Night Has Fallen,
(Or a Good Sized Piece of It at Any Rate)
Lieutenant Claviak, an Idorian, leaned on the railing, absorbing the tranquil splendor of the rolling hills covered with fields of saw grass as far as his senses could perceive. A stiff wind tugged at the saw grass. With stalwart defiance, the grass merely swayed lethargically.
To the north, L'Étoile Oblique, named by an eighteenth century French poet and bastardized as 'Oblik', hung swollen, half covered by the horizon, casting an orange pall across the sky. From this far south of Oblik II's equator, the sun spent most of the year bobbing up and down, never quite clearing the horizon, in a display caused by the wobble of the planet's axis. But, no matter what time of day or night, concepts that had little meaning to Oblik II, one could always step outside to gaze upon the perpetual sunrise, or sunset, depending upon your disposition.
This was one of those rare places upon which the Idorian would gaze and think, I could spend the rest of my days here he thought. Of all the places he visited, the Idorian always watched the sunrise, even if it meant staying up all night to do so. Here, on a world where the sun always rose, looking upon it washed away the troubles of the day. It loosened the thoughts that were right now knotted with computer coding and satellite positions, trajectories, alignments, weapons, and communications capabilities.
The cold also helped. On stepping outside, his first few breaths left his lungs as clouds of mist. But, as the cold air robbed his lungs of their heat, the mist became fainter as his partially ectothermic metabolism adjusted to the ambient temperature, slowing heart rate, digestion, and his racing thoughts.
His perch, a platform thirty meters off the ground, afforded him the spectacular view. Directly overhead was the fifteen meter wide dish that was the main transmitter and receiver of the computer system that controlled the network of communications, scientific, and defense satellites that orbited this planet. The main dish was surrounded by smaller dishes, globes, and metal pylons that were the eyes, ears, and mouth of the network's main control bunker and tracking array.
Scattered at irregular, but strategically placed intervals through the sparse metallic forest, standing on similar platforms and stairwells, were many more Idorians. They were his kel'ijabra. Like Claviak, they were all bipedal humanoids with rough textured, blue-grey skin and bi-lateral antennae. Unlike Claviak, who wore the standard void black field issue of a Fleet officer, the kel'ijabra were an enigmatic mix of modern technology and an ancient, alien culture.
They dressed in the traditional hzraat-hide armor, tanned from the chitin of an Idorian herd animal and studded with rough cut stones. Hidden beneath the hzraat hide armor was modern plate albedo armor and beneath that, each wore a thin, skin tight, thermal regulating suit, designed to fool their bodies into thinking they were at a constantly comfortable ambient temperature. On their heads they wore comm-sets with video imaging heads-up-display, audio plate cupped over tympanic membrane and armature holding a sensor ball over the receptor cup of an antenna. They carried both the traditional barbed blades of their clan and modern laser rifles of the Union.
Claviak, in addition to serving as the USV Mars' Senior Flight Engineer, was also the ship's only Idorian officer and, to the idorii, a nos'ijabra. To the idorii, the natural order of Idorian society, nos'ijabra lead kel'ijabra. To the crew of a star vessel composed almost entirely of Idorians, those selected to follow the ship's nos'ijabra immediately and enthusiastically fell into the old patterns, abandoning Union Fleet instilled disciplines for the traditional dress and mannerisms of their culture.
"Oh damn, there goes another one." Senior Lieutenant Conroy's voice came whining over the comm-set. "Clav, we've got another runaway. Tell Clarky to get his people undercover."
"Acknowledged." The Idorian groaned. "Lieutenant Claviak to Major Clarke." The verbal command opened a communication's channel to the marine encampment several hundred kilometers to the northwest.
It took only a fraction of a second for the Major to respond. "Clarke here." Even through the unusual click-click of static, there was an edge to Clarke's voice that told the Idorian he was ready to explode.
"Major, we have another runaway satellite."
"Damn it Lieutenant, can't you people get a handle on those things?"
"We are working on it Major, Claviak out." By the Void, we are working on it, he swore softly in his native tongue and grabbed hold of the ladder that dropped through a hole in the metal grating. He slid down two levels, painfully tugging at the still healing burns on his left arm. Cursing more harshly, rubbing gingerly through the thick field jacket, angry with himself for being here instead of down below, he stepped into the waiting elevator.
