Authors notes: On the home stretch now... Not long to go before I put this story out of its misery, a quick railgun blast to the head, like taking down a rabid animal for its own good, and for the saftey of the general public.

For those interested, a talented author by the name of Monkur has graciously allowed me to share his Yahoo group site, where I put up this story (and a few pics sometimes as well), usually a few days before I post to Nifty. If you like fantasy stories, go have a look - Monkur is a seriously talented young guy. And you'll get to see the new sections of Taniwha several days before anyone else.

My heartfelt thanks go out to Richard, for all his hard work in editing this morass of misinformation and grammatical doom :-)

Taniwha - Part 17

   A knock at the door interrupted Captain Hardy from the report he was trying to write. "Come in," he called out, blanking the screen of his terminal, and leaning forward in his chair.

   A marine opened the door and saluted. "Sir, the Vanguard leader is requesting to speak with you. Can you see him now? Or should I, ah, send him away?" He gave his commanding officer a pleading look, obviously not relishing the thought of possibly having to deny the large, reptilian alien's demand.

   Returning the salute, Captain Hardy raised an eyebrow. This could be interesting. "Alright, son, send him in."

   Looking almost faint with relief, the marine disappeared for several moments before the doorway was filled by the imposing Vangard pack-leader. Ducking through the doorway, he lumbered into the room, pushing the door shut with his tail.

   Captain Hardy crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, looking at the pack-leader thoughtfully. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

   "The engineers have almost completed modifications on those small vessels, as per your request. This one demands to know your intentions. It did not escape this one's attention that they have been modified for Vanguard control." Invokes-The-Storm stared intently at the human, waiting for his response.

   "My intentions? Well, your observations are correct. Your people will be piloting them. As much as it pains me to admit this, our own pilots don't have the necessary skills to fly them - not without a lot of training, which will take time we don't have. And besides, they'll be needed here if any of the Arbiter ships get past you lot."

   The pack-leader didn't respond for several long moments. He took a few steps forward, looming over the desk. Captain Hardy didn't flinch, but was acutely aware it would be a close thing between them, if he needed to make a grab for his side-arm, and the warrior ripped his head from his shoulders.

   "The engineers inform me these small vessels of yours have no weapons. You are expecting Vanguard warriors to go into battle, against Arbiter battleships, unarmed? This one does not understand your reasoning, human," Invokes-The-Storm growled.

   "You noticed that the co-pilots position is designed for a human, yes?"

   Guardedly, "Hrrr, correct."

   "You lizards wont be alone up there. We'll be sending some of our best marines up there with you. So don't you go worrying your pretty little head about it." A slight smile played at the corner of his mouth, as he wondered whether the alien would pick up on the tone of derision in his voice.

   Invokes-The-Storm stood up, shutting his jaw with a loud «snap». "You have not addressed the weapons issue, human. Do you expect us to use harsh language? Rude gestures, perhaps?" Illustrating his point, he swiped a taloned hand through the air in a particular pattern that another Vanguard would find highly offensive. "This one is sure the Arbiters will observe that, and decide to retreat," he said, the emotionless translation disk he wore unable to convey the dripping sarcasm evident in his native tongue.

   "Each of those jets will be equipped with two nuclear bombs, which -" Captain Hardy started to say, when the Vanguard roared loudly, cutting him off. He blinked, startled.

   "HRRR! Is your brain impaired, human? Or are you just naturally stupid? Our engineers have already informed you about the shielding the Arbiter vessels have. They are capable of withstanding blasts several magnitudes more powerful than anything your pathetic species has been able to create!"

   At that moment, the door burst open and a couple of marines rushed in, weapons drawn and aimed at the pack-leader. Invokes-The-Storm whirled around to face them, crouching down into an attack stance, talons splayed out threateningly. "Sir! Is everything okay? We heard yelling -" the marine from earlier started to say, eyes-wide as the snarling pack-leader prepared to defend himself.

