"Draycos? Come on, symby, shake a scale."
Draycos looked up from the systems monitor he'd been watching, his ears swiveling upward toward the voice. Polphir, his Shontine host, was halfway up the ladder to the Havenseeker's main navigation bubble, looking quizzically down at him. "Come on where?" Draycos called back. "We're here. We've arrived. Our job is over."
"Hardly, my good but lazy K'da," Polphir said dryly. "All the long-range navigation may be finished, but we still have to double-check the location of that planet down there. Come on, let's go."
"Very well, my good but slave-driving Shontin," Draycos replied. Crouching low, gathering all four paws under him, he leaped over the bank of monitors--and, incidentally, the two Shontine working at them--and landed precisely at the foot of the ladder. He would have preferred to jump directly to the navigation bubble and skip the climb entirely, but there was another K'da crouched at the monitor station on the lower bubble deck, and there wasn't enough room for Draycos to land there without bowling her over. Wrapping his pawsaround the ladder's side rails--only the Shontine used the ladder's rungs--he started up.
The Havenseeker was alive with activity and quiet commotion today. Small wonder: after nearly two years in space, the four bulky ships of the Shontine/K'da advance team had finally reached their goal, the world known as Iota Klestis, and everyone aboard was excited. Several times as Draycos made his way upward, one or the other of his pointed ears twitched around as an odd noise or fragment of conversation caught his attention.
Polphir was already in his seat at the wraparound control board, working busily, when Draycos reached the bubble. For a moment he paused at the top of the ladder, gazing out at the blue-green planet turning slowly beneath them. An uninhabited world, or so their contacts in this region of space had assured them. Uninhabited, and unwanted. Exactly what they needed.
'Twas night and blackness all around: K'da and Shontine held their ground ...
"You just going to sit there and daydream?" Polphir called over his shoulder. "Or were you taking a moment to admire yourself?"
"And why not?" Draycos countered, arching his long neck as he pretended to pose. "Have you ever seen a more handsome representative of the K'da people?"
"If you think I'm going to answer a question like that in here, you're crazy," Polphir told him, his voice rippling with good humor. "Wait till we get down to the planet where I've got room to duck, then ask me again."
"Never mind," Draycos said. In truth, he hadn't even noticed his reflection in the smoothly curved plastic of the bubble until Polphir made his comment. Now, though, he took a moment to focus on the image.
It wasn't a bad face, really, he decided. The long, triangular head was mostly proportioned right, the glowing green eyes beneath the bony protective ridges properly spaced. The spiny crest extending from between the eyes over the top of his head and down his long back was just about right, though perhaps a bit too narrow. His long muzzle with its razor-sharp teeth was well shaped, though some of the teeth themselves were a little crooked and his forked tongue stuck out a little too far whenever he tasted the air. His scales were a decent enough color, bright gold with red edges, though as a child he'd secretly wished they'd been gray instead. The rest of his body wasn't visible in the reflection, but he could picture it in his mind's eye: the body long and sleek, as befit a K'da warrior, the whiplike tail a little too short as it restlessly beat the air.
After two years, he decided, it would be good to feel ground beneath his paws again. Turning to face Polphir's broad back, he crouched and leaped.
His outstretched front paws touched the Shontin's bare shoulders and flattened out, sliding along the skin in both directions along his arms. As the rest of his body reached Polphir's, each part altered from three-dimensional to two-dimensional form as it flowed onto his host's body. A split second later the transformation was complete, leaving Draycos stretched like a living tattoo across Polphir's back and legs and arms.
"Anyway, I'm not sure I'd trust you to judge K'da beauty," he added, sliding his now flat head along the skin of Polphir'sshoulder and around to his chest so that he could see the indicator lights better. "And just for the record, I was neither daydreaming nor admiring myself. If you must know, I was composing an epic poem about our journey here, and the beginning of new hope for our peoples."
"Were you, now," Polphir said, working at his control board.
"Yes, indeed," Draycos assured him. He stretched his front legs out and away from Polphir's arms, the limbs becoming three-dimensional again as they left the Shontin's skin, and began punching in code on his own set of control panels. "I was going to give you a good part in it, too."
"I'm flattered," Polphir said. "Really. Okay, here we go. Can you get the anterior star-fix going?"
"Already on it."
"Thanks," Polphir said. "If I were you, though, I wouldn't go writing up this voyage as a success just yet. I notice that no one seems willing to give us a straight answer as to whether we're going to be welcome here."
