Episode 205: The Guide
- Part 2
It was a retrieval ship, no doubt about it. Rico paused to appreciate the incongruous spectacle of the wrecked spacecraft buried in the yellow sand of the canyon floor. The major, Doc and T'Phai did a walk around, inspecting every side of the craft. The wreck was askew; it's nose, cockpit and right engine nacelle dug into the ground. The left outrigger and engine were tilted helplessly in the air. The bomb bay doors were inaccessible, but the left side cargo hatch hung open.
"It's Fleet, alright," Doc spoke, "But not anything we're flying now. This monster's Bug vintage or earlier." The sergeant moved closer to the craft's twin tails. "Check this out. Whoever flew it was careful not to be identified. All exterior identification numbers have been scoured off. There may be some serial numbers on the internal components, but you'd need Goss to make sense of them."
Rico paused turning his gaze to the shuttle sitting a couple hundred yards away.
"Doc, relieve Goss at watch on the shuttle and send him over. And make sure Higgins doesn't touch anything important over there, okay?
Doc smiled at the dig on Higgins, remembering the 'reluctant warrior' of time's past. He turned and double-timed it over to the shuttle. Rico moved to a spot beneath the open cargo door; the retrieval ship's awkward position meant the opening was elevated about two meters off the ground. He keyed his headset away from the comlink chatter to his suit's external feed. Nothing, no sound, no voices from the broken ship. Jean Razak was always suspicious of the quiet; Rico hadn't shared the LT's anxiety . . . before now. Kicking on his jump jets, he easily cleared the six feet to the open hatch. He caught himself on the handhold outside the entry and clung to the sill for a moment. Cautiously he peered into the opening and swept the cargo bay with the muzzle of his Morita. The bay was reasonably well lit by the light streaming in the hatch. He could see the restraining harnesses for troopers mounted on the far bulkhead. The seats were empty and covered with a layer of fine yellow dust. He pulled himself inside. The twenty-degree slant of the deck took a bit of getting used to, but it was manageable. The chamber was empty. There were no bodies, survivors, or loose gear. T'Phai followed the major in, removing his helmet to get a better look around. In a few moments, Goss joined them, and at Rico's instruction, he passed forward into the cockpit to hunt for any vehicle ID.
"Colonel, your impressions?"
"Major," the alien replied, "Something is very wrong here. Beyond the presence of an obsolete SICON craft in this canyon, the condition of the ship makes no sense. I can find no evidence that anyone was ever on board. There is no loose equipment, or stores. If there were passengers and they abandoned the wreck, they could not have taken every piece of gear with them."
"You want another surprise?" Goss spoke as he reentered the bay, "The ship's navigation logs have been purged, a complete goose-egg. No record of any flights whatsoever. Either those files were deliberately erased, or this hulk was dropped here by the retrieval ship fairy."
Rico rolled his eyes, clearly not amused. "Got anything on the origin or identity of this beast?"
"I found some serial numbers on the control couplings and power plant, but it'll take an uplink to the Davis to chase them down. This much I know. Ships of this class were decommissioned over eight years ago. The only place you still find them is in salvage yards."
"Or on Erebus, it seems," added Rico. The report of the prospector, the discovery of the mystery 'survivor', and now the empty hulk of a ship all seemed carefully orchestrated to lure him to this spot. The longer he thought about it, the more it smelled like a setup, and he figured T'Phal was behind it.
"Major, you need to get out here. You're gonna want to see this." It was Max, coming over the comlink.
Rico climbed to the open hatch and leaned out. Max and Diz were 20 meters from him staring into the sky to the southwest. Hanging in the air about a kilometer from the shuttle was a T'Phetti hammerhead fighter.
"So," Rico thought, "the trap is sprung." He turned back into the wreck, but before he could speak, he was rocked by an explosion. The impact tossed him into the slanted bay where he slid hard into the far corner. He scrabbled quickly to his knees and crawled back to the open hatch. Max and Diz had been knocked on their backs by the blast, but were struggling to rise. A second concussion rocked the wreck, but Rico clutched the sill and was not thrown back. A geyser of flame erupted from the rear of the shuttle. Suddenly he realized that he was not the target of the attack; it was the shuttle.
"Dizzy, Max!" Rico screamed into the comlink, "Get to the shuttle! Get Doc and Higgins outta there!"