   Jumping to his feet, Captain Hardy quickly moved out from behind his desk, placing himself between the pack-leader and the two marines. He motioned to the marines to lower their assault rifles. "Put the weapons down! That's an order. He was just having a bitch at me, " he half turned his head toward the pack-leader. "Isn't that right, lizard?" His instincts told him the Vanguard wouldn't attack him, or the two marines. Despite his confidence, he still could not quite help but feel an exposed itch between his shoulder blades.

   "Sir, if you're sure...?" the marines lowered their weapons, but hesitated.

   Behind Captain Hardy, Invokes-The-Storm slowly straightened up, lowering his arms to his sides and hissing like an overheated boiler. "I'm sure. Please leave us now." Waiting until the marines had left, he spun around and glared at the agitated pack-leader, jabbing a finger at him as he spoke. "Are you deliberately trying to get yourself killed, you stupid lizard? Don't you ever try pulling a stunt like that with me, again."

   There was a brief flash of emotion on the pack-leaders face that was gone almost before it had even registered. Captain Hardy blinked, wondering for a moment if he'd imagined it. He could have sworn it was disappointment. Shaking his head, he made to return to his desk but stopped, and turned back to face the pack-leader, who met his gaze with his four enigmatic black eyes. Captain Hardy reached up and stroked his chin, thoughtfully. "Okay, perhaps a demonstration is in order. Follow me."

   As he lead Invokes-The-Storm out of his office and along the catwalk, Captain Hardy's thoughts wandered. This was the Vanguard that had been involved in the altercation with the other, almost killing it. Rutting accident? He was now seriously beginning to have his doubts. Intelligence seemed to indicate that the injured one was this one's partner. 'Lover,' he thought with distaste. The pack-leader had displayed some fairly erratic behavior in the time he had known him; not at all what he would have expected from a 'warrior leader'. All of the other Vanguard seemed to behave almost normally in comparison.

   Then there was the incident in his office. If he didn't know any better, it almost seemed like the pack-leader was deliberately trying to provoke him. And that look of what he thought might be disappointment on the reptile's face, when he had stepped in to stop the fight...was he trying to get himself killed?

   While loathe to attribute human emotions to the Vanguard, his instincts told him that his line of reasoning was correct. Everything about the pack-leader's actions was screaming guilt. He stopped abruptly, turning to look at the Vanguard in a new light.

   Invokes-The-Storm came to a halt, staring down at the human pack-leader. "Hrrr? What is the delay, human?"

   Violent and remorseless one moment, depressed and guilt-ridden the next. Perhaps the pack-leader was insane. It did fit the bill. Although, ever since the fight, the pack-leader had been subdued and had displayed none of his normal beligerence. "Nothing. We're almost there." He continued walking, leading Invokes-The-Storm across the cavern to a large, armored door.

   Swiping his access card, the door slowly rumbled open in front of them, revealing what looked like a large firing range. Once inside, the door rumbled shut behind them. At the far end of the long room was a massive pile of sand and dirt. On a sturdy metal stand in front of the pile, was a complicated mass of electronics and partially disassembled machinery. Invokes-The-Storm recognized one of the shield emitters from the shuttle secured to the stand, hooked up to a hidden power source by fat cables running along the floor and disappearing into a conduit in the wall.

   The shield emitter was surrounded by a faint nimbus of distorted air that occasionally shimmered, flickering with barely visible prismatic colors. He briefly glanced around the room but, finding little else of interest, returned his gaze to the human pack-leader. "You are wasting this one's time, human."

   Several human scientists, as well as a couple of Vanguard engineers stood nearby, watching them both curiously. Drawing his side-arm, Captain Hardy nodded to them, gesturing at his weapon.

   "One moment, sir," one of the scientists turned to a terminal on the table next to him and tapped some commands into it. With a whine, two large blast-shields descended from recesses in the ceiling, dropping down to shield several banks of electronic sensors. "All yours," the man called back, waving at him.

   Captain Hardy walked forward a few steps, until he had clear line-of-sight to the shield emitter. Disabling the saftey, and taking aim, he let off five shots in rapid succession. The bullets hit the insubstantial looking energy field and fell to the floor in front of it. The only evidence of impact was small patches of deep red light which appeared in the field, then rapidly dispersed until there was no sign they even existed.

