The Enemy convoy consisted of five columns of drones, each carrying a food packet as big as itself. The commanding Overlord sat 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 appeared relaxed almost to the point of boredom.
"We'll destroy them utterly," Narbeh pronounced. His whole body quivered with the tension of 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. Looking at the Enemy filled him with dread and revulsion. The Overlord resembled some sort of colossal, bloated insect- half again the size of a person- with spindly, stick-like limbs that wouldn't support it under any but the lightest gravity. Compared to it the warriors were tiny- about a third the size of a person- with flattened, crab-like bodies. Their front most limbs were in fact long, slender claws, but along the outer edge of each claw, from base to tip, ran a razor sharp blade. Those blades transformed each claw into a sword nearly as long as the warrior's body. They'd cut through just about anything; in Parn's experience they most often cut through members of his Tribe. Though they much preferred to get in close and use their blades Enemy warriors could attack at range as well. A pair of bulges just to either side of center on the tops of their carapaces contained beam projectors. One on one their beams were not nearly so powerful as a person's but en masse they were deadly. That's how the Enemy preferred to attack, overwhelming even the tightest and most disciplined formation with sheer numbers. Once they got in close the battle degenerated into a furball, where the Enemy's greater speed and maneuverability gave them the advantage.
This particular battle wouldn't be like that. Arrayed around Parn in a loose tactical formation were thirty five warriors. With numerical superiority on Parn's side the deciding factor would become the greater strength and range of his peoples' beams. If the Enemy tried a swarm attack they'd get shot to pieces before ever getting close enough to use their blades, leaving the Overlord undefended and helpless. Drones didn't count, strictly speaking; though resembling warriors in general shape their pincers lacked blades and they had no beams at all. Their mouth parts could deliver a nasty bite but they also lacked a warrior's speed and agility. Only if a person got among them was he in danger; at range destroying them was little more than target practice. Despite its fearsome appearance and thick shell the Overlord itself was slow, clumsy, and lacking any form of offensive weaponry, relying instead on its warriors for protection.
Parn shivered. To gain his decisive advantage he'd stripped the Tribe of every warrior that could fight, leaving behind only the women, children, aged, wounded, and sickly. Their number was half again what he had here but like the drones they wouldn't really count if it came to battle. Against even a small force of Enemy they'd be defenseless.
"We'll destroy them quickly, my lord," Torgai said as reading Parn's mind.
Parn said nothing. He felt intense gratitude for Torgai's reassurance but it did nothing to ease the cold knot of fear in his gut. This was a terrible risk he was taking, with the very survival of the Tribe hanging in the balance. That everyone- including Torgai- had endorsed the plan eased his concern not one bit. As Starlord he and only he made the final decision. He and only he bore the responsibility if it failed.
"Stand ready, my lads," Torgai added, though the warriors in his section held formation perfectly. The comment was, again, for the benefit of his young and relatively untested Starlord.
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, there to relieve the others if they got into trouble. He'd wanted to lead the section spearheading the attack but Torgai talked him out of it. As overall commander, Torgai said, Parn needed to keep himself out of the fray so he could devote his attention to monitoring and directing the overall situation. After much arguing Parn reluctantly bowed to Torgai's superior experience. How could he overrule the man who was far and away the Tribe's oldest warrior and principal advisor to the previous Starlord, Parn's own father? Now, on the verge of battle, Parn realized that Torgai had been right all along. Fighting required no thought at all; you abandoned yourself to the commands of your superior and instincts carefully honed in training. Commanding required thought, to direct one's forces in the manner most conducive to victory. Even- especially- as your friends screamed and died all around you. Even as you coldly and deliberately sent your friends to their deaths because it was the only way to win, with no one to direct you but the will of the Ancient and Most Holy Ancestors.
Suddenly the Overlord changed course, letting out a piercing shriek that made Parn's bones itch. It had spotted the warriors waiting in ambush and called for help. "Attack!" Parn screamed, though most of his warriors were already in motion. Torgai bellowed as he opened fire with all four of his power beams. His section fired with him; half of the Enemy warriors died before they even had time to break formation. Narbeh and his section fired warheads targeted on the Overlord. Enemy drones and warriors weren't capable of organized action on their own; without the Overlord to direct them they'd still attack any person nearby but in a haphazard, uncoordinated way. A number of drones dropped their food packets and threw themselves at the oncoming warheads, attempting to intercept them with their own bodies. A few succeeded and were blown to gory bits for their trouble. The remaining warheads struck the Overlord, tearing great bloody craters in its flesh. The rest of the Enemy broke formation and came at their attackers in a mad rush; the Overlord probably hoped it could get its warriors in close, masked by the mass of drones.
