Authors notes: Taniwha has had a 'stay of execution'. I will not be ending it in this or the next part as I had originally intended - it's going to be expanded slightly. The why of it is a long story that I wont bore you with, suffice to say that you can expect some better character development now that I have 'room' to do this.


I have just learned that in the past day or so, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary has died, aged 88. I'm not sure how much you guys know of history, but he (along with his guide, Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing) is credited as being the first man to conquer Mt Everest. Not quite such a big deal these days with the advanced equipment and support available, but a truely monumental task back in his day. He has also set up many charities over the years to help and support the Nepalese people, often getting his hands dirty in helping construct buildings, air-strips etc in the remote areas of Nepal.

Very much someone who many generations (including my own) have looked up to over the years as an inspiration, and rightly so. Rock on, Sir Ed - go you good thing, go.

Lastly, thanks again to my hard-working editor, Richard. You're an inspiration to me, my friend. Now, without any further delay, back to your regularly scheduled b-grade sci-fi space opera!

Taniwha - Part 12

   "We need to talk, Vasya."

   The young Russian soldier opened one eye and stared at Antonio for several seconds, before mumbling, "Zi detka. Some dream, da?"

   Antonio smiled warmly back at him. "Yeah, that's some pretty freaky shit, man." He stood and stretched out the kinks in his muscles caused by lying on the decking for so long in one position. Holding out an arm, he pulled a still slightly groggy Vasya to his feet. The marine then turned and nodded at Docile-Until-Provoked, who was standing nearby. "Thanks. I think we'll be okay from here."

   "Very well. We will be leaving shortly, so do not stay too long. Let this one know if he can be of further assistance." The medic snapped his jaw, then exited through the hatch.

   "How long have you been awake?" Vasya asked, after watching the medic leave.

   "Just a couple of minutes. The lizard doc woke me up, and looked us both over."

   "What is the hurry to leave?"

   Antonio walked toward the hatch, and paused beside it, waving for Vasya to hurry up and join him. "I'll tell ya on the way. C'mon, move that ass, soldier!"

   Giving Antonio a sloppy and irreverent salute, Vasya turned and laid a hand on the battered support module from the Valentina Tereshkova. The marine could see him moving his lips silently, before he trotted over to join him by the hatch.

   "What was that about?" he asked the Russian, as they walked through the main cabin of the, now empty, shuttle.

   "A short prayer of thanks. We may not see her again. So wanted to say farewell to our fine vessel."

   Stopping by the main airlock, Antonio gave him a questioning look. "I didn't think you were the religious sort?"

   Vasya regarded him steadily for a few moments, his expression unreadable, before shrugging stoically. "We still have much to learn about each other, I think."

   Jumping to the ground, they went over to join the group of milling Vanguard gathered near a rather scorched looking barracks building that Antonio recognized from the night before.

   "Well, well. Yankee Doodle and the Russian Husky are awake, at last," said a familiar voice.

   Antonio and Vasya both spun around to see Rangi walking towards them through the crowd, his large Vanguard warrior 'shadow' following closely behind. "Oh, hey kid. So, uh, when did all this happen?" Antonio waved vaguely toward the shuttle and trail of damage it had left.

   "This morning, while you two love-birds were taking a nanna-nap. You should have seen it, bro It was cool. Stuff was getting all blown up and shit!" Rangi formed both hands into the shape of imitation pistols and pointed it at him, pretending to shoot. "Pew, pew!"

   Vasya laughed, leaning over and ruffling Rangi's hair in a friendly manner. "You are funny." Blue-Scale, standing just behind the boy, glared at the Russian and hissed. Vasya snatched his hands away and took a step back. "Nyet, maybe not so funny after all," he muttered.

   Rangi grinned at his discomfort, before turning to the large warrior. "Chill, bro. These two are cool."

   Blue-Scale continued to stare at Vasya suspiciously, but snapped his jaw shut, acknowledging his Little-One's instruction.

