Yeah, I think it's time to put this story to bed, this will be the last part. Thank you to my ever suffering boyfriend for inspiration for the Taniwha :-) Hopefully nobody knowledgable reading this will be offended by my crass misuse and abuse of various physics concepts and the travesty that is my use of the English language. Feel free to let me know if you liked it, hated it, or if it gave you a case of the screaming brain-worms. Remember kids, it is all fun and games until someone unleashes a gamma-ray laser in your eye. Or something.
On both of the moons, multiple generators spun up to provide power to the massive machines lying across the pitted and airless surface. Travels-By-Night checked the settings for the last time before turning to another engineer standing by the controls and nodding. Dune-Runner activated the firing controls and stared at a large viewscreen as a high-pitched electronic whining noise filled the room. Propelled by massively strong magnetic fields a small metallic mass of slag raced along a five-kilometre track before flying off the end at a velocity approaching 50% light-speed. All across the surface of both moons this was repeated by the network of rail-guns, the small masses were all but invisible to most sensors as they streaked across space towards the attacking fleet.
Satisfied that they were working correctly, Travels-By-Night joined Dune-Runner at the controls and activated the rail-gun feeders. Soon waves of shrapnel were sailing through space towards the fleet at relativistic velocities.
"Deep-Cut, sensors are picking up some strange readings coming from the two moons."
"What kind of -" Deep-Cut was interrupted when the Captial ship lurched as something impacted the shields with a great deal of energy. Alarms sounded as the first impact was very quickly followed by several more, the superstructure shuddering violently under the onslaught. Outside the Captial ship the shields flared wildly, glowing an ugly yellow colour as the shield-emitters struggled to keep the quickly moving masses from smashing through. "Evasive manoeuvers, quickly!"
Ponderously the massive ship started to adjust its course out of the line of fire but not before several of the shield-emitters on the port side overloaded and failed completely before the auxillary units had time to cut in. In the brief period while the shields were offline, slag pellets slammed into the side of the ship, punching a line of deep craters across the side of the hull. Superheated plasma, internal atmosphere and clouds of debris billowed from the glowing wounds before containment hatches deep inside the Capital ship sealed the breaches. Anyone looking closely would have seen some of the debris wriggling around briefly before eventually growing still as it dispersed into the vacuum.
Smaller ships with their less powerful shields were not as lucky. More explosions appeared throughout the fleet as the smaller ships virtually evaporated when the railgun pellets converted most of their mass into energy on impact. A battle-ship was neatly cut in half by a couple of the slag pellets, the rear section pinwheeling out of control under full thrust for several seconds before disappearing in a massive explosion, the front half tumbling away spewing atmosphere and debris from the shattered remains.
"What in the name of the Ancestors is this?" Deep-Cut screamed at the cowering Loader as several more impacts hammered the shields.
"I do not know, they are moving too fast for the sensors to lock on properly!"
"Dispatch the asteroid squadrons to take out anything they can find on the moons! Order the rest of the fleet to disperse widely, squadrons four through 20 are to engage with the defenses in orbit around the planet." He grimly watched on the main viewscreen as the fleet slowly started spreading out, explosions still blossoming into existance as the flight-path of an unlucky ship crossed that of one of the fast moving projectiles.
Loader snapped his jaw shut as he frantically followed his orders. "Immediately, Deep-Cut!"
In the main control centre on one of the moons, the mood was considerably different. "Yesssssss!" Dune-Runner enthusiastically hugged the worried-looking Travels-By-Night. "Look at the damage we are doing to the Rank-shit bastards!"
Rail-gun technology had been been known about for many thousands of years by the Vanguard. They utilised it in their hand-held projectile rifles but had never experimented with it on a larger scale as with their gravitational manipulation technology they had never needed it in that capacity. When Tainui had first brought up the idea of massive rail-guns as weapons, the other engineers had laughed at him until he pointed out the amount of energy contained in even a small lump of matter travelling at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Moving too quickly for most sensors to pick up and packing no electronics to give them away, the pellets of slag were extremely easy to make and devastating in their effect even against powerful shields.
"What is wrong, you should be happy," Dune-Runner let the other engineer go and looked at him with concern.
"It is only a matter of time before they deal to us like they did to those on the asteroids."
As if on cue a proximity alarm sounded and both Dune-Runner and Travels-By-Night turned to look at the sensor console. "Enemy ships inbound, arming defensive missile banks one through seven."
Several of the fast-attack frigates in the attacking squadrons were taken out by the defenses when they over-flew the rail-gun installations but resistance was ultimately futile. Blinding flashes of light splashed across the stark airless surface as fusion bombs created new glowing craters in each of the two moons, the hail of slag projectiles coming to a halt as the rail-guns were flash-vaporised.
In the last few seconds the two engineers looked at each other. "It has been an honor," Travels-By-Night smiled at the other young engineer, clasping Dune-Runner's arms in his own. With a blinding flash another glowing crater was blasted deep into the surface of one of the moons...
"We have lost approximately one third of the fleet to the attacks so far. However the fleet in orbit should pose no problem. Hammer-Of-The-Ancestors has sustained moderate damage to the port side, with high casualties. However the anti-matter weapons are still stable."
"Obviously they are for you are still here telling me things I already know are you not? I want that defense fleet wiped out to a ship, just make sure those space-docks are captured intact. We can use them for repairs. When the troops land we are to be the only ships in the sky." Deep-Cut looked through eyes dark with menace at the planet slowly growing larger in the viewscreen in front of him. "Scan the planet and get me a report on the state of their ground defenses."
"We are still too far away for a meaningful analysis," Loader glanced nervously at Deep-Cut before returning his gaze to the control console.
"Hrrr, I do not suppose that matters much. The EMP strike should neutralise any major goundside threats." He regarded the planet on the viewscreen thoughtfully. The rebels had put up a considerably effective defense using some highly unusual methods, however it looked like things were nearing a conclusion. The rebels didn't have enough of a fleet to stop his from landing and once on the ground the New Home defenses would be quickly overwhelmed. He looked with grim satisfaction at the console displaying the status of the anti-matter weapons. Anti-matter was a difficult material to handle and so far no effective way had been found to use it for propulsion or energy as it was far too unstable. Weapons of devastating effect however, were easily created. Although he would use them if he had to, he preferred to get his talons bloody in proper combat.
"Deep-Cut, attack squadrons four through 20 are engaging the defense fleet now," Loader braved a quick glance in the direction of the fleet leader. The large warrior turned and joined him at the sensor console, watching in satisfaction as the defense force fleet numbers slowly dwindled under the relentless attack. Less than an hour later the last New Home defense force ship was no more than a spreading cloud of debris high above the surface of the planet.
"Launch the EMP weapons, full spread. Once they have detonated give the signal for the ground forces to launch."
"By your command, Deep-Cut."
In the New Home defense force base, Shining-Scale turned to Dark-Mist with a stony expression on his face. "Railgun stations on the two moons have fallen. Our fleet is defeated. There is nothing stopping the invaders from landing ground-troops."
Dozens of small electronic packages were ejected out of specialised launching tubes on the front of the Capital ship as it orbited high above New Home, falling in graceful arcs towards the surface far below. Once they reached their preset altitude they detonated with a bright flash, an almost visible wave-front of heavily ionised radiation spreading out from each explosion towards the ground. All over the surface of New Home the lights flickered briefly before going dark, other electrical circuits in other devices expired in showers of sparks or quietly overloaded as the electromagnetic pulses overwhelmed them.
