Authors notes: In early February I am going to be returning home to New Zealand for about three weeks. Just over a year ago, I moved to the festering Arctic shit-hole that is Norway - I'm probably going to be here for around 5 years or so. I find my thoughts turning constantly to the friends and family I have left behind, and it hurts to be so far away from them. NZ is about as far away from Norway as it is possible to get, and still be on the same planet.

Unlike the Vanguard in Taniwha, I am, at least, in a position to be able to return home from time to time... How would that feel, to have your home wiped from existence? To never be able to return; to never see or hear from your family or friends again? It must be literally soul-destroying. Fortunately this story is fiction. But sadly, this is a reality for many people around the world. In my isolation here, I find my thoughts turning to these people - and realizing just how fucking lucky I am.

Enough with the morbid thoughts: Thank you very much to those who have given me such positive feedback both via email and on the yahoo group that Monkur has allowed me to share. It really is such a cool feeling, knowing that people are actually getting something positive out of what I'm writing.

And thank you very much to Richard, my editor - you guys have no idea just how much his editing improves the readability of this story.

Taniwha - Part 11

   Back on the shuttle, Antonio and Vasya cornered Flows-Like-Water. The Observer looked down at them curiously. "It is good to see you back. This one trusts that you -"

   "Shut up! We've got a bone to pick with you, lizard." Antonio jabbed the Observer in the stomach with his finger, the Observer taking a startled step backwards at the anger in the human's voice. "We know about the brainwashing you've done to Vasya. And you're gonna fix whatever the fuck it is you've done to him. Now! " the marine snarled.

   "I am unsure of the meaning of that term, 'brainwashing'. However, Vasya is important to our efforts to maintain peace in this sector of the galaxy. He is a bridge."

   "What the hell are you talking about? And what do you mean 'a bridge'?" Antonio narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Hang on... This is the first time I've heard one of you lizards refer to yourself as 'I'. What happened to 'This one'?"

   Flows-Like-Water blinked in surprise. The human was an observant little creature, that was for sure. "Yessssss," he hissed slowly, considering whether or not to tell the human the truth. Looking around to make sure they weren't being overheard, the Observer lowered his voice conspiratorially, and spoke in perfect, unaccented English without the use of his translation disk. "It's probably time I came clean, to use one of your quaint, human expressions. I am not Vanguard."

   "What?" Both Vasya and Antonio blurted out simultaneously.

   Turning and lumbering toward the cargo bay, the Observer activated the hatch and stepped through. He motioned for the humans to follow him, which they did - albeit reluctantly. He approached the battered and torn cylinder that was all that was left of the Valentina Tereshkova, and looked at the rattled-looking humans with a crocodilian smile on his face.

   Nervous at being alone with the strange alien, both Vasya and Antonio stayed close together. They kept a fair amount of distance between them and the creature calling itself Flows-Like-Water. "What is going on?" Vasya asked, not taking his eyes off the Observer.

   "I am what the Vanguard refer to as an Observer." Relaxing his control for a few moments, Flows-Like-Water reverted to his natural state - a diffuse cloud of glittering golden-brown amorphous Silicon particles. When he reintegrated back into a more solid form, he took the appearance of Lieutenant Irenei Putin. "We have been around for many millions of years, largely keeping to ourselves."

   "Keeping to yourselves? Yeah, right," Antonio sullenly muttered. He turned to look at Vasya, who was staring with rapt fascination at the Observer. Unimpressed at the Observer's transformation, Antonio just wanted answers.

   Flows-Like-Water let the smile fade from his face, and nodded, acknowledging the marine's comment. "We learned, a long time ago, not to interfere with the development of other species, no matter how well-intentioned we thought we were being. Until recently, that is."

   Vasya stepped forward and cautiously approached the Observer, reaching out to him with one hand raised. Flows-Like-Water raised one of his hands and held it out to meet the human's touch. Vasya found the Observer's touch warm and solid.

   "Vasya, don't! " Alarmed, Antonio reached out to try and stop Vasya.

