Authors notes: Welcome to the final section of Taniwha. For those that made it this far, thanks for reading - hope you enjoyed the story. Also you should realize that by the time you finish reading this section, you will have read an entire novel-length story. Well done :-) It's been some ride, hasn't it?
Just wanna say some thank-you's to a few people before I end the story. Graeme - your insights and suggestions have been so very much appreciated. You've really helped to bring my characters to life - you rock, Hori boy! Richard - you've waded through pretty much an entire novel, dragging it up to a readable standard with your brilliant editing. Thank you, Sir, from the bottom of my heart. And lastly - to those of you who took the time out to leave me feedback - both via email and on the forums. Just know that it means a lot that you have taken my creation and brought it to life inside your minds...Hopefully you've come to know, and love, some of the characters as much as I have. Thank you.
Ka kite ano - LINC
Taniwha - Part 19
Kuia looked up from her armchair in front of the TV as Rangi stormed into the kitchen, slamming the kitchen door closed behind him. "They're saying there's some sort of space war happening," she called out, beckoning him to join her in the lounge-room.
Rangi's shoulders slumped, and he reluctantly made his way into the lounge-room and threw himself down onto the couch with a sigh. Staring sullenly at the carpet, he ignored the talking-head on the TV completely, waiting for the inevitable lecture from Kuia. Hearing a creaking noise, he looked up to see Kuia grab her cane and stand. She hobbled into the kitchen and switched on the kettle, and set about making two cups of tea. Despite his dismal mood, he smiled a little. Kuia always told him that there was very little that couldn't be solved by talking over a nice hot cup of tea. Getting up, he made his way back into the kitchen and stood beside her, silently helping to prepare the drinks.
When the tea was ready, he carried the cups into the lounge-room and set them on the coffee table in front of the couch, then assisted Kuia to sit. He passed her one of the cups before carefully sitting down beside her. Grabbing his own, he gently blew at it to cool it slightly. After a couple of minutes of silence, he turned to look at Kuia expectantly. "Isn't it about this time when you normally dish out words of wisdom to me?"
She looked at him owlishly over the rim of her cup, as she held it to her lips before taking a sip. "Not this time," she said, lowering the cup and staring at him intently. "You've been crying?"
"No!" he said defensively, and turned to look at the TV, which was now blaring out advertisements for something or other.
Kuia reached out and gently touched Rangi on the shoulder. When he turned to face her, she gave him one of those looks.
Hesitating, he dropped his eyes again. "Yes."
"You're upset that your Taniwha left you. You don't think he will come back." It was more a statement, than a question. When he nodded, Kuia nodded and reached out for his hand, squeezing it gently. "You really do love him, don't you?"
Rangi nodded, fresh tears streaming down his face. "Is that wrong, Nanna? He's not even human." He stopped speaking, using his sleeve to wipe at his tears and runny nose. "What's dad gonna say? He'll hit the roof when he finds out."
"One of our spirits told me something once -"
"I thought you weren't going to give me any words of wisdom," Rangi interrupted, giving her a gentle nudge with his shoulder and a slight smile, despite the tears.
"Don't be cheeky, Rangi. And stop interrupting your Nanna. You're not too old to be put over my knee, you know." Kuia gave him a mock-offended look for a few moments, before returning his smile. "Anyway. As I was saying before being so rudely interrupted, the ancestral spirits once gave me this piece of advice: You are not always able to control who you love. Time means nothing for the soul."
Rangi picked up his cup and drank a mouthful of the hot, soothing brew. "But what if he doesn't come back? What if...if..." His hand trembled as it held the cup, and he quickly put it down before it spilled everywhere.
Kuia squeezed his hand again. "If it's meant to be, then it will, Rangi. You know that."
"It's not fair," he whined. "Blue-Scale didn't have to go -"
This time it was Kuia's turn to interrupt him. "He was doing it to protect you, you selfish little bugger!" Her expression softened slightly. "It may not be fair, but that is the way life is, sometimes."
Rangi was silent for a few minutes, staring vacantly at the TV as it flickered away in the corner. He took a deep breath and sat back in the chair, holding his cup of tea to his chest with one hand, and wiping at his face, with the sleeve of his shirt, with the other. When the tea was finished, he got up and put their cups in the sink, staring out into the night through the kitchen window. He heard Kuia come up to stand beside him, also staring out into the darkness. Turning, he leaned over and hugged her gently. "Thanks, Nanna."
She grinned at him and turned to go back into the lounge-room, when he reached out and stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "What is it, Rangi? I'm missing Coronation Street," she said, pointing at the TV as she looked at him expectantly.
"You don't seem particularly surprised about any of this. Aliens. Me in love with one. Why?"
Kuia just shrugged and walked into the lounge-room, and gingerly lowered herself into her favorite armchair with a knowing smirk.
"Nanna! What about dad, at least? He's hardly said a word to me since Blue-Scale left, and looks at me like I'm some kind of freak." Rangi followed her and rested his arms on the back of her armchair.
"You leave Stewart to me. He should know better, anyway. I would like to think I brought him up to be better than that. Now shush. I'm trying to watch the TV."
Smiling, he leaned down and gently kissed the top of her head, then wandered down the hallway to the bathroom for a shower. 'Good old Nanna. World's coming to an end, and her great grandson is fucking a Taniwha. But she still loves me, no matter what. Only thing she's worried about is missing an episode of some silly British soap. God, I love that woman!' he thought as he undressed in the bathroom.
Rangi looked at himself in the mirror. The three diagonal, parallel cuts across his chest and stomach still looked angry and red, but had started to heal, thanks to some of the herbal ointment Kuia had given him to use on them. They were going to leave impressive scars behind that no amount of healing would ever fix, but that suited him just fine. As he lightly ran his fingers across the wounds, his breath caught in his throat, and he went over to stand beside the small window above the toilet, looking up into the starry sky.
There were no further bright flashes, but he gasped as several meteors went sailing overhead. These were no shooting stars, but proper fireballs streaking across the sky. Over the next few minutes, he saw several more, accompanied by a faint rumble like distant thunder. Shaking his head, he turned on the taps and climbed into the shower, unsure whether the fiery omens boded ill or not.
The Aurora jet shook violently as the atmosphere around it gradually thickened. There was a constant stream of rumbling and muttered curses from the front of the cockpit as Blue-Scale fought with the controls. He was trying desperately to keep them from tumbling out of control to the ground, still more than seventy kilometres beneath them. He had locked on to the Area-51 landing beacon, but was beginning to doubt that they would be able to make it that far.
Their singularity generator had been severely battered during the battle and was on the verge of failing completely. Sure enough, the generator warning alarm brought up its little blue holographic indicator, flashing urgently for attention above the control console. Hissing at it in iritation, he initiated the emergency shut-down to stop it from overloading. Although he would have preferred to jettison it, he knew the resulting implosion deep inside this planet's atmosphere would wreak a lot of havoc on the ground.
"Hrrr, this one is unable to return us to your Area-51 base. We are losing altitude at a rate that is no longer sustainable." According to the sensor readings, they would only just make it back to the same landmass they'd left less than an hour ago.
Vasya nodded in acknowledgement, looking up as there was a loud «crack!» from the cockpit canopy above them. The spider web of cracks was spreading rapidly through the plexiglass as the small jet rattled through the rapidly thickening air. During the pre-flight briefings, they hadn't covered this eventuality; they figured that, if the Aurora jets weren't able to make it back all the way, there probably wasn't enough of them remaining to make the trip.
He activated the mask's built-in mike. "This is Russian-Husky. We declare emergency landing. Please advise, civilian landing authority!" he shrugged to himself, unsure of quite what to say.
For several long moments there was nothing but static in his headset. Then he heard a rather surprised sounding voice respond. "This is LAX tower. Please repeat your official designation."
"Russian-Husky is official designation, LAX tower! We declare emergency landing. What are instructions?"
"Son, this is an official government channel. You know it's illegal to for civilians to use it -"
Vasya gave up trying to be polite. "We are Military vessel from your Area-51! We are shortly crashing and need instructions! You will help us now, da?" he yelled into the mike, transmitting over the top of the ground-based controller.
Blue-Scale's talons traced over the controls in quick, precise movements, as he adjusted the thrusters in alternating firing patterns to keep them level. Because most of the starboard-side wing had been torn away, the jet's aerodynamics were completely ruined, and he was using up thruster fuel at an alarming rate trying to keep them from becoming a spreading cloud of wreckage drifting out of the sky. Ahead of them he could make out the low clouds that marked the coast-line. It was going to be a very close thing. "We need new landing co-ordinates urgently, Russian-Husky," he rumbled loudly, trying to be heard over the background roar.
"This is LAX tower. Russian-Husky? Area-51? Is this some sort of joke? Clear this channel immediately! We are tracing your transmission as I speak, and the authorities have been alerted."
"You Durak! We are crashing from space, da? Coming in hot! Starboard wing is missing! Give transponder code NOW! No more bullshit, okay?!" A flickering out of the corner of his vision caught his eye, and he turned to stare out through the spreading cracks in the canopy.
There was smoke now pouring out of the torn section of wing; leaking thruster fuel had caught alight and was starting to burn fiercely now that they were low enough in the atmosphere to provide Oxygen. "LAX Tower, we are burning! PLEASE TRANSPONDER CODE NOW!" he screamed into the mike. The shaking rapidly grew worse as the thrusters began to lose pressure from the broken fuel-lines.