Dark-Mist looked at Shining-Scale in the dim light filtering through a sky-light with a slight smile on her craggy features. "As you predicted, so it happened. Go, be with your troops. I shall join you shortly." Shining-Scale gave her a long look before turning to leave. Dark-Mist watched him go with a wistful expression on her face before turning to Hunts-In-Grass who was standing beside a bank of dead control consoles. "There is little more you can do here. I am tasking you with assisting the medics - make sure they are protected as well as you are able."
Lying in the sleep-webbing, Attacks-First watched as Tainui finished stuffing various items into his back-pack. "There are other engineers or warriors who could do it," the reptile said quietly.
"They are needed urgently elsewhere."
"The computers -"
"Are not able to handle stuff outside their programming parameters. The shuttle needs a pilot and I am the one needed the least around here. Don't worry your pretty little head about me, there are escape pods - I'll be back," Tainui joked, smiling at the Vanguard.
"Hrrr, very well. Just make sure you do come back. New Home needs you..." This one needs you, Attacks-First added silently, unspoken.
Tainui knelt on the sleep-webbing, embracing the young Vanguard for long moments before standing and grabbing his backpack. Attacks-First reached out an arm and grasped him by the shoulder. Turning around, Tainui gave him a questioning look. The reptile didn't say anything but instead stood up and gently nuzzled Tainui's face with his snout, the tip of his forked tongue tracing across the human's lips. Before Tainui could react, Attacks-First pushed past him and left the room without looking back, hiding the bloody trails the tears made as they streamed from his eyes before the human could see them.
Tainui stood staring sadly at the empty doorway for a couple of minutes before completing his packing. Just before he left the room he pulled a datapad out of a pocket and laid it on the sleep-webbing. Attacks-First would find it and the message it contained when he returned to the room unless Tainui got back before he did. Making his way over to the command-centre to find Hunts-In-Grass, the warrior emerged from the structure just as he arrived and blinked at him in surprise.
"Tainui, it is good to see you."
"Yeah hey, was just lookin' for you. Is there somewhere we can go talk?"
"Indeed, this one was going to meet Two-Talon and other medics. Accompany this one?"
"Uh not this time - need to talk to you alone."
"Very well, follow this one to quarters, we will not be interrupted." Once they reached his quarters Hunts-In-Grass closed the door and sat on the sleep-webbing, looking at Tainui expectantly.
Tainui fumbled nervously with his backpack and drew out another datapad and looked at it for a few moments before handing it to the warrior. "This is kinda hard for me. There is something I've gotta do shortly and there is a chance... Well, if I don't come back I want you to give that to Two-Talon."
"Not come back?" Hunts-In-Grass looked at him alarmed. "What you planning to do?"
After explaining a bit about the project he had been working on with the other engineers, Tainui beseeched the warrior, "Please, just promise me that you'll give it to him if anything happens to me, alright?"
"Why you not just tell him face to face?"
Tainui avoided meeting his friend's eyes and fumbled with the zip on his backpack, irritated with himself for showing weakness in front of the warrior. "I dunno if I can, bro - not sure that I'm brave enough to do that with what I'm about to do. He might try to talk me out of it and I'm scared he would succeed."
Hunts-In-Grass looked at the datapad as if it might explode in his hands and sighed, understanding why the human had to do what he was doing at some deep level and also realizing he was right about Two-Talon's likely reaction. While he didn't like it, as a warrior he respected the human's decision. "Hrrr... Very well, if this one survives battle then will give to him. Be sure you come back so this one does not have to do this! You know this one does not want to lose you also."
"I'd miss you too. You guys are my family now - a scary alien-lizard family, but still family." He laughed, trying to dispel the serious mood that had overtaken them both. "Don't worry though, I plan on coming back."
Pocketing the datapad, Hunts-In-Grass got up and pulled Tainui into a tight four-armed embrace, crushing the human against his chest. "You had better! Stay safe, strange, silly little human."
After leaving the warrior's quarters, Tainui made his way over to a non-descript but heavily reinforced bunker on the far side of the base away from the rest of the buildings. Straining at a Vanguard-sized manual override, the armoured door slid open with a rumble. A large blocky shape filled most of the interior space, illuminated by weak emergency lighting. Originally just a regular surface-to-orbit passenger shuttle, it had been extensively modified over the past couple of years for its new mission.
While it had been designed to be mostly automated, the Taniwha still required a pilot to set up its final course corrections before it was activated. Named after the mythical but often revered monsters of his people, the Taniwha was an experimental weapon that had been built almost as an afterthought by a small team of engineers including Attacks-First and Tainui. None of those who had worked on the project knew whether or not it would be useful come the final battle as it was a weapon that would only be effective against a single large ship or weapons platform. Thankfully the enemy had helpfully obliged in the form of the Capital ship that was probably sitting in orbit, at least according to the last reliable sensor reports gathered before the EMPs had knocked out all the sensors.
Some of the more experienced warriors had guessed - correctly - that the attackers would likely detonate EMP weapons high in the atmosphere to disable much of the military and civilian infrastructure before landing troops on the surface. Given this information, the engineers had built shielded bunkers all over the planet to protect vital equipment. Not only this, but with input from Tainui they had designed troop and ground/air-defense weapons that relied on chemical rather than electronic power to function. Those, coupled with guerilla tactics from a species that most if not all of the attackers had no idea existed, would provide the attackers with a rather nasty surprise once they landed.
Closing the bunker door, Tainui entered the shuttle airlock and made his way to the cockpit where he checked the flight status of the ship. Satisfied he started prepping for the flight ahead.
Two-Talon and several other medics from the nearby city were still in the process of outfitting battle medkits when the whole med-centre structure reverberated with several loud bangs. They looked up with alarm as Hunts-In-Grass burst into the room, carrying an armful of heavy assault rifles. "Here, take these with you. I will be fighting by your sides but you may need to protect yourselves if I fall. Come, we must hurry!"
"That noise -" One of the medics was interrupted by Hunts-In-Grass.
"Was the enemy arriving. They are heading for the edge of the city, this base is probably too small for them to worry about - thankfully."
"Alright, we are about ready." Two-Talon motioned for the other medics to go on ahead and waited for them to leave before turning to his bond-mate, a worried look in his eyes. "Be careful out there, I do not want to lose -"
Hunts-In-Grass silenced him by wrapping his tongue around that of the medic's for several long moments. Stepping back slightly he held Two-Talon with all four of his arms and looked deep into his eyes. "I understand. I love you too." Smiling, he released Two-Talon and grabbed three of the assault rifles, handing one to the medic. "Have I told you just how sexy you look holding a weapon? You should be a warrior, not a medic." Two-Talon smiled grimly at him and grabbed his bulging medkit before exiting the room.
Outside the med-centre the other medics and another couple of warriors were waiting for them.
"You two will have plenty of time for post-battle sex when all this is over," Thunder rasped in her gravelly voice, smiling lecherously at them both.
"Not sure if I am more nervous about the coming fight, or her," Two-Talon whispered to Hunts-In-Grass as they set off.
Lightning and Thunder led their small group at a run to join up with a mixed squad of warriors and engineers heading for the city, occasionally looking up as the enemy ships moved overhead, shaking the ground with their sonic-booms.
"Have you seen Tainui at all? I am a worried about him," Two-Talon asked his bond-mate as they loped along the road.
"No," Hunts-In-Grass lied, "But I believe he was working on some sort of project with some of the other engineers back at the base."
"Hrrr, he is probably safest there. With the Ancestor's blessings we will prevail and be back with tales of bravery and violence. And how his toys helped save the day."
Hunts-In-Grass grunted and snapped his jaw in agreement, he wasted no further breath in conversation as the sound of battle was growing louder ahead of them.
