Authors notes: And we're heading toward the home stretch, and it's Taniwha Part 08 by a snout... Hrrr, I'd never make a good race commentator. Won't be giving up on my day job anytime soon, either. From the outset, I never intended that Taniwha would turn into an epic, unlike some of the encyclopaedic stories written by other authors. Not that there is anything wrong with those long stories, of course, but I figure an adult-themed novella is more my scene. Easy bite-sized, digestable chunky bits, y'know?

Some people write to exorcize their demons. In this part of Taniwha you will see me writing to exercise my demons. Anyone with illusions that the Vanguard are just occasionally grumpy melodramaticists, should probably not read this part. The lesson? Nobody should come between a lizard and his boy.

For anyone interested, a fellow author and friend (Monkur) has graciously allowed me to share some space on his Yahoo group. Here you can discuss the stories with the authors, and others who have enjoyed them. If you haven't already got a Yahoo groups sign-up, you'll need to jump through some registration hoops first.

Lastly, a quick shoutout to my editor, Richard. Thank you for standing by me with the various twists and turns this story has taken - sorry for the cliff-hangers! :-)

I'll shut up now... Onwards!

Taniwha - Part 08

   As the swarm of proto-comets sailed past the orbit of Neptune, they picked up speed. They were now moving faster than any naturally occuring bit of space detritus ever could, thanks to the Arbiter singularity generators. A couple of the massive proto-comets had self-destructed on the journey past the massive, blue outer planet. The stresses on the generators were too much for the icey structure of the proto-coments to absorb.

   Warmth, from the still distant sun, started subliming the frozen gases on the proto-comet surfaces. Faint, ionized streamers of gas started to surround the icey masses, as they continued their plunge inwards at an ever accelerating rate.

   Most of the comets that made it into the inner solar system were little more than dried up husks, with very little left in the way of frozen volatiles. While they were relatively small, they still posed a serious risk if they collided with a planet. Astronomers had looked on with awe, as the remains of comet Shoemaker-Levy had broken up and impacted on Jupiter in a series of titanic explosions that could be seen by even the most basic telescopes on Earth.

   The proto-comets were several magnitudes larger, having never had the opportunity to shed much of their mass out in the near absolute-zero cold spaces of the Oort cloud. With the subliming gases adding to their visibility, it wasn't going to be long before someone spotted the approaching threat.


   As the disturbing news filtered through the Arbiter battleship's neural-network, the stench of nervous pheremones permeated the air. The hive-mind was stunned into momentary inaction as it digested the import of the transmission. It was almost inconceivable that an imposter could infiltrate itself into their society. Any alien influence should have been immediately obvious to the group consciousness.

   As the usually iron-hard control over the many thousands of individual Arbiters inside the battleship faded temporarily, the large insect-like creatures reverted to their more basic instinctive behavior. Hoisting the front end of their heavy, segmented bodies into the air, the eyeless heads waved around, and the jagged mandibles clacked together in agitation. Where there were several together in one location, they formed into mating balls - a large, writhing mass of copulating insects.

   Quickly regaining control, the hive-mind dissolved the mating balls and the large insects quickly resumed their varied duties. It wasn't until after control was restored, that the hive-mind discovered the discrepancy: two individuals had not reintegrated into the neural net as they should.

   The two Observer spies, abruptly aware that the game was up, released their hold on their disguises and reverted quickly back into their native form. Resembling a cloud of glittering dust, they swiftly flowed toward the fighter hangar, hoping for escape.

   Reacting just as swiftly, the hive-mind swarmed the corridors with Arbiters, armed with electromagnetic discharge weapons. These weapons fired a short-range, but very powerful, directed electromagnetic pulse. Destroying any electronics within range, the pulse from these weapons also affected organic matter - fatally scrambling any nerve-signals of beings unfortunate to be caught within range.

   Before dying, one of the Observers managed to transmit a short information pulse, adapting a section of its body into a hastily designed transmission system. Bright blue flashes of light lit up the corridor as hundreds of the pulse weapons fired simultaneously.

   It didn't take long for the small piles of dull, sand-like substance to become quickly scattered by thousands of chitinous legs moving back to their assigned posts.

   On board the shuttle, Invokes-The-Storm lumbered about, pushing away the attempts of Docile-Until-Provoked who was trying to attend to his, mostly superficial, injuries. "We are all accounted for, barring two. We lost a medic outside. But none can recall seeing the warrior." He stopped, and turned to the exasperated looking medic behind him. "What was his name again?"

   "Hrrr, Blue-Scale."

