Unpelted - A Story of the Unity Sphere

Status: 1st Draft

Unpelted - A Story of the Unity Sphere

Status: 1st Draft

Unpelted - A Story of the Unity Sphere

Short Story by: Seabrass

Details

Genre: Science Fiction

Content Summary


Over 16K words of glorious military science-fiction set in the milieu of the Unity Sphere; On his first mission for the Unity Fleet, thrown into a situation for which he wasn't really trained,
Highensign Westyr Shelhou must find himself and make hard decisions not only to save his own ass but several thousand of his fellow troopers.



Some things I'm looking for: Does it hold your interest throughout? Is it too long? Any technical or story-type blunders? And of course all the usual...

 

 

Content Summary


Over 16K words of glorious military science-fiction set in the milieu of the Unity Sphere; On his first mission for the Unity Fleet, thrown into a situation for which he wasn't really trained,
Highensign Westyr Shelhou must find himself and make hard decisions not only to save his own ass but several thousand of his fellow troopers.



Some things I'm looking for: Does it hold your interest throughout? Is it too long? Any technical or story-type blunders? And of course all the usual...

Content

Submitted: August 16, 2019

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Content

Submitted: August 16, 2019

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Cordless remote in hand, Highensign Westyr Shelhou of pelt Thrun crouched by the side of the sub-puel and stared at the murky brown water. His thumb rested on the stud that would drain the container and end the lives of his four potenshi.

Press it. Waited too long as it is.

Even at this last moment, he still hoped for a sign. A rippling of the calm surface indicating one of his potenshi was breaching, leaving the mud, coming into the light. Becoming a progeni. A child. His child.

First-time couplings rarely produced progeni. He’d had high expectations. He’d been an honest, hard-working, dependable progeni himself, excelling in his lessons. Earned the rank of Highensign over Ensign by graduating third in his class at the Unity Fleet Academy. And Grais was of reputable lineage. She’d produced a progeni a season earlier. She’d chosen him this time due to his early successes.

He glanced at the clock above the puelhouse entrance. A quarter-hour remained before he had to board the village tramway if he intended to reach the shuttleport on time. Arrive at his first assignment on time. His duffel lay on the planks near the grass.

His thumb brushed the remote’s sub-puel-drain stud.

Pressing it would empty the sub-puel, one of six around the central puel. Progeni splashed and played in the water in four. The fifth had already been drained, Funsin having flushed his five potenshi into the swamp the mid-day before. Poor, anguished Funsin, failing in his ninth coupling now and threatened with unpelting. Only his status as one of the pelt’s two senior core engineers had prevented it thus far. But failure to contribute to the pelt’s growth after so many couplings...

Do it and be done.

He lifted his thumb.

“Why is this so hard?” he whispered, shoulders slumping, body sagging. He placed his free hand flat on the planks. It shouldn’t mean anything. First couplings were more for the experience than progeni. Maybe because he and Grais had produced four potenshi, an unusually high number. And he’d excelled at everything in his young life thus far.

He’d do anything for his pelt. Achieve any success. His progeni would benefit the pelt.

Is this failure? Is it supposed to hurt so?

He’d been warned by close relatives to temper expectations...

Overhead, birds flitted through the dome of branches and leaves and warbled pretty songs. Thumbras and keekpoos rustled in the lush underbrush. Insects fluttered, buzzed, and churried. A steady breeze kept the humidity away. Two progeni from the next sub-puel explored the grass and flowers past the planks around their watery home, where they’d grow until they aged enough to remain on land, their first step in becoming adult byveri. They tittered and chirped at each other–tk-tk-tk, wht-wht, op-op-op.

All too soon they’d learned to speak.

He’d hoped to know how hearing that felt.

His ears twitched at a chime from the main entrance. The door creaked open. Dennox, one of the pelt elders, stepped into the puelhouse. Over his brown-going-to-gray fur, he wore a button-down sleeveless shirt, shorts, and sandals. A wide-brimmed hat with grooves for his ears shaded his head and neck. Pelt Thrun’s black-and-yellow spots stood out against the colors of his fur. He carried supplies to clean the empty sub-puel: a bucket, sponges, a mop with its handle collapsed. Disinfectant.

He shuffled several steps around the puel before he noticed Westyr and stopped.

“Oh. Apologies. I thought—”

Westyr straightened. “No, it is— I am finishing now.”

Dennox lowered his supplies to the planks. “I can leave.”

“No, it is no bother. I just...” He lowered his gaze to the murky water.

“It is all right to keep hoping.”

“Sure. But by now, at least one— I would have thought—”

The elder removed his hat. His round ears curled back. “I understand. It took me until my third coupling to produce progeni.”

“And you have so many now. The pelt appreciates you.”

“Yes, twelve.” He chuckled. “You will be recognized as well, Westyr, in time. I do not doubt. Do not weigh yourself down over this. You will progenate. I am certain.”

Westyr thumbed the remote again. “But when? I leave for my first assignment today. I do not know when I will return. Annuals, likely. By then...” Any contributions to the pelt will have been forgotten, even if he succeeded beyond expectations in the Fleet. The pelt would deem his inclusion unnecessary and his spots allowed to fade.

Why did I ever think the Fleet was the right path?

But oddly, it hadn’t been as though he’d had a lot of options. And the Fleet offered the best chance for skill specialization. It had seemed an easy decision at the time.

“By then.” Dennox sighed and spread his arms. “Well, look on the good side. If you are unpelted, you have the Unity Fleet as your pelt, always. That is not a bad thing. Not at all.”

Westyr scowled. “Just no progeni. Ever.” And a coat of plain brown fur, signaling to all who knew of such things that he was without true pelt affiliation. An unsuccessful byveri.

“Yes, there will be that. But if you serve your pelt well, there is honor in that. The potential for memori. And I believe you will serve your Fleet well, young Westyr.” He tapped his shoulder, where on Westyr’s sleeveless mesh tunic a rank insignia was embroidered. “You have demonstrated such already and it has only been...what? A half-annum?”

Westyr grunted. A half-annum since this first coupling, those months spent in arduous training as a Fleet field intelligence technologist. Right after he’d finished a just-as-arduous quarter-annum at the Fleet academy. He’s spent his two weeks in between with Grais. Pleasant, yes, but quick.

He studied the water again. No ripples, no sign of life. His four potenshi were in there, probably nestled in the sub-puel’s bottom mud. He might reach in, stroke one of their backs.

A half-annum. Now this one week off. Then on to his first assignment.

He’d wasted his last four days crouched here in the heat. Feeling the stares of those with progeni as they came and went. Communicating with Grais through their dataplates only, she unwilling to see him, perhaps blaming him for their lack of success. Having produced progeni once, she was in far less danger of unpelting than he.

The experience left him feeling...unwelcome. As though the black-and-yellow spots mottling his fur across his face, arms, legs, chest, belly, and back meant nothing. As though they were already erased.

If I already do not belong, then...

He rose. “Well, I will be gone for much longer now.” He pressed the sub-puel-drain stud. “Much longer.”

Its bottom opening, the sub-puel drained with a loud gurgle, its contents dumped into the stream flowing beneath the puelhouse. His four potenshi might manage for a day or two before they succumbed. To the pelt, they were already dead.

Now they were returned to the mud.

From the mud we arise, to the mud we settle.

He set the remote in its cradle on a stand between his sub-puel and the next—well, no longer his sub-puel. The empty sub-puel. Duffel in hand, he walked to the door, boots clomping on the planks.

Dennox lifted his supplies. “I will clean that for you.”

Westyr mumbled, “Appreciations,” then left.

* * *

The mission briefing klaxons blared through the Jessiper’s speakers. Three short bursts, loud in the dressing hall. The ensuing silence was filled with lockers being slammed shut, the babble of conversation, boots scuffing across the deck.

“This is it.”

Westyr looked up from his boot buckles. His friend Tiegue sounded less certain now with the mission briefing summons, which meant they were an hour, maybe two, before their first battle assignment. First time in the field.

“Breathe, Ensign,” he said. “Remember to breathe.”

“Breathe, yes, Highensign.” Tiegue slapped the last of his boot buckles into place and straightened.

Around them, the rest of Intel Team Four bustled about. The two tall, broad-shouldered kavax checked each other’s battle dress, their neck scales an emotionless yellow-green. Joshing with each other, the four humans sauntered through the hatch, confident their straps were tight, their buckles clasped. The eight other byveri on the team followed, the tallest a head shorter than the shortest human.

Despite their differences, they worked well together, as did most humans, byverii, and kavax. It helped their body structures were similar, the length of their days roughly equal, as were their life-needs, like breathable air and comfortable temperatures. Westyr always thought the Sha-Ho, the advanced race who’d brought the three species together to form the Unity Sphere about thirty-five annums earlier, had chosen well.

He and Tiegue inspected each others’ level-one battlesuits—plates of thin armor over black mesh, nothing bulky, the only interfaces in their helmets. They’d be mostly at their stations in the Ackindare, the intel team’s dropship, and wouldn’t even wear their helmets much. Their duties would focus on operating intel-gathering drones, directing troops, deciphering intercepted transmissions, and standing in with interrogators when necessary. No need for anything more than level-one.

After a day of heavy fighting, the Unity Fleet controlled the airspace above their landing zone. If the perimeters were breached and things got too rough, the Ackindare would simply heave herself back into orbit.

“We have nothing to fret.” Westyr tightened the strap on Tiegue’s backplate that the younger byveri always missed. “Just listen, translate, pass the data on. We have been trained well to handle this. Breathe and let your lessons take over.”

Tiegue inhaled, exhaled. “First-time jitters. How come you are so steady?”

Westyr felt the drain stud against his thumb and heard the gurgle of water as the sub-puel emptied. Felt the weight of the sub-puel’s emptiness in his chest. He pushed such thoughts away, unwilling to think of failure. Not today. “That is why I am Highensign. I do not get jitters, first time or not.” He slapped his friend’s shoulderplate. “Come. One last mission briefing before we transform into battle-hardened veterans.”

They laughed and walked from the dressing hall, as usual the last to leave.

Their intelligence team captain, a human, met them at the hatch.

“Highensign! There you are. What, you and Tiegue stroking each other’s fur again before dropping into the shit?”

Westyr and Tiegue snapped to attention. “No, sir!” Westyr shouted, shifting from his native tongue to Sphere Standard, which all races understood. “Making certain our dress is square so you can fret and fume over the less competent techs. Sir!”

The captain’s eyebrows rose, then he snorted. “Well, shit, Highensign. That’s about as flip an answer as I’ve heard all damn day.” His gaze shifted. “Ensign Tiegue, carry on.” He jerked his head toward the briefing hall.

Tiegue gave Westyr a glance before heading off. Taking a deep breath, Westyr nodded. His friend’s expression—eyes round, lips pursed, nostrils flared, ears perked straight—concerned him.

Remember, Tiegue, breathe.

“Highensign. Follow me. You’re about to have your day royally cruksed.”

The captain was several steps off before Westyr regained his senses. Royally what? He hurried to catch up.

The captain’s pace left no time for conversation.

Westyr thought he knew the Jessiper’s cramped corridors and crowded passageways, but in no time he was lost. At least they remained on the same deck. The way his thoughts tumbled, he wasn’t certain he’d have handled the steep steps. Not at his captain’s pace, anyway.

They emerged into the Jessiper’s main assembly hall, the giant enforcement carrier’s largest space. Boots pounded across deck plating. Hovertanks rumbled into dropships. Shouted orders rose up. Everything echoed. Smells permeated the air, from human and kavax sweat to oil used on weaponry to tangs of metals and plastics and synthetics. Cranes maneuvered overhead, their loads swinging slightly. Chains rattled. Sparks flew from maintenance bays. Something gave a metallic groan. Human curses followed. “Shut the cruksing thing down, god dammit!”

