Authors notes: Okay, it's decided. I want a Polaris ATV of my own. I also want a hovercraft. Y'know, I almost bought a hovercraft (for realz, yo) before I moved to Norway. Had a bit of disposable income and thought that it would be a wonderful toy. But I figure that a Polaris is probably a little more realistic. But LINC!, I hear you cry. LINC! What is a Polaris, and why do you want one? Those of you who have seen that picture I had commissioned of Blue-Scale riding a 'farm bike' (available on the Yahoo group that Monkur graciously allows me to share) will know of what I speak. And why?

Because it's cool.

And that's good enough for me. It's all about the toys, hrrr! He who dies with the most cool toys wins. Anyway, enough of that bullshit, I shall unleash upon you section 14 of Taniwha. This is an epic section, going on twice as long as any other. EPIC, DAMN YOU! My mental indulgence - a toy for your brain... But not before I say a heart-felt thank you to my editor, Richard - a veritable mechanized Godzilla amongst people in my toy box of friends.

PS: Brook, if you're reading this - drop me an email? I lost your contact details when my email settings were wiped out a couple of weeks ago :-( - Takk

Taniwha - Part 14

   "Make it stop! Cut off... the power, for the love... of god!"

   "I... I can't move. I can't shut... it off."

   Several white-coated men and women, lying spread-eagled flat on the floor around the lab, glared at Dr. Steven Evans from their prone vantage points. The physicist was desperately trying to move an arm toward a heavily reinforced concrete platform, where a large, spherical object sat, connected via fat cabling to a duct disappearing into the wall of the lab. A small observation port, built into the upper surface of the sphere, let out a ghostly white light that played across the ceiling in seemingly random patterns, resembling sunlight being reflected off gently rippling water.

   One of the women gave Dr. Evans a particularly withering look as she lay, gasping, but otherwize unmoving on the floor. "Those Vanguard... engineers specifically warned... us, not to change any... of the settings... until they arrived -"

   "They're just... slowing us down," Dr. Evans interrupted, attempting to look indignant, but the effort required to move his facial muscles was far too much, so he gave up and let the flesh of his face slump toward the floor again.

   "The only thing... slowing us down... is you! You're too pig-headed... to admit that mere... advanced aliens... might possibly know... just a little bit... more than... the great Dr. Steven Evans, -" She grated out, almost completely out of breath from the effort required to speak. "You jerk."

   He was saved from further vitriolic abuse when Obscuring-Darkness came rocking up to the door of the lab, holding a datapad in one taloned hand. The hinges on the door groaned alarmingly, as it slowly swung open in front of the young Vanguard engineer. On seeing the human scientists lying sprawled in awkward poses all over the floor around the singularity generator, he immediately halted. Cocking his head to one side, he raised an arm and cautiously extended it into the room in front of him.

   "Hrrr... This one warned you to be cautious," he sighed, as he felt the heavier than normal gravity tug his arm downward.

   "Yes, yes... Please, just... shut it off! Quickly!"

   Obscuring-Darkness snorted with mild amusement, and secured the datapad in a pocket in his skinsuit. Slowly and carefully he shuffled into the room toward the small control console next to the singularity generator.

   Dr. Evans tried to flinch away as three large black taloned toes set down scant centimetres from the end of his nose, but the large force holding him against the floor wouldn't let him move. The Vanguard knelt down in front of the control console and casually tapped at it with the talons on one hand. Abruptly the gravitational force cut off, letting the bruised and weary scientists get to their now rather wobbly feet.

   "You should have warned us about that." The whining, accusatory tone in Dr. Evans' voice was clear as he brushed himself off and approached the engineer.

   Obscuring-Darkness swung his head around and regarded the human through four emotionless black eyes for several long moments. All it would take would be one bite, and the human would no longer be such an irritant. He seriously considered it, before deciding the inevitable recriminations would just waste time. He much prefered to work with the other humans. They, at least, seemed genuinely interested in learning how the technology worked.

   Although Dr. Steven Evans was quite intelligent (for a mere human), he was operating under the mistaken impression that he understood some of the finer points of Vanguard gravitic manipulation processes. Rumbling, the engineer grabbed one of Dr. Evans' wrists and, with a deft flick of a talon, slit the wristband on the mechanical time-piece that he wore.

   "Hey! What do you think you're doing?! Let me go... Oh," Dr. Evans grabbed wildly for the watch when he realized what was going on, but the Vanguard engineer held it out of his reach, shoving him backward. "Give that back! It's an antique... Wait, what are you doing... Stop! "

   Obscuring-Darkness laid the time-piece on the platform beside the singularity generator, then tapped away on the control console. Nothing happened for several seconds, then a sharp «snap» noise could be heard, along with a soft moan of stressed metal. Lots of hairline cracks suddenly appeared on the crystalline face of the watch. The second-hand had stopped moving a couple of seconds before, and snapped off its shaft with a metallic «ping!».

   The assembled scientists, realizing what they were witnessing, took a couple of steps back. Dr. Evans, his eyes bulging in horror, dashed forward to grab the watch. Obscuring-Darkness gently knocked him back, again. The others watched, mesmerized as the watch succumbed to a massive, but localized, gravitational force. Gradually the watch flattened out with a high-pitched squealing noise, and the metal started to flow.

   Snapping his jaw with satisfaction, Obscuring-Darkness tapped once more on the control console, canceling the field. Carefully using a talon to pry at one flattened edge, he peeled the remains of the time-piece off the platform and held it up to the light. There were a couple of shocked gasps from the assembled scientists as they realized they could see the light shining dimly through a couple of spots of the now paper-thin metal.

   "My watch," Dr. Evans whimpered, as the engineer held out the remains to him. He was reminded of the melting clock in a painting by Salvador Dali.

   "You were fortunate that the field created by the Dr. Steven Evans human, was only eight times that of this planet's normal field strength," Obscuring-Darkness said quietly, watching the expressions change on the humans' faces. The demonstration spoke eloquently on just how fortunate they were. By a sheer stroke of luck, Dr. Evans had only just missed the setting that would have changed the local gravity by a factor of 100. Anything organic near the generator would have been reduced to the consistency of a liquid, measuring a mere fraction of a millimetre thick.

   After spending several long hours with the humans, the weary engineer made his way over to the rear of their poor, dilapidated shuttle sitting in the stark glare of several banks of spotlights. Blocker and several other humans were clustered around the large thruster exhaust ports, discussing the theory behind the near-FTL drive that equipped the shuttle.

   "So you can't travel faster than light, then?" a darker-skinned young human asked, as he poked around one of the thruster gimbals.

   "Hrrr, no. However, Vanguard have developed ways around that limitation."

   "How? Worm-holes? Einstein-Kerr warp -"

   Blocker was also starting to tire, and glanced up at Obscuring-Darkness, the expression of relief on his craggy features evident to the other engineer. Snapping his jaw shut, acknowledging Blocker's unspoken plea, Obscuring-Darkness interrupted the human.

   "This one is not familiar with worm-holes or any kind of warp. You humans are familiar with sub-space, hrrr?"

   The assembled scientists and engineers all looked at each other blankly. All of the accepted theories about faster-than-light (FTL) travel were centred around the concept of massless particles or other exotic concepts. To them, Sub-space was something straight out of science-fiction.

   Although not experts at recognizing human facial expressions, the two engineers recognized the glazed looks crossing the faces of several of the humans present. Obscuring-Darkness pulled out his trusty datapad and tapped away on it for a minute or two, the humans looking on impatiently. Satisfied, he held up the datapad so they could see the screen. On it he'd drawn two spheres, one smaller inside another translucent outer sphere.

   "This," he said pointing a talon at the outer sphere, "is our universe. Understand?"

   "But according to all our modeling, space-time in this universe isn't spherical -"

   "Hrrr! You are correct. This is simplification. Reality is more complicated. However, we only have limited time. It is important you understand theory. Do you understand? " he growled.

