Kia Kaha

Author: Matryoshka <Matryoshka01[at]>

Date: 2/6-2005 05:50


DISCLAIMER: With the exception of certain original characters and fictionalised real-world locations, none of the persons, places, situations or environment of this story are the property of the writer; instead, they belong to the original creative staffs that wrote their universe(s). Their use herein is not for profit and should not be construed as any sort of claim to rights or title over such 'borrowed' intellectual property.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Readers of my other Buffy-based writings will undoubtedly recognise certain characters and situations as things progress. However, the condition of these characters and situations in the Journeyverse should not be construed as indicative of 'canon' continuity in the Taz-verse or vice versa - there are numerous distinct differences between the two, as you will soon see for yourselves. ;)

Latest addition

Chapter 1

07:29, SATURDAY MAY 17, 1997, LOCAL TIME - (15:29/17-05-97 ZULU)



"Thank you for joining us, Corporal Hicks," Merlin said blandly, giving the last of the Knights to arrive at the scheduled briefing a slightly amused look.

"I used to be able to scramble down hallways without worrying about running into someone, Merlin," Dwayne Hicks returned amiably as he took his seat. "We're a little more crowded these days."

"I'm afraid that situation is only going to get worse, Corporal," the artificial entity's holographic avatar said pleasantly, then looked to the man at the front of the room. "This completes your team, Major."

"Thank you, Merlin." Major T.C. McQueen nodded to the AE's image and turned to look at his team. McQueen's face had lent itself to sternness even before he joined the military; wearing as he was the black combat skinsuit that was the Kine's field uniform and taking on a commander's sombre mien, he looked downright forbidding as he surveyed his team.

Captain Valerie Zuineko, formerly of the Russian Air Defence Forces. A couple of years younger than McQueen, the slender brunette had (unofficially) seen combat even before being shot out of a MiG-29 during Apophis' abortive attack on Earth. She wasn't quite as flamboyant as many of the other pilots, but she was as skilled as any of them and arguably better than most... not to mention being possessed of a sly humour.

Miko Lung. Outwardly a slim, small Asiatic woman of pleasant but unremarkable features, she simply sat in her chair with her hands folded; her eyes were on McQueen, but otherwise, her calm was a pool, undisturbed even by Hicks' sliding into a seat next to her. McQueen was still having a bit of trouble wrapping his head around the concept of magic, much less having a magical being on his team to counter what magics the hostiles might throw at him, but Merlin had assured him that Lung was quite possibly the finest natural magic-user currently on Avalon.

Sergeant Jeremy Gilden, once of the British SAS. A blocky fellow in his early thirties, Gilden had forgotten more about 'live' close-quarters-combat than many other humans ever learned, and his sparring matches with Kenneth Hojiro were the closest thing Avalon had to a native sporting event; there were even a few whispers that he might actually be able to land a hit on the Commander. From what he'd seen and heard of Harris in action, McQueen wouldn't have put money on it even if he was inclined to gamble... but watching the Sass-man try it would make for interesting viewing nonetheless.

Hicks. For his part, the lanky ex-Recon Marine had clearly chosen his spot deliberately; whatever had passed between he and Lung during their training (and given what he knew of both, McQueen could make a fair guess), he was obviously working hard both to overcome his 'misgivings' about her and to show that he was doing so. Once he'd been given a good grounding in the workings of Atlantean technology, he'd easily regained his secondary qualification as a communications specialist — and he'd never lost his primary tickets as a rifleman and scout.

William Hudson, one of Hicks' former platoon-mates. A perennial loudmouth with a brittle façade of braggadocio, the man was a downright pain in the ass... but he was a prodigy with computer hardware and electronic equipment, as well as a trained Force Recon Marine; he could get the job done. He whined like a bad bearing about anything and everything at the drop of a hat, but he could get the job done.

Dade Murphy. The youngest of the assembled Kine, the hacker had had a hell of a time living up to Apone's high standards of physical fitness and military competence, even with the extra training and coaching he'd received, and in many ways he was still 'on probation'. Then again, the only way to determine if *anyone* was truly ready for combat was to put them to there and see what happened, and his programming skills could well prove invaluable.

McQueen spared himself another split-second appraisal of the assembled Knights, then nodded to himself and started speaking.

"General Gray and I had hoped to give you a little more time to get used to each other and the way the Knighthood will operate, but it looks like you'll have to do that in the field. You've probably already heard it through the rumour mill, but now I'm making the word *official*. After the events of last week, it's become clear that the assassin's guild known as the Order of Taraka has essentially declared 'open season' on the Commander. We're going to return the 'favour' — with interest."

The Knights' discipline kept them from reacting to that outwardly, but McQueen felt the sudden surge of anticipation that ran through his people. These were, after all, trained, professional ass-kickers who had enlisted with the Kine'Iende to start taking back their world, and they wanted to be about it.

"While they don't make as great a use of computerised or electronic communications as we'd like, necessarily limiting Merlin's ability to read their mail, to date his intercepts and analysis have identified twelve distinct cells of Tarakan assassins scattered across as many separate countries, each cell consisting of three individuals. The team in this room will be dealing with the Order's cell in Oceania, who are currently resting in their base-country of New Zealand following an operation in Japan." Unbidden, Merlin replaced his projected avatar with a holographic image of the globe, then focused on the South Pacific; the islands in question grew to fill the display, with a particular region limned in red. "It's believed that they all make their residences in the Hawke's Bay region of the country's North Island."

"I've been to New Zealand," Gilden put in conversationally. "Friendly people, pleasant climate...."

McQueen nodded, not mentioning that Merlin had undoubtedly factored that into his personnel selections. "Unfortunately, we can only get a hard location for one of the three targets, as all their communications are passed through that individual's residence, here." (Merlin's projection shifted to an overhead satellite shot of a very nice-looking winery-estate, complete with a walled Tuscan-style villa that was, to the professional eye, startlingly well-built for defence. A moment later, an inset window came up, holding a picture of a Chinese man wearing Armani.) "This is our happy homeowner: Silas Cheng, forty-six years of age, born in Hong Kong; Merlin tells me that he's a wu jen, a magician whose specialty is manipulating and channeling the elements. He's also highly skilled in several martial arts, both armed and weaponless, meaning that he can fulfill his contracts in a variety of fashions. This vineyard, the Sea View Estate, is his home territory, and heavily defended by elements of the White Eagle Triad, with which he is closely aligned and which has been making major inroads into New Zealand's organized crime landscape in recent months. The White Eagle are as much a mystical organisation as a criminal one, and they have close ties to the demonic community both back in Hong Kong and in New Zealand, so we can expect the compound to be heavily warded and that the defenders will include a number of vampires, demons and mystically-active individuals. Cheng only ever leaves the compound when he's out on a contract, so barring more luck than I want to count on, we're going to have to dig him out of this place."

"Well, *that's* gonna be fun," Hudson observed sourly. "Are the other two any easier to get?"

"All Merlin has on them are the electronic profiles that answer the Order's summons and their suspected methods of operations; we can't trace them any further than that. Bogey One is believed to be an expert with poisons, especially neurotoxins, but we don't have any indication of his identity or location. The same goes for Bogey Two, who seems to be a sniper who possesses mystical capabilities; on several occasions he's gone after targets with considerable magical protections and either shot through those protections or brought them down for the split-second when the round actually arrives on-target. Bogey Two seems to prefer an Accuracy International PM and routinely makes centre-head shots from ranges exceeding three quarters of a mile."

"Bleedin' hell," Gilden murmured. The Accuracy International was a 7.62mm weapon much favoured by SAS snipers, and he'd seen marksmanship like that in his time with the Sass - but not often.

"Indeed. For those who care, it was Bogey One who killed Japanese President Kamahoto back in February." McQueen deliberately didn't mention the motive for the killing, not wanting to cloud the current issue. "Merlin's inability to track them electronically means we'll have to look for them ourselves once we get on-site, but with that said, he *has* come up with some compensating resources. Uluru will be our overall control authority while we're deployed, which will free Merlin's time to let him track down leads faster. Of more direct use to us will be Captain Sanchez' PT579, which is headed for New Zealand territorial waters at the moment and will be on-site within the week. However, our secondary objective in this operation could well be the most significant contributor to the success of the primary: there's an old Atlantean outpost just off the coast of what is now the city of Napier, which used to serve as a combination Kine'Iende sentry post and a seismic monitoring and research station keeping an eye on the Ring of Fire. It possessed no AI, so it could not respond to Merlin's all-stations rally during the Goa'uld siege last year, but it's believed to remain more or less intact, and it possesses ample computer resources that can be used to analyse whatever information we gather on-site and help us locate our targets."

"If they didn't get torn up during the Fall like Kaer Walen did," Hicks pointed out with polite professionalism, reminding all present of the post-mission assessment they'd been given from *that* little SNAFU back in December. Thankfully, the operation had come out more or less 'all right' — meaning that Australia was still on the map, and none of the team involved had suffered lasting harm — but if Kaer Walen's interior condition (including the paranoia of the defences) was any guide as to what could be expected at other redoubts....

McQueen nodded, ceding the point. "That's exactly why we have another fallback option, Hicks, though I'd rather we didn't have to exercise it. Merlin?"

"Of course, Major." Merlin's holo-avatar reappeared, then waved a hand to bring up two faces. "These are a couple of local residents who might be willing to act as guides whilst you are in New Zealand, and indeed may be able to help you track down the other two Tarakans. The young woman is Tatyana Alekseyevna Zyrianova; the man with her is her husband, Peter Michael McKellar. They are both currently eighteen years of age and professional demon-hunters of remarkable competence for their age, though part of that may be due to the fact that their careers began when they were fourteen. Both are being considered for possible future recruitment into the Knighthood, but there were certain factors in their profiles which suggested they would be neither amenable to such an offer nor mentally suited to our needs at the present."

