Authors notes: Well, here's to hoping that anyone keeping up with this story is still enjoying it. The slow pace of updates is due to real life getting in the way. Don't you just hate that? Anyway, if you have any criticisms, comments or concerns (or anything else beginning with the letter C) regarding this story, please don't hesitate to let me know. I don't bite - I just nibble on request...

Have a cupcake.

I'd give one to my illustrious editor, Richard, but he'd probably just slap me for my lousy punctuation ;-) Your editing and kind words are worth any number of cupcakes, Sir. However, these blasted commas are going to be the death of me, I swear.

Taniwha - Part 05

In the cold, dark reaches of the Solar System, far beyond the highly eccentric orbit of Pluto, there were strange forces at work. Several of the large chunks of ice and rock, left-overs from the formation of the Solar System, were on the move. These forces were not natural in origin.

   Each of the several dozen proto-comets had been fitted with a number of powerful gravity generators which were, slowly but surely, knocking them out of their orbits. Previously undisturbed for four or five billion years, the gigaton chunks were only moving slowly - mere metres per day. At first. It would take a couple of years for the persistant push of the generators to send the massive proto-comets hurtling into the inner Solar System. At their terminal velocity they would approach 30% the speed of light.

   The Arbiters had been thorough. They knew that the primitive alien species resident on the third planet possessed nothing capable of stopping such weapons. Each one of the icy chunks was capable of devastating the biosphere of the third planet. Even if only half of the proto-comets hit, it would be enough to completely reduce the planet into nothing more than a spreading cloud of debris.

   Satisfied, the Arbiters left one battleship behind to monitor the system, while the others left to deal with the unfinished business with the Vanguard colony at Tau Ceti.

   "So, what now?"

   With the question left hanging, the assembled humans, and remaining Vanguard, stared at each other warily. Nobody wanted to be first to break the silence. Flows-Like-Water was hunkered down, resting on his haunches behind the small group of humans, and watched the proceedings through his four intent, black eyes. Occasionally blinking, he studied the expressions on each of the human faces, wondering what was going through their minds.

   His coded message to the Arbiters had had the intended effect, although he was still a little concerned at the overkill shown by the militant insects. He'd barely escaped from the Lightning-Strike himself, and the number of surviving Vanguard was a lot smaller than he had hoped for.

   Supressing a wave of regret for the recent loss of many innocent lives, Flows-Like-Water steeled his resolve. The humans were resourceful creatures. Hopefully they wouldn't need much more than a few careful nudges in the right direction. Carefully thought out plans relied on just how resourceful they turned out to be.

   His gaze shifted to one human in particular, the one calling itself Vasya Kolzak. Quite why he had fixated on this one, Flows-Like-Water wasn't really sure, but he felt a strange kind of affinity with it anyway.

   As if aware of the scrutiny, Vasya turned slightly and briefly stared back at the reptile.

   "OK, this is getting us nowhere fast." Captain George Hardy waved his hands at the assembled reptiles, all watching him warily. "Which one of you is the commanding officer? The chief? The Leader? Anyone? Oh for the love of -"

   "This one will speak for those of us remaining," one of the Vanguard interrupted, stepping forward to face the Captain.

   "And you are?"

   "This one is named Invokes-The-Storm."

   "Well, Mr Invokes-The-Storm, I demand that you take us back to Earth. We didn't ask to get involved in your war with..." Captain Hardy paused for a couple of seconds, searching his memory before giving up. "What did you call them?"

   "Arbiters. You may have no choice, human. It is reasonable to assume they now know of the existence of your planet."

   Captain Hardy's face went red with rage, and he walked right up until he was standing in front of Invokes-The-Storm. Punctuating his words by poking a finger into the chest of the reptile, he lowered his voice to a menacing growl. "And you fucking lizards brought them here! "

   Taking an involuntary step backwards in surprize, Invokes-The-Storm was about to snarl a response when it occured to him that the human was right. It did seem a little more than coincidental that the Arbiters had turned up when they did. Looking around at the other Vanguard, he desperately wished that another, more senior, warrior or leader had survived the battle so he wouldn't have to worry about dealing with all this crap.

   Only a small handful other warriors had survived the attack on the Lightning-Strike, and they were younger and less experienced than he was. In the rush to turn out large numbers of new warriors from the military clan training facilities, corners were being cut. Some of the warriors that were being pushed into battle were little more than spawnlings.

