Authors notes: Not much to say at this point. Hope you're still enjoying the story. Thanks for those of you who have given me positive feedback regarding the storyline and characters - it's always nice to hear from you guys :-)
To my lovely editor, Richard: When is this torture by comma's going to end? ;-) Thank you so much for fixing up the stupid mistakes I make. One day I'll beat this grammar thing into submission.
A fellow author and friend (Monkur, another ex-pat Kiwi) has graciously allowed me to share some space on his Yahoo group. Both he and I post regular updates to group members about our respective stories, and love talking with readers about any questions or comments they have. If you like fantasy style writing, you should check out his stuff. It's bloody good.
PS: Happy 2008!
Taniwha - Part 10
"Did you hear something?"
"Nyet. But they have patrols checking fence perimeter. We should look for a way out of here, then go back for Blue-Scale and the boy. It is too risky to continue like this."
Antonio, crouching down between two parked trucks, looked back at Vasya. "What about the medical supplies?"
"Supplies won't do him much good if we are captured, da?"
"Da - I mean yes, you're right. Okay, let's head back. If we can get Blue-Scale to one of these trucks, I can probably hotwire it. If we disable the rest of the vehicles before we leave, that'll give us some breathing room."
"You had a deprived childhood, didn't you?" Vasya whispered, raising an eyebrow at him, eyes glinting mischieviously in the darkness.
The Russian ducked back into the deeper shadows under the truck, pulling a startled Antonio down with him. A short while later, two well armed marines walked past the front of the trucks near the fence, half-heartedly looking around. They stopped by the front grill of one of the trucks, where one marine put a foot up on the front bumper and lit a cigarette. The man took a deep drag and sighed, contentedly. He offered the packet to the other marine.
"You want one?"
"No thanks. That shit'll kill you, man."
Laughing, the other marine slung his rifle over his shoulder and looked around idly as he puffed away. "So, whaddya make of all this? Y'reckon the Captain's pulling our legs about aliens?"
The marine shrugged, leaning back against the truck. "Not sure. Doesn't look like the type who'd joke around much."
"Huh, you're probably right." He took another deep drag on the cigarette, and tried blowing a smoke-ring into the still night air. "Ah well, makes a good break away from the city. Could get used to all this clean country air, you know."
The non-smoking marine punched his buddy in the arm lightly and snorted, amused. "'Fresh air' says you, while suckin' down that cancer-stick." He casually slapped the brim of his squad-mate's cap. "You're fucked up, man!" Laughing, both marines resumed their fence inspection, walking away and out of earshot.
Once they had moved away, Antonio turned to Vasya and fixed him with a steely glance. "What did you mean by that comment?"
"Don't play coy with me, Vasya. The dig about me having a deprived childhood," Antonio said in a hushed voice, annoyed, making air-quotes around the 'deprived childhood' comment.
Vasya blinked at him, then laughed softly. "Just an observation about your being able to hotwire vehicles." He effected an exaggerated American drawl, that came out sounding rather strange when mixed with his native Russian accent. "Life must have been tough, down in the 'hood..."
Rolling his eyes, Antonio smiled slightly. He was relieved to see the young Russian returning somewhat to his normal, sardonic self, after all that had been going on over the past day or so. "Very funny, smartass. If you must know, comrade, I learned how to hotwire vehicles in special-ops training in the Marine Corps." He smirked as he gave Vasya the finger.
They were about to make a move back toward the detention block, when there was a muffled «snap!» from the bush on the other side of the chainlink perimeter fence. The two of them froze, and stared into the darkness, trying to spot the source. A few tense seconds later, there was some rustling from the undergrowth, and a large shape emerged from the darkness, approaching the fence.
"Invokes-The-Storm?" Vasya asked, incredulously, taking a step forward and raising his arms toward the pack-leader.
The Vanguard whipped its head toward him and crouched down, arms spread and talons splayed out, hissing menacingly as it spotted him. Vanguard eyesight isn't disadvantaged by low light conditions, and the pack-leader recognized him instantly. "You! You humans lied to us. Vanguard helped you, saved your life. This one let you leave, unharmed. And then you betray us! Attack us!"
Before Vasya could protest, Antonio came up and wrapped an arm around his chest in a manner that was both protective and possessive. "That wasn't us! We are not happy about how events have unfolded here, either." He squeezed Vasya encouragingly. "You're here for Blue-Scale, right?"
