Authors notes: Not much of note, sadly. Nothing witty, political, or sexually provocative to say this time around. Please; read. Enjoy.

Richard, my sincerest thanks go out to you for your hard work in beating this manuscript into shape for me.

Taniwha - Part 16

   "Didja hear what happened to that Steven Evans fuck-head?"

   "Hey, show some respect, man! That's Doctor Fuck-Head, to you."

   "Heh - yeah. They so shit-canned his ass. Captain Hardy just about had him shot after his little stunt with that gravity gizmo..."

   Blocker hung back slightly, listening to the two marines talking quietly as they sneaked a quick cigarette break behind the barracks, where the human cargo transport vehicles were parked. Smoking was one peculiar habit the humans had that he just could not quite grasp. Deliberately inhaling burnt plant remains as a low-grade, addictive narcotic? They really were strange little creatures.

   He resumed his journey, heading for the makeshift infirmary that had been set up on the other side of the messhall. He entered the small prefabricated building and looked around. The elderly medic, Docile-Until-Provoked, was leaning over a small table on which a half-stripped marine was lying, face-down. On another bunk, nearby, lay Obscuring-Darkness, chest wrapped in bandages. Their pack-leader was hunkered down on his haunches beside his lover, unmoving.

   "There has been no change in condition, I presume?" Blocker asked quietly, as he approached the medic.

   "Very little." Docile-Until-Provoked ran the talons of his two forward hands lightly over the human's back, eliciting small groans as he did so. Suddenly his hands ceased moving and pressed down firmly. He closed his eyes and concentrated for several long moments. After a while, he pulled his hands away and stepped back from the table. "Hrrr, you are done, human. You would do well to to be more cautious next time. This one does not wish to treat you. Again," he grumbled, narrowing his eyes at the human.

   The marine rolled off the table and to his feet, twisting his torso experimentally as he buttoned up his fatigues. "Hot shit, Doc! Feels better than brand spankin' new. Thanks!" Nodding to the young engineer as he stepped past, there was a big grin plastered across the marine's face.

   Blocker gave the medic a quizzical look, to which Docile-Until-Provoked responded with the Vanguard equivalent of a shrug. "The healing ability we have works very well on human bodies. More so than on a Vanguard, it seems. The human medics have taken to sending most of their injured warriors to me for treatment."

   "Hrrr, would your time not be better spent with Obscuring-Darkness?" Blocker asked, giving the oblivious departing marine a filthy look.

   "There is little more I can do for him. The worst of the damage has been healed. However, his primary heart was extensively damaged beyond my capabilities to heal fully. He should be conscious by now, though." The medic closed his eyes, and sighed wearily. "Hrrr, his condition is actually steadily deteriorating, and I am at a loss to explain why."

   The two Vanguard stood in silence for several moments, looking at the dying engineer, and his his vigilant lover. Eventually, Docile-Until-Provoked guided Blocker from the infirmary, and they made their way to the messhall. The building was almost full of Vanguard warriors, recently returned from their scouting trips from various places around the humans' planet. Grabbing trays of fresh meat from the servery, they found a clear spot around a table, and started eating.

   "Does our pack-leader not feel any remorse for his actions?" Blocker asked, in between mouthfuls of the succulent beef animal flesh provided by the humans. Their remaining supplies of Rank-beast meat had been confiscated by the humans; apparently for 'further study'. This move had been greeted with much delight by the Vanguard.

   "I believe he does. Now."

   "Hrrr? Explain."

   Docile-Until-Provoked put down the chunk of meat he was about to bite into, and proceeded to lick his talons free of juice. Once he finished, he fixed the engineer with an intense stare. "You must have noticed our pack-leader's increasingly erratic behavior of late, correct?"

   Hesitantly, "Indeed."

   The medic appeared to be choosing his words carefully as he continued speaking. "It is as if he is two different Vanguard, at times. There is our hesitant but brave leader one moment, then..." his voice trailed off, and he looked down at his tray of meat.

   "And violent demon the next?" Blocker finished for him. "You are not the only one who has noticed this, medic.

   "Yes." Docile-Until-Provoked looked at the engineer, an expression of relief evident on his face. "During my time here, I have researched what the humans know about such things. It seems this kind of dysfunctional behavior is well known amongst their kind. They believe it has two main causes; chemical or biological imbalances in their brains, or prolonged exposure to high levels of stress."