Blue-Scale roared as he slammed the Aurora jet hard to port when they flashed past one of the large commercial passenger aircraft the humans seemed to favor, missing it by no more than 100 metres. The jet responded noticeably more sluggishly as the reserve thruster fuel indicator alarm hologram flashed up on the control console in front of him.
On board Quantass flight AU11, non-stop from Sydney to LA, the Captain and co-pilot watched with wide eyes as the crumbling Aurora jet rocketed past them at a great rate of speed. Trailing thick, black smoke, and small bits of debris, it was clearly in serious trouble. "Ah, LAX tower, this is AU11-heavy. We've just had some sort of, uh...small shuttle - I think - pass us at 25,000 feet, on a heading of zero-niner-eight. They're trailing a lot of smoke. Do they require assistance? Over."
"Roger that, AU11-heavy., We've got them on tracking radar now. Please descend to 15,000 feet on the same heading. See if you can get a visual on them again. Over"
"MAYDAY! MAYDAY!" Vasya screamed into the mike as the Russian-Husky started a slow barrel roll. Looking beneath them as they were upside-down, he could see small ships on the water below them; water that was rapidly turning a lighter color as they approached land. They didn't have much more altitude to lose.
Quantass flight AU11 had throttled their engines to maximum power and tried to catch up to the unknown aircraft, following the quickly dispersing smoke-trail it was leaving behind. Pulling out a pair of binoculars, the co-pilot trained them on the small spot at the head of the smoke trail and whistled disbelievingly.
"What is it?" the pilot asked them, as they closed in.
"Out of control, is what it is. Not sure, looks like... Nah, can't be."
"Spit it out, man! What can you see?"
The co-pilot kept his binoculars trained on the small jet as it slowly corkscrwewed through the air. "Y'know those rumors floating around of those secret yank military jets a few years back? Awe-Ora or something? I'll be buggered if it's not one of those."
They closed in a bit further and the Captian squinted at the smoking aircraft now less than a kilometre in front of them. "Crikey! An Aurora. Thought they were just something out of someone's drug addled fantasy, mate. " He activated his headset. "LAX tower, this is AU11-heavy. You've got what looks like a military Aurora jet heading your way. We're backing off and diverting to SFX-International. Over."
"Roger AU11-heavy. Switch to heading zero-three-three, channel 82. Thanks for your help, gentlemen. LAX out."
"Ah, Russian-Husky, this is LAX tower. Please set your transponder to four-seven-five. We've got emergency vehicles on the way. You are clear for landing on runway one-niner. Repeat, clear for landing on runway one-niner. Transponder signal on four-seven-five. Over"
Vasya punched the numbers into the small flight-computer and fed it through to the pilot's control console, gritting his teeth as they threatened to rattle out of their sockets from the vibrations. There was a muffled «bang» as something large came loose from beneath them, and tumbled away into their slipstream.
This was quickly followed by a shriek of overstressed metal as an abrupt sledge-hammer of air hit them both when the cockpit canopy finally shattered and was ripped forcibly from the fuselage. Blue-Scale was now mostly blind from the cyclonic wind assailing him, but managed to keep them airborne. Squinting through the maelstrom, he could now see the human 'airport' in front of him. He had carefully hoarded the last of the dwindling thruster fuel for the landing. But it was still going to be rough.
Over a large part of Los Angeles, people watched the unusual looking, arrowhead shaped, black aircraft as it sailed overhead, leaving a smoking black contrail behind it. At LA International airport, everyone that was able crowded to the nearest windows to watch the spectacle.
Vasya held the armrests of his chair in a deathgrip, cursing the engineers for their decision to remove the ejection mechanisms, and watching as the runway loomed up large in front of them. His helmet protected his eyes from the screaming wind. But even he closed his eyes at the last moment before they hit.
Moments before they hit the runway, Blue-Scale slapped the control console, activating the emergency retro-thrusters. He leaned forward, trying to protect his face and head with his arms.
The Russian-Husky ricoched off the runway into the air. Shattered heat-resistant ceramic tiles and splintered Carbon-Fibre panels flew in all directions as the retro-thrusters screamed, burning through the last dregs of fuel, trying to slow the battered jet. The second time they hit the runway, it was almost anti-climactic. They bounced once, the remaining port-side wing digging into the runway concrete and slewing them violently sideways before it, too, tore free from the fuselage and fluttered through the air like a wounded moth.
Ironically, it was the thrusters finally running out of fuel that stopped them from a deadly end over end tumble as they slid up the runway. Smoke was pouring from the remains of the starboard-wing and trailing dust, sparks, and fragments of ceramic tile in their wake.
Suddenly, it was all over. The silence was only broken by the crackling of flames, occasional sparks from shorting electronics, and the distant wail of emergency-vehicle sirens as they approached the wreck. His ears ringing, Vasya opened his eyes and looked around wearily. With numb fingers, he released his restraint harness and removed his helmet and facemask.
A weak rumble of triumph from the front of the cockpit indicated Blue-Scale was still alive and, probably, mostly uninjured. On wobbly feet, Vasya extricated himself from the wreckage and half fell, half climbed from the cockpit. He managed to twist his ankle slightly as he tripped over one of the jet's mangled landing-skids. Turning, he watched as the young Vanguard warrior clambered awkwardly from the cockpit, jumped to the ground, and athletically rolled to absorb the impact.
Dusting off his skinsuit, Blue-Scale looked around, then turned to Vasya. "Hrrr, you are well?" he inquired in an almost nonchalant manner, as if crash-landing a spaceship was an everyday occurrence for him.
"Da. Mostly," the Russian replied, brushing his hair back as he stood there, surveying the wrecked Aurora jet. "Captain Hardy will be angry we broke vessel. Bad lizard!" he joked, weakly.
Blue-Scale approached and assisted him as he hobbled away from the wreck toward the approaching emergency vehicles. He looked up at the warrior as they walked. "Yank pilots have appropriate saying about this."
"Da. Any landing you walk away from is good landing."
Regarding the human with a crocodilian smile, Blue-Scale huffed loudly, amused.
Antonio woke with a start, sitting bolt upright and staring at the darkness in confusion. He was lying, naked, on a bed in a familiar looking room. Not far from the bed was a large window, looking out onto moonlit sand-dunes. He'd been here before...and this wasn't real.
"Alright, where are you?" he called out, as he rolled off the bed and onto his feet.
There was no answer.
Padding over to the window, he looked out at the dunes, and called out again. "I know you're here! Show yourself!"
Still no answer.
"Don't make me hunt you down, Flows-Like-Water," Antonio grumbled, as he stepped through the window. He went striding across the sand until the strange, floating window-frame behind him was lost from sight behind a dune. A few minutes later he managed to climb to the top of one of the huge sand-drifts and looked around - there was nothing but dunes, stretching as far as he could see in all directions. Sweating from the exertion, he plonked himself down and hunched his knees up against his chest, wrapping his arms around them.
After several moments, the wind started picking up, sending sand grains slithering across the dunes with a muted hiss. Antonio recognized this from before, and waited patiently. Sure enough, the wind got stronger, and it wasn't long before he was surrounded by a whirling tornado of sand, with him, untouched, in the middle. Small bolts of static discharge flowed through the wall of the wind-borne sand as it circled around him with a hissing roar.
"You took your time," he muttered, unimpressed by the spectacle this time around.
Flows-Like-Water's unaccented voice spoke perfect English directly into his mind, again just like the previous time. "I'm sorry. I've been a little..." there was a slight, uncharacteristic pause, "busy."
"More meddlin' in other people's affairs, huh?"
"My, my. Someone's a little cranky today, isn't he? But, as it happens, you are correct, my insightful little friend."
Antonio smiled. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. "Who is it this time? One of the poor lizards? Or are you pickin' on Vasya again?"
The Observer didn't respond for several moments, and Antonio got the distinct impression it was having difficulty coming up with a suitable answer. Anything that caused a creature as powerful as an Observer to pause for a response must be something pretty serious. He started feeling a little nervous, but couldn't quite put his finger on why.
"No, as far as I am aware, Vasya and Blue-Scale made it back to Earth safely. What's the last thing you remember?"
Stretching out his legs, the marine thought back. Prior to waking up in this dream reality he had been...oh fuck. "What happened?"
"There were a few technical issues -"
Leaping to his feet, Antonio faced the whirling vortex of sparkling particles, wishing the alien would manifest a face, or at least something he could look in the eye. "Cut the crap, will ya! What's goin' on?" he demanded.
Flows-Like-Water sighed. "Very well, Antonio. I was hoping to tip-toe around this subject, as you humans can be notoriously emotional at times. You're dead."
Antonio stood there for several moments, the breeze from the vortex tousling his hair gently as he digested what the alien was telling him. "How can I be dead? I'm here, talkin' to you now, aren't I? Yeah, I know about this dream-world of yours. Been here once before with Vasya. But I wasn't dead then, and I sure as shit ain't dead now."
"It's a little difficult to explain -"
Folding his arms and looking less than impressed, Antonio glared at the sparkling vortex. "Try me. I ain't as dumb as I look," he interrupted.
"Alright. Bear with me, and I'll try and keep this as quick and simple as I can. The Yankee-Doodle was badly damaged, and almost beyond my abilities to repair. However, your Oxygen supply was depleted, and you were rapidly freezing to death. Oh, and in answer to your question before you passed out? It was the lack of Oxygen that killed you, not the cold. It was a two horse race, and hypoxia won by a nose. With me so far?"
