by Michael Arram



















  The vibration in the ship increased in intensity.  Leo looked at Lucacz.  ‘We’re entering an atmosphere.  They’re about to land.’  Lucacz agreed.  ‘I think on Selene.  The journey wasn’t long enough for it be anything but one of our moons, and Leto hasn’t got much of an atmosphere.  I’m glad, anyway.  I was afraid they were going interstellar at first, then we really would have been in the shit, like you said.  But what shall we do, Leczu?  Do we stay on board if they disembark?’


  Leo shrugged.  The question was on his mind, but everything depended on opportunity.  He did not want to be marooned, but he was pretty confident his Uncle Henry would not leave his disappearance uninvestigated and would come looking for him sooner or later.  He was comforted by that reflection, and also by the belief that if anyone could stand up to these vicious draconids it was Henry Atwood.


  The screeching from the control room reached a new pitch.  The vibration and shuddering in the craft around them peaked, then suddenly there was relative silence, apart from the bickering from the draconids.  Leo had no idea what they were on about of course, yet still he was convinced the creatures were arguing intensely about something.  Maybe it was overspill from his empathic sense.


  It was a good twenty minutes before any draconid emerged from the control room.  There was no stampede this time, they trotted out at a sedate pace.  The last to emerge paused as it exited and seemed to be looking around.  The two avians shrank deeper into their nest amongst the cables and conduits of the roof.  When they looked down again, the creatures had all left.


  ‘We follow, baby,’ Leo announced, ‘but keep close to the corridor roof.’


  There were no draconids to be seen, though Leo had the distinct impression they were still in the spacecraft somewhere, tooling up perhaps.  The two avian youths sped along the rim corridor and found the entrance – or airlock, as they must now call it – wide open and admitting atmosphere, which was a lot fresher than that in the craft.  Outside it was evening, and the breathtaking crescent of what had to be Rodinija dominated the sky.


  Without a word, Leo led Lucacz directly through the airlock and, not pausing, shot into the nearest shelter, a large stand of conifer-like trees.  Breathing heavily, the two settled on to sturdy branches in the dark space under the grove’s canopy.  It was excellent cover and for the moment Leo felt a lot more secure.


  Lucacz took his arm.  ‘My husband, though this is very exciting, had you thought that the spaceship we’ve just abandoned is our only way home?’


  Leo grinned. ‘No, I think we’ll be okay.  My Uncle Henry will find us, I’m pretty sure.  So we’re not marooned, or at least not for long.  My only worry is whether we have enough food to last till he finds us, because find us he will.’


  The pair looked around.  The spacecraft loomed up over the surrounding terrain like a hill of metal.  Close up as they were, they could see that the soil that previously cloaked its nature had been blasted off during ascent into space, either that or fused into silicate on the ship’s plates.  Leo pointed to a much smaller earthen tumulus the craft was dwarfing, so like those on the Petakh planet there could be no doubt that it was erected by the same race.


  As dusk darkened the landscape and stars began to appear external lights powered up around the craft, fortunately not so angled as to reveal the hiding place of the two avians.  Several draconids now emerged on foot.  They were carrying items that could easily be identified as projectile weapons of some sort, but no other equipment apart from bulky-looking bracelets on their arms and legs.  The creatures cautiously approached and penetrated the dark and gaping entrance into the lunar mound, and light flared up from within as they disappeared down the hole.


  A couple more draconids wandered sinuously out of the craft and down its ramp.  They were bearing no equipment, though one of them carried a tall lance.  They squawked at each other sullenly and then moved apart.  The one with the lance headed towards the grove where Leo and Lucacz had roosted, searching for something it seemed.  It paused just below them and hissed to itself, displaying its wings to their full six-meter span; clearly not enough to lift its huge body, as Leo noted.


  The draconid sniffed the air and for a moment Leo feared they had been scented, but in the end the creature moved out of the grove and back into the blue light blazing from the spacecraft.  It placed the lance it was carrying upright on its butt, and stood tall on its short but powerful legs.  The two intrigued avian boys in the trees stared as it massaged its groin with its left hand.  Something red emerged from a sheath and promptly issued a stream of pungent and steaming liquid, its urine apparently, which spattered hard on the ground as the draconid deliberately sprayed it in a lazy arc across the soil at the grove’s entrance.


