For synopsis and disclaimer, see part 1.
Feedback: Constructive comments and criticism welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org and many thanks for reading.
By Sandra Barret
Part 9 (Final)
Dray and Jordan joined the rest of the crew outside the ship. Malory ordered full preparations for departure and that meant dismantling the temporary processing stations they'd set up since landing. They joined Venkata at the solar converters that stretched out in a wide pattern behind the ship. The portable energy panels required two people on either end to retract them into storage bins. By the time they finished that task, the rest of the external stations had been stowed for takeoff.
"Any sign of the rescue ship?" asked Dray as she skipped up the ramp into the Cigna-major.
"Not yet," said Jenny who sat at the com-station with more patience than Dray would have managed.
"Where's everyone else?" asked Jordan, taking the empty co-pilot's seat.
Jenny pulled off her communications earpiece. "Malory set the juniors to task, scrubbing down the storage bays. It'll keep them from loitering around here, waiting for news."
"You mean like us," said Dray, laughing.
Jenny smiled and shrugged, "If the space gear fits "
"Okay, we can take a hint," said Jordan as she stood up.
A signal whistled from the console behind Jordan. "I didn't touch anything, I swear."
Jenny left her post to scan the console by Jordan. She frowned as she typed in a series of commands, one of which turned off the signal.
"It's the proximity detector. It's showing we've got one incoming vessel," she said.
"That's great," said Jordan, leaning in to read the report over Jenny's shoulder.
"I'm not so sure," said Jenny. "If it was our rescue ship, why wouldn't they have signaled us by now?"
Dray stood up, "Where's Malory?"
Jenny turned to her. "She's outside, doing a final inspection of the ship before we take off. We're supposed to meet the rescue ship in orbit and be towed back to Zenon air-space."
Dray spun around and left the ship in search of Malory. If something other than the Terran ship was landing, then the C.O had some hard decisions to make. She ran around the back of the ship and found Malory with Red, examining the rear thrusters.
"We've got an unknown ship heading our way," said Dray, coming to a stop next to Red.
Malory stood up too quickly, slamming her head into the metal flange overhanging the thrusters. "Can you identify the vessel type?" she asked, rubbing her scalp.
"Not yet," said Dray. "But Jenny and Jordan are working on it."
The three ran to the front of the ship and up the ramp. Jordan and Jenny were seated in the co-pilots chairs.
"Status," ordered Malory as she took the pilots seat and turned up the readouts.
"Unidentified vessel is about to do a flyover of our position," said Jordan as Dray stood behind her, scanning the console.
Dray strained to hear the sound of engines above them, but the thick hull of the Cigna-major blocked out any noise from the approaching ship.
"Ma'am," said Dray. "We should run a full scan on the unknown. If it doesn't match our database, the Alliance will want to have as much information as possible on it for later analysis."
"Agreed," said Malory. "Bowers, record all data."
Jordan punched in her password and started the record stream.
"It's circling around, landing gear down," said Jenny.
Malory cursed, then turned on the ship's intercom. "Prepare for emergency takeoff. Repeat, prepare for emergency takeoff."
She turned off the intercom. "Red, go down to the bays and make sure those kids are strapped in. Copilots, start the forward engines."
Just as Dray left the command area to strap into a seat, an explosion rocked the ship, sending her sprawling across the metal floor.
"Report!" Malory screamed.
"They've hit the rear thrusters," said Jenny. "We're grounded."
"We're an easy target in this ship," said Dray, pulling herself back up.
Malory swung out of her pilot's seat. "Draybeck, get whatever weapons we have and arm the seniors before the juniors. Jenny and Bowers, find us the emergency comm-station and oxygen tanks."
Dray ran down the central corridor, pushing her way through the dazed cadets standing around. "Strap on whatever weapons you've got and meet up in the front. We're under attack."
She paused by the door to Jordan's room, hearing the cries of the three bipeds. "I'll come back for you," she promised as she ran on. She found Red in the storage bays as Malory's voice came over the intercom again, ordering the evac of the ship.
"I need your help," said Dray. "The seniors are armed and ready. Can you lead the juniors out?"
"Yes," said Red. "But what are you doing?"
"Getting a baby-sitter for the bipeds."
