Authors notes: In space, no-one can hear you yawn. Penultimate section, this one. I promise to stop raping your eyeballs after section 19.

Thank you so much Richard; my editor in shining armor :-)

Epic battle is EPIC.

Taniwha - Part 18

   The room was dimly lit, but even the small amount of light made him blink and squint painfully as he lay there, staring at the ceiling while his eyes accustomed themselves. After several minutes, Obscuring-Darkness hesitantly propped himself up on his rear elbows, and slowly swung his head around, looking nervously for any sign of life. Relief, and a sense of disappointment, briefly fought it out when he realized the room was empty.

   A dull ache from his chest nagged at him as he sat up. A quick glance showed nothing more than a jagged scar running across his chest, above his primary heart, where he had stabbed himself with the improvized spear. That Ancestor's-damned interfering medic had obviously saved him, which explained his currently still being alive. Things would have been a lot better for everyone concerned if he had been allowed to die. The thought of death, instead of more torture at the hands of his bond-mate, was bitter-sweet.

   A part of his soul had died during that attack, and he keenly felt its loss.

   Obscuring-Darkness knew that his feral bond-mate still loved him in some isolated, lost part of his warrior mind...a part that was now deeply buried forever under the insanity that gripped him. He remembered that blasted medic and his accursed optimism after the first attack, several months back. 'Love will triumph, just be patient! Love will cure all'...Hrrr! Pure Rankbeast-shit. He'd tried. Oh, how he'd tried...

   Irritated, he swiped at the tears welling in his eyes, angry with himself for letting his feelings and emotions blind him from the obvious for so long. Why were the good ones always so damaged? He swung his legs around, knocking something off the end of the bunk and onto the floor.

   Curious, he leaned down and picked up the object, not recognising it for several moments. An off-white, crescent-shaped, item. One sharply pointed end, and the other all jagged and rough. It looked vaguely familiar... Suddenly an image of Invokes-The-Storm flashed into his mind, and he dropped the broken Vanguard horn on the bunk with a strangled cry, backing away in horrified dismay. He hit another bunk with the back of his legs and tripped over backwards onto it, the frame groaning alarmingly under his weight.

   It was also at this moment that his eyes registered something else that made his hearts hammer in his chest. Written in fresh-looking Vanguard blood on the wall above his bunk were several Vanguard glyphs:


   One of the doors into the building crashed open, scaring him. Leaping to his feet, he crouched down in a defensive stance, facing the intruder and fearing the worst.

   "You are conscious and recovered? I heard you cry out and feared the worst..." Docile-Until-Provoked's voice trailed off as he also noticed the bloody graffiti. He slowly approached the engineer and stopped beside him as he read it with dawning comprehension. "Revered Ancestors, no. What has he done...?" he rumbled quietly, as they both stared at it with wide eyes.

   Shaking his head to clear the temporary paralysis that held him, Obscuring-Darkness crouched down, gingerly picking up his lover's horn from the floor. He noticed the fresh blood on the jagged end, where Invokes-The-Storm had ripped it from his head. Looking up at the glyphs as he approached the wall, he reached up to touch the blood with one of his rear hands. It smeared under his finger. "Where is he, hrrr?" he asked, turning to face the medic with haunted eyes. Reflexively, he clutched the horn to his chest.

   "Approximately two hours ago, he left with the humans. They go to battle the Arbiters -"

   "Hrrr, Arbiters are here?" he interrupted the medic. "I have been out that long?" Obscuring-Darkness sat heavily on his bunk, which protested with a groan of stressed metal.

   Docile-Until-Provoked approached and sat down on the bunk opposite him, a concerned expression on his craggy features. "Indeed. You are feeling recovered? We were all worried for you. Even..." he hesitated for a few moments, searching the young engineer's face carefully. "Even our pack-leader. You know he hardly left your side since the...incident."

   "Incident? Hrrr, you should have let me die, medic." Obscuring-Darkness dropped his forward hands into his lap, turning his lover's broken horn over in his fingers as he stared disconsolately at it. "I am not able - hrrr, not willing to live through that sort of incident again."

   "You know very well I would be unable to stand by and let you take your life without trying to intervene, young one. Besides, I do not believe you have need for concern. Should he survive the battle, you will find him a changed warrior."

   "Hrrr?" Obscuring-Darkness looked up at the medic, a disbelieving expression on his face.

   Uncharacteristically, the medic looked unsure of himself. "What do you know of Observers?"

   "Hrrr, nothing!"

   The medic snapped his jaw shut softly, and a wry smile crept onto his face. The engineer had responded just a little too quickly. So the pack-leader had been telling the truth, after all. Although, what it meant that they had an Observer infiltrating their ranks, he wasn't quite sure. "Your warrior was quite shaken when he realized you had tried taking your own life. I believe the Observer had some influence in his recovery, also. I believe the two events may have had a more permanent and positive effect, this time around."

   Obscuring-Darkness just sat there, alternating his gaze between the horn and the glyphs. Eventually, after a few minutes of silence, he held the horn up to the end of his snout and sniffed at it deeply, the scent of his lover filling his senses. "He kept repeating that he loved me, all the while he hurt me. What kind of monster does that, medic?" he asked, in a hollow, emotionless voice.

   "A monster that needs your understanding, young one -"

   "You told me that the first time! " Obscuring-Darkness roared, leaping to his feet and confronting the medic, breathing heavily with his talons splayed out in an aggressive manner. "Why should this time be any different?!"

   The medic was quiet for some time, regarding him thoughtfully, careful not to let on just how much his hearts went out to the Vanguard youth. "You hold the reason in your hand," he said quietly, indicating the broken horn. "And it flows through your veins."

   The sixteen Aurora jets hung motionless in low Earth orbit, still in perfect formation. The approaching Arbiter battleships were starting to spread out in preparation for entering the atmosphere, after having spent some time decimating many of the satellites in higher orbits. Setting his point-to-point secure laser communications system on its lowest power setting, Captain Hardy stared out at the others through the canopy of his own jet, nodding in satisfaction.

   "Alright folks, this is Big-Daddy and this isn't like Independence Day. These fuckers don't have a mother ship and their shields aren't impenetrable. They'll be overconfident with their size and strength, but we've got speed and cunning. So, we can do this. The lizards seem to think that, with the stealth crap all over these birds, the bugs won't detect us until it's too late. When I give the word, hit your targets hard and fast. And just remember, the nukes are worthless unless they're planted under the shields, so we can't just drop them and run. Now, spread out; thrusters only."

   He looked out at the battleships, still mere pin-pricks of light at this distance. There were small flares of light from the jets around him as they fired maneuvering thrusters to put some distance between each other. He knew this was the last he would be seeing of many of them. Berating himself for feeling so sentimental, he thumbed the mike again. "Happy hunting, and good luck. Wait until you can see the whites of their beady little eyes. Big-Daddy out."

   Each of the Aurora jets had been equipped with two 15-kiloton thermonuclear warheads. One for each of the battleships, plus an extra for redundancy. Although deep space radar telemetry had spotted a total of seventeen Arbiter vessels tacticians, in consultation with the Vanguard warriors, had predicted that if the price grew too costly for the Arbiters, they'd likely turn-tail and run, cutting their losses.