   "It's alright, Antonio. I mean you both no harm. As I said before, Vasya is special." He lowered his hand and nodded respectfully to the young Russian. "He is supposed to be a bridge between humans and Vangard."

   "What do you mean by that?" Vasya asked, motioning for Antonio to come closer, which the marine did with reluctance. Crossing his arms and glowering, Antonio stared at Flows-Like-Water suspiciously.

   Leaning back against the battered remains of the Valentina Tereshkova, Flows-Like-Water forced his body back into Vanguard form. "Put simply, the Vanguard are the lesser of two evils. They may be militaristic, but they're not single-mindedly genocidal like the Arbiters. We don't want the Arbiters reducing this sector of the galaxy to a desolate wasteland -"

   "Just get to the fucking point, would you! Why Vasya?"

   "Doesn't anyone have time for civilities anymore?" Flows-Like-Water sighed melodramatically. "Hrrr, very well. I thought that if I could get one human to like and trust the Vanguard, that it would make it easier for others to do the same. I manipulated Vasya's mind so that he would like being around the Vanguard."

   Ashen faced, Vasya exchanged a knowing look with Antonio; their suspicions were being borne out.

   "I did what I felt was necessary at the time..." Flows-Like-Water's voice trailed off as he looked at the stony expressions on the faces of the two humans. "What?"

   Antonio launched himself at Flows-Like-Water with an incoherent roar, and succeeded in getting his hands wrapped around the Observer's throat, before being pulled off and held out at arms length, by the startled alien.

   "You arrogant piece of shit! " Antonio screamed, struggling wildly in the Observer's grasp.

   Vasya attacked the Observer from the other side, but ended up staggering away after Flows-Like-Water knocked him back, none too gently, with another of his arms.

   "Hardly sporting," Flows-Like-Water muttered, grabbing Antonio's head with one of his free hands and concentrating. Immediately, Antonio slumped unconscious, and unmoving, in the Observer's grasp. He gently lowered the marine to the deck, and prepared himself as Vasya recovered his wits.

   "Nu ti dajosh! What did you do to him?! " the young Russian yelled, eyes wide in horror as he rubbed his bruised cheek. Vasya crouched down by Antonio's side, before turning to the Observer, concern turning to rage. "Zmei Gorinich! Unbju!"

   Swiftly reaching out, Flows-Like-Water grabbed the unprepared young Russian's face and concentrated hard. Crying out in pain, Vasya stiffened, and then went limp, slumping down in front of the Observer. "Seems like I need to work on my people skills," the Observer muttered quietly, as he arranged the humans in a comfortable position on the deck.

   Blue-Scale approached Docile-Until-Provoked, with a reluctant Rangi in tow. He waited patiently until the medic looked up from the datapad he was studying and noticed the warrior standing in front of him. Docile-Until-Provoked's eyes were slightly dulled from age, but the first thing he noticed were the spots of dried blood around the partially healed bullet wounds on the front of Blue-Scale's body.

   "You are injured. Let me have a look at you," the medic rumbled, putting his datapad to one side, and motioning for the warrior to move closer.

   "Hrrr, it is not me that I wish you to heal. It is my Little-One." Blue-Scale turned and placed a taloned hand behind Rangi, encouraging him forward.

   "Your Little-One? Hrrr, it looks familiar. Is this the same human we healed a few nights ago?"

   Rangi flinched when the medic reached out and grasped both is arms to stop him from backing away. The medic turned him this way and that, gently poking at him with his stubby fingers, talons tucked back out of the way. When Docile-Until-Provoked started running his fingers over the electrical burn marks, Rangi flinched again from the painful prodding. "Steady on, mate! I'm not some chunk of meat, y'know," he complained. "Besides, I'm tenderized enough as it is..."

