The Rask Rebellion

Cover Illustration by Honovy: https://www.furaffinity.net/user/honovy/

© 2020 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: massage, long tongue, kissing, large breasts, girl-on-girl, blowjob, fingering, feathers, oral, vaginal, group sex, deepthroat, dirty talk, muscle, size difference, scales, fur, biting, scratching.

CHAPTER 1: PREEMPTIVE STRIKE

The sound of claws scratching against the metal deck echoed through the cramped corridor as the Crewmaster made his way to the bridge, ducking under exposed pipes and bundles of electrical cables. This warren of winding passages was made for humans, not Borealans, his eight-foot stature requiring him to hunch over to avoid hitting his head. Their smell still permeated the vessel, but it was fading now, overcome by the scents of oil and alien machinery.

His furry ears brushed the doorframe as he emerged into a more open space, finally able to stand upright. Before him was a room occupied by half a dozen console banks, more of his kind hunched over before the glowing, holographic displays. They waved their clawed fingers through the projections, adjusting their course, and tracking radar contacts. The bridge was a little more homely than the rest of the ship. As the command center, the bare hull had been decorated with crimson drapes in the traditional style, the flowing fabric cascading from the ceiling to the carpeted floor. A large window wrapped around the room, occupying his entire field of view. The glass doubled as a monitor, displaying information in small boxes that the crew were moving around with gestures from their furry hands, the angular hull of the frigate visible beyond.

It extended into the distance like an artificial horizon, tapering into a dull point a good two hundred meters in front of them, the subtly raised conning tower giving them a fine view. It was broken up in places by the streamlined blisters that housed the ship’s railgun turrets, and the closed hatches of the torpedo launch tubes. The vessel bristled with weaponry, but it was all stowed, as they were not on a combat patrol. The hull had once been painted with a stealth coating that was as black as the space beyond, but it now sported a more fitting red, the color of Elysia. Intricate scenes of battle and hunting flowed across its surface like a tapestry, their brilliant gold gleaming under the light of the system’s twin suns.

The finely engraved, ruby-red armor that the Crewmaster wore over his silken tunic clanked as he rolled his shoulders, a long cape sewn from rainbow spider fur glittering with iridescence as it trailed behind him. He stalked over to his throne, taking a seat on the padded chair, his long tail slotting through a hole in the backrest as he leaned into the crimson leather. Most of his crew were wearing their pressure suits, but the Furious Swipe was a sound vessel, she would not forsake her master.

Report,” he grumbled, resting his face in his palm as he gazed out at the starfield. “What is our present course?”

We sail over the territory of the Rask, my Alpha,” one of his crewmen replied with a deferent bow of his head.

Radar contacts?” he asked, scratching idly at his fiery mane of orange hair.

Some Coalition, and one jump merchant, but we have adjusted our trajectory accordingly.”

Very good,” the Crewmaster muttered, waving a hand at the viewport. “Show me the ground.”

The inky blackness of space faded, replaced with a camera view from the underside of the frigate. The planet beneath them was mostly desert, its surface blasted by the heat of the system’s primary, scant wisps of white cloud drifting through the atmosphere. Borealis had no oceans, no continents, all of its water was locked within the great lakes. They shimmered as their sapphire surfaces reflected the suns, encircled by bands of lush, green jungle that served as bulwarks against the ever-encroaching deserts. The greenery trapped moisture to create a micro-climate, swirling clouds seeming to cluster over the country-sized oases, their borders dividing up the different territories.

Elysia was one of them, his home. How he longed to return to the shore of its endless lake, to walk between the stone edifices of its capital once again, to feel the wind in his hair. Captaining a ship of the Elysian Navy was a noble station, one earned through great deeds, but it tended to get a little dreary.

His feline eyes turned to the territory that they were cruising over. Unlike most, the jungle band that should have shielded it from the sands was broken in places, the desert spilling through the breaches. It almost looked like a giant grazing animal had taken huge bites out of it. The lake itself was relatively small, a puddle compared to that of his own nation. He could only just make it out, as it was sandstorm season, the obscuring clouds visible from space.

Its inhabitants, the Rask, were a hardy people who were more accustomed to desert life than most. They were notorious bandits and pirates, raiding caravans, and making incursions into neighboring territories in ages past. Their admittance into the Coalition had somewhat curbed that behavior as of late. Rask and Elysia were technically allies, but old rivalries persisted.

The Rask did not have a Navy, nor did any of the other Borealan territories, which meant that Elysia ruled the skies. The Patriarch had been forward-thinking enough to cooperate closely with the Coalition when the aliens had made contact, the resulting prosperity allowing him to purchase technologies that were hundreds of years more advanced than anything available on Borealis. Many other territories now followed Elysia’s lead, but their headstart had expanded their influence greatly, making them the planet’s only superpower.

The radar operator to the Crewmaster’s right faltered, his round ears twitching as he frantically scanned the holographic readout of his console. A crimson warning light bathed the bridge in its glow, alien icons flashing on the window.

What is the meaning of this?” the Crewmaster demanded, rising from his chair. He didn’t recognize the symbols, and it wasn’t his station to know them.

The ship’s mind warns that we are being locked, my Alpha,” a flustered crewman replied.

Locked?” he demanded. “By what?”

I...I do not know, my Alpha. The skies are clear of enemies, there are no hostile ships in radar range.”

Put out a call to all ships in the vicinity and warn them that we are being erroneously targeted,” the Crewmaster ordered with a wave of his hand. “The humans must have mistaken us for a pirate skiff, or perhaps our systems are malfunctioning. Order the ship to run a diagnostic on her sensors.”

As you command,” the crewman sitting at the comms console replied, the other Borealans on the bridge turning their heads to look back at the Crewmaster. One of them paused to wipe her pink nose with the back of her furry hand, her ears swiveling to track him, her reflective eyes darting about the room. This had never happened before. The Elysian Navy had never seen combat, let alone in orbit above their own planet. Nobody quite knew how to react.

Eyes on your stations!” the Crewmaster snapped, the bridge crew hastily turning their attention back to their displays. “You are like a litter of frightened kittens! The humans built this vessel for war, and she is crewed by Elysia’s bravest. There is no excuse for doubt.”

The ship reports no fault in her sensors,” the radar operator continued, his fingers moving through the orange projection.

Coalition vessels report no lock,” the comms officer added. “Should we ask them what to do?”

No,” the Crewmaster replied. “Tell the ship that she is to locate the source of the lock.”

She is triangulating,” the radar operator said, watching his readout intently.

My Alpha,” the comms officer began, the Crewmaster turning to face him. “The Coalition vessel Rubin wishes to speak with you.”

Very well,” he grumbled, “put them through on the main speakers.”

There was a hiss of static, and then an alien voice rang out.

Captain of the Furious Swipe, this is the UNN CIWS frigate Rubin. Our sensors show that you’re being locked from the ground. Are you in need of assistance?”

From the ground?” the Crewmaster hissed in the Elysian tongue, the radar operator shaking his head in reply. He switched back to English, the language of the humans, clearing his throat before replying. “Captain of the Rubin, this is the Furious Swipe. Our radar systems are unable to determine the origin of the lock. We thought that it might be one of yours.”

The sensors on those old Mk I Clovis frigates are a little slower than what we’re using,” the Captain of the Rubin replied. “Our systems show a missile lock originating from the surface of the planet, we’re burning to cover you.”

Very well, Rubin. We await your arrival,” the Crewmaster replied. “What could be targeting us from the ground?” he asked once the connection had been closed. “A Betelgeusian fleet could not have slipped through our defenses, there is an entire Coalition flotilla stationed in orbit.”

Still scanning,” the radar operator replied. The Crewmaster waited a few moments longer, his furry, orange tail flicking back and forth beneath his cloak in irritation. “She has it,” the crewman declared, swiping to bring the image up on the viewport. “Something just launched from the Rask territory, it moves to intercept us.”

What is it?” the Crewmaster demanded, “a missile?”

Ship’s mind reports that the speed and mass of the object correspond with a missile,” he confirmed, failing to mask the uncertainty in his voice. “Three minutes until contact.”

Arm all weapons!” the Crewmaster snarled. “Prepare to launch torpedoes, activate the defensive guns!”

The blisters on the hull began to open up, railgun turrets rising from their protective housings, pivoting their long barrels as their systems ran diagnostic checks. He watched as one of the ball-shaped defensive turrets swiveled, its long cannon rotating as it angled in the direction of the incoming projectile.

Put our bow towards the missile, present as small a target as possible,” the Crewmaster ordered. “How far out is the Rubin?”

The humans are maneuvering between us and the projectile now.”

Show me.”

One of the crewmen brought up a telescopic camera view on the bridge window, zooming in on the human vessel. It was close, but being close in space still put them hundreds of kilometers apart. The frigate was not unlike their own, perhaps a little bulkier in design, its hull painted jet black save for some blue trim here and there. It bristled with defensive cannons, its engines burning with blue flame as it decelerated, appearing to fly backwards relative to the Furious Swipe. The purpose of CIWS frigates was fleet protection, their guns and missiles were designed to shoot down torpedoes and fighter craft. As much as the Crewmaster resented needing help, he already felt safer in the frigate’s presence.

Let the ship’s mind manage the defensive guns,” he warned, “the last thing we need is friendly fire.”

The Captain of the Rubin wishes to speak with you again, my Alpha,” the radio operator said.

Very well, put him through.”

There was another crackle of static before the human’s voice was transmitted. Their Captain was remarkably calm and casual, considering the situation. Unlike the Borealan crew, the aliens were battle-hardened.

You’ve got an ASAT headed your way, Furious Swipe,” the human began. “It’s a fast-mover, but nothin’ that we can’t handle. It’s leveling out and entering high orbit now, maintain your present course.”

ASAT?” the Crewmaster asked, his question directed at the weapons officer.

An anti-satellite weapon, my Alpha, designed to destroy targets in orbit.”

Make sure that the Patriarchy knows what’s happening,” the Crewmaster began, addressing the radio operator. “Ask them for further instructions. Once this threat has been eliminated, I want the Lord Patriarch’s blessing to answer this Rask treachery with a rain of fire.”

Aye, Crewmaster.”

As they watched, the CIWS frigate loosed a stream of interceptor missiles, rising from its angular hull in all directions on plumes of blue hydrogen flame. They angled themselves towards their target, shooting off into the darkness in a swarm. In mere seconds, their thrusters had grown dimmer than the stars surrounding them, the projectiles fading from view. The Crewmaster sank back down into his leather chair, watching intently.

There were a series of bright flashes, and he pounded his fist on the armrest.

Ha! Report. Was the missile intercepted?”

I-I do not know, my Alpha,” the radar operator replied hesitantly. “Sensors show that...all of the intercepting missiles are gone, as is the Rask missile. But I now see a cloud of smaller objects heading towards us.”

Debris?” the Crewmaster demanded.

I...I do not know.”

Emergency call from the Rubin,” the radio operator announced, the Crewmaster nodding.

Furious Swipe, take evasive action,” the human Captain said. He sounded alarmed now, his calm demeanor forgotten. “Angle your nose up ninety degrees and start burning.”

What has happened, Rubin?” the Crewmaster asked. “What is your situation?”

As he watched, the CIWS frigate began to pivot, the small thrusters along its length shooting jets of flame. It started to burn away, its main engines flaring brightly.

There’s an expanding cloud of shrapnel heading our way at about eight kilometers per second. Our CIWS guns can’t stop it. You gotta move, now!”

Do as he says!” the Crewmaster bellowed, the helmsman almost jumping out his skin before keying in the commands. The frigate began to climb away from the planet, the G-forces pressing the crew into their seats, the view on the window still tracking the Rubin.

Tracer fire began to spew from its many guns, painting glowing trails across the blackness of space, its point defense systems trying desperately to ward off the incoming projectiles. They wound together, the overlapping streams of bullets putting on a beautiful display, but it was too late.

The Rubin was ripped apart, innumerable slivers of jagged metal tearing through it like a giant shotgun blast, its armor no match for something moving at that velocity. The Crewmaster watched in horror as the state-of-the-art warship began to drift, its engines sputtering out, the guns going silent. There was a sudden, violent explosion as the ruptured fuel tanks ignited, a blue-tinted ball of flame blasting the entire aft section to pieces.

They only had a scant few seconds before the deadly cloud reached them, the Crewmaster’s claws digging into the leather of his armrests, the acceleration making him feel like there was a Krell standing on his chest.

Brace for impact!” he hissed through gritted teeth, watching as their own point defense guns began to fire. Time seemed to slow, what couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds feeling like an eternity was passing by. There was a sudden sensation of cold, then everything went dark and silent…

***

The Admirals stood around a circular table in their pristine, white uniforms, their breasts adorned with medals and colored ribbons. Many of them couldn’t physically attend the meeting, as they were light-years away from the station. Instead, they appeared as shimmering, life-sized holograms. The lights in the conference room had been dimmed, the dark mahogany paneling on the walls contributing to the dingy atmosphere. The great wheel that gave Fort Hamilton its nickname rotated past outside the windows, providing artificial gravity, the field of stars beyond seeming to spin around them.

From within the center of the table was projected a holographic image in wavering blue, lighting up the grim faces of those physically present with its pale glow. It showed the curvature of a planet, a smattering of numbered icons displaying the positions of nearby ships, clustered in fleets and squadrons. As they watched, a dotted line was drawn along the path of a projectile as it rose through the atmosphere, moving towards two of the targets. It broke into pieces, sending a spreading cone of shrapnel in their direction, the men watching in silence as the vessels were erased.

Admiral Murray straightened his cap, the golden UN insignia above the rim catching the light. He was an older man, in his late fifties, and his Australian accent complimented his tanned complexion well. All eyes in the room turned to him as he began to speak.

This morning, at oh-nine-hundred hours, there was an unprovoked attack in Borealan orbit. A projectile was launched from the planet’s surface, striking the UNN Rubin and the Elysian frigate Furious Swipe. All hands were lost.”

A worried murmur passed through the ring of Admirals, Murray gesturing to the hologram with a gloved hand.

The projectile was a MAST, a Multi-stage, Anti-capital Spread Torpedo. It’s a weapon manufactured by the UNN, usually destined for planetary defense forces on remote colony worlds where a fleet cannot reasonably be stationed. Its purpose is to counter all known methods of point defense, including cannons, missiles, and lasers.”

The hologram shifted to show an exploded diagram of the weapon, a long, white tube with stabilizing fins that was adorned with Navy markings. The Admiral zoomed in on the nose cone, the model opening up to show what looked like a tightly-packed bundle of railway spikes.

This is the warhead. Once the missile is traveling at about eight kilometers per second, and the target is lined up, it releases these kinetic energy penetrators. This creates a cloud of high-speed, armor-piercing projectiles that spread out over a large area, making getting out of the way very difficult. At those velocities, even battleship armor is not impervious. We designed this weapon to kill Hive fleets. The idea was that a colony could fire a cluster of these and shred anything in orbit while they waited for a support fleet to arrive.”

Where was it fired from?” one of the Admirals asked.

The hologram zoomed in on the planet, showing a ring of dense jungle. Within its bounds was a body of water that would have given Lake Superior a run for its money.

The Rask territory,” Admiral Murray continued, clasping his hands behind his back as he began to pace in front of the table. “We now know that this was a preemptive strike. Shortly after the attack, a message was broadcast across all frequencies. It was in English, they wanted to be sure that we would hear it.”

The hologram shifted yet again, this time displaying a visualization of a sound clip. A female voice came through on the speakers, harsh and rasping, her rolling accent immediately recognizable as that of a Borealan.

Today, the Rask Matriarchy demonstrated its power by destroying the spacecraft of the interlopers, once thought to be untouchable. Let it serve as a warning, for there will not be a second. For too long, our people have been subject to the will of others, and our voices have been ignored. With the backing of the aliens, the Elysians spread their influence across Borealis, trading their dignity for trinkets and favors. The Coalition, while it proclaims to represent all, makes pariahs of the Rask. We face unjust suspicion and scrutiny from our supposed allies, and our Security Council vote counts for nothing when we are drowned out by a mob of sycophants. Our way of life has been eroded, our pride wounded, our trust betrayed. Our warriors die selflessly for their cause, and our only reward is scorn. But no more. We will not allow ourselves to become clawless, we will not grovel for the approval of those who do not understand our ways. Today, we have severed ties with the Coalition, and we have declared war on Elysia. The sands of Borealis belong to her hardiest children by right, and we mean to restore that natural order.”

Quite the speech,” one of the Admirals muttered, his holographic form flickering. “What does clawless mean?”

It’s their word for slave,” Murray replied. “They usually use it to describe a Borealan who isn’t adhering to their pack structure, where the meanest son of a bitch is the Alpha dog.”

What do they hope to accomplish?” another added, leaning on the table as the hologram returned to a visualization of the planet. “They can’t possibly believe that they can defeat the Coalition, let alone the UNN. They don’t even have a Navy!”

Our intelligence is spotty,” Murray replied. “The Rask have never used the communications infrastructure that we set up on the planet, so our listening post at the pole hasn’t been able to trawl their comms. We’ve suspected for some time that they’ve been surreptitiously engaging in piracy and raiding, even after signing a treaty that forbade it, but it’s been hard to prove. The recent investigation into their incursions into the Araxie territory seems to have confirmed that they’ve been violating the Coalition charter. That report should be due any day now.”

Maybe they’re trying to get ahead of the investigation,” another Admiral suggested. “If they know that they’ve been found out, maybe they’d rather flip the table than face the sanctions. Seems like a very Rask way of going about it.”

That may be a contributing factor,” Murray replied with a nod. “Our analysts believe that the Rask intend to fight a guerrilla war, asymmetrical combat. We should expect to face a full-blown insurgency.”

Then they needn’t defeat us,” an Admiral on the far side of the table mused, “they need only make the war too costly and difficult for us to fight. They know that our attention is focused on the Betelgeusian threat to our colonies, they’ve been a member of the Coalition for years, they understand our inner workings. Perhaps they think that by bogging us down in an endless ground war, they can wear us out and get us to abandon the planet.”

Then they must also know that we have a responsibility to protect our allies,” another Admiral interjected, his voice hissing with static as his projection lagged for a moment. “Elysia is an important member of the Coalition, there’s no way that we would abandon them. And even if we did, I doubt that the Rask could successfully defeat the Elysians. They have a functioning Navy, for the most part, and better equipment.”

I’m more concerned about where the Rask obtained the MAST,” another added. “How many more of them do they have, and what else might they have gotten their paws on? We haven’t supplied any of those weapons to any of the Borealan territories to my knowledge. There’s always a fleet stationed in orbit as part of our treaty with them, there would be no need.”

We haven’t been able to determine that,” Murray replied. “That said, the smuggling of arms destined for PDF on outlying colonies is not a new phenomenon. We all remember what happened with the crime syndicate on Hades a few years back. Even ignoring the MAST problem, we’ve been arming the Rask with modern weapons for some time. Their soldiers have access to Shock Trooper armor, and XMRs, the same armament we provide to the auxiliaries. They’ve been trading openly with the rest of the Galaxy for a while now. Those who have served alongside the UNN will know our tactics and our capabilities very well, which further complicates the situation.”

What has been done about this so far?” one of the Admirals asked.

Because we don’t know how many MASTs the Rask still have, we’ve pulled our fleet out of their theoretical range, clearing a bubble of space over their territory that extends a good two thousand kilometers in every direction. Usually, we’d land troops on the ground and restore order, but we obviously can’t risk that in this situation.”

Why not locate the launchers using long-range imaging and conduct railgun strikes to disable them?” another Admiral suggested, his holographic hands clipping through the table. “We could easily hit them from outside the range of the MASTs, even if our accuracy would take a bit of a hit.”

Not an option,” Murray replied. “The Rask have certainly hidden the launchers in their territory’s population centers, knowing that we won’t risk civilian casualties on that scale. They know our doctrine well, lord knows we’ve explained it to them enough that it’s probably been drilled into their brains. It would violate a hundred conventions. There’s also the issue of the sandstorms. It seems that the Rask have timed their attack to coincide with the seasonal storms that plague the area, meaning that satellite imaging is going to be unreliable for weeks, maybe even months.”

So,” an Admiral who was standing to Murray’s right mused, crossing his arms as he examined the display. “We can’t land troops in the territory without the risk of them being shot down by the MASTs, and we can’t conduct orbital strikes to destroy the launchers. What options are left?”

I’ve been talking with the Captain of the UNN Samar via quantum link,” Murray replied. “His carrier fleet is currently on-site.”

He tapped some commands into the touch screen that was mounted on the table, the hologram shifting to show a flat view of the planet’s arid surface. A red line extended from one of the giant oases to the next, weaving around one or two smaller lakes, the blue dome over its destination indicating that it was the Rask territory.

It’s his belief that a small, mobile force of ground vehicles could land in Elysia, then drive across the Borealan desert. Once they reached Rask, they could easily overwhelm their defenses, move into the territory, and disable the launchers. When that’s done, the fleet can move in and take things from there.”

Are there any assault carriers in that fleet?” someone asked.

Yes,” Murray replied, “the UNN Okinawa is ready to go. She’s loaded with a full tank battalion, and three thousand Marines. The Martians have also asked if they can test one of their new toys, some kind of prototype super-heavy vehicle.”

All in favor?” one of them asked, a chorus of ayes echoing through the conference room in response. “Then it’s unanimous, we dispatch the Okinawa immediately.”

What of the situation on the station, and on deployed carriers?” one of the holographic Admirals added. “This crisis is not confined to Borealis alone. There are thousands of Rask serving as auxiliaries in the UNN, many of whom won’t even know that their government has defected yet. What are we going to do with all of the Rask on the station, for example? Do we intern them? Encourage them to return home?”

Trying to incarcerate them won’t go down well,” Murray muttered, his tone dour. “They’re a fierce people in more ways than one, and many of them have served in integrated units alongside UNN Marines. They have friends, comrades, people who won’t accept that decision. They haven’t done anything wrong...yet. This is a very delicate situation, it could go downhill very quickly.”

Surely we can’t allow them to just stay on the station? What about spying, sabotage? The Rask are loyal to their Matriarchy and their Alphas first, and the Coalition second.”

Murray scratched his chin, considering for a moment before replying.

Is the Rask Ambassador still on the station?” he asked.

I believe so,” one of the Admirals replied. “They’ll probably be recalled to the homeworld in short order.”

We need to work with them and make sure that this goes smoothly,” Murray added. “If we can find a way to just get them off the station, all the better. Reassign a carrier, or commandeer a civilian liner, whatever it takes. Worst case scenario, we can just park them in orbit until the situation on the ground is resolved. They don’t have their own ships, they can’t go anywhere under their own power.”

I’ll have the Chief of Security see to it,” another Admiral said. “He’s a capable fellow.”

***

Chief Moralez marched through the crowd, weaving his way towards the source of the commotion. The Pinwheel’s torus was usually busy at the best of times, but today, it was even more congested than usual. The giant, ring-shaped structure had been designed to simulate the environment of a planet. Its ceiling was painted with a blue sky and wisps of white cloud, the bright lamps that were spaced out at intervals approximating the light and heat of Earth’s sun. The wide walkway was lined with planters that were filled with trees and shrubs to add a touch of color to the otherwise matte-white of the hull material, the walls to either side of it decorated with sculpted facades that were facsimiles of terrestrial buildings. He was in the military quarter right now, the section of the station that housed the barracks and the majority of the hangars. Most of the buildings were blocky and functional, huge pressure doors that extended from the floor to the concave ceiling breaking up the monotony at intervals.

His prosthetic foot tapped against the metal deck of the station’s torus as he marched, the subtle whir of the electric motor barely audible over the sound of a hundred muddled conversations. The Chief of Security was a grizzled veteran of the Kruger campaign, his leathery skin a patchwork of healed scars and plasma burns. Three of his limbs had been lost in the line of duty, two arms and a leg, replaced with advanced prosthetics. His leg was little more than a skeletal frame with a functional skid for a foot, while his arms were more filled out, the black polymer of their housings blending seamlessly with the UNN combat armor that he wore over his uniform.

The throngs of onlookers parted before him, both out of respect for the Chief and for fear of being crushed beneath the feet of the two towering Krell who flanked him. The reptiles stood over eight feet tall despite their hunched postures, and they must weigh close to a ton. The distance between their dragging, oar-like tails and their crocodilian snouts was a good sixteen feet. Their bodies were covered in a layer of tough scales and bony scutes that served as natural armor, a spinach-green in color that tapered into a lighter beige on their underbellies. Jagged teeth jutted from their jaws, their yellow eyes scanning the crowd as they lumbered along. They resembled bipedal, musclebound alligators, but their fearsome appearance belied their gentle nature. These two wore only a black poncho that hung from their broad shoulders, doubling as a plate carrier and a chest rig, and they were clutching suitably large rifles in their many-fingered hands. Moralez wasn’t fucking around today, order had to be maintained.

A group of Marines moved aside to let him pass, their faces obscured behind the opaque visors of their helmets, a component of their ceramic armor. There were also engineers clad in yellow overalls and a few personnel in civilian clothing who were probably off-duty. Here and there, a few alien heads rose above the sea of people. There were a couple more Krell, and a few packs of Borealans, the feline aliens looking on and whispering to one another.

They were basically humanoid in appearance, with flat brows, and cat-like noses. They stood on a pair of digitigrade legs that ended in paw-like feet, their thick fingers tipped with hooked claws. While they had fur, it was confined to their forearms and lower legs, giving the impression that they were wearing gloves and socks. It came in varying shades, sometimes patterned with spots or stripes, and sometimes not. From their hair protruded a pair of small, round ears that pivoted to track sounds like little radar dishes, their eyes reflecting the light as they peered over at him. They were also taller than humans, averaging about eight feet, the high gravity of their home planet making them naturally muscular. They wore either the same black armor as the Marines, identifying them as Shock Troopers, or their blue coveralls.

Moralez finally emerged at the front of the crowd, stepping through a line of MPs who were maintaining order, their black armor accented by their white helmets and sashes. He arrived before one of the massive bay doors, which was currently open. Beyond it was one of the station’s many cavernous hangars, the deck reflecting the harsh glare of the bright halogen lights in its ceiling a good seventy feet above them. It was open to space, a shimmering, blue force field the only thing preventing it from depressurizing.

There were a couple of frigates being serviced, their angular, black hulls surrounded by gantries that projected from the nearby walls. The vessels were shaped like tapering arrowheads, their relatively flat profile, and their stealth design helping them to avoid radar detection. The only windows were up on the cockpit, on a kind of conning tower that was subtly raised above the hull towards the aft. They sat on sets of hefty landing gear, supported by sturdy hydraulic pistons that were adorned with hanging cables, their thick tires taller than a man.

Clogging the hangar door was a gaggle of maybe a hundred Rask. They were a race of Borealan, distinguished from their cousins by their dusky skin, and hair that looked as though it had been bleached by the sun. This was not a riot or a protest, however. Most of them looked bewildered, frightened, Moralez recognizing their bared teeth as a sign of insecurity rather than aggression. He’d had his fair share of dealings with the aliens in the past, to put it lightly. They were all wearing the same UNN uniforms as everyone else, save for one.

Her clothing was all tight leather in shades of black and brown, her pants leaving little to the imagination as they strained against her muscular thighs and rump. They ended just above the heel joints of her digitigrade legs, giving way to her sandy fur. Belts and holsters hung from her wide hips, housing a veritable arsenal of knives and unwieldy, primitive revolvers.

Her leather jacket was a little looser, reminding Moralez of something that a biker might have worn. It was lined with thick padding like a stab vest, filling it out, and providing some measure of protection from blades and claws. It seemed to be handmade, the stitching clearly visible, but its quality was undeniable. The fine leather was adorned with golden studs and badges, decorative patterns were pressed into the material, and there were patches sewn into it.

There was a spark of recognition in her yellow eyes as he made his way towards her, her ears tracking him intently. He gestured for his Krell guards to wait, the aliens turning silently to keep the crowds at bay.

Ambassador Korbaz,” he began, “it’s always a pleasure. We really have to stop meeting like this.”

Tin man,” she replied, seeming genuinely relieved to see him. Her tail was whipping back and forth behind her, a sign of uncertainty or irritation. “I am glad to see a familiar face.”

I do have a rather memorable one,” he joked. “I just heard about what happened,” he continued, sparing a glance at a Rask who was glaring at him from behind her. “Seems like your government has decided to make us enemies.”

So it appears,” she grumbled, seeming about as unhappy with the situation as he was.

The MPs are just here to keep the peace until we can figure this thing out. Come on,” he said, gesturing to the interior of the hangar with a prosthetic finger. “Let’s go talk this over somewhere we can hear ourselves think.”

She nodded, leading him through the tightly-packed group of Rask. Moralez felt their angry stares as they parted to let him pass, a hundred pairs of feline eyes scrutinizing him. He was generally well-liked by the Borealan denizens of the station. Battle scars were worn like a badge of honor in their culture, and he understood their ways better than most, which allowed him to resolve most situations peacefully where others might resort to force. It was also no secret that, if provoked, he could put any one of these cats on their ass with his prosthetic fists. But the vibe was different now, he could feel a palpable tension in the air. These aliens were wound up like a spring. He’d seen reactionary aggression from the Borealans, he expected it, but this was something else...

The two emerged into the hangar proper, their footsteps echoing, the ruckus on the torus fading to a dull murmur. They moved over to the near wall, standing beneath a hunk of nondescript machinery that protruded from the otherwise smooth surface.

So, want to tell me what the hell is going on?” Moralez asked as he spread his robotic arms in exasperation. “I woke up today with an Admiral yelling into my earpiece about some kind of rebellion. They told me to get down here ASAP and make sure that nobody started a riot. What the hell is the Matriarchy thinking, launching an attack on the Coalition?”

You know my feelings on this matter already,” she replied as she crossed her arms over her ample chest, her leather getup creaking. “This is a culmination of the Coalition’s mistreatment of us, their disregard. Over and over, we express our concerns, and yet they go ignored. I have a seat on the Coalition Security Council, I’ve watched our objections be dismissed, our votes count for nothing. The admittance of the Araxie, the travesty with the Jarilan Hive, the favoritism shown towards the Elysians. It cannot continue.”

You don’t need to remind me,” he grumbled. “Whenever we meet, you usually give me a lecture about Rask superiority, and how your people should be heading the Coalition. I believe you once told me that the humans have a chain around the necks of the Borealan people.”

Indeed,” she replied tersely. “Your so-called integration training strips our warriors of what makes them Borealan, turns them into docile slaves.”

We teach them not to resolve every confrontation with their claws, and how to respect the Coalition’s command structure,” Moralez shot back. “The Rask have always been malcontents, sure, but I never...”

You never took us seriously,” Korbaz replied, glaring at him pointedly. “That’s exactly the problem, Security Chief. Nobody ever took us seriously, the Coalition felt safe ignoring us. They were just shown the error of their ways.”

Did you know that they were going to do this?” he asked.

No,” she replied, shaking her head and making her short-cropped hair bounce. “It is as much a surprise to me as it is to you.”

Is this...what you would have wanted to happen?”

She hesitated for a moment, seeming uncertain. She would never question her superiors, that was not the Borealan way. They lived in intensely competitive packs, led by the strongest and most willful individuals.

Moralez had never seen her like this before, her usual self-assuredness seemed absent. Their interactions were usually good-natured, if rather antagonistic, and more than a little sexually-charged. She liked to make trouble for him by smuggling weapons into secure areas of the station and generally being uncooperative, usually in an attempt to get his attention. She’d made more than one failed pass at him over the years.

I do as my Matriarch wills,” she replied, Moralez daring to roll his eyes at her.

Listen, we’ve got hundreds of Rask all over the station who are enemy combatants as of this morning thanks to your Matriarch’s little stunt. The Admiralty wants them off the station as soon as possible, they can’t stay here. They were also auxiliaries until a few hours ago, they’ve shed blood for the Coalition, we’re not going to shove them all out of an airlock. I have Rask friends myself.”

We have been recalled to the Rask territory,” she said, “our orders are to leave the station.”

Then we want the same thing,” Moralez insisted. “We have an understanding, you and I, right? We’ve known each other for a while, we have what you might call a working relationship. If this is going to go down smoothly, without anyone getting hurt, then I need your cooperation on this. You’re their Vice Admiral, they’ll do whatever you say without question.”

What do you propose?” she asked, watching him warily.

We need to do this fast, before word spreads,” he said as he gestured frantically with his prosthetic hands. “Once the Elysians find out what’s happened, we’re going to have a full-blown catfight on our hands. I don’t think all the Krell and pepper spray in the Galaxy is going to keep the two sides separated.”

If they want to start a fight, then they shall have one,” Korbaz snarled.

Not on my station they won’t,” Moralez shot back, pointing an accusing finger at her with a whir of his electric motors. “Don’t forget, I’ve put you in the brig before, and I can do it again.”

Rather than responding with anger, the corners of her lips curled into a smile. She respected his brashness, she always had.

Very well, tin man, tell me your plan.”

There’s a civilian liner docked right now that can carry a good two thousand passengers. I just need to say the word, and the UNN can commandeer it. My proposal is that you and I work together to get every Rask on the station onto that ship and bound for home in the shortest amount of time humanly possible. Sorry,” he added, “the shortest amount of time Borealanly possible.”

A sound plan,” she replied. “A clever strategist might wait until said liner was clear of the station, and then use the defensive guns to destroy it. They could kill a Vice Admiral of the Rask and hundreds of Matriarchy troops in one fell swoop, rather than sending them home to join the fight.”

Do you really think the UNN would do that?” Moralez asked, scowling at her.

No,” she replied after a moment. “I’m sure that one of your foolish conventions or treaties would prohibit it.”

It’s not like you have much of a choice in either case. I don’t want to try interning a few hundred angry Rask. I guess we’d have to seal you up in one of the hangars and toss a crate of MREs in there every couple of days.”

Does it not worry your Admiralty that we will be bolstering the forces on the ground?” she asked skeptically.

Bolstering the forces on the ground?” Moralez scoffed. “If the entire Rask population mobilized for war, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the armies that the UNN can field, let alone the Coalition. You have no fleet, no technology, how on Earth does your Matriarchy expect to win this war?”

Do you think that we would stumble into battle unprepared?” Korbaz replied, her tail flicking in irritation. “You underestimate us. You always do.”

And what happens if a Bug fleet jumps into orbit and starts shooting drop pods into your territory? What are you going to do then? That’s the reason the Coalition exists in the first place, might I remind you.”

The Matriarchy has more pressing concerns,” she replied dismissively.

Let’s just get this done,” Moralez sighed. “Get your people moving, and I’ll start organizing escorts for them. Stay in touch,” he added, tapping at his ear. “We need to coordinate this carefully.”

***

The captain of the liner had been less than happy about the change, but after a few threats and promises, they had finally gotten to a point where they could start loading the Rask onto the ship. Moralez’s MPs had sectioned off a chunk of the torus and had been escorting them from the barracks in groups of a few dozen at a time, shipping them out to the waiting vessel in troop transports. Just as Moralez had feared, word about what the Rask had done on Borealis had spread fast, but he and Korbaz had moved faster. They were almost done loading the aliens, and only a couple of hours had passed since he had first suggested the idea to the Vice Admiral.

The two of them were standing side by side next to one of the idling dropships in one of the hangars, its troop ramp open. It was designed to ferry personnel to and fro, its hull painted in a shade of ocean-grey. It had a pair of stubby wings for gliding in atmosphere, and a cockpit situated high on the stunted nose for maximum visibility.

Another procession of Rask entered from the torus, flanked on both sides by armed MPs. They were wearing the Navy-blue coveralls that had been issued to them when they had first arrived on the station to begin their training, duffle bags full of what few possessions they wanted to take home slung over their shoulders. Most of them looked more confused than angry. It hadn’t been their idea to start a war with the Coalition, they were merely caught in the crossfire. Many of them were just kids, some of them might only have been on the station for a matter of weeks.

As they marched towards the shuttle, one of their number stopped, a confused MP at the back of the line pausing to wait beside him. Moralez turned to ask Korbaz what was going on, but her ears were already pricked up. She knew instinctively that something was wrong.

Another of the aliens turned around and left the formation, followed by a handful more. There were five of them in all. These must be that Rask’s packmates. The Borealans tended to self-organize into small social units of half a dozen or so, each one led by an Alpha who commanded total obedience. The taller of them stepped forward, a couple of MPs following, one of them looking to Moralez for guidance from beneath his white helmet. The Chief began to move, but Korbaz placed a hand on his shoulder.

Wait,” she whispered, watching intently.

Nugza, get back in line,” the Alpha snapped. He looked mean, even for a Rask, the dark skin on his face crisscrossed with faded scars. The solitary male’s ears flattened against his blonde hair, his amber eyes turning to the deck. “I said...get back in line,” the Alpha repeated in a menacing tone, his packmates sharing uncertain glances.

No,” the male replied.

What?” the Alpha hissed, his tail puffing up like a feather duster. It might not be apparent to the uninitiated, but a Borealan refusing a direct order from their Alpha was practically unheard of. It was a violation of their social hierarchy, a spit in the face that warranted immediate reprisal. Moralez had never seen such defiance before, not unless a challenge for dominance was about to be issued.

I don’t want to go,” the male replied, clenching his fists as he stared at the floor. He was frozen as still as a statue, as if afraid that any movement might provoke an attack from his superior.

Nobody has given you a choice,” the Alpha snapped, taking a couple of steps closer. “I’d scar you for your insolence right here if we weren’t pressed for time. Get back into line, and pray that my anger cools before we find ourselves alone together.”

Everything seemed to have come to a standstill, as though someone had pressed the pause button on the scene. The Rask were all watching the confrontation, and the MPs were standing around, not really sure of how to deal with it.

This isn’t right,” Nugza continued, baring his teeth in a grimace. “These humans have shown us kindness, as have the Elysians. They are my friends. The Matriarch orders us into war against them, and I...I cannot.”

You question a decree from the Matriarch?” the Alpha asked in disbelief, his jaw hanging agape. “How dare you! Nugza, you have spent too long in the company of these aliens, you forget yourself. What of your loyalty to your people, to the pack who fills your stomach with food and your hands with steel?”

I will not shed their blood!” Nugza yelled, his voice echoing in the hangar. “They are as my pack, my kin.”

Traitor!” the Alpha sneered.

Moralez wasn’t sure what was about to happen. Disagreements of this nature usually ended in a physical bout in which one participant emerged victorious, while the other submitted, but this was bizarre.

I won’t go either,” someone shouted, all eyes turning to another Rask as she stepped out of line. She brandished a prosthetic arm, not dissimilar from Moralez’s, the motors whirring as she flexed her polymer fingers. It seemed that she had lost her original limb just below the elbow. It had three thick digits and a thumb, each one tipped with a claw that was decidedly duller than her natural ones. Perhaps that was due to weaponized prosthetics being prohibited under UNN treaties.

I owe the humans my life,” she continued. “Without their help, I would have surely died, and without their medicine, I would be living out the rest of my days as a cripple. I will not raise arms against them.”

This one seemed to be from a different pack, her own Alpha swiping at her. The female leapt clear, brandishing her claws and crouching low as her furious superior began to circle her, the two gearing up for a scuffle.

Korbaz, you gotta nip this in the bud before I have my guys break out the mace,” Moralez warned. The Vice Admiral stepped forward, her voice carrying through the hangar as she bellowed loud enough that even a couple of the MPs were startled.

There will be no fighting!”

Even the disobedient Rask stopped what they were doing and turned to look at her, Nugza swallowing conspicuously as he stood up as straight as a board.

Moralez approached the gaggle of aliens, their feline eyes tracking him. He waved over the pair of dissidents, their Alphas watching with barely contained fury, a chorus of low muttering coming from the others.

I appreciate what you’re doing,” he began. “Really, I do. It takes a lot of guts to refuse an order that you know is wrong, to go against your Alpha like that. But if you choose to stay, I’m going to have no choice but to lock you in the brig. There’s no way for us to be sure that you’re not spies or saboteurs.”

Very well,” the female with the prosthetic arm replied. “Better that, than to be forced to kill our comrades.”

The male, Nugza, seemed less sure of himself. As Borealans often do, he looked to the more brash female for reassurance, eventually nodding his head.

I will accept imprisonment,” he added, stony-faced.

Moralez called over a couple of the MPs and instructed them to escort the pair to the security building, where they’d be interned until further notice. Maybe he could pull some strings, get them out early on the condition that they’d be kept under surveillance. He couldn’t deny that their stunt had moved him. Korbaz wandered over to stand beside him as the pair were marched out of the hangar, the remaining Rask seeming content to board the shuttle.

Thanks for handling that,” he muttered, Korbaz nodding. “I guess the war isn’t all that popular with the Rask, either.”

I understand their sentiment,” she replied, “it is...difficult to raise arms against someone that you once called a friend. But the Matriarch does not require our sentiment, only our obedience. A Borealan must obey their Alpha in all things, and the Matriarch is the Alpha of Alphas. This is something that humans understand also. A Private would never defy the orders of an Admiral, a Marine must obey his commander in all things. You labor under the misapprehension that your way of life is different from ours, but you merely practice obedience selectively. It is something that I have always hated about you...”

Damn,” he chuckled, giving her a sideways glance. “You go straight for the throat, don’t you? I used to hate Borealans too, you know. These,” he said as he waved his prosthetic hands in front of her, “are partly the fault of a Borealan. Eventually, I came to understand them, learned that there was a method to their madness. I don’t hate them anymore, I don’t hate you.”

I...don’t hate you either,” she sighed, seeming to regret the sharpness of her tongue. “You just frustrate me sometimes.”

Are we talking about the human race, or me in particular?” he asked with a wink.

A little of both,” she replied, giving him a weary smile. “Perhaps, when the Rask are victorious, I will take you as my concubine. A Security Chief would make for a fitting trophy.”

Well, that’s something to look forward to,” he laughed. He wasn’t quite sure if she was joking or not. “If you wanted to stay,” he continued, “I could probably swing it so that you’d be put under house arrest in one of the suites. You could claim political asylum, and we could stick you in a five-star hotel for the duration of the war. Under surveillance, of course,” he added.

Thank you for the offer,” she said, “but my place is at my Matriarch’s side. I must return to her, I have been summoned.”

Have it your way,” he said with a shrug. “By the way, I never got the whole Vice Admiral thing. What does that mean, exactly? Borealis has no oceans, and the Rask have no fleet, so what kind of ships are you responsible for?”

We sail oceans of sand,” she replied cryptically, Moralez raising an eyebrow.

There are only a couple more groups of Rask to bring through,” he said as they turned to watch the troop ramp of the shuttle seal. They walked clear as the engines flickered to life, a blue glow emanating from within the nozzles as the pilot ran a pre-flight check. “I take it you’re heading back home on the liner with your troops?”

No,” she replied. “My Matriarch has chartered a private Courser to take me back. Our business cannot wait the two weeks that it will take the liner to make the jumps.”

Courser’ll get you there in about a day,” Moralez said with a nod, watching the shuttle rise from the deck. It hovered over to the blue force field on its thrusters, passing through the shimmering barrier as it headed out into open space. “I don’t think this will be a long war. For all the grief you give me, I’ll be sorry if you don’t make it out. My job would be a lot less interesting without you around.”

Do not worry,” she said, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “I must return to claim my trophy, remember?”

CHAPTER 2: SANDSTALKER

The Courser emerged from superlight like a needle piercing the fabric of the cosmos, a cloud of colorful gas spreading behind it as the vessel tore a hole in reality. It drifted for a moment, the thrusters along its chassis flickering as the autopilot righted it, emitting jets of blue flame. It was shaped vaguely like a torpedo, pointed and streamlined, the engines and the nuclear reactor that powered its drive housed far at the back of the sleek hull. The cockpit and the limited cargo area was situated at the pointed front of the craft, linked by a long, skeletal scaffold that helped to reduce its mass. A Courser was the most optimal ratio between mass, carrying capacity, and power consumption that the Navy could build. They were designed to be as fast as possible, ferrying important personnel and critical information over great distances where slower methods just wouldn't suffice.

From within its passenger compartment, Korbaz slowly came to, spitting out her plastic bit and releasing the manacles that were secured around her wrists. She leaned forward in the padded crash couch, cradling her head in her furry hands. Superlight travel was supposed to get easier over time, but she didn’t see it that way. After every jump, she felt like someone had beaten her with clubs. The wracking energies of these arcane, human engines had a strange effect on living nervous systems, sending the occupants of the craft into varying degrees of seizure and unconsciousness. It was one aspect of being an Ambassador that she wasn’t going to miss.

A human voice came through on the nearby intercom, her ears flattening against her head as the sudden noise exacerbated her lingering migraine.

There’s a shuttle en route to pick you up,” he said, followed by a crackle of static. “Hurry up and get your gear, I ain’t hangin’ around for any longer than I have to. Your boss paid me to drop you off, not to stare down the railgun barrels of a UNN fleet. I just got hit with a dozen fuckin’ radar pulses.”

How she would have loved to tear the insolent whelp from his cockpit and teach him a lesson about respect, but now was not the time. Every moment that she wasted was a moment that she was not serving her Matriarch.

She rose from her seat on legs that were still unsteady, slinging her pack over her shoulder. The passenger compartment was cramped, even by human standards, and she narrowly avoided hitting her head on a protruding pipe as she made her way across the metal deck. The docking umbilical was already extending from the ship when she arrived at the pressure door, Korbaz watching through a tiny porthole as the flimsy tube telescoped outwards into space. It looked like a metal frame wrapped in flexible material, hardly sure footing. A shuttle appeared from her right, its retros flaring as it decelerated. It was similar to the troop transports used by the UNN, albeit an older model. While the Matriarchy didn’t have the resources to buy frigates and gunboats like the Elysians, owning a few private shuttles was a necessity.

The two vessels lined up, then there was a loud thud as they locked together. The pressure doors opened automatically, a rush of stale air blowing her hair as she took a step forward. The shuttle door was perhaps fifty feet away, the white material that served as her only protection from the vacuum beyond couldn’t have been much sturdier than a plastic tarp. The metal walkway creaked underfoot as she slowly made her way over, loosing a sigh of relief when she stepped onto the shuttle.

The pilot was a Rask, and he greeted her with a respectful bow of his head. There wasn’t much room for him to do anything else considering how cramped the cockpit was, so she didn’t expect a more formal reception.

Take me to the palace,” she muttered, tossing her bag to the floor before taking a seat on one of the crash couches. She strapped in as the pressure door sealed with a hermetic hiss, the shuttle beginning to drift away from the Courser. Through the cockpit’s canopy, she got a view of her homeworld, the sprawling deserts seeming to stretch infinitely. Coming home should be a good feeling, but all she felt was a twinge of apprehension. She didn’t know what the Matriarch expected of her, what her role might be in the coming conflict.

Korbaz would never dare to openly question her superiors, but as the shuttle banked towards the planet, doubts swirled in her mind. The Matriarch had never left the homeworld, she hadn’t seen the might of the Coalition with her own eyes. The humans had mass drivers that could crack planets mounted on their battleships, they had nuclear weapons that could turn the entire territory into an irradiated crater if they so wished. Did she really know who she was picking a fight with?

The aliens were obsessed with their laws, their regulations, their rules of engagement. They went to such lengths to avoid what they called war crimes, collateral damage, but was it safe to assume that they could not be provoked into breaking those rules?

They descended through the atmosphere, turbulence buffeting the little craft as the flames of reentry began to lick at its nose, the Rask territory coming into view. Where many territories were encircled by a protective wall of verdant jungle, Rask was exposed, the desert sands spilling through the miles-wide breaches between the trees. These broken bands of jungle did a poor job of trapping moisture and creating a micro-climate, resulting in the territory’s interior being dryer and harsher than any other. There was water, and there was forest, but Borealis had not bestowed the same gifts upon all of her children.

Its people were a reflection of their environment in many ways. Like their home, they were scarred, inhospitable. The Rask prided themselves on their tenacity, their ability to face the hardships of daily life and thrive on them.

The Elysians had a lake that was bigger than the entire Rask territory, ringed by jungle so dense that not a grain of sand could reach the interior. Being within its bounds was like stepping into a different world. Food was plentiful, they never had to range far to find a gourd hanging from a vine, they never had to swim far to find a shoal of fish. The Rask had to fight for everything that they had.

The shuttle began to circle above the territory, spiraling down towards the sparse jungle canopy, shedding velocity as it glided on its stubby wings. It was sandstorm season, and there was already a roiling wall of dust drifting over the territory from the West. I would soon blanket everything in an obscuring, orange haze that would limit visibility to only a scant few feet, the harsh winds that carried it buffeting their little craft.

They flew low over the lake, the city rising up before them as they neared the far shore. The squat buildings were constructed from blocks of yellow sandstone, overlaid with protective mortar that gave them a hand-sculpted appearance, the wooden support beams that helped to reinforce the structures protruding from their facades at intervals. They had no windows, all the better to keep the interiors cool, and to prevent the ever-present sand from finding its way inside. Few were more than one or two stories high, as the Borealan gravity made building tall structures architecturally challenging. The larger and more decorative buildings had stone arches and domed roofs that were self-supporting, and stout, load-bearing pillars that were carved with murals and inscriptions. Between them, the cobbled streets were already packed with drifts of sand from the previous storm. There was no point clearing it away at this time of the year, as it would soon be deposited again. What few figures that could be made out at this altitude were wrapped in robes that protected them from the airborne particles, the wind tearing at the fabric. Most of the citizens would be taking refuge inside right now.

Korbaz spied the Matriarch’s palace in the distance, sitting in the center of the city. Land was at a premium in the Rask territory, the sprawling compound a testament to her wealth and power. It occupied a space of about fifteen thousand square feet, most of which consisted of a large courtyard, the complex surrounded by tall walls. At each corner was a needle-like spire that reached as high into the air as the Rask dared to build, the white marble caps ensuring that they could be seen from a great distance.

The main building was a sprawling cluster of domed structures that almost look like soap bubbles from the air, each one tipped with another towering spire. Every needle was adorned with a finely embroidered flag that fluttered in the wind, their edges tattered by generations of sandstorms. They depicted various triumphs and important historical events in the territory’s history, some of them now too damaged to make out clearly.

The courtyard itself was overlaid with a covering of red marble, veins of lighter yellows and oranges winding their way through the massive blocks of stone. It gradually gave way to dirt and sand, the center of the space occupied by an artificial oasis. The pool of water shimmered as it caught the light of the suns, as clear as a mirror, the colorful desert flowers and spindly trees that encircled it adding a splash of color and greenery.

Unlike the streets outside, everything inside the palace walls was spotless. There were people seeing to its upkeep around the clock.

The shuttle banked, heading towards a clearing on the far side of the palace, just outside of its walls. The sandstorm was coming in fast, already darkening the blue sky as they began to descend. There was a thud as the craft touched down, bouncing on its landing gear for a moment as the engines wound down. Korbaz collected her bag, waiting by the troop ramp as it began to slowly descend. The heat hit her like a wall, but she welcomed it, feeling it warm her to the very bone. As she left the artificial gravity field of the shuttle, she had to save herself from stumbling, Borealis’ gravity tugging at her. Her body had been hardened by this environment, but she had spent many months on the Pinwheel, where the humans kept the gravity thirty percent lower.

She was greeted by a pair of Palace Guards who were dressed in a blend of the UNN Shock Trooper armor that had been supplied to them by the aliens, and the traditional Rask armor. The Matriarch wanted to make use of the best technology available, but she liked to give everything a little native flair. They were wearing thick, padded jackets over the high-tech battlesuits, left open to expose the ceramic chest piece beneath. On their right shoulders were short, purple capes that were embroidered with gold threads, a holdover from their traditional uniform. Rather than the tactical rigs favored by the Marines, they wore slings and holsters that were filled with knives and handguns, the majority of which hung from belts around their waists. Their boots were more suited to the desert, and the leather cuisse armor that they wore helped to break up the clean, artificial lines of the alien suits. There was no danger of them overheating, Korbaz knew that the armor was climate-controlled as long as its batteries were charged.

Welcome home, Vice Admiral,” one of the guards said, his voice muffled by his opaque visor. “The Matriarch awaits your arrival. We have been sent to escort you to the palace.”

I know the way,” she replied, the pair flanking her as she set off towards an arched entrance in one of the towering walls of the compound. There were two more guards posted to either side of it, long rifles clutched in their hands, the barrels lined with copper-colored rings. Those were XMRs, the standard-issue railguns of the UNN. They were designed with a modular frame that could be scaled up or down based on the stature of the wielder. The bayonets mounted to their long barrels had been replaced with a decidedly more wicked design, making them look more like spears than rifles.

They emerged into the courtyard, Korbaz admiring the reflective sheen of the polished marble beneath her paws. The fronds of the trees that encircled the oasis waved in the wind, the flowering shrubs seeming to flutter. She looked to her left, seeing that the ominous shadow of the storm was still encroaching.

As she neared the main structure, the two guards broke off, returning to their posts. She passed beneath another ornate arch built from blocks of ochre-colored marble that was streaked with veins of white, the temperature cooling as she stepped inside the building proper, as though she was entering an underground cave. The interior was also decorated with varying colors of marble, masterfully sculpted pillars from which were suspended tapestries and banners lining the long, sandstone hallways. The walls were at least ten feet apart, the ceiling twice that height. The floor was paved with smooth, black stone, reflecting the glow from the burning chandeliers that hung from the wooden beams above. Mineral deposits were one of the few resources that the Rask possessed in abundance.

She pressed on, steeling herself for an audience with the Matriarch herself. Her heart began to beat faster as she approached the audience chamber, finding a pair of heavy doors blocking her path. The wood was engraved with scenes of battle, the reliefs depicting the victories and massacres of the territory’s storied history. Korbaz stopped before them, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. She fought the impulse to relinquish the myriad of weapons that hung from her belt, as she was required to do when entering secure areas on the Pinwheel. That was a human custom. In Rask culture, everyone attending an official function was expected to be armed. If one attendant drew their weapon, then so would everyone else. It was mutually-assured destruction, a guaranteed blood bath.

The Vice Admiral swallowed the lump in her throat, then pushed the great doors ajar with a loud creak, stepping through into a vast chamber. The main dome of the palace rose high above her head, perhaps thirty feet at its apex, opulent pillars carved from solid chunks of black marble ringing the circular room to support its immense weight. There was almost no sandstone visible here, it was all covered up by flowing drapes in shades of deep purple, the delicate fabrics extending from the beginning of the dome to the ground. Between each pillar was a stone column topped with a ceramic pan that was filled with burning coals, the bright flames licking at the air. They served as the chamber’s only illumination, casting dancing shadows, their light reflecting off the polished floor.

At the far wall was a subtly raised platform, the steps that led up to it made from the same black marble. Upon it sat a massive throne hewn from a single block of red stone that was crisscrossed with white veins of ore, giving it an uncanny resemblance to fresh meat. It was carved with more intricate reliefs, the armrests ending in the sculpted heads of Rask hounds.