   "Yessssss... Blue-Scale, that is right." Invokes-The-Storm recalled sending Blue-Scale out with the young human that was found injured, near where the shuttle had landed. The young warrior was supposed to wait until it had recovered, then come back. Only, it seemed as if he hadn't come back. Nobody could remember seeing the young warrior since. "I am sorry about your medic. Know that she died bravely, at least."

   His expression softening slightly, Docile-Until-Provoked snapped his jaw shut in acknowledgement. "Swaying-Tail was a feisty one, it is true. I always believed that she would have made a better warrior than a medic. May she go with the Ancestors." Placing a taloned hand on the medic's shoulder, Invokes-The-Storm squeezed gently, then went striding into the cockpit.

   "It is about time you showed up. I have evaded the human flying vehicles. They are no longer a concern." Blocker didn't bother looking up, or hiding his scorn, as he moved his talons over the control console in an agitated manner.

   "Very good. Where is..." Invokes-The-Storm trailed off as the engineer pointed toward the rear of the ship and grunted. "Very well. Take us as far away from this miserable planet as you can."


   The warrior blinked in surprize. "What do you mean, no?"

   "What part of no do you not understand, respected pack-leader?" the engineer snarled, his tone full of derision and anger. "You have wrecked this vessel by what you ordered me to do! It is incapable of leaving the atmosphere anymore. It is as much as I can do to keep us in the air. Even then, I am not certain how long we can maintain that."

   Completely taken aback at the level of anger being directed toward him, Invokes-The-Storm took an involunatary step backwards, before catching himself. Blocker had turned away from the controls, and was glaring at him, moving into an attack posture. His stubby talons were splayed out on all four of his hands.

   "What?" Invokes-The-Storm just stood there, staring at the engineer, uncomprehending.

   "You killed her!"


   Blocker launched himself at the uprepared warrior, sending them both crashing to the deck, trying to get his jaws around Invokes-The-Storm's throat. With only a small amount of difficulty, Invokes-The-Storm managed to throw the frenzied engineer off of him. Moving quickly before Blocker could get up again, he grabbed the engineer and pinned him against the deck. Blocker struggled valiantly, but eventually stopped, realizing the futility of winning any sort of fight with the warrior. He started crying, black tears streaming down his face.

   Invokes-The-Storm recognized the signs of resignation, released Blocker, and sat tiredly with his back against the bulkhead behind him. "You and Swaying-Tail...?"

   "It is not fair! We had only just started getting to know one another. Curse the Ancestors! I am afraid..." Blocker looked up at him, with a look that the warrior knew only too well, and one that Obscuring-Darkness would also recognize.

   Leaning over, the warrior gently pulled at Blocker until the young engineer was sitting, slumped against the bulkhead next to him. He tenderly wiped away the streaks of blood left behind by the tears. "If it is any consolation, Swaying-Tail was one of the bravest medics I have ever met. She died bravely, and with honor, not feeling sorry for herself. I doubt that she would want you to feel sorry for her, either."

   Blocker let out a long, shuddering sigh, and gave a brief, sad smile. "Hrrr, no. No she would not. She was really something." The engineer paused for a moment, before continuing. "I - I apologize for my disrespect toward you. You are trying your best for us. I do understand."

   Invokes-The-Storm didn't blame the engineer. The young Vanguard was starting to falter under the pressure, and he'd noticed some twitchiness amongst the other remaining crew as well. He was also afraid that the howling madness, lurking just beneath the surface of his own mind, would come back. He suspected the manipulative and controlling voice that he had difficulty in differentiating from real voices, was just one more manifestation of this.

   His current fragile emotional and mental states were a source of great shame for him. For a pack-leader, Invokes-The-Storm thought he was doing a spectacularly bad job of it. The only positive thing that he was able to cling to, was the concern and devotion shown to him by the young engineer that had gone to such lengths to befriend him. Although Obscuring-Darkness was probably oblivious to the fact, Invokes-The-Storm considered the engineer his spiritual anchor. He was the only thing really keeping the warrior's mind together.

   Seasoned Vanguard warriors were immensely strong, both physically and mentally. They generally didn't have the same sort of self-doubt and uncertainty from which he was suffering. But then it took a long time for them to reach that level of maturity. For one reason or another, virtually the entire crew of misfits crammed into this shuttle were not much more than a bunch of inexperienced youth.

   Invokes-The-Storm was rapidly coming to the conclusion that this whole expedition to the human planet was turning into a voyage of the damned.

   The shuttle lurched slightly, making both Vanguard look up at the control console, where a holographic alarm indicator started flashing above one of the consoles. He turned to the melancholy engineer. "Hrrr... Just do what you can, my friend. If we cannot leave this planet, then we should turn back and find somewhere better to hide. The longer we remain airborne, the easier it will be for the humans to track us."