   "Our pointy heads over there," Captain Hardy waved at the scientists, who just rolled their eyes at him, "have done a bit of research into how your shields work. The Arbiter bugs use similar technology, I understand?"

   "Hrrr, correct. Technology they stole from us, originally." Invokes-The-Storm tried to keep a note of irritation out of his voice.

   "Oh? That wasn't in any of the reports I've read. Interesting. It begs the question, though; if you lizards were so technologically advanced compared to the bugs, how did they end up getting the upper hand on you? You guys being big, bad, scary warriors and all." Reloading his side-arm, he put it back in its holster, then waited patiently for an answer.

   Hunkering down on his haunches in a relaxed pose, the pack-leader gave the Vanguard equivalent of a shrug. "Vangard were always more powerful than the Arbiters. However, despite our powerful technological advantage, they had the advantage of overwhelming numbers."

   "Remember the Alamo, eh?"

   "This one does not understand your reference. However, it does not matter. Battleship shield emitters are considerably more powerful than the one you have torn from our shuttle. Your nuclear weapons will have minimal effect." He fixed Captain Hardy with a piercing stare. "You are requesting many of this one's people, as well as your own, to sacrifice themselves needlessly, human. We have time to prepare for the cometary masses. However, we do not have time for the Arbiter battle-fleet."

   "So, you would have us just give up? Sit here with our thumbs up our collective asses, waiting for the bugs to come and shit all over us?" Captain Hardy arched his eyebrows questioningly.

   "Hrrr, that is not what this one said -"

   "No, but it's pretty much what you said amounts to," he interrupted the pack-leader. "Lucky for us - and you - we're not so defeatist."

   Picking up a thin plank of wood leaning against a nearby bench, Captain Hardy leaped over the short guard-rail and walked down the length of the shooting range toward the shield emitter. Bracing himself just in front of it, he placed the end of the plank against the shield, which flickered wildly and made a loud humming noise. Grunting, he strained against it, pushing the plank slowly into the shield which started glowing an unpleasant shade of billious green around the intrusion. Smoking slightly as it inched its way deeper, Captain Hardy angled the wood toward a large power cut-off switch beside the emitter itself. After several seconds of pushing, he managed to contact the switch and the shield flicked out of existance.

   Dropping the scorched length of wood, he sauntered back to the gob-smacked pack-leader with a shit-eating grin on his face. Idly wiping away the sweat on his forehead, he clapped Invokes-The-Storm on the back with his other hand. "Marvelous bit of technology, your shields, I have to say. They can absorb or reflect a lot of energy. But sometimes, all you need to do is speak softly, and carry a big stick."

   Things were rapidly going from bad to worse out in the real world, since the announcements that aliens not only existed, but were already here. In many different countries, religious extremists had declared Jihad, the Second Coming (*splurt*), the Rapture, Armageddon, and many other flavors of the end of the world. Many new religious cults had literally sprung up overnight as well, some preaching their undying love and gratitude for their new alien overlords, others that the devil(s) is now walking among us.

   Businesses selling survivalist supplies had completely run out of stock, as had many supermarkets. Interest in astronomy also blossomed - you could no longer buy telescopes, or even binoculars, for love nor money. Queues waiting to get into astronomical observatories stretched for blocks, while others in less enlightened parts of the world were smashed by frightened mobs of people, many hundreds of thousands strong. Websites dedicated to things astronomical were brought to their knees from the demand.

   Over the next few days, the hysteria seemed to die down quite a bit as many governments went into damage-control mode. Many people tried putting their lives back to normal, carrying on with work and school, as if nothing had changed. But they were in the minority.

   Because of the new found interest in astronomy, it wasn't long before the approaching Arbiter battle-fleet was discovered. Only, this time, the response to yet more aliens, seemed almost anti-climatic. It only started dawning on people that something was different when, instead of calming news from their governments, emergency broadcasts started playing. These broadcasts exhorted people to gather as many supplies as they could, and retreat to bomb-shelters, cellars, and basements.

