“Power up the engines, Jora. We have contact,” Arjuna said as she sat down in the co-pilot seat.
She could suddenly feel a flood of adrenaline run through her, and something different, something feral, a need to protect her child from the evil ravaging raiders that would scorch this planet if they got the chance.
On his small escort craft, Arronanto found himself having similar feelings as he lifted off. He thought of Drapaudi and his mother, sitting at home with his niece and nephew and his unborn child. No, he would make certain the raiders failed.
First contact with the raiders occurred 50 kilometres north of the township. Four escort ships greeted the raiders, their volt cannon ports open. Dennethom had wanted to save the escort ships as a second line of defence, however Arronanto suggested they wait to reveal the Aluen. Let the raiders think they were only dealing with a few colony ships and use up precious fuel and ammunition.
It was a game of tag and the raider ships were “it”. The escort ships took carefully aimed pot shots before darting away. The smaller crafts whizzed between the larger, though equally agile, raider ships. Arronanto had been a little worried about the piloting skills of the local escort pilots, but seeing them in action he knew he needn’t have worried.
“We’ve warmed them up. Now they’re all yours,” Arronanto said into his comms link.
With that he pulled away, and the other escort ships followed him. Silently, almost invisible, the Aluen appeared. With a powerful, thundering boom, the Boentu ship fired its heavy volt cannons at one of the raiders knocking out the ship’s shields in one blow.
The startled raider ships turned to swarm on the Aluen, but Arjuna wasn’t worried. The Aluen swooped up and out of reach of the raider crafts just as she fired a volt cluster, destroying an already damaged raider ship.
“One down,” she murmured and ordered Jora to pull back out of the fray.
“I don’t like this,” Drapaudi said, her lips pressed tightly together as Dennethom nuzzled his son.
“You’ll be safer here with Xien,” he replied, patiently.
Xien stood stiffly in the corner watching as the future leader of Boentu said goodbye to his family. Xien didn’t want to stay. His place was with the Aluen. But Dennethom needed to know someone he trusted watched over his kin.
“You’re certain it’s better we stay here and not evacuate with the colonists?” Yasana asked as she gave her son a hug.
“Yes. Like I said, we’re away from town. This compound puts out a tiny heat signature. They won’t give us a second thought.”
“That must be why you left Xien with a couple of volt cannons,” Drapaudi said dryly.
“Just in case a raider ship makes it through. Which they won’t.” He kissed her. “I also made sure that part of the defence grid will be covering this region.”
Drapaudi smiled, and gave her husband a hug. “Keep Arro, Jora and Arjuna safe,” she whispered.
The waiting was the hard part. Sitting in the control room of the defence grid with the mayor, and a crew of skilled workers Dennethom was antsy. He knew his brother and sister would be feeling the same way, sitting in their respective crafts on the ground, waiting for word that the raiders had been sighted.
The radiers didn’t arrive immediately. A full-day after they expected them Dennethom finally received word that the raiders were in-system. They must have had a tough time navigating the asteroid belt. Good, Dennethom thought. Maybe it would help even the odds.
Sure enough the raiders were on a course for their township. It was no surprise. The colony had grown out of the small township, and it was still the centre of commerce.
Dennethom tapped his comms link.
“Wow,” Nyal said, as he walked up the ramp of the Aluen.
The ship had been hidden away beneath a large rocky over-hang. Jora normally kept the overhang covered, but this time he left it clear so that Nyal could find his way to the ship. When Dennethom had asked to meet Nyal at those coordinates, he had no idea he would be seeing such an advanced craft.
“What kind of fire power is this capable of?” Nyal asked, gazing all about him.
“Standard ship-mounted volt cannons. Also volt cluster bombs.”
“You came on a battleship?” Nyal asked, his eyebrows raised.
Dennethom shifted uncomfortably. “The ship would need volt torpedoes to make that classification.”
“Oh,” Nyal replied. “Wow. I didn’t realise Boentu monks travel with such fire power.”
They didn’t, but Dennethom wasn’t about to make that known. “We are Boentu,” he replied with a shrug.
“Are you leading the defence on this ship?” Nyal asked.
Dennethom shook his head. “No. Sister Arjuna is captaining this ship. She and Brother Jora will provide the main battery of fire. My,” he hesitated. He had almost said ‘my brother’ but caught himself in time. “Brother Arronanto will be with the escort ships providing a secondary line of defence. I will be down on the ground at the defence grid, working to pick off any ships that made it through.”