   "Yes, but -"

   "You will be silent now. This one will continue with the explanation." Obscuring-Darkness glared at the human, who swallowed visibly and quickly shut up. He tapped at the inner sphere with a talon. "This is sub-space. It exists alongside this universe. However, it has different physical properties. Sub-space is accessed using tears created in this universe. Vessels go through tears into sub-space. They travel using near-FTL drives to traverse distance. Then another tear in sub-space is created to get back to this universe. When the vessel emerges, it has traveled much further distance."

   Another of the humans held up a tentative hand. "I don't understand. Are the distances or time-flow in sub-space different?"

   Blocker reached for the datapad, taking over from Obscuring-Darkness. Using a talon, he tapped away for a few moments, then showed the altered drawing to the humans. A glowing red line was drawn on the ghostly outer sphere, covering roughly 20% of the circumference.

   "This shows vessel moving one light-month. Now, if the same distance was covered in sub-space, the vessel would travel further, hrrr?" Blocker tapped a talon on the datapad screen, and a glowing blue line the same length was drawn on the smaller inner sphere, wrapping almost half way around the smaller circumference. "If that vessel now exited sub-space, it would emerge at a point further along than the first, hrrr?" He pointed to a point on surface of the outer sphere some distance away from the end of the red line.

   Excited murmuring broke out among several of the humans. The dark-skinned younger one spoke up again, having recovered his courage. "Yes, that actually makes sense. I have another question, though. How do you tear a hole through into sub-space?" He gestured at the battered shuttle and shrugged. "We've been over every square centimetre of your ship, and found nothing that seems capable of doing that."

   Obscuring-Darkness swung his head around, and stared at Blocker for several long moments. Blocker closed his eyes and made a long, mournful sounding howl, startling the humans. He then stormed away, back toward their quarters, scattering the humans in his wake.

   Obscuring-Darkness half closed his eyes and lumbered over to the shuttle, reaching up and placing all four of his taloned hands on the scratched and muddy fuselage. He remained silent for a couple of minutes before responding. "This vessel is not capable of accessing sub-space."

   One of the female humans cautiously approached him, and tentatively reached out an arm and touched him hesitantly, gently on the back. Prior to meeting the Vanguard for the first time, they had all been briefed on the situation. It had been explained to them all that the small group of Vanguard were the only survivors from a battleship that had been destroyed a couple of weeks earlier. "Your home - it's a long way from Earth, isn't it?"

   "It would take approximately 18 years to reach our home colony, even operating the near-FTL drive at full power. The singularity generators are not capable of sustaining power at that level for more than three years." Squaring his shoulders and turning to leave, he stopped momentarily, swinging his head around to look back at her. He sighed, "Hrrr... Not that it matters any longer. Arbiters have destroyed our home colony. Our clans are slain. We have nowhere left to go." He lumbered off, leaving the humans to numbly stare at each other in shocked silence - their briefing had not mentioned anything about the destruction of their home-world.

   Blocker had stripped off his skinsuit, and was sloshing angrily around in the large pool at the rear of the barracks when Obscuring-Darkness caught up to him. Shucking off his own skinsuit, he lowered himself into the hot water next to the agitated young engineer.

   After several minutes Blocker calmed down and sighed deeply as the heat worked its way slowly into his muscles, relaxing them. After a while, he raised his head and locked eyes with Obscuring-Darkness, who was slumped down, with only his head poking out of the water, staring silently at him. "What?"


   Narrowing his eyes, Blocker regarded the other engineer with annoyance. "What," he asked, pointedly, "do you want?"

   "You are obviously upset. I am concerned -"

   "I do not need your pity! " he hissed, rounding on Obscuring-Darkness furiously.

   "I did not join you out of pity," Obscuring-Darkness said, sitting up and sending water streaming down his broad shoulders. He didn't flinch from Blocker, who had bared his teeth and was snarling at him, mere centimetres from the end of his snout.

   "Leave. Me. ALONE! "

   Reacting purely out of instinct, Obscuring-Darkness reached out with all four arms and quickly pulled the startled engineer into an embrace, sending steaming water cascading in all directions. Although not as muscled and bulky like a warrior, he was still larger, and stronger than the younger Vanguard, who struggled violently for several moments before slumping, despondent and defeated, in his grip. When Obscuring-Darkness started the deep, soothing purr intended to calm spawnlings, Blocker shuddered and let his breath out in one big rush. Tears, born of many different emotions, broke free, flowing down his craggy features to drip darkly from the end of his scaled jaw.

   "Have the Ancestors finally abandoned us?" Blocker sobbed, shaking like a leaf in the other Vanguard's arms.

   "Hrrr, I do not believe we have been abandoned, my friend." With a sharp sting that pierced him to his very core, he remembered the harsh, uncaring manner in which he had been dismissed by Invokes-The-Storm when they had recently parted. His purring momentarily faltered as he struggled to choke back his own tears; the vision of something hard and cold staring at him from his lovers eyes clear in his mind.

   The two young Vanguard clung tightly to each other in the pool, each racked by the torture of their own inner demons.

   Not far from the Kuiper belt, a series of huge tears in the fabric of space-time appeared, through which emerged several large, blocky Aribter battleships. The shields guarding their ungainly hulls shimmered from the bombardment of Cherenkov radiation spewing through the rips. As the gravity generators on the vessels powered down, the tears winked out of existence behind the fleet.

   Deploying large, semi-organic sensor arrays from their hulls, they passively scanned for a particular signal. It wasn't long before the beacon was picked up, barely noticed amongst the shrieking of background cosmic radiation. Triangulating the signal, the fleet powered up their sub-light drives and moved off toward the source.


   On board the original Arbiter battleship, the new orders from their main hive seeped through to all of the individuals of the sub-hive, as they restlessly moved around on their various assigned tasks. The sub-hive mind's own assignment hadn't changed: Maintain watch and continue to shepherd the proto-comet masses as they accelerated inwards toward the vermin on the 3rd planet.

   The battleship's sensors monitored as the fleet moved away at flank speed, quickly overtaking the proto-cometary masses as they made their way deeper into the planetary system. While the atmosphere of the 3rd planet was inimicable to Arbiters, that wouldn't stop them from gathering samples, and neutralizing any possibility of the filthy, disgusting inhabitants from being able to stop the impending destruction of their planet.

   A sharp smell of disquiet slowly permeated through the pheromone haze inside the ship, as the sub-hive mind expressed disappointment with its role in upcoming events. Forced inactivity, over long periods of time caused problems in the cohesion of the sub-hive mind, which manifested by occasional loss of control over individual Arbiter units. These malfunctioning units were quickly dealt with, and replaced by fresh units from the grub nurseries. However, the increasing frequency of these failures was becoming a concern.

   As the distance between Fleet &17&&, and the original battleship increased, the sub-hive mind felt the loss of contact with others of its kind as a gradual numbing. The merging, when the fleet had first arrived, was an almost orgasmic feeling - everything became clearer, its intelligence more formidable. Now, as the last vestiges of mental contact with the fleet were lost, a strange sort of desperation crept in... The giddy stench of a new emotion was soon loosed through the dripping, labyrinthine corridors of the battleship.

   In the frigid darkness of trans-Neptunian space, the isolated, and now paranoid, sub-hive mind slowly went insane.

   Captain George Hardy finished typing his report, then sat back with a tired sigh, indifferently regarding the small blinking cursor at the bottom of the terminal screen. It had now been several weeks since was assigned to the deep underground cavern at the government's Area-51 facility. His task of baby-sitting a bunch of reluctant alien lizards, as they labored to reverse-engineer their technology in terms that a bunch of egg-heads could understand, was starting to bore him.

   Raising his head, he eyed the quarter-full bottle of vodka, sitting on top of a filing cabinet in one corner of his office and half hidden in the shadows, with longing. The Russian, Lieutenant Irenei Putin, had given it to him as a parting gift a couple of weeks earlier, just before he'd had to return home to be debriefed by his own superiors. Snorting, he returned his attention to the terminal screen. Later.

   Since being stationed here, he had read many reports of sightings of 'strange dinosaurs with military escorts'. The media, and several unfriendly governments, knew that something was going on. It was also only a matter of time before some civilian agency became aware of the cometary masses on their way toward the inner Solar System, as well.