He shifted his gaze to the fighter still hovering in the air.
"T'Phal you bastard," Rico swore to himself, "If you're looking for a fight, you chose the wrong guy."
Flores and Max ran flat out toward the burning shuttle. As they reached it, the ship's cockpit view port ejected explosively into the sky and black smoke poured from the open nose of the craft. A small figure, a trooper crawled awkwardly out of the burning ship, pulling a second man with him. Thank God, at least one of them was alive. Rico pulled his Morita from his backpack and cocked it, seating a grenade into the launcher. Before he could move, however, a figure pushed past him through the doorway. It was T'Phai. The alien had donned his helmet and cocked his Morita in a mirror image of Rico's action.
"They are under attack." The alien's voice was cold and hard.
"Colonel, I know the shuttle is..."
"No," the alien interrupted, "Not the shuttle!"
Before Johnny could respond, the Skinnie did a power leap from the hatch, bounding over seventy meters, well past Max and Diz who were helping Doc and Higgins back toward the retrieval ship. Zim swung from his position behind the wreck to place himself between the shuttle and the troopers, covering their retreat. T'Phai ignored them and in another leap cleared the burning shuttle completely.
"T'Phai! What the hell are you doing?!"
The answer came from across the valley floor. A streamer of light from high on the cliff face arced into the sky above the canyon. The T'Phetti hammerhead swung gracefully about, and in a blinding ball of fire exploded.
"D'nat u'tu p'tek, nal!" T'Phal spat a curse to no one in particular. Nothing was going according to plan. N'Zal had roused him from sleep two hours ago with news of the Roughneck's sudden departure from Prime. It took only minutes for the story of the SICON wreck and the mysterious trooper found in the desert to reach him. The young T'Phetti knew he was close to getting the hard evidence he needed to implicate the Terrans in the disappearances and swing T'Phetti support his way. But that 'water sack' Rico had the jump on him; he was already en route to this new discovery.
T'Phal hastily assembled his squad but found that his shuttle was in a maintenance cycle and hours away from launch. The only ship he could procure for immediate departure was an Erebian yacht of human registry. For a substantial number of credits, the yacht's captain had agreed to follow Alpha squad's shuttle and deliver his passengers, but that was all. No number of credits would convince the human to hang around to take them back. No doubt the captain expected trouble. T'Phal smiled to himself at that thought. No matter; T'Zan would remain behind to complete the transport prep and follow in several hours to pick them up when their task was done. But for now, T'Phal and his squad crouched uncomfortably in their sealed power suits in the cabin of a vessel ill suited for T'Phetti passengers. While his soldiers checked their gear and tried awkwardly to get comfortable, T'Phal crouched low, peering out a tiny view port. At first glance the sky was clear.
"T'Lir was a half hour behind us," the T'Phetti thought, "But he should catch us up."
As if in response to his thought, a small stooped craft appeared to the northwest, closing fast. Their transport wasn't ready to fly, but the fighter was. T'Phal smiled. The hammerhead would be his insurance. He hoped there would be no violence, but he was prepared to fight if necessary for access to the wreck and its secrets. T'Lir and the fighter would ensure that no human left the canyon without his approval.
The T'Phetti soldiers were deposited on the floor of Dante canyon roughly 1500 meters from the spot where Rico's team had landed. The placement was critical. T'Phal wanted both the shuttle's descent and their landing spot to be invisible from the human's position. The Erebian yacht wasted no time departing the scene, leaving T'Phal and his squad alone. A towering pinnacle of rock ahead marked where the canyon turned a corner and headed east. Their objective was one kilometer beyond that turn.
"N'Zal, cross to the far side of the canyon and find cover. M'Rol, T'Nol, and I will work our way around this corner. Once in position we will advance along the canyon wall keeping to cover as we can. N'Zal follow on your side of the canyon but stay behind us to cover our flank." The aliens parted silently moving to their assigned positions. T'Phal, M'Rol and T'Nol began the slow process of picking their way through the boulder debris at the base of the canyon wall; not the easiest route but the one with the best cover. In a little over 20 minutes, T'Phal and his team were positioned behind an outcrop on a sill slightly higher than the canyon floor. From this vantage point he could see the wrecked craft and Rico's transport parked beside it. With his mouth palp he keyed his helmet HUD and a glowing computer map appeared superimposed over the view from his visor. His suit sensors provided distances to the targets, as well as detecting three moving heat sources outside the wreck. Turning his head, the visor projected glowing markers over the positions of his men spread along the wall behind and across from him. His gaze returned to downed ships and with another click of the palp key, he focused on the object of their long journey. The crosshairs of his visor locked on the wreck, and his suit's CPU ran an ID search. In less than 15 seconds, the vessel was labeled in luminescent letters on his visor: "Retrieval ship, D class, Terran manufacture, SICON registry unavailable". T'Phal opened the comlink to all his squad mates.
