Authors notes: This story is set in the same universe as my earlier stories Cold Wind I & II (sci-fi section of the Nifty website) but will not be featuring any of the same characters. Therefore they are not required reading in order for you to be able to sink your teeth into this story. However if you would like a bit of an insight into things Vanguard then have a read of Cold Wind II before reading this one. Don't bother with CW 1, as it's badly written and frankly a bit of an embarrassment. As with many other stories in this section it's not a simple jerk-off read, it's a story with a (hopefully interesting) plot and characters - sorry :-( That being said, I like jerk-off stuff so there will be sex in it. And not just human sex either, there will be kinky alien space sex - wicked! ;-)

FYI, Taniwha (pronounced taan-ee-faa) is the New Zealand Maori name for the monsters responsible for a lot of myth and stories in their pre-European history. Given that aliens would probably look a bit like monsters in real life (and in this story) I thought the title would work quite well, also given that I am also a monster originally from NZ :-)

Lastly I am much obliged to those readers who took the time to drop me a note regarding my other stories too by the way, it means a lot to hear from appreciative readers so thank you very much to those of you who wrote to me regarding Cold Wind 1 & 2. Hopefully you wont be disappointed with this one. Many thanks go to my two editors, Richard and Gene - I am obliged to you both. Enough of this, the story awaits, as does tea, crumpets and cucumber sandwiches - HUZZAH!

Taniwha - Part 01

"Divert power from life-support if you have to, but get those shields back online!" Stride-To-Victory roared as the Vanguard fast-attack frigate bucked from the impact of another missile. He winced as another section of the ship was compromised and explosively decompressed into the hard vacuum of space.

   An engineer on the other side of the cabin cursed loudly as he was showered in sparks by the overloading power-conduit he'd only just finished repairing. The rest of the small crew also frantically worked to keep the ship in one piece. The commander stared desperately into the video pickup located near the back of the cockpit section. "If we do not make it out of this, know that we have been attacked by Arbiters! They struck with no warning in what we thought was the uninhabited system of VU19900 -"

   There was a particularly violent explosion that knocked the commander off his feet before he could finish his sentence, accompanied by the sounds of massive hull structure failure and the shriek of venting atmosphere. The screams of several terrified Vanguard were cut short as the screen went blank.

   Several long moments of silence hung in the room after the lights came back up as the small group of assembled Vanguard Elders looked at each other, expressions stony in the harsh artificial lighting. "Arbiters... Interesting that they choose now of all times to rear their ugly heads," Autumn-Storm said. He continued with a sigh. "Hrrr, are our current difficulties so obvious to outsiders?"

   "We should have wiped them out when we had the chance," the warrior-elder snarled, glaring at the blank screen.

   "It is easy to look at events in hindsight and say what should have been done," Autumn-Storm chided, regarding his colleague with his unblinking black eyes. Take-By-Force turned and looked at him, frustration evident in his voice as he responded.

   "There may be wisdom in your words but that does not help us now. This could not have come at a worse time - our forces are stretched as it is."

   The third Vanguard Elder started pacing around the room restlessly, pausing occasionally to look at the others. "Bluster and clichés aside, the choice as I see it is quite simple. We need to decide which of the two threats is the most urgent and devote our attentions to that: do we deal with the rebelling colonies and risk having our entire civilization eaten alive by the blasted Arbiters? Or do we fall back and build up our strength to deal with the invaders, worrying about the colonies later? Either way they are hard decisions."

   "Decisions that will come back to bite us," Take-By-Force snorted, interrupting Rocky-Hide's rambling diatribe.

   Rocky-Hide frowned at the warrior-elder with a mildly reproachful expression. "Is that not a foregone conclusion? The Vanguard Empire is crumbling into civil war and it seems that old enemies are taking advantage of our weakness. As you yourself said, our forces are stretched - we simply cannot afford to fight a battle on two fronts."

   "I am in agreement," Autumn-Storm snapped his jaw shut as he stared at Take-By-Force, as if daring the warrior-elder to disagree. "If we pull our forces back to the core-worlds and concentrate on their defense we will be in a much better position should the Arbiters become bolder in their attacks."

   "Hrrr, even I can see which way the Rank-beast is running," Take-By-Force said with a sigh. "It may come as a surprise to you both but I also agree. Does not mean to say I have to like it. As a warrior it feels very wrong to run from a fight."

   "We do not like it either, but it is the way with the greatest chance of long-term success," Rocky-Hide said, as he reached out with two of his arms and squeezed the warrior-elder's shoulder briefly before walking over to the doorway. Autumn-Storm joined him and the two elders left, leaving Take-By-Force alone in the room.

