The Siege Of New Terra
I scanned the encampment below from where I lay on a ledge moist with sticky mud and overgrown with spongy twines of alien plants. Their syrupy aroma clogged my throat as new buds sprang up overnight in the heat and humidity of the jungle floor.
Ground cars and hovairs were parked around the tents. Behind them, two starships, pointing skyward, gleamed in the light of the planet's ruddy moon.
"No sign of Joe," I told Chancey over the chirps, grunts, whistles and snorts of creatures that were uncomfortably close in the thick night air. I wiped sweat from my forehead. "I'm going to try for a tel-link."
"Gimme the graphs, Jules." Chancey nudged my shoulder and pointed to a narrow river that held the camp in a left crook of its elbow. Dark slopes surrounded the sluggish water. "There's something big moving on the surface. I want to check it out."
I stretched out my hand with the graphoculars, but Chancey is African American Harlem-tough, with skin so black it appears blue in highlights. My friend and teammate often sports a wicked grin and would challenge the devil himself. But he was not always easy to spot on a black night.
"Over here, man!" He snatched the graphs from my outstretched hand.
Bat, our laid-back Southern medic, with mild blue eyes and a ready smile dimpling his square face beneath the crumpled military cap that hid his bald head, lay sprawled next to Chancey. "It's a Cleocean," he told Chancey. "I hear tell these rogue pirates come from all over the known worlds." He lifted to his elbows. "Even Earth, I hear."
Chancey peered through the graphs, set for night vision. "You got good eyes, Southern boy. Be easy enough to take him out. He's naked as a rat with mange."
Huff, my loyal Vegan buddy from planet Kresthaven, who resembled a Polar bear with a marsupial pouch, crouched by my other side. Huff never wore clothes. His fur was all he needed, but he could've made the devil himself run for his life with his literal take on every word said. And if that didn't purge Satan of his sins, this powerful predator with teeth like ivory stakes could squeeze them out of him.
I probed the dark array of tents below, protected by camouflage spread like an invisible blanket floating over them, and projected my mind into the interiors for a visual. I quested for Joe Hatch's mental "fingerprints" among humans and aliens sleeping on air cots that hovered above the floor. Other tents held weapons and equipment.
There, in the largest tent, its flap folded back, I felt the patterns of Joe's mindset. He was awake; his hands tied behind his back. A weight of weariness and fear washed over me as I probed his thoughts and opened myself to his feelings.
I drew a breath at his depth of desolation. Three days ago our crusty team leader had watched helplessly as his wife Abby, beaten by space-lane pirates, was left bleeding on the floor, while Joe was dragged from his home in Denver, Colorado, to a waiting starship. Abby, one of my favorite people on all the worlds, was in a hospital with a broken jaw and a fractured skull.
Joe, we're coming for you, I mentally sent, though he wasn't a sensitive and could not receive.
Joe was the father I'd never known. My daughter's biological grandfather and my ex-wife Althea's Dad. We had been on five exo-missions together, some with the team, and there was no way any of us would leave this dirtball rock called Charis without our leader.
My lips twisted into a wry smile. Chara, the sun, Greek for joy, and Charis, the farthest out of its three habitable planets, also Greek, for one of the three Graces. It turned out that Charis was the stronghold of pirates who preyed on merchant ships that passed through the intra-galactic trade lanes and kidnapped high-ranking officers for the ransom loot.
The last member of our team, my beloved Sophia Rella, would've appreciated the Greek names, being Greek herself. But she wasn't in on this operation. The only way to keep her out of danger was simply not to tell her about Joe's kidnapping and our mission to free him. If she'd known that we'd left without her, my butt would've been toast.
"What're you getting?" Bat asked me as I lay silently probing our team leader.
"Nothing you're going to like, Bat." I shook my head. "He seem...broken."
Huff put his heavy forearm around my shoulders. The tips of his claws dug in. I grimaced, but didn't say a word.
"Can we put him back together?" he asked in his growly voice.
I glanced at Chancey. "I sure hope so."
"I have Vegan quick-fur- growth in my pouch," Huff offered. "I would gift him with it to heal the breaks."
"I think it went to your brain, fur ball," Chancey remarked.
"Cut it out, Chance," I said. Usually Joe made him behave. Now the job fell to me.
A movement in the sky caught my attention. A moving mass that buzzed like a swarm of bees. "Uh oh." There are no bee-like species indigenous to Charis. I got to my feet and crouched. "Uh oh."
"Uh oh what, man?" Chancey jumped to his feet, along with Bat.
"Zenorgisms!" I said. "Let's get out of here before they spot us. Huff. Run!"
I leaped off the ledge and slid on my butt along dried vines and mud that clumped under my fingernails as I dug them in. Huff jumped off on all fours and careened into a tree. Chancey and Bat watched us, eased off the ledge and kept their feet.
We ran for the cover of twisted saplings that looked as though they'd been shaped into Bonsai trees.
"What the hell are we running from?" Chancey shouted between gasps of breaths in the thin air.