   Docile-Until-Provoked stopped the examination and stared at the human; there was something else going on here, he realized. Narrowing his eyes, he crouched down and held the human in a firm, but gentle grasp as he sniffed all over its body. Wanting to be absolutely certain, he gave the human's face a brief lick. Jerking upwards in shock, and releasing the human from his talons, he finally recognised the scent he'd caught during his initial examination. The medic looked up at Blue-Scale, a surprized expression on his face

   "Will my Little-One be alright?" Blue-Scale asked, pulling Rangi back into his embrace, alarmed at the look the medic was giving him.

   "Blue-Scale, what have you done to this human?! "

   "Hrrr, I have done nothing wrong," the young warrior huffed, defensively, holding Rangi tight.

   Getting quite nervous at this point, Rangi wriggled in the warrior's tight grip until he was able to look up at Blue-Scales face. "Bro! What's going on? What's got this guy's knickers in such a twist?" Getting no response from Blue-Scale, he turned to the medic. "What's wrong? They're just a few burns... Aren't they?"

   Docile-Until-Provoked fiddled around with his translation disk, activating it. "You are marked, human."

   "Well, duh, I kinda noticed," Rangi scowled, peeling one of Blue-Scales hands off him and exposing some of the electrical burns on his chest. "I thought you were supposed to be doing, y'know, doctor-y things to them?"

   "No, you misunderstand. You are now permanently marked as Blue-Scale's mate."

   "I'm what?" Rangi's eyes bulged and he gaped up at Blue-Scale. "P-permanently?"

   Relieved that there wasn't anything seriously wrong with Rangi, Blue-Scale leaned down and happily nuzzled the boy with his snout. "Hrrr, Little-One. My life is yours, my soul bare. Bond-mate."

   Docile-Until-Provoked picked up an unprotesting Rangi out of the warrior's grasp, and placed him on a table for easier access. He proceeded to attend to the burn marks covering the boy's upper body. "This one thought he had seen everything. Today has been a day of days. Hrrr, it could be worse, human. At least he is not an Arbiter; they often eat their mates after rutting. Now, stop squirming."

   "Nanna always said I'd make someone a good wife one day. Always thought she was joking..." Rangi mumbled numbly to the medic, who ignored him as he continued his ministrations.

   "Can this one speak with you for a moment?" Invokes-The-Storm asked as he approached them.

   Docile-Until-Provoked looked up from working on the human's injuries. "Of course. What is it?" he asked.

   "You are the oldest and wizest remaining Vanguard here, and this one values your counsel. The human pack-leaders have asked for our help, and have in turn offered us sanctuary on this planet. This one does not know if we can trust them, given recent experiences."

   Turning his attention back to the human, Docile-Until-Provoked slathered an antiseptic gel onto the worst of the burns on its skin. It didn't bode well that these humans were willing to hurt one of their own spawnlings like this. "What is it that the humans ask of us?"

   Deactivating his translation disk, the pack-leader signaled the medic to do the same. He didn't want to alarm the human; he would find out soon enough as it was. "The Arbiters have targeted this planet for destruction. They plan to impact several large masses into the surface at great speed. The humans want us to help them stop the masses, using our technology. In return, they offer us anything they have that we might find useful in trying to defeat the Arbiters. They also offer us sanctuary here."

   "I see. What is it that you ask of me, then?"

   Invokes-The-Storm averted his eyes, and looked decidedly uncomfortable. "What would you do? I am at a loss. I am not sure that we can trust the humans, but our fate is now tied with theirs."

   "This is not a democracy. Tau-Ceti is not a democracy. You are our pack-leader; you are supposed to lead us. It is not my place to be telling you what to do." Docile-Until-Provoked turned his attention back to the human.

   Rangi alternated his gaze between the pack-leader and the medic, curious about the conversation. There was something of great importance happening here, and he was annoyed at being left out.

   "Hrrr, times change. And it is time we changed with them. Our home of Tau-Ceti is gone. It has no further part to play in this discussion," Invokes-The-Storm rumbled, irritated.

   There was a moment of horrified silence before Docile-Until-Provoked responded. "Tau-Ceti is... gone?"