One of the creatures was sitting beside it obediently, an especially large specimen, its long snout covered in faded scars from past dominance battles. It stared at Korbaz with its glassy, beady eyes as she approached, its sagging lips pulling back to reveal an impressive set of pearly tusks as it snarled menacingly. The archeox were beasts bred for war, quadrupedal pack hunters and scavengers native to the Borealan deserts. As fearsome as they appeared, their social system made them ideally suited to domestication. Its pointed ears swiveled to face her, the thing rising to its feet, the dull claws on its splayed paws scratching at the platform. It was about five feet tall at the shoulder, the wobbling hump on its back rising a good foot higher, its ample store of fat indicating that the animal was well-fed. Its coat was sand-colored, patterned with horizontal stripes, and there was a comb of raised fur running from its skull to the tip of its tail that was a darker shade of brown.

The large figure that occupied the throne reached down to tug at the chain that was attached to its leather collar, the beast returning obediently to its reclining position.

The Matriarch was imposing, even by Borealan standards, reaching almost nine feet in height. Her sun-kissed skin was covered in the remnants of healed scars, and she wore an eyepatch over one eye that had been lost in battle, the other a striking shade of amber. Her mane of long, blonde hair had a feathery, puffy quality to it. It cascaded over her shoulders like a golden waterfall, almost reaching her clavicle. Her appearance was not especially regal. She wore no elaborate jewelry, no cape or crown, only a leather jacket and pants in the usual Rask style. The only indication of her high rank besides her stature was a purple sash that she wore across her chest, which was adorned with golden badges and medals. The jacket, too, was finer than most. The various zippers and buttons were all made from gold, and the lining was fashioned from soft, purple satin that was only really visible on the collar.

The jacket was open, revealing the grey tank top that she wore beneath it. The garment exposed her impressive cleavage, along with the sculpted rows of her abdominal muscles. Her body had been honed by a lifetime of Borealan gravity and savage battle, bestowing her with a figure that looked as though it had been chiseled from the same marble as the palace halls. She was the epitome of everything that a Borealan strived to be. Confident, powerful, commanding. She sat with her stout thighs parted, the dimples of her muscles visible through the clinging leather, lounging on the padded cushions of her chair.

She was not alone. On soft cushions that were arranged around the foot of the throne sat half a dozen consorts, a display of youth and beauty that Korbaz couldn’t help but drink in. Male and female bodies in their prime were on display, clad in delicate, flowing fabrics that left nothing to the imagination. This was not the Matriarch’s pack, these people had been selected to sate her appetites and nothing more, their fresh faces and full lips drawing the Vice Admiral’s gaze. These were not slaves. Any sound-minded Rask would revel in the opportunity to serve their Matriarch in any way that she required.

Korbaz took a knee as she reached the foot of the platform, bowing her head. The marble floor was so polished that she could almost see her reflection in it as she stared intently at the ground.

My Matriarch, I answer your summons.”

Rise,” a deep, gravelly voice replied. Korbaz dared to lift her eyes, watching as the towering figure began to descend the steps. “You have made good time, Vice Admiral.”

Only thanks to your foresight, my Matriarch,” she said as she stood up straight. “It was wise to hire a Courser. The troops stationed on the Pinwheel will not be returning for two weeks, maybe more if the humans take measures to delay them, as I expect they will.”

I needed you at my side,” the monarch replied, Korbaz turning to walk beside her as she made her way to the wooden doors. “You have dwelt among the aliens, you know them better than anyone.”

Their politics, certainly,” Korbaz said as the pair stepped into the long hallway.

I need that expertise,” the Matriarch continued. “Their laws, their rules of engagement, what measures they will and won’t take against us. You are also an accomplished Crewmaster, you made a name for yourself as a sand sailor.”

Yes, my Matriarch,” Korbaz replied as she hurried to keep up with her long strides. “I have experience commanding raiding parties.” “You must be wondering what my plans are, what preparations I have made,” the Matriarch continued. “I could not warn you in advance, the humans have spies everywhere. It would be foolish not to assume that they have full control over the communications technology that they created, that they can intercept messages, listen in on our conversations when we think ourselves alone.”

You are wise, my Matriarch. I know that to be the case.”

They exited beneath the marble arch, walking across the courtyard. The wind whipped at the Matriarch’s golden hair, Korbaz glancing to her left, seeing that the sandstorm was nearly upon them.

For some time now, I have been building my forces in secret, knowing that the day would come when we would be at odds with the Coalition. From the outset, I knew that they did not understand our ways, that they did not respect our traditions. But we needed their weapons, we had no hope of countering Elysia’s forces unless we made a pact with the humans. Now, we have their weapons, their technology. Our warriors have been put through the crucible of war on a dozen worlds, they’ve been trained in the alien’s tactics, their battle doctrine. The humans have unknowingly sharpened the blade that we will be putting to their throats.”

My Matriarch,” Korbaz began hesitantly. Phrasing her question as a criticism could earn her another scar for her insolence. “The humans are as numerous as they are powerful. We face a far superior force, one which has capabilities that we do not. In your wisdom, how do you plan to achieve your goals?”

Your doubts are well-founded,” she replied, “but you merely lack the keystone that holds up the arch. Defeating the Coalition is not our goal, nor could it ever be. As you say, they are far beyond us. Yet their strength is not that of an Alpha, they do everything in half-measures. They have the power to induct the entire Galaxy into their pack, but not the will to do it. The Rask bow only to true strength, our fealty cannot be bartered for trinkets and toys.”

So...how does one win a war without...winning a war?” Korbaz asked, confused.

This is why I value your expertise so greatly,” the Matriarch replied as she led the Vice Admiral towards the far wall of the lavish compound, her leather pants creaking with every step. “Your station has been to learn their laws, their conventions, the terms of their treaties. You know how their laws permit them to respond, in what ways their sacred conventions will stay their hand. This war will be a careful balancing act. We must defeat them in the field, but we must never provoke them into using their full strength against us. We will exploit their civility, their pity, their compassion. We will strike from the sands and fade away before they can react. We will out-maneuver them, trap them, sabotage them.”

A guerrilla war,” Korbaz mused, nodding her understanding.

Just as our ancestors have always done, we will use our maneuverability and our knowledge of the land to our advantage. We will exhaust them, and when the war becomes too costly for them to continue, they will abandon it. They do not care about Borealis, they never have, their focus is on protecting their colonies from the insect hordes. They use our people as cannon fodder, they shield our world only to deny a foothold to their enemies.”

And you have secured weapons, equipment?” Korbaz asked.

The Coalition has been providing us with defensive weapons as part of our treaty with them for some time. Armor, firearms, ammunition. Enough to outfit our warriors. But they have never fully trusted us. They will not provide us with ships, vehicles, orbital weapons. They correctly suspected that we were still engaging in raiding and piracy. Yet we have been able to get around those limitations in...creative ways, as you will soon see.”

They emerged onto one of the cobbled streets, the two guards who were posted at the entrance to the compound bowing as they passed. They waited for a moment, standing between the mortar facades of the buildings. A pack of civilians passed them by, their bodies wrapped tightly in shawls to protect them from the blowing sand, lowering their heads in submission when they noticed the Matriarch.

After a minute, Korbaz heard the rumbling of an engine. From the street to their right came a wheeled vehicle, the bright beams of its headlights piercing the haze that the sandstorm was beginning to create. It rolled to a stop in front of them, the Matriarch crossing her muscular arms and looking on with a grin as Korbaz began to walk along its length. It was of human design, that much was obvious by the sleek, rounded nose of the craft. But once she reached the vehicle’s glass canopy, it took on a more Rask quality, welded armor plates making up the rest of its chassis. At the rear was a flatbed upon which was mounted a railgun turret, currently uncrewed.

If the humans will not sell us armored vehicles, then we must make our own,” the Matriarch explained. She gestured for the pilot of the vehicle to leave its cockpit, and he stepped out, rounding the curving front section to stand before her. Simply by his body language, Korbaz could tell that he was of low social standing. He stank of insecurity, his eyes darting between the two females nervously. He was not wearing any UNN armor under his leather clothing, but he did have one of their holographic gauntlets attached to his wrist. Korbaz knew them to be onboard computers, the humans used them frequently to view data and to interface with their machines.

This is Vitza, I have made him my Chief Engineer. He has been overseeing the acquisition and modification of our new technologies. I have given him the authority to make decisions in that regard, and he is not to be challenged.”

Yes, Matriarch,” Korbaz replied. It was not uncommon for those of special knowledge or skill to be appointed roles within the social hierarchy that they had not earned through dominance bouts. Otherwise, stronger and more aggressive Borealans would simply overrule them, and no work would get done.

Vitza,” the Matriarch continued, “explain to the Vice Admiral what this vehicle does.”

This is what they call an SUV,” he replied, becoming a little more confident as he began to talk about his subject of interest. “It’s a civilian transport. We bought a fleet of them and have been outfitting them for battle. Our people could not fit inside them, so they had to be stripped down to the engine and drive train, then rebuilt to better suit us. They run on hydrogen engines, making them fast and fuel-efficient. They have a range of about a hundred leagues before the fuel must be replenished. We replaced the tires with something more suitable for desert travel and upgraded the suspension. Unlike our sand skiffs, they do not rely on the wind for power.”

It certainly has the maneuverability and firepower needed,” Korbaz mused, inspecting the mounted gun. It was the same as those that she had seen the Krell carrying on the station, an LMG with a gun shield, and a drum magazine. It was large enough that even a Rask might have found it unwieldy to lug into battle.

This is just the beginning,” the Matriarch continued, walking around the side of the vehicle. She climbed inside and gripped the wheel-shaped control device in her hands, Korbaz slipping into the bucket seat beside her. Vitza slid into one of the seats at the rear, there were four in all. They began to drive, the Matriarch seeming to take pleasure in revving the engine as they weaved through the narrow streets, the treaded tires kicking up clouds of dust.

The humans cannot even control their own territory, let alone ours,” she sneered. “We are in contact with several pirate syndicates who have been able to smuggle us a great deal of advanced equipment over the years. They provided us with torpedoes for the right price. Vitza?”

The male would not speak without her permission, leaning between their seats as he began to elaborate.

They are called MASTs, interdiction weapons that have cleared the skies of Coalition ships, denying them their greatest advantage. We’ve been able to create a three hundred and sixty league perimeter around our territory in which we can operate without fear of attack from the skies. Once the sandstorms are at their worst, they will be unable to track our movements from space.”

Then, you have forced them to the ground?” Korbaz asked, impressed.

Their vaunted ships dare not come within range,” the Matriarch chuckled. “It is my belief that the humans will attempt to cross the desert by land and disable the launchers so that their fleet can restore control. I have ordered them to be hidden within the city to deter the aliens from simply calculating the origin point of the launch, and firing on it from space.”

How many do we have?” Korbaz asked.

Fewer than I would have our enemies believe, but it matters not,” the Matriarch replied. “The humans will assume that we have the power to down more of their ships until they are all secure and accounted for. Am I correct in my assessment?”

Indeed, Matriarch,” Korbaz replied as the vehicle rounded a tight corner. “They will not risk their assets as long as doubt remains.”

They cleared the city streets before long, driving out into the barren scrubland between the jungle band and the lake. The glint of metal was visible in the distance, even through the swirling sand that was filling the air, Korbaz narrowing her eyes as she tried to make it out. A giant shadow slowly took form, a behemoth, the Matriarch smiling at her shocked expression.

As they neared, it only grew larger, a gigantic vehicle on a set of four tracks coming into view. It was like a mobile fortress, at least eighty meters long, and maybe fifteen meters high. The monstrous tracks alone were the size of an average building. The rows of round wheels drove enormous treads made from interlocking slabs of metal, like the tracks of a giant tank. It had a flat deck, upon which were mounted a litany of weapons. There were triple-barreled cannons with strange, white bulbs mounted atop them, what looked like camera lenses catching the sun as they swiveled around of their own accord. She could make out three massive railgun turrets from this angle, along with a missile launcher that was positioned towards the front of the craft, elevated on a large piston. The whole thing had been painted in desert colors, the ocean-grey of the gun turrets masked by crude desert camo. Towards the rear of the deck was a blocky building that rose into the air, a radar dish mounted on top of what looked almost like a conning tower. Its walls had been reinforced with armored plates, the windows protected by metal slats.

How have you done this?” Korbaz asked, her tone of voice conveying her awe.

They would not sell us ships or tanks, and so we made our own,” the Matriarch replied proudly as she drove towards the thing. “These were by far our most costly purchase, but it was necessary if we were going to enact our plan. Vitza, elaborate.”

These are called crawlers,” he explained from the back seat. “They are used to transport ultra-heavy cargo and launch vehicles in human spaceports. They move very slowly, but they can carry an enormous load. We were able to buy several of them under the pretense of using them for mining operations.”

As the Matriarch began to circle the crawler, Korbaz was able to examine it in more detail. It was indeed industrial in nature, everything was huge, overengineered. It was almost square in shape, perhaps sixty meters wide, with one of the reinforced treads positioned on each corner to spread the weight out evenly. Each one was like a tank in its own right, with two sets of tracks, seemingly able to turn and pivot where it joined to the chassis. She could see now that there were six of the railgun turrets mounted on the deck, and four cannons on each corner, situated just above the tracks. There was a girth to the thing, the doors that were spaced out along its chassis at intervals suggesting that one could go inside it. An extending gantry led up to a platform that ringed the entire thing, and she could see the spots where the Rask had been welding sheets of scrap to its hull to serve as supplemental protection.

This one is equipped with six Naval railguns that were salvaged from a scrapped UNN frigate,” Vitza continued, “and the missile launcher was taken from the bed of an old military truck. Those four cannons are called CIWS guns, they are automated defensive weapons, able to engage incoming threats under their own power. They were recovered from an abandoned UNN base on Hades, smuggled to us before the operation there was disrupted. The crawlers are powered by a nuclear reactor, allowing them to run indefinitely, for all intents and purposes.”

Are you speechless, Vice Admiral?” the Matriarch asked. She spared her a satisfied glance before turning her eyes back to the path ahead. “Tell me what you think.”

They will be...more effective than sandships,” Korbaz replied, the Matriarch’s booming laughter filling the cab. “I do not understand, my Matriarch. How did you build something like this? For all our ingenuity, surely this must be beyond our means?”

When we bought the crawlers, the company sent teams of engineers to assemble them on the ground,” she explained. “The service was included as part of the purchase. As for the modifications, well, humans are ruled by wealth. The trader who obtained the salvaged railgun turrets for us was happy to oversee their installation for an extra fee. The rest, I left up to Vitza and his team.”

How do you expect they will perform against the UNN?” Korbaz asked the timid male.

They would not be used to engage the aliens directly, of course,” he replied. “The main gun of a UNN tank could easily cripple them. But these weapons will allow indirect fire, which means that the crews can hit targets from over the horizon with explosive shells and missiles as long as our scouts can spot them. More importantly, they will remain mobile, always on the move to avoid detection.”

How many do you have?” Korbaz asked.

Six, including this one. We have built two battleships, three carriers, and one command ship.”

Carriers?” Korbaz inquired, leaning out of the cab and craning her neck as they passed beneath the titanic vehicle. It was like looking up at a metal sky, its underside crisscrossed by structural supports and unidentifiable machinery.

They’ll be carrying vehicles such as this one, deploying them to harass the Coalition’s ground forces. It will extend their range immensely, and it allows us to service and rearm them in the field. We’ve used prefab buildings to serve as barracks and garages for the crews, the same that humans use to establish their colonies on remote planets. They’re a little cramped by our standards, but I think we can make do.”

And the command ship?” Korbaz continued, turning her attention back to the Matriarch.

It is the flagship of our fleet,” she replied, “designed to coordinate the rest of the crawlers. It now belongs to you.”

It’s...mine?” Korbaz asked, not understanding what she was hearing.

I am promoting you to Fleet Admiral, Korbaz. You will captain the command crawler and oversee the operation. You have the experience, the loyalty, the necessary knowledge of the humans. This will be the largest and most costly raid ever undertaken by our people. It must not fail.”

You honor me, Matriarch,” Korbaz replied with a bow of her head. “I will not let you down.”

Once the UNN has been expelled from our lands, we will use these titans to control the deserts. With just one or two of these, we could hold entire territories hostage, dominate all trade on the planet. Imagine one of these pulling up outside Elysia, threatening to bombard their city from beyond the jungle band unless they pay a tithe. We can plow through the Araxie jungle and snap their precious trees like twigs, churning up their damned ghosts under our treads.”

We could rekindle the glory of our ancestors,” Korbaz nodded, feeling pride well in her chest.

The Matriarch pulled up beside the battleship, their vehicle skidding to a stop as she hit the brakes. She seemed to have quite some experience with this machine, perhaps she had been practicing for her own amusement. The sandstorm was in full swing now, limiting their visibility, the sound of airborne particles whipping against their vehicle’s chassis like rain on a tin roof. The three of them dismounted, turning to face the crawler side-on, the colossal machine partially obscured by the sepia haze. Before them was a group of maybe fifty Rask who must comprise part of its crew, their helmets and goggles shielding them from the sand. They wore the usual Rask garments, lots of thick leather, the buttons and badges adorning their chests denoting their rank in the hierarchy.

One of the crewmen walked out to meet them, the wind tearing at the scarf that was wrapped around her face, her tinted goggles reflecting the sunlight. The brown leather of her jacket was embossed with intricate scenes of battle, depicting raiders disembarking from a sandship, their machetes raised. She wore a Crewmaster’s sash, her collection of medals informing Korbaz that she had participated in many successful operations.

My Matriarch,” she said, raising her voice over the howling storm. “The battleship Landslide stands ready to deploy. Fleet Admiral Korbaz, we were told to expect you. It will be an honor to serve under you, my crew stands ready to carry out your orders.”

You will be riding the Landslide through the East Gate and out to the rally point,” the Matriarch explained, beginning to walk towards the crawler’s extended gantry. Korbaz and the battleship’s Crewmaster flanked her, while Vitza trailed behind them. “There, you will transfer to the command crawler Wildfire, and assume your duties.”

The Crewmaster broke ranks suddenly, waving a gloved hand at the gaggle of crewmen.

What do you think you’re doing, whelps!? Shield your Matriarch from the storm, or I’ll flay your hides!”

They scrambled to form a line to the right of their superiors, using their bodies as windbreaks. The flying sand hammered their backs, but they endured it, Korbaz feeling the gale lessen as she made her way into the shadow of the crawler. The Crewmaster ran a tight ship. Korbaz got the impression that if one of her charges even flinched in front of the Matriarch, they’d be in for a savage correction.

They reached the foot of the gantry, gripping the guard rail as they began to climb the steps, the metal frame creaking under their combined weight. They soon emerged onto the platform that ringed the crawler’s chassis, Korbaz peering over the railing to see the crewmen fifteen meters below, now scarcely larger than her claw. The wind was even wilder up here, and she was glad when they entered through one of the low doors that led inside the main body of the vehicle.

The sound of the wind faded as the hatch closed behind them, replaced by the far-off roar of the idling engines, Korbaz shaking the sand out of her hair as she looked down the corridor ahead. It wasn’t as cramped as she had been anticipating. The ceiling was maybe seven feet high, so she had to crouch to avoid hitting her head, but it could have been worse. It was made up of metal panels that were secured with bolts, winding pipes, and bundles of electrical cables snaking their way along it. There were dim lights at intervals that did a fair enough job of illuminating everything. The floor was made up of a metal grill, she could feel it vibrating beneath her paws, and the walls were similarly packed with miscellaneous machinery and electronics. All in all, it wasn’t too different from being aboard a human spacecraft.

Please, this way,” the Crewmaster said as she guided them through the winding passages. The smell of oil was everywhere, as well as the scent of burnt metal that Korbaz had come to associate with electronics. They came across a few more crew members who were engaged in their usual duties, each one stepping out of their path and bowing low, making themselves as submissive and as non-threatening as possible before the Matriarch. They didn’t even dare to look at her, lest that be taken as a challenge to her authority.

They came to a ladder that led to a hatch in the ceiling, and they began to climb, emerging into a more open space. This was a room in one of the prefab buildings that Vitza had spoken of, a human dwelling that was made to specification in a factory, only to be dropped into place wherever it was needed. There was no artistry to it, no soul. It held as much meaning as a tungsten slug or a piece of cutlery. This one at least had been furnished by Rask, making it a little more homely than its cold, metal beginnings. They had laid down a carpet to cover up the exposed material, while the furniture that had once been welded to the floor had been removed, replaced with wooden counterparts more befitting its current occupants. There was a window nearby that had been partially obscured by steel bars, but Korbaz could still see out onto the crawler’s windswept deck beyond, the six railgun turrets standing ready.

She could stand up straight in here, the room was rather spacious. From the ground, the prefab had looked to be about nine meters high, at least that wide, and a little over twice that in length. There were two stories to it, it was an entire house designed to be deployed as one unit, with zero construction time required before colonists could start living in it.

They made their way through the structure, finding that there were kitchens, bathrooms, pantries. Anything that the crew might require to live comfortably in the long-term. Not everything had been scaled up for Borealan use, there was nothing to be done about a fridge or a shower cubicle, but it was far more luxurious than the wooden cabins of traditional sandships.

They mounted a flight of stairs, arriving at the second level, then proceeded to a third. What Vitza had referred to as the conning tower was, in fact, another smaller prefab module that had been placed on top of the first. The single room had been filled with all of the equipment and tools required to pilot the craft. There were control systems, camera feeds showing views from all angles, radio and radar equipment. It was all very makeshift, with lots of exposed wiring and electrical tape, but it all seemed functional. She walked over to the forward window, able to see clear across the deck. It was like standing on the balcony of the Patriarch’s tower in Elysia’s capital.

This is where I leave you,” the Matriarch said, sidling up beside her. “I know that my new fleet will be in capable hands. Keep me abreast of your situation, and remember, each of these vessels represents a significant investment. My treasury is looking about as barren as the scrublands. Do not sacrifice them without good cause.”

Of course, Matriarch,” Korbaz replied. “I cannot thank you enough for this honor. Truth be told, as much as I have enjoyed serving you in the capacity of Ambassador, the desert calls to me. I hear her voice still, the promise of glory and riches.”

It’s in your blood,” the Matriarch said with an approving nod. “I know that living amongst the aliens has been trying, being curtailed by their laws and customs. Having to suppress your nature, being forced to deny what makes you Borealan, enduring their insults and slights. It must have been maddening. But what made you the ideal candidate for that role, and why I have brought you here today, is your uncommon patience. You are a hunter, Admiral, a sandstalker. I know that you will not make rash decisions, you will not charge headlong into certain defeat. It is your nature to weigh every engagement carefully, but when battle is joined, be fierce. Show the interlopers no quarter.”

They shall see no pity from me,” she snarled, baring her teeth in a grin. Her heart was beating so quickly, the anticipation rising up inside her belly, electrifying her. How long had it been since she had commanded a sandship, the wind filling its sails as it crested a dune, a juicy trading caravan in her sights? This would be a raid like no other, it would go down in history, there would be tapestries woven about her exploits. She felt like she was waking up after a long sleep, stretching her stiff limbs for the first time in eons.

Vitza will remain by your side,” the Matriarch added, gesturing to the meek male. “He will be your Chief Engineer, for he alone understands the intricacies of these crawlers. Make it known amongst your crew that he carries my authority and that he is not to be questioned on matters of engines and steel.”

It shall be so.”

One more thing,” the Matriarch said, leaning a little closer to Korbaz. “I have a...special request to make of you.”

If it is within my power to give, then you shall have it,” Korbaz replied without hesitation.

I want a human,” she whispered. “Bring one back for me, a handsome one. Male or female, it matters not. I mean to keep it as a pet.”

A-as you wish, Matriarch,” Korbaz stammered.

I hear they make admirable bed warmers, and I grow weary of my consorts as of late.”

The two shared a chuckle, the Matriarch placing an encouraging hand on Korbaz’s shoulder as she rose to full height.

Next time I see you, Admiral, I expect you to be returning through the East Gate victorious.”

CHAPTER 3: STEEL RAIN

The garage was a bustle of activity, the sounds of power tools, and the revving of engine checks echoing through the space. Everywhere Ben looked, engineers were rushing back and forth, inspecting the rows of vehicles as the deployment window neared. The tanks were stacked practically bumper to bumper, six long and five deep, leaving just enough room for the scurrying personnel to get between them so that they could be serviced. They were all anchored to yellow trolleys, which were sitting on a rail system that would deliver them to the stern gate for transfer, or to one of the five elevators towards the bow. There were five of the tiered garages on the Okinawa, stacked one on top of the other to maximize the available space, not unlike an automated parking lot that one might find in a city. With such an efficient system, it meant that they could cram a maximum of one hundred and fifty vehicles into the two hundred and fifty-meter assault carrier.

The ceiling scarcely cleared the MBTs by a foot, trailing cables and bunches of electrical wiring winding their way across the metal panels. Some of them hung loose like vines from a jungle canopy, while others were hooked up to the vehicles, charging their batteries or running diagnostics on their onboard computers. He watched as one of the remote turrets on top of the sloping hull of a nearby IFV rotated of its own accord. The dome-shaped camera array examined him with its reflective lenses, its simple machine intelligence making sure that he wasn’t a threat.

Ben proceeded along the walkway between the trolleys, the side skirts of the tanks rising up to either side of him like walls of composite armor. He dodged around an engineer who was inspecting the tracks of the vehicle to his right, a tablet computer held in his hand, his fingers tapping frantically at the touch screen. The crews were already beginning to line up beside their respective vehicles, standing in rows as they prepared to follow them to the dropships when their number was up. Vehicle crews wearing their pressure suits and helmets stood idle, chatting with one another as they adjusted their seals, and slotted on their helmets. There were Marines gearing up beside their troop transports, their signature black body armor reflecting the glow from the halogen lights above as they checked their weapons and loaded their rigs with fresh magazines.

They were almost all human, there were very few aliens in sight. Most of the vehicles hadn’t been designed with Borealans or Krell in mind, they were too tall to fit inside them, but the IFVs were an exception. Ben could make out a few of the eight-foot felines a row over, their Shock Trooper gear similar to that of the Marines in color and design, the ceramic plating of their battlesuits the same shade of onyx. They sported wicked XMRs that were as long as a human was tall, the barrels lined with tightly-packed rows of magnetic rings, the bayonets making them look as much like spears as rifles.

Vehicle crews didn’t wear the same armor as the Marines. Their gear consisted of a pressure suit that would keep them from decompressing in the event that their hull was breached on a planet with an atmosphere that didn’t support human life, and a flak jacket to provide them some protection from spalling. It was little more than a black jumpsuit that was connected to the boots, gloves, and helmet via pressure seals. His visor was currently open, and his gloves were in his pocket, as there was still a little time before the drop.

He brought up the wrist guard on his forearm, tapping at the holographic display as he checked which vehicle he had been assigned to. Golf-six, a Timberwolf. He walked along the rows of trolleys, weaving past groups of Marines and engineers until he came across the right one.

The Timberwolf was a six-wheeled scout truck designed for a crew of three. It operated ahead of the main formation, scanning for hostiles and obstacles with the help of a small drone fleet and a suite of sensors. It had a sloping, angular hull designed to help deflect enemy fire, the composite plates currently sporting a desert camo paint job. At around twenty-five tons and seven meters long, it was on the smaller side, but that made it fast and maneuverable. There was no visible canopy or windshield, that would only serve to create a weak point. The crew were expected to use the arrays of cameras that were spaced out around the chassis instead, but Ben knew from experience that the armor plating above the bullbar could be raised to expose the viewport in an emergency.

The six wheels had a diameter of about five feet, and the tires were made from a honeycomb structure that eliminated the possibility of flats, the deep treads providing excellent traction even on soft surfaces. The vehicle had smoke launchers and an active protection system that would help to supplement its armor, as well as a remote-controlled thirty-millimeter railgun turret mounted on the top.

What he wasn’t expecting to see, however, was a little Valbaran standing on the roof beside the hatch. It was perched on the edge of the vehicle like a bird, peering down at him with a pair of striking, violet eyes. It had a basically humanoid body plan, its digitigrade legs ending in two-toed feet, its long tail held out straight behind it for balance. It was maybe four and a half feet tall, and it couldn’t have weighed more than about sixty pounds. The pressure suit that it was wearing was similar to his own, black in color, electrical cables visible just beneath the lining as they wound their way across its surface like blood vessels. The form-fitting material gave him a good view of its figure. The alien had a feminine shape, with wide hips, powerful thighs for its stature, and a relatively short torso.

Its helmet seemed to open up like a clamshell, leaving most of its face exposed, a pair of twin tubes dangling from the back of its head. Ben assumed that they were connected to an oxygen supply of some kind, but upon closer inspection, they were hanging free.

Its face immediately made him think of a lizard. It had a long snout, and its glassy, olive-green skin was made up of a mosaic of fine scales. When it opened its mouth to speak, he saw that it was lined with rows of tiny, sharp teeth.

You must be my commander,” it said. Its voice was tinny, high-pitched, and it had a strange flanging quality that made it sound like two different people were speaking in harmony. “My name’s Mizi’pal’otl, equivalent rank of Private, First Class. Pleased to meet you, Sir. Female, by the way,” she added. “I know that humans have a hard time telling our genders apart.”

Hi,” he replied sheepishly, giving the alien a wave. She returned it, mimicking the gesture with her three-fingered hand. “Yeah, I’m Sergeant Rhodes. I’ve been assigned as Golf-six’s commander.”

I’m the driver,” she continued, Ben taking a step back as she leapt from the roof. She landed beside him effortlessly, she was so light on her feet, cocking her head curiously as she peered up at him. He noticed that there were light panels on her forearms, and on the two tubes that extended from her helmet, their colors shifting between green and yellow. “Also a qualified engineer, if need be.”

You’re a Valbaran, right?” he asked. “I’ve seen you guys around the mess. Don’t you usually work in groups?”

Yup,” she replied, reaching up and giving the vehicle’s tire a tap with her fist. “But a Timberwolf doesn’t need six crew.”

I guess not,” he chuckled. “Sorry, Private...what was the name again?”

Just call me Mizi,” she replied.

Alright, Mizi. You prepped for the drop? Where’s our third?”

Dunno,” she replied with a shrug of her narrow shoulders. “They’d better get here pretty soon, or we’ll be short a gunner.”

She spoke good English, though her accent was hard to place. It almost sounded like she was speaking with several accents, as if she was mimicking multiple different people as a parrot would.

A klaxon rang out through the garage as red warning lights began to flash, a voice alerting them that they had five minutes until drop. Ben and Mizi began to secure their suits and close their helmets, as did all of the personnel around them. By the time the next klaxon sounded, they were ready, the stern gate beginning to open.

In front of the forward row of vehicles, a large shutter that spanned the length of the garage began to rise from the deck. As it receded into the ceiling, it revealed a row of vaguely square docking ports, each one covered by a shimmering, blue force field.

Their purpose was to allow the heavy dropships that were already docked to the exterior of the garages to load up their vehicles as quickly as possible using the rail system. Twenty-five of them could connect to the stern gate at once, meaning that in only six trips, the entire contents of the five garages could be unloaded onto the surface of a planet. Ben could see five of them right now, 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 an MBT, and as many crew as could fit in an armored personnel carrier.

Although he couldn’t see it right now, he knew that the hull of the assault carrier beyond was starting to open like a giant maw. The entire aft section of the vessel could split apart like the jaws of a trap, exposing the tiered garages to space when open, and protecting the dropships from enemy fire when closed. Unlike most UNN vessels, the main engines were mounted in nacelles to the port and starboard, rather than directly at the stern.

Golf-six was second in line, Ben watching as the IFV in front of them began to slide forward on its yellow trolley. It made its way through the flickering energy barrier and into the waiting bay of the dropship, slamming to a stop inside, and locking into place. Its crew jogged in after it, strapping into the crash couches that lined the walls, securing their harnesses tightly.

The same procedure was happening with the four other dropships that he could see, as well at the twenty that he couldn’t. When they were all loaded up, the landers began to separate from the assault carrier, their ramps closing as they used their thrusters to get clear. They were bulky vessels, able to lift as much as a hundred tons under their own power, their hulls painted in the traditional ocean-grey of the Navy. They had upward-swept noses due to their tendency to enter the atmosphere belly-first, giving them the profile of an archaic landing craft from the twentieth century, the cockpit raised high on the chassis. Plumes of blue hydrogen flame spewed from their rear engines as they began to pull away, shrinking from the size of a building to the size of his fist in a few scant seconds. As they angled towards the planet below, he got a better look at their stubby wings and the four downward-facing boosters that helped them to land and take off with a full payload.

Golf-six slid forwards on its trolley, locking into position in front of the docking port. Ben and Mizi jogged along after it, stopping just short of the translucent force field. It would keep in the atmosphere, but allow solid objects to pass through it, meaning that one could potentially trip and fall through the insubstantial barrier into the vacuum of space.

His heart raced as he waited for the dropships to return, and after maybe fifteen minutes, he was rewarded with the sight of one of the bulky vessels lining up to dock. The thrusters flared as the pilot carefully lined up his cargo bay, mating it to the assault carrier and blocking out the twinkling stars beyond. Their vehicle rolled forward on its rail, slipping past the force field and into the bay, slamming into place. He and Mizi followed after it, Ben feeling the hairs on his arms and neck stand on end as he transitioned through the barrier of energy. All sound was silenced, his own muffled breathing all that he could hear inside his helmet as he stepped into the depressurized lander.

The cargo bay looked so large with just the Timberwolf inside it, it was so much smaller and lighter than the tanks. The two crewmen sat side by side as they fastened their harnesses, Ben realizing that his hands were trembling as he secured the buckle about his chest. The drop was his least favorite part of the process.

He glanced to his left to check that Mizi was strapped in, noting that she had slipped her long tail through the hole that was present in all of the seats. They allowed species with tails to sit more comfortably, and it was no inconvenience to a human. She was so short that her feet were dangling off the floor like a child sitting in a highchair. How was she even going to reach the pedals once they were on the ground?

A rumble passed through the deck as the dropship uncoupled from the garage, the Timberwolf rocking on its trolley. Ben looked over Mizi’s head as he watched the cargo bay door begin to close, catching a glance at the five rows of five docking ports as they shrank down to the size of pennies. Once it was sealed, there was a hiss as the bay was pressurized, the clanking and rumbling sounds of the lander slowly returning as though someone was pulling wads of cotton from his ears.

His stomach lurched as he felt the ship began to fall, his fingers digging into the padded armrests of his crash couch as he was buffeted and shaken. They had hit the planet’s atmosphere, he could feel the turbulence, he could see the bright flames erupting beneath the vessel’s belly in his mind’s eye. These landers were not graceful, they were plummeting towards the ground like a brick, the stresses making the structure of the thing creak worryingly. Ben kept reminding himself that this was what it was designed for, that it had performed this same maneuver a thousand times, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was going to crater into the ground like an asteroid.

G-forces tore at him as the downward-facing engines belched plumes of fire, slowing their descent as they cleared the upper atmosphere. It felt like there was an elephant standing on his head, like he was being pressed into the deck by a giant rolling pin. He focused on breathing, feeling his pressure suit constrict around his limbs in an attempt to keep his blood where it was supposed to be.

Finally, the feeling of being crushed was alleviated, the dropship emitting a few more jarring bursts from its engines before he felt it bounce on its landing gear. He allowed himself a sigh of relief, glancing over at Mizi to see that she was already raising the visor on her helmet. Ben did the same, the two sharing a knowing glance for a moment.

First time?” he panted.

First time in one of these,” she replied, pausing to swallow. “It’s a little less...graceful than a troop transport.”

Stay seated while the vehicle deploys,” he warned, “you don’t want it clipping you on its way out.”

Bright sunlight flooded into the bay as the ramp began to lower, a cloud of dust kicking into the air as it hit the ground. The scene beyond was that of a desert, a flat plain of sand with what looked like a wall of greenery rising up in the distance, a forest that must be miles away. He could make out a few more vehicles, their crews milling about nearby.

The locks on the Timberwolf’s trolley released, sending it sliding down the rails and onto the planet’s surface, skidding for a couple of feet before coming to a stop. Now that the vehicle was clear, Ben and Mizi unfastened their harnesses, following it out of the bay. As soon as Ben’s boot touched the sand, he buckled, grunting in alarm as the planet’s gravity gripped him. The dropship had an AG field set to Earth-standard, but Borealan gravity was thirty-percent higher. It felt like someone had just dropped a barbell across his shoulders. Mizi had a similar reaction as she stepped down from the ramp, her bobbing gait slowing, her tail drooping.

They stumbled over to their vehicle, Ben leaning against its chassis as though that might somehow alleviate his discomfort. The heat was incredible, weighing down on him almost as much as the gravity. He shielded his eyes as he peered up at the twin suns. The primary was a huge, white sphere of bright light, while the yellow secondary was more akin to Earth’s sun.

The staging point seemed to be in the middle of a desert. The immediate area was sandy scrubland, completely flat save for a few clumps of alien plants that were clinging to life here and there. To his right was the wall of forest, it looked like a tropical jungle, extending from horizon to horizon. To his left, the desert dunes rose up like mountains in the distance, contrasting sharply with the azure sky. All around him, the first two waves of vehicles were gearing up, the roar of their engines carrying across the flatland.

Where is our third?” Mizi asked anxiously, crawling her way up onto the roof of the Timberwolf with some difficulty. She certainly seemed to like being in high places. The Valbaran peered about frantically, searching for their missing gunner, the sun reflecting off her smooth scales as her head swiveled on her flexible neck.

Maybe they’re supposed to meet us down here?” Ben suggested with a shrug.

But the mission briefing said that we would have three crew, and the manual lists three crew as being necessary for the Timberwolf’s operation,” Mizi insisted as she wrung her gloved hands. “A commander, a driver, and a gunner. Where is our gunner? This was not what was planned.”

Don’t worry about it, Private,” he replied in an attempt to calm the agitated creature. He noted that the light panels on her forearms had turned purple, did they indicate her emotional state? “If one doesn’t turn up, I’ll go find someone to complain to. It’s not your responsibility. Now, let’s get this Wolf running.”

System check!” she declared, opening the hatch on the roof and dropping down inside. After a moment, the headlights lit up, the vehicle rumbling to life. Ben followed behind as she drove it down off the trolley and clear of the dropship, its large tires leaving furrows in the sand. It rolled to a stop, the top hatch opening again, her little head popping out. “All systems green, Commander!”

That was quick,” he replied skeptically.

I have memorized the pre-operation checklist,” she replied, “all systems are within tolerances.”

Do you have a lot of hands-on experience with Timberwolfs?”

No,” she said, shaking her head. “But I read the manual.”

Alright,” he muttered. At least she was qualified.

Behind them, the dropship began to lift off the ground, its four ventral engines sending a cloud of sand swirling as they fired. Ben hastily closed his visor as the air was filled with dust, looking up to watch it accelerate into the blue sky once it was clear, several other landers following behind it. There was pretty much constant traffic, a couple more dropships descending on plumes of bright flame as they decelerated, their bellies charred black by the heat of reentry.

He pulled up the display on his wrist computer, checking the local ad-hoc network. Mizi wasn’t entirely overreacting. Where the hell was their gunner? He put a call through to his Lieutenant, keeping his visor closed so that he could hear himself think over the din of two dozen Kodiaks revving their engines. After being put on hold for a minute, he was put through to the platoon commander.

Lieutenant? This is Sergeant Rhodes, commanding Golf-six. We’re short a gunner getting off the boat. Any idea where they’re at?”

Hang tight, Sergeant,” the Lieutenant replied. “They’re en route.”

Hang tight?” Ben muttered to himself after closing the line, gazing around at his barren surroundings. “Where the hell would I go?”

He rapped his knuckles on the Timberwolf’s hull, the little Valbaran popping out again like a scaly gopher.

Gunner’s on the way,” he said, which seemed to put her more at ease. “Let’s sit tight until then.”

He tried to climb up onto the hull of the scout vehicle, but the sun had already heated it to the point that it was hot to the touch, so he decided to sit in the shade that it created instead. So, this was Borealis? It was hot, desolate, the gravity already making the muscles in his legs burn like he had just run a two-K. He was starting to get a better understanding of why the Borealans were all so ripped. They didn’t need to be gym rats, just existing here was workout enough to make most Marines look scrawny by comparison.

There was a banging sound as the hatch swung open, then the Valbaran dropped down beside him, stumbling as she landed in the sand. She was decidedly less graceful under these conditions, and he couldn’t blame her. She didn’t sit, seeming to lock the joints in her digitigrade legs to take a load off instead, letting her arms hang at her sides.

I think this planet has one too many suns,” she grumbled.

I hear that,” Ben chuckled, wiping his brow beneath his helmet. Mizi watched him curiously, and he gave her a sideways glance. “What’s wrong?”

Nothing, I just...Valbarans don’t sweat. It’s strange to see.”

How the hell are you going to last down here if you don’t sweat?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.

My suit keeps me moist,” she explained. “As long as the battery bank has a charge, the condensers will stop me from drying out. It can’t keep me cool in this heat, unfortunately, but the Timberwolf has climate control. We like it a little hotter than your kind do, but also a lot more humid than this. I bet those jungles are lovely,” she sighed as she peered at the wall of greenery on the horizon.

Cool and dry is more my thing,” he replied, “this place is gonna be swamp ass central.”

Swamp ass?” she asked curiously.

Trust me, you don’t want to know. So, how did you end up assigned as a Timberwolf driver?” he continued. “I haven’t seen many Valbarans serving alongside the UNN.”

We haven’t been in the Coalition for very long,” she said, gesturing with her three-fingered hands. The panels on her wrists and pigtails had turned a shade of lime now, maybe they really were like a mood ring. “When contact was made, the whole Galaxy opened up to us, and we wanted to see it. My flock served as pilots for cargo shuttles back on the homeworld, but there were no openings for that position, the humans didn’t need Valbarans to fly their ships. They wanted Commandos to integrate into their mixed units, and engineers to service vehicles. I suppose being a driver is a lot like being a pilot, in many ways.”

Your flock is your social group, right?” he asked. “Is that like a pack?”

In some ways, yes. In a Borealan pack, there is a leader, an Alpha who commands the rest. Not so in a Valbaran flock. Each member is part of the whole, all decisions are made through consensus. It has been difficult to adapt to a hierarchy where one person must be relied upon to make decisions for the group.”

You must have commanding officers, though,” Ben added. “I can’t imagine how a military would function without them.”

Yes, but we treat flocks as you treat individuals,” she explained. “Our commander is a flock of several who all carry the same authority, and they reach consensus together.”

It must be difficult being separated from your flock, then,” Ben added. “Sounds like a close relationship.”

It’s...an adjustment,” she admitted. “In integration training, I learned to trust that humans can make informed decisions on their own and that we should expect to be separated in many cases. Human vehicles are not designed to be crewed by so many, after all. We must treat our comrades as a kind of surrogate flock until we are reunited.”

Sounds like you got a handle on it, then. If it’s any consolation, part of being a good leader is taking the input of your crew into consideration. I won’t hesitate to ask your opinion if I think it’s valuable.”

She nodded her appreciation, peering out at the vehicles beyond. They watched a nearby tank crew as they mounted up, climbing up the sloping hull armor of their Kodiak. They were imposing vehicles, nine meters long, and up to seventy tons depending on their configuration. The front armor and the turret were heavily sloped to increase the chance of bouncing enemy shells, the tile-like ceramic plating designed primarily to diffuse heat from Betelgeusian plasma weapons. Ben could make out the smoke launchers, and the modules of its active protection system.

The main gun was a massive, slightly flattened tube, the housing covering up an electromagnetic railgun. The round muzzle device on the end of the barrel wasn’t a brake, as a railgun had no propellant gases to redirect, but rather a device used to prevent the air around it from heating up to the point that it created a plasma discharge. Without one, the effect wasn’t unlike an arc flash. It could potentially damage equipment or burn personnel in the vicinity.

There was a blister on top of the turret that housed a smaller caliber railgun, along with a mortar launcher, Ben watching as the round sensor array on top swiveled. Those weapons could be controlled remotely by the commander to supplement the main gun, like a second, smaller turret on top of the first. It wasn’t dissimilar from the main turret on one of the IFVs.

The Kodiaks had hardpoints on either side of the turret that could fit more weapons and modules, but the ones on this vehicle were currently empty, the metallic socket standing out against its desert camouflage. Radar systems, supplemental guns, missile launchers. They had a variety of options.

So, why didn’t our vehicle have a crew?” Mizi asked.

How do you mean?” Ben replied, turning to glance at her.

Back on the assault carrier, whenever I overheard people talking about their vehicles, they treated them as a second home. Each one had its own quirks, a nickname. The people who crewed them were very close, kind of like a flock, in a way. Yet our crew is only just being assembled.”

I didn’t ask,” Ben replied with a shrug. “Golf-six could be brand new, fresh out of the factory, or it could have been recovered after its previous crew was lost. That’s not uncommon, especially when fighting Bugs. They tend to go for the crew and leave the steel intact.”

Let us hope that it’s the former,” Mizi muttered, the thought seeming to disturb her.

Where the hell is that gunner?” Ben grumbled. He checked the holographic display on his wrist, but he hadn’t received any messages or updates. “Dude is probably fresh out of boot and doesn’t even know where he’s supposed to be. I swear, if they sent us some green-”

A dark figure appeared seemingly from nowhere, emerging from behind their vehicle and nearly making Ben jump out of his skin. Mizi was equally alarmed by their sudden arrival, the panels on her suit flashing yellow.

The stranger was taller than a human, a hair under eight feet, suggesting that they were Borealan. Ben couldn’t make out their features, their entire body was wrapped in a long cloak that resembled a ghillie suit, the mesh-like material woven with bits of green fabric to give the impression that it was covered in foliage. There was a hood over their head, the harsh sunlight casting their face into deep shadow. Across their chest was a leather strap, which was attached to a holster for some kind of weapon that was slung over their back. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was some manner of primitive crossbow, its stock fashioned from carved wood.

Ben immediately felt his stomach tie itself into a knot. He wasn’t especially fond of Borealans, they were a royal pain in the ass to work with, and he didn’t want to run the risk of butting heads with one in a potentially lethal situation.

Is this vehicle number six, of Golf company?” the newcomer asked. Her voice was distinctly female, low and husky, scarcely a whisper when compared to the racket created by the running engines all around them. Her accent was strange, she trilled her Rs in a way that reminded him of Russian, or perhaps a purring cat.

This is Golf-six,” Ben replied, rising to his feet and brushing the sand off his suit. “Are you the gunner we’ve been waiting for?”

He looked her up and down, examining her strange getup. She didn’t look like a qualified gunner, she looked like a walking hedge. Mizi’s violet eyes darted between the two of them as though she couldn’t decide whether to follow suit or stay where she was.

The Borealan reached up and pulled back her hood, shaking out her dark, cropped hair. She was unlike any Borealan that he had ever seen before. Their faces were usually clear of fur, but hers was coated in a fine, velvety layer that seemed to shine as though wet. It was jet black in color, matching her full lips and her feline nose, so thin that it might have been mistaken for skin. He couldn’t see her eyes, they were hidden behind a pair of dark, tinted goggles.

I am Lozka, leader of the Araxie guard. My people have given me the title of Silent Huntress. Your Alpha has assigned me to your pack.”

Lozka,” Ben mused, the strange name rolling off his tongue. “I’m Sergeant Rhodes, the vehicle’s commander, and this is PFC Mizi. She’s our driver.”

Hello,” Mizi chirped, practically staring at the alien. The Borealan was near twice her height and probably five or six times her weight.

So...you’re our gunner?” Ben asked, seeing no need to mask his skepticism. She looked like she had been plucked straight out of the jungle, she wasn’t even wearing a uniform. “Have you ever operated a Timberwolf’s thirty-mil before?”

You are scouts, are you not?” she asked. It seemed that she was ignoring his question. What was her rank? Had she even completed her integration training?

That’s right,” he replied, waiting for her to elaborate.

Then this is where my Patriarch has deemed me to be of most use. I have met the Rask in combat many times, and I have slain my share. I know how best to track them, how to confuse and outmaneuver them.”

That sounds...useful,” Ben muttered. “You are a gunner, though, right? Like, we need someone who can, you know, actually shoot the gun.”

My bolts always strike true,” she replied, “I am the most accomplished marksman in the Araxie territory.”

That sounds good,” Mizi said, giving Ben a shrug. She was optimistic, at least.

Yeah,” he replied, unconvinced. “Mizi, why don’t you give the Silent Huntress a tour of the vehicle while I give the LT a call?”

Okay!” she replied cheerfully, the towering feline following behind her as she bobbed along like an oversized pigeon. She led her around to the rear of the six-wheeled truck, opening up the troop ramp, Lozka crouching to peer inside. Technically, a Borealan could fit inside a Timberwolf, but it was fortunate that she seemed to have a lighter build than some of the other cats that he’d come across. The thing was the size of a damned RV to Mizi, but Lozka had to duck to avoid hitting her head. Ben waited until they were out of earshot, then placed his call.

Lieutenant? This is Sergeant Rhodes again, Golf-six.”

The LT’s voice came through on the other end, the ad-hoc network lowering the bitrate a little to make it crackle and hiss.

Rhodes,” he began, probably taking a moment to look him up. “Ah, yes. Is this about your gunner again?”

Sort of, Sir. Our gunner just arrived. I was calling to inquire as to whether she actually has any training? It’s just that, well, she’s dressed like a mascot for a brand of canned vegetables. I was wondering if there had been some kind of mixup?”

There’s no mixup, Sergeant,” the Lieutenant replied tersely. “Both the Araxie and Elysian territories are supporting us in our operation against the Rask. Patriarch Bozka has sent us what he claims is his most qualified scout, and the best shot in his territory. She has dozens of confirmed kills, and she knows the enemy better than any of us.”

But...she brought a crossbow, Sir.”

She’ll be an asset, so I don’t want to hear any more complaints. Is that clear?”

Crystal, Sir,” Ben sighed as the LT closed the connection. It was looking like he was going to be stuck with the alien. Maybe he could have Mizi give her a crash course. The little creature seemed to have committed the manual to memory.

He walked over to the troop ramp of the Timberwolf, peering inside. The bay where the crew were expected to live and work for the majority of their deployment was scarcely larger than the kitchen in his first apartment. The floor, walls, and ceiling were all made from exposed metal that was covered in various electronics and mechanical systems. There were a few shelves that held supplies and equipment, contained behind a fabric mesh to prevent them from falling out during travel. The crew slept on a trio of padded beds, two of which were raised flush against the walls. They could also be used as seating in the event that the scout vehicle was on a rescue mission, or had to carry passengers. The third bed was little more than a thin mattress that was currently strapped to the hull to his right with another fabric mesh. There was a bustle rack on the exterior of the vehicle, too, where extra supplies could be mounted without taking up more of the already limited space.

There were no windows or viewports in the rear. It was like a steel coffin, the two lighting strips that ran along the ceiling providing illumination. The only ways in and out were the troop bay at the rear, and the two hatches. At the far end of the bay was a small port that led to the cab. Beyond it was a trio of reclining chairs, the driver’s seat situated a little further forward than the two that flanked it. They were all boxed in by consoles and control banks, leaving scarcely enough room for the crew to squeeze in.

The leftmost was the gunner’s seat. It had a joystick for controlling the remote turret, computer readouts, and other systems related to weapons. The cab hatch was also situated directly above it, and the chair could be raised to give the occupant a view outside. The rightmost was where Ben would be sitting. The commander’s chair was surrounded by computer monitors and sensor equipment, as he would be operating much of the Timberwolf’s electronics suite. Ground-penetrating radar to scan for Bug tunnels, surveillance drones, and other systems.

Mizi and Lozka were in the troop bay, the Valbaran showing the furry alien where the MRE packets were stashed. The Timberwolf was downright spacious by Mizi’s standards, she had to stand on one of the extended beds to reach the shelves, while Lozka had to crouch to fit inside. She didn’t look very impressed with her new accommodations.

We are to live in this vehicle for the duration of our mission?” she asked, examining her surroundings with a disapproving expression. On top of the bay being a little too small for her, the strange ghillie suit that she wore kept snagging on everything, meaning that she constantly had to stop to untangle herself.

How else did you think we were gonna cross a desert?” he scoffed. “You should probably stow your gear, by the way. Won’t be long now until the Lieutenant gives his mission briefing, and I expect you both to attend. Preferably without a crossbow.”

As you wish, Alpha,” Lozka replied. He was surprised to hear her refer to him in that way. As reluctant as she sounded, he knew that to be named the leader of a Borealan pack was no small thing. The aliens usually fought tooth and nail for the position. Literally.

Uh...Alpha?” he asked. “Don’t I usually have to kick someone’s ass before you’ll call me that?”

We Araxie defer to those of greater skill and accomplishment,” she explained as she began to take off her crossbow. She stowed it on a gun rack that was mounted on the wall, along with a quiver of sharp bolts. “We are not like our brutish cousins. The Araxie do not savage one another to decide who leads the pack.”

Oh, like a meritocracy?” he wondered. “Glad to know you won’t try to claw my face off if I look at you funny.”

The title of commander grants you seniority, does it not?” she continued as she began to remove her cloak.

Yeah, that’s how our command structure works,” he replied, watching her shrug off the strange garment. Beneath it, she wore a sparse outfit made from brown leather, sewn together in a way that made it look very makeshift. Her bust was contained within a simple leather sling, and over that, she was wearing what looked like a primitive chest rig. There were small satchels and pouches sewn onto it, along with holsters for small vials of liquid, and what must be a waterskin in lieu of a modern canteen. It looked like she intended to carry everything that she might need on her person.

Her shorts were so tight that she might well have been sewn into them, the seams straining against her muscular thighs and rump. The belt that secured them about her waist rode low on her wide hips, and it too was laden with holsters and pouches, their weight making it sag. There was an especially large knife on her hip that drew his eye. It was the size of a shortsword from a human’s perspective.

As he had suspected, her entire body was covered in silky, black fur from the tips of her round ears to her paw-like feet. It was so slick that it almost made her look wet, as though she had just climbed out of a swimming pool, its coal-black surface reflecting the lighting strips above. Her thin coat clung to her figure such that he could make out every contour of her body, even individual veins. It reminded him of a racehorse, its hide wet with sweat after a steeplechase. The twin rows of chiseled muscles on her exposed midriff shifted beneath her fur as she moved, flowing like water, the dimples on her thighs clearly visible. Lozka’s build was much lighter than what he was used to seeing on a Borealan. Most had the figures of bodybuilders, while hers was closer to that of a gymnast, or perhaps a swimmer.

As she turned to hang her cloak over her crossbow, he got a view of her rear. Her muscles cut a long channel down her spine, her pert cheeks filling out her shorts. There was a vent just below her belt that let her long tail poke through, the appendage waving back and forth. Mizi seemed entranced by it, reaching out to touch it with her gloved hand, Ben shaking his head at her silently. Grabbing a Borealan’s tail was a good way to lose your head, if they were of the aggressive variety or not. Clearly, Valbarans had a different concept of personal space than humans.

Then, you have been deemed most fit to command this vehicle and its crew?” Lozka continued, Ben realizing that he was staring.

I guess,” he continued, averting his gaze as she turned to face him again. “That’s probably not how I’d word it.”

Then you are my Alpha. I may be the most accomplished soldier in my territory, but I know nothing of these vehicles. I have, however, tracked Rask into the deserts beyond the jungle band before. I know that my skills can be of use.”

