The Rift

Imtep – Fifth planet from its star. Close to Earth-like (.95 on Ming-Hoffman Scale). Dominated by a single massive continent sprawled across equatorial regions. Eastern areas of the landmass are very rugged, but the central and western regions feature extensive prairies or steppes around a large, shallow inland sea. Native sentient species the Izkop (“People”) are humanoid, organized into tribes or clans, the majority living on the plains in agrarian/herder communities. Technology is very limited, primarily craft-metallurgy which allows the construction of durable implements. The Izkop are evaluated as “competitive but non-belligerent,” research reports identifying their dominant culture as well-integrated with their environment. A research facility with a staff of eighty has been established on Imtep. Imtep is classified Type Three for human visitation, with pre-clearance required and only small parties allowed to avoid disrupting relations with the native population.

They had to pry Goldera out of the last set of armor when the power pack drained to exhaustion. After forcing open enough of the suit to get Goldera free they left the armor lying there as they resumed walking, the empty carcass sprawled in the short, tough grass like a body denied the benefit of burial. There wasn’t any simple way to conceal it, and they lacked the time and the strength to do anything else. The blast rifle, useless without power, lay abandoned alongside the armor.

No one had spoken for at least an hour, everyone concentrating on walking, putting one foot before the other despite the fatigue filling their bodies and minds. Corporal Johansen squinted up at the too-bright sun, trying to remember what had happened over that long day since reveille had sounded at zero three hundred to awaken everyone for the rescue operation. But he couldn’t focus on any single, clear memory, his mind filled with disjointed images of the deathtrap which had been a place called Amity.

Johansen brought his gaze down to stare at the back of Sergeant Singh. The sergeant’s last spoken command had been “follow me,” given as they looked down at a valley where nothing now moved or lived except swarms of Izkop warriors. Since then, Singh had been leading them over the hills around Amity, down through patches of woods and shrubbery, and now across this open area. Fear had lent them speed at first, but now nothing kept them moving except the sergeant’s steady pace in front.

With a major effort, Johansen called out just loudly enough for Sergeant Singh to hear. “Sarge.”

The sergeant didn’t stop, instead turning his upper body and head to look back at the corporal as he kept moving, his face locked into the same expressionless mask as someone under inspection. “Yeah?”

“Gotta rest. They’re on their last legs.”

“Understood. Not out here.” Singh raised one arm to point ahead, toward a tree line. “There. Under cover.”

Tall, dark Private Adowa looked toward the trees, her eyes framed by runnels of sweat on her dust-streaked face. “How far is that?”

One corner of Singh’s mouth turned upward slowly. “Check the map,” his voice grated out sardonically.

The map had been digital, of course, linked to satellite arrays which the Izkop had already shredded. Normally, the soldiers would have called up the map, gotten their precise location, and a precise distance to the trees ahead. But the navigation units had been built into the powered armor, and that was gone along with the sats. All any of the soldiers could do now was look around, inexperienced with judging distances by eye and unaccustomed to marching this far without power assist from their armor.

How far had they come since the dropship set down hard on one side of the valley which had held the human presence on this world? As the platoon had spilled out of the broken dropship they had been presented with a balcony view of the disaster unfolding in the valley itself. Debris from what been the buildings of the human civilian community still falling back to the surface, craters marking the graves of damaged dropships which had plowed in too hard for any survivors, elsewhere scattered groups of soldiers firing frantically at the masses of Izkop swarming over the entire valley floor. More Izkop popped up, among and all around the platoon, their heavy spears flashing in the light of the morning sun, surging into the dropship to wipe out the crew, dragging down soldiers and tearing apart the robotic mules carrying the backup power packs. Sergeant Singh had rallied them, tried to get as many soldiers as he could up the side of the valley, while everyone shot as fast as they could and members of the platoon got swamped one by one.

Where had all of the aliens come from? Somebody had been screaming “out of the ground” on the comm circuit before their signal cut off.

Johansen focused on that puzzle to distract himself from the fatigue that threatened to overwhelm him. Out of the ground. He hadn’t had much time to look around during the fight. None of them had. But he recalled visions of slabs of turf lying neatly cut and overturned. “The ground,” he muttered. “The bastards were all lying under the sod.”

Private Stein turned partway to frown at Johansen, then his expression cleared with understanding. “That’s where they came from? Because nobody said anything going in. Landing fields are clear, they said.”

Adowa shook her head. “They also said we should be careful not to cause any violent reaction by the Izkop. Just a rescue and security op in a ‘possibly non-permissive environment.’ Possibly non-permissive, hell. Orbital sensors can’t see aliens lying under a layer of dirt and grass, ready to kill us as we hit dirt.”

“What did the damned civilians do to make the Izkop want to wipe out everyone and us in the bargain?” Private Nassar wondered. “The Izkop didn’t care how many of them we killed.”

Only Private Burgos answered, her eyes haunted. “We didn’t kill enough,” she whispered.

They fell silent again after that, just trying to keep moving in the wake of the sergeant, who plowed onward as if he himself were a suit of armor with an inexhaustible power supply. Johansen looked backwards at times, fearing to see the shapes of Izkop coming after them, and irrationally hoping that other soldiers would appear to join them. But he saw nothing, though as the march went on under the blazing sun Johansen sometimes imagined others marched with them, seeing the shapes of soldiers he had once known wavering insubstantially until he blinked and shook his head to clear it. The tree line gradually grew closer, resolving into a thin forest which would offer at least a little cover from the Izkop and a little shade from the sun.

Singh kept them going after they reached the first trees, onward about a hundred meters, before he stumbled to a halt. “Rest. Half an hour.”

The others didn’t so much sit down as drop, collapsing in place with expressions of mingled pain and relief. Johansen let himself fall as well, luxuriating in not having to keep moving, but after a few minutes forced himself to struggle up until he sat with his back against a tree. Second in command. You’re second in command now. The lieutenant was dead, the other sergeants were dead, and so were the other corporals. For that matter, so was the colonel and everybody else ranking higher than the sergeant. Hell, I’m second in command of the entire relief force now. All eight of us that are left.

Eight out of a little more than two hundred in the battalion.

Johansen looked at the six privates who had made it out of the valley with him and Singh. Goldera, short, lean and wiry, lay on his back, staring blankly upward. Adowa, her dark face and hair blending a bit into the shadows beneath the trees, had a jaw slack with fatigue, but her eyes kept roaming the woods, on watch for danger. Archer, one of the worst shots in the unit despite her name, was a bit smaller than Goldera but had clung stubbornly to the platoon’s portable long-range comm unit despite its weight and now lay hugging it to her chest with both arms. Nassar sat limply against a tree, but like Adowa his eyes were still alert and searching the woods around them, the buzz-saw light machine gun resting on his lap. Stein, big and solid, lay as if dead, only the movement of his chest revealing that he still lived. Burgos, her eyes open but glazed, seemed to still be looking at the deadly chaos around Amity and unaware of their current surroundings.

Sergeant Singh had lowered himself to sit, breathing deeply, his eyes hooded in thought as if they were just on some especially difficult training mission and the sergeant had to figure out how to beat a tough scenario.

As if sensing Johansen’s gaze, Singh nodded to him. “Now that we’ve reached cover we’ll rest ten minutes each hour after we get going again.”

News which normally would have been greeted with muttered complaints from the tired privates brought nothing this time, a measure of their utter exhaustion, but Adowa stopped scanning the woods long enough to look at Singh. “Where are we going?”

Singh jerked his head in the direction they had been traveling since leaving the valley. “Before my armor gave out I spotted a place on the map. A small outpost of some kind along a river. At least one permanent building. We’re sure to hit the river if we keep going this way. Then we find that outpost.”

“Water,” Stein mumbled. “River’s got water.”

“Yeah. And maybe there’s food at that outpost,” Johansen said. They hadn’t carried much, just the usual emergency packs. The other rations had been destroyed with the dropships.

“We hope,” Singh replied. “And maybe some shelter. Depends what the Izkop did to it.” He didn’t have to elaborate. Much of Amity had been intact when the dropships launched, but just before the Izkop erupted out of the soil they had blown apart all of the buildings, taking soldiers and dropships with them.

Nassar breathed out slowly. “Someplace safe, maybe.”

Adowa shook her head. “Safe? How many Izkop got to be looking for us, Sarge? There were thousands back there, and they know we got clear.”

“We haven’t seen them following us yet,” Johansen said.

“We didn’t see them in the valley, either, until we did. How much trouble would they have tracking us with eight suits of armor laying dead, pointing this way? Any fool could follow us.”

“Maybe” Archer murmured, “they couldn’t keep up. Sarge moved us a long ways pretty quick.”

This time Nassar shook his head. “You heard the briefings. ‘On open ground, the Izkop are very fast and can maintain their speed over long distances,’” he quoted. “They may not be big like Stein, but they’re strong enough. Why did we get this far?”

Everyone looked at Sergeant Singh, who shrugged. “No idea. Shooting our way out of the valley wasn’t a low profile op, and they nailed everyone else who was trying to get out in other directions.”

“So,” Adowa insisted, “why didn’t they run us down?”

“They didn’t want to lose any more of their own?” Goldera asked.

Nassar snorted. “You saw them swarm everyone down in the valley. No concern with casualties at all. If we hadn’t burned out the suits so fast, firing the energy weapons without a break and jumping up one side of those hills and down the other as fast as we could, we’d be back there with everyone else, getting our guts hauled out and danced on. It’s a miracle we made it this far.”

Burgos roused enough to glare at Nassar. “I’m not dying before I kill a lot more of them.”

The sergeant eyed her soberly. “Ramada’s dead. We need to stay alive.”

“Yeah.” Burgos barely whispered as she closed her eyes again, shuddering slightly, her left hand clasped tightly so the ring on it stood out clearly.

After a moment of silence, Nassar spoke. “They were waiting for us. How long did they just lay there, under the turf, waiting for us to come down?”

“Days,” Adowa said. “Crazy bastards. How do you plan for fighting against something that’d lay that kind of ambush? I got to tell you, I’m worried we left someone. Somebody still alive.”

“Us being dead wouldn’t keep them alive,” Johansen said.

Archer sat up wearily, brushing hair from her face with one hand and nodding toward the portable comm unit. “I’ve heard no signals from anyone else living since we got clear. For a while I kept picking up automatic distress signals from armor back at Amity, reporting occupants Killed In Action. No wounded needing pickup, just KIAs. But the KIA signals went off, I guess when the Izkop got around to smashing them. I can understand the Izkop pulling the bodies out of the armor, but why go to so much trouble to smash all the equipment on the armor, too, even while the fight was still going on?”