   The oldest and highest ranking Vanguard left was Docile-Until-Provoked, and he certainly wasn't going to take charge. The survivors had all looked to him, but Invokes-The-Storm wasn't sure he was ready for the responsibility.

   "Hrrr, that is possible. We will return you to your planet -"

   "Yes, yes you will," Captain Hardy interrupted. "And we also expect your help in defending Earth against these Arbiters."

   "This vessel has only defensive weapons. It is not capable of defending your planet against an Arbiter fleet."

   Captain Hardy had turned around, and was heading back towards the others, when Invokes-The-Storm replied. He stopped in his tracks and twisted around, glaring at the reptile. "Then get on your fucking space-phone and call for reinforcements. It's not fucking rocket-science, lizard!"

   "That is not possible. We are out of communications range."

   "Of course you are." Captain Hardy laughed tiredly as he rubbed his face with his hands, walking back to the others. "Look, just get us back to Earth, alright?. Hopefully, the egg-heads back home will be able to reverse-engineer some of the freaky shit you have on this ship."

   "Then what becomes of us?" Invokes-The-Storm asked, quietly.

   "Don't know, don't care... OK, OK. Just drop us off. Then you can take your precious flying saucer and just leave us the fuck alone. Happy now?"

   "That is not possible."

   "Oh, for crying out loud - why not? "

   "This vessel is not equipped to travel the distance required to get us home." Invokes-The-Storm paused, and sighed before continuing. "Hrrr, we have nowhere else to go."

   "Well, that's just peachy. Alright, have you lizards got a radio I can use? I'm not authorised to make deals like this. I'm gonna have to bump this up to the brass to make the final decision."

   Invokes-The-Storm looked at Blocker, who was standing by the cockpit hatchway. The Engineer snapped his jaw shut and lead Captain Hardy to the cockpit. Invokes-The-Storm reminded himself to thank the young Engineer later. Based on designs from the shuttle's database, Blocker had managed to make enough of the small language translation units for all of the remaining Vanguard, just in time for the meeting.

   Flows-Like-Water caught Invokes-The-Storm's eye as the meeting broke up, and took the warrior aside. "I would suggest that we tread carefully from here. I do not believe the humans will keep their word not to hurt us, given the current situation."

   "Agreed. But what are we to do? We have nowhere else to go."

   "Perhaps we let them go, as a sign of our good intentions?"

   "What then?"

   Flows-Like-Water saw the desperation in the eyes of the warrior, clinging to his every word. Although his heart went out to the inexperienced young Vanguard, Invokes-The-Storm was but another player in the game. He needed to stay detached. "As our pack leader, that decision is yours."

   "Hrrr, this is a responsibility I did not ask for," Invokes-The-Storm sighed. "Ancestors guide me..." 'Ancestors guide me to avoid stuffing this up,' he finished, silently.

   The ship started rocking from side side as the buffeting from their meteoric descent through the atmosphere grew worse. Blocker cast an occasional glance towards the two humans holding hands beside him. They stared out of the viewport at the super-heated plasma slithering over the external shielding. Adjusting their course slightly, he steadied himself against the swaying movement by pushing his tail against the deck.

   The two humans had entered the cockpit shortly after their leader had left. They'd stood there, awkwardly, for several minutes before they had joined hands. Blocker felt slightly resentful of the two humans. He'd been given landing co-ordinates by the human's leader, but he would have much rather been spending a bit of time getting to know one of the medics who had been giving him the eye.

   Snorting loudly, he concentrated on piloting the ship to its destination, which was not the one given to him by the human's leader. Invokes-The-Storm had spoken briefly with him after the human calling himself Captain Hardy had left, and told him to find somewhere isolated, on one of the smaller land masses of the planet.

   'We are going to be stranded on this festering alien shit-hole for quite some time - or however long it takes the Arbiters to overrun the system, anyway' He thought to himself. 'Hopefully enough time to get into that medic's skinsuit, she is one hot piece of tail...'

   He looked at the two humans again. "Are you bond-mates?" They jumped at his gravelly voice, unexpected against the muted background roar of their re-entry.

   "Bond-mates? Uh, not really. At least I don't think so. Is that like marriage or something?" Antonio stared nervously at the reptile.

