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Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version

Started by cairn destop, Sep 16, 2018, 07:57 PM

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cairn destop

This is an update of an earlier topic.  It needed a lot of work.  The story consist of 24 parts and will be released starting Monday 09/24/2018.  A new comment thread will also be made available.  The old story has been removed.  Those who read it will understand why the updated version.  Those who didn't, sit back and enjoy.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Captain Riven exited the comm center and jogged to the command bunker.  He slipped his helmet onto his head as he weaved his way through the trench system, making sure he stayed below the rim.  Instead of entering the bunker, he followed a stairway to the observation post.  The Terratwo sun had risen an hour ago but the surrounding mountains kept this base and the valley they guarded in deep shadows.  A look up at the steel grey winter sky told him not to expect sunshine today.

A mixed terrier poked his head out of the bunker.  "Morning Captain.  All's quiet.  Both seismic detectors and ground radar stayed green.  Only activity overnight has been from our patrols.  Sentries and scouts reported nothing."

Captain Riven acknowledged the report as he scanned the valley stretching beyond his defensive outpost.  The mountains were too steep for climbing so he didn't worry about snipers.  If any of those hairless monkeys tried it, the nightly patrols should have eliminated them before they became a threat. 

His concern focused on an evening infantry or armored assault.  At this time of year, the setting sun blinded them.  Another ten days and the sun would shift far enough to remove any glare.  Until then, they would have difficulties seeing their enemy if they slipped past the automated detectors. 

"Corporal, hold a readiness drill for later today."  He continued his inspection of the area.

"Captain," whined the terrier, "we can go from condition green to all weapons hot in five minutes.  Those seismic detectors will give us at least a fifteen-minute warning.  Why your insistence on these pointless drills?"

"I have confidence in our equipment but I'll not trust my life with it.  Technology can be thwarted but not a pair of sharp eyes."

He knew the location of the enemy's camp.  The humans were at the eastern end of this mountain pass hiding behind a series of trenches and dragon teeth emplacements.  Dismantling them would take too much time so Captain Riven didn't anticipate anything more than probing assaults.  Those never consisted of anything stronger than a half dozen armored vehicles, perhaps a pair of second grade tanks, or a hundred soldiers. 

As a forward base station, his mission was to hold and observe.  Fortunately, High Command saw fit to upgrade their defensive capabilities.  Since the last human offense stagnated, their camp expanded from a slit trench for a dozen soldiers to a viable defensive fortification occupied by almost five hundred morphs.  Better weapons and communications made them a powerful defensive outpost.
"Everything all right commander," his second in command asked as he exited the command bunker.

"Everything is as it's been for over six months lieutenant," Captain Riven replied.  "We are in a stalemate with the humans.  This pass is what they would call temporizing land.  Whichever side moves first will be at the greater disadvantage.  If anything is going to happen, it will be through the mountain pass to our north."

He adjusted his chin strap to prevent the oversized helmet from slipping over his eyes.  Every time their logistics division resupplied them, he searched for something to fit a ferret instead of the oversized dog ones they kept sending.  Even the smaller rat helmet would be preferable.  Riven understood why the rear echelons kept sending additional dog helmets.  Most of his command consisted of dogs.

Riven likened his base to Dante's Divine Comedy, a human novel he obtained off the body of some dead soldier too many years ago.  The trench system consisted of nine interconnected rings with each ring defending the outer ones.  If an outer ring fell, the next one in could decimate the invaders while enjoying the protection of those rings behind them. 

The enemy still sent sorties in force to test their resolve.  So far, the humans hadn't gotten beyond the open field without heavy losses.  Riven saw no reason for the humans to attack this particular pass.  The only way through was along a single and very narrow road.  His artillery had it ranged and he held drills daily to confirm that assumption.  Nothing could go too far off road as you either encountered the sheer mountain wall or came within range of his base.

By the time he inspected the trenches, oversaw the multiple scheduled artillery drills, and checked in with his subordinates, he had little time remaining.  As was his habit, he made a point of taking chow within the mess hall for a different ring each day. 
Today he had the outermost ring, which delayed his return to the innermost circle of his personal hell.  Riven missed his favorite event of the day, the officer's mess.  One of the drawbacks of command.  By the time he arrived at the innermost ring's security checkpoint, the setting Terratwo sun touched the eastern mountains where the humans camped.

"Lieutenant Snarken, anything to report?"

"Commander, replacements are delayed due to icy roads.  They should arrive after nightfall.  Those scheduled to go on R and R will have to wait until morning," replied the wildcat.  "If we get the predicted snowfall, roads will become impassable for a few days.  Expect a lot of complaints from those due to rotate out."

Captain Riven laughed.  "The humans would call that a SNAFU.  We'll call it bad karma."

A glance upward confirmed the lieutenant's comment.  Grey clouds tumbled in slow motion like dice across the evening sky.  Stars disappeared one by one as the weather system moved eastward.  Even the air held the scent of impending precipitation, though what kind still appeared debatable.  Not ideal conditions for replacements but it kept the humans quiet. 

Captain Riven made his way along the switchbacks until he reached the blackout curtains to the post's communication's center.  Officer quarters offered both privacy and comfort but the radio room would learn of anything needing his attention first.  As he did every night, he slept on a simple cot in a storage room near whichever dog had the late shift.  He left the door open and soon fell into a deep sleep.
Her voice intruded on his dream fantasy.  Riven shifted on his cot and glanced at the clock mounted above the radio room's single entrance.  The hour hand hadn't passed one yet so he slept less than four hours.  His feet slipped into the boots he removed earlier.  He dressed fast but left his weapons resting on the shipping crate he used as a night stand.

The female rat sat hunched over the radio switchboard, her voice fighting to remain calm.

"Resting . . . you don't have anything . . . of course I know the chain of command . . . yes sir, a corporal outranks a private but I have my orders . . . proper protocol is to give me your report and I'll pass it on to my superior before waking the commander."

Riven startled the rat when he came up behind her.  He grabbed a second headset and plugged into the system.  A somewhat frantic voice kept alternating between hurling insults and insisting he talk to somebody that knew more than regulations.  He waited until the silence at his end had the unknown caller hesitate.

"Unless you've been promoted to major in the last few moments, you are speaking to your commanding officer.  Give me a concise report and without the hysteria displayed earlier."

He wheeled a chair closer and pushed the female rat far enough to the side that he could access the nearby computer.  A check on recent intelligence reports contradicted everything this soldier said.  The pass to the north gave no indication of activity.  Those back in HQ hadn't issued any advisories regarding human troop movements over the last two weeks. 

"Corporal, gather your team and return to base."

Riven gave the female rat a long look as she placed all channels on standby.  She made to say something but he held up his paw to silence her.

"You wanted to give me an accurate report and not the ravings of some front-line soldier, commendable and by the book.  However, you're on the front lines and not back at boot camp.  We do things differently here."

"How did you know I came from boot camp, sir?"

"Three things.  When I went to bed, there were no rats under my command.  Second, your uniform is pressed.  Third, you smell of soap.  Nobody can keep that clean under combat conditions."

Captain Riven ordered her to place the installation on condition yellow and advise Lieutenant Snarken of the situation.  He than informed her of his intention of verifying the scout's report while gathering his gear.  As he parted the blackout curtains, he heard the female rat relay orders to those officers on duty via the comm system.

Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

He rushed down the central path, following a series of twists and turns until he came to a pair of thick black curtains.  Captain Riven parted them and followed a short corridor deeper underground.  A second pair of curtains blocked his path, which he pushed aside.  Four red lanterns gave him just enough light to identify six rows of occupied bunk beds.

Once he removed his helmet, Captain Riven used it like a hammer on the nearest wooden support beam.  The sound of thunder echoed through the room.  Every dog tumbled out of their bunks.  The nearest one recognized who had disturbed their slumber and called for attention.  The soldiers stood by their bunks in various states of disarray as they wrestled with the idea of military protocol or a proper uniform.

"Alright mutts, without any of the usual alpha bragging, which of you is this company's best sniper?"

A dalmatian at the far end took one step forward.  Captain Riven strolled up to the fellow and just stared, letting the tension build and the silence grow.

"Get our best spotter and whichever shooter would give you the most competition and report to Hanger Three in ten minutes.  Draw a full load for each type of round.  No way of telling what we'll encounter."

With that, he pivoted on one heel and made for the curtained exit.  Just before he stepped past the inner curtains, he informed everyone that the camp was officially on condition yellow.  As he departed, he heard the remaining soldiers preparing for the possibility of combat.  At least those soldiers would be ready if things deteriorated fast to condition red.

His memory served him well.  Though the path had many twists to it, it was the most direct one to Hanger Three.  When he pushed pass the blackout curtains, he found a wide room bustling with activity as mechanics scrambled over the different vehicles.  One cigar chewing boxer kept bellowing orders as he prowled the hanger.  One private didn't respond fast enough and received the kind of tongue lashing soldiers believed only drill instructors possessed.

When the Sargent realized who had entered his hanger, he hustled to his side.  Since they were in a combat area, the boxer abandoned the formality of saluting.  Instead, the boxer took Riven by the elbow to a land zodiac.  At present, the vehicle sat on four stubby legs, its hover engines disconnected.  The land zodiac ran swift and silent on a cushion of air a full foot above the highest terrain within ten meters of their path, an ideal scouting platform.

A young private ran his paw across the exterior while he read through the prelaunch checklist.  One look said it all, like the rat in communications, the young ferret must have arrived with the latest rotation of personnel.  No doubt the Sargent guessed the reason for his discomfort and relayed the fellow's record and his personal assurance that Private Lewark was the best driver available.  His mind kept fixating on the fact that all his accolades were achieved in a sterile training environment, not in combat.

Three dogs announced their presence just as the private started the engine.  Captain Riven eyed the two who joined the dalmatian.  Like the dalmatian, the shepherd carried his sniper rifle slung over his shoulder while holding onto a large backpack.  Instead of the usual camouflage outfit, the two shooters wore a heat reflective dark suit.  Uncomfortable for long missions since it didn't ventilate any body heat but it did leave them invisible to inferred detectors.  A definite plus on any night mission.

The third dog, a small terrier carried no weapon but did have the same camouflage outfit.  Instead of a weapon, he carried a tripod mounted scope.  This had to be their spotter.  All Captain Riven could do was hope the fellow competent in such adverse weather conditions.  While the two shooters waited, their spotter packed his gear and mounted the back seat.  The shooters took the middle seats leaving him the jump seat next to the driver.

The zodiac gave a slight hiss than tilted forward.  Four running lights flashed as their driver crossed the hanger for the exit.  The inner doors opened and the craft drifted forward.  The attendant handed the driver his IFF code and the fellow punched it into the transponder.  All running lights winked off and the hanger's outer doors slid open.

Everything appeared black.  Both moons remained hidden by the clouds as the zodiac crept forward.  The clang of the hanger doors shutting turned into a starter's pistol.  Private Lewark tipped the bow down and their ride accelerated to full speed in mere seconds.  Ground radar guided the driver as he followed a pre-plotted course over their mine field towards the first bend in the pass. 

Captain Riven tried keeping calm in the featureless night.  Snowflakes became stinging pebbles digging deep into his facial fur as they sped into the darkness.  He knew the distances by heart but without any visual references, the first turn almost threw him from the zodiac.  A glance behind him showed the three dogs not only secured their gear before departure but had strapped themselves down as well.  He followed their example just before the driver executed a second turn that should have hurled him over the side.

It came more as a sensation than anything definitive.  One moment their speed hovered near the upper end of the normal operational limits and the next it became a slow crawl.  The vehicle gave a low whine and Captain Riven felt himself come to a full stop.  The three dogs beat him out of the vehicle even though he traveled with little gear.

Their spotter pointed uphill and all fell in line behind the terrier.  Captain Riven stayed with the spotter as the two shooters disappeared into the night.  While the terrier attended to his equipment, Captain Riven pulled out a pair of high-powered night binoculars and allowed them to rest on his muzzle.  The eerie greenish tint colored everything as he scanned the distance.

A quick check of the compass readings confirmed what he saw.  Humans scurried like ants over the dragon teeth installed at their end of the pass.  Other soldiers worked to establish makeshift bridges across the antivehicle trenches.  Further back, a line of trucks extended to the first turn.  On either side of the road, armored vehicles sat.  Unlike the usual second quality vehicles used on raids, these were top grade armor.  Captain Riven had his confirmation, the humans must be preparing for a major offensive drive.

