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Part 2

Several hours later, the Vanguard ship coasted into a stationary orbit around the moon. Crater had managed to partially decipher several of the human languages, and had cobbled together some basic translation devices that he thought might work.

Vanguard physiology meant they wouldn't be able to speak any of the human languages themselves, apart from maybe a couple of basic words. Crater handed the devices to the landing party. "But that should not be necessary. You are not supposed to have any contact with the natives, anyway. The atmosphere is breathable, however it is filthy and contaminated. You will need to limit your exposure as much as you can."

The assembled warriors turned to Two-Talon, as the medic took over from the engineer. "You do not need to worry too much about micro-organisms affecting you. Our biology is sufficiently different so that they will have little or no effect. Just do not eat or drink anything you find there."

As the hatch for the shuttle opened, Predator again reminded the team about the need for caution on the trip. "Avoid the natives. And whatever happens, do not allow yourselves to be compromized. Crater has rigged the power packs on your weapons to overload and explode, if you need them to. Try and avoid getting into any situations where you do."

Fleet-Of-Foot stepped into the shuttle, followed by Slash and Crater. Tusker was about to enter, when he was stopped by Two-Talon. "Be careful, and do not do take any risks. I want you back uninjured. It is a long flight home, and I do not wish to spend it alone."

Tusker nodded, and licked Two-Talon's face, before ducking into the open hatch and securing it behind him. Predator followed Two-Talon out of the shuttle-bay and closed the airlock door.

Standing beside a small view port, he stared at the blue and white planet floating serenely in space. "Your warrior is young, but capable. I would not have chosen him for this mission if I had any doubts about his abilities." He stole a quick glance at the young medic before looking back to the view port.

'You are the one I have serious concerns about,' he thought to himself. They both watched as the shuttle emerged into view, and then shrank into the distance. Predator had major misgivings about having Two-Talon on the mission, and regarded the medic with suspicion. Although his credentials were impeccable, there was something about him that Predator just didn't trust.

There were increasing problems on many of the Vanguard worlds. The younger generations were developing a growing discontent and mistrust of history and the philosophy of their entire culture. Predator was concerned about the effect this might have on Tusker, an impressionable young warrior who showed much promise. The last thing he needed, on this far-flung mission, was unrest in the crew.

Pointing to a spot on a viewscreen, Crater leaned over and yelled through the howling chaos of descent at Slash, who was wrestling with the controls of the shuttle. "Put us down near here, if you can. There appears to be a small settlement nearby that should be suitable."

Slash grunted, and continued to guide the shuttle through the thickening atmosphere. He was trying to keep to a path that would mimic a natural meteoric entry, so as to avoid any undue attention from the natives. Once he gauged they were low enough, he fired the attitude control jets to help slow them to manoeuvering speed. The superstructure of the old shuttle groaned and creaked in protest.

They emerged through a cloud layer, and could see the lights of the small town below in the view-screens, surrounded by dark mountainous terrain. Slash turned around and spoke to the other two warriors, lying in support webbing at the rear of the shuttle. "We will land in a nearby mountain range. This means we will need to travel a fair distance on foot." He turned back to the controls.

Fleet-Of-Foot looked at Tusker beside him. "That should not be a problem. The gravity here is less than we are used to. We should be able to cover the ground without difficulty." Tusker nodded and reached for his pack and weapons, secured in the webbing beside him.

With a series of sickening lurches, Slash put the shuttle down in a small ravine that ran down the side of the mountain, and shut off the engines. Other than an occasional loud ping and creak from the cooling hull, everything was suddenly quiet. The occupants all looked at each other in the dim light of the various control lights.

"So, who is first?" Crater asked in the dimness. Nobody spoke or moved for a few moments.

Tusker sighed disgustedly, and opened the hatch, which made a sharp hiss as the air pressures equalized. He grabbed his pack and stepped out into the darkness. "You decrepit elders coming any time soon?" he snorted derisively.

The others gathered up their gear and joined the young warrior outside the shuttle. Crater sniffed. "Smells... unpleasant. Air pressure is lower than I expected." He pulled out a small datapad and tapped away on it for a few seconds. "Should be alright, though. We should limit our first excursion to no more than a few hours, as the medic suggested."