   Too late, Invokes-The-Storm realized his mistake. The Rank-beast was truly out of the pen now. Ancestors curse that blasted Observer! "What this one meant -"

   Docile-Until-Provoked reached out and grasped Invokes-The-Storm by the shoulders, looking deeply into his eyes. "The Arbiters...?" he asked in a hollow voice.

   Snapping his jaw shut gently, Invokes-The-Storm found it hard to meet the medic's gaze.

   Blue-Scale, who had been keeping an eye on Rangi from a distance, saw Rangi hop down from the table he'd been perched on. He lumbered over and hunkered down onto his haunches beside his Little-One. "Hrrr, are you alright?"

   "Yeah, bro. I'm sweet. You might wanna have a yak with your boss here, though. Looks like he's got something important to tell you guys," Rangi said, looking up at Invokes-The-Storm and the medic.

   Trembling slightly, the medic dropped his hands from Invokes-The-Storm's shoulders. "This one has changed his mind, and has some advice for you. You need to tell the others. And you need to tell them now."

   The main cabin of the shuttle was completely silent, after Invokes-The-Storm finished telling the survivors about the destruction of their homeworld at the hands of their implacable enemy. Most of the remaining Vanguard looked at each other blankly. Some with horror; others with anger.

   "We have two choices." Invokes-The-Storm spoke quietly into the deathly silence. "In 23 months this planet will also be annihilated by the Arbiters. The humans have requested our help to stop this and, in return, they have offered us sanctuary. However, we have seen how untrustworthy they can be."

   The pack-leader started pacing back and forth in agitation, before stopping and looking each of the assembled Vanguard in the eyes. "Even if we possessed the means, we can never go home. And my very soul screams out for vengence. If we have to co-operate with these... humans, in order to strike back, then that is a small price to pay."

   One of the warriors pushed forward through the others, confronting the pack-leader. "How do you know that Tau-Ceti has fallen? I thought we were alone out here!"

   Several of the other Vanguard looked at the young warrior, shocked. Anyone who questioned or confronted a pack-leader either had a death-wish, or wanted to challenge him. Most of the others snapped their jaws in agreement, however, also wanting an answer.

   Invokes-The-Storm had been dreading this moment. To admit that they had an Observer in their midst would be a disaster - the group of surviving Vanguard were barely holding on, as it was, without word of this getting out. He thought quickly, and cast a desperate glance in Obscuring-Darkness' direction. "We intercepted an Arbiter transmission, but it took a while for the shuttle's onboard systems to decrypt it."

   Blocker, who was standing beside Obscuring-Darkness, looked at the other engineer suspiciously, but stayed silent. He knew something wasn't right, as he hadn't heard anything about an Arbiter transmission. Even so, he trusted the pack-leader had his reasons for the deception. He was, however, going to be asking some rather pointed questions once this was over.

   The suspicious young warrior, Light-Step, seemed satisfied by the answer, but the question had emboldened others. Another spoke up from the back of the room. Invokes-The-Storm recognized her as one of the female warriors, Water-Runs-Clear.

   "So we save this planet, and the humans keep their word to give us sanctuary. What becomes of us, then? This planet will never be home!"

   There were other murmurs of agreement from several of the assembled group. Invokes-The-Storm was about to answer, when there was another question. Only, this time, he recognized the voice immediately.

   'What kind of pack-leader are you, letting these fools waste your time with petty questions?'

   With a mental cry of despair, he tried to shut out the insistant voice by concentrating on the original question. "We will forge ourselves a new home," he began, but the malicious voice was not to be denied.

   'You are obviously not up to this task.'

   "I am up to this task!" he said loudly, with more confidence than he felt. The gathered Vangard looked at him curiously.

   'LIES! You forget that I know you - I am you.'

   Invokes-The-Storm stood, motionless and wide-eyed, as he desperately fought for control. Silently screaming inside his head, he felt control slipping through his talons. With searing pain, the tipping point was reached as the other took control. He suddenly found himself a virtual prisoner, able to see and hear, and helpless to do anything...