The terrier interrupted his observations.  "Orders, sir?"

Captain Riven considered his options.  "Find two officers working on those obstructions."

The terrier muttered into the headset he wore while using his scope.  A moment later he gave the command and two shots echoed as one.  The results were spectacular.  Soldiers dove for whatever cover could be found while others prepared for some defensive move.

"Use explosive incendiary and light the night."

Again, the terrier muttered into his mike while keeping his scope focused on some distant target.  It seemed to take a much longer time for him to coordinate with the shooters but when he gave the command, the effects proved spectacular.  One truck filled with fuel drums and parked within a circle of battle tanks caught fire.  Fifty-five-gallon drums of high octane fuel exploded like roman candles.  Another truck turned into a fireball setting off a nearby munition stockpile.

The spotter folded his tripod and unscrewed the scope.  His mike sat halfway in his shirt pocket.  The laser comms he retrieved and packed in another pocket.

"I don't know where you're going soldier, but we have a job to do."  Captain Riven snarled at the smaller terrier.

"Begging your pardon sir, but you don't understand snipers.  First shot is always a surprise.  Second shot gives those hairless moneys our general location.  We take a third shot without moving at least half a mile and they will drop a dozen mortar shells right on top of us."

"Than you better hope our driver is as good as his reputation.  Antipersonnel, target of opportunity, no officers.  Everyone expects snipers to target the brass.  You shoot a grunt and every soldier will wonder if the next bullet is for them."

It took longer reestablishing contact with the shooters while the spotter reset his equipment.  Than started a series of contact reports that seemed to be identifying every soldier on the far end of the valley.  These reports continued as shooter and spotter debated the value of each target.  Agreement at last and the spotter gave the standby command.

The terrier covered the mike with his paw.  "When I give the command to fire, get your furry butt to that zodiac, sir.  We will have approximately ten to fifteen seconds before they get a firing solution and another five seconds for the ranging shells to land.  Anticipate a full salvo after another five seconds.  If any of us are still here, we'll be fertilizing the spring grass."

Private Lewark must have anticipated the hasty retreat as the vehicle no longer sat on its legs.  The zodiac floated in place, its engines purring.  All four of them jumped over the sides as they scrambled to safety.  Forward thrust came just as the first two shells landed.  One fell on the opposite side of the rise while the second shell landed a half dozen yards in front of them.  Their driver applied maximum thrust even as the air filled with the banshee screech of shells on a downward trajectory.  A series of explosions filled the area just vacated.  Half exploded on contact while the rest detonated several meters above the ground.

They made it beyond the kill zone before a series of high caliber shells further churned the landscape.  Everyone managed to secure themselves and their gear prior to the first turn.  Their driver reduced speed to the normal operating range as he backtracked their course.  All of them kept a watch on their rear, checking for any pursuit.  Either the humans thought they killed the snipers or were not about to expend additional ordinance.

They made the final turn for base when the radio crackled.  "Inbound zodiac, base has gone to condition red.  Adjust transponder and Ident."
The driver reached for the code box and moved wheel one up a number, the second wheel two notches up, the third wheel three notches up, and the last wheel four notches down and pressed the transmit button.

"IFF verified.  Automated defenses deactivate.  You have thirty seconds to reach departure point."

The zodiac engines went to full power as they raced across the open field.  As they roared across the field, Captain Riven tried locating the hanger.  With eight seconds remaining on the countdown clock, Private Lewark killed thrust and allowed the zodiac to drift to a stop.  The Captain thought the sound of the hanger doors closing behind them the sweetest sound he ever heard.

Once the craft came to a stop, Captain Riven darted through the hanger.  He raced through each ring as he made his way back to the base's comm center.  Soldiers passed him going in the opposite direction as they rushed to their assigned station.  His second, Lieutenant Snarken, remained a pace behind him as he entered the innermost ring.  By the time he found the comm center, he had been fully briefed on the status of all defenses.

The female rat still maintained her post.  One glance at the security files showed them armed for self-destruction.  Rice paper sat on a table above a bucket of water, its agitator churning and leaving a puddle on the cement floor.  Captain Riven grabbed the stack of messages and scanned each before dropping them in the bucket.  He hesitated on one that said when the commander of the Northern Pass Fortress last conducted a security sweep.  The final message referred to an updated weather report.

He dug down a few pages and pulled up the weather forecast.  All color drained from his face.  He shouted for the secure laser relay line to HQ.  Somebody had to be there from intelligence.  It took him almost thirty minutes convincing the lower echelons his message important enough to relay to the next level of command.  When a colonel responded, he figured either this guy listened or it wouldn't matter.

"Colonel, the humans are mounting a full-scale offense.  Alert those guarding the main mountain pass of the attack. . .. They haven't conducted one for five days. . .. Yes sir, I said five days. . .. That's why they're attacking, sir. . .. This weather will ground all air for at least a week.  Our air superiority is worthless. . .. The humans don't have the time to hunt down our gunships. . .. Tell him to try contacting us in an hour. . .. Well, one of us will look the fool."

Captain Riven couldn't believe this fellow's obstinance.  All he kept saying is winter and heavy snows.  Even mentioned the human's adherence to some ancient Earth holiday observance.  At least he did pass the information to his immediate superior.   The phone hummed for several moments before a new voice responded.  He never got to confirm his orders before the line died.  His first guess, the humans found their laser relay station and took it out with a hand-held missile.

"Our orders are to hold at all costs, no retreat." 

He had to shout above the whine of incoming artillery.  The lady rat grabbed her helmet and dove under her desk as the shelling commenced.  None of those shells came anywhere near this bunker and yet she cringed as if the next one might land in her lap.  He would have laughed but remembered his first battle when he was no more than a year older than her.  Captain Riven grabbed her belt and pulled her from under the desk.

"A word of advice, cut off that name tag.  Human spotters will shout out any name they see hoping you'll poke your head up for their snipers."  Captain Riven exited the bunker, keeping his head below the rampart.  "Too bad they don't teach ancient human history.  We are about to become Malmedy or Bastogne."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Talk about insanity.  Captain Riven couldn't think of any other term to describe the last twenty-six hours.  In that one day's time, an armored column managed to punch through the pass and relieve his command.  Those injured were evacuated to a veterinary hospital.  He hadn't recovered from his operation when four armed and armored soldiers whisked his furry butt out of the hospital.

They hustled him onto a command hovercraft and broke every speed record getting to the nearest strategic air station.  Still strapped to his stretcher, they loaded him into a supersonic fighter and flew him to the continent of Capricorn.  He thought the base hospital his final stop when they released him from his stretcher.  Such hopes proved premature.

His guards took him down to a high-speed subway and whisked him to an unknown destination.  That's when the lunacy of the military bureaucracy reared its ugly head.  The four guards who hadn't left his side pointed to the stairwell and returned to the underground tram, leaving him alone.  Captain Riven had no other option than to use the stairs. 

Hard enough opening doors with his left paw, but every step up bounced his right arm.  Whatever painkillers the vets gave him were wearing off and the discomfort grew.  At least the exit was nothing more than a simple push bar.  He exited the stairwell in an underground garage.  As to the stairwell, a sign had been stenciled on the door reading maintenance room.  His groggy mind couldn't grasp any reason for such games.

A voice pierced his tired and muddled mine.  "Captain Riven?  I'm your driver, please get in as we don't have much time."

The hydrogen powered vehicle accelerated as it rolled through the city at a casual pace.  While he leaned back in the padded seat, his eyes scanned the streets they passed.  He watched the many pups and kittens romping around in the park.  He spotted adults doing the many necessary duties that kept a city functioning. It felt good seeing so many citizens not in a uniform.  Such a relaxing and idealistic view.
The illusion shattered when he crossed over a pontoon bridge sitting next to a stone one destroyed in an earlier attack.  Capricorn was supposed to be a morph secured continent.  Hell, their government operated from the largest morph city, Nestling.  Yet here, wherever here was, Captain Riven observed the obvious signs of a city at war.

Radar installations and antiaircraft gun emplacements appeared on the roofs of some of the taller buildings.  One of the newest high-altitude missile systems had confiscated half the land earmarked for some park.  Military police roamed the streets along with their civilian counterparts.  Every billboard his car passed contained some inspirational message about the war.   His car hit a particularly large pothole and the jarring motion had him curse.

"Sorry about that, sir.  All hovercrafts are considered combat priority so we have to travel by wheeled transport and no tram passes our destination."

"Don't mind me.  My painkillers have worn off and this arm is killing me.  The vets removed every bone in my lower arm and packed it with regenerative gel.  Somebody was in such a hurry to get me off the front that they didn't even use a cast.  Just this temporary splint."
"You'll have to excuse the scenic route, Captain.  I'm taking you to one of our most secure facilities and such security extremes are necessary to avoid human detection.  Please review the entry procedures as time will be short."

The driver handed him a folder than focused his attention on the road.  He continued his meanderings through the city while he read the papers regarding security.  Captain Riven would have to surrender his firearms, assuming he still had them, but could keep the short sword he wore.  After so much time at the front, keeping any form of weaponry eased his mind.

The radio's soft music stopped when another signal overrode the civilian band.  For the next twenty-five minutes the city would be in a satellite dead zone.  The driver hit a button that activated a military style siren.  He jerked the wheel over hard and the vehicle accelerated down a priority use lane.  Whatever clearance his driver had, every military vehicle encountered gave way.

Another sharp turn and the car entered a civilian business park.  Captain Riven couldn't find anything distinctive about the brick buildings.  None of them had military personnel or markings.  The only thing differentiating one structure from another being the large numbers facing the street. 

Tires squealed as the car came to a sudden stop.  Pain which had been just below tolerable shot up to agonizing.  Captain Riven fumbled with the door handle and climbed out of the backseat.  He didn't even get to close the door.  The driver's acceleration slammed it shut as he roared out of the parking lot.  A glance at his timer showed he had under three minutes to get inside the building before the humans regained satellite coverage of the city.  Plenty of time to read the business logo.

"Creative Artistry Print Company, Adding clarity to the muddled mind."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Captain Riven entered the business foyer and gazed around.  If not for the war, you would think this just another civilian business operation.  To his right, a hallway led to a bank of elevators.  Morphs of every species entered and exited the place dressed in tailored suits.  Some of these morphs stopped at the receptionist desk for directions.

A door to his left drew him closer.  Several morphs passed him as they too entered the building via the door marked employees only.  Those passing too close wiggled their muzzle whiskers or gave a snort when they caught his scent.  By the time they located the rancid odor, Captain Riven had passed through the doorway. 

He clipped the badge his driver gave him to his torn uniform and walked at a casual pace through the room.  The heavy smell of ink and paper overwhelmed him while the printing presses dominated all sounds.  Some of the presses printed civilian items such as advertising circulars.  Many contained patriotic material encouraging older civilians to conserve while others appealed to the youth's sense of duty.  Interesting but not why he came here.

Captain Riven passed through another set of doors into a duplicate foyer.  This time he turned towards the bank of elevators.  A female rat at the security desk got out of her chair and took no more than one step in his direction before he gave her what he knew was his best "go ahead and try me" stare.  It worked.  She returned to her station.  He kept glaring at her, daring her to try pushing the alarm button.  She dropped her eyes, acting as if her manicured fingernails needed buffing.

He opened the maintenance room door and relayed the material to Elevator Six.  It took time as he had but one paw and his other arm remained immobilized within its sling.  When the designated elevator reached ground level, he pushed inside.  A one quarter twist of his key turned the elevator off and those inside the elevator car filed out, not even giving him a glance.  He set up the barrier and the universal "closed so we can serve you better" sign in the hallway.

A second twist of the key closed the doors and put the car in maintenance mode.  It shouldn't work but his key turned another quarter turn.  He quickly pressed the buttons in the sequence he learned while riding here.  As he pressed the final button, the elevator lights came on and the car did the impossible.  It went below ground level.

The elevator doors opened on an unknown level deep underground and he retrieved the key.  He didn't know what he anticipated when he stepped out but an empty room was the very last thing he expected.  The room measured six paces square and the walls reminded him of the dental office he visited while on his last leave.  Even the floor had that sterile off-white color medical clinics favored.  The one thing missing, a door.