"What 'factors' are those?" Hicks asked evenly.

"Primarily battle fatigue. They've been operating against unusually disciplined and well-organised opposition for most of their careers, with little outside support, and they appear to have developed what the modern idiom calls a 'bunker mentality'."

"And a group of outsiders coming in with super-high-technology weapons and equipment to 'save the day' will do nothing to improve their attitude," Zuineko noted dryly.

"Don't worry, Zuineko — we'll be doing everything we can to avoid any 'ugly American' scenarios, especially considering how many of us aren't Americans," McQueen returned with equal acerbity. "The Commander's goal is to build a communications and support network between the various demon-fighting groups in the world, so that even if they don't actively join the Knighthood, they'll be able to call on its support if a true crisis erupts. These two, and their support team, are just the sort of people we're looking to help, so we need not to alienate them from the outset. Remember, these 'kids' have been fighting long and hard, so when we make contact with them they are not to be patronised or sneered at; they are combat veterans with an invaluable knowledge of the local situation, and we will treat them as such. I intend to bring them on board as much as I can, so that we don't appear to be usurping their responsibilities or position.

"Nonetheless, I intend to ascertain the status of Outpost North-East before we approach them, if only because I don't want to interrupt their time off before we have to. We leave at twenty-three-forty-five tonight and should arrive at the outpost by oh-three-hundred; if we can successfully ring in, we'll sweep the entire complex for possible hostile elements, secure it, and set up operations there. Hicks, Hudson, Murphy, you'll conduct a survey of the outpost's systems and bring as much of it back online as you can — you'll be taking standard field-kits for now, but we can have components and equipment flown in from Avalon if necessary."

Dade shifted in his seat. < Do I ask, or not? If I do, I sound like a dumb rookie; it I don't, I'll have to kick my own ass when I get killed 'cause I didn't ask.... > "Uh... sir, what if we can't ring in, like at Kaer Walen?"

McQueen met the youth's gaze levelly, secretly pleased. Many of the FNGs he'd dealt with would have kept their mouths shut and let someone else look stupid. "Then we set the Orca down on Zyrianova's property north of the town, conceal it, declare our identity and purpose to them, and take things from there."

"Assuming they don't just start shooting as soon as they see us," Hicks murmured to the hacker, partly in jest. Dade turned a stricken look on him, but the lanky Marine just shot him a wink and the New Yorker subsided a little.

"All right, people. You've got the rest of today as personal time; I'd recommend that you get some sleep. Hicks, Murphy, Zuineko — you've got weapons-strip detail, report to the armoury at twenty-one-hundred.

Embarkation assembly for final equipment check will be in the hangar at twenty-three-hundred. Dismissed."

Chapter 2

23:12, Sunday May 18, NZT (11:12/18-05-97 ZULU)

Atlantean Orca Miss Behavin'

Over Hawke Bay, New Zealand

"We're approaching the drop zone," Zuineko murmured into her lip-mike. "Major, if we do find working rings at Outpost North-East, the transport signature will be visible to most of the town and its northern suburbs, even allowing for how heavily it's raining."

"It's almost midnight on Sunday by local time, Zuineko - most of the citizens should be in bed by now," McQueen responded from the personnel bay, glancing around at his team. "Take us in, slow and easy - and watch out for fishing boats."

"My grandmother already knows how to suck eggs, Major," the pilot returned sardonically.

A couple of seats away from the team's commander, Dade could *finally* (and thankfully) have an end to the chainsaw-like sound in his right ear and gave Hicks a healthy elbow to the ribs. The ex-Marine grunted, lifted his head off his shock-frame, and gave the younger Knight a glare. "You could've just said 'time for work', Dade."

"I figured it'd get drowned out by the snoring," the hacker returned sharply, hearing the faintest tremor in his own voice and cursing himself for it. "How the hell can you sleep on the way into combat?"

"Sleep is a precious commodity to an infantryman," his neighbour declared sententiously. "Smart grunts stockpile it every chance they get."

"Does your 'stockpiling' have to be so friggin' *loud*?"

There were a few sniggers at that, and McQueen stepped in; they needed the tension-breaker, but it was time to focus. "Two minutes to drop zone -everybody, get hot!"

With that, the byplay died. Every Kine aboard bar Zuineko herself turned to the weapons-racks next to their seat, took down their weapon of choice, and made ready, each taking care that their muzzle was always pointed in a direction that wouldn't take another trooper's head off with a negligent discharge. They had no real reason to expect a hot LZ - but Kaer Walen had taught everybody the value of precautionary paranoia. The longest-experienced soldiers aboard with the attendant 'peace through superior firepower' mentality, McQueen and Gilden both opted for the heavier M41A1s; needing their hands free for other tasks, everyone else chose the lighter, far more compact P90s. Everyone aboard was wearing their standard-issue Five-seveN and zat'nac'itel sidearms in any case, so it wasn't like anyone was lacking for hardware.

"Drop-zone in sight," Zuineko declared after a moment, checking her computer's nav data against the coastline. The 'DZ' was actually a set of coordinates over open water, but protocols existed for a reason. "Dade, I need you up here."

< I hope Kate never hears she said that, > the hacker noted, clambering out of his seat to head forward. < 'Cause if she does and gets a good look at Valerie, vampires are gonna be the *least* of my problems.... >

Dropping into the copilot's seat, Dade gave his pilot a perfunctory 'hi-there' nod before turning his head to the secondary monitors. Rattling his fingers across the interface, he called up the comm protocols that would summon the Outpost's ring-transporter... if it was still working.

>> Security Control Switching from Standby Mode <<
>> Security Control Diagnostics <<
>>      Alert: Unable to connect to central control. <<
>>             Control of Security Arrays assigned to Security Control <<
>>      Alert: TimeStamp malfunction <<
>>      Alert: Outpost North-East Security Personnel Not Responsive <<
>>             Autonomous reactive functions engaged <<
>> System Notification: <<
>>      Remote Access Attempt at Vehicle Access Point Alpha. <<
>> System Confirmation: <<
>>      Remote Access Attempt utilises Atlantean codes and IFF protocols.
>>      Remote Access Attempt IFF corresponds to Orca APC #3547, assigned to Special Forces Headquarters Avalon.
>>      Remote Access Attempt codes and protocols matched to ID signature of Avalon central guiding intelligence designated "Merlin".
>> System Notification: <<
>>      Remote Access Attempt: confirmed friendly.  <<
>> System Notification: <<
>>      Internal sensor grid: offline.  <<
>> System Notification: <<
>>      Internal defence grid: offline.  <<

"Okay, sport-fans, we're in! The central computer's recognising us as friendlies and the rings are standing by; no internal sensor telemetry, though - looks like the grid's pretty degraded. We're going in blind, Major. Good news is, the internal defence systems look like they're completely shot, too, so even if anything's glitched, it shouldn't start shooting at us."

"Got it, Murphy - get back here and gear up. Zuineko, stand by for transport."

A moment later, with Dade back in his seat and ready for action like the others, McQueen took a firm grip on his M41A1 and gave the order. "Pilot: take us in."

In a dimly-lit hangar four hundred feet below the hovering Orca, transport rings that had lain dormant for more than ten millennia suddenly received activation orders. Lunging up from their recessed socket, they shifted themselves to above the surface of the Pacific Ocean, surrounding the Orca with their transport field before shifting themselves and their new cargo back down into the hangar.

Zuineko kept the landing gear retracted, pivoting the APC on its countermass field as she scanned the entire hangar with the chin-turret and its associated sensors, looking for trouble. She didn't find any. < Not that that necessarily means there isn't any to find.... > "LZ is clear - I'm setting down."

When the doors came open, the Kine team were out the door *fast*, dispersing by pairs into the best cover available - which in this case proved to be the closest airframes of two neat lines of Manta-class skipfighters that had seen better days.

"Hudson, anything on tracking?" McQueen asked in a hushed voice, eyeballing the door at the hangar's far end even as he took in the situation. < No dust in here - the reserve lights are on and the air's still fresh, so we know that we have at least partial power and an environmental plant on-line. >

Hudson fumbled with his P90 and the Sian'Quai he'd been issued, then one-handed the sub-gun while he looked down at the scanner's scope. "Uh... I'm getting some interference, sir, but it looks like we're clear for now."

"Let's move this up to the main doors. Murphy, map!"

As the others covered-and-manoeuvred up to the hangar's primary access point, Dade tugged out a portable unit and called up a schematic of the base for the Major. "We're *here*, just off the northern end of the military portion of the outpost. The operations centre is about a hundred metres south of here, with the armoury and some machine-shops between us and there; the main comm and sensor rooms are just beyond that, with the barracks, recreation centre, Medical and a couple of smaller facilities at the far end. South of *that* is a wet-access hangar shared between the outpost and the science station, including a lock-out sub-bay for swimmer-craft and more Mantas; everything beyond that is the seismic facility."

"All right," McQueen nodded. "We'll secure everything between here and Operations, then see about getting the comm and sensor arrays back on-line."

"Major!" Hicks called sharply, and McQueen was halfway there before Dade even finished processing the sound.

The comm-tech was kneeling beside a Manta, looking into an open access port, when McQueen reached his shoulder. "What is it, Corporal?"

"Look at this." Hicks indicated the equipment within the equipment behind the open panel.