Grabbing a hand rung, the Idorian was dropped with startling acceleration into the most extensive excavation and building project undertaken on this back water colony. Half a kilometer under the ground he sped past megalithic blocks of duraplast that could interlock to form a solid barrier between the surface and the planetary satellite network's central brain.
Deep under the ground, the Idorian found Conroy, the USV Mars' Senior Information Systems Officer. The jovial, red faced leprechaun was a packet of energy, darting between dozens of active control consoles. Jabbering incessantly, he issued commands non-stop to the multiple interfaces. "You know, I wish you hadn't fried poor Marston." Conroy flowed smoothly into the sentence, showing no hesitation between computer command and stinging jibe.
"Not as much as I." Claviak growled, irritated. A mix up in thumbs had set off the bunker defenses, sending more electric current than was conducive to living through poor Marston Haddon. It also flash fried the Idorian, who had been standing at Marston's side. Marston had been an information system's officer under Conroy's command and the only human member of Claviak's kel'ijabra.
Conroy went on issuing commands, eyes continually darting over the multiple display screens, watching orbital paths, transmission codes, program codes, access systems. "Believe it or not, he could probably make some sense of this garbage. His grandfather started the firm that sold the colony these apps. That's what they get for low bid. Marston wanted to see the universe before settling into the family business. Although I think that meant he just wanted to screw an Idorian. Did he get a chance to? Sorry if I embarrassed you." Conroy went from one sentence to the next without even pausing for air, interspersing computer commands in between and still darting between interface panels. Watching him made the Idorian dizzy.
"Earthers are the only ones embarrassed by sex." Claviak had no idea whether or not Marston engaged in intercourse with any of the Mars' Idorians. But, if he wanted to, it was certainly inevitable.
"Yeah, and the Solkar are completely oblivious to it. I don't suppose we could get J.T. van der Boothe over here to take a look at these systems. Since he installed them . . ." Conroy abruptly changed subject, yapping another series of instructions and groaning in dissatisfaction with the results.
"There is no time. Besides, . . . since I sliced off his thumb, I do not believe he will cooperate." The mix-up that fried poor Marston involved a thumb that should have, but did not, belong to J.T. van der Boothe, the human who owned almost every digital, electronic, positronic, and optical information and communications system on both inhabited worlds of this star colony.
"Oh, oh, oh, never mind, I think I've got it." A few more sentences that sounded like a pidgin crossbreed of Standard and computer code passed between Conroy and the affably pleasant voice of the computer. Thanks to all the time he was forced to spend in Conroy's company, it was a pidgin that the Idorian was coming to understand.
The brief exchange fired the runaway satellite's maneuvering thrusters, pushing it back into its original orbit. "Okay, that's got it. Give Clarky the all clear and tell him he doesn't need to pass a stone."
Not sure exactly what the SISO meant, but familiar enough with his colorful expressions that he was not going to bother asking, the Idorian nodded. "Claviak to Major Clarke, we have re-established control of the satellite."
"Void damn it, Lieutenant, I am tired of this. If you people can't do your job, then at least get us the Void out of here."
"We are working on it Major, . . . Claviak out." He shut down the channel and looked at Conroy crossly. "You're the senior officer. Why do I have to deal with Clarke?"
"Because I'm the senior officer." Conroy chuckled happily at the self-evident witticism.
For the third time in less than an hour, the Imzaar had taken control of a satellite. The first time, they had used it to locate the marine encampment. The second time, they had managed to realign its weapons' systems, aiming at the marines. It was only after the firing sequence had been initiated that Conroy regained control, detonating a warhead high in the atmosphere before its microwave emitter could be discharged.
"Whoooo, ho, pop the cork and pass the glass, I've got them." Conroy triangulated the last transmission with the first two. "Sloppy, slimy bastards . . ." He said to no one in particular, then added ". . . either that or their math don't work the same as ours."
Claviak stepped forward to get a better look over the small SISO's shoulder. On the monitor was an image taken from one of the orbiting satellites. "That's the tracking station they're using." Conroy explained. "They're using it to bounce signals off any passing bird. And until I can decipher this Void blasted coding, I can't change the control codes. The best I can do is override their signal."