As soon as the elevator doors closed, the surrounding walls sank into the floor.  Not much of an improvement.  Captain Riven stood within a plexiglass cell and armed guards manned automated weapon pods mounted into recesses in the floor and ceiling.  At least this room had a door, though he guessed the security monitor activated the locking system.

He approached the monitor and stood on the indicated red X.  The screen lit and he read the instructions for passing this checkpoint.  Paw prints proved difficult with one immobilize arm.  A few seconds passed before a green light appeared and the next identification protocol appeared.  The machine took a retina scan and a nose print without more than a momentary delay.  So far, three of four ID markers passed.  The last one appeared.

"You have got to be joking." 

The machine wanted him to sing the theme song of Avenger Puppy, a show about a puppy fighting humans with his morph squad of youngsters.  With no other option, he sang the opening lines of the popular cartoon. 

The security door slid open and he stepped into the one morph chamber.  All the weapon blisters receded and the walls rose from the floor.  He had a feeling not too many of those assigned to this base ever went topside.  Bad enough the bio-scans but having him sing to confirm a voiceprint he didn't even remember making was overkill.  Once the scanner determined he carried no biological or explosive components, the last door slid aside.  He just entered the most secured morph military facility outside those reserved for the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. 
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

No sense asking for directions from the guards.  They would ignore him until relieved, just like everyone he passed.  Captain Riven made his way down the single corridor.  On either side of him were rows of office doors, each with a series of letters and number.  He didn't doubt those assigned here understood whatever code identified his location.  To him it was nothing but gibberish.  Up ahead he found what he needed, an information directory at a point where several corridors met.

An insistent horn blared in the distance.  The whine of an electric engine on overdrive competed with a blaring horn.  Within the confines of the underground facility, he had no way of determining where the noise originated.  Seeing a line of morphs jumping towards the wall confirmed the location of an approaching vehicle.  The shriek of brakes announced the driver had reached his destination.

"Captain Riven?  Captain Riven?  Has anyone seen . . . oh good, you're already here.  Unless there's another ferret officer wandering these halls, I'm guessing you're Captain Riven."

The wildcat wore the insignia of a lieutenant and his uniform was inspection ready.  Such a pristine uniform and every bit of fur trimmed to match the current military dress code.  All he had to do was smile and everyone would mistaken him for some recruitment poster.  He even came to rigid attention, executed a perfect salute, and slid into the at-ease position three paces in front of him.  Everything by the book with the exception of his twitching nose.

"With all due respect, you're not really going to see the general smelling like that.  Completely unprofessional, sir.  Why didn't you consider a hot shower and a change of uniform before coming here?"

Enough was enough for Captain Riven.  By his reckoning, before the relief column whisked him to the veterinary hospital, he hadn't slept for two days.  He didn't consider the time the medical staff operated as restful and all this travel didn't improve his temperament.  Listening to this meowing kitten's insults grated on his last nerve.

Captain Riven lowered his shoulder and charged the wildcat, sending him rolling down the hall.  Riven's booted foot slammed down on the lieutenant's chest, pinning him to the floor.  Riven drew his sword with his left paw and slashed down at his larger adversary.  The blade sliced through the muzzle whiskers and came to rest against the wildcat's throat.  Every morph in the vicinity froze as they watched the unfolding drama.  His voice remained icy as he stood over the lieutenant.

"I have been fighting those hairless monkeys for seven days nonstop.  During that time, I've been shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned.  I used a kitchen knife to dig out bullets and a sewing kit to mend myself and those who served with me.  My sword has killed more than a dozen humans in individual combat in just the last three days.  I've faced twice as many more before that and survived.  I have held comrades in my paws as they died because of my orders.  I haven't slept much or eaten enough and I sure haven't had time to bathe in at least seven days.  Now, unless you can claim to have done as much, I'd choose my next words with great care or you might not get a chance to do better."

The lieutenant licked his lips, his voice betraying his fear.  "General Prawner's orders were to 'get you to him yesterday,' that's why we need to hurry, sir."

Captain Riven removed his foot from the wildcat's chest.  Instead of a pristine uniform, the lieutenant's blouse had a very muddy impression of his combat boot.  As for his trousers, they were no longer dry nor were they as fresh smelling.  The wildcat's eyes remained fixated on the sword that sat on his muzzle.

"I don't give a scat about your orders, lieutenant.  If anyone has to dodge out of the way or you hit that damn horn just once, I'll throw you out of this thing and run you down with it.  Do I make myself understood?"

"Yes sir.  Absolutely clear sir.  May we depart sir?"

He took the passenger seat and watched the wildcat try to reclaim his dignity.  The yellow puddle and the dirt piles on the pristine floor did not help.  As he engaged the engine, every morph took a step back but kept their eyes on the cart as it accelerated.  Captain Riven sheathed his blade, his eyes fixed on the lieutenant's face. 

Good thing the driver knew where to go, he got disoriented at the first turn.  At one point the foot traffic became heavy and the driver lifted his paw off the wheel.  Captain Riven cleared his throat and the driver's paw returned to the steering wheel.  They stopped in a corridor like every corridor they passed in front of a door without a nametag, just a series of letters and numbers. 

As he exited the cart, the driver departed.  At least the driver maintained a sane speed until he reached the end of the passageway.  One turn and the sound of an engine accelerating could be heard.  A horn vigorously applied drifted back to him as the lieutenant made his escape.  That earned a good laugh, the first since the humans attacked.  It felt wonderful.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Captain Riven pondered a riddle as he stood outside the door.  It required an immediate answer.  Did he just enter the room and disturb whichever officer demanded his presence or did he knock and look the fool waiting for an invitation?  His mind must be exhausted if such a simple question defeated his powers of deduction.   

Another officer entered the same corridor.  Without hesitation, the soldier opened a door and stepped inside.  Captain Riven waited and watched the door he used.  Nothing happened.  Either the room belonged to that officer or the occupant wanted him.  He stood there counting to a hundred, watching the door.  It never opened.

He took a deep breath and grabbed the handle.  The door opened on silent hinges and he marched inside and came to attention.  Nothing dire happened.  No shouts, no screams, no recriminations, and no demands.  The sound of the latch catching as the door closed broke the evil spell his tired mind conjured.

The room appeared quite small for a commanding officer.  At least it did until he saw the lone occupant.  The lady rat had to be old enough to be his grandmother's mother.  Her pelt had that looseness and lack of color, plus the wire rimmed glasses sitting at the tip of her muzzle did nothing to dispel her ancient appearance.  The lady's fingers darted across a keyboard of their own volition while her eyes focused on the monitor in front of her.  She couldn't be the officer as she wore civilian clothing.

After seeing nothing but military personnel within this complex, a civilian startled him.  It also had the effect of having him relax his military bearing.  He checked his surroundings.  The plaster walls all had a light bluish tint.  Even the floor's tile had a blue color, though much deeper.  If not for the light brown desk, sofa, and area rug, the sole color scheme created a claustrophobic effect within his befuddled mind. 
He approached the lady.

"Captain Riven reporting as ordered."

Her eyes remained on her screen.  "General Prawner is at another meeting.  I'll advise him of your arrival but there's no telling how long he'll be.  He did tell me to let you wait in his outer office.  Help yourself to the coffee.  It's the real thing, Captain."

The rat's paw left the keyboard and pressed an unseen buzzer.  A section of the wall slid aside, revealing another room.  At least he didn't have to ponder his options.  The lady said he had been invited inside and that the next room wasn't his office.  If the room contained a sofa like the one outside, this general might have quite a task waking him.

At least this place had a more earthen tone color scheme.  Considering what hung on the walls, it made sense.  A dozen paintings hung on either side of the hallway, all of them classic masterpieces dating back to the prewar era.  He stood before a painting he admired when he was on leave three years back, Antebellum Green.  The all white female poodle laid stretched out on a sofa in a provocative come-hither pose, the background displayed long green drapes, and four pups sat on the floor in the foreground on green pillows.

A voice intruded.  "I must admit, it's one of my favorites."

Captain Riven came to attention when he saw the otter general.  "It's an excellent reproduction, sir.  Too bad the original was destroyed when the Pavlogen Heritage Art Museum was bombed from orbit a year ago."

"No reproduction, it's the original.  Our military intelligence broke their code and alerted us to their intentions.  During a surveillance blind spot, we removed most of the major works.  Pity we couldn't save it all.  I kept this one for myself."

"But the reports said everything was destroyed."

"A military necessity to cover our breaking their code.  Pity they changed it three months later; no doubt standard human security procedure.  Anyway, I didn't call you here to see my office collection; something far more important requires your presence, Major.  Yes, you've been promoted, effective once you arrived here."

The otter pointed to a doorway at the far end of the gallery.  If Antebellum Green was the real masterpiece, it dawned on him that the other works were also the authentic originals.  Made him wonder what other artifacts these officers possessed. 

"It appears my staff took the word 'immediately' a bit too literally.  A blood-stained uniform missing its right sleeve, minimum veterinary care, and no time for food or rest?  Not a good combination for intellectual conversation.  I have a private washroom and can have a clean uniform delivered.  Let's meet in the morning after you have a good meal and a long rest."

Sweeter words he couldn't imagine.  Major Riven didn't know which sensation ranked first.  When he dropped his bloody uniform, he felt halfway clean.  An invigorating shower with soap and hot water rejuvenated him.  He wolfed down more food than he ever ate while in combat and passed out on the general's large sofa dressed in nothing but a damp towel.

A slamming door had him scrambling for his sword.  His terror faded when he remembered where he slept.  The otter general pointed to the chair and Major Riven dressed.  Everything brand new and it fit like the proverbial glove.  Without his right paw, dressing proved difficult.  He also missed his sword, which the general confiscated.  After several attempts with his left paw, he surrendered all attempts at tying his boots.
The general opened a large folder and read its contents while he dressed.  When Major Riven ceased trying to do his shoes one-pawed, the general leaned back in his chair.  For some reason, he pictured himself as an insect under the otter's magnifying glass.  He wasn't sure if the officer intended examining his specimen or burning it.

"You win a one in ten thousand teaching exemption from military service and loose it to politics.  What were you thinking when you sided with the Hoarders?"

"That file is wrong, sir.  I joined the Sifters, a minor faction within the Hoarders.  We believe some items from the humans beneficial and worth saving while the Hoarders want to keep everything.  I still believe the Puritans wrong for purging everything human but they gained power and I found myself in the military."

"Human items like Dante's Divine Comedy and Sun Tzu's Art of War?  Be glad I intervened after we relieved your outpost.  The Puritans had an agent in your command who discovered your unauthorized material.  I managed to intercept his last communication so none are the wiser.  Their agent died in the battle, otherwise the Puritans would have you executed as a human sympathizer."

If the general knew of his transgression and intended keeping it secret, he must want something big in return.  An officer on the front learns very fast the art of favors and trade.  Two camps, each holding something the other wants?  You fashion a trade equitable to both sides.  When somebody does a favor for you, expect reciprocation.  The bigger the favor, the greater the payback. 

"Until your arm heals, Major, you'll be in the medical wing for some much-needed rehab work.  I've assigned you a driver who will also act as your temporary aide.  I'm sure you remember him and I know he remembers you.  Just do me the favor of not killing him; his father is a very influential member of the National Herd.  Rumor has it he came within a dozen votes of becoming our Prime Minister."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Physical therapy or personalized torture, two terms for the same thing.  A team of vets attacked his arm while ignoring him.  They disassembled the splint, poked and prodded his arm, did things he couldn't guess at, and after another hour, had his arm in a cast.  While they worked on his arm, vets gave him a thick rubber stick to bite.  He bit so deep into it that it took one vet almost five minutes removing the thing. 

If he thought that the end of his torture session, he was mistaken.  The Chief Veterinary Officer ordered him to report to another room when he left.  There, metal probes slid under his cast while the second medical team made sure of their exact placement.  Satisfied, they connected the probes to an electrical board and strapped him into a wooded chair "for his own protection."  When they switched on the machine, he experienced a whole new level of pain.  The ordeal eventually ended and he thought he could escape their care.  He did, but just for four hours.  He had to return for another session of what these doctors called electro-stimulation.  Major Riven also had a term for this medical procedure but refrained from using it.

Five days later, they removed the cast.  A furless arm is not a pretty sight.  The vets again poked and prodded his arm.  They x-rayed it and every vet stared at the image with the same intensity he gave Antebellum Green.  Major Riven thought a happy vet signaled the end of his ordeal.  No such luck.  Time to engage in rehabbing his arm.