   Pressing a button on the small datapad he carried, Take-By-Force replayed the short transmission but muted the sound on it. He watched numbly as the panicked frigate commander yelled silently at him on the screen amidst the destruction of his vessel. He thought about the small number of outlying colonies that were still loyal to the Vanguard Empire. They were not going to be happy when they found out they were going to be left to fend for themselves over the next few years. The weakened fleet was only going to be able protect the dozen or so core-worlds including Original Home - the Vanguard homeworld - until they were able to rebuild sufficiently.

   By his reckoning it was ten years ago that Take-By-Force's predecessor had foolishly taken almost a third of the entire military fleet in order to conquer or destroy a rogue colony called New Home. Only a small handful of the thousands of vessels sent on that mission had made it back, bringing back news of a complete and utter rout. Against insurmountable odds, the rogue colony had defeated the attacking fleet using a mixture of cunning and unusual weaponry. There were also unsubstantiated rumours of an alien influence involved somehow.

   Take-By-Force was one of the small number of fleet-commanders at the time who had voiced his opposition to the idea of taking so many ships on, what was to his mind, a foolish venture. An isolated colony, of no strategic or otherwise importance so far from the empire didn't warrant such an overwhelming response. But he had been over-ruled and, with the eventual loss of so much of the fleet, it had left the military severely weakened.

   It wasn't long after news of the successful New Home rebellion that some of the other more remote colonies also developed an itch for independence. Ten years later, and fully half of the outlying colonies had seceded from the empire. The resulting conflicts generated had left the fleet spread dangerously thin - not to mention conflicts within the military itself, as many of the warriors came from these now-disputed worlds and refused to fight against their own clans.

   During the few thousand years that the Vanguard had been exploring space, they had only come across a very small number of other intelligent alien races in their sector of the galaxy. While most of them were technologically primitive, there were a couple that had proved to be at least equal to the Vanguard. One of these were the Arbiters. While the more primitive species were easily conquered or destroyed, the Arbiters had fought the Vanguard to a stalemate, and ever since there had been an unofficial - and uneasy - ceasefire between the two races.

   Very little was known about what the Arbiters were like, other than that they resembled large armoured insects with a thirst for domination. Arbiters didn't conquer worlds. They destroyed them - killing everything living and pillaging whatever resources they could before leaving the planets scarred and barren. The tentative peace between the Vanguard and Arbiters had lasted almost 2000 years. Only recently had hostilities flared up again. It seemed that they had seen the weakened state of the Vanguard Empire and decided to take a more active stance against their old enemies.

   The only other intelligent and space-faring race the Vanguard had found were considerably more advanced, but they were content to keep to themselves and the small handful of worlds they called home. Calling themselves Observers, they were a Silicon-based lifeform, more machine than organic. Although no Vanguard had ever actually seen one, what they looked like was unknown. Repeated attempts at initiating some sort of contact or trade had been politely, but completely, rebuffed and their technology was advanced enough that any thought of conquest was out of the question.

   "Welcome aboard, comrade!" Corporal Antonio Franco felt a warm hand grasp his forearm and pull him gently, as he struggled through the narrow hatch into the main docking module of the Russian Federation vessel Valentina Tereshkova. Legs braced against a structural girder, a stocky, dark-haired young cosmonaut smiled warmly at him as he guided the marine's left hand to a guide-rail before releasing him. "The others are waiting in the command module. When you are ready we should join them," the cosmonaut said in his thickly accented English, indicating another narrow hatch at the far end of the module.

   "Thanks, Mr... uh?"

   "Huh, where are my manners! I am Vasya Kolzak. You are Captain Antonio Franco, da?" Extending his hand, Vasya looked Antonio up and down and nodded thoughtfully. "You are big, big man. Maybe too big for our small, small ship? Still we will try and make you comfortable as we can."

   Taking the offered hand, Antonio nearly lost his handhold as the cosmonaut gave him a rather enthusiastic handshake. Smiling apologetically, Antonio managed to get his hand back and immediately grabbed onto the guide-rail with it. "That's Corporal, not Captain. Sorry, I didn't quite catch your first name? Vush..?"



   "Close enough. Come, we should join the others - your Captain Hardy is impatient man. After you." Vasya signaled for Antonio to go ahead of him. Bending down he secured the docking hatch and then turned to watch the American marine make his way towards the command module.

