tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Alnatic Encounter Ch. 04

The Alnatic Encounter Ch. 04

byLatenight_Pondering©

Theo had wandered around for a while after Harry and his team left. He'd caught up on his logs, which had taken until after lunch. Then, with nothing better to do, he headed for a poker game that had been going most of the day. Before he did, Theo realized a couple of things; he was the leader and therefore couldn't really win against his team, not this soon. And that it would be really hard not to win. So instead, he went and found a quiet spot to read which quickly turned into a nap.

As he began to dream, Theo changed things to be a little more interesting. Kawehi had taught him lucid dreaming techniques and he'd really gotten into it. Emma was wandering around telling him what to do, so he traded her head for a full sized T. Rex. He laughed his head off, then screamed and ran as the rest of her body followed. After she'd bitten his arms off a few times, he left her behind and wandered over the landscape in his head. There was a hollow boom and he looked around. That didn't really belong to the dream.

Theo opened his eyes as another echoing boom reached the camp. Then there were more. Everyone was standing up, staring at the direction Harry had left. Theo sprinted to the HQ.

"What's going on?" Theo asked Marisol.

She shook her head. "No idea, they didn't take a radio."

"Backup team?"

She shook her head again. "We need to be defensive, find out what's going on before rushing out to get rolled up piecemeal."

Theo saw the logic in it but didn't like it at all. Outside, Rachel was issuing bolt action rifles to the Ta'avi Pioneers. All of them looked competent, scattering to the positions they'd set up yesterday.

The distant, echoing gunfire had stopped after a few minutes. The bird things were arguing in the trees with an occasional howler interrupting. The bird things fell silent as there was a distant yell. People held their breath, trying to hear what it was.

The distant cry was repeated. "Medic!"

The camp exploded into action. Josie, the med-tech, ran down the street with several Pioneers behind her. Theo tried to stay where he was but the urge to follow them was strong, almost a physical pull.

Hell with it, I don't hear any shooting, Theo thought. He looked at Emma and she gave him a tiny nod.

Marisol had binoculars out, trying to see into the gloom. She sighed as the twins ran through the picture as they headed down the boulevard.

By the time Theo and Emma had gotten there, the medical team was dealing with the injuries. Emma saw Holm leaning against a wall, his face gray as a Pioneer wound more gauze around the blood soaked bandages that covered his left hand. Theo's mind was racing as he tried to look at everything at once. One of the Cadets had his gun trained on a shape Theo didn't recognize but that could wait, there weren't enough people here. Then he looked back at Vuli and realized she was carrying one of the Pioneers. Jonesy was just behind her, helping one of the others walk over the rough ground. As Theo ran over, Vuli carefully set the Pioneer down and Theo saw blood matting her fur in several places.

"Commander," she said weakly.

"Sit down," Theo ordered and yelled over his shoulder for a medical kit.

Jonesy lowered the other Pioneer to the ground. He had several puncture wounds in his hip and leg.

Vuli's body shuddered. "Two went through my arm, rest of them...nothing."

"Yeah, right," Theo said, searching her fur for the wounds.

"I regret...there were casualties...we were totally surprised..." Vuli said.

Emma ran over with a medical kit and helped Theo. They found two wounds in the arm, but the bleeding was minor. Emma bandaged them anyway. The rest of the scrapes looked like ricochets and had already stopped oozing blood.

"We have thick skins," Vuli said. "I will mend."

"She's in a sort of shock," Jonesy said as Emma helped him with the other Pioneer. "She needs to rest for a while."

"Then you're done carrying anyone," Emma said to Vuli. "I sent a runner back to get stretchers, Theo."

He nodded without looking around. The medic had put him to work putting pressure on the other Pioneer's abdominal wounds. "Jonesy, where are the other three?"

Vuli's crest drooped flat down the back of her head. "I am full of grief, regret, guilt. They surprised us."

"Someone needs to tell me where the other three are," Theo said. "Now, not later."

"They're dead," Jonesy rasped. "Shep, Harry, and Imae. We hid their bodies, I'll go get them."

"You can sit down and drink this," the medic said, handing him a bottle of water.

She kept talking and but Theo couldn't hear anything over the roaring in his ears. He had known somehow, as soon as she wasn't with the others. He got up and stumbled over to the side of the street and leaned against the wall. He stayed there, mind racing in useless circles, ignoring everything until Emma put a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Stretchers are here. Let's get back to camp, Sparrow."

