The Enemy convoy was composed of three columns of drones, each one carrying a bulky food packet in its pincers. The Overlord which commanded them was of course at the center of the formation, escorted by two flights of ten warriors each.
"Ripe for the picking, my lord," Torgai commented with a chuckle that sounded like dry bones rattling together. He seemed relaxed almost to the point of boredom.
"We'll destroy them utterly," Narbeh pronounced. His whole body was as tense as a drawn bowstring and he kept stroking the backs of his hands, first one than the other, over and over again.
Parn made a noncommittal sound. Just looking at the Enemy filled him with dread and revulsion. They were so unlike people; the Overlord was about twice the size of an adult person but with a bloated, insectile body and spindly little limbs that wouldn't be able to support the body's weight under any but the lightest of gravities. The warriors were small, about a third the size of a person, with flattened, crab-like bodies. They even had what looked like crab-style claws but weren't. The Enemy warrior's front most pair of limbs were short and exceptionally powerful, but instead of hands- or claws- they were equipped with long, wickedly curved blades. Those blades would cut through just about anything; they'd certainly cut through the skin of a person quite handily enough. Nor did the Enemy warrior have to get up close to be dangerous; a pair of bulges in the upper carapace- just to the left and right of center-housed power beam projectors. Up close is where they preferred to be, though, and they had the speed and maneuverability to get there. One on one a person's superior firepower would tell, but the Enemy never fought that way if they could help it. They came en masse, closing range quickly and forcing the defenders to break formation. This particular battle would be a departure from the norm in that the Tribe would outnumber the Enemy. In warriors, that is; the drones didn't really count. They looked like warriors with thicker, rounder bodies but they had pincers instead of blades and no power beams at all. Even if one got close it couldn't do serious harm.
Parn shivered. To get his numeric superiority he'd taken every warrior who wasn't too old or too sick. The total number left at camp was half again what was here, but only the young women without children- a mere handful- could be expected to fight. The rest- pregnant women, women with children, the children themselves, the aged, the infirm- would be, for all practical purposes, defenseless.
"With these numbers we'll destroy them quickly, my lord," Torgai said as if he were reading Parn's mind. Though he gave no outward sign Parn was intensely grateful for the reassurance but it did nothing to ease the cold knot of fear in his gut. This was a terrible risk he was taking; that everyone- even old Torgai- had agreed eased his concern not one bit. As Starlord he and only he made the decision. He and only he bore the responsibility if it failed-
"Stand ready, my lads," Torgai added, though the warriors in his section were in perfect formation. The comment was, again, for Parn's benefit.
Parn quickly reviewed the disposition of his own section. Not quite as tight as Torgai's, but good enough. Besides, it wouldn't be going into battle right away. His was the reserve section, which would relieve the others if they got into trouble. It wasn't Parn's idea; he'd wanted to lead Torgai's section, which would be attacking the Enemy warriors. Torgai had pointed out that since Parn was in overall command he needed to keep himself out of the battle so that he could devote his attention to monitoring and supervising. Parn objected; Torgai insisted that staying in the battle but out of combat actually took more discipline and skill. In the end Parn gave in; Torgai was the oldest warrior in the Tribe and had been since long before Parn had even been born. Now- even before the battle actually started- Parn realized that Torgai had been right all along. Fighting was easy because you merely did what you were told- either by your commander or your training. Commanding was hard because there was no one to tell you what to do.
Suddenly the Overlord changed course and began to wail. "Attack!" Parn screamed, though most of the warriors were already in motion. Forty-two warriors side-stepped out of shadow space almost on top of the Enemy formation.
Torgai was shouting wordlessly as he opened fire with all four of his power beams. He seemed to be firing wildly but he wasn't: each individual bolt expended itself in the body of an Enemy warrior. His section fired with equal discipline, though with varying levels of accuracy. Eight Enemy died instantly and two more were grievously wounded.
Narbeh and his section began firing warheads targeted on the Overlord. Only the Overlord was capable of faster-than-light travel- and sentient thought. Without it the remaining Enemy would be trapped and no more capable of thought than animals. Not that they'd give up fighting; the battle would continue until every single Enemy was dead- but without the Overlord they wouldn't be able to coordinate and destroying them would be much easier.
A dozen drones threw themselves into the paths of the incoming warheads, dying instantly as their bodies were blasted apart. The rest of the formation was closing up rapidly, forming a living shell around the Overlord. All it did was buy time; Parn's warriors would cut through it eventually. But if it bought enough time-
"Fire!" Parn shouted, designating targets with low-power beams. His warriors fired, cutting a path through the drones. A warhead struck, cratering a section of the Overlord's heavy carapace.
A warrior screamed. Kagan, in Torgai's section, received vicious wounds on his back and belly as two Enemy streaked past him. Parn rolled and snapped off a shot, wounding one and missing the other. An instant later both Enemy were blasted apart by precisely coordinated fire.
Four Enemy in tight formation fired as one. Ralos, in Narbeh's section, didn't have time to scream: the beams hit him just as he was firing a warhead. The weapon cooked off before it had completely exited Ralos' body. The explosion flipped him onto his back and tore open his belly, allowing his innards to spill out in a spray of blood and viscera.