The picture on the monitor was a ten-kilometer square area from the planet's northern latitudes, a flat, barren desert. Centered on the screen was the tracking station, an unremarkable rectangle surrounded by transmitter-receiver dishes that appeared as dark, tiny dots. Clusters of circles and rectangles surrounded the tracking station and were labeled as 'Springfield', an abandoned colonial outpost.
"Computer . . ." Claviak said, giving a slight pause so that the machine could distinguish the summons from a reference. " . . . reduce magnification ten times."
The picture wavered and refreshed, showing a greater surface area in less detail. At Springfield's northern border was a strange, angled outcropping of rock with an almost artificially regular oval plateau. With no similar formations, the outcropping appeared as if it had dropped from the sky, including a straight, v-shaped swath cut through the landscape as if the outcropping had skidded to an abrupt stop thousands of years before.
Absently, the Idorian tapped at the canal south of Springfield. The gesture pulled back the cuff of his sleeve, exposing the terminus of the cartilagineous exoskeleton that wound like a cord around the arms, legs and torso. "There are definitely Imzaar out there." Claviak said. "Springfield was abandoned by the Oblik colonists almost immediately after their fleet was spotted, before we had any idea what they were. And that's how they got there." He punctuated with a jab of his finger that spread the colors of the interface panel into a yellow and purple circle. As his finger raised, the purple dissipated, resuming the dirty yellows and browns of the desert. "See how the canal is discolored? It is still wet. They used the pumping station to send water up the canal and then followed it to Springfield."
According to their best intelligence, the Imzaar were an amphibious species, dependant on keeping their skin wet. These Imzaar were the survivors of one of two star vessels that had achieved orbital control over this planet for a brief time. An as yet undetermined number of them escaped before the vessels were destroyed and the Fleet regained orbital superiority.
Around the swampy latitudes of Oblik II's equator, their natural abilities and instincts put them at advantage in the guerilla warfare that they had no choice but to conduct. Beyond those equatorial regions; the tundra, glacial rivers, and frozen plains of the south or the burning deserts of the north, they were ill-equipped even for survival.
"And that takes care of that." Conroy said as he had the computer shut down the pumping station.
"Now they are trapped, drying out, and desperate." Claviak muttered.
"Just the way we like 'em. Not going soft, are you Lieutenant?"
Claviak was going to explain, but stopped before the first words could come from his mouth. He had made first contact with the Imzaar, he named them 'Imzaar', the closest sound he could make to their slurring, long tongued vocalizations. He was to become a very rich being, he had already become a famous one. What he wanted to explain to the sprightly computer expert was that the Imzaar wanted nothing more than to share this planet, or at least the swampy bits of it. As far as he knew, it was the politicians and soldiers who wanted war. "No, I am going to do my job."
"You know, when you're a war hero, growing a conscience is bad for business."
The Idorian ignored him. "Claviak to Praetr." He called to Warrant Officer First Class Praetr, his executive officer. "Could you prep Eris for lift off, then meet me in the bunker please?"
"Aye, sir." Came the Warrant Officer's response.
"What is it you've got in mind?" Conroy asked dubiously.
"Until you can change the control codes, the only other way to stop them is to go out there."
"Shouldn't we leave that to Clarky? His girls are trained killers. I could relay the coordinates and . . ."
"What are all these?" Claviak brushed his finger over the faint, straight lines that ran parallel to the canal, all disappearing to the south.
"I don't know." Conroy murmured and then asked the computer to run a search. "This is fascinating." An archeology report appeared on the display. According to it, the thin lines were an ancient irrigation system that channeled waters from the equatorial swamps out to settlements far to the north, much farther than could possibly be habitable. What would be the point?" Conroy asked, one hand rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. "The water would evaporate long before it ever reached the settlements."
Conroy shrugged. "Preservers or Seeders, I suppose." The Preservers and Seeders were the popular names given to a complex tapestry of archeological evidence supporting two great galactic civilizations that indirectly gave birth to their current Union of Star Systems. "It says here that climatic changes can't account for the disappearance of the original settlers."
Just then, Praetr stepped out of the elevator and into the control room. Conroy gave an involuntary start as the female, who towered over both he and Claviak, brushed past, giving a scant nod in respect to Conroy's rank and acknowledging his presence.