   Wearily snapping his jaw shut in agreement, Blocker got to his feet and took control of the struggling shuttle again. "By your command, pack-leader," he joked, weakly.

   The warrior got to his feet, but stopped before leaving, turning to the engineer. "One way or another, we will get through this. I could not do this without your assistance," he said quietly. Turning, he exited the cockpit, heading toward the engine bay.

   When Obscuring-Darkness felt something nudge his thigh, the unexpected touch made him jerk his head up in surprize, straight into a bent structural support beam which rang dully from the impact. Seeing stars, and spitting out a stream of invectives that would make a seasoned warrior blush, he wriggled free from the confined space of the cable-routing tunnel. Once free, he glared at the Vanguard standing above him, sillohuetted against the embedded ceiling lighting panels. For some strange reason, he got a bizarre sense of deja vu.

   "Hrrr, I am sorry about that. I did not mean to startle you," the Vanguard said apologetically, leaning down to offer him a hand up.

   Grabbing the offered arm, Obscuring-Darkness grunted as he got awkwardly to his feet. "For the love of the Ancestors, please announce yourself next time! This had better be important. What do you want?" He cocked his head, looking at the cause of his throbbing head in irritation.

   Flows-Like-Water fidgeted nervously with three of his hands, while pointing at some blackened panels surrounding a malfunctioning power conduit with his remaining hand. "I am offering my services to you. To help with repairs. I have quite some familiarity with this sort of technology."

   Obscuring-Darkness studied him for several long moments. It had never occurred to him to find out more about the peculiar Vanguard. It was difficult to tell how old he was, or what his role on board the now destroyed Lighting-Strike had been. One thing was for sure; he certainly spoke in an unusual manner... 'this kind of technology'? "I did not realize you were also an engineer?"

   Huffing with amusement, Flows-Like-Water snapped his jaw shut with a loud «crack». "I have been many things in my time. An engineer? Yes, I am something like that."

   "You are a strange one. However, given our current situation I would be foolish to decline your offer of assistance. You will find some basic repair equipment in the engine bay storage area."

   Invokes-The-Storm turned up just after Flows-Like-Water had left. Obscuring-Darkness smiled warmly at him in greeting, reaching out with all four arms and gripping the young warrior gently by the shoulders. "How are you feeling?"

   "Tired. Afraid. Sore. Much how I imagine this fine vessel of ours feels."

   Obscuring-Darkness' smile faded a bit, and he released Invokes-The-Storm's shoulders. "That is an accurate assessment, unfortunately. We may have been able to patch things up before. But now..." He spread his arms, and exposed his neck in a ritual display of helplessness and surrender.

   "That bad, hrrr?"

   "Indeed." His smile returned. "So, fearless leader, what does our future hold in store for us?"

   The haunted look that Obscuring-Darkness had seen in the young warrior's eyes, during his little episode earlier, returned. "We are returning to the landmass where we first landed. We will put down nearby, under the cover of darkness. If things go well, we should be able to avoid being discovered by the humans. At least for a short while." He looked away, but the engineer could see an expression of guilt, or remorse, flash quickly across his face.

   "What is it?"

   Still not looking at him, Invokes-The-Storm spoke quietly. "I am also hoping we will be able to locate Blue-Scale."

   "Blue-Scale? Which one is he? I was not aware we had left anyone behind."

   "You must have seen him. Well built young warrior. With blue colored scales - as his name suggests. He is the one that is a little... Hrrr... slow."

   Obscuring-Darkness snapped his jaw shut, remembering who Invokes-The-Storm was referring to. He wasn't aware that the warrior was mentally deficient in any way; just quiet and a little withdrawn. He was about to respond, when Flows-Like-Water emerged from the engine bay, clutching several tools in his hands.

   "You were not exaggerating about the basic nature of the tools available. However, we will make do with... UUURK!" Flows-Like-Water stopped speaking midsentence, making an odd strangled sounding noise from deep within his throat. All four of his eyes bulged wide in stunned surprize, and he keeled over onto the deck, body completely rigid, the tools falling from his frozen hands with a clatter.

   Both Obscuring-Darkness and Invokes-The-Storm moved quickly, hunkering down onto their haunches beside the motionless body. "Are you alright? HRRR!" The engineer reached out with his two forward hands to shake the body, then jerked backwards with a pained cry - it felt like he had been stung. At the same time Flows-Like-Water's skin started becoming indistinct and changing color, to a sparkling golden-brown.

   Getting to their feet, and backing away in alarm, the two Vanguard stared at the body as it started to glow brightly. "What in the name of the Ancestors is that?" Invokes-The-Storm whispered, eyes wide.