Just do me a favor and don’t call me Alpha again,” Ben replied. “Commander or Sergeant Rhodes will be fine.” He stepped out of view of the alien, then returned a moment later, ducking to look inside the bay again. “Seriously, it weirds me out...”

As you wish, Commander,” she replied.

We’ve got like five minutes until the briefing,” he added, “I’ll come fetch you when it’s time.”

***

The Lieutenant stood on a collapsible chair in front of the crowd of people, ensuring that everyone could see him. Almost the entire company was attending, and as the commander of that company, it was his job to relay their orders from Fleetcom. The commanders of the other seven companies would be doing the same thing right about now. Beside him was a metal box about the size and shape of a beer cooler, and after he brandished a remote, it projected a holographic image into the air that was large enough for everyone to make out clearly. It was an aerial map of the planet with Elysia on the right, and Rask on the left. Between them was the Araxie territory, further to the North, as well as a few other smaller oases.

Ben was in the midst of the crowd with Lozka at his side, the alien a head taller than everyone around her. He felt someone tug at the leg of his suit, looking down to see that Mizi was trying to get his attention.

I can’t see!” she complained.

What do you want me to do about it, find you a box to stand on?” he replied with a shrug.

But...but I must know the plan!” She was practically dancing on the spot, wringing her hands in agitations as she peered up at him expectantly. “Let me climb you.”

Climb me?” he repeated, a Marine who was standing behind them snorting into his helmet as he watched the scene unfold.

Without waiting for his permission, the Valbaran took a tighter grip on his pants, using the leverage to lift herself. She gripped his belt, her surprisingly powerful tail wrapping around his waist as she scaled him like a monkey climbing a tree. Before he could fight her off, she had crouched with her boots on his shoulders, her hands resting on his helmet as she watched the presentation. As light as she was, it was still uncomfortable, she weighed about as much as a rucksack full of gear. He considered lifting her off, but she sure seemed intent on seeing the briefing.

Many of you already know why we’re here,” the Lieutenant began, his voice carrying through the empty desert that surrounded them. “But the rapid nature our of deployment didn’t leave us any time for a full briefing. The Okinawa was called in on short notice because we happened to be in the area, so this is our mess now. This morning, at oh-nine-hundred hours, an ASAT weapon deployed by the Rask Matriarchy shot down two vessels in Borealan orbit. One was Elysian, and the other was UNN. Both ships were lost with all hands. There was no warning, no declaration of war prior to the attack, and there has been no further contact with the Rask since their initial transmission.”

A blue sphere appeared around the Rask territory as the LT pressed a button on his remote, gesturing to it as he continued.

We don’t know how many of these weapons the Rask still have, or where they’re located within the territory. Since they’ve completely locked us out of orbit, the fleet can’t launch a planetary invasion in the manner that they usually would. What’s more, see that bastard behind me?” he asked as he pointed past the hologram. On the horizon was a rising wall of sand, so large that it seemed to cast the land beneath it into shadow. It was far-off, but Ben could already see flashes of lighting in the roiling clouds. “That there is a sandstorm that would make a Martian think twice about stepping out of his dome. We ain’t flying anything through that, and it’s going to last for months. The Rask timed their attack to coincide with their storm season.”

With another press of the remote, a dotted line was drawn between the two territories.

The only way to secure the Rask launch sites is from the ground, and the only way to get there is across roughly two-thousand kilometers of the harshest terrain that this planet has to offer. We’re going to drive from Elysia to Rask in an armored column,” he said, the view changing again to show a representation of the formation. “Mechanized companies Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie will be heading straight to the target, with the artillery company bringing up the rear. As the recon company, our job will be to scout ahead to provide advanced warning of any dangerous terrain or enemy activities. We’re also going to be reinforced by a prototype vehicle that I’m told will be acting as a mobile HQ. Companies Delta, Echo, and Foxtrot will be heading to Araxie to bolster their defenses.”

He pressed the remote again, the view zooming in on the Rask territory to show a large lake that was surrounded by a broken band of jungle. Sand flowed through the gaps in the foliage, penetrating the interior in a way that looked unnatural to Ben. It seemed somehow damaged, wrong.

Once we reach the target, Recon’s job will be to scout out this large break in the jungle. The Rask call it the East Gate, and it’s the only way we’re getting armor through those trees. We expect it to be heavily defended, but the drive there should be relatively quiet. Based on our intelligence, the Rask don’t have any armored vehicles. They were never supplied with any tanks or troop carriers by the Coalition. They’re using modern XMRs, which could potentially pose a threat to light vehicles if they get a lucky shot in, but they can’t do much to a Timberwolf. That said, we don’t know what other technology they might have been able to obtain illicitly on top of the MASTs, so take nothing for granted.”

The Lieutenant closed the holographic presentation, clasping his hands behind his back as he continued.

The Borealan desert is completely uncharted, and without satellite imaging, we’re going to have to do things the old-fashioned way. That means eyeballs on the ground. We are pathfinders, our main goal is to locate the safest possible route for the armored columns. Keep that in mind, and report anything that you come across, no matter how trivial you think it might be. We roll out in an hour. Dismissed.”

The crowd began to disperse, Ben grunting as Mizi leapt down from his shoulders, landing on the sand beside him.

We have our orders,” he said, glancing at his alien companions. “Let’s get moving.”

***

All systems green, Commander,” Mizi said. She was sat in the driver’s seat, just ahead of him and to his left. The cab was downright spacious by her standards. She had to lower the seat to reach the pedals, but she could practically lounge in the oversized chair. There was even a little vent for her tail.

Lozka was to his far left, and she was faring a little worse. There was enough room for her, the Timberwolf was built to accommodate a Borealan, but her seat was far more cramped. Ben found his command chair just about right. The consoles and monitors were a little close, but it was cozy. He was used to operating these vehicles, and that certainly helped. While some might see the armored hull as claustrophobic and stifling, it gave him a sense of security. More than once, he had relied upon it to get him out of deadly situations.

The three displays that were suspended at head-height flared to life, showing readouts from the sensor equipment, and camera feeds from the vehicle’s exterior. Ben adjusted his chair a little, then began to flick switches and scroll through touch menus.

Mizi showed you how to operate the turret, right?” he asked. Lozka glanced over at him, her furry brow furrowing. She had taken off her dark goggles now, revealing eyes like a pair of emeralds, so strikingly green. They reflected the light like those of a cat, her pupils shrunken down to narrow slits.

I believe I understand its function, but I have not practiced. I must say, Alph...Commander, I prefer to use my real eyes when I aim, to feel the wind in my hair so that I might compensate for it. This console makes me feel...detached.”

Trust me,” he replied, reaching up to tap at one of the touch panels. “You won’t need to compensate. If you can see a target, then a railgun can hit it in the blink of an eye, you don’t need to worry about windage. Just put the crosshair over the target and pull the trigger. You can raise your chair and get a look out of the hatch if you need to, but don’t do that in combat.”

I hunt using my ears and my nose, I track footprints in the sand, I watch for disturbances in the underbrush. How can I be of use from within the belly of this vehicle? Its steel walls stifle my senses.”

We’ll probably need to get out at some point to investigate terrain features more closely, so you can flex your tracking muscles then,” he replied. “For now, just watch the monitors and let us know if you see anything out of place. We’re going to be driving far ahead of the main formation, so we’ll be the first to encounter whatever’s out there.”

He glanced apprehensively at the camera feed from the front of the vehicle. The roiling plume of sand still loomed on the horizon like a monster waiting to eat them, bright flashes of electrical discharge dancing between the dust clouds.

Do you have any idea of what we might encounter?” he asked.

Somewhat,” Lozka replied. “My people have always remained within the borders of our territory, but we have left it on occasion in pursuit of raiders. I have never been as far out as this, though, and my people have had little contact with outsiders until very recently. I know little of the open desert save for legends and rumors.”

Tell us one!” Mizi insisted, peering back at the feline.

I do not believe that we only have Rask to worry about,” she replied. “Even after the colonization of the lakes, the deserts are not entirely uninhabited. Outlaws, nomadic tribes, and other groups still remain. The Elysians speak of encountering tribes during their expeditions who spoke no known tongue, and who lived as our ancestors did millennia ago. They responded with fear and hostility to sandships, so I do not know how they would react to seeing a vehicle as strange as this one.”

What’s a sandship?” Ben asked.

A conveyance used by the Rask and Elysians to cross great distances. They are large, wooden platforms that catch the wind in their sails.”

Oh, I think I’ve seen those before,” he said with a nod. “How big are we talking? The ones I’m familiar with seat maybe a couple of people. They race them on beaches on the West coast.”

Far larger, as I am told,” Lozka replied. “They can ferry crews of thirty or more across the sands.”

Damn, that’s a lot bigger than I was imagining. It sounds more like a galleon on wheels. My ancestors built similar ships, but they floated on water oceans. How about you, Mizi? Did your ancestors sail?”

The Val’ba’ra’nay have always been obsessed with flight,” she replied. “My foreflocks navigated our planet’s oceans in ekranoplans.”

What the hell is that?” he asked.

An ekranoplan? It’s kind of halfway between a boat and a plane. When it attains sufficient speed, the lift created by its wings allows it to fly a short distance off the surface of the water.”

Interesting,” he muttered. “Hang on, got something coming through on the comms.”

There was a hiss of static in his helmet, and then he heard the Lieutenant’s voice.

Heads up, Golf. The Martians are dropping in the Yagda. If you want to get a look at the tank of the future, then point your cameras at the following coordinates...”

Looks like the Martians are breaking out their new toy,” Ben said. “Lozka, you’re up. Enter these coordinates into the turret’s targeting system like Mizi showed you, and keep it trained on the tank. I want to get a good look at this thing.”

She fumbled with the unfamiliar controls for a minute, then managed to get the cameras on target, Ben and Mizi switching to her feed so that they could watch. There was something entering the atmosphere, he could see the glow of the flames. He waited for it to stop growing, but it just kept getting larger and larger as it descended towards the ground. Whatever it was, it was vaguely oval-shaped, slightly more pointed towards the near end. It was ringed by a dozen thrusters, jets of blue flame spewing forth as it decelerated. There was some kind of frame around it, which was also shooting jets of hydrogen flame.

As it drew closer, his eyes widened, the finer details jumping out at him. It was a colossal tank. It must have been thirty meters long and half as wide, its mass couldn’t have been less than five hundred tons. Its underside was completely smooth, slightly rounded, without any sign of wheels or tracks. It was covered in a layer of flame-blasted tiles that were still glowing bright orange with residual heat.

The frame that carried it was some kind of dedicated lander, the vessel designed so that the armored vehicle fit snugly beneath it. Four reinforced jibs projected out to its sides, gripping the edges of the tank like a giant claw. Its cockpit was situated far to the front, its nose overhanging its passenger, obscuring much of it from view. There were massive, downward-facing thrusters on the arms, each one spewing a plume of fire as it neared the ground. The craft seemed to have been purpose-designed to carry this behemoth. The tank was actually helping it to shed velocity, it was close enough that he could make out the thruster nozzles now.

The lander and its enormous passenger descended until they were only a few meters off the ground, then they began to hover, their engines kicking up a cloud of dust. Their thrusters were putting out so much heat that he could see the sand directly beneath them starting to turn to glass. The vessel sported the typical Martial regalia, crimson livery adorning its ocean-grey hull. The tank’s sloping chassis was painted with desert camo, but he still couldn’t make it out clearly.

The lander shuddered as it released its charge, Ben glued to his monitor as he watched it drop. He waited for it to crater into the ground, but it stopped just short of it, bouncing as though it had landed on an invisible cushion of air. The lander rose out of frame, Lozka keeping the camera focused on the tank.

Seen from the side, its profile was smooth and rounded, designed to deflect enemy fire. Its camouflaged hull was covered in more heat tiles, likely to absorb and dissipate the energy from Bug plasma weapons. The main turret was situated much further forward than that of the Kodiak, the lenses of its optics package reflecting the sun. The railgun barrel must have been ten meters long, more akin to those that were mounted on spacecraft, the muzzle device the size of a truck tire. It didn’t look like it could swivel a full three hundred and sixty degrees, as its chassis rose up behind it to block it, almost like the canopy on a baby carriage.

There were three large, streamlined sponsons on each flank, long gun barrels now emerging from them. They reminded Ben of a World War One tank, and that might not be too far off. Those vehicles had primarily fought against infantry, and this craft might well have the same design philosophy. The guns had every angle covered, letting it mow down hordes of Betelgeusians if they should attempt to surround it. There were two blisters facing backwards to protect the rear, as well as an additional blister atop the main turret. There was also what looked like a CIWS suite mounted atop the raised section of the hull behind the main gun, now rising from its protective hatch.

It began to move, using its thrusters to maneuver as it glided along, completely frictionless. It looked like it was sliding on ice. As it turned, he got a view of the troop ramp at the rear, the supertank heading off to join the mechanized companies that were preparing for their journey into the desert. It might be effectively weightless, but it still had mass. He could see its thrusters working to control its inertia.

Ben whistled, switching his view back to the sensor readouts.

So that’s their secret, the Martians have figured out anti-gravity. They must have found some way to invert an AG field to act as a repulsor. Fucking madmen, there’s no other way they could build a tank that big and not have it sink in the first mud puddle they tried to drive it through.”

It looks more like a frigate than a tank,” Mizi added, Ben laughing at her observation.

That it does. I think that main gun might even be a one hundred millimeter, they’re usually mounted on carriers and Clovis frigates.”

Feeling a little better with that monstrosity at their back, Ben turned his attention back to his readouts. He brought up a map of the desert, examining the alien topography. These satellite images weren’t up to date, but they gave him a pretty good idea of the kind of terrain that they might encounter. The Borealan desert was far from uniform. There were dune oceans that were constantly shifting, shaped by the harsh winds, along with massive salt flats that looked like the remnants of long-dead lakes. There were smaller oases scattered about which seemed to come and go with the changing seasons, making them unreliable, and he could see rocky plateaus that rose above the sands.

Ben felt a surge of excitement well up inside him. As apprehensive as he was about their mission, there was a whole world out there to explore, and nobody had any idea what they were going to find.

Sending you coordinates, Mizi,” he announced as he tapped at his touch panel. “Whenever you’re ready.”

She was ready now, apparently, the little alien revving the engine. The Timberwolf pulled away from the nearby column of Kodiaks and IFVs, kicking up a cloud of dust behind it as its tires churned up the sand, reaching its top speed of one hundred and twenty kilometers per hour in a matter of seconds. They were on scrubland that was almost completely flat, blazing towards the sand dunes that rose above them like mountains in the distance. Behind them was the ever-looming storm, blotting out the sky. Ben’s every instinct told him to go in the opposite direction, but there was no avoiding it. The Rask had made sure of that.

They ran over a bump, the suspension doing a great job of absorbing it, but making the vehicle bounce all the same. Lozka reached up to grip a handhold on the ceiling reflexively, her eyes wide with alarm.

How are you doing, Lozka?” Ben asked as he watched her fasten her harness a little tighter. “First time in an Earth vehicle?”

I feel queasy,” she muttered, bouncing in her padded seat again. Mizi was turning out to be a little roadhog.

Keep your eyes on the monitor,” Ben advised, “it helps with motion sickness. You can pop the hatch for some fresh air if you want, but watch you don’t get blasted by sand. We’re going pretty fast.”

It took a good half hour for them to get clear of the scrubland, the Timberwolf finally reaching the foot of the first sand dunes. Ben was pleased to see Mizi slow up. She wasn’t going to try to ramp the thing off the first crest. The truck slowed to a crawl, the Mizi turning in her seat to look back at him as she awaited his instructions. They didn’t seem to be much for taking the initiative, these Valbarans. Maybe it was part of their whole flock thing.

Hold tight,” Ben said, turning to his console. “I’m gonna pop a drone and see what we’re dealing with here before we proceed.”

He keyed in the command, hearing a dull thud reverberate through the hull as one of the six launch tubes along their flanks shot a drone up into the air. Once it had reached an appropriate altitude, its four rotors unfolded, and it began to hover in place. It fed a wireless signal back to the Timberwolf, its video feed opening in a window on one of his monitors. He could see a view of their vehicle from above, along with all of the terrain around it, Ben gripping a joystick as he began to fly it ahead of them. These dunes went on for miles, he’d have to keep the drone up until its battery ran out, and then swap to another. It didn’t take long for him to start plotting a safe course, feeding the navigation data to Mizi’s console.

Take it slow, Mizi,” he warned as she began to accelerate. “It’s hard to get a Wolf stuck, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. This sand is loose, you’re gonna be sliding a lot.”

Got it, Commander,” she replied as she drove them forwards.

Lozka,” he continued, getting the reluctant Araxie’s attention. “From now on, you’re our lookout. Get on the gun and keep watch for anything out of place. If you see anything, no matter how mundane it seems, let me know about it.”

She nodded, gripping her joystick as she turned her emerald eyes to the feed from the blister that was mounted on the roof. Ben had been a little apprehensive about serving with two aliens, but at least they were obedient, he’d give them that.

***

They drove through the dunes for hours, each one punctuated by a slow climb, and then a more rapid descent that made Ben’s stomach lurch. He fed data back to the main formation all the while, informing them of potential hazards, and letting them know the safest way through the ocean of sand.

The Borealans hadn’t been romanticizing it when they had referred to it that way. The dunes were almost like waves running in slow motion, constantly shifting in the wind, changing the topography day by day. What had been a safe route one day would not be the next, he needed to keep that in mind when he reported back to the column.

Lozka hadn’t picked up anything so far, and he hadn’t seen anything in the dunes beside sand. The uninterrupted expanse of yellow was starting to give him a kind of snow-blindness. As he glanced at the seismic sensor on his display, usually used to check for tunneling Bugs, he noticed an anomalous blip.

Hold up,” he said, his two companions glancing at him. “Got something here, not sure what it is.”

What do you see?” Lozka asked, Mizi slowing their advance as she waited for further instructions.

Not sure, there’s something tripping the seismic sensor. It’s not that big, but it’s fairly close, maybe a hundred meters at forty degrees. Lozka, you seeing anything on the feed?”

Forty degrees?” she asked, confused.

North-West of us,” Ben elaborated. “The magnetic poles on this planet are a bit fucky, but you have a digital compass on your display. It’s that numbered circle there.”

Oh,” she muttered, turning the turret’s cameras in that direction. She grumbled after staring at the monitor for a moment, seeming frustrated by something, then she released her hold on the joystick. Ben watched as she reached up to open the hatch, sticking her upper body out of the cab to get a look with her organics.

I see a disturbance in the sand,” she said, “it looks as though something is buried there.”

Guess we’d better take a look,” he said, giving Mizi a nod as she turned to glance back at him. “It can’t be a mine or an IED or anything like that, or it wouldn’t be moving around and tripping the sensor. Get a little closer, maybe twenty meters, let’s see if we can figure this thing out.”

Mizi edged the truck towards it, Lozka peering out of the hatch as they approached. Ben took control of the blister, sighting a mound in the sand on one of the dunes. It had recently been disturbed, he could make out where the particles had cascaded down the slope. Through the feed, he watched it shift. There was something alive under there...

Roll us a little nearer,” he said. “Go slow, let’s see if it reacts to our presence.”

Mizi maneuvered the truck closer, bringing one of its front tires to within a few feet the shifting mound. Ben couldn’t get a look at it with the camera feed from the blister anymore, the angle was too low, so he switched to the driver’s wrap-around view. There was a sudden flurry of movement that hurled a cloud of sand into the air, partially obscuring the cameras as something shot out of the dune. It moved so fast that he could scarcely get a look at it, all he could see were flailing, insect-like legs. Lozka slammed her hatch shut in alarm, Mizi yelping in surprise. As the dust cleared, they were treated to a grotesque sight.

Clinging to the wheel was some kind of alien critter, probably about the size of a large dog. Its bulbous body was split into segments like a spider, with a fat, fleshy abdomen towards its rear. It had way too many legs, Ben would have guessed ten at a glance, maybe a dozen. Its segmented limbs were covered in long hairs, while its body had a wiry covering that almost looked like coarse fur. Where one would have expected its head to be, there was a trio of giant, hooked pincers arranged in a triangle pattern that were digging into the polymer of the tire. It was biting and twisting, perhaps mistaking the rubbery material for flesh. Its body was colored to match the sand that it had been burrowing in, save for a pair of black, beady eyes situated just above its muscular jaws.

What the fuck!” Ben exclaimed, recoiling in horror as the forward cameras gave him a far closer view than he would have liked.

W-what should I do?” Mizi asked, gripping the steering wheel tightly. “I can’t reverse, I could hurt it!”

Who cares about hurting it?” Ben demanded. “Firstly, it’s trying to chew the tire off our Wolf. Secondly, it’s the ugliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen!”

We are intruders in its territory,” Mizi shot back, the color panels on her suit flashing a distinctly angry shade of red as she turned to glare at him. “It would be unacceptable to intentionally cause this creature harm.”

It must cover itself with sand, then wait to ambush passing prey,” Lozka mused as she watched the feed. “I wonder what there is to prey on all the way out here? We have come across no plants or animals thus far.”

As much as I’m fascinated by desert ecology,” Ben complained, “the more pressing issue is how we’re going to get this fucking thing off the wheel. If Mizi won’t squash it, then we need to find a way to pry it off. Any volunteers to go out there and give it a little encouragement with one of the shovels?”

Wait,” Mizi said, gesturing to her video feed. “Look, it’s letting go.”

The horrible thing released the tire from its serrated jaws, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t alive. After a momentary pause, its spindly legs whirred into action again, the spider shooting beneath the Timberwolf and out of view far faster than anything of that size should have been able to move.

Now what’s it doing?” Ben wondered, checking the different feeds from the cameras that were spaced out around the hull. There was no sign of the thing now.

Perhaps it seeks the shade beneath our vehicle?” Lozka suggested. “We forced it to uncover itself, after all. It may be nocturnal, I can certainly sympathize.”

Mizi, will you just run the fucker over?” Ben complained.

Are you ordering me to kill the animal, Commander?” she asked.

No,” he sighed after a momentary pause. He couldn’t make her squash the thing, he didn’t want to spend the rest of the mission sharing a vehicle with a pissed off Valbaran. Besides, she might have cultural or religious reasons for objecting. “I’d order you out there to dislodge the thing since you seem to care about its welfare so much, but I’m pretty sure it’s big enough to eat you.”

We must reach consensus and formulate a plan,” she insisted, turning to face them as she leaned over the back of her chair. “What do you propose, Lozka?”

Me?” the Araxie asked, glancing between the two. “I would attempt to lure the beast out from beneath the vehicle by baiting it with something. It appears to be attracted to movement. If it hides itself in the sand, perhaps the creature senses disturbances upon its surface.”

Commander?” Mizi continued.

I’d go out there and poke it with a stick.”

I would have suggested frightening it with a loud sound, but Lozka’s idea is the best. On my planet, we have a beast called a Teth’rak that will attack anything that enters its territory, including flocks and vehicles. We try to draw them away using lures that mimic the scent of their urine, making them believe that their hunting grounds are being claimed by another. Perhaps this animal is similar. Is everyone in agreement with Lozka’s plan?”

Uh, sure,” Ben replied with a shrug. Was this how the Valbarans made every decision? He felt like they were huddling before a football game.

I concur,” Lozka added, seeming pleased that her idea had been chosen.

We need a plan of action,” the little alien continued. “What shall we throw?”

It must be something of sufficient weight to disturb the sand,” Lozka said.

What about an MRE?” Ben suggested. “We can spare one of those. Lozka can pop the hatch and toss it near the truck, then Mizi can gun it and get us clear before the little bastard can scurry back under.”

The Valbaran nodded her head, her panels flashing a shade of pleased green.

Alright,” Ben said, clapping his hands together. “Let’s do it.”

He climbed out of his seat and made his way into the bay, retrieving an MRE packet from one the storage shelves, pulling it out from behind its protective netting. It was a flexible, plastic packet colored in Navy blue, weighing a couple of pounds. He tossed it to Lozka, who adjusted her protective goggles before opening the hatch, her upper body rising out of the vehicle. Ben hurried back to his seat, watching on the video feed as it landed a short distance away, creating a splash in the sand.

As quick as a flash, the little monster darted out from the shadow of the vehicle, setting upon the ration pack with the same fury that it had their tire. Its trio of sharp mandibles tore into the plastic packaging, its legs sending sand spraying as it flung the contents all over the place.

Mizi put her foot down, the Timberwolf’s engine rumbling as it pulled away. Ben watched the critter from the rear camera, it was completely occupied with tearing up the plastic wrapper. It was a small, inconsequential victory, but it made him feel a lot better about his crew. They had worked well together.

Nice job, guys,” he said. “One problem at a time.”

CHAPTER 4: CONTACT

Korbaz gazed out of the slatted window of the conning tower, her furry hands clasped behind her back as she watched the windblown sand tear at the deck of the Wildfire. The command crawler was a little more luxurious than the battleship that she had previously toured. The majority of its deck was taken up by hab modules that practically formed a small settlement atop the vehicle, providing housing for her and her crew. There were barracks, officer’s quarters, even a small banquet hall where they could dine. The Matriarch had spared no expense when it came to ensuring that the lead vehicle was befitting of an Admiral’s station. The crawler was protected by four CIWS guns, their machine intelligence always scanning for threats, along with a few smaller defensive guns.

The storm was in full swing now, she could scarcely see beyond the limits of the crawler, the air filled with an orange haze. She could just make out the shadow of the two crawlers that were flanking them, the glow from their windows and floodlights barely making it through the swirling sand. They were rolling out in formation, the East Gate a good few hours behind them now.

The control room was similar to that of the Landslide, albeit with more comms equipment. There was a driver at the forward controls by the window, watching a monitor that showed camera feeds from the front of the vehicle, its mammoth treads churning up the dunes. There was a comms operator sitting at their own console, along with a Crewmaster, and a few other attendants. Much of the conning tower’s floor space was taken up by a large tactical map that had been salvaged from an old UNN derelict. It was shaped like a table, its surface covered in projectors that would create a holographic image of their surroundings, along with icons for friendly and enemy contacts. At its head was a lavish, padded chair, serving as Korbaz’s throne.

She made her way back over to it, sinking into the plush leather, an attendant walking over to offer her a drink. After waving him away, she leaned forward to tap at a touch screen that was embedded in the table, finding it awkward to manage with her sharp claws. The humans had not designed this technology with her people in mind, so she had to use her pads, and be careful not to scratch the glass.

The orange hologram flickered to life, showing a grainy representation of the desert that surrounded them, along with the nearby vehicles. She could see all six crawlers, as well as a couple of scout vehicles that had been deployed ahead of the fleet. Vitza had hooked the system up to the radar bulb, giving her a real-time feed. The Chief Engineer was a wizard when it came to alien technology. Korbaz could read the English text, and navigate the menus, but that was about as far as her expertise went.

Another crew member approached her seat from the right, Korbaz keeping her eyes fixed on the hologram as he started to speak.

Admiral,” he began, lowering his gaze to the carpet. “Our spies in Elysia have reported that the Coalition battalion has begun its journey across the dune sea. They number more than a hundred vehicles, and they are led by a machine of immense size that none of our contacts had ever seen before.”

We knew going into this conflict that we would be outnumbered and outgunned,” Korbaz replied, picking at her sharp teeth with one of her claws as she examined the readout. “It changes nothing. The element of surprise is still on our side, and we have the cover of the storm. Are we in contact with any of our raiding parties? What about the group out near the Araxie territory?”

Aye, Admiral,” he replied. “We have sporadic radio contact with them, enough to transmit new orders. The storm is interfering with our long-range comms.”

Order them to divert,” she said as she leaned back into her chair, the leather creaking. “I want them to intercept the aliens. They can reach them sooner than us. It will both slow the Coalition’s advance, and perhaps dupe them into believing that our forces are far weaker and more poorly equipped than they truly are. It may give them a complacency in future engagements that would cost them dearly.”

Aye, Admiral.” “Warn them to strike and fade,” she added. “Favor soft targets, do not engage the main formation. There is little they can do besides pester them like sand fleas, it is not worth their lives if they can keep them.”

It will be as you command, Admiral.”

Crewmaster!” Korbaz snapped, her attendant bowing out as his superior made his way over to her side. He was dressed in the usual style, his purple sash, and his leather jacket adorned with accolades and decorative gold. He had a disfiguring scar on his cheek that she found rather attractive. Borealans healed quickly, but this wound had gone deep, likely a product of a bayonet rather than another Rask’s claws. She hadn’t assembled a new pack yet, she was too tired from her journey for bouts, but perhaps she would have him later.

At your service, Admiral,” he replied as he stood to attention.

What is your name?” she asked.

Crewmaster Lortz, Admiral,” he replied.

Take command for a while,” she muttered with a dismissive wave of her hand.Send someone to fetch me if anything should happen. I must rest, my journey has been long and arduous.”

As you wish, Admiral,” he replied. “Do you require anything? Food? Wine? Perhaps a consort?”

No,” she said, rising to her feet. “A bed will suffice for now.”

The Crewmaster took over as she made her way to the ladder, taking her previous place at the window. Just like on the battleship, the conning tower was fashioned from another modular prefab that had been placed atop of the first. Most of the buildings on the deck were all joined together, letting the crew travel the length of the crawler without being exposed to the elements. She could still hear the sand hammering on the exterior, it was like being inside a giant rainstick.

The prefabs were so much more spacious than any vessel that she had traveled on before. She could hold her head high, she didn’t brush both walls when she extended her arms. As the Matriarch was wont to do, she had furnished everything lavishly, it was as much luxury as one could find outside of the palace walls. The floor was always carpeted in regal purple, and the walls were adorned with traditional drapes and curtains, the warm lighting creating a very mellow atmosphere. The furniture was all wood and leather, and the pantries were well stocked with fine meats and delicacies from the territory that she had sorely missed during her time away.

The rewards for carrying the Matriarch’s favor were numerous indeed.

The crew greeted her by bowing their heads nervously as she passed, clearing the way as she strode through the complex. It felt good to be respected again, to be shown the proper courtesies. The humans on their lauded space station didn’t understand the meaning of those words, and despite their insistence to the contrary, her authority meant nothing to them. Even Korbaz’s remarkable patience was often strained by her interactions with the station’s personnel. Still, she would miss the Security Chief, if nothing else. His stubbornness had taught her that even a Vice Admiral of the Rask cannot get everything that she wants, a valuable lesson, to be sure

She arrived at the door that led to her personal prefab, the panel sliding open automatically at her approach. It was about the same size as her suite had been back on the station, a little small by an Admiral’s standards. But considering that she had almost an entire building to herself, she couldn’t complain. It was furnished much like the Matriarch’s audience chamber, all flowing drapes, and soft cushions. The bed was a nest of luxuriant fabrics and pillows, large enough to accommodate a whole pack of five or six. There was a bathroom with a shower cubicle separated behind a dividing wall, and she made a beeline for it, eager to wash off the day’s sweat and sand.

Korbaz began to remove the collection of holsters and belts from around her waist, tossing her heavy jacket onto the bed as she passed by it. She pulled off her sweat-stained tank top, then paused to tug off her tight pants, dancing on the spot as she dragged them past her muscular thighs.

She stepped into the cubicle, reveling in the feeling of the cool water carrying the sweat and dust from her tanned skin, using her furry hands like makeshift loofahs. She matted her palms with soap, then slid them across her muscular body, combing her clawed fingers through her hair.

Everything had happened so quickly. One minute, she had been relaxing in her suite on the Pinwheel, planning for the next Security Council meeting. The next, she had been hand-picked by the Matriarch herself to command a fleet against a vastly superior force. Things had been moving along at such a breakneck pace that she had scarcely had time to process it yet.

She leaned against the wall, feeling the cool metal against her back, letting the water carry away the suds. The Matriarch had entrusted her with winning a war that could not be won through conventional means. Crushing their enemies would not earn them victory when the humans could be endlessly resupplied, their dead replaced by the millions. There weren’t enough bullets in the whole world to kill every human who could be sent to Borealis. It would have to be a war of attrition, a war that would make the aliens fear the desert such that they would never dare enter it again, no matter what it cost them. Korbaz had never doubted herself before, she had never doubted the wisdom of the Matriarch, but she now found herself second-guessing her. The mere idea of questioning her sent a pang of fear straight through her heart, as though the Matriarch could somehow know her thoughts, sense her doubt.

Contrary to what the humans often assumed after seeing Borealans interact, to submit to one’s Alpha was not merely a product of fear, it was not compelled only through the threat of violence. An Alpha was a protector, a provider, someone with the strength and wisdom to lead. An Alpha who met those criteria was beloved by their pack, obeyed without question, while one that failed in their responsibilities never kept their position for long. The Matriarch was the Alpha of Alphas, the highest authority in Borealan society. She was entrusted with the welfare and protection of all Rask, but did this war really benefit her people? Yes, the spoils would be beyond imagining if they should accomplish their goal, and Korbaz certainly thought that it was possible. They would enter a new age of prosperity and freedom. Yet, the price of failure was potentially even greater.

She lifted her face into the stream of water from the showerhead, trying to clear her mind. Perhaps she was merely tired from her journey. Her mood would improve after a good few hours of sleep and a hot meal to fill her belly. Maybe she would invite the Crewmaster to her quarters once she regained her vitality, a little recreational packmaking would do her good. She had spent so much time restraining herself around her fragile human colleagues, she would relish the feeling of drawing blood again.

***

Mizi,” Ben said, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “I got what looks like an oasis due North of us. We’ve been driving for a long time, let’s pull over and stretch our legs, get some fresh air. This damned cab is like an oven.”

I think it’s rather comfortable,” she replied, keeping her eyes on the dunes ahead of them. “It’s not too much warmer than my home planet.”

Yeah, well you have your suit to keep you moist,” he complained.

Why not turn up the climate control?” she suggested. “The vehicle can even be completely pressurized for operation in hostile environments if need be. It has humidity control, temperature, air pressure.

Yeah, I know, you don’t need to quote the manual to me. If we turn up the thermostat, it’s only going to drain the fuel cells faster and reduce our range. The system is struggling with the heat as it is. Better to just take a break every now and then.”

If you say so,” she replied, changing course.

The heat does not disturb me,” Lozka added, “but the jungles of Araxie are far more humid. It would not do to let my fur dry out. If the Commander will allow it, I believe that more humidity would benefit us both.”

And it’ll make me stew in my own juices,” Ben grumbled.

In a Valbara’nay flock, it would be decided by majority,” Mizi said.

Well, we’re not in a flock or a pack,” Ben replied sternly. “You’re Coalition auxiliaries, and you’re expected to follow my orders.”

They both went silent, and he began to regret being so terse with them. The heat was getting to him, making him impatient, irritable.

Oh, alright,” he conceded. “You can turn up the humidity, but not too much, you hear? If I end up making the whole cab smell like jockstrap, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Jockstrap?” Mizi asked, Lozka shrugging her shoulders.

They weaved through the desert for a few minutes more, the oasis eventually coming into sight. It was a small body of water that was cradled between the dunes, hidden from view on all sides by the towering formations of sand, only visible by drone. It had likely been formed by ancient groundwater that had welled up from subterranean lakes or aquifers, its borders clearly defined by a ring of greenery, probably borne of seeds that had been carried here by migrating birds. There were plants that resembled ferns, fleshy cacti, and trees with wide branches that cast their shade over its shores. It made for a perfect rest stop.

Mizi pulled up just short of the foliage, turning the engine off, the sudden absence of its pervasive noise and vibration filling Ben with a sense of relief.

I’m gonna keep a drone up,” he said, climbing out of his seat. “It’ll warn us if anyone approaches.”

He slid into the bay and made for the weapon rack, picking out an XMH, and strapping the handgun to his hip. Mizi followed him out, cocking her head curiously as she noticed the weapon.

Are you expecting danger?” she asked, Lozka peering into the bay from the cab to listen in.

Nah,” he replied, “but I don’t want to be known as the guy who got his cock bitten off by a sand spider while he was taking a piss. Come on, let’s go.”

The troop ramp opened with a pneumatic hiss, a wall of hot, dry air making its way inside. Ben recoiled, even Mizi seeming to react to the heat, her panels flashing purple.

Okay, I take back what I said about the climate control,” he muttered. “It’s doing a pretty good job.”

They descended the ramp, Ben shielding his eyes from the twin suns, waiting for his vision to adjust after staring at a monitor for the better part of a day. He could have worn his helmet and tinted the visor, but that defeated the purpose of getting fresh air. Mizi didn’t seem too bothered by it, but Lozka made sure to affix her protective goggles before even going near the ramp. She emerged with her camouflaged cloak slung over her shoulder, testing the sand tentatively before putting her paws on it, Ben giving her a quizzical look.

What’s with the cape?” he asked. “I don’t think that’s going to provide much cover if someone comes across us, there aren’t many bushes in the middle of the desert.”

I know,” she replied cryptically, striding ahead of him on her long legs. He and Mizi followed after her, soon arriving beneath the shade of one of the parasol-like trees. Leaving direct sunlight was immediately relieving, and there was somewhat of a breeze blowing in from the West. When he glanced in that direction, he saw the ominous sandstorm darkening the sky. It was creeping ever closer.

Ben sauntered over to the edge of the water, careful to stay beneath the shadow of the tree. The shimmering pool was crystal clear, as blue as the sky, so pristine that it almost looked out of place. There was nothing but burning sand for miles, yet here was a tiny, isolated patch of vibrant nature that was clinging tenaciously to life.

He looked around to see where Lozka had gotten to, finding her sitting by the shore with her paws dangling in the water, her cape draped across her lap. She was plucking the leaves from it, tossing them idly into the water. Why on Earth would she want to take apart her cloak?

Mizi bobbed over to join him, locking the joints in her legs and exhaling a relieved sigh.

Oh, this gravity is so oppressive,” she grumbled. “It feels like my muscles are on fire.”

She reached up, gripping her helmet in her gloved hands. Was she actually going to remove it? She had kept the thing on this whole time, and Ben was more than a little curious to see what she was hiding underneath it.

As Mizi lifted it off, he was surprised to see that the two dangling tubes that protruded from the back of her skull were covering a pair of fleshy tendrils. She slipped off the helmet and shook them out, the appendages flexing. They reminded him of tentacles, or perhaps two extra tails that were sprouting out of her head. They extended outwards to either side of her skull, angled slightly down, Ben recoiling in alarm as an explosion of color erupted forth.

They were sheaths, opening up almost like hot dog buns to reveal pink, moist membranes that were protecting the vibrant plumage within. The colorful feathers stood erect, forming a kind of headdress that framed her skull, bringing to mind images of a Brazilian carnival. They were layered, the ones on top shifting to expose different hues, creating a mesmerizing display that transfixed him for a moment.

She was only stretching them, the peacock-like plumes folding back down into their sheaths, Mizi peering up at his awed expression.

Never seen a Val’ba’ra’nay’s feathers before?” she asked. “It’s how we display emotion, amongst other things...”

Do they...fold down into those fleshy tubes?” he asked, beginning to circle the little alien as he examined them. It was probably rude, but he couldn’t help himself.

Those are my sheaths,” she explained. “They protect my feathers when they’re stowed. Just try not to be directly above me too much, emotional displays are often involuntary.”

So that’s why you had these color panels on your suit,” he mused, examining her outfit more closely. “It’s so that you can signal to each other in a vacuum. Are there more feathers on your wrists?”

That’s right,” she replied, beginning to disconnect the seal on her glove. It popped off, revealing her green hide, her three fingers each tipped with a dull claw. She rolled her sleeve up, exposing what looked like a scaly vine that had wound itself around her forearm. It flexed, uncoiling itself, opening up to reveal another fan of multicolored feathers. They folded back down again, the appendage creeping towards Ben’s belt like an eel. Mizi wrapped it around his canteen, plucking the metal container from his hip and handing it to him, Ben raising his eyebrows.

These are prehensile,” she explained, her scaly lips pulling back in a grin.

Guess you learn something new every day,” he muttered as she put her glove back on. “Looks like you won’t be needing my help next time you need to reach something on a high shelf.”

Lozka had been watching from her seat beside the pool, but as he glanced in her direction, she resumed her work on her cloak. She wasn’t just removing the leaf-shaped pieces of fabric from it, she was replacing them, reaching out to pluck pieces of the surrounding foliage from nearby plants. From one of her many pouches, she had withdrawn a small sewing kit, attaching the colorful flowers and fleshy leaves to the mesh with a needle and thread. So that was her plan, she was adapting her camouflage to the local environment.

Ben felt his stomach rumble, peering back over his shoulder at the Timberwolf.

You guys hungry?” he asked. “I’m gonna get an MRE.”

I could eat,” Mizi replied, her oddly human mannerisms and the obviously mimicked Southern accent that she had used for that phrase making him chuckle.

What about you, Lozka?” he called out. She replied with a nod, so he returned to the truck, fishing out some appropriate MREs from their supplies. When he reemerged from the bay, he was carrying three packets in his arms. There was a standard UNN MRE for humans in Navy blue, a Borealan MRE that was at least three times its weight, and a Valbaran MRE in some kind of silver foil that was covered in alien lettering.

Lozka made her way back over to the tree, and he handed them out, the trio sitting in the shade as they started on their meals. Ben opened up his packet and began to spread its contents on the sand, the two aliens watching curiously. The main course was labeled chicken burrito, not bad. It even came with a cardboard sleeve so that he could hold it without burning his hands. There were also tortillas, a cinnamon bun, a tube of Jarry juice, and a chocolate bar. For drinks, he had a powder that could be rehydrated into a fruit punch, and a packet of instant coffee. There was a small accessory pack that contained gum, salt, sugar, toilet paper, the usual.

He began to cook the burrito with his flameless ration heater, starting on the tube of Jarry juice as steam began to rise from the packet. Nobody was really sure how the stuff was made, as it was a product of the Jarilans, insectoid aliens who had recently joined the Coalition. It tasted great, though, and it gave one an immediate energy boost. It was like a sweet, syrupy energy drink that came out of the tube with the consistency of honey.

Lozka ripped open her own larger MRE with her claws, upending its contents onto the ground. These were about ten thousand calories apiece, designed to feed a Borealan for one twenty-four hour period. The aliens needed to consume an enormous quantity of food to fuel their massive bodies. The menu was probably designed with Elysians in mind, but Ben didn’t imagine that there would be anything she couldn’t eat.

She sifted through the individual packets, reading off the contents through her tinted goggles. The first one that she elected to open contained large strips of dried meat, almost like a giant piece of beef jerky. She sniffed it tentatively, her ears pricking up at the scent. Her first cautious bite was followed by a second, larger one. It seemed that the menu was to her liking.

He turned his attention to Mizi’s small MRE, the alien opening her resealable packet with a lot more care. She fished inside it for a moment, then withdrew what looked like a candy bar of some kind that was wrapped in the same silver foil. She peeled it away to reveal something that more resembled a protein bar, starting to bite into it with her tiny, sharp teeth.

What is that?” he asked, gesturing to the bar.

Protein,” she replied.

Protein from what?”

Insects.”

Oh, gross,” he muttered as he recoiled.

What’s the matter?” Mizi laughed, her headdress flashing a display of yellow feathers that might indicate glee or surprise. “Don’t humans farm insects for food?”

No,” he shot back, taking another drink from his tube of Jarry juice. “That’s disgusting.”

My people don’t eat a lot of animal meat,” she added, tearing off another chunk of the chewy bar. “We cull the Gue’tra herds on a mostly seasonal basis, so we only really eat a lot of meat once per year. The rest of the time, we’re eating mostly insect protein or fish from the hydroponic farms.”

Don’t you farm animals for food?” Ben asked, his brow furrowing. “How do you feed a whole planet on just bugs and fish?”

With a lot of careful planning,” she replied, waving the bar at him. “We eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, too, usually grown in the same farms as the fish. It’s all done within the city walls, we tend to let nature run its course beyond them.”

So, you guys are big into nature?” he asked as he leaned over to check on the progress of his burrito. “That’s why you didn’t want to squash the sand spider earlier?”

We try to maintain balance with the nature that surrounds us,” she replied with a nod. “We share our planet with other organisms that have as much a right to be there as we do, after all. As the more intelligent and capable party, it falls upon us to minimize our conflict with them. We strive to live sustainably, to limit our impact on our environment.

But if I offered you a big, juicy piece of Franklin steak, you’d turn it down?”

No,” she chuckled, “we don’t object to eating meat as a concept. We only go without to preserve the ecology of our planet.”

I don’t know if Franklin counts,” he added. “I think we ruined the native ecology of that planet decades ago by raising half a billion head of cattle there. The whole colony is just endless grassland as far as the eye can see.”

Humans expand quickly,” she said as she finished off her bar, stowing the wrapper back in the MRE container. “Often at the expense of the local ecology. But for me to complain would be hypocritical. My people only survive because of that rapid expansion. Were it not for the UNN, Val’ba’ra would have been utterly eradicated by a Betelgeusian hive fleet, just as our first colony world was.”

One of your colonies was eradicated?” Lozka asked, joining their conversation.

Yes,” Mizi replied solemnly. “It was known as Ker’gue’la, it was the first planet that we colonized after discovering superlight travel. It was a garden world, a beautiful place, and it would have become a second home to my species in time. Around thirty rotations ago, a Hive fleet enacted a genocide against the Val’ba’ra’nay living there, wiping them out to a flock. Millions died in a matter of days, it was a tragedy. It was before my birth, but it remains an understandably important part of our culture.”

My condolences,” Lozka said with a bow of her head. “I cannot imagine the pain of losing so many so quickly.”

The same would have happened to my homeworld, but as fate would have it, the humans stumbled upon our system while they were hunting Betelgeusians. With their help, we were able to repel the subsequent invasion. Now, here I am,” she added as she gestured to their strange surroundings. “I’m fighting a war that my people have no stake in, on a planet that’s of no consequence to Val’ba’ra, for a cause that I do not understand. But any Val’ba’ra’nay would face down a Teth’rak if it meant repaying that debt,” she added with a flash of red feathers.

I read the stories about the battle of Valbara,” Ben said as he started on his burrito. “That was one hell of a job they pulled off. A single jump carrier and its support fleet coordinating the defense of an entire planet? Hardcore.”

Then, the humans saved your people?” Lozka asked. She sounded oddly surprised. Ben couldn’t see her eyes behind her goggles, but her ears were swiveling to track the two of them.

Mizi nodded in reply.

You should not be so quick to praise their expansion,” Lozka added, the Valbaran glancing at Ben. “It is partly their fault that the Rask became so powerful to begin with. We Araxie lived hidden within the depths of our jungles for generations. Other territories sent expeditions, raiding parties, but we repelled them easily. We were as ghosts to them, little more than myths. But a few years ago, the humans began supplying our enemies with advanced weapons and technology, which resulted in the Rask launching more and more costly incursions into our home. Eventually, we had little choice but to call upon the Coalition for aid or face extinction at the hands of one of its members.”

The Rask were breaking the terms of their agreements with the Coalition in secret,” Ben said, correcting her. “And, if you hadn’t noticed, we’re currently at war with them. I don’t know anything about Borealan geopolitics, but I do know that our guys are putting their asses on the line to stop the Rask. We’ve got three whole mechanized companies on their way to reinforce the Araxie.

I do not harbor any resentment, Commander,” she explained calmly.Do not misunderstand. My people have been in conflict with the Rask going back to the founding of the great territories. I have led many skirmishes against them, nourishing the jungle soils with their dead. I was there when the first humans arrived in my territory, when the Patriarch made the decision to join the Coalition.”

She took another bite of her jerked meat, pausing to chew for a moment.

We would have been forced to deal with the Rask threat eventually,” she continued, “to put a stop to their raids for good. In a way, I am glad for this war. I will see their end within my lifetime, I can participate in this campaign myself. Perhaps now, our future litters will be raised without fear.”

Ben didn’t really know how to respond, taking another bite of his burrito as he and Mizi shared an awkward glance.

***

It didn’t take them long to finish their meals, and as soon as Lozka was done eating, she made her way over to the water. Ben and Mizi watched as she began to strip off her chest rig, setting it down on the sand at the shore, along with her cloak. She started to wade into the oasis, removing the belts from around her hips and tossing them on top of the pile. Now, she was only wearing a leather sling that resembled a tube top, and her tight shorts.

Ben couldn’t help but play his eyes over her figure as she proceeded deeper, the alien keeping her back to him, the waterline just reaching her stout thighs. Her covering of black, velvet fur reflected the sunlight, helping to pick out the contours of the sinewy muscles in her back and shoulders. From a distance, she more resembled a woman with an impossibly dark complexion, her coat easily mistaken for wet skin. He watched her shapely rear move beneath her clinging shorts as she began to let herself sink, the water rising to cover the twin dimples just above where her tail joined to her body.

She began to bathe, cupping the water in her palms and spreading it across her silky fur. As she ran her hands across her flat, toned belly, she turned a little to inadvertently give him a better view of her in profile. Her breasts were larger than Ben had ever seen on a human, albeit smaller than those of the other Borealans, wrapped tightly in her leather sling. The muscles in her abdomen cut channels down her torso, her shifting six-pack clearly defined under the twin suns, like a Greek statue chiseled from a block of solid onyx. His eyes wandered down to her navel, the beginnings of her hip bones just visible above the water’s reflective surface.

Why are you watching her so intently?” Mizi asked innocently as she sidled up beside him, Ben realizing that he also had an audience.

I’ve just...never seen any other Araxie,” he replied, a half-truth.

Is it true what she said earlier, about the Coalition causing problems for her people?” she asked as her headdress erupted in a shade of purple that came across as worried to Ben.

In a way,” he replied, peeling his eyes away from Lozka’s glistening form. “Borealis is right on the border of Coalition space, and if a Bug fleet were to come across it, they would be utterly overrun. The Borealans weren’t capable of spaceflight when we made first contact, their most advanced weapons were black powder rifles. Elysia especially was eager to join the Coalition, so what could we say to them? The case can be made for letting primitive species develop at their own pace, for not changing the course of their history by interfering, sure. Many people hold that to be true, and maybe the Bugs would never happen upon the planet anyway. But what if that species is under direct threat, and you alone have the power to save them? Imagine if that UNN fleet had come across Valbara, and the Captain had decided not to intervene because interfering in your development would be wrong?”

I think I understand,” Mizi replied, her tone somewhat relieved. “You’re trying to help, but the situation on this planet is more complicated than it is on mine. They are not united as a species.”

I’m not saying we couldn’t have done better,” he added, glancing out at Lozka again as she washed her flexible tail. “Trusting the Rask was definitely a bad decision.”

Maybe we can make things better,” Mizi said.

Lozka soon emerged from the pool, striding up onto the beach gracefully, her sinewy body dripping with water. Ben wondered if she was going to dry herself off in the sun, but he was amused to see her shake herself like a wet cat before picking up her clothing. She wasn’t entirely dry, her fur still looked damp, and her shorts and sling were still soaked through. It seemed that being dry wasn’t the goal. She had mentioned not wanting her fur to dry out earlier, so perhaps there was a reason to keep it moist.

She made her way back over to them, her newly decorated cloak slung over her shoulder, and Ben took that as their cue to leave.

Alright, time to get back to work,” he said as he struggled to his feet in the high gravity. “Don’t leave any trash behind, you’ll upset Mizi’s sensibilities, as well as alerting anyone who stops here to our presence.”

They collected up what was left of their respective meals, then headed back to the Timberwolf. Ben tossed his gear inside, then emerged again, stopping in front of Lozka as she cocked her head at him curiously.

You adapt your cape to whatever environment you happen to be in, right?” he asked.

Lozka seemed confused as to why she was being asked about it right now, but she nodded her head.

My people use foliage and plant matter to blend our camouflage with our surroundings. It helps us remain hidden while we stalk our enemies.”

There aren’t many oases in the desert, though,” he added. “What would you do if you got caught out in the open?” She didn’t reply, so he gestured for her to wait, returning to the vehicle. When he emerged again, he was carrying a bundle of fabric in his arms. It was camouflaged in desert tones, made up of interwoven strips of fabric not unlike her cloak.

This is the camouflaged netting that we throw over the vehicles and tents when we make camp,” he explained, unfurling some of it to show her. “It’s the same logic as your cape, basically, makes us harder to spot from a distance. If you wanted, you could cut off a cloak-sized piece and wear it, we don’t need all of it. Hell, Mizi’s tent would be so small that we probably won’t even use half of this piece.

Lozka took it from him, turning it over in her hands. Her ears twitched, her tail starting to whip back and forth. Was that a sign of happiness?

Thank you, Commander.”

No problem,” he replied.

***

Nightfall had arrived, the stars just starting to twinkle in the moonless sky, and the temperature had begun to plummet like a rock. They had turned the heating up in the Timberwolf enough to keep them warm, but Ben was starting to worry about the fuel cells. Since leaving the oasis, they had encountered nothing of interest, just more miles of rolling dunes.

He was beginning to get tired, his eyes drooping as he watched the readout from his sensor suite. As he glanced at the feed from the drone that was hovering overhead, he noticed something strange. There were tracks in the sand, a furrow that almost looked like an object had been dragged along, winding its way between the dunes. Could it be another native animal? A giant snake to go with the horrible spiders?

What do you make of this, Lozka?” he asked as he swiped the window to her monitor. She examined it, her ears twitching.

Those are tracks,” she replied, her eyes narrowing. “Not from an animal, likely a sand skiff.”

Evidence of Rask?” he asked, concern creeping into his voice.

Not necessarily,” she said, “but we should be wary.”

What are the capabilities of a sand skiff?” Ben continued, angling the drone’s camera as he searched the horizon. “Does it pose a threat?”

It is a small one or two-man craft usually used for scouting,” Lozka explained. “They are powered by wind, very fast, but lightly armed.”

Not faster than a Timberwolf,” Mizi chuckled.

Get on the FLIR, Lozka,” Ben added. “The sand is cooling quickly, if there’s anything warm out there, it should stand out like a sore thumb. Do not engage until we can ascertain who the skiff belongs to.”

Yes, Commander,” she replied as she began to manipulate the turret.

Hold up, hold up,” Ben exclaimed. “I got something on the drone. Check this out.”

His two companions switched to the drone’s view, watching as a small object blazed towards them, seen from too high an altitude to make out much detail. It did indeed look like a little vehicle with a sail. It crested a dune effortlessly, using the incline to gain more speed as it raced down the slope.

It’s coming this way,” Ben muttered. “Don’t panic. If it’s Rask, they don’t have any weapons that can scratch a Wolf.”

I cannot see it yet,” Lozka grumbled, returning her view to the turret’s cameras.

Whoa!’ Ben gasped. “What the fuck? I just lost the feed from the drone, it’s gone dark. Connection is shot.”

Is it a malfunction?” Mizi asked, her eyes focused on the path ahead.

The systems all read normal a second ago,” he replied, scratching his head.

Could they have shot it down?” Lozka suggested.

From that altitude, while moving that fast?” Ben scoffed. “Doesn’t seem likely.”

Do not underestimate the Rask,” Lozka hissed, “violence is their way of life.”

