The Autumn War

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

PROLOGUE: THE FALL OF KERGUELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still nothing?” Nimi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough of us for what?” Xipa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I-”

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

“You good to walk?” Xipa asked.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What should we do?” Nimi asked.

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

“Easier said than done,” Xipa sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?”

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

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

“Me?” she chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck was that?” Nimi gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirteen,” she replied, the guard nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do you need us?” Nimi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

30 Years Later – In Valbaran Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many ships?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The very same,” he replied proudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about fighter craft?” he asked.

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

“And, the rest of your fleet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you intend to breach those defenses?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Whatever, man. Still got laid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That will be easy to arrange, Admiral.”

“Very well, begin jump prep, Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Admiral,” she began with a curt nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye aye,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was chaotic, and undeniably beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the fighters?” Fielding asked.

“Scramble your air wings, Captain.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Room for a few more, Earth’nay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“-incoming at ten o’clock!-”

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

“-he’s on you, burn, burn-”

“-solid hits on that fucker!-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye aye, Admiral.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Red forests, right?” Evan added.

The Lieutenant arrived at the door, already wearing his armor, his rapid footsteps alerting the Marines. He leaned into the armory, out of breath, hitting the touchpad on his helmet to open his visor.

“First shift, you guys are on window scraping duty,” he announced, which was answered by a chorus of groans. “Suck it up, Marines! We got critters crawling around on the hulls of the Okinawa and the Dragoon, and they’re trying to cut a way inside. It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen here. Grab your shields and get to your designated airlocks.”

The Marines moved to the weapon racks, each stowed rifle labeled with a number so its owner could find it. The XMR was a man-portable railgun, a modular weapon designed to be easily configurable for use by different species. It was made from black polymer, the barrel lined with magnetic coils. The platform fired a 50x6mm tungsten round, which could leave the barrel at two kilometers per second, depending on the voltage level.

Evan slung a carrier over his chest piece, filling it with spare magazines, then stowed his gun on his back. Next, he slotted his XMH into a holster on his thigh, a sidearm variant of the larger rifle. When he was loaded up, he moved over to the far wall, where one of his companions was passing out shields. They were six feet tall and wider than the span of a man’s shoulders, large enough to completely obscure the person carrying them, still sporting the black coloration of the original armor. There was a reinforced window at about head-height that would let the wielder see through it, little more than a transparent letterbox. Evan hooked his arm through the straps, struggling to lift the thing. It was heavy, but it wasn’t designed to be used in gravity. These shields had electromagnets in the skirt that lined the bottom, which would secure it to the hull of a ship when activated, providing precious cover for the user.

When they were all geared up, they made their way out of the armory, following the winding corridors until they arrived at the nearest airlock. They lined up by the inner door, the sound of Evan’s own heavy breathing filling his helmet.

“Fuck window scraping, man,” Hernandez grumbled from behind him. “First shift, worst shift, am I right?”

“First group, into the airlock!” the Lieutenant ordered. The queue moved forward a few paces, then stopped, Evan leaning past the Marine ahead of him to get a look. The airlocks were too small for everyone to fit inside at once, so they were going in groups of half a dozen. There were a thousand Marines in the first duty shift, but they’d be spread out around the ship, using various different airlocks. There were about sixty people in Evan’s current group.

The Lieutenant waved the next group in, Evan finding himself standing next to the inner door. Through the reinforced window, he could see the group inside, checking the seals on their suits as they prepared to go EVA. A warning light flashed, the outer door slowly sliding open, the air inside rushing out into the void. The six Marines slowly walked out, their gait changing as they transitioned from the ship’s AG field to their magnetic boots. The floor curved away, leveling out with the exterior hull, letting the men walk directly onto it like a ramp.

Evan was next, Hernandez squeezing into the airlock beside him, the deck shaking as he set down his heavy shield.

“We got this,” his friend said, knocking their armored shoulder plates together. “Just don’t fill your helmet with puke like Kim did on his first EVA.”

“Not helping,” Evan complained, hearing the inner door close behind them. He brought up the panel on his wrist, checking his pressure, then switching to the local comms network. There was no atmosphere in space, and thus no sound.

The warning light bathed the airlock in red, then the outer door opened, Evan hearing a whoosh of air before everything went as silent as the grave. His boots secured to the floor, the electromagnets rooting him in place. Trying to walk in them was an odd sensation, almost like there were suction cups on his feet, only activating when they were in proximity to the floor. You had to walk kind of like you were wading through ankle-deep mud, lifting each foot.

Beyond the door was an inky-black starfield, a yawning abyss, Evan fighting his vertigo as he willed himself to march forward. The curve of the floor played tricks on him, his instincts insisting that he was about to walk straight off a cliff, but he pressed on. His stomach lurched as he left the ship’s AG field, only his boots keeping him from floating off into space now. One step at a time, always keep one foot on the floor…

He emerged into a new landscape, the grey, featureless hull of the assault carrier sloping away like a horizon. He was standing on the side of the ship, looking out towards the vessel’s prow, the shimmering blue of the hangar’s force field like a lake in the distance. There was no atmospheric haze here, none of the cues the human brain usually relied upon to judge distance, which had a disorienting effect. The Marines who had already left the airlock were standing around him in a loose circle, guarding the airlock, their shields anchored to the hull. Being out here reinforced how necessary they were. There was no cover – they’d be sitting ducks without them.

When he glanced up, he was met with a vista that made his breath catch in his throat. The sky was full of ships, dozens of them, maybe hundreds. The assault carrier was in the middle of a battle, a close-range slugfest, the fact that he could even see them driving that point home. Engagements like this usually took place well beyond visual range, but some of the craft were so close that he could make out shapes moving beyond their bridge windows. UNN frigates and thin, modular Valbaran ships were coasting across the sky, pouring streams of tracer fire into what looked like a whole fleet of Bug vessels that were descending upon them. Fighters zipped back and forth, strafing the enemy, flashes of green and orange from exploding torpedoes reflecting off his visor. He could see the four jump carriers, flying ahead of the assault carrier in a diamond formation, their upright position making it look like four skyscrapers were hanging there in the void.

Beyond the fleet was the gas giant, wreathed in clouds of blue and purple, so large that he couldn’t even process it. Fuck, were they even safe out here with all that radiation? Here’s hoping the goddamned pressure suits could withstand it. Kerguela curved away beneath him, the autumn forests clearly visible, the seas and rivers shimmering in the sunlight. The scale of everything made him feel like an ant – no – a speck of dust. He turned his focus to the hull of the ship, trying to trick his brain into thinking that it was the ground.

Evan anchored his shield, weightless now, feeling a vibration reverberate through it as he activated the magnets. It was nice to have a third point of contact. It made him feel a little more secure. He drew his handgun, keeping his arm hooked through the loops.

After a few minutes, all of the Marines were out on the hull, the Lieutenant taking point as he led them up towards the top of the carrier. As they followed the curve of its hull, a new, more terrifying sight came into view. Looming over the formation of assault carriers were half a dozen large Betelgeusian ships. It was hard to tell exactly how big they were, as there was no frame of reference, but they looked at least five or six hundred feet long. Their innumerable eyes looked down on the carriers as they opened their armored legs, revealing a mass of growths that covered their segmented bellies. They looked like hundreds of sunflower seeds that had been pushed into green putty at random intervals, or maybe maggots in spoiled meat, the sight making Evan shiver.

One of them was targeting the Spratley, extending its crab-like limbs as though intending to land on it. CIWS fire arced up from somewhere behind Evan, the cannons spewing tracer rounds at it, peppering its hull. The assault carriers only had defensive weapons in the form of four point defense guns, and they weren’t powerful enough to do any serious damage to anything larger than a fighter. There was a frigate nearby that was blowing chunks out of its shell with a broadside barrage, but the insect was indifferent, single-minded in its task. Whatever it was doing apparently didn’t require its survival.

The little seeds that were embedded in its belly began to fire out like tiny bullets, leaving holes that resembled wounds in their wake. They raced out towards the carrier, growing larger the closer they came, Evan taking cover behind his shield reflexively as they impacted the hull some distance away. He felt the vessel shake beneath his feet, a series of tremors rocking it, as though it had been struck by a giant shotgun blast.

When he looked up again, those same seeds were now embedded in the Spratley’s hull. He could see at least three dozen scattered along its 800-foot length, jutting out at various angles, forming a kind of eerie forest of alien structures. They had looked so tiny, but now that he had something familiar to compare them with, they were at least sixty feet long. They were made from some kind of hard, resin-like substance that looked organic in nature, which was covered over with plates of protective carapace the color of bone. They tapered into a point on one end, which was now embedded in the ship, keeping them anchored. The armor plating had cracked and buckled in places, but none of the pods had penetrated very deep, the sealant foam used on all UNN ships pouring out of the breaches now to stop any loss of atmosphere.

From the far side of the Spratley’s hull, Evan could see more of the Marines from the other airlocks walking up over the side of the carrier, their shields in hand. More squads were approaching from his side, too, turning their weapons on the pods. If those things hadn’t exploded yet, it probably meant they were full of Bugs.

They formed a cordon, creating a defensive line across the hull, the light from the raised bridge some distance behind them casting harsh shadows. Evan secured his shield, reaching for his rifle this time, keeping the sling over his shoulder so it didn’t float away if he let it go. He had to remember to pace his shots out here, as the weapons weren’t great at dissipating heat in a vacuum. The last thing he needed was his barrel slagging in the middle of a firefight. He peered through the narrow aperture, watching the strange pods.

After a moment, one of them began to crack open. A shaped piece of plating ejected from the main body of the pod, remaining connected to it by strands of pale meat before they snapped, the chunk of chitin sailing away over the heads of the defenders. It was followed by a cloud of gas, crystallizing in the frigid vacuum, turning into a shimmering mist. What remained was a gaping wound, the shadowy interior filled with wet, glistening flesh.

From within emerged a colorful appendage, a long, spindly limb sheathed in a red carapace. It gripped the bumpy exterior of the pod, finding purchase as it crawled into view. Evan had seen Betelgeusian Drones before, he had even killed a few, but this one was different. He had expected the Bugs here to follow the same basic body plan as the rest, with two legs and four arms. This one was warped, more insect-like in appearance. What would usually have been its legs were bent at the hip like they had been broken, facing in the opposite direction, splayed wide. Its toes were arranged symmetrically around its foot, resembling the claw from an arcade machine. What should have been its secondary pair of arms were grotesquely elongated to give them more reach, and instead of hands, it had those same claws. Its upper body was more recognizable, albeit thinner than usual, some kind of firearm made from orange resin clutched in its arms. It looked like a praying mantis, crawling down the side of the pod with a four-legged gait, surprisingly sure of itself in the microgravity.

When it reached the hull of the ship, it was able to grip it with its toes, pawing at the material as it searched for footholds. It glanced up at the line of shields, a branching horn sprouting from its helmeted head. The two large, compound lenses that Evan was used to were joined by several smaller ones that were arranged around its head in odd positions, perhaps to give it a wider field of view. It had insect-like antennae, too, jutting up from its head. They were long and straight, covered in fine hairs.

Hernandez leveled his rifle, bracing it against the edge of his shield, then fired. There was no sound in the vacuum, but Evan saw the way the weapon kicked into his shoulder, the magnetic coils emitting a dull glow as they heated up.

The molten slug impacted the Bug in the face, blowing open its head like a melon, sending chunks of chitin and viscera sailing away. More of the pods were opening up now, a whole army of the four-legged aliens crawling their way out, leveling their two-pronged rifles as they surged onto the Spratley’s hull. They had no cover but that which they had brought with them, darting behind their pods when they realized that they had a welcoming committee, leaning out to fire around them. The way they moved was unnerving, kind of like a spider walking across a ceiling. They were adapted for this environment, maybe even bred for the sole purpose of living in space.

The Marines had the advantage, a hail of tungsten slugs reducing everything that wasn’t hiding behind a pod to clouds of gore, a kind of mist made up of droplets of bodily fluids and tiny pieces of colorful shell settling over the battlefield. The defenders were arranged in groups of fifty or sixty, taking up position around the pods in a vague crescent, ensuring that there was no danger of friendly fire. The aliens answered with bolts of plasma from their resin rifles, their magnetic rails crackling with energy as they fired back. Evan felt his shield ring like a gong as it was struck, the heat-resistant material dissipating the thermal energy, the magnets holding fast. Those plasma bolts carried a surprising amount of kinetic energy with them.

Evan tapped at the touch panel on his wrist, bringing up a window on his visor’s HUD that showed a view from his rifle’s sights, synced wirelessly with his helmet. He leaned out just enough that he could get the barrel of his XMR past his shield, as though he was firing around a corner, bracing his magnetic boots against the deck. He lined up a shot, centering his reticle on a Bug that was leaning out of cover, then pulled the trigger. The insect exploded into gory confetti, the recoil almost tearing the weapon out of his hands, but the sling would prevent him from accidentally disarming himself. He couldn’t fire full-auto in a vacuum anyway, not without turning his coils to slag.

“Looks like they weren’t expectin’ this kinda resistance,” Hernandez chuckled on the local channel, firing off another shot. This one caught one of the Bugs in the shoulder, lifting it off the hull and sending it cartwheeling into space. As Evan tracked it, it slowly stabilized, stopping its spin.

“What the…Hernandez, you seeing this?”

He used his sights to zoom in on the thing, seeing that puffs of gas were shooting out of vents in its carapace.

“Fuckin’ thing has thrusters!” Hernandez exclaimed. The Bug began to slowly drift back towards the Spratley’s hull. Now, Evan could see that it had a hump on its back, almost like a rucksack, but made from chitin. Perhaps that was where it stored its propellant. It didn’t seem to have enough thrust to actually fly around, but it was enough to save it if it lost its footing. It suddenly exploded into a shower of viscera, Evan turning his head to see Hernandez lowering his rifle. “Just like skeet shootin’!”

The Bugs were becoming more organized now, getting their bearings, some of them clambering up the sixty-foot pods in an attempt to get a better angle on the defenders. Some of the Marines had to uproot their shields and retreat a ways to ensure the bolts didn’t hit them from above, the glowing plasma splashing against the armored hull like a liquid.

“How the hell did they plan on getting inside?” Evan wondered aloud, leaning out to knock one of the aliens off the top of a pod with a well-placed shot. “Did they expect these pods to penetrate?”

As if to answer his question, one of the pods in the center of the cluster popped open, sending its armored hatch sailing off into the void. From inside, a large mass crawled its way out, its profile instilling an instinctual fear in Evan. It was a Warrior, twelve feet tall, its thick armor and redundant systems making it almost impervious to all but the heaviest UNN weapons. Even if a lucky shot killed the pilot, the suit could still rampage around under the guidance of its own simple intelligence.

As its wide, heavily-armored shoulders cleared the breach, Evan saw that this specimen was a little different. Just like the Drones, it had been modified to have a four-legged stance, crawling down the side of the pod on segmented limbs that were as thick around as a human torso. The lower, backwards-facing pair were attached to the hips, while the upper pair were modified arms, disproportionately long. They were tipped with a trio of claws, but these were powerful enough to dig deep into the fleshy exterior of the pod, sinking into the hull when they reached it.

Its upper body was enormous, layered in overlapping plates of thick carapace in ocean green, which were themselves overlaid with artificial armor in places. Its eyes were slatted, elongated, more like visors than anything organic. A faint, green glow emanated from them, hinting at its technological augmentations.

Its left arm was a giant crab claw, as large and as heavy as the scoop on a backhoe, while its right ended in some kind of weapon. It looked as though the space between the two ends of its claw had been filled in with a mess of glowing components, mottled flesh, and winding cables. Evan couldn’t guess at its purpose.

“Focus fire on that Warrior!” the Lieutenant ordered over the priority channel, Evan turning his weapon on the thing. It didn’t seem interested in fighting them, scuttling away to put more of the pods between it and the Marines, the nearby Drones moving to lay down suppressing fire as though they were covering it.

“More of ‘em!” Hernandez shouted, Evan watching two more of the creatures climb out of their pods. They were identical save for the colors of their carapaces, a hail of XMR fire pocking their shells, but doing little to stop them as they retreated to cover. Hernandez had to duck back behind his shield as a barrage of plasma fire came his way, the Drones redoubling their efforts.

Evan poked his rifle over his shield, looking through the sight’s feed. He could make out one of the hulking Warriors, watching as it lowered its right arm, bringing it close to the hull. A bright beam of energy lanced out from it, blowing out the camera for a second. When it cleared, Evan saw that it was using some kind of giant plasma cutting torch to slice into the hull. So that was how they intended to get inside the ship.

“They’re cutting their way in!” he exclaimed, taking a few potshots at the thing. It shrugged them off, ignoring him as the armored plate began to slag under the heat of its weapon, another Drone peeking out to fire back at him.

“We can’t bring those things down,” the Lieutenant growled, putting his back to his shield. “Hold tight. I’m calling in air support.”

“Air support?” Hernandez asked warily. He turned his opaque visor to Evan, who shrugged in reply. Another salvo of plasma forced them both to duck behind their shields again, the aliens doing their best to protect the Warriors. If they didn’t do something soon, those things would cut through the hull and swarm into the unprotected decks below.

“Get ready,” the Lieutenant ordered, one hand on the side of his helmet. “On my mark, unload into the roaches. We have to keep their attention off the Beewolf.”

Before Evan could ask what Beewolf, a bright blue jet of flame drew his attention. It was coming in at a high angle from above the nose of the carrier, sailing over the forest of boarding pods. As it neared, he could make out the profile of a fighter, its jet-black stealth coating making it hard to pick out against the darkness of space. It was flying backwards, using its main engines to decelerate, matching velocity with the Spratley. He craned his neck to watch as it slowed to a stop above them, still moving, but seeming to hover from the perspective of the observers on the hull. It was upside-down, too, he realized. He could see the cockpit, situated high on the nose, the glow from the instrument panel lighting up the pilot within.

Between the cockpit and the twin tail fins, a hatch popped open like a trap door, the craft’s ventral railgun emerging from the fuselage. It seemed to be hanging from the craft, even though there was no gravity to tug on it, the cannon turning towards the pods.

The weapon began to fire, its coils glowing red-hot, the belt of tungsten slugs slowly disappearing as they fed into its blocky housing. The rounds sparked where they impacted the hull, blowing great chunks out of the pods. One of the Drones got in the way and was reduced to a fine mist, the anti-material slug carrying enough energy to completely eviscerate it. Evan watched through his scope as it honed in on one of the Warriors, the hail of gunfire taking it apart, blasting fist-sized holes out of its colorful carapace. No amount of redundancy would save it now, not when its own shell was being turned to shrapnel inside its body, spalling like the hull of a tank. The slugs cut straight through it, gradually dismembering it, its thick armor turned to Swiss cheese. One of its arms tore off, then one of its legs was severed at the knee joint, its bodily fluids freezing as they spewed out of the wounds. Its cutting torch faded, the behemoth going limp, floating in place as its claws still gripped the hull.

“Open fire!” the Lieutenant shouted, leveling his rifle. “Keep their attention off the Beewolf!”

Before the Bugs could fire on the fighter, the Marines opened up on them, forcing them back into cover. They got off a few bolts, but they splashed harmlessly against the craft’s hull, their thermal energy easily dissipated.

Evan bagged another Bug that was climbing up the side of one of the pods, watching as a second dead Warrior floated away from the hull behind it. The creature was motionless, its orange carapace pocked with dozens of large holes that exposed the off-green flesh within.

“They’re doin’ somethin’!” Hernandez warned, gesturing to a few of the Bugs with his rifle. They were clustering towards the starboard side of the ship, coordinating, emerging from cover to aim their resin weapons at one of the groups of Marines. They concentrated their fire, sending a torrent of boiling plasma their way, the glowing bolts of energy impacting the shields. One of them began to glow red-hot, melting under the sustained fire. The Marine taking refuge behind it didn’t even have time to move away, flecks of molten metal spraying him. Several of the bolts made it through as the barrier disintegrated, his ceramic armor subjected to the same treatment, the impacts lifting him off the hull. The Marines to his left and right braved the cooling slag to try to grab him, but they were soon forced back as the Bugs kept up their barrage. There was a puff of gas as the Marine’s suit breached, and he soon stopped his thrashing, floating away into the void.

The defenders quickly moved to counter, the group of Bugs torn to ribbons by the return fire, their colorful fluids painting the pods around them.

Above their head, the Beewolf circled around, still upside down relative to the Spratley as it drifted silently. Bursts of gas jetted from its thrusters as it maneuvered, searching for a better angle on the remaining Warrior. Evan saw it fire, then there was a bright green explosion from within the towering pods, pieces of green carapace scattering into the air. The slugs must have ruptured whatever means it used to store its plasma.

The Beewolf loosed a few more shots, picking off some targets of opportunity, then angled its nose away from the carrier. It dipped its wings in a salute before powering off into the darkness, the nearby Marines waving in thanks.

“The Warriors are down,” the Lieutenant said, his voice crackling through Evan’s headset. “Move in and clear out the rest of the boarders.”

Evan deactivated the magnets on his shield, pushing it along ahead of him as he trudged across the hull. He stowed his rifle, drawing his handgun, finding it easier to handle one-handed. It would be just as deadly at these ranges. Hernandez merely pulled his rifle tight against his shoulder, bracing it against the edge of his shield.

The pods were maybe two hundred feet away, and they cleared the distance quickly, the different teams coordinating to ensure that they didn’t accidentally shoot each other. The numbers of Bugs had thinned now, but there were still enough left to offer resistance. Evan felt a plasma bolt slam into his shield, knocking it into his shoulder. For a moment, he felt his magnetic boots slip on the hull, a pang of fear making his heart skip a beat. Hernandez moved in, cutting down his assailant with a couple of well-placed shots, sending its broken body careening away. It bounced off the pod behind it, turning slowly as it floated out of sight.

“You good?” he demanded.

“Yeah, yeah,” Evan replied breathlessly. “Thanks, man.”

Their group of maybe sixty Marines spread out between the pods, sweeping their weapons back and forth. The alien structures were packed densely enough that only three or four people could stand side by side between them, obscuring the lines of sight. Evan felt like he was walking into an alien forest, Bugs potentially hiding behind every tree. As he rounded one of the pods, watching his footing carefully on the damaged hull, a glint of yellow caught his eye. He lurched, aiming his handgun around his shield, then lowering it again. The Bug was already dead, its carapace full of holes, its blood forming frozen spheres in the vacuum. One of its claws was still gripping the twisted metal, preventing it from floating away.

Everywhere they looked, there were dead Drones, most of them slowly drifting just off the hull. It was eerie, droplets of airborne bug juice splattering against Evan’s visor as he moved through the bodies, pushing the weightless insects out of his path.

There was a flash of green, Evan ducking behind his shield reflexively as a Drone leapt out of cover on its four legs, firing its rifle at him. He couldn’t believe how quick and agile they were in the low gravity. The team responded in kind, filling the thing with holes, its azure-blue carapace cracking in a spider web pattern where the slugs struck it. It was knocked back against the pod behind it, going limp, its arms hanging there like it was floating underwater.

“Keep your eyes peeled,” Hernandez said, the coils on his XMR slowly losing their red glow as they cooled. “Fuckin’ critters could be hidin’ anywhere.”

As they proceeded deeper, a sudden muffled cry rang out over the local channel, Evan snapping his head around to see the Marine furthest to the left of their four-man group grappling with a Drone. It had been waiting for them on the far side of one of the pods, hiding until they drew close enough that it could reach out and grab one of them. The Marine was torn from the hull, lifted into the air, his shield tumbling away as he lost his grip on it. The Bug was perched maybe six feet up the side of the pod, its clawed feet gripping the uneven surface. It was deceptively strong for something so lanky, bringing the Marine closer, starting to claw at his suit. It didn’t seem to know what he was, or what he was made from, its sharp fingers raking at his ceramic chest piece. When it realized that it wasn’t doing any damage, it pushed its fingers between two of the plates, trying to pry them open. This hive would have never seen humans before, and the Drone might have assumed that he was a fellow arthropod due to his armored appearance.

The rest of the team were aiming their rifles, but there was no way to get a shot off while the two were wrestling. The Marine had no leverage, no solid surface to push off, so all he could do was flail at the creature. He clocked it in the side of the head with his armored fist, the thing paying him little mind, still trying to find a way to breach his suit. The sling of his XMR was still tangled around his forearm, but he only had one hand free, the insect gripping the other. Instead, he reached for his hip, pulling out his sidearm and dumping the magazine into the thing’s sternum.

It finally released him, going still, but he was just out of reach of the pod. He kicked his feet impotently, swinging his arms, trying to grab anything that he could.

“Fuck!” he grunted, panic creeping into his voice as he slowly drifted over Evan’s head. “Someone grab me!”

He was beyond the reach of his comrades, but Evan gripped his rifle by the barrel, flicking his wrists to extend the sling towards him like he was casting a fishing line. The Marine swiped at it, missing the first time, then catching it in his hand the second. Evan gently tugged him closer, changing his trajectory, Hernandez reaching up to grab him by the belt when he was close enough.

“God damn, I owe you guys a drink,” the Marine gasped as his boots magnetized to the hull again.

From behind them, the Lieutenant arrived with another group of Marines, the red camouflage of his armor splashed with green gore. He let his rifle leave his hand, where it floated beside him on its sling as he put a finger to the side of his helmet, his stance suggesting that he was talking to someone. There was a crackle in Evan’s earpiece as the LT changed channels, catching his XMR again.

“Looks like we’re clear,” he announced. “All teams, return to your airlocks.”

As Evan walked back in the direction they had come, he glanced up at the sky. The armored Bug ship that had fired the pods was drifting over their heads now as the carrier continued onward, its shield-like legs frozen in place, long streaks of fluid trailing along behind it like ink in water. Some of the holes in it were alight with green flames, probably ruptured propellant lines or munitions. It looked like the fleet was winning the fight in space. Most of the other Bug ships that he could pick out in the chaos that surrounded them were in a similar state.

“Come on,” Hernandez said over the local channel, giving him a nudge. “Let’s get the hell back inside before somethin’ wipes us off the hull.”

***

“The assault carriers are clear of boarders,” the comms officer said, Vos nodding in quiet approval. “They managed to cut their way inside the Dragoon, but were repelled by security teams. Casualties are minimal.”

“They went straight for the ships at the rear of the formation,” Captain Fielding added, steepling his gloved fingers as he leaned back into his chair. “They’re smarter than a lot of the fleets we’ve faced before. They knew that we were protecting them for a reason.”

“Even so, their forces have been crippled,” Vos replied as he swiped at his holographic display. “Reports are coming in that the last of the enemy ships that joined the attack have been destroyed. A few of ours sustained minor damage, and two of our railgun frigates were disabled – the Dartnell and the Kerrey. One of them launched escape pods, and the Taipei is dispatching shuttles to pick them up. We’d better leave a CIWS frigate behind to keep an eye on those ships until we can mount a proper salvage operation.”

“Makes you wonder how these engagements would go if the different hives actually shared information and knew what they were going up against,” Fielding said. “We gain experience from each engagement, tailor our tactics and technology to counter theirs, but they start fresh every time.”

“That’s an eventuality I’d rather not imagine,” he muttered. “I’d better check in with our friends,” he added, swiping at his display. After a momentary delay, an image of the Ensi appeared on his feed, peering back at him with her one eye. “Do you have a status report for me, Ensi?”

“One cruiser sustained minor damage, and one of our frigates was disabled,” she replied.

“Do you require assistance?”

“No,” she replied tersely. “We have the situation under control. What is the next course of action, Admiral? Our ion cannons are ready to fire on the station.”

“It shouldn’t be necessary. The Mars will soon be in a position where she can fire her main gun without the risk of hitting Kerguela.”

“Then, we shall see what these fabled planet-killers of yours can do,” she said. “We will continue to fire on the insect ships in the vicinity in the meantime.”

She closed the feed, Vos putting through a call to the Constancy, the strange visage of its insectoid pilot appearing before him.

“Admiral,” she said with a nod of her horned head, the plates and mandibles that made up her face moving as she spoke.

Constancy,” he began. “What’s your situation? Did you sustain any damage during the battle?”

“The ferals sent several boarding pods, but they were repelled,” she replied. “No damage to report.”

“Excellent,” Vos replied. “Stay in formation with the assault carriers. We’re about to begin our attack on the Betelgeusian station.”

“By your orders, Admiral,” she replied. He cut the feed, Fielding glancing over at him.

Ferals?” the captain asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I suppose they consider themselves domesticated,” Vos chuckled. “Alright, let’s level out the jump carriers and follow the Mars in. I want a good view of this.”

The Rorke slowly nosed down again, the camera feeds on the bridge windows disappearing, revealing the sloping prow of the craft. Kerguela loomed ahead of them, the station slightly off to their port side. The fleet had taken up its previous formation again, the battleship and the railgun frigates forming a wedge at the front of the group, the CIWS ships creating a protective cordon. Bright tracer fire lanced out every so often, the enemy torpedo boats still taking pot shots as they clustered around their station in the distance. Their fighter swarm and their boarding craft had been repelled, and it didn’t look like they had any more tricks up their sleeves.

After a few minutes, the Mars slowed, beginning to turn its pointed prow towards the enemy station. The frigates burned away, clearing the area, Vos leaning closer in his chair as he watched intently. A shroud on the vessel’s aft, just above the engines, folded back to expose a mess of bulky machinery. Thick heat pipes that ran the length of the main gun terminated there, feeding into an extensive radiator system. In space, there was no medium through which to quickly dissipate heat, so the battleship’s designers had devised a quicker method. Waste heat was dumped into cylindrical radiators, which could then be physically ejected like spent shells from a breech.

Just in front of the bridge windows, at the mouth of the giant railgun, was the loading cylinder. Like a revolver, it rotated a tungsten penetrator the length of a trailer into place, preparing to accelerate it down magnetic rails that ran almost the entire length of the 1200-foot ship. The weapon had originally been designed as a means of sterilizing worlds, where it would leverage the immense kinetic energy that it could output to target vulnerable fault lines. At the right angle, it could tear open the planet’s crust, exposing hundreds of miles of molten mantle to the air. Subsequent bombardments would only increase the effect. The resulting volcanism would render the planet uninhabitable, even to the Bugs, choking the atmosphere and destroying its biosphere. It was a last-resort weapon that had never been used for its intended purpose, but that might be the fate of Kerguela if they couldn’t accomplish their goals on the ground. The Bugs could not be allowed to maintain their foothold in this system.

“Do we know what firing that thing is going to do?” Fielding asked, making no effort to hide his concern. “It’s going to be difficult to get shuttles to and from the ground safely if we fill the moon’s orbit with debris from these stations.”

“Scans show that the station is made up primarily of porous, organic material,” Vos explained. “It’s full of empty cavities, probably not dissimilar from a beehive. It’s also in an unusually low orbit for a tethered station, which means that once the tether is severed, it should de-orbit relatively quickly.”
“Is that going to do much damage to the surface?”

“Not enough to be of concern to us,” Vos replied with a wry smile. The implication was obvious enough. The falling station wouldn’t do any lasting damage to the planet’s ecology, but it wouldn’t be a good time for any Bugs caught in its path.

“The Mars requests permission to fire,” the comms officer said. “They have reached the appropriate inclination.”

“Tell them to fire when ready,” Vos replied.

A moment later, the battleship’s main engines began to glow brightly, jets of azure hydrogen flame spewing from its massive cones. It needed some kind of opposing force to help control the recoil. The entire craft shuddered as the main gun fired. There was no residue, no muzzle flash, no friction in the absence of an atmosphere. The projectile closed the distance between the ship and the station instantly from the perspective of the observers, a bright flash of light darkening the bridge windows. When they cleared again, there was a conical crater in the near face of the station, pulverized debris spreading out from it in an incandescent cloud. It looked like a giant bullet wound, organic material exposed beneath the structure’s outer hull, along with structural supports that looked like they were made from some kind of metal. They were molten now, twisted, like pieces of broken rebar. What hadn’t been vaporized on impact had been decimated by the resulting shockwaves, all of that energy dumped into the structure, shaking it apart like an earthquake. Behind it, more glowing fragments spewed out of the exit wound, glowing like sparks against the black backdrop of space.

The metal rings that formed the base of the tether began to break apart, the force of the blow enough to disrupt its orbit. The organic cable stretched, then tore open, exposing the pink meat beneath its off-green exterior. Unknown fluids spewed from it as it began to slowly sink back towards the planet, the station starting to drift. Many of the frigates that had still been clustered around it had been destroyed by the blast, fragments of the station peppering their hulls like a giant grenade, the burning wreckage tumbling away. A few survivors began to burn clear, but the Mars turned its super-railgun turrets on them, swatting them out of the sky in a way that came off as almost lazy.

From the machinery on the aft of the ship, one of the radiators was ejected, a cylindrical capsule sent sailing away from the battleship. It was glowing red-hot, storing all of the heat that had been generator by the firing of the weapon.

“I’d call that mission accomplished,” Vos said, watching as the spreading debris field cooled.

“How long do you think it will take to de-orbit?” Fielding asked, still wide-eyed.

“The wreckage should enter the atmosphere in a few hours, by our estimation,” Vos replied. “Once we confirm that the rest of the battlegroups were successful in taking down their respective stations, and most of the debris is clear, we can move in and begin our ground operations.”

“What about the battlegroups that don’t have battleships?” Fielding asked. “How will they take down their stations?”

“Massed bombardment. Saturation fire from torpedoes and railguns should get the job done. We’ll reposition the battleships if they have trouble.”
“I’ll let the fighter squadrons know that they can start rearming,” Fielding said, turning to the comms officer. “Have all of the ships in the battlegroup run a self-diagnostic and report their status. I want to know about every flake of chipped paint and every twisted ankle.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Now, we wait,” Vos sighed as he relaxed into his chair.

***

“Typical,” Xipa muttered, watching the ravaged station start to fall towards Kerguela. “We build a weapon that pushes the limits of our knowledge of particle physics, and the humans build a giant hammer.”

She turned to her bridge crew, a flush of angry red snapping them out of their stupor.

“Stop gawking and do your jobs,” she hissed, her crew quickly turning their attention back to their displays. “What’s the status of the fleet?”

“Minor damage reported across several ships,” the comms operator replied. “The disabled frigate is being evacuated. It doesn’t look like it will be salvageable.”

“We’ll have to tow it back to Valbara when we have a ship available,” the Ensi sighed. “No matter, the day is won. Our new fleet performed to the standards that I expected.”

“Our ships were almost untouchable,” the weapons operator added with a prideful flush of her panels.

“Do not expect the battle on the ground to go as smoothly,” the Ensi chided. “There are fifteen million insects down there, and they’ve had thirty rotations to harden their defenses. This campaign has barely begun.”

“Ensi, we are picking up a signal,” the comms operator interrupted.

“Well? Transfer it to my display,” Xipa replied with a flutter of irritation. “I’m sure the Admiral is keen to extol the virtue of his superweapon.”

“No, Ensi,” the operator replied hesitantly. “The signal is coming from the moon’s surface.”

“What?” she demanded, narrowing her eye. She marched across the bridge, stepping down into the operator’s booth, a flush of worried purple flashing across her subordinate’s panels. “Show me.”

“There’s a lot of electromagnetic radiation coming from the surface,” she elaborated, bringing up a feed that showed a visualization of the signals. It was color-coded, spiking up and down to form wavering lines. “The interactions of the moon and its parent produce natural radio waves that create a lot of interference, but we’ve been picking up…something else. Firstly, there’s this,” she began, gesturing to one of the graphs. “I think these are artificial signals. They’re using very low frequencies in the three-kilohertz band, which could be dismissed as lightning or disturbances in the magnetic field, but these consistent patterns in the signal suggest that they’re carrying information. It’s all gibberish, nothing that I can make sense of, but maybe a flock with more expertise could decode it.”

“Are you suggesting the insects are using radios?” Xipa asked skeptically.

“Not as such,” the operator replied. “That kind of thing wouldn’t be detectable at this distance anyway. What we’re seeing here – if it’s not some kind of natural phenomenon – is a very large, very high-powered antenna.”

“How large?”
“It would have to be…around forty kilometers long to produce a signal like this.”

“What do you think they’re being used for?” Xipa asked.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that they’re being used to communicate over long distances and through solid barriers, perhaps underground. I don’t see another reason to build an antenna this large. Hives don’t communicate with each other, so whatever they’re doing, it has to be confined to the planet.”

“It makes sense that they would have to develop some kind of global communications network,” Xipa mused. “They can’t rely on pheromones over those kinds of distances. This makes them vulnerable. We can triangulate the positions of these transmitters and take them out, cut off the Queen’s ability to coordinate her troops in different regions.”

“There’s something else,” the operator continued, a purple flicker of hesitation passing through her panels. “As we neared the moon, we began to pick up a strange transmission. Either it doesn’t have the power to leave Kerguela’s immediate vicinity, or it was being blocked by the gas giant’s magnetosphere, but it’s different from the insect radio signals.”

She tapped at one of her touch panels, bringing up a new visualization. This one was very regular, far simpler, almost as though it was intended to be understood.

“Wait a moment,” Xipa said, staring at the feed. “I…I think I recognize this frequency. Play it through the speakers.”

The operator did as she was asked, a steady beeping sound filling the bridge. The Ensi’s feathers flushed a shocked shade of yellow as she raised her scarred snout to the ceiling, cocking her head, listening intently to the regular pulses.

“Ensi?” the operator asked, lowering her voice to a whisper as though afraid to disturb her. The rest of the bridge crew were watching now, sharing concerned glances.

“I remember this pattern,” Xipa muttered, lost in thought for a moment as she dredged up long-buried memories. “I’ve heard this before – during search and rescue training, back when I served in the city guard. This is an emergency positioning beacon. They were used to call for help after natural disasters. We don’t use them anymore, but they were little polymer devices that put out a repeating radio signal,” she explained as she cupped her hands to demonstrate their size. “Their batteries were only supposed to last for a few days at most. There’s no way that one of them could continue to transmit for thirty years….not unless someone…”
The Ensi clenched her fists, straightening up, her scarred lip rising to expose her sharp teeth.

“Triangulate its position,” she ordered, the operator quickly turning back to her displays. “I want to know exactly where that signal is emanating from, down to the millimeter. Contact me on the priority channel as soon as you have a lock. I need to speak to the Admiral,” she added, hopping out of the booth. She marched to the door at the rear of the bridge, a flock of engineers quickly scurrying out of her path as she stalked past them. “Put the call through to my private quarters.”

***

“The tether cracked like a whip when it snapped,” Fielding explained, keying in coordinates for the telescope. The Captain and the Admiral were standing on the observation deck of the secondary bridge, situated beneath the belly of the carrier. It had excellent visibility, as the name suggested, the expansive windows allowing them to see directly down at the planet beneath their feet. The red forests and shining rivers drifted past below, shrouded in wisps of white cloud. The hull of the Rorke sloped away in the distance, forming an ocean-grey ceiling, clusters of railguns pointing down at the moon.

The main window became opaque for a moment before displaying the live feed, Vos examining the display. A great chunk of forest had been carved out by the falling tether, forming what looked like a new valley, which was already starting to fill up with water. It was miles long, a scar cut into the planet’s surface.

“No matter,” Vos said, clasping his hands behind his back. “It won’t do any lasting ecological damage. What about the station?’
“Burning debris rained down over a one hundred mile radius,” Fielding explained, typing in new coordinates. The view changed to show the crash site, where a vast swathe of forest had been wiped away, plumes of smoke filling the air as some of the plant life burned. There were hunks of charred meat that had somehow survived reentry littered all over the place, as well as hardier, technological components that had dug furrows in the earth. “The fires aren’t expected to spread,” the captain added, anticipating his concern.

“All of the stations have been destroyed,” Vos added. “Losses have been minor, and we now have total control over the gravity well. I want to run some more surveys before we commit our ground forces, try to get some idea of what they’re hiding beneath that jungle canopy. Once we’ve confirmed that they have no ground-based weapons that can reach orbit, we can send a Courser back to Valbara and have them open up a supply line. We’ll have all the supplies and reinforcements that we need.”

“It’s strange,” Fielding added, switching the display back to transparent mode. “I always imagined that the Bugs would ravage the worlds they claimed. I thought of them as space locusts, like they’d eat everything on a planet’s surface until it was barren, then move on to the next one. Kerguela looks…pristine, untouched.”

“The Jarilans say that the Betelgeusians maintain the planet’s biosphere, tailor it to maximize the resources that it can produce for them,” Vos explained. “They settle their planets long-term, just like we do. They farm, they raise livestock, they replant forests. According to the Jarries, at least.”

“Good,” Fielding muttered, a hint of malice in his voice. “That means more infrastructure for us to destroy. There are no non-combatants, which means crops and supply lines are valid targets. Even the Bugs can’t fight on an empty stomach.”

“No, but their Repletes can eat just about anything,” Vos added. “Speaking of infrastructure, did you read the report on the giant radio antennas?”

“I did,” Fielding replied. “Some hive fleets have used radio to communicate between ships, but I’ve never seen them use it on the ground before. It’s odd. In any case, their transmitters are broadcasting their locations to the whole fleet like they’re asking to be leveled. We’ve already got coordinates for most of them. Priority targets if I’ve ever seen one.”
“Once we have a better idea of what’s going on down there, we’ll start sending in the assault carriers,” Vos continued. “I want to secure the bases of the tethers first. There seem to be large concentrations of structures built around the anchors, and we need to make sure that the Bugs can’t salvage whatever resources they’re storing there. If it’s stuff that we can destroy from orbit, all the better, but we need boots of the ground to assess the situation.”

They were interrupted by a beeping sound, the Admiral’s tablet computer flashing an alert. He pulled it from his pocket, examining the display.

“Apologies, Captain. It seems that the Ensi is requesting a private audience.”

“I’ll leave you two alone for a while,” Fielding said, giving him a sympathetic smile as he made for the door. Once he was outside, Vos opened up a video feed on the nearest console, watching the Ensi’s scarred face flicker into view.

“Ensi. To what do I owe the pleasure? If you’re here to discuss the outcome of the battle, I’m happy to say that your fleet exceeded my expectations.”

“Admiral,” she replied tersely. She seemed worried, almost anxious, in stark contrast with her usual icy demeanor. “Our sensors have detected a distress signal emanating from the moon. It’s coming from one of the old cities, which now lies in ruins.”

“A distress signal?” Vos asked skeptically. “Some old repeater from before the invasion that was left active, you mean?”

“I am familiar with the device that is producing the signal,” she explained. “It’s a small, handheld radio designed to lead rescuers to people who are trapped beneath rubble or lost in the jungles. Its battery was only rated for a period of days, not thirty rotations. It is impossible that such a device could simply have been left on unattended.”

“You can’t be suggesting that there might be survivors down there,” Vos scoffed, the Ensi giving him an involuntary flush of angry red in response. “Someone must have hooked it up to a larger battery or some other power source to extend its lifespan during the invasion, perhaps expecting that there would be a counter-attack or a rescue operation. The planet has been occupied by Betelgeusians for decades. They’re efficient, ruthless killers, Ensi. You know that better than anyone.”

“Regardless, I mean to lead a team down to the surface to investigate this signal personally,” she continued. “If there is even a remote chance that someone has held out this long, I cannot ignore it. I have to know what happened.”

Vos considered his next words carefully. The Ensi was a brilliant tactician and a capable commander, but she bore far deeper scars than those on her face. She had seen this planet die, her flock had been slaughtered before her eyes, and she was clearly letting her emotions get the better of her now. He had to be tactful, but firm.

“Ensi, you have a fleet to command,” he replied. “Your troops are relying on you to lead them. You can’t go gallivanting around on the surface chasing ghosts.”

“Our command structure is not as monolithic as your own,” she said, the corner of her lip rising in a snarl. “I trust my subordinates, or I would not have hand-picked them for this mission. They are more than capable of carrying out their duties. Besides, my absence would be a short one. This campaign could last for months.”

“How do you propose you reach this city?” Vos continued. “We haven’t finished our surface scans yet. We don’t know where the Bug strongholds are, where their forces are moving, whether they have air defenses or not.”

“We would fly a dropship down some distance from the city, then move under the cover of the jungle. A small, mobile unit shouldn’t attract any attention, especially with a large-scale invasion happening.”

“There are other, less disruptive means of seeking closure, Ensi,” Vos added. Immediately, her feathers rose in bright crimson, her one eye narrowing.

“Do not presume to understand my motivations, Admiral,” she hissed. “I am not some simpering, hysterical male who can’t keep his feathers sheathed. Part of my mission here is establishing what happened to the colony after the last of the eyewitnesses left. Millions of people called this place home, and only a handful survived to tell of what became of them.”

Vos didn’t believe her, but she clearly wasn’t going to let this go. He could either dispatch a Courser to Valbara and ask for help from the Council of Ensis in the hopes they would be able to reign her in, or he could just give her what she wanted so that they could get back to business as soon as possible. Once she found a dusty old transmitter hooked up to a solar panel or something of the sort, her wild goose chase would come to an end.

“Very well,” he grumbled. “But I have a condition.”

The Ensi cocked her head at him suspiciously.

“What condition is that?”

“You agreed to obey my orders when you signed up for this campaign. You’re part of a Coalition fleet, under the authority of the Security Council, who appointed me to lead it. If you’re going down to the surface, then it’s only happening with an escort. I’m going to assign a team to protect you, one that I will hand-pick. That’s the only way I can be reasonably assured of your safety.”

“Admiral, my Commandos-”

“Are not seasoned Coalition troops,” he interrupted. “If you want to give me ultimatums, then this is the only way your little expedition is going to happen. If you have a problem with that, I’ll go to the Council of Ensis and ask them to relieve you of your command. I have that authority.”

“Very well,” she conceded, reigning in her anger. “I will respect your authority, Admiral, but make haste.”

“I already have a few people in mind,” he replied.

***

Xipa stepped off the ramp of her dropship, emerging into the cavernous hangar bay of the Rorke. Earth’nay carriers were huge constructs, the ceiling towering far above her head, the shimmering force field behind her the only thing separating her from the deadly vacuum beyond. The bay was full of noise, power tools and raised voices echoing through the space. There were Beewolf fighters everywhere she looked, some of them being rearmed, others undergoing repairs after their recent battle. Their black hulls were scarred by plasma weapons, melted in places, warped by the intense heat. There were a handful of Valbara’nay fighters among them that were getting the same treatment. The Valbara’nay fleet carriers had no such hangars, and thus could not perform field repairs. One day, her ships would have hangars like these…

The Admiral was waiting for her, his snow-white uniform and his colorful adornments standing out against the blues and yellows of his crew. He greeted her as she approached, Xipa answering his wave with a brief salute of red feathers.

“Welcome to the UNN Rorke, Ensi,” he began. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t organize a more formal welcoming committee. Everyone is rather busy right now.”

“No matter,” she replied, her one eye darting about. She had neither the time nor the patience for pleasantries and protocol right now. “So, tell me more of this team you have assembled for me.”

“Walk with me,” he said, Xipa bobbing along beside him as he continued. “I have, shall we say…a history with the various special forces groups of the Coalition. We have SWAR and UNNI teams in the fleet, as well as a few more specialized units like the Elysian Rangers and Trog teams. The mission that you’re proposing will take you deep into uncharted enemy territory, so I wanted to give you the best possible escort that I could drum up. I pulled specialists from several of the most decorated units, as well as a couple of personal acquaintances that I’ve worked with in the past. I’m sure they’ll be able to see you to your objective safely.”

He led her across the bay to the far wall, a surprisingly long walk for someone of her stature. In one corner of the hangar, sequestered away behind a dropship, was a stack of crates and munitions. Sitting amongst them were a handful of aliens, raising their heads as the pair approached. Xipa’s eyes wandered between them, appraising their strange appearances.

There was a Krell’nay, an impressive specimen that looked even larger than was usual for their kind. Of all the aliens in the Coalition, they were the species that she found the least offensive. Its scales tended more towards onyx than the green that she was used to, and they were adorned with what looked like faded paint in places, as though someone had scrawled handprints and runes on its hide. It was wearing a thick, armored poncho over its shoulders, along with a bulky computer on its wrist. She noted that there was a necklace made from hairy rope visible around the collar, adorned with colorful beads and shells. There was a pendant made from carved wood weighing it down, inscribed with an alien symbol that meant nothing to her.

Another was a Borealan – she had never cared enough to learn their different subtypes – the eight-foot feline wearing a leather jacket over his uniform. His skin was a tan color, his hair a dirty blonde, and he looked about as pleased to be there as she was.

Her gaze turned to the Earth’nay who was perched idly on a crate nearby. He didn’t look too different from the other simians that she had encountered at first glance, save for his more elaborate armor. She quickly realized that all of his limbs were prosthetic. The sleeves of his pressure suit were rolled up to the elbow, exposing the skeletal frame of his forearms, all black polymer and shining metal. He was fiddling with an XMR, his five-fingered hands seeming to blend with the weapon, the two made from similar materials. She marveled at their dexterity, the fingers moving with a natural fluidity, tipped with rubber treads for grip. He wasn’t wearing any boots, and his feet were much the same, intricate replicas of their organic counterparts. The black housings that contained the machinery and electronics seemed designed more for utility than to mimic their original appearance, perhaps to protect them from things like mud and dust.

He looked up at her as she approached, and she saw that his pale skin was pocked with scars. They looked like old shrapnel wounds. His head was shaved almost clean, leaving a thin layer of red-brown fuzz that extended down his cheeks, covering his chin.

The man rose to his feet when he saw the Admiral, setting down his weapon on the crate beside him. The Krell’nay plodded over, its long tail dragging on the deck behind it, the Borealan joining them reluctantly.

“Allow me to introduce you,” the Admiral began, gesturing first to the Earth’nay. “This is Lieutenant Commander Fletcher, formerly an operative for SWAR, our special weapons and advanced recon branch. He has extensive experience fighting behind enemy lines, and this will be far from the first Bug-infested jungle that he’s navigated.”

Next, he gestured to the Borealan, the creature peering back at Xipa with his yellow eyes. Now that she could get a closer look at his clothing, she noted that the black leather of his jacket was pressed with primitive designs depicting what might be battles or hunting scenes, the buttons made from precious metals. On its breast was sewn a white patch with a red cross, and there was another on the sleeve. The uniform that he wore beneath it was far more conventional, a loose-fitting jumpsuit in dark blue, overlaid with the usual ceramic armor worn by the Marines. Over that, he wore a belt and a chest rig that were laden with pouches and bags. Some of them were clearly for magazines, while the rest came in various shapes and sizes, labeled with alien symbols.

“This is Ruza, one of the best medics in the fleet. He has a background as a Shock Trooper, where he served as a combat medic for a very accomplished pack. Chances are, he can patch you up and probably kill whatever did the damage in the first place. He’s a highly qualified xenobiologist, so he knows his way around the different Coalition species. He’ll be there to keep you all alive if anything goes awry.”

Finally, the Krell’nay stepped forward, towering over the Ensi. It must have been nine feet tall and twice that length from nose to tail, its snout alone probably as long as Xipa was tall. Its gender was indeterminable, as their kind had no external genitalia or sexual characteristics to speak of.

“This is Gustave,” the Admiral explained. “He’s a heavy weapons specialist. He’s also a Krell, as you can see. Any time you need someone or something protected, a Krell should be your first choice. Gustave has been fighting for longer than any of us have been alive, since before the UN even joined the Coalition, as far as I’m aware. He’s old enough now that he’s pushing the limits of what we can fit in our dropships. We equipped him with a Webber translator, so he’ll be able to communicate with your team a little more easily.”

The hulking reptile let out a low, resonating rumble that shook Xipa’s bones, the hanging flap of leathery skin beneath his jaw vibrating. If she didn’t know that the aliens were notoriously good-natured, it might have frightened her. It was no wonder that Valbara’nay couldn’t reproduce Krell’nay speech. It was practically subsonic.

After a moment, the device on the Krell’nay’s wrist began to speak, transcribing the sounds into Earth’nay English.

New circle,” it said in a synthetic, male voice. “But no paint.”
This statement apparently amused the creature, and he began to laugh, a strange huffing sound that echoed through the hangar.

“I don’t see why we bothered to give him a translator when nothing he says makes sense anyway,” Fletcher grumbled, glancing up at his counterpart.

“It looks like we’re still waiting on our final team member,” Vos said, turning to glance around the bay. “Oh, here he comes. Right on time.”

Xipa followed his gaze, picking out a small figure in the crowd of pilots and engineers. As she saw the light glint off its carapace, she bared her teeth in a snarl, her feathers flashing with anger. Walking towards her was a Betelgeusian Drone, the branching horn that sprouted from its forehead unmistakable, its waxy shell shining under the bay’s harsh illumination. It looked a little different from the others that she had encountered, its lack of a helmet exposing its strange features. Its eyes were large and expressive, oddly mammalian, the sclera a greenish hue. Instead of sharp mandibles, its mouthparts had been rearranged to resemble those of an Earth’nay, the plates creating an uncanny facsimile of lips. It looked like a predatory insect trying to mimic the form of its prey. Around its neck was a furry collar, the individual strands of hair sparkling like the frayed end of an optical cable as it moved. This fur was present around its wrists and ankles, too, protecting the joints in its blue shell. It had a set of feathery antennae that bobbed as it walked, rising up from behind its ornate horn, their tips curled like the leaves of a growing fern.

It was otherwise anatomically identical to a normal Drone. It had two pairs of arms that ended in three-fingered hands, the upper set larger than the lower, and its digitigrade legs ended in two-toed feet. The thing was wearing a blue UNN jumpsuit that had been tailored to fit its unconventional body type, and that was probably the only thing that had prevented it from being shot on sight. Some of the crew paused to watch it as it passed by them, but none moved to intercept it.

It stopped a few feet away, snapping one of its upper hands to its head in a prim salute. The Admiral gestured for it to be at ease, glancing down at Xipa warily as though anticipating her reaction. As well he should – this was tantamount to an insult. He couldn’t possibly expect her to work alongside this walking parody, could he?

“This is our Jarilan team member,” he said, the creature turning to face Xipa. It smiled at her in greeting, the plates that made up its lower face shifting to produce the effect. They moved as it began to speak, never quite keeping pace with its words.

“My name is Bluejay,” it said, its voice and inflections identical to those of an Earth’nay male. It sounded youthful, enthusiastic, reminding her of the naivety of a new recruit. “Pleased to meet you all. I’m excited to be part of the team.”

“Bluejay is an accomplished scout and a fine marksman,” Vos added. “More importantly, he’s able to detect Betelgeusian pheromones, which will be an invaluable asset on the ground. If there are enemy patrols in the area, he’ll be the first know, and he should be able to help you steer clear of hive entrances.”

“Bluejay?” Fletcher asked, cocking an eyebrow at the insect. “Didn’t know Bugs had names.”

“My father named me,” he replied.

“Didn’t know they had fathers, either.”

Xipa glared up at the Admiral, but he looked back at her with a cold, steely stare. No words were necessary – each of them knew what the other was thinking. She had already agreed to his terms, and if she went back on her word now, he would not give her a second chance. Politics be damned, there could be people down there waiting for rescue. She couldn’t afford to play games with the Council of Ensis. For now, she would have to swallow her pride and try to keep it down long enough to accomplish the mission.

“Who will be leading the team?” she asked, struggling to keep her feathers down.

“Fletcher has the highest rank of anyone here, and I’ve worked with him before,” Vos replied. “I’ll be assigning him to lead the mission. Don’t misunderstand. The team’s goal is to ensure that you reach the source of the signal safely, and you’ll be the one to set the objectives, but I want you to obey any orders that Fletcher gives. He’s spent his career fighting Bugs in territory just like this.”

“Very well,” she grumbled. “When can we depart?”

“As soon as we’ve cleared the airspace and secured a landing zone,” he said. “The assault carriers will be moving in to capture the base of the tether shortly. We mean to deny the enemy the ability to salvage any of the resources they’ve stockpiled there. Once that’s done, we can think about getting you to the source of your signal. We can’t do anything before we’ve established what kind of defenses we’ll be going up against. The last thing we want is your dropship to be shot out of the sky before it even reaches the ground.”

“I understand,” she replied, though it didn’t alleviate the tension that was tying a knot in her guts.

They were disturbed by a beeping sound, the Admiral reaching into his pocket, withdrawing a small touch device. He checked the display, then began to walk away.

“Apologies, Ensi, but I have a planetary invasion to coordinate. I’ll leave you to get acquainted with your new colleagues.”

He vanished into the crowded hangar, Xipa turning to look at her companions. The insect was just standing there, waiting patiently as though it expected her to give it instructions. The rest of the aliens were watching her curiously, the Earth’nay resuming whatever he had been doing with his rifle. For the first time in a long while, she felt nervous, out of her element. How long had it been since she had been forced to share in the decisions of a flock, rather than simply commanding them? She had to establish some kind of authority over these people.

“Admiral Vos tells me that he hand-picked you for this task,” she began, talking in her usual authoritative tone. “He tells me that you are the best the fleet has to offer.”

“I don’t claim to be the best at what I do,” the one named Fletcher replied, glancing up from his gun. “But I’m pretty good at it.”

“Did he brief you all on the nature of this mission?”

“He just said that you’d picked up a distress beacon, probably left on after the evacuation, and that you needed someone to keep you alive while you went to take a quick look around. In and out ASAP.”

“Your tone suggests that you disapprove,” she said, scrutinizing him with her one eye.

“I just think that there are more important things we could be doing,” he replied, meeting her gaze for a moment before he turned his attention back to his weapon. “But, what the Admiral wants, he gets. I’m not gonna turn down Vos when he asks me for a favor. The man’s done too much for the UNN, and he wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

“Let me explain the situation to you in detail,” the Ensi said, giving him a flash of red that he probably didn’t catch. “Before this colony was invaded and its people slaughtered, I worked as a City Guard. It was my job to keep the peace, to assist the citizens in the event of accidents and disasters. We used those beacons to signal for help, and now, we’ve detected an active signal originating from one of the abandoned cities. The batteries on those beacons were supposed to last for days, not decades. If there’s even a remote possibility that someone survived the initial invasion, I have to find them. This cannot wait until some arbitrary cut-off point when the Admiral decides it’s safe to go looking.”

“Is that how you got the whole, uh…” Fletcher gestured to his face.

“My scars?” she replied, baring her teeth. “Indeed. My helmet strayed into the path of a Betelgeusian plasma bolt. I was rather distracted at the time, as I was trying to prevent the murder of two hundred innocent people.”

“Always nice to meet a fellow veteran,” he said, raising one of his prosthetic hands. “I’m afraid my story is a little less heroic,” he added with a grin that exposed his flat teeth. “Frostbite is a bitch.”

Frost bite?” she repeated, cocking her head.

“I was riding in a shuttle over Chara II when the roaches shot it down,” he explained. “Fucking shithole of a planet – cold enough to freeze your nuts off, and so little oxygen that you need a suit just to go outside. I survived the shrapnel and the crash, but I was exposed to sub-zero temperatures for hours before rescue found me. Not all of me was still alive when they pulled me out.”

“That explains your prosthetics,” she said, eyeing his polymer limbs.

“You know they can fix that now, right?”

“What?” Xipa sighed.

“The eye. Go to any good UNN hospital, and they’ll pop you a fresh one in.”

“We do not know enough about Valbaran neurology yet,” the Borealan interjected. His voice was gruff and deep, yet it conveyed a certain calmness. “Limbs, we can do, but not sensory organs. More research is required.”

“Well, that sucks,” Fletcher said with a shrug.

“You are Borealan,” Xipa said, turning now to the towering feline.

“Last I checked,” he grumbled in reply.

“I have been told that Borealans live in highly competitive packs, and that they resolve their differences through violent bouts. Will you obey the orders that I give?”

He rolled his yellow eyes, crossing his arms as he leaned back against the bulkhead behind him.

“I am no longer part of a pack. Had enough of that. If the job is to obey, then I will obey. I am here to patch up wounds and keep my charges alive, nothing more.”

“A Madcat who doesn’t want to fight,” Fletcher marveled, making an irritating whistling noise that set Xipa’s teeth on edge. “Now I’ve seen everything.”

“And what of him?” Xipa asked, nodding in Gustav’s direction. The hulking alien didn’t even seem to be paying attention to their conversation, staring vacantly into the distance. He let out another low rumble, then reached down to scratch his flank with a clawed hand that had more fingers than Xipa cared to count.

“Oh, Gustave likes big guns,” Fletcher explained. “Most Krell fight because they have to, not because they want to. Gustave is the only exception I’ve ever met. Word around the barracks is he fought in the Broker wars, which could make him hundreds of years old.”

“Do the Krell’nay live so long?”

“Nobody has ever seen one die of old age,” Fletcher replied with a shrug. “They just keep getting bigger the longer they live.”

“I’m just here to do my part,” the insect added, Xipa turning to stare at it. The other aliens did the same, seemingly no more pleased with the situation than she was. The creature seemed a little less sure of itself now, its eyes wandering between them, but it pressed on anyway. “I get it,” it said, spreading its upper arms and crossing the lower pair at the same time. “Jarilans have to contend with skepticism on a daily basis. I’m used to it. Either way, I’m excited to be working alongside Coalition troops for the first time. I’ve trained for this my whole life, which admittedly, hasn’t been very long.”

“If I have tolerated the presence of your ships in our fleet, insect, it is only because of the oath that I took to obey the consensus of the Council,” Xipa replied tersely. “If the vote had been mine alone, your people would have been barred from the Coalition and subjected to whatever fate the Earth’nay thought most appropriate.”

Rather than recoil, the insect merely shrugged off her harsh words.

“I think the work we’ll be doing on Kerguela will speak for itself.”

“That remains to be seen,” Xipa grumbled.

***

The sound of engine checks and power tools filled the garage as Evan moved between the rows of vehicles, pushing his way through the crowds of engineers and crews. They were hurrying back and forth, inspecting the equipment and carrying supplies, making sure that everything was ready for deployment. The tanks were stacked like sardines in a can, six long and five deep, which left just enough room that someone could squeeze between their side skirts to service them. They were all mounted on yellow trolleys, which slid along a rail system in the deck that would deliver them to the stern gate for transfer, or to one of the five elevators towards the bow. Assault carriers had five tiered garages that were stacked one on top of the other, making it possible for them to carry a full armored battalion of one hundred and fifty vehicles of varying types.

The ceiling scarcely cleared the remote blisters mounted atop the turrets of the Kodiak tanks, a maze of cables and electrical wiring snaking between the metal panels above. Some of them trailed down to hook into sockets on the vehicles, charging their batteries and running diagnostics on their onboard computers.

At nine meters long and up to seventy tons depending on their configuration, the Kodiak MBT was an imposing machine. The composite armor on the front of the vehicle and its turret were sloped to increase the likelihood of bouncing enemy shells, and much like the armor used on spacecraft, its covering of heat tiles was designed to help diffuse the thermal energy from plasma weapons to stop them from melting through. The vehicles, too, seemed to have gotten a surprise paint-job. Their hulls had been painted with forest camouflage in shades of red, orange, and brown to match Kerguela’s jungles.

The main gun was a long, slightly flattened tube, the electromagnetic coils on the railgun beneath covered by a housing that protected it from dust and sand. There was a round muzzle device on the end of the barrel, but it wasn’t a brake, as railguns had no propellant gasses. Instead, the device was used to prevent the air around the muzzle from heating up to the point that it was turned to plasma. Without one, the energy discharge could create an arc flash, damaging equipment and flash-frying personnel in the vicinity.

The blister mounted atop the turret housed a smaller caliber railgun, along with a mortar launcher, which could be controlled remotely by the vehicle’s commander. The Kodiaks also had hardpoints on either side of the turret that could fit more weapons and modules, this one currently equipped with a supplemental gun pod and a rocket system.

As he continued on, he passed by a row of Timberwolfs. They were six-wheeled scout trucks that roved ahead of the main formation, their small fleet of drones and advanced sensor suite helping them root out the enemy. Their ground-penetrating radar was especially useful for seeking out Bug tunnels. Their sloping, angular hulls were painted with the same autumn colors as the tanks. At around twenty-five tons and seven meters long, they were the smallest vehicle in the battalion, but their speed and maneuverability were unmatched. There were no visible windows. Instead, the arrays of cameras that were spaced out around the chassis would provide a live feed for the driver, though the armor plating above the bullbar could be raised to expose the windshield if necessary.

The six wheels had a five-foot diameter, and their tires were made from a honeycomb structure that made them impervious to flats. Their only armament was as a remote-controlled thirty-millimeter railgun turret mounted atop the roof, but that was plenty of firepower for their size.

He navigated to a row of IFVs, checking his wrist-mounted computer to see which one of his squad had been assigned to. The Marines were lining up beside their vehicles, checking their equipment, and putting on their helmets. There were auxiliaries, too, Evan spotting a pack of Borealans standing head and shoulders above their human counterparts. They were wearing the same armor, also painted red, holding long XMRs in their hands that were tipped with bayonets.

There were two Krell in sight, too, one of the giant reptiles standing behind the other as it helped its counterpart tighten the straps on its poncho-like armor. They were wielding LMG variants of the XMR that looked large enough to be mounted on vehicles, sporting drum magazines, and cumbersome gun shields mounted behind the barrels.

When he located the right IFV, Hernandez noticed him, raising a hand in greeting. Evan jogged over to join him, dodging around an engineer who was walking in the opposite direction with his eyes fixed firmly on his tablet.

The IFVs were almost as long as the tanks at about nine meters, their angular, sloping hulls following the same design philosophy as the other armored vehicles in the fleet. The job of the eight-wheeled troop carriers was to get squads of Marines and auxiliaries to where they were needed, and to support them while they did their job. They were equipped with a thirty-millimeter railgun turret mounted in a remote-controlled blister on the roof, its optics package shining under the garage’s harsh lights. The long barrel began to turn as Evan watched, the system running through some kind of check, its electronic whir audible over the din of power tools and engines. On the flanks of the vehicle were a pair of thick, armored slabs attached to hinges that could swing out to provide extra cover during battle.

The Puma could carry a squad of twelve Marines, a pack of six Borealan Shock Troopers, or a pair of Krell Linebreakers. He wasn’t sure how many Valbaran Commandos could fit inside one, but they were pretty small.

“What took you so long?” Hernandez asked.

“This place is a fucking maze, dude,” Evan replied as he checked the seals on his suit.

From atop the Puma, a hatch opened, a crew member rising from inside. Vehicle crews wore lighter armor than the Marines, little more than a black pressure suit that would protect them in the eventuality that their vehicle lost pressure on a planet without a breathable atmosphere, and a flak jacket to protect them from spalling. The opaque visor on his helmet was down, his voice coming through tinny on its speakers as he climbed down onto the deck.

“She’s hot to drop, Sarge.”

The Sergeant who was standing nearby gave him a thumbs-up, then turned to his squad.

“Get ready, we’re loading up in five minutes.”

He tapped at the touch panel on his forearm, Evan and the rest of the Marines glancing down at their respective displays, where updated mission information was now scrolling past. It showed the base of the tether from an aerial view, which looked like nothing Evan had ever seen before. Anchors on Earth were basically buildings in their own right, enormous structures made from steel and concrete that created a protective cage to secured the tether to the ground. All he could see here was something that resembled metal rings, their size hard to determine with no frame of reference. They were scattered around a ruined landscape, the grainy image showing what looked like a debris field that was strewn with wreckage. Smoke covered much of the picture, obscuring what lay beneath, hinting that fires were still raging. It had been hit with railgun fire from the carriers, too, the giant craters already filling with water to form miniature lakes in the blasted soil.

