink. These, too, must have been found in various lounges around the city. Several of the booths were occupied, flocks relaxing in the nests of pillows as they smoked and drank from thin flutes, exhaling clouds of grey smoke that were slowly carried away by the ventilation system.

“Hey, this looks like that basement we spent a night in,” Fletcher said. “Smells like a fucking college dorm room in here.”

“It’s a lounge,” Xipa explained as they walked past the booths. “It’s where we come to relax and unwind.”

“As you can see, we’re not just subsisting here,” Miqi added. “We have some luxuries and comforts, just like the people who lived in the city.”

As they passed another booth, one of its occupants did a double-take, her feathers flashing yellow in alarm. She pulled the mouthpiece on the end of its flexible hose out of her mouth, coughing loudly as she glanced down at it suspiciously, then back at the team.

At the far end of the tank was another counter, this one arranged more like a bar. There were shelves stacked with dusty old bottles that probably pre-dated the invasion, along with refrigerators that hummed softly.

“How did they get all these fucking fridges down here?” Fletcher muttered to nobody in particular.

“Miqi,” the woman behind the counter began, greeting them with a flutter of green. She was an older woman with a leathery hide, her feathers faded and tattered with age. She must be another survivor of the war. “You brought friends, I see. Better get them a booth before they start giving my patrons panic attacks.”

“Hi, Chatli,” she replied as she returned the greeting. “I’m just showing the visitors around. We’re not stopping for long.”

“We certainly are,” Xipa added. “I haven’t had a smoke since I left Valbara.”

“Alright, fine,” Miqi chuckled. “What about the aliens?”

“What am I, their mother? I saw enough of them stumbling out of lounges during their shore leave back in Anabar to know that herb and spirits won’t kill them. Let them partake if they want to.”

“Call it an order for three,” Miqi said, raising three fingers as she turned back to the old woman. “The insect doesn’t have lungs, and I don’t think there’s enough leaf in our entire stock to get the big one buzzed.”

“Coming right up,” Chatli said, reaching beneath the counter. She produced a small bundle of tobacco that was wrapped in cloth, setting it on the polished surface. Next, she turned to the shelves behind her, dusting off one of the old bottles. “Might as well break out the good stuff.”

“I recognize that label,” Xipa said, leaning in to examine it more closely with her good eye. “This was brewed from ama’xotl berries. They used to make this in Angara.”

“You’re a fellow Kerguela’nay?” Chatli asked, more curious than surprised.

“I grew up in Belomor, to the East,” Xipa replied. “I was serving in the city guard when the Bugs arrived. My flock and I got some people out. We managed to evacuate to orbit before the port was overrun, which is about all we could have hoped for.”

“Is that booze?” Fletcher asked, not following their conversation. “Now we’re talking.”

Chatli glanced at the rest of the team, which had a conspicuous lack of other Valbara’nay, but she chose not to comment. What had happened to her flock was obvious enough.

“I suppose this is a homecoming of sorts for you, then. Welcome back.”

“Yes, and I intend to stay for good this time,” Xipa replied as she picked up the bottle.

They chose one of the booths and slid inside, Xipa settling into the cushions beside Miqi. Bluejay sat down on the opposite side, and Fletcher squeezed in beside him, sitting with his legs crossed. As usual, there was no room for Gustave, so he flopped down on his belly beside their booth. His massive, scaly flank formed a wall, helping provide a little extra privacy from the gawking onlookers.

Miqi began to unwrap the little parcel, stuffing some of the ground-up leaves into the bowl on top of the hookah’s long neck, then closed the cap over it. She turned on the heating element, and the water in the glass bowl began to bubble.

“So, what exactly are we smoking here?” Fletcher asked as he wriggled to get comfortable in the mismatched pillows. “Ruza has the molecular scanner, and he’s off kissing boo-boos in the infirmary.”

“It’s a herb native to Valbara,” Xipa explained, pausing to uncork the bottle with her teeth. She began to pour the contents into glass flutes that were waiting for them on the table. “We imported it from the homeworld when we colonized Kerguela. It induces a state of pleasant relaxation in those who inhale its smoke.”

“Oh, so it’s cannabis, basically?”

“I don’t know what that is,” she replied with a shrug.

“Let me put it this way,” he continued, reaching for one of the flutes. It looked tiny in his prosthetic hand, more the size of a test tube than a cup. “How fucked up are we about to get?”

Fucked up?” Xipa repeated, giving him a confused feather display. “It’s supposed to help one relax, not send them into a hallucinogenic fit.”

“So, more of a buzz than a trip, gotcha.”

“You don’t have to join us if you’re concerned about having a bad reaction,” Xipa added. She had meant it genuinely, but he seemed to take it as a challenge.

“Oh, sure,” he said with a sarcastic wave of his hand. “Don’t take the alien drugs, because that’s how all good stories start. Shut up and gimme a tube.” He picked up one of the nearest hoses, then took a draw from it, holding his breath for a moment before exhaling. It seemed as though he was somewhat familiar with the process. The Earth’nay must have some equivalent. “Tastes like fruit,” he said, stifling a cough. “How about it, Bluejay?”

“Spiracles,” Bluejay grumbled, gesturing to himself with all four arms. “Unless you want to hook one of those hoses up to a pressure suit, there’s no way for me to inhale it.”

“You say that like we wouldn’t do it,” Fletcher replied, taking another drag. “Here,” he added as he slid one of the flutes across the table. “You can drink, can’t you?”

“I guess so,” Bluejay replied. “As long as it doesn’t offend our host.”

“Oh, who cares what she thinks,” Fletcher scoffed as he reached over to give the insect a pat on the back. “Come on, it’ll help loosen you up a bit.”

Bluejay conceded, his face plates splitting open to expose his true mouth, his proboscis extending down into the glass. He drank from the red liquid, Xipa watching a bulge travel up the organ and out of view.

“How is it?” Fletcher asked.

“Not bad,” he replied. “Kind of tastes like a sweet grape port.”

“When the fuck did you drink port?” Fletcher chuckled, raising his own glass to his lips. “Damn, you’re right, too.”

“We have bars back on Jarilo,” he explained. “I’m pretty sure the colonists built a bar before they even had a working sewage system.”

“Priorities,” Fletcher said, raising his glass in a mock toast.

Miqi peeled her eyes away from Bluejay’s mouth, turning to Xipa.

“Well, that’s something I’m going to be seeing every time I close my eyes from now on.”

“You get used to it,” Xipa replied, taking a drag from her hose. She relaxed back into her seat, holding the vapors in her lungs for a few moments before blowing a smoke ring that slowly drifted up towards the ceiling. “I really needed this,” she sighed, her headdress flushing a mellow shade of green. “A packet of herb should be part of our rations.”

“You’re a bigshot Ensi, right?” Miqi asked. “Make it happen.”

“Maybe I will,” she chuckled.

“I didn’t really get the chance to ask you about it yet,” Miqi began, taking a puff from her hose. “What happened on that day? You said something about evacuating a port to Chatli. If you don’t mind talking about it,” she added, realizing that it was a bit of a morbid subject for a lounge. “The elders have spoken of it, but you’re the only person I ever met who actually escaped.”

“I don’t mind,” Xipa replied. “In truth, I’m kind of glad you brought it up. I feel like I have to defend myself, the way you guys keep implying that I fled the planet. It was more complicated than that.”

Miqi slid one of the flutes towards her, a tacit request to elaborate. Xipa filled it, then brought it to her lips, feeling the spirit warm her belly.

“We did everything that we could,” she began, circling the lip of the cup with her claw as she considered. “That’s the most important thing. We had no real military, no orbital defenses, no armor. You know the Bugs as well as I do. You know that they attack with the fervor of mindless animals, pitiless, killing everything that moves. In the space of maybe an hour they’d cut off every maglev line, destroyed the city’s fusion plant, and blocked half of the streets. They didn’t even know what they were shooting at, just that it gave off some kind of detectable energy signature. That was when they started deploying troops into the city. They came down in landing pods and just started moving from building to building, clearing them out.”

“What did you do differently?” Miqi asked.

“My flock linked up with some colleagues at our district’s guard station. There were weapons in the basement – old laser rifles. It was enough to get the job done. We moved into the city and tried to evacuate as many civilians as we could, engaging the Bugs in running street battles. The fights were costly, but we managed to appropriate some of their weapons, just like you did. We were able to escort a handful of survivors back to the station, and from there, we made our way to the spaceport. We got buzzed by a Bug fighter on the way. The thing landed on the ground and started walking around. Lost the first member of my flock there.”

“I’m sorry,” Miqi said with a flutter of purple.

“These are old scars that you’re picking at,” Xipa replied, dismissing her concerns. “When we arrived at the spaceport, it was being defended by more guards, and there were maybe two hundred people waiting for shuttles. The Bugs assaulted the port, and we did our best to hold them off while everyone loaded up. Another of my flockmates gave her life to distract the insects while the ships launched. I don’t know what became of her. She was trapped on a maglev platform when we took off, and there was no way to reach her through the swarm. The last was slain as we fought on the runway. At the end of it all, we managed to evac the civilians and most of the guards. I was the only member of my flock who made it out.”

“You fought tooth and claw to save lives,” Miqi said, her headdress igniting in a crimson salute. “The way it was told to me, those who were lucky abandoned the planet while they had the opportunity, and everyone else was left for dead.”

“I understand why they might see things that way,” Xipa replied, taking another drink from her flute. “All they would have seen was the shuttles leaving. They wouldn’t have known what it took to get them off the ground, because anyone in the vicinity who wasn’t on one would have been killed. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have left if I’d had a choice, and I would have tried to come back sooner if I thought anyone could have survived for this long.”

She reached into the scabbard on her belt, producing the Bug knife, the swirling patterns that ran down the blade shimmering in the soft light as she placed it on the table.

“This is the dagger that killed one of my flockmates,” she said. “I’ve carried it for thirty rotations as a promise that I’d come back one day.”

“You want to return it to its rightful owners,” Miqi added. “Preferably blade-first, I assume.”

“I’m not leaving this time,” Xipa said, returning the knife to its scabbard. “This is my home, and I mean to take it back. I have a fleet, I have an army, and I have the Coalition behind me.”

“I get the feeling that we don’t see the situation so differently,” Miqi added as she took another puff from the hookah. “What would it say about us if we left the planet and took refuge in orbit while someone else did our fighting for us?”

“I don’t think you really appreciate the situation you’re in,” Xipa continued, refilling her flute. “There are an estimated fifteen million Bugs on this planet, and we almost died on several occasions just trying to reach you. The moment a shuttle breaks orbit over the city, an army is going to descend on this place, and you don’t want to be on the ground when it does. We can guarantee your protection through an evacuation.”

“The Ensis believe that the city can be recaptured with a force of sufficient size,” Miqi explained. “The walls make it naturally very defensible, and the terrain makes it hard for the larger morphs to maneuver in the narrow streets. We haven’t seen a single aircraft since your fleet arrived in orbit, so I assume that’s your doing. We know this city inside and out.”

“I can’t bear the thought of your people making it this far, then dying at the final hour,” Xipa sighed as she tried to find solace at the bottom of her cup. “I saw too much of that during the invasion – people who were only moments away from safety when they were lost. It’s almost worse than having no hope at all.”

“We know the Bugs better than you imagine,” Miqi replied. “We’ve been living with them for thirty rotations, evading them, studying them. If they’re anything, they’re predictable. They have rigid patterns of behavior that rarely change, and these can be exploited. We can wipe out entire squads by luring them into traps and hitting them with pheromone grenades. We once took out a Warrior by collapsing a building on it.”

“How have you remained undetected for so long?” Xipa asked. “Everything we know about the Bugs says that they’re viciously xenophobic and relentlessly genocidal. One of the reasons nobody believed that there were survivors was because of how thorough the insects have been in rooting out resistance on other planets.”

“We strive to keep as low a profile as possible,” she explained, downing the last of her drink. “No signals of any kind that could reach the surface, avoiding patrols where possible, only taking what we need to survive. We’ll never know for sure, but if you ask me, they see us more as fauna than a threat. They must know that we’re here, but the response almost feels apathetic, half-hearted. I suppose that if we pose no tangible threat, then allocating resources towards rooting us out is a waste to creatures that see the world purely in terms of cost and benefit.”

“Maybe there’s more to it than that,” Xipa mused, leaning back into the cushions behind her. “When we arrived, the unusual behavior of the Bugs here took us by surprise. They use small squad tactics instead of massed infantry charges, and they seem to favor ambush over direct confrontation. Now, those are logical ways to deal with a technologically superior force, but still…”

“What are you suggesting?” Miqi asked, cocking her head. “That they’ve been…studying us? Mirroring our tactics?”

“We don’t know enough about Bug behavior over the long-term to say for sure, but it would certainly explain a lot. Perhaps the benefits of studying you outweighed the cost of a few patrols here and there.”

“That’s…kind of horrifying,” she chuckled.

“What are you two talking about?” Fletcher asked, irked by being shut out of the conversation.

“Nothing too important,” she replied, Fletcher raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Well, it involved a knife, so…”

“It’s a story you’ve heard before,” she insisted. “How are you finding the herb?”

“It’s good,” he replied, taking another long drag. “Hits a little less hard than what I’m used to. I can see why you flavor it and smoke it through a hookah. I got a nice, relaxing buzz going.”

“Are you supposed to get high while in uniform?” she chuckled.

“Do you see any MPs around?” he replied, gesturing outside the booth with a wave of his prosthetic arm. “I’ve been trekking through the godforsaken jungle for days, I deserve a little downtime. I’m kind of glad Ruza is busy, to be honest. Dude has been a little clingy lately.”

“He sees you as his Alpha,” Bluejay added, his proboscis still extended into his half-empty flute. “It’s a positive thing, especially for him. You’ve rekindled his confidence in authority. Don’t you know anything about Borealan packs?”

“I didn’t do a whole lot of work with aliens before I met you guys,” he explained. “SWAR teams aren’t known for their, uh…diverse makeup.”

“Got any stories to tell?” Bluejay asked. “I’ve always wondered what kind of stuff SWAR gets up to when nobody is watching.”

“None that won’t get me court-martialed for blabbing,” he replied, downing almost the entirety of his flute in one gulp. “I did learn some things in my time, though. Want to see something cool?”

“I don’t know,” Bluejay replied warily. “Do I?”

“Tell Miqi to watch this,” Fletcher said with a grin, Xipa relaying his request to the curious Valbara’nay. He produced a long combat knife from his belt, twirling it so that the blade was facing down, then placed his hand flat on the table. He splayed his fingers with a faint, electrical whir, Miqi leaning a little closer to admire the prosthetics.

He stabbed the point of the knife into the wood between his thumb and forefinger, then began to move along, planting the blade between each of his five digits in turn before returning the blade to its original position. When he reached the smallest, he started the sequence again, slowly gaining speed. The purpose of the game was obvious enough – to go as fast as possible without stabbing yourself. It was risky, juvenile, but completely expected of the Earth’nay.

The sound of the knife thudding on the table grew faster, the motors in his arm whirring as he went, Xipa finding herself transfixed by the display of coordination. The tempo grew even more rapid, everyone at the table watching with bated breath, until he suddenly plunged the blade into his middle finger. He let out a piercing yell of pain, pulling his hand away, the onlookers practically jumping out of their skins in alarm.

Xipa’s concern quickly turned to annoyance as she realized that she’d been had, Fletcher starting to laugh to himself.

“Gets ‘em every time,” he snickered, stowing his blade with a wide grin on his face. “The sensors aren’t configured to reproduce pain.”

“Very funny,” Xipa sighed. “Bluejay,” she added, turning her attention to the startled insect. “How are you finding the wine?”

“It’s great,” he replied, taking another sip through his proboscis as though it were a fleshy straw. “It’s strange to think that it was made here, before everything that went down. Whoever made it could never have imagined that a group of aliens from half a dozen worlds would end up drinking it one day.”

“Would you like some more?” she asked, reaching for the bottle. “There’s plenty to go around.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t want to get drunk,” he replied. “You were right, though, it’s taking the edge off a bit.”

“Bluejay used to mind children, isn’t that right?” she said. She made the statement in English, then transitioned to Valbara’nay as a way to involve Miqi in the conversation. She could tell that neither one of them really wanted to talk to the other, but Bluejay had an important role to play in the process of them being accepted by the Kerguela’nay. Maybe he’d be more willing after a little alcohol, even if he had no tongue to loosen.

“Y-yeah,” he replied hesitantly, turning his eyes down to his drink. “I was put in charge of watching the human children when they were at play, and making sure no predators hopped the fence.”

“The Earth’nay leave their offspring in the care of insects?” Miqi scoffed.

“I didn’t hear about this,” Fletcher said, glancing between Bluejay and Xipa. “You guys having heart-to-hearts without me? I’m not surprised, though,” he added as he reached over to give the Jarilan a friendly nudge. “You’re a soft-touch, Jay.”

“I’m told he was very good with them,” Xipa continued, speaking to Miqi again. “The Jarilans are emotional, social creatures due to their Earth’nay DNA. That’s how they were domesticated, you know. The Coalition fought their hive to the brink of extinction, then their Queen surrendered. She incorporated the Earth’nay genome into her brood’s genetic makeup and created hybrids intended to serve the Coalition and interact with other species. That’s why Bluejay behaves just like we do, despite his outward resemblance to a Bug. He hails from a conquered hive.”

“So they’re…genetic experiments?” Miqi asked, scrutinizing Bluejay as he averted his eyes. “I suppose that explains why he hasn’t tried to chew off anyone’s face yet.”

A sudden shrill beeping sound distracted them from their conversation, Miqi producing a tablet computer from one of her pockets. Her feathers flashed orange with annoyance, then purple with worry.

“I’m sorry,” she began, starting to get up. “I know that I told you I’d show your friends the generator room, but I’m being called away. Something important has come up.”

“Anything that we should be concerned about?” Xipa asked, moving out of her way so that she could slide out of the booth.

“No,” she replied, not elaborating any further. “You know your way back, so I trust that you can find your way without me?”

“Of course,” Xipa said. She paused to relay what she had said to the others, Gustave grumbling a low, resonating farewell as Miqi hurried away.

“Where’s she going so fast?” Fletcher asked, downing another flute. They were small enough that they were little more than shots to him, and he’d had several by now.

“I’m not sure,” Xipa replied, settling back into her seat. “It feels very jarring, not being able to order people around,” she added as she inhaled another lungful of fragrant smoke. “As an Ensi, I’m used to being at the top of the chain of command. Nobody keeps important information from me.”

“I suppose they don’t give a fuck about your Consensus,” Fletcher said.

“They’ve been completely independent for three decades,” Xipa replied, setting down the sculpted mouthpiece. “Would you submit to a foreign power in their position?”

“I guess not,” he replied. He paused to take another draw from his hose, then exhaled a cloud of grey smoke that slowly drifted towards the vents above their booth. “Fuck, how do you do the smoke ring thing?”

“I could teach you, but you don’t have a snout,” she chuckled. “I’m not sure I’d know where to start.”

“I think I’m gonna go back to our quarters,” Bluejay said, setting down his empty glass. “The whole lounge scene isn’t really for me.”

“You don’t want to stick around a while longer?” Fletcher asked, waving the half-empty bottle at him.

“Nah, I need to recharge my proverbial battery,” he replied as he began to get up. “There’s only so much angry staring I can take in one sitting.”

“Take Gustave with you,” Xipa added. “He’s not doing anything, and I’d feel better if he’s with you.”

“Worried I’m gonna get shanked on my way back?” he asked, only half-joking.

“Better safe than sorry,” she replied.

“I think she just means there’s going to be much less incentive to fuck with you if there’s a giant dinosaur watching your back,” Fletcher explained as he poured himself another drink.

“I’ll see you guys back at the storeroom,” Bluejay said, Fletcher sliding out of his seat to let him pass. Gustave climbed to his feet, shaking his leathery hide like a giant dog before plodding along beside the little insect, their difference in stature making Bluejay seem even smaller in comparison. With the Krell’nay out of the way, a flock of Valbara’nay who were sitting in the booth opposite theirs were able to get a look at them, gawking at Fletcher. Xipa didn’t pay them any mind. They couldn’t eavesdrop on their conversation if they didn’t understand the language, anyway.

She poured herself another drink, then raised her hookah hose again, taking a long drag. Was she overindulging a little? Perhaps, yes, but this opportunity might not come again. What was the point in denying herself some small pleasures when there was a rare moment of downtime?

Now that Gustave and Bluejay had left, she found herself alone with Fletcher. They sat in silence for a while as they enjoyed their respective poisons until Xipa noticed that one of his prosthetic legs was twitching restlessly.

“You seem agitated,” she said, glancing across the table at the Earth’nay. “Is it the herb?”

“No,” he replied, taking another drag from the hookah. “If anything, the herb is helping settle my nerves. I’m just not good at sitting around, you know?”

“I don’t,” she replied, cocking her head at him. “Explain how one can be bad at doing nothing.”

“Well, when I’m not doing something, that’s when I start thinking. I like to keep myself occupied, or I get lost in my own thoughts. I’ve seen a lot of shit, and I like to stay ahead of it.”

“I can sympathize,” Xipa replied. “It is in the quiet moments that bad memories surface. There have been times I have worked myself to exhaustion just to ensure that I had no time to lie in bed and contemplate.”

“Sorry, by the way,” he added. He hesitated for a moment as though considering whether he should continue, Xipa waiting in silence so as not to interrupt the thought. “I know I can be a dickhead sometimes. Well, pretty much all the time, really. It’s not that I don’t like you guys,” he continued, taking another drink from his flute. “Hell, you’re the best team I’ve ever served with. I just…I’ve lost a lot of people that I cared about. When you make war your life like I have, and you see as much action as I do, of course you’re going to lose people. Doesn’t make it any easier, though. You serve with amazing teams for years, you build bonds with them that transcend friendship, and they get blown away in the blink of an eye.” He paused to take another puff from his hose, staring at the divider opposite him as though he was looking through it. “You can’t stop yourself from thinking about all the things you could have done differently, as futile as it is. What if we deployed five minutes later? What if he’d looked over that wall a fraction of a second sooner? What if we’d been walking four feet to the left?”

“Those thoughts can drive you mad if you let them,” Xipa said, pouring herself another glass. “Our brains spin in circles, trying to analyze every wrong move, trying to find some meaning in death. The truth is that death is seldom meaningful. Still, how can we continue if we do not find ways to deal with loss? The dead still made their mark on those around them, and they live on in our memories eternally. As long as someone remembers them, are they ever truly dead?”

“If I’ve pushed you guys away, it’s because I was afraid I’d lose you too,” he added as his blue eyes finally met hers. “I’ve seen so many friends die, I guess I decided to just stop making them as a defense mechanism. Can’t lose friends if you don’t have any, right? Problem is, I’m fucked both ways. Without friends, I’m a lonely sack of shit, and with them, I’m just waiting for them to catch a plasma bolt. I have to keep moving forward, because stopping to take a breather means letting it all catch up with me. I haven’t spoken to my family in fifteen years, I can’t go back to civilian life with weapons for arms,” he said as he lifted his prosthetics. “Fuck, I can’t even do my job anymore – the one thing I’m supposed to be good at – because I broke my toys.”

“You are more than a pair of arms,” Xipa insisted. “For all my complaining, for all my hubris, you have led us straight. You have made the right decisions, even when I opposed them. It is only because of you and the experience you have accrued that we made it here safely. These people have a second chance because of you.”

“That means a lot coming from you, princess,” he chuckled. “Maybe it’s the herb, or maybe it’s the drink, but I think I’m telling you all this because friendship is worth the risk this time. You’re worth knowing better.”

“You once said that you saw much of yourself in me,” she replied, swirling her drink around in her glass absent-mindedly. “When I came back from Kerguela, I occupied myself with work as a way to avoid dealing with what had happened to my flock. I shunned those who tried to console me, I drove away anyone who might fill the hole left by those I had lost. Part of it was a kind of self-destructive stubbornness, but I was also afraid to replace my flockmates, as though it was an insult to their memory. Everything that I achieved, I did in their name, partly as a way to try to give their deaths meaning. I don’t think they would have wanted that for me,” she added with a flush of miserable purple. “I lived in self-imposed isolation because I thought it made me strong, but in reality, it was just another way to avoid the natural grieving process. They would have wanted me to cherish life, to find a new flock, to have a family of my own. I told myself that I was avenging them, but I’ve only let them down.”