Praetr wore an ocher red hzraat hide breast plate with segmented flaps hanging down over her loins. The flaps clacked as she walked. Her hair was cut in a sort of reverse mohawk, shaved bare down the middle, growing from behind the base of her antennae and flowing down her back, definitely not regulation.
From what Conroy could see, the imposing female made two concessions to the Fleet. On the upper arm of her left sleeve, she wore the silver dragon of the Dracos Expeditionary Force. On the forearm of her left sleeve was her rank insignia: two upturned semi-circles beneath an eight-pointed Union Fleet star.
The Idorians exchanged a dialogue in their native tongue. Conroy found it as incomprehensible as this computer's antiquated coding. "It is sixty-five degrees out there, so I want everyone in e-suits. Thermals will burn out in a nano." Claviak switched to Union Standard as Praetr stepped back into the elevator.
"Ah . . . Clav, you're not expecting me to tag along are you?" Conroy said hesitantly as Claviak followed Praetr onto the elevator.
"No, . . ." The Idorian turned his head to the human. ". . . the last time I brought humans along, neither came back alive."
"Oh, good. I mean, . . . well, I was only kidding when I said that about you frying poor Marston. I know it wasn't your fault."
"Er, . . . yes, . . . ah good luck, Clav." His momentary shame was soon overcome by his enthusiasm for the work at hand. After all, someone had to keep these birds under control.
His kel'ijabra were transformed, at least the half dozen that were going to Springfield. The others were to remain behind as guard to Conroy and the control bunker, a facility that was worth much more than all their lives combined. They remained on their perches with orders to seal the bunker and lay down their lives in event of Imzaar attack, just make sure Conroy and the bunker were safe.
Those that were to accompany the Idorian north had doffed their studded armor and native dress in favor of armor-plated e-suits. The thermal regulating suits wouldn't last ten minutes against the blazing heat of the northern deserts. The e-suits, general purpose environmental suits, were designed for use in space. They would have no problem keeping a constant temperature in much cooler or warmer temperatures.
Slung over each right shoulder was the stocky, standard issue Kutsuru laser rifle with binocular scanscopes and onboard computer that could be linked into the standard issue comm-set. In a shoulder holster under his left arm, Claviak had a non-standard issue, illegally modified RTT pistol, a weapon that fired magnetically propelled slugs and carried a laser emitter, so that it could be switched between beam and projectile. Strapped to his left leg was his ijabra'shah, a bladed flute that the symbol of his class.
Until Conroy could change the access codes, the Imzaar could, without warning, take control of another satellite. Time was the enemy. So, while Claviak quickly went over the mission details, Conroy uploaded satellite maps, flight plans, archeology reports, Xenocyclopedia Galactica excerpts, anything he thought would be of use into the Eris' computer. From there, it was readily accessible by each team member through standard comp-pad, or any other device equipped with a comm-link.
Beneath the Eris, the Mars' delta-wing atmospheric shuttle, stood the kel'ijabra. In rigid formation, they faced Claviak as he paced along their line. They followed the briefing by glancing back and forth between data displayed on their hand-held comp-pad and the Lieutenant's lecture.
At the briefing's end, WFC Praetr ordered the kel'ijabra up the shuttle's ladder. Crewman First Class Phras, lagged behind, lingering at one of the landing struts. In the sing-song, lyrical Idorian Common Tongue, Praetr told him to get moving.
Phras hurriedly secured the plastic tube back into the crotch of his e-suit. The urine that had emptied from its storage bladder was splashed on the Eris' landing struts and formed small wet droplets on the dusty ground. He turned to see Claviak's antennae twitch with confusion. "The Earthers do it. I think it is for luck."
Claviak was well aware of the Earther tradition. It dated back to their early days of space flight and was almost second nature to him, as too many Earther customs were becoming. He chose the only slightly more dignified variant, spitting on Eris' landing struts.
Eris flew low to the ground, not that it mattered, even with her stealth design and cold outflow exhaust, even at sub-sonic speeds, which they far exceeded, she was too fast to be mistaken for anything other than what she was. A runaway satellite could knock them from the sky as easily as a single Imzaar carrying a computer targeted, hand held laser.