"D'Jyri (brothers)" T'Phal whispered, "We have found one of the ships our people have spoken of. I am transmitting its identification to your suit recorders. Whatever else happens, word of this discovery must reach home." He paused switching his comlink for surface-to-ship transmission.
"T'Lir," the T'Phetti officer radioed the hammerhead pilot, "Circle the coordinates of the wreck, but remain out of sight and sensor range of both ships on the ground. Hold position until I call for you."
T'Phal inched forward to get a better view of his target. Quickly his plan took shape. Moving invisibly along the cliff walls he would position his forces in a broad circle around the two ships. With luck he could position one or two of his men on the ridges above the ships, providing perfect firing positions if that became necessary. Once deployed he would approach the 'water sacks' and demand entrance to the wreck. If they were unconvinced by his request and the soldiers covering them, he would use the fighter as his last resort. The show of overwhelming force would intimidate the Terrans into relinquishing the wreck. At his command, the alien soldiers moved carefully toward the wreck. Only N'Zal seemed to lag behind.
"N'Zal," T'Phal switched to his squad mate's comlink, "Your falling behind. Keep moving forward with us."
There was no answer. T'Phal looked behind him and saw the HUD marker for N'Zal blinking well back of their position.
"Commander," the voice on the comlink was tentative and frightened, "I'm reading multiple targets moving swiftly along the canyon floor toward our position."
T'Phal hesitated a moment before answering. "Repeat N'Zal. Multiple targets?"
"Yes sir. I'm having trouble getting a fix on numbers. But they are 90 meters to our rear and advancing."
The alien commander hit the 'arrest' command key on his gauntlet freezing his soldiers in their places. Damn the humans. How had they flanked him?
"N'Zal I need numbers of humans and positions."
"Sir, they are not human."
Moments later, T'Phal heard a burst of weapons fire over his headset and the rasping respirations of his soldier. N'Zal had left his comlink open. A terrified scream reverberated in his ears.
"P'Taaaaaaaak (Bugs!)" The frantic breathing coming over his headset was now punctuated by T'Phetti epithets.
T'Phal keyed to squad communication, "Soldiers, an unknown force has engaged our flank. Disengage and fall back in support of N'Zal at coordinates Gamma-Delta 99-03". This had to be some devilry by the humans. Erebus had been cleaned bug free even before the end of the Bug War. Clambering through the rock debris, T'Phal was joined by M'Rol with T'Nol following not far behind. They retraced their route along the massive shoulder of rock and once behind it dashed across the open ground of the canyon floor. Before they could reach the opposite wall, they saw N'Zal backing frantically down the rocks of the far side, pausing only to fire short bursts at an unseen enemy. When they reached him he was still facing the canyon wall. T'Phal grabbed him forcefully and spun him around. The alien stared uncomprehending at his commander's face for a moment then turned back to the path he had taken. T'Phal didn't wait to hear N'Zal's report.
"Everyone, back to the landing point...NOW!" The T'Phetti soldiers turned as one and sprinted across the open canyon floor to the relative safety of the rocks along the canyon wall they had left. Halfway across, T'Phal turned to see N'Zal falling behind. He had stopped dead in his tracks. He looked lost. Suddenly he dropped to his knees.
"I...I can't move."
"M'Rol, T'Nol get to the far side and cover me," T'Phal screamed, "I'll get N'Zal!"