Slash secured the shuttle, and they headed towards a ridge, outlined by the glow of the nearby settlement. Stopping occasionally, they gathered small samples which were packed away for later examination. Due to the lower than normal gravity they made good time, and it was only a few minutes until they came to an unlit road heading toward the town.

Fleet-Of-Foot lead the way along the side of the darkened road, until they could see street lights in the distance. He pulled out his datapad and studied the screen for a few moments. "There are a few scattered dwellings in about 500 metres. Larger structures about a kilometre past those. Given that most of the aliens appear to be diurnal, I suggest we head for the larger structures further in."

Sticking to the undergrowth, they made their way into the town, keeping quite a distance away from the dwellings. Some of them had some rather noisy domesticated animals the natives called dogs, which had already, on a couple of occasions noticed the presence of the large aliens nearby. After the first round of loud barking had roused the occupants of one of the dwellings, they wanted to avoid a second occurance.

Fleet-Of-Foot stopped beside the window, of what looked like a commercial building, and looked curiously at the garish display inside. Several statues wearing strange looking skimpy clothing stood in various poses, surrounded by all manner of odd looking items. "This looks interesting. Can you get the door open quietly?" he asked Crater.

The engineer was busy nearby, mucking around, with a small laser cutter, on something inside a free-standing box by the side of the road.

Pocketing the cutter, Crater lumbered over and offered a handful of small, round, metal disks to the warrior. Fleet-Of-Foot took them and looked them over before dropping them into a pocket for further study. After studying the door for a moment, the engineer pulled out his datapad and held it against the small electronic keypad lock. There was a quiet click, and the door swung open.

The four of them ducked through the doorway, and looked around wide-eyed at the interior of the building. There were shelves upon shelves of small, rectangular packages, with garish and mostly naked humans displayed on them. There were also racks that were full of thin, flexible material. Crater frowned for a few moments. "These are what humans call 'magazines', I believe."

"Hrrr? Magazines are for ammunition, not information."

Crater glared at Tusker. "I am merely sharing information. Do not blame me for inadequacies in the language of these stupid aliens."

Opening one of the other, smaller packages, Slash pulled out a silvery disk and turned it over in his talons, before pulling out one of the small translation devices he'd been given. He pointed it at the packaging, studying the readout. "Hot Cum-Gargling Sluts 3? Perhaps these are reproductive guides... I did not realize these humans had sex organs in their throats."

Crater blinked at him, and turned to pick up a small cylindrical object off the counter he was standing beside. He quickly dropped it in surprise, as it buzzed into life.

Tusker whipped around at hearing the noise, and jabbed at the thing flopping around on the floor with his shock lance. The device burst into flames, as the shock lance discharged on it, jumping around for a few more seconds before expiring with a tired sounding wheeze. "Hrrr... Beyond weird," he muttered.

After exiting the building, they wandered over to a large fenced-off yard on the other side of the road. It was full of the strange looking vehicles the natives used for transportation. Leaping over the fence they approached one of the vehicles and stood around it, looking it over.

"These humans are small! How do you get inside?" Tusker asked, as he bent down and peered through the glass at the cramped-looking interior.

Crater, standing beside the warrior, shrugged and pulled at one of the door handles which broke off in his hand with a loud rending noise. "Hrrr, I do not think it was supposed to do that," he chuffed quietly, looking sheepishly at the scowling warrior next to him.

The door had swung open slightly after the locking mechanism had been ripped out, so they took turns examining the interior. Crater ran his scanner over the interior of the vehicle and started pulling the console apart, looking with wonder at the archaic electronics revealed. "If this level of technology is anything to go by, I do not believe these humans are going to be much of a threat."

After a couple of minutes, the engineer was reluctantly dragged away by the others, trailing bits of wire and plastic in his wake.

Back on the ship, Two-Talon looked up from his workstation in the med bay as the intercom chimed. "Report to the bridge, immediately. We have new orders."