“I guess we can’t ask the civs we were supposed to be rescuing,” Adowa said. “Wonder how long they’ve all been dead and if they put up any fight?”

The sergeant shrugged again. “Probably a while and probably not. The civs here were just researchers. Their reports on file didn’t pay much attention to Izkop fighting methods.”

Johansen snorted. “The civ reports barely mentioned that the Izkop had spears. What did the civs call the Izkop? Competitive?”

“And non-belligerent. I keep getting the feeling they’re out there,” Goldera added. “Watching us. Sure wish I still had the scout sensors in my armor.”

“There’s a lot of stuff in the armor we’ll miss, but good soldiers can fight without it,” Singh said. He focused on Archer again. “Are you sure the comm unit didn’t take any damage?”

Archer smiled slightly and stroked the outside of the comm unit. “Aimee’s fine. Ready to talk when we find someone to talk to. The solar collectors on her shell can keep her charged indefinitely and recharge batteries for any other gear we’ve got left.”

“Too bad it couldn’t recharge the armor,” Goldera grumbled. “They took out the big ship. How the hell did they know how to take out the ship? Primitives, hell.”

“They used the research facility’s own protective system,” Johansen said. “The Sara wasn’t ready.”

“Nobody was,” Nasser observed. “The Izkop burned out everything taking down the ship and our dropships and frying a lot of the satellite arrays and blowing up everything in that valley. Why’d the Izkop kill all the civs, anyway?” he asked again.

“Who cares why?” Burgos had both hands on her rifle. The lightweight slug throwers, emergency weapons usually stowed literally up on the back of the armor, had become their primary means of defense now. “Murdering scum. Their reasons don’t matter.”

“Yes, they do,” Singh corrected. “Understanding the enemy is critical. If we don’t understand them, we don’t know what they might do next.” The sergeant had always worn an old-fashioned watch, not depending on suit systems to keep him aware of the time as most others did. Now he consulted it. “On your feet everybody. We’ve got a ways to go.”

They staggered onward, the sergeant always in the lead, Johansen always at the rear to make sure everyone stayed with them. There were plenty of times when he wondered if he would collapse as the too-long day on this planet kept the sun crawling slowly through the sky, beating brutally down on them even through the scattered screen of shade provided by the trees. But if he fell out somebody else might drop and be lost, too. So he kept going.

The river proved just as impossible to miss as the sergeant had predicted, meandering across their path, perhaps fifty meters wide but apparently shallow all the way across. As everyone drank their fill through filter straws, Singh studied the terrain. “The map showed some ridges on either side of the place we’re looking for.”

Johansen looked up and down the stream. “The bluffs beside the river course are just mounds along here. It looks like they’re higher upstream.”

“Yeah.” Sergeant Singh gazed up at the sun. “I figure we’ve maybe two hours of sunlight left.”

“The night vision gear was all built into the armor.”

“Yeah,” Singh repeated. “We don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark. Let’s get moving, people. We need a place to fort up by nightfall.”

As they moved back into the tree line, Goldera paused to look around.

“You see anything?” Johansen asked him.

“Nah. Haven’t seen anything but what passes for birds and squirrels here.” Goldera hesitated, scanning the horizon. “Still feels like they’re out there, though.”

“Keep an eye out,” Johansen said, then moved alongside Singh long enough to pass on what Goldera had said. Singh only grunted in reply, and Johansen fell back again as the tiny column reached the trees and then turned to move upstream.

They found it when the sun was only a short ways above the horizon. The bluffs on either side of the river’s lowland had risen enough to form a rift between them. The woods dwindled near the edge of the rift, leaving an area almost open along the sides before the land fell away abruptly into bottomland with the river snaking along roughly through the center. Singh and the others wormed forward on their bellies toward one edge of the rift until Singh could raise his field glasses to examine the small cluster of buildings constructed to human standards, while they all lay as concealed as possible by the sparse vegetation.

After a moment, the sergeant cursed softly and lowered the glasses. “Power focus. Great stuff until the power dies. Anybody got charged batteries?”

Without rising, Archer held out one hand toward Burgos, who took what she held and passed it to Stein, who handed the batteries to Johansen who gave them to Singh. After the sergeant replaced the batteries in his field glasses, he passed the worn out batteries from them back along the chain until Archer got them and slid them into charging slots on her comm unit.

Focusing again, Singh stayed motionless for a long time, then finally passed the glasses to Johansen. “What do you think?”

Johansen focused, trying not to expose himself too much to any watchers. “It looks intact.” The compound was dominated by a low-slung one-story structure that apparently combined living quarters and offices. From here that main building looked substantial, with thick walls of compressed dirt and a heavy roof of reinforced metal with built-in solar cells. The rest of the buildings, including a small livestock shed, were of much simpler construction, just stamped metal set on concrete pads.

“See any sign of Izkop?”

“No. No sign now, and no sign they’ve been there. Maybe once the civs left the Izkop didn’t bother with it.” One of the doors to the main building swung idly in the wind. “It looks abandoned…or someone wants it to look abandoned.”

Something moved among the buildings and Johansen stiffened as he watched, the others falling into tense silence. As the thing moved fully into sight, Johansen almost laughed with relief. “A cow. There’s still a cow alive down there.”

“A cow.” Singh made it a statement, gesturing for the return of the field glasses, then studied the animal. “A cow,” he confirmed, lowering the glasses. “Not one of the local herd beasts. A milk cow, Earth-livestock.”

“Milk?” Adowa did laugh very softly, her face lowered into the dirt to muffle the sound. “Too bad I’m lactose intolerant.”

Singh didn’t smile in return. “A milk cow. Abandoned here. It wouldn’t have been milked for some time. But it seems content.”

“You know cows, Sarge?” Goldera asked.

“My family’s neighbors had some.” Singh looked at Johansen. “After only a few days, an unmilked cow would be very uncomfortable.”

“Somebody’s been milking it?”

“Yes. Would an Izkop do that? Could an Izkop do that without the cow panicking? Stein, didn’t your family have a ranch?”

“Yeah, Sarge.” Stein’s large face creased slowly in thought. “No. If what the briefers told us is right, cows wouldn’t like the Izkop, and cows can be damned skittish even with people.”

“Could there still be people down there?” Archer asked.

“Either there are, or it’s another Izkop trap,” Johansen said. “You’ve still got nothing on the comm unit?”

“No. If any civs survived, they’re staying silent.”

Singh looked back at them all. “We go down there, or we go on.”

“Go on? Where?” Nassar wondered.

“Nothing any better than this, and nothing we can reach with less than another full days walk, if we could find it.”

Johansen sighed and checked his weapon. “I’m getting tired of walking, and it’ll be dark soon. We might as well see what’s here.”

Burgos licked her lips, her eyes fever bright. “If there’s Izkop, maybe it’s just a small force. We can wipe them out.”

Singh pointed one finger at her. “Or there’s ten thousand of them within sound of a shot. Nobody fires without my orders.”

“Yeah, Sarge,” Burgos muttered, her expression sullen.

“You go spindizzy on me and I’ll shoot you myself, got it?” Singh kept his eyes on her, hard and demanding.

Burgos flushed. “I said yes, sergeant.”

Fortunately, the compound was on this side of the river so they didn’t have to splash through the water and mud. Tired as they were, the soldiers still moved carefully toward the buildings, only two moving at a time while the others covered them. Once inside the bluffs the flatland around the river was covered with short, round bushes with sparse leaves that caused Stein to mutter “tumbleweeds,” but the area inside the human-built compound had only short grass growing.

Johansen came up against the main building, his rifle at ready, his back to the wall right next to the open doorway where the door still swung lazily in occasional gusts of wind. Adowa crouched on the other side of the door, raising her weapon questioningly. Johansen shook his head, then looked back to where Singh and the others were lying in the grass, their weapons aimed at the windows and doors of the building. He pulled out his combat knife, took a deep breath to fight down a wave of fear, then spun around the corner and inside, once again planting his back against the wall with the knife at the ready before him.

A figure moved, jerking to one side with a gasp of fright. Johansen swung the knife’s point that way even as his mind shouted human . “Who are you?” Johansen demanded.

Instead of replying to his question, the figure rose, resolving into a woman who stared at him in disbelief. “Are you a soldier?”

“Yes, ma’am. Any Izkop here?”

“No.” She looked anguished for a moment, then swallowed and steadied. “We haven’t seen any here since the recall. We’ve been unable to contact Amity since then.“ Her expression changed. “We heard what sounded like explosions in the distance this morning. In the direction of Amity.”

Johansen just nodded. “We? You’re not alone here?”

“No. There’s two other adults and ten children. The others are in the back rooms.”

Finally relaxing, Johansen leaned out the door to wave an all clear and beckon to the others.

The other soldiers came on carefully, still dodging forward until each darted inside the doorway. As he waited for them and watched for trouble, Johansen saw that the building’s interior consisted of a big main room which stretched all the way across its width and perhaps a third of the way back, where an inside wall showed hallways and doors leading to what must be living quarters and offices. A series of big windows ran along the front and partway down the sides, but only two doors were visible, the main entry and a side door. The tables and chairs inside had been pushed around, and the big flat display on the back wall sat dark and silent. Singh entered last, studying the room somberly.

The woman had gone to the back and came out again with two other civilians, both men, one young and the other well past middle-age. “I’m Ariana Tisrok,” she said. “This is Juni Garios and Scorse Kalinga.”

“Sergeant Singh,” he introduced himself. “Suppose you tell us what happened here?”

Ariana slumped into a chair. “We don’t know much.”

The younger man named Juni nodded. “We received the recall. Everybody was to report back to Amity on an emergency basis. But the truck we have here was out on a research run.” He hesitated, his eyes going to Ariana, then Scorse. “It had, um, four people with it.”

“Including my husband,” Ariana said in a low voice. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “We tried calling our truck. Nothing. We tried getting a fix on its position, but the transponder was out. It should have been back before sundown that day but it never showed. We called Amity, to tell them we needed a ride and asking for more details. We never heard any reply. My – the people with the truck would have been able to walk back here within a day if it had broken down.”

“Our truck might’ve made it to Amity,” Scorse said stubbornly. “My wife –“ He stopped talking for a moment. “They might have made it to Amity,” he repeated, the simple statement sounding like a prayer.

“What reason did Amity give for the recall?” Singh asked.

The researchers exchanged glances. “Something about crowds of Izkop. Large numbers of them,” Juni finally offered. “’Tribal situation uncertain.’ That was the last thing I heard.”