“Hey, you pushed for the creation of the orbital defense stations,” Fletcher replied as he pointed a prosthetic finger at her to punctuate his statement. “You were instrumental in building the new fleet – you commanded it. You came down to the ground and put yourself directly in the line of fire just on the off-chance that someone might need your help. You’ve probably done more than any other Valbaran to help safeguard your people. I didn’t know your flock, but there’s nobody who wouldn’t be proud of you for that. Fuck, no admiral I ever served under had those kind of balls,” he added, the glasses clattering as he slammed his fist on the table. “You lead from the front.”

“Even so, I should have deferred to you instead of trying to micromanage everything,” she said, bringing the ornate mouthpiece on the end of the hookah’s hose to her scaly lips again. She inhaled a lungful of the flavorful smoke, then let it rise to the ceiling. “I’ve been so stubborn, so unreasonable. I forgot what it means to be part of a flock. I have to learn that I can’t do everything myself – I have to relinquish control sometimes.”

“We work well as a team,” Fletcher added with a smile. “We all have complementary skills. Vos knows how to pick ‘em.”

“I wish I could take back some of the things I said to Bluejay,” she sighed.

“You and me both,” Fletcher replied. “Dude has the patience of a saint.”

“Of all of us, he has been the kindest and the most accepting. The most well-adjusted,” she added with a laugh. “What does that say about us?”

“And I dismissed it as an act,” Fletcher grumbled, shaking his head as though disappointed in himself. “I deserved that right hook he gave me. I don’t get the impression he holds a grudge, though.”

“He doesn’t,” Xipa replied. “I have spoken to him in private about it. All he really wants is our acceptance, and he feels as though he has it. Still, he needs our support now more than ever. We must be unwavering.”

“Yeah, these prepper types aren’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm,” Fletcher muttered. “Do you really think we can win them over?”

“We have to try,” she replied with a shrug. “If we don’t succeed here, it means that we came all this way for nothing.”

“Maybe this is a second chance for you,” he added, taking another puff of herb. “The people here know what you’ve been through better than anyone on Valbara ever could. Maybe you can find a new flock here – start that family you talked about. It’s not too late for you to turn this around. Don’t make the same mistakes that I made.”

“I’m an old woman,” she chuckled weakly, another flush of violet rippling through her feathers. “I’m not much to look at anymore, either,” she added with a gesture to her scarred face. “My days of cruising lounges in search of eligible bachelors are far behind me.”

“What, you’re telling me those little Valbaran twinks don’t like older women?” Fletcher chuckled. “That’s something I can’t accept.”

“Most flocks assemble in early life,” she explained. “When someone of my age is looking for a flock, it’s usually because of some tragedy, and they have a lot of baggage. It’s the same deal for flocks who are looking for new members. There are associations, support groups, but those bonds will never be the same as those that you developed as young adults.”

“Fuck, who doesn’t have baggage?” Fletcher scoffed. “Try dating as a human. Half of the people you meet have been fucked up by their previous relationships. Trust me, there are plenty of people dating well into their forties and fifties.”

“What about you?” she asked, emptying the last of the wine into her flute. Had they drunk so much of it already? “Is there a female cyborg in your life?”

“Nah,” he replied. “Even if I wanted a long-term relationship, I move around too much, and I have a habit of putting myself in mortal danger. It wouldn’t be fair, assuming I could even find someone who would tolerate that. There’s being a Navy wife, then there’s never seeing your husband at all.”

“What do you do for relief?” she asked, gesturing to his hands. “Those can’t be too comfortable.”

“I’ll have you know that SWAR chicks are freaky,” he replied with a grin. “All those robot parts smashing together makes for some interesting encounters. Just don’t disappoint them, because they can punch straight through your chest cavity like it’s made of wet paper.”

“I’m surprised that your superiors tolerate that,” she replied, taking another puff from her hose. “Our Commando units are female-only, so fraternization isn’t an issue for us.”

“SWAR teams aren’t exactly regulars,” he chuckled. “Hell, one of the reasons I left the organization was because they were getting a little too independent for my tastes. Besides, the Coalition is pretty…liberal when it comes to that kind of thing. As long as you aren’t causing problems, you’re not likely to be disciplined. It can’t really be helped when your troops are living co-ed on ships that sometimes spend over a year in deep space before there’s even the possibility of shore leave.”

“That’s something I hadn’t considered,” Xipa replied, exhaling a cloud of fragrant smoke through her nostrils. “We may face similar issues when we start ranging further afield. Nothing a few UNN auxiliaries couldn’t remedy, judging by what I saw when the Marines were on shore leave in my city…”

“Is that so?” Fletcher asked, raising a curious eyebrow.

“They think that your kind are cute,” Xipa continued, gesturing to him with the carved mouthpiece on the end of her hose. “I suppose there’s an element of exoticism, too. I saw enough flocks stumbling out of lounges with an Earth’nay in tow at the crack of dawn.”

“Do you think we look cute?” Fletcher asked with a smirk, clearly amused by the notion.

“I don’t know,” she replied, looking him up and down pointedly. “I’ve only recently decided to drop the grudge I’ve been holding against your species for showing up my defense stations.”

He laughed at that, downing the last of his wine. He made a motion as though he was about to slam the flute on the table, then seemed to remember how delicate it was, placing it back down gently.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure the Jarries have already offered to build you some better ones. I’m curious – what do the Valbarans think of the other species?”

“The Jarilans, you can probably guess,” she muttered with a roll of her eyes. “The Consensus wouldn’t even allow them to set foot on the planet for shore leave, even though they voted to let them join the Coalition in the first place. I’ll have to do something about that when I get back. The Borealans…” She paused for a moment, reaching up to fidget with one of her feathers as she considered. “They have a reputation for aggression, but Ruza has shown me that they can be patient and thoughtful. I have grown to like him a great deal.”

“And the Krell?” he asked.

“As long as we can keep the Krell’nay away from the boys, we should be fine.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s entirely coincidental, but they embody Valbara’nay femininity to the point of parody,” she explained. “The long snout, the rough scales, the size – all they’re lacking are the feathers. It’s enough to make one feel rather inadequate in comparison.”

“How about you?” he added, leaning his prosthetic arms on the table. “What does an Ensi do for fun?”

“An Ensi has little time for courtship, and an Ensi who takes on the responsibilities of a whole flock has none,” she sighed. “Besides, if I frequented the lounges too often, it might make my administration look bad. I faced enough scrutiny just trying to do my job without being seen with a different boy every night.”

“Would it have caused a scandal?” Fletcher chuckled. “I have no idea what Valbaran values are like.”

“People like predictable Ensis,” she replied. “We’re supposed to set an example for those we govern. Being a doomsayer who proclaimed the world would end if we didn’t shift a sizable chunk of our economic output towards building defense stations and putting a bunker under every home was about all the eccentricity I could get away with without being voted out.”

“You must have done a good job if you’re still the Ensi, then.”

“I suppose so,” she replied. “A lot of my most outspoken detractors changed their tune after the battle of Valbara. Maybe seeing a burning hive ship rain down on Yilgarn persuaded them to take the threat seriously.”

“Yeah, that’ll do it,” he said as he settled back into the pile of cushions that was propping him up. He tried to take another drag from his hose, then glanced down at it in confusion. “Fuck, I think we smoked it all. Probably for the best. I don’t want to get too baked.”

“The wine is gone, too,” Xipa grumbled. “I suppose it’s a sign that we should go find something more productive to do.”

“I think our conversation was plenty productive,” Fletcher added with a smile. “What now? For the first time in a long while, I got nowhere to be.”

“I am…hungry again,” she admitted.

“Valbarans can get the munchies?” he laughed, rising from his seat a little unsteadily. “Come on, then. Let’s get something to eat. It’s gotta be about lunchtime, right? I can’t keep track of time on this fucking moon.”

He extended a prosthetic hand to her, and she took it, feeling the lifeless polymer against her scales. Perhaps it was her intoxication talking, but there was something profoundly strange about the way that the artificial limb moved as though it was alive, with all of the subtle motions that one might expect. It was relaying his nerve signals, after all – translating the electrical impulses into something that the machine’s software could read. It wasn’t as cold as she would have expected – the polymer was room temperature.

“You’re staring at my hand,” he said, Xipa tearing her eye away from it.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “We smoked enough for a flock between us.”

He helped her out of her seat, and they stumbled out of the lounge, the welcoming carpets and drapes giving way to sterile carbcrete once more. The mess hall was nearby, and they soon found themselves approaching the counter, the same woman who had taken their order the last time watching them with a similar expression of blended curiosity and wariness. There was a small queue of people waiting for their turn, all of them turning their heads to stare at Fletcher. At least without Bluejay present, they weren’t running away.

“You’ll have to order for me again,” Fletcher whispered as their turn came up, the flock in front of them hurrying away with their bowls of stew. “I got no clue what any of this shit is.”

Xipa was hungry for something red and juicy, so she asked if they had any meat from Kerguela’s native ungulates. There was some already on the grill, so they were soon walking to one of the tables with a pair of plates loaded with steaming steaks. They were cooked medium-rare, the scent making Xipa’s stomach growl. Some kind of native herb had been used as a garnish, and they had another side of root vegetables with the same white condiment, as Fletcher had told her that he liked the taste. He said that it had a similar texture and flavor to a sweet potato, though she had no idea what that was.

Almost as soon as they had sat down and began to dig in, Xipa noticed that a nearby flock was creeping closer to them. They were almost stalking, moving nearer inch by inch until they were standing beside the table. Without Gustave and Ruza’s intimidating bulk, and without Bluejay around, their curiosity was finally overcoming their apprehension.

“Man, this stuff is good,” Fletcher said, taking a wet bite of his steak. “Tastes like venison.” He noticed that he had an audience, turning to glance at the onlookers. “Uh…what’s going on with these guys?”

“I think you’re the least intimidating member of our group, so they’re taking a closer look at you,” Xipa mused as she watched one of them lean closer. “Don’t scare them away, now. This could be just the kind of opportunity I’ve been hoping for.”

“What are they, pigeons?” he scoffed as he took another bite.

“You can come closer,” Xipa said, transitioning to the Valbara’nay tongue as she coaxed them forward. “This is an Earth’nay. He’s quite safe to be around.”

“What is it?” the bolder of their number asked. They were a flock of four, all of them women, clad in the casual attire that Xipa had come to expect from the survivors. Their scales ranged from green to tan, and one of them was missing the tip of her tail.

“It is a mammal,” Xipa explained, gesturing to Fletcher as he hunched over his plate. She felt like a tour guide in a nature reserve. “They evolved from tree-dwelling creatures that were covered in a coat of fur. They look naked, though they actually have a layer of tiny, fine hairs covering their skin. The fur on their heads is purely for display, not unlike our own feathers.”

“What’s wrong with its arms?” another asked, leaning around one of her friends to get a better view.

“They are prosthetics,” Xipa explained. “These aliens have advanced medical technology that allows them to replace their body parts with artificial substitutes. This one lost all of his limbs in battle, but as you can see, their doctors and engineers were able to return all of his lost functionality.”

“This is something you have on Valbara?” the woman asked, eyeing Xipa’s scars.

“Soon we will,” she replied, resisting the urge to turn her head away.

“I’ve never seen an alien up close like this,” another of them mused, daring to draw closer. She cocked her head at Fletcher, her feathers fluttering with wonder. “Well, I’ve seen dead insects, but that’s not the same. Can it speak our language?”

“No, but I speak theirs,” Xipa said. “If you have any questions for him, I can translate.”

“I…I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she chuckled nervously. “People have been talking – they say that the Valbara’nay are members of an alliance now. Is that true?”

“It is,” Xipa replied. “The aliens that accompany me are all member species.”

“Even the insect?” another asked, crossing her arms defiantly.

“They are a domesticated hive, yes,” she explained. “They were genetically altered to serve us. There are thousands of them helping take back the moon as we speak. We’ve been making use of their ability to sense pheromones to help us detect hive entrances and alert us to ambushes.”

“Where do they come from?” the curious girl asked, turning her eyes to Xipa. “What star?”

“They call it Sol,” she replied. “It’s sixty-five light-years from Valbara.”

That seemed to impress them, the flock sharing surprised glances. In their time, Kerguela was considered far away, even though it was scarcely a jump from the homeworld. Valbara must seem unreachable to them now.

“What are they asking you about?” Fletcher wondered, the unusually deep timbre of his voice providing more amusement for the women.

“Just where you’re from,” she said.

“It looks like a male, but it sure doesn’t sound like one,” the nearest woman chuckled. “It sounds like someone pitched down its voice using a synthesizer.”

“It could certainly be uglier,” the stubborn one added as she appraised him with a skeptical eye.

“Can I touch it?” the curious woman asked, a flutter of excited yellow passing through her feathers.

“Let me ask,” Xipa replied, transitioning into English again. “They want to know if they can touch you.”

“What, like an animal at a petting zoo or something?” he chuckled. “Alright, go ahead.”

“You won’t scare them as a joke?” she asked, narrowing her eye at him.

“Cross my heart,” he replied, raising one hand as he placed the other on his chest.

“You may touch him,” Xipa confirmed, the curious woman stepping closer. With a tentative hand, she reached out to brush her fingers against the polymer housing on his forearm. She seemed surprised by its texture, even though Xipa had already explained that it was an artificial limb, crawling her hand towards his rolled-up sleeve. She moved up to his dark hair, running her fingers through the strands, her feathers flashing in a delighted lime.

“It’s soft, like fur!” she chuckled.

One of her flockmates joined her, Fletcher’s brow furrowing with mild irritation as they stroked his head.

“Alright, that’s enough,” he said as he waved them away.

“We’ve missed so much,” one of them mused, watching curiously as he took a bite of his steak. “I’ve thought about what it might be like to travel on a spaceship, to visit another planet, one where there aren’t insects hiding behind every tree.”

“We had plans to evacuate your population,” Xipa explained, the flock turning their attention back to her. “I wanted to secure a landing zone and ferry everyone into orbit using a fleet of shuttles. You’d wait there until the planet was secure, then you’d be returned to the surface.”

“We can’t leave our home,” the serious one said. “We’ve fought too hard to protect it.”

“Yes, that’s what your Ensis told me,” Xipa sighed. She had thought that appealing to the citizens directly might yield a different result, but these people were nothing if not stubborn. “You called us to the city with the distress beacon, but you don’t seem to want to let us help you.”

“People have been saying that you brought an army,” another of them added with a flutter of hopeful green. “They say you’re going to help us take back the city.”

“They’re not entirely wrong,” she replied, pausing for a moment as she considered how to explain. In their little corner of the planet, they had no concept of the global situation. “We’re fighting a campaign across the entire moon, supported by Coalition fleets. Our plan is to clear it of insects, then locate the Queen and kill her. Without her leadership, the hive will be doomed. They can no longer coordinate on a large scale, and they can’t replenish their numbers. The problem is that the insects outnumber us by a factor of fifteen to one, and while we enjoy complete supremacy in orbit, our attacks on the ground have been limited to surgical strikes. We get in, take out an objective, then get out again before they can leverage their superior numbers to mount a response. Holding territory long-term isn’t our goal at this stage of the operation.”

“Could you do it, though?” the stern woman asked. “You have hundreds of ships in orbit, but you’re telling us that you couldn’t hold one city? They’re the most defensible structures on the planet. The walls are two hundred meters tall and made from solid carbcrete. You must have destroyed their air power because we haven’t seen a single flier pass overhead since your fleet arrived.”

“I’m not saying it would be impossible,” she conceded, suppressing an irritated feather display. “It’s just not tactically sound when we have highly coordinated armies of Bugs roaming around out there. Their presence in the city has been increasing since you activated the beacon, isn’t that right? I’ve been told that their patrols are becoming more frequent – more aggressive.”

“That is correct,” she admitted reluctantly.

“The insects are very aware of your presence here,” Xipa continued. “The moment a shuttle breaks the cloud layer, they’re liable to launch a full-scale attack. For all we know, the only reason they haven’t done so yet is because their attention is focused elsewhere. Right now, we don’t know what form that attack might take. Rather than risk being overrun, we should use that small window of time to get everyone out safely.”

“We didn’t survive this long by giving ground,” another of the women added. “We know this city like we know the patterns of our own scales, and any force they send inside these walls will be faced with a far larger response than they bargained for.”

“So I’ve heard,” Xipa muttered.

The curious woman seemed less convinced, glancing hesitantly between Xipa and her flockmate.

“What if we only evacuated some people?” she suggested. “The children, the pregnant women, those who are too old or sick to fight. If anything, we’d fight with clearer heads knowing that they were safe.”

“I don’t think it would be necessary,” her flockmate replied. “That implies they’d ever get through us in order to reach the base – that they could even find it.”

“We should get moving,” another said, checking an old tablet computer that was covered in scuff marks. “Those fish aren’t going to catch themselves.”

“It was nice to meet you,” the curious woman said, sparing Fletcher one last glance before the flock hurried out of the mess hall.

“What was that all about?” Fletcher asked, spearing his last piece of root vegetable on his fork.

“I wanted to see if the people here share Miqi’s views,” she explained. “As it turns out, some are a little more amenable to the idea than others.”

“We should probably get back to Bluejay pretty soon,” he said, setting down his cutlery. “Plus, I’m starting to lose my buzz, and I need a nap. This was fun, though,” he added. “We should hang out more often.”

“Yes,” she replied, letting her feathers flush green. “I am…appreciative of the company. It helps take my mind off things.”

“Miserable old fucks like us have to stick together,” he added with a grin.


Evan’s team made their way out of the garage, the company slowly filtering into the Omaha’s winding corridors, leaving the rumbling of engines and the whine of power tools behind them. It felt good to have his feet on a solid deck again, Evan watching the gaggle of Marines and auxiliaries gradually disperse. As large as the crowd seemed, the rest of the battalion was still deployed to the moon’s surface, leaving the assault carrier deceptively empty with only Delta aboard.

“You’re dismissed until we receive new orders,” Simmons announced, raising his voice over the background noise of conversations. “Go get a hot meal, a shower, and some R&R while you have the opportunity.”

With that, he disappeared down one of the hallways, leaving the rest of the squad to their own devices.

“The first thing I’m gettin’ is a fuckin’ drink,” Hernandez chuckled. “Who’s with me?”

There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the Marines, Brooks giving Garcia an encouraging pat on the shoulder. The aliens seemed almost as keen, probably more interested in the social interaction than the alcohol.

“I’m heading straight for the showers,” Evan replied. “I feel like this pressure suit is glued to my skin.”

“I’ll come with you,” Jade added, giving him a nudge with one of her elbows. “The stalls should be nice and quiet – we can take our time.”

“Alright,” Hernandez said, glancing between the two suspiciously as though he knew exactly what they had in mind. “I guess we’ll see you guys later. Don’t be strangers, now.”

Evan gave him a sheepish wave as he set off down the corridor, the rest of the team following behind him, the two Borealans towering head and shoulders above their smaller counterparts. Foster stalled, perhaps put off by the presence of Aster and Cardinal. Collins noticed, pausing to look back at him, seemingly torn between his friend and the squad. The look on his face suggested that he wanted to say something, but the opportunity passed, Donovan and McKay calling after him. Collins turned reluctantly, rejoining the group, leaving Foster scowling in the corridor. Evan and Jade headed in the opposite direction, dodging around another squad of Marines that were probably on their way to the mess hall.

“You think he’s alright?” Jade asked after they were out of earshot. “Foster can be abrasive, but I hate to see him excluded like that. It can’t be healthy for him.”

“Listen, the only person excluding Foster is Foster,” Evan replied with a sigh. “If he wants to be an asshole, that’s on him. We have other places to be.”

“So, you like my idea?” she chuckled as she gave him a sly sideways glance.

“The chances of someone walking in on us are the lowest they’re going to get,” he said, unable to suppress a smile. “We can take things a little slower this time.”


The first place they headed was the armory to return their equipment, then they stopped off at the barracks to pick up some fresh clothes. Jade shed her armored chest piece in favor of her customary tank top, keeping her back to Evan as she changed, teasing him. The fabric left a clear outline of what lay beneath, only making him more excited about their impromptu date. He picked up a fresh uniform and some underclothes, then they hurried to their ultimate destination.

They soon arrived in one of the carrier’s showers – a tiled room lined with maybe a dozen booths on either side that had dividers to provide what privacy was possible in such a cramped environment. Just as they had hoped, it was completely empty, the pair starting to strip off their clothes excitedly. Evan peeled off his pressure suit, feeling its lining stick to his skin. While the suits had an internal cooling system that would circulate cold air around the wearer’s body, the environmentally-sealed garments couldn’t do much about any sweat and grime that accumulated during a deployment. The prospect of getting clean was almost as attractive as the prospect of spending some quality time with Jade.

As he shoved his dirty pressure suit into one of the available lockers, he saw that she was stripping off her skirt, placing it awkwardly into the compartment beside his own. While it was segmented where the hanging plates connected to the belt, the carapace wasn’t very flexible, so she had to turn it on its side to make it fit. Her tank top came next, Jade covering her assets with her lower pair of hands as she pulled the shirt over her head with the upper, closing the locker with a click. Now nude save for the little V-shaped piece of shell that covered her groin, she began to back away from him, her lower hands still acting as an impromptu bra while she beckoned to him with the upper.

“Come on, squishy boy. I want more of what you gave me back on the moon.”

Hopping on one foot as he struggled to remove his shorts – much to Jade’s amusement – he followed her over to the furthest booth on the left of the room. Even if someone walked in on them, the dividers and its distance from the entrance should give them time to react accordingly.

Evan backed Jade into the booth, pressing her up against the cold wall, his burgeoning erection brushing against the smooth skin of her exposed belly through the diamond-shaped window in her carapace. She peered up at him, batting her emerald eyes, her feathery antennae sampling his pheromone-laden sweat as they brushed against his face.

“Do Jarilans have a preference?” he asked, reaching for the touch panel on the wall that controlled the shower’s settings.

“Hot and steamy,” she replied, Evan chuckling at her bad joke as he dialed in the temperature. After a moment, a stream of warm water began to pour from the shower head above them, Evan sighing with relief as he felt it spill over his shoulders. These booths were large enough to accommodate a Borealan, and the flow of water was suitably wide that neither of its occupants stood any chance of being left out in the cold. Billowing steam quickly began to surround them, the obscuring cloud providing even more privacy, the noise of the water hitting the tiles beneath their feet masking the sound of their labored breathing as they pressed closer together.

“Fuck, I wish we could do this all the time,” Evan muttered as he leaned down to kiss her. He slipped a finger beneath her chin, tilting her head up so that he could reach her, her soft lips pressing against his. Their embrace was clumsy, their tongues hopelessly mismatched, but they poured their desire for each other into every lick and stroke.

“We’ll just have to take any opportunity that we can get,” Jade replied, her voice growing low and breathy as his hands began to wander. Just like when she was drinking honey, the fact that her mouth was presently occupied had no bearing on whether she could speak or not. “I can still smell myself on you,” she added with an appreciative shiver. “You’ve been wearing my scent ever since we left that little building in the refinery.”

“Yeah, I think Aster and Cardinal noticed,” he replied. “Do you think it bothers them?”

“I’m hoping that it motivates them,” she replied with a sultry giggle that made him throb. She finally deigned to release her breasts, Evan’s eyes drawn to them magnetically as they bounced gently. No matter how many times he saw them, he couldn’t get over how perfectly shaped they were, how they seemed to have been engineered to comfortably fill a man’s palm. The water that was cascading over her shoulders poured over them, droplets clinging to her waxy skin, making it glisten and shine. He was at full mast now, his erection pressing into her soft belly, and he flinched as he felt her lower pair of hands wander down to greet it. Delicate, dexterous fingers danced along his shaft, Evan resting his forearms against the tiled wall above her head as he leaned over her. He was mostly shielding her from the water with his body now, the stream flowing down his back.

Jade had his anatomy mapped out now, those digits that were imbued with such inhuman precision now put to more sordid uses than throwing darts or field-stripping XMRs, the Jarilan seeming to know exactly where to touch him. Her soft fingertips glided up his length as she let his glans slide against her belly – now damp from the shower – tracing his pulsing veins with one hand as she cupped his balls in another.

“Remember what I said back in the refinery?” she whispered, glancing up at him with expectation in her eyes. “That I wanted to jerk you off until you came all over my belly?”

“Y-yeah,” he stammered, faltering as one of her dainty hands teased the underside of his head. “You said next time…”

“Well, we don’t have to worry about the cleanup in here,” she chuckled as she wrapped her fingers around his length. “It’s next time.”