   Antonio looked at Rangi and Blue-Scale, raising an eyebrow. Ever since the night of the storm, when the boy had gone off, chasing into the darkness after the upset young warrior, the two of them seemed to be inseparable. Keeping his thoughts to himself, he gestured around. "So. What've we missed? Looks like some party."

   "After you two buggered off, the lizards found out their planet was wasted by those Arbiter thingies. Then the boss-lizard had a meeting and seemed to get a bit riled up. Personally, I reckon he's gone a bit mental in the head." Rangi gave Antonio a lop-sided grin, as he tapped the side of his head. "Seems to be a lot of that going around, lately," he said, staring pointedly at Vasya, who glared back at him from under lowered eyebrows.

   "Hang on! Their planet's been destroyed? "

   Rangi reached up, putting a hand on Blue-Scale's chest in a manner that Antonio found touching, but also disturbingly intimate. "Yeah... Anyhoo, we flew down here this morning after their meeting. Looks like your Captain Jerk-Off's made a deal with the boss-lizard."

   "That's 'Captain Hardy' to you, kid. Show some respect, will you?"

   "Whatever," Rangi muttered, rolling his eyes at Antonio. After the torture he had endured at the hands of the American intelligence agents, there was no way in hell that he was going to forgive and forget any time soon. Show respect to the man? Not fucking likely...

   Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, the marine buried his annoyance. "What sort of deal?"

   Rangi shrugged, disinterested. "Dunno. They're shipping the UFO off to the States, I think. Along with all the lizards. Your Captain Hardy," he sneered as he said the name, "is mighty worried about something. Didn't even yell that much when the boss-lizard wasted everything with his spaceship."

   "That doesn't sound like the Captain Hardy I know. Thanks, kid."

   "Oi! Yankee Doodle! Stop calling me a fucking kid, or I'll get my bro here to eat you," Rangi said, annoyed.

   It was Antonio's opportunity to turn the tables on the boy, and he did so with a vindictive smile. "Whatever, man," he said, mimicking Rangi's earlier words perfectly.

   Puffing out his chest, Rangi was about to retort, when he caught himself, and stopped. Nodding at the marine with respect, he gracefully acknowledged his defeat with a smirk.

   Vasya, who had been listening to the conversation silently, took advantage of the pause, and was about to ask the boy a question, when he felt a taloned hand clamp down firmly on his shoulder. Startled, he turned around and found himself staring up at Flows-Like-Water. The Observer looked at him with a knowing expression, and Vasya found himself feeling suddenly nervous. 'How did he know...?' He had been about to ask if Rangi or Blue-Scale knew anything about the Observer.

   "Hrrr, may this one have a word with you?"

   The Observer led them both away from the rest of the Vanguard, where they were less likely to be overheard.

   Rangi watched them go, still a little irked about the 'kid' comment. "Pfft. I'm 19, hardly a kid. Do I look like a kid to you?" he asked the young warrior behind him, a slightly anxious hitch in his voice. Blue-Scale didn't respond, but just stood there, blinking at him, an almost dopey expression on his craggy features.

   Vasya confronted the Observer when they came to a halt. "Can you read my mind?"

   Flows-Like-Water blinked at him for a few moments, before his face twitched into a recognizable facsimile of a smile. "No, this one merely -"

   "Why don't you just cut the shit, and stop pretending. You've already told us you're not one of the lizards," Antonio interrupted him, clenching his fists. "What do you want?"

   Accepting the rebuke, Flows-Like-Water hunkered down and nodded, his voice slipping back into the perfect unaccented English he had used with them previously. "Alright, Antonio. Your point is well taken. No, Vasya, I cannot read your mind. I can, however, pick up some vague feelings from you when I am in close proximity. I could feel that you were thinking about me."

   "You said you had undone whatever you did to me," Vasya hissed at the Observer, accusingly.