   Unfortunately, most of the Vanguard intelligence about the weaponry each battle-ship was equipped with was woefully inadequate. The closest a lot of them had come to actual battle with the bugs was limited to when their own vessel was destroyed out beyond the orbit of the moon.

   Before they'd been destroyed, some of the orbiting spy satellites had been turned to study at the approaching ships. They had managed to glean enough information, before their demise, to send concerned ripples throughout the various governments that had access to the information. The particle beam weapons utilized by the Arbiters gave off very high levels of ionizing radiation. This meant that not only were they dangerous by themselves, but anything they came into contact with, that wasn't completely destroyed, became highly radioactive.

   It was also likely that each battleship was armed with large numbers of high-yield fusion bombs. Much more powerful than anything that humans had been able to come up with. Each battleship also had powerful banks of electromagnetic discharge (ED) weapons, for defense against smaller vessels. All in all, very formidable adversaries.

   On board each of the jets, the Vanguard pilots powered down all non-essential systems; even the singularity-generators were only just ticking over. This meant that the artificial gravity on board each jet was also shut down, resulting in at least a couple of the marines having to reach for sick-bags, despite the anti-nausea drugs they'd taken earlier. The Aurora jets soon became lost to sight against the star-speckled blackness.

   Over the next few minutes, the humans and Vanguard nervously watched as several of the battleships approached, half expecting massively powerful death-rays to lance out and incinerate them. "Chyort," Vasya breathed as one of the vessels appeared to be heading straight for them.

   He'd been expecting some great big silvery metal structure, like something out of one of the sci-fi shows he'd watched on TV over the years. But the reality was different. Each of the Arbiter battleships resembled a lot of long, metallic, rectangular boxes haphazardly stuck together with something resembling a glistening black slime. There was nothing sleek, or stylish about these massive vessels, each at least a kilometre long and several hundred metres wide.

   As it passed by, the humans felt a strange tickling in their inner-ears, accompanied by faint clicking noises. In the Yankee-Doodle, Antonio shook his head, trying to rid himself of the unpleasant sensation.

   "We're being scanned," Flows-Like-Water said, feeling the amorphous Silicon particles that made up his body react to the radar waves transmitted from the battleships.

   "It's not harmful, is it?" Antonio whispered, staring at the back of the Observer's head with wide, nervous eyes.

   Flows-Like-Water laughed out loud, genuinely amused. "It's not healthy for you, Antonio. But don't you think that's the least of your worries at the moment?" he asked, nodding at several of the battleships as they ponderously moved past.

   "Keep your voice down!" Antonio hissed at him, alarmed.

   The Observer swung his head around as much as he could inside the confined cockpit, looking at the human out of the corner of his eyes. "For what purpose? It's not like they can hear us."

   Antonio blinked at him for several moments before comprehension dawned. "Oh yeah! Right, no air. Duh." He'd also been expecting some sort of deep rumbling as the battleships slipped past. Aside from the radar sweeps and a slight twisting sensation from the badly shielded Arbiter gravity drives, there was no disturbance, auditory or otherwise. "Fuck me, but those things are huge," he said, awed. "And ugly."

   "Arbiters aren't known for their appreciation of beautiful things. Hmm, that's interesting," Flows-Like-Water narrowed his eyes as he focused intently on part of the massive vessel moving past them. He pointed at a battered looking, curved metallic structure that looked like it had been randomly glued onto the rest of the structure using the slimy looking black material. "That isn't Arbiter technology."

   "What is it?"

   "If I'm not mistaken, that's a section of the hull from the Vanguard battleship Lightning-Strike."

   Antonio shook his head, uncomprehending. The section did look a little out of place from the rest of the ship's structure. "I don't understand. What's a bit of Vanguard ship doin' there?"

   "Arbiters aren't just predators, Antonio. They're also scavengers. If they find something they can use, they'll take whatever they want and destroy the rest."

   "Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated," the marine muttered, remembering the phrase from some cheesy sci-fi series from the 1990's.

   A kilometre or so away, Captain Hardy leaned forward and tapped on Blocker's shoulder. "You ready, lizard?"

   Blocker snapped his jaw shut with a loud «crack» and turned to give him a predatory smile. "Hrrr, indeed, human."

   "Good shit." He drew in a deep breath and thumbed the mike. "This is Big-Daddy. It's show time, ladies. Let's roast those fuckers! GO GO GO!"

   Now scattered over several kilometres, the Aurora jets jumped as if stung. The Vanguard pilots powered up their systems and engaged the gravity drives. Human and Vanguard war-cry's were broadcast as the small jets zeroed in on their designated targets like parasitic wasps.

   At first it seemed like the battleships didn't react; they continued their slow spread as they approached the planet. Suddenly, small hatches on the ships opened, and rows of what looked like cannons emerged from the holes. These started spitting out what looked like parallel beams of fork-lightning toward the approaching Aurora jets.

   "Whoa! What the fuck is that?!" Captain Hardy yelled, as Blocker sent Big-Daddy into a spiralling evasive maneuver, to avoid the beams.

   "Electromagnetic-Discharge cannons," Blocker huffed, as his talons shifting all over the control panel nervously. "Hrrr, this one is busy. Do not distract me further!" he huffed, sending the Big-Daddy into a swooping dive underneath the belly of the battleship.

   Doubling back, out of reach of the weapons, the young engineer sent the jet skimming along the length of the battleship, swerving from side to side to avoid random chunks of machinery or hull that poked up in their path. From his point of view, it almost seemed to Captain Hardy that he was falling at a great rate of speed down the side of a vertical drop, with nothing but a star-studded blackness beneath him.

   Listening to the comms as they skittered around, Captain Hardy smiled.

   "Yeeeeeeehaa! This is G-Dub-Shrub going in..."

   "Watch your tail, Pac-Man, you got the bugs riled up, they're comin' after you..."

   "Big-Daddy, this is Christmas-Turkey. I've delivered the present! Repeat, I've delivered the present! "

   This last transmission was greeted with a chorus of hoots and yells from the others. "Yes! " Captain Hardy hissed, clenching his fists and giving Blocker a bloodthirsty little smirk; the Vanguard had turned briefly to look at him at the exclamation of joy. "Get clear and light the fires, Christmas-Turkey."

   They shot clear from the end of the battleship and started circling back. As they flew in the open, Captain Hardy hunted around through nearby space, wondering which of the Arbiter ships had been stung. Soon enough, there was a blinding flash against the backdrop of the Earth when the nuclear weapon was detonated. The effect on the other battleships was much more immediate this time. The massive vessels slowed to a halt and concentrated their ED cannons on the Aurora jets that buzzed about them like vicious little African Tse-Tse flies.