   Leaning forward, he tapped away on the keyboard, sending his latest report to the shadowy figures who were running the whole operation. The open file disappeared off the terminal screen, exposing the pictures underneath that he'd been studying earlier.

   "Screw it," he muttered, getting up to retrieve the bottle of vodka from the filing cabinet.

   Slouching back into his chair, he poured a generous helping of the aromatic liquid into the stained, but empty coffee mug sitting on his desk. Feeling the pleasant sting, as the vodka burned its way down his throat, he stared at the disquieting images on the screen. Cupping the mug in both hands, he studied each computer-generated image with a feeling of unease and, uncharacteristically for him, fear.

   A couple of hours previously, Dr. Ling - in charge of the exobiology group that had been working with the lizard medics - had sent him her latest report. Although fairly complete, with information regarding Vanguard physiology, she had also included a small section on what little was known by the Vanguard about Arbiter physiology. And it was that information that had him more than a little rattled.

   Nobody knew of his deep-seated dislike of insects. And, more specifically, centipedes. George Hardy had been no more than six years old when he had been playing around on his Grandfather's ranch, near a large woodpile close to the barn. Like any normal child his age, he had a healthy curiosity about the creepy-crawlies that liked to live in the dark, moist crevices, out of the glare of direct sunlight.

   Lifting one particularly heavy chunk of wood, that had previously lain undisturbed for many seasons, he discovered a colony of large centipedes hiding underneath. Fascinated, he leaned in for a closer look as they quickly uncurled and started writhing around, seeking shelter from the harsh Summer sun and unhappy at being so abruptly exposed. Suddenly, he felt several extremely painful bites on his arm. Unnoticed by him, there had been several centipedes clinging to the bottom of the chunk of wood as he lifted it up. Agitated, they had dropped down and started biting at their perceived attacker, sinking their sharp toxin-filled mandibles deep into the flesh of his arm.

   Shrieking with pain and fear, George whirled around, desperately shaking his arm to try and dislodge the insects, which continued to cling with fierce determination with their mandibles and many legs. The situation rapidly deteriorated when he tripped and fell on top of several more of the segmented insects as they scuttled around. They also started biting, trying to defend themselves from his frenzied movements, and pumping even more of their toxic venom into his body.

   Although time had dimmed the memory of the pain, the sheer, unadulterated terror of that day, many years ago, had not faded significantly. Several of the bites had festered and become infected, which left small scars that were still barely visible to this day, if someone looked hard enough. The fevers and chills had racked his young body for days, until the toxins were finally neutralized.

   Back in the present, Captain Hardy slugged back the remaining vodka and slammed the mug back down on his desk, glaring at the centipede-like pictures on the terminal screen. "Fuck you! " he snarled, pushing away from his desk and standing up, straightening out his wrinkled uniform as he did so. "Not on my watch you don't, fuckers." Stalking from his office, he didn't look back at the images on the terminal screen, slamming the door as he left.

   Back when he was young, several weeks after he had recovered from the fevers caused by the infections, he had returned to the site of the attack. Over the next few hours he had then hunted down every single insect hiding in the woodpile and mercilessly crushed them under his boot-covered feet.

   Squeezing his eyes shut, Antonio gritted his teeth and groaned, his hands squeezing hard on the fingers intertwined with his own. Even the dried hay underneath the thin military-issue blanket poking into his chest and stomach was not enough to distract him from the pain, as a compact and well-muscled body pressed into him from above.

   "Konchaj bazar," a heavily accented voice whispered breathily into his ear, as the voice's owner sank even deeper inside him. "Ia tebya imeyu, patsan..."

   Ah shit, it hurts," the marine managed to grunt out, gasping as he felt Vasya finally bottom out inside him.

   Biting at the back of Antonio's neck, Vasya reveled in the feeling of being balls deep inside the incredibly tight, spasming ass of his lover. When they'd been wrestling earlier, Antonio had joked that the winner could fuck the loser, feeling over-confident in light of the fact that he seemed to win most of their friendly bouts together.

   What Vasya had never mentioned to him, was that he had actually been one of Russia's most elite junior wrestlers, and was even considered for a place on the Russian Olympic team, before injury ruled him out just days before the teams were announced. The reason he lost most of their wrestling bouts was because he chose to lose. Vasya had always warned Antonio that this day would come, and now it was his turn to collect...

   His smooth chest sliding easily against Antonio's sweat slick back, Vasya lifted his hips slightly, pulling his cock out a few centimetres, eliciting another grunt from the marine. In one smooth movement he pushed back in again, feeling the marine trying to pull forward to escape from underneath him. "Relax, little petookh... It will feel good, I promise," he whispered huskily, starting to pump his hips gently.

   "I can't... oh god... can't believe I lost... Arrgh... Lost. Thought I, Ah! had you..."

   Vasya slid up again, burying himself deep inside the sweaty, trembling body beneath him, enjoying the smells and sensations of two men in their prime, rutting like animals in the darkness. His teeth gleaming in the small amount of light coming through the door of the shed, the Russian soldier didn't respond verbally, instead he let his body do the talking as he claimed his prize with a feral smile on his face.

   Antonio also stopped talking, too busy gasping as his lover thrust into him, never pulling out more than halfway before jerking his hips forward and burying himself completely inside again. Although still painful, the thought of the beautiful young Russian soldier fucking him like this made him rock-hard. He tilted his head to one side, trying to catch a glimpse of Vasya's face, but was rewarded only with a wet tongue from above, licking the sweat running down the side of his face.

   Pulling his fingers free, Vasya grasped Antonio by the shoulders and levered himself up, his weight pushing Antonio's face into the blanket. The tightness of the marine's ass was having a devastating effect on his stamina - he wasn't going to last much longer. Deciding not to prolong the inevitable, he started hard, fast thrusts deep into the man pinned underneath him, withdrawing most of the way before slamming back in, making Antonio cry out with each thrust.

   With a strangled cry of his own, Vasya crested over the edge, burying himself deep inside Antonio as his cock drained into the tight confines, finally claiming the marine as his own. After several long moments, he got up, then immediately collapsed onto his back beside Antonio, breathing heavily. Turning his head, he was surprised to see a single tear making its shining way down Antonio's cheek, before the marine had a chance to turn his head and hide it. Rolling onto his side, he faced the marine and reached out to brush the sweat-soaked hair off the other man's forehead.

   "You didn't have to be so rough," Antonio muttered in a gruff, emotion-choked voice.

   Vasya's heart hammered in his chest, and he blushed, closing his eyes to avoid the hurt look on Antonio's face. Why had he been so rough? He opened his eyes and rolled over onto his back again, staring up at the barely visible rafters. With a feeling of remorse, he realized that he had deliberately fucked his lover a lot harder than he should have - especially since it was Antonio's first time. Was he trying to punish Antonio for something?

   After several minutes of silence, it suddenly dawned on him. From some misguided area of his mind, he realized he was trying to punish Antonio for refusing to return his love. Stunned, he lay there, wondering just what kind of monster he'd become. When Antonio sighed and moved around in preparation for getting up, Vasya quickly sat up and reached for Antonio's hands to stop him leaving. Grasping them tightly, he leaned forward and rested his head on the marine's chest. "Da, you are right. I was too rough. Was, how you say, carried along? " he lifted his head and stared into Antonio's eyes, liquid pools of black in the darkness. "I apologize for hurting you -"

   "Whatever, man," the marine said quietly, yanking his hands free and grabbing his clothes as he left.

   Vasya watched him leave, horrified at himself for turning what should have been an incredible experience for them both, into little more than an emotional rape.

   Blue-Scale had been standing motionless for some time, just outside the doors to the shed, watching curiously as the two human warriors inside mated. Limping slightly, Antonio just about walked into him as he left, stopping in his tracks with a startled grunt as he almost stepped on one of the warrior's feet.

   "Whoa! What are you doin' out here?" Narrowing his eyes, he took a step back and stared accusingly at the young Vanguard warrior, self-consciously covering the front of his body with the bunched up clothes he was carrying. "Just how long have you been standin' there?"

