Authors notes: Growing up (and also a guilty pleasure of mine, now that I am grown up), I loved reading and watching grand Space Operas. Aliens, spaceships, (sharks with frickin' laser-beams attached to their frickin' heads), strange new worlds... Escapism, sure, but then who hasn't indulged in that from time to time? I lived for TV programs like Star-Trek, Dr Who, etc. Despite the fact that a lot of it is rather cheesy in hindsight, and most of the aliens just looked like people with painted faces. It was still good stuff.

I have completely lost count of the number of books I read during that time as well. Must number in the thousands over the years. Most of it being pure fluff, but entertaining fluff, nonetheless.

Nowdays it seems that a lot of Sci-Fi lacks some a certain something. There don't seem to be many of the old grand space operas. The new Battlestar Galactica is an exception, a series which actually does carry on this tradition. If you haven't had a chance to watch it, I would highly recommend it. It's actually very good.

I'd really like to acknowledge "G" (you know who you are) - Your honest feedback and advice was very much appreciated - it's made this story so much richer from your input. To my readers, I dedicate this cheesy space opera to you. Lastly, my editor Richard: You are the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I am, as ever, grateful for your tireless patience, dedication and positive comments - thank you, Sir.

Taniwha - Part 06

In space, nobody can hear you scream.

   And in space, nobody can hear a planet explode.

   As a 40-kilometre wide proto-comet plowed into Charon, Pluto's solitary moon, it happened in complete silence - there was no atmosphere for soundwaves.

   The small moonlet never stood a chance, shattering into little more than misshappen chunks of rock and dust, shooting away into the depths of space. The proto-comet fared little better, splitting into several large fragments, several of which went on to impact Pluto itself.

   Massive explosions pock-marked the surface of the recently demoted planetoid, as megatonnes of frozen water and gas flash-vaporized huge craters into the featureless surface. Explosions, big enough to knock the planetoid completely out of orbit, created plumes of rock and dust. Over the next few thousand years, Pluto would eventually leave the Solar System altogether, as the sun lost its already tenuous grip on the small planetoid. It had started its long, spiralling journey into the inky blackness of inter-stellar space.

   Astronomers and physicists on Earth were sent into a spin when they observed the distant collision, many light hours later. They tried - and failed - to come up with explainations as to why the explosions were much more energetic than could be accounted for by understood physics. Mere 'dirty snowballs' don't give off bursts of exotic particles and radiation when they collide, either.

   What was clear, was that something had perturbed the large chunks of ice that had lain dormant for billions of years in the Oort cloud.

   Several thousand eye-equivalents, on board the Arbiter battleship, watched the devastation on their instrumentation without comment. The shields on the battleship protected the large, insect like, hive-mind aliens from the radiation given off by the detonating singularity generators. The proto-comet had carried several of the devices, in order to power it on its one-way journey to the inner Solar System.

   The Arbiters weren't concerned. There were several dozen more proto-comets of equal - or greater - mass, making their way into the warm inner-reaches of the Solar System.

   Blue-Scale stared down at the unconscious human in surprize. Earlier, the warrior had hidden in the shadows, further back in the cave, while the human had first got up and moved about. He'd then stealthily followed it out to the cave entrance, where they both watched the two human warriors mate in the rain for several minutes.

   Although he had taken care to make sure he wasn't noticed, it looked like the human was a little more observant than he'd given it credit for. He certainly didn't expect the human to collapse again, however. Blue-Scale was starting to become concerned that the medics may have missed some other injury.

   After Docile-Until-Provoked and the other medics had healed the human's injuries, he'd been told to bring the human to the nearby sub-terranian complex of tunnels, and take care of it until it woke. Blue-Scale had also been told not to let the human see him, which confused him a little - how was he supposed to take care of the small alien if it wasn't allowed to see him? Invokes-The-Storm didn't think it was prudent to let the local humans know of their existance, or the existance of their ship. Given his nature, Blue-Scale soon forgot about the second part of his orders.

   "Come, little one. Let me get you out of the cold," Blue-Scale rumbled softly, bending down and gently picking up the naked human.

   Blue-Scale cast another quick glance at the mating humans, and sighed wistfully. They hadn't noticed the nearby drama. His cock twitched slightly, inside its sheath. One day he would find his own mate - one that could overlook his defects.

   Although well aware that other Vanguard considered him a little simple, Blue-Scale didn't mind. He was quite content with his mostly uncomplicated life, and didn't spend a lot of time worrying about events.