“What were you supposed to do if the Izkop turned hostile?”

“Hostile?”

“Yes,” Singh said patiently. “If the Izkop attacked, what were you supposed to do?”

“The Izkop attacked?” Ariana asked.

Johansen didn’t quite suppress an inarticulate grunt of disbelief at the question. Rather than answer Ariana directly, Singh pointed upward. “The regional base at Mandalay, about ten light years from here, got an emergency pulse from the human base on this planet through the quantum entanglement comms. Those can’t provide details, but it was the most urgent emergency pulse that could be sent, the one that calls for military assistance as quickly as possible. We’re from the on-call battalion at Mandalay. They loaded us on the Saratoga and we jumped here. Once inside the star system we started picking up messages your people had begun sending over a week before, talking about danger from the Izkop and requesting emergency protection.”

The three civilians looked at each other in amazement, then Juni faced Singh again. “We never heard those messages. Not long after the recalls, the satellite relays went down, and without those we haven’t been able to pick up anything.”

“You don’t have an emergency transmitter/receiver?” Archer asked.

“Yes, but –“ Juni gave the other civilians an embarrassed look. “It was stored in one of the sheds. Everything in that shed got ransacked and smashed the night after we heard the recall, before we knew the relays were down.”

“So the Izkop know you’re here?” Johansen asked.

“We don’t know that the Izkop were responsible for that.”

“Who else could have done it?” Ariana asked. “The Izkop knew we were here then. In the days since we’ve tried to make it look like we left, because…there wasn’t much else we could do.”

“And because you insisted on it,” Juni grumbled.

“If we’d been alone,” Scorse said, “we’d have set out for Amity on foot, but not with ten children to worry about.”

“Ten children?” Singh asked. “Are they all yours?”

“None of them are ours. It was a field trip,” Ariana explained. “Normally we wouldn’t have children here. They were staying for a few nights.”

“No other adults or transport with them?”

“The two adults escorting the children were also out with our truck. An all-terrain bus brought the children in and was supposed to pick them up three days later. It’s not that long a drive from Amity.”

Adowa, who had been leaning against one wall peering suspiciously out a window, now looked at Ariana. “It’s a long walk. How many kids were still in Amity?”

“None. A few teens. All of the preteens are here.”

“The Izkop hit the valley while all the kids were here?”

“I suppose - Hit?” Ariana stared at Adowa, then at Singh. “The Izkop attacked Amity?”

All of the other soldiers looked at Sergeant Singh, who exhaled heavily before replying. “Yes.”

“Did they kill anyone?”

Burgos made a choking sound.

Singh nodded twice. “There’s nothing left living at Amity except Izkop. Lots of Izkop. They blew up the buildings there, they self-destructed the equipment, and they seem to have burnt out everything in orbit.”

None of the civilians spoke for a long moment. Ariana recovered first. “They’re…all…dead?”

“Yes, ma’am. As far as we know, the only humans left alive on this planet are in this building.”

“I…I don’t…” Juni made a baffled gesture. “If the Izkop are that dangerous, why did your commander only send eight of you here? And on foot?”

The sergeant spoke carefully. “I said every human still alive is here. We’re all that’s left of our unit. The Izkop were waiting for us. They turned your systems on us and took down the big ship that brought us, as well as about half the dropships carrying us to the surface. Half the battalion died that way. The Izkop swarmed the other dropships and anyone who got out onto the surface. Nobody had time to form up before they got overrun, so our individual firepower advantage wasn’t enough.”

The civs fell silent again. Juni just sat as if unable to absorb the news. Ariana kept blinking back tears. Scorse put his face in his hands, shuddering with what seemed like anger rather than grief, then shot to his feet, his eyes blazing. “You got away!” Scorse accused. “How the hell did you get away? You just ran, didn’t you? You left everyone else to die and –“

He stopped talking as the barrel of Burgos’ rifle came to rest a millimeter from his nose. “Shut up,” she breathed.

“Private Burgos.” Singh’s voice was calm and authoritative. “Stand down.”

She held the weapon in the man’s face a moment longer, then stepped back, lowering it. “If you say that again, I’ll kill you,” she told Scorse in a cold voice. “We fought.”

Stand down ,” Singh repeated. “Sir, I would strongly advise you not to question the courage of my soldiers. We left most of our platoon dead and barely shot our own way out of there. There was nothing else we could have done but die on the spot. Now, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to hold out here until another ship gets in. When the Saratoga doesn’t send a routine status pulse back to Mandalay they should send another ship to check on things. If we’re lucky, someone could be here in a week.”

“And if we’re not lucky?” Juni asked.

“Then we’re all dead,” Adowa said. Singh glared at her but she just bared her teeth in a fierce, humorless smile. “They ought to know, Sarge.”

Ariana shook her head, her expression torn between grief and denial. “How could it have happened? If the Izkop pressed us, we were to withdraw. Pull back from contact until the misunderstanding or whatever was resolved. They knew we weren’t here to stay, to colonize or conquer.”

“Maybe some of the Izkop didn’t get the word on that,” Nassar commented from his watch post near another window.

Singh gave him a flat look which shut up Nassar, then turned back to the civilians. “How many Izkop have you seen around here?”

“The first day after the recall, we observed a few,” Juni offered in the voice of a man coming out a daze. “Out in the hills, while we were looking to see if the truck was coming in. Before that, there’d been a lot of Izkop movement. The satellites tracked many Izkop moving toward Amity.”

“Didn’t that worry anybody?”

“There were varying interpretations about the meaning of the Izkop movements. I…don’t know what they did at Amity,” Juni mumbled.

Singh leveled a finger at Goldera. “It’s almost sunset. Get out there and do a scout while we’ve still got some light. Nassar, watch his back. I want to know what you see around this place, especially whether there’s signs that the Izkop are watching it.”

“Okay, Sarge.” Goldera slipped out the door, followed a moment later by Nassar.

Singh sat down, gesturing this time to Johansen and Adowa. “Keep an eye on the outside. Burgos, you and Stein check out this compound. Carefully and quietly. I want to know how it looks from a defensive standpoint. No firing at anything. Archer, run a full diagnostic on that comm unit. That’s our only lifeline for calling the relief ship when it gets here. Nothing better happen to it. Now, I understand you civilians have been in for an awful shock, but I’d like a better idea of what happened. Are you sure you don’t have any idea why the Izkop went spindizzy?”

“No,” Juni said, hunched over as he sat staring at his hands. “What you describe is uncharacteristic. The Izkop have ceremonies which to outside observers can replicate aggression, but they haven’t shown any radical deviations from standard behavioral modes.”

“Ceremonies. They haven’t been acting aggressive?”

“No. Not that I’ve heard or observed. The Izkop are well integrated into their environment and have no need to manifest authentic belligerent group behaviors.”

Ariana shook her head. “I believe the Izkop are an actively aggressive culture, but they haven’t acted aggressively toward us. There’s been some pushing of our limits, but nothing serious.”

Singh raised one eyebrow. “Pushing your limits?”

“In terms of our equipment, asking more about it. At first they wouldn’t ask at all, then gradually they got more interested and wanted to know more. Over time we’d show them a little more, to build bonds of trust and ensure they knew these were simply technological devices.”

“They haven’t pushed,” Juni objected. “They just ask. They’re manifesting natural curiosity about new factors in their environment.”

“What about when you said no?” Singh asked. “How did the Izkop react to that?”

Ariana spread her hands helplessly. “I doubt anyone ever simply said no. We’re researchers. We’ve been trained in nonviolent conflict resolution. When the Izkop press us on something we divert them or find a way to address their concerns or whatever is necessary to keep the situation from escalating.”

“And you had no indications that wasn’t working?” Singh questioned. “Let me tell you what we heard on the way in. The civilians in Amity were sending out messages, both general emergency signals and specific calls for help. They showed video of large numbers of Izkop carrying spears surrounding that valley where your main settlement was located.”

“Amity isn’t a settlement,” Juni corrected. “It’s a research installation.”

“Fine. According to these messages, lots of Izkop were threatening the humans there. The same few messages kept auto-repeating. Now we know that must have been because the humans who sent them were already dead. Then the messages cut off after the first transmissions from our ship reached the planet. We figured the Izkop must have trashed the transmitters somehow to keep the humans here from replying to us, but actually the Izkop apparently just killed the signals once they knew we were being lured in.”

“You’re assuming a rather high level of sophistication in their planning of an act of violence,” Juni said. “How could the Izkop have learned how to take those actions and plan such an entrapment?”

Ariana turned an angry look on him. “Their legends are full of accounts of battles and ambushes.”

“Literary and historical-cultural inheritances can’t realistically be employed to put into practice major changes in group inter-relational dynamics.”

“The Izkop knew what they were doing,” Johansen said. “Not only did they lay a near-perfect ambush for us, but someone showed them how to handle a lot of the equipment there, and they figured out how to modify functions to use non-weapons as weapons.”

“Everything we have is user friendly,” Ariana said in a low voice. “It’s not that hard for anyone to grasp. All you need to do is navigate through simple touch menus to change settings. But at this outpost we never showed the Izkop much. Just the simplest things.”

“And in Amity?” Singh asked.

“They…might have been forced to show more. A great deal more. If the Izkop threatened them. What you’re describing seeing sounds like a dominance display.”

Singh sat back, glancing at Johansen. “What’s your opinion?”

“We’re still missing a reason.”

“Yeah.”

His eyes glowing with rage, Scorse shouted at them. “They wanted our equipment and they were willing to kill for it! I know soldiers like you don’t come from the best and brightest, but how hard is that to figure out?”

Singh kept his own voice dispassionate. “If the Izkop wanted your equipment, sir, why did they blow it all to hell?”

Scorse got up without replying and stormed into another part of the building.

Ariana spoke in a choked voice. “You’re certain everyone else is dead?” Singh nodded, somber again. “Juni, could you look after the children alone for a few minutes?” She excused herself and also went off by herself, while Juni scowled and headed to a back room where the children must be.

“Lost her husband,” Adowa said in the silence after the civilians left. “Too bad we had to tell her.”

“We didn’t have a chance to save him,” Johansen said, knowing he sounded defensive.

“No. I’m just saying. Hard to hear, you know?”

“Yeah.” Scorse had lost his spouse as well, but cruel as it might be Johansen couldn’t muster up the same sympathy. Johansen looked around again as Juni led out from the back room a small column of children.

“See,” the young man told the children, “these soldiers are here now.”