   Blue-Scale didn't move, continuing to stare at him silently, his enigmatic black eyes glittering in the faint starlight, betraying no emotion. They continued to stare at each other in silence for several long moments until Antonio backed down, muttering. Wincing slightly, he stepped around the Vanguard, and was about to make his way to the house to clean up, when Blue-Scale whipped around, clamping two large taloned hands on his shoulders.

   "Hey! What're you doin', you crazy lizard?!" Antonio recoiled as the warrior leaned down, poking his snout into his face, snuffling and snorting. When Blue-Scale started licking him with his long, black, forked tongue, it was the last straw. "What the fuck, man? What the fuck?" he cried out, jerking himself out of the warrior's grip. Backing away, he swiped at his face with a bunched up shirt, desperately trying to remove the saliva covering it.

   "Hrrr? You are not marked. Why?"

   "Goddammit, lizard! What the hell are you on about?"

   Wrapped in the blanket, Vasya appeared by the shed entrance, drawn by the sound of Antonio's raised voice. Blue-Scale swung his head around to look at the Russian. "You mated together, yes? You claimed him as yours. This one can smell it. But he is not marked to show this. Why?"

   "Da... nyet... marked? What? I am not understanding...?" Vasya stammered, looking from Blue-Scale to Antonio and back again in confusion.

   "Claimed me?! " Antonio spat out, furiously slapping his chest with a closed fist. "He doesn't fuckin' own me, lizard! Christ, I'm so fuckin' outta here," he said disgustedly, shaking his head as he limped toward the house.

   Blue-Scale watched him go, then turned to Vasya who was standing there, pale and shaking as the situation went from bad to worse. "Hrrr... Questions for another time perhaps," the warrior said wryly, unaware of the havoc he had just caused. "This one needs assistance. Clothing will be required. You will help this one. Now, human!"

   Once inside the house, Antonio quietly closed the door behind him and leaned back against it, eyes darting around the room. Kuia and Rangi's father, Stewart, were nowhere to be seen. Probably in bed, he guessed, given the late hour. A couple of days after they had first arrived, Stewart had reluctantly given the four military men permission to stay with them, provided they occasionally earned their keep by helping out around the farm.

   Slipping on his boxer-briefs, the marine padded through the kitchen and down the hall toward the bathroom, where the light was still on. Rangi, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth and a line of white froth dripping down his chin, looked up as Antonio appeared in the doorway. Edging past past the boy, Antonio turned on the shower and waited for the water to heat up, looking awkwardly everywhere except at Rangi.

   Rangi finished with his teeth, and leaned forward to examine himself closely in the mirror, ostensibly looking for pimples as he made contorted faces and poked at imaginary blemishes. Satisfied, he turned around and stared at Antonio with an unreadable expression. The marine stripped and climbed into the shower, wincing as he stepped over the edge of the tub.

   Several minutes later, when Antonio finished and opened the shower-curtain, Rangi was still there, arms crossed over his bare chest and frowning at him. "Could you pass me a towel, at least?" he asked awkwardly in the silence.

   Closing the door as he handed over a fresh towel, Rangi then watched as the marine wrapped the towel around himself, wincing again as he got out of the tub. "So. What was all that yelling about, then?" He nodded at the small window above the toilet, that faced out toward the shed. He'd heard everything. "Thought you and Russian Husky were tight, man."

   Antonio ignored the question and continued to dry himself off, grimacing as he dabbed the towel between his sore butt cheeks. Although he was used to being naked and showering around lots of other men, he felt a little uncomfortable at being in such close quarters with Rangi, especially the way the boy was interrogating him. This sort of bullshit was the last thing he needed to deal with. "Nothin'. Just forget it," he mumbled.

   "Okay. Whatever. So you gonna tell me what's wrong with your leg?"

   "Huh? What... Oh. Nothin'. It's fine."

   "You're limping around an awful lot, mate. I learned some healing stuff from Nanna that might help. Give us a look, I'll -"

   "I said, I'm fine," Antonio hissed with annoyance, interrupting him.

   "Whoa! Chill, bro!" Rangi held up his hands and moved backward slightly, a little taken aback at the level of emotion in Antonio's voice. For the first time that evening, he managed to lock eyes with the marine, and he grinned at the small triumph. "I know we don't always get on that well. But I know you and Russian Husky are the good guys. I'll level with you, Yankee. I actually like you two. And I know my bro, Blue-Scale, does too. He trusts you, man."

   Antonio mumbled something inaudible and broke eye-contact, unable to meet the boy's eyes any longer. Sighing, he wrapped the towel around his waist and pulled the lid of the toilet down, gingerly sitting on top of it.

   Rangi hunkered down in front of him, looking up into his face. "I'm not stupid, Yankee. What happened?" he quietly asked.

   Antonio hung his head down, his fringe of thick black hair hanging down in front of his face, hiding his eyes from view. His voice, when he hesitantly spoke, sounded defeated. "The bastard loves me, y'know? Told me a few weeks back when we came back here with you." He looked up, expecting to see ridicule on the boy's face. When Rangi only nodded slightly, but said nothing, he continued. "But I... I dunno. Can't bring myself to say it back. I mean, I like him an' all... " his voice trailed off.


   The rest came out in a rush. "But I don't want to say it until I mean it. Thing is, if anything happened to him again, I'm not sure how I'd cope! I've never felt this way about anyone before... Shit, this all sounds corny, right?" he gave a small snort of bitter amusement. "Well, anyway. We were muckin' about in the hay, and for the first time he, ah... He, ah... Geeze, can't believe I'm tellin' ya this, kid. He fucked me, alright? Always thought it'd be special, the first time, y'know? But it wasn't. Hurt like a bitch. If Vasya loves me so goddamn much, why did he hurt me so bad?" Antonio looked up at Rangi, again expecting to see a smirk, or look of derision on his face.

   Instead, Rangi just stood up and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. Although he was still a little wary of the American, he couldn't help but sympathize with his feelings, and the situation he was in. It would take a lot of guts for someone like him to open up with such deeply personal information to a relative stranger. There wasn't much he could do for the relationship situation, but the marine's sore and violated ass was a different story, he decided. "Wait here a sec, bro. I'll be right back."

   While the boy was gone, Antonio stared at the gray floor tiles, feeling shaken, but also strangely relieved. The boy hadn't laughed at him (for once!) and the world hadn't come to an end. Yet. That, at least, was still several months away, he thought ruefully.

   When he came back, Rangi was carrying a small jar that had some sort of pungent, but not unpleasant, smelling ointment in it. "Nanna gave me this stuff. It's bloody good." When Antonio reached out to take the jar, Rangi shook his head. "Nah, bro! You'll just waste it. Stand up and take your towel off."

   "What?! No way, man. Just give it here and I'll do it myself -"

   Glaring at him, Rangi held the jar out of his reach and shook his head. "Don't be such a big girly blouse, Yankee. You've just told me you've got feelings for another guy. You've even let him fuck you hard up the arse. Suddenly you're gonna stand there and squeal like a little school-girl on her prom night? What kind of big, butch marine are you, anyway? Now, stand up, take the towel off, bend over the sink, and shut the fuck up! "

   Blushing furiously, Antonio hesitantly did as he was told. "Just don't go gettin' any ideas while you're back there, man, " he joked weakly.

   Rangi snorted as he scooped out a small amount of the ointment onto the end of a couple of fingers. "You're so not my type, Yankee." Deciding that right now wasn't a very good time to be entirely truthful, he said nothing more. As it happened, attractive, well built guys were very much his thing, when he used to go out hunting tricks in the big city. At least prior to the invasion of his life by large muscle-bound space-lizards, anyway.