   Once inside the cave, he hunkered down on his haunches by the fire. Reaching over, he snagged the discarded blanket with one of his extended talons and tenderly wrapped it around the human. Staring absently into the dancing flames, Blue-Scale pulled the small creature close to his stomach, wrapping his arms protectively around it.

    Blue-Scale started humming, an extremely low-pitched rumble from deep within him. All Vanguard knew instinctively how to do this from a very young age. The vibrating purr was generally used to comfort injured, or scared, spawnlings. When distressed, however, bond-mates would often comfort each other in a similar manner.

   Several minutes later, he turned his attention back to the human. This one had darker skin than the others, and was a little smaller. Folding one of his talons back, so as not to cut the skin, he gently traced the outlines of the muscles on its arm. Despite their odd, somewhat flat faces, lack of tail and normal number of arms and eyes, he thought they were still quite attractive in their own strange way. And they had such soft skin!

   As Blue-Scale was running his talons through the human's hair, it opened its eyes and looked around wildly. And then it started yelling and struggling. The warrior stopped humming and held the human more tightly.

   "Hrrr, be calm, little one. This one will not hurt you. You are safe here."

   After struggling fruitlessly for several moments, the human stopped and just stared up at him, panting, eyes wide with fear. Blue-Scale resumed gently running his talons through its hair, and started humming again, eyes half-closed as he looked back into the flames.

   "Wh... What kind of taniwha are you?" The human asked hesitantly, after several minutes of silence.

   Blinking slowly, Blue-Scale looked down at the small alien, meeting its frightened gaze. "Hrrr, that is a word this one does not know. This one is called Blue-Scale. What should this one call you?"

   "Gran told me stories of t-taniwha. We're not supposed to tell you our name."

   "Why not?"

   "If you know my n-name it will give you power over me. P-please, don't eat me!"

   Huffing with amusement, Blue-Scale flexed both of his stronger rear arms, the large muscles bulging and writhing beneath the fine blue-tinged scales. "Hrrr, this one is powerful already." Relaxing his arms, he looked back at the fire, watching as the flames slowly consumed the firewood he'd heaped on earlier. "This one shall call you Little-One then."

   A few more minutes passed, the silence broken only by the crackling of flames, and a quiet hissing as the warrior breathed slowly.



   "My name. It's Rangi."

   Blue-Scale tried speaking the name without using the translator disk hanging from one of his ears. To Rangi's ears it sounded like someone trying to swear with a mouth filled with rocks. Giving up in irritation, the warrior snapped his jaw shut with a resounding «crack», scaring Rangi half to death, again. "This one prefers Little-One."

   Antonio and Vasya entered the cave and went straight over to stand, dripping wet, naked and steaming, in front of the fire. They saw the young Vanguard warrior called Blue-Scale on the other side of the fire, holding the now conscious boy they'd rescued from the wrecked vehicle a couple of hours earlier.

   The boy was obviously frightened half out of his wits, and looked like he was being held quite tightly in the Vanguard's grip. Antonio turned and walked over to a large rock, bending over to grab some clothing from the pile behind it. Vasya smirked at the vision of the marine's well-muscled legs and ass; one day that pert little behind was going to be on the receiving end, he vowed silently.

   Antonio returned, handing Vasya's Vanguard-crafted skinsuit to him. The mud had dried and started flaking off, as the Russian squeezed into the curve-hugging fabic. When he was dressed, Vasya went over to where Blue-Scale was crouching. He was shortly joined by Antonio, who had only bothered putting on the lower half of his rather battered-looking coveralls.

   The Vanguard warrior glanced at them briefly as they approached, returning his gaze to the fire. The boy, on the other hand, looked at them with a mixture of wide-eyed fear and desperation on his face. He renewed his struggles to free himself from the Vanguard's embrace.

   "I think you can let him go, now," Antonio said to the warrior, who turned to look at him again through slitted eyes.

   "About time, bro! Get this thing off me! " the boy said, continuing to struggle.

   Hissing like a deflating tyre, the warrior reluctantly released the boy. Vasya grabbed him by the arm before he was able go sprinting for the cave exit. While they were both about the same height, Vasya was built a lot more solidly than the boy, and was considerably stronger. "Wait. We need to talk before you leave."

   "Leggo! The taniwha was gonna eat me! Let me go!"

   "He's not gonna to eat you, I promise. Now just chill, willya?" Antonio grabbed the boy's other arm and shook him gently. "Let's go and try to find you some clothes, OK?"

   Obviously not completely convinced, the boy at least stopped struggling, and let Antonio lead him around to the other side of the fire, toward the large rock where they had left their clothing.