Nyal was impressed. “It sounds like you’ve done this before.”
“We’ve trained for it,” Dennethom replied. “I wish we could weaponize a few more ships.”
“Me too,” Nyal agreed. “But there’s no time. Those ships are better off being used to evacuate the colony. “
“And how is that coming?”
“We’re sending families off as fast as we can to the southern hemisphere.” Nyal sighed. “I never thought when we were beginning construction on the new settlement site that it would be used for something like this.”
“It’s for the best,” Dennethom said. “This ship is powerful, but from the looks of it, so is the fire power on those raider ships.”
“Do you think we’ll come through this okay?” Nyal asked.
Dennethom shrugged. “It’s difficult to say. There’s seven raider ships. We’re out-numbered.”
“If we do survive this,” Nyal began. “You’ll have to tell me more about your religion and why a Boentu monk needs to own a such heavy fire power.”
So this is it,” Arronanto remarked. “Even as monks we can’t seem to escape doing battle.”
“Some of us will,” Dennethom said, looking pointedly at his sister.
Arjuna glared defiantly at her older brother, the hackles on the back of her neck starting to rise. “I’m going with you. You know I am.”
Dennethom snarled and stood up. Frustrated, he stalked around the room. “You have a daughter to think about Arjuna. You can’t just take off with us to go fight raiders. What will will become of Nerita if something happens to you?”
Arjuna snorted in disgust. “What about you? Both of you! Dennethom, you have a son” she said. “And you,” she added turning to Arronanto who was doing his best impression of a statue, “you have a child on the way. Why do you two get to go into battle but I don’t?”
Dennethom snarled again, impatiently. “It’s our job Arjuna. It is our job to protect this family.”
“And my job also, in case you forgot,” Arjuna responded quietly. The finality in her tone told Dennethom there was no use arguing with her.
“Fine,” Dennethom replied, taking a deep breath. “Then we need to prepare for battle.”
“So this is what we know,” Dennethom began, as he paced around the ward room of the Aluen. “Skora has some planetary defences already in place, but not much.”
“But there is a planetary defence grid, correct?” Arjuna interrupted.
Dennethom grimaced. The pair were still acting cool with each other, ever since Dennethom had tried to keep her from the fight.
“Yes there is. However, it’s never been used in combat. It’s designed to stop stray asteroids from hitting the planet.” Skora was located next to a large asteroid belt.
“Didn’t Sarno also have a defence grid?” Jora asked. He and Xien were also sitting in on the meeting.
“From what Nyal tells me, the colony was taken by surprise. They didn’t have time to activate the grid. Luckily, that won’t be the case with us. Unfortunately, the grid can’t protect the entire planet, which, depending on the strength of the raiders, still leaves us wide open for an attack.
“The last thing we want to do is let the raiders land.” Dennethom paused. “The mayor of Skora sent scouts to Sarno. Nyal showed me the pictures they sent back. These raiders are vicious. They’re not just trying to survive. They enjoy killing.”
“So we need to fight them from the air,” Xien surmised.
“Precisely. Unfortunately, most of the ships on Skora are cargo ships. There are a handful of escort ships used on the supply routes. These are the only ones with weapons. Which is why we’re here, on the Aluen.” Dennethom sighed. “This is the most advanced ship, probably in the outer rim. I don’t see that we have any choice but to reveal the Aluen.”
Arjuna and Arronanto nodded their head in quiet agreement but Jora felt forced to speak up. “Forgive me Tsalu Dennethom, but my priority is to keep you and your family safe. To that end, the best option would be to depart on the Aluen before the raiders arrive.”
“I understand what you’re saying Jora. But we cannot leave the colonists here to fend for themselves. It’s simply not the honourable thing to do.” Dennethom wasn’t disappointed in Jora. He knew Jora would never run away from a fight. It’s just he was sworn to protect the line of Boentu leaders at all costs.
Jora nodded his head. “We’ll make sure the Aluen is ready for combat.”
Puzzled Dennethom ushered Nyal inside. After their guest was seated and Arronanto had given Nyal some water, he began to explain himself.
“Please understand, I’m only here as a representative of the company. However, I spoke to the mayor and he agrees with my ideas.”
“What ideas?” Dennethom asked, puzzled.
“I saw you out in the market today,” he said, addressing Dennethom. “I was wondering if perhaps you heard the rumours about the raider attack.”