   When he heard the roar, coming from the cell where his squad-mate Corporal Lee had gone to look at the dinosaur, the other soldier readied his assault rifle and cautiously approached the cell. He was just about at the door when it exploded open, twisting on its hinges and ripping free with a screech of tortured metal. It fell onto the concrete floor with a resounding «clang!». Filling the doorway, the obviously enraged creature surveyed the corridor, and its eyes settled on him.

   Blue-Scale stood there, staring at the armed human for a few moments, hissing with simmering rage. Before he could do anything, the human dropped the rifle and went sprinting down the corridor, while making a pitiful whimpering noise. Deciding to ignore the fleeing human, he perked up his ears and listened carefully, trying to pin down where his Little-One was being hurt. Everything had gone quiet, but his sensitive nostrils managed to pick up the unmistakable smell of human fear, along with a faint tinge of ozone from some sort of electrical discharge.

   Leaping over the wrecked door, Blue-Scale loped down the corridor toward the door where the smell was coming from. Halfway there, two armed humans appeared at a run from an adjacent corridor, and with guns at the ready. They saw him and skidded to a halt, raising their weapons. Unknowingly, they had made the fatal mistake of coming in between him and his Little-One.

   Snarling, Blue-Scale launched himself at the two humans, weaving around to avoid the worst of the spray of projectiles, but feeling the biting sting as several shots peppered his body. Talons extended, he swiped at the closest human, knocking its weapon to the ground, along with most of its arm. Screaming, the human staggered backwards, clamping its other arm over the shattered remains in a vain attempt to staunch the spray of arterial blood.

   As he brought his weapon around, the other marine had the breath knocked out of him as the demonic reptile charged him, headbutting him violently in the chest. He found himself knocked backwards into the wall, a burning pain stabbing through his stomach and chest. As the creature backed away from him, its horns and tusks dripped with a fluid, bright red and fresh, despite the dim lighting. The marine looked down, aghast, as his life-blood gushed like an obscene waterfall from the massive puncture wounds in his chest.

   Panting heavily, Blue-Scale stepped back to admire his handiwork for a few seconds. He watched, as the human he had gored twisted and fell, dead before he even hit the ground. The injured human had started wailing loudly and the irritating noise hurt Blue-Scale's sensitve ears.

   "SHUT UP!" he roared, spinning around and planting a taloned foot on the middle of the human's chest. The sound of shattering bones and pulped organs was loud in the corridor. The lifeless body skidded several metres up the adjacent corridor, from the force of the impact, before coming to rest.

   Hearing a faint noise, Blue-Scale spun around to see a door opening, and another human dressed in plain, dark clothing, step out into the corridor. The door swung closed behind this new human, but not before the warrior caught a glimpse of his Little-One. Rangi was curled up in a foetal ball, shivering on the floor, barely conscious, and with electrical burn marks visible on his body.

   "What the fuck is all the noise..." the human's voice trailed off, as he saw the Vanguard warrior standing several metres away from him, covered in fresh gore. The blood draining from his face, the agent looked down at the dead marine lying in a spreading pool of blood. He swallowed, looking back up at the warrior.

   Inside the room, the 'talkative' agent had just pulled out another, fully-charged, taser from a small case sitting on the table. Hearing the muffled sounds of a brief scuffle through the closed door, he looked up.

   The door slammed open, and the other agent staggered backwards into the room. He turned, making a horrid gurgling noise, and clutching at his stomach, trying desperately to stop his intestines from spilling out onto the floor.

   The wounded agent came to a sudden stop, as a large, four-taloned hand clamped onto his shoulder, holding him securely in place. Eyes wide with shock, the agent opened his mouth silently in a wide 'O'. There was a sound of splintering bone, as another taloned hand punched through his spine and emerged from the front of his body. The stubby fingers wriggled, flicking shredded chunks of now unrecognizable internal organs free from the razor-sharp talons.

   Freeing his rear arm from the twitching body, Blue-Scale watched coldly as the body slid bonelessly to the ground with an obscenely organic, splattering noise. Activating the taser, the remaining agent started backing up, waving the device in front of him defensively.

   "Come get some, lizard! You're fucking dead, you know that? This place will be swarming with heavily armed marines in minutes!"

   Blue-Scale ignored the prattling human, and hunkered down beside his Little-One. Gently using all four of his hands, he picked the boy up and held him tenderly as he licked at his wounds using his long, black, forked tongue. His Little-One moaned softly, looking at the Vanguard warrior through eyes almost swollen shut from bruising.

   "You - you're hurt," Rangi whispered hoarsely, painfully reaching up to wipe at the thick, black blood flowing sluggishly from what looked like a bullet-wound in the young warrior's neck.

