Threedak stood tall in the armored palanquin, waving to her subjects as the military parade wove through the streets of Lament beneath her. She stood slightly unsteadily, her couch just behind her in case a break was needed. Between the drugs suppressing her nigh constant pain, and the strange feeling of actual gravity after years in space with nothing but centrifugal force providing a simulacrum, the possibility that she would need it hung heavy over her head. Still, she waved her graspers as the marines and naval crew women marched smartly below her. It was the least she could do after their service to the empire.
She shuddered. Even after the space battle was won, the invaders fought back against the marines. The footage of the ground battle was particularly unnerving. The invaders fought in quadruped suits without any sort of definable torso or head. Just four equidistant legs connecting together in a hardpoint with a gun mount. More than anything, they resembled arachnids from her human memories. Except of course that each invader was almost eight feet from the tip of one leg to another with their center standing almost three feet off the ground.
As soon as the Dhajtel landing craft dropped off the first company of one hundred and fifty marines and a walker, the full complement from one of the torchships, the invaders sprang from their city to attack. They skittered quickly across the moon’s surface in absolute silence, occasionally setting themselves against the ground to fire a needle rifle or railgun as they charged the Dhajtel that outnumbered them. Worse, whatever pseudomuscles their suits used for locomotion, it was clearly more advanced than Dhajtel tech, letting the spider-like invaders periodically leap twenty to thirty feet at a time in the lowered gravity.
The Dhajtel won the encounter, four more companies were more than enough to quell the rest of the invaders’ defenses, but the battle still chilled her. The invaders fought in complete silence. They didn’t issue challenges, offer terms, or reach out to the overwhelming landing force in any way. They didn’t even communicate with each other via radio. Instead the leaping and skittering horde of two hundred invaders just charged.
For the Dhajtel, it wasn’t nearly as silent of an affair. The needle carbines themselves didn’t make any noise on the airless planetoid, but soon the screams of the dying filled the comm channels as wounded Dhajtel gasped out the last gurgling breaths on sheets of methane ice. Quickly the major in charge of the operation ordered the company commanders to cut the feeds of the injured, but the first frantic minutes of the conflict took a heavy toll on morale.
Of the seven hundred and fifty infantry that landed on the moon, just under six hundred and fifty returned to their landing craft. On paper it was a great victory. With the help of the drop ships and walkers, the marines achieved a two to one kill ratio.
In practice, the survivors were haunted. Their units were literally decimated by the fight, with fewer than one and ten made it back to Dhaj. Amongst them, most couldn’t help but remember their companions’s final moments. Dying alone on a dark, airless sphere of ice and rock.
Below her, the throngs of Dhajtel cheered as the last of the marchers cleared Threedak’s stand. Following them were the military ground cars, sleek and silent electrically powered war machines, carrying the individuals who had served with distinction in the confrontation. Twenty five in total and heavily vetted by internal security, they would approach Threedak one by one to be presented with medals for their service.
She sighed, glancing down at the velvet case holding their awards. Things had changed since the days when she could sprint into battle beside her daughters, sword flashing. Now battles were technical things, fought thousands of kilometers away. The deaths of thousands amounting to no more than an icon on a computer and a flash of light.
Threedak labored for breath before sighing. Yet another sign that time was passing her by. She couldn’t really place her finger on the point when she had gone from a vital day to day participant in building society to a figurehead and stateswoman, but the distinction bothered her still. Her role was important, they needed someone to make the final decisions and a society needed symbols to rely upon. She just loathed being stuck on Dhaj while her daughters fought and risked themselves for the betterment of their entire race.
Trumpets sounded from the military band flanking the ground cars as the Dhajtel began to exit them and ascend the stairs toward Threedak. Kahtash led them, still wearing her armored spacesuit with the chips marking her as a marshal adorning her shoulder. Behind Kahtash came the fifteen marines and nine naval officers that distinguished themselves in the battle. They marched with backs straight, in time to the martial music blaring throughout the square.
Threedak checked her notes and adjusted the microphone as Kahtash’s soldiers came to a stop. In unison, they slammed their right graspers against their chest plates in an impressive rattle of metal on metal just as the music stopped.