Antonio regarded the alien through narrowed, suspicious eyes, but nodded. "Go on."
"Well, that left me with two choices; save you, or repair the Yankee-Doodle and get us both back to Earth -"
"Would have thought that would be quite a straight forward decision. Repair the Yankee-Doodle, get back to Earth. Then revive me."
The Observer hissed with annoyance, the vortex spinning faster with a pronounced whine like a laboring turbine. "I really wish you'd stop interrupting me. It's a very annoying habit you Carbon-based life forms have," he grumbled, managing to inject a rather peevish tone into his normally level, perfect voice.
Rolling his eyes, Antonio held out his hands palm outward toward the vortex. "Sorry. Please continue."
Mollified, the Observer continued. "Only problem was, I don't have the resources available to do both. If I repaired the jet, I would not have had the energy reserves to save you as well. You would have been permanently, irrevocably, dead. As in ex-Antonio. Frozen popsicle. Bucket permanently kicked -"
"I get the picture," the marine growled, folding his arms again.
This time, Flows-Like-Water accepted the interruption with good grace. "Yes, quite right. Sorry, but I just love all these wonderful little phrases you humans have for everything. It's so cute. Anyway, I had to make a decision. I chose to keep you alive."
Antonio, realizing the story wasn't going to be simple or quick, sighed and sat down again, crossing his legs and poking distractedly at the ground in front of him, drawing random patterns in the fine grains of sand. "So. Which is it. Am I alive, or am I dead, then?"
"Indeed. Your body has biologically ceased to function. It's actually frozen solid, right now as we speak. Been like that for several hours. The only reason you're here, is that I incorporated myself with you in an attempt to salvage your mind." A smug tone crept into Flows-Like-Water's voice. "And a fine job I did of it, if I do say so myself."
Antonio suddenly felt rather uncomfortable. Violated. He sat up straight and contemplated the spinning vortex for several moments. "Lemme get this straight. So I'm dead. Frozen solid. But you're inside me, inside my mind somehow, keepin' my brain alive?"
"Not exactly like that, no. But it's close enough. Before I incorporated into you, I used the last of the Yankee-Doodle's reserve power to set up a rescue beacon. I'm banking on your lover to come find you before the beacon runs out of power. And hopefully before I run out of power."
Realizing he had been a little ungracious, Antonio blushed. "Ah, yeah. Thanks for savin' my ass, man. I owe ya. What do ya mean you're runnin' outta power?"
Flows-Like-Water slowed the vortex down until it was barely able to keep its shape, and closed in slightly on the human. "That brings me to the next subject. Antonio, I have a favor to ask."
The marine looked up and cocked an eyebrow, contemplating the vortex curiously. The Observer was obviously a powerful alien entity. What on Earth could he offer it that it couldn't do itself? "Sure. What is it?"
"I want you to remember me," it said in an uncharacteristically subdued tone.
Antonio blinked. "Remember you? I don't understand."
Flows-Like-Water sighed. "Observers are practically immortal. We don't age, and we very rarely die. If we die, we are usually remembered by the others of our kind. It gives us a kind of immortality when we live on in the memory of others."
"How can you die? You're some kinda super-alien, or somethin'. If - no - when we're rescued, they'll thaw me out, and you can un-incorporate-thingy. Y'know, separate out or whatever it is you guys do. You can go back to annoyin' th' lizards, like you do so well."
Flows-Like-Water was silent for several long moments. "Once incorporated with another being, the process cannot be undone. It is also taking an enormous amount of my own life-force energy to sustain your mind inside my own, and to prevent further damage to your body tissues."
Antonio's jaw dropped open in shock as he stared at the slowly rotating vortex. "You're not shittin' me, are you? You're really willing to sacrifice yourself for me?"
"Yes," came the simple response.
"I - I dunno what to say," Antonio said, wide-eyed as he shook his head.
The Observer laughed warmly. "You can say thank you, at least. Yes?" The swirling vortex picked up speed again, until it was back to its normal rotational velocity. "Don't feel sorry for me, Antonio. It's been a lot of fun. I've had experiences and met creatures that no other Observer ever will. I've also made a few decisions that I am not proud of. I deeply regret the stress and emotional turmoil I put Vasya, and yourself, through. Hindsight is always 20/20, right?"
Antonio nodded, as he contemplated the enormity of the situation in front of both himself, and the Observer.
"Anyway, for all your faults, you humans are a species worth saving. The Galaxy would be a much poorer place without you in it. Now, there are a few things you need to know, should you make it through. Please listen carefully."
Over the next few hours, Antonio sat in the cool sand and absorbed as much as he could from the Observer's instructions and advice. Finally, the Observer coalesced into a glowing brown humanoid form, standing in front of him. "I'm going to shut down this little dream shortly; I can no longer spare the energy. It's been nice knowing you, Antonio. I hope things work out for you and Vasya. The two of you make a great team. And for god's sake, would you hurry up and tell the boy you love him?!"
Antonio leaped to his feet and stood naked in the moonlight. It was now starting to get chilly, the breeze had quite an edge to it. He gave the figure a snappy, formal salute. "Yessir. And...thank you. For everything."
As everything faded to black, the last thing the marine saw was the figure dissolving in the cold wind...
It was still very early in the morning when the door to Rangi's bedroom slowly opened. A sliver of light from the kitchen lit up the unkempt piles of clothes strewn across the floor. Stewart stood in the doorway for several moments, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness until he could make out the familiar shape of his son lying asleep in the bed. He carefully negotiated his way through the minefield of discarded clothing, until he was standing beside the bed.
Rangi slept, sprawled across most of the mattress on his chest and stomach, one arm trailing down the side of the bed with his knuckles resting on the floor. Shaking his head with amusement, Stewart cleared a pair of track-pants off the bed and sat down. Despite the awkward position, he knew that his son favored sleeping on his stomach like this. Leaning over, he gently brushed some of the hair off Rangi's face, making the boy snuffle in his sleep, interrupting his soft snoring.
Stewart sat upright and clasped his hands in front of him, looking around the messy room. He saw ripped posters on the wall of some crappy pop group from the early 2000's called 'Custom Nightmare', or something ridiculous like that, and oil-stained certificates from Rangi's automotive engineering courses. He frowned when he saw an old farm-bike engine-block gathering dust in one corner of the room and noted the several shelves full of complete, or mostly completed model cars. A fond smile tugged at the corner of his lips when he saw the old taiaha leaning against the desk. He'd given the intricately carved ceremonial spear to his son many years ago, as it had been given to him by his father, many years before that. This was a sacred relic, handed down from father to son through many generations of Hohepa's.
He turned back to look at Rangi in the small amount light that came through the gap in the doorway. Kuia had sat him down when he had come in, an hour or so before, from milking the cows. She had explained to him what had been happening with his son, and with the Taniwha. That his son was gay had come as the biggest shock. The thought of his son having a...relationship with the Taniwha was too much on top of that - but it certainly explained a lot of Rangi's recent behavior when around the large reptilian alien.
Stewart mentally cringed as he recalled all the thoughtless comments he'd made over the years about 'poofters' and 'faggots'. Closing his eyes, he remembered several occasions when Rangi and he had stand-up, screaming rows at each other about many different things... But for all of that, Rangi was the only one of his children who had come back to the farm to help out when the freezing works closed down, and Kuia had moved back in. The boy had sacrificed his successful career in the big smoke to come back to Kauri Bay - a small dead-end town with no long-term prospects.
Kuia had shamed him into realizing these things while they talked. Stewart wasn't sure he would ever really approve of his son's sexuality but, at the end of the day, he was still the same little boy he used to take on father/son hunting trips in the bush. At nights, sitting around the camp fire, Rangi used to love sitting beside him, listening raptly as his dad talked about his exploits when he was Rangi's age.
Stewart got up with a sigh and bent over, giving his sleeping son a light kiss on the forehead before he left the room and closed the door behind him.
"Rangi! Quit mucking about with that thing, would you?"
"Yeah, alright. Gimme a minute, I'm almost...there. Done!" Rangi straightened up, wiping his hands on a rag as he walked away from the vehicle he had been working on. "Why the big hurry, anyway? You got a hot date with the missus?"
Gavin Geraldson had finished closing the large workshop roller-doors and stood, waiting impatiently beside the doorway to the forecourt shop. "C'mon, lad. You've known about the market day for weeks. You said you'd give Sheryl and I a hand setting up the tables." Gavin pushed Rangi through the shop and out the door, before locking it behind him.
"Shit! Is that today?"
"Yes, it's today." Gavin laughed as he took a few steps down the road toward the community hall in the centre of the sea-side village. When he realized Rangi wasn't following, he turned and put his hands on his hips and frowned at the boy. "Oh, no you don't, lad! Sheryl'll skin me alive if I turn up without you."
"Mr Geraldson, I just can't, okay? Nanna needs me..." his voice trailed off and he looked at the ground uncomfortably.
Gavin walked over to Rangi and laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder, looking him in the eye. "I don't know what's gotten into you recently. And if you're anything as stubborn as your father, I know you're not going to tell me, either. Look, just come and spend a few minutes giving us a hand to get set up, if nothing else."
With a resigned sigh, Rangi nodded. "Alright. Let's go."
They both turned and started walking. Gavin smiled at Rangi mischieviously. "Hey, cheer up, my young friend. Mona's got the table next to ours, selling some of her baking. I think she's taken quite a shine to you, you know."
