The Autumn War – Volume 3: Defiance

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.


They sat around a long conference table as Izel and his surviving flockmate relayed the story of how they had come to be in the situation that Xipa had found them in. They told of how the sentry had met up with them to update them on her findings concerning the influx of Bug troops, and how they had proceeded deeper into the district to investigate the insect activity there. They had been engaged, and had sought refuge inside the factory. When Cyan team had come to look for them, they had fought a running battle throughout the building and were eventually driven to the top floor by the overwhelming number of Drones. They had barricaded themselves up there until Xipa and Bluejay had found them.

Xipa showed the Ensis the footage that Bluejay had taken of the massing forces beneath the wall, concerned muttering filling the room.

“What do you make of this, Fletcher?” Xipa asked. “You have more experience fighting the Bugs than anyone in this room.”

“It’s an invasion force,” he replied, scratching his chin with a prosthetic finger as he looked at a still image of the Bugs. “They have armored support – looks like they’re setting up an anti-air blanket to protect their staging area, and they’re starting to make inroads deeper into the city. Once they find a way through, they’ll be coming for us.”

“I have to agree with Xipa’s assessment,” Miqi added. “We have no choice now but to evacuate our population. She believes that her fleet has the resources to carry out such an evacuation, but we have to start soon. We may only have days to work with here.”

“Fighting isn’t an option,” Xipa continued, her gaze wandering between the women. “It’s going to take everything we have just to get you out of here before we’re overrun.”

“We don’t stand a chance against a force that large,” the scarred Ensi muttered.

“You can give us your assurances that we will be able to return once it’s deemed safe?” another of the Ensis asked, scrutinizing Xipa from across the table.

“You have my word,” she replied. “If your wish is to remain in orbit rather than return to Valbara, then nobody will tell you otherwise. I don’t have the authority to make you do anything – you’re not part of the Consensus. It’s all voluntary.”

They convened for a few moments, whispering to one another, then seemed to come to an agreement.

“Very well,” the scarred Ensi began. “We have reached a consensus. We will consent to your evacuation on the condition that we be allowed to return as soon as it’s safe. This is our home, and we will not abandon it.”

“Agreed,” Xipa replied, allowing herself a flutter of green and a sigh of relief. “Now, we just have to formulate a plan for how we’re going to get a thousand people into orbit before that army reaches us.”

“We might not be able to fight them head-on, but we can certainly stall them,” Miqi suggested as she leaned across the table. “We can move through the city far faster than they can, and we can set traps, create blockages at strategic points that will add hours to their journey. We can buy ourselves some time.”

“I want to involve Fletcher in this process,” Xipa added, nodding to the Earth’nay. “He is a veteran of hundreds of battles on dozens of worlds, and he has skills that we lack. Fletcher,” she added, switching back to English. “Have you ever taken part in urban combat before?”

“I have some experience,” he replied with a grin.

“I want you to help formulate an evacuation plan. Your experience will be invaluable.”

“You got it,” he replied with a lazy salute. “I’ll be glad to have something to occupy myself with that doesn’t require lifting anything heavy. How are we going to communicate with the fleet, though? The second we send out a powerful enough signal, the Bugs are gonna ramp up their operation. It’ll be like firing a flare in radio form – they’ll know exactly where we are.”

“It won’t matter,” she replied. “We won’t send the signal until we’re ready to move. From there, we can coordinate with the fleet all we want. The damage will already be done.”

“So, the signal is gonna be the starting pistol,” he mused. “The fleet will need time to coordinate. We’re springing this on them out of nowhere. The first thing we need is a large, open space that we can secure as a landing area.” He leaned over the table, poring over the giant map that was laid out on it. “See, this is the problem with being a bunch of space hippies. All your park areas and open spaces are overgrown to the point we can’t get a shuttle in there. If you’d built a few giant parking lots or sterile industrial parks, you’d be spoiled for choice. I’d say find a large enough roof, but there’s no way to verify the structural integrity of any of these buildings.”

“Fletcher,” Xipa chuckled, gesturing to the far side of the map. “We have a spaceport with a runway designed to accommodate shuttles.”

“Alright then,” he replied. “The question is, can we get a thousand people there safely? We have injured, elderly, children. One thousand, divided by twelve,” he muttered to himself as he did the math in his head. “I mean, we certainly have more than eighty-three IFVs in the fleet, but I don’t see that being feasible. That’s assuming they could even drive from point A to point B on these fucked up roads.”

“I think we would need to move them underground,” Xipa replied. “It’s the safer option but also the most time-consuming. Time wouldn’t be a factor if they’d just taken my offer from the start,” she grumbled.

“Well, they had a plan, and they wanted to stick to it,” Fletcher said with a shrug. “That’s kind of how you guys are. Getting you to change your minds is a fucking ordeal.”

“Miqi,” Xipa began, switching back to her native tongue. “You said that you can move through the city quickly. How quickly, exactly? Do you think we’d have time to get the entire population over to the old spaceport before the Bugs caught up with us?”

“It’s an ask,” she replied, leaning both hands on the table as she pored over the map. She extended a feather sheath, using the appendage like a tentacle as she traced a path through the city. “The route would be a tad circuitous, but there are intact tunnels that come out close enough to the spaceport. I’d want to send a scouting party to double-check the integrity of those tunnels before we commit, but it looks like they were in good condition the last time someone made a note.”

“There’s no time to waste,” the scarred Ensi added. “We’ll have someone check those tunnels immediately and plot out a route.”

“We’ll have to travel light, carry only what we need,” Miqi continued. “I’ll have to assure everyone that their stuff will be here when they get back. It’s not like the insects are going to steal their sleeping bags and cooking pots.”

“How long are we expecting to be away?” one of the Ensis asked. “If it’s for an extended period of time, we’ll have to shut down some systems and dispose of perishables. It’s going to be a hit to our supplies.”

“You won’t have to worry about supplies anymore,” Xipa interjected. “Valbara is one jump away. We can ship in anything you need. Your days of scavenging are over.”

“We have our own way of doing things,” the Ensi replied. “We don’t need any charity. Trade deals can be negotiated once the dust has settled.”

“We won’t actually be moving a thousand people at once,” Miqi added. “The majority of the people here can fight. We can have dozens of teams in the field running interference to make it as hard for the insects to advance as possible. They can buy us the time we need to get everyone else to safety. Even then, we’ll be cutting it close,” she added with a frustrated sigh. “I estimate maybe two days before the insects are on our doorstep. With one day to prepare and one day to make it to the port, it’ll be down to a feather’s breadth.”

“As long as they can make it to the spaceport in time,” Xipa said. “We’re not leaving anyone behind – no more heroics. I had enough of that the last time I tried to do this.”

“We have a lot of ammonium nitrate,” Miqi said, her scaly lips peeling back in an evil grin. “I’m already seeing locations where a drum of fertilizer could bring down a weakened building or collapse a road. Those bastards have no idea what they’re walking into.”

“Nothing like a little domestic terrorism to brighten your day,” Fletcher added once Xipa had translated for him. “The assault carriers have super-mobile units that can be deployed and extracted in minutes. We can bring in whatever you need – artillery, tanks, CAS. The Kodiaks are gonna have a tough time moving through some of the streets, though, and they can’t make it down those alleys. I don’t know if having seventy-ton tanks rolling around on shaky ground is a good idea.”

“Our Cozat’li tankettes could do it,” Xipa replied, turning to glance at him. “Our Commandos also know the layout of these cities – they’re all based on a very similar blueprint. We’ve trained for mobile warfare. We can do this.”

“You want to bring in the Valbarans instead of the UNN?” Fletcher asked, raising an eyebrow.

“We could use UNN support, but I think my fleet can do the majority of the heavy lifting,” she explained. “Urban combat is our specialty. Many of our best units cut their teeth during the battle of Valbara, when the drop pods were raining down on our cities. We have airborne units that can be in and out just as fast as yours.”

“Alright,” he conceded, raising his prosthetic hands in surrender. “It’s your plan. Just tell me what you need, and I’ll make sure Vos gets it. I don’t want to bring in orbital support because I’m assuming we want there to be a city when we’re done, but an artillery company could be dropped in at the space sport. They could hit anything inside the walls from there.”

“Can you plot some likely routes that the Bugs might take?” Fletcher asked, directing his question at Miqi. After Xipa had translated, Miqi began to point to the map again.

“From their staging area beneath the wall, there are only a few places where they could get those walkers through,” she replied. “They’re organized, so I expect them to find a route pretty quickly, but we have time to set traps before they arrive.”

“Okay, here’s how I see this going down,” Fletcher said as he scrutinized the map. “Miqi and her saboteurs plant explosives along these routes and cause as much trouble as possible. They do some guerrilla shit, hit and fade to keep the Bugs bogged down while the rest of the survivors move through the underground tunnels. We can support them with airborne units and artillery if they need to hold any choke points. Meanwhile, we secure the spaceport and get as many shuttles on the tarmac as possible.”

“There are some injured people we won’t be able to move,” Xipa added. “We can bring down a medivac shuttle right on top of the nearest exit to the surface, but we’re gonna have to hit those AA platforms first.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what the range on those things is,” Fletcher muttered. “We should probably take care of them before we do anything else. The last thing we need is our landers and shuttles getting pasted.”

“We have our own light attack craft, and I’ve been itching to try them out,” Xipa replied. “If we can get a laser designator on those platforms, they’ll be able to hit them with precision-guided bombs. They can probably loiter and pick off targets of opportunity, too.”

“I could mark them if I had line of sight,” Bluejay volunteered. “I can move through the city faster than anyone here.”

“Maybe,” Fletcher replied, crossing his arms with an electrical whir. “I don’t want you overextending yourself, Jay. You’ve sacrificed enough for these people already,” he added with a pointed glance at the Jarilan’s missing arm.

“Consensus must be reached before we go much further,” the scarred Ensi added. “The plan seems sound, but there are many moving parts that must all work together if it is to be a success. I will tell the people to start gathering their essentials and to prepare for the journey ahead. I suggest you prepare a report for your fleet,” she added, looking at Xipa. “The more concise, the better.”


When their plan had been carefully formulated, and their proposal to the fleet was ready to send, everyone left the operations room for a little downtime. It had been a long few days, and the ceaseless fighting had exhausted them. To Xipa’s surprise, Miqi and her flock stuck with them, despite the fact that she was no longer required to be their escort. It seemed that she had warmed to them somewhat during their shared ordeal. She was especially interested in Bluejay, perhaps only now recognizing him for what he was, although her flock were less enthusiastic. Sure, he might have saved their lives, but this was all very new to them. Miqi explained what had happened during their absence as they walked, giving them a quick rundown on what she had learned of the Coalition and its species. Xipa and Bluejay relayed what had happened during the mission to Fletcher in the meantime. He did a good job of hiding his disappointment at not being able to join them, but Xipa had learned enough about Earth’nay body language and expressions to sense it in him all the same. At least planning for the mission was something that he could do to feel useful, and it seemed to have perked him up a little compared to when they had last spoken.

Their first destination was the infirmary, where they would meet up with Ruza and check on Nocha’s progress. They descended down through the base’s twisting corridors, soon arriving at the converted water storage tank. Gustave was too large to get through the door, so he waited outside as the rest of the group stepped into the makeshift hospital.

In the hours that they had been poring over the map in the operations room, Ruza had carried out his surgery, and Nocha was recovering in one of the beds. She was covered up by a sheet, hooked up to monitoring equipment, but she seemed to be breathing more easily now. Nurses were still coming in and out of the walled-off operating room at the far end of the tank, carrying out piles of gauze bandages and surgical tools for cleaning.

“Fletcher,” Ruza remarked as he peeled off a pair of bloody latex gloves. He was wearing his combat helmet and pressure suit in lieu of a clean suit and a mask, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. It would do just as good a job of keeping his hair inside as it would keeping chemical agents and deadly vacuum out. “I am glad to see you again. How are your arms?”

“Nothing to complain about,” he replied. “Glad to see you too, hairball. When you didn’t show up at the operations room with the rest of the team, I was worried for a moment.”

“I am glad to hear that you worried for me,” Ruza replied, tossing the sullied gloves into a garbage receptacle by one of the walls. “But I am not glad that you were worried.”

“How is Nocha?” Xipa asked.

“The operation was carried out successfully,” he replied with his usual propriety, though Xipa suspected that he was being modest. “She will make a full recovery.” He turned to give them his full attention, sliding off his helmet with a hermetic hiss. “Were you able to formulate a plan with the Ensis?”

They explained what had been discussed during the meeting, Ruza’s brow growing heavier as they went on.

“What of the patients?” he finally said, glancing over at the nearby beds. “There are some who will not survive being moved through those tunnels. Nocha will need time to recover from her surgery.”

“We’re going to call in a medivac team to get them out,” Fletcher explained. “I want the UNN to handle that – we have more advanced medical facilities on our carriers than the Valbarans do.”

“Allow me to coordinate the transfer,” Ruza suggested, Fletcher giving him a nod. “I will ensure that they make it to the shuttle safely. We need only one, as there are few who are so severely injured.”

“You should join us for a meal,” Fletcher suggested. “You’ve been doing combat and surgeries back to back – you need a break before the evacuation begins.”

“You are correct,” Ruza sighed, reaching up to run his claws through his mane of sandy hair. “Allow me time to wash first.”

While Ruza went to wash his hands in a nearby sink, Xipa noticed that Izel and his flockmate with the injured arm were also in the infirmary. The male was standing at her bedside, and her once bandaged limb was now being corrected with a medical splint. He met Xipa’s gaze and gave her a flutter of acknowledgment. Maybe he’d had a little more time to process his anger.

When Ruza was ready, they made their way to the mess hall, heading up through the winding tunnels. They soon arrived in the communal area – the spacious tunnel that linked all of the civilian quarters – where there were hundreds of people going about their daily business. A crowd of them formed around Miqi and her flock, slowing their progress to a crawl. Word had spread quickly about what had happened during their rescue mission, and people were already starting to panic at the prospect of the invading Bug war host.

Miqi reassured them, and with the help of her flock, relayed the story of what had happened. Once again, Xipa was reminded how tightly-knit this community was. There was no control over the flow of information between civilian, military, or government – they were one and the same here. There was no need for secrecy, no need to dull the sting of bad news with carefully selected words. As an Ensi – a politician – Xipa had rarely found herself speaking to the public without being fawned over by aides and script-writers. It was refreshing…

After being regaled with stories of their heroism, the people seemed more inclined to approach the aliens, and even Bluejay was starting to see fewer angry stares. The survivors seemed to respect Miqi a great deal, and her endorsement went a long way. Bluejay still seemed flustered and uncomfortable due to the extra attention, but that was probably because he couldn’t follow their conversations. Xipa couldn’t blame him for assuming the worst.

She realized that Bluejay was starting to get overwhelmed, so she took his hand and led him away from the gaggle of gawking Valbara’nay. She steered him over to a bench by the far wall, and the two sat down between a pair of planters that were filled with colorful flowers. The presence of the plants didn’t really make Xipa feel like she was in a city park, but these people had to take whatever they could get.

“Don’t worry,” she began with a flutter of soothing green. “They’re not saying bad things about you – quite the opposite. People are finally starting to warm up to you, thanks in part to Miqi’s exaltations. I think you impressed her. She’s really trying to sell you to the other Valbara’nay.”

“I appreciate it,” he replied, shifting his weight on the bench uncomfortably. “I just don’t like the crowds.”

“Eventually, your reputation will precede you, and you won’t have to go through this process every time,” Xipa continued. She leaned back, watching a group of children play with a little red ball nearby. They were rolling it along the polished floor, then chasing after it, their shrill laughter filling the air. Bluejay followed her gaze, the sight seeming to relax him a little. She remembered what he had told her back in the ruined dwelling, about how his favorite job back on his colony had been minding the Earth’nay children.

“Earning their respect shouldn’t have to cost me an arm,” he added as he lifted his stump. “I shouldn’t complain – I’m getting what I wanted – I just wish it wasn’t such an ordeal. I know that one day, people will come to associate the Jarilan name with loyalty and courage. I know because I know the people I trained with, and I know what they’re capable of. Laying the groundwork is just…hard.”

“You should spend some time with Miqi and her flock while you have the opportunity,” Xipa added. “I’m sure she feels bad about the way she treated you when you first met. I can’t stress enough how central the concept of the flock is to our kind. You saved her family and her best friends all in one. I know how I would feel if you’d done the same for me.”

“It’s not like I can talk to them,” he chuckled dryly.

“Maybe you don’t need to,” Xipa replied with a shrug. “Sometimes, just being with someone is enough.”

“Kinda surreal, isn’t it?” he continued as he watched the juveniles toss their toy around. “Here we are, two totally different species on an alien moon, and we’re communicating in English – a language developed thousands of years ago on a tiny island on a planet neither of us has even visited. It’s not their only language, you know,” he added. “There are dozens. Russian, French, German, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Bengali, Japanese. I must have heard all of them spoken in the settlement at one time or another. Yet, they all collectively chose to speak one – a lingua franca. Hell, even the term itself refers to another language entirely,” he chuckled. “My father once told me that language isn’t just a means of communicating – it helps shape how we perceive the world. The tools that we use to describe our surroundings and share our feelings can help shape them in ways we don’t even realize. Maybe it helps bring us together in more ways than one.”

“My people also have more than one language,” Xipa added. “Due to the way our memory works, we never really developed one dominant language for global trade and politics, we just learned those of the regions we visited. There are even flocks with members who speak different languages natively. They don’t switch from one to another abruptly as the Earth’nay do, they just let them flow and blend.”

“Interesting,” he mused. “How many languages do you speak?”

“Only six,” she replied. “My job as an Ensi didn’t allow me to travel all that much.”

Only,” he scoffed. “I guess I speak two – English and pheromone. If you can even call that a language.”

The thought was interrupted as the ball that the children had been playing with rolled in their direction. It bounced off Bluejay’s three-toed foot, and he looked down at it in surprise. He began to reach for it with his lower arm, then seemed to remember that it was missing at the elbow, switching to the opposite limb as he plucked it off the ground.

The cackling children came running, but they slowed when they caught sight of him, their demeanor changing from one of carefree fun to wariness. Xipa watched Bluejay sag and knew immediately that their reaction had hurt him. She remembered with perfect clarity how he had told her that he enjoyed interacting with children back on his colony because they hadn’t yet been taught to fear him. That wasn’t the case here, clearly. These children would have been told frightening stories of the monsters that roamed the city above their heads, the fear that was instilled in them necessary to help keep them alive.

He tossed the ball back in their direction, and one of the children pounced on it, the group retreating back to safety as they resumed their play. All save for one. A little male who couldn’t have been more than a couple of rotations out of the incubator was frozen in place, staring back at Bluejay. There was no fear in his feathers, no yellows or purples, only cautious curiosity.

“It’s okay,” Xipa cooed, the child cocking his head at her. “He won’t hurt you. He’s friendly.”

Bluejay straightened suddenly, then reached for one of the pouches on his chest rig. He peeled back the zipper, Xipa’s feathers flashing in surprise as he produced the ragdoll that he had picked up in the residential band. The doll was handmade, sewn together from strips of cloth, a traditional toy made by fathers for their children. It was hard for her to reconcile the way that she had treated him back then, how she had interpreted his sentimental gesture as one of disrespect.

Bluejay extended an uncertain hand, the child cocking his head again. He bobbed closer, glancing to Xipa for reassurance, then reached out to take it. After examining the doll for a few moments, he hopped up onto the bench, settling in between Xipa and Bluejay as he tugged at the colorful strips of fabric that served as its feathers. He was so small, barely tall enough to reach Xipa’s shoulder, his wide eyes almost too large for his head.

“I think he wants you to have it,” Xipa whispered, the boy glancing between her and Bluejay.

“He’s brave, this one,” Bluejay chuckled as he watched the child play with his new toy. His antennae were no longer drooping, and his face plates had shifted into a tentative smile. All of the weight that had settled on his shoulders seemed to have been momentarily lifted.

“I suppose there’s no reason for them to fear strangers in such a small community,” Xipa replied. “There’s something…poetic about you carrying that thing all this way, only to give it to another child. I expect the scouts rarely make excursions looking for toys.”

“It should be played with,” he replied. “What better way to honor the memory of its original owner?”

“For someone with such a hard exoskeleton, you’re very soft on the inside,” Xipa said with a smirk. “You’re making the rest of us look cynical.”

“You’ve all been through a lot,” he replied. “You, Fletcher, Ruza. Maybe Gustave, but who knows with that guy. I’m kind of the odd one out.”

“It’s refreshing,” she added. “I think your boundless optimism is what has kept the rest of us from driving each other crazy. You’re good at killing,” she added, remembering his outstanding performance in the factory. “But, you remember why you’re killing. I think even I forget that sometimes,” she continued as she watched the little boy chirp at his doll contentedly. “When you have the enemy in your sights, it can be hard to remember the people standing behind you.”

The boy was old enough to speak but was perhaps too shy, the mellow green of his feathers letting Xipa know that he was happy all the same. He shuffled a little further up the bench, enjoying the texture of the toy as he turned it over in his tiny hands. After a few minutes, his playmates called to him, and he slunk down off the bench. As he made his way over to them, he turned to look back at Bluejay, waving goodbye with a feather sheath. Bluejay returned the wave, and the boy hurried off, his friends crowding around to admire his prize.

“Feeling better?” Xipa asked, giving Bluejay a nudge.

“Yeah,” he replied, puffing out his chest. “Feeling hungry, too. I have some honey in my pouch, but I’ll wait until we get to the mess hall.”

“I think Miqi is done proselytizing,” she chuckled as she rose to her feet. “Let’s go.”


They escaped the crowds and made their way to the mess hall, Miqi pulling two of the tables together so that they could all sit around them. Gustave was the exception, as usual, while Ruza simply sat cross-legged on the floor.

Word spread quickly in their small community, and Tika and her flock were already preparing a celebratory feast to welcome the weary warriors home. She brought them a procession of dishes piled high with steaming cuts of meat, roasted vegetables, and some of the few delicacies that the survivors had access to. Even she seemed less apprehensive now, not even batting an eye at Gustave’s massive frame as she stepped nimbly over his paddle-like tail with a pair of dishes balanced in her hands.

“Damn, I haven’t eaten this good since I left the last colony I was stationed on,” Fletcher said. He rubbed his mechanical hands together, eyeing the spread of food that had been laid out before them.

“Are you sure you can spare all this?” Xipa asked, Tika giving her the Valbara’nay equivalent of a shrug as she fluttered her feathers.

“The Ensis have ordered us to evacuate the base, so most of this stuff would have gone bad anyway. Might as well enjoy it rather than toss it into the composters.”

“I dunno what this is, but it smells great,” Fletcher said as he reached for a slice of meat. It glistened under the light as he shoveled it onto his plate with a fork, glazed with some kind of sauce, flecks of red from the seasoning glued to its marbled surface. “Wild game has a totally different taste from the synthetic stuff. I can’t stand that protein paste bullshit they serve us on long voyages when the fresh meat has run out. So you formed it into the shape of a patty – good for you. Doesn’t make it taste any better.”

Xipa went straight for the roasted root vegetables. They had been sliced into neat little disks, covered in a golden-brown crust that cracked beneath her fork when she speared one. She drizzled them in the white sauce that she had so enjoyed the first time they had eaten here. This time, she went for the fish instead of the red meat, selecting a white fillet that had dark indents burned into it by the grill. It still had the silvery scales on one side, the skin rendered crispy, peeling away from the flesh with only a little coaxing.

Ruza was going all-in on the meat, piling the different cuts high on his plate. It was the size of a saucer to him, so one of Tika’s flockmates fetched him a large cooking tray that would serve him better, and he soon filled it. He picked up a steak with his claws – probably sourced from the large animals they had seen the Bugs herding – taking wet bites. His carnivore teeth tore through fat and muscle with alarming ease, the red juices and oils leaking down to stain his furry hands. Far from being irritated, he seemed to enjoy it, pausing to use a tongue that was as long as Xipa’s forearm to rake his fur clean. It was prehensile, covered in tiny barbs that slid through his coat like the teeth of a comb. He produced a small vial from one of the pockets of his suit, uncorking it and sprinkling the next cut with some kind of condiment.

Bluejay was content to sip at the little packet of honey that he’d brought with him. Some of Miqi’s flockmates seemed momentarily alarmed by the way that his face split open to reveal his proboscis, but that soon subsided as they ate together. After his encounter with the little boy, he seemed more at ease, even when surrounded by strangers. Miqi was trying to communicate with him as best she could, the two laughing together as they exchanged simple words and phrases, the Valbara’nay repeating them in an imitation of his voice.

“Hey, Gustave!” Fletcher yelled over the chorus of conversation. “You want anything to eat? You must have burned some calories fighting off an entire Bug army on your own.”

The reptile opened one yellow eye lazily, then lifted his massive head, his translator interpreting his subsonic rumbling.

If there is enough to satisfy, I will partake…

“Well,” Tika began after Xipa had translated his request. “We do have a couple of animals that one of our hunting parties brought in yesterday. With all that’s been happening, we haven’t had time to butcher them yet. They’re just sitting in one of the walk-in fridges in the back, waiting to be processed. The way things are going, we’d have to toss them out anyway. Does he want them cooked, or just…how does he eat?”

“Gustave?” Xipa asked. “How do you like your food prepared?”

Raw,” he rumbled, the hanging skin beneath his jaw vibrating.

“Can you eat something that’s been chilled for a day?”

He nodded, Xipa relaying his choice of meal to Tika. She seemed a little displeased but rallied her flock all the same, the women heading out of the mess hall. When they returned a few minutes later, they were carrying two frozen animals between them. It was the same creature that Xipa had seen darting into the undergrowth during their first foray into the city, a native ungulate. It had three-toed hooves and a pair of stubby horns that sprouted from its skull. Its thin coat was patterned with splotches of reds, oranges, and browns that matched its environment. The animals had been gutted and cleaned, but besides that, they were completely intact.

They pushed a couple of tables aside and lay the first one down on the floor, its body still limp. It was a fairly large animal, five or six feet long and maybe two hundred pounds. They then stepped back as though anticipating some kind of carnage, Gustave sliding across the floor on his belly as he eyed the meal. Xipa could hear his leathery hide scraping against the planks, the reptile pushing himself along. He paused to sniff at the carcass, then opened his massive jaws, putting his rows of interlocking teeth on display. Xipa was always surprised to see the blue hue of his tongue and palate, remembering what Ruza had told her about the hemocyanin his kind used as blood.

He bit down, but more tentatively than Xipa had expected, mouthing at his meal as though trying to properly gauge its size. When he was satisfied, he gripped it more tightly, sliding about half of the animal’s length into his mouth. Everyone present watched in a blend of fascination and horror as he raised his head, lifting an animal that had taken three Valbara’nay to carry as though it was weightless. Xipa realized that he had no ability to chew. His jaws opened and shut like a trap with no lateral motion, and the only way he could bite off pieces of a larger prey item would probably be by tearing it apart through brute strength. He began to swallow, his snout pointing at the ceiling as he used gravity to help him along, each gulp making the loose skin beneath his jaw wobble. The animal lurched its way inside, and in mere moments, only its rear hooves were visible as they jutted from his throat. Xipa could hear his interlocking teeth clatter together as he snapped his mouth shut again, lowering his enormous head back to the ground. It was gone – bones, fur, and all.

“God damn,” Fletcher chuckled, the only one at the table who was still eating as he watched the show. “No wonder you only have to eat once a month.”

Gustave made for the next ungulate, slithering along the floor again, his eighteen-foot body stretched out across the room. He was perfectly capable of standing upright, but it seemed to be too much effort for him right now. The same tentative biting was performed on the next unfortunate animal, then he gripped it in his powerful jaws, throwing back his head as he gulped it down whole.

Xipa glanced at Tika’s wide-eyed flock, suppressing a flutter of amused feathers. While she might know that there were few creatures in the Galaxy kinder or gentler than a Krell’nay, they had no idea just how placid he was. Watching him consume an animal larger than they were whole was probably an unnerving experience. When he was done, he went right back to lying on the floor, the slow rise and fall of his scaly flanks suggesting that he was sleeping.

As they ate, Fletcher got to talking with Bluejay about his injury.

“Looks like you and me have something in common now,” he began, raising one of his prosthetic hands. “I gotta say, you’re taking it unusually well. I’ve seen hardened Marines break down when they realize that their life has changed forever. If you need someone to talk to about it, I’ll be around. The surgeries, the fitting, the physical therapy – it can be a lot to deal with.”

“I appreciate it,” Bluejay replied. “Though, I don’t think that will be necessary in my case.”

“Huh?” Fletcher replied, raising an eyebrow. “Why not? Don’t tell me it’s gonna fucking grow back?”

“They can clone a new limb back on my ship and transplant it,” Bluejay explained.

Fletcher sat there looking dumbstruck for a moment, his fork hovering near his mouth as though he had forgotten what he was doing with it.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he said with a wave of his hand. “You’re telling me that you guys can just clone a limb and reattach it like it’s no biggie?”

“Don’t humans have that technology?” Bluejay asked.

“I mean, technically we do,” Fletcher scoffed as he shoveled another piece of meat into his mouth. “We also have private yachts and self-cleaning toilets, but that doesn’t mean I fucking own one. Do you have any idea how much it costs to grow a cell culture into a brand new organ and then hire a surgeon to transplant it? That’s like…the cutting edge of medical technology. Maybe if you’re a CEO or the fucking President of Mars, you might be able to afford that, but the average person sure can’t. Even prosthetics aren’t cheap,” he added as he flexed his polymer fingers to demonstrate. “SWAR paid for mine after I was injured, and the UNN will generally cover the costs to rehabilitate wounded Marines, but they won’t pay for cloning.”

“For us, it’s the standard procedure for dealing with an injury,” he replied. “Well, for Jarilans. Before the war, they would probably just…recycle wounded Drones.”

“How do you afford it?” Fletcher pressed.

“We don’t use currency,” Bluejay replied with a shrug. “Not within the hive, anyway.”

“It is not too surprising,” Ruza added. “The Jarilans inherited a knowledge of biotechnology and genetic manipulation from their Betelgeusian ancestors that far surpasses anything we have. That heritage could extend thousands or even millions of years for all we know.”

“You think you could sew an arm back on, Ruza?” Fletcher asked.

“That kind of microsurgery is beyond my expertise,” he replied. “I am a field medic – my job is not to reconnect severed nerves and capillaries. That is the domain of expert surgeons with machine assistance. Or Jarilan doctors,” he added with a nod to Bluejay.

“I could ask, if you want one,” Bluejay continued. “I don’t think they’ve ever cloned a human limb before, but I don’t see any reason they couldn’t try.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Fletcher replied. “Seriously, I don’t think you understand how big of a deal that would be to a lot of people. As for me, I’m kind of locked into the whole weapons for arms thing. What I need is a mechanic, not a surgeon,” he chuckled.


The conversations began to wind down as the night dragged on, fatigue starting to catch up with them. Everyone had a full stomach, and the day’s events had left them tired.

“We should rest,” Ruza said, rising to his feet to tower over the low tables. “There is much to do tomorrow.”

Gustave slowly climbed off the floor, shaking his long body, making the chubby fat deposits on his belly and tail wobble. Bluejay got up too, and Miqi offered to walk him back to the storeroom, her flock tagging along behind her.

“Hey Xipa, you want to get a smoke?” Fletcher asked as he set down his cutlery. “Assuming you’re not too tired, obviously. Unlike you guys, I’ve been sitting on my arse doing nothing all day.”

“I’d like that,” she replied. The pair bade farewell to their companions as they left the mess hall, the group heading out to the main tunnel while Fletcher and Xipa turned to the lounge. They made their way inside the converted water tank, the familiar scents of tobacco and the dim lighting immediately setting Xipa more at ease. Most of the booths were unoccupied tonight, as the survivors were probably packing their gear and preparing for the exodus, but there were a few flocks relaxing in the padded cushions. They glanced up at Fletcher as he walked by, exhaling clouds of grey smoke to join the haze that hung in the air at the apex of the curved ceiling.

Chatli was waiting for them, leaning on the counter as they approached.

“Welcome back,” she began, her feathers fluttering in a lazy greeting. “You two want some herb?”

“And drinks, if you have them,” Xipa replied.

“No reason to hold back now,” Chatli grumbled as she leaned down to grab something from beneath the counter. “It’s not like I can bring any of this shit with me.”

“It should be here when you get back,” Xipa said in an attempt to reassure her, but the woman merely scoffed in response.

“Yeah, if they don’t level the entire city. It survived one war, but I don’t know about a second. It’s a mistake if you ask me. I don’t like the idea of being at the mercy of people I’ve never met.”

“You’ve met me,” Xipa replied as Chatli handed her a little parcel of herb that was wrapped up in cloth.

“I suppose that’s true,” she admitted, turning to pluck a bottle of wine from one of the shelves behind her. “I’ll follow the Ensis anywhere – they’ve always led us straight – but I’d rather stay and fight for our home.”

“Don’t worry,” Xipa added. “It’ll be here when you’re ready to come back. I’ll see to it.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” Chatli warned, sliding a pair of glass flutes across the counter.

They headed for one of the many unoccupied booths, choosing one far away from the rest of the patrons for privacy, then slid in behind the dividing walls. Xipa began to prepare the hookah, stuffing some of the dried leaves into the bowl, then set the heating element going. Fletcher uncorked the bottle, bringing it to his nose before pouring it into the two glasses.

He passed her one of the flutes as she took a long, deep drag from the hose, holding it for a moment before slowly exhaling. She settled back into the soft pillows, watching the smoke glide lazily towards the ceiling.

“So, how have you been?” she asked. “The last couple of days must have been hard for you.”

“Hard for me?” he chuckled, picking up another hose and taking a puff. “I wasn’t the one fighting through legions of roaches. Fucking BJ got his arm lopped off, and Gustave had his own private Thermopylae.”

“I know how much you wanted to come with us,” she replied. “I know that feeling of powerlessness, believe me. It can be worse than being in the thick of the fight.”

“It definitely gave me plenty of time to brood and be unproductive,” he chuckled, taking another puff from the hose. “Hey, I got to see the generators, though. That was pretty cool. The Valbarans installed these huge rubber pads on them to minimize the vibration they produce.”

She could tell that he was trying to dodge the issue, so she pressed a little harder.

“Come on, Fletcher. You told me the last time we came here that your mind turns to dark thoughts whenever there’s a moment of quiet. There have been a lot of moments of quiet for you lately. You can’t even strike up a conversation with the survivors to keep yourself occupied.”

“You want me to tell you that I was miserable the whole time?” he asked.

“No, but if you needed to talk about it…I’m here.”

“I guess I’ve been feeling pretty useless,” he replied. “My arms are busted, I can’t fight, I can’t go on missions. I wandered around the base seeing if I could help out to keep myself busy, but all I got were funny looks. Thought maybe I could help them catch fish or sort scrap metal or something, I dunno. I’ve mostly been reviewing combat data, helmet cam footage and the like.”

“Learn anything new?” Xipa asked, taking a drink from her flute.

“Not really,” he sighed.

“I missed you out there,” she admitted, Fletcher glancing across the table at her. “You’re so confident, you always know exactly what to do. For all my posturing, it was the first time I’ve ever commanded a team in a real combat situation like that.”

“You did a great job,” he insisted, pausing for a moment to cough. “You accomplished your mission, and you brought everyone back alive. Nobody can ask for more than that.”

“When we first set out, I wanted to be in charge,” she continued as she stared into the crimson fluid that filled her glass. “I was convinced that I should be the one leading the team, but now, I’m glad Vos gave you the reins. I don’t know if we would have made it here without you.”

“I have a lot of experience, to say the least,” he replied.

“Have you thought about what Bluejay said?” she asked.

“What, that thing about cloning? Even if it were possible – which it might not be – I’m kind of locked in here,” he continued as he rolled his shoulders. “If I went back to organics, I wouldn’t be able to fight anymore. Not the way I do now.”

“You seem pretty sick of fighting if you ask me,” Xipa added. “Every time you talk about your life in the Navy, it’s with regret.”

“I can’t undo the choices I’ve made,” he replied with a shrug that made the motors in his arms whir. “I did what I did, and I have to live with the consequences. At least this way, I’m useful. I’m good at what I do, and I can make a difference in the Galaxy.”

“Yes, but being good at something doesn’t mean that you have to enjoy it,” Xipa protested as she set her glass back down on the table. “What if, after this war is over, you just…stopped?”

“And go where?” he chuckled. “How would I make a living? I dunno if I mentioned it already, but I have a pair of weapons surgically attached to my body that violate several UN treaties.”

“Sometimes, we become comfortable in our unhappiness,” Xipa said as she traced the lip of her flute with a clawed finger pensively. “We tell ourselves that, even though we are unhappy, this unhappiness is preferable to uncertainty. We convince ourselves that it’s not necessary to change because the imagined outcome might be worse, and that happiness isn’t a requirement for survival. I’ve only recently started to recognize that much of what I thought of as my stoicism and persistence was actually fear,” she added with a flutter of purple. “I pushed people away because I was afraid of losing them, not because I was focused on my work or because I was too proud to need companionship. You told me that you distanced yourself from us for the same reason – because you had seen too many friends killed, and you didn’t want to make more.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” he muttered. He paused to down most of his glass in one gulp, then reached for the bottle. “I guess I just couldn’t keep that up with you guys. It’s worth being your friend, even if there’s the possibility of losing you.”

“You never really told me what happened between you and your family,” Xipa continued, taking another puff from the hookah.

“Why am I like this, you mean?” Fletcher chuckled. “Fuck it, I might as well tell you,” he continued as he refilled his glass to its rim. “Who else am ever I gonna talk to about it?”

“Only if you’re comfortable with it,” Xipa added, Fletcher scoffing at her concern as he took a drink.

“No point stepping on eggshells when the eggs are already scrambled. The thing about me and my family is…” He paused, taking another generous drink from his flute. “It’s not really about what happened, but what didn’t happen. I’d already gone all-in on the Navy by the time I had my accident, and after that, I doubled down rather than retire. I figured that I wasn’t really good for anything else, and I might as well hyper-specialize if it meant being useful. I got recruited by SWAR, and they sent me all over the Galaxy doing shady shit, stuff that I still can’t talk about without some Ninnie spook breathing down my neck. We did a lot of good. Some bad, too. I lost a lot of close friends, and some who were more than friends,” he added as he turned his eyes to his drink. “It makes it…hard to form connections with people.”

“Because you were scared they’d die,” Xipa said, Fletcher nodding. “I sympathize…”

“Being in the Navy, you get sent all over the place, and you rarely have access to superlight comms. You can go months without being able to get a message back home. I was already in sporadic contact with my family, and when I joined SWAR, it got even harder to stay in touch. SWAR became my family, because there wasn’t anybody else.”

“So, you had no falling out with your people?” Xipa asked, tilting her head quizzically.

“Not as such,” he replied, shifting his weight in his seat uncomfortably. “I hadn’t had an opportunity to get a message to them in years by that point, and I hadn’t visited them for even longer. You just can’t when you’re doing wetwork and black ops shit. You can’t exactly break radio silence while behind enemy lines so you can send a Christmas card to your folks.”

“What happened after you left SWAR?” Xipa asked.

“I didn’t like the culture the organization was starting to develop,” he explained, reaching for his hose. He took a drag, Xipa waiting patiently for him to continue. “It wasn’t what I joined up for, so I cut ties. I guess that was my last opportunity to get back in touch with the people from my old life,” he sighed. “They probably didn’t know if I was dead or alive, so I figured – why change that? What good would it do them to have me back in their lives? I was a beat-up old Marine with more baggage than a spaceport terminal. I couldn’t just swap out my prosthetics and take up gardening. Besides, I was almost certainly going to die soon anyway, so why make them go through the grieving process all over again? I kept moving forward and decided never to look back.”

“Do you regret it?” Xipa asked, seeing the answer in his face before he’d had a chance to reply.

“Sometimes, I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d just retired after my accident,” he said. “The UNN would have given me some civilian-grade prosthetics along with a pension and sent me on my way with an honorable discharge. I could have gone back home, maybe met a girl, had a couple of kids by now. It’s…hard for me to imagine being anything else,” he added as he raised his prosthetic hands to examine them. “All I’ve done for the last twenty years is fight. I kept putting myself in more and more dangerous situations expecting my luck to run out, but it never did. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever known is dead, and I’m still here…”

“That’s the line that you told me not to cross,” Xipa mused, taking a puff from her hose. “Fletcher, why do you have such a low opinion of yourself?” she demanded.

“What do you mean?” he chuckled. “Vos picked me for this gig because I’m the best. If anything, I have too high an opinion of myself.”

“I’m a better person for knowing you,” she continued, the Earth’nay blinking at her in surprise. “You can be an ass sometimes, but only because you make a conscious effort to be one. As soon as I get you talking, you prove yourself to be wise and considerate. Ruza is right when he says that you’re a good Alpha. You care about us, you’ve kept us safe. This whole time, you’ve tried to keep us at arm’s length by being disagreeable, and it hasn’t worked. You are wrong to assume that your family wouldn’t be better off knowing you. You are wrong to think that no mate would tolerate you.”

“What’s with the pep talk?” he asked, still trying to brush it off as a joke. He downed half of his flute in one go, as if seeking refuge from her piercing stare at the bottom of the glass. “Did you smoke too much herb?”

“Can we both just…stop running?” Xipa blurted, her feathers flushing purple. “This evacuation is probably going to get us all killed tomorrow. If we survive, what happens next? Are you just going to go find some new war to fight? I don’t want to be the way I am anymore,” she added, gritting her teeth to stave off another purple flutter. “I don’t want to go back to an empty office and pretend that being alone is a choice. It’s not what my flock would have wanted, it’s not what I want. I’m staying here – it’s where I belong – and I’m going to find a new flock and make a new life.”

“Xipa,” Fletcher began, but she cut him off.

“Why don’t you stay too?” she asked, practically pleading now. “You keep telling yourself that it’s too late for you, but that’s just another way of avoiding change. It’s not too late. I can help you – we can help each other. We’re going to need people to help us rebuild Kerguela, and I know that you can do that. Let’s make something new rather than dwell on the past. You’re the only person I’ve ever met who really understands me, and I want you by my side, whether you think you deserve it or not.”

“You’re gonna have to clarify what you mean, because if this is some Valbaran thing-”

“I’m saying I need you,” she growled, growing frustrated with his evasiveness. She picked up her own glass, downing the liquid courage within. “You wanted me to be vulnerable and let people in? Well, here you go – the door’s wide open.”

“But…I thought you didn’t like humans?” he asked, looking as flustered as she had ever seen him. “If I recall correctly, you said something along the lines of there is nothing attractive about a featherless, scaleless primate that walks on its ankles.”

“Clearly I’ve come around,” she grumbled, slamming her empty flute back down on the table.

“What about Bluejay?” Fletcher continued. “I thought you two were getting along pretty well?”

“I’d be robbing the incubator,” she laughed. “Bluejay is sweet, and more innocent than he lets on, but he deserves someone closer to his own age to explore with. He doesn’t need some bitter old woman tarnishing his youth. You and I are the same,” she added, glancing up at Fletcher with her one good eye. “I’ve never been able to talk about these things with anyone before, and my burdens feel all the lighter because of it. I…I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not for you.”

“If I wasn’t used to hanging around SWAR chicks, I might be intimidated by someone coming on so strong,” Fletcher chuckled.

“Well, that’s how we do things where I come from,” Xipa replied as she inhaled a calming lungful of herb to steady her nerves. “You might not be as small or as prissy as the boys I’m accustomed to, but it seems that I have to chase your tail just the same.”

“Nobody has really given a shit about me in a long time,” he replied, looking pensive as he leaned back into the cushions of their booth. “Not like you,” he added, glancing up at her. “You really want to be around me after the way I treated you guys?”

“I think you got your comeuppance,” she replied, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “Unless you want me to fetch Bluejay and have him punch you in the head a second time for good measure.”

“You realize that one or both of us could die tomorrow,” he added, Xipa’s headdress fluttering an impatient red.

“All the more reason to stop dancing around the issue,” she replied, letting a hint of irritation creep into her voice. “So, what do you say?”

“Hanging out with you makes me feel…almost normal again,” he admitted, a rare flash of vulnerability crossing his scarred face. “I’ve been looking forward to our little lounge visits more than I’ve looked forward to anything in a very long time. If you want to take that further, see where it goes, I’m game. If you want me to stay…then I’ll stay. I’m not letting another opportunity slip past me.”

“Good,” Xipa replied, a flush of pink and yellow spreading through her feathers despite her attempts to appear calm and in control. With any luck, Fletcher wouldn’t realize that it was a display of excitement and that her heart was pounding against her rib cage like a hammer. “Now, how much wine and herb does it take to put you on your back? We don’t have all night.”

Fletcher choked on the lungful of smoke he’d just inhaled, Xipa watching in amusement as he struggled through a fit of chuckling and coughing.

“You really don’t beat around the bush, do you?” he finally sputtered. He paused to take another drink, tapping his chest with a polymer fist.

“I’d say it’s a safe bet that you haven’t been with anyone since you left SWAR, and I’ve been too focused on conquering planets to go lounge hopping,” she replied. “I don’t need to beat around the bush. I’m too old for games.”

“Well, I’m high as fuck, and I’ve had enough wine to think that tangling with you is something I’m gonna survive.”

“Let’s go somewhere,” she added, rising out of her seat a little in her haste. She settled again, suppressing a flush of embarrassed pink. “Somewhere private, where we can be alone together. Damn, this place is so densely populated…”

“The generator room,” Fletcher suggested, Xipa glancing across the table at him. “There was nobody down there when I went to take a look around. With everyone busy packing, I doubt anyone will have a reason to disturb us. It’s noisy, too. Nobody will hear us if we get loud.”

Xipa felt like there was an electrical current coursing through her body. How long had it been since she had felt this way – since she had allowed herself to feel anything?

She picked up the wine bottle by the neck and downed the rest of its contents, Fletcher smirking at her as she exhaled a hiss.

“Follow me,” he said, rising to his feet with an electrical whir. “I might not have a Valbaran memory, but I remember the way.”


Xipa could hear the generators before they had even arrived, their low hum filling the carbcrete corridors. The path had led them into the deepest bowels of the base, likely to the lowest level, where as little noise and vibration as possible would reach the surface. They passed a few confused residents on the way, Xipa hoping that her pink feathers didn’t give her intentions away too readily, but this part of the facility seemed to be deserted.

Fletcher led her into a more open room, this one lined with rows of green-painted generators, each one about the size of a truck trailer. She took a moment to examine them, momentarily distracted. These generators were similar to the portable one that had been used to keep the distress beacon active, albeit far larger and stationary. They ran on biofuel, which was produced by breaking down organic waste into ethanol that could fuel combustion.

“These must have been used as backup generators when the treatment plant was still running,” she mused, walking over to examine one of the machines more closely. She noticed the thick, insulated cables that trailed along the wall behind them, carrying electricity deeper into the facility. “They must be running the whole place off these things. The lights, the ventilation system, the water treatment.”

“They’re pretty loud,” Fletcher replied, raising his voice a little over the dull roar. It wasn’t an irritating sound, however – more of a droning background noise. “They put rubber pads on the floor to minimize the vibrations,” he added as he gestured to the legs that held up the generators.

“Clever,” Xipa mused. “I can barely feel it from here, which means that the Bugs would have a hard time detecting it from the surface.”

“Did you come down here to look at generators or to get off?” Fletcher joked, Xipa turning to give him a mock frown.

“You’re awfully confident,” she said, a flutter of excited yellow passing through her feathers. “Are you so certain that you can handle me?”

“I’ve been with women who could twist my head off, but I feel like I should still tread lightly with you,” he replied. “Never been with a Valbaran before, and I wasn’t planning on it before tonight.”

“I know that we have very different cultures,” Xipa began as she took a step towards him. “I’m sure that it would take even a Valbara’nay time to learn the intricacies of Earth’nay courtship, to learn how to express her desire in a way that respects your traditions and customs. I just want you to know that…I don’t give a damn about any of that.”

She reached out her tail like a tentacle, wrapping it around one of his wrists, and began to lead him between two of the nearest generators.

“Alright,” he chuckled, stumbling along after her as he tried to match her bobbing gait. “I guess that goes both ways?”

“Unless you want to do a courtship dance for me,” she replied, turning to glance at him with a flutter of amusement. “Without feathers, that’s going to be a little hard.”

“Maybe I’ll have some installed,” he joked as the pair came to a stop by the far wall. The generators blocked the view from the entrance, giving them about as much privacy as they could expect outside of finding a locked storage closet somewhere.

“This should do,” Xipa said, releasing her hold on him.

“I guess we should have brought a sleeping bag or something,” Fletcher muttered as he glanced apprehensively at the cold, hard floor beneath their feet.

“What, you can rough it in the forest for days but you’re scared of a little carbcrete?” Xipa asked as she exposed her sharp teeth in a grin. “We’ll lie on our clothes. We won’t be wearing them, after all.”

“So…how does this usually go?” Fletcher asked.

“I hadn’t really thought this far ahead,” Xipa replied with a nervous chuckle, her heart racing as she peered up at the towering alien. “I suppose you should get on your knees.”

“On my knees?” he asked, his scarred face turning as red as an angry feather display. “You weren’t kidding about the whole matriarchal society thing, were you?”

“I can’t reach you,” she explained, Fletcher seeming relieved by her admission. He did as she asked, lowering himself to his knees, his flat face coming down into Xipa’s range. The creatures really weren’t all that hard on the eyes up close. They had almost no snout to speak of, and their odd, hairless skin was as smooth as waxed scales. It was strange, and a little uncanny, but the fact that this was Fletcher washed her reservations away.

Her feathers flushing an enamored pink, she reached out with her hands, cupping his warm cheeks. Their skin really was smooth – and soft, too. Well, except for his collection of scars, but she had plenty of her own. There was something else, too, like short bristles beneath her fingers. Slowly, she closed her one eye, brushing her snout against his nose. Xipa exhaled the breath that she had been holding, nuzzling softly, the scales between her flared nostrils tingling as they brushed against his strange face.

“Er…what are you doing?” Fletcher asked curiously.

“I’m kissing you,” she explained, opening her eye to see him peering back at her. She drew back a little, her feathers fluttering in embarrassment. “Is that not what Earth’nay do?”

“You’re cute when you’re embarrassed,” Fletcher replied, the way that he smiled making her heart skip a beat.

“Shut up,” she grumbled, failing to suppress another amorous wave of pink. “I’m old enough to be your mother, and half of my face is melted off. I am not cute.”

“You forget that I have no fucking clue what a Valbaran is supposed to look like,” he laughed. “For all I know, you’re a supermodel.”

He reached out with one of his polymer hands, the rubberized grips on the ends of his fingers brushing the intact side of her face. It was a strange but not unwelcome sensation, his prosthetic digits moving in a way that made them feel like extensions of his body more than inanimate machines. She felt him stroke her scales, a pleasant shiver making her tail curl.

“How much of me can you feel?” she sighed. Just the touch of another person was enough to make her weak at the knees after such a long drought.

“I can feel the texture of your skin, your warmth,” he replied as she pushed her snout into his hand to encourage his stroking. “It’s a pretty close reproduction of what my organics would have felt. Are my fingers cold?”

“No,” Xipa mumbled, her eyelid fluttering. “You’re…ambient. It feels fine.”

“I want to show you how humans kiss,” he insisted, drawing closer to her.

“I told you that I don’t give a damn about your customs,” she grumbled, but she didn’t pull away from him.

“Trust me, you’ll like it,” he insisted as he parted his pink lips. She felt compelled to do the same, matching his movements as her blood pounded in her ears, the two drawing closer together. They joined their partly-open mouths, Xipa holding there, feeling his warm breath as she waited for something to happen. She could feel his lips against hers – soft and squishy. She shuddered as something hot and wet brushed her tongue, quickly realizing that he was licking her. Was this how Earth’nay kissed? She did her best to follow suit, the tapered tip of her organ glancing Fletcher’s flat teeth, the oddly bawdy act making a strange warmth spread through her belly.

“You lick each other’s mouths?” she asked as they broke off, trying not to look as flustered as she was feeling. “That’s…a strange way to show affection.”

“I dunno why we do it, we just do,” Fletcher replied with a shrug. “You don’t like it?”

“W-we can try again,” she mumbled, reaching up to cup his face in her hands. This time, she knew what was expected of her, extending her tongue as far as she could, mouthing softly as they embraced. The Earth’nay seemed able to poke his tongue out much further than she could, the flat, powerful muscle tickling the roof of her mouth. It felt…good, tingly, a little like being teased with a feather. As alien as the act was, it was certainly intimate, Xipa allowing herself to lean into him.

They broke apart with a pop, the taste of his saliva lingering on her tongue. He tasted of herb and wine, along with something more metallic that she couldn’t put her finger on. Xipa realized how hard she was breathing, struggling to get herself back under control. Maybe she was rustier than she’d thought, or maybe it was just the novelty of the whole situation, but she felt like she was burning up.

“Need me to slow down?” Fletcher asked, eyeing her crown of feathers. “I dunno what pink means, but you’re very pink right now.”

“I’m not that old,” she replied, straightening her sheaths. “I’m probably just a little tipsy.”

“And a little stoned,” he added with a chuckle.

“Take your clothes off,” she snapped, trying to regain control of the situation before he melted her into a puddle on the floor.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied as he started to unzip his uniform. He wasn’t wearing his ceramic armor, leaving only his camouflaged pressure suit. It wasn’t unlike her own, albeit a little looser fitting. He opened it up from the collar to the belt, peeling the material open to expose his pale, pinkish skin. Just like his face, it was patterned with scars, a history of battle carved into his hide. She could see the musculature just beneath – he was lithe, more developed than what she would have expected from one of her own males. Her eyes found a pair of pink marks, and she realized that they were nipples.

“Earth’nay males have nipples?” she asked, a flutter of amused yellow passing through her headdress.

“What are you grinning about?” he protested. “All humans have nipples.”

“Well, you’re not supposed to,” she chuckled. Her laughter quickly petered out as he slid his arms out of their sleeves, revealing the ugly, knitted scar tissue where his prosthetics connected to his body. His arms had been sheared off at the shoulders, and in their place was black polymer, some kind of gel-like cushion protecting the damaged tissue. Beneath its translucent surface, she could make out a forest of hair-like wires burrowing into the pink flesh. Was that how the machine connected to his nervous system – patching into his nerves like two data lines being soldered together?

Fletcher noticed that she was looking, but he didn’t seem bothered by her staring.

“You can take a closer look,” he said, Xipa taking a tentative step forward. “What they did was amputate the damaged limbs down to the shoulder, then they fused metal rods to my skeleton. The shoulder joint connects to those rods, and that soft gel is meant to protect the scar tissue.”

“What are the wires for?” she asked hesitantly.

“Those burrow into your flesh and seek out severed nerves to fuse with,” he explained. “Imagine a toothache, but you have a thousand teeth. Hurts like a bitch, but they only have to do it once. Well, twice if I have to replace the fucking things…”

“I never really thought about the logistics of it all,” Xipa said, her feathers turning from pink to a worried purple. “They’re so seamless – I always just thought of them as a part of you.”

“That’s the way it is for me, too,” he explained. “When they’re working properly, at least. Now, they feel kind of…weak and fuzzy, like I slept on them funny.”

Xipa reached out and took his hand, lifting it to her mouth. She slipped one of his fingers between her lips, circling it with her tongue, licking the textured rubber.

“Do you feel that?” she asked, nibbling playfully on the end of his digit.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, going quiet as she teased him.

Xipa drew closer to him, running her hands across his broad chest, tracing the patchwork of old scars with her fingertips. It wasn’t just his limbs that had been damaged. It looked like he had been shot, burned, and stabbed a dozen times over. There was almost more scar tissue than man. Still, his skin was even smoother than the scales of a Valbara’nay where it was clear, surprisingly warm to the touch. Beneath it, she could feel firm muscle, wiry and taut. It was a little intimidating. Earth’nay were visibly taller than her kind, but she was only now appreciating that Fletcher’s torso was twice the size of hers, and he must weigh two or even three times what she did. Her feathers flashed a vibrant pink again as she considered whether they would even fit together. They must, or Earth’nay wouldn’t be so popular with lounge-goers back on Valbara.

She caught herself holding her breath as he began to unfasten his belt, then stood to kick off his boots, sliding down the lower half of his suit to give her a look at his legs for the first time. His organic limbs ended a little above the knee, transitioning into the same cushiony gel layer that she had seen on his shoulders, then to more black polymer. Like his hands, his feet were faithful reproductions of their organic counterparts rather than the skids that she had seen some Earth’nay favor.