The soldiers nodded to the kids, who nodded solemnly back, their eyes big. “Are you taking us back to Amity?” one who looked about ten years old asked.

“No,” Singh said. “We’ll be leaving on a ship with…everyone on the planet.”

“Why are you here?”

“Why are we leaving?”

“Why can’t we call home?”

“Where’s my mom and dad?”

Singh hesitated, uncharacteristically uncertain, so Johansen forced a smile, standing up to convey genial authority. “Hey, guys, we’re just soldiers here to do our jobs. You got your people here like Juni. They’ll tell you anything they can, but right now a lot of it is secret. You understand?” The children nodded reluctantly, while Juni kept his eyes averted from them. “So you guys stay in the back. That’s part of the secret. You have to keep hidden back there until the ship gets here. Okay?”

The children still looked doubtful. “But we’ve been in there for a loooong time,” one complained. “ Days . And we hardly ever get to come out.”

Archer smiled, too, as she winked conspiratorially at them. “We need your help guys. This is a special game, like my buddy there says. Stay secret, stay hidden, stay cool.” The extra maternal boost must have been enough, because the kids smiled back and nodded.

Juni hesitated, then herded the kids into the back again, leaving the soldiers looking at each other.

“Thanks, Johansen. Thanks, Archer,” Singh said.

“Nyet problema, Sarge.” Archer gave the inner door a puzzled look. “Why’d he bring them out here? Like he was trying to dump them on us.”

“He hasn’t got kids of his own,” Adowa said. “You can tell. And he’s really shook up by this. He didn’t say it like the old son of a bitch did, but he’s another one of those guys who think because they spent ten years in college they understand everything.”

Johansen nodded. “Only he’s realizing that he can’t understand this. The real world is always a shock, but this is a lot worse than those guys usually deal with, and all he can do is take care of the kids..”

“Well, I’d love to help,” Archer said, “but I got other things to do right now, and he doesn’t.”

“You can bet he realizes that, too, and isn’t too thrilled to know it.”

A few minutes later Burgos and Stein came back, Burgos shaking her head. “Just empty sheds out there. There’s hay in a small barn for the cow. Nothing we can use. That shed where they had their emergency gear was completely trashed. Nothing usable in it. Why the hell didn’t they have that stuff in here with them?”

Singh waved around. “Living quarters. You should know some of that survival gear isn’t allowed to be stowed in living areas. Flares and stuff, because of the hazard. How’s the back of this place look?”

“Solid wall. Maybe bad storms always come from that way. The sides of the building back from here have a couple of doors we need to seal off, but the only windows in those areas are slits high up. If we guard the front and sides of this room we’ll be okay, though the Izkop could dig through at other places in time.” She sat down, holding her rifle across her chest, her expression gloomy.

“The civs have been milking that cow,” Stein offered. “Feeding it hay, too.”

“The Izkop would have spotted that if there’s any around,” Singh said, then looked over as Goldera and Nassar returned. “What’d you see?”

Goldera swung his arm in a wide arc through the east, north and west. “They’re out there, Sarge. I knew it. Lots of them. I could see groups of Izkop scattered all around in those directions. None of them seemed to be focused on here, but they were out there all over the place. Not real easy to see, either. I could only spot them when they moved. But it looked clear to the south.”

“Clear?” Singh questioned.

“Yeah, Sarge. Not an Izkop in sight that way. There’s decent cover and the terrain’s easy. We could move fast.”

Singh leaned back, frowning, then glanced at Johansen.

Johansen didn’t hesitate. “Too easy.” Like the landing zone had looked.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Singh said. “That good cover to the south could be hiding Izkop who aren’t moving. Still, they might be expecting us to be keeping to the rougher territory, and there was another research outpost northwest of here they might think we were aiming for.”

This time Johansen gestured toward the back of the house. “Those kids couldn’t move fast. If it was just us, maybe. But not with them.”

“Yeah, that pretty much settles it, doesn’t it?” Singh looked out of the closest window. “Even if it’s clear to the south, we can’t go without leaving the civs here to the Izkop.”

“It’s a chance,” Goldera insisted. “Maybe our only chance to live.”

Adowa gave him a hard look. “We’ve seen those kids. You should take a look, too. How you going to live knowing you left them to the Izkop?”

“That’s the thing,” Singh agreed. “We came here to protect the civs. It looks like these are the only civs left, so I figure we have to stay here and protect them.”

“But staying here won’t make any difference,” Goldera protested. “I wasn’t talking about leaving anybody, just us all making a run for it. I won’t leave any kids.”

“They couldn’t keep up.” Singh looked around. “So we hold here as long as we can, soldiers. Let’s get things set up for a siege. None of us were high enough in the food chain to know how close other ships are, or what time the Sara was supposed to send in her status pulse each day. Another ship might already be on the way, might get here in time to lift us all out, if we hold out long enough. Make sure those back doors are sealed and that there’s no other ways in.”

When Ariana returned, her eyes reddened but her expression determined, they tallied up the food resources at the outpost. “With you here as well as the children,” she said, “we probably have about six days worth of food left. We’ve already been cut off for a while and we’re not set up for this population.”

“What about the cow?” Stein asked. “She’s pretty well-fed. Lot of meat on her. I can do the butchering.”

Ariana gave him a wan look. “The cow is…was…an experiment, to see how the Izkop would react to her. We were hoping…her milk has helped stretch our supplies.”

“I understand, ma’am,” Stein assured her. “A milk-cow isn’t like a beef animal. People get attached to them. But it looks like we’ll need that meat.”

“We wait six days,” Singh decided. “On the seventh day, if no relief ship has shown up, we kill the cow.” The sergeant stood up, stretching, much harder to see as darkness fell rapidly with the disappearance of the sun. “We’re all exhausted, too tired to keep talking tonight, but the Izkop are out there. We stand watches, two hours each, until sunrise. You handle the schedule, Johansen. Make sure the sentries know not to show themselves and not to show any lights, and to wake the rest of us if they hear anything even if it doesn’t sound dangerous.”

“Yes, sergeant.”

Johansen saw and heard nothing unusual during his portion of the watch that night. None of the others reported detecting activity, either. But at dawn Johansen was awakened by a string of curses recited in a monotonous tone by Singh. “What happened?”

“Take a look,” Singh offered, beckoning out the window he was kneeling beside with Burgos, who had the last watch. “Everybody else, get up now!”

Raising himself cautiously, Johansen felt a pit open inside him as he looked at what the dawn’s light had revealed. The area around the compound and for about five hundred meters beyond was empty, but outside that what seemed to be a solid mass of Izkop stood in apparently endless ranks, spears in their hands, gazing silently at the human building. Like the Izkop they had fought in the valley, these wore no armor, just odd pants which came only partway down the upper legs and partway up the abdomen.

“I didn’t hear anything ,” Burgos said, her hands twisting on her rifle as she stared at the Izkop.

“Nobody heard anything,” Singh replied. “Or saw anything. These guys are very good at concealment, but we’re also too used to depending on the sensors in the armor to hear and see trouble.”

Ariana gazed out with a hopeless expression, Juni seemed puzzled as well as frightened, while Scorse glared hatred.

The other soldiers took positions at the windows, weapons ready. Most of them simply muttered despairing curses, but after Stein had gazed out for a while he looked troubled. “Sarge?” he questioned. “There’s a lot of them. I don’t think we got enough ammo.”

Adowa started laughing, then Johansen joined in, then Archer, Goldera and Nasser. Even Singh laughed, and finally Stein added his hoots to the mix. Only Burgos sat silent, as well as all of the civilians, who were now watching the soldiers in amazement.

“Why are you laughing?” Juni finally asked.

That just made them laugh again, loud and long, even Burgos gasping a few bitter snorts, Johansen himself feeling the darkness inside, the certainty of doom which only dark, irrational humor could keep at bay. He noticed that Singh had stopped laughing, though, and was gazing thoughtfully out the window. “What’s up?”

“They’re listening,” Singh commented as the last chuckles died away. “You could tell they were listening to us laugh, and watching us. Do the Izkop understand human laughter?” he asked Ariana.

“Yes,” she said, hurrying to look out the window beside the sergeant. “They have a capacity for mirth that seems similar to our own though I don’t understand any of their jokes. I can’t tell from here how they’re reacting to your laughter. Their facial muscles don’t show emotions in the same ways ours do, so it wouldn’t be easy even if we were closer.” Ariana sat back, her eyes now on the soldiers. “That display. It’s meant to impress. To frighten enemies. But you all laughed .”

“Is that going to make them mad?” Adowa asked sarcastically.

“There’s an Izkop phrase that I think translates as ‘greeting death with smiles.’ They use it in their legends, to describe heroes.” Ariana took another cautious look outside. “See those Izkop gathered together, the ones with the tattoos and decorations? Those are leaders. They’re talking, and I’m sure it’s about you laughing when they expected you to be overawed.”

“Let’s give them something else to talk about,” Nassar suggested, hefting the buzz-saw. “Hey!” he called. “Whenever you’re ready! Come and get it!”

“Quiet,” Singh ordered. “Ma’am, do you know them well enough to see if they’ll talk to you? Maybe arrange a truce or something?”

Ariana hesitated. “I don’t know if they’ll – What did they do at Amity? To…everyone else? Did they just kill them or…?”

Singh pressed his lips together before answering. “The dead we saw were lying face up, cut open from chest to groin, their guts spread out around them. We saw the Izkop doing the same thing to dead soldiers on other parts of the field while we were shooting our way out.”

Ariana looked ill, her body shaking. “Why…? Sergeant, I…I…”

“That’s okay. If you can’t stand dealing with them now –“

She held up one hand, palm out, her voice steadying even though she seemed to fighting off nausea. “I have to. For everyone’s sake. If they’ll listen. But I don’t know why they - I’ll call to them from here.” Ariana visibly braced herself, then stood up, looking out the window, and called out some words in another language, her voice straining over glottal stops and other sounds.

The Izkop leaders ignored her, continuing their conference, then abruptly gesturing and calling out commands. With eerie synchronization the entire force of Izkop began stepping back, slowly retreating with their faces to the humans. They kept going until at least a kilometer distant, then the formations broke and the Izkop seemed to melt into the landscape.

“What the hell happened?” Goldera asked. “Not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t they kill us just then?”

Singh rubbed his chin, then looked at Ariana. “Because we laughed at them?”

“Yes, but they stayed in threat posture,” she responded. “And they ignored my attempts to talk to them. I’m not…oh…’the peace of the warrior before death.’ That’s what it means.”

“So they’ll hit us later?”