   "This one is not familiar with that term. Do you mate together?"

   Blushing, Antonio turned and faced the bright glare coming in through the viewport. Vasya laughed, and poked him in the side before turning to face Blocker. "Not yet."

   "Vasya! " Antonio hissed at him. "Cut that shit out, alright?" He dropped the Russian's hand and unsteadily left the cockpit as the ship swayed, a scowl making creases on his face.

   "Antonio, where are you going?"

   Blocker turned to watch the human leave, then turned back to the remaining one, who was standing there staring after its departed friend. "What was that about?" he asked the remaining human.

   "I push too hard, too fast, for him. He is not yet ready to accept certain things about himself." Vasya sighed and tried in vain to recognize an indentifiable emotion on the reptile's face. He failed.

   "Perhaps you should -"

   "Go after him? Da." Vasya interrupted the reptile. "But what if he needs some time alone? I don't know What to do." he said.

   The reptile considered the question, for a few moments before answering. "That is a difficult question. Vanguard would persue the object of desire. This one would persue," Blocker said, exposing all of his teeth in a rather predatory grin that made Vasya take an involuntary step backwards. "But then this one knows time is running short."

   Vasya stared hard at the reptile, before rushing from the cockpit in the same direction as the recently departed marine. Blocker huffed with amusement, as he returned his attention to the control console.

   Catching up to Antonio, who was heading back towards the cargo bay, Vasya slammed into the marine and pushed him against the nearest bulkhead. "Hey, what the hell?" Antonio's words were quickly smothered under the desperate, and insistant, lips of the Russian cosmonaut.

   Flows-Like-Water was in the middle of a quiet conversation with Docile-Until-Provoked, when he heard the commotion. On seeing the action, he smiled a little before continuing with his conversation.

   Gavin Geraldson was idly pawing through a well worn parts catalogue, when a drawn-out rumbling echoed around the forecourt of the gas station. Startled, he looked out the window but couldn't see any obvious source. There were no vehicles by the pumps, and nothing on the road. In fact, the small gas station, on the outskirts of the small village, hadn't seen a customer for over an hour.

   "Hey Rangi! Was that you?" he yelled over his shoulder, as he made his way to the automatic doors, and poked his head out into the cold wind. He looked up and down the deserted road.

   The metallic «clang» of something heavy being dropped, rang out from the workshop attached to the back of the forecourt. This was quickly followed by some colourful cursing.

   Shivering from the cold, Gavin walked back into the warm shop and toward the door linking it to the workshop. Poking his head through the doorway, he looked around, trying to locate his new mechanic. Rangi Hohepa had just about finished completing his apprenticeship, at some big-city car yard, when family problems had brought him home to the small village of Kauri Bay.

   Several months back, when the young Maori man had come wandering up to him and offered his services, Gavin had thrown caution to the wind and hired him on a trial basis. His decision had turned out to be a good one, as Rangi seemed to have an inate ability to work with all sorts of machinery. Given the state of most of the vehicles owned by the small village's inhabitants, it was an extremely useful ability.

   Gavin also knew the Hohepa family quite well - in such a small village it was hard not to know quite a bit about the other residents. Although he'd not known Rangi's mother very well, he had heard through the grapevine that she had split soon after the local freezing-works had shut down. The closure had hit the small settlement hard and everyone was struggling. Most of the income now came from the tourist busses, or occasional business travellers passing through.

   "What was that noise?"

   "Just me dropping a bloody diff on my bloody head, is what," came the muffled reply from beneath a rusting out pickup truck.

   "Nah, ya silly bugger. I meant that rumble, just a minute ago. Hey, you need a hand?"

   The sound of bolts being tightened came from underneath the truck, and a few moments later Rangi slid out, grinning at Gavin. "It's all sweet, bro. Cheers."

   "That's Mr. Geraldson, to you. Cheeky bastard."

   "Sorry, Mr. Geraldson - bro."

   Gavin just shook his head in mock disgust, as he helped the giggling young man to his feet. Rangi followed Gavin back into the shop and leaned against the counter, staring out at the wind whipping the waves against the rocky West Coast beach. Picking up an oil-stained workbook from under the counter, Gavin flipped through a few pages, tracing a finger down the pages as he did so.

   "Is that wreck of a truck going to be ready for Eddie to pick up in the morning?"