   Obscuring-Darkness watched as his lover went still and silent, eyes wide in apparent shock. He was about to push forward to be with him, when Invokes-The-Storm shook himself from head to toe. There was a strange, and frightening new look in his eyes, one that Obscuring-Darkness had only seen once before... Back when the young warrior had attacked him on board the Lightning-Strike.

   "We will forge ourselves a new home," the pack-leader growled, "on the ashes of the Arbiter civilization! " Roaring, he stood tall and glared down at the other Vanguard, as if he expected to be challenged and relished the prospect.

   Startled into silence, the assembled Vanguard just stared at him, not daring to speak a word.

   "We will give the humans what they need to stop the destruction of their planet. And we will take what we need to finish off the Arbiters." At this point, there were mutters of agreement from several of the warriors. All this clandestine mucking about was wearing thin on their nerves. "You will be called on to make sacrifices, and I expect them to be made willingly. Be prepared. That is all." Invokes-The-Storm stepped away.

   Dressed in a form-fitting skinsuit that had been especially made for him by one of the medics, Rangi stood beside Blue-Scale as the young warrior listened to Invokes-The-Storm speak. The pack-leader had disabled his translation disk before speaking, something that seemed to be occuring with monotonous regularity - much to Rangi's annoyance; he hated being left out of what was going on.

   When Invokes-The-Storm stopped speaking and moved away, Rangi turned to Blue-Scale, looking up at the warrior's face. "Okay bro - spill. What was your boss rumbling about? Must have been something pretty freaky; your mates all look pretty spooked."

   Blue-Scale was uncharacteristically silent for several moments. "Do you remember the monsters this one was telling you about, Little-One?"

   "Arbiters, right?"

   "Hrrr... Correct, Little-One. They have destroyed my home planet." Blue-Scale leaned down and picked Rangi up, cradling him in his arms, close to his chest.

   Rangi went rigid in the warrior's arms. "What, a whole planet? Oh shit... I'm really sorry, man!" He threw his arms around Blue-Scale's neck, trying to comfort the young warrior.

   Blue-Scale absently nuzzled at Rangi, not responding, and still feeling somewhat numb from the news. He had never been close to anyone in his clan, and he had no real friends, other than the small human that he had pledged his life to protect. The fact that his world no longer existed, was something that his mind simply couldn't process.

   The thing that was causing him problems, however, was how his Little-One was going to react when he found out his own world was in serious trouble.

   Obscuring-Darkness approached Invokes-The-Storm after speaking with several of the other Vanguard. "Will you be alright?"

   Invokes-The-Storm looked at the engineer coldly. "Do not concern yourself with my wellbeing. You will assemble all the engineers together as soon as you can. I have some questions that need answering."

   Dismayed, Obscuring-Darkness snapped his jaw shut. He was concerned, and more than a little hurt, at being rebuffed in such an abrupt manner by his lover, but dutifully headed back toward the milling Vanguard to do as he'd been ordered.

   Invokes-The-Storm stood and watched him go for several moments, ignoring the desperate screaming inside his head. Shutting it down without mercy, he went hunting for prey. He looked around for Flows-Like-Water, but the Observer wasn't anywhere to be seen. Neither were the two warrior humans. Following a hunch, he lumbered over to the cargo bay hatch and activated it. Sure enough, the Observer was in there, crouching over the prone forms of the humans who were lying, unmoving, on the deck.

   Approaching closer, he saw that the Observer had all four of his eyes closed and had a hand resting on the head of each of the comatose humans. Without opening his eyes, Flows-Like-Water held up another hand, motioning for the pack-leader to wait. After a couple of minutes, the Observer stood up and opened his eyes.

   "What were you doing to them?" Invokes-The-Storm demanded, eyes narrowed with suspicion.

   Flows-Like-Water briefly glanced back at the humans before answering. "As they requested. Undoing the damage I did to the Vasya human."

   "Why, then, are they both unconscious?"

   Looking a little embarrassed, the Observer started lumbering slowly toward the hatch, forcing Invokes-The-Storm to follow him. "Hrrr, they will be alright, do not be concerned. The Antonio human attacked me, and I was forced to stop him. They just need to rest for a while."