   Casting an appreciative eye over Antonio's chiseled body, he mentally sighed. There weren't many Latino guys in NZ, which was a pity, he thought. Some of them, this one included, could be bloody hot. Brown eyes, black hair, light olive-brown skin, sexy looking Marine-Corps tattoo's, bubble-butt you just wanted to sink your teeth into, standard-issue weapon well equipped... Guessing the marine's age to be in his early 30's, Rangi grinned to himself. Vasya would so have a fight on his hands if Blue-Scale wasn't around! Ah, Blue-Scale. Dim-witted but loving. And damn, what a body. 'Well, this one's all yours, Russian Husky,' he thought. 'I got me something better!'

   Getting back to reality, he very gently started rubbing the ointment on, and around, the marine's puffy and abused-looking hole. He stopped when Antonio grunted in pain. "You alright, bro?"

   "Yeah. Just go easy." Closing his eyes and trying hard not to think about what was happening, he asked the first thing that popped into his head. "So. What is your type, then?"

   "You really wanna know? I mean, aside from 'not you'?" Rangi smirked slightly as he scooped up a bit more ointment onto a finger, and then very gently inserted it inside the marine, who jumped slightly at the intrusion.

   "Arrrgh! Dammit... Yeah, I really wanna know. Distract me, for god's sake!"

   "Blue-Scale is 'my type'."

   "You're a funny man, Rangi," Antonio said, smiling slightly despite the rather indelicate situation he found himself in.

   "I'm not joking. There. All done. How does that feel?" Putting the lid back on the jar, Rangi got up and almost tenderly shoved the marine out of the way so he could wash his hands.

   Antonio clenched his butt-cheeks together and waited for the pain, which never arrived. All he could feel was a cooling numbness soothing away the painful ache in his nether-regions. "Actually, that does feel better." He self-consciously wrapped the towel around his waist again, then turned to smile sheepishly at Rangi who was now drying his hands. Giving Rangi a good-natured man-hug by way of thanks, he shook his head. "I know you and the lizard are friendly an' all, but I'd hardly call him 'your type', if ya get what I mean."

   Rangi shrugged expressively as he opened the bathroom door and was about to walk out, but stopped, turning to regard the marine with one raised eyebrow and a smirk. "Think what you want, Yankee. Blue-Scale and me? We've fucked. And apparently that means he's marked me as his mate. But you know something? I ain't got no problem with that. Goodnight, and remember to turn the light off when you leave."

   It was some time before Antonio finally gathered his wits (and his clothing) and left the house, shocked, and not quite sure whether or not he believed the boy. If true, however, the revelation certainly did explain some things...

   Blue-Scale stood watching silently as Vasya got into his clothes in the sleep-out attached to the shed. The other two soldiers, 'Bazza' and 'Gazza' (Barry and Gavin) as they called themselves, were down at the local pub trying to chat up some of the local female talent. After three or four weeks, they realized that the Vanguard warrior wasn't likely to do a runner, not while Rangi was still around, at least. So they had basically given up guarding anything and started treating their posting as an impromptu holiday, much to Antonio's annoyance. The marine had tried ordering them to stay, however he found his orders being politely, but completely, ignored.

   "I am unsure about this," Vasya finished tying his boot-laces and looked up at the expectant young warrior. "We are going where?"

   Four black eyes gleamed at the Russian soldier in the dim lighting. "Hunting." came the response.

   Vasya finished dressing and walked over to Blue-Scale, glowering at the warrior. "What exactly," he asked suspiciously, "are we hunting?"

   "You will see, human. Come, we must leave now."

   "Da, da. I will fetch Antonio. Wait here -"

   "No. We go alone. We leave. Now." Blue-Scale growled, interrupting him. The warrior clamped a taloned hand firmly on his shoulder and proceeded to drag the surprised Russian outside, into the night.

   Despite his misgivings, Vasya chased after the Vangard into the darkness and across the paddocks behind the house. After traversing several hundred metres at a dead sprint, Vasya was getting badly winded, and was steadily falling behind. "Stop!" he yelled, coming to a stop beside a fence that the warrior had easily leaped over, moments earlier.

   Blue-Scale came skidding to a stop, digging his taloned feet into the dew-slippery grass. Turning, he trotted back to the fence and regarded the human impatiently. "Hrrr?"

   His eyes still adjusting to the darkness, Vasya bent over and held up a hand toward the warrior, willing him to be patient while he caught his breath. Although extremely fit and able to jog long distances fully kitted out, he couldn't maintain a full-out sprint for more than a few hundred metres at a time. "Too fast," he managed to gasp out.

   The warrior stood without moving for several long moments while he thought over his various options. Finally, coming to a decision, he leaned over and picked Vasya up and dropped him on his side of the fence. Turning around, he then got down on his knees and leaned over. "This one will carry you. Sit on this one's shoulders."

   "You joke, da?"

   "This one is quite serious. Move with haste, human. Unless you desire this one to drag you, instead."

   Still breathing heavily, Vasya gingerly climbed up as instructed, wrapping his thighs around the warrior's neck, and grabbing onto the large horns jutting from Blue-Scale's skull to keep from falling. Looking around self-consciously, he felt vaguely ridiculous. He hadn't done this sort of thing since he was about five or six, feeling invincible as he perched on top of his father's shoulders.

   With a grunt, Blue-Scale shouldered his burden and got to his feet again, setting off at a smooth, fast lope. Only slightly slowed by the weight of the Russian, the warrior was still moving at a pace faster than any human would have been comfortable maintaining. For his part, Vasya hung on like grim death as he swayed around on his unlikely new mount.

   When he showed signs of slipping off, the Vanguard clamped both of his front arms around Vasya's legs, holding him tightly, but pulling him closer to the sharp ends of his horns. Adjusting himself so that he wouldn't end up impaled on the ends of the impressive natural weapons, Vasya had time to reflect on just how badly things had gone this evening. He knew damned well that Antonio cared deeply for him, and would just need time to feel comfortable in expressing his inner feelings. So why had he attempted to sabotage things by hurting the first person he had loved since Kirill? Then this damned Vanguard warrior had gone and fucked things up even further by unwittingly aggravating an already painful situation.

   Annoyed, at both himself and the warrior, Vasya petulantly jabbed the back of his heels into the warrior's chest. Blue-Scale faltered slightly and slowed, trying to swing his head around to look back at him, but he was thwarted by his own musculature - the thick corded muscles in his stout neck prevented him from turning very far. Grunting, he resumed his lope. "There is something you wish to say to this one?"

   "Da. Da! There is, skatina! How dare you spy at us, da? That was private! Do you know word private?!"

   "Hrrr, this one is familiar with the word. What was private?"

   "Do not pretend you do not understand, gaduka! Cho ti zdiess narisovalsia?" Vasya spat out angrily, leaning over so he could make eye contact with the warrior.

   "You speak a language this one does not understand." Genuinely confused as to what the Russian-Husky human was on about, Blue-Scale devoted little attention to his prattling, and cast around the countryside. Slowing, he altered direction, figuring he'd come far enough from the main human dwelling that he was no longer likely to be under surveillance.

   That the human was in an excited emotional state was fairly obvious to him. Blue-Scale slowed his pace slightly as they headed uphill toward the large patch of bush that stretched across the top of the mountain range; the same patch of bush that overlooked his Little-One's dwelling. Only half listening, he came to the realization that the Russian-Husky human was more upset with himself, then with him. However, he was taking his anger out on him? Strange creatures, these humans...

   "You are experiencing difficulties with your mate, hrrr?"

   Sighing, the Russian soldier reached the same conclusion. He was taking his anger out on the Vangard, when really the blame rested on his own shoulders. "Da. I love silly American marine. But do not know if he loves me. Will not tell me. Is unreasonable, nyet?"

   "Perhaps. Tell this one, human. Your mate marked you, correct?" Blue-Scale came to a stop and swung his head from side to side, before huffing with apparent satisfaction and changing direction slightly.

   "Again with this talk of marked. What does that mean, marked? " Vasya frowned.

   Blue-Scale's slow mind churned for several long moments, before he gave up trying to understand the process of Vanguard marking - he had no idea how the mechanics of Vanguard mating biology worked. "The Yankee human has mated with you. This one has verified his marking scent on you. Does that not suggest that your mate loves you?"