"Fire!" Parn shouted, targeting each Enemy with a single full power beam. In a feat of marksmanship he could not have duplicated except in the heat of battle every shot hit dead on. The rest of his section fired a fraction of an instant later- except for Garan, who for some unknown reason launched a warhead instead of firing his power beams. All four Enemy were blasted to pieces long before the warhead even reached the target area.
Torgai's section began firing warheads. Parn glanced around; all the Enemy warriors were dead and already the Overlord was grievously injured. "At them, lads!" he shouted, cackling with maniacal glee. This was going to work after all.
When he heard the scream Parn reflexively checked to see who had been injured. For an instant he was confused because there didn't seem to be any new casualties. Then he realized that the timbre of the voice was wrong. It hadn't been a warrior who cried out-
"They're attacking the women!" someone screamed. In less than an instant Parn's giddy elation turned to ice. He shifted his perception to ranged mode, trying to see what was going on back at camp-
Sharp pain stabbed into his side. He cried out more in shock than actual pain; a drone was biting him. A drone's pincers weren't as deadly as a warrior's blades but they could injure just as badly if given a chance. Cursing venomously Parn wrestled with the drone until he managed to break its grip, then hurled it away and blasted it to bits.
"Hold fast, you worthless sons of muck dwellers!" Torgai was screaming, but even his section was falling apart as warriors side-stepped away, rushing to aid their women and children.
"To me! To me!" Parn shouted, but they kept disappearing.
"Bloody fools!" Torgai cursed. "They're meat for the taking if they attack piecemeal!"
"Narbeh, to me!" Parn called. But Narbeh was gone.
"He's gone," Torgai snarled. "The idiot."
"My lord, what do we do?" a young warrior demanded in a voice that was shrill with fear. He had a burn on his nose where a power beam had grazed it.
A sense of horrifying unreality fell over the scene. Parn felt as if he were watching from a place outside of himself. Half a dozen warriors- remnants of his and Narbeh's sections- were hovering pensively nearby, waiting for orders. Torgai and another half dozen were still fighting but the battle was turning against them. The Overlord was too slow to have a hope of escaping if it ran away but its drones now outnumbered the Tribe's warriors by a significant margin. The attackers were being overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. If Parn committed his section to help, though-
Parn could still hear the women and children screaming and already there were fewer voices. "Form on me!" he commanded and side-stepped away.
"My lord!" Torgai exclaimed. "Wait!"
"My lord?" Hesai had originally been in Narbeh's section. His voice quavered with uncertainty and he wavered out of formation.
"Quiet!" Parn's voice lashed like a whip. The camp was a long way off but if they held the best speed they possibly could they just might-
"Parn!" Torgai bellowed. "Wait for me! You're not going to help Vala by throwing yourself away!"
Parn stopped. He was shivering violently in the grip of roiling emotions. An strange calm was spreading through him, like ice forming on a still pool. It drove away the riot of emotion and the tremors; in its wake Parn seemed once again to be outside of himself- but in a different way. He realized- with just a hint of surprise- that he was ready to kill anyone- anyone at all- who stood between him and Vala. The Enemy, Torgai, his own warriors, he would kill them without the slightest hesitation or remorse-
"My lord, we're almost out of food."
Parn groaned as his mind struggled back to the present. The screams of the dying sill echoed in his thoughts and the icy calm still lay on him like hoar frost on a pre-dawn landscape. "Gava's going to die soon," he said. "Once we recycle her that'll keep us going for a while longer." He spoke in a quiet, conversational tone, as if he were discussing things that had happened ages ago on the other side of the galaxy.
Krita was fidgeting, constantly dry-washing her hands. "My lord-" her voice cracked. "If we had food now- we could save her!"
Parn glanced around. Over time what remained of the Tribe had broke formation and straggled out into a ragged line as fear of Enemy attack became less present than hunger and fatigue. As a result, even though Parn had been- and still was- at the center of the group, he and Krita were pretty much alone. Except for Torgai, who was holding station a discreet distance away but still closer than anyone else except Krita. "Where do you propose we get this food?" In all honesty Parn really didn't care, but for the moment at least talking to Krita was easier than trying to get rid of her.
"My lord... I'm too old to have children." Krita's voice quavered with barely restrained emotion. "I can't nurse, I'm weak, I'm slow... I'm no use to the Tribe. If you recycled me-"
"No," Parn interrupted. Sharply, coldly.
Krita fidgeted. Torgai had crept somewhat closer. "My lord-" her voice was tinged with desperation.
"No!" Parn growled, his tone heavy with lethal menace. "Haven't enough people died already? Aren't enough of them going to die but that you want me to murder them, too?"
Krita recoiled as if Parn's words had been a physical blow. For a time she hung there without moving or speaking; even her nervous motions had stopped. Then she began to moan- which quickly grew into a sob- and then into a scream: a hideous, grating noise like that of steam blowing from a ruptured boiler.