“When the tether broke, most of it fell back down to the surface,” the Sergeant continued. “Whatever structures they had built around the base of the thing got fucked, to put it simply. Whatever the tether was made of, it didn’t burn up, and it gouged a trench into the planet. We think that these structures were storage facilities of some kind, Bug warehouses when they stocked the supplies that they would send up to the station. Our job is to secure the area and deny them whatever’s left. We’ll be landing here,” he added, a red dot appearing on Evan’s map. “From there, we’ll dismount and move alongside the Puma with the rest of Echo company. They hit the area with orbital strikes, so we don’t expect much resistance, but you never know with Bugs. You’re weapons-free, so don’t take any chances. You see anything moving in the rubble, you kill it.”

They ran some final checks on their equipment, then a klaxon rang out through the bay, red warning lights starting to flash. The engineers and non-essential personnel began to clear the area, jogging back to the exits, Evan closing the visor on his helmet as he prepared for loading.

At the end of the rows of vehicles was a huge, armored shutter that ran from the deck to the ceiling. As he watched, it began to rise, exposing the line of square docking ports beyond. Each one was protected by a shimmering barrier of blue energy, the same that kept in the atmosphere on the carrier hangar bays. They would allow people and solid objects to pass, but would keep the garage from venting into space.

Beyond them, the heavy dropships were already docked, the rails on the floors of their cargo bays lining up perfectly with those on the assault carrier’s deck. Each one was spacious enough to accommodate a vehicle up to the size of a Kodiak tank, and as many crew as could fit in an IFV. The vehicles would slide in on their trolleys, a process that only took a few seconds. Twenty-five of the dropships could dock to the stern gate at once, meaning that in only six trips, the entire contents of the five garages could be deployed to a planet’s surface. As well as the vehicle crews, there were also conventional dropships launched from the assault carrier’s hangars, situated closer to the prow of the vessel. Each of those could carry a squad of Marines.

Although Evan’s view was blocked, he knew that the hull of the assault carrier beyond was starting to open like a giant clamshell. The aft section of the vessel could split open to expose the garages to space, or close up to protect the docked dropships from enemy fire in combat. Unlike most UNN vessels, the main engines were mounted in nacelles to the port and starboard to leave the stern clear.

Evan watched as the vehicles at the front of the line began to slide forward on their yellow trolleys. They passed through the wavering forcefields and into the waiting bays of the lander, slamming to a stop inside, a mechanism locking them securely into place. The crews jogged after them, taking seats on the crash couches that lined the walls on either side of the bays, strapping themselves in. The same thing would be happened in the other four garages right now, too.

The landers began to separate from the carrier when the process was complete, raising their loading ramps as their thrusters burned to push them away from the ship. Heavy dropships were far from the most streamlined or elegant craft in the UNN’s fleet, designed for raw lifting power, able to haul a seventy-ton tank to and from a planet’s surface in minutes. The cockpit was placed high on their upward-swept noses for visibility, the heat tiles on their bellies perpetually charred by reentry, their stubby wings helping them stay stable during atmospheric flight. They had four large, downward-facing engines mounted on their flanks, designed to help them carry their immense loads.

They began to pull away, more of them detaching from the hangars above and below the one that Evan was standing in. All twenty-five of them were soon in view, shrinking to the size of a golf ball in only a few seconds. The curvature of the planet shone beneath them, and they angled towards it, slowly dropping out of view.

Evan’s IFV slid forward on its trolley, coming to a jarring stop at the gate, the squad running along beside it. The Puma’s three-man crew were with them, as it wasn’t safe to ride inside the vehicle during a drop. Evan stood before the force field, only a few paces away from the void beyond, vertigo making his head spin as he looked out at the planet below. They were in low orbit, close enough that he could barely see its curvature on the horizon.

“This is the part I hate,” Hernandez muttered.

After ten or fifteen minutes, one of the bulky vessels rose up into view again, its hull still glowing red with residual heat. The rest followed behind it, slowly rotating to line up with the docking ports, gliding backwards towards the carrier. Evan had to resist the urge to take a few steps back as one of the landers mated to the gate in front of him, the IFV beside him wasting no time, sliding towards the shimmering barrier. It passed through, clamps securing it into place once it was inside.

The Marines and crew boarded behind it, Evan feeling the static electricity from the energy field making the hair on his arms stand up as he stepped through. Immediately, the noise of the garage was cut off, the sound of his own breathing filling his helmet. The lander’s cargo bay was depressurized during docking. He found a seat beside Hernandez and strapped himself in, securing the harness tightly about his chest, reminding himself that the massive vehicle sitting in arm’s reach was safely tied down. The last thing he wanted was the forty-ton machine sliding into him and squashing him up against the bulkhead like a bug.

The deck reverberated beneath his feet as the lander uncoupled from the carrier, and he leaned past the Marine to his left to watch the landing ramp close, catching a glimpse of the five rows of five docking ports as they slowly diminished. Once it was sealed, there was a rush of air as the bay was pressurized again, the sounds of engines and machinery gradually growing louder. It was soon joined by a violent shaking as the craft hit the atmosphere, G-forces pressing Evan into the padded seat as the lander fired its four downward-facing thrusters, slowing its violent descent. These crafted bellyflopped into the atmosphere, using the friction to help slow them. They were basically flying bricks held aloft solely by their immense thrust.

The vibrations finally subsided somewhat, Evan feeling deceleration tug at him again as the craft prepared to land. There was a thud as it touched down, the ramp beginning to lower, the growing gap filling the bay with light.

“Remain seated until the Puma is out,” the Sergeant ordered, Evan gripping his rifle in his gloved hands as he watched the clamps that held the vehicle’s trolley in place pop open. As the ramp hit the ground, it slid down the rails, the yellow trolley splashing in the mud.

“Go, go, go!”

The Marines unbuckled their harnesses and leapt from their seats, their boots thundering as they rushed down the ramp. Hot drop protocols referred to situations where enemy resistance was expected immediately upon leaving the lander, Evan taking a knee in the mud with his rifle shouldered, covering the vehicle crew as they mounted up. The Puma’s engine revved as it drove off the trolley, its treaded tires digging furrows in the wet dirt as it turned about. Evan rose to his feet, falling into line alongside its armored hull, the squad of twelve stacking up with six on each side.

As soon as they were clear, the dropship behind them fired its thrusters, rising back into the air on its four engines. All around them, more of the landers were disgorging their payloads, his eyes drawn to a Kodiak tank that was sliding down a ramp only a hundred feet away. The seventy-ton vehicle came barreling down the rails on its trolley, kicking up a wave of mud as it skidded to a halt. The crew rushed after it, hauling themselves up onto its hull, clambering inside through the hatch on its turret. It roared to life, its long barrel swinging around, its treads tearing up the soil as it backed off its trolley. The first wave was already forming a perimeter around the landing zone, the tanks going hull-down in the piles of debris, the Marines taking up position under the watchful optics packages of their IFVs.

Only now did Evan have a moment to examine his surroundings in any detail. The ground was covered in a layer of wet mud, his boots sinking up to the ankle in it. Craters where debris had fallen or railguns had pulverized the terrain had partially filled in with filthy water, the violence upturning the topsoil like a giant plow. The structures that had once stood here had fared no better. There were piles of what looked like sculpted dirt, as though a titanic child had been making sandcastles which had then been washed away by the tide. Great mountains of soil had seemingly collapsed in on themselves, but many were still recognizable as earthworks, more like giant burial mounds now.

They were loosely clustered around the base of the anchor, which rose up in the distance like a mountain. It looked to Evan like a termite mound with the footprint of a skyscraper, built from the same packed dirt in a way that seemed far too organic for such a heavy structure. One side of it had collapsed, presumably where the cable had been torn loose, scattering debris in a wide cone. He could see where some of it had landed on the nearby structures, crushing them beneath its weight. Oddly, some of the pieces were still intact, the dirt clumped together to form what looked like house-sized clods. There was something holding that dirt together – something deceptively strong.

Resting around the tapering, uneven spire of the anchor like a necklace was one of the support rings that he had seen in the satellite images. It was clearly made from some kind of alloy, glinting in the sun, intact in spite of the terrible forces that it must have been subjected to. When humans built orbital tethers, they used similar rings to help reinforce the cable, but they were usually secured with giant metal beams that ran deep into the ground. These were attached via long, seemingly organic lines, reminding him of the guy wires that held up tall radio masts. Many were still pulled taut, while others were hanging limp from their connection points, having been snapped by the stress.

The other support rings had been torn away, thrown miles from the anchor. One of them was close enough to see, rising up into the air over the red forest in the distance like the Gateway Arch, its torn cables waving in the wind.

As his eyes wandered upwards, his breath was taken away. The sky was a vibrant azure, wisps of white cloud trailing across it, not unlike Earth’s. That was where the comparisons ended, however. The heavens were dominated by the moon’s gas giant, clearly visible through the atmospheric haze, the sunlight reflecting off its clouds to make it shine like a jewel. It was covered in swirling bands of blue and purple that raced around its equator, forming roiling storms where they pooled, shifting before his very eyes. There was a crescent shape cut out of it, plunged into shadow, like the phases of Earth’s moon. Words failed to describe its sheer size. It was partially below the horizon, and yet it still occupied ten or fifteen percent of the sky.

High above the clouds, auroras raged, wavering streaks of glowing green that seemed to ripple as he watched. They were so intense that they were clearly visible even in the daylight. That was radiation from the gas giant being deflected by the moon’s magnetosphere, shielding the forests below from the deadly particles. The contrast between the ruined landscape and the pristine, untouched sky was a stark one.

Hernandez gave him a shove from behind, snapping him back to reality.

“Keep movin’, dude. Could be Bugs crawlin’ all over the fuckin’ place.”

They followed the rumbling IFV as it rolled through the mud, the surrounding vehicles fanning out, other teams of Marines starting to make their way through the wreckage as the perimeter expanded. A steady stream of landers screamed overheard, depositing more of the battalion’s complement of vehicles on the ground before flying back up to the assault carrier again. They had air support, too, the unmistakable silhouette of a Penguin gunship banking over the battlefield as it searched for threats. Despite the scale of the rollout, Evan could hear no gunfire. There were no fights breaking out, no anti-air filling the sky with plasma.

“Where the hell is everyone?” Hernandez muttered over the local radio channel, sweeping the area with his rifle as he marched beside the IFV.

“Looks like the place is deserted,” Evan replied, scanning a collapsed mound of earth as they passed by it. “I thought there were supposed to be, like…fifteen million critters on this planet. The Bugs don’t just cede territory to invaders.”

“This is fuckin’ weird,” Hernandez muttered. “Maybe they’re all dead?”

Their squad moved away from the landing zone, entering an area populated by collapsed buildings. Humans planned out their buildings in grids, with straight roads leading between them, but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how these were spaced out. The paths were snaking and irregular, not even maintaining consistent widths, leaving Evan confused as to what kind of cargo had once passed through here. Fortunately, most were wide enough for the IFV to get by. The collapsed structures were the size of warehouses, which was appropriate, considering that it was their most likely purpose. This was where the Bugs would have stored the supplies that would have had to be sent up the tether to keep the orbital station and its fleet fueled and fed.

“Have you ever heard of Bugs building structures on the surface?” Evan asked, Hernandez shaking his helmeted head in reply.

“Nah, not like this. I’ve seen fortifications before, like trenches and ramparts, shit like that. Never seen the roaches build a house.”

“There are probably tunnels underground that we can’t even see,” Evan added, glancing down at the mud warily. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that a secret tunnel entrance could pop open, and a whole army of Bugs would come swarming out.

As they rounded a corner, they came across a building that hadn’t been ruined by wreckage or railguns. The East side of the structure had caved in on itself, but the rest was intact. The wall that faced the path outside wasn’t solid. It was made up of strange, organic supports that somewhat resembled tree branches, leaving large gaps between them. Some were large enough that a person could walk through, while others were presumably for cargo. Perhaps the smaller ones were just for ventilation. It was hard to guess. On the roof were odd spires that resembled the chimneys of termite mounds, rising into the air.

“Orders are to clear all the buildings,” the Sergeant said, raising a hand to bring the IFV to a stop. Its engine rumbled as it idled just outside, its railgun turret turning to face the warehouse. The Sergeant waved the squad forward, and they jogged up to the structure. They would usually have stacked up outside the entrance as they prepared to breach, but there was no singular entrance. Instead, they took cover behind the trunks of the strange, branching pillars, readying their weapons.

As Evan put his back to what he expected to be packed dirt, he discovered that it was covered in a hard, transparent layer. Whatever the substance was, it had sealed in the soil, as though it had been sealed with superglue. He peered around the support, seeing that the interior was shrouded in shadow.

On the Sergeant’s order, they rushed inside, activating the flashlights mounted beneath their barrels. The bright beams waved back and forth as the squad searched the cavernous room, cutting through the gloom, illuminating brief glimpses of its contents. Gradually, Evan built a mental image of the interior’s layout. It was filled with tall shelves that were made from some kind of resin, lined up in orderly rows that ran from the dirt floor to the ceiling. These shelves were filled with large, rounded capsules made from a smooth substance, uniform in their shape and size. They looked about as large as the average car, their shape reminding him of a giant almond. As he focused his flashlight beam on them, he saw that they were semi-transparent, a golden glow emanating from whatever was inside.

Towards the East of the warehouse, the collapsed roof had brought down the nearby shelves, scattering the pods about the floor. Some of them were cracked open, spilling their contents, Evan giving one of the objects a kick with the toe of his boot as he made his way closer. They were about the size of a soda can, made from the same clear, resin-like substance. Inside was some kind of amber fluid, and with a start, he realized that it was honey. This was Bug food, a highly-concentrated fluid produced by the hive’s Repletes that was made from breaking down whatever they ate into its base components. They must have been sending these up the tether to feed the station’s crew.

As he continued on between two of the pods, he noticed a glint of blue beneath the collapsed wall. He swept the beam of his flashlight over it, seeing an insectoid arm poking out from beneath the mound of soil.

“Got something over here!” he said, the Sergeant and a couple of other Marines coming jogging over to him. He reached up to tap at the touch panel on the side of his helmet, switching to infra-red optics, the view through his visor turning shades of black and blue. “It’s cold. Looks like it’s been dead a while.”

“Dig it out,” the Sergeant ordered, watching as Evan and Hernandez began to shovel away the dirt with their hands. There were chunks of hard resin among the loose soil, probably the structure that had held the place up. After a few minutes, Hernandez took the dead Bug by the arm and dragged it out, depositing it on the ground beside one of the cracked pods. It was smaller than a Drone, its blue carapace covered in flecks of dirt. It looked familiar, with its large upper arms and stocky torso. There was nothing unusual about it, no strange adaptations to Kerguela’s environment.

“Looks like a Worker,” Evan said, giving it a tap with his boot.

“This is Echo-fourteen,” the Sergeant said, putting through a call to command. “We’ve got confirmation of Bug presence here at grid…” He raised his forearm, reading off a string of numbers. “It’s dead, no active contacts yet. Roger, we’ll keep going.”

“Here’s one, but where’s the rest of ‘em?” Hernandez muttered. “Shoulda been thousands of the little fuckers waddlin’ around, a port this size.”

“No way most of them survived the tether breakup and the railgun strikes,” Evan added, glancing down at the thing. Its eyes were glassy, vacant, its sharp mandibles agape. “They must have moved the bodies, but why? What do the Bugs care about hiding their dead?”

“This place fuckin’ crawls, man,” Hernandez said with a shiver.

“Back outside,” the Sergeant said, waving them on. “We’ve got orders to keep clearing.”

***

“Sixty-four battalions on the ground, and none of them have encountered any resistance?” Fielding asked, narrowing his eyes as he gazed down at the autumn forests through the carrier’s observation windows. “What about the Valbarans?”

“Nothing so far,” Vos replied. “All eleven anchors have been secured, and every one of them was abandoned. All that was found were a few bodies, dead Workers trapped in the rubble. It seems that they ceded territory and supplies to avoid a direct confrontation with our landing forces.”

“That’s unheard of,” Fielding said, turning to glance at the Admiral. “The Bugs don’t do that.”

“They’re doing it,” Vos added with a shrug. “We knew that the Betelgeusians adapted to their environment, that they became more dangerous and entrenched when given time to settle, but nobody anticipated this kind of change in behavior. It almost seems like a…tactical withdrawal.”

“I’ve seen Drones that were severed at the waist crawl towards Marines with knives in their hands,” Fielding added, turning his eyes back to the forests below. “So far, the Jarilan hive was the only one that showed any restraint, only because we denied them every possible avenue to survive.”

“It is concerning, but we can do little until we get a reaction from the enemy,” Vos continued. “Strikes on infrastructure are proceeding as planned. We have several carriers moving into orbit over the radio antenna sites. I don’t want to hit them right away, not until we can get some idea of what they’re actually broadcasting.”

“Gather as much intelligence as possible before we destroy them,” Fielding said with an approving nod. “Might as well take advantage of their lack of a response while we can. What’s our next course of action?”

“The Bugs have cleared an area of forest a few miles from our tether,” Vos replied. “They look like cultivated fields, and there are structures nearby that could be storage or processing areas. I want to send one of the Spratley’s mechanized companies to investigate. Let’s see how they react when we start burning their crops.”

***

Evan sat on a piece of rubble, his rifle resting at his side as he craned his neck, watching the auroras shimmer overhead.

“I can see why the Valbarans are so sore about losing this place,” he muttered.

“It’s scenic,” his friend replied. “Hell of a lot better than being stationed on Kruger.”

His visor was open, and he was taking a bite out of a protein bar, sat on the ground a few feet away. The planet’s atmosphere was completely safe to breathe, ideal, even. It was only the odd gravity that reminded Evan that he wasn’t on Earth or Valbara, making him lighter on his feet than he was accustomed to. It made him a little clumsy, but he knew that he’d adapt to it in time.

Most of the squad was resting now, taking a moment to eat and drink while they had the opportunity. A couple of the more vigilant members of the team were keeping watch, their XMRs in hand as they peered out at the forest that ringed the tether site. The area had been cleared and declared safe. There were no live Bugs, just a handful of bodies, and there had been no resistance. It should be a relief, but it felt wrong. The Bugs were intensely territorial to the point of committing genocides to secure their land. They didn’t retreat, they didn’t give up, and letting an enemy force occupy their territory was antithetical to everything that they represented.

The Sergeant came walking over from the idling IFV, his rifle slung over his shoulder.

“What’s the word, Sarge?” Hernandez asked.

“New orders just came in. We’re rolling out. Our new objective is a farming complex a few miles to the West.”

“We’re attacking a farm?” Evan asked.

“No such thing as a non-combatant roach,” the Sergeant replied with a shrug. “It’s fair game.”

They rose to their feet, Hernandez gulping down the last of his snack before flipping his visor down. He tossed the wrapper on the ground, Evan gesturing to it.

“Dude, come on.”

“What?” he chuckled, stooping to pick up his XMR. “I don’t see any Valbarans around.”

“Mount up!” the Sergeant shouted, the squad hurrying back to the IFV. They climbed inside through the open troop ramp at the rear, sitting down on the padded benches inside. The pleather was cracked and discolored from use, but it was comfortable enough. Evan strapped himself in, glancing around the bay as the rest of the Marines piled in. He was surrounded by exposed metal, still painted in the desert tan that the IFV had sported before the hull had been repainted. Various insulated wires and cables trailed across the ceiling, concealed beneath fabric covers, the walls above the seats covered with cargo netting that was full of supplies and gear. To his left was the cab, which was open to the troop bay. The three-man crew were sitting behind banks of monitors that showed data readouts and views from the vehicle’s external cameras. While there was a viewport, it was protected by thick armor plating that could be raised in the case that the cameras were damaged. There were two drivers, along with the gunner, who operated the remote blister that was mounted on the roof.

The deck rumbled beneath his feet as the vehicle set off, falling into a column with the rest of Echo company. There were no windows in the troop bay, but he raised his wrist computer, tapping on the screen to bring up a feed to the external cameras that were spaced out around the hull. It opened in a window on his HUD, Evan watching the view from the left side of the IFV as it rolled past the collapsed warehouses. From the front view, he could see the vehicles in the column ahead of them, more IFVs and tanks leading the way. The Timberwolfs would be scouting ahead of the formation, using their sensor suites to scan for danger. The familiar scenery soon gave way to forest, the alien trees rising up ahead of them.

“Are we going through the woods?” Hernandez asked, watching the same view.

“There are old Valbaran roads all over the planet,” the Sergeant explained. “It doesn’t look like the Bugs have ever used them – they’re overgrown, left in disrepair. Makes it a hell of a lot easier for us to get around, though.”

The forest soon engulfed the convoy, the tall, straight trunks of the trees rising up to either side of the narrow road like a wall. This was no rainforest – they were deciduous trees of the kind found in temperate climates. They resembled ashes, beeches, and oaks, but the low gravity seemed to have allowed them to grow taller and larger than what he was used to. Their colors were incredible, vibrant and varied enough that they looked like something from an autumn postcard. Their leaves came in rich hues of reds, browns, fiery oranges, and bright yellows. It looked like an explosion. This was not seasonal, they must be like this all year round, adapted to absorb light further into the ultraviolet spectrum than the stars of Earth or Valbara put out. The sunlight bled through the canopy high above, creating dappled pools on the muddy ground, but it was otherwise pleasantly shady.

The forest floor was much the same color, the plants that carpeted it in a thick layer adapted for the same wavelengths of light. Thick, woody shrubs seemed to dominate, and there were no grasses that Evan could see. There was one feature that set it apart, however. There were mushrooms everywhere he looked, in all imaginable shapes and sizes. Some grew outward from the trunks of the trees in shelf-like layers, while others settled around their roots in branching clusters, extending their cup-shaped caps upward. Yet more were shaped like tall spires, growing out of the ground like long fingers, some of them rivaling the smaller trees in size.

Calling the path ahead overgrown was an understatement. The Valbarans hadn’t maintained these roads in thirty years, and the forest was well on its way to reclaiming them. It was made from something akin to asphalt, cracked at the edges where tree roots had begun to displace it, every pothole and break in its surface filled in by opportunistic plant life. It was a miracle that there was anything of it left, but it created enough of a gap between the trees that even the Kodiaks could make it through easily enough. It had probably been a two-lane highway at some point, but it was so eaten away that two vehicles would probably have trouble passing each other now. Still, it was a hell of a lot better than trying to navigate the dense forest beyond. Evan had been on deployments where railgun strikes were used to carve paths through dense jungles so that vehicle convoys could make it through, and he doubted that their Valbaran allies would appreciate that.

They drove for what must have been half an hour or so, Evan feeling every bump and pothole. At one point, they had to stop to move a fallen tree that had blocked the road ahead, one of the Kodiaks hauling it out of the way with a massive chain.

Eventually, they had to go off-road, following winding paths through the trees that the Timberwolfs had scouted out for them. The Sergeant went over the plan as they traversed the rough terrain, Evan fighting off the motion sickness as he peered down at his wrist computer. An aerial image of the farm showed that their fields were just as strange as the placement of their warehouses. Rather than dividing the land into orderly squares or circles, they were farming their crops in winding bands that clung to the lay of the land, the different plants creating distinct colors. In the center of it all was a cluster of buildings in the same style as those that they had already encountered. The Bugs must have cleared a significant area of forest because the farm was maybe two thousand acres.

It was odd to see the insects farming. He had never fought against an established hive before, and it was only thanks to the Jarilans that he even knew that the species had the capacity to live anywhere long-term. The Workers would grow crops and raise animals, which would be fed to the hive’s Repletes, who would then break them down into a nutritious honey that actually fed the rest of the population. Fifteen million seemed like a lot of hungry mouths, but considering that there were more than ten billion humans on Earth alone, the Bugs wouldn’t need to completely terraform the planet to keep themselves fed. Who knew how older hives did things, what a colony with billions of Bugs that had been established for thousands or millions of years would look like, how they might alter their environment to suit them.

“We’re gonna get out around here and proceed on foot alongside the IFV,” the Sergeant said, a red blip appearing on their maps as he tapped at his display. “We’ll use the cover of the trees to form a firing line on the edge of the fields, here. There’s elevated ground, so we’re going to have clear sightlines of the whole area.”

“Are we actually expecting to face any resistance?” one of the men asked skeptically. “I don’t know if we need twelve tanks and eight squads of Marines to take out a farm…”

“Those are our orders,” The Sergeant replied. “Besides, underestimating the roaches is a good way to get toasted. We have no idea what their capabilities are. Surveillance drones show heat signatures in the fields, so we’re gonna treat it as though those are enemy combatants until we know otherwise.”

The IFV stopped some distance from their destination, and they all piled out, scanning the trees for hostiles as their vehicle followed a winding path through the forest. The trunks were spaced far enough apart that they weren’t too much of an issue, but the roughness of the terrain slowed them down somewhat. There were exposed roots and clusters of mushrooms all over the place, the latter of which succumbed to the treads of the tanks and the wheels of the IFVs rather readily.

After a bit of a walk, they arrived at the edge of the woods, the trees giving way to rolling fields. None of them were straight, weaving back and forth, curling around each other in odd shapes. There were three different crops that Evan could see, though he had no idea what any of them were. These must be native plants that the Bugs had deemed worth domesticating. There wasn’t even a speck of green – all of the chutes and leaves were variations of red and orange. Some looked a little like water reeds, with a kind of furry pod coming out of the top, while others were covered in clusters of little purple nodules like ears of wheat. The third variety were smaller, leafy shrubs that sported spiky, red fruit that hung from long stems.

In the distance, Evan could make out the alien buildings, their design similar to those that had been built around the anchor. They had the same branch-like supports, the same termite mound chimneys on their sloping roofs. Above the fields, his visor had tagged one of the surveillance drones that had been launched from the scout vehicles, circling overhead as it scanned the terrain. There were already contacts popping up in the fields, marked with red icons.

The Marines dropped to their bellies, crawling through the bushes, getting into positions that overlooked the farm. The IFV slowly rolled up behind them, staying in the shadow of the trees, the turret on its roof covering them. To his left and right, Evan could see a few other teams going prone, the long barrels of the Kodiak tanks peeking out between the trunks.

“Hold your fire,” the Sergeant said over the squad channel. “Wait for the signal.”

Evan peered through the scope of his rifle, increasing the magnification to get a look at one of the targets. He honed in on one of the red icons, watching the strange, orange stalks of the plants wave around it as it moved. It was waist-deep in the field, the green glint of its carapace catching the sun to make it shine conspicuously. It looked like a Worker, but this one had been modified. Both pairs of its arms were long and spindly, with more elbow joints than seemed appropriate. These gaunt arms darted out with inhuman speed and precision as it waked through the field, giving it incredible reach, plucking the corn-like ears from the stalks before depositing them in a basket on its back. The basket didn’t seem to be part of its body, made from a resin mesh. This thing had been genetically engineered for the sole purpose of picking crops, like a living piece of farm equipment.

There were dozens of them, all walking along the curving fields, wading through the plants as they harvested the alien fruit. No two were the same color, sporting the usual vibrant, iridescent shells. They had the customary horn, but he noted that their eyes were different, four of them spaced out in a row around the front half of its head. They were all looking in different directions, following an arm each in a way that was strangely unnerving. As he watched, one of them paused, bringing one of its hands to its mandibles. It was holding one of the spiky fruits, its mouthparts splitting open as it extended a proboscis, seeming to taste it. Apparently displeased, it tossed the fruit aside, continuing on its way.

“Select your targets,” the Sergeant said, Evan pulling his rifle tighter against his shoulder. He placed the crosshair over one of the Bugs, the aliens oblivious to their presence. His heart started to beat faster, his tension rising with each second that dragged by.

“Fire!”

Almost in unison, the company opened up, Evan’s helmet automatically dampening the chorus of gunfire that filled the forest. The Kodiaks rocked back on their suspension as they fired their main guns, sending anti-infantry rounds downrange. The magnetically-accelerated canisters contained hundreds of small tungsten flechettes, breaking open to scatter the projectiles over a wide area like grapeshot. They were joined by mortar fire from the blisters on their turrets, their gun pod attachments spewing slugs. The fields erupted, mortar fire kicking up huge plumes of soil, tossing the torn bodies of the hapless Bugs into the air like dolls. Others were shredded by the canister rounds, dismembered where they stood, like they were being fired on with giant shotguns. Molten tungsten left brief, glowing trails in the air as the railguns cut through them like a saw, igniting the crops in places, smoke starting to billow as the fires spread.

Evan opened up, feeling the kick of his rifle slam the stock into his shoulder as he loosed bursts of gunfire, the rest of the squad doing the same. The fields were a kill box. There was no cover, no way to escape. The Bugs were sitting ducks, most of them just glancing around in confusion as their fields were turned into a war zone, not even seeming to understand what was happening. It was completely unnecessary, but he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun.

When the thunder of guns finally ceased, the Sergeant ordered them forward, leading them down the incline.

“Into the fields! Staggered line formation!”

Evan climbed to his feet, rushing out of cover and down the hill, his boots skidding in the loose soil. Hernandez was to his left, his rifle at the ready as they jogged into the nearest field. The Marines waded into the waist-high plants, the rumbling of the IFV filling the air as it followed behind them, its blister scanning for more targets. There were a series of thuds as its mounted grenade launcher fired at something in the distance, followed by a cluster of explosions as they impacted the ground. There were eight other mechanized squads advancing to their left and right, most of the tanks remaining where they were, overlooking the farm. Only one platoon of four followed them in, the Kodiaks knocking over some of the smaller trees like toothpicks as they advanced, their tracks churning up the topsoil.

The fires were spreading, dark plumes of smoke rising into the blue sky now. Evan skirted the rim of a fresh crater left by a mortar, glancing down at the charred, scattered remains of one of the farmers. As they cleared one of the obscuring pillars of dark smoke, Evan came face to face with another of the insects.

It was standing there in the field like a startled deer, peering back at him with its four eyes. Its arms were frozen in place, as though it didn’t know what to do with itself now that its task had been interrupted. The squad gunned it down, a dozen XMRs tearing it apart, the tungsten slugs blowing away chunks of its carapace as it fell back into the plants.

“Feels like shootin’ groundhogs on my dad’s ranch,” Hernandez chuckled. “Poor fuckers don’t even know they’re supposed to run away.”

They swept the fields, killing the Bugs wherever they found them, sporadic bursts of fire letting Evan know that another one had been found. As they approached the buildings in the center, the Sergeant had them stop their advance, the squad taking a knee.

“New orders,” he announced, his voice crackling in Evan’s helmet. “We gotta hold while the tanks take out those buildings, then we’re gonna move in and clear it. When that’s done, we keep advancing and clear the fields on the other side.”

One of the Kodiaks rumbled to a stop only fifty feet behind them, Evan feeling the ground tremble beneath it. Its main gun elevated slightly, aiming for the buildings.

After a short delay, Evan’s helmet dampened another loud crack, the projectile whizzing over their heads. A high-explosive round impacted the nearest building, erupting into a bright flash of flame. The resin material that held the structure together shattered like glass, the loose soil beneath thrown high into the air. The structure collapsed in on itself as it lost its integrity, Evan lowering his head as the airborne dirt rained down on him, bouncing off his helmet. Two more of the tanks fired, then the third, the cluster of buildings reduced to mounds of earth.

The Marines began to advance again, moving into the compound, but there weren’t really any buildings left to clear. These weren’t bunkers, after all. Something inside one of the collapsed structures was burning wherever the rubble would let oxygen in, probably stores of the grains and plants that the aliens had been harvesting.

“Isn’t it weird that they don’t have any machinery?” Hernandez asked, pausing to give one of the farmers a kick to make sure that it was dead. The creature had been crushed beneath some of the larger fragments of resin, its upper body trapped beneath them. “I don’t see any tractors, any plows, not even a fuckin’ shovel.”

“They are the machinery,” Evan explained. “They probably have specialized castes that do all of those jobs. These guys seem to just be harvesters. Maybe they plant the seeds, too, I dunno. If they’re growing stuff seasonally, there probably isn’t a reason for the tractors and plows to be around right now.”

Evan came across another slain Bug, this one splayed out on the ground beside the burning storage building. It had one of the mesh baskets on its back, the alien fruit scattered around it. This one had been caught in one of the blasts, its body charred, one of its arms missing.

“Not feelin’ bad for them, are you?” Hernandez chuckled as he gave Evan a nudge with his elbow.

“It’s weird to see them just…living,” he muttered. “We’ve only ever faced nuptial fleets before, hives that were either fighting to take a planet or had recently claimed one. I’m used to every Bug I see shooting back.”

“Yeah, well the Valbarans were just living here too,” his friend replied. He stepped on one of the fruits pointedly, crushing it beneath his boot. “We’re here to exterminate these fuckers, whether they’re fightin’ or farmin’. These things wouldn’t think twice about peelin’ your flesh right off your skull. They’re engineered to kill from the chromosome-up.”

Evan looked out over the burning fields, where squads of Marines were hunting down the last stragglers, gunning them down where they stood.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

He turned to look for the Sergeant, seeing that he was standing beside one of the six-wheeled Timberwolfs a short distance away. He was having an animated conversation with a crew member who was leaning out of the open ramp at the rear. As he watched, one of the vehicle’s surveillance drones shot up into the air from a tubular launcher on the hull, extending its rotors before righting itself. It hovered there for a moment, then rose up into the air, quickly disappearing from view.

“What’s up, Sarge?” Hernandez asked as he returned to the squad.

“Getting some weird electromagnetic signatures from the forest nearby,” he explained, turning to glance back at the scout vehicle as it drove off into the fields. “It’s probably just interference from the magnetosphere,” he added, turning his visor to the auroras that raged above them. “Better investigate it all the same, though.”

“You reckon they’re out there, watchin’ us?” Hernandez muttered as the Sergeant made his way back to the IFV.

“I dunno,” Evan replied. “Nothing we’ve done so far has gotten a reaction out of them. You think it’s possible they just don’t want to fight?”

“Too bad,” Hernandez chuckled. “We do.”

***

“It’s definitely broadcasting information,” Vos said as he examined the holographic readout. The forest far below the observation deck was standing still, the carrier hovering in a stationary orbit above the antenna site, its railgun arrays trained on the ground. “It’s broadcasting at frequencies that can traverse solid rock, probably so that they can communicate below ground in their tunnels. The sites are all linked, and they’re sending coded messages back and forth. This is a primitive planetary communication network.”

“I didn’t think the Bugs were capable of something like that,” Fielding muttered. “That means they have total coverage, they can coordinate their operations globally.”

“Not for long,” Vos added.

“Do we have any idea what kind of messages they’re sending? Can we decode their comms?”

“The Jarilans have been working on that,” Vos replied. “We should probably check in with them before we proceed.”

With a few taps at the display on his wrist, he put in a call through to the Constancy. The feed flickered for a moment before a familiar, insectoid face appeared, its face-plates shifting as it spoke.

“What can we do for you, Admiral?” she asked in a voice that sounded remarkably human. Trying not to get distracted by her branching horn and her ruff of silvery fur, he cleared his throat, straightening up. He wasn’t actually sure whether this was their equivalent of a ship’s captain, a comms operator, or just the pilot.

“I wanted to know whether your people had made any headway with the Kerguelan radio signals,” he said.

“One moment,” she replied, appearing to interact with what must be some kind of console below frame for a few seconds. He could see just enough of her thorax to make out both her upper and lower pairs of arms moving in tandem. “We have determined that the signals being broadcast by the antennas are coded pheromones. These chemical signals are being converted into an electrical impulse and transmitted through the electromagnetic spectrum, where they are then decoded by the receiver. This is a system not unlike the biological computer systems that we employ.”

“Is there any way that you can interpret these signals?” Vos asked. “Maybe we can figure out what they’re saying to each other, piggyback on their comms.”

“Betelgeusian pheromone languages are different from spoken languages,” she began. “There are thousands of scents that can convey anything ranging from raw emotions to complex concepts like mathematics or astronavigation. Having never encountered another hive before, we do not actually know if our language is universal or whether it undergoes divergence and evolution along with the physical properties of a hive. Our guess is that simpler concepts like emotions and signaling pheromones that point to food or tunnel entrances are universal, while more advanced concepts develop along with the hive. This is something we hope to clarify during the operation.”

“What about the signals themselves?” Fielding asked. “Are they encrypted?”

“Not as such,” she replied, turning her strange eyes on him. “It is not that we require a cipher, but without an example of a receiver, we cannot interpret the data accurately. Their technology is alien to us.”

“Perhaps we should try to capture one of the antennas intact,” Fielding suggested, but Vos shook his head.

“I think denying them the ability to communicate is more important. We’ll recover what we can from the site, but the priority should be to disable the antenna. If they have no other means of coordinating across the planet, we’ll be severely reducing the Queen’s ability to respond to threats.”

“Understood,” the Jarilan said. “Will there be anything else, Admiral?”

“That will be all for now,” he replied, the insect nodding respectfully before closing the feed. “Captain, have your railguns target the coordinates of the antenna. Our scans show that it runs deep underground, but we only need to destroy the associated facilities to disable it. There is minimal risk of environmental damage, so feel free to turn the entire area into a smoldering crater.”

“Yes, Admiral,” Fielding said enthusiastically. He opened a line to the Rorke’s weapons officer, audio-only. “Chief Petty Officer, target the antenna and have your operators fire when ready – full artillery barrage. I want that facility leveled.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied. “Firing for effect.”

There was a momentary delay, then the downwards-facing railguns that hung from the belly of the carrier began to turn, a dozen of them pointing their long barrels at the clouds below. From their underslung observation deck, Vos and Fielding had an admirable view, the prow of the vessel extending ahead of them like an armored ceiling. The men watched the guns begin to fire, rocking back in their housings as they absorbed the recoil. The projectiles moved so quickly that they weren’t visible, save for the meteor-like streaks that they left when they entered the atmosphere. Moments later, there were faint flashes from the planet’s surface, Vos watching through the glass beneath his feet. The ventral guns kept firing, their barrages perfectly timed, heat buildup starting to make their rails glow red.

When the fire subsided, Fielding brought up a view of the ground below, manipulating the controls to enhance the magnification. The antenna had been built in a mountainous area, presumably to leverage the terrain for their transmitters. It took the form of a ring of tower-like structures that spanned a mile-wide area. The clearing inside the circle had been filled with clusters of buildings, which were now completely gone, the craters created by the Rorke’s railguns transforming the area into a moonscape. A nearby mountainside had completely collapsed under the barrage, partially burying the site.

“I would call that effective fire,” Vos said, one corner of his mouth twitching into a smile. “Looks like they’ve stopped broadcasting. Once the other sites are down, the Queen will be blind and deaf to what’s happening in other regions of her colony. That’s the weakness of a heavily centralized command structure.”

“Divide and conquer,” Fielding added with a nod. “Soon, the real ground war can begin.”

“As soon as our enemies actually reveal themselves,” Vos muttered. “The attacks on their infrastructure have so far gone unopposed. We captured all of their anchors, we’ve torched a dozen farms, and we just took out their comms. What’s it going to take to get them to react?”

“Do you think the anchors are secure enough to use as temporary FOBs?” Fielding asked. “We could use them as staging areas, start looking for nearby entrances to the tunnel network. They were massive complexes, they can’t have been built too far away from the Bug highways.”

“Temporary? Yes,” Vos replied. “I still don’t want to hold any territory long-term, it’s not worth the investment, but there’s no point redeploying the battalions that are already on-station. Would you do me a favor and call our Jarilan friends again? Have them start dispatching auxiliaries to assist in the search.”

“Of course, Admiral,” Fielding replied.

“I’m afraid that if I keep the Ensi waiting any longer, she’s going to start breaking things,” he muttered as he made his way to the exit.

***

“The Admiral says you’re welcome to anything in the armory,” Fletcher said, turning a wheel-shaped handle on the door. Xipa heard the click of the lock, then it swung ajar, revealing the Rorke’s main armory. It was larger than she had expected, the walls lined with weapon racks and shelves full of attachments. Sitting on the deck were tables where people could service and modify their equipment, many of them already sporting partially assembled rifles.

The other members of the team filed in behind her, already knowing where they were headed, fanning out into the room to collect what were probably their personal weapons from different racks. She trailed after Fletcher, not really knowing what she was supposed to do next. He noticed that she wasn’t picking out any of the guns, turning to face her, his arms crossed.

“You ever build an XMR before?”

“I’m aware of the XMR,” she replied, eyeing the rows of polymer rifles. “Our Commandos have begun to adopt the platform. Personally, I’ve always preferred the handling of a laser rifle, so…I’ve never fired one.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have any laser rifles,” he replied sarcastically. “We could send for one and have it delivered from your ship if you want to delay the-”

“No, no,” she grumbled with a frustrated flush of purple feathers. “Show me.”

“There’s a little firing range at the back,” he added, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. “You can test it out there. Come on, let me show you how to work them.”

She followed him over to one of the racks, where there were rows of disassembled rifles.

“These are the frames,” he began, picking one of them up. “They come in small, medium, and large. The acronym means X-Species Modular Rifle, because it’s intended to be used by all Coalition species without requiring separate parts. That way, everyone can share mags, attachments, scopes, and all that. For you, we’ll go with a small,” he said as he passed the frame to her. It was surprisingly light, made from some kind of tough polymer, but it was little more than a grip and a mag well. It fit her hands well, clearly made for someone of her stature.

“I’m thinking laser rifles are probably low-recoil, without a lot of effective range,” Fletcher mused as he scratched his hairy chin. “We can aim for something that handles about the same, but even low-recoil for a railgun is…recoil,” he added.

“Depends what you mean by effective range,” Xipa said defensively.

“The reason we don’t use laser weapons is because they scatter off every droplet of water and mote of dust in their path, losing half of their energy before they even reach their target,” he explained. “The average XMR configuration can fire over the horizon.”

“Just show me how to build this thing,” she sighed.

“Might as well give you a crash course in how the gun works while we’re at it,” he continued, leading her over to a stack of shelves full of stocks. “Your stock is where your battery is housed. Bigger battery equals more juice, but also more weight. You want a nice thick pad on there, too. Trust me. The small ones are…” Fletcher paused, chuckling to himself. “Some joker put them on the top shelf. Here, I’ll get it for you.”

Xipa’s feathers flushed an embarrassed pink as he reached for the attachment, handing it to her. Before he had time to explain how it attached, she had figured it out, slotting it in behind the mag well with a satisfying click. She braced it against her shoulder, testing it, the soft pad cushioning the hard material.

“You got it. Next comes the barrel. A longer barrel means more coils, which translates to more range and more stopping power. In your case, you’re not used to a lot of range, so let’s go with something a bit shorter. It’ll make it easier to handle, too.”

“I was fighting Betelgeusians while you were still in an incubator,” she replied, flashing him a stern look. “I do not need to be coddled.”

“These things kick like mules. I’m not calling you weak,” he grumbled. “Just how old are you, anyway? I can’t tell.”

“I was nineteen when Kerguela fell,” she replied.

“That would make you nearly fifty,” he added, looking her up and down. Xipa didn’t know enough about human facial expressions to tell what he was thinking.

“My people live for upwards of a hundred and twenty rotations,” she explained. “I am not yet so frail that I cannot keep up with an Earth’nay.”

“Good, because we don’t have any tactical mobility scooters onboard,” he replied with a chuckle.

“Scooters would not work in the forest,” she explained. “The terrain is too rough.”

He gave her a questioning look, giving her the impression that they were speaking at crossed purposes. After a moment, he shrugged to himself, then led her over to the other side of the room. He examined shelves full of barrels for a moment, then turned back around.

“Hey, Bug!” Fletcher shouted. The insect was in the process of assembling a weapon on one of the benches, using all four of its arms in a way that set Xipa’s teeth on edge. It paused what it was doing, glancing over at the Earth’nay. “You use a small frame, right? What barrel do you recommend for low recoil that still has more stopping power than an XMH?”

The insect seemed irritated to be addressed in such a way, but when it spoke, it was with a friendly tone.

“Yeah, I use a small. Try a C-three. Good stopping power at intermediate range, very controllable.”

Fletcher searched for the correct label, then pulled one of the barrels from the shelf, handing it to her. It was maybe four inches long, packed with copper-colored magnetic coils, surprisingly heavy as she weighed it in her hand. She figured out how to attach it quickly, the weapon starting to take shape.

Next, he introduced Xipa to the various attachments such as sights, forward grips, and lasers. Apparently, the Earth’nay did make use of laser technology, but primarily for targeting. They attached via an intuitive rail system that was present at various points on the frame, and before long, her weapon was ready to fire. There were several magazines to choose from, which were different from what she was used to. A laser rifle would fire until its battery died, but a railgun used a battery to power its electronic components as well as a magazine that fed ammunition to the weapon. She selected a drum-shaped magazine, then quickly switched to a much smaller twenty-round version when she realized how heavy the tungsten slugs were. Her sight of choice was a scope that resembled those used on the laser rifles that she was accustomed to, with two different magnification modes.

“Looks like you’re ready to go,” Fletcher said, appraising her creation as she lifted it off the bench. They had found her a suitable crate to stand on so that she could reach, but she wasn’t about to let that get to her. “Come on, let’s test it out on the range.”

He led her to the back of the room, where there were five booths separated by transparent dividers. Each one had a small desk where one could rest their weapon or change attachments, and behind those was the range. It was small, even by Valbaran standards, squashed down to fit into whatever space was available on the carrier. The paper targets were only maybe twenty meters away, and the back wall was built up with some kind of protective padding to catch the slugs.

“Vos made sure we got outfitted with the new models,” Fletcher began, gesturing to a dial on her weapon’s receiver just above the safety. “You can dial the voltage up or down depending on how much oomf you need. Highest setting is two kilometers per second, lowest is two hundred and fifty meters per second. You can go subsonic with low recoil, or you can punch through two and a half inches of steel if you think your shoulder can take it. Give it a try.”

Xipa braced the weapon against her shoulder, looking through the scope at one of the targets. She was amused to see that there was a Betelgeusian printed on it. After her injury, she had been forced to change her dominant hand so that she could still use a rifle, but years of practice had made it second nature. She squeezed the foregrip beneath the barrel, testing the weight and balance of the weapon. Perhaps she had been too quick to judge – it felt good in her hands.

“Make sure you have set to in semi-auto,” Fletcher advised as he stood behind her booth. “Burst mode could be good, too. It’ll fire off three rounds before you really have a chance to feel the recoil.”

Xipa tweaked the dial and zeroed her scope, then switched off the safety feature. The Earth’nay only had ten characters to represent their numbers, which made them very easy to remember, even if she had never cared to learn their script. She squeezed the trigger, a loud crack reverberating off the narrow walls as the stock rocked into her shoulder, Xipa having to brace herself to keep her balance. Three rounds punched holes in the target, slamming into the padding on the far wall.

“How did that feel?” Fletcher chuckled.

“Good,” she replied breathlessly, unable to suppress a flutter of surprised yellow. “I do not know what a mule is, but they must be fearsome beasts if they kick like this.”

“Oh, yeah,” he replied with a grin. “Apex predators. Maybe dial it down a bit to make it easier to control. Even at lower voltages, it’s gonna turn a Bug to fucking paste.”

She followed his advice, then tried again, finding the weapon easier to manage. It had limitations compared to a laser rifle, but there were certain advantages, too. Her instinct was to hold the rifle on her target, but projectile weapons didn’t work that way. It took some getting used to. After a few more shots, she found a comfortable voltage, the coils on the barrel starting to glow beneath their transparent shroud as she lowered it.

“It will suffice,” she declared, dropping the empty magazine into her hand.

“We’ll get you set up with a carrier that you can wear over your suit,” Fletcher said. “Pretty sure Valbaran Commando helmets can interface with these systems wirelessly, too. Might need to run a software update for that. It can display your ammo count on your HUD, your charge level, picture-in-picture scope, stuff like that.”

Xipa turned to see what the rest of the team was doing. The one that called itself Bluejay had finished assembling its weapon, built on the same frame as her own, but modified into something that more resembled a precision rifle. The barrel was longer, the scope had a higher magnification, and there were two forward grips to accommodate its four arms. Gustave was wielding something altogether different, however. As she watched, the Krell dragged something out of a corner, heavy even in the alien’s powerful arms. It deposited what looked like an engine block on one of the tables, making it shake, a long belt of ammo clattering as it trailed onto the deck.

“That’s a chaingun,” Fletcher explained, following her gaze. “The tri-barrel design helps with cooling, stops the coils from getting so hot that they slag. It feeds the same ammo they use in anti-material railguns from a belt.”

“The Krell’nay carry this weapon into battle?” she marveled, watching as the alien spun the barrel with his scaly hand.

“Just Gustave,” Fletcher replied. “Word is, he pulled it off a disabled Kodiak, and nobody dared ask for it back. That’s probably not completely true since someone has clearly modified it so he can carry it more easily, but I wouldn’t put it past him.”

As she watched, Gustave turned back to one of the lockers, pulling out what looked like two slabs of black metal attached by a tube of fabric. Before she could ask what its purpose was, the alien slipped his left arm into it like a sleeve, tightening straps above his bulging bicep and on his forearm to secure it. It was some kind of shield, split into two angular slabs, a UNN logo emblazoned on the upper plate. She had seen Krell’nay use shields before, so perhaps this was a way to add some supplemental armor while still allowing the alien to hoist his immense gun. Next, he pulled out a cylinder the size of a fuel drum, throwing it onto his back. He secured it with straps like a rucksack, adjusting their tightness until it was snug against his scutes. The thing was large enough that it looked like an Earth’nay could comfortably sit inside it. It was only when he attached the ammunition belt to it that she realized it was intended to feed the weapon.

Gustave lifted the chaingun again, letting out a satisfied huff. It seemed that he was ready. Even as large as he was, it seemed impossible that a living thing could carry all of that weight. Now, she better understood why Vos had assigned him to the mission. It was like bringing a light vehicle along with them.

Ruza was holding a long rifle in his furry hands, the same kind that she had seen other Borealans wield. It was a large frame with a barrel that must have been two meters long, densely packed with coils. On its tip was a long bayonet that was more like a sword to Xipa, its wicked edge lined with serrated teeth.

Fletcher was the last to collect his weapon, which was already assembled. It was a medium frame configured as a battle rifle, what looked like a secondary barrel mounted beneath the first. It had a second trigger, too, along with a canister that projected out from beneath it.

“What is that?” she asked, gesturing to the odd device.

“Under-barrel plasma launcher,” he replied, giving it an affectionate pat. “This baby’ll take down a Bug’s shield in one hit, no need to waste time swapping between firing modes. Come on,” he added. “We’ll get that carrier set up for you.”

“Excuse me,” the insect suddenly said, pulling a tablet computer from the pocket of its coveralls. “I’m being called away. I’ll meet you on the dropship.”

It left the way it had come, Ruza and Fletcher sharing a shrug.

***

The team made their way through the Rorke’s hangar, the strange procession drawing looks from a few of the engineers who were servicing the aircraft nearby. There was a dropship waiting for them, idling on the deck before the gaping maw that was the carrier’s bay door. They mounted the ramp, climbing into crash couches in the troop bay, Xipa shrugging off her pack before hopping up into one of the oversized seats. It had a slot for her tail, at least, even if her clawed feet dangled off the deck. She strapped herself in, setting her XMR down in a slot beside her chair, watching as her bodyguards filed in one after the other. The Earth’nay and the Borealan had no trouble getting seated, while Gustave simply stood in the aisle, reaching up to grip a bulky handhold in the ceiling. He was so large that his oar-like tail trailed all the way to the ramp, his scaly head scraping the roof.

They were securing their helmets now, Fletcher and Ruza wearing similar models with opaque, full-faced visors that obscured their features. Gustave pulled up a hood that was hanging from the collar of his poncho, covering his long snout with it. He was seemingly too large to wear a pressure suit, so the garment protected only his head, sealing at the neck. There was what looked like a rebreather on the end, as well as goggles for the eyes, presumably to protect the wearer from chemical agents. Her own helmet closed like a maw over her head, the HUD flickering to life as she sealed her visor, syncing with her weapon. After the software update that she had downloaded from the Rorke’s servers, it was showing Coalition IFF tags, too. There were icons floating above her teammates, identifying them as friendlies.

The insect was running late. It had vanished back at the armory and had been missing ever since. Had the Admiral finally come to his senses and recalled it back to its ship?

To her dismay, she saw it hurrying across the hangar towards them, her visor highlighting it with a tag. Its Navy coveralls were gone, revealing that Bluejay was no longer blue. Its chitinous carapace had been painted over with streaks of autumn camouflage, matching her own suit and the ceramic armor of her squadmates. It looked as though someone had spray-painted the damned thing like it was a piece of equipment, the same way that one might re-spray the hull of a vehicle prior to a deployment. It was even more unnerving to see the creature uncovered, to see the fleshy joints between the plates of its carapace, a shiver of disgust making her suit panels flush violet.

The carrier that it wore over its torso was similar to her own, a fabric rig with pouches for spare magazines and other sundries. It had its own rucksack, as well as a camouflaged armband that was secured about the bicep of one of its upper arms. She noted that there was a helmet hanging from its belt, too, bouncing as it jogged along. It mounted the ramp, squeezing past Gustave’s bulk as it made for one of the chairs, the reptile giving it an intimidating rumble that could have been a threat or a greeting. As it sat down, she got a better view of its armband. There were patches sewn onto it, one of which sported a UNN logo, those below it decorated with Earth’nay script. Perhaps they were name tags or service numbers. It lifted the helmet, Xipa watching curiously. How would a creature with a horn that sprouted from the middle of its forehead put something like that on?

The helmet separated into two halves in its hands – a faceplate and the helmet proper. The insect slotted the helmet onto its head from behind, a special cutout resting around its horn, then reattached the faceplate to seal it up. Xipa remembered the helmets worn by the Bugs that she had faced in the past, the compound visors furthering their insect appearance. Instead, this model had one continuous visor that ran across its eyes like goggles. The material resembled tinted glass, letting her see some of the alien’s features beneath it. There was a protruding panel that was likely a rebreather placed over its mouth, rising to meet it. It was otherwise similar to those worn by the Earth’nay, probably deliberately so. It was a disguise that did nothing to fool Xipa.

“Why are you red?” Fletcher asked with a lack of subtlety that Xipa had come to expect from his kind.

“The Constancy sent over a pair of Workers to paint my shell,” it replied. “It’s for camouflage.”

“Yeah, I gathered that,” Fletcher continued. “I just didn’t expect to see you running around in the nude.”

“I’m not nude,” it replied, rapping its fist against its carapace. “We wear supplemental armor plating that matches our shell. It can be hard for humans to tell where one ends and the other begins, I know, but rest assured that I am fully clothed.”

I’m not,” a synthetic voice said, translating Gustave’s rumbling into speech. The alien huffed, laughing at its own joke, perhaps.

“Is that shit gonna wash off in the rain?” Fletcher asked skeptically.

“It’s bonded to my exoskeleton,” the insect explained. “It won’t come off until a special chemical solution is applied.”

“Does it…hurt?”

“No, but it tickles when they apply it.”

“Gonna add that to the list of things I didn’t need to know,” Fletcher grumbled. “Right, is everyone ready? Can we get this show on the fucking road?”

He signaled to the pilot, who was sitting in the cockpit behind a dividing door, and the ramp began to close. As it sealed up with a hermetic hiss, the interior of the vessel pressurized, Xipa feeling the chair beneath her start to tremble. The engines spooled up, the craft lifting off the deck, slowly sliding out through the hangar’s force field. Through the narrow portholes in the troop compartment, she could see the bright lights of the carrier fade away, transitioning to velvet black.

“Please stay seated until we touch down,” the pilot said, his voice coming through an intercom system. “The Admiral has assigned us a Beewolf escort. They’ll follow us down to the landing site for a little added security.”

Xipa felt her stomach lurch as the dropship began to descend, turbulence following once they hit the atmosphere. An orange glow from the flames that were licking at the hull outside poured in through the portholes, Xipa gripping the oversized armrests of her seat, the sounds of straining metal filling her with the fear that they were about to be shaken apart. Finally, it subsided, the fiery glow giving way to blue skies as the craft began to glide. It circled for a while, shedding the velocity that it had built up during reentry. Each time it banked, Xipa was able to catch a brief glimpse of the red forests below, the sight filling her with a strange blend of emotions.

She was coming home, yet it was a home that no longer existed, like returning to the site of a house that had burnt down to sift through the ashes. What did she hope to find here? Did she really believe that there could be survivors after all this time, or was she clinging to the false hope that what she had once known was not entirely lost? It was too late for introspection…

The familiar browns and oranges of the canopy rose up beyond the windows, the dropship slowly lowering itself to the ground. She felt it bounce as it touched down, then the ramp began to open, the pale light of the system’s binary stars bleeding through. For the rest of the team, this was a routine drop. They sprang up from their seats, waiting for Gustave to laboriously turn his bulk around to face the ramp before hopping out of their seats. They retrieved the packs that held all of their supplies, shouldered their rifles, and hurried out into the sunlight.

Xipa swung her pack over her shoulder, then picked up her unfamiliar weapon, hesitating as she peered through her visor at the forest beyond. The team had spread out to create a perimeter in the clearing, kneeling with their rifles raised. Gustave was standing by the ramp, guarding it like a sentry. Grateful that none of her companions understood the significance of the colors that were flashing across her suit panels, she made her way out of the craft.

She felt the Kerguelan soil between her clawed toes, glancing up above the treetops, the breeze blowing the rust-colored leaves. The blue sky burned with vibrant auroras, and above them, the gas giant – Te’tat’zin – shone like a beacon in the sunlight. The same storms that she remembered studying in school still raged, unchanged in the time that she had been away. Xipa reached up to tap the side of her helmet, her visor popping open, the scents of the forest flooding into her nostrils. A rush of nostalgia overwhelmed her, the aromas bringing back flashes of memories long buried.

The backwash from the dropship’s engines whipped fallen leaves into the air, blowing the shrubs that had made the clearing their home. A sharper, louder noise rose over their low hum, and she turned her nose to the sky to see a Beewolf circling overhead.

Remembering her mission, she hurried to get clear of the dropship. Gustave followed behind her, his heavy footsteps shaking the ground beneath her feet. The craft lifted off, rising on its thrusters until it was high enough to engage its main engines, quickly transitioning to level flight. It began to climb, the Beewolf falling into formation beside it.

They were on their own now, deep inside enemy territory.

“Clear!” Fletcher said, popping open his visor. He took a deep breath, letting his rifle hang by his side. “Fuck, I’d almost forgotten what fresh air tastes like.”
Gustave pulled back his hood, letting it hang down his back, the rest of the team removing their various helmets. They clipped them to their belts and packs, Xipa doing the same. Nobody wanted to march for days with a stifling helmet on.

“We should get moving,” Fletcher added, gesturing to the edge of the clearing. “If any roaches noticed us come down, they’ll be looking for us here. Let’s stay off comms while we can, too. We don’t know if they can detect radio signals. Better safe than sorry.”

Xipa adjusted her pack, then followed after them as they made their way to the trees. They were soon beneath the shade of the canopy, every plant and mushroom sparking recognition in the Ensi. Somehow, she had expected everything to be different. It was still hard to accept that the Betelgeusians didn’t ravage the planets that they captured, driving its species to extinction, and destroying the biosphere. She had walked these same forests in her youth, looked up at the same sky, admired the same auroras.

“It’s always forests and jungles,” she heard Fletcher mutter. “We never get to invade a beach planet.”

“The gravity here is even lower than on your carrier,” Ruza grumbled, stumbling a little as he trudged through the dense undergrowth. “I feel as though I may float away.”

Xipa found it far more comfortable. It was only around ten percent lower than the gravity on Valbara. The human ships were oppressive in comparison, making her feel like she was carrying around a pack full of rocks. She had been feeling her age more and more lately, but in this low gravity, she felt positively spry again.
The team walked until the clearing was out of sight, then stopped by the foot of one of the giant trees, the tangled roots breaking through the ground to form twisted knots. Gone were the greens and purples of Valbara’s foliage. Everything here was red, orange, or yellow. Even the fallen leaves that carpeted the naked ground matched the color palette, making it feel as though the canopy extended all the way to the surface.

“Where to next?” Fletcher asked, addressing Xipa. “It’s your colony, your signal.”

“Do you humor me?” she asked with a flutter of irritated red.

“Only because Vos told me to,” he replied with a smile.

She brought up the computer on the wrist of her suit, dialing the radio to the old emergency channel. She still remembered the frequency, drilled into her memory during her guard training.

“I have it,” she replied. “It’s due East of us.”

“Lead the way,” Fletcher said.

“I’m going to get a birds-eye view of the area,” Bluejay said, stepping away from the group. “See what I can see.”

“Go for it,” Fletcher replied, watching as the creature shrugged off its pack.

Only now, without its coveralls, did Xipa see the two protective pieces of shell on its back. They rose up above its shoulders, opening to reveal a pair of gossamer wings. They looked like shards of broken glass, shimmering in the sunlight, crisscrossed by tiny veins that separated them into individual membranes. She noted that the underside of the protective casings were still blue, having not been painted over with camouflage. The wings began to beat, quickly becoming a blur, blowing away the surrounding leaves. Bluejay rose up into the air, its rifle still in hand, vanishing into the canopy.

“It…can fly?” she asked, her panels flashing a surprised yellow.

“That’s why the males make such good scouts,” Fletcher explained. “It’s like having a surveillance drone on demand. As much as working alongside a roach rubs me the wrong way, I’m kind of glad he’s here.” He stooped to pick up the insect’s pack, throwing it over his shoulder. “Lead on, Ensi.”

***

“I’ll trade you the spicy chicken and rice for your beef stromboli,” Evan said, digging through the packets in his MRE. It was lunch time, and the squad was sitting in the rubble of a ruined warehouse back at the Bug anchor, the crumbling pieces of resin making more comfortable seats than the muddy ground. Their IFV was nearby, the engine turned off, the crew hanging out in the open troop bay as they ate.

“What, I’m supposed to want the spicy food because I’m Mexican?” Hernandez replied in mock outrage. “Fuck you. Doesn’t even have any limes.”

“I’ve seen you eat, motherfucker,” Evan shot back. “If you were a Borealan you’d be carrying around vials of hot sauce. Do you want the spicy chicken or not?”

“Of course I want the spicy chicken,” Hernandez chuckled, snatching it out of his hand. “What else you got in there?”

“Jalapeno cheese spread,” he replied, tossing the packet into his friend’s lap. “You can have that, too. The hell are they thinking with this menu?”

“You can have my applesauce, you fuckin’ baby.”

They were distracted as another lander roared overhead, carrying a piece of prefab barrier for the wall that was being constructed around the area, the great slab of reinforced polymer hanging from its belly on chains. It seemed that the higher-ups had decided to use the anchor site as a temporary FOB. They’d be putting down guard towers and barracks soon, turning the place into a fortified base from which the battalion could launch raids on the surrounding Bug tunnels. Once that was done, they’d probably pick up and move on to the next site, wherever that might be.

Evan raised his canteen to his lips, tilting his head back to take a drink. As he peered up at the auroras that trailed across the sky, he spotted another incoming ship. His heart stopped in his chest as he saw the insectoid legs that were folded beneath its belly, his hand reaching for the rifle that was leaning against a hunk of soil beside him.

He relaxed a little when he noticed the UN-blue livery on the onyx-black armor plating that covered its back like the shell of a lobster, the organic craft starting to bank as it made its way closer.

“It’s Jarilan,” Hernandez explained, sending the tension in him. “Looks like it’s comin’ in for a landin’. They told us we’d have to work alongside critters in the briefin’ back on the carrier, right?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Evan replied as he watched the vessel suspiciously. Those insect-like, jointed legs extended as it neared the ground, serving as landing gear. It looked like a giant shrimp, with a distinct head that was covered in arrays of tiny, black eyes that shone in the sun. A cluster of thin antennae projected out before it like the comms package on a survey ship, and he noted that it had a pair of plasma weapons slung beneath its prow. Its abdomen was bulkier, swollen, the angular plating that protected its back tapering into off-green flesh as it neared its underside. The entire craft was maybe a little larger than a UNN dropship. It used the rows of thrusters that ran along its flanks to steady itself as it touched down not far away from where they were sitting. Each one of them moved independently, attached by muscle rather than machinery, the jets of methane flame gradually fading.

The rear of the vessel began to open up, the black plating splitting apart like the wings of a beetle preparing to take flight, exposing the tendons beneath it. From below, a far more mechanical ramp descended, Evan unable to see inside from where he was sitting.

A procession of Bugs came jogging out, far more than looked like they should be able to fit in a craft of that size. Their shells were all painted in matching camouflage, and they were wielding XMRs, their faces obscured behind what looked like motorcycle helmets. Each of them had a ruff of fluffy, white fur around their necks, as well as on a few of the joints on their six limbs. Just like the Marines, they were wearing rigs and backpacks, too.

The Battalion commander walked out to meet them, talking with one of them for a couple of minutes as the rest formed a neat line behind it like they were on parade. Evan counted twenty-four of them. When they were done talking, the group split into groups of three, all heading off in different directions. Hernandez gave him a nudge when he saw that a trio of Bugs were headed their way.

They stopped beside the IFV, the squad of confused Marines staring back at them. The lead Bug passed its XMR to its lower pair of arms, then reached up to remove its helmet with the upper. Rather than slide it off as a human would, it popped off a faceplate that housed the visor and rebreather, then slid the rest of the helmet off the back of its head. It looked to Evan like the horn would get in the way otherwise.

Its face was oddly familiar, with a pair of large, expressive eyes that didn’t look like they belonged on an insect at all. There was no nose, and its mouth was made up of an arrangement of plates, closely mimicking the appearance of a human. The effect made it look a little like a china doll that had been broken, then glued back together again. He was surprised to see a pair of full, fleshy lips, pink in color. As the creature began to speak, those plates shifted around, giving it the ability to emote.

“Jarilan auxiliaries, reporting for duty,” it announced in a distinctly feminine voice. Unlike the Borealans and the Valbarans, it spoke perfect English with no accent that he could discern. If he’d been listening to it over the radio, he would have mistaken it for a human.

She – and it was clearly a female – turned to the Sergeant as he set down the packet of pork and beans that he had been eating, saluting him as he approached.

“You’re the Jarilans that were assigned to the company,” he mused, looking them up and down.

“Yes, sir,” she replied. “Three per IFV, Battalion-wide. We’re here to help you root out the Bugs.”

Evan and Hernandez exchanged a glance. Root out the Bugs? They were Bugs…

“Very good,” the Sergeant replied. “I suppose you’re looking for Echo-fourteen? You’ll be rolling with my squad,” he added, gesturing to Evan and the rest of the Marines who were sitting nearby. “That’s our Puma over there. Should be room for you to stand inside, but you may have to ride on the hull. Get settled in.”

She responded with another prim salute, like a rookie straight out of boot camp. As the Sergeant returned to his seat and resumed his meal, the three Bugs turned their eyes on the Marines. Evan made the mistake of making eye contact with their leader, who took that as an invitation, making a beeline for him.

“Hey,” she said with a wave of her hand, her mannerisms remarkably human. “My name’s Jade,” she added, gesturing to an armband that she was wearing. It had a UNN logo, along with velcro patches with her name and rank. “Looks like we’re going to be working together from now on.”

“Evan,” he replied, trying to be polite.

“Bugs have names?” Hernandez asked, Evan struggling not to audibly sigh.

“Sure we do,” she replied cheerfully, as though she had heard the same question before. “My Dad named me. I’m usually green,” she added, rapping a fist against her angular chest piece. “They painted us red before we dropped so we wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb.”

“Bugs have Da-”

Evan cleared his throat loudly before Hernandez could finish his thought.

“They told us we’d be working with Bugs back on the carrier,” he began. “You guys are here to sniff out tunnel entrances, right?”

“That, and to lend a helping hand or four where we can,” she replied as her face plates arranged into an uncanny smile. “We prefer Jarilan to Bug, by the way. Jarry is fine, too. Our species didn’t originate in the Betelgeuse system, and we’re only very distantly related to the other hives. We actually have as much human DNA as Betelgeusian.”