   In the Anubis, Invokes-The-Storm closed all four of his eyes until the glare faded. The human warrior behind him whooped and clapped him on the shoulders, obviously delighted with the minor victory. He didn't share the feeling of joy; instead, still feeling numb and disconnected. With a feeling of detachment, he swung their Aurora jet into the ED cannon blind-spot of another of the massive battleships. There was a jarring thump as they settled onto the shielding beneath them. "Ready the weapon, human. We have little time remaining," he hissed over his shoulder. The pain from the shattered remnant of his horn was still an ever-present companion; it was now getting rather crowded in the small cockpit with the three of them...

   "Almost there, lizard. What's the rush, any...oh," the marine started to say, before several ED beams struck the battleships shielding not far from them.

   Invokes-The-Storm had seen another battleship approaching. It had started firing at them, oblivious to the damage it was causing to the vessel they were on. The battleship's shielding soaked up the beams, and dissipated the energy quickly, making the Anubis shake violently as it slowly sank through the field under pressure from their thrusters. The only saving grace was that the other battleship, using only radar and energy sensors, couldn't lock onto their exact position. But all it would take is for one lucky pot-shot and they would be history.

   With a reverberating «clang!» that startled both of them, the Anubis dropped through the shield and onto the hull of the Arbiter vessel. Firing the thrusters to keep them anchored, Invokes-The-Storm waited while the human used his controls to lower the nuclear weapon onto the hull. The other battleship, meanwhile, rained more shots into the shield which started to glow a bright yellow as it soaked up the energy. Invokes-The-Storm could feel the heat being radiated from it, and large static discharges started to arc around them like a miniature lightning storm, grounding into the Arbiter hull. Erratic black scorch-marks were left behind on the metal as the arcs danced around them.

   "Human," the pack-leader warned, as an arc from the laboring shield hit the nose-section of the Anubis, which shook the airframe and sent up a small cloud of glittering carbon-fibre and ceramic tile fragments.

   "Yeah, yeah. Keep your hair on. Just another...there! Done. Get us the fuck outta here!" the marine called out, quickly entering in the activation code for the bomb before they moved out of range.

   The other battleship zeroed in on their position and was concentrating its fire on the shielding directly above them. Invokes-The-Storm racked his brain, desperately trying to think of a way out of their tenuous situation. Suddenly, a crazy idea came to him, and he shut off the thrusters. "This is going to be rough. Secure yourself," he rumbled, running his talons across the control panel in quick, fluid movements.

   The marine, who had finally registered the presence of the intense fire-storm less than a metre above them, swallowed nervously. "We've got 30 seconds before it blows. Just so you know, no pressure, dude." When the jet darted forward, violently careening off the shield and battleship hull, he hung onto the arm-rests of his seat with a death-grip, eyes wide with fear. "Whoa! Holy shit, lizard, what're you doing?!"

   "It is not...Hrrr! Not wize to operate...gravity drive this close -" the jet shook violently as it smashed through a delicate looking array of some sort, made up of the same slick, black, substance that appeared to hold the battleship together. "To another vessel," he continued, ignoring the array of small holographic alarm indicators flashing up from the control console. Finally, he spotted what he was after. Not far ahead of them was a bank of the ED cannons, firing salvos at some of the other Aurora jets flying around nearby.


   Bouncing hard off the battleship hull, Invokes-The-Storm launched the Anubis through the gap in the shields the Arbiters had opened for the cannons. They were just in time, as the universe dissolved into a searing white light when the bomb went off. In the first few milliseconds, while it was trapped under the shields, the massive explosion obliterated the entire rear section of the battleship. Then the dissolving shields let the shockwave expand. All around the marine, the electronics shorted violently from the EMP pulse of the explosion, as the small jet tumbled end-over-end from the shockwave.

   Ignoring the insistent alarms, the pack-leader arrested their tumble with some carefully timed bursts of the thrusters. One particular holographic indicator flashed an insistent, attention-grabbing blue, and he realized with dismay, that it was for the singularity generator. The ever-present whine was fluctuating erratically, and he could feel strange sensations as the artificial gravity field faded in and out. Behind him, he heard some weak cursing from the human warrior. "Are your communications systems still operational?" he asked, as he initiated the emergency generator shut-down routine.

   "Uh, yeah. I think so...Jesus H. Christ, lizard. You cut that a bit fine. Where'd you get your pilots licence? Out of a packet of Fruit-Loops or something?" the marine complained bitterly.

   There was no change; the erratic whine was getting worse as the generator became more unstable. Invokes-The-Storm jabbed at the generator cut-off repeatedly, to no effect. Not good! Quickly reconfiguring some of the controls, he tried again to override the cut-off. Nothing. They were running short on time. Again. Reaching down, he grasped the large red emergency lever mounted beside his seat, and swung his head around as far as he could toward the human warrior. "Hrrr, notify your pack-leader that we've been disabled. Do not waste time. Transmit now. Main power is failing. There will be insufficient power for further transmissions once this one jettisons the singularity generator."

   "What? Oh fuck... Right," the marine muttered as he fumbled with his mike. "Mayday! Mayday! This is Anubis. We've taken a massive hit from the nuke, and are losing main power. We've taken one of the bastards with us, but not sure how long - SHIT! -"

   A massive jolt from behind knocked the jet forward violently, as Invokes-The-Storm triggered the explosive bolts holding the singularity generator in place. Firing the maneuvering thrusters on full, he pushed the small jet as fast as he could away from the generator tumbling through space behind them. Several seconds later another large explosion flowered silently in space as the generator imploded, sending a powerful gravitic shockwave through space at the speed of light. The expanding shockwave hit the Anubis, sending it spinning out of control toward the cloud shrouded Earth, far below.

   A few kilometres away, the other Arbiter battleship that had been firing at them, had also fared rather badly. The close proximity of the first explosion had overloaded several of its shield-emitters on the starboard side, and caused a significant amount of structural damage in the process. The shields flickered back into place as backup shield-emitters came online. As Captain Hardy flew past the wounded behemoth, he saw a slimy, black material oozing out of the massive tears in the hull, slowly closing the gaps like an obscene blood-clot. The battleship was slowly coming around, when the gravitic shockwave hit it broadside. Small explosions spread across the mid-section of the vessel as it broke in half, sending geysers of internal atmosphere spiralling into space, along with shattered chunks of half-congealed organic black matter, and twisted sheets of metal.

   Being considerably smaller, the Big-Daddy was shaken, but not stirred, by the shockwave. Shaking his head gently to clear the mental cobwebs, Captain Hardy looked around, trying to spot the Anubis. Both he and Blocker had heard the mayday transmission before it was cut short. He wasn't concerned about the battleship; as far as he was concerned it was down for the count. The two separate halves tumbled in slow motion toward the Earth, spewing debris as each half drifted apart.

   "Hrrr, this one believes he has a fix on the Anubis," Blocker rumbled, as he transferred a grainy image from the telemetry system to a screen in the rear where the human pack-leader could see it. The picture showed a badly beaten Aurora jet missing most of its rear end where the singularity generator had been installed. Its small maneuvering thrusters were glowing as the Vanguard pilot tried to arrest its spin.

   "Anything we can do...?" Captain Hardy asked, already knowing the answer before Blocker could respond."