T'Phal was sprinting back to his friend when he spotted them; pale shapes, moving quickly among the debris at the base of the far wall. Though they moved on two limbs, they were neither human nor T'Phetti. First one and then another left the rocks and began sprinting across the canyon floor toward N'Zal. Mother of Fire, they were bugs! But none like T'Phal had ever seen. They resembled imposter bugs, the twisted arachnid-human hybrids seen on Klendathu, but these were stranger apparitions. Their exoskeletons were pale white and almost translucent with only a few dark bands across their legs and backs. Mounted atop their ovoid bodies was an enlarged misshapen head spotted with pale blue studs like jewels. T'Phal assumed they were eyes, dozens of them. They moved with the animal speed of the imposters and had the large bladed forearms that T'Phal remembered from the training videos.
They were all sprinting to the center of the canyon with N'Zal as the prize. T'Phal raised his modified Morita and lobbed two grenades into the path of the attackers. While the missiles were still airborne, the white monsters veered to the left and right away from the attack. The grenades detonated harmlessly and the pursuers arced back toward the helpless N'Zal. T'Phal reached his companion first and tried to drag him to his feet; N'Zal seemed paralyzed. The arachnids closed to within 50 meters. T'Phal unleashed a burst of fire toward the creature in the lead. It weaved trying to dodge the weapons fire but a few rounds struck home. It continued to barrel forward like meteor and even in the face of Morita fire drove into T'Phal. The white monster was on top of him now, slashing and scrabbling with its scimitar forelegs. It was too close to shoot. He deployed his 'spider's tooth' a two foot long stiletto that telescoped from his left gauntlet.
"Dodge this!" he screamed as he drove the spike deep into the thorax of the beast. It jerked convulsively and lay still on top of him. T'Phal brought his leg up against the white armor of the bug and slid it off his blade. From the ground he could see the other creature crouching over N'Zal. He scrambled to his feet to aid his friend, but the creature sensed his approach and rose up to meet him. Just as well. The bug made an easier target that way. The T'Phetti raised his right hand and from the nozzle on his right wrist unleashed a stream of blue constrictor spray at the second attacker. The bug sputtered and gurgled as the viscous liquid caught it full in the face. The only other sound it made was the crunch and snap of cracking exoskeleton as the constricting fluid did its work. N'Zal lay motionless, his armor scored and punctured, black blood leaking into the yellow sand. T'Phal grabbed the limp shoulder of his companion and began dragging him back toward the squad. M'Rol emerged from cover and ran to support him.
"Sir, I'm reading over twenty more contacts in the rocks" M'Rol spoke his black eyes wide with terror. He aimed bursts of fire at the white figures emerging from the rocks.
"Lay a barricade 10 meters forward. Get T'Nol to help. We'll take refuge in that bay of rock against the east wall. Don't deploy the barricade until my command." He continued dragging N'Zal to the shelter of the rocks. T'Nol and M'Rol positioned several small discs on the ground at 70 yard intervals in an arc about 200 meters from their refuge in the rocks. There was little time for them to retreat, for more of the white horrors were bounding across the canyon toward them. As they dove for cover, T'Phal keyed the command code on his wrist panel and the discs erupted into a cloud of blue foam. The young T'Phetti clucked with approval; the blast had caught at least four of the bugs in the expanding wall of blue. The charges dispersed a solid mass of constrictor foam three meters high in a crude arc around their position. The barricade would buy them a little time. The four soldiers huddled behind a rocky outcrop; T'Nol and M'Rol attended to their wounded comrade as T'Phal keyed his comlink to contact the fighter.
"T'Lir," the commander tried to conceal the strain in his voice, "We are under attack by arachnids. Require air support immediately."
"Sir," the pilots voice crackled over the comlink, "Did you say arachnids?"
"That is correct. Lock on my position and bring the fighter around. Lay fire on the far canyon wall beyond the barricade."
In less than a minute the curved shadow of the fighter was sliding across the canyon floor. T'Phal ignored it; T'Nol and M'Rol were singing the death song. N'Zal was gone. It had all been for naught. He turned at last to view the hammerhead hovered in front of the barricade like a guardian angel. There was the sound of a missile launch; the T'Phetti commander assumed it was from the fighter, but a bright line of exhaust traced its way from the far cliffs passing the fighter and coursing behind the great shoulder of rock toward the humans beyond.
"Mother of Fire, what is this?" the T'Phetti commander exclaimed. As he spoke a second streamer of fire arced down the canyon towards the humans.
T'Phal contacted his pilot, "T'Lir, target and eliminate the missile firing position."