“How did that come about?” Hernandez asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Mom was a Queen, Dad was a Marine,” she replied proudly. “Got my rifle arm from him, and the other three from her.” She turned her eyes to the MRE that Evan was eating, nodding to it. “Smells good. Beef, right?”

“Yeah,” he replied, suppressing the impulse to ask her how she could smell anything without a nose. “You, uh…want some?”

“Nah, thanks,” she replied with a shake of her head. “We only need our honey ration to survive. Looks like your buddy shares our tastes.”

Hernandez looked up at her, halfway through squeezing a tube of amber fluid with the consistency of syrup onto a cracker.

“That stuff’s a Jarilan export,” she explained. “Our Repletes make it. Eat up, Jarry Juice is good for you.”

Hernandez turned his eyes back to his cracker, his disappointment palpable. Jade made her way closer, apparently deciding that she had found her new friends, taking a seat beside Evan on a piece of rubble. She crossed her long legs, Evan glancing down at them. They were digitigrade, with pink flesh visible between the joints, her ankles decorated with a ring of white fluff. He noted that her inner thighs weren’t armored, sporting more of that pink meat, reflecting the light like a waxed car. It didn’t look like skin, more like smooth plastic. At first glance, she looked like the Drones that he had spent his career fighting, but she was indeed more humanoid upon closer inspection. Her silhouette was closer to that of a human woman, with wide hips that tapered into a narrow waist. Unlike the gaunt insectoids, she was fuller, like a Bug that had been sculpted into the shape of a person with deliberate intent.

“So, how do those work?” he asked as he pointed to her antennae. They were long and feathery, reminding him of a moth, the tiny hairs that coated them blowing in the breeze. A couple were standing erect, while the rest fell down the back of her head to give the appearance of braids.

“My antennae?” she asked, reaching up to curl her finger around one of them. “They’re basically what we use as a nose. They’re covered in chemo-receptors that can detect odors in the air. They’re also sensitive to humidity and sound waves, to an extent.”

“What kind of training do you guys do?” he continued, just making conversation to avoid an awkward silence. “Do you go through boot camp, maybe integration training like the Borealans?”

“I grew up around humans,” she chuckled. “I’ve probably spent more time with your kind than mine, if you can even make that distinction. No integration training needed. We go through a training program on Jarilo that was set up by some ex-Marines, including my Dad. He was a scout sniper when he was in the UNN. Needless to say, we have to meet the Navy’s standards to qualify as auxiliaries, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a Jarilan that couldn’t cut it. Bred for war, and all that.”

“You’ve lived around humans?” he asked, the revelation surprising him. “I knew there were human colonists on Jarilo, but I figured…I dunno, that you’d live apart.”

“Everyone lives together on Jarilo,” she explained. “It’s a young colony, people can’t get by without pulling their weight. If you need someone to repair a generator or help you put up a fence, you aren’t going to care how many limbs they have.”

“I guess that makes sense,” he replied over another mouthful of his meal. He looked over to see what the other two Jarilans were doing, seeing that one of them was leaning against the hull of the IFV, chatting with a couple of Marines. Another was standing on the ramp, talking with the crew who were sat inside.

“Man,” Hernandez suddenly said, stretching his arms above his head conspicuously. “I gotta go drain the worm. You wanna come watch my back and make sure no roaches get the drop on me, Evan?”

“Do I want to watch you piss?” Evan replied. “No.”
“Come on,” he hissed, nodding in the direction of a nearby ruin.

“Fine, fine,” Evan conceded. “We’ll be right back,” he added apologetically, the curious Jarilan watching them leave.

He followed Hernandez through the rubble, the pair stopping when they were out of sight of the rest of the squad, putting most of a collapsed warehouse between them and their new allies.

“What do you make of this?” Hernandez asked.

“Are you about to show me a tumor?”

“No, dickhead, the critters. Think we can trust ‘em?”

“I don’t see why not,” Evan replied with a shrug. “It’s not like they can go turncoat. The hives fight each other just as much as they fight us. They won’t show the Jarries any mercy just because they have the same number of arms. Hell, it might piss them off even more, like when you pet a friend’s cat and yours can smell it on you.”

“Just doesn’t sit right with me,” Hernandez grumbled. “It’s one thing when they’re on another ship, but we’re gonna be bunkin’ with the fuckers now. Fightin’ with ‘em, eatin’ with ‘em, sharing a latrine.”

“Listen, I’m not any happier about this than you are,” Evan said. “What are we supposed to do about it, though? Complain to the L.T? I’m sure he’d appreciate that. Best thing we can do is knuckle down and try not to shoot them by accident when the fighting starts.”

“Fuck, you think they would court-martial us for accidentally wastin’ a Jarilan?”

“They’re Coalition troops,” Evan replied. “Of course they would. Anyway, maybe they’ll be useful,” he added with a shrug. “We sure as hell haven’t been able to root out any Bugs on our own so far. Not unless you count a bunch of clueless farmers.”

“Man, I knew this deployment was gonna suck,” Hernandez grumbled. “We had too good of a time on Valbara, that’s the problem. Now we gotta pay for it. It’s karma, dude, I’m tellin’ you.”

“Let’s get back before the Sarge has to come looking for us,” Evan said, Hernandez following after him as he made his way back between the ruined warehouses. They returned to their seats, Jade greeting them with a wave of one of her upper hands. It was so odd how she moved both pairs independently, the lower clasped neatly in her lap.

Before they had time to sit down and resume their meals, the Sergeant came walking over, his helmet in hand.

“New orders just came in,” he announced. “Echo company is going on a Bug hunt. Get your shit together, we roll out in fifteen.”

The Jarilans leapt to attention, the Marines giving them confused looks as they finished off their MREs. This must be their first deployment, because the normal demeanor for someone serving in a mechanized company was some combination of tired and pissed off.

Evan wolfed down the rest of his beef stromboli, then pocketed an MRE chocolate bar, wiping his mouth on his sleeve before putting on his helmet. As the HUD turned on, he noted that the Jarilans were tagged on the IFF system, little icons with their names hovering over their heads. Perhaps they had IFF chips in their armbands or something. He didn’t actually know how much of their armor was part of their body and how much of it was synthetic. It was all painted with red camo, with no difference in texture. They could be completely nude for all he knew.

The Sergeant corralled them into the IFV, Evan strapping himself in, wondering where the Jarilans were going to sit. Once all of the Marines were loaded, the three aliens came up the ramp. There were no seats left for them, so they stood in the aisle between the two benches, gripping the handholds in the ceiling usually intended for Krell. The ramp closed behind them, the engine rumbling to life as the vehicle began to drive off.

***

They drove along one of the old Valbaran roads for maybe an hour, the cracked, overgrown asphalt barely supporting the seventy-ton Kodiaks. Echo company was comprised of twelve main battle tanks and eight of the Puma IFVs, with about a hundred Marines between them. Along with the crew and the twenty-four Jarilan auxiliaries, there were another eighty or so men. The convoy was forced to travel single-file along the abandoned highways, led by one of Golf company’s scout vehicles, which was using its arrays of sensors to pick up Bug activity. As well as a small squadron of surveillance drones, it was equipped with a ground-penetrating radar that could pick up anomalous underground structures.

The convoy finally ground to a halt, and this time, it wasn’t to drag a fallen tree out of their path. The Sergeant ordered them out of the IFV, the Jarilans hurrying down the ramp before the Marines, spreading out to guard the vehicle as they followed their training to the letter. They knew their stuff, but how much practical experience did they have?

As he stepped out onto the road, Evan saw more of the Jarilans, a trio of them attached to each squad. If nothing else, the bump in numbers was appreciated. Echo-fourteen was right in the middle of the convoy, the MBTs leading the way, the troop carriers trailing out of view around the bend behind them. His helmet’s software filtered out the rumbling of their engines, but he could still feel the ground shaking beneath his boots.

“The Timberwolf has picked up a radar signature that looks like a tunnel network,” the Sergeant began, stepping forward. “It’s off the road to the South. They couldn’t pinpoint the entrance, so the company’s gonna fan out and search on foot. Here’s where our new friends come in,” he added, gesturing in Jade’s direction. The Jarilans had kept their helmets off, presumably to make better use of their antennae, the feathery appendages bobbing in the air as she nodded her head. “Lead the way.”

The various squads all set off in different directions, Evan’s team following the three Bugs into the trees, leaving the safety of the convoy behind them. The red leaves of the shrubs that dominated the forest floor rustled as they waded through them, Evan struck once again by the prevalence of mushrooms on this moon. They were everywhere, growing from every tree, sprouting on every felled log. They rose up eight or nine feet in fungal spires in places, forming their own clusters, like a forest within a forest.

Behind them, the vehicles slowly faded from view, hidden by the densely packed trees. Evan glanced up, relieved to see one of the scout drones circling high overhead. If there were any enemies in the area, it would probably pick them up before they came into visual range and tag them.

As they made their way forward, they encountered a strange pillar. It was clearly artificial, covered in some kind of white paint that had chipped away in places, exposing the rusted metal beneath. The forest had colonized the structure, making it almost indistinguishable from the surrounding trees. Colonies of mushrooms sprouted at its base, red vines carpeting its surface as they climbed towards the canopy above. As Evan glanced to his left and right, he was able to spot more of them, a row of the white pillars seeming to run parallel to the road. They were connected by a rail high above his head, the dense canopy that had grown around it making it almost invisible from any real distance.

“Looks like a rail line,” Hernandez said, stopping at his side to peer up at it. “Mag-lev, maybe, like the ones we rode back on Valbara.”

“It was just left here,” Evan muttered. “The Bugs didn’t strip it for resources or anything. It’s easy to forget that people lived here once. There were schools, hospitals, railways…”

“Fuckin’ creepy, man,” Hernandez added.

A few of the other Marines paused to look at it on their way past, but they didn’t have much time for sightseeing.

“Anything?” the Sergeant asked, his voice coming through his helmet speakers.

“Nothing so far,” one of the Jarilans replied, her antennae twitching as she stalked through the bushes. “They won’t have come near the roads – no reason to when they have tunnels for transport.”

“Tunnels are better than roads?” Hernandez asked skeptically.

“You’d be surprised how fast Bugs can move through a tunnel system,” she added.

They hiked through the forest for another couple of hundred meters, then Jade raised a fist, the Marines taking a knee with their XMRs ready as they peered through the trees.

“Got a scent,” she said, bracing her rifle against her shoulder. As she held it with her upper arms, she gestured to her two companions with the lower, waving them forward. The three of them spread out, sniffing for traces of pheromones in the air like bloodhounds hunting down a fugitive. They seemed to grow more confident as they went, honing in on a distinct trail, the squad keeping watch as they followed behind them.

“There were Bugs here for sure,” Jade said, pausing by a tree to brush her antennae against its bark. “Recently. These scents aren’t more than forty-eight hours old.”

“Keep your eyes open,” the Sergeant ordered. “If we locate a hive entrance, we’re gonna have to secure it until a demo team can arrive to seal it up.”

“Disturbed soil,” another of the Jarilans said, waving over her companions. Jade crouched beside her, brushing the dirt with her fingertips.

“Yep, this is fresh. They’ve been doing earthworks somewhere nearby.”

“Alright, split into three groups and search the area,” the Sergeant said. “Keep comms clear until you find something.”

Evan, Hernandez, and Jade split off with a fourth Marine named Peterson, heading East as Jade followed her sensitive antennae. She kept her eyes to the ground, searching for any more telltale signs of disturbed soil. They all knew what hive entrances looked like. They usually took the form of a giant mound of earth, kind of like a molehill, with a hole carved out of one of its slopes large enough to let the Bugs in and out. Sometimes, they were sealed with doors or other fortifications, but a small entrance like this was probably undefended.

“Got it,” Jade finally said, pointing the barrel of her rifle into the trees. “That way.”

“What do you even smell?” Evan asked as he walked along beside her. “What’s it like?”

“Pheromones are messages coded into chemical signals,” she explained, keeping her eyes focused on the woods ahead. “You can read them if you have the right sensory organs. Imagine a strong smell, like a lemon or a flower. Now, imagine that the smell conveys some special meaning to you. That citrus scent might be associated with food. Well, now you just follow the smell of lemon to find the chow hall. Scale that up into more complex concepts, and you’ll get some idea of how it works.”

“So, what does the trail you’re following smell like?”

“It’s kind of like…” She paused for a moment to consider. “When you talk to someone who doesn’t speak your language, but you can still understand their tone and get some idea of what they mean. Does that make sense?”

“I guess so,” he replied.

“I can’t tell where this tunnel leads, but I know it’s a tunnel, and that Bugs came through here recently. Drones and Workers, it smells like.”

“Drones?” Hernandez repeated, gripping his rifle a little tighter.

They came upon a clearing, quickly taking cover behind the nearby trees as they spotted the mound of soil in the distance. It was eight or nine feet tall, made from earth that had been covered in the same hard, transparent resin as the warehouses.

“Looks clear,” Evan said, scanning the area with his optics. “No heat signatures.”

They stepped out into the open, advancing cautiously, their weapons trained on the mound. As they neared, they noted that something was wrong, Peterson speaking up first.

“The hell?” he muttered, taking a few steps closer to examine the doorway. “It’s collapsed.”

“Collapsed?” Hernandez asked, joining him beside the pile of dirt.

“Jade?” Evan asked, waiting for her to clarify.

“These are recent earthworks,” she explained, leaning closer to examine the soil. “It’s been purposely sealed. See this hard, clear coating? This is the resin excreted by Workers, used in construction.”
“This is fucking weird,” Evan muttered, reaching up to tap the touch panel on the side of his helmet. He switched to the squad channel, his radio crackling for a moment. “Sarge? We’ve found the tunnel entrance, but it looks like the critters have done our job for us. Fucking thing’s already sealed up. Yeah, I dunno. We’ll secure the area.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the squad to meet up, the Sergeant walking around the mound as he examined it, seeming just as confused as everyone else.

“Can they unseal it?” he asked, Jade shrugging her shoulders.

“It’s not impossible, but sealing up an entrance like this usually means that they don’t intend to use it anymore. I’d wager the actual tunnel has been collapsed for good measure, too.”

“So, they abandon their own tether ports, then they seal up their own tunnels,” another of the Marines muttered. “I don’t get the play.”

“These Bugs have never met any other species besides Betelgeusians and Valbarans,” Jade explained. “They might assume that we’d want to use their tunnels to get around and are denying us that resource by sealing them up.”

“Are they gonna fight us or not?” another added, a murmur of agreement spreading through their ranks.

“I’ll call it in, but there’s not much else we can do,” the Sergeant announced. “Come on, let’s get back to the convoy.”

They turned in the direction of the road, Evan jogging a little to catch up with Jade as they began to walk back through the forest.

“What do you make of this?” he asked, stepping over a cluster of mushrooms.

“I don’t know any more about the Bugs on this moon than you do,” she replied.

“I know, I know, Jarilans aren’t Betelgeusians. You told me that already. You must know more about Bugs in general, though. You’re related to them.”

“It’s not like them to retreat,” she sighed, glancing around at the trees warily. “Territory is everything to a hive – it’s their source of food, their living space, their very life. Evolution has honed them over untold eons to capture and defend stellar bodies. The only reason I can think of that they might voluntarily let an enemy force enter their territory is…”

“What?” Evan pressed, the Jarilan turning to give him a worried glance.

“A controlled burn,” she replied. “A form of habitat management that seems illogical on its face, but is a precise and measured response to a problem. Who knows when they might strike the first match.”

They soon arrived back at the convoy, the Sergeant ordering them back into the IFV.

“Command says we keep looking for tunnels,” he said, climbing up the troop ramp behind them. “You know the drill. We keep going until every one of those fuckers is mapped out.”

***

Evan watched the trees slide past beyond the IFV’s external cameras, an endless procession of reds, oranges, and browns. Every now and then, he would catch a scant glimpse of the support pillars for the mag-lev line that mirrored the road’s path through the forest, vines and creepers masking the faded white of their paint.

The troop carrier suddenly ground to halt, the Jarilans having to grip their handholds tightly to save from slamming into each other as the vehicle hit its brakes. Evan knocked into Hernandez, who was sitting beside him, his straps digging into his chest as they saved him from falling out of his seat.

“The fuck was that?” he heard someone ask, his eyes turning back to the external camera feed. They were on a long stretch of road, cracked and overgrown, its slight curve allowing him to see the lead vehicle far ahead. The asphalt beneath it had collapsed, throwing up a cloud of dust, plunging the seventy-ton tank into a pothole deep enough to partially bury it. It blocked the way completely, the trees to either side of the Valbaran highway forming a dense wall that boxed them in.

“Goddamn it,” the Sergeant growled, one finger on the side of his helmet. “The road has given out. What the fuck did the L.T expect, using highways that haven’t been maintained in thirty years? It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

“What do we do?” Hernandez asked.

“Just sit tight,” the Sergeant replied, settling back into his seat. “It’s probably going to take a lander to lift that thing out of there. Nothing we can do but sit around until then.”

One of the Marines reached under his chair for his pack, fishing inside for an MRE. He tore open the packet, then raised his visor, starting to rummage through the contents.

“If anyone needs to take a piss, now is probably a good time,” the Sergeant announced. He signaled for the crew to open the ramp, a few of the Marines rising from their seats, stretching their legs. Hernandez nudged Evan, and he followed him down the ramp, the Jarilans leading the way so as not to block the exit.

As he stepped out into the sunlight, Evan saw that many of the other IFVs were unloading, the Marines milling about nearby. A few of the tank commanders had opened their cupolas and were using their height to get a better look at the blockage ahead. Evan turned to glance at the lead Kodiak, the dust starting to clear. Its three-man crew had climbed out and were standing around the crater, helplessly peering down at their disabled vehicle.

“They’re not gettin’ that fucker out of there any time soon,” Hernandez chuckled, popping open his visor. He pulled an e-cigarette from his pocket, lighting it with a button press before raising it to his lips.

“No shit,” Evan replied, leaning against the hull of their IFV. “The Sarge is right, they’ll need to call in a lander to airlift it out. Just our luck that we’d come across a Kodiak-sized pothole.”

“Told you, man,” Hernandez added as he took a long drag from his cigarette. “It’s karma.”
“I’m gonna go take a whizz,” Evan sighed, setting off for the trees nearby. He stepped off the broken edge of the road, walking maybe twenty feet through the undergrowth. He found a suitable tree, keeping the convoy in view, reaching down to raise the segmented crotch armor on his suit. As he moistened the bark, he felt a tremor shake the ground. Cock in hand, he slowly turned his head to the right, where a mound of earth was rising from the ground. It wasn’t more than a hundred feet away, bulging up beneath the fallen leaves, displacing some of the nearby trees with an audible creaking sound.

As the loose soil sloughed off the object, Evan made out a spiky, rust-colored carapace covered in tiny bumps and spikes. Its coloration reminded him of a coconut crab, pale, white stripes trailing across its glossy surface. As more of it came into view, he noticed the mechanical components, shining metal catching the sunlight where it was visible beneath the thick chitin. On the near side, the organic shell transitioned into a ten-foot gun barrel lined with telltale magnetic rails. The ominous, green glow of plasma canisters mounted towards its rear left no question as to the purpose of the weapon.

Like a crab in sand, it was digging itself out of the ground, eight massive legs churning up the soil like a plow. More of its sloping hull emerged, its flanks adorned with huge pods that were covered in holes, like the seeds of a lotus plant. It was some kind of organic vehicle, an eight-legged tank, its turret slowly rotating to face the road. It must have been at least twenty feet long, maybe thirty tons, as large a Bug construct as he had ever seen outside of a spacecraft.

On its prow was a bulging dome made of thick chitin, its edges adorned with what looked like interlocking teeth. As he watched, frozen in terror, it split open into three separate plates reminiscent of a beak. From within, a long, off-blue appendage emerged. Like a snail peeking out of its shell, it snaked through the air, its pallid skin covered in glistening slime that dripped to the forest floor in ropes. It had a pair of bulbous antennae that twitched and waved as it peered about, the thing scouting out its environment before sliding back inside, the three plates closing over it protectively. Its bulk was still partially buried, like an MBT in a hull-down position.

It hadn’t noticed him – it was too focused on the convoy. Slowly, terrified that any sudden movements might alert it to his presence, he raised a finger to the touch panel on the side of his helmet.

“Sarge,” he whispered, the rapid beating of his heart pounding in his ears. “Contact in the forest. It’s an ambush. Say again, contact-”

The organic tank braced itself, the ground shaking beneath its clawed feet as it spread out its segmented legs. A loud, electrical hum filled the air as green energy crackled down the length of its main gun, arcing between the trio of rails. The canisters mounted on the rear of the turret glowed brighter, then the entire vehicle rocked back, absorbing the recoil as the gun fired. A bright lance of emerald plasma streaked across the forest, igniting the nearby plants as it raced past them, Evan whipping his head around to see it impact one of the IFVs. It melted through its hull like a blowtorch, the sheer kinetic energy of the impact powerful enough to lift the Puma’s wheels off the ground, nearly tipping it over. As it landed back on the road, he saw the slagged hole that had been punched through it, the asphalt beneath it liquefying. There was a secondary explosion as something inside the vehicle ignited, gutting its chassis, black smoke starting to billow from within.

The nearby Marines were already scattering, rushing for the cover of the nearby vehicles, but the Bug tank wasn’t done. It twisted its hull, aiming the two pods, then leaned back to elevate them slightly. Missiles streaked out of the asymmetrical holes, trailing dark smoke through the canopy, a barrage of maybe ten projectiles arcing towards the road. They erupted into clouds of choking, green gas where they impacted, the wind carrying it along the convoy. One of the missiles bounced off the armor of one of the Pumas, landing on the road nearby, the fleshy canister splitting open to spew noxious chemicals into the air.

Evan heard the Sergeant shouting something over the radio, but he could only watch as the tank switched targets. The long barrel – now glowing red with residual heat from the first shot – lined up with another target. It rocked back again as it fired at the next IFV, the vehicle’s protective heat tiles unable to absorb the shock, the resulting transfer of kinetic and thermal energy almost tearing it in half. A Marine was caught in the blast, incinerated in an instant due to nothing more than his proximity.

Down the road, more of the company’s vehicles were burning, Evan feeling the ground shake as another of the organic tanks revealed itself nearby. It dug itself out of the ground maybe two hundred feet to his left, sending a tree crashing to the forest floor, its eight legs thundering as it readjusted its position. They had been lying in wait, lurking just beneath the surface. The road hadn’t collapsed – the Bugs had set a trap, and now the entire convoy was ensnared. They could no longer retreat, the black smoke that rose over the forest suggesting that the vehicles at the rear of the formation had already been taken out.

The UNN vehicles were reacting now, the IFVs turning their guns on the forest, the familiar chugging sound of their grenade launchers joining the crack of railguns. Molten tungsten shattered the tree trunks, sending splinters of wood flying through the air like shrapnel, explosions throwing up torrents of earth where the grenades landed. The nearest Kodiak swung its turret around, Evan finding himself staring down its barrel through the trees. He ducked reflexively, a sound like a hammer striking an anvil ringing out as it fired. The Bug tank to Evan’s right erupted like a melon hit by a rifle round, pieces of broken chitin zipping through the air as the massive creature was rolled onto its side by the impact, the shell carving out a six-foot crater in its hull. Evan glimpsed wet meat and twisted metal beneath the shattered chitin, an explosion of green flame rustling the treetops as something inside it ignited, the carcass starting to burn.

Another of the tanks came marching into view from the forest beyond, scuttling along with surprising speed, its spider-like gait filling Evan with instinctual revulsion. It pushed a tall tree out of its path with one of its forelimbs, tearing it out of the ground, exposing its tangled roots. The Bug paused for a moment, then fired, a bolt of burning plasma impacting the Kodiak’s hull just above its tracks. The tiles glowed orange as they dissipated the heat, molten metal following the contours of its armor like a liquid, but it didn’t punch through. Like a crab, the aggressor began to scuttle sideways in an effort to throw off the MBT, but the turret kept pace with it.

Another round from its main gun punched straight through a tree directly ahead of the Bug, vaporizing a foot-long section of its trunk. The branches hadn’t even had time to start falling before the tungsten slug drilled through its target, the thick carapace no match for such a powerful railgun. The mechanical crustacean reeled as one of its rocket pods was violently torn off, poison gas and burning munitions spewing out behind it in a cone. Green ichor jetted from the wound that had been torn along its flank, splattering on the dead leaves, but the thing wasn’t dead. It returned fire, this round slagging the Kodiak’s tracks, obliterating the road beneath it to make it sink into the ground.

Effectively immobilized, yet undeterred, the Kodiak opened up with one of the gun pods mounted on the side of its turret. A hail of tungsten tore through the forest, Evan throwing himself to the ground as splinters of wood bounced off his armor. They punched through the Bug’s shell, peppering it with fist-sized holes, the thing staggering into a nearby tree like a dying animal. A third shot from the main gun finished it off, the snail-like sensory organ flopping limply from its beak like a tongue as it sagged to the ground.

Similar exchanges were happening along the length of the convoy now, the enemy pressing in from all sides, the chatter of XMRs and vehicle-mounted weapons dampened by Evan’s helmet to save him from being deafened.

Evan didn’t know what to do. Should he stay here and keep his head down, avoiding the tungsten and plasma that was zipping above his head, or should he try to make it back to his squad?

He settled on the latter, steeling himself as he began to crawl through the undergrowth on his belly, digging his knees and elbows into the dirt. He could feel the shaking of the Kodiaks and the Bug tanks reverberating through his chest piece as they shook the earth, the sound of panicked orders on his radio drowned out by his own labored breathing. This was just like being in fucking boot again, forced to crawl through mud beneath razor wire and live gunfire. He had thought it was a joke at the time, an unrealistic scenario designed only to terrify recruits.

The drones were tagging the enemy tanks now, red blips joining the blue icons that formed a disorganized line ahead of him. Why the hell hadn’t they seen the buried vehicles earlier? Surely something so large must put out tremendous heat?
He felt the ground rumble, turning his head to see a red icon approaching from behind him. Not willing to lift his head above the cover of the shrubs, he couldn’t get a visual, but he guessed from the rapid footfalls that it was one of the tanks. Praying that the thing wouldn’t step on him, he kept completely still, catching a glimpse of the eight-legged construct as it scuttled past him. It stopped nearby, the thud-thud-thud of its rocket pods shaking his bones as it peppered the convoy with projectiles. These were explosive, shrapnel tearing through the forest, the sound of the detonations muffled by his helmet. He dared to raise his visor above the leaves now, seeing the rear end of the tank, its rust-red shell blocking his way like a wall. It couldn’t have been more than a few body lengths away from where he was hiding.

It was answered by an IFV, the thirty-mill drilling holes in its carapace, the beast crawling away from Evan to his right as it attempted to dodge. The convoy was only a couple of hundred feet away. He could see Marines taking cover behind one of the deployable walls that had swung out from the hull of their IFV, firing into the forest. They had to know that he was here – they could see him on their HUDs just as he could see them.

The nearby Bug tank was felled by another Kodiak round that punched straight through several trees before impacting it, the sheer friction as it cut through the air igniting the foliage nearby like a flamethrower. It slammed into the Bug’s left flank, topping it onto its side, its segmented legs curling up like a dying spider as it spilled fuel and bodily fluids onto the forest floor.

More tanks were approaching from behind him – he could hear them. How many of the fucking things were there? There was no cover between him and the road save for a few sparse trees, but that dead tank might be just what he needed.

Like a sprinter at the starting line, he rose to his feet, the rifle that was slung over his shoulder clattering against his armor as he began to run. As though the devil himself was on his heels, he ran towards the motionless husk of the tank, praying that his comrades would have the battlefield awareness to avoid shooting straight through him. He skidded to a stop in the dirt, throwing himself behind the dead Bug, slipping a little in the mucous-like fluid that coated the ground nearby.

He unslung his rifle, glad of its comforting weight, putting his dick away with his free hand as he braced the barrel against the bumpy carapace. There must be nearly enough Bug tanks to match the number of UNN vehicles in the convoy, what looked like a whole armored company marching through the trees. As he pulled up the drone’s view on a window on his HUD, he saw the blue icons of Echo company snaking through the forest, surrounded on all sides by a mass of encroaching hostiles. It was a pincer attack – the Bugs were engaging the convoy from both sides along its entire length.

Through his visor, he spotted something else moving through the trees, something the drone hadn’t tagged yet. He saw a figure march into view through the smoke from the raging fires that were erupting all around them, leaving the cover of one of the approaching tanks.

Immediately, he recognized it as a Drone, its five-foot stature and its four arms unmistakable. Something about this one was different, however.

Its carapace was thicker than anything he had seen before, layered, with sharp points and bumps just like the tank. It was colored with autumn camouflage – splotches of red, orange, and brown that helped it blend into its environment. Rather than the two glowing, compound visors that usually adorned Betelgeusian helmets, this one had eyes that were somewhere between a tarantula and night vision goggles. There were eight of them, four on each side of its helmet, all of them pointing in different directions. Its mandibles resembled the jaws of some fossilized monster from prehistory, split into four segments that moved independently of one another, the chitin molded into sharp teeth. The thing looked like it could take a bite right out of him. As if that wasn’t enough, it had two pincers projecting from its cheeks like tusks, though they seemed more decorative than functional. Its horn was short and swept back, terminating in two prongs.

In its hands was some manner of organic rifle that Evan had no way to identify, a mess of metal and resin that was equipped with a sharp bayonet that projected out from beneath the barrel. At first glance, the Bug looked like it had a pair of long antennae coming out of the back of its head. As it turned, however, he saw that they were attached to some kind of organic rucksack that clung to its torso like a limpet. They were long and thin, rising a couple of feet above the thing’s helmet, bobbing as it moved.

The way it moved was even more jarring than its appearance. Bugs fought using wave tactics, leveraging their superior numbers to overwhelm the enemy. Evan had seen them march headlong into machinegun fire, across minefields, relying on handheld shields until they could get into effective range where their close combat skills could be leveraged. They relied on enough of their number reaching the enemy lines to accomplish the task, expending their soldiers like ammunition.

As Evan watched, five more of the things followed the first, crouching low to the ground as they ran through the bushes. They were moving as a unit, using cover intelligently, slipping out of view behind the trees ahead. He put a finger to his helmet, trying to get through to the Sergeant.

“What the fuck are you still doing out there, Private?”

“We got infantry moving in!” Evan said, ignoring the question. “They’re using the tanks as cover!”

“Roger that. Hang tight. I’ll get someone to you as soon as possible. Just keep your fucking head down, kid. We’re getting pounded here.”

Evan braced his rifle against his shoulder, peering through the optics, but he couldn’t see any of the strange Drones. They were staying hidden, probably preparing to move in on the convoy. Once they got close enough to the vehicles, the defenders would be overrun.

His eyes were drawn by sudden movement, Evan lurching back as the belly of the upended tank that he was hiding behind split open. A shiny, blue mass was ejected from the fleshy orifice, accompanied by a torrent of clear fluid. It was a Bug, tall and spindly, its long limbs tangled. Long, sinewy ropes that resembled umbilical cords joined it to its vehicle, connected to sockets in the exposed flesh that ran down its spine. It was a Pilot, the creature lifting itself to its knees unsteadily on its four arms.

Evan let slip a surprised yell that he was happy nobody else could hear, cutting it in half with a reflexive burst of XMR fire. It split at the waist, the tungsten slugs tearing through it, the dismembered torso falling back to the forest floor. It wasn’t dead yet, so he put another burst through its back for good measure, his heart pounding like a drum as he watched it go limp. There was a knife in its hand – the thing was almost dead, but it had been ready to skewer him.

“Fuck!” he growled, lowering his barrel.

He’d just given himself away. They’d be coming for him now.

Before he could even consider running for the convoy, a hail of small arms fire came his way, bolts of plasma splashing off the thick armor of the dead tank. He ducked down behind it, poking his rifle out of cover, using the scope to see where the hell he was being hit from. Another squad of half a dozen Drones was moving on his position, two of them laying down suppressing fire as the rest advanced through the dense undergrowth, their weapons at the ready. Fuck, they were behaving like a squad of Marines, showing far more intelligence than any Bug should have.

He let off a couple of random bursts, the slugs sending splinters flying as they tore into the trees nearby, forcing the things to duck and weave. Still, they kept coming, their eight eyes focused in his direction. As they neared, one of them reached for an object on its waist, tossing it towards him. It bounced off the hull of the tank, then rolled to a stop on the ground beside him. His heart froze as he realized that it was a grenade, a fleshy, organic blob the size of a softball. It would have killed him instantly if it had been an explosive, but instead, it began to spew a mustard-yellow gas into the air. It quickly formed an obscuring cloud, Evan fortunately protected by his helmet’s rebreather, a chemical warning symbol flashing on his HUD. The bastards were trying to smoke him out.

They would flank him soon, probably coming around both sides of the disabled vehicle to catch him out. These Bugs were smart, and that’s what he would have done in their situation. He primed one of his own grenades, then tossed it blindly over the hull of the tank. He waited for the explosion, then leaned his rifle around the side of the fallen vehicle again, spraying until he was out of ammo. Cursing to himself, he dropped the empty mag, slamming a fresh one into the well with practiced speed.

One of the things strode through the swirling gas ahead of him, so close that he could see the light reflecting off the lenses in its eight, spider-like eyes. It was raising some kind of handgun that was joined to its wrist by a segmented cable, but he was ready for it, a burst from his XMR lifting it off its feet. Its spiky, camouflage shell was no match for the railgun, viscera and pieces of shattered chitin spraying out behind it.

Movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention, and he turned his head to the left, seeing that another of the Drones had scaled the carapace of the tank. Before he could swing the barrel of his rifle towards it, it leapt down, landing on top of him. Its weight was enough to knock him to the forest floor, the thing driving a long, chitin blade into his chest piece. It glanced off his ceramic armor, the Drone opening its four mandibles in a soundless battle cry, grappling with its three remaining arms as it raised the weapon again. It was strong, far stronger than he was, two more of the insect’s squadmates arriving to support it.

He was going to die here…

A sudden crack rang out, and the Drone that was preparing to skewer him was thrown back, the broken fragments of its helmet sailing through the air. Another round hit its chest as it reared up, two more sending it crashing to the ground, its green blood splattering Evan’s visor.

The two remaining Drones turned on the attacker, but neither of them managed to get off a shot. The first was cut down by a hail of automatic gunfire, its lifeless body slumping back against the hull of the tank. As the second staggered under another hail of gunfire, someone stepped over Evan, red carapace shining in the sunlight that filtered through the canopy above. It was one of the Jarilans, an XMR held in her upper pair of arms, its coils glowing red as she emptied its magazine.

Another Drone came around the left side of the ruined vehicle, and she drew her handgun from its holster on her hip, popping the thing in the chest without breaking stride. Two more Jarilans followed behind her, one of them bringing down the sixth Drone as it leaned out to fire at them.

Evan was hauled to his feet, one of the Jarilans leading him away with her hand on his shoulder as the other two covered their retreat.

“J-Jade?” he stammered, seeing the IFF tag floating above her helmet.

“Sarge sent us to fetch you,” she said, pushing him down lower as a slug whizzed over their heads. “You’re harder to kill than you look, squishy boy.”

They ran through the trees, Jade leading them towards their IFV, the four of them taking cover behind the defensive wall. It was a segmented plate of ablative heat tiles that could swing out from the hull of the Puma to provide protection to dismounted troops. His squad was holed up there, popping up to fire intermittent bursts over the barrier, Hernandez giving him a welcoming pat on the shoulder. The Sergeant was kneeling nearby with his hand to his helmet. He was in the middle of a heated conversation, his voice filtering through his speakers.

“Orbital strike? Are you fucking crazy? You call in a railgun barrage from the carrier on our position and we’re gonna get blasted along with the roaches. They’re right on top of us! I need CAS support right fucking now! Get the Penguins down here before we all end up as Bug chow!”

“Sitrep?” Jade asked, the Sergeant glancing up at her.

“Every company in the region is getting hit,” he replied. “Fucking Bugs launched a massive, coordinated counterattack. I’ve called in air support, but fuck knows if they’ll be able to spare the birds.”

“What’s the plan, Sarge?” another of the Marines asked. “What do we do?”

“We hold this fucking position,” he growled, slapping a fresh magazine into his XMR. “You know the drill. Don’t let the bastards close on us.”

“Those Drones are acting weird,” Evan added, the Sergeant turning his opaque visor in his direction. “They’re fighting as squads, using cover.”

Another explosion rocked them, everyone ducking as burning debris rained down from the sky, pieces of shattered armor bouncing off the roof of the IFV. Evan turned to the right, watching a plume of black smoke rise from the burning husk of one of the Kodiaks. He couldn’t even estimate how many of their vehicles were still operational.

“Heads up!” Hernandez warned, pointing into the trees ahead. “More of ‘em!”

Evan rose to brace his rifle against the lip of the wall, watching as two or three squads of Drones came running through the undergrowth. They were keeping low, using the trees as cover, popping out from behind the trunks to lay down suppressing fire. Evan was forced back down as a trio of shots zipped over his head, impacting the hull of the IFV behind him, leaving dark smears. It wasn’t just plasma, either. The Marine beside him took a hit to the helmet, something hard bouncing off it, snapping his head back. He fell to the ground, but his companions helped him up, the Marine quickly recovering. Evan glanced down at the projectile as it rolled to a stop beside his knee. It looked like a dart, some kind of organic bullet with a pointed tip made from sharp chitin.

“Tank coming up behind them!” another of the Marines warned, Evan turning his eyes back to the treeline. He could see one of the crab-like constructs marching forward, its turret swiveling in their direction. The IFV fired above his head, engaging the formation with grenades, the explosions scattering the troops. As it began to pour thirty-millimeter slugs into the forest, Evan rose up to join it, his rifle kicking into his shoulder as he fired on the enemy.

The Marine to his right was suddenly thrown back as something impacted his visor with tremendous force, shattering the faceplate into fragments. There was a secondary explosion after a brief delay, like a firecracker had gone off inside his helmet, splattering the wall in front of him with gore. He fell like his legs had been kicked out from under him, blood seeping through the shattered glass.

“Sniper!” someone shouted, Evan cursing as he ducked behind the barrier again. Whatever the hell had hit him, it wasn’t plasma. Some kind of explosive round, maybe?

“Where the hell did that come from?” Hernandez asked, taking advantage of the lull to reload his rifle.

“I didn’t see shit!” Evan replied.

“Doesn’t matter!” the Sergeant shouted, his finger moving to the touch panel on his helmet once again. “Gunner, saturate the forest with everything you have!” he demanded, the electric motors in the IFV’s blister whirring as it swiveled into position. “I want it to look like the surface of the goddamned moon!”

The MGL began to fire, bursts of shrapnel and bright flames shredding the foliage wherever they landed, some of the smaller trees starting to topple over under the assault. It just kept firing, churning up the dirt, throwing great clods of it high into the air. Evan glimpsed the tattered, airborne corpse of a Drone as it cartwheeled away, lifted off the ground by the blasts.

There was so much fire being exchanged, Evan’s helmet dampening the noise to a low rumble, but the vibrations still traveled up through his legs. He could feel the shockwaves as the Kodiaks fired their guns, the earthshaking impact of the grenades, his own XMR kicking into his shoulder as he fired it in full-auto. He had never been in a gunfight like this before. There was something different about this, something that tied his guts into a knot.

A Marine to his left was knocked on his ass as something slammed into his shoulder. His rifle fell from his hands as he clutched the wound, the projectile having slipped through the breaks in his armor and penetrated his pressure suit. His yell of alarm was abruptly cut off as the projectile exploded, blowing a hole in him almost large enough to sever his arm. He fell back to the asphalt, blood loss and shock quickly robbing him of consciousness.

“Get him inside the IFV!” the Sergeant yelled, one of the Marines dragging him away by the carabiner on his chest rig to leave a smear of blood on the road. “What the fuck is hitting us?”

“We got a big one comin’ in!” Hernandez warned, his voice wavering as he gestured over the wall. Evan raised his rifle over the lip, peering through the feed from the scope, watching one of the Bug tanks march towards them. It pushed aside the trees with its thick, armored legs, weathering the incoming fire from the IFV. It fired its turret at the vehicle to the left of theirs, Evan knocked onto his side by the resulting blast, his hands covering his helmet reflexively as pieces of its warped hull rained down on him.

Hernandez helped him to his feet, thrusting his rifle back into his hands. Momentarily disoriented, Evan took a brief moment to get his bearings, time seeming to flow by in slow motion. The remaining Marines were firing over the wall, the Jarilans joining them, the IFV pouring fire over their heads. To his left, dark smoke billowed, the burning wreckage of the neighboring Puma cooking. There was smoke all the way down the line in both directions, dozens of vehicles reduced to flaming wrecks, bodies scattered everywhere. Every vehicle that was still operational was firing – tank shells cutting through the forest, grenades felling trees, missiles streaking overhead. Still, the insects advanced, squads of Drones slowly gaining ground as they used their vehicles as cover.

The Bug tank that was approaching their position took a hit to its right flank, collapsing onto the ground as its legs gave out, an exit wound from a Kodiak’s main gun splattering guts and twisted metal across the forest floor. The Drones that had been advancing behind it broke from cover, the lenses of their eight-eyed helmets glinting in the sunlight, their weapons raised.

Evan came to his senses, joining the firing line, his slugs dismembering one of them where it stood. Another fell as they advanced, but it was too late now – they were only feet away.

A camouflaged Drone leapt over the wall, knocking a Marine to the ground, plunging a long blade made from chitin into the gap between his helmet and his chest piece. The man’s cry morphed into a wet gurgle as the four-armed alien turned its many eyes on Evan, raising some kind of resin sidearm to his visor.

Hernandez clocked the thing with the butt of his rifle, knocking it against the wall, its helmeted head bouncing off the hard surface. It quickly tried to climb to its feet, but the Marine planted a boot on its chest, unloading his rifle into its face. The tungsten slugs chewed through it, sparking against the barrier, the alien sagging into a twitching heap as what was left of its head sloughed to the ground.

The rest of its squad followed, one of them firing over the wall as another three rounded it, a barrage of plasma bolts forcing the defenders to scatter. The Jarilans reacted faster than the humans could, their XMRs configured as submachineguns, ideal for encounters at close range. Evan caught glimpses of them firing, Jade cutting one of the assailants in half with a burst from her SMG. One of her comrades drew a pair of combat knives from her belt, meeting the next Drone with a flurry of blades. The pair danced around one another like boxers in a ring, steel meeting chitin, the insects moving so quickly that their limbs were a blur.

Another of the Kergeulan soldiers fired over the wall, catching him square in the chest, Evan stumbling backwards. He collided with the hull of the IFV, firing from the hip as another round impacted beside his helmet, a trio of shots punching holes in the insect’s carapace. It slumped over the chest-high barrier, green ichor streaming down the armored panels. Evan checked himself briefly, finding that his armor had done its job, dissipating the heat. His chest rig had melted through, but it was still hanging off his shoulders, its straps intact.

The brutal, close-quarters brawl was coming to a close, Evan watching the Sergeant execute an injured Bug with his sidearm. The Jarilan had won her knife fight, but she was injured, one of her friends helping her to the ramp of the IFV as she clutched the punctures in her shell.

Evan felt a wave of exhaustion wash over him, but the battle was far from over. As he shoved the dead Bug off the wall so that he could see over it, he spotted more Drones and tanks scuttling through the trees, some of them flanked by Warriors. Like those that he had encountered on the hull of the Spratley, these were twelve-foot, biomechanical battle suits layered with thick armor plating. They sported the same forest camo as their smaller counterparts, their slatted visors glowing an eerie green as they lumbered between the trees. These variants were bipedal, and their upper arms were laden with heavy weapons, what looked like plasma cannons built into their crab-like claws.

“Warriors!” he yelled, the Sergeant directing the IFV to fire on them. Vehicle-mounted weapons were their only hope against those things, as even a dozen Marines firing XMRs at one might not reliably bring it down.

The thirty-mill tore into the nearest Warrior, the hulking monstrosity raising a clawed arm to protect itself, the slugs creating splashes of orange fluid where they impacted it. It weathered the fire, skidding to a stop in the dead leaves, raising its other arm. Its limb was a convoluted mess of segmented tubing and exposed metal, flesh and chitin growing in and around it, the green glow of plasma emanating from canisters that jutted from its bicep. The thing fired off a bolt of superheated gas the size of a basketball, Evan feeling its intense heat wash over him as it hit the IFV behind him. It melted through the hull, the molten metal sagging inward just beneath the turret, the weapon falling silent as the machinery that powered it was turned to glowing slag.

“We need to get the fuck outta here!” one of the Marines shouted, panic getting the better of him. Hernandez clocked him on the side of the helmet with a gloved fist, hard enough to make Evan wince.

“Get your shit together,” he growled. “We’re surrounded, ain’t no goin’ anywhere unless we kill these fuckers before they kill us!”

The sound of an engine rose above the cacophony of battle, Evan turning his eyes skyward to see a familiar silhouette breaking through the clouds. It was a Penguin gunship, so named for its resemblance to the animal. It had a bulbous nose, its hull tapering into a thin tail, a pair of stubby wings helping keep it stable in atmospheric flight. As it descended, hatches on its belly opened up to reveal racks of missiles, an enormous chaingun descending from beneath its nose. A second gunship followed it in, the craft lining up for a CAS run.

“Danger extremely fucking close!” the Sergeant warned, the Marines throwing themselves to the ground.

The gunships opened up, missiles streaking towards the ground on plumes of white smoke, erupting into billowing explosions that shook the trees. They carpeted the forest to either side of the convoy in fire, dark smoke rising above the canopy, waves of heat washing over Evan even as he took refuge behind the wall. The loud whir of their cannons echoed across the forest, spewing streams of thirty-millimeter rounds at the tanks below, the shells creating showers of dust and bright sparks wherever they impacted. Evan glanced over the wall to see one of the nearby tanks collapsing into a heap, covered in bleeding craters, the two Penguins banking overhead as they came around for another run. The approaching troops were in disarray now, scattering across the pocked, cratered ground as burning foliage rained down on them. One of the Warriors had been caught by the cannon fire, the hulking creature writhing on its back, its thick shell perforated like Swiss cheese.

In the distance, the treetops erupted into flames again, a swooping Penguin leaving a burning trail in its wake. The other Marines were cheering now, pumping their fists as they watched the craft pull up, smoke still trailing from its nose cannon. The sound took a few moments to reach them, thudding explosions and the buzzsaw report of the cannon carrying over the battlefield.

“Keep them back!” the Sergeant yelled, starting to fire at the Drones. They were in disarray now, but they quickly took cover behind trees and disabled vehicles, the gunfight resuming. Evan shouldered his rifle and fired it over the wall, the arrival of the gunships filling his belly with fresh fire. He cut down a Drone that had been caught out in the open, taking off one of its legs. It flopped to the muddy ground, then rolled over onto its side, still trying to aim its weapon at him. He put it down with another burst to the chest, the thing lying limp. They could still win this. They could still wrest back victory from the jaws of death.

Another CAS run lit up the forest beyond, the glow of ordnance bleeding through the trees, Evan glimpsing a burst of green fire as one of the Bug tanks exploded.

Something suddenly shot up from the trees, arcing towards one of the gunships, rising on a jet of emerald flame. The craft banked away, firing off a stream of bright flares that slowly fell over the autumn forest. The missile veered off, exploding in a spreading ball of plasma, but several more rose from the canopy behind it. As much as the Penguin dodged and weaved, it was not a maneuverable craft, even less so in atmosphere. One of the projectiles caught up with it, erupting near its tail, Evan watching in silent horror as the aircraft began to plummet to the ground. It broke apart as it fell, drawing a trail of dark smoke across the sky, like a black smear had been painted on the glowing auroras above. It vanished into the trees, another explosion rising above them.

“The fuckers have AA!” Hernandez yelled, glancing back at the Sergeant.

Evan could see it through the trees ahead, another eight-legged spider tank, this one sporting massive missile tubes on its back instead of a plasma turret. They swiveled to track the next gunship, a sensor array covered in clusters of shiny, organic eyes and insect-like antennae locking onto it. The thing looked like a CIWS turret if it had been made of flesh and chitin, the left side playing host to the living radar array, while the right housed the cluster of launchers. As he watched, a long, green cylinder launched from one of the fleshy tubes. It went straight up into the air, hanging there for a moment before its booster ignited, sending it shooting towards the clouds. It resembled the plasma missiles carried by their fighters, the optics package made up of more eyes and feelers. More joined it, three of the things racing towards the remaining Penguin.

He turned his head to track the projectiles, watching two of them veer off to chase flares, the third impacting the gunship as it tried to climb away. It exploded in mid-air, raining burning wreckage, Evan’s heart sinking along with it.

The aliens were rallying now, their squads reforming, their tanks turning their guns on the convoy. Warriors lumbered through the trees, readying their weapons, backlit by the raging fires. Sensing their despair, the Sergeant stepped forward, taking position behind the IFV’s wall.

“The Bugs don’t surrender!” he yelled, his visor popping open as he turned to glare at his men. “They don’t take prisoners, and neither do we! Make ‘em pay for every inch!”

The remaining Marines joined him at the wall, Evan standing shoulder to shoulder with Hernandez and one of the Jarilans. They opened up on the advancing Drones, splinters flying where their slugs bit into the tree trunks, sparking off the carapaces of the already dead tanks. Swarms of the insectoid soldiers braved the gunfire, their vehicles marching on, peppering the defenders with gas and shrapnel from their launchers. Another explosion rocked the convoy, Evan turning to see one of the Kodiaks burning, half a dozen holes melted through its hull.

“Told you, man,” Hernandez panted as he paused to reload. “It’s fuckin’ karma. The Valbaran pussy was too good.”

“We’re not dead yet,” Evan replied, forcing another Drone into cover with a burst of gunfire.

“I’ve killed more roaches in the last fifteen minutes than I have in my entire career,” Hernandez laughed, rising to fire over the barrier again. “Gonna make sure I take a hundred of these fuckers with me!”

Evan joined him, firing until his magazine was empty and his coils were red-hot, his HUD displaying a low ammo warning. As he reached for a fresh mag, he saw a tank lumber out of the treeline, the three rails of its main gun pointing in his direction. He saw a flash of green light streak over his head, impacting the IFV behind him, then his world went dark.

***

Evan awoke to red light. It was his HUD, flashing warning icons in his face. He blinked his eyes, then tried to move, but found that he couldn’t. Through his cracked visor, he could see the auroras above the treetops, the bright glow of the gas giant dominating the sky. It would have been peaceful, beautiful even, if not for the plumes of smoke that choked it.

As he turned his head, he saw that he was still in the convoy. What was left of it, at least. The overgrown road was strewn with wrecked vehicles, gutted, burning chassis lined up bumper to bumper like rush-hour traffic. He was buried in the wreckage, pieces of twisted, charred metal pinning him down. Their weight made breathing a chore, and based on the flashing icons, he wasn’t in much better shape. When he glanced down, he couldn’t even see his body, the slagged debris covering him like a blanket. He tried to move his arm, then just his fingers, but he couldn’t tell if they were even attached to him anymore.

Slowly, he remembered what had happened, momentary panic gripping him. The IFV had been hit by one of the Bug tanks, and he must have been knocked out by the resulting blast. Where was everyone else? His HUD wasn’t showing IFF tags anymore, the text wavering, blinking on and off. His suit must be damaged. Why had the fighting stopped? There was no gunfire, no explosions, just the sound of crackling flames.

He glanced around, taking in as much of his surroundings as he could. Just turning his head hurt. There were dozens of Marines buried in the wreckage along with him, as well as dead Bugs, none of them moving. The closest Marine was lying face-down in the mud beside the road, maybe ten feet away, one of his arms severed at the elbow. Another was hanging out of the troop ramp of one of the IFVs, little more than a blackened husk now.

They had lost…

How long had he been out? Why had nobody come for them?

Movement caught his eye, and he froze up. Only a couple of hundred feet away, a trio of Bugs were moving through the wreckage, their rifles in hand as they searched the burning vehicles. One of them had the eight-eyed helmet and the antennae backpack, while the other two had a pair of visors like the eyes of a housefly, their helmets tapering into segmented tubes where their mandibles should have been. It made them look like they were wearing gas masks. The Drones stopped beside an IFV, pausing to glance inside the open troop bay. Evan heard a human voice call out in alarm, but it was cut off as one of the masked Drones raised its rifle, flashes of green lighting up the shadowy interior. As they moved on, Evan realized that they were executing the survivors.

There were more teams, too. He could see another trio of the things stalking along the treeline just off the road to his left, one of the insects stopping to prod a dead Marine with a long blade, making sure he was dead.

“No, no! Please-”
Another hiss of plasma came from somewhere behind him, Evan’s panicked breathing filling his helmet. There was a sudden crackle in his ear, his radio sputtering to life, a distorted voice coming through.

“Lie still,” it said, barely a whisper. “They can’t smell you over the smoke.”

Praying that he wouldn’t be discovered, he did as the voice said, trying to calm his breathing. Who knew how good their hearing was.

The ground shook as something heavier approached, a bulky figure lumbering into view, covered in thick layers of spiky carapace. It was a Warrior, walking along the edge of the cracked road, the green glow from its visors spilling through armored slats to bathe the carnage in their eerie light. Its clawed toes dug into the asphalt, its razor-like mandibles twitching, its massive arms swinging at its sides. It had a lobster claw the size of an engine block, along with a plasma weapon that was a blend of organic and mechanical components, thick cables trailing through meat and resin. This one had a cluster of long antennae rising from its back, waving with each step that it took, like larger versions of the ones the Drones had on their packs. There were a pair of the smaller insects flanking it like guards, their proximity serving to illustrate the sheer size and mass of the thing.

It came to a stop not too far away, splaying its arms as it stood up straight, Evan’s fear giving way to curiosity as he watched. Its barrel chest split down the middle like someone was running an invisible knife from its neck to its groin, pieces of it opening up like broken ribs, splaying wide. Ropes of viscous, clear fluid seeped down onto the road, the thing’s moist insides exposed. It looked like a dead body being vivisected, wet, glistening meat and fleshy organs lining the open body cavity.

Something inside it shifted, a ruby-red mass, contrasting with the sickly yellow meat that encased it. Tendrils like tentacles slowly drew back, revealing more of the thing, a long limb rising from a cavity inside the Warrior’s leg like someone stepping out of a boot. It walked out onto the asphalt, leaving the biomechanical suit, still joined to the living vehicle by strands of thick fluid and trailing cables that looked like umbilical cords.

Evan had seen Bug Pilots before, but this was something different. It stood taller at maybe eight feet, its shoulders far broader, its upper arms thick and powerful rather than lanky. They trailed down to its knees, maybe five feet long, terminating in a trio of sharp claws. It had a smaller pair growing out from where its armpits should have been, though they were still longer than a human’s arms. Its layered carapace was colored a waxy red, and it didn’t share the camouflage of its Drone counterparts, the plates of chitin shifting like a suit of armor as it moved. Its neck was long for a Bug, those massive shoulders sloping up into an arrangement of protective plates that resembled a medieval gorget.

Its head was even stranger. Its skull was larger and wider than those of the Drones, bulging out behind it. It was ringed by tiny, black eyes that reflected the light from the fires, giving it a 360-degree field of view. Thick plates protected its brow, a comparatively small pair of eyes peering out from beneath their shadow, these more mammalian in appearance. It had a set of four mandibles, the upper pair far smaller than the enlarged lower pair, giving it the appearance of a shovel-like chin. They were lined with sharp barbs of chitin that looked like teeth, clicking together as the thing surveyed the convoy. Jutting from its forehead was a two-pronged horn, yet another eye peering out from its thick stem.

The smaller Drones stuck close as it walked away from the idle Warrior on its long, digitigrade legs, striding confidently through the debris. They waved the barrels of their rifles back and forth, sweeping the area, keeping a vigilant watch. Was this thing some kind of VIP? Evan had never seen this behavior in Bugs before. It wasn’t a Queen – those were stationary, attached to a giant egg sack in the deepest chamber of the hive.

The creature appeared to notice something in the wreckage, reaching down with one of its long arms. It lifted a Marine by the helmet, his body limp, his tattered uniform ending at the knee where one of his legs had been severed. There were holes melted in his chest piece, he was clearly dead.

It raised him up like a doll, its three-fingered hand large enough to encompass his head, bringing him close to its face. Its mandibles flexed and clicked, its primary pair of eyes darting about as it examined him, Evan close enough that he could see its round pupils. One of its lower arms reached out to brush his armor, testing it, sampling its texture with surprising dexterity. It pried at one of the plates, then abandoned its effort, tugging gently at the fabric of the pressure suit beneath.

These Bugs had never encountered a human before. They had no idea what parts of the body were skin, what parts were carapace, what might lie behind the opaque visor. This creature was examining an alien for the first time, trying to figure it out. He could almost see the question in its eyes – what are you?
The sound of an engine carried across the forest, the Bug turning its eyes to the sky. It let the body fall unceremoniously, then swung its massive shoulders around, striding back towards the waiting Warrior. The Drones backed up, keeping watch as it stepped inside the open chest cavity, slotting its arms and legs into the puckered orifices that led to the Warrior’s limbs. Slithering tentacles encased it, enveloping its red carapace, then the thorax closed around it like a sarcophagus. The suit sprang to life again, turning back in the direction of the forest, the rest of the nearby Drones trailing after it as it disappearing into the trees.

“They’re leaving,” the voice on his radio sighed. It sounded feminine, was it Jade? “That was too close…”
A formation of three UNN dropships roared overhead, flanked by a Penguin, the gunship soaring over the treetops as they searched for a landing site. More followed, what looked like a whole fleet of aircraft hovering over the convoy, Beewolf fighters circling high above. The cavalry was finally here, but the Bugs were long gone.

A dropship cut through the swirling smoke that poured from a nearby IFV, sinking low to the ground, the backwash from its engines clearing the air. The troop ramp lowered, a squad of Marines leaping the four or five feet to the ground as it hovered. They fanned out, establishing a perimeter, taking cover in the wrecks. Behind them, a giant Krell dropped from the ramp, the dropship visibly shifting as the pilot compensated for the change in weight. The reptile landed heavily, its fleet slapping against the asphalt, its light machinegun at the ready.

Evan felt movement behind him, a red, three-fingered hand starting to dig away the debris that enveloped him. He turned his head to see Jade peering down at him, her strange, segmented face only an inch from his visor. Her plates shifted as she gave him a reassuring smile, which was reflected in her amber eyes, the sight somehow putting him more at ease.

“Hang tight,” she said, shifting a heavy piece of charred hull with surprising strength.

“You’re saving me again,” he said weakly.

“Keeping the exoskeletally-challenged alive is part of my job description,” she replied. As one of the Marines neared, she raised a hand to signal to them. “Over here! We’ve got a survivor!”

“How did you get away?” Evan asked, wincing as the wreckage shifted. “They were killing everyone.”

“Hid under one of their dead tanks,” she explained. “If you didn’t have that helmet on, you could probably have guessed by the stink. I think they use methane fuel.”

“Hernandez, the others?”

“Worry about yourself right now,” she said, starting to drag him out from beneath the twisted metal. He felt the back of his chest piece scrape against the road, Jade cradling his head in her hand when he was clear. “Two arms, two legs,” she panted. “I think you’re good.”

“I can’t move anything,” he muttered. As she knelt over him, he saw the burn mark on her chest. The camouflaged coloration was charred black, and the chitin had melted, then cooled to form a crater the size of his fist. “You’re hurt…”

“I’m fine,” she replied, tapping a fist against the burn mark. “This isn’t actually part of my body.”

“We’ll take it from here,” someone said, a trio of Marines approaching. Two of them were carrying a stretcher, the third kneeling as he began to open a first aid kit.

“I’ll see if I can find anyone else,” Jade said, hurrying away before Evan could get another word in.

“C-four injury,” one of the Marines said, running some kind of medical scanner over him. “We need a brace, we have to keep his head still. Get him back up to the carrier. He needs to go into surgery immediately.”

“It wasn’t C-four,” Evan replied, the Marine ignoring him as he rummaged through the kit. “It was…a Bug tank. Got caught in the blast. What…what surgery?”

“You’re gonna be fine,” one of the men replied, patting his armored thigh. Evan couldn’t feel it. “Let’s give him a sedative,” he added, pulling a needle from his kit. “This’ll put you out for a while, make you feel better.”

The medic disconnected Evan’s glove at the cuff, then rolled up the sleeve of his suit. Evan winced reflexively, but again, there was no sensation as the needle entered his arm. He was starting to get worried now. That concern was quickly washed away as a pleasant fatigue overcame him, his eyelids growing too heavy to keep open.

***

“What the hell happened down there?” Vos growled. He was standing in the Rorke’s observation deck, holographic representations of several assault carrier captains standing before him, the autumn forests rolling past beneath their feet. Fielding was the only other person who was present in the flesh, standing beside the Admiral with his hands clasped behind his back. “There hasn’t been a peep from the Bugs since we made landfall, and now they decide to attack two dozen battalions at once? The last reports showed almost a thousand casualties, hundreds of disabled vehicles. Eight companies are no longer combat effective. That’s an entire assault carrier’s worth.”

The Spratley’s captain spoke up, his voice a little distorted by the feed.

“We believe that the enemy withdrew their forces and allowed us to take control of the anchor as a way to observe us,” he began. “They likely didn’t respond to our attacks on their infrastructure for the same reason, so that they could evaluate our weaponry and our capabilities – collect intelligence before engaging us. They saw that we were using the roads, and once they had an idea of the kinds of tactics we employed, they launched a region-wide attack on our battalions. These attacks mostly took the form of ambushes using heavy vehicles that we’ve never encountered before.”

“We anticipated ambushes,” Vos replied, turning his furious gaze on the captain. “The question I’m asking is why they succeeded. Where were the scout drones? Why didn’t the enemy forces show up on thermal imaging?”

“It is…an anomaly,” another of the captains added. “Examination of the Bug troops and vehicles recovered from the surface show no thermal shielding, no advanced heat sinks. Our best guess is that a combination of burrowing and biological adaptations are allowing them to evade detection by our sensors.”

“Adaptations?” Vos asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Elaborate.”

“The science team aboard the Taipei believes that they’re able to enter a low metabolic state where their body temperature reduces to match that of their environment. It makes them next to invisible to thermal optics until they actually start moving around and burning energy. They buried their tanks and shut them down, only activating them when the time was right. Hundreds of the things just…popped out the ground like goddamned gophers with no warning. Same goes for their troops, their Warriors. They could have been standing in the open forest just out of view, and we’d have no way to detect them. A lookout gives the signal, and boom, a whole army appears out of thin air.”

“We let our guard down,” Fielding muttered, Vos sparing him a glance. “We knew that these Bugs would be stronger, more adapted to their environment, but we treated them just like the rest. We let their lack of resistance lull us into a false sense of security. Now, they’re using small-unit squad tactics, they’re deploying mobile AA platforms to shoot down our gunships. We need to step things up if we’re going to accomplish our goals here.”

“There’s something else that has been weighing on my mind,” Vos said, swiping at his display. “Take a look at these attack sites,” he added, bringing up a spherical map of the planet. Red blips appeared, forming a rough cluster over a country-sized land area, blue icons representing the fleet floating above it. “These attacks all happened at the same time, as though they were coordinated. Two dozen mechanized companies were ambushed, some of them hundreds of miles apart. We saw attacks in other regions, but in delayed intervals, which allowed the battalions stationed there to better prepare. Some regions saw no attacks at all. The Valbaran contingent responsible for this sector here haven’t seen any sign of a Bug,” he continued as he pointed to the map.
“What does that tell us?” one of the captains asked.

“It tells us that destroying the radio antenna sites has crippled their comms network as we had hoped,” Vos explained. “The Queen is out of contact with her troops. Most of them, at least. There’s no reason that they would delay and give us time to prepare unless they weren’t actually in communication. There seem to be seven distinct zones, each of them operating at least semi-independently of the rest.”

“If the Queen isn’t making the decisions, then who is?” Fielding asked.

With a few gestures, Vos pulled up grainy footage of a large Bug lifting a Marine into the air with its long arms, inspecting the body with surprising care. A murmur spread through the observation deck, the thing’s strange appearance alarming and intriguing the captains.

“One of the survivors of the ambush that all but wiped out the Spratley’s Echo company captured this footage on his helmet cam,” Vos explained. “They got hit in the first wave, and they got hit the hardest. I think this thing might have something to do with that.”

“What’s it doing?” Fielding muttered, narrowing his eyes at the creature.

“It appears to be examining a Marine. Like us, they want to know as much about their enemy as they can. They want to know how to get better at killing us. See how the Drones are protecting it? Watch it go back inside the Warrior. See that? Why does it need to be guarded? Why does it look so different from the rest? Why does it have its own suit? It clearly isn’t a Pilot.”

“I think I see what you’re getting at,” Fielding continued, nodding his head. “A hive this large, the Queen must have decentralized her chain of command to better manage it. That thing is a General, a Field Commander of sorts, directing smaller forces within its respective region. The reason the Bugs didn’t attack as a unified hive is because these Generals aren’t in contact with each other, or the Queen, so they made the decision to attack independently.”

“This is both good news and bad news,” the Admiral sighed. “The good news is that the hive is disorganized, and we won’t be facing a planet-wide resistance. The bad news is that the Bugs are more coordinated than we had hoped within those regions. We haven’t thrown them into complete disarray, but we’ve split them up into more manageable forces.”

“We’re fighting seven armies rather than one,” Fielding added. “Even if we locate the Queen and kill her, we might still have to contend with these guys.”

“I’m putting out a kill order on these Field Commanders,” Vos spat. “The SWAR teams are experts in assassination and sabotage, this is their bread and butter. We can’t be sure how many there are in each region, or even that what we just saw is at the top of the hierarchy, but all evidence points to someone taking the reins from the Queen. She’s in one of these areas, but there’s no way to know which.”

“Are we redeploying our battalions?” one of the captains asked.

“Keep everyone off the ground for the moment,” Vos replied. “Take the time to reinforce and do some maintenance on your vehicles, prepare the dead for transport back to Valbara. I’ll send you new orders shortly. We’ll keep up the attacks on their infrastructure, hammer their farms from orbit, use the Jarilans to help sniff them out. If we can’t rely on sight, we’ll have to rely on smell instead.”

“They’ve played their hand,” Fielding added. “We’ll be ready next time.”

“I want to meet whoever recorded that helmet cam footage,” Vos added. “There are some questions I’d like to ask him.”

“He’s actually in our infirmary,” Fielding replied, tapping at the display on his wrist. “Private Bennett, Evan. Looks like he’s undergoing surgery right now. I can have the doctors call you as soon as he’s lucid again.”

“Make it so,” Vos replied.

***

“Try to move your arm,” the doctor said, his tablet computer in hand as he stood by Evan’s bedside. They were in the carrier’s infirmary, the harsh lights reflecting off the white-painted walls and floor, the hum of medical equipment creating a soothing background noise. Doctors and nurses walked between the rows of beds, clad in white cleansuits, tending to the casualties of the ground battles that had erupted on Kerguela’s surface. Seeing the condition of some of the other Marines, he felt rather lucky. This was a recovery room – there were more gravely injured soldiers undergoing surgery or being monitored in the ICU.

Evan did as the doctor asked, raising a shaking hand, feeling a tingling sensation shoot down his arm like a trapped nerve.

“Needs a little more tuning,” the doctor muttered, making a note on his tablet. “You know, just ten years ago, you would have been left permanently paralyzed by an injury like that. Your C-four vertebra was crushed, which damaged all of the nerves that connect your brain to your limbs. The replacement that we printed should be just as good as the original, but you’re going to have to wear the neural bypass for the rest of your life. If you want to be able to move, that is.”

