By K. M. Tolan
Dedicated to the crew out at WePub, Doug and Pixie in particular. Also to my wife Vickie for her inspiration and final edits. Oh, and her patience.
The marine looked up over his beer. “Damn, that is one ugly bitch.”
Mikial’s ears pressed themselves flat against her skull. The human would not have the benefit of forewarning as she kept her ears hidden beneath short cinnamon combat braids. He would discover her extended claws readily enough. She let the bubble tent’s flimsy door clatter shut behind her. The offending slur came from the makeshift bar’s right corner. Be it the food hall, or some loose knot of grinning idiots, these comments always seemed to come from a right corner. She was so tired of it.
Mikial swiveled, her amber eyes fixing on two smirking United Nations marines at a folding table littered with white cups. The soldiers looked like smaller versions of her Datha sect, save that one’s skin was as pale as an Ipper. Biceps bulged from olive undershirts stained by what these people laughingly called beer. The smell, a rancid mix of drink and human odor, assailed her slender nostrils.
Baring teeth, she replied with a low hiss. The speaker was about her size at six hands, with a complexion a shade deeper than her own light mocha skin. His subspecies could almost pass for a Datha, save for the scent and the confusing fact that none of their races seemed particularly adept at anything. Except, perhaps, sharing an astonishing lack of manners and common sense. The rare Dathia like herself was not as strong as her male counterparts, but Mikial enjoyed being faster. Much faster. One would think these aliens would have learned that by now.
Her antagonists’ amused grins faded when she unhooked her helmet from her scaled armor’s webbed belt and dropped it to the floor. Conversation inside the tent ceased.
“Here, kitty kitty.” the darker of the two invited, knocking back his chair.
Mikial leapt with a roar before the marine’s companion could lurch to his feet. She slammed her head into the standing male’s broad brow, then dug her claws into his shoulder for purchase before kicking his drinking buddy into an adjacent table.
Her initial target aimed a fist. Skull ringing from her first blow, she seized the offending arm and hurled him after his friend. “Don’t forget your drinks!” she spat, flinging their table after them. Hissing, Mikial turned for the door. Ryan would have her ears for this.
Her hunting eyes, small glands buried inside her temples, caught the electrical pattern of the paler marine as he lunged. Spinning, she back-handed him into a neighboring cluster of gawkers, not wanting to rake him with her claws. As was, she scored his cheek. He stared dumbly at the blood dripping into his hands.
A wall of marines charged her. Breath whooshed from her lungs as their impact drove her through the green foam wall behind her. She landed outside on her back with two human males on top and more pinning her arms and legs. Blows to her scaled ballistic armor she could ignore, but not fists to her face. She sank her canines into anything that came close, hoping somebody would notice the brawl before Shandi physicians had to deal with the embarrassment of a broken nose.
“Officer on deck!” one of her attackers bawled out above the shouts and curses.
The soldiers scrambled to get off her. Dazed, Mikial found her feet in time to confront some bald-headed male in a pressed brown uniform. Captain’s epaulets glinted on his shoulders. She licked the heady taste of blood from her teeth.
The captain shook his head, then turned to the ragged line formed up behind her. “What did I tell you jar heads? Do not fuck around with the God-damned tiger kits!”
“Dathia!” Mikial ground out, hating that name as much as every other Datha female who endured training with these morons.
“Aren’t you in enough trouble already?” the officer returned, eyeing her. He fished a small recorder out of his shirt pocket. “Commander Donald’s office. Tell him it’s Mikial. Yeah, that one. Yes, I’ll bring those involved.” The captain’s grin was devoid of charity. “Who started it?”
“Sir!” The dark one stepped forward.
“As did I,” Mikial admitted, admiring the marine’s acceptance of responsibility. Humans weren’t without their merits.
“Well isn’t that a surprise,” the captain drawled. “You two follow me. The rest of you apes have fifteen minutes to re-foam the tent. Corporal, get your face fixed and be grateful she didn’t tear it off. Bar’s closed, gentlemen.”
“May I retrieve my helmet?” she asked, grateful for this officer’s interruption despite his disagreeable nature.
“May...I...get...my...helmet,” Mikial repeated, reining in her temper.
“If all that growling means get your helmet, then get it. Somebody ought to give these people speech lessons,” he added under his breath as she turned.
Mikial chose to ignore that last part. Ryan was already going to be furious without her slapping one of his commanders silly.
The captain commandeered one of the boxy military carriages darting about the base. Not wishing to trade scowls with her fellow combatant in the back seat, Mikial feigned interest in the flight line beside them. Orikai’s black volcanic soil had been pressed down by metal grids for nearly six hundred spans. Perched upon the tarmac were triangular gray assault carriers, several of the Invaders disgorging Datha fresh from training with all the new equipment. She had arrived in one of the machines herself only minutes before, needing to slake a thirst wrought from clambering up sand dunes a hemisphere away in Min Saja. Her mistake was in picking the wrong bar.