   It had only taken a couple of bottles of Russky Standart for him to persuade the Lieutenant to rearrange things so that his schedule coincided with that of Corporal Franco. Vasya had gone through the dossiers of the three Americans that were joining them, and was happily surprised to see that one of them was quite attractive.

   Lieutenant Irinei Putin had shrugged it off. He knew about his junior officer's interests but it didn't concern him, as he knew that Vasya was a good soldier who would never let personal matters interfere with duty.

   Given what he knew of the American military, Irenei thought Vasya was being more than a little naïve in thinking he would be able to bed one of their marines, but still thought it would be vaguely amusing to watch him try.

   The flight-suits given to the marines were somewhat more form fitting than the baggy Russian versions, and they hugged Antonio's body in some interesting ways as he struggled through the small hatch, much to Vasya's delight. The picture hasn't done the buff young Latino soldier justice at all, he thought to himself.

   Following Antonio through the hatchway before closing it, Vasya pushed off and caught Irinei's outstretched arm, swiveling gracefully around and securing himself against a convenient guide-rail. Antonio awkwardly joined the two other soldiers who were watching them warily, floating weightless beside the opposite bulkhead.

   Captain George Hardy was the first to break the silence. "Right. Now that we're all here, we should go over the mission-plan again and make sure everyone knows what's expected of him. I'm Captain Hardy, and these two are Corporals Antonio 'Oh-Man' Franco and Terry 'The Fish' Christian. I've been told you've got the lead on this mission, Lieutenant?"

   Irinei raised an eyebrow at the Captains tone of voice. The man was obviously not happy at being forced to take orders from him. From what he had read in the dossier, the Captain was a highly decorated soldier who was very well respected by those under his command. He decided to cut the man some slack; he wouldn't like it much if the situation was reversed either. Plus, it probably hurt the American's pride a little that they were forced to use a Russian vessel for this mission, as neither NASA or the US military had anything even remotely capable of carrying passengers out of the earth's orbit.

   "Welcome aboard the Valentina Tereshkova, gentlemen. As you know, I am Lieutenant Irinei Putin. I think you've already met my second-in-charge, Praporshchik Vasya Kolzak. While I'm nominally in charge while underway, Captain Hardy will be leading you once we reach the target. It will be my responsibility to get you there and back in one piece."

   Various hands were awkwardly offered and shook in the cramped space of the command module. Not taking his eyes off Antonio, Vasya cocked his head slightly to one side, looking a little confused. "Sorry, Oh-Man? The Fish? Not sure I understand?"

   "Those are our nicknames. They call me The Fish 'cuz I can swim like one and they call him Oh-Man," Terry nodded in Antonio's direction, "because of the noises he makes when he - OW!"

   Blushing furiously, Antonio interrupted Terry by punching him hard in the arm. "They call me Oh-Man because both my first and last names end with 'O'," he said, wondering why Vasya was staring at him so intently.

   Irinei cast a warning glance to his junior officer and cleared his throat. "Onto business. We are just waiting on the last member of our new crew to arrive. Petter Nilsen is scheduled to arrive on a Progress resupply vessel at 0700 tomorrow morning. If it is alright with you, Captain Hardy, I have paired off your Corporal Franco with Praporshchick Kolzak, Corporal Christian with Nilsen, and you can share with me." He smiled slightly as Captain Hardy started to protest and held up his hand to forestall the man's objection. "This isn't one of your spacious American shuttles as I am sure you can appreciate. The crew module can only sleep two at one time, so we will all need to sleep in shifts over the next several days."

   "Very well. Oh-Man, Fish, get the gear stowed. I'm sure the Lieutenant will show you where it needs to go. I have a package to deliver." Captain Hardy nodded briefly to them and made his way back into the docking module, closing the hatch behind him.

   The package was actually a small backpack nuke that the US Department of Defense had made them bring along as part of the agreement for the mission. While the Russian's were understandably a little concerned at having a weapon of mass destruction on board the Valentina Tereshkova, they also realized that it was wise to have some sort of backup in case the meeting with the aliens didn't go as planned. Both sides were painfully aware that the unidentified ship that had been destroyed in orbit several years back was most likely Vanguard in origin, and they weren't quite sure how this new lot were going to react.

   "It has been a long day, comrades. Corporal Christian, if you will follow me I will show you to the crew module where you can stow your gear. Praporshchik Kolzak, I shall leave Corporal Franco in your capable hands." Nodding at Vasya, Irinei indicated that Terry should make his way towards a small hatch on the far end of the command module.

   When they were alone, Antonio smiled at Vasya and gestured around the cramped module. "Well I'm all yours, man. Wanna give me the two-dollar tour?" He was a little surprised when the cosmonaut blushed and seemed a bit flustered. "What's the matter?"

