Nexus 3, Chapter 13

Elle fired a volley of shots, then stopped. “I’m assuming our rules of engagement are that we’re to minimize casualties.”

“Certainly ours,” I deadpanned.

“Well, we did kind of drop a kinetic weapon in the middle of apparently a populace. Even if, best-case scenario, they were all bunked underground for a long winter’s nap, at a minimum we nuked their summer homes. We’re definitely the aggressors, here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That makes sense. Minimize casualties where and how you can. But I’m not risking our lives for theirs. So if you can’t shoot to corral, or even shoot to wound, you take the kill shot, no questions asked, no hesitation. You understand?”

“Crystal clear, sir. I just didn’t want to be playing footsy while you were playing a real contact sport.”

“Fair enough.” I finally had my first contact, coming up on Elle’s rear from the south. I couldn’t be sure if it was a flanking maneuver, or if the caves came up all around and they were just milling towards the disturbance from all directions- though given our numerical inferiority I wasn’t sure the difference would matter.

I leaned out too far, in part because I wanted to get as wide an understanding as possible while things were still relatively calm. The handful I’d seen were just the tip of an iceberg; they did seem to be milling, with five at the lead, but up to a hundred behind them, filling the street. “I got incoming in a big way,” I said. “Hundred total.” I fired, between the lower limbs of the creature, all of which were identical; there were five, in total, two they walked on at a time. I wondered if that meant that had five redundant heads that also functioned as limbs, or if they had five limbs with the brain in the center. The first few scattered towards the buildings for cover, buying me a moment.

“Morphology question, Bill,” I said, firing another volley, into the opposite row of buildings, to get the stragglers to seek cover, too.

“Little busy,” he grumbled, barely audible over the sounds of the torch in the background.

“Learn to multitask,” I said, firing another handful of shots, narrowly missing one of the starfish. “Morphology is basically engineering for organisms, so it’s closest to your wheelhouse. These creatures look like starfish.”

“Number of limbs doesn’t seem to be standard,” Elle cut in. “I’ve had a few with seven or eight limbs.”

“Right. What’s more likely, that these creatures have a centralized nervous system where the limbs meet in the center, or that they’re holding their brains in any one of the limbs- or maybe all of them.”

“Having multiple heads is pretty rare on Earth,” Bill started. “Basically it’s a defect in cellular division, called polycephaly. There are a handful of species that have more than one brain structure at different parts of the body, but that’s very much the exception, and not the rule. Starfish are probably the weirdest example, because they don’t have a brain in the classical sense. They’ve got neurons and a complex nervous system that seems to run along the length of the entire organism. That’s why they can regenerate from a severed limb; that’s even the preferred way for some species of starfish to procreate.”

“I don’t know that any of that helps me,” I said, firing again. They were probing, damnit it, seeing how far out they could go before I fired. That signaled some intelligence.

“You should have brought a biologist, then,” he said.

“No. It was more than I could have hoped for, as far as starfish biology is concerned. Elle, I’m not going to tell you when to shoot one of them, but when you do, keep an eye out. If you shoot them in a limb and they don’t mind, that will tell us something.”

“Right. About that. While Bill was talking, I clipped one. It was right foot. It did a partial cartwheel so it wasn’t walking on the wounded limb anymore, and kept coming.”

“Fuck. So to even slow them down we’ll have to disable three out of five limbs. I haven’t noticed any tools, yet.”

“Yeah,” Elle agreed. “Not even one of them grabbing the equivalent of a frying pan. That’s… peculiar.”

“Unless they are just gawkers, here to rubberneck.”

“Don’t say that. I’ll feel extra bad about the one I shot.”

I was about to tease her, when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. “Shit,” I said, getting behind cover too slowly. I knew before I felt it, or before I looked down, that I’d been hit. There was a bolt sticking out of my leg. “Whether or not they’re looky-loos, they aren’t the only ones here. They flanked us, building to the south of this one, second floor. Shot me in the leg with a fucking crossbow.”

“Don’t touch it,” Elle said firmly. “By the time a species developed projectile weapons, they were also likely to have connected enough dots to have some inkling of poison and disease- at least enough to know to rub filth on their projectiles.”

“So there’s likely poison and/or shit on this thing. Why shouldn’t I take it out?”

“Because removal is a whole secondary injury. If you’re lucky, they’re using a bolt that doesn’t have any fins. If you’re not, the whole bastard thing is designed to tear more on its way out.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. First aid training sort of fell out of my head there, for a second. I’ll leave it be.”

“Cover me,” she said, without giving me much time to actually prep. I leaned out, and peppered the opposing building, near enough to the two natives to keep their heads down. “And make way,” she said,” sliding behind cover as rocks and arrows thudded in the doorway behind her.

“Why are my pants getting tight?” I asked.

“I’ve had that effect on you since the day we first met,” she deadpanned, firing over my shoulder. “Tourniquet. I used a security override on your suit, to begin its tourniqueting procedures. It’s not a complete seal, but it’ll hold whatever infectious agents might be in the wound from circulating freely. It’s designed to cut circulation as much as possible without harming your ability to maneuver, at least at this level, though they can completely cut circulation in the event of a nicked artery”

“Goddamnit. I know these things,” I said. “My head’s definitely affected.”