"Krita!" Parn hissed. Her noise could very well attract the Enemy, and there was no way that the Tribe, in its current state, could hope to survive another attack. But she was heedless of him- of anything, it seemed. Her wails grew louder. He felt the icy calm spreading through him, quenching fear and worry along with every other emotion. There was a way to shut Krita up that would be quick and guaranteed effective. As a side effect Parn would be granting her request. Torgai was already moving in; if Parn failed to act, without question Torgai would. It would be so much simpler just to go ahead and do it-
Parn began to shiver. He felt himself teetering on the edge of an abyss. Letting go would be so much easier-
"No!" Parn grabbed Krita and began mating with her.
Torgai fell back in confusion. At least Krita had stopped her infernal noise. And Parn... the poor boy hadn't so much as looked at a woman since before that last awful battle. It just wasn't right for a young man to refuse pleasure like that. But with first choice of the women couldn't he have at least picked one who wasn't so... old? Time and care had taken their toll on Krita; her body was as lean and angular as a man's, her skin dull and blotchy. She had survived as many battles as Torgai and probably more; her hull was so heavily marked by scars and discolorations that from a distance she could have been mistaken for a warrior. Parn, on the other hand, was everything a young man should be. He had inherited his father's size and strength but his mother's grace and beauty. Those two legacies combined in a way that would have had the women swarming around him even if he hadn't been the son of the Starlord. It was a terrible pity that the old man had died when he did; Torgai firmly believed that Parn would become every bit as great a man as his father had been- but the son was still rather young to bear the weight of responsibility that had been so suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon him.
Parn hadn't intended to actually mate with Krita, just to silence her and send Torgai away. With her warm, living flesh pressed against his own, though, he suddenly realized how desperately he craved that sensation. To affirm that he was still alive. To demonstrate that there were feelings other than fear, pain, desperation, and loss. Even if Krita had been the most beautiful woman who'd ever lived she could not have fanned the flames of Parn's lust to any greater intensity. So much had happened; the last time he had felt a woman's touch seemed not only to have been an age ago but in another life, a time when-
"I'm so sorry," he whispered in a quavering voice. His hands were shaking violently; he released Krita, not because he wanted to so much as that he could no longer hold her. For how badly I've treated you. For all the people I led to their deaths. For you especially, Vala, because I tried so hard to remain faithful....
"Don't be," Krita begged, gripping his hands and pulling herself close. "You did the best you could. You did the best anyone could have."
Parn gathered Krita in his arms and clung to her as he had once clung to his mother. He didn't even try to speak; if he had he would have started crying, screaming, babbling, or something equally disastrous. As such it was a rather a shock when she began to touch him in a decidedly provocative fashion. He started.
"I'm sorry." Krita giggled girlishly. "You're a very... handsome fellow, my lord. It's been... rather a long time since a young man- approached me like that." She was flushed with pleasure.
"Then it's time one did," Parn murmured. He began to mate in earnest, methodically and deliberately, extracting every ounce of pleasure that could be had from the experience. Now his lust burned like heartwood coals: without much flash but with an intensity that lasted and lasted. When it finally ended he was utterly drained, physically and emotionally.
"Krita, I miss her so much," Parn said. The wounds on his psyche were as raw as ever, but the afterglow of mating had relaxed him so much he just couldn't seem to feel strongly about anything.
"I know," Krita agreed gently. "When Noa died, I felt like most of me had died with him."
"I just- I keep thinking that there must have been something I could have done to save her," Parn went on.
"Your reasons for attacking the Enemy convoy are as valid now as they were then, Parn," Krita insisted. "We were short on food. We had children to care for. Attacking would get us the food we needed and hamper the Enemy. You took all the warriors because that gave you the best chance of succeeding and getting out quickly. That- what happened- happened was just bad luck. There's nothing you could have done about it."
"I-" Parn began.
"Parn, the only thing you could've done that would've made the slightest difference would've been to cancel the raid entirely," Krita interjected. "If you'd done that our losses would still have been terrible and we'd still be out of food. We'd have ended up recycling the children, the oldsters, and most of the wounded. And the Enemy, with their supplies intact, would've been free to pursue us."
"Parn, I was there." Krita's voice trembled.
It would be better than what we have now, Parn started to say but caught himself. He knew in his heart that Krita was right. If he and the warriors had stayed the Enemy would have attacked anyway. There would still have been terrible losses. More of the Tribe would have survived- initially. They would be forced to run or face wave after wave of Enemy attack. Since they couldn't run and gather food at the same time their stocks would be quickly depleted, but the Enemy would keep coming. First to be recycled would be the old and infirm, then the wounded. Finally- fathers would be forced to take their own children from their mothers' arms and kill them so that their flesh could nourish what was left of the Tribe. If Vala had survived- no guarantee- Parn would have had to order her to give up her- their- baby. Parn would give the order because the survival of the Tribe was paramount. Vala would obey because she understood that fundamental truth as clearly as Parn did. Would that really be better?
Once again Parn reviewed the ragged formation. Nineteen warriors, of whom fifteen were wounded and three were close to death. Six women, including Krita who was barren, Gava who was dying, and Janis who was hardly more than a child herself. Only one child, a lad named Sarlen who was hardly more than a baby. No other member of his family had survived and now he refused to speak. In one fell swoop three quarters of the Tribe had died.