McQueen leaned forward a little to inspect the components within the system bay... then blinked. He wasn't quite up on the finer points of Atlantean technology, so he didn't quite know what he was looking at, but some of the stuff looked... out of place. Almost disjointed. Like.... "Someone's been working on this."

"Yes, sir," the comm-tech nodded, peering at the crystals himself. "Looks like they've been trying to cannibalise components out of the other ones to get this one running. Whoever it is doesn't know exactly how our gear works - it's crosswired to hell and gone - but they're making some pretty well-educated guesses."

"Any idea how recently they were here?"

"Best guess? Within the last five years."

< Lovely. > "Everybody keep your eyes open," the Major murmured to his troops and waved a 'move out'.

Their first stop was the machine-shop/maintenance-bay next to the hangar. Not about to run the risk of leaving possible hostiles between them and their ride, McQueen ordered every nook and cranny in every room on their way from the hangar to Operations searched, both by scanner and by eye.

"Is this creeping out anybody else?" Dade wondered softly, picking a reading pad up off a desk. "There isn't even any *dust* on this stuff!"

"The environmental filtration systems remove particulates like dust automatically," Zuineko noted absently, nudging a locker open with her elbow to check its contents: just the degraded remains of what had once been the Atlantean equivalent of workman's overalls. "It helps to prevent infections, not to mention maintaining morale."

"Yeah, but you're missing my point, Zee. We've got books and tools and parts are right where they left 'em, like they're gonna be back to restart work any minute... hell, this guy even left a coffee-cup behind!" Granted, it probably wasn't exactly coffee to start with, and the mould in its bottom looked like it had developed language skills before it had expired, but still....

"Keep your head in the game, Dade," Hicks advised softly, toeing open an equipment chest. "We can be spooked later. Anything on tracking?"

"Nuthin'. This place is the Marie Celeste, man."

{"Less chatter, more work,"} Major McQueen advised over the common frequency from the other end of the bay. {"We're clear at this end. Hicks?"}

"Yeah, we're clean here, Major," the Corporal nodded. "Looks like our mystery tinkerers borrowed some of this gear, though - this kit's only half-full, and most of the empty brackets don't look as corroded as the rest of the metal."

{"Right. Let's move on - nice and steady. Gilden, Hudson, take point."}

The next half-hour was composed of more of the same, over and over again, and that same sense of eerie unease began to creep over almost everyone as they went along, finding the same story repeated again and again: equipment and other items that had been in everyday use lying where they had fallen, as if the users had simply left for lunch. The armoury doors had been left standing (jammed?) open, and the storage units were all but empty; several staff-weapons still clamped into the wall-brackets, and a sextet of ten-slot recharger-racks held a total of seven sleek, bullpup-pattern (energy?) rifles of a kind none of these modern Kine were familiar with, but otherwise there was nothing worth mentioning. None of the computers were on-line; apparently they were tied into the central mainframe and more-or-less useless without getting that main system back in action. Many of the doors were also out of action and had to be levered open manually, though thankfully they were not jammed shut or locked; they could be moved handily enough, but it took effort and slowed down their progress. (It was Gilden who pointed out, a little uneasily, that they hadn't had to force any of the doors in the main corridor - their mystery explorers had already done that for them.) Nowhere was the complex lit by anything other than reserve lights, apparently as a power-conservation measure. None of the internal communications systems that they tried were working either, either from lack of power or simple age and accumulated entropy.

Finally, they arrived in the Operations room, an oval chamber maybe forty metres wide and twenty deep, crammed with computer consoles and readouts, desks and chairs, large display units and the other artifacts of a Kine-technology command post. (Indeed, it was a near-clone of a facility on Avalon itself.) Besides the door in the north wall that the Kine team came through, there were two other access-ways in the south wall, about twenty metres apart, leading to different sections of the base. Most of the systems in Ops were very visibly dead, and most of the others were inactive, but stand-by lights glowed here and there.

McQueen nodded in satisfaction at seeing that; this place might just work out after all. "Hicks, Hudson, Murphy, get to work - I want that mainframe back on-line inside two hours. The rest of us will complete the sweep and come back through the south-west entrance."

"You got it, Major," Hicks nodded.

A few minutes later, Hicks and Hudson were burrowed armpits-deep into the undersides of two separate consoles of the security section's primary terminal. Dade was standing at the console between the ones they were working on with a portable diagnostics unit at his side and his portable data-terminal jacked into the system's upperworks, watching endless columns of Atlantean script scroll up the 'screens'.

Hudson had set his Sian'Quai aside to move freely, but he'd left it up on the console next to Dade, switched on and scanning... just in case. Its soft pik... pik... pik... pik... was a muted background to their chatter and the noises of their work.

< Great system design - really. 'Distributed computing' is one thing, but any one section of the computer system being unable to operate *at all*unless it has a working, hardwired comm. connection to a particular, separate core which is *also* operational? It's not like a database system like this *needs* that kind of massive processing power in the first place! >

pik... pik... pik... pik... pik...

Dade sighed, knowing his gripe wasn't really fair - under Atlantean system architecture, access to the mainframe's higher functions was governed and authorized by Security, which meant that this terminal was the only place where an unauthorized user (like him) could hack in, but it was still a monumental pain in the ass to have to resurrect *two* sections of the system to get things up and running again.

"Wait, wait - Hicks, try that last connection again," Hudson murmured. "I think I got something here. Dade, how's it look now?"

pik... pik... pik... pik... pik...

"Not a - wait. Wait! That's it - user access authorization subroutines! We're almost there!" the young hacker chirped. < Now all I have to do is insert everybody's access patterns into the 'authorized user' list, wait for it to be recognised, then log in and we'll be - >

pik... pik... pik... pik... wee-dim...

Dade's head snapped around. "What the -"

wee-dim... wee-dim... wee-dim....

"Shit! Guys, I've got something on the tracker!"

"Aw, *man*, I *knew* this was too easy!" Hudson moaned, scooting out from under his section of the console and snatching up his P90. Hicks was already priming his own weapon, since he hadn't wasted time complaining.

Dade had already reached the scanner. "Single contact, coming up the south-west corridor - seventy metres and closing."

wee-dim... wee-dim... wee-dim....

"One of us?" Hicks asked.

Dade shook his head; he could see the tight cluster of four Kine signatures on the screen already, and the new one was way the hell away from them, coming from an entirely different section of the base. < Better to check anyway.... > "Uh, Major, have any of you guys got separated or wandered off?"

{"Negative. We're all at the access-way for the wet-hangar."}

wee-dim... wee-dim... wee-dim....

"Then you better get back here - we've got a solo contact coming up from the south-west. Sixty metres, still closing."

By unspoken agreement, all three of the technicians were already moving towards the south-west door, taking up positions behind what cover was offered by the workstations. "I'd just like to know why we can't get some *good* luck for once," Hudson muttered, unsafing his P90.

wee-dim... Wee-Dim... Wee-Dim... Wee-Dim....

"It's kind of hard to escape Murphy's Law when he's got an insider on your team," Hicks smirked, tipping his head at Dade as he laid his Five-seveN and zat'nac'itel on the console he was crouched behind, ready for immediate use.

"Y'ever stop to think that maybe *you* guys are the jinx?" Dade countered in a strained voice. "Thirty metres. Twenty."

- Wee-Dim, Wee-Dim, Wee-Dim, Wee-Dim, Wee-Dim -

"Dade, if you have to shoot, remember: use short, *controlled* bursts," Hicks advised. "But let's see who - or what - we're dealing with, first. Let's not start any fights we don't have to."

"Ten metres - it'll be coming through the door any second!"

Chapter 3

00:03, Monday May 19, NZT (12:03/18-05-97 ZULU)

Operations Room, Outpost North-East

The... *creature* which appeared in the open doorway was strange even to the eyes of men who were already acquainted with the supernatural. Easily seven feet tall, it was more-or-less human-shaped - except human upper limbs didn't bifurcate at the shoulder, with the upper limbs being more or less human-patterned and their lower 'arms' ending in 'hands' whose three 'digits' were actually nine-inch-long, scythe-like talons. Nor did human legs have an extra knee that turned them into a digitigrade lightning-bolt-shape, with triple claws on each 'foot'; nor did they have smooth-surfaced, bulge-sided, forward-jutting skulls featuring wide-set compound eyes and mouths full of shark-like fangs; nor were humans covered by a hairless, grey-purple, insectoid-looking carapace.

< I think we just found the winner of this week's 'Ugly' contest, > Dade thought wryly, wincing in revulsion. Whatever this thing was - and despite skimming Merlin's databases in what little spare time he had, he didn't recognise the species off-hand - he kind of doubted it was a vegetarian.

Hicks popped up from behind his chosen cover, letting the thing see him -and his uniform - even as his zat whined open. "Atlantean Special Forces! Identify -!"

A human would have stopped short... started talking... bought time to figure out the situation.

This thing simply attacked.

As soon as the Marine showed himself, the creature went for him with a guttural hiss, lower arms coiled back with claws widespread, head down and forward, mouth open and fangs bared. Hicks' hand closed convulsively, sending a trio of zat-pulses into the thing - and it *ignored* them, electrical arcs dancing up and down its body and limbs as it made for the blond 'tronicist.

Hudson and Dade both emerged from their own cover and opened fire, P90s barking aimed bursts into the thing's body as it closed the distance... and both men watched in consternation as the blessed-silver slugs either bounced off the creature's thorax to hammer into walls and consoles, or simply stuck into the 'chitin' without penetrating.

Hicks ducked the first swing of the knife-edged claws, snatching up his sub-gun and trying to get some separation to bring it into play. A swipe from the other claw-paw smashed a head-sized divot into the workstation he ducked under, showering him with shards of Atlantean composites and shattered operating-crystals.