Westyr flattened his ears against his scalp. With all the movement, the sights, sounds, and smells... He’d avoided the main assembly hall when possible. Few byveri braved it, in fact. Those who did had truly made the Fleet their pelt.

Why had the captain led him here? These were the troops dropping into combat. Direct combat, with orders screamed out, weapons blasting, explosions, cries for help... He’d had a week’s worth of training in simulated conditions. Good simulations, too—he’d spent time in a medical bay afterward getting stitches and splints and balms. He’d qualified to handle the standard Bright Arc-3 field rifle preferred by the Tac-teams, and test-fired the Heavy Assault teams’ Bright Arc-Kannon 4—that sucker had left his shoulder bruised and aching for a week.

He knew something of what these troops were descending to face.

His pulse quickened.

Am...I going with them?

His steps faltered. His captain disappeared into the shifting crowd ahead.

Breathe, Highensign. Breathe.

Again, this time dodging troopers in bulky level-four battlesuits, their integrated backpacks humming with power, he caught up to his captain.

This is my pelt. I must bring honor.

The captain ducked into a briefing hall, where dozens of troopers speaking in low voices milled about before a briefing platform. On a pair of large plates above, the Unity Fleet’s emblem—golden twin concentric circles—floated against a star-filled background. On the platform stood a number of captains, highcaptains, commodores, and an admiral, identified by the insignia on and colors of their shoulderplates. Each had a dataplate in hand or a chrono embedded in their forearmplate. Sometimes both.

In their thin level-one, Westyr thought he and his captain were inappropriately underdressed.

A captain on the platform noticed them approaching and waved them onto the stage. Westyr recognized the human as Tac-team Captain Tayson Gregory, in charge of Tac-team Four. Westyr’s intelligence team, Intel-team Four, worked with them the most. They’d trained together for hours in the two days before this mission, becoming familiar with each other as the battle fleet assembled.

Westyr’s captain stopped and saluted. “Sir, here’s the byveri you requested.” He slapped Westyr’s shoulderplate. “Do us proud, son. And try to come back in one piece.” He departed.

Come— What? Snapping from his confusion, Westyr saluted. “Sir! Highensign Westyr Shelhou reporting.”

“At ease.” Tayson raised his dataplate. “Your record says you’re fluent in three byveri dialects.”

“Yes, sir. Four now, actually. And two of the kavax primary languages.” Left unsaid were his struggles with all the human tongues.

“You’re also qualified on the Arc-3.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well.” He typed on his dataplate.

A minute later a lieutenant approached the platform. “You sent for me, sir?”

“Lieutenant Fargo, this is Highensign Westyr Shelhou. The consolation prize I promised.”

The lieutenant eyeballed Westyr, his expression neutral beneath his rounded helmet, which obscured all but his eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth. “Thank you, sir. I’ll make certain to put him to good use.”

“Be careful with him, Axel. His captain expects him back in one piece.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see to it if he does lose pieces, they’re not the important ones.”

“Carry on.”

With a tilt of his head, the lieutenant indicated Westyr to follow.

As they left the hall, the lights dimmed. Westyr glanced over his shoulder when the admiral on the platform cleared his throat. “Let’s begin. Final briefing notes are as follows...” The plates above the stage brightened.

Westyr leaned forward. “Should we stay?”

Lieutenant Fargo raised his dataplate. “It’ll be in here in a moment. I’ll update the entire team when we get to our dropship.”

“Dropship?”

Fargo glanced over his shoulder but maintained his steady pace. “You haven’t been told anything, have you?” They twisted to make room as they passed others in the corridor.

“Only that my day is about to be royally cruksed.”

The lieutenant smiled. “Well, then, that it is.”

They emerged back into the noisy, smelly main assembly hall. Fargo led the way to one of the squat dropships near the forward maintenance bays. Three others hung from cranes, waiting to be moved into one of the dropbays. Westyr looked around. With the hovertanks loaded and most of the troopers in their vessels, the hall seemed less frantic. A troop of kavax soldiers tromped by, their steps momentarily the loudest noise. Each carried an Arc-Kannon 4.

“C’mon, we’re late.” Fargo stopped by an open dropship door. He pointed. “Take the seat up there by mine.”

Westyr stepped inside. The hall’s echoes faded. Troopers sat in two rows of seats running the length of the vessel, facing each other. He counted eleven. Support bars spiderwebbed the space around them. Equipment sat in slots between and below their seats.

Eleven troopers? Should be twice this. Four full squads. Two platoons. Four platoons make a Tac-team. Two Tac-teams make up a— He squelched the train of thought.

Eleven sets of eyes, a mix of more kavax than human, fell upon him. No other byveri.

He swallowed and made his way to one of the empty seats a short distance from the cockpit hatch. Equipment bays filled the space between.

What cold mud have I stepped into?

Fargo followed. The heavy exterior access door ground shut behind him and sealed with a hiss. As Westyr took his seat and buckled in, the lieutenant rapped twice on the cockpit hatch then turned to face the troops.

“As some of you have surmised, mission parameters have changed.”

“Oh, god dammit,” muttered one of the humans, who slapped his kneeplates.

Fargo nodded to Westyr. “Highensign Westyr here’s our consolation prize for losing Highsergeant Hopskech to Captain Gregory. I’m told he speaks the bulk of the byveri dialects just as fluently.”

Muttering followed.

“Yeah, but can he shoot straight?”

“He looks cruksing green as shit, Looey.”

“Does he even know which way to point an Arc?”

Clangs echoed from outside. A moment later, the dropship rocked as it was lifted. The interior lights dimmed. A shift, and they were moving sideways toward the dropbays. Fargo grabbed two vertical bars for support and swayed with the motion.

Westyr wished for something to drink. Byverii normally didn’t suffer dry throats—that was mostly a human thing. But here, now, on the dropship, moments from descending into battle—real battle—his throat was unusually parched. At least he’d emptied his bladder.

Several of the troopers were eyeing his level-one armor.

“He ain’t even dressed right,” one grumbled.

Fargo nodded. “All part of that last minute bullshit.” Then he smiled, a look Westyr found...unsettling. “Good thing is he won’t be needing heavier armor, since he’ll have all of you to shield him from enemy fire.”

A chorus of groans rose from the troops. Boots shuffled. Fists smacked open palms.

“C’mon, Looey.”

This is our replacement for Skech?” the particularly large kavax sitting across from Westyr said. “Cruks!”

Westyr’s ears straightened. A human curse from a kavax? And uttered with such vehemence?

Do they really not like me much?

“All right, knock it off,” Fargo said, raising his voice to be heard over the whines and groans from the machinery moving the dropship into position. “Sergeant Tachs has first squad. Highcorporal Pas Vetrig, with Skech reassigned, second squad is yours. Let’s see if you can finally earn your chevron. I know we’re short a troop, so I’ll be playing a more hands-on role.”

The highcorporal across from Westyr growled and bared his teeth. His neck scales shaded to an orange-green.

“What’s the op now, Looey?” a trooper asked.

“We’ve been shifted southeast. We’re going to babysit a crossroads near the coast. Interdict traffic, see if we can find any bad guys trying to escape. It’s on your plates.”

“Anything new from the final briefing?” the older, dark-skinned human sitting across and one seat up from Westyr asked. Scratched, faded-yellow sergeant’s chevrons sat on his shoulderplate.

Fargo frowned. “Yeah. Those missing troop transports from the Salzar Alliance operation three weeks ago? They turned up in orbit around the third moon here. Empty.”

More groans and curses.

“So they’re here, ready and waiting,” one said. “Cruks.”

“‘Fraid so,” Fargo replied. “Eighteen thousand more pissed-off byveri resistence fighters, weapons locked and loaded. Courtesy of the Salzar Alliance.”

Someone called out, “Thought they ran off to Arcola.”

Fargo raised his hands. “What can I say? Guess the intel boys dropped another deuce.”

Eleven sets of eyes once more fell on Westyr.

* * *

He steeled himself. He’d dropped from orbit three times already, each a loud, shaky, nerve-jangling experience. Training drops, though, in older vessels piloted by pilots in training themselves. The instructors told tales of equipment failures, how in each class they always seemed to lose at least one dropship—and all the unlucky bastards on board. They’d made it sound afterward that not losing a ship or any of the recruits this time around was something short of a miracle. Still having trouble reading humans, he hadn’t known whether to believe them or not.

On this drop, though, they might take fire during the descent—real fire aimed to destroy the dropships.

Worrisome!

The lieutenant buckled himself into his seat, then leaned close. “First real drop?”

Dry swallowing, Westyr nodded, certain the fur on his face had gone white, the skin beneath a sickly pallor.

“Relax. We’ll be dirtside before you know it. And we’re dropping into a secure zone. Some flight over contested land, but nothing that’ll trench us. It’ll be shaky a lot of the way, but you’ll be on solid ground shortly. When we do hit dirt, stick close to me. Got it?”

Again, Westyr nodded.

“We’ll get you properly equipped before starting out. Think you can handle an Arc?”

Westyr cleared his throat. He had his standard-issue Bright K90, which seemed inadequate with all the firepower around him. “I—I would feel better with one.”

“Just don’t expect to use it. That’s not your role here. You’re our tongue down there. Our ears. Our cultural liaison. You savvy?”

The dropship shook. Metal banged. The interior lights dimmed further. Tiny red lights along the floor, ceiling, and at the forward lip of the exterior access hatch blinked to life.

Thirty seconds to drop.

The chatter among the troopers picked up.

Highcorporal Pas Vetrig sharpened a knife on a whetstone while glaring at Westyr. The kavax private beside him did the same.

“I savvy,” Westyr said, though not entirely certain what the term meant.

“Highsergeant Hopskech would’ve handled all that, and I’d’ve kept him out of harm’s way too,” Fargo said, “so don’t feel I’m singling you out. If you’re here, you know how to fire an Arc in the right direction. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get to that point.”

More loud clangs, just like in the training drops.

“Here we go,” someone muttered.

“Brace!” Fargo called out.

The troopers not already doing so grabbed hold of the bars surrounding their seats—save for the two kavax sharpening their knives. Westyr remembered to grab and hold on a moment later.

Then a tremendous metallic crang!

And the dropship fell from the Jessiper.

The descent was loud, as expected. The dropship shook, as expected. Some troopers yelled out, some laughed. The two kavax kept staring at Westyr. The sergeant across from Westyr pulled out his dataplate.

After an eternity—which was only in fact thirteen minutes according to the timer above the cockpit hatch—the ride smoothed out.

A hand to the small mic poking from the side of his helmet, Fargo leaned away. “Fargo here. Go ahead, pilot.”

Early descent briefing. Standard protocol. Nothing is wrong.

Still, Westyr tightened his grip on the safety bar in front of him.

The other dropships would alert our pilot to any trouble. We would be jigging and jagging to evade enemy fire. So this smooth, steady descent is a good sign. Right?

Breathe. Remember to breathe.

“Hey, Furs.”

The low grumble came from the highcorporal, still sharpening his knife, though the blade didn’t look much like it needed it. His smooth, steady movements in all the turbulence spoke of his strength. His inhal and exhal pips on his neck opened and closed with his breathing. Moisture around his noseridges glinted in the dim red light.

Ears rolling forward, Westyr met the kavax’s reptilian gaze. “May I help you, Scales?”

The kavax private stiffened. His knife stopped moving.

The highcorporal seemed unperturbed. “Your kind, y’all like being buried in mud.”

Westyr cocked his head. “We rise from the mud, and to the mud we settle.”

“Think there’s enough mud down there for all the byverii we gonna kill today?”

“It would be my fervent hope. I would hate to see any of you boys succumb to the temptation to sneak a bite before the bodies are properly buried.”