He shuddered as he felt her start to stroke, one of her fists gliding up his shaft lazily, her lurid promise making his head swim with arousal. She could do so much at once with her four hands, always keeping him guessing, exhibiting grace and coordination that would have put any concert pianist to shame. She teased his glans, lovingly massaging his balls, her eyes fixed on his member as it pulsed and flexed in her grasp.

“You’re so good at this,” Evan sighed, leaning more of his weight on the wall. His hips were already starting to move, pushing into her silken palms, enraptured by her slow rhythm. She was so attentive to his desires, matching his pace, tightening her grip without him having to utter so much as a word of guidance.

“I’m glad the Queen didn’t give me carapace on my hands,” she cooed, trailing a finger from the base of his shaft to its throbbing tip. “Or I wouldn’t be able to keep you on your toes like this.”

Her steady pace was interrupted as he reached down to cup one of her breasts, sinking his fingers into the sensitive, doughy tissue. She arched her back, pushing her chest into his hand, her long lashes fluttering as he began to knead gently. The springy flesh was irresistibly soft, Evan feeling an enticing firmness when he pressed deeper, velvet fat spilling between his fingers.

“Are you really so enamored with them?” she sighed. “You’ve seen Tatzi without her top on – her boobs are as large as my head.”

“Quality over quantity,” he replied, giving her an affectionate squeeze that made her slow stroking falter. He paused his greedy explorations for a moment to reach for the nearby shelf that was anchored to the wall, brushing aside a loofah and picking up a bottle of body wash. He upended it into his hand, then began to work it into a lather, Jade’s antennae twitching at the unfamiliar scent.

With his hands now coated in soapy suds, he brought them back to her chest, the foam making her waxy skin delightfully slippery. Globs of it slid down the indent that her abs carved into her belly as he began to spread the substance, coating her tender breasts, Evan shielding her from the shower head so that the water didn’t wash it away prematurely.

She leaned into him, an encouraging moan barely audible over the sound of the water pounding on the tiles, Jade keeping up her slow stroking as he kneaded and squeezed. He couldn’t get enough – her breasts were at once pert and yielding, the way that the body wash made his hands slide only making him more excited. His erection was still bumping against her flat stomach, the white suds reaching it now as they slowly made their way down her taut midriff. He slid one hand lower, leaning closer to her as his fingertips explored the contours of her abdominal muscles, meeting resistance when they found the V-shaped piece of chitin that covered her loins. He pushed them beneath the obstacle, popping it off, hearing the garment clatter against the floor. A couple of scant inches lower, he was greeted by her puffy lips, a pleasant shiver rolling through his partner as he slipped a digit between them.

She was soaking wet thanks to the shower, but he could feel her arousal coating his skin, more viscous and slippery than water. Slowly, he began to rub, making teasing circles around her swollen clitoris as it throbbed against his fingertip. He felt her try to snap her thighs shut, then stop herself, her hips beginning to roll rhythmically as she moved with him. With one hand massaging her breast, and another buried between her legs, Jade started to falter. She released his member, her four hands reaching out to grip his wrists and forearms as though trying to steady herself, her eyes gradually closing.

Evan pushed a little deeper, his heart leaping as he felt the silken muscles of her passage grip him fiercely, traveling up his finger in a rippling wave. She tightened her hold on his arms in turn, her entire body seeming to tense, then relax again as he began to move. It was like she was lost in a trance, too taken to do much other than dance to his rhythm.

He pushed her back against the wall, locking her in another bawdy kiss, feeling her buck and shiver as he rubbed her needy bud with his thumb. Her legs began to shake, and she broke away from their frenzied embrace, her antennae sticking to his wet skin as she lay her face against his chest. Unable to restrain himself any longer, he slid his finger back out of her, reaching down to cup her butt with both hands as he prepared to mount her against the tiles.

“Hold on,” she muttered, placing a hand on his belly to ease him away. He moved out of the way of the flow from the shower head, the water pouring over her to wash away the suds that were clinging to her exposed torso. “We don’t have to race to the finish line like last time. Let’s take our time and enjoy this.”

“Sorry,” he chuckled, trying to slow his rapid breathing. “You’re just so…”

“My turn,” she said, giving him a sordid smile. She raised a hand to the shelf, having to stand on her deer-like toes to reach it, retrieving the bottle of body wash. She beckoned with a finger, and Evan moved closer, leaning over her to shield her once again. The fat globs of liquid soap draped over her palms as she upended the container, then she began to spread it around, leaving Evan mesmerized by the coordination of her four hands. Now coated in slippery foam, she brought them to his loins, Evan letting slip a sigh as she resumed her work. Her fingers were just as marvelously agile and gentle as before, but they were coated in cool gel now, the way that they glided on his skin sending pulses of pleasure shooting up his spine.

Jade slid her hands up and down his shaft, almost frictionless now, her grip just tight enough to keep him wanting. Holding his length in two fists, she twisted them in alternate directions as she moved, creating dizzying spirals. She coated his balls in suds, cradling them gently, teasing his sensitive skin with her fingertips. Her fourth hand peeled back his foreskin, her digits dancing across his exposed glans. Evan needed more – something to push him over the edge, but she was careful to keep him wanting. When it was almost too much to bear, she stopped, giving him another of those suggestive smiles that betrayed her intent.

“I have an idea,” she began, lowering herself down towards the floor. She knelt on the tiles in front of him, keeping her back to the wall, her small stature putting her chest about level with his groin. Using her lower pair of hands, she cupped her breasts, pressing the soft globes together tightly. With the upper, she guided his aching shaft between them, pushing his cock deep into the pillowy confines of her cleavage. She wasn’t quite endowed enough to bury him completely, but the sensation of her perky breasts squashing around his shaft took his breath away. His skin was still coated in soap, making their contact slippery, Jade taking advantage of that as she began to rock.

With one hand, she reached behind him, gripping his butt as she encouraged him to thrust. It didn’t take much coaxing before he was fucking her chest in earnest, the body wash making for an admirable lubricant. While all that Evan could smell was its flowery, somewhat synthetic scent, Jade’s wet antennae were still brushing against his chest. Like a shark sensing blood in the water, it was probably impossible to mask the aroma of his pheromones from her. She looked just as drunk on them as usual, her head bobbing lazily along with his mounting pace.

Her four hands let her do so much at once. Jade was simultaneously able to cup his balls and keep her boobs pressed tightly around his shaft, her free hand drizzling more body wash over her chest intermittently to keep their coupling gooey and slick.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this clean,” he said, Jade letting slip a sordid chuckle.

“Are you close?” she asked, glancing up at him eagerly. “Does it feel good?”

“Amazing,” he sighed. He was still shielding her, the sheets of water pouring over his shoulders to envelop her like she was sitting beneath an umbrella. The last thing he wanted was to wash away the soap. “I’ve been close this whole time,” he added, wincing as she gave him a teasing squeeze.

“You can finish,” she cooed, amused that he had waited for her permission.

She leaned back a little so that he could get a better angle, Evan plunging his member between her perky breasts, increasing his pace accordingly. He admired the way that they wobbled subtly with each impact, bouncing softly, the sight somehow adding to the sensation as they rubbed against his shaft. Her skin was glass-smooth and inhumanly soft under normal circumstances, but the addition of the slippery soap made it even more inviting, Evan’s steady pistoning growing more desperate as he neared his climax.

Jade sensed when he was at the brink, drawing back to release him from her cleavage, her hands darting to his shaft. She began to milk him, making those twisting motions again, her relentless massage pushing him even higher. He lurched as he felt her grip his balls a little more tightly – not nearly enough to be unpleasant, more like she wanted to feel them twitch when he finished. Her pumping fists eroded the last of his willpower, and he loosed a stifled grunt, doubling over as he painted her waiting chest with a thick rope of his seed. He draped another glistening strand over her breasts, his milky emission joining the soap that coated them, the lurid blend starting to seep into her cleavage. Undeterred, she maintained her ruthless pace, her eyes tracking another wad of pearly fluid as it splashed against her waxy skin. She angled his cock down, another deft stroke ensuring that the next spurt hit her stomach, Evan watching through the fog of his ecstasy as it began to slide down her taut belly. Having made good on her promise, she gave him a few more punishing strokes to ensure that he’d given her all he could, then slowed to a gentler pace.

“I think it’s safe to say that you enjoyed that,” she chuckled. She reached down to run a finger through the gelatinous web that coated her stomach, pulling it away to create a fat, drooping strand. The suds were slowly making their way down to join it, following the contours of her abs. She was still sliding one hand up and down his length lazily, prolonging his pleasure as much as she could, watching him with those emerald eyes.

They remained that way for a few moments longer, Jade giving Evan time to enjoy his afterglow, then she placed a hand on his thigh to ease him out of the path of the water. It poured over her, forcing her antennae down like ferns in a rainstorm as droplets clung to their fine hairs, the flow washing her rosy skin clean. She ran a hand across her stomach to help it along, the last of the residue falling to the tiles to spiral down the drain.

“Good as new,” she purred, Evan taking her hand as he helped her to her feet.

“Can you imagine if we’d done that back on the moon?” he chuckled.

“I’d rather not,” she replied with a smirk, reaching for the soap again. She turned him on the spot so that his back was to the wall, warm steam billowing around the pair as she began to coat her hands in body wash again.

“What are you doing?” Evan asked, watching her as the water splashed against his head and shoulders.

“Washing you,” she chuckled, starting to spread the foam across his stomach and thighs. She kept her eyes on his body as her hands began to wander, mapping the contours of his anatomy, Evan getting the impression that this was more about sating her curiosity than getting him clean. She hadn’t really had an opportunity to examine him like this before, the bright halogen light strips above leaving nothing in shadow. Still, he welcomed the relaxing sensation, tilting his head to let the hot water pour over his face.

“You don’t groom each other, do you?” she asked as she roamed up towards his chest. “I know a lot about how humans live thanks to my time in the colony, but not a lot about what you do behind closed doors.”

“Not habitually,” he replied.

“Workers usually keep the other castes clean back in the hive,” she added as she spread the foam to his bicep. She lingered there, testing its firmness, the facade of bathing slipping for a moment before she continued down his arm.

“So, every day is spa day?” he mused. “That must be nice.”

“I suppose it might seem decadent to an outsider,” she conceded, lifting his hand as she washed between his fingers. “To us, it’s strange that bathing isn’t a communal experience for you. Well, it’s communal in the sense that you’re all sharing a room,” she added with a gesture to their booth. “But you stay separated.”

“Yeah, it’s a little too intimate for friends,” he explained as she drew closer. He felt her soft breasts squash against his belly, her four arms roaming around his waist, seeking out his lower back.

“Too intimate for lovers?”

“Not at all,” he replied.

“Maybe we can keep bathing together, then,” she said as she took a handful of his ass. He lurched in surprise, starting to laugh as he glanced down to see her peering up at him with a smirk. “It would make me feel…more at home.”

“Among other things, I’m sure,” he chuckled.

It wasn’t long before he was raring to go again, his renewed erection betraying his arousal. Jade didn’t even need to ask if he was ready, eyeing it covetously, an excited shiver passing through him as she brushed it with her fingertips.

“Okay, we can stop taking our time now,” she began. “My fingers are starting to prune.”

“They do that?” Evan asked, raising an eyebrow in amusement.

“Yes, why wouldn’t they?”

“I dunno, I just didn’t expect it,” he conceded with a shrug. “I guess it makes sense for the Queen to carry that feature over. You have fleshy fingers, and Bugs have carapace.”

Jade turned so that she was facing away from Evan, then backed into him, pushing him against the wall of their booth. He felt the cool tiles against his back, his rigid member pressing into her soft butt, the water cascading over his face as he glanced down to see her pink flesh squashing against his hips. She wriggled, her wet ass sliding against his skin, his erection slipping between her pert cheeks. Jade ground against his shaft, rising and falling gently, teasing him as she sandwiched his member. He could feel the rubbery muscle that gave her rear its perfect shape just beneath her velvet-soft fat when she flexed, the sensation making him snort like a bull.

Unable to stand it any longer, he reached down to grip her waist, Jade arching her spine in anticipation as he slid his cock a few inches lower. Come to think of it, he wasn’t certain that she had a spine, but the gentle curve of her back was nonetheless enticing. He felt a new heat against his glans, her marshmallow-soft labia parting, her slick folds greeting him as they raked over his sensitive tip. Holding her still, he thrust into her, Jade lifting herself off the floor on her toes as he speared her. His cock sank almost to the hilt in her clenching passage, warm flesh encompassing him, wrapping around his length like a twitching glove.

Fuck,” he groaned, gritting his teeth as his partner’s loins narrowed in a muscular contraction.

Two of her hands reached down to grip his wrists, another darting to her chest, the last sneaking between her thighs as she began to move. Her insides gripped him stubbornly on his way out, as though the very concept of being empty was unacceptable to her on some base, biological level. When only an inch of him was still buried, she thrust back again, her sculpted cheeks quivering as they slapped against his thighs. He admired her hourglass figure as she rolled her hips, the water from the shower head above them pouring down the arch of her back, sliding over her butt in sheets. It made her skin even more shiny and reflective, Evan wondering whether he’d be able to see his reflection in her rear.

Jade found an eager, hurried pace, arousal starting to dictate her movements. All Evan had to do was stand there as she fucked herself on his shaft, backing into him with all of her weight, taking him as deep as she could manage in this position. That wonderful little pocket of papillae stretched over his glans like a condom that was a few sizes too small, surrounding his most sensitive anatomy with a forest of soft, teasing nodules. He began to match her rhythm, meeting her thrusts, pulling her into him more aggressively.

He could see her hand moving frantically all the while, her fingers a blur between her thighs, Jade letting her head hang as her pleasure began to mount. Evan suddenly changed his position, hooking his arm beneath one of her legs, lifting it off the tiles. Jade yelped in surprise as he left her balancing precariously on one of her hoof-like feet, her raised leg resting in the crook of his arm, her toes dangling in the air. She was flexible, and she weighed very little compared to a human, so it was no great feat of athleticism to hold her there.

“What are you doing?” she whined, arousal and disappointment blending to make her fidgety in his grasp. Evan didn’t reply, reaching up to pluck the shower head from its mount on the wall above them, bringing it down on its flexible hose. He trailed the jets of water down her torso slowly, the muscles in her toned midriff flexing involuntarily as the device passed over them, a shudder rocking her when it reached her loins. Evan directed the stream between her open legs, the jets massaging her swollen clitoris and the sensitive anatomy that surrounded it like a jacuzzi, feeling her passage squeeze him tightly as this new sensation assailed her. She let out something between a stifled moan and sharp gasp, her toes curling as much as her exoskeleton would allow.

“Don’t be gentle,” she warned, the growl in her voice letting him know just how much she appreciated his creativity. “I won’t last long like this, so make it a big one.”

Still supporting her with one leg raised, he resumed his rutting, Jade able to do little to reciprocate with no leverage. All she could do was hang there, her toes only just touching the tiles, her lithe body swaying in time with the quickening pace of his lovemaking. Her four arms reached behind her to help steady herself, two of her hands finding his waist, one of them hooking behind his neck. The last one cradled his cheek affectionately, the antennae that trailed down her back sticking to his chest, the pair that were raised above her head falling back to drape over his shoulders. She wanted every chemical receptor on those sensitive organs to be in contact with him, soaking in his lust.

Evan redoubled his efforts, slamming into the inviting cushion of her ass, keeping the stream of water from the shower head focused on her loins. Some of the jets were hitting his balls, the tingling sensation giving him some idea of what she must be feeling. It almost felt like a vibration, the little points where the flow was strongest pressing into his skin.

Jade moved as much as she was able, grinding and rolling her hips, seeming torn between the pleasure of their coupling and the allure of the jets. She tried to juggle the two, pushing her mound into the stream, then letting herself sink back down onto his shaft again. He was practically lifting her with each thrust now, her foot skidding on the tiles, but she was safe in his arms.

In this position, he was able to bring his face down to the nape of her neck, burying it in her soft ruff of fur. It was soaked through, but it didn’t behave like wet hair did, somehow maintaining its fluffiness. Maybe the fibers that it was made from were stiffer than the human equivalent. He couldn’t exactly take in a breath of her scent without getting a lungful of water, but the way that the delicate strands brushed against his cheeks when he nuzzled was no less enjoyable.

“G-give me that thing,” she stammered, snatching the shower head from his hand. She angled it towards her loins with more urgency, groaning as she began to play it across her vulva, Evan feeling some of the jets massage the base of his cock.

With his hand now free, he wrapped an arm around her narrow waist, pulling her tight against his torso. The extra leverage let him hit her harder and faster, Jade writhing in his grasp as the renewed pleasure pushed her closer to the edge, her light frame practically bouncing in his lap. He admired the ripples that spread through her cheeks with each impact, his stature letting him glance down over her shoulder to watch her inhumanly perfect breasts wobble. He couldn’t have stopped himself now if he had tried – he was too enamored by the sensation of her satin-soft walls wringing him, those maddening papillae caressing his glans every time he bottomed out.

“Harder,” she hissed, her candor surprising him. She was really getting a feel for her limitations now, running her body through its paces, learning what it was capable of. Evan, too, was growing more confident the more time they spent together. It was reassuring to know that he wasn’t going to hurt her.

He obliged, pinning her against his heaving body as he found a frantic pace, her close proximity letting him hear her exhale through her spiracles in what might be the Jarilan equivalent of a sigh. She dropped the shower head, letting it swing back against the wall behind them on its hose, her hands seeking out his hips and thighs instead as she braced herself.

It only took a few more desperate thrusts, Jade’s moans of encouragement rising in pitch until they culminated in a shuddering, primal grunt. Evan drove his pulsing shaft into her depths, her slippery, burning flesh stretching taut over his member as her body fought to accommodate his girth. Her muscles clamped down on him violently as she climaxed, milking him like a tight fist, each wave of her orgasm accompanied by another cruel squeeze. It was more than Evan could take, and he gritted his teeth against the throbs of pleasure, holding her tightly as he pumped his warm load into her reaches. He flooded that little chamber, feeling her struggle and clench at the sensation, each subtle motion making the little nodules of soft flesh rake against his glans. His mechanical thrusting slowed, and all of the tension in Jade’s muscles seemed to melt away along with it, his shivering partner slowly sinking into his embrace.

“I needed that,” she sighed, letting her head fall back against his chest as the steam billowed around them. “Don’t put me down just yet,” she added. “I want to stay like this for a little longer. Feels like I’m floating…”

Only when the fading embers of their euphoria had finally petered out did Evan set her gently on the tiles, supporting her with one hand as she stood on unsteady legs. She turned, pressing close to him, her four arms winding their way around his torso. He retrieved the shower head and placed it back on its mount, letting the warm water pour over them.

“You’re full of good ideas lately, aren’t you?” he chuckled as he let one hand wander down to cup her cheek. She flinched, still sensitive, then pushed out her butt in encouragement.

“We don’t know what might happen tomorrow,” she replied. “I don’t want to pass up a chance to get you alone, even if it’s only for a few minutes.”

“This carrier is full of shadowy corners and unattended maintenance rooms,” he replied, his tone becoming conspiratorial. “If the engineers can brew moonshine and smuggle contraband without getting caught, then we can certainly find ways to slip away for a little while. If it wasn’t obvious, I intend to indulge you in every way that I can.”

“Oh, I never entertained any doubts,” she replied as she gently pressed her thigh into his fading erection. “Okay, now I actually do need to shower,” she added. She reached up to run her fingers through her antennae, straightening them in a way that a human woman might try to fix her hair after a sordid workplace encounter. “We’d better get cleaned up before this place gets flooded with Marines.”

“Way ahead of you,” he replied, reaching for the body wash again.

“Think you have enough self-control to give me a hand without pinning me against the booth and going for another round?” she asked, planting her hands on her hips as she stepped back.

“I’ll have you know that restraint is my middle name,” he replied, Jade giving him a skeptical head tilt as he uncapped the bottle.

“Alright, Evan Restraint Bennett,” she said as she plucked a loofah from the shelf. “Start with my back – and if you don’t live up to your namesake, I guess I’ll have to give you a helping hand or four. Just not in me or on me, got it?”

“You’re the boss,” he replied, Jade passing him the little ball of fabric.


When Xipa and Fletcher returned to their makeshift quarters, they found Gustave asleep, and Bluejay was sitting on his bedroll. He was fiddling with his wrist-mounted computer, and he glanced up at them as they entered, pleased to see them.

“You two still smell like that plant,” he said, his antennae waving. “Did you hear from Ruza yet?”

“We didn’t see him,” Fletcher replied, flopping down onto his sleeping bag. He coughed into a prosthetic hand, then waved it in front of his face as though the smell displeased him. “I assume he’s still helping out in the infirmary. I’ll send him a message if he stays away for too long. You know how he gets when it comes to medical matters.”

“You should really get out there and interact with the people,” Xipa said, glancing at Bluejay. “It won’t do for you to just sit here and hide.”

“This guy will go toe to toe with Drones, but he’s scared of some dirty looks,” Fletcher added as he interlocked his fingers behind his head. “Fuck what these people think of you, man.”

“I’d rather just not deal with it anymore,” the Jarilan sighed. “At least for today. There are only so many dirty looks that I can take…”

Xipa had only just sat down when Miqi appeared at their door. She seemed out of breath, her chest rising and falling quickly beneath her tunic.

“Xipa,” she said, fluttering her feathers in a hurried greeting. “Might I speak with you?”

“Of course,” she replied, rising from her seat. She joined Miqi in the corridor outside, even though nobody else in the room could understand the language that they were speaking.

“We have…a bit of a situation,” she began, the purple hue of her feathers conveying her worry. “When I left you earlier, it was because I was called away to the operations room – the room where you met the Ensis when you first arrived. It’s where we monitor the city and coordinate our teams on the surface. We routinely send patrols to keep an eye on our territory and to track enemy movements. It’s not unusual for them to go dark for long periods of time, as we try not to use our radios unless absolutely necessary so as not to draw any unwanted attention, but one of the patrols failed to check in multiple times. We sent up a second team to look for them, and they’ve vanished too.”

“Has anything like this happened before?” Xipa asked.

“We’ve had our share of casualties, of course, but I’ve never seen two entire patrols vanish off the face of the moon. It has to be related to the increased insect activity.”

“What do you need me to do?” Xipa asked, cocking her head skeptically. “I’ve made it clear that my fleet can’t provide any ground support inside the city without attracting even more attention.”

“Some of our best fighters were in that second team,” Miqi added, lowering her voice as she glanced at the two guards who were still posted at the far end of the hallway. “My flock was among them. Whatever happened to them, it must be serious. We’re going to mount another expedition into the district that they were sent to, but we could use some help. It’s not that we’re short on people,” she added hurriedly. “Everyone old enough to hold a gun knows how to use one, but something’s wrong, and we could use someone with your experience.”

“I’ve been told that your people know the layout of the city like their own scale patterns,” Xipa replied. “I’m not sure why you need us there.”

“You would be part of a larger team,” Miqi added, growing impatient. “Our people would guide you. I’m not stupid,” she added with a flash of annoyed crimson. “There are a hundred ships in orbit with crews that must number in the thousands, and if they only sent you five, it means that you’re the best this Coalition of yours has to offer. You made it here alive, after all. Even our most experienced scouts don’t stray beyond the wall.”

“We’ll help, of course,” Xipa conceded. “Fletcher – the Earth’nay – can’t come, though,” she added. “He’s injured.”

“Injured how?” Miqi asked. “I don’t know anything about aliens, but he seems fine to me.”

“He damaged his prosthetic arms while aiding a flockmate,” she explained.

“No matter, we’ll take what we can get,” Miqi continued. “How long until you can be ready? You can help yourselves to anything in our armory.”

“Give me five minutes to explain what’s happened and ten to get geared up. We’ll meet you back here.”

Miqi gave her a grateful feather salute, then hurried away down the corridor. Xipa returned to the storeroom, where her companions were waiting for her, and began to relay what Miqi had told her.

“So, they need our help to find some lost teams?” Fletcher asked. “They sure changed their tune quickly, but I suppose it’s a good way to win some brownie points with our hosts.”

“I can’t believe they actually want our help,” Bluejay added. “They’re not desperate – they have a whole army of people down here.”

“They were impressed by our ability to make it through the jungle and get inside the city,” Xipa explained. “Even if it took this long for them to actually admit it.”

“I wish they’d fucking decide if they want our help or not,” Fletcher grumbled.

“I think they have tried to appear stronger than they really are in the hope that we would agree to help them retake the city,” Xipa said. “Perhaps this mission will help persuade the Ensis that we know what we’re talking about.”

“I’m up for a jaunt into the city,” Fletcher said as he rose to his feet, rolling his shoulders. “I’ve been going crazy sitting around twiddling my thumbs.”