“Do I have to…do anything?” Evan asked, flexing his fingers.

“No, it’s been surgically implanted,” the doctor replied. “It captures signals from the undamaged nerves above the replacement vertebrae, then carries the electrical impulses down past the damaged area. It’s a more elegant solution than trying to rewire your spine.”

“Will I ever feel the way I did before?” he added, giving the masked doctor a concerned glance.

“Absolutely. We just need to do a little more tweaking, and you’ll be back to normal in no time. There’s no default setting, everyone’s nervous system is a little different. Just try to rest for now, and let us deal with the technical stuff.”

As he watched the doctor leave, Evan spotted something red standing by the door. It was a Jarilan – Jade, he quickly realized. Something about the arrangement of the plates that made up her face and the prongs of her horn let him recognize her. She was still wearing her UN armband, as well as a white tank top that was draped over her shoulders. Holes had been cut into it for her lower arms, her furry ruff poking out over the collar. Evan felt a wave of relief as he saw that Hernandez was standing beside her. He was wearing his blue coveralls, and one of his forearms was in a mesh brace. His face was bruised, but he looked none the worse for wear otherwise. When they noticed that he had seen them, they started to walk over to him, Jade glancing around as though worried that she wasn’t supposed to be there.

“Look who survived gettin’ his fuckin’ spine snapped,” Hernandez chuckled. “When they told you that you were riskin’ your neck on this deployment, this wasn’t what they had in mind.”

“Glad to see you’re awake,” Jade added. She gave him a smile, more subdued than her boisterous companion, but no less relieved.

“You guys made it,” he replied, shifting his weight in his bed so that he could see them a little better. “None of the nurses could tell me what happened to the rest of the squad when I asked them. What’s the damage?”

Jade and Hernandez exchanged a worried glance, hesitating as though they were afraid to tell him.

“It ain’t good, buddy,” Hernandez finally replied. “Echo is gone. The critters wiped the floor with us. Only sixteen people made it out, and three of ‘em are in this room.”

“Sarge?” Evan asked, his elation at seeing his comrades fading as his heart sank into his belly. “Johnson?”

Hernandez shook his head solemnly.

“Fourteen got slagged, we’re all that’s left of our squad.”

“Fucking Bugs,” Evan snarled, wincing as the outburst made his neck ache. “Present company excluded,” he added, glancing at Jade. “You saved my life back there, like three times. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”

“I sympathize,” she said, narrowing her amber eyes. “They killed my sisters. I was hatched with them, we went through training together, drank from the same Replete. Feels like I lost a pair of arms.”

“I’m sorry that we didn’t trust you from the get-go,” Evan added. “You earned your blues, and that should have been enough for us.”

“I may be an insect, but I can recognize a fake smile,” she chuckled. “I can also recognize a real one,” she added, her expression softening. “Don’t lose sleep over it, we Jarries are used to a little healthy skepticism.”

“You fought with us shoulder to shoulder, put down roaches like a pro,” Hernandez said as he reached out to give her a pat on the back. “You’re good in my book.”

“What’s with the shirt, by the way?” Evan asked.

“Oh, this?” she replied as she tugged at the fabric. “My thoracic armor got melted in the battle, so they gave me this to wear until the Constancy can mold me a new one.”

“Didn’t realize you had anything to cover up,” Hernandez joked, Jade giving him a friendly punch on the shoulder.

“A lady has to keep her secrets.”

Evan lay back on his pillow, trying to process everything that had happened. The people he had served with were all dead, and his company had been wiped out, the guilt of being one of the few survivors mingling with the relief of seeing some of his friends alive. He tried to force those thoughts to the back of his mind. Right now, he had to focus on healing. There would be time to mourn later.

Hernandez suddenly stood to attention, wincing as he saluted with his injured arm reflexively. Jade followed suit, turning to face a man in a pristine, white uniform who was making his way over to them. It was an Admiral, Evan raising a shaky hand to his temple.

“At ease,” the Admiral said with a wave of his gloved hand. He examined the trio, his eyes slowly moving between them. “Private Bennett, is that right? Assigned to the Spratley?”

“Yes, sir,” Evan replied.

“They tell me that you survived the Echo company ambush.”

“That’s right, sir. We all did,” he added, gesturing to his two companions.

“Good, then I have you all here together,” the Admiral replied. He leaned over to examine Jade’s armband, reading off her name and serial number. “I believe you two were the ones who recorded the helmet cam footage of the enemy VIP,” he continued. “I hope you don’t mind me debriefing you in the middle of the recovery ward, but time is not a resource that we have in abundance right now.”

“No, of course, Admiral,” Evan replied. “Whatever you need.”
“I’ve seen the reports, I’ve trawled through footage from every camera in the convoy that had intact data, but that doesn’t give me a full view of what happened down there. Tell me, in your own words, what you saw.”

“Should…I begin?” Evan asked, the Admiral nodding. “Well, we were driving down one of the old Valbaran roads when the lead vehicle fell into a pothole, holding up the rest of the convoy. We should have guessed that something was wrong, but with the state of the road and the lack of Bug resistance, nobody thought much of it. We dismounted, as did most of the other IFV crews, and I went into the forest to…relieve myself. That was when they started digging themselves out of the ground. These big, eight-legged tank things had buried themselves all along the length of the road. Well, they could have been digging out of tunnels, but they looked like they’d been buried to me. They started hammering the convoy. More of them came out of the forest – Drones, too.”
“And, these Drones,” the Admiral interjected. “They behaved differently from those you’ve encountered before?”

“They weren’t using wave tactics,” he continued. “They were moving in squads of maybe six, taking cover, using suppressing fire. Didn’t see any shields, just weird guns. Some of them were plasma, some fired explosive projectiles.”

“We believe that they can modulate their body temperature to help them blend into their environment,” the Admiral added. “That’s why the recon drones didn’t pick them up. Some of the specimens that we recovered were equipped with radios, too, which explains how they’re so coordinated. They’re weirdly primitive, partially organic, but they work. We handed them over to the Jarilans. Maybe they can find a way to reverse engineer them or decode their messages.” He turned to Jade next, her feathery antennae standing on end as he addressed her. “What’s your assessment of these Betelgeusians, Private?”

“As Private Bennett said, they’re using very advanced tactics, sir. I observed them advancing behind armored vehicles, flushing the enemy out of cover using grenades, and covering their troops with suppressive fire. Coupled with the camouflage adaptation that you described, and their ability to coordinate outside of pheromone range, it would be a mistake to treat them like a nuptial hive. This is a military bred and trained for one purpose – to defend their territory. They took their time to evaluate our capabilities before they attacked, studied us, made sure that they had a tactical advantage rather than relying solely on numbers. They have technology that we’ve never encountered before that lets them go toe-to-toe with tanks and aircraft that have previously enjoyed almost total invulnerability.”

“Is there a reason the Jarilan contingent that was attached to Echo company didn’t detect the enemy presence?” the Admiral added.

“Well,” Jade began, averting her eyes to the deck. “We were traveling inside the IFVs, sir. By the time we caught their scent, the attack had already begun.”
“Maybe there’s a way that we can remedy that,” the Admiral replied. “What did you make of the VIP? The new caste that was captured on your helmet cams.”

“When a hive grows to a planetary scale, it has to make coordination difficult,” she mused. She reached up to fiddle with one of her dangling antennae as she elaborated, perhaps a pensive gesture for her kind. “They’ve developed a planetary communications network – we’ve seen the radios and antennas – but I don’t think that’s enough. If I had to guess, I’d say that creature was a node in the hive’s hierarchy, someone who makes decisions above the level of the rank and file, but who remains subservient to the Queen.”

“That was our conclusion too,” the Admiral replied with a satisfied nod. “Based on the information available to us right now, there are at least seven of these things, each one responsible for a different region of the planet. The one that attacked your convoy has been designated Red King. It’s a chess thing,” he added with a dismissive wave of his hand. “The fleet is being split into task groups to better focus our attention where it’s needed. We took a hit on the chin, but we’ll come back from this.”

“Sir, if I might?” Evan began. He waited for the Admiral to nod, then continued. “What happens next? Will Echo company be reformed, or will we be reassigned to another carrier?”

“Policy is to send the injured home,” the Admiral replied. “You and the other casualties are scheduled to be returned to Valbara as soon as you’re healthy enough to endure superlight. Nothing requires you to continue this fight. You’ve bled enough for the UNN.”

“With all due respect, Admiral, I want to see this through. They killed my friends,” he added, his composure slipping for a moment. “The doctors say I’ll make a complete recovery, that I’ll be able to fight again.”

“Your company is gone,” the Admiral replied. “It’s going to take some time to replenish all of the vehicles that were taken out yesterday – we didn’t expect these kinds of losses so early into the campaign. For now, we’re shuffling around some of the surviving vehicles and personnel from the battalions that were hit the hardest to form as many functional companies as we can. If you’re set on staying, I can put in a word for you.”

“You will?” Evan asked, blinking his eyes in surprise. “I-I mean, yes, sir. Absolutely. I’d be eternally grateful.”

“I’ll keep you three together if at all possible,” he replied. “I’m afraid that a broken arm doesn’t net you a ticket home,” he added, glancing at Hernandez.

***

Xipa stopped at the base of one of the trees, leaning against its rough bark, her chest heaving as she caught her breath. The damnable aliens were outpacing her once again. It wasn’t only that she had shorter legs than they did, but that they seem to outmatch her in stamina. She was always behind, trailing after them like an infant clinging to its father’s tail, rather than leading the flock as she had imagined.

Fletcher stopped and turned to look back at her, the rest of the team following suit.

“Taking another breather, Ensi?”

“I will be fine,” she panted, her feathers flushing red with irritation. “I just…need a moment.”

“Yeah, this isn’t gonna work,” the Earth’nay replied. “If you can’t keep up with us at walking speed, then you’re gonna have to go back to your ship.”

“I can keep up,” she snarled, glaring back at him with her one good eye.

“Maybe there’s another solution,” he mused, scratching his furry chin as he glanced over at Gustave. He strode over to Xipa, crunching through the fallen leaves that coated the forest floor, extending his prosthetic hands towards her. She recoiled, snapping her teeth at him reflexively. “Bite me if you want,” he chuckled. “My fingers are made of polymer.”

Her feathers flushed pink with embarrassment as he slid his hands beneath her arms, lifting her sixty-pound frame off the ground with ease. Holding her at arm’s length as though afraid that she was going to bite his nose off, he brought her over to Gustave, the Krell’nay huffing to himself in amusement as he crouched to let Fletcher deposit her on his back. She perched atop one of his broad shoulders like a bird in a branch, just above the ammunition drum that he carried, his leathery poncho providing a surprising amount of purchase for her clawed toes. She lurched as her new steed rose to his full nine-foot height, extending her tail for balance as he began to lumber along.

“There you go,” Fletcher said, patting the Krell’nay’s scaly thigh. “Now you can keep up.”

She wanted to bite back at the impudent Earth’nay, but he was probably right. If she had to ride Gustave to stay on the team, then she would tolerate it for the sake of her people. Maybe for the sake of her calves, too…

She heard the fluttering of wings somewhere above, suppressing the impulse to raise her weapon as their insect companion landed in the leaves ahead of them. Its gossamer wings retracted back into their protective coverings, the creature turning to face them.

“All clear,” it said, reaching up to brush its antennae back like a Valbara’nay might rearrange her feathers. “No Bugs in sight, and I’m not picking up any scents on the wind.”

“I thought this planet would be crawling,” Fletcher muttered, seeming almost disappointed. He tossed the insect’s pack to it, the creature using all four of its arms to catch it.

“Moon,” Ruza said, his voice as coarse as sandpaper.

“What?” Fletcher asked, glancing over his shoulder at him.

“Kerguela is a moon, not a planet.”
Fletcher shrugged, continuing on. It had been an uneventful walk so far, and Xipa wasn’t sure exactly how much ground they had covered. She should be relieved that they hadn’t encountered any resistance, but it just put her on edge, the likelihood of some kind of ambush growing with every minute that ticked by.
They walked for a while longer, Xipa clinging to Gustave’s shoulder, surveying the forest from her high perch. It hadn’t changed, not in all the rotations she had been away. She could almost imagine that she was standing just out of view of her city’s walls, her flock waiting for her on the other side.

“Let’s take a break,” Fletcher said. “I need to get some food in me.”

“I’m surprised that you still need to eat,” Xipa said. “Did you not replace your stomach, too?”

“Some parts of me are still made of meat,” he replied, turning to look up at her. “The parts that count.”

They stopped in the shade of one of the giant trees, using its protruding roots as impromptu benches. After spending so much time on Valbara, Xipa had almost forgotten how tall the plants here could grow in the diminished gravity. Even ten percent made a notable difference in their height.

Fletcher and Ruza sat down, as their kind often did, the insect doing the same. They lacked the ability to lock their joints as the Valbara’nay could. Xipa didn’t wait for Gustave to lower himself down, leaping off his back, landing gracefully on the forest floor. The giant reptile set down his oversized weapon, then splayed out on the ground, lying on his belly with his ammunition drum rising into the air. He buried his snout in the leaves, each breath sending some of them airborne. He looked like a Teth’rak basking in the sun on a warm day.

“I hope you all packed your own lunches,” Fletcher said, setting his heavy pack by his boots. He fished out a plastic packet in Navy blue that was marked with Earth’nay text, presumably some kind of ration kit. “I didn’t bring enough PB&J sandwiches for everybody.”
The rest of the team followed suit, shrugging off their packs and rummaging inside for their respective rations. Ruza withdrew a similar, albeit far larger package, while the one that called itself Bluejay held up a small case made from hard resin that was about the size of a tablet computer. Holding the object in its lower pair of arms, it opened the lid with the upper pair, revealing the contents. Inside was a row of transparent vials that contained a golden fluid, Bluejay snapping the resin that held one of them securely in place. The Bug noticed that she was watching, raising the little vial, the liquid inside seeming to glow as it caught the light that filtered in through the canopy.

“It’s honey,” it explained. “It’s basically just concentrated nutrients derived from raw materials that our Repletes break down into their base components. We can process other foods if necessary, but we can stay active and healthy on a diet of just honey.”

“Was that the fate of my fallen friends?” Xipa asked, not missing a beat. “To be eaten, processed into nutrients to feed their killers?”

Bluejay shrugged, then turned back to its meal, unwilling to give her the reaction that she wanted. She grimaced as she watched the small plates that made up the lower half of its face split open horizontally like a beak, revealing the off-green flesh beneath the chitin, shattering the illusion that it had a mouth anything like that of an Earth’nay. There were no teeth, there was no throat. Instead, a long, fleshy tube slowly extended, reaching out towards the vial as Bluejay twisted off the cap. It was a proboscis, the insect starting to drink, Xipa able to see it bulge like a straw as the fluid traveled up its length.

Disgusting…

“How many of those do you have to eat a day?” Fletcher asked.

“Usually two,” the insect replied.

“Damn, you’re efficient, I’ll give you that. And here I was thinking I was saving the Navy money on my diet. Humans usually need about two thousand calories a day, but half of me’s gone,” he chuckled as he wiggled his prosthetic fingers. “One twenty-four-hour MRE usually lasts me two days. The rest of me is powered by good old electricity.”

“An MRE is balanced to give you all of the necessary nutrients as well as pure calories,” Ruza chided, tearing open his own packet with one of his hooked claws. “You should try to eat as much of it as you can.”

“Don’t worry, mom,” Fletcher replied sarcastically. “I promise I’ll eat all my greens.”

Xipa set her pack down at her feet, opening up the zipper and reaching for one of her ration packs. Most of what she was carrying was just food, as they had no idea how long they’d be on the surface. There was enough for several days, at least. Longer, if she was willing to ration it. Fortunately, one of the few Earth’nay inventions that she truly appreciated let her refill her canteen from the moisture in the air, giving her a functionally limitless supply of fresh water.

She tore open the Navy-camouflaged packaging with her sharp teeth, examining the contents. She found a protein bar, peeling open the silver wrapper and biting off a piece.

“What’s the Valbaran Navy feeding its troops these days?” Fletcher asked.

“This is insect protein and grains,” she replied.

“You guys eat bugs?” Fletcher said, sticking out his tongue in an expression of disgust. “Watch out, Bluejay,” he added as he reached over to give the nearby insect a playful shove. “Looks like you’re on the menu if we end up stranded down here. The Ensi’s gonna give you a taste of your own medicine.”

“We don’t eat people,” he sighed, the fact that he could still talk with his proboscis extended making Xipa feel even more uncomfortable. “This honey is made from livestock, grains, and fruits that we cultivate on Jarilo. We do a lot of farming on the colony.”

“Let’s see what the Navy packed for me today,” Fletcher continued, sifting through the contents of his package. “A beef taco, fuck me. Tax money well-spent right there. Rice and beans, cheese spread, fruit and nut mix. I’d ask if you guys if you wanted to trade, but frankly, it all sounds fucking disgusting.”

“You’ve probably eaten our honey before,” Bluejay added. “It’s one of our primary exports.”

“I don’t know where half the shit I eat comes from,” he replied, starting to shake one of his self-heating meal packets. “I’d rather it stayed that way, thanks.”

As the scents of cooking food carried over to her, Xipa was suddenly less satisfied with eating all of her rations in bar form. Ruza even had a tiny, collapsible stove with flammable gel that he was using to cook one of his massive food packets.

“Are you not going to join us, Gustave?” Bluejay asked as he glanced over at the prone reptile. The Krell’nay huffed in reply, a series of low rumbles translated into English by the bulky device on his wrist.

Tiny warm-bloods always feeding, always scurrying. Gustave already fed this month.”

“I guess he doesn’t need to eat every day,” Fletcher added with a shrug.

“Krell are cold-blooded,” Ruza explained, tending to his little stove. “They have very slow metabolisms, which means that they only need to feed once every few months. Some suspect it is the secret to their longevity. The Humans have a similar creature on Earth, the corkodile.”

“Crocodile,” Fletcher corrected with a wave of his plastic fork. “Suddenly, I’m a whole lot less confident about letting you do surgery on people.”

“Can you name any Rask animals in their native language?” Ruza shot back, giving him a humorless stare. “Can you even speak a word of Rask?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure UNN phrase books now include the Rask words for I surrender and please don’t run me over with your tank.”

“Were you there?” Ruza asked, narrowing his yellow eyes. They were reflective, seeming to glow as they caught the sunlight, his pupils shrunken down to thin slits. “Did you fight against the Matriarch?”

“No,” Fletcher admitted, pausing to take a bite of his meal. It looked like minced meat and vegetables that had been wrapped in some kind of flatbread. “I left SWAR before that whole mess went down. I have friends who did, though.”

“And what did they tell you?”

“That a single armored battalion put down your rebellion and then conquered your territory.”

“A simplistic assessment of the situation,” Ruza continued, seeming to cool off a little. He turned his attention back to his meal, reaching a fork into his packet to prod the contents as they cooked. “Your friends must not think very highly of you if they explain things in such childish terms.”

“Oh, kitty has claws,” Fletcher chuckled. “Why don’t you give me the rundown? It’s not like we have anything else to do down here. It sounds like you have a lot of opinions.”

Ruza ignored him, lifting his packet from the little stove. He fished out a chunk of meat with his fork, spearing the steaming flesh on its prongs. It was massive, some kind of animal steak, dripping with oil. The size of the packet suggested that the alien could each as much meat as an entire Valbara’nay flock during Gue’tra season in one sitting.

“What rebellion was this?” Xipa asked.

“You didn’t hear about it?” Fletcher replied, raising an incredulous eyebrow.

“Forgive me if the minutia of Earth’nay life is not my most pressing preoccupation.”

“Borealis is split into territories,” he explained. “They don’t have anything like the United Nations or the Council of Ensi on their planet. These jokers decided to start a fight with every other territory and the entire Coalition at the same time. Needless to say, they got their arses handed to them.”

“Why?” Xipa asked, turning to Ruza.

The feline paused his chewing, seeming more willing to engage with her than with Fletcher.

“It was a matter of sovereignty, of culture, of honor,” he explained. “The Matriarch tried to return our people to the old ways, to restore control of our ancestral hunting grounds. It was a miscalculation.”

“Understatement of the century,” Fletcher snickered.

“If it had not occurred to you already, I no longer serve the Matriarchy,” Ruza snarled as he turned back to the smirking Earth’nay. “I have seen enough death and hardship caused by those who wish to live out their self-aggrandizing fantasies at the expense of others.”

“That’s why you don’t roll with a pack?” Fletcher asked, seeing an opportunity to press the issue further. “I’ve seen a lot of shit in my time, but never a Borealan who goes it alone by choice. Most cats would call you insane for doing that.”

Again, Ruza chose not to answer, seeming to take pleasure in frustrating Fletcher. Bluejay was already done with its meal, sitting on a root quietly as it watched its companions eat. Xipa finished off the first of her ration bars, feeling a pang of jealousy as she watched Ruza and Fletcher produce yet more packets. Ruza had finished a banquet’s worth of meat and was now plucking dried fish from a can with his claws, while the Earth’nay was eating some kind of baked dessert.

“You want some?” he asked, noticing that she was watching him. “You’ve probably never tasted human food, right?”

“No,” she replied, unwrapping another protein bar. “I have what I need.”

“I guess, but it doesn’t look very exciting,” he muttered.

“Rations are not supposed to be exciting,” she chided, taking a bite to punctuate her point. “They are supposed to provide soldiers with the food they need to survive.”

“It seems like the Valbarans are pretty new to the whole war thing, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” the Earth’nay replied. “An army marches on its stomach, kid. Getting good food to your men isn’t just a matter of nutrition, but morale. Let me tell you, when you’re sitting waist-deep in mud on some blasted hellscape fifty light-years from home, a belly full of warm food is gonna keep you from deepthroating the barrel of an XMH.”

“Kid?” she snapped, a flush of red passing through her headdress. “I’d wager I have been fighting since before you were born, whelp.”
“Sorry, it’s the height,” he chuckled as he resumed eating his cake.

***

Xipa watched the sunbeams bleed through the leaves above as Gustave lumbered along. She was perched on his shoulder – voluntarily this time – her claws digging into his poncho for purchase. It was a little embarrassing to have to be carried, but at least she wasn’t a burden on the creature. If one were to pry off one of the bony scutes that ran down his armored back, she suspected that it might weigh nearly as much as she did.

The buzzing of Bluejay’s wings rose above the crunching leaves, and she looked up to see the creature land just ahead of them. It spent most of its time flying ahead of the team, acting as a living reconnaissance drone, which was fine by her. As much as she hated being in the company of the insect, its usefulness was hard to deny. Perhaps if she started thinking of it more as military hardware, she might be less offended by its presence.

“There’s a road ahead,” it said, Fletcher raising a fist to signal the team to stop. “It’s all cracked and overgrown. Doesn’t look like it’s been used since the invasion.”

“Those highways linked the cities together,” Xipa explained. “We used to use them to deliver cargo, mostly.”

“I suppose that means we’re on the right track,” Fletcher added, resting his rifle over his shoulder. “We should stay off the roads, though. I don’t fancy being out in the open like that. Let’s cross it and keep moving.”

Bluejay nodded, then jetted off into the air again. They continued on, the trees eventually opening up ahead of them. Fletcher led the way, his rifle raised as he moved out of cover, stepping onto the cracked asphalt.

“Shit, this isn’t a road,” Xipa heard him mutter as he swung his weapon around. “This is a fucking graveyard.”

As Gustave followed, stepping out into the sunlight, Xipa saw what Fletcher was referring to. It was a straight, two-lane highway that ran at a thirty-degree angle relative to the direction they were walking in, the forest slowly reclaiming it. Plants grew through the cracks, spreading roots breaking apart its edges, decades of weathering creating potholes that had filled in with water. It was not empty, however. There was a convoy of vehicles occupying one of the lanes.

Just as on Valbara, few people on Kerguela had owned personal vehicles. There was rarely a need to leave the walls of one’s city, and even then, taking a mag-lev or an aircraft was a much faster way to travel. Most of these looked like the twelve-wheeled trucks that had been used for transporting cargo, as well as smaller buggies that she recognized from her time with the city guard. They were four-wheeled conveyances with open cockpits that could seat a flock of six, not dissimilar to the buggies used for transport by the military today. They had mostly been used to hasten response times to incidents in the city, and to cover more ground in the forests when necessary.

She hopped down from Gustave’s shoulder, taking a closer look. Time had stripped their paint, eaten away the polymer, and rusted the metal almost all the way through in places. The forest had begun colonizing even these sterile husks, mushrooms taking root in the padded seats, vines and mosses covering them in a red and orange carpet.

“Plasma burns,” she muttered, noting that almost all of the vehicles had been warped and melted by intense heat. There was evidence of fires, slagged metal that had cooled into pools, blackened paint. Even the road beneath them hadn’t been spared. It was pocked with craters, some larger than others, the wheels of the vehicles sinking into it like quicksand where it had melted and solidified.

“Looks like the roaches strafed them,” Fletcher mused, leaning into the cab of a nearby truck.

“My guess is that they attempted to flee the city during the invasion,” Xipa replied, a shiver of dismayed purple passing through her feathers. “They didn’t get more than a few kilometers before the Bugs noticed them. They had fighters strafing everything that moved that day, like they didn’t even know what they were shooting at. If it looked like a vehicle, if it was outputting electrical or radio signals, they’d attack it.”

“I don’t see any bodies,” he added. “I guess…”

“Food for the hive,” she sneered. “These people just wanted to escape, and they were culled like a flock of Gue’tra.”

“Hey, Bluejay,” Fletcher said, putting a finger to his ear. “Do me a favor and stay up there for a little while. We’re having a bit of an…incident down here.”

“This means that the insects have traveled through here,” Xipa continued, ignoring the implied insult. How dare he talk about her like that, as if she was some overly emotional male ready to fly off the handle at any moment. “We must keep moving.”

Gustave plodded over to her, lowering his shoulders so that she could leap up, Xipa returning to her high perch.

“Suns are getting low,” Fletcher said, shielding his eyes as he glanced up at the sky. “We should find somewhere to sleep before nightfall. How does night even work on this planet?” he added, turning to glance up at Xipa. “Does it ever actually get dark?”

“Not really,” she replied, turning her eyes to the raging auroras that trailed across the sky above them. Te’tat’zin dominated the heavens, so bright that it might as well have been a third star. “There are eclipses when the gas giant comes between Kerguela and the suns, but those are the only periods of relative darkness. Even then, the auroras provide enough light to see by. I could never get used to the nights on Valbara. It was like being blind…”

“How did you count days and months here?” Fletcher continued, leading them towards the treeline on the far side of the road.

“A year is one rotation around the suns,” she explained, wobbling a little on Gustave’s shoulder as he lumbered along. “A day here is about forty-six of your hours, the time it takes for Kerguela to orbit Te’tat’zin. The moon is tidally locked. There are no months here, no seasons, as there is no tilt relative to the stars.”

“Well, I guess if there’s no real night anyway, we’ll try to operate on a twenty-four-hour clock. Any objections?”

Gustave shook his massive head, as did Ruza.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Xipa replied, Fletcher shrugging.

“Come on, then. I hope you don’t mind slumming it. My guess is that we’ll have a hard time finding a five-star hotel that’s open during the apocalypse.”

***

A crack of thunder sent a flush of alarmed yellow through Xipa’s headdress, and she turned her snout skyward, watching the dark clouds roil through the breaks in the canopy. The first droplets of rain began to fall, pattering on the leaves above, splashing on her scales. What began as a pleasant shower soon became torrential, and she had to reach for her helmet to prevent her feathers from being soaked through. Fletcher and Ruza did the same, the Earth’nay grumbling to himself as he retrieved his helmet from the clip on his belt, slotting it over his head. Gustave seemed not to mind, lifting his long snout as he let the fat raindrops trickle between his scales, opening his jaws wide as though trying to drink.

Xipa snapped her visor shut, watching the raindrops splash against it, heavy enough that she could hear the impact inside her helmet.

“Fucking monsoon is brewing,” Fletcher said, using the local ad-hoc network rather than trying to talk over the noise. “Just our luck.”

Bluejay burst through the canopy, jogging to a stop as he landed in the leaves. He buzzed his gossamer wings before stowing them, the rapid motion shaking off the droplets of water, then waved to the squad with one of his upper arms.

“I spotted a structure a short walk to the North,” he said, raising his voice over the rain. He had elected not to wear his helmet, perhaps so as not to give up the use of his antennae. “We should be able to take cover there until this storm passes.”

“What kind of structure?” Fletched asked, his voice coming through the speakers on his helmet.

“Looks like some old Valbaran building,” he replied, shrugging his lower pair of arms as he held his XMR in the upper. “Abandoned, of course. Roaches wouldn’t have any use for it.”

“Lead the way,” Fletcher said, Bluejay gesturing for them to follow with a curt nod.

They made their way through the undergrowth, cracks of thunder echoing across the forest, wind starting to tear at the branches above. After a few more minutes of walking, they arrived at the building, Xipa spotting it between the trees ahead. It was a structure made up of three interconnected domes that looked like soap bubbles, the white construction material weathered and stained, red weeds covering it in a carpet. The area around it had been cleared prior to its construction, the remnants of a small generator building and an outhouse at the forest’s edge now being overtaken by new growth, saplings reclaiming the area.

“What was this place?” Fletcher wondered, shouldering his rifle cautiously as he approached the main structure. “Looks like a bunch of igloos. Some kind of hunter’s cabin, maybe?”
“It looks like a research station,” Xipa explained. “Naturalists would have come here to study the local flora and fauna.”

“Let’s clear the place before we get too comfortable,” Fletcher added. “Can’t be too careful.”

Xipa hopped down from Gustave’s shoulder, moving over to join Fletcher and Bluejay where they were stacking up beside the entrance. It was a small, tunnel-like vestibule, low enough that the Earth’nay would have to duck. It didn’t look as though Ruza or Gustave would even fit inside.

“On my mark,” Fletcher began. “Thee, two, one.” He reached for the door handle and pulled it, then tried pushing when it didn’t budge. The hinges were probably rusted, and the buildup of soil and plants was blocking it. He drove his shoulder into it, grumbling to himself when it did little more than shake in its frame. Xipa watched curiously as he rapped at the material with his knuckles, testing it, then he drew back his hand as though preparing to strike it. He splayed his polymer fingers like claws, then drove them through the door with surprising force, punching straight through the metal. She heard it creak as he gripped it, Fletcher tearing it from its hinges, tossing it aside like it weighed nothing.

He waved them forward, the three of them proceeding down the short passageway, emerging into the main dome. The interior was in the same state of disrepair as the exterior, the floor cracked where plants had sprouted up from the soil beneath, clusters of mushrooms growing under the tables that encircled the room. The damp had made its way in through cracks in the ceiling, leaving dark streaks on the white walls.She was right – this had been a laboratory. The tables were strewn with old scientific equipment that wascaked in decades of dust.

The trio cleared the other two rooms – a bedroom whose pillows and floor-spanning mattress now played host to mushrooms, and a storeroom full of supplies and an old server.

“Clear,” Fletcher announced. “It’s a bit of a shithole, but it’ll keep the rain off us.”

“It’s as good a place as any to rest,” Bluejay added, waving his feathery antennae. “No trace of any Betelgeusian pheromones, just some spores from mold and fungi.”

Xipa made her way into the adjoining storeroom, a smaller dome with shelves lining the walls. She sifted through some of the old food containers, recognizing a few brands from her youth, picking up an empty glass jar to examine the writing on the label.

“Look at this,” she said, Fletcher and Bluejay poking their heads through the narrow doorway. “There are food containers in here, but every one of them is empty. Someone must have held out here for a while after the invasion.”

“They probably holed up until they ran out of food, then moved on,” Fletcher mused as he examined the shelves. “Didn’t see any bodies.”

“I always imagined that the world ended the day the Bugs arrived,” Xipa said, setting the jar back down on its shelf. It had left a dark circle that was free of dust, and it almost felt disrespectful not to put it back in its rightful place, like she was disturbing a tomb. “Inside the city walls, they wiped out everything and everyone in the space of a few hours. I suppose pockets of survivors could have persisted for days, maybe weeks, as long as they could evade the Bugs.”

“Long enough to keep that beacon running?” Fletcher asked, Xipa turning to look back at him. She couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not.

“I have to hope,” she replied.

There was a sudden crashing sound, a plume of dust pouring into the main dome, the sound of the rain growing louder. Fletcher and Bluejay spun around, quickly lowering their weapons, Fletcher spreading his arms in a gesture of exasperation.

“What the fuck, Gustave?”

Xipa peeked out to see that the reptile, unable to fit through the door, had simply shouldered his way through the wall. He shook himself, sending pieces of broken masonry bouncing across the floor, plodding his way inside. Ruza followed behind him, pausing to glance at the Gustave-sized breach.

“You could have brought the whole building down on our heads,” Bluejay complained, but the Krell’nay seemed indifferent. He flopped down onto his chubby belly, the impact sending several of the rusty old research tools toppling off their tables.

Ruza took off his helmet and shook out his golden hair, glancing around the room, his nose wrinkling.

“I suppose it is better than being out in the rain,” he grumbled, shrugging off his pack.

“Right, get settled in,” Fletcher said as he tapped at the touch panel on his wrist. “I’m setting a timer for six hours, then we’re moving again whether you got enough shut-eye or not. Grab something to eat while you can, too.”

The team spread out into the building, seeming to want to get as far away from one another as possible. Gustave lay in the middle of the lab, indifferent to what everyone else was doing, his tail trailing out of the hole that he had made in the wall. Fletcher went into the bedroom, testing the old mattress with his boot, disturbing a few of the brown mushrooms that now called it home. He produced a sleeping bag from his pack, then lay it down on top, using it to shield himself from the damp and rot. Ruza did the same, albeit on the opposite side of the room. Bluejay cleared one of the tables, then lay down on it, using his rucksack as a pillow. Was comfort even a concern for someone whose entire body was covered in hard chitin?

Xipa eyed the bedroom, her imagination peeling away the water damage and the fungi, painting the drab scene in the warm colors of yesteryear. She remembered sharing a bed with her flock, the closeness, the feeling of scale on scale. Even after so many rotations, she had never grown accustomed to sleeping alone. It was still just as hard as that first terrible night on the freighter. Sure, she could have found a new flock. She had still been young enough when she had returned to Valbara, and everyone had been more than accommodating towards the survivors of the disaster. Perhaps she could even have formed a new flock from those who had escaped alongside her, but loss was no foundation upon which to start a family.

No, her pain was her burden to bear. Nobody else should have to deal with it.

She elected to join Fletcher and Ruza in the bedroom, feeling her feet sag into the damp mattress as she walked across it. Ruza was already snoring, his furry arms crossed as he leaned back against the wall behind him. Fletcher was preparing a food packet, not yet asleep. She sat down nearby, then shuffled a little closer to him, the Earth’nay glancing up from his meal with an unspoken question in his eyes.

“You tore that door off its hinges like it was made of paper,” she began, Fletcher bringing a spoonful of little white grains to his mouth. “I didn’t realize that Earth’nay prosthetics were so potent.”

“Mine are a little more potent than most,” he replied, flexing his fingers as if to demonstrate. Each one was tipped with a little piece of textured polymer for grip, like the tread of a boot, the faint electrical sounds of the servos audible over the muffled rain. “I’m ex-SWAR, and they spared no expense. They also had a habit of…skirting regulations, if you catch my drift.”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” she said, waiting for him to elaborate.

“UN law prohibits what they call the weaponization of the human body,” he explained, his tone leaving no ambiguity about where he stood on the matter. “It’s illegal to amputate a healthy limb or to replace a functioning organ in order to augment the combat capabilities of a person, even if it would make them objectively stronger. It also applies to genetic engineering. There are limits placed on the prosthetics themselves, too. You’re not supposed to deliberately make a limb dramatically stronger than its organic equivalent, even though that’s usually unavoidable due to their nature. You can’t weaponize them, either. No retractable blades or concealed guns.”

“So, Earth’nay have the technology to make themselves stronger, but choose not to?”

“They say it’s about human dignity,” he continued. “We’ve had a bit of a rocky history with supersoldier programs, and there’s this idea that people should be able to return to civilian life when they retire. You can’t do that if you’ve been made into a killing machine.”

“You disagree?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

“Saying that everyone will be able to retire and live a normal life is overly optimistic,” he replied, digging his spoon into his packet again. Despite being able to rend metal, his prosthetics were still deft and gentle enough to perform everyday tasks. “There’s no sign of this war coming to an end. There could be hundreds, thousands of Bug planets, the nuptial fleets will never stop coming. People like me, we don’t complete a couple of tours then go work at a hardware store. We’ll be soldiers until we either die or are killed, and if we want to make ourselves into human weapons so we can do our jobs better, why shouldn’t we have that option? It’s my body, why should the government say what I can do with it? SWAR gets that. They’re willing to bend the rules, even break them to get their operators to the next level.”

“If that’s the case, then why did you leave?”

“They were getting too political for my tastes,” he replied with a sneer. “I don’t think it’s our job to decide how things should be run. We have councils and presidents and senates for that kind of thing. I just want to kill Bugs. It’s the best way to help.”

“You have no qualms about becoming a weapon, then?” she asked as she looked him up and down. “To mold your body into a tool fit for only a singular purpose?”

“I’m good at fighting,” he replied, glancing back at her. “What else would I do?”

“Does your family not object?”

“The Navy is the closest thing I have to a family,” he said, his spoon hovering by his mouth for a moment as he was lost in thought. “Maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to live like this. There’s nothing waiting for me back home.”
“Your dedication is impressive, if nothing else,” Xipa admitted. “Perhaps if there were more like you among our ranks, we might have fared better against the insects.”

“In a way, that dropship crash was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he chuckled. “SWAR only recruits amputees. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I was still whole.”

“I, too, have searched for meaning in tragedy,” Xipa said with a flutter of purple. “When my flock was killed, when Kerguela fell, I told myself that there was a purpose to it. I had been chosen to survive because I had work to do. I had to protect Valbara, prepare my people for the coming war. I climbed to the position of Ensi, I fought and argued, I secured funding for defense programs. I made the planetary defense stations my life’s work, but when that war finally came, it amounted to nothing.”

“I’ve lost friends before,” Fletcher said, a flash of sympathy in his eyes. “I know what it’s like to feel powerless.”

He extended a mechanical hand towards her shoulder, but drew it back when her headdress flashed red.

“No,” she snapped, pulling away from him. “You don’t know what it’s like to lose your flock, to watch your planet burn. An alien cannot fathom the bonds that we shared.”

“Just because we don’t live in flocks or packs doesn’t mean we don’t understand,” Fletcher replied, scowling at her. “You think humans experience loss any differently than you do?”

Xipa quickly regretted her outburst, closing her mouth, glad that the Earth’nay couldn’t interpret the embarrassed colors of her feathers. Fletcher resumed his meal, the uncomfortable silence soon becoming more than she could bear.

“I will take first watch,” she said, rising to her feet on the damp mattress.

“Yeah, probably for the best,” Fletcher muttered. “Go tell BJ he’s up after you.”

***

Xipa stood in the hole that Gustave had made in the wall, her legs locked, watching the raindrops land on the rust-colored leaves of the shrubs nearby. At the edge of the clearing, the wind waved the branches of the trees, the glow of the auroras bleeding through the storm clouds above. The scent of the rain filled her with nostalgia.

Gustave was the only member of the team in sight, and he was fast asleep, his breathing loud enough that she could hear it over the storm. She reached into one of the pockets of her suit, withdrawing a leather scabbard, the ornate handle of the dagger within glinting in the dim light. She gripped it, sliding it out, her eyes playing over the elaborate patterns that were carved into it. It was the product of alien hands, their intentions unknowable, intricate and strangely organic reliefs decorating the flat of the blade. The Bugs were utilitarians. They didn’t make art, they didn’t waste resources on unnecessary ornamentation, yet their ceramic daggers were strangely beautiful. The razor edge still retained its sharpness after all these years.

She was distracted by movement behind her, her heart starting to race as she saw a six-limbed figure approach from the shadows. It was Bluejay, of course, but the insect’s presence shattered her tranquility all the same.

“Hey,” he whispered, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb the others. “It’s my turn on watch. You should go get some sleep while you can.” He saw the blade in her hands, his antennae waving curiously. “Is that…”

“A Betelgeusian knife,” she confirmed.

“Why…do you have that?”

“This is the knife that killed one of my flockmates,” she replied, watching his reaction curiously. “I pulled it out of her, and when I found myself on the rescue shuttle, it was still in my hands. I’ve kept it for thirty rotations.”

“Why?” he asked, peeling his eyes away from the blade as he glanced back at her. “That’s a rather grisly trophy.”
“It’s not a trophy,” she continued, sliding it back into its scabbard. “It’s a promise. I always told myself that I’d return it to its rightful owners one day.”

“By return, I’m assuming you mean plant it in a Drone’s thorax,” Bluejay muttered.

“Something like that.”

He took a few steps closer, leaning against the broken wall beside her, following her gaze as she peered out at the rain beyond.

“This place must have been beautiful once,” he said, reaching out a hand to catch the falling droplets that poured off the domed roof. They splashed against his waxy carapace, Xipa wondering if he could even feel them beneath all that armor. “It still is. Once we oust the Bugs, we can build it back even better than it was. You’d be surprised how fast you can rebuild a city with an army of Jarilan Workers at your side.”

“We don’t need your help,” she replied.

“I’m sure you don’t need it, no,” he continued with a shrug. “Help isn’t always needed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t appreciated.”

“Why are you still trying to talk to me?” Xipa asked. “Have I not made my feelings clear?”

“I’ve learned that a little persistence goes a long way,” he chuckled. “I’m a Jarilan, we don’t get the luxury of first impressions. We have to work hard to make friends, but I always feel like that only makes those bonds stronger. You can change a person’s perception of you through a little kindness and patience.”

“Do you speak from experience?”

“If you’re asking if a lot of people have judged me before getting to know me, yeah,” he said with a nod. “A lot of those people are my good friends now. My father always says that we should put our best foot forward, because nobody is going to give us the benefit of the doubt. Having to always be open and friendly, even when we might want to do the opposite, is one of our burdens.”
“What about your mother?” Xipa asked calmly. “What wisdom have you gleaned from her?”

“I get it,” he said, raising his lower pair of hands defensively as he held his XMR in the upper. “My mother is a hive Queen, therefor I’m descended from a planet-devouring monster. Things are different now. She was faced with the choice to die or adapt, and she chose to adapt.”

“Loyalty is not won through threats of extermination,” Xipa muttered. “Who’s to say she won’t pick up where she left off once she’s in a position of strength again?”

“Because when a Queen surrenders, they’re merged into the conquering hive,” he explained. “Her brood serves the Coalition now, and always will. Human DNA courses through my veins. I’m a hybrid, we all are, and that’s not something that can be undone. It’s a deliberate process that joins two hives, just like when ancient Valbarans would marry off their sons to competing fiefdoms.”

“What do you know of our history?” she asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Enough to make a point,” he replied.

“When I look at you, I see something false,” she said. “An imposter trying desperately to be something it’s not. You wear the face of an Earth’nay like a predatory insect wears a flower to lure in its prey.”

“This is one of those moments my dad warned me about,” he sighed, his antennae waving in the wind as he looked out at the forest. “It doesn’t matter what you think of me, I’ll still protect you, whether you ask for my help or not.”

“Because you were ordered to?”

“Because I think you need it.”

“I’m going to sleep,” Xipa said as she stepped away from the breach, sliding her scabbard back into her pocket.

“Goodnight,” he called after her. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

***

Xipa was awoken by someone giving her a leg a gentle kick, opening her one eye to see Fletcher standing over her.

“Time to move,” he said, gesturing towards the main dome with a prosthetic hand. “Dunno if it’s day or night, but it’s been six hours.”

She grumbled to herself, reaching for her pack and her rifle groggily as she rose to her feet. The rest of the team was already waiting for her, all geared up and ready to move.

“Looks like the rain stopped,” Bluejay said, leaning out of the hole in the wall. “Glad we found some shelter when we did. I wouldn’t have wanted to sleep under a tree in that.”

“You’re on point again, Bug,” Fletcher said. Bluejay turned to look at him, clearly wanting to say something about the nickname, but he held his tongue. Not that he had one. Instead, he walked out into the undergrowth, shifting his pack around so that it was hanging off his chest before spreading his wings. He buzzed off into the sky, the displaced air blowing the leaves of the nearby shrubs.

Come, little hatchling,” Gustave said as he lowered his broad shoulders.

“I am an Ensi of the Consensus, not a hatchling,” she complained as she leapt up onto his back.

Still little,” the Krell’nay rumbled as he plodded out into the sunlight. “Do not fret, little Ensi. Gustave will fashion for you a necklace. Your rune – a prayer to grow larger,” he added with a huffing chuckle.

She glanced down at Ruza and Fletcher, hoping that they might have some idea of what the giant reptile was babbling about, but they shrugged their shoulders.

***

“Could have done with two Bugs, really,” Fletcher said as he traipsed through the undergrowth at the head of the group. “Should have asked Vos for more.”

“You would have more of their kind present?” Xipa asked from atop Gustave’s shoulder, her lips peeling back to expose her sharp teeth in disgust. “One of them is enough to turn my stomach.”

“Yeah, but they’re fucking useful,” he replied. “We could have one on the ground and one in the air. The roaches would never get the drop on us.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” she grumbled, glancing up at the canopy warily. “If the Betelgeusians spend most of their time fighting one another, would a defense against pheromone detection not be of chief concern?”

“I guess,” Fletcher conceded with a shrug. “You’re assigning logical thought patterns to them, though. I think of them more like a force of nature, changing and adapting in a way that’s completely reactionary.”
“Underestimating them would be a mistake.”

There was a buzzing sound, Bluejay slipping deftly through a break in the branches above, landing gently on the ground nearby.

“Got something up ahead,” he announced, taking a moment to catch his breath. He didn’t breathe as vertebrates did – he had no lungs, no air sacks – so his chest did not rise and fall. Instead, his people breathed through spiracles, a series of holes in their carapaces.

“Trouble?” Fletcher asked.

“Not exactly. There’s a large clearing up ahead, kind of looks like a series of oddly-shaped fields. There are herds of animals in there – big, hairy things with long noses.”

“Sounds like a herd of cua’patla,” Xipa said. “They’re a native animal, large herbivores that graze on leaves and berries. They’re harmless.”

“There aren’t many ecosystems with large herbivores that don’t have large predators, too,” Fletcher added. “Anything we need to worry about?”

“Not in this region, no. There are some small predators that might harass juveniles, but that’s it.”

“Alright. I guess we’ll just skirt around the edge of the fields if they’re in our path.”

They carried on, the clearing coming into view ahead after another few hundred meters. Bluejay stopped them as they approached, kneeling to investigate a tree stump at the edge of the forest.

“This was cut,” he explained, running his fingers across the weathered wood. “It’s old, but it doesn’t look like a natural break. It’s too clean. Look, there are more.”

“Maybe the Bugs made these fields,” Ruza said, staying in the shadow of the canopy as he paused by the edge of the treeline. “The Elysians cull parts of their jungle band to make grazing land for livestock in much the same way.”

“Stay on the ground, Bluejay,” Fletcher said. “Put those weird antennae of yours to work.”

They began to walk along the edge of the forest, keeping the field in view. There was no grass on Kerguela, nothing like the lush seas of green and blue back on Valbara. Where the forest had been culled, the land had been colonized by short shrubs and bushes, many of them fruit-bearing. After a few minutes of walking, a cluster of large animals came into view in the distance. They were four-legged, bulky things that were covered in a coat of fur that ranged from a rusty red to more muted browns. Where their noses should have been were instead long, flexible trunks that were devoid of fur, covered in black skin. They used these appendages to pluck berries and leaves from the plants at their feet as they wandered along, bringing them to their mouths.

“Looks like a giant wombat with an elephant’s trunk,” Fletcher commented, the words meaningless to Xipa. “Check it out, there are some baby ones running around.”

There were maybe two hundred of the animals that Xipa could see, their little round ears flicking to ward off the swarms of insects that followed them along. There didn’t seem to be anything keeping them in the fields, no fences or barriers, so they were probably drawn by the abundance of their preferred food.

“Did you guys eat these things?” Fletcher asked.

“Eat them?” Xipa said, cocking her head. “No. We get most of the protein that we need from the insects and fish that we farm.”

“You do eat red meat, though?”

“That’s more of a seasonal thing,” she explained. “We try to minimize our impact on the environment outside our walls, but we will hunt wild game if there’s an overabundance of animals. Letting a population grow too large can be just as damaging to an ecosystem as overhunting.”

We could eat them,” Ruza added with a hungry growl. “There must be fifteen hundred pounds of meat on those big ones. There is nothing like a fresh kill roasted over open flames to sate one’s appetite.”

“Now you’re making me hungry,” Fletcher chuckled. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to go around digging fire pits, so your rations will have to do.”

“Hold up,” Bluejay said, his antennae waving in the air. The team came to a stop, Fletcher taking a knee as he swept the trees ahead with his rifle. “I’m picking up pheromones.”

“Anything you recognize?” Fletcher asked. “Drones? Warriors?”

“No, but it’s close, and recent.”

“Helmets on, visors down,” Fletcher added as he reached for the helmet that was clipped to his belt. “Ad-hoc only from here on. We don’t know how good their hearing is.”

“The wind is blowing East,” Bluejay said, Xipa watching curiously as he slid his unconventional helmet over the back of his head. He attached the faceplate, securing it into place, his eyes visible through the tinted visor. “I think we’re downwind of it.”

Xipa closed her own visor, feeling Gustave shift beneath her as he fiddled with his bulky weapon. He gripped one of the three barrels in his scaly hand, manually rotating it as if to check that it was working, then ensured that the belt was attached properly.

There was a crackle in Xipa’s ears as she connected to the local network, hearing Fletcher’s voice as though he was talking right beside her.

“Alright, move out. Keep your fucking eyes peeled.”

She slid down from Gustave’s shoulder, covering the left flank as they advanced, scanning the trees with her XMR in hand. Although she had next to no experience with the weapon, it had handled well in the armory, and she was itching for an opportunity to see what it would do to a Bug.

From the trees on the far side of the field, a ways ahead of them, something strode into view.

At first, Xipa’s lack of depth perception played tricks on her, and she assumed that it was some kind of Drone. It had two long, spindly legs, and four equally long arms that swung at its sides as it walked. Its segmented torso was long and thin, its head oddly shaped, with two pairs of eyes. The first were where she would have expected them to be, while the second were larger, looking out from either side of its skull to give it a wider field of view. It wasn’t patterned with camouflage, instead sporting an iridescent, green shell that shone brightly in the sunlight. Only when it drew closer to the herd did she realize its true size.

“Look at that fucking thing,” Fletcher muttered. “It’s gotta be eleven, twelve feet tall! Those wombats barely reach its thighs.”

Xipa noticed that it was carrying one of the cua’patla, a juvenile bundled up beneath one of its lower arms, its four legs swinging with each step. It didn’t seem to be struggling, it was just hanging there, its trunk waving back and forth idly. The towering Bug approached the rest of the herd, the animals paying it little mind, then set its furry charge down with surprising care. The juvenile waddled away, rejoining the rest of the group, the Bug watching it go. The spindly insect then rose to its feet, stalking around the loosely-grouped herd. It reached down with its long arms to tap the animals that were starting to stray on the rump, encouraging them to close ranks.

“It’s herding them, like a shepherd,” Bluejay whispered. “It must be a specialized caste that’s responsible for their livestock.”

“Is it a threat?” Fletcher asked, keeping his weapon trained on the thing.

“That depends on how it’s been conditioned to respond to predators,” Bluejay replied. “It doesn’t look like it’s armed, but it might respond violently if it thinks we’re after its herd.”

“Those claws look like weapons enough to me,” Ruza muttered.

“You say conditioned as though the thing has no mind of its own,” Xipa added, making no attempt to hide her displeasure. “Do your kind even think for yourselves?”

“Of course,” Bluejay replied, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. “Jarilans don’t think any differently than you do. We’re not a hive mind. All Betelgeusians are sentient creatures, but they’re a highly specialized species, divided into castes that are purpose-bred for different tasks. I’ve seen it back on Jarilo, in those who were born before the end of the war. They’re perfectly intelligent, but they fixate on their jobs, and they’re not really capable of doing much outside of that. Trying to get them to do anything else just makes them agitated, unhappy. We tried to integrate them, but found that the best solution was just to leave them be.”

“Now isn’t the best time to have this discussion,” Fletcher added impatiently. “I need a yes or a no, Bluejay. If we can avoid confrontation, we should. We’re not here to play exterminator.”
“It’s going to smell us when we get upwind of it,” Bluejay replied. “I don’t think it’ll chase us if we leave its herd alone, though. No.”

“Alright, keep moving,” Fletcher said as he rose from his knee. “Stay alert until we’re out of sight of that thing.”

“We’re just going to leave it be?” Xipa hissed. “It’s a Bug.”

“It’s not a threat,” Fletcher repeated. “Our job is to go find the source of that signal. If you wanted to go Bug hunting, you joined the wrong outfit.”

She held her tongue, lowering her weapon.

“Fine. I suppose that it is only a stay of execution…”

They moved on, keeping the towering creature in sight as they quietly slipped away into the forest.

***

“You don’t talk much, Ruza,” Fletcher said as they walked through the knee-high undergrowth.

“What would I talk about?” the Borealan grumbled, clearly unamused by his prodding.

“It’s not like there’s anything else to do out here,” Fletcher continued, hopping over an exposed root. “Not unless you like really short games of I-Spy.”

“I am not interested in making small talk,” he added, Xipa watching their exchange from her perch on Gustave’s shoulder.

“I just want to know what makes a Rask go it alone,” Fletcher said, refusing to drop the subject. “I’ve served with Borealans before, and you guys are all about the pack system. You won’t even sneeze without your Alpha’s express permission.”

“How do these packs work?” Xipa asked.

“Each pack is led by an Alpha, who’s the meanest one of the bunch,” Fletcher explained. “Everyone has to do what he says with military precision, or they’re liable to get clawed up. They decide who sits in the big chair through fights where they just beat the shit out of each other until one of them gives in.”

“That sounds barbaric,” Xipa added with a grimace.

“That is because Fletcher did a poor job of explaining it,” Ruza sighed. “Yes, dominance bouts decide who holds the position of Alpha, though those who are abusive or fail in their duties to protect the interests of their charges are quickly ousted.”

“You can’t think very much of packs if you’re not in one,” Fletcher said, Ruza’s round ears twitching with what might be irritation. Despite their reputation for having short tempers, Xipa didn’t get the impression that the Rask was angry. It was something closer to weariness, as though the subject matter made him profoundly tired.

“I left my pack because they made poor decisions on my behalf,” he finally replied. “My Alpha, my Crewmaster, and my Matriarch failed in their duties. They made me do things that I knew were wrong, and I obeyed out of loyalty and fear. I suffered the consequences. My kin say that I am disturbed, insane, but I make my own choices now.”

“Insane seems like a stretch,” Bluejay interjected as he walked at the rear of their group. “Are loners so rare on Borealis?”

“You misunderstand,” Ruza continued, the way that he rolled his Rs making it sound like he was growling. “To reject the pack is to reject the hierarchy, to reject all social order. The human equivalent might be one who sequesters himself alone in the wilds, a hermit. There is no place in Borealan society for one such as I.”

“You seem to have exchanged one hierarchy for another if you signed up to be an auxiliary,” Fletcher added. “How is taking orders from a squad commander any different from taking them from an Alpha?”

“I am not an auxiliary,” Ruza replied, gesturing to one of the patches that were sewn onto his leather jacket. There were three characters there, though Xipa couldn’t read Earth’nay script. “I am a private military contractor – I serve neither the Matriarchy nor the Coalition. I decide when and where I work and who I take orders from.”

“So, you’re a merc?” Fletcher asked, appraising the feline with a new appreciation. “That’s one way to get off-planet, I suppose. You must know Vos, right? Don’t see how you’d end up here if you didn’t. I met him through his dealings with my old SWAR team.”

“Indeed,” Ruza replied. “He supported the new Matriarch’s bid to create mercenary companies from what was left of the territory’s forces after the conflict. My application must have caught his eye.”

“I can see that,” Fletcher said with a nod. “A lone Rask trying to register as a mercenary would get anyone’s attention. Especially one with your unique skillset. Rask are usually the ones causing the injuries, not fixing them.”

“After the rebellion was quelled, I took an interest in medicine. We needed more doctors, not more warriors. The Coalition was providing relief and funding training programs for doctors, farmers, and engineers. My instructors recognized my aptitude, and I was trained in human medicine.”

“That doesn’t explain why you ditched the whole concept of packs. Was it just the outcome of the rebellion or something more specific?”

“If it’s not too personal,” Bluejay added, giving Fletcher a pointed look.

“It took us this long to get him talking, he might as well finish the story,” the Earth’nay complained as he threw up his hands.

“I do not like these probing questions,” Ruza muttered, falling silent again. Fletcher scowled at Bluejay as though it were his fault, the insect giving him an apologetic shrug in response. The more time she spent with these creatures, the more Xipa was starting to learn their body language, the individual quirks and expressions of their species. Once, she would have said that no creature could possibly express itself without the aid of feathers to signal their emotional state, but these disadvantaged aliens found other, albeit less direct ways to convey what they were feeling.

As they pressed on, the forest began to darken, Xipa glancing up through the canopy to see a black crescent creeping across the gas giant’s glowing face. Night was coming, or at least, the closest thing to night on Kerguela. There would still be enough light to see by from the ceaseless auroras.

After a couple more hours, it got to the point that Fletcher put on his helmet, tapping at the touch panel by his temple as he walked along.

“It’s getting pretty dark,” he grumbled. “Full-moon dark, but dark enough to twist an ankle. Gonna switch on my night vision.”

“I often forget that humans see so poorly in the dark,” Ruza said, his own eyes glinting in the glow of the auroras like a pair of golden coins. His previously thin pupils had dilated wide to let in as much light as possible.

“We make up for it by being technological geniuses,” Fletcher replied, turning to glance up at the Rask. “The cameras on this puppy make everything as bright as day. You look just as radiant in neon green.”

Ruza rolled his eyes, continuing on through the trees. Xipa reached for her own helmet, slotting her feather sheaths into it as she slid it over her head. She suspected that her vision was better than the Earth’nay’s, but it was getting harder to see, especially in the shadow of the trees. Bluejay and Gustave seemed indifferent to the changing light conditions.

“Yeah, that shepherd definitely isn’t tailing us,” the insect announced. “It’s been a good couple of hours, and the wind has changed direction. I’d have smelled her by now.”

“Her?” Xipa asked skeptically.

“She was female,” he replied, as though it should have been obvious. “Pretty much all Bugs are.”

“But you are male?”

“Last time I checked,” he chuckled. “Winged males would usually make up the Queen’s entourage in the hive. They guard her, reproduce with her. Now, we’re just like anybody else. Except for the wings, that is. That’s why we make such good scouts.”

“Hey, guys?” Fletcher suddenly called out. “What the fuck is that?”

Bluejay hurried over to where he was standing, pointing up into one of the trees. As Gustave made his way over to join them, Xipa caught sight of it too, some kind of fine mesh that was draped over the high branches near the canopy. It looked like fine, white strands, blowing gently in the wind.

The insect popped open his wing covers, rising up into the air, one of the branches creaking under his weight as he landed on it deftly. He reached out to touch the substance, which clung to his hand as he pulled away, sticking to him stubbornly.

“It’s sticky,” he called down to them. “Some kind of…organic fiber, I think. I’m not picking up any pheromones.”

“Please don’t tell me there are giant spiders out here,” Fletcher sighed, directing his inquiry at Xipa.

“I don’t know what a spider is, but I know of no animal that produces such fibers,” she replied. “That said, we had not come close to mapping the planet and cataloging all of its native species. I suppose it could be the product of some unknown creature, but assuming that the insects are responsible is a safer bet.”

“Bluejay, stay on the ground for the time being,” Fletcher ordered as he fiddled with the scope on his rifle. “You’re our canary.”

“Like in a mineshaft?” he asked skeptically, hopping down from the branch. He tried to wipe the sticky substance off his hand on the trunk of the tree, but that only resulted in moss and debris sticking to it. “Aren’t those sacrificial?”

“Just keep watch for pheromones,” Fletcher replied, giving Bluejay a pat on the back that the insect didn’t seem to appreciate.

They carried on, the eclipse making the forest darker with each hour that passed. The glow of the auroras above painted the landscape in wavering greens and purples, making everything look like a painting in motion. It was oddly peaceful. In the absence of any sign of the creature that might have left the sticky strands, they decided to stop and make camp to eat. The team rested in the roots of one of the larger trees, Gustave lying down his belly as he tended to do, Xipa locking her legs as she searched for a protein bar in her pack. Bluejay remained alert, standing guard like a sentry, his feathery antennae waving in the breeze as he kept watch.

Once again, the scent of roasting meat set her mouth watering, Xipa sparing a jealous glance at Ruza as he cooked over his portable stove. The bright flame from the gel illuminated the surrounding area, not quite as strong as a campfire, but casting the faces of her companions in flickering orange all the same.

“What have you got this time, Doc?” Fletcher asked as he tore open another MRE packet. “Smells good.”

“Beef,” he replied, extending an unexpectedly long tongue to wet his lips. It looked prehensile, covered in tiny, sharp barbs. “I did not think that I would enjoy alien dishes, but the Earth meats they feed us in these MREs always lighten my mood.”

“What do Rask usually eat?” Bluejay asked. “I imagine you’re a little more expensive to feed than we are.”

“Meat, fish, and gourds make up the bulk of our diet,” Ruza replied as he reached into the packet with a fork to stir its contents. “Some grains, also. Little grows in the Rask territory, and our lake leaves much to be desired. Some regions are famous for their livestock, however. I ate well when I served the Matriarchy, but not all Rask could say the same under her rule. The banquet table was laden with meat soaked in dripping oils, salted fish appropriated from trade caravans, and the finest Raises the Hair from Elysia’s wineries.”

“Doesn’t sound all that bad,” Fletcher added, blowing on a steaming spoonful of food.

“For the Matriarch’s chosen warriors, no,” he replied. “But the common pack could scarcely sate their hunger. She drained the palace’s vaults to buy elaborate weapons rather than using it to import more food.”

“Are your people faring any better after the rebellion?” Bluejay added, turning to glance at Ruza. “You said that the Coalition was providing aid?”

“Yes, much,” he replied as he lifted his meal from the stove. He fished inside it, spearing a chunk of meat the size of Xipa’s fist on his fork, chewing on it contentedly. “The newly-appointed Matriarch, Korbaz, cares more for the prosperity of her people. Some whisper that she is merely a puppet of the UNN, installed only to keep the Rask people under their boot, but I do not share these doubts. She has cut many deals with the Coalition, and their technology has allowed farms to flourish where no crops could grow before. I saw many of your kind last I was there,” he added, gesturing to Xipa with his fork. “They were overseeing farming operations and setting up machines that could draw moisture from the air.”

“Sounds like irrigation technology for desert environments,” she mused, taking a dispassionate bite of her protein bar.

Ruza suddenly stopped chewing abruptly, turning his eyes to the forest beyond. One of his round, furry ears swiveled, twitching as he listened intently.

“I thought I heard-”

Something bounced off the side of Fletcher’s helmet with enough force to give him whiplash, ringing it like a bell, the Marine letting out a yell of surprise as he reached up to grab his head.

“What the fuck was that!?”

“Something’s firing on us!” Bluejay shouted, darting for cover.

Before Xipa could even reach for her gun, an explosion rang out, knocking her off her feet. She was vaguely aware of the sensation of shrapnel hitting the layer of armor beneath her suit, her ears ringing as she fell snout-first into the dead leaves. As she rolled over, scrambling to her feet, she saw that Gustave had been hit. Smoke was rising from a burn mark on his poncho, the armored panels on his sleeve charred. He seemed none the worse for wear, loosing an intimidating rumble as he rose from his prone position.

“Take cover!” Fletcher ordered, leaning out from behind the nearest tree. Ruza reached down to grab Xipa, hoisting her light frame beneath his arm as he rushed to get out of the line of fire. There was another explosion nearby, narrowly missing them as it took out a chunk of the tree trunk ahead of them. They weren’t grenades – maybe some kind of explosive round?

A moment later, she felt the ground beneath her feet, Ruza depositing her on the forest floor before shouldering his immense rifle.

“Are you hurt?” he demanded in that gruff voice, Xipa putting on her helmet with shaking hands.

“N-no, I don’t think so.” She pulled her XMR from her back, disengaging the safety. Memories of the battle at the spaceport flashed in her mind with alarming clarity, so raw that she could almost smell the burning flesh, but she willed herself to keep her cool. In her fantasies, she had imagined herself leading an army to retake Kerguela, but the reality of being under fire again made her legs turn to jelly. “What is firing on us?”

“Can’t see shit!” Fletcher grumbled over the radio. “Night vision, thermals – I got nothing. Bluejay! You got anything on smell-o-vision?”

“I don’t sense anything!” he replied, Xipa spotting his IFF tag hovering over his head maybe twenty meters away. He was taking refuge behind a tree, bracing his weapon against the rough bark as he peeked out. His helmet was off, his long antennae waving.

Gustave was standing out in the open, raising his heavy chaingun, the triple railgun barrels starting to spool up with a mechanical whine. He planted his feet in the shrubs, protecting himself with the heavy plates of ceramic armor on his left arm. Another explosion echoed through the forest, this one impacting his shield. It sent out a puff of smoke and a burst of shrapnel that shredded the nearby plants, Gustave weathering the blow, turning the spinning barrel of his cannon towards the source of the shot.

His loud bellow was audible even over the sound of his weapon as he began to fire, Xipa watching the belt of tungsten slugs start to feed from the barrel on his back, her helmet muffling the series of deafening cracks. The fire rate wasn’t as high as she had imagined, but it still dwarfed any railgun that she had seen. The steady crack-crack-crack of its projectiles shattering the sound barrier was like a hundred hammers hitting anvils in quick succession. Trails of partially-melted metal painted red-hot streaks as they lanced out into the darkness, the glow of the magnetic coils joining them. He swung the weapon around in a wide arc, creating a cone of destruction ahead of him, the forest erupting into chaos.

The hypervelocity slugs tore through the trees like they were made of paper, digging craters in their trunks, sending vicious sprays of splinters tearing into the surrounding foliage like shrapnel. Some of the smaller trees were felled, sent crashing to the ground, the sound of cracking wood rising over the cacophony of gunfire. Branches fell from the canopy, dry leaves catching fire, the weapon cutting through the forest like a saw.

He finally let up, probably to save his barrels from melting, bellowing another challenge that Xipa could feel resonate in her hollow bones. She had never seen anything like it – the beast was like an ancient Valbara’nay war deity given form.

“Guess that’s why they call them walking pillboxes,” Fletcher muttered. He swung out from behind the tree, his rifle shouldered, scanning the ruined forest ahead of them. “Still nothing. You reckon you got them, Gus?”

Before the Krell’nay could reply, another projectile impacted his right shoulder, this one punching through the tough material of his poncho. He loosed a bellow of pain, taking a faltering step backwards, his long tail sweeping through the fallen leaves. This one didn’t explode, but it seemed to have done some damage, the lumbering reptile starting to fire again as he moved to the cover of a nearby tree. Yet another shot hit his armored sleeve, this one creating a shower of bright sparks rather than exploding, a loud whizzing sound filling the air as it was deflected.

Armor piercing!” Gustave warned, his reverberating tones translated into stilted speech.

“Fuck!” Fletcher growled, putting his back to his tree. “Stay in cover until we can figure out where these fuckers are firing from!”

“No pheromones, no body heat, suppressed weapons,” Bluejay muttered. “What are we dealing with here?”
“Gustave!” Ruza called out, his voice almost as loud as the reptile’s. “Are you injured?”