'That is odd,' he thought to himself. He knew that communications, to far-flung exploration or military vessels, was extremely rare, not to mention potentially dangerous. While it was unlikely these particular aliens would be able to intercept, or understand, any signals sent from Vanguard communications systems, they were relying on secrecy for this mission. The aliens were not supposed to know the Vanguard even existed.

Activating the intercom, he replied. "Understood, on my way," and left for the bridge.

Predator noticed as the medic entered the bridge, and padded over towards him. He eyed Two-Talon speculatively. "This is going to complicate things somewhat. We have been ordered to bring some of the aliens back for further study and interrogation."

"What?! This mission is not equipped to handle alien prisoners. This was supposed to be an exploratory mission. I still know hardly anything about their biology. Have any of the elders even thought this out properly?" Two-Talon spluttered to a halt, and blinked at Predator in confusion.

With a sigh, Predator handed the medic a datapad with the orders he'd received. "Hrrr, they want the aliens alive, so you will need to make suitable arrangements. We can use one of the storage areas. Get Stares-Into-Space to help you."

Two-Talon looked over the orders for a few moments, before resignedly handing back the datapad, and turning away. "Alright. I am not happy about this! And I am not going to make any promises." He crossed all four of his arms and looked back at Predator. "I never had any luck with keeping pets alive when I was young, either. They all died on me." Two-Talon turned and walked off the bridge, back towards the med centre.

Predator stared wide-eyed at the departing medic's back, before checking himself and laughing. Who knew the uppity medic had a sense of humor? Getting up, he strode over to the comms console and activated it.

"This is one of those battle arenas that I saw on the human transmissions. We should investigate. It might give us some insight into what they were doing." Crater was pointing to a large, nearby structure. Fleet-Of-Foot hissed agreement, and they set off at a fast lope towards the building.

As they neared a locked gate, the engineer pulled out his datapad and motioned for them to stop. "Strange, there are several life signs in this area. It does not appear to be one of their normal habitations, however." He hesitated, and moved the datapad's scanner around a bit. "Over by the far side of this field. In those smaller structures. Perhaps we should avoid this one. There are plenty of other things to look at."

Slash snapped his jaw shut in agreement, when his own datapad started beeping urgently at him. Crater, Fleet-Of-Foot and Tusker looked at each other with worried glances, as Slash activated the datapad's communication function - breaking radio silence like this wasn't a good sign. "Receiving."

"We have received new orders. You are instructed to bring back at least two of the aliens with you. Alive."

Slash blinked in surprize. "Hrrr? This was not part of the plan -"

"Plans change. Make this your priority. Get yourselves and some of those Ancestor-cursed animals back to the ship as soon as possible. Predator out."

"Shit!" Slash grunted with annoyance, once communication was cut. "That is going to complicate things."

Crater rumbled his agreement. "Indeed. However, our pack leader did not sound pleased. I suspect these new orders are not his idea. Hrrr, since we are here anyway, the humans nearby are somewhat isolated from other habitation. This would be as good a place as any to collect them." Pulling out the small laser cutter, he sliced through the lock and chains that secured the gate.

Fleet-Of-Foot motioned for the engineer to stay where he was. "Wait here. This will not take long." The three warriors slipped through the gate, and loped over towards the vegetation on the other side of the field.

Approaching the parked vehicles and trailers, Slash motioned for them to slow down and move silently. Studying his datapad, he pointed at one of the parked trailers close to the patch of bush where they were hiding. "That one is far enough away from the others, and has two humans inside."

Suddenly there was a loud snapping sound, as Tusker stepped on a dead branch he hadn't noticed lying on the ground. "Hrrr, shit," he muttered.

Slash smacked the younger warrior across the back of the head, and hissed urgently, "Watch where you put your big clumsy feet, idiot!"

Soft snoring beside him, roused Andrej from a light and dreamless sleep. 'Huh, so it was real,' he thought to himself, lying in the darkness, his head cradled on Tainui's shoulder. Things had moved quickly from when they first shared a blanket on top of the truck, a few hours ago. He realized that for the first time in ages, he was actually happy. Surprized, but happy.

Performing in the band gave him an outlet for his energy, and his supressed feelings. But it didn't make him happy. Being with Tainui made him happy, and it wasn't a feeling he was used to.