In one respect that was fortunate. From the remnants of battle survivors had managed to grab literally as much food as they could carry. Parn took advantage of that fact by leading the Tribe on an erratic course through deep space, far away from any system where food might be found. The Enemy had pursued, but as supply lines grew ever longer they couldn't maintain a coordinated search. There hadn't been any sign of them for some time now. Of course the Tribe had left its traditional territories far behind....
"Krita, please don't ask to die," Parn said quietly.
"We still need food," Krita replied.
"Krita, your flesh might fill my belly but your presence fills my heart," Parn said. "I know you're old. You're old enough that every one of these warriors remembers you holding them in your arms, singing lullabies to calm their fears. And maybe... maybe even now they keep that memory in their hearts, and when things seem dark and hopeless that memory gives them the strength to keep going. Krita, they need you." Parn touched her gently, as one touches a thing that is rare and precious. "I need you."
For a long time Krita said nothing, remaining nestled against Parn's side. "Parn, they- they didn't even try to attack me," she stammered. "They went after the young women... the wounded... even the old men. But not me. Not even when I fought! I just... why did I have to live? When so many good people had to die?"
"Don't ever be sorry you survived," Torgai said Parn and Krita started; neither one had noticed Torgai approach. "Good people die. That's just... the way of things. I know it hurts... the survivor's guilt is something awful." He laughed his awful, rattling-bone laugh. "But dying yourself doesn't help them. The dead are beyond help. All you can do is- honor what they died for. By living. Remember... that the Enemy only wins when we're all dead. Every one of us who lives- no matter how or why- is a victory. The only victory that matters, in the end."
Parn experienced a sharp convulsion, the physical manifestation of a realization that struck like lightning in his mind. He had been blaming himself for the deaths of his tribe members. Most of all he'd blamed himself for the loss of- of- her. (He still couldn't bring himself to mention her name in that context.) But old Torgai, whose body was so heavily marked by scarring that the badges of manhood burned into his skin by some long-dead Starlord were all but obliterated. How many more scars did he carry on his soul? How many friends had he lost? How many lovers?
"Krita, we're not going to let Gava die," Parn announced, reaching out suddenly to grab Torgai's wing tip while holding Krita with his other hands. It was the only way he could think of to express what he was feeling, an intense bond forged of shared trauma that somehow brought the three of them closer together than lovers ever could be. "Torgai, signal everyone to form up."
"My lord?" Torgai wasn't questioning the order per se but rather Parn's motivation for giving it.
"So long as there is a spark of life left in me I'm not going to let another person be lost," Parn stated. His grip on Torgai and Krita had tightened until his fingers were trembling with the force of it. "We are going to find a place with abundant food. We're going to grow strong and we're going to defeat the enemy. By raising up our children, so many that we can't count them. On my love and on my life, before my ancestors and before the Creators, this I swear."
"If the Enemy attacks- if we even see them- you are to go back at once at tell Torgai about everything you saw," Parn said. "Is that clear?"
"Yes, my lord," Roso replied. He was quivering with excitement, drunk with the honor of having been chosen as the Starlord's wing man. He did not seem to realize - as Parn did all too well- that the reason he'd been chosen is because the Tribe couldn't afford to risk a more experienced warrior on this fool's errand.
"We're almost there," Parn continued, more a place-holder for his own thoughts. "Switch."
Roso took the lead and Parn dropped back to his wing. If the Enemy were waiting in ambush they'd attack the leader first. Parn struggled to remain impassive; it was a horrible and ghoulish thing to do but necessary. If, on the other hand, the Enemy came at them in normal space Parn would hold them off while Roso escaped.
In perfect synchrony the two warriors stepped out of shadow space. If an Overlord was watching from a distance it might be fooled into thinking that Parn and Roso were actually one.
"We have arrived," Roso announced, clearly and calmly. "There is a large gas giant with ten moderately sized moons, eighteen small moons, and a light ring structure." There was no response from the Tribe; if the Enemy were here it could be assumed they were eavesdropping. Parn gave a gesture of approval; Roso blushed with pride.
Surveying the moons went quickly because- as expected- there wasn't much there. One of them had mineral deposits on its surface that might be exploited with minimal effort. Otherwise they were nothing but lumps of useless rock and ice. The gas giant itself, on the other hand, was a veritable cornucopia of valuable minerals and chemicals- but its bounty was scattered through its constantly swirling atmosphere. Harvesting enough food to be useful would require to Tribe to remain here for some time, scooping and filtering enormous quantities of gas. Being tied down like that was what Parn had been trying to avoid. Going deeper where the atmosphere was denser would speed up the process but could lead to the Tribe getting caught below the level where they could escape by side-stepping away. If worse came to worse Parn would have the Tribe collect just enough food for Gava and everyone else would have to wait-
"My lord!" Roso exclaimed. "There's a muck dweller nest! And it's full of food!"