“It’s probably too early for most infectious agents. A poison could hit this fast, but there’s also even odds that whatever is poisonous on this world is safe for us and vice versa. Shit,” she said, and I could tell from the way she was looking up that she was navigating data on her eyescreen. “Your suit must have a leak. You’ll likely be getting an alarm any second, now, once it falls far enough below spec. One moment.” She fired again, suppressing another of the starfish creatures. She put her hand to the wound, and a gel spread from one of her fingertips. She leaned around me to the other side of the bolt. “Yep, straight through. And barbed like a son of a bitch.” She sprayed more goo to seal it on the opposite side. Like an idiot, I tried to repressurize, before realizing I was going to fire her seals like bullets- only nothing happened. “Like I said, I overrode your systems. You have to let the gel set.” I felt a hiss, as my suit filled back with the normal quotient of gases. I took in a deep breath and could already think a little clearer.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Told you you should have been the one in the shuttle,” she said.

“So you and the baby could be the one dealing with whatever they rubbed on this bolt. Or so I’d have to carry you back because with a bolt through your leg you’d basically be an unmoving target.”

“I wouldn’t have got hit,” she said.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. But one of us needs to get back to that shuttle. We’re blind to half the theater.” She leaned out and fired. “You go,” she said. “I can cover you better from here.”

“Yes, but then I can’t cover you well from there.”

“Yeah, your coverage was for crap last time, now that you mention it. Now go. There’s only two of them up there, now, but if they add a third or forth- or worse, if they get someone from a worse angle, we might be hosed. In three, two, go!”

I knew better than to keep arguing with her; we were both stubborn enough we could have stayed until we were completely surrounded complaining that the other person should go. And I knew she wasn’t wrong. That was the better vantage, and with what had been my good leg injured, I was moving even worse than she was. I dove into the shuttle, landing on my side so I didn’t disturb the bolt. “This is it?” I heard Elle ask over the comms.

“There wasn’t a lot left worth taking,” Bill replied. “The spearhead wasn’t designed to survive that kind of crash. Our pod, by comparison, was still able to land. I’m still getting readings from it, and we’ll try and recall it to the Nexus, if we can recover it. Now give me your gun; I’ll cover you from here.”

“Bull. We risked our lives for that junk. I can’t lift it in my present condition, and I’m not risking it and you getting left behind because I can’t properly cover you from over there.”

“Fine,” Bill said. An instant later he broke cover, so I had to, in a hurry, suppress as best I could from the back of the shuttle. Surprisingly, he arrived unscathed. “I’m starting the shuttle.”

“You should have gone first,” I said to Elle.

“Oh, stop acting maudlin- you can’t shoot straight when you’re maudlin. I’m leaving the rifle and the extra ammo, only keeping a pistol, and going on three, two,” she broke cover.

The damned starfish were getting wise, knew just how far out of cover they could get without giving me a clean shot- and so even though I was singing whatever the hell kind of ganglia they had instead of hairs, they kept lining up their shot. Bill stepped out of cover behind me, triangulating until he had a decent shot; he couldn’t make it count, but got close enough to get one of the starfish back behind cover, and knock the other one into my scope. I took the shot, through the arm it was holding its weapon in, and it dropped it. Elle slid in beside me, a moment before Bill. “I thought you were starting the ship,” I said.

“It’s two buttons, jerk,” he said, handing me his rifle. “And you’re welcome.”

The backdoors closed agonizingly slowly, with one final bolt managing to slip through them and strike the black box in the seat beside Elle. “Uh,” she said.

“That’s not ideal,” Bill said. “But nothing we can do about it now.”

I heard a handful of tinks as weapons bounced off the hull. “Should we be worried about any of that?” I asked.

“There’s two layers of shielding,” Bill said, “the exterior, where the heat-shields are, and an interior shield to hold in gases and the like. Without the exterior we might burn through energy quick; might be a bit cold waiting for the Nexus. They aren’t likely to pierce both; you’d have to hit the same spot twice.” There was an especially loud thud, “but there’s no real upside to letting them keep trying.”

He fired the engines and the remains of the city rushed by beneath us.

As we ascended, Bill leaned back in his chair. “Trajectory was just as we modeled, which means Haley and Dave’s supposition was correct- it was dead stick, on a collision course but no longer capable of any kind of correction. That wasn’t always the case; whatever it was using for fuel got eaten through, and it’s possible it was using something efficient to limp along, maybe an ion engine using whatever solar radiation it could pull in through panels. I’ll presumably be able to get more from the black box- the uh, arrow notwithstanding.”

“I’ve thought about it,” I said. “I’m composing a message to the Nexus: Drop a commbox on the world we’re leaving. We’ll leave it with a message, something to the effect that our ship was attacked, and we were trying to examine the weapon that was launched at us. We didn’t realize the weapon was going to fall on a populated world. We can’t stop their first interaction with our species from being a tragic one. But giving them some answers, a little closure- it might mean that they don’t spend the next fifty years planning their revenge on our species- or terrified we’ll come back to finish the job. As a show of good faith, include schematics and relevant tech that should help them rebuild- medical and infrastructural.”

“And what about when Pete inevitably complains?” Bill asked.

“Give our beloved HR troll credit where it’s due; I think he’ll understand this isn’t about profit, it’s about making right as a species for shit Sontem’s done.”

“And we’re not just setting them up for a date with the Interplanetary Copyright Court?” Elle asked.

“Precedent says that technology they perceived at the time as a gift can’t be used retroactively to sue a species over whatever technological evolution has occurred since. By the time the company knows anything happened here, their patents will be toilet paper.”

Bill smiled. “That might be the first time I’ve actually enjoyed being a pirate. Maybe we just need to be more judicious about screwing the right kinds of bastards.”

“Yarr,” I said.

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