"Mona? Ugh. I'd rather kill myself." Rangi giggled when Gavin rolled his eyes at him.
"Between you and me, lad, if you want to kill yourself, try some of her baking. It's so bad, even our goats won't touch it."
In the days following the light-show in space that the media was calling 'The War of the Worlds', people around the world seemed to come to their senses a little. Life was slowly returning to normal after the disruption caused by the announcement that aliens existed and were already on Earth. There was still a lot of speculation and rumour about what had been going on, and what the aliens wanted. However, life went on for most people...
Business in the small settlement of Kauri Bay had actually picked up quite a bit, since the light-show, because people flocked from the cities to the country for a better view of the sky at night. Not only that, but property prices in isolated parts of the country like Kauri Bay were also sky-rocketing as the realization dawned on many that big cities were not necessarily the safest places to be, if Earth was going to be attacked by bug-eyed monsters.
Rangi spent an hour or so in the hall, helping various people set up tables for the market day. He desperately tried to keep clear of Mona who kept interrupting him with small-talk, blatantly undressing him with her big, brown moo-cow eyes. Managing to give Mona the slip, Rangi went outside to join Gavin and Sheryl as they talked with a small group of other stall-holders. Perching himself on the bull-bars of Sheryl's pick-up, parked by the curb, he tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the feel of the sun on his face as he idly listened to the conversation.
At one point, a shadow flitted across his closed eyelids, but he paid it no attention until he heard the nearby conversation stop, suddenly. He opened his eyes as Gavin approached him, pointing at something in the sky. "What do you make of that, lad?" he asked.
Rangi shaded his eyes from the sun and looked in the direction Gavin was pointing. High overhead, something dark and shaped like an arrowhead passed over them, heading for the hills above the town. Shrugging, Rangi shook his head. "Dunno. Something from that military base nearby, maybe?" For a few moments, his heart hammered in his chest, until he realized that, whatever it was, it was much smaller than the Vanguard shuttle. Something man-made, not alien. He winced at the accompanying stab of disappointment. Not Blue-Scale, then.
The conversation quickly turned to the strange events of the past few days, causing Rangi to give a wry little smile. Little did they know... He closed his eyes again, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun against his skin for several minutes, until he heard someone approach.
"I guess you'll be buggering off home, then?" Sheryl asked, as she walked over and leaned against the bullbars beside him. Without waiting for an answer she carried on speaking. "Would be good if you stuck around, though. Don't worry, I'll keep you safe from Mona," she gave him a good natured nudge and a smile.
Rangi returned her smile. Sheryl Geraldson was a handsome woman in her late 50's. For many years she had run the small cafe down by the beach, until the freezing works shut and business dried up. He fondly remembered the days when he'd come back from his little 'fishing' trips out on the bay, and stopped in for a pie or an ice-cream on the way back home. She always had a smile and a new dirty joke to share with him. Sheryl was one of the few people he'd really missed after he moved to the big city for work.
"You promise? That sheila's fucking mental," he grinned back at her.
"Language, Rangi!" she scolded him, laughing. "Tell you what. I'll even give you a little something to take home for later. I think your Nanna likes my fish-cakes, doesn't she?"
Jumping off the front of the pickup, he followed her back toward the hall doors, winding through the growing crowd that was waiting for the hall to open. "Yeah, she does. Think dad does, as well." Not that the old bastard would admit it, Rangi thought somewhat bitterly. "Damn, what's with all the townies?" he asked, looking around at the confusion of people and parked cars everywhere.
"I reckon people are a bit spooked about what's been going on recently." She stopped by the hall doors and turned to him. "I'm glad there's a crowd though, might make it..." Sheryl's voice trailed off as she stared at something behind him.
Turning around, Rangi saw the black arrowhead shaped aircraft banking toward the settlement from out over the bay. A faint, peculiar whine could be heard growing louder as it approached the beach. Most of the crowd was now watching the aircraft as it came closer, pointing at it and whispering at each other. Nobody had seen anything like it before. It slowed to little more than a walking pace as it hovered several metres above the beach, moving closer to the crowd of people and cars beside the community hall.
"That's not like any helicopter I've ever seen before," Gavin muttered, pushing through the crowd to stand beside his wife and Rangi.
"That's because it's not a helicopter, you daft old bugger," Sheryl said, shading her eyes with one hand as she tried to see through the glare reflecting off the silvered cockpit canopy. "You're the one who works at a bloody car workshop - you should be telling us what it is!"
Landing skids emerged from the bottom of the aircraft, as it gently lowered itself to the ground, flexing slightly as they took the weight when it touched down. The irritating whine started winding down in pitch as it settled, and it was this that nagged at Rangi; he'd heard it before. His throat suddenly dry, heart hammering in his chest, and the parallel wounds on his chest aching, he shouldered his way through the nervous, milling crowd.
Gavin reached out an arm to stop him, but his wife stopped him. "Leave him," she whispered, noticing the look on the boy's face.
The aircraft had landed on the beach side of the road, about 20 metres from the crowd of people and cars. As the whine faded into inaudibility, Rangi approached the matt-black vehicle, unable to see into the cockpit from the bright reflected sunlight. There was a gasp from the assembled crowd as the canopy swung upwards with a loud hiss of equalizing pressure, and a demonic-looking monster stood up and looked at the young Maori guy who dared to approach.
"Hrrr! Little-One! " it called out, happily.
During the few days before and after the Arbiter attack, the various governments who had been involved with 'Project Vanguard' had not been idle. Using the plans uploaded by Flows-Like-Water, many of them had constructed their own nano-fabrication systems and singularity generators, and started to retro-fit many of their existing space-flight capable vehicles.
In a veritable orgy of efficiency and frenzied organization, NASA was able to quickly outfit its tired fleet of dilapidated shuttles with the singularity generators. They, along with the military, were desperate to get into space and salvage as much as they could of the Arbiter battleship remains, as well as replace some of the more critical satellites that had been destroyed by the invaders.
On board the Aries, Vasya sat in the co-pilot's chair, eyes glued to the blackness outside the orbiter's thick windows as they closed in on the weak distress beacon their comms system had picked up once they got into orbit.
When Antonio and Flows-Like-Water hadn't returned with the other Aurora jets, Vasya had experienced a feeling he hadn't felt since the closing days of the Siberian Incursion; his blood ran cold, and it felt like someone had viciously kneed him in the guts. He'd approached each of the returning flight-crews, desperate for information, sightings...anything. Not even the Vanguard pack-leader was able to tell him anything when he returned a few days later.
When he heard from the new base commander that salvage missions were being sent into orbit to recover what wreckage they could, Vasya pulled some strings (being a bonafide 'war hero' carried a lot of weight) to get assigned to one of the missions. Nobody expected to find any survivors, from either side, left alive in orbit. But that did not sway Vasya - he was a grieving force to be reckoned with.
As they closed in on the gently tumbling wreck, the Air-Force Major piloting the Aries turned to him. "It's an automated signal, Praporshchick Kolzak. Probably set off when they were hit. I'm sorry, son."
Vasya didn't respond to the Major, but just kept staring at the wreck as they approached it warily. Glancing at the Major, he found himself wishing that it was a Vanguard flying the orbiter, rather than a human; he had no doubt one of the Vanguard would be a damned sight more understanding. The remaining Vanguard engineers had worked very dilligently to come up with adaptions to their control systems, so that humans could fly their own vessels without requiring Vanguard assistance. The large robotic arm from the cargo-bay reached out toward the wreck. The large hydraulic claw on the end spread open as wide as it was able. A small vibration could be felt through the orbiter as the claw made contact with the jet, stopping its tumble.
Quickly shrugging out of the co-pilot's restraint harness, Vasya carefully made his way to the engineering section of the orbiter, where another Air-Force officer was operating the robotic arm, staring intently at several small screens surrounding the controls. The Russian peered out through the observation port into the cargo bay as the battered Aurora jet was gingerly brought to rest by the massive arm, amidst other large, unidentified chunks of twisted, scorched metal. In the glare from the banks of lights lining the cargo-bay, he could just make out the unmoving, lifeless figure in a flight pressure-suit, still strapped into the rear cockpit seat.
Of the Observer, Flows-Like-Water, there was no sign.
Unwanted and uninvited, the memory of them saying goodbye in the Area-51 hangar flashed into his mind as he stared at the figure in the smashed up jet. "You lied," he whispered in Russian, placing a hand on the cool armored glass of the observation port, then resting his forehead on the back of his hand. "You promised you'd come back to me."
Sometime after they landed, Vasya was finally allowed into the morgue, accompanied by the Vanguard medic, Docile-Until-Provoked. He'd asked the medic to accompany him - not because he thought the Vanguard would be able to help - but for moral support. On the way to the morgue, they passed Dr. Ling, the exobiologist, sitting on a bench beside the door to her darkened lab. She was staring at a Vanguard datapad that Blocker had given her some weeks prior. Her hair was a mess and her eyes were all puffy and red, as if she had been crying for some time.
Vasya wanted to stop, but Docile-Until-Provoked encouraged him to keep moving onward. "Hrrr, I do not believe she wishes to make conversation. She is grieving for the loss of a...friend." Truth be told, he didn't quite know what to make of the Vanguard/human pairings he'd witnessed in the past few weeks. First it was Blue-Scale and the Rangi human. Then he'd observed the deepening relationship between Blocker and this female human medic. He snorted softly. Perhaps, despite all their physiological, technological, and social differences, there was some hope for future long-term co-operation between their two species. Although, he found himself unable to see the attraction; humans were too small, fragile, and ugly for his tastes.