“That’s for Ruza to decide,” Xipa warned, the Earth’nay scowling at her.

“I know I’m technically injured, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let you guys go out there and risk your necks on your own,” he replied indignantly. “Vos appointed me to lead the team – you’re my responsibility.”

“And Ruza has seniority when it comes to medical matters,” Xipa shot back. “I know how you feel, trust me, but you’re walking wounded. If you exert yourself again, you could destroy your implants and cripple yourself. We’ll have a team of Valbara’nay backing us up, so we won’t be out there alone. They’ll be watching our backs.”

“She’s right,” Bluejay said, Fletcher turning to look back at him. “I hate to say it, but you busting your arms in the middle of a firefight doesn’t help us. You know we’d take you with us if we could.”

“We haven’t even asked Ruza yet, so we’ll see what he says,” Fletcher replied as he raised his wrist display. “I’ll send him a message and tell him to get his tail back up here.”

He remained defiant, but the tone of his voice told Xipa that he already knew what Ruza was going to say. As terrible as being left behind when your friends were marching into danger felt, there was an extra layer of disappointment for Fletcher that she understood all too well. He saw war as his purpose in life, and he had confided in her the feelings of hopelessness and frustration that he was already experiencing due to his injuries. Sitting alone in the storeroom with only his dark thoughts to keep him company while his friends went off on a mission was perhaps a form of torture for him, but it was still marginally better than becoming crippled or worse. He wasn’t just a danger to himself, but to the entire team, and potentially the people they had been tasked with saving. As a career soldier, he must understand that, but it might take an order from Ruza for him to accept it.

They waited a tense few minutes for the feline to arrive, and he showed up at the door still wearing his surgical gloves with the rubber tips.

“I returned as quickly as I was able,” he panted, out of breath.

“What’s the situation in the infirmary?” Bluejay asked. “Were you able to lend a hand?”

“The Valbaran doctors were not always as cooperative as I would have liked, but I was able to treat several infections with the immunostimulants I was given for Xipa, and the medical scanner helped diagnose several injuries that had been missed by the attendants. I wish I had the equipment on hand to create bacteriophage cultures, but it will have to do until they can be moved to a proper facility for treatment. Save for that, merely a lot of routine trauma work. Burns, broken bones, abrasions.”

He removed his gloves as Xipa explained the situation, his yellow eyes turning on Fletcher when she got to the part about their predicament.

“Fletcher,” he began, his gravelly voice as gentle as Xipa had ever heard it. “This is…a complicated decision for me. I consider you my Alpha, and I would follow you even to certain death, but duty must come first. My contract with Admiral Vos and the oaths that I took bind my hands, even if my heart burns with the desire to do otherwise. I must order you to stay behind, as much as it pains me to do so. I am sorry…”

“Eh, it’s not your fault,” Fletcher said with a dismissive wave of his prosthetic hand. “I suppose I’d only be a liability right now. Just do me a favor and don’t fucking die, alright? I’d consider it a personal slight.”

He knew that Ruza’s word was final, and he must have expected this answer, but he seemed to visibly deflate all the same as he sat back down on his sleeping bag. As much as Xipa wanted to console him, there was no time for that right now.

“With your permission, I will take command of the team,” Xipa said. She waited for a reaction from Fletcher, which came in the form of a subdued nod. “Come,” she demanded, marching out into the corridor. “Fetch any weapons and gear that you need, then meet back here as soon as possible.”


“Here’s the situation,” Miqi said as the team crowded around the old conference table. They were standing in what Xipa had come to know as the operations room, banks of servers lining the wall to their left, and a window looking out over the converted aquaponic farms to their right. Miqi had brought a team of six of her cloaked scouts, and the three Ensis were present too.

Despite all of the old technology that filled the room, they were poring over a large map that had been printed on a huge sheet of paper, likely some old blueprint used by city planners. It had been edited over and over to catalog the slow decay of the city. Where streets or buildings had collapsed, or forests had overrun the old structures, colored additions had been made to the map. There were hundreds of little notes left in looping Valbara’nay script that detailed whatever the scouts in question had discovered at that time, pointing out blocked alleys and untapped resources all over the city’s circular bands.

“Scout team Indigo was dispatched to this district here,” Miqi continued as she reached across the table to point at the map, gesturing to an area in the city’s industrial band with her feather sheath. “Their mission was to investigate insect activity in the area and earmark anything useful that they came across for pickup by a salvage team. All of our people have standing orders to report in every ten hours, but they’ve been dark for two days. Yesterday, we sent scout team Cyan to look for them, and they’ve missed two check-ins so far.”

“What kind of activity were they investigating?” Xipa asked after pausing to translate for her companions.

“We have sentries posted all around the city,” Miqi explained. “Usually at choke points where insect patrols are likely to pass through, or at paths that lead to entrances to our underground tunnels and safehouses. How do you think we detected you when you breached the wall? If we spot a patrol that’s getting too nosy, we usually dispatch a team to deal with them. For the most part, we have a live and let live policy. As long as they aren’t interfering with a salvage op and they don’t look like they’re going to stumble across a supply cache, we let them pass through unchallenged. This time, they were dangerously close to both a stash and a safehouse.”

“So, you sent Indigo to take them out,” Xipa mused as she leaned over the map. “How many Bugs were there?”

“The sentry said six,” she replied. “One squad of Drones with no heavy armor shouldn’t be an issue for one of our teams, but whatever happened, it can’t have gone well. The absolute best-case scenario is that they were driven to ground and had to hole up somewhere. The worst-case…well, you know what the insects are capable of as well as anyone here.”

“If you were able to make it here alive, then you already know that discretion is of the utmost importance on these kinds of operations,” the scarred Ensi added. “The more of a fuss we cause, the larger the insect response may be. You will need to move to the last known coordinates of Indigo and Cyan undetected, ascertain their situation, and respond accordingly. Returning them home is the priority.”

Doubly so for Miqi, Xipa thought, giving her a sideways glance. Cyan was her flock, based on what she had told her earlier. If Xipa and her team hadn’t arrived when they had, Miqi would probably have been with them when this had all gone down.

“Where is the alien with the robot arms?” another of the Ensis asked, searching for Fletcher in the small crowd.

“He’s injured,” Xipa explained. “He won’t be accompanying us on the mission, but rest assured, my team remains effective.”

“Do we really want to bring the big one?” one of the cloaked scouts asked, craning her neck to glance up at Gustave. “When I think discretion, I don’t imagine whatever the fuck that is.”

“You’ll be glad to have him if we end up in a shootout,” Xipa replied. “He’s practically impervious to small arms fire, and I’ve seen him walk straight through a carbcrete wall. That cannon he carries is usually mounted on battle tanks.”

“We may need a tank if there’s something out there that took out two teams,” another muttered.

“What’s a tank?” another whispered.

“Commit the route as well as the locations of all nearby caches and shelters to memory,” Miqi added, stepping away from the table. “Unless there are any questions, we need to get moving. If there was a firefight, there could be injured, so every minute counts.”

“Ruza is a trained medic, and he has equipment hundreds of rotations more advanced than anything your people possess,” Xipa added with a gesture to the towering feline. “He can tend to any wounded that we find.”

“He could probably carry them back, too,” one of the women said as she appraised him. “So, is the whole Galaxy bigger than we are, or are all the smaller species piloting the ships?”

“There will be time for idle chatter when our people are safe,” Miqi said with a terse flutter of red. “We need to get moving.”


The team traveled below ground for as long as they could, using the network of dingy, damp sewer tunnels as cover. Red mosses and clusters of mushrooms had colonized the glistening stonework, and the water was knee-deep in places, but whatever effluence had once flowed through here had left little evidence. There was no foul smell, no trace of waste after so many decades of fresh water flushing them out. There were small mammals and amphibians, too, the occasional splash of water announcing their presence as they slipped away before the flashlight beams could reach them.

Even for a Valbara’nay, memorizing the layout of these sewers would be a tall order, but Xipa noticed that there were color-coded markings painted onto the stone at each junction to help the survivors navigate. There were certainly more covert exits, but they eventually made their way to street level through a collapsed portion of road that had broken open one of the tunnels, as it was large enough for Gustave to make it through. The asphalt formed a sagging ramp that was easy enough to climb without the need for ropes or other equipment.

Miqi and her scouts hurried up first, fanning out to secure a perimeter while Xipa’s team followed behind. She still felt kind of strange without Fletcher around – they had relied on him so much during their journey to the city – but she had to show the survivors that she could command. Why would they trust her to organize an evacuation if she couldn’t even organize a rescue party?

She felt the suns shine on her scales through her open visor as she emerged into the light, looking up to see the auroras raging above the tall, white buildings that surrounded her. They had surfaced in the middle of a street in the industrial district. Those carbcrete structures with their weathered, white facades had once contained the city’s indoor farms, factories, and offices, keeping them hidden from outside view.

Like the other areas of the city that they had explored on their way in, the elements had taken their toll on this place. There was nary an intact window in sight, water damage had streaked the pale facades with trails of grey, and all manner of flora had overrun the street. Tree roots broke up the sidewalk, exposing soil where smaller plants and shrubs sprouted, their autumn leaves creating a sparse canopy in shades of red and brown overhead. Clusters of mushrooms filled every dark, damp corner, and many of the alleys were crowded with tall spires of fungi. Where the asphalt had been cratered by old plasma fire or had eroded due to neglect, it had filled in with rainwater to create shallow ponds that played host to aquatic weeds. No matter how many times she saw it, it never got any less surreal.

Xipa took a moment to spot Miqi and her people. They had moved to the edges of the road, using their camouflaged cloaks to blend into the environment so effectively that she had to look twice to pick them out among the shrubs. They were wearing their makeshift masks and rigs now, wielding old laser rifles and captured Bug weapons.

Miqi stepped forward, lifting the scratched visor on the old city guard gas mask that she was wearing. It was the same one that she had worn when they had first met, with a pair of large, square filters that hung off the end of the snout. She had a bandoleer draped over her shoulder that was loaded with grenades, and she was carrying a Bug plasma rifle that was a blend of metal and chitin.

“This is the closest suitable exit to our target,” she explained, keeping her voice low as she glanced up at the innumerable broken windows above. “Stay close, and try to move quietly,” she added with a pointed glance at Gustave. “Keep any emissions to a minimum. That means no radio, no wireless, nothing that might send out a signal that the insects could pick up on. It’s a bit of a walk, so follow us.”

She signaled to her scouts with a flash of feathers from the sheath on her forearm, giving them a silent order to move out. Her people slunk off, stalking down the street silently, keeping their arsenal of mismatched weapons at the ready.

“So, they use their feathers like hand signals?” Bluejay mused as he matched pace with Xipa. “The Marines have something similar, albeit simpler, I’m sure.”

“It’s a throwback to my people’s distant past when we were hunter-gatherers,” she explained as she followed behind Miqi. “The feathers on our forearms are thought to have been functional at one point in our evolutionary history, but they were later adapted for communication and social displays, aiding in hunting and interaction. Our feather patterns can convey a lot of information very quickly, and they’re still used for signaling during military operations today. Particularly in Commando squads. It’s the reason our suits and our vehicles have LED color panels.”

“It must convey a hell of a lot of information if it’s faster than talking,” Bluejay chuckled. “You guys sound like a recording being played back at double speed.”

The survivors moved through the city like ghosts, meticulously checking every corner and alley, peering into broken windows at street level as they passed them by. Xipa and Bluejay matched their pace, and even Ruza was stealthier than Xipa had given him credit for. The large, fleshy pads on his paw-like feet cushioned them, making him almost inaudible. Gustave, on the other hand, was too large to be very stealthy at all. He waddled along the middle of the street, hefting his massive cannon. At least if someone saw them, they’d probably shoot at him first…

After a couple of hours of walking without incident, Miqi guided them into an abandoned store that had been mostly overrun by fungi. Two of the scouts watched the windows, peering out into the street through the empty frames as the rest of them took a break. The aisles were all empty, coated in a layer of thick dust, and Xipa couldn’t even tell what had once been sold there.

“We’re coming up on the last known coordinates of Indigo team,” Miqi explained. “The last time they checked in was in this area, and their target was in the next district over. Another half-hour, and we’ll be right around where the sentry saw the enemy patrol.”

“What about Cyan?” Xipa asked. “Where were they last seen?”

“We’re not entirely sure,” Miqi replied with a worried flash of purple from her forearms. “We have to assume that they encountered trouble in the same area, because they went dark too.”

“So, what’s the plan from here?” Xipa asked. “It would be a mistake to just walk into that district one team after another like a herd of Gue’tra to the slaughter.”

“Agreed,” Miqi replied, waving a couple more of her scouts over. “My suggestion is that we skirt the edge of the district and check all the safehouses that are marked on our map. That’s the first place a team would go if they were in distress.”

“And, if they couldn’t flee?” Xipa asked.

“They would have taken shelter wherever they could,” another of the scouts added, her voice muffled by an old welder’s mask. It had a thick hose that trailed beneath her cloak, patched with electrical tape in places. “Abandoned buildings, lounges – anywhere that might provide cover.”

“How many safehouses are there nearby?” Xipa added skeptically. “I saw three on the map, if I remember right.”

“Yeah, three,” the stranger confirmed. “There aren’t many lounges in the industrial band – most are confined to the commercial districts. That narrows down the number of places we’d have to search.”

“Can we afford to spend time doing that?” Xipa asked. “What if they’re hurt or in trouble?”

“We can plot a route that takes us past them with minimal detours,” Miqi replied.

“This would be a whole lot easier if they could just switch on a distress beacon,” Xipa grumbled.

“On Kerguela, that would have the opposite of the intended effect,” Miqi chuckled dryly. “Their only hope of rescue is for us to find them.”

“Remember that Bluejay can sense insect pheromones and other scents that you and I might miss,” Xipa added with a gesture to the Jarilan. “He should be able to track this enemy patrol if they passed through as recently as a day or two ago. We won’t be walking in blind.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she replied, sparing the insect a disapproving glance. “There are two safehouses on this side of the district, so we’ll check those first.”


After a little walking, they turned into a narrow alley that was barely large enough for Gustave to make it through without scraping his shoulders against the walls. Judging by the overgrown neon sign outside, Xipa could guess that there was another disreputable hookah lounge hidden down here. There were the usual clusters of spire-shaped mushrooms and clinging vines that bridged the buildings above like sagging, red electrical cables, the towers of fungi releasing clouds of dark spores as Gustave pushed through them carelessly.

They came upon a large panel that was leaning up against the left wall next to an old recycling chute, the wood draped with more red vines that camouflaged it against the backdrop. It was obvious to someone who knew what they were looking for, but less so for an errant Bug that might wander through.

“Hey, big guy,” Miqi said as she pointed to the panel. “Mind making yourself useful?”

Gustave didn’t speak her language, but her gesture was enough for him to get the picture, and he lumbered over to her side. He slid the heavy panel out of the way with ease to reveal a recessed staircase that led down to a door. Xipa had been right – it was another lounge. The door was marked with a painted symbol, another identifying feature that would mean nothing to a Bug in this city filled with alien symbols.

“Wait here,” Miqi said, readying her rifle. “Keep watch while we check it out.”

Xipa directed her team to guard the alley as Miqi and a pair of her scouts made their way down the short flight of steps, the door creaking open on rusted hinges. After a brief check inside, they reemerged from the shadowy interior.

“I don’t see any signs that anyone came through here recently, and none of the supplies have been taken,” Miqi said as she helped push the panel back into place. “Onto the next one.”

“Bluejay, you picking anything up?” Xipa asked.

“Nothing yet,” he replied, his feathery antennae waving in the air. “I’ll let you know when I have something.”

They continued on through the ruined streets, skirting around partially collapsed buildings and patches of impassable forest. It made what should have been a quick walk far longer than Xipa would have expected, and she began to understand why there were so many markings on the map back in the operations room. The layout of the city must be changing continuously as it gradually deteriorated.

As they rounded the rusted hull of a disabled truck that was blocking the street, the vehicle seeming to blend into the surrounding shrubs and trees due to the carpet of red mosses that had claimed it, one of the scouts flashed her feathers in a signal for them to stop.

They raised their rifles, scanning the dense foliage that lined the street as the woman crouched to brush her gloved fingers against the ground.

“Footprints in the mud,” she announced, standing up again. “Valbara’nay boots, heading that way,” she added as she gestured past the truck. “We’re on the right track.”

“How old?” Miqi asked.

“No more than a day,” she replied. “I think this was Cyan.”

“I’m picking something up too,” Bluejay said, walking over to the footprints. The scout stepped back as he crouched over them, keeping her distance from him, but he paid her no mind as he waved his antennae in the air. “Yep, I got a scent. It’s fresh enough to follow.”

“He’s picked up a scent trail,” Xipa relayed to the scouts. “It’s your missing people.”

“I thought it only smelled pheromones?” Miqi asked with a suspicious head tilt.

Xipa relayed the query to Bluejay, who chuckled in reply.

“She walked me through their entire base, and she’s asking how I can recognize their scent? That’s a dumb question.”

Xipa translated for Miqi, though she omitted that last part, and it was enough to convince her.

“Very well,” Miqi replied, giving her team another flash of colored feathers. “Have your insect lead the way, and we will follow.”

As Bluejay took point, Xipa noted his change in body language. He had been so unsure of himself in the base, almost cowering, but he was in his element here. He stalked through the undergrowth with palpable confidence, his eyes scanning every branch and window, his XMR sweeping the street. This was what he had been bred for.

He led them around a collapsed area of the street where the asphalt had given way to a massive sinkhole, then down an alley between two buildings, winding through the urban jungle. They emerged onto another street, this one thick with trees whose spreading roots had churned up the road like the blades of a plow, forming a dense canopy overhead that made Xipa feel like she had been transported back beyond the wall. Bluejay raised a fist in a gesture for them to halt, Xipa quickly relaying the meaning of his hand signal to the scouts.

“Did you catch another scent?” Xipa whispered.

“No, but check that out,” he replied as he pointed into the trees ahead. It took Xipa a moment to see it, but there was another shimmering web of fibers strung between two of the gnarled trunks, only visible when it caught the light that filtered through the leaves above. “It’s another one of those sticky nets. There’s a sniper Bug somewhere around here.”

“You encountered one of those creatures before?” Miqi asked after Xipa had pointed out the trap. “I’m amazed you made it out unscathed. Those things are lethal if they get the drop on you.”

“Not exactly unscathed,” she replied. “Fortunately, it decided to focus on the largest target, who happens to be functionally bullet-proof. Still, it almost managed to best our team in a straight fight. I noticed that some of your people carry rifles that you must have claimed from them.”

“We call them Hunters, and they’re all over the damned city,” Miqi explained as she turned her eyes to the towering buildings that loomed above them. “The insects seem to deploy them almost like living landmines in the hopes of ensnaring the unwary, so there’s not much logic to their movements. They make their way inside the city, then just wander around until they find a suitable place to hole up. The things can go into a kind of hibernation and sit completely still for weeks until someone disturbs them.”

“Could it be one of those that took out Cyan and Indigo?” Xipa asked.

“Unlikely,” Miqi replied. “We’re used to dealing with them, and they don’t seem able to call in backup like the Drones can. Honestly, they almost seem engineered solely to be a nuisance.”

“How does one deal with a Hunter, exactly?” Xipa added. “The last fight we had with one came down to the wire, so I can’t imagine just living with them as a fact of life.”

“They’re easy enough to spot if you know what to look for,” she explained. “Their webs are like tripwires, and as long as you avoid coming into contact with them, they’ll generally stay asleep. When they attack, they fire from high vantage points, so taking cover inside buildings will usually force them to come down and engage you on your terms.”

“You really are used to them,” Xipa muttered, shouldering her XMR as she advanced behind Bluejay. They avoided the curtain of sticky webbing, keeping careful watch for more cleverly hidden traps.

“We should be coming up on the second safehouse soon,” Miqi said as they rounded another bend in the overgrown street. “The insect is leading us in the same direction, so perhaps they stopped there to rest.”

Ahead of them, a collapsed maglev line blocked the street, the magnetic rail sagging down onto the asphalt where its supports had been melted by plasma fire. Unlike the last downed line they had encountered, Xipa was surprised and somewhat alarmed to see a row of rail cars that had been flung from their track. The line must have collapsed while it was still in use, and the next train that had come barreling along it had been launched into the adjacent building like a bullet, digging a jagged hole straight through the carbcrete on the fifth floor. Some of the trailing passenger cars had followed after it, but those at the tail-end were lying in a heap on the street, piled up like the links of a giant chain. Like everything else, their white paint was chipped and stained to reveal rusting metal, and Kerguela’s plants had made the gutted carriages their home.

“Hang on,” Bluejay said, raising a fist again. The scouts fanned out, taking cover in the shrubs that grew to either side of the street, their weapons at the ready. “I smell something.”

“What is it?” Xipa asked.

“I smell it too,” Ruza added, his pink nose twitching as he lifted his head. “It smells like…burnt meat.”

“There’s charred flesh, along with ozone,” Bluejay replied. “There was a gunfight nearby, but I’m not picking up any pheromones.”

“Lead us to it,” Xipa ordered, Bluejay nodding as he began to stalk towards the left side of the street. He approached the building beside the train cars, the piles of rubble that had fallen down to the sidewalk when the train had plowed through it now covered over with lichens and mosses. Xipa glanced up, eyeing the tear in the building’s facade warily. It was about as structurally sound as Fletcher’s grasp of etiquette.

Bluejay ignited the flashlight on his XMR as he entered the shadowy interior, the bright beam cutting through the darkness, illuminating motes of airborne dust. It looked like the lobby of some kind of industrial building, with a U-shaped front desk occupying the center of the room and rows of padded benches lining the walls. Towards the back of the room were a pair of mag-elevators, the doors to the shafts jammed open by debris that had fallen from the upper floors.

The rest of their group filed in, Gustave and a couple of scouts waiting outside to keep watch. Miqi lit up an LED flashlight that had simply been taped to the side of her Betelgeusian rifle, sweeping it across the room. As it trailed towards the front desk, Xipa saw a glint of red carapace, her heart missing a beat. Before anyone even had a chance to announce it, every gun in the room was trained on that spot, the extra illumination revealing a figure that was slumped over the varnished surface.

It was a Hunter, the lanky creature draped across the desk, its spiky armor charred by plasma burns in places. It was still covered in a sticky layer of webbing, the leaves that clung to it singed by the heat of the projectiles. Its four arms were splayed out wide, its horned head hanging down towards the mushroom-covered carpet.

“That explains why I didn’t pick up any pheromones,” Bluejay said, lowering his XMR. “Looks like one of Miqi’s teams bagged a Hunter. They must have lured it down to street level, just like she said.” He reached out to touch it, then pulled his fingers away, a few errant strands sticking to him. “It’s stone-cold, but I don’t know if that means much. They don’t show up on thermals when they’ve been hibernating.”

“My people passed through here,” Miqi announced, walking over to the body to give it a prod with the barrel of her rifle. “They fought, but they didn’t suffer any casualties. I see no blood, no evidence that anyone but the insect met their end here.”

“Bluejay says the same,” Xipa added, giving the corpse one last lingering glance. “We should move on.”

They headed back outside, falling into line behind Bluejay, who led them around the downed maglev line and deeper into the city.


“The safehouse is down that way,” Miqi said, gesturing to a side alley that branched off the main street.

“Their scent trail continues up this road,” Bluejay replied, Xipa relaying his words back to Miqi. “They must have stopped off at the safehouse, then doubled back.”

“I still think we should check it out while we’re close,” she replied, signaling to the rest of her scouts. Xipa and her team followed as they took a short detour, traipsing through winding, overgrown backstreets until they arrived at another hidden lounge. This one was covered over by a simple camouflaged cloak that had been hung over the entrance to conceal it, Miqi pulling it aside like a curtain as she made her way inside. She emerged a short time later, hopping back up the short flight of steps.

“They were definitely here,” she announced, reaching up to adjust her cowl. “It looks like someone took some of the food and water, and the Hunter’s rifle has been hooked up to a feeding tube to await pickup. We have teams that visit each safehouse regularly to resupply it and take back any gear that was left there.”

“I have a question,” Bluejay said, raising a hand like he was in a classroom. “Supposing we find these guys, and they’re alive, what’s to stop them from shooting me in the face? I can’t exactly explain what’s going on if I don’t speak their language. Not to mention that Valbarans tend to be a little…twitchy.”

Xipa relayed the question to Miqi, who gave him a flutter of amused lime.