All he was wearing now was a pair of black shorts, a conspicuous bulge tenting them. Xipa tried not to stare at it too conspicuously, but she couldn’t take her eye off it. He lay his clothes out on the floor like a blanket, then turned to her expectantly.

“This is gonna be pretty hard if only one of us is naked.”

His comment jolted her out of her stupor, and she nodded, reaching for the seal on the collar of her suit. She could already feel his covetous eyes on her body, her clothing leaving little to the imagination. Unlike the pressure suits worn by the Earth’nay, those favored by the Consensus were skin-tight, the lining filled with vein-like cables that allowed the suit’s monitoring systems to keep tabs on its wearer’s vitals. At no point before that moment had she felt exposed, but seeing the desire in his eyes made her realize just how closely the fabric clung to her scales. She wasn’t used to being desired like this…

She opened her collar, starting to undo the clasps on the front of the garment, exposing green scales that contrasted with the reds and browns of her camouflage. Those on her underbelly were a lighter beige, a smoother, finer mosaic. Beneath, she was wearing a dark tube top that supported her breasts, Fletcher’s gaze lingering on her tight cleavage as she roamed lower. She exposed her navel, the two rows of toned abs that lined her torso fading into the subtle paunch of her belly. Xipa had kept herself in fighting shape ever since she had returned from Kerguela, but age and admittedly her busy schedule had let her grow a little softer around the hips, butt, and tail than she might have liked. Her thighs especially were still sculpted and firm, the dimples that her muscles carved into her flesh visible even through the suit. Fletcher’s eyes lingered on her pinched waist, following the wide curve of her hips, the alien seeming pleased by her figure.

Unlike the Earth’nay, her injuries were limited to her face. Though the luster of her scales had dulled over the rotations, she had no disfiguring scars, no amputations. Beneath the collar, she looked practically untouched, which wasn’t too much of an exaggeration considering her recent romantic history. When her suit reached her hourglass hips, she had to dance on the spot, wriggling to get it off.

“Stupid thing is too tight,” she grumbled, fighting against the clinging material. When she finally got it down past her meaty thighs, she exposed a pair of shorts not unlike her counterpart’s, tight enough that they looked painted onto her. Just like the suit itself, her choice of fashion had been purely practical, but it seemed to entice Fletcher nonetheless.

He knelt again, drawing closer, his flat face coming down towards her. Xipa parted her lips in anticipation of another embrace, but instead, he brought his mouth to the nape of her neck. She shivered as she felt him kiss her throat, moving down to her shoulder, his warm tongue glancing out to tease her scales. A flutter of mismatched colors passed through her feathers, Xipa losing control as he nibbled at her nape, Fletcher pausing in surprise.

“The hell was that?” he chuckled.

“What?” she mumbled, feigning ignorance.

“Your feathers just did like a rainbow thing…”

“It’s fine, keep going,” she muttered as she sank her fingers into his hair to pull him closer. Its texture was like thick fur, reminding her of the proto-feathers of a Valbara’nay from the northern regions, but silkier.

“I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t hurting you,” he replied before resuming his mouthing. Xipa had to lock her legs to prevent them from giving out. The last time she’d been with a male, she had been in command of the situation, in control. Why was it different now? Why did she feel like the muscles in her thighs were turning to mush every time his soft lips brushed her scales?

She felt his hand on her belly, rubber fingertips following the indent that her abs cut into her stomach, making her flex them involuntarily.

“Wondered if my prosthetics were on the fritz,” he murmured, pausing to glance down at her body. “Your scales are just smoother here, aren’t they? I can barely feel them.”

“It’s not like I’ve waxed them in rotations,” she replied, a flutter of embarrassed pink passing through her plumage.

“It feels almost like skin,” he added, ignoring her self-deprecating comment. Xipa lurched as his hand roamed lower, guided by the flare of her hip, his fingertips probing the fat of her rump through her clinging shorts. Encouraged, he filled his hand with one of her round cheeks, seeming to delight in its supple texture. “I can’t believe you’ve been hiding all this under your suit this whole time,” he chuckled. “Those things are distracting, you know. Could get a guy killed.”

“We don’t allow males to serve in the military,” she replied, her voice cracking as he gave her springy butt another generous squeeze. “It’s purely…for practical…reasons…”

“Yeah, well I think you’ve been smuggling as much contraband as I have,” he joked as he continued his journey lower. Her thighs were firmer, though still encased in a layer of soft flesh, her muscles tensing at his touch. Fletcher was low enough to plant a kiss on her torso now, and he couldn’t get much lower without lying down on his belly. “I want to take this off,” he said, eyeing her tube top.

“Hang on,” she mumbled, reaching her fingers beneath the elastic. She pulled it over her head, her breasts falling free the moment their support was removed, bouncing softly against her torso. Fletcher’s hands were on them before she’d even gotten the garment off, his touch making her feathers flare wider, the tube top getting stuck over her head. “Hang on!” she protested, willing her sheaths to close. When she freed herself, she saw Fletcher peering back at her expectantly.

“Sorry,” he said with a smirk, watching her toss the garment to the floor. She tried to bundle her exposed bust in her arms reflexively, covering herself up, but Fletcher gently eased her hands away. Like the rest of her underbelly, they were coated in fine, beige scales that made them glossy under the artificial light. Xipa wasn’t sure how endowed Earth’nay women were – certainly more than she was – but Fletcher didn’t seem at all disappointed.

“They look a little perkier in this low gravity,” she said nervously, the rapid rise and fall of her chest making them wobble subtly.

“You made fun of me for having nipples, but you’re a reptile,” Fletcher said as he reached out to cup one of her boobs. His hand was large enough to almost completely enclose it, Xipa shuddering as her erect nipple brushed the smooth polymer of his palm.

“You know that we’re viviparous,” she muttered. “I’ve told you that before.”

“We humans don’t remember things so good,” he replied, giving her a tentative squeeze. Her tender flesh spilled between his prosthetic digits, engulfing his fingertips, the way that he probed her sensitive breast tissue making her snap her thighs together like the jaws of a trap. “Fuck…as soft as cake batter,” he muttered.

“B-be careful,” Xipa hissed, a pulse of pleasure making her feathers go haywire again.

“Sorry, let me just set my arms to heavy petting mode,” he scoffed. “Don’t worry, I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted to. Ruza tuned them down so much that I can barely uncork a wine bottle.”

Xipa shuddered as he brought another hand to her chest, teasing her, seeming to delight in the way that her fat sprang back when he relinquished his hold on her. He maneuvered one of them towards his mouth, his lips enclosing her engorged nipple, that wide tongue starting to circle it slowly.

She cursed in her own language, what must have sounded like an explosive series of chirps to Fletcher, then put a hand on his head to ease him away.

“Lemme take off my shorts before I soak them,” she muttered, bringing a trembling hand to her underwear. “Not gonna walk all the way back to our quarters with wet shorts…”

Her stomach lurched as Fletcher suddenly swept her feet out from under her, Xipa quickly realizing that he was cradling her in his arms. Even with his damaged prosthetics, her sixty-pound frame probably weighed less than his rucksack. Her head swam as he lay her down on his pressure suit, the fabric somewhat insulating her from the cold floor, her heart fluttering as he loomed over her. His rubberized fingers hooked into the waistband of her shorts, easing them down, Xipa clamping her thighs shut. With another wave of embarrassment, she saw that the black fabric remained connected to her by a strand of glistening fluid, which soon broke as Fletcher dragged the garment past her knees.

“You’re shaking like a leaf,” he remarked, watching her slide her tail between her legs to cover herself up. “Are you alright?”

“It’s…it’s been a while, okay?” she mumbled in reply. What the hell was happening to her? She was used to being on top of a squirming, mewling male – that was how things were supposed to go. Now, she was on her back, in a very un-Ensi-like position.

Rather than go straight for her nethers, Fletcher planted his prosthetic hands to either side of her, bringing his face down to her chest. He drew one of her engorged nipples into his mouth, lashing it with his tongue, his lips sealing around it. Xipa lifted her spine off the floor, a shudder of pleasure rocking her. Like a reactor that hadn’t been spooled up in decades, it was as though all of her body’s systems were coming back online one by one, electricity coursing through long-dormant circuits. How had she let herself go so long without this? Had she really managed to convince herself that it was a choice rather than a product of her fear?

Fletcher’s lips crawled lower, moving across her stomach, his tongue tracing the contours of the muscles beneath her scales as he went. It was so warm, his saliva making the pink flesh slide against her hide, the tickling sensation leaving her loins aching for attention.

“You’re usually so spicy,” Fletcher chuckled, pausing level with her hips. “I’ve seen you argue with Vos like you’ve been married to him for thirty years. I wasn’t expecting you to be so…tender after how strong you came on back in the lounge. It’s cute.”

“I’ll show you tender if you keep calling me cute,” she grumbled, Fletcher doubling over as his laughter joined the noise from the generators.

“There it is,” he chuckled. “Seriously, though, I’m not gonna respect you any less because you’re not an iron lady in the sheets. You were my squadmate and my friend before you were my lover.”

“I know that,” she muttered, averting her eye as her feathers rippled. “It’s your fault for making me feel so…weird. This isn’t going the way I expected.”

“In a bad way?” he asked, furrowing his brow.

“No,” she mumbled, fanning out one of the feather sheaths on her arm to hide her face from him. “I feel like my spine has turned to jelly, and there are…bugs fluttering around in my belly. I’m not used to this, I’m used to riding some fifty-pound dancing boy into the ground.”

“Well, I ain’t no fifty-pound dancing boy,” he replied. “It’s like you said – you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not for me. When we walk out of here, we’re gonna be the same people who walked in, maybe just a little less coordinated.”

“One would think that you were trying to make me feel safe and comfortable,” she grumbled, daring to part her feathers so that she could peek at him through the gap. “We’ll see who’s shivering on the floor when I find my footing again.”

“Alright, just don’t punch me,” he chuckled as he reached up to push her feathers aside. He drew closer, parting his lips for another kiss, Xipa meeting it with an ardor that surprised even herself. They embraced, their movements slow and sensual, each stroke of his tongue making her neurons crackle and fizz. She was growing accustomed to this strange way of expressing affection – starting to like it, even. When she felt him try to break away, she caught his face in her hands, holding him there for a few moments longer.

As she released him, he began to crawl back down towards her hips, her heart racing as she followed him with her one good eye. He planted a lingering kiss on her belly, then moved lower, his lips finding the sensitive scales of her mound. Slowly, Xipa slid her tail out from between her legs, parting her thighs to expose herself to him. His eyes widened, and she felt a momentary pang of apprehension.

“Is something wrong?” she asked hesitantly.

“No, I’m just staring at a scaly alien pussy,” Fletcher muttered. “Usually I’d, y’know, build up to something like this. You kind of sprang this one on me.”

Seeing him so flustered gave her a swell of confidence, and she reached down between her legs. Her puffy lips were covered in the same smooth, fine scales as the rest of her underbelly and her inner thighs, flushed slightly pink with arousal. She didn’t realize just how excited she had become until she felt her digits slide on a slick layer of her juices, a solitary bead of clear fluid dripping from her loins as she spread herself open with her fingers. Between them were rosy, glistening folds of delicate flesh, her opening twitching as the motion provoked a twinge of pleasure.

“That’s…a little more familiar,” Fletcher stammered, his face warming again. She glanced down at the bulge in his shorts, watching whatever was beneath them flex, throbbing like a second heart as it tented the fabric. Hopefully, he was fully everted, and he wasn’t hiding another few inches of hemi under there. It already looked…too big.

She let slip an unbecoming chirp as he slid his hands beneath her rump, lifting her lower half off the floor. He repositioned her so that her thighs were pressing against his cheeks, the backs of her knees resting on his broad shoulders as he knelt down.

“W-what are you doing?” she demanded, practically bent double now with only her upper back still touching the pressure suit.

“I can’t get down that low without lying on the floor,” he complained. “It’s cold. Now, stop squirming.”

Xipa froze up as she felt his lips on her inner thigh, Fletcher leaving a sucking kiss on her sensitive scales, brushing his cheek against them as though enjoying their texture. He moved higher – or rather lower – a shiver passing through her as she felt his warm breath on her loins. Damn it all, she was starting to tremble again. Even guessing what was coming, the feeling of that wide, flat tongue raking between her labia made her utter a stifled moan. It was big enough to cover her vulva completely, his hot, mammalian flesh sliding against hers. He began to lap slowly, exploring her alien anatomy, the ceaseless motions of his questing organ making her close her thighs reflexively.

“Hey,” Fletcher grunted, reaching up to tap one of her legs. “My limbs might be removable, but my head isn’t.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Xipa replied hurriedly as she willed her muscles to relax.

“You’re a lot stronger than you look,” he chuckled. “No wonder you can jump around like a little kangaroo.”

“Kangaroo?” she repeated, confused by the strange word.

“Just shut up and let me eat you out,” he replied, returning his lips to hers. She sagged back onto the floor, her feathers flickering with random color patterns each time his tongue glanced her, its tip mapping her every fold. His mouth was large enough to encompass her loins entirely, her juices dripping from his chin like he was taking a bite out of some succulent fruit. Her tail draped around his neck, her thighs squeezing gently, pressing his face into their soft cushion. She couldn’t stop her clawed toes from curling, her hands taking fistfuls of the pressure suit that she was lying on. She felt him pause, looking up to see him peering back at her, his lips shining with her fluids.

“Where’s your…uh, do you have a clitoris?”

“I don’t know that word,” she panted, struggling to focus.

“Er, fun button?” he said as he struggled to find a way to explain the concept to her. “Sweet spot? Little fleshy blob that feels good when you press on it?”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, a flush of pink passing through her feathers. “It’s inside, deeper.”

“Don’t hold your tongue if I’m not doing this right,” he added. “I don’t really know anything about Valbaran anatomy. For all I know, you could have gills hidden in there.”

“I promise I don’t have gills in there,” she replied with a smirk.

“Shall I keep going?” he asked, Xipa exhaling through her nostrils in amusement.

“No, please stop pleasuring me,” she replied sarcastically. “When Valbara’nay leak and moan, it means they’re not enjoying themselves.”

“Alright, I’ll stop,” he replied. He tried to pull away, but Xipa tightened her tail around his neck, holding him in place with her thighs.

“I was joking,” she added, Fletcher breaking out into laughter as they wrestled.

“I know, I know. Just hold still so I can…”

Xipa relaxed as she felt his warm tongue resume its work, the Earth’nay painting her loins, coating the surrounding scales in kisses.

“Like that,” she sighed, realizing that he needed more reassurance. Communication was key, even moreso if you had no idea how your partner’s body was configured. “I like it when you do it slowly like that…yeah…”

She brought a hand to one of her breasts, kneading the sensitive tissue as Fletcher lapped, a wonderful warmth radiating through her lower body. Valbara’nay could do this too, but the Earth’nay’s tongue felt so different from what she remembered of her encounters with males of her own kind. Their tongues were more suited to teasing and tickling than these lazy, doting strokes, the flat organ seeming to push into every crease and wrinkle.

“My jaw’s getting tired,” he mumbled into her crotch after a few wonderful minutes.

“Then that’s what you need to replace next,” she sighed, relaxing her hold on him as he lowered her back to the floor. She lay there, spreadeagled on his pressure suit, her thighs and mound wet with both her own fluids and her partner’s saliva. An odd giddiness overcame her, the pleasure of his licking lingering, like she could still feel his mouth on her loins. If it wasn’t for an itch deep within her that demanded more, she could probably have just laid there and fallen asleep.

Slowly, she rose to a sitting position, propping herself up with her tail. Her stature put Fletcher’s shorts at a very convenient height, and she reached out to grip the waistband, tugging him closer. He shuffled into easier reach on his polymer knees, Xipa eyeing the conspicuous bulge in his underwear like it was a packet of Gue’tra meat during culling season. She wet her lips, starting to drag the garment down, Fletcher wincing as his erect organ caught on the elastic. She gave him an apologetic glance, then freed his member, something long and thick bouncing up to almost hit her in the snout.

Now, it was her turn to be surprised. She had expected him to be large, considering that he weighed three times what she did, but his organ still gave her pause. It was more than half the length of her forearm, thick enough at its flared middle that she would have trouble closing her fist around it. The shaft was covered in skin, bulging veins visible beneath its surface, and it curved upwards gently before tapering into a cap of pink flesh. Beneath its base, where she would have expected his sheath to be, was a pair of hanging sacks of indeterminable purpose.

“You have no idea what you’re looking at, do you?” Fletcher sighed.

“I’m guessing Earth’nay only have one, and you didn’t lose the other in your accident,” she chuckled with a nervous flurry of purple plumage.

“Wait, Valbarans have two dicks?” he asked with a raise of his eyebrow.

“I…I thought everyone did,” Xipa muttered, unable to take her eye off the thing. There was a reason that gesturing with one’s two fingers was considered rude – because the shape and size closely resembled the tapered, fleshy hemipenis of a male. They were smooth organs that everted from inside a protective sheath, each one sporting a seminal channel that guided the fluids along the exterior of the organ. What she was looking at was unrecognizable. Was Fletcher really going to try to put that thing inside her?

“If we can’t make it work,” Fletcher began, but she cut him off.

“No, no,” she whispered as she reached out to brush her fingertips against it. “Even if it’s too big for me, there are other things we can do…”

It twitched as she stroked it, almost like a living thing in its own right, Xipa realizing how heavily she was breathing as she watched it flex. There was almost no give to it, like it was full of hard muscle, the pulse of Fletcher’s heartbeat making it swell as she wrapped her hands around it. It was so damned warm…

“I really don’t know what to do with this thing,” she admitted, her nervous laughter making Fletcher smile in a way that made something stir inside her.

“Well, what would you do with your dancing boys?” he asked.

“Hold them in my mouth, tease them with my tongue,” she replied as she swallowed a mouthful of saliva that was starting to pool at the prospect.

“You can do that, just…watch the teeth,” Fletcher replied. “Seriously, your teeth are like little needles. This is one body part I want to keep.”

“I’ll be gentle,” she said with a threatening grin, enjoying having him on the back foot. “Is just the pink part sensitive?”

“All of it,” he explained, starting to breathe more heavily as she inched her scaly lips closer to him. “The tip is more sensitive than the rest. You can, like, peel it back a little.”

“Peel it?” she mumbled, Fletcher pulling back a sheath of skin to reveal more shining flesh. “Oh…”

She pressed her lips against its tip, feeling it throb against them, then let it slide deeper. It had no discernible taste, its heat surprising her once again. She could feel it pulsing against her tongue, hot, mammalian blood rushing through it. When she got a couple of inches into her mouth, she began to tease it with her long, thin tongue, lapping at the smooth tip. She could feel him flex and twitch with each glance as she coated the helmet-like head in her saliva. He was so reactive…

She tried to close her fingers around his shaft, but it was too girthy, so she uncoiled one of the feather sheaths on her forearm. The prehensile, muscular appendage wound around his member like a tentacle, Fletcher seeming surprised by the sensation. Not having sheaths of his own, it probably hadn’t occurred to him that she could do that. She tightened it, starting to spiral it up and down his length as she lapped at his tip, her smooth scales gliding against his skin.

“That’s…creative,” he muttered, watching her with drooping eyelids. His organ felt even larger in her mouth, Xipa pursing her scaly lips around its tip, mapping it with her tongue in an attempt to figure out how best to pleasure him. She slid it beneath that protective cap of skin, feeling him shudder, his prosthetic fists balling as she gently probed the little slit at its apex. It was tender on its underside, too, so she flicked her tongue across that spot. She couldn’t lick in the way that he could, but her tongue was faster, more agile. With her good eye, she glanced up at him as she lapped and sucked, enjoying the way that he responded to each glance with a shiver or a sigh. She soon figured out that he enjoyed the sensation of his fat head sliding against the ribbed roof of her mouth, the texture making him unsteady on his legs.

Maybe this was why people enjoyed the Earth’nay so much. They were downright adorable when you got them going…

Curious about those strange, hanging sacks of skin, she slid a hand beneath his shaft. She cupped them, letting them rest in her palm, giving them the barest squeeze to discover that they were squishy.

“Whoa, careful with my balls,” Fletcher muttered. “Those are sensitive.”

“How sensitive?” Xipa asked, pausing her licking for a moment.

“Like you squeeze too hard, and I’m gonna be rolling around on the floor in the fetal position for five solid minutes.”

“A secret Earth’nay weak point,” she chuckled, watching his discomfort with amusement as she weighed the organs in her palm. “I’ll have to bring this information back to the Consensus…”

“Just tread lightly,” he muttered.

“Oh, I’ll be as light as a feather,” Xipa added with a grin. She extended her other sheath, the appendage opening up to reveal the layers of colorful plumage within. She brushed them against his skin, teasing him with the delicate fronds, Fletcher almost doubling over as the sensation rocked him.

“God damn,” he muttered, his breathing growing less regular. Encouraged, Xipa returned her lips to his member, sliding them over its tip as she brushed her feathers against his balls. It was a pleasant surprise to find a place where he was so tender, her every touch making him flex in her mouth.

“I’m gonna need to lie down if you keep this up, or I’ll fall over,” he added.

“Are your robot legs giving out?” she giggled, giving his balls another teasing glance with her feathers. “And you said that I was being cute.”

“I like having my dick sucked – you discovered my secret.”

He lowered himself to the floor, taking care to sit on the pressure suit beside her, Xipa poising there eagerly as she waited for him to get comfortable. As soon as he sat down, she placed a hand on his broad chest to ease him onto his back, then lay down on her side next to him. She shuffled down a little to put her head level with his groin, then plunged her face into his lap. He lifted his rump off the floor as she resumed her ardent licking, bringing her feather sheath back to his balls, caressing them with a palpable gentleness as she circled his tip with her tongue.

He had to cover his mouth with a prosthetic hand to stifle a moan as she let his cock slide against the textured roof of her mouth again, a shiver passing through him as she brushed his balls. She crawled her soft, scaly lips up and down his shaft, wetting her hand with her bubbling saliva to make her touch slick as she stroked him. She was back in control now, and it was Fletcher’s turn to be on the defensive, the Earth’nay making her feel a little less self-conscious about her earlier display of vulnerability.

“What do you call this top part?” she asked, making sure to seal her lips around it when he replied to make his voice waver.

“It’s called the… the glans,” he groaned, another teasing flutter of her tongue making him sink back to the floor.

“I love watching you squirm,” she purred, mouthing and kissing at his shaft as she held it still in one sticky hand. “I like your cock,” she added, giving it a wet kiss to punctuate her point. “It’s a strange-looking thing, but with more ground to cover, I can get a little more creative.”

“I can’t imagine having two dicks,” he muttered. “And internal testicles, I’m guessing, considering how confused you are by mine.”

“I appreciate the hands-on course in xenobiology,” she cooed. “Your cock looks like a mushroom, by the way.”

You’re a mushroom,” he mumbled, her slow licking dulling his wit.

Xipa redoubled her efforts, doting on her partner, her heart pounding in her chest as she felt him pulse and flex in her mouth. He couldn’t keep still, his polymer toes curling, his spine arching off the floor. Maybe it was the novelty of lying with an alien, or maybe it was just her growing attachment to Fletcher, but seeing the usually stoic and aloof Earth’nay in such an affected state made her rub her thighs together impatiently. Slowly, she was gearing up, preparing herself both mentally and physically to try to take this monstrous organ inside her. The hotter she became, the more her inhibitions melted away, already dulled by drink and herb. When she looked at that bulging, veiny thing, all she could think about was the aching emptiness inside her that begged to be filled.

Slowly, she slid her tail up between her legs, using its tapered tip to stroke her drooling slit. When her scales were wet with her anticipation, she slowly pushed it inside herself, feeling the tight walls of slick muscle part to accommodate it. She had spent so many lonely nights fucking herself into a stupor with her own tail that it almost seemed more natural than making love now. She’d told herself that she didn’t have time to court, that her work was more important. Not anymore.

She probed for her sweet spot, as Fletcher had so aptly put it, finding the soft nub of flesh in the deepest reaches of her passage. Using the tip of her tail, she squashed it against the roof of her tunnel, ripples of pleasure rocking her as she began to knead it. Fletcher seemed to notice that she was growing more enthusiastic, her hand starting to stroke faster, globs of her drool sliding down his glistening shaft as she lapped and kissed. His hand came down to rest on her head, his rubberized fingers stroking her scales. His touch made her shudder, the sudden, unexpected affection blending with the dull pleasure from her tail to make her head spin.

“You alright down there?” he asked, panting now. There were beads of moisture starting to well on his skin, making him wet to the touch. It was how they cooled themselves – she remembered reading about it. Beads of salty fluid coated their skin, making it slippery, shiny…

“Yeah,” she sighed, resting her head on his hip as she nuzzled his shaft. “Keep stroking my head – that feels good…”

He did as she asked, running his fingers across her forehead, pleasant shivers trailing down her spine like tickling claws. Nobody had ever touched her like this before, nobody had ever made her feel this way. No self-respecting Ensi would lay her head in a boy’s lap and let him pet her like she was a tamed mouse, but it felt so good to let go of all that, to just do what felt right. She wrapped her arms around his thigh, upping the pace of her tail, starting to thrust it inside herself. Fletcher realized what she was doing, chuckling at her.

“Want any help?”

“You are helping,” she muttered, her feathers flashing nonsensical colors. He slid his hand down to her cheek, indifferent to her disfiguring scars, scratching her beneath the jaw. She lifted her head involuntarily, her mouth slightly agape, something about the sensation short-circuiting her brain.

“Your feathers are going crazy again,” he muttered, but she ignored him as she leaned into his stroking.

“Are you close?” she finally asked. “I want to make you come. Earth’nay do that, right?”

“Of course we do,” he replied.

“And, how long until you can go again afterwards?”

“Maybe ten or fifteen minutes,” he replied, wincing as she returned her lips to the base of his shaft. She crawled them up to his tip, tracing his veins with her tongue, the muscular coils of her sheath gripping him tightly.

“Good,” she cooed, caressing him with her feathers again. She could feel his pulse quicken through his throbbing member as she resumed her stroking, harrying his glans with tickling licks, her silky plumage trailing across his inner thighs. She grew more aggressive as she felt her own climax nearing, her trembling muscles clamping down on her tail as it wriggled and squirmed inside her, the mounting pleasure bringing that feeling of giddiness back.

“Fuck,” Fletcher snarled, his sudden change in tone alarming her for a moment. He sounded so gruff. His grip on her head tightened a little, and she could tell that he was struggling to prevent himself from thrusting, his hips shifting on the floor. “I’m too fucking high for this bullshit.”

Xipa laughed, tightening her sheath around his length, one last lap of her tongue all it took to push him over the edge. She felt him swell, the muscles in his abdomen bulging from beneath his shining skin as he doubled over, letting out another feral snarl.

Instead of the trickle of watery fluid that she had been anticipating, a thick, gelatinous rope of his seed erupted from the slit at the tip of his organ, propelled into the air by a powerful muscle spasm. It draped itself over her snout, splashing on her scales, its weight tangible. She knew enough to keep stroking, watching, transfixed as a second strand of the pearly liquid fell back to coat her hand. It was hot, sticky, clinging to her hide rather than sliding off her. Grunting with the effort, Fletcher did it twice more, giving her a little less each time. Some of it seeped down his shaft, Xipa tasting it on her lips, its flavor salty and unfamiliar.

She was coated in his alien seed, fat, wobbling strands of it dangling from either side of her nose. As Fletcher fell back to the floor, a satisfied sigh escaping his lips, Xipa’s head swam with arousal. Lust was burning her up like a fever, her heart pounding, her gaze lingering on his still-twitching organ. The feeling of that warm, syrupy fluid dripping down her scales was the last push she needed, and a shuddering orgasm wracked her as she fucked herself to completion with her tail. Burying her snout in his groin, his glistening member throbbing against her sticky cheek, she rode out the shuddering throes of her climax. In her drink and herb-addled state, it was hard to remember if she had ever felt this way before – if she had ever felt such sweet, aching swells of pleasure. Every time she pressed her tail into that sensitive little bud of flesh, her insides clamped down on it in an involuntary spasm, accompanied by a throb of bliss that robbed her of her breath.

She draped herself over his stomach, her breasts squashing against his damp skin, her headdress flashing colorful nonsense. Just when she was starting to regain some of her faculties, she felt Fletcher’s fingers stroke her head, an aftershock that could have floored a Teth’rak rocking her. Xipa made a sound that would best be described as someone catching their tail in a door being played back at half speed, tapering into a breathy, needy whine that made her feathers flush an embarrassed pink.

“I can tell how much you needed that,” Fletcher chuckled, his deep voice reverberating through his torso.

They lay there in silence for a few minutes, wallowing in their afterglow. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, as there was nothing that needed to be said. Xipa found it refreshing to have someone understand her on the level that Fletcher did. It reminded her of having a flock.

Fletcher stirred, reaching into one of the pockets of his pressure suit, the sound of tearing velcro rousing Xipa from her comfortable stupor. She heard the crackling of plastic, turning her head to see him unwrapping what looked like a medical kit. He tore open a sealed roll of bandages and reached down, using the fabric to wipe away the semen that was clinging to her snout. She found her feathers flushing an amorous pink again, her heart fluttering as he cleaned her up, his prosthetic hands as gentle as they could be.

“Shouldn’t you save that for something more important?” she mumbled, enjoying the sensation of the soft fabric stroking her scaly nose even as she complained.

“I’m assuming you don’t want to walk around the base looking like that,” he chuckled. He handed her a strip of gauze, and she used it to clean her hand. “Sorry,” he added. “I guess I should have warned you.”

“I liked it,” she replied, her unashamed statement making his cock twitch. She took the strip of bandage and used it to clean his shaft, watching him wince, still sensitive from his orgasm.

When they were about as clean as they were going to get without a shower, Xipa crawled up Fletcher’s prone body to lie beside him, bringing her face level with his. She ran her clawed fingers across his chest, tracing his collection of scars, enjoying the wet texture of his skin. He slid his hand down her spine in turn, tugging her closer, taking a greedy handful of her springy rump.

“Enjoying yourself?” she asked in mock annoyance, pushing her scaly cheek into his hand.

“I’d give your butt a slap, but I don’t think that’s covered by my warranty,” he joked. “You guys went all-in on the arse and thighs, huh? Did your ancestors use their legs to crack open coconuts or something? Maybe some kind of squat-based hunting method?”

“Now you’re just being insensitive,” she chuckled, leaning in to nuzzle his cheek with her newly-clean snout. “Kiss me again.”

He teased her, rubbing his nose against hers.

“Not my way, your way,” she grumbled as she caught his face in her hands. She parted her lips, and he obliged, Xipa letting herself melt into him as he wrapped his arms around her. Skin met scales, his mammal-hot, slippery tongue probing her mouth. Xipa coiled her tail around one of his legs possessively, feeling more residual twinges of desire tickle her nethers as they embraced. It made her feel young again, bringing her straight back to her first time – when everything was new, and she had to learn as she went. That wasn’t something she had ever expected to experience again at her age.

“You’re definitely making the prospect of retiring more attractive,” Fletcher said as they broke off. “You really want me to stick around?”

“I’m taking you as war booty,” she giggled, giving him a couple more affectionate pecks on the cheek. “You’re my flock,” she added, her tone growing more earnest. “It’s been a long time since I’ve found someone who could fill that role – since I’ve even allowed myself to entertain the thought. You understand me, you make me want to be better. Listen,” she added with a sigh, laying her head on his chest. “We both spent too much time denying ourselves the things we really wanted because we were afraid of losing them. I don’t want to be the Lonely Ensi anymore.”

“Well, thanks for giving me a chance,” he muttered. “I spent this whole time trying to keep you at arm’s length, but you wormed your way in all the same. You’re the only person who’s ever given enough of a shit about me to give me an out. I don’t really know what being in a flock entails, but in human terms, I can call you a lot of things. The best relationships I’ve had have been with people who I sweat and bled with, and me and you – we’ve done our share of sweating and bleeding. Taking it a step further feels…right.”

He glanced down to see Xipa staring up at him, starry-eyed, her feathers flushed a vibrant pink.

“Can we fuck again yet?” she asked eagerly.

“Yeah,” he said after a momentary pause, his face warming.

Xipa trilled gleefully, then sprang into action, swinging one of her legs over his belly. Earth’nay males were broad-shouldered but narrow at the hips, and she was momentarily surprised by how well they seemed to fit together. She sat on his stomach, feeling his renewed erection slide between her scaly cheeks, her pillowy fat cushioning it.

“You’re mine now,” she purred, a flutter of assertive red joining her pink.

“I take it you’re a top,” Fletcher mused as his eyes wandered down to her pert breasts.

“What do you weigh – two hundred pounds?” Xipa asked as she lay her hands on his muscular midriff. “You’ll squash me as flat as a protein patty if you’re not careful. Besides, I want to set the pace,” she added as she brushed the tip of his throbbing member with the smooth underside of her tail. “Unless you want to explain to Ruza why my internal organs have been displaced in a suspiciously cock-shaped pattern.”

“I guess you are on the shorter side,” he conceded.

“Exactly, so be a good boy, and do as you’re told.”

“I’m not calling you mommy if that’s what you’re getting at,” he added, wincing as she used one of her feather sheaths to flick his chest. “Alright, alright. You have point, Ensi.”

She pushed her rump out, sandwiching his shaft between her cheeks, pressing it deeper with her prehensile tail. Fletcher grunted as she flexed, the firm muscle gripping him through her doughy fat. She wasn’t quite as lean as she’d been in her youth, but her partner seemed none the less appreciative. Perhaps the Earth’nay liked their females a little softer.

She began to grind slowly, enjoying his frustration, feeling him squirm between her thighs as her excitement dripped on his belly. She could feel that hot blood rushing through his organ, making it pulse and swell against her vulva. What was it going to feel like inside her? What if this didn’t work?

“C’mon, stop fucking with me,” he panted after a couple of minutes.

“I’m building up to it!” she protested. “How would you like it if I just shoved my tail inside you with no warning?”

“Wait, is that something you do?” he asked.

“Some boys like it,” she replied with a shrug.

“Well I don’t!”

“Alright! I wasn’t going to,” she continued, his obvious alarm making her break out into laughter. “You’re such a baby.”

Slowly, she raised her butt off him, a clear strand of her juices sagging to his stomach. Now crouching over his waist, she took a step backwards, hovering with her loins a scant inch above his shaft.

“It’s…really okay if you can’t do it,” Fletcher began, but Xipa cut him off.

“I can do it! I mean, other people have done it. If some fresh-faced Commando can take an Earth’nay home from a lounge, then I can do it too. It’s just a matter of finding the right angle of approach…”

“It’s a dick, not a dropship,” Fletcher added.

“Could have fooled me,” she muttered.

Xipa reached down between her thighs, rubbing that fat, shiny glans between her scaly lips to wet it with her juices. Why did it feel even larger now? Maybe it was just her imagination. Its heat made her shiver, her legs threatening to give out. Tentatively, she pressed it against her opening, resisting the urge to clench. Fletcher was keeping mercifully still, despite how enticing having the slippery, velvet folds of her vulva kissing his tip must have been.

She felt it splay her open, her insides clinging to it as tightly as a pressure suit. Despite its girth, it was able to slide on the layer of slippery fluid that drenched her seizing walls, its alien contours setting her nerves alight with pleasure as she took it deeper. It was nothing like the tapered, fleshy tubes that she was used to – it had so many ridges and bulges. It was all that she could focus on, its heat giving her pause, the way that it flexed like a muscle making her suck in a sharp gasp. She felt the odd shape of the glans, the swollen veins, Fletcher’s pulse coursing through it. It almost hurt – almost – but the ache that she was feeling wasn’t one of discomfort.

Gaining confidence, she tackled the flared midsection of his shaft, wary of any sudden stabs of pain that might indicate tearing. Once she was past that part, she knew that she could take the rest, gradually lowering herself until she felt him bottom out inside her. She was only halfway, and already, his glans was crushing her clitoris against the roof of her passage. The sensation almost made her fall the rest of the way, but she managed to keep her composure.

Finally, she sat down in his lap, doubling over as her body somehow found a way to accommodate the rest of him. She felt like she was stretching herself over him, like a film of plastic pulled taut. Everything about this felt wrong, but in all the right ways. They weren’t made to fit together, this foreign organ had no business being inside her, yet they were making it work.

“D-don’t tell me what I can’t do,” she panted, giving Fletcher an unsteady grin as her headdress flickered like a broken LCD.

Fuck, Xipa,” he groaned as he threw his head back. “I…I don’t know if I’ll last long. God, how are you this tight? You’re cutting off my fucking circulation.”

“Ah!” she chirped, feeling his cock swell inside her. “Don’t move, idiot! I need a moment to get used to this…”

“I didn’t!” he protested, groaning as he felt her muscular passage clench in response. “It’s involuntary!”

“Just shut up!” she snapped as she gritted her teeth. “Shut up, you idiot. Fuck, I love this – I love you. Stop moving, or you’ll make me come.”

“I thought that was the fucking idea?” he grunted.

Her body was gradually growing accustomed to the feeling of having him inside her – adapting to his alien shape and his ceaseless throbbing. If she moved so much as an inch, she feared that he’d push her over the edge, every flex of his cock grinding against her tender bud. The ache was starting to grow sweeter, the muscles that were fighting against him beginning to loosen their hold, Xipa allowing herself to exhale a shuddering sigh.

“You good?” Fletcher asked, already breathless.

“I could ask the same of you,” she chuckled weakly. “I feel as though if I was a feather smaller or you were a feather larger, we wouldn’t fit together. Now, keep still,” she added as she placed her hands on his stomach to steady herself. “Let me do the moving.”

Like she was sitting on top of an armed torpedo, she started to rock gingerly, slowly circling her hips. Even the most minute motions translated into powerful stabs of pleasure, that rigid organ stirring around inside her. Its girthy shaft scraped against her fleshy walls, Xipa feeling the blood that rushed through its bulging veins as though it was her own, sensing the quickening of her partner’s heart. Judging by the way that he was gritting his flat teeth, beads of sweat trickling down his face, it felt just as good to him. Good. She wanted to make him feel what she felt.

There was something new and wonderful about the sensations that assailed her, so intense that they bordered on pain, but never quite crossing that threshold. The same nerves that sensed discomfort also sensed pleasure, after all, and this was an experience intense enough to confuse them. The longer she spent with his organ lodged inside her, the better it felt, like her insides were gradually molding themselves to better accommodate him. Again, she was reminded of her first time, the same blend of fear and excitement assailing her.

The worst – or perhaps the best – thing about it was the way that his cock was always in contact with her clitoris. There was no way for her to lift herself off him or find a position where his fat member wasn’t crushing it against the roof of her tunnel, stimulating the deepest, most sensitive part of her anatomy no matter how she tried to move.

“What’s that little bump pressing against me?” Fletcher sighed.

“My sweet spot,” she panted, mimicking his accent. “You can feel that?”

“It’s pressing into my glans,” he muttered. “Feels…weird. Good weird.”

Growing more confident, Xipa increased her pace from sluggish to lazy, rocking her wide hips from side to side. The two of them gasped in unison as her velvet-soft passage caressed his shaft, every tickle of sensation making her reaches squeeze his length, taut muscle rippling beyond the slippery walls of flesh. Fletcher reacted to every clench and twitch, his member surging inside her, swelling and flexing almost as though it was trying to escape of its own volition.

Fletcher’s eyes were on her stomach, admiring the twin rows of her abs as the effort of their lovemaking made them rise from beneath her scaly underbelly. He reached out with one of his prosthetic hands, his rubberized fingertips tracing the contours of her midriff, following the dimple they created in her hide down to her navel. There, they transitioned into softer flesh, which she felt him probe with no less desire.

“Leave my tummy alone,” she chuckled, too affected to make her complaint sound convincing. “I’m not as lean as I used to be.”

“You’re perfect,” he replied without missing a beat, his blatant flattery making her feathers flush pink again.

“Half of my face is gone,” she insisted. “How is that perfect?”

“Well, I like the other half enough to make up for it.”

“You realize that we’re already fucking and you don’t have to woo me?” she added with a snort.

She changed her pace, starting to push back and forth now, keeping him inside her. The ring of muscle at her entrance was sealed so tightly around his base, her tunnel conforming to its every contour. Maybe it was her imagination, but when she slid backwards, she could almost see a bulge in her belly. He was wearing her like a glove.

His hands began to wander again, testing the firmness of her round thighs as they gripped him tightly, reaching around to cup her cheeks. Xipa let out a surprised trill as he squeezed, her loins clenching around him reflexively, her muscle spasms wringing his shaft with all the strength of a coiled tail. Valbara’nay males weren’t this aggressive, nor this permissive, but it was a welcome feeling to be desired in such an overt way.

Those polymer fingers found their way to her chest, the gentle wobbling of her breasts as she danced atop him seeming to entice him. He closed a hand over one of them, engulfing it completely, her delicate fat offering him no resistance as it melted between his fingers. The scales on her underside were so fine as to be almost imperceptible, closer to his alien skin than her own, tougher scales. Her erect nipple pressed into his hard palm, and she noted once again that his mechanical extremities weren’t cold as one might expect, matching the ambient temperature of the room.

Like he had discovered a new toy, Fletcher began to knead and squeeze, his fingers delving deep in search of her more sensitive tissue. He was being rough, but in a way that she enjoyed, her steady pace faltering as he caught a nipple between his rubberized digits. He had such fine control over those prosthetics, and while she knew that Ruza had tuned them down somewhat, the fact that steel and polymer could interact so effortlessly with tender flesh amazed her nonetheless. In different circumstances, those fingers would have been able to crush her skull like an egg.

“If I go faster, can you handle it?” she asked between labored breaths.

“Is that a question or a challenge?” Fletcher replied with a smirk that told her all she needed to know.

She began to move faster, thrusting back and forth, grinding on his rigid organ. She didn’t dare to lift herself off him – not yet. She was almost afraid of how good that might feel. Her hips made circular motions, Xipa guided more by her own animal desires than by any strategy, moving in whatever way best satisfied her burning itch. Everything about this was borderline. She was barely in control of herself, she could barely take Fletcher, she could barely stave off the maddening orgasm that had been threatening to break down the door from the moment she had sat down on him. For as much as she had craved control, the prospect of letting go was so alluring. She didn’t have to put on the facade of a stoic leader here – she could let Fletcher see her as she truly was, at her most raw and honest. She wanted him to know that side of her.

“Xipa, I dunno how much of this I can take,” Fletcher moaned as another of her needy thrusts rocked him.

“Hold on for me,” she demanded, her voice wavering as his cock pulsed inside her. “I want to drag this out for every second that I can.”

She crouched over him, planting her clawed feet to either side of his hips, catching her breath for a moment as she poised there. Once she had mustered enough courage, she lifted herself off him, leaning with her hands on his stomach as inches of his organ slid out of her. Glancing down between her thighs in disbelief, she watched as her clinging, pink flesh gave way to pale skin that glistened with her fluids. His shaft was drenched, fat globs of her creamy excitement clinging to it, probably the only thing that that was making their coupling possible. The subtle flare of his shaft didn’t feel so subtle as she reached its thickest point, Xipa pausing to utter a stifled groan, his organ splitting her open again. She might never get used to this, and in a way, that thought excited her.

With the same caution, she lowered herself back down, but her legs gave out as the pleasure became too much for her. Instead of the slow descent that she had intended, she slammed back down into his lap, her butt clapping against his thighs. She lifted her snout to the ceiling, her mouth agape, the sudden surge of ecstasy stoking the flames of her desire like someone driving an iron rod into a smoldering fire to reinvigorate it. A flurry of pleasure ribboned up through her body, dancing between her nerves like an electric current, the involuntary arching of her spine only making it worse as it increased the delicious pressure on her clitoris.

“Xipa?” Fletcher groaned, no doubt suffering just as she did.

“I-I’m fine,” she squeaked. “Just came a little…”

There was no reason to go slow now, Xipa lifting herself again, feeling the strange contours of his member glide against her tight passage. That lip around his glans was maddening, scraping against her insides on its way in and out of her. Her feathers went haywire with each thrust, the pressure taken off her clitoris at her highest point, only to return with a vengeance when she dropped back down.

There was no longer anything measured or graceful about the way that she was moving, Xipa rutting like an animal, her claws pressing into Fletcher’s belly as she supported herself. If he felt any discomfort, he didn’t show it, his eyes following her wide hips as they rose and fell. Xipa let her head droop, her eye closing, the tip of her tail curling as each impact drove the wind out of her.

As great as her desire was, there was just so much of him, the motion of lifting herself from a crouched position over and over rapidly tiring her out. The muscles in her thighs and belly were burning, a blend of pleasure and fatigue draining her stamina. She slowed, straddling him, taking a moment to catch her breath.

“There’s that Valbaran stamina again,” Fletcher panted. He was making fun of her, but his relieved expression suggested that she’d stopped in the nick of time. “You alright?”

“Mhmm,” she mumbled, shivering as a spasm rocked her. “Give me…a moment.”

“You’re gonna tire yourself out,” he added, propping himself up on his elbows with an electrical whine. “Do you trust me?”

“Do I trust you?” she repeated, cocking her head at him.

“Yeah, do you trust me?”

“Yes,” she replied, a flutter of pink passing through her headdress.

He gripped her by the hips, one hand sliding behind her butt to support her as he rolled her over, keeping his member buried inside her. She gripped him between her thighs reflexively, clinging to him as he cast her into shadow. She was on her back now, sandwiched between Fletcher and his pressure suit, his prosthetic limbs slowly lowering her to the floor. Xipa lay on her back, blinking her one eye as she lifted her head to peer at him, the Earth’nay so much taller than she was that his chest was level with her snout.

“Let me do the hard work,” he said, Xipa’s heart fluttering at the suggestion.

“G-go slow,” she stammered. “Remember – I’m not an Earth’nay. You can’t be rough with me. And don’t put any weight on me – my kind can’t breathe if you press down on our chests.”

“Relax,” he chuckled, doubling over to bring his lips to hers. He had to hunch his back to reach her, Xipa stretching her neck to meet his kiss, his gentle embrace melting away her apprehension. His flat tongue danced in her mouth, his taste filling her head, the oddly enticing scent of his sweat filling her lungs. He was dripping now in the heat and humidity of the generator room, beads of his glistening exertion falling to her scales like the first droplets of rain that preceded a storm. They were still joined, and she felt him flex inside her as they made out wetly, her loins gripping him fiercely as their pace grew more lurid.

“Just be careful,” she sighed as his face rose away from her, her amorous tone dulling any bite that the warning might have had.

“I’d never hurt you,” he replied, planting one mechanical hand beside her head. Xipa felt the other slide down to her midriff, gripping the flare of her hip like it was a handle. She swallowed the lump in her throat, that same intoxicating blend of fear and anticipation gripping her again.

Fletcher started to move, holding her still as he pulled himself out of her, Xipa watching the shining inches of his shaft slide past her scaly lips. When only his tip was still gripped by her muscular entrance, he thrust back inside her, parting her clenching walls with his girthy organ. He watched her all the while, carefully gauging her reaction, even as the very same pleasures assailed him. As he bottomed out inside her, her feathers erupted into nonsensical patterns again, Fletcher grimacing as they brushed against his face. He made a strange expression, then sneezed, Xipa shuddering as the explosive reflex made him lurch inside her.

“S-sorry,” she chuckled, Fletcher wiping his nose on the back of his hand.

“That’s alright,” he said, laughing along with her.

He continued, growing more confident, finding a steady rhythm that wasn’t too much for Xipa to handle. This position was indeed easier for both of them, Xipa able to just lie back as Fletcher moved his hips like a piston, his considerable weight adding a wonderful strength to his thrusts that resonated throughout her entire body. His strokes were so long that they never seemed to end. She reached out to grip his polymer forearm in her hand, her feather sheath extending to wrap around it, her tail coiling around one of his thighs.

“Calm down, you little limpet,” he grumbled. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Before she could ask him what a limpet was, he delivered another slow thrust, taking her breath away as his member squashed her clitoris. She threw her head back, her thighs trembling as they gripped him, a sound that she didn’t know she could make slipping past her pursed lips.

“You good?” he asked, pausing for a moment.

“Don’t stop!” she snapped, a flutter of annoyed red passing through her headdress.

“I don’t know what sounds Valbarans make!” he protested. “I dunno if that’s a fuck me harder moan or a you just punctured an organ moan.”

“It was a fuck me harder moan,” she clarified, reaching up with her free hand. She extended her sheath, hooking it around his neck, pulling him into another bawdy kiss. She felt him falter, taken off-guard by her sudden assertiveness, Xipa smirking as she broke off. “Now, fuck me harder.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he muttered as he found a heavier pace. Even over the rumble of the generators, Xipa could hear his organ slapping wetly against her soft, yielding insides. The sensation of fullness when he pushed forward was almost unbearable, satisfying in a way that she had never felt before, as though it was putting pressure on every nerve inside her all at once. It was inescapable, and no matter how she shifted and wriggled to change the angle of their coupling, there was nothing that she could do to lessen its intensity.

Through a half-lidded eye, she watched him move atop her, his alien musculature shifting beneath his scarred skin. There was almost as much of his sweat on her as there was on him now, the moisture making her green scales shine, its salty taste on her lips. There was something wonderfully indecent about it. When she reached up to brace her hands against his belly, she found that he was wet, slick to the touch.

“Am I going too fast?” he panted, reaching up to brush his damp hair out of his face.

“No, I like it,” Xipa purred as she gave him a squeeze of encouragement with her legs. “This is just right…”

He doubled over again, burying his face in the nape of her neck, his lips and tongue crawling across her sensitive scales. It both tickled and sent tremors of pleasure shooting down her spine, Xipa’s giggling tapering into a moan as he planted a kiss on her throat. She felt like she was floating on the surface of a warm lake, oddly weightless, each thrust further muddling her thoughts. It was impossible to focus on anything that wasn’t happening right here, right now, all the weight of anxiety and responsibility that had built up over the last few days lifting off her shoulders. She wanted this feeling to last forever.

Fletcher was losing himself to their shared bliss now too, his breaths coming harder and faster. Xipa watched him lazily, a drunken smile on her face as he pressed her hips into the floor, leaning just enough weight on her that she could feel it without it becoming uncomfortable.

“You can go a little faster,” she whispered, her eye widening as he did exactly that. His member seemed to swell inside her, throbbing with the beating of his heart, its heat radiating through her. Her body reacted to its every twitch and flex, narrow walls of rippling muscle caressing him, rolling up his shaft in waves as though her loins were guiding him deeper. He seemed to revel in the sensation of her silky flesh stretching around him, the struggling of her beleaguered muscles making his steady pace erratic, desperate.

One of his hands reached for her chest, mauling one of her wobbling breasts, Xipa arching her back as he took his fill of her. She wanted it. She wanted his hands all over her, she wanted his tongue to taste every scale on her body, she wanted to give herself to him completely and unreservedly. She began to lift her hips off the ground, meeting his punishing thrusts, every soft part of her figure quivering each time their heaving bodies met. All of the words that she might use to describe what she was feeling had negative connotations – soreness, aching, burning – yet she reveled in all of it.

“I can’t keep this up,” Fletcher snarled, Xipa hearing the tension in his voice. She could feel that he was close, and the memory of his thick, hot seed draping itself over her snout was still fresh in her mind. What would that feel like if he released it inside her?

“I just need a little more,” she pleaded, the eagerness in her tone surprising even herself. “Do it deep, Fletcher. I want to feel it.”

Once he had her permission, he let loose, Xipa grunting as he slammed into her narrow depths with renewed urgency. She let go of her inhibitions too, letting her instincts guide her, her logical mind ceding control to something more base and hungry.

“I’m so glad this worked out,” Fletcher panted, his voice wavering as he neared his peak. “I lied earlier – I would have been so disappointed if we couldn’t do this. I wanted to rail you so fucking badly.”

“You can rail me all you like from now on,” Xipa laughed, gazing up at his red face.

Each thrust pushed her a little higher than the last, the ecstasy turning her feathers into a light show, building until she couldn’t stand it any longer. Just as that welling pressure became unbearable, Fletcher faltered, his massive body quaking above her as droplets of his sweat rained down onto her scales. He bent almost double, one hand gripping her hip, the other supporting his weight as he buried his face in the nape of her neck. His next few thrusts were more desperate, needy, Xipa reaching up a hand to grip his damp hair for purchase as he hilted her as though his life depended on it.

There was a brief moment of beautiful silence and stillness, like a fighter craft stalling out before a fall, then she felt his alien organ flex inside her. A gasp caught in her throat, her feathers flaring as he fucked a hot, gelatinous load of his emission into her narrow reaches. He huffed and growled like a beast mounting its mate, rocking his hips as though he was trying to force that warm, slimy fluid deeper inside her. Each thrust scraped his glans against her tender walls, crushing her clitoris against the roof of her tunnel, the struggling of her clenching muscles only serving to encourage him. She could feel every rope of his seed, every swell of his cock, the very pulse of his heartbeat. Xipa was the source of that pleasure, and it filled her with an unfamiliar warmth.

One last shuddering push was all it took for Xipa to join him in his bliss, her thighs tightening around his hips like a vice, her tail wrapping around his waist to keep him inside her as she let out a stifled wail. She draped her arms around his neck, pushing her snout into his hair, her hands sliding on his wet skin as she felt a searing wave of pleasure wrack her. Her muscles cramped and flexed, her loins undulating around his shaft, Fletcher letting out another muffled grunt as the walls of damp flesh tightened in a violent contraction.

There was nothing separating them now – they were tangled together in a hot, wet mess of entwined limbs, sharing every pulse and twitch. For the first time since she had left this moon all those rotations ago, the feeling of lingering loneliness that plagued her was washed away, replaced with a potent sense of belonging.

Moving with a mechanical pace that was dictated by raw instinct, they remained joined, Xipa pushing up to meet Fletcher’s thrusts in an attempt to keep the euphoria going for as long as possible. His seed was leaking out of her now – it had nowhere else to go – sliding down the base of her tail in pearly globs. He still had more to give her, his alien stamina living up to its reputation, his polymer hands gripping her tightly as he practically pulled her onto his shaft. He kissed her ravenously, their embrace clumsy and wet, their mismatched lips and mismatched loins bumping together in a way that left Xipa’s head awash with crackling static. None of this should have worked, but it did – just barely. Nature had granted them just enough similarities that they could fuck each other into a coma.

She felt Fletcher start to slow, another couple of powerful thrusts dragging out her own climax for a few more precious seconds, then the exhausted pair sagged to the floor. Fletcher stayed inside her even as he released his hold on her hip, almost as though afraid to move. His member was plugging her narrow passage completely – she could feel its lurid contents sloshing when she moved, the very thought sending another tickling aftershock coursing through her.

Fletcher surprised her with another kiss, this one slower, more placating. She was starting to prefer his method to that of her own people. It could convey so much more emotion, so much affection, the lazy strokes of his tongue almost soothing…

“Well, I don’t think anything is broken,” she giggled as he pulled away. “Now I can add survived a night with an Earth’nay to my list of accolades.”

They both winced as Fletcher tried to slide back out of her, her loins still gripping him as tightly as a fist, the way that his flared glans scoured her tunnel sending another spasm of pleasure rolling over her. Once free, he knelt between her thighs, his shaft glistening with a blend of their sexual fluids from its base to its tip. She was once again struck by just how much of him she’d managed to get inside her. It was practically a feat of athleticism. Even though he’d left her empty, she could still feel him, like her body had been permanently reconfigured.

“Fuck,” Fletcher mumbled, reaching for the roll of bandages that was still lying on the floor beside them. “This is a misappropriation of UNN supplies,” he added as he did his best to clean himself up. He did the same for Xipa, making her flinch as he rubbed the soft fabric against the base of her tail. “How are you feeling?”

“Like we just made up for thirty rotations in thirty minutes,” she sighed, leaning back as she wallowed in her afterglow.

“Not bad for a guy with only one cock, right?”

He flopped down beside her, braving the cold floor, as there wasn’t enough room on the pressure suit for both of them. Xipa rolled into his embrace, the pair spooning, enjoying their lingering euphoria. She ran her fingers across his chest, sliding them on his wet skin, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest.

“You’re so sweaty,” she muttered, leaning her head on his shoulder.

“So are you,” he replied.

“I’m not,” she added, giving him a sordid smirk. “That’s all yours. Valbara’nay don’t sweat.”

“Oh, right,” he chuckled. He reached over to slide his hand down the dimple of her spine, feeling the moisture on her scales, an appreciative shiver passing through her. Just being touched again, being close to someone else, felt…wonderful. This was an essential nutrient that she had been denying herself. How could she ever have thought any differently?

“I wish I could just fall asleep here, in your arms,” she sighed as she nuzzled his neck. “We can’t stay here too long, though. The others will come looking for us.”

“You think they’ll figure out what we’ve been doing?” Fletcher asked.