Dray ran back to the central corridor and then down the hallway that led to Franklin's prison. She passed by the thrashing bodies of Carson and Petros, but there was nothing she could do for them. Their minds were so far gone that they were uncontrollable without the restraints that held them to their beds. She rounded the corner to Franklin's room. As expected, his guard had already left. Dray punched in the unlock code and the door slid open. Franklin sat in a ball under the one table in his room.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked, recognizing Dray.
"Get your boots on, Franklin. The ship's under attack."
He scrambled out of his hiding place and shoved on his boots. "How bad is the damage?"
Dray led the way down the hallway, "So far only one hit to keep us on the ground."
Franklin grabbed Dray's arm. "Did you ID the attacker?"
"Not yet. It's not in our database. Come on."
Dray skidded to a stop outside Jordan's room. When she opened the door, the three bipeds clamored out and wrapped themselves around her legs. She pulled one off and handed it to Franklin. "They're your responsibility, you understand?"
He nodded, pulling up a second biped. "This is what they're after, you know that, right?"
"What do you mean?" Dray studied Franklin's scraggly face. His dark eyes were glistening in the light.
"I thought you'd figure it out," he said. "These are Vtaryn babies."
Dray turned to the last biped clinging to her legs. Her mind wanted to reject Franklin's words, reject the idea that these were her enemy. "They'll grow up to be those killers?"
"No. They're not the warrior caste. These are real Vtaryn children, the ruling caste."
She studied the baby's thin neck and arms. "They seem so fragile."
"They are. That's why they joined with the warrior caste. Two co-dependent species developed on one planetary system."
Dray scooped up the last baby. "Come on, we've got to tell Malory."
Franklin hesitated. "You trust your blond bombshell? These babies are the only thing keeping you alive right now. If she harms them, the Vtaryns will turn this ship into a sizable crater."
Dray held the baby to her chest. "I trust her, but she needs this information. Let's go."
Dray led them up the corridor to where the rest of the crew waited. She pushed through the crowd, hearing grumbles behind her as they recognized Franklin carrying two of the bipeds. She didn't have time to deal with sensitivities and prejudices. She trusted Malory mostly because she knew the junior pilot would believe Jenny, and Jenny wouldn't let any harm come to the babies, even if they were Vtaryn. But Dray didn't trust the rest of the crew if they found out who was outside the ship, and what they were after.
"Malory," she said in a quiet voice. "There's something you need to know about the attackers."
"Now?" asked Malory.
Dray nodded, passing the baby off to Jordan as she pulled Malory back into the pilot area where Jenny sat, still scanning the incoming vessel.
"What is it, Draybeck?"
"Franklin told me the bipeds are Vtaryn babies. And our visitors there have come to retrieve them."
Malory leaned on the back of Jenny's seat. "And you believe him?"
"Makes sense. If they wanted us dead, they could have blown this ship to bits by now. They want something, and that something is inside this ship."
Jenny turned and rested her hand on Malory's. "You can't let the rest of the crew know about this. Too many of them lost parents or siblings in the Vtaryn wars. Someone's bound to take it out on the babies, whether Franklin's telling the truth or not."
"I know," said Malory. "Where's the ship now?"
Jenny returned to her console. "Landed about two hundred meters away."
"Can you get a visual?"
Jenny focused the external viewers and piped the video to her console. The unknown vessel shimmered from the heat of its engines. As they watched, a contingent of Vtaryn warrior troops emerged. Their massive black encounter suits seemed to swallow the surrounding light as they marched in formation down the ship's ramp.
Red shouted from the midst of the juniors, "J.P. Grace, the crew is awaiting your orders."
Dray turned to scan the faces of her fellow cadets. Nervous energy abounded in the crowded main cabin. Grim-faced seniors held their weapons in white-knuckled grasps while the frightened young faces of the juniors looked to the towering figure of Red for protection. He stood amid the group, his skin a dark orange color. Dray wondered what emotion that reflected, though if it was anything like what she felt at the moment, it wavered between frustration and dread fear.
"Options?" asked Malory in a low voice.
"I recommend splitting the group," said Dray. The juniors and half the seniors to the rear exit of the ship. Then we wait and see what the Vtaryns do. If they attack, we hold them here while the rest escape from the back."
"The less people who know there are Vtaryns outside, the better," said Jenny.
"Okay," said Malory. "Red takes the juniors and others to the back with Jenny."