   Blocker snapped his jaw shut, gently, with a wry little smile quickly coming and going. "I suspect stress. Is this dysfunction able to be healed?"

   Picking up a chunk of meat from his tray, Docile-Until-Provoked stared at it for a moment, before poking at a chunk of gristle with a single talon on one of his other hands. "I do not believe so. A medic's healing skills are limited to the flesh, not the mind. However, there appears to be a positive outcome of this tragedy."

   "I am having difficulty in seeing anything positive about what happened," Blocker growled, finally deciding that he wasn't all that hungry after all, and pushing his tray away.

   "Hrrr, I believe we have the old pack-leader back with us now. The thought of his lover trying to kill himself must have resonated with his old self -"

   "What!?" Blocker exclaimed loudly, slamming all four clenched fists onto the metal table, which bent alarmingly under the blow. "He attacked Obscuring-Darkness! He stabbed him!"

   At this point, most of the Vanguard in the mess were openly staring at the young engineer. Oblivious to the fact that he now had a growing audience, Blocker leaned over the table, glaring at the surprised medic.

   "We all heard it! That monster attacked Obscuring-Darkness, and we were all too afraid to do anything to protect him! Then the coward left him to crawl away and die, alone." Angry tears welled up around his eyes, and he quickly wiped them away as he confronted the medic.

   "It was not what you think, young one! Yes, Invokes-The-Storm beat his lover badly -"

   Furious, Blocker interrupted him. "Then attempted to kill him! How can you deny what we saw -"

   Docile-Until-Provoked grabbed the engineer and, angry now himself, shook him roughly. "That is not the way it happened! Listen to me. ALL of you," he hissed, glaring around at the others now staring with rapt attention at the two of them. Turning back to Blocker, he continued. "Obscuring-Darkness tried to take his own life after the attack. I was there, I saw him do it to himself."

   Suddenly, Blocker stiffened in his grip, and his eyes locked onto something over the medic's shoulder. Docile-Until-Provoked was overcome with a horrible sinking feeling as he released the engineer, and twisted around to look behind him.

   Invokes-The-Storm was standing in the doorway, staring at him with an empty expression on his tired looking craggy face. The medic raised his forward arms and took a step toward him, but stopped when the pack-leader spoke.

   "When were you going to tell me, hrrr?" he asked, softly.

   Dropping his arms helplessly to his side, Docile-Until-Provoked wanted to speak, but found himself unable to do so. Without another word, the pack-leader turned and lumbered away, leaving all the Vanguard in the mess looking at each other uneasily.


   The small blue and white planet was growing larger in front of the Arbiter battle-fleet as they swept past it's single satellite, with widely scattered Vanguard battleship debris still littering the Lagrange orbit around it. Intensive scans showed no obvious reaction to their presence as they closed in on the planet. Other than several thousand small, primitive satellites in orbit, they had space to themselves. Powering down their sub-FTL drives, they coasted in on manuvering thruster power alone.

   Still several hours out, several hundred small objects were detected, being launched from the planet's surface and rapidly gaining altitude. The battle-fleet split up from their close defensive formation in order to meet the new threat. More powerful, but short-range, organic sensors were rapidly brought online, quickly targeting several of the small devices. Too small to be manned, the sensors detected high levels of Gamma radiation being emitted from them. While still some distance away, the Arbiter ships in the lead powered up their particle-beam cannons and made short work of the primitive fission weapons with which the vermin had chosen to try and defend themselves.

   Several light-hours away the sub-hive mind, onboard the Arbiter battleship herding the proto-comets, scanned the communication bands, in the futile hope of picking up stray information from the attack taking place in the inner reaches of this star system.

   Outwardly, there appeared to be nothing amiss with the ship or its multi-appendaged inhabitants. Inside, it was a different story. One of the grub nurseries had been decimated by rogue Arbiter units that had broken free from the sub-hive mind's control. They had been swiftly terminated, but the damage was already done. Pasty white body segments and various bits of ichor lay spattered over the semi-organic bulkheads and grub development cells, rapidly being stripped clean by the units designated to tend to the vessel's interior.