The insult speared to the essence of the kavax race. They ate meat on only the holiest of their days. They’d claimed even well before the Sha-Ho arrived they’d mostly eliminated the barbaric practice of farming animals for their flesh.

To imply the highcorporal would feed on dead byverii...

And he’d used ‘boys,’ a human derogatory.

The dark-skinned sergeant across from Westyr lowered his dataplate, his expression inscrutable.

The private beside Vetrig released a low hiss.

“Quite the lip on you, Furs.” The highcorporal swiped his blade across the whetstone one final time then slipped the knife into a groove on the side of a hip-plate. The whetstone disappeared into a thigh pocket. “Watch that it don’t get bloodied.”

“I will count on you, my fine fellow trooper, for that.”

Vetrig’s eyeridges twitched closer together. “I hope we can count on you to watch ours too, Furs.”

They are my pelt. My pelt-mates.

“I will not fail you.”

The dropship shook through rough air.

* * *

A few banks, a sickening lurch with a sudden drop in altitude, a final twist around, and they thumped down. Highcorporal Vetrig was first at the hatch and heaved it open. “Out! Out! Go!”

The troopers disembarked to the shouted encouragement of the highcorporal and the sergeant.

Lieutenant Fargo took up the rear. Westyr followed. He blinked as they stepped into the mid-morning sun.

They had arrived on Chrevis, one of the few predominately byveri worlds in the newly formed Unity Sphere. The population was a seventy-thirty split between byveri and kavax, with a smattering of human settlers. Recently, enough byverii had joined with the kavax community to vote the world into the Unity Sphere. The Salzar Alliance, a byveri criminal syndicate with influence on three worlds, opposed the inclusion. The Unity Fleet was slowly but doggedly grinding down that determined opposition.

The troopers formed up by squads. Lieutenant Fargo gave them a once-over. “Looking good, grunts. Check weapons. Our rides should be along shortly.” Then, to Westyr, “Highensign, on my heels.”

He led the way to a supply ship down a row of tac-team and heavy assault dropships, which disgorged formations of troops, hovertanks, and other vehicles. Westyr’s ears twisted at all the noise. Heat from their engines bristled his exposed fur. The world’s air, scented with something akin to lavender and pine, helped him to keep his focus.

One landing zone among dozens.

Fargo told the supply clerk, “Level-two byveri armor, and an Arc-3. Four magazines.”

Westyr presented his dataplate. The clerk scanned it for Westyr’s specifications, then worked his own dataplate. “Armor’s on its way. Should fit all right. Sorry about the Arc, Lieutenant. Orders are to supply friendly units in town. All my Arcs are on their way out.”

“Shit. Well, the armor’s enough.” Fargo pointed. “Westyr, hop in there, slip out of that dress. I’ll bring your new suit.”

Westyr stepped into the cramped changing room and stripped down to his mesh. The sleeveless, black synthetic weave was an armor in itself, able to stop most small arms fire. He’d grown comfortable with the way it smothered his fur—some byverii could never adjust.

As he waited, he studied his forearms. His spread of small, black-ringed yellow dots looked solid enough. He ruffled his fur. Colors down to the roots still. In time, though...

A knock, then Fargo poked his head in. “Keep your boots. Here’s the rest.” He opened the door and rolled in a battlesuit hanging from a wheeled rack.

Westyr donned his heavier armor, tightening straps and buckles as he’d been trained. He transferred his dataplate and K90 to their respective slots. At the end he paused—then remembered Tiegue wasn’t beside him to complete their dress checks. Oh. He stepped from the room and raised his arms as Fargo gave him a once-over. “What about my level-one?”

The clerk waved. “Ah, don’t fret. I’ll get it back to your ship. Intel-four, right?”

“Yes. Appreciations.”

Fargo nodded. “Everything’s in the right place, nice and tight. C’mon.” He led the way back.

As they walked, their pace not as hurried as on the Jessiper, Westyr closed the gap between them. “Lieutenant, before we go too far... I convey my apologies.”

Fargo glanced back. “For what?”

“For needing a... Uh, what is the human word? Kitsitter?”

After a frown, Fargo smiled. “Oh, you mean babysitter.” He laughed. “Don’t fret it, Highensign. We’re all in this toilet together. And I promised I wouldn’t let you lose any of your important parts.”

“Well, for that you have my appreciations.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We ain’t even started.”

“I do not think the highcorporal likes me.”

“Vetrig? Don’t worry about him. Or his mates. They like giving greenies a hard time, is all.”

“Greenies?”

Fargo looked back again. “You know, newbies. Fresh out of the academy and all that.” He slapped Westyr’s shoulderplate. “But you’re a battle-hardened veteran now, greeny. You’re dirtside!”

A formation of Kylon assault fighters screamed overhead. Dropships roared as they ascended to fetch additional troops. Hovertanks rumbled down roads with troop carriers close behind. Fumes choked the air until the steady breeze pushed them all southeast.

They arrived to find a pair of squat Badgers, engines grumbling, with the troops. The vehicles had four heavy assault cannons in a turret on top, ablative armor along their sides, slings laden with supplies, tracks that could propel the beasts through the worst of terrain, and room for a platoon each.

Sergeant Tachs approached and saluted. “First squad’s settled in Badger One. Some equipment problems with Badger Two, but the highcorporal’s on it.” They turned as a large metal cabinet tumbled from Badger Two’s open rear hatch and banged across the ground. “Problem’s solved.”

Fargo chuckled. “Good work. Let’s get rolling. Westyr, with me.” He led the way inside Badger Two. “Highcorporal?”

His squad’s four troopers were strapped onto the benches, weapons stowed. Two had their dataplates out. One was eating a chocolate nutribar. The other just sat, hands on kneeplates.

Vetrig, standing near the hatch, saluted. “Ready to roll, Lieutenant.” He eyed Westyr.

“Very well. Settle in.” Fargo moved past him and climbed the steps to the darkened upper compartment. Giving the kavax an upward, side-long glance, Westyr followed.

He settled at the data station on the cramped space’s left side. Fargo dropped into his seat before a similar station on the right and removed his helmet. He turned on a small light. Satisfied with the light from the plates on his console, Westyr left his off. He removed his helmet and clipped it to a charging mount.

The Badger’s grumbling intensified. The heavy vehicle lurched into motion. Westyr quickly buckled in.

“Tac-squads, comm check,” Fargo muttered. “You all hear me back there?”

Tinny voices giving replies escaped his headset.

Westyr adjusted his own headset, moving the earpads higher, then dropped it into place. Another adjustment left it snug. He fit his dataplate into a slot on his console. The plates brightened as the system recognized his security clearance.

Multiple layers of chatter filled his ears. He spun through the dials, isolating frequencies, getting a feel for the Badger’s reception. Not a lot was happening so far. Air patrols reported large formations of troops moving to intercept the Fleet on several fronts. Orders came back for the flyers not to engage until they had clear lines of fire—Command wanted to limit collateral damage.

Westyr tweaked a knob and found the frequency for his intel team’s dropship.

Ackindare, this is Heavy One-One. Got a line on that message...”

“...Tac Four-Two, change heading and speed to...”

“...at least fifty men, maybe seventy. Small arms, some rocket-propelled explosives. No heavy armor. Advise Command...”

“Command! This is Heavy Three-Eight. We have engaged the enemy.” Loud pops echoed in the background.

On another plate, Heavy Three-Eight’s location flashed red.

Westyr tensed. The blip representing the Ackindare seemed way too close. But there were a lot of blips in between, so maybe everything was safe enough.

Unlike here, out in the brush...

I should be there. My place is with them. Not— Not...

Lieutenant Fargo kept muttering into his headset, voice too low for Westyr to hear clearly.

He kept scrolling. Then—

“Tac Two-Seven, this is Command. Alert.”

Ensign Tiegue.

Westyr inhaled. His friend’s voice sounded calm. Steady. Matter-of-fact.

“Go, Command.”

“Activity spotted a quarter-klick up on your forward port. Enemy movement in the trees.”

“Acknowledged, Command. Will take appropriate measures.”

Tiegue, operating a forward drone—or a series of them. Warning his pelt-mates out in the fields, boots in the mud. Westyr glanced at the engagement plate. Tac Two-Seven’s blip turned yellow.

Solid work, Tiegue.

He remembered to breathe. Didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath—probably since he heard his friend. No jitters in your voice. He allowed himself a small smile. Wonder if my own would be so steady.

A moment later emotion of a different kind welled through him. Emotion that had been at the back of his thoughts since he’d left the puelhouse. A tangle of anger and fear and confusion and more anger and doubt and worry and more doubt and—

He tried to tamp it down, but it came too fast. It...erupted. He whimpered then slapped a hand over his mouth.

“Everything all right, Highensign?” Fargo’s voice sounded distant.

Westyr gulped air trying to regain his composure. He swiped at the fur beneath his eyes—when had they filled with tears? His hands shook. He fumbled with his headset, intending to replace it with his helmet, reached for his helmet, ended up dropping both. He reached for them, found himself held tight by his seat buckles, fumbled with the release. His equipment clattered to the floor, the sound lost beneath the Badger’s grumble.

Maybe with the light off the lieutenant wouldn’t notice—

But Fargo was now crouched by his chair.

“Easy, easy. Breathe,” the lieutenant said, his voice low. He reached across Westyr’s console and turned on the small light.

Blinking, Westyr looked away. The numbers of a clock shone above the hatch leading into the Badger’s forward compartment. The time said an hour had passed already.

Whu—what?

“Westyr. Look at me.”

Trembling, Westyr turned his head. He kept a hand over his mouth in case more whimpers shook free. Fargo placed a hand on his shoulderplate.

“Relax. Breathe.”

He noticed then the human’s sharp green eyes. The broad cheeks, short, bristly black hair, the dimple in his chin. Small scars peppered the skin around the right eye and up the forehead to the hairline. And the right eye itself looked different. Artificial—or vat-grown. The light revealed patches of pseudo-skin at the temple. His ear bore signs of having been reconstructed. More scars tracked down the side of his neck to disappear beneath the armor.

This human has seen battle. Taken serious injuries. Yet he is so...calm.

He continued with his slow filling breaths. After a few, his trembling ceased, his vision cleared, and his composure returned. “I—I convey apologies. Again.”

“It’s all right. I know how you feel. Believe me.”

Westyr glanced at the scars. “You have seen combat. Been wounded.”

Fargo nodded. “Something like that. But the fear... It still comes and goes. When we get where we’re going, I’ll feel it again. So will everyone else. Even the Badger crews.”

“Yes. I—I felt something... The combat simulations, they... How..?”

“You just roll with it.” Fargo shrugged. “Part of the job. A good part. Means you’re still alive and feeling.” He picked up the headset.

Westyr put it around his neck. “I am recomposed now.”

“First time jitters?”

“Hearing my friend. I was worried he would... But he sounded strong. I am pleased.”

“Well, he probably crapped himself once his dropship touched down. I know more than one byveri who’s admitted to that.”

“I—” Westyr swallowed. “I also fear I will fail. That I will let you down.” As I failed my pelt...

“Eh, don’t fret about that. You’ll do fine. I read your record. Once everything starts happening, you’ll find yourself. I’m not worried.”

Westyr frowned. “But I... This is my first true experience. How can..?”

Fargo slapped his shoulderplate again. “You just strike me as a capable fellow. I’m confident you’ll get the job done. Whatever the job turns out to be.”

“I am glad you have faith.” He glanced at the rear compartment. “The others...”

“Don’t fret about them. We’re all brothers here. They’ll have your back. And they know you’ll have theirs.” He chuckled. “They just like to give greenies a hard time. You gave back good enough. They respect that.”

Westyr nodded. They are my pelt-mates. My pelt, soon enough.

“I—I will try not to fail you, Lieutenant. I will do my best.”