“Dhajtel of the Empire,” the microphone picked up her voice and broadcast it throughout the square and up the packed streets where the Dhajtel of Lament had watched the parade. “Today we celebrate a momentous victory. The invaders have always hung over our head, a Sword of Damocles that could come crashing down at any moment. That moment has come, and we have prevailed.”
The crowd erupted into cheering. The faces of the officers weren’t nearly as jubilant. Threedak nodded to them slightly, imperceptible to the general mob, but hopefully just enough that they could notice that she shared their hesitation. She’d seen hints of the invader fleets in her human memories and she’d seen the cost in people and materials to root them out of the system. The Dhajtel would secure their future, but there would be a cost in blood that would suck the air out of the celebration in a second if it were widely known.
“From this day forward,” Threedak raised both graspers over her head, confident that the waiting cameras would catch and rebroadcast the dramatic motion. “We are the masters of our own system. No one will interfere with our industrialization of the gas giants, or the asteroid belts. There will be no interference when we expand into the outer system and begin mining the planetoids in and about the Oort cloud for ice and rare minerals. These resources now belong solely to us.”
She dropped her graspers, flicking her tongue out to taste the damp afternoon air. “With them, we can build a grand fleet and reach out into the nearby systems. We can find new worlds for our eggs, land for our daughters to grow up and stretch their tails. The invaders obviously aren’t the only menace hiding amongst the stars, they are just the most formidable. One day, we will meet them again, and they will be ready.”
She paused, letting tension fill the air. “We will be ready too!” She bellowed, neck pouches inflating and glad that the cotton ball haze of the painkillers kept her from coughing in the middle of the speech. “Just as they hunted the humans to the ends of the galaxy we shall hunt them. Our ships shall be the talons that crack their eggs as we root out their nests wherever they might hide them. With others there may be peace, but with the invaders, only one shall survive.”
“We must remember the cost of today’s victory,” her voice quieted, almost to a hissing whisper. “Captain Laksheer and eleven hundred of our daughters, sisters and mothers in the navy and marines perished between the two battles with the invaders. Senselessly murdered by a race that didn’t even stop long enough to identify themselves let alone communicate.”
A holographic image of Captain Laksheer appeared in the air behind Threedak. The Captain was in full battle regalia, her suit covered in the soot and blood of battle as the damaged bridge of the Ashley Koenig’s bridge flickered around her. Threedak looked up at the image, and gently touched her right grasper to her breast. A salute to the fallen soldier.
“Captain Laksheer’s last words to me,” Threedak continued, her voice choked with emotion. “Her last words were a request that I tell ‘her daughters to sing songs of her.’”
“To me,” Threedak’s eyes snapped back to the square, eyes taking in the enraptured masses. “That is not a request for just her daughters. That is a request I pass on to all Dhajtel. Just as today we celebrate and award these brave souls who fought, bled and died so that we might grow, we must remember those who passed. There are many who would be marching here today if it weren’t for the invaders. Each and every one of them gave their all so that their daughters could grow tall and strong. We must not let their sacrifice fade from our history. Say their names. Know that they are the first, but most certainly not the last to struggle and bleed for our people.”
“Now,” her eyes softened as she took in Kahtash and the other soldiers. “In light of this great victory, we seek to memorialize the valorous amongst the living as well. Lieutenant Commander Tarosh, step forward.”
A smartly dressed Dhajtel, wearing the dress browns of the marines approached Threedak, each step measured and efficient.
“For commanding the first landing company Hermes, the third moon of Michael,” Threedak opened a box revealing a silver star attached to a ribbon, a winged Dhajtel laser etched into its surface. “For holding a landing site against a numerically superior foe long enough for relief to arrive and standing firm, at risk to yourself and your command, I have seen fit to induct you into the silver order of the angels.”
The officers clapped politely as Tarosh saluted and the crowd went wild, cheering and letting loose great joyful bellows from their neck pouches. Tarosh stepped forward, and Threedak clipped the ribbon to her dress uniform, just below her rank insignia. With a brief shake of graspers, the ceremony was done.
One award faded into another, and Threedak did her best to hide her boredom. As repetitious as the procedure was, every Dhajtel in front of her was a hero and deserved to be honored. The least she could do was ignore the monotony of repeating their achievements and clipping various medals and ribbons onto their uniforms.