   "They will not hurt Little-One anymore. This one will take you far from here. However, this one has one last task to do." Blue-Scale gingerly set his Little-One down again, and looked around, trying to locate the remaining agent.

   The man in question had taken advantage of the Vanguard's distraction, and was edging around behind the large reptile, making for the partly open door that was hanging by one bent hinge from the broken frame. With lightning-fast reflexes, Blue-Scale whipped around and grabbed the agent's waist with his two forward arms, lifting the desperately struggling man into the air.

   The agent jabbed at the warrior's snout with the taser, but screamed with pain when the warrior quickly turned and snapped his jaws shut on the device - and the ends of his fingers. Spitting out chunks of plastic, metal and fingertips, the reptile stared straight at him through its four eyes, which were narrowed by pure, malevolent fury.

   "You hurt my Little-One," Blue-Scaled rumbled at the quaking human. He increased the pressure of his hands until he heard bones cracking. The human ceased moving, and squealed in pain, eyes almost popping out of its head. Blue-Scale relaxed the pressure slightly and the human immediately started babbling.

   "He's still alive! Please d-don't kill me. He's still alive! We were only following orders! We only wanted information! He's not s-seriously hurt!"

   "Hrrr, Little-One is hurt. You hurt him. You will now die."

   A large, wet stain appeared on the front of the agent's uniform, and a pungent smell filled the air, making the Vanguard warrior snort in disgust. Sobbing loudly, the man pleaded for his life. "I'm sorry, OK?! I'm so sorry for hurting him! He's not hurt badly. P-please, he's still alive! For the love of g-god, don't kill me!"

   "Little-One is alive. For that, this one is grateful. For that, you will not die slowly."

   "Oh, thank god! Thankyouthankyouthank -"

   "For that, you will die quickly."

   The agent managed to let out a short-lived shriek as Blue-Scale used his rear arms to roughly grasp the man's head. His talons dug in slightly, before giving a twist, and a pull. Making a sickeningly wet ripping and popping noise, the agent's head was torn from his convulsing body. With a roar, the warrior threw the head at one wall, and the body at another. Smeared trails of blood and gore marked each wall, as the pulped remains slid quickly to the floor.

   Picking up his injured Little-One, Blue-Scale exited the room and moved down the corridor toward the room where he had been locked up. Stepping over the metal door, still lying on the floor, Blue-Scale stopped and looked around, sniffing at the cool air. Rangi was recovering fairly quickly from his semi-conscious state, and looked around, wincing. He put his arms as far around the young warrior's thick neck as he could, and gave him a weak, affectionate squeeze. "Why did you come back for me? You should have buggered off without me."

   "This one has made promises that must be kept. You are the Little-One, and that is enough for this one," Blue-Scale hissed softly, as if it made all the sense in the world. Time was passing quickly, and he could feel the projectile weapon wounds all over his body starting to itch, badly. He was also tiring quickly. They had to get out of here, and soon. The humans were bound to have been alerted by now, and it was likely they would be sending reinforcements.

   Sensing the Vanguard's indecision, Rangi tried to clear his head and think. "Find the Yank marine, and Russian Husky. They'll know what to do."

   "Little-One trusts them? This one is not so sure..."

   "Dunno if we have much choice. Don't think they were happy being locked up, anyway."

   "Very well, Little-One. This one trusts you. This one likes you," Blue-Scale rumbled softly, licking Rangi's face.

   Rangi smiled tiredly at the warrior, and squeezed him again. "Chur, bro. I like you too. Thanks again for getting me outta there. Can you put me down? I wanna try walking by myself." Blue-Scale gently lowered him to the ground, and Rangi took a few tentative steps, only staggering slightly as the warrior looked on with concern. He turned and gave Blue-Scale the thumbs up. "Heh, baby's first steps," he said, laughing, then wincing as his throat was still quite raw from all the screaming he had done.

   Sniffing at the air again, Blue-Scale hissed softly, looking back toward the adjacent corridor where he'd had his first violent encounter with the two armed humans. He had picked up the spoor of the human that Little-One identified as Russian-Husky. Where one of the bond-mates was, the other was probably not far away. "We need to go, hrrr," Blue-Scale growled softly, leaning down and nudging Rangi gently on the back of the neck with his muzzle.

   "Yeah, OK. Hey, did you do this?" Rangi said, eyes wide as he looked at the crumpled metal door and the twisted remains of the heavy-duty hinges.

   Snapping his jaw shut, Blue-Scale gently pushed the boy down toward the adjacent corridor. The human who had freed him from the cell was nowhere to be seen - must have left after he went on the killing spree, the warrior figured. "Indeed, Little-One."