   Vasya smiled sadly at the young warrior's naivety. Obviously, promiscuity wasn't all that common in Vanguard society. "On Earth, someone fucks you. Does not always mean love."

   "Hrrr, this is true also for Vanguard. Sex without love is rape."

   "Ah, nyet. That is over simplification! Human people have meaningless sex a lot. Is normal," he added, trying to justify it with a guilty note in his voice. After Kirill had died, Vasya had gone on a sexual rampage of epic proportions. Fucking, and being fucked, by pretty much anything with a pulse. All in order to bury the pain he felt at the loss of the only person who really mattered to him. Anything, just to fill the screaming void in his soul...

   Placing a taloned hand on a fence-post, Blue-Scale gracefully leaped over another fence and landed smoothly on the other side. The Russian-Husky human clamped his thighs around the warrior's neck nervously, amusing him slightly. Although fairly slow, he wasn't stupid. This human was unnecessarily worried - the Yankee human showed clear signs of infatuation with this one. Always had, ever since he had first met them both on that stormy night a few weeks earlier. "That makes this one unhappy. Humans have a lot to learn. This one wants to know. Your mate has indicated dissatisfaction with you?"

   Narrowing his eyes, Vasya gripped the warrior's horns tightly as he swayed around on top of the broad shoulders. "Nyet," he guardedly responded.

   "Hrrr... Your mate cares for you?"

   "Da, so I believe." Again, guardedly.

   "Your mate is unfaithful?"


   "Hrrr, then you have no problem."

   "But -"

   "Then you have no problem. Do not make this one repeat himself. Hrrr! " Blue-Scale snapped, feigning irritation.

   Vasya shut his mouth, having no comeback anyway. The Vanguard may have a black and white way of looking at the world, but he wasn't wrong. Pressuring Antonio would only end up pushing him away. And that, he decided, wasn't going to happen if he had any say in the matter. Now, if only he could get the hunky marine to forgive him... That was going to take a bit of work...

   Blue-Scale bared his teeth in a crocodilian smile as he approached the bush perimeter. Satisfied with the location, he grabbed Vasya with his rear arms, gently depositing him onto the ground before pointing at a large outcropping of rock about a kilometre distant. "Go there and wait for this one."

   "What about hunting together?" Vasya asked, rubbing the back of his head with one hand, thoroughly confused.

   "Hrrr, it is best this way."

   "But -"

   "Go now! " Blue-Scale hissed quietly, before relenting. "This one will explain afterwards. Please, do as this one requests."

   Irritated, Vasya stomped off toward the distant rocks, muttering under his breath. The warrior watched him for several minutes, until he was sure the human was following his instructions, and then ducked into the bush. Slipping into a battle-ready mode, Blue-Scale stealthily moved through the thick bush, making very little noise as he threaded his way past large trees and over the rough terrain toward his target.

   15 minutes later, Vasya reached the pile of large rocks that formed a small bluff on the side of the mountain range. He looked around, but there was no sign of the Vanguard anywhere. Shrugging, he hunted around for several minutes in the dark, looking for a place to climb one of the largest chunks. He found a series of crude foot-holds that had been carved into the steeply sloping side. Crouching, he then leaped at the rock-face, scaling it like an oversized spider-monkey. Inching toward the edge once he got to the top, Vasya found a smooth patch to sit on, which looked out over the rolling hills below and across the small village out to the bay. He obviously wasn't the first person to consider the location a good one for catching the view.

   The wind was warm, as it blew in from the coast. Carrying the faint tang of salt from the ocean, it ruffled Vasya's hair, painfully reminding him of the times Antonio would affectionately do the same. Looking down at the distant lights of the house, he wondered what the marine was doing now. Just when things were going so well, it all came undone. Hopefully, Antonio would bounce back, forgive him, and they could salvage the relationship. If. Maybe. Might as well wish for the moon...

   Abruptly, he was jolted out of his morose thoughts by a curious noise. Quickly getting to his feet, Vasya turned around and stared toward the bush where he thought the noise had come from. If he wasn't mistaken, it almost sounded like a choked off scream. Scrambling down the rock, he made his way up the paddock to where the bush started. From somewhere not far away, he heard several muffled «crack» sounds.

   It was extremely dark under cover of the bush so, when Vasya followed the muffled noises to their source, it took him several seconds to recognize what he was seeing. Shaking his head in disbelief, he started backing away, only to stumble over the uneven ground and fall, moaning in horror. Scrambling to his feet, Vasya turned and fled, not stopping until he reached the large pile of rocks again. It was all he could do to stop from puking his guts out.

   Life had been quiet over the past few weeks for the two special agents, camped out on the mountain overlooking the farm where the Vanguard was staying. They had been tasked with taking out the alien reptile should it become a threat, and given strict orders not to be seen. So, they had set up separate camps, one in the bush, the other in a derelict shearer's cottage. Special Agent James 'Eagle' MacKerney, top sniper at the covert-ops training college they had both attended, had chosen the bush bivouac. He had found a natural clearing surrounding a slight depression near the edge of the bush, along with a nearby fresh water source, which provided a perfect line-of-sight position to shoot from, as well as set up camp.

   Special Agent MacKerney never had time to regret his decision to set up camp near the beautiful little stream that flowed through the bush, and past the clearing. The gentle sounds of water burbling over rocks and logs hid the noise of his approaching death.

   Staring intently through the night-vision scope of his high-powered sniper-rifle, he had watched the various comings and goings down at the farm intently. He cursed softly, inaudibly, when he had seen the large alien reptile take off at a sprint away from the farm, but had lost sight of it when the terrain got in the way. One of the people down there had gone sprinting after it, but he couldn't tell who it was from this distance in the dark. 'Probably that Maori brat the lizard is always hanging around,' he thought to himself.

   The Special Agent grimaced with annoyance and temporarily abandoned his rifle to make himself a coffee. With this much late-night activity, it was going to be a long watch. His colleague up at the derelict cottage had responsibility for covering the 'day shift', leaving him looking after things at night. After a couple of minutes, MacKerney laid back down on the groundsheet next to the rifle, placing the steaming cup beside him. Bringing his eye to the scope, he swung the rifle in a slow, steady arc, looking for anything unusual.

   Suddenly, he saw the unmistakable shape of someone moving through the paddock several hundred metres further down the mountain. Releasing the safety, he dialed back the zoom on the scope, following as the person made his way to nearby outcropping. He lost sight of him briefly, before picking him up again as he climbed one of the largest rocks. What was someone doing up here in the middle of the night? Zooming the scope, he squinted, trying to make out who it was more clearly.

   Blue-Scale had slipped silently through the undergrowth toward his target, his sensitive ears twitching as he approached his prey. As he emerged into the small clearing, he hunkered down and swung his head from side to side, making sure his prey was alone. In the almost pitch-black, the prey glowed like an amorphous red blob in the near-infrared part of Blue-Scale's vision. Getting back to his feet, he crept toward his unsuspecting victim, crouching down and spreading out all four of his arms, talons fully extended. When the prey, alerted by some small noise or some other cue, rolled over to face him, he hissed in triumph and closed in for the kill.

   It was the hairs prickling on the back of his neck that told MacKerney something was wrong. He always paid attention to that little 6th sense (as his colleagues jokingly referred to it). It had saved his life on several occasions. In one smooth flowing movement, he flipped over and grabbed his combat-knife from its sheath on his thigh, ready to defend himself against the threat. Then, before he could so much as blink, the bestial reptilian demon, crouched behind him, was all over him. His brief, terrified scream was abruptly cut short as the young Vanguard warrior mercilessly terminated Special Agent James 'Eagle' MacKerney's existence.

   When Vasya had stumbled across the scene several minutes later, it took him a few seconds to make out what was going on in the darkness. Blue-Scale was crouched over what was left of a dismembered human corpse, unidentifiable chunks of gore hung from the sides of his jaw as he noisily chewed. He was in the process of wrenching one of the arms from the corpse, one large taloned hand pressed against the crushed torso for leverage, as he ripped the arm from its socket with a sickeningly wet, popping noise.