Mikial’s trepidation over confronting Ryan Donald rose when she saw a sleek white shuttle adjacent to the cluster of bubble tents serving as his headquarters. A line of officers was already filing into the void ship. Her amber eyes scanned the passengers for Ryan’s rakish sweep of black hair and his perpetual look of cleverness. With a little luck he would already be on board. The carriage rolled to a stop.
“You first, Suria!” came the flat-sounding directive in Dessan.
She sighed, and turned to the tent’s open door where a lean human stood in a tan short-sleeved uniform similar to the other officers. Few humans could speak her language fluently, and fewer still knew her by her title. Ryan knew far more, having shared previous adventures with her in the turbulent days of first contact between Qurls and his kind. Leaving the vehicle, she lowered her eyes and walked toward him.
“Not buying the contrite act for a moment,” Ryan quipped, stepping aside to allow her in the empty front office. “Not even five minutes since landing and you get into a fight. Trying to set a new record, Mikial?”
“Trying to get a beer,” she returned.
“We don’t serve what you call beer,” he replied. “Thought the Datha had their own tent.” Ryan shut the door behind them.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, looking around the vacated work stations.
“General Powel has called a meeting aboard the Tarawa ahead of your signing the treaty. Understand you haven’t even seen him yet.”
“The last time we met wasn’t particularly pleasant for either of us. There were deaths involved.”
“Yeah, I know. You were captured trying to sneak onto the planet Me’Auk a year back and things got ugly. Powel didn’t know who you were, Mikial. In fact, he didn’t know what Qurls were until you showed up. Can’t say that made for a good first impression.” Ryan’s pale jaw tightened. “Speaking of impressions, I was hoping you would set a better example than the other members of your Surian Guard I threw off base.”
“Then stop the name calling. They either want to insult me or act like I’m in constant Passion. How can your females possibly put up with this?”
“By putting up with it,” Ryan snapped back. He glanced at a timepiece on his wrist. “Let’s get this over with. So what’s the name you were called this time?”
“Ugly bitch,” she returned with a growl, switching back to Ryan’s language.
His narrow lips curled up. “I can honestly say you are not ugly. A bit on the feral side, but we’ve been through that before. As for the rest, it’s nothing that a little getting to know each other can’t cure.” He glanced out the door. “Captain, bring her new friend in. I’ve got a little mission these two can share.”
She bared her teeth. “Share? You wouldn’t dare stick me with that offal.”
Ryan folded his arms and grinned. “No special privileges, my dear. You were the one who asked for that, remember?”
“Consider our friendship over,” she huffed.
“I should be so lucky.”
~ * ~
“You’re slipping again!” Mikial rasped. “Don’t move.” She slid down the rough crumble of basalt to where the marine fought for a grip in the ancient lava flow. Only a stubborn knot of vines kept him from tumbling back into a jagged ravine. Her knife made short work of the cords holding the huge canister on his back. Grunting, she released his burden from its harness and jammed the apparatus between two curling tongues of black rock.
“What the hell you doing?” her teammate seethed, wedging his mechanical hand deeper into a cleft.
“Getting you out of that contraption so you can tell a good handhold from bad. Half the island knows our position by now.” Mikial worked the latches that secured him to what amounted to a green metal skeleton.
He spat out some word that the button in her right ear refused to translate. Moments later, the bracing flexed itself off him and careened into the collapsed lava tube. His dark face rewarded her efforts with a scowl. “That’s not coming out of my pay.”
She snorted then regarded the olive-drab canister they had been hauling up the mountain. “Your toy’s not that heavy.”
“Yeah, well you can hump it the rest of the way, lady. Gravity’s higher here.”
“I’m not your yhas, either.”
“What the hell’s a yhas?”
“An animal a lot smarter than you.” Mikial hefted herself to a position above their burden, only to have her own foothold start giving way.
His hands gripped her hips to steady her. “Not trying to get friendly. Now, you were say’n something about smart?” He helped push her up to a stable-looking outcrop. “Ready?”
Chagrined, she nodded. “Ready.”
“Coming up.” He put his shoulder’s armored pads beneath the canister and heaved.
Mikial seized straps along the object’s sides and jerked the seven-hand tall cylinder up beside her. Reaching down, she seized his arm and pulled him up as well. She looked around the thinning vegetation and sucked in a gulp of decidedly thinner air. Orikai’s southern peak provided a breathtaking view. From this vantage point, the training base looked like a small black square bordered on three sides by lush rain forest. A black ribbon of beach ran into the purple twilight of another temperate evening. The Curtain gradually revealed itself overhead in all of its gossamer star-speckled splendor.