When they entered the morgue, they found a couple of human medics standing in front of a large medical terminal screen, frowning at some x-rays and scans, deep in conversation. They turned as the Vanguard rumbled at them.
"There is a problem?" Docile-Until-Provoked asked, confronting them.
The senior of the two doctors exchanged a glance with his collegue and shook his head. "No. No problem, just some strange results on the scan." He looked at Vasya and frowned again. "This is Corporal Franco's, ah, friend?"
Vasya didn't pay any attention to the conversation, instead he slowly pproached the figure, covered in a military-issue khaki sheet, on the examination table in the middle of the room. He felt numb disbelief that it had come to this - Antonio had always been so full of life. A cheeky smile, the soft drawl of his Southern accent, mischievous little shine in his eyes...
"Correct. This one believes he would like some time alone, hrrr."
Still frowning, the senior doctor nodded curtly. "You have ten minutes before we start the autopsy. Don't touch anything," he warned, before turning on his heel and walking out the door, his collegue close behind him.
When they were gone, the Vanguard medic walked up behind Vasya, and laid a taloned hand on each of his shoulders. "Do you require this one to leave?"
"Nyet. Stay. Please." the Russian responded, in a hollow, drained voice, as he looked briefly up at the medic.
"Hrrr, very well, young one." Docile-Until-Provoked gently snapped his jaw shut and walked over to the medical terminal, and started poking at it curiously.
Vasya stood by the examination table, looking at the shrouded figure for several long moments before he reached out and pulled the sheet back, exposing the upper half of Antonio's body. He blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. It looked like Antonio's body was covered in a thin layer of sparkling brown dust. He shook his head, and reached out to brush the hair off Antonio's forehead. "Chyort!" he swore, and quickly pulled his hand back - it felt like he had just received a static shock from the body!
Docile-Until-Provoked looked up at the exclamation. "What is it, young one?"
"I...I...nothing," Vasya shook his head, feeling more than a little shaken.
Antonio looked so peaceful in death, but then so did Kirill, back when his lover had died in his arms near the end of the Siberian Incursion. Fighting back tears, Vasya angrily dismissed the image and reached for Antonio's hand, expecting to find it cold and stiff. There was another tingle that shot up his arm as he touched the hand, although it wasn't as strong as the first shock. To his surprise, the marine's hand was supple and, while not warm, was not as cold as he was expecting from someone who was still only partially 'thawed'.
Part of his cosmonaut training had included learning about the effects of exposure to vacuum and the coldness of space. Antonio's body had none of the bloating he had expected of someone exposed to hard vacuum. And there should have been definite signs of frost damage; so-called freezer-burn by the morbid types who ran his training back in Star-City in Russia.
"There appears to be some discrepancies in these scans," Docile-Until-Provoked rumbled softly. He turned to look at Vasya, but instead he found himself watching in horrified fascination as Antonio's body sat up on the examination table, unaided.
Awareness struck Antonio like a bolt of lightning. His eyes flicked open and, almost immediately, closed again as the glare from a bank of bright lights above him stabbed into his eyes. Sitting up, he tenatively reopened his eyes and looked around at what appeared to be a medical facility. He recognized the elderly Vanguard medic, who seemed to be frozen on the spot in surprise.
Sudden movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he turned his head in time to see Vasya leap at him, sending both of them tumbling to the floor. The sheet that had been covering him billowed out to cover them both as he lay there, staring up into his lover's tear filled eyes. The young Russian pinned him to the floor, growling at him in a manner almost reminiscent of a Vanguard. "Like, ow?" he managed to croak out through a throat that felt like he'd been eating sand.
"I am not knowing how you live. Do not care," Vasya whispered to him. "I will take what I get." His eyes roamed over Antonio's face and he watched as his tears cut small paths through the brown dust as they fell onto Antonio's face.
They both looked up as the sheet was removed by Docile-Until-Provoked, who had sufficiently recovered his wits for his professional curiosity to take control. Gently peeling Vasya off his lover and pushing him to one side, the medic pulled Antonio to his feet and looked him over carefully. As he stood there, naked and trembling slightly from the cold, Antonio abruptly felt a burning sensation all over his body, which rapidly turned into a ferocious, whole-body itch. Both Vasya and the medic took a step back as the brown dust that covered his entire body virtually exploded off him, to drift in small glittering flakes to the floor.
Antonio suddenly felt very weak, and was about to collapse when Vasya rushed in and propped him up, staring at him with his beautiful gray eyes wide with concern. The Russian led him over to a chair next to the medical terminal, then hunted around for a blanket in the various cupboards and drawers in the room.
Docile-Until-Provoked, meanwhile, hunkered down and scooped up a small amount of the glittering brown dust on the end of a talon. The medic looked up at him with a speculative look on his craggy face. Antonio blinked and stared at the Vanguard closely, suddenly aware of many small details he'd never noticed before. He found he could recognize the expression on the medic's face, and when the medic spoke to him, the translation disk was more of an irritation than a help - he could understood what the Vanguard was saying without it.
"You should be dead," Docile-Until-Provoked rumbled, stating the obvious as he took a tentative sniff of the brown dust on his talon. He snorted, and wiped his talon clean on the leg of his skinsuit.
Vasya had finally managed to track down a blanket and draped the thin, scratchy material over Antonio's shoulders. The medic came closer and leaned down, staring into his face intently. He started sniffing at him, and ran his hands over Antonio's head. After a couple of minutes of snuffling and examining, the marine realized that Docile-Until-Provoked looked none-the-wiser for his examination.
"Water. Clothes," Antonio croaked. "In that order, please."
As Vasya chased up a drink for him, Antonio gave the puzzled medic the human equivalent of the Vanguard equivalent of a shrug, with a smirk on his face. Docile-Until-Provoked stared at him, lost for words.
"We leave now, da?" Vasya said, as he handed him a sipper bottle he'd found near the terminal.
With the Vanguard medic supporting Antonio on one side, and Vasya on the other, they left the morgue and made their way back to the accommodation barracks in the main cavern. They had almost arrived when the sound of a distant alarm went off, and moments later several armed marines were running toward them from the direction of the morgue, waving their weapons and yelling at them to halt. The figures of the two doctors weren't far behind them.
The marine Sergant in the lead got to them and stopped, cradling his gun and looking from one to the other in obvious confusion. "Uh, we were told that someone had taken a body from the morgue without authorization." When the two doctors came puffing up behind them, the marine turned around and glared at them, voice fairly dripping with derision. "You're sure it these guys...Sir?"
Wide-eyed, the two doctors stared at Antonio who stood there, still supported by Vasya and Docile-Until-Provoked, returning their gaze with bemused detachment. "That's him, alright," one of them said, out of breath as he pointed an accusatory finger at Antonio.
"It is very nice body," Vasya grinned, then blushed furiously, realizing what he had just said out loud.
Several of the marines rolled their eyes at each other before turning their annoyance on the two doctors. "He doesn't look very dead to me," the Sergant growled. "Might I suggest you go back to the chiller and make sure none of your other guests have unexpectedly checked out...Sir?" He turned back to the unlikely-looking trio. "Sorry for troubling you. That'll be all."
The three of them exchanged a look before they resumed their walk back to the barracks. Antonio affectionately cuffed Vasya on the back of the head. "What was that comment all about, huh?" he laughed, then grimaced slightly at the soreness in his throat.
From behind them they caught the last of the fading conversation: "But - but that's him! That's the dead guy! You can't just let him wander off like that -"
"That's ENOUGH! " the Seargent spat out. "You've wasted enough of our time as it is. Besides, don't you recognize those two soldiers? They're fucking heroes, unlike you vultures. And that's giving vultures a bad name. If I hear anything about either of you bothering them again, you'll have me to answer to. Got that? Sirs?"
Once inside the barracks, Docile-Until-Provoked assisted Antonio onto the bunk beside his footlocker. "This one will return in several minutes. This one needs to examine you, more closely. Something is not right. Those human medics were correct. You should not be alive."
Antonio nodded, and watched the Vanguard medic leave. When they were alone, he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes. "C'mere," he motioned for Vasya to join him on the bunk, scooting over to give him room on the lumpy mattress. When Vasya lay down and rested his head on Antonio's shoulder, the marine reached over and ran his fingers through the Russian's hair. "There's something I gotta tell you," he said, softly.
"Nyet. You do not have to say anything -"
"Yeah. Yeah I do," he interrupted Vasya by placing a finger over the younger man's lips. "Should have said it a long time ago." He removed his finger, and resumed running his hand through Vasya's hair. "I love you, Vasya."
Vasya stiffened slightly then relaxed with a sigh. "Da. 'I know',"
A frown creased Antonio's face before he realized the Russian was playing with him. "You cheeky monkey - arrrgh! " he began to say when a abrupt, stabbing pain in his eyes interrupted him and his vision turned bright red. He instinctively rubbed them with frantic fingers.
Vasya sat up quickly and twisted to look at his lover. He reached out and placed his hands on Antonio's chest, concern written all over his face. "Antonio! What is wrong?!"