"This one is not about to divulge our plans. Do you think us stupid, human?" Detaching a small plasma-cutter from his utility belt, Invokes-The-Storm rapidly started slicing through the chainlink fence with it.
"look man, we haven't got time for this shit, alright? It was our leader that betrayed you, not us. We can take you straight to Blue-Scale. He's been badly injured, and needs your help." Antonio squeezed Vasya reassuringly, before continuing. "I just need something in return."
Not pausing in his efforts to cut a large enough hole in the fence, Invokes-The-Storm didn't look up. "Why should this one trust you? The only thing humans have proven, is their ability for treachery," he spat, angrily.
Antonio glared right back at the angry warrior. "And one of your lot went and messed around with Vasya's mind, driving him crazy -"
"Hey, watch who you call crazy," Vasya muttered, indignantly, but also feeling strangely happy at the appearance of the Vanguard pack-leader.
"What in the name of the Ancestors are you talking about?" Invokes-The-Storm demanded, as he finished cutting, pushed through the gap, and advanced toward the two humans in a threatening manner.
"The one you call Flows-Like-Water. He's done something to Vasya, and I want whatever it is he did, undone," Antonio said, taking a step backwards and dragging Vasya with him.
At the mention of the Observer's name, Invokes-The-Storm paused and lowered his arms slightly. "Explain yourself."
Antonio stepped in front of Vasya, putting himself in between the Russian and the Vanguard. "Ever since we arrived back home, he's been acting real strange. And it seemed to get worse after the last time he talked with Flows-Like-Water. Damned lizard had his hands all over Vasya. Something's just not right about that shit, man."
Pausing again, Invokes-The-Storm studied the human through narrowed eyes. "Hrrr, very well, human. Take us to Blue-Scale without delay. This one will allow you to accompany us on our return."
The Vanguard pack-leader turned back toward the bush and snapped his jaw shut with a loud «crack!» There was more rustling, and several warriors emerged out from the bush, filing through the gap in the fence, and surrounding the two humans. "Us."
Blue-Scale turned to look at Rangi curiously, while flicking a talon against the translator disk hanging from his ear. "What is that word? Hrrr, this one's translator must be malfunctioning."
Rangi giggled. "I was burping. It wasn't a word. My liquid lunch is just repeating on me. Mmmm, meaty milkshake..." He playfully punched the warrior's thigh, then shook his knuckles and pouted. It was like hitting a leather coated brick. "Like, ow, bro."
"What is burping?"
"Nothing you need to worry about. Despite my earlier snack, I'm starving. You hungry?" He gingerly got up off the netting, and limped toward a nearby shelf. He remembered seeing a few boxes with a familiar looking acronym on them, from when he was searching earlier. "Ahh, there you are," he muttered, pulling a box off the shelf and dumping it on the floor. Inside the box were several rows of bulky plastic packets, with MRE stencilled on them in bright yellow lettering. Picking up the box, he hobbled back over to the netting.
Blue-Scale reached out and picked Rangi up off the floor, box and all, depositing him gently on the netting beside him. He eyed the boy, up and down, carefully. "You are hurt," he rumbled after a few seconds of examination.
"Nah, I'm Okay," Rangi said, shrugging as he rifled through the box, pulling some of the packets out, and reading the faded labels on them.
"You are trying to deceive this one. You were limping." Blue-Scale hesitated for a moment. "Did this one hurt you?"
Rangi rolled his eyes, and put down an MRE packet. "Don't go getting all guilty on me, bro. Yeah, I guess it hurt a bit, but it's nothing I can't handle, alright?" He reached up and grabbed the front of Blue-Scale's snout, shaking it up and down in an affectionate manner. "Don't worry. I'll definitely want to take you for a ride again... Just give me some time to recover," he said with an amused grin.
"Hrrr, but -"
"Shush those juju lips of yours, and tell me if you want chicken or beef?" Rangi said, interrupting the warrior as he returned his attention to the MRE's. "I'd pick you for a beefy kinda guy, am I right?" He faced Blue-Scale again, leering at the warriorl
Blue-Scale sniffed at the packet the boy handed him, and snorted. It didn't smell edible at all, but if his Little-One said it was food...