   Vasya turned to the warrior, who he remembered was called Blue-Scale, on account of his unusual colouring. Most Vanguard tended towards various shades of grey. On rare occasions, however, they could be brown, and even more rarely, blue. "What were you doing? You frightened poor kid half to death!"

   Blue-Scale made a rather forlorn sounding rumble, and avoided looking at Vasya. Instead he swung his head and looked over to where Antonio was helping the boy into some muddy and torn clothing. "Hrrr, this one was singing to Little-One. This one likes Little-One."

   Vasya blinked, completely nonplussed. That wasn't the reaction he had been expecting at all. He stared curiously at the warrior. There seemed to be something not quite right about the large reptile, but for the life of him he couldn't put his finger on it.

   "You were supposed to watch over him, da? But you were told by Invokes-The-Storm not to show self to him. What happened?"

   Blue-Scale clambered to his feet and stretched, a rather intimidating sight, even to Vasya, who was now starting to get quite used to being around the Vanguard. "Little-One went outside, so this one followed. Watched you in the rain with warrior bond-mate -"

   "Chyort voz'mi! " Vasya swore quietly, interrupting the Vanguard, who looked at him reproachfully. At least, that's what the Russian interpreted the look as.

   "Hrrr, Little-One noticed before this one could hide. Little-One fell over, so this one brought him back to fire. This one likes Little-One. This one was caring for Little-One. Hrrr! " Blue-Scale ended the sentence with a defiant snort.

   On the other side of the fire, Antonio helped the unsteady boy get into his clothes. As he did so, the boy kept casting nervous glances back towards the Vanguard, who was in conversation with Vasya, but kept looking back over at them.

   "What is that thing? And why ain't you scared of it? What's wrong with you, man?"

   Antonio sighed. "It's a long story. But you can believe me when I say it's not gonna hurt you." He caught himself staring as the boy dressed himself. 'Hmmm, bit older than a boy, by the looks of him,' he thought to himself. "Anyway," he continued, "you seem to know something about it. What did you call it? Tan... Tane? Something beginning with 'T' anyway."

   "Taniwha. Spirits of our ancestors, guardians of sacred places and things. Even people, sometimes. This one must be pissed off something wicked."

   Antonio looked over at Blue-Scale, who still hadn't taken his eyes off the boy. "What makes you think its angry?"

   Rangi looked at him like he was retarded. "'Coz its showing its demon side, bro. Funny y'know. Always thought the stories my Gran told were myths. Guess she was telling the truth," Rangi finished, pulling on his mud-spattered jeans, and looked around for his shirt.

   "Ahh, yeah. Your shirt got ripped when we rescued you from your van. Sorry 'bout that."

   The boy looked at Antonio in horror, the taniwha temporarily forgotten. "My van! Is it OK...?" His voice trailed off as Antonio shook his head. Rangi lost it. "Awww shit, not my fucking van. What the fuck is going on here, bro? You're some some sorta fucking yank, and the other guy's a fucking Russian husky! And as for the taniwha?" Rangi waved his arms around in agitation. "Well, I'm fucked if I know what that's about!"

   "And you swear like a marine - I'm impressed," Antonio laughed, but soon stopped when the half-naked young man puffed out his chest and glared at him, hands clenched into tight fists. "OK, maybe not so funny. What's your name, anyway?"

   "Rangi," he mumbled, no sign of amusement on his face.

   "OK, Rangi. I'm Antonio. Corporal Antonio Franco, United States Marine Corps." He held out his hand, but Rangi ignored it, so he let his arm fall to his side again. He proceeded to tell an abbreviated, and heavily edited, version of events up to the present moment. When he finished, he looked expectantly at the young man standing in front of him.

   They stood there watching each other in silence for several long moments.

   "You're fucking mental in the head, bro."

   Vasya, who had been listening to the conversation from the other side of the fire, doubled over with laughter. Even the Vanguard seemed to be slightly amused, the corners of its mouth twitching up into a somewhat crocodilian smile.

   The atmosphere of tension abated somewhat, when Antonio shrugged at Vasya and Blue-Scale, before turning back to the young man standing beside him. "Look, man. I know this whole thing sounds like something out of some crappy, B-grade sci-fi story, written by a talentless hack, but that's the truth of it."

   The three of them talked for a couple of hours, with Blue-Scale occasionally disappearing for several minutes at a time to collect more firewood. Each time he came back, he tried to hunker down close to Rangi, but the young man shied away from the large reptile. After the fourth time, Blue-Scale gave up, and crouched back in the shadows, sulking. Every time Rangi looked around nervously, all he could see was a vague shape in the darkness, staring intently at him, the firelight reflected in four featureless, black orbs.