At supersonic speeds, they went northward. L'Étoile Oblique rose steadily, breaking past the horizon and climbing in the sky. They would not see it move directly overhead, only from the north polar regions could L'Étoile Oblique be seen at its zenith.
They set down next to the main canal, Eris' vertical takeoff and landing jets stirred billowing clouds of dust, obscuring their final touch down. The kel'ijabra jumped from the Eris' belly before the dust could settle. Blinded, they used video imaging and sensor data to scan their environs.
The data came back to Claviak through monitors in Eris' cockpit and his own comm-set. He immediately began issuing commands, sending three of the kel'ijabra to the northwest, to scout through Springfield and approach the station from behind.
Dropping from Eris, Claviak was the last to leave the shuttle. The ground was baked solid and covered by a fine layer of dust. It was run through with cracks and fissures. From here, line-of-sight to the tracking was obscured by the bubble dome buildings of Springfield.
Claviak scratched behind an antenna and rubbed at the stubble on the back of his head. Even in the shade of Eris' wing, the heat was brutal and the perspiration ran freely, streaming down his neck, pooling around his collar where it was absorbed back into the e-suit.
Followed by Praetr and Phras, Claviak walked to the edge of the canal. With each step, the station moved into line-of-sight. Through the HUD, Claviak examined a magnified image of the structure, scanning for signs of life. Seeing none, he turned his attention back to the canal.
It was an ancient structure, eaten away be centuries, or more, of water erosion and thousands of millennia of wind blown dust. Rebuilt by the colonists, it was used for its original purpose without the spectacular grandeur of the ancients.
In this world's ancient past, hundreds of canals extended hundreds of kilometers to the planet's equator. Water flowed freely from the equator to the northern deserts, keeping the canals full.
The Oblik colonists used this single canal. Far to the south, a pumping station sucked water from the swamps, filtered it, and forced it through a pipeline that took it to Springfield. The open canal basin was not normally filled, the water would evaporate too rapidly. Instead, the water was periodically pumped into insulated storage tanks.
"This is how they made it this far north." Claviak said to no one in particular. "The pumping station is unmanned, unguarded, and not monitored. They probably opened the pipeline at intervals along its length and kept wet all the way to the tracking station."
"Are they in there?" Phras asked, nodding toward the station.
Claviak's antennae twitched. "I do not know. But this is their only way out. If they are not there, they are that way." He pointed out toward the pipeline that extended as far as even the enhanced video imaging of the comm-set could perceive. "Why did the Preservers settle here?" Claviak asked, again to no one in particular. "Desert in summer, covered in meters of ice in the winter. The sun either never sets or never rises. Was the climate so different?"
"Oh, definitely," Phras interjected. "Probably because of that." Phras pointed to the overhang. Claviak looked up over his shoulder. "That is an ancient sun blocker. It used to orbit the planet, blocking the sun light to create an artificial night in the summer and reflecting it to create an artificial day in winter. The Preserver's didn't leave until sometime after it fell. Apparently they no longer had the technology to fix it."
"And how do you know that?" Claviak asked skeptically.
"It's in the comp-pad." Phras shook the small computer. "The Preservers were here for thousands of years. Instead of progressing, their technology level degraded. Once this came down, they had no way of putting another one in orbit. According to this they just died out. There is no evidence they migrated south. The report says it looks as if they abandoned the planet. But, if they did that, they should have been able to put another sun blocker in orbit."
Claviak grabbed the comp-pad with enough severity to elicit a laugh from Phras. While Claviak and Phras discussed ancient relics, Praetr leapt into the channel basin. Although deeper throughout, here at the terminus, the drop was only a few meters. The ground was darker here. She scratched out a clod of dirt. "In this heat, there was enough water for the Imzaar yesterday." She said into the comm-set.
With a running start, she scrambled back up the side, taking Claviak's hand to lurch up over the ledge. Searing pain burst on the Lieutenant's left shoulder. For a fraction of a second, he thought he had pulled open the freshly healed laser burn, until he realized his suit was on fire.
As clumsily as Praetr lurched up over the ledge, Claviak tumbled over, dragging Praetr along with him. "Take cover, we're under attack." He yelled into the comm-set as he tumbled to the basin.