   Several of the units shuddered, temporarily stunned into immobility by the confused fusion of wafting pheremones, as the sub-hive mind tried desperately to regain its equalibrium. Failing, it started shutting non-critical sections down in order to reduce the strain on its systems. One Arbiter unit wasn't fast enough clearing a doorway as the massive, shielded, airtight door slammed down, messily severing it in two. The front half of the Arbiter thrashed around, spewing green and black fluids from its shredded rear end, and chittering shrilly until it was mercilessly dispatched by several other nearby units. On the other side of the door, the rear half stumbled around for a minute or two, misfiring nerve endings still driving its muscles, before it collapsed, twitching.

   With no signals reaching this far into interplanetary space, the sub-hive mind initiated full communications shut down. As the large sensor arrays on the hull of the battleship were powered down, they retracted into the superstructure, effectively leaving the sub-hive mind blind. But in its deranged state, this was of no concern to it any longer. Now it was only interested in focusing inward.

   As the months passed, the ship drifted farther away from its now unruly flock of proto-comets. With no guidance updates, the primitive processors, built into the gravity drives attached to each proto-comet, continued to slowly build up velocity on their previously assigned vector.

   Utterly oblivious, the sub-hive mind continued to unravel in the remote, cold reaches of the Solar System.

   A soft knocking on the door roused Rangi from his dozing state. Opening one eye, he glared balefully at the door. "Mmmf?"

   "Rangi? One of those nice young men wants to talk with you and the Taniwha," a muffled voice informed him from the hallway.

   Closing his eye again, Rangi let out his breath in a long, drawn out sigh. If he ignored it long enough, he hoped they would just go away. Blue-Scale, who was curled around him and lightly holding him against his chest, snuffled quietly in his sleep and squeezed him closer, agitated by the boy's slight movements.

   "Rangi? Did you hear me?"

   After another few moments of no response, Kuia opened the door and stepped into the room. She didn't even bother to look at the empty bed, but turned her attention immediately to the the Vanguard lying on the large sheepskin rug on the floor, cocooning her great grandson in a tangle of arms, legs and tail. Rolling her eyes, she proceeded to poke at what she could see of the boy with her cane. "Did you hear what I said? Get up, you lazy little eho! "

   Squirming away from the well-aimed jabs, Rangi inadvertently woke Blue-Scale, who snapped open all four eyes and snarled at the intruder, before he realized who it was.

   Kuia didn't bat an eye, but instead brought her cane down on the startled warrior's head with a resounding «thwack!». Blue-Scale whimpered and cringed away from her. "Don't you dare growl at me in my own house, Taniwha! Now, I want both of you up, dressed, and in the kitchen in five minutes."

   "Awww, Nanna! But it's only 11:30 on a Sunday morning," Rangi whined, as he caught a glance of the clock-radio beside his bed. He yawned and stretched, doing his best to look haggard, and succeeding better than he had intended.

   Narrowing her eyes, Kuia glared at him. "Do not make me ask twice." She turned to leave, leaning against her cane, but stopped as she reached the doorway. "And make your bed. This room is a disgusting enough mess as it is."

   "Yes, Nanna," came the respectfully cowed reply.

   Sure enough, five minutes later both of the room's inhabitants entered the kitchen. Rangi threw himself on a chair and slouched forward onto the table, resting his chin on his folded arms. He glared at the Yankee and Russian Husky, who were sitting, smirking at him, on the other side of the table. Blue-Scale hunkered down onto his haunches behind the chair Rangi was sitting in, keeping all four wary eyes on Kuia and her cane-of-doom.

   Placing a nice, hot cup of tea in front of her Great Grandson, Kuia settled down into another chair, and folded her wrinkled hands around her own cup, looking expectantly at the two soldiers.

   "What is in boy's hair?" Vasya asked Kuia, a mischievous glint in his eye as he did so. "It looks sticky," he said, struggling not to laugh.

   Antonio and Kuia both stared closely at Rangi, who sat bolt upright in his chair, and quickly ran his fingers through his rather matted hair. It didn't help when Blue-Scale leaned forward and took a sniff of him, quickly snapping his head back and snorting with distaste. Unable to help herself, Kuia started cackling like a mad old woman, which quickly set both Antonio and Vasya off as well. Rangi blushed darkly and folded his arms across his chest, staring daggers at the young Russian soldier. "When you're all quite finished," he muttered, darkly.