“Are you joking?” she scoffed, a flutter of incredulous yellow passing through her headdress. “Bluejay and Ruza can probably smell us all the way from the storage room.”

“I guess you’re right,” he chuckled. “What about the Valbarans?”

“We both reek of sex,” she laughed, the effort making her bare breasts wobble. “I’m done caring what other people think, though. Where did keeping up appearances get me?”

“That’s the spirit,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss her again.

“I don’t want to think about tomorrow too much,” she sighed after he broke off, a tint of worried purple joining her pink display. “It’s probably going to be a mess, because when does anything go the way we want? So much could go wrong. I just want you to know that…if one of us doesn’t make it out, tonight was worth it. I’m really glad we did this, and if this is my last night, then…I won’t feel cheated.”

“We made it this far,” Fletcher replied, bundling her up in his arms. They were firm polymer and cool metal, not the most comforting thing in the world, but they were his all the same. She pushed her face into his warm chest, trying not to spoil such a perfect night with tears, hoping that he didn’t know what the vibrant violets in her headdress meant. “We’ll make it the rest of the way.”

“I know we shouldn’t fall asleep, but can we stay here a while longer?” Xipa pleaded.

“Tell you what,” Fletcher replied, Xipa glancing up at him as he shuffled around. He fished for the touch panel on the sleeve of his pressure suit, straining to tap at the display. “I’ll set an alarm, and you can rest for a while. How does two hours sound? That should give us like…six or seven before we have to get up tomorrow.”

“You’re such a sweet boy,” she purred, craning her neck to give him a grateful peck on the cheek. “Thank you…”

“I can safely say that nobody has ever called me that before,” he chuckled, his face warming again. He rolled over to face her, pulling her close, Xipa exhaling a sigh of satisfaction as she surrendered to the fatigue that had been gnawing at her.


“Good, you’ve arrived,” Vos said as he gestured for Fielding to enter the conference room. In the center of its polished floor was an oval-shaped table, a mass of wiring and projectors hanging above it like some kind of twisted, mechanical chandelier. A dozen shimmering, translucent figures stood around it, holographic representations of other captains from the fleet. The room was darker than might be comfortable to give them more presence, but the wavering projections helped to illuminate it.

Fielding made his way over to stand beside the admiral, noticing a few outliers among the white uniforms. One of them was a man wearing black combat armor, the rolled-up sleeves of his pressure suit exposing his prosthetic arms. His face was scarcely recognizable as human due to all the scar tissue, the details blurring together thanks to the fuzzy resolution of his hologram, and his eyes were missing – replaced with lens-like implants.

Another was a towering Polar, a Borealan covered in a coat of fluffy, white fur. She was wearing a standard Naval uniform, a blue jumpsuit that she was practically spilling out of. Polars were portly creatures with a layer of insulating blubber that helped them survive in the frigid climate of their home territory. That silky, white fur was poking out of her collar and her cuffs, patterned with round markings that reminded Fielding of the stains left by coffee cups. Pinned to her considerable bosom was a shining ID card, and he immediately recognized her as UNNI – Naval Intelligence.

There was also a Jarilan, the insectoid creature standing almost as tall as the Polar beside her. She was taller and lankier than the Drones that Fielding had seen, like one of them had been stretched out from five feet to seven. She had the same ornate horn, the fluffy collar, and the oddly mammalian eyes. After a moment, he recognized her. He had seen this creature before, when she had been on the line with Vos in the observation deck. She was the captain of the Jarilan flotilla, or whatever their equivalent of a captain was. He noted that she had something trailing from her back, like thick, organic cables that were attached to points on her spine. They were connected to something out of view, not captured by the hologram’s field.

The final outliers were a handful of Valbarans who all seemed to be sharing the same projector, a couple of them standing just out of its reach, cut off at the edges.

Fielding slid in beside Vos, who waved a gloved hand to produce a three-dimensional map of Kerguela that hovered above the center of the table. He manipulated it, zooming in until the image was practically flat, showing a patch of the endless forests. Something rose up above the canopy, its height hard to make out from the top-down perspective, but the object was casting a long shadow.

“Thanks to the efforts of our UNNI analysts and our SWAR teams on the ground,” Vos began as he nodded to each of their representatives in turn. “We’ve been able to track the movements of the Red King as it made its way through the red zone. If you’d like to elaborate, Agent Lorza,” he added as he gestured to the Polar.

“Admiral,” she replied with a nod. Her rolling accent sounded vaguely Eastern-European to Fielding. “As you know, we’ve been poring over the data gathered by the ground teams to establish a pattern of behavior. So far, the Kings have been staying mobile to avoid detection, responding to our attacks on their critical infrastructure with a high degree of predictability. It has allowed us to flush out and kill three VIPs so far. The Red King, however, has diverged from that pattern of behavior.”

She waved a clawed hand, drawing a red trail through the trees, looping and twisting across kilometers of territory.

“The target appears to have abandoned any further attempts to ambush Coalition forces and defend strategic locations, and has taken a very deliberate path towards this rock formation. We relayed the information to Lieutenant Brenner and his teams,” she added as she turned to the eyeless SWAR operative.

“Our advance recon teams tracked the target’s entourage through the forest,” Brenner began, clasping his mechanical hands behind his back. “They avoided engaging the enemy forces and observed their movements, which were deliberately erratic, but they couldn’t throw my people off the scent. The Bugs know we have the capability to observe them by now. We couldn’t get too close, as there was a lot of enemy activity in the region, but the intelligence that we were able to gather suggests that the Bugs are fortifying an area roughly the size of Virginia. It’s a circle with a radius of about two hundred klicks – over a hundred thousand square kilometers – and that formation is right in the middle of that circle.”

“Orbital scans of the formation have revealed that it’s a volcanic mesa,” Vos continued, addressing the circle of captains. “It’s a mound of sedimentary rock that was pushed up out of the forest floor by volcanic activity hundreds of thousands of years ago. It has an outer shell of basalt and granite that’s been exposed by erosion, along with an inner layer of softer rock that makes it perfect for tunneling.” Another wave of his hand displayed a wireframe model of the formation, what looked like a free-standing mountain with a flat, table-like top. “This thing is fifteen hundred meters tall, and about halfway up, the sloping sides transition into completely vertical rock faces that make them impossible for infantry to scale. Everything about this mesa suggests that the Bugs have converted it into a fortress.”

“The height would allow them to get a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding forest and to potentially fire down on any approaching enemies,” Brenner continued as his camera-eyes swept around the table. “Coupled with any fortifications that they’ve been able to construct in the surrounding region, this is a place they really don’t want anyone reaching. It’s safe to assume that they have air defense systems active in the area, too.”

“The fact that the Red King is retreating to this location suggests that it is of the utmost strategic importance,” Lorza added. “None of the other Kings have exhibited this kind of behavior, even when cornered. UNNI has reason to believe that this may be the location of the hive’s Queen.”

A murmur passed around the table, the captains exchanging surprised glances.

“The Queen is on the ropes,” Vos said, commanding the room’s attention. “She knows we’re coming for her, and she’s pulling any nearby forces back to a more defensible position. I suspect that many more of the Kings would have moved to support her if we hadn’t shut down their global comms network. Red is the only one she can still talk to.”

“The Bugs aren’t stupid,” Brenner added, leaning on a surface that wasn’t being picked up by the hologram. “They know that we’re watching them, and they have a pretty solid idea of our capabilities by now. They wouldn’t play their hand like this if they weren’t expecting the rest of the table to fold. This target is too juicy to pass up, but it’s going to be a costly fight. We’re going to have to spring their trap if we want a shot at the Queen.”

“How many resources can we dedicate to the task?” Fielding asked. “Do we have any idea of the enemy’s strength?”

“We estimate as many as two million Betelgeusians, as well as whatever the Red King has brought back with him,” Lorza replied. “That’s just a rough estimate based on the fifteen million number we got from known metrics about Betelgeusian reproduction, divided by the number of zones and the troop distribution we’ve seen within them. Not all of those will be Drones and other combat castes, but it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll be skewed in that direction due to the circumstances.”

“We can’t pull out of the remaining zones, not without losing some of the gains we’ve made,” Vos added as he brought up a list of ships in the fleet. “Ongoing ground operations require most of our carrier groups to remain where they are. I’m comfortable committing twelve CSGs to the assault. That’s why you’re all here,” he added with a smile. “Between us, we can bring a force of 1,080 aircraft, 2,700 vehicles, and 174,000 troops to bear. We’ll be outnumbered ten to one, but when has that ever not been the case?”

“The Consensus can lend three of our Landfall troop carriers to the operation,” one of the Valbarans added, the high pitch of her voice making her immediately recognizable. “Each carrier can deploy 6,000 Commandos to the surface.”

“That brings us up to 192,000 personnel,” Vos replied, giving her a grateful nod.

“We would be remiss not to have our people participate in this operation,” the alien added, a flutter of red passing through her feathery headdress. “The Queen has the blood of millions of Valbara’nay on her hands.”

“The Constancy will support you in your efforts,” the Jarilan captain said, her unremarkable voice contrasting sharply with her insectoid appearance. “You will need Jarilan help if you are to navigate the enemy’s defenses and penetrate the hive.”

“This isn’t our first rodeo,” Brenner added, glancing across the table at the Jarilan. “We’ve burnt out roaches before.”

“Your help will be appreciated,” Vos added, overruling the surly cyborg. “Your Drone detachments have been invaluable so far.”

“Do we have a plan yet, Admiral?” another of the captains asked in a soft-spoken voice. Her uniform was notably different from those of her fellow captains, the woman sporting a colorful sari with gold trim, a traditional Indian garment. Like her counterparts, her breast was decorated with service ribbons and medals. Fielding recognized her as Captain Varma of the UNN Saragarhi.

Vos manipulated the holographic display again, shifting to an overhead perspective of the region, the mesa at its center.

“The first stage of the attack will require us to clear out as much of the area as possible,” he said, a red overlay appearing over the forest. “We need to destroy enemy fortifications, eliminate as many of their forces as we can, and any trees we can get rid of in the process will only make the operation easier. Leaves the critters fewer places to hide. What we’re proposing is an alpha strike – using orbital and air assets to level the forest surrounding the mesa.”

“That’s more like it,” Brenner chuckled, but a few of the captains in attendance exchanged concerned looks. The Valbarans seemed especially distressed, flashes of purple passing through their feathers as they engaged in a rapid-fire discussion in their own chirping language.

“I understand that turning the planets we’re supposed to be capturing into parking lots isn’t the best way to go about things,” Vos continued. “In this case, we believe that the strategic importance of the target warrants such a response. I’ve been on the horn to the admiralty, the Coalition Security Council, and the Consensus,” he said with a glance at the Valbarans. “They’ve given me permission to establish a two-hundred-kilometer exclusion zone around the mesa. Valbaran ecologists who are familiar with Kerguela’s ecosystem have assured us that the area will recover in around eighty years. Maybe a little faster, with some help.”

“If that is what the Consensus has decided, then so be it,” one of the Valbarans conceded.

“The Queen is likely dug in deep below the mesa,” Agent Lorza added. “The alpha strike can’t penetrate that basalt, not without doing more lasting damage to the moon’s environment and collapsing all of the tunnels near the surface. The only way to reach the Queen is to penetrate the hive on foot.”

“That’s where the next stage comes in,” Vos said, a wave of his hand producing a series of flashing icons just beyond the area marked for destruction. “You’ll direct your assault carriers to land their armored battalions and secure beachheads where more of our forces can reach the ground. Once the first wave has secured the landing zones, the second wave can start moving deeper into enemy territory with air and artillery support, taking out strategic targets as they advance towards the mesa. Captain, I believe you have something to add here?” he said as he looked to the lanky Jarilan.

“Indeed,” she replied, clasping both pairs of hands in front of her. “Our Workers have been studying captured radio equipment that was recovered from the surface. We have reverse-engineered the technology and have determined how the Betelgeusians have been able to negate the interference produced by the moon’s magnetosphere. It should allow us to track the positions of any transmitters on the ground, as we now know what frequencies and what kind of modulation they’re using to communicate.”

“Excellent,” Vos replied. “The more of their comms we can shut down, the less coordinated their defense will be.”

“This is a perfect opportunity to test our heavy infantry, if you’ll allow us to deploy them,” the Jarilan added with an expectant tilt of her head that made her long antennae bob in the air.

“Heavy infantry?” Brenner asked skeptically.

“Warrior exosuits of Jarilan design,” she explained, turning to the SWAR operative. “Don’t worry, they’re quite safe, as they’re controlled by Jarilan Pilots like myself. We’ve modified them with supplementary weapons and integrated UNN systems, but they retain the survivability and lethality of the Warriors you’ve no doubt faced in the field. They are our elite units, and they fight well in cramped spaces like tunnels.”

“Yeah, I don’t think we need those things getting in the way of the Trog teams,” he grumbled in reply. “They can handle tunnel clearing – it’s what they do.”

“We can deploy them by drop pod wherever they’re most needed,” the Jarilan added, looking to Vos as though she expected him to take a side.

“Our stealth coursers are equipped with orbital reentry capsules,” Brenner said, glancing at the admiral with his expressionless lenses. “We can drop SWAR teams behind enemy lines too, sow some chaos where they least expect it.”

“We’ll need to pull out all the stops for this one, even if the Jarilan Warriors are untested,” Vos replied after a moment of consideration. “You have my permission to deploy your units.”

The Jarilan seemed pleased with herself, while Brenner scowled at her. At least, Fielding assumed that he was scowling. It was hard to tell.

“Captain Yegorov,” Vos continued, turning to one of the white-clad captains. The man stiffened when he was addressed, his weathered face etched into a permanent frown. “I’d like you to lead the ground assault. The Pavlov’s carrier group is well-suited to these kinds of operations. I’m also told that you brought something a little special.”

Da, Admiral,” he replied in a thick Russian accent that rivaled that of the Polar. “The Argyre is ready to drop. She is a Yagda superheavy repulsor, and her 740mm railgun should make short work of the mesa’s static defenses.”

“One of ours, I believe,” Captain Varma added as she gave him a smirk. “Her ore was sourced from the Argyre Planitia, not far from New Kochi.”

“You are correct, Madame,” Yegorov replied. “She is Martian-built, though we made some aftermarket modifications to her design.”

“I look forward to seeing how they fare,” Varma added.

“You have CSC permission to load tactical nuclear sabots,” Vos continued. “Radioactive fallout will be minimal, nothing that standard-issue armor won’t soak up. Just…try to be conservative, and don’t turn the place into a second Guangzhou, alright?”

“I’ll tell my men to keep that in mind, Admiral,” he replied with a curt nod.

“Then, I think that’s all we need,” Vos declared. “Operation Ant Hill will begin shortly. I’ll be transferring coordinates and sending you further instructions in the following hours. Get ready to move out.”

After they were dismissed, the feeds began to cut off one by one, slowly plunging the conference room into darkness. When Fielding could scarcely see the table in front of him, the lights in the room flared to life, making him blink his eyes as they adjusted to the glare.

“How did you manage to get permission to level an area the size of a small country?” Fielding asked, glancing over at Vos. “The General Assembly and the Security Council must have been hard enough to convince, never mind the Valbarans.”

“The usual blend of favors and threats,” he replied, stepping away from his place at the table. “We can’t let this opportunity pass us by. We kill the Queen, and the war is essentially over. There will still be pockets of resistance holding out all over the moon, as well as several surviving Kings who probably won’t even have a way to know that their leader is dead, but the Bugs will have lost their ability to sustain a colony. After that, their days will be numbered.”

“Yegorov is an…interesting choice,” Fielding continued, doing his best not to sound too critical. “There are three other Yagdas. I’m sure we could have one or two shipped in.”

“He has a habit of being a rather blunt tactician,” Vos conceded, crossing his arms. “In this case, I think blunt is exactly what we need. The Bugs are betting that we won’t just plow straight through their defenses, but that’s exactly what I intend to do. You don’t break down a wall with a scalpel, you do it with a hammer, and Yegorov brought a very large hammer.”

“I’ll let the crew know that we’re going to be entering a new orbit,” Fielding said, satisfied that there was some method to the admiral’s madness. “I’ll have the ACs ready their battalions and let the air officers know to start fueling their birds.”

“This war is the largest military undertaking in UNN history,” Vos continued, staring into the distance beyond the nearest wall as he considered. “It’s fitting that we cap it off with what might be the largest battle ever fought from space. Some of my colleagues called me crazy for assembling such a large fleet, but I wonder if it’s going to be enough. If it isn’t, we have three battleships with their main guns pointed at the moon, and they’re going to do a hell of a lot more damage than just leveling some trees.”

“I suppose that orbital bombardment is practically surgical in comparison,” Fielding conceded.

“Don’t tell me you aren’t looking forward to firing those ventral guns,” Vos chuckled, making his way towards the door.

“Perhaps I’ll allow myself some small measure of satisfaction,” Fielding replied, following along behind him.


“Hey, get up!” Hernandez said.

Evan grumbled as he was shaken awake, opening his eyes groggily to see his friend standing beside his bunk. He sat up, the sheets sloughing off him, then ran a hand down his face.

“What’s the deal, Hernandez?” he grumbled. “I was dreaming.”

“Wake the fuck up and put on some pants,” Hernandez insisted. “You aren’t gonna want to miss this.”

“What’s going on?” he asked, stumbling out of bed to see that most of his squad was already awake. Borzka and Tatzi were standing nearby, their rounds ears brushing the ceiling, while his human counterparts were hurriedly getting dressed. Jade was reaching up to comb her fingers through her feathery antennae like a woman might adjust her hair, sparing him a warm glance with those green eyes. Her two Jarilan companions were sticking close to her – Aster and Cardinal. The pair had come back to the carrier after their assignment to the squad during the last deployment. They weren’t quite as extroverted as Jade had become, but the warm welcome they had received seemed to surprise them. Nobody here needed to be convinced of their value – they had already been through the process with Jade – and it seemed to be a relief to them. Well, everyone save for Foster, but Evan figured the surly Marine was a lost cause. At least he had the good graces to keep his disapproval to himself.

“They are bombing the surface,” Tatzi explained, her Borealan accent rolling off her tongue. “Come, we will watch.”

“I figured that little maintenance window might give us a pretty good view,” Jade explained, memories of their first encounter there giving Evan pause for a moment. She noticed, smirking at him, but it was lost on the rest of their friends.

“Why the hell do you know about this?” Evan asked incredulously, directing his question at Hernandez.

“I heard from Gutierrez up in navigation that we’re burnin’ into a new orbit,” he explained, waving his hands animatedly as he talked. “And you know Sasha, the guy who works in the mess?”

“No, I don’t know Sasha,” Evan mumbled. “How the fuck do you know all these people? We’ve only been here about a week.”

“Well, he’s in with some of the officers, and he told me that they told him that-”

“I don’t need the whole story,” Evan said, interrupting him. “Skip to the end.”

“They’re hittin’ somethin’ on the ground hard. Word is, half the fuckin’ fleet is about to bomb the shit out of Kerguela.”

Evan slipped on his pants, then located his boots, hurrying after the group as they made their way down one of the Omaha’s winding corridors. Jade led them to the little maintenance room, the door sliding open with a press of a touch panel, and the squad piled inside. To Evan’s relief, Foster was keeping mercifully quiet about what had transpired there during their last visit. There was barely enough room for them all, the two Borealans taking up an inordinate amount of space, but everyone was able to get a view as they crowded around the window.

Above them, beyond a pane of reinforced glass that was framed by tiny frost crystals, Evan could see the carrier’s engine nacelle jutting from the ship’s hull. If the engines had been burning, they weren’t any longer, the conical exhausts now dark. Far below, Kerguela’s red and orange surface glowed in the light of the system’s star. It wasn’t scrolling past anymore. They were in a stationary orbit, matching the moon’s rotation to hang in place above it, and so was the rest of the fleet. With the sun directly above them, Evan could make out the glint of nearby ships flying in close formation, its light reflecting off their hulls. There must have been a dozen jump carriers and even more escort ships, all of them seeming to stand still as they floated through space. They were still kilometers apart, but even being in visual range of another vessel was unusual, let alone being able to pick out detail like this. It was practically an aerobatics show as far as the Navy was concerned. He could make out the bridge windows and hangars on the jump carriers, the torpedo hatches on the angular frigates, even a few smaller craft drifting between them as they ferried cargo and personnel.

“Look at them all,” McKay said with an impressed whistle. “That’s an attack formation if I ever saw one.”

“How many do you think there are?” Jade asked.

“I count twelve carriers,” Collins replied, standing on his toes to get a look over her horned head. “That’s a quarter of the fleet, at least. What the hell are they hitting that requires that kind of firepower?”

“Hernandez, if you’re full of shit,” Garcia began. He quickly went silent, however, everyone watching as the guns on the nearest jump carrier slowly came to life. Along the underside of its round, ocean-grey hull, a forest of weapons rotated into position. Like a stabilized camera on a gimbal, they locked onto something on the ground, snapping into place in unison.

Evan could just about make them out, and he counted fourteen of them, their barrels shining in the sunlight. Their design wasn’t unlike that of the XMR, but the electromagnetic accelerators fired far larger projectiles, and they fired them a hell of a lot faster. When those things hit the ground, they released enough kinetic energy to rival a small nuclear strike, just without all of the radiation and fallout.

“There they go,” Collins said, everyone going quiet as the carriers began their bombardment.

It was hard to tell what was happening with no impressive muzzle flashes and no chemical plumes from rockets to follow. At first, the only indication that they were firing came from the subtle glow of the coils on the long barrels of the guns as they heated, then from the flashes of light as they hit the atmosphere. The tungsten projectiles slammed into Kerguela’s air like asteroids, the release of energy and the intense friction picking them out like fireworks. Only now did Evan realize how many of them had been fired. Each of the twelve carriers was loosing a salvo of fourteen projectiles every couple of seconds, alternating between their arrays of guns to allow the barrels time to cool. Like bright stars, they seemed to cover the planet, but they hadn’t even reached the surface yet.

It took them only a few more seconds to impact the ground, a series of even brighter, more vibrant flashes filtering through the layer of drifting clouds. The projectiles were moving far faster than even orbital speed, and they were now dumping all of that energy into the moon, carpeting the red forest in scattered pinpricks of brilliant light. The clouds were blown away by the shockwaves, punching great holes in the canopy, dark mushroom clouds starting to rise into the sky even as more of the weapons impacted all around them.

Each subsequent salvo seemed to land in a different patch of forest, creating a very inorganic grid pattern of explosions that was oddly eerie to witness. The shockwaves were spreading now, Evan watching them disrupt the surrounding trees in a ripple pattern, like someone had dropped a pebble into a pond that was covered in red algae. It looked small at this distance, miniature, but those blasts were crossing kilometers in seconds. Raging fires spread in their wake, turning the trees to tinder, rings of fiery red expanding and combining until vast swathes of the region were ablaze.

“How long are they gonna keep it up?” McKay muttered, transfixed by the sight. “What are they trying to kill that isn’t dead by now?”

The explosions continued to walk across the planet’s surface, clinical, predictable. The oldest impacts were now towering plumes of dark smoke that rose high enough into the atmosphere to cast long shadows on the moon’s surface, reminding Evan of volcanic eruptions, while the newer explosions tore up the nearby forest. It went on for minutes, what must have been thousands of explosions cutting a swathe across the planet, leaving an area that looked to be the size of a country burning. It almost resembled a vast sea of lava, the glow penetrating even the dense debris cloud that was starting to clog the sky.

“I was under the impression that the idea was not to destroy the moon that we’re supposed to be returning to the Valbarans,” Aster muttered, her antennae waving as she watched with wide eyes.

“Someone down there sure pissed off the Navy,” Hernandez replied, his tone more subdued than Evan had ever heard it.

A sudden klaxon sound disturbed the silence, everyone who was attending the grisly spectacle glancing around as a distorted voice echoed in from the corridor outside.

“All duty shifts, report to the mess hall for briefing. Repeat – all duty shifts, report to the mess for briefing.”

All duty shifts?” Collins asked, giving his friends a confused look.

“I think I know where we’re going,” Evan added, sparing one last apprehensive glance at the ruined forest below. “Call it a gut feeling…”


Simmons met up with the rest of the team on their way to the mess, and they arrived to find the room even more packed than it had been during their last briefing. They searched for chairs in the sea of personnel, packed shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a can, a few Borealans and Jarilans standing out in the crowd. Slugs in a magazine seemed like a more apt metaphor, considering the air of tension and excitement that hung over them.

The briefing was being given by one of the Omaha’s lieutenants – Evan still wasn’t accustomed enough to his adoptive home to know them by name yet – the man wheeling along a portable hologram emitter that was about the size of a luggage chest. He set it up at the near end of the mess hall, and with the help of a couple of assistants, the machine flared to life. A room-spanning view of the devastation that Evan and his friends had just witnessed firsthand was projected into the air, showing a scrolling orbital feed of burning forests and fields of embers. It really did look like the aftermath of some kind of apocalyptic volcanic eruption.

“The Navy just got done dropping several thousand kilotons of fuck you on the Bugs,” the lieutenant began, gesturing to the scene. “That mountain in the thick of it all is the Ant Hill,” he added, gesturing to a flat-topped rock formation that was surrounded by a sea of flame. “According to the Ninnies, that’s where the Queen is holed up.”

A murmur spread through the room, Evan and Hernandez sharing a glance.

“The Queen?” Jade hissed.

“Twelve carrier groups will be participating in a ground invasion of the area that we just bombed to shit,” the lieutenant continued. “The goal will be to secure a landing zone around the perimeter, then advance inside this two-hundred-kilometer circle, where we’ll fight through any surviving critters on our way to this rock formation. Priority targets are enemy radio transmitters, bunkers, and anti-air emplacements. Once we reach the foot of the mountain, we’re going to secure it, then send in the Trogs to flush out the Queen. Word is the Red King is operating in this zone,” he added, taking a moment to glance around the mess hall. “For those of you who might have forgotten, that’s the bastard who gutted your old companies during the first wave of landings. If you’re looking for payback, now’s your chance.”

Evan’s brow furrowed, images of the towering alien hefting a dead Marine flashing before his mind’s eye, its red carapace reflecting the fiery glow of the wrecked vehicles that were burning all around it. He reached behind his neck, his fingertips brushing the hard polymer of his implant. He felt something grab his other hand, Jade giving it a squeeze as she peered up at him, and he returned the gesture with a weary smile.

“The Omaha’s job will be to secure an LZ for the following battalions here,” the lieutenant continued, pointing to a red circle at the edge of the burning forest. “Even after such heavy bombardment, Naval Intelligence is estimating opposition forces in the hundreds of thousands. The Bugs burrow deep, and they’re smart enough to know what we’re trying to do. Keep your eyes open, and kill anything that has more arms than legs. Present company excluded,” he added with a nod to the nearest Jarilan.

“That’s alright, sir,” she replied. “They gave us armbands for a reason.”

Her comment got a chuckle out of the room, serving as more proof of how far the aliens had come in their short time serving as auxiliaries.

“As you’ve probably been able to guess by the mass orbital bombardment, the gloves are coming off on this op,” he continued as he began to walk up and down the front row. “The jump carriers will be providing Beewolfs and Penguin gunships for close air support, so any time you see something your guns can’t scratch, just call in a takeout order of hot tungsten. We’re gonna have about a thousand birds running sorties around the clock, so you shouldn’t have long to wait. Hotel company – I want you standing by to rain death wherever the rest of the battalion needs it. You’ll be remaining in the initial drop zone to provide artillery support.”

He pulled up an image of a Scuttler, one of the Bug tanks. The creature looked like a giant, eight-legged crab, and this one was equipped with an organic missile system – a SAM battery made of meat and chitin that was hitching a ride on its back like some kind of parasite.

“Priority targets will be these fuckers – anti-air Scuttlers. The missiles they carry are pretty short-range, but they’ll be a threat to our fliers. They’re known to bury themselves in the ground before ambushes, so it’s not out of the question that some of these things might have been able to batten down the hatches when they saw the first salvo hit. Not to mention that the Queen is certainly holding some of her forces in reserve inside the ant hill. We can’t crack that thing with orbitals, not without killing the moon in the process.”

The lieutenant switched the view on the feed to show a satellite image of the moon’s topography, presented as a color-coded height map. He turned, then hesitated, planting his hands on his hips.

“Yeah, I dunno why this slide is in here. The ground sure as hell doesn’t look like that anymore. In any case, Golf company’s job will be to find the safest path through the terrain. It’s gonna be hell down there, even after we’ve given the dust time to settle, so prep for a rough drive. One more thing,” he added, turning back around to face the audience. “They’re going to be deploying a Yagda superheavy as a mobile command post, and it’s potentially going to be loading nuclear sabots. Who am I kidding, of course they’re going to use them,” he added with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t want anyone exiting a vehicle without a sealed pressure suit, and I don’t want anyone raising their visors or taking off their helmets down there. The Navy isn’t responsible if one of you jarheads inhales radioactive dust and gets lung cancer.”

“This pep talk is just what I needed,” Hernandez whispered, giving Evan a nudge with his elbow.

“Start prepping for the drop,” the lieutenant ordered, shutting off the hologram with a hand gesture. “Expect low visibility, chemical and radiation hazards, and enemy ambushes. They’ve had a lot of time to dig in down there, and they know we’re coming. We shouldn’t take anything for granted. Fight smart, do your jobs, and we’ll deal a crippling blow to the Bugs on Kerguela. With no Queen, their hive is effectively sterilized, and we can hunt the rest of the ugly shitheads for sport.”


The lander decoupled from the carrier with a tangible clunk that reverberated through Evan’s seat, his stomach lurching as its engines pushed them out into space. He checked the tightness of his straps, glancing around the vehicle bay. The IFV was strapped to its sled, anchored to the floor, and the members of his squad were sitting around it in crash couches that were bolted to the walls. Hernandez was to his right and Jade was on his left, her two Jarilan companions sitting beside her, their four hands gripping their harnesses tightly. He heard Simmons’ voice crackle through on his helmet radio, rising above the rumble of the craft’s thrusters as its systems automatically dampened the ambient noise.

“This is gonna be a standard hot drop, with an emphasis on hot. The crew is gonna mount up to provide heavy support, then I want the rest of you to spread out and start securing the area with the rest of the company. We have to make sure that LZ is airtight before anyone follows us in. We have no idea what we’re going to face down there – could be an army of Bugs waiting for the ramp to open, could be nothing. The bombardment filled the upper atmosphere with enough debris that we can’t see shit from space.”

“What, so we’re just supposed to hope and pray?” Collins asked incredulously.

“We’re a Ghost Company!” McKay replied, giving him a nudge from the seat to his left. “We laugh in the face of death, and we…chuckle quietly in the vicinity of potential danger.”

“One of the benefits of being first to drop is that there’s no chance of blue on blue,” Simmons replied, Evan gripping the edges of his seat as he felt atmospheric turbulence start to buffet the vessel. “There are no friendlies operating down there, so shoot anything that moves.”

They were squashed into the padding of their seats as the lander began to decelerate, and after a minute more, it touched down with a thud. Evan looked to the troop ramp as it began to descend, lifting his XMR from the rack beside him, rising from his seat. It was daytime, and he expected to see sunlight flooding through the growing gap, but all he saw was a dingy red glow. The ramp hit the ground, kicking up a cloud of ash, the IFV sliding down the rails on its trolley. The vehicle kicked up another puff of dust that filled the air as it skidded to a stop, the team thundering down the ramp to cover the crew as they mounted up.

Evan emerged into a vision of hell.

Where once there had been towering trees, their autumn leaves forming a dense canopy over their heads, there was now nothing but burnt stumps as far as the eye could see. Some of them had been torn right out of the ground by blast waves, and others had been snapped in half and stripped of their branches, leaving blackened trunks that jutted from the ground like giant fence posts. There was no underbrush anymore, not a blade of grass or a shrub in sight, like a giant plow had upturned the top layer of soil. No, not soil. As Evan trudged through it, he realized that it was ash, forming a layer that was almost high enough to reach his ankles. Even though it had been hours since the bombardment, much of the terrain still burned. Embers smoldered in some of the tree trunks like hot coals, and bright cinders sailed through the air high above them, carried on the wind from nearby fires. The sky was even more foreboding, Evan glancing up to see not a blue expanse filled with colorful auroras, but a black shroud of airborne dust like the pyroclastic cloud of a volcano.

“Are we bringin’ the ring back to fuckin’ Mordor?” Hernandez grumbled as he walked up beside Evan, his rifle sweeping the nearby trees.

“At least we can see further,” Jade grumbled, advancing to cover Evan’s right flank.

More landers were coming down, roaring through the smog above on plumes of hydrogen flame, throwing more billowing ash into the air as they neared the ground. The rumble of engines was joining the noise, the nearby IFV coming to life, the railgun on its blister rotating to cover the infantry. Kodiak MBTs were rolling down their ramps, six-wheeled Timberwolf scout vehicles bouncing on their suspension as they drove into the trees, smashing through the charred husks of fallen logs. Some of the landers were already lifting off again, heading back to orbit to collect their next payload of vehicles. In as little as fifteen minutes, all of the battalion’s 150 vehicles could be on the surface.

“Fan out!” Simmons barked, shouldering his rifle as he rallied the team. “Search the area! Fleetcom wants a five hundred meter perimeter!”

The squad formed a line, the IFV rumbling along behind them as they made their way into the ruined forest, Evan scanning the terrain ahead with his visor. Jade was right in that the lack of trees made it easier to see, but all the smoke in the air meant that they were limited to a couple of hundred meters before everything faded into a grey haze. He felt something crunch underfoot, glancing down to see a desiccated branch crumble to dust under his boot.

“How could anything survive down here?” Donovan asked, passing by a ruined stump that was jutting from the blasted earth like a broken tombstone.

“Why didn’t we just do this to the whole fucking moon?” Foster added, hopping over a charred log. “Seems like a waste of time to fight this war with guns and tanks.”

“Because people have to be able to live here when we’re done,” Garcia added. “If we didn’t want the planet, we’d just let the battleships peel open the mantle like a giant orange.”

“If we didn’t have these helmets, we wouldn’t even be able to breathe,” Evan said as he peered into the smog. His helmet was doing its best to highlight terrain features, trying to draw a line over the horizon, but it was jittery and imprecise without enough data. “Speaking of which – can you not use your antennae, Jade?”

“I’m not too eager to find out what nuclear fallout smells like,” she replied. “The nose stays in the helmet unless we get orders to do otherwise.”

“Got something!” Collins shouted, the team rushing to his side. He was aiming his rifle at the ground, where there was a black tangle of shapes. It took Evan a moment to recognize what he was looking at, mistaking it for a branch at first, but it was a Drone. The thing was completely blackened, its limbs stiff, raised into the air in rigor mortis like a dead spider lying on its back. Collins gave it a tentative kick, one of its four arms snapping off at the elbow joint with a puff of dust.

“Bug barbecue,” Hernandez muttered under his breath.

“What was it doing here?” Borzka asked, gripping his long rifle more tightly. It was strange to see the Borealans in full pressure suits, with little caps over their ears, and boots that looked like something an overly attached dog owner might buy for their pet. There was a sheath over his tail, too, segmented like a hose to allow it to move freely. “I see no others. Where are its kin?”

“They might have been burned to ash,” Brooks mused. “Who the hell knows.”

“Keep moving,” Simmons ordered, waving them on. “You can dig around for souvenirs later.”

“I didn’t know that the UNN was capable of this,” Jade said, opening a private channel with Evan. “I mean, physically. I didn’t know that they could bring this much firepower to bear.”

“They don’t do this often,” Evan replied, advancing alongside her. “This is the first time I’m seeing it myself. I’ve seen them do smaller scale barrages, but that’s usually just a precision strike to take out an entrenched position or something.”

“Before we officially joined the Coalition, there was a UNN fleet permanently stationed above Jarilo,” Jade continued. “They said that they were there for our protection, and while I’m sure that was partially true, we all knew that they were also there to contain us in the event that we turned feral. That never happened, obviously, but is this what they would have done to our valley if the admiralty had given the order? If they had turned down our application for a seat on the Security Council, would my home look like this?”

“I…don’t know,” Evan replied, which was the only truthful answer that he could give.

“I know they didn’t do this lightly, but still,” she mumbled as she kicked through a knee-high mound of dust. “It’s hard to see yourself as the good guy when you’re wading through charred corpses.”

They walked for a few minutes more, the IFV trundling along at their backs. The vehicle was heavy enough to just crush whatever obstacles were in its way, the trees now so burnt that they simply crumbled when it plowed into them. They stopped at the top of a small hill, Evan looking out over the devastation. From here, he could see a little further, maybe half a klick. After that, the terrain faded into the ever-present haze, a few still-burning patches of land standing out in the gloom. It didn’t even feel like they were on the same planet anymore. To think that this continued for another two hundred kilometers…

“The company is on the ground,” Simmons announced, holding a gloved finger to the side of his helmet. “We have our perimeter, so we’re just waiting for the next assault carrier to land its payload, and we can get moving.”

“Maybe we really did kill everything,” Collins said with a shrug.

“Everything that was hanging out on the surface, probably,” Jade said. “Take it from me – as someone who grew up in a hive, some of those tunnels run deep. There’s no way we did enough damage to reach them all, not without digging craters you could lose a jump carrier in.”

“So, what?” Collins continued. “They’re gonna come popping out of the ground like gophers?”

“Just don’t write them off so quickly,” she replied, training her scope on the fields of ash ahead of them.

“Okay, we got recon data coming in,” Simmons announced as he consulted the touch panel on his wrist. “Doesn’t look like anyone has reported contacts yet, but the fleet is picking up radio signatures out in that shit. Someone is bouncing signals around.”

“They’re out there,” Evan muttered, scanning the hazy horizon. “Sarge, this is reminding me of our first landing, when my original company was ambushed.”

“Oh?” Simmons asked, turning to watch him through his opaque visor. “How so?”

“The Red King let us land without incident, then baited us into an ambush. He waited until we were in the most favorable position – an old Valbaran road where he could trap us by destroying the lead and rear vehicles – then he made his move.”

“You think he’s letting us land so he can ambush us?” Simmons asked.

“Maybe,” Evan replied. “It’s something to think about. We know he’s here, somewhere.”

They waited around for another fifteen minutes, watching the howling wind blow the ash into desert-like dunes in the absence of any trees to block it. Simmons kept them up to date on how the operation was progressing, informing them that the second battalion was starting to land. Both of the artillery companies would remain at the LZ, along with a couple of mechanized companies and some Kestrels, while the remaining ten companies would leapfrog their way towards the Ant Hill. One battalion would stop to cover the advance of the next, and so on, moving deeper into enemy territory as the scout companies roved ahead of the line. When they encountered an entrenched position like a bunker, they would clear it, then the jump carriers would land Marines to secure it and ensure that it wouldn’t be retaken. Marines from the carriers would also be reinforcing the LZ and moving along the flanks via dropship to ensure that the main formation didn’t get surrounded and cut off.

“Okay, we’re gonna start moving as soon as the rest of the battalion catches up,” Simmons announced. “We’re gonna be walking alongside the IFV, checking for any Bug activity. That means Bug holes, bunkers, trenches – wherever there might still be critters holding out. The Omaha’s battalion is going first, then the Karelia’s battalion is bringing up the rear. We walk and check for Bugs, they pass us, then we mount up and catch up to them when they get far enough ahead. Everybody know what they’re doing?”

There was a chorus of yes’s and nods from the team.

“Good,” he added, looking over his shoulder as the rumble of tanks rose above the howl of the wind. Evan turned to follow his gaze, seeing the rest of their armored company driving out of the fog, twelve tanks and another seven IFVs churning up the ash that coated the ground. They spread out into a line formation, rolling to a halt nearby, one of the battalion’s eight Kestrels scanning the skies with its camera dome. A Kodiak tank stopped just a few paces away, the seventy-ton, nine-meter vehicle shaking the ground as its engine idled. Its sloping hull was painted in autumn camouflage that seemed less than helpful in this new environment, overlaid with ceramic heat tiles in places to help protect it from plasma.

The main gun that jutted from the turret was a long, slightly flattened tube, covered by a housing that protected an oversized railgun. On the end was a round muzzle device, a larger version of the ones used on some XMR configurations, designed to prevent the heat from the barrel from ionizing the air. Without one, anything nearby might be struck by a deadly arc flash. Atop the turret was a smaller blister with supplementary weapons, and on each side was an attachment point for a modular weapon pod, this vehicle sporting a pair of rocket launchers.

The tank’s commander was currently sitting halfway out of the hatch on top of his Kodiak, his fingers to the side of his helmet, presumably using its magnification and its view modes to scan the terrain ahead of them. It felt pretty reassuring to have one of the giant vehicles so close.

The battalion’s other companies were no doubt doing the same beyond their field of vision. Curious, Evan tapped at the touch panel on his forearm, switching from a company view to a battalion view. More hovering icons joined those of his squad, showing a long line of vehicles and personnel that extended into the distance in both directions, all of the troops and vehicles communicating their positions over the ad-hoc network.

The tank commander waved them forward, Simmons relaying his orders.

“Move out, and keep your eyes peeled!”

The nearby Kodiak lurched forward, the team’s IFV beginning to trundle along slowly, Evan and his companions matching pace with it. The vehicles spread out a little further to cover more ground, Evan spotting a few more squads marching through the dust far off to his left. Delta was at the far right of the formation, as Foxtrot was hanging back to help defend the LZ.

“They realize that this hill is two hundred klicks away, right?” Hernandez grumbled. “Someone who’s good at math wanna tell me how long it’ll take us to walk there?”

“If we assume that walking speed is five kilometers per hour…forty hours,” McKay replied.

“We’re going to be driving most of the way,” Garcia added as he waded through another pile of ash like he was pushing through a snowdrift. “We’re leapfrogging, remember?”

As they made their way through the smoke, burning embers dancing on the wind, a shape faded into view in the distance.

“We got something!” McKay warned. “Looks like a structure!”

As it came into focus, Evan saw that it was a bunker made from the same resin-coated, packed dirt as the other structures built by the Bugs. It was rounded like an igloo, with slats cut into its circular wall where the occupants could fire out. It was partially buried in the ash but still remarkably intact.

“That doesn’t bode well,” Jade muttered. “Whether by intention or accident, that domed roof must have protected it from being blown flat by the blast wave.”

“Think anyone could have survived?” Evan asked, but Simmons beat her to the punch before she could answer.

“Squad!” he barked. “Move in and clear that bunker!”

The IFV rolled to a stop, its railgun trained on the resin dome, the team making their way over to it. As they neared, Evan saw that it was connected to some kind of trench network, two furrows that had been filled in with debris trailing away from it to the left and right. The Bugs must have been expecting to mount some kind of defense here. That was the only way to get inside, apparently, and both entrances were buried.

“Are Jarilans good at diggin’?” Hernandez asked.

“We’re Drones, not Workers,” Jade grumbled in reply. “That means grab a shovel, meatbag.”

“I got a better idea,” he said, making his way around the circumference of the bunker towards one of the slatted windows.

“Don’t look inside!” Jade protested.

He leaned over to poke his rifle into the gap, using the in-camera scope view to get a look without exposing himself.

“Clear!” he declared. “Just some crispy Bugs in there.”

“The bunker must have protected them from the blast, but not the heat,” Jade mused as she leaned down to get a look. “They were probably cooked in their shells.”

“I dunno, introduce a little lemon and tartar sauce into the equation…” Hernandez began. He quickly shut up when Jade gave him a scowl through her visor.

“There will be more of these,” Simmons said, glancing out over the scorched fields. “This must have been how they expected to hold us off – kilometers of trenches and bunkers.”

“Bug fortifications are like icebergs,” Jade added, brushing some clinging dust off her carapace with her lower pair of hands as she stood again. “What you can see on the surface is only the tip, and there’s a lot more that you’re not seeing. I’d bet there are just as many tunnels as there are trenches, if not more. That’s probably how they linked them all together.”

“Could they survive down there?” Simmons asked, but Jade just shrugged in reply. “Alright, let’s keep moving.”

They left the bunker behind them, Evan hurrying a little to match pace with the sergeant.

“Did they find out where those radio emissions were coming from, sir?” he asked.

“No word yet,” Simmons replied, checking his display again. “They’re moving around all over the place, enough that we can’t get a lock on them. They have to be above ground to function, so they’re not traveling in tunnels. Maybe it’s interference from the magnetosphere or the debris from the bombing. The railguns will have kicked up all kinds of dust and particulates into the atmosphere.”

It didn’t feel right. Evan hefted the comforting weight of his XMR in his hands, pointing the barrel into the fog ahead. He’d fought on battlefields like this one before, and the vast expanses of empty space were misleading. Even on Kerguela, the Bugs still tried to close into stabbing range, and he wasn’t about to be caught without a close-quarters weapon. He was using a medium-length barrel, and beneath it was mounted a shotgun with a revolving drum magazine – enough firepower to ensure that any Bugs that got too close would regret it.

As they marched along at the rightmost end of the formation, Evan saw something move in the distance. He paused, using his visor to zoom in on the location, letting the nearby IFV advance a little to get a better look past its hull. Maybe twenty meters away, the ground was shifting. It wasn’t the wind – it almost looked like…

From beneath the black dust, a shape emerged, ash sloughing off it like water as it lifted itself higher. Four arms unfolded, their movements jerky and stiff, like a reanimated corpse shaking off its rigor mortis. The wind carried the dust away to reveal a set of vicious mandibles, along with a smattering of lenses that were spaced around the thing’s skull like the eyes of a spider, its spiky carapace patterned with autumn colors.

“Contact, right!” Evan yelled as he took a knee and leveled his rifle at the thing. More were emerging all around it, the Drones digging themselves out of the top layer of ash, brandishing chitin blades and plasma rifles. It wasn’t just on their right flank, either. Behind the formation, more of the aliens were revealing themselves, springing out of the ground as the wind carried away the displaced dust. There were dozens, hundreds – the battalion was being surrounded. The things had no heat signature when they stayed still for long enough, and without Jade’s antennae, there was no way to sniff them out.

His XMR kicked against his shoulder as he fired at the nearest Bug, the hypervelocity slugs lifting it off its feet, sending fragments of broken shell whizzing through the air. Even as it fell, another took its place, crawling out of the ash like a zombie clawing its way out of a grave. As he turned his sights on another target, Evan remembered what had been said during the briefing – Naval Intelligence is estimating opposition forces in the hundreds of thousands…

Hernandez skidded to a stop in the dust beside him, his rifle joining the chorus, the rest of the squad following behind him. They formed a firing line, picking off the Bugs as they climbed out of their holes, the glow of their molten projectiles joining the airborne embers.

“Keep the pressure on ‘em!” Simmons yelled into their helmets, bringing up the rear as their IFV turned to face the enemy. “Get behind the shields!”

The troop carrier ground to a halt, the deployable cover along its flanks swinging out on their hinges, planting themselves deep in the ash. Evan rose to his feet, backing up as he cut down another Drone, sending it tumbling to the blasted ground.

He hopped over the nearest barrier, taking refuge behind it, a bolt of plasma impacting the other side only moments later. The blister on the IFV’s roof was already firing, a barrage of grenades from its MGL creating an obscuring wall of dust as the projectiles landed in the enemy’s midst. They threw broken bodies like dolls, sending them tumbling through the air, fragments of shell raining over the battlefield.

“They’ve got us surrounded!” Simmons snarled, ducking back down behind the wall to swap out his magazine. “Fuckers must have been waiting just under the surface, biding their time until we passed them. We’re completely encircled – they cut us off from the Karelia’s battalion. They’re being hit just as hard as we are.”

“There’s almost no cover out there other than dead trees,” Jade added, popping up to loose a couple of slugs. “As long as we can stop them from getting close, they don’t stand a chance!”

The ground shook as a nearby Kodiak rolled up beside them, its long cannon pointed at a clump of nearby trees, where a couple of squads of Drones had taken refuge. They crouched behind the carbonized stumps, leaning out to let off bolts of glowing plasma, the bright projectiles advertising their positions in the haze. They splashed harmlessly against the tank’s front armor, and after a brief pause, it opened up with its cheek-mounted rocket pods. They sent a swarm of HE missiles sailing through the air, billowing plumes of flame erupting where they found their mark. A dozen of them wiped out the patch of scorched forest, along with all the Bugs that had been hiding there.

More were coming, hundreds of them emerging from the ground like a game of whack-a-mole, too numerous to keep track of. Evan’s HUD was lit up with red, his targeting systems automatically tagging them, creating a seething blob of crimson outlines.

“Keep your fire on the right side of the formation!” Simmons ordered, resting the barrel of his XMR on the lip of the wall as he popped off a few more shots into the advancing aliens. “If they think they can overwhelm our guns by attacking from every direction, they’ve seriously underestimated how many fucking guns we have!”

As if to punctuate his statement, the Kodiak fired its main cannon, the vehicle rocking back on its tracks like a Supermajor had just whacked it with a hammer. It had loaded a canister shell, the projectile splitting open to spray a formation of charging Drones with hypervelocity buckshot, turning them into a cloud of viscera.

“On your left!” McKay shouted, swinging his rifle around to cut down a Drone that had made it alarmingly close. It had approached from the left side of the IFV, exploiting a blind spot to close in. More of them were emerging on that side now, brandishing blades as they dropped low, dodging and weaving.

“Gunner, two-eighty!” Simmons barked. “Get some fire on those Bugs!”

The blister on the roof of the troop carrier spun around, its thirty-millimeter gun spraying hot tungsten. It cut a swathe through their ranks, the rounds blowing chunks out of the insects, sending severed limbs sailing through the air. Like sand in a desert, each shot kicked up a puff of the fine powder that coated the ground, the wind blowing it in the direction of the UNN line. Only the view modes on Evan’s visor let him see more than a few meters in any direction. Without their helmets, they would have been completely blind in this environment.

“Negative, negative!” Simmons growled into his mic. “Delta company is pinned. Repeat, Delta is pinned! So is the whole goddamned battalion!”

“What’s going on?” Garcia asked, ducking into cover to reload.

“The fucking LZ is getting hit!” Simmons replied. “The critters baited us out, then they cut us off. This is just a suicide attack designed to tie us up so we can’t get back in time to help!”

“We lose that LZ, and we’re stuck down here,” Collins snarled. “No evac, no artillery support.”

“It’s that red asshole again,” Hernandez added, reaching into one of the pouches on his vest. He retrieved a forty-millimeter grenade, loading it into an underbarrel launcher. He popped up again, taking a moment to aim, then sent it sailing into the air with a thunk. It found its mark, a few of the red blips on Evan’s HUD vanishing. “How is he always one step ahead of us?”

“He was literally bred to be an asshole, that’s how,” Jade replied. “They outnumber us ten to one – they can walk half of their troops into gunfire just to waste our ammo and still have a numerical advantage!”

The ground began to shake beneath Evan’s feet, but it wasn’t the Kodiak this time. In the distance, at the limits of the fog, a far larger shape began to rise from the ground. Chunks of loose earth and wispy ash sloughed off its spiky carapace, a great, segmented leg planting itself in the ground. Like a crab digging itself out of the sand, a Scuttler emerged, leaving a massive crater in its wake. Even the vehicles had buried themselves while they lay in wait. Before the nearest MBT could even react, the Scuttler fired its turret, the trio of magnetic rails crackling with green energy as they accelerated a bolt of plasma the size of a basketball. It connected with the Kodiak’s front armor, the vehicle shuddering under the impact, molten metal and slagged ceramic tiles splashing like a liquid. It followed up with a barrage of shells from the fleshy pods on its flanks, the canisters bouncing off the front of the IFV and embedding themselves in the ash that surrounded the squad.

“Chemicals!” Aster warned, taking refuge behind the shield wall. She dragged Collins to the ground as one of the projectiles whizzed over the barrier, narrowly missing his head.

“Check your suit seals!” Simmons ordered, the canisters starting to vent a yellow-brown cloud of gas. It quickly filled the air, joining the smoke and dust to make it even harder to see. It was only thanks to the local network sharing data between the troops and vehicles that they could pick out tagged enemies, their systems working together to build a patchwork of battlefield information in real-time.

Evan felt the Kodiak fire again, followed up by a second shot from another nearby tank in its unit, the wavering outline of the Scuttler vanishing from his feed. There were more of them coming, however, struggling out of the ground in a seemingly endless tide. There was enough to make up a whole mechanized company, and that was just on the right flank. More bolts of plasma punched holes in the smog, an exchange of continuous gunfire taking place just above his head. All he could do was focus on the smaller targets, firing bursts into the haze, aiming for the red outlines.

As the wind began to clear away some of the gas, he caught a glimpse of something moving their way. At first, it looked like a Scuttler. It had the same eight crab-like legs and the same bulky profile, but it had no turret and no rocket pods. No, on closer inspection, it only had six legs. The two front legs had been modified into giant, flat claws like a lobster. Its chassis was covered over with thick, overlapping plates that almost looked like the petals of a flower, a solitary plasma turret scarcely larger than a Puma’s blister sitting atop it. As it turned to face the convoy, he caught a glimpse of an unarmored, fleshy abdomen that trailed behind it like that of a spider or a beetle.

A squad of six Drones were moving towards it, Evan watching, his eyes wide as they leapt up to grip handholds on its fleshy behind. A second squad joined them, then a third, holding onto it like spiderlings clinging to their mother’s back. The strange vehicle began to march forward, those petal-like armor plates flexing, flaring up to grant further protection to its passengers. Those claws weren’t for rending – the thing was holding them up to protect its beak-like face, creating a walking wall of chitin. More of the Drones were advancing behind it in a tight column, taking advantage of the cover it provided.

“Ah, shit!” Hernandez exclaimed. “Sarge! I think the roaches have figured out how to make troop carriers!”

“Fucking-” Simmons put his back to the Puma’s deployable wall, a finger to his helmet. “Gunner – get some fire on that target at three-thirty! The one that looks like a fucking pangolin! What’s a pangolin? Mike, shoot the big one!”

Evan watched the IFV’s blister turn on the rapidly advancing vehicle, its thirty-mill chewing into the layers of thick carapace. It poured fire into the thing, but either the slugs weren’t getting deep enough, or they just weren’t hitting anything vital. What if all of its guts were in its abdomen? The Puma followed up with a salvo from its grenade launcher, but the shells exploded harmlessly against the thing’s armored back. Its solitary plasma turret returned fire, forcing the team into cover again, the superheated gas splashing against the other side of the wall.

“Delta-six!” Simmons barked into his mic. “We need heavy support at three-thirty degrees!”

The Kodiak fired, a Scuttler that was in its sights erupting in a plume of green fire as its fuel tanks were ruptured, then the behemoth turned its turret to take aim at the new target. It was pointing right over their heads, Evan ducking reflexively as the flattened barrel came to a stop a couple of meters above him, the round muzzle device close enough that he could have reached up to touch it if he had been standing. The gun fired, the electromagnetic interference making his HUD flicker and waver for a moment. The slug caught the vehicle slightly off-center, sending fragments of its petal-like shell raining to the ground, the chunks of wet meat that had been torn from its body wobbling as they hit the blasted soil. Miraculously, the thing kept moving, seeming not to care that half of its front section had been turned into a crater-like wound. One of its legs had been severed, and the leftmost claw was shattered, the thing limping along as it leaked ichor and chemical fuel.

“Hit it again!” Simmons shouted.

The tank hit it with a follow-up shot, and this one caught it dead-center, the sabot burrowing into its organic hull before exploding. The thing was torn open, mechanical parts and glistening guts showering all around it, the surviving plates going limp as it crashed to the ground. As it fell, the Drones that had been hitching a ride on its abdomen flooded out, a swarm of three dozen starting to split into squads and lay down suppressive fire. The vehicle had succeeded in getting them closer, even if it had been brought down in the process. Those that had been advancing behind it joined their comrades, some taking cover in the wreckage as the UNN vehicles began to pepper them with fire.

“Another one of those pangolins!” Hernandez warned, Evan spotting one of the vehicles marching towards them.

“Another on the right flank!” McKay added. “We’re pinned down!”

One of the Kodiaks took out another of the crawling vehicles with its cannon, then mopped up the scattering passengers with its gun pods, the slugs chewing through the Drones as they fled for cover over the open ground. Still, more were coming, Scuttlers and Pangolins digging themselves out of the black earth.

“Got a whole battalion of Bugs on the left flank!” Garcia warned, his barrel leaning on the lip of the wall as he fired. With their mobile cover, the Bugs were starting to gain ground, advancing behind their armored vehicles as they poured suppressive fire into the UNN lines. The Marines were dug in, and the lower-powered plasma weapons splashed harmlessly against the reinforced hulls of the vehicles, but the enemy were closing rapidly. Another couple of hundred meters, and the defenders would be overrun.