The therapist hooked his wrist to a wire that stretched his arm high over his head while he laid on a wooden platform.  He had the choice of enduring the excruciating pain for two hours or he could end the session by lowering his arm to his side a specific number of times.  Those first few sessions, he endured the pain, too weak to fight the weights.  After seven days, he still found the sessions painful but they seldom lasted over an hour.

The male rat would attach the wrist band and adjust the knobs on the resistance machine before he returned to his novel.  Major Riven tried talking to the technician when the pain became bearable but the rat remained unresponsive.  His latest attempt at lowering his arm took him longer than the prior one and that had Major Riven give a loud growl.

"We having a bit of trouble finishing this latest set of exercises," asked the rat technician.

"There's no . . . no 'we' on this table you bucktoothed sadist."

"My word, major.  If you have the energy to curse me out, what say we increase the weight by half, double the remaining reps, and add another hour to your time." 

The technician punched a few buttons on his side of the panel and Major Riven's arm went to full upright.  No use arguing with the rat, he had the controls.  Major Riven concentrated on doing the exercise and managed to end his rehabilitation session half an hour early.  Not good but better than waiting out the timer.

As Major Riven made for the exit, the machine's readout caught his attention.  In the earlier sessions, the machine turned off when he finished, its screen blank.  This time he could read the settings.  The weight level read double what the technician said he set it at for this session.  All he could do is point to the machine, too exhausted to speak.  Without even looking up from his novel, the rat laughed.

"Yeah, I lied.  Your bone mass has passed 98%, so it's as strong as it was before your injury.  Maybe stronger.  Be glad you're here, Major.  Soldiers qualify as fit for duty at 75%.  Though I've enjoyed our sessions and I've learned a few new curses, our time together is over.  I'll inform command you have finished rehab."

Perhaps it was for the best the general confiscated his sword.  Still, knowing he need not return to the medical wing made this last session forgettable.  The rat technician could either finish his novel in peace or he could torture some other unfortunate morph.  He didn't care.  Freedom from the medical wing never felt so good.

"Glad to see you out early, Major.  General Prawner has requested your presence at today's High Command briefing."

"We wouldn't need one every day if our armchair commanders actually did something at one of these meetings.  Oh well, no use complaining.  How much time do I have?"

"Three hours, sir.  You'll have time to freshen up and change."

Major Riven nodded and the wildcat lieutenant took his accustomed place behind the wheel.  The wildcat drove him wherever he needed to go, found a nearby parking slot, and waited until he finished.  Neither one spoke beyond that required by duty.  At least the fellow no longer drove like a speedster nor did he continue to be a hazard to anyone walking.  The driver's efficiency meant he didn't have to learn the complicated code for determining where he was or wanted to go.

It felt good having private quarters.  The presence of a full shower, along with all the amenities, spoiled him.  Somebody even provided a mini refrigerator and personal stove.  Cold drinks and hot food whenever he desired it made this place a great duty station.  As he fastened his last button, he wondered how much this would cost him.

"We'll be there in fifteen minutes, sir."

"Lieutenant, you've served me well since my arrival.  Our initial meeting . . . proved difficult.  If you ever feel the need for a combat station, contact me first.  You're an efficient officer, one I'd be proud to have on my staff."

The wildcat remained quiet for their trip.  As he pulled into the corridor where the meeting would be held, he parked on the side.  Something ate at him and his face displayed the full gambit of emotions as he sat there. 

"You know who my sire is?  He's determined to keep me from combat, said our family has lost enough blood to the war.  I would have been honored serving you at your last post, even knowing what was about to happen.  I'm no coward, sir.  I'll perform my duties to the best of my ability and hope it makes a difference."

Major Riven entered the conference room.  Like all the prior meetings he attended, the central table had name tags for each member of the High Command scheduled to attend.  Ten feet back, the room contained two rows of nondescript chairs lining three sides of the room.  None of these chairs contained name tags for the attending staff members.

This led to a bloodless battle of supremacy prior to the start of every meeting.  Riven referred to it as the ballet of chairs.  Each staff officer tried to secure a seat in the front row and in a spot that would give them a chance to display their importance.  Some did this by commandeering a chair nearest the officer they served.  Others wanted one that required them to walk a short distance so everyone would see him. 

Early arrivals tried the "first there, it's theirs" ploy.  Others tried usurping them with rank, either theirs or the superior they served.  The late arrivals pulled the VIP ploy, trying to claim a choice spot based on the agenda, inferring their boss carried more importance in this specific meeting.  None willingly took a seat in the second row as that might infer they didn't have any real clout.  With a limited number of front row seats many had no choice but to take a back row, though not without trying everything they could to improve their status.

Major Riven didn't care.  He preferred the second row where he could let his head rest against the wall.  He found General Prawner's name tag at the main table and took the nearest seat meeting his criteria.  When a conference had a high number of staff members, he stared down any daring to dislodge him.  Those below his rank never succeeded.  Anyone higher he would point to the seat at the main table and shrug his shoulders.  It worked as no underling wanted to involve their superior in this power game. 

Every officer serving as an aide had minimum combat time.  Somehow, they either bypassed compulsory combat duty or their assignments kept them too far from any of the more intensive fighting.  Major Riven soon learned having combat ribbons, some from the bloodiest campaigns, trumped anyone not serving an officer who held a higher rank than General Prawner.  If anything, those seats nearest him became the most coveted seats.  Each staff officer wanted to hear the personal exploits of a combat officer.

At last the High Command officers entered the room.  They didn't even dignify the presence of their staff until they took their chair at the main conference table.  That was when the ballet of chairs entered its most frenzied stage.  Nobody wanted it to look like they shifted place, but every staff member noted who chose well and who got upstaged.  The cruelest cut for a member of staff was having one of the main table players shift their location. 

Like him, General Prawner didn't play such games.  If he had to move, he did so without complaint.  He knew he belonged at the main table.  It didn't matter where he sat.  When he spoke, his contemporaries listened.  He considered giving way for another member a way of garnering favors.  A valuable currency in the military.

Most meetings had the High Command occupying all four sides of the main table.  Today, nobody sat at the head and none tried claiming those seats.  Another oddity, somebody wheeled in a portable air recirculator.  Riven knew the room sometimes got warm when a large number attended but today's meeting had fewer members than what he experienced in prior conferences.  The High Command sat at the table, each officer engaging in idle chatter.  None seemed interested in tending to business.

Ordinary changed to oddity.  Six armed dogs entered the room and verified everyone's ID.  Pockets were patted down and anything brought into the room received a meticulous search.  Even those sitting at the main table were subjected to the same inspection.  Bad enough Riven had to go through these procedures once.  This crew of retrievers did every attendee twice.

The reason why strolled into the room and every morph came to rigid attention.  Unlike everyone else, the rat wore no uniform but a well-tailored suit of exceptional quality.  Every soldier maintained their stance even after the rat took his place at the head of the table.  Once he was comfortable, the Prime Minister signaled the start of their meeting.

All sat while the Prime Minister's bodyguards patrolled the room with weapons drawn.  Major Riven found the armed dogs a bit of a distraction.  Anytime a staff member moved, the dogs trained their weapons on that morph until he returned to his seat.  It kept everyone from shifting or making unnecessary moves.

As for those at the main table, they ignored the armed dogs, though none was foolish enough to place their paws below the table.  They stuck to the published agenda, a plethora of inane material.  Nothing these generals mentioned came close to necessitating the presence of the National Herd leader.  Even the heated discussion about accelerated pilot training didn't cause any reaction from their guest.  After discussing a new warship's positive and negative points, the Prime Minister passed out a piece of paper.

The three-star general who oversaw today's meeting, glanced at the paper and read two names.  Major Riven almost fainted when the officer mentioned him.  The guards escorted everyone else out of the room.  Five of the guards departed while the remaining guard approached a comm panel.

The dog pressed a few buttons and engaged the ultra-security system.  Major Riven heard of it but never saw it deployed.  Upon activation, every opening in the conference room disappeared.  They sat in a sealed room.  Nothing could enter or leave, which explained the need for an independent air recirculation machine.  Without it they would eventually suffocate. 

Satisfied, the dog reached into a hidden compartment and pulled out a briefcase.  The fellow moved to the opposite side of the table and sat facing General Prawner.  The fellow opened a vest pocket and extracted a pair of eyeglasses, thick eyeglasses.

"Gentlemen, excuse the melodramatic," said the Prime Minister.  "The dog sitting across from you is my most trusted intelligence analyst.  His identity is so secret even my security detail knows nothing about him.  His role on my security detail a ruse for any enemy agent."  He chuckled.  "My objection to his performance will have him rotated to another security detail just to maintain his cover.  So, let's get down to the important stuff."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Major Riven hoped the Prime Minister would restrain his political side.  He found it difficult enough keeping awake during staff meeting when nothing affected him or the superior he served.  Throw in a politician who enjoys the sound of his voice would make it an ordeal.  He had to believe this conference important if the Prime Minister specifically requested his presence.

"We have an agent in the human's High Command.  Nobody with any command power but one who has access to information, which has proven most valuable."

"Hard to accept," said General Prawner.  "We are in a mutual war of extermination and a human is willing to betray his kind?  You're being played as a fool.  He's giving you good data now to prove his value but eventually we will lose far more than we gained."

"An inward spy," said Major Riven, "has the greatest value but also the highest cost.  What do we offer him greater than his life?"

"Another insight from the teachings of Sun Tzu?"  The Prime Minister chuckled.  "Yes, I've suspected there might be some truth regarding your rumored 'acquisition' on the battlefield.  Your political views made you a liability to those in power and they assigned you to high risk sites as a way of purging the military of such ideologies.  You've managed to irk every Puritan in the National Herd by surviving against impossible odds.  As a recognized hero, you're almost untouchable.  Almost."

So, the Prime Minister either knew or suspected the book's existence.  Did he learn of it from General Prawner or from another source?  Either way, the Prime Minister just gained leverage on him.  In today's world, even the hint of human contact killed.  Major Riven understood how fast scandal changed heroes into traitors.

"Our spy's best item offered to date were the IFF codes to the space station.  That base controlled the orbital bombs and the humans anticipated expanding its use to nuclear.  We couldn't allow that to happen and his intelligence helped us capture that outpost eighteen months ago."  The Prime Minister couldn't contain his glee.

General Prawner didn't act happy.  "With all due respect, we won that battle but lost almost seventy percent of our orbital reaction force.  The humans just shifted their space operations to Ying and Yang.  Those moon bases represent as much a danger as the orbital base, possibly more since they have mining facilities."

"Did you wonder about the extra precautions at today's meeting?"  The Prime Minister spoke so casually it had Major Riven wonder about the sudden change in topics.  "The humans designed portable holographic units.  They can now infiltrate our forces, appear as any morph, and change their appearance when necessary.  We are just learning how to counter such tactics but it's a slow process.  Nobody ever considered security access as you cannot make a human look like a morph."

"Begging the General's pardon and not wanting to waste your time, Prime Minister, but where does a lowly line officer like me come to be involved with such High Command decisions?"

"A good question Major Riven and one deserving an answer."  The Prime Minister sure knew how to build suspense.  "Tell me the tale of the five."

He wanted a story parents told children?  Fine, Major Riven relayed the basic facts about how humanity left Earth and used morphs as the crew.  The morph races selected were rats, otters, ferrets, dogs, and wildcats since each race had a special talent valuable for an extended space voyage.  Nobody acknowledged the morphs as sapient at the time of the launch from Earth and never considered them a risk to the hibernating humans. 

Turns out the humans made a mistake.  Morphs were already self-aware.  When the colony ship reached TerraTwo, most morphs left the humans on the ship and settled on six of the planet's eight continents.  Those morphs who stayed in orbit delayed awakening the humans from their cryogenic sleep.  Humanity repaid their loyalty by exterminating all shipboard morphs before they disembarked.  Mankind settled on the other two continents based on the shipboard computer's evaluation, not knowing morphs inhabited the other continents.  A century later, morph and human met and the war of extermination started.

"Does our Prime Minister want some milk and cookies before I tuck him in for a good night's sleep?" 

Major Riven couldn't contain his anger.  He was a combat officer fighting a relentless enemy and this is why they yanked him off the front?  No wonder morphs were so hard pressed.  Their leaders acted like babes instead of strategist.