Immediately, the great hovering bird began a slow swing toward the cliff. Too slow, for another ribbon of light blazed forth catching the fighter amid ships. The hammerhead was engulfed in a cloud of light and ceased to exist. Bits of it rained down behind the barricade. There would be another death song today. T'Phal turned to his friends. N'Zal was on the ground, his skin blackened in death, a spent flame. His two squad mates paid no attention to the wreck of the fighter; their eyes were transfixed on the barricades. The bugs were attacking the barrier. Typically arachnids threw themselves blindly at obstacles, overcoming them by sheer weight of numbers, but these bugs were different. They did not run to their deaths. The first pale imposters attacked the foam and were enveloped and crushed by it. Those that followed climbed upon the bodies of the slain reaching higher on the barrier before they were caught. The bugs were constructing bridges over the barricade, bridges of their own dead.
"Check N'Zal for ammunition. We'll make our stand here." T'Phal feared that might be the last order of his brief military career. As the order was given the first of the imposters sprung over the barrier, three more followed behind. The T'Phetti weapons blazed at their attackers; the imposters, less able to dodge in the close quarters were quickly felled by Morita fire. The white corpses began to pile up in the small stretch of ground between the barricade and the soldier's redoubt. But still more clambered over the barrier. It seemed that the squad might actually hold back the streams of arachnids when another missile fired from the far wall headed straight for tiny band of fighters. It exploded behind the barricades tossing pieces of slain bugs high in the air. T'Phal and his companions were unhurt; the T'Phetti, masters of fighting in mountains had chosen their refuge well. Moments later another rocket arced toward them, this one obviously falling short. The T'Phetti were not the target, the barricade was. It struck the insubstantial wall and blew a huge gap in its center. The white warriors now streamed in. The air was alive with jacketed slugs, clips soon emptied. M'Rol, his Morita spent, dropped the rifle and began spraying the enemy with constrictor spray. Constrictors would not last long against the waves of enemy. Then the young T'Phetti commander heard the most improbable sound.
"L'Waa K'Taaah!" A voice from high overhead.
A slender, armored figure seemed to fall from the sky onto the pinnacle of the rocky outcrop to their right. From high above, the figure lobbed three projectiles into the killing ground in front of the T'Phetti position. Multiple explosions; the white attackers thrown back. Then through the smoke, T'Phal saw the distant figure mount a large shell onto its weapon, aim at the far wall, and fire. Simultaneously another murderous missile fired from the distant wall toward their savior. The scene seemed frozen in time, the seconds expanded to hours. Two white arcs streamed slowly past one another high above the canyon floor. Their rescuer stood motionless in the face of the oncoming projectile, as though engaged in a duel with the hidden enemy. In an instant, both cliff walls blossomed in flame. T'Phal flinched as the perch their reinforcement had occupied was blasted apart showering rock and debris upon them. But the lone figure was not there. He had power jumped a moment before the missile struck. As he plunged toward them, he was pitched forward by the blast and nearly did a somersault before his suit gyros and jets caught him and righted him. He landed hard into the space between barricade and T'Phetti. The clouds of dust and smoke from the blast obscured him for a moment. The figure sat crouched, kneeling on the ground, surrounded by pale arachnid corpses. The T'Phetti sat dumbstruck. To their young eyes, it was as though a Fire Walker of old had leaped from the suns to their aid. As the smoke cleared and the figure began to rise, it seemed to shrink to mortal size. He was slow to stand, as though the act took great effort. It was only when he unfolded himself to full height that T'Phal realized who it was.
"D'Noll'a (Father)."It was the word a child uses for his father, a love word. It had escaped T'Phal's lips before he realized it.
T'Phai, his powersuit covered in yellow dust moved stiffly toward the group. The eyes of M'Rol and T'Nol glistened with unconcealed admiration; they had seen the T'Phai of legend, the hero of the Bug War.
"Our enemy has T'Phetti eyes," T'Phai nodded to the far canyon wall. "I've never seen a finer shot. If we give him time he will find all of us. You must follow me now, along the canyon north. There is refuge there." He pointed past the shoulder of rock toward the humans.