   "Nothing. Do not concern yourself. Follow me. You must be hungry after your trip." Quickly changing the subject, Vasya turned and made his way to another hatch placed midway along the length of the command module. The young marine's comment 'I'm all yours' had sent all sorts of thoughts flooding through his brain, most of them extremely x-rated. After clambering through the hatch into the supply module he floated over to a storage locker and pulled out a couple of foil-wrapped plastic trays. Clinging to a handrail for support, he slid them into the compact MHU (Meal-Heating-Unit) and activated the heating sequence.

   "I'm jealous, Vasya. You make moving around in zero-g look so easy. Hey, what did your Lieutenant call you? Prappershick or something?"

   "Praporshchick - my rank in the Russian Army. Similar to your Master Sergeant I believe. As for moving around up here," Vasya shrugged expressively, "it will come with practice. Tell me, Antonio - you drink, da?"

   "Uh, sure, but not on duty. If the Captain -"

   "It is tradition. You wouldn't want to mess with Russian tradition, would you?" Vasya said, interrupting him with a frown.

   Laughing, Antonio shook his head. "No, I guess not."

   "Excellent! Here, take these and follow me." Beaming a smile at him, Vasya retrieved a couple of small plastic sipper-bottles and floated them over to Antonio before pulling the food-trays out of the MHU, cursing in Russian as steam from one leaked out and scalded one of his fingers. He pulled himself over to another hatch and opened it, managing to slip through without touching the sides.

   As Vasya secured the hatch behind him, Antonio looked around the cramped auxiliary docking module he found himself in. "Whoa! What a fucking view!" He whispered, awestruck. There were several thick quartz view-ports around the large external hatch, which provided a spectacular view of the earth floating serenely several thousand kilometers below them. Straining slightly, he could make out the rear half of the Shuttle Aries still docked on the far side of the collection of large, ungainly cylinders that made up the Valentina Tereshkova.

   Passing over one of the food-trays, Vasya watched the marine peel back the foil and tuck into the food hungrily. "This is good," Antonio muttered, mouth full. "Not like the slop they fed us on the shuttle."

   "Beef Stroganoff, real potatoes and steamed red-cabbage with butter. Condemned men eat well in Russia."

   "What do you mean, condemned?" Antonio stopped chewing and stared at Vasya, his eyes narrowing slightly. Peeling the foil off his own tray, the stocky Russian cosmonaut said nothing and avoided eye contact while he carefully shoveled the food into his mouth with short, controlled movements as they slowly floated around.

   A couple of minutes later a small tremor shook the bulkheads, causing Antonio to look up from his meal in alarm. Vasya calmly pointed out the window at the Aries as it disengaged and slowly drifted away from the main docking module, small puffs of reaction gas jetting out of the maneuvering thrusters. Abandoning his meal temporarily, the marine pressed up against one of the view-ports and watched as the shuttle slowly dwindled into the distance. It soon became lost to the eye against the backdrop of gathering storm clouds on the earth below. Satisfied, he returned to his meal, casting occasional glances at the now-brooding cosmonaut.

   Pulling a small plastic bag out of a pocket on his flight-suit, Vasya snagged the two empty food-trays out of the air and stuffed them into the bag, securing it with a small clip attached to his belt. He looked up to see Antonio watching him closely.

   "What did you mean before when you said condemned?" When Vasya just shook his head, Antonio reached out and gently but firmly grabbed hold of his arm. "C'mon man, there is something you're not tellin' me. Spill!"

   Vasya sighed, secretly grateful for the warm human contact. "It's nothing - really. I just have a bad feeling about this mission. I don't like the thought of having a nuclear weapon on board the Valentina Tereshkova. And I'm worried about what these aliens have to say - why did they ask to meet specifically with warriors? And why so far from earth?"

   "Good questions. I guess that's why we've got that egg-head from NATO joining us tomorrow - he's the one that's trained for this sorta shit. As for the nuke... Just insurance in case these aliens get feisty from what I've been told." Realizing he was still holding Vasya's arm, he let go and blushed. "Sorry, man."

   "It is alright, my friend. Well, let us drink to the success of our little trip, then, shall we? Mud in your face."

   Antonio laughed as he twisted the cover off the drinking straw attached to the sipper-bottle. "That's mud in your eye, not face," he said, seeing Vasya frowning at him again as the cosmonaut expertly opened his own drink.