"Curb yourself Major.  We have a legitimate reason for including you.  Let me turn this meeting over to General Prawner."

"Both sides have an impressive biological and nuclear capacity, Major.  Ever wonder why none use them?"  General Prawner reminded him of an examiner asking what appeared to be a simple question.

"Mutual destruction," said Major Riven.  "Regardless of the outcome, both sides lose."

"That's the dribble we feed the public," said General Prawner.  "It is true we are evenly matched on nuclear weapons and nobody wants a radioactive world.  Same for the biological agents.  Everything the humans have we can counter and whatever bugs we have the humans can stop.  Neither side gains by using such biological weapons."

"Another stalemate?"

"Something changed, Major.  We learned humans are as tired of this war as we are.  They plan on withdrawing from this world when they find another viable planet.  That is the real purpose of their moon bases.  In anticipation of finding such a world, humans dismantled their nuclear arsenal as the fissionable material is essential for their generation ships.  We scale down our nukes hoping it speeds their departure."

Major Riven wanted to ask why the morphs didn't offer a ceasefire.  As fast as he thought of it, he dismissed the notion.  After so many years in a genocidal war, neither side wanted to appear weak by proposing any secession of hostilities.  Better an endless stalemate than having your people think you have capitulated.  Politics, it kept the blood flowing.

"Sixteen months ago, humans discovered wormhole technology.  A light year can be crossed in a single day but the hole measured two meters in diameter.  Not viable for a vessel the size of a generation ship but big enough for an automated probe.  Last month, they discovered a way to send larger ships."

"That's when the troubles began," said the Prime Minister.  "Our spy said the humans are returning to Earth based on the evidence a probe discovered.  He managed to transmit a copy of the probe's information along with the wormhole technology.  That's where you come in, Major."

The Prime Minister handed over a thick folder.  It contained the information retrieved from the probe and it stunned him.  Earth was now a morph world, devoid of any living human population.  Pictures showed a castle occupied by dogs and villages occupied by sheep, ferrets, wildcats, and a host of other morph species concentrated along an area around the ancient city of Vancouver.  Based on these photos, the morph's society mimicked the Feudal Era.

Major Riven lifted a packet marked ultra-secret.  The Prime Minister gave his permission and Riven opened the heavy envelope.  A routine inspection of some computer subsystem revealed a message intercepted just before one of the colony ships engaged the near light engines.  That report indicated the means of eradicating morphs by targeting their sapience.  At least that was the inference from the file.

However, he saw no reason for concern.  The original colony ships took almost five centuries traveling the forty light years to Terratwo.  Due to the dilation of time by traveling near the speed of light, a thousand years passed on Earth.  If this bioweapon existed it would be inert, the lab long gone due to the elements.  He considered his two superiors paranoid if they saw something dangerous.

General Prawner pointed to the next file.  Fifty years before the human exodus, they invented ORMITS, the orbital research multilingual interchange system.  At the time humans departed Earth, the computer network remained a military one that denied morph access.  The orbital network should contain any military research done up to the collapse of humans on Earth.

One problem, bypassing the system's security protocols.  You needed a special access portal known as an ORB, orbital research bridge.  Humanity didn't need an ORB when they left Earth since they intended to eradicate the morphs upon arrival.  They never envisioned a reason to return since a round trip would take another thousand years each way.  It made anything ORMITS might contain inaccessible due to that travel time. 

Wormhole technology changed that.  A round trip to Earth would take just eighty days.  When humans learned a working ORB existed, it offered them another choice.  The bioweapon described in the message became a viable option.  It dawned on Major Riven what such a discovery implied.  With this information, either humans reconstructed the weapon or acquired the research needed to perfect it.  The morphs had no counter or antidote to this thing.

Humans knew the transmission sent to the departing generation ships originated from an ORMITS node.  If the node still existed, or one of its redundant backup nodes, humans could access information regarding this biological weapon.  However, due to the age and possible corruption of ORMITS, the only safe way to access the information would be through a working interface, and that was somewhere on Earth's surface.

"In simple terms, can you find that ORB and destroy it before the humans can get to it?"  The Prime Minister awaited his answer.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

"It seems my studies regarding human culture are suddenly important.  So why me?  There must be others who did the same thing during their student deferments."

"None have been found though we are continuing our search, Major Riven.  The Puritan purge five years ago resulted in the destruction of anything connected to human research.  Reconstructing records takes time; time we don't have.  We needed somebody with knowledge of the Feudal Era.  You're the first morph we found still living who has what we need." 

"It's a race, General.  I have an idea where the ORB would be kept.  Problem is, everyone will be going to the same place since its location is so obvious.  The real question is how desperate are the humans?"

The Prime Minister stood.  "Humans will go for the bioweapon while working on their relocation plan.  If they succeed on Earth, they have options.  Otherwise, if the humans find another habitable world, they will launch their generation ships, abandoning this world."

Their spy said it would take them ninety days assembling a team and preparing a ship.  The biggest hurdle was the wormhole engine.  Their spaceship has to be big enough to carry the engine, transport a crew, and solar powered.  If it used any type of fuel, the space needed to carry enough for a return voyage would limit the crew size. 

The humans learned the power necessary for generating a wormhole grew geometrically with the mass of the ship and the distance covered.  With the unmanned probes, other ships generated the power for the initial wormhole.  Storing power for the return trip limited how much the probes could do once they reached their destination.  This limited probes to an effective distance between eighty and one hundred light years.

General Prawner studied human spacecraft, looking for the most likely designs.  Three ships stood out as viable possibilities.  The Hermes could hold the equipment, but the crew would be limited to three or four.  Not enough to protect the ship and hunt down the ORB.  A Hunter had the space but its mass limited the vessel to a forty-one light year jump.  No margin for error either way, which made it too risky a choice.

One ship offered them an ideal choice, the Hydra.  It had the size for carrying the engine and a range of fifty light years.  Best of all, it carried sufficient armament to defend itself.  It had the additional advantage of aerodynamics.  It could land close to their target, shift to a safer location, and retrieve their soldiers when they completed their mission.  It gave the humans their best option.

That led to the obvious question.  What did they have?  In a way, the destruction of the deep space morph force when they captured the orbital station became a benefit.  They didn't need to modify an existing craft, they could build one to fit their specifications.  Still, they had to use a standard design if they intended launching before the humans.

The Mamba design offered them the best option.  They could leave off much of the armor, which would give them greater speed once they reached Earth.  The reduced mass allowed them a quicker recharge time, a distinct advantage when returning.  Its size and aerodynamics matched the Hydra if they met in combat and the ship carried sufficient offensive power to counter the Hydra.

General Prawner switched to the topic of logistics.  They needed the ship ready for launch in one hundred days.  It would mean playing catch-up with the humans but he saw no alternative.  If he asked contractors to rush delivery, he risked fatal errors.  Worse yet, the humans might learn of their plan. 

Regardless of the propaganda, no antimissile system intercepted every incoming missile.  Something always got through.  They might risk the humans hitting one of their space construction sites since several factories produced the Mamba parts.  However, they had to be sure the wormhole machine evaded detection.  A spacecraft didn't help without a working wormhole generator.

One contractor would assemble the Mamba at a high security site.  General Prawner intended to have all engine components built at various facilities and shipped to the assembly area.  This allowed them to meet the construction deadline.  The parts would come from so many different plants that nobody would know they built a wormhole generator.

The humans knew the morphs intended rebuilding their space force after the loss of material taking the orbital space station.  By now that battle and its consequences should be old news.  When the morphs diverted parts to an undisclosed location, humans would think it nothing more than standard security as they constructed a new deep space fleet.

Just one more thing remained, the personnel for the mission.  Major Riven wanted a small party.  Too many morphs attracted unwanted attention and they needed speed.  The downside was a small party could be countered.  He proposed a force of three squads of ten soldiers.  By inserting each squad in a different location, it increased the odds that one would succeed and gave him an offensive option if he discovered where the humans hid.

Major Riven insisted that the entire ground force be composed of ferrets.  The Prime Minister acted like somebody punched him in his stomach.  General Prawner's eyes just doubled in size when he mentioned the composition of the ground units.  Even the intelligence officer sided with the others who demanded an expeditionary force comprised of all morphs.  Riven refused to concede.

"Examine those orbital photos.  Each one shows one morph race in each picture.  Unlike us, the morphs of Earth appear to be xenophobic.  If we try moving through the area as a multiracial group, we will attract the wrong kind of attention.  We may even have to fight these morphs.  A single race will attract less attention."

"Than have each squad consist of a different morph race," said the Prime Minister.  "As you said, a small number of morphs moving through an area will go unnoticed if it's one race."

"Eventually we must come together.  If anyone saw a dog and otter speaking, they would suspect both races.  Our advantage is stealth, blending in with those around us.  Once we reach our destination, I'm hoping we will have a sufficient numerical superiority to overcome any opposition."

"So, you believe the ORB is with the ferrets?"  General Prawner didn't sound convinced.

"No, the ORB is with the dogs.  A castle is a strongpoint and the base for a ruler.  Such a powerful devise would make the lowest pup a king.  The ORB is there, somewhere.  Its exact location will be dependent on what benefits the dogs gain from possessing it.  I'm betting every morph race is beholden to those dogs, which might work to our advantage if we announce ourselves as supplicants."

Both the Prime Minister and General Prawner conferred.  Sometimes their words became heated but they conducted themselves in a civil manner.  Though the room seemed spacious for the four of them, Major Riven couldn't hear their whispered conversations.  It didn't take them long.

The Prime Minister pressed a hidden button at his end of the table.  Electricity crackled and the room filled with the smell of ozone.  Power outlets and ventilation openings appeared first.  Than came the outline of a door and its doorknob.  Somebody opened the door from the outside and fresh air rushed into the room. 

Without a backward glance, the Prime Minister exited the room.  His security detail surrounded him as they hustled for the nearest exit.

"Do as you see fit, Major Riven.  You have the full support of the National Herd."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Alarms blared through the night.  Every ferret sleeping in the barracks became alert as they responded.  The soldiers grabbed knives, swords, spears, and quivers full of arrows as they rushed outside.  Once clear of the building, they made for the nearby trenches. 

If the attack came from an aerial threat, such as a missile or bomb, the trenches should protect them from all but a direct hit or nuclear blast.  If it came from some ground force, the trenches offered a secured defensive point and offered them offensive options. 

Major Riven dove into his assigned trench.  A few seconds later, he raised his head and surveyed the area.  Somewhere within the high security facility, searchlights crisscrossed the night landscape.  Flares arced high into the night sky, blossomed like a flower, and died, leaving darkness.  Instead of the usual nocturnal sounds, he heard sirens, explosions, and gunfire.

"Great time to be without a few monkey shredders," one soldier whined.

"I'll give you my spear for a scatter gun," another called out.

"No deal.  Let me get my paws on a tickle belly and you'll have a skin tent," a third voice yelled.

"Pipe down," Major Riven shouted.  "That gunfire is drawing closer."

Blessed silence from within the trench.  Major Riven agreed with those soldiers.  They had no modern weapons, just paw held weapons similar to those used in Feudal times.  If these invaders found them, they didn't stand a chance.  He regretted his insistence that nobody carry anything resembling a firearm.

A peek over the trench's lip showed shadowy figures moving in their direction.  Six of the intruders formed a circle, their weapons pointed outward.  One intruder placed a cylinder on the ground and connected it to a box.  He heard a high-pitched whistle and saw a white flash.  When his eyes cleared, nothing remained but the smell of burning flesh, human flesh.

Three jeeps came to a stop and disgorged their passengers.  Flashlights came on as these new arrivals searched the area.  Two beams played along the lip of their trench and Major Riven slid to the bottom.  It didn't help.  Half a dozen flashlights played over those cowering in the trench.

"Unit three five to command. . .. Trench six alpha is occupied. . .. Will do." 

The security detail ordered them to leave without their weapons.  Then each occupant was patted down and a portable retina scanner used.  Each time the device showed a green light, that soldier was allowed to retrieve his weapon.  At last they cleared everyone, thanked them for their cooperation, and moved off into the darkness.

"Excitement's over; back to the barracks.  We have a lot of work to do tomorrow."