Whoever it is, they’ll be coming up on us soon,” Ben said as he adjusted his weight in his seat. He checked his harness, making sure that it was secure. “Battle stations. Be ready. Mizi, get us higher, I want to get a good view of this thing before it’s on top of us.”

Engaging six-wheel drive,” she replied, shifting gears and making a left turn. The thick tires dug into the soft sand, dragging the twenty-five-ton vehicle up one of the larger dunes. As they reached the crest, she locked the wheels, Lozka swiveling the turret as she searched for their target.

There!” she snarled, her camera sighting the approaching craft. She zoomed in, switching from FLIR to video, revealing the alien vehicle. It looked much like a canoe, its wooden hull swooping, and aerodynamic. It had a trio of wheels, one at the front that was situated beneath the angular prow, and two at the rear. They seemed to be retractable, the alien vessel currently sliding on its belly. It had a large sail that was tall enough to rise over some of the dunes, like a cutter’s, and clinging to the rigging was a Borealan figure. They were leaning like a boat racer, changing their direction as the wind filled the sand-colored fabric.

With another level of magnification, the pilot was revealed to be dressed in a leather getup, his face obscured by a scarf and goggles. There was a second Borealan behind him who was sat in a recess, what was unmistakably an XMR resting on the narrow deck. In another second, they were gone, a dune rising up to block the view as they descended.

Mizi!” Ben barked, “pursue that skiff! Lozka, fire at will! Those are definitely Rask, probably scouts. If we let them get a look at us, they could take that information back to the Matriarchy!”

Mizi kicked the Wolf into gear, the engine revving as she spun the wheel, sending them racing down the far side of the dune. Ben wanted to pop another drone, but they had already lost one, and he didn’t want to risk a second. That gunner was a crack shot with a rifle.

As they neared the foot of the dune, the skiff crested the one ahead of them, going fast enough to get a couple of feet of air before landing in the sand. It slid down the slope towards them, practically frictionless, its pilot angling the sail to catch the wind. He veered away, Mizi locking the rear wheels to send them into a handbrake turn, putting her foot down as she began to pursue. The little sailing craft was moving like lightning, but the Timberwolf could reach a hundred and twenty K under the right conditions. Its wheels kicked up the sand behind them as it struggled to gain traction, its engine making Ben’s seat vibrate as it roared. They gave chase, Ben switching to the turret view as Lozka trained the crosshair on the skiff.

The alien with the rifle had turned to face them, keeping his profile low, shouldering his XMR. There was a flash as the air around the barrel turned to plasma, the magnetic coils glowing with heat. An alarming thud made the hull ring like a bell, a tungsten slug hammering the armor on the front of the vehicle.

The thing was pulling away from them quickly, it was going faster than they were. The dunes were slowing the Wolf, stopping it from reaching top speed.

Take it out, Lozka!” Ben yelled as he bounced in his seat. She gripped the joystick on her console, the crack of the thirty-millimeter railgun audible through the hull. The skiff was weaving back and forth, the Wolf bouncing on its suspension, the stabilizer struggling to keep pace. A burst of fire tore through the fabric of their sail, leaving charred holes in the material, but it wasn’t enough to slow it. In a flash, they had crested another dune, falling out of sight.

Mizi kicked the Wolf into six-wheel drive again, climbing after them, Ben’s stomach dropping as they sped over the top. The skiff was once again in sight, Lozka waiting for the turret to stabilize before loosing another salvo. The target swung out of the way at the last second, it was incredibly agile, the slugs creating splashes in the sand where it had just been. Lozka cursed in her native language, spitting like a cat, tracking them with the scope.

The skiff’s gunner returned fire, another thud echoing through the hull.

Bring it home, Lozka!” Ben yelled over the noise of the engine. “They’re scratching my paint job!”

The driver of the skiff unfurled a bundle of fabric, which expanded as it caught the wind to form what looked like a kite surfer’s chute, the odd vehicle veering into the wind. It got a huge speed boost that almost lifted it off the ground, Mizi skidding in the loose sand as she changed direction to keep up.

Patriarch’s Bow, keep still!” Lozka snarled. She squeezed the trigger, and this time, her rounds found their mark. Half a dozen thirty-millimeter slugs shredded the tiny craft, reducing its wooden frame to splinters, sending it crashing into the side of an adjacent dune with a shower of sand.

Mizi hit the brakes, bringing them to a stop as Lozka kept her gun trained one the wreckage, a solitary wheel rolling its way down the slope. One of the occupants was clearly dead, his body slumped over the ruined hull, while the other was lying spreadeagled on the sand a short distance away after having been thrown clear. The broken sail still fluttered in the wind, its mast snapped in two, the parachute drifting on the surface of the sand.

Nice shot, Lozka!” Ben exclaimed. He waited a few moments to see if either of the bodies stirred, then began to climb into the troop bay, retrieving his handgun. “Keep me covered, I need to go check the wreckage for survivors.”

He dropped his visor, waiting for the troop ramp to lower before hopping out onto the cooling sand. The incline was troublesome, making him slip a little as he skidded down its face, raising his weapon as he neared the wreckage. Jagged pieces of splintered wood jutted from the sand, the torn fabric of the sail fluttering in the breeze as he approached. He neared the slumped figure of the gunner, giving him a prod with the barrel of his XMH. The Rask was wearing leather clothing in shades of black and brown, his rifle lying on the ground a few feet away.

This one’s done for,” he said, communicating with the Timberwolf over ad-hoc. “Checking the next guy.”

The pilot was partially covered by the parasail, Ben keeping his weapon trained on the body as he walked up and kicked its paw. There was no reaction, so he leaned over to grip the billowing fabric, meaning to pull it away.

Time seemed to slow as the Rask threw the sail aside, rising from beneath it wielding a serrated blade the size of a butcher’s knife, the steel glinting in the starlight. His feline face was contorted into a vicious snarl, the flat bridge of his nose furrowing like that of an angry tiger, his sharp teeth bared. He had been playing dead, it was an ambush. Ben tried to bring up his XMH, but the alien was too fast.

A metal bolt the size of a lawn dart whizzed over Ben’s head, striking the Rask between the eyes, his head snapping back like he had just been punched in the face. He toppled over backwards, dead before he had even hit the sand, Ben finally bringing his weapon to bear as he scurried away. His heart hammering like a drum, he turned to look back over his shoulder, seeing that Lozka had risen from the hatch in the cab. She lowered her crossbow, giving him a silent nod.

Trying not to think about how close he had just come to being skewered like a kebab, Ben sifted through more of the wreckage, finding little in the way of logs or data storage devices. It would have been nice to know what these guys had been doing all the way out here, and what their orders were. He gingerly patted down the bodies, finding nothing but a few trinkets and supplies.

We’re clear,” he said, making his way back through the sand towards the Timberwolf. He climbed inside and closed the bay door, opening his helmet’s visor and taking a deep breath, willing his hands to stop shaking.

Are you hurt?” Lozka asked, peering at him from the cab. Mizi was looking at him over the backrest of her chair, her feathers brushing the roof as they flared purple.

I’m fine, thanks to you,” he replied. “Silent Huntress indeed...”

He returned to his seat, fastening his harness, his companions turning their attention back to their displays.

You two okay?” he added, and they both nodded. “Mizi?” he asked, “have you...been in combat before?”

She had expressed such concern for the spider that they had encountered, it made him worry that seeing death might affect her. Some people thought that they were ready for war until they saw their first kill, and then their entire outlook changed. The Rask weren’t mindless Bugs, they were people, regardless of their politics.

I have,” she replied, her tone neutral. “I lived through the defense of Val’ba’ra, I have seen my share of death.”

Just making sure,” he said, returning to his sensor readout. “I know you object to killing animals. The emotional health of a crew is as important as their physical health, gotta make sure everyone is capable of doing their jobs.”

Animals are innocent,” Mizi added, the engine rumbling as she began to pull away from the wreckage. “They cannot make moral judgments. If these Rask choose to harm others, and they engage in combat willingly, then they understand the risks involved. I have no qualms seeing them die.”

Pragmatic,” Ben chuckled.

That makes twenty-seven,” Lozka muttered, Ben giving her a sideways glance.

***

This is as good a place as any,” Ben said, his breath misting. “Pull up between these dunes, and let’s get the camouflage netting over the Wolf. We’ll stop here for the night, get some rest.”

It’s freezing in here,” Mizi complained, crossing her arms over her chest. “We should turn the heat up. Not everyone present is a mammal, you know...”

We’re gonna run the fuel cells down if we’re not careful,” Ben warned. “It’s not cold enough to do us any harm. We have sleeping bags and blankets, we can stay in the troop bay, it’ll be fine.”

We would have needed to return to the column to resupply after about five hundred kilometers anyway,” Mizi grumbled.

I know, but time spent driving back to the main formation is time spent not scouting. We need to reduce our downtime as much as possible. Remember, those systems are there to keep us alive, not to keep us comfortable. Lozka, come help me with the netting.”

They squeezed their way out of the cab and into the bay, Ben collecting up the bundle of camouflaged fabric on his way out. It was even colder outside, the stars so stark and bright that he might as well have been in space. With no humidity and such sparse cloud cover, there was nothing to retain heat. The desert baked in the sunlight and froze in its absence. Suddenly, the Rask wearing leather in the desert seemed a lot less foolish…

He handed one corner of the netting to Lozka, the two of them pulling it over the Timberwolf to conceal it, driving long stakes into the sand to hold it down in the wind.

Thanks again,” Ben began, “for what you did back there. A second more, and I would have been filleted like a fresh salmon.”

It is my duty to protect my pack,” she replied, out of view from where he was kneeling. “Think nothing of it.”

You’re a good shot,” he chuckled, “I’m sorry I doubted you earlier. I scoffed at the idea that someone who fights with a crossbow could be an asset to my crew, and you’ve proven me wrong pretty handily.”

It is true that I have little experience with the turret, but the principle remains the same. I can make do.”

So, what do you think that Rask skiff was doing all the way out here? I suggested scouts, but you know them better than I do.”

I concur,” she replied. “The skiff was scouting for a larger force. The Rask never travel alone, they work in raiding parties of dozens or hundreds. The skiffs identify targets, such as trade caravans, and relay the information to their sandships.”

Even if the skiff couldn’t alert its fleet, they’ll know that something is up when it doesn’t report back,” he said as he hammered in another post. “We’re gonna have to be careful out here, engaging may not always be the best option. The Rask aren’t supposed to have anything more threatening than a wooden boat, but I don’t buy it. If they could get ASAT weapons, then they could have gotten their paws on practically anything.”

Once the netting was secure, he wandered around to the front of the truck, inspecting the damage that had been done by the XMR. The slugs that they fired had velocities in excess of two kilometers a second, they could punch a six-centimeter hole in solid steed. The Timberwolf’s composite armor was made of sterner stuff, but they had still embedded themselves deep into the plating, leaving small craters. He’d like to dig out the projectiles, but the tungsten had slagged. It was a little frightening going up against railguns. He’d only ever fought Betelgeusians before, and they used plasma weapons that this armor was designed to counter.

Is it damaged?” Lozka asked, rounding the side of the vehicle to see what he was doing.

It’ll be alright,” he replied. “Come on, let’s get back inside. I can feel my eyelashes starting to freeze.”

When they stepped back into the troop bay, sealing the ramp behind them, Ben found that Mizi was already preparing their sleeping area. The bunks were designed to fold down from the walls, but she had stripped the mattresses off them, lining all three up so that they covered the whole deck in a soft surface. The sleeping bags had been strewn about, along with a few bundled-up rolls of netting and tents, creating a kind of rat’s nest.

She smiled in greeting, her feathers erupting in a display of green, Lozka seeming nonplussed by the strange sight.

What the hell’s all this?” Ben asked, gesturing to the pile as he stepped around it gingerly.

What do you mean?” Mizi asked. “I made a bed for us.”

Do you expect us all to share?” he continued, glancing between the two aliens.

Flocks share a bed,” Mizi replied with a shrug, “I didn’t consider that you might object.”

As do packs,” Lozka added. “I have no qualms with sharing. Besides, it is cold, we should pool our body heat if we mean to stay warm.”

Humans don’t sleep communally,” Ben insisted. “I guess I’ll just sleep at the far end if you two want to huddle. I’ll take first watch, you two get some rest. We’ll rotate every three hours.”

He made his way to the cab, sliding into his seat and beginning to tap at one of the touch panels. There was a thud as a drone launched into the air, unfurling its rotors and beginning to hover. The Timberwolf was nestled in the sand dunes, out of view of any passers-by, but that also meant that they couldn’t see beyond them.

Ben glanced over his shoulder into the bay, wondering what his two companions were doing, and was surprised to see that Mizi was removing her tight-fitting suit before climbing into the nest of sleeping bags.

She was already in the process of shrugging it off, exposing her upper body. The green scales covered her from head to toe in a fine mosaic, reflecting the light to give her a waxy sheen that reminded him of a buffed car. Unlike the Krell, Valbaran scales didn’t overlap like armor, they looked as smooth as human skin. There was a slight discoloration on her stomach, the scales there tending towards a lighter beige, like the underbelly of a lizard.

While she wasn’t quite as lean as Lozka, her abdominal muscles were firm and tight, their contours clearly visible as the harsh light from the strips above cast them into shadow. They flexed beneath her skin as she struggled out of her pressure suit, having trouble getting it past her waist. He was surprised to see that she had breasts, or an alien equivalent, concealed beneath a black garment that resembled a tube top. They would have been the perfect size to fill his cupped hand, bouncing gently as she moved, pert and shapely. He had noticed that there was a bulge in the chest area of her suit earlier on, but for all he had known, it could have just been where the battery was situated. Reptiles didn’t traditionally have boobs.

She was wearing a pair of knee-length shorts made from matching, black fabric, the elastic material clinging to her like it had been painted on. Her thighs were longer and proportionally thicker than those of a human, packed with steely muscle that dimpled her scales. Valbarans were all about the legs, it seemed. No wonder she could jump so high. They were anchored to flared hips that gave her a pear-shaped figure when paired with her narrow shoulders, and as she turned to stow her suit, he saw that her rear was just as developed. She had a butt like a pair of soap bubbles, the base of her thick tail protruding from a hole just below her waistband.

Despite her obvious physical fitness, she was still pleasantly plump, her fat settling in all of the right places. If Lozka had the physique of an Olympic swimmer, then Mizi more resembled a casual gym-goer who was concerned with staying in shape, but not overly so. There was a softness to her that he found very appealing.

Lozka was already bundling herself up in the sleeping bags. Neither alien seemed to know how they worked, and so they had opened them up all the way, using them in lieu of blankets. Perhaps they thought that they were only rolled up for storage, like the tents and netting. He saw no reason to correct them as long as they were happy.

Mizi slipped beneath the blankets, pressing up close against Lozka, the larger Borealan wrapping an arm around her as they shuffled deeper into their nest. Concepts of personal space were clearly different between species, these two saw nothing unusual about sleeping scales-to-fur with someone that they had met only hours prior. It wasn’t a show of affection, these were highly social creatures, it was simply the status quo for them.

Ben turned his attention back to his readout, only feeling a little jealous…

CHAPTER 5: PLAN OF ATTACK

Korbaz awoke to the Crewmaster’s snoring, his scarred torso on display as he lay on the bed beside her, his lower body partially covered by the sheets. She immediately felt a pang of disappointment. When she had invited him to her quarters, she had wanted to fight, to get her juices flowing before a night of violent passion. Blood was an aphrodisiac to her people, lovemaking should be treated the same as warfare, the winners and losers decided through a savage bout. Instead, he had acquiesced immediately, leading only to boredom and subservience. He had looked so brutish, his body a patchwork of scars earned in battle, but he had folded the moment she had shown any interest in him.

The greater her accomplishments and the higher her status, the fewer people were willing to challenge her. They were intimidated by her rank, by her association with the Matriarch. She missed the way that the Security Chief would defy her back on the Pinwheel, how little her status meant to him. Yes, it frustrated her. Yes, it could be infuriating. But at least it was interesting, at least it was stimulating, at least she was forced to work to get what she wanted.

She rolled out of bed, scratching her neck where her submissive partner had left token bite marks that hadn’t even broken the skin. On her way to the bathroom, a call came through on the intercom that was mounted on the wall, Korbaz pressing the receive button.

What is it?” she asked wearily, stifling a yawn.

Admiral, my apologies for disturbing you, but there has been a development.”

I’m on my way,” she replied, beginning to search for her discarded clothing.

***

Korbaz strode into the conning tower, adjusting her leather jacket as the room’s occupants spared her nervous glances. One of the crew members was waiting beside the holographic table, which was projecting an overhead view of the desert between Rask and Elysia.

Admiral,” he began, bowing his head as she approached. “As you requested, we ordered the raiding parties operating near the Araxie territory to divert and intercept the Coalition formation. They sent several sand skiffs ahead to scout out the area. Last night, contact was lost with one of them, they never reported in.”

He began to tap at the control panel, a dotted, red line appearing that led in a South-Eastern direction from the Araxie jungle band.

They were experienced sailors,” the crewman continued, “and this is about where we expected to encounter Coalition recon. All signs point to them being intercepted by the aliens.”

Then we have some idea of where they are now,” Korbaz muttered, her eyes scanning the flickering hologram. It was obvious what course of action the crewman wanted to suggest, but he held his tongue. Presuming to make a decision on behalf of one’s Alpha could be taken as a challenge to their authority that would be met with a swift reprimand.

Send our forces near the Araxie territory to head them off at this position,” she continued, pointing to a formation of dark massifs. The volcanic rock rose from the sands, creating a two hundred kilometer barricade across the desert. It was a maze of ancient, dried-up riverbeds and rocky plateaus, the perfect place to stage an ambush. “If they’re headed where I think they are, then they will have no choice but to travel through the Black Pass. Going around it would waste time and fuel. What did our most recent survey of the area reveal?”

Nothing, Admiral. A raiding party that was in the region two years ago noted that it was uninhabited save for a few nomadic tribes of Lakeless who frequent the area.”

Good. My previous orders stand. Their objective is to bog the enemy down to the best of their abilities, but they are to avoid unnecessary losses. This is not to be a glorious last stand, they are more useful to the Matriarchy alive than dead. I give them permission to withdraw when necessary. Impress that upon their Crewmaster.”

As you wish, Admiral.”

Vitza was waiting near the back of the room, Korbaz waving him over, the Chief Engineer trotting up to the table obediently.

How long until the battleships are in range?” she demanded.

The railguns have a range of around four hundred kilometers, my Alpha,” he replied. “The ballistic missiles that we carry have a range slightly in excess of that, around five hundred.”

Then we still have some time yet before we can bring our full might to bear,” Korbaz muttered. “Tell me, Engineer, how accurate are our weapons?”

Perhaps...less than you might imagine,” he replied, wringing his hands nervously as though she might think that it was somehow his fault. “The railguns were taken from a derelict frigate, they are not designed to be fired in an atmosphere. The projectiles lack the stabilizing fins and guidance systems that such a weapon would have. They will work, of course, but they should be employed using a saturation fire method. Carpet a large area with multiple salvos for the greatest chance of striking a target.”

And the missiles?” she asked.

The fragmenting sub-munitions should make it difficult for the aliens to defend against them, but I fear for how the sandstorm will impact the launch stages.”

Fragmenting...what?” she asked skeptically.

Sub-munitions,” he explained, becoming more lively now that he was discussing a subject that was of interest to him. “The warhead fractures into several smaller explosives shortly before impact, scattering them over a wider area. They should be used sparingly, we only have eight of them, four on each battleship.”

The raiding party will have to fight without our support,” she continued, examining the icons on the map again. “Once the enemy formation comes within range of our light vehicles, the carriers Hurricane and Tornado will launch an assault force, sending them ahead of the crawlers. The fleet will then scatter to make themselves harder to pinpoint. Shortly before the assault force makes contact with the enemy, the Landslide and the Earthquake will open fire, softening up the Coalition and sowing confusion among their ranks. The battleships must fire and move, while the assault force must strike and fade. Once the Coalition realizes what is happening, they will rally quickly, and our forces cannot prevail against them in open combat. Speed will be of the essence. We must strike like lightning, and be gone before the enemy has a chance to react.”

A sound strategy,” the crewman replied, Vitza nodding in agreement.

Can we cover the assault force’s withdrawal with another salvo from the battleships?” Korbaz asked. Vitza thought for a moment before replying, his tail flicking back and forth nervously.

To an extent, but we should wait as long as possible to minimize the risk of friendly fire. As I said, our accuracy is not reliable.” “We have our plan,” Korbaz said, leaning on the edge of the table. “Now, we must put it into motion. This first attack will not defeat the Coalition, but if we keep up the momentum, we can slowly bleed them until they lack the resources to continue.”

She glanced at Vitza, noticing that he was fidgeting, averting his gaze submissively.

Out with it, Chief Engineer,” she snapped. “Do you have concerns that you wish to share?”

Far be it from me to bring into question the wisdom of the Matriarch, or that of her most trusted advisors,” he began.

Speak freely,” Korbaz sighed, “you will not be punished.”

The sandstorm will prevent the humans from replenishing their numbers, yes. Their heavy dropships cannot land fresh vehicles in these conditions. But what is the plan if more assault carriers arrive, as they surely will? What will we do when the sandstorms inevitably end, and the Coalition can sight our crawlers?”

We must demonstrate the superiority of the Rask,” she replied, “break their will to fight such that they never return. We will show them that on this planet, only strength prevails. Those are the orders of the Matriarch.”

Then, it will be as you say,” he replied.

***

“Finally, something that isn’t sand,” Ben said as he looked through the turret view. In the distance, he could make out dark rock rising from the endless sea of dunes like a squat mountain range. The map had it labeled as a massif, the old satellite image showing circular formations of black granite, probably the product of ancient volcanism.

It is the perfect place for a Rask ambush,” Lozka muttered. “Well, we’ve got orders to scout out a safe route for Charlie company. The place is full of dry riverbeds that should make pretty nice roads for the tanks. Can’t go around it, that’d add days to our mission and burn a whole lot of fuel.”

It’ll be nice to drive on a hard surface again,” Mizi said, “all this loose sand is cramping my style.”

Where did you learn that?” Ben laughed, the little Valbaran turning to look over her shoulder at him.

Learn what?” she asked.

You sometimes come out with such...weirdly human words and phrases. The Borealans don’t really do that, they talk like people who are, well, speaking a foreign language.”

My people learn to speak new languages through mimicry,” she replied, confirming his earlier suspicions. She really was like a parrot, copying the phrases and accents that she heard.

So that’s why I couldn’t place your accent,” he continued, “you don’t have just one. So...can you copy anybody?”

If I hear someone speak, I can mimic them,” she replied as she steered them between two towering dunes. “Got a request?”

Do Lozka,” he insisted, grinning at the Araxie as she spared him a displeased glance from her seat to his left.

My people have given me the title of Silent Huntress,” Mizi began, Ben’s laughter filling the cab. She was spot on. The rolling accent, the inflections, it was uncanny. The only thing that she couldn’t reproduce was the deep, husky tone, but that only made it funnier. It sounded like a recording of Lozka being played back at a higher pitch. “I have met the Rask in combat many times, and I have slain my share.”

I wish to hear the Commander’s voice,” Lozka added as she shot him a mischievous look, Mizi obliging.

I don’t want to be known as the guy who got his cock bitten off by a sand spider while he was taking a piss,” she said, Lozka covering her mouth as she let slip a rare chuckle.

Alright, alright,” Ben said as he turned his attention back to his console. “Enough fooling around, let’s get back to work. We’ll be coming up on the massif soon.”

Before long, the dark, volcanic rock was rising up before them like a sheer wall. Now, Ben could flex his navigation skills, zooming in on the satellite image to examine it in greater detail. The surrounding dunes might be constantly shifting in the wind, but these formations had been here for millennia, the image should be as accurate as the day it was taken.

Mizi,” he began, “there’s a dry riverbed about five kilometers to our South. Looks like a good way into the massif, plenty of room for Charlie’s Kodiaks. It leads all the way through a valley and up towards one of the volcanic plateaus. Maybe it was formed by meltwater when there used to be ice up there, however long ago that must have been. Let’s start there and see if we can find a way through.”

On it,” she replied, revving the engine as she turned the wheel.

Commander,” Lozka began, “may I express my concerns?”

Freely,” he replied. “Like I said, this isn’t a Borealan pack. I’m not gonna snap at you if you take the initiative, I want you to share your thoughts.” “I know the Rask,” she said, making no effort to disguise the contempt in her voice. “I understand how they think. Years of tracking them, observing them, learning how they behave. It has given me a kind of sense, a feeling in my gut, as the humans say.”

A sixth sense,” he corrected, Lozka nodding.

My gut is telling me that they will stage an ambush here. The proximity of the scout skiff was no coincidence. There is a raiding party nearby, and these rocks represent the only cover for hundreds of leagues. They would be foolish not to take this opportunity.”

I’d be inclined to agree,” Ben replied, “but that doesn’t change our plan. Fleetcom wants a path through these rocks, and that’s what we’re gonna give them. I doubt the Rask’d blow their cover to take down a single scout vehicle, and attacking a UNN mechanized company sounds more like assisted suicide than an ambush. If they think they can hide behind rocks, then they’re not acquainted with the Kodiak’s main gun.”

And if they are better prepared than you imagine?” Lozka continued, cocking an eyebrow at him. “The Recon Alpha...your Lieutenant, he warned that the Rask may have obtained more human weapons illicitly when he gave his briefing.”

Doesn’t change our orders,” Ben replied. “Charlie has to roll through here, and we’re Charlie’s eyes. No choice.”

Then, I will trust your judgment, Commander.”

He nodded to himself, returning his attention to his monitors. There was something to be said for the whole deferring to one’s Alpha thing.

We’re coming up on the riverbed now,” Mizi said, Ben switching his view to the turret cameras. It was much wider than it had looked on the map, the formations of crumbling, black rock rising up to either side of the valley like the foothills of a mountain range. At some point in the planet’s ancient history, this would have been a deep river, its banks overflowing with greenery. Now, it looked more Martian than Amazonian. He could see the larger plateaus in the distance, rising up into the hazy sky like the flat-topped mesas of Colorado, albeit a lot squatter.

As they drove deeper, the fine sand began to mix with particles of volcanic rock, giving it a darker color. Mizi engaged the six-wheel drive, the terrain becoming less even, larger pieces of stone that had broken off the canyon-like walls and rolled down into the riverbed proving no match for the Timberwolf’s massive tires.

Would you look at that,” Ben muttered. “I’d never expect to see trees all the way out here.”

Here and there were the desiccated remains of ancient trees, their leafless, gnarled branches reaching up towards the sky like the sun-bleached bones of skeletal fingers. Their trunks had been ravaged by the winds and sands, yet they still stood, a testament to the life that had once clung to the banks of the long-forgotten river. It wasn’t quite a forest, just a few of them scattered about in clusters, but it was enough to be creepy.

I wonder what this place looked like back when the river still flowed,” Mizi muttered, watching them through the camera views. “What creatures might have called these forests home?”

Someone still calls these deadlands home,” Lozka added, Ben turning his eyes to her turret view. “Look.”

Is that…?”

That tree was felled using tools,” she said, zooming in on the splintered stump. It did indeed look like there were chopping marks in the ancient bark, as though someone had taken an axe to it. “There are no marks in the sand, no footprints or drag marks. This is not recent, but it bodes ill.”

Rask?” Ben asked.

Difficult to say,” she replied, keeping her cameras trained on the tree as they passed it by.

You want to get out and like...sniff the ground or something?”

No need,” she said. “It is evidence enough that we should be cautious.”

As they proceeded deeper into the massif, the scenery changed little. The long-dead rivers and streams had cut channels through the terrain that served as roads, guiding them towards the larger formations on the horizon. Ben kept referencing the satellite images, choosing their route carefully. They had to keep in mind that the tanks weighed several times as much as the Timberwolf and that they were less agile. The place was starting to look like an Icelandic beach minus the water. The sand here was mostly made up of pulverized granite, the volcanic rock uneven and jagged. Everything was either black or some dark shade of grey, the somber tones seeming to absorb the blazing heat of the suns like baking asphalt, creating a shimmering haze everywhere he looked. It made Ben feel like they were driving into the mouth of hell. It didn’t help that the sandstorm was nearly upon them, darkening the sky to the West. They’d be in the middle of it in a day or two, no doubt about it.

The winding river led them into another valley, sandwiched between a low cliffside on their right, and a towering massif to their left that jutted out of the sand as though it didn’t belong. It resembled the cap of a giant mushroom, almost perfectly dome-shaped, rising out of the ground a good four or five hundred meters. It had been eroded by time and the elements, the remnants of what could be primordial streams striping the dark rock of its jagged face. Its steep slopes were littered with the remnants of landslides, alarmingly large boulders that had been displaced eons ago resting at its foot. Behind it loomed a far larger volcanic cone, its cap blasted away in some ancient explosion to leave it flat.

Hang on,” Ben said, spotting something odd on one of Mizi’s viewports. “What’s that strange coloration on the rock face to our right? You guys see that?”

Lozka swung her turret in that direction, giving them a closer look. Where the sloping sand met the exposed face of the massif, there were uniform discolorations in the rock a good ten feet high, noticeably lighter than the surrounded granite. Ben blinked his eyes, not understanding what he was seeing for a moment, then it dawned on him.

Those are petroglyphs!” he exclaimed, “look at that!”

What are petroglyphs?” Mizi asked, her feathers flashing yellow as she examined the display.

Someone has picked away at the rock, carved it out to expose the lighter layers beneath it. It’s a form of primitive artwork, someone climbed up there and chiseled it into the cliff by hand. Looks like...humanoid figures, some kind of four-legged animals, I can’t tell. What do you make of that, Lozka?”

Those are crude representations of Borealans,” she began, “but I do not recognize their quarry. It appears to be some manner of hunting scene, not unlike those that we carve into wood or weave into tapestries back in my home territory.”

How old do you reckon they are?” Ben asked, making sure to take some screengrabs as they passed by.

Impossible to say,” she replied. “My people know little of the lands beyond our jungles save for what others have told us.”

With no water erosion, they may have been there for millennia,” Mizi chimed in. “Just like the dead trees, the dryness of the environment could have preserved them for a great deal of time.”

Damn, I wish we could stop and get a proper look,” Ben grumbled. “I bet there are caves up in those hills chock full of artifacts and paintings that haven’t been seen by living eyes for thousands of years. A Borealan Lascaux.”

Maybe they lived here when the rivers were still fertile,” Mizi suggested, the truck bouncing on its suspension as it cleared a rocky area. “My planet is so lush, it’s hard to imagine people living in these conditions. Every day must be a struggle to secure the most basic necessities.”

Do you miss the trees as I do?” Lozka asked. It seemed like a strange thing to say at that moment, but the flush of pink and green in Mizi’s headdress suggested that the Araxie’s words had touched her.

All the time,” she sighed, her feathers slowly collapsing back down into their sheaths. “Everywhere you go on Val’ba’ra, there’s water. Pools, streams, artificial lakes. We tend gardens of flowers, our walkways are lined with trees that provide shade, there are insects and birds everywhere. There’s so much humidity in the air, everything is always wonderfully wet. Perhaps I’ll follow your example and take a swim in the next oasis we come across,” she said as she steered them around a fallen boulder. “That’s how we bathe back home. Each dwelling has its own private pool that’s designed to look like it’s a part of the natural scenery, hidden from view by landscaping and strategically placed patches of forest.”

That does sound appealing,” Lozka sighed, leaning back in her seat as she turned the turret’s view away from the carvings. “Based on what you have told me, I admire your people, Mizi'pal'otl. I am encouraged by the thought of a race achieving such an advanced level of technology, while still retaining their connection to nature.”

Thank you, Lozka,” Mizi replied with a flustered flush of pink.

When we made our pact with the Coalition, our greatest fear was that our culture, our way of life would be eroded. But you give me hope that we can retain what makes us Araxie, even as we adopt alien practices.”

What’s it like where you live?” Mizi asked.

My village lies in the depths of an ancient jungle,” she began, seeming wistful as she reminisced. “The canopy protects us from the daylight, provides us cover, shelter. I feel so...exposed in its absence. We are shielded by the old growths, a ring of trees and vines that were raised by our ancestors, carefully tended over generations to create an impenetrable wall. It is so masterfully camouflaged that it would be impossible to stumble upon, the only way inside is to be guided by one who already knows its secrets. To be invited into an Araxie stronghold is a sign of great trust.”

We have walls too!” Mizi said with another flash of pink feathers. “They protect our cities from large predators and let us regulate the climate within them. We strive to minimize our impact on the environment outside of their bounds. What’s it like inside your village?”

We Araxie build our homes in the roots of the giant trees,” Lozka explained. “Their lives are intertwined with our own. We erect guard posts in their branches, we hollow out their felled trunks to serve as dining halls, we run to them for shelter in times of danger. I would like very much for you to see it one day.”

Maybe I can,” Mizi replied cheerfully. “Perhaps I’ll bring it up with my flock next time we’re debating where to spend our shore leave. What about you, Commander?” she asked. “What’s your people’s relationship with nature?”

Uh...my neighbor had a rooftop garden, does that count?”

Commander!” Lozka exclaimed, Ben snapping to attention. “We are being observed.”

He switched one of his monitors to her turret view, his heart skipping a beat as he spotted a handful of shadowy figures who were watching them from atop the canyon wall. As she zoomed in, he noted that their skin had the reddish-brown hue of ochre, seeming to shine as it reflected the sun. The long hair of the females and the wild manes of the males were matted with what looked like red clay, and they were clothed in animal skins rather than the signature leather of the Rask. Clasped in their furry hands were not rifles, but wooden spears tipped with points of sharpened flint. A handful of their number were brandishing stone knives and axes that had been fashioned in much the same way, their handles made from carved wood that had been wrapped with strips of tanned leather.

Those don’t look like Rask,” Mizi mused.

Bring us to a stop,” Ben said, the Valbaran hitting the brakes. “Lozka, should we be worried?”

Mizi is correct,” she replied. “These are not Rask, they are Lakeless, desert nomads who roam the dune seas. They are primitives, their weapons cannot harm us.”

What do you think they make of us?” Ben wondered, the aliens craning their necks as they perched on the edge of the cliff. “We must look like some kind of giant, strange animal to them.”

The Elysians and the Rask often speak of their kind,” Lozka replied, “they likely understand the concept of vehicles from their interactions with sandships. I sympathize. In my lifetime, I have seen the introduction of alien technology, of railguns and spacecraft. It is surprising how quickly one adapts.”

Do you think they’re responsible for the petroglyphs that we saw?”

Maybe,” Mizi interjected, “but those looked pretty old.”

I suppose it’s possible that people have been frequenting this area for a very long time. I guess we should just...leave them alone. I’ll make sure to let the LT know that they’re hanging around so they don’t get mulched by accident. Hopefully, they’re smart enough to stay out of the way when the tanks roll through.”

They continued on, leaving the watchful natives behind them.

***

The terrain grew harsher as they climbed the massif, the Timberwolf tackling the steep inclines and rocky paths, Ben using the satellite images to guide them. The sun was cooking the black stone, it seemed even hotter here than it had been in the desert, the vehicle’s cooling system struggling to keep up. Mizi and Lozka liked it humid, meaning that his sweat was having more trouble evaporating than it should, making a wet sheen cling to his skin. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, watching it drip.

I feel like I’m sitting in an oven,” he muttered, hopping out of his seat and crawling into the troop bay. Mizi looked back at him, but he waved her off. “Keep going, don’t mind me. I gotta get out of this fucking pressure suit, or I’m gonna get heatstroke.”

Should I change the climate control?” she asked.

Nah, we’ll run down the fuel cells,” he replied as he began to unzip his suit. “I can deal.”

There was no reason to stay in uniform when he was the ranking officer, and they were in a breathable atmosphere. He wouldn’t pop like a ripe cherry if the hull was breached. The material clung to his damp skin as he struggled out of the garment, stripping down to his shorts and tank top, gripping a handhold in the ceiling as the vehicle’s suspension bounced. His underclothes were stained with sweat, but he couldn’t do much about that. After a moment, he decided to take off his top, too. It wasn’t doing him any good.

Remember to stay hydrated,” he added, “I want to see you both drinking more. We’ve got plenty of water to go around, the engine exhausts pure H20 into the holding tanks, no reason to ration it.”

He retrieved his canteen from the belt of his discarded suit, upending it into his mouth, not stopping until it was completely empty. The heat of the vehicle had warmed the water, but it was still cooler than the soupy air around him. Ben loosed a satisfied gasp as he fastened the cap, feeling the comparatively cool liquid slide all the way down into his stomach. When he turned to face the cab again, he saw that his companions were both watching him, their alien eyes quickly snapping back to their monitors. It seemed that there was some mutual curiosity going on.

Guess I must look like a naked mole rat to you guys,” he chuckled. “Sorry, but living in a ten-foot box with two other people doesn’t leave a lot of room for privacy.”

It is of no concern to me,” Lozka replied as he climbed back into his chair, slotting his helmet on. As stifling as it was, he needed it for the comms. “Solitude is a human desire that my people do not share.”

Humans have odd social practices,” Mizi added, bouncing in her seat as they cleared another bed of uneven rocks. “When my flock was traveling on the assault carrier, we noted that although they bathed in a communal shower room, they wouldn’t groom one another. They slept in bunks stacked one on top of the other, dozens to a cabin, yet they refused to share a bed. Humans are at once social and cooperative, yet oddly solitary. It’s strange.”

We live in those conditions because we’re forced to,” Ben explained as he fastened his harness. The fabric of the chair was uncomfortable against his bare skin, but it was still better than being stewed alive in his suit. “There’s no room for everyone to have the space that they’d like on a carrier. Even families don’t generally share the same bedroom or bathe together if they have a choice. Back home, I lived alone in a six-hundred square foot apartment.”

Odd,” Lozka said, scratching her furry chin with one of her curved claws. “The human warriors who were sent to protect my territory from the Rask...Marines, they were called, were organized into social groups that they referred to as squads. They behaved very much like a pack, living and working together, deferring to one member who had authority over the rest. They shared a dwelling, though I cannot say how they slept. I assumed together.”

In that case, it’s part of the job,” Ben explained. “A squad is like our crew, it’s just a group of people who have been arbitrarily assigned to a unit as part of their occupation. They don’t get to choose who they bunk with.”

Yet, they seemed to enjoy the company of their fellows,” she added. “They showed one another a great deal of respect, they joked and played in ways that suggested familiarity.”

The longer you spend with a group of people, the more you’ll develop a camaraderie,” he replied. “Even if you start out thinking a guy’s an asshole, spend enough time in the field together, and you’re gonna develop some kind of mutual respect. You have to watch each other’s backs, rely on each other to stay alive. They become your family.”

I am still confused,” Lozka admitted, her tail flicking back and forth behind her seat with what was probably frustration. “In what situations do humans share a bed?”

Well,” he began, thinking for a moment. “If they had no other option, like if they were crammed into a ship or a vehicle, or if they were involved romantically. Partners usually sleep together.”

He means mates,” Mizi explained as she glanced over her shoulder at her feline companion. “Humans are only supposed to take one mate each.”

One?” Lozka asked skeptically. “All the members of an Araxie pack mate with the Alpha, and each other based on their social standing. We all bathe together and groom one another, we share a bed for warmth and comfort.”

That’s not strictly true, about humans only taking one mate,” Ben interjected. “Most humans are serial monogamists. We have a series of relationships with different individuals until we find one that we like enough to formalize the arrangement.”

Val’ba’ra’nay take one mate per flock,” Mizi added, “but a flock is usually between five and seven females. We sleep and bathe together like the Araxie, and we don’t make the same distinctions between individual members that humans do. Our flocks are treated as one unit, one person, by your standards. Each of us is one part of a whole, responsible for the actions of the rest.”

One male per seven females?” Ben asked with a whistle. “Poor little guys, they must get tuckered out.”

Does that mean that Araxie packs can have more than one male?” Mizi asked gleefully, Lozka nodding her head. “How decadent,” she chuckled, her feathers flashing pink. “Sounds to me like you humans need to bite the bullet and accept that our social systems just make more sense,” the Valbaran added with a mischievous glance at Ben. “What you have going right now is just a half-measure. You have all the responsibilities of a pack or a flock, but with none of the benefits.”

We’ve done just fine with our half-measures, thank you very much,” Ben replied. “Being adaptable is the key. Besides, sharing a bunk with a pile of sweaty dudes isn’t my bag, I don’t swing that way.”

Swing?” Lozka asked, her brow furrowing with confusion.

Ben began to answer her, then thought better of it.

Hey, Mizi,” he said. “I’m sending you new coordinates. I want you to follow this route here, down into the canyon. We’ll probably have to camp out in the massif for the night, then in the morning, we can send our report to Charlie.”

Roger,” she replied, examining the satellite image on her readout. Lozka didn’t press the issue, perhaps sensing that he didn’t want to talk about it any further.

***

Night was upon them once again as they descended the massif, the rolling dunes on the far side visible in the distance. They were past the halfway point, and in another day, they would clear the rocks. The cold had slowly sapped the Timberwolf of all its heat, Ben shivering in his chair. He was covered in cold sweat, and he was starting to miss his pressure suit. What he wouldn’t give for a hot shower right about now...

Let’s call it here,” he said, Mizi’s feathers flashing green in what could be relief. “Find an outcrop and park us beneath it, try to keep us out of view of any roving Rask or curious natives.”

Before long, they found a suitable overhang of rock, Mizi locking the wheels after steering them into its shadow. She looked even colder than he was as she crawled out of her seat, her form-fitting suit providing little protection. Ben watched her breath condensate in the air as she exhaled through her nose, bobbing her way into the bay and onto the mattresses that still carpeted the deck.

It’s your turn on watch, Lozka,” he said as he followed the little reptile into the rear. “Wake me up in three hours. We haven’t seen any Rask yet, but we know they’re out there somewhere, and the Lakeless might want to try to figure out if recon vehicles are edible. Stay alert.”

You forget that my people are nocturnal, Commander,” she replied confidently. “The night is my domain.”

If you like the night so much, then feel free to take my watch too,” he joked. She frowned at him, her tail beginning to flick, and he raised his hands apologetically. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Here, take your cloak,” he added as he leaned over to pull the garment from its rack. He tossed it to her, and she snatched it out of the air, draping it over herself like a blanket. “You’re furry, but not that furry. Don’t want you catching whatever the Araxie equivalent of a cold is.”

Mizi sniffed loudly, Ben turning to see her fumbling with her sleeping bag as he pulled his stale pressure suit back on, her fingers stiff and clumsy from the cold.

Actually,” he began, getting their attention as he zipped up his suit. “Let’s warm up a little before we turn in. We’ll get some hot food in our bellies, some warm drinks, raise our spirits a little.”

That seemed to cheer Mizi up, Lozka peeking her head into the bay.

You’re still on watch, Lozka,” he warned. “But I’ll cook you something up. Call it bed and breakfast at hotel Timberwolf.”

He fished for some MREs in the netting that covered the shelves, pulling out three respective packets. After filling his canteen from a port on the wall that hooked into the holding tanks, he poured some of it into a sealable bag, then slipped that bag into a flameless ration heater. It soon began to boil, the chemicals warming the contents of the pouch.

The human MRE had a chocolate powder mix that went great with hot water, and also coffee, but that was a bad idea before bed. He knew from experience that fruit juice powders could actually be pretty damn good when mixed with warm water, too. After retrieving another ration heater, he set his main course of chicken and rice cooking along with it.

I guess I can just warm up any of the meat in your MRE that’ll fit in the heater, right, Lozka?” he asked. The Araxie poked her head into the troop bay again, her feline nose twitching as the smells of cooking wafted over to her.

Any will do,” she replied. “It is all Elysian food. I know not how it is intended to be prepared.”

Gotcha,” he said, stuffing what looked like a pouch full of cubed steak into the oversized heater that had come with her MRE. “Any preferences for drinks? You guys like sweet flavors?”

No,” she replied. “Araxie prefer savory dishes.”

I got it,” he said, delighted by his own creativity. “There’s some beef stew in my MRE. It’s supposed to be an entree, but you could drink that.”

As you wish,” she said, returning to her watch.

What about you, Mizi?” he continued. “Do the Valbaran rations have anything like this?”

Most of our rations are in bar form,” she grumbled, locking her legs as she sat across from him in the strange way that her people did. “Evidently, the Ensi have much to learn from the UNN when it comes to feeding their troops.”

The cold was really hitting her hard, she looked downright miserable. Then again, she was so much smaller than her companions, on top of being a reptile. She might have a far harder time retaining her body heat than they did.

Ben thought for a moment, then rose to his feet, stooping to retrieve one of the sleeping bags. He draped it over her shoulders, cocooning her in the insulating material so that only her head was peeking out. Her feathers flashed pink, their soft tips tickling his nose as he stood behind her. Had he surprised her?

How about you?” he asked, “do you like sweet drinks?”

I think so,” she replied. She watched him curiously with her violet eyes as he returned to his seat on the mattress in front of her, crossing his legs as he began to fish inside one of the flameless heaters for the bag of boiling water. Gingerly, so as not to scald his fingers, he upended it into a collapsible cup along with a packet of instant cranberry juice. After stirring the mixture for a few moments with a plastic spoon, he handed the cup to her, her gloved hands emerging from the depths of the sleeping bag to take it from him. It looked comically large in her grasp, closer to the size of a soup bowl. A wisp of steam rose from the crimson liquid as she brought it to her scaly lips, Mizi sniffing it curiously.

Don’t burn yourself,” Ben warned, “it’s still hot.”

She waited a little longer, then stuck out her pink tongue, dipping the pointed tip into the drink. Her eyes lit up, and she lifted it, taking a tentative sip.

That’s...good!” she exclaimed, taking a longer draw from the cup.

It’s the juice of an Earth fruit called a cranberry,” he explained, “I happen to think it tastes best when heated up.”

Oh, I can feel it warming my belly,” she sighed. The little reptile closed her eyes contentedly as she took another sip, her feathers flashing a peaceful shade of green. She reminded him of someone drinking hot cocoa in the depths of winter, wrapped in a blanket as they sat beside a roaring fire.

Feel better?” he asked, Mizi nodding as her headdress flushed pink once more.

He noticed that Lozka was watching him, and he gave her a quizzical look.

What’s the matter?” he asked, “you want to try some too?”

No,” she replied, turning her attention back to her monitors.

The beef stew was soon done, Ben pouring a little water into the packet and shaking it to make the consistency a little more soupy before rising to his feet again. He made his way over to the cab and handed the packet to Lozka, who sniffed it with far more skepticism than Mizi had.

What is this made from?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at it suspiciously.

It’s just meat in sauce. Try it, you’ll like it.”

As you wish,” she replied, taking a cautious drink from the packet. It was the size of a bag of chips in her furry hands. She smacked her lips, then nodded her approval.

See? I told you,” Ben said with a grin. He returned to his seat and started on his main course, sharing his chicken with Mizi. She liked the taste and texture, professing that it reminded her of Gue’tra meat, whatever that was. It was a lot more palatable than her condensed insect protein bars, that was for sure.

Lozka seemed to enjoy the packet of diced meat, digging into it with an enthusiasm that he had rarely seen her display. Perhaps cooking her MREs was the way to go in the future, he’d have to show her how to use the flameless ration heaters. Just like the human MREs, the contents were probably perfectly edible cold, but far more appealing when cooked.

Once everyone was done eating, Ben selected a sleeping bag and zipped up, lying on the mattresses with his back to the hull. The lighting strips in the ceiling were turned off now, the only illumination bleeding in from Lozka’s monitors in the cab. It was still cold, but with both the pressure suit and the bag, it wasn’t so bothersome as to keep him awake. Mizi was on the adjacent side of the bay a few feet away from him, still wrapped up in her sleeping bag. Their midnight snack had warmed her, but she still seemed cold, shivering as she rested upright on her locked legs. Odd, why was she not lying down as she had done while cuddling with Lozka the night before? He knew that she could do it.

Ben closed his eyes, trying to get to sleep, but soon found himself opening them again.

Damn it,” he muttered to himself, raising his voice as he called to her. “Mizi, you doing okay?”

I-it’s c-cold,” she replied, her teeth chattering.

Alright,” he sighed, rolling his eyes. “We got two choices here, we either run down the fuel cells by turning up the heat, or you sleep with me. What’s it gonna be? I’m not gonna lie here and watch you catch hypothermia.”

I...I can s-sleep with you?” she asked, her headdress rising in a display of pink and yellow. “I t-thought you said that h-humans don’t sleep with t-their crew?”

I’ll make an exception in this case,” he replied, pulling down the zipper on his sleeping bag and opening it in invitation. She unlocked her leg joints, shuffling across the mattresses with her sleeping bag wrapped tightly around her. The little alien lowered herself down beside him, joining him on the deck. Ben caught her in his arms and pulled her close, closing his own sleeping bag around the both of them. Her four and a half foot, sixty-pound frame was small enough that the fit wasn’t too tight, Ben feeling her shift her insubstantial weight as she got comfortable. There wasn’t anything inappropriate about it, their bodies were separated by two pressure suits and her sleeping bag. Her head was level with his chest, and he closed the zipper over it, burying her completely. All that he could see now was a little tuft of pink feathers that was rising up to tickle his neck.

Can you stop that?” he mumbled.

S-sorry,” she replied, her muffled voice barely audible beneath the insulating fabric. “It’s involuntary.”

Ben noticed that Lozka was peering at him again, giving him that same look. Was it appreciation?. When she realized that he had seen her, she turned back to her displays.

***

You never woke me up for my watch,” Ben said, climbing back into his seat in the cab. “I really was joking, you know.”

I know,” Lozka replied.

So, why did you take the entire night watch yourself?” he asked as he strapped himself in. Mizi climbed in after him, making her way to the driver’s seat. She seemed chipper this morning, full of energy. Thanks to Lozka, they were both well-rested. The Valbaran had woken up shortly before he had, but she hadn’t moved a muscle, waiting until the last moment to leave the warmth of their sleeping bag cocoon.

Because you were helping Mizi,” Lozka replied.

Well, thanks,” he muttered as he switched on his displays. “But get some sleep tonight, I need you alert. Maybe you can babysit Mizi, I don’t think she particularly cares who the body heat comes from.”

As you wish,” she replied, the engine rumbling to life as Mizi began to drive them out from beneath the rocky outcrop.

We can finally get out of this massif today,” he muttered as he examined the horizon through Mizi’s forward cameras. “I was hoping we might be able to find another oasis and take a bath, but I don’t know if anyone will be getting out of the Wolf in that sandstorm. I rather like having skin, and we’d have to tie a string around Mizi’s ankle so she doesn’t get carried off like a kite.”

It worries me that we have not yet encountered any Rask,” Lozka said, scanning the surrounding rocks with her turret. “I am certain that they are here.”

This massif is pretty huge,” Ben replied, “maybe they’re just camping out in an area that we haven’t come across along our route. I’m going to include them in my report, of course, warn the column that they’re probably going to get ambushed. Honestly, if the Rask are equipped the same way as that skiff we fought in the dunes, then they’ll be throwing themselves head-first into a meat grinder. I almost feel sorry for them.”

You shouldn’t,” Lozka muttered, Mizi glancing over her shoulder at her companion.

CHAPTER 6: THE BLACK PASS

The sounds of the Kodiak’s roaring engine and rumbling tracks reverberated through the hull, the seventy-ton vehicle grinding the volcanic rock beneath its polymer treads as it made its way up the dry riverbed. Cooper’s padded chair vibrated beneath him as he looked through the optics, a square display with a row of switches that controlled its functions, watching the column of vehicles ahead of him. They were part of a procession of tanks and troop carriers that were making their way deeper into the foreboding massif, as spread out as they could reasonably be between the walls of jagged, black granite than the ancient water had carved out. Charlie was a mechanized company, comprised of twelve Kodiaks and eight Pumas that were kicking up clouds of dust as they advanced.

The gunner’s position was cramped, miscellaneous electronics and machinery boxing him in, the commander occupying the seat to his left on the other side of the main gun. There was a third crew member below, deeper inside the armored chassis, surrounded by panoramic displays as he piloted the vehicle.

Cooper reached up towards his monitor, pressing one of the switches with the textured tip of a polymer finger, changing the camera to the heat-sensing FLIR view. The prosthetic was connected at his shoulder, its black housing covering up the skeletal frame and the electronics beneath, powered by electric motors that whined softly as he moved. It was almost a perfect replica of his original, hooked up to his nervous system to provide sensation that approximated that of his organic limb.

The right side of his body had been damaged during a previous deployment, when a Betelgeusian breaching cannon had been used to pierce the hull of his vehicle, sending super-heated plasma and shrapnel spraying through the turret. The crew had all survived, but he had lost his right arm, his right leg below the knee, and he had sustained damage to his torso that only his flak jacket had prevented from being fatal. His right lung and kidney had been replaced with synthetics, and his burned skin had been grafted with an artificial substitute. It was flexible and stretchy, just like the real thing, its jet-black color giving the impression that molten latex had been drizzled over his ribs and thigh. His face had thankfully been spared, and so most of the damage was hidden beneath his pressure suit. Thanks to the state of the art medical facilities on the Pinwheel, the surgeons and technicians had been able to restore full functionality, allowing him to resume his duties.

You picking up anything on the FLIR, Cooper?” the commander asked.

Nah, it’s a fucking scorcher, Sarge. The rocks are so hot that they’re blowing out the sensor.”

Maybe the drones’ll pick something up,” the commander replied, peering out of his cupola at the desolate landscape beyond. “Recon said they didn’t see any Rask, but I’ll bet my left nut they’re out there in the rocks, just waiting for us to roll on by.”

Barry!” Cooper yelled, stamping his boot on the deck.

What?” the driver’s muffled voice replied.

How’s Sheila doing? I’m sweating my arse off up here.”

Engine temps are within safety limits,” he replied. “And stop stamping, you dickhead. I can hear you fine down here.”

Not a bloody servo in sight,” Cooper muttered, scanning the canyon walls for movement through his scope. “Dead trees and burning wasteland as far as the eye can see. How the fuck did we travel seventy-five light-years just to end up back in Perth?”

Less whinging, more working,” the Sergeant complained.

They pressed on as the primordial riverbed began to narrow, only around forty meters wide in places, forcing the formation to close ranks until the vehicles could only continue in single-file. The canyon walls were less sheer here, more like steep hills that were scattered with volcanic rock, the large boulders that had been deposited along their inclines providing excellent cover for anyone who might seek to trap them in a crossfire. The infantry dismounted from their IFVs, making the going even slower, the Marines and Borealan Shock Troopers sticking close to their vehicles as they inspected the surrounding terrain.

Whose bright idea was it to make everyone’s body armor black?” Cooper muttered, watching them through his scope. “Those poor fuckers must be roasting out there.”

They’re environment suits, they’ve got cooling,” Barry replied. “They’re probably doing better than we are right now.”

I really don’t like being boxed in like this,” Cooper continued, reaching over tap the commander’s shoulder. “Hey, Sarge, have the drones spotted anything yet?”

Nothing so far, I’ll let you know if there’s any radio chatter. No reports of sightings from the other vehicles, either.”

Maybe there’s nobody out here, and we’re just jumping at shadows,” Barry suggested.