   "Eye? Really? Strange Americans!" Knocking back a good mouthful of the contents of his sipper-bottle, Vasya made a mental note to thank the ground crew who had slipped a small container full of the top-shelf vodka in the last Progress supply ship.

   In the mission briefings he had attended with Irinei, there had been many theories as to why the aliens had approached them the way they had and, why they had insisted on the humans making the trip out to meet them rather than them landing. And also, why the aliens had specifically asked to meet with warriors. The leading theory was that the aliens, calling themselves Vanguard, were here to give some sort of ultimatum, and the reason for making the humans take a trip out past the moon was to assess the technological level humans had reached - some sort of lofty threat assessment.

   As they floated around the small module, sipping at the vodka, Antonio stretched and looked at Vasya curiously. "Changing the subject a bit, you're a good lookin' guy. You got a girl back home?" He nodded in the general direction of the planet below them. The cosmonaut shrugged and smiled at him.

   "I am career military, da? No girl. A boy maybe, but no girl."

   Antonio blushed and laughed nervously. "Very funny! I meant like in girlfriend, wife or something."

   "I wasn't joking. I left a nice boy - Nicolai - behind. But I don't think it's meant to be. He is the son of a Vice-Admiral. Could be trouble if we were found out - I hope you can keep a secret," Vasya said with a straight face. Wide-eyed, the marine started coughing as a mouthful of vodka went down the wrong way. Slapping Antonio on the back with one hand as he braced himself against the bulkhead, Vasya laughed uproariously - the sound almost deafening in the enclosed space. "You Americans still have your old-fashioned don't ask don't tell, but we are a little more enlightened these days in the new Russia. Things are not perfect, but it is better than nothing."

   Recovering from his coughing fit, Antonio shook his head. "Does your Lieutenant know?"

   "He was the one who recommended me for this mission." Vasya's smile faded slightly. "We served together during the Siberian Incursion. I can hold my own. I trust this wont be a problem between us?"

   "Not a problem; just surprised me is all. Man, the Siberian Incursion? That was some heavy shit." Antonio looked at the young cosmonaut with newfound respect.

   Vasya's eyes suddenly clouded with emotion, and he smiled sadly. "Da, but let us not talk of such matters. What about yourself? Have you got someone waiting for you when you get back?"

   "Nah, not at the moment. Had a few girlfriends, but I move around a lot, y'know? Anyway, why don't you show me around the rest of this boat then, huh?"

   Smile back in place, Vasya indicated for Antonio to lead the way out of the auxiliary docking module, back into the main body of the Valentina Tereshkova, closing the hatch behind them. The tour didn't take long and soon they found themselves back in the command module with time on their hands. The NATO negotiator wasn't due to arrive for another six hours and the only thing left to be done was to secure the backpack nuke into the heavily shielded propulsion module. Unlike the chemically powered American spacecraft, the Russians used a nuclear engine to power the ship. Needing only a fraction of the fuel of conventional rocket motors, it reduced the weight of the Russian craft significantly.

   Despite its name, the backpack nuke was the size and weight of a small fridge. Although weightless in zero gravity, it still had a sizable mass, which made it difficult for just one person to handle alone.

   "Why dontcha open the hatch and be ready to grab it when I bring it over," Antonio suggested, fussing with the straps temporarily securing the nuke to a bulkhead. Once they were removed, he gingerly pushed the large box-shaped weapon towards Vasya, waiting beside the access-way to the engine module. Carefully maneuvering it through the narrow hatch, with only a couple of fingers getting painfully jammed in the process, the two men drifted slowly down the access-way towards a far hatch.

   At one point the young marine straddled the weapon and made some whooping noises as they made their way along. Raising a dark eyebrow, Vasya looked at him and frowned slightly. "Why are you sitting on the nuclear weapon?"

   "Don't mind me. Just having a Doctor Strangelove moment," Antonio laughed as he slid off and floated alongside again.

   "A what?"

   "Doctor Strangelove. Y'know, the movie, where that crazy American guy rode a nuclear bomb into the middle of a secret Soviet missile base blowing it to... Oh, ahhh, never mind."

   Vasya snorted, secretly amused. The young marine was so cute when he blushed. Reaching the far end of access-way, they squeezed the weapon through another tight hatchway into the surprisingly spacious engine module. After they'd finished securing it, Vasya pushed over to a control-panel and studied the small screen built into it.

   "Something wrong?"

   "Nyet, just checking the load on the reactor. It powers electrical systems as well as the engines." Vasya turned to see Antonio stifling a yawn. Smirking, he patted the marine on the butt as he floated past, heading to the hatch. "Looks like time to put you to bed, da?"