   "I did. You are under no compulsion to favor the Vanguard anymore. The weak link, for lack of a better word, that I have with you is just a side-effect of when I first interfaced with you." He saw that Antonio was about to angrily speak up again, so he pre-empted the question. "As for what I want... I need more time, and I need you both to do something for me."

   "Why should we do anything for you?" Antonio demanded, his tone beligerent.

   "I understand that you are wary of me, given what you have both been through over the past few days. My people have put me here in order to try and build an alliance between your species and the Vanguard, as I have told you before. My mission would be, shall we say... compromized... if anyone found out I was not Vanguard."

   "The Vanguard do not know you are alien?" Vasya asked, surprised.

   "No. Well, that's not quite true. Obscuring-Darkness and Invokes-The-Storm both know what I am, but they realize it's in their best interests not to say anything."

   "What, so now you're gonna threaten us to keep quiet?" Antonio hunched his shoulders and balled his fists, unconsciously moving into a defensive posture.

   Managing to look almost offended, Flows-Like-Water pulled his head back slightly, then held out all four of his hands toward the marine, palms upwards. "No! Of course not. It's probably easier if I just show you. Please! Antonio, Vasya; Trust me."

   Vasya turned to Antonio and stared at him, searchingly for several long moments. Antonio finally, reluctantly, nodded. "I swear, man, if you try any of your mental fuckery with us -"

   Flowing quickly, Flows-Like-Water moved around behind them and reached out a hand, clasping them at the base of their skulls. Closing his eyes, he concentrated.

   Complete blackness, broken only by diamond sharp pinpricks of light.

   "Whoa, holy crap!" Antonio shouted, trying to struggle wildly in the void, before he realized he had no body to struggle with. By experimenting, he found that just by thinking about doing it, he could look around as if his eyes still worked as they should. But there was very little to look at, just a black nothing, relieved only by distant stars. "Vasya...?" He called out tentatively.

   "Da, my friend. I am here."

   Although unable to see anyone, Antonio realized he could feel the comforting presence of his lover close by. He also felt the presence of something else. Something alien.

   "Alright, if you kids are all strapped in and ready, I'll give you the... What did you once call it, Antonio?" The marine got a momentary, but intense, feeling of deja vu. "Ahh, that's right. Let me give you the two-dollar tour." The voice was that of Flows-Like-Water, but the presence was much more powerful.

   The field of stars wheeled around until one small pinprick of light was directly ahead. Then it grew rapidly as they moved toward it at some unimaginable velocity until, mere seconds later, they were skimming low over the seething surface of a star. They shot back into space again, passing several small, rocky planets before another planet grew larger in front of them, swathed in dirty-grey, visibly boiling clouds. Scattered randomly over veiled surface, were several spots glowing a sickly red, emmanating through the clouds.

   Abruptly, their point of view shifted, as they plunged through the cloud layer toward the planet. Floating a kilometre or two above the surface, they could see massive fire-storms raging through what looked like forested areas, as well as several devastated cities that had been razed to the ground by some unimaginable blast-wave. Moving closer to the surface, they skimmed at tree-top height across the ground until they approached an area that looked like it had been swept clean down to bedrock. Just ahead, they could see a puckered, circular depression with jagged, raised edges. It was lit from within by a demonic, red glow. The crater measured fifty or sixty kilometers across, at least.

   "Is this the cause of those bright spots we saw from space?" Antonio asked, quietly.

   "Yes. It is one of several asteroid impact craters on this planet. Arbiters normally disable all space-based defenses first, before bombarding a planet with asteroids. This weakens any surface defenses. And it also makes things hot and humid, which is their preferred sort of environment."

   "Geeze, I thought they were cities."

   They quickly moved on, until they approached another badly damaged settlement. Only, this time, they could see movement everywhere. The ground seemed to be crawling beneath them. Moving closer, they saw that the movement was made up of what looked like thousands of sickly-white centipedes. As they flew on, they reached the outskirts of a city where several massive, blocky space vessels were descending from the sky. After touching down, they started disgorging uncountable numbers of the creatures, which mowed down anything that got in their path.