Major Riven felt just as tired, scared, and relieved as the others.  He never thought he would fall asleep but so much time on the front conditioned him to grab whatever rest was offered.  When they entered the base's mess hall the next morning, stories about the human attack dominated the chat.  Some made outrageous claims of their exploits while others bemoaned their bad luck being far from the action.  The one consistent fact was the presence of humans.

Training continued with the paw held weapons but now he included pistols and grenades.  Some of the officers asked for more advanced weapons without success.  Major Riven insisted on proficiency on the close quarter combat weapons.  He kept stressing the need for stealth and how firearms would attract more enemy forces to their location.

A security officer approached.  It seemed the base commander wanted him at his office.  When he arrived, the building stood empty.  The one working apparatus being a wall sized television screen.  Major Riven saluted the screen and the Prime Minister told him he could sit.  Based on the sour expression on the rat's face, Major Riven figured there must be some bad news.

"Last night's attack was to determine if we had a working wormhole generator.  They saw both the engine and the Mamba under construction.  It must have scared whichever human is running this mission.  They launched from Yang an hour ago for the apex point.  You launch in two days from our secondary site.  Inform your officers off base as this location is no longer considered secure."

He never got a chance to acknowledge the new orders.  The screen blanked and filled with static.  Major Riven sat there for a moment in case the signal interruption wasn't deliberate.  Satisfied that the connection was cut from the transmission side, he left the base commander's office.  He ignored the crowd gathered outside and the security car returned him to the training area.

His officers trotted over to him upon his arrival.  They wondered why the enlisted personnel were sent on a long hike without them but with other drill instructors.  Major Riven knew why but could not tell them.  Instead, he gave them orders that confounded them.  Even receiving a pass into the nearby city was greeted by confusion rather than celebration.

Night time in the city on a very dark street.  Major Riven wore a civilian outfit that had seen better days as he walked towards his destination.  None of the ferrets passing him took any notice.  Like him, most wore old winter jackets.  Anyone on the streets at this time were either going to the local factories or heading to their favorite tavern and none took notice of a single stranger.

The corner tavern was nothing more than a nondescript building.  Riven opened the door and pushed his way through the blackout curtains.  He stood atop a wooden landing with stairs running below ground level.  On one side, a long bar occupied by two ferrets.  In the middle of the room, three pool tables held the attention of a dozen patrons.  The opposite side had a number of occupied dining booths. 

Luck seemed to be sitting on his shoulder.  There was an oversized and unoccupied booth by the back wall, far from the other tables.  He no sooner sat than a female otter sauntered over to him.  He mentioned having a large number of friends coming here, hinting it was a bachelor's party.  She nodded her understanding, took a few coins, and returned with six glasses and a pitcher of beer.

Riven considered himself fortunate in snagging such a large booth and one far from inquisitive ears.  Than he learned why the regular patrons avoided his location.  Each time a waitress entered or exited the kitchen, they used a pair of doors next to him and the escaping heat would roll over him like the surf at a beach.  Anytime an enthusiastic waitress exited the kitchen too fast, the door banged against the backrest.

The outside door opened and five ferrets entered the establishment.  Every patron gave them a quick glance and returned to whatever they were doing before their arrival.  All moved as one and made for his booth.  None ever looked around as they slid across the bench at his table.  One ferret snatched the pitcher and poured a full mug for all.  He then held up a ten-tick note and ordered another pitcher.

"I swear you guys are idiots.  Come alone I said.  Don't attract attention I said.  Act casual I said.  And you do the exact opposite.  If I didn't need you so bad, I'd shoot you and everyone in here if I thought it would help," an exasperated Riven growled under his breath.

"These guys are drinking themselves into oblivion.  Nobody will remember us come tomorrow." 

"All of you traveled together?"  Major Riven groaned when they nodded.  "Damn.  You probably led any human agent right to this place."

"You're either drunk or paranoid," said lieutenant Lewark.  "Humans in a morph region?  Not possible."

Maybe he shouldn't have recommended the former private for such a rapid promotion.  Still, the ferret proved himself an excellent warrior during their seven-day standoff with the humans.  His actions resulted in the recapture of two rings when the humans first assaulted their position.  His leadership allowed for an organized retreat instead of a rout two days later.  When Major Riven learned he survived the battle, he recommended the ferret for promotion and assigned him to his command.  Too bad he hadn't learned a little tact.

"How many remember that shepherd at the front gate?  The one missing a leg who made funnel cakes?  He wasn't a dog.  He was human."

At least that got their attention.  Major Riven than revealed the secret about humans having portable holographic projectors.  That was the reason behind the human attack two weeks ago.  It was also the reason behind command's decision to send the enlisted to another camp without telling any of the officers.  Tomorrow, the officers would join them for the final week of training at an undisclosed location.

Major Riven's security comm chirped.  "Confirm voiceprint . . .. We're on private, speaker off . . .. When . . .. My officers are with me now . . .. Understood."

He looked at the five lieutenants and verified that nobody else was paying them any attention.

"It seems we were most fortunate when we came here tonight.  The humans launched a tactical nuke attack on our base fifteen minutes ago.  The place is nothing more than a radioactive hole.  I'm sending each of you a text message for you alone.  The mission timetable has been moved up once more."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

The beer acquired a bitter taste with the news.  It also killed any jovial mood his officers displayed when they first stepped into the bar.  Major Riven dismissed them one at a time, allowing each a few moments on the street before sending the next.  He offered the waitress a generous tip before he too took his leave of the tavern.  The way the locals watched him, he had a feeling the appearance and sudden disappearance of six ferrets would dominate local gossip for a week.  No way to fix a cracked egg.

He checked his comm and his watch.  If the information proved accurate, he should find his last two companions around the next corner.  Perhaps he did feel a bit paranoid.  It took him almost ten minutes covering a distance of four blocks.  He kept watching every morph passing him until they rounded a corner.  His eyes searched the dark for anyone paying him too much attention.  With no time to spare, he rushed to his meeting place and groaned.  If he thought his officers acted like idiots, his two contacts just made them intellectuals. 

The presence of an otter in this section of town might draw some attention but this one made sure others noticed him.  The fellow wore his dress black uniform announcing to one and all that he belonged to the space patrol.  Bad enough he wore his rank insignia, he also wore his name tag and ribbons.  His rolling gait might have been misconstrued as inebriation but the uniform said he hadn't been dirtside for an extended period.

His companion stood out as well in his army uniform.  Like the otter you could tell the ferret's name, rank, and unit.  At least he didn't have any combat citations.  Not that he should have any as a veterinarian.  If anyone missed his designation, the medical bag he carried told all his profession.

Major Riven hailed a cab and they rode in silence to the theatre district.  Once the cab left, they walked towards the opera house and sat on a nearby bench.  Fifteen minutes later, the doors opened and the patrons exited.  Some made their way to the local tram and others for their personal vehicle.  The three of them mingled with the crowd waiting for cabs.  A moment later, the driver whisked them to the intercity tram line.

When the Gold Line arrived, they took one of the open cars.  Major Riven read the discarded program he found while his two companions sat in silence across from him.  After a two-hour ride, the train came to a stop.  The three of them exited the car and stood on the maintenance platform until the train left.

As they descended the stairs, a car flashed its headlights.  They climbed into the back seat and the car pulled away from the tram line.  It took another hour before the car pulled off the paved road and followed a gravel path through the forest.  Security checkpoints didn't delay them too much.  Driver flashed his pass and the guards waved them onward.

At last, their final destination.  They walked into the stone mound and rode an elevator down to a large meeting room.  Every enlisted ferret they left the day before was gathered here.  Even the officers he met earlier tonight mingled through the crowd.  Major Riven ordered everyone to their seats and the briefing started.

"Until now, everyone was told we were going to go on a commando raid deep into human territory.  Stealth was such an imperative that we had to use paw held weapons.  I'm here to tell you our real mission.  Tomorrow morning at 0900, we will return to Earth."

Major Riven waited for the shock to evaporate.  With the undivided attention of his audience, he revealed everything he thought these soldiers needed to know.  Photos from Earth were projected on a screen, showing their ultimate destination.  Maps were distributed and each officer learned his part in this raid.  He withheld all information regarding the human spy.  None would believe it.  He sure didn't.

Good thing nobody asked how or where they got this material.  When he mentioned the wormhole, most looked like they couldn't believe such a thing.  Telling them they would be chasing humans got several hungry looks.  They all had a score to settle with these hairless monkeys and this seemed like a great opportunity.

The meeting ended.  The soldiers went to their bunks while the otter joined Major Riven in the commander's office.  Seemed they had an additional briefing to attend.  Turned out he could have stayed out, it only concerned their pilot.

Maybe he should have stayed with the other soldiers as ignorance is bliss.  According to the scientist conducting the briefing, every sun or star had two jump spots.  One was called apex since it sat above the planetary orbits and the other was nadir, which was below the planetary orbits.  A massive human fleet departed Yang for the apex jump point earlier today. 

The problem was the human space force.  They had almost five times as many ships as the morphs, though none could be classified higher than light-to-heavy class.  They too lost all their capital ships during the battle for the space station.  Based on the position of the moons, the humans intended escorting their jump ship and defending apex with all possible space assets.  If they kept the morphs away for an additional thirty days, the humans would have completed their mission and be guaranteed an uneventful return via the same wormhole.

With every human spacecraft committed to assuring the Hydra's safe conduct, the nadir point remained unguarded.  High Command believed the humans could not shift its force in time.  They also concluded the humans couldn't split their forces and guard both jump points as they didn't know how many capital ships the morphs replaced.

What the humans didn't know was the extent of the morph space fleet's losses last year.  The morphs had no capital space assets and wouldn't for another year.  Their High Command focused on defending the planet from any attacks launched from either moon so they concentrated on short range fighters.

It might appear the humans conceded the nadir jump point but that wasn't true.  A large sector of space between the planet and the nadir point had automated stealth defensive platforms.  So far, every attempt at crossing this barrier cost the morphs a minimum of one major combat vessel.  They couldn't afford any additional losses even if they had any capital spaceships available. 

As for the humans, they continued modernizing and expanding this space barrier.  At its current size and based on Terratwo's position, it would be twenty-eight days before they could circle the automated defenses.  The morph High Command couldn't wait that long. 

Sleep eluded him.  Major Riven wanted to believe they could be successful but running a suicidal gauntlet wasn't his idea of a winning solution.  Morning came and he entered the ship feeling more like a condemned prisoner than a soldier on a vital mission.  By 0800, Captain Jakes joined him on the bridge.  Than came the inevitable delay.  Six hours later, the countdown commenced.

Technicians swarmed over the bridge as they made final preparations for launch.  The spacesuit felt like it weighed a ton as he couldn't move.  Leather belts secured every inch of his suit to the launch couch.  Major Riven had mobility, to a minor degree within the suit, which brought up an image of rations stuffed in a tin can.  He hoped this flight wouldn't have him bouncing within his suit.

As the last technician prepared to leave, he rushed over to his chair.  The terrier within the suit gave him a wink and used a small prybar to get some space between one belt securing him and his suit.  He held up a computer flash drive and shoved it under his belt.  A quick look around to verify everyone had departed before the dog placed a suction cup on his facemask.

"Major Riven, we met earlier when I was with the Prime Minister.  For your eyes only."

The voice rebounded within the helmet and the sudden silence when the dog removed the suction cup emphasized the importance of whatever the flash drive contained.  With no way to communicate, all Major Riven could do was watch the morph flee the bridge.

Made him wonder which form, terrier or retriever, was the intelligence officer's real breed.  One cannot switch breeds so Major Riven wondered if the morphs already had a portable holographic unit.  It would explain the sudden change in breeds.  It might also explain how the morphs managed to infiltrate the human's version of their High Command.  His head hurt trying to determine which story was real.

All command bridge hatchways closed with an audible clang.  Captain Jakes' voice came over an interior speaker as he read down an extensive list.  When he sneezed, the otter pilot never reacted.  At least now he knew he couldn't transmit.  Jakes continued his prelaunch routine with a monotoned voice as he spoke with Launch Control.  Their pace increased, signifying their imminent departure.  Instead of excitement, he found the wait taxing his nerves.

A loud boom from somewhere outside announced the final countdown.  One lick of his lips to remove a drop of sweat and another explosion rocked the ship.  Unlike the first one, this one reverberated as if it ran nonstop.  Everything shook for a second before silence.  A final deafening roar and the ship moved.  Each passing second had the pressure increasing until he wanted to scream.