   In your wet-dreams, man!" Antonio laughed as he wriggled away from the leering cosmonaut. As they re-entered the command module they found Captain Hardy hanging in front of the communications console, reading something displayed on the monitor. "Not tired, Sir?"

   "There will be plenty of time to sleep once we're underway. Has the package been secured?" When Vasya rolled his eyes melodramatically at his description of the nuke, the Captain pretended not to notice, with only a slight deepening of his frown belying his annoyance.

   "Yessir, all tucked in and sleeping like a baby."

   "Good. You're relieved for now, Oh-Man. Grab some shut-eye; you look like you need it." He was about to turn back to the console when his nose twitched, and he sniffed at the air. "You haven't been drinking have you?" He looked accusingly at Vasya then back at Antonio.

   "Uhh -"

   "It's just some solvent that I spilt in the supply module earlier," Vasya interrupted hastily, pushing off towards the crew module.

   "Yeah, must have got some drops on me before. Goodnight Sir!" Antonio saluted quickly and pulled himself at a rapid clip towards the open-hatch that the cosmonaut had just disappeared through, stifling a curse as he banged a knee into a handhold in his hurry to get through.

   Satisfied, Captain Hardy turned back to the screen and continued reading. "Damned sloppy Russkies," he muttered under his breath.

   In the dimly lit crew module, an amused Vasya watched from the comfort of his anchored sleeping bag as Antonio struggled to get his flight-suit off in the weightless environment. "They did not cover this in your mission training?"

   "No - our so-called training was all about handling weapons in free-fall and emergency pro-ceeeedure shit," the marine muttered distractedly as he finally managed to beat his flight-suit into submission. "How the hell are we supposed to get into this fucking thing?" Antonio glared at the shapeless mass of the sleeping bag slung between two bulkhead support girders.

   "Let me help you, comrade." Grinning, Vasya reached out and placed his hands firmly on either side of Antonio's chest, fingers just shy of the marine's nipples. With the additional assistance, Antonio succeeded in snagging his legs into the sleeping bag's opening and with a bit of wriggling around slid into it without further incident. Vasya reluctantly released his grip on the marine as he did so.

   "Thanks man," Antonio said, an embarrassed smile on his face.

   "Piece of pie."

   "Piece of cake. It's cake not pie."

   Vasya nodded solemnly at Antonio's correction and settled back into his own sleeping bag, visions of the well built, half-naked young marine burnt into his memory. "Cake, da."

   An hour or so later, as he was nodding off to sleep, Vasya heard the marine start moaning softly and struggling around inside his sleeping bag. Blinking sleepily Vasya looked over and saw that Antonio's eyes were closed and that he was still asleep. Probably dreaming, the cosmonaut thought to himself. After a few seconds Antonio calmed down again, so Vasya closed his eyes and tried to get back to sleep.

   A few minutes later he was startled completely awake by a muffled yell and the sound of the marine thrashing around in a panic. Quickly slipping out of his own sleeping bag he pushed off the bulkhead over to Antonio who had torn his own sleeping bag wide open. He was clinging to a bulkhead support girder, covered in sweat, panting heavily and looking around the module wild-eyed. When he reached Antonio, Vasya was surprised when the young marine grabbed him and pulled him into a tight embrace, sending them both tumbling gently through the air. Hesitantly he ran the fingers of one hand slowly through Antonio's sweat-damp crew-cut hair, reassuring the obviously frightened young man. "Ssssh, it's alright my friend. You're safe here."

   "Oh god... I was falling, falling! Couldn't see the ground - just darkness!" Antonio whispered hoarsely, tears welling up in his eyes. "There was nobody there to stop me, nobody. Falling alone..."

   "It was just a dream. I've got you, I wont let you fall," Vasya said quietly, reassuringly, holding Antonio close to him as he stroked the marine's back, sweat cold against the palm of his hand.

   It took a few minutes for Antonio's breathing to return to normal, but when it did Vasya reluctantly released him and backed away slightly. Surprising him yet again, the marine reached out and gently grasped the sides of Vasya's head with both of his hands, staring into the cosmonaut's light-grey eyes. "I'm not gay." He spoke softly before pulling a startled Vasya into a deep but brief kiss. "But thank you," he finished, as their lips separated. Releasing him, Antonio smiled sheepishly and looked away, surveying the torn wreckage of his sleeping bag that was flapping around slowly in the stray air-currents circulating around the module.