   "So what the Antonio human told me was true? You interfered with the Vasya human's mind?"

   "Unfortunately, it seems that I misjudged the amount of influence I had. Seems to have caused a few problems -"

   Invokes-The-Storm rounded angrily on Flows-Like-Water, interrupting him mid-sentence. "What gives you the right, you filthy alien traitor? Hrrr! It is enough that you have meddled in Vanguard affairs! What purpose did violating the human's mind serve?"

   "I did what I thought was necessary, at the time! You may not understand or believe me, Vanguard, but we are doing this for your people," the Observer responded, defensively.

   The pack-leader stared at him incredulously. "And you expect me to believe that, after the pack of lies you have been feeding us? I am getting extremely angry at being lied to, of late." Without any warning, he grabbed Flows-Like-Water and pinned him against the hatch, the metal ringing dully from the impact. "You are getting your wish, " he snarled. "We are going to co-operate with the humans. And you are going to help. With your advanced knowledge, we are going to save this planet. Then we are going to persue those fucking insects and wipe out every last, Ancestor-cursed, one of them. Do you understand me, Observer?"

   Intimidation was a new emotion for Flows-Like-Water. And not one he wished to experience again. "Loud and clear, pack-leader."

   Vasya woke up with a start, and sat upright, looking around at the vaguely familiar surroundings. He seemed to recall being in this room one time before, what seemed like years ago. Lying beside him in the bed was Antonio, naked, and stretched out on his stomach, snoring softly. Shaking his head in an attempt to get rid of the last vestiges of sleep, he carefully got up, being careful so as not to disturb the marine. He wandered over to the large floor-to-ceiling window and stared out into the moonlit darkness.

   Sand dunes, as far as the eye could see. A gentle wind was moving the grains of sand around restlessly, with a subdued hissing noise. Stepping through the open window, he walked toward the nearest dune, the sand glittering and warm under his bare feet. He reached the base of the dune and turned around, watching as the wind slowly filled in his footprints behind him. The window frame stood, incongrous, like a portal into another world. There was no building at all, just the frame hanging there in the moonlight.

   'I'm dreaming again,' he realized. He whipped his head around, searching for the presence that he knew was around, somewhere. "Show yourself! Whoever - whatever you are..."

   The wind picked up speed, blowing a large glittering cloud of sand around him in a sudden, whirling vortex. Inside the vortex it was strangely still. Vasya watched the sand, as it spun around him in an almost hypnotic blur.

   "It is done..." A voice whispered inside his head. "You are free."

   Dying as quickly as it came up, the vortex dissapated, the sand quickly falling to the ground, sparkling in the moonlight. Looking around, Vasya didn't feel any different than he had before. "What now?" he asked, crouching down and picking up a handful of the finely grained sand, watching as it flowed between his fingers in an almost fluid motion.

   "Who're you talking to?"

   Startled, Vasya jumped to his feet and spun around, only to see Antonio standing there. The moon was directly behind him, giving him an almost etherial backlit glow. "Chyort! You gave me a fright." Vasya reached out and lightly punched the marine in the chest.

   "Ow! Hey, what was that for?" Antonio staggered back slightly, giving Vasya a hurt look.

   "Just checking you are... well, you. You are you, da?"

   "Yeah, I think so. This is some weird fuckin' dream. But I like where it's goin'," Antonio said, reaching out for Vasya with a leer on his face.

   Ducking out of his reach, laughing, Vasya started running back toward the window portal. Antonio gave chase, quickly narrowing the gap between them. Racing through the open window, Vasya threw himself spread-eagled backward onto the bed, and watched as Antonio paused, panting, at the foot of the bed, eyeing him up. "My babushka can run faster than you!" Vasya snickered, crossing his arms behind his head.

   "No fair, man! This is my dream. You're not supposed to run away from me."