In the distance, another Scuttler wriggled its way out of its hole, the ash pouring off its armored flanks to reveal a rack of missiles. They were long, organic, their rounded noses covered in black eyes and spindly antennae. To the right of the rack was a blob of flesh and metal, covered in more sensory equipment, its compound lenses scanning the area with a frantic energy. The thing looked like a parody of a SAM system made from meat, which was basically what it was.

“They have anti-air!” Evan warned.

“They really don’t like our fliers,” Hernandez grumbled, loading another grenade into his underbarrel launcher. “Makes me wonder how much of a pain in the ass their airforce would have been if we hadn’t wiped it out in orbit.”

Evan ducked, feeling pieces of shrapnel bounce off his helmet as one of the Scuttlers scored a lucky hit on a nearby Kodiak. A bolt of energy punched a hole in its side armor, leaving a molten ring, the tank’s turret abruptly stopping its rotation. As another salvo of chemical shells rained on them, bouncing off the hull of the IFV before releasing their payload of choking gas, Simmons lifted his head over the wall.

“They’re not gonna box us in this time,” he growled, tapping at the touch panel on his wrist. “They may have tied up our artillery support, but Fleetcom just tasked us a flight of gunships – they’ll be here in five minutes. We have to keep those Drones at arm’s length and take out the AA platforms, or they aren’t going to be able to help us.”

Evan ducked into cover to reload, taking a moment to bring up the battalion view on his HUD. He saw a rough representation of the surrounding terrain, relayed by the sensors of the various vehicles. In the center of it all was the convoy, all 150 vehicles forming a rough line, around 90 Marines and auxiliaries taking refuge between them like a wagon fort scene from a Wild West movie. Surrounding them was a dense ring of Bugs, showing up as red blips, thousands of them drawing ever closer with the support of their organic vehicles. Just like in the forest, they were moving as small units, laying down covering fire as they went. The battalion was shooting in every direction, only just holding them off.

“Sarge!” Hernandez warned, pointing over the barrier. “The AA Scuttler is scuttlin’!”

“Fucking thing is running away!” Garcia confirmed, cutting down a Drone that was peeking out from behind the refuge of a felled tank nearby.

“The Kodiaks aren’t going to be able to see it through all this shit!” Simmons growled. “Saddle up, guys! We’re going after it!”

“What!?” Collins exclaimed. “We’ll get torn to shreds out there!”

“Someone has to paint that AA platform for the Kodiaks, or we’re not getting any air support,” Simmons snarled. “Driver! Advance alongside us!” he barked into his mic. “The rest of you, on your feet!”

He vaulted over the wall, jogging off into the airborne ash. Evan and Hernandez shared a glance as Borzka and Tatzi went after him, loosing a Borealan battle cry, their bayonets leveled. The three Jarilans followed, Jade waving them on as they hopped lithely over the wall.

“Fuck it,” Evan muttered, rising to his feet as the IFV’s engine revved up. The vehicle’s deployable barricades folded flush against its flanks, its eight wheels churning up the dust as it began to roll along, the squad moving alongside it in a column. They soon caught up with Simmons and the Borealans, falling into formation with them. The IFV’s blister was firing constantly, its coils glowing red with heat, billows of flame clearing their path as it lay down a corridor of grenades ahead of them.

“Contacts on our left!” Simmons said, drawing Evan’s attention to a fallen Pangolin. There was a squad of Bugs taking refuge in its carcass, the creatures seeming surprised to see the IFV so far from the UNN line. They scarcely had time to react before the thirty-mill and a barrage of XMR fire chewed them up, tossing their ruined bodies to the ground. More Drones approached from the front, but were scattered by MGL fire, the squad mopping up the survivors as they advanced.

“Got eyes on the Scuttler!” Garcia shouted, Evan spotting its red outline through the smoke ahead of them. It was trudging through a patch of burnt trees, knocking them down like toothpicks.

“Tag it!” Simmons yelled, taking a knee as he fired into the scorched forest. More Drones were honing in on them now, moving between the squad and the Scuttler, covering its retreat. “Commander, we’re painting a priority target,” he said as he tapped at the display on his wrist. “We need heavy weapons on this thing before we lose it in the ash!”

The IFV deployed its walls again, everyone diving into cover behind them. The longer they stayed here, the less chance there was of them making it back, more and more Drones appearing by the second. There were a series of loud cracks, something punching swirling holes in the clouds of dust that filled the air above them. A bright green flash came from the direction of the Scuttler, the familiar glow of burning fuel and ammunition lighting up the nearby trees, the signature vanishing from Evan’s helmet.

“Got the fucker!” Simmons laughed, rapping on the hull of the IFV with a gloved fist. “Right, pull back to the battalion! As long as everyone else did their jobs, we should have opened up a clear path for the gunships.”

“We’re cut off from the rear!” Jade warned, turning to fire at a squad of Drones that were approaching from behind. Her two sisters flanked her, their gunfire joining hers, molten slugs perforating the creatures.

“We took too long!” Evan added, checking the map on his HUD to see a ring of red shrinking around their position. “They’re closing in on us.”

“Everyone inside the Puma!” Simmons ordered, taking a knee to cover the troop ramp as it began to descend. “We’ll have to go straight through!”

The ramp hit the dust, and the squad began to pile inside, the IFV’s blister helping provide covering fire. In spite of its withering hail of slugs, a barrage of plasma bolts bore down on them, splashing against its hull from every direction. Evan could hear them slamming into the vehicle from inside the bay, like giant hailstones pounding on a tin roof.

They didn’t even bother to strap into their seats, gripping handholds on the ceiling, the IFV’s wheels spinning in the ash even as Tatzi made her way up the closing ramp. She snarled into her helmet, firing off one last round, the slug catching one of the approaching Bugs and blowing a crater in its chest. The vehicle lurched, doing a frantic three-point turn, then roared off back towards friendly lines. Evan could still hear the blister firing and the sound of plasma impacting the hull, a loud thud letting him know that the driver had just plowed into a Drone without him needing to patch into the external cameras to take a look.

He bumped into the Marine in front of him as the IFV braked, then the ramp opened again, Simmons leading them back out into the swirling ash.

“Birds are on the way in!” he announced, putting his back to the hull of the troop carrier. It was peppered with burn marks now, but none of them had made it through. Luckily, the remaining Scuttlers hadn’t targeted them. They had bigger fish to fry – the Kodiaks pouring fire into the encroaching horde of Bugs.

“Can the pilots even see anything in this shit?” Hernandez asked.

“Only with our help,” Simmons replied, taking up position behind the IFV’s wall again. “Once they’re in range of our network, they’ll see everything that we see.”

The squad kept pouring fire into the advancing Bugs, burning through ammo, the coils on their XMRs starting to glow. Evan was thankful for the heat shroud that covered his barrel. Getting third-degree burns because you touched a hot coil was never a fun time.

“Here they come!” Simmons shouted.

The clouds of dust that choked the sky began to billow, a dark shape lowering itself down through them, like the shadow of a whale glimpsed through dirty water. As it neared, Evan saw the pinpricks of blue hydrogen flame beneath its belly, flickering like the pilot lights on a stove. It was creating enough of a backwash to clear a pocket in the sky, revealing its ocean-grey hull, along with the shark teeth that were stenciled beneath its nose. It had a bulbous front end with a raised canopy, tapering into a streamlined hull that ended in a twin-tailed stabilizer. Beneath its rounded nose was slung a massive autocannon, rotating on a gimbal as its camera pod tracked targets on the ground, a pair of compartments on its flanks opening up to reveal racks of missiles.

A second gunship descended to hover beside it, the pair coming alarmingly low to compensate for the poor visibility, the blasted heat tiles of one of the vessels hanging not ten meters above Evan’s head. After a few moments, their targeting systems locked on, their underslung guns starting to fire. These weren’t railguns, they were conventional weapons, spewing a torrent of thirty-millimeter shells at the legion of Bugs. White-hot shrapnel tore through their ranks as the rounds exploded on contact, lifting some of them off their feet, tossing their broken bodies through the air. Those that took direct hits were vaporized, turned to clouds of ichor and fragments of glistening carapace, each shot kicking up another splash of obscuring dust.

The Bugs rallied surprisingly quickly, coordinating their fire, taking cover behind their Pangolins. Although incapable of experiencing fear, there was an urgency to their movements, a kind of self-preservation that only went as far as ensuring the completion of their task. They returned fire, sending streams of plasma bolts at the gunships, but they barely scratched the paint. The hulls of the Penguins were hardened against the heat of reentry, and they were designed to be able to take far more punishment than mere Drones could dish out. The Bug troop carriers joined the salvo, but their turrets fared no better, the gunships starting to drift lazily to make themselves harder to hit.

One of them targeted a Pangolin, firing off a salvo of missiles from its rack. The projectiles flared forth on jets of flame, drawing smoke trails between the gunship and the troop carrier. As the dust cleared, Evan saw that it had been reduced to a smoldering wreck, twisted metal and charred flesh all that remained.

The gunships floated forward, the broken Bug lines starting to pull back, losing their cohesion as they were peppered with HE shells and missiles. Evan heard the roar of more aircraft, turning his head to see two more of the craft outlined in blue on his visor, their guns hammering the Bugs on the left side of the convoy.

“Advance behind the gunships!” Simmons ordered, the IFV’s engine growling as it rolled forward. They were flanked by a pair of Kodiaks, the lumbering tanks firing into the scattered squads of Drones, their hanging side skirts clattering as their tracks dug furrows in the ash.

Evan formed up with the rest of the squad, the armored vehicles forming reassuring walls of thick armor to either side of them. There was just enough space for the team to spread out into a rough line, keeping their rifles shouldered as they pushed into the fray. They quickly encountered the field of dead Bugs and craters that had been left by the gunships, the occasional crack of a railgun rising over the rumble of engines as someone put down a survivor nearby.

Beside a downed Scuttler that was still smoldering with green methane flame, Evan spotted a Bug dragging itself across the ash with its four arms, both of its legs severed. Pity might have moved him under different circumstances, but he could see that the creature was crawling towards a weapon, reaching for a resin plasma rifle that was partially buried in the dust. Even maimed and with a whole mechanized unit bearing down on it, the Drone showed no sign of stopping. He braced his rifle against his shoulder, putting the thing out of its misery with a burst of XMR fire.

A few hundred meters ahead of them, the gunships were still firing, the occasional explosion from a barrage of missiles silhouetting Bugs and dead trees against the airborne dust. Between the aircraft and the armored vehicles that were turning every survivor that popped its head out from behind a tree to giblets, there wasn’t much left to do other than mop up.

“Birds are giving the all-clear,” Simmons announced after a few more minutes, lifting his visor to watch the two gunships break off. They rose high into the air on their thrusters, only just visible through the smoke, then jetted off into the sky as the main engines below their tails burned.

“Casualty report?” McKay asked.

“We have maybe a dozen wounded, a couple of vehicles disabled, and two confirmed dead,” Simmons replied.

“Quite a different outcome from the first time they ambushed us,” Evan added. “We turned this one around on them.”

“We have a saying in Elysia,” Borzka growled, planting the butt of his long rifle in the ash beside the blackened body of a dead Drone. “Only prey stumble into the same snare twice.”

“Fool me once,” Hernandez added, the Borealan cocking his head at the smaller human.

“New orders coming in,” Simmons announced. “We’re going to establish a safe perimeter so dropships can evacuate the wounded, then we’re heading back to the LZ. The Karelia’s battalion is going to keep moving forward – they’re in a little better shape than we are. Fleetcom wants us to secure the landing site and figure out why the fuck nobody is responding.”

“Wait, they’re not responding?” Jade asked as she shared a concerned glance with her two Jarilan counterparts.

“Hotel stayed behind to provide artillery support, and Foxtrot was supposed to be guarding the LZ,” he replied. “There should have been a detachment of Marines from the carrier Taipei hanging around there, too. Last word we got from them was that they were under attack same as we were, but they’ve gone dark, and our fliers can’t get close until we confirm that there are no AA Scuttlers snooping around.”

“You think the Bugs have figured out how to jam our comms?” Garcia suggested, but Simmons could only shrug.

“No idea, but I don’t like it. This ambush was clearly intended to keep us tied up, presumably while a larger force moved to cut off our landing site. We should have left a whole battalion there, not just a handful of companies.”

“We expected to be ambushed,” Evan added, watching as Tatzi gave a nearby Drone a prod with her bayonet to make certain it was dead. “I don’t think anyone expected the Red King to double back and hit the LZ like this.”

“How are you so sure it’s him?” Foster asked, his skeptical tone letting Evan know that he was probably scowling behind his visor. “What, do you share some kind of psychic connection with him because you saw him one time?”

“We know that he’s operating in the area, and this is his style to a tee,” Evan replied as he struggled to mask the irritation in his voice. “That fucker is smart. He always manages to stay one step ahead of us. We should assume that whatever we’re walking into back at the LZ is part of his game.”

“Evan is right,” Jade said, giving him a supportive nod. “When I saw the Red King during the attack on the convoy, one thing that stood out about his behavior was his desire to learn. He took his time, he wanted to figure us out, find out what makes us tick.”

“We’ll tread lightly,” Simmons said. “Alright, fan out. Let’s make sure no more critters are waiting under the ash to shank us.”


Evan bounced in his seat as the IFV smashed through a little grove of burnt tree stumps, watching through the external camera feeds as they approached the LZ. They had put down in a lake bed that had been completely evaporated by the heat of the orbital bombardment, leaving a large bowl about two kilometers across that was devoid of the carbonized forests that littered the surrounding terrain. He noted that some of the trees here were taller, more intact than those that were now behind them, perhaps indicating that they had been further from the nearest blast. Many had been stripped of their branches, but most were still just as tall as they had been when they were alive, creating a ghostly landscape of black pillars that were shrouded in ash and dust. There was no color anywhere – only a few burning embers giving the scene a splash of red – creating an eerily monotone look. It was like they were driving into a sketch of a misty forest in charcoal.

They descended an incline, what had once been the shore of the lake, the mud and silt that had lined its bottom now cracked and desiccated. Evan turned to watch as several tanks and another IFV followed behind them, kicking more ash into the air.

“The scout company hasn’t found anything except burnt-out vehicles and dead Marines,” Simmons muttered, his eyes on his wrist display as the IFV bounced along. “Our orders are to fan out from the middle of the lake and get eyes on the ground, see if we can find any survivors.”

“Wait, the whole fuckin’ LZ has been wiped out?” Hernandez asked in disbelief. “Nobody from Artillery or Foxtrot made it?”

“That hasn’t been determined yet, but it looks bad,” Simmons replied. He shared a wordless glance with Evan, perhaps remembering the conversation they’d had about the Red King. Nothing about this felt right.

“We haven’t lost an entire company since the first landing, have we?” Garcia asked warily. “What the fuck did the Bugs hit them with?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Simmons replied.

Ahead of them, Evan spotted the glow of flames, a rising plume of smoke giving away their destination. As they neared, the artillery company came into view – or rather, what was left of the artillery company. Hotel was comprised of eight Avalanches, self-propelled artillery guns equipped with electromagnetic cannons that were based on the Kodiak’s chassis. Now, the vehicles lay in ruins, little more than blackened shells with fires still smoldering inside most of them. There was a disabled IFV nearby, too, its armored hull ripped open like someone had taken a giant can opener to it. There were a few bodies scattered in the ash, Evan picking out Marines and Drones alike.

One of the Timberwolfs was parked nearby, a six-wheeled scout vehicle with a small gun blister on the roof. The troop bay at the rear was open, and a couple of its crew members were standing nearby, waving for the convoy to stop. The IFV rolled to a halt, Simmons leading his squad down the ramp as it opened, making his way over to the two crewmen. They were wearing pressure suits and flak jackets, standard equipment for vehicle crews, and they were holding XMRs with short barrels and folding stocks.

“What the hell happened here?” Simmons asked, stepping around the charred corpse of a Marine. This battle was fresh enough that nobody had even attempted to recover any bodies yet. There was no need to check his vitals – not with that slagged hole in his visor. Evan was picking up a few nearby signals, but what IFF tags were even working anymore were kicking out KIA markers, indicating that the wearer of the suit was deceased.

“Anything to report?” Simmons demanded, the two scouts sharing concerned glances. “We can’t have been gone for more than six hours.”

“Something hit the LZ hard,” one of the men replied, glancing down at the dead Marine. “Foxtrot is gone, Arty is gone, no sign of the Marine detachment from the carrier save for bodies. We can’t find any survivors, no intact vehicles. Whatever rolled through here took them by surprise – killed some of the IFVs before they could even leave formation.”

“Plenty of dead Bugs, too,” the other scout added. “Based on the final radio transmissions between the LZ and the fleet, a whole army of the fuckers surrounded them and attacked from the top of the lake.” He pointed into the distance, Evan zooming in with his visor. The sloping banks were pocked with craters in places, scores of dead Bugs and Scuttler carcasses littering the area. “There must have been a lot of them. I haven’t seen a massacre like this since the first landings.”

“Some of this damage was done by our own guys,” the first scout said. “Rather than be overrun and lose the LZ, the company commander called in an airstrike on his own position. That was the last anyone heard of them before we arrived.”

“Ramos always was a stubborn asshole,” Simmons muttered, shaking his head in frustration. “This doesn’t make any sense. We were ambushed by a whole legion of Bugs, and we pulled through.”

“This must have been their main force,” Evan added, walking over to stand beside the sergeant. “Remember what Jade said, Sarge? Even if they marched half of their army into our guns, they’d still have enough bodies to outnumber us five to one. They were just trying to hold us up so we couldn’t stop whatever was happening here.”

“Our orders are to recapture the LZ and call in reinforcements,” Simmons said, glancing up at the ash-choked sky. “I’m surprised they weren’t waiting here for us, considering how much they seem to love ambushes. I guess the airstrikes did enough damage to make them think twice.”

“They probably felt comfortable taking on a mechanized company and a Marine regiment, maybe less so an entire battalion,” Evan replied. “The Kings seem to like staying mobile. I wouldn’t expect them to hold down a position if they didn’t have to. My guess is he’s going to pull back and wait for another opportunity to cause some chaos with whatever forces he has left.”

“Well, we have our orders,” Simmons continued. “Let’s secure the lake bed and see if we can find anyone still alive enough to tell us what the fuck went down here.”

They began to spread out, the remaining vehicles in the battalion splitting into companies, patrolling the cratered field of bodies and wrecks. There had been a dozen tanks, eight troop carriers, and sixteen artillery pieces left behind – all of them scattered about the lake bed in varying states of disassembly. They passed by some that had holes melted in their hulls from repeated plasma hits, slagging their armor plating to leave solid pools on the ground where the liquid metal had cooled. Others had been torn open by what might have been claws, while others had succumbed to the aerial bombardment, many of them still burning. There was enemy armor, too, just as many dead Scuttlers and Pangolins. There were bodies everywhere – human and Bug alike – few of them in any recognizable state thanks to the bombing.

“Nobody could have survived this,” Hernandez muttered as he stepped around a charred body. “Do you reckon they got the King?”

“I won’t believe it until I see the body,” Evan replied. “This guy leads from the back.”

“Is this common?” Aster asked, glancing at the sky warily. “Do humans often call in airstrikes on their own positions?”

“They would rather die than admit defeat,” Borkza replied as he stalked alongside her, slowing his long gait to match pace with his smaller counterparts. “It is sensible to submit to a stronger opponent, but the insects do not reason as civilized people do – they give no quarter. Like animals, they kill by reflex. Against such an opponent, there can be no surrender.”

“That’s why we call them ferals,” Jade added.

“I would have thought you’d love the idea,” McKay said, the green flames of a burning Scuttler reflecting off his visor. “Death and honor and all that.”

“Seeking glory through martyrdom is foolishness, not bravery,” Borzka scoffed. “Were this a war between two Borealan territories, it would never reach such a level of violence. The weaker party would submit when it became obvious that they could not prevail, and the conflict would end there. But this is not Borealis. These humans chose to spite their enemy rather than give them the satisfaction of a clean victory – an admirable feat.”

“I would prefer not to drop several thousand tons of ordnance on my own head if it can be avoided,” Collins grumbled as he made his way over to a ruined Puma. He did a double-take, stuttering into his mic. “G-guys! I got something here!”

He knelt, letting his XMR hang from its sling, the rest of the team hurrying to his side. As Evan peered over his shoulder, he saw that there was a body trapped beneath the twisted wreckage, partially buried in the mud. The man was alive, his suit putting out a weak IFF signal. Evan flashed back to the attack on the convoy, when he had woken up in a very similar situation, trapped in the mangled hull of his vehicle.

“He’s got a pulse!” Simmons said, waving the two Borealans over. “Get him out from under there! Garcia, radio for a medic!”

Borzka and Tatzi crouched, leveraging their feline strength to lift some of the heavy debris off the man, two of the Marines pulling him out from beneath the vehicle by the straps on his chest rig. Not knowing if his suit’s systems were even functional, Collins slid off his helmet gingerly. Inside was a man with a dark complexion, dried blood caked around his nose and mouth. He was still alert, blinking back at them with unfocused eyes.

“Are you alright?” Simmons asked. “Private Harris!” he snapped, reading off the man’s IFF tag to get his attention. “Can you speak?”

“S-Sergeant,” the man sputtered, Collins lifting his head a little so he could see them better. “I thought everyone was dead…”

“We’re from Delta company,” Simmons explained, going slowly. “We drove back to help. Can you tell me what happened here?”

“Fuckin’ Bugs happened,” Harris coughed. “They ambushed us, hit us with mortars and Scuttlers from the banks of the lake, then sent in waves of Drones. I dunno how they found the LZ. It was like they were waiting for us. They had entire squads of shielded Warriors – the things shrugged off our XMR fire and overwhelmed the Kodiaks, peeled them open like cans of tuna. There were too many…Commander Ramos told the fleet to wipe out the site. The Beewolf pilots probably did their best, but it was a moshpit – they couldn’t avoid blue on blue. After that first bombing run, I dunno what happened.”

“We have you,” Collins said, lying him down on the ground. “You’ll be back up in orbit in no time flat.”

The squad stepped back to give the medics room as they came running, the Marines setting down a first aid kit beside the man, starting to remove pieces of his armor to better access his injuries. He wasn’t in too bad shape – there were no mortal wounds that Evan could spot, no excessive bleeding. Harris had probably been lying here beneath his IFV for hours before they’d stumbled across him.

“He’s in good hands,” Simmons announced, waving them onward. “Keep moving.”


It didn’t take them long to secure the landing zone again, the battalion encountering no resistance as they cleared the lake bed. There had only been a handful of survivors who had all been evacuated once they were certain that no anti-air Scuttlers remained in the area, and landers were bringing in replacement vehicles and personnel from other assault carriers to replenish the lost companies.

Evan watched as another of the boxy craft touched down, the four thrusters that were arranged around its square hull kicking up clouds of dust as it joined another four like it that were already unloading their artillery.

“Do you think we’re gonna miss the battle at the Ant Hill?” Hernandez asked, leaning against the hull of their IFV as he watched one of the landers take off. “We gotta be hours behind the other battalions now.”

“Are you sure that’s a bad thing?” Jade asked.

“I’m sure we’ll be underway again soon enough,” Evan added, glancing out into the dark forest beyond the banks of the lake. The trees were stripped of their branches, blackened by the heat of the orbital bombardment, but most were still standing tall. “They can’t afford to have us sitting on our hands for too long.”

Tatzi and Borzka were sitting on the dry mud nearby, taking the opportunity to eat some MREs while the company waited for new orders. Scarcely an idle moment went by where the Borealans weren’t eating, which wasn’t really a surprise, considering their size. The number of calories it must take to keep them fed would probably have been enough to sustain four or five humans. Their helmets were still on, but their visors were open. They could snap them shut fast enough to protect themselves from any surprise chemical attacks if the need arose.

Tatzi lifted her head as Simmons came walking towards them, an all too familiar purpose in his gait.

“Mount up,” he ordered, the two felines climbing to their feet. “We’re moving out.”

“Where are we going?” McKay asked.

“We’ve lost contact with one of the Timberwolfs that was sent out to search the forest surrounding the lake,” he replied, pounding on the hull of the IFV with his fist. The ramp began to lower, the team making their way to the back of the vehicle. “Something’s happened to them, and we’re going to find out what. Recon flights over the area picked up active IFF signatures, and they’ve located the vehicle, but there’s nowhere for them to land. Fleetcom needs boots on the ground, and we drew the short straw.”

“We’re not going on our own, are we?” Hernandez asked warily.

“Fuck no,” Simmons replied as they began to mount the ramp. “They’re sending the whole company. We have no idea what’s out there – the roaches that attacked the LZ could be regrouping for another go.”

They strapped into their seats, Evan tapping into the external camera feeds to watch as the IFV moved into formation with the rest of Delta. Twelve Kodiaks and eight Pumas fell into a rough column, a Kestrel trailing behind them to provide anti-air support. The convoy started to drive to the far bank of the lake bed, climbing towards the eerie forest beyond. There was enough room between the naked, towering trunks for the six-meter-wide tanks to make it through relatively easily, the lead vehicle taking them on a winding path through the bizarre terrain. There was no undergrowth, it had all been burned away, and the blast waves had flattened the ground in a way that looked wholly unnatural. The tree trunks stood tall in the ocean of ash, their leaves and branches stripped away, their bark scorched black. It was like driving through a vast field of onyx pillars, like something from Dante’s Inferno or some expressionist painting of Hell. The sky above was still choked with dust clouds, the vehicles igniting their headlights to illuminate their path, the bright beams blocked by the trees.

“Well, this is fuckin’ creepy,” Hernandez muttered. “Why are the trees here still standin’?”

“They were probably far enough from the epicenter of the nearest explosion to avoid being vaporized,” Garcia explained. “The heat from the railguns would have been enough to turn stone to glass at the epicenter, but most of the damage would have been done by the blast waves. Those will have spread for kilometers, flattening forests and wiping out anything on the ground. Wildfires would have followed, but that wouldn’t be enough to bring down trees this large.”

“I get why they said it would take eighty years for the ecosystem to recover,” Jade added.

“I heard forest fires are actually good for the land,” McKay volunteered. “Doesn’t it give the soil more nutrients or something?”

“Not if the entire top layer was turned to ash,” Garcia scoffed. “This place is gonna be a total dead zone for decades. Not to mention all the damage the dust in the atmosphere is going to do to the rest of the moon. This is why we don’t usually open up with mass orbital bombardment.”

They bounced over exposed roots and waded through dunes of ash as they went, the formation fanning out in a line to cover more ground when they neared the site of the lost scout vehicle. Evan could see it in the distance – a solitary, six-wheeled Timberwolf parked alone in the forest. There didn’t seem to be any obvious damage at a glance.

The convoy ground to a halt, the tanks establishing a safe perimeter as the Marines from two of the IFVs piled out, sweeping their rifles across the trees as they advanced towards the seemingly abandoned vehicle. Evan and his team were among them, Simmons taking the lead, lifting his wrist to check his display.

“No IFF tags in range,” he muttered, shouldering his XMR as they neared. “Either the crew are dead and their suits are offline, or there’s nobody home.”

The second team watched the trees nearby as Evan and McKay were ordered forward, the pair moving towards the open troop ramp at the rear. They were approaching the vehicle side-on, and they couldn’t see inside it from this angle. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Evan stopped beside the camouflaged hull, turning to give McKay a nod. When he returned it, the pair swung around, pointing their XMRs into the compartment.

“It’s empty,” Evan announced with a sigh of relief that he elected not to broadcast over the radio. “No sign of the crew. Nobody in the cab, either.”

“Fuck,” Simmons hissed. He hadn’t been hoping to find bodies, but this complicated matters, and Evan understood his frustration completely. “Alright, we’ll search the area. Jade, Aster, Cardinal – can you use your antennae? I don’t think anyone’s going to be firing nuclear sabots around here.”

“It should be safe,” Jade replied with a nod. “We breathe through spiracles, and those are filtered through our armor. We don’t have to inhale any ash to smell like the Borealans do.”

The three Jarilans reached up, opening the protective panels on their helmets, their long feelers uncurling. Evan watched Jade grimace through her visor as she scented the air, the feathery appendages waving in the wind.

“What does it smell like?” he asked.

“Like burning,” she replied sarcastically. The three made their way into the crew compartment of the Timberwolf, picking up the scents of its operators like bloodhounds, then they began to walk into the forest. Simmons waved to their IFV, and the vehicle began to follow after them, rolling along behind the team as it matched their pace.

“I’m getting something,” Aster announced, her two sisters moving over to join her.

“The crew came this way,” Jade confirmed, her antennae twitching. “These tracks are fresh – they stand out against the ash.”

“There were Bugs, too,” Cardinal added as she crouched low to the ground. “I smell a pheromone trail. No blood, though.”

“They took them,” Jade mused, turning back to the team as they waited nearby. “Why would they take them?”

“Hang on, they took the crew hostage?” Simmons demanded. He had a finger to the side of his helmet – probably already reporting their findings to the company commander. “Why? Bugs don’t take prisoners.”

“This has happened once before,” Cardinal said, hesitating for a moment as she looked to her counterparts for reassurance. “On Jarilo, when our father was taken by the Queen.”

“Sergeant Walker was captured by the hive,” Jade explained, relaying the story to the rest of the team. “The Queen wanted to find a way to communicate with him so that she could surrender to the Coalition.”

“Do you think they’re trying to do the same here?” Collins asked, a hint of hope creeping into his voice.

“The Queen of Jarilo surrendered because she was pushed to the brink of defeat,” Aster added, shaking her head incredulously. “Anything is possible – nobody can predict how Kerguela’s Queen might behave – but I don’t think it’s likely. Their resistance is still far too strong.”

“It doesn’t change anything,” Evan said, checking that the shotgun beneath his XMR’s barrel was loaded. “We’re still getting them back.”

“The commander wants us to take point,” Simmons said. “Follow your noses, ladies. Or rather, your antennae.”

The three Jarilans led the way as the rest of the team followed behind them, the IFV trundling along at their rear. The blue icons of friendly units stood out against the dingy backdrop on Evan’s visor as Delta company moved with them, spreading out to their left and right flanks. They walked for what must have been a couple of klicks, tensions soaring, every tree trunk and drift of ash potentially hiding an ambush. This could very easily be another trick – another of the Red King’s ploys to draw them out where they were more vulnerable, but it was a trap that they had no choice but to spring. The UNN didn’t leave people behind.

As they marched through another patch of ankle-deep dust, Tatzi stopped, raising a clenched fist.

“Did you hear that?” she snarled.

“What is it?” Simmons whispered, scanning the nearby trees with his XMR.

Borzka reached up to remove one of the little caps on his helmet that covered his furry ears, rotating it like a radar dish as he listened intently.

“A cry for help,” he confirmed, pointing into the blackened forest. “That way!”

They changed course, jogging through the trees, Simmons calling it in as the rest of the company followed. After a couple of minutes, Evan’s dull human ears began to hear it too – the harrowing sound of someone screaming for aid echoing through the trees.

“I’m picking up a weak IFF signal,” McKay announced. “Got a lock on it.”

The vehicles rolled to a stop as they came upon a bizarre scene. Through the forest, maybe two hundred meters ahead, was a human figure. His clothes were those of a vehicle crewman – a pressure suit and a flak jacket, and his helmet was missing. He was strung up a good ten meters off the ground, strapped to the trunk of one of the charred trees with what looked like a mesh of silvery, glistening spider webs. It almost looked like some kind of native animal had tried to cocoon the man, but Evan knew better.

“Stalkers!” he warned, the team forming a rough circle to watch every angle. He hadn’t encountered one of the creatures first-hand yet, but intelligence reports had detailed engagements with them. They were practically invisible to thermal cameras until they started moving, and they attacked by ambush, using sticky webbing to trap unwary Marines before descending on them with their mantis-like scythes.

“This is a fuckin’ trap if I ever saw one,” Hernandez said, pulling his weapon tight against his shoulder as he glanced up at the naked treetops. “Fuckin’ things could be anywhere.”

“Stalkers don’t put out pheromones, but there were Drones here recently,” Jade clarified. “A few hours at most.”

“Help me!” the crewman wailed, his voice making Evan’s blood run cold. There was something primal, almost reflexive about his reaction to the sound, his heart pounding in his chest as he resisted the urge to rush to the man’s aid. He was injured – a red stain that had soaked through his pressure suit trailing down his right thigh, his face unnaturally pale.

The ground shook as a Kodiak rolled up behind them, the company commander climbing halfway out of the cupola on the turret to get a better look.

“What the fuck is this?” he asked over the radio, Evan’s helmet dampening the sound of the vehicle’s engine so that he could hear him clearly.

“Looks like a really obvious trap, sir,” Simmons replied. “They’ve got one of the missing crewmen webbed to a tree.”

“His vitals are rough, sir,” McKay added as he checked the display on his forearm. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”

“Private Jade,” the commander said, leaning over the side of his tank to speak to her. She blinked back at him, surprised to be addressed directly. “What’s your take on this?”

“The area has certainly been boobytrapped, Commander,” she replied as she gestured into the trees ahead. “I’d expect mines and tripwires, maybe pitfalls, and Stalkers waiting in the trees.”

“Alright,” the commander muttered, settling back into his cupola. “I’m not playing this game. Bring in the Crocodile!”

After a few moments, another tank broke off from the formation and trundled its way over to them. This one had a shortened, stubby cannon when compared to its Kodiak counterparts, and there was a massive armored plow mounted on the front of its chassis. It was easy to see where the vehicle got its name, jagged prongs jutting from the scoop like teeth. It extended a trio of limb-like appendages, each one tipped with a flexible skid that slid along the ground ahead of it, giving it an oddly insectoid look.

“What the hell is that?” Aster asked as the team stepped aside to let the armored behemoth drive past.

“That’s a Crocodile ABV,” Collins replied, watching it roll off into the trees. “It’s a mine-clearing and breaching vehicle. It’s going to roll through and activate any traps the Bugs have set for us.”

“Let’s see the Stalkers ambush that thing,” Hernandez chuckled.

The Crocodile lowered its plow, those jagged teeth digging into the soil, churning up the top layer of ash and soil as it went like a tractor plowing a field. Those skids preceded it, designed to apply enough pressure to set off mines before they passed beneath the vehicle. It was equipped with line charges, too, but those would be dangerous to use in such close proximity to the captured crewman.

“Why do you think they did this?” Collins asked, watching the modified tank as it slowly cleared a path towards the man. It encountered a smaller tree, its tracks grinding up the earth as its engine roared, the charred trunk eventually succumbing to its weight. “What do they hope to accomplish?”

“Maybe they’re testing us?” Jade suggested. “Betelgeusians are very reactive – they adapt themselves to their environment and to the tactics of their enemies. My guess is that they’ve seen us go to great lengths to recover wounded Marines, even bodies, and they think they might be able to exploit that behavior in some way. It must be extremely alien to them – seeing us treat our people as anything other than expendable. The only reason Bugs recover their dead is to recycle them by feeding them to a Replete. The same fate awaits those who are too injured to recover.”

“That’s grisly,” Collins muttered. “I’d heard rumors that they eat their dead, but I thought it was just scaremongering…”

“It’s a sniper trap,” Hernandez added, getting their attention.

“A sniper trap?” Evan repeated.

“Yeah,” Hernandez replied, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he stood beside the idling IFV. “You wound a guy enough that he’s gonna holler for his buddies, but not enough to kill him, then you shoot anyone who comes to help.”

“That’s barbaric!” Jade hissed, planting her lower pair of hands on her wide hips as she held her XMR in the upper. “Surely the UNN doesn’t condone that?”

“Of course not,” Hernandez continued. “It’s a war crime. Used to happen, though. Durin’ the African wars, back before the Union was founded, the different factions used some real dirty tactics to get one over on each other. One of their favorites was to set up sniper traps. They had these little dog-sized, autonomous drones equipped with high-caliber rifles,” he continued as he lowered a hand to demonstrate their size. “The militias would put speakers on these things and play a sound file of someone screamin’ for help in whatever language their enemies spoke. When someone came to investigate, the drone would drop ‘em. No mercy, no hesitation, just pop. They didn’t get tired, they didn’t feel remorse, they’d just keep at it until someone destroyed them or their battery ran out of charge.”

“The African wars were ugly,” McKay added with a nod. “Drone tech was cheap and readily available at the time, and weapons manufacturers were pouring experimental gear into the continent like it was one giant proving ground. There were dozens of warring factions, governments and insurgencies alike, all using whatever they had on hand to win. Suicide drones, swarms of armed copters, loitering munitions. It’s the main reason the UN voted to ban autonomous weapons.”

“Wouldn’t they be helpful, though?” Aster asked as she cocked her head at him. “Used responsibly, they could save lives.”

“Doesn’t matter,” McKay replied with a shrug. “We choose to live by laws and moral principles,” he added as he gestured to the captive crewman. “If we just do whatever it takes to win, we’re no different from them. If you have to abandon your principles in order to come out on top, that’s no victory, because you’ve still lost what you were fighting for.”

“Could you justify that outlook in the face of extinction?” Aster asked, her antennae twitching skeptically.

“Honestly? I dunno,” McKay replied with a shake of his head. “What I do know is that if humanity hadn’t learned from our mistakes and chosen to abide by rules like these, we might have become just as much a plague on the Galaxy as the Bugs.”

The Crocodile neared the base of the tree that the crewman was strapped to, grinding to a stop, the vehicle’s commander slowly climbing out of the hatch on the turret with his PDW in hand. There had been no explosions from mines, no traps had been triggered, and the tank hadn’t fallen into any pitfalls. The two men had a brief exchange, Evan turning to glance at the company commander, following their conversation over the radio.

“What did he say?” the commander demanded.

“He keeps saying they’re still here, sir. He’s delirious – lost a lot of blood.”

“Doesn’t look like they’re here,” the commander muttered as he glanced around at the barren trees. “Ask him if he knows what happened to the rest of his crew.”

There was a pause as the Crocodile’s commander relayed the question.

“He says he doesn’t know, sir,” he replied.

“Delta-seventeen, Delta-sixteen,” the commander barked. “Move in and secure the area around that tree. We need to figure out how to get that guy down from there.”

Another of the IFVs rolled up beside Evan’s team, and the two groups began to advance alongside their vehicles, their weapons at the ready.

“You think the Bugs have found a way to stop their mines from being triggered by vehicles?” Evan asked as he kept his eyes on the trees to their right. “Maybe some kind of chemical trigger?”

“It’s not impossible, but I doubt they’ve ever seen a Crocodile before,” Jade replied. “The Bugs tend not to come up with solutions for problems they haven’t encountered yet.”

The two squads walked along ahead of their vehicles in a delta formation, watching their surroundings carefully. Sixteen was all UNN Marines, as Borzka and Tatzi had been assigned to the same squad due to their original ones being all but wiped out. Borealans usually formed their own packs under normal circumstances, and there weren’t enough Jarilans to go around.

As they trudged through the furrows and tank tracks that the Crocodile had dug into the earth, Evan heard a loud popping sound from their left. He spun around, his weapon at the ready, only to see that the squad adjacent to theirs had stopped. Something had exploded from beneath the bark of the nearest tree, sending a puff of dust into the air. It wasn’t a plasma charge or a fragmentation weapon, but what looked like fine filaments of fishing wire. The strands were so light that they floated on the breeze, drifting over the lead Marines, draping over them like cobwebs.

“They mined the trees!” one of the men shouted.

“Damn it!” Simmons hissed, raising a fist to order the squad to halt. “No wonder the Crocodile didn’t trigger any traps – they were never in the goddamned ground!”

The two Marines who were tangled in the shimmering strands were frozen in place, but nothing untoward seemed to be happening to them. There were no subsequent explosions, no chemical releases, nothing to indicate that any harm was being done.

“It’s not sticky,” one of the Marines announced, seeming relieved. “What the hell is-”

He waved his arm, trying to brush the strands away, and the limb fell apart. The man screamed in pain and surprise, his counterpart mirroring his reaction, both squads yelling in alarm as they backed away from the pair. The filament was sharp enough to cut through armor, flesh, and even bone like cheese wire through a block of mozzarella. The simple motion of moving his arm had caused the threads to slice through his fingers like hotdogs and cut his forearm into a dozen pieces with terrifying ease. The perfectly diced chunks of what had once been the Marine’s arm fell about his feet, still wrapped in his pressure suit, the pieces of his ceramic armor cut so cleanly that they could have come off the printing bed looking that way. As he jerked back reflexively, the tangle of wires tightened around his body, his cry abruptly silenced as he was dismembered.

“What the fuck!” the other Marine exclaimed, hyperventilating into his mic as he stared at what had once been his squadmate. Evan could see that it was taking all of his willpower to resist the flight reflex, as even the subtlest movement might cost him his life.

“Keep still, keep still!” his sergeant shouted as he rushed to his side. He clearly wanted to help but had no idea how, hesitating as he neared. “We need a medic!”

The Marine growled through gritted teeth as one of the strands cut into his thigh, drawing crimson blood, but he managed to avoid jerking away from it.

“Stay away from the trees!” Simmons ordered. “Everyone back into the IFV, right now!”

As they began to retreat towards the rear of the vehicle, a loud shot rang out, echoing through the forest. Something hit Sixteen’s sergeant in the helmet, punching a hole straight through it, gore seeping through his shattered visor as he fell limply to the ash-caked ground.

“Sniper!” someone yelled, everyone raising their rifles to the treetops. Far above, clinging to one of the tall trunks, Evan saw something shift. The airborne dust and the low light made it hard to make out, but as he zoomed in on the spot, a Stalker was revealed. The creature had the same body plan as the Kerguelan Drones, along with the same spiky carapace, but it was taller and lankier than its smaller sisters. It had large, compound eyes like those of a housefly, ringed by more small lenses and receptors. Its upper pair of arms were equipped with wicked mantis scythes that extended from its wrists, and its body was covered in tiny spinnerets that could excrete sticky silk, allowing it to anchor itself in place like a spider. Those gossamer threads that covered its body were no longer coated in leaves and twigs to help it camouflage itself in the canopy, but ash and flakes of burnt bark, making it as black as its surroundings.

The thing leveled a long, organic rifle, supporting the weight of the weapon with its lower arms as it lined up another shot with the upper pair. It wasn’t even standing on a branch, the sticky webbing supporting its weight as it hung from the trunk like an abseiler walking down a sheer cliff face.

There was another crack, its rifle rocking into its shoulder, the next round taking out the stationary Marine who was caught in the filaments. Unable to dive for cover, he was a sitting duck, the projectile hitting him in center mass with the force of a hammer. If the shot hadn’t killed him, the filaments did, the impact knocking him back. The tangled threads sliced him apart, scattering chunks of wet meat across the forest floor behind him.

The Marines were returning fire now, saturating the treetops with XMR slugs as they took cover behind their IFVs. The blisters on the roofs of the vehicles joined in, a hail of railgun rounds blowing craters in the charred trunks, splinters of shattered wood raining to the ground below. The Stalker was practically disintegrated, quickly turned into a fine vapor of ichor and shell fragments, but more of the creatures were emerging from their hiding places all around the company.

They sprang to life from the dead trees like spriggans, covered in pieces of bark, some of them descending to the ground on lines of taut silk. Others emerged from the soil nearby, the sticky webbing that covered their spiked carapaces picking up the ash and dirt, making them as black as night. Only now that they were starting to move did they begin popping up on Evan’s HUD, his helmet’s sensors struggling to distinguish their growing heat signatures from the ambient temperature of the environment, which was already unusually hot due to the bombardment. It made them almost invisible to his equipment, forcing him to rely solely on visual acquisition.

“What the fuck do we do, Sarge?” Garcia yelled with panic in his voice.

“Stand your ground!” Simmons replied as he raised his rifle to fire at one of the incoming Stalkers. “They’ll overrun us if we try to retreat!”

The IFV deployed its walls, and the squad took cover wherever they could, but they were surrounded. Stalkers were coming at them from every direction, using the trees to block lines of sight, firing down from elevated positions where the low barriers counted for nothing. A hail of projectiles rained down on the company – not plasma, but some kind of conventional bullet. They seemed to be armor-piercing, hitting with enough force to punch through UNN ceramics, ringing the hulls of the vehicles like gongs where they impacted.

The Stalkers high in the treetops poured down sniper fire, forcing the defenders to take cover while those on the ground rushed closer, the cruel scythes on their upper arms extending like blades. They were so fast, their lithe, lanky figures darting through the forest. Evan tried to track them through his scope, but they were like ghosts, shrouded in ash and darkness. Molten trails filled the air as the Marines fired back, their slugs blasting chunks out of the tree trunks, splinters flying like shrapnel. Even with such a concentration of firepower, the dodging, weaving creatures managed to close the distance. In the chaos, it was hard to even pick a target. Over the radio, he heard the company commander’s voice as he ducked back into his cupola, the tank’s turret rotating to face the nearest enemies.

“All vehicles, all vehicles, weapons free! Fire at will!”

Most of the company was a few hundred meters behind them, Evan hearing the sound of them opening up rise above the din of the gunfight. Flashes of orange light illuminated the forest in brief snapshots as grenades and HE rounds detonated, canister shells shredding the trees like paper, streams of fire pouring from the Kestrel as it turned its AA guns on the targets. None of it was helping their little group, however. The two IFVs, the commander’s Kodiak, and the Crocodile were stuck out at the front of the pack along with the captive scout. The poor man was screaming, his mouth open wide, but his voice was drowned out by the noise of battle.

One of the nearby Stalkers took cover behind a tree, bracing its rifle with all four of its arms, then fired a shot. The round sailed over the chest-high barricade, catching McKay in the right shoulder. The bullet carried enough force to pass straight through his armor and out of his back, spraying the hull of the IFV with his blood, digging a crater into its plating. The impact knocked him off his feet, sending him crashing into Garcia, who fell to the ground alongside him.

“I’m hit!” he wailed, dropping his XMR as he gripped his shoulder reflexively. Blood was already pooling on the ground beneath him, Garcia rising to kneel over him, putting pressure on the wound.

“Medic!” he yelled.

The rest of the squad covered them, returning fire on the tree, their slugs tearing out chunks of its bark.

“Gunner!” Simmons ordered, ducking behind the wall. “Hit that target at bearing five-zero!”

The IFV swung its blister in that direction, its coils glowing red as it unloaded, the thirty-millimeter slugs turning the wood to sawdust. The Stalker that had been hiding behind it took a round to the abdomen, exploding on the spot, the kinetic energy partially vaporizing it.

“Where are you hit?” Collins demanded, throwing himself down beside McKay.

“Shoulder,” McKay groaned through gritted teeth.

Collins reached for a canister that was attached at his hip, shooing away Garcia before pulling McKay’s hand away. Like he was giving the Marine an adrenaline injection, he slammed the pointed nozzle of the device into the wound, McKay moaning in pain as Collins filled it with expanding foam.

“Come on, big guy,” Collins grunted as he and Garcia hauled him to his feet. “Back into the Puma. Good job that thing overpenetrated, or you’d be missing an arm right now.”

“Your bedside manner is terrible,” McKay growled as they dragged him along.

“Covering fire!” Simmons ordered, the rest of the squad rising from behind the wall to spray the forest beyond with tungsten as their comrades rushed McKay to the troop ramp.

Three of the scythe-wielding Bugs emerged from the gloom between the trees ahead, crossing the distance with inhuman speed and agility, the compound lenses on their helmets reflecting the flashes of light from the gunfire and explosions. The IFV lowered its railgun, turning one of them to paste as it approached, but the two remaining targets were too close now, moving beneath the blister’s lowest angle of depression.

The squad cut down a second with concentrated fire, disassembling the thing as it neared, its seven-foot frame jerking as each slug tore out a fist-sized chunk of flesh and chitin. The third attacker came from the right of the IFV, going around the wall, its clawed feet skidding in the ash as it lowered itself like a charging linebacker.

Tatzi dashed out to meet it, putting herself between her squad and its flashing blades. It brought its mantis-like scythes down on her from above, but she blocked them with her rifle, using the long weapon like a polearm. It was only the protective shroud over the barrel that prevented the hot coils below from burning her hand. The blow was stopped dead, but the creature hooked the XMR with its jagged blades, ripping it from her grasp. Tatzi was on her assailant before the rifle had even hit the forest floor, shouldering into the creature, lifting it off its feet. She slammed it into the side of the IFV with enough strength to raise the vehicle’s wheels a good inch off the ground, its suspension bouncing as it fell back into place.

Despite being crushed between a five-hundred-pound feline and the armored flank of the Puma, the Stalker was undeterred, clawing at her as the pair began to grapple. Its claws glanced off her ceramic plating, leaving scars on the material, but they found purchase in the kevlar of her pressure suit. The talons on its lower arms and the jagged scythes that extended from its upper wrists sliced through the fabric, cutting into the flesh of her back and shoulders, Tatzi loosing a bestial snarl into her helmet as it drew crimson blood.

She swung the lanky Bug around, finding enough purchase to tear it off her, tossing it to the ground. The thing scrambled to its feet with alarming speed, using all six of its ash-caked limbs to right itself, its digitigrade legs coiling like springs as it prepared to come at her again. There was no opportunity for anyone to fire on it – not without the risk of hitting Tatzi.

As it pounced at her, she caught its face in her massive hand, bellowing a war cry as she slammed it into the dirt. The blow must have dazed the creature because it seemed to hesitate for a moment, giving the Borealan the time she needed to grip the base of one of its upper arms. With a motion like she was trying to start a chainsaw, she tore the limb out of its socket, green ichor joining the blood that splattered the hull of the nearby vehicle. Next, she dropped all of her weight on the struggling Bug, slamming a knee into its abdomen, a lightning-fast blow from its remaining scythe drawing scratches across her visor. She began to hammer its face with her fist, holding it down with her free hand, her muscles rippling beneath her torn suit as she pulverized its head. When she was done, there was nothing left but pulp, Tatzi rising from its twitching body with its fluids dripping from her glove. She stooped to retrieve her weapon, then returned to the fight, blood seeping down her back.

“You need any help?” Hernandez asked as she took up position beside him.

“You may tend to my wounds later,” she hissed. “Keep firing.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he muttered as he turned his eyes back to his sights.

More tanks were rolling up to support them now, firing rockets and mortars into the trees. It seemed like the enemy attack was being pushed back. Evan was distracted by a flash of green light, turning his head to see the Crocodile ahead of them erupt into flames. A Scuttler strode out of the trees off to its left, the triangular cannon on its turret accelerating another ball of glowing plasma, the bolt of energy melting through the vehicle’s compromised hull like butter.

A hatch on the rear of the tank swung open, a solitary crew member throwing himself out of the burning wreck, flames licking at his heels. He was wearing a singed pressure suit and a flak vest, the man unfolding the stock on his PDW as he turned his helmet towards the biological tank. The Scuttler’s beaked prow split open, its head snaking forth on its long, sinewy neck. It was covered in black eyes and jutting antennae, like an organic periscope, its flesh a sickly shade of blue.

“Get some, motherfucker!” he shouted into his radio as he began to fire his weapon from the hip. The Scuttler jerked its head back as the slugs found their mark, the biological vehicle sucking the appendage back inside its beak like a tongue, lurching away like a wounded animal. It leveled its main gun and fired, the crewman reduced to a smoldering crater.

“More of them, from the front!” Simmons warned.

A wave of Drones and armored vehicles were pouring in from the direction of the burning Crocodile now, a hail of plasma fire lighting up the forest in eerie green. Mortars whistled overhead, another Scuttler firing on the nearest Kodiak, Evan feeling the wave of heat from the plasma bolt as it impacted the heat tiles on its sloping turret.

“God damn it, we need air support!” the company commander barked. “Get Fleetcom on the horn right now! Tell them to assign me a flight of fast-movers before we get fucking overrun! Yes, I know they can’t see shit – that’s what we have targeting lasers for!”

The commander’s Kodiak fired its main gun over their heads, practically cutting the Scuttler that had destroyed the Crocodile in half, sending the smoldering carcass toppling onto its side. A mortar landed nearby, a torrent of dirt showering the team, flecks of soil bouncing off Evan’s helmet. It began to disgorge a yellow substance, noxious chemicals pouring into the air.

“Get back in the IFV, Tatzi!” Hernandez demanded. “Your suit is breached!”

“I can still fight!” she replied, taking out a Drone in the distance with a carefully-placed shot.

“Not if your organs are melting!” he continued, turning to glance up at her. “Get back in the fuckin’ IFV!”

She began to argue, but Hernandez stepped in to punch her in the thigh with all his strength – unable to reach much else. It was little more than a love tap to a Borealan, but it got her attention, the feline pausing to stare down at him.

“Do as I tell you!” he added, pointing to the troop ramp. She hesitated, then complied, turning to jog back to the rear of the vehicle.

“Boy, I’m gonna pay for that one if we survive this,” he grumbled as he turned his attention back to the encroaching Bugs.

“Is she gonna be that mad?” Evan asked as he ducked in to reload.

“You clearly don’t know Borealans very well,” he replied.

Unlike the Stalkers, the enemy infantry and tanks were only coming from one direction. After the airstrikes back at the LZ, maybe they didn’t have the numbers to surround and overwhelm the company as they had done during the first landings. There had been as many dead Bugs as dead Coalition troops – it must have cost them dearly.

The company formed a united front, firing at the Stalkers as the vehicles moved into a battle line to face the charging enemy forces. Once the element of surprise had been lost, the Stalkers were as fragile as any other Bug. They were torn apart by railgun fire and canister shells, blown away by volleys of mortar fire and grenades. Evan heard a loud cracking sound rise above the sound of battle, turning to see an entire tree starting to collapse, so chewed apart by gunfire that it could no longer stand. It brought down a pair of Stalkers that were perched high up its trunk as it crashed to the ground, flattening a squad of Drones that were unfortunate enough to be standing in its shadow.

“Target those Scuttlers!” the company commander barked into his mic. “Get some mortar fire into those infantry formations!”

One on one, the Bugs weren’t faring so well. It took their Scuttlers a couple of follow-up shots to get through a Kodiak’s front armor, and the tanks could take them down with a single well-placed sabot. Evan saw a billow of orange flame rise into the air to his left, one of the IFVs succumbing to a volley of coordinated fire from three of the organic vehicles. They were working as a unit, leveraging numbers to overcome their shortcomings.

The Kodiaks in the mechanized company were subdivided into groups of four, working together with just as much coordination, four railgun barrels turning on the enemy vehicles. They fired almost in unison, HE shells hitting with pinpoint accuracy at such close range. At a distance of only a few hundred meters, the impacts were practically instant, ripping through carapace and flesh like butter. Their targets were tossed off their feet by the impacts, one of them rolling onto its side as it was blown open, its segmented legs curling beneath its body like a closing fist as its biomechanical guts painted the nearby trees. Another took an armor-piercing shell straight through its armored beak, the hard chitin providing little resistance, the vehicle falling on its face as the projectile punctured its fuel tanks with a flash of green methane flame.

The scream of an engine roared overhead, a Beewolf depositing its payload from above the clouds of ash, painting a trail of fire through the forest beyond. It lit up the trees, silhouetting the advancing troops against the blooming explosions. Several points of green light followed, rising into the sky, punching through the clouds on jets of emerald flame. They were missiles – there was an AA Scuttler out there, far from the front line. Evan couldn’t make out anything above the dark canopy, but he saw a shower of bright lights that gently began to descend – probably flares from the aircraft.

A second plane zipped overhead, dropping another payload of bombs, the targeting data from the ground guiding them down to their targets. Another blast hit the enemy lines – this one far closer – engulfing several Pangolins and their Drones in an inferno.

Between the tanks and the bombers, the enemy charge was losing its momentum. Squads of Drones attempted to take cover between the burning, bleeding wrecks of their vehicles, others seeking refuge behind trees that were quickly torn apart by railgun fire. With a single front to fight on, the company could saturate the area with tungsten and missiles, the hypersonic projectiles punching through everything but the toughest of armor. A mere tree trunk wasn’t going to stop an armor-penetrating sabot traveling at six kilometers per second.

The enemy withered under the barrage, perhaps two dozen enemy vehicles lying dead or dying, their crab-like legs twitching as chemical fires from their fuel and plasma tanks consumed them. Evan watched a Pangolin stagger as its thick frontal armor plates were shattered by a sabot, the explosive charge detonating to throw the nearby Drones off their feet, tossing them to the forest floor. A follow-up shot from another Kodiak finished it off, green bodily fluids splashing the nearby trees as the shell tumbled through its body, the thing veering to the right like it had lost control. It collapsed directly on top of one of the unfortunate Drones, the scrambling Bug disappearing beneath its armored bulk.

“Beewolfs are coming around for another pass!” the commander warned. “When they drop the last of their bombs, move up! Let’s make damn sure this was their last ambush!”