As sudden as the pain came, it disappeared, leaving Antonio to squeeze his eyes shut, and gasp with relief. He propped himself up on his elbows, blinking quickly as his eyesight returned to normal. When Vasya jerked his head back in surprize and gasped, the marine felt his heart start hammering in his chest. "What is it? What's wrong with me?"
"Your eyes," Vasya whispered, shaken. "Look at your eyes!" He quickly got up and helped Antonio to his feet, leading him by one hand over to a floor length mirror by the door.
Antonio approached the mirror closely, staring back at his reflection, at his eyes in particular. A stranger's eyes stared back at him from within his own head; his normally dark-brown eyes were now the colour of liquid gold. He staggered back with a cry into his lover's arms. As Vasya held him tightly, he heard a ghostly voice whisper faintly in his mind...
Working with several human engineers, Obscuring-Darkness lay on the floor, on his back, and stared up into the innards of one of the human-constructed nano-fabrication machines. The balky machine had producted several botched batches of opto-electronic circuits destined for use in the controller assemblies for singularity generators. "Hrrr, this one has located the fault," he rumbled with satisfaction as he used a hand-held laser cutter to remove a fused control module. Not noticing that the room had gone silent, he rolled out from under the machine, the damaged module clasped in his talons.
As he stood up, he looked around at the human engineers, who stared silently at something behind him. Before he turned around, he already knew who it was; the scent of his bond-mate was unmistakable.
Invokes-The-Storm stared at him, a forlorn expression on his craggy features as he stood there with all four of his arms hanging by his sides and his shoulders slumped. He was the very personification of misery as he waited for Obscuring-Darkness to say something.
One of the human engineers silently gathered up the others, and it wasn't long before the two Vanguard were alone in the large industrial lab. Obscuring-Darkness held up the blown module in front of him and closed his talons around it. Wordlessly, he turned around and lumbered over to a bench and placed the module into a clamp anchored to the bench-top. Picking up a different tool in each hand, he leaned over the bench and began to disassemble the module. It would be much quicker to repair it, he decided, than to source a replacement. Desperately trying to distract himself from the presence of his bond-mate, who hadn't said a word since appearing in the lab, he buried himself in his work.
After several minutes, Invokes-The-Storm realized it had been a mistake to come here, expecting forgiveness from the traumatized young engineer. It felt as if his hearts were being ripped asunder to see the one he considered more precious than anything turn his back on him. However, the worst thing about it, he felt, was that it was justified. There were many things he could say, but none of them would make an Ancestor-damned bit of difference. What could you say to someone you had driven to the point where he would rather take his own life rather than be with you?
There were no more tears to be shed - it was beyond that, now. Numb, the pack-leader turned and made his way to the door, and reached for the pressure-switch to open it when a single word froze him instantly in his tracks.
Invokes-The-Storm slowly lowered his arm, and swung his head around, not knowing what to expect. Obscuring-Darkness stood motionless at the bench, his back still turned to him, the muscles in his arms, shoulders and back visibly tense and strained.
"Hrrr, do not go." Obscuring-Darkness carefully placed the tools he was holding on the bench and reluctantly turned around.
Another few tense minutes passed as the two Vanguard regarded each other silently.
The pack-leader was the first to submit, as he blinked and lowered his gaze to the floor. "I -" he began, before being abruptly cut off.
"Desist! I do not wish to hear those words from you. I have heard them before, and they mean NOTHING! " Obscuring-Darkness spat at him, unconsciously hunkering down into a offensive stance, talons splayed out as he glared at his bond-mate. When he saw Invokes-The-Storm uncharacteristically cringe back, he realized what he was doing and relaxed. He lowered his arms and stood upright again. "Hrrr, I apologize. It is not easy...I - I find myself unsure of many things..." he lapsed into silence again.
"I cannot - hrrr, incorrect. I will not use my mental injuries as an excuse. I am resigned to the fact that they are part of who I am. The Observer assisted me to understand that, and for that I am grateful to him. He has also insured they will never influence me again..." he stopped speaking as Obscuring-Darkness took a hesitant step toward him, then stopped. The pack-leader felt a faint spark of hope begin to blossom inside him.
Obscuring-Darkness couldn't help himself. One step led to another, until he was standing in front of his bond-mate, and he could see the faint look of hope in his four, jet-black eyes.
With an ear-shattering roar of incoherent emotional pain and anger, the first blow sent the startled pack-leader reeling backwards with a cry, as the blood flew from the jagged tears on his neck and face. Regaining his balance he looked up, stunned, at his bond-mate whose face was a twisted mask of rage and despair. The young Vanguard advanced on him, talons splayed out and breathing heavily; his eyes were narrowed and focussed squarely on him.
Obscuring-Darkness grabbed the unresisting pack-leader, sinking his extended talons deep into his shoulders and chest, and screamed as he hurled him into a bank of fabrication machinery. Sprawling on his back among the sparking wreckage with wounds bleeding freely, Invokes-The-Storm watched, wide-eyed, as Obscuring-Darkness bore down on him again. He grunted loudly as his bony chest-plates made a loud crack when his bond-mate kicked him, hard, in the chest.
"FIGHT BACK! DEFEND YOURSELF! " Obscuring-Darkness roared as he picked his bond-mate up again and shook him roughly.
Another powerful blow knocked Invokes-The-Storm staggering back against the solidly anchored nano-fabrication machine. He desperately reached back and gripped it with his rear hands to prevent himself from collapsing on the floor. Black blood flowed freely from dozens of wounds all over his body, spattering, glistening, to the floor. In a daze, he slowly swung his head from side to side as Obscuring-Darkness lumbered toward him, hissing and spitting furiously.
"FIGHT ME, ANCESTORS DAMN YOU! WHY WILL YOU NOT FIGHT ME?! " the engineer screamed at him.
He doubled over as the stunning blows smashed relentlessly into his body, but Invokes-The-Storm didn't raise a single talon to defend himself.
Obscuring-Darkness' skinsuit was splattered with dark sprays of blood, and his talons were also dripping with it. The blood that streamed down his face was his own, however, as he cried out his pain. He watched, hearts hammering in his chest, as the pack-leader struggled to his knees after the last slashing blow had forced him yet again to the floor. "Hrrr! Defend yourself! Please!" he pleaded desperately, as he back-handed his bond-mate across the face with his fist, sending him crashing to the floor.
Sobbing uncontrollably, Obscuring-Darkness half raised his talons again, but stopped. He sank to his knees and tipped his head back, neck exposed, and his eyes closed, instead. "Why will you not hurt me? Why will you not fight me?" he cried out, hoarsely.
Pain from the wounds stabbed through Invokes-The-Storm's body as he slowly and painfully stood up from the cold concrete. He swung his head around to stare at his despairing bond-mate through his damaged and half-closed eyes. He staggered over and watched, hearts breaking, as sobs wracked the young Vanguard's body. The pack-leader grunted from the agony in his broken body and he dropped to his knees in front of Obscuring-Darkness. His bond-mate didn't resist has he drew him into a tight embrace.
Invokes-The-Storm winced and closed his eyes as he started a rumbling purr deep within his chest while he clung to the other half of his soul. "Hrrr, there has been enough hurt for the both of us; I tire of it."
Blue-Scale clambered down from the Aurora jet he had commandeered from Area-51, and eagerly lumbered over toward Rangi. Rangi just stood there, looking at him, stunned. "This one is pleased to see his Little-One," he rumbled, happily.
When the young warrior reached out to him, Rangi took a step back and crossed his arms, before puffing out his chest and pouting. "And just where the hell have you been, bro?!" He glared at Blue-Scale, who stopped and gave him a confused look. "Took your time coming home, didn't you, huh? You had me worried sick! "
"Hrrr? Is Little-One not happy to see this one?" Blue-Scale rumbled softly, looking for all the world like a kid who had just accidentally dropped his ice-cream onto the hot pavement and was about to burst into tears.
Rangi's frown melted into a huge grin as he leaped up at the surprised warrior, wrapping his arms happily around Blue-Scales thick, muscular neck, and his legs part way around Blue-Scale's waist. Blinking away happy tears, he tried to squeeze the life out of the warrior, who returned the sudden embrace, wrapping all four of his arms around the boy.
There were more gasps and muffled screams, which they both ignored, as the crowd watched the unlikely pair reunite. Gavin, not taking his eyes off the pair of them, leaned over to his wife and whispered, "Huh. Well, now we know why he's been moping around for the past few days, then."
Sheryl, who had been standing there with one hand covering her mouth, lowered her arm and nodded slightly. "Isn't that the damnedest thing?" She stifled a small giggle and nudged her husband in the ribs gently. She nodded at someone standing nearby. "I think she's got her work cut out for her."
Gavin tore his gaze away from Rangi and the creature, to look where his wife had indicated. Mona, who had earlier been eyeing Rangi like a succulent cut of meat at the butchers, was now staring at him with mouth wide open. Gavin smirked. It looked like someone had slapped her across the face with a wet trout.
Blue-Scale was busy, as he lovingly licked Rangi to within an inch of his life. Rangi, for his part, just laughed as he ineffectually tried to fend off the moist assault on his face. "Hey, big guy! Cut that out. Plenty of time for getting all hot and sticky later, bro. So, you back for good this time?"
The warrior reluctantly lowered Rangi to the ground and hunkered down onto his haunches, to be at the same eye-level has his Little-One. "This one will not be separated from his Little-One again. This one will stay by you, until he is no longer able."
"Sweet as, bro. Sweet-fuckin'-as. You want to blow this joint? I know Nanna would like to see you again."