   Walking backwards, staring in awe at the busted door, Rangi didn't notice the dead marine until he stepped, barefoot, into the cold, sticky blood, pooled around the body. "Ewww, that's disgust... holy crap!" Horrified, he looked at the body lying face down in the blood, and backed away, bumping into the warrior who was following closely behind. He suddenly took notice of the fresh blood staining a couple of the Vanguard's hands, tusks and horns. "Oh shit, shit, shit. The two in the room with me, they're...?"

   Snapping his jaw shut, Blue-Scale cocked his head and looked at Rangi curiously. "They tried to stop this one from getting to his Little-One."

   Looking around, Rangi spotted the other dead marine further up the corridor they were moving into. This one was missing most of an arm, and had what looked suspiciously like a Vanguard sized footprint sunk deep into his chest. During the interrogation, Rangi had thrown up what little stomach contents he had, so dry heaving slightly, he gave the second body a wide berth. Once they were well past the second body, he stopped under an overhead light and leaned over, breathing heavily through his mouth.

   "Is there something wrong, Little-One?"

   Shaking his head, Rangi was silent for a few moments longer. Eventually, he looked up at the weary looking warrior. "Bro! Flowers! Chocolates, even. You don't get a boy mutilated bodies on the first date! Geeze..." Doing a double-take, he noticed for the first time, among the other cuts, that the front of Blue-Scale's body was marked by several gunshot wounds, most of which were still bleeding. In the dimly lit corridors further back, he hadn't noticed the scale of the Vanguard's injuries.

   Blue-Scale was leaning against the wall, regarding him dully through half-closed eyes. "Hrrr... This one has no regrets. Come, Little-One. We should move quickly. Time grows short," he rumbled softly, as they resumed their trip through the complex.

   They passed several locked doors, with Blue-Scale stopping every now and then to sniff at them, before snorting and moving on. On the fifth door, the warrior hesitated, then studied the small screen built into the wall next to the door. Pressing one of the buttons beside it, the screen came to life, showing the Russian sitting in one corner of the cell, facing away from the camera. "This one believes he has found your Russian-Husky."

   "Yeah, that's him. Now how do we get this door open?" Rangi placed one hand on the scanner pad, but it fashed red at him and buzzed loudly. "Can you bust it open, like you did with that other one?" When he got no response, Rangi turned around. Blue-Scale was leaning against the wall again, with only one set of eyes open. The warrior was also panting heavily, his tongue draped over a tusk and hanging down from his lower jaw. "Oh no you don't! Don't fade out on me, man!"

   The corridor was bare of anything that would have made a suitable battering ram, and the warrior didn't look like he was in any fit state to help. Running his hands through his hair, Rangi started shaking a bit, his heart thundering inside his chest as indecision tore at him. He was shocked to discover that, more than anything else, it was his concern for Blue-Scale that was driving him to distraction.

   'What the fuck are you thinking, you stupid hori! Don't tell me you're attracted to this reptile! You're a closet-case poofter who can barely admit to himself that you like guys. And here you are, worrying about a great big lump of a lizard?' Rangi's gaze travelled up the warrior's impressively proportioned body, before coming to rest on his craggy face. 'A well-built, muscley lump, though... OK, just chill for a sec; escape first, psychoanalysis later.'

   He looked at the palm of his hand, then back at the electronic lock on the door, then back at his hand. A horrible thought occurred to him, and he groaned. "Oh fucking hell! I cannot believe I'm gonna contemplate doing this shit," he muttered angrily to himself. "Hang tight, man. I'll be right back," Rangi said to Blue-Scale, who acknowledged him with a grunt.

   Racing back down the corridor, he skidded to a halt beside the armless body, and looked at it carefully before moving more slowly to the other marine lying face-down in blood. Lying next to the body was an assault rifle, with part of the other marine's arm still holding onto it. But, most importantly, the hand itself was still intact. Desperately trying to swallow the bile rising in his throat, Rangi gingerly picked up the weapon with one hand, and pulled at the remains of the arm still attached to the weapon with the other. "Fucking gross! "

   Once he'd pulled the hand free, he was horrified to discover that it was still slightly warm. With that discovery he lost it, dropping to his knees and dry heaving, bringing up nothing but bile. After a minute or so, stomach still queasy and clenching, he got unsteadily to his feet and made his way back up the corridor, holding the grisley item as far out in front of him as he could get it. Again, he gave the armless body a wide berth. "Sorry, bro," he muttered guiltily as he passed it by.

   Pressing the detached hand against the scanner, it briefly flashed green, and there was a click as the lock disengaged. "Well, that was handy," Rangi quipped as he pushed the door open. He looked back, and saw that Blue-Scale was just staring at him blankly, still panting heavily as he leaned against the corridor wall for support. "Hmph, everyone's a critic. Hey! Russian dude! Get up. We gotta get outta here!"