"No! You don't eat the packet, bro. You eat what's inside it," Rangi snatched the packet out of the warriors talons just before he bit into it. "Like this." Rangi ripped open the top of the packet and pulled out a sachet full of a gel-like material. Mashing up the gel, he quickly shoved it into the packet and handed it back to Blue-Scale.
The warrior looked at the packet curiously then back at Rangi, who did the same with his own packet. Taking another sniff of the packet, he noticed that it was starting to heat up, but it still didn't smell like anything edible. He watched as the boy used a small plastic utensil to scoop out some of the gently steaming contents of his own packet. looking carefully, he saw that there was another smaller packet inside his. Using a talon, he sliced it open and took a sniff. It smelled a little odd, but not unpleasantly so.
"It's a couple of years past its 'use-by' date, but I figure this stuff is pretty indestructible. What do you think?"
Squeezing the contents into his mouth, Blue-Scale chewed a few times before swallowing. "It is crunchy, but quite edible. What is this beef animal?"
"Crunchy? Dude, you did remember to take out the plastic spork first, didn't you?"
Rangi sighed, and held up the spork he was holding. "This thing. It's not part of the food. As for the animal, it's called a cow. Big four-legged thing, with lots of tits. Goes 'Moo' a lot. We also drink their milk."
"What is... milk? "
After spending a few minutes describing lactation of Earth mammals, Rangi looked up at the warrior. "Does that make any sense?"
"This one finds the concept of consuming lactation fluid from another animal both disturbing, and disgusting." He reached over and grabbed another MRE and started the process of heating the contents.
"Not disgusting enough to upset your appetite, though, I notice. Okay then, Mister Moral Superiority-Complex. Not so long ago, I chowed down on a stomach-full of your alien lizard jizz. Is that disgusting? Or disturbing?" Rangi crossed his arms and smirked at Blue-Scale.
Blue-Scale blinked in confusion, unable to wrap his simple mind around the concept. "This one does not know. This one is not aware of other Vanguard mating with aliens before. Perhaps some would consider it wrong."
"Okay, bad example. Doesn't really matter though. I bet there are a few things you Vanguard guys do that we would find a little gross. Although, that reminds me. I don't think it would be a good idea to tell anyone about you and me... y'know."
"No! Before that..."
"Yeah, that." Rangi activated another couple of MRE's and handed them to the warrior, removing the plastic sporks for him. "You still hungry?"
"Very. This one has lost a lot of blood. Food will help this one to recover. Tell me, Little-One, are you ashamed of this one?"
"Ashamed? No way, bro. Why would I be ashamed of you?"
"You seem reluctant to discuss our mating. This one does not understand."
"And I don't understand why you want to talk about it so much."
Blue-Scale leaned over and licked Rangi's face affectionately. "Because this one likes you, Little-One. This one likes you a lot. You were this one's first. You are special to this one -"
"Okay, Okay! I get the point." Rangi laughed, wiping Vanguard drool off his face. Suddenly there was a loud buzz, and a click from the door. "Ahh, saved by the bell. Took you two long enough to get back..." His voice trailed off, and he heard Blue-Scale hiss in alarm. "Oh shit..."
Leading the way back toward the detention block, Antonio motioned for Vasya, and the Vanguard following them, to stay back as he approached the corner of what appeared to be a barracks building. Crouching down, he poked his head around the corner. What he saw made his heart sink.
On the open stretch of ground between the barracks building and the detention block, blinking in the harsh glare of several spotlights, were Blue-Scale and Rangi. The young warrior was on his knees, with all four arms wrapped protectively around the boy, snapping and hissing at the row of heavily armed marines who had their weapons pointed at his head.
The last time Antonio saw the warrior, he was unconscious and looking half-dead. Now looking quite alive and active, the snarling reptile in front of him must have healed damned quickly, he thought.
"Come out, 'Oh-Man'. I know you're there."
Shock raced through Antonio when he heard Captain Hardy calling out his nickname over a megaphone. 'How did he know...?'
"We know Praporshchick Kolzak is with you. Neither of you will be hurt. You have my word on that." Captain Hardy paused for a few moments, looking around. "I'm waiting, 'Oh-Man'."
