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
“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
“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
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
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
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,
“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.