It might even be right, Parn observed. "Lead section, beams only, on my mark, fire!" he shouted, designating targets with low power beams. He could barely see through the fog of blood and entrails; Torgai's section fired with machinelike precision, killing drones so rapidly their exploding bodies seemed to be part of a continuous, rolling wave. Narbeh's section kept launching missiles even as the of Enemy bore down on them; finally the Overlord spun out of the mass, spewing blood and viscera from a dozen wounds, its body hammered beyond recognition. Now the warriors revealed themselves, breaking out ahead of the drones.
"Fire!" Parn shouted, firing all four of his beams at full power, targeting each one on a different Enemy. In a feat of marksmanship he could only have performed in the heat of battle all four struck dead on. His section fired with him- except for Garan, who for some reason launched a missile instead of using his beams- instantly vaporizing all four of them. The remaining six for some reason split into a group of two and four; the four fired as one, hitting Ralos- a warrior in Narbeh's section- in the belly just as he launched a missile. He didn't even have time to scream; the warhead cooked off as it left the launcher. His body seemed to explode from within, spraying gristly fragments in every direction. Kagan, Ralos' wing man, received nasty cuts on his back and belly because he fired on the four instead of paying closer attention to the two who closed and struck with blades. Parn rolled and snapped off two shots, killing one of the two and wounding the other. Torgai's section atomized the four; Narbeh himself grabbed the remaining one and held it while his wing man killed it.
"Fall back!" Parn commanded. Finishing off the drones would be simple enough but risky if it turned into a free for all. Then they'd collect as many of the food packets as they could carry and run back to camp before the Enemy could respond. Parn would prefer to destroy anything they didn't take but for this operation to work timing was critical-
When he heard the scream Parn reflexively checked to see who'd been injured. That there didn't seem to be any new casualties confused him until he realized that the timbre of the voice was wrong.
"They're attacking the women!" someone screamed. In less than an instant Parn's giddy elation turned to icy terror. He shifted his perception to ranged mode, trying to see what was going on back at camp-
Sharp pain jerked him back. Several drones were biting him. Parn crushed their thin carapaces with his bare hands, flinging them away in disgust. All around him the neat formation had fallen apart as his warriors paid more attention to what was happening at camp than the battle at hand.
"Hold fast, you worthless sons of muck dwellers!" Torgai screamed. His section disintegrated as warriors side-stepped away, singly or in twos or threes, 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.
"He's gone," Torgai snarled. "The idiot."
"My lord, what do we do?" a young warrior demanded in a voice 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- hovered pensively nearby, waiting for orders. Torgai and perhaps a dozen more still fought the drones, who now outnumbered them by a wide margin. If Parn committed the warriors with him-
Already the chorus of screams from the women and children had diminished. "Form on me!" he commanded.
"My lord!" Torgai exclaimed. "Wait!"
"My lord?" Hesai inquired tentatively, wavering out of formation. He'd been assigned to Narbeh's section; as things went to pieces he'd remained with the Starlord because that seemed like the least terrifying option. Being caught between Parn and Torgai was too much to bear.
"Quiet!" Parn's voice lashed like a whip. The camp was a long way off but if they made 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, shivering violently in the grip of violently conflicting emotions. An strange calm spread through him, like ice forming on a still pool. It drove away the riot of emotion; 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 echoed in his thoughts and icy calm 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 discussing things that happened ages ago on the other side of the galaxy.
Krita fidgeted, 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 broken formation and straggled out into a ragged line as fear of Enemy attack became less present than hunger and fatigue. Thus he and Krita were pretty much alone even though he'd started and for the most part still was at the center of the group. Except for Torgai, who maintained a discreet distance but held station relative to his Starlord. "Where do you propose we get this food?" Parn inquired. In all honesty he really didn't care but for the moment at least talking to Krita was easier than getting 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.
Torgai crept closer. "My lord-" Krita began.