   Eventually, after wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, Antonio recovered sufficiently to speak. "Down to business, then. We've received orders to ship out, back to the States. They're gonna send a transport for us in a couple of hours."

   "So? Stink for you that your holiday here is over. But what's that got to do with my bro, here?" he said, nodding over his shoulder in the vague direction of the Vanguard warrior.

   Blue-Scale, for his part, said nothing but didn't take his intense gaze off his Little-One sitting at the table. Kuia however, reached out a hand and gently laid it on Rangi's shoulder. "They've got to take the Taniwha with them, Rangi," she said, softly.

   "What?! No! Hell no! " He leaped to his feet, knocking his chair over in the process. Desperate, he turned to Blue-Scale and held his arms out imploringly to the warrior. "Tell them, bro! Tell them you don't want to go with them. You want to stay here, with me. Right?"

   While Antonio and Vasya looked at each other awkwardly, Kuia slowly stood up and walked over to him. "Rangi -" she began to say, before being cut off.

   "No, Nanna!"

   Antonio put his cup of tea down and cleared his throat, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "He's already agreed to come with us."

   Rangi spun around and frowned at the warrior. "Thanks for telling me, bro!" he said, sarcasm dripping from his voice, but completely lost on the warrior. "Man, I'll need to get some stuff packed. How long are we gonna be gone for? Shit, don't think I've got any clean undies..." He quickly walked back to his room, and soon the sounds of drawers being emptied onto the bed came through to the kitchen.

   Accepting responsibility for handing out yet more bad news, Antonio reluctantly stood up and started toward Rangi's bedroom. He didn't get more than a couple of steps before Blue-Scale moved swiftly toward him, stopping him in his tracks. "Halt! Hrrr, this one will tell him." With that, the warrior followed his Little-One to his room, ducking under the doorway, and closing the door gently behind him.

   Only glancing briefly over his shoulder, Rangi continued to shove various items of clothing into a battered army-surplus duffel bag his dad had given him a few years previously. "Ah, there you are. You could have told me about this trip earlier. At least this time I've got time to pack a few things, eh!" He grinned happily as he grabbed one of his favorite T-shirts with a faded picture of a hairy-looking cartoon whale, with the legend 'Shave The Whales' written below it. He'd tried to explain the concept of jokes to the warrior several times, but it seemed that the Vanguard just couldn't grasp the concept, no matter how many different ways he tried it.

   Blue-Scale watched his Little-One sadly for several long moments. What he was about to do was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do. The four warrior humans had approached him the previous morning, while Rangi was still at work, and told him about the orders they'd received, and the part he had to play in them. They told him that where he was going, his Little-One could not follow. Despite the huge amount of emotional distress it was going to cause, having to be seperated from his Little-One, he'd understood the reasoning behind it. And he'd reluctantly agreed to accompany them.

   When they had mated that night, he'd made sure he was as gentle as possible, providing his Little-One with as much pleasure and love as he could.

   "This one needs to talk with his Little-One. It is important."

   "Sure. What is it? Hey, am I gonna need to pack my jacket, do you think?" Rangi asked, distracted.

   He turned and walked over to his closet, grabbing a thick ski-jacket he'd bought a couple of years earlier and never worn. Turning around, he found Blue-Scale standing right behind him. The warrior gently removed the jacket from his hands and reached out, hanging it back up in the closet with one of his rear arms. He held Rangi with his two forward arms and stared down at him intently.

   "Hrrr, you need to desist from this, Little-One. You will not be accompanying this one. You must remain here, with your family."

   "You're joking, right? We haven't been seperated more than a couple of hours in the past couple of months!"

   "This is the way it must be, Little-One. This one has sworn to protect you. By assisting the other humans, this one will be protecting you the best way he knows how."

   Rangi didn't realize he was crying until Blue-Scale leaned forward and gently licked the tears from his cheeks, then nuzzled at his neck with his snout. He flung his arms around the warrior's neck and hugged him tight. "Don't go...please..."

   Emitting a deep, vibrating purr, Blue-Scale returned the embrace, careful not to crush his precious Little-One. "Hrrr, this one must. This one suspects you know it to be true, also." His hearts breaking, Blue-Scale kept purring, trying to console his devastated Little-One.