   "Yeah, just gotta put the wheels back on and it's done. When is Mona gonna be dropping that fancy new Merc around? It's blowing a bit of smoke, so I reckon the injectors need cleaning."

   Gavin snorted, making a quick note in the workbook before snapping it shut. "Bet that's not the only thing you'd like to clean of hers, either."

   "Ugh, gross! She's like the town bike, bro - every bugger's had a ride. Not into sloppy seconds."

   "Delightful. You're a charming young man, make no mistake. Anyway, would you mind closing up for me tonight?"

   "No worries, mate. Got something planned with the missus?" Rangi asked, reaching over and taking the bunch of keys being held out to him.

   "Sure do. Sheryl's cooked up a batch of smoked terakihi. We're going to curl up in front of the fire, and watch the storm roll in while we eat it." Gavin slapped Rangi on the back lightly as he made his way past, towards the automatic doors. "Speaking of food, help yourself to whatever's left in the pie-warmer when you go." Pulling on a thick woolen coat, he gave the smiling mechanic a wave as he walked out into the blustery evening.

   Rangi pocketed the keys and went to stand beside one of the large windows, looking out at the clouds scudding across the sky towards the shore. A flicker of lightning briefly illuminated the horizon, followed a minute or so later by a faint rumble of distant thunder. 'Must've been what Mr Geraldson heard earlier,' he thought to himself.

   The old man treated him well, and he was lucky to have found work when so many others in the area were jobless. Rangi sighed, as his thoughts turned to his own family. His real mother had been dead for many years, and his stepmother had split when his father had lost his job at the freezing-works. "Ungrateful bitch," he muttered, bitterly, shaking his head.

   Out of his two sisters and an older brother, Rangi was the only one who had come back to Kauri Bay when his grandmother had called. After losing his job, Rangi's father had hit the bottle pretty hard, and his grandmother was worried he would end up doing something stupid.

   Darkness descended quickly, once the hidden sun had passed beyond the horizon, and the harsh forecourt lighting lent the wind-swept surroundings a washed out look. Rangi stared out into the night, as he munched on one of the left-over pies from the warmer. When the clock hit 9, he threw the rest of the pies into a bag and closed the shop, shutting down the forecourt lights as he did so.

   His Grandmother would appreciate the hot food. He had no doubts that his dad was probably too busy, drinking himself to sleep, to worry about cooking a meal for her. Frowning at the prospect of coming home and facing the inevitable drama, Rangi walked over to his van, parked behind the shop.

   As he drove up the steep, unsealed road, away from the village towards his dad's farm, Rangi cast an occasional glance out over the bay. More frequent flickers of lightning lit up the sea, including a large, dark shape moving rapidly across the surface of the frothing water. Bringing the van to a stop, he leaned over and stared down at the bay through the passenger side window, hoping for a better look at the object.

   Whatever it was, it didn't stop once it reached the shore but, instead, gained altitude and skimmed across the scattered rooftops of the small settlement before heading up into the hills not far from where Rangi had stopped.

   What the hell...? he thought, as he started the van moving again. It hadn't looked like any kind of aircraft he'd ever seen.

   Ignoring the turn-off for the farm, Rangi continued further up the road, which rapidly deteriorated, and forced him to park and continue on foot. He was only a few metres from the van when the rain started. Large, scattered drops at first were driven by the wind into his face. Soon becoming a deluge, it intensified, soaking him to the bone in seconds, and the wind threatened to knock him off his feet.

   Instantly regretting his decision to chase after this phantom, Rangi turned around and made his way back to the van through the blinding rain. He climbed into the drivers seat and wiped the water off his face, staring out at the storm for several minutes as the van rocked from the wind gusts.

   "Crazy bastard," Rangi flashed himself a silly grin in the rear-view mirror as he reversed back down the road. He didn't see the large section that had been washed out in the sudden deluge until it was too late. The crack and roar of thunder completely drowned out the sounds of the landslide, as several hundred cubic metres of rock and clay dragged the trapped vehicle along with it down the mountainside.

   "This is not the location we agreed!"

   "Correct. This one does not believe your warrior leaders would keep their word not to harm us."

   "You didn't even give them a goddamned chance!"

   "Hrrr! Do all humans have this aggravating habit of always stating the obvious? Do you think us that unintelligent?"