  Leo recognised the same sharp, sweet odour he had smelled in the craft’s interior, but far stronger now.  It had a powerful effect on his head, dizzying him so that he gripped Lucacz’s arm hard.  Strange swelling streams of thoughts which were not his own surged through his brain.  He had to struggle hard not to cry out to the creature, which indeed seemed to be calling him.  Lucacz’s hand closed over his mouth and he took Leo tightly in his arms.


  In the darkness below something else answered the call.  The soil seemed to surge, then a large animal emerged out of the ground and lumbered to the edge of the trees and out into the glare of the illumination.  Built like an oversized beaver, it had a face not unlike the bipeds in the ship’s trophy room; possibly some sort of evolutionary relative.  It soon suffered a similar fate to theirs, as the draconid ruthlessly ran its lance into the creature’s gut.  It squealed and writhed as it was impaled, the draconid meditating inscrutably on its death agonies.  Eventually it pulled its lance free and tossed it on the ground, then leapt on to the still-twitching body, tearing at and consuming it with enthusiasm, growls from its red and dripping maw warning off its colleague. 


  The scene was an ugly one.  But what was more troubling to the avian boys was the toxic and hallucinatory effect of the draconid’s scent.  They huddled together in the high branches of the conifers until the carnivorous feast below was over and the draconid strolled back to the ship, its blood-stained jaws still agape.


  ‘So now we know why those animals are such successful hunters,’ Leo finally commented weakly.  ‘They have a way to get their victims to surrender themselves willingly.  I was nearly ready to fly down and give myself up.  How come it bothered you less, Luczu?’


  His mate hugged him round the shoulders.  ‘I was worried about you, my husband.  The millenij tuned me to you, and to no other being.  Only to you do I give my ready obedience, Leczu.  The draconid’s drug made me feel nauseous, but it triggered a deep resistance rather than compliance.’


  ‘So mated avians are immune?’


  ‘No, my beloved Leczu, since you’re clearly not.  I’d guess only zemecij would resist it in that way.  The hallucinogen is not tuned to our mental compass.’


  The boys were a little too sickened to eat from their packs, and eventually they dozed huddled together as they were in the trees, partly in reaction to the toxin perhaps.  It was still dark when they awoke, roused by a sudden eruption of alien screeching from outside their grove.  The crew had emerged from the mound and stacked up a mass of salvage recovered from within.  They had also set up an array of screens and devices, around which they were arguing and bickering.  While they were at it Leo and Lucacz flitted silently to the edge of the grove, seeking a closer look.


  Finally the commander enforced his will on the group, which subsided and focussed on the screens.  They lit up, and after flickering through a series of schematics displayed two 3D images.  One was a human, and the other a petakh.


  ‘What the fuck!’ hissed Leo.  ‘How did they get a picture of a human?’


  ‘Extrapolating and imaging from DNA traces, I’d guess,’ his mate replied.  ‘Our people must have been up here, and the only person who could have brought them is Henry Atwood.  If they found that mound and explored it then that would explain why the draconids came racing up to check out the intrusion, dragging us with them.’


  ‘Makes sense.  The question is, Luczu, where are our people now?  They’ve left this place.  Have they gone back to the planet, or are they still up here exploring?  If they are, we need to get to them.  To warn them, if nothing else.’


  The draconids began packing up, shifting equipment and salvage back into their ship.  One that was equipped with heavy bracelets on arms and legs picked up a box, beat its wings and to the avians’ surprise took off, speeding into the interior of the craft above the heads of its fellows.


  ‘So they have some sort of technology that enables them to fly with those piddly little wings,’ Leo mused.  ‘You really did see one of the monsters in the air, Luczu.’


  ‘Shouldn’t we try to get back into the craft?’


  ‘Not sure we can, baby.  It’ll be too dangerous now.  They’re on alert and crowding into the airlock.  There goes the last one.’


  ‘So what do we do?’


  As Lucacz posed the question, the airlock began to seal itself.  The mute boys watched the lights power down around the craft.  As they did, they noticed the sky beginning to colour with the dawn’s light.