   Almost precisely two hours later, a large military troop carrier rumbled up the driveway toward the house, stopping next to the shed that had been the soldiers' home for the past few weeks. Rangi's dad, Stewart, had taken a break from re-fencing one of the paddocks, to be there and see them off - secretly delighted that the soldiers were buggering off and taking the monster with them.

   Blue-Scale hefted all the soldier's rucksacks into the back of the troop carrier, and lumbered back around to the front of the vehicle, where the humans were all gathered. Momentarily disappointed that his Little-One was not there, he looked up and saw him assisting the Revered Ancestor from the house toward them. Various hands were shook, while they waited for Rangi and Kuia to arrive.

   "There is something this one must do, before he leaves. Please accompany this one," Blue-Scale rumbled, holding out a taloned hand to Rangi.

   He walked alongside his Little-One until they were several metres away from the others, before stopping and facing him. Slowly, he undid the top half of his skinsuit, exposing his impressively muscled chest and stomach. Reaching forward, he flicked out a talon and deftly slit open the front of Rangi's shirt, motioning for him to remove it, which Rangi did, a questioning look on his face.

   Meanwhile, over by the troop-carrier, Stewart, Kuia, and the four soldiers looked on curiously. When the warrior slowly, and deliberately, raked the talons of one of his forward hands down his chest, the assembled humans gasped en-masse as black Vanguard blood welled up from the jagged cuts.

   Wide-eyed, Rangi also gasped, reaching out to try and stop him.

   Blue-Scale grabbed his hand with one of his own. "Hrrr, do not fear, Little-One. This one should have done this a long time ago. It is important," he said softly, placing peculiar emphasis on the last three words.

   Dabbing a talon in the blood now slowly flowing in sticky trails down his chest and stomach, Blue-Scale then drew it across his Little-One's forehead, leaving a black line across it. He then refreshed the blood, and drew slanted lines down Little-One's cheekbones, and another across the bottom of his chin, careful not to break the skin with his talon.

   When the Vanguard warrior touched Rangi's face with his blood-covered talon, Stewart tried to dash forward to stop him from touching his son, but was restrained by both Antonio and Vasya. Even Kuia stepped in front of him. "But he's going to hurt Rangi -"

   "Don't interfere, Stewart! This is important," Kuia said, choked with emotion, unknowingly echoing the warrior's words.

   Blue-Scale hunkered down onto his haunches until he was at eye-level with his Little-One, and laid his other forward hand on the boy's bare chest, talons extended. He hesitated, giving him an intense stare.

   "Do it."

   "Hrrr, you are certain?"

   Squeezing his eyes shut and clenching his teeth, Rangi nodded. The warrior pressed his talons into the skin, breaking through, and carefully cut three shallow parallel lines diagonally down his Little-One's chest. To his credit, Rangi didn't cry out until the talons reached his stomach.

   Pale and gasping, Rangi opened his eyes as Blue-Scale withdrew his hand, and looked down at the blood that now flowed freely in bright red rivers down the front of his body. He then looked up into the warrior's featureless black eyes. Although he felt a little faint from the pain, Rangi nodded slowly. "I understand," he said through gritted teeth. Using his own blood, he drew lines on Blue-Scale's face, in a similar pattern to the black Vanguard blood on his own face. "My life is yours, my soul bare..."

   Blue-Scale reached out and drew his Little-One to him, pressing his chest and stomach against that of his lover, bright red human blood mixing freely with the black Vanguard blood. "You...You remembered the words...? Hrrr! You honor me greatly, Little-One." Breathing deeply, he barely managed to keep his emotions in check. "My life is yours, my soul bare..." he hissed softly in return.

   "You better go now, bro," Rangi managed to choke out, desperately trying to keep his own tears from flowing as they stepped back from each other, the warrior releasing him reluctantly.

   Snapping his jaw shut softly in agreement, Blue-Scale stood tall again, clenching his front hands into fists and holding them against his pectorals. "This one will be back for his bond-mate. This one swears on the honor of his Revered Ancestors." he turned and didn't look back, not trusting himself to avoid making a scene, and awkwardly clambered into the back of the troop carrier.

   Silently, Rangi joined Kuia and his dad, watching as the soldiers boarded the troop carrier. It started up with a roar, then reversed down the drive, backing onto the unsealed road at the end. As soon as it disappeared down the road in a cloud of dust, Stewart turned to his son, incredulously. "What the fuck..."