He pushed himself off the wall. "I want to go get her."

Marisol was in front of him wearing field gear. "You will go back to camp, we will take care of that."

He started to argue but she pulled on his hands, making him hold them up. They were trembling like leaves.

"People need to see their captain right now," Marisol said, her voice impossibly gentle. "I'll take care of it myself, okay?"

Theo nodded and watched Marisol and a fresh team follow Jonesy back down the street. He pushed himself off the wall and helped Vuli to her feet. Brown uniforms gently lifted the wounded and headed for camp. Theo walked behind them, unable to look away from the blood soaked figures. People came to talk to him several times, but Emma shook her head and pointed the other way. He'd have as much peace as she could give him, if it was only for the walk back to camp.

Theo was sitting on the edge of the shuttle ramp beside Imae. Shep and Harry had already been taken inside. He didn't know where they were put, but knowing the Commonwealth, someone had already thought about this happening. There was a space for her beside the other two, undoubtedly something calculated to be safe and soothing for the survivors. That meant they could get on with their mission with minimal impacts to morale and effectiveness. Had he really been excited about coming here? Now he was really sick of the place, sick of the war, sick of all of it. He hadn't known what real misery was until he'd come here. Life back in Watsons Hole had been brutal and cruel but he'd hadn't ever let himself care. He'd been insulated from pain like this. He stared down the wide avenue as the thoughts spun through his head. The sun was overhead and they were in emerald tunnels splashed and dappled with gold. It was offensive and ridiculous. Nothing had a right to be beautiful, not anymore.

There were voices from the camp but he let the sounds slide past him. Theo was suddenly so tired of leading, of setting the example. Let someone else pick up the burden for once, he'd done enough. Now Imae was gone and it was his fault. He should have known what to do, known to keep all of them safe and hidden. And where was the Project's perfectly engineered plan now? They'd relied on a weak, untested cog and it had failed. Now people were dead. How was he supposed to cope with seventeen more people depending on him? None of this was right and none of it was fair. How was he supposed to make sense of this?

Get your shit back in one sock, you're not done yet, Imae whispered in his memory. That's what she'd be saying right now. He looked down at her lying on the deck next to him and wiped the tears away.

No, she wouldn't put up with him quitting, not yet. Once they were safe, once the mission was complete, okay. Imae would understand him walking away once he got everyone home.

Because Imae died doing her job and knew you'd do the same. All three of them died doing their best for you. Don't you dare waste that.

He carefully opened the nylon bag. Her face was pale and still beautiful. But somehow it didn't look like her anymore.

Of course not, Imae doesn't live here anymore.

Theo bent and kissed her lips one last time.

"I'm going to get to work now. Theo said quietly, closing the body bag. "I love you, Chyles'garrel Ittmataera'xoch Flame-Bridge'ohh. Rest well."

Emma was standing at the base of the shuttle ramp with Ayr and Rachel. Emma started to hug him as he walked down but he shook his head.

"I'm fine. How is Holm?" Theo asked as they watched Rachel and Ayr gently pick up Imae and take her into the shuttle.

"He'll live. He's angry, wants to fight."

Theo stepped off the cargo ramp. "Now that the bugs know we're here, he'll probably get his chance."

She hopped down beside him. "What's next?"

"Next, I want to see this thing they captured," he said, starting toward the command tent. "I've got some questions to ask."

Emma caught his shoulder and turned him around. "Not a 'thing,' Sparrow. A person."

"Whatever, let me go."

"No, Theo. I want you to say it."

His rage flashed into life. "Fine then. The person who killed our friends, Emma. I want to see this person."

Emma didn't let go of his shoulder when he tried to pull away. "Not yet."

"I said, let me go!" Theo snapped, trying to yank away from her.

Emma kept holding his arm. "Do you remember the part of the job where I protect everyone from you?"

"Emma, I swear to god, if you don't let go of me..."

"You'll do something predictably stupid. Then I'll bounce you on your head."

"Fuck you!" Theo screamed. "They murdered them! For a seismic beacon? Harry, Shep and Imae. They're gone!"

"Yes they are," Emma said calmly. "Words don't begin to work for what I feel right now, but I am so incredibly sorry."