We know there are natives running around,” the Sergeant added, “so don’t freak out if someone starts chucking rocks at us.”

I expect the noise would keep them away,” Barry said, “we must sound like a mobile thunderstorm.”

Cooper watched a squad of Marines leave the side of their IFV, climbing up the nearby slope, checking between the rocks as they went. Seeing the infantry contrasted with the boulders really put their size into perspective, some of them were as big as the Kodiaks. They made their way up towards the ridge, trudging through the dark sand, the magnetic coils on the barrels of their XMRs glinting in the sun as they waved them to and fro.

A sudden explosion rocked the tank, the ground trembling beneath them as a cloud of dust was thrown high into the air somewhere ahead of them. The convoy ground to an abrupt halt, the Marines on the hill taking cover amongst the rocks as Cooper turned his view to their front. He was just in time to see a rockslide plug the riverbed ahead, the rolling boulders no doubt dislodged by charges that had been placed long before their arrival. The sand seemed to sweep in like a wave, burying everything to create an impassable wall. The lead vehicle was mercifully clear, avoiding being crushed by only a few meters.

It’s kicking off!” the Sergeant yelled. “Weapons free!”

The hills suddenly began to move, the sand shifting all around the convoy. Figures were rising from beneath it, sheets of dark sand sliding off the canvas tarps that were draped over their backs, the glint of bayonets catching the sunlight. The Rask had been lying in wait, hidden just beneath the surface, the explosion signaling the start of their attack.

There was a lingering moment of silence, and then the reverberating crack of railguns began to echo through the canyon, audible even through the Kodiak’s thick hull. The squad of Marines in the rocks was the closest to the enemy, a nearby Rask launching himself from beneath the sand, spearing one of them in the gut with his bayonet. The man was lifted off his feet, the alien slamming him into one of the rocks. Cooper couldn’t hear his cry of pain, but he could see it in the way that his helmeted head snapped back, his gloved hands gripping the long barrel.

The Rask pulled the trigger, the Marine jerking as the slug tore through him at point-blank range, his body going limp. His companions had turned their weapons on the leather-clad feline now, a torrent of full-auto gunfire tearing his body to pieces where he stood, the kinetic energy turning him into a cloud of red mist and floating strips of leather.

Another of the Marines caught a slug from a hidden shooter, the impact exploding his head like a melon, helmet and all. That body armor was designed primarily to stop plasma and shrapnel, there was no wearable defense against a railgun that could punch a hole through two and a half inches of rolled steel. The squad began to move, taking cover and returning fire as best they could, their rounds digging deep craters into the surrounding boulders.

Tungsten slugs hammered the Kodiak’s hull, ringing it like a gong, but the crew were in no danger. It would take something far more powerful than an XMR to penetrate their defenses, and their assailants didn’t seem to know it.

The IFV ahead of them began to fire its thirty-millimeter gun into the hills, the slugs tearing into the volcanic rock and creating puffs of pulverized stone, Cooper catching one of the Rask being pasted in his viewfinder. The troop carrier drove forward a few feet, angling itself so that it was perpendicular to the incline on its left, its squad rallying around it as it covered them with its turret. As he watched, it extended its deployable cover, two chest-high walls of thick armor unfolding from either side of its cab on articulated arms to create a protective barrier. The Marines dove behind it, popping up to fire their XMRs at the enemy. White clouds rose up from the column ahead as some of the vehicles deployed their smokescreens, the wind carrying it.

Cooper, target those Rask on our left!” the Sergeant shouted. “Bearing three-hundred. Load HE and set the fuse to airburst!”

Cooper gripped the joystick and swung the turret to put his crosshair over a group who were nestled in a cluster of boulders, the motion jostling him in his seat. He reached up to hit one of the switches on his console, a mechanical clunk echoing through the compartment as the auto-loader slid a sabot into the breech, the computer dialing in the correct voltages. The immense recoil made the entire vehicle rock back on its tracks as he pulled the trigger, the pair of electromagnetic rails that ran the length of the barrel accelerating the projectile to several times the speed of sound in a fraction of a second. It created a shockwave as it tore through the air, kicking up a wall of dust, the high-explosive round reaching its target before its armature had even had time to properly separate.

It exploded a few feet above the huddling Rask, forming a donut-shaped cloud of hypervelocity shrapnel that tore through everything in the vicinity like a gigantic shotgun blast. Their limp bodies dropped to the ground heavily, partially obscured by the cloud of dust that the explosion had kicked up. A solitary survivor scurried clear, his rifle clutched in his hands, but the commander gunned him down with the cannon on his remote-operated blister.

There were hundreds of them, coming from both sides of the riverbed, more of them throwing off their disguises as they joined the assault. Every vehicle seemed to be firing in a different direction now, turrets and blisters spewing tungsten, the tanks pounding the rocks with airburst shells. There was a thunk as the mortar mounted on the commander’s blister above him fired a round, the explosive landing amongst the boulders a few hundred feet away, scattering the attackers.

If they’d been equipped with anti-tank mines, or rocket-propelled grenades, or anti-material railguns, then the convoy could have been in serious trouble. The ambush was tactically sound, but the Rask seemed to be under the impression that their weapons could penetrate vehicle armor, which was not the case. Cooper could hear the slugs hitting the tank, they weren’t even concentrating their fire on specific areas. The only real danger was to the Marines, but with the cover of the vehicles, it was hard for the Rask to get a clear shot at them.

Something heavier hit them, the distinctive sound of a ricochet reverberating through the hull.

What the fuck was that?” Barry shouted.

Bug buster!” the Sergeant replied. “It bounced! There, at fifty degrees!”

Cooper swung the turret around, taking a moment to spot the target. Up on top of the hill were a pair of Rask, lying prone on the sand side by side. One of them was shouldering a far larger rifle, the other carrying its massive battery pack, connected to the weapon by thick power cables. It was an AMR, an anti-material railgun, its long barrel packed with dense magnetic coils. They were scaled-up cousins of the XMR platform, firing larger caliber slugs at far higher velocities, designed primarily to take down Betelgeusian warriors and light spacecraft. He didn’t want to give them time for another shot, firing the main gun at them, the pair vanishing in a shower of sand and pulverized rock.

There was another loud crack as a second AMR team scored a hit on the IFV ahead, the round punching clean through the side armor. There was a flash of light as some of the material was instantly vaporized, a spray of molten metal erupting as what was left of the slug exited the other side of the vehicle. The Marines who were taking cover behind the deployable wall were showered with flecks of glowing slag, but their armor protected them, the tungsten projectile digging a deep crater in the ground a short distance away. It was hot enough that the splash of sand froze in the air, turned to glass before it had even had time to fall. It was a good job that the squad had exited the IFV, if they had been inside the troop bay when that slug had ripped through it, they would have been torn to pieces.

Before the Sarge could even call out the new target, a mortar hit the hillside, sending one of the broken bodies of the gunners wheeling a good ten feet into the air before it was dashed on the rocks below.

From behind a rock formation came a bayonet charge, two dozen of the aliens leaping over obstacles on their long, spring-like legs as they raced down the incline towards a group of entrenched Marines. They were deceptively fast for their size, covering ground quickly, coming within a mere ten feet of their quarry before the defenders’ guns turned on them. The Marines fired from behind their deployable cover, the thirty-millimeter gun on the IFV’s remote blister above them chewing through the advancing aliens. The barrage of railgun slugs cut the Rask down, the thirty-mil severing limbs, and leaving fist-sized exit wounds.

What the bloody hell are they thinking?” Cooper wondered aloud, turning his sights on another squad. He engaged the gun pod that was mounted on the side of the Kodiak’s turret, a stream of caseless rounds harrying the aliens, tracers painting a glowing trail through the air. “Attacking armored vehicles with small arms, bayonet charges, it’s like they don’t know what they’re doing!”

Maybe they don’t,” the Sergeant replied, hunched over his console as he used a joystick to control the blister above them. “Just because they have access to UNN tech doesn’t mean they’ve been trained to use it properly.”

The Rask morale seemed to have been broken, they were retreating now, moving back up the hills towards the safety of the ridges. They weren’t fleeing in panic, despite the chaos erupting around them. They were remarkably disciplined for a force so outmatched. They stopped to cover each other, taking refuge behind the rocks, but that was another tactic unsuited to their current predicament. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, their numbers thinning until only a handful were left, the survivors making it over the ridge and out of view.

You’d better run, cunts,” Cooper muttered as he flopped back into his chair. “Got no more targets on my scope, Sarge.”

Looks like we’re clear,” the commander replied.

Barry!” Cooper yelled, stamping his boot. “You alive down there?”

Stop fucking stamping!” a muffled voice replied.

I’ll take that as a yes.”

He flipped down the visor on his helmet, patching into the Kodiak’s hull cameras, taking a better look at the carnage that surrounded them. There were a lot of enemy casualties, but it was hard to give a ballpark estimate given that so many of them had been...forcibly disassembled. The hills were scattered with craters, the wind carrying away the smoke, making it drift slowly across the battlefield.

Don’t get too comfortable yet,” the Sergeant warned, “they’re calling in artillery strikes to mop up the stragglers. Brace for danger close.”

After a moment of tense waiting, the ground began to shake, the artillery company pounding the terrain beyond the ridges with a salvo from miles away. Just like the airburst rounds, the shells exploded above the ground, creating rings of dark smoke as they sprayed the retreating Rask with shrapnel. It was over quickly, a dozen of the dark rings floating over the ridge as the wind caught them, more smoke rising up from out of view.

That got ‘em,” Cooper muttered. “What are our casualties?”

Lost a couple of Marines, some light damage to vehicles, but none reported disabled so far. They’re flying in a dropship from Elysia to medivac the wounded, keeping it low altitude so that the MASTs don’t tag it. I suppose that’s the last one we’re going to see for a while, no way they can fly in that sandstorm.”

What are we supposed to do when the storm hits?” Cooper complained. “Do we give the walking wounded a canteen and tell ‘em happy fucking trails?”

The Yagda has an onboard infirmary, that’s all we’re getting until we take out the Rask launch sites.”

Does it have a bloody hot tub, too?” Cooper grumbled. “Fucking Martians.”

He watched through one of the camera feeds as the crew of the IFV ahead of them dismounted, inspecting the damage to the troop bay. Good job that round had gone through the bay, and not through the cab. Teams of Marines were fanning out, securing the hills, and checking for wounded. He was surprised to see some of them crouching over the bodies of fallen Rask, it looked like they were attempting triage.

What the hell are they treating them for?” he grumbled. “Doubt those shitheads would do the same for us.”

Doesn’t matter,” the Sergeant replied, “we’re required to provide care to the wounded if the circumstances permit it. Looks like we’re gonna be stuck here for a while, that blockage will have to be cleared away.”

The lead Kodiak had already deployed its bulldozer prow and was beginning to push aside the rocks and sand, a couple of squads climbing the inclines to its left and right to check the other side.

A sudden crack rang out, Cooper snapping his helmet around, the external cameras giving him a view of a Marine who was standing over a newly slain Rask. The man holstered his sidearm before continuing on, his companions trailing behind him.

Fucking cats are still resisting,” he marveled. “Can’t even patch them up without them trying to claw your face off.”

That one looks like he’s had enough,” the Sergeant added. “Bearing one-twenty.”

Oh yeah,” Cooper chuckled, watching as a wounded Rask who was leaning against a rock was treated by a Marine whose comrades still had their weapons trained on him. The alien’s thigh was leaking dark arterial blood, the Marine sealing the wound with a canister of expanding foam from his medkit. Another gunshot rang out, it sounded like somebody else was being uncooperative.

What do you reckon the other Borealans think of this?” Barry asked, Cooper turning his gaze to a pack of the armored aliens who were milling about near their IFV.

The Elysians probably hate the Rask more than we do,” the commander replied. “They wouldn’t even share a table in the mess, and that was back when they weren’t shooting at each other. This planet isn’t unified, there’s no United Nations equivalent here. This is a war of one territory against another, not Borealans against humans.”

Let’s hope they all see it that way,” Cooper muttered.

***

It took several hours for the blockage to be cleared away, the medivac dropship finally arriving, swooping low over the convoy on its stubby wings. The wind was picking up now, the sandstorm closing in, darkening the sky to the West. Cooper watched the craft touch down on a rocky plateau nearby, Marines ferrying the wounded up the hill and into its troop bay, the idling engines blowing clouds of dust. Next came the critically injured Rask, their stretchers carried by the Shock Troopers, as even four humans couldn’t lift them. Last was a procession of only half a dozen PoWs who had survived the ambush, their clawed hands bound behind their backs with sturdy cable ties, their round ears flattened against their bowed heads. They looked suitably cowed. They would probably be handed over to the Elysians, and he had no idea what the aliens would do with them. Prison? Execution, maybe?

Here’s hoping the Rask have learned their lesson, and that was their last attempt to stop us,” the Sergeant said as he watched the vessel lift off. “It’s hard to take pride in a massacre.”

They only have themselves to blame,” Cooper replied with a shrug. “This whole situation is entirely their own fault.”

The Marines returned to their vehicles, the damaged IFV now patched up, the convoy finally starting to move again. The troop transport ahead of them jolted to life, the Kodiak’s engine shaking the hull as Barry drove after it, leaving the scene of the battle behind them. They had recovered what few Marines had fallen, but there was no practical way for them to dispose of what must be a couple of hundred dead Rask. They had left them behind, mostly out of necessity, but partly as a warning.

***

The suns had set hours ago, but Ben couldn’t see the stars. The looming sandstorm was finally upon them, blotting out the sky, a dark wall of swirling dust rising over the sand dunes in their path. Flashes of lightning arced through it, illuminating it for scant moments, creating dark shadows that picked out its details. It made him feel like he was slowly falling into the atmosphere of a roiling gas giant.

Can’t keep the drones out for more than a couple more hours,” he said, scowling at his displays. “The winds up there are getting too crazy, we’ll lose them.”

What’s our plan when the storm hits?” Mizi asked with an uncertain flash of purple plumage. “We won’t be able to see more than fifty or sixty meters in any direction.”

Our orders are to chart a route to the Rask territory, so that’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll have to pay close attention to our instruments, rely on the mapping software and the digital compass to keep us heading straight. Don’t worry about that, though, that’s my job. Just concentrate on driving.”

It is already becoming difficult to see,” Lozka complained, “the air is hazy with flying sand.”

Got a message coming through from Charlie,” Ben said, Lozka turning to peer at him as she waited for him to elaborate. “It’s about goddamned time, it’s been almost a day. Report says...they encountered Rask, just like we suspected. Your instincts were spot on, Lozka.”

She nodded her head, watching him with her green eyes.

I knew that the Rask would not pass up such an opportunity. If the column is reporting in, then am I to assume that they prevailed?”

More than prevailed,” Ben chuckled, “it sounds like they wiped out a whole raiding party. Minimal casualties on their side, a couple of hundred dead Rask.”

That is...efficient,” she added, struggling to contain her surprise.

They gave the Matriarch a black eye, maybe she’ll think twice about trying again.”

I would not be so certain,” Lozka warned, her furry brow furrowing. “They are as stubborn as they are violent.” “Hold up,” Ben added, tapping at one of his touch screens. “We got something coming up behind us, picking it up on the drone cam.” He took manual control, zooming in on the object, struggling to make it out through the growing haze. “What the fuck...” Lozka switched to his view, narrowing her eyes.

Sandship,” she spat, her ears flattening against her head. Ben could make out the massive sails now, the vessel coming into focus as it neared. It was surprisingly large, perhaps approaching the size of a Spanish Galleon. If he had to guess, it looked about fifty meters long and maybe half that wide. It was shaped like a catamaran, with two narrow hulls that were spread far apart for stability. They were bridged by a wooden deck, which was built up, probably housing cabins and cargo space. It was streamlined, despite the primitive construction materials, gaining ground on them as its long hulls carried it over the dunes. Its pair of tall masts were high enough that the camouflaged sails were always catching the wind, knotted ropes, and tangled rigging connecting them to the deck below. As it neared, Ben noted that it was flanked by a pair of skiffs, not unlike the one that they had encountered previously.

They’ve gotta be doing seventy or eighty k,” he said, “they’re gaining. Where the hell did they come from?”

The survivors of the battle in the massif,” Lozka suggested. “They flee towards the Rask territory with the remnants of their raiding fleet. There should be more sandships, I have never seen them travel so lightly.”

Look at that!” Ben exclaimed, “beside the big one. Is that a fucking truck?”

There was a wheeled vehicle cresting the dune beside the mothership. It looked like a pickup with an enclosed bed, its chassis crudely painted over with desert camouflage. It was clearly of human origin, a civilian vehicle that the Rask had modified with large tires and shocks. The cab, too, looked strange. They had likely rebuilt it to accommodate the larger stature of the aliens.

The Rask obtained those vehicles from your people,” Lozka explained, “they have been using them to carry troops far deeper into our jungles than they could travel on foot. There are many such conveyances rusting in my territory, we let the trees reclaim them once their crews are slain.”

What’s our course of action?” Mizi asked, interrupting them. “We need a new plan, the situation has changed.”

Lozka, are those ships armed?” Ben asked. “I’m not too worried about the skiffs and the truck, but I don’t know anything about that big one. Might be time to keep our heads down.”

It is too late for that,” she grumbled, swinging her turret to face behind them. “If they are in sight, then they will already have seen the tracks that we have left in the sand. Seeking out trade caravans to pillage in the desert is their livelihood.”

Think they’re gonna attack us?” he asked. “You made it sound like they were limping home with their tails between their legs.”

Three support vessels and a sandship against an isolated target?” she scoffed, gripping her joystick in her furry hand. “They are predators, scavengers. Their Crewmaster will not pass up such an opportunity.”

Mizi,” Ben snapped, “prepare for evasive maneuvers. We have no idea what their armament is like. Lozka, fire at will. We’re throwing tungsten, and they’ve got wooden armor. I don’t care how big that thing is, I want it reduced to driftwood.”

Yes, Commander,” they replied in chorus. His stomach lurched as Mizi kicked the Timberwolf into gear, veering off-course.

Their escort is breaking off,” Ben warned, “they’re matching our heading.”

Hold on!” Mizi grunted, the vehicle lurching as she let it slide down the side of a dune.

They’re gaining,” Ben said. “They haven’t seen my drone yet. Mizi, keep us between these dunes. Lozka, open fire when the first skiff comes over that crest.”

A moment later, the vanguard shot into view, getting a few seconds of air before landing in the sand. It was identical to the one that they had faced prior, a small, canoe-like craft with two occupants, the pilot gripping the sail as he angled it into the wind.

Lozka wasted no time, opening up with the mounted gun as her target raced down the dune. The sand around them erupted in splashes as the slugs dug into it, Lozka narrowing her grouping, firing in full-auto at the little wooden skimmer. It stood no chance, its hull cracking and splintering, the mast snapping as it began to roll. Its crew were thrown clear, one of them already partially dismembered by the gunfire, the other skidding to a stop to lie limp in the sand.

Fucking good shot, Lozka!” Ben exclaimed. “Another skiff coming around to our left.”

The engine revved as Mizi spun the wheel, mounting another dune, their tires spraying sand behind them. As they rose higher, the second skiff’s sail came into view, the vehicle speeding along the top of the adjacent dune a good fifty meters away. The enemy was ready this time, a shot ringing out as the gunner fired his XMR. The round penetrated one of their rear tires, Ben hearing it impact the hull with a clang.

Keep me steady, Mizi’pal’otl!” Lozka demanded as she lined up the crosshair. She squeezed the trigger, her first burst impacting the slope just beneath the skiff, kicking up an obscuring wall of sand. The Rask scout veered away as the dust cleared, Lozka cursing in her native tongue, spitting like an angry alley cat.

Any damage, Mizi?” Ben asked.

Our tires are a polymer honeycomb, they can’t be popped,” she replied.

Stay the course,” he added hurriedly, bouncing in his chair as he manipulated the drone’s camera. “They’re coming around for another pass, bearing three-thirty, Lozka!”

What!?” she demanded, not understanding the reference.

Fucking...North West of you, coming up in front of us now!”

The Rask skiff sped into view, the wind filling its sail as it slid along the sand, another XMR round ringing their hull. It was coming straight at them, almost as though they were going to ram. The pilot leaned hard at the last second, dragging his skiff out of the way, his gunner tossing something off the side of the craft.

There was a thud as what sounded like a grenade exploded, rocking the Timberwolf, and showering it with sand.

Motherfucker!” Ben yelled, adjusting his helmet as the vehicle settled on its suspension. “They’ve got explosives!”

Patriarch, guide my arrows,” Lozka muttered as she lined up another shot. She loosed a burst, this one tearing through the skiff’s midsection, practically severing the flimsy vessel in two. It lost momentum as it tried to climb a dune, the two Rask leaping clear of the wreckage as it cratered into the sand, smashing itself apart like an unwanted dresser tossed from a window.

Lozka showed them no mercy, cutting down the gunner as he attempted to dive for cover, staining the sand red with his blood. The pilot lifted what looked like a bulky revolver, firing it one-handed, his shots straying wide. She returned fire, but missed, painting a trail of splashes a couple of feet in front of him. Mizi had turned them away, engaging the six-wheel drive as she mounted a slope.

That pickup is pulling away,” Ben warned, watching it through the drone’s feed. “I don’t think it’s armed, it’s running. Mizi, get after them, bearing two-eight-five.”

She spun the wheel, the Wolf skidding in the sand as they drifted over the top of another dune, their foe coming into view. The truck was headed in the opposite direction, the large catamaran veering towards them as it moved to intercept.

Don’t let them escape!” Ben ordered, Lozka leaning closer to her monitor as she aimed carefully. Ben heard the crack of the railgun above them, watching as a salvo tore into the boxy rear of the truck, shredding it like paper. It turned sharply, flipping over and rolling, throwing up sand as pieces of its chassis were sent tumbling through the air. It came to rest on its four wheels again, crumpled and torn, smoke billowing from its engine.

You’re getting the hang of this, Lozka!” he marveled. “Mizi, maintain our distance from that sandship.”

Got it,” she chirped, spinning the wheel and putting her foot to the floor. The engine roared, the massive sailing ship looming behind them. It traversed the dunes like the waves of an ocean, Lozka swinging her turret to face it, Ben watching through her feed. There were Rask on the deck, one of them descending the rigging, a few more milling about near a guard rail that ran the length of the structure that bridged the two hulls. They all had rifles, but XMRs posed little danger to the Timberwolf.

There was a sound like an explosion, echoing across the desert, Ben switching to the drone view as he tried to figure out what had just happened. Mizi’s feathers flashed yellow in surprise as the dune to their right seemed to explode, almost as though it had been hit with a giant shotgun, sand spraying high into the air. She swerved out of the way, taking evasive action as another boom rang out.

What the fuck are they shooting us with?” Ben yelled, scanning the feed for an answer.

Another shot narrowly missed them, sending up another torrent of sand.

Lozka began to return fire, the chatter of her railgun ringing out as Mizi weaved through the desert. She was putting her foot to the floor, the Timberwolf’s six tires leaving the ground for brief moments as she crested dunes. The sandship was deceptively fast for its size, sliding along the fine sand as though it was the surface of an ocean.

Ben watched through Lozka’s feed as her slugs struck the prow of the vessel, the target too large to miss. They splintered the hull, creating puffs of pulverized wood. They were overpenetrating, the rounds so small in comparison to the large ship that they stood little chance of damaging its superstructure. What the hell was she supposed to aim at? What critical systems did a sailing ship have? There were no wheels to destroy, no engines, no fuel tanks to rupture.

The sails!” Ben yelled, “go for the sails!”

She raised her crosshair, putting a barrage of rounds through the billowing fabric, but it was like sticking holes in a sheet with a pin. The slugs passed through it without doing any real damage.

No, try to sever the masts!” he added, gripping a handhold in the ceiling as Mizi ramped them over another crest. They came down hard, the vehicle bouncing on its suspension, the sandship temporarily out of view.

We’re gonna be bingo on ammo at this rate,” Ben warned, “we need to stop that damned thing!”

The ship came barreling over the dune behind them, the prows of its twin hulls suspended in the air for a moment before they came crashing down to the sand below, its alien crew clinging to the rigging as it began to descend. Another shot rang out, this one hitting its mark. The Timberwolf’s hull reverberated as though someone had struck it with a giant hammer, the sand around them erupting as whatever had hit them was deflected.

Mizi!” Ben yelled, the Valbaran’s headdress flashing yellow and purple in alarm. “Damage report!”

No hull breaches,” she replied hurriedly in her tinny voice, “not seeing any damage.”

What the fuck are they hitting us with?” he wondered aloud, watching as Lozka loosed another hail of bullets. She caught a couple of the Rask who were clustered on the deck, sending them slumping to the floor. One of them slid off the front of the ship due to its forward inclination, disappearing beneath it as it cut through the sand. The vessel was close enough now that the crew could take potshots with their rifles, the more familiar ding of XMR fire echoing through the cab.

As Lozka zoomed in for another burst, Ben spotted the weapon. One of the aliens was hunched over a metal tube that was mounted on a gimbal on the leftmost prow, like a fixed emplacement, slamming something into what could only be a breech. It was maybe six feet long, with a wide bore, made from what looked to be cast iron. He aimed it, a flash of flame erupting from the muzzle, another salvo impacting their hull.

What the...are they firing naval artillery at us?” Ben marveled. “They are! That’s like some kind of...Napoleonic cannon! That’s not getting through our armor, no fucking way.”

That term doesn’t mean anything to me!” Mizi protested, keeping her eyes on her displays as she zigzagged to throw off their aim. “Do I have to do anything differently?”

No, no,” he continued. “I mean it’s Rask technology, archaic. They’re shooting what are probably balls of lead using a black powder charge, they might as well be throwing rocks at us.”

They may have other weapons yet, more explosives,” Lozka warned. “Do not become complacent.”

Why would they buy MASTs on the black market, but then equip their soldiers with cannons?” Ben wondered. “It doesn’t make any sense. The Rask aren’t stupid, many of them have served in the Coalition. They had to have known what they were getting into...”

Would you rather they were firing laser batteries at us?” Mizi protested. “Just shoot the damned thing!”

I’m trying!” Lozka snarled, tearing more holes in the sandship’s hull. Ben spotted a second gunner through the Araxie’s feed. He was aiming another iron tube at them from the adjacent hull, a burst of smoke erupting from its barrel, quickly carried away by the rushing wind. There was a thud as something hit them, but it sounded different this time. The Timberwolf swerved, Mizi fighting the wheel as the tires skidded in the sand.

Did they take out our wheels?” he demanded.

N-no!” she replied, trying to get the vehicle back under control. “It’s something else!”

Ben switched back to his drone camera, zooming in on their vehicle. There was a long line linking them to the sandship. Was it a rope? No, it was a chain, he could see the links glinting in what sunlight made it through the haze above them. It was some kind of tether, there was a grappling hook gripping the camouflaged mesh on their chassis, tangled in the netting.

They’ve fucking hooked us,” he said. “They have a lot more mass than we do, this could be bad!”

Lozka finally managed to hit the forward mast, the spray of slugs chewing through the wood like a chainsaw, the wind tearing it down as soon as its structural integrity was compromised. It came crashing to the deck like a felled tree, severed ropes and rigging flailing through the air, crushing the structure that bridged the two hulls. The torn sail draped itself over the vessel, the wind still tugging at it, throwing them off-course.

Nice shot!” Ben exclaimed.

The sandship swerved, the ruined mast sliding off the side of the craft, digging a furrow in the dune. It caused enough drag to spin the ship around, grinding it to a halt, a wave of sand sliding down the incline as it lost all of its momentum. The second mast fell too, the force of the wind snapping it, creating more chaos as it toppled onto the central structure to cave in its sloping roof.

Their celebration was cut short as the chain was pulled taut, the three of them jolting in their seats, the Timberwolf lurching to an abrupt stop. The chain was made from stern stuff, but whatever it was connected to wasn’t, an explosion of splintered wood tearing apart one of the sandship’s prows as a spool of chain was torn from below the deck. The grapple must have snagged on an armor plate or something, or it would have simply torn through the mesh.

Ben adjusted his helmet, groaning as he prodded gingerly at the harness that had saved him from being flung into his monitor bank.

That’s gonna leave a mark,” he wheezed, struggling to fill his lungs with air. “Everybody still in one piece?”

He glanced to his left to see Lozka stirring, rubbing the back of her neck as she looked herself over.

I do not think...that I have been injured,” she replied groggily.

I’m okay,” Mizi chirped. Perhaps her light weight had saved her from the worst of it.

Get back on the gun, Lozka,” Ben ordered. “Mizi, get us going again.”

The Valbaran pressed her foot on the pedal, the engine sputtering to life. Something about it sounded wrong to Ben, he had grown accustomed to its droning over the course of their journey. They began to pull away from the wrecked ship, dragging the spool of chain behind them. Lozka manned the gun again, continuing to fire as they drove up the adjacent dune. The crash hadn’t been too deadly for the Rask, it seemed. They were piling out of their sandship to take cover in the field of wreckage below, firing their XMRs. There were maybe a dozen of them that Ben could make out.

He soon realized that their ship was on fire. Dark smoke had begun to billow from the crushed structure, rising into the air in a growing plume, until it was carried away by the wind. One of Lozka’s rounds must have hit something flammable in their cargo hold, or maybe the molten metal had simply ignited a blaze on its own.

The Timberwolf crested the dune, and then the sandship was gone, only the rising smoke giving away its position. Ben lay back in his seat, rubbing the bruises that were forming on his chest.

Good job, team,” he sighed. “Those guys won’t be reporting in any time soon.”

Lozka collapsed into her padded chair, releasing her death grip on the joystick.

We have prevailed,” she muttered, seeming just as relieved as he was. “To think that we bested a raiding party alone...”

You can add slayer of sandships to your growing list of titles,” Ben chuckled weakly. “What do you think will happen to its crew?”

They are stranded,” she replied, fixing him with her icy gaze. “Either a scout will spot the smoke, or the desert will reclaim them. With the storm rolling in, their odds are slim.”

Mizi,” he said, switching his attention to their driver. “Is it just me, or does the engine sound...wonky?”

We’re losing engine power,” she grumbled, tapping at the readouts that she had brought up on one of her three displays. “Something is wrong, fuel pressure is dropping fast. We must have taken damage during the fight.”

How bad is it?” he asked, sharing a concerned glance with Lozka. “I’m not too hot on the idea of being reclaimed by the desert.”

I’d have to take a look under the hood,” she replied.

Keep going for as long as you can,” Ben said, switching back to a commanding tone. “We’ll stop and take a look ASAP, but we need to put some distance between ourselves and the Rask first. Last thing we want is them following our tracks on foot and jumping us while we’re exposed.”

Could be a ruptured fuel cell,” she warned, her plumage brushing the ceiling as it flashed a worried shade of purple. “Leaking hydrogen fuel has a tendency to violently explode...” “Get us as far as you can,” he said.

***

The Timberwolf limped to a stop at the foot of a dune, Mizi locking the brakes as its engine petered out.

Let’s get outside and assess the damage,” Ben said, beginning to climb out of his seat. Lozka stayed put as Mizi slipped past her, the little alien bobbing along behind him as he lowered the troop ramp and stepped outside. The blowing sand pounded his suit as he left the cover of the vehicle, Ben hastily reaching up to close the visor on his helmet.

Better get your helmet on,” he warned, Mizi turning to retrieve her own from the rack. She slipped her tentacle-like sheaths into the two dangling tubes, connecting it to her suit at the neck. The color panels flashed for a moment, perhaps in some kind of diagnostic mode, then she gave him a thumbs-up. He tapped the side of his helmet, and she nodded, a hiss of static coming through as they connected to a local ad-hoc network.

I want you to stay close to me,” Ben said, Mizi hopping down onto the sandy incline. “The storm is really picking up, and I wasn’t joking when I said that I was worried about you being blown away. I think the old Siberian Husky I used to have weighed more than you do.”

Don’t know what that is,” she replied, bracing herself against the wind as she followed him around the side of the vehicle.

Tires look alright,” he said. He whistled, appraising the grappling hook that was still attached to the top of the vehicle, the heavy links of the long chain trailing behind them. It hadn’t just snagged on the camouflaged mesh, it had almost ripped one of the armored panels loose, bending it upwards. That was how it had gotten such a good grip. He pressed his gloved finger into one of the many small craters that the XMR slugs had left. The rear and side armor was starting to look like the surface of the Moon...

The only way to destroy those tires is to melt them,” Mizi said, making her way around to the front of the vehicle. “I need to check the engine, figure out why we’re losing pressure. Go fetch me the powered socket wrench.”

Alright,” he replied. He returned a moment later with the tool, which was comically large in her tiny hands, but she seemed to have no problem lifting it. She pressed it into a recess in the hull armor and hit the switch on the handle, the head spinning.

The protective armor that covered the canopy began to rise. It exposed the reinforced glass of the cockpit beneath, revealing the backs of the three monitors that enclosed Mizi’s seat, Ben chuckling as he watched Lozka lean down to peer at them in confusion from the interior. The cab armor was usually opened using a switch on the driver’s console, but it could also be opened manually from the outside if the need arose.

Mizi slotted the wrench into another recess beside the engine compartment, the tool whirring as the armored panel lifted to one side, Ben peering at the engine block within. It was all contained within a shaped polymer housing, leaving very little of the machinery exposed save for a few electronics and cables.

No visible damage to the engine housing,” Mizi said. “Gotta be a broken fuel line. Fetch me the scanner.”

Ben retrieved the device from the troop bay, returning to hand it to her. It was a small, handheld device with a built-in screen, designed to detect various gasses and environmental oddities. She waved it over the engine block, waiting a moment for the scan to complete before the results were displayed.

Got a cold spot,” she muttered, “and there’s hydrogen gas escaping. That means one of the fuel lines has ruptured. Hydrogen only stays in a liquid state as long as it’s being kept at a low enough temperature. Good job we caught it before there was an explosion.”

Should I put up a no smoking sign?” Ben joked, watching as Mizi began to climb inside the compartment. “H-hey, what are you doing?”

Repair protocol states that this line needs to be patched,” she replied, “or we’ll keep losing pressure and fuel until our cells are bone dry. We can’t pull out the engine block without a service bay, and I’m the only one small enough to reach inside. Unless you want to be stranded out here, go get me some insulating tape.”

Yes, Ma’am,” he muttered. When he returned with the tape, she had already wriggled halfway inside, squeezing herself into the narrow space between the engine’s housing and the reinforced hull that contained it. Only her lower half was still visible, her round butt and her strong thighs straining against the tight material of her pressure suit as she wriggled deeper. Ben announced himself by clearing his throat over the radio, Mizi’s long, prehensile tail waving around blindly for a moment until it batted against his leg. She crawled it up his body, feeling her way along until she found the reel of tape, hooking it. One of her hands emerged, and she passed it off, Ben leaning around the side of the cab as he watched her work.

Got it,” she grunted, fighting to get a little deeper. “The impact when the grapple stopped us dead must have cracked one of the lines. If I can just...reach it...then I can...seal it...”

Anything I can do to help?” Ben asked.

Go get me a variable pipe wrench,” she grumbled, “I need to tighten this connection. And pray to whatever guardian deities your people have that I don’t make a spark, or this entire compartment is going to burn out with me inside it.”

After he returned with the tool, it took her a few minutes longer to finish her work. There was hydrogen gas leaking the entire time, which could have been a suffocation risk, but all of their suits had a built-oxygen supply that could protect them from environmental hazards for a limited time. When she was done, she tossed out her tools one by one, Ben watching her start to wriggle again.

That should do it,” she grunted. “I’ve fixed the leak, and I’ve tightened the line’s connection to the fuel intake. It should hold, as long as we don’t suffer any more sudden, violent shocks.” She squirmed, kicking her legs, her tail whipping back and forth. “I’m...stuck,” she admitted.

Stuck?” Ben asked, walking around behind her. “You want me to pull you out?”

I...I suppose,” she mumbled. Ben couldn’t see it, but he could imagine that her color panels were probably flashing with embarrassed patterns right about now.

What should I...”

Grip my tail,” she replied. “It’s sturdy, it can take my weight. Just...don’t lift it.”

Lift your tail?” he asked, confused by the odd request. “Why?”

Just don’t!” she protested.

Alright! I’ll try not to,” Ben muttered as he took hold of her appendage about halfway down its length. It felt like he was gripping a boa constrictor or some other kind of large snake. Her scales were as smooth as glass beneath her suit, and there was a layer of soft puppy fat that made it remarkably squishy. As he gripped it, he felt it shift in hands, what felt like liquid muscle flowing between his fingers. He lifted a boot and planted it on the hull, giving her a gentle tug.

Am I hurting you?” he asked.

N-no,” she replied, “but move your hands a little closer to the base. Don’t touch the underside.”

Alright, alright,” he grumbled. He felt her shiver as his gloved hands slid up its length, stopping just short of the thick, muscular base. Maybe it was an erogenous zone to the aliens, like touching a person’s inner thigh. “Ready?”

He gave her another tug, finally succeeding in dislodging her. The little Valbaran fell to the sand below, rising to brush herself off, her tail quickly snaking out of his reach.

Thanks,” she said sheepishly, her panels flashing pink and purple as she stooped to collect her tools.

Nice work,” he added. “I don’t know how we would have fixed that if you hadn’t been around. You’re a real grease monkey. Or...maybe a grease lizard is more apt.”

I’ll assume that’s a compliment,” she replied. “I’m going to climb up onto the hull and see what I can do about that panel.”

Alright, keep your tail hooked into the mesh or something so you don’t fly off.”

I’ll refrain from extending my feathers,” she said sarcastically, beginning to close the armored panels on the engine. Ben made his way back into the troop bay, finding Lozka waiting for him. She still had a hand on the back of her neck, rubbing it slowly as she crouched by the entrance to the cab.

Is the vehicle intact?” she asked.

Fortunately for us, Mizi knows the manual from back to front,” he replied as he opened his visor with a hiss. “We’ll be up and running again soon. Are you alright?” he asked, frowning at her. “You’ve been rubbing your neck ever since the crash, is it sore?”

It is nothing,” she replied dismissively, lowering her hand.

As much as I appreciate Borealan stoicism, a neck injury is not something to ignore,” he chided. “You probably have whiplash, an injury caused when the head is violently snapped forward. It often occurs during car accidents. Come here,” he said, beckoning to her.

She walked over to him reluctantly, and he lowered one of the benches, instructing her to sit on the deck in front of it. After rummaging inside the medpack for a medical scanner, he sat down behind her, Lozka’s eight-foot stature putting her shoulders about level with his chest. He reached out and ran the device across her furry neck, feeling her muscles tense at his touch. Data flashed on the readout, showing a scan of her bones and tissue.

No damage to your discs or ligaments,” he said, “just looks like some strained muscles. Turn your head to the left, and tell me if it hurts.”

She did as he asked, wincing.

It feels stiff,” she complained.

Any dizziness? Headaches?”

No,” she replied, Ben beginning to remove his gloves. He set them on the bench beside him, bringing his hands to her shoulders. “Wait, what are you doing?” she asked suspiciously. She attempted to turn her head to look behind her, but the pain prevented it.

I’m going to loosen them up,” he replied. “It might hurt a little at first, but it’ll make you feel better, get rid of some of the stiffness. After that, if it still hurts, I’ll give you a painkiller.”

He put his hands on her black coat, finding it just as silky as it had looked. It felt more like smooth velvet than fur, it was so thin and shiny, its surface oddly moist. Was that sweat, or was it a product of the humidity that the two aliens had imposed upon him? She had mentioned not wanting to let it dry out. He had half expected her to flinch away from him, but she sat there obediently, her furry tail whipping against his legs as he pressed his thumbs into her muscles.

To his surprise, she leaned into him, rolling her head back.

That...feels good,” she mumbled, her breathy voice almost inaudible. He began to make slow circles, seeking out the knots in the muscles around her shoulders, loosening her up. She was so rigid, but she almost seemed to melt as he worked up to her neck, a pleasant shiver rolling over her every time he located a problem area.

No claws,” she sighed.

Oh, that’s right,” he realized. “Borealans have claws, you’d never be able to give someone a massage without slicing them up like a Thanksgiving turkey.”

You asked me not to refer to you as Alpha,” she began, sighing again as he relieved the stiffness at the base of her neck. He pushed his fingers deeper, kneading her muscles like dough, her long spine arching. “But you make a better Alpha than you know.”

How so?” he asked, Lozka pausing a moment as he rubbed the base of her skull. Her slippery, silky fur made his fingers glide, as though she had already been coated in massage oil. He watched the defined muscles in her back shift and flex beneath his touch, her coat so fine that it did nothing to obscure her physique, her damp fur reflecting the light from the strips above them to make her shine. She wore nothing but the sling that concealed her bust, leaving most of her upper body exposed save for a scant strip of brown leather.

You are competent, you know your job well. That trait is highly valued in Araxie society. You go out of your way to care for Mizi and I. The other night, you shared your meal with us, cooked for us. You warmed Mizi when you realized that she was suffering in the cold, even though it made you uncomfortable, and it went against your people’s customs.” She loosed a low rumble as he worked out a stubborn knot directly between her shoulder blades, a wave of relaxation seeming to flow through her lithe body. He almost pulled away, but quickly realized that it was an appreciative purr, not an angry growl. “And now, you are working to heal me,” she added.

I dunno if I’d call giving you a neck rub and a pain pill healing you,” he chuckled. “I’m supposed to look after you guys, that’s my job. I’m responsible for you while we’re out here.”

Yet you go beyond what would be required of you,” she replied. “It comes from a place of caring, of compassion. You exhibit all of the traits that the Araxie value in an Alpha.”

Well, I still prefer Commander,” he said as he pulled his hands away. “How does that feel? Any better?”

Much,” she sighed, rolling her shoulders. “I will not require any medication.”

Just let me know if you have any other symptoms,” he said, rising to his feet. The troop ramp began to open again, Mizi stepping into the bay. She brushed some sand off her sleeve, then reached up to remove her helmet with a hermetic hiss. She shook out her sheaths, flexing her colorful feathers.

The armor plate has been repaired as much as I could manage, and I’ve removed the Rask grapple,” she said as she set the helmet on the bench. “Is there something wrong with Lozka?” she added, her plumage erupting in a display of concerned purple.

I am fine,” the Araxie replied, reaching back to rub her neck. “The Commander was merely soothing an ache.”

So, what’s the plan?” the Valbaran asked, glancing at Ben with her violet eyes.

I’ll send a report about what happened with the raiding party, then we resume our mission. We still have a lot of work to do charting a path to the East Gate.”

Then we have no time to waste,” Mizi replied, making her way to the cab.

CHAPTER 7: INTO THE STORM

The raiding party never reported back in,” Crewmaster Lortz said, his hands clasped neatly behind his back as Korbaz marched into the conning tower. The other personnel averted their eyes, staring at the carpet with their heads bowed, anticipating some form of retribution.

What happened?” she demanded, leaning on the table as she examined the holographic display.

The fleet diverted from the Araxie territory as ordered,” he replied, gesturing to the map. “They made their way to the Black Pass, where they reported their plan to engage one of the alien convoys in a dry riverbed. A short while later, we received a report that the party had been routed and that the survivors were withdrawing as per your wishes. We lost contact with them not long after. It seems likely that they were intercepted in the desert, perhaps by Coalition vehicles roving ahead of the main formation.”

Is it possible that the sandstorm is interfering with their communications?” Korbaz suggested.

Unlikely, Admiral. As far as we can determine, they didn’t make it very far beyond the pass. Barring some kind of freak accident, destruction is their most likely fate.”

How many did we lose?” she asked.

That particular raiding party was crewed by two hundred and thirty sailors,” he replied, “but they are acceptable losses.”

Korbaz looked up to glare at him, baring her sharp teeth.

An entire fleet was wiped out to a pack, and you consider those losses acceptable?” she snarled.

M-my apologies, Admiral,” he stammered as his ears began to flatten against his straw-colored hair. “We anticipated significant losses from the outset, and the fleet still accomplished their goal of slowing the enemy advance. They served their Matriarch well.”

In what way is losing more than two hundred of our warriors a favorable outcome?” she hissed as she stalked around the side of the table. A nearby attendant scurried out of her path, the Crewmaster tensing as she neared him. “Would you have our Matriarch rule over a burial pit? What use does our territory have for the dead?”

She struck as fast as lightning, the Crewmaster flinching as her claws raked his cheek. Her hooked talons left a trio of furrows in their wake, which soon began to well with dark blood, spots of crimson dripping to the purple sash that he wore across his chest. The room went as silent as the grave, the tension in the air palpable.

The Crewmaster slowly bowed his head, backing away from her, making himself as inoffensive as possible.

You have failed to carry out my orders to my satisfaction,” she snapped. “Perhaps a fresh scar will remind you to take your duties more seriously in the future.”

Forgive me my transgression, Admiral,” he muttered as blood dripped from his cheek. Only when she had turned away did he raise a hand to stem the bleeding, returning to his place at the table.

We will be within range of the enemy by this time tomorrow,” she continued, examining the holographic representation of the desert. “Contact the carriers and have them prepare their vehicles for combat. One more thing,” she added, pausing on her way to the exit. “The Matriarch made a special request before we parted ways. Instruct the Alphas of the assault force to attempt the capture of a human. They are to be taken unharmed, if possible. We are to return them to the territory as a trophy of our impending victory over the interlopers.”

As you wish, Admiral.”

***

Korbaz made her way to the galley, her stomach growling as she stalked the halls of the crawler. The crew who got in her path seemed to sense her malice, giving her a wide berth.

Had she been right to strike the Crewmaster as she had? It was the Rask way, but something about it made her feel...bad, and she couldn’t quite put her claw on what. The disaster at the Black Pass hadn’t been his fault, after all, but it had been his responsibility. More than that, he had made light of the catastrophic loss of life. Had that always been the position of the Matriarchy’s hierarchy, that those of lower rank were to be expended like ammunition as the situation required? A good Alpha cared for their pack, provided for them, protected them. While such sacrifices were sometimes necessary for the greater good of the territory, this one had not been.

She marched into the prefab structure that housed the galley, where the crew’s meals were prepared and served. It was furnished much like the rest of the crawler, all purple carpets and drapes, wooden chairs lining a large dining table that ran the length of the room. It was piled high with platters of dripping, oily meat, steam rising from the fresh-cooked cuts. There were crystal decanters that glittered in the light of the lamps in the ceiling above, filled to the brim with sweet spirits, clattering slightly as the vibration of the great vehicle’s tracks made the floor vibrate. She could see gourds, bottles of sauces and oils, everything that a Rask feast would require.

Korbaz doubted very much whether the crew of the other crawlers would be eating as heartily, but as the Admiral’s flagship, the Matriarch had spared no expense.

She took a seat at the head of the table, shifting her weight in the padded, silk cushion as she examined the dishes on offer. The other occupants averted their eyes, not wanting to provoke her, what had been boisterous conversations turning to hushed whispers. It was a show of respect, of deference. This was what her high status mandated, so why did it make her feel so...excluded?

Maybe they needed a pep talk.

Tomorrow, we do battle,” she announced. Her voice carried through the room, all ears swiveling in her direction. “For too long, we have allowed the humans to trample on our sovereignty, to mock our way of life. They have denied us our birthright, and we mean to take it back. We will restore our territory to its rightful place as the sole master of the dune seas, and we will avenge the brave warriors who spent their lives today so that we might improve our chances tomorrow.”

She grabbed a nearby decanter, upending the pink liquid into her cup, brandishing it as she rose to her feet.

The humans have a curious custom, they call it a toast,” she said with a sneer. “They raise their glasses in salute to a person or an idea. It is said to bring them good fortune. It is only fitting that we should turn this tradition against them, as we have done their vaunted technology. I propose a toast to our victory over the aliens, that we might crush their forces on the field tomorrow, and send them scurrying back to the safety of their ships. To victory!”

She downed her glass in one gulp, her fellow crewmen mimicking the gesture.

To victory!” they repeated, a little less enthusiastically than she had envisioned.

You there,” she continued, gesturing to a nearby crew member with her empty glass. He was stout, with broad shoulders and a sun-kissed complexion, the badges on his jacket denoting his reasonably advanced rank in the hierarchy. “What dishes do you recommend?”

Dishes, my Admiral?” he asked. He seemed confused and frightened by being singled out, as innocent as her intent was. Her question seemed to have shut down his brain.

Yes, which meat is the most tender tonight? I have been off-planet for longer than I would like, and I am eager to reacquaint myself with the flavors of the homeworld.”

P-perhaps this one would be to your liking, Admiral,” he suggested as he reached for one of the platters. It was the leg of a large herbivore that was native to the Araxie territory, its name escaping her. It must have been brought back by a raiding party shortly before the crawlers had set out. The Araxie jungle was far more lush than that of the Rask territory, the game larger and more succulent. Its flesh had been carved into strips, exposing the pale bone beneath, her mouth watering as she breathed in the scent of the roasted meat. He passed it to her, and she reached out with her black claws, hooking one of the strips. The skin was crisped just the way she liked it, slathered in a generous coating of what smelled like fish oil. She took a large, wet bite, rolling the tender meat across her barbed tongue.

A fine selection,” she said, taking another bite as the crewman seemed to sag with relief.

Where do you hail from, boy?” she asked.

Todizka village, honored Admiral,” he replied.

Todizka,” she muttered, chewing as she considered. “That’s on the Western shore, if I’m not mistaken, not too far from the West Gate.”

You would be correct, Admiral.”

Is there much plunder to be had West of the territory? Are your people eating their fill?”

Not...as of late, my Admiral,” he replied hesitantly.

Well? Speak up,” she continued, hooking another slice of meat and dropping it heavily to her plate. “What problems do they face there?”

To complain would be to question the Matriarch’s wisdom,” he said, stopping just short of wringing his furry hands. “As well as the competence of the ministers who she has appointed to manage the territory.”

Come now, you can express your concerns in my company. It has been many years since I toured the territory, my business has confined me to the capital, or sent me off-world. I would like to know how things have progressed in my absence.”

He hesitated, but it was clear to her that he wanted very badly to speak. She gave him a moment, seasoning her meat with a few drops of oil as she waited for him to muster the courage.

This great endeavor will restore our territory to its former glory,” he began, “to the days when our people were masters of sail and sand. We will be able to take whatever we need, and we will prosper once again. I understand this logic, the Matriarch’s wisdom is undeniable. And yet...building this fleet, arming our soldiers...it was such a great expense. The Matriarch has her reasons, and it is not my place to question her strategy, but I have heard rumors that the treasury is nigh empty.” He stared at his plate, piled high with food. “I would rather eat rations than dine on exotic meats if it meant that my pack and my littermates could go to bed with full bellies.”

Korbaz glanced at the fineries that surrounded them, at the elaborate dishes spread out across the table, at the flowing drapes that cascaded from the ceiling like silken waterfalls. Her people had struggled since contact with the humans had changed the power dynamic on Borealis, this was true. Elysia’s influence had been spreading, making the trade routes far more secure. The concessions that the Matriarchy had made in order to gain access to the same technology that was quickly making Elysia Borealis’ sole superpower had further impacted the Rask economy. What piracy and raiding still went on was in violation of the Coalition charter, and had to be done in secret.

This war was to be their breakout, the Matriarch had been building her forces for so long, biding her time until the perfect moment to strike. Weapons, crawlers, missiles. These things were all necessary elements of their strategy, but what of silken drapes? What of succulent meats imported from Araxie? These vehicles were a show of force and status as much as they were military weapons, but if the outlying villages were suffering, should those resources not be diverted to help the needy?

Trust in the Matriarch,” Korbaz replied, concealing her own doubts so reflexively that she even surprised herself. “Once we snatch victory from the hands of our enemies, wealth will flow into our territory once again.”

Of course,” he replied, bowing his head. “I have...complete faith.”

Korbaz resumed her meal, leaving the crewman a little less reassured than she had intended. There was nothing to be done about it right now, better to just take her mind off it.

More meat,” she declared, waving to one of the attendants. Another hunk of steaming flesh was placed before her, dripping with juices that pooled on the plate beneath it. She hesitated for a moment, then dug in, pausing to lick the flavored oils from her furry fingers as she feasted. There was little conversation to be had at the table, the respect of her underlings manifested as silence. Memories of the recreation center on the Pinwheel flashed before her mind’s eye, the sounds of merriment, music, and laughter.

She would be going to bed alone again tonight. Sure, she could have her pick of the crew, not one of them would dare refuse her. Her bed could be overflowing with young, beautiful warriors if that was what she wished. Somehow, that idea merely bored her. She hadn’t the stomach to be fawned over by servile, cowering bedmates right now.

The attendant refilled her cup, Korbaz swirling the pink liquid around in her glass, peering into it as though it might contain the answers that she sought.

***

The storm hammered the hull with airborne particles, the noise audible even through the layers of armor. It sounded like a hailstorm from hell beating down on a tin roof.

I gotta crank up the headlights,” Mizi muttered, squinting at her displays. “I can hardly see where I’m going, the dust so so thick...”

The beams of light barely served to cut through the sepia haze, limiting their visibility to maybe fifty or sixty meters. The wind blew sand from the dunes, creating streams in the air.

We should stop here,” Ben suggested. “It’s gonna be night soon, and visibility will get even worse. We can’t scout if we can’t see. Mizi, find us some nice tall dunes to hide behind.”

They pulled between two towering mounds of sand that offered them some measure of protection from the storm, Ben instructing Mizi to remain inside while he and Lozka went out to secure the camouflaged netting. He collected a few items before he opened the bay door, including an armful of what looked like stakes with electronic components on one end.

What are those for?” Lozka asked, securing her goggles as the door began to lower.

They’re proximity sensors,” he replied. “We’re not going to be able to see shit in this, so it’s kind of pointless to have anyone on watch, and we can’t get a drone up. These will alert us if anyone gets inside the perimeter.”

A wise decision,” she replied, stepping out into the storm with her mesh cloak wrapped tightly around her. Now that darkness was falling, it was almost like being in the midst of a blizzard, a whiteout in shades of orange.

Lozka, do me a favor and go fetch me one of the reinforced cables we use for towing,” he said, his voice crackling as it came through his helmet’s external speakers. “I want to tie it to my belt before I go out there to plant the sensors. I’m worried about getting turned around, I won’t even be able to see the Timberwolf after maybe fifty meters.”

She did as he asked, and he clipped it to his belt with a carabiner, beginning his march out into the desert as she held onto the other end. He had to lean into the wind to save from being knocked off balance, the sand hammering at his visor as he trudged along. It seemed enough to blind a person, he’d have to remember to remind everyone to wear their protective gear before any EVAs. The loose sand was difficult to walk in, again reminding him of snow as he sank up to his ankles, leaning over to stab the sensors into the ground at intervals. The devices linked together through an ad-hoc network, using their sensors to detect anything moving nearby, above or below ground. They were originally intended to detect Bugs that were tunneling beneath the surface. They’d certainly be buried come morning, but the Timberwolf was stocked with a lot of them, enough that losing a couple of dozen wasn’t a big deal. After creating a hundred-meter perimeter as best he could manage, he made his way back along the line, squinting through the haze. The vague shadow of the Timberwolf finally took form, Lozka reeling him in like a fisherman as she came back into view.