   "With their generator gone, they have lost main power. It is likely their basic systems are still operational. However, they are now too deep within your planet's gravity-well. There is little we can do for them. I am sorry, human."

   Captain Hardy stared numbly at the image on the tiny screen for several moments before squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath. "War's a bitch," he muttered, stabbing harder than necessary at a control to blank the screen. "There will be time to mourn later."

   Several thousand kilometres away, the Stargate-SG9 and Queen-Mary chased down another of the battleships. The Vanguard warrior flying the Stargate-SG9, Fire-Bright, was studying his telemetry with increasing nervousness. "This one has detected multiple contacts ahead, human. The profile matches that of Arbiter fast-strike vessels. Inform the Queen-Mary to prepare for evasive maneuvers."

   "Shit! Queen-Mary, this is Stargate-SG9. You listening, Kelly?"

   Lieutenant Kelly Martin picked up her mike and, sharing a nervous glance with her Vanguard pilot, acknowledged the call. "Dammit, Harris! That's Lieutenant Martin to you!" she sighed, shaking her head with a small smile. "What is it?"

   "Sorry, Lieutenant. But we got multiple bogeys on our approach. It's gonna get messy real quick."

   "Roger that, Stargate-SG9. Night-Sea-Mist and I will distract the bastards for you. Stop, drop and roll, just like we discussed, right?"

   The Vanguard warrior piloting the Queen-Mary, Night-Sea-Mist, turned around as far as she was able in her seat, and reached a taloned hand over the head-rest toward Lieutenant Martin, who grabbed the offered hand and squeezed it tightly. A lot of Lieutenant Martin's male squad-mates had ribbed her mercilessly about having a 'woman driver', but she just shrugged it off. With the heavy-set female warrior standing right behind her, she had politely enquired if any of her squad-mates felt like they could take the warrior in a wrestling match. They had all, equally as politely, declined.

   "Understood, Queen-Mary. Give 'em hell for us."

   Stargate-SG9 peeled off, powering away on an alternate vector that would eventually bring them sweeping around the opposite side of the Arbiter battleship. "It is time to test your human-constructed shield-emitters," Night-Sea-Mist rumbled, as she brought the defenses online. "Let us hope they are up to the challenge." Her taloned fingers dancing across the control console as she sent the small jet surging toward the battleship and its small group of attendant fast-strike vessels.

   "Do you lizards know of a game called Chicken?" Lieutenant Martin asked, as she gripped the armrests like grim death.

   "Hrrr, Chicken? This one is not familiar with it. Tell this one how you play this...Chicken game." The control console lit up with a small, yellow holographic alarm, as the sensors registered several weapons-lock acquisitions.

   The smaller Arbiter fast-strike vessels were not large enough to carry high-energy particle beam weapons. Instead, they had a seemingly inexhaustible number of 'fire & forget' seeker missiles. While ineffective against larger vessels, the high-explosive missiles were devastatingly effective against the more lightly defended escorts deployed by many alien races.

   "Well - holy crap! -" Lieutenant Martin clenched her eyelids tightly shut as the Queen-Mary shot through a ridiculously small gap between two fast-strike vessels. Keeping her eyes shut, she continued speaking. "You charge toward your enemy, and the first to blink or swerve, loses. Simple game, really," she said, tentatively opening her eyes to see several ED beams go shooting past, mere metres from the cockpit.

   "Arbiters do not possess eyes. They are incapable of blinking," the warrior rumbled in an almost conversational tone of voice.

   The Queen-Mary shuddered from the shockwave of a seeker missile detonating nearby. Rocking their small jet from side to side, Night-Sea-Mist skilfully wove in and out of the agitated group of fast-strike vessels, many of which fired off salvos of the seeker missiles, apparently uncaring of any damage inflicted on their own vessels nearby. As they shot past one of the fast-strike vessels, An ED beam from the battleship grazed the low-powered shielding, which made it flicker wildly.

   Two more seeker missile detonations shook the small jet so violently that the artificial gravity field protecting the occupants was temporarily overcome, rattling them around inside. Several red alarm LED's flashed brightly on the damage-control panel on one side of the cockpit beside Lieutenant Martin, as she moaned from the pain of a dislocated shoulder.

   "Hrrr, you are injured, human?" Night-Sea-Mist asked, ignoring the pain and sticky trail of blood from one of her torn ears.

   Lieutenant Martin closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, before rotating her arm several times, trying to coax the joint back the way one of the field-medics had shown her during basic training, oh so long ago. She screamed from the pain, as the shoulder-joint popped back into its socket. Blinking rapidly to try and clear the tears of pain, she laughed weakly between deep, gasping breaths. "Fucking wonderful, thanks for asking. You okay?" she asked, unable to see the warrior's injury from her position.

   "This one is mostly uninjured. This vessel, however, has sustained significant damage, hrrr," the warrior grunted, narrowly missing another salvo of seeker missiles.

   Briefly glancing at the damage control panel, Lieutenant Martin saw that the Queen-Mary had lost structural integrity on the port side. She leaned over and looked through the canopy at the stubby wing on that side of the jet and gasped; most of it was missing. Exposed wiring, shattered heat-proof tiling, and tattered remnants of insulation marked a jagged delineation where the wing used to be. A constant stream of vapor jetted from several torn thruster fuel-lines, leaving a glittering trail of tiny crystals in their wake.

   "Shit," she hissed. She grabbed the mike and thumbed it, wincing as her damaged shoulder sent pain lancing down her arm. "Dammit Harris, where the hell are you?! Get a fucking move on! We're getting the shit kicked out of us out here," she yelled.

   Suddenly, Night-Sea-Mist cried out as one of the fast-strike vessels banked sharply in front of them, trying desperately to avoid a salvo of seeker missiles fired by one of its own neighbors. The warrior's piloting reactions were fast, but not fast enough, as the Queen-Mary only just started to pull up before it slammed into the side of the Arbiter ship, punching straight through the other vessel's shields, and striking a glancing blow against its hull. Both vessels tumbled away from the impact, shedding chunks of hull plating and shattered heat-proof tiles.

   Lieutenant Martin dimly heard the shriek of venting atmosphere and, more by instinct than conscious volition, felt around for her emergency Oxygen-mask, struggling to attach it to the front of her helmet. Through vision blurred by tears and blood, she could just about make out the form of Night-Sea-Mist, slumped and unmoving at the controls. As the jet tumbled, broken and out of control, she slapped awkwardly at the bomb release controls, screaming as the agonizing pain of broken bones grating against each other tore at her nerves.

   The clamps holding the two bombs released with a dimly felt vibration and, as they tumbled free from the shattered wreckage of the Queen-Mary, Lieutenant Martin hit the bomb activation switch. There was no time for regrets; she acted without thinking. Darkness rapidly encroached on her vision until it seemed like she was looking down a long, dark tunnel, and she coughed up blood into the mouthpiece of the Oxygen-mask. The last thing she saw was the deep blue of the oceans, many thousands of kilometres below the tumbling jet, and then everything was washed out in a cleansing, white, atomic glare.