T'Phal did not hesitate and motioned his companions to follow his father. If he distrusted the humans, he feared them far less than the white horrors. M'Rol hoisted N'Zal's body over his shoulder and the four figures traced their way around the corpses and fragments of barricade to the open ground of the canyon floor. They moved quickly to the point where the canyon veered sharply northeast around the flank of rock T'Phai had used as his firing platform. To their right the canyon rolled sharply away leaving a vast open expanse of canyon floor before them.
"Now, we run." T'Phai spoke as though he were inviting his friends to tea.
"Colonel," T'Phal replied, remembering his father's old honorific, "There is no cover in that open country. Shouldn't we follow the canyon wall?"
"Speed is of the essence now. Cover in the rocks will not protect us from the n'Lan P'Tak (white crawlers). And that path will only slow us down. I am sure the enemy will follow and our only hope is to outrace them. I only hope my missile quieted the shooter long enough to let us escape."
"Are you sure you hit him?" T'Nol blurted out. He regretted his question immediately. How could he doubt the legend? T'Phai's face slipped into a wry smile.
"I don't know for sure, soldier. But don't forget. I have T'Phetti eyes, too."
The four figures dashed into the open country, racing desperately toward the safety of the humans. T'Phal moved ahead, with T'Nol, the youngest of the group at his side. M'Rol carrying the fallen N'Zal lagged behind. So did T'Phai though he seemed to be running with maximum effort. T'Phal paused a moment and turned back to see how the others were coming. T'Phai's prophesy was borne out; behind the runners a cloud of yellow dust was building on the canyon floor. Though he could not see them, he could imagine the n'Lan P'Tak bounding after them. He unsheathed his Morita preparing to cover their retreat, when a dark figure dropped only a few feet from him. It was a trooper. The desert dust obscured his faceplate and suit markings.
"T'Phal" the voice was unmistakably Major Rico's, "Keep running up the canyon. I'll be the rabbit and try to get the hounds off your scent. Make for the retrieval ship." With that the Major bounded back down their trail toward their pursuers. T'Phal had not completely understood his reference to 'dogs' and 'smells', but the command to run was clear enough. He awaited his two companions and followed them forward. They had run another fifteen minutes when T'Phai began to flag again. T'Phal drew close to him.
"Father, I remembered you being faster than this" He hoped the humor would mask his concern.
"How can you run so fast," the elder T'Phetti replied, "when you talk so much."
The younger T'Phetti smiled and tucked his shoulder under his father's arm supporting him as they continued their race. They held pace for another ten minutes when Major Rico reappeared bounding ahead of them.
"Damn," the major panted, "Never seen bugs like that. Blew three clips and they barely slowed. I bought us maybe a couple minutes." Rico took the fallen T'Phetti on his shoulder and with that burden lifted the tiny group picked up speed. They took a quick turn to the right and saw a narrowing in the canyon ahead. Just beyond it, the retrieval wreck. The five sprinters redoubled their efforts passing the narrows and heading for the finish. Rico paused to let the others go ahead and saw the dust cloud of their pursuit. They pulled beside the smoking remains of the shuttle. A smaller trooper, a female positioned behind the smoldering wreck waved them forward, then pulled behind them facing the pursuers. A second figure, a taller man joined her, forming a thin wall between the runners and the enemy. The pursuit was close enough now to be seen. Within the advancing dust cloud were the white imposters, bounding on all fours like wolves. The tiny party pulled up exhausted in front of the retrieval wreck. Rico turned and looked toward the narrows.
"Zim, Goss, fire!"
From positions on the canyon wall, two missiles fired over the runners. They exploded in the narrows in a bright blue flame. In their wake a shimmering wall of plasma fire filled the opening. Rico waited for the bugs to hit it, igniting into flame as they entered the wall. But nothing happened. Through the shimmering veil of plasma energy, he could see them skittering along the flaming barrier, looking for weak spots. Why didn't they just plow through it? Bugs could be intelligently deployed by the queen or a brain, but individually they were blind, stupid killing machines, heedless of their own safety. Rico had never seen bugs behave so independently or intelligently. The thought of it frightened him. The wall would give them about ten minutes. He turned back toward the retrieval wreck. Higgins and Doc were in the hatchway pulling the T'Phetti inside. Rico approached the ship just as T'Phai was being hoisted aboard. Higgins was leaning down from the tilted doorway grasping the long arm of the alien. As he pulled him up, T'Phai slipped and nearly fell. Bob had to use two hands to snatch his arm, and Rico moved underneath him to prevent him from falling. Rico waited as Zim and Goss jumped from their perches on the canyon wall. They entered the wreck and Rico took one last look at the fading plasma barrier that stood between him and the menace.