Alright,” he panted, “let’s get the Wolf battened down. With any luck, we won’t have to dig ourselves out of a sand drift tomorrow.”

***

When they returned to the safety of the troop bay, Mizi was waiting for them with her legs locked, a collection of MRE packets laid out on the mattresses before her. She was manipulating them with both her hands and the feather sheaths on her forearms, the odd appendages reaching out to grip the plastic sleeves like tentacles, giving her short arms more reach. She slotted one of them into a flameless ration heater, passing it to her three-fingered hands before shaking it to get the chemical reaction going. She was wrapped up in one of the sleeping bags again. With the sandstorm blocking the sunlight, the temperature had dropped even quicker than they were used to.

Time to eat,” she announced, greeting them with a flash of pink. “I took the liberty of preparing our meal. Hot food went down so well last time, and...well, Val’ba’ra’nay flocks usually eat together. It makes me feel more at ease.”

You figured out how to use the ration heaters?” Ben asked, attempting to shake some of the sand out of the creases in his pressure suit.

Sure, I watched you cook last time.”

My people are also social eaters,” Lozka replied, shrugging off her camouflaged cloak. It had done a decent job of shielding her from the worst of the storm, but damp fur and sand didn’t go well together, and some of it was sticking to her coat. It seemed to irritate her, the alien growling as she tried to brush it off. “It would be nice to share a meal,” she added, planting herself on the mattress beside her Valbaran counterpart. They were so comically mismatched, the Araxie was near twice the Valbaran’s height.

Mizi beamed as she handed her a steaming packet of food, Lozka lifting it to her nose, filling her lungs with its scent. She fished inside and speared a cube of nondescript meat on her claw, bringing it to her mouth. The little alien passed another cardboard sleeve to Ben as he sat across from them, crossing his legs. It was beef ravioli, not bad.

As I was telling Lozka,” he began, picking up a plastic fork as he started to dig in. “We can’t see anything in the storm, and I’ve set up a perimeter using the motion sensors, so we’ll get an alert if anyone comes within a hundred meters of us. There’s no need for anyone to be on watch, so we can all get six or seven hours of sleep tonight. Eat up, then get some rest, these opportunities are usually few and far between in a warzone.”

Mizi had been heating up some water as well, carefully pouring the boiling liquid into a pair of cups. One was more cranberry juice, while the other was hot cocoa, Ben reaching out to take the latter from one of her flexible tendrils.

I miss eating with my flock like this,” she said, wriggling deeper into her sleeping back as she blew on her hot juice. “There was a round dining table in the living area of our house back in Pilbara, my home city, and all six of us would crowd around it whenever we ate. It would be strewn with all kinds of dishes. Bowls full of vegetables and fish raised in the hydroponic farms, grains, flame-roasted meats if it was the right season. We’d pass the food and seasonings around without needing to be asked. We all knew what the others liked, you see, what their favorites were. A flock is like a family, but closer, more intimate. We know each other as well as we know ourselves.”

Like best friends?” Ben asked, popping a piece of ravioli into his mouth.

More than that,” she replied, her eyes seeming to lose their focus as she looked through him. “Imagine finding a group of people who are so like you that you finish each other’s sentences, you know what they’re thinking and feeling without ever needing to ask. It’s a kind of...platonic love, but not entirely. You always have unconditional support, you’re never alone. It’s a friend, a colleague, a family, all rolled into one. I never saw these concepts as separate until I started to interact with humans.”

Sounds nice,” he said, taking a sip of his hot cocoa. “But don’t you ever need a break? Don’t you want to be alone sometimes?”

No,” she chuckled.

You must miss them terribly,” Lozka said, Mizi sparing her a glance. Her feathers flashed purple, betraying her feelings before she had even opened her scaly lips.

Indeed I do. Separation has been...painful, but we knew what we were getting ourselves into when we signed up.” She took a long draw from her cup, savoring the taste before continuing. “It’s not unheard of for a Val’ba’ra’nay to be separated from their flock. The leaders of my people, the Ensi, are often required to work alone. They have a great many responsibilities that take them all over the city, and solitude is a burden that they sometimes must bear. I just have to keep telling myself that we’ll be reunited soon.” She smiled again, glancing between the two of them, a thought seeming to cheer her up. “You two make me feel better. We work well together, right?”

We’ve fucked up a lot of Rask,” Ben chuckled. “I’d say we make a pretty good team.”

I too have been separated from my pack,” Lozka said. “Our social bonds are not as strong as yours, Mizi'pal'otl, and I do not suffer in their absence as you do. But still, this situation is...unusual for my people.”

Then, we should keep one another company,” Mizi chirped.

They ate their fill, the meal warming them, helping to stave off the pervasive cold. There had been few opportunities to relax so far, it was nice to just sit around and do...nothing. Lozka fished inside one of the many leather pouches that were strapped to her belt, pulling out a fine-toothed comb that had been fashioned from some kind of fibrous wood. She began to run it through her fur, combing away the sand that was still clinging to her damp coat. Mizi cocked her head, watching curiously for a minute or two, then she extended a tiny hand.

Lozka peered down at her, raising an eyebrow silently, then passed her the comb. The little alien reached up to pull down the nearby bench, clutching her sleeping bag tightly as she hopped up onto it, putting herself behind the Araxie at about shoulder level. She reached out to groom her companion, running the fine teeth through her silky fur, cleaning away the sand where Lozka couldn’t reach.

Why is it wet?” she asked, Ben snorting into his cup of cocoa. He’d been wondering that for days, and Mizi had simply come out and asked it. They both spared him a curious glance, then returned to their conversation.

It is sweat,” Lozka explained. “My people perspire continuously, as having wet fur helps keep us cool in the hot, humid environment of our territory.”

Is it making you cold right now?” Mizi continued.

Somewhat,” she replied.

Ben leaned back against the hull as he watched them interact for a while, nursing his drink. They made such a mismatched pair, yet their ways of life were so oddly compatible, they seemed so relaxed around each other. He realized that he was sitting apart from them, as far away as he could conceivably get in the cramped troop bay. Maybe he should loosen up a little. Sleeping with Mizi hadn’t been so bad, had it?

The Araxie have different customs when it comes to feasts,” Lozka said, seeming to enjoy the sensation of Mizi’s gentle combing. “In his wisdom, Patriarch Bozka commissioned the construction of a communal dining hall, fashioned from the trunk of a felled tree. Our artisans carved it in a single piece, tables, chairs, and all. There is food being prepared there at all times of the night, the fire pits are always burning, and anyone in the village is welcome to eat their fill.”

What about you, Commander?” Mizi asked.

Uh...well, you’ve seen the mess hall on the Okinawa. That’s about as close to social eating as I get. Actually, back in the day, me and my family used to get together for Thanksgiving. This was back before I joined the UNN.”

Thanks giving?” Mizi asked.

It’s a holiday,” he explained, “kind of a traditional celebration back where I come from. My parents had this big old dining table made from oak, lord knows where they got something like that, it was probably passed down from my grandparents.” He paused to take another draw from his cup, staring at the ceiling as he reminisced. “Anyway, my mom would cook up a whole turkey for the occasion, a kind of Earth bird, along with all the trimmings. Stuffing, gravy, roast potatoes. It was pretty much the only time of year besides Christmas that I’d see any of my relatives. We’d catch up on who’d been married or divorced in the last year, who’d had kids, things like that. Everyone would crowd around the table and demolish the meal in a couple of hours.”

And now?” Lozka asked, Ben setting down his empty cup.

That was a long time ago,” he replied, “I don’t get back home much these days. I guess the Navy has become my surrogate family, in a way.”

Perhaps humans are not as solitary as we have been led to believe,” Lozka mused, Mizi giggling as she began to run the comb through her hair. She paused every so often to tap it with one of her dull claws, shaking the sand from its teeth.

Ben caught himself yawning, pausing to check the time on his wrist display.

We should turn in,” he suggested. “It’s a little early, but a full night of sleep is going to do us wonders.”

The Val’ba’ra’nay commonly sleep for around six hours anyway,” Mizi said with a shrug.

And I am nocturnal,” Lozka added.

We’re all going to have a very deep and fulfilling sleep,” he insisted, rising to his feet and starting to take off his suit. “That’s an order.”

Aren’t you cold?” Mizi asked, watching as he pulled down his zipper to expose the tank top that he was wearing beneath it.

Yeah, but my pressure suit is covered in sand thanks to the storm. I don’t want to get that shit in my sleeping bag, I’ll never get it out.”

As he shuffled into his sleeping bag, lying down on the far side of the cab, he watched Lozka and Mizi go through their own routine. Mizi was keeping her tight-fitting suit on again thanks to the cold, while Lozka was wearing so little that disrobing would be kind of moot. Maybe her revealing getup was something to do with letting her sweat evaporate more easily?

Lozka returned the bench to its stowed position, then sat down on the mattresses with her back to the hull, draping her oversized sleeping bag about her broad shoulders like a cape. She opened her arms to her companion, who climbed into her furry lap.

Mizi was so uninhibited, resting her scaly cheek against the leather sling that covered Lozka’s bust, so short that she didn’t even reach the feline’s neck while sitting on one of her round thighs. Lozka wrapped an arm around her, then closed her sleeping bag around them both, zipping it up so that Mizi was completely buried. Ben could see her shifting beneath the fabric, getting comfortable.

Hang on, I’ll get the lights,” he said as he struggled out of his bag. He made his way to a console on the wall and hit one of the switches, the light strips in the ceiling shutting off, plunging them into relative darkness. The only illumination now came from the glow of the monitors in the cab, bleeding into the troop bay. He returned to his sleeping bag, zipping it up, shivering in the gloom as he tried to get comfortable.

After a few minutes, he noticed that Lozka was watching him. Her reflective, green eyes pierced the shadows, shining like mirrors as they caught the light.

Commander, you are shivering,” she began. “You may join us if you do not find our company objectionable. There is room.”

I don’t find your company objectionable,” he sighed, attempting to withdraw his head into his sleeping bag like a turtle into its shell. “It’s just...not what humans do.”

Come to think of it, why the hell was he objecting to begin with? Why was he being so stubborn? Sleeping together was part of both of their social experiences, it was normal for them, expected. It wasn’t normal to him, but they had both gone so far outside of their comfort zones just to be here, so why wasn’t he willing to do the same? They fought together, they ate together, why was this any different? Just because he was applying his own human hangups to the idea? Besides, he was cold…

Oh, alright,” he muttered. Lozka lifted her eyes, peering at him across the bay as he began to climb out of his sleeping bag. “There’s no point me lying here freezing my ass off.”

Her round ears twitched in what might be surprise, but she seemed pleased, hooking her zipper in her claw and slowly lowering it. Mizi stirred, opening her jaws to yawn as she was jostled awake, blinking at him groggily. Her eyes widened when she saw that he was coming to join them, her headdress erupting in a display of vibrant pink plumage. Their feathery tips brushed Lozka’s black nose, the Araxie pulling back, her eyes narrowing as though she was about to sneeze.

You changed your mind?” Mizi asked, Ben wrapping his arms around his torso as he neared. He felt rather foolish, he wasn’t exactly dressed appropriately in his tank top and shorts. Then again, he wasn’t wearing any less than Lozka was, even if she carried herself with a lot more dignity than he did.

What can I say? You two wore me down.”

Mizi hopped out of Lozka’s lap as the Araxie began to move, repositioning herself now that more of the bay was available. She lay on her back on the mattresses, her long, lithe body stretching almost its entire length. She beckoned to him with a clawed finger, Ben lowering himself down beside her, hesitating for a moment before laying his head on her shoulder. Her fur was like silk against his reddening cheek, near as smooth as skin, its slight dampness making it subtly slippery. He lurched as he felt her wrap an arm around him, drawing him closer to her, her sweat making her coat stick to his tank top as it pressed against her torso. She smelled of exertion, but not unpleasantly so. There was a lingering hint of soap or maybe perfume that smelled like blackberries, a remnant of a bathing regimen that she had foregone over the last couple of days, perhaps.

He wasn’t sure where to put his hands. This was unfamiliar territory to him, he didn’t know anything about Araxie slumber party etiquette. Lozka seemed perplexed by his reluctance, hugging him a little tighter, taking his hand in hers and draping it across her midriff. He could barely reach halfway around her, her core was so much thicker than that of a human. Beneath her velvet fur, he felt two rows of smooth muscle flex at his touch, their firmness contrasting with a physique that was otherwise unexpectedly soft and inviting. She was so warm, her massive body putting out heat like some kind of oversized hot water bottle, drawing him in.

Mizi shed her sleeping bag, curling up in Lozka’s other arm like a scaly cat, draping her long tail about the Araxie’s midriff. As Lozka pulled her a little closer, the reptile lay her lower jaw on the feline’s torso, just beneath the leather sling that concealed her bosom. She blinked her violet eyes at Ben, her pink feathers standing erect.

I’m glad you decided to join us,” she whispered, pausing to open her mouth in a yawn that exposed her sharp little teeth. “I know that this isn’t part of your culture and that it doesn’t hold any special meaning for you, but...” She trailed off, a hint of purple creeping into her vibrant pink. “It’s like being part of a real flock again.”

You fret like furless kittens,” Lozka mumbled, her resonating voice traveling up through Ben’s jaw. “Be still now.”

Now that everyone was comfortable, Lozka draped her tent-like sleeping bag over them to serve as a blanket, plunging Ben and Mizi into darkness. There was some shifting and shuffling, but as they settled, their combined warmth began to fill the little pocket that they had created together.

The rhythmic drumbeat of Lozka’s massive heart and her deep breathing had an oddly hypnotic quality, the warmth of her body staving off the cold. His head rose and fell along with her chest, the texture of her fur reminding him of a velvet pillow, every breath that he took filling his lungs with her oddly pleasing scent. The slick nature of her coat made him want to run his hand across it, to trace the contours of the muscles beneath, but he tried to suppress such thoughts. He had almost forgotten how it felt to share a bed with someone, maybe he really should take more shore leave…

As fatigue got the better of him, he was able to forget his lingering awkwardness, letting his body relax into her warm embrace.

***

A loud beeping roused Ben from his peaceful sleep, the sound echoing through the bay. For a moment, he didn’t remember where he was. He was hugging what felt like a warm, silky body pillow, inky darkness surrounding him.

He suddenly jolted awake, Lozka sitting upright, the makeshift blanket sliding off them to expose him to the lingering cold. Mizi blinked her eyes groggily, her feathers flashing purple and yellow in a blend of surprise and worry as she propped herself up on her elbow. With no windows, it was impossible to tell if it was day or night, the troop bay was still gloomy.

Something’s tripped one of the proximity sensors,” Ben warned, jumping to his feet and making his way into the cab. “If this is another fucking sand spider, I’m going to go out there to make a shish kebab out of it with a goddamned tent pole.”

Lozka peered over his shoulder as he slid into his seat, Mizi climbing up her back to get a better view, wrapping her little arms around the Araxie’s neck for purchase. He brought up the camera feeds from the relevant sensors, half a dozen of them displaying in separate windows on the trio of monitors. It was morning, but the storm was so thick that it was hard to make anything out, the compressed video creating blocky artifacts as it tried to record the blowing sand. As they watched, a dark object emerged, tripping the alarms again as it passed them by. Its size and the way that it seemed to glide along the sand told him that this was no native animal. It was a vehicle.

Another passed by, then another, all of them heading in an Easterly direction. The sepia haze was suddenly full of half-glimpsed silhouettes, impossible to make out in any real detail, each one headed back the way that the Timberwolf had come.

Is that...a herd of creatures?” Mizi wondered. She sounded hopeful, but Ben guessed that she had already figured it out.

No,” Lozka replied, her tone dour. “That is a Rask raiding party.”

That’s a big raiding party,” Ben muttered as he watched the monitors. The ominous shadows just kept coming, and these were only the ones close enough for the cameras to make out. “The proximity sensors are about a hundred meters away from us, and I’d wager that those vehicles are out another forty of fifty, based on the visibility we had yesterday. If we’d parked up just a little further South...”

They would have run right into us,” Mizi added, her feathers flashing a deep purple.

Our vehicle is well-camouflaged, and the sandstorm limits their visibility as much as it does ours,” Lozka added. “The winds will have erased any tracks that we made last night. We shall be safe so long as we remain hidden.”

I gotta agree,” Ben replied. “Wooden canoes or no, we can’t take on so many, and it’s not our job to do so. Once they’ve moved off, I’ll send an emergency report to the column, let them know they’ve got hostiles incoming. Those guys are moving with purpose, they know where they’re going. They’ll cross paths with the tanks in less than a day going at that speed.”

Do you believe they mean to attack the convoy?” Lozka asked.

I don’t see where else they could be headed,” he muttered, watching the dark shapes drive by.

***

The crawlers have all reported their readiness, Admiral,” the Crewmaster said as he stood beside the holographic projection. The cuts on his cheek had all but vanished, little more than knitted, pink flesh now. Violence was a normal and expected component of Rask social interaction, and their resistance to injury was one of the reasons that the humans so coveted them as auxiliaries. “The assault teams that were deployed from the carriers are nearing their targets, while the battleships Earthquake and Landslide stand ready to fire on your command. They are holding at two hundred kilometers.”

Good,” Korbaz muttered, her yellow eyes scanning the map. “Remind their Crewmasters to keep moving. They should never be stationary for too long, it could make them easier to track. My Chief Engineer assures me that the battleships will be safe from return fire, but we cannot be too careful. Vitza,” she added, beckoning to him with a clawed finger. He scurried closer to the table, keeping his head bowed.

Yes, my Admiral?”

You said that the Coalition artillery pieces would not pose a threat at these ranges, yes?”

They can hit targets out to around one hundred and twenty kilometers,” he explained, “only a quarter the maximum range of our main guns. There should be no danger of return fire from anything on the ground as long as the battleships maintain their distance, and the sandstorm will mask our presence from their orbital sensors. If I might make a humble suggestion, Admiral?”

Yes, yes,” she replied with an impatient wave of her hand.

We should not think ourselves invisible. It is likely that the aliens will narrow down the locations of our battleships once they expose themselves, even without the aid of their spacecraft, and their vehicles are many times faster than our crawlers. In the open desert, so far from inhabited areas, they may dare to fire blindly from space. If luck favors them, such saturation attacks could prove deadly.”

We will need eyes on the ground to feed the battleships targeting data before they can fire,” the Crewmaster added. “We must make our limited munitions count.”

Our first blow must be decisive,” Korbaz continued as she leaned over the table to examine the floating icons. She reached out a hand, passing her claws through the holographic markers that displayed the likely locations of the enemy vehicles, watching them shimmer. “We must leave them too crippled to retaliate.” She paused for a moment, the conning tower going deathly silent as they waited for her next edict. “We have a good idea of the whereabouts of their convoys, yes?”

To as reasonable a degree as we can ascertain,” the Crewmaster replied. “We have scouts moving ahead of the assault teams who will report their exact coordinates shortly.”

Then we are as prepared as we can be, and the conditions will not become any more favorable,” she said as she rose to full height. “Begin the attack.”

CHAPTER 8: THE DUNE SEA

I can’t see shit,” Cooper complained, peering through his scope as he cycled through view modes using the bulky switches on his console. FLIR, infrared, night vision. Nothing could penetrate the swirling sand that choked the air.

If this is going to go down like the ambush in the massif, then it’s gonna be like shooting clay pigeons,” the Sergeant replied. “The Rask threw everything they had at us, and they barely scratched our paint.”

Yeah, well we don’t want to let them surround us either,” Cooper replied. He leaned over to give his commander a tap on the shoulder with his prosthetic arm. “Trust me, mate. Been there, done that, got the bloody t-shirt.”

Just keep your eyes on the kill zone,” he said. “They’re supposed to be coming in from the West, but they may try to flank to our South.”

Charlie company was at the bottom of a three-pronged defensive formation, with Bravo and Alpha positioned North of them. The three mechanized companies had created a wall in anticipation of the Rask assault, with the Yagda and its accompanying artillery company far to their rear. The Kodiaks were spaced out far enough that they could only just see one another in the haze, positioned hull-down to make themselves harder to hit, their armor covered with camouflaged netting. Between them were dugouts that ran along the crests of the dunes, little more than foxholes that would provide some measure of cover for the huddling infantry, their rifles aimed at the slope below. Their IFVs were nearby, their own netting blowing in the wind as they stood ready to provide support for their squads.

No satellite imaging, no drones, low vis,” Barry muttered from the driver’s seat below. “How are we supposed to see them coming?”

God gave you organics for a reason,” the Sergeant replied.

The minutes ticked by, nothing but blowing sand filling Cooper’s viewfinder. The waiting was wearing thin on him, so many hours of nothing, followed by short bursts of frenetic battle.

Something suddenly lit up the swirling dust from somewhere above, Cooper switching to the Kodiak’s external cameras to see what was going on. From far to their rear, a stream of bright tracer fire illuminated the sky, the light diffused by the storm to make it fuzzy and indistinct. It was a CIWS gun, painting glowing trails as it weaved back and forth, trying to intercept something. There was an explosion, glowing like the sun as seen through an overcast sky, slowly fading as he watched.

What the fuck was that?” he asked. The Sergeant had a finger to his helmet, Cooper waiting for an update.

The Yagda’s CIWS is picking up incoming,” he replied, “something big just tried to hit us.”

How big?” Barry asked from below. “The Rask aren’t supposed to have anything big!”

The gun began to fire again, spitting what looked like streams of glowing sparks into the roiling clouds. This time, there was a sound like a thundercrack, followed by a series of explosions that shook the ground beneath their vehicle.

Got multiple incoming!” the commander yelled.

The CIWS was weaving all over the place, the sky must be full of targets. Cooper watched as there was an explosion off to their right, about where Bravo company’s defensive line should be. The light of what must be some kind of cluster bomb penetrated the storm, a series of brief flashes silhouetting the distant tanks against the sepia haze. More were hitting further up the line, their impacts shaking the dunes, the Marines in the nearby dugout hunkering down in alarm. The sound was deafening, even through the hull of the tank, every impact making Cooper’s seat vibrate. Fires raged in the distance now, at least a few of their vehicles had taken hits.

They’re hitting our lines with some kind of ballistic missile barrage,” the Sergeant added.

How do they know where we are?” Barry asked frantically. “How can they see us if we can’t see them?”

Maybe they can’t?” Cooper suggested. “That last one hit way behind our lines, they might only have a vague idea of our position.”

High above their tank, a dark ring of smoke created a brief opening in the storm, a loud crack that echoed through the desert lagging behind it.

Heads up!” the Sergeant yelled. The dunes around them seemed to erupt, great plumes of sand hurled high into the air as half a dozen submunitions impacted around them. It felt like their Kodiak was being picked up and shaken by the hand of an angry God, Cooper jostling in his seat as what sounded like shrapnel dinged off their armor plating. A moment later, a shower of sand rained back down on them, Cooper looking through his scope frantically as the smoke and dust began to clear.

The Marines to their right seemed okay, their dugout had done its job, but their IFV had taken a pretty bad hit. There was a massive tear in its hull where a jagged piece of metal had penetrated it, the armor pocked with smaller holes. Some of those submunitions had landed close, too close. Cooper could make out some of the craters that surrounded them, scattered about in a random pattern, most concentrated further down the dune that they were using as cover.

Is...is that the end of it?” Barry asked hesitantly.

They waited with bated breath, Cooper clenching his prosthetic hand to stop it from trembling. Only the low rumble of their engine penetrated the eerie silence, Cooper listening to his own labored breathing inside his helmet. He checked his flak jacket briefly, ensuring that the straps were tightly fastened.

Another projectile impacted to their left, only missing the Kodiak by a measure of a dozen meters. It hit the sand with so much energy that it created a brief flash of light that threatened to blow out the cameras on their port side. A blast wave rocked the tank on its tracks, sand hammering their hull like buckshot. When Cooper was able to look again, he saw that the crater the object had left in its wake had filled in with a dark material that resembled reflective, black ice. The intense heat had melted the sand, turning it to glass.

Railguns!” he yelled, covering his helmeted head as another strike rocked them. They were falling from the sky like a meteor shower, impacting all around them, their intense kinetic energy seeming to turn the world inside-out. One of the Kodiaks down the line to their right took a direct hit, the tungsten penetrator cutting through its armored hull like a hot blade through butter, molten shrapnel spraying. The tank’s chassis immediately ruptured, torn open like pot metal under the immense forces, its massive turret thrown into the air by the impact. The ground beneath it erupted, lifting the entire vehicle a few feet off the sand as though a mine had gone off beneath its tracks, the projectile dumping the rest of its energy into the dune. The turret landed heavily beside the wreck as it began to burn, its fuel cells cooking off, dark smoke billowing into the air.

Another hit one of the dugouts, the huddling Marines simply disappearing in a spray of sand as they were all but vaporized. It was close enough to catch the Kodiak, Cooper gritting his teeth as their tank was lifted off the ground in a spray of melting sand. His stomach lurched, they were in motion, but there was such chaos around him that he couldn’t tell what was happening. He gripped whatever handholds he could reach, bracing himself as he was shaken and jolted.

When they finally came to a stop, and the dust began to clear, he saw that all of the cameras on their right flank had been destroyed. He switched to the view from the commander’s blister instead, realizing that they were now at the bottom of the dune, the deep furrows that they had left in the slope clearly marking their path. The railgun salvo had all but demolished the crest upon which Charlie had been positioned, like kicking over a sandcastle at the beach. None of the other vehicles were in sight now.

Sarge!” Cooper yelled, reaching over to shake the commander. “Sarge! You alright?”

He shifted in his seat, giving a weak thumbs-up.

What happened?” he asked, his face obscured behind his visor.

We slid down the dune,” Cooper explained. “Barry!” he added, stamping his boot on the deck. “Barry, are you alive, you cunt?”

I’m okay!” he yelled back, “but Sheila’s fucked. The right track is gone, and I’m getting nothing from the bloody engine. That impact must have shaken something loose, or fried one of the motors. Fuck knows.”

Run a diagnostic,” the Sergeant ordered, taking control of the blister. “Damn it, we aren’t going anywhere with a thrown track. We need to get back into formation.”

Do we even have a defensive line anymore?” Cooper asked, gripping his joystick as he angled the turret to the West. “The dune is gone, I got no eyes on friendlies.”

Bloody hell, we’ve lost the right gun pod too,” the Sergeant grumbled. “Fucker was ripped right off. The blister is working, I got the thirty-mil, the grenade launcher, and the mortar online.”

The turret is fine,” Cooper added. “Left gun pod is still working.”

They were softening us up,” the Sergeant growled, “breaking our lines before they send in their troops. Where the fuck were they firing from? There are no bases out here. They couldn’t have built any in secret, our satellites would have spotted them.”

Wait,” Cooper muttered, narrowing his eyes as he saw movement through his viewfinder. There was something in the storm, dark shapes moving just out of view.

You got something?” the Sergeant asked, turning to his own display.

Bearing two-eight-five, thought I saw movement...”

The shadows took form, a line of charging Rask emerging from the dust. There must have been two dozen soldiers, their bayonets at the ready as they raced forward, clad in a blend of black Shock Trooper armor and traditional leather. Behind them came a wheeled vehicle, a human flatbed that had been stripped down and crudely rebuilt to accommodate an alien driver. The front of the truck was clearly original, with a pair of sweeping headlights, the hood curved and streamlined. Everything from the windshield back had been crudely welded and riveted together out of thick armored plating, sprayed over with a desert camouflage pattern. Leather saddlebags hung from the chassis, and there was an extra fuel tank attached at the rear, a snaking hose trailing beneath the drive train. The massive shocks bounced as it rolled forward on its treaded tires, more aliens advancing alongside it. On the bed at the rear was mounted an XMR of the type usually wielded by Krell auxiliaries, a massive light machinegun with a gun shield positioned just behind the barrel.

They were headed for what had once been the crest, but the presence of the Kodiak surprised them, the aliens changing direction as they began to point and yell.

Open up on them!” the commander bellowed, hitting the trigger on his joystick. The thirty-millimeter railgun sprayed the Rask with molten tungsten, tearing through their ranks, the aliens dropping as he cut a swathe through the formation. They were already returning fire, the telltale ring of XMR rounds bouncing off the tank’s armor echoing.

The technical jerked to a stop, rocking on its suspension, the gunner turning the LMG in their direction. The magnetic coils that lined its long barrel began to glow red as it sprayed them, impacting the damaged right side of the Kodiak. A squad of Rask got the picture, taking cover behind the truck, peeking out to take potshots where the armor was weakened.

These guys aren’t as dumb as the others!” Cooper yelled over the din. “Watch our left, there’s another group flanking!”

The Sergeant swung his turret, warding off a group who had been trying to sneak around them, turning them to red mist. The storm was so dense that they could only see maybe fifty meters in any direction. The enemy could come at them from any angle, and they wouldn’t know it until they were right on top of them.

Take out that truck!” the Sergeant ordered, Cooper spinning his turret to face the technical. The Rask scattered, recognizing a railgun barrel when they saw one, Cooper pulling the trigger on his joystick. The injured tank shuddered as a sabot was accelerated down the barrel, the projectile obliterating the jury-rigged vehicle, fragments of shattered metal spraying. The charred remains rolled across the ground, a few dismembered Rask who had been caught in the blast staining the sand red.

We’re running on battery power!” Barry warned. “I’m reading no charge from the fuel cells. There could be a hundred things wrong with it, but we’re not generating any power.”

How long will our reserves last?” the Sergeant demanded, firing off a mortar. The shell whistled through the air, landing a short distance away, the flash of light illuminating the silhouettes of more advancing Rask.

No bloody clue,” Barry replied. “Not long!”

Cooper spun his turret, slightly off-kilter thanks to their position on the sloping dune, firing his gun pod at another group who had emerged from the obscuring dust.

Well, that’s just great,” he complained as the auto-loader moved another sabot into the main gun’s barrel. “What the fuck do we do when we run out of juice?”

We’ll deal with that problem when we come to it!” the Sergeant replied, his eyes fixed on his display as he gunned down a Rask who had been taking cover behind the twisted wreckage of the truck. “Right now, focus on keeping us alive!”

There was fighting in the distance now, flashes of light, gunfire ringing out. There must be Rask attacking all three companies, taking advantage of the confusion created by their artillery strike.

Bearing three-fifteen, another vehicle!” the Sergeant warned. Cooper was already traversing his turret to face it, spotting what looked like an old PDF armored personnel carrier emerging from the haze, its tracks churning up the sand. It had been painted with the same slapdash desert camo, its bulky hull reinforced with riveted armor plating. It had no turret, it was little more than a glorified police vehicle. The troops had dismounted, and they were making their way alongside it, using it as mobile cover. Those were not Rask tactics, they had no armored vehicles of their own. Either these cats were Navy-trained, or those who had been through their integration training had passed that knowledge on to others. Were there Rask instructors out here training the locals in UNN tactics?

He selected an armor-piercing sabot, the auto-loader slotting it into place, his prosthetic finger pulling the trigger on his joystick. There was an unusual flash of light from the end of the barrel as the Kodiak rocked, the round creating a shower of sparks as it hit the front armor of the APC, going through it like wet paper. The vehicle rolled to a stop, its squad breaking for cover. Anything inside it had just been turned to pulp.

I think the bloody plasma compensator on the barrel just fell off!” Cooper said, loading another shell.

Doesn’t matter,” the Sergeant replied. “Do you see any friendlies nearby? Keep firing!”

I think our comms were damaged!” Barry called out from beneath them. “I can’t get any reception on the local channels, trying the ad-hoc on my suit.”

They’re gonna overrun us if we don’t get a call through,” the Sergeant muttered. “We need backup.” There was a thunk as he fired the mortar, the shell landing a dozen meters away from them. Its flash silhouetted another group of Rask, their bodies hurled into the air by the explosion. He followed it up with a barrage of thirty-millimeter rounds, the slugs dismembering a squad of aliens who were trying to charge them, the hypervelocity projectiles severing limbs and creating clouds of red mist. Cooper helped him out, spraying a stream of twenty-millimeter caseless rounds from his gun pod. They weren’t nearly as devastating as a railgun, but the conventional bullets were still deadly against soft targets, a handful more of the aliens stumbling to the sand as green tracers bounced into the air.

Something hit their hull hard, ringing it like a bell. Cooper was jolted in his seat, straightening his helmet as he searched frantically for the source of the attack.

The fuck was that?” Barry demanded.

That’s gotta be anti-material,” Cooper replied, cursing as he scanned the dunes. Another round hit them, digging deep into their armor, the muzzle flash giving away the shooter’s position. “Got em, fifteen degrees high.” He fired an explosive sabot, creating a shower of molten shrapnel on the adjacent slope, the wind quickly carrying away the dark smoke.

They’re retreating!” the Sergeant announced, a muffled cheer coming from Barry. Cooper watched through his scope as what Rask remained in sight retreated from view, fading into the storm until their silhouettes vanished in the blowing dust.

The seconds crawled by as they waited, watching for any sign of movement. Had the Rask really given up? They had lost the element of surprise, having encountered a tank where they hadn’t expected one to be. Even damaged and disabled, a Kodiak presented an almost insurmountable obstacle if one didn’t have the firepower on hand to crack its armor effectively.

They’re coming back!” Cooper shouted. From beyond the haze came a wall of vehicles. There were half a dozen at least, more outdated APCs, and crudely modified technicals. Between them were columns of Rask warriors, breaking into a run as they advanced alongside their vehicles. They began to hammer the front armor, both with fire from their rifles and with the heavier weapons that were mounted on their trucks. Sparks flew as the slugs impacted, the ping of ricochets, and the crack of electromagnets ringing out. It was a full-on assault, the aliens charging across the sand between them and the Kodiak with inhuman speed, covering fire from their vehicles zipping over their heads.

Cooper, focus on the trucks!” the Sergeant shouted over the din. He began to fire his turret, churning up the sand, the belt-fed MGL on the blister hammering the advancing line with fragmentation grenades. The dune was starting to look like the fields of goddamned Verdun, smoking craters pocking the sand.

Cooper fired the main gun, turning one of the trucks to scrap metal, a few nearby Rask knocked off their feet by molten debris. Without the muzzle device, the sheer speed of the sabot turned the air around the barrel into a plasma discharge, a bright flash of electricity like a fork of lightning leaping from the muzzle to the ground for a brief second. The superheated plasma created tubular fulgurites, eerie towers of vitrified sand, reaching up from the ground like the branches of petrified trees.

Pretty sure that isn’t supposed to happen!” Barry said, no doubt getting a good look at the sand formations through the forward cameras.

Cooper switched to the gun pod, laying down more suppressing fire as he loaded another sabot. There were too many targets, there was no way they could kill them all before they reached the tank, even with dozens lying dead or dying on the slope.

One of the troop carriers was flanking to their right, his next shot punching a glowing hole in its hull, the slug throwing up a cloud of sand as it hit the ground somewhere behind it. A dozen Rask raced out from the far side of the wrecked vehicle, they had been using the APC to cover their advance, now falling victim to another burst of tracer fire.

Batteries are running low!” Barry warned.

They’re reaching the hull!” the Sergeant added, “I can’t hit them at this angle!”

There were a series of thuds as the first of the Rask made it to the front of the Kodiak, beginning to climb up onto the engine housing. At this rate, they’d start trying to pry the hatches open.

I got this!” Cooper yelled, loading a fresh round. He fired the main gun, the tank rocking on its ruined tracks once more. He wasn’t aiming at a vehicle this time, however. As the sabot left the barrel, it created another plasma discharge, electrical fingers spreading from the exposed muzzle like it was a Tesla coil. The resulting arc flash made contact with the Rask who were climbing up their hull, charring their flesh, and sending fragments of burnt clothing floating through the air. Some of them were thrown clear, while others were reduced to scorched husks, their stiff bodies tumbling off the chassis.

That’ll make the bastards think twice!” he added with a triumphant laugh, watching the survivors scurry away.

The commander’s turret suddenly went silent, the monitors flickering off and back on again, plunging them into darkness for a brief moment.

We’re bingo on juice,” Barry warned. “We’ve switched to the reserve battery, it can’t power the guns.”

Fuck!” Cooper snarled, slamming his polymer fist against his console. There was a second bang, and then a third. It was coming from the commander’s hatch, the Rask were trying to find a way in. He switched back to the external cameras, seeing that they were surrounded. The enemy vehicles had pulled up nearby, the aliens using them as cover, peeking out to get a look at the wounded behemoth as they comrades swarmed it like angry fire ants. A few of them had climbed up on the forward hull, slamming the butts of their rifles down on the driver’s hatch. They tugged at the handle, trying to pry it open with their bayonets, but they wouldn’t be getting through without cutting tools of some kind.

What now, Sarge?” Cooper asked.

We need to get out of here, pronto,” he replied as he began to unbuckle his harness. “They can’t get those hatches open, but they might have anti-material rifles, or maybe explosives of some kind. A few good shots from an AMR or a well-placed breaching charge will fuck us. They know that the armor on our right flank is vulnerable.”

Almost as soon as the words had left his lips, something struck the right side of their hull like a sledgehammer, shaking the entire tank.

Speak of the bloody Devil,” Cooper muttered as he began to climb out of his seat. “Toss me one of the PDWs.”

The commander passed him a cut-down variant of the XMR, a bullpup with a shortened barrel and a lighter frame that was designed to be wielded in close quarters. There was a forward grip to help control the recoil, and it had a reflex sight for fast target acquisition. It had the same copper coils seen on other variants, albeit far smaller and less densely packed. It was still a railgun, and although it lacked the range and penetration of its larger cousins, it would chew through enemy personnel with ease all the same.

He slammed in a magazine, loading up with a couple of spares, slotting them into pouches on his belt. His helmet synced up with the weapon wirelessly, displaying an ammo count and a charge level, along with targeting data on his HUD.

Load up, Barry,” the Sergeant said. “We’ll go out the troop hatch at the back, toss a couple of frags to clear the cunts out.”

They’ve got a whole army out there, Sarge,” Cooper warned as they climbed out of their seats. They shared a glance for a moment, the Sergeant’s brow furrowing.

What choice do we have?” he asked. “We can sit here and wait to get pasted when they breach the hull, or we can make a break for it, take a few of those cunts down with us.”

Cooper hesitated, then gave him a solemn nod.

Wait!” Barry yelled, the two men glancing at the deck. “Something’s happening! Up on the crest!”

Cooper reached up to tap at the touch panel on the side of his helmet, opening the rear camera feed in a window on his HUD. There was movement atop the dune, a squad of Marines laying down fire, lying prone in the sand as the coils on their gun barrels glowed red with heat. The Rask scattered, taking cover behind their vehicles, their attention turning to the newcomers.

Boys in blue to the rescue,” the Sergeant laughed, his relief palpable. “Now’s our chance, while they’re distracted!”

Barry met them in the troop bay, his XMH handgun clutched in his hands. There was a cramped compartment at the rear of the Kodiak that would seat a squad of Marines on squat benches, intended to be used as a medivac or as an emergency stand-in for an IFV. Cooper patted him on the shoulder with his left hand, his PDW clutched in his right.

Chin up, Bazza. We’ve gotten out of worse situations before.”

Barry nodded, steeling himself as the commander began to open the clamshell hatch at the rear of the vehicle. He primed a pair of grenades, then tossed them through the widening gap, the explosions blowing dust into the bay.

Go!” he shouted, the three men racing out of the narrow hatch one after the other. The wind pounded Cooper’s visor with airborne dust, buffeting him as he emerged from the hull of the vehicle, the loose sand making his footing unsure. The skid on his prosthetic leg kept sinking, it didn’t have the surface area to handle this kind of terrain. The noise outside was deafening, the sounds of explosions and railgun fire echoing through the dunes. The Marines on the crest were firing down on the Rask, who were returning fire as best they could, the splashes of slug impacts in the sand resembling droplets of rain disturbing the surface of a lake.

When the Marines noticed that the crew were making a break for it, they moved to provide covering fire, pinning the aliens behind their vehicles. There was nowhere else for them to go, there was no cover in the open desert. The two sides must have a fairly hard time seeing one another, making many of the shots inaccurate.

Go around the dune!” the commander said, his voice coming through clear on the comms despite the noise. “If we go straight up the slope, the Rask will pick us off!”

They trudged through the sand like it was fresh snow, every step a struggle. Cooper looked back over his shoulder at the wreck of their tank, seeing that some of the Rask were now using it as cover, popping up to fire over its pocked hull at the Marines. The vehicle was trashed, it looked like it had been through hell and back. He hadn’t imagined the damage to be so severe.

One of the Rask began to gesture to them, turning to shout at his companions.

We’re about to have company!” Cooper snarled. Barry turned to look back, but he waved the frightened driver on. “Keep going, Barry!”

Cooper watched as one of the APCs began to open its troop ramp, a Rask who was dressed in thicker leather than the others holding onto what looked like ropes as he struggled out of the vehicle. He was dressed like a damned hockey goalie, the thick leather padding on his arms and legs limiting his movement. The sand was too thick to see what he was wrangling, another billowing cloud rolling in to obscure Cooper’s view.

Barry was lagging behind, Cooper taking him by the arm as he caught up to him, helping him through the sand. They weren’t far from safety now, they just had to put enough of the dune between them and the Rask that they’d lose sight of them, then they could rejoin the Marines on the crest and get some payback for old Sheila.

Barry glanced over his shoulder, a cry of fear that made Cooper’s blood run cold escaping the driver’s lips.

What the bloody hell is that!?”

Cooper spun around, his stomach knotting as he saw what had Barry so terrified. The Rask in the thick leather armor had been an animal handler, and his charges were now bounding their way across the sand towards them. They were running low and fast, not easy targets for the Marines to hit, if they could even see them at all. They were grotesque creatures, four or five feet tall at the shoulder, maybe six feet long from their snouts to their rope-like tails. The beasts looked like the product of an unholy union between a hyena and a warthog, vaguely dog-like, with massive heads the size of a man’s torso. Behind their hanging, fleshy lips were ivory tusks like those of a wild pig, their beady, black eyes fixed on their prey. The coat of sandy fur that camouflaged them against the desert backdrop was coarse and wiry, a razor-like crest of darker quills running down their spines. Upon their backs was a wobbling hump of what must be fat, not unlike that of a camel, bouncing obscenely as their four splayed paws churned up the sand. There were six of them, each one wearing a leather collar that was studded with rusted metal.

Dogs!” Cooper yelled, taking a knee as he braced his PDW against his shoulder. Barry hesitated, but he waved the driver on. “Fucking go, Barry! Get out of here!”

His weapon jumped in his hands as he loosed a burst at the lead animal, the one with the biggest hump, dark blood spraying as the creature was sent skidding to the ground in a puff of dust. Its companions were unfazed, closing fast enough that Cooper scarcely had time to turn his sights on the next target.

Get your arse moving, Cooper!” the commander shouted. There was another series of loud cracks as the Sergeant fired on the beasts, but it was too late. One of them came straight for Cooper, barreling into him with the force of a linebacker. He was knocked off his feet, his back hitting the sand, the slavering jaws of the alien snapping at him as it pinned him beneath its weight. Its dull claws scrabbled at his flak jacket, its hot breath misting his visor, droplets of its saliva falling to the glass as he was given a view of its mouth that was too close for comfort. Its tusks were as long as his fingers, its sharp, yellowed teeth like those of a hog. Only his prosthetic arm was holding it back, his forearm pressing into its throat, the motors whirring as it struggled to reach him.

There was more gunfire, more shouting on the comms, but he couldn’t focus on anything besides the alien warthog that was trying to tear his face off. The creature lunged, breaking free and closing its jaws around the black polymer of his forearm, its teeth sinking deep into the housing. It began to yank violently, like a pit bull with a rope, growling and huffing as it attempted to snap what it thought were bones.

Cooper didn’t know where his PDW was, he had lost it in the scuffle. Instead, he reached for the knife on his belt, pulling it from its holster with his left hand. The alien lifted him off the ground by the arm, only to slam him down again, very nearly making him drop his blade as well.

Get off me, cunt!” he growled as he drove the knife towards its throat. It penetrated, dark blood staining the thing’s coarse fur, but it was built like a tank. Its muscles were so thick and wiry, its skin so leathery that it didn’t even flinch. He drew the blade back and began to stab repeatedly, shanking the thing, but it wouldn’t let go.

A furry hand reached down to grip its collar, struggling to pull the beast off him, Cooper looking up to see a leather-clad Rask standing over him. The alien was wearing what looked like a biker’s jacket over a ceramic chest piece that had once been a component of Shock Trooper armor. His opaque helmet and the long rifle that he held in his hand were also of UNN design. The feline dragged the attack dog back, the beast still lunging and snapping, more Rask rushing past him. They paused to fire at something, one of them dropping as a round went straight through his chest piece, his eight-foot frame slumping to the sand to lie beside Cooper. They were engaging his friends, they were still alive.

All he could do now was provide a distraction, keep the Rask focused on him so that Barry and the Sarge could escape.

Down here, you fuckwits!” he shouted as he swung his knife at the nearest Rask. The alien skipped out of his reach, then lifted its XMR above its head, bringing the butt of the rifle down on his face.

CHAPTER 9: CAPTIVE

Wake up,” a gruff voice said, its rolling accent unfamiliar. Something hit Cooper in the shoulder, rousing him, and he slowly opened his eyes. He had a monster headache, and there was the metallic taste of blood in his mouth, his blurry vision gradually coming into focus as he blinked groggily. Where was he? He couldn’t remember what had happened. Most of his gear was gone, and his helmet had been removed.

He was sat on a bench in a dingy troop bay, surrounded by tall, shadowy figures. The rumble of an engine made the seat beneath him shake, the motion of the vehicle jostling him. It all came back to him in a flash. The battle in the dunes, the alien war beasts, the Rask.

A dozen pairs of reflective, yellow eyes peered back at him, their feline pupils dilated into dark circles. There was a whole squad of the aliens, all dressed in a blend of leather and ceramic armor, their long rifles stowed beside them as they bounced in their seats. One of them was cleaning a massive, crudely machined revolver with a rag, pausing to return Cooper’s stare.

He was in one of their outdated personnel carriers, had to be. The cab was to his left, the troop ramp to his right, the metal deck vibrating beneath his feet. The Rask had managed to make a retreat, and they had taken him with them. Why? Was he to be a bargaining chip? A hostage? Were they going to eat him?

When he tried to move his arms, he discovered that they were bound behind his back, a hairy rope burning the skin on his wrist as he struggled. How damaged was his prosthetic arm? He couldn’t see it, but it looked like his leg was still attached to him.

I told you he would live,” the Rask who was sitting to his left said. She was a female, by the sound of her. Cooper was sandwiched between two of the aliens, there wasn’t much room in the bay, their leather-clad thighs pressing up against him.

I still say you hit him too hard,” another hissed, this one sitting on the adjacent bench. He was a large male specimen, his shoulders twice as broad as any human’s, his posture hunched as he ducked beneath a low ceiling that hadn’t been designed for his stature. “These ones are fragile, slow to heal. It would not do to bring the Admiral a damaged prize.”

Oi!” Cooper grunted, the aliens turning to look at him. Their round ears swiveled, tracking him like little radar dishes. “Where the fuck are you taking me?”

He is more than fine,” the female chuckled, reaching over to mess up his hair with mock affection. “As lively as ever, this one.”

He shook his head angrily, warding her off, alien laughter filling the troop bay.

You will find out soon enough,” another Rask replied. “For now, keep still and stay silent.”

Cooper felt the vehicle mount the crest of a dune, sending him bumping into the alien to his left, the creature hissing at him angrily as if he could help it with his hands tied. Where had the vehicles launched from? There was no way that they had driven so far across the desert in these poorly-maintained relics. This APC was probably fifty years old, it looked like it might shake itself apart at any moment. The lighting strips in the ceiling were off, likely because they didn’t work anymore, motes of dust dancing in the sunlight that bled in through the narrow windows in the cab. Cooper leaned forward to get a look out of them, but he couldn’t see much. The storm must still be raging outside.

Where’s my crew?” he demanded, glaring around the bay.

If you mean the two whelps who fled the battle, the only injuries they suffered were to their pride,” the female sneered.

Aren’t you fleeing the battle too?” he said, giving her a smirk. “You idiots could barely scratch a half-dead Kodiak, no way you took out the whole column. Maybe try bringing anti-tank weapons to a tank fight next time, dickheads.”

The female snarled at him, her ears flattening against her straw-colored hair.

Hold your tongue, ape, or I shall pluck it from your head.”

Do it, then,” he said as he laughed in her face. “You went to a lot of trouble to take me alive, you’re not going to kill me now.”

Kill, no,” she hissed as she brought her feline nose down to within an inch of his. She bared her sharp fangs, her pupils dilating like those of a cat watching a bird from a window. “Hurt, yes.”

You talk a lot of shit for someone who just got sent running with their furry tail between their legs,” he whispered. “How about you give me my knife back, and we see who comes out on top?”

Do not tempt me,” she muttered, sitting back on the bench. “I know better than to damage the Admiral’s property.”

They continued on for what must have been an hour or more, the silence punctuated only by the Rask conversing in their strange language of spits and hisses. Finally, he felt the troop carrier come to a jolting stop, the ramp at the rear beginning to open with a creak of aged pistons. Sand blew inside, Cooper turning his face away, unable to shield himself with his hands bound. He was pulled roughly to his feet by the female, who seemed to be the one in charge of him, her iron grip on his arm as she steered him out onto the hot sand. The aliens donned helmets and goggles, protecting themselves from the storm.

Put his helmet back on him, or he’ll lose his eyes,” she muttered. One of her comrades dropped it unceremoniously onto his head, Cooper blinking through his faceplate, now cracked. He had expected to be traveling in a column with other vehicles, but the APC was alone save for a single technical that must be their escort. The Rask who was manning the gun on the back watched him as he was led around the troop carrier, their destination coming into sight.

They had parked in the shadow of a truly titanic vehicle. The four sets of dual caterpillar tracks upon which it rested were each larger than a Kodiak, every link in its heavy treads approaching the size of a dining table, the sprockets taller than a man. As he craned his neck to look up at it, he saw that the tracks were holding aloft a hull the length of a soccer field, rising at least fifteen meters off the ground. The platform was overengineered, industrial in its design, all support struts and reinforced beams. It was ringed by a gantry, and he could make out doors that must lead inside. It had been covered in riveted armor plating in places, painted over with crude desert camo, just like the other Rask vehicles in their hodgepodge fleet. Upon its hull, he could make out what looked like prefab buildings through the haze, as though the aliens had dropped a colonial settlement atop it.

There were CIWS turrets mounted above the tracks on each corner, their lenses reflecting the sun as they scanned the sky for threats, their long cannons at the ready. Could they even pick up anything in this storm? They had clearly been sourced from a UNN base, he had seen those same muffin-shaped radomes on previous deployments. Cupcakes, that was how the Marines affectionately referred to them.

It occurred to him that he had seen one of these giant contraptions before. These platforms were used to transport ultra-heavy cargo and spacecraft in planetside spaceports. What was this one doing here? How had the Rask gotten their hands on one? They must be using it as some kind of mobile base or command post.

His captors marched him towards a long set of stairs that reached from the hull to the sand, the aliens forcing him to climb it, its structure creaking worryingly under their combined weight. The steps were human-sized, confirming his suspicion that they hadn’t built this thing themselves. On his way up, he noted that there was writing on the side of the hull. It was a dark red that bordered on brown, the characters resembling claw marks, like they had been scratched into the metal by a giant hand. Was that what Rask text looked like?

They reached the gantry, the female giving him a shove as she forced him through one of the doors, ducking in after him. The noise of windblown sand pounding the hull was muffled as it closed behind them with a thud, the far-off hum of the vehicle’s engines and generators greeting them. It was stiflingly hot inside, they probably didn’t have any kind of climate control.

Before him was a corridor that resembled what one might expect to find on any UNN spaceship, dimly lit by naked bulbs that dangled from the ceiling, maybe seven feet above his head. This was a workplace, no attempt had been made to make it comfortable. It was all exposed metal and beams, all manner of electrical cables and pipes snaking their way across every available surface. The deck beneath his feet was a grate, more miscellaneous machinery glimpsed beyond it.

Move,” the female growled, giving him another shove that made him stumble.

Easy, sunshine,” he muttered. “I’m a disabled veteran, you know?”

As she marched him through the belly of the vehicle, they crossed paths with many more Rask. They were usually sparsely clothed, their tanned skin glistening with sweat. Working in the bowels of this place must be like working in the engine room in an old steam liner. They moved out of his way as the procession of soldiers approached, their feline eyes watching him curiously.

They eventually reached a ladder, which led up into one of the prefabs. As he had suspected, these were the same prefabricated buildings used on colony planets, normally dropped into place to form settlements on frontier worlds. They were reasonably spacious, and this area of the vehicle had been more comfortably furnished than the warrens below.

Purple seemed to be the color of choice for the Rask. Flowing drapes cascaded from the ceiling to cover up the bare walls, made from some kind of shiny fabric, maybe silk or velvet. Every corner of the room was strewn with large nests of throw pillows, their occupants pausing their conversations to watch him.

What parts of the original structure were still visible held either slatted windows or large tapestries. There was an oddly medieval style about them, beautifully embroidered in spite of their crude perspective, their woven threads depicting scenes of battle and hunting. The floor beneath his feet was strewn with animal skins and rugs in the same regal shade of purple. What sensation his prosthetic foot allowed him to feel told him that it was soft, like shag. What would have been no-frills, functional furniture had been replaced with wooden tables and chairs that were exquisitely carved, like the dark mahogany one might expect to find in an upscale office or study. Every table seemed to be laden with some kind of food or beverage, silver platters that were piled with unidentifiable meats reminding him of how long it had been since he last ate.

It all seemed out of place for a military vessel, there was too much luxury to be found here. He felt as though he had just been marched into a Roman banquet hall, or maybe a Moroccan hookah lounge. Could this be the home of the Admiral that they had mentioned back in the APC?

The female tugged Cooper’s arm, making him stand up straighter as another group of aliens entered through an automatic door at the far end of the prefab. There was an imposing male with fresh scars on his cheek, and a stout female wearing leather pants as tight as a latex glove. They were both wearing a purple sash over their ornate jackets, studded with little badges and pins that resembled medals. Those must be signs of status. They were followed by a shorter male who trailed after them like a beaten dog, his eyes constantly fixed on the carpet.

The female seemed to be the head honcho, the other two flanking her as she came to a stop in front of him. She had a commanding air about her. He could feel the tension that the other aliens exuded, as though her mere presence made them nervous.

My Admiral,” his captor began, bowing her head as though she were addressing royalty. “Your order has been carried out. We have successfully apprehended a live human, plucked from the heat of battle.” She tore his helmet off, Cooper blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light. “I now present him to you.”

The Admiral looked him up and down with her yellow eyes, scratching her chin with one of her curved, black claws.

Of all the humans you could have chosen, why one so...damaged?” the scarred male to her right asked. His voice was deep and gravelly, his hands clasped neatly behind his back.

His captor began to speak, seeming flustered by the thought that her moment of triumph might be marred, but the Admiral raised a furry hand to dismiss her companion’s remark.