“We Valbara’nay plan for everything, don’t you know?” she said as she reached beneath her cloak. She walked over to Bluejay and draped something around his neck like a pendant, then stepped back to reveal a laminated piece of card on a string. It was green – a color that the Valbara’nay associated with peace and calm – and the word friendly was written on it.

“What does it say?” Bluejay asked, lifting the card to take a look at the looping text. “If this says kick me, I’m defecting.”

“It says that you’re a friend,” Xipa replied, unable to stifle a chuckle. “I mean…it’s not exactly an IFF tag, but I suppose it might make them hesitate.”

“I guess it’s better than nothing,” he muttered. “What’s the Valbaran phrase for don’t shoot?”

Xipa said the phrase, but her people’s speech was so fast and fluid that it hardly registered to him.

“Yeah, I’ll just go with the card,” he said as he turned back down the alley with an air of resignation. “Let’s get moving.”

They followed the scent trail back onto the overgrown street, scanning the trees for movement as they made their way towards an especially large building in the distance. It was long as well as tall, following the gentle curve of the city’s industrial band, red plant life spilling down from its roof where their seeds must have been carried on the wind. If Xipa had to guess, it had probably been a factory of some kind before the invasion.

“We just entered the district that Indigo was sent to survey,” Miqi announced. “This was the last place they were supposed to be.”

“I’m still following the same scent trail,” Bluejay added. “The second squad must have gotten at least this far.”

As they passed by a downed skimmer, the old aircraft’s hull draped with red vines, Bluejay signaled for them to stop.

“Picking something up,” he warned, his feathery antennae waving as they scented the air. “Bug pheromones, upwind of us.”

Xipa relayed his message to Miqi, who ordered her scouts to take cover with a quick feather signal, sending them diving into the foliage at the sides of the street. They wrapped their camouflaged cloaks around themselves, blending into the undergrowth. Xipa, Ruza, and Bluejay did the same, the camouflage patterning on their armor having a similar effect. Gustave made for the cover of the wrecked skimmer, which was the only object large enough to stand any chance of concealing his bulk, peeking out from behind the ring-shaped rotor guard. Xipa slapped her visor shut, and she noted that Bluejay was sliding on his helmet, probably anticipating that the survivors would make use of their pheromone grenades again.

After a couple of tense minutes, movement ahead drew Xipa’s eye, her HUD picking out half a dozen Drones as they marched through the knee-high carpet of shrubs and ferns. The natural coloration of their armor would have made them hard to spot if it wasn’t for her helmet’s systems outlining them in red. They were making their way out of a side alley, turning away now, heading in the direction of the factory. They were no different from the Drones that Xipa’s team had faced before. They carried plasma weapons, the many lenses on their helmets glinting as they scanned their surroundings for targets, the long antennae that sprouted from what looked like organic backpacks bobbing with each step.

Xipa’s first instinct was to coordinate an attack via her helmet radio, but she remembered what Miqi had told her. No radio, no ad-hoc, nothing that might emit a detectable signal. She glanced over at the scouts, watching as Miqi raised an arm, flashing a feather pattern. Her people began to slink through the bushes silently, finding better firing positions. The aliens got the picture, following after them, Xipa leaning around a tree trunk as she braced her XMR against her shoulder. She dialed down the voltage to its minimum setting. It would still be lethal at this range, but the noise shouldn’t carry quite as far. She glanced over at Miqi, who was crouched to her right near the open cockpit of the rusted aircraft, waiting for some kind of signal.

Still holding her Betelgeusian rifle steady in her hands, the sheath on Miqi’s forearm extended, her feathers flaring red. A barrage of plasma bolts streaked along the road as the scouts opened up, igniting the foliage where they passed too close, their green glow blinding in the shade of the canopy. The Drones were caught out in the open, taken by surprise, three of them falling to the cracked asphalt before the rest even had time to react. Xipa and her squad joined in, the crack of their XMRs echoing off the surrounding buildings. Xipa’s PDW barked, spewing tungsten at one of the Drones as it whirled around, the slugs tearing craters in its chest plate as it tried to lift its rifle. It jerked and twitched as the red-hot metal perforated it, pus-colored fluid leaking from the wounds as it slumped into the ferns. Another one was knocked clear off its feet by Ruza’s long rifle, sent spinning as the round impacted its shoulder, imparting enough kinetic energy to blow its upper arm clean off. Pieces of wet meat and sharp shell fragments rained as it fell, the confused Drone that was standing beside it soon following suit as a burning bolt of plasma hit it square in the face, the chitin sagging inward like melting plastic.

“Clear!” Miqi announced, stepping out of cover. She kept her gun trained on the bodies, perhaps anticipating that one of them might have survived long enough to return fire.

Xipa turned to look back at Gustave, seeing him emerge from behind the skimmer with his cannon in hand. He had wisely elected not to fire, as his weapon probably had no quiet mode.

“They were headed in the same direction we are,” Xipa said, making her way over to the fallen Drones. She turned one of them over with her clawed foot, giving it a swift prod with her tail to make sure it was dead. The scouts moved up to join her, a couple of them standing guard while the rest frisked the bodies for spare plasma canisters. They didn’t waste an opportunity to resupply, and Xipa got the impression that they would probably come back to claim the guns later.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad to have that insect of yours with us,” Miqi said as she knelt to retrieve a grenade from one of the dead Bugs. She examined it, turning it over in her gloved hand, then stowed it in a pouch on her belt. “If it hadn’t sniffed them out, this squad might have walked right into us.”

“We wouldn’t have been able to make it here without him,” Xipa replied. “It’s like having the power of prescience. We’re usually forewarned of any insect presence, as long as the wind is favorable.”

“We know which direction to approach from, then,” Miqi replied. “We’ll keep the wind to our front, just like when we’re hunting wild game. Those guns,” she added, glancing down at Xipa’s XMR. The coils were still hot enough to make the air around them shimmer. “What do they fire?”

“The ammunition is just a tungsten slug shaped into a point,” she replied, raising the weapon so that Miqi could get a better look at it. “It gets accelerated down the barrel by a magnetic field. Depending on the configuration, it can reach muzzle velocities of about two kilometers per second.”

“And, those have replaced lasers back on Valbara?”

“For the most part,” Xipa replied. “They take a little getting used to, but I’ve come to appreciate them.”

“Miqi, look,” one of the scouts said as she gestured to the factory ahead of them. Xipa followed where she was pointing, peering through the sparse canopy to see a glint of purple. She raised a hand, fiddling with the controls on the side of her helmet, increasing the magnification. Between the autumn leaves, she could make out the upper floor of the factory some two hundred meters up, lined with rows of broken windows. There was something hanging out of one of them, something that looked distinctly out of place. It was a tarp, purple in color, a hue that was associated with distress in Valbara’nay culture.

“I’m guessing that isn’t supposed to be there,” she mused.

“No,” Miqi replied, looking through the scope of her Bug rifle. “It’s not. That must be where the missing scouts are holed up.”

“You think maybe they got into a fight they couldn’t win and retreated to the higher floors?” Xipa asked. “Could they hold out for a whole day up there?”

“Maybe they managed to barricade themselves inside a room or something, somewhere they could create enough of a bottleneck to hold them off,” she replied with a flutter of purple that matched the tarp. “We need to get up there as soon as possible.”

“We need to approach carefully,” Xipa replied, recognizing the urgency in her voice. It was Miqi’s flock who were trapped up there – they might even be dead already – but they’d share the same fate if they rushed in guns blazing. “Trust me, I know how you must feel, but we won’t be coming to anyone’s rescue if we’re dead.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” she grumbled as she gritted her sharp teeth in frustration. “We need to get closer, evaluate the situation before we commit. The squad of Drones that we just put down probably had the same idea, and more might be on their way. If Indigo or Cyan were forced to give ground, that would have given their opponents ample time to call in their location. Every mealworm in the city could be on their way here.”

“Then we shall move swiftly, but cautiously,” Xipa added with a flash of green that was intended to reassure. Miqi looked no less tense, but she gave a flutter of agreement, then waved her people on.

“Am I to gather that our missing Valbarans are holed up in that big building?” Bluejay asked as soon as he could get a word in. “You guys are doing a lot of pointing.”

Ruza matched pace with them as they began to move off, Gustave lumbering up to Xipa’s side, the asphalt shaking beneath his feet with each step.

“That tarp on the upper floor is a distress signal,” she explained. “It’s looking like Cyan might have been trapped up there. Maybe there are some survivors from Indigo, but I’m not overly optimistic since the rescuers are now in need of rescuing.”

“Want me to fly up and take a look?” Bluejay asked, the wing casings on his back twitching in anticipation. “Maybe I could get a view through the windows from the building across the street.”

“No, I want you on the ground,” Xipa replied. “We need your antennae, and if there are still Bugs in the area, they’ll shoot you out of the sky. Not to mention that the Valbara’nay might do the same if they spot you peeking through their windows.”

“You’re the boss,” he replied, giving her a thumbs-up with one of his lower hands.

“We’re going to scope out the building and try to get an idea of what we’re dealing with,” she continued, skirting around the husk of an abandoned car. “In all likelihood, this is going to devolve into a close-quarters fight, so be ready.”

“Nothing like a little urban combat to spice up your day,” Bluejay grumbled, checking his magazine.

They proceeded carefully, sticking to cover as they kept watch for more Drones, slinking around the base of a building that was just across the street from the factory. They entered through a rear door, making their way through the mushroom-filled, empty rooms until they reached the second floor. From there, they examined their target through the broken windows, the elevation giving them a decent view of the street below. Xipa made use of her helmet’s advanced functions, thermal imagining letting her see through the foliage, her HUD picking out targets and marking them.

“I count eighteen at street level,” she said. “Bluejay?”

“Confirmed,” he replied as he peeked around the frame of the broken window. “There may be more around the other side, but they’d have to go all the way around the building to get to us. Or through it, I dunno. How long do you reckon it is, maybe six hundred meters?”

“They appear to be guarding the entrances,” Ruza added. “They are split into three groups, one at each of those doors.”

Xipa could see the doors that he was talking about. There were two large entrances that looked like they led into lobbies, as well as a much bigger door that probably led into a loading bay for trucks. It looked like it had been jammed shut for decades, but there were still Drones posted beside it. Seeing the things at rest was almost stranger than seeing them in a fight. They were twitchy, their heads turning back and forth with unnatural, jerky movements as they scanned the area for targets. There was no interaction between them, no idle chatter – they didn’t even hold their rifles in a resting position. Their level of alertness and readiness must be dialed to one hundred percent at all times.

“They’re guarding the building,” Miqi muttered, watching them through her scope. “There would be no need for guards if there was nobody left alive inside.”

“We can’t do this quietly,” Xipa replied, shifting her view to another of the squads. They were milling about near a pair of grimy glass doors, peering about with their weapons raised as though they expected an assault at any moment. Was that logic or instinct? Did they expect a rescue attempt, or were they always this wired? “We’ll need to hit all three squads at the same time. Do you still have some of those pheromone grenades?”

“Plenty,” Miqi growled, pulling back her cloak to reveal a bandoleer of the things. “These have a payload potent enough to make any insect in range completely uncoordinated for at least a couple of minutes. It’s enough of a window to take them down without them being able to call for help. The trick will be hitting all three squads at once.”

“We could spread out along this floor,” one of the scouts suggested. “We’d have a good view of the furthest targets to the right from the far corner of this building.”

“It’s going to be loud,” Xipa added. “Every Bug in the district is gonna hear us.”

“We’ll have to move quickly,” Miqi said. “We take out the guards, then move inside and clear the interior as we go.”

“We have no idea how to reach the upper floors,” one of the scouts protested, her voice muffled by her gas mask. “The state of the building is unknown. Mag-elevator shafts could be blocked, staircases could have collapsed, entire floors could have fallen through.”

“There’s no choice but to improvise,” Miqi replied with a grumble of disapproval. “I hate going in without a plan, but what else can we do?”

“Let my people handle it,” Xipa said, her enthusiasm seeming to surprise Miqi. “They can adapt to new situations like you wouldn’t believe. Follow their lead in lieu of following a plan.”

“What?” the scout scoffed, but Miqi raised a hand to silence her.

“Alright,” she said. “We’ll do it your way, but only because there isn’t time to come up with a better solution.”

“Have your people take the right side, and we’ll take the left.”

“What about the middle?” Miqi asked, cocking her head.

“If we’re going loud, we might as well go loud,” Xipa replied with a grin. “Gustave,” she said, transitioning back to English. “Find a window where you can get a clear view of that garage door and open fire as soon as you see Miqi’s grenades go off. Bluejay, Ruza, we’re taking the squad on the left.”

Gustave made a low rumble of affirmation, hefting his cannon as he began to lumber away. Fortunately, the industrial nature of the building meant that the doors were large enough for him to get through, but the floor shook worryingly with each heavy step.

“That one can handle a whole squad of Drones on his own?” Miqi asked as she turned her head to watch him leave.

“You’re about to find out,” Xipa replied, dialing up the voltage on her rifle. “Are we clear to use comms now? My squad functions more effectively if we can share information in real-time.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter if we’re abandoning the stealthy approach,” Miqi replied. She reached below her cloak, producing one of the grenades, then handed it to Xipa. “It’s a modified gas grenade,” she explained as Xipa examined it. The device was of Bug origin, that was clear from the resin casing and the organic primer – what looked like a little blob of mucous that sat on top of it. It was spherical in shape, just large enough to fill her hand. “The insects deploy them with chemical payloads – usually toxic gasses – but we’ve been able to tweak the system to disperse aerosolized pheromones. Just squish the blob, and throw.”

“Where do you get the pheromones?” Xipa wondered.

“From pheromone glands,” she replied. “Where else? We’ll hit the right squad. You hit the others when you see us make our move.”

She waved for her scouts to follow her, and they slunk off into the building, keeping clear of the windows. Xipa relayed the plan to Bluejay and Ruza, and they followed her over to the left corner of the building, where they took up position. Their targets were standing in front of a pair of glass doors that had been rendered opaque by grime, the Bugs at once eerily still and restless.

“Wait for Miqi’s signal,” she whispered, readying the grenade. Bluejay put his shoulder to the wall beside one of the empty frames, securing his odd, two-piece helmet while Ruza flanked him. After a few tense moments, there was a popping sound from outside, followed by the telltale hiss of releasing gas.

Xipa moved to the window, pressing her thumb down on the squishy button as she went, then tossed the grenade into the street below. It sailed through the sparse canopy, then bounced off one of the glass doors with a clang, rolling to a stop in the ferns. The Bugs reacted quickly, but not quickly enough, an obscuring shroud of smoke engulfing the squad. Xipa could see through it easily with her thermal optics, their figures writhing, clawing at their helmets as the pheromones assailed their senses.

The trio opened up, firing out of the windows, their slugs shredding leaves and branches as they tore through the trees. The Drones were in no position to take cover, the rounds dismembering them where they stood, the kinetic energy enough to blow fist-sized chunks out of them. They were thrown to the ground with the force of a sledgehammer, the stray projectiles digging craters in the carbcrete, shattering the glass doors.

To their right, Xipa heard the roar of Gustave’s cannon, a stream of molten slugs spewing from the building in an almost unbroken line. The hail of projectiles punched through the swirling gas, the garage door behind the unfortunate Drones appearing to disintegrate as the tungsten chewed through it. Puffs of white dust joined the smoke as the projectiles blasted through the surrounding carbcrete, fragments of asphalt whizzing through the air, Gustave saturating the area with fire. One of the Bugs was bisected, tossed back against the door, its companions toppling all around it. The reptile swept his weapon back and forth like a fire hose, only relenting when there was nothing left but a pile of quivering meat. There was a creak, then a loud cracking sound, a tree that had gotten in his way toppling into the road.

Further to the right, glowing bolts of emerald plasma were pounding the final squad of Drones, starting small fires where they came into contact with the foliage. As the breeze slowly carried away the clouds of pheromones, Xipa saw that they were all dead, their carapaces blackened and melted.

“That’s all of them,” Xipa said, slamming a fresh mag into her XMR. She stepped away from the window, heading for the stairs behind them. “Let’s get moving before reinforcements show up.”

Miqi and her scouts came hurrying to join them, Gustave lumbering along behind them.

“We’ll go in through the door on the left,” Miqi said, taking the stairs two steps at a time. “Be ready. There’s no telling how many more of them might be inside.”

They covered each other as they rushed out into the street, heading for the relative safety of the factory. The doors had already been shot to pieces, fragments of shattered glass crunching underfoot as they made their way past the ruined bodies of the Drones, their ichor staining the ferns. The scouts fanned out into the lobby, finding it not so different from the one where they had encountered the dead Hunter. There was a large desk in the center of the room, the wood splintered and perforated by stray slugs, the potted plants that had once adorned the room having long since desiccated. The damp carpet was now home to colonies of fungi, and some of the panels on the ceiling had fallen to the floor, exposing rusted pipes and old wiring. The company’s logo was still emblazoned on the wall behind the desk, the name no longer legible, as it was missing too many letters. To the back of the lobby were a pair of elevator shafts, and there were corridors branching off the room to the left and right.

Miqi cursed loudly as she noticed the body that was slumped limply against the far wall. It was a Valbara’nay, her tattered clothes singed by plasma weapons, the tiles around her melted where the bolts had missed their mark. There had been a shootout here, or maybe an execution…

She hurried over to the unidentified woman, crouching beside her to pull off her mask. Xipa wanted to ask if it was someone she knew, but in such a tight-knit community, there wouldn’t be anyone she wasn’t familiar with.

“Indigo team,” she announced, taking a step back. “It’s Chotli.”

Ruza strode over to the body, giving it a cursory examination. There was no need to pronounce her dead, it was obvious to everyone that she had passed on. At least Miqi had been spared the pain of finding a dead flockmate, but who knew what had happened to Cyan and the rest of Indigo.

“They would never have left her body like this if they weren’t under fire,” one of the scouts said. “We don’t let them take people away. We have standing orders to burn anyone we can’t carry back.”

“The elevators are blocked,” another said, leaning into one of the shafts and shining her flashlight up into the darkness. “They must have taken the stairs.”

“The signal was on the right wing of the factory,” Xipa said, nodding down the hallway that branched off the lobby. “Bluejay,” she added, switching back to English. “What do you smell?”

He popped open the little panels on his helmet, uncurling his long antennae, then scented the air for a moment.

“I smell ozone, burnt flesh, and Bugs,” he replied. “I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to differentiate the direction in an enclosed space like this.”

“Keep your antennae stowed, then,” she replied. “Gustave,” she added, turning to the towering Krell’nay. “We’re going to need someone to stay behind and make sure none of them follow us into the building. Can you cover the lobby? I’m not sure that those stairs will even be able to handle your weight.”

He hefted his massive cannon, rotating the three barrels with his scaly hand, the mechanism making an ominous clicking sound.

I will dam the river. Go. Complete the broken circle.”

She gave him an appreciative nod, then turned towards the hallway.

“Gustave will stay behind to cover our rear,” she explained. “Let’s go.”

The reptile lumbered over to the crescent-shaped front desk and took up position behind it, leveling his rifle, the rest of the team heading off down the corridor. This place was in the same state as all the other buildings in the city. There was water damage everywhere, covering the carpets in mold and staining the walls, bundles of exposed wiring hanging from gaps in the ceiling. A thick layer of dust coated every surface, making Xipa glad of the air filters in her helmet. Fungi abounded, making it feel more like they were venturing into some kind of dingy cave than a building that had once been inhabited. They flourished in the damp and the dark, their colorful caps rising from the carpet in clusters, taller spires skirting the ceiling in places. She could see where some of them had been disturbed, leaving smashed and broken mushrooms, some of them crushed underfoot.

They passed an open door, a couple of the scouts dipping inside for a moment to check that it was clear. As Xipa made her way past, she noted that it was some kind of conference room, a long table surrounded by chairs dominating the space. The floor above it had partially collapsed, burying a lot of the once lavish furnishings under a pile of rubble.

“This way,” Miqi said, rounding a bend in the corridor. “At least it’s easy to tell where they went,” she added, gesturing to the footprints in the dust and grime. “This place probably hasn’t been disturbed since the invasion.”

They soon came upon the stairwell, a long, square staircase spiraling up through the higher floors. Sunlight flooded in from high above, suggesting that the roof had given way at some point, and crimson vines spilled down over the banisters. The ground floor here was flooded, the grey water reaching ankle height, a steady drip falling from above.

“Guess we’re going up,” Ruza grumbled, his paws splashing in the shallow water as he made for the first step. Xipa had been right – Gustave wouldn’t even have been able to get up them. They were almost too narrow for Ruza.

They mounted the stairs, climbing them two by two, the tall feline leading the way. As they neared the second floor, they came across another body that was slumped on the landing. It was a Drone, its carapace pocked with nasty burns, and there was a second one just behind it. Plasma fire had burned holes clear through the wall behind them where it had gone wide, evidence of a short and brutal engagement,

“Two bodies,” Bluejay muttered, pausing to examine the nearest. “The Bugs here work in teams of six. Where are the other four?”

“The footprints continue up the stairs,” Miqi said, crouching to examine them. “They were pursued. Look, there are more plasma burns on the wall further up.”

She hurried along, everyone else following behind her. Bluejay walked backwards, keeping an eye on the corridor to their rear, steadying himself on the overgrown banister with one of his lower hands. After two more floors, they encountered a blockage. A huge chunk of carbcrete had fallen from above, plunging through the staircases on the higher floors, severing them completely. It had embedded itself on the landing ahead of them, broken pieces of rebar jutting from it like broken bones.

“I guess they didn’t come through here,” Xipa mused, trying to lean over the twisted banister to get a look around the obstacle.

“They must have taken a left off this landing and made their way higher using another stairwell,” Miqi grumbled, leading them down another corridor. “Come on, there’s no time to waste!”

The short hallway soon opened up into a large space, big enough that it spanned the building, a cold wind flooding in through the broken windows that lined the walls to their left and right. It was a factory floor, rows of vaguely cube-shaped industrial machines stacked end to end, breaking up the lines of sight. There were colored markings painted on the floor to show where the workers could safely walk, now faded and chipped, broken light strips dangling from the high ceiling. Support pillars were spaced out at intervals, probably the only thing keeping the place from caving in on itself.

“What the hell are these?” Bluejay wondered, sweeping his rifle around the room as they made their way inside. “Some of these look like…giant microwaves.”

“Looks like an old manufacturing center,” Xipa replied, pausing by one of the machines. Like everything else, it was caked in dust, but the old markings and company logos on the chassis were clearly legible. It was almost as large as a car, big enough that a whole flock could probably have stood inside it. A long-dead touch interface was mounted beside the window that occupied its front face, and through the foggy aperture, she could make out the print bed and the laser on its mechanical arm. “These are printers,” she explained. “They’d be filled with argon gas, then a layer of metal dust would be extruded onto the print bed, which would then be fused with a high-powered laser. Those smaller ones over there are old polymer printers. They would have made things like home appliances and furniture here.”

“Check it out,” he said, gesturing inside one of the printers as they passed it. “This one has half a chair inside it.”

“They were probably still running when the power shut off,” she replied.

“Spread out,” Miqi ordered, signaling to her people with a flash of colored feathers. “And watch your angles. There could be a mealworm hiding behind every printer…”

They fanned out, stalking between the aisles, the machines tall enough that even Ruza couldn’t see over the tops of them. Ruza and Bluejay stuck close to Miqi, the printers spaced far enough apart that they could walk side by side. When they reached about the middle of the room, a sudden sound made them pause, the unmistakable report of automatic fire making Xipa flinch.

“It’s coming from below us,” Ruza growled. “Gustave…”

“He can handle himself,” Bluejay replied. “We need to pick up the pace.”

They began to jog, the exit coming into view maybe a hundred meters ahead of them. Someone else had been alerted by the gunfire, however. From the shadows came pouring a procession of Drones, their spiky carapaces catching the sunlight that bled in through the broken windows as they emerged into view, the red and orange patterns that streaked across their overlapping plates making them stand out against their drab surroundings. They skidded to a halt when they saw the team, one of the creatures looking right at Xipa through the lenses that were spaced out around its helmet, its jaw-like mandibles flexing. There were a dozen of them, maybe more, the two groups staring at one another in silence for a split second before chaos erupted.

“Contact!” Xipa yelled, throwing herself behind the nearest printer for cover.

Bluejay and Ruza dove behind the one in the adjacent aisle, the Jarilan firing from the hip as he retreated, his XMR barking. A barrage of plasma bolts answered him, the Drones scattering, spreading out into the factory as they lay down covering fire with impressive coordination.