"No way." Jenny jumped out of her chair to face Malory. "Respectfully, Ma'am. I belong here."
Malory grasped Jenny's thin hands in her own. "Please. I need to know you're safe."
Jenny took a step closer. "I'm not leaving you."
Regretfully, Dray interrupted them. "We need to act before the Vtaryns come into view."
Malory dropped Jenny's hand and turned to face the crew. "Our attackers are approaching on foot, possibly to parley. Red, take the juniors and half the seniors to the back exit. The rest of us will stay here and deal with whomever comes. If it goes badly, take the remote com station and get out the back exit."
Red chose his seniors and with one final look back, he led them down the corridor and out of sight. Two seniors stood with Franklin and Jordan and the babies.
"Okay, here's the deal. We've got a contingent of Vtaryns coming our way, and we've reason to believe they want something from us," said Malory after the others had left. "I don't want anyone getting trigger happy, understood? All we need to do is keep them at bay until the Alliance rescue ship gets here."
The small group waited in silence around the main vid-screen where Jenny piped the images of the Vtaryns approaching. Dray counted at least twenty hulking figures kicking up a dust cloud that distorted the electronic images. "Does anybody know how Vtaryns communicate?" asked Dray.
No one spoke up at first. Then, Franklin coughed and stood, looking awkward in his scraggly beard and clothes. "The warriors don't communicate," he said. "At least not that anyone's ever recorded."
"Great," said Malory.
"They, um," Franklin continued. "Their encounter suits are resistant to projectile and laser fire, but if you can detonate a shock-grenade near them, it may trigger a systems malfunction in their suits. Not enough to kill, but it could give you the chance to run like hell."
Jordan spoke up from the co-pilot's console she'd taken a seat at. "They're in visual range now, coming around the rear of the ship.
Dray prayed that no one in Red's party decided to open the back hatch while the Vtaryns marched past. Sweat trickled down between her shoulder blades as she waited. When the first Vtaryns came into view, she felt a wave of dread threaten to engulf her. These were the enemy, the vicious killers that were shown on the vids, night after night. What made her think they could negotiate with these deadly behemoths?
The Vtaryns formed a wide arc around the side of the ship, twenty paces from the closed front ramp. They stood, black and unmoving. Dray couldn't look away, couldn't break the lock of fear that permeated the main cabin around her. She felt Jordan's warm presence beside her, comforting on her raw nerves.
Something moved within the Vtaryn wall, a subtle parting of the black-clad troops. Dray leaned closer to the view port as one lone figure emerged from the Vtaryn wall of warriors, smaller in stature, wearing a simplified steel gray encounter suite. The figure walked a few paces in front of the Vtaryn warriors and then made a show of taking out its weapons, placing them on the ground, and then walking away from them, closer to the Cigna-major.
"Nice show," said Malory. "But what about the wall of death behind it."
Dray called Franklin forward. "Is that one of them?"
"Yes," he said. "This must be some kind of breeding ground for them. The mothers go into isolation when they lay their eggs."
Jordan joined them, holding one of the babies in her arms. "So that could be Daddy?"
"Vtaryns are gender-neutral," said Franklin. "Limited observation suggests any of them can bear or fertilize eggs in another. But yes, there's a good chance that the Vtaryn standing out there is a primary parent for these three."
"We've got an incoming transmission," said Jenny. "The Alliance rescue ship has detected the Vtaryn vessel." She turned away from her console to look up at Malory. "They're coming in fully armed."
Franklin grabbed Dray's elbow and whispered frantically in her ear. "You can't let the Alliance have the children. You don't know what they'll do to them."
Jordan overheard him. "Dray, we have to give the babies back to their family."
Dray nodded and walked back to Malory. "If we give the bipeds back to the Vtaryns, we may save a lot of bloodshed here. They can be off planet before the Alliance ship gets in target range."
Dray studied Malory as the junior pilot watched the lone figure waiting outside their ship. "They want the babies alive. They won't attack us so long as we have them onboard." Malory turned to Dray. "You don't want the Alliance getting those babies do you?"
"Would you? Enemy or not, they are children and innocent in this war."
"I won't order anyone outside this ship," said Malory.
"You won't need to," said Jordan, coming up behind Dray. "I'll take them out."
"We'll take them out," Dray corrected.