   After some time, the conversation died. The three of them sat, watching the pile of glowing embers alternately brighten and dim as stray air-currents made their way through the cave system. Each was lost in his own thoughts.

   "I think you've hurt his feelings," Vasya spoke quietly, breaking the silence.

   Rangi turned to look at him, a guarded expression on his face. "So?"

   "Warrior told me what happened, after you collapsed outside cave. Blue-Scale was concerned about you."

   "What do I care? It's just some big, freaky, dragon monster thing."

   "Rangi! He's right there, man. He can hear you." Antonio chided.

   Indeed, Blue-Scale had heard his Little-One mouthing off about him. Blinking back thick, black tears of betrayal, he scrambled to his feet and staggered towards the cave exit, and on out into the night.

   "Is that any way to treat honored ancestors? Your guardians?" Vasya stared intently at Rangi, until the young man dropped his gaze sullenly.

   Antonio just shook his head sadly. "That was cold, man. Real fucking cold."

   "Fucking hell. Alright! " Rangi glared at the two of them as he got to his feet and stormed out after the warrior, muttering to himself. "Making me feel guilty about insulting a bloody taniwha. Gonna stuff a fucking apology up its arse!"

   "Quite a mouth on the boy, nyet?" Vasya said, a couple of minutes after the young man had left, struggling to stop a smile from breaking out on his face.

   As Antonio stared at the embers, he was struck with a horrible thought. Turning back to Vasya, he hesitated as he spoke. "So... Uh, did he. Y'know... See us out in the rain. Uh, doing... You know?"

   Vasya grinned at him, mischieviously, nodding as he did so. "We are corrupting youth, da?"

   Antonio buried his face in his hands, groaning. "Jesus, he's only a kid." When Vasya squeezed his shoulder gently, he looked up. The Russian was holding some sort of small card to him. He took it, and studied it in the dim light from the dying fire. It was Rangi's drivers licence. Vasya waved a tattered wallet at him. Antonio looked at him incredulously. "You picked his pockets? Man, what have I got myself in for with you... OK, OK, so our kid is 19."

   "Congratulations, dad. It's a boy."

   "Shut up, Vasya."

   Crashing recklessly through the tangled undergrowth, half blinded by the sticky, black tears of blood, Blue-Scale paid little attention to where he was going. The rain had stopped, although his sensitive ears could pick up the tell-tale vibrations in the air from distant thunder; the storm was still a long way from being over. After a while the bush thinned out and he found himself near the edge of a steep drop-off.

   Blinking rapidly to clear his eyes, he looked around and saw a distant flock of small, fluffy animals, fleeing away from him in terror further up the slope. The large patch of bush was a dark mass to his left, and several hundred meters below him waves smashed against dark, worn volcanic rock. Hunkering down on his haunches, he wrapped his tail around his legs and stared out at the dark ocean in front of him.

   Blue-Scale's hearts hammered in his chest as he struggled with the hurt and betrayal he felt. His Little-One! He'd been nothing but kind and gentle to the human, and couldn't understand why it had said the things it did about him.

   Jumping to his feet, he splayed out his arms and tilted his head back, roaring wordlessly at the sky until his throat gave out on him. The tears that he tried to suppress flowed sluggishly down his craggy face. Hunkering down again, he whimpered hoarsely to the uncaring winds, as the moonlight tried in vain to break through the scudding clouds.

   It wasn't long before another thick cloudbank moved in over the bay, bringing more rain with it. As the rain coursed down over him, and the wind buffeted him, Blue-Scale whispered into the darkness. "Am I really a freak? A monster?" The sky answered him with a blinding flash, and an almost physical barrage of sound, as the thunder «cracked», then rolled around the nearby hillsides with a deep rumble.

   This was not the first time he had opened his feelings to another. That time, instead of fear, he was greeted with ridicule - he wasn't sure which hurt more.

   Still partially deafened by the thunder, Blue-Scale didn't hear anyone approaching until he saw movement from the corner of his eyes. Whipping his head around he watched a lone human approaching his position. It was Little-One. An involuntary moan escaped his throat. He fully expected more abuse to be heaped on him. All he wanted was to be left alone to wallow in his self-pity.

   Trudging through the wet bush, Rangi had had time to cool down a little. The taniwha - Blue-Scale - was a frightening looking creature. But for all of that, it hadn't really done anything to harm him. When he first came to, clasped in its arms, the sensation he felt when it was humming was actually quite pleasureable, he realized belatedly. 'Maybe I have been a bit of a prick,' he thought to himself, with a growing feeling of shame.