Phras followed, leaping into the channel basin, arms and legs flailing, closely followed by pocks of bursting ground that threw splashes of molten rock. In Springfield, the kel'ijabra heard the activity and Claviak's order and found cover behind a building, although they were in no immediate threat from the laser attack.
Muttering under his breath, Claviak cursed himself for a fool. He told Smythe this was no job for a pilot, but Smythe insisted it was a job for nos'ijabra.
If they were being herded into the basin, he had lead the way. "Spread out along the rim." He shouted into the comm-set and held his breath, waiting for either the thunderous roar of channel water or the concentrated light from another runaway satellite that would flash fry them before they knew they were hit.
Claviak turned, startled. Praetr was patting out his still smoldering e-suit, trying to determine if he were hurt. But, the e-suit had already sealed, its coagulating fluid hardening over the exposed areas where it may be punctured. "It came from the station." She told him. He nodded his understanding. "Smythe is right. You have the luck of your ancestors."
"And the sense of a three day old housa gourd." With a minimum of thought, he switched to Union Standard. "Claviak to Senior Lieutenant Conroy." He said into the comm-set.
"Conroy here, how is ya, Clav?"
"Under attack, Conroy. Can you give me a picture of our position?" A satellite image of the terrain popped into the Idorian's heads-up-display. From twenty thousand kilometers overhead, he could see himself and his kel'ijabra pinned down in the irrigation channel. The tracking station was clearly visible some 700 meters north, and, beyond it, the flat, angled plateau of the sun-blocker overhang. There was still no movement from the tracking station. There was no laser fire, there were no hordes of snarling, pink-skinned Imzaar with a mouthful of tiny, pointed teeth and needle sharp claws pouring forth to overwhelm the fleeters, to take advantage of Claviak's tactical blunder. Nothing.
"Do you want me to target it?"Conroy asked chirpily. Before the Idorian could respond, he could see in the HUD that the satellite's weapons' systems were active and locked onto the station. "Can I just blow the thing to the Void? I should have thought of it earlier, but we don't really need any of the tracking stations as long as we have the bunker. A nuke would be my preference, but you guys will have to get clear first. We could use a laser, but even with that you're going to get singed. Look Clav, why don't you just come on back and we'll nuke the place out of existence?"
"Because Conroy, we are here to protect colonial interests, not obliterate them."
"Hell, Clav, you're only here because you were drafted."
"Just target. Do not fire. How many life forms?" The targeting scanner turned to an infra-red display. The heat of the desert and the shuttle's cooling engines made the data unintelligible. Any warm amphibious bodies were not going to stand out against the heat absorbed from a sun that never set.
Claviak considered for a moment, falling back on his initial instincts and again cursing himself for a fool. He had let his troop fall apart like a rank amateur at the first sign of fire. Turning his head, he looked to Praetr apologetically. "I have let them accomplish the first goal of battle: move your enemy from harmony to cacophony. Now it is my turn. Can you load an MRS-12, please?"
With a knowing grin, Praetr took a large ammo clip from her pack and slid it into the Kutsuru. It landed home with a satisfying 'clack.' Linking to Praetr's computer, Claviak tied the MRS' targeting system to the satellites, still locked on the tracking station.
Claviak tugged the ijabra'shah from its holster and put the too hot mouthpiece to his lips. With a few gentle puffs, soft notes rose from the flute, from between the barbed metal blades curving out from the mouthpiece's opposite end. Gloves too awkward for proper control, the Idorian relied on the simplest of commands.
The kel'ijabra perked at the music, readying their weapons and bracing themselves. Praetr prepared to fire, aiming her weapon southward, toward the equator. Phras crossed himself, mouthed a silent prayer to Saint Herkavael and readied himself to leap up to the channel's ledge and into the desert battlefield.
In Springfield, the three kel'ijabra heard the music over their comm-sets. To the an untrained Earther, it was nothing but discordant melody. To the kel'ijabra, it was the language used between kel'ijabra and nos'ijabra for the passing of more than twenty-three thousand seasonal cycles.
After a tense pause, Claviak puffed another note and Praetr let her finger drop over the trigger pad. With flame sputtering and spurting, a small rocket shot from the Kutsuru, a trail of tracer smoke followed. The smoke spiraled up in the sky, made one final northward turn, and with a tiny explosion, shot with tremendous acceleration right at the tracking station.