Shaking his head in wonderment, Andrej slowly untangled himself from his new-found, sleeping lover. Wrapping Tainui's discarded blanket around himself, he headed for the door of the trailer. He needed to take a piss, but the cheap trailers that his manager had hired didn't have toilet facilities. "Damn the cheap bastard to hell!" he cursed, quietly under his breath.

The nearest toilets were over by the stadium stands that would be packed with thousands of screaming fans the following night. Grabbing a torch, and quietly opening the door, he padded a few metres over to the shadows cast by one of the large gear-trucks, and relieved himself against one of the tyres.

«CRACK!»

Andrej jumped. Somewhere in the nearby patch of bush, someone, or something heavy had stepped on a tree branch then stopped moving. 'Stalkers? One of the other roadies out having a smoke perhaps?' he wondered. Silence. Armed with nothing more than the blanket and a torch, he decided discretion was the better part of valor, and started retreating back towards his trailer.

He heard more rustling coming from the undergrowth, followed by some quiet hissing, rumbling, and what sounded suspiciously like a slap. Three large shadows detached themselves from the bushes, moving toward him rather quickly. 'What the hell?' Turning the torch on, and shining it at the figures, Andrej stared in mute surprize at the three large creatures partially revealed in the circle of light.

Dropping the torch in horror, Andrej turned and ran back toward his trailer. In the darkness, he didn't notice a thick power-cable running over the ground, which caught one of his feet and sent him crashing to the ground with a muffled yelp.

Awakened by the noise, Tainui noticed Andrej wasn't in bed. Concerned, he got up and pulled on his track-pants. He pushed the trailer door open and peered out into the darkness. The first thing he noticed was the torch, lying abandoned on the grass. Then he saw a rather frightened looking Andrej, madly scrambling back towards him on his hands and knees.

"What's going on?" he asked, as he stepped down onto the grass to give Andrej a hand up.

"Get in and lock the door!" Andrej wailed, the panicked tone in his voice making the hairs on the back of Tainui's neck stand on end.

Tainui looked out, over to where the torch-light was pointing. Three large things were sprinting towards him, moving very quickly in the dark. He instinctively grabbed Andrej's arm, heaving the boy bodily into the trailer. Tainui turned to follow, when something sharp stabbed into his back. He suddenly lost control of his legs, and went crashing to the ground, his head bouncing off the trailer steps. Just before consciousness faded, he thought he heard his voice being called...

Andrej crashed into the small kitchenette inside the trailer, and turned to see Tainui falling. One of the creatures, brandishing a long pole, had caught up with the roadie and jabbed the pole into his back. The pole had discharged with a loud «CRACK!», and Tainui had cried out, and then fallen to the ground just short of the door.

"Tai! No!"

The creature turned when it heard the yell, and looked at him lying just inside the trailer's doorway. It rumbled something incomprehensible, and jabbed the pole at Andrej's chest. There was an instant of incredible pain, and a loud cracking noise, then everything mercifully faded into darkness.

Fleet-Of-Foot secured his shock-lance, and motioned for Tusker to grab the human lying sprawled on the grass. Reaching inside the trailer with his other arms, he lifted the human out.

Slash waved his assault-rifle at them impatiently. "Move your carcasses!" he hissed urgently, before turning and sprinting back toward the gate on the far side of the field. Slinging the humans over their shoulders, the two warriors turned and loped after him.

As they slipped through the gate, they saw Crater lurking in the shadows next to another darkened building. He was holding a couple of large sacks stuffed full of bulky objects.

"Human food, I think," Crater responded to Slash's inquiring look. "It is no longer safe. We need to find cover quickly." Slash cocked his head at the engineer, giving him a questioning look. "Hrrr, I believe I may have set off an alarm..." Turning, he looked down the road towards the centre of the town, gesturing to where a light was flashing outside one of the buildings.

"Perfect," Slash snorted. "Fall back to the shuttle, quickly. And keep to the shadows. You three ahead, I will cover from behind."

The others snapped their jaws shut in agreement, and took off back toward the landing site, ducking in and out of the shadows with their various burdens. Slash narrowed his eyes, as he prepared a second assault rifle. 'So much for a simple snoop'n'sample mission,' he thought to himself.