Draycos lifted his head from Polphir's shoulder, letting it become three-dimensional again, for a better look at the proximity display. Was that something flicking in and out at the very edge of the nav sensor's range? "You worry too much," he said soothingly, laying his head flat against Polphir's skin again and continuing to key in his star-scan. "Why would anyone object to our using a planet no one else seems to want? Especially when we're willing to pay for it."
"There are all sorts of reasons they might object," Polphir said. "Refugees in general aren't always welcome, you know. They're even less welcome when they've got enemies as dangerous as the Valahgua."
"The Valahgua will never find us," Draycos said firmly. "Not here."
Polphir shook his head. "I hope you're right."
"Spacecraft approaching," a Shontine voice called across the control complex.
"Recognition signals," another voice put in, this one a K'da. "It's our contact."
"I would say that confirms we've got the right planet," Polphir remarked, hunching his shoulders as he stretched his arms forward over the control board.
"Seems reasonable," Draycos agreed as he again lifted his head from Polphir's skin and studied the main sensor display. "Iota Klestis," he pronounced the syllables of the planet's alien name carefully. "It has a certain rhythm to it."
"Yes, it does," Polphir said. "I still vote we rename it."
"It is hard to find a good rhyme for," Draycos conceded. There were four ships showing on the screen now, small and compact. "Odd. None of them matches the profile of the ship the contact has used before. At least, not according to probe team records."
"Hmm." Polphir abandoned his stretching and leaned closer to the display. "You're right. You suppose one of the local governments decided to send a welcoming committee?"
"And they offered our contact a ride?"
"Or came without him," Polphir said, his tone ominous. "Maybe this planet isn't as unwanted as we were led to believe."
"Perhaps." Draycos rumbled in the back of his throat. "Still, they do have the correct recognition signal."
"Point," Polphir agreed, swiveling around to a differentsection of the board. "Let's see if we can get a better look at them."
The image on the screen wavered, then came back sharper and clearer. Draycos had just enough time to notice the oversized engines and multiple weapons bubbles dotting their hulls--
And then, to his amazement, three of the bubbles on each of the ships popped open in perfect unison, and twelve missiles streaked out toward the Shontine/K'da ships.
"Alert!" someone shouted. "We're under attack!"
"All warriors, to your stations," the calmer voice of Shontine Commander Chayd cut over the sudden pandemonium from the control complex deck below. "Defensive response only. This may simply be a case of mistaken identity. Comm station, talk to them--tell them who we are."
"We are talking," a K'da voice insisted as the ship began to shudder with the firing of its defense missiles. "They're ignoring us."
"Watch out--they're breaking formation," Polphir warned, leaning close to stare out the bubble at the incoming ships. "They're splitting up, one for each of us."
"Batteries, free fire," Chayd ordered. "Concentrate on crippling their weapons. Maybe it's still not too late to talk some sense into them."
Polphir clicked his tongue. "I don't like this, Draycos," he said quietly. "Four of them; four of us. This isn't a chance meeting. They were waiting for us."
"If they were, they didn't get the details very clear," Draycos pointed out. "Missiles that size, against hull armor as thick as ours? What do they think they're trying to prove?"
"And once they did know what they were up against, whysplit up their firepower?" Polphir added. "Why not concentrate everything on one ship at a time?"
"Or just turn and run?" Draycos said. "They're up to something, Polphir. The question is, what?"
Polphir never had a chance to reply. Instead, the ship sweeping toward them provided the answer. From a weapon bubble near its center came a sickly-yellowish flash, and a slender cone of violet light lanced out.
Draycos caught his breath, his mind refusing for that first awful second to believe what he was seeing. Here, hundreds of light-years from their beleaguered worlds, it was impossible that their enemy's most terrifying weapon should be ignited against them.
Yet there it was: the all-too-familiar cone of writhing violet light twisting its way toward the aft end of their ship. The weapon no shielding could block, and that no living being could survive.
The weapon called simply the Death.
"Evasive!" Chayd shouted. "All ships!"
But it was too late. As Draycos watched from his perch on Polphir's back and shoulders he could see that there would be no chance for any of them. All four attacking fighters had ignited the violet beams now, focusing them on the sterns of their chosen colony ships.
And over the all-ship intercom, Draycos could hear the horrified shouts, suddenly cut off, as the Shontine and K'da in the Havenseeker's engine room were caught in the beam and died.
"Evasive!" the commander shouted again, his voice hard and desperate.