   Somewhat bewildered at the unexpected show of gratitude, Vasya blinked in confusion, wondering what had just happened between them. "You can take my bag, I - I need to prepare for Petter's arrival anyway," he stuttered. Making his way over to the hatch he grabbed a hand hold and paused, looking back across at the marine who was awkwardly trying to pull himself into the remaining sleeping bag. The dim light in the module gave a satin sheen to Antonio's still damp skin, making him almost glow slightly.

   Hanging off the bulkhead, Vasya had to fight the sudden urge to rush back over and... And do what? The man said he wasn't gay, He thought to himself. Shaking his head he opened the hatch and slid through, closing it reluctantly behind him. But what about that kiss, a small part of his mind screamed at him as he prepared the docking module for the arrival of the Progress ship carrying their mission specialist. It was a thought that haunted him over the next few hours as he busied himself with his duties.

   The Tau Ceti Vanguard colony battleship Lightning-Strike settled into geosynchronous orbit around the far side of an undistinguished looking rocky moon. The single moon orbited a larger planet that its native inhabitants referred to as earth. Why they decided to name their world after a type of dirt was frankly a bit of a mystery to the crew of the battleship, but naming conventions used by the natives weren't the primary reason for the interest shown in this world.

   As the main Vanguard Military forces were withdrawn back to defend the core empire worlds, colonies like Tau Ceti were left to defend themselves against the Arbiter attacks alone. Desperately each of the abandoned colonies tried to find allies to aid them, often banding together for strength. Tau Ceti was an outpost at the extreme edge of the Vanguard Empire and didn't have any neighboring star systems to call on for assistance so they cast their nets further afield. The Tau Ceti elders had known about earth for some time, the colony having been the launching point for the ill-fated recon mission a decade or so earlier.

   After much debate it was decided to send an official mission to earth in order to investigate whether these humans could be an ally against the impending Arbiter threat. While the Tau Ceti colony was a long way from the core empire worlds, word of the New Home battle had reached even that far, and it had been speculated by some that the rumoured alien influence in that epic battle was human in origin.

   There were many elders who had violently opposed any interaction with what they perceived to be inferior alien influences. They still held the strong belief that they were not being thrown to the space-wolves by the rest of the empire - that the Vanguard military would be back in force to defend them against the Arbiter attacks. However, even this belief was not quite strong enough stop them from sending this desperate mission, especially after Arbiter scout-ships had been recently detected on the outskirts of the Tau-Ceti system.

   Despite this, there were still blindly loyal factions who had agents everywhere; agents tasked with disruption; agents tasked with sabotage...

   After several weeks of study a carefully coded signal was tight-beamed from the Lightning-Strike to a specially selected location on the planet. Then they sat back to await a response. The response, when it came, was guarded and suspicious, but the powers-that-be on earth had acquiesced to the request for a meeting.

   Obscuring-Darkness was lying on his back underneath one of the med bay diagnostic tables, two hands full of severed optical data cables and a third clutching a small diagnostic datapad. His remaining hand was holding a cable-splicing tool, which had just malfunctioned, slicing through the thick bundle of cables with a bright flash of intense laser light. Temporarily dazzled, he lay there cursing softly - it was going to take at least a couple of hours to identify and reconnect the cables, not to mention track down and identify the problem which had brought him to the med bay in the first place. With a resigned sigh he laid the datapad and splicer down and looked at the two bunches of cables, small sparkles of light visible in some of the strands.

   He was about to roll out from underneath the table when the med bay door slid open and he heard someone enter, talons scraping on the metal decking. Judging by the erratic movements and pained grunting, it wasn't one of the medics. Seconds later, Obscuring-Darkness heard a high-pitched keening quickly followed by the sounds of something hitting the decking. Hard. Dropping the severed cables he quickly scrambled out from under the bed and got to his feet, just in time to see a couple of the on-duty medics rushing over towards the door. Struggling, they lifted a rather battered looking Vanguard warrior off the deck and managed to get him onto a nearby diagnostic table.

   Suddenly choking back an anguished cry, Obscuring-Darkness recognized the injured warrior lying motionless on the table and rushed to the warrior's side only to be pushed back by one of the medics.

   "Get out of the way, engineer! This is not some broken machine," the medic hissed at him in annoyance, before turning back to the warrior.

   Properly admonished, Obscuring-Darkness backed away, giving the medics the room they needed. It was several months ago when he had first seen the attractive young warrior board the battleship as a new recruit. Newly posted himself, Obscuring-Darkness knew nobody on board the massive ship and was hungering for someone friendly to talk to. He had tried befriending the other engineers but, being older and jaded, they had rebuffed his attempts at being friendly. When he first laid eyes on the warrior it had felt like his hearts had started hammering in his chest.