“Yes.” Ariana sagged, her face in her hands. “It’s a mark of respect, not a reprieve. There’s no set period for the peace that I could determine.”

The sergeant nodded calmly. “At least it’s obvious they know we’re here. Two on watch at all times,” he ordered the soldiers, “the rest get to work fortifying and blockading all the windows and doors as best we can. Don’t worry any more about keeping the barricading concealed from the outside. If the Izkop haven’t hit us by the time we’re done with that, those off-watch will rest so we’ll be ready to keep two sentries on at a time all night.”

“What about us?” Ariana asked.

“Look after those kids and keep them quiet, ma’am. It’d be a big help if you all also took care of meals for everyone.”

The peace before death had lasted all day. Now, long after sunset, Johansen sat near one window, searching the outside for any signs of Izkop. On the other side of the room, Stein stood sentry at another window. No lights showed inside or out, and the stars and three small moons of this world provided very little illumination.

Johansen had learned that you found out a lot when sitting silently on sentry duty at night. No human noises around, just you and the quiet broken only by the night sounds of whatever place you were in. Listening and watching, you could hear and feel the rhythm of the creatures and the land. And once you knew that rhythm, you could tell when something was disturbing it.

Of course, without the colors and noises and activity of the day to act as distractions, ghosts came at night, too. Johansen tried to ignore the phantoms brought to life by his memories, but still the ghosts sometimes appeared in the stillness of the night.

Ariana came out of the back, hesitated, then came to sit on the floor near Johansen, her back to the wall, hugging herself.

Johansen watched her for a moment before speaking. “You okay?”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “You mean for someone expecting to die very soon?”

“Yeah.” Their voices were barely murmurs, just loud enough for the other to hear.

“No. I’m not okay.” Ariana clenched her eyes shut in anger. “Why? I know what’s happened, but I don’t know why. It’s my job to try to understand the way others think. Is it too much to ask that I be allowed to understand why my husband died and why I’m going to die and why those children have to die?”

Johansen ran one hand down his weapon, concentrating on the curves and edges of it under his palm. “People always die sooner or later. Why do any of us have to die?”

“I’m not talking about philosophy.”

“Neither am I.” Johansen gave her a rueful smile. “I’ve seen a lot of people die. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell you why they died. Especially I couldn’t tell you why they died and not me.”

She returned a curious look. “Most of the time? Meaning sometimes you could tell why they died?”

“Sure. Sometimes they died because I shot them.”

After a long moment, Ariana spoke slowly. “That was a joke?”

“Yeah,” Johansen said. “Soldier humor. Some of it’s pretty dark, but you either joke about it or let it give you nightmares. Sometimes both.”

“Greeting death with a smile?”

“Yeah. It’s nuts, but it keeps us going.”

She studied him, shaking her head. “You see, I never understood that greeting death with a smile phrase. What did it mean? None of the other humans here I talked to could understand it, either. They blew it off as some kind of symbolism. I thought it must be an Izkop way of thinking, embracing death under certain circumstances. But you showed it. You and the others, and none of you want to die. Now, I think maybe I understand a little. It’s not about welcoming death, it’s more about laughing at death to push fear aside.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right. No soldiers here, huh?”

“No. We’re all researchers.” Ariana looked down. “What Scorse said, about soldiers being…”

“Low class creatures with limited intellect?” Johansen asked, grinning at her reaction. “That’s something Sergeant Singh calls us sometimes. But only when he’s unhappy with us. One of the things you learn as a soldier, though, is that everybody’s got some experience, some way of thinking that might be useful. Most people, anyway. I’ve met a few who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, but only a few. You need all kinds. I’ve been around enough to know that everything can’t be solved with firepower. Right now, I guess that’s all we’ve got, but I wouldn’t mind some other options. At least there’s something we can do. I don’t know what it’s like for you and the other civilians.”

“We’re not used to any of this,” Ariana said. “The danger. Taking care of the children. Scorse isn’t helping at all with that, and even though Juni’s okay with children I can tell he resents acting as a baby-sitter.”

“Well, yeah, big shot research guy, huh? I mean, he seems okay, but that’s the sort of job he figures he’s supposed to pay other people to do. You said none of the kids here are yours?”

Ariana shuddered again. “No.”

“That’s one good thing, then.”

“Yes.” She stared at Johansen. “Having children at Amity was a demonstration that we were here in peace. We kept the numbers limited so it didn’t appear we were settling here. It was all supposed to show that this was peaceful and not aggressive.”

Johansen made a noncommittal gesture. “I guess the Izkop didn’t see it that way.”

“Or it somehow didn’t matter to them even if they did see what we intended.” Ariana clenched her fists and her jaw, the muscles standing out clearly even in the darkness. “We all thought that we understood them well enough to know if anything was wrong, and I still have no idea why they massacred everyone at Amity. Or what the mutilation after death means. One thing I do know is that the Izkop consider children to be purer of spirit than adults. It may not be a coincidence that the Izkop moved against Amity when the children left to come here for a few days, but why that would matter if they intend killing us here as well is one more thing I don’t understand.”

After a long silence, Johansen cleared his throat softly. “I dated a woman for quite a while once. Moved in with each other and all that. I thought everything was fine, that we understood each other, and then one day she left. Said she’d been telling me what was bothering her, and when I didn’t respond it just made her more upset.”

Ariana met his eyes. “But you hadn’t noticed anything?”

“Nope.” Johansen looked out at the darkness, not wanting to see the fear and sorrow in her. Instead his mind conjured up a vision of Maria standing at the door to their place, her face twisted with anger, yelling at him. How could you not know? I kept telling you! A door slammed and Johansen started with pulse pounding and weapon coming up before he realized that sound had only echoed in his memory. “We think we can understand aliens when we can’t even communicate with other humans half the time.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Ariana bit her lip. “It’s our job to understand, though, just as it’s your job to fight. How could the Izkop have killed so many soldiers? Your sergeant explained, but none of us really understood.”

He didn’t want to recall that, but the question deserved an answer. “Um, well, when you fight, you need someone watching your sides and your back, right? Usually, that someone can be a good distance off, but against a whole mob you need them right there, otherwise while you’re shooting forward some others can get behind you and grab your arms and stuff.” Johansen shrugged, hoping the hammering of his heart at the memories of the massacre wasn’t too obvious to her. “Like Sergeant Singh said, the battalion was scattered all over the valley.”

“But why were you scattered? Didn’t your leaders, your commanders, know that you needed to watch each other’s backs?”

“Well…there was talk the captain, our company commander, that is, was unhappy with the plan, but the colonel, he was in charge of the whole operation, was set on dropping in a wide formation,” Johansen explained. “Because it was a rescue op. We could see Izkop on the hills around the valley, in lots and lots of small groups. The colonel wanted us to cover lots of territory so we’d be wherever the civilians were in the valley. If we just dropped in a tight group then some or even all the civs might be outside the group and then the Izkop could rush in and massacre them.” It seemed funny now, in a sick way. “We didn’t know the Izkop already had massacred the civs at Amity, and hidden themselves all over the valley. So we got massacred, too.

“We knew they were in the hills but didn’t see them waiting in the valley itself. Maybe your people showed them how IR gear and stuff like that works. They figured out how to hide from it, and our leaders didn’t figure they’d do that. Just a bunch of spear-chucking primitives, right? There they are, no need to look around any more, no need to deploy special battlefield recce, especially when those civs need us now! So we dropped right in as if the whole landing zone was empty. Only it wasn’t. Someone wants to kill you that bad, usually there’s a real strong reason. I guess I’d like to know what the reason is, too.”

“They destroyed everything in Amity, you told us,” she said. “That has to be a clue. Have I mentioned Prometheus?”

“Prometheus? The Titan who stole fire from the gods?”

“You know about that Prometheus?” She smiled, then looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I –“

“No offense taken, ma’am.”

“My students call me Professor Tisrok. My friends call me Ariana. No one calls me ma’am.”

He couldn’t help grinning at her. “So what am I?”

“Call me Ariana. The Izkop legends have a figure I call Prometheus. But the status of the Izkop Prometheus is confusing to me. Is he a god? Or a demon? He seems to be both. The Izkop value knowledge, but also fear having their souls corrupted by accepting things stolen from the gods.”

“You think maybe the Izkop decided humans were working with Prometheus?” Johansen asked.

“Maybe,” she said cautiously. “But our policies should have prevented the Izkop from ever thinking that. We never gave them anything. What happened that translated into massacre? What did the Izkop think happened? If only…“

“Yeah?”

Ariana clenched her jaw again. “My professional opinions aren’t popular. There’s a lot of politics in academia. I believe that mythologies, religious beliefs, tell you a lot about how sentient creatures think. That’s not fashionable right now. The orthodox, prevailing view in my field is that myths and religions are just window-dressing, not really fundamental to world-views and not regarded by cultures as serious explanations for how the universe works.”

Johansen gave her a baffled look. “Where did anyone get that idea?”

“If everyone you work with and socialize with thinks like that, then it’s very easy to believe that it’s true of everyone else.” Ariana sighed. “Like Juni, most of my colleagues back at Amity even argued that the Izkop aren’t truly warlike, that the spears and the battle practices and everything else are just vestigial and symbolic. They look at a primitive society and see the noble savage.”

“Noble savage?” Johansen shook his head, his eyes searching the darkness outside. “How does someone be noble and savage? And how does that correlate with being primitive?”

She laughed briefly, the sound filled with pain. “Those are exactly the sort of questions that I ask. Some very technological human societies have been very savage. Noble primitives seem to be something people want to believe in, like…like…”

“Hookers with hearts of gold?”

“Yes! Those are probably as rare in real life as noble savages.”

“So,” Johansen asked, “what do noble savages do?”

Ariana sighed, shaking her head. “I’ve been told by experts senior to me that the Izkop with their primitive technology are so closely connected to their world that they understand their place in the universe much better than we do.”

“How exactly does that work?” Johansen asked after a long moment.

She caught the hint of mockery in his voice. “That’s a question that Juni would answer with many words made up of many syllables. I don’t believe the logic behind them. That’s why I was posted out here, where I wouldn’t bother others any more with my skepticism. Now perhaps I’ve been proven right, and those experts are now dead in Amity, and it hurts so bad. If only I’d been wrong.” Her voice broke on the last words.

“You being wrong wouldn’t have meant they were right.”

She gave him a tormented look. “Perhaps there’s something more I could have done. Something that could have saved everyone.”

He watched the night outside for a moment being replying, glad that her presence had driven off the ghosts. “Nobody can save everybody. It’s not your fault.” He’d been told that, years ago. He hadn’t believed it. Not really. He wondered if she would.