"Via!" Parn swore, momentarily forgetting his own orders. The nest was a colossal egg-shaped structure some seven hundred meters high; gas was sucked into it through enormous vents on its top and exhausted on the bottom. It seemed to be doing exactly what the Tribe had been planning on doing: filtering the screaming hydrogen wind for useful resources. At the very least it was fairly brimming with containers of highly concentrated stock.
"Go," Parn ordered, dismissing Roso with a curt gesture. If muck dwellers were here it meant that the Enemy wasn't. Roso peeled off and vanished; Parn paused a moment to mutter a prayer of thanks to the Ancestors then moved in to scout out the nest. He moved carefully; it went without saying that the muck dwellers wouldn't give up their hard-won resources without a fight. After a quick but thorough look he fell back, almost cackling with glee. The nest was big and it's shell quite thick but it was not well defended. Even in their weakened state the Tribe should be able to crack it without undue difficulty.
It did occur to Parn that the muck dwellers would probably die when the Tribe started ripping open their nest. If he felt anything, though, it was a detached sort of pity. If the muck dwellers wanted to be safe they should have stayed on the rocky little worlds they seemed to prefer, frolicking in the organic soup from when they sprang. Their bodies were too soft and delicate to withstand the rigors of open space or extreme environments such as the outer atmosphere of a gas giant. Clever ones built shells and filled them with whatever type of organic soup pleased them; safely ensconced they ventured out into space and places like this. If anything went even slightly wrong, well, that was it. Most varieties of muck dweller couldn't even survive the extremes of environment on their own home worlds. When Parn even bothered to think about it- which was rarely- he was especially glad to have been born a person. Being a muck dweller would have to be a horribly confining and limited existence. As he planned the attack he didn't think about them even that much, any more than a starving bear thinks about bees as it tears open a hive to get at the honey.
Enos Grover was reclining in his chair, almost asleep, when the sensor panel pinged. He surged upright, afraid that the Old Man had walked in and caught him sleeping on watch, but there was nobody else in the control room. It took a few more seconds before Enos realized what had happened: Comstock Station's long range sensors had detected something. Enos spun his chair to face the sensor board and ran a quick check.
Popular fiction has it that the scattered settlements of the Stellar Federation's colonial fringe are wild places filled with gun-toting ruffians and constantly under threat from pirates and raiders. The truth is considerably less glamorous, at least in this particular case. Working a gas mining station was dreadfully boring, and the gas giant itself was far more dangerous an enemy than any mere man. If the gravity compensators failed anyone not in bed would hit the floor hard enough to split their head open. If a structural integrity field or a pressure seal failed the whole station would implode like a crushed eggshell. If the repulsor drive array failed the station would fall, down into the giant planet's fiery heart, where pressures and temperatures were so high that metal would liquefy. The atmosphere itself was toxic; even a tiny leak from the gas separators could poison the crew. From were Enos was sitting piracy was pretty low on the list of horrible things that could happen. Besides, there was a patrol base right in system. What pirate would dare attack when help was so close?
Sensors had identified an object, seventy-five meters long or less, no transponder signal, no comm signals, no warp signature. It was difficult to be certain; at this level the atmosphere was thick with hydrocarbon spume. Most of the time it blew along as a heavy, oily mist but sometimes it would condense into greasy rain or waxy snow. Played Hell with the sensors, naturally. After nine months Enos had gotten used to it. There was a lot of strange shit in the Wrack; if a person jumped every time the atmospherics threw up something odd they'd end up in the nut hatch sure as atomic decay.
There it was again. Not just a contact but a partial track. The object was flying, not falling or blowing. It had an energy signature suggesting a repulsor drive vehicle. Fool me once, shame on you, Enos thought. Fool me twice-
"Grover to Tatem, we got a bogey inbound," Enos declared aloud.
"What the Hell you on about, Grover?" Tatem's surly voice demanded.
"Wait, it's gone." Enos watched the board closely. "There. It's back. Same contact. Inbound, on intercept course." Enos was mildly surprised at how calm he sounded.
"I'll be right up." The circuit went dead. Enos felt a stab of fear; Tatem hadn't cursed or muttered and there'd been no trace of anger or resentment in his voice. Which meant Tatem thought this was a serious problem. If Tatem thought it was serious-
"Gimmie a readout," Tatem snapped as he barged into the control room. Enos stabbed a control; information about the contact appeared on a side screen.
"Holy fucking Christ," Tatem whispered. "That's a warship. Red alert!"
Enos' hand was coming down on the button before Tatem had finished speaking. The alarm siren began to wind. Phasers came on line almost immediately as power was transferred directly from the extractor. Shields took longer; not because there wasn't power but because the river of air roaring through the extractor had to be stopped gradually. Only when the extractor was completely shut down could the shields come on or pressure imbalances would rip the station apart. Enos' other hand was mashing down the commit trigger on the tactical computer. Since the target had already been selected one of the phaser mounts around the station's waist fired, scoring a good hit. the interloper dropped out of sight but Enos knew it wasn't destroyed. The phaser had fired before it reached full charge.
Tatem and Enos both were breathlessly watching the sensor panel. Nothing appeared. The tactical station chimed, indicating that the station's shields and weapons were at full power. The tactical display was blank.