   Corporal Harris happened to be looking down to grab his mike to respond to Lieutenant Martin's frantic message, when the two bombs went off several hundred kilometres away. It saved his sight. Fire-Bright, piloting the Stargate-SG9, wasn't so lucky, and cried out in pain as the searing light destroyed the retinas in each of his four eyes before he even had a chance to blink or turn his head away. Corporal Harris rubbed his eyes to try and clear away the tears and readjust his vision, as their Aurora jet started drifting off course.

   He unbuckled the restraint harness across his chest, and leaned forward over the seat-back where the groaning warrior was sitting. "Shit! Kelly must have let off her nukes! That wasn't part of the plan. You okay, man?" he asked, gripping the warrior's shoulders tightly.

   Hrrr! This one cannot see! " Fire-Bright swung his head from side to side, blood streaming from his four, sightless, damaged eyes. He started keening a high-pitched wail that sent horrified shivers down Corporal Harris' spine.

   Thinking quickly, he sat back and fumbled at the pressure-suit fasteners on his chest. Pulling the pressure suit open, he grasped the front of his t-shirt underneath and started ripping it open. He managed to tear off several strips and hurriedly wadded them up into crude pads. Leaning forward again, he reached out and grabbed one of Fire-Bright's trembling arms. "Here! Take these, and place them over your eyes. Hold them there with your rear arms or something."

   Shakily doing as he was instructed, the frightened young warrior placed the crude pads over his eyes. Instead of being a shiny, featureless black, his eyes were now a mottled dark gray color. After a minute or two, he seemed a bit calmer. Although the translation disk he wore relayed no emotion in its artificial voice, it didn't take a genius to realize that the warrior was quite clearly shaken, and probably scared shitless. "This one is unable to pilot this vessel any longer, human. What would you have this one do?"

   Still holding onto the back of the warrior's seat, Corporal Harris was still blinking back after-images from the blast, his own vision still blurry. "Shit. I dunno, man. Can you transfer the flight controls to me, back here?"

   Fire-Bright reached out his shaking hands, and felt around until he came in contact with the control console in front of him. "No, this one does not believe so. There was insufficient time to duplicate the controls in these vessels."

   Corporal Harris was about to ask another question when a yellow hologram appeared above the console, blinking for attention. "Uh, there's a yellow blinking thingy on the controls in front of you - "

   "Hrrr, describe its appearance, human. This one cannot see it." the warrior interrupted.

   "Uh, yeah, sorry. It's round, like a ball. And it's got all these little lines moving in and out of it like someone's sticking pins in it."

   The warrior swung his head around blindly, almost knocking into him. "The Arbiters have acquired a weapons lock on us. We have little time before we are in range."

   "What are we going to do?" he asked as he gripped the warrior's shoulders tightly, wide eyed and sweating nervously.

   Thinking quickly, Fire-Bright leaned to one side as far as he was able in the confines of the tight cockpit. "This one is unable to move. You must join this one at controls. This one will teach you to pilot the vessel."

   "Say what? Uh, where am I supposed to sit?"

   "On this one's lap. Please, you need to move quickly for both our sakes."

   Hesitating for a few seconds, Corporal Harris sighed and took off his helmet, securing it to his seat so it wouldn't fly loose if the jet was knocked around. He then proceeded to squeeze awkwardly through the small gap between the warrior's headrest and the cockpit canopy. At one stage he found himself floundering head down between the warrior's thighs, staring at a bulge in the warrior's skinsuit that he didn't want to think about. Blushing furiously, he squirmed around and then righted himself until he was sitting 'comfortably' in the Vanguard warrior's lap.

   As if reading his mind, Fire-Bright reassured him. "Hrrr, do not concern yourself, human. This one would not want another Vanguard to see us in this compromizing position, either."

   "Did I just hear you make a joke?" Surprised, he twisted his head up and around to stare at the warrior, forgetting the warrior wouldn't be able to see the look on his face.

   Despite the pain from his damaged eyes, and his fear about their predicament, Fire-Bright cracked a crocodilian smile at him. "You will never know for sure. Hrrr, alright. Tell me what you can see on the control console."

   Over the next couple of minutes, the warrior gave him a crash course in how to pilot the Aurora jet. The warrior was even able to show him how to transfer control of the nuclear bombs across to the front console. "Here goes nothing. BAAAAAAAANZAI! " Corporal Harris yelled, startling the warrior, as he pushed the gravity drive to full power and sent them hurtling toward the Arbiter battleship.

   Unfortunately, their optimism was short-lived, as less than a minute later an ED cannon beam smashed into the bottom of the Stargate-SG9, destroying most of its control electronics and demolishing the jet's undercarriage. Unknown to the occupants, it also disabled both of the nuclear bombs. Groaning as he fought off motion-sickness as they tumbled through space, and fighting with the thrusters to arrest the tumble, Corporal Harris finally managed to move them into a blind-spot where the ED cannons couldn't fire at them. His relief was short lived as the telemetry screen showed several fast-strike vessels closing in on their position.

   "We've got incoming ships, and lots of them. And the console has lots of flashing blue thingies on it. You told me blue is bad, right?" He nudged the thrusters until they bumped up against the battleship's shields, the grinding noises from beneath his feet reminded him of the tattered wreckage that used to be the bottom of their jet. He hoped the bombs, at least, would still work. Notching up the power to the thrusters, the jet started slowly sinking through the shields.

   "Hrrr, correct. Blue indicates a critical failure. Is one of the icons showing a symbol that resembles a pyramid?"

   "Yeah, kinda. Why?"

   The young warrior slumped in his seat, the bottom of his jaw resting lightly on the top of the human's head. He lowered his rear arms, taking the pads off his ruined eyes, which had mostly stopped bleeding. "The nuclear weapons are no longer functional."

   "Godammit! We were so fucking close!" Screwing his eyes shut in frustration, Corporal Harris slammed his clenched fists down on the console in frustration.

   A salvo of seeker missiles slammed into the battleship's shields not far from the jet, sending energy shockwaves through the field. The Stargate-SG9 shook from the blow as it continued to sink through. Lacking visual receptors able to see in the visible light spectrum, the Arbiters had to rely on their radar and energy sensors to pick out their enemies in space. The Aurora jet was well camouflaged against the backdrop of the battleship, and the fluctuating energy of the shields confused the energy sensors, rendering the Arbiters almost blind once the vermin got in close enough to the shields. Frustration was a little known, but very much despised emotion to the sub-hive mind, as it resorted to shooting random volleys of seeker missiles at its own shields in an attempt to destroy the small vessel.

   The vermin's tactic of slipping through their powerful shields had been completely unexpected, and they were having extreme difficulty in dealing with it. Irritation was rapidly turning to fury for the sub-hive minds on board the remaining battleships. The only effective counter-measure seemed to be to stop the small, but highly maneuverable, vermin vessels before they got close enough to deliver their small but destructive payloads. This, at least, had proved to be an effective move. Why the vermin had only sent sixteen of the small vessels against so many of their battleships was unknown. But they had been able to eliminate eight of them, with a maddening loss of ten of their own battleships.