“On Sarno?” Dennethom asked. “Yes. I heard something like that. But what does this have to do with-”
“-it’s a lot worse than just raiders,” Nyal interrupted. “They took out the entire colony. The only reason we know anything about it is because of the supply run. Company regional headquarters was on Sarno. It’s gone, and all the people with it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Dennethom replied, trying not to sound callous.
“You don’t understand. Their next stop is Skora.”
Arronanto eyed his brother wearily. “Are you sure?” Dennethom asked.
Nyal nodded his head. “There’s no doubt about it. Skora’s the only other major planet out here. Our tracking system predicts they’ll be here within a day.”
Dennethom felt his heartbeat quicken. The raiders were coming here?
“What about local security forces?” Arronanto asked.
This far out into the outer rim of the Arcturus System, the nearest help was a local detachment of armed security.
“There’s not enough time. The raiders will already have swept through by the time they arrive.”
Dennethom’s eyes narrowed. “What do you need from me, Nyal?”
Nyal shrugged. “I understand you’re a monk and you’re committed to a life of peace. But what you did before, saving me, that took courage that only Boentu might have. That’s what we need right now, Boentu warriors. You monks are probably better trained in this type of situation than any of the colonists here.”
Arronanto watched Dennethom searching for a reaction. Nyal was right. Even Boentu monks are trained in combat. The room filled with silence as Dennethom frantically thought through his options. He didn’t want to commit to a conflict. But they had come to him for help. And no matter how important their cover was, they were warriors. They couldn’t stand back and allow the colonists to be slaughtered. If only the security forces could get here sooner. But he knew Nyal wouldn’t have come unless it was their only option. Besides, the raiders were a danger to his family. Really, there was no decision to make.
“I’ll do what I can to help.”
Nyal looked relieved.
“Just give us the coordinates for the raider ships so we can track them,” Arronanto advised. He too was relieved. He had been afraid his brother would want to turn and run.
“We’ll need accurate information about your own planetary defences so we can plan a counter-attack,” said Arjuna,entering from an adjacent room. Dennethom glared at his sister but she blithely ignored him. “We’ll also need to know everything we can about their attack on Sarno. It’ll give us an idea of how they like to operate,” she added.
Nyal’s head bobbed up and down on his shoulder, and he grinned nervously.
“The mayor will be grateful to learn of your assistance.”
He clasped hands with all three siblings, promising to return with all the information they requested.
In the moons that passed Arjuna surprised even herself. It was an adventure. Everything Nerita did seemed new and exciting. Arkaya took to his cousin well, and was fiercely protective of her. Arronanto went through fits of excitement and dread as Drapaudi’s stomach grew bigger and more pronounced.
It was close to their one cycle anniversary of being on Skora when Dennehtom slipped away to the market. The generator at their housing structure had a worn power converter that he wanted to replace. He took any opportunity at the market to listen for news from the other systems.
He first went to a reliable seller who sold used and new parts, hoping to find the part he needed. The stand was shuttered. When he stopped at a fruit stand to buy some cool treats for the family he spotted a seller reading a local broadsheet.
“Anything interesting?” he asked. He never wanted to look as though he were fishing for information.
The seller tossed the broadsheet aside. “Rumours, that’s all. Supposedly we’ve lost contact with Sarno.”
Sarno was Skora’s twin planet. It had been colonised first as terraforming began on Skora.
“Who do they think is responsible?” Dennethom asked.
“Nobody knows anything at this point. Which of course means everyone is screaming raiders. You must have noticed there’s hardly anyone out here today.”
“That would explain why V’beck’s stand is closed. I had been hoping to pick up a power converter.”
The seller scoffed. “V’beck. What a coward. Don’t get me wrong. He sells good parts for a decent enough price, but he gets a whiff of news of raiders and he’s off scurrying. Makes you wonder why he came out here in the first place.
Dennethom said nothing, he merely nodded his head, ready to purchase his fruit and return home.
Later, that night, as Dennnethom sat playing with his son and Arjuna read to Nerita, the door buzzer chimed. The siblings were alarmed. They rarely had visitors, and never at night.
Arjuna took Arkaya and Nerita into another room. The children weren’t exactly a secret but it would be difficult to explain why children so young might live with Boentu monks
Dennethom and Arronanto threw on their monk robes and went to answer the door. It was Nyal.