“We’ll get through this, Highensign. We may be out on our own for a day or so, but help is just a comm call away. Our friends are all around. Relax. Let things happen. You’ll be fine. We’ll share a mug of pult when this is all over.”

“I am... assured by your confidence.”

“Listen, if you want, kick up a little Huckbar. The drums in his symphonies are inspiring.”

Westyr’s ears perked forward. “You know of Huckbar?”

“Sure. Listened to it a lot when I was recovering from my...wounds. Had a byveri in the next bunk. Rousing music.”

“I—I will, um, kick up some Huckbar.”

“Or anything else. There’s no rule against it. Shit, everyone below’s probably kicking back to a tune or two.” He rose. “We’ll be on site within the hour. Poke around in the chatter, see what you can learn. Once we’re in position I’ll leave it to you to finalize our links.”

Westyr took a final deep breath. He turned to his console. “I will do so, Lieutenant. I will be ready.”

“Good.” He slapped Westyr’s shoulderplate. “Carry on.” He returned to his seat and resumed speaking in a low voice.

Westyr re-buckled his harness and focused on his console. He settled his headset over his ears. Fargo’s calmness assuaged his anxiety. He believes I am a trooper of substance. He is confident I will not fail him, or any of my pelt-mates. He made fists, pushed them together until his knuckles popped, then began tweaking dials. I will do my job and earn his praise. Earn my pelt-mates’ praise.

After a moment, he linked to his dataplate, where he had a multitude of Huckbar’s symphonies stored. He hesitated. Can I listen to music and follow the chatter? I have not tried. Maybe...

Turned out he could. And the looey was right—Huckbar’s drums were inspiring.

* * *

The Badgers took small arms fire, answered with their cannons—BRRRAP!

Kylons roared overhead. Other vessels too, flying low, turbines rumbling. Supply ships, Westyr hoped, instead of medical jumpers.

The chatter ebbed and flowed.

The Fleet engaged the Salzar Alliance on numerous fronts. Holding air superiority, they took large bites out of the enemy lines. As expected, the enemy fell back against the better-equipped, better-trained Fleet forces. City blocks became battlegrounds.

Westyr followed everything over the airwaves and on his plates.

The hum of the Badger’s turbine changed. The hulking vehicle slowed. Westyr turned in his chair. Lieutenant Fargo stowed his headset and slapped on his helmet, unbuckled his restraints, and stood. “We’re here. Send Command our details, then hop on out.”

“Yes, sir.” Westyr turned back to his console. “Command, this is Badger Eight-Eight. Reporting on station. Coordinates as follows.” He sent the map coordinates.

After a moment: “Badger Eight-Eight, this is Command. Confirm deployment. Maintain station. Combat Air Patrol Kylon Seven-Nine is overhead, call sign Dagger. Check, two hours.”

“Check, two hours,” Westyr replied. He set a two-hour timer on his dataplate and activated it.

“Be advised, not all byveri resistance has been accounted for—approximately ten thousand troops.”

“Understood. Badger Eight-Eight out.”

Before he left his station, he studied the map of their surroundings to orient himself.

The crossroads stood about sixty klicks southeast of the nearest major metropolitan area. The city was one of two on Chrevis; while the world had a global population of two million, the bulk of that occupied the central plains of the largest continent, though the other three were gaining settlements.

Just east of the city, a massive, slow-moving river split into three tributaries, each nearly as wide. One banked due south. One meandered southeast to the crossroads. The third continued on an easterly course.

Forests lay to the west, rolling plains and farmlands to the north and east. Some ten klicks away to their southwest was a small port city with a population of maybe six thousand, mostly byveri. Westyr frowned at the latest images. Lots of barges stacked at the docks there. Three, sometimes four across, and at least two dozen deep. Fifty, maybe more.

He researched the port. It serviced the area’s large agricultural base; more roads led in from the north and east. A medium-sized dockyard. Some small manufacturing. No mention of tourism.

Still, a lot of barges...

Maybe the grains are harvested but the fighting delayed shipments.

He made a note to keep an eye on the waterfront.

He replaced his headset with his helmet, grabbed his dataplate, and left the Badger. A glance at his chrono said the local time was approaching the half-day hour. The sun stood halfway overhead, behind a bank of clouds.

Badger One had taken position in the crossroad’s southwest corner, about a hundred steps away. Badger Two, behind him, occupied the northeast. The turbines of both gave low grumbles. Antennae poked from their roofs.

The land was relatively flat. Copses of towering trees jutted from the grass and brush. A large, rock-sided cylindrical building behind rows of trees and hedges sat about two hundred steps from the intersection’s northwest corner, near the river. A wide, stone-and-metal bridge marked where the east-west road crossed the slow-moving water. Large, hexagonal yield signs gave the right-of-way to the north/south traffic—not that there was any. Heat radiated from the gray-white asphalt.

Birds flitted among the tree branches or circled in the currents up high. Trills rose from clumps of brush, where small animals foraged. Insects buzzed. The river burbled.

Badger Two’s turret was pointed at the round building with the four cannons angled skyward.

Westyr sniffed the air. Clean, scented with pines and...a flowery smell, not unpleasant.

In the southeast corner, troopers were erecting a pair of white, heavy-mesh tents—civilians would be interrogated there, and if necessary, detained. Room was left for impounded vehicles. Men from the Badger crews, wearing level-one armor, unloaded supplies from their vehicles.

A pair of drones lifted off the Badgers’ back-quarters. One flew to the north, along the road. The other darted west, back the way they’d come. They would circle around at a height safe enough to warn of any approaching vehicles or people on foot while avoiding fire. More drones sat in chargers, waiting to be deployed.

Lieutenant Fargo stood with the sergeant and highcorporal near Badger One, with two others in level-one armor. Their shoulderplate insignia said they were mid-ranked warrant officers—the Badger drivers, probably. As senior officer on site, Lieutenant Fargo was clearly in charge. They were all hunched over a portable ops console. Westyr walked over.

A realization struck. Wait. As Highensign, I am next in command.

Technically, anyway. If the looey went down, Sergeant Tachs would unofficially run the show. He might leave certain decisions to Westyr, but in the end...

One of the Badger drivers was kavax, the other human. Westyr considered their differences. Each might wear the other’s boots. But the kavax shoulders were broader, their chests bulkier front to back. Breathing pips, two for inhalation, two for exhalation, sat at the base of their necks and fed into their large central lung. Small hearts beat in the areas of their shoulders, which rose in what looked like a constant shrug. Smooth scales, mostly green but yellow, red, and magenta in places, covered their bodies. With the large blood flow at their chests and necks, the scales there often changed color with their emotions—it was said the kavax wore their feelings on their necks.

Their armor had small, shoulder-mounted cooling units to help regulate their temperatures. They had broad faces, short snouts, slanted eyes, and almond-shaped nostrils edged with mobile ridges that gave them a wide variety of facial expressions. They spoke through their mouths by exhaling from their stomachs.

Humans were mostly skin, with small patches of fur on their heads, sometimes their faces. They looked more like byverii, though they had ten digits to the byveri eight, stumpier feet without webbing between the toes, and on average stood a hand taller, which was a hand shorter than the average kavax. Humans were capable of a variety of facial expressions, most of which he was still learning to decipher.

They said byverii looked like rodents called beavers, but with latger, more flexible round ears higher up on their heads. Pudgy cheeks, jowls, a paunch, and the largest nose of the three.

“...here and here,” Sergeant Tachs was saying as he pointed at the console’s main plate. “We can deploy sentry beacons in the trees, add a layer of security.”

“What about the local wildlife?” the kavax Badger driver asked. “Lots of beasties moving around out there.”

Fargo waved. “Set the triggers to anything byveri size or larger.”

“That should work,” Highcorporal Vetrig said. “Put a couple here and here, too. Make sure nothing sneaks up on the waterway.”

“Good catch.” Fargo turned to Westyr. “We all set?”

“Command has been notified. Two-hour check in place.”

“Good. Stand by.” He turned back to the console. “All right, run the sentry drones on a continuous patrol. Finish assembling the detention tents, then get the roadblocks into place. Figure we got eight hours of daylight left. Set break for four hours, then rotating meals. Then assemble for night watch. Lights, infrared, and motion detectors.”

Tachs and Vetrig said “Yes, sir,” saluted, and left.

“I’ll plug this in.” The human Badger driver wheeled the console away. The other nodded and headed to Badger Two.

Fargo turned toward the large, rock-sided structure off to the intersection’s northwest. “Well, Highensign, what do you suppose that building’s for?”

Westyr studied it. “I think...” Then a chill punched through him. He blinked. What? Here? His pulse kicked up.

“Yes, Highensign?”

 He dry-swallowed. Breathe. “It bears some similarity to a puelhouse.” His voice was surprisingly steady. “Near a waterway, and those reeds suggest marshy patches. So there is mud.”

“A puelhouse? Isn’t that where your people birth their young?”

“Potential young. Potenshi. If they rise from the mud, they become children. Progeni.”

“Odd for a puelhouse to be all alone out here, eh? And look. No parking spaces, no dock for water craft—well, that might be behind, where we can’t see it. Just that stone path through the grass there. Not very inviting.”

“Yes. Most odd. And I do not recognize those many bumps on the roof. But there may be a community upstream. One we do not know about, perhaps. The mud here may be more nourishing to the birth process, explaining the puelhouse.”

“Hmm. Worth investigating, no?”

“Worth investigating, yes.”

“Then let’s do it. Badger Two, check.”

“Check.”

“We’re going to recon the structure.”

“Copy. Got you covered.”

Heartbeat calming, Westyr started down the stone path. Fargo grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Stay behind me. You’re my tongue, remember?” He unslung his Arc-3, checked the chamber, then held it at the ready, barrel angled down.

“Oh. Um, yes, sir.”

They approached the building. The path ended at a rectangular depression in the building’s rock hide, within which stood a metal hatch. Red lights shone on the lockpad to the side.

Fargo tapped it, then stepped away. “Locked. Think you can run a by-pass?”

“I do.” Westyr moved close and opened a stiff-sided kit on his toolbelt. He used a cross-spanner to open the panel’s face, then clipped two wires from a pick module to the circuitry inside. He tweaked the module’s power flow until the hatch unlocked. “There.” He disconnected the wires and stowed his tools.

“Good work. So how’re you feeling?”

Westyr frowned then remembered their conversation in the Badger. “Oh.” Then realization struck. His eyebrows rose, his ears rolled forward, and he inhaled. “Oh! Yes. I am... How did you say? Rolling with it.”

Fargo nodded at the hatch. “You didn’t think. You just did it. See? You’re finding yourself.”

“Yes. Appreciations. And the Huckbar helped.”

The lieutenant chuckled. “Usually does.” He motioned Westyr back. “Now, let’s poke around inside.” He nudged the hatch with his Arc-3. Westyr drew his K90. Fargo leading the way, they stepped inside.

* * *

The building turned out to be a puelhouse with eight sub-puels around a central puel roughly fifteen steps across—large, but not unusually so. Muddy water obscured the bottoms. As they entered the gloomy space, movement across the puel prompted Fargo to snap his Arc-3 up. The light at its tip illuminated small shapes splashing into the sub-puels.

Westyr put a hand on Fargo’s shoulderplate. “Progeni, Lieutenant. They present no threat.”

Progeni...

Fargo lowered his weapon. “I’ll take your word, Highensign. Where’s the light switch?”

“There.” He led the way over. Pressing the pad’s largest button brightened overhead lamps. The shadows around the puel retreated. The lights also exposed the ops consoles tucked in a several-steps-deep niche between two floor-to-ceiling wooden posts to their left. More posts were spaced across the back of the structure, with smooth plaster walls in between.

He flattened his ears. “This is a puelhouse. That equipment should not be here.”

Fargo led the way to the consoles. Their boots clomped on the plank floor. “Any idea what they’re for?”