On the outskirts of the city, several squadrons of troop-transports had landed or were in the process of landing, disgorging thousands of Original Home warriors. Crash, Bitter-Harvest and Crystal were the three commanders in charge of subduing this particular city and securing the small military base on the outskirts. They had seen the defense troops spreading out from the base towards the city as they came into land and started organising their troops into classic offensive formations once they were on the ground.
"Where are the mobile weapon platforms? They should have been here by now," Crystal grumbled under her breath, scowling as she scanned the city and surrounding areas with suspicious eyes.
"They will be here shortly. Not that it matters, we are more than a match for the primitive filth here."
Crystal huffed with annoyance at Bitter-Harvest, a newly promoted commander who was eager to get stuck into his first battle. Having survived several large battles Crystal was never one to underestimate her adversaries, especially when they were cornered or had their backs to the wall as the New Home forces did. She strongly suspected that this battle was going to shape up to be more of a challenge than her fellow commanders believed. Scans done of the military base as they over-flew it had shown no active power-sources, the other commanders were fairly certain that most if not all of the weapons had been neutralised by the EMPs, adding to their bravado.
Crash turned to her and laid a scarred rear arm around her shoulders and sniffed at the air. "Can you smell that?"
"I smell nothing but dust," She hissed, shrugging off his arm.
"Victory! I smell quick and glorious victory here." He growled, baring his teeth at her. "The warriors are ready, let us finish this." Crash hit a control on his commandpad and the assembled warriors drew their weapons and started running towards the town, many screaming out war-cries as they ran.
Her ears pricking up, Crystal stopped running and lowered her projectile rifles as a faint noise reached her ears, barely heard over the noise of the advancing warriors.
«Whump!» «Whump-whump!» «Whump!»
"What is that?" She pulled a pair of quadnoculars from her utility belt and scanned the city ahead of them, finding no obvious source for the noise. Still wary she secured the quadnoculars and was about to start running again when she heard a peculiar whistling noise growing louder. A noise which nagged at her from her memory. "INCOMING!" Crystal roared as she threw herself to the ground.
Suddenly there were explosions all around her, clumps of mud and grass flying, smoke and flames, the whine of high-speed shrapnel flying through the air. One of the explosions in front of her hit the middle of a closely bunched group of warriors, knocking them to the ground, screaming as red-hot shrapnel tore through their battle-suited bodies.
"Get the warriors to spread out and make for the shelter of the city, quickly!" she screamed into her communicator to the other commanders as she crawled towards a wounded warrior writhing on the ground nearby as another explosion went off behind her. All around her warriors were running everywhere in disarray, some screaming, others lying on the ground ominously still. "We need air support now! And where are those weapon platforms!"
"Mobile weapons platforms inbound, should be with you in 30 minutes, Commander Crystal," a crackly voice from the Capital ship informed her over the communications link.
"Can you locate where we are being fired on from?" Crystal ducked her head down as another explosion went off not far from her, blowing another unlucky warrior into unrecognisable chunks of seared meat.
"No, the firing positions are changing all the time. Most of the other landing parties are also facing unexpectedly heavy resistance. We are sending down the fast-attack frigates to assist. Central command out."
"Ancestors damn you, we need those weapons platforms now!" She reached the injured warrior and saw he was bleeding heavily from several holes in his body-armor and the end of one of his arms was nothing more than a ragged stump. "We need a medic over here!"
Bitter-Harvest reached the shelter of a building on the edge of the small city and watched as thousands of warriors streamed towards the outskirts and relative safety. They were losing warriors by the hundred as explosions went off all over the open plain between the troop-transports and the city. It had been his decision to land the ships a few hundred metres from the nearest buildings, a decision which was coming back to haunt him now. He reflexively ducked as a piece of shrapnel buzzed by his head, embedding itself into the wall behind him.
"Commander Bitter-Harvest, take a detachment of warriors and locate the source of this attack. Lock onto anything with an energy signature, it should give them away." Crystal glared at him as she stood by the wall, panting and covered with blood - some but not all belonging to the injured and dying warriors she had assisted.
"Stupid old bitch," He muttered under his breath. Rounding up a group of warriors nearby, he pulled a datapad from his utility belt and set off in search of the enemy.
A couple of minutes later the ground shook as a single fast-attack frigate thundered past not far above them, heading deeper into the city to the cheer of the warriors around him. Seconds later the sound of several explosions shook the buildings around them and the roar of the frigate could be heard as it powered up into the sky, preparing for another dive-attack. He watched was the frigate turned at the top of its arc and fell back towards the city, particle-beam weapons firing at unseen targets on the ground accompanied by the sounds of muted explosions as the targets were converted into vapour. Suddenly there were several loud bangs from different parts of the city and the frigate visibly shook as it continued on its downwards trajectory.
Levelling off, the frigate clipped the top of a large building sending chunks of concrete and metal flying towards the ground. Whatever had fired at the frigate had obviously rattled the vehicle's crew. Gaining altitude it was turning to make another sweep of the city when a few more loud bangs came from scattered locations across the city. The frigate lurched and started spewing a trail of smoke and flame from the rear section as it was hit by something . Seconds later there was a small explosion from the damaged tail section and the frigate quickly lost height, disappearing from view but leaving no uncertainty as to its fate as the sound of a distant explosion reached them.
Almost squealing from the rage he felt, Bitter-Harvest fired a high-explosive round from his projectile-rifle into what looked like a shop not far from their position sending chunks of shattered plexiglass, dust and concrete into the air. Firing a few more rounds he shortly reduced the building to a flaming pile of rubble. He wasn't sure how those filthy primitive bastards had managed to shoot down a ship when they weren't supposed to have any working weapons but he suspected they must have found a way to hide some weapons from the EMPs.
Not far ahead of their position he saw movement - a couple of strangely uniformed Vanguard had seen them coming and ducked down a side-road. "You five," he pointed to several warriors, "Get after them and take no prisoners!" he hissed venomously.
The selected warriors took off after the New Home Vanguard and quickly disappeared from view. There were sounds of a short burst of rapid-fire weapons discharge followed by a strange staccato sounding response and then everything went silent. After waiting for a couple of minutes, Bitter-Harvest studied his datapad screen and seeing no energy signatures sent the rest of the detachment to check on the missing warriors. A few metres down the narrow road lay the five unmoving bodies of the warriors he had sent minutes earlier, surrounded by a rapidly diffusing cloud of acrid, white smoke. A couple of warriors went to go check on the bodies.
"They are all dead, shot by some sort of projectile weapon," One of the warriors responded when he got back, handing a couple of strange looking small cylindrical metal containers to Bitter-Harvest, who looked at them blankly, not recognising what they were.
Vanguard weapon technology had leapfrogged straight from bladed to energy weapons back in their early technological development. Chemical explosives were known but quickly disregarded for weapons of larger destructive capability. Hand-held chemically activated firearms were a strange new concept for the New Home engineers and warriors to wrap their heads around when Tainui first introduced the idea to them. Needing no electronics the weapons were immune from any potential EMP strike that could be launched by the attacking Original Home forces.
Tainui also introduced them to the concept of mortars, bazookas and anti-aircraft artillery. After getting over their initial incredulity at the thought of using chemically powered weapons, the warriors had quickly embraced the novel 'new' technology. The engineers were also happy as the weapons were considerably easier to produce in mass quantities unlike more conventional weapons full of complex electronics. Being able to play around with explosive chemicals also made some of the younger engineers quite happy, much to the displeasure of their more mature clan-mates.