"Very well. This one attempted to locate his Little-One at your rural dwelling. However, your Revered-Ancestor informed this one he could locate you here, instead." Blue-Scale looked up at something behind Rangi and stared at it for a few moments before returning his gaze to the boy. "Hrrr, there appears to be two humans attempting to attract your attention, Little-One."
Rangi looked around and saw Gavin and Sheryl waving frantically at him. Peeling himself off the warrior, Rangi walked over to them, with Blue-Scale close behind. The crowd magically parted in front of them, as people backed away in horror and fear. Not giving a shit, Rangi ignored them completely. Blue-Scale, on the other hand, swung his head from side to side, alert for any potential trouble from the crowd, as he escorted his Little-One toward the couple.
"Rangi! What's going on? Who - what is that?" Gavin pulled him close as he alternated his gaze between Blue-Scale and Rangi.
His mood considerably improved from earlier, Rangi grinned at him. "That's my bro, Blue-Scale. He's one of those Vanguard aliens you've been hearing about on TV."
"Is it safe?" Sheryl whispered, not taking her eyes off the warrior.
Blue-Scale cocked his ears forward and listened to the conversation, having no difficulty in making out what was being said, but not letting on. As far as his Little-One's safety was concerned, he preferred that people under-estimated him. He continued to swing his head around keeping an eye on the crowd.
"Safe? Yeah, he's a real teddy-bear," Rangi reassured her. He actively avoided thinking back to their escape from the interrogation block on the military base, several months earlier. "Hey bro! Say 'hi' to Mr Geraldson and his, uh, bond-mate, Sheryl."
The warrior brought his head down and snuffled at both of them curiously, then snorted, satisfied, as he stood up again. "Greetings, humans. My Little-One has discussed your existance. He informed this one that he respects you both highly."
"Uh, oh. That's...nice. Rangi, does your dad know about this, uh, Vanguard? What about your Nanna?" Gavin asked him.
Rangi shrugged. "Yeah, they know. Speaking of them, I'm gonna head back home with Blue-Scale. Hope your market day goes well. Sorry for running out on you like this."
"Just promise me you'll be careful, lad. Okay?"
After reassuring them, Rangi and Blue-Scale returned to the Aurora jet. As the warrior gave Rangi a boost into the cockpit, he noticed a small human spawnling approaching him. Watching it carefully, it came up beside him, and started tugging on the leg of his skinsuit. He hunkered down and gently scooped the spawnling up with one hand and examined it curiously. There were several screams from the crowd has he picked it up, and one frantic looking female human came running toward them, flailing her arms around and wailing. Ignoring the female human, Blue-Scale returned his attention to the spawnling; from the smell of it, it was a female.
"Excuse me, Mister. My name is Heather. What's yours?"
Blue-Scale gave Rangi a brief, amused glance, then returned his attention to the spawnling. "Hrrr, greetings, Heather-spawnling. This one's designation is Blue-Scale."
Heather giggled. "It's just Heather, silly! Blue-Scale is a pretty name. And you have pretty skin. What kind of dinosaur are you, Mister Blue-Scale?" Heather reached out and grabbed one of the warrior's tusks and then pouted, quickly withdrawing her hand and wiping the slimy Vanguard saliva all over her dress.
The frantic, wailing woman had reached them, and was beating her fists, completely ineffectually, against one of Blue-Scale's solidly muscled thighs, and making incoherent, screechy demands. Rangi winced from the racket. "Bro, I think she wants her kid back," he called down to the warrior.
Blue-Scale gently snapped his jaw shut, and lowered the spawnling to the female human, who grabbed her and ran screaming back the way she'd come. Heather shyly waved at Blue-Scale from over her shoulder as they disappeared into the growing crowd. He waved back, then crouched down before he leaped up the side of the jet, clambering acrobatically into the tight confines of the cockpit. As he waited for the singularity generator to spin up to operational velocity, he twisted his head around as much as he was able and stared at Rangi curiously. "Hrrr, what is a dinosaur, Little-One?"
When they landed in the front yard of the house, Stewart was there to meet them. Rangi climbed down the side of the jet and jumped the last metre or so to the ground. "Hi, dad," he said rather sheepishly. His father was usually out around the farm somewhere during the day. That he was here to meet them didn't bode well.
Stewart saw the expression on his son's face and gave him a lop-sided smile. "Nah, it's not what you're thinking. Just want to have a bit of a father/son talk with you, is all."
Blue-Scale finished shutting down the systems on the jet and joined them on the ground beside it. Rangi looked at him hoping for some moral support, but the warrior just gave him the Vanguard equivalent of a shrug. Rangi turned back to his father. "I'm a little old for the whole 'birds & bees' talk," he joked, nervously.
As they walked back to the house, Stewart turned his head slightly and looked at the young Vanguard warrior trailing close behind them through suspicious, narrowed eyes. He faced forward again and put an arm around Rangi's shoulders. "I don't think you're too old to hear about the 'birds & Taniwha', though, son-of-mine."
"This one is unsure exactly what the Observer has done to you. That it was able to prevent your death, there is no doubt. It also fundamentally altered the structure of your brain. What effect this will have, long term, is uncertain." Docile-Until-Provoked assisted Antonio out of the large MRI scanner in the exobiology lab.
Vasya got up from a bench and approached them. He looked at Antonio with concern, then back at the elderly Vanguard medic. "Is he being alright?"
Docile-Until-Provoked snapped his jaw shut and deferred to the marine. Antonio smiled reassuringly at Vasya. "Yeah, babe. I'll be fine. I'm remembering more and more of the bits'n'pieces of what he told me all the time. Didn't expect him to give me any cosmetic fuckin' surgery, though. Not to mention that I can understand what the lizards are saying now," he frowned, hunting around for his clothes. "Damn, I hate these hospital gowns. They let cold air right up your ass," he laughed, nudging Vasya gently, who returned his smile.
After he got dressed, he led Vasya toward the messhall. As they sat down to eat, the Russian put down his knife and fork and stared at the marine.
"Mmmff?" Antonio mumbled around a mouthful of food. When Vasya didn't immediately answer, he finished the mouthful of food and put his own utensils down, and grabbed Vasya's wrist in a firm, but gentle grip - uncaring about the strange looks from some of the other marines in the room. "Spit it out, man."
Vasya sighed. "I worry. About you going mental, as I did. As Vanguard pack-leader did."
Antonio shook his head. "I don't think the meddling alien did anything to me like he did with you. He sacrificed himself for me, babe. I owe him my life. I reckon all this other stuff is just a harmless by-product, y'know?" He picked up his fork and poked around at some of the unidentifiable meat swimming around in an equally as unidentifiable gray liquid on his tray. "Anyway, I hear that the Observer fixed up the pack-leader. It wasn't him that drove the lizard crazy in the first place."
"Oh," Vasya nodded, soberly. He looked up as two Vanguard entered the messhall, lining up at the servery counter for their specially prepared trays of meat. "Speak of the demon," he said, nodding at them.
Antonio turned around and looked at the newcomers. He waved them over as they collected their trays and looked around for somewhere to eat. "That's 'speak of the devil', not demon," he corrected Vasya with a smile. His smile faded as he registered the rather battered state of the pack-leader. "Whoa! Holy shit, man! What happened to you?" he asked, looking him up and down. It looked like the Vanguard warrior had gone one-on-one with a combine-harvester. Problem is, he wouldn't necessarily lay odds on the outcome being the harvester winning that particular match.
Invokes-The-Storm placed his tray on the table and perched himself on the bench, grimacing as he did so. "Humans have a word for which there is no Vanguard equivalent. This one believes that word is karma. Our medic has been reading an excessive quantity of your literature, and explained this word. It is appropriate, in this instance. However, this one prefers not to discuss it further."
"Sure, man. Whatever." Antonio shrugged.
From the corner of his eye, Vasya watched as Obscuring-Darkness looked at his bond-mate with an unreadable expression on his face. He mentally shrugged it off, and continued eating. Antonio also saw the look, but he understood exactly what it meant. It conveyed many things, but one above all others...
When they had finished eating, Vasya picked up his half-full glass of water and held it in front of him as he stood and cleared his throat, waiting to speak until the other three gave him their attention. "I have baked bread to make -"
"Toast! " Antonio half-whispered, half-hissed at him.
"Da, da! I have toast," Vasya continued, impatiently. "To those we love, da? To those we lost. It is important to remember them." He watched as the other three got to their feet and raised their glasses, or sipper-bottles, respectively.
All around them at the other tables, other marines and Vanguard also got to their feet, holding up their glasses. Antonio nodded, a sad smile on his face, acknowledging the others who had joined them. "And to all those who have bravely sacrificed themselves so we could be here, today," he added, softly.
It was completely silent for two minutes in the messhall as everyone stood there, each quietly thinking his own thoughts.
By the time the insane sub-hive mind realized it had overshot its target, it was far too late. During its long, isolated months of fractured, inwards navel-gazing, it had failed to adjust the flightpath of the herd of proto-comets as they picked up velocity on their trip to the inner Solar System.
Desperation kicked in and it entered the commands necessary to retarget the trajectory on one of the proto-comets. The stress this placed on the massive chunk of ice and rock was too much, and it spectacularly disintegrated over the next few minutes. Massive sections of ice, some several cubic kilometres in size broke away, flying apart from each other like a watermelon shot by a sniper-rifle.