   Captain Hardy stood in front of Invokes-The-Storm, silent and blinking at the reptile in front of him, completely lost for words. Fuming, he turned and stormed towards the cockpit hatchway, stopping and glaring at Blocker who, true to his name, stood in front of the hatchway, blocking Captain Hardy's exit.

   "Are we your prisoners now?" Captain Hardy spat the words at Invokes-The-Storm, turning to glare at the Vanguard warrior.

   "No. You and the others are free to go."

   "Go? Go where? We're in the middle of nowhere."

   "There are indications of a small settlement nearby. This one has no doubt that you will be able to contact your leaders from there. By the time they come for you, we will be long gone from this place."

   Eyes narrowing with suspicion, Captain Hardy studied the reptile for several moments before speaking. "I thought you lizards said you were marooned here?"

   Invokes-The-Storm huffed with bitter amusement. "We may not have the resources to make it back to our colony, this is true. But that does not mean we are stuck on this primitive planet, with you ignorant savages." As he watched various expressions come and go on the human's face, Invokes-The-Storm briefly wondered which of them represented disappointment. He was becoming quite adept at recognising anger...

   "Fine," Captain Hardy snapped as he stomped out of the cockpit, Blocker standing aside to let him pass.

   "Once the humans are have gone, take us clear of this planet," Invokes-The-Storm said tiredly to Blocker, who acknowledged him with a jaw snap. "And see if you can find out what a lizard is."

   The landslide was an unexpected bonus, as far as Flows-Like-Water was concerned. He had been wondering what kind of sabotage he would have to resort to, to keep them planet-bound. 'Perhaps this fate that the humans occasionally mentioned, had some merit,' he thought, with a feeling of detached amusement as he stared at the crushed and bent hull-plating.

   Access to the engine bay had almost been cut off by the damage, and they had been fortunate that none of the singularity generators had been taken out.

   "Is it repairable?" Flows-Like-Water asked, an artfully crafted tone of worry in his voice.

   "Under normal circumstances, yes. But these are -"

   "Not normal circumstances, correct?" Invokes-The-Storm asked, interrupting Obscuring-Darkness mid-sentence.

   The engineer looked up and gave the young warrior a pained smile.

   "What are we going to do? The humans will shortly hunt us down!" Flows-Like-Water allowed the worried tone to modulate into one of barely controlled panic.

   "Calm yourself! I will not let that happen."

   Flows-Like-Water mentally slapped himself, and both the warrior and engineer narrowed their eyes a little when they turned to stare at him. 'I am in danger of overdoing it, he realized. This acting is more difficult than I thought!'

   Shortly after the shuttle had touched down, a violent storm had lashed the landscape, sending a large cascade of rock and mud crashing down the mountainside. It had hammered the shuttle rather brutally, crushing various sections and mostly burying it under tons of debris. Despite the power of the singularity generators, they were not designed to dig the shuttle out from under such a weight. Coupled with the damage to the hull and superstructure, they were not going anywhere, anytime soon.

   Despite their new predicament, the Vanguard kept their word and released the humans. Flows-Like-Water took Vasya aside and spoke to him at length, while Antonio looked on suspiciously. He wondered why the big reptile stroked the back of Vasya's neck with his talons so often as they talked, but refrained from commenting until they had left the ship.

   "What was that all about?" Antonio asked, as he and Vasya struggled through the darkness and mud, a few minutes later.

   "Mmmm? Oh, I am unsure. Vanguard wanted to say goodbye. Strange, that one, nyet?"

   "Yeah, you could say that. Didn't like the way he had his talons all over you, though."

   Vasya stopped and turned to stare at Antonio in the gloom, as the marine struggled to pull one of his legs free from the muck. The clinging mud made an obscene slurping noise as he did so. "Corporal Franco, I do believe you are jealous!"

   "Nyet... I mean, no. Why would I be jealous of an alien lizard? No, I'm not jealous." Antonio did his best to look indignant, while covered head to foot in the clinging muck. "Geeze, listen to me. 'Nyet'? I'm beginning to sound like you, you crazy Russian bastard."

   The storm clouds had parted, blown away by the gusting wind, and now the light from a gibbous moon bathed the devastated landscape with a pale light. Captain Hardy, and the other two, had taken a different path through the mud and were much further up the slope, lost to sight.