The insect stings but does not kill,” he replied, Xipa watching as blood dripped down the front of his poncho. To her surprise, it was a bright blue in color.

“They’re not firing plasma,” Fletcher added. “We need to get a bead on these bastards before they flank us.”

“They cannot be too far away,” Ruza added. “Their line of sight would be obstructed by the trees.”

“How many do you reckon?” Fletcher replied. “Two or three – a sniper and a spotter, maybe? A squad of Drones would have been all over us by now.”

Another projectile hit the tree that Ruza and Xipa were hiding behind, carving out a crater on the far side, the surrounding shrubs rustling as they were hit by the shower of splinters. Xipa felt the feline’s heavy hand on her shoulder, so large that his hooked claws almost reached her waist. He put himself in front of her, shielding her with his massive frame.

“Hang on, hang on,” Fletcher warned as he poked his rifle out of cover. He must be using the sights to search for the shooter’s position without exposing himself. Clever. “Picking up a faint heat signature. It’s maybe two hundred meters away, up in the branches.”

Ruza took a moment to secure his own helmet, tapping at its controls with the fleshy pad on the end of his finger. He peeked out, peering into the gloom ahead.

“I see it too.”

“Fuck! It moved out of view. Must be behind something solid. We need to rush this fucker before he changes position again!”

“Do you think there are more?” Ruza asked.

“Doesn’t matter, we need to move on him or he’s gonna flank us,” Fletcher replied. “Gustave, get over to Xipa and keep her safe. I want you laying down covering fire to keep him pinned while we move. Ruza, Bluejay, we’re gonna cover him while he repositions, then we’re going to rush the shooter’s position.”

“What about me?” Xipa protested. “I can help!”
“Negative, you’re our VIP. The only order Vos gave me was to keep you alive.”

Xipa’s suit panels flashed red with a blend of indignation and frustration. She wanted to argue, but now wasn’t the time, and she had told the Admiral that she would do as Fletcher asked.

“Ready?” Fletcher yelled, Gustave uttering a low rumble in response. “Open fire!”

Xipa had to fight the urge to cover her ears reflexively, her helmet dampening the noise as Ruza leaned out of cover to fire his rifle. It was six feet long, the barrel lined with dense magnetic coils, the recoil rocking it back into his shoulder as he fired it in semi-auto. How powerful was that rifle if even one as large as him could barely keep it under control?

Bluejay and Fletcher did the same, their slugs cutting through the trees, spraying the forest at random to force their assailant into cover. Gustave began to lumber towards her position, keeping his massive head low for all the good it would do him, able to move surprisingly quickly for one so heavy. He skidded to a stop beside her in the leaves, raising his shield arm, his bulk coming between her and the sniper.

“As soon as Gustave opens up, we move!” Fletcher ordered. Xipa remembered the chaos of the battle at the spaceport, how confused everyone had been. How could Fletcher remain so focused? Was his heart made of steel, just like his limbs?

The Krell snapped his jaws in what might be anticipation, then leaned out from behind the tree to expose the left side of his body. Immediately, another armor-piercing round slammed into his shield, bright sparks spraying as it was deflected with a sound like a steel drum being struck with a hammer. The barrels of his unwieldy cannon began to spin up, another stream of gunfire spewing out into the forest, eviscerating tree trunks and shrubs alike.

“Go!” Fletcher shouted over the radio, Xipa peeking past Gustave to watch the Earth’nay rush out of cover. Ruza followed, the giant feline crossing the distance quickly on his long legs, his claws digging into the ground for purchase in the low gravity. Bluejay joined them, the three men keeping their heads down, only inches away from the molten projectiles that zipped over their heads.

Gustave let up as they neared their destination, the three of them slowing to a jog, readying their weapons as they advanced. They swept the barrels back and forth, searching the darkness for any sign of their quarry, Bluejay’s antennae waving frantically. Xipa used the zoom function on her visor to get a closer look, scanning the different spectrums.

From the branches of one of the trees, its trunk pocked with charred craters, something slid into view. It was directly above them, nigh impossible for them to see.

“Above you!” she shouted, but too late.

A long, organic barrel caught the light as it pointed down at them, the sharp bayonet mounted above it glinting. The flesh-like resin was colored in autumn hues, and it seemed to be wrapped in a layer of the sticky webbing that they had encountered earlier. Dead leaves and foliage clung to it, camouflaging it against the canopy, the weapon only distinguishable from a branch by its measured and deliberate motion.

It fired, emitting no sound that Xipa could hear, a projectile lancing down towards Ruza. Like a timed explosive, it erupted only a foot away from the Rask’s head, Ruza’s yellow eyes widening as he swung his rifle up towards the shooter. Rather than shrapnel or plasma, a net made from the same sticky, shimmering filaments extended. Momentum carried it forward, draping it over Ruza’s frame, causing his return fire to stray wide. As he fought to get free of it, it only clung to him more tightly, the tough threads tangling around his limbs.

Bluejay loosed a burst of gunfire into the trees, but the creature was already moving. Whatever it was, it was fast – Xipa catching only a blur of motion as it leapt from branch to branch. Bluejay tried to follow it, sweeping his XMR through the canopy, but quickly lost sight of it.

“Where the fuck is it?” Fletcher demanded, a flashlight beam projecting from an attachment beneath his barrel. He scanned the leaves, moving from tree to tree, but couldn’t find anything.

“Get this thing off me!” Ruza snarled, trying to tear apart the web. It was too strong, resisting even his attempts. His rifle was pressed tightly against his chest, his arms trapped such that he couldn’t aim it.

“Don’t touch it!” Bluejay warned as Fletcher moved to assist. “It’ll stick to you, too!”

There was another rustle from the branches above, Bluejay and Fletcher moving closer together, standing back to back as they aimed their weapons towards the canopy.

“We have to help them!” Xipa hissed. Gustave hesitated, sharing her sentiment, but unwilling to leave Xipa’s side. Instead, he aimed his cannon, firing another long burst into the trees. It forced the thing to move, Xipa catching a heat signature on her visor.

“I see it!” she yelled. “The more it moves, the hotter it gets!”

“Contact!” Fletcher added, firing up into the branches. Bluejay joined him, the two coordinating their bursts. Finally, something came crashing down, broken branches tumbling to the forest floor along with it. In a blur of movement that Xipa’s eyes could scarcely track, it burst out from beneath the dead leaves, sending them swirling into the air. It went for Ruza first, the Borealan snarling like a beast as it crashed into him, sending him toppling to the ground. He only became more tangled, taken out of the fight, but not injured.

I cannot fire,” Gustave growled, keeping his cannon trained on it all the same. “Risk of killing our circle!

The creature turned to face Bluejay and Fletcher as it stood over their comrade, Xipa finally able to get a good look at it. It was six or seven feet tall, its proportions that of a Drone that had been stretched, its limbs long and spindly. Its powerful legs made up half of that height, ending in three toes with hooked claws that seemed designed for gripping branches. Its helmet sported what looked like a rebreather, the organic armor indistinguishable from its natural carapace, segmented cables trailing down into its chest. It sported a pair of massive, compound eyes, along with smaller lenses that were spaced out all over its helmet. The spiky plates of its shell were patterned with camouflage that matched the forest around it, but there was more to it than that. Strands of the sticky webbing were wrapped around its body, almost as though it had fallen victim to one of its own nets. It was covered in leaves and twigs, pieces of foliage that had clung to the gluey fibers as it had moved through the canopy, tiny pieces of moss and fragments of bark adding to the illusion. No wonder they hadn’t been able to see the thing…

Clutched in its four hands was the rifle that she had glimpsed. It was huge, a hybrid of organic parts and alien machinery that she couldn’t begin to make sense of. It had eyes, just like its wielder, compound lenses and ugly sensory organs jutting from where a sane person might have mounted a scope. As the insect passed off the weapon to its lower pair of arms, her eyes were drawn to the upper pair. Jutting from its wrists were long, painted blades covered in wicked barbs, sweeping back to interlock with its spiked forearms like the jaws of a monster. It looked like a modified finger, long and hard, the chitin as sharp as a razor. It extended these blades like scythes, squaring off against Bluejay and Fletcher.

They raised their weapons, but the Bug was faster, firing its rifle from the hip as it darted away again. Another of those explosive projectiles detonated with a crack, sending a net sailing towards Fletcher. He was already trying to dodge out of its path, but he wasn’t faster than a bullet, the spreading strands catching him. It hadn’t had much time to expand at such close range, but it was wide enough to cover his torso, the impact knocking him back against a tree trunk. It glued him to the bark, a follow-up shot pinning his weapon hand.

With both Fletcher and Ruza immobilized, the thing turned its attention to Bluejay. He sprayed at it with his XMR, but it darted behind a tree, his slugs digging into the bark. It scaled the far side of the trunk with alarming ease, then leapt from the high branches, taking him by surprise. He couldn’t raise his weapon in time, and it was knocked from his hands with a vicious swipe from those scythe-like blades, sent bouncing across the forest floor. Bluejay drew a combat knife from his belt with one of his lower arms, plunging it into the creature’s side with surprising speed, but a swift kick to his thorax sent him crashing to the ground. The thing was on him before he could react, gripping his face in its clawed foot, pressing him into the dirt as it raised one of those wicked blades high above its head.

Xipa aimed her XMR, the targeting reticle hovering over its torso, but she couldn’t risk a shot with Fletcher directly behind it. The weapon told her as much, flashing a friendly fire warning on her HUD. Gustave was starting to move now, a sudden burst of speed catapulting him forward, but even he might not close the distance in time.

Through her scope, she saw that Fletcher was moving, raising the arm that was still free of the webbing. As he snapped back his prosthetic hand at an unnatural angle, a six-inch, serrated blade erupted from his wrist. He used it to slice through the fibers, their elasticity giving him trouble, but its edge was sharp enough to cut them. When his bonds were weak enough, he tore away from the tree, his prosthetic limbs straining to the point that they looked like they might snap right off his body.

The Bug took notice, turning its compound eyes on him, raising its rifle. Before it could get off a shot, Bluejay reached up to grab the barrel with his four hands, pulling it away. The two struggled from a moment as the creature attempted to tear it from his grasp, but the stickiness of the fibers that were wound around its barrel prevented it. Clicking its scythes against its forearms in what might be irritation, it released the weapon. Bluejay couldn’t fire it, not with all four of his hands glued to its barrel. He was as good as immobilized.

Fletcher reached for his sidearm with practiced speed, but the insect was faster, closing the gap between them before he could even get it out of its holster. It brought down one of its wicked scythes, the chitin blade whistling through the air, the speed and momentum of the strike enough to cleave the Earth’nay in half. There was a sound of wrenching metal, and when the dust cleared, the insect had been stopped in its tracks. Fletcher had raised his arm to protect himself, and the insect’s blade had bitten into the metal and polymer. The two strained against each other, a contest of muscle and machinery, the insect seeming surprised by the obstacle. If Fletcher’s forearm had been flesh and blood, it would likely have been severed, and that sharp blade would have been driven into his neck.

Fletcher pushed the insect back, his adversary having to wrench its arm free, the sharp barbs stuck in the polymer housing of his limb. He tore off his tattered sleeve, exposing the shining metal, taking up a defensive posture with his fists raised. The concealed blade still protruded from his wrist, its edge glinting in the light from the auroras. As Xipa watched, it began to extend, sliding out of its housing until it was near the same length as his forearm.

The creature gave him no time to breathe, lunging again, sweeping its scythe in a wide arc. Fletcher swung his blade with more strength than an unaugmented person could have mustered, the steel edge biting into the chitin. The tempered metal won out, severing the insect’s limb near the joint, the thing recoiling as pus-colored ichor spewed from the wound. It skipped back a few paces, maimed but undeterred. It might not even be capable of experiencing fear or doubt.

The two began to circle one another, Fletcher juking from side to side, his fists clenched. He darted in to deliver a swift punch to the thing’s face, his prosthetic limbs moving like they were spring-loaded, carrying enough force to crack one of the creature’s compound visors. The insect reeled under the blow, the speed and ferocity taking it by surprise. He took advantage of its temporary confusion to drive his blade towards its torso, his opponent reacting quickly as it moved its lower arms to grip his wrist, but it lacked the leverage to stop him. The blade slipped between the segmented plates of its midsection, the steel sinking a good few inches into wet meat. His triumph was short-lived, however. Rather than collapsing, the insect threw him back, lifting him off the ground with a swipe from the flat of its remaining scythe. He landed in the leaves a few feet away, his assailant raising its chitinous blade as it rushed over to finish him off. Fletcher reached for his sidearm again, but the thing was faster than he was, its scythe cutting through the air.

Gustave came barreling in from their left, slamming into the distracted insect like an out-of-control mag-lev car. He lifted it off its feet, carrying the helpless creature with him, careening into a nearby tree. Its branches shook as the Krell’nay crushed the Bug between his bulk and the trunk, Xipa hearing the crash from where she was standing, the crack of splintering wood joined by a wet squelch. As fallen leaves and twigs rained down on him, Gustave took a step back, the limp body of the thing glued to the tree by the sticky strands that were wound around its thorax. It had been pulverized, its carapace shattered, fluids and organs bulging between its cracked plates. Gustave snapped a few of the strands that were clinging to his shoulder with a wave of his powerful arm, then turned to Fletcher, cocking his massive head.

You are hurt?” he asked in his rumbling speech.

Fletcher struggled to his feet, rolling his shoulders.

“Nah, I’m alright. Thanks to you,” he added, glancing at the squashed Bug. “Always nice to have a Krell on call.”

“Will one of you please free me from this net?” Ruza growled, still struggling on the ground. He was covered in a blanket of leaves, twigs, and dirt that had stuck to the strands.

“My knife seemed to do the job,” Fletcher replied, making his way over to the feline. “Let me handle it.”

He knelt beside Ruza in the leaves, retracting the long blade until only a couple of inches were still exposed. Carefully, he began to slice the sticky fibers, freeing him by the time Xipa had jogged over to join them.

“Are you all alright?” she panted, locking her legs as she caught her breath.

“We all seem to be in one piece,” Fletcher replied, trying to shake one of the strands off his knife. “Bluejay, you alive?”

The insect climbed to his feet, his four hands still firmly glued to the barrel of the strange rifle.

“I’m alright. Better than that guy, at least,” he muttered as he nodded in the direction of the ruined Bug. Fletcher walked over to him, Bluejay extending his arms, letting him cut away the fibers that bound his hands.

“Didn’t you just get done telling me how weaponizing prosthetics is illegal?” Xipa asked, watching him as he helped Bluejay peel away one of his hands.

“Only illegal if you get caught,” he replied with a grin. He succeeded in freeing Bluejay, who passed off the organic rifle to him, Fletcher holding it by the grips gingerly. “What the fuck is this thing?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bluejay replied, struggling with a clump of webbing that was gluing two of his fingers together. “It has organic components – high-end biotech. It seems to be able to switch ammo types on the fly. Chemical propellant of some kind, I’m guessing.”

“It has eyes,” Fletcher muttered, grimacing at the thing. “It’s heavier than it looks, too.”

“We’d better just leave it,” Bluejay warned. “It won’t be any use to us unless we can interface with its optical nerves, and we don’t have the right sockets. Trust me.”

“You talk like you’re familiar with this kind of shit,” Fletcher added, glancing up from the alien weapon.

“We call it wetware,” he replied. “We use a lot of biotech on Jarilo, usually small, genetically-engineered organisms that serve as microcomputers or which bridge mechanical and biological systems. We don’t use controls to drive our vehicles, we hook them into our nervous systems. Organic eyes for targeting, pheromone-sensing switches, self-moderating circuit breakers – you name it.”

“Why did you not sense the creature?” Xipa demanded, interrupting their conversation. “Is that not the reason you were assigned to the team – to warn us of such things?”

Fletcher gave him a look of unspoken agreement, Ruza glancing over at him as he struggled to clean the glue from his fur. If Bluejay was offended by the accusation of not doing his job properly, he didn’t show it, merely walking over to the crushed Bug. It was still stuck to the trunk of the tree, its guts and fluids seeping down to the forest floor below, painting the cracked bark. Now that she could get a closer look, the damage that had been done by the two-thousand-pound Krell was catastrophic. It looked like it had been crushed beneath a giant boot.

Bluejay leaned close, his antennae waving, near enough that their feathery tips brushed its shell. He shuddered, pulling away in what might be disgust, his expression difficult to discern.

“Its guts reek, but it’s not putting out any pheromones,” he explained. He appeared to steel himself, turning back to it. If the scene was gruesome for a vertebrate, what must the insect feel, seeing one of his own in such a state? “It’s like it’s mute,” he continued, examining it again. “I’m guessing this caste was purpose-engineered for stealth. It doesn’t put out any pheromones because they would give away its position in the event that a hostile hive invaded the planet. Or, y’know, we did,” he added with a shrug. “It’s an odd adaptation. This thing worked alone, probably lived alone. I’m not sure if it would even be able to communicate with other Bugs.”

“So, what?” Fletcher asked as he took a few steps closer. “They just send a bunch of these things out into the wild to act as…biological trip mines?”

“Maybe,” Bluejay replied with a nod. “We need to keep an eye out for more of them.”

“Look at this,” Fletcher added, prodding at the creature’s broken shell with the tip of his blade. “These look like spinnerets from the arse-end of a spider. They’re all over it. This must be how it secretes that webbing. It covers itself in those sticky filaments, then it rolls around in the undergrowth until it’s perfectly camouflaged. It can make its own ghillie suit that matches whatever environment it’s in.”

“We know how it evaded Bluejay’s nose,” Ruza said, walking up behind them as he nursed a bald patch on his forearm where the webbing had torn out his fur. “But how did it defeat the thermal imaging?”

“It heated up as it moved,” Xipa said, joining in on the conversation. “I saw it on my visor.”

“Maybe it’s metabolic, then,” Bluejay mused. “That makes a lot of sense, actually. When Bugs travel between planets on hive ships, they enter a low metabolic state to conserve as much energy as possible. Their bodily functions slow to the point that they’re practically dead. If this thing is expected to stay out in the wilderness on its own until it encounters a target, maybe it can enter a similar state of suspended animation. That would lower its body temperature until it’s practically the same as its surroundings.”

“Fucking hell,” Fletcher mumbled as he glanced up at the trees warily. “We could walk right underneath one and never notice it.” He reached out to give Bluejay a pat on the shoulder. “Thanks, by the way. If you hadn’t grabbed that thing’s rifle when you did, it would probably have put an AP round straight through my visor.”

“Don’t mention it,” he replied, the praise taking him off-guard. “We’re just lucky it didn’t open with that, or you’d be missing your head right now.”

“Bounced right off my helmet,” Fletcher chuckled, reaching up to rap his knuckles against it.

Xipa watched their interaction curiously, her heart still racing, the adrenaline rush wearing off now to leave her drained. How were they so jovial after such a close brush with death? They had barely come out on top. If the events of the fight had played out even a little differently, they would all be dead. Was combat really so routine to them that they thought nothing of it?
“Come,” Ruza demanded, beckoning to Gustave. “Let me tend to your wound, large one.”

Bug bite,” the Krell’nay rumbled, but he lumbered closer all the same. He set down his monstrous cannon on the ground beside him, then lifted up his poncho, exposing the bullet wound in his shoulder. The blue blood had already stopped flowing, and Xipa could see where the projectile had broken through his scales. It must have been carrying a lot of energy if it had punched through the armor, but not nearly as much as a railgun, thankfully.

“It did not penetrate deep,” Ruza said as he touched a padded finger to the scales beside the wound. “The armor and your thick hide saw to that. Still, it will be necessary to retrieve the bullet, and to flush the wound of any foreign bodies that it might have carried with it. How averse are you to moderate pain?”

The Krell’nay’s only reply was an intimidating rumble that wasn’t translated into speech.

“Very well,” Ruza replied. “No local anesthetic, then.”

They walked back over to their small camp, Bluejay pausing to retrieve his knife along the way. Fletcher resumed his meal as though nothing had happened, examining the furrows on his polymer forearm that the Bug had carved with its scythe, grumbling to himself as he traced with a fingertip.

“Fucking things aren’t cheap…”

Xipa had lost her appetite, so she stood and watched Ruza instead, the feline tending to Gustave’s bullet wound. He opened one of the many pouches on his chest carrier, pulling out a pair of long, latex gloves. He slid them over his hands, then pulled them higher, all the way to his rolled-up sleeves. They covered his furry forearms, likely so that no strands of his sandy hair contaminated the wounds he was treating. Before she had a chance to wonder how his razor claws didn’t pierce the material, she saw that there were small, rubber pads at the end of each finger.

Next, he reached into another of his pouches, producing a sealed plastic packet that contained a pair of metal tweezers. There was also a sprue with a dozen small vials of clear fluid, the Rask twisting one of them off. He raised it to Gustave’s shoulder, giving the container a gentle squeeze as he held it between his finger and thumb, squirting it into the wound. He used the rest to wash away the drying blood on the surrounding scales.

“This is just sterile water,” he explained, peeling open the packet that contained the tweezers. “I must dig out the projectile. This will be painful.”

Gustave stood firm as Ruza pushed the metal prongs into the wound, Xipa feeling a shudder roll down her spine as she watched them sink deeper. They provoked a fresh flow of azure blood, which Ruza was quick to wash away, keeping the area clean.

“Found it,” he muttered, changing his angle a little. Gustave loosed a low rumble of pain, but kept remarkably still. Judging by the old scars and burn marks that pocked his leathery hide, this was far from the first time he had undergone surgery in the field.

Ruza began to withdraw the tweezers, gripping an object between them. It looked like a sharp piece of metal, covered in blue blood, its pointed nose flattened and deformed by the impact. The feline reached out to pinch something between the rubber pads on the ends of his claws, peeling away a tiny piece of fabric that was stuck to the end of the bullet.

“I have it,” he said, seeming pleased with himself. “I think all of the kevlar is here. Just try not to get shot in the same place again, or it will go straight through you this time.”

He tossed the bullet aside along with the tweezers, presumably because they couldn’t be reused, then reached for a holster on his belt. He withdrew some kind of canister that was painted white with a green cross symbol emblazoned on the side, then raised it to Gustave’s shoulder.

“This will hurt more,” he warned, then pressed its conical nozzle into the hole. He squeezed the handle, Gustave uttering another pained growl, Xipa watching curiously as some kind of white foam began to pour from it. When the wound channel was full, he drew back, putting the canister away. Finally, he produced a square-shaped patch of adhesive and slapped it over the area.

“What was in that canister?” Xipa asked.

“Antiseptic foam,” he replied. “It will seal the wound and combat any bacterial infections. Not that a Krell needs any help in that department – their immune system is very highly evolved.”

“Why is the blood blue?” she continued, watching as Gustave rolled his injured shoulder experimentally.

“Hemocyanin,” Ruza explained. “Our blood is red because of an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin that transports oxygen to our organs and tissues. The Krell have evolved to use a different method. They have no blood cells. Instead, oxygen is carried using proteins suspended in hemolymph. They’re copper-based, rather than iron, which makes them look blue when they are oxygenated.”
“Are there benefits to that?” she wondered, watching the Krell’nay replace his poncho.

“Krell are ectotherms,” Ruza continued. “It means that they cannot regulate their own body temperature as we do. They must bask if they wish to warm themselves, or enter water or shade to cool down. They have slow metabolisms, too, which is why Gustave does not eat with us. As for the benefits, well…”

He gestured to the giant reptile, who peered back at them with his expressionless, scaly face.

“I suppose the benefits are obvious,” she conceded.

“Built like a tank, and the about the size of one,” Fletcher added. “They say nobody has ever seen one die of old age.”

“The Krell are an archaic species, very highly adapted to their native environment,” Ruza continued. “They have likely remained practically unchanged for longer than our species have existed in any recognizable state.”

“I’ve never heard a Rask talk like a biology professor before,” Fletcher chuckled, Ruza shooting him an exasperated look. “No wonder you caught Vos’s eye.”

“My people are not stupid,” he grumbled. “The problem is a lack of access to education, which is now being remedied. Twenty years ago, the Borealans had no idea that there were worlds other than their own. They knew nothing of superlight and Coalitions and interstellar wars.”

“Now look at you!” Fletcher replied, gesturing to him in a way that came off more than a little facetious. “Doctor Ruza, PhD.”

Ruza peeled off his gloves, then returned to his seat near his collapsible stove. It had been knocked on its side in the commotion, and he set it upright, growling to himself when he saw that the food packet he had been cooking had spilled all over the ground.

“Hey,” Fletcher said, Ruza turning to glance at him. He tossed the Rask another packet, Ruza catching it in his furry hands. “It’s beef ravioli. I know it’s just a snack by your standards, but you said you like beef.”

Ruza tore open the packet, giving it a tentative sniff.

“Thank you,” he said, Fletcher nodding in reply.

“We’ll have to move a little more carefully from here on,” Fletcher added between spoonfuls of his meal. “There’s no way to detect those sniper things until they decide to show themselves. If we haven’t encountered any up to now, maybe they’re not hiding in every other tree, but let’s stay alert.”

“It should be two or three more days until we reach the source of the signal,” Xipa said, checking the display on her wrist.

They ate for a little while longer, then Ruza rose to his feet, stretching his arms above his head.

“I must relieve myself,” he announced, walking off into the trees. Fletcher and Bluejay paid him little mind, making small talk, but Xipa found her eyes following him. He didn’t go far, stopping a short distance from their little camp. He fumbled with something in one of his pouches, keeping his back to his companions, Xipa glimpsing a glint of metal as he raised something to his forearm. It was a needle, Ruza pressing it into his skin, slowly injecting its contents. He waited a minute more before he turned back, Xipa quickly looking away, not wanting him to know that she had seen him.

He returned to his seat on a raised root, leaving Xipa to wonder what he had just injected himself with and why it was something he wanted to keep a secret from the rest of the team.

“Let’s get moving again,” Fletcher finally said, slinging his pack over his shoulder. “The quicker we find the source of that distress signal, the sooner we can be out of this godforsaken forest.”

***

Evan looked into the bathroom mirror, examining his face. Save for a few scratches that had already started to heal, he was in far better shape than he had any right to be. He reached behind his head, brushing his fingertips against the hard polymer that protruded from the back of his neck. It ran most of the way between the base of his skull and his shoulders, the device segmented to prevent it from limiting his range of motion. It was surrounded by scar tissue that was still raw to the touch, making him wince.

Just as the doctors had promised, he had regained all of his faculties. The tingling in his fingers had abated after a little tweaking, and he could almost have pretended that nothing had happened at all if it hadn’t been for the cocktail of painkillers and immuno-suppressants that still coursed through his veins.

He splashed some water on his face, then stepped out of the tiny bathroom and into the temporary quarters that he had been assigned. The room was scarcely larger than a storage closet, with a pair of bunks for him and Hernandez, who was currently out for a checkup on his busted arm. They were scheduled to be transferred to another assault carrier soon, but it would take some time for the members of the hardest-hit companies to be shuffled around. Until then, they would remain on the Rorke.

Evan made his way over to his bunk, the mattress squeaking as he sat down on it. All the downtime was driving him crazy. He wanted to get back down to the surface, he wanted to pay the Bugs back for the attack on the convoy, but there was nothing that he could do to speed the process along. He’d already asked a favor of the Admiral himself during his visit to the infirmary, and he wasn’t about to push his luck by making a stink.

What he needed was a way to take his mind off things. There were recreational facilities on most UNN ships, and they were more elaborate on the larger jump carriers like this one. The problem was, he didn’t know anybody here. It would be weird to go to a bar or a rec facility on his own, and Hernandez probably wouldn’t be back for a while.

He turned to the touch panel on his wrist, scrolling through his list of contacts. Jade had given him her serial number before they had parted ways, which meant that he would be able to contact her if he needed to. She should still be on the carrier. He hesitated with his finger hovering over the call button, then lowered it. After a few moments, he heard her voice crackle through the speakers, deceptively feminine.

“Evan? Hey, what’s up? Let me guess, the Admiral wants to debrief us yet again?”

“Hey,” he replied, feeling a little foolish. Did Jarilans even have a concept of hanging out? “Nah, it’s nothing official. So, I’m pretty much bored out of my mind right now, and I wanted to know if you’d like to go get a drink or play a game of pool or something? You’re the only person I know on the whole carrier save for Hernandez, and he’s getting his arm looked at right now.”

“Oh!” she replied, seeming taken aback by his request. “I mean…sure, I’m not exactly busy right now.”

“Cool,” he replied, relieved. “Meet me outside the infirmary – we both know where that is – then we can go find the bar or something.”

“You got it,” she replied cheerfully. “See you there in…fifteen?”

“Great,” he said, ending the call. He lay back on the bed, staring at the underside of the bunk in the stack above him. Why did this feel more like asking a girl out on a date than seeing if a friend wanted to hang out?

***

Jade was waiting for him outside the infirmary when he arrived, her two pairs of arms crossed as she leaned against the bulkhead adjacent to the door. He noted that she was still wearing her tank top, the white cotton contrasting with her camouflaged shell. It gave her an odd appearance, reminding him of a girl who was wearing her boyfriend’s oversized t-shirt and nothing else. That wasn’t the case, of course. Although she might look naked below the waist, there was organic armor complementing her natural carapace. Besides, he didn’t even know if she had anything to cover up. Her antennae twitched as he approached, Jade glancing up, her eyes seeming to lag behind them.

“Hey,” she said, raising a hand in greeting.

“Looks like your ship didn’t send you a new chest piece yet,” he said, nodding to her top.

“Nah, it has to be made to spec,” she replied. She reached down with her lower arms, gripping the hem of the garment, stretching it as she glanced down. “I don’t mind, though. I kind of like it. This material breathes a lot more than synthetic armor.”

“What do you guys wear when you’re off-duty?” he wondered.

“We don’t really do off-duty,” she said, reaching up to slick back one of her feathery antennae like a human woman might adjust her hair. She smiled, the plates that made up her face shifting. “So, what did you have in mind? I assume you didn’t invite me here just so that you could comment on my fashion choices.”

“Oh, right,” he chuckled. “Yeah, I was thinking we could go get a drink or something. There are bars and rec facilities onboard, at least according to the map I downloaded from the intranet. You guys do drink, right?”

“We can,” she replied cryptically.

“Okay. I just wanted to make sure you’re not going to get alcohol poisoning and keel over like a Borealan if I give you a jello shot.”

“I prefer sweet drinks,” she replied, standing up straight. “Ever had a peach schnapps?”
“Can’t say that I have,” he said with a shrug.

“Good,” she continued, standing up straight. “Then I’ll be able to show you something new.”

They made their way through the winding, claustrophobic guts of the carrier, Evan following the map on his wrist display. There were colored lines painted on the walls to help people navigate, too, but the place was like a maze. He had thought the assault carrier was large, but the Rorke was several times its volume. The ceiling was a mess of insulated cables and trailing pipes, access points for the machinery and electronics that ran behind the bulkheads marked with yellow warning signs. The deck was mostly made up of removable metal grates, with yet more miles of cable and piping running beneath them.

They walked past crew quarters, an expansive mess hall, and even the hangar areas as they made their way through the belly of the ship. Finally, they managed to locate one of the ship’s bars, as there were several spaced out along its half-kilometer length. For a crew of up to ten thousand, that didn’t seem excessive.

After climbing a narrow flight of stairs that led to a higher deck, they arrived at the bar, stepping through the doorway. On the right side of the room was a faux-wood counter, and behind it were rows of shelves lined with dozens of colorful beverage bottles. The glass that protected them made it look more like a vending machine than what one might find at a traditional bar, and that was kind of the point. Rather than having a human bartender sitting behind the counter, this one was staffed by a large mechanical arm. You entered your credit account number, selected the beverage that you wanted from a touch screen, and then the robot would mix it for you. It couldn’t listen to your problems, but it was programmed to prevent you from getting wasted. The crew were allowed a limited allotment of two alcoholic beverages per day, and only when off-duty, with their intake carefully monitored.

To the left of the room were a dozen booths, along with a pool table, a dartboard, and some videogame terminals to keep the patrons amused. The bar was all but deserted right now due to the ongoing invasion. There were only a couple of off-duty engineers occupying one of the booths, halting their conversation to glance over at the newcomers.

Evan and Jade walked up to the bar, taking a seat on the stools. They sagged a little under their weight, loaded with a spring system that would lower them level with the bar based on the weight of the occupant, allowing larger species to share them.

“You ever use one of these before?” Evan asked, reaching for the touch panel. It was suspended on a flexible gimbal that was mounted on the ceiling. He pulled it closer, raising the display on his wrist to scan it across the reader, unlocking the menu.

“This is actually the first time I’ve ever been on a UNN ship,” she replied. “The Constancy was built in Jarilan orbit by Jarilan Workers. It’s a little different from the Rorke,” she added with a chuckle. “If you can believe it, this ship is downright spacious in comparison. Not that it really matters, since we go into hibernation during travel. No need for mess halls and rec facilities if you’re asleep for the whole journey.”

“So, they just wake you up when you’re ready to fight?” Evan asked. “That’s gotta be disorienting.”

“I prefer it,” she replied. “I climbed into my alcove, went to sleep, then I woke up in Kerguelan orbit. No need to mess around trying to entertain myself for months.”

“They didn’t let you visit Valbara?” he continued, raising his eyebrows.

“Hell no. The Valbarans hate us. They don’t want us going anywhere near their planet.”

“Damn, that sucks,” he muttered. “Valbara was a really cool place. I get why they feel the way they do, but coming all that way only to be told that you can’t even land is kind of fucked up. You might never get the chance to visit again.”

He tapped in his order, the pair watching as the mechanical arm sprang to life, its servos whirring as it reached for one of the shelves. The glass panel slid back to give it access, and it caught a bottle of vodka between its rubberized jaws, bringing it down to the counter. Next, it selected a coffee liqueur, setting the bottle down beside the first. It produced a crystal glass, then filled it with ice cubes from a dispenser below the counter. With robotic speed and precision, it began to mix the drink, putting on a rather entertaining show. When it was finished, it added a glug of cream, then set the end result down in front of Evan.

“I suppose it’s faster than a human bartender,” Jade mused. “I just flash my ID, then?”

“Do you have a credit account?” Evan asked. “There’s no way to access bank information on deployments, so we transfer money into temporary banks that are stored on the ship’s intranet. That way, we can still buy stuff when we’re light-years from any inhabited planets. That’s where our wages end up until we make it back to civilization, too.”

“Oh, I don’t think I have anything like that,” she replied, her antennae drooping. “Back home, we use money when dealing with the colonists sometimes, but the hive provides everything we need.”

“Huh,” Evan mused, guiding the touch panel back over to him on its gimbal. “That’s alright, I’ll buy you a drink. It’s the least I can do to thank you after you pulled my ass out of the fire. I should be buying you the whole fucking bar.”

“That’s my job,” she laughed. “I help keep the squishies alive. Thanks, though.”

“Peach schnapps, right?”

“That’s right,” she replied, crossing her long legs. She rested her lower arms on the bar, cradling her face in the upper pair as she watched the bartender move. The robotic arm slid her drink in front of her, and she caught it in one of her upper hands, raising it to her mouth. To Evan’s alarm, her fleshy lips parted wide, the plates of her face rearranging as they opened up like a beak. The illusion of a humanoid face was shattered, a long, flexible tube extending from within. There were no teeth inside, no throat, only off-blue flesh. The azure appendage dipped into the drink, starting to suck it up like a straw.

She noticed that he was watching her, seeing the surprise in his expression. After a couple more sips, the tube sucked back into her mouth like a straw, her face returning to its usual shape.

“Sorry,” she began, those same plates moving to mimic speech. She could talk like a human, but it was all an act. She had no throat, no vocal cords, and the motions of her lips served only to sell an illusion. “I didn’t consider that you hadn’t seen a Jarilan eat before.”

“It’s fine,” he replied quickly, cursing himself for his lack of tact. “It just took me by surprise, is all.”
“We eat using a proboscis,” she explained, the plates of her face opening up again. She raised a hand, the flexible, prehensile tube of blue flesh coiling around her fingers with surprising dexterity. She continued to talk all the while, confirming his suspicion that her mouth had little to do with speaking. “We mostly eat honey provided by our Repletes, so we don’t need to chew like you do, but we can still drink liquids if we want to.”

“Then…what are the lips for?” he asked. “Why does your mouth move when you talk if you’re not actually…y’know.”

“We were designed to be as human as possible,” she explained, returning to her drink. “Being able to communicate with humans involves a lot more than just speech. There’s facial expressions, body language, all of these intuitive interactions that most people aren’t even aware are happening. It all requires its own wetware, too, parts of the brain evolved to process that information. We have to be able to smile or frown, we have to understand sarcasm, the tone of someone’s voice. This,” she added, gesturing to her face. “Is all so that we can interact with you in the most natural way possible.”

“I didn’t realize that you’d been…purpose-built,” he replied, taking a sip from his glass. “I always assumed it was a natural product of being a hybrid.”

“The Queen was very invested in making us as appealing and as inoffensive as possible,” Jade explained with a dry chuckle. “Her survival depended on it. Other hives survive by evolving the most deadly weapons and adaptations, making themselves as dangerous as possible, but I’m here because mine decided that making friends with humans was the best way to stay alive.”

“Does that bother you?” he asked hesitantly, not sure if it was too personal a subject for a friendly conversation. “Being made for one specific reason?”

“No,” she replied with a confident shake of her head that made her antennae bob in the air. “I find it comforting, actually. I have more autonomy and agency than any Bug thanks to my human DNA, but I’m still part of a hive – I still know why I was born. I like knowing what my purpose is.”

“I guess that’s one way to look at it,” Evan conceded. “Most humans go their whole lives trying to find purpose. You’re born knowing the meaning of life right off the bat.”

“Well, in a purely practical sense,” she added. “We don’t exactly have a dedicated philosopher caste, if it wasn’t obvious.”

“So, if you don’t have a bank account, where the hell did you get peach schnapps?” Evan asked.

She laughed to herself, taking another sip of her drink.

“There’s a young colony growing on Jarilo, and the bar is the center of public life there, naturally. A lot of Jarilans go there to mingle and practice their human interaction.”

“And the colonists don’t mind that?” Evan asked, surprised by the idea of humans and Bugs mingling so readily.

“We joke that there are three stages of Jarilan colonist,” she began, raising a hand. She lifted three fingers, which was all she had, starting to list them off. “The first is the reaction we get from most people – anger. They won’t talk to us, they don’t want to be around us. The second is tolerance. They realize we’re not going anywhere, so they tolerate us. The third is acceptance. They get to know us, we win them over, and they start treating us like everybody else.”

“You have to go through that process with everyone who goes there?” Evan asked, his eyes widening. “That’s gotta be exhausting.”

“Everyone we meet, for the most part,” she sighed. “But, that’s our job, right? We were made to interact with humans, and it’s our mission to win over as many of them as we can.”

“Well, you won me over,” Evan added, Jade smiling at him. Even if the plates that made up her face were an illusion, he could see that the smile in her eyes was genuine.

“So, yeah,” she continued as she took another sip. “If you want to hang out with farmers and engineers, you’re going to need to pick a favorite drink. Mine is peach schnapps.”

“What’s it like there?” Evan asked.

“Pristine forests, a primitive ecosystem, practically limitless resources. It’s going to be a thriving powerhouse colony one day, we’ll make sure of it, but I’m enjoying the rustic charm while it lasts. What was it like on Valbara?” she added, glancing over at him.

“The place was like a giant preserve,” he replied. “The Valbarans live in walled cities and let nature run its course outside of them. Where we landed, it was all grassland and patches of forest. Inside the walls, it’s like a resort. The place was great, easily the cleanest city I’ve ever visited, full of people who were happy to have us there. I felt like a celebrity sometimes. People would come up to me wanting to take pictures,” he chuckled. “They’re really grateful for what the Coalition did for them, and honestly, it’s a morale boost. It’s one thing to be thanked for your service, but it’s quite another to have a kid climbing all over you trying to show you his toy Beewolf. It’s not often that we get to see the direct result of what we do and the impact it has on everyday people.”

“That sounds adorable,” Jade cooed. “Maybe I’ll get to see it one day. There are so many places I’d like to go that I can’t. Earth is another one.”

“They won’t let you go to Earth?” Evan asked, his brow furrowing.

“There’s a UNN fleet in orbit around Jarilo,” she explained. “They say it’s there to protect the planet, which is partially true, but we all know that those guns are pointed at the ground. It’s their insurance policy in case we act up. They’re very selective about who comes and goes. It’s relatively easy to move to Jarilo – the UN even offers cash incentives to new colonists – but everyone who goes there gets screened carefully. There are a lot of people out there who might want to settle a score, and the Jarilans are considered an important military asset. In theory, I could apply for a visa to travel to Earth, but I think you know how that would probably play out.”

“I’m from Earth,” Evan added. “Trust me, you’re not missing much.”

“It’s the only homeworld we have, though,” she protested. “It’s where our ancestors evolved, the cradle of humanity.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I’m half human, and nobody knows where the Betelgeusians came from,” she explained. “Even the name is a misnomer. They didn’t originate in that star system, it was just the first place the UNN encountered them. Earth is the only other planet we can trace our heritage back to.”

“I’m sure you’ll get there,” Evan replied, downing the last of his drink. “If you keep building a good reputation, one day, it’s going to precede you. You won’t have to start off on the wrong foot every time you meet someone new.”

“That’s the plan,” she sighed. “Hey,” she added, gesturing over her shoulder towards the back of the room. “You want to play some darts?”

“Sure,” he replied, sliding off his stool. “I didn’t know you’d played before.”

“Jarilo might be a backwater compared to Earth or Valbara, but our bar is very well furnished,” she replied with a smirk. “Come on, I’ll show you a party trick.”

Evan ordered a second drink, then they walked over to the table nearest the dartboard, setting down their glasses. There were five darts on the board, Jade plucking them from it one by one, using all four of her arms. Evan noted that the two engineers were watching them from their booth, but he didn’t pay them any mind.

Jade set the darts on the table, gesturing to them.

“You go first,” she insisted. “Let’s see what you can do.”

“I like to think of myself as a decent shot,” he said, picking them up. “Are we playing professional rules or just seeing who can get closest to the bullseye?”

“Bullseye,” she replied.

He positioned himself in front of the board, then started to throw. The first three strayed a little wide of the center, the fourth hit the outer bullseye, and the final one found its mark.

“Not too shabby,” Jade said, walking across the room to retrieve the darts. He stepped aside as she took his place, using her upper right hand to aim, which seemed to be the dominant one. One after another, she landed them around the outer bullseye, the last one hitting dead-center.

“Okay, that’s pretty good,” Evan conceded.

“That’s not all I can do,” she said with a smile, retrieving the darts again. This time, she held four of them at once, one dart in each of her hands. She lined them up, moving each dart independently, making tiny corrections in a way that was oddly mesmerizing. All at once, she let them fly, Evan hearing the muffled thud as they hit the board. She had arranged three of them in a triangle pattern around the bullseye, the fourth dart landing in the center. There was still one dart left, and she aimed it carefully, closing one eye. Evan watched it whistle through the air, embedding itself into the tail of the dart in the center.

She stepped back, looking pleased with herself, Evan giving her a slow clap.

“Very impressive.”

“That’s just a parlor trick,” someone said, Evan turning to see one of the engineers rising from his seat. “Darts isn’t a game about hittin’ the bullseye, it’s about being precise with your score. In fact, if you hit another dart like that durin’ a real game, you wouldn’t rack up any points at all.”

“Sounds to me like someone thinks he can do better,” Jade replied, her tone playful. Evan was wary of the strangers, but Jade’s enthusiasm was infectious. Despite how often people judged her by her appearance, she was still eager to make new friends, gesturing for the engineer to approach.

The man set down his glass on his table, then straightened his yellow coveralls, making his way over to the board. He walked over to their side with the darts in his hand, Jade ceding her place to him.

“We’re playing 501 up,” he said, lining up his first shot. “We start with 501 points total, and whoever gets their score to zero first wins. Three darts per turn.”

“I know how to play,” Jade replied. “You want to make it interesting?”

“Wouldn’t be a challenge if there were no stakes,” the surly engineer replied. “The loser pays for the other party’s drinks.”

“Deal,” Jade replied.

Evan pulled her aside, keeping his voice low so that the engineer couldn’t overhear him.

“Jade, you don’t even have a bank account!”

“Don’t worry,” she chuckled, giving him a reassuring pat on the arm. “I won’t lose.”

They turned back around, watching the engineer throw his first dart, his friend cheering him on from their booth. After a few rounds, it was clear that Jade had superior accuracy. It wasn’t really a fair competition, not when she had been genetically engineered to be a crack shot. She switched between arms so readily, shattering Evan’s previous assumption that she had a dominant one.

Evan watched her trounce him round after round, but as surly as the engineer came off, he didn’t get angry. With her final throw, Jade got her score down to exactly zero, no more and no less. She pumped her fist, the engineer shrugging his shoulders.

“Fair ‘nuff. I guess you win, Bug lady.”

“Thanks for the game,” she replied, ever gracious.

“I guess I’m payin’ your tab tonight,” the engineer muttered. “Good thing they don’t let us drink more than a couple of glasses.”

Evan and Jade made their way back over to the bar, the plucky Jarilan chuckling to herself as she climbed onto her stool.

“Told you I wouldn’t lose,” she said, nudging him with her elbow. “Oh ye of little faith.”

“I’m just glad you’re on our side,” he replied, setting his glass back down on the counter. “I didn’t really get to see you in action when we were down on the surface. Things were too chaotic – I was more concerned about keeping my head from getting taken off. Can you shoot like you throw darts?”

“There’s a lot of interesting things you can do when you have four arms,” she replied, giving him a wink. “The guy who came up with our training program back on Jarilo is an ex-scout sniper, so he prioritized accuracy, naturally. On top of that, we have a genetic legacy going back who knows how many thousands or millions of years. Drones are bred to be fighters.”

They were interrupted by a buzzing coming from Evan’s wrist, and he looked down at the display. After a moment, the same happened to Jade.

“New deployment orders,” he said, glancing back up at his companion. “We’ve been reassigned to the Omaha, and we’re shipping out in a few hours. Does it say Delta company for you?”

“It does,” she replied. “It seems as though Admiral Vos was able to pull some string for us like he promised. We can stay together.”

“This is going to be so weird,” he continued, shaking his head. “I went through boot with most of the guys in my old unit. I’ve spent years living on the Spratley. I never thought we’d be getting shuffled around like this. I guess the Omaha must have lost a lot of people, same as we did.”

“If I can make friends, I know you can,” Jade chuckled. “Well, duty calls,” she added as she slid off her bar stool. “I’d better go pick up that new chest piece before we ship out. This tank top isn’t exactly regulation.” She reached out to ruffle his hair, the show of affection surprising him, but not unpleasantly so. “I had fun tonight. It’s a shame it was cut short. I guess I’ll see you in the hangar later?”

“Y-yeah,” he replied, raising a hand as she made her way out of the bar. “I’ll see you there.”

***

“My fuckin’ arm itches!” Hernandez grumbled, sliding his hand beneath his sleeve. He tried to get a finger under the mesh cast but was unsuccessful, grimacing to himself as he walked alongside Evan.

“I swear if you start chewing on that thing like a dog, I’m gonna find you a cone,” he said.

“You think they put cones on Borealans?” he asked, his grimace morphing into a grin.

“I wouldn’t ask them about it, not unless you want two busted arms.”

They were making their way through one of the Rorke’s cavernous hangar bays, the wavering forcefield that kept in the atmosphere to their right, the stars beyond bleached away by the bright glow of the planet below. The area was a bustle of activity, the racket of power tools and engine checks drowning out all other sounds. Engineers ran back and forth, servicing rows of Beewolfs, rearming and repairing the jet-black aircraft. Evan noticed a gigantic Krell wearing a yellow poncho who was helping lift missiles onto the extended racks of one of the craft, dwarfing the human engineer who was directing him with the help of a tablet computer.

Their destination was a line of four dropships that were waiting near the barrier, their engines idling, their troop ramps open. There were already a few dozen people standing around waiting to board. Most of them were Marines clad in their camouflaged armor, but there were a few aliens, the towering Borealans impossible to miss. Evan spotted Jade, too. She was the only Jarilan, her horn making her easy to pick out in a crowd.

As they drew closer to the dropships, a new sound rose above the din. It was a warming klaxon, flashing red lights descending from the ceiling high above. Holographic hazard barriers were projected from the deck, sectioning off a substantial area of the hangar, everyone who was nearby clearing out like the devil was on their heels. Towards the back wall, the metal plates that protected the area beyond from engine backwash during a launch extended, forming a protective cordon to shield the aircraft and supplies behind them.

“The fuck is goin’ on?” Hernandez wondered, the pair stopping in their tracks to watch.

“I dunno,” Evan replied. This was the first time he had been on a jump carrier, and he didn’t know their protocols.

The answer soon became evident. Through the translucent barrier to their right, he spied an object that was blotting out the light from the planet. As it drew closer, it took on the telltale silhouette of a Penguin, a ground-attack gunship. It was damaged, limping more than it was flying, trailing a plume of dark smoke from one of its engines.

“Holy shit,” Hernandez muttered as he watched. “Dude took a beatin’. Looks like he’s tryin’ to land the thing.”

The craft’s sleek hull was covered in plasma burns, the protective heat tiles melted and scarred in places. It looked like it had been strafed by something – maybe an enemy aircraft or one of the mobile AA platforms that Evan had seen used to such deadly effect. One of its stubby wings had been all but torn off the fuselage, and the thrusters on that side of its hull seemed to be damaged, requiring the thing to list to stay stable. It was coming in hot – perhaps too hot.

As it neared the carrier, the Penguin pivoted, firing its remaining engine in an attempt to slow itself. With its thrusters so damaged, it might not have the punch to reduce its velocity in the usual way. The pilot was threading a needle, and the thread was on fire…

It reached the energy field, coming in a little lower than it should have, shearing off its landing gear. It skidded across the bay on its belly, leaving a shower of sparks in its wake, black smoke still spewing from one of its engines. It billowed up, filling the hangar behind in it a noxious cloud, obscuring the craft as it slid backwards. There was a monumental crash as it impacted the raised blast shields, dumping its considerable momentum into them, pieces of shattered hull sent bouncing across the deck.

After it had come to a jarring stop, a team of first responders came running. There were medics clad in combat armor, braving the wreckage to reach the pilot’s canopy, while engineers wearing hooded suits set about tackling the engine fire. The dark smoke was drawn into the ceiling by powerful vents, preventing it from choking the hangar, while nearby panels in the floor opened up to reveal fire hoses. The engineers picked them up, starting to spray the burning wreckage with fire-retardant foam, quickly choking out the flames.

It seemed that the canopy was jammed shut, the medics trying desperately to pry it open. Evan could make out the pilot inside, driving his shoulder against the glass in an attempt to lift it. The Krell that had been loading missiles nearby turned his long snout, seeing that they were in trouble. With a burst of alarming speed, he raced over to the crashed ship. The hulking reptile skidded to a stop, slamming into the craft’s nose in his haste, his mass enough to rock the entire gunship. A medic who had climbed up behind the canopy leapt clear to give the alien more room, the Krell gripping the metal frame with his many-fingered hands. He heaved, sinewy muscle bulging beneath his scales, snorting like a bull as he wrenched it loose. He tore the canopy right off its hinges, sending it bouncing across the deck. The pilot seemed uninjured, but the Krell lifted him out regardless, carrying him like a doll. He deposited the man carefully on the ground nearby, where he was swarmed by a team of medics.

The fire had been contained now, the entire aft section of the Penguin covered in a layer of hardening foam, forming beige-colored stalactites as it dripped to the deck. The smoke had stopped, and the last of it was being cleaned away by the ventilation system with surprising efficiency Evan knew how dangerous an uncontrolled fire in an enclosed space could become – he had run enough fire drills on the Spratley.

“I guess things aren’t goin’ much better on the ground,” Hernandez whistled. “How did that guy even make it back up here in that state?”

“Better than ejecting in Bug territory,” Evan replied. “It’s a gamble whether the roaches or the rescue team will find you first.”

As they continued towards the dropships, Jade turned her head away from the scene, raising a hand to wave to him.

“You guys all buddy-buddy all of a sudden?” Hernandez asked, giving him a sideways glance. “What happened while I was gettin’ my arm patched up?”

“We hung out,” Evan replied with a shrug, not sure why the question was making his cheeks warm. “Played some darts, had a few drinks, chatted a while. She’s pretty cool once you get to know her. Y’know, for a Bug.”

“Yeah, I kinda feel bad for givin’ her the cold shoulder when she first showed up.”

Like the Marines, Jade had her pack on her back, her XMR hanging from one of her shoulders on its sling. Her helmet was clipped to her belt, and it seemed like her new chest piece had finally been delivered.

“Eyeing my chest, Evan?” she joked as she walked out to meet him. She gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder, then rapped her fist against the hard plate. “Good as new. I kind of wish they’d let me keep the old one – it’d make a cool conversation piece.”

“I’m glad that pilot decided to land on the opposite side of the hangar,” he muttered, glancing over at the wreckage. Engineers were swarming it now, the Krell helping them move some of the larger pieces of debris.

“You and me both,” she replied, following his gaze. “Being up here, it’s easy to forget that war is still raging on the surface. Can’t say I’m eager to get back to it, but that’s the job, right?”

They were ordered onto the dropships, the trio mounting the troop ramp of the nearest craft, strapping into the bucket seats. Evan felt the hairs on his arms stand on end as the ship slid out into space, acceleration tugging at him. A few of the Marines spared Jade lingering glances, more curious than anything. If they were being reassigned, they had probably fought alongside Jarilans on the ground already, so the shock of seeing one had likely been dulled.

It was a short ride to the Omaha, the dropship sliding through another forcefield and into a similar, albeit smaller hangar bay. Evan felt the landing gear hit the deck, the ramp opening again to let in a flood of recycled air, the passengers filing out. There were no Beewolfs here, only dropships and a pair of Penguins that were being refueled ready for another sortie. At the back of the hangar were two spare landers, kept in reserve in case one of the active ones was shot down.

As the reinforcements piled out of their dropships, a group of Marines approached, clad in their combat armor. Evan quickly recognized them as Sergeants, along with a Lieutenant who was likely in charge of their company. The Sergeants lined up like they were on parade, the Lieutenant stepping forward to address the newcomers.

“Welcome to the Omaha,” he began. “You’re here because your original companies took enough losses that they’re no longer combat effective. You lost friends, you lost comrades, but you few made it out. You’ve been formed into what we like to call a Ghost Company, new fighting forces born from those that had to be disbanded due to catastrophic casualties. Your home carriers will be reinforced in time, but right now, we need to reassign personnel to get as many battalions back up to full strength as we can. You’re part of Delta company now, and your new home will be the Omaha until somebody tells you otherwise. Report to your Sergeants – they’ll give you further instructions.”

The Sergeants began to call out their vehicle numbers, the troops checking the orders on their wrist computers before stepping forward.

“Seventeen!” one of them shouted, Evan glancing down at his display.

“That’s us,” he said, Jade and Hernandez following after him. Nine other men joined them to form a squad of twelve, Evan noting that they had one too many before remembering that Jade had originally been part of a three-man Jarilan team. They would probably be reinforced with more Jarries on the ground. All of the men were Marines, save for two towering Borealan Shock Troopers who stood head and shoulders above their counterparts.

“My name is Sergeant Simmons,” the man began, walking along the line as they stood to attention. “I’m the commanding officer of Delta-seventeen. You’re part of my crew now. If you’re here, it’s because you’re survivors, or maybe you’re just lucky. I’ll take luck if that’s all I can get.” He raised his forearm, projecting a holographic image of Kerguela from his computer, its surfaced separated into colored regions. “The Omaha battalion is being deployed back into the Red Zone, where your original companies were ambushed.”

“Red zone?” one of the Marines asked.

“The moon has been separated into color-coded theaters,” the Sergeant explained. “The most up-to-date intelligence says that these regions are controlled by a new caste of Bug that fills the role of a Field Commander. I’m told that some of you have seen these things first-hand,” he added, glancing at the men. “They’re code-named Kings. Our job will be to support more specialized teams as they try to root out Red King, the ugly fucker who was responsible for the attacks on your companies. Since we wiped out their global communications network, it’s unlikely that they’re in contact with their Queen anymore. Kill a King, and the region falls into disarray.”

The two Borealans seemed especially pleased by the notion, nudging each other.

“I have it on good authority that a lot of you could have gone home, but chose not to,” Simmons continued. “The way I figure it, that means you’re here for payback. Follow my orders, do your jobs, and you’ll get it. For now, go unload your gear in the crew quarters. You have two hours before the next wave of deployments.”

They headed out of the hangar and into the familiar, yet somehow alien guts of the assault carrier. The layout was exactly the same as what Evan remembered from the Spratley, the winding corridors that he had lived in for months at a time burned into his memory like an afterimage, but parts of it were different enough to be jarring. Small details jumped out at him – different colors and paint schemes where repairs had been done, minor changes and customizations that hadn’t been present on his home carrier. It felt a little like visiting a house that you used to live in, only to find that while the layout of the rooms was familiar, the furniture and décor had all been replaced. These vessels might come out of the shipyards looking identical, but years of being lived in changed them in subtle ways.

They soon arrived at the temporary crew quarters that had been assigned to them. Rather than the more private four-man quarters that Evan was accustomed to, these were communal, with a dozen bunk beds in each one. Two of the beds were conspicuously larger than the others, and their frames were reinforced, designed to handle the weight of the Borealans. They must have been moved in here on short notice – he could see the scratch marks on the deck.

“I’m not really used to sleeping on a bunk,” Jade said, reaching down to press her fingers into her mattress experimentally.

“Where do you sleep if not in a bed?” Evan asked, shrugging off his pack. He began to unpack what few belongings he had brought with him, little more than clean uniforms and a few trinkets, stowing them in the locker beside his bunk.

“Usually with my sisters,” she replied, not elaborating any further. “In an alcove, if I’m on the Constancy.”

“I don’t think we’ll be doing much sleeping anyway,” he replied. “They said we only had a couple of hours before we have to deploy.”

“So, where are you guys from?” one of the Marines asked as he leaned against the frame of a nearby bunk.

“The Spratley,” Hernandez replied, tossing a folded uniform into his locker. “Echo company.”

“I heard the Spratley got hit hard,” the stranger replied.

“And Echo got the shittiest end of the stick,” Hernandez continued, slamming the door shut. “What about you?”

“Four of us are from the Dragoon,” he said, three of his companions nodding or raising a hand in greeting. “I think we were up North of you guys when the shit hit the fan. The name’s Brooks, Alpha company. Well, formerly Alpha company,” he added solemnly. “There are only about half of us left now. This is Donovan, McKay, and Garcia.”

Hernandez introduced himself, then Evan and Jade, Brooks’ eyes lingering on the Jarilan. Evan bristled, expecting trouble, but the man’s expression softened.

“Jarries are alright by us,” he said. “We had three assigned to our Puma, and they fought like demons. A lot more people would have died if they hadn’t been around.”
The two Borealans strode past, overhearing the conversation, one of them leaning in to give Jade a sniff with his pink nose. She glanced up at him, the feline towering a good three feet above her, her antennae standing on end in what might be alarm.

“They have a strange scent about them,” he said, rolling his Rs like a purring cat. “More human than Bug. More polite than the monkeys, though.”

“And who might you be?” Evan asked, the Borealan turning his yellow eyes on him.

“I am Borzka, and this is Tatzi,” he replied, gesturing to his companion with a long arm. There was a female standing behind him, an impressive specimen with fiery orange hair that matched the male’s, her biceps the size of Evan’s head. It was considered almost a rite of passage for Marines to sleep with Borealans during their integration training, but Evan had never seen the appeal. Most of their women looked like they could snap a man in half. “We are all that remains of Sigma pack, assigned to the Guam.”

“My condolences,” Jade said, the Borealan turning his piercing eyes on her. “You lost your family.”

“And you, your littermates,” he replied. His voice was a low growl, but not intimidating. “Spilt blood will be repaid in kind.”

The aliens moved away, heading to the large bunk on the opposite side of the room, where they began to unload their gear.

“I didn’t expect the Borealans to be cool with the Jarries,” Hernandez whispered, but his voice wasn’t low enough to go undetected by the sensitive ears of the felines. The female, Tatzi, turned around to face them again.

“The insects of Jarilo show proper behavior,” she replied in as deep a feminine voice as Evan had ever heard. “They challenged, they lost, and they were inducted. A Borealan does not hold animosity towards one who accepts their place when a bout is done.”

“That makes sense,” Jade added, her antennae waving as she nodded her head. “The Queen surrendering and joining the Coalition is a little like a Borealan submitting to their Alpha.”

“What about you guys?” Hernandez asked, addressing the two remaining Marines. They were keeping conspicuously apart from the rest of the squad, choosing the furthest bunks. The two men glanced over at them, then shared a look. It was hard to read their expressions. Was that anger? Disgust?

“How can you stand to be near that thing after everything that happened?” one of them demanded. “We’re all in the same boat here – our companies got slaughtered, some of them almost to a man. Yet here you are, coming aboard with that roach like it’s one of us.”

“Nobody else here has a problem with ‘em,” Hernandez replied, spreading his arms as he gestured to the rest of the squad. “Not even the madcats. Doesn’t that tell you somethin’?”

“We have our orders,” the second man added. “If the higher-ups tell us we have to tolerate those things, then so be it, but we don’t have to get all touchy-feely with them. As long as it keeps its distance, we won’t have an issue.”

“What do you mean by an issue?” Evan asked, balling his fists as he stepped forward. Jade reached out to place a hand on his chest, her touch cooling him down.

“Remember what I told you back at the bar?” she whispered.

“Stage one?” he replied after a momentary pause.

“That’s right. I’m used to this, so don’t worry about it, okay?”

“But-”

“Confronting them will only make it worse,” she added, her tone becoming more serious. “Trust me, I’ve been through this process a dozen times.”

Evan stepped back, following Jade’s advice. The men were Marines, so he trusted them to do their jobs, but whether they would stick out their necks to protect their insectoid squadmates was another question. He resumed unpacking his gear, sparing the two men another glance.

As time passed, he noticed that they would interact with the rest of the team as long as they were far away from Jade, Evan eventually learning their names through overhearing their conversations. They were Collins and Foster, originally assigned to the Dragoon’s Charlie company. Everyone who had fought with the Jarilans so far seemed to have at least a neutral opinion of them, so perhaps they hadn’t been assigned any. Either way, he wasn’t keen to leave Jade’s side in an attempt to appease them. If they wanted to talk to him, they would have to come over to his end of the room.

He contented himself with mingling with the other members of his team, making small talk with everyone save for the intimidating Borealans. Before their two hours were up, an alert sounded from their computers, Evan checking his display to see that they had been summoned to the garage.

“We’re deploying already?” Brooks wondered, reaching for his helmet.

“Things must be heating up on the ground,” Jade replied, checking the magazine in her XMR.

The Sergeant suddenly appeared at the door to their barracks, waving for them to follow.

“Get your shit, we drop in fifteen!”

***

Evan jogged along beside Delta-seventeen as the personnel carrier slid through the garage on its trolley, the rails in the deck guiding it towards the waiting bay of the lander. The team was in full gear, ready for the drop, their helmets sealed and their XMRs in hand. The vehicle passed through the shimmering barrier of energy, jolting as it came to a sudden stop, the trolley locking into place. The team and its crew ran in after it, strapping themselves into the rows of seats that were bolted to the walls on either side of it, Evan securing his harness tightly. A mechanical clunk reverberated through the deck as the craft decoupled from the stern gate, the troop ramp slowly closing to obscure his view of the rows of shimmering docking ports.

These drops were routine, Evan had done real and simulated deployments more times than he could count, but the prospect of being hit by one of those Bug AA platforms made the whole ordeal twice as nerve-wracking. He remembered the state of the Penguin gunship that had made an emergency landing in the Rorke’s hangar, and how much damage it had taken. Landing and taking off were the stages when the heavy landers were at their most vulnerable.

“Looks like we’re going to get new orders on the ground,” Simmons announced over the radio. “We’re going in hot, so keep your wits about you.”

Turbulence buffeted the craft as it hit the atmosphere, threatening to shake it apart, the sound of straining metal filling the bay. Evan felt the tug of the g-forces as it decelerated, falling belly-down towards the ground. There were no windows, no way for him to see outside, but he knew that roiling flames were engulfing the lander.

A harder deceleration pressed him into his padded seat, then the lander touched down, the bay filling with light as the landing ramp descended with enough speed to swat a fly. The Puma’s trolley was released, the vehicle whizzing off down the ramp, skidding to a stop in the wet mud beyond. The passengers unbuckled themselves, running out to join it, Sergeant Simmons leading the way.

Evan ran out into the open air, the autumn canopy surrounding them on all sides, the gas giant’s vibrant bands of purple and blue dominating the sky above their heads. They were in a clearing, several more landers touching down around them, disgorging their own vehicles. A temporary command center had been set up nearby, a small prefab building with a large satellite dish on the roof, surrounded by defensive walls made from hesco units that had been packed with earth. Several cupcakes had been dropped to form a protective perimeter, portable CIWS guns designed for air defense that got their name from their muffin-shaped radar domes.

Ahead of the landing site was the battalion’s artillery company, a row of eight Avalanches. They were built on the same chassis as the Kodiak MBT, but their turrets had been replaced with massive, long-range railguns capable of delivering high-explosives and other specialized munitions. Their long barrels were angled up, high above the trees. As he glanced towards the sky, a pair of Penguins screamed overhead, unloading their payload of missiles at something in the distance. Billows of flame rose above the treetops, the craft banking off, flares trailing behind them as they avoided streams of plasma fire from below. They had dropped right into the middle of a warzone.

The team knelt in the mud, covering the vehicle crew as they mounted up, the Puma’s engine roaring to life. The two Kodiaks that had dropped alongside them were already trundling away towards the treeline, their tracks churning up the mud. Evan felt the ground shake, turning to see a trio of dropships rising up into the air on plumes of bright flame, the backwash strong enough to buffet him.

A man in Marine armor came running out of the command post, skipping the small flight of stairs, the low gravity making the short drop trivial. He approached Simmons, tapping the side of his helmet in a gesture to switch to the local channel. Evan did the same, listening in on the exchange.

“You guys the reinforcements for Delta company?” he asked, appraising the IFV.

“Yes, sir,” Simmons replied. “What’s the situation?”

“Deep-scan radar has uncovered an underground weapons storage facility,” the man explained. “It’s probably supplying all the critters in the area with munitions and gear. There are tunnel entrances all over this valley, and they’re all fortified. The Bugs are putting up one hell of a fight, but the battalion has pushed through the perimeter, and we’re trying to secure one of the entrances so that we can move in Trog teams with demo gear. Delta company needs reinforcements, I’m sending you their coordinates now. There are no roads here, so the carrier made some for us. Just follow those.”

The Avalanches suddenly fired off a salvo in quick succession, Evan ducking reflexively as they shook the earth. Their cannons rocked back on their dampeners, the vehicles heaving under the strain, the projectiles traveling so quickly that he couldn’t even see them. His helmet muffled the sound to protect his ears, but he could feel it in his guts, like a sonic boom.

“Got it,” Simmons said, checking the info that had been sent to his wrist computer. “Squad, mount up!”

They loaded into the Puma’s troop bay, strapping in as it began to drive off. Jade was sitting across from him, Evan seeing her watching him through the tinted visor of her helmet. He gave her a nod, then switched to the external camera feed, watching as the vehicle sped towards the edge of the clearing. It veered onto another heading, Evan spying its destination ahead. A straight path hundreds of feet wide had been cleared through the forest. The carrier had clearly used its ventral railguns to carve out a route for the vehicles, the hypervelocity slugs pulverizing the trees, not even leaving their stumps intact. It looked like a giant blowtorch had been dragged across the forest. The ground was pocked with craters that had quickly filled with water, the Puma bouncing as it made its way through the ravaged terrain. He could see the two Kodiaks that had preceded them, driving maybe a quarter-mile ahead of them.