   In deepest, darkest Siberia, the children from a small rural school watched as their teacher scribbled simple mathematical equations on the blackboard. They dutifully copied them down into their workbooks. Suddenly a deep rumble could be heard, the vibrations making the panes of glass rattle in the windows. The kids abandoned their books and went rushing to the window, their teacher not far behind them. On the far side of the small playing field, next to the school, a large metal door set into the top of a low-lying bunker slid open, and white smoke billowed from the entrance. With a shattering roar, an RS-24 thermonuclear missile gracefully slid up from its silo, slowly gaining speed as its engine throttled up.

   The room was full of screams as teacher and students dived to the floor, just before the window panes exploded inward, showering the room with shards of glass. Acrid smoke enveloped the building, while the thundering roar threatened to shake it to bits, as the missile rocketed upwards.

   In China, peasants working in nearby rice paddies stopped what they were doing, looking up in slack-jawed fear, as several massive pillars of smoke and flame erupted from buried silos at the local military base. Sleek black missiles on top of these pillars quickly disappeared into ominously dark-gray storm-clouds. They squinted as the shockwaves from the launch blew dust and smoke over the fields.

   Residents up and down the Western seaboard of the US were rudely awoken as a deafening rumbling could be heard, their houses shaking from the thundering roar. Fearing earthquakes, many didn't witness the blinding glare as dozens of missles climbed skyward from their buried silos, while they cowered under their beds.

   From all over the globe, several hundred synchronous missile launches, from dozens of different countries, arced up from their concealed silos, leaving people on the ground to watch with horrified fascination as the rockets thundered into the sky. Many of them looked at each other with hollow, frightened gazes. They could feel it...

   Life as they knew it was coming to an end.

   "What's wrong with you, boy? You've been moping around here all day like someone's murdered your puppy."

   Rangi sighed, turning off the multimeter he'd been using to check the wiring of the workshop's tow-truck. Business had been completely dead; there hadn't been a single customer all day. Reduced to utter boredom, he had decided to redo the wiring in the old tow-truck. Since he'd lost his van in the landslide a couple of months back, Gavin Geraldson, the gas station owner, had been kind enough to let him use it to get to and from work.

   After knowledge about the aliens became public, people seemed to go a little crazy. Even in isolated ol' New Zealand, it seemed. "Nah, I'm alright, thanks." Rangi gave him a strained smile as he wiped his hands clean with an old rag.

   "Look, why don't you come round home tonight and have dinner with Sheryl and I? She's been out collecting tua-tua. She gave me a call, a moment ago, saying she's got more than we can handle and to invite a guest around." Gavin looked slyly at Rangi from under his bushy gray eyebrows.

   This time the smile Rangi gave him was more genuine. "Liar," he grinned. "Seriously though, thanks for the offer, Mr. Geraldson. But I just wouldn't make very good company at the moment."

   Gavin shrugged. "Can't say I didn't try. Well, you know where we live if you change your mind. Sheryl would love to see you again. She was quite worried when you disappeared, you know."

   Gavin had never come out and directly asked him what had happened during the period of time he'd disappeared, for which Rangi was quietly grateful. Being such a small community, news traveled fast around Kauri Bay. When he disappeared after 'The Invasion' (as the residents called it) of military, everyone heard about it in short order; Rangi was well known and liked by most.

   "Give your missus a hug for me when you get home. Speaking of which, why don't you bugger off and let me close up for you?" He gestured around the empty yard, the only vehicle being the tow-truck. "Not much else for me to do."

   Putting his arm around the boy's shoulders as they walked into the shop, Gavin nodded. "Reckon I'll take you up on that. Ever since all this talk about aliens, people have been a little spooked. Not afraid to admit that I'm one of them."

   Rangi followed him to the door and they both stopped to look up at the sky. Being Autumn, the days were getting darker, earlier, and the first stars were already out. "Something tells me it's not the aliens already here that we've gotta worry about, Mr. Geraldson. What worries me more is what's out there," he said, shivering slightly in the cold wind blowing through the door.

   "Hmm, maybe. Goodnight, Rangi. See you in the morning."


   An hour or so later, after he'd shut up the gas station for the night, Rangi walked around the back of the workshop to get the truck, when a flash etched out his shadow on the stained concrete in front of him. Startled, he looked around, then seeing nothing, upwards. Several more small, bright flashes dazzled his eyes, before quickly fading from view. Whatever they were, they were extremely far away, probably in space, he guessed. "And so it begins," he muttered quietly.