An alarm wailed inside the compound.
"That!" I said. "Zenorgisms aren't indigenous to this planet, Chancey. They're with the pirates. C'mon, we'd better make it back to our ship or we're fish food for the Cleocean."
But making it to our ship was not in the cards.
Three hovairs whined into the night sky and headed our way, guided by the flock of Zenorgisms, or by infras. Either way...
"They've spotted us." Bat pointed to Zenorgisms that plunked to the ground among the trees. Their oblong purple bodies, the size of foot-long plums, shone in moonlight. Their stalk eyes rotated to locate us. With wings folded and beaks thrust forward, they stalked toward us on spindly legs.
Chancey and Bat unholstered their weapons. Huff reared up and took his mouse stinglers from holsters around his hind legs.
"They're harmless," I said, "and they've already ID'd us for the ships. Let's just go!"
But Huff's predatory instincts kicked in and he sprang at the closest Zenorgism with a throaty growl and bared teeth that flashed in moonlight. Black blood spurted from the plump body as Huff's teeth tore into flesh. The Zen shrieked and burst like a piñata. Huff must've pierced his hydrogen sac. Fire flared from the shredded body.
"Holy crotes," I muttered.
The flock of Zens soared skyward, then turned and dived on us. I heard the buzz as fragile, transparent wings beat faster than a bee's. Something struck my side like a sharp knife. I screamed as it pierced my skin through the jacket and shirt. But the wound was no more than the jab of a sharp beak.
Then they were on us. Huff roared his challenge and swiped at the Zens as they descended on him, batting them back into the air to flutter and plunge to earth where they lay twitching out their lives.
Chancey and Bat swept their beam weapons in arcs that seared through the flock. I unholstered my stingler and fired at the Zens who landed close to us. Small explosions lit the night whenever we hit their hydrogen sacs.
Finally the remaining Zens retreated in erratic flight paths, avoiding descending hovairs.
I was breathing hard and sweating as I watched the three hovairs cruise just above the tree line and approach.
"I'd bet your creds," Chancey told me, "that the mother crotefuckers have got infras onboard."
"The river," I said and headed that way. "Huff!"
He loped after me.
Chancey and Bat followed close behind.
"Hope there ain't no 'gators," Bat said. "Slide in easy, boys. We don't want white water to give us away."
Chancey and I holstered our weapons and slid in. But Huff did a belly flop. A frothing wave spread across the surface like white teeth. Dammit, Huff, I thought.
The cold water was refreshing as we swam toward a batch of reeds on the far side. We made it there and sank low in the water as the three hovairs soared overhead.
"Do you think they saw us?" Bat whispered.
Two hovairs circled the river with lights flashing across the rippled surface. The third broke away and landed in a small clearing near the river's bank.
"I'd bet Chancey's creds," I said, "that they'll check out the water." I rubbed my sore side. "Those mudlumping Zens have a kick to their beaks. I didn't know that."
"Got me in the leg," Bat said. "You, Chancey? Y'all OK?"
"Yeah, Doc. I'm too fast fer them. You white mice got to learn to move."
That's because they couldn't see you, I thought but didn't say. "They've got a plan." I pointed to the circling hovairs. If we leave the water..."
"The airborne craft will target us with infras," Bat said. "If we stay in, the tags in the one that landed...
"Will have our asses fer dessert," Chancey finished it.
"Huff," I said, "how long can you hold your breath underwater?"
There are no clocks on Huff's homeworld.
"As long as it takes," he said and paddled close to me, "for a strong human to run one mile on his back legs."
I stroked his head.
"In the blackness above and below, my Terran cub," Huff said, "I can snap their necks like the dire flappers of the frozen north seas."
"It will be dangerous, buddy," I told him. "You know that."
He nuzzled me. "The Ten Gods of the Land and Ocean say that a day will come when you must enter The Pit, though you may go gently, or you may go biting."
"Not tonight, Huff. We'll back you up with our weapons. They're waterproof, you know."
"I know," he said. "So are my teeth and claws."
We heard voices and saw lights sweep the shore as the pirates emerged from the craft on the ground. Above, two circling hovairs still swept the river with lights.
I touched Huff's head with mine. "You be careful, Huff. I want you to come back."
"Arrr," he said.
"The candy bars in my pouch are sogging."
I had to smile. "Sorry. I'll buy you more when we get back to Earth."
He licked my face with his broad pink tongue, took a huge breath of air and sank beneath the surface.
Chancey, Bat, and I stayed low in the water, aiming at the lights.
"They're in the river," a gruff human voice called in stelspeak, the universal language of the known worlds.
"Then be careful of the river." I caught the metallic ring of a BEM's voice, so-called for their giant eyes and their unpronounceable name for themselves. "They made meat crumbs out of the Zens."
"I will bet you'd like to lick them up for supper!" a Denebrian said in his lilting tone, without humor. BEMs had invaded his homeworld, making slaves of Denebrians, who were a gentle, agricultural folk, and used them as food animals. I guess even among this rogue band, old hatreds died hard.