She brushed bits of pumice off of her legs. “We’ve less than three chimes left to get this thing to the summit.”
He let out a labored breath, and pulled off his helmet. “This is fuck’n bullshit, man. They could’ve just flown this thing up here.”
“I know,” she agreed dryly.
“So how long is three chimes?”
“Nearly four of your hours.” Mikial pulled her helmet off as well, letting the cool breeze bring relief to her brow. “So, Corporal, mind telling me your name?”
His ebony face creased in what passed for a relenting smile. “Just call me Jonesy.” The human handed her his canteen - the first conciliatory gesture she had received since beginning their climb.
The water soothed her throat. “Mine is Mikial.” She gave him back his canteen, and offered him a ration biscuit from one of her leg pockets. “I don’t know if you’ll like it, but our food shouldn’t kill you.”
“Cat food, eh?”
“Do I look like I have fur all over me?” she countered, having seen pictures of their cats. Her irritation cooled with his experimental bite into her ration.
“You sure sound like one being stepped on when you’re pissed,” Jonesy replied with a laugh. “Damn...this shit’s spicy.”
She reached out for the biscuit.
“Oh hell no,” he replied, taking another bite. “What’s in it?”
“No idea,” Mikial admitted. “Our Cothra make it from some Shandi recipe.”
“Your what from who?”
“Cothra are our engineers and workers. Shandi heal. Weren’t you listening during the classes?”
He rubbed at his jaw. “Yeah, been learning a lot about your culture. Such as you liking to jump in people’s faces. Look…about the bar, I was talk’n shit, okay? Didn’t mean nothing. You Datha girls...” Jonesy shook his head. “Damn.”
“We’re all born to a purpose,” she muttered, not needing another human to remind her of her large stature. At six-and-a-half hands, she wasn’t pretty, willowy, or any of those other pleasant adjectives. No other sect was as physically set apart as the Datha, and their strong physiques only made matters worse for the few Dathia. What breasts she possessed were firmly couched in muscle, and the lines of her face would remain predatory until the end of her days. Disgruntled, she fished out a biscuit for herself.
“Hey, noth’n personal. How many specialized races you got, anyway?”
She held up four fingers. “Datha, Cothra, Shandi, and Ipper.”
“Ipper...yeah, met some of those. Little white guys with big ol’ hairy ears and telepathy.”
“Ear fans,” she corrected between chews. “Ipper are about as white as you call yourself black, and I have no idea what you otherwise said.”
“Something like that,” she agreed, thinking of her own hidden ear fans. As far as most humans knew, she was just another Dathia...not an amalgamation of all four sects thanks to Change fever. Mikial regarded this particular human example of how confusing his kind were. “Don’t you have any race that actually does something?”
He grinned and shook his head as if deciding against speaking.
Bound beneath braids or not, her ears picked up a faint whisper in the air. “Drones.” She slid her helmet on and tapped at her wrist panel. Within moments her scaled armor blurred into textures resembling the black basalt around them.
“Yeah, whatever,” he grumbled, grabbing his helmet. “Probably check’n on us.” He too became as a phantom, his suit blending into the background. Both of them glanced over at the green canister laying in plain sight.
“Shit,” Jonesy sighed in her headphones.
Her visor brought up a red reticle that followed a small silver bat-like flyer a few hundred spans down slope. Had she any grenades, the remote’s journey would have been a short one. Her suit could also generate a temporary shield if need be. In the fight to come, it would be machines like this posing the greatest threat. “Gone,” she said after the dot vanished over the treetops below.
They both re-materialized. Jonesy tapped at her shoulder. “So you guys made this stuff?”
“With a little help.”
He flashed a white seat of teeth. “A little? Word is you guys were pretty much backwoods until the Me’Aukins dropped all this tech on you.”
Her narrowed eyes tempered his derisive grin. She pointed westward through the gathering twilight. “See the barren area near the beach? That was where humans from your former colony world of Corven tried invading us. We didn’t need the Me’Aukins for what we did to them to down there.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. Saw the same thing up northeast...Min Saja, right? Whole place was fried.”
“Our Taqurl ancestors burned Min Saja with White Spears.”
Jonesy gestured toward the denuded slopes along the western coastline. “Same thing?”
“Same thing,” she answered softly, wishing she could shrug off those memories. Like the look in her beloved Pell’s eyes when her suit’s experimental shield was the only thing between them and a horrid silent death. Both of them expected to die after being caught in the White Spear’s strike during his rescue. Even still, the radiation nearly killed them. Never again my love. She rose up on tired legs. “Let’s get this done.”