No,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Cooper. “You have done well, soldier. Very well. This one’s injuries were earned in battle, they mark him as a seasoned warrior. He will make an admirable trophy for the Matriarch.”

Excuse me,” Cooper said, clearing his throat. The aliens seemed shocked by his courage, all save for the Admiral. While they flattened their ears against their heads and bared their teeth, she merely smirked at him, raising an eyebrow in amusement.

His captor kicked the back of his good leg, forcing him to take a knee.

You dare speak in the presence of-”

The Admiral cut off his captor’s comment with another wave of her furry hand.

This one is human, child. He does not know how to submit, nor does he know how to be a prisoner. We shall teach him in time.”

So, can one of you oversized tabbies tell me what the fuck is going on?” Cooper demanded.

Is it not obvious?” the Admiral replied. “You are now a prisoner of the Matriarchy.”

Why?” he continued. “If you think that you can use me as a bargaining chip, you’re stupider than you look, which is a fucking feat. The UNN doesn’t negotiate with hostage-takers.” “Taking hostages for leverage would be dishonorable,” she replied, the accusation seeming to irk her. “No, you are to be delivered to the Matriarch once we return to the territory. As a pet,” she added with a sardonic smile.

A pet?” he repeated, glancing at the aliens in confusion. “Are you taking the piss?”

He asks if I am joking,” the Admiral clarified, noticing the confused expression of the burly male. “I assure you, human, that I am not. You shall be a trophy of our victory over your people.”

This isn’t going to go down the way you think it will,” Cooper said, his tone serious now. The Admiral ignored him, turning to the cowed male who was lurking nearby.

Vitza, you were trained in the maintenance of these prosthetics, were you not?”

Yes, my Admiral,” he replied as he stepped forward. “I was to maintain those of our auxiliaries when they returned home.” “Check him over, make sure that he is in working order. I want the arm removed, I know from personal experience how dangerous they can be. Confiscate any electronics that he still has, too.”

Fuck you!” Cooper snarled, starting to struggle as he was lifted to his feet. “You’re not taking my arm off!”

And check that he is...intact,” the Admiral added. “He will provide the Matriarch with far less amusement if he has lost more than his limbs.

Cooper grunted as his captor planted her furry hand between his legs, copping a feel.

He is fine,” she replied.

He took the opportunity to kick her in the shin with his prosthetic foot, the skid-like appendage catching her just above the heel of her digitigrade leg. She hissed as she hopped back, raising a hand with the intent to strike him, soon lowering it under the unflinching gaze of her superior.

Do be gentle with him,” the Admiral warned. “They are fragile little things. Perhaps now, you better understand the plight of your comrades who were forced to undergo integration training.”

I now have more respect for their restraint, Admiral,” she muttered as she glared at Cooper.

Crewmaster,” the Admiral continued, addressing her male companion. “See to it that these warriors are rewarded appropriately for their efforts, and have the captive taken to the brig. Vitza, go with them.”

She turned her back to them and began to walk away, pausing when Cooper called out to her.

Oi! Admiral, or whatever your bloody name is. I was at the ambush in the massif, killed a dozen of yours easy. Killed a dozen more when these stupid cunts attacked us in the desert, they walked straight into our gunfire. This war was lost the moment you decided to go up against the UNN, you’re only delaying the inevitable.”

I like this one,” she said, turning to look over her shoulder at him. “He has fire. The Matriarch is going to enjoy him.”

***

Cooper was shoved into a cell in the depths of the crawler, little more than iron bars that had been spot-welded over what must have once been storage closets. There were three such cells situated side by side, wide enough that the Rask had been able to fit a cot in each one, along with a washbasin and a toilet. There was enough room for a Borealan, even if it was cramped by their standards.

He turned to face the aliens, his hands still tightly bound. The one called Vitza entered after him, the others standing guard behind the door, seeming remarkably uninterested in what was about to happen.

I am to detach your prosthetic,” the Rask said, his tone more confident now that he was out of earshot of the Admiral.

Then untie me,” Cooper suggested.

Not before disabling the unit,” Vitza replied warily. “I am familiar with this technology. Weaponizing prosthetics is illegal in UNN space, but its strength and durability remain greater than that of your original limb. I must remove your pressure suit to access the socket.” He reached out and began to remove Cooper’s flak jacket, laying it on the cot, then detached the rigid vambrace from his wrist that housed his onboard computer. Once that was done, he unzipped the pressure suit down to the waist, pulling it down past Cooper’s shoulder to expose the joint where his prosthetic met his body.

The socket has been fused to the scapula,” Vitza muttered, examining the black polymer. “If I had to guess, I would say that more of your humerus survived your initial injury, but that they chose to amputate up to the shoulder to provide more leverage and stability.”

You’d be correct,” Cooper replied, the alien beginning to unfasten the catches around his artificial bicep. “So...Vitza, right? What’s your deal? The Rask don’t strike me as the engineering type. How is it that you know how to service a prosthetic limb?”

The Matriarchy needs people who can maintain the prosthetics of our injured auxiliaries when they return from duty,” he explained. “Not to mention people who can service the weapons and other technologies that we have acquired.”

So, what, you’re like the tech guy?”

The Matriarch has named me Chief Engineer,” he replied.

Did you make this...vehicle?”

The crawlers? I helped to assemble and outfit them, yes.”

Them? There were more than one of these things? Good to know...

Vitza disconnected Cooper’s arm at the shoulder, making him wince as what had once been simulated sensation was replaced with the fuzzy tingling of interrupted nerves. Beneath it was a simple ball joint that was connected to a soft, translucent gel, cushioning the scarred tissue beneath.

And how does a Rask learn all this stuff?” Cooper asked.

While the others were training to become Shock Troopers, I studied under your Warsmiths, along with a handful of others. Combat Engineers, you call them. Turn around.”

Cooper put his back to the alien, feeling him begin to untie the thick rope. He slid the prosthetic arm out of its sleeve, leaving the garment hanging loose. Cooper’s first instinct was to rub his wrist, where the skin was red and raw, but the nerve impulses now ended at the socket on his shoulder.

I thought Borealans were all about slicing each other up?” he mused. “You’re a head shorter than the rest of them, I saw how you behaved around them back in the prefab. How can you be the chief of anything if a bigger dude can just come along and beat you up?”

No society could function in that manner,” he replied, setting the limb on the cot. The forearm was all chewed up, the tooth marks from the Rask war beast’s teeth clearly visible where they had scored the polymer. It seemed functional, however. The housing was merely cosmetic, and there was no obvious damage to any of the machinery or electronics.

I am named Chief Engineer by the Matriarch,” Vitza continued. “All those who obey her will recognize my authority or face her wrath.”

I see, they obey you because she told them to, so it’s more like they’re obeying her?”

In such a way, the skilled and knowledgeable can be given more authority than their status would usually afford them,” he replied.

And the jocks don’t beat up the nerds,” Cooper added with a nod. “You have to be pretty bright to be an engineer,” he said, flexing his fingers. “Bright enough to know that this war is going to end very badly for your side.”

It is not my place to question the will of the Matriarch,” Vitza muttered, crouching down to inspect his prosthetic leg.

Maybe it should be,” Cooper continued, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Tell you what, mate. Leave my helmet in my cell, I can leave it broadcasting a distress signal over ad-hoc. Anyone who got into range would pick it up and come to investigate, and the rest of these morons won’t know anything’s wrong. When the UNN arrives, I tell them that you helped me out, and you’re home free. No more Admiral, no more Matriarch. Think about it.” Vitza collected the prosthetic, the helmet, and the computer, pausing on his way to the cell door. His tail flicked back and forth in a way that seemed hesitant to Cooper, indecisive. He looked back over his shoulder, his expression neutral.

To assume that our way of life has been somehow imposed on us against our will is a common human failing,” he said. “I have earned a position of authority and respect, even if it is only in a narrow domain, and my loyalty is to my Matriarch. You would do well to obey the Admiral, human. Give her what she wants.”

What happens if I don’t?” Cooper asked defiantly.

You will learn our ways, one way or another. The toll that process takes on you depends on how willing you are to cooperate. Listen,” he added, sparing a wary glance at the guards beyond the door before turning to face Cooper again. He lowered his voice, speaking in hushed tones. “To live out one’s days in the Matriarch’s palace is not the terrible fate that you may imagine. You might even have chosen it if you understood what it entailed.”

Nobody would choose to become a pet, someone’s living trophy,” Cooper spat.

And what of serving as a consort to a beautiful, powerful woman? Living in the lap of luxury and excess? Many Rask dream of one day catching her eye and being chosen to live within the palace walls at her side.”

Humans generally require a ceremony that involves a shitty cake with too much icing, and gifts of useless kitchen utensils before they’ll devote themselves to one person for the rest of their lives,” Cooper replied, Vitza cocking his head in confusion. “If you think that I’m just going to roll over and accept this, then you didn’t learn much from your time training with the Corps.”

So be it,” the alien replied, heading for the door. “I warned you...”

***

How is our guest?” Korbaz asked, Vitza hurrying along beside her as she made her way to the conning tower.

Healthy, despite his injuries. As you requested, I removed his arm and stripped him of any means to communicate with his people. With your permission, I will inspect the devices to see if any useful data can be recovered.”

Good,” she replied with an approving nod. “At this juncture, any information that can help improve our odds is valuable.”

Crewmaster Lortz was waiting to meet her at the holographic table as she entered the room, looking as prim as ever. She leaned on it, examining the terrain map.

Report,” she demanded. “How did our troops fare?”

The initial attack was very successful,” he replied, puffing his barrel chest out confidently. “The artillery barrages from the Landslide and the Earthquake took the interlopers completely by surprise, sowing disorder amongst their ranks. Two of their three defensive lines lost their cohesion, allowing our assault forces to slip through, just as planned. Eight of their vehicles were disabled, and thirty of their soldiers were slain.”

Losses?” she asked. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, looking a little less confident.

We expended half of our ballistic missiles, with only the reserve remaining. The Volcano lost six of its vehicles, the Tornado lost nine, and eight of the Hurricane’s complement were either destroyed or disabled.”

Vitza,” she grumbled, “put that into perspective for me.”

He pulled out his tablet computer, tapping at the touch screen with his padded fingers for a moment.

Thirty-seven percent, fifty-six percent, and fifty percent respectively, my Admiral.”

That means two of our carriers are operating with only half of their complement,” she snarled. “What of the losses to personnel?”

One hundred and four troops lost between all three carriers, Admiral,” the Crewmaster replied. She noticed him swallow conspicuously, perhaps anticipating another reprimand.

At least we fared better than last time,” Korbaz muttered under her breath.

The artillery achieved its objective,” the Crewmaster continued, “and our warriors performed well against the human Marines. Many of them have trained with the enemy, they understand their doctrine. But the armored vehicles are proving too difficult for us to crack with the weapons that we have on hand. We can bring down their troop carriers with anti-material railguns, but we do not possess enough of them to outfit every pack with one. What tanks we have been able to disable were hit by the Naval guns or the missiles.”

Korbaz began to walk around the table, staring at the translucent representation of the dunes as she considered.

Send word to the territory, have them dispatch a convoy to reinforce the carriers. It will take them some days to reach us, but we need to replenish the lost vehicles and troops as quickly as possible. I want the remaining assault forces organized into smaller teams. Outfit them with AMRs and have them harass the humans. I want them firing from concealment, aiming for their troop transports. I want scouts reporting the positions of enemy targets for intermittent bombardment. Save the missiles, we still have plenty of railgun ammo, correct?”

Yes, Admiral,” the Crewmaster replied.

Good. Keep the pressure on them, they’ll never know when the next attack will come. In the meantime, we need to find a way to stop these tanks.” She planted her hands on the edge of the table, glaring down at the little red icons that displayed the last known position of the UNN forces, the impact making the hologram flicker for a moment. “They must have some kind of weakness, something that we can exploit.” She looked to Vitza, the male averting his gaze. “Do we have any personnel who trained with Kodiak tanks, anyone who worked on them?”

No, Admiral,” he replied. “We have some who served in mechanized units, but they were merely passengers in IFVs.”

I believe that the captive was taken from a disabled tank,” the Crewmaster added.

Really?” Korbaz asked, snapping her head in his direction. “You are sure of this?”

That is what the Alpha of their pack told me,” he replied.

He was wearing a flak jacket commonly used by vehicle crews,” Vitza confirmed.

Then, this human may have information that we can use,” she mused. Her lips curled into a smile, one that was not reflected in her cold, yellow eyes. “Who knows what other secrets he might carry? He may know the route that the convoy plans to take, decryption codes for their comms.”

The alien seems...uncooperative,” the Crewmaster said, making no attempt to conceal his disdain for the little creature. “It would be a simple matter of forcing him to submit, and inducting him into a new pack if he were a Borealan, but these humans are a mystery to me. If he will not give up the information willingly, then what is our course of action? Torture?”

Torturing a human seems like a fast way of killing it,” Korbaz muttered. “No, they are far too fragile for that. Besides, what guarantee do we have that he would speak the truth? It is not a reliable method of extracting information, one will say anything to make the pain stop beyond a point.”

Is there no way he can be inducted?” the Crewmaster asked. Korbaz shook her head.

They are not like us, they do not know how to submit, that instinct is completely absent in them. Worse, this one is strong-willed. He is an amputee, I have dealt with their like before. One who sustains such massive injuries, yet chooses to return to battle, should not be underestimated. I do not believe that we can compel him to do anything against his will.”

You know their ways better than any Rask, Admiral,” he added. “You alone have dwelt among them, not as an auxiliary, but as a diplomat. Do you have any insights that might help us?”

I may,” she replied after a momentary pause. She stood up straight, turning towards the door. “Leave the human to me, and do not allow anyone to interfere unless I give specific instructions, is that understood? Noone is even to speak to him without my prior permission.”

Perfectly, Admiral,” the Crewmaster replied.

I’m going to the banquet hall, and I want the human brought there. Wait a little while, maybe fifteen minutes, then have a pair of guards fetch him. I want them to be rough with him, but not to the point of injuring him.”

As you wish, Admiral,” he added. He seemed confused, but he did not ask Korbaz to elaborate on her plan. He would carry out her orders to the letter, and that was just the way she liked it.

***

Cooper sat on his cot, staring at the far wall. He had tried to find a way out of the cell, but the bars were as thick as his wrists, spaced too narrowly for him to squeeze through. He had no way to pick the lock, and there were no other avenues of escape like vents or windows that his super-sized captors might have overlooked.

A sudden bang jolted him back to the present, and he turned his head to see two Rask standing outside his cell. They were clad in the usual blend of leather and armor, leering at him with their yellow eyes. The male began to unlock his cell, while the female waited outside. Cooper wanted to prepare a punch, but his right arm was missing. Pity, it could have given one of these bastards pause for thought.

Time to go, ape,” the male sneered.

Where are you taking me?” Cooper asked warily.

An audience with the Admiral awaits you.”

He stalked over to Cooper, taking him by the wrist, lifting his arm above his head. Cooper grunted as the Rask punched him in the stomach, a fist the size of a cantaloupe knocking the wind out of him, the feline’s grip preventing him from doubling over.

The alien dragged him to the door and flung him outside, the female catching him before he fell to the floor. She took him by the upper arm, her grip tight enough to cut off his circulation, steering him down the corridor as the male took up the rear.

They marched him up into the prefabs and through more of the interconnected modules, each one just as lavish as the last. Everywhere he looked, there was flowing fabric and carved furniture. The denizens were usually lounging on piles of silk cushions, drinking vials of pink liquid, or snacking on pieces of meat. This place was unlike any spacecraft or vehicle that he had ever served on, it was more like a mobile palace on tracks.

The smell of roasted meat reached his nose, his stomach starting to rumble. How long had it been since he had eaten anything? Hours? More than a day? He didn’t know how long he had been unconscious after the battle.

He was led into a room that resembled a medieval banquet hall, a long, varnished dining table occupying most of the space. Its surface was piled with platters of roasted meat, some of the cuts as large as his head, steam rising from the crisped skin. There were sides, too. What looked like pumpkins, bottles of condiments, large pitchers of the same pink drink that he had seen the others drinking.

The chairs that lined the table were mysteriously empty, save for the seat at its head, which was occupied by the Admiral that he had met earlier. The two soldiers thrust him into the seat to her left, their heavy hands pressing down on his shoulders, their talons pricking him through the fabric of his suit.

Come now,” she said, reaching out to hook a piece of meat with her claws. It seemed that the aliens didn’t use cutlery, but when you had knives on your fingers, why would you need to? She brought it to her mouth, seasoning it with a few shakes from a vial of what looked like vegetable oil, then took a large bite. They waited for her to finish chewing, she was taking her sweet time. “Must we treat our guest so poorly? Away with you,” she added, waving her hand dismissively. The two soldiers shared a glance, then returned the way they had come, leaving Cooper and the Admiral alone.

Have you been fed since you arrived here?” she asked, Cooper’s eyes tracking another morsel of meat as she brought it to her mouth and took a juicy bite. He didn’t reply, keeping his mouth shut. The Admiral gave him a sideways glance with her amber eyes, then slid her plate across the table towards him.

He was too hungry to refuse, picking up a piece of the dripping meat with his bare hand and digging in. There was no way to tell what kind of animal it had come from, or if it was even edible for humans, but he was too hungry to care. It tasted just like roast beef, rare at the center, red juice dripping down his chin as he ate. It was a little oily for his taste, but it would have floored him with a little sweet barbecue sauce.

Eat your fill,” the Admiral cooed, watching him with a smile on her face. “There is plenty to go around, you need not be shy, boy. Tell me, what is your name?”

Cooper,” he replied, pausing to lick some of the juice from his lips. “Rank of Corporal, serial number four-two-six, three-five-four.”

Cooper,” she mused, rolling the name over her tongue. “Well, Corporal Cooper, our first meeting was...less than ideal. I think I may have made a poor first impression. Our fates are intertwined now, yours and mine, we should get to know one another. Don’t you agree?”

He didn’t reply, focusing on his meal, the Admiral clearing her throat before continuing.

My name is Admiral Korbaz, I am what you might call the captain of this ship, and I am commanding this operation. As the highest-ranked member of the hierarchy in the fleet, what happens to you and how you are treated is to be decided at my sole discretion. If I should wish to make your stay with us more...comfortable, then I need only give the order. There is no reason for you to remain in a dingy cell for the duration of our voyage, no reason for you to be fed scraps when the meat is so plentiful.” She paused to take a sip from a crystal vial of rose-tinted liquid, her claws clicking against the glass. “You are no longer an enemy combatant, and I see no reason for us to be enemies when we could just as easily be friends. But friendship goes two ways.”

So, what, are you like the good cop now?” he asked as he took another bite.

What?” she said, her smile faltering for a moment.

Good cop, bad cop,” he elaborated, talking with his mouth full. “You get your goons to rough me up a bit, then that makes you look like a saint in comparison. You offer me food, kiss my boo-boos all better, and suddenly I’m supposed to trust you? Get fucked,” he laughed. “I know how shit works around here, those wankers wouldn’t have laid a finger on me if you hadn’t asked them to do it. They’re too pants-shittingly scared of pissing you off.”

You are foul-mouthed, even for a human,” she muttered. “It grates at me.”

Yeah, well my mum used to threaten to snap my arm off and beat me with it if she ever caught me swearing, but it looks like that ship has fucking sailed. Nothing’s stopping me now.”

Cooper couldn’t help but chuckle at her frustration, the alien visibly restraining her temper. She might as well be counting to ten.

I assure you that I have only the best intentions,” she continued, her tone now a little more strained. “This war has put our people at odds, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot find common ground.”

What changed?” Cooper asked.

What do you mean?”

Earlier, you told me that I was going to be a pet for your Matriarch. You were happy to chuck me in a cell and forget about me for the rest of the trip. Now, you’re trying to butter me up. Something has changed, you want something from me, so stop pissing about and tell me what it is.”

Very well,” she grumbled, her grip tightening on her glass as she rapped her claws on the table. “Would you be interested to know the result of the last battle? Your people did not fare well. Our artillery took them completely by surprise, cutting a swathe through their lines that allowed our forces to penetrate their defenses and sow disarray. We have confirmed the destruction or the disabling of as many as fifty of your vehicles, and we have slain or maimed a hundred of your Marines.”

She ran the sharp tip of her claw around the rim of her glass, giving him a moment to digest what she had just told him before continuing.

They cannot replenish their numbers, and they cannot evacuate their wounded. We took losses, yes, but there is already a convoy setting out from the territory to reinforce the fleet. In a matter of days, we will be operating at full strength again, and your forces will be even more outmatched. Their choices now are either to limp back to Elysia or to continue on at half strength. We have enough ammunition and missiles to keep shelling them for weeks.”

You’re lying,” Cooper replied, swallowing a mouthful of meat. He was wolfing down as much as he could get his hands on while the opportunity presented itself. “I’ve seen first-hand how your guys fight, and they ate shit both times.”

You were captured fleeing a wrecked vehicle,” she added, her yellow eyes flashing. “If yours was destroyed, why not others? You saw the effect of our artillery strikes, you felt them first-hand.”

She was just trying to fuck with him, surely? This was part of her strategy, sowing doubt, making him uncertain. But even so, the artillery really had been a surprise, and he had seen several vehicles destroyed with his own eyes. Could she be telling the truth? He would have no way to know until he got back in contact with his people.

Even if that were true, it doesn’t change the situation,” he said as he reached across the table to grab another platter. “Your fleet is running on borrowed time. More assault carriers must already be on their way to Borealis, each one loaded up with an entire tank battalion. The moment the storm clears, this...whatever the hell this vehicle is,” he added as he waved at their surroundings. “This thing is going to get shelled from orbit, along with all of your other assets.”

The storm will rage for months,” she replied. “By the time the Coalition can respond, our forces will be entrenched all over the dune sea, and we can destroy any battalions they try to drive across it in the meantime. Our Naval artillery guns have four times the range of your Avalanche artillery pieces, and nobody knows where our battleships are, or how many they number. Your comrades are not coming to rescue you, Cooper, you are stuck with us.”

What’s your point?” he asked, reaching over to snatch her glass. She glowered at him as he raised it to his lips, sampling the alien beverage. Weird, he had expected some kind of wine, but it tasted more like fruit juice. It tasted a little like strawberries, with only a hint of alcohol.

This war is already over for you,” she continued. “There is no hope of rescue, no possibility of escape in the open desert. Tell me, what do you know of our social hierarchy?”

I know that you like to claw the snot out of each other over the most minor infractions and that the biggest, ugliest cunt gets to be king of the idiots.”

You labor under the misapprehension,” she said, careful to enunciate every syllable for emphasis, “that you understand how Rask live. But you are ignorant. Violence is one facet of our society, this is something that you have seen for yourself, but we also reward those who show us loyalty.”

Do you expect me to defect?” Cooper scoffed. “What can you possibly offer me? I’ve got plenty of sand back home, and I don’t need to learn how to catch tungsten with my face.”

Have you ever considered having a conversation that isn’t laden with insults?” she snarled, her lips pulling back to expose her fangs.

Have you ever been glassed with a crystal decanter?” he shot back.

She took in a breath through her pink nose, then slowly exhaled it, no doubt resisting the urge to claw his face off.

There are pleasures here, luxuries that are foreign to humankind. I know this because I have lived amongst you. My former position was diplomatic, I served as an ambassador for many years. Why sip from the cup of life when you could drink deeply? I can show you how, and I can better prepare you for your eventual meeting with the Matriarch. All that I require in return is your cooperation.” “I’m required to give you my name, my rank, and my serial number,” Cooper said as he finished off the drink. He set the glass down on the table, wiping his mouth on his sleeve as he returned her stare. “You aren’t getting fuck all else out of me.”

Why remain loyal to a people who no longer know that you are alive?” she hissed. “We are your reality now. You can either accept that and reap the rewards, or you can suffer as a result of your own stubbornness.”

If you were so confident that you were going to win this war, then I’d still be staring at the wall of my cell,” he chuckled. “You think I have information that can give you an edge, don’t you? You probably reckon I can point out positions on a map or give you secret codes, but I’m just a tanker. My job is delivering molten tungsten downrange. Even if I did know something, I wouldn’t fucking tell you,” he laughed. “Go ahead, torture me if it makes you happy. I lost half of my skin to a plasma weapon, what are you gonna do, tickle me with those claws?”

You amputees are all the same,” Korbaz snarled, losing her composure. “Just because you have endured pain and cheated death, you act as though all fear has left you. Everything becomes a joke, every threat, and every danger something to be mocked.”

I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said, shrugging with his one remaining arm.

But you have everything to gain,” she insisted. Korbaz crossed her arms, leaning back in her seat, scowling at him. “So be it. I will return you to your cell...for now. But in time, you will come to see that giving me what I want is in your best interest.”

She called out in her alien language, two more Rask soldiers appearing from the adjacent prefab. Cooper tried to snatch one more cut of what looked like turkey, but one of her goons smacked it out of his hand, gripping him under the arm and hoisting him to his feet.

I hope you enjoyed the meal,” Korbaz called after him as they marched him out of the room. “I fear that we may have difficulties providing an uncooperative human with proper nutrition.”

CHAPTER 10: SPA DAY

New orders coming through,” Ben said, his eyes focused on his display as Mizi drove them across the dunes. “Got a report about what happened with the Rask ambush that we warned them about last night, too.”

How did they fare?” Lozka asked. “Did they repel the attack?”

Yes, but...God damn. Looks like the Rask bombarded the Coalition lines before launching their assault. They hit them hard with what Fleetcom thinks was Naval artillery and ballistic missiles. Nothing too accurate, but they managed to destroy or disable eight vehicles. Thirty-two men dead or injured.”

Is that a bad outcome for your people?” Lozka asked, pausing to glance over at him. Of course, she had no frame of reference for how the Coalition usually performed.

Yeah,” he muttered, “that’s not great.”

My condolences,” she added. “I know the pain of losing packmates to the Rask all too well.”

But they still won?” Mizi asked, her feathers flashing an angry shade of crimson.

They routed the Rask, forced them to retreat, but they couldn’t pursue. There was too much chaos, too many injured to secure. They can’t resupply with new vehicles because of the storm, and they can’t drive the wounded back to Elysia, so it looks like they’ll be treating them in the Yagda’s infirmary.”

That means there are some very angry cats driving around out here,” Mizi muttered.

We’re being diverted from our original mission,” he continued, reading off the order. “Our new objective is to discover how the Rask were able to shell the convoy and to report the locations of any enemy strongholds back to command. They have a good idea of what direction the artillery strikes came from, but they couldn’t narrow it down by much.”

I warned that the Rask would not stop at obtaining missiles,” Lozka muttered as she returned to her monitors. “They may have many more weapons of human design.”

I’m wondering how the hell they got their hands on Naval artillery,” Ben mused. “How would they move them around? They couldn’t have mounted them on sandships, the recoil alone would shake them apart, and that’s if they could even carry the weight.”

What is ‘Naval artillery’?” Lozka asked.

Very big railguns,” Mizi replied. “My people have been outfitting our carriers and our orbital stations with them lately. They’re commonly mounted on spacecraft.”

They also consume a great deal of power,” Ben explained. “They’re usually hooked up to a ship that’s supplying them with juice from a nuclear reactor or six. That’s not something you can just throw in the back of a pickup. Ballistic missiles are easier to transport, launchers can be carried on trucks, but they’d have a hard time moving through the desert.”

So, they must have built bases?” Mizi asked.

I don’t see how,” he replied. “If they had started moving supplies or constructing FOBs before the storm, our satellites would have picked them up, and they haven’t had time to build any fortifications since.”

Underground bases, maybe?” she suggested.

Maybe, but that would take a hell of a lot of resources.”

We have only one way to be sure,” Lozka said pointedly, Ben nodding in agreement.

Mizi, transmitting new heading to you now.”

***

I’m not even sure what we’re looking for,” Mizi said, the headlights of the Timberwolf doing their best to cut through the haze. They had been driving for hours, and they hadn’t come across anything yet.

There has to be some kind of FOB out here,” Ben grumbled, poring over the satellite images that occupied his monitors. “I can spot a few locations where the Rask might have been able to build fortifications, but none of them are within the area that Fleetcom thinks the artillery was fired from. We must be missing something...” “Our search would be far easier if not for this wretched storm,” Lozka added, swiveling her turret as she scanned the surrounding dunes. “We will not be able to see such fortifications until we are practically on top of them.”

Is there anything you can tell me about the Rask that might help us?” he asked. “You’re our resident expert.”

I have never known the Rask to favor static defenses,” she replied, turning her eyes back to her camera feed. “Their doctrine is all about mobility, striking quickly, then fading before their victims can respond. Perhaps they have been forced to change those tactics in order to integrate these artillery weapons that you speak of into their strategy, but it seems at odds with their usual behavior.”

Well, we’ve seen the biggest sandships they can build first-hand, and they aren’t nearly big enough to carry that kind of armament,” Ben said. “I don’t know how else they could employ Naval railguns.”

He turned his attention to another readout, narrowing his eyes as he reached out to tap the monitor.

There it is again,” he muttered, Lozka turning her head to glance at him.

What?” she asked.

I’m not sure yet. One of the tools in a Timberwolf’s sensor suite is a seismic detector and ground-penetrating radar, they’re usually used to pick up Bugs tunneling beneath the ground. Over the last couple of hours, I’ve been getting some weird readings, small microquakes that are tripping the sensors. There’s barely any geological info to cross-reference it with, so there’s no way for me to tell if this is just normal seismic activity for this region. The massif that we passed through not long ago was volcanic in origin, so it wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary.”

You would not bring it up if you did not think it worthy of note,” Lozka said, Ben giving her a nod.

I suppose you’re right. I’ll keep an eye on it, you never know. For now, I guess let’s pick a likely destination and drive there. I’m seeing a rock formation at bearing two-two-five, let’s go check that out. Looks like a suitable place for the Rask hole up.”

Let me see,” Lozka said, Ben swiping the map over to one of her monitors. “Yes, this looks a likely place. There is some kind of oasis in the center of these rocks, they would want to be close to a source of fresh water.”

We need to make a plan before we approach,” Mizi added, “we can’t just drive up there and honk our horn to find out if there any Rask hiding inside.”

Yeah,” Ben said, zooming in on the satellite image of the formation. “Looks like there’s a break in the rocks on the South side. We’d have to proceed on foot, but we could get in through there.

Leave that to me,” Lozka said. “I could slip inside under cover of night and investigate. The darkness will hinder the Rask, but my people are nocturnal.”

If you feel up to it, sure,” Ben replied. “We can park up at a safe distance and wait for you to scope it out. If we find Rask, then it’s not our job to deal with them anyway, we’ll just report their position to the convoy and move on.”

Can you send me the new coordinates, Commander?” Mizi asked.

Done,” he said, swiping at his monitor. “Let me know when we get near.”

***

Silent running,” Ben advised, “let’s get as close as we can.”

Mizi shut off the headlights, switching into a lower gear as they began to crawl towards their target, dusk making the visibility even worse. The land had become rockier as they had approached the potential Rask hideout, the rolling dunes giving way to flatter terrain that was strewn with stones, the occasional crumbling tower of rock appearing in the swirling dust. This may once have been another plateau, the jutting stone eaten away by the elements over eons. The Wolf’s tires managed it well, and it hadn’t slowed them down very much.

I’m amazed by how many distinct biomes the Borealan deserts have,” Ben mused, watching through the external cameras. “We’ve seen dunes, volcanic massifs that look like they were carved out of onyx, oases. I can see low mountain ranges on the satellite images, salt flats, all kinds of stuff.”

It seemed that they were entering a field of bizarre rock formations, Ben watching as they passed close to one, more appearing all around the vehicle as Mizi navigated between them. It was oddly eerie, they emerged from the haze like ghosts. The jutting pillar of stone was maybe ten feet high, paradoxically bulbous towards its peak, and narrow at its base. It looked like a carving of a mushroom cloud, the rock smooth, as though it had been polished by the hand of a sculptor. In reality, wind erosion was the culprit. With the savage seasonal storms that ravaged these deserts, the formations must have been carved out by a millennia of airborne sand. Some of them resembled trees until they came into clear focus, while others were simple spires with pointed tips. Some had formed sweeping arches, and there were some that had lost their base altogether, depositing large boulders on the sand.

This is surreal,” he muttered. “I feel like we’re driving into an expressionist painting.” “It’s like a stone forest,” Mizi said, her feathers flashing yellow as she examined her displays.

That’s the power of erosion for you,” Ben added. “It probably took millions of years for the wind and sand to carve these out.”

We’re coming up on our destination,” the Valbaran warned, glancing over her shoulder at Lozka. “You ready?”

Yes,” the feline replied, beginning to unbuckle her harness. “Commander, I cede control of the turret to you.”

Ben watched as she climbed into the troop bay, wrapping the mesh cloak that she had fashioned from the camouflaged netting about her shoulders, and securing her protective goggles. She pulled her crossbow down from the weapon rack, fastening a pouch of what looked like iron bolts to her belt, checking her gear.

Don’t you want something with a bit more punch?” he asked, rocking in his seat as Mizi brought them to a stop. “We have PDWs.”

My crossbow is silent,” she replied, “and you have seen my aim for yourself.”

He remembered their first run-in with a sandskiff, when she had saved his life from a Rask pirate with a pinpoint shot to the head.

Yeah, I remember,” he conceded. “Just...don’t forget that we’re only here to observe, not to fight this war ourselves. Don’t fire if you can avoid it.”

As you wish,” she replied, making her way to the door. “I will be but a shadow.”

And Lozka,” he added, the Araxie turning to look back at him as the ramp began to lower. “Be careful out there.”

She gave him a rare smile, then stepped out into the storm, the wind whipping at her cape as she darted out of sight. He turned back to his monitors to see that Mizi was peering at him, her plumage standing erect in a shade of pink.

Lozka will be alright,” the little reptile chirped, “she knows what she’s doing.”

I’m not that worried about her,” he replied, his cheeks flushing a similar shade as he ducked out of sight behind the monitors. He heard Mizi chuckle to herself, settling into her seat.

You don’t need to be ashamed of worrying about your flock,” she added. “I’d be more concerned if you didn’t.”

Crew,” he corrected.

Crew, flock, pack,” Mizi replied with a flutter of feathers that might be analogous to a shrug. “The lines are getting pretty blurry.”

***

It had been a good hour, and Ben was starting to get more worried. The cold was creeping in, too. Mizi was starting to shiver, and he could see his own breath.

I see something,” the Valbaran whispered, Ben switching to her camera views. There was a dark figure approaching, their silhouette becoming more distinct as they made their way through the sandstorm. They were definitely Borealan, but could they be sure that it was Lozka?

Think it’s her?” he asked, lowering his voice reflexively despite the fact that the person wouldn’t stand a chance of overhearing their conversation.

I hope so,” Mizi hissed, her three-fingered hands gripping the steering wheel tighter as the figure neared. They both exhaled a sigh of relief in tandem when they saw that it was indeed their crewmate, Mizi’s feathers flashing a shade of mellow green.

Ben crawled into the troop bay to greet her, shielding his face from the blowing sand as the ramp started to lower. She hurried inside, closing it quickly behind her, shaking herself like a wet dog to dislodge some of the sand that was clinging to her shiny fur.

Find anything?” Ben asked, her emerald eyes peering out at him from beneath her camouflaged cowl as she removed her goggles.

Yes, but not a Rask camp,” she replied cryptically. “There is a natural rock formation that creates a ring-shaped wall, as seen on your map,” she continued breathlessly. “It is high enough to shield one from the storm. There is a recessed basin in the center, and inside that basin is some kind of oasis, surrounded by discolored rock. The water bubbles and belches steam as though it is boiling, its heat warding off the cold. I have never seen its like before.”

Geothermal springs!” Ben exclaimed, his smile making her cock her head. “This whole area must still be volcanically active. It happens when hot groundwater rises from the planet’s crust.”

Hot springs?” Mizi asked, leaning over the back of her chair with wide eyes.

Why does the presence of boiling water please you both so?” Lozka asked, glancing between the two in confusion.

Commander!” Mizi whined, practically vibrating in her seat as she struggled to restrain herself.

Well,” he began, considering for a moment. “Night has fallen, and we’d probably just stay parked here anyway. I’d need to check the PH level and temperature of the water, but even if we can’t take a dip, sleeping somewhere warmer than the troop bay would do wonders for morale. Sure, why not? Let’s camp out in the basin tonight. Lozka,” he added, “you’re sure there were no signs of any Rask?”

None, Commander,” she replied. “There is no evidence of them ever having been here that I could find. No sign of Lakeless, either.”

Then we,” he said, clapping his hands together gleefully. “Are going camping.”

***

Ben and Lozka secured the camouflaged tarp over the Timberwolf, then made their way to the break in the rock wall, Lozka carrying Mizi in her arms so that the little creature wouldn’t get blown around in the storm. The feline was so light on her feet, hopping over the rocks that protruded from the sand, seeming to flow through the environment like water. It was a little harder for Ben, the risk of twisting an ankle was real, but she slowed her graceful strides so that he could keep pace.

The night was doubly dark thanks to the swirling sand that obscured the sky. Ben could barely see a few meters in any direction. He had to turn on the flashlight that was mounted on his helmet, and even that barely did the trick. It was disorientating, getting lost in the desert would have been alarmingly easy. He tried to keep Lozka in sight, her camouflaged cloak whipping in the gale.

The wall rose up in front of them, smooth and oddly bulbous, like the flowstone that one might expect to find in a cave. This formation had not been carved out by the elements like the towers that surrounded it. The water that welled up from deep within the planet must be rich in minerals, which had been deposited here over time. As they neared, he could see that the rock was slick. It reflected the beam of his flashlight, steam rising from it in the cold air. All about the base of the formation were small, scrubby plants, patches of colorful mold clinging to the stone. Life in this desert took every opportunity that it could, eking out a living wherever there was a drop of moisture to be found.

Lozka led him around to the entrance, a break in the wall about six feet across, and he paused to place a few proximity sensors around the perimeter. If anyone should try to sneak up on them, they would know about it.

As soon as the wall was to his back, Ben felt the wind abate, the hammering of airborne sand against his suit fading. He was standing in a kind of crater that was maybe thirty meters across, the interior of which was full of water, its surface shimmering in the beam of his flashlight as he swept it around the area. There were a few individual pools that were separated by more flowstone, the surrounding rock discolored by algae and lichens. Steam rose from the crystal-clear water, Ben already finding that he had to wipe away the condensation from his visor. Lozka had been right. It was like a sauna in here, staving off the night’s chill.

If I had to guess,” he said, walking around the edge of one of the pools. “The water probably came up to the top of these walls at one point, but it slowly receded, leaving these mineral formations behind it. This whole place must have been way more active at one point. I wonder what it might have looked like?” He glanced back at his companions, Lozka recoiling as he accidentally shone his light at her. “Sorry,” he added, “I keep forgetting that you can see in the dark.”

She set Mizi down, the Valbaran bobbing over to join him, leaning over the edge to look into the clear water through her visor.

Don’t touch it yet,” he warned, slinging off his pack and fishing inside it for a moment. “Geothermal springs can be hot enough to cause third-degree burns, and they can be acidic enough to melt right through your suit.” He withdrew a tool that resembled a long, telescoping rod with a built-in screen on one end, dipping it into the water. “Temperature is around forty degrees centigrade, PH is seven, and...I’m reading alkaline minerals. Perfect.”

It’s safe?” Mizi asked, her tinny voice coming through on her helmet’s speakers. He nodded, the color panels on her suit flashing green, the alien beginning to take off her helmet.

Hang on, let’s make camp first,” he added. “I see a suitable place over there on the right.”

They made their way over to a rocky outcrop, Ben setting his pack down, pulling out a collapsible stove and some ration packets. Out here, they could actually do some real cooking. For light, they had a portable lantern that bathed the surrounding area in a dull glow, providing enough illumination to see by. It just barely reached out to the walls of the basin, creating dark shadows. He unrolled his sleeping bag and lay it out on the warm rocks, soon realizing that Mizi had not brought her own with her. Of course, she probably expected to share with Lozka, she had become accustomed to that by now. He watched as Lozka lay out her sleeping bag on the other side of their makeshift camp, a knot forming in his stomach.

Would they take offense to him sleeping alone? He had already shared a sleeping bag with them back in the Timberwolf, but that had been because of the cold, or so he had told himself at the time. It was plenty warm and humid here, downright balmy, the steam that rose from the pools making it feel like a sauna. He had plenty of time to decide how he wanted to handle it, in any case.

He rummaged through some of the MREs and selected a few choice ingredients, setting them cooking in a small pot. Lozka joined him beside the stove, attracted by the scent of meat, watching him as he began to stir the concoction with a plastic spoon. His eyes were soon drawn to Mizi as she began to disrobe, taking off her helmet and slipping her feather sheaths out of its flexible tubes. She stripped off her pressure suit, the black material contrasting sharply with her green scales, the humidity that filled the air making it an even more arduous process than usual. While she didn’t sweat like he and Lozka did, it seemed that her waxy hide was a moisture magnet, probably evolved to help keep her cool on her home planet.

She danced on the spot as she struggled to get the garment past her wide hips and over the thick base of her tail, the impact making the softer parts of her anatomy quiver. After finally succeeding in freeing herself, she lay the suit on the rocks beside Lozka’s sleeping bag. Now, she wore only her tube top and her knee-length shorts, just enough to preserve her modesty. Her underclothes were so tight that the elastic cut into the meat of her thighs, creating little indents.

She stretched, extending the sheaths on her head and arms, Ben’s eyes drawn to the way that her wet scales reflected the yellow glow of the lamp. They looked so much like skin under normal conditions, but now, each and every one seemed to catch the light to make her glisten. It made her look like she was studded with tiny jewels, the droplets of moisture that condensed on her smooth hide adding to the effect.

Lozka watched with apparent amusement as her companion trotted down to the edge of the nearest pool, dipping the tip of her tail into the water like a human might dip their toe. Once she was certain that the temperature was to her liking, she gingerly lowered herself into it, sinking up to her long neck as her feather sheaths erupted in a display of green and pink. A long, drawn-out sigh escaped her scaly lips, her eyes closing as she floated. She was remarkably buoyant.

That’s why she was so excited,” Ben explained, getting Lozka’s attention. “Don’t the Araxie take hot baths? You don’t have geothermal springs, saunas, hot tubs?”

Why should the temperature of the water matter?” she asked, Ben clapping his hands together gleefully.

Trust me, you’re gonna love this. Go on, go on,” he added as he waved her away. “I’ll take care of the cooking, go take a bath. And don’t be alarmed, it’s supposed to be hot!”

Still looking rather confused, she removed her protective goggles and her camouflaged cape, shedding her chest rig and belts before making her way down to join Mizi at the water’s edge. Just like when she had bathed in the desert oasis, she kept her leather shorts and top on. Perhaps mimicking her friend, she dipped the end of her furry tail into the pool, then quickly withdrew it.

It is too hot,” she protested, turning to look back at Ben with a scowl on her face.

You’ll get used to it after a minute or two,” he called over to her. He was worried that she might refuse to go any further, but after a little coaxing from an uncharacteristically mellow Mizi, she eventually elected to set foot in the water. She was cautious at first, but as he had suspected, the tension began to melt from her sinewy body as soon as she was immersed up to her shoulders. Mizi glanced over at Ben, the two of them sharing a grin as their companion sank a little deeper.

The heat is supposed to be good for you, and there’s something about the minerals that people claim is beneficial,” he explained as he tended to the simmering pot of stew. “I don’t know if there’s much truth to that, but it sure feels good.”

Are you going to join us, Commander?” Mizi asked as she leaned on the smooth rock by the edge of the pool. Lozka had already begun to run her hands across her silky coat, cleaning away any residue of sand and sweat. It was a little futile, they would have to walk back through the storm to get to the Timberwolf tomorrow morning, but it must be a relief to get clean. He was looking forward to taking a good bath himself.

In a minute,” he replied, “this is gonna take a little while to cook.”

What are you making?” she asked.

I’ve been paying close attention to what you guys eat, and I think I’ve come up with a recipe for a stew that we should all be able to share. Eating together is one thing, but actually sharing a dish is something else.”

After stirring for a couple more minutes, he began to take off his own suit, having just as much difficulty as Mizi. The sweat and humidity were making the material stick to his skin, but he managed to get it off after a little struggling. He stripped down to his shorts, taking off his tank top, then realized that he had an audience. Mizi and Lozka were both watching him from the pool, Ben resisting the urge to cover himself as he made his way over to them.

He lowered himself into the water, the heat seeming to penetrate deep into his muscles, hesitating when it reached his crotch. His shorts weren’t exactly designed to be used as a bathing suit, the fabric becoming waterlogged as he let himself sink deeper.

I can tell you one thing,” he groaned, leaning back against the smooth rock. “I’ve been on worse deployments than this.”

The Rask have tried to kill us several times,” Lozka reminded him, raising an eyebrow at his remark.

I’m used to getting shot at, but there isn’t usually a hot spring involved.”

So, you’re saying that spa days aren’t par for the course when it comes to deploying on a hostile planet?” Mizi joked. Ben laughed heartily, more at her use of the phrase than anything else.

Where the hell did you hear the term spa day while serving on an assault carrier?” he chuckled. She floated over to his right side, Ben finding himself sandwiched between the two aliens. While Lozka kept her distance, Mizi sidled up close to him, her pink feathers tickling his cheek as she reached out to run her hand across his chest beneath the water. He lurched, not expecting her touch, looking down to watch her scaly fingers stroke his skin. Her hand was small enough that he could have completely enclosed her fist in his own, her fingers tipped with dull, black claws that seemed more like fingernails in their function than Lozka’s curved meat hooks. Her scales were as smooth as ever, so small as to be imperceptible, her palm far softer and fleshier than he would have guessed.

He felt like he should protest, maybe push her away, but Mizi had always lacked an awareness of personal space that seemed to be an element of her culture. She wasn’t being malicious, she was just curious. Besides, it wasn’t as if he really minded. They had grown used to each other by now, they had spent days crammed into a sardine can on wheels together.

I’ve never touched a human before,” she said, glancing up at him gleefully. She had neglected to add the qualifier naked, but the meaning was obvious enough. “Your skin looked clear, but it’s actually covered in tiny hairs...”

You got me, I’ve secretly been a mammal this whole time,” he replied.

Why do you need nipples?” she asked, giving one a prod.

Hey,” he grumbled, covering his chest with his arm. “Don’t poke them. They’re vestigial.”

She raised a hand towards his head, and he sank a little lower so that she could reach, blowing bubbles in the water as she combed her fingers through his hair.

It’s soft, like fur,” she chuckled, petting him like one might pet a dog. He glanced over at Lozka as the towering alien lifted herself out of the pool, her silky coat soaked with water. She made her way back up to the camp, rummaging through the pile of pouches and satchels that she had discarded for a moment, returning with one of the belts in her hand. She set it on the edge of the pool, opening a pouch and withdrawing what looked like a crude block of soap.

What’s that?” Ben asked, watching as she dipped it into the water and began to rub it between her hands.

It is soap,” she confirmed. “We make it from wood ash, animal fats, and plant oils.” She stood so that the water only came up to the waistline of her leather shorts, then began to spread it across her arms and torso, the white suds contrasting with her dark coat. “I have neglected my fur as of late,” she explained. “Bathing is not possible in our vehicle. It will be nice to tend to it for a while.”

Mizi floated over to her, the feline handing her the fine-toothed comb that she had previously used to clean the sand from her fur. The reptile lifted the Araxie’s long, furry tail, holding it in her hand like a snake as she began to comb it. Bathing was a social event for both species, this kind of thing was completely normal for them.

Thank you,” Lozka muttered, glancing down at her diminutive companion. “I am accustomed to having half a dozen packmates to assist me.”

You do have a lot of fur to wash,” Mizi chuckled.

Do humans have any bathing rituals that we should know about?” Lozka added, turning her green eyes to Ben.

Bathing rituals?” he asked.

You’d probably be uncomfortable with bathing together, right?” Mizi added.

Uh...I guess so,” he replied.

That’s okay, I understand,” she said as she returned to her work. She was slowly moving her way up the Araxie’s tail, Lozka passing her the soap so that she could spread it along the length of the appendage.

On one hand, Ben was happy that his crewmates were being considerate of what to them was a very alien, and probably a distinctly anti-social culture. But on the other, he was feeling a little left out. This was a way of bonding for them, something that both of their people shared. But if he was being excluded, it was entirely due to his own decisions.

With a start, he realized that he recognized this feeling, this pit in his stomach. It was the same sensation that he had felt watching his companions sleep together, the same one that had preceded his joining them in their sleeping bag. Why was he resisting? Was it because of his own sensibilities? Was it a cultural taboo? Was he scared that his superiors would find out and that they might consider it a breach of protocol, a violation of the UNN’s standards of conduct?

What did it matter? They were a thousand kilometers from anywhere, and the only other people around were either feral aliens who wanted to skewer them on bayonets, or a convoy that was days behind them. This was his new normal.

He cleared his throat, getting the attention of his companions, Mizi pausing her combing to glance out from behind Lozka.

I did say that humans were adaptable,” he said, beginning to wade over to them. “Maybe it’s time for me to start...adapting.”

Mizi’s feathers flashed pink, and she looked up at Lozka, the Araxie’s usual reservedness slipping for a moment as they shared a smile. The feline handed him the soap as he neared, Ben standing there, wondering what to do next.

My back and shoulders, if it pleases you,” Lozka said. “I cannot reach them myself.” “You got it,” he mumbled, making his way behind her. She lowered herself down, sitting on the smooth rock at the bottom of the pool, the water level rising just above the hem of her leather top. Mizi floated beside him, her clawed toes barely able to scrape the floor.

He began to spread the soap across her broad shoulders, working it into her silky fur with his fingers, feeling her toned muscles shift beneath his hands. The lather made his touch slippery, her coat providing almost no resistance. She leaned into him, rolling her head back, seeming to enjoy the sensation. He realized that the soap smelled strongly of blackberries. This was the scent that he had noticed when they had slept together.

How’s your neck been?” he asked. “Any tightness or pain? Any headaches?”

No,” she replied, “not since you tended to it last time.”

That’s good,” he muttered.

Would you...do it again?” she asked hesitantly. “I found it to be a...novel sensation.”

Sure,” he replied, working his way up to her neck. She stiffened as he found a knot in her sinewy muscles, sagging another couple of inches into the water as he worked his thumb over it to release the tension.

Now it’s a spa day,” he whispered, Mizi giggling as he nudged her with his elbow.

I’ll do her hair,” the Valbaran announced, floating around in front of her. Lozka dipped her head towards the water so that she could reach, Mizi beginning to massage the soap into her scalp. Between the hot water, the back massage, and the complementary hair washing, the Araxie was more relaxed than Ben had ever seen her. She was always so stoic, on edge, hyper-vigilant. Now, she was on cloud nine. She could barely stay awake as they tended to her soft coat, her taut muscles turning to putty in Ben’s hands. He could feel her tail waving back and forth beneath the water, batting against his legs absent-mindedly.

The Rask use clawless as an insult,” Lozka murmured, “but I am beginning to think that it has its merits...”

Mizi began to run the comb through her hair, Ben moving down her long spine, following the dimple that her muscles carved in her back. Her thin coat revealed every detail of her underlying physique, shining as it reflected the far-off light of the lamp, like a velvet body glove. She twitched and sighed as he kneaded between her shoulder blades, every stroke of his hands making her sigh contentedly. She was so strong and stout that he could apply as much pressure as he wanted, driving the heel of his hand deep into her flesh without fear of accidentally hurting her. In fact, she seemed to appreciate it all the more. He paused as he reached her top, his fingers encountering leather.

Would it offend you if I were to remove it?” she asked, Ben feeling his heart skip a beat. “I know that immodesty displeases humans, but my people do not share such concerns.”

If...if you like,” he replied, pulling his hands away as she began to slide the garment off. She kept her back to him so that he couldn’t see her chest, gathering up her bosom in one of her arms. He felt both relieved and a little disappointed at the same time. With her back free, he was able to move lower, a low rumble emanating from deep within her throat. She was purring again.

Mizi cupped her hands, pouring water over Lozka’s head to wash away the suds. When she was done, the Araxie stood up, rising until the water was level with her beltline. She kept her arm secured over her breasts, likely more for Ben’s benefit than because of any shyness, Mizi starting to comb the fur on her flat belly.

Lozka’s rump was now at about stomach height to him, her round cheeks filling out her shorts, the damp leather creaking as she moved. It clung to her so tightly, the outlines of her muscles clearly visible beneath the material, toned by a lifetime of athleticism in this harsh gravity. What little body fat she had seemed to be concentrated around her butt and thighs, giving them a soft, shapely appearance. Her flared hips were wider than the breadth of his shoulders, his eyes drawn to the two perfect dimples just above her waistline, the channel that her muscles carved down her back ending at the base of her tail.

She clearly expected him to continue his work on her lower body, and so he obliged. It was a struggle to keep his eyes above her belt, not to let them wander to the beginnings of a cleft that was just peeking out above her low-cut shorts, not to let his hands trace the hourglass curve of her hips. Good lord, he could have bounced a grenade off her ass, it looked like it was made of rubber.

He focused his attention on the base of her tail, encountering a surprisingly extensive web of muscle that supported the appendage. She arched her back as he dug his fingers into it, seeming more sensitive here, her long tail standing as straight as a board. Her hips began to slowly gyrate as he massaged the base of her spine, working out her tension, Mizi leaning around the trunk of her companion’s body to get a look at what had her so entranced.

Guess I got magic fingers,” he said with a shrug, Mizi’s headdress and forearms flashing pink again. Most of her coloration was obvious in context. Green seemed to be happy or peaceful, red was angry, yellow was surprised, purple seemed to be worried or upset. Was pink embarrassment? Was it the equivalent of a blush?

Ben stopped just shy of Lozka’s shorts, wondering if she was going to take those off too. Instead, she lowered herself into the steaming water, letting it wash away the slick layer of soap. She sank up to her shoulders, loosing a long sigh, Ben moving out of her way so that she could lean back against the warm rock. She released her breasts once they were under the water, the low light and the steam that filled the air doing enough of a job of obscuring them from view. It also meant that she couldn’t see the tent that he was pitching either.

I am glad,” she muttered, her eyelids drooping. “That you decided to join us.”

Ben let himself sink, sitting on the bottom of the hot spring beside Lozka, who was stretched out to keep her large body submerged in the shallows. He rested his elbows on the shore, letting the heat soothe him, averting his eyes from the now mostly nude alien. At least he could blame his red face on the heat…

A disturbance in the water caught his eye, and he noticed that Mizi was floating her way over to him, pushing herself through the pool with her tail like a miniature crocodile. She turned over onto her back as she reached the shore, brandishing the bar of soap.

How are you able to float like that?” he wondered aloud. She was like a living pool toy.

Most of my bones are hollow,” she explained. “Want me to do your hair like I did Lozka’s?”