His feathery, sensitive ears picked up the faint wail of what he took to be more alarms off in the distance, and he saw more flashing lights converging towards them from the direction of the original alarm. Locked and loaded, Slash briefly considered sticking around for a bit of fun. Regretfully, he backed away, then turned and sprinted after the others.

After rendezvousing back at the shuttle, they stowed their gear, and the two limp bodies. Not bothering to make any secret about their departure, they went straight back toward the ship at full speed. Slash figured they would be out of the planetary system before any of the humans could do anything. It looked like the need for secrecy was over.

As it happened, the departure of the shuttle was very much noticed - and not just by the startled residents of the town. A great deal of interest was shown by the staff at a nearby Airforce base. This interest that soon resulted in the discovery that there was a large vessel parked in a Lagrange orbit between the Earth and moon. And it was not any recognisably human vessel either...

"Hrrr, I presume you were successful?" Predator interrogated Slash, as the warrior stepped out of the airlock.

"Indeed. We got what you requested." He stepped past his pack leader, and made his way towards the weapons bay.

Next out of the airlock were Fleet-Of-Foot and Tusker, who were carrying two human bodies with them. Two-Talon, who had arrived at the docking bay shortly after Predator, looked at the humans and then back at the two warriors with a questioning look on his face.

Fleet-Of-Foot stopped and turned to the medic. "We used the shock-lances, so they should still be alive. They were still breathing, at least the last time I checked."

"How long have they been like this?"

"A couple of hours."

"Hrrr, alright. Stares-Into-Space has converted one of the storage areas into a secure holding room. I will examine them there."

Fleet-Of-Foot snapped his jaw shut, and both warriors went striding down the corridor carrying their burdens. Two-Talon followed, holding a bag full of medical gear.

Predator made his way back to the bridge, and looked at Stares-Into-Space, standing beside the navigation console. "We must leave now. I believe our position here has been well and truly compromized. Are the repairs complete?"

"Repairs to the FTL system are complete, and we have two alternative routes back to base. Quickest means a very close, gravity assisted sling-shot around the human's planet, and up out of the ecliptic. We should be able to enter sub-space there without interference."

"The other route?"

"It is slower, but considerably safer. It is what I would recommend." Frowning, he continued, "With this piece of floating garbage, the quick route is risky, passing so close to the planet."

"Victorious-Hunting got here in one piece. It will likely survive a little longer. We will take the quick route." When Stares-Into-Space hesitated, Predator advanced towards him, snarling. "Do not try me, engineer. I will not hesitate to push you out the nearest airlock if I think it will make this vessel go any faster."

Stares-Into-Space blanched, quickly slapping at the control console to initiate the engine startup sequence. Once the singularity generators had powered up, he pushed the sub-light engines to maximum. "Ancestors preserve us," he muttered darkly, when he thought Predator was out of earshot.

Predator pretended not to hear, as he walked off the bridge, to see how the captive aliens were doing. He reached the storage area just as Two-Talon was securing the bulkhead door. "They should recover shortly," the medic told him, as he turned and started walking back to the med bay. Predator accompanied him down the corridor.

"Have you altered the gravity plating in this section? It feels lighter than normal."

"Indeed. Gravity on the human planet is about a third of what we are used to. Our atmosphere is also thicker than theirs. However, given time they should be able to adjust. I will put the gravity back to normal over time, until they adapt." Two-Talon stopped in the corridor, and turned to look at his pack leader. "What will become of them on our return?"

Predator gave him an unreadable look and continued down the corridor. "Hrrr, interrogation and mind scans, most likely. The information we have gathered on this trip, coupled with whatever we get out of the humans, will probably decide the fate of this new species."

"And after that?"

"They will undoubtedly be disposed of."

Two-talon stopped again. "Hrrr! I do not believe this is -"

"Enough, medic! The elders have made a decision, and it is not our place to question them. You will obey my instructions, as I obey theirs." Predator took a threatening stance, glaring at the medic. "Is that understood?"