   He got into the truck and started the engine, waiting a couple of minutes for it to warm up properly before he took off. While he waited, there were several more bright flashes from the sky. His heart felt like it skipped a beat when he realized that there was a high chance that Blue-Scale was up there somewhere, fighting the bugs. Fighting for his Little-One. "Goddammit, Hori! You're not going to fucking cry, again," he snapped. Angry with himself, he slammed the transmission gearshift into reverse and backed the truck out of the yard.

   Rangi met no other traffic on the road as he drove home. Which was just as well, because he had difficulty seeing anything through the tears as they coursed down his face.

   Docile-Until-Provoked had been sitting for some time on the bunk beside the comatose Obscuring-Darkness, studying the information he'd downloaded about human physiology with much fascination. The little meat-bags were not only strange creatures on the outside, they were a complete mess on the inside as well. Strange organs, with strange functions. Lots of unnecessary internal plumbing. Although there were some superficial similarities to Vanguard physiology, they really were built quite differently. No wonder they suffered from so many health issues, and didn't tend to live very long.

   He was so engrossed in the information, that it took him several moments before he registered that someone else had joined them. Swinging his head around, he looked up and saw Invokes-The-Storm standing by the foot of Obscuring-Darkness' bunk. Returning his attention to the datapad, he sighed wearily. "Hrrr, I had wondered when you would return. You will be pleased to know that his condition has not gotten any worse. Ancestors only know why, but perhaps the time you spent with him actually helped."

   "I have enough guilt already, for my actions. Your disapproval of me is unnecessary, medic." There was no ire in the pack-leaders words, only weary acceptance. "I desire some time alone with him."

   "Very well. Hrrr, one thing before I go. How have you been feeling? I notice your behavior of late has been, dare I say it, rather settled." The medic got to his feet and stopped beside the pack-leader, looking at him critically.

   Invokes-The-Storm glanced at the medic, then back down at his unconscious lover. "I lost a great deal of my recent memory after the Observer assisted me with my...problem. However, it seems that he has succeeded in silencing the controlling voices in my head. And for that, I am grateful." He moved closer to the head of the bunk and hunkered down on his haunches beside Obscuring-Darkness' head. He looked up again at the medic, a tortured expression on his craggy face. "Until I overheard your conversation with Blocker, I was unaware of what I had done. You need to know that I am experiencing difficulty in coming to terms with the cost of my actions. Should he recover, I do not believe he will forgive me, this time." He turned back and placed both of his forward hands on his lover's chest, and closed his eyes.

   Docile-Until-Provoked stared at the pack-leader, confused. "Memory loss? An Observer? I fail to understand. I am unaware of the presence of an Observer in our midst. Hrrr, and you neglected to mention any memory loss to me, also. Explain yourself, pack-leader!"

   "I do not care for the tone of your voice, medic." Invokes-The-Storm opened his eyes and regarded him with a baleful glare. "There is little time left, and I wish to spend it alone."

   Taking an involuntary, nervous step back, Docile-Until-Provoked acceded defeat, unwilling to provoke his wrath. "Very well. However, this is not over. When you return from the mission, I will insist that we talk more." He turned to leave, but stopped momentarily, turning back to face the pack-leader. "Just know that I hope you are successful. Despite recent events, I still believe there is a chance for you both, if he recovers. That he would attempt to take his own life after he thought he'd lost your love...hrrr. There are still feelings, there."

   His thoughts in turmoil, Invokes-The-Storm watched the medic leave, before turning back to Obscuring-Darkness. When he was alone, he got to his knees and leaned over until he was able to lay his head on the pillow beside his lover's head. "I have not got long," he rumbled in a barely audible whisper. "We go to battle Arbiters, fighting alongside the humans. I do not believe we will be successful. We are significantly outclassed and outnumbered. I go to battle burdened with the knowledge that, for the second time, I have hurt that which I prize above everything. Forgiveness is something I have no right to ask of you, this time. Hrrr, I cannot even explain why..."