Ariana inhaled deeply, then fell silent, so they just sat there for a long time until she dozed off and Adowa came to relieve him on the watch. Adowa raised a questioning eyebrow at Johansen as she pointed at Ariana, but he just shook his head and gestured for quiet.

When dawn came, there were no Izkop visible. Johansen felt hope stir.

The morning dragged on with nothing moving outside except the wandering path of the cow and an occasional sighting of a wild creature in the grass or the sky. Archer nursed her comm unit but heard nothing. They checked and rechecked the barricades at the doors and larger windows. Singh moved from soldier to soldier, giving advice and calming talks, but no one said much, as if afraid too much conversation would draw the Izkop out.

Juni had been pacing back and forth most of the morning, and now peered out the window toward the cow, which mooed piteously. “I should go out. I’ll get the milk, and come back. The Izkop aren’t doing anything today.”

Singh shook his head. “No, sir. Please stay inside.”

“But it’s safe . It’s almost noon and -”

Ariana suddenly gasped. “Noon. ‘The banner of the sun flaming its highest.’ Sergeant, one Izkop myth says that’s when heroes die.”

“And they might think we’re heroes? Everybody to the windows!” Singh barked at the soldiers. “Ma’am, you and the others get in with the kids. Call us if there’s any sign the Izkop are trying to get in through the back.”

Ariana ran toward the rear of the building, grabbing Juni as she went, but Scorse fended her off. “I’ll stay out here,” he growled.

Johansen took a long slow breath, his rifle resting on the sill of the window. Behind him, the door to the back room shut. Outside, a flying creature spiraled into the air from the surface of the meadow. “Something scared it,” Goldera said. “They’re out there.”

Shouts echoed between the bluffs. The Izkop seemed to rise out of the ground a kilometer away and came forward at a steady pace, staying shoulder to shoulder as they moved. “Hold fire until I give the command!” Singh called, also kneeling at a window. “Make every shot count!”

“Hell, Sarge,” Goldera commented, “with them lined up like that even Archer couldn’t miss.”

“Shut up,” Archer snapped back at him, sounding for a moment more annoyed than scared.

As the Izkop drew closer, Johansen found himself focusing on small things. The way their hips worked as they moved, not quite like a human’s would. The bright gleam of the short stabbing spears every Izkop carried. The faces which seemed curiously impassive to human eyes. The tough vegetation being crushed beneath the serried ranks of Izkop.

“Fire!”

Johansen aimed and fired as fast as he could, the solid oncoming block of Izkop an impossible-to-miss target. To his right he heard the thunderous whirr of the buzz-saw pumping out rounds, Nassar walking the stream of bullets across the formation to drop Izkop like a scythe felling reeds in long lines.

The Izkop came inside the fence, rushing toward the building, while the soldiers fired, reloaded and fired again. The entire compound seemed to be packed with Izkop, a seething mass which lapped against the building like a flood, then abruptly pulled back, retreating to the fence and continuing their withdrawal.

“Cease fire!” Another shot rang out and Singh glowered at Burgos. “Cease fire, dammit!”

“Oh, man.” Goldera stared at the mounds of dead Izkop outside. “They’re crazy. They just kept coming. We are so dead.”

“They’ll be back,” Singh agreed, “but we’re not dead yet.”

A wild mooo echoed through the sky, followed by the appearance of the cow trotting quickly across the yard, her panic-stricken eyes huge and rolling as she dodged the piles of dead.

The soldiers simply watched it wordlessly for a long moment before Archer said something in a wondering voice. “They didn’t kill the cow?”

Another long silence, then Stein spoke with great deliberation. “Maybe they like cows.”

Archer grinned, too wide and too stressed for the gesture to represent real humor. “Next time they hit us, I’m going to be behind that cow.”

“No. I mean it. Maybe they’re like the Sarge’s people.”

Singh bent a severe look on Stein. “I’m a Sikh, not a Hindu.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Anybody hurt? No? Ammo inventory,” Singh ordered.

Nassar waved toward the discarded buzz-saw. “I’ve got sixty-five rifle rounds left, but the machine gun’s out. Now it’s only good for hitting them over the head with.”

“We’ll probably need it for that,” Adowa said. “Thirty-two rifle rounds remaining, Sarge, plus twenty for my pistol.”

“I got forty,” Archer reported. “Uh, no pistol,” she added unnecessarily since as the comm carrier she didn’t also lug a side arm.

“Thirty-one,” Stein said in an apologetic voice. “And one clip for the pistol. That’s twenty, right?”

“You taking time to aim again, Stein?” Goldera joked in a strained voice. “I got twenty-nine for the rifle. No pistol.”

“What happened to your side arm?” Johansen demanded.

“I dunno. When we got clear of the drop ship it wasn’t there. I didn’t think I should go back looking for it.”

“Eleven rounds rifle, twenty pistol,” Burgos said, then looked away when Singh glared at her again.

“We need to exercise fire discipline,” the sergeant said coldly. “Corporal?”

“Twenty-four and twenty for the pistol,” Johansen said.

Singh looked out the window, his eyes calculating. “We might be able to fight off another attack before the ammo is gone. Maybe not. Then it’ll be hand-to-hand.”

“They got a lot more hands than we do,” Adowa said. “Any chance we can get some of those spears off the bodies out there? Those have more reach than our combat knives.”

‘It wouldn’t hurt.” Singh turned his gaze back on them. “Not at night. It’d give us cover, but it’d give the Izkop a lot more. Any volunteers to go out there now?”

Johansen blew out a tired breath into the silence. “I’ll go.”

“Me, too,” Goldera hastened to add. The others removed the barricade at the front door enough for the two to slip out, then Johansen and Goldera scuttled toward some of the dead Izkop, staying low.

Johansen grabbed some of the spears, watching carefully in case any of the Izkop were playing possum and still able to stab. He passed the spears to Goldera, who kept one eye on the fields beyond the compound. “Hey, corporal,” Goldera whispered.

“Yeah?”

“You scared?”

“Damn right.”

“Me, too,” Goldera confessed. “If you get out of this and I don’t, write my mama and tell her I did okay even though I was scared. Will you do that?”

“Sure.” He picked up a final two spears. “That’s two apiece for all of us. Let’s get back inside.”

“You got anybody you want me to tell anything if you don’t make it?” Goldera asked Johansen.

Johansen didn’t have to think about it. “Nah. Not anymore.” Then they were squeezing inside and the door being sealed again in their wake.

Singh had them all try out the spears, which Johansen found to be well-balanced for stabbing though far too front-heavy for throwing. Then everyone settled down again, the civilian adults once again all in the front room. “It’s hard being in there with the kids,” Juni complained. “They keep asking what’s happening, when they’re going home, can they talk to their parents. We told them to play and stay quiet.”

“It’s going to be a long afternoon,” Singh observed. “Tell us something about the Izkop,” he asked the civilian researchers.

Scorse grimaced. “I’m a planetary geologist. I never cared about them.”

Juni shrugged. “I’m a planetary ecologist. I don’t study one species, I study the whole system. I received my doctorate at Old Harvard under Professor Haddleton, you know. I know how everything contributes to the whole.”

“Wow,” Adowa commented in a non-committal tone.

That left Ariana, who gave Scorse and Juni cross looks before speaking. “I’m not an expert on them. I study mythic structures.”

“That probably makes you the biggest living expert,” Burgos grumbled.

Ariana winced as Singh and Johansen both pinned Burgos with glares. “That’s true. What do you want to know about the Izkop?”

“We know they’re farmers and herders. That was in the predrop brief.” Singh gestured outward. “Tell us something about how they think. You said something about heroes before. Meeting death with smiles. What kind of heroes have the Izkop got?”

Ariana hesitated. “There’s one hero they call the pass-holder. Their greatest hero. I call him Horatio, after an ancient human hero who held a bridge. The Izkop Horatio held a pass against demons who were trying to wipe out the ancestors of the Izkop. He died holding the pass. I haven’t been able to figure out whether they revere him for saving their ancestors, or for dying while holding the pass. I have a feeling their admiration has at least partly to do with the fact that he died, and would be the same even if he hadn’t succeeded. I mean, presumably there wouldn’t be any Izkop if he’d failed, but what mattered was that he died. Or was willing to die. I think.”

“Hmmm.” Singh blew out a long breath, his eyes still on the outside. “This Horatio was one of the founders of their race?”

“No. He was something separate. That mattered, too. He wasn’t of them but he died saving them. Does that make sense?”

“It does to me,” Goldera commented. “The whole Jesus thing, right?”

“Well, yes, but Horatio wasn’t the son of their God. The Izkop don’t have one God. They have many gods, and each of those gods is many things. The theology is incredibly complex,” Ariana continued, warming to her talk. “Each god can look like anybody or anything. Disguise, concealment, is very big in the Izkop myths and legends. Disguised gods and demons are everywhere, either looking for Izkop to reward for their deeds or trying to corrupt the Izkop with temptations.”

“Like the Prometheus guy you told me about?” Johansen said.

“Prometheus.” Ariana shook her head. “He’s very hard to figure out. I use the name Prometheus for him because he steals the gifts of the gods and tries to give them to the Izkop, like ancient Greek myths say the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.”

“What did the other gods do to Prometheus for stealing their secrets?” Johansen asked. “In the Greek myths didn’t Prometheus get chained to a mountain?”

“Yes!” Ariana gave Johansen a happy look, clearly pleased to have found a kindred spirit. “He was chained to a mountain and a vulture ate his liver every day. Since he was immortal the liver regrew every night. But the Izkop Prometheus, if I understand it right, hasn’t been punished because the gods can’t catch him.”

“Because he can look like anybody and anything?” Goldera asked.

“Exactly, only Prometheus, and the other gods and demons, aren’t really ‘he.’ Each one is ‘they’ because they’re simultaneously different sexes and no sex.”

Goldera squinted at her for a moment. “This isn’t a Garden of Eden type thing?”

“No, for a couple of reasons. Prometheus is always trying to give the gods’ secrets to the Izkop. It’s an ongoing crime or temptation, rather than some ancient act. And also because the gods can’t catch and punish Prometheus. Only the Izkop can identify Prometheus. From what I’ve seen in their mythology, with its emphasis on disguises, the Izkop put a great deal of importance on actions, not appearance.”

“Kind of the opposite of humans?” Adowa remarked dryly.