   Over the next few months, Obscuring-Darkness had come to hear a bit more about the object of his desire, and what he heard through the ship scuttle-butt almost broke his heart. It seemed that the young warrior had been acquired by an older warrior by the name of Chases-Tail. Chases-Tail had a reputation of befriending attractive new recruits and then launching into a systematic attempt at reducing the unfortunate victim into becoming nothing more than a piece of meat, to be traded around to the other senior warriors for his own personal gain.

   Quite a few of the squad leaders knew about some of the goings-on on board but did nothing to curtail it. As far as they were concerned every new warrior went through hazing rituals on their first posting - it was supposed to toughen them up, make them better warriors. What wasn't talked about or acknowledged was the number of suicides amongst the new recruits, or the number that simply disappeared entirely.

   This wasn't the first time that Invokes-The-Storm - Obscuring-Darkness had gone to great lengths to find out what the warrior's name was - had ended up in the med bay. Usually it was for nothing more than a few cuts and heavy bruising, but it looked like things had taken a more serious turn this time around.

   Obscuring-Darkness had quite literally bumped into the young warrior for the first time properly, a few weeks earlier. He had been on the way to the shuttle bay when he rounded a corner, colliding head-on with Invokes-The-Storm coming from the other direction. After picking himself off the decking, Invokes-The-Storm had mumbled a quiet apology and was about to continue on his way when the engineer had taken a chance and stopped him, reaching out with two of his arms to gently grab hold of the warrior's shoulder. "Hrrr, please do not go so quickly. I have been wanting to talk with you for some time."

   "What? W-Why?" Invokes-The-Storm flinched at the touch and was looking around, all four eyes wide with fear and agitation, avoiding eye-contact with the engineer.

   Swallowing nervously, Obscuring-Darkness released him and stepped back, fighting the urge to grab the young warrior with all four of his arms and embracing him tightly. Signs of bruising were still evident on Invokes-The-Storm's face and arms. "I am Obscuring-Darkness. I joined the Lightning-Strike the same time as you did. Saw you a while back and was hoping to meet up with you sometime -"

   "I have to go now. I can not be seen with you. I am sorry," Invokes-The-Storm interrupted him and looking around nervously he quickly disappeared down the corridor.

   Obscuring-Darkness wasn't discouraged by the warrior's skittish behavior and went to great efforts over the next several weeks to ensure that he had several more encounters with Invokes-The-Storm. He even managed to share a brief meal with the warrior one day, and able to have a short conversation before Chases-Tail had turned up and dragged Invokes-The-Storm away.

   Back in the present, Obscuring-Darkness watched as the medics treated the young warrior for several minutes before returning his attention to the damaged diagnostic bed he was supposed to be repairing. By the time he had finished repairing the damage, and had tracked down the original problem, the medics had finished healing the worst of the damage Invokes-The-Storm had suffered at the hands of his tormentors. Packing his tools away, Obscuring-Darkness stopped by the unconscious warrior and stared at him for several minutes. A hand on his shoulder jolted him out of his reverie, and he turned to find the ship's senior medic standing behind him.

   Docile-Until-Provoked had recognized the unconscious warrior immediately, although the engineer was not a Vanguard he had seen before. Only once before had the young warrior had anyone visit him while was incapacitated, and that visitor was only interested in how quickly the warrior would be back on his feet. His curiosity piqued, he surreptitiously observed the engineer for several minutes before he approached, speaking quietly. "He will recover, although his injuries this time around are a lot more serious than the last time we treated him. Have you been successful with your repairs?"

   "Indeed. I reconfigured the coils in the scanner array, it should no longer cause you any problems. Can I ask happened to him?"

   "Are you a friend of his?"

   "Yes..." Obscuring-Darkness paused slightly before continuing, a slight guilty note to his voice. "Hrrr, no. Not really. Just someone I have seen around."

   Docile-Until-Provoked wasn't fooled. He'd seen the way the young engineer had been looking at the warrior, Obscuring-Darkness' body unconsciously taking a protective stance as he stood watch beside the table. "Hrrr, dislocated fore-arm, broken leg, severe bruising around his face and stomach. There is also evidence that he has been raped, repeatedly." He carefully watched the series of emotions flicker briefly across the engineer's face as he explained the injuries, noticing the thinly disguised rage and sadness. Releasing the engineer's shoulder he turned around and lumbered back towards his office, pausing briefly by the door and suppressing a small smile as he turned around. "Best thing for him at the moment is rest and someone he can trust to keep their eyes on him."

End of Part 01