   With the ominous glow being reflected from the stormy looking clouds onto the writhing masses of creatures below, the scene reminded Vasya of maggots, feasting on the rotting corpse of some long-dead animal. "Those... things. They are Arbiters, da?" he asked, the sight making him feel slightly nauseous.

   Both men got the impression that the disembodied Observer was giving them a grim smile. "Correct. Delightful creatures, aren't they?"

   Flows-Like-Water froze the scene, and zoomed in on one of the Arbiters so Antonio and Vasya could get a closer look at it. It was standing partially upright on the roof of a demolished building, its eyeless head pointed toward the horizon. A small cluster of sensory organs was tucked under an armored chitin plate above its formidable mandibles. The segmented carapace was about four metres long, and sported ten pair of articulated legs, ending in sharp spikes. The forward most pair of legs were considerably different, and looked almost like arms only, where hands would normally be was a cluster of short, but extremely flexible and sensitive tentacles.

   "How do they see? I can't see any eyes," Antonio said, curious despite his disgust.

   "They don't have eyes, as such. They rely on a form of sonar, as well as being extremely sensitive to vibration. Their bodies are covered in millions of very fine hairs that can pick up the slightest movement of air currents. The most interesting thing about the Arbiters is that, unlike humans or Vanguard, they are a hive-mind intelligence."

   "What is hive-mind? " Vasya asked.

   Flows-Like-Water considered his explanation for a few moments. "An Arbiter, by itself, is about half as intelligent as one of your domestic canines. Get a few of them together, though, and they're a lot smarter. Get a few million of them in one place? That's an extremely frightening prospect, even for us."

   Thinking quickly, Antonio's analytical mind prompted him to ask another question. "So what's stopped them from taking over the galaxy before now, if they're that smart in large numbers?"

   "That's where we've been lucky. They're limited in that they need to be in close proximity to each other, and by their means of transportation. Their largest vessels are only capable of transporting a few thousand at a time. Like the Vanguard, they use gravitational manipulation technology to get around. Once you get a vessel above a certain size, the power requirement to move it around become prohibitive," the Observer explained. He resumed the time-flow.

   Skimming low across the ground, they moved on, again, toward what sounded like the distant noise of battle. They soon came across a more intact section of the city, beside a small lake, where there were flashes of light, followed by distant rumbles. On getting closer, they could see small explosions, as wave upon relentless wave of Arbiters attacked a well-defended structure set on a bluff above the lake.

   The setting would have been stunningly beautiful, on any other day.

   "Who're they fighting? And can they see us?" Antonio asked, somewhat nervously. He could almost smell the smoke, and feel the deep bass of explosions against his etherial, unseen body.

   "No. We can't be seen, as we're not actually here. This is an extrapolation from a signal I received recently from another of my kind." The Observer said, in a subdued voice. Normally, he didn't go into such detail when examining the reports from the other scouts. Doing so now, for the sake of the two humans, he found himself feeling vaguely disturbed, which was not something he had expected from himself. 'Maybe I have spent too much time around these mortal creatures,' he thought, thinking of both humans and Vanguard.

   Moving in closer, they saw several hundred Vanguard warriors, fighting a losing battle to keep the Arbiters from overwhelming their defenses. As they watched, the defenses were breached in one section, and the insects came pouring through the hole, swarming over the large reptiles. Roars of defiance quickly turned to short-lived screams, as the warriors were swiftly, and bloodily, dismembered.

   On a launch pad near the top of the heavily fortified structure, they saw a cluster of medics and engineers desperately trying to cram as many nervous Vanguard spawnlings, into an already dangerously overloaded transport shuttle, as they could. A small group of warriors fought a frenzied rear-guard action, trying to give them more time. They fought in vain, and were mercilessly cut down by the voracious invaders.