  ‘Move it, baby!’  Leo shouted, as an ever-ascending whine announced the craft’s imminent take-off.  The pair took wing and tore through the trunks of the grove as the trees were buffeted around them by the blast of take-off.  As they emerged into the open air on the other side, the draconids’ craft was already five hundred metres in the air.  It hovered for some while then began slowly moving north.


  ‘What do we do, Leczu?’


  ‘We go back to the grove and pick up that spear.  Then we follow them as fast as we’re able, and hope they don’t spot us.’








   The  avian expeditionary force from Petakhrad spent the night at their main base in the Dragon’s Teeth, where Marek von Lauern, sub-commander and warden of the northern marches, joined his garrison to the rest of the force.  It was now three hundred strong.


  The three senior commanders took counsel in one of the towers of the fort.  The battlements had been mounted with Earth-manufactured cannon and heavy machine guns during the frontier scare two years before.


  Marky took his helmet off and laid it on the table, then embraced and kissed his mate, Commander Mike Atwood.  Lance followed up with a hug for his brother-in-law.  The three stripped off their equipment and relaxed their premenja.  Even without that physically enhanced state, Mike Atwood remained a monumental figure.  Marky settled into his lap and was embraced tightly, while Lance briefly disappeared for a toilet stop.  When he returned Marky took a stool and they got down to business.


  ‘I sent one of my platoons to scout forward to the edge of the fen as soon as the rocket went up,’ Marky commenced.  ‘No news so far.  The platoon took one of our few radio communicators, so they would have been in touch had they anything to report.’


  Lance joined in.  ‘The big question for me is what these aliens will do now they’ve revealed themselves.  They’ve more or less ignored us since we arrived, other than the abduction and – I suppose – murder of Emilija and Ruprecht.  They’ve known we’re here for two years and probably more.  It may be that they’ve not reckoned on us as a threat; perhaps they see us as a nomadic species on this planet they’d not yet encountered.’


  ‘There’s another scenario,’ Marky reflected. ‘Maybe they aren’t that numerous, and are wary of starting a damaging fight.  The fact that they’re few would account for their leaving little footprint on the planet.’


  Mike grunted his agreement.  ‘It would be our father’s expedition to Selene that set them off.  It seems to me he found something up there which alerted them to his presence.  He’s not returned either, which is worrying.  If the aliens didn’t think of us as an immediate threat before, they may well do so now.  The abduction of some of our people two years back is evidence enough that they intend us no good.’


  Lance looked troubled.  ‘So you expect an onslaught, Mikey?’


  ‘I do indeed.  So let’s prepare siege plans.  Not easy when we have little idea of their technological level – though as they are spacefarers we know they will almost certainly be more advanced than us.  Still, our fortifications here are not insignificant.  We’re well-provisioned and armed, and there are tunnels running deep into the mountain behind and below us.  They won’t find us a pushover.’


  ‘Should we be defending, or flying to attack?’ asked Lance.  ‘We’re not at our best on the ground.’


  Mike shook his head regretfully.  ‘This won’t be like Kaleczyk, when just one flight of our people routed the Black Horde into extinction.  Until we know their capacities and numbers, we daren’t risk too many of our troops in the open.’








  As the first being emerged from its ship Henry let out the breath he had been unaware of holding.  ‘Wow!’ he muttered to himself, ‘First contact!’


  The alien looked like a giant black raptor until he noticed the front limbs with their long fingers and distinct clawed thumbs.  The eyes were red and savage but unmistakably alert and calculating.  This was no Jurassic creature.  At the base of the spacecraft’s ramp the draconid paused and took in the avians and their human companion.  It was on Henry that it ultimately focussed; clearly avians were old news as far as it was concerned.  For Henry that single point convicted the creatures of murder, and caused his jaw to tighten.


  The creature’s head swayed slightly, though Henry did not get the impression that he was being hypnotised in any snake-like way.  After several minutes the thing raised its head and barked several times.


  ‘Was that communication?’ Henry asked Sergeant Marius.


  The angel-born concentrated and frowned.  ‘Yes, sir.  It was informing the ship that there seemed no immediate threat from the primitives.  That’s us, sir.’