Both of his companions kept firing, aiming high to avoid him, hoping that the thing's movements would show them a soft spot. Hudson was cursing steadily, calling the creature every name under the sun even as he poured fire into it; Dade was silent, using aimed shots to try out possible weak points. After a moment or two, the creature let out a screech as one of Dade's bursts punched into its flank just above the hip, drawing streams of purplish-maroon 'blood'.

< Got'cha! > the hacker grinned. "The sides are softer, guys!"

Unfortunately, the penetrating hit had drawn the thing's attention, and now it rounded on the two shooters. Hudson was closer, and not quite fast enough to evade the rush; a back-hand swing on the thing's left arms hammered into the ex-Marine's upper arm, sending him flying with a coughing howl of pain and a crunch of breaking bone. Dade tried to scramble clear himself, finding himself trapped against a console even as Hicks raked the thing's back with a burst of 5.7mm tumblers that didn't penetrate -

- and the hostile's triumphant hiss was cut off by the whining thunder of an M41A1. Three HEAP rounds hammered into its right flank beneath its arms, their detonations tearing its entire side open in a shower of maroon gore and carapace-shards.

The creature staggered sideways for a moment, keeping Dade fixed in the gaze of its compound eyes, then swung both claw-arms back -

- McQueen sighted carefully and fired a double-tap into the side of the thing's head, blasting it over sideways with half of its skull blown apart.

"Jesus fucking *Christ*!" Dade gasped in amazement/relief, watching their attacker twitch on the floor at his feet. Pulse-rifle-fire blew most things *apart*, and this monster *stood up* to it? "What the fuck *is* that thing?"

... w-wee-dim... w-wee-dim... w-wee-Dim....

"Not alone!" Zuineko reported, checking her tracker. "More contacts coming up from the south-west - twenty or so, sixty metres and closing fast!"

"Lung, Murphy, see to Hudson! Gilden, Zuineko, Hicks, with me!" McQueen barked, scrambling over to the south-west door.

The south-west corridor was a T-junction some thirty metres 'wide', with its 'vertical' stroke heading off to the west some twenty metres down from Operations. Even as McQueen got to the door at the Operations end, hunkering down behind the left side of the frame, he saw more of the things coming through the doorway opposite... and unlike their solo friend (a scout?), they weren't empty handed.

Gilden slid into cover at the right side of the Ops doorway, and Zuineko was just dropping to one knee between and behind them when the leaders of the oncoming pack opened fire with the staff-blasters they'd seemingly purloined from the armoury. The naqueda-fueled weapons were notoriously clumsy, and these things were hip-shooting on the run, but the doorway was only two metres wide and the 'spray and pray' technique does pay its greatest dividends in confined spaces.

The first two staff-bolts blasted chunks out of the left and overhead door-frames, pelting all three defenders with cringe-inducing sprays of razor-edged fragments.

The third went high, tearing into Ops' far wall.

The fourth and fifth struck Valerie Zuineko.

Her singlesuit's superconducting weave absorbed much of the energy, but Atlantean technology or not, 'armour' that light simply couldn't withstand *all* of a direct hit from staff-fire at such close range. The first impact burned through the blacksuit and blasted a bloody, steaming pit out of the brunette's left thigh, sending her sprawling; the other tore a tennis-ball-sized chunk out of her right tricep.

"God damn it!" Gilden snarled, hammering a series of aimed shots into the foremost creature's chest; the thing jolted again and again as the heavy 10mm shells detonated against and under its thoracic carapace, then finally crumpled backwards, its staff-rifle clattering loose on the floor. "How the hell did they work out staff-blasters?"

"As weapons go, they're pretty intuitive," McQueen muttered grimly, firing a long burst that hacked both legs from under another of the oncoming monsters. It caught itself on its claw-hands and started dragging itself forward, its other two arms still holding the staff-weapon up and firing as it came, trailing gore from the stumps of the legs McQueen had blown off at the knees. Three more rounds blasted its head apart. "Zuineko, how bad is it?"

The Russian had dragged herself out of the open, leaning up against the wall behind the Major. Hicks slammed up flat against the wall next to her, slinging his near-useless P90 to help her. "The bleeding isn't too bad," she reported through gritted teeth. "I won't be running any marathons soon, but I'll live."

"Then get on the tracker and keep us informed."

Whatever the things were, they had at least a rudimentary grasp of tactics.

Those possessed of staff-blasters had come in the first wave, the survivors taking what cover was available at the T-junction and in doorways along the main corridor to lay down covering fire; the ones without ranged weapons came in a second rush, charging up the corridor to get to grips and exploit their obvious advantages in claw-to-hand combat. All of those ones all died in twenty furious seconds: exposing oneself to a pair of trained marksmen behind the most devastating personal weapons built by twentieth-century technology was beyond foolish.

Nonetheless, it almost worked. Pulse-rifle hits that would have dismembered a human 'merely' blasted fist-sized chunks out of these creatures' torso-carapaces, requiring five, six, seven, even *eight* hits to ensure a strike which caused fatal injury, and they were so fast that hitting them in more vulnerable spots like the head or limbs was a non-option. So resilient, so fast, so many were they that the last one came within a bare four metres of the doorway the Kine were defending before the concentrated fire of both M41s flung it over backwards, all but torn in half.

That left the snipers... and a larger problem.

"Yob tvoyu mat'," Zuineko hissed as Hicks tightened a bandage over her leg. Whether the obscenity was provoked by pain or her tracker's display was an open question. "Major, I'm showing seven hostiles still in the corridor, and another... thirty-plus moving up behind them. It looks like eight or nine more are heading across to try the other entrance."

"If they get in here, we're *screwed*, guys!" Dade chimed in.

< Flanking move - trying to split our firepower. And it's going to *work*, dammit! > "Gilden -!" McQueen began.

"I'm on it, Major!" the Englishman nodded crisply, slithering backwards until he was out of the snipers' field of fire, then dashing across the chamber to take post at the south-east entryway.

"Lung, can you do anything to slow them down?"

The dragon-in-human-seeming shook her head. "I am a creature of Wood and Water, Major, and this is a place of Earth and Metal - I can do little with the energies here. And in my native form, I could not manoeuvre in such confines."

"Then grab the other tracker and get over there to support Gilden. Murphy, how's Hudson?" McQueen asked absently, firing a burst at one of the snipers as it popped out again. The rounds blasted chunks out of the wall in front of the creature, driving it back under cover.

"My fuckin' arm's busted, Major - how d'you *think* I am?" the man under discussion whined.

"I-I think his leg's broken, too, sir," Murphy added. "He hit that workstation pretty awkwardly when he landed, and he can't put any weight on it."

"Think we could make it back to the Orca?" Hicks posed, mostly just to raise the possibility. "Dade and I could carry Hudson, and Lung could manage Zee. With you and Gilden laying down fire -"

"These things are too close, Hicks, and we'd be moving too slowly - they could get around ahead of us through the machine-shops and cut us off. No: *this* is the choke-point. *This* is the only place we can hold them off."

Hicks had already reached that conclusion himself, but he'd had to ask. Just like he had to raise the next point: "With only two pulse-rifles, sir? 'Cause these things don't even *notice* anything smaller."

"They're coming on this side!" Lung called.

"And here, too, sir," Zuineko added. "And there's another group just entering scanner range - it looks like another twenty-plus, maybe a reserve force."

< If we ever had a chance to make a break for it, it's passed now, > McQueen noted. "Hicks, Murphy, head back to the Orca: grab three more pulse-rifles and as much ammo as you can carry. Move!"

"Yes, sir!" The two Knights took off running just as Gilden's M41 started roaring from the other entrance.

Even as Gilden started shooting, the snipers in McQueen's corridor picked up their rate of fire to try and force his head down, covering their newly-arrived companions as they came through the 'fatal funnel' created by the far door. Not so much controlling his impulse to cringe as much as simply ignoring it, the genetically-enhanced Marine bared his teeth and went to work, servicing the first three targets through that door with three long bursts. A staff-bolt exploded a chunk of the door-frame just above his head, the concussion driving his head down; when he looked up again, another quartet of creatures had made it into the corridor and was coming his way at their top speed, three-abreast.

"Fire in the hole!" He racked the pulse-rifle's grenade-launcher into action and pumped one down-range, nailing the leader of the pack right in the 'gut'. The subsequent detonation all but vapourised the thing from the hips upwards, and the blast-wave hammered its companions to the ground, buying a few more moments... but also bunching the creatures up, as more kept coming up behind the ones he'd knocked down. Racking the thumper as fast as he could, he repeated the treatment again and again, scoring three more direct hit-and-kills; the other two grenades exploded beyond the far doorway, hopefully causing hob in their staging area, but he couldn't be sure.

With his grenades depleted, he went back to work on the oncoming pack. There were nine or ten of them bunched up now, and without the hammering of the grenade-blasts to slow them, they'd sorted things out and re-formed for another charge.

And McQueen knew with sudden, perfect clarity that his single pulse-rifle simply couldn't generate enough fire-pressure to stop them all before they reached the doorway. They could come at him two-wide in that hallway, and the second it took him to kill each individual let the rest close another five metres. He'd get four or five, but the time it took to kill each one would let the others that much closer, and the last few would reach him and tear him apart; once he was silenced, the others would gain the doorway and pour in here and slaughter his entire team...

< To hell with them! > he decided, sighting on the foremost of the attackers. He knew they were going to kill him to get to the rest of his people... but they were going to *have* to kill him.