A few moments later, another trail of explosions filled the forest ahead, scattering more of the Drones. The commander’s Kodiak began to roll forward, the rest of the company following suit, the team starting to jog alongside their IFV. They passed the tree where the unfortunate crewman was still stuck, Evan noting that he had survived the chaos that had been erupting all around him. It was a miracle that the poor man hadn’t succumbed to a heart attack if not a stray slug.

“Will somebody get that guy down from there?” the commander grumbled as they drove around the base of the tree.

The company spread out, moving between the towering trunks, engaging the scattered Drones wherever they found them. While the insects felt no fear, the relentless bombardment had thrown them into disarray, and they were struggling to mount an effective defense. The UNN armor rolled through them, the Marines mopping them up with XMR fire.

Simmons led the team over to a downed Pangolin, the biological vehicle lying tilted on its side, its six legs curled tightly. The overlapping armored plates were pocked with holes the size of a man’s head where slugs from the Kodiaks had penetrated, revealing off-green flesh that seeped a clear, pus-like fluid. Its beak was hanging open, the tongue-like sensory appendage lying coiled on the forest floor.

As they rounded its hull, a Drone leapt out to fire at them, shooting a resin rifle from its hip. A ball of green plasma shot along its magnetic rails, hitting Hernandez in the chest with enough force to knock him back. Evan stepped in, cutting the thing down with a burst of gunfire, sending its slug-riddled body toppling to the ground.

“Are you alright?” he asked, turning to look back at his friend.

“Yeah,” Hernandez sighed as a dull, red glow faded from his ceramic chest piece. The armor had done its job, dissipating the heat over a wider surface area to prevent the bolt from melting through, leaving a black mark where the camouflaged paint had been burned away. “Looks like these things actually work…”

Evan took the opportunity to get a closer look at the Pangolin as they rounded its hulking carcass. It resembled an up-armored Scuttler at the front, but it wasn’t armored at the rear, a bulbous abdomen like that of a tarantula lying in the dirt behind it. It was covered in handholds where its passengers would cling to it, riding behind it like parasites.

Movement caught his eye, something shifting beneath the torn flesh inside one of the massive wound channels. Aiming his rifle at the spot, he planted a boot on the vehicle’s carapace, leaning closer to get a better look. A three-fingered hand gripped the wet meat, struggling to pull it aside, exposing electrical cables that ran through the flesh like veins. There was an eye in there, peering back at him. A Pilot was trapped inside, still alive. He braced his XMR and unloaded into the gap, ichor splashing his visor as the slugs punched through the glistening tissue, the Pilot’s arm going limp.

They pushed up through the forest, engaging more Drones wherever they found them, one of the remaining Stalkers succumbing to the IFV’s thirty-mill. The enemy seemed to be out of armor now, and their troops were thinning, starting to pull back as they covered one another with overlapping fields of plasma fire.

“They are withdrawing,” Borzka growled, leaning out from behind a tree to bisect one of the Drones with a shot from his long rifle. “The Red King seeks to flee!”

“Not this time,” Evan added, pausing to swap out his empty mag. “We can’t let him escape again. If we let him regroup, he’s just going to come back with reinforcements and do the same thing again.”

“There are no companies nearby who can divert to cut them off,” Simmons said, checking his display for a moment. “What we do have is artillery in range, and a lot of it. Our Avalanches have set up at the LZ.”

“What are you suggesting?” Jade asked.

“Hammer the whole fucking area with arty,” Simmons replied, probably grinning behind his opaque visor. “He’s not slipping away if we turn the entire fucking grid square into the Somme.”

He lifted his finger to his helmet, putting a call through to the company commander. After a moment, he switched back to the local channel, raising his rifle again.

“Cover your ears, kids.”

“I don’t have ears,” Aster joked.

They waited for a few minutes, then an ominous whizzing sound emanated from far above them, a barrage of magnetically-accelerated shells soaring through the clouds. They impacted off in the distance, shaking the ground, loud cracks like gunshots echoing through the forest as they exploded. There were brief flashes on the horizon, more torrents of dust and ash rising over the naked trees. Another salvo followed only minutes later, then another.

“Uh, are they just gonna keep firing?” Hernandez asked.

“Long enough to give us time to catch up,” Simmons replied. “They’re pounding a roughly crescent-shaped area in the direction that the Bugs are retreating to cut off their escape. No way they’re going to be able to walk through a wall of fire and shrapnel.”

Evan heard the sound of an engine, turning to see a scout vehicle pull up behind their IFV.

“Good, our taxi is here,” Simmons announced. “Tatzi,” he added. “Get McKay back to the LZ so he can be medivaced to the carrier.”

The Puma’s troop ramp opened, and the Borealan emerged, bridal-carrying McKay in her arms. His pressure suit was soaked with blood, but the antiseptic foam seemed to have stemmed any fresh bleeding, and he was still conscious enough to complain about being carried. She hurried over to the scout vehicle, one of its crewmen waving her inside.

“I’m glad she’s gonna be safe,” Hernandez muttered, watching as the six-wheeled Timberwolf set off back towards the LZ.

“You really like her, don’t you?” Evan asked as he gave Hernandez a nudge with the butt of his rifle.

“Just focus on getting revenge or whatever,” he replied, giving Evan a shove in return.

“Move up,” Simmons ordered as a Kodiak rolled past them, heading towards the clouds of rising dust in the distance. “Let’s see how the Red King likes being the one stuck in a trap for once.”


The terrain grew rougher as they advanced, the company finding themselves in an increasingly hilly and rocky region of the forest. The ground here was scoured with the remnants of twisting streams and dry riverbeds that had once fed into the lake, still visible beneath the layer of ash. The artillery fire had stopped a few minutes prior, which must mean that they were getting close to their destination. The Red King and his entourage couldn’t have gone much further than this without being turned into Bug paste by the rain of HE shells.

“The forest is still,” Borzka muttered as they stalked between the scorched tree trunks, their weapons scanning every shadowy crevice. “Too still.”

“What is this, a fuckin’ action movie?” Hernandez whispered.

“Silence,” Borzka replied. “The insects have certainly set a snare for us. They know that we are coming.”

“So, they trapped us, then we trapped them, then they ambushed us, and now we’re trappin’ them again, so they’re settin’ another ambush for us,” he grumbled under his breath. “Let’s just go back to orbit, bomb the place to fuck again, and start over.”

“They came through here,” Jade said, her antennae waving in the wind as they protruded from the openings in her helmet. Aster and Cardinal were nearby, sniffing around like bloodhounds, bringing their heads close to the ground as they supported themselves with their extra arms.

“Then, we’re on the right track,” Simmons added. “Lead the way, ladies.”

The rest of the company was bringing up the rear, spread out over a larger area to cover more ground. Still, Evan could see a Kodiak off their left, the behemoth struggling its way up a steep incline. The vehicles would have a harder time maneuvering in this kind of terrain. Was that by design?

“The IFV won’t make it up there,” Simmons sighed as he nodded to a rocky outcrop ahead of them. “We’d better go around.”

Evan heard the sound of stone on stone, glancing up the hill to see a shower of small pebbles roll down towards the team. A hulking figure appeared above the outcrop, recognition sending a flood of adrenaline coursing through his veins as a Warrior emerged from the shadows. It was a lumbering tank of chitin and armor plating, the eyes behind its slatted visor glowing a dull green, its serrated mandibles moving like saw blades. Its spiky armor was patterned with autumn camouflage, doing nothing to help it blend into this new environment of charcoal hues. The emerald light from the wicked plasma cannon that was grafted to its left arm illuminated one side of its body, the weapon’s cables intertwined with flesh and carapace, fat ammo canisters hanging beneath its forelimb. It must have been ten feet tall and almost as wide.

A second warrior lumbered into view, then a third, Simmons raising the alarm.

“Warriors!” he yelled into his mic. “Warriors on Seventeen! We need backup!”

One of the Warriors leveled its plasma cannon, sending a stream of superheated gas lancing out towards the IFV. The torrent of energy slammed into the side of the vehicle, drawing a black trail across its hull, the two frontmost tires melting. The IFV fired back, its blister swiveling towards the three targets, a hail of thirty-mill slugs forcing the team to duck as they shot over their heads. A series of flashes dimmed Evan’s visor, its automatic systems protecting his eyes. The IFV fired another salvo, the slugs melting as they passed through a seething barrier of glowing energy, splashing against the Warrior’s thick armor as molten slag.

“Fuck, they’re shielded!” Garcia warned.

One of the Warriors descended from the outcrop, its clawed feet skidding in the loose soil and ash, the thing barreling down the hill towards them like a freight train made of chitin and claws. All they could do was get out of its way, the thing blowing past them at a sprint, slamming what must have been a couple of tons of weight into the side of the IFV. With its lobster-like claws, it tore open the hull, peeling back the metal and ceramics like it was opening a tin can.

“We gotta take down its shields!” Hernandez yelled, taking cover behind a tree as another stream of plasma came their way. Evan could feel its heat, even through his suit, the boiling gas melting a nearby boulder into lava.

“I got it!” Foster said, raising his XMR. Collins did the same, the two standing shoulder to shoulder as they took aim. The UNN had recently transitioned to using designated plasma gunners, the two men sporting underslung plasma launchers beneath the barrels of their rifles. They were about the size of a grenade launcher, their thick barrels lined with magnetic coils, a blue gas canister protruding from the device’s mag well. They could accelerate a bolt of plasma that would collapse the handheld shields commonly used by Betelgeusian Drones in a single shot.

“This is for the Dragoon!” Collins shouted, the pair pulling their triggers in unison. Two glowing bolts of energy lanced out towards the Warrior that was peeling apart the IFV, impacting the field that was projected a few inches from its carapace. There was a flash, the barrier swirling as it absorbed the plasma, but it didn’t collapse.

The Warrior turned towards them, abandoning its attack on the Puma, its glowing visor fixing on the Marines. It extended its four lobster-like claws, then started to lumber towards them, picking up speed like a charging bull. Rather than flee, they held their ground, lining up another shot. Collins fired first, his bolt making the field ripple. Foster followed up with another bolt, this one overloading the magnetic field, making the shield peter out and fail. Collins had already leapt out of the thing’s path, but Foster had no time. The Warrior swung a claw the size of a couch, lifting him off his feet. He landed hard, tumbling down a nearby incline, rolling out of sight.

The IFV wasn’t out of the fight yet, the gunner turning its blister on the Warrior. It sprayed a salvo of thirty-millimeter slugs at the biological battlesuit, the rounds blasting holes in its thick plating. Miraculously, it survived long enough to turn around before it succumbed, even its overlapping plates of armor no match for the sustained fire. It toppled over backwards, green ichor leaking from its myriad wounds, falling to slide down the incline where Foster had disappeared from view.

There was a loud crack, another flash of light temporarily blinding Evan. When his vision cleared, he saw that something far heavier had hit the Warrior with the plasma cannon that was standing atop the outcrop. It shuddered as it turned towards its assailant, one side of its plating pocked with molten holes, like someone had hit it with a giant shotgun. It was one of the Kodiaks – the long barrel of its main gun pointing through the trees in the Bug’s direction. It must have loaded a canister charge, and the sheer velocity of the shrapnel had carried it through the plasma shield with enough force to do damage.

The Warrior leveled its arm weapon, but the Kodiak was faster, the tank rocking back on its tracks as the cannon accelerated another sabot. This one was armor-piercing, the plasma shield unable to produce enough heat to soften the tungsten slug in time, the round passing straight through it. It hit the Warrior center mass, passing through its body without even slowing down, turning a tree a hundred meters behind it to splinters before the Bug had even hit the ground. The kinetic energy ripped it apart, sending wet chunks of flesh and chitin raining across the outcrop, pieces of meat and machinery rolling down the hill.

More of the things were emerging from the forest now, charging down towards the company, supported by the remaining squads of Drones.

“This is the Red King’s entourage!” Evan exclaimed, ducking reflexively as the tank fired on the remaining Warrior at the top of the hill. “These are the same Warrior suits as the one I saw him wearing when he attacked the convoy!”

“Our IFV is disabled – we’re sitting ducks out here,” Simmons added as he helped the driver down from the vehicle’s roof hatch. “Pull back towards the Kodiaks!”

“We have to get Foster!” Collins protested.

“I can’t pick up his IFF,” Evan said, glancing down at his wrist. “Jade, can you sniff him out?”

“We’ll go grab him,” she replied with a nod. “He can’t have gone far.”

“Incoming!” Garcia warned.

Evan looked up to glimpse a mortar shell arcing through the trees towards them. He tried to move, but it was like he was running underwater, the explosive digging a crater in the ground only a few paces away from him. There was a brief delay, then it went off, tossing him head over heels. He hit the ground hard, the impact knocking the wind out of him. There was the brief sensation of rolling, then his world went dark.


“Get up.”

Evan felt someone kick him, and he opened his eyes, taking in a staggered breath. He glanced through his visor to see Foster standing over him, extending a gloved hand. He took it, the Marine hauling him to his feet, his legs shaky.

“What happened?” he gasped, gripping his side. “I feel like someone ran me over with a fucking truck.”

“We fell down there,” Foster replied, gesturing to a rocky incline that rose up behind them. It was so steep that it was practically a cliff face, and beneath it was one of the winding riverbeds, cutting a path through the forest that was devoid of trees. The Warrior that had been chewed up by the IFV was lying in the dirt nearby, Evan’s pulse calming as he reassured himself that it was dead. “No way back up from here – I tried. Not unless you happened to bring a climbing rope.”

“Sounds like there’s still fighting going on up there,” Evan said, hearing the sound of far-off gunshots through his helmet.

“Is your suit still intact?” Foster asked, turning to face him. “Good job the gravity on this godforsaken moon is so low, or I don’t know if we’d have survived a fall like that.”

“Yeah,” Evan replied, seeing a green pressure icon on the bottom right of his HUD. “Yeah, I’m good. What about the rest of the squad?” he continued, tapping at the touch panel on his forearm. “Did you try the radio?”

“I’m not stupid,” Foster replied as he walked over to examine the dead Warrior. “The company is tied up – they can’t get to us until the Bugs are cleared out. I managed to get through to the fleet, but they can’t land a shuttle down here. We’re on our own until someone finds the time to come looking for us.”

Evan stooped to pick up his rifle, checking the magazine.

“We should double back. There must be another way around.”

“As much as I hate to agree with you, you’re right,” Foster sighed as he set off down the riverbed. “The first rule of search and rescue is stay where you are, but this place is crawling with Stalkers and Drones. If they pick up our scent, we’re Bug chow.”

Evan followed after him, trying to shake out a limp in one of his legs. He must have landed on it funny or hit it on a rock on his way down. They walked in silence for a while, Evan hearing nothing but his own breathing inside his helmet and the far-off chorus of battle.

“You were pretty brave back there,” Evan began, trying to make conversation. “Standing in front of that charging Warrior like that. You’re lucky the hit didn’t kill you.”

“Well, I’m pretty good at taking hits,” he replied as he kept his visor pointed ahead. “You should know that.”

“Not as good at taking compliments,” Evan muttered, Foster rewarding him with a sarcastic chuckle. “I’m…sorry I hit you,” Evan continued. “I was out of line. Even Jade said as much after you left.”

“Yeah, you were out of line alright,” Foster added. Evan felt his anger flare, but Foster wasn’t done yet. “But, so was I. I was drunk, I came looking for a fight, and I got one. I’m glad your Bug friend stepped in before we both got thrown in the brig. I was taking out some stuff on you that maybe wasn’t only about you, if you get me.”

“Do you still hate them?” Evan asked. “Even after all this?”

“They killed all of my friends,” Foster replied without a hint of emotion in his voice. “They killed all of yours, too. I don’t understand how you were so quick to forgive them. Well, I have a theory,” he chuckled dryly. Although he didn’t elaborate further, the implication that he was talking about Evan and Jade’s relationship was pretty obvious.

“I guess I’m able to separate the Jarilans from the Bugs in a way that you can’t,” Evan said with a shrug. “Surely you can see that they’re not the same? The Jarilans are just…people wearing Bug costumes as far as I see it.”

“Maybe,” Foster conceded. “That doesn’t change the way I feel when I look at them. You were with the Spratley, right? Me and Collins were with the Dragoon when we got hit in that first wave of landings. I don’t think I need to explain what it was like.”

“I remember it well enough,” Evan replied.

“Humans are social animals,” he continued as he clambered over a fallen tree that was blocking their path. “We crave social interaction, we need support from our peers. When I got assigned to the Omaha, I was looking forward to meeting people who shared those experiences, who understood what I was going through. We were all a mishmash of different companies and squads. Then you came along and drove a wedge between me and the rest of the team. Even Collins was forced to pick a side, and me and him went through hell together. It was like being in fucking high school again.”

“You’re putting a lot of blame on my shoulders when you’re the one who has a problem with the Jarilans,” Evan shot back. “The team turned against you because they all like Jade, they like Aster and Cardinal. You’re the only holdout who still treats them like they’re not real people. It’s shitty, dude.”

“Who the fuck is naming these things, anyway?” Foster muttered. “They sound like the scented candles my ex used to waste her paycheck on.”

“If you cut it out and make up with the Jarilans, I don’t think anyone is going to have a problem with you. I know that Collins isn’t happy about the situation,” Evan continued as he dropped down on the other side of the log, stumbling for a few paces. “I can tell that he misses you, but you’re the only one who’s driving wedges here.”

“I’ll admit that the Jarilans have proven themselves useful,” Foster added. “What bothers me is that we have no way of knowing if that’s just how they were programmed. Look at the way the Bugs have adapted to Kerguela,” he added as he gestured to the dead forest beyond the banks of the dry river. “What if being friendly and useful is just another form of camouflage – another adaptation?”

“So what if it is?” Evan replied. “You’re mad that they’re being friendly and useful for the wrong reasons?”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he sighed. “What I’m saying is – how do you know that they’re being genuine? I’ve fought Bugs that show no fear, no pain – not because they’re brave, but because their Queen decided that the capacity to feel those things wasn’t useful. When that girlfriend of yours says she loves you, how do you know she’s not just reading off some genetic script her Queen wrote for her?”

“If you’re asking how I know that she has free will, that’s a philosophical question I can’t answer,” Evan replied. “I don’t even know how to prove that humans have free will. It’s an intuitive thing, something you’d understand if you just took the time to talk to them. You’d see that Jade has aspirations and desires outside of whatever her Queen programmed into her. Even if we assume that being useful to the UNN or getting with me was just part of her programming, that doesn’t explain why she likes watching Kerguela from the maintenance window, or why she wants to visit Valbara so badly.”

“She wants to visit Valbara?” Foster asked skeptically.

“Yeah,” Evan replied. “The Valbarans wouldn’t let the Jarilans visit the surface when we had shore leave there. They made them stay in their ships.”

“Fine,” Foster sighed. “I guess it’s true that I’m the only one who hasn’t gotten to know them, and I’m the only one who doesn’t like them. I’ll admit that there may be a correlation there.”

“It’s not that I don’t understand how you feel,” Evan added, matching pace with the Marine. “I felt that way for a while – we all did. You’ll feel better if you talk to them, trust me. Jade will understand.”

“I won’t apologize if that’s what you’re getting at,” Foster added.

“I’m not expecting you to,” Evan continued. “Making peace is enough.”

Foster suddenly took Evan by the arm, pushing him behind a nearby boulder.

“Hey, what are you-”

“Shut up,” Foster hissed, poking his rifle around the rock to get a look through its scope without exposing himself. Evan tapped into his feed, watching a procession of Drones cross the riverbed ahead of them. They were on alert, their resin rifles scanning the forest, the long antennae on their radio packs bobbing as they walked. There must have been half a dozen squads, some of them pausing to stand guard. A Scuttler followed behind them, the vehicle marching along on its crab-like legs, its sensory organ extended from its armored beak. In the middle of the group was a trio of Warriors not unlike the ones that had attacked the company earlier, their long arms swinging in time with their loping gait. There was something different about the one in the center, however. The two others were flanking it like bodyguards, and on its back was a bulky device covered in antennae, like some kind of portable radio kit.

“That’s him!” Evan hissed, his heart starting to race. “That’s the fucking Red King!”

“Are you sure?” Foster whispered.

“I’d never forget that suit,” Evan replied. “See the comms gear on its back?”

“Shit, shit,” Foster muttered as he kept his scope trained on them. “They’re heading away from the company. Delta must still be tied up fighting the rest of his entourage.”

“He’s slipping away while they’re busy,” Evan mused, watching the hulking Scuttler disappear into the trees on the far side of the riverbed. “You said you had a line to the fleet, right?”

“Yeah,” Foster said with a nod. “They could relay a message to the company, but what can they do if they’re stuck in a fight?”

“We could call in an airstrike,” Evan suggested. “I don’t care if he’s in a Warrior suit – he’s not going to survive a fucking thousand-pounder dropped right on his ugly head.”

“We’ll need to keep him tagged,” Foster added. “That means maintaining line-of-sight. I dunno if we’re that sneaky. Plus, there’s two of us and like…fifty of them. They also have a tank, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“If we don’t do this, he’s going to get away again,” Evan insisted. “If we don’t stop him here, he’s going to set up another ambush and take out another company just like he did during the first landing, just like at the LZ.”

Foster began to nod, seemingly convinced.

“Alright, Bugfucker. If you have a plan, now’s the time, because I have no idea how you expect us to keep pace without being seen.”

“It’s still windy as fuck because there’s no plant life left,” Evan replied. “If we stay downwind of them, they won’t pick up our scent. It’s worked before.”

“Just like hunting a buck,” Foster replied, Evan giving him an enthusiastic nod. “Problem – we’re still rocking red and orange camo. We’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

“Right?” Evan chuckled. “The one time wearing standard black would actually help us not stand out. What if we covered ourselves in ash and soil, like the Stalkers? There are ash drifts a foot deep all over the place.”

“They have webbing to help the dirt stick to them. What are we supposed to do?”

Evan plucked his canteen from his belt, unfastening the cap.

“We get wet,” he explained, pouring it over his chest. “Two liters isn’t much, but maybe that’ll help it stick.”

“We’d better do this quick,” Foster replied, unscrewing his own canteen. “They’ll get ahead of us if we take too long.”

They helped douse each other with water, and after rolling around in the ash piles that coated every surface, they emerged far dirtier than they had gone in. The effect wasn’t perfect, but it did a decent enough job of dulling and obscuring their gaudy camouflage. Body heat was an issue, but like when the Stalkers had attacked the company, the ambient temperature after the bombardment was hot enough to make them hard to pick out.

The procession of Bugs had passed on, but they didn’t want to get too close until it was time to pull the trigger, so they followed after them while staying downwind. It was easy enough to follow their fresh tracks, the Scuttler and the Warriors leaving obvious trails in the dirt.

“This is Private Foster of Delta-seventeen,” Foster began, talking to the fleet as they slunk through the trees. “I have been separated from my unit, and I am in pursuit of a priority target. I need air support standing by near coordinates…” He read off a series of numbers, Evan listening in as the operator on the other end replied.

“What’s your target?” a female voice asked, interference making her voice crackle.

“The Red King,” he replied. “We’re gonna paint him for your birds, and they need to drop everything they have on him. We won’t get another chance like this.”

“Roger that,” the operator replied. “Stand by for tasking.”

“Are there any units nearby that can support us?” Foster added frantically. “Anyone who’s in range?”

“Negative,” the voice replied after a few tense moments. “All nearby companies are being actively engaged. You’re on your own, seventeen.”

They picked up the pace, struggling to find a good balance between speed and stealth. The procession of Bugs was moving briskly, but they weren’t going so fast as to outpace the Marines. After a few minutes, Evan spotted a squad of Drones that were bringing up the rear, trailing behind the rest of the group. His visor picked them out in red, Foster’s system linking to his, highlighting a couple more.

“They must have guards spread out all around the convoy,” Evan muttered. “How are we going to get close enough to tag the King?”

“I might have an idea,” Foster replied hesitantly. “It’s a stupid idea, but I don’t see how else we’re going to do this.”

“Go on,” Evan prompted, taking cover behind a tree as he watched the Drones walk along the tracks left by the Scuttler.

“We trick them into thinking they’re being surrounded by Marines,” he explained. “We split up – one of us on the left, the other on the right – and we coordinate over ad-hoc to make them think they’re being attacked from both sides. I reckon they’ll close ranks around the Red King to protect him.”

“If we keep moving and keep shooting, they’ll have a hard time figuring out how many of us there are,” Evan replied with a nod. “At least, it might buy us enough time to call in the Beewolf.”

“Any plan for what we do when the bombs start dropping?” Foster added.

“I didn’t think that far ahead,” he replied with a shrug. “I guess we’ll wing it. Or get blown up. Either way.”

“You got any spare mags?” Foster asked. “I’m running a bit low.”

Evan reached for one of the pouches on his chest rig, weighing a magazine in his hand to ensure that it was full before tossing it to the Marine. Foster swiped it out of the air, stowing it on his belt.

“You ready?” he asked.

“No,” Evan laughed. “Let’s do this before we get cold feet.”

Foster nodded, slinking off into the gloom. Evan waited a moment to be sure that the Drones were looking the other way, then set off, giving them a wide berth as he circled around. It was a lot easier to move silently now. There was no underbrush, no twigs to snap or bushes to rustle, just fields of ash that cushioned his footsteps. As long as he kept enough trees between himself and the Bugs, he would have enough cover to go unseen. Fortunately, their group still seemed to be heading upwind. If only Jade were here – she’d be able to tell him exactly where they were.

Would he ever see her again if this went South? Considering that their plan was half-baked and that the Beewolf’s bombs would probably kill him if the Bugs didn’t get to him first, maybe not. It wasn’t so terrible a fate, though. They both knew the score, and they had made the best of their time together. He couldn’t ask for more than that.

“I’m nearly in position,” Foster whispered over the radio. Evan could see red tags on the other side of the forest, their systems sharing targeting data. “Are you ready?”

“Nearly,” Evan replied, hopping over a fallen log that was blocking his path. “I’m almost-”

He rounded a tree, then found himself standing face to face with a Drone. The creature looked almost as surprised as he was, pausing for a moment, the scattered lenses on its helmet reflecting the light as it scrutinized him. It drew a pistol from a shaped recess in its thigh, but too slow – Evan was already aiming his rifle at it. He hooked his finger around the trigger of the underslung shotgun beneath the barrel of his XMR, the cylindrical magazine rotating as he fired off a shot. He blew a head-sized crater in the thing’s chest, sending it stumbling backwards as pieces of meat and chitin fell to the ground. Two more loud blasts echoed through the forest as he advanced on it, buckshot tearing it apart, its lifeless body toppling over.

“The jig’s up!” Evan warned, hurrying for the cover of a nearby tree trunk as the rest of the Drone’s squad came running. “Start shooting, Foster!”

He heard the report of a railgun, a couple of the Drones pausing to look behind them. Evan did his part, letting loose with a burst of automatic fire that sent them scattering. He kept moving, firing wildly, concerned more with making a racket than actually hitting anything. Another burst of gunfire went off in the distance, the squad of Drones seeming to lose their confidence, bunching up as they began to retreat back the way they had come.

“I think it’s working!” Evan panted, ducking into cover as a stream of suppressive plasma fire came his way. “They’re pulling back to protect the King!”

“Follow them and keep the pressure on,” Foster panted, another chatter of automatic fire reaching Evan’s ears. “We have to get eyes on the King!”

Evan kept moving as he followed the Drones, trying to lay down as much random fire as he could. The danger of hitting Foster was minimal, as he could see the blue tag on his HUD broadcasting his position.

He tossed a grenade, the explosion rocking the trees, following up with another burst from his XMR. The Drones were firing back, green bolts of plasma zipping between the trees, but it was mostly suppressive fire. The more noise he made, the more convincing the effect would be. The Bugs were going to figure out what was happening before long – they weren’t stupid – but all Evan needed was a clear look at the Red King for long enough to guide the Beewolf in.

Another, louder noise shook the ground, Evan watching the red outline of the Scuttler appear on his HUD. It was moving away from him, some two hundred meters away.

“Looks like I pissed off the big one,” Foster said, breathing hard. “Fleetcom says the bird is loitering, so now’s your chance. Get in there and tag the bastard.”

“What about you?” Evan asked.

“I’m gonna draw them off,” he replied, his blue marker starting to move away as muffled gunfire came through his mic. “They have a real hard-on for me.”

“Stick to the plan, Foster!” Evan protested as he began to advance more quickly.

“Just get eyes on the target!” Foster insisted. “Now’s your chance to get close!”

“Fuck!” Evan hissed, pushing through the charred trunks. One of the Drones spotted him, sending a volley of plasma fire his way. One of the bolts impacted a nearby tree, punching a burning hole in the bark, another going wide. The last shot hit Evan in the shoulder, imparting enough kinetic energy that it almost spun him around. The superheated gas melted into his armor plating, burning away the camouflaged paint, the intense heat tangible even through the thick ceramic. Cursing, Evan tore it off, throwing the red-hot plate to the ground as the damp ash on his glove sizzled.

The Drone was lining up another shot, but he cut it down with a stream of slugs, the tungsten perforating the alien’s abdomen.

Finally, he caught a glimpse of one of the Warriors, the hulking creature lumbering between the trees in the distance. It must have been a hundred meters away – dangerously close. It was accompanied by a squad of Drones, the creatures regrouping to mount a counter-attack, probably assuming that Evan was a whole squad of Marines. There was a hill behind them, and he could see the Scuttler climbing up it in pursuit of Foster, supported by more infantry. In the middle of it all was the Red King, the radio pack on the back of his suit unmistakable. One of the Warriors was sticking close to him as he directed his troops, reorganizing them, communicating without so much as a sound or gesture.

“I’ve got you now, you fucker,” Evan whispered under his breath as he tapped at his wrist display. He tagged the Red King, highlighting the target on his HUD, what felt like an eternity passing as he waited for confirmation from the plane. After a few moments, the pilot’s distorted voice crackled inside his helmet, interference from the ash clouds making it sound like an old ham radio.

“I have your beacon, Seventeen. Visibility up here is zero, so I’m going to need you to stay on target and guide me in. Can you do that?”

“Y-yeah,” Evan replied, leaning out from behind a tree as he kept his eyes on the King. “Just out of curiosity, what’s the…uh…minimum safe distance on those bombs?”

“About three hundred meters,” the pilot replied. “I’m five minutes out.”

“It’s on its way, ETA – five minutes!” he warned, switching channels back to Foster. “Just so you know, we are way too fucking close. You need to get clear.”

“What about you?” he asked, the way that he was panting making it sound like he was running.

“Someone has to keep the target painted,” Evan replied.

“Fuck that. I’m gonna lose these guys and double back around to you.”

“Just get out of here!” Evan insisted.

Their argument was interrupted as a bolt of plasma splashed against the other side of the tree trunk, alerting Evan that a squad of six Drones was moving up to him. They were coordinating, two of them laying down suppressive fire on his position while the rest split into two pairs, flanking left and right. All he could do was duck back into cover – they had him pinned. Fortunately, Foster had drawn the Scuttler off, and the two Warriors had fallen back to protect their charge. Still, a squad of Drones was enough of a handful.

“Seventeen, I’ve lost your target lock,” the pilot said. His voice was so calm, contrasting with the panic that was starting to take hold of Evan. “Can you reacquire?”

“Yep, gimme a moment,” Evan grunted as he primed a grenade. He tossed it blind, the blast kicking up a cloud of ash, sending a couple of the approaching Bugs fleeing for cover. “I’m dealing with some pressing issues down here.”

“Roger that. I’m four minutes out.”

Two of the Drones came from his left, using the blackened remnants of the forest for cover as they moved. One of them forced him back behind the tree with a volley of plasma fire from its rifle, Evan cursing under his breath. Using his in-picture sights, he returned fired around the trunk, cutting out the legs from under one of them. It fell to the forest floor, pulling itself along with its four arms. He took it out with another shot, but the second Bug was already rushing him.

It drew a long, chitinous blade with a serrated edge with one hand, producing a plasma pistol in the other as it closed the distance. Evan turned his XMR towards it, but the thing gripped the barrel shroud to push it aside. It lunged at him as a burst of slugs whizzed past its head, that alien blade sparking off his chest piece. The blow was enough to knock him off-balance, the alien tearing the rifle from his hands, taking full advantage of its four arms. It swung the blade again, Evan ducking beneath its arc, the saw-like edge biting into the bark of the tree. As it tried to yank the blade free, Evan was able to retreat a couple of steps, drawing his sidearm from its holster.

The Drone was a step ahead of him, already raising its plasma pistol, the crackling energy that danced down its conductive rails reflecting in its spider-like lenses. It fired, the bolt slamming into his stomach at point-blank range. The ceramic plates there were segmented so as not to inhibit his movement, and while they conducted enough of the heat to prevent the projectile from burning through his guts, the kinetic force of the impact was enough to knock the wind out of him. He landed flat on his back, gasping for air with empty lungs.

Splinters showered as the Bug succeeded in freeing its blade, its sharp mandibles clicking in anticipation as it stalked over to him, leveling its pistol for a follow-up shot. Evan raised his sidearm with shaking hands, the corners of his vision darkening as he tried to line up his sights.

“Three minutes, Seventeen,” he heard in his ear. “I need that target lock, buddy.”

The Drone raised its sword as it stood over him, then its head exploded, green gore showering the ashen ground.

“Heads up, Bugfucker!”

Evan turned his head to see Foster sliding down a nearby embankment, firing off another round as he skidded down the incline. The slug caught the headless Bug in the torso, tossing it off its feet.

“On your right!” Foster yelled, firing again.

Evan rolled onto his stomach in time to see another Drone drop, a crater in its chest spilling ichor. As its shuddering body collapsed to the ground, Evan aimed his handgun, lying prone as he fired at the last Drone. He emptied his magazine into it, the creature staggering under the blows, sending it toppling to the forest floor.

Foster hurried over to him, gripping him by his chest rig and hauling him to his feet with relative ease in the low gravity.

“Get that target lock!” he demanded. “I’ll hold them off!”

More Drones were encroaching on their position now, the Red King looking their way, flanked by his two Warriors. They moved in front of him to protect him, raising their lobster claws like shields. He had figured out that there were only two of them. The Scuttler was coming their way, too, its long barrel turning in their direction as it marched back down the adjacent hill towards them.

Evan tagged the King’s suit again, Foster laying down suppressive fire from the other side of their tree trunk, molten trails sending the Drones scattering for cover.

“I have your lock, Seventeen. Two minutes.”

Evan slammed a fresh magazine into his handgun, joining Foster, slugs and plasma filling the forest.

“I told you to run,” Evan grunted through gritted teeth, his lungs still burning.

“You’re too much of a fuckup to do this on your own,” Foster replied. “Watch out!”

The Scuttler planted its eight legs in the ground, finding a stable position, then fired its cannon. The three rails accelerated a plasma bolt, the projectile vaporizing part of the tree above them, charred splinters bouncing off Evan’s armor like shrapnel from a grenade. The rest of the tree began to fall, Foster gripping him by the chest rig as he tried to dive for cover, his head tilted up as he watched the titanic log start to list. It crashed to the ground to their left, narrowly missing them, creating a chest-high wall of scorched bark.

“Bombs are away, Seventeen,” the voice over the radio announced. “Hope you reached that minimum safe distance. Over and out.”

The Red King suddenly turned his head to the sky, watching the roiling clouds of ash through the slatted visor of his suit as though he had somehow overheard them. Could he detect the radio signals – hear the bombs, perhaps?

“Get down!” Evan yelled, tackling Foster like a linebacker. He sent them both crashing to the ground behind the fallen tree, the two men curling up in the fetal position, their hands covering their helmeted heads reflexively.

A moment later, there was a bright flash of light, followed by a shockwave that was almost strong enough to roll the tree trunk over on top of them. Airborne ash and debris whipped at them like a sandstorm, Evan going deaf, his helmet muting the sound to protect his eardrums from being blown out. He could feel more trees toppling over all around him, each impact shaking the ground, his suit’s cooling systems going into overdrive as an intense wave of heat washed over him. They were trapped in an inferno, flames tearing at the bark behind them.

Slowly, his hearing returned, the condensation from evaporated sweat that coated the inside of his visor gradually clearing as his pressure suit circulated cool air. He shook Foster, and was relieved to see that he was still conscious, the two of them leaning against the log as they climbed to their feet unsteadily. The forest beyond was just…gone, replaced with a series of scorched craters, a tall plume of smoke rising into the sky above them. The trees had been flattened, and there was no sign of the Drones, the smoldering shell of the Scuttler lying on its side some distance off to their right. One of the Warriors had been tossed into the air like a doll, its broken body lying partially buried in the ash nearby, barely recognizable. The other two were lying in a heap not far from one of the ten-meter craters.

“Gotta confirm,” Evan panted, Foster nodding as he raised his XMR. The two Marines made their way around the log, then over to the bodies, soon realizing that one of the Warriors was draped over the other. Even in the low gravity, it was a hell of an effort to roll it off, both men struggling to slide it onto the ground. While its back was charred and pocked with holes from the shrapnel, its front was more intact, some of its original orange camouflage still visible. It was dead, however – completely limp. The glow behind its slatted visor had gone dark.

“Looks like it shielded him,” Foster muttered, aiming the barrel of his rifle at the Red King’s suit. Like the front half of his bodyguard, his armor had been protected from the worst of the blast, the burns confined mostly to the extremities like the claws and legs. They were torn apart, shredded by debris and burned black. Evan gave it a kick, and it twitched, the two men scurrying back a few paces.

“Fuck! Is it still alive?” Foster exclaimed as he trained his gun on it.

“Maybe the plasma shields and armor were enough to protect it?” Evan wondered, taking a step closer. “Look at it, though. It’s done. It can’t get up with its arms and legs burned off.”

Evan drew his knife from his belt, then lifted a boot to brace it against the Warrior’s carapace, finding that its chitin was still tangibly hot. He plunged the blade into the seam where he had seen the organic suit split open, twisting it like he was trying to shell a crab. After a few moments of struggling, it finally relented, the thick plates creaking apart to expose wet flesh. The meat was cooking, steam rising from it, Evan leaning over to peer into what could only be described as the cockpit of the suit.

Inside the thing was a hollow cavity for the pilot, surrounded by cushiony flesh, the mass of tentacles that would have coiled around the wearer’s limbs to secure it like a harness now lying limp. The suit was dead – if that even made sense, but there was still movement coming from inside. Something shifted beneath the bed of listless tendrils, a red hand reaching out to part them, digging through the wobbling appendages.

As it pushed them aside, Evan found himself face to face with the creature that he had seen that day, when he had been trapped in the burning wreckage of his convoy. There was that same wide skull, the bulging braincase, the ring of tiny black eyes that encircled its head like shining beads of oil. A two-pronged horn jutted from the thick plates that protected its forehead, a third eye peering back at him from its stem, two more shrouded in the shadow of its heavy brow. Its set of four mandibles flexed and clicked, serrated like teeth, the larger size of the lower pair giving them the appearance of a jutting chin.

It blinked back at him, oddly expressive, scrutinizing him just as it had the dead Marine. It recognized that the two were the same, perhaps. Foster arrived to hover over Evan’s shoulder, aiming his rifle into the cavity.

“Fucker’s still alive,” he said, seeming amused by the sight. “What do you want to do?”

“Our orders were to terminate,” Evan replied, raising his sidearm. “You don’t know me,” he began, aiming it at the thing’s face as it coughed up a mouthful of mucous-colored ichor. He reached up to hit the release on the side of his helmet, opening his visor, the hot air immediately making him sweat. “But I know you. You don’t understand my language, but you understand what’s about to happen, don’t you?”

The thing looked back at him, its three eyes darting between his face and the gun. Was this Bug intelligent enough to feel fear? Did it have a concept of self-preservation, of death? He squeezed the trigger, putting a slug through its face. The thing jerked, one of its pupils starting to drift as the hole that he had punched in its skull jetted green fluid. He fired twice more, then again, only stopping when he saw its grey matter splatter the inside of its suit.

He stepped away, turning his back on the thing, flipping his visor back down before he inhaled too much ash. There was another crack of gunfire, and he turned to see Foster standing over the Warrior, the coils on his barrel glowing.

“What?” he said, lowering his weapon. “Can’t be too careful, right?”

A pair of headlights lit up the scene, Evan hearing the sound of an engine. One of the Timberwolf scout vehicles came barreling through the trees, skidding to a stop a dozen meters away, rocking on its suspension. The troop ramp lowered, and a four-armed figure charged out of the bay, plowing into Evan before he had time to react. Jade gripped him in a hug tight enough that she was lifting her feet off the ground, her visor bumping against his as he returned her embrace.

“I thought you might be dead!” she exclaimed, Evan setting her back down again. “After the battle, we had to evacuate because our vehicle was disabled. I wanted to stay and search, but the company commander ordered us to regroup at the LZ. Simmons let me ride with the scouts – I said I could help track you down. When we saw the explosion, we came to see what had happened. How did you survive?” She turned her eyes to the dead King, and they widened in surprise. “You…you killed the Red King?”

“I couldn’t have done it without Foster,” he replied, reaching out to give the man an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “This guy pulled my ass out of the fire.”

“Foster?” Jade asked, seeming almost as surprised by their new truce as by the sight of the dead King. She paused for a moment, considering her next words carefully. “Thank you,” she said, Foster giving her a curt nod.

She made her way over to the ruined Warrior, peering down at the body of the King as two members of the scout crew jogged over to join her.

“It’s over,” she muttered. “He’s finally dead. I can’t believe it…”

“He won’t be bothering the UNN anymore,” Foster added. “No more traps, no more ambushes.”

“It took an entire mechanized company and a SWAR team to take out the Blue King,” Jade said, her gaze still fixed on the body as it lay in the suit’s open chest cavity. “How did you two manage this?”

“Technically, the bombs did most of the work,” Evan replied with a shrug. “We just kinda…kept them distracted.”

“He’s being modest, isn’t he?” she asked as she turned to Foster.

“Yeah, we’re pretty much heroes,” Foster confirmed. “I want at least five medals, maybe a frigate named after me. A change of pants wouldn’t hurt, too.”

“We need to secure the area,” one of the crewmen said, stepping over the burnt husk of a Drone. “UNNI is going to want to extract the body for dissection. At least they have room to land a shuttle now…”

“I’ll tell the rest of the squad that you’re alive,” Jade said, tapping at her wrist display. “Collins was about ready to fistfight the commander when he ordered us to move out – I’ve never seen him so angry.”

“Really?” Foster asked, his prior self-importance forgotten.

“Yep,” Jade replied. “He’s going to be so relieved that you’re still alive.”

Evan couldn’t see Foster’s expression behind his opaque visor, but he got the impression that he was smiling to himself.

“Is everyone else okay?” Evan asked. “Garcia, Borzka, Simmons?”

“Everyone is fine,” Jade replied. “It looks like the force that attacked us was just trying to cover the Red King’s retreat. They got routed pretty quickly once they lost the element of surprise.”

“That didn’t work out too well for him,” Foster chuckled, leaning his rifle over his shoulder.

“It’s not over yet,” Jade added. “We’re moving on the Ant Hill next. The siege has already begun.”

“Then we’d better get our asses back to the LZ,” Foster said, making his way over to the Timberwolf. He paused halfway up the troop ramp, hanging onto one of the pneumatic pistons that raised and lowered it. “One King down, one Queen to go. Something something checkmate. I don’t know shit about chess. Come on!”

Evan and Jade spared one last glance at the Red King’s broken body, then hurried after him.


“Only take what you need,” the scarred Ensi announced, staring pointedly at a flock who were carrying several large sacks that were slung across their backs. Reluctantly, they set their belongings down at the mouth of the tunnel, then followed along after the rest of the procession. There were hundreds of Valbara’nay filing through the narrow passageway, Xipa watching as armed guards flanked them, helping to direct them along the path that the scouts had deemed the quickest and safest route to the old spaceport.

“So much purple,” she muttered.

“What does that mean?” Fletcher asked. He was standing beside her on the gantry, leaning against the railing as the survivors slowly evacuated the base.

“Purple means worry, unease,” Xipa explained. “Most of these people have spent their whole lives in this old processing plant – they have no idea what’s waiting for them outside.”

“We’ll get them out,” Fletcher said, placing a hand on her shoulder. Somehow, the touch of his lifeless, prosthetic limb was just as reassuring as the feeling of flesh and blood. “Miqi has dozens of teams setting up along the possible routes that the Bugs might take. They’re not going anywhere without roads collapsing under them and buildings coming down on top of their ugly heads.”

“I have to admit, I’m a little concerned by how eager she looked when all those drums of fertilizer were being carted out of here,” Xipa said with a smirk. “She’s been waiting for an opportunity to take the fight to the Bugs for a long time. At least someone is happy about the situation.”

The gantry creaked under Ruza’s weight as the towering feline made his way over to them, simply stepping over a couple of civilians who were in his path on the crowded platform.

“The injured have been prepared for evacuation,” he announced. “I have enough personnel to move them, and a squad of Valbarans to defend them if the need arises. The scouts have found a suitable location not too far from the base where a pair of medivac shuttles can land for extraction.”

“Nice work,” Fletcher replied with a satisfied nod. “Once we get that message to the fleet, I don’t expect it will take too long for them to respond. Just keep in mind that all hell is gonna break loose once we break radio silence.”

“I will allow no harm to befall the injured,” Ruza replied, straightening up as though standing to attention. “I swore as much under oath.”

“I still think that you should evacuate along with them,” Fletcher added, but Ruza shook his shaggy head adamantly.

“I cannot flee while my pack remains. I will make my way to the spaceport along with the scout team and find you there.”

Xipa knew that if Fletcher ordered it, Ruza would obey, but he respected the Borealan too much to do that to him.

“Doctor’s orders,” he said, turning to give her a shrug. “Alright, Ruza. We’ll meet you back at the evac site. Just try not to die on the way there, alright?”

“If…we do not meet again,” Ruza began, a rare flicker of emotion crossing his furry face. “Know that you are the only Alpha worthy of the title that I have ever served under.”

Before Fletcher could think up a suitable reply, the Borealan lifted him clear off the steel grate, trapping the flustered Earth’nay in a tight hug. When he set him back down again, the various pouches and straps on their chest rigs became entangled for a moment, the pair struggling to free themselves as Xipa watched with an amused flutter of yellow.

“Take care, big guy,” Fletcher said as Ruza turned to head deeper into the base.

“Gustave and Bluejay are still in the armory,” Xipa said. “We should head down there and get our equipment ready.”

“Yeah, I suppose it’s time to gear up,” Fletcher sighed as he checked his wrist display. “Miqi and her crew should be back soon.”

After their daring rescue of the missing scouts, Miqi seemed to trust them implicitly. As the de facto leader of the base’s military forces – as limited as they were – she would be commanding the operation in the field. She had asked that Xipa and her team be by her flock’s side to help coordinate the defense. Communication was going to become a hell of a lot easier once they went loud, as the scouts had been able to reactivate several of the old transmitters scattered around the city, meaning that they could both send messages over longer distances and bounce their signals around to make them harder to pin down. The Bugs would know that they were there, but they wouldn’t be able to zero in on their radio emissions quite as easily as they might otherwise.

They headed through the base’s winding hallways, passing more civilians who were bringing what precious few belongings they could carry up from their makeshift dwellings. Confused children clung to their fathers, still clutching favorite toys and dolls, a few of the older survivors struggling with the weight of their bags. As much as Xipa had tried to impress it upon them, few seemed to understand that all of their worldly goods would still be here when they got back. This evacuation was temporary, not permanent.

When they reached the old water tanks that housed the mess hall and the lounge, they found them all but deserted. All of the able survivors who could handle a weapon had gone into the city to help hold off the Bugs, and nobody had the time to be eating or smoking right now. They soon arrived at the armory, finding the racks that had previously housed an array of weapons and ammunition all but bare. Gustave and Bluejay were the only two people there, stooped over a bench at the far right side of the curved wall.

“Don’t worry,” Bluejay said, giving the giant reptile a reassuring pat on the scaly thigh. “It’ll be here when you get back. Hell, nobody else is going to be able to move the damned thing…”

Gustave emitted a mournful rumble, reaching out to brush his many-fingered hand against the rotating barrel of his cannon, which was taking up most of the bench.

“You’re leaving that behind?” Fletcher asked as they entered the room.

Low ammo,” Gustave replied, giving him a dramatic sigh. “Empty drum, empty heart.”

“Don’t worry, I made sure that Miqi left something special for you,” Xipa said as she walked over to the left side of the room. With Bluejay’s help – as Fletcher wasn’t supposed to be doing any heavy lifting – she hauled a large crate onto one of the tables. It was big enough that a Valbara’nay could probably have used it as a coffin. She cracked it open, revealing an oversized rifle that was clearly of insect design. The layers of carapace that covered it were patterned in shades of red and orange, off-blue flesh and silver metal visible between the gaps. The long barrel was lined with structures that almost resembled the gills of a fish, like heat vents, and there was a distinctly organic scope on top of the assembly that was equipped with a compound eye. The biomechanical weapon was being kept alive by an intravenous drip of yellow fluid, Xipa disconnecting the cable from an orifice on what might be the receiver, watching it contract like a muscle in response.

“This is the largest gun they have in their armory,” she explained, Gustave plodding over to take a look at the thing. “I don’t know where they got it.”

“From something large, I’d wager,” Fletcher muttered.

“Miqi said they captured a couple of these but let the others die because they used up so much honey,” she continued. “They kept this one around so they could study it if the need arose.”

The Krell’nay lifted it from the crate with relative ease, hefting the heavy rifle. Whatever creature had once carried it must have been just as large as he was, because his finger fit through the trigger guard easily enough, despite being as thick around as her wrist.

“Give it a try,” Xipa suggested, gesturing to the range. “Be conservative with the ammunition, though. There are only a handful of magazines for it.”

Gustave examined the weapon for a few moments, figuring it out, then braced it against his shoulder. With no way to interface with the organic sights, he would have to aim by eye, but it didn’t seem to slow him down. Xipa covered her ears in alarm as a loud gunshot reverberated through the tank, one of the paper targets at the far end of the range exploding into a cloud of tattered shreds, a hole big enough for Fletcher to poke his head inside materializing in the far wall. Gustave huffed loudly in what might be laughter, apparently approving of his new toy.

“What the fuck is that thing firing?” Fletcher demanded, tapping one side of his head with a prosthetic hand as though trying to dislodge water from his ear. “You’re gonna give me tinnitus, you oversized iguana. That sounded like some kind of chemical propellant.”

Big hole,” Gustave mused, watching as the gill-like vents that lined the barrel expelled waste gasses that resembled clouds of steam.

“I have something for you, too,” Xipa said as she led Fletcher over to one of the weapon racks.

“Me?” he asked. “Ruza was pretty adamant about me not firing any guns. The recoil could fuck up my shoulders.”

She lifted one of the old laser rifles from its rack, handing the weapon to him. He weighed it in his hands, examining what to him must have been a strange and primitive weapon. It had a blocky polymer housing and a barrel shaped like a flashlight, a grip that was a little too small for him jutting from beneath the receiver.

“Is this one of your laser weapons?” he asked, shouldering it experimentally. “I get you – no recoil, right?”

“Correct,” she replied. “It fires a stream of photons, so firing it is quite a different experience from shooting a conventional gun. It must be held on target for several seconds to inflict maximum damage. You kind of have to change the way you approach engagements.”

“I’ve played with a laser pointer before,” he replied, turning the weapon over in his hands. “I get the gist of it.”

“We snipped off the trigger guard so your finger would fit through it, so be careful,” she added.

He walked up to the range, then tried to fire the weapon, looking down at it in confusion as he heard an empty click.

“These models need portable battery packs,” Xipa explained. “We didn’t develop batteries that fit in the stock until decades after this gun was produced. Here,” she added, passing him one of the old packs. The edges were scuffed, and the frayed cable had been patched with electrical tape, but it still worked. “These should probably be in a museum,” she chuckled as she showed him how to hook it up to a port on the receiver. “I’m sure we’ll build one where the war is over.”

Fletcher held the weapon steady, then sent a glittering beam of green light lancing down the range, one of the targets bursting into flames.

“Whoa, that feels weird,” he muttered. “There’s no feedback, no recoil, just kind of a buzzing sound.”

“Yeah, it’s not really supposed to make a buzzing sound either,” Xipa chuckled. “It’s very old.”

“Thanks,” he said, lowering the weapon. “It’s a damn sight better than nothing. Here,” he added, waving Bluejay over. He began to empty his chest rig of what magazines still remained, passing them to his companions. “You guys might as well take these – I don’t have any use for them now.”

“Thanks,” Bluejay said, passing them off to his lower hands before slotting them into the pouches on his belt. “I have a feeling we’re going to need them.”

“Take these, too,” Fletcher said as he handed him the magazines for his sidearm. “I hear you’re pretty good with handguns. I can’t fire my XMH – I made the biggest, highest-recoil hand cannon I could because I’m a jackass.”

“They left us some plasma and pheromone grenades,” Xipa said, gesturing to some crates on one of the tables. “Load up with everything that you can carry.”

She heard footsteps, turning to see Miqi and her flock arrive at the door to the armory. They were clad in their usual combat gear, a mishmash of hand-crafted and scavenged equipment, Miqi’s helmet clasped under her arm.

“Are you nearly ready?” she asked, appraising the squad. “It’s almost time to move. All of our flocks are in position, and the bombs have been planted.”

“We’re ready,” Xipa replied. “Do you have the radio frequency for us?”

Miqi relayed the number from memory, Xipa tuning her suit’s radio to the same frequency, then translated for her team.

“We’ve never been able to communicate openly over the radio in real-time before,” Miqi mused, brandishing the little portable device. It was a small radio that fit in the palm of her hand, equipped with a stubby little antenna. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”

“Maintaining communication is crucial in modern warfare,” Xipa explained. “We’ll be able to tell where everyone is at all times and respond to enemy attacks on a wide front. If all goes well, we’ll be able to call in air support and artillery barrages, too.”

“The message is ready to send,” Fletcher added, double-checking the display on his forearm. “I can’t estimate how quickly the fleet will respond, but I tried to make the instructions as clear and as unambiguous as possible.”

“Before we do anything, I want that Bug AA gone,” Xipa replied. “Bluejay, we’ll need you to get into position and get ready to paint the targets. I’m sorry to put so much on your shoulders, but you’re the only one who can get in and out quickly enough to avoid detection.”

“It’s alright, I have four of them,” he replied with a wink.

“I’ll be contacting my personal vessel and ordering them to send a CAS flight,” she explained. “Two Tzcuauht’li bombers should do the trick. Reassigning aircraft can be like pulling feathers, so this should ensure that they get to us as quickly as possible.”

“What does tsu…caught…lee mean?” Fletcher asked.

“Roughly translated, it means Obsidian Raptor,” Xipa replied. “They’re our new stealth bombers, developed with UNN tech. They’re much smaller and more lightly armed than a Beewolf or a Penguin, but they’re fast and precise. I doubt the Bugs will detect them before it’s too late. So, here’s the plan. We get into position while the civilians reach the spaceport, then we send the signal and hit the Bug AA before they have a chance to shoot down any of the dropships. From there, we try to delay the Bugs as much as possible while retreating back towards the port.”

“I don’t know how long this is all going to take,” Fletcher muttered, doing some math on a calculator app on his display. “Let’s see, roughly a thousand people, divided by twelve per dropship…that’s about eighty trips. Now, I dunno how many Valbarans they can cram into a ship that can fit twelve humans, and I don’t know how many ships they can actually task. It depends on what else is going on right now.”

“My fleet will do what they can to help,” Xipa added. “But, yes, there is no way to know how long we will have to hold the spaceport.”

“If we can get some Kodiaks and Avalanches on the ground, maybe plug the entrances with IFVs, we’ll be able to hold out for a good while,” Fletcher said. “With air support, even longer.”

“CAS only, no orbital,” Xipa chided. “I promised these people that there would still be a home to come back to if they left. If I break that promise, they’ll never trust us again.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t let the UNN level the city,” Fletcher replied. “Alright, people,” he continued as he raised his voice to address the rest of the team. “Let’s move out. I hope you have everything you need, because we’re not gonna be coming back for a while.”

Gustave finished loading the strange resin magazines into the pouches on his chest rig, then hefted his massive rifle, Bluejay walking along beside him as he adjusted the scope on his XMR.

“I’m almost gonna miss this place,” Fletcher muttered as they made their way out into the hallway.


They made their way through the overgrown streets, trudging through patches of knee-high shrubs and grasses, avoiding the algae-covered ponds that had formed in the old craters that pocked the roads. Miqi and her flock had spread out, stalking through the trees that had colonized the sidewalks, their weapons at the ready. They were all equipped with plasma rifles this time, the orange resin blending into the foliage, the camouflaged cloaks that they wore making them hard to pick out against the flourishing plant life.