   Antonio found that he was unable to block out the awful sight, as he watched the medics and engineers go down under hundreds of the swarming insects. The shuttle pilot tried to take off, but he had waited too long. Vasya gave out a strangled cry of horror when the screams of terrified Vanguard spawnlings being slaughtered were quickly silenced, as the shuttle sat on the launch pad.

   Suddenly, they found themselves out in deep space again. No planet, no battle, no scenes of devastation anywhere to be seen. Several seconds passed before Antonio realized he could hear someone sobbing softly. Several more passed before he realized it was himself.

   "Those... Those were Vanguard children..." Vasya managed to force out.

   Flows-Like-Water's voice was unusually subdued and hesitant. "Yes... They were. That was the colony on Tau-Ceti, where your Vanguard survivors came from."

   "Why? Why did you show us that?" the Russian asked, in a broken voice.

   Both men got a sense of great sadness from the Observer, before it responded. "I tried to tell you why I was here. Why I was doing this, but you wouldn't listen to me. My people do not like to interfere, but we cannot just stand by and watch the wholesale genocide of dozens of alien species. The Arbiters wont stop. But they can be halted and, until recently, it was the Vanguard who did that. But their civilization is failing. My people thought that, of the other species in this sector, humans were the most logical choice to help them."

   "But the Vanguard are much more advanced than we are -"

   "And you can see just how much their technology is helping them now. It is not enough! "

   "Stop this." Antonio spoke softly when he had sufficiently recovered himself. "We've seen enough. Take us back."

   "Not yet. There is one more thing you need to see," Flows-Like-Water said, with grim determination.

   Once again, the stars blurred slightly as they shifted through space. They found themselves looking down at a large, blue colored planet, dimly lit by a distant sun that was little more than a bright star. A faint, gritty looking ring, made up of small, dark particles surrounded the planet. White clouds could be seen swirling around in faint bands in the atmosphere.

   Moving away, they travelled for a few seconds until the planet was little more than a small, pale-blue disk. In front of them, was a large, irregularly shaped chunk of what looked like ice and rock. Skimming low over the surface, they passed through gossamer thin veils of dust and gas, subliming from the surface and spreading out in an a mostly invisible tail behind the object. Moments later their dizzying trip across the pitted surface came to a stop when they were hovering over a large, dark sphere, obviously artificial, sunk deep into the surface. Moving on again, they travelled a few more seconds and came to another, identical, sphere.

   "Singularity generators," Flows-Like-Water explained. "Accelerating this mass and many others like it toward the sun." Several of the dim 'stars' started blinking, until the space around them was filled with dozens of the blinking points of light. "That planet you just saw is the one you humans call Neptune."

   "I do not understand -" Vasya started to say before the stars blurred, and they found themselves in space above a planet that he recognized instantly.

   "This is 23 of your months from now," Flows-Like-Water said quietly.

   Both Antonio and Vasya watched, newly horrified, as one of the masses came streaking toward them, covering the distance between the moon and the Earth in mere seconds. There was a blinding flash when it hit, which took several seconds to die away to a level where they could see again. Gone was the blue and white globe they knew. Instead, there was a glowing white hole in the side of a noticeably misshapen sphere, with massive, molten chunks that must have been hundreds of kilometres in size, splashing out into space.

   But there was no respite. A minute or so later, another one of the comets came streaking through space at relativistic speed, impacting with another blinding flash. Over next few minutes the once blue planet was reduced to glowing fragments, slowly spreading out into space as more of the comets came blasting through.

   "ENOUGH! " Antonio cried out. Vasya had retreated into complete silence, unable to say anything at all.

   Abruptly, both men found themselves staggering forward in the bright sunlight. Flows-Like-Water watched them both, silently. Blinking in the glare, they looked around at the worse-for-wear military base, milling Vanguard, and heavily armed soldiers standing around nervously. Everything looked so wonderfully normal.