He studied the keypads and the plates, many of which were blank. “These look like power regulators for the puelhouse—these belong. These are communication nodes. They do not belong. This console... I do not recognize.”

At a noise from behind them, they whirled. Fargo raised and fired his Arc-3 as he shouldered Westyr aside. “Watch out!”

Westyr tumbled to the planks. Over the Arc-3’s blast came a smaller crack. Something tapped his helmet hard enough to slap his head back. One of the consoles threw a shower of sparks. At the same instant, across the puel a female byveri screamed in pain.

Rising up on one arm, his K90 aimed toward the byveri’s screams, Westyr shook his head. What? His balance settled. Smoke curled into his nostrils—the console behind him sputtered.

Fargo was down on one knee, Arc-3 pointed at a hallway off to the side of the puel, most of which remained in shadow. A female byveri lay in the opening, teeth clenched, groaning. Blood puddled at her hips.

“Come out or I will shoot!” Fargo shouted.

A shadow deep in the hallway moved. “I am armed with nothing. I ask you hold to your fire.”

“Westyr, what’d he say?”

It took Westyr a moment to realize the male byveri in the hallway had spoken in T’thrad, an uncommon dialect. “Oh!” He stood. Time to be the mission’s tongue. “Uh, he says he is unarmed and requests we do not fire.”

“Tell him to come out, hands raised.”

Westyr did so.

The byveri limped from the hall. He was old, his fur mostly gray, with areas of exposed dark, wrinkled skin. Unpelted, too, given the lack of dots or stripes. A cataract clouded one eye. He wore a dirty, button-up smock and sandals. His ears lay limp against his scalp. Brown bandages wrapped a forearm and both shins. His hands shook with the effort to hold them up. He stopped at the wounded byveri’s feet.

She looked young enough to be his progeni’s progeni. She also wore a worn, tattered smock. One of her sandals lay down the hall. White and orange stripes streaked her fur.

Westyr’s eyes widened. Pelt Mor’Intha. Likely a member of the Salzar Alliance.

“Who else is back there?” Fargo demanded.

Westyr translated. The byveri replied. Westyr said, “No others, Lieutenant. They are alone.”

“Tell him to lie face-down, arms away from his sides.”

The old male followed Westyr’s instructions. Hands balled into fists, the female continued to moan.

Fargo rose. “Cover me.” He rounded the central puel.

Westyr stepped away from the hissing console. The shot fired into it by the female byveri had hit right where he’d been standing. Had the lieutenant not shouldered him out of the way—

He swallowed, throat still dry. Dread squeezed his stomach. The tip of his K90 shook. He struggled to steady it. By the mud, that was...terrifying. My armor might have stopped the projectile. Unless it hit my face—

Fortunately it had all happened so fast.

Fargo kicked the female’s sidearm into the puel then stepped past the two and crept down the hall. The light on his Arc-3 illuminated his way. He disappeared around a bend at the hall’s end and returned a moment later. He kept his weapon trained on the byverii. “Clear. Some sort of bedroom. Looks like we caught them napping.”

The female hissed something under her breath. She sounded more angry than in pain. Defiant. The old male replied in an unfamiliar dialect.

“Cover me while I frisk them.”

Fargo waited until Westyr got close, then searched both byverii. He found a small knife on the old male and tossed it into the puel. “They’re clean.” He stepped back and slung his rifle. “Sergeant Tachs.”

The sergeant’s reply floated from the side of Fargo’s helmet. “Yes, sir.”

“I need a medical detail in the structure. Wounded byveri.”

“Our greeny got himself hurt already? That was quick.”

“Just get in here.”

“On my way, sir.”

* * *

Sergeant Tachs arrived with the kavax private who’d sat beside Highcorporal Vetrig during the drop. Both carried bulky, dark-brown medical pouches and stopped short when they saw Westyr standing in front of the puel. The private’s eyeridges spread up and apart, while Tachs scrutinized Westyr.

“Where’re you hit, sir?” he asked.

“His helmet,” the private said. “Took a ding.”

Crouched by the wounded female, Lieutenant Fargo rose. “Not that byveri. Over here.”

Westyr followed them around the puel. My helmet? He touched the spot where he’d felt that hard tap as the lieutenant shouldered him aside. Sure enough, his fingerpad brushed over scratched metal.

The old male byveri stepped aside to give the troopers room.

Tachs gave the female, now quiet, a quick assessment.

“Got her hip,” Fargo said.

“Let’s roll her,” Tachs said. “Phath, ready a compression pad and a splint.”

The private dug into his pouch as Fargo and Tachs positioned themselves by the byveri’s side. Tachs glanced at Westyr. “Tell her we’re going to roll her a couple of times. It’ll hurt.”

“They are going to roll you,” Westyr said in T’thrad. “It is going to hurt.” He looked at the old male. “Does she understand?”

“I do not believe,” he said. “Her tongue is mostly G’chewn.”

“I do not know that. Can you translate for me?”

“I will.” He spoke to her. Teeth clenched, she groaned in reply. Then, to Westyr, he said, “She braces herself for the hurt.”

Westyr said, “She is ready.”

Tachs and Fargo rolled her to let Phath strap on and tie down a compression bandage. Teeth clenched, eyes closed, she groaned and held her fists to her chest. Blood puddled beneath her smock. Tachs drew up the flimsy garment. Fargo held her leg. They rolled her again as Private Phath wrapped a putty-covered mesh wrap around her waist, hips, and down her injured thigh. Her groans rose to clenched-jaw wails. Phath sprayed the mesh with a sealant, which solidified the putty into a hardened splint. She groaned again then relaxed.

Phath strapped a monitor to her upper arm. It beeped and readings scrolled across its small screen. “Pulse, respiration, and blood pressure high but stable.”

“We’ll need to transport her to a medical tent for proper care,” Tachs said. “Blood flow to the foot may be compromised.” He checked her foot for a pulse. “Shit. She needs surgery, and sooner rather than later.”

Fargo said, “Call it in. We’ll watch her.” As he spoke, a voice floated from his helmet. He pressed a hand to his helmet. “Fargo here.”

Tachs stood but waited.

“Be right there.” Fargo looked at Westyr. “Needed outside. See what you can learn from these two.” He and Tachs left the puelhouse.

Phath looked to Westyr. “Sir, I’d like to hit her with some antibiotics and pain dampers.” He produced a hypogun and a pair of vials from his pouch.

Westyr translated to the old male, who told the female. She shook her head and gabbered back, still more angry than not.

“She refuses to the pain dampers,” the male said to Westyr.

Westyr relayed her answer to Phath, who chuffed, blowing air from his inhal pips. “Fine by me.” He popped the antibiotic into the hypogun and triggered a dose into her uninjured thigh. “If she changes her mind, let me know.”

Westyr passed it along.

The private pointed at the bandages on the old male’s arm and legs. “What about you?”

Westyr asked. “He says it is merely a—a ringworm from the river. He has ointment.”

“Fine.” Phath turned to Westyr. “Now, Highensign, unstrap your helmet.”

“My helmet?” He undid the chinstrap and offered his helmet.

“See that?” Phath tapped a fingertip to a dent in the gray metal. “Nearly plugged you.” He set the helmet down and leaned close to Westyr’s face. “Keep your focus on me.” Bending to be eye-level with Westyr, he raised a small penlight and flicked it in and out of Westyr’s view.

The light left bright trails. After a few swipes, Westyr blinked.

Phath asked questions: Headache? Dizziness? How’s your balance? Do you remember what happened. Westyr answered them: No, no, fine, most of it.

The private clicked off his penlight. “I judge you fit to continue your duties, Highensign.” He offered the helmet. “A headshot on your first mission. Not bad.” He smiled, hissed—quite different from the hiss on the dropship, Westyr took this one to mean amusement—and slapped Westyr’s shoulderplate.

“Appreciations.” He looked at the small dent. In a kavax dialect, he asked, “Private, what is your name?”

Phath’s eyeridges rose and spread. “Private Chi Phath om Touroo. You know my tongue.”

“I know a couple of your mother tongues.”

Phath hissed again. The scales under his chin—those Westyr could see—turned a pale green. “Furs full of surprises.” He clapped Westyr’s shoulderplate once more.

Though he’d braced himself, the blow still shoved Westyr off-center. He righted himself. “My earlier statement... I did not mean to offend.”

“What? The corpse comment?” Phath waved. “We took no offense. It was a good give-back. Vetrig said it gave you character.” His scales returned to their usual yellow-green. “And the looey likes you. Said you roll well. A human thing, I guess.”

Westyr touched the dent again. “The lieutenant saved my life. He shoved me over. Otherwise...”

“Plonk.” Phath tapped a fingertip to Westyr’s forehead. “And there goes our tongue.” He hissed.

Westyr strapped his helmet on, then glanced at the consoles in the shadowy niche. The left-most panel still sparked, though the byveri’s shot barely seemed to have clipped it. “It hit there.”

Phath straightened. “I’ll take care of that. See what you can get out of them two. Sir.” He walked to the consoles.

The old male had moved beside the female and held her hand. Her breathing was steadier and she no longer trembled, but her teeth remained clenched. She looked at Westyr as he crouched beside her.

“I am Westyr,” he said to the male.

“Dodje. She is Blassa.”

“Pelt Mor’Intha. I recognize the markings.”

“Yes. I have no pelt.”

“Unpelted?”

Dodje shrugged. “I am unshamed. I have my place.”

“What are you doing here? Alone?”

“The progeni.” He waved at the nearest sub-puel. “Hers and others.”

A hiss rose from the niche. Westyr looked. Phath was spraying the console with a fire damper. The resulting white cloud dissipated quickly.

Westyr turned back. “The third console. What is its use?”

Dodje shook his head. “I am told to stay away. Watch the progeni only.”

“Does she know?”

Dodje asked. Blassa scowled at Westyr and hissed a few curt words in reply. “She will not reveal.”

“I expected as much. My pardons.” Westyr rose and joined Phath in the niche, wide enough for them to stand side-by-side. The private was stowing the fire damper back in its cabinet.

“Should be safe now,” he said.

“This third console. Do you recognize the functions?”

Phath leaned close. “It...looks familiar. Looks like a sensor station. Be helpful if it were fully operational.”

Westyr studied the keypads and the plates, which displayed a few blinking icons and words in a language he did not fully recognize. He pointed to a round slot to the bottom right. “It needs an operations key.”

They looked at the two byverii.

“Lieutenant Fargo searched them,” Westyr said.

“Those bandages too?”

“Yes. He patted them all down quite thoroughly.”

Phath grunted. “Smart not to keep it on them. So they hid it somewhere. Close and convenient.” He bent back to the consoles, ran a hand along the undersides of the keypads. “I’ll poke around over here. What’m I looking for, anyway?”

“It will be about a finger long and round, to fit in here. It will have studs along the sides. I will search elsewhere.” He walked back to the pair. They looked up, Dodje’s expression neutral, Blassa’s a scowl. She said something under her breath. Dodje tsked and squeezed her hand.

Westyr studied her. She has been trained to ignore her pain.

Certainly a soldier of the Salzar Alliance.

He fished a flashlight from a pocket, drew his K90, and walked to the room at the end of the hall. There he found two cots with pillows, and blankets thrown back. Daylight streamed through a pair of skylights. He holstered his weapon and gave each cot a quick but thorough search. A tube of ointment lay on the floor beside the cot nearest the door.

Beneath a set of shelves which held plates, cups, utensils, and a spice rack, sat a coolerator. After opening each of the spice bottles to peek inside, he checked the coolerator, found plastic jugs of a milk-like drink (a few shakes revealed no operations key hidden inside), a plate of pink berries, and a bag of chalky biscuits. He gave the rest of the room a cursory glance and spied no nooks or crannies. Might be a hidden panel among the floorboards. A quick sounding will reveal such. I will advise the lieutenant.