That fast, all of his emotions faded into the background, and he was once more a guidance system for a firearm. Second-long bursts dropped one, two, three of the hostiles. A fourth... and the M41A1 ran dry. In the time it took him to dump the spent magazine and slam home a fresh one, a trio of hostiles had made it to within ten metres of him, with a cluster of eight or nine bunched up in the junction and coming hard with even more behind them. Seven rounds smashed the closest over backwards, and eight dropped the next one, but he couldn't shift his aim back to the third in time -

- And suddenly, the pendulum swung.

As the densest bunch of creatures reached the open space where the corridors joined, the cross-corridor lit up with a storm of crackling horizontal lightning - fan-streams of electric-purple beams lighting up the entire corridor as they sliced into and through the onrushing hostiles. Where they struck, devastation was wrought: the bolts exploded portions of wall like autocannon-shells, often *after* burning a tunnel clean through a creature's limb or body or head that left flaming rents at both entry- and exit-points.

< Hell, whatever that is, it's doing to *these* things what a battle-rifle does to *humans*! > the Major realised wildly, even as he rolled away from a scything claw-hand and blew its owner in half.

Those actinic hell-beams and the explosions they caused raked the junction, scything down all of the attackers therein - including two of the snipers -and all who sought to cross the new kill-zone. Beyond the cloud of dust and smoke that now filled the junction, more creatures appeared at the far doorway, but a burst from the unknown weapon cut down the leader and the others quickly changed their minds about showing themselves. The sniper closest to McQueen turned to engage the new threat, and he put six rounds between its 'shoulder-blades', smashing it against the far side of its doorway to slide to the floor with the limpness of the dead.

"FRIENDLIES! FRIENDLIES COMING IN!" a male voice thundered from the junction, even as two more beams lanced out and hammered another of the snipers back through its doorway, its upper thorax streaming smoke.

"COME AHEAD!" McQueen responded, covering the doorway. < Whoever you are.... >

Two figures dressed in midnight-blue BDUs, body-armour, web-gear, SWAT-goggles and K-pot helmets emerged into the fogged junction and dashed across to the far side of the main corridor, one turning and dropping to one knee to cover the far doorway, the other turning to make a straight run for McQueen's doorway. When this second individual arrived, they turned and knelt themselves, covering their companion's movement; the Major's eyebrows arched a little at their smooth, experienced use of classic cover-and-manoeuvre technique.

A moment later, the second of the newcomers entered Ops and immediately flattened themselves against the far side of the doorway, using the cover offered by the frame. The first held their firing-crouch, watching the corridor with a professional intent few DIs could have faulted.

The standing one shot McQueen a sardonic grin even as she checked her rifle; when she spoke, her accent was faint, but noticeable - and a near-twin of Zuineko's. "Finding everything you need, Major?"

McQueen paid her weapon a quick glance - and blinked. That devastating firepower had been generated by one of the same sleek, bullpup-pattern rifles as they'd found in the armoury on the way here. A quick glance showed that her comrade was wielding another just like it. < We might have to see about resurrecting those when we get a chance.... >

Then her use of his rank registered. Thankfully, she was focused on her weapon, rather than taking advantage of his consternation. "Magazine!" she announced crisply for her companion's benefit, dumping the (apparently depleted) power-pack from her weapon and slamming in a fresh one. "Faramir?"

"Just a second, Éowyn," the other newcomer responded, taking careful aim at one of the fallen creatures in the corridor. His first shot went through the 'body's' shoulder, provoking the 'fallen' hostile into a hissing attempt to rise from where it had been playing possum; it had barely reached one knee when three more hell-beams took it through the centre of the chest and hammered it over backwards. After a moment to make sure the job was done this time - the former faker did nothing but lie there with smoke rising from the perforations in its chitinous breastplate - he swung back under cover and went through the same report-and-reload cycle that 'Éowyn' had.

Once he was done reloading, the look 'Faramir' gave McQueen from behind the goggles that semi-hid his face wasn't exactly hostile... but nor was it especially friendly. "Hell of a place for a picnic, Major McQueen."

"How -?"

"We took a professional interest in the M41 trials," 'Éowyn' drawled. "Not to mention the ensuing kangaroo court. Ever figure out who screwed you?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Major, Annabel Chong wasn't fucked as thoroughly as you were," 'Faramir' drawled. "Somebody sabotaged the M41 trials so they could push through that disaster they call the OICW, and those same people tried to bury *you*with the weapon." He gave the Knight's current long-arm a significant look. "'Oops' on them - on both counts."

"Who the *hell* -?" a bewildered Hudson started to ask.

McQueen's focus was on more immediate business: "That can wait. What are we dealing with here?"

The pop-wizz of a staff-bolt passing between him and the newcomers punctuated the question; the remaining snipers had recovered from their shock and once again started putting down suppressive fire.

"Search me!" 'Éowyn' shrugged, answering the hostile fire with three rounds of her own. Two blasted head-sized cavities into the far side of a bad guy's door-frame, pelting it with shrapnel; the third took it through its upper chest, dropping both right arms limp and sending its staff-rifle clattering to the floor. Even as the hostile staggered, 'Faramir' fired once and its head exploded in a gruesome shower of wet chunks and brownish steam. "They showed up five months ago - must've come in through the wet-entrance. We didn't have the manpower or the time to clear 'em out, so we had to settle for lopping off a few here and there."

"Talk about déja vu all over again," 'Faramir' added bitterly.

"Don't start, okay?" was her long-suffering response.

McQueen shook his head at the byplay and looked back to his own people. < These two sound like they'd fit right in with the Commander's Sunnydale crew.... > "Zuineko, how many are you tracking now?"

"Three of them in the corridor; there are nine or ten left just beyond that far doorway, but they're just milling around for now - they might be thinking this over. Lung, Gilden, how about you?"

{"I've slotted two of them over here - most of the others went to ground with those damned staff-rifles, and we've got six or seven skulking beyond the far end of the corridor, out of direct sight,"} Gilden reported, over the irregular pop-wizz of staff-bolts. {"Lung says there aren't any more within scanner range, but I should imagine that we'll need the internal sensor grid to be sure we've found them all."}

"Sounds like time for a counterattack to me," 'Faramir' suggested.

McQueen shook his head, flipping his M41 to feed a fresh supply of grenades into the launcher. "Give it a minute or two - my people are bringing up more firepower."

"While these fuckers are digging in!" the younger(?) man pointed out, snapping off a couple of rounds and driving another sniper back under cover.

"My people, my decision, mister," McQueen told him in Command Voice, and was gratified to see the man's body language reflect understanding and acquiescence, if not agreement. "Murphy, Hicks, where are you?"

{"We'll be back in two minutes, Major,"} Hicks assured him. {"We grabbed enough hardware for everybody - just in case."}

"Good thinking. Hudson, how are you doing?"

"I'm just fuckin' *peachy*, Major!" was the sarcastic rejoinder. McQueen glanced back again; Hudson was leaning back against a workstation facing the 'engaged' doorway with his left hand lying loose in his lap, his bad leg stretched out before him - and his P90 and zat lying right next to his good hand.

After a moment, McQueen actually summoned a semblance of a smile. "Rough day at work?"

"Oh, that's really fuckin' funny," the stricken Marine told him, wincing as he shifted his bad arm a little. "I can't move too good, but I've got your back."

'Faramir' glanced at McQueen, a wry smile crossing his face beneath the goggles. "He mean against *them* - or *us*?" he asked evenly.

"Probably both," was the frank response.

"Nice to know," 'Faramir' shrugged casually, then looked back to his sights.

A moment later, Dade came to a skidding halt beside Hudson's workstation, bristling with firepower and actually looking quite intimidating; he'd slung a pulse-rifle across his back and two more over his right shoulder, with three sets of webgear loaded with M41 magazines in the other hand. It was a wonder that he could even move. He handed off one of the rifles and web-gear sets to Hudson, then froze for a second as he registered the presence of their 'rescuers'.

"You don't have to leer at me like that, kid - you're not my type," 'Faramir' smirked. He hadn't looked back at all when Dade arrived.

Trading slightly bemused looks with McQueen, Dade shook it off as 'something to puzzle over later' and crossed over to Zuineko, shedding the rest of his excess gear. "Hey, Zee - got a present for ya."

"It's even in my favourite colour!" she smirked, motioning for him to set the bulky weapon down beside her.

When Dade came back to the doorway, 'Faramir' and 'Éowyn' traded a significant look and shifted forward; 'Éowyn's' next words came sidelong. "Okay, Major, you've got your firepower. We'll clear out the rest of this corridor - you jokers just keep any more from coming through that far door."

Before any of the Knights could protest, both of the newcomers had moved back out into the hallway, moving with that same fluid fieldcraft from before. Damning their headstrong impulses, McQueen settled down behind his rifle. "Murphy, go with them - stay between them and the far door, keep it covered."

"Yes, sir," the hacker sighed, heading out himself. < These guys ought'a be wearing T-shirts: 'Does not play well with others'.... >

As tactical advances go, this manoeuvre wasn't exactly the Charge of the Light Brigade, but what it lacked in speed or gung-ho enthusiasm it made up in deliberate, lethal efficiency. While Dade watched the far door for activity, the two blue-clad newcomers methodically opened each door along the main hallway, tossed in a flash-bang, and swept the room for hostiles. Neither Dade nor McQueen could see any of what transpired when they entered, but there were no sounds of a struggle, nor any obvious shooting. As they came to a hostile's corpse, it got two beams though the head to 'anchor' it.