"No!" Parn snapped, his tone heavy with lethal menace. "Haven't enough of my 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 had slapped her. For a time she hovered without moving or speaking, even her nervous jitters frozen. She let out a moan that grew into a sob and finally 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 the Tribe in its current state couldn't hope to survive another attack. But she was heedless of him- of anything, it seemed. Her wails grew louder. Parn felt icy calm spreading through him, quenching fear and worry along with every other emotion. There was a way to shut Krita up, quick and guaranteed effective. As a side effect he'd be granting her request. Torgai moved in; if Parn failed to act then without question he would. It would be so much simpler just to go ahead and do it. Parn shivered; he felt himself teetering on the edge of an abyss. Letting go would be so much easier-
"No!" Parn grabbed Krita and started mating with her.
Torgai fell back. At least Krita stopped her infernal noise. And Parn... the poor boy hadn't so much as looked at a woman since before that last 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 dull, blotchy skin enclosed a frame as lean and angular as a man's. She'd survived as many battles as him and probably more; scars crisscrossed one another so thickly on her that from a distance she might even be mistaken for a warrior. Parn, on the other hand, was everything a young man should be. He'd inherited his father's size and strength and his mother's grace and beauty. Those legacies combined in the best possible way; women would be swarming around him even if he wasn't son of the Starlord. Pity that the old man died when he did; Torgai firmly believed that Parn would someday 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 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. The most beautiful woman who'd ever been couldn't have fanned the flames of Parn's lust to any greater intensity. So much had happened; the last time he'd 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," Parn whispered, his voice quavering. His hands shook violently; he released Krita, not because he wanted to so much as that he couldn't 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 done."
Parn gathered Krita in his arms and clung to her as he'd once clung to his mother. He didn't dare speak; if he tried he'd start crying, screaming, babbling, or something else equally disastrous. As such it was a rather a shock when she touched him in a decidedly provocative fashion. He flinched.
"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 flushed with pleasure.
"Then it's time one did," Parn murmured. He mated in earnest, methodically and deliberately, extracting every ounce of pleasure from the experience. Now his lust burned like heartwood coals, without much flash but with an intensity that endured. When it finally ended he felt utterly drained, physically and emotionally.
"Krita, I miss her so much," Parn said. Afterglow didn't dull the pain in his psyche but it relaxed him so much he couldn't get upset about it.
"I know," Krita agreed. "When Noa died I felt like most of me 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," 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, at least 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, with their stores intact, would keep coming. Recycled first would be the old and infirm, then the wounded. In the end fathers would be forced to take their own children from their mothers' arms and kill them so that their flesh would nourish those who could still run and fight. 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 men and six women, all wounded to some greater of lesser degree, four- including Gava- close to death. Krita was too old to have children and Janis little more than one herself. One child, a boy named Sarlen. Krita looked after him because no other member of his family survived. Beyond them Parn saw, in his mind's eye, the shades of many others. In one fell swoop three quarters of the Tribe had died.
At least that left the survivors with plenty of food, literally as much as they could carry. Parn took advantage of that fact and led his people on an erratic course through deep space, far away from any system where food might be found. With their search sphere expanding at an exponential rate the Enemy couldn't keep up the pursuit indefinitely and indeed there'd been no sign of them for some time now. Of course the Tribe had also left behind its traditional territories, venturing now into new, unknown reaches.
"Krita, please don't ask to die," Parn said.
"We still need food," Krita pointed out.
"Krita, your flesh might fill my belly but your presence fills my heart," Parn replied. "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 rare and precious thing. "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 both started; neither 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 terrible, 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. 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 a supernova exploding in his mind. He'd blamed 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 felt, 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 didn't question 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 tightened until his fingers trembled with the force of it. "We are going to find a place with abundant food. We are 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 and tell Torgai everything you saw," Parn said. "Is that clear?"