"Six, maybe seven minutes tops," he muttered to himself before entering the ship.
The retrieval ship was now hopelessly crowded as it accommodated both the Roughnecks and T'Phetti. As Rico entered he saw Max and Higgins flanking the door, weapons in hand. T'Phai was leaning against the bulkhead, apparently catching his breath. The other T'Phetti were clustered in a small group each leaning forward, hands on knees. At first Rico thought they were crouching to avoid hitting their heads on the low ceiling, but he realized they were bent with exhaustion from their long canyon run. Zim and Doc were discussing the ammo situation in preparation for the next attack. Rico knew this was just the calm before the storm. When the plasma wall faded, those white horrors would pour through and be all over them. He didn't like being cornered, but the armored retrieval wreck was the best place to mount a defense. Once Zim and Diz were rearmed, Rico sent them back out to take positions on the high ground of the canyon walls in preparation for the next attack. The clock clicked down on the life of the plasma barrier. Less than two minutes. Johnny leaned out the retrieval ship door to check the barrier. He slipped a glance toward T'Phai who was still standing by the bulkhead to the left of the door. There was something strange and quiet about him, but Rico didn't have time to pursue it. He checked his wrist chronometer again to estimate time till the barrier failed; he needn't have bothered. Zim's voice echoed over the comlink.
"Major, the plasma wall is down."
"Zim," Rico replied, "Where are the bugs? How many are there?"
"Can't see any of 'em" Diz chimed in.
"That's right, sir" added Zim, "I'm reading clean on sight and motion trackers."
This made no sense at all. The bugs had them boxed in, outnumbered. They never just quit and go home.
"Sir," it was Goss tapping Rico's shoulder, "I think you better get over here."
Rico turned from the doorway and saw Goss's gesture toward T'Phai. Something was clearly wrong. The alien was leaning against the bulkhead now, slightly stooped. His eyes were dulled, his gaze turned inward.
"T'Phai?. ." before Rico could continue, T'Phai began sliding down the wall. Goss reached him first, catching his arm and supporting him as he slid to a sitting position on the floor. Rico knelt beside him.
"T'Phai, what is it?"
The alien hesitated a moment then looked at Rico with a dazed, uncomprehending stare. Then he shook his head trying to rouse himself.
"Major, I'm sorry. The missile got a little closer than I expected."
"Doc," Rico called to the medical officer, never taking his gaze from T'Phai, "Get over here now!"
Rico had served with T'Phetti since the Bug War. Even seen some of them die; he knew what it looked like. Doc joined Rico and Goss kneeling on the floor and plugged his med lead into the port on T'Phai's suit. The medic did not waste words in explanation.
"Get him on the floor now, flat, with his feet elevated." Doc paused and looked over his shoulder spotting Higgins nearby. "Higgins, grab my T-Box; it's over by the entrance to the cockpit."
Goss and Rico gently eased T'Phai onto the floor. Higgins returned with the box and handed it to Doc. The T-Box, or T'Phetti box was a medical kit designed for the unique biology of the Skinnies. It contained the medications and resuscitation gear necessary to treat an injured T'Phetti in the field. Since early in the Bug War it was a standard part of the medic's kit. Doc had packed it when they departed Prime, thinking they might need it if they found the missing T'Phetti. LaCroix pulled out a strange monitoring device and linked it to T'Phai's suit. Rico turned to the other T'Phetti now clustered behind him.
"Any of you with medical experience?" he asked.
"Our medic is there," M'Rol replied, gesturing toward N'Zal's body lying not far away.
"Doc?" Rico turned back to his medic, "What is it? Can you help him?"
LaCroix did not speak, but rather carefully turned the injured alien on his side revealing the back of his armor. At first Rico noticed nothing unusual in the green and gilt armor. Then he saw it; a small hole, comma-shaped, no bigger than a dime. He touched it, proving to himself that it was real. A small spot of black blood was left on his gloved fingertip.
"A projectile penetrated the armor," Doc spoke answering Rico's unasked question, "Probably shrapnel. About two centimeters by one centimeter. Entered here, and passed into his mid-thorax."