Theo stopped pulling away and his mouth twisted. Emma put her arms around him and hugged him tightly as he sobbed several times.

"I loved her," he finally whispered. "I didn't realize in time. I didn't get to tell her."

Emma smiled and put her cheek against his. "She knew, trust me."

After a minute, Theo let go of her and wiped his eyes. "But I don't think she'd like what I'm feeling about our prisoner right now."

Emma nodded. "She'd probably kick your ass for even thinking about it."

That got a small smile out of him. "Thank you for stopping me."

"Thank you for not hating me, that was nerve wracking."

"Tulip, I will never hate you. Especially for something like this."

Emma stopped and looked into his eyes.

"I hope you're right," she finally said.

A Cadet and a Pioneer were guarding the door to the building they'd put the prisoner in. Both of them stiffened and saluted as Theo and Emma approached. Theo sighed inwardly but he saluted them back. He really didn't want to start that, but they'd lost friends too. So they were hurting as much as he was and had to do something. So they saluted.

"How is Holm really doing?" Theo asked as they walked up the stairs to where the prisoner was.

Emma smiled a little. "At the moment, he's off his tits on pain killers. You ready for this?"

"Do you think we can actually communicate?"

"Yes," Vuli said as they came into the small room. "He has a translator for Xyalatrax. Gyr translators include all of the known languages. I have adjusted, jury rigged, kludged, a connection."

Theo looked at the collection of torn apart translators on the table and hoped she was right.

"He will speak, his translator changes his words to Bug. The other translator takes that and changes it to Gyr. You should hear a translation. It will be somewhat slower but you will understand his words."

Theo patted Vuli on her oversized shoulder. Marisol came into the room and put several bottles of water on the table in front of the Other who sat on folded legs behind the table. The sketches they'd gotten from a distance had made this group look a bit like centaurs but there wasn't much similarity at close range. There were four powerful legs ending in powerful looking clawed feet. The legs resembled a dog's back legs rather than a horse though. From the place where the legs joined, there was a broad torso supporting a number of arms. There were two smaller sets folded against the chest midway up the torso. At the top shoulder was a larger pair, one much larger than the other, like a crab's pinchers. What he could see of the skin was covered by a coarse black fur. There was a thick neck supporting a broad head. Pointed ears rose slightly above the rounded skull. There was a heavy brow ridge and deep set black eyes. The mouth was a muzzle, reminiscent of a dog's, although much shorter and broader.

It watched as Theo sat at the table and Emma stood beside and a little behind him. Theo nodded at Vuli and she did something to the translators.

The creature immediately made a short speech and Theo waited as the translators sifted through everything.

"My name is Djoshu va Delaii va Garrahn va Lebba of the Kelthoi," the metallic vocie finally said. "I did not take up arms against the prefcoria, or whatever your people are called."

"My name is Theo Cosineau, I'm the commander of this expedition. Yes, we're part of the prefcoria."

"Do you accept my word? War between us has not been blessed and I would not blaspheme."

"Is that thing working right?" Theo asked Vuli who gave him a thumbs up.

"When I took him, he carried only a blade," Vuli confirmed. "But I was in a hurry and may have missed anything else."

"A blade is all I carried," Djoshu said. "I've been captured by the Ginthii in the wars at home. I was not told anything noble about your people but since the binnaa did not immediately kill me, I assume you are not the raving barbarians we were told."

"What is this binnaa word?" Vuli rumbled, crest twitching.

Theo saw Djoshu flinch slightly. "Not an insult! My people know yours of old, in the times that our ships traveled across the stars. We called you binn'aa, it is the old word meaning every one all the same. I swear it is not an insult."

"I do not remember your people, but my name is Vuli."

Djoshu bowed his head slightly. "Then I say it is a pleasure to know you, that fist rattled my brain very well."

"Why are you here on Alnatic?" Theo asked.

Djoshu made a strange rippling gesture with his shoulders. "These Xyalatrax want my world to be their ally in the war against the prefcoria. But my people, the Kelthoi, do not become war-kin with strangers in a hurry. We came here to see what they were like. You were not expected to be here, we were here to support their exploration only."

"That's why you are concerned about being in the attack?" Theo asked.