Protecting the planet’s ecology was paramount, but this wasn’t something that would inflict lasting damage, as violent as it was. The forest would recover in time.

Over their heads, another formation of Penguins flew over, strafing the trees below with their cannons. More return fire painted green trails across the sky, warding them off, forcing them to bank up and out of range. Missiles streaked towards them, but were diverted by flares. The gunships were wise to the AA guns now, and they were being cautious.

Explosions suddenly rose above the canopy, about where the enemy had been firing from, the trails of plasma stopping abruptly. That must be the artillery company – they were honing in on the Bugs, the Penguins luring them out before calling in their coordinates.

The Puma continued on for a while, joining the two Kodiaks, the tanks stopped ahead of them. There was a six-wheeled Timberwolf parked just off the road in the shade of the trees, one of the crew members standing halfway out of the hatch on the roof, waving to them as they approached.

Simmons seemed to have a conversation with him for a moment, then he switched to the local channel again.

“Driver, take us to the following coordinates,” he said as he tapped at his touch display. “We’re going to be reinforcing the right flank. They’re moving up on a fortified position, and the Kodiaks can’t break through.”

The Puma veered off the road, following the tanks through the forest, the larger vehicles weaving between the trees as they tried to find the safest path. The terrain was much rougher now, Evan feeling the IFV rock and shake as its eight wheels struggled to deal with the roots.

They eventually came upon a scene of battle. What looked like the rest of Delta company was lined up at the edge of a clearing, Pumas and Kodiaks taking cover in the treeline. The troops had dismounted from their vehicles and were laying down fire on a structure in the distance. Across a few hundred meters of open ground was a fortified building, an immense earthwork that rose up to form a wall. It seemed to be constructed using the same means as the buildings back in the tether port. They were made from densely packed dirt, which was covered over with a kind of hard, clear resin. There were several layers of defenses. At the rear was a sloping embankment surrounded by a deep trench like something from an archaic hill fort. Lower walls ringed it, providing cover for the defenders, Evan spotting glimpses of Bugs as they sent bolts of plasma streaking back towards the attackers. Finally, there was a forest of conical structures that rose only three or four feet from the ground. They were dragon’s teeth, he realized – a kind of simple tank trap. No wonder the Kodiaks couldn’t breach the defenses. Had they devised those so quickly after encountering tracked vehicles for the first time?

He could see where shells had impacted the slopes and walls, carving out deep craters, but not penetrating. The clearing looked like the surface of the moon, likely due to artillery bombardment, but the Bugs held firm. Their defenses were thick, probably filled with both soil and rocks, the same logic employed in the UNN’s hesco defenses. Instead of packing mesh bags with soil or sand, the Bugs shaped their defensive structures using their resin, the dirt proving surprisingly effective at stopping incoming fire. It was amazing that something so outwardly primitive could be such an obstacle.

The Puma pulled into formation, taking up a position with a view of the defenses, the blister firing off thirty-millimeter slugs to cover the team as they dismounted. They threw themselves into the cover of the trees and the dense undergrowth, Evan shouldering his rifle, leaning it on a felled log as he looked through the scope. Across the clearing, he could see the outer wall of the structure, which was surrounded by a deep trench. It was set up like the crenelations of a medieval castle, the Drones peeking through the gaps to fire at the attackers. They weren’t very high, maybe three feet tall, leaving enough space for the defenders to pop up and fire over them. What they were was thick, wider than they were tall, designed to stop even railgun slugs dead in their tracks. Behind them was the sloping wall of the fort proper. There were more crenelations on top of it like battlements, more Bugs firing from the elevated position.

“All of this just to protect a Bug hole?” Hernandez asked, popping up beside Evan to fire off a few slugs. “Those fuckers really don’t want us gettin’ inside!”

“This weapons depot probably keeps the whole valley armed,” Jade explained, taking up position to Evan’s right. “Taking it out will strike a crippling blow to their operations. It means they’ll have to ship in gear from other depots, maybe even overground if we’re lucky.”
“Why not just bomb it from orbit?” Hernandez asked as he slid back into cover behind the log. “If the carriers can clear forests, they can blow the fuck out of this sandcastle.”

“Bugs dig deep,” Jade replied. “The actual storage area will be too deep to reach without doing serious damage to the biosphere, and collapsing the entire fort with an orbital strike would definitely destroy the fortifications, but it would probably bury the entrance and collapse the tunnels near the surface. It’s easier to capture it conventionally.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” Evan added. “The tanks can’t get through, so I’d bet we’re about to be sent in there on foot to clear it out.”

He peeked over the log again, using his scope to zoom in on the Bugs. He felt a shiver slide down his spine like a cold finger as he saw one of the Drones looking in his direction as it peeked between the crenelations. It was the same variety that had attacked the convoy, its jaw-like mandibles hanging off the bottom of its helmet, its spider-like eyes pointing in different directions. He steeled himself, gripping his XMR more tightly. These things were faster, smarter, and better-equipped than an average Drone, but a railgun slug would bring them down just the same. They wouldn’t get the drop on him this time…

The exchange of fire was constant. The near side of the walls and the slope almost looked like the surface of a puddle being disturbed by raindrops, tungsten splashing against the packed dirt, cracking the resin. Most of the foliage on the company’s side of the clearing was on fire thanks to the constant barrage of plasma, creating a kind of smokescreen that would probably have been problematic without rebreathers. The Bugs weren’t hitting anything, but they were succeeding in keeping the Marines pinned down.

The ground shook each time one of the Kodiaks fired, and although their AP rounds kicked up torrents of earth where they impacted, even they weren’t powerful enough to make it all the way through. One thing that was having an effect were the mortars, the shells timed to explode just above the ground, where they showered the defenders in red-hot shrapnel. Those that fell were quickly replaced as more Bugs swarmed out of the tunnel-like entrances to the fort, simply stepping over their bodies with callous disregard to fill their positions.

“If they have more Bugs than we have ammo, this ain’t gonna end well,” Hernandez growled as he popped up to fire again. “How the hell do they expect us to get across that open ground, anyway? We can’t follow behind the IFVs, not with all that shit in the way.”

“The tanks are gonna try something,” Sergeant Simmons replied. “Stand by.”

One of the Kodiaks at the other end of the line began to drive out into the open, the Bugs turning their guns on it. The plasma from their weapons splashed harmlessly against its forward armor, not hot enough to make it through. Mounted on one of the hardpoints on the side of its turret was a long tube, rotating into position to face the fort. A spiraling rocket shot out of it on a plume of smoke, trailing a long cable behind it, the line draping itself over the terrain. It was a line charge, a device used to destroy mines and other fortifications. Explosions rippled along its length as it detonated between the dragon’s teeth, but when the smoke cleared, they remained intact.

“Well shit,” Simmons muttered. “That didn’t fucking work.”

“We cannot stay here,” Borzka hissed, a bolt of plasma impacting the tree that he was hiding behind. It scorched the trunk, peeling away the bark like paper. “Now would be the time for a bayonet charge.”

“Through this?” Brooks chuckled. “Be my guest, but I’m not going out there without a smokescreen, at least. That’s what we call a kill zone.”

“They’re trying to call in a Beewolf,” Simmons said. “If they can paint a target, it can deliver a warhead that’ll clear a path, hopefully without collapsing the whole structure like an orbital strike would.”

“What’s the holdup?” Hernandez asked, ducking reflexively as a nearby Kodiak fired over their heads.

“All of the enemy AA needs to be cleared out first. Just keep firing on those Bugs. The longer we can keep them pinned, the better.”

Evan rose up to brace his XMR against the fallen log again, watching as more mortars exploded above the Bug fortifications. The shells left ring-shaped clouds of smoke that slowly drifted away on the breeze, pocking the mud beneath them with molten shrapnel, half a dozen Bugs collapsing as their carapaces were perforated. Another HE round from a Kodiak exploded against one of the sloped walls of the main structure, but it did little more than dig a wide crater into its surface.

He could see the Drones leaning out of cover, most of them wielding long rifles, sending volleys of plasma towards the forest. It was random, undirected, serving only to keep their targets suppressed. There were no tanks or warriors that he could see, but they had a tendency to pop up where they were least expected.

A sudden whistling sound alerted him to an incoming projectile, and he took cover again, an explosion followed by a shower of dirt rocking him.

“Mortars!” the Sergeant warned. “Looks like the critters are bringing up more munitions from underground!”

More mortars sounded, a whole volley of shells raining down on the company. Some were chemical canisters, yellow gas starting to drift between the trees as they disgorged their payload, while others were explosive. They impacted atop the vehicles, but the armor was too thick for them to pose much of a threat. Those that landed in the midst of the troops proved far more deadly, Evan catching a glimpse of a trio of Marines who had been taking cover in a nearby dugout as they were turned to red vapor, a shell finding its mark.

“God damn!” Hernandez exclaimed, watching the canopy warily. “Sarge, shouldn’t we get back inside the fucking Puma? We’re sittin’ ducks out here!”

“Hang on,” he replied, one finger to the side of his helmet. “The Beewolf is coming in. When that bomb hits, the Pumas are gonna advance, and we’re gonna move up behind them. Be ready to move!”

“Fuck!” Hernandez spat, rising to let off a few more shots. Evan did the same, sighting one of the Drones as it peeked out above its wall atop the fort, a well-placed slug taking off its head. It slumped out of view, one of its neighbors responding with a stream of plasma that forced him back behind the log.

“Danger close!” Simmons added. “Keep your heads down!”

Evan put his back to the log, watching the feed through his scope as he raised his rifle above it. He could see the laser pointer now, his HUD highlighting it, painting a marker on the ground in the midst of the dragon’s teeth. There was maybe a football field’s length between the clearing and the fort. If that bomb strayed from its path even by a hundred feet, it could land right on the company.

There was no roar of an engine from overhead, no whistle from the bomb as it descended. The clearing just erupted like a volcano, a brief flash of orange flame soon engulfed by a rising plume of black smoke and airborne dirt. The Marines covered their heads, digging in behind the incline that separated them from the clearing. Evan heard shrapnel and debris blast the trees only a few scant feet above his head, their branches blowing, leaves and twigs falling down as they were knocked loose. After a brief delay, a shower of dirt and small pebbles poured from the sky, Evan hearing it impact his helmet like rain on sheet metal. A larger piece of what might have been one of the broken dragon’s teeth impacted a nearby IFV, bouncing off its roof, the blow enough to make the vehicle sag on its suspension.

Through the canopy, Evan spotted the Beewolf, the aircraft banking away. It was climbing towards the clouds, already so far away that it was little more than a speck.

“Okay,” Hernandez muttered, his voice wavering. “Let’s not do that again.”

“Everyone in one piece?” Simmons asked, brushing the dirt off his shoulders.

As the lingering smoke began to clear, Evan saw that the ground between their position and the fort had been turned inside out. The bomb hadn’t been a single munition but a cluster of warheads, drawing a line of craters towards the fort. They had carved out a path thirty feet wide, either vaporizing the tank traps or tossing them across the clearing. Some of the bombs had impacted the fort itself, tearing up some of the defensive walls on the near side and collapsing a large section of the moat. The Bugs had been pasted, and the survivors were scrambling through the rubble, trying to reach cover.

They had their way in.

The Pumas sprang to life, their engines revving as they drove up and over the small incline, erupting from between the trees. Their cannons were firing as they moved, kept gyroscopically stabilized, the long barrels barely wavering even as they bounced over the rough terrain. Evan rose to his feet along with the rest of the team, his boots sliding in the mud as he ran after them. He began to slip as he reached the peak of the incline, losing his footing, but a hand reached out to grab him by the arm. It was Jade. She hauled him up the rest of the way, surprisingly strong for her size, her voice crackling through his helmet.

“Keep up, squishy boy!”

The team caught up with their IFV, bunching up behind it, its hull shielding them from the incoming fire. Evan could hear the plasma bolts impacting it, the burning projectiles sizzling where they landed in the wet mud around it. The vehicle’s blister fired back, sending streams of molten tungsten towards the enemy firing positions, forcing them back into cover. Another IFV was to their right, Evan glancing over at it, watching as its squad of Marines followed it along. More were driving up behind them, a dozen Pumas slowly making their way across the cratered path that had been carved out for them.

As they neared the outer defensive wall, the Bugs got a better angle on them, the team having to return fire in an attempt to ward them off. Evan shouldered his rifle, firing at a Drone as it popped up from behind cover, its shots going wide as he loosed a burst into its helmet. The IFV was close enough to fire over the low crenelations now, pouring thirty-millimeter slugs into the walkway behind them. The Drones stood no chance, the projectiles cutting them down, their ichor painting the dirt walls as they were eviscerated. The IFV dipped lower as it crossed the collapsed trench, its eight wheels spinning in the mud as they fought their way up the embankment.

One of the Drones took the opportunity to leap up onto the roof, prying at the hatch with three of its four arms, holding a handgun in the fourth. It was unsuccessful, the barrel of the mounted railgun swinging around to fire on it point-blank, exploding the unfortunate creature into a shower of gore and fragments of chitin.

The two lead vehicles made it to the other side of the trench, breaching the damaged wall, their suspension bouncing as they drove over the uneven rubble. They were harried by plasma bolts, but the insects had nothing powerful enough to breach their armor on hand. The Pumas crashed into the slope of the fort, extending their defensive barriers, the deployable cover swinging out from their flanks to protect their squads.

“Go, go!” Simmons yelled. “Into the compound!”

They rushed around the side of the IFV, sliding into cover behind the barrier. They were inside the enemy defenses now, between the crenelations and the slope. Most of the fire from the treeline behind them was concentrated on the vantage point at the top of the structure now, keeping them from firing down on the attackers.

The Marines fired over the IFV’s barrier, ventilating the Drones that were massing on the other side. It looked to Evan like a trench from some ancient European war. The Bugs had dug out a channel that ran all the way along the base of the four-walled structure, deep enough that a crouching person could move through it without being hit. It was full of bodies now, the Bugs piled three deep in some places, the combination of XMRs and vehicle-mounted railguns making short work of them. They were quick to react to the intrusion, but caught in the open, there was little that they could do.

Plasma splashed against the armored side of the barrier, zipping over Evan’s head to impact the hull of the IFV behind him. He raised his rifle over the obstacle, spraying wildly, even his poorly-aimed shots finding their mark in the narrow trench. The slugs tore fist-sized holes in the Bugs, the impacts throwing them to the ground, severed limbs and spilled guts sent sailing through the air. The thirty-mill chugged behind him, its rounds turning the Drones into showers of gore when it hit them dead-on, the kinetic energy practically vaporizing them. With the combined fire of the team and the IFV, the Bug resistance soon collapsed, the last handful of survivors rounding the far corner as they sought cover.

“We have to clear the trench!” Simmons ordered, placing a hand on the IFV’s barrier. He hauled himself over it, his boots splashing in the mud, then turned to wave them on. “On me!”

Borzka and Tatzi led the charge, their bayonets leveled as they leapt clear over the wall, the Borealans large enough to block the trench when standing shoulder to shoulder. Evan and the rest of the team followed after them, stepping over the fallen insects, crunching fragments of carapace underfoot. Behind them, more troops were pouring in from the clearing, the twin rows of IFVs that were parked along the path forming a protective cordon to either side of them.

Hernandez was to Evan’s left, Jade to his right, the Jarilan gripping her short-barreled XMR in her upper pair of hands. The entire forward face of the fort seemed to have been cleared on this side, but as they neared the corner of the vaguely square structure, the two Borealans threw themselves into cover. A stream of green plasma bolts poured from the trench beyond, impacting the inside wall, melting the resin.

Borzka leaned his long rifle around the corner, firing back, the railgun rocking into his shoulder with each shot.

“There are dozens of them down there!” he snarled.

“Get some grenades in there, then open fire!” Simmons ordered. Evan plucked one of the softball-sized explosives from his belt, priming it with a button press. Hernandez and Brooks did the same, throwing them around the corner. Evan kept his back to the dirt slope, tossing his grenade with a backhanded throw. A trio of explosions sounded, a torrent of dust pouring into their trench.

“Go!” Simmons said. The team raced around the corner, those at the front taking a knee, those at the back aiming their rifles over their heads. They unleashed a hail of gunfire, the slugs tearing through the swirling debris, the indistinct figures of Bugs glimpsed through the smoke jerking as they were riddled with slugs.

“Move up!”

They began to advance, clearing out the defenders. The Drones were sitting ducks with no cover, and a single slug had the velocity to pass straight through them, hitting the Bugs behind them. Lined up the narrow trench, they had nowhere to run, slumping to the ground in piles.

One of them came racing out of the dust towards the advancing Marines, its knives drawn, but Tatzi stepped out to meet it. She drove her bayonet into its abdomen, putting her immense weight behind the blow to drive the creature into the mud. It clawed at the magnetic rings that lined the barrel in a futile attempt to free itself, but she pulled the trigger, green fluid splattering her visor as the thing was practically bisected by the blast.

As Evan marched past a pile of dead Bugs, one of them reached out to him, its claw-like fingers gripping the leg of his suit. He whipped around to face it as it drew an ornate dagger from a recess in its thigh, raising it as it prepared to plunge the blade into his calf. The thing was injured, missing both of its legs below the knee, dragging itself along on its belly with its lower pair of arms like a zombie. Evan felt a twinge of terror as he looked back into its array of lens-like eyes, its sharp mandibles splitting into four segments as they clicked in anticipation of biting into his flesh. Its grip was tight, clinging to him as he tried to pull away from it. The last time had seen one this close, he had been lying paralyzed in the wreckage of his Puma, praying that he wouldn’t be found. Not this time.

He leveled his XMR, pressing the barrel between its centermost pair of eyes, and fired. The now headless Bug slumped to the bottom of the trench, Evan kicking its hand loose before continuing on. The fortifications on this side of the structure were clear now, and they arrived at the end of the sloping wall.

“Hold,” Simmons said, the team stopping. “We need to be careful here, or we could get caught in a crossfire. The other teams should be finishing up on the other side.” He put a finger to his helmet, changing channels, probably to request orders.

“Keep your eyes on the battlement above us,” Jade warned, aiming her XMR up the slope. “That’s where they’ll be coming from.”

Gunfire still harried the roof of the fort, sending fragments of broken resin and loose soil sliding down its sloping walls. Evan suspected that whatever was still up there was likely dead, but he followed Jade’s advice all the same.

“Look out!” someone yelled, movement catching Evan’s eye. A Drone had fallen from the battlements and was tumbling down the slope, but it was already dead, judging by its limp body. A long, resin tube rolled along with it, perhaps one of the mortars that they had been firing at the treeline. The Marines below it scrambled to get out of its path, and it hit the ground hard, its mortar bouncing away. Evan could see where shrapnel had pocked its carapace, its thorax and its helmeted head covered in tiny wounds.

“Keep away from the corner,” Simmons warned, the two Borealans retreating a few paces. “The other team is about to clear that trench.”

A few moments later, a barrage of gunfire broke out. Those at the front of the pack retreated further, raising their arms to shield their visors reflexively as railgun slugs impacted the leftmost wall of the trench. They punched straight through the resin before embedding themselves in the soil beneath, sending shattered fragments of it zipping through the air like broken glass.

When the Sergeant relayed an all-clear, they continued around the bend, seeing a familiar sight. The Bugs that had been manning the crenelations had been slain, their own trench now serving as a mass grave.

“That the last of ‘em?” Hernandez asked, the two groups meeting in the middle of the trench.

“That’s our job done,” Sergeant Simmons replied. “Secure the area. Take up position by the entrances to the main structure,” he added as he gestured to one of the cave-like holes in the sloping wall. “There are more below ground, no doubt about it. Make sure nothing so much as pokes its head out until the Trogs get here.”

They fanned out, some of the Marines manning the crenelations to watch the forest beyond the clearing, pushing aside the lifeless bodies of the fallen Drones to clear space. Evan and his squad took up position outside one of the entrances, the interior too shadowy to make out anything inside.

“Jade,” Evan began, nodding into the dirt tunnel. “Anything?”

“Just smells like Bugs,” she replied.

“Can you smell anything with that helmet on?” Hernandez asked.

“A little,” she replied. “My rebreather lets air circulate up over my head, but it dulls my senses.”

“We should just toss a bunch of grenades down there,” Brooks added, but Jade shook her head.

“Not without the risk of a cave-in. The last thing you want is to have to dig new tunnels while the Bugs move all of their equipment to another site.”

“Heads up,” Hernandez said, giving Evan a nudge. He nodded down the trench in the direction they had come, Evan turning to see several figures approaching. It was a team of maybe twenty men, the Marines stepping out of their path to let them pass. The segmented armor that they wore was bulkier than standard UNN armor, with reinforced plating and a large, protective collar that rose up to shield the neck area. Their helmets, too, were distinctive. Gone was the full-faced visor, replaced with a narrow slit that ran across the eyes. A bulky rebreather that resembled a gas mask jutted out from the mouth and nose area, long, flexible tubes linking it to an oxygen canister on their backs. They looked like they could probably take a missile to the chest and keep marching. They wore carriers over their armor that were laden with gear, what looked like grenades and detonators, along with more tech that Evan couldn’t even identify.

“That’s the Trog team,” Hernandez explained, whispering as though in awe of them. “Those are the crazy bastards who go down into the Bug-infested tunnels to rig the explosives.”

“They look like they’re wearing bomb disposal gear,” Jade added, Hernandez chuckling.

“More like Bug disposal gear.”

Most of them were armed with PDW variants of the XMR, not unlike the one that Jade favored, with shortened barrels for better handling in tight spaces. A couple of them were carrying weapons that were linked to a large backpack via a thick, insulated cable. They were unlike any weapon that Evan had seen before. The receiver was larger than that of an XMR, with an oversized, top-mounted magazine that looked more like something from an anti-material rifle. Like an XMR, it had a long barrel that was lined with copper-colored magnetic coils, but there was a muzzle device on the end of it that resembled a megaphone with a railroad spike jutting from its center. It was a heavy, unwieldy thing, a foregrip extending out from beneath the barrel to make it easier to handle. Between the barrel and the receiver was another section with an oddly rounded shape, like a fat disk.

“What are those?” Evan asked.

“Plasma lances,” Hernandez replied. “They use the same slugs as the AMR platform as ammunition, but they turn them into ionized gas. It melts them into slag in an induction heater, then the slag gets pumped into a cyclotron, and the resultin’ plasma is shot out of the barrel using a magnetic field. It’ll superheat an entire tunnel. That cable runs to a power pack on their back.”

“How is it that you talk like you have a head injury until someone asks you about guns?” Evan asked skeptically.

“Guns are cool,” Hernandez replied with a shrug.

“Sounds grisly,” Jade added, watching as the Trogs walked past them. She recoiled a little, almost as though afraid of them, one of them scrutinizing her through his narrow visor. “I hate the Bugs as much as the next girl, but coating them in ionized tungsten?”

“That’s nothin’,” Hernandez added. “The tungsten residue it leaves behind is pyrophoric, which means that it ignites on contact with oxygen. It’ll pretty much cover a target in a layer of molten metal, if the plasma doesn’t kill ‘em first.”

“I’m glad we’re not on the wrong side of those things,” Evan muttered as he watched the team pass by.

“Plasma weapons were banned by the UN for a long time,” Hernandez explained. “That all changed when they realized that fightin’ the Bugs without them was next to impossible. There’s no other way to defeat their shields, not that we know of. Nobody is gonna vote to restrict them again now.”

The Trog team lined up outside the tunnel, Evan noting that one of them was carrying an even larger backpack, a cylindrical device that was marked with explosive warning symbols. That must be the charge they had been tasked with carrying down to the weapons depot. Whatever it was, it must be powerful enough to collapse the entire tunnel system. It took balls enough to go down into that maze of dark passageways, never mind carrying a bomb on your back all the way.

They breached the tunnel, their weapons shouldered, filing into the dark depths until Evan could no longer see them.

“What now?” Jade asked.

“I suppose we just keep the perimeter secure until they’re done,” Evan replied, turning his attention back to the treeline beyond. The fort was crawling with Marines now, a Penguin roaring overhead, doing a low pass over the forest. Evan lurched as he saw a glint of red among the crenelations on top of the structure, but it was a Jarilan, a pair of gossamer wings buzzing as it set down. They were wielding an XMR configured as a marksman rifle, kneeling to sweep its long barrel across the clearing.

“Why can’t you fly?” Hernandez asked, nudging Jade.

“Because I’m a girl,” she replied, as though it should have been obvious.

With the fort taken and Coalition troops swarming the structure like ants, a lot of the initial tension melted away. After the convoy ambush, Evan had been worried that he might lose his nerve when faced with the Kergeulan Bugs again, that he might freeze up. Instead, they had rolled over a dug-in enemy force with relative ease. These things weren’t so tough when they didn’t have the element of surprise.

***

Evan sat on a collapsed mound of soil, his XMR in his lap as he kept watch through the crenelations. The Trogs had been underground for a good hour now, and they still hadn’t come up yet. Sappers had been brought in to clear out more of the dragon’s teeth from the clearing, and now the captured fort was surrounded by tanks, meaning that the Marines had little to do other than sit around now.

He noticed Jade approaching from the trench to his left, Evan popping open his visor to greet her. Foster and Collins were in her path, and she paused to talk to them as she passed by, but they made a show of ignoring her. She remained cheerful anyway, leaving them with a smile on her face, though Evan couldn’t hear the exchange.

“Nice to have a little downtime,” she said, taking a seat on the mound beside him. “The coast still clear?”

“I think the seventy-ton tanks have it covered,” he replied.

“You doing okay?” she asked, watching him with those expressive eyes. “After everything that’s happened, I thought that maybe…”

“Nah, I’m fine,” he replied. “I was scared that I’d freeze up when I saw a Drone again, but it felt pretty cathartic to be able to fight back. Lying there in the debris after they ambushed the convoy…I felt so powerless. I was just waiting to die. I guess I needed to be reminded of what it feels like to fight back, to win. Sorry,” he added, chuckling to himself. “I don’t know why I’m laying all of this on you. We only hung out that one time.”

“I suspect that Hernandez isn’t the best listener,” she replied, eliciting another chuckle from him. “Besides, I asked, didn’t I?”

“You did,” he conceded. “What about you? Does it weird you out, having to kill Bugs? I know you said that you consider them a separate species entirely, but they do look like you.”

“It’s what I was made for,” she replied with a shrug. “Conflict between hives is the driving force behind Betelgeusian evolution. It’s probably what propelled them into space, what made them the way they are. I guess what does weird me out is seeing a little piece of them in myself.”

“How so?” Evan asked.

“I’m a hybrid,” she began. “Part of me is like them, part of me is like you. If I had been born one generation earlier, I would have been entirely like them, a cog in a machine.”

“Didn’t you tell me that Bugs are sentient?” Evan added.

“Ferals are sentient, sure,” she explained. “They’re thinking, feeling creatures, but they have very little agency. They’re given almost no opportunities to act of their own volition, and they’re not taught to think critically. I firmly believe that our heritage doesn’t make us who we are, our choices do. What are you if you can’t make any choices? A feral can never refuse an order, the concept wouldn’t even occur to them. They can never change, they can never become more than what they already are. I love that I have a purpose in life, that I was made for a reason, but I like that my choices make me a distinct person. I’m not just a Drone, I’m Jade, and there isn’t another Drone exactly like me. If I want to find my own purpose one day, I have that option. It’s up to me.”

“The more time I spend with you, the less I see you as a hybrid,” Evan added. “Like, you have four arms and a carapace, sure. Everything else about you is human, though. I guess that’s why they say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

“Thanks,” she replied with a smirk. “You would know, being a human.”

“It’s one of my few areas of expertise,” he joked, Jade’s feathery antennae wiggling in what might be amusement.

“Being nice to people who don’t deserve it is a very human quality.”

“Why wouldn’t you deserve it?” she asked, cocking her head.

“No, I’m talking about Foster and Collins,” he explained, nodding in the direction of the two surly Marines. “Nobody would blame you if you gave them a piece of your mind, you know.”

“All it would take is one instance of me losing my cool and lashing out for them to label me as dangerous,” she replied. “I have to be on my best behavior at all times, even when people try to get a rise out of me, because giving them what they want only serves to confirm their biases.”

“Damn,” Evan muttered. “That has to get old fast. Maybe a perfect performance is expected of Jarilans, but we humans have to blow off steam every now and then.”

“I suppose,” she conceded. “That’s why there are bars on the carriers, right?”

“Right,” he replied with a smile. “You know, I’m happy to keep paying for peach schnapps in exchange for some good company.”

“You don’t have to bribe me if you want to hang out when we’re off-duty,” she replied, giving him an affectionate punch on the arm. “I do like peach schnapps, though.”

“Hey, we’ll have something to celebrate when we get back to the Omaha, right? Any day that ends with everyone still breathing is a good one.”

There was a disturbance further down the trench, Evan leaning past Jade to see that the Trog team had returned to the surface. He was shocked to see that their heavy armor plating was covered in plasma burns, crisscrossed with scoring from what might be knives or chitin blades. There wasn’t a man among them who had come out of those tunnels unscathed. The last two to emerge were dragging their fallen comrades behind them, a pair of limp bodies hooked to their belts via carabiners. It looked like they had marched all the way back to ground level pulling them along like sleds. Even in the low gravity, that was a feat.

The nearby Marines rushed to help them, medics tending to the injured, but it looked futile from where Evan was standing. One of them had been crushed, only his suit keeping his broken body together. One of the medics asked a nearby Trog what had caused the injuries. The man lifted a gloved hand, hitting the panel on the side of his bulky helmet to raise his narrow visor, a pair of icy eyes peering out from beneath his sweat-drenched brow.

“They had a Warrior down there,” he replied. “Fucker slammed Larsen into the tunnel wall before we had a chance to fry it.”

“Couple of minutes on the clock, boss,” another member of the team added.

“Looks like they had a hell of a time down there,” Jade said, watching as some of them began to remove pieces of damaged armor. One of them raised a canteen to his lips, taking a long, deep draw from it.

“I wonder if this is standard fare,” Evan added.

“I’m surprised that a team so small could get the job done,” she replied. “We tried to develop strategies for tunnel clearing back on Jarilo, but it was a battle of attrition. We couldn’t figure out a way to do it without overwhelming numbers. Not to mention that there are security doors that have to be breached along the way, sections of tunnel that are flooded to prevent chemical attacks from spreading through the network, booby traps.”

The ground suddenly shook beneath them, more sections of the damaged crenelations collapsing as they were rattled loose. Evan reached out to grip Jade’s shoulder in alarm, releasing her when his mind caught up with his reflexes. That must be the explosive that the Trogs had planted. After a moment, the rumbling subsided, Evan and Jade exchanging a glance.

“I guess the job is done,” she said. “That must have been one hell of an explosion if we could feel it all the way up here.”

Evan’s helmet radio buzzed in his ear, Simmons’ voice coming through with a crackle.

“The weapons depot has been destroyed. Get back to the Puma, we’re heading out.”

“Sarge says we’re leaving,” he said, rising from his seat. He extended a hand to help Jade up, and she hesitated for a moment before taking it, almost as though it was a novel concept to her.

“We’re going back to the Omaha already?” she asked.

“Hit and run,” Evan replied. “That’s the plan, as I understand it. We hit their infrastructure hard and fast, then we bug out before they can muster a response. Gotta stay a step ahead of them if they outnumber us fifteen to one.”

They made their way back through the trench, the rest of the Marines leaving their posts, moving back to the IFVs. When Evan arrived, he saw that they were slowly driving back in the direction they had come, a team of sappers trying to dig out the two at the front of the pack that had plowed through the defensive wall. Delta-seventeen was one of them, soil covering its prow where it had smashed through the resin that covered the sloping structure, its wheels stuck in the mud that had resulted from the collapsed crenelations. The rest of the squad soon arrived, standing around as they watched the men dig.

“If we had a team of Workers, they could dig it out in a couple of minutes,” Jade lamented. She shrugged off her pack, holding it in her lower pair of arms as she rummaged inside with the upper pair, pulling out a collapsible shovel. “Come on,” she said, extending the tool as she turned to address her companions. “We all have shovels, so let’s help them out.”

Evan shrugged, reaching for his pack, Hernandez grumbling to himself as he did the same. Brooks and the rest of his friends joined in, as did the two Borealans, the felines digging with their massive hands instead of using the comparatively tiny shovels. Collins and Foster stood apart from the team, looking to Sergeant Simmons for confirmation.

“You heard her,” the Sergeant chided, his tone shifting to that of a drill instructor. “Get to it, Marines!”

***

After digging out the IFV, they drove back to the clearing where they had originally touched down. The small command post and the four CIWS turrets had already been removed, leaving only indents in the underbrush where they had once been. The artillery company, too, had been evacuated prior to their return. There were several landers already loading Kodiaks, the tanks driving up the open ramps, locking into place on the trolleys that were waiting for them inside. The four downward-facing engines of the craft idled, creating waves across the low shrubs and bushes that dominated the staging area, Evan able to hear their roar even from inside the Puma.

The remaining vehicles established a secure perimeter as the fleet of landers came and went. Eventually, there were only five vehicles left on the ground – Delta-seventeen, three other Pumas, and one of the Kodiaks.

“Our ride should be arriving right about now,” Simmons said, checking his wrist display idly as they waited in the IFV’s troop bay. Even watched the sky through the external cameras, admiring the flowing auroras and the swirling bands of cloud that streaked across the face of the gas giant. A glow of flame appeared as one of the landers descended, still baked by the heat of reentry.

It quickly grew larger, its engines burning as it decelerated, the other four vehicles appearing behind it like falling stars. As it came to a hover, one of the Pumas pulling away from the other vehicles in preparation for loading, the routine maneuver was interrupted.

A missile streaked out from between the trees as the edge of the clearing, sailing straight over the vehicles on a plume of chemical flame. It impacted the side of the descending lander, emitting a green flash of plasma, the craft rocking under the blow. When the smoke cleared, it was relatively unscathed, a black smear covering the heat tiles on its forward left engine housing. Its boosters burned brighter as it began to rise again, drifting away across the canopy, popping a stream of flares that sent a second missile streaking wide.

“Fuck!” Simmons growled, putting a finger to his ear. “The landers are taking fire, they’re bugging out!”

“I thought we killed ‘em all?” Hernandez protested, lifting his rifle from the rack beside his seat. “The fort was a ghost town when we left!”

“The bastards must have been hiding in the woods, biding their time,” Brooks replied. “They probably knew they couldn’t take the whole company, so they waited until there were only a few vehicles left on the ground.”

“Can’t be a large force if that’s the case,” Jade added. “Maybe they saw the assault on the fort and withdrew.”

“I’ll bet they have standing orders to attack targets of opportunity,” Evan said, terminating the external camera feed. “They know the logistical challenges of invading a planet – they’ve done it themselves – and they’ll know that even small losses will whittle us down.”

“I’ve called in CAS support, but they’re a good fifteen minutes out,” Simmons said as he rose from his seat. He switched off the safety on his rifle, then turned his helmeted head in the direction of the cab. “Driver, get that ramp open! We’re going to hold those fuckers off until support arrives.”

“On our own!?” Collins protested. “There are only five vehicles on the ground!”

“You got another suggestion?” Simmons snarled, marching over to the Marine. He reached down with one hand, holding his rifle in the other, unfastening the man’s harness. He gripped him by one of the straps on his chest rig, hauling him out of his seat. “Get your ass out there, Marine! I see so much as a scratch on my Puma, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

Sunlight bled into the bay as the ramp opened, the team piling out, their boots and claws thundering on the metal. They took cover behind the IFV relative to where the missile had come from, Evan noting that Jade had taken off her helmet and was shaking out her antennae like a woman might shake out her hair.

“What are you doing?” he hissed through his helmet’s speakers.

“I can’t smell anything with this thing on my head,” she complained, clipping the helmet to her belt.

The four IFVs had formed a kind of crescent-shaped barrier, parked nose to tail in the open field. The Kodiak rolled up to their left, keeping its forward armor towards the trees, its long canon rotating into place. The other squads had dismounted along with them and were taking cover behind their vehicles.

A helmeted head appeared from the cupola atop the Kodiak’s turret, staying behind the ring of reinforced glass as he peered out at the rest of the company. He switched to the local channel, Evan hearing his voice come through on the radio.

“Get some mortars into that treeline, flush the fuckers out!”

With most of Delta off the ground, it seemed that the tank commander had the highest rank, which put him in charge.

The Pumas began to fire into the forest, their shells shaking the branches as they exploded above the treetops, showering the area below in molten shrapnel. They followed up with suppressive fire from their railguns, cutting through the stout trunks like buzz saws. The tank rocked on its tracks as it fired a HE shell into the trees, flames and shrapnel toppling them, the mortar that was mounted on the commander’s blister joining the rest. The two gun pods hooked up to the attachment points to either side of the turret opened up shortly after, Evan marveling at the amount of tungsten the thing could throw downrange. The company pulverized the area, but without knowing exactly where the missiles had been fired from, it was little more than a delaying strategy.

As he put his back to the IFV, Evan saw that Jade was peering intently into the trees to their right. Her antennae were waving in the breeze, her eyes narrowing. Judging by the direction the smoke was drifting, the wind was coming from that direction.

“You smell something?” he asked.

“Sarge!” she shouted over the din, waving to get Simmons’ attention. “Picking something up to the North! Pheromones on the wind!”

“Damn it, they’re flanking!” He waved to the IFV, gesturing to the treeline. “Driver, move up to cover that angle! We have to put something between us and them!”

The team jogged out of the way as the vehicle rumbled to life, turning as it backed up, its honeycomb tires tearing up the undergrowth. It was on the rightmost end of the line, forming an L-shape to protect their flank.

Almost as soon as it had rolled to a stop, a barrage of plasma fire poured from the trees, impacting the far side of the IFV. It was small-arms fire, potentially deadly to the Marines, but it barely charred the vehicle’s thick armor plating. The trap had been cleverly baited, and if Jade hadn’t been there to sniff them out, the Bugs would have caught them out in the open.

The IFV fired back at them, the tank commander ordering the rest of the vehicles to focus their attention in that direction.

“Form a square!” the tank commander ordered. “I want a vehicle facing in each direction in case there are more of them. Space yourselves out, don’t bunch up. You know how much the roaches like indirect fire.”

The IFVs maneuvered again, setting up maybe thirty feet apart, extending their defensive barriers to cover more angles. The Marines hunkered down behind them, weathering more incoming fire from the forest. Evan felt like a cowboy taking refuge in a circle of wagons, bursts of gunfire coming from seemingly every direction now.

“How long until that goddamned Penguin gets here?” Brooks grunted, popping up to fire off a few shots into the trees.

“Another ten minutes, maybe longer,” Simmons replied. “Keep firing! We have to keep them suppressed!”

“Aw, shit!” Hernandez exclaimed. “Big fucker, three o’clock!”

Evan followed where he was pointing to see a large, camouflaged mass come lumbering out of the trees. It was a Warrior, the thick layers of armored carapace unmistakable, its crab-like claws swinging at its sides. There was what looked like a plasma weapon built into one of them, a mass of electronics intertwined with its flesh and chitin. From over its shoulder protruded a long tube, the Warrior lowering its stance as it aimed at it the vehicles.

It was some kind of recoilless rifle, a bright puff of propellant gas erupting from the far end as it fired, the projectile streaking across the clearing. It was aimed straight at the nearest IFV. Before Evan had even had time to blink, the far side of the Puma exploded outwards. It wasn’t an impact – it was the reactive armor system, a cloud of shrapnel spewing forth to intercept the missile. It couldn’t defend the vehicle against magnetically-contained plasma, but it could stop a physical projectile in its tracks. The remnants of the weapon hit the hull, bouncing off it harmlessly, Evan watching as the cloud of smoke rolled away across the underbrush.

The Warrior raised its gun arm, bolts of green electricity crackling between the prongs of its claws. It let loose a ball of plasma the size of a basketball, the crackling sphere of energy blazing towards the IFV. This time, it bit into the armor like acid, the ceramic tiles slagging under its immense heat. They sagged inward, leaving a jagged hole with edges that glowed like lava.

The vehicles were firing back now, the thirty-millimeter railguns turning on it. It staggered under their assault, the slugs tearing holes in its carapace, blowing out chunks of pale flesh. It was being taken apart where it stood, but its myriad redundant systems and backups kept it combat-effective for a few seconds longer. The Warrior managed to get off a second shot, this one splashing against the blister of the target Puma, the metal and polymer that made up the railgun barrel melting like a candle. Evan had to duck as flecks of molten metal showered the defenders, feeling one of the droplets impact his helmet.

The Kodiak’s turret finished rotating, the tank rocking back as it fired its main gun. The HE round caught the Warrior dead center, lifting it off the ground, the delayed explosion ripping its thorax open. Gore rained all around it as its ruined body fell, a secondary explosion caused by a ruptured plasma tank igniting the nearby foliage.

It wasn’t over yet, a barrage of grenades arcing towards them from the trees. Evan braced himself for the explosions, but they landed short of the IFVs, plumes of obscuring smoke pouring from them. It quickly filled the air, the wind carrying the thick haze towards the defenders, washing over them like a mist rolling in from the sea.

“Smokescreen!” Jade yelled, Evan having a hard time seeing her despite the Jarilan being in arm’s reach of him. “This is why they attacked from upwind!”

“Thermals, thermals!” Simmons shouted over the radio.

Evan was way ahead of him, lifting a hand to the touch panel on the side of his helmet, switching his visor to thermal imaging mode. The smoke was cleared away, the ghostly, white figures of his team taking its place. He peeked up over the IFV’s deployable barrier, catching a brief glimpse of a horde of Drones sprinting across the clearing towards them before a barrage of plasma forced him back down.

“They can see through the smoke too!” he warned.

“Get some fire on them!” Simmons ordered, raising his rifle over the wall to take pot shots. “Don’t let them close in!”

“God damn it!” Hernandez exclaimed. “Why is it always us?”

The other squads were repositioning now, the vehicles training their guns on the approaching Bugs. There must have been three dozen of them, the insects laying down suppressing fire to cover their advance, one group stopping to shoot as the others moved in a leapfrogging motion. They were doing a good job of keeping the Marines pinned, but there was nothing they could do about the vehicles.

The IFVs opened up, their MGLs and mortars raining down on the clearing, the explosions tossing the Bugs around like dolls. The Kodiak joined in, firing a canister round that cleaved through an entire squad of the things, practically vaporizing them with what amounted to hypervelocity buckshot.

With the suppressing fire petering out, the Marines joined in, rising to fire their XRMs over the barriers. The Bugs stood out against the black backdrop in white, making them easy targets, Evan shouldering his weapon as he trained his sights on one of them. He pulled the trigger, watching the splatter of fluids sail through the air as he caught one in the shoulder, knocking it to the ground like it had been hit with a sledgehammer. They were being cut down under the sustained gunfire, the smoking craters that covered the clearing glowing as hot and as bright as the bodies.

Despite the carnage, a handful of Bugs made it close enough that the other vehicles couldn’t fire on them without the danger of hitting their allies. With their IFV’s blister disabled, the squad was the only thing holding them off. Evan felt his rifle kick into his shoulder as he fired in full-auto, the white shapes blurring together into a formless mass as they neared.

“Pull back!” Simmons ordered, the team retreating from the safety of the wall as the last three surviving Drones vaulted over it. Borzka skewered one of them on his bayonet, the forward momentum of the charging insect driving the blade clean through it, the growling Borealan raising it into the air as it flailed its limbs.

Another was gunned down as McKay and Garcia turned their guns on it, the slugs sparking against the inside of the barrier as they overpenetrated. The creature stumbled forward a few paces, almost like it hadn’t realized that it was dead yet, then toppled over into the mud.

The third one leapt from the top of the wall, using it for leverage, landing on top of Collins. The Marine yelled in alarm as he was dragged to the ground, the Drone pinning him in the dirt, unsheathing a long blade with alarming speed. Before anyone else had the time to react, Jade sprang into action, tackling it like a linebacker. She knocked it off Collins, who scrambled out of the way as the two insects rolled around in the mud, grappling with their four arms. Evan trained his rifle on the pair, but he couldn’t get a clean shot, cursing into his helmet as they fought. They were moving so quickly, so violently, their jerking motions nothing like that of a mammalian creature.

The Drone’s serrated mandibles opened like jaws in a silent war cry as it rolled on top of Jade, raising its long, chitinous blade above its helmeted head. It prepared to plunge the weapon into her chest, but she caught its forearm in her upper hands as it brought the blade down, stopping its sharp point a hair’s breadth from her thorax. With her lower arms, she reached for her handgun, pulling the XMH from its holster on her hip. She fired, but faster than Evan’s eyes could track, the Drone swept it aside to send the shot wide. It gripped the contours of her shell with its two remaining hands, pulling itself into her, the extra leverage forcing the blade into her mud-caked chest piece. It sank a good inch, Jade letting out a yell of primal frustration as the thing clung to her like a spider.

There was a flash of movement, Tatzi darting in from behind them. She tossed her XMR aside, reaching out with her massive, furry hands. They were large enough to encompass the thing’s helmet, which is exactly what she did, her sharp claws sinking into its face as she tore it off the struggling Jarilan. With a sound more like a roaring lioness than a battle cry, she drew the writhing insect back as though she was about to throw it, turning towards the IFV. She slammed the unfortunate Drone’s head into the hull like she was trying to push it straight through the armor, her bicep bulging beneath her pressure suit, helmet and carapace alike crumpling like foil beneath her hand. Its body slumped to the ground, leaving a smear of off-green gore down the side of the vehicle, Tatzi shaking off the fragments of shell that clung to her matted fur.

Evan rushed to Jade’s side, the broken tip of the Drone’s blade still embedded in her chest.

“Are you alright?” he demanded, kneeling beside her. He lifted her head out of the mud, Jade blinking back at him.

“I’m good,” she replied, her face plates shifting into a smile. “Didn’t go all the way through.”

“Oh, r-right,” he stammered. He took her hand, helping her up, Jade trying to brush the mud off her carapace. “Not again,” she groaned, touching a finger against the broken blade that jutted from her chest. “I just replaced this…”
As the smoke began to clear, the familiar sound of an engine echoed across the forest, Evan glancing up to see a Penguin swooping over the treetops. It came in for a low pass, strafing the forest beyond with a stream of gunfire, pulling up to leave a trail of destruction in its wake.

“Not picking up any targets,” Brooks said, ducking back behind the wall to reload. He dropped his empty magazine, slamming in a fresh one. “Did we get ‘em all?”

“There are too many bodies for me to pick out live ones,” Jade added. “All I smell is burnt meat.”

“They are routed,” Tatzi snarled, baring her sharp teeth. “They attack by surprise and still fail.”

“Are you guys good in there?” Simmons asked, banging on the hull of the IFV with his fist. Whatever reply he got seemed to satisfy him.

Evan heard the tank commander’s voice come through again, turning to see him rising from his cupola. The Kodiak’s turret was still smoking, the air above its protective shroud shimmering like a mirage.

“All clear. The landers are coming back, so get ready to load up. Let’s get the hell out of here before the noise attracts more of them.”

The Penguin circled slowly overhead, keeping watch as the bulky landers returned, putting down nearby. Though damaged, Delta-seventeen was still operational, Evan eyeing the slagged hole in its left side as he jogged along beside it. The Kodiak would be the last to board, keeping its guns trained on the forest beyond the cratered clearing as the IFVs drove up the waiting ramps. The squad waited until seventeen was safely secured in its trolley before following behind it, the crew piling out of the hatch on the roof, joining the Marines as they strapped into their seats. The loading ramp began to close, Evan feeling the deck shake beneath his feet, the lander rising into the air. He gripped the armrests of his crash couch, feeling turbulence buffet him, his tension subsiding the higher they climbed. Finally, the shaking subsided, letting him know that they were safely in orbit.

“Why do these roaches have such a fuckin’ boner for us?” Hernandez asked, relieved laughter coming from the rest of the team. Even Foster and Collins joined in, Evan hearing snippets of their chuckling over the radio. “We always seem to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I don’t know if we’re lucky or unlucky,” Donovan sighed, Brooks giving him a nudge with his elbow.

“We’re a Ghost Company,” he said. “Luckiest unlucky sons of bitches in the Navy.”

***

The lander docked with the Omaha’s stern gate, the damaged IFV sliding out onto the rails in the garage, joining the rest of the fleet. Every vehicle was caked in dirt and mud now, many sporting burn marks on their armor where plasma had struck them, mechanics washing them off with hoses that descended from the ceiling. Seventeen had taken the most damage by far, a team of concerned engineers jogging over to examine the jagged hole in its hull.

“That’s gonna take a while to buff out,” Simmons muttered as he appraised the Puma. “I’ll ask the L.T, but we’re short on vehicles as it is, and I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more action until they fix this. You’re all dismissed until further notice.”

The squad began to make their way deeper into the garage, but Simmons called after them, listing off Jade’s serial number to get her attention. She turned to face him, sliding off her helmet, her feathery antennae waving in the air.

“Jade, wasn’t it?” Simmons asked. “You did good down there. If you hadn’t sniffed out that flanking maneuver, that fight could have gone very differently. Keep it up.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replied with a nod.

“Now, go get some R&R,” he added, addressing the rest of the squad. “I have a feeling this campaign isn’t going to let up any time soon, so make sure you celebrate the small victories while you can.”

***

The squad made their way through the winding corridors of the Omaha, heading for the armory, where they turned their weapons and armor over for maintenance and cleaning. Everything that they were wearing had been caked in mud, and some of their armor plates had been damaged in the fighting, the team of armorers who were on duty seeing to the repairs. Jade was the exception, as her chest piece could only be replaced by her own people. For all Evan knew, they might grow the things in vats.

They took off their pressure suits, too, Evan peeling the clinging garment off as his sweat glued it to his skin. Once again, Jade was the exception, watching curiously as her companions stripped down to their underwear. Her curious eyes lingered on Evan’s figure, her long antennae twitching, the Jarilan quickly looking away when he noticed her. There was nothing abnormal about her curiosity – he felt the same way about her. Which parts of her armored carapace were removable, and what lay beneath them had been weighing on his mind ever since he had seen her wearing a tank top. What modesty did an insect have to preserve?

They headed straight for the showers once they were done, the tone of their conversations jovial. The fighting had left everyone tired and sore, but victory had elevated the mood considerably. Being delayed on the ground meant that the majority of the battalion had already finished cleaning up, and all but a couple of the shower cubicles were vacant. They didn’t have doors, but they had dividing walls to offer some measure of privacy from one’s immediate neighbors.

Evan had never felt self-conscious in the showers before. Co-ed living was something that every Marine had to get used to. It was a fact of life on Navy ships, where there just wasn’t the space to segregate all of the facilities by gender. Still, something about having Jade here made him hesitate to remove his shorts along with everyone else. The Borealans seemed to have no concept of modesty, their absurdly toned physiques impossible to ignore as they strode across the room. Evan found himself marveling at Tatzi’s chest. Calling her well-endowed would have been an understatement. The pale skin where their bodies were devoid of fur was crisscrossed in faded scars, no doubt wrought through a lifetime of physical altercations.

As the rest of the men headed for their cubicles, Evan’s eyes turned on Jade, who was walking into a booth at the far end of the room. She turned back to glance at him, her lower hands starting to pry off her chest piece. With a coy smile, she stepped out of view, leaving him standing alone on the smooth tiles. He came back to his senses, then stepped into a cubicle, sliding off his shorts. The cool water cascaded over his warming face, the sound of it splashing against the tiled floor filling the booth, steam starting to billow as he turned up the temperature with a few presses of a touchpad on the wall.

They had nowhere to be, so he took his time, enjoying the sensation of the accumulated sweat and grime being washed away. He retrieved a bottle of body wash from a shelf, and before long, he was clean. When he stepped out of the booth, he saw that everyone else had already left. He wrapped himself in a towel from a nearby rack, then headed to the squad’s shared quarters. When he arrived, he found the rest of the team crowding around Jade, Evan quickly pulling a fresh uniform from his locker. Fumbling with his zipper, he walked over to see what all the fuss was about.

She was wearing her tank top again, and she was holding up her chest piece, showing where the broken Bug blade had embedded itself in the material. The pointed tip had penetrated the inside of the plate, creating a crack in it, protruding maybe a quarter inch. Without knowing what anatomy she was concealing beneath the shirt, it was hard to be sure, but it looked like the blade might have done some serious damage if it had penetrated just a little deeper.

“You took your sweet ass time,” Hernandez said, noticing that Evan had arrived. “Come on, we’re gonna hit the bar.”

“You guys were waiting for me?” he asked.

“We’re a team, aren’t we?” Brooks replied with a grin. “Ghosts have to stick together.”

Evan looked for Foster and Collins, noting that they were still standing apart from the rest of the squad. Even after everything that had happened, they still didn’t trust Jade? Hell, she had risked her life to save Collins, taking a Bug blade to the chest in the process. Despite their mistrust, they followed behind the rest of the group as they searched for the Omaha’s bar. It didn’t take them long to locate it – the ship was about half the size of the Rorke, after all. The rec facility was a little more spacious than those of the jump carrier, but it was the only one onboard. There was a bar with a mechanical arm that was serving drinks, along with the usual fare of booths, tables, and games.

This was where the majority of the battalion had ended up. The room was packed to bursting, the sound of dozens of conversations being held all at once creating muddled background noise as the squad pushed their way through the crowd to reach the bar. The two Borealans led the way, the throngs parting before the enormous, muscle-bound felines. They ordered their drinks, then struggled over to the far end of the room, hoping to find a vacant table.

Despite how crowded the room was, the squad was able to find some seating. Evan, Hernandez, and Jade found themselves sitting around a table with Borzka and Tatzi. The chairs were too small for the Borealans, so they pushed them aside, sitting down on the floor. Their exaggerated stature put them at a comfortable height all the same. Brooks, Donovan, McKay, and Garcia occupied a vacant booth in arm’s reach. Collins and Foster hovered around nearby, not wanting to join Evan’s group, but not having the room to sit with Brooks and his friends.

“Ugh,” Tatzi grumbled, raising a bottle of pink liquid to her lips. She took a long draw, then wiped her mouth on the back of her furry hand. She turned it over, giving her palm a sniff, then grimacing. “No matter how much I try to wash it off, I cannot clean the stench of that insect’s blood from my coat.”

“We fought well today,” Borzka added, the low growl of his voice making it quite easy to hear him over the din of the bar. “Revenge will not resurrect the fallen, but it is a salve that soothes our loss. You,” he added, pointing a clawed finger at Jade as he held his bottle in his hand. She blinked back at him, her antennae standing up straight in what might be surprise. “You took a blade for your pack. You alerted us to a cowardly ambush that might have been our undoing. You bear no scars, but you are a warrior all the same.”

“That’s because she keeps changin’ her shell,” Hernandez added, leaning over to give her an aggressive pat on the back. “Our little hermit crab over here.”

“To Jade,” Brooks called over from the booth, raising his glass into the air. “For keeping us from getting caught with our pants down.”

The rest of the team raised their drinks in a cheer, even the Borealans joining in, seemingly aware of the human custom already. Jade couldn’t blush – she had no cheeks – but Evan got the impression that she was trying all the same. He couldn’t see the two loners anymore, they had blended in with the crowd.

“What’s everyone drinkin’?” Hernandez asked. “I hear Borealans can’t hold their liquor,” he added, looking right at Tatzi. “Is that fruit punch you got there?”

She glared at him across the table, shooting daggers, Evan finding himself pulling away reflexively. He didn’t know enough about Borealans to tell whether she was about to laugh or swipe his head off.

“It is called raises the hair,” she replied. “A wine from my home territory made from fermented berries.” She slid it across the table, her arm long enough to reach right across it, Hernandez examining the alien text on the label. It looked like a font made from claw scratches. He lifted it to his nose, giving it a tentative sniff, then took a sip.

“Hey, it really does taste like fruit punch!” he chuckled as he handed it back to her. “I bet I could drink you two under the table.”

“Perhaps,” Tatzi snarled, wiping off the rim of the bottle with her furry hand. “Though I have other ways to put you on your back.”

“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Hernandez replied, her eyes narrowing at him. Evan still couldn’t tell if they were arguing or flirting. Maybe there was no difference to a Borealan.

“Your peach schnapps okay?” he asked, leaning in to talk to Jade. “You haven’t drunk any yet.”

“I’m a little worried about putting people off with the whole proboscis thing,” she replied, one of her antennae tickling his cheek as she whispered to him. “Don’t want to weird them out right when they’re starting to warm up to me.”

“Don’t sweat it,” he insisted, giving her an encouraging nudge. “You’re the toast of the town tonight, they won’t mind. You think they’ll forget that you saved the day because you have some unconventional table habits?”

His words seemed to embolden her, and she smiled back at him, bringing her glass a little closer. She opened up her mouthparts, her proboscis snaking forth to plunge into the amber liquid.

“Whoa!” Hernandez exclaimed, pulling away in surprise. Evan cringed on the inside, silently praying that his friend would be tactful for once in his life. “That’s fuckin’ rad! What is that?”

“It’s my proboscis,” she replied hesitantly, glancing over at him. “It’s how we eat.”

“You can talk while that thing is out? That’s some…ventriloquist shit,” he added as he took another draw from his cup. “Can I touch it?”

“Come on, Hernandez,” Evan began, but Jade didn’t seem offended by his request. She lifted the prehensile tube of flesh from her glass and extended it towards him, the Marine giving it a wary prod with his finger. She suddenly coiled it around his digit, making him jump in his seat, his alarm quickly morphing into laughter.

“It feels like a tongue,” he snickered.

“I can do that and more,” Tatzi interjected, not wanting to be outdone by the Jarilan. Jade retracted her organ, watching along with Hernandez as the Borealan’s tongue parted her lips. It was tapered at the end, its upper surface covered in tiny, hooked barbs like those of a cat. It kept coming, Evan’s eyes widening as a solid foot of glistening flesh extended. She wrapped it around the neck of her wine bottle like a tentacle, lifting it off the table, Hernandez watching slack-jawed as she held it aloft. She set it back down, her tongue sucking into her mouth like a giant strand of spaghetti.

“Looks like I’ve been upstaged,” Jade chuckled, leaning back in her seat.

“What can yours do?” Tatzi added, turning her piercing eyes on Hernandez again.

“Well, shit,” he replied as he slammed the last of his drink. “Let me get a few more of these in me, and maybe you’ll find out.”

Tatzi cocked an eyebrow, Evan and Jade sharing a smirk

“Are they hitting it off?” she whispered. “I can’t tell.”

The drinking and celebrating continued for a couple of hours longer. Although there were limits on how many drinks each person could order, the resourcefulness of thirsty men never ceased to amaze. Drinks were sometimes ordered, then kept in reserve for celebrations, and Marines who didn’t drink would sometimes order for their friends who did. Evan had even heard stories of wily engineers using empty wastewater vats for brewing bootleg alcohol. He was staying under his limit, personally, but some of the other Marines in the battalion were getting buzzed. It was a fun atmosphere overall. The bar was full of laughter and loud conversation, everyone mingling and chatting freely.

It was a pleasure to see Jade grow more comfortable as the night went on. It wasn’t that she had ever lacked confidence, having learned to be direct with people, especially when it came to issues surrounding her heritage. Still, to see her so relaxed in such a social setting was more gratifying than Evan could have anticipated. She had a place here, in the squad, in the battalion. Rather than treat her like an outsider – like a Bug – she was just another Marine to them.

Through the crowd, Evan saw Collins walking towards their table, a drink in hand. He looked a little tipsy, Evan bristling as he neared. He headed straight for Jade, who didn’t notice him until he was standing right next to her, turning her head curiously.

“Hey, Bug,” he began. He was swaying a little, pausing to take a drink from his glass.

The conversation stopped, everyone at the table watching him cautiously. Evan prepared to rise from his chair to intercede, but he doubted that he’d have time to move before Tatzi took Collins’ head off, judging by the way she was eyeing him.

“I just wanted to say…” Collins hesitated, looking as uncomfortable as Evan had ever seen him. “Thanks,” he stammered. “You put your ass on the line for me down there, and I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”

“Don’t mention it,” she replied, looking just as surprised as Evan was.

“You took a knife for me, and I don’t forget things like that.” He took another drink, leaning a hand on their table to steady himself. “I got your back from now on.”

Foster suddenly appeared behind him, slinking out of the crowd like a panther, taking his friend by the shoulder.

“Come on,” he whispered, steering him away. His eyes met Evan’s as he left the table, the two scowling at one another briefly as the pair vanished into the crowd again.

“Told you,” Jade said, giving Evan a nudge with her elbow. “That’s a stage three right there.”

“Clearly, I shouldn’t have questioned your methods,” he chuckled. “What about Foster, though? He’s pretty isolated now that Collins has wised up.”

“He’ll come around,” she replied with a shrug. “Maybe he just needs a little more time.”

***

Evan downed the last of his drink, setting the empty glass back on the table. The party was winding down now, and a lot of the Marines were leaving for their quarters. Hernandez and Tatzi had shuffled a little closer together to whisper conspiratorially, the pair bumping shoulders now. The eight-foot, five-hundred-pound feline was getting touchy-feely with him, her long tail coiling around his leg beneath the table like a furry snake. Flirting with a Borealan apparently involved a lot of arguing and provocation, but it seemed to be working in the plucky Marine’s favor. Perhaps his time on Valbara had made him too confident for his own good.

Evan had assumed that Borzka might object, but whatever the nature of the relationship between pack members was, he didn’t seem to pay them any mind.

Brooks and his three friends from the Dragoon were about as drunk as they could get without being clocked by an MP and thrown in the brig. They were now playing a very clumsy game of pool as a group of Marines watched. Collins was among them, to Evan’s surprise, but his surly counterpart was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had finally read the room and retired early.

“You want to get out of here?” Evan asked, turning to Jade. “I think the happy couple could use a little privacy.”

“Sure,” she chuckled, watching as Tatzi gave Hernandez’s ear a nibble with her sharp teeth. “If you think he’s going to survive the night, that is.”

“He’ll be fine,” Evan replied, sliding out his chair. “If he can handle six Valbarans, he can probably handle one Borealan.”

They made their way out of the bar, the door sliding shut behind them to block out the noise from within, plunging them into a somewhat relieving silence. All they could hear now was the distant hum of the ship’s systems.

“Are we going back to the barracks?” Jade asked.

“I had something else in mind,” he replied, gesturing in the opposite direction down the hallway. “The Omaha’s layout seems to be identical to the Spratley’s, and if that’s the case, I have something I think you’ll want to see.”

“How mysterious,” she chuckled. To his surprise, she extended both of her right hands towards him. “Top or bottom?”

“Huh?” Evan stammered, his face starting to warm.

“Pick a hand,” she added with a smirk.

He hesitated for a moment, then took her upper hand in his, leading her down the corridor. He hadn’t really noticed until now, but the carapace that usually covered her four-fingered hands must be some kind of armored gauntlet. They were soft and fleshy, her skin smooth to the touch and warmer than his own. It didn’t feel quite like human skin – there were no hairs or wrinkles, no imperfections. Instead, it felt more like a thin, waxy film that had been pulled taut. Her touch made his heart quicken, and he wasn’t quite sure why.

He led her through the mechanical innards of the ship, passing a few engineers and personnel on the way who stopped what they were doing to watch the strange sight. It was a maze, but one that he knew well in spite of the subtle changes here and there. The proverbial new coat of paint did nothing to erase the sense of direction that he had developed over the course of his many deployments.

“So,” Jade began, her hold on his hand still tight as she walked along at his side. “Hernandez and Tatzi…is that something that happens a lot?”

“How do you mean?” he asked.

“Borealans and humans,” she replied. “Krell and humans, Valbarans and Krell, whatever the pairing. Do aliens get together often in the Coalition?”

“It’s not always a pairing with Borealans and Valbarans, if you catch my drift,” he replied with a chuckle. “But, yeah, there’s a lot of that going around. It’s not really a surprise,” he added with a shrug. “Every species has to reproduce, right? Evolution usually encourages them to do it by making it feel good. Add a little novelty to the equation, and…the rest is history. I don’t need to explain the birds and the bees to you, do I?”

“No, I’m a big girl,” she replied with a laugh that came off a tad nervous. “It just surprised me, is all. Based on my interactions with UNN personnel on Jarilo, I suppose I expected there to be more distance between the different species. The people here are…surprisingly permissive.”

After a few minutes, they arrived at their destination, stopping before a nondescript door.

“Here we go,” Evan said, reaching for the touch panel beside it. “Here’s hoping they don’t lock this room on the Omaha, or this is going to be really anticlimactic.”

To his relief, the panel slid open without requiring any kind of passcode, the pair stepping inside. The room was small and cramped, maybe ten feet across, empty save for a few tool crates that were stacked in one corner. The subject of interest, however, was a narrow window that spanned the far wall. It was situated with a view of one of the carrier’s engine nacelles that projected from the side of the vessel above it, as there was no space to mount them at the rear with the stern gate occupying the space. Windows on Navy vessels weren’t common, as they presented structural weaknesses, but this one was used to get a visual of the engine in the event that the external cameras failed. Evan led Jade to the window, the pair turning their eyes down to the planet below.

Whoa,” Jade gasped, pressing a hand against the glass. “There are no windows on the Constancy. I’ve only been able to catch glimpses of the planet from space through the portholes on the shuttles. You can see it so clearly from up here…”

“There’s no atmosphere to create distortion,” Evan explained, watching the swirling clouds roll past. “That’s why it looks so crisp.”

“I can see the gas giant, too,” Jade said excitedly as she pointed beyond the curve of Kerguela’s horizon. “I can’t even get my head around how big it is. Gives me vertigo,” she chuckled, taking a couple of minutes longer to admire the view. “Thanks,” she added, turning around to face him. She blinked up at him with those large, expressive eyes, her long lashes just as feathery as her antennae. He had never noticed the brilliant green of her eyes before, contrasting with her dark sclera, how they seemed to sparkle as they caught the light. “This was a cool idea.”

“Don’t sweat it,” he replied.

“There’s no danger of that. I can’t sweat,” she added with a chuckle. “Ever since we were transferred to the Rorke, you’ve been so nice to me. You’re the only guy here who’s ever wanted to sit down and get to know me, really talk to me.”

“Hey, the rest of the team has warmed up to you as well,” he said. “It just took them a little longer to come around.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she continued with a shake of her head, the motion making her antennae wave. “The other Marines tolerate me, some are friendly, but you seem to actually want to spend time with me. I haven’t had conversations like the ones we have since I left Jarilo months ago.”

“Of course,” he replied, feeling his heart start to pump faster. He was making excuses for why he wanted to be around her, and he wasn’t sure exactly why. “You’re interesting. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“You’re considerate. You care about my feelings,” she continued as she took a step closer. She took his hands in her lower pair, the upper coming to rest against his chest. “Every time you think someone’s about to insult me or say something insensitive, I see you flinch. Whenever you look at me, you smell…”

She closed her eyes, Evan feeling those soft antennae brush his face, tickling his skin. Before she could finish her thought, they were interrupted, the door to the room sliding open to reveal Foster standing there.

He had already been angry, but upon seeing the two in such close proximity, he became furious. His eyes wild, he marched into the room, Evan putting himself between Jade and the red-faced Marine.

“What the hell are you doing here, Foster?” he demanded. “Did you follow us?”

“I wanted to give you two a piece of my mind,” he replied, pointing an unsteady finger at them. He was drunk, clearly, swaying a little as he continued. “But now, I find you holed up in your own private love nest. What the fuck is this?”