  A further set of screeches followed.  ‘My word, sir.  It’s not impressed with you.’


  ‘Don’t spare me, sergeant.’


  ‘It said that the small, anomalous biped seemed weak and was unarmed.  It was asking for instructions.’


  ‘Dammit, we’re getting only half the conversation.’  Henry began to put out his power, a little miffed, as he admitted to himself, at being so arrogantly dismissed by the alien.


  He focussed his seraphic consciousness on its mind, and abruptly recoiled.  What he felt was cold and entirely alien.  The draconid’s thoughts were as slippery and elusive to the fingers of his probing thoughts as frogspawn was to the young Henry’s hands in the ponds he had waded in his country childhood.  He did however pick up its reaction to its instructions from its commander, a savage delight at a licence to leap at the expedition to rip and tear at the feeble avians and secure Henry for dissection and further study.


  Effortlessly and instantly Henry swatted the thing back with a heavy ringing thud against the metal plates of its ship.  It bounced flat on its belly to the ground, roaring with shock and outrage, snapping at its invisible assailant.  Then it lurched up to stare at Henry blankly before scuttling back within the craft as fast as its powerful haunches could propel it.


  ‘Dear me, sir.  It certainly didn’t expect that!  The language!  Learned a lot of new words there.’


  Reggie yelled out to Henry, ‘For a moment there, dad, I thought we were going to be in yet another Independence Day sequel, but Roland Emmerich didn’t script this first contact.  Yee-hah!  Take that, sinister alien asshole lizard!’


  ‘Cool it, Reggie babe.’  Henry couldn’t resist grinning.  ‘Second contact is likely to be the bitch.’


  ‘Yes, Reggie,’ Gus added, ‘and actually it’s a draconid, not a lizard.’


  ‘Gussie mine,’ Danny intervened.  ‘You’re being overly didactic.  Remember what I said.’


  ‘The world is not a classroom?’


  ‘Absolutely.  Classrooms are where Danny works.  The world is where Gus and Danny play; that is, whenever Danny can get Gus out of his lab.’


  ‘Hmm.  I agree we ought to get out more.  I do miss the Wejg at times.  Petakhrad lacks something in comparison, even now that restaurants and bars are opening on Hochstrasse.’


  Henry looked round at his friends.  ‘Sweethearts, perhaps we can focus here?  Any suggestions?’


  Reggie snarled.  ‘Crumple their tin can with them in it.’


  ‘I don’t think so,’ Henry declined.  What he did do however was take a really close look at the craft towering above them, its weight sinking its lower surface into the ground.  His mind embraced its totality and realised that what was most distinctive about it was its great age.  This craft had been built not centuries ago, but millennia.  He found its time-trail and applied his new trick to coast back along it.  It took him back to the Petakh planet where it had lain parked for hundreds of years, cloaked and unused under a mound of earth.  Before then it had ferried its way around the system and earlier again, a millennium or more ago, it had emerged from deep space where it had spent centuries coasting from stellar system to system.  Its track disappeared so far back along the spiral arm that it was difficult for Henry to comprehend  quite how long it had been navigating the galaxy, but it seemed to him that it had once formed a tiny part of a gigantic fleet of ships, many of them far bigger than it was, whales to its minnow.


  Henry came out of a trance and found his companions staring at him.  ‘How long was I out of it?’


  ‘About a half hour,’ Danny informed him.


  ‘Anything happened?’


  ‘Not a thing,’ Reggie replied.  ‘The warriors have made tea.  Want a cup?’


  Henry took the brew, made of some native Rodinijan leaf.  The taste was a bit like camomile, which Henry loathed, but he kept his opinion to himself.  He probed the interior of the ship with his mind, but got little out of the exercise.  The draconids were in evidence, and he sensed their agitation and activity, but he got little sense from their minds of what they were planning.  They had at least not closed the ship’s airlock.


  The Apollo 18 mission made themselves comfortable as they waited, sitting round with their tea and sandwiches on camp stools they had brought with them.  About two hours after first contact there was new activity at the ship’s entrance.  Several draconids now appeared, this time emerging cautiously.  It appeared that they recognised Henry as an unknown and dangerous quantity.