Sure,” he replied, Mizi swimming around behind him. She lifted herself up onto the rocky lip of the spring, Ben feeling her powerful tail coil beneath his left arm and around his chest as she hooked him. It felt like a large snake was winding its way around him, Ben resisting the natural instinct to throw it off and flee the water. Her scales were as smooth as polished stone, the fat layer making her appendage squishy and soft despite the iron muscles that he could feel flexing beneath. She drew him closer, easing him between her legs, his hot cheeks brushing against the glassy scales of her inner thighs. They cradled him like pillows, just as soft and cushiony as her tail, the moisture that clung to her body making them wet and slick. She rested the backs of her knees on his shoulders, her clawed, two-toed feet dangling down his chest as she began to work the soap into his hair.

Her small hands were so dexterous and gentle, her dull claws creating an oddly pleasant sensation as they glanced his scalp, reminding him of the teeth of a comb. He found himself leaning into her, the back of his head brushing against the spandex-like fabric of her shorts. It felt like he was resting against a scaly, fleshy travel pillow, he would never have expected a reptile to be so...soft.

I’m glad too,” she whispered, rousing Ben from his stupor.

Huh?” he muttered.

I’m glad that you came around,” she continued, working the lather deeper. “This is nice, right? All of us eating together, sleeping together, bathing together...”

Mhmm,” he replied, his eyelids fluttering as she massaged his scalp.

I know how much Lozka appreciates it, even if she won’t say so. I think she misses her pack almost as much as I miss my flock,” she added as she glanced over at her companion. The Araxie seemed to be sleeping, or at least so relaxed that Ben couldn’t tell if she was awake or not.

I never meant to come off as anti-social,” he said. “It’s just...an adjustment for me.”

Oh, I know,” she added hastily. “I didn’t want to try and pressure you into it, I know it’s not part of your culture. We have solitary males where I come from, but they’re a little more...malleable,” she said with a chuckle. He felt her tail tighten around him possessively as she appeared to reminisce, pausing her massage for a moment. “Anyway,” she added, cupping her hands and pouring water over his head as she washed away the suds. “I...we like having you here with us.”

Good to know,” he replied. When she was done with his hair, she waited a few moments, perhaps trying to gauge whether he wanted to keep using her thighs as pillows. The moment passed, and she released him, sliding back into the pool at his side. She looked conflicted, as though she wanted to be closer to him, but couldn’t decide if it was appropriate.

Eventually, Ben felt compelled to reach out and drape an arm about her narrow shoulders, tugging her close. Her feathers erupted in a vibrant display of pink and yellow, gradually shifting to a solid pink, confirming his suspicion that it was some kind of blush. She froze up for a minute as though he had short-circuited her, then let herself relax, leaning her head on his shoulder.

You got nothing I can wash for you?” he asked.

My feathers are self-cleaning,” she replied with a sigh, “and I didn’t bring a brush for my scales. I’d usually wax them, but there’s not much point in that all the way out here.”

They remained that way for a few minutes longer, enjoying the heat of the water. Their strange surroundings and the dim light gave the basin a dreamlike quality. When Ben looked up above the walls of flowstone, he could just about make out the swirling dust clouds, like they were in the eye of the storm.

Spending the night here had been a great idea. This was just what they had been needing, a little break from the cramped confines of the Timberwolf, a little relaxation to blow off some steam.

Ben suddenly remembered about the stew, beginning to slowly ease himself away from Mizi, the little alien lifting her head when she realized what he was doing. Lozka opened one eye lazily, watching him as he climbed out of the pool and hurried back to their makeshift camp. He reached the pot, giving it a stir, trying to ignore the way that his soaking shorts were clinging to his skin.

It’s ready!” he announced, Mizi hopping out of the pool and bobbing over to him. Lozka rose up out of the hot spring, her waterlogged fur dripping as she leaned down to retrieve her top, slipping it back on. She made her way over to join them around the portable lamp, blinking her eyes as they adjusted to its glow. There was something lethargic about the way that she sat down heavily beside him, watching as he spooned the stew into two bowls. He was glad that she was still so relaxed. She had been wound up as tight as a spring over the last few days, it would do her good.

He passed one of the bowls to Mizi, who sniffed it experimentally, seeming to approve. Lozka got the pot, as it was a more appropriate size for her.

Watch out, it’s hot,” he warned as he brought a spoonful of stew to his mouth and blew on it. When it was cool enough, he gave it a taste, smacking his lips and nodding his head. “I think it turned out pretty good!”

Mizi lowered her dull snout, dipping her pointed tongue into her bowl, her violet eyes lighting up.

So, what’s the verdict?” Ben asked. She fished out a piece of meat with her spoon, pausing to chew it. “Have I achieved pan-Galactic cuisine?”

I like it!” she replied, her feathers flaring green.

They both watched as Lozka lifted the pot by the handle, waiting for it to cool a little more before downing a mouthful. She immediately took a second gulp, then a third soon after, nodding her approval as she set it down on the rock in front of her.

You are a skilled cook, Commander.”

They ate in relative silence, too occupied with their meals to make much conversation. All three of them were omnivores as far as he could tell, but it was much easier to find meats that appealed to everyone than it was to find vegetables and fruits. Lozka especially didn’t seem to appreciate sweet flavors at all. They had eaten together before, but as Ben had explained earlier, actually sharing a meal was somehow a more social experience than eating their rations separately.

When he was done, he set his bowl down at his side, patting his belly contentedly.

Shame I can’t cook like this every day,” he mused, watching Lozka finish off her meal. “Starting fires in the Timberwolf’s troop bay isn’t the best idea.”

His eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of her long, pink tongue snaking out to clean the pot. It was nothing like a human’s, it must have been near a foot in length, the flat of it covered in what looked like feline barbs. It seemed to be prehensile, moving more like a tentacle than a tongue, scraping up every last drop of the stew.

That would be nice,” Mizi said, distracting him from the odd sight. “But your regular cooking is nothing to scoff at. You’re a wizard with a flameless heater, Commander.”

Are you going to be able to go back to eating insect protein bars after all the meat we’ve been feeding you?” he asked, reaching out to pat her scaly head. “I think you might even grow a few inches at this rate.”

She batted him away playfully, Ben chuckling. There was a metallic clink as Lozka set her pot on the ground, her snaking, glistening tongue wetting her black lips to make them shine in the lamplight.

A fine meal,” she muttered, giving Ben an appreciative glance. “Would that we had another like you back in the village. The cooks in the felled hall are second to none, yes, but we are seldom so well fed during our outings into the deep jungle. We mostly subsist on cured and salted meat if we cannot catch something warm and living.”

Happy to oblige,” he said, Mizi beaming as she watched the two interact. “We’d best turn in,” he added, leaning over to check the wrist display on his discarded suit. “As nice as taking a break has been, we have to get back to work tomorrow.”

As you wish, Commander,” Lozka said as she rose to her feet. Mizi followed behind her obediently, the two making their way over to the large sleeping bag that was laid out on the rocks a few feet from the lamp. Everyone was still wet, and with so much humidity in the air, there was no point trying to dry off. It was warm enough that it wasn’t an issue, however. The steam that rose from the hot springs drove off the frigid cold of the desert, and Ben felt no need to put his suit back on. He lay out his sleeping bag, intending to sleep on top of it rather than getting inside it, then paused to glance over at his companions. They were doing the same, spreading out their sleeping bag like a giant picnic blanket and lying down atop it, Lozka’s wet fur shining in the yellow glow as she stretched out. Mizi curled up in the crook of her arm like a scaly cat, thinking nothing of leaning her head on her partner’s chest.

He felt that same knot in his stomach, the same sense of longing, an impulse demanding that he join them. There was no need for excuses anymore, he didn’t need to be huddling for warmth to share a bed with them. All that mattered was that he wanted to be close to them and that they wanted the same thing. He stood up, rubbing his arm sheepishly as his voice echoed through the basin.

Room for one more?”

Two pairs of alien eyes peered out at him from the gloom, Lozka’s feline pupils reflecting the lamplight like a pair of mirrors, Mizi’s headdress flaring pink in what he now recognized as a blush.

Always,” the Valbaran chirped, Ben walking over to them. This time, Mizi moved aside, patting the plush sleeping bag between her and Lozka. It seemed that they wanted to make a human sandwich. He lay down beside the Araxie, who draped her silky arm around his shoulders, her bicep cushioning his head. Her fur was warm and slick, his heart fluttering as her renewed blackberry scent reached his nose, mingling with her exertion in a way that set his senses alight. Mizi came in from his left, draping her arm across his stomach as she pressed up against him. She lay her head on his chest, her smooth scales noticeably cooler than Lozka’s velvet coat, nuzzling as she shifted her weight to get comfortable. He felt something slithering across his thigh, looking down to see that her chubby tail was draped over his leg. She smelled like wet leather, with a hint of the soap that she had probably picked up in the water.

Ben scooped her up in his arm, hearing a sigh escape her lips, her headdress tickling his chin. This felt...different from the last time. He had been wearing his suit when they had slept together in the Timberwolf, but now their scales and fur were pressed up tight against his damp skin, there was no barrier between them. It was oddly calming.

This was his reality now, his new normal. He could get used to this...

CHAPTER 11: NO SALE

Did you learn anything from the human?” the Crewmaster asked, Korbaz pausing to take a sip of her drink before replying. They were lounging in one of the common rooms, sitting atop a pile of silk cushions as their attendants brought them refreshments.

Only that I hate the little bastard,” she snarled. “He’s smarter than he looks, it’s going to take more prying to get anything useful out of him. I’m hoping that spending a night alone in his cell may have loosened his sharp tongue enough for me to try again. How long until the carriers are reinforced?”

The convoy will arrive in two days,” he replied, reaching out to select a morsel of meat from a platter that was being presented to him by an attractive female. He popped it into his mouth, savoring the taste for a moment. “As per your orders, I have sent out smaller raiding parties to harass the interlopers in the meantime. Once the convoy arrives, we can organize a second large-scale assault on their formation.”

I want to know how to crack their tanks by then,” she said, leaning back into the cushions as she swirled her drink in her cup. “We need that edge. The human claims that he is a mere gunner and that he knows nothing of codes or plans. Even if that is true, he still knows the Kodiaks inside and out. If they have a weakness, then he knows how to exploit it.”

I would not believe him so readily,” the Crewmaster added. “His injuries mark him as an experienced warrior. If he were Rask, he would be of high status.”

We shall see,” Korbaz muttered, running her claw around the rim of her glass idly.

***

Cooper was woken by the sound of something rattling against the bars of his cell. He sat up on his cot, forgetting for a moment that he only had one arm and almost tumbling onto the floor. It was the Admiral. She was stowing a large knife in a holster on her thigh, peering at him like a tiger that was on the wrong side of its cage.

Oh look, it’s the biggest fish in the smallest, scummiest pond,” he muttered as he rubbed his eyes groggily.

Did you sleep well, Corporal?” she asked with an insincere smile.

I’ve slept on the hull of a tank,” he replied, “a cot isn’t going to break my resolve.”

I can always arrange to have it removed if a hard floor would make you more comfortable,” she added with a grin.

What do you want, Korbaz?”

I would prefer that you address me by the title of Admiral,” she grumbled, her flat brow furrowing. “But, I suppose that’s too much to expect. You must be hungry,” she added, “you haven’t eaten since yesterday evening.” “Yeah, you made sure of that,” he replied. There was a clunk as she unlocked his cell, swinging the door open on its squeaking hinges, beckoning to him with a furry hand.

Come, join me for breakfast.”

He looked her up and down warily, then slid off his cot, making his way over to the door. There was no doubt in his mind that she only wanted to interrogate him again, but an empty stomach was a strong motivator.

Unlike the guards who had come to fetch him the day before, she let him walk beside her without restraining him. As she had told him over dinner the evening prior, there was no way for him to escape. Even if he somehow managed to make it off the crawler and he was able to evade his pursuers, where would he go? They were smack bang in the middle of a desert, he’d die of exposure in hours.

As she led him through the winding, industrial corridors of the crawler’s underbelly, the personnel who were tending to their duties scurried out of her path like cockroaches. They bowed their heads as she passed them by, affording her a kind of reverence that bordered on fear. Cooper had to resist the urge to laugh. It was so strange to be amongst these people, to see them so tightly bound to a social system that he couldn’t give less of a fuck about.

She had him climb the ladder into the prefabs on the deck of the vehicle, and he once again found himself in one of the lavishly furnished compartments. This time, rather than taking him to the dining hall with the large table, she led him over to a pile of cushions in one corner of the room. The walls were draped with more purple curtains that met on the ceiling, making it feel like they were in a giant tent, everything lit by the dim glow of hanging lamps. Korbaz settled into the soft pillows, her leather getup creaking as she shifted her weight.

Won’t you join me?” she asked, gesturing to her side. Cooper shrugged, then sat down beside her, sinking into the cushions. He had nothing better to do, might as well play along if it meant getting fed. The Admiral called out in her native language, and a female entered the room, carrying a silver platter in her furry hands.

She was quite the specimen, tall and graceful, a waterfall of golden hair reaching her bare shoulders. Unlike the rest of the crew, she wasn’t wearing leather or armor. Instead, she wore a flowing garment that somewhat resembled a sari, made from a semi-transparent fabric in shades of red and orange. It just barely served to protect her modesty, her top leaving her cleavage and her toned midriff exposed, her skin a sun-kissed shade of tan. Her long skirt was high-cut, exposing a smooth, muscled thigh with every step that she took. She leaned down to offer him an assortment of meats, giving him a clear view straight down her top, the motion making a pair of breasts the size of his head wobble.

Korbaz let him stare for a moment, then reached out to pluck a strip of roasted meat from the tray, snapping him out of his stupor.

See anything that you like?” she asked.

Huh?”

The food,” she added, giving him a smirk as she popped a morsel into her mouth.

Cooper tore his eyes away from the beautiful alien, grabbing a cut of what looked like pork with his bare hand, the oil that coated it making it slippery. He began to chew into it, tearing at it like a dog, as the Rask had not provided him with any cutlery.

I want to tell you a story,” Korbaz began, waving away the attendant. Cooper watched her wide hips roll as she walked away, waiting obediently beside the far wall. “Imagine that you are on Earth, a thousand years ago, if you would. Your planet is made up of warring states, each vying for power and territory. Now, imagine that an alien species arrives on your homeworld, one so advanced that you cannot even comprehend their technology.”

I see where this is going,” Cooper muttered, taking another bite of his meat.

Indulge me,” Korbaz said, a hint of irritation creeping into her voice. “These hypothetical aliens will share their marvelous technology with you, but only if you pledge your allegiance to them, and cooperate with whatever edicts they hand down. At first, your government refuses, they do not want to be ruled by a foreign power. But those who do cooperate are given technologies that accelerate their development by centuries in the blink of an eye. Soon, you find that you are surrounded by hostile nations who have equipped their armies with alien weaponry. What choice is left but to submit to the demands of the interlopers?”

Cooper continued to eat, one of Korbaz’s furry ears flicking with annoyance as she watched him.

So, your government joins the aliens, they begin receiving the weapons that they require to defend their interests. The aliens do not understand or appreciate your way of life, however. They outlaw practices that have put food on your tables and clothes on your backs for centuries, they criminalize the very thing that makes your people who they are. What choice do you have left but to rebel? How can you endure these insults, how can you watch your people sink into destitution?”

Let me tell you what you should have done,” Cooper replied, pausing his chewing. “Sure, an argument could be made that the Coalition upset the balance of power on Borealis, but that’s an infinitely better outcome than a defenseless planet being wiped clean by a marauding Hive fleet. You needed protection that only we could provide. Yeah, you can’t be bloody pirates. Of course we outlawed your so-called way of life, as any sane government would. If your culture revolves around raiding and stealing, then your culture is a trash fire. You agreed to stop being cunts when you signed up.”

Korbaz opened her mouth to offer a scathing rebuttal, but he cut her off.

You had the option to move on. You could have taken the development grants that the Coalition offers and used them to start farms, to build factories, you could have used relief money to feed your population during the transition. But you didn’t do that, did you? Instead, you decided you were going to start a war against an alliance that has planet-destroying battleships.”

He began to wave his hand, Korbaz raising an eyebrow in confusion.

What...what are you doing?”

I’m clapping sarcastically, but you won’t give me my fucking arm back, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.”

She bared her teeth, glaring at him with her yellow eyes.

You would have a nation of noble warriors become farmers?” she sneered. “Humans are honorless. Those who have never known dignity cannot fathom the measures that we must sometimes take to protect it.”

You’re not going to get me to defect by telling me a sob story about how the big bad aliens are trying to stop you from raiding trading caravans,” he muttered, finishing off his meat. “That’s like someone claiming that the police are trying to destroy his livelihood because they won’t let him mug joggers in the park.”

This is our way,” she snapped. “The weak are ruled by the strong, and those who cannot protect their property do not deserve to keep it.”

If the strong rule the weak, then shouldn’t you be happy to be ruled over by the Coalition?” he asked. She began to speak, then paused, thinking for a moment.

Your people are not truly strong,” she shot back. “Anyone can sit on a spaceship and drop bombs on the defenseless people below. Anyone can kill their adversary from a league away with a railgun. The Rask are mighty, both in our physicality, and our strength of will. The hardships that we endure in the desert shape us into warriors, they instill in us an unshakable resolve, while your kind cannot even handle the planet’s gravity. Humans are born clawless, a pitiful state of being reserved for slaves, while we inflict injuries upon one another in mere play that would fatally wound you. Our packs are led by the strongest among their number, while your people are ruled over by simpering bureaucrats and politicians. Put a Rask and a human in a room, and the Rask will always come out on top.”

And if I tied your arms behind your back and muzzled you, you couldn’t win either, so what’s your point? Listen,” he added, stopping her before she went on another rant. “It’s like you said. Back in the old days, human nations fought each other too. Sometimes we still have disagreements. But we learned that what’s out there,” he said, pointing to the ceiling for emphasis, “doesn’t give a fuck about borders. They don’t care if we call ourselves Australians, Russians, or Martians. They’re going to kill us simply because we’re in their way. When the Bugs come knocking, you’re going to want the Coalition at your back. None of this shit matters, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Korbaz had no answer for him, stewing as she leaned back into the pile of cushions. After a moment, she called the attendant back over, the woman leaning down to offer the Admiral another piece of meat. Cooper helped himself to another cut, watching Korbaz as she sat there, even her chewing coming across angry.

Enough of this game,” she finally grumbled, seeming to come to some kind of decision. “If I cannot sway you with words, I will find another way.”

This should be good,” Cooper chuckled.

My interest in you is not merely because of the information that you carry,” she said. He watched, his eyes widening as she extended her tongue to lick the juices from her furry fingers. A length of glistening, pink flesh slid past her lips, coiling around one of her digits like a snake. It must have been near a foot long, its upper surface coated in barbs that she was using to clean her fur, while the underside was as smooth as that of a human. It returned to her mouth, Cooper trying not to look too flustered by what he had just seen.

I have a theory,” she continued, “that humans actually do know how to submit. That instinct lies dormant in you somewhere, and I believe that it can be awakened. The structure of a pack is not so different from that of your military. You defer to those of higher rank, you obey the orders of your superiors without question. Yet, somehow, you fail to apply that logic to your social lives.”

What are you getting at?” he asked warily.

I’ve seen how your kind lives,” she said, leaning over and pressing one of her sharp claws beneath his chin. He winced, lifting his head reflexively, Korbaz turning it from side to side as she examined him. “You live in a tiny box on a spaceship for most of your lives, eating packaged rations, playing games to stave off the boredom. A joyless existence.”

She released him, Cooper glaring at her as he rubbed his chin.

If you were to submit, to give me what I want, then I could give you a pack of your own. How about that?” she asked, her lips curling into a wry smile. “I am second only to the Matriarch, I have authority over all Rask. I need only give the order, and they would obey you as though the words had come from my own lips.”

And why would I want that?” he asked skeptically.

Korbaz grinned at him, then called to the attendant, the woman making her way over to their cushion pile. She knelt in front of Korbaz, her head bowed, Cooper glancing between the two of them in confusion. The Admiral reached out, running her claws through the attendant’s silky, blonde hair.

Do you desire her?” she asked, Cooper frowning at her. “I could make her yours...”

She took a tighter grip on the woman’s golden locks and drew her closer, Cooper’s heart skipping a beat as their full, pink lips pressed together. Korbaz cradled the attendant’s head in her furry hands as she pushed her tongue into her mouth, that same length of wet, rosy flesh bulging the woman’s cheeks. The attendant shivered, then began to melt into her superior’s embrace, her amber eyes losing their focus as Korbaz subjected her to a greedy kiss. A strand of saliva escaped their joined lips as Cooper watched, catching brief glimpses of their alien tongues coiling around one another, forming a slippery spiral. He could hear his own blood rushing in his ears, his breath catching in his throat as he stared, fixated by their bawdy display.

The attendant uttered a comely moan as the Admiral began to unfasten her gossamer top, Cooper’s eyes wandering down to her chest as her breasts spilled out of the fabric. Two perfect globes of flesh fell free of their silky supports, so full and heavy, bouncing gently as they impacted her torso. He had never seen anything like them. They must be the size of beachballs, which would have looked absurd on a human woman, but the greater stature and larger build of the aliens made them more appropriate. Her skin was such an enticing shade of caramel, a pair of erect, pink nipples drawing his eye.

Korbaz broke off their embrace, their wet lips connected by a glistening rope of saliva that draped itself over the attendant’s chest when it fell, her tapered tongue slithering out of her subordinate’s mouth as though she wanted her to be aware of every slimy inch. The attendant’s cheeks were flushed red now, her chest wobbling softly with every labored breath that she took, her eyes gazing up at her Admiral with longing from beneath heavy lids. Korbaz’s hand slowly wandered down to her shoulder, her claws raking the gasping attendant’s tanned skin. She didn’t apply enough pressure to cut her, only enough to leave red trails as she wandered down to one of her pert breasts.

She filled her hand with it, Cooper feeling his growing erection straining against his pressure suit as he watched the delicate fat spill between her furry digits, Korbaz kneading it like putty. She kept her sharp claws clear, weighing it, pinching the firm nipple between her padded fingers. The attendant bit her lip, the sculpted muscles of her midriff flexing, Korbaz’s feline eyes turning to drink in Cooper’s shocked expression.

All I have to do is whisper my command in her ear, and she’d swallow you to the hilt,” she chuckled. “You’d like that, don’t deny it,” she added with a pointed glance at his crotch. “How about it? Give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you so clearly desire.” She pushed her clawed finger into her subordinate’s mouth, Cooper’s member swelling involuntarily as he watched the beautiful woman slide her lips down to the knuckle, drawing on it obediently as she batted her lashes at the Admiral. She was so eager to please, was this normal behavior for the Rask?

I know that humans tend to have preferences,” Korbaz continued, the attendant swirling her tongue around her digit as she slowly withdrew it. “If you like females, then you can have your pick. Take a stroll through the crawler with me and point out any that catch your eye. If you’re so certain that our way of life has nothing to offer, then I challenge you to share a bed with half a dozen Rask and see if your opinion changes come morning. I should warn you,” she added, baring her sharp teeth in a grin. “My people are not as...reserved as yours when it comes to matters of passion. I do hope that you’d be able to keep up.”

Cooper tried to slow the rapid beating of his heart. What she was trying to do was obvious, this was yet another tactic designed to break his resolve, but it was so hard to refuse when she was presenting the beautiful attendant to him on a platter. She was so close that he could have reached out and touched her if he wanted to, he could have delved his fingers into those heavy, perky breasts…

He tore his eyes away from the woman’s exposed chest, the sight of Korbaz’s expectant smirk bolstering his will to resist her.

No sale,” he said, her grin morphing into a frown.

I can see you tenting your uniform,” she replied, glancing between his legs. “That sharp tongue of yours can lie to me, but your body can’t. You want this.”

Yeah,” he admitted with a one-armed shrug, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give you what you want in order to get it.”

This clearly wasn’t the reaction that she had anticipated, he could see the gears in the Admiral’s head turning as she considered her next course of action. He had to admit, he felt a little sorry for the attendant, sitting there all hot and bothered with her boobs on display.

Let’s call this a free sample,” she said, her smile returning. “A little taste of what you’re turning down. You don’t have to do anything for me, just sit back, and enjoy...”

She whispered something inaudible in the attendant’s ear, the woman’s golden eyes turning on Cooper. She began to slowly crawl across the carpet towards him, Korbaz looking on with a satisfied expression. His gaze was once again drawn to her ample chest as her hanging breasts swayed with the motion, her sun-bleached hair falling over one side of her face in a way that made his heart leap.

He pulled away from her as she loomed over him, her furry hands sinking into the cushions to either side of him, her long hair brushing his cheeks as she poised to kiss him. Her lips were so full and rosy, the memory of her winding tongue chipping away at his will to resist her. Cooper was well-acquainted with pain, it was something that he could endure, but the promise of pleasure was exposing a weakness in his defenses that he hadn’t even known was there. It would be so easy just to reach up and cup her breast in his hand, to let her lower those cherry-red lips and lock them with his own…

Korbaz’s teeth flashed in a grin as he reached out, but her victory was snatched from her clutches as he planted his hand on the woman’s shoulder, gently easing her away as he sat up. The attendant looked confused, turning to glance at Korbaz, seeking further instructions. Either one of the women could have taken him there on the cushions if they had wanted to. He couldn’t have stopped a full-grown Borealan with two arms, never mind one, but that wasn’t the point. What Korbaz wanted could not be taken by force, and that fact must be driving her up the wall.

Who are you to refuse such a gift?” she snapped, waving the attendant away. The woman retrieved her top where Korbaz had discarded it on the floor, gathering up her assets as she made a hasty exit. “I’m not even asking anything in return.”

But you are,” he replied, “this is just another attempt to gain power over me. If I give you an inch, you’re gonna take a mile.”

You will soon realize that this war is over for you,” she snarled, glaring at him as her ears flattened against her head. “You have two choices now. Cooperate, and experience pleasures you would not have dreamed possible in your mundane little life, or rot in a cell until I hand you over to the Matriarch. She will not be as generous, nor as forgiving as I.”

You can’t coerce me, you can’t bribe me, and you can’t tempt me,” Cooper shot back. “When will you realize that I’ll never cooperate?”

Oh, I think that you can be tempted,” she said as she gestured to his lingering erection with a clawed finger. “You forget, Corporal, that I served as Ambassador to the Coalition. I have learned to recognize human body language, the tells that give them away, and your body is betraying you.”

Cooper’s cheeks flushed a deeper shade of red, and he shifted his position on the cushions, trying to conceal the bulge in his pressure suit from view.

How long has it been since you were last able to relieve yourself?” she asked, her tone sultry. “Cooped up in a tank for days, bunking in a crowded cabin on a ship for months before that. Humans like privacy, and you can’t have had much. How long has it been since you last had a woman? Since you last felt release?”

You’re wasting your time,” he insisted, the Admiral tapping her claw against her chin as she looked him up and down quizzically.

I think that with a little more poking and prodding, I can get you to see things my way,” she added. “But for now, I think sending you back to your cell while I make a few...arrangements is the best course of action.”

Whatever you’re planning, it won’t work,” he said as she called out in her native language. After a moment, a burly guard strode into the room, hauling Cooper to his feet.

We shall see,” Korbaz replied with a shrug, watching as the guard marched him away. “Try not to let your imagination wander too much while you’re sitting alone in your cage, Corporal.”

***

As soon as the impudent little creature was out of earshot, Korbaz loosed a frustrated snarl. She swiped at the pile of cushions where he had been lying, her claws tearing into the fabric, sending puffs of down swirling into the air.

Borealans knew when to submit, they knew when they were beaten, but humans...they just kept going and going and going far beyond that point. If Cooper were a Rask, his clever jibes would be answered with a fresh scar to remind him of his place, but his kind were too fragile for that sort of treatment. Restraining her anger was slowly driving her mad, and worse, the impulse to mate that usually followed a violent confrontation reared its head every time he provoked her. If she couldn’t get any useful information out of him, then she might as well put him to some use, take out her frustration on him. She had spent years being tormented by cocky, back-talking aliens on the station, it would be a dream come true to finally have her way with one in a setting where the only rules that applied were her own.

He reminded her of the Security Chief, in fact. They were both amputees, they were both stubborn to the core, and they both thought nothing of defying her. How she had lusted after the Chief, how she had longed to possess that which she could not have. His attractive scars, his confidence. The way that he resisted her advances as no Rask would have dared, the powerful prosthetics that actually gave him the strength to physically resist her. It had driven her wild, but it had also taught her a very valuable lesson. Status was not everything. Even an Admiral could not have everything that she wanted all of the time, no matter how great her desire might be. For someone so accustomed to being obeyed, to having her every whim indulged, it had been a hard lesson to learn...

No, she couldn’t give up yet. There was still time to break him, and now, a chink in his armor had been exposed. He had a weakness for women, which didn’t come as much of a surprise. Humans were prudish creatures, the idea of sharing a bed with half a dozen packmates was foreign to them, and the sexual exploits of the average Borealan were an unattainable fantasy by their standards. If she exposed him to more of their lifestyle, like teasing a hungry hound with a morsel of food, she might yet be able to turn him.

She walked over to the nearest intercom, hitting the button, putting a call through to the conning tower. There was a crackle of static, and then she heard a voice come through on the other end.

Crewmaster here, speak.”

It’s me,” Korbaz began. “Fetch Vitza for me, and have him meet me in my quarters. There’s something that I’d like for him to build...”

CHAPTER 12: CULTURAL EXCHANGE

There it is again,” Ben said, tapping at one of his monitors.

The earthquake?” Lozka asked, turning from her turret view to glance at him.

Something is causing seismic activity, not a lot of it, but enough to trip the sensors. I swear, it’s like the suite is picking up Bugs tunneling beneath the ground, but there’s no way there can be any Bugs on Borealis. It’s impossible. Either way, it freaks me out, I don’t like seeing readings like this...”

You said it was growing stronger?” Mizi added, turning her wheel as she weaved through the dunes.

The further West we go, the stronger it gets,” he replied. “I’m starting to think that it isn’t geological in nature, it just doesn’t match any patterns that I’m aware of. What’s weird about it is that it’s pretty much constant, while seismic activity usually comes in waves.”

Could the Rask be digging tunnels beneath the desert like Bugs?” Mizi suggested.

I doubt it,” Ben muttered, scratching his head.

In my territory,” Lozka began, “we hunt large herbivores that dwell deep in the jungle. They are furtive, but we can locate their herds by the sound of their heavy footsteps, even from afar. Our hunters put an ear to the ground and listen for the vibrations that they create.”

I get what you’re saying,” Ben said with a nod. “If the Rask really are somehow responsible for these readings, then we can track them by following them to their source. It’s not like we have anything else to go on right now.” He turned back to his monitors, starting to type in values. “Mizi, I’m going to extrapolate coordinates based on the strength of the readings. Just keep driving straight for now, and I’ll feed them to your console as soon as I have something concrete.”

Got it, Commander.”

Good idea, Lozka,” he added. “Who would have thought having an Araxie tracker around would be so useful?”

We shall either find Rask,” she replied, gripping the turret’s joystick. “Or a very, very large herd...”

***

Bearing one-nine-five,” Ben said, poring over his map. “I don’t see any noteworthy landmarks in that direction, but that’s definitely where the readings are strongest. I think that if we keep going this way, we’ll eventually come across whatever is making all these vibrations.”

I wish we could see further in this storm,” Mizi muttered. “I don’t like the idea of having to drive within a hundred meters or so of an enemy position before we can get eyes on them.”

As with the hot spring, I can leave the vehicle and scout the area on foot,” Lozka suggested.

That could work,” Ben replied. “Let’s wait until we can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with first.”

It wasn’t long before night fell, and the creeping cold started to set in. They went about their usual routine, parking the Timberwolf between two dunes and covering it with its camouflaged tarp. Once that was done, Ben went outside and set up a one hundred meter perimeter around the vehicle with proximity sensors. It was nice, in a way, not have to be on lookout. There was nothing to see in the storm, and so they were all able to hang out without one of them having to monitor the cameras.

Ben cooked them another round of MREs and warmed up some drinks, the three of them chatting as they ate together. They had been on good terms before their night in the hot spring, but something had changed since then, they seemed even friendlier than usual. Mizi especially always seemed to want to be near him, sitting beside him on the mattress and leaning her head on his shoulder as she fished out pieces of meat from her ration packet with a plastic fork.

It was strange for me to see so many males when I first started serving with humans,” she said, gesturing with her fork as she ate. “On Val’ba’ra, males don’t serve in the military at all.”

Why is that?” Ben asked, taking a sip of his hot cocoa. “We don’t have a lot of female humans in combat roles, but the Navy is full of them.”

They’re smaller and weaker than the females,” she explained. “Males on Val’ba’ra usually live with their parent flock until they come of age, then they seek out a flock of females to join. Traditionally, they’re homemakers. They maintain the flock’s dwelling and raise their children. These days, males have a lot more independence. They sometimes get their own jobs, or they travel to a few different cities before settling down. I’ve even seen a few who have made their way to the Pinwheel.”

Weird,” Ben muttered, raising an eyebrow. “Sounds like human society a few hundred years ago, but reversed. Could they join the military if they wanted to?”

I doubt that most could meet the requirements if they tried,” she replied.

I guess that anything much smaller than you would be pushing it,” Ben joked, Mizi giving him a playful whip on the leg with her tail.

There is little difference in physical prowess between our genders,” Lozka added, pausing to chew on a strip of meat from a foil packet that she was holding in her hand. “Males and females are equally capable, and we have no tasks that favor one gender over another. Save perhaps that females can produce milk to feed the kittens, but that task is a communal one regardless, so it matters little.”

Yeah,” Ben replied, taking another sip from his mug. “All of the female Borealans that I’ve seen have been pretty...large.”

Do you produce milk?” Mizi asked, her question directed at Ben.

Are we on the nipples thing again?” he asked, feigning indignation. “I told you, they’re vestigial!”

Mizi’s headdress flashed yellow as she laughed, Lozka letting slip a rare chuckle as her companions squabbled.

I still don’t get how males and flocks work,” Ben continued. “So, males don’t have their own flocks? Only females have flocks, and when males are mature, they have to find a flock of females to join? Then, it’s like they’re having a relationship with...all of its members?”

It has always been that way,” Mizi replied with a shrug. “There are roughly six females born for every male, it’s part of our biology.”

What happens if only five of the six females like him?” Ben asked. “Does the sixth just have to deal with it?”

Flocks reach consensus,” Mizi explained, “decisions are made as a group. Finding someone who’s compatible with five, six, or even seven people isn’t as hard as you might imagine. I know that humans date, and we do the same. We spend time with them, try to figure out if they’re a good match before making a commitment.”

Does your flock have a male?” he asked.

Gosh, no,” she replied with a flutter of pink. “We’re not nearly old enough to settle down and start populating incubators.” She turned her violet eyes to Lozka, who was fishing in her foil packet for another oversized strip of jerky. “What about you, Lozka? How do Araxie packs choose a mate?”

The way that we court is somewhat less structured,” she replied, tearing off a piece of meat with her sharp teeth. “Packs usually have what you might call a job. There is a pack of hunters in the village, a pack of farmers, a pack of butchers. Araxie might move between packs based on their abilities and desires, but the Alpha of that pack is always the most accomplished and competent Araxie among them. We are drawn to competence. Skill and knowledge are of great value to us. An Alpha must also be charismatic and responsible if they are to be loved, they must care for their pack, provide for them.”

See, that makes sense to me,” Ben said as he gestured to his feline crewmate. “It’s a meritocracy, you put the smartest, most experienced people in charge.”

There is no real concern for how many males or females are in a pack,” she continued, “we do not have the same preferences that your kind do. Mating is recreational, all pack members participate as they please, and any children that result are raised by the community.”

That sounds kind of idyllic,” Ben chuckled. “I feel like I should tell you guys that humans are monogamous and that we mate with one person for life, but it doesn’t often turn out that way. We usually have a series of relationships that might last months or years, then we settle down with someone and have kids. Even then, the relationship might not last. It’s a pretty complicated subject,” he added, finishing off his drink. “I won’t bore you with the minutia.”

So, are you in any kind of relationship?” Mizi asked.

I travel all over the Galaxy,” he chuckled, “there’s not a lot of time for pursuing relationships. I guess I’d want to, eventually, but that’s what everybody says.”

Don’t you get lonely?” she asked, wrapping her little arms around his bicep as she drew closer. “No flock, no pack, no mate.”

I have friends, comrades,” he replied with a shrug. “I have a crew now, I have you guys, right?”

Mizi hugged his arm a little tighter, Lozka nodding her head in agreement.

I have said before that you would make a good Alpha, Commander,” Lozka said. That title had a new implication now, and he was suddenly aware of the rapid beating of his heart as he met her gaze across the troop bay. Her green eyes glittered like emeralds, her feline pupils contracted to narrow slits beneath the light strips in the ceiling. He glanced down at Mizi, seeing that her pink feathers were standing erect.

Well,” he began. “Now that I know a little more about what that entails, I appreciate the compliment. For what it’s worth, you guys have been a fine crew. Or flock, pack, whatever you want to call it.”

They finished up their meal, then started preparing for bed. There was no longer a question as to whether Ben was going to share a sleeping bag with his companions. It was just what they did now. Ever since their trip to the hot spring, it was like all of the barriers had been torn down, like all of his human hangups had been stripped away. The idea that distance had to be maintained between people who were so friendly, that physical contact was somehow impolite, now seemed as alien to him as it did to his crew. It was like he had lived his life up to this point surrounded by an invisible force field that warded away anyone who came too close, preventing any genuine expressions of affection.

He noticed that Mizi was taking her suit off this time, facing away from him as she dragged the zipper down and began to shrug it off. Her green scales reflected the light as she swung her proportionally wide hips back and forth, her thick tail waving. It was ever a struggle for her to get out of that thing, it was practically skin-tight. When she had stripped down to her shorts and tube top, she set it on one of the racks, pausing to shiver for a moment as she felt the bite of the growing cold.

You might want to keep that on,” he warned. “It’s going to get mighty cold again tonight.”

I know,” she replied, turning to look at him. “I figured maybe scale-on-scale would warm me up more. Or rather scale-on-skin, scale-on-fur. I dunno,” she chuckled with a flash of pink plumage.

Oh, yeah,” replied. “I guess I can see that.”

Lozka took up her usual place on the mattresses in the center of the troop bay, stretching out and opening her mouth in a wide yawn. Ben was always mesmerized when her shining fur caught the light at the right angle, every muscle and curve glistening, as though her body had suddenly been imbued with more depth and detail. He could make out the smooth rows of muscle that ran down her abdomen, her hip bones peeking out above her beltline. Unlike Mizi, Lozka never wore any more or less clothing. She was always clad in her impossibly tight leather shorts and her simple sling.

Mizi sat down next to her, partially covering the large feline with the sleeping bag, using it as a blanket. She waited for Ben to shut off the lighting strips, the glow from the monitors that bled in from the cab providing just enough illumination to see by. Well, enough for him and Mizi, at least. Lozka was nocturnal, she could probably see just as well in these conditions as Ben could in daylight.

He made his way over to them, lowering himself down between the two. Lozka rolled onto her side, nestling his head beneath her furry chin. Her warm breath blew his hair, his shoulder pressing into the yielding flesh of her breasts through her leather sling. She let her furry hand rest on his chest, its span near the size of a dinner plate, her curved claws pricking the material of his suit. Mizi snuck in from his left, encouraging him to wrap an arm around her, draping her own across his belly as she shuffled to get closer. The natural resting position for his hand at this angle was around her waist, and after a moment of hesitation, he let his fingers slide against her flush scales.

His fingers reached the elastic waistband of her tight shorts, brushing the base of her tail, and he felt her shiver. He drew back, letting his hand rest on her hip. Mizi gripped his wrist, her hand small enough that she couldn’t get her fingers all the way around it, his heart starting to race as she guided him lower. She encouraged him to cup one of her pert cheeks, arching her spine and pushing out her butt in invitation. Only an insubstantial layer of what felt like spandex stood between them. He could feel the smoothness of her scales through the thin material, the way that his fingers sank into her doughy fat. He had admired her voluptuous figure from afar, but she was even softer than he could have imagined, the meat of her rump filling his palm like he was squeezing a ball of putty. Deep beneath it was the muscle that made her figure so appealing, firm and springy, like rubber. He wanted to knead it, to slip his hand beneath her shorts and take greedy handfuls, but he held back.

Mizi pushed her snout beneath his chin, nuzzling against him, her warm breath blowing on his neck as she sighed. Her feathers tickled his cheek, their colors a blend of excited yellow and blushing pink.

Isn’t it time that we became more than just crewmates?” she whispered, Ben’s heart skipping a beat. “You’ve been trying so hard to keep things professional, it’s adorable,” she cooed. “But I don’t need to know much about human body language to notice the way you look at us.”

Ben didn’t know how to respond, but he realized that he hadn’t pulled his hand away yet. What did she expect was going to happen next? Lozka was right next to them, and he was too nervous to glance over and check if she was asleep yet.

I saw how everted you were in the hot spring,” Mizi added, her hand sneaking up to caress his cheek. She seemed to savor being able to touch him so unreservedly, as though she too had been holding back her feelings. “You don’t have to keep this up,” she murmured, those violet eyes enrapturing him as he looked down at her. “There’s nothing unusual about wanting to blow off steam, about wanting to be closer to us.”

Everted?” he stammered, not recognizing the term.

Like this,” she whispered, her glittering eyes glancing downwards. He flinched as her fingertips brushed his growing erection through the material of his pressure suit, the Valbaran quickly pulling away, waiting for his permission before taking things any further.

We shouldn’t,” he replied, lowering his voice in the hope that Lozka wouldn’t overhear them. “I’m...I’m your commanding officer. I’m responsible for you, I’m supposed to watch out for you. It wouldn’t be...appropriate.”

But you have been watching out for us,” Mizi murmured, stroking her thumb across his burning cheek. “That’s one of the reasons I want this. It’s so sweet the way you cook for us, the way you go out of your comfort zone for our sakes, the way your cute face flushes red like a headdress when we’re all in bed together. It makes me so...broody.”

But-”

No more buts,” she insisted, her tail snaking around his thigh beneath the sleeping bag. “You’ve done your duty, unless you’re about to tell me that making love is against regulations?”

N-no,” he admitted, his breathing growing heavier as she pressed closer to him. He was doing it again, holding himself back for no good reason. There was that same pit in his stomach, that same sense of longing that he had felt watching Mizi and Lozka from afar in the hot spring. He wanted this as much as she did, he just had to find the courage to cast off his reservations, to let the current carry him rather than trying to fight against it…

All you have to do is say yes,” she whispered, seeming to sense the conflict in him. “Every time you let yourself go a little, it makes you happy, doesn’t it?”

It was like somebody had suddenly lit a fire in his belly, its heat spreading through his veins. He felt an overwhelming impulse to kiss her, but he wasn’t sure how. Her snout wasn’t the right shape. Instead, he bundled her up in his arms, pulling her tight as he pressed his lips against her scaly forehead. Mizi tensed, her feathers going haywire, flashing nonsensical patterns and colors. As he drew away, she sank into his embrace, her plumage shifting back to solid pink again.

That’s good too,” she giggled.

Are we even compatible?” he asked, his heart pulsing in his ears. He couldn’t remember the last time that he had felt this way, a nervous energy threatening to overcome him, like a battery that was about to overload. “Can a human and a Valbaran even...”

We’ll have to find out,” she replied with a smile.

What about Lozka?” he whispered. “We can’t just...with her right there...”

He lurched as a furry hand slid up his chest beneath the blanket, gripping his cheeks between a finger and thumb. The pads on Lozka’s furry digits were soft and fleshy, her claws pricking his skin.

Surely you did not think that a huntress would not hear your whispering?” she asked, turning his head to face her as Mizi watched gleefully. Her voice was so deep and husky, he could feel it resonating in his very bones. He gazed up into those shining, emerald eyes, so piercing and intense that they seemed to sap away his strength. Her pupils were dilated into dark circles in the gloom, drawing him in like a pair of singularities. He swallowed, not knowing if he should be aroused or frightened. She might be about to join in, or she could be preparing to chastise him. Her face was nigh expressionless as she scrutinized him.

Mizi is wise for one so small,” the Araxie continued. “I can hear the beating of your heart, I can smell the pheromones in your sweat. In my culture, mating within a pack need not be more meaningful than showing affection for a friend, or appreciation for an Alpha. As long as that is what you wish.”

And we’re...friends?” Ben stammered, the alien still holding his face in her silky grasp.

We are packmates,” she replied, her voice taking on a sultry tone. “You know what that means by now.”

She suddenly drew closer, bringing her black lips to his own, stopping just short as he loosed a surprised gasp. The Araxie poised there, waiting for him to reciprocate. It was quite a way to ask his permission…

Ben leaned in, feeling Mizi’s eyes on him as he met Lozka’s kiss, the fruity scent of her soap invading his head as she cradled his face in her furry palm. Her lips were so full and soft, a pulse of electricity shooting down his spine as she slipped the tapered tip of her tongue into his mouth. Everything around him seemed to melt away as the warm, wet muscle slid against his own, curling and probing as he struggled to meet it. She was conscious of his limitations, only using a paltry two or three inches, but it was still long enough that she could lick his inner cheeks and glance the roof of his mouth. The underside was as soft as silk, the barbs that lined its upper surface rough, but not unpleasantly so. It coiled around his tongue like a snake, wrestling with it, what had started as a gentle embrace taking on a more aggressive quality.

Lozka, too, had been separated from her natural social environment. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live with a group of people so willing to indulge your every desire, and then to suddenly be separated from them. Ben could feel the need in every doting stroke of her powerful organ, the lust in the way that it explored him, stroking and teasing. She fed him a little more of its length, subjecting him to a kiss so deep and sensual that it was enough to make him dizzy.

She finally broke off, Ben pushing his face into the silky fur of her hand, breathing hard. The alien had a far larger lung capacity than he did, but the lightheadedness felt kind of nice…

When he opened his eyes again, he saw that the Araxie was still peering down at him, her eyelids drooping. Lozka was normally so stoic, she rarely showed any emotion at all, the unexpected display of affection making his head swim. Mizi clung to him from his left, rubbing her snout against his neck, Lozka releasing her hold on him so that he could turn to look at her.

Finally,” the Valbaran chuckled, giving Lozka a knowing smirk. “I was starting to think he’d never come around.”

Now that Ben was over the hurdle, he could scarcely remember what about the prospect of becoming more intimate with his crewmates had made him hesitate so much. This felt...good...right, like something that he was supposed to be doing.

What happens now?” he asked, not knowing which of his companions to focus on. His flustered state seemed to amuse Mizi, perhaps she had seen this reaction before with males of her own kind, overwhelmed by the attentions of a whole flock of females.

I know nothing of their ways,” Lozka said, having what felt like a private conversation with Mizi as he lay sandwiched between them on the mattresses.

Me neither,” the Valabaran replied with a grin. “I guess we’ll have to learn as we go.”

Ben opened his mouth to interject, but he was silenced by Lozka, the feline pushing her face into the nape of his neck and giving him a gentle bite on the shoulder that made his brain short-circuit. There was no reason to hold back now, no reason to hesitate. He delved a hand into her soft hair, finding it just as inviting as her fur, like strands of silk were running between his fingers. She seemed to appreciate it, and he remembered her comment about his lack of claws, stroking her as she kissed and nibbled at his neck. The Araxie was going from zero to ten fast enough to give herself another case of whiplash.

He felt Mizi’s hands begin to unfasten his pressure suit beneath the padded sleeping bag, finding the zipper, and beginning to pull it down. He still had an arm wrapped around her, and he held her close, daring to cop another feel of her ample rump. She warbled happily as she felt him squeeze, the muscle beneath her velvet fat tensing at his touch, the grip of her tail on his thigh tightening. She was surprisingly strong for someone so small.

She unzipped the suit down to his waist, pulling up his tank top and running her hand across his stomach. He was in decent shape, as mandated by his job, the little alien delighting in tracing the contours of his muscles with her dull claws.

You’re so smooth,” she muttered, glancing up at him for a moment before turning her attention back to his body. “Almost feels like waxed scales...”

Lozka let up her kissing, her silky cheek brushing against Ben’s as she watched the Valbaran continue to undress him. Mizi pulled back the sleeping bag as she went, exposing more of him to the cold air, but he felt so feverishly warm that it hardly mattered now.

She reached his crotch, leaning on his stomach as she hooked her fingers around his waistband, pulling his shorts down. His member caught on the elastic for a moment, then bounced free, standing erect an inch from her face. Her feathers erupted in another display of pink and yellow, the little alien pausing to glance back at Lozka with wide eyes.

It’s a little...more than I was expecting,” she muttered, reaching out to touch her finger against the tip. His member throbbed, flexing as she watched it with a blend of arousal and apprehension. Somehow, Ben doubted that Lozka would feel the same way.

There’s only one shaft,” she continued, making him shiver as she traced one of the bulging veins with a scaly digit. “Where’s the seminal groove? It’s so...firm, and it’s covered in skin.” “Should it...not be?” Ben asked, confused by her observations.

The Valbaran...reproductive organ is very different,” she explained, Ben flinching as he felt her cup his balls in her cool palm. “What’s this?”

C-careful,” he grumbled, “those are sensitive.”

Does it feel good?” she asked, glancing up at him.

Yeah, if you’re gentle,” he replied.

She was practically lying on his stomach now, her snout hovering above his erection as she examined it. Their difference in stature was so great, would they even be able to fit together?

She gripped his shaft in her hand, only just able to get fingers around its girth, seeming to enjoy the way that it pulsed in her grasp.

It’s so hot,” she cooed, the idea sending a flush of pink through her headdress. “I can feel it beating like a heart. Fuck...”

You should stroke it,” Lozka suggested, resting her hand on Ben’s bare chest as she watched. He could feel its warmth, her claws pricking his skin in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Could it be that his anatomy was more familiar to Lozka than it was to Mizi? She was a fellow mammal, after all.

Mizi gripped it tighter, sliding her hand from the base to the tip, Ben loosing a gasp that only encouraged her. Her fine scales glided against his skin like she was wearing satin gloves, pleasantly cool when contrasted with his burning heat, the sensation making him raise his hips from the mattress reflexively. Mizi was so light that he had no trouble lifting her in the process, the Valbaran’s feathers flashing yellow in alarm, her tail squeezing his thigh for purchase.

He likes that,” she chuckled.

Here,” Ben muttered, reaching down past Mizi’s feathers and pulling back his foreskin. She examined it for a moment, the reptile glancing his exposed glans with her fingers, a jolt of pleasure rocking him.

This looks more familiar,” she chuckled. “It was just covered up.”

Ben could tell that she wasn’t really sure what to do next. His organ seemed to be very different from what she had imagined, the alien letting it throb in her hand as she played her eyes up and down its length covetously. It was a little flattering, she was in awe of the thing, her pink tongue flashing as she wet her scaly lips. She brought them to its tip, pressing them against it experimentally, giving him a gentle peck. When he didn’t object, she extended her tongue, a sensation like wet silk enveloping his glans as she began to paint it with her saliva. The organ was relatively thin, but it was long and agile, the tip ending in a tapered point. Her slow, doting strokes were maddening, the Valbaran subjecting him to teasing glances and flurries that sent pleasant shivers crawling up his spine.

T-the skin is sensitive too,” he advised. His toes curled as she began to move lower, keeping his glans cradled in her hand, stroking it gently with her thumb. It felt like she was trying to map every inch of his member, tracing every contour with her damp muscle, leaving a sheen of warm drool in her wake.

Lozka was watching the whole time, observing quietly, living up to the title of Silent Huntress as always. Every so often, those green eyes would meet his own, her piercing gaze filling his stomach with butterflies. She was just so...cool. It made him feel strange, but in a good way. He was still in a state of mild shock, the reality of his situation hadn’t quite caught up with him yet.

There was a strange new sensation that Ben didn’t recognize, making him lurch, and he craned his neck to see what Mizi was doing. The prehensile sheaths on her forearms that usually concealed her plumage were open, the alien using the delicate, soft feathers to tickle him. She brushed them gently against his shaft, Ben gritting his teeth against the pleasure. It felt like she was stroking him with a feather duster, the fine strands running up and down his length, setting his nerves alight as they brushed his glans.

Do you like that?” Mizi chuckled, turning to peer back at him with a smile on her face. “You’re all twitchy.”

Yeah,” he murmured, “that feels...great...”

Mizi began to open her jaws, a pang of apprehension washing over him. Her mouth was full of tiny, pointed teeth, her people didn’t seem especially suited to oral sex. Rather than protest, he just went with the flow, trusting her not to hurt him. She took his member into her mouth, his glans brushing against her palate, the smooth flesh textured with ribs that made him flinch as they slid against his tender head. Because of the shape of her snout, she couldn’t close her lips in order to apply suction, she could only swirl her tongue around his shaft as she held it in her jaws. She was careful to keep her sharp teeth clear, Ben starting to relax as the waves of euphoria washed over him.

The surprise was wearing off, a fog of arousal falling over him. Mizi was kneeling on the mattress beside him now, resting her weight on his belly, her butt facing him. Growing braver, he reached down and sank his hand into the meat of her ass again, taking a generous handful through the stretchy material of her shorts. It was like a perfect peach, springing back to its original shape whenever he let up, Mizi murmuring around his member.

He got his fingers around her waistband, attempting to tug the clinging garment down, Mizi moving her tail to help him along. Its base was as round and as thick as her thighs, lined with that same layer of inviting fat, the appendage sliding out of the cutout in her shorts as he watched. Ben tugged them down about halfway, relishing the way that the elastic pressed into her yielding cheeks, creating a deep indent. After admiring it for a moment, he pulled them down around her thighs.

The shorts had left nothing to the imagination, but the sight of her bare butt still made his mouth water, her rear covered in the same olive-green scales that coated the rest of her body. They were so smooth that it felt like she was still wearing some kind of latex catsuit, her cheeks reflecting the light like polished stone, Ben drinking in the sight of her supple flesh bulging between his fingers. The tiny mosaic was so fine that he couldn’t distinguish the individual scales by touch, it just felt like one glossy, uninterrupted surface to him.

He slipped his fingers between her thighs, feeling them clench around his hand, the iron muscles that lurked beneath the surface sandwiching him in what felt like two layers of memory foam. He found wetness, heat, his fingertips brushing against something decidedly fleshy. Mizi paused her licking, glancing over her shoulder at him, the glow from the cab filtered through her pink feathers. She didn’t ask him to stop, and so he continued, sliding his digits between what felt like a pair of scaly lips. He couldn’t see what he was doing, so he had to navigate by touch, Mizi warbling contentedly as he explored what must be her loins. Her velvet flesh was soaked with her juices, wetting his digits as he probed, the muscles of her alien orifice trapping him with a surprisingly strong grip as he slipped the tip of his finger inside her.

Nice to know that you’re as curious about me as I am about you,” she gasped, her labored breathing cutting off sharply as he pushed a little deeper. Her feathers started to go haywire again, flashing random colors and patterns like a broken LCD screen, her snout brushing against his shaft as she doubled over.

God, she was tight. He could barely get one finger inside her, what felt like a slimy sleeve of muscle undulating around it, stroking it in waves. What did she even have down there? Was it a vagina? A cloaca? Something completely alien? He had no idea what