   Preoccupied, Blue-Scale only looked up when he heard the Russian-Husky human fall over. He got to his feet, his two right hands holding onto the dismembered arm which was dripping large amounts of blood from the ragged, soggy end. The warrior's eyes were still slightly glazed over as he watched Vasya stumble away from the scene of carnage. The human seeing this was definitely going to complicate things. Blue-Scale felt a little sad as he contemplated his options. If only the Russian-Husky human had stuck to his role of unwitting diversion and waited...

   Blue-Scale dropped the bleeding arm and narrowed his eyes, hissing. Splaying out his talons again, he launched himself after the desperately fleeing human.

   The heat of the midday sun blasted the hard-baked desert surface relentlessly. Shimmering in the heat-haze, the small, bright yellow cylinder sitting on a small concrete pad looked almost incorporeal as it sat there. Several kilometres away, in an extremely well shielded bunker, a large contingent of military, scientific, and government observers flicked their gazes between the barely visible speck, and the large count-down timer affixed to one wall. There were no Vanguard observers for this test. They were still under guard, deep underground inside the Area-51 mountain complex.

   Flows-Like-Water smiled slightly, turning away to hide his expression from the Vanguard nearby. He already knew what the outcome of this little test was going to be. The humans - one human in particular, at least - had ignored both his, and several engineer's advice, again, and rushed ahead with a design, mistakenly thinking that the Vanguard were just trying to slow them down.

   The Observer was suddenly hit by a peculiar prickling sensation, causing him to jump slightly, startled. Recognizing what it was, he got up and went striding purposefully from the barracks, making his way to one of the locked storage areas that were carved out of the rock on one side of the large cavern. Closing his eyes, he sent out a signal that both subverted the nearby security cameras, and bypassed the electronic lock. Slipping inside, he stepped around several large crates, ensuring he was alone. Finally, satisfied, he relaxed fully - reverting back to his natural state.

   The signal was heavily encrypted and low powered, forcing Flows-Like-Water to concentrate hard to make sure he received the entire transmission. The amorphous brown Silicon particles making up his being swirled around in a small, constrained cyclone and small blue flashes of static electricity jumped from one to the other, as he struggled to receive the transmission.

   Eventually, he was confident he had it all, and relaxed. The vortex of his being calmed down, the Silicon particles returning to a more sedate swirling and eddying in the drafts from the storage area's ventilation ducts. Decrypting the signal didn't take him long, and he studied its contents carefully. His dismay increased with every new section he absorbed. Uncertainty wasn't an emotion he liked to experience and, for the first time in millenia, he was unsure what course of action he should persue.

   There was one that he thought he should approach; one he was fairly certain was best placed to deal with the unfortunate news. Letting his senses flow, he discovered that the one he was thinking of was not far away, due to arrive within hours. Although there was something troubling about him...

   Mentally shrugging, Flows-Like-Water gathered himself and flowed from the storage room, sequestering the news away until the arrival of the one he sought. Forming a long, thin stream of particles, he poured himself across the cavern toward the mess-hall, seeking out Obscuring-Darkness. The young engineer had separated from the others, and was staring indifferently at a tray full of raw meat the humans had procured for them.

   Disabling the surveillance devices in the room first, the Observer reconstituted his Vanguard disguise, huffing loudly to announce his arrival.

   Startled, Obscuring-Darkness whirled around to confront whoever it was that had sneaked up behind him. "Hrrr, it is only you," he sighed, disappointed.

   "Only me? You wound me, my young friend. Am I nothing more interesting than chopped liver to you?" Flows-Like-Water studied the tray of meat in front of the warrior curiously, poking at it cautiously with one extended talon. "Speaking of chopped liver..."

   "What do you want, Observer?"

   "Let me guess. You were hoping it was someone else, yes? Maybe a certain pack-leader, am I correct?"

   Obscuring-Darkness knocked away the Observer's hand that was poking at his meal and grunted. He swung his head around and glared at the alien. "Enough! Get to the point! Why have you come here to taunt me? I am in no mood for your stupid little games."

   Giving the Vanguard equivalent of a shrug, Flows-Like-Water hunkered down into a relaxed pose, facing the engineer. "Very well, young one. Your mate will be here in a matter of hours, and I have an important matter I need to discuss with him -"

   "And what, precisely, does that have to do with me?" Obscuring-Darkness hissed sullenly at the Observer, interrupting him.

   Flows-Like-Water wasn't fooled for one instant. He had seen the small tell-tale signals of excitement, joy, and more disturbingly, fear, in the engineer's expression at the mention of Invokes-The-Storm's imminent arrival. Fear? Obviously he hadn't been paying quite as much attention to internal Vanguard politics as he should have. "Are you not happy that he is coming back?"

   Glaring back at him, Obscuring-Darkness said nothing further.

   "I will take that as a no, then. Alright. The time has come when you and your kind need to make some hard decisions. There is a new deadline -"

   "Why are you doing this?" the engineer interrupted, splaying all four of his arms out in exasperation. "We do not have enough time as it is!."

   "The deadline is not of my choosing, young one. I would not be that cruel."

   Narrowing his eyes with suspicion, Obscuring-Darkness studied the Observer warily. "Hrrr, the situation regarding the Arbiters has changed, has it not?"

   Flows-Like-Water snapped his jaw shut in affirmation and looked searchingly into Obscuring-Darkness' eyes. "I have placed my trust in you, and your mate, to keep my identity from both the humans and the others of your kind. It is time for you to place your trust in me. Trust that I will do everything in my power to protect the innocents of this planet, and you, also."

   "We are trying," the engineer raised his arms, pointing in the general direction of the cavern, "but it is difficult. The humans are primitive. Their technology is primitive. Yet they are arrogant! They have a self-destructive aspect to them that frightens me. To the very core of my being, it frightens me. Hrrr! We freely give them the gift of our knowledge, but I despair that they will not use it constructively." Obscuring-Darkness didn't even notice his eyes tearing up as he talked. "And they will take us down with them! "

   Although Flows-Like-Water had nothing even vaguely resembling a heart, he still felt for the Vanguard, who, he suddenly realized with a start, was little more than an inexperienced youth. A youth with a broken heart, scared out of his wits, and a very long way from family and home... A home that no longer existed, and a family that had been brutally slaughtered by an enemy that felt no remorse. "I understand, and share your concerns, young one. However, I have faith that working together -"

   "TOGETHER?!" Obscuring-Darkness roared, spinning around and smashing the meat-laden tray across the room, knocking the table it had been sitting on tumbling, dented, across the floor. "There is no together! Invokes-The-Storm is damaged, and no longer desires me..."

   Moving swiftly, Flows-Like-Water grabbed the emotionally shattered, sobbing young Vanguard before he collapsed. Obscuring-Darkness struggled wildly in his grip, screaming incoherently for several moments before he stopped fighting. He lay, trembling and crying like an injured spawnling, in the Observer's arms. After having to be strong in front of the others for so long, the heavily overloaded emotional dam had finally burst.

   Comprehension suddenly dawned on the Observer. Why he had picked up something wrong with the Vanguard pack-leader during his scan earlier? Why was this youth so distraught? Flows-Like-Water started purring, the deep-chested rumble that he knew was supposed to be comforting to younger Vanguard, trying to console this young one. The knowledge that events were rapidly spiraling out of his control again, weighed heavily on his mind.

   Some time later, after he'd put the exhausted engineer to bed, Flows-Like-Water approached one of the ubiquitous computer terminals set up around the living area. For several weeks he had been subtly influencing designs, leading conversations, and offering useful advice in order to speed up the humans understanding of Vanguard technology and science. It was too slow.

   A sudden, deep rumble shook the cavern violently, sending lighting gantries swaying wildly, and several large chunks of the ceiling crashing to the floor. Alarms immediately started blaring. One massive boulder came crashing down on one of the troop-carriers, parked near the ramp leading to the surface, completely flattening it before rolling to one side. The demolished vehicle sparked, setting fire to the fuel that had sprayed everywhere. Large clouds of black smoke started billowing into the air as military personnel ran around with fire-extinguishers, yelling at each other.