   Rangi followed the trail of destruction through the bush and out onto a bluff. Before leaving the cover of the bush, he watched the taniwha stand up and roar defiantly at the sky. From his hidden vantage point, he found himself marvelling at the sight. Although he was still quite scared of it, he couldn't help but also be impressed at its strength, and lithe way it carried itself.

   Only a short while ago, life had been mostly predictable and straight forward. He'd been nothing more than a Hory mechanic from a small West Coast town, albeit living a secret life on the side, when his desires got the better of him.

   All that had suddenly come crashing down around him, as he found himself thrust into the middle of... of what? Waking up from an accident that almost killed him, in the arms of an honest-to-god taniwha. Alien. Whatever! Rangi brushed aside the wet hair clinging to his face. Like it or not, his life had changed. The world was suddenly a much bigger, and more complicated, place than it used to be.

   Rangi flinched as lightning exploded almost directly overhead. He waited until the thunder had died away before he approached the solitary young Vanguard warrior. Walking over, he then sat down beside the reptile, and stared out at the horizon without saying a word. More lightning and thunder rattled the bluff, before rumbling away into the distance over the next few minutes, but they still sat in silence.

   Finally, as the rain slackened and the moonlight threatened to break through the thinning clouds, Rangi spoke. "Your name is Blue-Scale, right?" The only response he got to the question was a reproachful glare. "Y'know, in this sort of weather, I love walking along the beach. I like feeling the sea vent its anger against the land, in a war it will never really win."

   "Why do you hate this one?"

   Rangi turned to look at the warrior, who avoided looking back at him, instead staring out at the horizon. It was strange hearing the rumbling and hissing that the creature made, before the little black disk hanging from its ear translated it into English. "OK, I suck at small-talk. I don't hate you. And I'm sorry for those things I said, alright?"

   "Hrrr... Then why did you say them?"

   Hesitating, Rangi considered his response. "You gotta understand something, bro. Before tonight, I had no idea you guys even existed. You're like something out of, I dunno... A dream. A nightmare, even."

   Blue-Scale continued to stare out at the night as he listened to Little-One talk. The wind continued its ceaseless assault on them as they sat there on the edge of the cold, wet bluff.

   "I was scared, OK? Shit, I'm still scared, if you want the truth. You'd be scared too, if you woke up and found a big monster holding you, and realized it wasn't a dream." When Blue-Scale flinched slightly, Rangi realized his mistake. "Shit, sorry bro. My bad. Wont use that word again."

   Repositioning himself slightly, Blue-Scale turned and faced the human. "There are monsters, Little-One. Real monsters. But this one is not a monster."

   "Yeah, I know that now." Rangi looked out at the hidden horizon, his voice suddenly uncertain. Wrapping his arms around his chest to keep warm, he asked something that had been bugging him from one of his earlier conversations. "The American marine, Antonio? He mentioned something about why you Vanguard guys came here. Your planet is under attack by some sort of bug, and you came to Earth for help. Is that right, bro?"

   Blue-Scale sighed, and stood up to stretch his cramped leg muscles. He looked down at the human sitting beside him. "Hrrr, yes, this one's home is being attacked by Arbiters. They are like big insects. They are the monsters, Little-One. However, this one does not understand the reasons for visiting your home. This one gets confused easily."

   Sitting there in the cold and wet, Rangi contemplated the reptile's answer. He was beginning to shiver from the cold, his teeth chattering and making it difficult to talk properly. "Can I ask you another question?"

   "Anything, for you."

   "Why do you like me so much?"

   "Because you are my Little-One. This one was instructed to care for you. And that is what this one wants to do."

   Despite the emotionless electronic voice used by the translation disk, Rangi was struck by the simple honesty of the Vanguard's answer. In the short time he had been around the warrior, it had never struck him as being cold or calculating. And the warrior had shown him nothing but kindness from the beginning.

   Hunkering down again, Blue-Scale stared at Rangi curiously. "Why are you shaking?"

   "Because I'm f-fucking freezing my tits off, bro. Dunno if you noticed, but hello, no s-shirt? We're not in that cozy little cave anymore."

   Hissing in concern, Blue-Scale quickly reached out and pulled the human between his legs and against his stomach. Stiffening in reflexive panic, Rangi was about to cry out and start struggling when he realized what the warrior was doing, and, a little reluctantly, relaxed into the reptile's warm embrace.

   "Hrrr, you are cold. We should return to the cave."