   A decision was made that the the remaining vermin vessels wouldn't pose too much of a threat, so the original mission of sample-collecting and infrastructure elimination was reinstated. The massive battleships powered up their sub-light gravity drives and continued on their designated trajectories, leaving their fast-strike vessels to clean up the vermin stragglers.

   Hrrr, this one has an idea," Fire-Bright rumbled, the vibrations from his natural voice making Corporal Harris' back tingle pleasantly.

   "I'm all ears, man."

   "You consist of nothing but ears? Strange expression. Hrrr, this one suspects you may not be particularly enthusiastic -"

   "Spit it out already, lizard!" Corporal Harris interrupted, slapping the warrior's thigh lightly. He watched the Arbiter fast-strike vessels fire occasional seeker missile salvos at the shields around them, seemingly at random.

   He had already spent a couple of minutes describing all the little alarm holograms on the control console to the warrior. Life support was running on redundant backup opto-electronic circuitry, thanks to the foresight of the Vanguard engineers who had wizely decided to make Vanguard-designed backups for some of the key human-designed electronics. There were only a couple of minutes worth of reserve thruster fuel left, as the main fuel-lines had been totalled when the undercarriage was damaged. Communications and telemetry was sketchy, at best. And to top it all off, the nuclear bombs had been so badly damaged, even the manual controls for setting them off no longer worked.

   "Did you observe where the launch bays for the fast-strike vessels are located? If you are able to navigate this vessel to that location, there is a high probability that we can destroy this battleship."

   "Yeah, I think so. But the nukes are toast. What are we gonna do, knock on the front door and kick 'em in the nuts when they answer?" he looked up at the Vanguard's face curiously, feeling uncomfortable as the warrior seemed to stare back at him through his ruined eyes.

   "Hrrr, this one is thankful Vanguard genitalia are located internally. This one is also unsure if Arbiters even have conventional genitalia for you to assault."

   Cracking a smile the warrior couldn't see, Corporal Harris shook his head. "There you go with the jokes again. You're a funny guy, y'know that? Who knew you lizards had a sense of humor. So what's the plan then, big guy?"

   "Very well. You pilot ship inside their launch-bay. This one jettisons the singularity generator without running the required shut-down sequence. Generator will overload in a very short period of time -"

   "And we jet outta there using the thrusters, before the whole thing goes up? Man, that's a great plan," Corporal Harris interrupted enthusiastically.

   Fire-Bright looked decidedly uncomfortable and huffed loudly. "Hrrr, there will be insufficient time for us to reach minimum safe distance. Once this one jettisons the generator, we will be committed."

   Corporal Harris was silent for a minute, as he watched the fireworks outside the battleship's shields. There was an extremely bright reflection from the scattered fast-strike vessels, as well as from myriad small specks of dust and wreckage floating in space around the battleship. Somewhere, not to distant from their position, another nuke had gone off. Hopefully that indicated another vaporized bug-ship. "That plan fucking sucks, man."

   "Hrrr, you think this one desires to end his life?" The warrior stiffened in his seat, offended.

   "Just chill, lizard! I didn't say I disagreed with the plan. Just that I didn't like it, okay? Fucking hell...'Join the Marines', they said. 'Be a man', they said. I don't remember reading any fucking brochures mentioning suicidal space-lizards with a hard-on for squashing bugs. This is so not what I signed up for, you know that?"

   A couple of minutes later, he eased the Stargate-SG9 toward a large gap in the battleship hull from which he'd seen several of the fast-strike vessels emerge. "You ready, man?" he asked, gently nudging the warrior with his elbow.

   "Hrrr, this one is prepared," Fire-Bright rumbled, gripping the emergency activation lever for the explosive bolts holding the singularity generator in place.

   Steeling himself, Corporal Harris swallowed, and pushed the Aurora jet forward into the gap. Unsure about what he was expecting, he was surprised to see that, once inside, the launch bay was completely dark, apart from what little light came through the gap in the hull. He powered on the jet's lights. In the glare of the lights, he could see several fast-strike vessels still docked in haphazard configurations all over the inside of the cavernous space. Instead of metal and unknown bits of machinery, all he could see was masses of the slimy-looking black organic substance. It almost looked like the interior of the ship was made of the stuff. It was honey-combed with hundreds of small, black holes leading god-only knew where.

   "Ugh, that's fucking disgusting," he muttered, staring around as they drifted further inside.

   "Take us as far inside as you can," Fire-Bright spoke quietly, swinging his head around blindly, frustrated that he couldn't witness what was going on.

   "Yessir," Corporal Harris replied. Finally, they arrived at a point where they could go no further. "Alright, this'll have to do. How long have we got after you cut the generator loose?"

   "Approximately 10 seconds."

   "Just long enough to bend over and kiss our asses goodbye. Ironic." He leaned back against the warrior's chest and looked up at him. "My name is Luke." he said, quietly. "You never told me your name."

   "Hrrr, this one is Fire-Bright. You are prepared, Luke?" The warrior lowered his head until his jaw was resting gently on the top of the human's head. He inhaled deeply, committing the human's scent to memory.

   "No. No, I'm not ready, but do it anyway. It's been an honor, Fire-Bright."

   "The honor is mine, Luke. May the Ancestors guide both our souls on this last journey." Fire-Bright pulled the lever, and there was a violent jolt as the explosive bolts blew out, knocking the singularity generator assembly loose from the Aurora jet's fuselage.



   "Please...hold me?"

   The warrior enfolded the trembling human with all four of his well-muscled arms, holding him tight. Corporal Luke Harris rested his head against the young Vanguard warrior's chest, and listened to the two hearts beating...

   Vasya winced as another bright flash some distance away lit up the cockpit with an actinic, white glare. Blinking quickly to try and clear the spots from his eyes, he studied the small telemetry screen in dismay. He was reading only eight transponder signals from the other Aurora jets. Half of their small fleet had either been destroyed, or completely disabled in less than 20 minutes. As he watched, another Aurora transponder cut off, and for a horrible second or two, he thought it was the Yankee-Doodle, with Antonio on board.

   When his eyes cleared enough to read the display details properly, he saw that it was Stargate-SG9 that had just gone offline. Relief quickly turned to guilt, as he realized that a human and a Vanguard had just died, and it was only by chance that one of them wasn't his lover. He didn't know either of the jet's crew personally, but he hoped the end had been quick for them, at least.

   They had been flying around for several minutes, dodging seeker missiles and Arbiter fast-strike vessels, unable to get close to any of the battleships. It seemed that the bugs had become wize to the tactics they were trying to use. There was a loud «crack!» as they hit some bit of debris that bounced off their shields and was quickly lost to sight. There had been an increasing amount of hits against the shields in the past few minutes, as low Earth orbit rapidly filled with bits of wreckage, dust, and debris from the battle.

   After some creative flying that left Vasya pale and shaken, Blue-Scale finally managed to get them close enough to a battleship to touch down onto its shields, in an ED cannon dead-zone. The weapons lock alarm hologram blinked into life as the Russian-Husky slowly sank through the field, thrusters firing at maximum power.