   Vasya returned Antonio's hungry gaze, after briefly glancing out the window. The sky was gradually getting lighter as morning crept up on them across the desert. "This is no dream, my naked comrade. I think Vanguard had something - MMMMMF! "

   While Vasya had been speaking, Antonio had crawled across the bed so that he was lying along the full length of the young Russian's body, looking down into Vasya's vividly light-grey eyes from above. He attacked Vasya's face with his mouth, shoving his tongue deep into Vasya's mouth, interrupting him. After several long moments, he broke the kiss long enough to mutter, "Then let's not waste any time, comrade..."

   Meanwhile, back in the cargo bay of the shuttle, both Antonio and Vasya smiled slightly in their unconscious state.

   After a long and involved question and answer session with the engineers, Invokes-The-Storm went striding into the cockpit. Blocker hastily tried to keep up. "Get this thing into the air. Hrrr, we are going to give that human pack-leader our decision regarding his precious agreement."

   "By your command, pack-leader," Blocker stuttered, suddenly nervous around the young warrior. Something had changed with him, Blocker realized. He wasn't the same, unsure-of-himself, Vanguard that he used to know. The engineer had noticed the cold and callous way that Invokes-The-Storm treated his lover, Obscuring-Darkness, during the session. Blocker decided that any questions he had, regarding the supposed Arbiter transmission, could wait. Indefinitely.

   Once the singularity generators were at full power, he eased the shuttle off the ground, preparing to reverse it out from the decrepit structure where it was hidden.

   "Stop wasting time, and just take off," Invokes-The-Storm snapped at him.

   "But -"

   Splaying out his talons in a threatening gesture, the pack-leader leaned forward until he was snout to snout with Blocker. "Do not make me ask twice, engineer," he rumbled in a quiet, menancing tone.

   The old shearing shed virtually exploded as the shuttle shot upwards at high velocity, trailing a plume of dust and smoke. Splintered wooden beams and sheets of rusty iron roofing showered down around the blasted and smouldering remains. The rays of the early morning sun reflected off the shuttle as it slowed its ascent. Rotating around until it was pointed toward the nearby military base, the shuttle picked up speed and slipped through the air toward its destination.

   It didn't take long for the shuttle to cover the several kilometre distance before the base came into sight. With a predatory smile that chilled the engineer to his very core, Invokes-The-Storm ordered Blocker to bring the shuttle in low and slow. "Take us in through the main gate. Do not stop until I tell you."

   Snapping his jaw shut in acquiescence, Blocker brought the shuttle down until it was only a couple of metres off the ground. With nervous talons, he nudged the vessel's forward speed up to that of a loping Vanguard.

   There were only a few vehicles on the road at this early hour, but they came skidding to a halt, skewed across the verge, as the shuttle moved down the middle of the road toward them. The panicked occupants opened their doors and ran for shelter in the bush on either side of the road. One of the vehicles, a large military cargo truck, had stalled. The driver desperately tried restarting the engine, but the shuttle's shields were interfering with the truck's electronics, rendering it immobile. Realizing the spaceship wasn't going to deviate, the driver leaped from the cab and threw himself into the roadside ditch.

   Wincing, and gripping onto the control console with his talons, Blocker watched as the large, wheeled human vehicle was pushed backwards a few metres before jack-knifing. The shuttle rocked slightly, and there were shrieks of rending metal as the human vehicle was crushed underneath them. The engineer briefly glanced up at Invokes-The-Storm, who was grinning maniacally at the destruction he was wreaking.

   "Fun, is it not?" Invokes-The-Storm said, noticing the fearful gaze of the engineer. "Hrrr, I always wanted to make a big entrance..."

   Waving their weapons at the shuttle, the MP's at the base checkpoint gate started backing away as the Vanguard vessel continued inexorably toward them. They'd watched, horrified, as the shuttle had plowed through and over the truck, jagged bolts of electricity arcing from the shields as the truck was crushed underneath. Running for their lives, the MP's didn't look back as the checkpoint was demolished, not slowing the Vanguard vessel in the slightest.