  ‘They have weapons, sir!’ announced Sergeant Marius.  Four large guns were indeed trained on Henry.  The creatures ululated at him.


  ‘They talking to me?’


  ‘They seem to think you can understand them.  You’re to surrender yourself to them and enter their craft.’


  ‘I don’t think so.  I’ll enter it under my own terms.  Can you communicate with them?’


  ‘Difficult, sir.  Their noises are a bit beyond the capacities of avian or human voice-boxes.’


  ‘Then I’ll just stay put.’


  ‘That loud one just said to shoot up the bird-people till you comply.’


  The draconids had indeed switched target to the avians, sitting with their mugs of tea, smiling and waving at them.  Henry wasted no time, and the guns simply disappeared from their owners’ hands.


   ‘Nice one, sir!  Oh dear, now you really have upset them.’


  This time there was no mistaking the panic amongst the aliens as they fought each other to be first back into their craft.  Whoops and cheers from the avians pursued them.


  Henry turned round to his fellow-explorers with an unsatisfied look on his face.  ‘You may well cheer, friends, but this really is not going well, for us as much as them.’


  This comment sobered up the avians.  Henry got back to worrying.  The draconids were nothing if not rational.  By now they must have been getting to the point of realising they were dealing with a more formidable power than they may have ever encountered before.  Were they humans, the draconids would be considering retreat or possibly using whatever ultimate weapon they had with them, which in their case might not be pretty.  Retreat seemed to be their likeliest decision when the ship’s portal abruptly began to close.


  ‘Everyone!  Get back.  Looks like lift-off!’  The sergeant abruptly snatched Henry up and flew him to what he considered a safe distance, the others following close on his tail.  But nothing else happened.  The craft remained sitting where it had landed, squat and sullen.








  Private Maxim Elphberg of the Second Flight of the Petakh Militia was wheeling with his section as it drilled in the air above the North Fort.  He was in another guise a Field Marshal of Rothenia, so he took military manoeuvres seriously, though he had never followed his father’s hands-on approach to the role of commander-in-chief of the Rothenian armed forces.  It was his red-headed brother Leopold who was always going to be the soldier.  But for all that soldiering was in the Elphberg blood, and even in his present bizarre manifestation Maxxie’s genes demanded he give his new military role his best shot.


  His platoon was in V formation, the corporal at the right end of the line calling and regulating the beat of their wings with the singularly piercing cry a female avian was capable of.  Their empathic sense kept the warriors in perfect alignment and in total confidence of their place in formation.  Maxim was exhilarated by the experience.  The entire section wheeled and reformed as if it possessed one mind, which in a sense it did.


  It had been now two days since the rocket had gone up.  There had been no news of alien movements from the advance scouts, and the mood in the fort had relaxed somewhat.  Not that the avians were sitting around; the fort and the mountain beneath and behind it were teeming with preparations.


  So Maxim was in a good position when a klaxon, followed by the discharge of a cannon, sounded the alert from the battlements below.  The lieutenant signalled ascent and his section began beating hard for height, skilfully using the warm updrafts so that they soon reached cloud height above the ridge, and there they awaited developments or instructions.  It had been decided in advance that a section needed to be in the air when the aliens made their move, and it looked like it was Maxim’s luck that it was his.  Just like his comrades, he was carefully checking his guns and rocket launcher as he and his section cruised between the cloud peaks.








  Vapour began to vent out of the spaceship after about an hour of inactivity on the aliens’ part.  Henry could imagine that the draconids had been squabbling amongst each other as to how to come to terms with the power they had encountered.  The debate seemed to have resulted in a determination to take off.  Maybe they intended to return for reinforcements to the planet below.  Henry reflected it was just as likely the aliens may have decided to get some height above the moon before using any big weapon on him which they had.  As a result, Henry had already decided that he could not permit the ship to leave Selene.  He let loose his seraphic mind on the internal workings of the ship.  He found the reactor core from which all the ship’s power derived, and was momentarily entranced at its complicated, glowing beauty.  But he could see how it depended on a simple reaction which could be snuffed out like a candle between his fingers.  So he did it.  Awesome.