Finally, she was placing a gold starburst onto Kahtash’s shoulder as her silent daughter beamed at her. For once, her taciturn nature slipped and Threedak could see the genuine pride and happiness adorning her daughter’s face. Threedak’s heart warmed as she lovingly wove the starburst’s pin into the combat uniform. Even if it was only temporarily, it filled her with joy to see her Kahtash genuinely enjoying a moment like this.
“Let me talk to you this evening,” Kahtash whispered to her before Threedak could pull back. “There are things about the aftermath of Hermes that we need to discuss. Things that I haven’t put in the reports yet for fear of starting rumors.”
Threedak, cocked her head quizzically at Kahtash but nodded. Her heart quickened. It wasn’t like Kahtash to be so verbose or melodramatic. Whatever it was, it was likely important.
She finished the parade distractedly, thanking the Dhajtel for their support and efforts, all while wondering what Kahtash wanted to speak about. Her mind flitted from thought to thought, always drawing blanks. Everything she could conceive of, Kahtash would have trusted to normal channels.
Finally the celebration ended and Threedak returned to her home in Lament, dusty with disuse from her years on Meridian Station. Around dinner, Kahtash arrived, carrying a wheeled suitcase behind her. She nodded to Bahwel before stepping into the dining room where Threedak awaited her. On the simple wooden table sat two plates laden with hartden steak. In recent years, sauce had come into vogue, likely to cover up the bland taste of lab grown meat. Threedak couldn’t stand the stuff. So long as she was eating a proper animal, she preferred to go about it the same way her ancestors did. Raw.
Kahtash nodded to her, wheeling the suitcase up to the side of the table and taking out a tablet. A wistful look flashed over her face as she looked at the steak, likely remembering their pioneer days in early rustic Lament.
“Mother,” Kahtash’s expression firmed. “Unfortunately the bulk of your meal should likely wait until we are done discussing business.”
She slid the tablet across the table to Threedak. It began playing a video. The camera shook slightly and then zoomed in on a suit of invader battle armor, the weapon blown off and struggling against a series of cables binding its four legs together. Two Dhajtel marines stepped into the frame, holding the creature down and preventing it from harming itself or its bonds in its thrashing. Another Dhajtel approached, also in armor. This one carried a whining circular saw, traditionally used for heavy ship repairs or removing a Dhajtel from malfunctioning powered armor.
The saw spat sparks, and the invader redoubled its struggling as they slowly cut through its armor. Finally, the tone of the saw on metal changed and the marine carrying it stepped back.
“By Threedak’s tail,” the marine officer whispered, the saw loose in her grip. Kahtash shifted slightly near the table, trying to suppress her amusement.
The camera zoomed in on the leg. With the armor peeled back, Threedak could see the invader’s true form. Nothing more than amorphous strands of muscle and nerve adhered directly to the side of its suit. A minute later, the marines sawed open the center of the armor only to reveal more of the same. Muscle tissue grown directly into the suit itself.
“Is this showing what I think it is?” Threedak asked worriedly, setting the tablet down as the video ended.
“Yes Mother,” Kahtash replied, reaching down to the suitcase and tapping a code into its locking mechanism. “Despite the invaders fighting to the death we were able to disable and capture two of them. Both were literally part of their armor. Our analysts weren’t able to determine if they were grown directly into the armor or if the suit was built around them, but the result is the same. Once they go into an infantry suit, they don’t leave it.
“We found similar results in their ships,” Kahtash shrugged slightly. “Their ‘hallways’ are nothing more than passageways for strands of muscle and nerve. Each ship is one individual invader. For all intents and purposes, the ship IS their bodies. It sure explains their coordination and reaction speed.”
“Something like this…” Threedak motioned at the tablet. “This abomination couldn’t have evolved naturally. Something else must be at play.”
“As I mentioned previously,” Kahtash continued, the luggage hissing as it opened and Kahtash reached into it, pulling out a squirming and pulsing mass. “We had two prisoners. The first was eaten on the spot revealing some… disturbing truths. The military put a moratorium on the reports from the analyst.”
“The second,” Kahtash plopped the mass of tentacles, writhing against heavy rubber bands binding them together. “Is here. We thought it best that you see for yourself. After all, you’re the one who will be leading us against these, things.”