   Invokes-The-Storm broke off, too choked up to continue. Blinking rapidly, he got to his feet, looking down at Obscuring-Darkness, remembering back to when he had given his lover the sacred bonding oath. Destiny was calling, and he felt its inexorable pull. He slowly reached up with both rear arms and grasped his left horn tightly. Breathing deeply, he tensed his muscles...

   Docile-Until-Provoked stood with a group of mixed Vanguards and humans, watching as the last modified Aurora vessel was loaded onto a transporter. The small vessels were being moved to the surface, where a last minute briefing would be held, before they were launched. Word had come that the Arbiter battle-fleet was approaching the planet, and that the humans had launched a massive pre-emptive strike of their nuclear arsenal. A brave, but ultimately futile gesture.


   The scream, when it came, was entirely unexpected and shook all the Vanguard to their very core - even the humans looked spooked. The Vanguard looked at each other with eyes wide, and fists clenched. Although wordless, the scream spoke of many different things; physical pain, sorrow, sacrifice...and loss.

   Scattered around the globe, several massive orbital weapons platforms were activated from their ground-based control-centres. Small attitude and directional control thrusters fired up, reorienting the massive structures. As they rotated around their axis, powerful tracking sensors scanned through space, fixing on small pin pricks of light that were approaching the planet. As each platform locked onto a target, the powerful onboard nuclear reactors were brought up to full power. On each of the platforms, a hatch irised open, the dark metallic elements inside dimly reflecting the faint light of the stars.

   Once the firing sequence was activated, extremely powerful beams of coherent laser light speared out from each of the platforms, hitting the shields of each of the targeted battleships. Designed to cut intercontinental ballistic missiles into thin strips while still in flight, the beams were simply absorbed by the shielding, which started glowing a dull amber color as the energy built up and was distributed.

   The response, when it came, was devastating. Each of the targeted battle-ships brought one of its particle-beam cannons to bear on the attacking platforms. Silent detonations flowered in space as each platform was reduced to a smear of glittering fragments and glowing plasma. But the destruction didn't halt there. Soon, high geosynchronous orbits were full of silent explosions as the satellites parked there were systematically annihilated by the overcautious Arbiters.

   It seemed almost ironic that the utter destruction of the last of Earth's space-based defences happened in total silence...

   "I'll keep this short and sweet, because you all know what's at stake, here. If the bugs win this round, then we're completely fucked, end of the world as we know it and all that sort of bullshit." Captain Hardy looked around at the assembled marines and Vanguards. Of the latter, there was a mix of both warriors and engineers, all looking unflinchingly back at him with serious, determined expressions on their faces. The beginnings of a smirk lurked at the corner of his mouth as he looked at each of them in turn. "There are a lot of men, women, children, and small furry, animals with big, wet, brown eyes, out there depending on us. Let's not let them down."

   A few smiles and a couple of quiet chuckles reached his eyes and ears. He looked at them proudly. His boys. There was even grudging admiration for the Vanguard pilots, willing to sacrifice themselves for a race of aliens to whom they owed no allegiance. "Marines! Grab your assigned lizard wingman and let's get this show on the road. Saddle up, ladies! Make me proud!" he roared, grabbing his helmet from a nearby trestle-table and making his way over to one of the Aurora jets.

   "Sir! Wait. What're you doin'?" Antonio stepped in front of him, clutching his own helmet to his chest and looking at him, concerned.

   "Got a job to do, Oh-Man. You think I'm just gonna sit here behind a desk, while you lot are out there fighting and dying to save my skinny white hide?"

   "But -"

   "Shut up. And that's an order," Captain Hardy growled gruffly, and stepped around Antonio. When the marine followed him over to his Aurora jet, Captain Hardy placed his helmet on the sloping wing and climbed the steps to the cockpit, settling in and connecting himself up to the various life support and control systems. Antonio grabbed the helmet and held it out to the officer as he stood on the steps. Captain Hardy took the offered helmet and looked at it for a moment, before placing it on his lap and sighing. His face lost its grim, forced look, as he looked up at Antonio.