   The rumble was accompanied by a deep wrenching sensation, as a massive gravitational wave-front passed through the planet. Unconcerned, Flows-Like-Water smiled wryly to himself as he placed two of his hands, palm downward, onto the console that had been adapted for Vanguard use. Half-closing his eyes, he sent vast amounts of unencrypted, but untraceable information flooding into the humans' computer systems. They would be busy for a while, dealing with the damage from the malfunction but, when things got back to normal, there would be one or two surprises waiting for them.

   Such blatant tampering with events was against everything his people stood for, but the Observer no longer cared. Finished with the transfer, he removed his hands from the console and stepped back, idly wondering if he had started to go native, as the humans so delightfully called it.

   Before he went to help the others, the Observer stopped in to check on Obscuring-Darkness. The massive disruption had failed to rouse the exhausted young engineer from his slumber. Hunkering down onto his haunches beside the bunk, Flows-Like-Water gently stroked the young Vanguard's chest. He had originally intended on trying to convince the Vanguard pack-leader to stick around and 'rally his troops' but, as he studied the sleeping face of the troubled youth in front of him, he changed his plans.

   First priority was one damaged Vanguard pack-leader. Everything else was secondary. He couldn't change the fate of the humans - they would survive, or perish, on their own merits. By giving them the necessary information and tools, they held their destiny in their own hands (with a little help from the Vanguard). But he could, at least, help two young Vanguard. A small part in the greater scheme of things but, he decided, an important one to him.

   Several minutes ago, back on the surface, the assembled scientists and military personnel watched the count-down timer expectantly. The yellow cylinder baking in the desert sun was the first prototype of an entirely human-designed, and built, singularity generator. A supremely confident Dr. Steven Evans was busy schmoozing with the various military muckity-mucks, completely ignoring the grim-faced group of scientists who looked at each other with expressions of nervousness. And, occasionally, fear.

   Many of them had argued loudly against such an early test. This had been supported by all of the Vanguard engineers who had also gone over the design and construction of the generator, prior to the test. When Dr. Evans had gone over their heads to the military brass, overconfident about his own calculations, they had guardedly agreed to the test. The military was pushing for weapons, or propulsion, that the gravitational manipulation technology could provide. And, with the dozens of Arbiter-driven comets getting closer every day, they wanted it now.

   It almost seemed, to some of the other scientists, that Dr. Evans didn't quite grasp the fact that what they were trying to create was effectively a black hole. And anyone, with any sense, would treat such a thing with a serious amount of respect, and caution. A man's ego, however, could sometimes be a mighty powerful force in itself.

   The test they were running today involved creating just a small singularity, massing several billion tons. It would only last a couple of minutes before evaporating away harmlessly inside the powerful magnetic containment field of the generator housing. At least, that was the theory. Enough time to study its energy output and do some basic, trial manipulations of its gravitational field.

   As the count-down approached zero, conversation dried up and all eyes turned to either the heavily shielded window, or the projector screens, showing an enlarged view of the several kilometre distant generator. Out on the desert floor, massive amounts of electrical power were fed into the generator, which started humming loudly as super-heavy elements inside it began to spin. Another group of engineers were studying read-outs from sensors dotted over several square kilometres of the harsh desert floor.

   Even the ubiquitous UFO-spotters had been cleared from the distant surrounding mountains and desert, despite the fact they were well outside the area deemed hazardous by the scientists.

   Inside the generator, titanic forces were building, and suddenly nothing appeared!

   A superdense nothing. A sub-micro-miniature nothing, weighing in at several kilogrammes. The military engineers, glued to their terminals, watched as the numbers registering in the mass sensors started climbing rapidly. Several kilogrammes rapidly became several hundred kilogrammes as more energy was fed into the generator. The numbers from the mass sensors were now blurred on the screen, taking mere seconds to go from four figures, to five, six, jumping straight to nine. The power supply levelled off, and there was applause all around as the numbers in the mass sensors stopped increasing and remained steady.

   Dr. Evans was ecstatic. He'd been proved right. All those disbelievers would soon be eating great big, steaming, heaped servings of humble pie. He turned and sneered at the huddled group of his fellow physicists on the other side of the room. His merriment soon turned to concern, however, when, white-faced, one of the military engineers called him over. "This is a great day, my boy! What seems to be the problem then, mmm?"

   The engineer wordlessly pointed to the mass sensor readout. The number, which had been slowly starting to drop - in accordance with Dr. Evans' calculations - stopped, and started to slowly increase again. Frowning, Dr. Evans pushed the engineer aside and started tapping away on the keyboard. He reduced the power being supplied to the generator in several increments, but the numbers continued to climb, starting to move faster.

   Several high-ranking members of the military brass started toward him, curious as to what was going on, but he waved them away impatiently. The numbers were not stopping, instead they now blurred as the mass increased, quickly massing in the trillions of tons. The other scientists had crowded around and were all yelling confused instructions at each other, as the implications of what was happening sank in. A cold sweat dripped off Dr. Evans' face as he cut the power to the generator completely.

   The numbers kept increasing since the process inside the generator was now self-sustaining. Small alarms were now going off from the other terminals, as mass sensors placed further out from the generator started registering an unexpected gravitational influence from the generator. The shielding on the generator should have prevented any leakage, but it wasn't designed for a mass the size of what was growing inside it. Radiation alarms soon added to the noise, as the generator slowly overloaded.

   Automatic fail-safes, added at Vanguard insistence, kicked in when the mass reached critical levels, and this set off the bunker's general alarm. Every single scientist and engineer in the room threw themselves to the floor, screaming at the military personnel to do the same.

   Out in the desert, a stiff breeze had sprung up, blowing in toward the singularity generator, which was now emiting an ultrasonic scream. Small glowing cracks started appearing all over the metal surface. Suddenly, there was an intense flash of pure darkness as the fail-safes imploded the out-of-control singularity inside the generator. Every single atom of matter within a radius of several hundred metres abruptly ceased to exist, as the event horizon of the singularity expanded before completely evaporating.

   Amidst the cyclonic maelstrom of swirling air, and torn-up desert shrieking into the vacuum created, a massive gravitational wave exploded outward at the speed of light, passing through the entire planet in less than a second. Seismic sensors all over the planet rattled in their supports and the planet rang like a bell. As the gravitational wave-front passed through the moon a few seconds later, the entire surface shook slightly. On Mare Tranquillitatis, the footprints of the Apollo 11 astronauts, left several decades earlier, were wiped out by the shifting surface. The somewhat faded American flag, planted nearby, twisted and fell into the shaking lunar regolith.

   Dr. Evans slowly got to his feet, and blanched as he looked around the bunker. Large cracks ran throughout the entire reinforced concrete structure, and the large shielded window had been completely shattered. The Vanguard-designed fail-safes had converted the titanic energies released by the exploding singularity into gravitational energy, instead of conventional radiation. While still destructive, the gravitational energy had passed through the planet, and radiated outward in a perfect sphere into space, rapidly weakening as it expanded.

   Outside, meanwhile, the small-scale storm, created by air rushing in to fill the vacuum left behind, had disappated. Several large miliary choppers were now circling the area, hovering over a perfectly hemispherical crater with glass-smooth sides, stretching 700 metres across the cracked and sunbaked desert surface.

   As the recently arrived Arbiter fleet moved inward past the orbit of Jupiter, the greatly attenuated gravity wave passed them by. It set off various alarms, despite the fact that it was now too weak to be felt, even by the most sensitive of individuals. Rapid-fire, tight-beam communications were sent from ship to ship, as the alarmed sub-hives conferred and transferred data. Although each ship in the fleet was in mental communication range with the others, the paranoid sub-hive minds still used redundant data-links as back-up.

   The vermin inhabitants of the third planet were not supposed to have reached a stage of technological development this high, yet. The fleet decelerated into a temporary orbit around the massive, gaseous bulk of Jupiter while the sub-hive minds decided on a new course of action. The massive banks of sensor arrays were focused inward, gleaning information while they debated...

End of Part 14