   "Nah, it's getting kinda l-late. I should have been home ages ago." He started laughing. "It's been a long day. N-Not exactly the kinda night out I had in mind when I left work, earlier."

   "Very well, this one will take you home. Where is it located?"

   Rangi looked around, then pointed at the hillside a couple of valleys over. "Just beyond the crest of that v-valley."

   Snapping his jaw shut, Blue-Scale gathered him up and went loping across the bluff, towards the bush. Rangi clung onto the reptile for dear life, despite its having wrapped both sets of arms around his body for protection and support. They disappeared into the vegetation with a crash and an explosion of wet foliage.

   With a muffled snort, Rangi jerked awake, blinking blearily at a wall only centimetres from the front of his face. Sunlight was streaming in through the window, filling his room with a pleasant, warm glow. Levering himself up onto his elbows, Rangi squinted out the window. There was no sign of clouds from the storm the night before, and the water in the bay far below showed nothing more than the usual chop for this time of year.

   Groaning, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and staggered to his feet, swaying a little. He took a couple of steps towards the door, but stopped when his sleepy brain registered a large obstacle in front of him. Vaguely annoyed, he was about to step around the mass when he stopped; his heart skipping a beat.

   Curled up on the floor in front of him was Blue-Scale, rumbling softly in his sleep. A Vanguard warrior (AKA, Taniwha). Asleep. In his house... In his bedroom.

   Adrenaline surged, as the faint sounds of someone rattling around in the kitchen reached Rangi's ears, and he panicked. "Wake up! " he urgently hissed at the slumbering reptile. When that got no response, he reached out and and tentatively shook one of the warrior's shoulders. "Come on, bro! Get up! We've gotta get you outta here!"

   Blue-Scale slowly opened his two rear eyes, and purred at Rangi. "Hrrr?"

   "Get up! Please get up! You have to get outta here before someone sees you," he whispered, as he frantically turned to the window, struggling to open the catch. "Shit! " he hissed, realizing there was no way the warrior was going to be able to fit through the frame.

   Uncoiling slowly, Blue-Scale got to his feet, ducking his head slightly as his horns scraped against the ceiling. At two and a half metres tall, the young warrior still had a bit to grow. He looked around the room, blinking slowly, before returning his gaze back to Rangi.

   "I thought I told you to go back to the cave last night," Rangi whispered hoarsely to him. He was very sure he had left the Vanguard standing outside the house when they got back, at some ungodly hour of the morning.

   "This one was tired, and wanted to be near you."

   Despite the impending doom of the situation, Rangi felt a pang of guilt. And, to his surprize, he also felt strangely touched by the warrior's statement. Recovering his wits, he stepped around the warrior and opened the bedroom door a crack, peering out into the kitchen.

   Kuia, Rangi's Great Grandmother, had just finished pouring herself a cup of tea, and was putting the jug back on the stove. Without turning around, she spoke to him. "Sleep well, Rangi? You got in late last night."

   'Shit! Snapped!' "Uh, yeah, Nan. Thanks."

   She turned around holding her cup and reaching out for a nearby chair. Almost gasping with relief, Rangi realized Kuia didn't have her glasses on. Without them, she was practically blind. Even with them, she had difficulty seeing much.

   "Come sit with your Kuia," she said, sitting down at the table with a sigh.

   Squeezing through the narrow gap in the doorway, Rangi quickly closed it behind him and came over to stand beside her. He rubbed his hands together nervously. "Can't. Gonna be late for work as it is, Nan. Anyway, wouldn't you be more comfortable in the loungeroom? I can turn on the TV -"


   Rangi pulled out another chair and quickly sat down. Kuia didn't have to yell. When she used that tone, it was best to do what she said. The consequences of not doing what she asked had never been spelt out to Rangi, or his siblings. They just knew that they would be dire, indeed.

   "I'm sure that nice Mr. Geraldson won't mind you being a few minutes late, this once." She took a sip from the cup, before putting it back in its saucer with a hand that only trembled slightly.

   Rangi didn't know exactly how old his Great Grandmother was. She had stopped counting after her 80th birthday, and wouldn't tell anyone what year she was born. Tapping his fingers nervously on the tabletop, he alternated his gaze between her and the door to his bedroom.

   "Are you alright?" Kuia asked him, placing one of her soft, warm hands on top of his, silencing his tapping fingers. She squeezed his hand gently, but didn't take her hand away.

   Swallowing nervously, he nodded. "Yeah, I'm OK. Are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable -"

   "What's his name?"

   Spluttering, Rangi stiffened with shock. "What? Who? Huh?"