All over New Home a similar pattern was repeating, the attacking forces were advancing much more slowly than had been expected. Hampered by the hit and run tactics being used by the defense forces in conjunction with the unconventional use of a weapons technology that had not even guessed at by the Original Home tacticians. In one or two cities, carefully shielded EMP weapons were brought into play by the defense forces, reducing the attackers in those areas to the monofilament bladed weapons that every warrior carried for emergency use.
Tainui finally finished his flight preperation and with a loud rumble, the heavily modified Taniwha staggered into the air from its shielded bunker, ungainly and difficult to control due to the extensive modifications made to it. Attacks-First saw it taking off and waved all four of his arms at it, despite knowing that the sole pilot wouldn't be able to see him. Feeling like a large part of his soul had gone with the shuttle, he made his way over to the armoury to see if there was anything he could do to assist the other engineers and warriors and take his mind off the one thing he loved that was disappearing off into the sky.
On the bridge of the Hammer-Of-The-Ancestors, Deep-Cut studied the readouts on his command console, furious at the steep losses his forces had suffered on the surface.
"Hrrr, Deep-Cut, sensors have detected a surface launch and it is not one of ours." Loader avoided looking at the fleet-leader hoping that the large warrior's displeasure wouldn't spill over into violence. He was nervous about becoming yet another stain on the decking like his unfortunate predecessor.
"What kind of vessel?"
"It appears to be a small shuttle of some type, minimal threat by the looks of it."
"Is that so? Suddenly you are an expert as to what constitutes a threat are you?"
A rising sense of panic was overtaking Loader as he stared wide-eyed at the fleet-leader who slowly lumbered towards him, looking at him through narrowed eyes. "N-No Deep-Cut, I - I, hrrr, scans indicate no presence of any kind of high-energy w-weapon. I just thought -"
Deep-Cut snarled and back-handed the frightened reptile across the snout, knocking the engineer to the decking. "You are not here to think. You are here to relay information to me and to do what I tell you. Now get off the deck and back to your post. Send a frigate after it." He returned to his command-console and studied the readouts for a few more minutes before tapping a talon on a particular location and rumbling thoughtfully to himself. Turning to the dazed looking engineer, he gave Loader a predatory grin, light glinting off the rows of sharp teeth. "Ready my personal transport. I am going hunting."
"Alright, spread out," Crystal whispered into her comms link to the other warriors in her vicinity. She winced as somewhere off in the distance there was another muffled «Whump!» as some unlucky warrior set off another of the New Home improvised explosive devices. She reached a small park at the same time as a dozen or so other warriors emerged from side streets and saw some sort of large metallic weapon with a long barrel on the other side, with stacks of metal cylinders beside it. The mossy surface of the park grounds looked like it had been torn up recently by the movement of heavy machinery. She realised this must be one of the weapons they used to bring down the frigate earlier. "We need an engineer at my co-ordinates, we have found one of their weapon emplacments and need it disabled," she spoke quietly into her comms unit.
Catching movement out of the corner of her eye, she saw several New Home Vanguard sprinting for the open doorway of a large multi-story building away from the direction of the weapon. Spinning around she instinctively fired her assault rifles and was rewarded with a cry as one of them fell to the ground, two of the others hesitating and turning to help their comrade. The other warriors near her started firing and the two stragglers both left the injured Vanguard and fled into the building. With several warriors covering her, she made her way along a side-path to the fallen enemy and kicked his strange-looking assault rifle out of his reach before hunkering down beside him.
The New Home Vanguard was bleeding quite severely from several chest wounds punched through his strange looking body-armour and didn't look like he would last much longer as he looked up at her through eyes fogged with pain. "You are going to die here. Far from home and those you love," he hissed softly at her before succumbing to a coughing fit, blood pooling on the ground underneath him.
"That may be possible," She looked away briefly around the park as the other warriors started spreading out, several heading across the park towards the large weapon. Crystal didn't hate New Home or the warriors they were fighting. They were defending their homes and families, she would have done exactly the same in their place. "What is your name, warrior?" Closing his eyes, the warrior appeared to be fading fast so Crystal gently shook him again. "Your name?"
"Rolls-Like-Thunder," the warrior whispered, barely audible.
"Would that we meet as friends one day, young warrior," Crystal said softly. The warrior didn't respond, he was dead. Sighing, she stood and walked over to retrieve the warrior's assault rifle. Unlike the much-lighter rifles that she carried, this one was much heavier and bulkier and had no controls other than a safety and trigger. Aiming at the sky she pulled the trigger and shot off a few rounds, the weapon bucked in her hand and made the now-familiar staccato rapid-fire noise she and her troops had come to know and fear, along with a small amount of the acrid white smoke from the projectile propellant.
Crystal smiled sadly, laying the rifle down beside the warrior's body and looked warily at the dark entrance to the nearby building that the other New Home Vanguard had disappeared into. She fired off a couple of high-explosive rounds into the entrance as a precaution then made her way forward, followed by several other warriors who had been standing nearby.
Seconds later there were several large explosions from inside the building which started collapsing, slowly at first then faster as the foundations crumbled from the blast. Panicked warriors sprinted for their lives as the multi-story building fell to the ground burying Crystal and the other unfortunate warriors under many thousands of tons of concrete and metal as well as catching a few others who were too slow to escape. Hidden eyes looked with grim satisfaction at the carnage their demolition job had caused before slinking into the shadows.
Over the next few hours the defenders were slowly but surely forced to retreat back to the military base by the sheer numbers of attackers, but not before inflicting heavy casualties. The Original Home warriors were being cut down almost as fast as they arrived by booby-trapped buildings, mines and intense localised gun battles.
When Deep-Cut arrived it proved to be the turning point of the battle as he set about showing the warriors around him how he become the fleet leader. Eventually he and a large contingent of warriors made their way out to the now heavily fortified base where both Bitter-Harvest and Crash were skulking about. "Who are the commanders here?" Deep-Cut demanded as he stepped towards a disabled mobile weapons platform.
One of the warriors taking cover behind the damaged platform turned to address the newcomer and when he saw who it was he quickly lowered his weapon and tipped his head back, showing his throat in a sign of submission and respect. "Fleet-Leader Deep-Cut, this is an honor! The two remaining commanders are over by the other platform."
The other warriors all stood at attention, necks exposed as soon as they realized who it was talking to their squad-mate. Deep-Cut grunted and made his way over to the other weapons platform where the Crash and Bitter-Harvest were cowering from the occasional shot being fired by the defenders. "Why have you not taken this base already? You outnumber them at least by 20 to 1."
"Fleet-Leader Deep-Cut, this is an -"
Deep-Cut calmly detached a small side-arm from his utility belt and shot Crash in the face, the suddenly headless body of the commander staggered back and fell to the ground in an ungainly heap, blood pumping sluggishly out of the smoking neck-stump. The warriors behind the disabled weapons platform all looked at each other, smirking. Good commanders always lead by example and are respected by the warriors they were responsible for. Unlike Crystal, both Crash and Bitter-Harvest had failed to win the respect of the warriors under their command, something the highly experienced Deep-Cut had picked up on very quickly.
"I am not in the habit of repeating myself," he pointed the weapon at the wide-eyed remaining commander. "So I would appreciate an answer to my original question, if you would be so kind."
"T-They have barricaded themselves inside their base. We cannot breach the barrier with the weapons we have and are taking cover while waiting for an orbital strike."
"Very well. Loader, I want a strike on this position," and he proceeded to read out the co-ordinates of the barrier into his comms unit.
Several seconds later there was a loud hiss and an extremely bright beam of light speared down out of the clouds to strike at the fortifications. Making no distinction between concrete, metal or flesh the barriers were quickly destroyed. Deep-Cut took Bitter-Harvest aside before he started issuing further orders to the assembled warriors. "It is very important we catch the commander of this base alive. If I find they have been killed then you will wish for a death as quick as his," he snarled, kicking the headless corpse on the ground beside them.