He grabbed a pillow, blanket, the biscuits and a jug of the milky drink, and returned to the puel.

“I assume these are for the progeni.” He offered the food and drink to Dodje.

Blassa snatched the biscuits from his hands and jabbered at Westyr.

“She says you invade our property,” Dodje said. He waved at the nearest sub-puel. “Your presence is a threat. It frightens her progeni.”

Westyr crouched, positioned the pillow beneath her head, then spread the blanket over her. “Your progeni are too young to know fear.”

Dodje translated.

Blassa scoffed. “I will know the fear for them,” she said, through Dodje.

The more she and Dodje spoke, the more Westyr understood. G’chewn shared a lot with T’thrad. Still, he’d need a few more hours to grasp the gist of things. He doubted Blassa would still be around in a few hours.

“We do not mean them any harm. Or you.” He pointed. “You will need evacuation to a medical station for proper treatment. You may lose the leg.”

Her scowl softened and she glanced at the nearest sub-puel. Its light brown surface remained calm, as it had been since the progeni dove inside. Through Dodje: “Who will watch my progeni? They need care.”

“I can arrange their transport to a care facility in a city, perhaps. Or is there someone nearer? Upstream?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No. You will not take me away. I refuse care.”

Westyr looked at Dodje. He shook his head and shrugged. “The progeni are first to her. She will choose suffer over to leaving them. They are worth a leg.”

“I understand.”

“Highensign.”

Phath stood at the front of the puel. Westyr walked over.

“Nothing over there—that I could find, anyway.”

Westyr nodded. “Their back room looks clean. The lieutenant may want to sound for hidden spaces. Do we have such equipment?”

The private’s eyeridges bunched. “I suppose I can rig something. I’ll bring it up with the looey. Will you be all right alone?”

“They pose no threat. And I have my K90.”

“Stay wary. Especially that old one.”

“I will remain vigilant.” He started to turn away, then stopped. “Oh. Ask the lieutenant to do a thorough overhead scan of the puelhouse, please. I see no hatch inside for the docks, if there are any, and there remains the matter of those bumps on the roof.”

“Yes, sir.” He handed Westyr the hypogun pouch. “There’s meds and sedatives in here, just in case.”

“Appreciations.”

Phath left.

Westyr turned. And frowned. Their smocks drew his focus, particularly Blassa’s bloody one, which she had removed. Certainly she’d want a clean one. I did not see fresh clothing in the back room. He remembered the ointment. No change of bandages as well. And the food will not last a day. He considered the sub-puels, their opaque muddy brown water. They could be here for the progeni... But worries formed like thunderheads at the back of his mind.

Why else would they be here?

He glanced at the consoles.

They are here on this day of all days. Our arrival was no secret, our assault plans probably the same as the previous battles with the Salzar Alliance—grind them down. They retreated to the cities. We anticipated this. They knew we would follow. And her pelt is known to be of the Alliance.

But his worries refused to coalesce.

He was tempted to blast that third console with his K90. Prevent them from using it, if that was their intent. But what if he ended up needing to use it, to shut down a process already in progress? Phath had said the console looked like it was semi-operational.

He crouched by Dodje, who sat by Blassa and held her hand. “She has progeni?”

He sat straighter, glanced at the nearest sub-puel. “Four. It is a good annum. The pelt is to strength.”

“There may not be a pelt soon.”

“What comes is what will to be.”

Westyr looked into the sub-puel. Four. Just like—

“Have you progeni?” Dodje asked.

“What? No. I had...four potenshi, but no...”

“A’um. First coupling? You are young.”

“Yes.”

“That is expected. You are not to be a failure.”

“I know. Still...”

Blassa said something. Dodje replied. They exchanged more words.

Dodje said, “She says it is too bad for you.”

Westyr remembered to breathe. “My pelt is strong, and I am young. They will wait for me.” At least, I can hope.

When Dodje translated, Blassa laughed. She said something back. Dodje shook his head.

“She is meaning not that. You have no wait after today, she says.”

Westyr snorted. “Well, the day is early, and this pelt—” He thumped his chestplate. “—is strong. Stronger than yours.”

Dodje translated and she laughed again but said nothing more.

Westyr pointed. “You are unpelted.”

The old byveri straightened arms covered in thinning, graying fur. “I am unpelted. But I have coupled to many progeni.” He lowered his arms.

“Is she a progeni of those? Of yours?”

He smiled and nodded. “She strongs to the pelt.”

Mor’Intha. Was that your pelt?”

“No. Incagi. It is smaller of a pelt.” Dodje sounded happy to talk.

“The unpelting, you have my sympathies.”

“It is of no significance now. I have my place.”

“Did it hurt?” Westyr tapped his chestplate. “Here? Inside?”

“It was expected. The pelt council told me one day after many discussion. That was that.” He shrugged.

Westyr curled his ears. That was how it worked; the pelt leaders discussed and voted, and informed the member of their verdict. Then, over the coming weeks, all pelt markings faded from the unpelted’s fur. It was a mental thing—if the unpelted was never told of the decision, the pelt markings remained. If an unpelted was welcomed into another pelt, their markings would soon appear.

A byveri’s dedication to community was very deep and strong—far more than other species.

Filled with curiosity, for he had never met an unpelted, he asked Dodje more questions. The older byveri answered openly and willingly. Westyr found some solace it at least hadn’t hurt—save for the crushing disappointment. And at least Dodje had produced progeni. That blunted some of the sting. But he wouldn’t reveal any specifics as to why he’d lost his pelt.

He is old. Weak. Half-blind. Incagi might have unpelted him for no longer contributing. I wonder if Mor’Intha offered him food and shelter in return for watching the progeni.

From time to time Blassa asked for translations. She glanced at Westyr and shook her head. He offered the pain dampers again but she waved him off.

“I am worried about her leg,” he told Dodje.

The old byveri’s ears curled back. “She is not to the pain softener.”

“I know. But I hope she—”

Westyr’s dataplate warbled. He jerked it from its slot and studied the screen. Oh. Two-hour check is due. His eyebrows rose. Has it really been two hours?

His first day of combat seemed to be... How did the humans say it? Flowing by?

And here I am, rolling with it.

He stood and tapped a button on his helmet to activate his mic. “Highensign Westyr to Lieutenant Fargo.”

After a moment: “Fargo here. Go ahead, HE.”

“Two-hour check is due.”

“Understood. I’ll send a...kitsitter for our friends.” He laughed before signing off.

Westyr told Dodje, “We will talk later, if you wish.”

The old byveri closed his eyes and nodded. “I am happy to be talked.”

“Appreciations. I am as well.”

A human private Westyr didn’t know entered the puelhouse a few minutes later, silhouetted in the daylight beyond until he closed the hatch. He blinked. “Sir? Private James Kayg reporting.”

“Watch these two.” Westyr pointed. “And there are progeni in the sub-puels.”

“Pro— What?”

“Byveri young. They are hiding. But they may surface. Do not be alarmed. They present no threat.”

Kayg held his Arc-3 at the ready. “Byveri young. Got it.”

“I will return after my duties are accomplished.”

“Take your time, sir. I got this.”

Holstering his K90, Westyr left the puelhouse.

* * *

The heat rolled over him. The sun stood alone in the crisp blue sky, the shade a touch darker than familiar. Fewer animals made noises. The circling birds had disappeared. The air above the roads rippled.

Sweat beaded across his brow and crept down his neck. The insides of his nostrils dried, as did the back of his throat.

His level-two armor weighing on him for the first time, he huffed to Badger Two. Across the intersection, a large white tent stood rigid. Two privates searched the two vehicles parked in the open grassy space to the side. Fans in the tent whirred. Past them, troopers questioned several seated byveri and kavax civilians.

He grunted. They must all speak Sphere Standard, else they would have sent for me. Or they have translators listening in.

One might be Ensign Tiegue.

The Badger’s rear was empty. He ascended to the upper compartment, where it was blissfully cool. Through the open hatch ahead came the voices of the driver and Badger trooper. At the data station, he replaced his helmet with the headset and slotted his dataplate. The console brightened.

A quick check revealed the Fleet troops had moved several blocks into the nearest city. Radio chatter was dense but not frantic—maybe things were going well. Icons indicated cleared space all the way back to the landing zones. Further northwest, maybe one hundred-twenty klicks away, the larger concentration of Fleet troops there moved at a slower pace. Denser metropolitan area, probably more resistance fighters. It too abutted a large river. He followed the waterway.

Yes, the same river, though much wider across there.

He activated his comm. “Command, this is Badger Eight-Eight. Still on station. Two-hour check. Activity reports to follow.” He uploaded the reports someone—Lieutenant Fargo, most likely—had loaded.

“Badger Eight-Eight, copy. Maintain mission parameters. Your medical jumper is en route, ETA twenty minutes.”

Westyr wondered if he should call them off. Maybe they could do something for her here in the field. That way she wouldn’t have to leave her progeni. “Copy, Command.”

“Sending you updated field data. Potential threats in your area remain low. Report ASAP if that changes.”

“Understood, Command. Any news on the missing Alliance troopers?”

After a pause, Command said, “Negative, Eight-Eight. Ten thousand troops still unaccounted for. Keep an eye out.”

“Affirmative. Badger Eight-Eight on station. Situation nominal. Check, two hours.”

“Copy. Check, two hours. Looking forward to your call, Eight-Eight. Stay safe. Command out.”

He leaned back. Ten thousand troops! How could so many just disappear? They had to be around. Scans would have shown if they were on one of the other continents. But no support structures existed. They had to be here, on this continent. Spread out, maybe?

With their backs to the wall, the Salzar Alliance wouldn’t just...not use them.

How would they hide ten thousand troops?

He pulled up the most-recent images of the surrounding countryside. No major changes anywhere. Except...

The position of the barges along the waterfront had shifted. Several dozen of those closest to the third tributary had moved back. Further up the coast, two dozen barges waited at anchor near the mouth of the river just beyond the intersection, clustered around the docks of a small port. Warehouses lined the shore. A single road running north intersected the east-west road some ten klicks west. A handful of farms and homesteads stood between the port and the east-west road.

Westyr checked the time the images were taken. About forty minutes prior. He shuffled back through the images. Two hours ago, no barges lay anchored at the mouth of that river.

He shuffled through more of the images. As far back as six hours earlier, shortly after sunrise, the tributary nearest the city also had no barges at its mouth along the coast. Two hours ago there were three. Now he counted sixteen. An awful lot of activity.

“Command, this is Badger Eight-Eight.”

“Go ahead, Eight-Eight.”

“Request more information on the barges along the coast. Have they been cleared?”

Command’s reply took half a minute. “Affirmative, Eight-Eight. Low-level fly-bys confirm the barges are either empty or filled with grains. Power and heat outputs nominal. They seem to be on some sort of autopilot. Intel does not consider them a threat. Over.”

Westyr frowned. Intel missed the troop transports coming here. Those troopers had three weeks to prepare for our arrival.

But what could they do against the better-equipped, better-trained Fleet forces? Ten thousand additional troops might stall the Fleet advances, but as long as the Fleet controlled the skies, the end result would be the same. The Fleet would eventually win. Casualties might be terribly high, but everyone knew the cost going in. And the cost of not taking action would be even worse.

“Copy, Command. Badger Eight-Eight out.”

He leaned back in his chair. Again, worries clouded the back of his mind. Something... He just couldn’t put his finger on it.

He removed his headset, wiped away his lingering sweat, and strapped on his helmet. Better get back to the puelhouse. Check in with the lieutenant first, grab some water. Should I find the latrine?

Highcorporal Pas Vetrig was in the troop compartment below. A human private was probing the kavax’s chestplate with a diagnoser. Vetrig’s eye- and noseridges were bent close and the maroon at his neck spoke of his sour mood.