Xipa had memorized the map that they had pored over in the operations room, and she had a pretty good idea of where they were headed. It wasn’t far from the old factory where they had staged their daring rescue, and beyond that was the breach in the wall, where the Bugs were massing their forces.

“We should be getting close,” Miqi warned, stopping her flock with a quick feather signal. Xipa raised a fist, her squad taking cover at the sides of the street when they saw the gesture. “Ask Bluejay if that building would make a good vantage point,” she added, nodding to a skyscraper a couple of blocks away. Like most of the buildings in the city, there were great holes melted in its facade from the original invasion, red foliage and mosses staining the weathered carbcrete like splotches of blood.

“Bluejay,” Xipa said, getting his attention. “You think you’ll be able to paint the Bugs from that tower?”

“It’s the tallest thing in the area,” he mused, lifting his chin to take it in. “Looks as good a place as any.”

“Just be careful,” Fletcher warned.

“I won’t blow our cover,” Bluejay insisted.

“I’m not worried about that,” Fletcher replied, keeping his voice low. “Our cover is gonna be blown when we send that signal no matter how stealthy we are. I’m worried about one of those fucking tanks taking a pot shot at the top floor while you’re up there.”

“Let’s get a little closer first,” Xipa added. “I want to stay in ad-hoc range so we can see what you see.”

They advanced a little closer to the solitary skyscraper, then Bluejay set off, his gossamer wings erupting from beneath their protective casings. He buzzed off into the sky, staying close to the facade of the building so as not to draw too much attention to himself. The team headed into the bombed-out storefront of a nearby cafe to get off the street, Xipa and Fletcher moving over to the empty window frames that faced the skyscraper, keeping tabs on their companion. Xipa tapped at her helmet, filling her HUD with a view from Bluejay’s cameras.

She caught him just as he landed on the roof, finding an overgrown garden that was spilling over the sides of the building. Several fully-grown trees had somehow taken root there, forming a thick canopy, shrubs that must have once grown in planters overflowing to create a dense carpet of reds and browns.

“How the hell did seeds get blown all the way up here?” Bluejay mused, pushing through the waist-high plants.

“It must have been a rooftop garden before the invasion,” Xipa explained, watching through his feed as he neared the far edge.

“You guys sure like putting gardens where they have no business being.”

He reached the edge, carefully peeking through the leaves so as not to expose himself, the ruined city stretching out before him. In the distance was the giant wall, and he used the zoom function on his visor to get a closer look, scanning the base of the structure for the telltale breach. The feed was a little jittery, the system dropping the resolution to make better use of the limited bandwidth at the limits of the signal’s range. Once they started using those relays, they could piggyback on the city’s network, significantly extending their reach.

The view swept across the flooded residential band, a few off-white domes surviving on elevated hills, surrounded by murky water. Bluejay soon located the enemy beachhead, thousands of troops and dozens of organic vehicles massing there, a few hulking Warriors towering over their Drone counterparts.

“There are the anti-air platforms – a little to the right,” Xipa said. Bluejay honed in on them, enhancing the magnification to get a closer look. The massive, insectoid tanks were sitting on top of a hill on their eight legs, the tumor-like missile launchers on their backs swiveling back and forth as they scanned the sky for targets with their very literal eyes.

“There are only three of them that I can see,” Bluejay mused, sweeping his camera across the enemy encampment. “I guess that’s all they need to cover the whole city. The rest of the Bugs are just…standing around.”

“What do you suppose they do for fun?” Fletcher asked.

“Air hockey,” Bluejay replied.


“I was joking. Oh, I spoke too soon,” Bluejay added as he zoomed out to get a clearer picture. “Check it out – they’re starting to move deeper into the city.”

Xipa could see long formations of troops slowly filtering away from the main group, reaching towards the city streets like red tendrils. There were four separate convoys that she could see, each one taking a slightly different route through the flooded, marshy residential band. Those at the front of the pack were already reaching the industrial band, moving in tight-knit groups of six as they cleared the buildings to either side of the street, their tanks lumbering along behind them.

“They must have already discovered a few clear paths to the city center,” Xipa mused. “They move fast. Miqi,” she said, transitioning to her native tongue. “The insects are already on their way.”

“If all goes to plan, they’ll follow the roads that we cleared ahead of them,” she replied, a flutter of red passing through her sheaths. “We tried to make them look as appealing as possible. They’re all booby-trapped, naturally. As soon as we break radio silence, I can start coordinating with the other flocks to slow their advance. Let’s see how fast they move with a few hundred thousand tons of carbcrete on top of them.”

“Those AA guys are starting to move,” Bluejay warned, Xipa turning her attention back to his feed. The three anti-air vehicles were marching away, the masses of Drones parting before them. It looked like each of them intended to join one of the long convoys. “I don’t think we can afford to wait much longer.”

“Miqi, do you think the civilians have had enough time to reach the spaceport?” Xipa asked hurriedly.

“There’s no way to be sure without breaking radio silence,” she replied, the answer a little more non-committal than Xipa had been hoping for. “What do you see? Are we out of time?”

“Their anti-air is moving – we need to hit them now, before they get into cover.”

“Then let’s get this Gue’tra hunt started!” Miqi exclaimed, checking the charge on her rifle.

“Fletcher,” Xipa said, switching off the feed as she turned to the Earth’nay. “Send it.”

“Here goes nothing,” he muttered, tapping at the display on his wrist. With a press of the touch panel, the message was transmitted, Fletcher giving her a thumbs-up when he was connected with the fleet.

“Oh, they heard that!” Bluejay announced. “They’re really booking it now!”

“All flocks, all flocks,” Miqi said as she held her portable radio up to the rebreather on her helmet. “Sound off and get ready to set your fuses. We just gave the mealworms a kick in the tail, and they’ll be heading your way on the double. You all know the plan – just try to make it back safely. I don’t want to lose you when we’re so close to ending this.”

As her flocks reported their positions and readiness, Xipa tapped into Fletcher’s feed, listening in on his call as he argued with what sounded like a comms operator.

“No, I want to speak directly with Admiral Vos,” Fletcher complained. “Yes, I want you to send the data files to him, too. Time is of the essence here.” There was a delay, then she heard the admiral’s familiar voice come through with a hiss of static.

“Fletcher?” he asked, the surprise in his voice evident. “What the hell happened to you? Is the Ensi still with you? Why have you been-”

“Sorry to interrupt, Admiral,” he interjected. “I don’t have time to explain what’s been going on down here, but everyone is still alive, and we’re in one hell of a situation. All of the info you need is contained in that file I just sent you. The evacuation is going down right now, and we need UNN support ASAP.”

“Evacuation?” Vos repeated. “Oh, God damn it…she was right all along, wasn’t she? I’ll never hear the end of this. Very well, Fletcher, you’ll have whatever I can give you. Just know that we’re currently laying siege to the Queen’s fortress, so I may have to redeploy ships from another CSG. It might take them a little time to burn their way over to you.”

“The Queen’s fortress?” Fletcher asked. Now, it was his turn to be confused. “Listen, I gotta go. Just follow the instructions. We’re all counting on you, Admiral.”

“My turn,” Xipa said, giving him a toothy grin as she tapped into her fleet’s frequency. “Hailing the battle carrier Vengeance, this is Ensi Xipa’tla’nemi speaking. Please confirm.”

“E-Ensi?” a high-pitched voice on the other end exclaimed after a moment of quiet. “Uh, this is the Vengeance, receiving you clearly.”

“Included with this data stream is a detailed plan for the evacuation of a city,” she continued. “Send it to the acting fleet commanders, and instruct them to follow it to the letter. Contact the flight crew and tell them to start running checks on their aircraft – I’m going to need every dropship and Commando that the fleet can spare. I want a Tzcuauht’li bomber wing deployed to my position – highest priority. Do that first.”

“Y-yes, Ensi,” the operator replied. Xipa could hear her yelling panicked instructions at her flock in the background, then she returned to the mic. “Protocol requires me to ask if…this is a code purple?”

“Correct,” Xipa replied. “We have civilians on the ground, and I’d prefer that they be off the ground.”

“Understood, Ensi,” the operator continued. “And…glad to hear your voice again, Ensi.”

“Bluejay,” Xipa said, switching channels back to her team. “Keep those Bug tanks in your sights. I’m going to patch your signal through to my carrier – it should give the bombers a direct line to you.”

“You got it,” he replied. “Time to make some fucking noise.”

“Xipa,” Miqi said, getting her attention with a flash of feathers. “One of my flocks says that a convoy is nearing their position. Are we good to go?”

“Let’s give them a parting gift,” Xipa replied, her suit panels flushing a fiery red.

“Light the fuse and fall back to position two,” Miqi ordered, a muffled confirmation crackling through on her radio. “Tell your friend that he might want to look to his left,” she added with a chuckle.

“Bluejay, Miqi says you might want to glance left,” Xipa said as she patched into his feed again to get a look.

He turned his head just in time to see a mushroom cloud of dust and smoke slowly rise above the rooftops a couple of kilometers away. A few moments later, the ground shook beneath their feet, a blastwave sweeping through the city. Native birds were sent squawking into the air, the branches of the trees outside swaying, their leaves rustling. Although Xipa’s helmet muffled the sound of the explosion to protect her ears, she could feel it in her hollow bones, like a thunderclap. Through Bluejay’s cameras, she watched as a thirty-storey tall factory building began to list, the structure so large that it seemed to fall in slow motion. As it dropped, the old carbcrete began to crumble, transforming into a shower of what looked like dust from so far away. It just disintegrated, filling the streets below with an expanding cloud of debris, chunks of masonry and metal that must have weighed tons crashing to the ground.

“Fucking hell!” Fletcher exclaimed gleefully. “Now that’s how you squash a Bug.”

“How much fertilizer did you use?” Xipa asked, not sure whether to be impressed or horrified.

“I’m not a chemist, so we measured it in barrels,” Miqi replied with a flutter of amused yellow. “We used a lot of barrels.”

“That gave them something to think about,” Bluejay announced, turning his camera back to the enemy staging area. “Some of the convoys near the city are stopping – waiting for instructions, maybe?”

“The longer they stand around, the more time the strike craft have to get here,” Xipa added. “It can’t take them more than ten or fifteen minutes to break atmosphere.”

After a couple more minutes of tense waiting, she received a hail, a distorted voice coming through in her ear.

“This is strike wing Magenta, dispatched from the Vengeance. We have your beacon, Ensi. Awaiting further instructions.”

“Receiving you, Magenta,” she replied. “I’m sending you a UNN frequency – I want you to use it for targeting. I have an operative in the field who is going to guide you in. We have three enemy anti-air platforms that need to be taken out, ideally before they have a chance to retaliate. When the targets are down, I want you loitering while you stand by for new orders.”

“Understood, Ensi. We’re five minutes from your position.”

“Five minutes,” Xipa announced to her team. “Miqi, do you have updates on how the civilians are doing?”

“They’re starting to leave the tunnels and head across open ground to the spaceport,” she replied. “It might take them a while, but they’re underway.”

Another explosion rocked the city, Bluejay snapping his head to the right, his feed showing a plume of billowing smoke rising above the jagged skyline.

“There goes a road,” Miqi cackled. “I hope those mealworms like swimming in the sewers – it’s where they belong.”

“Magenta here,” the radio crackled. “We have your targeting data, Ensi. Stand by.”

“Bluejay, the bombers are closing in,” Xipa warned. “Keep those tanks painted.”

She watched through his cameras as the three creatures marched along, their eight, crustacean-like legs making them remarkably suited to rough terrain that would have gotten any tracked or wheeled vehicle stuck fast. They splashed through the marshland, wading through deep pools of water, climbing up the grassy hills on their way to the relative safety of the city streets. The missile racks on their backs were always in motion, the organic sensor pods scanning the skies for targets. Would they see the stealth craft in time? What kinds of sensors were they using – optical, radar, electromagnetic? The Drones were marching along beside them, having apparently overcome their momentary indecision, a seemingly endless procession of them pouring from the main group. They stalked through the patches of forest, ever vigilant, their resin rifles sweeping the dense foliage as they moved in close-knit teams of six. They looked like they were hurrying to get their assets to safety, but nobody could move quickly through that mess of flooded terrain. Xipa still remembered the difficulties that her team had encountered just getting from the wall to the city.

As Bluejay watched one of the AA platforms dredge through a lake, two dozen Drones wading through the chest-high water as they flanked it, something blew out the cameras with a bright flash. As the feed cleared, the view pulled back to show a dark cloud of expanding smoke, orange flames billowing at its center. Shrapnel peppered the surface of the water, creating innumerable tiny splashes, larger debris starting to rain from the air. The tank was gone, reduced to flaming chunks of meat that floated on the lake, and the Drones had been vaporized.

Another guided bomb slammed into a second tank, the projectile moving so fast that Xipa couldn’t even see it on the feed. The target had been marching over a hill, right in the middle of one of the long formations of troops. The mound of grass exploded like an erupting volcano, tossing what must have been tons of dirt high into the air, a flash of bright flames distorting the image again. A pressure wave flattened the Drones that it didn’t immediately kill, clods of earth raining down on them as those that were still standing scrambled for cover.

The third target suffered a similar fate, a massive explosion engulfing it along with everything nearby, a shockwave spreading out from the impact site to disturb the nearby waterways. The loud cracks came one after another, delayed by the speed of sound, a trio of echoing blasts shaking the surviving panes of glass in the nearby buildings.

Only now did Bluejay lift his head to spot the strike craft, the droning of their engines announcing their arrival. A pair of black arrows swooped overhead, veering off from their bombing run. The Tzcuauht’li bombers were space planes designed using both Valbara’nay technology and Earth’nay principles, their sleek, angular hulls painted with a radar-absorbing coating in onyx black. They were sized somewhere between a fighter and a dropship – small by most standards, and they seated two pilots. Their stubby wings were arranged in a delta pattern, a pair of rounded engine housings situated just above them, two tail fins jutting out at an angle from the rear. As Bluejay watched them bank into the sky, Xipa caught a glimpse of their bomb bays closing flush against their undercarriages.

“Kills confirmed,” Bluejay announced. “The Bugs just lost all of their air defenses.”

“Good hits, Magenta,” Xipa announced. “As far as we know, they have no more AA, so feel free to take some potshots at the rest of the troops in the residential band. Do not fire on any of the other bands unless directed to do so.”

“Understood, Ensi,” the distorted voice replied. “We are standing by for further instructions.”

“I see the homeworld has been busy,” Miqi mused, leaning out of a window to watch the pair of bombers circle back around for another run. The hatches beneath their rounded noses opened up to expose rotary cannons – another weapon sourced from the UNN – streams of explosive shells cutting a swathe through the Drone infantry. The Bugs did their best to fight back, some of the remaining tanks and Warriors firing trails of glowing plasma into the sky, but it was a futile effort without dedicated anti-air. The bombers were flying too high and were moving too fast to be threatened by small arms. Even if the Bugs got a lucky shot, their hulls were rated for reentry – plasma wouldn’t scratch them.

“They’re hauling ass across the residential band now,” Bluejay announced, Xipa watching a wave of Bugs attempt to flee through the flooded hills. There was ample cover to be had, lots of overgrown patches of forest and algae-covered water, as well as abandoned dwellings. Still, the bombers had free reign, painting trails of fire across the landscape.

“As amusing as it might be to watch those CAS craft harass the Bugs, they’re not going to stop them from getting inside the city,” Fletcher said. “Their AA blanket is down, so it’s time to start pulling back to the spaceport. They shouldn’t have anything that can take out our landers now. Fleetcom just sent me an update,” he added, swiping at his wrist display. “They’ve tasked us the UNN Sword – an assault carrier – and she’s burning hard to get into the right orbit. The UNN Wizna is deploying her dropship squadron to help out, too.”

“The Vengeance and one of our Landfall troop carriers are coordinating with them,” Xipa confirmed as she switched off Bluejay’s feed, checking her comms. “That’s eighteen dropships and as many Commandos as they can carry at once. Not as much as a jump carrier, but we can make do.”

“I’ll take anything I can get right now,” Fletcher replied as he made his way over to the door. “I wasn’t expecting a full-fucking-scale invasion to be happening at the exact same time as our evacuation. Bluejay, get back over here. We’re leaving.”

“Roger that,” Bluejay replied. “On my way.”

The ground shook beneath their feet, dust raining from the ceiling as another explosion rocked the city’s foundations.

“That was another one of mine,” Miqi explained, holding her radio up to her ear. “All of my flocks are falling back to their second positions – we should do the same. The insects will find a way through the obstacles eventually, but we have more explosives set up further along the routes. There’s no safe path for them.”

Bluejay landed in the street outside, rustling the foliage, his shimmering wings folding back beneath their protective coverings.

“Those things are pouring into the streets,” he said, his thorax rising and falling as he caught his breath. “Time to book it.”

The team made their way out of the ruined storefront to join him, then began to hurry back the way they had come. The spaceport was clear on the opposite side of the city to the breach in the wall, so they would have to cross several kilometers on foot. Fortunately, with Miqi’s advanced knowledge of the city’s back streets and hidden passages, the going should be a lot easier than during their first foray through the streets. It shouldn’t be difficult to stay ahead of the Bugs.

“Getting a call,” Fletcher said, lifting a polymer finger to the touch panel on the side of his helmet. Xipa tapped in, hearing an Earth’nay with a strange accent on the other end.

“Lieutenant Commander, this is flight control of the Wizna. We will be establishing an orbit above your position shortly. Do we have a clear corridor for the medivac you requested?”

“Affirmative, Wizna,” Fletcher replied as he hopped over a tree root that was jutting through the cracked asphalt. “Valbaran CAS just took out the enemy AA, so you should be clear to land dropships. Don’t waste any time – we have injured who should probably be in a fucking ICU waiting for pickup on the surface.”

“Forwarding your instructions to our medical teams,” the operator replied. “We should have your people off the ground within fifteen minutes.”

“Glad to hear it,” Fletcher replied, the feed disconnecting. “Nothing like a Polish cavalry charge to save the day,” he added, quickly realizing that nobody else knew what he was talking about. “Ruza,” he added, switching channels. The city’s relays were active now, and their cover had been blown, so there was no longer any need to mask their radio signals. “Medivac is on the way – ETA fifteen. How are your patients doing?”

“They are stable, for now,” the gruff Borealan replied. Xipa tapped into his helmet’s feed, seeing that he was standing over a patient on a wheeled gurney, manually inflating some kind of valve that was attached to the woman’s snout. It must be a respirator – maybe she had been on a ventilator prior to being moved. He was outside, judging by the sunlight and the grass at the bottom of the frame. “The less time they waste, the better.”

“We’re on our way back,” Fletcher explained. “All of the Bugs are behind us, so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting to the spaceport.”

“Very well, I will meet you there,” he added before the call ended.

Miqi led the team into an overgrown alley, Xipa pushing her way through the dense foliage that was climbing up the walls of the abandoned buildings to either side of them. Gustave was forced to climb over an old car that was covered in moss and rust, being too large to get around it, the roof sagging under his weight with an ominous creak. Miqi was in her element here – she knew every back road, every shortcut.

From there, they emerged onto another street, this one crammed with derelict vehicles that were stacked bumper to bumper. The old battle damage was still visible under the carpet of opportunistic plant life that covered them, many of them sinking into asphalt that had once been turned to liquid by plasma fire. The road was pocked with deep craters that had filled in with water, forming little habitats for weeds and amphibians.

Xipa noticed two pinpricks of light appear high above the ruined buildings ahead of them, like a pair of shooting stars, their glow standing out against the shifting auroras that dominated the sky. They slowed in a way that was clearly controlled, beginning to circle above the city as they shed velocity.

“That must be the Wizna’s medivac shuttles,” Fletcher noted, following her gaze. “Good – the carrier is in range. Maybe we can expect some airborne Marine support on the ground.”

“We have a problem,” Miqi warned, Xipa gesturing for her team to stop. They took up positions nearby, using the abandoned husks of cars and the trunks of trees for cover as they scanned the area for threats. Gustave simply stood in the middle of the street, his massive rifle in hand.

“What’s wrong?” Xipa asked, crouching beside Miqi as she held her radio to her ear.

“One of my flocks is trapped,” she replied, a flutter of worried purple passing through the feathers on her arms. “The fuse on their bomb didn’t go off, and they spent too much time trying to fix it. The insects have them surrounded. Damn it,” she hissed with another flutter of purple. “I told them no heroics!”

“How far away are they?” Xipa asked.

“They’re in reach if we hurry,” she replied, giving her a questioning look. “Xipa, they’re probably facing hundreds of insects, and those insects have tanks and Warriors supporting them. You saw how many troops they were pouring into the city. I don’t know if there’s anything we can do – if we can even get there in time.”

“We can do it,” Xipa insisted with a confident flash of red from her suit panels. She glanced over at Fletcher, switching back to English to explain the situation to him.

“We don’t leave people behind,” he replied sternly. “Tell your friend to lead the way.”

“It’s quite a walk for a Valbara’nay – we don’t have the stamina that you do,” she said as she turned to the Krell-nay. “How about it, Gustave? There’s a lot of space on your back without that big ammo drum you were lugging around.”

Would usually carry clutch of little ones in mouth,” he mused, his translator interpreting his rumbling speech. “Back will suffice. Come.

He lowered himself almost to all fours, Xipa hopping deftly onto his broad shoulders, taking up her usual position. Miqi shared skeptical flutters of yellow with her flockmates, but Xipa waved them on.

“The six of us won’t even weigh as much as the ammunition he was carrying,” she explained. “Trust me – I rode him most of the way here.”

“The Galaxy is becoming a strange and confusing place,” Miqi muttered. She made her way over, leaping up onto Gustave’s back. Without his ammo drum in the way, the straps of his chest rig provided ample handholds for the diminutive creatures. The rest of the flock joined them, and after a moment, the giant reptile stood upright with six Valbara’nay hanging off his poncho.

“Nice key ring collection,” Fletcher chuckled, clearly amused by the odd sight.

“That way,” Miqi added, pointing ahead of him with a feather sheath.

Hold tight, little riders,” Gustave rumbled as he started to lumber along the road. Fletcher jogged after him, Bluejay taking flight to hover above them on his buzzing wings. Xipa lifted one hand to her helmet as she clutched one of Gustave’s straps with the other, hailing her flagship.

Vengeance, this is the Ensi speaking.”

“We read you, Ensi,” the operator replied after a momentary delay. “What do you need?”

“Do you still have Commando units aboard?” she asked. Before deploying to Kerguela, Xipa had hand-selected several experienced units to accompany her on the flagship, intending to wield them as a scalpel to attack priority targets. Valbara had no equivalent of SWAR – not yet – but these veterans were the closest thing to special forces that she had access to. Many had tempered their skills during the limited ground invasions that had taken place during the Battle of Valbara, and they had experience fighting the Bugs in the confined spaces of city streets.

“Some of our flocks have deployed to help the UNN assault the Queen’s stronghold,” the operator replied, interference from the moon’s magnetosphere making her voice fizz and pop. “Several were kept in reserve, however.”

Good – those that she had left in charge during her absence had probably guessed that she might need them.

“Have them deploy to my suit’s beacon,” Xipa ordered. “Warn them that they’re going to be dropping into a combat zone.”

“H-how many?” the operator asked.

“Everyone who’s still aboard,” Xipa replied, shutting off the feed. “Fletcher!” she added. “We should have some mean Commando units deploying directly to us as soon as the Vengeance is in range of the city.”

“That might help us not die horribly if they can get to us in time,” he chuckled, breathing hard as he jogged through the knee-high underbrush on his prosthetic legs. His stamina still surprised her, memories of their encounter the previous night flashing before her eyes as she suppressed a flutter of pink. Sometimes, having perfect recall was more of a distraction than an asset.

Miqi directed them through winding back alleys and overgrown streets, knowing their layout like the patterns of her own scales. They took shortcuts through blown-out buildings, traipsing through piles of rubble and broken glass, Bluejay scouting ahead to make sure that the way was clear. It took them a good ten minutes, which felt like an eternity when lives were on the line, but Miqi eventually signaled for them to stop. They were inside an abandoned fish market on the lower floor of a tower block, the stench of rotting seafood somehow lingering after so many rotations. The old refrigerated counters that had once displayed the produce were empty now, their glass shattered, red mosses colonizing the abandoned freezers.

“We should only be a block away from their location,” she said, hopping down from Gustave’s back. She crunched glass underfoot as she walked over to the far windows that faced out onto the street, Xipa and the rest of the flock following suit. She tried to clean one of the filthy panes with a gloved hand, peering through it. “They successfully triggered their first bomb, which means that they would have fallen back to position two.”

“I’ll go take a look,” Bluejay said after a quick translation.

“Don’t expose yourself,” Fletcher warned as the Jarilan slipped out through a collapsed wall at the rear of the market. “We need to maintain the element of surprise.”

“I’m a ghost,” Bluejay replied, opening his wing cases. He rose out of view, the backwash blowing the weeds that had sprouted in the alley outside.

Xipa tapped into his feed, watching him rise up the face of the structure. When he was maybe fifteen floors up, he found a broken window, slipping inside. He landed in what had once been a residential building, scanning his surroundings as he stalked across the mushroom-covered carpet. This place had suffered battle damage – the furniture was strewn all over the apartment, and there was a gaping breach in the far wall where some kind of plasma artillery must have impacted it. Bluejay approached the melted edges of the hole, peeking out, glancing up the street to his left. He passed his rifle to his lower pair of hands, using an upper hand to engage the magnification on his helmet. His visor zoomed in to show two squads of Drones marching down the overgrown road, sweeping the buildings with their rifles like they were searching for something.

“Scouts,” he muttered, watching one of them dip into a storefront. “They must be moving ahead of the main formation to search for more Valbarans. There’s fighting up ahead,” he added, catching a few flashes of plasma fire further up the road. “Looks like Miqi’s people are holed up in a building.”

“We have to get to them,” Xipa hissed. “There’s no time to wait for backup to arrive!”

“Fuck it, we go loud,” Fletcher replied as he shouldered his laser rifle. He glanced at it in confusion for a moment, Xipa stepping forward to hit the power switch on the pack, a dull whir emanating from the device. “Stick to the cover of the buildings. If anything, we might provide enough of a distraction to take some of the heat off them.”

There was a loud explosion from up ahead, followed by the sound of crumbling masonry. Xipa turned her attention back to Bluejay’s feed, seeing that he was already zooming in on the scene. The street in the distance was filled with billowing dust as part of the building where the survivors were taking refuge collapsed, chunks of shattered carbcrete raining to the cracked asphalt below, a tree that had sprouted in the structure’s shadow toppling over under their weight. A Bug tank marched through the swirling smoke, crushing a car under one of its clawed feet, the rails on its long barrel crackling with energy as it prepared another shot. The second bolt of plasma impacted the facade of the building, hitting what might be the third or fourth floor, sending more pulverized masonry falling to the road. There were Drones taking cover nearby, maybe forty or fifty of them pouring suppressive fire into the empty windows. More of them were moving up, a Warrior approaching with a squad of Drones tagging along behind it.

“These are only the tip of the spear,” Fletcher warned. “I’ll bet the rest of the convoy is still making their way past the first blockade, but they’ll be joining these guys soon enough. We need to move. Xipa – tell your buddies to prep those stink bombs of theirs.”

“Pheromone grenades coming right up,” she replied, relaying his request to Miqi.

“Bluejay, get ready to rain tungsten on those fuckers,” Fletcher added. He gestured to the narrow doorway at the front of the store. “Gustave? I think we’re gonna need a new door.”

The Krell’nay huffed, rolling his shoulders as he moved into position.

“On three,” Fletcher said, clutching his laser rifle in his prosthetic hands. “One, two…”

Gustave charged at the door, covering the distance alarmingly quickly for his size, slamming his scaly shoulder into the obstacle. The door was tossed out of its frame, a large chunk of the wall coming down along with it, the Krell’nay plowing through it like it was made of recycled wood pulp. A cloud of dust washed over the pocked asphalt outside, pieces of broken masonry bouncing along the road, Gustave skidding to a stop. He raised his massive rifle, his jaws opening to loose a bone-shaking roar that made the loose skin beneath his chin vibrate. The crack of the oversized weapon echoed through the street as he fired it, his muscular arms absorbing the intense recoil.

From Bluejay’s perspective, Xipa watched one of the confused Drones disintegrate, the round throwing chunks of meat and carapace across the street. The Bug that had been walking a few paces behind it was hit with a shower of gore that carried enough force to knock it over, green ichor painting the nearby foliage like splashes of paint.

Bluejay began to fire now, taking out another one of the surprised Drones with a burst from his XMR that tore open its abdomen, sending it toppling to the road as though its feet had been kicked out from under it. Miqi and her flock were already moving, a well-placed pheromone grenade landing to roll along the street between the two remaining groups of Drones, erupting into a cloud of aerosolized particles.

The flock took advantage of their temporary confusion to cut them down, pouring plasma fire into them as they stumbled around, clawing at their helmeted faces. Xipa and Fletcher joined them, the bright beam of emerald light from Fletcher’s laser rifle refracting off the airborne dust and the noxious cloud from the grenade, shining like a beacon as it burned a hole clear through one of the fumbling Drones. Its carapace melted like a wax candle, the intense, concentrated heat searing the flesh beneath like overdone Gue’tra meat. The thing dropped, wisps of smoke pouring from its wound.

“Yeah, I can work with this,” Fletcher chuckled into his helmet. “Just like killing ants with a magnifying glass…”

Bluejay flitted over their heads, taking up position on another perch in a broken window, tagging targets from his new vantage point as he cut down a Drone that was starting to come back to its senses. With the element of surprise and a well-placed pheromone grenade, the two squads didn’t pose too much of a threat, but the army that was massing beneath the besieged building was another matter. They were a couple of hundred meters away, some of the nearby Drones already noticing that something was wrong, turning their heads in the team’s direction. A couple of dozen split off into squads, taking up positions in the piles of fresh rubble that clogged the street, peeking out from behind trees and leaping through the windows of derelict storefronts for cover. The tank abandoned its ongoing attempt to bring down the tower block, swiveling in their direction, its turret lagging behind to point down the street.

“Get to cover!” Fletcher ordered, the team splitting into two groups as they made for either side of the road. Xipa, Fletcher, and Gustave dove into another bombed-out store while Miqi and her flock made for an alley on the adjacent side of the road. Bluejay dipped into the window that he was perched in, vanishing into the upper floors of the building.

The tank planted its feet in the rubble, spreading its eight legs wider, bracing itself as the green glow from its turret began to shine through the swirling dust. It rocked back as it fired, sending a bolt of superheated gas racing down the block, its brilliant light reflecting off the windows and puddles as it passed by them. It impacted the facade of the store that the team had just been inside, the release of energy creating a violent explosion that sent chunks of carbcrete raining onto the road.

“Well, we definitely got their attention!” Fletcher exclaimed as he ducked behind an old confectionery display case. “Anyone got any ideas for what the fuck we do about that tank?”

“I have one,” Xipa replied, taking cover beneath a broken window. She brought up her wrist display, tapping at it frantically. “I believe it’s something you Earth’nay call danger close.”

“You’re not thinking of calling in your CAS flight?” Fletcher asked in disbelief. “That’s not danger close, Xipa. That’s just suicide. Even if they’re only strafing, those things are packing what looked like thirty-mill cannons with HE. They’ll tear up the entire street – us and the people we’re supposed to be rescuing included.”

“No, I’m talking about the unexploded bomb that we’re probably sitting on top of,” she explained. “That tank is too large to follow us inside the buildings. If we can maneuver around it, we can get the trapped flock to safety, then we can set the fuse on those explosives.”

“And, what about the rest of the Bugs that can follow us inside?” he asked skeptically.

“We improvise.”

“I thought Valbarans didn’t like to improvise?” he scoffed. “Aren’t you guys all about planning?”

“Well, my plan is to let you improvise,” she replied.

Their conversation was interrupted as a barrage of missiles landed on the asphalt outside. They were gas canisters, popping open to release yellow clouds of toxic chemicals, Gustave pulling down his hood to protect his face.

“Alright,” Fletcher sighed, shaking his head. “I guess it’s the best idea we have. Get on the horn to Miqi and ask her exactly where her people planted that bomb.”

Xipa did as he asked, relaying what she’d learned after a rapid-fire discussion with Miqi over the radio.

“It’s in the basement of that building they’re trapped in,” she explained. “It was supposed to take out the street, but it sounds like their ignition device didn’t go off. The Bugs found them before they could fix it.”

“Aren’t those just barrels of fertilizer?” Fletcher asked. “That’s nothing a well-placed grenade won’t set off.”

“Yeah, if you want to be sitting on top of it when that happens,” Miqi scoffed.

“You have a point there,” he conceded. “Give me a break – I’m ex-SWAR, not EOD. Ask Miqi if she knows any way to get inside that building without the Bugs seeing her.”

“She says that there’s a concealed entrance to the rear where her flock could sneak inside,” Xipa replied after another radio exchange. “She can get in there, rescue her people, and maybe fix the bomb. The problem is, the street outside is crawling with Bugs.”

“Bluejay!” Fletcher said, putting a polymer finger to his helmet. “I need you to provide overwatch for Miqi’s flock. Get them into that building without alerting the Bugs. Xipa, tell your friends to move through the interior of the buildings on the right side of the street and stay in cover. Do what they do best – keep out of sight.”

“What are we doing?” Xipa asked after relaying his instructions.

“We’re gonna make as much noise as we can to keep their attention focused on us,” he replied. He turned to Gustave, who was crouched nearby. “Gustave – get loud.”

The Krell’nay began to huff in what was probably laughter, moving over to the windows, his long tail dragging on the dusty floor behind him. He raised the butt of his rifle, using it to smash through one of the filthy panes of glass, sending shattered fragments falling to the overgrown sidewalk outside. Fletcher and Xipa moved up beside him as he leaned out, beginning to fire at the squads of Bugs that were moving down the street in tight formation. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t quite gotten used to his new toy yet – the rounds were so powerful that even glancing hits were enough to vaporize the Drones, sending those nearby toppling to the ground as organic shrapnel peppered them. He blew fist-sized chunks out of the nearby buildings, punching clean through a tree that one of the Bugs was taking refuge behind, splitting its trunk open like it had been hit with a giant hatchet.

Just the noise was enough to draw attention, the maybe six or seven squads that they could pick out over the shared ad-hoc network starting to lay down suppressive fire on their position. The six-Drone squads moved in tandem, one group firing while the other ducked low, keeping to cover as they gained ground.

“Pull back!” Fletcher ordered, ducking as a bolt melted through a nearby window and sailed over his head. “We have to draw them away. Gustave – if you can’t find any doors that you can fit through, just make some.”

Gustave rumbled affirmatively, popping off a couple more rounds, then stepped away from his vantage point. He dropped an empty mag on the floor, then plucked a fresh one from his rig, slotting it into the receiver. The gill-like vents that ran down the length of its barrel opened up, releasing waste gasses with an audible hiss, cooling the weapon.

Xipa opened up Bluejay’s feed in a little window on her visor as she rushed to the back of the store, seeing the battle from his perspective. He was high in one of the buildings, maybe seven or eight floors up, watching the wave of Bugs flood down the road towards them. He glanced down at the alley below, Miqi and her team stalking between the weeds, heading for a back entrance to a nearby restaurant. It seemed like Fletcher’s plan was working so far.

“They’re sending Warriors after you guys!” Bluejay warned. “Two of them, coming to you!”

“Do we even have anything that can scratch a Warrior?” Fletcher demanded. “Do those grenades work on-”

There was another rumble as the tank fired on their last position, a green flash preceding a torrent of dust and debris, the shop front caving inward. A Squad of Drones swarmed in through the breach, the team taking cover behind some rows of shelves that had once held merchandise. Fletcher primed one of the pheromone grenades, tossing it over the top, the cloud of noxious fumes that filled the room making Xipa glad of her helmet. He followed up with a salvaged plasma grenade, the blast taking out the majority of the Drones, a few bursts from Xipa’s PDW finishing off the rest.

A far larger silhouette appeared in the smoke, wading through the rubble, its hulking figure coming into focus. It was a Warrior, ten feet tall and just as wide, its body covered in thick layers of overlapping carapace. It raised the plasma cannon that was grafted to its right arm – an amalgam of flesh and metal – aiming the glowing barrel at their position.

Gustave was ready for it, the deafening report of his rifle echoing through the little store as he dumped an entire magazine into the thing. The question of whether the rounds would even penetrate its armor was quickly answered. One of the bullets ricocheted off its slanted shoulder plate, making a sound like someone striking a metal tray with a hammer. It was deflected into the ceiling, more dust raining down on the Warrior. The blow was enough to make it stumble, and the next round hit it in center mass, punching a crater in its thick carapace. It fired its cannon, but it was off-balance now, the stream of burning plasma going wide. It melted the carbcrete into red-hot lava, igniting anything flammable that was in proximity, the air quickly filling with dark smoke. Fletcher pulled Xipa to the ground, shielding her with his body as burning splinters of wood from the shelves peppered them.

Gustave marched through the flames, bellowing into his rebreather as he emptied the rest of his magazine, intent on killing the thing before it had a chance to fire again. It tried to protect itself with the massive claw on its left arm, but a bullet shattered it into pieces, punching straight through. In only a few seconds, there were a dozen bleeding holes in the organic suit, yet it was still standing. It had inches of armor, both organic and synthetic, along with redundant organs and systems that would keep it functional in spite of its terrible injuries.

Gustave seemed to be aiming for the pilot now, his grouping far tighter, a trio of shots that punched into its rib-like abdominal armor having a more tangible effect. It stumbled under the impacts, finally falling to join the debris on the floor, Xipa feeling the crash shake the entire store.

Fletcher hauled her to her feet, making for a nearby door to a back alley, but it wasn’t over yet. As Gustave dropped his empty magazine, the cooling vents on his rifle hissing loudly, another ominous figure emerged through the breach. It was the second Warrior, the beast lunging at him before he could finish his reload, hitting him like a truck. The empty rifle was knocked from his hands as he was lifted off his feet, the two-thousand-pound reptile crashing to the floor.

“Gustave!” Xipa yelled, but Fletcher held her back as he moved to the door.

“We don’t have anything that can scratch that thing!”

Gustave rose to his feet, shaking his leathery hide to dislodge some of the dust, emitting a low rumble from beneath his hood as he turned to face the Warrior. This variant was built for close combat, its two upper arms sporting massive, scissor-like claws. The lower pair were equipped with smaller, three-fingered hands, perhaps used for manipulating objects. It scrutinized him through its slatted visor, more like the headlights of a car than anything resembling organic eyes, its wicked mandibles flexing as it took a step closer. The Krell’nay were strong and resilient, but surely they couldn’t prevail against a battlesuit? His rifle was nowhere in sight – buried somewhere under the burning rubble.

A change came over Gustave, his many-fingered hands trembling as though his very skin was coursing with electricity, the muscles beneath his armored poncho rippling. He launched himself, faster than Xipa had ever seen him move – faster than anything of his size should have been able to move. He closed the distance between himself and the Warrior in the blink of an eye, displacing enough air to make the flames behind him flicker, the alien meeting him with a terrible blow from one of its claws. Gustave weathered the strike, catching the engine block-sized chunk of chitin in his hands, his clawed toes skidding on the floor as he absorbed the impact. Xipa was sure that he would buckle beneath its weight, but she heard the creaking of muscle and carapace, Gustave growling like a beast as he pushed back.

Throwing the heavy claw aside, he spun around, wielding his tail like a hammer. The appendage made up about half of his body length, packed with muscle and fat, powerful enough to drive the giant reptile through water like a scaly torpedo. Xipa felt the impact in her bones as it connected, Gustave leveraging the strength of his entire body, hitting the Warrior with enough force that it would have instantly killed anything smaller.

The Bug tried to block the strike with one of its arms, but it was sent reeling by the blow all the same, stumbling back a few steps. It was incredible to see the thing in motion – not quite organic and not quite mechanical, muscle and metal moving as one. Its talon-like toes dug into the floor, the thing anchoring itself in an attempt to stay upright. It came back at him, swinging a claw that must have weighed three hundred pounds. It made contact with Gustave’s upper arm, the Krell’nay shuddering under the blow, the shock of the impact sending a ripple through all of his soft tissues.

Realizing that he was too large to be crushed, the Warrior changed its approach, opening one of its serrated claws. It closed the appendage over his right arm, intending to sever the limb. It snapped shut with enough speed and force that Xipa could hear the ring of metal on metal, but Gustave pulled away, avoiding the amputation by a feather’s breadth. He wasn’t quite fast enough to come out unscathed, however, the very tip of the bladed claw shearing an inch-deep cut in his bicep. It cleaved through his thick, bony scutes and steely muscle with alarming ease, cobalt-colored blood splattering his dark scales.

He danced away with surprising agility for a creature of his size, a low bellow of pain filling the room. All Xipa could do was flash her color panels impotently. Fletcher was right – even her XMR wouldn’t be enough to bring the alien beast down, and the pheromone grenades seemed to have no effect on it. The Pilot was insulated from its environment by the suit.

My circle!” Gustave bellowed, tearing off his hood despite the toxic fumes that still lingered in the air from the chemical shells. He opened his jaws wide, his rows of jagged, ivory-colored teeth contrasting with the vibrant blue of his mucous membranes. Striking with the force of an angry Teth’rak, he snapped his jaws shut around the Warrior’s claw, a sound like cracking stone rising above the roaring of the flames. His teeth bit into the thick shell that protected the muscle and machinery of the appendage, hairline fractures spreading from the punctures like shattered glass, his incredible bite strength drawing ichor that began to drip from his jaws.

The Warrior tried to yank its arm back, but he held onto it stubbornly, using his weight to keep the alien in place. As the thing raised its free arm and opened its claw, preparing another strike, Gustave dropped. Letting himself fall to the floor with a thud, he landed on his paunchy underside, his near twenty-foot body stretched out along the ground.

Gustave tucked his limbs against his scaly flanks as he started to spin like a turbine, the powerful muscles that ran along the length of his enormous body flipping him onto his back. He pushed off the ground with his tail, twisting as he rolled, keeping his jaws clamped firmly around the Warrior’s arm. After only a couple of rotations, a sound like splintering wood filled the room, the Bug’s rigid carapace starting to break under the immense shear forces. The thing was too large and too bulky to stand any chance of moving in a way that might mitigate the damage – all it could do was stand there as Gustave twisted its limb clean off at the elbow. Tendons and sinew tore, chitin fracturing to expose pale meat, fluids of indeterminate purpose spilling from the wound like blood. Gustave yanked the claw away, tossing it across the room with a violent shake of his head, the heavy object slamming into an old display counter with a crash.

Gustave climbed to his feet, his jaws dripping with mucous-colored fluid, bellowing a challenge that shook the leathery skin beneath his throat. The Warrior overcame its momentary confusion, incapable of fear or pain, lengths of severed electrical cable dangling from its living meat like nerves as it got its bearings again.

With another burst of sudden speed, the Krell’nay slammed into his opponent, driving the thick armored panel on his left shoulder into its torso. The top-heavy Warrior lost its footing in the rubble, toppling over onto its back with a crash that shook the foundations of the building. He clambered atop the struggling creature, trying to pin it, but even his immense weight wasn’t a match for the biological vehicle. It threw him back, but with one of its arms missing, it struggled to right itself. It floundered in the loose rubble, trying to roll itself over so that it could climb back to its feet, but Gustave was soon on it again.

Its remaining claw scythed through his back as the two grappled, the blade cutting through the kevlar weave and his bony scutes with ease, more azure blood soaking the fabric. It clawed at his chest with its lower arms, peppering his torso with deep cuts, but its secondary sets of claws weren’t long enough to reach anything vital through the thick layer of fat. As it brought that large upper claw in for another attack, Gustave slapped it to the ground with his tail, repeating the gesture when it tried again.

The Krell’nay dug his fingers into the seam that ran down the thing’s abdomen, pushing his claws between the armor plates for leverage. His muscles bulged beneath his scales as he employed all of his titanic strength, wrenching the plates apart, fresh spurts of blue blood pouring from the deep wound in his bicep. The Warrior fought him all the way, peppering his underbelly with scars, but he didn’t relent.

There was a tremendous cracking sound as he ripped the Warrior’s torso open like a shellfish, snapping whatever muscle and cartilage had been holding it closed. Inside was an open cavity lined with wet, pulsing flesh, filled with writhing tendrils that resembled entrails. Gustave plunged his hands into the suit, gripping handfuls of the slimy tentacles and tearing them out, splashes of fluid and chunks of torn meat landing on the floor as he dug through the living barrier.

There was something inside, the suit finally going limp as the raging Krell’nay tore a lanky figure from the cockpit, the tendrils that linked its spine to its vehicle snapping one by one. He held the struggling Pilot in his hand like a child might hold a toy, the creature’s long, thin limbs dripping with fluids from the damaged suit. It looked like a Drone that had been stretched from five feet to seven, its carapace the same red color, but its eyes were wide with what might be shock. Gustave loosed a low, intimidating rumble as he gripped the Pilot’s head with his other hand, decapitating it with a sickening tearing sound.

The body fell to the floor beside him, its head rolling through the rubble, Gustave taking a stumbling step away from the downed Warrior. He stooped to retrieve his rifle from beneath a collapsed shelf, then loaded it, turning to face Xipa and Fletcher. The entire front of his poncho was soaked with blue blood, torn to shreds.

“Gustave!” Xipa exclaimed, hurrying over to his side. She wanted to help him, to support him as he limped along, but she probably weighed as much as one of his fists. “How badly are you hurt?”

Less hurt than insect,” he huffed, doubling over as his laughter exacerbated his injuries. His eyes were bloodshot, making them look blue, probably irritated by the remnants of the chemicals in the air.

“Put your hood back on,” Fletcher ordered, waving them to the back of the store. “We have to get out of here before the whole fucking building burns down, or the fire will get us before the rest of those Drones finish the job. Come on!”

Gustave stumbled towards him, Xipa sticking by his side, keeping her PDW trained on the breach. She almost couldn’t believe what she had just witnessed, but she would have time to be shocked later.

“Bluejay, sitrep!” Fletcher barked into his radio as he made it out into the alley. He and Xipa had to get out of Gustave’s way as he made his own door, knocking a sizable hole in the wall. “I think we’ve provided all the distraction we can.”

“We encountered a little resistance inside the building, but nothing that a pheromone grenade couldn’t take care of,” he replied. “The survivors are safe, and I think Miqi is fixing the bomb. I don’t really know because I can’t talk to her, but she’s doing something with a fuse.”

“We have to pull out, so get to a safe distance as soon as you set that thing to go off,” Fletcher said as he led Xipa and Gustave down the overgrown passage.

“Well, she just lit the fuse and held up some feathers, but I have no context for what that means. You should probably start running.”

Xipa hurried down the alley beside Gustave and Fletcher, pushing through the waist-high weeds that had claimed it. After a moment, she heard the hiss of static in her helmet, Miqi putting through a call on her primitive radio.

“I just set the fuse,” she panted – it sounded like she was running. “We have four minutes, so get as far away as you can!”

“How big is this explosion going to be?” Xipa asked, hopping over a pile of lichen-covered rubble.

“Big enough that you probably don’t want to be in the same block when it goes off,” she replied. “Stay away from windows, too. It’s going to be violent.”

“The flock?” Xipa added, skidding around a corner as she tried to match pace with her larger companions.

“All safe,” Miqi replied. “Just worry about yourself for the moment.”

“It’s going to be big!” Xipa said, switching to English for Fletcher’s benefit. “We have four minutes to get as far away as we can.”

Seeing that she was starting to lag behind, Fletcher paused to let her catch up, then gestured over his shoulder with a prosthetic thumb. She leapt up onto his back, gripping the straps of his chest rig. Her tiny frame was no heavier than his backpack had been. Gustave lumbered along beside them as they made for cover, Xipa watching the clock in the corner of her HUD.

“There!” Fletcher said, pointing to a derelict truck trailer that was jackknifed across the road.

“Why not a building?” Xipa asked.

“I’m not gonna trust bombed-out restaurants that have been left to rot for thirty years to withstand the force of a shockwave,” he panted. “The further away we are from anything that can come down on our heads, the better.”

They dove behind the old truck, Gustave crouching down to get as much of his massive frame behind cover as he could. He was still bleeding profusely, the entire front of his tattered poncho soaked with blue blood, the scent of copper on the air. If only Ruza were here – he’d know what to do.

“Thirty seconds,” Xipa warned, putting her back to one of the deflated tires.

“I got a pretty good view of the blast zone from here,” Bluejay said over the radio. Xipa opened his feed on her HUD, seeing that he was standing on top of a structure maybe half a kilometer from the besieged building. He could move fast on those wings when he needed to. Xipa could see the collapsed shop front where they had staged their distraction, Drones swarming through the rubble. Further down the street, the tank was still working at the tower block, a flash of green light drawing her attention as it fired into the third floor. There were more Drones surrounding it, apparently still under the impression that there were people inside. Behind them, the rest of the Bug army was starting to catch up, like a red tide flooding into the city.

“Don’t expose yourself, Bluejay!” Fletcher warned. “Watching an explosion isn’t worth getting decapitated by a flying breeze block.”

“I’m safe here, boss,” he insisted. “Someone has to confirm the kill.”

“Five, four, three,” Xipa began as she covered her helmeted head with her hands. “Two, one…”

On Bluejay’s feed, the ground lifted. It looked like someone had inflated a giant balloon beneath the street, what must have been thousands of tons of asphalt and carbcrete tossed high into the air with the ease of a child throwing a handful of sand. The tower block that had withstood a barrage of cannon fire was suddenly gone, disintegrated, turned into a cloud of airborne dust. A split second later, orange flame erupted, a burning fireball engulfing the surrounding area in a secondary blast that was far more violent than the first. Hundreds of Drones – even the tank – vanished in the blink of an eye, a spherical shockwave expanding rapidly like a bubble-shaped cloud. Every window in a ten-block radius was turned to shrapnel, Xipa feeling the ground shake with the power of a small earthquake. The shockwave reached them, the force of the blast crashing over them like a tide, slamming into the other side of the truck trailer. It was enough to lift it off its wheels, Xipa feeling a pang of alarm as it began to list. Before she could scurry away, Gustave put his shoulder to it, forcing it back into place with a grunt.

She turned her attention back to Bluejay’s feed, watching a dark mushroom cloud rise high over the city. The entire block was decimated, the nearby buildings reduced to rubble, a gaping crater that exposed the sewers beneath the road now taking the place that had once been occupied by the tower.

“That’ll do it!” Bluejay cackled. “And they thought that shelling was going to be an issue.”

“Is everyone okay?” Fletcher asked. “Xipa, Gustave?”

“We’re fine,” she replied, switching over to Miqi’s frequency. “Miqi, are you alright?”

“We’re all safe and sound,” she replied, her voice distorted. “We took refuge in a lounge. Your insect friend flew away, though.”

“He was watching the explosion,” Xipa clarified. “It was quite impressive.”

“Yeah, several barrels of ammonium nitrate will do that,” she chuckled. “This flock is going to head to position three and set up the next explosive. It’s on our way, so we should escort them there. We’ll be well ahead of the insects, so we shouldn’t encounter any issues.”

“Understood,” Xipa replied. “Let’s meet up nearby. Just send me the coordinates.”

“Hey, Xipa,” Bluejay interjected. “That column of Bugs has reached the other side of the crater, and they’re trying to find a way around. Looks like we missed them by only a few minutes. It’s gonna take them a while, but I have a bead on them, and they’re moving in a conveniently straight line.”

“What’s your plan?” she asked.

“If you want to give that CAS flight of yours something to shoot at, these guys are fish in a barrel – or rather Bugs in a street.”

“Might as well,” she replied, starting to tap at her computer. “It’s not like a few strafing runs will do any more damage than that explosion. Ensi hailing Magenta, come in.”

“Reading you, Ensi,” one of the pilots replied. “Awaiting your consensus.”

“I have another target for you,” she explained. “Follow the same UNN IFF beacon that you did before – he’s painting new targets for you. I think a few strafing runs should make them think twice about creating traffic jams.”

“Understood, Ensi. Stand by.”

She stepped out from behind the truck, scanning the sky for the pair of black arrowheads. They were heading in from the outskirts of the city, locked in a tight formation, vortices streaming from their wingtips. They roared overhead, moving deeper into the city before banking, performing a high-G turn in perfect synchronization that lined them up with the street.

From Bluejay’s point of view, she watched them drop low over the rooftops, the covers on their nose guns opening up to reveal the rotary barrels beneath. Smoke poured from them, the sound of the gunfire delayed, a noise like a buzzsaw echoing between the buildings. The column of Bugs was lined up along the perfectly straight road, defenseless without their anti-air, boxed in by the surrounding structures. They couldn’t have hoped for a juicier target.

Streams of HE shells cut a swathe through the enemy lines, leaving trails of smoking craters in the asphalt, the second bomber starting its run shortly after the first. Drones were vaporized by the dozen, tanks collapsing with bloody craters in their hulls, the survivors scurrying for the cover of the nearby buildings.

“That should buy your people some extra time,” Xipa said, hearing Miqi’s laughter on the other end.

“Best gift anyone ever got me. Come on,” she added, speaking to someone in the background. “Get your gear, and let’s move. We still have work to do before this day is through.”


The two teams met up further down the street, Miqi appearing from a side alley with a group of survivors in tow, Bluejay flitting above their heads. They looked a little shaken from their experience but none the worse for wear.

“What the hell happened to you, big guy?” Bluejay asked as he rushed to Gustave’s side.

Kept circle safe,” Gustave rumbled. He seemed weaker than usual, but he was still conscious and mobile. Xipa knew nothing of Krell’nay physiology save for the fact that they were uncommonly durable, and as much blood as he seemed to have lost, someone of his size probably had a lot of it.

“You should see the other guy,” Fletcher added.

“We have to move quickly,” Miqi said, turning to look back at the mushroom cloud some half kilometer behind them. “We might have slowed the insects, but they will not be stopped so easily.”

A pair of loud cracks distracted them – the report of an aircraft breaking the sound barrier. Xipa looked to the sky, seeing a pair of objects heading their way. As they drew closer, she recognized their shape, along with the flashing color panels that ran down their noses. These were two of the dropships that she had called in from the Vengeance. Unlike UNN dropships, these were spaceplanes, holdovers from before first contact when her people had relied on less efficient engines to get them to and from orbit. While upgraded and retrofitted, these models still sported that same delta-wing design, the bottoms of their twenty-meter-long hulls covered with blackened heat tiles. They were camouflaged in the traditional Navy blue and grey, the panels on their rounded noses flashing warning lights as they descended towards the street. Flames belched from thrusters along their bellies as they slowed to a hover, one of the doors on the near side of the lead vehicle sliding open to reveal a gunner wielding a cannon that was mounted on a flexible gimbal. She began to fire over their heads at the Bugs in the distance, sending a stream of tungsten slugs downrange, the coils on her barrel starting to glow red-hot.

The first held position maybe thirty meters off the ground as the second dropship extended its wheeled landing gear, touching down in the middle of the road. The troop ramp at the rear descended, a squad of twenty-four Commandos piling out onto the asphalt, quickly securing the perimeter. Xipa heard the sound of an engine, distinct from the roaring of the thrusters, watching as a pair of Gue’tra light scout vehicles drove down the ramp. They made their way over to the team, their suspension bouncing on the pocked road, skidding to a halt nearby.

A trio of helmeted figures hopped down from the passenger bed of one of the little trucks, flashing their suit panels in a crimson salute.

“Ensi,” one of them began, popping open her visor to reveal her scaly face. “We came as soon as we could. Looks like we missed the fight,” she added, glancing at the mushroom cloud that was casting a shadow over the city.

“Commander Tela, I’m glad to see you,” Xipa replied with a flutter of relief. Tela’xol’vati was a member of one of the highest-ranked flocks in the Valbaran military – a veteran of the Battle of Valbara. She was one of the people who Xipa had hand-picked to make up her personal guard aboard the Vengeance. If she could ever convince the Consensus, Tela’s flock would also head the creation of Valbara’s first special forces unit. She couldn’t have hoped for anyone more capable.

“You weren’t lying,” Miqi said, sidling up beside Xipa to appraise the newcomers. “You really do have an army at your back.”

“How is the evacuation progressing?” Xipa asked.

“UNN dropships and landers have begun to set down in the old spaceport,” Tela replied. “We’re lending a hand where we can, but we don’t have the number of ships that they do. There are a lot of civilians filtering in, and we’re just trying to get them inside a secure perimeter right now before we start lifting them off the ground.”

“Good,” Xipa sighed, giving her a relieved flash of green from her suit panels. “I have a new assignment for you, Tela. I want one of your Commando teams to escort this flock of survivors to their next objective and make sure that they arrive at the spaceport safe and sound. They have one more explosive left to arm. They know what they’re doing, so just follow them and keep them alive.”