The weeks passed once more. The tension between Arronanto and Dennethom had gone, though Dennethom continued to feel uncomfortable as his brother fussed over Drapaudi. It was probably a good thing Dennethom had set his jealousies aside as Arjuna’s scowl seemed to deepen as her pregnancy progressed. She was the opposite of the radiant mother Drapaudi had been. She wanted so desperately to be out hunting and laying traps. Even leaning over to clean her volt cannon had become a chore. Soon everyone was as ready as she for her to give birth.
When the pains first began, it took everyone by surprise. It was early morning and Arjuna writhed in bed. Yasana and Drapaudi got to work right away. Drapaudi sat with Arjuna while Yasana tried to feed her some broth.
“The broth will help,” Yasana coaxed. “It has spices to make the pains easier to bear.”
Arjuna gritted her teeth. “I am a Boentu warrior. I thrive on pain.”
Yasana smiled patiently. “You say that now, but trust me, there is no pain like that of giving birth.” She offered up another spoonful of the broth, and Arjuna, in a fit of rage, slapped the bowl out of her mother’s hand, sending it crashing to the floor, broth spilling everywhere.
Yasana gritted her teeth and called Arronanto in to help clean up the mess. Arronanto entered, carrying a bucket and water. He threw a weary glance at his sister.
“Why isn’t it out yet?”
“How quickly do you think babies arrive Arro? These things take time,” Yasana said with a frown. “You’ll see.”
Arjuna cried out, her body tense as pain exploded through her. In surprise, Arronanto sloshed water on the floor.
“Maybe we should get Arjuna to a doctor,” he said to Drapaudi, who sat quietly rubbing Arjuna shoulders and helping her to breathe through the pain.
“And say that a Boentu monk is with child?” Yasana snapped while she examined her daughter. “Remember, we’re trying to avoid attention.”
“I wish this child would hurry up and come out!” Arjuna screeched as paint took her once more.
“Soon, sister” Drapaudi said in a soothing voice.
It was true it was about time for Arjuna to push. The baby was coming. Yasana and Drapaudi stood with Arjuna urging her to push, while Arronanto and Dennethom nervously waited outside. Arjuna hated that Arronanto had been in there at all. She had expressly forbidden her brothers from being near her when she gave birth. She didn’t want them to see her like that, as just another Boentu female.
At each painful push, Arjuna snarled, her claws extending and then retracting as the pain subsided. Eventually, the labour was over.
“She’s ready for you to come in now,” Yasana said to her sons, as she wiped her hands on a cloth.
They pushed the door open to find their sister, still sweaty and exhausted, clutching a tiny baby. They started to turn away but she beckoned them inside.
“Her name is Nerita,” she whispered, staring as though in shock, at the tiny bundle.
“Her?” Dennethom replied uncertain.
“She’s a female,” Arjuna confirmed with a smile.
“Can I hold her?” Arronanto asked, his voice unsteady, and Arjuna already knew what he was thinking. In a few more moons he would be holding his own child, and they would grow up together, Arkaya, Nerita and whoever his child would be. They would grow up, just as the three of them had done.
Two days after the sandstorm, Dennethom returned to his family. He didn’t like to break his contract, and Nyal was sad to seem him go, but Dennethom knew he needed to stop being the fool, and be there for his kin.
He didn’t tell anyone that he was coming home. He decided to surprise them. He arrived to find Arkaya playing outside, supervised by a very pregnant Arjuna. She smiled when she saw her brother, offering him a quick salute, while Arkaya ran to greet his father.
Dennethom trembled as he held his son. He had been so foolish. Thinking that running away from his problems would be the answer.
Checking to find out what the excitement was about, Drapaudi stepped outside. She looked stunned to discover her husband standing there, but it was nothing to how Dennethom felt. His stomach jolted when he noticed the gentle bump of her belly. She carried Arronanto’s child.
He sensed Arjuna watching him carefully. He knew that pregnant or no, Arjuna would tackle him if he reacted the way he had before. But he wouldn’t. Not this time. With Arkaya clutching his hand, he walked across the yard to Drapaudi and hugged her.
“I’ve missed you all so much,” he whispered in her ear.
“And I’ve missed you my Love,” Drapaudi replied. “You came home early. I’m so glad. We feared you would want to stay longer.”
Dennethom shook his head. “I was a fool,” he said, and gently placed a hand on his wife’s stomach. “Forgive me.”
“Of course,” she replied, kissing him fervently.
Yasana and Xien stepped outside also, realising the commotion. Yasana grabbed her son and held him tight, crying. It was all Dennethom could do to extricate himself from his mother. He felt awful for what he had put them through.