"Yes, my lord," Roso replied. He quivering with excitement, drunk with the honor of having been chosen as the Starlord's wing man. He didn't 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 waited 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. An Overlord watching from a distance 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." No response came 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 had mineral deposits on its surface that might be exploited, albeit with some effort. Otherwise they were nothing but lumps of rock and ice, useless to the Tribe. In the gas giant's atmosphere, though, swirled a cornucopia of valuable minerals and chemicals ready for the taking. Harvesting enough to feed everyone would require quite a bit of scooping and filtering, forcing the Tribe to remain for some time. Scooping deep, in the denser atmosphere, would make the process both faster and more dangerous. Denser atmosphere meant stronger, more violent winds, and a person scooping down there couldn't side-step away if the Enemy attacked or anything else went wrong. In the worst case Parn would have the Tribe collect just enough 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 resembled a colossal egg, some seven hundred meters high, sitting on its blunt end. Gas went in the top and out the bottom; it seemed to be doing exactly what the Tribe had been planning, filtering the hydrogen wind for useful resources. At the very least it fairly brimmed 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 and moved in to scout 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. Though big and heavily armored the nest was poorly defended; even in its weakened state the Tribe could crack it without undue difficulty.
It occurred to Parn that the muck dwellers would probably die when the Tribe ripped 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 stay on the rocky little worlds they seemed to prefer, frolicking in the organic soup from which they sprang. Their soft, delicate bodies weren't suited to withstand the rigors of open space or extreme environments like the gas giant's atmosphere. Most varieties couldn't even survive the environmental extremes of their own home worlds. Clever ones built shells, filled them with whatever organic soup they preferred, and ventured out into the universe. If anything went wrong with the shells, well, they died. Surely they understood the risks when they undertook the journey. When he even bothered to think about it- which was rarely- Parn felt especially glad that Fate had chosen him to be a person. Muck dweller lives had to be terribly limited and confining. As he planned the attack he didn't think about them even that much, any more than a starving bear thinks about the fate of bees as it tears open their nest to get at the honey.
Enos Grover surged upright, fearing that Mr. Tatem had caught him sleeping on watch, but as usual he occupied the control room by himself. A pinging sound drew his attention; he spun his chair to face the sensor console. Comstock Station's long range sensors had detected something.
Romantic fiction had it that the settlements of the Stellar Federation's colonial fringe were wild, exotic places populated by ruggedly handsome gun-toting ruffians and constantly under threat from pirates and raiders. The truth, at least as Enos saw it, wasn't nearly so glamorous. Working a gas mining station had to be the most mind-numbingly dull job a person could have and for the most part so were the people who did it. As for piracy, no one worried much about it. The gas giant itself presented far more serious a threat. If the station's gravity compensators failed anyone not in bed would hit the floor hard enough to crack their skull open. The outside atmosphere was virulently toxic and under tremendous pressure; a leak could poison everyone on board if the station wasn't simply crushed like an empty beer can. If a repulsor lift unit malfunctioned the whole station might fall into the planet's fiery heart, where temperatures and pressures soared to such extremes that metal would liquefy. From where Enos sat piracy ranked pretty low on the list of horrible things to lay awake at night worrying about. Besides, Starfleet had a patrol base right in the system. What raider would dare attack with help was so close at hand?
Sensors identified an object about seventy meters long, massing around three hundred tons, emitting no transponder signals, no comm signals, and no warp signature. Enos twiddled the controls, attempting to refine the readings. Thick hydrocarbon spume clouded the atmosphere at this level; most of the time it blew along as an oily mist; sometimes it condensed into greasy rain or waxy snow. Played Hell with sensors, naturally. A lot of strange shit lurked in the Wrack; either you got used to it or sure as atomic decay you ended up in the nut hatch.
There it was again. Not just a contact but a partial track. Flying, not falling or blowing, with 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."
"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 in a sidebar display on the main screen.
"Holy fucking Christ," Tatem whispered. "That's a warship. Red alert!"
Enos' hand came down on the button before Tatem finished speaking. The alarm siren wound up, a mournful wail echoing through Comstock Station's warren of corridors. Weapons came up quickly but shields took longer; if they came up before the extractor shut down pressure imbalances would rupture the station for sure. Only after the river of air roaring through the filters halted could the shields reach full power. Enos' other hand mashed the commit trigger, granting the tactical computer permission to fire. It selected two projectors from the ring around the station's waist and fired, scoring a good hit. The contact vanished but Enos doubted it was destroyed or even seriously damaged. The projectors weren't yet fully charged.