"God dammit!" Tatem snarled, tearing off his cap and throwing it to the deck. "The Company's gonna rip me a new one if I put the station on alert and don't bring back a head to show for it. God damn funking sonofa-"
Enos was so relieved he almost giggled. When Tatem started swearing everything was back to normal.
The sensor panel chimed. Twenty-five ships in loose tactical formation materialized out of the mist. "Enemyvesselsonattackvector!" Enos screamed in a voice two octaves higher than normal. His hand was still on the trigger; he pushed it down so hard the plastic cracked. A sleet of bolts ripped out from the station's phaser mounts as the tactical computer selected targets and fired. The enemy formation broke apart like leaves in a storm; not a single hit was scored. In less than the blink of an eye the attackers and reformed and opened fire. A string of red warnings flashed across the engineering status board; shield power was down sixteen percent and seven phaser mounts had been destroyed.
Comstock Station was not a battle platform. The phaser batteries were mounted at the waist where they wouldn't interfere with the intake and exhaust for the gas extractor. The resulting fields of fire did not interlock very well and the third-rate tactical computer could not effectively compensate when all the projectors on one side were knocked out. The attackers maneuvered like star fighters, were armed and armored like cruisers, and coordinated as if every single ship had a class-A attack program. In two seconds- which seemed to last for an eternity- Enos saw that the battle was over.
Tatem saw it too. He had rushed to the communications console. "Mayday, mayday, Comstock Station to anyone, we are under attack," he was saying. "Mayday, mayday-"
"Mulrooney to Tatem, shields are collapsing!" the chief engineer shouted over the intercom.
"Get them up, God damn you!" Tatem screamed.
"Warheads inbound!" Enos shouted. The attackers had just loosed a massive salvo of missiles. Without phasers to shoot them down every one reached its target, striking all at once in a precisely defined pattern. Comstock Station was an egg-shapes structure four hundred meters high with mass of two hundred a fifty kilotons; in spite of this Enos felt the deck shudder under him. More warnings flashed on the engineering display; five of nine cargo bay doors had been sprung. Tornadic winds caught the loose panels and tore them away.
Tatem was shouting something. At this point Enos really didn't care. Asymmetric wind pressure was causing the station to spin and sway drunkenly; as Enos bolted through the door the deck was heaving under his feet like that of a ship in a storm. Nevertheless he proceeded at a dead run toward the lifeboat bay; there was a definite limit to how much of this the station could endure. Either the pressure hull would collapse and the outside atmosphere would come crashing in like a bomb explosion or the stability computer wouldn't be able to control the wild gyrations and the station would flip over on its side. From a personal standpoint the first was preferable: death would be instantaneous. In the latter case the station could end up falling for quite some time before pressure and temperature finally overcame it.
"Abandon ship, abandon ship, all hands abandon ship!" Tatem's voice was roaring, highly amplified, from all the public address speakers. Enos barely heard it over the hellish chorus of groaning metal as Comstock Station worked itself to death. Directly ahead was the lifeboat hatch; Enos dove through it head first. He struck the control panel with his forehead, rendering himself instantly unconscious and smashing the controls but the launch sequence got under way. the hatch slammed shut and the boat blasted free.
"Quickly, quickly!" Parn was shouting. The nest bucked wildly; he had to hang on with three hands just to keep from being flung off. With his other hand he was scooping out containers as fast as he could. Roso was somehow managing to hold on with only two hands, allowing him to pass out containers twice as fast. Torgai, Delis, Kron, and Shev were hovering below, dancing erratically back and forth as they tried to catch the containers and hand them off. Under other circumstances the sight would have been comical. The muck dweller food containers were shockingly delicate; grabbing one incautiously could cause it to break open. The four warriors below had broken as many as they caught and by now were coated from nose to tail with sticky, greasy glop. Still, the impromptu bucket brigade was working: almost everyone (even Krita) were managing to acquire a quadruple armload. Which was just as well; it didn't look like the nest was going to hold together much longer-
"Parn!" Torgai screamed, dropping the containers he'd just caught.
Only Parn's incredible sense of balance and motion saved him. In the last possible sliver of an instant he realized that the nest wasn't going to recover and managed to jump out of the way as the whole thing tipped over like a falling skyscraper. Roso wasn't quite so good- or perhaps lucky. He let go with Parn but didn't get away in time; the peak of the egg-shaped nest came down on him like a Louisville slugger getting a bite of an inside fast ball.
"Blood and martyrs!" Parn cursed. "Everyone, get out now!" he ordered, dropping into a power dive. Most of the tribe climbed for the safety of open space; Torgai and Kron followed Parn. Roso was tumbling limply in the wind as the group closed with him. His body slightly misshapen, as if he'd been stepped on, and was streaked with a mixture of hydrocarbon slush, food concentrate, and blood. Without having to be told Kron and Torgai fanned out to the sides, attempting to stabilize Roso with their tractor beams while Parn moved in for the grab. It had to be quickly because there were limits to how much even a person could take; pressure and temperature mounted steadily as they dropped lower and lower. Roso was clearly unconscious but seemed determined to escape; even with the help of Torgai and Kron Parn failed twice to get a grip. On the third try Parn finally had some luck: a freak gust blew Roso almost right into his arms. Once Parn had him stabilized Torgai and Delis moved in to lend their strength.