Snapping his jaw shut in nervous affirmation, Bitter-Harvest issued orders to the few hundred warriors left and they started to advance. The fighting was fierce and drawn out as the outnumbered defenders fought with their backs to the wall, but they eventually succumbed a few hours later. Bitter-Harvest was about to order a group of weary warriors to storm the command centre to root out the base commander when Deep-Cut appeared, a satisfied grin on his face and body covered with sprays of dark Vanguard blood. He eyed the commander up through eyes slitted with suspicion.
"What do you think you are doing?"
"I understand the base commander is in there, was about to send in the troops to get them."
"Belay that, I want you to go in and get them."
"M-Me?" Bitter-Harvest stuttered, shocked.
"Yes, Y-You," Deep-Cut mocked him. "Come back with their commander, or do not bother coming back at all."
The assembled warriors looked at each other in surprise at this turn of events, sharing an unspoken look of satisfaction mixed with relief. Bitter-Harvest drew his side-arms and hesitantly made his way into the darkened building. A minute or so later there were shouts and the sounds of a short-lived gun-battle deep inside followed by several minutes of silence.
"Hrrr, if you want a job done properly," Deep-Cut sighed as he drew his weapons and entered the building, followed by several of the other warriors. His eyes adjusting to the darkened corridors he cautiously made his way inside to what appeared to be the main control room, stepping over several bodies of warriors from both sides on the way. A thin haze of scorched metal and burnt plastic floated in the air as he walked up to an impressive (to his eyes) female who was crouched on the floor cradling the head of a dead older warrior. He noticed with wry amusement the body of Bitter-Harvest slumped against a control console, blood still slowly dripping down the front of his body-armour from the deep talon gouges across his face and neck.
The female Vanguard tenderly laid the dead warrior on the floor and slowly stood to face Deep-Cut, taking his measure as she looked him up and down with disdain.
"I am Deep-Cut, Fleet-Leader of the recovery force sent to liberate this colony," he said, smirking at her. "Can I assume you are the commander of this fine establishment?"
"You can. I am Dark-Mist and I can confidently speak for everyone on New Home when I say that you can take you and your... recovery force... and get the fuck off our planet!"
Deep-Cut liked this Dark-Mist female, she was feisty. With regret he reigned in his libido and returned to the matter at hand. "Now there is no need to be rude, however I am here on business and not pleasure. Do you speak with authority for your people?"
"You have been a worthy adversary up till now, however your forces have now been neutralised. I am aware that there are still a large number of civilians in hiding across this planet and I wish them no harm -"
Dark-Mist snorted disbelievingly and glared at him, interrupting his practiced speech. "You attack our planet without warning, no quarter given. You damage or destroy our infrastructure and leave us defenseless. And you speak of wishing us no harm? Take what little honor you have left and leave this place! Tell your puppet-masters when you get back that New Home wants nothing more to do with them, only to be left in peace."
Opening his mouth to angrily respond, Deep-Cut was interrupted by a warrior entering the room and whispering something in his ear. Nodding slowly he turned back to her with a grim expression on his face. "Perhaps a demonstration of my intent is needed. Bring her," he ordered the warriors standing behind him. She pushed their hands away when they made to grab her shoulders and brushed past them, leading the way to the exit.
Deep-Cut gave a quiet order and a few seconds later there was a loud hiss and another spear of blinding light shot down out of the sky and hit a squat, heavily fortified structure on the edge of the base. Dark-Mist winced as the armoury shimmered briefly before exploding in a massive fireball, the shockwave racing across the ground cutting down several small figures sprinting desperately away from it. She spun around and made a lunge at Deep-Cut who had been expecting some sort of reaction. He sidestepped the attack then pounced on her as she struggled to regain her footing, knocking her to the ground.
Winded, she hissed at him furiously. "You fucking bastard! This changes nothing, do you hear me!"
"I was hoping you would see reason and I would not have to resort to blatant threats." Deep-Cut released her and got to his feet. "This is my final offer: Unconditionally surrender and the planet will become part of the Vanguard Protectorate under the control of the Original Home authorities. All the civilians will be safe from harm and can partake of the benefits of belonging to the greater Vanguard civilisation. That is not so bad is it?"
Dark-Mist gave him a withering look. "And the warriors? The clan elders?"
"Are not part of the agreement, there is no requirement for them in the future of this colony - you know that as well as I do," Deep-Cut chided her. "The alternative is that this planet and everything on it will be completely sterilized. What say you?"
"How about no. Does no work for you?" Dark-Mist spat at his feet. "And I know all about those anti-matter weapons you have aboard your ship. Better a quick death than going back to the old ways."
Deep-Cut sighed and looked at her sadly. "Hrrr, very well. As a warrior I am sorry to hear that. You and your people fought well but you have given me no choice but to finish this the least honorable way. You do not have long, I suggest you make your peace while you can." He turned and left, the warriors following keeping her covered with their weapons as they retreated.
All over the planet the Original Home warriors retreated back to their ships and left the planet. The weary defense forces celebrations were short-lived as they realized what this meant. Dark-Mist returned to the command centre and hunkered down beside the body of Shining-Scale, dark tears dripping down her craggy features as she mourned his loss. Mourned for the future that was soon to be cut short for her people. He had saved her from being shot in the back by Bitter-Harvest by leaping in front of him as he fired his weapons and had managed to take the enemy commander out before succumbing to his injuries.
As for their last-ditch attempt at stopping the coming armageddon, nothing had been heard from Tainui or the Taniwha since it had launched a few hours earlier. She was grateful to the small alien, he had given them enough of an edge to make the attack extremely expensive for the Original Home fleet. Unfortunately it seemed that the Taniwha project had failed, not that she had ever expected it to make much of a difference and the human had sacrificed himself in vain.
On the other side of the base, Two-Talon and one of the other surviving medics were busy tending to the wounded warriors and engineers beside the wrecked remains of the med centre building, smashed flat by the shockwave from the exploding armoury. One of the last out, Attacks-First had only made it halfway to the cover afforded by one of the other buildings when he was cut down by flying debris in the explosion. Hunts-In-Grass had dragged the engineer and another unconscious Vanguard to where the two medics were working on the wounded.
Several dozen warriors and a small handful of engineers had barricaded themselves inside what was the strongest building on the base when the main barricades fell a few hours earlier and had managed to force a stalemate with the attacking forces trying to root them out. When the attackers fell back prior to the strike it was Attacks-First who got suspicious and suggested they evacuate, saving many lives.
"These are the last two, the others did not make it." Hunts-In-Grass dropped to his knees, panting from exertion. "You realize this is futile?"
Two-Talon gave him a brief, sad smile and turned to look at the two new casualties, speaking quickly as he worked. "The anti-matter weapons? Yes, I know about them. I overheard some engineers talking about it before the battle."
"But here you are still, doing what you do best..."
"I would much prefer to be spending the last few hours with you, doing obscenely biological things to you that they have yet to invent names for, but..." he gestured helplessly at the injured Vanguard lying around him.
"It is alright, believe it or not I do understand - it is one of the reasons I asked you to be my bond-mate. Now, how can I assist you, lover?"
"Help me move this one onto his back, careful, he is seriously injured." They gently flipped the unconscious engineer over and laid him on a blanket. Two-Talon recognised Attacks-First and hissed in surprise. The engineer was covered in blood and barely recognisable. He was also dying, a large section of metal reinforcing from the explosion appeared to have punctured one of his hearts and severely damaged some of his other internal organs. He'd also suffered a glancing blow to his head from some flying debris resulting in severe head wounds.