“You need to leave,” Evan snapped, taking a step closer to him. “I’m tired of your bullshit, Foster.”

My bullshit?” Foster replied, standing his ground. “Let me tell you what’s bullshit. Bullshit is spending my entire life fighting Bugs, watching them murder my friends on a dozen worlds, only to be told that I have to share a barracks with them. Bullshit is having them turn what friends I got left against me.”

“You’re talking about Collins?” Evan asked. “Nobody turned him against you, Foster. He just realized that Jade isn’t his enemy.”

Jade?” Foster scoffed. “We giving them names now? Do they think that’s gonna make us more attached to them? They’re fucking Bugs, why does nobody else see that? That thing is just as likely to eat your face off as it is to kiss you.”

“Do you really think that everyone in the battalion is crazy besides you?” Evan replied. “We’re all nuts, and you’re the only one who has it figured out?”

“They killed all my friends!” he snarled, his voice cracking. “They wiped out my squad, murdered my whole company, and they did the same to yours. How can you stand to be in the same room as one of those things without throttling it? How can you let it touch you?” he added with a shiver of disgust.

“Jade saved my life,” Evan replied. “She saved Collins’ life today. She saved us from having a whole Bug regiment come crawling up our ass. If she wanted to kill us, all she’d have to do is nothing.”

“They’re infiltrating the UNN, that’s what they’re doing,” Foster added with a frantic gesture. “They can’t defeat us militarily, so they’re gonna wait until there are enough Bugs in the Navy, then kill the rest of us in the space of a few hours.”

“You’re drunk, Foster,” Evan sighed. “Go back to the barracks, sleep it off.”

“Like I’m gonna take your word for it,” Foster spat. “I don’t know what the fuck I just walked in on, and I don’t want to, but I can see that you’re wrapped around that Bug’s finger. I suppose it’s worth selling out your species to get your dick wet.”

“That’s enough,” Evan said, the last of his patience running out. He took a step forward and gave Foster a shove, pushing him out of the room. Foster stumbled backwards a few steps, then came back at him, swinging for his face. Evan hadn’t been ready for it, the sudden blow striking him in the cheek, sending him reeling. Foster might be drunk, but there wasn’t a Marine on the ship who couldn’t hold his own in a fight.

Foster wound up another punch, but Evan preempted it, striking him in the kidney with a swift right jab. He was met with an elbow to the nose, feeling it crumple as he staggered backwards, his hands moving up to cover his face reflexively. He could taste blood in the back of his throat, the pain blinding him for a moment. Foster took advantage of Evan’s lapse to drive his knee into his gut, making him double over as the breath was forced from his lungs.

As Evan recovered, he saw that his opponent was readying another right hook, and he was able to duck under it. He delivered two swift jabs to Foster’s face, bloodying his nose, but the drunken Marine just wouldn’t go down. He punched Evan in the jaw, making him fall back into Jade’s waiting arms. She caught him, then steadied him, stepping between the men.

“Enough!” she snapped, catching Foster’s arm. Evan was just as surprised as Foster. He had never heard her raise her voice before. Foster grimaced as she squeezed, then tried to pull away, finding that he couldn’t. Jade was far stronger than he was. Through bleary eyes, Evan saw her force Foster back into the hallway outside, the Marine looking at her with a blend of anger and fear as she released him. He got the picture, stumbling away down the hallway.

“Bugfucker!” he called back, Jade closing the door behind him.

When she turned back to Evan, there was still anger in her eyes, but her expression softened as she looked him up and down. His nose was bleeding, he had a black eye, and his lip was split.

“You’re a mess,” she sighed, making her way back over to him. She supported him with one hand, taking his face in another, examining his injuries. “Where’s the nearest bathroom? Let’s get you cleaned up.”

***

Evan led Jade to a bathroom down the hallway, finding it mercifully empty. He looked at himself in the mirror, seeing the extent of his cuts and bruises. He didn’t need to visit the infirmary, but he’d certainly taken an ass-kicking. He spat out a mouthful of blood in the sink, then felt around for broken teeth, finding none.

Jade fetched a flannel from a dispenser on the wall, wetting it beneath the faucet, then began to dab it against his face. He pulled away as she touched it against his split lip, but she gripped his upper arm firmly, keeping him still.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said, Evan wincing as she held the cold fabric against the cut on the bridge of his nose. “I told you not to confront Foster – that it would only make things worse – and you did it anyway. I don’t need you to protect me.”

“But…he was drunk, he wouldn’t leave,” Evan protested. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Now he’s probably going to go around telling everyone that we attacked him,” she sighed, wetting the cloth again. “Were you not listening when I told you that losing my cool, even for a second, can sabotage the whole process? I’m back to square one with him now, and anyone he tells.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Evan stammered. “I couldn’t just…stand there and let him talk all that shit about you.”

She took one of his hands in hers, guiding it beneath the flow of water, cleaning the blood from his knuckles. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, he just felt stupid. He’d put his hands on Foster first, and for what? To defend Jade’s honor? She didn’t need his protection. She was stronger than both of them, and her skin was thicker. To top it off, he hadn’t even won, and it was Jade who had stepped in to end the fight.

“I didn’t mean to ruin your night,” he added, Jade glancing up at him.

“Don’t be silly,” she chided, wringing out the bloody flannel. She soaked it in cold water again, then held it against his black eye, Evan grimacing. “I had a wonderful night. Foster being an ass doesn’t change that. Here, hold this.”

“But…he ruined our moment,” Evan continued, holding the flannel in place as Jade fetched another one. “We were…I mean…you were going to…”

“I was going to what?” she asked, smirking at him.

“Never mind,” he grumbled, leaning on the edge of the sink dejectedly.

“I’m teasing,” she snickered, reaching up to cup his cheek in her hand. She turned him to face her, drawing closer, her light frame pressing up against him. To his surprise, he felt something soft beneath her tank top, squashing against his chest as she leaned into him. Standing on her toes so that she could reach, she pressed her lips against his, Evan’s heart skipping a beat as she began to kiss him. Ignoring the sting in his split lip, he reciprocated, her proximity making her delicate antennae brush against his face. Her lips were so full and soft, coated with that same smooth, waxy skin. They were more than just a facade to make her look more human, Jade able to move them just as a human would, pursing them as their embrace grew more animated. Something about her scent made his head spin each time he took in a breath. It was oddly floral, alluring, tugging at the back of his brain.

She broke away, smiling at his red face. He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to the punch, reaching up to dab at the cut on his lower lip.

“You’re dumb, and you don’t listen to me,” she began, the tenderness of her soothing touch contrasting with the harshness of her words. “But…you’re sweet, even when you’re making mistakes.”

“Uh…thanks?” he mumbled. “What do we do now?”

“Now, we get you cleaned up, then we go back to our quarters,” she replied as she cleaned some more of the blood from his nose. “I’ll kiss you some more when you don’t taste like blood.”

“Do you think Foster will go to Simmons?” Evan asked. “He could get us both in trouble for fighting.”

“As drunk as he was?” she chuckled. “No way. If he even crosses paths with an officer, he’s going to be spending the rest of his night in the brig.”

“Sorry…again,” he added as she wrung out her flannel in the sink. “I’ll take your advice next time, I promise.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh,” she sighed. “Being insulted, having people be afraid of me, those are just everyday occurrences for me. I’ve trained myself not to react, never to be hotheaded, but you haven’t. If you’re going to date me, you have to understand that this will probably happen again.”

“W-wait, date you?” he asked.

“Isn’t that what you want?” she continued, cocking her head. “I can taste it in your pheromones. Sorry,” she added with an apologetic smile. “I can’t really help it.”

“Yeah,” Evan replied, feeling butterflies surge in his belly. “Of course.”

“Good,” she chimed, tossing her flannel into a nearby trash can with her usual precision. “Then, we’re on the same page.” She walked over to the door, the panel sliding open automatically. Evan stood there, not knowing what else to say, Jade turning to lean against the frame. “Bugfucker,” she said, laughing to herself. “Foster is an ass, but he’s creative, I’ll give him that. What was it that Hernandez said…don’t threaten me with a good time?”

She stepped out into the hall, Evan taking a few flustered moments to process what had just happened before following after her.

***

When they made their way back to their shared quarters, they found that most of the squad had returned, though Hernandez and Tatzi were conspicuously absent. Foster had made it there before them, but he was standing off in one corner of the room, boxed in by Borkza. The Borealan was towering over him, baring his teeth as he glared down at the bloodied Marine. When he noticed that Evan had arrived, Borkza turned to glance at him.

“What happened?” he growled. “The scent of your blood is on him.”

“It’s alright, Borzka,” Evan replied as he made his way over to his locker. “We had a fight, that’s all.”

“A dominance bout?” the Borealan asked, his ears pricking up in surprise. “Who won?”

“Nobody,” Evan replied.

Sensing that whatever conflict had been brewing between the two had been resolved, at least for the time being, Borzka took a step back to let Foster go free. The surly Marine gave Evan a scowl, then made his way over to the bunk that he had chosen at the furthest end of the room, well away from the other members of the team. He flopped down onto the mattress without a word, rolling over to face the wall, too drunk and angry to even clean himself up first. If Evan wanted to try to make up with him, it would be easier when he was sober.

***

“So, why do you sound like you have ten different accents?” Fletcher asked, lifting one of his prosthetic legs to step over a protruding root.

“What do you mean?” Xipa sighed, bobbing gently along with Gustave’s gait as she rode on his shoulder.

“Sometimes when you talk, you sound American,” the Earth’nay explained. “Other times, you sound British, sometimes Indian, sometimes Russian. Why is that?”

“I am not aware of your accents,” Xipa explained, a flutter of irritation passing through her headdress. “My people learn languages through mimicry. If a word or phrase is spoken in an accent, then we shall repeat it in the same manner that we heard it.”

“It makes you sound like a parrot,” Fletcher chuckled.

“I don’t know what a parrot is,” she hissed, growing weary of his constant prodding. He seemed to have grown bored since the ambush two days prior, and he now found his amusement in making pointless small talk. “Not all Valbara’nay are obsessed with your kind, you know,” she added.

“That implies there are some who are,” he shot back with a grin that exposed his flat teeth.

“Not a day goes by that I am not exposed to human music or insipid alien media,” she grumbled. “I cannot walk the streets of my city without hearing it bleeding out of the lounges and restaurants.”

“Hey, what’s wrong with human music?” Fletcher asked in mock outrage.

“Imagine listening to a song sung by a creature whose vocal range is one-tenth that of your own,” Xipa continued with a flush of annoyed red. “Every human song sounds like it’s off-key, it’s maddening.”

“But, what about our music? You can’t tell me you hate the sound of an electric guitar.”

“Vulgar, dry,” she grumbled. “Music should flow like a feather dance, vocals should be a demonstration of the singer’s range and poise. Earth’nay music throbs and screeches. It is rhythmic to the point that it becomes grating, repeating the same bars over and over and over again. Though, it is perhaps foolish to expect more from a species with such a limited capacity for memory.”

“Well, I haven’t heard any Valbaran music,” Fletcher said with a shrug. “I don’t have any basis for comparison. Why don’t you sing me a song?”

“Sing you a song?” Xipa replied, flashing her teeth as a flush of angry crimson made her suit panels light up. “Singing is the domain of males. Do I look like I belong in a hookah lounge, flashing my feathers for your amusement? I am an Ensi of the Consensus.”

“I asked you to sing, not to striptease,” Fletcher chuckled. “Sounds like these hookah lounges are a riot, though. Maybe I’ll visit one on my way back to UN space.”

“Please don’t,” Xipa muttered.

“What else do Valbarans like about humans?” Fletcher continued, keeping his eyes on the trees ahead as he scanned for threats. Even during a conversation when he was seemingly at ease, he always maintained his vigil, as though he never fully relaxed.

“If it is flattery that you seek, you should know that you’ll get none from me,” Xipa grumbled.

“Hey, you’re the one who said that everyone back home is obsessed with humans. I want to know why.”

“Beyond novelty, and a misplaced sense of gratitude?” she continued. “Oh, how the xenophiles sing your praises. Look at how handsome they are, look at their smooth skin and their short snouts.” Even repeating such things in mockery made her feathers flush pink with embarrassment.

“You think we’re handsome?” Fletcher laughed.

“I certainly don’t,” Xipa replied hurriedly.

“By you, I meant Valbarans in general,” he added with a smirk.

“In my eyes, there is nothing attractive about a featherless, scaleless primate that walks on its ankles,” she muttered. “What mistake of evolution could have created a plantigrade creature? The Krell’nay, on the other hand,” she added as she glanced down at the back of Gustave’s armored head. “Here is a handsome, noble race worthy of praise.”

Gustave rumbled in what might be amusement, the sound resonating up Xipa’s legs like an earthquake.

“You certainly look a lot closer to a Krell than you do a human,” Fletcher admitted.

“I will take that as a compliment,” Xipa replied, turning up her snout. “The Krell’nay embody the feminine virtues depicted in ancient carvings of Valbara’nay war deities. Gustave could have stepped straight off a sculptor’s pedestal.”

“So, they’re like Greek statues to you?” Fletcher mused. “Makes sense. I don’t know about feminine, though,” he added as he appraised the hulking reptile. “When I think feminine, I don’t usually imagine a muscle-bound monster with shoulders wider than I am tall.”

“Earth’nay ideas of masculine and feminine are inverted,” Xipa said. “Males should be submissive, they should have delicate features, and they should concern themselves with pursuits appropriate for their station. Your males are larger and more aggressive than your females.”

“Yeah, maybe a few hundred years ago that might have been the case,” Fletcher replied. “Spend enough time in a SWAR team, and you’ll meet women who make even Borealans look measured and gentle.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ruza interjected, the feline loping along to their rear.

“I don’t mean anything by it,” Fletcher said as he turned to face him, walking backwards through the undergrowth. “It’s just that Borealan girls have a reputation for being…y’know…fucking crazy. I assumed you’d be in agreement, since you seem to have made every effort to get as far away from other Borealans as possible.”

“The pack life is not all bad,” Ruza grumbled. “There are elements of it that I miss, even if I have come to the conclusion that it no longer suits me. The admiration of a subordinate, their desire to please. The care and affection of a trusted Alpha, the relief of giving yourself to another wholly and without reservation. Even if I now know that trust to be a mirage, it does nothing to quiet my yearning.”

“Okay, sounds like Ruza needs a date,” Fletcher said as he turned back around. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you set up with a nice human girl when we get back to the fleet, someone who knows her way around a laser pointer or something.”

“Your kind are too fragile for my needs,” he growled, Fletcher shooting Xipa a raised eyebrow.

“I knew a chick back in my old team who would take that as a challenge. Maybe I’ll give you her number, as long as you don’t mind the feeling of cold metal.”

There was a rustle in the canopy above as Bluejay dropped down through the branches, his gossamer wings kicking up a cloud of fallen leaves as he brought himself to a stop just above the ground. He dropped to the forest floor, the buzzing ceasing, moving to intercept Fletcher.

“Hold on,” he warned, raising a four-fingered hand. “I’m picking up activity ahead.”

“What are you waiting for, permission?” Fletcher asked sarcastically. “What did you find?”

“There’s a squad of Drones directly in our path,” he explained, gesturing into the trees. “They’re twelve strong, two fireteams of six, it looks like. The only reason they haven’t detected us yet is because they’re upwind of us.”

“What are they doing?” Fletcher asked, frowning. “Drones don’t usually travel above ground, not unless they’re guarding something or attacking someone.”

“I haven’t sniffed out any Bug holes in the area,” Bluejay replied.

“Do me a favor and never use that combination of words again, ever,” Fletcher grumbled. “If they’re not guarding a Bug hole, maybe they’re out here looking for us? Do you think that sniper might have sent some kind of signal to the others? We know they’ve been using radio to communicate.”

“It’s possible,” Bluejay replied with a nod. “Still, they’re not moving in any kind of search pattern, and they’re heading away from us.”

“Away from us, or in the same direction?” Xipa added.

“I suppose they could be moving in the same direction, yeah,” Bluejay replied as he glanced up at her. “You’re thinking they might be investigating the same signal that we are?”

“If we detected the beacon, then it’s possible that they did too,” she said. “That could imply that it was activated recently, rather than being set to run continuously,” she added with a flutter of excited yellow.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Ensi,” Fletcher added. “It could just as easily be a random patrol. Any way around them?” he continued, addressing Bluejay again.

“The moment we get upwind of them, they’re going to come for us,” Bluejay warned. “Unless they veer off on a different heading, which isn’t looking likely, our only option is to go through them. I suggest a preemptive attack – it’s the safest option. We take them by surprise before they have a chance to react.”

“I really wanted to avoid engaging the roaches again,” Fletcher sighed, scratching his head with a polymer finger. “We’re not here to fight, and every shot fired is another dice roll.”

“If we double back and take a circuitous route in an attempt to avoid them, it could add days to our mission,” Ruza said as he walked up beside Fletcher. “I vote we go through them. The longer we spend here, the higher the chance we will encounter a larger force that we cannot best.”

“This isn’t a democracy. Vos put me in command,” Fletcher chided. “I agree with you, in any case. Bluejay, use those creepy feelers of yours to let us know when we’re close. Gustave, make sure the Ensi is safe.”

Gustave rumbled affirmatively, nodding his massive head.

“What makes you think I cannot hold my own in a fight?” Xipa snapped, giving him a flutter of indignant crimson.

“If it was up to me, I’d be hauling you around in a pet carrier,” Fletcher replied without missing a beat. “You’re our VIP. If you get hurt, the mission is over. Stay with Gustave.”

Once again, Xipa suppressed her desire to challenge his authority. With the revelation that the beacon might have been activated recently, finding survivors hiding out in the ruins seemed more likely than ever. All she had to do was tolerate a few more days in the company of these aliens.

“Alright, dial down your voltage,” Fletcher advised as he fiddled with his XMR. “We’ll go subsonic. It’ll still be loud, but the sound shouldn’t carry as far. Gustave, I guess just…don’t shoot unless you really need to. Pretty sure they can hear that thing from fucking space.”

“Can you fire from the air?” Ruza asked, glancing down at Bluejay.

“Maybe one shot before the recoil makes it unmanageable,” he replied. “What I can do is fly to a better vantage point and attack from a concealed position.”

“You do that,” Fletcher said. “Get up high, attack from the trees. Me and Ruza will come up behind them. You think they’ll stop to make camp soon? Is that something Bugs do?”

“Ferals? No,” Bluejay scoffed. “Those things can march for days without resting. We’ll need to pick up the pace if we want to catch up with them.”

“Let’s do it,” Fletcher said, waving them on as he jogged into the trees.

***

“Got eyes on them,” Bluejay said, Xipa seeing his IFF tag in the treetops ahead. Gustave was waiting out of view of the Bugs a few hundred feet behind them, keeping her safe, but she could follow the fight on her helmet’s HUD. There was even a picture-in-picture view mode that would let her see a real-time feed from the helmet cams of her squadmates. She switched to Bluejay’s feed, seeing him peering through the branches.

“Two groups of six, moving through a patch of those tall mushroom things,” he said, training his rifle on them. The Drones were marching along in loose columns, weaving between the trunks of the towering fungi. The overlapping plates of their carapaces were colored in camouflage that matched their surroundings, all shades of red and brown, covered in tiny spikes that looked like thorns. Several of their number were wearing organic backpacks, long antennae jutting from them, bobbing in the air as they walked. Most wore helmets with half a dozen eyes that pointed in all directions, their mandibles like the serrated jaws of a beast. Others had large, compound visors, segmented cables trailing from where their mouths should have been. They looked like they were wearing rebreathers, maybe something to help them resist chemical warfare. They were armed with weapons that Xipa couldn’t identify, grotesque amalgams of flesh and metal.

“We’re coming up on them now,” Fletcher replied. He glanced down at his boots as he moved through the dense carpet of shrubs and bushes, careful to avoid making any sounds that might alert their quarry. Ruza was moving beside him, a few feet to his right, the giant feline somehow even quieter than the Marine on his fleshy paw pads.

It was exhilarating, the rising tension warming Xipa’s blood. She might be thousands of generations removed from her pack-hunting ancestors, but those instincts still lingered deep in the recesses of her genes.

“Let me know when you’re in position,” Bluejay whispered, his reticle hovering over the head of one his targets. His stability was impressive – there wasn’t so much as a tremor in his hands.

“Fire on my mark,” Fletcher said, his visor highlighting the enemy with red tags. The team were all networked, sharing battlefield information automatically, everything from their onboard computers to their rifles linked wirelessly. He came to a stop, leaning out from behind a tree, sighting one of the Drones.

“Ready,” Ruza growled.

“Three, two, one…”

Fletcher opened up, dumping a trio of slugs into his target’s back. The Drone went down hard, dead before it had hit the ground. The report of his weapon was still loud, but it was a far cry from the deafening crack of an XMR running at full power. There was no sonic boom, only the electrical discharge from the firing mechanism.

Ruza and Bluejay followed up with several shots, two more of the Bugs sent crashing to the forest floor. By the time they started reacting to the attack, three more had fallen, half of their number wiped out by automatic fire. One tried to take cover behind one of the fleshy trunks of the fungi, but the slugs tore straight through its spongy tissue, knocking the unfortunate Drone off its feet.

The enemy was disciplined, and they didn’t know fear, quickly organizing a counter-attack. They dumped rapid-fire plasma bolts into the forest, forcing Fletcher and Ruza into cover, retreating towards the safety of the nearby trees. Bluejay brought down another one with a precise shot to its chest, but they turned their weapons on him, his wings buzzing as he shot up out of the path of the burning energy bolts. Fires began to spread, everything that the Bug projectiles touched igniting under the intense heat.

“Keep the pressure on them!” Fletcher shouted, leaning against a tree trunk as he reloaded his rifle. “Don’t let them maneuver around us!”

Ruza loosed several semi-auto shots, the slugs biting into the trees, sending slivers of shattered wood flying through the air. The Bugs had split into two groups and were moving in different directions now, trying to flank, the software losing track of them as the team’s sightlines were broken.

“They need our help,” Xipa hissed, giving Gustave a tap on the back of his scaly head.

Orders are to protect little one,” he rumbled in reply.

“There won’t be anyone left to give you orders if they’re all dead!”

One of the masked Bugs appeared on Ruza’s feed, raising a tube-like weapon in his direction. It was almost as long as the insect was tall, a series of thick cables that looked like veins running along its length, terminating in a nozzle made of blackened chitin. It was maybe a hundred feet away now, moving around to the right of him. As the feline swung his rifle towards it, the Bug fired. Instead of a bolt of plasma, the alien device released a stream of fluid, spewing out far enough that Ruza had to throw himself backwards to avoid it. It splattered on the leaves of the shrubs below, coating a couple of the chimney-like mushrooms in gelatinous slime. It suddenly erupted into emerald-green flame, the fire dancing along the stream. There was an explosion as it ignited, scorching everything that the slime had touched, the Bug waving the still-burning torrent around to spread the flames in a wide cone.

“Oh fuck, they have a flamethrower!” Fletcher exclaimed.

“I’ve lost visual,” Bluejay warned, soaring over the treetops as he scanned the ground below. “Those fires are fucking with my thermal imaging!”

“They are doing it on purpose,” Ruza growled, picking himself up off the ground. “The air is choked with their smoke.”

A second flamethrower ignited to their left, spreading the blaze, creating an obscuring smokescreen from the burning plant matter. Xipa could see Fletcher cycling through his view modes, cursing in frustration. The thermal cameras could peel away smoke like it wasn’t even there, but the heat of the rising flames blew out the sensor, creating blobs of white that obscured his vision.

“They’re trying to get close,” Fletcher warned. “Fuckers want to dogpile us.”

“Let them try,” Ruza growled, the bayonet on the end of his rifle glinting in the flames. He was holding it more like a spear now, ready to stab whatever came too close.

A barrage of plasma bolts came flying through the smoke, leaving swirling holes in their wake as their passage disturbed the air around them. Ruza was forced from the safety of his tree as its trunk was set ablaze, its heat singing his furry tail. It was followed up by another stream of burning fluid, flushing him out of hiding and into the open. The heat was so intense that Xipa could feel it through her suit, even so far away from the action.

The Bugs were pushing hard, two of the Drones coming racing through the smoke towards him. Snarling like a feral beast, the Borealan met their charge, leveling his bayonet. He caught the first of them in the midriff, lifting the insect into the air with such force that its carapace cracked around his blade like glass. He swung the flailing Drone into its companion, sending them both crashing to the ground, but they sprang back to their feet in moments. What would have been a mortal wound for most creatures was barely a concern for the injured Drone, its jaw-like mandibles flexing as it brandished a long, saber-like blade. It held a pistol in one of its other hands, rising it towards Ruza’s face, but the Borealan was already swinging the butt of his rifle like a club.

The stock hit the Drone’s helmet with enough force to cave it inward, sending pieces of its broken mandibles sailing through the air, its swept-back horn snapping clean off. When it didn’t go down, Ruza lifted his powerful leg, kicking it in the chest with all of his strength. It was sent crashing into a tree trunk behind it, toppling to the forest floor.

Before Ruza could react, the second Drone stepped in from his right, driving a chitin blade into his thigh. It slipped beneath the ceramic plate, biting into flesh and muscle, the Borealan throwing his head back as he bellowed in pain. With a savage backhand, he knocked his assailant off its feet, sending it rolling away across the ground. He reached down to grip the resin haft of the weapon, the blade embedded so deep that its pointed tip was protruding from the other side. He pulled it out, the knife wet with his blood, a stain of crimson spreading down his leg.

Fletcher was moving to assist, but his progress was stopped by a wall of flame, one of the pyromaniac insects cutting him off with a stream of burning fluid. The second group had reached him, two of the Drones leaping over a fallen log to his left with their handguns leveled. Their magnetic rails crackled with dancing electricity, popping off more bolts, one of them catching the Marine in his chest piece. His armor absorbed the energy, spreading it across his torso, dissipating it enough that it didn’t melt through. Still, the kinetic force of the blow knocked him off-balance, making him stumble back.

Only now did Gustave start to move, Xipa gripping his armored collar as she hung on, clutching her XMR in her other hand.

Ruza tossed the bloodied Bug sword aside, turning to aim his rifle at his opponent, but the thing had already aimed its sidearm at his visor. Something came crashing through the trees, raining broken branches and fallen leaves in its wake, slamming into the Bug with enough force to knock it onto its back. It was Bluejay, his shimmering wings extended as he stood atop the downed Drone, pressing the barrel of his rifle against the thing’s head. He fired, its skull exploding like a ripe fruit, splattering the nearby leaves with yellow-green fluid.

Fletcher had regained his footing and was facing off against the two Drones. They had drawn their blades, too close now for him to get a shot off before they closed the distance between them. He let his XMR hang from its sling, then raised his right hand, extending the hidden blade from his wrist.

One of the Bugs was already rushing towards him, swinging its sword in a wide arc. Fletcher did the same, throwing all of his augmented strength into the blow, the razor edge of his weapon whistling through the air. It cleaved through the chitin, severing the alien blade in two, continuing on to embed itself deep in the Drone’s shoulder. It cut through shell and flesh with ease, leaving a deep gash that bled mucous-colored ichor, but the Bug didn’t falter. It lifted the handgun that it was still holding, pressing it against the segmented armor that protected Fletcher’s belly.

He gripped its hand in his own, metal straining against muscle as he dragged it away, a bolt of green plasma shooting out to turn a nearby shrub to ash. Fletcher squeezed, his electric servos whining as the Drone’s hand was slowly crushed, the carapace that covered its fingers cracking. The plasma weapon fired again, then petered out, its frame bent and warped.

Rather than try to pull his blade free the way it had gone in, Fletcher retracted it back into its housing with mechanical speed, like it was spring-loaded. He brought his fist to the Bug’s helmet, the creature fighting against him with its remaining arms, but it wasn’t strong enough to resist him. The concealed blade shot out like a bullet, impaling the Drone through the head, its struggle ceasing. Before he could toss the limp body to the forest floor, its partner made its move, indifferent to its fallen comrade’s plight.

Bolts of plasma sizzled as they struck the impaled Bug in the back, burning shallow holes in its chitin, Fletcher using it as a shield as he weathered the gunfire. He drew his sidearm from its holster on his hip, aiming it around the body, firing blind. It was a monster of a handgun, its barrel packed with dense coils. Xipa suspected that it would probably break an unaugmented person’s wrist.

The Bug had to dive out of the way as the slugs zipped past it, the loud cracks echoing through the forest. It was enough to give Fletcher time to throw the smoking body aside, taking more careful aim with his sidearm, Xipa watching as he filled his target with holes.

Gustave skidded to a stop beside Ruza, dragging him away from the flames, even the furious Borealan unable to resist his strength. Bluejay covered them, walking backwards, keeping his rifle trained on the trees ahead. Xipa was still standing atop the Krell’nay’s shoulder, surveying the scene from her high perch.

Through the smoke and the dense foliage, she picked out movement, the flamethrower-wielding Drone stepping into view. The raging flames reflected in its compound eyes, the creature pulling back one of its arms as it prepared to throw something. With all the interference, Bluejay hadn’t seen it yet, and Gustave was too busy helping Ruza to notice.

“Grenade!” she shouted, but too late. There was a flash of green light, her stomach lurching as she was tossed through the air. The wind was knocked out of her as she landed hard in the bushes, rolling to a stop. When she recovered enough to sit up, she glanced around, trying to get her bearings. She didn’t know where she was – every part of this damned forest looked the same, and the smoke limited her visibility to only a few meters in any direction. Struggling to her feet, she raised her XMR, her heart racing as she pointed its barrel into the choking smog. Her eyes darted up to the top left of her visor, but her helmet had been damaged, the camera feeds showing nothing but static. The IFF system wasn’t working either, the usual blue markers that showed the positions of her teammates now absent. A stab of cold fear pierced her heart like an icicle as she considered that she was alone. Her rational mind told her that her companions couldn’t be more than a few paces away, but she felt like she was drowning in dark water with no idea of which direction to swim.

Movement disturbed the smoke to her left, Xipa seeing the masked Bug stepping through the licking flames out of the corner of her eye. It scrutinized her through those pitiless, compound visors, the segmented tube that hung from its face swinging with its halting gait. It raised the charred nozzle of its weapon, Xipa staring down the fleshy barrel as a green pilot light ignited. She tried to swing her gun around, but there was no time. She was supposed to come back here as a conqueror – she was supposed to take revenge. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

Fletcher came striding out of the smoke to the Drone’s right, his handgun raised, dumping its magazine into the creature. It slumped to the ground, Fletcher putting a few more slugs into its motionless body for good measure, the coils that lined the barrel glowing red-hot.

“You good?” he asked, turning his opaque visor towards her. She nodded her head, releasing a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in. “Come on,” he added, holstering his weapon. He swung his XMR back into his hands on its sling, turning towards the flames. “We have to get out of here. If the noise doesn’t bring more of them, the smoke will.”

***

They marched away from the rising plume of dark smoke, stopping to tend to Ruza’s wound as soon as they dared. He had fastened a tourniquet around his thigh as a stopgap measure to stem the bleeding – a belt-like device with a mechanical tightening system – and Gustave was carrying him in his arms. He set down the injured feline beneath a tree, then joined Bluejay, the pair keeping watch as Ruza opened up one of his medical kits. He put on a pair of elbow-length gloves, then tore the hole in his pressure suit a little wider. The material was soaked with dark blood, Xipa’s stomach knotting as she saw the two-inch cut where the blade had pierced his tanned skin.

“How bad is it?” Fletcher asked, watching as Ruza inspected the wound with some kind of handheld scanning device.

“It went straight through,” he replied, his face paler than Xipa had ever seen it. He must have lost a lot of blood. “It missed the bone, but nicked a vein. My blood pressure is adapted for far higher gravity than this. My own heartbeat would have bled me dry in minutes if I did not have the tourniquet on hand.”

He produced the canister of foam that Xipa had seen him use on Gustave’s bullet wound, baring his sharp teeth as he forced the nozzle into the hole, provoking a fresh bleed. He stifled a growl of pain as he filled the wound channel, shuddering as the antiseptic foam expanded inside him. With unsteady hands, he reached into another pouch on his chest rig, pulling out a roll of what looked like tape. They were sticky bandages of some kind, the feline tearing them off the roll in strips. He placed them carefully over the open wound, cleaning away a little of the foam that was leaking out, stained pink with his blood. There were tabs on the sticky strips, and he pulled them taut, closing up the jagged tear. He did the same on the exit wound, then covered them both in an antiseptic patch. Next, he stabbed himself in the thigh with some kind of hypodermic needle, wincing as he injected its contents. When he was satisfied, he lay back against the tree, his breathing shallow.

“I must rest,” he grumbled, wrapping his jacket more tightly around himself. “Fetch my sleeping bag from my pack, if you would…”

Fletcher knelt by the pack, detaching the roll of fabric and tossing it to him. He draped it over himself, then appeared to fall asleep, his breathing becoming more regular.

“Will he be alright?” Xipa asked.

“Ruza knows what he’s doing,” Fletcher said, sitting down on a nearby root. “If he needed us to poke him with a stick in an hour to make sure he’s not dead, he’d have told us.”

Gustave lumbered over, leaning down to brush his scaly snout against Ruza’s face, the grumpy feline batting him away.

“He’s fine, Gustave,” Fletcher said with a wave of his hand. “Leave him be.”

The reptile rumbled affirmatively, then flopped down onto his belly, the impact sending a ripple through his chubby underside.

“Are we stopping here for the night?” Bluejay asked, resting his rifle over his shoulder.

“Might as well,” Fletcher replied, reaching into his pack for an MRE. “Ruza’s in no state to keep going, and I think he’ll die of shame if Gustave keeps carrying him. You’re on first watch, Bug boy.”

Bluejay sighed, then nodded, his wings buzzing as he rose up into the canopy.

Fletcher tore open a food packet, inserting it into a flameless ration heater, shaking it to get it cooking. He set it on a stump within arm’s reach, watching as it started to smoke.

“Eat something,” he said, gesturing to Xipa’s pack.

“My appetite has left me,” she grumbled. She slipped off her helmet, then shook out her headdress, turning the device over in her hands. The muscular feather sheaths that were wrapped around her forearms snaked out of the sleeves of her suit, Xipa using them to hold the helmet while she popped open its service panel with her hands. Fletcher seemed amused by the sight. His people lacked sheaths, so perhaps he hadn’t imagined that they could be used in such a way.

“I don’t care if you’re hungry or not,” he chided, ripping open a cereal bar with his teeth. “You’re not eating for pleasure, you’re eating to keep your strength up. Not that Valbarans ever eat for pleasure, judging by the garbage they put in your rations,” he added with a chuckle. “Seriously, that’s an order.”

“Very well,” she grumbled, fiddling with the tiny wires. “I must see to my helmet first.”

“What’s up with it?”

“It was damaged when I was thrown from Gustave’s back,” she explained, narrowing her eyes at the exposed circuits. “I believe some of the connectors may have been knocked loose. Anything that could have done permanent damage to it would probably have killed me in the process.”

“Yeah, that fight didn’t really go the way I planned,” he said as he flexed his mechanical fingers. He extended his blade, the sudden sound of metal on metal making Xipa flinch. There were still flecks of insect blood on it, Fletcher wiping the flat of the blade on his leg. “Those Bugs don’t fight like any Bugs I’ve ever encountered before. They’re smarter. They lay down suppressing fire, they cover each other. I’m used to them just charging straight into gunfire.”

“You…fought well,” she continued, keeping her eyes fixed on her helmet. “It was an impressive display.”

“Praise from the Ensi,” he said sarcastically. “You sure you didn’t hit your head?”

“Thank you,” she added, a flush of pink passing through her headdress. “You saved my life today. I would have…that thing would have burned me alive if you had not stepped in when you did.”

“Just doing my job,” he replied, his blade sliding back into his wrist. “It isn’t the way you imagined it, is it?”

“What?” Xipa asked, her feathers flashing a surprised yellow.

“I think we have more in common than you realize,” he said as he lifted his ration heater. It was steaming, but the heat was no concern for his polymer hands. “I see a little of myself in you. The person I used to be, at least.”

“I doubt that we have much in common,” she scoffed, examining an unplugged ribbon cable.

“You told me that I couldn’t understand what it’s like to lose a flock, but I’ve lost squadmates, I’ve seen good friends die. Sometimes, fighting can be an escape from that. It keeps you busy, doesn’t give you time to think, to dwell on things for too long. Being angry can feel better than being sad.” She glanced up at him, Fletcher stirring his meal with a plastic spoon. “I would put myself in danger because I thought I was being brave, when really, I was just running from my problems. I tried to always stay ahead of them, because it was easier to fight to the brink of death than to actually deal with everything I had seen – everything I had done.”

“You think that is what I am doing?” Xipa asked. Her tone was as venomous as ever, but she wasn’t sure what she was feeling now.

“It’s too late for me,” he continued with a dry smile, wiggling his prosthetic fingers. “Not just because of the augs, but because I burned all my bridges, I made war my identity. I pushed away everyone who might have been able to help me because that would mean facing it all head-on. I can’t go back now, this is what I am, but you can still choose not to cross that line when you come to it.”

“What line?”

“You want to fight, you want revenge,” he explained over a spoonful of beans. “That might not be what you need, though. Have you considered that you might get to the end of this campaign, and feel exactly the same as you do now?”

“Nonsense,” she replied, turning her eye back to her helmet. “My feelings are irrelevant. I am here to do a job, to right a wrong. We crushed the insects in orbit, and we will crush them on the ground, too. We will sweep them off the face of Kerguela and build new cities atop their bones. In time, their occupation will be considered nothing more than a lapse – a blip in the colony’s history. Do I seek revenge? Yes, I would be lying if I said otherwise. That is secondary to my purpose here, however.”

“That won’t bring them back, though,” Fletcher added.

His words stung more than she had anticipated, but she quickly turned her mind to other things, distracting herself from the unpleasant thoughts. She plugged one of the ribbon cables into its socket, seeing the glow of the HUD bleeding out of the helmet. When she slotted it back onto her head, she saw that the IFF tags were working again, as were the feeds from the other cameras. She could see Bluejay perched in the branches some distance away, a serial number in Earth’nay text floating above his head.

“Fixed it,” she said with a satisfied flurry of green. Solving problems always made her feel better.

“Good. Now you can eat,” Fletcher replied. He seemed to have realized that a change of subject was in order. She took off her helmet and returned it to her belt, then reached for her pack reluctantly. “I can’t sit here and watch you suck down another one of those fucking insect protein bars,” Fletcher said, Xipa pausing. “Here,” he continued, tossing her a large packet of food. She snatched it out of the air, finding it unexpectedly heavy.

“What is it?” she asked skeptically, turning it over in her hands as she examined the plastic pouch. “Do you expect me to eat Earth’nay food?”

“And maybe take inspiration from it, yeah,” he said with a nod. “If you can convince politicians to build space stations, you can probably convince them to give their troops a decent meal, too.”

She opened the packaging, having seen Fletcher and Ruza do the same many times, finding several smaller packets inside.

“I don’t know what any of this is,” she sighed.

“Can’t you read English?” Fletcher asked. “I thought you guys had photographic memories or something?”

“I cannot read Earth’nay script, no,” she replied with a flutter of irritated red. “The Galaxy does not revolve around Earth, you know.”

“Sure looks like it does from where I’m standing,” he chuckled. “The big one is the main course. I gave you the number five menu – shredded beef in barbecue sauce. You’ll like it. I’ve got chicken, too, but I thought that might be a little too close to cannibalism.”

“I don’t know what a chicken is, so I will assume that is a compliment,” she grumbled.

“It isn’t,” he said with a grin. “Don’t open the packet yet, you gotta cook it first. See that brown pouch – the one that’s empty? Put the packet in there, then fill it with water, but only up to the dotted line. That’ll activate the heating element.”

She did as he advised, pouring some water from her canteen into the pouch, folding over the top as it began to steam. While she waited for it to cook, she fished out a bar from the MRE, holding it up so that Fletcher could see it.

“What is this?”

“Chocolate,” he replied. “It’s derived from an Earth plant. I dunno what Valbarans eat, but if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll probably like it.”

“Sweet tooth?” she mumbled to herself, but the meaning was obvious enough. She tore off the wrapper, seeing an unappetizing, brown substance beneath. After an experimental sniff, she took a small bite, finding it a little softer than it had looked. A sweet, nutty flavor spread across her tongue, accompanied by a flurry of pleased green in her feathers.

“Does green mean happy or disgusted?” Fletcher asked, watching her curiously.

“It is…an interesting flavor,” she replied, taking another bite. “There is nothing quite like this on Valbara. Not to my knowledge, at least. Not that I’ve had much time for sampling delicacies as of late.”

“Why not?” Fletcher asked, scraping the last of his meal from the bottom of its packet. “You’re an Ensi, right? Isn’t that like a mayor or a president or something?”

“An Ensi oversees the day-to-day operations of her city, as well as military affairs in times of war. I suppose we are roughly the equivalent of your Admirals. Keep in mind that Ensi usually operate in flocks, however. My…unusual lifestyle means that I must take on the work of many.”

“And everyone is fine with that?” Fletcher asked, fishing in his MRE for his next course.

“Consensus is valued greatly among my people,” she explained, pausing to take another bite of her chocolate bar. “The more individuals weigh in on a decision, the wiser it becomes. The Ensi are one of the few who can be trusted to make a decision on their own, as their many duties often require flocks to split up and travel to different areas of the city. It is considered a burden to be separated from one’s flockmates for any duration of time, but it is a burden that they must shoulder as part of their responsibilities. As such, a lone Ensi is not too much of a stretch. I had advisors and assistants, naturally,” she continued as she returned the rest of the bar to the MRE. It was too large for her to eat in one sitting. “Still, it was an uphill battle to prove my competence. My opponents were quick to label me as unstable, emotionally disturbed.”
“It worked, clearly,” Fletcher said as he gestured to her with a fork. “You ended up in the captain’s chair of a flagship, rather than in a padded cell.”

“Coupled with my work on the stations and the new ship designs, I had very little time for recreation,” she continued. She reached for the steaming food packet, giving it an experimental prod with her finger to see if it had cooked through yet. “I like to keep myself busy, and the work was of the utmost importance, so I welcomed it.”

“You haven’t taken a day off in thirty years, have you?”

She didn’t reply, reaching into the warm pouch to retrieve her meal. When she tore it open, the scent of cooked meat wafted to her nose, setting her mouth watering. She was brought straight back to the seasonal feasts on Valbara, one of the few times that fresh meat was available in abundance. It was downright decadent that the Earth’nay ate it for every meal, and she was certain that it was procured through less than ethical means. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to turn it down when it was being offered to her so readily, not even to spite Fletcher.

Picking up a plastic fork – which was too large for her hands – she reached into the steaming packet. Inside were shredded strips of meat drizzled in some kind of orange, gooey sauce. It didn’t look terribly appetizing, certainly nothing like the grilled Geu’tra breast meat that she favored, but the scent enticed her to bring the fork to her mouth. The dish was both sweet and savory, the flavors complementing the meat, her headdress breaking out in green and yellow hues as she went in for another mouthful.

“You’ve gone green again,” Fletcher noted, a satisfied smile on his face. “Better than eating all your food in bar form, right?”

“Your cuisine is better than your music, I’ll give you that,” she replied as she licked her scaly lips. “Then again, one would have to make a conscious effort to spoil good meat.”

They finished their meals, Xipa sampling a little of each of the dishes in the MRE. There were beans that were almost as meaty as the beef, some kind of energy bar that tasted sickly-sweet and gritty to her, and a dry disk of grain called a cracker that did little other than cover her suit in crumbs. There was a small packet containing a viscous substance called peanut butter that stuck to the roof of her mouth like glue, much to Fletcher’s amusement.

It wasn’t long before Bluejay returned, landing in the dry leaves nearby with a crunch. His entrance disturbed Gustave, the Krell exhaling through his snout in a snort of disapproval before rolling onto his side. The reptile scratched his scaly belly with one of his clawed hands, making a sound like a knife being dragged across old leather.

The insect made his way over to join them, having finished his watch, Fletcher greeting him with a wave of his polymer hand.

“Might want to announce yourself before you drop in like that, Bug boy,” he joked. “You’re liable to get mistaken for a roach, and some of us have trigger fingers that move faster than our brains.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he replied, giving Fletcher a smile that even Xipa could tell was false.

“Let’s give your helmet radio a test,” Fletcher added, turning to Xipa. “Better make sure it’s working before we set out again.”

She nodded, his meaning obvious enough, slotting her helmet back onto her head. She slid her feather sheaths into the tubes that hung from the back, then switched to a private channel with Fletcher, who was sliding down his visor.

“Does it bother you that Bluejay never gets angry?” he asked. “I’ve seen you two interact – you treat him like dirt, but he always responds with a smile. There’s something off about him.”

“We have spoken briefly on the subject,” she replied. “He told me of how his father taught him to always be polite and cooperative, and that his kind are burdened with making a good first impression due to the negative perception towards Betelgeusians.”

“I don’t care if his dad told him he’s the reincarnation of Mahatma fucking Gandhi, it’s not natural to just take shit from people with a smile,” Fletcher muttered. “If there’s really any human blood in him, he should get angry sometimes, he should defend himself.”

“I do not care what he does or what he feels as long as he remains cooperative,” Xipa replied. “I would have him be subservient rather than combative.”

“It doesn’t sit right with me,” Fletcher said, turning to watch the Bug through his opaque visor. Bluejay was settling in between two raised roots, preparing to sleep, both pairs of arms crossed. “He’s got a fake face and a fake attitude.”

“I objected to his presence from the moment I saw him,” Xipa added. “If you mean to get rid of him…”

“Hey, he’s still a member of the team,” Fletcher warned. “If you’re thinking about fragging him, you’d better drop that idea.”

“What is fragging?” she asked, repeating the unfamiliar word in Fletcher’s accent.

“Fragging is when you knock off an ally on purpose – kill them intentionally. Used to happen a lot back when we still had conscription. Giving a guy a box of grenades and then treating him like shit is a bad idea – who knew?”

“Nothing so dramatic,” she protested. “I would merely have suggested sending him back to the carrier.”

“We couldn’t do that, even if I agreed with you,” Fletcher sighed. “We’re on our own out here. We can’t send signals to the fleet without the risk of the Bugs picking them up, not until we get to the city and secure a landing zone for a shuttle. Besides, I want Bluejay here. Vos was right – he always is – that Bug has saved our asses more than once.”

“I suppose he is useful,” Xipa conceded.

“I’m going to keep an eye on him,” Fletcher added, glancing over at the sleeping insect again. “I trust him to do his job, he’s already proven that he can kill Bugs, but I don’t buy this sunshine and rainbows shit.”

He rose to his feet, raising his rifle.

“I’ll take this watch,” he said. “Go get some shuteye while there’s time.”

***

Ruza tested his leg, putting his weight on it tentatively, hanging onto a low-hanging branch to support himself.

“How is it?” Fletcher asked. “You going to be able to walk out of here on your own?”

“I am accustomed to pain,” he growled, taking a few experimental steps. “I can still fulfill my duties.”

“Just don’t push yourself too hard,” Fletcher warned, adjusting the straps on his pack. “Right, let’s keep moving. Bluejay, I want you up in the air again. Keep an eye out for the city. We can’t be far off now. Keep one eye on our backs, too. I know the Bugs won’t have ignored that giant plume of smoke we created yesterday.”

“We should make our pace brisk,” Ruza added, taking a few limping steps. “If our enemy do not need to rest, then we need to put the city walls between them and us as soon as we are able.”

“And, we’re sure that the place isn’t going to be overrun when we get there?” Fletcher asked. “I know that we didn’t see any activity in the cities from orbit, but it seems odd to me that the Bugs would just ignore them. I guess they’ve had time enough to strip all of the resources they wanted.”

“Bugs spend the majority of their lives below ground,” Bluejay explained. “They build fortifications on the surface, maybe some infrastructure, but that’s about it. I doubt they’d have any use for an abandoned city.”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Fletcher muttered. “Come on then, let’s get moving.”

Gustave leaned down to let Xipa jump up onto his back, and she took her usual perch on his shoulder, the reptile lumbering along as the team moved out.

***

“I see it!” Bluejay said, his voice coming through distorted on Xipa’s helmet radio. “Damn, what a sight. It looks a hell of a lot bigger from the ground.”

She hurriedly switched to his camera feed, blowing up the window to get a higher resolution view. Rising above the reds, browns, and oranges of the autumn canopy in the distance was the city wall, a massive edifice that towered some two hundred feet into the sky. No longer pristine, weather and time had stained it, the dark streaks from decades of water spilling down its face making it look like a failing dam. It was still wholly intact – Valbaran engineering could probably withstand the elements for hundreds of years more – but the forest had begun to claw its way up. Vines and mosses flourished, coating it in a carpet of red, the creeping plants like veins at this distance. She could see the watchtowers that were spaced along its length at regular intervals, used primarily for weather monitoring. They were too high up to have been colonized by any plant life, but she felt her stomach twist when she saw the faded remnants of plasma burns on some of them. Shrouded in atmospheric haze were the skyscrapers that rose up from the city’s center, too far away to make out in any detail, but she could tell that they had been damaged from their uneven silhouettes.

“That’s a fucking big wall,” Fletcher whistled, no doubt watching the same feed. “How exactly were you planning to get us inside, Ensi? I don’t think we brought enough rope.”

“There are four gates that face the cardinal directions,” she explained. “My hope is that at least one of them will be ajar, or that we can find a way to open them.”

“You reckon the machinery will have survived all this time?” he asked skeptically.

“If that fails, we can enter through the spill gates,” she replied. “I don’t see a reason that they would have been closed.”

“What’s a spill gate?” Fletcher asked. The team entered a patch of tall fungi, the Earth’nay glancing up at them as he weaved between their spongy trunks.

“They’re openings that allow water from outside the walls to flow into the city,” she explained, leaning away as Gustave simply plowed through one of the mushrooms that was in his path, sending a cloud of spores floating through the air. “Our cities are living ecosystems, with waterways and lakes. Most of them are built near rivers so we can access fresh water.”

“Hang on, are these gates gonna be underwater?” Fletcher asked. It was the first time she had heard a hint of fear in his voice.

“Naturally,” she replied, glancing down at him. “I’d expect some flooding after so many years without maintenance, too.”

“Fucking water,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I don’t do water.”

“Can you not swim?” Xipa asked, a flutter of amused yellow passing through her headdress.

“You misunderstand,” he began, waving a polymer hand at her. “My prosthetic limbs are a hell of a lot denser than my organic ones, and they make swimming impossible. The best I can do is walk along the bottom for as long as my suit’s air supply lasts and hope I don’t get stuck in the silt.”

Gustave carries little one, carries angry one, will carry metal one,” the Krell’nay rumbled.

“I guess that would work,” Fletcher said with a shrug. “I keep forgetting that you’re amphibious.”

They walked for a while longer, Bluejay eventually dropping down through the trees to join them as they approached the foot of the wall. It still wasn’t in sight from the ground, the dense forest obscuring it from view.

“We’re close,” he said, his shining wings sliding back into their protective covers. “I saw what I think is a door maybe half a mile to the South of us. We should probably head in that direction.”

When they reached the base of the wall, it took Xipa a moment to even realize it. Back when the cities had been maintained, the inhabitants would have kept the forest from encroaching so close, ensuring that there was a clearing between it and the base of the wall. Now, the roots of the trees were breaking soil right next to it. The dense vines and weeds that had colonized the barrier made it almost invisible, and Xipa had to crane her neck to see the point where it transitioned into faded white.

They followed its gentle curve Southward, Xipa taking in the odd scenery as they went. She had expected damage and disrepair, but this was like coming upon the ruins of an ancient civilization. It was almost insulting in a way – that their presence on Kerguela had been reduced to this in so little time, as though the very planet itself was trying to erase their history.

The exterior wall was mostly featureless, so there wasn’t much to see until they reached one of the entrances. The gate was much easier to spot from the air than from the ground, designed to blend seamlessly with the wall, the covering of plants and vines only adding to the effect. The doors were made up of two large panels that would slide apart, fifty feet high and almost as wide, occupying about a quarter of the wall’s overall height.

“Well, this doesn’t look very promising,” Fletcher said as he appraised the vine-covered obstacle. He let his rifle hang from its sling, then pushed his fingers into the narrow gap between the doors, straining against them. They didn’t budge an inch, so he stepped back, rolling his shoulders. “Yeah, I don’t know what I was expecting. You said there’d be like a control panel or something, Ensi?”

Xipa hopped down from Gustave’s shoulders, then walked over to the left side of the gate. After feeling around for a minute, she found what she was looking for, tearing off the clinging vines to reveal a small touch display mounted at chest height. It was recessed into the wall, hidden beneath a sliding panel that matched the material around it.

“Auxiliary controls,” she explained, brushing the grime from the screen with her glove. “It should work, even if the connection to the primary system has been severed. They used to be connected to backup generators in case the power grid failed.”

“I guess you know all the ins and outs of these places,” Fletcher said, moving up to peer over her shoulder.

“It’s part of my job,” she replied, pressing her finger against the touch display. “Hmm, no power,” she grumbled. “Not unexpected.” She reached into the recess behind the panel and felt around for a rocker switch, feeling the tactile click as she pressed it down. “That…should have activated the backup generator,” she sighed. “It looks like the backup is down too.”

Fletcher took a few steps back, planting his hands on his hips as he appraised the towering wall.

“I don’t think Gustave is gonna be able to walk through this one,” he muttered. “Can we blast our way inside?”

“We use carbon concrete in our construction,” Xipa explained. “It’s infused with a self-aligning carbon fiber lattice to give it more rigidity. Only a high-powered plasma weapon will be able to melt through it. Trust me, I’ve seen it first hand…”

“Hey, Bug boy. Can you fly us over?” Fletcher said, turning to Bluejay.

“The Ensi, maybe,” Bluejay replied as he gave Fletcher an irritated glance. “The rest of you, not a chance. The gravity here is low, but we’re not on Luna.”

“We’ll have to go through the spill gates, then,” Fletcher sighed, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “Of course, why would I expect anything else? Why did you build these walls anyway?” he asked, turning back to Xipa. “Your cities are built like fortresses, but what was there to be scared of at the time?”

“These are copies of the layouts and technologies used to build cities on Valbara,” she explained, gesturing to the vine-covered edifice. “Their original purpose was twofold – to control the climate within the walls and to protect the inhabitants from the large predators that roam Valbara’s wilderness. There are no such predators here, but the walls still have their uses.”

“I feel like climate control could be accomplished with a fan and a humidifier,” he grumbled, giving the base of the wall a kick with his boot. “Fine, take us to the spill gates.”

“Bluejay, did you see which direction the river was from the air?” Xipa asked.

“It’s a little further South,” he replied. “Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to reach it.”

***

They heard the roar of the river before they saw it, rounding the curving wall of the city to see it winding through the forest in the distance. It was sizable, maybe sixty meters wide, flowing fast enough to create whitewater on its churning surface. Erosion had stripped away the soil at the banks to leave them jagged and rocky, the trees giving it a wide berth. The river was some distance from the city walls, and rather than flowing directly into it, a carbcrete chute maybe half the breadth of the river had been constructed to redirect some of the flow. It formed a long, wide channel, a series of hydraulic gates at its mouth controlling the flow of water. Or, they would have controlled the flow of water, if they hadn’t been left to decay for thirty rotations.

The mechanical systems had failed at some point, jamming the gates open, the chute full to capacity. The water flowed down a slight incline towards the base of the wall, where there was another set of gates below ground level. These, too, had been forced open by the flow over time. It looked like everything was running at maximum capacity.

Fletcher walked up to the chute, peering over the edge. The water wasn’t flowing as fast as the river at its source, still somewhat limited by the gates, but it would still be enough to drag a person under.

“Are you sure this is the only way in?” he asked, making no attempt to disguise his displeasure. “No service tunnels, no air vents? Maybe a fucking ladder?”

“Not without power,” Xipa replied. “There’s a whole network of service tunnels that run throughout the structure, but without electricity, there’s no way to get inside.”

“You didn’t think of putting a hand crank somewhere?” Fletcher asked skeptically.

“There were backups, of course, but we didn’t plan for the end of civilization.”

“How do we even know we can make it through there?” he continued, walking along the edge of the carbcrete slope. “The gates are all fucked. There could be damage on the inside.”

Gustave walked up beside him, Xipa hopping off his shoulder as he neared the edge. He slid his heavy ammo drum off his back, setting it down gently beside his massive rotary cannon, then carried on. Without hesitating, he began to walk down the incline, the weight of his long tail stopping him from falling forward. He waded into the rushing water, sinking up to his knees, then up to his waist. When he reached the middle of the chute, the water rose to his shoulders, pouring over his bony scutes. The Krell’nay seemed large and heavy enough that he could resist being swept away. He kicked his feet off the bottom, leveling out as he let the flow carry him along, his oar-like tail waving back and forth to help him steer. Aiming for one of the gates, he slowly floated through it, the aperture just large enough to let his broad shoulders pass.

“I guess he’s gonna go take a look for us,” Fletcher said, watching the tip of the reptile’s scaly tail vanish into the dark tunnel.

“What happens if he becomes stuck?” Ruza asked, Fletcher and Bluejay shrugging in tandem.

They waited for a few minutes, then a few more, Xipa starting to wonder if he really had gotten trapped down there. Fletcher was pacing beside the chute restlessly, stooping to pick up a rock as he walked along its length. He tossed it into the air and caught it a few times, then threw it into the water, watching the splash that it made.

“Anyone know how long a Krell can hold its breath?” he asked.

“He has a radio, does he not?” Ruza replied. “Why not simply ask him?”

“I’ve never heard the fucker say anything coherent,” Fletcher grumbled, tossing another rock. “He’s either laughing, or he’s talking complete nonsense about circles or something.”

“He is not responding,” Xipa replied, tapping at the touch panel on her wrist. “The wall is likely blocking the signal.”

There was another splash, but this time, it wasn’t a rock. Gustave’s head rose from the surface, the reptile wading into the shallows as the water sloughed off his dark scales. His poncho was soaked through, but it didn’t seem to hinder him at all. He had something silvery trapped between his jaws, Xipa realizing that it was a large fish. The animal was still alive, flapping its tail, Gustave throwing back his head as he swallowed it whole.

“Well?” Fletcher asked, frustrated by the creature’s plodding pace. “What did you find?”

The way is clear,” he replied, his resonating voice making the water around him vibrate like someone had immersed a speaker just below its surface.

“This isn’t a fishing trip,” Fletcher chided, shrugging off his pack. “Alright, who’s going first?”

“I’m not going down there,” Bluejay protested, shaking his horned head. “I’ll fly over the wall and meet you guys on the other side. It’ll give me a chance to scope out the area.”

“Good, then you can carry our gear over,” Fletcher added. He swung his rucksack towards Bluejay, the insect stumbling as he caught it in his four arms.

“Fine,” Bluejay sighed. “Just put your stuff in a pile, and I’ll bring it over.”

They stacked their packs and weapons on the ground, Bluejay slinging a couple of XMRs over his shoulders before hoisting one of the rucksacks, flying off into the air. He couldn’t carry much weight, only one pack at a time.

Xipa heard Fletcher yell in alarm, snapping her head around to see Gustave lifting him off the ground. The reptile tucked the struggling Earth’nay under his arm, then started to walk back towards the spill gates.

“Hang on, you walking handbag!” Fletcher complained as he fumbled with the clasp on his belt. “I don’t have my helmet on yet!”

Once Fletcher’s suit was sealed, Gustave waded back into the water, dragging the Earth’nay along with him as he slipped below its surface. After a few minutes, he resurfaced again, Xipa stepping forward as she closed her visor. Gustave was a little gentler with her than he had been with Fletcher, either because of her size, or because he had been toying with the Earth’nay deliberately. He lifted her off the bank, cradling her in his arm, Xipa feeling the smooth scales of his leathery underbelly through her suit as he pressed her up against his underside.

Despite the fact that her suit was rated for vacuum, and its oxygen supply could last for far longer than it would take to complete the trip, her panels flashed purple with apprehension as she sank into the cold water. Every instinct she had warned her that she was going to drown as her visor was plunged beneath the surface, the muffled sounds of rushing liquid filling her helmet. Gustave cut through the water like a scaly torpedo, his sheer strength surprising her once again. His feet left the carbcrete bottom as he pushed off, using his tail to steer as the water pushed them along. It was hard to see much in the murky water, but it went as dark as a grave as they coasted into the tunnel. It had been a long time since Xipa had felt so helpless, so reliant on someone else, like a baby being carried in its mother’s arms. Valbarans were very buoyant due to their hollow bones, so drowning was uncommon, but that didn’t make them good swimmers.

They swam beneath the wall, floating down the long, dark tunnel. Xipa switched on her helmet flashlight, scanning the beam across the rounded walls. The structure hadn’t fared quite as well as she had imagined. While there were no obvious cracks in the carbcrete, its surface was covered in mineral buildup that created a stony layer, making it look more like a cave than an artificial structure. Clinging to that layer were carpets of water weeds that swayed in the current, clusters of freshwater invertebrates making their homes there, their conical shells jutting from the walls. A solitary fish swam past, its silver scales reflecting her beam, the animal darting away in alarm.

It couldn’t have taken more than a minute or two, but it felt like an age to Xipa, sunlight finally letting her know that they had emerged on the far side. The tunnel gave way to silt, Gustave kicking up clouds of it as he began to walk along what looked like a lake bottom. He disturbed another shoal of fish, the scaly creatures powering through the water. They had long, serpentine bodies, their frilly fins arranged in a trilateral pattern. Xipa remembered the taste of their grilled meat, but that was a lifetime ago.

Gustave began to walk up an incline, heading towards the surface, the silt transitioning to green grass. When Xipa’s head surfaced above the water, she was met with a sight that made her breath catch in her throat.

They had emerged on the outskirts of the city – the outermost band near the base of the wall. This area had once been parkland, dotted with footpaths, botanical gardens, and scenic lakes that were designed to be enjoyed by the inhabitants. It had been left to run wild after the invasion, now rendered unrecognizable. The once carefully-tended lakes and streams had overflowed, the broken spill gates no longer able to regulate the volume of water that was let into the walls. The peaks of the hills jutted from the water like tiny islands, unkempt weeds and shrubs sprouting from them. What sections of the winding footpaths that were still visible were being reclaimed by the tall grass, others submerged by the flooding, shoals of fish coasting across the ground that the city’s people had once walked in their leisure time.

In the distance, she could see the residential band, clusters of domed houses that were nestled amongst the rolling hills and patches of forest. These, too, had been flooded and overwhelmed by the unchecked growth. Beyond them was the limits of the city proper, the pristine white of the towering structures stained and streaked by time, painted red by Kerguela’s ravenous plant life. From a distance, it looked like they had been dipped in a giant paint bucket, trails of crimson left to drip down their facades. Many were listing, their foundations likely eroded by water damage, but she couldn’t make out much more from where she was standing.

Xipa climbed up the hill, finding Fletcher waiting there, his pressure suit dripping with water. He took off his helmet, then stooped to retrieve his pack from the pile that Bluejay had created, slinging it over his shoulder.

“I’m guessing this place wasn’t a water park when you left,” he mused, peering out at the city beyond. “We’re gonna need a fucking boat at this rate. Maybe we can ride Gustave like a raft.”

“I see a path through,” Xipa replied, not sure if he was joking or not. “Without anyone to stem the flow or repair the spill gates, it looks like everything has flooded. These used to be beautiful lakes and rivers.”

As Gustave headed back into the water, Bluejay descended from the sky, another rucksack clutched in his arms. He set it down on the ground, his wings folding back into their protective covers.

“That’s the last of them,” he said, taking a moment to rest. Though he didn’t breathe using lungs, and so it was not conveyed in his speech, Xipa could tell that he was exhausted. “I can’t bring Gustave’s gear over, it’s too heavy. He’ll have to swim it through.”

“Before we go any further, we should think about how we’re going to get out of here if we need to make a quick exit,” Xipa said as she turned to look back at the wall.

“We’re leaving this city in a shuttle,” Fletcher replied. “There will be clear landing zones with plenty of cover deeper inside. I’m not fucking around swimming through any more sewer pipes. We hoof it to the beacon ASAP, check it out, then we’re out of here.”

“What if further investigation is warranted?” Xipa asked. “You discount the possibility of there being survivors, but it is a possibility that we must plan for all the same.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said, avoiding the question.

A flash of irritated red passed through her suit panels. It wasn’t a secret that Fletcher had no faith in this mission – that he was merely here as a favor to Vos, but his attitude irked her all the same. Every Earth’nay that she had spoken to on the subject had been skeptical at best and condescending at worst, as though the prospect of her people surviving on the surface for any length of time was preposterous. To even set out on this expedition, she had been forced to threaten and coerce. If her hopes were realized, and there truly were survivors holding out in these ruins, she would watch Vos and Fletcher eat their words.

After a minute, Gustave reemerged from the lake, hauling Ruza along with him. The feline hadn’t donned his boots or gloves, and his furry tail was waterlogged, but he didn’t seem to mind being wet as much as Fletcher did. He took off his helmet, then shook his tail dry, marching up the slope towards them. When he reached the top of the hill, he paused to take in the scenery, looking out at the ruined towers beyond.

“I did not expect the city to be in such a state,” he grumbled, reaching down to pick up his long rifle from the grass. “Reaching the source of the signal may prove more difficult than anticipated.”

“Have you ever even been to a city before?” Fletcher asked. “Last time I visited Elysia, it was all cobbled streets and sandstone. I doubt the Rask territory was any better.”

“None like this,” he admitted. “We cannot build so tall on Borealis. The gravity is too punishing. The only structures that came close to these were the ancient watchtowers of the East Gate, some of the largest ever constructed.”

Were?” Fletcher asked. “What happened to them?”

“Your people destroyed them during the rebellion,” he growled, narrowing his yellow eyes. “Demolished by tank fire during a battle with the Palace Guard, I believe.”

“Play stupid games,” Fletcher said with a shrug, Xipa unfamiliar with the phrase.

When Gustave returned, he was carrying his unwieldy cannon and its drum-shaped magazine, which were apparently unharmed by the water. After spinning the barrel experimentally, he returned the drum to his back. The rest of the team collected their packs and weapons, then set off towards the city, following the winding paths that were still above water level.

***

“What are these?” Fletcher asked, the team walking along a footpath that rounded a small hill. “Looks like the lab we found a few days back.”

On the other side was a cluster of dome-shaped buildings, connected together like soap bubbles. They were made from the usual white-colored carbcrete, with round windows that looked out onto the surrounding land. There was a patch of forest nearby that had expanded beyond its original bounds to dominate the hillside, the trees growing tall and straight, decades of fallen leaves carpeting the furthest dome in a layer of soil that had eventually been claimed by colonies of red weeds. The lake, too, had overflowed to encroach upon the building. A small outhouse some distance away from the structure had already been submerged a good two feet below the surface. The landscapers had made clever use of nature to hide the dwellings from view, ensuring that the owners had some privacy without the need for obstructing walls or fences, but it was running wild now.

“This is the residential band, where the city’s inhabitants used to live,” Xipa explained from Gustave’s shoulder. “This was once a flock’s home, or a family, as you might call it. That large dome in the center is the main room, and the two attached to it are probably the kitchen and bedroom. That was the standard layout.”

“The place looks like a fucking golf course,” Fletcher muttered. “All it’s missing are the sand traps.”

“What about that one?” Bluejay asked, pointing to the sunken outhouse.

“That’s the bathroom,” she replied.

“Your bathrooms are outside your houses?” Fletcher asked skeptically. “What if you need to take a piss at two in the morning?”

“Then you walk,” Xipa replied tersely. “For such a technologically advanced species, you Earth’nay have a strange idea of hygiene.”