“Yes, Ensi,” Tela replied with a salute of red. “I will see to it personally.”

“My team and I will take the empty dropship back to the spaceport, where I will help to oversee the evacuation. Several Bug armies are making inroads into the city, and while we’ve been able to delay and distract them, they will reach the spaceport eventually. We need to get as many people off the ground as possible before that happens.”

“The Bugs won’t touch a feather on their heads,” Tela said with a determined pulse of crimson. She called to her people, relaying Xipa’s instructions, organizing everyone into their flocks. The hovering dropship began to descend, the Gue’tra transports driving out of its way as its engines kicked up dust.

“Looks like we’re flying back,” Xipa added, turning to her companions. “Miqi, you should come with us. The flock will be in very capable hands.”

“I think we’ve done all we can here,” she replied with an affirmative flutter. “The rest of my people need me. Is the big one going to fit in one of those ships?” she asked, gesturing to Gustave with a feather sheath.

“He can’t weigh any more than a tankette,” Xipa replied with a shrug.

The squad of survivors that they had rescued split off from the rest of the group, heading over to where Tela was waiting beside a row of transports. The vehicles would hopefully buy them a little more time – they were small and nimble enough to make it through the streets.

Xipa and Miqi led their teams into the idling dropship, climbing up the ramp and into the troop bay. The twenty-meter-long craft could seat twenty-four Commandos and carry up to four vehicles that were secured in the aisle between the crash couches. It was spacious by Valbara’nay standards, but Fletcher and Gustave had to duck to avoid hitting their heads on the ceiling. Unlike UNN dropships, these were not designed with Coalition troops in mind. Miqi and her flock sat down, figuring out the harnesses after a few moments of fumbling, Bluejay doing the same. Fletcher had to grip a handhold on the ceiling, as the seats were too small for him, while Gustave stretched out in the space usually occupied by the tanks. He seemed weakened by his blood loss, but he stubbornly remained conscious.

As the vessels rose off the ground, Miqi peered out of one of the small portholes, Xipa joining her as they watched the ruined city pass by beneath them.

“That’s my home,” Miqi mused, pressing her snout against the glass. Her flock did the same, watching the strange scene, their feathers fluttering with awe. “I’ve…never seen it from the air like this. The closest thing was when I climbed that tower…”

“You’ll get to see Kerguela from space soon,” Xipa replied. “It’s spectacular.”

“My feet won’t leave the ground until every last one of my people is on those ships,” she replied.

“First in, last out, as the Earth’nay say,” Xipa chuckled. “I can respect that.”

The city was a warzone, half a dozen towering pillars of smoke rising above the jagged skyline. From such a height, Xipa could make out a few of the Bug columns in the distance, like red tendrils that were probing the streets for weaknesses. Time was shorter than she had anticipated. Even with one more line of explosive boobytraps awaiting the Bugs, they were relentless, overcoming the obstacles that were put in front of them with alarming efficiency. It reminded her of the social insects that she used to play with in her flock’s garden as a child – how she would place pebbles in their path, then marvel at their ability to find a way around them. It was impressive behavior for such tiny, simple creatures, but it was a terrifying quality in the Betelgeusians.

She couldn’t see the spaceport ahead of them until they began to circle around it, as the cockpit was isolated from the troop bay. She felt a stab of apprehension in her belly as the all-too-familiar sight came into view. The long runways, the shuttle hangars, the wall that surrounded the complex – it was identical to the spaceport where she had staged her final stand. Instead of massive spaceplanes, the runways now played host to alien vessels. There were a dozen UNN dropships that she could see, Marines and auxiliaries piling out of their open troop ramps. There were large, bulky landers that were carrying vehicles, Kodiak tanks and Puma IFVs sliding out of their bays on trolleys. Six artillery pieces had already taken up position over in one corner of the spaceport, their long railgun barrels aimed into the sky, ready to rain death on anything that drew their ire. She could see a few Valbara’nay dropships among the rest, easily identifiable due to their more conventional shape and their blue camo. There must have been two or three hundred troops already on the ground, moving to secure the perimeter wall. More ships were coming down, belching plumes of flame as they aimed for empty landing spots.

It seemed that the survivors were just starting to arrive, a column of refugees flanked by armed guards slowly making their way across rolling hills that had once hidden the airport from view, now overgrown with stray trees and native weeds. Valbara’nay weren’t very fast on their feet, especially over large distances, and there were a lot of children and elderly people slowing them down. Many of the fighting-aged survivors were operating in the city, so there were a little less than a thousand of them here, but it was still a great many people to handle at once. The first flocks were just starting to arrive at the main entrance to the port, Marines and Commandos waving them inside.

“Nice to see the boys in blue,” Fletcher said, peering over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Xipa, we’ve got this in the bag.”

“It’s going to come down to the wire,” Xipa replied, shaking her head. “That’s a lot of people to filter through a very small gate. Most would usually arrive via maglev terminal – that entrance was never intended to handle so many at once. Worse, the ships can’t land outside the port, not with all of those trees and hills. Curse our compulsion to make everything look pretty,” she hissed.

“We’ll manage,” Fletcher insisted, but she couldn’t shake that sinking feeling.

The pilot brought their dropship down to the end of one of the runways, everyone piling out, the backwash from the engines whipping at their clothes.

“Last time we did this, we set up a temporary command station in one of the hangars,” Xipa said as her sheaths waved in the wind. “We should probably head down there.”

“Last time?” Fletcher asked, jogging along beside her.

“This is pretty much exactly what the evacuation of Kerguela looked like,” she replied. “I’m hoping this do-over is going to go a little more smoothly.”

They made their way down the long runway, weaving between parked dropships and idling tanks, Xipa wearing herself out. As exhausted as she was, she didn’t want to be carried by the aliens in the presence of the people she was supposed to be commanding. It was a bad look.

As she had expected, they arrived at one of the old hangars to find a group of people standing around a portable projector, examining a hologram of the city. They were cast in the shadow of an old Valbara’nay shuttle, a massive spaceplane that was a relic of another time, its belly pocked with holes created by heat tiles that must have fallen off over the decades.

The three Ensis were there, along with a couple of guards and a flock from Xipa’s fleet. They were speaking with an Earth’nay whose camouflaged pressure suit was decorated with ribbons and badges that denoted his high rank, aided by an interpreter. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, exposing his weathered face, his hair and short beard streaked with silver in a way that Xipa understood denoted age in his kind.

“Miqi, Ensi,” the scarred Ensi said as she turned to greet them. “I’m glad to see that you’re still alive. I have to say – we were skeptical about the support that you promised us, but you have been true to your word.”

“Likewise,” Xipa replied, pausing to catch her breath. “How is the evacuation progressing?”

“Behind schedule,” the Ensi replied. “We need to hurry.”

“You must be Lieutenant Commander Fletcher,” the Earth’nay began. “My name is Colonel Marek. I command the Marine regiments stationed aboard the Wizna. Admiral Vos has put me in charge of overseeing the evacuation. Ensi,” he added, nodding to Xipa. “I have orders to defer to you two.”

“How many ships do you have, Colonel?” Fletcher asked as he made his way over to inspect the hologram.

“Less than we need,” he replied, gesturing to the little red dots that were displayed on the shimmering image. Each one was numbered, denoting different vessels, another wave of them descending from the sky as they watched. “It’s going to take us a few trips. We’ve decided to carry some of the refugees back to the assault carrier in the empty landers. It’s a temporary measure, but it should allow us to speed up the process a little. It means that our troops will have to remain on the ground until there are ships available to recover them, but we can hold this port.”

“Good thinking,” Fletcher said. “We have Valbaran saboteurs still operating in the field. If I can give you their radio frequencies, and if you can get your hands on some interpreters, they’d appreciate some support. Those Avalanches will do a lot of good if they can help slow the Bugs down. If you can spare any dropships to extract them when they’re done setting their charges, even better.”

“I suppose they’re responsible for the explosions we’ve been seeing?” Marek asked. “Resourceful little creatures.”

“Gustave!” Fletcher exclaimed, turning to see the giant reptile standing behind him. He was drenched in azure blood, droplets of it falling to the ground beneath him. “What the hell are you still doing standing around? Go find a medic – you’ve done enough.”

Circle is not yet safe,” he replied stubbornly, but Fletcher wasn’t having any of it.

“Go get fixed up. That’s an order.”

“I’ll have my people take care of him,” Marek added, pausing to make the call. “That Krell looks like minced beef – I don’t know what you put him through.”

“He won a fight with a Warrior, to make a long story short,” Fletcher replied. “I’ll send you the video when this is all over.”

Two Marines wearing white shoulder pads that identified them as medics entered the hangar, guiding the reluctant Krell outside, where they were operating a temporary treatment center out of a medivac shuttle. They sat him down at the top of the ramp, the shuttle’s landing gear visibly sagging under his weight, then started to take off his tattered poncho. His scaly underside was crisscrossed with cuts and stab wounds, yellow fat visible through the blue blood in places, the sight of it sending a flutter of purple through Xipa’s feathers. The medics began to treat the wounds with antiseptic foam and adhesive pads that could constrict to help keep the cuts closed, one of the men leaning away in alarm as Gustave expressed his displeasure through an intimidating rumble.

“How can we help, Colonel?” Bluejay asked.

“There are two bottlenecks in our operation right now,” Marek replied, glancing at the Jarilan’s missing lower arm before turning his attention back to the map. “The first is getting those refugees inside the compound, and the second is getting them off the ground. We’re already running at full capacity, so there’s not much more that we can do other than try to buy ourselves more time.”

“That old gate was never intended to process so many people at once,” Xipa explained, gesturing to the wavering hologram. “When it was functioning, passengers would arrive primarily by rail or road. The spaceport is easily defensible, but that won’t help us if everyone is outside when the Bugs catch up with us. I suggest making some new holes in the wall – maybe one or two here, and here. It isn’t reinforced, so you could probably just drive one of your tanks straight through.”

“We should move some teams outside the wall to create a secure perimeter around the caravan,” Fletcher added, outlining a circle on the map with a prosthetic finger. “We need a buffer between the refugees and the Bugs, just in case.”

“Do you think they could cover that much ground so quickly?” the colonel asked, raising a bushy eyebrow skeptically.

“Better safe than sorry,” Fletcher replied with a shrug.

“I’ll see that it gets done,” Marek replied with a nod. “You two have been down here for days, as I understand it, and you know the lay of the land. Do you need a weapon, Lieutenant?” he added as he glanced at Fletcher’s laser rifle.

“This old thing has been serving me just fine, thanks,” Fletcher replied as he tapped the blocky housing of the gun.

“We’re sending up spotter drones up to keep tabs on the Bug convoys and to direct artillery fire,” Marek added as he turned his attention back to the map. “Once we get in touch with those saboteurs, we can start shelling. It should help hold the enemy up a while longer.”

“Those flocks will be on their way back here pretty soon,” Fletcher said. “We need to hold this position until everyone is accounted for. As the Ensi suggested, if you can get out there and give them a lift, that’ll expedite the process. I have a man still out in the field, too. Maybe you can locate his IFF tag.”

“We’re short on aircraft, but I’ll see what I can do,” the colonel replied.

“I think the best place for us is outside the wall, helping those refugees get to the gate,” Xipa suggested. “There are a lot of flocks with young children, a lot of elderly people. I need a team of Commandos,” she continued, turning to one of the pressure suit-clad Valbara’nay nearby. The woman flashed her a salute, then hurried out of the hangar.

“My flock and I are going with you,” Miqi added after a brief translation. “These are our kin, and we’re not leaving until they’re all safe. Ensis,” she continued, bowing her head in the direction of her three elders. “You should help keep the people calm and organized. I know that everyone will feel safer if they can see that you’re overseeing the evacuation.”

“We will keep the peace,” the scarred Ensi replied. “This is a scary situation for everyone, and a panic could be lethal.”

“If you have any Marines to spare, I’d appreciate the help,” Fletcher added as he turned to the colonel.

“I can assign you a squad,” Marek replied with a nod. “Just contact me if you need anything else, and I’ll get it to you if I’m able.”

Fletcher tilted his helmet appreciatively, then headed out of the hangar, Xipa and Bluejay flanking him as Miqi’s flock followed behind.

“This is it,” he said, checking the charge on his laser rifle as he led them past the rows of idling dropships. “Everything we’ve worked for, the reason we came down here. All we have to do now is keep these people safe until Marek can get them into orbit.”

There was a loud crack above their heads as another trio of landers burned through the atmosphere above the port, their four downward-facing engines flaring as they decelerated. Tanks and IFVs were driving back and forth, unloading from their landers, organizing into units on the runways. There were people everywhere, Marines and Commandos moving in tight formation, carrying supplies and weapons between them.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Miqi muttered, watching a seventy-ton tank roll past. “That thing is the size of a dwelling. Maybe we really do have a chance.”

A squad of twelve armored Marines ran over to them, their leader stopping to salute Fletcher.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the man began, his face inscrutable behind his opaque visor. “Sergeant Nowak, reporting. Colonel Marek has assigned us to your team.”

“Good, Sergeant,” Fletcher replied. “Fall in. We’re going to be doing some humanitarian work.”

“Sir!” he barked with another salute, ordering his men to follow behind them.

As they made their way between the dropships, the main gate came into view. Xipa felt her guts tie into a knot at the sight of it, her perfect recall bringing her right back to the fall of the colony, to the desperate last stand against the overwhelming insect hordes. It was still fresh in her mind, scarring her memories just as her burns disfigured her face. This time, it was going to be different. This time, they were going to save everyone.

“Nimi, Chala, Noyo…are you watching?” she whispered into her helmet.

The first wave of refugees was already arriving, exhausted fathers clutching their children tightly as they filtered through the opening, flocks carrying all of their worldly possessions on their backs being directed to waiting dropships by waving Marines. The UNN were wasting no time, hurrying the civilians directly into the bays of the nearest vessels, showing them how to strap into the oversized seats. Commandos were hovering nearby, helping to interpret, reassuring the bewildered refugees that they were in safe hands. They seemed to be prioritizing fathers and children, corralling the rest into smaller groups to await assignment to other vessels. It was already becoming a bit of a logistical nightmare. Flocks were being split apart, flutters of sorrowful blue and worried purple dominating the scene as families said tearful goodbyes, not knowing if or when they might see their loved ones again.

Xipa watched a flock of four women fawn over their spouse and a pair of young children as a Marine and a Commando did their best to hurry them along, struggling to find a balance between respect and urgency. They brushed their snouts together in hurried, desperate shows of affection, trying to reassure the crying children in spite of the telltale purple in their feathers. Eventually, they were pried apart, the forlorn women watching as their husband was led up a ramp into one of the dropships.

“Will they be reunited in space?” Miqi asked, turning her head to watch the scene as they passed by.

“They’ll probably be sent to different ships – whichever ones can accommodate them,” Xipa replied. “I’ll see to it that all of the flocks are reunited once they’re safe. You have my word.”

The Marines at the entrance were holding one of the slatted gates open, funneling the caravan through the other. It further limited the flow of civilians, but it ensured that personnel could still get in and out of the port without getting stuck in a bottleneck. As Fletcher made his way over to the exit, a flock of Commandos intercepted them, the six women giving Xipa a red salute.

“Ensi, we have orders to accompany you.”

“Follow us,” she replied. “We need to protect these people while they get inside the port.”

“Bluejay, we could use a bird’s-eye view of the situation,” Fletcher added with a nod to the Jarilan. “I want to see exactly what we’re dealing with here.”

“You got it,” he said, opening his wing cases. He flitted up into the air, heading over the wall, a few of the nearby Marines pausing to watch him. Xipa tapped into his feed, seeing the overgrown hills from his point of view as he soared above them, patches of autumn forest peppering the landscape. The caravan stretched off into the distance, three or four people wide in places, meandering through the rough terrain. This place had been abandoned to nature decades prior, and the dense underbrush wasn’t doing them any favors.

“So far, so good,” Fletcher mused. “None of them are panicking, nobody is being left behind. I’ve seen crowds more unruly than this at department store sales.”

“That might not last if the Bugs catch up to us,” Xipa replied. “Maintaining calm is going to be very important, or we risk ending up with a stampede on our hands.”

They made their way through the narrow exit, heading out into the hills, the off-white wall looming behind them. The refugees glanced up at them as they passed by, recognition sparking in a few of their faces, the sight of Miqi visibly reassuring them. They looked ready to drop. Valbara’nay weren’t designed for cross-country hikes like this – they didn’t have the stamina for it.

There was a loud crashing sound that startled a few of the nearby civilians, a baby that couldn’t have been more than a week out of the incubator burying its face in its father’s coat. Xipa spun around just in time to see a tank plow through the wall maybe twenty meters to the right of the entrance, chunks of shattered carbcrete bouncing off its sloped hull, the structure collapsing around it. The vehicle had an impressive plow mounted at the front, its tracks digging into the ground for traction as it pushed the debris aside. It drove out of the way as more tanks and troop carriers filed through the breach behind it, the vehicles spreading out into the sparse forest. A squad of Commandos in camouflaged pressure suits followed after them, calling to the refugees, guiding them over to the new opening. Some of them began to split off from the main caravan, forming a second line.

“Looks like Marek is taking your advice,” Fletcher said. “Alright, Marines! Let’s head to the back of the line and help those stragglers catch up.”

An explosion suddenly shook the ground, a deafening boom lagging a few seconds behind it, the team stopping in their tracks. Cries of alarm emanated from the caravan, a few parents sweeping their children off the grass, bundling them up protectively in a bid to comfort them. Xipa looked to the horizon, seeing a mushroom cloud rising above the jagged skyscrapers. There was another blast, then another, the branches of the nearby trees swaying as the shockwave reached them. It was greatly diminished by distance, but Xipa could still feel it resonate in her hollow bones.

“It’s no cause for concern!” she yelled, the speakers on her helmet amplifying her voice as she attempted to reassure the refugees. “Those are Miqi’s bombs – they’re blocking the path of the insects.”

The group hurried towards the back of the long line, passing hundreds of exhausted Valbara’nay as they went. Even for the Earth’nay, the terrain made it hard going, the Marines wading through waist-high undergrowth and sliding on grassy hills. The city was always visible on the horizon, the skyscrapers standing stark and white against the aurora-choked sky.

Finally, they reached the end of the caravan, where they found a handful of flocks lagging behind the main group. There were a couple of pregnant women, some elderly people who couldn’t keep up, and some people with injuries that weren’t serious enough to warrant a medivac. A group of the younger and healthier refugees were helping them along, and some of the armed guards had held back to protect them, but they were just too slow to keep up. It seemed that all of the children had been moved to the front of the caravan, but they could be carried by the adults with relative ease.

“Alright, start moving the old-timers,” Fletcher ordered. The Marines let their weapons hang from their slings, lifting the elderly Valbara’nay off the ground, Xipa giving the confused civilians hurried explanations. “Grab that one with the bad leg, too. Xipa, what are we doing about the pregnant ones?”

“We’ll help them along,” she replied, walking over to a woman with a swollen belly who was being guided by her flock. She gestured to one of the Commandos, and the pair supported the expectant mother beneath the arms, helping her through the rough underbrush. “I don’t want to risk them falling.”

“Come on, elders!” Miqi barked, her flock following behind her as she took an old man by the hand. “You survived one invasion, and so help me, you’ll survive a second!”

“I wish we could get an IFV through here, maybe land a shuttle,” Fletcher grunted as he hefted an old woman with faded feathers off the grass. “The forest is way too dense, and these hills are a nightmare to navigate.”

“Our Gue’tra transports might be able to get through,” Xipa suggested, helping her pregnant charge over an exposed root.

“Those little golf carts?” Fletcher asked.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Let me get in touch with the Commandos at the port and see if they have any to spare.” After a brief call, she gave him a nod. “They’re sending us three. That should be enough to get the most vulnerable civilians to the port quickly.”

“We need to stay with these people until they reach the gate,” Fletcher replied.

“Looks like we’re making good progress,” Bluejay announced, Xipa glancing up to see him hovering high above the canopy. “I’d say maybe twenty percent of the caravan has made it inside the walls. The colonel has made some more holes, and that seems to be helping speed up the process. We’ve got vehicles forming a perimeter outside.”

“I guess we’ll just keep this up until everyone is evacuated,” Fletcher continued. “We find people who are struggling at the back, and we drive them to the front.”

A series of loud bangs echoed across the city, firing off in quick succession. A few moments later, explosions sounded in the distance, a continuous barrage beginning.

“Sounds like Miqi’s people are spotting for the Avalanches,” Fletcher mused. “That means the flyboys must know where they are, too.”

Xipa relayed his guess to Miqi, who spent a couple of minutes talking over her little radio.

“Confirmed,” she announced, a flutter of green letting Xipa know that she was relieved to hear from her people. “My teams set off the last of their explosives, and they’re holding position to direct the alien artillery while they await evac.”

“Good, the UNN must have found enough spare shuttles to extract them,” Xipa said. “I’m sure that’s Tela’s doing – she could argue the feathers off a Teth’rak.”

“I can’t believe this harebrained plan is actually coming together,” Fletcher chuckled, the old woman bobbing up and down in his arms as he waded through the brush.

“Planning is what Valbara’nay do best,” Xipa replied with a grin. “I’ve grown to appreciate the spontaneity of the Earth’nay, though,” she added with a flash of pink.

“I’ll bet,” Fletcher chuckled, the implication not lost on him.

“If you two lovebirds are done playing footsie, we have a problem!” Bluejay warned.

“What’s wrong?” Fletcher demanded, his tone becoming serious again.

Xipa opened up Bluejay’s feed with a tap at the side of her helmet, seeing a view of the treetops – a sea of red and orange that extended all the way to the edge of the city in the distance. There was a cloud in the sky, distinct from the looming pillars of dust that still lingered after the bombs. It seemed to be drawing closer…

“What the fuck is that?” Fletcher wondered.

Bluejay enhanced the magnification on his visor, taking a moment to stabilize the image. Xipa’s panels burned purple as she realized that the cloud was made up of hundreds of airborne Drones – lanky, gaunt things with gossamer wings that carried them high above the rooftops. They looked like a swarm of angry flies. These must be winged males – like Bluejay – the airborne troops of the hive. As she watched, explosions billowed far beneath them, the UNN artillery filling the streets with flame. They were hammering the advancing Bug armies, but this new threat soared above the plumes of fire, undeterred.

“Ah, shit!” Fletcher snarled. “Where the fuck did they come from?”

“The Bugs must have called in some reinforcements of their own,” Bluejay replied. “Males usually guard the Queen’s chamber, but it’s not impossible for her to engineer other winged castes. Hell, that’s what I am.”

“They really don’t want us leaving this city,” Fletcher added, switching comms channels. “Colonel, we have a situation.”

“We see them, Lieutenant,” Marek replied. “Looks like maybe five hundred bogeys closing on the port. We’re going to have to pause the evacuation flights until we can clear the sky. We can’t risk any of our craft being brought down by those things.”

“Colonel, we still have a lot of civvies out here with no cover,” Fletcher added. “There’s no way we can get any of our vehicles through this terrain – I need every man and bird you can give me out here watching the sky. Those Bugs are gonna be on us in a few minutes.”

“I’ll do what I can,” he replied. “We only have a handful of Kestrels. If we’d had more time to prepare, I might have been able to find some cupcakes, but we’ll have to make do with the guns on our vehicles.”

“Cupcakes?” Xipa asked, confused by the word.

“They’re portable CIWS guns that we use to protect our FOBs,” Fletcher explained. “They can shoot down enemy aircraft and mortars. We’re going to have to make do with whatever firepower the vehicles can bring to bear, which is a lot, but if those Bugs make it to ground…”

“They won’t be able to support us out here,” Xipa added, finishing his thought. “We have to prevent a panic – keep everyone together. If someone gets lost or separated from the caravan out here, they’ll be picked off.”

“Maybe we can use the Marines and Commandos to keep them corralled,” Fletcher said with a nod of agreement. “One group on the left side, one on the right. They can protect the civvies and keep them moving.”

“Do we have enough manpower for that?” Xipa asked skeptically.

“We’ll have to make it work. We’re short on options. Bluejay,” he added, glancing to the treetops. “Get down here before those things see you.”

The Jarilan dropped through the leafy canopy, landing gracefully on the grass nearby.

“Those critters will be in range of the port soon,” he said, his wings folding back beneath their covers. “It’s about to get loud.”

Almost as soon as he had finished the sentence, the report of railguns carried over to them, the dozens of vehicles that had made it to the ground opening up on the incoming swarm. Xipa doubted whether the tanks could elevate their cannons high enough to target the airborne insects, but every Earth’nay vehicle had some kind of secondary blister or turret that could. She only caught glimpses of what was happening through the holes in the canopy, the approaching swarm breaking up, splitting into smaller groups as they dived towards the ground in a bid to make themselves harder to hit. They were still a ways off, but the range on most of those railguns was functionally infinite.

The fresh chorus of gunfire frightened the refugees, a murmur of fear and alarm passing through their ranks, accompanied by waves of purple and yellow feathers. Xipa had to act fast if she wanted to prevent a panic. This wasn’t the first time that she’d had to deal with a panicked crowd. The initial evacuation of Kerguela had been chaotic, but she had become an Ensi since then, a leader. During the Battle of Valbara, she had ordered her constituents to their shelters, and she had directed the defense of the city herself. If she could manage that situation, then she could manage this one.

She released the pregnant woman for a moment, then reached up to slide off her helmet, shaking out her feather sheaths. Her headdress extended with a wave of authoritative crimson, Xipa raising her voice to get the attention of the nearby refugees.

“Stay calm and keep moving!” she shouted, her voice barely rising above the gunfire. “Stay together, and keep your flocks in reach! There are more Coalition troops on the way, and they won’t let anything happen to you!”

The terrified civilians closed ranks, but they didn’t flee. With a sigh of relief, Xipa slid her helmet back on, hearing a hiss as it sealed to her suit. The sound of engines caught her attention, and she turned to see that the three Gue’tra buggies had finally arrived. They were packed with Commandos who leapt out to take up positions nearby, forming a cordon between the trees, communicating with rapid color flashes.

“Let’s get the stragglers into the trucks,” Fletcher said, carrying his elderly charge over to the nearest vehicle. He set her down gingerly on one of the seats in the bed, the woman giving him a grateful feather flutter. The rest of their ragtag group followed suit, quickly filling the three buggies. Xipa helped the pregnant woman into the passenger seat of the lead vehicle, the driver leaning over to secure her harness, wary of tightening the straps across her stomach.

“I think that’s all the seats we have,” Bluejay announced as he lifted a man with a bandaged leg into a buggy. He was remarkably strong for someone who wasn’t much larger than a Valbara’nay. “Looks like we got all the problem cases. The rest will have to return to the caravan until the buggies can make a round trip.”

“Go, go!” Xipa ordered as she pounded on the hull of the nearest vehicle. The driver turned the wheel, the little buggy bouncing on its suspension as it drove off into the undergrowth, weaving through the trees. The other two followed behind it, Xipa allowing herself a flash of green as she watched them vanish into the hills.

She could see the cloud of incoming Bugs as red blips on her HUD now, the aliens dodging and weaving through the air, dropping for the cover of the trees. Their numbers had been thinned by the UNN guns, but not enough to break their charge.

“I need a spare magazine!” she barked, one of the nearby Commandos tossing her one. She snatched it out of the air, stowing it on her chest rig, then readied her PDW. She remembered how afraid she had been during her first real taste of combat, and was somewhat alarmed to realize how routine this was all starting to feel. Whether that was a good or a bad thing, she couldn’t say, but at least her hands weren’t shaking anymore.

The backup that Colonel Marek had sent was starting to arrive, the IFF tags of some two dozen Marines popping up on Xipa’s system as they came into range. There were almost as many Commandos, too, one of them patching through to her comms to request instructions.

“Spread out along the caravan and keep the civilians safe at all costs,” Xipa replied. “Don’t let them stop – they need to keep moving towards the gate. The longer they spend out here, the more vulnerable they’ll be.”

“Incoming on the left side, Marines!” Fletcher said as he addressed the new squads. “I want you covering those civvies! Let’s keep the heat off them and get them inside the perimeter!”

The Earth’nay troops took cover behind the trees, training their weapons in the direction of the incoming targets, the Commandos and what guards Miqi could muster supporting them. They were spread thin along the caravan, but it would have to be enough. Xipa watched as the red blips on her HUD dropped off the feed, the surviving Bugs diving into the forest, out of sight of the vehicles at the port. The sound of gunfire going silent would usually signal an end to the fighting, but it only filled her with dread now.

She peered into the trees, sunlight creating dappled pools where it penetrated the dense canopy, making the shade seem all the murkier. Fletcher and Bluejay stuck by her side, their weapons leveled, the only sound coming from the far-off impact of artillery shells and the frightened murmuring of the nearby refugees.

“Where are they?” Miqi muttered, scanning the forest with her plasma rifle. “They should have reached us by now.”

“Contact!” one of the Marines announced, his targeting data appearing on Xipa’s visor a moment later. She could see the red outline of a Bug racing through the trees, its posture low, somehow bestial. Every few paces, it would use its lanky forelimbs to aid in locomotion, transitioning between a four-legged and two-legged gait at random. The Marine fired on it, dropping the thing, the Bug skidding to a stop in the dirt.

“I dunno what the plan was,” Fletcher muttered. “Why was it running like a chimp?”

“There was something off about that one,” Bluejay added warily. “It didn’t move like the other Drones we’ve encountered…”

“More incoming!” one of the Commandos warned, reports of contacts pouring in from multiple points down the line. Xipa trained her XMR on one of the signals, seeing a winged Drone charging towards them, weaving between the trees. Like the first one, it kept a low posture that made it hard to pick out in the undergrowth, scrabbling along with its upper arms. Its limbs were thin and spindly when compared to the other Drones that she had seen, its body lighter, perhaps better suited to flight. It had the same multi-eyed helmet as the rest, but there was a segmented tube extending from where its mandibles would have been, making it look like it was wearing a gas mask. It had no rifle, she realized. More of the things burst out of the bushes, racing towards the column, some of them drawing chitin blades and resin pistols with their lower arms.

The defensive line opened up, a hail of tungsten slugs cutting a fiery swathe through the forest, green bolts of plasma and bright laser beams streaking through the trees. Trunks exploded in showers of splinters, bushes caught fire, molten metal splattering the leaves. Fletcher joined them, struggling to keep his beam trained on one of the creatures, its movements erratic and unpredictable. The things ducked and bobbed, scrambling through the waist-high brush, moving with a kind of frenzied vigor. They weren’t taking cover or supporting each other like the other Drones did. There was nothing tactical about this, no suppressive fire. It almost seemed…desperate.

As suicidal as their charge had seemed, they were closing, and their numbers were swelling to the point that the defenders were having trouble keeping them back. They were within a hundred meters now, leaping over their fallen comrades, dozens – a hundred popping up on the feed. Xipa was vaguely aware of cries of dismay emanating from the civilians behind her, but she had to stay focused on the battle. If even one of those things made it through…

A few of the Drones were firing back with their pistols, pausing their mad dash to take pot shots, but they were very inaccurate. Still, some of the defenders were forced into cover, ducking behind trees as the sporadic plasma fire impacted the other sides of their trunks. With any luck, there were enough trees between the Bugs and the refugees to stop any wayward shots from reaching them.

“Push them back!” she yelled, stepping forward as she fired a burst at an airborne Drone. The thing was flying just below the treetops, weaving between the branches with remarkable agility, pushing itself off the trunks almost like it was swimming underwater. Her volley caught it in the left side, shredding its fragile wings, sending its slug-ridden body crashing to the forest floor. “Don’t let any get through!”

On her right, she saw a group of the Drones close on a Marine. The Earth’nay poured fire into them, but those that weren’t immediately felled kept coming, violently shouldering their injured comrades aside before they had even hit the ground. The Marine’s magazine ran dry, and the surviving Bugs launched themselves at him with bestial abandon before he could reload, using bursts from their gossamer wings to propel themselves through the air with greater force. They crashed into him, dragging him down into the dense foliage, one of them losing its footing to roll along the ground.

Four or five of the lanky creatures piled on top of him, their haste making them skid in the dirt, exhibiting an uncommon savagery – even for the Bugs. They made odd twitching, jerking movements as they brought their blades and claws to bear, chittering and hissing. Xipa had never heard a Bug make a noise like that before – they were usually silent. Crimson blood splashed the nearby leaves, pieces of ceramic armor tossed aside, the insects tearing their quarry apart. More Marines moved in to clear them out, the aliens not even looking up from their slaughter as they were fired on, too engrossed in the violence to notice. It was too late for the Marine – his IFF tag reported that he was already dead.

Another pack of the things charged through the trees, heading directly for Xipa’s position, flutters from their wings propelling them forward in erratic leaps and bounds. All but one were cut down as they advanced, torn to pieces by molten slugs, the sole survivor making a beeline for Bluejay. The Jarilan got off another burst as the thing neared, one of the projectiles taking a chunk out of its shoulder, but it barely seemed to notice.

The Drone stumbled into him, throwing all of its weight into a lunge, the two toppling down a grassy incline together. They rolled around, their limbs a blur as they grappled, the Drone’s chitin sword flashing as it drove the pointed tip towards Bluejay’s thorax. He managed to divert the blade, the weapon carving a deep furrow in his armor plating as it glanced off, his adversary making a noise like escaping steam as it clawed at his visor in frustration. Bluejay was heavier, clearly stronger, but the Drone was in some kind of rage.

Fletcher came to the rescue, delivering a powerful kick with one of his prosthetic legs, his boot connecting beneath the furious Drone’s chin. The blow was enough to knock its helmet askew, the tube that connected to its mouth breaking, spewing a jet of what looked like vapor into the air. Bluejay whipped out his handgun with his intact lower arm, pushing the thing off him with the upper pair as he dumped a trio of shots into its torso.

Fletcher helped him to his feet as the Drone lay twitching in the grass beside him, but something was wrong. Bluejay stumbled, a visible shudder passing through him, and he recoiled from the dead Bug like it was giving off some offensive smell. He retracted his antennae into his helmet, sealing his armor, shaking his head as though trying to dislodge something.

“Jay?” Fletcher asked, giving him a concerned glance before firing off another quick laser pulse into the forest. “Talk to me, buddy.”

“Combat pheromones,” he stammered, tapping the side of his helmet with his fist. “Those things are being pumped full of combat pheromones – that’s why they’re being so reckless. It’s driving them crazy.”

“So, what, they’re like Berserkers?” Fletcher asked.

“I dunno if they have the capacity to feel anger, but they’re wired,” he replied as he steadied himself. He stowed his sidearm, checking the ammo on his XMR. “It’s like they’re inhaling stimulants with every breath.”

“Stay with the caravan!” Xipa ordered, waving for her Commandos to back up. The refugees were making good progress, helped in no small part by the efforts of Miqi and her guards. They were helping the stragglers along, keeping the group corralled, her constant barking of orders and reassurances preventing panic from taking hold. Miqi was young, but she would make an admirable Ensi one day.

“How are we doing, Colonel?” Fletcher asked as he burned a smoldering hole through one of the crazed Drones.

“About half of the civilians are inside the walls,” Colonel Marek replied, his voice crackling in Xipa’s ear. “Keep them coming.”

The pheromone-crazed Drones were falling by the dozen, Xipa dropping an empty magazine into the undergrowth as she retreated, plucking a fresh one from her rig. Despite their losses, the Bugs were closing into close quarters, using their sheer weight of numbers to overwhelm the defenders. To her left, a Drone pounced on one of the Commandos, tearing at her camouflaged pressure suit with its claws. As it forced her to the ground, raising a serrated blade, Miqi rushed in from seemingly nowhere. She stalked through the leaves like a ghost, lowering her plasma rifle as she reached for her hip, drawing a hammer from a holster on her belt. Quick as a flash, she struck the insect in the face, the claw on her weapon piercing its helmet. Ichor splashed her clothes as she delivered another savage strike that sent it toppling over, standing over the fallen Commando protectively, her weapon dripping with alien blood.

She wrapped her tail around the Commando’s wrist, raising her rifle to fire off a burning bolt of plasma as she helped the woman to her feet, her projectile blasting a crater in another Drone’s torso. Its shell ran like melting plastic, its flesh seared charcoal-black, wisps of smoke rising from the joints in its carapace as it stumbled to the ground.

The Commando gathered herself, green scales and fresh blood visible through the tears in her suit, but she was alive. She gave Miqi a grateful flash from her suit panels, then resumed her work, the crack of her XMR resounding.

The patches of dense forest began to clear as they neared the wall, the troops picking off Drones wherever they appeared, making a fighting retreat.

“They just keep throwing themselves at us!” Fletcher growled, walking backwards as he lanced one of the charging aliens with a brilliant beam of emerald.

“I think they want to soften us up,” Bluejay added. One of the things dropped down from a nearby tree, taking them by surprise, hissing as it launched itself towards them. The Jarilan swung his XMR towards it, firing from the hip, the hail of slugs almost cutting it in half. “They’re trying to tie us down – keep us occupied until their main force can reach us!”

“Just keep moving!” Xipa said, watching her ammo counter slowly tick down as she fired. “The wall is in sight!”

Through the trees behind them, she could finally see the stained, off-white carbcrete of the spaceport. Marek had made three holes in the wall, and the refugees were pouring through, Marines and Commandos waving them along. She could see the camouflaged hulls of vehicles, UNN tanks and troop carriers forming a protective cordon where the trees gave way to open grass. Just a few hundred meters more, and they would be safe.

“Move, move!” Miqi shouted as she directed the fleeing civilians with her feathers. “The port is near!”

As exhausted as they were, the refugees began to pick up the pace, invigorated by the sight of the alien armor. More Coalition troops were moving towards them now, pushing their cordon out into the forest, joining the defenders at the rear of the caravan. All of the Drones were behind them now, pursuing their quarry with a singular purpose, bolting through the undergrowth like feral beasts. No matter how many were felled, there was always another to replace it.

“They’ve caught up to us!” Xipa panted, slamming her last magazine into her PDW. “We have to hold them here, or they’ll be able to reach the civilians!”

“Marines, fall in!” Fletcher shouted as another group of maybe twenty Earth’nay rushed in to reinforce them. Xipa noted that not all of them were Marines. Some were pilots, identifiable by their flight helmets and distinctive suits, while others wore the flak jackets of vehicle crews. The UNN were sending everyone they could spare. “Nothing gets past this line!”

They stood shoulder to shoulder between the trees, forming a wall of armor plating and magnetic coils, some of them taking a knee as they took potshots. The Commandos closed ranks with them, coordinating with flashes from their color panels, Miqi directing her guards to help. The civilians were almost clear – just a few minutes more…

A wave of bloodthirsty Drones charged down the hill towards them, their clawed feet skidding on the damp grass, the aliens stumbling through the dense brush as much as they were running. Some of them went airborne, while others used their wings to leap and dash, others dropping into a more bestial gait using their upper arms. Their spiky, red carapaces reflected the dappled light that shone through the leaves, the lenses on their helmets glinting with their erratic movements. They brandished blades and pistols, driven by something more primal than hate or anger, incapable of fear.

Her own people were not so lucky. Xipa noticed flashes of worried purple travel down the line, the incoming horde testing their resolve. She had to rally them.

“Sisters of Valbara!” she bellowed, her suit panels burning red. “You defended a planet, and you can defend this port! Hold the line!”

The purple was replaced with red, Xipa turning her one good eye on the charging Drones, pulling her XMR tight against her shoulder.

They opened up, some sixty guns firing in unison. Molten tungsten left glowing trails in the air as it tore through the Drones, shots that went wide or simply overpenetrated their targets creating splashes in the soil like tiny asteroids, throwing up clods of dirt. There were so many that they made the slope of the hill look like the surface of a pond during a rainstorm, each droplet carrying enough kinetic energy to punch through two inches of steel. The aliens were dismembered as they ran, the projectiles punching holes in them that Xipa could have poked her arm through, their limbs severed as if by invisible blades. Pieces of shattered carapace flew like shrapnel, gore and ichor spraying, lifeless bodies falling to roll down the incline.

They were joined by lasers, Fletcher and a handful of the guards employing their antique rifles to carve burning lines into the enemy ranks, flesh searing and carapace slagging under the intense heat of their emerald beams. Bolts of plasma sailed between the two battle lines, Miqi and her guards making excellent use of their captured weaponry, the resin rifles accelerating burning gas down their magnetic rails. They conveyed a surprising amount of kinetic energy, enough to knock the Drones off their feet, the searing heat melting the crazed insects like candle wax.

Faced with such concentrated, coordinated firepower, there was little that the Bugs could do. They lacked the tactical mindset of their more cautious peers, their return fire inaccurate and frantic. Their sheer numbers meant that they scored some hits, but the bolts from their pistols stood little chance of making it through Coalition ceramics at any kind of range. Xipa watched as one of the Marines fell, a bolt burning through the kevlar on an unarmored section of his torso, two of his comrades dragging the injured man back towards the wall.

The withering fire kept them at arm’s reach, finally breaking their mad charge, leaving only a few stragglers who were quickly mopped up with volleys of XMR fire.

“That’s more like it!” Fletcher said, waving his men back. “Come on! Back to the spaceport!”

They resumed their retreat, covering one another in staggered lines, taking out the Drones as they revealed themselves.

“Colonel, what’s the situation?” Fletcher asked as he ran through the trees.

“The skies are clear, so we’ve resumed evac flights,” Marek replied, the background noise of idling engines almost enough to overpower his voice. “The last of the civilians are almost inside the wall. We’re still hitting those Bug convoys with artillery, but they’re gaining ground. I’d prefer we weren’t here when they arrive.”

“What about the saboteurs?” Xipa added.

“They all made it to rooftops and were evacuated to orbit,” Marek continued, Xipa quickly relaying the good news to Miqi.

“Have you heard anything from my man in the field yet?” Fletcher asked.

“Spotter drones haven’t found anyone, and nobody has called in to my knowledge,” the colonel replied. “We’ll keep an eye out.”

“Fuck,” Fletcher hissed, switching back to the local channel. “Where’s Ruza?”

“Do you think he might have encountered Bugs on the way back?” Bluejay wondered, using his wings to carry him over a ditch. “We can’t just leave him behind!”

“There shouldn’t have been any critters between him and the port,” Fletcher added, struggling to contain his frustration. “Unless he encountered a Stalker, or maybe some of those Berserkers picked up his scent. Damn it all – I knew I should have ordered him onto that fucking medivac shuttle. Why didn’t I fight him harder?”

“All we can do right now is trust him,” Xipa panted, leaping over a fallen log. “You heard Colonel Marek – there’s going to be an army of Bugs descending on the port soon.”

They emerged onto the open ground near the wall, leaving the patches of dense forest behind them. The last stragglers from the caravan were being guided inside the gate and the breaches that Marek had made with his tanks, Miqi’s guards hurrying them along. The Marines and Commandos rushed inside the relative safety of the cordon, the armored vehicles forming a rough semi-circle on the near side of the spaceport. Having a couple of thousand tons of ceramic plating between her and the forest immediately eased some of Xipa’s tension, and she followed Fletcher as he made for the nearest breach.

Inside the wall, they found crowds of frightened, exhausted Valbara’nay. They were being organized into groups with little regard for flock or familial affiliations, many of them being forced to surrender what few belongings they had been able to bring with them for lack of space on the dropships. Miqi was standing atop a parked IFV, doing her best to keep things orderly as the refugees were directed to the waiting spacecraft. Consensus and UNN vessels alike were rising off the ground, even the landers that usually carried vehicles now filled with people.

The bravery of the Coalition troops suddenly struck her. Each dropship that departed with a payload of civilians was one that had to leave its crew on the ground, and each lander left a stranded tank behind, unrecoverable until the empty vessel could return from orbit. They were being asked to trade places with the refugees, yet Xipa saw no sign of dissent in their ranks. Each of them, regardless of their species, had accepted the possibility that there might be no return flight for them.

Hearing the Coalition espouse their almost utopian promises of kinship among the stars was very different from witnessing it firsthand – seeing the determination in their faces and feathers as they put their ideals into practice. Perhaps she might have come around to the idea sooner if she could have seen something like this in the early days…

As she watched a pair of Commandos wave some two dozen refugees onto a Valbara’nay dropship, something crackled on her radio. It was distant, distorted, but familiar. Along with the signal came an IFF tag, Xipa turning back to the breach to see it pop up on her visor.

“Fletcher!” Ruza panted into his mic. “I am near!”

“It’s Ruza!” Fletcher exclaimed, already wheeling around to head for the break in the wall. Bluejay and Xipa followed after him, dodging through a squad of Marines who were hurrying in the opposite direction. They made it out onto the grass again, peering past the hull of an idling tank to see the Borealan come marching out of the trees. He looked just as exhausted as the refugees, his clothes tattered and stained with ichor in places. As he drew closer, Xipa realized that he was carrying someone on his back, their arms draped over his shoulders. It was a Valbara’nay – one of Miqi’s guards, her face obscured behind an old welder’s mask.

“What the hell kept you?” Fletcher asked, his relief palpable despite the stern tone that he was putting on. “We thought you might be Bug chow!”

“We encountered insects on our way back,” he explained, opening the visor on his helmet as he neared to reveal a face that was drenched in sweat. He took a breath of fresh air, slowing his gait to a more leisurely jog. Xipa eyed the long rifle that he was holding in one hand, the bayonet at its tip coated with alien blood. “They attempted to engage me in close quarters and suffered for it. I do not know what had angered them so.”

“Combat pheromones,” Bluejay explained. “We encountered the same critters.”

“In a way, it is fortunate that they had not the sense to ambush me,” he continued, coming to a stop in front of them. He glanced at them each in turn, his brow furrowing at Gustave’s conspicuous absence. “Where is Gustave? Did he…”

“He’s safe and sound,” Fletcher replied, Ruza exhaling the breath that he’d been holding in. “A little cut up, but none the worse for wear.”

“Who’s that?” Xipa asked, gesturing to his passenger.

“There was no room on the medivac shuttles, so she volunteered to stay behind with me,” he explained. “She could not keep pace.”

“Is she alright?” Fletcher asked.

“She needs rest and fluids, but she is not injured,” Ruza replied. “Did Miqi and her people-”

“We can catch up later,” Fetcher said, nodding to the hole in the wall. “There’s a Bug army about to crawl up our arses. We need to get the hell out of here.”

They hurried back inside the port, the continuous racket of the artillery company rising above the sound of rumbling engines and shouted orders. The Avalanches would probably keep firing until they ran out of ammunition, the armored vehicles rocking on their tracks as their reciprocating railgun barrels slammed back into their housings. Another pair of UNN dropships lifted off the ground on the other side of the runway, rising on jets of blue flame, turning their rounded noses to the sky as they climbed towards space. Miqi was still directing the refugees from atop an IFV, translating instructions and giving her people animated reassurances.

“I must find a seat for my charge,” Ruza said, Fletcher giving him a nod as the feline set off into the crowds. Xipa, Fletcher, and Bluejay headed in the opposite direction, making their way back to the hangar where Colonel Marek and the Ensis were directing the evacuation. They arrived beneath the shadow of the old spaceplane, finding them still clustered around the hologram, their faces lit by its ghostly glow.

“Nice work out there,” Marek said, greeting them with a respectful nod. “You saved a lot of people. We weren’t expecting an aerial attack like that, but the enemy’s vanguard has been pushed back. We’re not seeing any more fliers.”

“What about the main Bug formations?” Fletcher asked, stopping beside the colonel to examine the map.

“They’re gaining ground,” he replied, gesturing to the red data points that filled the streets like rivers of blood. “Arty is still hammering them, and the Valbarans tasked us some CAS flights, but the roaches are just eating the losses. They’ve reached the edge of the forest,” he added, making a circle with his finger that encompassed the area of parkland that separated the port from the city limits. The spaceport was in the North-East corner of the city, and the hilly, wooded area that had once concealed it from view was now all that stood between the defenders and the Bugs. The little red blips were spilling out from between the buildings now, moving through the trees.

“Is this real-time?” Bluejay asked, studying the map intently.

“Yes, we have spotter drones airborne,” Marek replied.

“We knew that they would break through eventually,” Xipa added. “All of our efforts were intended to delay them – to buy us more time. We can’t hold the port indefinitely.”

“We have all of the civilians inside the walls now, so all we have to do is finish loading them,” the colonel continued. “They tell me we’re about seventy-percent done.”

“Not much longer, then,” Xipa said with a flutter of relieved green.

“For the civilians, no,” Marek added. “Once we complete our objective, we’re going to have a lot of personnel stranded until their dropships and landers can return. It’s a fifteen-minute trip from orbit to the ground and another fifteen minutes the other way.”

“So, we’ll have to hold out for another half-hour once the refugees are safe,” Fletcher mused.

“Maybe forty-five,” Marek corrected. “Some of those vessels are going to have to queue for docking before they can unload their passengers and come back.”

“All we have to do is get off the ground, though,” Bluejay added as he glanced up at the colonel. “Once our guys are in space, they’ll be safe.”

“Correct,” Marek replied. “Except for the landers. We have twenty-five landers, so that’s five trips to get the battalion back to the assault carrier. We may have to temporarily abandon some of the vehicles until the port can be recaptured. We have enough dropships for every squad of Marines, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Same goes for the Commandos,” he added with a nod to Xipa.

“Men over materiel,” Fletcher said, crossing his prosthetic arms as he watched the red stain spread across the hills. “Were you able to get any more support?”

“Half of the fleet is clear on the other side of the moon laying siege to the Queen’s fortress, and nobody else is going to be able to reach us in time,” he grumbled. “We’re on our own.”

“How long until those Bugs reach the port?” Fletcher asked.

“Maybe thirty minutes,” Marek replied.

“Oh, perfect,” Fletcher muttered sarcastically. “They couldn’t have taken an extra ten minutes to eat their breakfast this morning?”

“I’m thinking we set up a battle line here,” Marek continued as he gestured to the map. “They’ll all be coming from the South-West, so if we position our vehicles to form a barricade outside the wall, we can fill the whole forest with tungsten. Everything in an arc in front them will get shredded. We keep hitting them with artillery and CAS, saturate the area with fire, and there’s no way they can mount a proper offensive. We’re in an entrenched position – they have to come to us – so we can dictate the terms of the engagement.”

“There are several maglev terminals that would have once brought passengers into the port,” Xipa said. “The lines might be down, but those platforms are still intact. They should let a few squads fire over the wall.”

“I’ll station some marksmen up there,” Marek added. “The critters don’t seem too interested in our spotter drones, so we can single out their Scuttlers and Warriors, try to take them out before they get into range. I’m worried about their tanks taking potshots at our dropships. If they can find a suitable hillside, they might be able to elevate their cannons high enough.”

“This is going to be a fighting withdrawal,” Xipa said, a flutter of purple passing through her suit panels. “The more people we evacuate, the more pressure is going to be placed on those who remain. If we’re going to abandon some of the vehicles, maybe we should use them to plug the holes in the perimeter wall, then move everyone inside the port as they filter back to orbit. We should hold the Valbara’nay dropships for last,” she added. “They have door guns that might prove useful if the Bugs breach our defenses. They can also carry twenty-four passengers each – more if people stand in the aisles – which means a larger force can remain on the ground.”

“The one time being big and slow is actually an asset,” Fletcher chuckled.

Miqi entered the hangar to interrupt their discussion, her flock in tow.

“Ensis,” she began, giving her superiors a salute of red feathers. “The last of the civilians have been loaded. It is time for you to join them.”

They began to leave the hangar, accompanied by their guards, but they stopped to speak to Xipa and her team. The scarred Ensi stepped forward, giving her a respectful flash of crimson plumage.

“We wanted to thank you…and to apologize,” she began with a flutter of hesitation. The Ensis had been so stubborn up until now that Xipa couldn’t help but let a flicker of surprised yellow light up her panels for a moment. “If we had heeded your warnings when you first arrived, we might have been able to evacuate under far more favorable circumstances. We take responsibility for any of your people who are hurt or killed because of our inaction. Still,” she added, turning to glance at the waiting dropships. “Even with us standing in your way, you were able to execute an impressive operation.”

“It was a joint effort,” Xipa replied, trying to remain humble. “Without your wisdom and Miqi’s expertise, the plan would never have succeeded.”

“You are too modest,” the Ensi chuckled. “When this is all over, and the fallen leaves have settled, we will talk about this matter further. For now, we have a flight to catch. I haven’t ridden in a shuttle for thirty rotations, and I expect I shall enjoy the experience.”

All three of the Ensis gave her and her team a respectful flush of red, then followed Miqi off to one of the waiting ships.

“What was that all about?” Fletcher asked, sharing a confused glance with Bluejay.

“Humility and gratitude,” she replied with a smile.

Before she could elaborate, Miqi and her flock returned, the troop ramp of the vessel that was carrying the Ensis closing behind them.

“Miqi?” Xipa asked, another show of surprise lighting up her panels. “The last civilian flight is leaving. You’ll miss it.”

“I told you that my feet wouldn’t leave the ground until all of my people were safe,” she replied, crossing her arms defiantly. “That includes your flock.”

“This fight might get desperate,” Xipa replied. “Are you sure?”

“You stuck with us, even though you could have left at any time,” Miqi replied. “You risked life and limb to save my flock,” she added with a pointed glance at Bluejay’s missing arm. “We’ll do the same for you.”

“I take it Miqi is staying,” Bluejay chuckled, probably deducing her intentions from her stubborn body language alone. “I had a feeling that she might.”

Miqi gave him a flash of pink and red, its meaning lost on the Jarilan. Somehow, Xipa didn’t feel qualified to explain. It seemed that his exploits might have earned him a little more than just Miqi’s respect.


They followed the colonel outside, squads of Marines and auxiliaries lining up beneath him as he climbed up onto an IFV to address them. He clasped his hands neatly behind his back, raising his voice above the sound of the engines, even though his earpiece was transmitting to every helmet. It was about presence as much as communication. There must have been a couple of hundred people present, not including the personnel that were still inside their vehicles. The artillery hadn’t let up, the roar of their guns sounding every couple of minutes.

“The last of the civilians have been safely evacuated,” he announced, his words met with a rumble of approval from the troops. Xipa couldn’t help but smile behind her visor as she watched a few of the Earth’nay bump elbows in celebration, flushes of relieved green and triumphant red spreading through the Valbara’nay ranks. “That was probably the most important thing that you will ever do, and you should be commended for reacting so quickly,” Marek added. The crowd went quiet again, sensing that there was more coming. “We’re down to the wire now, and the Bug army that we’ve been holding off is about to reach the port,” he continued with a gesture towards the nearby wall. “The Navy is going to do everything they can – pull every resource – to support you, but with so many ships participating in the assault on the Ant Hill, there’s nobody who can establish a new orbit to reach us in time. We’re getting some air support from the Wizna, but that’s it. You fight for yourselves now – for each other. You will be evacuated in two waves to ensure that there are enough personnel on the ground to hold the line and prevent the LZ from being overrun. The new orders will be sent momentarily. Every second counts, so let’s keep up the pace and make sure you’re all alive to receive those commendations you’ve earned.”

He dismissed his men with a wave of his hand, and they sprang into action. Squads jogged to and fro, heading to defensive positions, passing weapons and spare magazines between them. It was a kind of organized chaos. Two tall figures waded through the crowd, heading towards them, Ruza and Gustave easy to pick out among the smaller creatures. A flock of Valbara’nay scattered before the giant reptile as he plodded over to give the team a rumble of greeting.

“You shouldn’t still be here,” Fletcher complained, but he was obviously glad to see him. Xipa caught glimpses of white adhesive patches beneath the tears in Gustave’s bloodstained poncho, which was probably the only thing still holding him together. The Krell’nay merely rested his massive Bug rifle over his broad shoulder, giving Fletcher an amused huff.

“It is good to be back together again,” Ruza added with a rare smile. “Our chances of survival seem to be highest when we work as a pack.”

“I think having you back has probably tripled them,” Bluejay added.

“Looks like we’re gonna be dusting off in wave two,” Fletcher mused, examining the readout on his forearm. “Marek probably knew that we’d all complain if we got to ride first-class.”

“You do have an uncanny ability to coerce your superiors into giving you what you want by being unreasonable,” Xipa chuckled.

“What can I say?” he replied with a shrug. “You can afford to be a pain in the arse when you’re the best.”

“Come on, you prima donna,” Bluejay said as he gave Fletcher a nudge. “We have work to do.”

“Okay, I refuse to believe you know what that means,” the Earth’nay grumbled as he followed him towards the looming wall. “You fucking aliens are gaslighting me with this mimicry shit.”