   "Dad...don't. Please, just...don't." Rangi turned and ran back to the house, the tears held back now flowing freely, smearing the black blood lines on his cheeks.

   Stewart stared at his retreating back, then back at Kuia, who was busy dabbing at her own eyes with a handkerchief. "You wouldn't understand," she said in an uncharacteristically shaky voice. "Please take me back to the house, now."

   Shaking his head in disbelief, he assisted her back to the house. "The boy's going to need stitches, " he muttered, disturbed and annoyed.

   "I will take care of it," Kuia said quietly, with a bit of the customary iron back in her voice as they entered the kitchen.

   "But -"

   "I said, I will take care of it," she repeated, in a tone that brooked no argument from him.

   Captain Hardy swirled the last of the Russky Standart vodka in his battered coffee mug, and downed it in one go, feeling the pleasant sting as it burned its way down his throat. The report on his terminal screen did not make for good reading. The blurry images showed seventeen large, blocky shapes on an intercept course. Latest estimates gave them five days before the fleet reached Earth. The Vanguard engineers' breakdown of Arbiter weapons didn't inspire much hope either; multi-terawatt particle beam weapons, radiological weapons, shields capable of repelling nuclear blasts...

   He picked up the empty vodka bottle and shook the last drops onto the end of his tongue, then dumped it in his trash-bin. Leaning back, he rubbed at his eyes, wishing the Russian, Lieutenant Irenei Putin, had left a second bottle before he departed.

   His superiors were understandably less than impressed with the progress they had made in coming up with human-engineered versions of the Vanguard technology. The only thing that had given him much pleasure in the past few days had been the dressing down he'd given the lead Scientist - Dr. Steven Evans - on behalf of his superiors. The once supremely arrogant man had been reduced to a shaking, sobbing mass at the end of the debriefing. If the human race ever survived the events of the next few months, he would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that Dr. Evans' career was now in utter, smoking ruin.

   The only saving grace had been the discovery, several days ago, of vast amounts of technical diagrams, specifications, and blue-prints that had been uploaded into their computer system. The persons - or aliens - responsible hadn't been identified, but Captain Hardy had his suspicions.

   Vast numbers of engineers and scientists had been pouring over the information, and had managed to cobble together several large nano-construction machines in record time. He snorted. It was amazing just how quickly people could work, when their very lives depended on it. Everyone was aware that they were just about out of time. These machines were needed to fabricate many of the intricate components and electronics they were unable to make themselves.

   So far, he had avoided sending off his report about the recent unrest amongst the Vanguard. The groups of Vanguard warriors, who had been out scouting, had now all returned to the Area-51 base, so there were now 28 of them - with the one on its way back from New Zealand making 29. He thought back to the explanation of the violence, given to him by the Vanguard calling himself 'Flows-Like-Water'.

   A strange one, that one. It was also the same lizard that had told him about the approaching Arbiter battle-fleet. Deep-space radio telemetry had already alerted them about the fleet, several days before, so the information wasn't unexpected. The question remaining, however, was how the lizard knew this information? He had asked the Intelligence operatives to keep a close eye on that particular lizard but, so far, they had drawn a blank.

   Anyway, a rutting accident? He wasn't sure how much truth there was in that, but it seemed to fit the facts. Squirming uncomfortably, he recalled that the two sexual combatants were both male.

   'What is it with all this sudden faggotry around me, recently?' he thought, glowering. First one of his best marines, Corporal 'Oh-Man' Franco, with that slutty little Russian toy-soldier. Now it's the fucking space-lizards. And god-only knew what was going on with that native boy - Rangi or something? - and the lizard that seemed attached to him at the hip.

   Sighing, he steepled his fingers in front of his face, thinking about Corporal Franco, and trying to figure out his feelings. He had loved the man like a son, tutoring him through basic, and then sponsoring him through his special-ops training. He felt betrayed and saddened, and wondered what he had done wrong. 'Oh-Man' had also sided with the lizards - seemingly turning his back on the human race. However, there was also an annoying little voice in the back of his head, repeating in a maddening way, 'So what? He's still the same man he always was.'

   Captian Hardy's ruminating was interrupted by a knock at his door. "Come in," he called out, quickly kicking his trash-bin, with its boozy evidence, further under his desk and out of sight, with one foot.