The private said, “Looks like one of the AC power regulators buzzed out. Pop your chestplate off. I’ll swap it out with a spare.”

Vetrig opened buckles and released straps and his chestplate, with its twin small cooling units, rose free. The private set it on the other bench and probed at it again. His diagnoser beeped. “Yeah, it’s the regulator. Hmm. Looks like both might be crapping out.”

Vetrig’s scowl deepened. “The heat?”

The private shrugged. “Suit should be able to handle it. Let me dig a little deeper.”

“Make it quick. There’s work to be done.” He settled onto the bench. His inhal and exhal pips opened and closed in an easy rhythm.

Westyr decided to ease his way past. Vetrig lifted a thick, long-fingered hand into his path.

“Highensign. Heard you took a pop.”

A...pop? Oh. “It was nothing. A graze.”

“Is that it? There on your helmet?”

Westyr turned his head to give the kavax a better look. “The lieutenant pushed me out of the way. Otherwise...”

“Looey’s good for shit like that. Trigger-quick reflexes. For a human, anyway.” He hissed a laugh. The scales on his neck and upper chest, exposed now above his mesh underarmor, lightened to a red-green.

“Yes, he moved extraordinarily quick. He shot her in the hip at the same time.”

Vetrig withdrew his hand. “Did it hurt?”

Westyr touched the scratchy ding. “I hardly felt it. Just a slap of the head.”

“You’re lucky she went for you and not the looey. Think you’da shoved him out of the way in time?”

After a moment of consideration, Westyr admitted, “I do not think I would have accomplished such a move in time.”

Still bent over the chest plate, the private snorted.

Vetrig chuffed, blowing small droplets from his inhal pips. “Brave of you to admit it, Furs.”

“I am not ashamed to admit to my... How did you say? Greeny?”

“Yeah, you’re green all right.” He tapped Westyr’s helmet. “Not so green as when you hooked up with us, though. Sir.”

Westyr forced a smile. “I will endeavor to become less green.” He turned then paused. “Wait.” He frowned. “Why did she not shoot Lieutenant Fargo? He was the more logical target. He had an Arc-3.”

Vetrig’s eyeridges bent close. “I would have.”

The private looked up. “Maybe she thought you were more of a threat, being byveri and all.”

“Or maybe she wasn’t trying to shoot either of you,” the highcorporal said. “Phath told me about the consoles.”

Westyr’s eyebrows rose. He inhaled. “The lieutenant shot her first. Threw her aim off.” It had all happened so fast, but... “Just coincidence her shot clipped my helmet?”

“Did you decipher the secret of that third console? Sir?”

“No. And it appears it is operational, in a stand-by mode. I have not found the operations key.”

The private said, “Want me to take a look?” He held up his tools. “I’m kinda familiar with stuff like that. More than Phath, anyway.”

Vetrig grunted. “And my chestplate?”

“Done in a moment.” He plucked a pair of small boxes from a rack along the wall, which held a great many spare parts, then returned to the chestplate.

The highcorporal said to Westyr, “How about we all take a look together.”

“There’s one.” The private lifted a regulator from the chestplate. “And two.” He placed both aside then removed spares from their boxes and slotted them into position. Quick turns of a screwdriver locked them into place. He pressed some tiny switches. Both units whirred to life. “Ah! Good as new, as promised.”

Vetrig strapped and buckled the chestplate into position. “Appreciated, Jessman.”

Jessman popped his knuckles. “All part of the package.” He stowed his tools on his belt.

A cry rose from the driver’s compartment. “What the withered dyst!”

A moment later a mean-sounding hum, like a swarm of angry insects drawing close, drowned all other noise in Westyr’s comm.

Vetrig and Jessman slapped their hands to their helmets.

Them as well. A cold dread rose through his chest. They have had three weeks to plan...

The kavax driver appeared in the upper compartment. “You guys having issues with your comms?”

Vetrig rose to his feet and hefted his Arc-3. “Sir! Nothing’s getting through.”

“Mine as well,” Westyr said. “And the Badger?”

The driver shook his head. “Can’t get anything on any channel. Even the links with the drones are down.” The scales on his neck turned more yellow than green.

Westyr’s ears fell limp as far as his helmet allowed. “A damper?”

The driver chuffed. “If it is, it’s the strongest I’ve seen.”

The highcorporal slapped a hand to Westyr’s shoulderplate. “Highensign. What say we go check that third console.”

He led the way from the Badger.

As they hurried across the grass, Westyr glanced at the slow-moving river. We still do not know if there are docks on the far side of the puelhouse. With the drones down, anything might—

He jerked to a stop. Thoughts mashed together. Not from upstream, but from downstream. The barges.

Jessman stumbled into him. “Highensign?”

Vetrig turned. “Sir?”

“The river.” Westyr pointed. “Would our drones be able to see anything beneath the surface?”

Vetrig glanced over. “You mean, like a submersible? Sir?”

“Yes. The size of those barges. Do you know what I am referencing?”

“The ones in the recon images. Yeah, I seen them.” The kavax’s eyeridges rose apart. “You mean... They’re chugging up the river as we speak? Beneath the surface?”

“What if...” Westyr’s thoughts churned. They have had time to prepare. “What if they camouflaged the hull? Operated just beneath the surface?”

The visible scales on Pas Vetrig’s neck turned more yellow than green. “They could float right by us and we wouldn’t even know.”

Jessman asked, “Wouldn’t their turbines give them away?”

“Not in this heat,” Vetrig replied. “We turned off the infrareds on all the drones. Sensors were overpowered.”

Westyr added, “And the signals from the drones are being jammed.”

Jessman nodded. “Oh, yeah.” He clutched his Arc-3 close to his chest.

Westyr pointed. “This river, it is one of three leading back to the city—to both cities. If the Salzar Alliance has even a small portion of the missing troops inside...”

Now Vetrig’s eyeridges bunches close. “How many? Per barge?”

“A hundred. Easy.” And I saw dozens of barges...

“Wow,” Jessman said. “But what about their equipment? Wouldn’t that be too heavy?”

The highcorporal grunted. “All that’s been pre-positioned in the countryside. Each barge probably has coordinates to all the weapons and ammo dumps the troops inside need.” He shifted his Arc-3. “How I’d do it, anyway. Enemy needs speed to best take advantage of their surprise.”

Thoughts still churning, Westyr said, “They knew we were coming. They knew our tactics. They plan to flood into the secure zones behind our troops, come up behind them.” The magnitude of it...

“Oh, cruks,” Jessman muttered.

“No, no.” Vetrig raised a hand. “They’ll attack the landing zones. The supply bunkers and command vessels. Take them out, grab our weapons, wreck all the comms. Our ships in orbit won’t be able to strike. Our troops in the cities won’t be able to turn around. The enemy troops there will cut them down from behind.” He chuffed. His neck scales shaded red-green. “We need to find the looey!”

Westyr grabbed his shoulder. “No time! That third console. We need to shut down the damper!”

They rushed into the puelhouse. Inside, Private Kayg was fiddling with his helmet. He jerked in surprise. “Hey! What’s up with the comm?”

“Damper,” Jessman said.

Westyr led the way to the consoles. “This one.” Its three plates were alive now with blips and scrolling text. The keypads had brightened as well. “It has activated.”

“Yes, sir,” Kayg said. “A couple minutes ago.”

Pas Vetrig hissed. “Private! Put your helmet on!” Then, to Westyr, “Sir, how do we deactivate it?”

Westyr touched the round slot below the keypads. “We need the operations key. It is about this size—” He raised a finger. “—and this round. Private Phath already searched here. Spread out, look around.” He waved. “It needs to be close by in case they need it.”

Dodje’s ears perked forward. Blassa raised her head.

The two privates began searching along the plaster walls and the wooden planks around the central puel. Westyr glanced about. It seemed a hopeless task. So many places! It might even be in the puel, or any of the sub-puels, hidden in the muddy water.

Vetrig marched around the puel. “They know where this key is?”

Heart beating fast, throat still parched, Westyr followed. “I am certain.”

He stopped by Blassa. She glared up at him. “We need to make her talk.” He turned to Westyr. His necks scales were dark maroon now. “Sir. We need to make her talk.” He chambered a round.

Westyr touched his arm. “That will not work She has been trained to resist such.”

“How do you know?”

“When she was shot. She was in pain, but coherent. In control.” He recalled the look on her face—anger, not pain. “I have seen such in interrogations.” He looked at Dodje. “And this one knows nothing. Hurting him will not tell us the key’s location.”

Vetrig’s eye- and noseridges bunched. “Sir. With all due respect—”

The puelhouse hatch banged opened. Lieutenant Fargo rushed in. “Westyr! What the goddamn cruks is going on?”

Westyr jerked to attention. “Dampers, sir. That console there just activated. It is blocking all our communications.”

“There’s a good chance those missing enemy troops are using submersibles to sneak up on our positions, sir,” Pas Vetrig added.

Fargo’s eyebrows rose. “Submersibles?”

“The barges, sir.” Vetrig nodded at Westyr. “The Highensign here thinks each one can hold up to a hundred troops. If they stashed their shit in the countryside—”

“They can come right up behind us in a wave thousands strong.” Fargo rubbed his helmet. “Shit! We need to kill those dampers. Any ideas where they are?”

“The roof, sir,” Westyr said. “Those strange bumps I did not recognize earlier. Must be.”

“Would that be all of them?”

“Just a small part. The rest are scattered all about. We might pinpoint them from orbit, but unless they are told what to look for, I doubt Command will see them before it is too late.”

Fargo turned to the niche. “What if we blasted that?”

“That would only prevent us from turning off the dampers, sir,” Westyr said. “We need that console working.”

“Can we shoot the dampers?”

“There may be more in the vicinity. I suspect there are overlapping fields.”

Fargo pointed his Arc-3. “So what’s the problem? Get it working!”

“The operations key is missing, sir.”

Fargo glared at Blassa. “She knows where it is. Or him.”

“Her, sir. She is of pelt Mor’Intha. A member of the Salzar Alliance. Him, he is just here to help with the—” He stopped, and inhaled.

The progeni.

The two privates continued to scour the grass and planks. He knew neither would find the key. If I do not compel her to surrender the key, my pelt-mates will die by the thousands.

But could he do what he realized what he needed to do?

His racing heart skipped. His breath caught.

Anything for the pelt. My pelt. My pelt-mates.

“Well, Westyr?” Fargo demanded. “Help with the what?”

But Westyr lacked the breath to speak.

“Sir,” Vetrig said in a low voice, “a submersible could pop up at any moment. Unless we establish a defensive position, a hundred troops will overrun us even if they only have small arms.”

Fargo’s cheeks paled. He looked the way Westyr had felt right before the drop. “Cruks.” He glanced up. “The puelhouse is all we got. It’s heavy rock. Might last a while, anyway. I’ll pull the Badgers close.”

Westyr found his breath. Yes. Heavy rock. Limited access. Position the Badgers correctly, and— “There may be docks in back as well,” he said. “A hatch somewhere.”

“Dammit! All right. Highensign, find that key! Highcorporal, stick with him. Privates! With me!” Lieutenant Fargo and the two privates rushed from the puelhouse.

Westyr looked down at Blassa. Teeth clenched, she sneered at him and jabbered something.

Dodje looked up. “She says you will not win. Her friends are coming.” He waved at the hatch. “She will enjoy watching you and them be dead.”

Yes. Explains what she meant earlier. The lack of food and supplies. Her friends are on their way.

I must act to save my pelt-mates. No matter the cost.

Despite the heat, a deep chill gripped his body, squeezing tight at the chest, numbing his fingers and toes.

I must act.

“Tell her we are not yet dead.”