   "I - I thought Arbiters invaded planets, not destroyed them." Antonio said, numbly.

   "It seems they consider your species a more immediate threat."

   "How do we stop this?"

   "The future isn't set in stone, and what you saw may not come to pass. But there are no guarantees. I am doing what I can, but I need your assistance. There are only two things I ask of you. Will you help me?" The Observer looked at each of the men in turn, waiting for them to respond.


   Flows-Like-Water acknowledged Vasya with a nod, then turned to the marine. "And you, Antonio?"

   "Don't really have a lot of choice, do I? You expect me to say no after what I've just seen?"

   "Very well. All I ask is that you tell no-one of what you know about myself, or what I have shown you. Your people will find out the truth soon enough. Lastly... Go easy on the Vanguard, they've been through a lot, recently. Help them, and they'll help you."


   Invokes-The-Storm watched as two massive cranes slowly lifted the shuttle into the air, pulling it out from the smoldering wreckage of the Communications Centre where it had come to a stop. A large, multi-wheeled, heavy transport vehicle had been brought in to transfer the shuttle to the nearest docks, where it would then be shipped to a secret facility based in a location that the human pack-leader had called Area-51.

   "It's time for you to go." Captain Hardy turned to the Vanguard pack-leader standing next to him.

   Snapping his jaw shut, Invokes-The-Storm looked at the row of waiting troop carriers, then back at the human. "Hrrr, there has been a change in plans."

   Captain Hardy sighed melodramatically, and crossed his arms, scowling at the Vanguard. "I should have expected this, from you. You change your mind more often than I change my underwear."

   "Our engineers, and medics, will leave with the shuttle. They will assist your engineers. This one and the rest of the warriors will be free go where they wish."

   "Unacceptable, lizard!"

   "You are refusing this one?" Invokes-The-Storm narrowed his eyes slightly.

   "Damn straight I'm refusing you. We can't have you or any of your... kind... wandering anywhere you wanted to. It's for your own protection," Captain Hardy said, waiting for the inevitable outraged, or sullen, response.

   Invokes-The-Storm started huffing loudly, suddenly amused. This wasn't the reaction that Captain Hardy was expecting. "For our own protection? Do you not think we are capable of defending ourselves, human?"

   "That's not in question. You've already agreed to our terms. You can't just go and change them every time the whim takes you." Captain Hardy shook his head, vehemently. "So, it ain't gonna happen. Forget it."

   Hunkering down onto his haunches, Invokes-The-Storm idly dragged the extended talons of one hand through the grass, leaving deep furrows, while he watched the shuttle being moved. "What is it that you are afraid of, human?"

   Captain Hardy's expression hardened, as he watched the Vanguard poking about in the dirt. Not dignifying the implication was all the response he needed to give.

   Invokes-The-Storm turned to him and took a deep sniff, before snorting loudly and turning back to watch the shuttle. "No... Perhaps this one was wrong. You are not afraid. This one suspects your pack-leaders might be, however." He stood up and faced the human. "That is understandable. Walk with this one, human."

   Shouldering his replacement assault rifle, Captain Hardy followed the Vanguard as it lumbered slowly away from the shuttle. Looking surreptitiously over his shoulder, he made sure the small group of heavily armed marines was following along at a reasonable distance behind. The reptilian alien must have noticed them, but didn't seem to pay them any attention.

   "Hrrr, our situation has changed. This one is going to tell you something that only another pack-leader would fully understand." The human stopped walking and faced him, expectantly. "Our home colony has been destroyed by the Arbiters. Even if we possessed the means to return, there is no home to return to. We have nothing to lose, anymore." He watched the implications, of what he was saying, sink in.

   Even the voice of his kinder, gentler side, normally screaming impotently as it was trapped inside his head, was quiet, waiting for the human's response.