   "Rangi, you're a beautiful, intelligent, and talented young man. But you're a terrible liar. Are you going to let him out of your room, so I can meet him?"

   Doing his best impersonation of a goldfish, Rangi opened and closed his mouth several times before he could speak. "That's not a good idea, Nan. He's really shy and -"

   "That's alright, dear. I'll ask him myself," Kuia said, looking over his shoulder.

   Spinning around in the chair, he saw that Blue-Scale had opened the bedroom door. He was crouched over, peering curiously at them both from the doorway. 'Oh fuck...' was the only thing he could think of. Kuia was going to freak out; this was a disaster! He started to get up, but Kuia wouldn't let go of his hand.

   "You're welcome to join us. Rangi was just having a quiet chat with his Kuia."

   Blue-Scale stepped through the doorway, and straightened up as he approached the table. He completely ignored Rangi's urgent hand signals to stay where he was. Rangi turned to his Great Grandmother and pleaded with her. "Nan, look. We really have to go now -"

   "Rangi, that's enough." She turned to Blue-Scale and smiled as she squinted at him. "You're a big one, aren't you? I just wish I hadn't misplaced my glasses. Couldn't find them for the life of me this morning. What's your name, then, hmmm?"

   Kuia released Rangi's hand, and he immediately got up and tried to stop Blue-Scale from getting close to table. Blue-Scale ignored him and hunkered down beside the table anyway, staring down at the old woman.

   "This one is called Blue-Scale."

   Rangi's Great Grandmother cocked her head to one side slightly, as she heard the rumbling and hissing of the Vanguard warrior's real voice, before the translation disk spoke. She turned to look at Rangi with a strange expression on her face, almost as if she was suddenly a little unsure of herself. "Blue-Scale. That's an unusual name. You're not from around here, are you, dear?"

   The whole situation had suddenly taken on a very surreal aspect for Rangi. He was watching a huge, reptilian, alien warrior, having a polite conversation with his Nanna in the kitchen, while she sipped tea. Biting his bottom lip, he was only just able to stifle the insane laughter bubbling up from the depths of his stomach.

   Looking around the kitchen, in the vain hope of finding some sort of miracle escape route, his eyes settled on a small stack of video tapes, on the counter near the door; he had forgotten to take them back to the rental store the previous day. On top of the stack was the movie Borat.

   "He's foreign, Nan. From Kazarkhstan."

   "Really? How interesting. You're a long way from home -"

   "You have no idea..."

   Kuia frowned at Rangi when he interrupted her. Continuing, she smiled at Blue-Scale, who remained crouched by the table. "Are you staying in New Zealand long?"

   "This one is unsure. Our pack leader has not said when we will be leaving this place."

   Before Rangi could stop her, Kuia got up and approached the warrior. Stopping beside the crouching Vanguard, she reached out and laid her hand on the side of his lower jaw. Blue-Scale didn't react, but stayed motionless; regarding her intently as she explored his face with her fingertips.

   Several minutes later, satisfied with her tactile examination, she sighed and sat back in her chair. She reached out for her cup, but instead of picking it up, she accidentally knocked it over, spilling hot tea across the tabletop.

   "Shit," she muttered quietly.

   Blue-Scale quietly stood up and looked around the kitchen for a few moments. Spotting a dish-towel by the sink, he reached over and picked it up, handing it to Kuia as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be doing. Rangi watched the two of them through disbelieving eyes. He was almost as shocked by her use of swear-words, as by her reaction to the Vanguard warrior.


   She reached out and patted his hand uncertainly. "I'll be alright, dear."

   After mopping up the spilt tea, she handed the dish-towel back to Blue-Scale. The warrior took it and sniffed at it curiously, before carefully placing it back beside the sink. Rangi stood up and paced the room in agitation, casting nervous glances at both Kuia and Blue-Scale as he quietly freaked out.

   "Give me one of your hands," Kuia demanded, holding out one of her own hands towards the warrior.

   "Nan, I'm not sure that's a good idea..."

   Making shushing noises at Rangi, she waited patiently until Blue-Scale extended one of his hands, the sharp talons folded down out of the way. Grasping it lightly, Kuia squinted myopically at the warrior. "You're not a demon, are you?"

   "This one is not a monster."

   "Then you must be his guardian. Give me your word that you'll care for my Rangi. No matter what happens. Promise me, taniwha!"

   Blue-Scale moved closer to Kuia and lowered his head down until it was level with hers, staring unblinkingly at her. She didn't back away, but stared back with grim detirmination. "You have this one's promise, revered Ancestor."