< And they're so... casual about it. Like 'making sure' of a fallen enemy isn't so much a precaution as it's become second nature by now, > McQueen mused. < Whoever these people are - and I can make an educated guess - I don't think their careers to date have involved taking an excessive number of prisoners.... >

The fifth room down the corridor involved a little more excitement than the others. As 'Éowyn' stood to one side and hauled the door open, 'Faramir' was in a crouch at her shoulder with a primed flash-bang in hand - but as soon as the door opened, a positive stream of staff-fire came from inside.

"Nice welcome," 'Éowyn' snorted, slipping another grenade off her web-gear.

"Must think we're the Mormons!" 'Faramir' drawled, side-arming his own grenade into the room and taking another off his web-gear.

Even as the crashing detonation of the first grenade began to die, two more went inside, and McQueen frowned as he caught sight of them. < Smoke grenades? What the hell is that meant to achieve? >

After a few moments, with thick purple and red fumes streaming out of that room's door, both newcomers shouldered their rifles and carefully set themselves behind the sighting modules -

< Kine'Iende sighting modules! > the ex-Marine realised. < They must include something like Sian'Quai scanner technology - they can see *right through* the smoke and the hostiles can't! >

Both young operators slipped into the occupied room at a low crouch. Whatever happened after that was brief, one-sided, and evidently very final; energy-fire backlit the room for the moment, but that backlighting was all in the purplish-pink tinges of the friendlies' weapons. A body thumped to the floor, and flashback strobed twice more as the 'anchoring' shots were administered.

"Zuineko?" McQueen asked quietly.

"Two more, in the next room up -"

Even as she spoke, both of those hide-outs surged into the corridor, firing towards Operations, probably hoping to put the Knights' heads down as they pulled back. Whatever they planned, they never accomplished it; Dade was kneeling less than five metres from that doorway when they emerged, with his pulse-rifle shouldered. The first hostile to expose itself stopped three quick bursts from the youngest of the Knighthood team and went down hard, its lower torso ripped open. Its companion stumbled over the corpse and went sprawling; with time to pick his shot, McQueen put two aimed shells into the thing's 'ear', all but decapitating it.

"Corridor's reading clear, Major," Zuineko reported a moment later. "The ones in the cross-tunnel haven't moved."

"If they pull back, their buddies in the south-east hallway will be cut off." McQueen shrugged. "Gilden, what's your status?" He'd heard some more firing from over that side, and given the marksmanship both Gilden and Hicks had demonstrated in the past -

{"Chalk up three more, Major,"} the former Sass-man chirped. {"Lung says there's only four more of them out front of us - the rest are starting to lean to the west, she thinks they're about to remember another appointment."}

< Whoever and whatever these things are, they're smart enough to know when a position's becoming untenable, > the Major noted uneasily... then something clicked, and he snatched up the map-reader Dade had left behind. < And that cross-corridor is the only way back to the barracks or out to the wet-hangar.... > "Hold there and kill anything with more than two arms."

{"Got it, boss."}

"Zuineko, give me the tracker. You and Hudson watch our backs."

When McQueen arrived at the south end of the corridor, Dade and 'Éowyn' were pressed into one corner, looking towards the wet-hangar and sniping at any hostile that entered their field of fire; on the other side, 'Faramir' had set up to catch anything that came this way from the barracks, though he didn't actually have anything to shoot at for the moment. Nonetheless, McQueen took a post beside him, to make sure any more reinforcements got the warm reception they would need.

"Any ideas about what they'll try next?" he asked the younger man, over the high-pitched keen of a snapshot from 'Éowyn'.

"Beats me," 'Faramir' shrugged helplessly. "If they want to make a break for the wet-hangar and escape, they'd have to try it pretty soon; your people over the other side would get some of 'em, but the rest could make it out."

"Or they could retreat into the southern part of the Outpost and dig in."

"You mean the seismic monitoring station?" He shook his head firmly. "No way - it's under stasis and locked down tighter than Hannibal Lecter. Besides, from what I saw on the remote status-readouts at the entrance, I think it might've flooded during the '31 Quake."

"And if they decide to open the doors anyway and drown us all?" McQueen countered. "You said they must've swum in, and if they can get about underwater *that* well...."

"'*Thank you* for that little ray of sunshine, Major; the next time I feel the need to be depressed, I'll remember to give you a call,'" 'Éowyn' interjected from across the way, not without a certain caustic humour. "We'd want to prevent that, wouldn't you say?"

"Absolutely. That side-corridor behind us - I presume you got in here through the embarkation room?"

"Yeah," 'Faramir' nodded - then his eyes widened. "Nice! You want us to take care of it?"

"I need one of you here."

'Faramir' glanced across the corridor at his comrade. "Éowyn, you stay here and keep 'em interested. Kid, you're with me - the Major'll take your spot!"

Dade shot McQueen a querulous look; getting a confirming nod, he backed out of his firing-position and started back down the corridor a step behind 'Faramir'. "You know about, uh -?"

"The ring-transporter? Yeah," 'Faramir' nodded. "They put it in when they built the place, so the garrison could get on and off land without having to clutter up the place with vehicles. We've had some practice with it in the last couple of years."

"How'd you know how to work it?"

"You'll hear the full story - later," the blue-clad shooter said, firmly but not unkindly, as he made for the transporter's control-panel. "I'm gonna set us down about two metres from the science-lab's main door; there shouldn't be anybody behind us, but check both ways to be sure. When we move, I'll go high and right - you take low and left. No grenades, check your targets, and *watch your background* - we'll be moving back towards friendlies and we do *not* need a blue-on-blue, especially with the sort of firepower *we're* carrying."


With his adjustments made, 'Faramir' joined Dade on the platform and shifted his rifle to the low-ready; his left hand opened a Velcro'd cover on his right wrist. Even as he pressed the transport-controller's blue activation crystal, he glanced across at his new comrade and grinned crookedly. "Are we having fun yet?"

"What the hell was I thinking...?"

"Hey: you don't *have* to be crazy to work here, kid -"


"- but it *does* earn you points with the boss," 'Faramir' finished dryly, sweeping both ways with his muzzle as the rings vanished back to their revetment, some two hundred metres to the north. Nobody home. "C'mon."

Whatever the Outpost's complement of sub-craft might have been, there was only one left now, and it was very visibly non-operational; as they went past, Dade couldn't help but notice that the ragged line of millennia-old blast-marks that had ripped open the craft's nose and right flank looked suspiciously like they might have come from something very much like the energy-rifle his companion was wielding. < Whoever it was driving that thing, they must've had real chops to bring it back in here without trashing it completely. Those access-panels look like they were left open when the place was abandoned - they must've been trying to put it back together when the end came.... >

Then they caught sight of the hostiles, and the irrelevancies dropped away. 'Faramir' found cover behind a work-bench, while Dade dropped to one knee behind an orphaned engine assembly.

Dade peeked out, running a quick count on the bad guys. Six of them were visible from here, only two of them carrying staff-blasters; the rest of their force was apparently around the corner from the two humans. A couple of them were hissing back and forth at each other, seemingly hashing out their shrinking list of options. "Do we give 'em a chance to surrender?"

"Fat chance they will," the other man noted skeptically, then raised his voice regardless. "THROW DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND YOUR LIVES WILL BE SPARED!"

The visible hostiles whipped around towards the new voices/threats, and answered it with what appeared to be their standard doctrine: a barrage of suppressive staff-fire and a charge from the empty-handed beasts.

They had not a chance. There was more than forty metres of empty space between them and the humans - more than enough separation to mow down the would-be 'knife'-fighters, then drop both shooters with aimed fire.

"Told'ya," 'Faramir' shrugged, checking his weapon for a moment. "Let's go."

The mismatched duo moved up, Dade keeping his aim on the doorway that led back to Operations and the cross-corridor, 'Faramir' methodically 'anchoring' each corpse as he came within a few metres of it. When they reached the threshold, both took posts behind the west side, looking down towards the barracks - and where McQueen and 'Éowyn' were waiting.

"Gilden, this is Dade," the hacker breathed into his headset. "Hold your fire, repeat, hold your fire; two friendlies are about to cross your front -we'll clean out the east-west corridor and cut off the guys that're in your face. Major, you and 'Éowyn' might want to step back a little - this is gonna get loud."

{"Have that, Dade."}

{"I copy, Murphy."}

Dade shot his new buddy a nod, and both slipped around the corner, weapons leveled.

None of the enemy remaining in the cross-corridor were armed with anything more potent than their own claws and fangs - certainly lethal, but only if they could get to grips, and they never got the chance. Dade held the trigger down for seconds at a time, raking the entire corridor back and forth with long salvoes of heavy, high-explosive armour-piercing rounds; 'Faramir' picked his shots, aimed bursts of hell-beams bringing down hostiles that the hacker's fire-track had missed, or that had been screened from it by their compatriots' bodies.

In instants, the shooting was over for simple lack of targets. Dade was down to barely a quarter-mag, but he held his 'ready' stance as his companion reloaded, then keyed his headset again. "Major, we're clear out here - if you guys want to shift out and watch the barracks end, 'Faramir' and me will cover Gilden and his team while they clear that other corridor."

{"Copy. We're moving now."}

The rest of the action in this section of the base was merely mopping up: Gilden and Hicks moved forward down their corridor, with Lung a couple of steps behind them operating the tracker. The few holdouts dug in as best they could, but with the Knights following standard room-clearance procedure - the first thing into an enemy-occupied room is never your head, your foot or your weapon-muzzle; it is always, *always* a grenade - and dashing inside before the echoes had died, none of the armed defenders ever got a clean shot at them. Between that tactic, the staff-blasters, and the M41A1s, a substantial amount of collateral damage to the rooms and equipment was inevitable, but by the time Hicks, Gilden and Lung reached the south end of their corridor, none of the six-limbed hostiles remained alive behind them.