   "Sir, there's something I've gotta say before we do this. Just wanted you to know...Uh, I...I'm really sorry if I've been a disappointment to you. I know you don't approve -"

   "Stop. Just stop right there, Oh-Man." Captain Hardy closed his eyes briefly, then looked around the hangar at the others boarding their jets. He then looked Antonio in the eye and gave him a sad smile. "You've been like a son to me, and you're not a disappointment. You've grown into a fine young man, and an impressive soldier. You've made me proud."

   Surprised, Antonio looked at him, jaw agape. "But I thought -"

   "Shut up and let me finish, Oh-Man," he said, kindly. "Look, I can't pretend that I understand what you see in that Russian kid. Not sure that I want to understand. But you need to be careful, you understand? There are some out there that wouldn't react kindly. You get me, son?"

   "Yessir," Antonio swallowed, unexpectedly overcome with emotion.

   "Now, get your butt over to your jet - don't keep your lizard waiting." Antonio nodded, and clambered down the steps. He was about to jog over to his own jet, when Captain Hardy called out to him again. "One last thing before you go, Oh-Man."


   Captain Hardy formally saluted him. "It's been an honor, son."

   Struggling not to show any emotion, Antonio returned the salute. "Yessir."

   Blocker gave Captain Hardy a curious glance as he clambered into the cockpit, carefully arranging his tail in the groove cut into the seats that had been specially designed for the Vanguard. The skinsuit he wore was only slightly different from their normal attire. There hadn't been enough time to design and build special pressure suits for the Vanguard in the short time they had to prepare the Aurora jets. He activated the controls, watching carefully as the system ran through its startup diagnostics. There was a reassuring throbbing from the rear of the jet as the small human-built singularity generator powered up, the super-heavy elements inside it spinning with a distinctive ascending whine.

   He snapped his jaw at the ground-crew, who gingerly disconnected the heavy power cabling from the rear of the jet, and hastily withdrew to a safe distance. Once the generator had spun up to operational velocity, Blocker teased the controls with a talon, and the Aurora jet leaped a couple of metres into the air, causing Captain Hardy to curse softly. Despite the rapid, violent maneuver, there was no sense of movement inside the jet as the distorted gravity field being created by the singularity generator cancelled the inertial shock.

   "Jesus H Christ, lizard! Steady on!"

   "Sorry, human. Hrrr, what are your orders?" Blocker swung his head around as much as he could in the cramped confines of the cockpit, giving Captain Hardy a crocodilian smile.

   "Okay, taxi us out into the open, and wait for me to give you the word. We need to give the others time to get their birds into the air."

   "Hrrr, birds?" Blocker queried as he eased their jet out from under the protection of the massive hangar and into the glaring heat of the desert sun.

   Captain Hardy rolled his eyes melodramatically, and shook his head. "This is going to be a long trip."

   Back in the hangar, Antonio approached Vasya, who was standing beside his own Aurora jet waiting for him. "Gotta make this quick, babe," he said, grabbing the Russian into a tight embrace. "Promise me you'll take it easy out there, okay?" he asked, breaking the embrace after several long moments. He held Vasya at arms length, studying his face intently, as if memorizing every tiny feature.

   "Da, da. Of course. What was that about with your Captain Hardy?"

   "Uh, it ain't important. Anyway, who'd ya score as your pilot?" Antonio asked, looking around. "HURK! "

   Blue-Scale had crept up behind Antonio and grabbed him into the air in a tight, four-armed embrace. "Hrrr! Greetings, Yankee! " he rumbled happily, as he squeezed the human before putting him down again.

   Antonio gasped and wheezed, desperately trying to regain his breath, as he leaned over, grabbing onto Vasya's jet for support. "My pilot," Vasya said unnecessarily, laughing.

   The young Vanguard warrior climbed into the cockpit, and settled down before powering up the singularity generator. He swung his head around and stared down at the two humans. "This one has completed preparations. You need to board vessel, Russian-Husky."

   "Give me moment, da?" Vasya turned to face the marine again, his face turning pensive. He reached out and tenderly cupped Antonio's jaw with one hand. "Bring yourself back to me, da?"

   Wincing theatrically, Antonio grimaced. "Think the lizard broke my ribs," he muttered.