It was reassuring to have the team back together again, to hear them arguing and bickering as though there was nothing unusual about their present situation. In spite of the impending violence, Xipa felt a flush of warmth that she hadn’t felt in a long time – not since the days before her original flock had been lost. The civilians were all safe, and with that load off her shoulders, she felt like she could face anything. She still had her own future to fight for, but theirs were secure, and there would be no torn flocks or orphaned children this day.

She heard the cry of a bird, glancing up to see a flock of the native animals drifting high above the port, their peace disturbed by the constant barrage of artillery. The ancient Valbara’nay had been animists, and they had believed that the spirits of the dead took new forms to watch over the living. Xipa didn’t share that belief, but the thought that her old flockmates might somehow have witnessed this second, successful evacuation was a comforting impossibility to entertain.

“That’s a lot of green for someone who’s about to go into battle,” Miqi mused, walking along beside her with her flock of four in tow.

“I’ve found my peace,” she replied. “Whatever happens now, we’ve already won.”

“I’d still like to survive this,” Miqi chuckled.

“Of course,” Xipa added, hopping over some stray rubble as they made their way through one of the breaches and out onto the grass. “I’m looking forward to helping you rebuild when this is all over. I just don’t want to jinx it, as the Earth’nay say. They have a superstition where they believe that premature celebration invites some terrible fate to snatch victory from their grasp.”

“Well, I suppose we can’t be too careful,” Miqi said as they came to a stop beside an IFV.

The vehicles had formed a tight cordon outside the wall, their deployable cover extended to create an almost unbroken barrier, squads of Marines taking position behind them. The tanks aimed their cannons over their heads, the battalion pointing their innumerable guns into the trees beyond. It seemed like an impenetrable defense, but Xipa knew better. She had seen the Bugs flood over far more entrenched fortifications than this. She glanced at the rooftops that rose above the autumn canopy in the distance, clouds of smoke still looming over them, like the plumes from volcanic eruptions. The two bombers were still loitering, occasionally swooping down to fire on targets of opportunity, already alarmingly close.

“If this was a flat field, they’d be fucked,” Fletcher muttered as he looked out at the hilly terrain. “We’re not even going to be able to fire on them directly until they’re within a few hundred meters of us.”

“All we have to do is hold out,” Bluejay added, checking the display on his wrist. “The first wave of dropships is already on their way back, ETA – ten minutes. Then it’s fifteen up, fifteen back down.”

“This is gonna be the longest hour of my life,” Fletcher grumbled.

Xipa turned to her own display, watching the live feed from the spotter drones. At least they would have very good visibility with the UAVs tagging the Bugs and displaying them on the shared network. This was how the Coalition was supposed to function when all of its elements were in play, and it was no small comfort. Right now, a flood of red blips were streaming into the patches of forest from the streets, spreading out from the bottlenecks of the roads like a liquid spilling from a flute. There were so many – more than she could estimate at a glance. Probably thousands.

The crack of an aircraft breaking the sound barrier distracted her, and she turned to glance at the sky above the port, seeing a formation of three small, burning trails streak through the sky. They weren’t dropships, they were Beewolfs, the fighters circling overhead to shed some of their velocity. More followed, five craft punching through the atmosphere like meteors. Her HUD tagged them as Penguins as they came into range of the network – ground attack craft deployed from the carrier.

“That’s gonna improve our odds,” Fletcher said, following her gaze. “I hope your friends don’t mind if we do a little landscaping.”

“It shouldn’t be any threat to the water treatment plant,” she replied, watching the vessels cut through the sky above their heads. “As long as the carrier itself doesn’t fire. I don’t think the city could withstand that.”

“Yeah, orbital railguns don’t make for precise work,” he chuckled.

The two black arrowheads that were the Valbara’nay bombers veered off to clear the airspace, no doubt coordinating with the UNN vessels, the formation of three Beewolfs lining up for a run. Xipa checked her display again, seeing that the nearest Bug signatures were only half a kilometer away now.

“Brace for danger close,” Fletcher warned, putting his shoulder to the armored hull of the nearest IFV.

The three planes swooped in, their angular wings painting contrails behind them as they dropped low, so close that Xipa could see their bomb racks swing out from recesses in their bellies. Half a dozen tapering canisters were released, what looked like tiny rockets, long stabilizing fins extending into position once they were clear of the aircraft. The sensor packages and lenses mounted on their noses glinted in the sunlight as they honed in on their targets, guided by the constant stream of data from the spotter drones. While they looked small from a distance, each of those bombs was probably three meters long.

They impacted somewhere in the distance, plunging into the trees, a brief moment of silence preceding the rumble of explosions. The shockwaves rocked the canopy, hitting Xipa like a hammer as torrents of dust and debris were tossed high into the air, the subsequent clouds lingering there as they slowly drifted on the breeze. The fighters had dropped their bombs in a line that cut right across the advancing Bugs, Xipa watching the aliens scatter for cover on her feed. The craft lifted their noses, soaring into the sky, banking as they prepared a follow-up attack.

It wouldn’t deter the Bugs – it could only slow them down. These were textbook Betelgeusian tactics, using superior numbers and a complete disregard for self-preservation to overwhelm the enemy, drowning them in bodies.

The formation of Penguins came next, lagging behind their far more agile counterparts, hovering only a few hundred meters above the treetops as they began to fire their nose cannons. They slid along on their thrusters like they were gliding on invisible ice as they spread out, their round camera modules scanning the ground, picking out new targets. The missile racks on their backs opened up, spewing more projectiles down into the forests and hills, blanketing the area in flame.

Even with so much unchallenged airpower, Xipa doubted whether it would be enough.

“I want those Kodiaks loading canister shells,” Fletcher barked, waving to a commander who was sitting halfway out of the hatch of his vehicle. “Saturate the area with mortar fire, and coordinate with the MGLs. Don’t spare the ammunition. We’re probably gonna be leaving half of this equipment here anyway – might as well put it to good use.”

Xipa watched curiously as he began to direct some of the nearby Marines, separating those who had grenade launchers on their rifles into groups. She had almost forgotten that as a lieutenant commander, Fletcher outranked most of these men.

“You can really do this,” Miqi mused, watching a pack of towering Borealan Shock Troopers jog past her on their way to the line. “You’re going to take back Kerguela, aren’t you?”

“That’s why I came back,” Xipa replied with a flash of red. “Come, position your flock by the Commandos towards the left of that IFV – the vehicle with the shields. We’re going to need every gun that we can get.”

Miqi gave her an affirmative feather flutter, then led her people over to join their distant cousins, the Commandos welcoming them as they made room. Xipa joined Fletcher and the rest of their team beside one of the Pumas, taking refuge behind the rightmost barrier, watching the aircraft harass the Bugs from above the treetops. The artillery guns were firing closer now, hitting something that was just out of view beyond the hills, so close that she could feel the impacts shake the ground. Xipa resisted the urge to check her display again, knowing that those red blips would be appearing on her HUD before long. At least the Bugs couldn’t sneak up on them this time.

She noticed a group of three Krell’nay moving up to plug a hole on the far right of the perimeter, their long tails dragging in the grass behind them as they lumbered along. The ponchos that they wore were similar to Gustave’s, albeit not quite as up-armored, lacking the shoulder pads and the raised collar. They planted massive riot shields in the dirt that looked as thick as the IFV’s deployable walls, tall and wide enough to completely cover the eight-foot reptiles, forming a phalanx together. In their other hands, they held XMRs configured as light machineguns, the weapons equipped with quick-swap barrels and weighty gun shields that provided the wielder with even more protection.

It hadn’t occurred to Xipa just how much larger and older Gustave was when compared to his kin until she saw them side by side. He was two or three feet longer than they were, a clear foot taller, and he must weigh considerably more than they did. His scales were far darker, too, bordering on onyx when compared to their green.

“Five minutes until that first wave of dropships makes landfall,” Bluejay announced.

“We’re gonna have to cover the first group while they move into the port,” Fletcher added, resting the plastic housing of his laser rifle on the lip of the armored wall. “We hold the line, no matter what.”

“Then it’s another thirty minutes minimum until we can pull out,” Bluejay added, a tinge of apprehension creeping into his voice.

“We can do it,” Fletcher insisted. “The vehicle crews will be moving last. We’ll still have most of our firepower after the first group evacuates.”

More for me,” Gustave rumbled, briefly removing the magazine from his giant rifle to check the ammo count before slotting it back in with a loud thud.

“We should pull one of the IFVs aside and prepare it to carry the injured into the port,” Ruza suggested, glancing down the battle line. “There will be casualties, and any time we can spare transporting them will be invaluable.”

“Good idea,” Fletcher replied with a nod. “We don’t want to be carrying stretchers on our way back. I’ll see that it gets done.”

“Here they come!” Xipa announced, watching the signals start to appear on her visor. In moments, there was a field of red outlines heading through the trees towards them, uncounted squads of insects moving between cover in close coordination. The aircraft and artillery couldn’t fire on them – not when they were so close to the line. All they could do was try to stop more Bugs from reaching the defenders.

Xipa watched the Drones fan out, moving more intelligently than their pheromone-crazed counterparts, separating into small units of six as they made their approach. When they crested the nearest hill, the Coalition forces opened up, Xipa’s helmet practically deafening her in a bid to protect her hearing as the battle began in earnest.

Some two hundred Marines and Commandos opened up with their XMRs, the glowing trails left by the partially molten projectiles lancing out into the forest, the first few Drones that had revealed themselves disintegrating along with the tree trunks that surrounded them. Borealan auxiliaries fired their long rifles over the heads of their smaller comrades, setting up behind them like some archaic battle formation, the magnetic coils that lined their long barrels glinting in the sunlight. The Krell’nay had more in common with the vehicles than they did their fellow soldiers, firing around their heavy shields, holding weapons that a smaller creature would have needed a bipod to control single-handed.

A nearby tank rocked back on its treads as its main gun accelerated a shell downrange, the projectile splitting open, what must be some kind of proximity fuse transforming it into a cloud of shrapnel that tore through an advancing squad of Bugs. It lifted them off their feet, tiny pellets shattering carapace and spraying viscera, pocking the hill behind them with craters. Most of the tanks had gun pods and rocket launchers mounted on the cheeks of their turrets, the weapons joining the chorus, mortars and missiles lighting up the forest with bright flashes. The IFV to Xipa’s left opened up with its blister, a thirty-millimeter railgun strafing the landscape.

In moments, hundreds of Bug signatures had vanished from the feed. The brief lull in gunfire allowed Xipa to pick up the sound of cracking wood as several trees began to fall to the ground, their trunks shredded by the hypervelocity projectiles, their branches shaking as they crashed to the forest floor. There were dead Drones – and pieces of them – scattered through the undergrowth, large craters created by the explosives exposing dark soil, small fires taking root in patches of dry leaves.

The respite was brief, the attacking Drones quickly adapting to the situation, the next wave pouring suppressive fire into the line from the hilltop. They dropped to prone positions to make themselves harder to hit, hiding behind the crest of the hill, using the trees for cover. Xipa lurched back reflexively as a bolt of glowing plasma hammered the other side of the deployable wall, its heat washing over her, the gas splashing like a liquid.

Whatever cover the aliens could find was tenuous at best, and she watched as a round from one of the tanks excavated a three-meter hole in the hill that she could see straight through, like someone had taken a bite out of it. Trees shattered under railgun fire, mortar shells tossing up clods of dirt as they exploded out of view, grenades exploding in fiery trails between the trunks. The Drones were probing their defenses, trying to sneak squads closer under covering fire, but the shared information network meant that it was almost impossible for them to go unseen.

“I’m not seeing any tanks or Warriors!” Fletcher said, ducking behind the barrier to let his laser rifle cool. “Unless they can get something heavy past our Penguins, I don’t see how they’re gonna make a dent in our defenses.”

“Every time we fight them, they seem to pull something new out of their ass,” Bluejay warned as his XMR rocked into his shoulder. He brought up a second hand to the dual foregrips beneath his barrel, fighting against the recoil. “Don’t underestimate them.”

“Incoming!” one of the Marines warned, Xipa snapping her head up to see a cloud of objects approaching them. The Kestrels in the port to their rear opened up, sending bright streams of tracer fire streaking through the swarm, but there were too many to intercept. They were revealed to be gas canisters as they neared, the shells bouncing off the nearby vehicles as they rained down on the line, embedding themselves in the dirt. They cracked open, disgorging their toxic payload, clouds of yellow smoke clogging the air. Gustave pulled his hood over his head, then continued firing his massive rifle, each shot making the fat on his thighs and tail shake.

“Miqi!” Xipa said, tuning into her radio channel. There was a momentary delay before she replied, probably fishing the little portable device from one of her pouches. “You need to pull back to the port if your masks aren’t airtight!”

“We’re fine,” she replied, the sound of gunfire making her open mic crackle and pop. “We’ve dealt with gas attacks before.”

Another signal interrupted her, coming through on the priority channel, the colonel’s gravelly voice filling her helmet.

“Group A, pull back to the port. Evac is on approach. Group B, hold that line.”

Xipa turned to see a cluster of ships burning through the atmosphere above the port, maybe twenty assorted landers and dropships. The blocky landers headed straight for the ground, the heat tiles that lined their bellies growing red-hot, while the dropships began to glide on their stubby wings to lose some of the velocity they had built up during reentry. A handful of Valbara’nay ships followed them in formation, their Navy camouflage and color panels contrasting with the spartan grey of the Earth’nay craft. Some of the Bug fire was redirected to the sky, perhaps in a half-hearted attempt to deter them from landing, streams of glowing projectiles sailing over the heads of the defenders. The plasma bolts didn’t have the range to reach them, fizzling out long before they got anywhere near the ships.

What looked like more than half of the Marines and Commandos began to retreat, abandoning their places in the line, the remaining defenders covering them as they rushed back towards the looming spaceport wall. Xipa had to remind herself that there were still the vehicle crews to consider, and that they hadn’t lost as much manpower as it might seem. A couple of injured Marines who had caught stray plasma bolts were loaded into an IFV by their comrades, more of the troops advancing alongside the vehicle for cover as it drove back through one of the jagged breaches, some of them pausing to take potshots at the forest beyond as they went.

“Bug mortars are targeting the runways!” she heard Marek warn over the radio. “I need all aircraft hitting those launch sites!”

“They aren’t stupid,” Bluejay said, ducking down to reload his rifle. “They know exactly what we’re trying to do.”

“Watch the left side!” Fletcher yelled, swinging the barrel of his laser rifle in that direction. “A Warrior made it through!”

The hulking biosuit came lumbering out of the trees, its clawed feet digging into the soil as it began to run down the near side of the hill, covering ground remarkably quickly for something of its size. A squad of Drones struggled to keep pace with it, running behind it for cover. Xipa could see pieces of its shell being stripped away by gunfire as it went, XMR slugs tearing holes in its thick plating, but they couldn’t penetrate deep enough to stop it. One of the Kodiaks swiveled its turret to face the thing, but too slow, the living vehicle slamming into the prow of the tank. The impact was enough to shake the vehicle, the Warrior beginning to tear at the hull, using its heavy claws to pry at the ceramic plating. It got a grip on one of the tracks, ripping it loose, sending broken treads flying through the air.

The Drones behind it tried to leap up onto the hull, clambering onto the turret, one of them firing down at the commander’s cupola with a plasma rifle as though it expected to be able to melt its way inside. They were quickly cut down by the nearby Marines, railgun slugs sparking off the vehicle’s thick armor, their listless bodies toppling to the forest floor.

With the Warrior now below the firing arc of the cannon, the driver made a quick decision, the roar of an engine rising above the gunfire. The seventy-ton vehicle lurched forward, more of the links in its broken track coming loose, dragging the Warrior beneath its bulk. Xipa could hear the sickening sound of its carapace cracking under the tank’s weight, accompanied by the wet squish of displaced flesh and organs, the tank rolling over the struggling insect. It stranded itself, the Warrior’s bulk lifting its tracks off the grass, but it was already too damaged to make it back to the port. It continued to fire from that position, turning its turret back on the forest.

They cut down another wave of Drones, Xipa dropping an empty mag to join the growing pile at the foot of the wall. As she reloaded, she turned to see that some of the dropships were starting to dust off, rising into the air under a hail of ineffective plasma fire from rifles and pistols.

The battle was becoming a blur now, Xipa losing her perception of time. Her shoulder was growing sore from her XMR’s recoil, the coils that lined its barrel glowing so hot that she had to pace herself to avoid slagging them. The Drones were relentless in their attempts to breach the perimeter, throwing themselves against the defenses, their eerily advanced tactics contrasting with their complete disregard for their own safety. They continued to hammer the port with gas shells and mortars, the occasional aircraft swooping low over the forest to disgorge a payload of bombs, the armored bellies of the Penguin gunships now pocked and scored by plasma fire.

“Those gunships are going to run out of ammo at this rate,” Fletcher warned, glancing up at one of the craft as it drifted above them on its flickering thrusters. It let loose with its nose cannon, the weapon rotating on a gimbal as its camera tracked a target beneath the canopy, spewing a bright stream of shells. “They won’t have time to return to the carrier and resupply before we leave. When they’re dry, they’re dry. If those fuckers are smart enough to hold any heavy units in reserve…”

“You need to get on the horn to the battalion commander,” Bluejay warned, raising his voice over the report of his rifle as he sprayed another salvo into the trees. “I don’t think we have enough people left to hold a perimeter this large – we have to pull the vehicles back into a tighter formation closer to the wall.”

“He’s right,” Xipa added, watching the air above her gun barrel shimmer like a mirage. “We have to force them into a smaller bottleneck, or they’ll overwhelm us.”

She hit the magazine release, then reached for a fresh one, fumbling with her chest rig for a moment before realizing that she was completely dry. Ruza noticed her dilemma, handing her one of his own magazines. It had twice the capacity of her preferred variety, jutting from the magazine well, but it wasn’t like she was going to be firing prone in this situation. She gave the Borealan a grateful nod, then slammed it in, setting her sights on another Drone that was racing its way down the hill. Their bodies were piled up at the foot of the incline just like the empty magazines now, an open burial pit that their comrades simply leapt over like they were jumping a creek. The forest was becoming unrecognizable, the red grass almost completely replaced with dark soil from the innumerable craters that the Coalition’s weapons had excavated, every tree in sight completely or partially felled.

Fletcher put through the call, and the vehicles slowly began to roll backwards, creeping along the grass so that the troops using them as cover could keep pace. The sound of gunfire was so constant and uninterrupted that Xipa had grown accustomed to it now, like the hum of a generator or the dull drone of an engine, her mind tuning it out.

They drew within fifty meters of the wall, closing ranks, the semi-circle of armored vehicles packed more closely together. It was claustrophobic, but it allowed the defenders to maximize their firepower, the Coalition troops taking up position behind the deployable cover of the IFVs again.

The Bugs seemed reinvigorated by the move, perhaps interpreting it as a sign of weakness, mounting another mad charge out of the ruined forest. A wave of red and orange carapace washed over the landscape and down the hill, but they were even more exposed on the open ground between the port and the trees, their numbers counting for nothing when faced with such massed firepower. That advantage would only last as long as their ammunition did, however.

One of the Penguins suddenly veered away, starting to climb towards the sky, the main engines situated beneath its tail burning brightly.

“We are bingo on ammo,” she heard the pilot announce over the radio, his voice paradoxically calm when contrasted with the chaos on the ground. “That’s all the support we can give you right now.”

A couple of minutes later, the two remaining Penguins followed suit, rising away from the treetops on plumes of blue flame. The Beewolfs and the bombers were out of ordinance, but they were still swooping down on the Bugs to cut swathes through the forest with their nose guns. Their reserves wouldn’t last for much longer either.

“Fifteen more minutes!” Bluejay announced, ducking under a hail of plasma fire from the top of the hill. “We’re halfway there! The dropships should be unloading their passengers now!”

“I’m outta ammo, Lieutenant!” a nearby Marine yelled as he took cover behind the hull of the nearest IFV.

“Last one I got!” Fletcher replied, tossing him a magazine. “Make it count!”

Off to the right, Xipa saw a squad of Bugs make it across the open ground, emerging from a cloud of noxious chemicals that they had used to help cover their advance. They made for the three Krell’nay, perhaps assuming that they presented a weak point in the defenses, hammering their riot shields with plasma fire. The Krell’nay stood firm, putting their scaly shoulders to their shields, the kinetic energy imparted by the bolts shaking them. The Drones followed up with a salvo of grenades, tossing half a dozen of them in coordination. The nearby Marines were forced to duck behind the deployable cover of their IFV, the explosives erupting in blinding, green flashes of light. When the dust cleared, the Krell’nay were still standing, but the distraction gave the Bugs enough time to close the rest of the distance.

One of them went for the low wall, leaping directly into the group of Marines who were taking cover there, a pair of chitin blades drawn. It landed on top of one of the men, driving him to the ground, sinking one of the sharp implements into one of the gaps that gave the plates on his lower torso their range of motion. Crimson blood welled, the man’s yell of pain inaudible inside his helmet, his distress conveyed by his thrashing limbs.

Before the Drone could finish the job, a pair of nearby Marines beat it to the grass, subduing it with kicks and strikes from their rifle butts. Someone managed to draw a sidearm, putting it down with a couple of rounds to the abdomen, the Drone abruptly ceasing its struggling. As the injured man was dragged back towards a nearby IFV, the rest of the Drone’s squad threw themselves at the Krell’nay. Five of them struck the shields with blows from their blades, scrambling up the obstacles, trying to squeeze between them to get at the softer targets behind.

One of the Krell’nay lifted his shield off the ground, raising it high into the air, a Drone clinging to its outward face with three of its four arms as it brandished a chitin sword. The reptile bellowed a battle cry that resonated in Xipa’s bones, slamming the heavy shield into the dirt, crushing its assailant like a beetle beneath a boot. One of his comrades used his shield to swat away another furious Drone, sending its broken body tumbling away across the grass.

It was enough of an opening for the three remaining Bugs to get through, one of them slicing at the rightmost Krell’nay’s scaly forearm. It drew blue blood, the reptile emitting a rumbling growl of pain and surprise. He opened his jaws wide, dropping them down on the insect, clamping his jutting teeth shut around its entire upper body. The Drone’s three-toed feet left the grass, its legs kicking, the Krell’nay shaking it like a doll until it went limp.

One of the two remaining Drones was trampled underfoot, the last hit with a burst of LMG fire from close enough range that the muzzle device was touching its carapace, the stream of slugs throwing its dismembered body away. Its ichor splattered the Krell’nay’s gun shield, sizzling as it cooked on the red-hot coils of his barrel.

“Anyone who has spare ammo – pass it around!” Fletcher ordered, a finger to his helmet as he knelt behind the barrier beside Xipa. “We’re running dry here!”

Bluejay cursed to himself, tossing his spent rifle aside, drawing his sidearm from a holster on his thigh. He pulled out the oversized XMH that Fletcher had given him with another hand, raising both barrels over the barrier, popping off shots into the incoming Bugs.

Another Warrior shouldered its way out of the forest, knocking down a tree that was in its path with alarming ease, sending the shredded trunk toppling to the cratered ground. It leveled the cannon that had been grafted to its left arm, the amalgam of chitin and metal accelerating a bolt of boiling gas down its magnetic rails. The projectile slammed into the prow of an IFV at the center of the battle line, hitting it with enough force to rock it, the superheated substance melting through its ceramic armor like a cutting torch.

A Kodiak turned its sights on the Warrior before it could get off a second shot, splitting it open like someone taking a hammer to a piece of ripe fruit, conveying enough kinetic energy to turn the shattered fragments of its armor into deadly shrapnel that eviscerated a few unlucky Drones that were nearby. It was knocked violently to the forest floor, its smoking body rolling down the hill, taking out another scurrying Drone that was in its path.

The Marines who had been thrown to the ground by the initial blast quickly recovered, rushing to the damaged IFV’s troop ramp to help the crew bail out. Smoke began to billow from the damaged cab, pouring out of the hatch on the roof, panicked yells for aid carrying across the battlefield. The ramp at the rear had only descended far enough to create a three-inch gap, the men trying in vain to pry the damaged mechanism open as smoke began to pour through the opening.

Gustave launched himself towards the vehicle without hesitation, a flock of Commandos scurrying out of his path as he barreled past them, Ruza hot on his heels. The giant reptile nudged a stubborn Marine out of his way, the rest clearing space for him as he dropped his alien rifle, then pushed his scaly hands into the gap. His muscles bulged as he strained, a low, trembling growl emanating from deep within his throat. Fresh, azure blood began to soak the bandage on his bicep, the effort opening the wound anew. Finally, machinery gave way to flesh, a creaking sound like bending metal filling the air as Gustave succeeded in wrenching the ramp open. The three-man crew poured out along with a fresh billow of smoke, Ruza directing the Marines to help them to safety. They were walking, and their helmets had protected them from smoke inhalation, but two of them clearly had burns where their pressure suits had melted.

“Tell them to abandon that stranded tank before the crew gets cut off!” Fletcher ordered.

A little hatch at the rear of the Kodiak opened up, and the three tankers piled out one by one. The vehicle’s commander unfolded the stock of a compact PDW, turning to fire on the approaching swarm from the cover of his vehicle’s hull as his two friends rushed back towards the line. They leapt over the deployable cover of the nearest IFV, their fellow Marines pulling them out of the line of fire.

The commander emptied his mag into a pair of approaching Drones, then retreated as he reloaded, the defenders laying down suppressive fire to cover his retreat.

“Heads down!” he warned as he made it back to the perimeter. He put his back to the deployable wall, covering his helmet with his hands. “I set Rudy to scuttle – the fuel cells are gonna pop. Not letting the Bugs get their filthy claws on him.”

“Fucking thing is only a hundred meters away,” Fletcher growled, switching channels so that he could broadcast to the whole battalion. “Danger close! Take cover!”

The Drones were swarming over the wrecked Kodiak, leaping up onto its hull, trying to melt their way in through the various hatches on the turret. A couple of them figured out that the door to the little troop compartment was open and rushed inside, crawling through the narrow space on all-sixes. They seemed unaware that it had been abandoned, perhaps expecting it to retain some basic functionality like their own vehicles did when the Pilot was incapacitated. The concept of valuing personnel over hardware was alien to them.

The hydrogen fuel cells inside the vehicle overloaded and ruptured, flooding the interior compartments with high concentrations of the flammable gas. The munitions began to cook off in a two-step process designed to stop the vehicle from being captured by enemy forces, turning the seventy-ton behemoth into a giant pressure cooker. It erupted in an explosion that turned its armored panels into airborne guillotines, its heavy turret launching straight up into the air, tossed like a manhole cover. The blast flattened everything around it, sending the Drones that had been climbing on its hull sailing across the field, pieces of shattered armor and ceramic tiles shredding them.

Chunks of the tank embedded themselves around the crater that it had left in its wake, what remained of its burnt-out chassis smoldering at the bottom, the charred bodies of some two dozen Drones scattered around it in varying states of dismemberment. Xipa heard the sound of some smaller airborne debris raining down on the nearby vehicles, little pebbles and fragments of hull bouncing off them like hailstones.

“That should free up a bit of space on the landers,” Bluejay muttered.

“Your evac is on its way,” Colonel Marek said, his distorted voice coming through on Xipa’s radio. “Move back inside the compound and secure that LZ. ETA – fifteen minutes.”

“Get back inside the walls!” Fletcher yelled, waving to the nearby troops. “I want all of the vehicles that aren’t part of the perimeter to move back into the port. Just leave the rest – it’ll give the Bugs another obstacle to get past. Don’t ditch until I give the signal. Let’s keep those critters at arm’s length!”

The IFVs and tanks began to drive back through the breaches in the wall, some of them continuing to fire with their blisters as they went, squads of Marines and Commandos following behind them. Those at the rear went first, the troops who were still manning the perimeter remaining where they were, holding off the Bugs for every precious second that they could glean. They were far more orderly and disciplined than the civilians had been, and in only a few minutes, most of the force was back inside the port.

“Okay, let’s get moving!” Fletcher ordered as he began to jog back towards the breach. “All vehicle crews, bail out and get inside. I want everyone else covering them!”

The turrets and blisters on the vehicles went quiet one by one, their crews piling out of troop compartments and hatches, leaping down to race back to the safety of the wall. The insects were quick to see an opening, a wave of them cascading down the hill to take advantage of the lull in heavy fire, but the people still manning the perimeter answered them with their XMRs.

Xipa and her team moved with them, slowly walking their way backwards as they lay down covering fire. Miqi was accompanied by the last few squads of Commandos, her flock sending green bolts of plasma sailing into the advancing throngs of Drones. If they let up for even a moment, the Bugs might overrun them. By the time the last group of defenders made it to the nearest breach, the enemy had reached the perimeter, the insects swarming over the abandoned vehicles and the barriers between them.

“We gotta plug these holes!” Bluejay exclaimed as they emerged onto the other side of the nearest breach, his wing casings popping open for a brief moment to carry him over a chunk of errant carbcrete. “They look pretty tank-sized – maybe we should use tanks?”

“Thank you for the insightful input, Bluejay,” Fletcher growled as he threw himself behind the wall, a bolt of plasma splashing against the far side. “Is that everyone? Any IFF tags still outside?”

“We are ready!” Ruza replied, firing one last round through the breach before stepping aside. “All are accounted for!”

At Fletcher’s order, a Kodiak trundled forward, wedging itself into the hole. The breaches had been made by the tanks initially, so they were almost the perfect width to fill them. A few more pieces of white construction material crumbled away, bouncing off its hull, the armored behemoth starting to fire its guns again. Two more of them parked themselves in front of the main gate, blocking it rather than taking the time to close it, two more filling the remaining breaches.

Many of the vehicles had begun to fire their mortars and grenades over the wall, kicking up clouds of debris that rose into view above it, the six Avalanches that were set up on the furthest runway continuing their relentless bombardment. While the overgrown asphalt was pocked with holes from Bug mortar attacks, it seemed that the aircraft had succeeded in eliminating their launchers, and the Kestrels had prevented the worst of it from getting through.

Xipa heard the telltale sound of aircraft breaking atmosphere, glancing up to see a field of glowing fireballs appear in the aurora-choked sky, the bright glow of their engines visible through the drifting clouds. Only a few more minutes…

The crowd of Marines, Commandos, and auxiliaries waited on the runway as the first of the vehicles made it to the ground, the landers from the assault carrier descending on their four downward-facing engines. Their ramps snapped open with alarming speed, squad leaders beginning to direct their charges inside. There was still time to load some of the remaining vehicles, the Coalition salvaging what resources it could, one of the IFVs driving up a ramp to secure itself to the trolley inside. A squad of Marines raced after it, hurriedly strapping themselves into the seats that lined the troop bay to either side of it.

Colonel Marek stepped out of the nearest hangar in the company of two Marines, waving to a nearby squad as he spoke into his earpiece. Xipa had assumed that he had left with the first wave of evacuees, but it seemed that he had remained behind to see the operation through to its end. Fletcher made his way over to him, the rest of the squad following along.

“What’s our status, Colonel?” he asked as he jogged to a stop beside him.

“We’ll be able to get everyone up in a single wave,” he replied, continuing to walk as he talked. “We have to leave most of the vehicles, but there’s no helping that now. If we spend any more time fucking around, we’ll lose our foothold here.”

The dropships were coming in now, their landing gear extending as they touched down, the backwash from their engines blowing the carpet of weeds and shrubs that had made the breaks in the runway their home. The larger Valbara’nay vessels were easily identified, the color panels on their rounded noses flashing warning patterns as they hovered on their thrusters. On the nearest craft, a side door slid open above one of the swept wings, the barrel of a rotary railgun extending on a flexible gimbal. Xipa could see the gunner who was standing behind it, her hands gripping the controls as she maneuvered it to face the Bugs beyond the wall, sending a stream of molten slugs pouring into them. The glow reflected in her visor as she swept it back and forth, the gunfire only ceasing when the craft dropped lower.

The crews of the remaining tanks that were plugging the holes in the wall exited through the hatches at the rear, scrambling for the dropships as the last few squads took their seats. The Bugs must have reached the wall by now – they were blindly tossing plasma grenades over it, the explosives creating harmless flashes of light that melted the asphalt beneath them.

Xipa was once again startled by the report of XMR fire, some of the nearby Marines cutting down a Drone that had scaled one of the tanks, climbing over its hull on its way inside. More followed, but the door gunners on a couple of the Valbara’nay ships kept them at bay, pouring fire into the abandoned vehicles. The slugs sparked off their armor plating and punched craters in the surrounding carbcrete, the Drones that were now clambering over the hulks torn apart by the hail of projectiles.

“I think we’ve outstayed our welcome,” Marek announced, nodding cordially to Fletcher and Xipa. “Ensi, Lieutenant, it’s been a pleasure.”

His two guards escorted him to the nearest UNN dropship, the troop ramp starting to close, even as he walked up it. Despite the chaos that surrounded him, he was still remarkably calm and collected, his pristine uniform vanishing as the door sealed.

Fletcher took one last look around the port to make sure that everyone was accounted for, some of the craft already starting to rise into the air. Xipa watched a nearby lander dust off, the flames that spewed from its engines melting the runway beneath it, the asphalt having never been designed to withstand such heat. A torrent of plasma bolts sailed over the wall, splashing against its hull, but the Bug rifles didn’t have enough energy to penetrate its armor.

“This way!” Xipa shouted, waving for Miqi to follow her. She led everyone over to one of the Valbara’nay dropships, finding some Commandos already strapping into their seats inside its bay. Miqi and her flock did the same, some of the other Valbara’nay helping them fasten their harnesses, while the taller aliens ducked under the relatively low ceiling. Bluejay sat down beside the door gunner, Fletcher jamming himself awkwardly into a seat that was far too small for him. Ruza and Gustave stood no chance of sitting down, so Ruza gripped a handhold on the ceiling while Gustave simply flopped down onto his belly in the space that would usually be occupied by the tankettes. He was so long when stretched out that he took up almost enough space for two of the vehicles.

“Get that ramp closed!” Xipa snapped, the roar of the engines making the metal deck vibrate beneath her feet. “Pilot – get us out of here!”

“Looks like we’re one of the last dropships to take off,” Fletcher announced, checking his wrist display. “Man, I wish we could detonate the rest of those Kodiaks remotely. That’d give the critters something to chew on.”

“Look at them!” Bluejay marveled, leaning out of the gunner’s door to get a better view of the ground. Rather than unstrap herself, Xipa tuned into his feed, watching the scene from his point of view. The door gunner was still firing as their craft lifted off the runway, sending streams of tungsten into the massing Drones below, the creatures crashing over the wall like a crimson tide. They squeezed through the breaches, clambering over the abandoned tanks, firing their weapons at the undersides of the rising ships.

“We bailed just in time,” Fletcher sighed, his prosthetic hands gripping the tiny armrests of his seat. “Five more minutes down there, and we would have been swamped.”

Xipa settled back into her chair, allowing herself to exhale the breath that she had been holding. Finally, after so much careful planning – so much arguing and persuasion – it was over. It felt like a lifetime ago that she had detected that distress beacon in orbit, and now, all of the survivors were safe. She felt someone nudge her, turning her head to see Miqi beaming at her, her flock leaning into the aisle to follow suit.

“We did it,” she said, flutters of relieved green flowing through her feathers. “I can’t believe we survived that.”

“We’ll be docking with the carrier soon enough,” Xipa replied, reaching over to give her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Then, we can start figuring out where all the civilians ended up – make sure all the flocks are reunited. They’ll be spending some time in orbit, but we’ll make sure they have comfortable accommodations. Technology has advanced in the last thirty rotations, and we have-”

“Fuck!” Bluejay exclaimed, interrupting her. Xipa glanced over at him, seeing that he was leaning out of the open gunner door, halfway out of his seat. “We got a straggler!”

“What do you mean a straggler?” Fletcher demanded, hurriedly unbuckling his harness. He made his way across the troop bay, gripping handholds on the ceiling to steady himself as the craft shook around him, peering over Bluejay’s shoulder. Xipa switched to the Jarilan’s feed again, seeing that he was using his visor’s magnification to track something on the ground. Her heart froze in her chest as she saw a lone male clutching an infant in his arms. He was halfway up a broken support pylon from a collapsed maglev line some five hundred meters from the swarm, clinging to the rubble like he was trying to escape rising flood waters. The Bugs hadn’t noticed him yet – they were too busy tearing apart the port – but it was only a matter of time.

“How the fuck did he get there?” Fletcher snarled. “I thought everyone was accounted for!”

“Someone must have been separated from the group when we were attacked in the forest!” Xipa replied, her panels flushing purple. “Pilot!” she exclaimed. “Put us down!”

“There’s nowhere to land, Ensi!” she replied, her panicked voice filling Xipa’s helmet. “The forest is too thick, and there are too many Bugs! If this dropship goes to ground, it’s not coming back up!”

“We can’t just leave them!” Miqi wailed, quickly picking up on the conversation.

“Hold her steady!” Bluejay barked. He drew both of his handguns, then reached for the gunner beside him, snatching her XMH from its holster with his intact lower arm. Brandishing all three weapons, he stepped out onto the craft’s wing, his antennae whipping about in the rushing wind.

“Bluejay!” Fletcher yelled, but the Jarilan was gone before he could finish his protest. He opened up his wing casings, then dropped out of view.

Xipa watched through Fletcher’s feed, holding her breath as Bluejay plummeted feet-first towards the port some two hundred meters below them, his arms folded across his chest like a diver. The Bugs had noticed him immediately, a stream of glowing plasma bolts directed his way. At the last moment, he extended his wings, twisting and weaving as the projectiles shot past him. He danced through the air, skimming low across the treetops, his gossamer wings a blur.

A squad of Drones had honed in on the straggler’s scent, the creatures stalking through the forest on their way towards the man as he struggled in vain to climb higher. He turned his back to the aliens, protecting the squirming baby with his body, anticipating a hail of gunfire.

Bluejay blew through the canopy like a missile, aiming for the rearmost Drone, planting his feet in its back. The thing buckled, Bluejay’s momentum driving it to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dry leaves as it skidded on its face. He put two rounds into the back of its head before it had even come to a stop, hopping off its limp body as its five squadmates whirled around to face him.

Bluejay cut two of them down before they could even raise their weapons, perforating their abdomens with slugs, the recoil from Fletcher’s overpowered weapon almost making him lose his grip on it. He caught a third Drone with the sidearm held in his lower hand, firing it from the hip, sending the alien staggering backwards into a tree as ichor leaked from the holes in its chest.

He dropped into a crouch as one of the two remaining Drones managed to line up a shot on him, the plasma bolt from its resin rifle sailing over his head, coming close enough to singe his antennae. His wing casings popped open, dry leaves sent swirling into the air as he propelled himself towards his assailant, shouldering the surprised Bug to the forest floor. It managed to swipe one of his sidearms out of his upper hand, but he unloaded the remaining two into its helmet.

The final Drone drew its chitin blade and came at him from the side, swinging the weapon at his head. It forced him to roll off his latest victim to avoid it, Bluejay leaping to his feet a couple of meters away. His opponent wasted no time, denying him the opportunity to aim one of his guns, pressing the attack. Bluejay was forced to dodge and weave as he retreated, the two insects moving so quickly that Xipa could scarcely follow what was happening.

The Drone forced him up against a tree, and Bluejay ducked as it swung the weapon at his neck, intending to decapitate him. The blade’s sharp edge cut into the bark, becoming stuck, Bluejay taking advantage of the momentary opening to deliver a savage kick that sent the thing staggering away from him. It drew its plasma pistol from a sheath that was molded into its thigh, but Bluejay was faster, dispatching it with a torrent of semi-automatic fire. As its lifeless body slumped to the ground, he tossed his now-empty weapons aside, turning his eyes to the straggler.

“More are coming, Jay!” Fletcher warned over the radio. “Get the hell out of there!”

Bluejay extended his wings again, launching himself off the ground. He crossed the two hundred meters between himself and the civilian in a few seconds, landing on the cracked carbcrete beside him, anchoring himself to the unsteady structure with his hands.

“Come on!” he yelled, not caring that the Valbara’nay couldn’t understand him. The meaning was obvious enough. He swept the man into his arms, wrapping all three limbs around him. The male clutched his infant tightly, coiling his long tail around Bluejay’s waist for purchase.

There was another stream of gunfire, this time coming from the dropship. The door gunner was hosing the forest behind Bluejay, trying to dissuade the Drones that were rushing towards him.

The Jarilan kicked off, his wings opening after a brief moment of weightlessness, sending him climbing into the air. He was a little slower with the extra weight, less agile. Another cloud of glowing projectiles came racing towards him from the direction of the port, but he was cast into shadow as the pilot maneuvered her dropship into their path, shielding him with its armored hull. Its thrusters tore at the canopy as the heavy craft struggled to come about, the fire from the gunner ceasing as Bluejay aimed for the door, blowing through the narrow aperture. He rolled on the deck, still clutching the straggler in his arms, careening into Gustave’s scaly flank. The reptile’s fat acted as a cushion, bringing him to a dead stop, the sound of a frightened baby filling the bay.

Bluejay released his hold on the civilian, the man climbing to his feet unsteadily, the infant wriggling unhappily in his grasp. He was quickly swarmed by Commandos and Miqi’s flock, who guided him over to one of the seats, Ruza hurrying over to inspect the pair. Bluejay leaned against Gustave’s belly as he caught his breath, popping off his helmet.

“You crazy son of a space Bug,” Fletcher exclaimed, reaching down to take his hand. He hauled the Jarilan to his feet, then locked him in a one-armed hug for a few moments. “You’re just showing off at this point.”

Before he could reply, Miqi threw herself at him, his eyes widening in surprise as she wrapped her arms around him. She pressed her scaly snout against his face, flutters of pink passing through her feathers as she nuzzled. Bluejay didn’t seem to know what to do, raising his three hands as though afraid to touch her, but he soon returned her embrace.

“She says thank you,” Xipa explained, grinning as he gave her a confused look.

“Ensi, please tell your people to take a seat,” the pilot announced as the craft began to climb. “I’m assuming that they prefer having their organs inside their bodies.”

Those that could fit in the crash couches fastened their harnesses, Ruza and Gustave holding on to whatever was in reach, G-forces starting to tug at them. Turbulence buffeted the dropship as it rose through the atmosphere, shaking Xipa in her chair, the baby’s shrill crying rising above the drone of the engines. It would have been grating in any other circumstances, but today, she welcomed the sound.

When the craft broke orbit, there was a moment of microgravity that made Xipa’s stomach lurch, then the AG field engaged to secure her feet to the deck. She climbed out of her seat, glancing down the aisle to check that everyone was okay. The seats were filled with Commandos and survivors, the straggler cradling his child protectively. She had to step around Gustave’s bulk, as he was still stretched out on the floor, but he loosed a low rumble to let her know that he was alright.

She made her way over to one of the small portholes, Miqi joining her, the two peering down at the red landmasses far below.

“Didn’t I say that you’d see Kerguela from space one day?” Xipa asked with a proud flash of red.

“True to your word, as usual,” Miqi chuckled. Xipa could see the green flashes of relief in her feathers – she could hear it in her voice. “I can’t believe we’re finally safe. I’ve never…been safe before. Not really.”

“We wiped the moon’s orbit clear of Bugs in the first wave of attacks,” Xipa explained, settling into another nearby seat. “There’s nothing up here that can harm your people now. Pilot!” she added. “Take us to the Earth’nay carrier.”

“We were ordered to dock with the flagship, Ensi,” the pilot replied. “Should I tell the Vengeance that we’re rerouting to the Wizna?”

“Affirmative,” Xipa replied. “That’s where most of the refugees will have ended up.”

She felt a tug of inertia as the ship changed direction, the pilot keying in a new approach. Miqi and her flock were still glued to the windows, watching the planet below intently, gazing at the fleets of ships floating above its horizon.

Fletcher made his way over and sat down beside Xipa, shifting in the tiny seat awkwardly.

“Well, that went pretty well.”

“Could have gone better,” she chuckled. “I just hope we didn’t leave anyone else behind.”

“Not likely,” he replied. “That guy must have slipped through the net somehow. We’ll do a headcount once everyone is in one place – make sure we nabbed them all.”

“I’m looking forward to directing the rest of the invasion from a comfortable bridge chair,” she added, leaning her head on his shoulder. She was at the brink of exhaustion, and she didn’t care who knew about their relationship anymore. “I want you by my side,” she added with a sigh. “I expect that Vos will try to redeploy you, but after how ardently he argued against launching this mission in the first place, I’m confident that he’ll give me whatever I ask for.”

“How are you gonna sell that?” Fletcher asked skeptically.

“I want a bodyguard, of course,” she replied with a smirk. “He strikes me as the kind of man who doesn’t like being reminded of his mistakes. Vos gets to forget about being incredibly, unequivocally wrong, and I get my Earth’nay. Besides, you need to get those arms fixed.”

“We’ve been given priority docking clearance, Ensi,” the pilot announced. “Heading to hangar bay two now.”

“Having friends in high places has its benefits,” Fletcher mused.

There was another tug as the dropship began its final approach, the pilot instructing the passengers to return to their seats. Xipa felt a clunk beneath the deck as the landing gear descended, the subtle, blue glow of the force field that kept the atmosphere inside the hangar bay passing along the portholes. They touched down with a thud, the muffled roar of the engines finally subsiding.

“Follow me!” Xipa said, popping open her visor and switching to Valbara’nay for the benefit of the survivors. “Stay close, and don’t wander. We’re about to walk out onto an active flight deck, so there could be dangerous equipment and ships taking off. It’s going to be noisy.”

The ramp descended, artificial light flooding into the troop compartment, revealing the shimmering barrier and the stars beyond. Kerguela’s red horizon rose up from below, the massive gas giant dominating the sky above it, auroras dancing through its atmosphere. The refugee clutched his baby tightly, pressing closer to Miqi and her flock as he gazed out into the void. To the uninitiated, it was a frightening sight, as if one could simply step out into the deadly vacuum.

As they turned to walk around the dropship’s camouflaged hull, the newcomers craned their necks, taking in the strange scenery. The ceiling loomed high above their heads, making the hangar look more like an artificial cave than anything resembling a Valbara’nay ship’s cramped interior. The flight deck was packed with fighters and dropships that were undergoing repairs or rearming, engineers clad in yellow coveralls jogging back and forth, carrying tablet computers and tools in their hands. There were Krell’nay, too, the giant reptiles wearing matching yellow ponchos. They were carrying heavier loads, hefting enormous missiles into empty weapon racks and hauling spools of fuel line across the deck.

There was the screech of an engine, Xipa snapping her head around to see a Beewolf fighter preparing for takeoff some distance to their left. A blast panel had extended from the deck to shield the personnel and equipment behind it from the backwash, blue flames licking at its charred surface. The fighter accelerated with a lurch, shooting off along the deck on its wheeled landing gear. It never took off, simply sliding out of the force field and into the microgravity beyond, banking away as soon as it was in open space.

Xipa spotted a large group of Valbara’nay who were clustered at the base of the back wall off to the far right of the hangar. It looked like most of the refugees had ended up here. They looked confused, some of them flashing overwhelmed colors as they glanced around the bay nervously, but the prevailing hue was a relieved green. They knew that they were out of danger now, as unfamiliar as their new surroundings might be. They were being guarded by several flocks of Commandos, and some Earth’nay engineers were handing out Valbara’nay MREs, identifiable by the Navy patterning on the packets.

As Xipa’s group approached, the refugees began to notice them. Three women in particular unlocked their legs, flashing colors of surprise and relief, pushing past the Commandos who tried in vain to corral them. They raced across the deck, weaving around a startled Marine, covering the distance at a sprint. The male ran out to meet them, Xipa quickly realizing that it was a family reunion as he threw himself into their arms, their joyful feather patterns infectious. They fawned over the squealing baby, passing it between them, embracing their mate.

“We lost him at the port!” one of them explained tearfully as Xipa approached. “There was so much chaos after the insects attacked the caravan, and they were separating everyone into different ships. We didn’t know what had happened to him, and they wouldn’t let us stay behind to search. Thank you, Ensi, thank you!”

“It wasn’t my doing,” she replied, gesturing to Bluejay.

“The insect saved us,” the male confirmed, prying himself away from one of his clinging flockmates. “He flew down from the dropship, fought off a whole flock of mealworms single-handed!”

The three women gave Bluejay the same treatment, crowding around him, embracing him to express their gratitude.

“Did I not promise that your reputation would precede you one day?” Xipa chuckled as the women released the flustered Jarilan.

Now reunited with his flock, the male thanked Bluejay one last time, then headed off to rejoin the other refugees at the back of the hangar. His flock were treating him like he was made of glass now, guiding him towards a group of friends who foisted an MRE into his hands.

“We should go with them,” Miqi said, leading her flock aside. “Our place is with our people.”

“There is still much left to do, but we’ll keep in touch,” Xipa replied. “I’ll see that the refugees are given suitable accommodations and that you’re returned to your city at the earliest opportunity.”

“I know you’ll keep your word,” Miqi added with a smile.

“In fact, I believe that the UNN shipped in reinforcements on several cruise liners,” Xipa mused. “Perhaps I can have one of them jump in from Valbara. That would certainly be an interesting experience for someone who has been living in an old waste treatment plant for their entire life.”

“If you say so,” Miqi chuckled. She turned to face Bluejay, looking him up and down. “Keep track of this one for me, will you? I’d like to thank him properly when this is all over.”

She gave him a flush of pink, then set off into the hangar, her flock following behind her.

“What was that about?” Bluejay asked, reaching up to fiddle with one of his antennae in a way that came off distinctly nervous.

“I think she’s hitting on you,” Fletcher said, giving him a nudge with a prosthetic elbow.

The team was finally alone again, standing on the deck of a hangar, the same way that they had started out. Not everything had come full circle, however. While Xipa had resented their presence when she had first met them, she now felt a pang of emotion at the prospect of parting ways.

“I suppose this is goodbye for now,” Xipa said, turning to face them. “Once I make the appropriate arrangements for the refugees, I’ll need to return to my flagship to resume my duties as Ensi. I won’t need an escort anymore.”

“I’ll stick around until we get new orders or until you can convince Vos to give up my leash,” Fletcher said. “Lord knows I need a hot shower and a change of arms.”

“Ditto,” Bluejay added, waving his stump. “I’d like to help keep an eye on the civilians until they’re all settled in. This is going to be a very strange environment for them. Hopefully, one of the Jarilan ships can cook me up a replacement arm in the meantime.”

“You’re like a sheepdog, Jay,” Fletcher chuckled. “You just can’t shake that protective instinct, can you?”

“My offer still stands, Fletcher,” Bluejay added as he glanced at the Earth’nay’s damaged prosthetics. “I’m pretty confident that our medics can grow you a new pair of arms if you provide them with a suitable gene sample. The legs, too, if you want.”

“I’ll think on it,” Fletcher replied, reaching down to rub his polymer wrist. “Having to relearn how to use my organics would be a bitch and a half, but I might end up having the time if my retirement plans pan out.”

“The same goes for you, Ruza,” Bluejay added as he turned to the towering feline. “If anyone can get your radiation sickness sorted out, it’s the Jarilans. Just say the word.”

“If nothing else, it will be enlightening to learn what medical advances your kind have made,” Ruza replied. “I am sure that the admiral will want to debrief us when he has the opportunity. Until then, there are many here who might need treatment. Starting with you,” he added, taking Gustave by the arm. “Come, I am taking you to the infirmary for a full checkup.”

Trying to drag an uncooperative Krell’nay was like trying to move a mountain, Gustave emitting a mournful trill as he stood there stubbornly. He turned to his friends, leaning down to bring his enormous snout into range, bumping it into Fletcher’s face. He did the same for each of them, nuzzling with his scaly nose, his massive nostrils blowing Ruza’s hair. Perhaps it was some kind of Krell’nay goodbye.

I will remain inside circle until Elders instruct me,” he said, his translator interpreting his rumbling speech. “Besides,” he added, slapping the deck with his heavy tail in a gesture that Xipa couldn’t parse. “I left my gun behind.”

“It sounds like we’re all going to be reconvening very soon,” Fletcher said with a wide grin.

Before he would cooperate with Ruza, Gustave reached for his armored collar, hooking his thumbs beneath his necklace. The assortment of shells and beads clattered as he lifted it over his head, the heavy, wooden pendant swinging back and forth. He brought it over Xipa’s head, then realized that it was far too large for her, starting to spool the hairy rope into smaller coils that were more suitable for her slender neck. With all the gentleness of a child playing with a mouse, he lowered it down, Xipa feeling its weight settle about her shoulders.

“You’re giving this to me?” Xipa asked, lifting the pendant to admire the strange rune that had been carved into its polished face. “You don’t have to do that, Gustave!”

Necklace carry deep meaning for my circle,” he explained, the synthetic translation lagging behind his resonating speech. Xipa listened intently, certain that this was about to be the longest conversation Gustave had ever had with her. “Beads of glass and shells of lake,” he continued, reaching down to run one of his massive claws across the marbles. “These arrangements – colors – bend fate, enhance strength. I made this, at my home,” he continued as he patted his broad chest. He was trying so hard to make himself understood. “Ward of bullets will keep harm away.”

“I think he just gave you a protection charm,” Bluejay mused.

“Hell, even I can’t make fun of that,” Fletcher added with a shrug. “Nothing seems to be able to kill the fucker, so there’s more evidence for than against at this point.”

“What does this mean?” Xipa asked, pointing to the rune.

Pendant is most important,” Gustave replied, pausing for a moment as though considering how best to explain. “We carve a wish held most earnest into the wood. Mine, to find a male befitting my strength, one who would sire me a clutch of strong hatchlings.”

“W-what?” Xipa stammered, cocking her head at him as her panels flashed a surprised yellow. “Gustave, did something get lost in translation, or did you just tell me you wanted to lay a clutch of eggs?”

“Wait, you’re female?” Fletcher added as he popped open his visor in disbelief. “Come here, you giant lizard.” He reached for the bulky translator that was wrapped around the Krell’nay’s wrist, yanking it closer as he began to examine the display. He tapped at it, scrolling through its menus, of which there seemed to be many. “You had it on default settings!” he finally exclaimed, peering up at the confused reptile. “You’re using the male voice option, you oversized iguana! Ruza!” he added, turning to stare accusingly at the Borealan. “Aren’t you supposed to be a doctor? Didn’t you notice that he wasn’t packing?”

“It is almost impossible to tell their genders apart without close examination,” he replied with a dismissive shrug. “They have very little sexual dimorphism, no external genitalia.”

“Gustave, you never told us?” Fletcher asked. Bluejay was just laughing, apparently finding the entire situation very amusing. “You never corrected us?”

You did not ask,” the Krell’nay replied. “Not an important question.”

“This explains why she’s so strong,” Xipa said, giving Gustave an approving smile. “Krell’nay embody the feminine virtues depicted in ancient carvings of Valbara’nay war deities – that’s what I said to you when we first landed in the forest.”

“You didn’t know,” Fletcher grumbled, crossing his arms in a huff. “They all look the same.”

“I was still right,” she chuckled. “Thank you,” she continued, giving Gustave a pulse of grateful green and yellow. “This is a beautiful gift, and I’ll treasure it.”

Gustave bowed her head, gave Fletcher an amused huff, then finally deigned to cooperate with Ruza. The Borealan led her away into the hangar, the pair soon vanishing between the racks of equipment and the crowds of personnel.

“So, uh,” Bluejay mumbled in an attempt to get their attention. “I guess that rune applies to you now.”

“What do you mean?” Xipa asked, lifting the pendant to admire it again.

“Gustave wants you to find a male who will sire you strong hatchlings,” he explained, glancing pointedly between Xipa and Fletcher. “It’s not a coincidence that she decided to give it to you.”

“Will you go find another baby to rescue or something?” Fletcher complained, shooing him away with a wave of his hand.

“What?” Bluejay chuckled, gesturing to his feathery antennae as he backed away. “I can pick up the scent of Betelgeusian pheromones at one part per million in atmosphere. You think I don’t know that you two have been doing the horizontal chacha? I think you’re perfect for each other, by the way. Am I getting invited to the wedding?”

“Go on, get!” Fletcher snapped.

“I’ll see you guys later!” Bluejay said as he jogged off towards the group of refugees.

“Where is he even learning these phrases?” Fletcher complained, clearly more flustered than angry. “There are some bad influences on Jarilo. These Bugs need some better parenting.”

“You’re turning red again,” Xipa said, smirking at him as he closed his opaque visor to hide his face. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a secret for very long.”

“Or at all,” Fletcher scoffed. “Every other species seems to have the nose of a goddamned bomb-sniffing dog.”

“I guess you should take that shower, then,” Xipa said as she coiled her prehensile tail around his arm possessively. “I’ll join you. Vos has plenty on his plate right now. He can wait while we get a change of clothes and a hot meal.”

“For once, I don’t mind making the admiral wait,” he replied.