About a grotball field’s length from the remains of her cabana, Vespa spotted several erect figures wading through the shallow bay waters. They were closing in from the north and northwest, like wraiths from the Waterhell. “What are those?”
Zephyr’s hand shot up, pointing toward Terraq’s location. “Look! Whatever they are, they’re heading toward her.”
A woman in a yellow dress sloshed through the water. Vespa watched her slip and struggle to rise. “Isn’t that your friend Cali?”
“She’s not my friend,” Zephyr insisted. “What are those… things?”
“Who knows, but they aren’t here to help Cali.”
“She must be trying to get to Terraq’s cabana.” When Vespa heard a disappointed cluck from Zephyr, she added, “I’m sure she tried your place first.”
“How about you focus on how we’re going to get everyone out of this mess?”
Vespa frowned. She had been rapidly weighing alternatives as they careened across the waters. Cali was one more complication in an already overly complicated situation. Scrambling back to her feet, Cali recognized the Wynde family yacht and seemed more intent than ever on making haste to Terraq’s location. “I’m going to have to talk to my brother about his collection of new lady friends.”
“Getting to see that is incentive enough to make sure we all get out of here,” Zephyr chuckled.
“Then let’s make sure it happens. Don’t want to leave here with sad Zeph.”
“Maybe we can slow them down. Bringing it up on tactical.” A few quick taps by Zephyr and an enhanced image flashed onto the heads-up between the two pilot seats. Taller than an average human, broad in the shoulders, the shadowy figures had piston-like legs and moved stiffly. Yet they progressed through the water with amazing ease. From overhead it was apparent they were forming a crescent around their prey, trapping her as she fled toward the cabana. One paused, black as the deepest recesses of the ocean, and reconnoitered left and right. In profile, a longblaster was visible in its arms. Whatever had distracted this thing didn’t quite grab its attention, though, and the grim beast resumed its march toward the cabana’s ruins.
Argus closed on the cabana rapidly, and in magnification the creatures began to fill the tactical screen. One, then another, stopped in its tracks. Now there was no doubt they realized the spaceyacht was approaching. Finally there was only one alien’s helmeted head in the tactical image – shrouded in obsidian anonymity, eyeless, staring directly at them as if it were looking right through the vidcam and into their souls.
“Fire,” Vespa ordered as she double-checked their shield status.
The creature moved, and too late she realized it had swung its longblaster into firing position.
“And don’t stop shooting!” From the corner of her eye, she saw a red bolt erupt from Argus’ ventral gun an instant before the alien pulled its trigger. Fire exploded from the creature’s chest, energy sparked and spread across the suit, but the alien still managed to get off a shot. A blue bolt ricocheted harmlessly off the forward shields, followed by a haze of others in its wake.
Vespa hoped the shields were strong enough to resist a barrage of enemy fire of unknown type and strength while they landed. “Argus, I’m coming in hot and hard. Hold lift-off ready, TRP Pheta.”
“Acknowledged,” Argus’ thick voice replied.
Grunting, she struggled to keep herself in the pilot’s seat and simultaneously work the yoke and rudders against the sudden deceleration. Sparing a quick glance, Vespa spotted the smoldering pile that had once been Terraq’s cabana and the mound of furniture where they had left her brother and Gemini. She noticed movement; it was her brother weakly trying to rise with the slender blonde propped up against him. At least Gemini stood on her own two feet. The pair disappeared from her view as the yacht swooped down on their location, Vespa doing her best to put Argus between her brother and the alien creatures. If she was lucky, she might blow one or two of those barkneks off their funti-sized feet with her downthrust.
Landing in the shallow bay felt like a muted crash as the struts broke through the water and settled into the saturated silt. Water splashed wildly around the viewport, blinding them momentarily as it rained down on the transluminum canopy.
Argus confirmed touchdown and a few other necessary maintenance procedures. “Corrosive exposure. Hydrocleaning service request logged in maintenance records.”
“I’d like a bath too, Argus.” Reaching down to a panel under the pilot’s chair, Vespa grasped for the hidden latch. The panel shifted slightly and she blindly yanked it open, then dug around inside. Her fingers easily found the holdout blaster favored by her father. Vespa leapt up and sprinted out of the cockpit on Zephyr’s heels.
Skidding to a stop at a chest-high control panel, he tapped it in. A portion of the corridor wall slid into the floor to reveal a cache of weaponry. Zephyr huffed. “These are all hunting weapons.”
“Yes, for killing things.” She shrugged off the slingbag over her head and tossed it at him. “Stop whining, Tames. My brother’s blaster is in there if you want it, but I’m not sure how much charge is left.”
“Can’t I have the nice big shiny one?” The GL-74 barely fit in her hands.