   "Sorry to disturb you, Sir. But you asked to be notified when the shipment arrived." The marine saluted smartly as he stood in the doorway.

   His face lighting up with a smile, Captain Hardy waved away the marine's formal response. Finally! "Thank you, son, I'll be right down."

   The marine nodded and disappeared. Captain Hardy got up, straightened his wrinkled uniform, and followed him out the door and along a catwalk anchored to the naked rock of the cavern wall. Below him, eight large transporters had pulled up into the central space of the cavern, not far from the partially deconstructed Vanguard shuttle. Their bulky, tarpaulin covered loads attracted a small, mixed species crowd, all wondering what the hell was going on.

   "Alright, ladies! We're not paying you by the hour, here. Get those covers off the trucks!" he yelled out as he approached, a big smile on his normally dour face.

   Even the Vanguard helped out, undoing the securing straps holding the tarpaulins down over whatever it was on the beds of the transporters. As the tarps were pulled off, both Vanguards and humans stood back, talking excitedly amongst themselves. Overhead, a large gantry crane moved into position over the first transporter, lowering several hooked cables toward the cargo. Several marines crawled over the truck, securing the pickup cables to the skeleton-like cradles surrounding each of the items.

   As the crane lifted the first cradle into the air, everyone was able to see the cargo properly for the first time. Large and dull matt-black colored, they resembled Obsidian Indian arrow-heads.

   "Hrrr, what are these supposed to be?" Blocker asked Flows-Like-Water, who was standing beside him.

   They both watched as the first cradle was lowered to the floor, and went over to examine it more closely as the marines detached the pickup cables from it, and moved on to the next transporter. They both quickly realized it was some sort of vehicle. On the top part was a long cockpit, with room for two occupants. It looked like there had been a lot of hasty and recent work done on the interior, as there were still disconnected cables and controls evident through the canopy. Boasting no obvious weapons, they walked around the cradle examining the peculiar vehicle. At the rear, there was more evidence of hasty modifications; where there should have been a large thruster, one of the bright-yellow human-engineered singularity generators had been shoe-horned inside.

   "This, gentlemen, is Aurora. Welcome to state-of-the-art 1990's technology, ain't it grand?" Captain Hardy stepped between the two Vanguard, reaching up and resting a hand on their shoulders, proudly.

   Flows-Like-Water swung his head around and regarded the human curiously. "If this one understands human time-keeping correctly, your 1990's was over twenty years ago."

   "So you can count. Who's a clever wee lizard then, hmm? No. They're not modern, but for our purposes they don't need to be. They're the only planes we've got, capable of handling space for extended periods of time, and able to be retrofitted with your technology in such a short span of time." He walked forward and patted the fuselage almost lovingly. "These babies were retired over ten years ago. At the time, they were fitted with conventional air-breathing jet engines, as well as a very innovative localized inertial-damping system. This allowed them to perform some pretty incredible manuevers. Fully stealthed, as well."

   "More primitive than innovative," Blocker muttered under his breath.

   Narrowing his eyes, Captain Hardy stepped back from the cradle. "You'll be laughing on the other side of your smug, reptilian face, shortly. They still need a lot of work. Along with our engineers, you lizards have three days to get them fully operational, flight-worthy, and tested."

   "That is a tight deadline, however, one within our abilities -"

   "There are another eight arriving in several hours." Captain Hardy interrupted, as he turned and stared at the now spluttering Vanguard engineer.

   "That is impossible!"

   "Maybe. But that's all we have. Our engineers will assist you, but I don't think you'll have too much trouble figuring out our primitive technology by yourselves." He started walking away, but stopped when he realized that one of the Vanguard was following him. "What is it?" he asked, turning around.

   "Hrrr, these small vessels are a start. When are your battleships likely to be completed?" Flows-Like-Water looked at him expectantly.

   "Battleships? We've got no battleships. This, and a couple of antique shuttles, is all we've got. If this isn't enough to stop the Arbiter fleet, then we're out of options."

   "No battleships," the Arbiter repeated blankly.

   "That's what I said. We've got teams all around the world, working day and night, converting some of our old warships into something that might be suitable. But they're still at least a year away from completion." When the Observer just blinked at him, Captain Hardy relented, slightly. "Look. Where you come from, you probably take all your high-tech gadgets for granted. We've had space-travel for less than a century. Hell, we haven't even been able to get back to the moon in almost fifty years. We're still a world divided."