Antonio turned back to look at Vasya and Invokes-The-Storm, both of whom had also overheard the Captain. "I want you to wait here with these guys. Go with them when they leave," he held up a hand to stall Vasya's protest. Turning to Invokes-The-Storm, he locked eyes with the Vanguard pack-leader. "If things go to hell here, promise me that you'll do what you can for Vasya. It's not his fault that he's in this mess. I'll do what I can for your warrior."
"Not good enough, human. We came here for Blue-Scale, and will not be leaving without him. We do not wish any further harm to your warriors, but tell your pack-leader this one will tolerate no interference."
"Just fucking great. Okay, alright. Just don't go doing anything stupid." Antonio turned back to Vasya and drew him into an embrace, kissing him on the neck. "Keep your head down. I'll see you on the other side, man. Give that Flows-Like-Water a swift kick in whatever passes for balls in these lizards, for me."
Vasya released him with great reluctance, and nodded. He was thankful it was dark where they were, so the marine wouldn't see him trembling. The last time he had felt like this was five years ago, during the Siberian Incursion. The memories of holding the dying Kirill in his arms were still strong and poignant, as he had watched the life fade from his lover's eyes.
With that, Antonio stood up, stepped out from behind the barracks, and into the glare of the spotlights. He walked toward Blue-Scale and Rangi, shading his eyes from the glare. Captain Hardy handed the megaphone to a soldier, and moved forward, meeting Antonio halfway, but just out of reach of Blue-Scale's talons.
Captain Hardy nodded to him, then made an exaggerated show of looking around in apparent confusion. "So where's your commie boyfriend, Corporal?"
"I blame myself, really. Should have seen the warning signs. He was all over you when we were on that Russky shit-heap in space." He stared searchingly into Antonio's eyes, looking for some sort of reaction to what he was saying. "Dammit, 'Oh-Man', I thought you were better than this!"
Antonio hung his head, not wanting to meet Captain Hardy's gaze. "Sorry if I disappointed you, Sir. But there are more important things at stake now. I've -"
Captain Hardy sighed, interrupting him. "You're right. There are. Down to business then. I'm letting the lizard and the kid go free."
Antonio jerked his head back in surprise. "Sir, can I ask what made you change your mind?"
"No, you can't." He shook his head, disappointed. "You made a big mistake, getting involved with the lizards, Corporal. They're nothing but trouble. Once you're debriefed, you'll be going away for a long time. Say goodbye to your military career. Unfortunately you brought this on yourself, Corporal, the moment you sided with the lizards." Captain Hardy motioned toward a couple of MP's, who came forward, and saluted sharply. "Take this traitor away. Make sure there's a 24/7 guard on him."
"Yessir." The two MP's took up position on either side of Antonio, each grasping him firmly on the upper-arm. "If you will accompany us please, Sir," One of the MP's said, nodding at him.
His shoulders slumping, Antonio sighed. 'So this is it, then,' he thought to himself. No point in passing on the Vanguard's warning, if Captain Hardy was going to let Blue-Scale and the boy go anyway, he realized.
Crouching down just out of arms length from the Vanguard warrior, Captain Hardy sized them up through narrowed eyes. "You're both free to go. Kid, I'd recommend staying as far away from these things as you can. But somehow, I don't think you're going to listen to me, are you?"
"You fucking Yankee bastards tortured me! You're so full of shit, you're overflowing, mate!" Rangi glared at him, snorted, then spat - the gob of spit landing wide of its mark.
"No, I didn't think so, either. Before you go, I've been ordered to give you a message to pass on to the leader of your group." He faced Blue-Scale. "Tell him -"
"Screw you, you arrogant prick! Tell him your fucking self!" Rangi snarled, nodding at something behind him.
Turning his head, Captain Hardy saw several large shapes emerge from behind the nearby barracks building. He got to his feet and faced the dozen or so Vangard that approached slowly, in what he assumed was some sort of attack formation. They were all armed with the long pole-weapons that he'd seen them using during the short battle on the mountainside, a couple of days previously. He started backing away, slowly. "Lower your weapons! Do not open fire," he commanded his men in a loud, clear voice.
The armed marines looked at each other nervously, then back at the approaching reptiles, but complied with the order, lowering their assault rifles slightly.
"Your soldier is free to go," Captain Hardy called out to Invokes-The-Storm. "We won't try and stop you. But before you go, it's important that we talk."