   Vasya looked around in surprize. He'd been expecting another visit by one of the American intelligence agents. Instead it was the Maori kid that he and Antonio had rescued the night (or nights - he'd completely lost track of time) before. As he got to his feet, Vasya noticed several disturbing things. The boy had been quite badly beaten. His face was looking pretty lumpy and his chest and stomach were covered in what looked like burn marks. Of his shirt, there was no sign.

   But the most disturbing thing was the object Rangi held in one hand. It was the lower half of someone's arm. Shredded remains of flesh and bone hung from where an elbow used to be, and a blood covered hand flopped loosely around at the other end. It probably wouldn't have been quite so bad if it didn't have a wrist-watch still attached to it.

   "A Rolex, da? Classy."

   "Only the best for you, mate." Rangi's sickly grin quickly faded. "We gotta get you and Yankee-doodle outta here. I've also got a sick lizard on my hands, and I ain't gonna leave him behind."

   The Russian got to his feet and stepped into the corridor. He took a look at Blue-Scale and, seeing the wounds, paled and felt his heart start to hammer away in his chest. He turned back to Rangi. "I - I am not well. Vanguard do something to my head. I am a little crazy. How you say... mental, da? We need to find Antonio. He will know what to do."

   "Sweet. Let's go!"

   When Vasya hesitated, Rangi turned around and raised his eyebrows in a questioning gesture. "After what I did, I am not sure he will be happy to see me."

   Exasperated, and slightly hysterical, Rangi stormed up to the Russian. "We don't have fucking time for this psycho shit, alright?! I've been fucking tortured. Tortured! We're about to have half the fucking army up our arses. And my bro, here," he pointed at the oblivious Blue-Scale, "is bleeding to death. So get your shit together - and get it together, now! " When he realized he'd been pointing the dismembered arm at Vasya and shaking it at the Russian to visually punctuate what he'd been saying, Rangi paled and quickly dropped it to the floor.

   Still looking shaky, but suitably admonished, Vasya nodded and bent down to pick up the arm. "We will need this, I think. Please, follow." Looking around, Vasya led the way further up the corridor.

   Rangi had some difficulty in rousing Blue-Scale from his unresponsive state, but finally managed to get the dozy reptile to follow him by pulling him along by one hand. He looked back to see a fair amount of the warrior's blood smeared on the wall where the he'd been leaning. What was left of the warrior's skinsuit was also drenched with the stuff. "Not far to go now, bro," he said softly, looking up at the warrior's face.

   Blue-Scale had partially opened his other set of eyes but, although they were a featureless black, Rangi still got the distinct impression that all four eyes were unfocussed. The warrior lumbered along, his tail dragging along the corridor behind him. He was fading fast.

   Stopping at another, nearby, door, Vasya activated the viewscreen built into the wall beside it. The small screen showed Antonio pacing nervously inside. Hesitantly, he slapped the grisley hand against the scanner, watching nervously as the scanner flashed green and the lock disengaged. "You first," he said, grabbing Rangi and shoving him at the door.

   "Ow! Watch it, mate. That fuckin' hurt," Rangi growled, rubbing at his already bruised shoulder. "I'll get my bro, Blue-Scale to eat you, if you're not careful. Then you'll be sorry," he mumbled under his breath, staring daggers at Vasya, as he pushed the door open.

   Antonio stopped pacing and stood back as the cell door swung open. He'd been half expecting Captain Hardy to be standing there, glaring at him. So he was a little astonished to see Rangi, shirtless, and looking rather the worse-for-wear. Vasya was standing in the corridor behind the boy, with a subdued look on his face, and avoiding his gaze. Lastly, the hulking shape of a Vanguard - Blue-Scale he guessed - leaning against the wall on the far side of the corridor.

   "You gonna stand there gawking all day, Yankee? Or are you gonna do your G.I. Joe thing and get us out of here? All hell's gonna break loose in this joint shortly, I reckon."

   As if on cue, there was the distant sound of a metal door slamming open, followed by many booted feet slapping against concrete, getting closer. "Get in here, quickly," Antonio hissed, grabbing the unprepared boy by the shoulder and pulling him bodily into the cell.

   "Ow! Watch my fucking shoulder! For fuck's sake, what's wrong with you bloody people?-MMMMF! " Suddenly a large hand clamped over his mouth, and an arm around his chest, holding him tightly against the marine's body.

   "Be quiet, you foul-mouthed little brat! " Antonio ordered him. "Vasya - get in here. Goddammit! " he hissed loudly, pushing Rangi away from him. He shook his bitten fingers and glared at the boy. Rangi just sneered back at him. Shaking his head, Antonio peered out into the corridor at the Vanguard warrior. "What's wrong with Blue-Scale? Why isn't he moving?" Alternately pulling, then pushing, Antonio managed to cajole the barely responsive Vanguard into the cell. Just in time, he pushed the door closed as the sound of booted feet got closer.