   Antonio shook his head in irritation, and was about to continue when he thought he saw a dim flash of orange light from the corner of his eye. Staring into the darkness, he struggled to make out where it had come from. Just when he was going to give up, he saw it again - a brief flash of dim orange light coming from a spot further down the slip, repeating every few seconds.

   "Hey, wait up! There's some sort of flashing light coming from further down the slope."

   "Hmph! Perhaps it's my secret, alien lizard lover. Coming to steal me away to our love-bed in the stars."

   "Vasya, I'm serious. There's something down there. You coming or not?"

   "And here I was, enjoying this romantic stroll through the mud with you..." Rolling his eyes in the darkness, Vasya decided to humor the marine. Carefully picking his way down the slope, he followed Antonio through the clinging mud. It wasn't long before he realized Antonio was right - there was a dim flashing light coming from further down the steep hillside.

   Two minutes of trudging through the muck later, they found the source of the blinking light. A smashed up vehicle of some sort was lying sandwiched between a large boulder and the trunk of a large tree. Only the rear end was clear, with one remaining still blinking; all of the other bulbs had been smashed.

   "Anyone inside, Vasya? Can you see anything?" Antonio called out, as he made his way slowly around the base of the boulder, trying to get to the other side of what looked like some sort of van.

   Scraping away some mud from a window, Vasya peered inside. "Nyet, cannot see..." Through the mud-streaked window, he could barely make out the faint shape of someone slumped over the steering-wheel. "Wait. Da, can see someone." Scrabbling around in the darkness for a door handle, Vasya slapped at the glass with his free hand. "Hallo! Hallo in there! We are coming. Can you hear me?"

   Antonio, meanwhile, struggled back towards the Russian. Together they tried to get one of the rear doors open, slipping around in the muck as they did so. Several minutes of fruitless effort only succeeded in opening the door part-way. In desperation, Antonio grabbed a large stone and smashed one of the windows.

   "Vasya, you're smaller than I am. Think you can squeeze in through there and get inside?"

   "Da. Give me a foot up."

   With Antonio's assistance, he squeezed through the small opening, gingerly making his way towards the unmoving occupant.

   Branches and rocks had punched out most of the windows. There were several trickles of liquid mud seeping into the vehicle, glistening in the dim lighting from the dashboard instrumentation. It was already up to the driver's waist, and rising steadily, as Vasya steadied himself on the back of the passenger's seat. Reaching down, he felt for a pulse, which he found. Faint, but there.

   "Is he alive?"

   "Da, barely. Whoa!" Vasya yelped as the vehicle shifted and a rumbling sound could be heard.

   "Please hurry! I dunno how much longer this area is gonna stay stable!" Antonio called out to Vasya, as he nervously eyed the large boulder the vehicle was resting against.

   Grunting with effort, the stocky Russian managed to pull the unconcious driver up between the gap in the front seats. With a sizzle, the darkness inside the crushed and cramped interior got even deeper, as the dashboard lighting shorted out. Struggling with his heavy burden, Vasya heaved the unconscious driver up toward Antonio's reaching arms.

   Between the two of them, they managed to man-handle the driver through the smashed window to safety. Vasya pulled himself through the narrow opening, and jumped down into the mud beside Antonio, breathing heavily. He grabbed the marine, as another rumble shook the ground under their feet. "We take him back to Vanguard ship, da?"

   Slogging slowly back up the treacherous slope with their burden slung between them, Antonio took an occasional quick glance at the person they'd rescued. "Huh, so you're right, it is a him. Captain Hardy said there was a small town nearby. Maybe we should take him there instead."

   "Maybe you want to drag him god-only-knows how many kilometres to the nearest town. Poor old Vasya here, does not have the strength." Vasya stopped to catch his breath, somewhat winded. "Besides, we do not know how seriously he is injured. Vanguard fixed me, fixed you. Maybe they can fix him, also.

   Looking at the devastated landscape around him, fleetingly lit by the light from the moon as clouds fled across the sky in the blustery wind, Antonio shook his head in exasperation. "What is it with you and those fucking lizards? I don't understand you, Vasya - why do you trust them so much?"

   Vasya stared at Antonio in the darkness, before blinking and looking away. Tightening his grip on the unconscious man's arm around his shoulders, he got moving again. "Truthfully, I do not know. All I ask, is that you trust me," He stopped speaking for several seconds, before quietly continuing. "Please?"