Two-Talon raised his head and exposed his throat, closing his eyes in submission. Predator snorted, apparently satisfied. Turning, he stalked away without looking back. Shaking with anger, and feeling somewhat humiliated, Two-Talon stormed into the med bay. He threw his data-pad at a bulkhead, where it shattered into several sparking pieces before falling to the deck. Dejected, he held all four of his hands up to his snout, tentatively sniffing at them. 'My talons are for healing, not harm,' he thought sadly to himself, as he inspected the razor sharp talons on each of his hands.

He didn't know much about these humans, but he had a very well developed sense of empathy, and this just felt all wrong. The chances of the two humans surviving any Vanguard interrogation were slim, even if they managed to live through a mind scan. Two-Talon had never agreed with, and was somewhat outspoken about, Vanguard methods of dealing with other alien civilisations. Who were they, to be arbiters over everyone else? Surely they had enough information taken from the scans of the planet, the interception of transmissions, and the other samples the landing party had taken - without having to resort to abduction?

While somewhat primitive, these aliens still had a right to decide their own destiny.

Rightly or wrongly, Vanguard civilisation was based on strength. The Strong Lead the Weak - The Strong Protect the Weak; these were the basic tenets of their entire society. Two-Talon would not - could not - challenge Predator on this, but he sure as hell didn't have to like it.

And, while he couldn't reverse the decision to take these aliens, he could at least do his best to protect them. His mind made up, he started desperately thinking about how to accomplish his plans.

An hour or so later, Tusker walked through the door carrying the sacks of food that they had brought back from the planet. "Thought you might want to look at the items we aquired. Crater indicates that it should be mostly food items." He emptied the sacks out onto an examination table, and started rummaging through the items, taking tentative sniffs of some, and studying the exotic packaging.

Two-Talon smiled and walked over to the table. "I am pleased you returned safely. I have been busy with things here, otherwise I would have come to see you sooner." He stood behind the young warrior, wrapping all four of his arms around Tusker's chest and holding him tightly. Tusker turned his head and licked the medic's face affectionately.

"How are our guests, anyway?"

Two-Talon indicated a nearby screen, which showed the two humans huddled together in a corner of the converted storage room. "The smaller one only recovered a few minutes ago. Physically, they appear to be in good health. How they will cope with their ordeal, I have little information to go on. They are probably terrified."

The warrior watched the screen for a few moments. "That is not surprizing, I suppose. Weird looking things, are they not? Are they a breeding pair?"

"No, I do not think so. They both appear to be young males." He looked back at Tusker, sighing heavily. "Hrrr, I have to share something with you. Taking these creatures from their home planet is a mistake. Even if they were a breeding pair, they will never have that opportunity. What we are doing to them is not right."

Tusker pulled away from Two-Talon, looking at him suspiciously, eyes narrowed. "Is that what your argument with Predator was about, in the corridor earlier?"

"Indeed. We should not be doing this! We have enough information from other sources, without abducting them. You realize they will be destroyed once any useful information has been extracted. Does that not trouble you?"

The warrior blinked at Two-Talon, expression stony. "We are under orders from the elders to do this. You may not like it, however it is not our place to question their decisions, or motives."

"This could have been handled differently! The Ancestor-cursed elders are not always right!"

Tusker frowned. "Right or wrong, that is not our decision to make."

Two-talon lowered his head, staring forlornly at the pile of stuff on the table. "You sound just like Predator."

"The strong have always lead the weak - it is our way!"

"Just because someone is stronger, does not make them better!"

The conversation was making the young warrior angry. Questioning his beliefs wasn't the sort of thing he expected from his partner. Especially now. "Enough!" Tusker roared. "You are talking treason, and that could get us both killed."

"Hrrr, you are right. That was a stupid thing for me to say." Two-Talon gestured at the jumbled pile of goods on the table, hoping to defuse the situation. "Can you assist me with sorting through these items?"

Tusker just gave him a cold stare, and moved towards the door. Two-Talon followed, putting a couple of hands on Tusker's shoulder to stop the young warrior from leaving. "Please, do not leave - I am sorry," the medic pleaded.

"I am late for duty." Brushing off Two-Talon's hands and closing the hatch, the warrior left.

Continue to Part 3


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