Tatem and Enos both stared breathlessly at the sensor panel. First the weapons, then shields, reached full power but nothing appeared. The tactical display remained obstinately 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 fucking sonofa-"
Enos felt so intensely 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. He pressed the commit trigger so hard the plastic bezel cracked. A sleet of bolts ripped from the station's beam projectors as the tactical computer selected targets and fired. The enemy formation broke apart like leaves in a storm; not a single bolt found its mark. In less than the blink of an eye the attackers reformed and opened fire. A string of red warnings flashed on the engineering status board; shield power dropped by sixteen percent and seven phaser mounts were out of action
Comstock Station was anything but a battle platform. The waist-mounted beam projectors were low power units with only moderately interlocking fields of fire, guided by a third rate tactical computer. The gas giant itself was the station's most reliable defense; only an incredibly brave- or foolish- captain would take a ship this deep into the atmosphere. When the time came to transfer cargo the station boosted itself into orbit where the process could be undertaken in relative safety. These unknown ships seemed entirely at home even in this inhospitable environment, they maneuvered like star fighters, struck like cruisers, and coordinated as if every one had a first rate attack program. After only two passes they'd disabled half the station's beam projectors, leaving one entire hemisphere exposed to attack. The battle, Enos realized as icy terror clawed at his gut, was over.
Tatem saw it too. He rushed to the communications console. "Mayday, mayday, Comstock Station to anyone, we are under attack," he said. "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 loosed a massive salvo of missiles. Without beams to shoot them down every one reached its target, striking all at once in a precisely defined pattern. Despite that Comstock Station massed somewhere around two hundred a fifty kilotons Enos felt the deck shudder under his feet. More warnings flashed on the engineering display; explosions sprung the doors on five of nine cargo bays and tornadic winds tore them away.
Tatem shouted something. At this point Enos really didn't care what. Asymmetric wind pressure spun the station, causing it to sway drunkenly. As he bolted through the control room door the deck heaved under his feet like that of a ship in a storm. Nevertheless as he pelted at a dead run for the nearest lifeboat Enos missed not a single step. Fear guided his feet, fear stemming from the knowledge that even the station's unimaginably strong and massive hull was nothing against what the gas giant could dish out. If the wild gyrations kept up eventually the pressure hull would crack and toxic atmosphere would flood the environmental spaces or the stability computer wouldn't be able to keep up and the station would tip over. From a personal standpoint the first was infinitely preferable; death would come almost instantaneously. In the second case there'd be plenty of time to contemplate the afterlife; very quickly the station would fall to a level where lifeboats could no longer escape but only much later would pressure and temperature finally overcome it.
"Abandon ship, abandon ship, all hands abandon ship!" Tatem's highly amplified voice roared 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, his gateway to salvation. Enos dove through it head first, striking the control panel with his forehead. The blow rendered him unconscious and destroyed the panel but it also initiated the launch sequence. The hatch clanged shut and the pod blasted free.
"Quickly, quickly!" Parn shouted. The nest bucked wildly, forcing him to cling with three hands just to keep his place. With his other he grabbed food containers and flung them out. Somehow Roso managed to hang on with only two hands, allowing to toss out containers twice as fast. It hardly mattered; as the nest gyrated containers spilled from the broken storage cells. The entire Tribe hovered below, dancing back and forth to catch the containers as they fell. Under other circumstances Parn supposed it would be comical; the containers were rather delicate and an incautious grab would crush them, spraying thick, gooey soup all over the would-be catcher. By now everyone below had splattered themselves at least once; some of the younger warriors tossed containers back and forth, laughing hysterically when one broke. Parn disliked the waste but the nest contained so much he doubted the Tribe could carry it all away even if they got the chance to collect it. He didn't think the nest would hold together much longer-
"Parn!" Torgai screamed, dropping the containers he'd caught.
Only Parn's incredible reflexes 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 it came down on him like a falling skyscraper. Roso let go at the same time but wasn't so good or perhaps lucky; the wall of the 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 Kronn followed Parn. Roso tumbled limply in the wind as the group closed with him. Blood mingled with the food concentrate and hydrocarbon slush coating his skin; he looked slightly misshapen as if he'd been stepped on. Without having to be told Kronn and Torgai fanned out to either 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 endure; pressure and temperature mounted steadily as they dropped. Parn cursed venomously as he tried again and again to get a grip but each time the gas giant defeated him, twitching Roso out of his grip. Finally it tired of toying with its victims; a freak gust flung Roso right into Parn's waiting grasp. Once Parn had him Torgai and Delis grabbed hold to help lift.