As Dodje translated, Westyr crouched by the nearest sub-puel and reached into the water. After a brief search, his fingertips brushed a progeni’s fur. He grabbed hold and drew the young one up.

It squealed and thrashed and tried to bite his fingers. He took hold of it beneath one arm, his fingers encircling its chest. The tiny claws at the tips of its toes scratched against his forearmplate.

Blassa rose up on one arm, jabbering loudly. Vetrig retreated a step, snapping his Arc-3 in her direction.

Westyr extended his free hand. “Highcorporal. Your knife, please.”

Eyeridges raised, Vetrig looked at Westyr, Blassa, then back. He drew his knife, flipped it, and slapped the hilt into Westyr’s palm.

Westyr dropped to one knee so the progeni’s feet rested on the planks. Ears folded back, he glanced at Dodje then scowled at Blassa. “Where is the key?” He placed the knife tip at the base of the progeni’s neck. It continued to squeal, writhe, and kick. Its tiny fingernails scratched Westyr’s fingers.

I must not—

My pelt needs this. I must do this. For the pelt. Honor the pelt.

Panting, Blassa cried and shook her head.

“She pleads to let go the progeni,” Dodje said. He too was breathing hard. He rose to a crouch. Vetrig growled and shifted his weapon. Dodje spread his arms. “Please! Let go!”

“The key!” Westyr shouted.

She screamed back. Dodje translated. “She pleads to let go!”

Westyr clenched his teeth. He tightened his grip. His arm tensed. A drop of blood trickled through the progeni’s wet fur. Its squeals intensified.

This is life. Precious life. I must not—

No. I must.

He drove the knife down.

The young one kicked and thrashed in a body-wide convulsion then fell limp in his grasp.

He withdrew the blade and threw the progeni into the central puel. “The key!”

Blassa shook her head and continued to jabber.

“She says no, she pleads no.”

She tried to sit, screamed, grabbed her splinted hip, and collapsed back.

Westyr turned to the sub-puel. After fishing around, he yanked out a second progeni. Its fur wet, it squirmed from his grasp. He caught its ankle and dragged it back, then grabbed its chest, this time pinning an arm against its side. Like the first, it squealed and thrashed and kicked and clawed.

He raised the knife to the progeni’s neck. “The key!”

Wailing, Blassa shook her head. Tears streamed from her eyes. Her ears lay flat against her scalp.

“We plead! We plead!” Dodje said over and over.

Westyr shook the knife.

“Kadle! Kadle!” Blassa wailed, hands clasped together on her chest.

“We plead! We plead!” Dodje cried.

Westyr took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled as he drove the knife into the progeni. The little one puked blood then seemed to deflate in his grasp.

His throw fell short and the progeni flopped to the wooden planks, only an arm and leg dangling into the water.

Body shaking, Blassa screamed. Dodje put his hands on her chest and slumped over, sobbing.

Westyr shifted back to the edge of the sub-puel. He found a third progeni. Its kicking and thrashing flung drops of water.

It reached for Blassa. She reached back. Westyr held it just beyond her fingertips. He placed the knife at its neck.

“The key,” he whispered.

Shaking, Blassa covered her face with her hands. She mumbled something. Dodje sat up. “There, there.” He pointed at the planks near Vetrig’s boots. “The plank, it is lifting up.”

Vetrig moved. “Highensign. Sir.” His focus remained on the byverii.

Still holding the progeni, Westyr checked the plank. He found where a slight divot at the end allowed him the leverage to lift it. The operations key lay in a recess in the smooth rock below.

A sounding would not have found this.

“Tell her I will keep hold of her progeni. This key better work.” He slammed the knife into the adjacent plank and grabbed the key. The progeni continued to squeal, kick, and thrash.

At the console, he sat and inserted the key. A twist, and more lights on the keypads blinked to life. He propped the progeni on a thighplate and studied the plates and the lettering on the keypads.

G’chewn is close enough to T’thrad. Maybe I can decipher...

The progeni continued to thrash, but with less heart. It seemed more interested in the blinking lights and scrolling text than escape.

“Highensign!” Vetrig called out. “Sir!”

“A moment, please.” He ran his fingertip over the keypad. “Here. This might...” He pressed a key.

The tone of the humming in his ear lightened. The text on the screen was replaced by fewer lines. He scanned them, looked at the keypad, and pressed the appropriate buttons.

The plates went blank, the keypads went dark, and the console fell into stand-by mode.

The hum in his helmet clicked off.

He activated his mic. “Badger One, this is Highensign Westyr, do you copy?”

“Copy, HE. Comms are clear. Drone telemetry is back online. Command chatter available on all frequencies.”

“Westyr, this is Fargo. Good work! Badger Two is transmitting our situation now. All units, fall back to the puelhouse.”

“Lieutenant, this is Badger One!” The human driver sounded frantic. “Enemy troops at the bridge, repeat, enemy troops at the bridge!”

The Badger cannons cut loose.

Fargo said, “Vetrig! There’s a dock at the puelhouse rear. Meet your squad there. Barricade the entrance.”

At that moment, one of the plaster walls rolled up into the ceiling. Highcorporal Vetrig dropped to a knee, Arc-3 aimed at the sound. Private Kayg stood in the exposed hall. “Well, whaddya know?”

Vetrig clomped across the planks. “Private! Get the squad inside and seal that hatch!” They disappeared down the hall.

Still holding the progeni, Westyr walked from the niche. Across the puel, hands over her face, Blassa sobbed. Dodje lay over her, stroking her forehead.

The front hatch opened to the sound of Arc-3 and cannon fire. Sergeant Tachs backed in, dragging a wounded trooper. The rest of the squad followed, Lieutenant Fargo the last to enter. He fired a burst, then sealed the hatch. The Badgers sounded close, their cannons firing from just outside the hatch.

“Jessman! Get up here with that welder!”

“Yes, sir!”

Fargo looked at Westyr. “Badgers’ll hold out as long as they can. Kylon support’s on its way.” He retreated from the hatch as rounds plinked off it. Jessman knelt before it and ran a small torch down the metal where it met the frame. Fargo lowered his Arc-3. “We’ll be fine.”

“Let me go, Sarge,” the wounded trooper said. “I’m all good. It mostly missed.”

“Lay still, Private,” Tachs growled as he dug through his medical pouch.

Fargo stepped up beside Westyr, glanced at the squirming progeni, and arched an eyebrow—a look Westyr understood. He released the progeni. It raced into the central puel.

“You found the key,” Fargo said. “Good work.”

Numb, Westyr turned to the puel. Blood dripped from the second progeni’s wound into the water. He dropped to a knee. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Then he bent and retched into the grass.

* * *

Highensign Westyr Shelhou sat alone in Badger Two’s troop compartment. Dusk had fallen, as had the temperatures. Heaters whispered warm air.

Lights from the supply trucks and four additional Badgers now on scene illuminated the intersection. The flood of civilians fleeing the ferocious battles had become a tsunami. Troopers erected more tents, raised blockades, and questioned those who’d been detained. The noise of males shouting, females and children crying, turbines thrumming, and the occasional Arc-3 fire reminded him of the Jessiper’s assembly hall.

The medical jumper sent to fetch Blassa had diverted when its pilots saw the fighting around the puelhouse. They returned after things calmed down, an hour or so later. By then Blassa was in bad shape. Despite Sergeant Tachs’s best efforts, her leg had contracted in muscle death. The jumper whisked her away only moments after arriving.

He clasped his hands between his knees. His fingers still trembled occasionally. The cool water in the canteen beside him barely touched the lingering taste of bile in his mouth.

Now that he’d had time to think, to reflect on what had happened, what he’d done, he found it hard to move.

A shape appeared in the open hatch.

He blinked. Highcorporal Pas Vetrig. Holding— He gasped and tried to avert his gaze but couldn’t look away.

Wrapped in white cloth, the bodies looked so...small.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” the kavax murmured. “Just wanted you to know Private Phath and I... We found good mud for these two. Sir. We’ll honor their sacrifice.”

Westyr tried to breathe. After a moment, he nodded. The movement dislodged the blockage in his throat. “A—Appreciations, Highcorporal.”

“Sergeant, actually, sir,” Vetrig said before disappearing.

Westyr dropped his gaze to his boots. “Oh. Uh, congratulations.” But the kavax was gone.

The one-hundred-fifty dead byverii, killed when they tried to storm the puelhouse, lay in white body bags down the east/west road, behind trees. They’d be burned eventually as warning to other byverii not to fight the Unity Fleet—no mud for them. No one argued the decision.

A while later, he jerked when someone jumped into the Badger and settled on the opposite bench.

Lieutenant Fargo removed his helmet. “Hey.”

Westyr sat straight. “Lieutenant.”

“At ease.” Fargo placed his helmet on the bench then leaned and looked out the hatch. Apparently satisfied, he settled back and withdrew something slim from a pocket—a silver flask. “Always have this handy for when the job’s done.” He unscrewed the top, took a drink, then grimaced and offered it to Westyr. “You won’t find any better.”

After a moment, Westyr took the flask and lifted it to his lips. The pult within stung the back of his throat and washed away any lingering taste. He lowered the flask and coughed. “Oh! Uh! Yes, Lieutenant. That is good pult.” He offered the flask back.

Fargo took another pull and smacked his lips.

Westyr smiled. “Huckbar, pult... Is there anything of ours you do not like?”

Fargo shrugged, the motion almost lost beneath his armor. “Wicked little byveri females come to mind.”

They each took another drink.

“A transport’s flying in to take you back to your intel team. The Ackindare, right?”

“Yes.”

“Should be here within the hour. I’ve filed my preliminary report, if your captain wants to read it. We have enough translators on site now, we can get you back where you belong.”

“Appreciations.” He sighed. Tiegue would... How had the lieutenant put it? Crap himself when he learned of all that had transpired. “This was...an experience.”

“Highensign, you did good. You rolled with everything, and saved a shit-ton of lives. Probably the entire mission.”

“I deserve no...celebration. What I did...”

“You had to do.” He drank. “Command says what few barges that haven’t been sunk are too far from our landing zones to pose any threat. And the Kylons are plunking the last of the dampers.”

“That is good news, sir.”

“We rounded up the remaining progeni in all them sub-puels. Did you know there were thirteen more of the little buggers?”

Westyr’s ears rolled forward and back. “I did not. What—what will happen to them now? They are enemy progeni.”

“Enemy progeni? That can’t be a thing. They’re too young.” Fargo leaned back and took another pull from the flask then offered it. “What would you like to see happen to them progeni, Highensign?”

“What would I—?” Westyr took a long drink. “Well, I— That is, my pelt— Thirteen?”

Fargo raised his hands, palms up. “Command don’t rightly know what to do with them. Frankly they’d prefer to ship them off somewhere, nice and quiet-like, avoid any unnecessary media bullshit. I don’t think we can give them to anyone around here. Like you said, enemy progeni.” He took the flask, drank the remainder of the pult, and smacked his lips again. “Goddamn, that’s some good stuff.” He returned the flask to his pocket. “So, any idea where these thirteen progeni—innocent, young, unpelted progeni—can go? No distance is too far.”

The human had one eyebrow arched. After a moment, the other rose as well. As though signaling—

Westyr’s eyebrows came together. “Anywhere?”

Fargo nodded. “Anywhere. Command’s already given its approval.”

Westyr’s breath caught again. Then he straightened, hands on his knees. Could he really mean..? He did say he read my record. I wonder— “Sir! If I might—”

“Of course. Put the details on your plate, transfer them to me, and I’ll make the arrangements.” He slapped Westyr’s shoulderplate. “Find me when you’re ready.” He left.

Breathe. Remember to breathe.

Westyr grabbed his dataplate and began typing.

My Grais, I write to bear you great news. You may need to sit before continuing, for the news I send you is thirteen times that tremendous..


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