   Moments before they made it completely through, a trio of seeker missiles detonated against the shields less than a metre away from the jet. The shockwave smashed into the jet's cockpit canopy, badly damaging it, and knocking them the rest of the way through the field. They bounced hard off the battleship hull beneath them and one of the stubby wings gave way with a loud crack. Blue-Scale swung his head around in a partially dazed state, as Vasya desperately thumped at the bomb release switches with a gloved hand.

   "Hrrr, we have a breach in the cockpit, and are losing atmosphere. This one will attempt to compensate using back-up life-support systems," Blue-Scale rumbled groggily, staring at the spider web of cracks in the tough plexiglass canopy through poorly focused eyes.

   Finally, after several seconds that seemed like a lifetime, there was a «clunk» as the bomb was released onto the battleship's hull. "Weapon deployed. We leave now!" Vasya called out to the warrior, who was still fussing about with the life-support controls.

   The jet's damaged wing flexed badly every time they bounced off the hull or shield, eventually tearing free in a shower of shorting electrics as Blue-Scale pushed them back through the shield and out into space. Several bright damage control sensor LED's lit up on the panel in front of the Russian, as he counted down the detonation timer.

   "This vessel's life-support is failing, and is incapable of sustaining the loss of atmosphere from the breach. What are your instructions, Russian-Husky?" Blue-Scale swung his head around as far as he could, trying to catch Vasya's eyes.

   "I check. One moment. Chyort! Please fly ship, not watch me!" he yelled, as several seeker missiles locked onto them and rapidly gained ground. He grabbed the mike and activated the comms system. "This is Russian-Husky to Big-Daddy. You receive, da?" While he was speaking, he had to clamp his eyes shut as the blinding glare from behind him signalled the detonation of their bomb, and the loss of yet another Arbiter battleship.

   "This is Big-Daddy. Make it snappy, Russian-Husky, I'm kinda busy here."

   "We are venting atmosphere, and damaged. Not be able to do second bomb run. What are orders, Sir?" He watched with mounting concern as several more warning LED's flickered to life on the damage control console and their small shield-emitter finally gave up the ghost.

   "Saw you took out one of the bug ships. Well done Russian-Husky. Head for home, you've done all you can, here."

   Blue-Scale swung his head around again, listening to the conversation. When he heard Captain Hardy's order, he snapped his jaw shut and returned his attention to the controls, much to Vasya's relief. As they limped back toward Earth, he looked around, trying to spot any of the other Aurora jets, but all he could see were three fast-strike vessels on an intercept course. Things were about to get busy again. "Da. Good luck, Sir."

   "Roger that. Big-Daddy out."

   Antonio barely managed to slap down his visor in time before the Yankee-Doodle's cockpit canopy shattered from the seeker missile exploding against their failing shield. There was a brief maelstrom as the air inside the jet emptied quickly into the vacuum, and he held on for dear life as Flows-Like-Water used the thrusters to turn away from another incoming missile salvo. It was all so surreal to the marine, when the jet violently bucked beneath him as the missiles detonated against its armored belly, all in complete silence. The only thing he could hear was the rasping of his own breath in his ears, and faint rumbles transmitted through his seat.

   He closed his eyes as the stars wheeled by above him, followed by the view of Earth. The light slowly faded as they moved over the terminator into the night-side. He quickly lost track of time, and wasn't sure how long it had been since he closed his eyes. Opening them again, he slowly turned his head to look at his pilot, Flows-Like-Water. The Vanguard - no, Observer, didn't appear to be too concerned by the lack of breathable air, or extreme temperature gradients. His own pressurized flight suit would protect him for a few minutes, but he could already feel his extremities starting to go numb from the bitter cold.

   Opening his bleary eyes again, Antonio realized he must have blacked out temporarily. His thoughts were sluggish and the air was starting to taste stuffy and metallic. Almost dreamily, he lowered his head and tried to concentrate on the gauge attached to the emergency Oxygen cylinder poking out from beneath his seat. It looked to his unfocussed eyes like the needle was in the red. He giggled, then shivered violently as the cold seeped deeper into his body. So, the lack of air would kill him first, it seemed.

   Occasional bright flashes in the darkness made him recall the battle, and a sluggish wave of concern washed over him. "Vasya! " he screamed, or thought he did...did anyone hear him? It was all so strange, he thought, squinting his eyes and watching prismatic halos surround the stars as they wheeled around in the darkness above him.

   The last thing he saw, before consciousness faded, was a golden glow coming from the front of cockpit. "Fire..." he whispered, as the darkness claimed him.

   "You fuckers are going to pay for this! " Captain Hardy screamed with impotent rage, slamming his gloved fists down on the armrests of his seat as he watched the transponder signal for the Hot-Tamale blink out, quickly followed by the Yankee-Doodle - NO! Please god no...Not Antonio's bird!

   The street-wize, Hispanic kid that he'd rescued from the streets and spent several years moulding into a man...The friend he'd been proud to take fishing with his friends, confident and intelligent...The marine he'd trusted with his life...

   Blocker, working his talons frantically across the control console like a four-armed concert pianist, winced at the tone in the human's voice. It was getting a bit lonely up here; his own sensor readouts indicated that there were only four Aurora jets left. The others had been destroyed, or run out of bombs. On a positive note, there were only six of the original seventeen Arbiter battleships left. And if he had his way, there would be only five, shortly.

   The Big-Daddy had managed to hold up remarkably well against the abuse thrown at it over the past 30 or so minutes, the engineer acknowledged, thoughtfully. True, the fuselage was now visibly twisted out of shape, and the singularity generator was putting out some alarming readings. And they were down to the dregs of their reserve thruster fuel tank, the last bomb, and the only landing the jet would ever make again would be a crash landing...

   Blocker cursed loudly as he swerved the jet to avoid the converging beams from several ED cannons on the battleship ahead of them. He was too busy to notice the fast-strike vessel directly behind him until the Big-Daddy violently lurched forward, the artificial gravity field cutting out almost immediately as the singularity generator assembly was crushed against the rear bulkhead by the collision.

   Captain Hardy swore softly and shook his head, trying to recover his wits. Through vision blurred from the impact his helmeted head had made against the cockpit canopy, he desperately looked around and tried to locate the fast-strike vessel that had hit them. The damned bugs had obviously realized that they didn't pose too much of a threat, and were toying with them. "Fucking bastards," he growled, vision slowly clearing. "Alright lizard, how are we doing?"

   The last blow had buckled the fuselage even further. Blocker was relieved, but surprised that they weren't venting atmosphere from several hull breaches right about now. His control console was alight with flashing alarm holograms, all indicating systems that were no longer functional, or imminent failure. "You are...what is that strange belief called, hrrr? Hrrr! You are religious, human?"

   "Why?" Captain Hardy narrowed his eyes suspiciously, as he spared a second or two to glare at the back of the Vanguard's head.

   "You may wish to make peace with your deities."

   "Huh. I see. So what you're saying, is that we're royally fucking screwed?"