“We should stop here and rest,” Fletcher added, turning off the overgrown path. “I dunno how long we’ve been walking with this non-existent day and night cycle, but I’m fucked.” He began to trudge through the tall grass, the mud squelching under his boots. “The structure looks intact. It’s as good a place as any.”

The rest of the team followed, making their way over to the building’s rounded vestibule. Just like the research station that they had stumbled across by the roadside, the door had been blocked by a buildup of soil, but Fletcher was able to leverage his strength to tear it off its hinges. Xipa hopped down from Gustave’s shoulder, watching as Bluejay moved to the front of the group.

“I don’t smell any Bugs,” he announced, waving his antennae as he ducked inside. “Seems clear.”

“Looks like Gustave will have to make his own doorway again,” Fletcher sighed. “Just try not to bring the whole fucking roof down on us. Hey, where are you going?” he added as he watched the giant reptile start to lumber away. Gustave was headed for the small lake nearby, tossing his gear aside before wading into the water up to his waist. He flopped down onto his belly with a splash, the displacement creating lapping waves, then swam over to rest his long snout in the water weeds at the lake’s edge.

“Okay, I guess there’s no rule that says you can’t sleep in a lake, you weirdo,” Fletcher muttered. “You can take first watch.”

Gustave rumbled in response, wriggling to bury himself deeper in the slippery mud.

Fletcher ducked into the low vestibule, making his way inside the building. Xipa waited a few moments, then saw him reemerge again in a notable hurry.

“Yeah, we should pick a different one,” he said cryptically. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Wait, why?” Bluejay asked. “Are there bodies?”

“Let’s just go,” he insisted, but Xipa reached out to grab his polymer forearm as he passed her by. He glanced down at her gloved hand, but didn’t try to pull away from her, his gaze rising to meet hers.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded, confused by his sudden change in attitude. She had never seen him act this way before.

“It’s full of kid’s toys,” he admitted, keeping his voice low. “You don’t need to see that shit right now.”

“I do not shy away from the realities of war,” she replied. “This city is a graveyard. Hundreds of thousands met their end here, males and children included.”

She made her way into the vestibule, Bluejay stepping aside to let her through. When she emerged into the main dome, she saw what had rattled Fletcher so. A flock with one or more children had indeed lived here. The colorful shapes and patterns on the faded carpet were still visible, mushrooms sprouting near the base of the wall, where it was damp and shadowy. There was some musty furniture, a few seats and a dining table occupying most of the space, the shelves on the curving walls lined with old keepsakes and inactive photo projectors. There were dusty old toys strewn about the floor, as though a child had been playing with them before the alarm had been raised, and had been forced to abandon them in a hurry. As Xipa glanced into the adjoining kitchen dome, she saw that there were still dishes on the counter filled with desiccated meals. Whatever had happened in this city had happened fast.

The bedroom had been spared much of the damp, and there were relatively few mushrooms growing on the room-spanning mattress. She noted that there was an incubator placed against the far wall, a large, transparent box with a nest of blankets and pillows inside it. She walked up to it, wiping some of the dust from the glass, seeing that the interior had been left remarkably untouched by the elements.

“What is that?” Fletcher asked, Xipa turning her head to see him standing in the arched doorway behind her.

“It’s an incubator,” she said solemnly. “When Valbaran babies are born, they have trouble regulating their body temperature on their own, so they sleep beneath heat lamps until they’re a few months older. It means that this flock were caring for an infant.”

She anticipated some jibe about egg-laying or fish tanks, but Fletcher remained respectfully silent.

“We don’t have to stay here,” he finally said. “We can find somewhere else.”

“This has been my reality for thirty rotations,” she replied, keeping her voice level despite the flare of emotion that was making her headdress flush purple. “It does not disturb me. Come, we can eat a meal at a table for a change.”

***

As strange as it felt to eat a meal in someone else’s home, having everyone save for Gustave eating around the same table helped to reinforce the idea that their disparate group was a team. Once again, Fletcher shared his MRE with her, sliding a stack of food packets over to her side of the table. He made the excuse that he didn’t need all of those calories with his prosthetic limbs, but she found it odd that such a seasoned warrior would burden himself with more supplies than he needed. As sharp as his tongue was, she was beginning to realize that he cared more for those under his command than he wanted to admit.

She watched him as he thrust a cup of rehydrated fluid in front of Bluejay, insisting that the alien try it, laughing at his displeasure as he spat the brown liquid out of his proboscis like a straw.

The last time they had spoken privately, Fletcher had told her of how he had burned all of his bridges, that he had pushed away all of the people who were close to him. Maybe that was the source of his abrasive attitude – an attempt to keep the team at arm’s length lest they get too close. Was that the same reason she had condemned herself to a life of solitude for all this time? She had told herself that she was being strong, that it was a sign of her commitment to her cause, but maybe she was more like the Earth’nay than she cared to admit. Just as he had fled towards battle, perhaps she had fled towards grand projects that would let her avoid confronting her past.

What was she supposed to do about that, though? Fletcher had told her that it was too late for him, but that she had yet to cross a line from which there would be no return. What was that line? How would she know when she reached it – that she hadn’t crossed it long ago?

Somehow, having a glimmer of insight into the inner workings of her mind was worse than being ignorant – to know that there was a problem but to have no idea how to fix it. It was not a conundrum that could be solved with space stations or conquest.

“How are you liking the chicken salad?” Fletcher asked, snapping her out of her stupor. Her feathers flashed a surprised yellow, and she blinked back at him.

“G-good,” she replied hastily. “It tastes like grilled Gue’tra meat. That’s my favorite dish.”

“Yet another thing to add to the ever-growing list of things that taste like chicken,” he chuckled.

When they were done eating, they spread out into the dwelling’s rooms to sleep. Fletcher and Ruza set up their sleeping bags in the bedroom while Bluejay remained in the main dome. Xipa didn’t want to have to look at the incubator – even the company of the insect would be more tolerable – so she laid out her sleeping bag far away from him on the circular floor. The cushions on the chairs weren’t in too bad shape, so she stacked them behind her head, using them as pillows. Before long, she could hear Ruza snoring, but she found herself able to do little other than stare at the patches of damp on the domed ceiling.

As she rolled onto her side restlessly, she saw that Bluejay wasn’t asleep yet either. The insect was sitting on the floor on the other side of the dining table, having no need for a sleeping bag. He had cleared away the toys that were strewn across the carpet to make room for himself, sweeping them into a pile, which he was now examining. As she watched, he reached for one of them, lifting it up to examine it. She had seen toys like this before – soft dolls in the shape of Valbarans that were often stitched together from scrap fabric by fathers for their newborns. It was a tradition that had seen a resurgence on the colony, where such commercial products were not yet available in abundance, and importing them from the homeworld incurred an extra cost.

His eyes lingered on it, his furry antennae reaching out to touch gently against its stuffed snout. She waited to see what he would do next, her blood starting to boil. Seeing him there, holding a toy whose owner had probably died at the hands of his kin, was a form of desecration. Slowly, he reached for his rig, opening one of the pouches quietly so as not to wake the others.

“What are you doing?” Xipa hissed, the sudden sound startling Bluejay. He quickly dropped the doll as though embarrassed at being caught. “Why are you taking that? Put it back where you found it.”

“I…” he hesitated, glancing down at the fallen toy again. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” she repeated, glaring at him from across the room. “That belongs to the people who lived here. It’s not yours to take.”

“I just…” Bluejay trailed off again, then seemed to find his confidence, his drooping antennae standing erect. “You have a personal stake in this fight,” he began. “You knew this world back when it was a thriving colony, when cities like this were full of life, full of families. I don’t have that connection. I just wanted to remind myself that this is what it’s really about,” he continued, picking up the doll again. “All the things that I think are important, all my reasons for coming here, they’re all secondary to making this a place where children can play again. And if there really are people holed up here, people who need our help, then we’re their only chance. That’s more important than my hive’s reputation – than just looking good to appease the Coalition. Maybe I can look at this doll if I ever lose that perspective.”

Xipa was taken aback by his earnestness, by the emotion in his eyes as he stared at the rag toy. This was not a performance for her benefit. She had caught him in the act, taken him by surprise, and his cheerful mask had slipped for a moment. The monster that she had expected to find lurking beneath it wasn’t there…

“I like kids,” he added with a weak chuckle. “One of my jobs back on Jarilo was guarding the playgrounds, keeping watch in case a knife-tooth tried to hop the fence and grab a snack. I’d just be sat up in a tree watching them run around and play for hours. It was a lot more fun than minding the chickens.”

“You guarded children?” Xipa asked, cocking her head at him.

“There are daycares and schools in the settlement near my hive,” he explained. “The frontier colony life keeps people busy, and they need someone to mind their kids while they work.”

“And, the Earth’nay parents leave their offspring in the care of insects?” she added skeptically. “They put that much trust in you, after everything that they have seen?”

“The people on Jarilo have little choice but to work together,” he replied. “They don’t have the luxury of turning down our help when we offer it. It might be born more of necessity than willingness at first, sure, but they warm up to us over time. They realize that we’re not playing some long con, and that we genuinely do want to help the colony thrive. What’s good for them is good for us.”

“These children…they do not fear you?” Xipa asked.

“That’s one of the things I like about them,” he replied with a smile. “They’re too young to be scared of me.”

“What of your own children?” she continued. “Do…do your kind have them? I don’t know how you reproduce.”

“In a way. Jarilans are kept in brood chambers while they’re in their larval form, and they only leave when they mature into their adult phase. They’re cuter than you’d think,” he added, noticing Xipa grimace at the thought. “They have these big, curious eyes that dart about all over the place. They kind of look like a swaddled baby, just…meatier. Anyway, I’ll just…yeah.”

He set the doll back down on the pile, then began to lie down, but Xipa raised a hand to stop him.

“Wait,” she began, Bluejay blinking back at her in surprise. “Take the doll.”

He smiled at her – a genuine one this time. She could see it in his eyes. He reached for the toy again, stowing it in one of the pockets on his rig, then settled in to sleep.

***

“I can’t feel my fuckin’ cock,” Hernandez groaned, walking with a limp as he followed Evan down the corridor. “I’m more beat up than you are right now, and you actually got your ass kicked.”

“You fucked a Borealan, what did you expect?” Evan replied. “She must weigh three times what you do. What was it like, anyway?”

“You’d think they wouldn’t be as tight as a Valbaran on account of their size, but those kegels, man. She could probably turn my fuckin’ fingers to bone dust.”

“Too much information, Hernandez,” Evan sighed.

“What can I tell you that isn’t obvious?” he continued, pausing to take a breather. Evan stopped beside him, leaning against the bulkhead, the pair waiting until an engineer in a yellow uniform had passed them by. “She’s tall, she’s strong, body like a goddamned gym rat. Tits the size of my head, abs like steel, the whole package,” he added with an exaggerated chef’s kiss. “She could probably pick a lock with that tongue of hers.”

“Do you even have a type, or are you just willing to fuck anything that has a pulse?” Evan chided. “I’m not seeing a pattern.”

“Hey, I’m at the buffet table here,” he replied with a grin. “Not my fault alien babes keep fallin’ into my lap. I see an opportunity, I take it. Why are you suddenly so interested in what I do with my dick, anyway?”

“What’s it like?” Evan asked, his tone becoming more serious. “Being with an alien, I mean.”

“In what way?” Hernandez replied, cocking a suspicious eyebrow at him.

“Okay, so their bodies are different from yours, right?” Evan continued as Hernandez nodded along. “I assume you have to find out if you’re actually compatible before you…take things further. Then what? How do you get with someone who’s so…different? Where do you even start?”

“Why the sudden interest?” Hernandez asked, narrowing his eyes. “I’ve been givin’ girls from here to Fort Hamilton a taste of Earth’s finest for years, and you ain’t never asked me that. When I asked Garcia what you were doin’ when me and Tatzi were breakin’ down cultural barriers last night, he told me you’d gone off on your own with Jade.”

“Jade’s my friend,” Evan replied, feeling his cheeks start to warm. “Why wouldn’t I hang out with her?”

“Uh-huh,” Hernandez said skeptically. “You never did tell me why you and Foster got into a punch-up. Somethin’ had to have set him off. My guess is he caught you two havin’ a little soiree together.”

“That’s-”

“You’re as good at lyin’ as I am at turnin’ down alien pussy, Evan,” Hernandez chuckled. “If you want my advice, here it is; don’t overthink things.”

“Don’t overthink things,” Evan repeated without really understanding. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that you think too much, and you’ll sabotage yourself if you let your noggin do the walkin’. Think of it this way,” he continued, putting a reassuring hand on Evan’s shoulder. “Either Jade already knows what equipment you’re packin’, or she’s in the same boat as you are. She’s not gonna expect you to know the ins and outs of…whatever the fuck Jarilans have between their legs. I doubt you could even look that shit up on the intranet.”

“Oh fuck,” Evan whispered, his eyes widening. “Do you think she’s looked up human anatomy?”

“I’m sayin’ it doesn’t matter,” Hernandez continued. “If you both want this, you’ll find a way to make it work together. Remember, it takes two to tango.”

“I’m not even sure if it’s going to happen yet,” he sighed, sagging back against the wall. “She kissed me, then she asked me to date her. Maybe I’m jumping the gun, but there’s something about her that just…gets in my head. I didn’t even know that I could be attracted to someone like her. A few days ago, I would have balked at the idea, but the more I think about her…”

“She’s part human, right?” Hernandez replied with a shrug. “Maybe that has somethin’ to do with it. I’m just happy you’ve finally met someone that you like. I was startin’ to think you were asexual or somethin’.”

“I actually feel a little better,” Evan said, standing up straight again. “Who knew you’d actually give me good advice?”

***

“So, what did you have in mind for our date?” Jade asked, holding Evan’s hand tightly in hers as they made their way down the Omaha’s winding hallways. She seemed undeterred by their encounter with Foster the night before, and even though Evan feared that some of his crewmates might react negatively to seeing them together, her confidence was infectious.

“I thought we could go out for a meal,” he replied. “Well, assault carriers aren’t exactly known for their fine dining experience, so I hope you won’t mind if we pretend the mess hall is a fancy restaurant.”

“I’m willing to suspend my disbelief,” she said with a chuckle.

“I was able to appropriate a few MREs,” Evan added, raising the shopping bag that he was carrying. “I figured it might be fun for you to try out a few different dishes, considering that you only eat honey.”

“You…do realize that I can’t eat solid food, right?” Jade asked. “I’m pretty sure I’ve told you that before.”

“I know,” he replied cryptically, Jade choosing not to press him further.

They arrived at the mess hall, the same room that Evan and his friends had been briefed in back on the Spratley before their first deployment. It was one of the largest rooms on the ship, the tables that had been recessed into the floor now folded out, surrounded by chairs of varying sizes that could accommodate the different Coalition species. They were occupied by only a couple of hundred people, which was pretty light for a carrier of this size, probably because so many of the crew members were deployed. The scent of cooking food wafted over from the glass counter at the far end of the room, but Evan had packed his own lunch, so he led Jade over to a secluded table at the opposite end of the hall.

He swung the bag up onto the table, Jade cocking her head curiously when she heard a heavier thunk than she had been anticipating. They slid into opposite seats, Evan starting to stack the loose MRE packets in a pile, reading off the contents as he went. He’d tried to get as many varied dishes as possible, because he had no real idea of what Jade would like. She ate honey and enjoyed sweet drinks, but there were few main courses that matched that description. Still, he’d been able to get a little creative.

“I still don’t know what you’re planning,” she said, crossing both pairs of arms as she leaned back in her chair. Evan reached into the bag again, Jade’s eyes widening as he set another item on the table. “Is that-”

“A cordless blender,” he said proudly.

“Two questions,” she continued, raising two fleshy fingers. “Where and how?”

“It wasn’t actually that hard to find,” he replied, plucking one of the packets from the pile. “An engineer who likes margaritas let me borrow it in exchange for three days of my alcohol ration. Now you can try whatever you want, as long as it can blend.”

“Okay,” she said, leaning forward to rest her upper elbows on the table. “I admit it, that’s a pretty good idea.”

“What do you want to try first?” he asked, waving a packet at her. “I’d ask you what kind of food you like, but since you’ve never eaten before…”

“Got anything sweet?” she said, glancing over at the stack.

“How about this?” he continued, checking the label on another meal. “This one is chicken chunks in a sweet and sour sauce. That’s pretty close to honey, I think.”

“Let’s give it a whirl,” she said with a smile.

“I get it,” he chuckled dryly. “Whirl, because it’s a blender, right? Oh, should we cook it first? You won’t burn your…uh…tube-thing, will you?”

“It’s called a proboscis,” she reminded him, then shook her head. “No, I won’t burn myself. It’s meant to be cooked, right?”

She watched curiously as he opened a flameless ration heater, filling it with water from a canteen, then inserted the packet. He folded it closed, then leaned it against another MRE to keep it relatively upright.

“No wonder they designed us to only eat honey,” she mused as she watched the steam rise from the pouch. “You guys have to carry around all of this extra gear just to keep yourselves fed. You need all these varieties of food, but we only need a liquid diet. I could probably fit days of rations into the space that just one of your MREs takes up.”

“Technically, humans could subsist on a lot less food,” he explained. “They could give us a nutrient loaf that would take up a fraction of the space and keep us healthy enough to fight. That’s not really the point, though. Humans need novelty. They’d get bored if they had to eat the same thing for every meal. That’s something they do to prisoners as a punishment. Rations are as much about morale as nutrition.”

“I hope you’re not about to expand my horizons too much,” Jade said, her face plates arranging into a convincing smirk. “Am I going to have to carry around a blender everywhere I go from now on?”

“I’m not sure MRE chicken will have that effect,” he chuckled. “If you ever make it to Earth, maybe you can go to a real gourmet place and try some five-star food. I’m don’t think the chef would appreciate you blending their meals, though.”

It didn’t take long for the food to cook, Evan lifting it out of the pouch tentatively, careful not to scald his fingers. He removed the lid from the blender, tilting it so that he could glance inside.

“Here’s hoping this won’t make all of Montgomery’s margaritas taste like sweet and sour sauce from now on,” he muttered as he upended the packet into it. Sticky was an understatement, the chunks of chicken breast sliding out along with globs of orange-yellow sauce. It smelled great, Jade apparently picking it up too, her antennae wiggling happily. He hit the button at the base of the blender, holding the lid down as it vibrated in his hands. After a few pulses, he had reduced the meal to a thick paste that didn’t look too far away from Jade’s honey in color and consistency.

“How’s this?” he asked, Jade leaning closer to examine the concoction.

“Looks good,” she replied. “Maybe not very appetizing to a human, but I have a taste for paste.”

Evan produced a collapsible bowl, then poured the syrupy mixture out of the blender, sliding the resulting dish across the table towards her. She cupped it in her hands, raising it as though she was about to take a sniff of the wisps of steam that were rising from it. Instead, she brought her antennae down, waving them over it. The chitin plates that made up the lower portion of her face split open to reveal the flesh beneath, parting like a beak, her tongue-like proboscis snaking forth. The sight no longer bothered Evan – he had grown used to it by now. She plunged it into the bowl, taking a hesitant sip, Evan watching the subtle bulge travel up the fleshy tube. Her eyes lit up, and she took a few more sips, her antennae waving again.

“Hey, that’s not bad at all!” she said as she raised the bowl a little higher. “I didn’t even know my proboscis had this many taste buds,” she added with an excited chuckle.

“Don’t fill up,” Evan said, sifting through the remaining packets. “This is just the first course.”

“What about you?” she asked. “Aren’t you having anything?”

“Oh, right,” he muttered as he fished out a packet for himself. “Maybe I’ll have a little of what you have, and we can try the different menus together?”

“Alright,” she replied cheerfully.

“Next up is pepperoni pizza,” Evan continued. Jade waited for her vacuum-sealed square of pizza to cook excitedly, finishing off the rest of her sweet and sour chicken. It was the first time that he had seen her this animated. Her eyes were bright, and her antennae were waving as though caught in a breeze. This really must be a totally new experience for her.

When it was ready, he split the pizza in half, tossing one of the pieces into the blender.

“This is either going to be really gross or really good,” he warned as he took a bite out of his share. Holding his pizza in his mouth, he pulsed the blender again, reducing its contents down to a fine powder. “Shit, it’s too dry,” he muttered. “Better add a little water.”

When he got it to the right consistency, he poured it out into her now-empty bowl, Jade eyeing this dish a little more suspiciously. She gave it a sniff, or what passed for one, then took a drink. This time, she grimaced, slowly sliding the bowl away from her so as not to be too impolite.

“This one is, uh…a little more creative,” she said as she took a drink from his canteen to cleanse her palate.

“Yeah, I guess not all food can be blended,” he conceded as he took another bite out of his pizza. “Pizza is mostly about the contrasting textures, the doughy crust, the crisp pepperoni slices. Let’s try something else. A dessert, maybe. Something fruity.” He picked up a couple of smaller packets from the pile, reading off the labels. “Here we go, grape jelly,” he said as he handed it to Jade. She examined it, then tore it open, bringing her moth-like antennae close once again. Inserting her proboscis directly into the packet, she took a sip, unhindered by the thicker consistency.

“I like this one!” she chimed as she took another long draw from the packet.

“I have several flavors of jelly here,” Evan said, fanning out the packets like a hand of cards. “Apple, peach, blackcurrant, strawberry.”

“These are all fruits from Earth, right?” she asked as she drank from her packet like it was a juice box. Once again, he noted that her speech was unhindered, Jade able to drink and talk at the same time like a ventriloquist. “Man, we should look into making jelly from some of the native plants on Jarilo. Maybe we could have some treats along with our rations.”

“Oh, so now the honey isn’t enough?” Evan joked. “I thought Jarilans were too efficient for treats?”

“It must be my human side talking,” she replied, looking him up and down conspicuously. “I expect you to introduce me to all of the inefficiencies and excesses that I’ve been missing out on.”

“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get you back in touch with your heritage in no time.”

Over the next hour or so, they went through all the different dishes, Evan ensuring that she was able to sample the widest range of flavors possible. As he had expected, she favored the sweeter foods, but even the ones that she hated kept them both entertained. By the end of it, he wasn’t sure how he was ever going to get the blender clean again.

“You want to get something to drink?” Evan asked once she was finished. “I was gonna say that you might want to wash your meal down, but it was already liquid, so…”

“I could go for a drink,” she replied, setting her empty bowl aside. “Didn’t you trade your alcohol rations for that blender, though?”

“Doesn’t have to be today’s ration,” he said with a smile, rising from his seat.

***

The mechanical arm behind the bar placed Jade’s glass of peach schnapps on the counter in front of her, her proboscis winding between the floating ice cubes as she took a long draw. Evan lifted his own drink to his lips, downing a healthy mouthful, feeling the spirit warm his belly as it settled there. A little liquid courage might help to steady his nerves right now. He had spent so long hanging out with Jade, and nothing had changed between them save for how they chose to define their relationship, so where was this tension coming from?

“So, what do you want to do next?” he asked. “I didn’t really have anything planned besides the blender thing. There’s not a lot to do on an assault carrier. Want to play more darts? A videogame, maybe?”

“Relax,” she chuckled, reaching over to pat his thigh with a lower hand as she held her drink in the upper pair. “You don’t have to entertain me. I’m here to spend time with you. The blender was a cute idea though,” she chuckled, her laughter making Evan’s heart flutter. She leaned closer to kiss his cheek, a flash of unexpected desire coursing through him like a lightning bolt as her soft lips met his skin. As he took in a sharp breath, his head began to swim, and her expressive eyes were all that he could focus on. They drew him in, her long lashes batting as she cocked her head at him.

Evan didn’t consider himself a lecherous man, and in the handful of relationships that he’d had, he had always tried to take things slow. He wasn’t like Hernandez – it took Evan time to connect with people. Yet, something about Jade was making him feel things he hadn’t felt since he was a frustrated teenager. He was a live wire, his very blood seeming to boil in his veins, electricity coursing across his skin. He hadn’t had nearly enough drinks to be drunk yet, so what the hell was happening to him?

As he allowed himself to breathe again, he realized what it was. It was her scent. Jade had always smelled nice, something akin to a flowery perfume or a scented body wash radiating from her whenever she was close. It wasn’t unexpected – likely a deliberate move by the Queen to make her more appealing to humans. The natural aromas of the Bugs that he had encountered on the battlefield hadn’t exactly been pleasant, which was understandable for creatures that communicated primarily through pheromones.

Something about it was different now, however. He had first felt this way the night before, when they had almost kissed in the observation room, and again during their encounter in the bathroom. It was more than just nerves, more than desire – it was chemical. The odor that she exuded was unmistakably that of a woman, something that he wouldn’t even have known how to describe until now. That scent dredged up intimate memories from deep within the recesses of his mind, flashes of sweat-drenched skin shining as tangled bodies writhed, the half-remembered taste of a spurned lover’s kiss. There was something primal piggybacking on her scent, like a pirate signal riding on a carrier wave.

“What’s up?” she asked, snapping him out of his trance.

“N-nothing,” he replied, struggling to drive the intrusive thoughts from his mind. If he concentrated, he found that he could suppress them, but they came thick and fast each time her perfume wafted over to him. “You, uh…want another drink?”

“You don’t have to get me drunk, you know,” she chuckled as she set her empty glass back down on the bar. The robotic arm quickly swooped down and removed it, placing it out of view beneath the counter. She leaned over to give him a nudge with her elbow, bringing another swell of that maddening scent with her like a fragrant breeze. “I think we’re past the point where I need to be convinced of anything.”

“Last night,” he began, Jade’s antennae wiggling curiously at the abrupt change of subject. “You told me that you could taste my pheromones, that you couldn’t help it. What did you mean by that, exactly? I was…too distracted to ask at the time.”

She seemed a little flustered, settling back into her seat, the faux-leather padding creaking beneath her as she adjusted her weight. Before replying, she tapped at the touch panel that was floating nearby on its gimbal, the robotic arm springing into action with an electrical whine.

“I think I’ll have that drink after all,” she said, chuckling in a way that seemed more nervous than jovial. She waited for the arm to fill a fresh glass, then took a sip. “So, you know that Betelgeusians communicate through pheromones,” she began.

“Yeah, that’s the whole reason the Coalition brought you guys out here,” Evan replied.

“Jarilans can speak, obviously,” she continued as she took another sip from her drink. “We wouldn’t be very good at interacting with humans if we couldn’t. But, we also retain the ability to communicate using pheromones. We’re all born bilingual, in a sense. Our Betelgeusian ancestors would signal emotions and give commands through secreting chemicals, and not always in a way that was conscious. Some pheromones can be almost…overriding, making you feel sensations or emotions. Imagine…” She trailed off, reaching a finger into her glass to toy with the floating ice cubes as she considered how best to explain the concept. “Imagine if the mess hall was signposted with pheromones rather than, well, a sign. Imagine that catching its scent not only informed you of its location, but also made you hungry. Imagine if someone was angry, but rather than reading it on their face or in their tone, you felt a little of their anger. That’s kind of how our pheromones work. They trigger emotions, sometimes memories, feelings.”

“You’re all empaths, in a way,” Evan interjected. “You feel what other Jarilans feel, but in a strictly chemical sense.”

“Well, not just other Jarilans,” she added as she gave him a sideways glance. “To answer your question, because I’m part human, so are my pheromones. Humans are animals just like any other. You’re ruled by chemical reactions and hormones, and you signal each other in subconscious ways. Human pheromones are very weak, and you’re never consciously aware of them, but they’re there. When you consider that my sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than yours, you can start to see why I can’t help but pick them up.”

“And…can it go both ways?” Evan added, Jade blinking back at him in surprise. “My nose is thousands of times less sensitive than your antennae, but your pheromones are thousands of times more potent than mine, right? Would it be possible for a human to sense a Jarilan’s pheromones?”

“Are you saying that you can pick mine up?” she whispered, glancing around the bar conspiratorially. “They told us that humans might be able to, but I’ve never had it happen before!”

“Is it a big deal?” Evan asked, confused by her reaction.

“What’s it like?” she asked, her eyes bright with curiosity. “What does it make you feel?”

“I, uh…” He reached up to rub the back of his neck awkwardly, feeling his face start to burn. “Nothing that I could describe in polite conversation.”

“It doesn’t bother you?” she asked hesitantly, her antennae starting to droop. “I was worried that you might interpret it as a form of mind control – so many people think we have some kind of psychic hive-mind – or that you might see it as a violation of privacy. I don’t do any of it on purpose, it’s just how I’m built. I can no more switch it off than you could choose to stop hearing.”

“Not at all,” Evan said with a sigh of relief, Jade perking up again. “I thought I was going crazy for a minute there. Every time I’m close to you, I feel like I’m tipsy. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since last night.”

“I can taste your attraction to me,” she added, lowering her voice so that the patrons playing pool at the other end of the room wouldn’t overhear them. Her prior confidence returned now, her tone taking on a salacious quality that sent a pleasant shiver coursing up his spine. “It’s in your sweat, it’s on your skin. Every time you look at me, you exude desire out of your pores. What are we doing wasting time?” she continued, those emerald eyes fixed on him. “Our vehicle could be repaired by morning. Who knows what might happen during our next deployment. You’re attracted to me, I’m attracted to you, we both know it. Let’s do something about it!”

“Whoa, slow down,” Evan stammered as he raised his hands defensively.

“S-sorry,” she said, interrupting him before he could continue. “Am I moving too fast? I’ve never done this before, I don’t know how this is supposed to go.”

“I just meant, are we even compatible?” he continued.

“Oh yeah, we’re compatible,” she cooed.

“Did you look it up?”

She giggled, mimicking the human gesture of covering her mouth with her hand, despite the fact that it wouldn’t have any effect.

“I didn’t need to look it up. When I told you that the Queen designed us to interact with humans, I meant it in more ways than just speech. We’ve all had the talk at one point or another.”

“With who?” Evan demanded, his head swimming at the prospect.

“Hollyhock tells some of us, and they tell the rest,” she explained as she gradually leaned closer to him. “She’s an ambassador – it’s her job to know about human-Jarilan relations.”

The nearer she got, the more that maddening perfume invaded his senses, Jade doing it deliberately now that he’d given her carte blanche. It made it hard to think straight, the one-two punch of her words and her scent dizzying him.

“I’ve never felt this way before,” she continued, hooking both of her right arms around his left as she pressed close. He could feel the soft, fluffy ruff of fur around her neck brushing against his shoulder through his clothes, her feathery antennae tickling his face. Her voice was softer now, almost pleading. “If you’re able to sense my pheromones, then I don’t need to tell you how badly I want this.”

This was his chance. All he had to do now was follow the advice that Hernandez had given him and not overthink things, not mess this up.

“My place or yours?” he asked.

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering we’re bunking in the same quarters,” she giggled.

“Oh, right,” he mumbled, silently cursing himself.

“Actually, where can we go to be alone for a few hours?” she wondered, Evan feeling something soft press up against his bicep through the scant fabric of her tank top. A few hours? His head was spinning again.

“I wonder where Hernandez and Tatzi went,” he mused, trying to focus as her perfume enveloped him.

“I could find out,” she suggested, gesturing to her wiggling antennae.

“You can do that?” he chuckled.

“I’m a sniffer dog, right? I bet whatever closet they locked themselves in is full of their pheromones.”

“I have another idea,” he continued, daring to lean a little closer to whisper to her. “We could take a sleeping bag into the observation room. I doubt that anyone will stumble on us in there – not unless the port engine gets taken out.”

“I like the sound of that,” she cooed. “We can make our own private love nest.” She slid down off her seat, pulling him along with surprising strength as he quickly downed the last of his drink. “Come on! I want to make the most of what time we have.”

***

They hurried back to their quarters, finding that what members of their team were still there were sleeping. Quietly, his hands trembling due to nerves and excitement, Evan opened his locker and pulled out his sleeping bag. He pulled the pillows from his and Jade’s bunks, tossing them to her, his companion catching them in her four arms.

The pair made their way through the carrier’s winding hallways like they were on their way to commit a crime, giddily checking around corners to make sure that no officers were patrolling the corridors so late. They weren’t doing anything that was against regulations as far as they knew, but they didn’t want to have to explain why they were sneaking around the ship with handfuls of bedding in the middle of the night shift.

Evan knew exactly where he was going, leading Jade back to the secluded room. Once again, the door slid open with a touch of the panel, the two slipping inside before closing it behind them.

“Can you lock it?” Jade asked as Evan fiddled with the display, his sleeping bag tucked under one arm.

“Nah, looks like that would require an access code.”

“Oh well,” she chimed. “I guess we’ll just have to keep quiet, then, won’t we?”

He turned around to see her standing there, framed by the light that was bleeding in through the narrow window behind her. For the first time, he allowed himself to admire her unreservedly, to drink in the contours of her alien body without fear of how she or others might react. Maybe it was the fact that he was only now allowing himself to see her in this light, or maybe it was something to do with the pheromones, but her feminine features leapt out at him more than ever.

From the moment that he had seen her walking over from her dropship on Kerguela’s surface, he had noted her oddly human traits. Now that he knew more about her heritage, about her purpose, she seemed almost to have been sculpted specifically to please the male eye. There was nothing coincidental about the way that her thorax armor pinched her narrow waist like a corset, nothing accidental about the way that her hips flared out into a fertile hourglass. Her thighs were thick and inviting, tapering into willowy, digitigrade legs. Her two-toed feet were like the dainty hooves of a deer, Jade balancing on them with all the grace of a ballerina. There was nothing clumsy about her, nothing unnecessary, her form somehow honed into a thing of both beauty and efficiency by her Queen’s unfathomable intelligence. Once again, he marveled at how her tank top made it look like she was nude from the waist down, even though her groin was covered by a protective plate, her inner thighs left conspicuously exposed. The skin there was waxy, shiny, catching the light like a buffed car. Her body was still a mystery to him – he had no idea where her armor ended and her natural figure began, but he was only moments away from figuring that out for himself.

“I guess my worries about being too alien for your tastes were unfounded,” she said, cocking her hips in a way that only exaggerated her curves. “This isn’t a museum, y’know. You can look with your hands if you want to…”

He didn’t need to be persuaded, a surge of desire propelling him across the tiny room. She dropped her pillows, and he tossed his sleeping roll aside, Evan sweeping her up in his arms. She was a head shorter than he was, if one didn’t take her branching horn into account, Jade having to stand on her toes and lift her chin to meet his kiss. Their lips joined, Evan taking the initiative this time, resting her head in his hand as he leaned into her. This embrace was more passionate than their last, Evan reveling in the texture of her lips as she matched his greedy pace with equal vigor. They were so plump, as soft as marshmallows, full enough that he didn’t even come into contact with the firm plates that surrounded them. All pretension of modesty was abandoned, the veil of propriety lifted, that flowery perfume filling his lungs with each staggered breath. They were alone in this sanctum, with nobody to judge them, and no idea of where their desire might take them. As Hernandez had said – they would have to find out together.

Becoming more brazen, Evan parted her lips with his tongue, pushing deeper. She tasted familiar, just like a woman should, and he found himself wondering if her scent was muddling reality and memory. Something greeted him, coiling around his tongue like a fleshy rope, Evan quickly realizing that it was her proboscis. It was far thinner than his own organ – maybe the width of his finger, but it was muscular, prehensile. Where he expected the slow, deft strokes of a practiced lover, he instead found darting exploration. She was mapping his foreign organ, glancing across its surface, tickling him. His body was as alien to her as hers was to him.

He tried to lead by example, slowing his pace, entwining his tongue with her own. She quickly got the picture, matching his movements in a sordid dance. Her proboscis was slippery with her saliva, its surface as smooth as silk, winding across the flat of his tongue now like a snake crawling across a dune. It was a strange, novel sensation, but one that he welcomed. Her four hands clawed at his uniform all the while, clinging to him, Jade taking handfuls of the fabric for purchase.

As their heated kiss dragged on, he felt her antennae brush against his face, the sensation akin to someone dragging a feather lightly across his skin. She was tasting him, or maybe smelling him, sampling the pheromones that exuded from his pores with all the gentleness of a lover’s caress. It was like a drug to her. He could feel her shiver in his arms with each stroke of her antennae, her embrace growing ever more unreserved as it dragged on. That probing organ slid into his mouth now, repaying his curiosity in kind, drawing shapes on his palate with its twisting motions. It was long enough to reach the back of his throat, Jade drawing back when she felt him tense.

Finally, they parted with a wet pop, Evan leaning back to see Jade gazing up at him with longing in her eyes. She was breathing just as heavily as he was, her thorax rising and falling rhythmically in spite of her lack of lungs.

“Did I do that right?” she asked, her voice wavering. “That felt like I did it right.”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “You did good.”

Now that he had crossed the threshold, a newfound confidence was swelling in his chest, and Jade seemed to be just as uncertain as he was. He released her onto unsteady legs, Jade reaching up to fiddle with one of her antennae nervously as he spread out the sleeping bag on the deck.

As he stood up again, he felt Jade pounce on him from behind. She seemed to have regained some of her prior confidence. Her four arms wrapped around his core, feeling for the buttons on his uniform.

“Let me undress you,” she insisted, turning him around to face her. “I want to unwrap you like a birthday present.”

He glanced down as her deft fingers began to peel open his shirt, exposing his bare chest. The environment on the carrier was kept at a constant temperature and humidity, so he rarely felt the need to wear underclothes while off-duty. As she spread the garment open with her upper hands, the lower began to explore him, her fingers tracing the contours of his muscular core. They were softer than he had imagined, devoid of carapace when her protective gloves were off. Her skin was smoother than that of a human, devoid of any defects, and she had no fingernails. There wasn’t a hair or a goosebump on her, making it feel like she was wearing latex gloves, but the warmth of her touch quickly dispelled that notion.

She pressed her fingers into his belly, testing the firmness of his muscles, the sensation making him tense up reflexively. As a Marine, the high physical requirements of his lifestyle kept him in good shape without him really having to work at it, and she seemed pleased by what she found. Did she even have any concept of what a man should look like? Maybe she was attracted to his human traits just as he was attracted to hers.

“Not so squishy after all,” she muttered, roaming up towards his chest. “I’ve never, uh…seen a human so close before. Not like this…”

“You must have been curious about human anatomy at some point,” he prodded, all four of her hands roaming across his exposed torso now. It was such a strange feeling, his senses insisting that he was being groped by two women at once. “Didn’t you ever search for it on the colony’s intranet?”

“Not…often,” she admitted. If she could blush, her face would have been as red as a beet. She changed direction, slowly moving down towards his waist, the tips of her delicate fingers brushing the waistband of his shorts where his overalls were open. He shrugged off the top portion of the garment, letting it fall around his waist, then began to slide it down over his thighs.

As he let it fall to the deck, Jade paused, her eyes lingering on the conspicuous bulge in his underwear. After their heated kiss, he was already at half-mast, her curious explorations only arousing him further.

She hooked her fingers around the elastic waistband, dragging it down until his erection bounced free, her emerald eyes lingering on its unfamiliar shape. Her antennae tickled his chest as she brought her hands to his member, hesitating for a moment as though afraid to touch him. She quickly overcame her doubt, her questing fingers roaming up and down his shaft with a feather-light touch. One of her smooth digits ran from its base to its tip, tracing a throbbing vein, her long lashes batting as it twitched at her touch.

“They look a lot bigger in person,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “Listen, you’re hotboxing the room with pheromones, and it’s driving me crazy. Hurry up and undress me before I do it for you.”

“Where should I start?” he asked, looking her up and down.

“How about the shirt?” she suggested, her tone sly. “You’re curious about what’s underneath it, right? I’ve caught you looking before.”

Evan reached down to grip the hem of the tank top, slowly lifting it, his member pulsing along with the quickening beat of his heart. The V-shaped plate that covered her groin rose high on her hips, where it connected to the carapace that protected her torso. As he lifted it further, he saw more exposed, pink flesh. Running from her groin to her sternum was a vaguely diamond-shaped window in her shell, exposing her soft, unarmored midriff like a piece of lingerie or a provocative swimsuit. The plates interlocked, flexible and segmented so as not to limit her range of motion. Like a corset, the shell pinched her waist, giving her an irresistible hourglass figure. Evan couldn’t help but slide one of his hands from her hip to where her ribs would have been, following the sweeping curve.

The texture of her shell was different from what he had imagined. Far from being hard and rigid, it was remarkably yielding, like soft plastic that had some give to it when he applied any pressure. Just like her waxy skin, it was glass-smooth, making it oddly pleasing to touch. Even here, there wasn’t so much as a chip of paint that might reveal her original green hue, everything covered over with jungle camouflage in shades of autumn. They hadn’t missed a spot. Jade shivered contentedly as he stroked her, Evan realizing that her carapace must be full of nerve endings.

She slipped her lower arms through the holes that had been cut in the garment as he continued to lift it, Evan reaching her chest, his heart skipping a beat as he caught a glimpse of more rosy flesh. Jade had breasts. They were firm and shapely, just large enough to fill a cupped hand, her shining skin reflecting the light to make them look like they’d been oiled. The same armor that protected her torso rose to the fluffy ruff of iridescent fur around her neck, her bust spilling through a pair of strategically placed openings. This must all be part of her anatomy, while the chest piece that she was constantly replacing was just synthetic armor.

No man could have beheld such a perfect pair of breasts and kept his hands to himself. Evan reached out to cup one of them, feeling butter-soft flesh yield before his fingers, filling his palm when he gave it a gentle squeeze. God, she was so impossibly soft, her velvet fat pouring between his digits with the consistency of melting wax. It had been some years since Evan had been with anyone, and he didn’t remember it feeling like this. Coupled with the inhuman smoothness of her polished skin, the sensation was irresistible. Through his haze of arousal, he noted that she had no nipples. These were not functional organs – not as far as he could tell. Even if they were just for show, Jade reacted strongly, becoming weak at the knees as he groped her. She began to lift her tank top the rest of the way over her head, then got it stuck on her horn, writhing and struggling as Evan took the opportunity to take his fill of her inviting chest.

“G-f-stop that!” she moaned as he teased her, Evan delighting in the way that she danced with each squeeze. For a creature enclosed in so many layers of armor, she was wonderfully reactive, even her carapace no less tender than a woman’s skin. He relented, helping her pull off her top, careful not to damage her delicate antennae. He lifted the two longer sensory organs that flowed down her back like braids, ensuring that they didn’t get caught, feeling her tense at his merest touch. They were so soft and feathery, Evan running his fingers through the comb-like whiskers. Jade suddenly went quiet and still, save for the rapid rise and fall of her chest, her expression hidden by the fabric.

As he tossed the garment aside, Jade was on him again, her four arms reaching for him. Two of them cupped his cheeks as she drew him in for a needy kiss, the lower pair gripping his waist, Jade pulling herself closer. Her supple breasts squashed against his torso, and his rigid member pressed against the window of soft flesh on her belly, her warmth radiating into him as they embraced. More sure of herself now, that agile tongue coiled around his own, each stroke and lick imbued with her excitement. She didn’t need to tell him how she was feeling – he could feel it in her desperate pace, in the way that her pheromones tugged and plucked at his senses like the strings of a harp. Each breath that he took brought with it surging desire and half-remembered memories, lurid flashes of lovemaking, the taste of sweat on fever-hot skin.

When they broke off, he leaned down to plunge his face into the nape of her neck, burying it in her ruff of silky fur. It shimmered as it moved, like strands of fiber optic cable, but it was as soft as anything that he’d ever felt. His head began to spin again as he inhaled deeply, the flowery scent joined by a deeper, more primal aroma that lit a fresh fire in him.

“You’re not done yet,” Jade whispered in his ear. “I can be more naked.”

She took one of his hands in hers, guiding it down to the small of her back and over the mound of her rump. There were two armored plates there that hung free, attached to her waist, almost like empty wing casings. As she encouraged him to lift one of them, he realized that it was lined with a layer of soft fur, perhaps designed to stop it from chafing. It popped off with a little effort, as did the second, Jade tossing them to the floor. They had been protecting her butt, and now that they were off, Evan felt more flush skin beneath his fingers. He took a generous handful of her cheek, leaning forward to look over her shoulder, seeing the inverted heart shape of her rear as she arched her back. It was befitting of her wide hips, spilling through his fingers, Evan feeling firm tissue rise to greet his probing digits as he pushed deeper into the layer of doughy fat. She was tight, toned, muscle as springy as rubber lurking just beneath the surface. However their Queen manipulated their DNA, she did it with the skill of a sculptor’s chisel, and she must have a deep appreciation of the female form.

He guided her over to the sleeping bag that he had laid out for them, lowering her down onto the padding. As he knelt beside her, she pulled him on top of her, trapping him in another ravenous kiss. She was deceptively strong for her size, easily able to wrestle him onto his back with her four arms. She pinned his wrists above his head, straddling him between her stout thighs, the soft meat of their unarmored inner surface sandwiching his hips. With her two lower hands, she stroked his exposed stomach again, enjoying the way that his muscles flexed when she slipped a fingertip into his navel. His member pulsed against her belly, a bead of his pre welling at its tip.

He flinched as she brought a hand down to his cock, pressing it tight against her abdomen, Evan feeling the warmth of her body permeate him. She glanced down at it, sizing him up, her antennae twitching.

“I hope it fits, or this is going to get really awkward,” she giggled.

“I should probably take a look at what we’re working with,” he replied, Jade narrowing her eyes in mock suspicion.

“That sounds like an excuse if I ever heard one.”

She released his hands, and he took her by the hips, rolling her over onto her back. Lying her head in the pillows at the base of the wall behind them, Jade shuffled a little higher so that he could kneel between her legs, Evan parting her armored knees. He lifted one of her slender legs, bringing her calf to his lips.

“Can you feel this?” he asked, planting a kiss on her shell.

“Y-yeah,” she mumbled, wriggling as he roamed a little higher.

“How about this?” he added, dragging his tongue across the chitin that encased her thigh.

“Mhmm,” she cooed, twirling the end of her antenna around her finger as she watched.

He reached the cutout in her armor, where her inner thighs were exposed, planting a sucking kiss on her pink skin. Even beneath the flat of his tongue, he couldn’t feel a single imperfection. Jade let slip a stifled yelp, her skin apparently more sensitive than her shell. Encouraged, he roamed higher, crawling his lips up to the V-shaped piece of chitin that ran down between her legs.

Please tell me this comes off,” he panted, drawing a little closer so that he could press his lips against her belly.

“Yeah,” she murmured, reaching down to slid her thumb beneath it. “It just pops off.”

She applied a little force, and it disconnected from her body like a fender from a car, extending the diamond-shaped tummy-window all the way down to her mound. As the band of firm chitin pulled away, it remained linked to her by a strand of colorless fluid, Evan’s pulse throbbing in his ears as he looked down to see her loins. Between her soft thighs, exactly where they should have been, was a pair of plump lips. They were formed from the same pink flesh and waxy skin that surrounded them, puffy and swollen with desire, a glistening sheen of her excitement making them shine. He wasn’t sure if it was the sight of her so wet and ready, or the fresh surge of pheromones, but he was suddenly as hard as a diamond.

“Is that about what you expected?” she asked hesitantly.

“Better,” he replied, his voice a low growl of barely-restrained lust. Her sweet perfume drew him in, his mouth watering, his burning cheeks sliding against the burnished skin of her inner thighs as he brought his lips towards hers. He parted them with two fingers, finding them just as soft and as yielding as the rest of her, her rosy flesh stretchy and pliable. Between them was a very familiar vulva, its color the same shade of pink, its delicate folds and creases like pleated silk. He could see her twitching opening, a bead of her anticipation leaking from it, her swollen clitoris peeking out from beneath its hood of protective skin. She was inhumanly neat, inhumanly smooth, but there was nothing here that gave him pause.

She responded strongly to his touch, those pillowy thighs squeezing around his head reflexively, her toned butt rising off the sleeping bag. He held her open for a few moments longer, admiring the way that her anatomy glistened, droplets of fluid clinging to it like dew to the petals of a rose. Unable to hold back any longer, he dragged his tongue between her puffy labia, her vulva small enough that he could encompass it entirely. He placed his mouth over her smooth mound, lapping and sucking gently, mapping the details of her fever-hot loins.

Her taste jumped out at him, an unexpected sweetness surprising him. It wasn’t merely a pleasant flavor, it was good, encouraging him to keep up his doting licking. It tasted like she had smeared her womanhood in honey, not quite as strong a flavor, but still very apparent. He had tasted this before, he realized, in the Jarry Juice that the aliens supplied to the UNN. If her entire diet was comprised solely of that nutrient paste, then perhaps it was the source of her inviting taste.

The last thing he’d wanted to do when going into this was to compare her to a human woman. Making her feel like she was being judged to some predefined standard wouldn’t do anything other than make her nervous, and his only goal here was to make her happy. He wouldn’t have cared if her loins had been equipped with teeth – he would still have done his best to please her. Still, he couldn’t help but make a comment as he paused to take a breath.

“Fuck, you taste amazing.”

“Was I not supposed to?” she asked, Evan noting that her thighs were rising and falling subtly along with her chest as she panted. Nothing more than a little exploratory oral had her splayed out on the deck like she had just run a marathon. She really hadn’t ever been touched in this way before.

“I was expecting something neutral, but you taste like honey,” he replied with an enamored sigh. He resumed his licking, Jade writhing as he danced the tip of his tongue across her womanhood, painting every inch of her quivering anatomy. He circled her opening, feeling her muscles attempt to grip his tongue reflexively, but they were both too slick to gain any purchase. As he roamed upwards, he felt her tense up again, Evan glancing up to see her peering back at him with those green eyes. She looked drunk, her antennae waving as though caught in a breeze that only she could feel, her heaving chest making her pert breasts wobble enticingly.

“You okay?” he asked.

She reached down with one of her lower hands, wiping away a strand of her fluid that was clinging to his chin.

“Is that a trick question? Keep going…”

That same hand delved into his hair as he resumed his ardent lapping, Jade running her fingers through it, seeming to enjoy its texture.

“Right there!” she gasped, squeezing his face between her thighs again as he neared her clitoris. He teased her a little, feeling her squirm and moan as he skirted around it, delivering doting licks and kisses everywhere except where she most wanted them. When he finally gave it the attention that she craved, he found it swollen with desire, pulsing against the flat of his tongue. He pursed his lips around the organ, drawing it out from beneath its hood, the gentle suction enough to make her spine arch off the deck.

“Oh, fuck,” she mumbled as she covered her face with her upper hands. “Is…is it supposed to feel like this?”

“I figured you’d know better than I do,” he replied, Jade slowly sagging back to the sleeping bag like a deflating pool toy as he relented. “It doesn’t hurt, right?”

“N-no,” she stammered, her antennae waving as she shook her head adamantly. “It feels like I’m floating on a cloud. I’ve…I’ve used my fingers before. I was curious,” she added with a nervous chuckle. “I just wasn’t expecting this to be so much more intense…”

She had been so confident leading up to this, seducing him like a pro, but it seemed that he had more experience than she did when it came to lovemaking. Communication was something that she had practiced every day of her life, after all, but this was completely new to her. She might not even know what her body was capable of yet. How many Jarilans had slept with a human and could inform her?

“This is just foreplay,” he chuckled, taking a moment to revel in turning the tables on her.

“I know that!” she protested, giving him a mock tap on the head with her fist. “There are videos on the colony’s intranet. There, I admit it. Female Drones outnumber males by a huge margin, and I’ve never met a human who I wanted to approach before. Not until you.”

“I’d be surprised if you weren’t curious,” he added. “If I look like I know what I’m doing, it’s only because you’re a little more familiar than I expected.”

“Maybe I can still surprise you,” she cooed, pushing his head back down between her legs.

He began to circle her firm bud with the tip of his tongue, alternating between quick flurries and slow, doting strokes to keep her guessing. Her winking opening drew his attention, and he raised a finger to it, a ring of stretchy muscle closing around the tip. Jade flinched, a tremor rolling through her body, the Jarilan propping herself up on her lower elbows to get a look at what he was doing.

“Tell me if I’m going too fast,” he said, Jade nodding her head as she watched his finger with half-lidded eyes. Slowly, he pushed it deeper, his heart quickening as new sensations assailed him. He was met with an impossibly tight, undulating tunnel of flesh, rolling muscle contractions stroking his finger in powerful flurries that felt like shivers. It wasn’t strong enough to be uncomfortable, but it still gave him pause, wet flesh with the texture of satin pressing down on him like it was trying to make a mold of his digit. Her honeyed nectar coated his skin in a slippery sheen, warm and viscous, making her clenching muscles glide as they eased him deeper.

After the first inch or two of rippling flesh, he felt something unexpected brush against the tip of his finger. His eyes widened as what felt like tiny nodules of delicate tissue closed around him in a muscular spasm, combing across his skin. They were just firm enough that he could feel them, but not quite so much that they provided any real resistance, like a forest of tiny papillae.

“What is it?” she asked, noting his expression. “Is something wrong?”

Now, it was Evan’s turn to stammer his reply.

“I…uh, guess you surprised me after all. A good surprise,” he added, meeting her gaze. He began to move his finger now, pulling it back, feeling a wonderful suction grip him. As he found a steady rhythm, he brought his lips back to her loins, pouring his passion into each kiss and lick. She was so sensitive, dancing like a puppet on the end of its strings, her upper hands rising to knead her breasts as the lower pair clawed desperately at the bedding beneath her. When he felt like she was getting too close, those wonderful contractions coming thick and fast, he relented a little to pay some attention to her thighs. Her fat was so cushiony and inviting – if it was indeed fat – rubbery muscle rising to the surface to dimple it when his lingering kisses made her flex.

The openings in her armor guided him, almost as though the most sensual parts of her body had been left purposefully exposed in a deliberate attempt to entice him. No, that was the truth of it. Jade hadn’t been honed by millions of years of evolution, but by an unfathomably intelligent consciousness – an alien mind with a singular purpose. How a creature that likely didn’t even experience love or attraction could glean such profound insights into what turned humans on was a mystery that he would probably never solve.

Jade was rocking her wide hips into him now, matching his pace as she tried to fuck his hand, driving his digit deeper as though she was trying to reach an itch deep inside her. He admired the way that her flat tummy flexed and shifted, the subtle outlines of what might be abdominal muscles rising up from beneath the taut skin. It was hard to tell if the rosy hue came from the skin itself or if it was transparent, letting the color bleed through.

He redoubled his efforts, lashing her clitoris with his tongue, trapping it between his lips to make her writhe and gasp. She had dug herself deeper into the pillows that they had stolen from the bunks, one of them draped over her face, but she was too lost in her pleasure to pay it any mind. The pheromones that she was putting out now were incredible, like a hallucinogenic drug, each breath filling his lungs with her sordid perfume. It was as if pure lust was evaporating from her skin. Between the sweet taste that filled his mouth and the lurid flashes of half-remembered nights of passion that filled his head, he could hardly think about anything other than the uncomfortable, needy ache in his throbbing erection.

With a low, drawn-out moan, Jade climaxed. Her insides sealed around his finger, tightening like a noose, those teasing papillae raking across its tip as the firm muscles beyond their bounds spasmed. He couldn’t take his mind off how it might feel to have those things encompass his glans, to feel the nodules of wet flesh stroking him in shuddering waves. He kept his lips locked to her loins for as long as he could before she bucked him off, her hands kneading her boobs like balls of dough as she rode out her orgasm, each spark of pleasure sending a wonderful tremor coursing through her body.

Gradually, still thrusting reflexively, she came down from her high. She let out a shuddering sigh, pushing the pillow away from her face, reaching up to straighten one of her antennae as she gazed down at him.

“I’ve been missing out,” she chuckled, an aftershock tickling her as Evan struggled to withdraw his finger. He brought it to his mouth, then stopped himself when he realized what he was doing. She tasted good enough that he had been about to suck his finger clean as a reflex, as though he had just pulled it from a jar of syrup.

He lay down beside her on the sleeping bag, draping an arm around her midriff, enjoying the way that she shivered at his touch. She was still sensitive after her climax, giddy, Jade giving him a beaming smile as she shuffled closer to nuzzle his cheek. Her antennae tickled his face as they brushed against his skin, but he welcomed them, knowing that she was wallowing in his pheromones.

“You smell like you’re about to explode,” she chuckled, drawing a lazy circle on his belly with her finger. “Let me take care of that for you…”

She slid down his body, pushing herself along with her four arms, coming to a stop when her head was about level with his stomach. She knelt beside him, her eyes lingering on his swollen erection, her antennae waving over it. She shuddered, her eyes drooping, as though she had just taken in a deep breath of his scent. One of her upper hands reached out to brush his shaft, Jade watching his cock flex. She wrapped her fingers around it, feeling it pulse against her palm, her silky skin gliding along his length as she began to stroke. She brought a second hand to grip his base, a third resting on his stomach, while the fourth roamed down to his balls.

With so many hands, she could be everywhere at once, Evan reeling as unexpected pleasure surged through him. She was so gentle, her grip as light as a feather, each hand moving independently of the rest. He felt her cup his balls, stroking them with her fingers, another digit circling his glans.

“This is where you’re most sensitive, right?” she asked in a low, breathy voice. “I can feel you getting harder. Fuck, it’s like resin…”

A sweet ache permeated his member as she mapped it with her fingertips, tracing bulging veins, peeling back his foreskin to expose his shining head. Evan lay back, staring at the ceiling with unfocused eyes as he enjoyed her attentions. She was like some kind of masseuse, her fingers as agile as those of a pianist.

“I wanna try something,” she declared, shifting her weight to get a little closer. “I don’t know if this is gonna work, because I don’t really have a mouth,” she added with a chuckle. “But, maybe it’ll feel good.”

Evan watched as she leaned over him, her face plates splitting open, her proboscis snaking forth. Holding his member in place with one hand, she brought the wriggling organ down to his glans, making him flinch as it glanced across his tender flesh. It was slick with her saliva, muscular, swirling around his pulsing tip with surprising finesse. It didn’t quite feel like a tongue, but it wasn’t unpleasant, the azure appendage coiling around him as it spiraled downward.

It darted back inside her mouth as she brought her lips down to plant a kiss on his tip, their soft, pillowy texture sending a jolt of pleasure coursing through him. She mouthed softly, crawling them across his sensitive flesh, peppering it with teasing pecks. She returned to his tip, sliding them over his glans, taking him into her mouth. Without a throat, she couldn’t apply any suction, but she could still purse her lips to keep him trapped inside the pocket of warm flesh. It felt just like the lining of an inner cheek, her proboscis wrapping around his girth again, darting across his anatomy like the tip of a paintbrush. It was a strange sensation, but a pleasant one, her shallow mouth unexpectedly inviting.

“I dunno if I’m doing a very good job,” she chuckled nervously as she drew back, wetting her lips with her proboscis.

“It felt good,” Evan replied, giving her a woozy smile. “I think you’re better with your hands, though.”

“Magic fingers,” she giggled, wiggling all four sets of digits like she was playing an invisible keyboard. She sized him up again, cocking her head. “I can’t really spit, but maybe…”

Evan’s face warmed as she reached between her thighs, coating her hand in a glossy sheen of her fluids. She returned that hand to his member, her fingers sliding in the lurid secretions, quickly covering his length in a slick layer.

“Whoa,” Evan gasped, reeling as she began to pump her fist. He hadn’t expected it to feel so good, her fingers lighting up his nerves like a switchboard as they glided across his skin, almost frictionless. She smiled at his reaction, bringing a second hand to his aching member, twisting it around his glans as she continued to stroke. One of her lower hands rested on his belly, while the last one snuck down between his legs, cradling his balls. It was incredible how much control she had over them. Evan couldn’t even rub his stomach and pat his head at the same time without fucking it up.

“Do you like that?” she cooed, drinking in his pained expressions with her green eyes. “Should I go a little faster? Tighter, maybe?”

“Tighter, yeah,” he sighed. His back arched reflexively as she squeezed a little harder, his cock slipping from her grasp like a bar of soap thanks to her fluids. She was milking him with a slow, deliberate motion, sliding her fingers from his base to his tip. The speed and pressure never remained quite the same, Jade keeping him on his toes, Evan feeling like the very beat of his heart was tied to the motions of her hands. With all three of them, she could encompass his entire length, twisting and stroking in alternating directions. Somehow, it was the warmth of her palm as she held his balls that distracted him the most, her soft skin like velvet.

Jade paused for a moment, lying down beside him on the sleeping bag. She hooked her leg around his, wrapping her arms around his waist, pulling herself close. Her breasts pressed up against his shoulder, and she reached up to take his head in her upper hand, guiding his face down into the ruff of shimmering fur around her neck.

“Breathe deep,” she whispered, resuming her cruel massage with her lower pair of hands. Each breath that he took made his head swim, somehow enhancing the sensation of her relentless stroking. She had arms to spare, enough that she could run her fingers through his hair while tickling his balls and pumping her tight fist all at the same time. Even without the pheromones that were ensnaring his senses, it would have been intoxicating.

“You really are full of surprises,” he murmured, feeling himself melt into her arms. He could feel his climax gradually building, the tendrils of her flowery perfume invading his mind, creating a relaxing haze that made him feel like he could have fallen asleep right there. Now that she was more relaxed, so was he.

“Yeah, well I’m hoping to be full of something else pretty soon,” she replied with a lascivious chuckle. “Are you getting close? I can do this for as long as you want. I was designed to hold a rifle steady for hours at a time. My arms won’t get tired.”

“I’m getting there,” he replied, pushing his face deeper into her downy fur. “You can go a tad faster if you want to…”

He started to thrust into her hand, Jade redoubling her efforts, dancing her dexterous fingers up and down his cock. She squeezed his balls gently, feeling them swell in anticipation, cradling his face in her hand as she pushed him closer and closer to the brink.

“Does it feel good?” she demanded, lifting his face out of her collar so that she could see his expression. “Tell me how it feels.”

“You feel amazing,” he groaned, those green eyes sparkling like cut jewels through the fog of his arousal. She gave him another warm smile, then pushed him back down into her fur, forcing him to fill his lungs with her sweet aroma.

“Come for me,” she whispered, the pace of her rhythmic stroking increasing as her grip grew tighter. It was more than he could stand, her breathy voice oozing with lust, cutting through his fugue like a hot knife. With one last heaving thrust, he filled her closed fist with his emission, feeling it splash against her palm. It seeped between her fingers, hot and gelatinous, another thick rope painting her rosy skin. She kept one hand closed around his glans, stroking his shaft with another, a third massaging his balls as though encouraging him to give her more. The stimulation was relentless, Evan hiding his face in her ruff, his body jerking with each fresh rush of ecstasy.

With every stroke of her hand came another wad of pearly fluid, his clenching muscles giving her all that he had, each one chased by a wonderful current of pleasure that washed over him like a tide. The warm, tingling sensation gradually subsided, leaving delightful euphoria in its wake. He sagged into her four arms, feeling her ease out one last shuddering spurt before relinquishing her hold on him, the ache of satisfaction permeating him to the core. Her ruff was as soft as any pillow, and he treated it as such, Jade holding him close as he gradually regained his faculties.

As much as he tried, he couldn’t come up with anything witty to say, so he settled for a placating kiss to demonstrate his gratitude. The wordless gesture was all that Jade required, the two sharing a slow, affectionate embrace while his afterglow diminished.

“This is even more fun than I imagined,” Jade cooed as Evan rolled onto his back, taking his first breath of relatively pheromone-free air in what must be minutes. She brought a hand to his chest, sliding her fingers through the perspiration that coated him in a glistening layer. “Cool, you’re sweating,” she marveled.

“Cool?” he chuckled.

“We don’t sweat,” she explained. “I like the way it feels on your skin…”

“I’m really happy we did this,” he added, Jade smirking up at him as she lay her head on his shoulder.

“Oh?”

“I was worried that we might not be compatible, but that seems silly now. I asked Hernandez for advice, of all people, and he told me that we would figure it out together.”

“He gave you good advice,” she replied, running her fingers through his hair again. She was petting him like a cat, but it was a pleasant sensation that he welcomed. It had been a while since he’d shared his bunk with a woman, and even longer since anyone had shown him such unreserved affection. “I suppose he wouldn’t be able to fuck his way across the Galaxy if he didn’t learn a thing or two about relationships. Selfishness isn’t an attractive trait in a partner, and I think even the Borealans would agree.”

“Check it out,” he said, nodding to the window above them. Jade released him, and they both sat up, watching the surface of Kerguela roll past below the carrier.

“We could be back down there by tomorrow,” Jade sighed, her antennae drooping a little. They perked up again when Evan took her nearest hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“It’s like you said – we have to make the most of the time we have. Tomorrow is tomorrow. All that matters right now is you and me.”

“I can almost pretend that we’ll be in this room forever,” she replied, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I’ve never been afraid of combat before, but I guess I’ve found something that I couldn’t stand to lose.”

“We can’t lose,” he added, giving her a gentle nudge. “We’re ghosts, remember?”

They watched the spectacular view for a few minutes more, wisps of white cloud drifting above the autumn forests, then Evan cleared his throat to get her attention.

“So…do you want to be on top, or should I?” he asked.

“Wow, just put me on the spot, why don’t you?” she chuckled as she gave him a playful shove. “I take it that means you’re ready to go again?”

“I can’t keep my hands off you for much longer,” he replied, Jade wetting her lips at the prospect.

“I guess I’ll be on the bottom, then. Just be gentle, okay? You humans are bigger than you looked in those videos.”

She lay down on the sleeping bag, shifting her weight on the pillows as she opened her legs in invitation, Evan kneeling between them. She was still wonderfully wet from their last encounter, the light catching her fleshy lips to make them glisten. He felt the relative firmness of her carapace transition to flush skin as he drew closer, poising there with his erection hovering a mere inch from her loins, feeling the heat that radiated from her. He reached for an armored hip for leverage, watching the rise and fall of her chest quicken as he repositioned himself.

“Just say the word, and I’ll stop,” he assured her as he took his member in his hand. He angled it down towards her flushed loins, slowly sliding his exposed glans between her soft lips. They parted, slick with her anticipation, Evan rubbing the head of his pulsing cock up and down her vulva.

“Are you trying to frustrate me?” she grumbled, all four of her hands gripping the sleeping bag tightly. She looked like she was afraid she might float away.

“I wanted to wet it a little first, help it go in easier,” he explained.

He pushed forward, feeling that tight ring of muscle resist him. It felt like putting on a rubber that was a few sizes too small, the narrow band constricting around him, flesh with the texture of wet silk raking across his glans. They winced in tandem as he applied a little more pressure, a popping sensation making them both flinch as he got the tip inside. That muscular ring constricted around his head, flurries of clenching muscle rippling across the most sensitive part of his anatomy.

He glanced up at Jade briefly, gauging her reaction. She was fiddling with an antenna again, curling it around her finger, watching intently as he inched deeper. He heard no plea to stop, so he continued, feeling her narrow walls cleave open before him. It felt more like he was making a tunnel than spreading one apart.

“K-keep going,” she stammered, her thighs trembling around his waist.

Feeling a little more confident now that he was most of the way in, he dared to thrust gently, Jade throwing her head back as the widest part of his shaft made it inside.

“Sorry!” he blurted, but she was quick to assuage his concerns.

“Oh, fuck,” she moaned as she arched her back off the sleeping bag. “I can feel your blood pumping inside me.”

“Should I-”

“More!’ she demanded, crossing her legs behind his butt. She pulled him deeper, Evan bottoming out inside her, watching a beautiful tremor roll through her body as she impaled herself on his member. He was plunged into the chamber of tiny nodules that he had felt earlier, her flesh stretching taut over his glans like he was trying to push a finger through latex. The sensation of a thousand tiny, slippery papillae scouring his glans was enough to make him double over, her tight grip peeling back his foreskin in what felt like a calculated attempt to ensure that he could feel each and every one of them. They were like the tips of little tongues, just firm enough that he could feel them, but not so much that they provided any real resistance