“Here we fucking go!” Bluejay growled, leaning out to let off another burst of blind fire. “These bastards aren’t going to let us through without a fight!”

“Then they shall have one,” Ruza replied, pulling his long rifle against his shoulder.

The room was filled with green strobes, like glow sticks were being tossed back and forth. Miqi and her scouts were fighting back, but Xipa couldn’t worry about them right now – she had to trust that they could handle themselves.

From the far end of the aisle, a Drone leaned into view, forcing Xipa back into cover as it spewed plasma at her hiding spot. She could feel the heat of the projectiles through her suit as they splashed against the printer’s housing, slagging the polymer, heating the metal frame beneath until it glowed red.

Bluejay saw an opportunity, darting into the open, his XMR already raised. He was quicker to the draw than the Drone, a three-round burst catching it center-mass, splattering the nearest printer with its fluids. As it dropped, one of its kin emerged to fire back at him, the conductive rails on the end of its rifle crackling with arcs of emerald electricity as it leveled the weapon. There was another loud crack, and its head exploded like a ripe fruit, the decapitated body sent twitching to the factory floor. Xipa turned her head to see that Ruza was standing over his smaller companion, tall enough that the Jarilan’s horn barely reached his armpit, his rifle raised over the Jarilan’s head.

There was a puff of gas from somewhere on their left, the scouts deploying some of their grenades. As well as driving the insects mad, it had the side-effect of creating a lingering haze, not unlike a smoke bomb. Xipa reached up to tap at the touch panel on the side of her helmet, switching to thermal mode as the cloud was carried by the wind, quickly filling the space.

“Push them!” Xipa ordered, moving up between the printers. “The gas will only keep them busy for a minute or two!”

Bluejay checked the seal on his helmet, then stalked into the gas, drawing his sidearm with one of his lower hands as he kept his XMR raised. Ruza loped along behind him, matching pace, the blade of his serrated bayonet glinting as he moved.

A Drone stumbled out from behind one of the nearby machines, holding its rifle in one hand as it clawed at its face with the other. It balled its lowers fists, its violent, erratic movements conveying its fury. Bluejay didn’t give it time to get its bearings, cutting it down with a controlled burst of XMR fire. The slugs sparked off the printer behind it as it fell, the Jarilan putting two rounds through its helmet with his sidearm as he stepped around it.

Ahead of Xipa, another disoriented Drone floundered into view, shaking its head vigorously as it tried to dispel the effects of the gas. They had spread out into the factory, and with the rows of boxy printers, there was no way to tell where they might emerge from. She felt a pang of fear as her eyes played over its spiky, layered carapace, its sharp mandibles clicking. As its lenses turned in her direction, she froze up. Suddenly, she was right back in the forest again, staring down the nozzle of a Bug flamethrower as its glowing pilot light reflected in the compound eyes of its wielder. Fletcher wasn’t here to save her this time. She had to take care of herself, and people were depending on her now.

Xipa fought through the shivers of dread that were crawling up her spine, channeling it into resolve, raising the barrel of her XMR. The weapon kicked against her shoulder as it fired, the vibrations shaking her entire body, but she kept it under control with her tight grip. The hypervelocity slugs hit the thing in its chest, fracturing its rigid carapace like glass, exposing the off-green meat beneath. Fragments of shell zipped through the air like shrapnel, viscous bodily fluids splattering the printer behind it as the rounds tore gaping exit wounds in its back. It was thrown against the machine by the impacts, bright sparks showering as the projectiles overpenetrated, slicing through the polymer and steel with the ease of a blade through flesh. The insect slumped to the floor, leaving a smear of goo on the printer’s housing, more mucous-colored fluid spilling from its mandibles as it went still.

Her heart racing, and her suit panels flushing red, Xipa willed herself to keep moving. She didn’t have the option of losing her nerve – not when there were people who needed her. This wasn’t about revenge anymore.

She glanced to her left, seeing Bluejay take down another Bug with a burst of gunfire, his rounds punching swirling holes in the smoke. Some of the Drones were already starting to recover, one of them moving between two of the printers to his left, raising its plasma rifle as it shook off the pheromones. Without missing a beat, Bluejay aimed his sidearm at it, clutching the weapon in his lower hands as he put three slugs through its visor. He didn’t even seem to aim, moving with absolute confidence as though this was a dance that he had rehearsed a thousand times, memorizing every beat and step. The same ruthless efficiency that she saw in the Bugs was still there, but there was an elegance to his movements that they lacked – a higher awareness.

Ruza strode ahead of him, his muscles rippling beneath his pressure suit, his long rifle held low like a spear as he charged a pair of Drones. They reacted too slowly in their stupor, the nearest one driven to the ground, the feline throwing his five-hundred-pound mass into the blow. His bayonet split the alien’s carapace as it penetrated its sternum, the thing’s twitching limbs curling in on itself, its lifeblood spewing onto the dusty floor. Its companion had regained enough sense to draw a long, chitin blade that was shaped like a saber, brandishing the cruel weapon as it lunged at him. The creature was quick, darting in to slice the cutting edge across Ruza’s stomach, but all it did was score his ceramic armor.

The Borealan drew back his arm, then swiped, turning his hand so that his hooked claws were facing his opponent. A blow that could have shattered bone caught the thing square in the face, Ruza’s talons slicing through flesh and carapace alike. Part of its helmet was torn off – or maybe part of its face – clattering across the factory floor. When Xipa got a clear look at it again, one half of its helmet was missing, the lenses and mandibles ripped away to expose the bloody flesh beneath. There was a single eye, not too different from Bluejay’s, rising to track Ruza’s next blow. The feline bared his sharp teeth in a roar as he shouldered the Drone into a printer, denting the housing, his weight enough to crush the creature. He was built for gravity near twice as potent as that of Kerguela, and it showed in his sheer ferocity, Ruza stepping back to let the broken body fall.

He wasn’t given any time to collect himself, a plasma bolt narrowly missing his head, its glow reflecting in his visor as it sailed past him. Ruza turned on his assailant, bringing that six-foot rifle to bear again, its bayonet still dripping with alien fluids. He fired in semi-auto, his target diving back into cover, but to no avail. A mere printer wouldn’t stop a projectile that could punch through two inches of steel. The slugs tore through the machine, spraying molten shrapnel as they exited on the other side, hitting the Bug like a shotgun blast.

“Keep pushing up!” Xipa growled into her helmet mic, throwing herself into cover behind one of the printers as a pair of Drones sent a barrage of bolts sailing her way. Taking a leaf out of Fletcher’s book, she leaned her XMR around the corner, keeping her body concealed as she brought up the in-picture scope on her HUD. The recoil was harder to control, the weapon nearly leaping out of her hands, but her cone of fire sent one of the Bugs flailing to the floor. “Keep the pressure on them! Don’t let them regroup!”

Her next shot was more controlled, catching the second insect in the torso. She moved up as it fell back into cover, not giving it an opportunity to find its footing. She put a few more slugs through the printer about where she expected it to be, then rounded the bulky machine to find it lying dead on the dusty floor.

Bluejay and Ruza formed up with her as she stepped out into the nearest aisle, the three moving together, cutting down two more Drones that were retreating towards the doorway they had originally come from. As they passed the rows of machines, Xipa caught a glimpse of one of the scouts off to the left side of the room. She had knocked one of the Bugs to the floor and was setting upon it with a claw hammer, pummeling it with vicious strikes from the sharp end of the implement as it tried in vain to fight her off, droplets of its blood splattering the dark visor of her welding mask. She didn’t stop until it ceased its struggling, standing over it as its fluids dripped from her weapon, holding her plasma rifle in her other hand.

Another Bug advanced on her down the aisle ahead, forcing her to roll out of the way as its plasma bolts melted holes in the carbcrete floor. It showed a callous disregard for its fallen comrade, the burning projectiles peppering the motionless body. From somewhere behind the woman, a brilliant beam of emerald lanced forth, the unmistakable glow of a neodymium laser glittering as it refracted off the motes of dust and aerosolized particles in the air.

The pulsed beam cut into it, the concentrated heat melting through carapace and flesh, cauterizing as it went. It seared a burning trail across the Drone’s chest, driving it back, the insect reacting to the pain as though it was a physical force. The shooter stepped into view, walking closer to her writhing target, holding the scuffed housing of her laser rifle tightly in her hands. More of the scouts moved up beside her, one of them dropping into a low posture to fire her plasma rifle at something out of view.

The smoke from the pheromone grenades had cleared by now, and the team was approaching the far end of the factory floor. Bluejay took down one more Bug as they neared the last row of printers, tungsten slugs shattering its carapace, knocking it off its feet. He reloaded as he went, leaning around one of the machines to check that there were no more waiting for them.

Xipa heard the sound of a plasma weapon, turning to see another Drone stumble out of one of the aisles, pushed back against the wall. Miqi followed after it, the conductive rails on her rifle crackling as she fired off shot after shot, the magnetically-contained gas melting fist-sized holes in her target. She paused to reload as the smoking body ceased its writhing, popping out the empty plasma canister that was housed behind the rails with a practiced tap of her fist, letting it roll across the floor. It was about the size of a drink can, with transparent, vertical strips that let the wielder see how much gas remained inside. She produced a replacement from her belt, slotting it into place with a mechanical click.

“Everyone good?” she yelled, turning to do a quick headcount. “Don’t slow down, there could be more of them ahead!”

They rallied at the door, Xipa pausing briefly to look back at the dead Bugs they had left in their wake. She reloaded her XMR, slamming in a fresh magazine, the new ammo count flaring to life in the corner of her HUD.

The team left the printing facility behind, moving into the corridor beyond. It wasn’t unlike the one they had traversed to get to the factory floor, and it likely led to another stairwell that would let them access the upper levels. They were maybe halfway up the building’s overall height, and their destination was now above and behind them relative to the direction they were heading.

Xipa glanced into the open doors that lined the hall as they passed them by. These were storage rooms filled with raw materials that would have fed the printers, barrels of powdered metal, and drums of liquid polymer. As they neared the end of the corridor, there was a sudden flurry of movement ahead, one of the scouts at the front of the group letting out a yell of alarm. A surviving insect lunged at her from a side door, catching her by surprise, plunging a long blade into her side. She wasn’t wearing any armor, so it went straight through her clothes, the pointed tip emerging on the other side with a spurt of dark blood. The two of them grappled, the thing clawing at her with its four hands as it tried to withdraw its saber for a second strike, the woman wailing into her gas mask.

Only the nearest scouts could come to her aid in the cramped corridor, one of them striking the Drone in the head with the butt of her rifle, but it remained undeterred. It brought those snapping mandibles to its victim’s face, the serrated chelicerae biting into one of the filters on her gas mask, sawing through the polymer to expose the fabric inside.

The scout who had hit it with her rifle drew a sidearm in the cramped space, forcing the rails of the weapon beneath its chin, squeezing the firing mechanism. There was a flash of green light, the blast forcing the creature back, a piece of the gas mask still held in its mandibles. Smoke poured from its helmet, the thing twitching as it fell back through the doorway from whence it had come.

The injured woman stumbled backwards, the blade still protruding from her side, falling into Ruza’s waiting arms as he waded through the smaller aliens to reach her. He swept her off her feet, her cry of pain muffled by her mask.

“Tell them to clear that room!” he barked, Xipa doing as he asked. The scouts hopped over the smoking Bug, sweeping the storeroom, Ruza carrying his charge in after them. He set her down on the grimy floor, her diminutive frame so light that he could carry her weight in a single hand, his yellow eyes fixed on the chitin blade that jutted from her abdomen. Dark blood stained her clothes, pooling on the floor beneath her, her concerned companions crowding around them.

“Give them room!” Xipa snapped, the women retreating a few paces. “Ruza knows what he’s doing. You must let him work.”

“Tell her to remove her mask,” Ruza said, Xipa relaying his demand to the injured woman. She reached up to fumble with the straps with shaking hands, tearing the damaged gas mask off her face, sucking in a sharp breath. The motion seemed to hurt her, and she groaned, gritting her sharp teeth.

Ruza sank his claws into her blood-soaked clothes, tearing open the fabric around the wound site to expose it. The blade had entered her body where her spinach-green scales began to taper into the beige of her smooth underbelly, protruding a few inches to the right of her navel, its orange hue contrasting with her coloration. She was bleeding, but not profusely. The blade was probably helping to stem the flow. Ruza produced his medical scanner with the practiced speed of someone drawing a sidearm, waving it across her midriff, the device beeping as the results flashed on its little display.

“It missed her gizzard,” he said with a sigh of relief. “An inch to the left, and I would not have been able to save her with what I have on hand. One of her lateral thoracic air sacks has been punctured.”

“Damn it!” Xipa hissed. Unlike many of their Coalition counterparts, the Valbara’nay had a respiratory system made up of air sacks that connected to their lungs, extending throughout the body and even into some of their bones. They inhaled and exhaled through pressure changes created by the expansion and contraction of muscles in the sternum, either drawing in or pushing out air, forcing it through the lungs where the gas exchange took place. It made their bodies lighter and gave them more oxygen to work with, but if one of those sacks was perforated, it boded ill. “Can you do anything for her?”

Ruza was already snapping on a pair of his signature surgical gloves, starting to fish for medical tools in one of his many pouches.

“I must treat and seal the wound before a buildup of gas in her abdominal cavity causes the sack to collapse,” he explained, keeping his eyes on his work as he talked. “She will not survive to make it back otherwise.”

“What’s he saying?” Miqi demanded, hovering nearby as her feathers flashed purple with worry. “Can we do anything to help?”

“She has a punctured air sack,” Xipa explained. “Just keep that hallway covered while he works.”

“Fuck!” Miqi hissed, cursing into her helmet. She yelled orders at her scouts, two of them moving to cover the doorway, one of them dragging the still smoking body of the Drone out of the way.

“Do you need me to tell her anything?” Xipa asked as Ruza eyed the chitin blade.

“Tell her to keep as still as she is able, and that this is going to be painful,” he growled. He closed one hand over the alarmed woman’s snout to stifle her cry of pain as he gripped the haft of the blade, ripping it out of her in one smooth motion. He tossed it aside, sending it clattering across the floor. Its edge was serrated, and it did even more damage on the way out, but there was no time for a more careful extraction. The scout moaned into his glove, dark blood welling in the jagged wound, obscuring Ruza’s view. He swabbed at it with a bundle of gauze bandages, much to her displeasure, cleaning some of it away so that he could see what he was doing. There was already so much blood that it was making Xipa feel light-headed.

He reached for the canister on his hip, the same one that he had used to seal Gustave’s bullet wound and his own leg injury. It was painted white, with a green cross emblazoned on the side. She remembered that it was filled with antiseptic foam. He pressed the conical nozzle into the wound, his patient groaning as the white foam poured into the cavity, her blood staining it pink. It spilled out onto her scales, dripping down onto the floor beside her.

Next, he upended a bottle of what might be alcohol onto a strip of gauze, using it to clean the scales around the wound site. Xipa heard the rustling of paper as he produced a large, flat packet from one of his pouches. He tore it open, tossing the packaging aside, revealing a transparent film. Its edges were lined with adhesive tape, and he placed it over the bulging foam, creating an airtight seal over the area.

Xipa was confused, but she dared not interrupt him while he was working. A sucking chest wound required some kind of valve so that the air that escaped into the body cavity could be released. If it was allowed to build up, it would cause the sack to collapse. When she had learned first-aid in the City Guard, she had been trained to use a kind of adhesive patch that was applied over the wound, which allowed air to escape but not to enter.

Ruza fished inside another pouch on his rig, pulling out a little disk-shaped object. It was colored white with green accents, identifying it as a UNN medical device of some kind. It was small enough that it would have sat comfortably in the palm of Xipa’s hand. There was a little LCD panel on one face, along with some small buttons. The Borealan raised his medical scanner again, seeming to compare the two displays for a moment.

“How deep is this cursed air sack?” he muttered to himself, using the rubber pads on the ends of his gloved claws to tap at the buttons on the device. When he was done entering values, he removed a protective cap from the underside of the puck, a clear, circular film springing from it. It was another adhesive patch, the puck sitting squarely in the center of it. “This is a stint,” he explained, sizing up his patient. “When it is applied to the wound site, a needle will extend from the device, piercing the collapsed air sack. The valve mounted in this housing will allow her to breathe normally until surgery can correct the problem.”

“Will we be able to move her afterwards?” Xipa asked.

“The needle is made rigid through the application of an electric current,” Ruza replied. “Once that current is interrupted, it will become a flexible tube, which will have much less chance of causing additional damage to the organ. Know that this is merely a stop-gap measure. Tell her to expect pain.”

Xipa didn’t bother explaining everything that he had told her to the scout, she merely warned her that it was going to hurt, watching as Ruza applied the adhesive. It overlapped a little with the first one, the device placed a scant few millimeters from the bulging foam. He pressed another of the buttons, and the woman let out a gasp of pain as the needle pushed its way through her scales and into her organ. Around the edge of the little puck, a series of small hatches flipped open, revealing what looked like vents. As she began to breathe more easily, the scout relaxed a little, the immediate crisis averted. She flinched as he stabbed her in the neck with another hypo, injecting something into her bloodstream.

“That will hold for a while,” Ruza said, peeling off his gloves as he rose to his feet to stand beside her. There was so much empty packaging and discarded equipment around him, the blood on the floor staining the sand-colored fur on his feet. “I gave her an immunostimulant and a pain suppressant, but she needs surgery, or she will not survive.”

“How long?” Xipa demanded, but he shrugged his shoulders in reply.

“What use is the question? We cannot leave now, and we haven’t the strength to split our forces. I have done all I can. We will make it back in time, or we will not.”

“She doesn’t have long,” Xipa said, turning to Miqi. “Ruza has stabilized her for now, but she needs surgery as soon as possible. There’s no time to waste.”

“I need two of you to stay behind and watch her,” Miqi announced, but the injured scout was quick to voice her objection.

“I can handle myself,” she wheezed, wincing as she reached for her rifle. She shuffled backwards, propping herself up against a large barrel of resin, resting the weapon in her lap. “Find our comrades. I’ll be waiting.”

Xipa and Miqi shared a glance, but it didn’t look like she was going to argue.

“Let’s get moving,” Miqi said, making her way to the door. She paused, then turned back to the injured scout. “We’ll be back soon, Nocha.”

Nocha gripped her rifle more tightly, giving Miqi an affirmative feather display.

They moved back out into the corridor, checking the side rooms carefully as they advanced. They didn’t encounter any more hidden Bugs, and they soon arrived at another stairwell. This one was intact, and it allowed them to access the top floor, which was where the signal had been spotted. All they had to do now was make it from one wing of the building to the other.

“I’m not optimistic enough to assume that we just killed off the only Drones left in the building,” Bluejay muttered as they made their way onto the landing. “What’s your ammo count?”

“Still good,” Xipa replied, checking her rig. “I have three mags left. I never thought I’d risk running out of slugs, but here we are.”

“Make them count,” he added, raising a lower hand to the second foregrip beneath his barrel.


They moved away from the stairwell, heading down another small corridor. This one opened up into a massive space, Xipa craning her neck to get a look at the high ceiling above their heads. The room was as wide and almost as long as the factory floor they had just left, but it extended far higher, maybe two storeys up. There were tall windows that spanned from the floor to the ceiling. They were covered in grime now, but they would once have let natural light flood in, and they would have provided a wonderful view of the city.

The floor space was taken up by curving office tables, no two exactly alike. The chairs were no more uniform, some of them styled as padded stools, while others had back supports and a slot for the occupant’s tail. Old holographic projectors and touch displays lay long dormant, coated with layers of dust, and there were still PDAs and personal belongings strewn about. Her eyes wandered to a cup that was sitting beside a touch panel, the mold that had sprouted inside it so overgrown that it overflowed the container’s bounds. They must have been working when the invasion had happened. This was another time capsule, frozen in place as though some all-powerful deity had hit the pause button.

Great pains had been taken to make the environment more welcoming, as Valbara’nay architectural styles tended to do, and someone had used dividing walls that only rose about five feet high to break up the sightlines. They were organic in their design, placed strategically to provide privacy without being overbearing, leaving the space above them open like the sky. There were recesses in the floor that were filled with piles of cushions where the flocks who had once worked here could relax, and there were raised platforms like balconies that jutted from the walls between the windows, linked by walkways that passed over the workspace like bridges.

There were planters, too, spread out all over the place. She could see boxes where shrubs and ferns would have grown, and some of the walls were covered in racks of living vegetation. What had once been carefully tended decorations were now either long-dead or running wild, a few of the hardy creepers that had once adorned the walls now scaling the dirt-caked windows in search of sunlight.

At the far end of the room was a large water feature, an artificial waterfall housed in a massive, semi-circular pool. A facsimile of a rock cliff face rose almost to the ceiling, now overgrown with plant life. It looked as though water had probably cascaded down its face when it was in working order, but the pool was stagnant now that the pumps were no longer running, the weeds that were growing there coloring it a murky red that made it look like blood.

“The folks who designed this place sure had a hatred of straight lines and sharp edges,” Bluejay muttered as they made their way inside. The scouts fanned out, stalking between the desks, the features that would have once put them at ease now having the opposite effect as they created blind spots and hiding places. “What was this, some kind of fancy office?”

“Looks like it,” she mused, passing by an old vending machine. “Maybe some kind of administrative or marketing wing of the factory.”

“What’s with the catwalks?” he added, nodding to one of the snaking walkways that was suspended above their heads.

“My people are more at ease when we’re off the ground,” she explained, pausing to check behind a dividing wall that was overgrown with red creepers. “I suppose it’s a throwback to our early history, when we would climb trees to escape predators.”

“And, why are there no guard rails anywhere?”

“Why would you assume that they would lose their footing?” she replied.

As they ventured deeper into the room, signs of combat began to leap out at them. They passed a wall that had a trail of dark spots melted into it by plasma fire, and there was a large burn mark where a grenade had gone off, reducing the nearby planters to ash and tossing one of the tables onto its side. Some of the desks had been purposefully overturned to be used as makeshift cover, their surfaces blackened and warped by heat.

A glint of red carapace made Xipa flinch, and she aimed her XMR at it, but Bluejay lowered her barrel with a gentle hand.

“Relax, it’s dead,” he said.

As they approached the body, Xipa saw that it was lying on its face on the floor, one of its arms draped over a chair that had toppled over with it. The cause of death was obvious, its shell peppered with scorch marks.

“There are more,” Ruza added, pointing to a nearby recess in the floor with a clawed finger. There was most of a Bug’s torso lying in the dugout, along with pieces that might belong to one or two more, their ichor soaking into the cushions. It looked like someone had scored a lucky hit with some kind of improvised fragmentation grenade. The insects must have been using it as a stand-in for a foxhole.

“One hell of a fight went down in here,” Bluejay muttered, stepping down into the recess to give one of the bodies a tentative kick. “The question is, who won, and where did they go?”

“We got a body over here!” one of the scouts yelled, leaning over an upturned table. “It’s one of ours! Indigo team!”

Xipa hurried over to her, rounding the table to see another scout slumped against it. The dead woman was lying in a pool of dried blood, the front of her clothes soaked with it. There was yet another Drone beside her, a hand-crafted war pick jutting from its sternum.

“Looks like a series of stab wounds,” Ruza commented, leaning in to examine the body more closely. “They must have been overrun.”

“They were fighting something that was coming from our end of the room,” Miqi said, turning to look back the way they had come. “The tables they flipped over are all facing in that direction.”

“There’s not that much building left,” Bluejay mused, glancing up at the waterfall. “Surely we should be coming up on the signal soon? We’re running out of places to look.”

It was hard to see what lay at the other end of the room with all of the dividing walls and insipid decorations blocking Xipa’s view, only the water feature rising above them, but there must be an exit on the other side. One thing that she could see was a raised platform off to the left of the artificial rock face. Unlike the others, there was a door on top of it, as well as a long window that looked out over the office. As she used the zoom function on her visor to get a closer look, she realized that there were plasma burns on the nearby wall, and holes had been melted in the glass.

“Look,” she said, gesturing to it. “There’s some kind of room up there. An executive suite or a supervisor’s office, maybe?”

“You reckon they might be up there?” Bluejay asked.

“It would make sense for them to retreat somewhere high,” she replied. “Those narrow catwalks would make for one hell of a bottleneck, too. The Bugs would have to climb up there to reach them.”

“Either way, we need to get across the office,” Miqi added after a quick translation. “Keep your wits about you – this whole situation stinks. I’d bet my feathers that we didn’t kill the last of the mealworms in the factory.”