'Faramir' had been watching their movement, assessing their choreography and teamwork; when they reached the doorway he and Dade were occupying, he shrugged a little - was that grudging approval? - then looked back to the east. "Major, give us one of your people on a tracker, so we can clear out the rest of the Outpost for you. You see to your wounded and tally the damage."

< Independent thinking is one thing, and tactical initiative another - but enough is enough! > "You don't give *me* orders, mister!" McQueen growled.

"Major, this is a dynamic assault: lead, follow, or get the fuck outta the way," 'Éowyn' snapped. "We can do this perfectly well on our own, but you *might* want someone of yours along to keep us honest." Before he could respond, she turned away and started towards the barracks, weapon shouldered and ready. 'Faramir' was barely a step behind her, automatically taking a covering/support position.

< These people are going to be hell to work with, > the Major noted bitterly. "Lung, go with them." After all, if these people tried anything against *her*, it'd be a mistake they wouldn't live long enough to regret.

They came back into Operations a bare fifteen minutes later, rifles at the 'patrol carry' position. "Clear," 'Faramir' shrugged. "Nobody left - looks like they shot their bolt."

McQueen glanced to his own 'man' for confirmation; Lung nodded. "No more of these... creatures. Large stockpiles of recently-made equipment and munitions, and the remains of several months' worth of MREs, but no more hostiles."

"We stocked the place up almost as soon as we found it," 'Éowyn' said off-hand, sitting up on one of the dead consoles and laying her rifle across her lap. "Figured it'd make a good bolt-hole if things on land completely went to shit."

"Well, that was the *plan*," 'Faramir' added ruefully, sitting on the floor with his back against that same console. "In retrospect, we probably should've guessed that Clan Murphy would move in here sometime. They must've had hardy constitutions, though - looks like they actually *enjoyed*eating all those MREs. Didn't even pay for 'em, the bastards."

"Okay, now that the excitement's over: who the fuck *are* you people?" Dade demanded.

Both of the newcomers laughed at that. "You mean you haven't figured it out already?" 'Éowyn' asked, her tone just a little nasty. "Y'know, kid, for someone who *looks* like a techie of some sort, you *sound* a lot like someone who didn't RTFM. Either that, or Merlin's lost his touch for doing research, and I *seriously* doubt that."

"There's no need to be insulting about it, Mrs Zyrianova," McQueen countered firmly.

"Having to rescue a bunch of idiots who John Wayne'd their way in over their heads is kind of aggravating, Major - especially when it's past midnight and I've got a full day of classes ahead of me."

"Take it easy, cariad," 'Faramir' said reprovingly, stripping off his goggles and helmet. Without them, his identity was self-evident for those who'd read their pre-mission briefing packets. A touch younger than Dade, at least outwardly; pleasant, freckle-strewn features, topped by close-cropped gingery-blond hair; eyes of a lupine shade of amber; a thin scar down the left side of his face, perfectly vertical from hairline to cheekbone... all a perfect match for the picture in the dossier Merlin had provided. "They couldn't have known the Outpost had been taken - or to ask us about it either way."

"Yeah, yeah," she nodded, lowering her head to shed her own helmet; her body language was suddenly very weary. "I just -"

"I know," he said gently.

When the young woman raised her head again, she was just as readily recognisable as her companion, even though her waist-length henna-dark hair was currently wound up into a bun to fit under the Kevlar headgear, and even though the grey-green eyes set into her gamine face now held bone-deep fatigue and a professional soldier's flat gaze rather than their accustomed mischievous twinkle.

"It's nice to actually get some help out here," Tatyana Alekseyevna 'Taz' Zyrianova told the assembled Knights. "No matter how briefly."

Michael 'Misha' Bleddyn, her husband and operating partner, gave their audience a sardonic grin. "On behalf of the Souther Irregulars, we'd like to welcome the Atlantean Knighthood to Outpost North-East. We hope you enjoy your stay."


Chapter 4

00:27, Monday May 19, NZT (12:27/18-05-97 ZULU)
Operations Room, Outpost North-East

"I'm sorry: 'Atlantean Knighthood'?" McQueen blinked.

Misha levered himself back to his feet, giving the silver-haired man an 'Oh, please!' look. "Major, for an actor, you're a pretty good shooter. My mother had the run of this place for better than twenty years before she left the access procedures to me in her will; hell, the first language she ever taught me was *Atlantean*. There are all kinds of personal effects in the garrison quarters, including journals and some very dilapidated black-suits that are an almost perfect match for the ones your team are wearing – right up to the Kine'Iende sigil on the left chest," he added. "Take that with that little 'Don't argue!' your people gave that Hat'ak WarShip last year, and the maths gets pretty simple."

McQueen's first impulse was to deny it, but that idea lasted only a split-second. "Very well, Mister McKellar –"

"That's 'Bleddyn', Major; I don't use my mother's name anymore," the younger man corrected mildly. "Now, I believe your wounded need looking at? We've got some, uh, 'capabilities' on-shore that could have 'em back on their feet a lot sooner, not to mention bunk-rooms, working plumbing and food that doesn't pre-date recorded history - and if you're here to reactivate this place, you're gonna need somewhere to stay when you're not working."

"Merlin's already given you our home address, right?" Taz added, still looking a little sour.

"He has," McQueen nodded. "We were going to approach you once we'd established the Outpost's status."

Misha cocked an intrigued eyebrow, but didn't comment (for now). "C'mon, then – let's get this lot moving. Taz, I'll take the first set – the wounded girl, Major McQueen... Major, you want to pick the other two? Those ring-platforms get a little crowded with more than five people at a time."

"Gilden, help me with Zuineko," the ex-Marine declared without hesitation. "Lung, you're with us."

"Okay, then, you four: follow the yellow brick road," Misha drawled, slinging his rifle across his body. "Taz, give us a couple of minutes before you call up."


When the glare of the transport died away, they were standing at one end of what looked like a shipping container, lit by a trio of bare bulbs strung down the length of his ceiling. The doors were at the far end; between there and the ring-platform was a squat, concrete-and-sandbag sangar – with the business end of another energy-rifle protruding through the firing slit.

Dimly visible within the bunker, the wielder of that rifle took a closer grip on their weapon. "EXCALIBUR!"

"CAIRNS!" Misha replied promptly, from his place closest to the bunker. He'd left his helmet off when he activated the transport, seemingly so that his identity would be clear, and now set it back atop his head and moved to one side, laying his bare left hand flat against the junction of a foot-tall silver cross mounted at shoulder-height on the corrugated-steel wall.

The 'defender' did nothing for several seconds, watching him carefully... then the weapon retracted out of sight, and the person inside stood up.

McQueen blinked and almost stared; their welcoming committee wasn't an outright shock to his world-view, like Mikki Mirri had been so many months ago, but he *was* taken a little off-guard.

The individual 'holding the fort' was female, outwardly twenty or so and exceedingly lovely. Dressed in the same midnight-blue fatigues as Misha, she wore no helmet, and instead of Kevlar, she was armoured in a matt-black chain-mail shirt made of incredibly fine links, gathered at the waist by a broad belt that bore magazine-pouches at one hip and a sheathed knife at the other. Her (ruby-red!) eyes were wide-set and almond-shaped; her seemingly flawless skin was black – not brown, as found in dark-complexioned humans, but gloss black – and her long, lustrous-silver(!) hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail that revealed delicately pointed ears.

< An *elf*? > McQueen thought. < Just when I think I've internalised that this sub-culture has its own, very broad definitions of 'normal'.... > Both Zuineko and Gilden, who had the wounded pilot's other side, were similarly taken aback.

Then Lung, who had been blocked off behind them, stepped to one side to get a clear view – and caught sight of the welcoming committee.

Misha saw the Asian woman's eyes go wide, then reacted without thinking when they narrowed intently; his thumb snapped his plasma-rifle's selector out of 'safe' and he caught the Knight's gaze. < *Don't*! >

McQueen cocked an eyebrow at the unsafed weapon. "Is there a problem?"

"Ask your colleague," Misha said mildly, his attention never leaving his target.

McQueen glanced back. "Lung?"

Lung looked back to the black-skinned woman for a moment, then inclined her head a little and visibly, deliberately relaxed. "There is no problem, Major. I was merely... startled."

< Uh-huh. Right. Whatever. > Misha deliberately re-safed his weapon. "That's a discussion for another time. Tricia, would you take them through to the infirmary? There's another injured man coming in with Taz's group, though – multiple fractures."

"Thanks for the warning," his black-skinned colleague smiled. Even as she spoke, her fingers were flicking slightly against the forearm of her own plasma-rifle, forming the subtle gestures of the sign-language she'd been teaching him. < She is not human – I can feel it even without the sight-scanner. >

"We aim to please. I'll handle screening." < Yeah – it's kind'a hard to miss. Classify? >

"Don't work too hard!" she chirped. < Not demonic – I think. Most of what I see about her is white noise – I think she's masking her aura. >

< Noted. Watch her – but do your work. >

< But of course, O Captain my Captain! >

It took an effort to stifle a snort of laughter at that. Tricia's acculturation was still a work in progress, but her sense of humour had never faltered and that made for some lively conversations.

Tricia slung her rifle and inclined her head, leading the Knights out of the ring-room. McQueen lingered for a moment, leaning against the edge of the sangar's roof and looking to Misha with a raised eyebrow. "I thought the elves emigrated from this reality before the Fall?"