   "If this one understands your meaning, that is correct. This vessel is no longer capable of returning to your planet. The singularity generator is likely to catastrophically malfunction at any moment. Life-support is running on reserves. This vessel's superstructure is on the point of collapse -" Blocker was almost enthusiastically ticking off the various problems when he was interrupted by the resigned human pack-leader.

   "Can we at least create a diversion, long enough to give our remaining birds time to fall back?" Captain Hardy had loosened his restraint harness far enough to lean forward and grip the engineer's shoulders firmly as he spoke.

   Blocker considered for several moments, before swinging his head around and looking at the human out of the corners of his eyes. "Hrrr, this one believes so."

   "Good man," captain Hardy said, nodding as he sat back wearily in his seat, tightening his restraint harness again. "I've not mentioned this to anyone else. But I think I might've misjudged you lizards, you know. You've made some heavy sacrifices for us. And done so with little thought for your own skins. Just know that I'm proud to have fought at your sides."

   Blocker sat there, not knowing quite what to say in response. He was saved from having to come up with a suitably respectful response, when the target acquisition alert started chirping at him from the control console. "Here we go again," he rumbled quietly, not wanting to think about the future. A short future that was approaching at breakneck speed...

   After notifying the remaining Aurora jets to fall back to the Area-51 base, Captain Hardy primed the timer on the thermonuclear bomb, but hesitated before activating it. "Can you overload that gravity generator of yours to make it blow? " he called out to the preoccupied engineer. "And if so, how long would it take?"

   Blocker thought quickly, as a salvo of seeker missiles was fired in their direction by one of the fast-strike vessels. "It can be overloaded, correct. Approximately 10 seconds from activation until detonation -"

   "Good! Activate on my mark, "Captain Hardy interrupted, activating the bomb timer and releasing it from the clamps. 20 seconds later, he cried out, "Now! Overload it now!"

   Blocker pulled the lever without thinking, activating the explosive bolts and sending the singularity generator assembly spinning away from the Big-Daddy with a violent jolt. "Crazy human!" he roared, an insane, terrible laughter bubbling up from deep within him. "May the Ancestors guide both of our souls!"

   In the last seconds, the human joined him in laughter. He couldn't see the tears streaming down the human's face in the front of the cockpit...

   The massive generator implosion, and resulting shockwave, coincided milliseconds later with the massive thermonuclear bomb explosion, vaporizing everything within several kilometres of the blast radius. One of the Arbiter battleships was caught broadside by the shockwave. The entire structure bent under the pressure, blowing massive holes through the hull. Although powerful shielding protected the vessel from the energy of the blast, it did not add any strength to the superstructure, which was not designed for such high lateral loading. Over the next few minutes, large sections of the vessel explosively decompressed into the cold blackness of space, as the organic material holding the sections together crumbled under the pressure.

   In a rapid-fire decision, the remaining sub-hive minds made the decision to retreat. Recalling their fast-strike vessels, they broke orbit and activated their near-FTL drives once they reached a safe distance from the planet. Wasting any more resources on this planet would be inefficient. They would leave the cometary bombardment to finish what they started. No amount of samples would be worth the losses they had racked up in such a short time, against such a ferocious and completely unexpected defense.

   Invokes-The-Storm slowly came to, groaning as he raised his head and looked around. The Anubis had come to rest amidst the wreckage of some sort of wood and earthen structure. Flames were still fitfully licking at some of the shattered interior walls, lighting the darkness with a flickering orange glow. Thankfully, although cracked and twisted, the jet's cockpit canopy was still in place above their heads.

   The pack-leader fumbled with his harness. He finally managed to get it undone and then fell forward in an undignified manner, as the jet was canted over at quite an angle, nose down and half-buried in rock and soil. He cried out in pain as he felt several broken bone-plates in his chest being pushed hard against the broken control console by his own weight. Blood was also sluggishly dripping from the bottom of his jaw where he had a cut on his snout. Other than that, everything was just peachy.

   It took several tries before he was able to push the battered cockpit canopy open, since it was covered in rubble from the building they'd crashed through. Invokes-The-Storm turned and tried to step on the seat to climb out, but cried out in agony, feeling the bones in his left leg grate together in an extremely painful, unnatural fashion. After his vision stopped swimming from the pain, he carefully crawled out and made his way to the human warrior in the rear section of the cockpit.

   When a gentle shake got no reaction, he leaned over, carefully examining the unresponsive human for any signs of life. He was still breathing, which was a promising sign, so the pack-leader freed him from the restraint harness and gently lifted him up, cradling him with his two forward arms. Spotting a sturdy looking length of heavily carved wood, he reached over and ripped it from the stand it was attached to, and levered himself into a standing position. He leaned heavily on the wood, which groaned but managed to hold his weight.

   It took him several minutes, but he finally managed to reach open air. He followed the smoking trail of ruin left by the jet as it ploughed a massive furrow along the ground and into the building. As the smoke-drift cleared, Invokes-The-Storm realized that there was quite a crowd of humans standing around several metres distant. He stopped, looking at them as they stood there and stared back at him, open mouthed, and clearly quite terrified. "This human is injured and needs assistance..." When he tried to speak, quite a few of them turned and ran screaming, not looking back, and he realized his translation disk was no longer functioning.

   Growling from the pain in his leg and various other parts of his body, the pack-leader took a step forward on his improvised crutch, and held out the limp human warrior in his arms toward the nearest humans who all gasped and backed away quickly. "Hrrr, what is wrong with you? Can you not see this human needs your assistance?"

   After a few moments, a young human male fearfully approached him, holding what looked like an ornately decorated book in front of him like a shield. He got to within a couple of metres of the Vanguard warrior and stopped, looking first at him, then at the human warrior in his hands, then back again. He spoke softly, but Invokes-The-Storm couldn't understand him without his translation disk working.

   Father Carlos Pablo Ramirez stood alongside the other villagers, staring in horror at the mostly demolished church that was the focal point of their small, but prosperous rural Mexican village. A shrieking fireball had come tearing out of the night-sky, throwing up smoke and dust as it tore a long smoking trail across the ground, before smashing through the front of their church. Several minutes later, there had come a series of unearthly and terrifying noises, like the screaming of the damned, from inside the ruined structure.

   Eyes and mouths wide open, they then watched, speechless, as a three-metre tall demon emerged from the smoke-shrouded wreckage. It was using part of the church's large and beautifully carved wooden crucifix to lean on, the figure of Jesus still nailed to it, upside-down. It clutched a dead or unconscious human body in two of its many arms. Holding the body toward them, it rumbled and growled at them in its demonic tongue, making many cross themselves, fearfully.

   After a minute or two of complete silence, it took another step forward, growling and rumbling at them, holding the victim in its claws toward them. This caused many of the women and children to turn and run screaming. Even some of the men of the village took several steps back in fear.

   Someone deliberately pushed Father Ramirez from behind, making him stumble forward. Swallowing and whispering a short prayer, he slowly approached the creature, holding his bible in front of him. "A-Are you the d-devil...?" he asked, stopping in front of it, as it stared down at him with its demonic black eyes, the orange glow behind it flickering like the fires of hell itself.

End of Part 18