   The shuttle's shields were starting to glow an ugly yellow as they neared overload. They were not designed for the sort of abuse that Invokes-The-Storm was demanding of them. As the shuttle continued forward, the shields were throwing off ever more powerful arcs of electricity as the shield generators desperately tried to shed as much energy as they could. Jagged bolts of artificial lightning went slashing through the air, blowing large chunks out of nearby buildings.

   Blocker stared desperately at Invokes-The-Storm, who was huffing with laughter at the devastation being caused around them. Several large holographic warning indicators urgently flashed for attention just above the control console. "We have to stop! The shields are failing!"

   "Hrrr, you are no fun. Very well, land us over there."

   Blocker looked where Invokes-The-Storm was pointing, and blanched. "That is a -"

   "A building," the pack-leader interrupted him. "Yes, I know. Do it."

   Bringing the shuttle round, Blocker closed his eyes as the rear end of the shuttle swung into, and flattened, the building. Tongues of electricity from the failing shields snapped out, leaving black scorch-marks on the shattered masonry. One of the yellow holographic indicators, above the control console, turned blue and stopped flashing.

   "We have spare shield generators?" Invokes-The-Storm asked the shell-shocked engineer, as he powered down the singularity generators and tried to ignore the creaks and groans from the shuttle's battered superstructure.

   "Yes, not many, but some."

   "Excellent. The humans can have the damaged one, then." Invokes-The-Storm said, lumbering from the bridge and leaving Blocker to slump, nerves shattered, at the controls.

   Captain Hardy sprinted along behind the marines and local soldiers, as they made their way toward the front gates. Skidding to a halt, they watched as the Vanguard ship plowed through the checkpoint, throwing off what looked like sizzling bolts of lightning from its shields, as debris went sailing through the air.

   "FALL BACK! " he yelled over the sounds of destruction. He threw himself flat on the ground when a jagged bolt of lightning shot over his head, blowing a large, smoking hole in the cinder-block wall of a barracks building beside him.

   Following at a safe distance, the soldiers watched as the shuttle approached the Communications centre. A small number of soldiers barely made it out of the building before the rear of the shuttle swung around, and through, the walls, flattening it completely. With a sound of overstressed metal, the shuttle settled down at an acute angle into the wreckage of the building.

   Hearing the sound of what he took to be the engines winding down into inaudibility, Captain Hardy cautiously approached the battered Vanguard vessel. He was followed closely by quite a few scared, angry, and well-armed soldiers. He looked up as three attack helicopters thundered by overhead. They quickly returned, hovering menacingly over the scene of destruction. "Oh, now the fucking Air Force decides to show up," he muttered, not in the least surprised. It was just like those stupid TV shows or movies, where the cops conveniently show up after all the action has finished.

   Moving closer, Captain Hardy approached the airlock of the alien vessel, and waited. It wasn't long before it slid open and the Vanguard calling itself Invokes-The-Storm leaped out, landing heavily on the ground. Pointing his assault rifle, unwavering, at the reptile's face, he cautiously approached. "Just what in the blue-blazing FUCK is this, lizard?!"

   Invokes-The-Storm looked back at the trail of smoking ruin the shuttle had carved through the base. "Hrrr, definitely quicker than sprinting here," he snapped his jaw in satisfaction. "This one has his answer for you, human."

   Livid with rage, Captain Hardy didn't trust himself to say a word, merely raising a single eyebrow in acknowledgment. He kept his assault rifle trained steadily on the Vanguard's face.

   "Yessssss," the reptile hissed. "We have an agreement. We will provide you with our technology and assistance." Invokes-The-Storm moved forward until the end of Captain Hardy's assault rifle was mere millimetres away from the end of his snout.

   In a lightning quick movement, before the human officer was able to even blink, the warrior snatched the weapon out of his hands, knocking him backward. With two taloned hands gripping either end of the assault rifle, Invokes-The-Storm proceeded to snap it in half with a groan of tortured metal. "In return, we will take from you everything we need in order to make the Arbiter extinct."

End of Part 11