They reached the summit in less than two chimes, Mikial keeping them well away from treacherous ground around the crater lip as nightfall set in. She held the bulky canister upright while Jonesy deployed a tripod stand from the thing’s base.
“Get back,” he cautioned.
Mikial obeyed, watching as anchor rods drilled into the basalt. The apparatus literally blossomed like a flower, the cylinder’s sides becoming petals surrounding an apparatus reminding her of a Datha plasma cannon. The machine gave an anti-climatic chirp.
“So what exactly is this thing?” she asked.
“Tachyon transmitter,” he explained with disinterest. “We can send a message all the way back to Earth in little over four hours. Got a string of relay stations ten times this sucker’s size. Be glad we didn’t have to drag all that shit up here.” Jonesy looked skyward. “These babies will even punch through your crap up there like it was noth’n.”
“We happen to like the crap up there,” she returned coolly, taking in a perspective even grander than the view down slope. The Curtain outlined Orikai’s northern peak in brilliant swirls of star stuff, casting a lavender hue over a distant glittering ocean. The base lights wavered against a velvet blackness. Behind her lay the great volcanic bowl, looking every bit like an abyss in the darkness. Night winds brought up the smell of cinders like ancient memories of fires long dormant. Sheer basalt cliffs were painted in soft rose hues. “So what brought you all the way out here, Jonesy?”
He twisted around as if caught by surprise. “Dunno. Chance to start over, maybe. Get myself a little patch of land where we’re headed once I’m out of this shit-hole corps.”
It was Mikial’s turn for surprise. “A little patch of land? The idea is to toss your former colonists off Me’Auk and give it back to the Me’Aukins, not do the same yourselves.”
The soldier sat back against a shelf of old lava. “Yeah, well maybe those little green suckers shouldn’t have lost it in the first place. You can’t hold what you got, someone’s gonna come along and take it. That’s the way it works,” he finished off with another toothy grin.
Mikial found a chair-sized boulder to sit on across from him. “You know, showing your teeth like that in my culture is considered a threat.” She removed her helmet, happy to once again feel the cool breeze waft through her braids. “Don’t get your hopes up about any land because I don’t think the Me’Aukins are in a mood to share. They tried that once with humans a few hundred years ago...it didn’t work so well. I doubt the clans are going to make the same mistake twice.”
Jonesy replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “So you Qurls are helping these Me’Aukins out because you’re being all nice’n shit?” He laughed. “Gettin all those shiny goodies from both sides now, aren’t ya? Big shots playin’ the game, and you and I foot’n the bill.” He pulled off his helmet and propped it up on the rocks behind him as a makeshift headrest. “Don’t matter the species...it’s all the same bullshit.”
Mikial kept her temper in check. And if I told you I was one of those big shots of yours? The idea that these soldiers were being offered land on Me’Auk sent her head spinning in all the wrong directions. True, the Me’Aukins suspected such treachery from a race they referred to as “Foe”, but to be so blatant about it just ahead of the treaty? She needed to yell at someone, but not a lowly corporal. “This exercise is over,” Mikial grated, standing up.
“Says who?” Jonesy smirked. “We’re up here till the sun shines, girl.”
Mikial removed the pins from her side braids and shook her hair free. Her tapered ears appreciated the release, as did her ear fans. A cinnamon spray rose from the upper edge of her ears to end in translucent white tips even with the crown of her head.
Jonsey’s mouth sagged. “What the...thought you were a Datha.”
“Dathia,” she corrected. “I am, with a good mix of every other sect thrown in. Especially Ipper.”
“So what the hell you called, then?”
“A Great Suria. Now hush.”
Mikial focused inwardly, squeezing her thoughts into the right pitch and timbre. Public-Formal Octave. Datha Channel. Orikai Note. <Orikai Datha, this is Mikial.>
Everything to the Ipper was a “guess”, with the best guess being the most probable. By such rules, even reality was multiple-choice. Such thinking belonged with Other Octaves, of course, and those were Octaves the Ipper preferred not to talk about. Even among themselves. Mikial kept to what she trusted to be real enough. In this case, it was a bleary-eyed Ipper Combat Signaler sitting somewhere in the Qurl compound far below her. She “guessed” an elder male leaning back on supply crates.
He straightened upon receiving her “tap”. <Great Suria, this is Orikai. How can we help you?>
<Is Colonel Ryan back from the Tarawa?>
<I want to be on the ramp when Ryan lands, which means I need off this volcano I’m sitting on.>
There was a pause before he signaled back. <Rain Shadow is sending a skiff.>
<Extend my thanks.> Her fans lost their stiffness and settled back against her ears. Mikial returned Jonesy’s stare with a nod. “You ever see a Me’Aukin up close?”
He shook his head. “Shit no.”
Her smile drew back to reveal sharp canines.