   Hesitating, Captain Hardy nodded slowly. "I'm sorry to hear that, lizard. Although, I would have thought that'd give you a better understanding of why we're willing to go to such lengths to protect our own planet." He looked up and met the pack-leaders gaze again. "I'll level with you, one leader to another. I am under orders to keep news of the Arbiter attack from getting out. This is why I can't let you just wander around. Do you understand?"

   Invokes-The-Storm huffed, surprised. "Hrrr, why keep this from your own people?"

   "Because it would lead to disaster. People would go crazy, and do stupid things. The religious nuts would probably try and prevent us from trying to stop the comets." Captain Hardy shook his head, sadly. "We can't even trust our own people to keep the peace. Let alone other governments."

   "This one is not sure he understands. Would humans not work together to prevent this? And what is this Religious thing of which you speak?"

   Captain Hardy regarded the pack-leader curiously, as they resumed their walk. "You don't have religion on your planet?"

   "This one is unfamiliar with that term."

   "Well, fuck me. Maybe there is hope for you lizards, after all. Look it up sometime, if you want a laugh." He shoved his hands into his pockets, casting an occasional glance at the Vanguard as they talked. "As for your other question; no. Humans have a very long history of not getting along together. We're still a very divided species."

   They carried along in silence for a while, until they reached the demolished front gate checkpoint and stopped. Captain Hardy frowned at the reminder of the recent destruction. It was a remarkably childish thing for the pack-leader to have done, he realized. Just what kind of creatures were these Vanguard, really?

   After looking around for a few moments, Invokes-The-Storm stepped in front of Captain Hardy, staring unblinkingly down at the human pack-leader. "What this one said earlier is not up for discussion, human. There is little you can do to stop us. We will not be denied. There are safe-guards in place should anything happen to us. You may wish to communicate that to your pack-leaders."

   Captain Hardy stared at the Vanguard with a small amount of grudging respect, careful to keep the expression on his face as neutral as possible. The lizard had put him in a very awkward position. Invokes-The-Storm was crafty, dangerous, and not to be trusted. Nothing good would come of letting the Vanguard warriors run around loose. But if their situation were reversed, he would be doing exactly the same thing.

   Reaching a decision, he nodded curtly to the pack-leader. "At least give me some time to talk to my... pack-leaders... and come back to you with an answer." There was still something he found troubling about the Vanguard pack-leader's behavior. It had become increasingly erratic, and down-right confusing. While he knew nothing about alien psychology, he prided himself on being a good judge of character. And there was something very wrong about this one...

   "Hrrr, very well, human. This one is not patient, so be quick about it." Invokes-The-Storm snapped his jaw shut, satisfied. The human had got his message loud and clear; he was not bluffing. The human pack-leader recognized this and would communicate it to his superiors. If they were as desperate as he thought they were, he'd probably be able to get away with murder...

   Vasya looked up at Antonio, as the marine watched the large cargo-transporter pull away with its massive, tarpaulin-covered, load. The engineers and medics had already left several minutes earlier. Since their horror-filled revelations at the hands of the Observer, the marine had hardly said a word to anyone.

   A few minutes earlier, Invokes-The-Storm had broken the news that he had secured the right for the warriors to go out and gather information. The only limitation given was that every Vanguard had to have an armed, military escort go with them wherever they went. Ostensibly for their protection. He'd ordered the warriors to break up into groups of three or four. They'd been given the use of any military vehicle they required for their tasks.

   To Vasya's surprise, the pack-leader had then specifically approached Antonio and himself and asked them to look after Blue-Scale. He seemed furious that the young warrior refused to be separated from Rangi for any length of time. There had been lots of roaring and hissing but, in the end, Invokes-The-Storm had given up trying to order the warrior around. And given that Rangi wasn't likely to be allowed access to the Area-51 base, that meant the warrior was stuck here, with them.

   Before Captain Hardy had left the base, he had approached Antonio and ordered him and Vasya to be part of the escort for Blue-Scale, along with a couple of other soldiers. The young men assigned were not US Marines, he was amused to note, but New Zealand Army soldiers. They had been instructed to report to Antonio, but Vasya suspected they had been given their own, separate, orders by the Captain.