As they stalked their way across the cavernous room, more evidence of what had transpired there jumped out at them. There had been a running gunfight throughout the office, the scars of battle etched onto every wall, spent plasma canisters littering the floor. There were half a dozen bodies, maybe more, but they were all Drones.

“Damn it, another one…”

Xipa turned her head to see Miqi reaching down to check the pulse of a second Valbara’nay, who was slumped over a planter. This one had succumbed to plasma fire, the bolts burning straight through her clothes to leave nasty burns on the scales beneath.

“Another one from Indigo,” she added with a hiss. “That’s half the flock…”

“There’s been no sign of Cyan yet,” Xipa said, speaking English for the benefit of her companions. “Cyan was Miqi’s flock – her family. She must still be holding out hope that they somehow survived all this.”

“If they had won this fight, they would not still be here,” Ruza replied.

“It’s not impossible,” Bluejay protested, the feline’s lack of faith seeming to irritate him. “They could still be holed up somewhere, or maybe they have injured and they’re not able to move them.”

A sudden flash of color drew Xipa’s attention, and she looked up to see a woman standing on the platform beside the waterfall. She had dragged open the sliding door just enough that she could get her head through the opening, her headdress flaring in a bright red warning display.

“It’s an ambush!” she shouted, her voice echoing through the office. No sooner had the words left her lips than a hail of plasma fire answered her, the stranger ducking back inside as the bolts splashed against the door, heating the metal until it glowed. More gunfire sailed through the window, the melted glass running like liquid.

The team threw themselves into cover as a crowd of Drones poured out from behind the dividing walls at the far end of the room, laying down a hail of suppressive fire as they took up position behind tables and inside dugouts. There was just enough time to get to safety, Xipa feeling the heat of a plasma bolt as it sailed past the spot where she had been standing only moments before.

“I fucking knew it!” Bluejay snarled, putting his back to one of the curving walls. The red foliage from a vertical planter cascaded over his shoulders, his painted carapace making him blend into it. “The bastards sent one group down to meet us while the other set a trap!”

“I grow tired of these insects!” Ruza growled, rising to fire over the wall. At five feet, it barely reached the eight-foot Borealan’s chest, and his stature seemed to take the Bugs by surprise. His XMR rocked against his shoulder as he turned one of them into bloody confetti, ducking back out of view as they responded in kind. “I miss when they were too dull to catch us in a snare!”

“Look on the bright side – at least we know that we didn’t come all this way for nothing!” Xipa chirped. “I can’t believe they held the Bugs off for this long.”

She glanced over at the scouts, seeing that they had made it to safety too. They were scattered around the office, a couple of them taking refuge behind the wall on the opposite side of the room while the rest took whatever they could get, hiding behind tables and planters as the bolts sailed over their heads.

“Looks like there’s one squad on the left side and one on the right,” Bluejay grunted, leaning his XMR around the wall to get a better look through its scope. “They were gonna catch us in a pincer move, and we’d have no idea they were even there until they started shooting.”

“Miqi!” Xipa yelled across the room, struggling to be heard over the gunfire. “Do you have any more of those pheromone grenades?”

“We used the last of them in the factory!” she shouted in reply, flinching away from the corner of the wall she was hiding behind as one of the Bugs fired a volley at her.

“We’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way, then,” Xipa grumbled in English. “We’re out of pheromone grenades.”

“Stick to cover,” Bluejay replied. “Make them come to us.”

The Bugs were little more than fifty meters away, advancing rapidly now, vaulting over the desks as they covered one another in a staggered formation. One group would stop to lay down fire while the other advanced through the ruined office, then they would take up position, allowing the next group to leapfrog past them. These were advanced tactics for Bugs. The scouts were firing back at them, but they could scarcely peek out of cover before they were met with a coordinated barrage of plasma that pushed them back.

Bluejay leaned his XMR around the dividing wall they were hiding behind, letting off a couple of bursts, but he was forced to withdraw when half a dozen bolts impacted the other side.

“We can’t let them force us back out of the room!” Xipa exclaimed.

“I have an idea,” Ruza added, popping over the barrier to take another pot shot with his rifle. He ducked back down, crouching to keep his head out of view. “These walls are made from some kind of metal, correct?”

“I…I dunno,” Xipa stammered. “Why?”

“They seem to stop plasma bolts, but I wonder if they are thick enough to stop a slug? If the alloy is analogous to steel, they will not penetrate an obstacle this thick, but anything less…”

“Look at this guy, earning his doctorate over here,” Bluejay chuckled as he slapped the feline’s thigh. “Sync your targeting systems!”

Xipa let her XMR hang from its sling, bringing up the display on her wrist, fumbling with the menus. This was a hell of a lot harder to do under fire. Maybe she should petition the Consensus to introduce voice commands. She set her helmet to share targeting data over the ad-hoc connection they were already using for their comms, her teammates doing the same.

Bluejay leaned out again, letting off a few shots. As his helmet highlighted targets, they appeared on Xipa’s HUD too, showing their red outlines moving through the wall. She hit the touch panel on the side of her helmet, opening up an in-picture view from Bluejay’s feed.

“I can’t keep this up forever!” Bluejay complained, his XMR chattering.

Xipa and Ruza stepped away from the wall, leveling their rifles at the rack of overgrown foliage in front of them. Xipa moved her sights over the insects that were situated towards the middle of the room, using the feed from Bluejay’s camera to verify that there were no other obstacles between her and them. The pair began to fire, their slugs punching molten holes through the material, traversing the wall like it was made of paper. The projectiles deformed and tumbled, spraying sparks, but they were still able to find their marks at this range. Xipa watched on Bluejay’s feed as two of the Bugs were torn apart. One of them was thrown off its feet, fragments of tungsten hitting it like buckshot, sending it crashing into the table behind it. The second lost one of its arms, the slug severing it with a shower of broken carapace and ichor, a follow-up shot tearing an inch-wide entry wound in its chest that sent it stumbling to the floor.

The scouts saw what they were doing, taking advantage of the confusion, a pair of them tipping over another of the long desks. They dove behind it, popping out to melt another of the insects with their plasma fire, boiling it inside its shell.

That was enough to force the remainder to reconsider, and they formed a parallel defensive line, keeping up their harrowing fire. From the far end of the room, more of them emerged into view, hurrying to reinforce their companions. Xipa only got a few scant glances at them as they weaved between the planters and the strategically placed walls, but they weren’t carrying rifles.

“Incoming!” she warned, cutting down another Bug through the wall. “They were holding some in reserve!”

“Fuck, how many of them are there?” Bluejay grunted as he fired at one of the tables. His rounds punched through it, catching the Bug that was taking refuge behind it. The creature fell to the ground, then began to drag itself away, apparently having lost the use of its lower extremities. Its companions paid it no mind, ignoring it as it clawed its way along the floor. These creatures had no medics, no hospitals. They were expended like ammunition, and when they died, they were simply replaced like faulty hardware. “This doesn’t look good,” he added, Xipa watching through his feed as the reinforcements arrived.

There were three of them, the aliens lining up shoulder to shoulder, the rest of the line covering them as they ignited handheld energy shields. The wrist-mounted devices flared to life, projecting an ovular magnetic field that quickly filled with superheated gas, creating a wavering barrier of plasma. They moved in lockstep, weaving between the obstacles, several of the other Drones advancing behind them in a line formation.

“Fuck, I was starting to wonder why we hadn’t seen any shields yet!” Bluejay snarled as he ducked back into cover to reload. He cursed again, checking his rig frantically with his lower pair of hands. “That’s it, I’m out!”

“Here,” Xipa said, handing him her second-to-last magazine. He gripped it in one of his lower hands, holding his rifle with the upper pair as he reloaded.

“Thanks,” he said with a sigh of relief, drawing his sidearm again with one of his lower hands. “We’re gonna be throwing office supplies at them if we don’t end this soon.”

Ruza took another shot, punching a perfectly round hole in the wall, its edges glowing red-hot. The tungsten slug hit one of the shields, melting on contact, showering its bearer with harmless sparks. Well, harmless wasn’t exactly the right word. Flecks of molten metal were cooling on the thing’s carapace, binding with its shell, but whatever pain it might be feeling wasn’t enough to deter it.

“Miqi!” Xipa yelled across the room, signaling her counterpart with a flash of the color panels on her suit. “You have to overload their shields with plasma!”

“We know!” she replied, putting her back to the vending machine that she was hiding behind as she popped a fresh plasma canister into her rifle. “We’ve seen these shields before! We’ll deal with them!” She signaled to her team, her feathers flashing red, and they began to focus their fire on the trio. They were only fifteen meters away now, close enough that Xipa could see their twitching mandibles.

The scouts managed to collapse one of the shields, the bolts of plasma overloading the magnetic field, melting through its wielder. As it fell back, its body riddled with smoking wounds, those that had been advancing behind it saw their opening. They returned fire as they made for cover, another of them dropping as Bluejay cut it down. Still, they got a lucky shot in, catching one of the scouts in the shoulder. Xipa heard her wail through her mask as she fell back behind her table, one of her companions gripping her by the sleeve as she dragged her back to safety behind one of the walls.

“Cover me,” Ruza grunted, dropping into a low sprint before Xipa could even respond. She did as he asked, spraying tungsten through the wall, forcing the aliens back as he shot across the office like a furry bullet. He leapt over desks, weaving around the planters, moving far faster than a creature of his size should have been able to. By the time the Bugs had regrouped, he was already on the far side of the room, rummaging in one of his pouches as he propped the injured woman up against the divider. She screamed again as he applied some kind of gel pack to her shoulder, but he took her tiny hand in his, making her hold the salve in place while he continued his work.

Another of the shields fell, then the final one, but the phalanx had accomplished its goal of getting closer to the enemy line. As the shield bearers fell under the hail of plasma and tungsten, their companions flooded into the surrounding area, the exchange of gunfire resuming.

“Up top!” Bluejay warned, raising his XMR to fire into the catwalks above them.

Xipa lifted her gaze, cursing into her helmet as she saw some of the insects climbing up towards the elevated platforms. They were scaling the furniture like simians, holding their weapons in their upper pair of hands while they used the lower to help them scramble their way up onto the catwalks.

One of them leapt up onto a snaking walkway, allowing it to get a view over their cover, Xipa cutting it down before it could raise its weapon. It toppled to the floor, falling a good three meters, bouncing off one of the metal tables with a sickening thud before lying still.

Another closed into stabbing range, scurrying over a table on all-fours like an animal, holding a pair of chitin blades in its upper hands as it went. It rounded the wall at a breakneck pace, its many eyes fixing on Xipa, but Bluejay was ready for it. He stepped into its path, discharging his sidearm into its helmet, putting two more slugs into its twitching body even as it tumbled headfirst into a planter.

Some of the Bugs had made it up onto the higher platforms now, pouring fire on the targets below from refuges that would once have served to help the workers unwind. They kicked over old coffee tables and shoved padded chairs out of their way, sending them crashing into the office below. They forced the defenders deeper into cover, the scouts having no choice but to give ground, retreating back towards the stairwell. Still, the enemy numbers were starting to thin, and these new perches exposed them to return fire.

There was a loud crack from Ruza’s XMR, the round passing straight through one of the Drones, shattering the window behind it before sending it tumbling down to the street some two hundred meters below. Cracks traveled up through the tall pane of glass, jagged shards raining down on the nearby Bugs as it broke. The wind at these heights was intense, and it flooded through the opening, sending the pieces whipping through the air like shrapnel. One of the Bugs was impaled by a sliver of glass as long as Xipa’s arm, but even that didn’t stop the thing, the alien righting itself as it continued to shoot with the shard jutting from its shoulder.

“That’s it, I’m dry!” Bluejay exclaimed as he darted back behind their wall to avoid a barrage of plasma bolts. The coils on his barrel were glowing red, and he hit the mag release, dropping the empty magazine into a lower hand. He slung the now useless rifle over his shoulder, passing his sidearm to his upper hands, checking the ammo counter.

“I’m on my last mag,” Xipa replied breathlessly. She leaned around Bluejay as a Drone pounced over a table to their left, scattering office supplies, its claw-like toes scratching against the filthy floor. It wheeled around to face them, the conducting rails of its rifle brought to bear, but she put three slugs into its sternum before it could pull the trigger.

“Thanks,” Bluejay added, giving her an appreciative nod. “There can’t be many more of these things left, surely?”

Xipa peeked out of cover to get a look. The expansive office had been turned into a war zone. There were upturned tables and chairs all over the place, planters filled with burning foliage, and now shards of broken glass scattered around the room. Every wall and surface seemed to be marked with burns and slug holes. There were dead Bugs everywhere, charred and dismembered, their mucous-colored fluids staining the floor. There were maybe a dozen left alive that she could see, slowly advancing as they traded sporadic fire with the scouts, who were losing ground on the right side of the office. Ruza was still guarding the injured woman, popping out of cover to fire over the divider again, painting an unfortunate Drone’s brains on the wall behind it.

There was another sound of shattering glass from the far end of the room, Xipa peering over the dividing walls to see the long window beside the artificial waterfall start to break. Someone was smashing through it from the inside. As she watched, she caught a glimpse of two Valbara’nay – members of the lost scout teams – punching holes in the window with the butts of their rifles. They quickly shouldered the weapons, firing down into the unsuspecting Bugs through the jagged breaches, the flashes of emerald light illuminating their snarling faces.

They had opened up a second front, dividing the enemy’s attention. Two more Drones fell under their withering fire as the aliens scrambled to get clear, reduced to smoking husks, their counterparts starting to shoot at the window. They melted holes in the glass that was still intact, some of the bolts splashing against the wall as they went wide, leaving blackened marks. It was enough to force the shooters back out of view, but the opening was just what was needed to break the stalemate.

“They’re distracted!” Miqi yelled, waving her people on as she hopped deftly over a mushroom-riddled couch. She raised her plasma rifle, the rails crackling as she sent another of the creatures scrambling for safety. “Push up!”

Xipa and Bluejay followed, moving up the left side of the room. As Xipa advanced, she noticed something rising into view above the dividing walls at the far end of the office. There was a trio of Drones climbing up the waterfall, scaling the artificial rock with their four arms. They leapt up onto the platform beside it, smashing their way through the broken glass, disappearing into the shadowy interior.

“Bluejay!” Xipa hissed into her radio, the Jarilan following her gaze. “If we don’t get up there right now, there won’t be anyone left to save! When we were outside the city wall, you said that you should be able to carry me, right?”

He got the picture right away, holstering his sidearm as he moved behind her, shrugging off his pack. She felt him grip her rucksack with all four of his hands, taking a firm hold of the straps.

“I’m gonna need some cover,” he warned. “We’ll be sitting ducks up there. How much ammo do you have left?”

“Ten slugs,” she replied, checking the counter on her HUD. “It’ll have to be enough. Miqi!” she yelled, getting the scout’s attention. “We need suppressive fire!”

Miqi didn’t bother to ask why, directing her people to start firing with a flash of feathers, the air filling with a barrage of plasma. There was a flutter as Bluejay extended his gossamer wings, their protective covers opening up, the powerful muscles beneath them flexing as he prepared to take flight. They became a blur, the buzzing sound filling Xipa’s helmet, her feet leaving the floor. He lifted her up into the air, the straps of her pack digging into her shoulders, Xipa swinging as he began to accelerate. She felt like she should have been afraid, but she trusted Bluejay implicitly, and her people had never been shy of heights.

From this vantage point, she had a bird’s-eye view of the Bugs as they exchanged plasma fire with the scouts. A couple of them raised their rifles towards her, but she reacted quickly, firing down between her legs with her XMR to force them to scatter. She could barely hold the weapon straight, the recoil making it jump in her hands with nothing to brace it against, but it had the desired effect all the same. They sailed over the office, Bluejay flying them through the already broken window like a missile, Xipa crunching broken glass underfoot as he deposited her on the carpeted floor. He set down behind her, his wings folding back beneath their casings as he drew his handgun.

They found themselves in what had once been a lavish lounge that overlooked the office beyond. This was probably where the executives and higher-ups in the company would have come to unwind and hold meetings. The tables here were made from polished stone rather than spartan metal and polymer, and the chairs were more like those one might find in a lounge, covered in plush padding that had succumbed to mold. There were potted plants in the corners of the room, as well as a couple of vending machines that would have dispensed drinks and snacks, too dirty now to make out what was inside them. The only battle damage in here had come from Bugs firing into the room from outside, leaving the ceiling and the far wall burned in places.

A cry of alarm echoed from an open door to their left, Xipa and Bluejay hurrying out into a narrow corridor in search of its source. At the end of a short, carpeted hallway was another door, and the trio of Drones that Xipa had seen climbing the waterfall were trying to break through it. One of them fired a plasma rifle at the obstacle, but the metal absorbed the heat of the bolt, the creature lashing out with a kick in an attempt to break it down. When that didn’t work, it scrambled to push its fingers into the groove between the door and the wall, trying to pull the sliding panel back.

They soon noticed the newcomers, turning to face them. Bluejay raised his XMH, but Xipa pulled him back into the conference room before he could fire, the pair narrowly avoiding a hail of plasma.

“Your slugs will go straight through that door!” she protested. “That’s got to be where the survivors are hiding!”

“Even if I turn down the voltage?” he asked.

“I don’t know what that door is made of or how thick it is!” Xipa replied. “We can’t risk it!”

“Okay, okay,” he conceded. “Idea – give me your sidearm.”

“What, why?”

“Just trust me!”

She did as he asked, handing him her XMH. Bluejay held one in his upper pair and the second in his lower, putting his back to the wall beside the open door that led into the little room, readying himself. Xipa began to ask what his plan was, but he shushed her, going quiet as he concentrated on something. Suddenly, he spun around, unloading both handguns into the wall. Dust sprayed as the slugs punched through the thin material, the sound of gunfire dampened by Xipa’s helmet. Bluejay moved closer to the door, then leaned out, letting off a couple more shots that were angled down towards the floor.

“Clear!” he announced, tossing Xipa’s handgun back to her. “Here. Mine’s empty.”

She followed him out into the hallway, seeing a pile of dead Bugs, their ichor splattered on the far wall. The holes where the slugs had passed through were still smoking.

“How the hell did you do that?” Xipa asked.

“I don’t have ears,” he explained, pausing to pick up one of their rifles as he stepped over the bodies. “Jarilans hear by picking up vibrations through our exoskeletons. I put my back to the wall, and when I felt their footsteps pass by, I fired.”

Bluejay approached the door, and not knowing what else to do, he knocked politely. Xipa hurried to push him out of the way as the door cracked open, a violet eye peering through the gap. The stranger looked first at Xipa, then at her Jarilan companion, her eye widening in alarm.

“Green!” Bluejay protested, tapping the sign that Miqi had hung around his neck. “It’s fucking green! Come on!”

“He is a friend,” Xipa said. “There is much to explain, and little time.”

The woman hesitated, but the pile of dead Drones behind them seemed to convince her. After a few moments of fumbling and what sounded like furniture scraping on the floor, she slid the door open. Xipa and Bluejay stepped into an upscale office, just as lavish as the conference room had been. It was frigid, a cold wind blowing through the broken window through which the purple tarp had been hung, while the marble desk and all of the chairs had been pushed to one side of the door. They must have been using them as a barricade.

Huddled on the far side of the room, taking cover behind an upturned table, were five scouts. That made six survivors, including the one who had opened the door – barely enough for one flock. Two of them had plasma rifles, while the rest were clutching improvised melee weapons that ranged from hammers to picks. Two of them were injured, one of them sporting a bandage over her face, while the other had her arm hanging in a makeshift sling.

“We’ve come to rescue you,” Xipa insisted as she watched them bristle at the sight of Bluejay. “We’re here with Miqi.”

“Miqi?” one of the injured women asked, her feathers flashing lime in a blend of surprise and relief. “Miqi is here?”

“We need to get the hell out of here,” Bluejay warned, checking that the plasma rifle he’d picked up still had some charge left. “We don’t know if they’ve secured the office yet.”

“We need to move,” Xipa said, relaying his concerns to the survivors. “We have more people fighting in the offices below. Can you all walk?”

They gave her a series of affirmative flutters, starting to rise to their feet. It looked like they had been through hell. Their clothes were torn and tattered, a few of them singed in places. One of the women had a tunic soaked with blood that couldn’t possibly be her own – there was too much of it. Xipa was surprised to see a male among them, his smaller stature picking him out. He was dressed the same as his female counterparts, and he was missing a feather sheath on his forearm – an old wound that had long since healed.

As they approached the door, they saw movement at the other end of the corridor, several more Drones barging their way in through the entrance to the conference room. Everyone scattered to get out of their line of sight as a burst of plasma fire sailed into the office, the group splitting in half. Xipa threw her shoulder against the wall beside the door frame, then leaned out to dump her magazine into the corridor. The XMH was less powerful than the rifle variant, but at such close range, the slugs tore through the enemy ranks like they were made of wet paper.

The two at the front dropped like stones, those that were grouped up behind them in the narrow space jerking and twitching as fragments of shattered carapace and tumbling slugs sprayed them. Still, they returned fire, keeping up their advance with a borderline suicidal fervor. Bluejay and the two armed survivors did their best to help, but the plasma bolts from their captured rifles didn’t have the penetrative power of the XMH.

“I’m dry!” Xipa warned, dropping the empty magazine from her sidearm. She heard a click from Bluejay, who glanced down at his empty gas canister with a snarl of frustration.

One of the two remaining Drones shouldered its way into the room, a plasma pistol and a chitin saber drawn, but Bluejay darted into its path. He drew a combat knife from his belt, his limbs a blur as he grappled with the alien, driving it back into the corridor. The thing tried to swing its blade at him, but he stuck close, practically hugging its armored torso with three of his arms as he used a lower to plunge the serrated knife into the gaps between its plates repeatedly. In only seconds, he had stabbed it a dozen times, his blade wet with its ichor. The Drone hissed and chittered, its movements jerky and unpredictable, its claw-like fingers tearing at Bluejay’s carapace as it tried to break free of his grip. Some of the paint on his shell was stripped away, leaving trails of iridescent blue like scars as his true colors were exposed. It fired its pistol, which hit the ceiling above, showering the pair in dust as they wrestled.

Bluejay just kept stabbing, his opponent’s struggling growing less enthusiastic as it appeared to tire, the numerous wounds on its thorax seeping green fluid. He threw the Drone against the wall, holding it there with his upper pair of hands as he gave it another stab with a lower, driving the combat knife up to the hilt in its sternum. He appeared to have hit something vital, the Drone starting to slide down to the floor as its limbs went limp.

The second Drone was coming for him now, Bluejay stepping out of its reach as it swung a chitin saber at him, the blade embedding itself in the wall where his head had been a moment prior. One of the survivors raised her rifle as though intending to fire, but quickly lowered it again. She had no clean shot, and the risk of hitting Bluejay was too great.

Bluejay dropped to a low stance, passing his blade between his hands, keeping his enemy guessing as the Drone sized him up. Its mandibles were flexing, the serrated mouthparts clicking against one another, its eyes inscrutable behind the lenses of its helmet. Before it could level its pistol, Bluejay darted forward, thrusting his knife towards its stomach. As he lunged, it side-stepped him, gripping the wrist of his outstretched lower arm in its hand. It brought that heavy blade down on his elbow, severing the limb in one clean blow. It fell to the carpet, the hand still clutching the knife, Bluejay letting out a wail of pain that was muffled by his helmet. Taking advantage of his shock, the Drone delivered a savage kick to his midsection, sending him toppling onto his back as it raised its weapon to finish him off.

Xipa sprang into action, drawing her Betelgeusian blade from its scabbard as she dashed into the hallway. The Drone didn’t notice her until she was close – it was too preoccupied with its impending kill – Xipa leaping over Bluejay’s prone form. She landed on the Drone without enough force to knock it to the ground, plunging the ornate blade of the dagger into its chest, gripping the textured haft with both hands. Ichor splattered her visor as the weapon sank deep into its flesh, parting the layers of chitin with an ease that surprised her. Fluid spilled from between the Drone’s mandibles, staining the dirty carpet beneath it, a hiss of air escaping the thing like a deflating balloon as it ceased its twitching. She stood over it, yanking the dagger out of its chest, its ichor seeping down the flowing channels that were carved into the blade.

“Bluejay!” she exclaimed, turning to see him struggling to his feet. One of his lower arms now ended at the elbow, a slow drip of off-green fluid falling to the floor as he leaned against the wall unsteadily. “Oh no…your arm!”

She rushed over to help him, but he extended a hand to stop her.