“Where’s Arro,” he asked, turning to Arjuna.
“Out hunting,” Arjuna said, and then added with a smile. “Which means you probably shouldn’t expect a celebratory dinner.”
Dennethom arched an eyebrow. “You let him go hunting by himself?”
Arjuna grimaced. “Had to,” she replied, and gestured at her belly. “This one wouldn’t let me sleep much last night.”
Dennethom sat down next to his sister, lifting Arkaya onto his knee. His son was already walking!
“You’re so big now.”
Arjuna nodded. “I can’t believe I’m only going to get bigger.”
Dennethom gave his sister’s hand a squeeze. “I’ve missed you sister.”
“And I’ve missed you. Now don’t ever leave us again.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
He knelt down next to Nyal. The Arthemian was conscious, but in pain. Dennethom wasn’t sure, he didn’t know much about Arthemian physiology, but he suspected a broken bone.
“Dennethom to Base. I’ve found Nyal. We will be returning shortly.”
He didn’t bother to listen for a reply. It would be lost to the wind anyway. Nyal had a scarf, which Dennethom took and wrapped about his own face. The sand was actually beginning to hurt. If he wasn’t careful, his face would end up like Nyal’s. Sighing, he braced himself and lifted the Arthemian’s heavy body up and over his shoulder.
Returning to the transport, he pulled the ignition key out of Nyal’s pocket and tried the engine. It started. Dennethom silently thanked the old gods as he gently laid Nyal down in the passenger seat and climbed up next to him in the pilot seat.
The return journey seemed longer than the walk up. Because of the wind, he went slowly. He didn’t want to get blown off course. The transport itself had only a small sun shade for a roof, so he was still being blasted by the sand. Dennethom felt delirious. He almost envied Nyal, bundled in the passenger seat, able to slip into unconsciousness. If he could have stopped, he would, but there was no place safe to stop.
His protective suit was supposed to take care of the sweat that poured off his aching body, but Dennethom still felt sticky and uncomfortable. He resisted the impulse to peel everything off. It was like being back on Hadad. The universe was testing him. He smiled. It was funny to think of Hadad. He hadn’t thought of the proving grounds in so long. Everything he had gone through since the proving ground had seemed so much more difficult than the tests on that small rock.
On Hadad his only thought was trying to beat Lossepharr. Now all he thought about was his family. Should he have left them? Had he stayed, his behaviour would have worsened. But he was ready to go home now. He longed to see Arkaya. His place was with his family. As for Arro and Drapaudi, he would need to control himself. If he could only keep her for a time, so be it. A strong sense of purpose seeped through him,
And then, as though to test him once more, the engine on the transport began to sputter and Dennethom was forced to land. He pulled out the tracker. It wasn’t far to the housing camp, although carrying Nyal, it would take a lot longer. Once more he heaved Nyal up on his shoulders. He just had to put one foot in front of the other.
Dennethom bent down to check on Nyal. The Arthemian was barely conscious. He could hardly open his eyes. Nyal’s face was slightly bloodied, the skin raw from exposure to the blasting sand. Luckily, the rest of him was well covered up.
“It’s okay. I’m going to get you out,” Dennethom reassured him, removing his own protective head gear and giving it to Nyal. The Boentu at least had fur to provide a layer of protection.
Dennethom heaved at the large metal roof that pinned his companion down. It didn’t budge. He tried again. Still nothing. He cursed at himself when he realised the roof wasn’t going anywhere while it was partially buried in the sand.
Kneeling down, Dennethom began to dig away at the roof, trying to free it enough so he could rescue Nyal. It was difficult work. The sand was already beginning to sting, but he was determined to keep going. Eventually he tried to lift the roof once more. It finally gave way. Just barely. Dennethom panted at the exertion, sweat streaming beneath his protective clothing. He called out to Nyal, to see if he was able to get out by himself, but the Arthemian could barely speak.
What he needed was something to prop up the portion of roof he was holding. He found a large boulder nearby and managed to maneuver so that it stood next to a corner of the roof. Taking a slow, meditative breath, he lifted the roof once more and heaved the boulder underneath, pushing with his powerful legs. It worked, barely. The one corner of roof that pinned Nyal down was now held up by a boulder.
Exhausted, Dennethom grabbed Nyal under his arms and heaved him away. Dennethom nudged the roof with his arm and it clattered back to the ground. It was all Dennethom could do to get out of the way.