   Antonio lost his footing momentarily, dropping to one knee with a grunt. "Ugh, fucking mud," he muttered. Trying to wipe a chunk of mud from his jaw, he ended up smearing it across his face instead. Giving up, he fixed the panting Russian with a serious expression. "Look, I trust you unconditionally - don't ever doubt that. I'm just not so sure that we can trust these Vanguard creatures."

   "I understand. You are good man, Antonio Franco. I am honored to be your friend. And lover."

   As they made their way slowly back towards the downed Vanguard shuttle, Antonio couldn't help but steal an occasional glance at the young Russian cosmonaut; still sexy, despite being covered head to toe in mud. Lover... He really liked the way the word rolled off his tongue...

   The first thing Rangi Hohepa saw, when he opened his eyes, was a fire crackling happily away inside a large circle of stones. He frowned in confusion, since the last thing he remembered was screaming incoherently inside his van as it crashed down the mountainside, caught in a torrent of liquid clay and rock.

   Unsteadily, he sat up and looked around nervously. He was lying on some sort of strange metallic blanket in a cave, with his clothes - and his rescuer(s?) - nowhere to be seen. However, the warmth from the fire did feel good against his naked skin.

   "What the fuck?" he whispered to no one in particular, as he took in his surroundings. After a few moments, he realized the cave was somewhat famililar looking; he recognized some of the rock features from when he had explored near the family farm when he was much younger. He, and one of his younger sisters, had stumbled across the cave in a large patch of bush... It had been their secret for many years, a treasured spot to run away and hide, when they got in trouble with their parents.

   Rangi jumped to his feet, and immediately regretted it - his head swam and he felt suddenly quite sick. Bending over, he steadied himself against the cave wall until the spell passed. When he felt better, he approached the fire and crouched down beside it. He noticed that someone else had recently put some fresh wood on it. Staring into the flames, he considered his predicament.

   Someone must have freed him from the wreck of his van, but why bring him here? Why not back to his fathers farm? Even one of the neighbouring farms, or someone in town would have been more reasonable. A faint rumble startled him and he stood up again, looking around in fright. Nothing. Moments later there was a muted flash of white light, quickly followed by more rumbling, coming from the direction of the cave entrance.

   'Getting jumpy from the storm,' he thought, stifling a nervous laugh.

   Rangi picked up a sharp-edged stone from near the fire, and holding it ready to throw, cautiously made his way toward the mouth of the cave. Directly outside the mouth of the cave, was a small clearing, made when a large Pururi tree had been knocked down in a storm, many years ago. What Rangi saw in the clearing made his jaw drop, as he stared in mute surprize.

   Two figures stood together in the pouring rain, naked and drenched, holding each other in a tight embrace. Occasionally lit by the erratic lightning, they were completely oblivious to anyone and anything else; kissing and rubbing each other, in a way that sent blood rushing straight to Rangi's groin, all fear suddently forgotten.

   Lowering the arm holding the rock, Rangi watched the two entwined figures for several long moments before he realized there was something a little unusual about them: They were both male.

   "What are the chances...?" he whispered, transfixed. His Grandmother was the only person, other than a few anonymous tricks back in 'the big city', who knew about Rangi's dirty little secret, as he liked to call it. Amongst the Maori people, homosexuality was not something readily accepted, and Rangi was very careful to make sure nobody else would find out about him, leading a very closeted life.

   One of the figures, slightly shorter than the other, turned around while the taller one wrapped his arms around his chest. Rangi watched, captivated, as the shorter one arched back, when his partner's engorged member breached him. His cry was drowned out by the rolling thunder.

   Rangi was completely absorbed by the scene in front of him, but, suddenly, he got a very acute feeling that he was no longer alone. He slowly turned back to face the mouth of the cave. The flickering light briefly illuminated something that had been crouching on the ground behind him. It slowly stood, reaching its full height and towering above him. More thunder crashed nearby as Rangi looked up into the creature's face, staring back down at him through four unblinking, and featureless, black eyes.

   The rock dropped out of Rangi's hand, as he crumpled to the ground. Too much! he thought to himself, as his world went black. The last thing he saw was far too many sharp talons, tusks, and teeth. Taniwha! Taniwha...

End of Part 05