Blue-Scale got to his feet and walked toward the others, one taloned hand resting possessively on Rangi's shoulder, leading him forward as well. He stopped beside the pack-leader and tilted his head back, exposing his neck in a show of respect. Invokes-The-Storm looked him over carefully, noting all of the mostly healed bullet-wounds on his body. "You are well?" he asked the young warrior, after deactivating his translation disk, and indicating for Blue-Scale to do the same.
"Hrrr, yes, thanks to my Little-One," Blue-Scale responded, squeezing Rangi's shoulder slightly. Rangi glanced back and forth between the two Vanguard, unable to understand the conversation.
"I do not understand - your 'Little-One'? You were supposed to return, once you confirmed this human had recovered sufficiently from its injuries. What happened?" Invokes-The-Storm glared at Rangi, then turned the glare on the warrior.
"Hrrr, I forgot."
"You forgot? " The pack-leader looked at Blue-Scale incredulously. It was about this time that he noticed a vaguely familiar scent coming from the human. He leaned down and sniffed at Rangi curiously, the boy shying away from him nervously. He straightened up and gave Blue-Scale a sidelong glance. There was more to this situation than met the eye. "This will have to wait. Join the others. I will not be long." Reactivating his translation disk, he lumbered over to Captain Hardy and stared down his nose at the human.
"My superiors have asked me to convey their sincerest apologies for the misunderstanding," Captain Hardy grated out, reluctantly.
Invokes-The-Storm may have been young, but he wasn't stupid. "What do you want, human? Be quick about it. And no tricks. This one has more warriors stationed all around this compound. And this one does not make idle threats."
"I'll come right to the point, then. We've identified several large objects in deep space, and they're heading straight for this planet at an unnaturally high speed. Our scientists tell us that just one of these objects is enough to wipe out every living thing on this planet."
"And why should this concern us?" Invokes-The-Storm sneered at him.
"You lizards came to Earth, seeking our help first, remember? Although I have my doubts, our finest brains tell us that it's most likely those Arbiter aliens that are responsible for this," Captain Hardy said, staring at the Vanguard pack-leader suspiciously.
"Again, this one asks, why this should concern us?"
Squaring his shoulders, Captain Hardy stood up a little straighter and took a step toward Invokes-The-Storm, glaring at the reptile and pointing an accusing finger at him. "You owe us! If it wasn't for you fucking lizards, those Arbiter bastards would never have found us. You brought them here!"
Invokes-The-Storm didn't respond immediately. Although he hated to admit it, he'd already come to the conclusion that it was plausible that the Arbiters had followed the Lightning-Strike to this system. "And what is it that your pack-leaders would ask of us?"
"The most advanced space-going craft we possessed was destroyed, trying to get away from your ship a few days ago. We need your ship, or your technology, to help us stop the comets before they get close enough to do any damage to Earth."
"What benefit is there for us to do this? From what this one has observed recently, this one has doubts you would do the same were our situation reversed."
Captain Hardy smiled slightly, tacitly acknowledging the truth of the pack-leaders words. These lizards were certainly not to be underestimated. "My superiors have agreed to offer you open access to any Earth technology you want. And we agree to offer you any assistance you require in your battle with the Arbiters. We probably have a few tricks up our sleeves that you lizards have never considered."
Invokes-The-Storm thought about the offer. While the humans were technologically primitive in comparison, it was possible they might have something that could give the Vanguard an edge against their remorseless, hive-mind enemy. After all, that is one of the things that the original expedition here was tasked with finding, he recalled.
Smiling like a cat who has just finished eating the canary, Captain Hardy stuck his hands in his pockets and scuffed a boot casually against the ground. "I seem to remember a certain lizard mentioning that you Vanguard had nowhere else to go, not so long ago. We can also offer you safe harbor here on Earth - if you agree to help."
"Hrrr, this one will need time to consider this proposal." He realized that he now not only had the fate of his own people resting on his broad shoulders, but also that of an entire planet. Nothing like a bit of extra pressure on top of everything else, he thought ruefully.
"You have 24 hours to make a decision. After that, all bets are off."
Snapping his jaw shut in agreement, Invokes-The-Storm was about to turn away when he heard a familiar voice calling to him.
"Hrrr, what did you say?"