“I’m…I’m okay,” he grumbled, swaying a little as he stooped to pick up his severed appendage. He peeled the fingers open to retrieve his knife, stowing it on his belt, then tossed the limb aside like a spent mag. After arming himself with a Bug pistol, he checked its charge, then nodded to her. “Still got three left, right?”

“Y-you’re okay?” she repeated skeptically. “We have to get you to Ruza. Maybe he can-”

“They can grow me a new one back on the ship,” he said, the strain in his voice apparent. “More of an inconvenience than a maiming, really. Hurts like a bitch, though. Thanks for having my back,” he added, straightening up.

“We’ve all saved each other’s lives enough that it’s becoming unremarkable,” Xipa chuckled dryly. “Come on – we have to get back to the others.”

She called for the survivors to follow her, a couple of them recoiling at the sight of Bluejay’s severed limb as they stooped to arm themselves with whatever they could find. They had gone from wanting to shoot him on sight to tolerating his presence very quickly when compared to Miqi and her people, but that tended to happen when someone shanked your enemies to death right in front of you.

“Is…is that…thing going to be alright?” the woman with the sling asked as she picked up a plasma pistol with her good hand.

“So he says,” Xipa replied, wiping her dagger on her thigh before picking up a rifle. She checked the canister, then began to stalk down the ichor-stained hallway.

“You’re not from here, are you?” the woman asked as she hurried to match pace. “Your clothes, your weapons…your insect.”

“Technically, I am,” Xipa replied. She leaned into the conference room through the open door, checking that it was clear, then made her way inside. “I’ll explain everything when we’re not under immediate threat of being shot.” She reached up to tap at the touch panel on her helmet, patching into Ruza’s video feed. She couldn’t see much, as he was still treating the scout with the plasma burn on her shoulder, crouched behind a wall. “Ruza,” she began, switching to English. “We found the survivors! What’s the situation down there? Are we clear to come back down?”

He rose to his feet, looking over the divider at the broken window beside the waterfall. Xipa caught a glimpse of the office, seeing that Miqi and her scouts had been victorious. The rest of the Bugs were dead, one of the women finishing off an injured insect with a hammer in the bottom left of the frame as it lay beside a partially melted desk.

“It is safe to descend,” Ruza replied.

Xipa called down to the scouts before approaching the window, waving to them as her suit panels flashed green. They quickly descended via the platforms and walkways, making it back down to the office floor. Bluejay extended his wings again, flitting on the air like a falling leaf as he gently descended. Miqi stepped out from behind a wall, shaking ichor off her claw hammer, then slid off her helmet so that she could shake out her feathers.

“Miqi!” the woman with the sling exclaimed. Miqi’s headdress flared green when she saw her, and she vaulted over a table, sprinting across the room. More of the survivors stepped forward to meet her, the five of them sharing a group hug, Xipa smiling inside her helmet as the emotional reunion turned her color panels the same hue. These must be the flockmates that Miqi had spoken of. They pressed their snouts together in a gesture of affection, their relief palpable.

“You’re alive, all of you,” Miqi said with a sputter that was half a laugh and half a stifled sob. “I was starting to think that we wouldn’t find you in one piece.”

“More or less,” the woman with the sling chuckled, gesturing to her broken arm.

“I’m so sorry,” Miqi continued, grimacing as she fought back tears. “I should have been here with you. I should have-”

“You’re here now, and that’s all that matters,” another of the survivors said. “You must have fought through hell to reach us.”

“I won’t say it was easy,” she replied, glancing at the two remaining survivors – the male and the woman with the bandage on her face. “Izel, Meca,” she continued as her tone became more solemn. “Just…just you two? Is the rest of your flock…”

“They gave their lives for ours,” the male replied, his stoic expression surprising Xipa. A male from the homeworld would be inconsolable in this situation. “Listen, Miqi, we have to get back to the Ensis and report what we’ve seen. This wasn’t just a routine scout mission gone bad.”

“Later,” Miqi replied, stepping away from her flock. She strapped her gas mask back over her face, then lifted her rifle. “We have people waiting for us. We have to get out of here as soon as possible.” Her head turned in the direction of Bluejay, and she hesitated, no doubt noticing his arm. “What happened to the insect?”

“It fought to save us,” the woman with the sling replied. “Damn near died in the process, too. One of the Drones took its arm off.”

“Ruza!” Xipa shouted. “Bluejay is hurt!”

The towering feline came lumbering out from behind a wall, the survivors tensing at the sight of him. He was massive, imposing, and they had never seen a Borealan before. He made a beeline for the Jarilan, crouching down to his level as he took the bleeding stump in one of his furry hands, inspecting the injury.

“Can you apply a tourniquet or something?” Xipa asked. “Is there anything you can do to stem the bleeding?”

“He is in no immediate danger,” Ruza replied, seeming to share Bluejay’s flippancy. “I cannot apply a tourniquet, as the stiff exoskeleton will prevent it from applying enough pressure to close the valves.”

“Valves?” Xipa asked.

“Jarilans are arthropods,” he explained, releasing Bluejay’s arm. “They do not have blood or veins, but rather a fluid called hemolymph that transports oxygen and nutrients to their tissues and organs using an open circulatory system. This is what we refer to as ichor when it discharges from their wounds. The valves that transport the hemolymph will close on their own as a reaction to the injury given enough time, somewhat like clotting in species that use blood. In summary, he will be fine.”

“Let’s get moving, then,” Xipa said as she made for one of the dead Bugs. Most of its face had been melted away by a plasma bolt, its body slumped over beside a planter. She wrested the rifle that it was carrying from its stiff hands, then pulled a couple of spare canisters from shaped recesses in its thigh armor. “Gustave and Nocha are waiting for us.”

They took a minute to regroup and rearm, salvaging what weapons and ammo they could from the dead Drones. As they headed for the exit, the scouts stopped beside the body of the Valbara’nay that they had come across before the start of the battle. Xipa watched in uncomfortable silence as the two remaining members of Indigo team said their farewells to their fallen flockmate, the rest of the scouts crowding around to pay their respects. Meca, the woman with the bandaged face, drew some kind of grenade from her belt. As she primed it, tossing it into the body’s lap, the crowd retreated to a safe distance.

“What are they doing?” Bluejay whispered, watching as the grenade ignited in a flash of green light.

“Looks like a plasma grenade,” Xipa replied, watching dark smoke begin to rise towards the ceiling. “They mentioned that they burn the bodies they can’t recover to prevent the Bugs from taking them. At point-blank like that, a plasma grenade is going to vaporize most of it.”

“How do they usually do burials on Valbara?” he asked hesitantly.

“The flock and immediate relatives attend a ceremony to celebrate the life of the deceased, and then the body is recycled,” Xipa replied. “Usable organs are harvested for transplant, and the rest is usually turned into fertilizer for use in the aquaponic farms. In the old days, bodies would be left out for the carrion eaters to consume. It was seen as a way to give back to nature and to speed the spirit to its next incarnation.”

“That’s not really all that different from the way the Bugs do things,” he muttered. “They also recycle their dead, just in a more direct way.”

“I suppose not,” she conceded with a shrug. “Still, I think you’ll agree that having your loved ones taken away and eaten by your enemies isn’t very desirable. Do Jarilans have burials?”

“I dunno yet,” he replied. “I don’t know any Jarilans who have died. The human colonists bury their dead underground and mark them with a stone or a stick. I guess we’ll probably do the same. People won’t want to eat our honey if they think it’s made of…people.”

“Would you?”

“No,” he admitted.

The scouts were as respectful as they could have been under the circumstances, but the living had to take priority over the dead, and they soon hurried on. They made their way back out of the office and into the stairwell, descending until they reached the hallway where Nocha had been stabbed. Xipa feared the worst, as they had been gone for a while, but she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the woman lying exactly where they had left her with her rifle still pointed at the door.

“You’re back,” she wheezed, Xipa hearing a hiss of escaping air as the medical valve did its work. “When I heard all the gunfire upstairs, I thought you might be done for.”

“Can you walk?” Miqi asked as she strode into the room. “We’re getting out of this death trap, right now.”

Nocha tried to rise to her feet, but winced, sinking back to her sitting position.

“I think I’m done,” she replied with a chuckle that made her grip her injured side reflexively. “Leave me. I’ll only slow you down.”

“I do not speak their language, but I know a would-be hero when I see one,” Ruza grumbled as he walked past Miqi. He stooped to lift the woman off the floor, cradling her in his arms like a baby as she groaned in pain. “Take it from me – many martyrs change their tune before the end comes. Tell her that if she is to die, it will be under my scalpel.”

“What did he say?” Miqi asked.

“Er, just that we need to move,” Xipa replied. “Let’s pick up the pace.”

They hurried back through the factory floor, stepping around the corpses of the Bugs that they had left among the printers, soon reaching the damaged stairwell. As they made their way down to the ground floor, they proceeded more carefully, their weapons at the ready. Nobody knew what they might find in the lobby. Xipa tried to call ahead, hoping that Gustave would answer.

“Gustave?” she asked, hearing a crackle of radio static over the comms. “Gustave, are you alright?”

She crept down the corridor that led to the lobby, peeking around the door frame to see a scene of total carnage. The entire back wall was charred to a crisp, so covered in plasma burns that there was scarcely an inch of its original surface left. The two elevator doors were peppered with molten holes, and the front desk that had once occupied most of the space had been reduced to ash and splinters. Standing in the middle of it all was Gustave, his cannon leveled at the front of the building. His protective hood was covering his snout, and Xipa could see the burn marks on his armored poncho where several plasma bolts had found their mark. His left arm – which was protected by an armored sleeve – was similarly covered with burns that exposed the ceramic plates beneath the kevlar weave.

As Xipa stepped into the open, she turned to glance at the glass doors that led out into the street. They were gone – reduced to fragments by the exchange of gunfire, along with every window along the building’s facade. Parts of the wall had been so damaged that they had collapsed into piles of rubble, streaked with trails of slug holes, and the building across the street had suffered a similar fate. Dead Bugs were strewn everywhere, lying in heaps, their dismembered bodies scattered across the road outside like discarded toys. She counted at least two dozen, easily as many as they had fought on the upper floors, all dead at Gustave’s hands. It looked like they had repeatedly tried to breach the lobby and had been repelled each time by the living pillbox.

The reptile turned to glance down at Xipa as she approached, crunching glass and splinters of wood beneath her feet. He pulled back his hood, giving her the Krell equivalent of a toothy smile.

Circle is complete,” he said with a gesture to their new companions, his translator interpreting his rumbling speech. “Welcome back.”

“Gustave, you’re okay!” Bluejay chimed as he walked into the lobby. “What did you-” He stopped in his tracks, noticing the heaps of dead Drones. “What the fuck…”

Dead Bugs,” he rumbled. He shook the ammo drum that was slung over his back, Xipa hearing a hollow clatter. “Low ammo.”

“Yes, I believe those two things are probably related,” Bluejay muttered as he stared at the piles of corpses.

You are hurt?” Gustave asked, pointing a scaly finger at Bluejay’s severed arm.

“I’ll be fine,” Bluejay replied. “They can slap me on a new one when I get back to my ship.”

Like Fletcher?”

“A little like that, yeah.”

We go now?”

Xipa nodded, and that seemed to please him, the towering creature leaving his place behind the ruined desk to crunch through the debris.

“Just what the hell has been happening while we’ve been away?” Izel demanded. “We go on one mission, and an entire menagerie of aliens shows up.”

“There will be time for explanations later,” Xipa replied. “We need to get out of here before more of them show up. Bugs don’t just quit and go home.”

They took a moment to dispose of the body that was lying near the elevators, the survivors of Indigo paying their respects briefly before setting off another grenade that all but turned their fallen flockmate to ash.

“Bluejay,” Xipa said. “You want to go check that the coast is clear? It should be safe out there now that Gustave has finished his pest control.”

He nodded, slowly making his way out into the street, checking both directions before buzzing off into the sky.

“You never told me that he could fly,” Miqi muttered as she watched him vanish.

“You never asked,” Xipa replied.

After a moment, she opened the in-picture view on her helmet, seeing a feed from the Jarilan’s perspective as he soared up the facade of the factory. He stuck close, the stained, overgrown carbcrete and rows of dirty windows whipping past until he reached the roof. He set down, then moved over to the far side of the structure, dodging around gaping holes created by weathering and structural damage. The raging wind buffeted him as he looked out over the city, scanning the streets from a bird’s-eye perspective. Xipa could see the expected ruins and patches of overgrown forest, the city giving way to the flooded residential band in the distance. At its edge, the wall rose high, one of the few structures that had survived the rigors of time relatively unscathed.

A plume of dark smoke was rising above the horizon. Bluejay did a double-take, then used the zoom function on his visor to get a closer look, following it down to its source. The image magnified several times, then stabilized, the high angle giving him a relatively unobstructed view of the base of the wall. The magnification distorted the image a little, and there were some artifacts introduced by the stream, but the holes in the carbcrete were very visible. There were five that she could see, all lined up in a neat row. It looked like some kind of boring machine had tunneled through them, leaving perfectly circular tunnels with edges that seemed melted as if by some incredible heat. Marching through the breaches was a procession of Bugs made up of Drones and some other castes that Xipa didn’t recognize. They were moving in formation, spilling out into the flooded residential zone. There were hundreds of them, and it looked like they had already established a secure perimeter, several squads breaking off to move deeper into the city.

There were vehicles, too, eight-legged tanks armed with long gun barrels and rocket pods scuttling their way inside like ocean crustaceans crawling onto land. Some of them had set up on raised hills between the flooded buildings, what looked like anti-air emplacements mounted on their backs scanning the sky for targets.

“Xipa, you picking this up down there?” Bluejay asked over the radio.

“There’s a whole army pouring into the city,” she snarled, watching as the view from his feed panned across the ever-growing force.

“Looks like some of them are moving deeper,” Bluejay continued with a crackle of static. He searched around a little more, then focused on a group of Drones that were moving down one of the far-off streets, an organic tank marching along behind them. The beak-like structure on its prow split open, a long, tongue-like appendage snaking out to scent the air with its antennae. They were searching, leaning into the bombed-out buildings, sweeping the alleys with their rifles. “They’re definitely heading this way. They might be responding to calls for backup from the roaches we just toasted.”

“They’ve already reached the edge of the industrial band,” Xipa hissed. “That gives us two or three days tops before they find a way into the financial district. Now I know what Izel meant when he said that this wasn’t just an op gone wrong. They’re massing their forces for a full-scale assault on the city.”

“Yeah, let’s not be here when they arrive,” Bluejay said as he turned away from the scene. “I’m heading back down.”

Xipa switched off the feed, and Bluejay landed among the bodies in the street outside a few moments later, hurrying over to rejoin them.

“What did you see?” Miqi asked.

“An army,” Xipa replied solemnly. “The city is being invaded.”

“We already know,” Izel replied. “That’s what the sentry who was posted in this district told us before the fucking mealworms got to her. It wasn’t the usual clueless scout party that was sniffing around the district – it was some kind of advance recon force, and they came to fight.”

“You can give a full report to the Ensis when we get back to the base,” Miqi replied. “There’s no time to waste. If we don’t bring this information back home, they won’t know what’s coming until the insects are practically on top of them.”

“We can use a hardwire from the nearest safehouse,” one of the women added.

“Hardwire?” Xipa asked.

“We’ve run wired connections through the tunnels that terminate in most of the safehouses,” the woman explained. “It allows us to communicate with flocks in the field without using radio or wireless signals that the insects can pick up. It’s how our teams check in.”

“Let’s go,” Miqi said, heading for the shattered doors. “The nearest safehouse isn’t too far from here.”

They fell into a loose formation, Ruza still carrying the injured woman, broken glass and pieces of shell fragments crunching under their feet as they made their way out into the street beyond.


Ruza lay his charge down on a cot in the safehouse as the rest of the team filed in one after the other. Like the rest, it was an old lounge below street level that had been converted into a kind of bunker, crates of supplies piled up against the back wall. There was a computer terminal sitting on the old bar, and Miqi made her way over to it, switching it on with an electrical hum. A wavering holographic display flared to life, illuminating the otherwise dingy space, and she began to tap at the floating characters.

“How is Nocha doing?” Xipa asked as she made her way over to Ruza’s side. The woman was sleeping now, the valve on her abdomen still hissing with each breath that she took.

“She is stable for now,” he replied, his head skirting the ceiling as he rose to his full height. “I gave her another injection to ease her pain. We should not linger here for long, however.”

“I won’t let Miqi and her people get too comfortable,” Xipa replied. “Still, just taking a few minutes to rest will do them good. We can’t march all day like the Earth’nay can.”

“Tell all who are injured to line up for inspection,” he added ominously, pulling a fresh pair of gloves from the pouch on his hip. “I will do what I can in the little time we have.”

“Sure,” she said, watching as he snapped them on. “I might phrase it a little more…delicately, though.”

She relayed his request, and soon, everyone with a scrape or a broken arm was lining up to be examined. Most of the newcomers were too exhausted to ask questions now and were just going along with the bizarre situation. Gustave was lying on the dusty carpet on his belly, seemingly none the worse for wear after having fought off an entire Bug battalion, his ammo canister still strapped to his back. Bluejay had sat down in one of the booths and was examining his stump, still seeming more inconvenienced than horrified by the loss of his limb. At least the bleeding had finally stopped, as Ruza had said it would.

Miqi closed down her display, apparently finished with her report.

“There,” she sighed. “At least the Ensis will have a basic idea of what’s happening now. Maybe they’ll have formulated some kind of plan by the time we make it back.” She made her way over to Bluejay, who glanced up at her in surprise as she approached his booth. He stood, not really knowing what else to do, looking to Xipa for support. “My flock told me what you did for them,” she began. Bluejay glanced at Xipa again, maybe assuming that he was being chewed out. “It’s partly thanks to you that the most important people in my life are all alive. Thank you.” She stepped closer, leaning into him, embracing him as she had her flock. He stiffened as her scales brushed against his carapace, then relaxed when he realized that it was a gesture of friendship. Miqi brushed her snout against his flat face, a show of affection that was probably lost on him, then stepped back.

“She’s thanking you for saving her flock,” Xipa explained. “She’s very grateful that they’re still alive.”

“O-oh,” he stammered, his antennae waving in the air. “I guess…tell her that it’s just my job.”

“Miqi, can I talk to you?” Xipa asked. Miqi nodded, following her over to a more secluded booth at the far end of the lounge. They slipped inside, settling into the moldy cushions. Xipa raised the display on her wrist, and after a few taps, it projected a holograph representation of Bluejay’s helmet feed. Miqi watched it play, her eyes narrowing when she saw the army that was massing beneath the wall.

“So, that’s what we’re dealing with,” she muttered as the footage came to an end.

“Your position here is untenable,” Xipa replied, shutting off the hologram. “You must see that now. We have no choice but to evacuate. A few hundred fighters can’t hope to stand against a force of that size. I’m sure that more will pour in by the hour until there are enough of them to roll over the city like a red tide. The Bugs don’t do things in half-measures.”

“This does…change the situation,” Miqi admitted reluctantly. “Was everything that you said true? Do you really think you can get everyone out, even after seeing our base and knowing how many people are living there?”

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting there to be so many of you when I set out,” she replied. “But, I have a fleet. If there are around a thousand of you, and our shuttles can carry twenty-four Commandos, that’s about forty trips to get everyone into orbit. I’m confident that it can be done. The problem will be holding off the Bugs while we do it. We’re out of time.”

“We were doing just fine until you showed up,” Izel said, the male appearing beside their booth. “We’ve made a life here for thirty rotations, and the insects haven’t made any serious attempts to remove us until now. It’s not a coincidence that this new aggression coincides with your arrival.”

“I won’t deny that we’ve disturbed the hive,” Xipa replied, turning in her seat to look him up and down. “But your understanding of the Bugs and how they think is very flawed if you expect to just be left alone as long as you don’t bother them too much. Live and let live is not a concept that they understand, and any truce or peace that you imagine exists between you is purely a product of your own fancy. You are a parasite living in the feathers of a Teth’rak, hoping that she will not scratch as long as you do not bite too hard. This was going to happen sooner or later.”

“Then why would they leave us be for so long?” he demanded, his feathers flashing red. As annoyed as Xipa was at being interrogated by someone she just helped save, she understood his pain all too well. He had lost most of his flock, and he was looking for someone – anyone to blame.

“You want my opinion?” Xipa asked, leaning back into the cushions as she crossed her arms defiantly. “They’ve been farming you, just like they farm some of the other species on this moon.”

Farming us?” Izel repeated, Miqi cocking her head at them as she followed the conversation.

“You’re nothing more than local fauna to them,” Xipa continued. “Dangerous fauna, perhaps, but they must see some value in you if they’ve kept you alive.”

“We’re alive because we’re smarter than they are,” he protested. “Because we evade them and outmaneuver them at every turn.”

“I think that’s why you’re alive, yes, but not for the reasons you think. Everywhere that we’ve encountered the Bugs, they’ve fought using wave tactics – mass troop movements that seek to overwhelm the enemy through sheer weight of numbers. Kerguela is different. The Bugs here heavily favor ambush tactics, and their Drones fight in small, mobile units that show a far larger degree of tactical awareness. Why is that? What might motivate them to change their strategy – a strategy that was so successful in overwhelming the moon’s defenses? Is it a coincidence that they reduced the size of their squads down to six, a number that closely mirrors the average size of a flock?”

“You think they’ve been studying us?” Miqi asked, narrowing her eyes. “Farming us for information rather than meat?”

“If they saw you as a threat, you’d be long-dead,” Xipa replied. “You’ve just seen how they respond when their objective is to get rid of you. I think they’ve been feeding you Drones and Hunters, then observing how you react and changing their own tactics accordingly. You were certainly a surprise to them, and I doubt they know about your base or your tunnels, but they’ve learned that interesting things happen when they send troops inside the city – things that they can learn from.”

“That’s a pile of Do’patli shit,” Izel snapped. “We’re here because we’re resourceful, because we’re smarter than they are.”

“Exactly,” Xipa replied, slamming a fist on the table to punctuate her point. “Again, you’re not understanding me. If you hadn’t been exceptionally resourceful, if you hadn’t surprised the Bugs at every turn, they would have just rolled over you like they did everybody else. They see something valuable in you, and they’ve been applying what they’ve learned all over the planet, giving our troops hell in the process. In you, they have a small, contained population that poses no existential threat and which can be studied at their leisure.”

“Now that you’re here, they’re done with us?” Miqi asked. “Why?”

“I guess they’ve upped your threat level, and they don’t want you causing a nuisance anymore,” Xipa replied. “They’re probably making moves to secure all of their territory in response to our incursions. So, yeah,” she added as she turned back to Izel. “It is our fault that this is happening now, but it would have happened eventually whether we showed up or not. This scenario is the only one where you survive.”

Izel still seemed angry, but he had no response, so he stormed off to rejoin his sole surviving flockmate in another part of the lounge.

“Sorry,” Miqi whispered. “Izel is a good guy, he’s just…still processing what happened.”

“No apology necessary,” Xipa replied. “He’s handling it better than I did.”


They made their way back to the base without incident, returning to the system of underground sewer and maintenance tunnels as soon as they were able. When they stepped onto the raised platform that overlooked the aquaponic farms, they were greeted by a pair of guards who were waiting for them.

“The Ensis want to debrief you immediately,” one of them began, but Ruza pushed past them with Nocha still cradled in his massive arms. The guards stepped out of his path, as there was little they could do to stop him.

“I am heading straight to the infirmary,” he announced, pausing briefly to look back at Xipa. “She requires surgery without delay, or she may become too weak to survive the procedure.”

“Escort him to the infirmary and make sure he gets there,” Xipa barked at one of the guards, who seemed too flustered to argue. The pair hurried off into the bowels of the base while everyone else took a left, heading along the walkway towards the operations room. When they got there, they found the three Ensis waiting for them. Fletcher was with them, along with several other people who must be high-ranking members of their group.

“Welcome back,” Fletcher said, greeting them with a wave. “I was going stir crazy with nobody to fucking talk to. Glad to see you’re all in one-” He paused, glancing at Bluejay’s arm. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Drone lopped my arm off,” he replied, raising the stump. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“Where’s Ruza?” he added. “Is he alright?”

“He’s tending to an injured scout,” Xipa replied.

“Then you brought everyone back alive,” Fletcher said, giving her an approving nod. “Nice work.”

“We received your field report,” the Ensi with the scarred lip began. “It was…troubling, to say the least. Take off your gear, and we’ll have someone move it to the armory. We want you to tell us everything that you saw.”