A second later Draycos found himself grabbing for the gripbars at the edge of the control panel as the Havenseeker twisted downward out of the violet light sweeping slowly forward along the hull.
How their pilot had managed to coax a maneuver like that from such a big, lumbering ship he couldn't imagine. It was clear their attacker couldn't imagine it either, because for a few seconds the violet beam burned harmlessly through space above the ship as its target dropped out from under it. At the same time, a full salvo of missiles shot from the Havenseeker's flank toward the fighter.
Draycos held his breath as the fighter twisted madly to get out of the way. It successfully evaded most of the missiles; but then the law of averages caught up with it, and the last two slammed full into its side just aft of the Death weapon.
"Two hits!" Polphir called. "The Death--"
He broke off, sagging slightly in his seat as the rest of his lungful of air escaped without words.
There was nothing else to say. Despite the torn and blackened metal on the fighter's side where the Havenseeker's missiles had struck, the violet beam was still twisting its way out into space. It swiveled down toward the Havenseeker, still driving away on its evasive course, and settled again on the colony ship's side. Almost as if nothing had happened, the beam resumed its steady progress forward.
So too did the cries of the dying. With a shudder, Draycos reached out and shut off the nav bubble's intercom. There was nothing he could do to help the Shontine and K'da back there. Nothing anyone could do. The cries continued, more faintly, coming from the intercom speakers on the control deck below.
"This is impossible," Polphir murmured. He sounded morebewildered than frightened. "How could the Valahgua be here? How could those ships have the Death?"
"I don't know," Draycos said. "It doesn't look like we'll have the chance to find out, either."
"No, I suppose not," Polphir said, his voice almost peaceful. A Shontin unafraid to die, and for a brief moment Draycos envied him that calm.
The Havenseeker was still pitching away from its attacker. But the enemy was wise to its tricks now. The violet beam remained steady, continuing its slow sweep forward. In his mind's eye, Draycos could see his companions' bodies slumped in their seats or lying crumpled on the deck as the beam snuffed out their lives and then moved on. The Shontine bodies would linger for awhile; those of the K'da, he knew, would already be turning two-dimensional and rippling away into nothingness. A K'da death left no body for his friends to mourn.
The beam was nearly to the control complex now, and Draycos could feel a slight and unpleasant electric tingle along the scales on that side. "Here it comes," he said. Oddly enough, his voice sounded almost as calm and peaceful as Polphir's had, even though he was far from feeling that way. "It's been an honor to be associated with you, Polphir--"
"Wait a moment," Polphir cut him off, leaning forward and pointing toward their attacker. "It sputtered just then--there. Did you see it?"
"Yes," Draycos said, frowning. The yellow source-glow was indeed flickering; and now so was the violet Death beam itself. Had the near-misses by the Havenseeker's missiles done some damage after all?
And then, with one final flicker, both the yellow and violet lights went out.
"They've shut it off," Draycos breathed, blinking in bewilderment. Was this some kind of cruel trick? One last gasp of false hope for the few survivors here at the Havenseeker's bow before their unknown enemy turned the Death on them again?
But the weapon remained off. Draycos watched, afraid to believe it, as the fighter began to pull up and away. "What are they playing at?" he wondered aloud. "Do they think they got all of us?"
"I would say they're just saving themselves a little trouble," Polphir said grimly. "Take a look. That last maneuver put us into the atmosphere."
Draycos hissed around his tongue. Polphir was right; the thin white condensation trails were smoking off the tips of the antennas rising from the hull.
Commander Chayd seemed to have become aware of their danger at the same time. "Full lateral power," he ordered sharply.
"Not responding," the pilot called back. "Control lines are out."
"Drosh, Mintuk--get to the engine room," Chayd snapped. "You'll need to operate the drive manually."
"Do you want us to go, too?" Polphir called, starting to unstrap.
"No, you two stay there," Chayd said. "Landing sensors are also out. We'll need you to guide us in visually."
Polphir glanced over his shoulder, his eyes briefly meeting Draycos's. Draycos could guess his thought: that such a feat would be nearly impossible to carry out.
But there was nothing for it but to do their best. "Yes, sir," Polphir said, resealing his restraints.
"Everyone to your stations," Chayd said. There was little hope, Draycos knew, and he had no doubt that Chayd knew it too. But the commander was a Shontine warrior, and he would never simply give up without a struggle. Not while any of his crew remained alive. "Prepare yourselves," Chayd added. "One way or another, we're going down."