Captain Hardy looked at him strangely. "I said, you have 24 hours -"
"No, after that!" the pack-leader snapped, irritably.
"I didn't say anything. 'All bets are off' is the last thing I said to you."
'One quick swipe and you can rip out his tender throat...'
"Not again! No!"
looking rather confused, Captain Hardy stared at him and raised his eyebrows. "I don't understand. Are you saying 'no' to the agreement?"
'Reach into his mouth with your talons and pull out his ridiculous, flapping tongue. Then eat it in front of him while he watches, screaming!'
Trembling, Invokes-The-Storm clenched his shock-lance hard, the hard metal of the shaft deforming slightly from the pressure. "Hrrr! Not now... Not now!"
"look, I don't know what your game is, lizard. But you're not making a lot of sense..." Captain Hardy said, backing away from the pack-leader.
Shaking his head rapidly in an urgent attempt to quell the insidious voice, Invokes-The-Storm silently screamed out a plea to his Ancestors. The voice fell silent, slinking back to wherever it had come from, but he knew it would be back - sometime. He faced the nervous looking human pack-leader. "You will have your answer within 24 hours, human." Invokes-The-Storm grunted. Spinning around, he quickly loped back toward the group of warriors waiting nearby for him.
He needed to get back to Obscuring-Darkness as quickly as he could. The thought of just being around the patient young engineer calmed the hammering of the hearts in his chest. He was about to lead the return to the shuttle when he laid eyes on the Vasya human, standing alone on the outskirts of the group of milling warriors, looking a little lost.
That arrogant Observer had a lot to answer for, he realized. Not only had it been meddling around in Vanguard affairs; it also had some sort of illicit - and no doubt unwelcome - involvement with the human, if what the Antonio human had said was true. And given recent events, he was inclined to believe the human warrior.
"I must be going insane," Invokes-The-Storm muttered to himself, under his breath, as he turned again, and loped toward the pack-leader human. Halfway there he huffed with silent laughter. 'Going insane? Voices in my head that only I can hear. Telling me to do violent things? I am not going insane. I have arrived. Insane-city: Population 1 Vanguard pack-leader...'
As Captain Hardy was walking back to the communication centre, he felt the vibrations from the foot falls, as the heavy reptile got close.
"Uh... Sir? It's coming back again," one of the marine's told him, nervously.
"Stay there, son. Keep your weapon lowered, but be ready to fire, just in case." He turned to face the approaching Vanguard pack-leader, warily. "What is it?" he asked the reptile.
"You will give me the Antonio human, now."
Surprised, Captain Hardy stared at the pack-leader, unsure if it was having another weird-fit. "That's not going to happen, lizard."
"This one demands it, now."
Hands on hips and eyes narrowing with anger, Captain Hardy stared the reptile down. "I don't know where you get off demanding something like that. I'm not about to hand over one of my men to a crazy alien lizard."
The Vanguard pack-leader towered over him menacingly. He heard the marine release the safety on his assault rifle with a menacing «snick».
"Then tell your pack-leaders there will never be any agreement with Vanguard." Invokes-The-Storm wheeled around and was about to head back, when Captain Hardy stopped him.
"Wait! Wait a minute... What do you want with him?"
"This one does not owe the likes of you an explaination. Give me the Antonio human and this one will still consider the offer."
Captain Hardy thought quickly. His orders had been very clear: He was to do whatever he could to ensure that the Vanguard agreed to the deal. He was painfully aware of the stakes. "I'm not happy about it, but alright. He's a traitor and a faggot, but I still don't want to see him hurt," he admitted grudgingly.
It was a tense few minutes while they both waited in an uncomfortable silence for Antonio to be brought to them. The two MP's who had taken him away, brought him back and released him. "What's going on, Sir?" he asked Captain Hardy.
"You're to go with the lizard, Corporal," he muttered, refusing to meet Antonio's eyes. Turning to Invokes-The-Storm, Captain Hardy stared hard at the pack-leader. "He's all yours. But remember, you have 24 hours." He turned away and stalked off, two confused MP's and a marine following him, looking at each other, then back at Antonio as they left.
"Follow this one." Invokes-The-Storm started lumbering back toward the other Vanguard.
"But I don't understand -" Antonio began.
"You owe this one!" the pack-leader hissed at him, wearily.
End of Part 10