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. The Ancestors smiled on them, though; they reached orbit without additional dangers presenting themselves. Until-
Shev, still carrying an armload of food containers, side-stepping out almost on top of Parn and the others. "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!" Parn didn't need to be a healer to know that Roso was in bad shape. Blood boiled in a froth from dozens of small cracks in his hull, he'd broken a number of bones, and he bled internally as well. Even for a perfectly healthy person the chances of survival would be slim, to say nothing of one more than half starved.
"We'll have to treat him or leave him," Torgai commented.
"My lord, what about the shell?" Kronn demanded tensely.
Parn clenched his fists in frustration, his claws drawing blood from his own palms. They could escape simply by side-stepping away but only if they left Roso behind; in his current state the shock would kill him for sure. Even that might be better than leaving him to the tender mercies of the muck dwellers, no doubt here to exact revenge for the destruction of their nest.
"My lord!" Shev prompted. The fighting shell exploded into normal space; though smaller than nest it seethed with lethal energy.
Under other circumstances Parn wouldn't hesitate to attack. He, Torgai, Kronn, and Shev were all experienced warriors and while muck dweller shells could be very powerful they tended to be ponderous and slow to respond. Those circumstances didn't 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 serious doubt? Attacking the nest was a necessary risk but this-
"Form on me!" Parn shouted, dropping Roso and accelerating to attack speed. Parn wasn't going to lose another one, no matter what the cost. The others knew the math at least as well as Parn but they fell in behind him without a word. Sometimes the logical course simply isn't the right one.
The shell spotted them and turned to attack, firing 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.
Missiles passed one another on their way downrange. At the last possible instant all four warriors broke into violent evasion spirals; two of the torpedoes self destructed when their guidance systems concluded that interception was impossible. The other two switched to search mode and sought easier targets.
"Beams, fire!" Parn commanded. At this range even tightly concentrated fire wouldn't punch through the shell's energy shields but it did create momentary weakness through which some of the missiles were able to penetrate. The shell staggered as explosions ripped its nose and flank. For now, at least, the battle wasn't going too badly-
"Beams!" Parn spun and fired. One of the two original torpedoes exploded as his beams slashed it. Torgai's beams passed close enough to the second to scorch paint but only that close. Delis and Kronn didn't even do that well. The torpedo homed in on its new target, one that drifted along in an easily intercepted ballistic trajectory. It detonated, blowing Roso in half.
For a brief instant Parn 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, didn't balance the cost. "Makers damn you all to eternal darkness!" he screamed as he side-stepped away. A moment later he broke down sobbing.
Captain Sarah Vasher 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 did significant damage. "Where are the enemy now?" she demanded. Nothing showed on the tactical display other than a spreading debris cloud from the ship they'd destroyed an a cluster of containers apparently jettisoned by one of the others.
"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 had a device like that she would use it to strike suddenly from unexpected angles, 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 transponder signals from three lifeboats."
Vasher blinked. "Three? How many does a station like that carry?"
"One hundred and 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.
"Shield power is restored," Chief Engineer Howard Bell reported. "Main power down fifteen percent until repairs to the main energizer and completed, fifteen minutes from now."
"Acknowledged," Vasher replied. 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 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, which she sent under maximum encryption 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 only half listened as he sipped. The muck dweller food was smooth, easy to digest, rich in minerals and nutrients, and tasted like- like nothing he had ever had. 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."
"Definitely we need to want to keep track of where this comes from," Parn declared. He set his current empty next to the two previous ones, in a neat 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 conforming 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, allowing them to be easily stacked. Pipes and fittings presumably allowed them to be filled and drained; they mattered little to people who could extract the contents with feeding transporters. In the back of his mind, though. Parn realized 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?" he asked, turn his thoughts away from that line of reasoning.
"I'm... better, my lord," Gava replied in little more than a whisper. She couldn't eat on her own so Azaria and Khalia fed her. They'd fed her all during the journey to the new camp site, the icy surface of a rocky planetoid at the very fringes of a nearby star system. She'd improved considerably but even under the planetoid's modest gravity she'd opened several wounds on landing. She'd been seriously cut not less than five times and no one understood how she'd managed to say alive even this long. But she was still lived, 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 stay here until either she died or recovered- and they would. Parn was not going to allow the group to be split again.
"She'll 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 no 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, technically an older cousin, 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," the Tribe responded.
Garan was crying. After a moment Parn realized that he was, too. Krita edged closer and stroked him tenderly.
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