"Then you know more than I do," Misha returned, with a rueful wince at the gap in his knowledge. < And more than *Tricia* does, for that matter.... >

Further discussion was forestalled by the hum of the rings activating, and the younger man immediately pivoted into a covering position, snapping his weapon up to cover the arrival platform – and observe each of the arrivals' body-signatures through the 'scan' mode on his weapon's flexy-sight. Seeing that all three Knights showed up as completely human, the rifle came back down just as quickly. "Okay, you lot – this way."

The ring-system had been a late addition to their operation, and it had taken some improvising to incorporate it into the warren of tunnels and shipping-containers under the hillside house which Taz's uncle had left to her. Fortunately, several of the 'bunk-room' containers had been empty at the time, and they'd been able to convert one into an impromptu 'embarkation room' of their own. The bad news was that it was pretty much away from everything else, including the small but well-stocked infirmary, but then, you couldn't have everything.

McQueen had made maybe five paces down the corridor when Misha reached forward and seized his arm in a bruisingly strong grip, bringing him to a sudden stop. When the former Marine turned, he was a little startled by the fiery fury blazing in the youth's lupine-amber eyes. "What's the problem?"

"That tattoo on your neck, Major," Misha snarled, his cold, controlled tone a check against his emotions. "You might want to keep it covered while you're in Hawke's Bay. Maybe you haven't kept up with events out here, but for the last few years things like that have had *very* unpleasant associations."

McQueen winced, silently directing a string of curses at whichever four-eyed geek in a lab-coat with an eyedropper and a Petri dish who was responsible for *that*. < First the Commander, now these people –! > "I was young and drunk –"

"I. Do. Not. *Care*. *Major*," Misha bit out. "I am *not* going to see people I care about freshly traumatised because your choice in body art is in grossly poor taste. Do. You. Hear. There?"

McQueen held the younger man's gaze for a moment, then nodded. "CFB. What do you suggest?"

Misha's eyes flicked over the Knight's face, assessing all the scratches and nicks from the staff-fire shrapnel, and he actually smiled thinly. "Turn around, and I'll tape some gauze over it - we'll say you caught a splinter and I pulled it before we moved on to Medical. I'll smooth it out with Taz and Tricia, but as long as you're here, you don't take off the bandage where any of my people might see you. Got it?"


When Misha and McQueen got to the med-bay a couple of minutes later, both wounded Knights had already been manhandled onto the two examination tables. Ignoring the odd looks the three newly-arrived Knights were giving her, Tricia was unwrapping the bandages from over Zuineko's leg, while Taz checked the pilot's arm. "– probably be easier if we got her out of this singlesuit," the elf was observing.

"I think the Whinger's hurt worse anyway," Taz noted. "The way I understand it, these blacksuits can absorb light energy-fire and kinetics like pistol-class small-arms, but they're crap against blunt trauma. Doesn't look like she's in immediate danger. I'll look after her for now; you see to the loudmouth and come back if you've got any juice left."

"Right." With a grimace of reluctance, the elf left the female Knight's side and crossed to the other table.

Even through the pain of his injuries, Hudson was waiting for her with what he thought was a charming smile. "Hey, if y'want *me* to strip, just say so."

"I prefer to date within my own phylum," Tricia murmured absently, her hands palpating the man's upper left arm through the singlesuit with professional precision. She ignored his squawk of pain as she reached the fracture, her concentration bent on feeling out the exact details of the injury. "Feels like a clean break. Where else?"

"Right hip and thigh – he got knocked flying and landed on a console," Dade supplied, from where he was standing against one wall; like most of the Knights, he was looking more at Tricia than at the patients, though his expression was rather more thunderstruck than most.

"Uh-huh," the elf nodded, moving around to work on the indicated area without once even glancing at the young hacker. As she worked, she smiled and added lightly, "And you can put your eyes back in your head. I'm not looking for another toyfriend."

Dade blushed deeply, shooting a murderous glare at the now-smirking Hicks. "I wasn't... I mean...."

"I don't really *mind* the attention," she assured him kindly, ignoring another yelp from Hudson as she probed his injuries. "I realise I'm 'exotic' to your eyes, and a number of people whose opinions I trust and value have told me that I'm very attractive. It's just that it's a little distracting while I'm trying to patch up a patient. Once I'm done, you can look to your heart's content."

"Kate's gonna love hearing *that*," Hicks drawled.

"Dwayne, you say one friggin' word to her about this –"

"I won't get the chance," the ex-Marine grinned. "Not after the way I heard her sounding off at you before we left. She's gonna be too busy killing you for getting shot at to worry about killing you for eyeballing another woman."

"Aw, man, don't *remind* me...."

"Want me to put in a good word?" Misha interjected blandly. "'Circumstances beyond your control', and all that."

"Are you kidding? If she sees some hardass trying to vouch for me, she's gonna make me quit on the spot!" the hacker moaned.

Misha could have answered that several ways, most of them very sarcastic, but chose to settle for a non-committal shrug. "Tricia, you set?"

The dark-skinned woman looked up and nodded. "I believe so." Straightening up, she reached under her collar and grasped something – a crucifix, perhaps? – as she closed her eyes and laid her hand against Hudson's bad leg, singing(!?) under her breath in a language McQueen didn't recognise, much less understand.

Even as he watched, a corona of bright silvery light formed around her hand, spreading across the stricken Knight's blacksuit then sinking through it without a trace. Hudson jumped a little, then subsided, the pained lines on his face fading with every moment. Tricia held the contact for several long seconds, despite the strain in her expression and body-language clearly mounting with every moment she did so, then shifted her hand to repeat the process with his broken arm.

Taz had returned to Tricia's side, and was watching her face with increasing concern. When the elf finally released her magic, she swayed and would have stumbled against the bed if Taz hadn't caught her about the waist. "I've got you, love, I've got you," the Russian woman breathed tenderly, steadying Tricia with her arms and body. "Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine – I just need a breath or two," the elf gasped, visibly trembling from her efforts. When her knees would hold her once more, she looked up at Hudson. "Those bones will hold for now, but they'll need a couple of days to finish sealing completely, so take it easy, all right?"

Gilden had come up to McQueen's shoulder during the examinations, and now traded intrigued looks with his team commander. "Curiouser and curiouser," the Englishman murmured. < Even in my time with the Watchers, I didn't hear of many instances of healing magic – and unlike most of *those* accounts, she doesn't look like she's taken his injuries onto herself; that wilting moment looked more like simple fatigue. And since her appearance and apparent distress would also seem to preclude her being a Whitelighter, we're left with something of a conundrum.... >

After another moment to catch her breath, Tricia gently shook off Taz's support and crossed to where Zuineko was lying, repeating her 'laying on hands' on the pilot's leg. Having never seen such magics in use before, McQueen watched in fascination as flesh and skin flowed and melded together, weeks' worth of natural regenerative processes compressing themselves into a few seconds. Within instants, what had been a bloody pit the size of an orange was merely a shiny pink scar; a few seconds later, even that was gone, leaving the skin as pristine as if nothing had ever happened. Much the same happened when Tricia touched her fingers to the messy gouge torn into the woman's arm.

And as soon as Tricia was satisfied with what she saw, she released the magic, shot Zuineko a kindly smile – and fainted dead away, collapsing straight down where she stood.

Taz caught her before she could hit anything, including the floor. Slipping an arm beneath her shoulders and the other under her knees, she swung the insensible elf into a carry-position – with an ease that was eye-widening, considering that Tricia wasn't much smaller than Taz herself – and shot Misha a rueful look. "Knew *that* was gonna happen. Will you be okay from here?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "You two get some rest – I'll handle the babysitting."

Even as Taz nodded and slipped past Gilden and McQueen on the way out the door, Dade was giving the scarred youth an outraged glare. "'Babysitting'?" he repeated incredulously. "Who the hell –?"

"Get over it," Misha returned. < It's been a long night already, and I do not *need* this shit right now! > "If you wanted a red-carpet reception, you should've called ahead for proper reservations. You don't like our 'short-notice' hospitality? Door's just there: you wanna let it hit you in the arse, it's not my problem." That fast, he dismissed the sputtering New Yorker and looked back to McQueen. "Major, from what you said earlier your primary mission is *not* the reactivation of the Outpost. We'll give you a few hours to de-stress, but come oh-seven-hundred, you're going to tell us what it *is* – or you won't get another second's help from us. Fair enough?"

"We could do with some rest, yes."

"Figured. Looking back towards the ring-room, there are bedrooms down both sides of the corridor – they're all double-bunks and unoccupied, you jokers can sort out who sleeps where amongst yourselves. Bathroom and toilet are directly opposite here if you want to clean up. There are civvie clothes in the lockers in each bunk-room, but I can't guarantee anything will fit. If anybody's hungry, all I can offer in volume right now is MREs – you'll find a couple in each of the rooms. Don't try to go upstairs: the hearth-spirit watching the stairwell has orders to maim anyone he doesn't recognise, and any harm which befalls him *will* be taken out of your hides. Don't bother with the rings; Taz and I have the only two working controllers. We'll take you all topside for a proper meet 'n' greet in the morning, so I'll see you at oh-six-forty-five. Good night."

With that, their host was gone. After a moment, Hudson gingerly swung himself up into a seated position, wincing at the memory of pain rather than its reality, and (inevitably) said what was on everybody's mind: "Thought you said the people out here were 'friendly', Gilden?"

Hicks shrugged. "Maybe we caught 'em on an 'off' year...."

"The man does have a point," Gilden submitted, remembering what he'd found in the files he'd read on the flight down here. (It might have been Hicks' habit to sleep during insertions, but Gilden had always subscribed to the 'information is ammunition!' theory, especially during an ad hoc caper like this one.) "At the moment, we're little more than uninvited and unexpected guests who just dragged them into yet another 'contact' – and we might want to bear that in mind."



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