   Invokes-The-Storm was also pacing nervously, stopping occasionally to reread the engineering report on his datapad; it did not make for happy reading. They would be able to clear most of the mud and rock imprisoning the shuttle by hand, if necessary. That would only take an estimated three days. And, under normal circumstances, the damage to the shuttle's hull and internal bracing would have been repaired in a matter of hours.

   He stopped pacing and stared out of the mud-streaked viewport. Earth's solitary sun shone brightly in an azure sky, occasional white clouds dragging fleeting shadows over the shuttle. The shuttle carried no spare hull plating, and no tools, other than some basic equipment intended for nothing more complicated than light, superficial repairs. He hadn't slept for days, and the survivors were all looking to him for leadership.

   'You did not ask for this responsibility...'

   Spinning around, Invokes-The-Storm scanned the room for the source of the voice. That horribly familiar voice...

   "Who is that?"

   'It is not fair.'


   "Blocker responding. Do you require my presence? I am rather busy, and up to my tusks in mud at the moment."

   Invokes-The-Storm jerked in shock, almost dropping the datapad, as the engineer's voice issued from the small device grasped tightly in his hand.

   "Are you receiving? What do you want?"

   "No... Nothing. Proceed with... what you were doing." The warrior shook his head in agitation. He heard the engineer snort with annoyance at the interruption, as Blocker ended the transmission.

   'Such insolence. They do not respect you. They will never respect you.'

   "No! No... They respect me, I am sure of it. They asked me to be pack leader," he hissed uncertainly, looking around wildly. "Who are you?!"

   'And what a leader you turned out to be. You have marooned them on an alien planet, to die at the hands of the primitive native savages. Unless the Arbiters finish the job first, of course,' the voice sneered. 'You did not do enough to save them. You failed.'


   'YOU FAILED!' the voice screamed inside his head.

   "I.. failed?" he whispered, eyes unfocused.

   'You failed...'

   With a small squeal of tortured metal and several loud snaps, the datapad disintegrated as Invokes-The-Storm unthinkingly crushed it slowly in his fist. Staring at his fist in surprize, he watched, mezmerized, as a small trickle of blood made its way between two of his talons and started dripping onto the floor. Dropping the remains of the shattered datapad on the floor in horror, he started backing away from the wrecked device, his entire body starting to shake.

   "Hrrr, there you are. The singularity generators are in good -" Obscuring-Darkness came striding through the hatch into the cockpit, but stopped dead in his tracks as he looked up and saw the state of the young warrior. "...condition," he finished, with an uncertain tone in his voice. He'd seen that look before.

   Staring at Obscuring-Darkness with wide, haunted eyes, Invokes-The-Storm slumped on the deck, leaning back against the control console. Obscuring-Darkness approached the stricken warrior, dropping to his knees beside him. He leaned over and tenderly pulled Invokes-The-Storm into an embrace.

   'You are weak. Pathetic.'

   "Make it stop! Please, make it stop!" Invokes-The-Storm wailed, the pitiful tone cutting like a razor-sharp blade, deep into Obscuring-Darkness' soul.

   The voice didn't respond. All that was left was a ringing, malignant echo where it used to be. Invokes-The-Storm blinked, suddenly realizing that he could taste blood - and not his own. He looked up into the face of his lover, watching numbly as tears rolled slowly down his lover's jaw, dripping slowly off the end of his snout.

   "I cannot do this anymore," Invokes-The-Storm whispered, staring up at Obscuring-Darkness. "It is too much... I am leading us into disaster."

   They sat together for several long minutes in silence after that, holding each other tightly. The engineer was the first to break the silence, ineffectually wiping at the dark smudges left on the scales of his face, as he spoke quietly.

   "A wize Ancestor from my clan once said something that has always rung true for me. 'The strongest leaders shoulder the burden of responsibility reluctantly. But they do so in the knowledge that the alternative is chaos, and death, for everything they hold dear.' " Obscuring-Darkness closed his eyes as he hugged the forlorn warrior tightly. "None of us asked to be here. None of us wanted this. We are being tested, however I do not believe you have been found lacking. We have had our share of misfortune, but when we stand together we are strong."

   Invokes-The-Storm looked up at him with a brief, sad smile. "Perhaps, then, you should be leading us. You have more faith in me than I do."

   A few minutes later, Flows-Like-Water entered the cockpit and found the two young Vanguard holding each other, on the decking by the control console. Judging by the state of the pair, he realized he'd just intruded on a rather private moment between the two. "Hrrr, forgive me for interrupting, however we have a situation. There are several human vehicles approaching our position. We appear to have run out of time."

End of Part 06