Placing his hands on Attacks-First, Two-Talon closed his eyes and concentrated, sitting back a few moments later, defeated - the internal injuries were too severe for his ability to heal. He attempted to heal the head wounds and was partially successful, the engineer started to regain consciousness after a few seconds.
While the other medic assisted the other wounded, Two-Talon set about making Attacks-First as comfortable as he could in the time he had left. Opening his eyes, the young engineer looked around confused, unsure of where he was or what was going on. "W-What...?"
"You are safe. Thanks to you many Vanguard are still alive."
Attacks-First weakly shook his head but stopped when the darkness almost claimed him again. He tried to sit up but a stabbing pain in his chest made him lie back coughing and gasping for breath. He tasted blood and when saw the expression on Two-Talon's face he knew he was in serious trouble. "Hrrr... At least tell me that Tainui succeeded. Where is he?"
"Succeeded?" Two-Talon looked at Hunts-In-Grass but the warrior squirmed uncomfortablely and avoided his gaze. He narrowed his eyes and looked back at the young engineer. "Succeeded at what? I do not understand, what was he doing?"
Ignoring the medic's questions, Attacks-First reached up and grabbed onto the front of Two-Talon's skinsuit with surprising strength given his condition, eyes wide with fear. "Has he not returned?"
Two-Talon looked into the desperate engineers eyes, not sure what to say. Hunts-In-Grass had mentioned some project that the human had been involved with but had pushed any thoughts of it into the back of his mind as he dealt with the battle and the injured Vanguard resulting from it. Only now he realized he hadn't seen or heard anything from or about the human for some time. His bond-mate's reaction seemed to indicate he knew more about this than he had let on, but that could wait. "I am sure he is still hiding somewhere on the base and is quite safe. You need to rest, save your strength."
"No, that is not poss - possible! I saw him leave, there... has not been... time..." Coughing weakly, Attacks-First's eyes closed as unconsciousness claimed him.
Checking Attack-First's lifesigns, Two-Talon accepted with sadness that the young Vanguard was not likely to regain consciousness again but was no longer in any pain at least. As he turned around he saw that Hunts-In-Grass was still kneeling on the ground behind him, keeping himself busy by disassembling his assault rifle and cleaning it meticulously. In a carefully measured tone he questioned his silent bond-mate. "Alright, you need to tell me what you know. No lies, no evasion. Where is he?"
Putting down the partially disassembled weapon, Hunts-In-Grass sighed and looked at up him with a resigned expression on his face. "Hrrr... Tainui is attempting to prevent the loss of New Home by destroying the anti-matter weapons the attackers brought with them before they can be used. He is flying a modified shuttle that was turned into a weapon capable of destroying the -"
"He WHAT?" Two-Talon roared, leaping to his feet and pulling the warrior to his feet as if he weighed nothing at all, expressions of horror, shame and betrayal fighting for dominance on his face. "You did not stop him? You did not tell me this?"
"He said you would not understand! Tainui knows the consequences of this mission, he also knew the consequences of the mission failing," Hunts-In-Grass growled, roughly grabbing Two-Talon by the shoulders and shaking him to emphasise his words. "This is something he felt he had to do. Do you not think that I tried to talk him out of it?"
"It did not have to be him! They could have found someone else..."
Without replying, the warrior pulled a small and now somewhat battered datapad from his utility belt and reluctantly handed it Two-Talon, searching his bond-mates eyes for understanding. After watching the recording on it, Two-Talon let the datapad slip from his talons, clattering to the ground as the recording on it looped back to the beginning again.
"...that I could not say this to you in person. I know you'd want to stop me and would probably have talked me out of it. Couldn't let that happen, sorry bro. Hopefully you'll never see this and will be none-the-wiser about it all, but if things haven't gone right then I at least wanted the opportunity to say goodbye. You and Hunts-In-Grass have shown me things I'd never dreamed of seeing. I've travelled at the speed of light and been to other stars, other planets! I've seen real live space battles man!"
On the small screen Tainui's expression turned pensive and he smiled sadly. "Oh and hey, I know you still blame yourself for Andrej as well. Well don't! We both knew the risks when we came with you. I wont lie and say I don't still miss him, it kills me a little inside knowing every time I go to sleep that I will be waking up without him next to me. He's the first boy I ever loved. But hey, at least I had the opportunity to experience the real thing, right? Seeing the love you share with your warrior goes some way to making up for it though, you deserve someone like him in your life. If you do nothin' else, just promise me that you'll love each other to the end eh? Put myself out on a limb for you at the wedding, don't go making me look like a fool. Huh, now you've made me get all emotional and shit, ya big silly lizard!" Tainui laughed, wiping away some tears. "Thank you for allowing me to be part of your life. Kia kaha, Two-Talon. I love you, man."
He hated to say it, but Hunts-In-Grass had no choice. The truth could sometimes be more painful than any physical injury and with tears now flowing freely down his face, he pulled his quaking bond-mate into his arms and held him tight. Whispering into Two-Talon's ear the words Tainui had originally said to him, he also mourned the passing of the brave little alien. "It was precisely because he is expendable that made him the logical choice."
As they held each other, silently crying amidst their fallen comrades, far up in the sky a pinpoint of light blossomed into an incandescent white glare. The entire side of the planet facing the titanic explosion bathed in the actinic light for several long seconds, bright enough to completely blot out the sun and eliminating every shadow. There was a deep rumbling as the entire planet underneath them seemed to tremble.
Inside the command-bunker, Dark-Mist shielded her eyes from the glare flooding in through the skylight, numbly waiting for the end of the world. When it didn't come after a few seconds, she found herself laughing as the bright light slowly faded away. "Thank you," She whispered, closing her eyes in tired gratitude, not surprised when the ground vibrated underneath her as the planet rang like a bell.
Surprised to find themselves alive as the glow faded, Two-Talon and Hunts-In-Grass looked at each other briefly out of still-dazzled eyes before turning their heads to the sky, realizing that their friend must have been successful in his desperate mission after all. For all Tainui's talk of being able to make it back, they both realized he would not be returning to them. In the deathly silent aftermath their long, loud, mournful howl could be heard echoing across the base.
It wasn't until the Taniwha had reached high orbit before the trouble started. While ungainly in the atmosphere, Tainui was having a much easier time controlling the craft as the atmosphere thinned out, so much so that he was able to set it on auto-pilot and spend a few minutes to collect himself. The base engineers and warriors had concluded that if the anti-matter weapons were going to be used, the Captial ship would likely be moved away from the planet and once it had reached a minimum safe distance from New Home then it would be safe to take out. All Tainui had to do was take the shuttle and hide on or near the far moon and wait until the Capital ship got underway before he targeted it.
He'd thought he'd managed to slip cleanly through a slight gap in the attackers' sensor net via a polar escape route, but a few minutes later when the proximity alarm started chirping, he realized his over-confidence was misplaced. A single small ship was closing in on the shuttle, most likely a fast-attack frigate going by the sensor readings. "Shit," Tainui cursed and throwing caution to the wind pushed the engines to full-power, knowing that it wasn't going to be enough - the frigate was considerably faster than the modified shuttle at sub-light speeds.
Getting away from the planet was the hardest part in the entire mission, they had been hoping on over-confidence on the part of the attackers in thinking they had the planet's airspace and orbit to themselves and wouldn't bother chasing what they thought would probably be a sensor anomaly. "They were fucking wrong," he hissed to himself as he aimed the shuttle for the nearest moon in the vain hope that he could hide from their sensors on the rocky surface.