   The Observer watched him go before turning and looking back as the Vanguard and humans worked together to get the rest of the Aurora vessels unloaded. Sixteen small, unarmed vessels against an Arbiter battle-fleet. Visions of the destruction of the Vanguard colony at Tau Ceti flashed through his mind. That the Arbiters couldn't survive, unaided, on this planet was a small, but ultimately futile blessing. The Earth was still doomed.

   As the troop carrier rattled its way along the unsealed roads back toward civilization, Blue-Scale tended to his self-inflicted wounds, gently licking at them to clean away the blood. The taste of Rangi's blood, mixed with his own, threatened to bring tears to his eyes. While he understood the necessity of the seperation, the increasing distance between him and his Little-One seemed to hurt, more and more. For one of the first times in his life, he found himself having to think of the bigger picture. If the Arbiters won, he would lose his Little-One. With him helping the humans, there was a slim chance it might be enough to make a difference.

   Thinking like this was difficult for him, so he returned his attention to cleaning up the cuts as best he could. They would scar as they healed over, leaving a permanent reminder of his bonding. As he licked his wounds, he half-listened to the humans as they talked, to distract himself.

   "Why are we goin' back to the village?" Antonio asked, as they turned toward the Kauri Bay settlement, instead of the opposite direction back toward the army base.

   "We're going to pick up a couple of SpecOps guys who've been camped out in the mountains. They should have been notified by now to get their asses into the bed and breakfast in town for a shit, shower, and shave," the soldier calling himself 'Bazza' said, wincing as the troop carrier bounced hard over a pot-hole in the road.

   Unnoticed by anyone else, Vasya stiffened slightly, and glanced quickly at the Vanguard warrior leaning against the forward bulkhead of the troop carrier cabin. Blue-Scale, at the mention of the two camping soldiers, flicked his leathery ears forward and paused in his licking. He glanced up at Vasya, briefly meeting the human's gaze, before lowering his muzzle again. Those were two men who would be very late for this particular rendezvous.

   Permanently late.

   "What were they doin' up there?" Antonio asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

   "Keeping an eye on us, I reckon. For our own safety, apparently." Bazza shrugged.

   His mate, 'Gazza', sighed loudly and peered through one of the small armored windows in the side of the troop carrier. "Going to miss this place. Be a great place to buy a little house. Settle down and shit, y'know?"

   "The only thing you're going to miss is that slutty chick you've been boning for the past couple of weeks. Man, I just dunno how you could stick your dick into something that skankalicious. She's probably crawling with cooties, dude."

   "Aww, shuddup! I'll give you fuckin' cooties in a minute," Gazza laughed, shoving Bazza off the padded bench as the troop carrier ground to a halt outside the small hotel/Bed-and-Breakfast.

   "I will check," Vasya quickly offered, scrambling up and out of the troop carrier before anyone could hardly twitch.

   Blue-Scale watched him go, eyes narrowed, unconsciously growling slightly under his breath. Bazza got up and dusted himself off, giving his mate the finger, then turned to the warrior.

   "What's up with you? And what was all that cutting and bleeding and shit back at the farm?" He sat down next to Blue-Scale and nodded at the cuts, which had stopped bleeding. "Looked pretty intense, man."

   "Hrrr, this one and Little-One were bonding."

   Bazza shook his head, not understanding. "What, like blood-brothers or something?"

   Blue-Scale thought for a few long moments. "Incorrect. Little-One is this one's bond-mate. We are lovers. Not brothers."


   "FUCK! Fuckfuckfuckfuck!" The soldier had jumped up and away from the warrior so quickly, his head had impacted the low roof of the troop carrier with a painful sounding metallic noise.

   He and Gazza quickly backed away until they reached the other end of the troop carrier, and sat there, wide-eyed and staring at the warrior, backs firmly against the rear bulkhead. Not taking his eyes off the Vanguard, Gazza leaned toward the open rear hatch. "Get a move-on you commie bastard! We gotta get moving, now! " he yelled out, his voice suddenly high-pitched and nervous.

   Both Antonio and Blue-Scale exchanged a look and shrugged, Antonio hiding a smirk behind his hand.

End of Part 16