"You could both end up dead," said Malory.
Dray and Jordan stood silent.
"Alright," Malory sighed. "But you take a couple of shock grenades each, you hear? Jenny, where's the Alliance ship?"
"In low orbit. ETA in ten minutes."
"Make this fast, Draybeck," Malory ordered.
Jordan waited by the front exit ramp, holding two of the babies. Dray stuffed her pockets with grenades and then scooped up the remaining baby that clung to Jordan's legs.
"I hope these tikes don't miss us too much," said Jordan.
Dray saw the sadness in her lover's eyes. She smiled mischievously, as she stripped off her name tag and Jordan's, and attached them to the two babies Jordan held. "Something to remember us by."
The baby in Dray's arm tried to pull off a nametag from its sibling. Dray took off her Alliance cadet insignia and gave it to the baby. It made a series of happy clicking noises as it fingered the patch and tried to bite it.
"Ready?" asked Jordan.
Dray nodded. Jordan keyed in the unlock code and they watched the long metal ramp lower to the ground. Side by side, the two women walked down the ramp and onto the dusty ground. Dray wondered if Malory would close the ramp once they were clear, but she didn't. Their return path waited for them, incase they needed to make a run for it. Facing the wall of black Vtaryn warriors at ground level, Dray prayed they would not have to make a hasty retreat.
Once clear of the ship, they walked slowly toward the lone Vtaryn figure. It approached them, meeting them half way between the Cigna-major and the Vtaryn warriors. Dray glanced back at the black behemoths, holding her fear at bay. The hulks each carried two heavy blasters strapped across front shield armor, but none held the weapons in a firing position. She kept her own hands clear of the grenades in her pockets as they stopped a few paces before the Vtaryn ruling caste figure. It stood a head span taller than Jordan, watching them through a reflective view panel. Dray had never seen a ruling caste member, but she could detect the similarities between it and the baby in her arms.
The Vtaryn lifted an arm and unhooked its gray helmet, taking it off to reveal a face covered in iridescent thick fur surrounding black lips and clear black eyes. It made a series of deep whistles to which the babies responded in kind. Dray went down on one knee, keeping her eye on the Vtaryn as she put the baby on the ground. It looked up at her with its own black eyes, clicking and clutching her Alliance patch. Then it toddled over to the Vtaryn who squatted down to greet the baby.
Dray saw Jordan kneel down and let go of her two babies. One ran to the Vtaryn and its other sibling, but the other, the one they'd had with them in the cave, held onto Jordan's hand.
"You have to go," Jordan said.
Dray took her eyes off the Vtaryn for a moment and saw a tear slid down Jordan's cheek. She stepped over to Jordan and picked up the last baby, uncurling its tiny hand from Jordan's pant leg. Jordan wiped at her cheek. Dray turned and walked two paces to the Vtaryn who had the other two babies at its feet. Dray held out the third baby and the Vtaryn gently took it from her and held it, stroking its soft, fine fur with long fingered hands.
The unmistakable sound of a spaceship engine whined from the distance. Dray glanced up to see the Alliance vessel approaching.
"Go," she said.
The Vtaryn looked up at the vessel, but did not move.
"Go," Dray urged. She pointed up at the ship and then down at the Alliance patch that the baby held. "Go before they capture your children."
Whether it understood her words or not, the Vtaryn scooped up two children in its long arms and let the third ride on its shoulders. It stared at Jordan and Dray a moment longer, emitting a low series of clicks and whistles, then turned and paced back to its warriors. The black wall absorbed the gray-clad figure once again, and then marched back toward its own ship. Dray turned back to Jordan and then kicked something at her feet. She looked down at the helmet the Vtaryn parent had left behind. She picked it up, and trotted back to the Cygna-major with Jordan at her side.
Dray stood alone in the new quarters that she and Jordan shared on Base Station Zenon and straightened out the sleeves on her new gray-blue dress uniform. They lived on a different level of the station now, far from the destroyed evac launch sites. Much of the station had changed in the few cycles they'd been away, but the most drastic change appeared when they'd first entered Zenon space behind the rescue ship. The boarder region was now heavily mined and required secure access codes to navigate the mine field that formed a protective layer around the base station. There were also four full fighter squadrons docked on Zenon at all times.