As they struggled upward against wind, gravity, and Roso's dead weight it occurred to Parn that now would be the perfect time for the Enemy to attack. They'd have no choice but to drop Roso or be slaughtered themselves. It seemed the Ancestors were still pleased, though; they attained orbit without additional dangers presented themselves. Until-
Shev appeared suddenly, side-stepping out almost on top of Parn and the others. He still had an armload of food containers. "My Lord, there's a muck dweller fighting shell nearby and coming fast!"
"Via," Torgai muttered.
"Roso!" Parn exclaimed, shaking him. "Roso, for the love of the Creators, wake up!" But he didn't. In fact he was getting worse; fatigue and malnutrition had drained his strength even before the battle with the nest and suffering a trauma that would be serious even for an perfectly healthy person.
"We'll have to treat him or leave him," Torgai commented.
"My lord, what about the shell?" Kron demanded tensely.
If Parn had possessed teeth he would have been gnashing them in frustration. Escape was as easy as side-stepping away; muck dwellers didn't seem to know how to enter shadow space. All of which was absolutely no use to Roso, who couldn't side-step while unconscious. Only non-living things- like the food containers- could be safely carried. If Parn and the others tried to carry Roso into shadow space the stress would kill him for sure. Leaving him behind would be leaving him to the tender mercies of the muck dwellers, who were no doubt coming to exact revenge for the destruction of the nest. That they would kill him was a given; it was the only sensible thing to do with a wounded enemy (unless you were planning to use him as bait to draw his friends into an ambush).
"My lord!" Shev prompted. The fighting shell exploded into normal space; it was much smaller than the nest but it seethed with lethal energy.
Under other circumstances Parn would not have hesitated to attack. He, Torgai, Kron, and Shev were all experienced warriors and while muck dweller shells could be very powerful their reaction times tended to be slow. Those circumstances did not involve being weak with hunger or exhausted from fighting the nest and rescuing Roso. Parn calculated that at least two of them would be incapacitated or killed; if the two were himself and Torgai it would be a loss from which the Tribe might not recover. And for what? To rescue someone whose survival was already in grave doubt? Attacking the nest had been a necessary risk but this-
"Form on me!" Parn shouted, dropping Roso and accelerating to attack speed. He wasn't going to leave a man behind. Not while there was even the slightest chance of saving him.
The shell had spotted them and was turning to attack. It fired off a spread of torpedoes.
"Warheads, fire!" Parn ordered. He and the others ripped off every warhead left in their magazines. Now wasn't the time to be stingy.
Weapons passed one another on their way downrange. At the last possible instant all four warriors broke formation into violent evasion spirals; two of the torpedoes self-destructed when their guidance systems realized that they had made too much heading change in pursuing their assigned targets and were at risk of locking on to the vessel that had launched them. The other two switched to search mode and began looking for new targets.
"Beams, fire!" Parn directed. At this range even tightly concentrated fire wouldn't punch through the shell's energy shields. It did however create momentary weakness through which most of the warheads were able to penetrate. As explosions ripped its nose and flank the shell staggered. At least for now the battle wasn't going too badly-
"Again!" Parn spun and fired. One of the two original torpedoes exploded as his beams slashed it. Torgai fired at almost the same instant- and his beams passed close enough to scorch paint but only that close. The torpedo detonated against its new target: one whose profile matched that of its original target but wasn't maneuvering. Roso was blown into two major fragments and a cloud of debris.
For a brief instant Parn actually considered pressing the attack but even in the face of his rage and grief he couldn't justify it. The Tribe was safe now and revenge, by itself, was not enough to balance the cost. "Makers damn you all to eternal darkness!" he screamed as he side-stepped away. A moment later he was sobbing uncontrollably.
Captain Sarah Vasher was perched on the edge of her chair, gripping the arms with white-knuckled intensity. "Damage report!"
"Shields holding at sixty percent," Lieutenant Aaron Sands replied. "A secondary plasma conduit in the starboard nacelle has ruptured. Moderate hull damage along decks six, seven, and eight, starboard. Breach on deck six forward, which is being contained."
Captain Vasher forced herself to sit back and appear relaxed. A single barrage of missiles had done significant damage. "Where are the enemy now?" she demanded. The tactical display was blank, except for the spreading debris of the ship they'd destroyed, and a group of containers that had apparently been jettisoned by one of the others.
"I.. I don't know, sir," Lt. Sands admitted. "Each ship emitted a powerful tachyon burst and disappeared."
"Cloaked?" Vasher demanded.
"If so it's like nothing like we've ever seen before."
Vasher frowned. If she were the enemy commander and she had a device like that she would use it to strike suddenly from an unexpected angle, pecking her adversary into submission bit by bit. Where the mysterious raiders gone, or merely biding their time? "Any signals from Comstock Station?" she demanded.
"No, sir, their beacon is off the air," Lt. Sands reported. "We are receiving emergency beacons from three lifeboats."