   It wasn't going to take long before news of 'Aliens Have Landed!' got out, Vasya suspected, uneasily. The world just got that little bit smaller, he thought, ruefully. He rested a hand on Antonio's shoulder. "Blue-Scale is going back to Rangi's village with the boy. The truck will be leaving soon. Have you got everything?"

   "Huh? Oh. Yeah. What about you?"

   "I managed to get some equipment from base supplies," he said, nodding at a half-filled kit-bag next to the waiting truck.

   Antonio resumed staring off into space, lost deep in thought. Sighing, Vasya picked up the marine's kit-bag and started lugging it over to the truck. When he reached the tailgate, Blue-Scale, who had been crouched down beside Rangi, leaned down and grabbed the kit-bag out of his hands, placing it with a small pile of gear already loaded onto the truck. Startled, he stared at the warrior, wondering what prompted the change in attitude from the snarling protectiveness he showed earlier.

   Rangi smiled at him and just shrugged. "Just go with it, bro. I told him to relax. You and Yankee Doodle are pretty cool, I guess, for Army guys."

   "Da, thanks," Vasya said, heaving up his own kit-bag which Blue-Scale also took off him.

   "But speaking of lover-boy, what's up with him? You and him looked pretty upset a while ago, after speaking to that other lizard. You guys aren't gonna break up already, are you?"

   "Nyet. It is a long story, for another time."

   "Whatever. Just tell him to get his arse over here. I just wanna go home. It's been a long couple of days."

   "Da. Da, it certainly has, my friend," Vasya said under his breath, sighing wearily as he made his way back over to Antonio. The marine jumped, startled, when Vasya shouted at him. "Suck it up, Marine!"

   Smiling slightly as he followed Vasya over to the truck where the two other escorting soldiers were already waiting, Antonio leaned forward and slapped Vasya on the ass. "You've been watching too many war movies, comrade."

   When they reached the truck, Vasya turned to the marine, shaking his head. "You are a very confusing man. First you are all unhappy. Now you are all happy. I think you must be, how does boy put it... Mental in the head, da?" he said with an answering smile, relieved that Antonio was, at least a little, returning to his usual self.

   Gently pushing Rangi out of the way, Blue-Scale leaned over the tailgate and lowered all four of his arms down to them.

   The two soldiers looked at each other and shrugged, but waited until Vasya and Antonio put their arms up first and grasped the Blue-Scale's wrists, the warrior grasping theirs in turn. Grunting with the effort, Blue-Scale heaved all four of them up off the ground and into the back of the truck. He then closed the tailgate, once everyone had sat themselves down, and settled beside Rangi again, huffing slightly, and looking pleased with himself.

   "Nobody likes a show-off, bro." Rangi laughed, nudging the warrior with his shoulder.

   With a lurch, the truck set off. Antonio made himself comfortable, leaning against the back of the truck's cab with one foot on the seat, the other on the deck. He pulled an unprotesting Vasya toward him. The young Russian soldier sighed and leaned back against his chest. As Antonio rested his chin gently on the top of Vasya's head, they both stared out the back of the truck as it trundled along the road, picking up speed.

   Blue-Scale regarded the pair for a few moments, before blinking and turning to face Rangi. Bracing himself against the side of the truck, he started purring deeply, and grabbed the startled boy, pulling him into a four-armed embrace.

   The two soldiers shifted on the seat uncomfortably, not quite knowing where to look. Finally, after several minutes, one of them cleared his throat and looked at the other. "Come on, mate. Give us a hug."

   "Not bloody likely, geeze!"

   "So I guess a fuck's out of the question, then?" Laughing, the first soldier turned and shrugged at Antonio and Vasya.

   The second soldier shook his head in mock disgust, muttering, "Everyone's a comedian. This is going to be a long drive..."

End of Part 12