Over his earphones he heard Captain Jakes sound what must be some spaceman's cheer.  Nothing but the sound of pure joy, that's what he detected from the otter.  All he could do is lay back and endure the launch.

He didn't know what changed.  One moment he couldn't move.  The next, some computer control released every strap holding him.  He had just enough sense to snatch the flash drive and slip it into one of the many pockets before the otter turned to him.

"Our skin tails from R and D have come up with a solution for our travel arrangements.  That's why the delay on liftoff.  Bad news is that it cost us our medium lasers though now we have one large laser.  If we run into that Hydra, ol' Jake here had better be hitting the center ring every time."

As far as Major Riven was concerned, insulting the rats who devised this plan wasn't a smart thing to do.  Karma had a way of nipping at your heels at the worst of times.  Better to credit the rats in research with ingenuity as anything else turned their mission into a suicidal one.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Jakes had his suit off so fast Major Riven wondered if he wore one during takeoff.  Good thing the otter had other things to do.  He never saw him move the flash drive from a suit pocket to his uniform pocket.  It took four technicians an hour to move and assemble his space suit with him inside but he carried everything without any assistance.  The Captain's comment about microgravity didn't clarify anything.

Major Riven took the control station assigned him prior to launch and inserted the ear buds.  A slight turn of the knob and a cacophony of voices assaulted his ears.  Yep, he had the system channel selector on passengers.  He adjusted the volume to a level that wouldn't give him a headache.  At least he could maintain a one-sided conversation if needed.

"Quiet down everyone.  You're staying in those tin cans for a while so just get comfortable.  I'll get you out after we get through the monkey's gauntlet."

Captain Jake's voice purred in his ear.  "Good idea.  No sense having everyone panicking if this doesn't work."

A flick of a dial and he could speak with the pilot.  "So how do we get through an automated defensive grid where every weapon is protected by stealth technology?"

He anticipated a complicated plan but it proved simplistic enough for his nontechnical mind.  Electronic detectors probed the meteorites and mapped them.  They fired a missile deep into the meteor belt and its detonation created a bright light for a microsecond.  A passive system mapped all meteors and compared it to the map produced by the electronic scan.  Meteors that went undetected by the electronic scan or those with major geographic changes must have hidden weapons.  They targeted these meteors with their large laser from a safe distance.  Thanks to their combat computer, they could do this at full thrust.

Space travel had no equal dirtside.  He had no sensation of movement or acceleration.  That held true until he made the mistake of glancing at Jakes' navigational display.  The spinning motion had his stomach rebelling at the conflict between vision and sensation.  When he mentioned the possibility of tossing his last meal, Captain Jakes told him to keep his back to the screen and concentrate on the radar units.  The nausea passed.

"Initiating gauntlet program.  Main course laid in.  All systems go."

Captain Jakes ceased his monologue and the ship's bridge became quiet.  Major Riven concentrated on the aft radar array, which made a soft beep each time the sweep indicator made a full circle on both the XY and Z plane display.  The silence made him edgy so he counted each beep as he continued staring at the two blank screens.

"Well I be damned.  Those skin tails came up with something that works.  Our navigational array has us more than halfway through this meteor field and we haven't taken any enemy fire.  Another fifty minutes and we should be beyond range.  No other meteor belts between us and this nadir point.  Nothing but twelve days of smooth flying."

Soldiers know better than to tease Fate.  Whenever things go smoothly or according to plan, the best thing to do is enjoy the moment.  Never question good fortune.  Do that and you're guaranteed to suffer the consequences.

An alarm sounded and it came from his work station.  A quick check of the readout showed something moving aft of their ship.  He punched a few buttons and a readout scrolled on his screen.  It didn't tell him anything useful, just that movement had been detected at Ying and several of the ships traveling to apex shifted.

"Nothing we can do right now, Major.  Those ships are too distant.  Try again after you get the others free of those suits."

It took him half an hour freeing the others from their launch stations.  Once everyone stowed the gear, he told them of their success.  They celebrated the good news with high fives.  Before he left, he told the others to relax.  They had a twelve-day journey to the jump point.  He suggested they study the mission plans as they would get together later to talk strategy.

Major Riven returned to his station and plugged his mike into the comm panel and switched it to private.  "Captain, what happened to my unit?  The mission called for a minimum of forty soldiers.  Thirty for our mission and ten as a security detail for this ship."

"The ship had less room than anticipated.  It was either take everyone and hope we didn't hit any FUBARs or take the bare minimum and cover the most likely scenarios.  Considering the importance of this mission, you know what happened."

No point arguing.  The morph officers responsible were back on Terratwo and the mission didn't allow for a second try.  Instead of four ten-morph teams, he had a few over three full teams.  No way he could protect this ship if a human ground force attacked while on Earth.  Major Riven had to hope the castle infiltration effort required less brute force than expected.

Space travel, the most boring form of excitement.  First, they stick you inside an anvil with wings atop a rocket.  The rocket contains several tons of explosive fuel and somebody sets it off with your furry butt sitting atop it.  Then some genius figures out a way to gather fuel in space so you can go even faster while you're stuck inside that flying anvil.  At least that was Major Riven's opinion over the first eleven days of their voyage.

Another shift trying not to fall asleep at his post.  During his third hour on duty, the radar console warning light demanded his attention.  Long-range scanners just identified four human spaceships pursuing them.  Sensors soon confirmed the ships as Hummingbirds.  His computer kept scrolling through known configurations until it settled on the double fifteen-foot railgun with a forward fixed aim.

When he was a new lieutenant, their unit's mission was to destroy a battery of six such weapons guarding a human strongpoint.  Railguns fired an iron-nickel musket ball accelerated by powerful electromagnets.  A length of fifteen feet set the musket ball's muzzle speed to 4.5 mach.  One slug hit the front of a battle tank and reduced its length from thirty feet to eighteen inches.  Another slug missed the tank and vaporized the soldier standing next to him.  If the reload and power up time wasn't so long, a small battery could destroy an entire armored command.

"Bet they have 'em rifled too," said Captain Jakes.

"Sonic waves crush railgun bullets; that's why they use musket ball."

"You're talking ground-based railguns, Major.  No air in space means no sonic wave.  Railguns have greater velocity, range, and accuracy.  Those shells will either be proximity or high explosive.  Either way, one hit and we'll suck vacuum.  Even a near miss could cripple us.  Just be glad the Hummingbird cannot reload while in space."

Captain Jakes directed him to the main screen.  Having gotten past the meteorites, the screen had a solid black appearance, which eliminated his earlier nausea.  Colored lights appeared and a schematic of a Hummingbird with its vital statistics popped up on a neighboring monitor.  A green line went to a white X identified as their jump point on the main screen.  The human ships appeared as red lines that intercepted the green line.  Gold numbers scrolled down.

"We have a good lead but Hummingbirds are fast and these are moving just over the know max.  Bet those pilots are on a suicide run so they're not worrying about fuel consumption.  Computer projections have us at the jump point five seconds after they reach a long-range firing solution.  It's going to be close."

Seven more hours of travel and it could all come down to a margin of five seconds.  Worse part being how that margin favored the humans.  With nothing more to do, Major Riven returned to his post monitoring the pursuing spacecraft.  At least their computer dismissed those rushing from the Apex fleet.  They would be a full day behind the ones from Yang.

Captain Jakes opened the ship's intercom.  "Now hear this.  All power not needed for propulsion is being diverted to the wormhole generator.  Everyone is to go to onboard oxygen until we jump."

Major Riven had an idea but didn't know if it would work.  He set his comm to private and contacted the Captain.  The wormhole generated an opening based on mass.  The stolen human research established an optimum penetration speed, which was below maximum.  Major Riven pointed out that a slower speed destroyed the ship but nothing was known about exceeding it.  If they accelerated to max, could they reach the jump point, open the wormhole, and be gone before the Hummingbirds got close enough?

His comm line remained silent for a moment.  "Better a chance at success than some monkey putting a shell up our butt.  If I disengage the governor on the wormhole generator, I can get us jump power in five hours.  We can reach the Nadar jump point before those hairless monkeys get in range.  Going to maximum thrust."

Major Riven watched the computer recalculate their approach.  The Hummingbirds continued to close the distance but the time factor to an optimum firing solution ticked upward and stopped at forty-eight seconds, in their favor.  They could do nothing more.

Seven hours is a long time to watch colored lights.  For Major Riven, he fixated on the time to a firing solution.  After hitting maximum thrust, the timer held for eleven minutes before going down to forty-seven seconds.  Still too close a race to declare a winner at this point. 

An alarm jarred him awake.  His eyes scanned the screen as it announced one of the Hummingbirds had fired.  The timer read ninety seconds to jump, could their intelligence be wrong about the range?  An impact timer appeared, its numbers racing to zero before winking out.  Again, the alarm sounded and the latest impact timer expired.

"Think those hairless monkeys realize they're not getting close enough to guarantee a hit.  Since we cannot deviate course, they are trying to fire one up our exhaust pipe but at that distance, it'll be a lucky shot."

Major Riven watched the wormhole timer as it dropped below one minute.  Alarms sounded again as the last three Hummingbirds fired.  Six impact timers appeared.  Based on the computer's calculation, the shells would reach them less than one second after they entered the wormhole.

He turned to the front screen just as the wormhole timer hit zero.  At first the black screen showed no anomaly.  Than a pinpoint of light appeared in the center of the screen.  As it widened, it reminded him of an eye, the iris reflecting every color of the rainbow.  Alarms wailed and the ship bucked like a jeep on a bad road.   Major Riven didn't need to check the shot clock, one of the proximity shells exploded aft of them.
A kaleidoscope of colors appeared all around them.  Captain Jakes' gleeful shout said it all.  In the instant they entered the wormhole, they left Terratwo's star far behind them, along with the hostile forces.  Next stop, Earth.
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"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

"Computer, damage report . . .. verify . . .. log it." 

Captain Jakes released his chair's restraints.  When he jumped out of his seat, his heavy boots came down with a loud bang.  He danced on the bridge for a few seconds, his expression one of joy.

"Here's something those reports never mentioned.  Inside this wormhole, we are experiencing gravity.  Best we inform your command or we'll have a lot of broken bones."

In the beginning everyone moved with extreme caution.  Those glad for the gravity anticipated a return to the novelty of microgravity.  The ones who enjoyed the freedom of near weightlessness bemoaned the change.  At least they all agreed on one thing.  A definite up and down made the trip enjoyable.

The Captain issued orders for repair crews.  Seemed they did not escape unscathed.  Two rounds exploded near them and the shrapnel affected electrical systems inside the ship.  Until they landed on Earth, all wiring routed through the outer hall had to be switched to an internal system.  According to the damage control computer, they had a number of minor oxygen leaks.  Those needed sealing as they didn't have enough spare oxygen to cover another thirty-five-day journey through the wormhole and the transit time from planet to jump point.

Work commenced as soon as the meeting ended.  In Major Riven's mind, keeping the passengers busy prevented trouble.  You couldn't have so many packed in such a small space without friction.  Even if it took several times longer for inexperienced personnel to make the repairs, it beat lying on your bunk staring at the bunk above you.

By day three they sealed all the leaks.  Major Riven allowed everyone to drink the one beer each soldier was granted prior to liftoff.  None got drunk on so little alcohol but it did give everyone an emotional boost.  It took another twenty days rewiring the ship but every time a circuit showed green, that work detail strutted.  The competition to do the most wiring kept everyone's mind off the seriousness of the upcoming mission.

That's when Captain Jakes approached him.  To date, he had nothing but smiles and compliments.  He even joked that he was going to enlist every soldier into the space force.  Today, his eyes lacked their usual twinkle.

"Don't know what's in that pocket of yours, Major, but it's getting obvious.  You keep patting that pocket like a pup hiding a cricket from his mother.  Do something about it."

Since they launched, Major Riven kept the flash drive on his person.  Between the race for the wormhole and the frenzy to repair the ship, he put off reviewing what was on the flash drive.  He continued to worry about misplacing the thing and the necessity of maintaining whatever secrets it held.  His habit of patting his pocket caught the eye of the Captain.  With no viable excuse, he requested the privacy of the Captain's cabin for a few moments.  He opened his personal data pad and slid the flash drive into an open slot.  The external drive activated without him touching any control.