The new station commander had arranged a banquet for station personnel two cycles after Dray's group had returned. Dray scrutinized her appearance in the full length mirror as she prepared for the banquet. She'd pressed her new uniform and even visited the station barber to trim her short blond hair. She bent down to the low table at her side and picked up her new name tag. She placed it on the right side of her uniform, playing with it to make sure it was perfectly straight. Draybeck, S.C. it said. Senior Cadet. She smiled at herself. Malory had put in for a field promotion for her and Jordan.
She frowned. She hadn't seen Jordan since the noon meal. Her lover managed to slip out of their quarters earlier under the excuse that she was helping Jenny dress for the banquet. Dray shrugged at her image in the mirror and marched out of their quarters. She looked as good as she was going to.
When Dray opened the doors to the banquet hall, she was overcome by the delicious scent of the buffet tables lining the near wall. She hadn't eaten since lunch, but her priority was to find Jordan. She scanned the crowd, some lining the walls, some eating, and a good many dancing on the large open floor space in front of a live band. The new commander got bonus points for that touch, in Dray's mind. She walked around the periphery of the dance floor. She found Red standing by the side wall and joined him.
"Good evening, Senior Cadet," he said, smiling.
"Yeah, yeah. I feel like a poser."
"You earned your status, Dray. I've heard the story re-told so many times now, that it sometimes feels like I was there with you."
"Have you seen Jordan?" she asked, changing the subject.
"No, but if she looks as beautiful as you this evening, then I must beg for the honor of a dance with each of you."
"No guarantees," said Dray, laughing.
When Red's skin rippled a deeper orange, she felt a twinge of jealousy. She elbowed him in the ribs. "Who's got you getting all colored again?"
Red stared across the room and Dray followed his gaze. To her relief and amusement, she saw Venkata enter the hall. The massive Gilgaran scanned the crowd until she locked eyes with Red.
"You will excuse me?" said Red as he moved off.
"Have a good time," said Dray as he made his way through the throng to Venkata. She wondered briefly what sort of rainbow children they'd create, assuming their species could produce offspring.
She turned to her left and saw Jenny. The young woman's hair was pulled up into a loose bun, with tendrils of black hair curling around her ears. Definitely Jordan's touch, thought Dray. She watched for a moment as Malory Grace stepped up to Jenny. Dray could sense the junior pilot's uncertainty from across the dance floor. Jenny reached out and pulled Malory closer, whispering something in her ear that made the junior pilot's face turn red as she smiled.
Dray scanned the banquet hall in earnest. Jordan should be somewhere in the crowd by now. As the band started a slow beat instrumental, Dray found Jordan standing on the edge of the dance floor opposite her. Jordan's hair was similarly styled to Jenny's, her long black hair pulled up off a graceful neck. Jordan's eyes met Dray's and Dray felt her heart skip. She moved through the dancers as Jordan walked toward her. They met half way across the floor.
"You're beautiful," said Dray.
Jordan blushed. "So are you, Senior Cadet."
Dray laughed, looking down at the new name tag on Jordan's uniform. Bowers, S.C.
"Would you like to dance?" she asked.
Jordan slipped her arms over Dray's shoulders. "Oh yes."
Dray wrapped her arms around Jordan's thin waist and pulled her closer as they moved to the slow music. She sighed when Jordan's body pressed against hers, and Jordan lay her head on Dray's shoulder.
"I love you," Dray whispered.
Jordan lifted her head and gazed into Dray's eyes, smiling. She leaned in and placed a slow, lingering kiss on Dray's lips. When Jordan pulled back, tears glistened in her eyes. "I love you, too."
"Write to me," said Dray, handing Franklin a card with her cyber address on it.
"They'll censor anything important," he said, pocketing the card.
"You made the analogy once, about Vtaryns and bees."
Dray shook his hand. "Then teach me about bees, Franklin."
He held her hand for a heartbeat. "I will. Promise me you'll do something with that information."
"I will." Dray turned and left Franklin's holding cell, nodding at the military police on guard outside. She wanted nothing more than to collapse in the new quarters she and Jordan shared, to be wrapped in her lover's warm embrace. She took the express lift to the senior cadets' level and hurried down the corridor to their quarters. When she opened the door, Jordan waited for her in the small kitchenette.
"You're home," she said.
"Yes," said Dray, wrapping her arms around Jordan. "I am."
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