Witnessing this, and realizing there was no chance to retarget the rest, the insane sub-hive mind's control disintegrated completely. Individual Arbiter units ran amok throughout the ship, and the sickening stench of a slaughter-house soon permeated the entire vessel. The dying sub-hive mind, in an instinctive move, managed one last act of control. Each of the remaining 37 proto-comets, and the battleship itself, had its course altered slightly, toward the great big light in the sky... Speeding ahead of the proto-comets, the battleship powered up its near-FTL drive and dove into the Sun at 98% of the speed of light, like a supersonic moth into a funeral pyre...
The Arbiters only attempted one more attack after this. A larger force of battleships were sent through to take out as many of the humans as they could. The humans were much more prepared, this time and, despite some heavy losses, both planet-side and in space, they were able to prevent the wholesale slaughter of millions of people.
As the months passed after the initial Arbiter attack, Earth built up its forces, and prepared to tackle the cometary bombardment problem. When the news broke that there was a mass of proto-comets heading for Earth, there was the expected world-wide panic. Millions died, until the various surviving governments were able to clamp down and restore some semblance of order. Surprisingly, there was a mass exodus away from many of the large, mainstream religions. People felt betrayed, realizing that the hate and discrimination they preached was only making things worse.
Six months after that, astronomers tracking the proto-comet swarm announced they were no longer in danger of impacting the Earth. It was only a few weeks later, after people had sufficiently recovered from the epic parties, that anyone bothered to track where the proto-comets actually were heading. It had been assumed by most that they would simply continue to pick up speed and eventually leave the Solar System altogether, out into inter-stellar space.
Initially it looked like this was the case, until some of readings were re-checked. Each of the proto-comets was on a subtly curved path leading straight into the Sun. Unfortunately, by the time anyone realized the potential danger, there was little that could be done. At the velocity that each of the proto-comet masses had achieved, getting close to any of them with a weapon or ship was virtually impossible due to the incredible gravitic shear they had built up - simple Einsteinian physics had doomed any attempt to stop them.
And it was this simple Einsteinian physics that was the problem. As their velocity approached a high percentage of the speed of light, so their mass increased. Already weighing trillions of tons, this mass increased exponentially the faster they travelled.
The Sun is an incredibly complex, but extremely powerful machine. Up to a dozen spanners, in the form of the massively accelerated proto-cometary masses, could have been thrown into the machine without affecting it much. 37 spanners was too many.
Over a period of a few days, the proto-comets slammed into the Sun, one after the other. The damage added up over the hours. Massive plumes of charged plasma, some larger than Jupiter, streamed into space from the impact sites. Gigantic shock-waves spread through the Sun's layers, being reinforced from each hit and causing huge electromagnetic plumes into space. By the time the last proto-comet punched its way through the surface, the thermonuclear processes deep inside the sun were terminally destabilized by the disruptions. Like a mortally wounded beast, the Sun roared.
And when a star roars, planets burn...
Earth managed to escape the worst of the initial death-throes of its home star, but the effects had certainly been felt. And felt hard. Over the following weeks and months, most conventional electronics were destroyed by huge atomspheric electromagnetic discharges as the Earth's natural shielding was overwhelmed by the Stellar hammer-blows. Many millions more died from radiation poisoning when large swathes of the planet were deluged by powerful waves of X-Rays and stronger than normal Ultra-Violet radiation.
By the time the worst of the Sun's upheavals had finished, the Solar System was less two planets. Nobody had seen when Mercury was destroyed. It had orbited in behind the Sun, and never emerged from the other side. Venus' demise was a little more visible. Massive plumes of plasma had reached out toward the planet and blasted it's already hellish atmosphere into space. The rest of it was converted into a molten mass of rock and heavy metals. The partially demolished planet's own rotation did the rest - over the next few weeks it slowly disintegrated into a smear of rubble, slowly spreading out in the orbital path it had previously occupied.
During this time Antonio experienced a series of strange dreams, and found himself in deep conversations with the Vanguard engineers, much to Vasya's alarm. It was only after the device had been constructed that the dreams ceased. Nobody, not even Antonio, knew what the thing was supposed to actually do. There was nothing inherently dangerous about it - none of the dreams had hinted at any danger and there was nothing in its construction that sent alarm bells ringing with the Vanguard engineers, either. However, to everyone's annoyance, the powers-that-be decided the unknown device was too much of a risk and wouldn't allow it to be activated.
The over-ride decision came several weeks later. It wasn't until the dismal failure of the human constructed sub-space breach drives that they were allowed to activate it - they had nothing left to lose at this point.
The breach drive was what the Vanguard used to get into, and out of, sub-space. Massively powerful singularity generators running at a certain frequency, attached to long gantries on the larger vessels, were used to literally rip, or breach, a hole from this universe into the 'sub-space' universe. There, near-FTL drives could be used to traverse distances (which equated to much further distances in the 'real universe'), before using the breach drives to rip a hole back into this universe.
Nothing the Vanguard tried worked - humans just did not have the resources, or the materials, to construct the special singularity generators required. The brave crews that manned the early vessels to test the breach drives were never seen again.
They were running out of time.
Ten days after activating the device built from Antonio's dream, the first of the strange-looking alien vessels arrived. It was the Vanguard who recognized them, from their spawnling sleep-time tales. Perfectly spherical and with a mirror-smooth finish, the Observer ships simply appeared in orbit, without any of the accompanying signs of sub-space entry or exit. The Vanguard engineers were shocked - they were witnessing an entirely new method of FTL propulsion they had never come across.
By this stage, the powers-that-be on Earth were getting almost blasť about dealing with aliens. However, they realized they were in a losing race, and spared no expense in making sure the Observers knew this. Fully one half of the Earth's population had been killed by this time. The ecosphere was collapsing from the damage being caused by the death throes of the Sun, and the planet's inhabitants were desperate.
It didn't take long for the Observers to decide to help evacuate the humans. Unknown to both humanity and the Vanguard, it was partially the Observers' fault that this had happened at all; a dirty little secret that wouldn't be revealed for some time. While unwilling to provide any access to, or information about, their own advanced technology, the Observers set up several hundred massive automated construction centres out in the Asteroid belt. Over the next few months they started churning out large numbers of ark-ships. Each was capable of holding several million people, most of whom would have to be put in stasis. They were constructed from the hollowed-out carcasses of the larger asteroids.
They also provided many smaller vessels, hundreds of cargo ships and shuttles, as well as a few larger military vessels. None of the ark-ships were equipped with sub-space breach drives, only massive near-FTL engines, capable of pushing the mammoth vessels up to 10 or 15% light-speed.
By the time most of the Earth's remaining population had been evacuated onto the ark-ships, the Sun was noticably much dimmer than it used to be. Earth's climate had gone from scorching to frozen in a matter of weeks, as the nuclear processes inside the Sun progressively shut down. Then it started collapsing in on itself. In a matter of weeks it would be nothing more than a superdense white-dwarf, having thrown off most of its outer-shell in a titanic explosion that would destroy the remaining planets in the Solar-System.
Antonio & Vasya, Invokes-The-Storm & Obscuring-Darkness, and Blue-Scale & Rangi, stood on the bluff above Kauri Bay, watching as the storm-generated waves battered themselves against the unyielding rock of the massive Observer ark-ship, the Kirill Markov. Large swathes of the sea were now completely frozen over, but there were still a few expanses of open water large enough to be whipped up into white-caps by the bitter wind.
All over the planet, the massive ark-ships had been brought in to land on the surface, in an effort to speed the loading process. It was going to be touch and go as they raced the dying sun.
The sun, on the rare occasions that it managed to break through the scudding clouds, looked decidedly blighted. Visibly distorted and discolored, there was no doubt that its lifespan was likely measured in months now, rather than years.
Each of the couples knew that it was the last time they would be together. Invokes-The-Storm and Obscuring-Darkness' ark-ship, the Docile-Until-Provoked was already in orbit, a steady stream of cargo vessels traveling to-and-fro with last minute supplies. The elderly medic, who had been their steady companion since the adventure had first started over two years ago, had died in another Arbiter attack on the Earth. They had named the ark-ship, over which they had been given command, in his honor. They, and those millions who had chosen to join them, had charted a course to take them to the outcast Vanguard planet of New-Home.
The Flows-Like-Water was still under construction out in the asteroid belt. The Observers and Vanguard construction crews said delivery was only a matter of days away. Vasya had wanted to call it the George Hardy, but to his surprise, Antonio had argued against it. He knew the Captain would not have approved of the gesture; the Captain had been a man of action and honor - not someone seeking glory or fame. The destination they had chosen, along with the few surviving crew of the Lightning-Strike, was the Arbiter decimated Vanguard colony world of Tau-Ceti. They would be taking most of the human-constructed fleet of battleships with them, for protection.
The Kirill Markov's commanders had been given a list of suitable colony worlds by the Observers. Most of them were far from any other inhabited systems. Loading was just about completed - the majority of New Zealand's population had been evacuated over the past weeks into the massive vessel, lying just off the West Coast of the South Island.
After the emotional farewells were said and done, with the others getting into their respective shuttles, Rangi and Blue-Scale had returned to the farm house to help his family finish packing. With nobody left to watch, only the storm reigned supreme on the bluff. A few misshapen snow-flakes were blown about, catching here and there on the tufts of grass still clinging stubbornly to the landscape as they poked through the hard-packed snow.
And the Cold Wind blew...
- the end -