“No time to be picky,” Vespa said, shouldering past to snag her personal bow and its quiver of arrows. These were the most familiar, and her aim truest, and from what she could tell those wraith-creatures’ suits more than likely absorbed energy blasts. But very few things could stop a tensisteel arrowhead, and Vespa’s could take down an ironhide felder boar at 100 meters. She slung the quiver’s strap over her shoulder and readied the bow in her left hand, then ran off down the corridor. Her footsteps faltered only long enough to deposit her father’s blaster in the small alcove that housed Fayti’s idol, just inside the boarding ramp.
Ducking down to get a better view as she descended the lowered ramp, she spotted Terraq hobbling beside Gemini. Now it wasn’t so clear who was holding up whom. Her brother managed a half-curl of his handsomely crooked mouth. “You’re going to be polishing the hull for days.”
“Watch your dirty feet, kids,” she countered with their father’s favorite admonishment. Extending her hand, she helped the pair the first few steps up. “Don’t forget to greet Fayti,” she called after him, this time in a tone reminiscent of their mother’s well-practiced voice for chiding misbehaving children.
Her partner in this insane adventure joined them at the ramp, so Vespa left her brother’s ascent in Zephyr’s capable hands. Notching an arrow, she let the familiar calm of the hunting ritual take over her mind and body. She listened to her inner predator, the thundering in her ears quieting and her vision honing in pursuit of specific movement. Her peripheral vision picked up the hulking black figures first. Quickly she tracked her weapon around, calculating range and wind direction almost instantly.
This was just a hunt, she told herself. Where only the hunted died.
Taking advantage of the cover of the boarding ramp, she loosed her arrow through the narrow gap between the ship’s dorsal section and the ramp itself. The arrow sliced true and straight, driving into the intersecting leather straps on the alien’s chest. Her father would have been proud. The beast’s legs buckled and the creature fell. Unable to see any of the others or Cali, Vespa determined the black wraiths’ approach by the sound of laserfire. Several bolts sputtered off the ship’s underside, so she bounced across the ramp in two strides, planted her left foot and swept her bow around, searching for the next target. Sighting on a shadow lumbering toward the farthest landing strut, Vespa slipped her fingers and her next arrow ripped.
She stepped off the boarding ramp to try to get the drop on another one, then stopped about three meters out when she saw no aliens. Still in hunting mode, her ears were attuned to any whispers of sound. All she heard, though, were Cali’s frantic shrieks, calling for Terraq to wait for her. Vespa could see her now, emerging from behind the ruins of the cabana, splashing and floundering as she bounded ungracefully through the water. It would have been wiser to run the other way, but Cali never really had paid attention in Practical Tactics.
There wasn’t time to shout to her or offer reassurance. The invaders were closer, and Vespa would have to force some kind of advantage. The slosh of water from somewhere behind caught her attention. Reflexively, Vespa drew and shot the first of two aliens rounding the lip of the ramp. Reaching back for another arrow as the creature raised its longblaster, she feared she’d be too slow. Then suddenly a hulking mass launched out of the boarding access and crashed into the black creature. In the flurry of limbs, Zephyr was nearly inseparable from the beast. A thick black arm crunched into Zephyr’s face, and he howled as blood erupted from his dislocated nose. Flopping into the bay, he disappeared into the embrace of its dark waters.
Vespa didn’t hesitate to pounce. Leaping, she leveled the bow across her shoulder then whipped it around like a farball bat. The bow made contact at the creature’s thick neck, actually slicing into the suit. Trying to yank it out, she met complete resistance; the bow was lodged solidly. Thankfully the alien was apparently more concerned with the bow than Vespa as it clutched at its neck with gloved hands. Indigo fluid wept from the opening and spilled down its shoulder. She was forced to let go as the beast dropped to its knees, then keeled on its side, convulsing.
Wasting no time, Vespa grabbed Zephyr by the shoulder as he started to emerge from the water. He clutched his nose and yammered indiscernible oaths, but she only shoved him toward the ramp. She started to scream for Cali, but the sight of two more aliens made her choke on the call. A red bolt whizzed past, coming from higher up the ramp, and felled the nearest of the approaching aliens. Yet the creature somehow found its feet, energized by raging pain. Springing upright, the alien swung its arms wildly at everything and nothing while warbling bellows emanated from its body. With nothing left but the quiver slung over her shoulder, Vespa whipped it off, spinning as she did. She held on long enough for the hollowed portion of an alder wood’s tree to meet the black helmeted head with a resounding thud.
“Get in the ship,” her brother ordered.
She glanced quickly in the direction she had last heard Cali’s screams, but heard nothing except the retort of blasterfire and thrum of eager engines.
“Vee!” Terraq barked.