“In a way, yes. Even though humans don’t look the same as them, the Izkop didn’t seem bothered by that when we landed. I think it’s because the Izkop always cared more about what we did than they do about our appearance. It’s possible,” Ariana continued in a cautious voice, “that the Izkop have as much trouble seeing emotions in each others’ expressions as humans do trying to see feelings in an Izkop. We’re not sure. The emphasis on actions over looks might be the result of them all naturally having what we’d call poker faces.”

Nassar shook his head. “What’d the people in the valley do, then? Are you saying the Izkop are reacting to something the humans did?”

Scorse had fixed a burning gaze on Ariana, who pretended to ignore it. “I think something must have happened which made the Izkop believe that we had done something.”

“They blew up everything,” Archer said. “That tells us something, right? Did they think all of the human equipment had come from this Prometheus guy?”

“They couldn’t have! We didn’t give them anything. That was a firm rule.”

“You said people showed them stuff,” Adowa noted.

“Well…yes,” Ariana conceded. “But there were rules. Let them see things, so they could understand they were just tools, nothing magic or accursed. And the Izkop have gradually shown more interest in our equipment. They know some human words, and the most common ones we hear are probably ‘show us use it.’ So we show them how we use something. They’ve been asking that more, from what I understand, and why would they be doing that if they thought our equipment was the property of the gods?”

“It’s natural curiosity,” Juni said in a low voice. “Universal survival behaviors linked to integrated conceptualization of their environment. Not superstition.”

Ariana sighed. “If the Izkop thought our equipment was something stolen by Prometheus from the gods, if they thought we humans were working for or with Prometheus, why would they keep showing interest in the equipment? And if showing interest in the equipment is okay for them, how could that have triggered a massacre?”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Singh agreed.

“It doesn’t make sense to us ,” Johansen said.

Burgos spoke in a flat voice. “They’re going to kill us, and they’ve already killed a lot of people. Who cares why? All we can do is kill as many of them as we can.”

Annoyed at how Burgos had dismissed Ariana, Johansen shook his head. “I’d like to know why someone or something wants to kill me, and if I can understand that maybe I can figure out how to stay alive.”

“Right,” Singh said. “We need every advantage we can get. It’s too bad we don’t know more about the Izkop.”

Juni flushed and stood up abruptly, as if the comment had somehow been aimed at him. “I’m going to milk the cow. It needs it, and we need the milk.”

“Juni?” Ariana stared at him. “After that attack? You’re not serious.”

“Of course I’m serious.” He pointed toward the back room. “We need the milk. And it’s obvious that the Izkop won’t stop me. They haven’t stopped me any other time.”

“Juni –“

“Why would they hurt me? I’m not a threat to them. I’m not posturing as a threat. I’ve always gotten along with them. I’m an ecologist! They’re close to the land. They understand living in harmony, in balance. I don’t disrupt the balance.” Juni held up the milk bucket, his face pale but determined. “I’m going out. It’ll take fifteen minutes. I’ll be fine.”

Ariana cast a pleading look at Singh, who shook his head. “Sir, I think you’ll die if you go out there.”

Juni kept addressing Ariana. “The Izkop need to see some normal, routine behaviors. Something which indicates that we understand how things are interconnected. I’ll show them that we are working to get the environmental imperative back in balance. That always works. Analyze the system and take corrective active. Right now they’re reacting to the presence of these soldiers, this disruptive factor in the eco-system, so everything’s out of balance.”

“Sir,” Singh said carefully, “there weren’t any soldiers around when the Izkop wiped out everyone in the valley.”

“And we have only your word for that, don’t we? How long has the military really been here and what did they do? We had no problems here until soldiers came!”

Adowa had the look of someone who couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What we did was come here to try to save your butts and lost a lot of friends. No problems here? What happened to your friends and their truck? What happened to your emergency equipment?”

“There’s something you’re not telling us,” Juni insisted, “or more likely something you don’t know. I’ve supervised assistants. You’re just…workers. No disrespect, but you have very limited perspectives. I know the big picture, and I can fit in the details. I understand what’s happening. And that’s why I know I need to stop acting as an au pair and get to work as an expert in ecological synergism!”

“By risking your life to milk a cow?” Ariana asked in despair. “Juni, there’s plenty of room for guilt in the misjudgments we all must have made, but blaming others and throwing your life away won’t make up for any errors that led to this mess.” She looked toward Scorse for support, but he just glowered at the floor.

Juni flushed again. “It sounds like you’re judging me already. If my projections and assessments were sub-optimal, it was due to independently functioning variables whose impact on the planetary organism could not be forecast.”

“Sergeant, can’t you stop him?” Ariana asked.

“No, ma’am. I have no place to lock him up, no one to spare to guard him, and if I did lock him up or tie him up that’d just mean he died helpless when the Izkop overran the place.” Singh looked at Juni. “Sir, I advise against this in the strongest possible terms.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Juni said.

“If you’re determined to go out there then Goldera will go with you to the side door and bar it behind you. He’ll open it only when he hears you call from the other side and confirms that there’s no Izkop with you. Understand?”

“If that’s required to satisfy you. I’ll be back pretty quickly, and then you’ll see how the Izkop react to proper non-confrontational stimuli.”

An hour passed, Goldera calling out occasionally to reassure them that he was okay but that Juni had not returned. Ariana sat huddled together, her face a mask of resignation and despair, until the children raised a fuss and she had to go in to deal with them. Scorse might have been made of stone, staring silently across the room.

Finally, Singh gave Johansen permission to look for Juni. “Don’t leave the building. Just do a visual recce of the yard.”

Taking Adowa along, Johansen led the way to the side entry still barred shut and guarded by Goldera. “Still nothing?”

“Not a sound. Haven’t heard anything except that cow mooing every once in a while.”

“Okay. We open it quick and I look out. Hopefully if any Izkop are waiting we’ll surprise them. If they rush us, get that door sealed even if I’m stuck on the other side. Got it?” Adowa and Goldera nodded.

Johansen took up position near the door, his weapon held at shoulder height, ready to fire. Adowa and Goldera, working together, yanked open the bars and pulled the door open fast without regard for the noise, then Johansen stepped into the opening, quivering with tension.

The yard lay silent in the afternoon light. From here, none of the Izkop bodies littering the front of the compound were visible. About a hundred meters distant in the barn, the cow stood looking back at him blankly. After carefully studying everything he could see for signs of Izkop, Johansen focused on the figure sprawled several meters from the door.

Juni’s body lay face up, his abdomen torn open and entrails spread to either side, his mouth still open in a silent cry, his expression locked into incomprehension.

Adowa edged to the door and took a look. “From the way he bled, they killed him fast and quiet, then tore him open.”

“How?” Goldera gasped. “I was listening. I didn’t hear anything!”

Johansen pointed toward the milk bucket lying in the dirt, the soil around it wet with spilled milk. “They let him milk the cow before they killed him. They really seem to care about that animal.”

“Sure wish I was that cow,” Adowa muttered.

“Yeah.” Stepping back inside, Johansen gestured to the others. “Seal it.”

“We going to leave him out there?”

Johansen hesitated. “There’s no place to put him in here. We’ll bury him proper if we get the chance later.”

“More likely we’ll be lying out here with him,” Adowa said. “I sure hope I’m dead when they cut me open.” She gave Johansen a sharp look. “Neither of you guys are going to make any comments about Old Harvard?”

Johansen looked at the dead man and shook his head. “Nah. Overkill.”

“Yeah,” Goldera agreed.

Ariana took the news with a sad nod.

Scorse finally spoke once more. “I’ll use one of those spears next time they attack. I’ll stay here and fight.”

All Ariana did was nod again. “Sergeant, I’d appreciate help with getting the meal.”

“Johansen. You and Archer. Eat while you’re helping so you can stand watch while the rest of us eat.”

The Izkop came in the night this time, their numbers undiminished, filling the yard as the soldiers emptied their rifles and pulled out their pistols, the piles of dead Izkop forming ramps in front of the windows so that some Izkop came running and hurling themselves inside while others smashed through the front entry. The soldiers’ weapons had little muzzle flash, providing just enough light to see the masses of Izkop as the soldiers fired, then the last pistol was empty and they fought in the dark, stabbing with knife and spear at smaller figures, Johansen being forced backwards toward the rear of the room and praying that he wouldn’t accidentally spit either Archer or Goldera. He could hear Scorse over by Stein, the civilian yelling obscenities as he fought with an Izkop spear. Burgos also shouted from her post near the door until her voice fell silent.

Pain burned as a spear went into his thigh. Johansen thrust back, despairing as the bodies pushed forward shouting in the Izkop language, then as he made another stab Johansen realized the pressure had lessened, that the movement of the enemy had changed. The area in front of him held only a couple of Izkop, then none as the aliens fell back through the door and windows again, leaving the humans alone in the building.

There was a moment of strange almost-silence then, the only noises the harsh breathing of the soldiers trying to catch their breath and the faint sounds of the mass of Izkop fading into the night. Sergeant Singh spoke first. “I’m moving to the door. I’m there. All the Izkop here seem dead. Burgos is on the threshold. She’s got a dozen spears in her. No pulse. Everybody else report.”

“Johansen here,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Got a bad wound in one thigh. Everything else seems minor.”

“Adowa. Got one or two deep cuts in my right arm and lots of minor stuff.”

“Nassar. Just small stuff. I’ll live.”

“Goldera. Small cuts. Except I think maybe I lost a finger. Oh, man, I lost two.”

After a pause, Singh called out. “Stein. You still with us?”

The answer came from Nassar. “Here he is by the window. Oh, hell. Stein’s dead, Sarge. So’s that civ, Scorse.”

“Damn. Archer? Archer?”

No answer.

“We need to find Archer, people,” Singh ordered. “Adowa, Johansen, Goldera, you three patch each other up enough to stop major bleeding. Nassar, look for Archer now unless the other three need first aid help. I’ll keep an eye on the outside.”

They fumbled in the darkness, cursing, until Singh told them to use hand lights. “The Izkop know we’re here. Use enough light to take care of bad wounds and find Archer. She must be buried under some of the dead Izkop. And make sure all of those Izkop in here are dead.”

Half an hour later, med patches melding into their skin to seal off the worst injuries and stop bleeding, the five remaining soldiers halted their search of the building. “She’s gone, Sarge,” Nassar said. “Archer’s not here. They took her.”

“The comm unit is gone, too,” Adowa reported. “Why’d they take Archer?”

Goldera replied in a bone-weary voice. “Why not ask why they stopped and left? We were all dead in another minute or two. Why’d they stop?”

No one tried to answer that. Johansen sagged against a table, looking out into the darkness, feeling no hope, no curiosity, just tiredness and a resigned sort of fear.