A weapons-lock notification alarm started blaring and Tainui blanched - he wasn't going to make it. The shuttle wasn't equipped with any ship-to-ship weapons and he was still too close to the planet's gravitational well to activate the near-FTL drive. Swearing loudly he threw the shuttle into a series of evasive manoeuvers in an attempt to shake off the weapons lock to no avail. Something struck the shuttle a glancing blow, temporarily overcoming the artificial gravity and knocking him to the floor. Grabbing for the control console again there was a large explosion and everything went dark.
Loader looked up as the fleet-leader lumbered onto the bridge and made a bee-line for him with an unpleasant grimace on his face. He had enjoyed the relative quiet while the cranky warrior had been away on the surface doing Ancestors only knows what and cringed inwardly at his return. It did not look as if things had gone well down there he guessed going by the expression on the warrior's face.
"Take us out past the orbit of the furtherest moon. Once there start the pre-launch proceedures for the anti-matter weapons. Ensure the entire fleet is at minimum safe distance."
"As you command, Deep-Cut!" Loader relaxed slightly as Deep-Cut turned and went to stand over by his own command console, a little surprized that the warrior hadn't yelled at him or made any snide comments about his skills.
The massive Capital ship powered up its sublight engines and started climbing out of the orbit of New Home, the rest of the somewhat diminished fleet swarming around the larger ship like a school of attendant fish around a larger predator. It only took a couple of hours for the fleet to manoeuver into a position far enough from the planet to satisfy Deep-Cut's requirements. "Fleet status?"
"Fleet reports they are all at minimum safe distance," Loader double-checked the readings before answering.
"Anti-Matter weapons status?"
"One minute till deployment readiness." On the outside of the Capital ship, large hatches were slowly drawing back exposing several deep ports leading deep inside the vessel. Gantries carrying the weapon guide-rails slid out of recesses inside each of the ports with a rumble that could be dimly felt on the bridge, locking into place as the hatches stopped. "20 seconds till deployment read - Hrrr! Deep-Cut, I am picking up an anomaly approaching the fleet on an intercept vector."
Deep-Cut narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he looked at the chief engineer. "What kind of anomaly?"
"I do not know but it is heading right for us at point seven-two light-speed!"
"Evasive manoeuvers, quickly! Order the fleet to intercept! Get something between us and whatever that thing is. All emergency power to the shields."
Ponderously the massive Capital ship started turning out of the path of the anomaly, colliding with several battleships and frigates that were not quick enough to get out of the way, their shields glowing ugly colours as they overloaded. There was a small flare of light as a fast-attack frigate was crushed between the Captial ship's shields and a slow-moving battleship, expanding clouds of gas and debris spiralling into space from the wrecked smaller ship as the two larger vessels seperated. Several other ships started shifting their orbits in an attempt to block whatever it was that was approaching the Capital ship so quickly but they were too slow.
On the bridge of the Capital ship, Loader stood back from his controls and started laughing, the other Vanguard on the bridge regarded him with wide eyed alarm, all except Deep-Cut who looked straight into the engineers eyes and recognised what he saw there. "Deep-Cut, go fuck yourself you arrogant piece of shit! Fuck you!" Loader could barely squeeze out the words he was laughing so hard. The last thing the fleet-leader saw was tears of hysterical laughter pouring down the sneering face of his chief engineer.
Disoriented, Tainui unsteadily reached out in the darkness to try and find the snooze button on the alarm clock going off beside his bed. Any moment he expected one of his young cousins to come running into the room and start jumping up and down on the bed yelling at him to get up. From the smell of things someone had burnt the toast as well, he'd just have to hit the bakery on the way into work and pick up a pie or something for breakfast instead. "Ugh, gotta lay off the booze," he muttered quietly as his head throbbed annoyingly, not helped by the jangling alarm.
Opening his eyes he found himself lying on a metal floor in an unfamiliar room, filled with smoke, occasional sprays of sparks and several loud alarms blaring from a console above him. "What the hell?" Oh, and it all came rushing back to him. Beds, alarm clocks, cousins and toast were many light years away and belonged to a part of his life that no longer existed. Cradling a hand to his still-thobbing head, it came away sticky with blood. Groggily he pulled himself up level with the console and stared at it until the display screens came back into focus. Vaguely recognising the signs of a concussion he wiped at the trail of blood dripping down his face before struggling to make sense of everything.
First things first, he thought to himself as he silenced the alarms one at a time. Coughing from the smoke he struggled to his feet and surveyed the damage but decided that it would probably be easier to catalogue the number of things that were working as it was a much shorter list than the things that weren't. Since he wasn't floating around the artificial gravity was still operating, which meant that at least one of the grav-generators was still working. This was good, chalk one up for good ol' Vanguard engineering, he smiled slightly. Emergency power was still operational, as was, surprisingly to him given the rest of the state of the ship, the near-FTL drive which was crucial to his mission.
The fact that he was still in one piece meant that the Original Home frigate had not finished the job it started, which was an worrying development. With rising panic he looked out the viewport expecting to see the still-molten remnants of New Home glaring balefully at him from the inky blackness. Instead all he saw was the surface of one of the two moons moving past the viewscreen as the battered shuttle slowly tumbled in space. Holding his breath for a few seconds, the moon rotated out of view replaced by the vast bulk of a pristine New Home floating serenely in space. Letting out his breath in a rush he grinned stupidly at the sight.
"Alright, bro, let's assess," he muttered to himself. Carefully firing some of the small manoeuvering thrusters, he stopped the gentle tumble of the shuttle and adjusted the orientation so it was facing towards New Home. The only sensors working were the long-range array - the short-range array was fried which meant he was effectively blind to anything in nearby space. Brushing aside some debris off the sensor display panel he saw that the attacking fleet was on the far side of the planet heading out of orbit in a hurry.
A baleful red alarm indicator blinked at him urgently from the console and to Tainui's dismay he saw it was the life-support system. It was offline and had been for some time. Looking around the cabin he realized that was probably why there was still smoke hanging around in the air.
Remembering back to the movie Apollo 13, he recalled the cabin probaby still held a few hours worth of breathable air until the Carbon Dioxide built up to toxic levels. Thankfully the hull had not been breached in the attack otherwise he would have been long dead. Tainui carefully made his way on unsteady feet over to a jury-rigged console over on the far-side of the cockpit where the controls for the weapon had been set up. Almost crying with relief he saw that the weapon was still functional although not operating at full capacity. One or more of the auxillary grav-generators the ship had been fitted with to power the weapon was offline.
"Alright ol' girl, we may be down but we ain't out." He patted the console affectionately and made his way back to the main controls. As he went over his checklist he realized he hadn't looked at the status of the escape-pod that had been constructed in what was normally the hibernation chamber of the shuttle. The console responsible for those systems was dark and unresponsive, obviously damaged in the attack, but this wasn't too big a problem as the pod had been rigged with manual controls as well. Carefully making his way to the ex-hibernation chamber using the walls for support, Tainui realized just how close he had come to death. Again. Must stop making a habit of that, he chuckled to himself.
His amusement was short lived as he entered the room and saw the still-smouldering pod, obviously the source of most of the smoke inside the shuttle. During the attack something must have shorted and caught fire in the oxygen-rich environment inside the pod as its hatch was half open, heat-warped and buckled. "Oh no no no, this ain't right! This isn't happening," disregarding his unsteadiness he rushed over to the pod and tried to close the small hatch, noticing the remains of the pod's internal controls were charred and reduced to useless, blackened wreckage. The hatch refused to budge, the bearings had been fused in the intense but short-lived blaze.