The Prime Minister's face appeared.  "Major, our human agent has been assigned to the bioweapon recover mission, along with eleven other commandoes.  He will send you burst transmissions on the frequency shown regarding updates whenever possible.  Our agent is the eugenics human.  Keep our agent's identity secret at all costs.  Allow him to escape, if possible.  Given the choice between the data or our spy, your priority is eliminating all information related to the bioweapon.  This drive will self-destruct when the timer hits zero or upon removal from whatever computer you're using."

Smoke swirled out of the disk as Major Riven pulled the flash drive free of his computer.  He dropped it into an empty waste can until it stopped sparking.  When he retrieved it from the can, it no longer burned his paw.  He placed the lump of charred plastic in a pocket for later disposal.  Before he left the cabin, he programmed his personal comm to auto receive the frequency displayed during the message.

How could any eugenics human betray their creators?  They were genetically designed and artificially grown to eliminate certain traits and enhance whatever the humans needed.  Those bred as warriors were formidable soldiers, impervious to pain and almost unstoppable.  They went from newborn to full grown in eighteen months and stood over seven feet tall.  If their height didn't distinguish them, they all had golden colored eyes.  The downside was a high infant mortality rate, their ten-year lifespan, and the inability to produce offspring. 

Captain Jakes leaned against the wall opposite his private quarters just as Major Riven opened the door. 

"Everything five by five?"  When Major Riven nodded, the otter sneezed.  "Best you put that piece of burnt plastic in its proper place.  Might do you some good operating the recycling plant next shift by yourself.  Good for your squad seeing the commander doing menial work."

"You know."  It was both a question and a statement.

"I've transported my share of commandoes when I flew atmospheric Soundblasters.  The smell of fried circuitry and burning plastic always came before insertion.  I said nothing back then and I'm not telling your squad anything now."

The remainder of their time traveling the wormhole proved mind-numbing.  Soldiers exercised, and officers plotted plans for dirtside.  Otherwise, everyone caught as much sleep as possible.  Sometimes they would activate the forward cameras and watch the swirling rainbow but even that got boring.  The only item still interesting on the trip was the countdown clock.

Four hours remaining on the wormhole clock and still so much more to do.  Captain Jakes established the final repair priorities and the interior became more active than an overturned beehive.  All the jury-rigged wiring had to be secured and gear stowed in its proper place before the countdown clock reached one hour.  Than came the final preparations, drive engines and weapons system placed on standby.  All personnel than used the restraining straps, fastening themselves into their cots. 

"The humans jumped five days before us."  Despite the calm voice, Major Riven detected a note of worry in the Captain's announcement.  "That Hydra knows we're coming, where we will emerge, and had enough time to go from Earth's apex point to the nadir jump point.  They're going to have every weapon charged and ready to fire at our egress point.  If we're not faster on the draw, this is going to be one very short flight."

A pinpoint of black in the center of the display marred the rainbow.  As the clock continued its countdown, the black expanded.  When they entered the wormhole, the burst of color announced they had crossed some unknow barrier.  No way of knowing what happened when you exited the wormhole.  No morph ever traveled through one before this mission.  Major Riven glanced at the readout as it counted off those final seconds.

Six - - - - five - - - - four - - - - three - - - - two - - - - one - - - -
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"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop


Every alarm and siren aboard the spacecraft wailed.  A quick glance forward convinced Major Riven to concentrate on his radar panels.  First the IFF Indicator announced an enemy vessel at point blank range off their port side and high.  That alarm stopped screeching and the IFF aft detected a ship at its maximum detection range.  Those alarms ended just as he switched to the damage control computer.

High Command anticipated something going wrong.  Seemed they had good reason to worry.  Primary systems flashed from blinking green, through the yellow and reds, and settled on black.  Most of the secondary systems soon switched from off to bright yellow or dark red.  At least the tertiary systems remained green.

"What the hell happened?"  Major Riven didn't care if he sounded scared.  He was petrified.

"Give those hairless moneys a ci – gar.  Now that's some fine shooting."

"Captain, what's going on?"

"Our excess speed allowed the railgun shells closest to us to enter the wormhole.  They detonated when they exited the thing.  Luck us, each shell and our ship went on different tangents when we exited the wormhole.  Instead of a direct hit, we caught the concussion blast."

Major Riven jumped onto the intercom.  Every soldier climbed out of their seat and organized damage control parties based on the ship's priority system.  The red lights blinking the fastest slowed until they became steady.  Quite a few of the primary systems that went black now flashed red.

"My compliment to your gaggle of ground pounders, Major.  Hull integrity holding steady at seventy-five percent, initiating maximum thrust, and rerouting weapon's energy to life support.  Course plotted.  Seems your move back home just reduced our travel time to Earth by three days."

"Did we run into two human ships or just one?"

"One.  The Hydra was at zero thrust, waiting there.  If we came in at the recommended speed, they would have scratched this ship and turned it into scrap metal.  You didn't notice the ship you first saw on the forward radar was the same one that disappeared aft of us."

Major Riven released his restraints and joined the Captain.  It seemed entering a wormhole too fast caused the ship to continue its acceleration while in transit.  That acceleration shot the ship out like a bullet instead of the controlled exit they anticipated.  The speed alone should have shattered the hull but it held thanks to whichever work crew constructed the ship back home. 

It took almost four days of continual work to get all primary systems a steady yellow.  That did require them to cannibalize the tertiary systems but at least the ship flew.  The excess speed did bleed off and they continued at maximum drive.  Since Earth had no intervening meteorite fields or operational stealth weapons, the Captain jettisoned the missile system. 

They did loose enough oxygen that even with the emergency reserve, air rested at seventy percent.  The scrubbers could handle the load but they needed to refresh their air supply when they reached their destination.  It wouldn't last much beyond that time.  Carbon dioxide poisoning would set in less than a day after reaching Earth orbit.  They would have to make their reentry burn on the initial approach.

At least the think tank rodents considered this possibility.  Their ship carried a discarded weapon system known as ORCOIL, the orbital combat insertions launcher.  Each missile tube carried a commando from orbit to the surface.  It worked fine on the chalkboard.  Too bad the brains forgot about the efficiency of the human's antimissile systems.  On its first mission, another vessel fired two hundred missiles at a target.  Just three morphs made it groundside.  They discarded the prototype after that first disaster.

It came back for this trip as a contingency plan.  Since Earth had no operational antimissile system, those back home figured each morph had a higher percentage chance of survival.  Captain Jakes stressed how everyone had five days for training on a simulator.  Though all soldiers took combat jumps as part of their standard training, there was a difference between jumping at a thousand feet and fifty miles.

The timer reached forty-eight hours when the long-ranged sensors reacquired the human ship.  The Hydra had better speed than a Mamba.  It also had superior armor.  Good thing the Mamba had better weapons and maneuverability.  It made any one-on-one space battle a near even match.

Captain Jakes rubbed his paws together in anticipation.  He destroyed four spaceships during the battle for the orbital station.  Then his superiors switched him from fighter command to logistics.  While most of his comrades earned the coveted space ace ribbon, he stagnated.  Just the idea of getting that ribbon made him insufferable.

The humans would reach firing range five minutes before they entered orbit.  However, the Captain gained an additional seven minutes thanks to the Earth's curvature.  He intended using that time to his advantage.  As soon as the Mamba disappeared from their screens, he would spin the ship a full one eighty.  Three minutes later, he would bounce the ship off the atmosphere while launching the ORCOIL missiles.  With so much mass removed, the Mamba would gain the advantage of speed.  Since bouncing off the mesosphere set him on a random trajectory, the humans couldn't anticipate his incoming course.  Captain Jakes figured he would get off the first shot.  After that, it depended on the pilot's skill. 

A slight course adjustment had the Mamba skim within three miles of the moon's surface before making a final approach to Earth.  Captain Jakes gained another minute.  With an hour to go, everyone made for the ORCOIL missiles.  Thanks to microgravity, walking on the ceiling didn't prove too disorienting.  All equipment checked out and all gear stowed.  Time for the ground team to prepare for launch.   

When the Captain sealed each hatch, the ferret wished him good hunting.  Major Riven shook paws and wished him good hunting just as his hatch sealed.  Static filled his helmet for a second.

"Major, forgive me for lying.  Our hull integrity isn't the seventy-five percent I told everyone.  It's more like seven point five.  I'll launch all missiles five seconds before hitting the mesosphere.  Thirty seconds after that, the Hydra will get a sensor lock on our debris.  Those missiles have rudimentary stealth technology so let's hope they think nobody survived the orbital reentry.  It's been an honor serving you.  Good hunting down there."

Silence.  He hung inside an ice prison colder than possible thanks to the liquid hydrogen circulating around the exterior. A sudden shake and the immobility continued.  He checked his helmet's onboard computer display and confirmed the launch of all missiles fifty miles above the ground.  As the trailblazer, his launched a full second before the others.  He could do nothing but trust the onboard telemetry to get him to the landing zone.

At thirty miles, the icy prison boiled in an effort to cool the outer skin.  The water turned to steam, its pressure threatening to crush his armor suit.  The ceramic shell encasing his missile shattered as the super-heated water vapor escaped.  All that remained of the missile was the frame and the pad he stood on as he hurled downward at ballistic speed.

Twenty miles and telemetry had him on course.  Explosive bolt pushed the metal frame outward and it disappeared in the night.  Clamps holding his boots disengaged and a green light lit in his helmet.  The first drag chute popped out of the base, pulling it away from him.  Major Riven didn't see the second drag chute that gave him separation space.  He continued falling at a high speed.

Parachutes deployed on his armor suit and caused him to spin as he hit the ten-mile mark.  The seams opened and the wind flung the parts far from him.  His personal oxygen tank activated just as the first drag chute opened.  It lasted one second before being torn apart but his speed had been greatly reduced from the initial ballistic speed.

Major Riven's flight suit allowed him some maneuvering ability and helped slow him further.  As he passed through the five-mile mark, he checked his onboard display.  Still on course, good news indeed since everyone else followed him.  He should have detected thirty-five other morphs following him.  It seemed this high-risk option already cost him fifteen lives.

Bright sunlight kept the sky illuminated but the sun kept dropping to the horizon.  Bad enough landing in a field selected by a long-ranged sensor.  Too easy to underestimate its actual size or miss any hazards.  If the sun dipped any lower they would be landing in predawn darkness instead of the first hour after sunrise, not the most ideal of conditions.

An alarm rang within his helmet and he used the eye sensor to activate the final landing sequence.  As he passed the two-mile mark, his computer ejected his oxygen tank and opened his face plate.  He couldn't receive any data from his head's up display but now he breathed the planet's air.  His wrist altimeter flashed red and the two-morph chute deployed. 

In a combat situation, the chute opened five hundred feet above the ground.  Somebody back home must have figured they could open a lot higher since they anticipated no armed resistance.  He checked his altimeter.  Five thousand feet and somewhere down there in the predawn darkness a patch of grass.  Things did take on depth and dimension as he passed five hundred feet. 

He started a slow walk as he flared his chute.  His feet took a few steps with nothing below them before he landed.  Never had the ground felt so comforting.  Major Riven remained where he landed knowing the others still needed the homing beacon built into his helmet.  Grunts, groans, and many an expletive announced the arrival of each soldier.  He lowered the visor and checked the readout.  Twelve accounted for, ten in the field and two in the trees.  Better than expected.

"We have a lot of work to do so get your gear organized.  I want us out within the hour.  Did anyone with the pistols or grenades survive the drop?"

A chorus of negatives echoed in the field.  Major Riven divided the guns and ammo with four members of his command and the grenades with another three soldiers.  None of them survived the drop.  Perhaps he should have let everyone carry a firearm and a full load of ammo but then they would lose their communicators and the feudal weapons.  Space in those missiles was limited.  It was his decision.

A voice shouted from his left.  "I've found the two in the trees.  One's dead but we have one with superficial injuries.  Going to take time cutting him down."

Major Riven cursed under his breath.  That left him with eleven soldiers to locate and destroy a super bioweapon while preventing a dozen human soldiers from obtaining it.  Of course, that assumed their spy told the truth about the human force.  He called for all officers to report to him.  The only officer dirtside was their veterinarian.  Once more he shouted out for any officers.

Lieutenant Lewark replied.  "Give me a moment Major.  I'll be dirtside as soon as I convince this tree I'm not some weird bird building a nest."
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"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."