Vasher blinked. "Three? How many does a station like that carry?"
"One hundred twenty-five, sir."
Which meant that at least twelve hundred people had met whatever fate that befell the station itself. More, if the lifeboats weren't full.
"Engineering to bridge, shield power restored," a voice declared from the intercom. "Output from the warp reactor down fifteen percent until emergency repairs are completed in five minutes."
"Acknowledged," Vasher replied. The moment to attack had passed and the tactical was still blank. She began to believe that the raiders really had withdrawn. "Helm, bring us in close to the wreckage. Mr. Sands, get on the tractor and collect as much as you can. If it'll fit, beam it into the cargo hold."
"Aye aye, sir," replied Lieutenant Ilsa Jenner as she plotted and executed the course change, and Lt. Sands as he powered up the tractor beam.
"Sir, everything but the largest piece will fit in the cargo holds," Lt. Sands reported.
"Keep a tractor on it and we'll tow it," Vasher ordered. Still no sign of the raiders. "As soon as all the debris in on board, plot a course to intercept the lifeboats. Notify sick bay to stand by."
With the chunk in tow the F.S.S. Cumberland moved up to the cluster of lifeboats. Only eleven people and the station's 'black box' recorder were recovered. After interviewing the survivors, reviewing the station logs, and examining the wreckage, Captain Vasher composed a long and detailed report. Under maximum encryption it was beamed directly to Starfleet Headquarters.
"I wonder what the muck dwellers use this stuff for," Krita wondered, taking an empty container and rolling it across the plain of shattered ice.
"Hmm?" Parn was only half listening as he sipped. The stuff they had taken from the nest was smooth, easy to digest, rich in minerals and nutrients, and tasted like- like nothing he had ever tasted. Mana from heaven. Food of the Gods. Especially after such a long period of privation there was a temptation to bolt it down but he suppressed it. He kept an eye on the others, too, especially Sarlen. Eating too fast would lead to someone getting sick and throwing up. That there was lots of food only made it more important to conserve.
"Who cares?" Delis crushed his empty and flipped it away.
"Could be important," Torgai commented. "They may not make it at all their nests."
"We are definitely going to want to keep track of where this comes from," Parn declared. He set his current empty next to the two previous, in a neat little row along an ice shelf. Then he retracted his limbs and settled onto his belly, wiggling to shatter the ice and crush it into a scar that conformed to the shape of his belly.
"I mean, I'm sure they didn't do it for us," Kita said, turning a container in her hand. "And what about these little marks?" With the tip of a finger she traced a line of nearly microscopic symbols arranged in neat rows on the container's side.
"Muck dwellers are muck dwellers," Kagan grumbled. His wounds were healing nicely but nevertheless he complained constantly.
Parn said nothing but he studied the containers a little more closely. They were cleverly constructed, he had to admit; each was a rectangular box with a frame around it so that they could be easily stacked. They were equipped with lids and fittings presumably for filling and draining. Such things were of no concern to people, who could drain the contents using their feeding transporters. But in the back of his mind Parn came to the realization that not only didn't he know how such a thing could be made he couldn't even imagine. For some strange reason that disturbed him.
"How are you feeling, Gava?" Parn inquired.
"I'm... better, my lord," Gava replied in little more than a whisper. She couldn't eat on her own so Azaria and Khalia were feeding her. They had been feeding her during the trip from where the food had been found to here, the icy surface of a rocky planetoid on the very fringes of a nearby system. She had improved considerably during the journey but the landing had been tricky. In spite of the planetoid's vanishingly slight gravity her wounds had cracked open as she touched down. She had been cut five times; no one could understand how she'd even managed to stay alive this long. And she was still alive, in spite of the ugly stain of dried blood and mortified flesh on the ice around her. With the quantity of food on hand the Tribe could afford to stay here until either she died or recovered- and they would. Parn was not going to allow the group to be split again.
"She's going to live," Krita whispered, gently brushing Parn's wing tip. "Thanks to you."
Parn shivered. He fought and fought but the Enemy seemed to be infinite. All he could hear were the screams of the dying. "Thank you," he replied. But that reminded him of another onerous duty. "My friends, one of our brave warriors has left us to be with the Ancestors," he declared, raising his voice to be heard by all. The muted babble of conversation instantly fell silent. "Roso was young but he was brave. He gave his life so that the Seed of his Ancestors may continue."
"Roso is brave," the Tribe chorused.
"We add Roso to the roster of our great Ancestors," Parn continued. "Though he is not longer with us in flesh he stays with us forever in our hearts."
"We remember Roso," came the reply.
Parn hesitated, glancing at Garan. Roso's parents were long dead; Garan was technically an older cousin but he had acted as Roso's father in every possible way. "When I leave my flesh and go to the Core I will sing of Roso to the Ancestors."
"We give our beloved Roso to the Core, where the sky is forever filled with light."
Garan was crying. After a moment Parn realized that he was, too. Krita edged closer and stroked him tenderly.
- Chapter 4 -
Characters & Story ©2000 John R. Plunkett. Chakona & Chakats ©2000 Bernard Doove.
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