Tainui suddenly bent over and fell onto his knees, hands outstretched to support him as he vomited the remains of his last meal onto the decking. Grunting, he dry heaved a few more times before slowly sitting upright, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hands. Pale and shaking he got slowly to his feet and stumbled back to the cockpit area a couple of minutes later. After hunting around for several moments he found his backpack jammed underneath an exposed conduit and rifled through it pulling the contents out all over the decking, finally fishing out a water cannister. Rinsing out his mouth he spat onto the decking before taking a few deep swallows.
Common-sense told him he only had one option open to him now, but despite this he still clung to the faint hope that he had missed some avenue, some opportunity that would present itself to him. Without the escape-pod he couldn't abandon the shuttle once it was on its run. Without the sublight engines he couldn't land or fly the shuttle anywhere useful. If the mission failed there wouldn't be anywhere to land anyway. There were no rescue ships out there waiting to save him, life support was non-operational and he did not have the means to go about repairing it anyway. The shuttle had been completely stripped out for its mission and was incapable of providing any sort of long-term survival options. Communications were non-operational even if he wanted to call for help.
That just left completing the mission which meant he was going to die. Faced with this, the urge to curl up underneath the console and cry himself into a catatonic stupor was almost overwhelming. Slumping to the decking he held the water cannister in shaking hands and looked despondantly around him seeking inspiration. Inspiration which came in the form of a small number of pictures he'd got Attacks-First to print out for him off his digicam, lying together on the decking amongst a few other scattered items from his backpack. His breath caught in his throat as he thought about Attacks-First back on New Home. Tainui shook his head slightly, wondering if the young Vanguard was even still alive. Over the past couple of years their relationship had become something more than just friendship. There had been quite a few occasions of physical intimacy between the two of them but he sensed the Vanguard had been holding back a bit, waiting for some cue from him.
Reaching over Tainui picked the pictures up and looked at them closely. The first was of Attacks-First standing beside the first singularity-mine that had come off the production assembly line, mugging for the camera. The second was of Andrej, lying on his stomach asleep on one of the hibernation chamber couches after leaving earth space, one arm hanging down resting on the decking. He was naked in the picture but with the dim lighting all you could see were a few subtle curves lit by what little light had come in through the open hatch when the picture was taken. While he had huffed and puffed loudly when he found the image on the camera, Tainui knew that Andrej had secretly quite liked it as well. He brought the photo up to his lips and held it there for a few moments, a sad, strange little smile on his face.
It was the last picture however that made him stop and consider. A copy of the picture that he had placed on Andrej's cairn alongside the letter he wrote a few years back, probably long since shredded by snow and wind. Two-Talon and Hunts-In-Grass, cheek to cheek with their eyes closed, an expression of love and devotion evident despite their craggy reptilian features. His new family. But not for much longer unless he stopped being such a pussy and made the hard decision. Pulling himself to his feet he stood in front of the control console and arranged the three pictures in front of him leaning against the bottom of the viewport where he could easily see them as he worked.
"Let's - hoo boy - let's just do this quickly before we lose our nerve, eh?" Quietly talking aloud to himself seemed to help a little as he programmed in a short near-FTL hop to get them as far away from New Home's gravity well as he could. Under normal circumstances, operating the near-FTL drive so close to even a small planet was a recipe for disaster, however Tainui no longer had any other options open to him. Holding onto the console for support he activated the controls and was rewarded by a deep, almost subliminal rumbling as the near-FTL drive spun up.
Instead of the gentle but insistant acceleration that was normally produced, there was a savage lurch which made the already stressed hull of the shuttle groan alarmingly, accompanied by a noticeable shuddering as the shuttle picked up speed. Instead of gently surfing along the small distortion of space-time generated by the drive it seemed that the distortion was quite choppy and rough. As the shuddering increased to more of a serious rattle, Tainui realized why the Vanguard didn't use the drives close to a large planetary body.
Several bone-shaking minutes later the shuttle had risen up and away from New Home and its two moons, enough so that when Tainui cut the engine the planet was little more than a tiny dun-coloured ball with no visible features. Long range scans showed that the fleet had settled into an orbit around the third planet out from the New Home sun and were holding position. Time was running out. Using the small manoeuvering thrusters in conjunction with the long-range sensors, he lined the shuttle up roughly with where the Capital ship was.
Tapping out a few rough calculations, he figured intercept time was going to be no more than about three minutes once the shuttle reached its maximum velocity. He was going to have to be right on the money with activating the weapon. He powered on the near-FTL drive again, thankfully this far out the vibrations were hardly noticeable but that would soon change as they got closer to the planet the fleet was orbiting, making things interesting in the last minute or so.
Once satisfied that they were on course, Tainui quickly checked the weapon console and discovered to his surprise that one of the auxillary grav-generators was back online and functioning properly - the rough jarring ride must have knocked something back into alignment. Starting to feel somewhat light-headed, he wondered if it was the concussion or the Carbon Dioxide catching up with him. Staggering back to the control console as the vibrations from the near-FTL drive started getting worse, he clung to the cool metal and stared out as the somewhat distorted shape of New Home passed by and the point of light that was the third planet started getting larger in the viewport. Thinking quickly he routed the weapons control through to the main console so he wouldn't have to leave the main controls when the time came.
The long-range sensors were now struggling to lock on to the Capital ship as they got closer so Tainui shut them down and decided to bring them in by sight alone. He set the computer to notify him ten seconds before impact so he could activate the weapon for optimal detonation and hung on to the console as the shuttle started rattling around him, setting his teeth on edge. He made a minor course correction and watched as the stars blurred and streaked through the viewport - he was right on target.
As soon as the console started chiming, Tainui swallowed and activated the weapon, lowering his eyes from the viewport to the three pictures at the top of the console. "I love you," he whispered, unheard over the roar of the shuttle shaking apart and shrieking whine of the grav-generators overloading. He barely felt the crushing pull of the massive singularity being created in the specially modified chamber at the front of the shuttle and closed his eyes.
Milliseconds before impact the unstable singularity smaller than a Vanguard's closed fist, weighing more than a small planet and travelling at a relativistic velocity had already consumed the shuttle and was hungry for more. The Capital ship was more and it gorged itself to bursting, not even slowing as it passed through the vessel's powerful shields. Gravitational waves strong enough to bend spacetime itself vaporised the massive vessel and the smaller ships around it into super-heated plasma as it passed through. The additional energy released by the anti-matter destabilized the artificial black-hole enough to cause it to unravel, unleashing the energy of a small sun in a titanic explosion.
Invisible but intense gravitational waves spread out from the event, passing at the speed of light through the planets orbiting the reddish sun making them resonate to a tune as old as the universe itself, spreading out into space in an ever expanding sphere.
Occasional flakes of snow went sailing through the air as an icy wind blew over the two mounds of rocks on a small plateau overlooking an unremarkable large brown plain far below. Glacier-fed rivers winding like small blue ribbons across the expanse, disappearing into the haze. The shattered remains of a small shuttle were almost unrecognisable, slowly succumbing to the harsh elements beside the two cairns. Two elderly Vanguard stood close beside each other in front of the cairns, each lost in their own thoughts. The Irridium rings adorning a horn on each of their heads shimmered in the pale red light from the otherwise unremarkable sun. Turning, they looked at each other for a moment before joining hands and walking back to the small scout ship resting near the edge of the plateau. Shortly after it lifted off and was soon lost to sight.
The small plaque that lay in between the two mounds was mostly covered by snow, although the writing was exposed and visible, brushed aside by shaking talons; Three names scribed into the dull metal in human English, Tainui Rauwhero, Andrej Hannan and Attacks-First. Beneath the three names was an ancient Vanguard glyph with a simple meaning - Family.
The cold wind blew...