  The effect on the ship was instantaneous.  It settled with a judder and a hiss deeper into the surface.  It had perhaps been using its levitating power all along to prevent it sinking into the moon’s soil.  Now, powerless, it lurched and sagged to one side with a grinding crunch.  Plates groaned and buckled, and steam blasted out from the interior under pressure.


  ‘Wow!’ exclaimed Reggie.  ‘Did you do that?’


  ‘That’s one alien bird that’ll never fly again,’ Danny observed.  ‘I hope you can fix it.’


  Henry shrugged.  ‘Somehow I can’t look upon it as vandalism.  Those bastards were planning on doing us no good.  This was not a war we declared.’


  The ship still had battery power, as emergency hatches blasted open all around its waist.  Draconids emerged and slithered down on to the ground, a score of them.  They had re-equipped themselves with arms and four of them had heavy bracelets on all their limbs.  But they had learned from past encounters, and did not immediately attempt to approach Henry and his companions.


  The draconids huddled together like a nest of snakes at the base of their wrecked ship.  Every now and again one of them would rear its dark head and hiss venomously at the avian party regarding them both curiously and fearlessly.


  There was little doubt the aliens were at a loss, however.  It was asking a lot to read the body language of such exotic creatures, but their huddling together and edgy restlessness indicated they had never been in a position where their aggression and violence were so futile against an enemy.


  It took maybe an hour of their hooting and hissing before the draconids came to some sort of agreement, and when it came it quite surprised Henry.  One of them ostentatiously disarmed itself, placing its gun on the ground.  It slowly sidled towards the avian party and raised its forearms into the air in a singularly human gesture.


  Marius at his side, Henry moved to meet the draconid.  He stopped just out of snapping range of its powerful jaws.  The creature stared down for a while in silence at the small and puzzling biped who had just made junk of its advanced technology.


  It gave a low ululation and snarl.  The sergeant picked up the meaning.  ‘The thing said it wished to know what manner of creature you are, sir.’


  Henry shrugged at the thing and then thumped his chest.  ‘Me Mendamero, who you?’


  The sergeant translated the next series of hoots.  ‘It caught your name sir, but it didn’t get your question.  It wants to know what species you are and what world you come from.  It believes you conquered and enslaved us avians with your power.’


  Henry shook his head.  ‘It’s a monomania with these creatures.  What an outlook to have developed; talk about fixated.  Everything is about conquest and exploitation with them.’


  The sergeant volunteered to try to answer the thing.  He did his best, and there was something of a conversation, though the draconid simply stared at him when he finished.  ‘I don’t think he understood me, sir.’


 ‘You were yowling well enough, I thought.  Was it your Rothenian accent?’


  ‘Er, no.  The thing just didn’t get what I said about avians being a free people and you being our friend.  By the way, this species calls itself the Yaahl, if I got that right.  It means the Masters, or something like that.  The word’s both singular and plural.’


  ‘How can they all be masters?’


  ‘Mastership’s a sort of quality with them.  They none of them defer to any other, but some are acknowledged as more masterful than others.  I think that’s what it implies.  But since the Yaahl are top of the chain, all other living creatures are Arhaal, which I suppose means slaves, or possibly food.’


  ‘A pretty austere ideology by which to live.  I wonder what they do to relax?’


  ‘Just kill things, I fear.  It hated talking to me.  Arhaal are by definition prey, not conversation partners.  It’s a measure of how confused you’ve got them, sir, that this Yaahl’s talking to what it considers a dumb beast.’


  ‘What’s it doing?’  Henry suddenly asked.  The draconid was rubbing its crotch.  ‘Looks like it’s wanking.  Oh for ...  it’s taking a piss.  Yuk!  We must really have terrorised it with our innate niceness.’


  The creature began spraying the ground in front of it, some of the rank fluid even spattering on Henry’s bare legs.  As he recoiled in disgust he suddenly felt dreamy and trancelike, then strangely drawn towards the black monster.  He saw in his numb daze that the other Yaahl had come up behind their colleague and were spraying in the avians’ direction.  Like zombies, the Apollo 18 team began walking towards the gaping red jaws of the draconids.