A less than two seconds, exactly one hundred meters short of the station, it detonated. The ground and air shook with the concussive roar. Clouds of dust, undisturbed in the months since the colony was abandoned, billowed into the air, causing clouds to spill into the channel.
With a final shrill blast from the ijabra'shah, Claviak and his kel'ijabra scrambled up and over the channel lip, the others charging out from Springfield. Screaming like demons and firing low intensity laser bursts that split in the dust like lightning hidden behind thick, dark storm clouds, they ran at the tracking station.
Claviak hoped his kel'ijabra, who the humans found so intimidating, should have the same effect on demoralized, dried out amphibians who had no way to return to even the relative safety of the equatorial swamp.
Claviak's gamble paid off, they achieved the tracking station without so much as a retaliatory shot. The kel'ijabra swarmed over the small building, blasting through doors and knocking out windows. "RTT's only, RTT's only." Claviak yelled over the comm-set. The kel'ijabra slung the stocky laser rifles over their shoulders and took out the Royce-Tsu Tung mag-slug propellers. The slugs were small batteries. Fired at a relatively slow velocity, they would stun and incapacitate rather than kill.
Inside the tracking station, three Imzaar, completely dehydrated, lay curled on the floor, unmoving. A forth Imzaar, dried out, incapacitated, gasping for air, and barely holding some sort of a laser rifle, leaned, back propped, against the wall beneath an open window.
Claviak knelt over it, pulled the short drinking spout from his e-suit's collar, and let a thin stream dribble onto the alien. The Imzaar jerked up, moving to let the water fill its mouth. Its mouth worked frantically, sucking in the fluid, gasping for more.
His small supply of water exhausted, Claviak pulled over a crewman and had him continue the feed. "I want this one alive." Phras and some of the others gave a whoop of joy. This time, they would all share in the prize money from the capture of a live Imzaar.
Claviak gazed sympathetically at the Imzaar. Not long before, he found himself in exactly the same position. Then, he was released with a message, a message his superiors so far had ignored. His friend here was probably destined for a laboratory. They could not possibly send a stronger message.
Knocking the water tube from the kel'ijabra, the Imzaar began a series of hisses and clucks that Claviak alone had first hand knowledge to recognize as language. Idorian knelt over Imzaar and softly gave the verbal command to activate the Imzaar translation database.
The translator was far from perfect, being built mainly on Claviak's own experience with the Imzaar and the single captured Imzaar vessel. And, Claviak was no linguist. "Why keep us from this world?" The voice emanated from the comp-pad. "The Preservers gave us spark of knowledge, the language, they sent us to the stars. They sent us to this place. The proof is there. That is their night side. Are you they? Is this test? Why do you stop us?"
Claviak stood with Phras under Eris' wing. Praetr supervised closely as the surviving Imzaar, wrapped in wet blankets, was carried onto the shuttle. The corpses, sealed in plastic bags, were treated less delicately. Claviak shouted once to take care, alive or dead, they were still valuable specimens, both to the war effort and the Xenocyclopedia Galactica. And, XG would pay handsomely for them.
"Whoever built that, sent the Imzaar to this world?" Claviak pondered.
"That's what they seem to think." Phras said.
"And we found this world by accident?"
"That's what's in the history books."
"Hey Clav, . . . " Conroy's voice, which seemed to pierce Claviak's tympanic membrane, shattered the thoughtful pause between Claviak and the catholic kel'ijabra. ". . . I think I've got some bad news. You're going to want to get on the horn to Smythe about this right away."
"You are the senior officer. Why don't you get . . .?"
"Because I'm the senior officer. Look, I checked out the communications log for that last satellite the Imzaar took. They weren't using it as a weapon. They were using it to send a message."
"And did they?"
"Oh, you bet your sweet blue ass they sent it. Whether or not they got the satellite aligned properly . . . Well, if I were you, or Smythe, or whoever wants this headache, I'd point that Nagai Me telescope of the colonists out that way for a looksee."
"If this was some sort of a scout force . . .?" Phras said in disbelief.
"Then we are all going to join the ancestors. Or, whatever it is you do once you die." Claviak said, directing the last at Phras and his strange Earther religion.
Copyright 1998 by Scott Langley
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