   "I am serious, silly American!" The Russian grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him gently. "Promise me."

   Nodding, Antonio smiled at him. "Okay, will do."

   "Promise me!" Vasya insisted, staring at him intently.

   "Okay, okay! I promise. Now, I better scoot, or Captain Hardy will have me for breakfast." Looking around to make sure they were not observed, he leaned over and kissed Vasya passionately for several long moments. Breaking the kiss, he turned and was about to trot over to his own jet, when Vasya stopped him again.

   "I love you, Antonio."

   'Oh shit,' he thought with his heart hammering in his chest. "Yeah, me too," he said awkwardly. He mentally cringed as the Russian's face fell, the disappointment obvious his eyes. 'Say it!' his mind screamed at him, and he opened his mouth...then closed it quickly.

   Vasya closed his eyes briefly, and gave him a small, sad smile before he dejectedly turned away and climbed into the cockpit. Antonio stepped back as the ground crew swept in and pulled the steps away and disconnected the power from the singularity generator. Blue-Scale eased the jet gracefully into the air, and moved it toward the hangar doors at a walking pace.

   'Don't be a jerk, just say the three fucking words!' his mind pleaded with him. The Russian's Aurora jet emerged into the harsh sunlight and moved into position behind several of the others already out there. "I love you," he whispered, hanging his head in shame as he made his way to his own jet where a Vanguard was patiently waiting for him beside the cockpit stairway. Surprised, he recognized the Observer, Flows-Like-Water. "What're you doin' here?"

   The Observer gave him a shallow bow. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Flows-Like-Water, and I'll be your Captain for your flight today. We're expecting mild turbulence, and a flight time of -"

   "Stow it! " the marine interrupted, annoyed. "I'm not in the mood, alright?"

   "Suit yourself. Goodness, who pissed in your ricies today?" the Observer asked, in his perfect, accent-free English as he climbed into the cockpit and made himself comfortable.

   Antonio pointedly ignored him as he followed up the stairs and went through his pre-flight check. The Observer powered up the systems, and they both sat there, pondering their thoughts while the ascending whine grew in pitch as the singularity generator spun up to operational rotational velocity. Flows-Like-Water waved at the ground-crew, who disconnected the power and removed the cockpit stairs. He eased their jet slowly into the air, and out of the hangar doors, settling into formation behind the others.

   "Comms check," Captain Hardy said, tapping on a mounted datapad in his section of the cockpit, bringing up a checklist. Each of the marines called out their jet number and callsign, which Captain Hardy checked off in his list.

   "Aurora-11, callsign Russian-Husky. Comms operational." Vasya responded when it was his turn. He deliberately stared straight ahead, not looking at anyone else as the others responded when their turn came up.

   When it was his turn, Antonio looked over to his lover's jet, hoping to give him a smile and a thumbs up. "Aurora-15, callsign Yankee-Doodle. Comms operational." When Vasya didn't turn around, he slumped in his seat. "Fuck," he muttered.

   Captain Hardy nodded, satisfied once they'd all signed off. "Alright ladies. Rock'n'roll time - secure your cockpit canopies. You've got two nukes each. Use 'em wisely. Now, what do you say we go kick some bug booty?" A rowdy chorus of enthusiastic responses greeted his question, making him smile. "All yours, lizard. Take us up when you're ready."

   Blocker snapped his jaw shut in acknowledgement and activated the canopy, which closed over them with a reassuringly heavy «clunk». The interior pressurized with a hiss, making their ears pop slightly from the pressure. He tapped away on the control-console and watched as the ground swung away underneath them and they rapidly climbed, with no feeling of movement, as the singularity generator whined away behind them.

   The remaining Area-51 personnel watched with mixed emotions as the sixteen matt-black arrowhead shaped, Aurora jets took off almost vertically into the sky in tight formation.

   "Revered Ancestors, may they be successful with their mission, and may you return them to us safely." Docile-Until-Provoked spoke a quiet litany as the jets disappeared from sight.

   Several of the humans around him, briefly looked at him and nodded. "Amen," one of them muttered, before turning and walking back inside the hangar.

End of Part 17