The Kelthoi's voice sounded surprised. "Of course. There is no declaration of war between us. To attack without warning is abhorrent, were I to take up weapons against you, the Lords of Strife would be enraged."

"Were there more of you in the attack?" Marisol asked.

"There were two of us, but I sent Fluffy back to my commander before the...ambush. It was critical that he learn about the nature of the Xyalatrax."

"You say ambush with distaste," Vuli said.

"Of course! It is a thing badly done, without any honor. The spirits of the slain freely haunt any who take part in such a abomination."

Trying to talk directly to the Kelthoi was annoying enough that Theo mostly listened to Vuli talk, interjecting questions when he needed to. The Kelthoi occupied the fourth planet in their solar system. They were technologically advanced enough to develop a rudimentary FTL drive and had been in the early stages of exploring the galaxy around them. There had been some kind of revolt on the Kelthoi homeworld, so disruptive that most of the leading scientists had been killed or executed. The technology for the FTL drive was lost at the same time and for several generations the Kelthoi had been trapped on their own world. Their society was based on a extended familial connections and individuals were further subdivided into Clans for different activities. As the population grew with no way off world, the Kelthoi had begun to war amongst themselves.

When spaceflight had been reestablished they found that their first colony, on the third planet of their home system, had assumed their independence and weren't eager to become vassals to the homeworld again. Gintha, the colony's name, declared war on the homeworld. The Kelthoi happily accepted and they'd been fighting ever since. When Theo asked how they had avoided destroying each other, the Kelthoi was confused. It had taken Vuli a while to work out that all of the fighting took place on a third planet that no one wanted. From the sound of it, the battles were formally arranged and casualties were fairly light. The goal wasn't the destruction of the enemy, but some sort of prearranged goal. Djoshu assumed that the prefcoria fought in the same fashion and urged them to surrender to his warchief before the unpredictable Xyalatrax joined the battle.

"I have been a prisoner in battle, I survived. I am not sure how the Xyalatrax would treat you, I have only seen the defective mind that attacked you. You are not battle prisoners, your status would be higher like diplomats. You would be well treated."

"Among the Kelthoi," Theo said. "What about your patrons?"

"We would protect you of course," Djoshu said slowly. "I believe we could."

"Let's take a break," Theo said. "Someone see what our guest needs in the way of food or drink. Marisol, could I have a word please?"

Theo turned without waiting for an answer and went downstairs. Marisol came down behind him and Theo suggested they take a walk. She nodded and Theo told Emma to go check on Holm and get something to eat.

"What's up?" Marisol asked after they'd walked a few minutes.

"I want to talk about what the options are at the moment. I was getting overwhelmed thinking about the implications of the Kelthoi with the Bugs."

"Run through what you've got," Marisol said. "I'll interrupt if I think you missed anything."

"Looks to me like we hide, fight, or surrender and hope the Kelthoi protect us. I don't care about the planet, my mission is getting everyone home alive. At the moment, hiding looks like the best alternative."

"I'd agree except one thing," Marisol said. "We can't take the shuttle along. That's the only effective way we have right now to talk to people in orbit. We likely won't see them come out of drive space like the Bugs. If they can't raise us, more than likely they'll nuke the Bug ship from orbit and wait for reinforcements before anyone lands, standard procedure."

"I didn't consider that," Theo said, embarrassed. "But I was worried about leaving the synthetic behind, it felt kind of shitty."

"I'm not sure, but I assume the synth would probably take itself out before being captured. So we're down to fight or surrender."

Theo stopped and looked up through the trees. "If I could trust Djoshu's word, maybe surrender would get the most people home safe. Even if that's not a bluff, I get the feeling that the Bugs would just kill everyone."

"I agree, they're pretty single-minded when it comes to prefcoria."

Theo sighed. "Fighting is going to be suicide. We've got a better position and we can make it pretty expensive, but there's no way we're winning."

"We could pull it off with another couple of teams, the Bugs really suck at ground warfare. But without any heavy weapons, sorry. I can't see a way out of it."

"Kawehi talked about giving difficult orders, but I didn't think I'd be ordering a fight to the death my first time out. But that's better than sending them to an execution."

It was Marisol's turn to sigh. "You got stuck with this shit-burger your first time but I don't know what I would have differently. I don't often say this, but I'm impressed, Theo. You've got a real talent for command. What are you going to do with the Kelthoi?"

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