   The cell was extremely cramped, with the four of them crowded in there, so Rangi wasted no time in opening the door once the coast was clear. "We gotta get outta here before they come back," he said, looking up and down the corridor.

   When he turned around he saw a tearful Vasya tenderly stroking at the livid bruises on Antonio's throat with his fingertips, while the marine looked back at the Russian with a soppy expression on his face. "If I had anything left in my stomach to puke, I'd be shoving my fingers as far down my throat as I could, right now," Rangi said, annoyed. "When you two have quite finished making goo-goo eyes at each other, can we get the fuck out of here? Please?"

   With both Antonio and Rangi pulling at him, they managed to get Blue-Scale moving again, despite his weakened protests to leave him behind. As they made their painfully slow way down the corridor toward freedom, Antonio briefly turned to Vasya. "How'd you manage to get the door open, anyway? This place has hand-print activated locks." When Vasya frowned and looked past him in response, Antonio turned his head the other way to see what the Russian was looking at.

   "Say 'hello' to my leeeeeetle friend," Rangi giggled, waving the severed arm at him.

   "Oh... Right. You have no idea how much I now regret asking that question."

   When they reached the end of the corridor, Antonio peered through the small window set in the door leading to the outside. The sun had recently set behind some nearby hills, but the area outside the detention building was brightly lit by floodlights.

   There was another group of well-armed soldiers heading for their building at a rapid clip, so Antonio ducked down and looked around desperately. Spotting another door, he pushed Rangi toward it. "Hurry up and open that door, will ya? See if there's enough space in there for us to hide out for a while."

   Rangi placed the hand against the scanner, and it flashed green at him, unlocking the door. He pushed it open and poked his head inside, looking around. The room was quite cavernous and obviously hadn't been used for some time, judging by the small puff of dust as the door swung open. He turned around and was about reply to Antonio, when he saw Blue-Scale falter. The Vanguard's eyes closed as he dropped to his knees, then collapsed forward onto the floor.

   It took all three of them straining at their limits, in order to drag Blue-Scale's body into the room. Several widely spaced ceiling lights barely alleviated the darkness, which was lined with heavy shelves, full of various anonymous crates and drums. In one corner there was a huge pile of what looked like netting, covered by scraps of drab coloured cloth.

   Pointing at the pile of camoflage netting Antonio grunted. "Put him over there. If they start searching this building, we can at least hide him under some of that."

   Sweating and breathing heavily, they finally managed to lay the heavy reptile on the pile of netting. Rangi clambered up next to Blue-Scale and, biting his lip, he shook the warrior's shoulders, trying to rouse him. "Wake up! Please, Blue-Scale... Wake-up, bro!"

   There were no signs of the boy's previous cheeky good humor, Antonio noticed, as he watched Rangi desperately trying to get the Vanguard to respond. He turned to Vasya. "The lizard looks in pretty bad shape. We should leave the kid here to keep an eye on him, and see if we can find some medical supplies."

   "What made you change your mind?"

   "Huh? About what?" Antonio looked at Vasya quizzically.

   "Helping Vanguard." Vasya turned his head and looked back toward Blue-Scale, watching as Rangi tore up bits of the camoflage fabric in order to staunch the bleeding from the worst bullet wounds. He turned back to Antonio, searching the marine's face. "And helping me," he finished quietly.

   "You answered your own question."

   "I do not understand?"

   "You, Vasya. If I help the lizard, I help you."

   Shaking his head, Vasya looked away from Antonio. "I still do not understand -"

   Antonio interrupted him, placing both of his hands on the Russian's shoulders, and placing his forehead against Vasya's, gently pushing the Russian's head up until he was staring deep into Vasya's grey eyes. "One of those lizards has done something to you. You've gotta admit you've been acting a little crazy, right?" Vasya closed his eyes and said nothing. "I'm not going to give up on you. The only way to undo what they've done, is to get them to fix it. And that's not going to happen if you're locked up, or if they're captured. Do you understand, now?"

   Vasya sighed, and looked up at him again. "Da. Da, I think so. Even after I try killing you..?"

   "Well, the next time we wrestle like that, it had better be in bed. That's not exactly the kind of weapon I had in mind for you to be forcing down my throat, either." He planted a brief kiss on Vasya's forehead and took a step back, watching as his comment elicited a slight lop-sided grin from the Russian. "Now, whaddya reckon we go get Mr Lizard, there, some band-aids?"

End of Part 08