"What does that mean?" Rico asked.
"Major," the medic responded, gently returning T'Phai to his back, "T'Phai is bleeding internally and into the suit. My readings indicate substantial blood loss."
"What can we do? Should we get him out of the suit?"
"No" LaCroix replied, "The suit is acting like a tourniquet. Take it off and we make the bleeding worse."
"So what do we do?"
"I can try in-suit gel foam, maybe some pressure support. ."
"Well stop talking about it and get busy!"
Johnny stared at Doc and immediately regretting his outburst. LaCroix returned his stare but there was no anger in his eyes. He knew what T'Phai meant to Rico and the Roughnecks.
Rico rose and turned to the cluster of T'Phetti standing vigil over T'Phai. He leveled a cold eye on their leader.
"T'Phal, I've got no time for games or diplomacy. I can call for retrieval from Prime, but that would take an hour at least. Do you have a ship closer we can use?"
For the first time in his soldiers' memory, the proud T'Phetti commander looked cowed. "Yes, we have a transport en route."
"Get on your comlink and tell them to get here ASAP."
T'Phal straightened his back trying to regain some of his lost composure. "Let me speak to my father."
Rico eyes burned with unconcealed anger as he stepped to within inches of the Skinnie. He spoke in a quiet, measured voice. "You talk to your ship. If you can't help T'Phai, then stay the hell away from him." Johnny turned and returned to where the others were attending their fallen friend. Goss was making adjustments on the suit while LaCroix pumped a white liquid into the port of the breast shield.
"I've got the breastplate seals closed, Doc."
"Okay we'll start with 50cc hemoseal."
"Should I maybe lower the suit temp? Might slow the bleeding?"
"No!...no, that doesn't work for T'Phetti. Keep the suit at ambient temperature."
Rico moved to T'Phai's head; he was still wearing his helmet. Rico gently removed it and looked at the familiar narrow face. The eyes seemed more alert now, but his skin had begun to darken.
"Colonel, it's going to be alright. Your son has a ship coming."
"And the bugs?" replied the alien.
"Zim and Diz are watching our backs. The bugs seemed to have retreated. In any case, have you ever known a bug that could get by those two?" Rico mustered a reassuring smile.
"Not in my experience," the T'Phetti replied with a weak smile of his own.
"How did you know T'Phal and his people were in trouble?"
T'Phai nodded to his helmet. "The suit is antique, but it is T'Phetti. The helmet has receivers for both human and T'Phetti communication. I used it to eavesdrop on my son's transmissions. Too far for comlink reception, but T'Phal called his fighter for help. That I could hear."
"You think maybe you could have told your commanding officer about that?"
"No time..." the alien arched his back hissing in pain as Doc delivered a second dose of hemoseal. He relaxed again, his eyes closed. "And technically, as the senior citizen authority, you were under my command." The alien managed a broad grin.
Rico turned to T'Phal, who was now kneeling to his right. "How much time till your ship arrives?"
"Approximate twenty minutes."
Rico looked over at Doc who returned his gaze and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head.
"Major," T'Phai touched Rico's arm. The alien's words came now with greater effort. "I want to tell you something I trust you already know. It has been my privilege to serve under the two finest officers I have ever known. May the private ask one favor?"
"T'Phai, what can I do? Tell me what I can do?"
"Please, find my daughter"
Rico's eyes burned with tears as he drew his face close to that of his friend.
"With God as my witness, I will find her and bring her home."
T'Phai closed his eyes again, whether from satisfaction at Rico's answer or pain Rico could not tell.
"Let me speak to my son."
Johnny stood and backed away. Goss and Doc joined him as T'Phal knelt low placing his head next to his father's. The two remained frozen there for a moment, sharing something Rico could not comprehend. Then quietly T'Phai began to speak.
"L'War andu pre'quez, L'War andu pre'quez, L'War..."
Doc leaned close to Rico and whispered, "Sir, do you know what he's saying?"
"Yes," Rico replied, tears spilling from his eyes, "It's the death prayer. He's calling L'War, his mate. He's asking her to guide him home."
T'Phai continued the chant, the sound of his voice growing more and more distant. T'Phal stayed by his father's side but did not speak. Finally the chanting ceased. He had started his journey home.
Next Episode: 206: New Enemies