An inside door opened, spilling pale radiance across the front room littered with dead. Ariana stood in the doorway, her breath catching at the sight of them still standing. “The children are scared. They heard all the fighting. What do I tell them?”

“Damned if I know, ma’am,” Singh said. “I guess all you can tell them is that we’re still here.”

“That’s a lot,” she finally replied. “They still believe in heroes.”

Johansen felt himself straightening up at her words, standing a little taller despite his weariness and injuries, and noticed the others doing the same.

After Ariana had closed the door again, Nassar gusted a single soft and sardonic laugh. “If we got to die anyway, it’s nice to know someone appreciates it.”

Sergeant Singh nodded, his expression impossible to make out in the dark. “We got one more fight left in us. Two-hour sentry duty, one soldier on at a time so the others can rest.”

“You don’t think they’ll come again tonight, Sarge?” Goldera asked.

“I still don’t know what they’ll do, let alone why they’re doing it. All we can do is protect those kids for one more night, and hope that effort of ours somehow matters to the Iskop when they’ve got the kids at their mercy.”

Johansen had the watch when the sky began paling with dawn’s light. He sat on the floor, leaning against the wall next to the window, looking outward, an Izkop spear in one hand, as the growing daylight began turning the vague, gray shapes of night into clear objects with color and meaning. The med patch kept his thigh numb, and while that served as a reminder of the wound it covered it also meant that when just sitting here he could pretend it wasn’t a bad injury. Sitting quietly felt right anyway. In that strange stillness that dawn always held, there might have been nothing else living on the entire planet except for themselves and the distant shape of one of the local flying predators wheeling across the sky.

Silence and stillness. The right and left hands of death, someone had called them. She had died, too, on a planet far distant, gone cold and quiet like the mounds of Izkop here lying forlorn in the growing light. He thought about other dawns to come, without him around anymore. The idea felt impossible, and strange, even after all he had seen.

Archer was out there somewhere, but he tried not to think of that, except to wish that she got it like Juni had, a quick death before any mutilation.

He heard soft sounds behind and looked quickly to see that Ariana had come out of the back. She seemed to be emotionally used up and physically exhausted from dealing with the children, but that really shouldn’t matter much longer. “Mornin’,” Johansen whispered to her, pain stabbing through the numbness inside him as he thought about Ariana dying, too. One more person he couldn’t save.

She reached the wall and leaned next to him, her eyes on his face. “Good morning. Are they out there?”

“I expect. Can’t see any of them, of course.”

Rising up a bit, she looked out as well, their shoulders touching for a moment before Ariana slumped back again. “I thought soldiers had all sorts of special equipment built into their bodies, to let you see in the dark and do other things.”

“No, that’s just in stories,” Johansen said. “In real life, they kept finding out that implanting gear into people, biomechanicals and stuff, created a huge Achilles Heel. Anything like that could be hacked or intruded or jammed. One good hack could take out an entire force. Eventually, they decided the only firewall good enough was maintaining physical separation between human and equipment.”

She actually smiled slightly. “No secret superpowers to save the day?”

“Nope. Just the same old, same old as back at Troy.” Johansen tapped his spear.

“Does that make me Cassandra?” Ariana sighed. “What were you thinking about before I came out here?”

He hesitated before answering. “I was thinking how strange it is to know that this is the last sunrise I’ll ever see. I mean, there’s always a chance any sunrise will be your last, but this time it’s certain. Kind of a weird feeling. At least it’s a pretty sunrise.”

“Yes, it is. Are you sorry you came here?”

“Well, yeah.” Johansen glanced at her. “Not that we came to this spot. We would have died anyway, and at least coming here meant a chance for you and the kids. But this planet I could have done without.”

Ariana stared at the bodies of Burgos, Stein and Scorse against the far wall as if unable to believe that they were real. “I thought they’d last the longest. Scorse, I mean, and that woman soldier.”

“Burgos?” Johansen shook his head. “She was pretty certain to die early on. After the massacre in the valley and watching Ramada gutted, all Burgos cared about was killing Izkop. Your Scorse seemed to be the same way.”

“But if they wanted to keep killing –“

“I said that was all they cared about. They didn’t care about living any more, just killing. People who get like that don’t tend to last too long, because self-preservation just doesn’t occur to them.”

She gave Johansen a quizzical look. “But you want to kill Izkop, too, and you told me that you don’t expect to live.”

“No, but you see I only want to kill Izkop so I have a chance to live.” Somehow Johansen mustered a small smile as he watched the sun rising over the bluffs. “Get me out of here in one piece and I’d be happy never to kill another Izkop. But not Burgos and Scorse. They’d have jumped right back in.”

“But don’t you want revenge? For all of your friends killed back at Amity?”

He shook his head. “Revenge never brought back anyone. It’s just something those still alive do for themselves. I could kill every Izkop on this planet and it wouldn’t give me back a single friend. I know that. So did Burgos, but she didn’t care. I figure my friends would want me to go on living. To try to, anyway. That’s what I’d want for them if I was the one dying.”

“What about the big one? He seemed so calm, so steady.”

“Stein?” Johansen exhaled heavily. “Yeah. He wasn’t the brightest star in the sky, but he was loyal. He was fighting alongside Scorse, so he wouldn’t leave him, wouldn’t fall back alone. That wouldn’t even have occurred to Stein.”

Ariana nodded, her head lowered. “And Juni.”

“Don’t blame yourself for that. Juni was stupid.” Out of the corner of his eye, Johansen could see Ariana’s head come up, tears lining her face. “We told him not to go out there. He went anyway. Most of the time in life, stupid just gets you in trouble. In a combat situation, stupid gets you dead. I’m sorry,” he added, because he was. “Juni seemed like a decent guy. And it’s not like he was trying to run out on us. He was trying to do something he thought was important. He just thought he knew more than he did. People who think they know all the answers seem to often end up killing themselves or other people in one way or another.”

She didn’t reply, just crying as she looked toward the door leading to the back room. “Listen,” Johansen said as gently as he could, “when they get done with us, they’ll break down that door. You just stand there and you beg, you hear me? You can’t fight, so plead with them. Beg for the lives of the kids. Not for you, for them. Sometimes that makes a difference. Tell them whatever humans did, or whatever the Izkop think we did, it wasn’t the fault of the kids.”

Ariana nodded. “You’ll be dead if they get to that door?”

“Yeah. They won’t get to it before then. I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Thanks for being Horatio.”

“I’m no hero, but you’re welcome. I’ve got to admit, I don’t understand why you civilians come to places like this.”

She actually smiled slightly. “We come to try to learn more about others and about ourselves. Humans, that is. There’s plenty of civilians who wouldn’t understand why you’re here. Guarding that door even though it’s hopeless. You don’t understand why we do what we do, and we don’t understand why you do what you do, and neither group of us understands why the Izkop are doing what they are doing.”

“I hope they at least have a good reason,” Johansen said dryly. “As long as I’m going to die because of it.” Shapes appeared in the distance, coming around one of the bluffs. “Sarge!”

Singh was up at his own window in a matter of seconds as the rest of the surviving soldiers also jerked awake and scrambled into position. “What’ve we got?”

“A small group,” Johansen reported, squinting to try to make out details. “Maybe ten Izkop, coming down the bluff to the right. They’re carrying something.”

“Only a dozen?” Singh brought up his field glasses, studying the group as it slowly came closer, walking at a deliberate pace toward the building. “They’ve got Archer.”

“She’s still alive?” Nassar cried.

“Maybe.” Singh’s mouth worked as he kept the field glasses on the group, then he spat to one side. “I can’t tell. They’re carrying her. She’s upright, but not walking herself.” The sergeant lowered the field glasses and slid toward Johansen, keeping low. He spoke softly. “If she is still alive, they might torture her to death in front of us. Be ready to help hold back the others if that happens.”

“I wish we could just charge out and get it over with,” Johansen growled, anger warring with despair within him. “But we still got the kids back there.”

Singh let out a sigh. “Right. We secure this building as long as we can, corporal.”

The sergeant returned to his own window, the other soldiers staying at their own posts. As the small group of Izkop came closer, Johansen could see that Archer was limp and being supported by several of the Izkop. Even though Archer was fairly small, the Izkops’ own small stature meant that her feet dragged and bumped over the ground as the group approached.

Ariana was right next to him again, her breathing ragged as she also looked at the approaching group. “What’s going on?”

“I was hoping you had some idea,” Johansen said. Closer still, the light of dawn growing, they could see rips in Archer’s battle fatigues and wide smears of blood. Her head lolled down so they couldn’t see her face, but Johansen thought he saw raw wounds down the sides of her neck.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ariana said. “It’s clearly a procession. That one in the lead, the old Izkop, he’s wearing decorations that indicate very high rank.”

The small group of Izkop stopped at the gate, then came on another couple of meters with a slow gait that seemed ceremonial to Johansen. Archer’s head came up for a moment as if that gesture took all of her strength, then flopped down once more.

“She is alive!” Adowa shouted, beginning to rise from her crouch near the door.

“Hold position,” Singh ordered, his voice as dark and commanding as that of a stern god. Goldera let out a curse that sounded like a sob, and Adowa settled back onto her knees, her face drawn.

The old Izkop in the lead gestured to the others to halt and then spread his arms wide, chanting.

“What’s he saying?” Nassar demanded.

Ariana listened, her expression intent. “Something about…that god I called Horatio.”

“They think Archer is Horatio?”

“No. It’s more like his spirit, or example. I’m not sure what the words actually mean.” She looked confused now. “The Izkop…proved…their…purity? But so did…Archer. I think that’s a reference to Archer and…her people. I’m sorry, but he’s using the ceremonial language which is even harder to understand than the common speech.” Ariana shook her head. “I think he’s referring to all of you. The others who came among the…demons. No, thieves. Both, maybe. In the valley. Oh, no, they’re talking about us. The civilians. Something belonging to gods. False…hands? No. Offerings. False offerings. Corruption. I think that refers to spiritual, not physical corruption. Something about that demon god I call Prometheus. Denial. Test. Honor. Test. Strength. True…protectors? Of Izkop. Of the gods.”

The six Izkop carrying Archer lowered her to the ground, face up, then held up their spears in salute before raising them again, points down, ready to strike. “No,” Adowa got out in a strangled whisper.

But when the Izkop slammed their spears into the dirt, they did so on either side of Archer. The leader raised his hands, calling out in a voice that echoed across the landscape.

Johansen had sudden trouble breathing as thousands of Izkop rose up from the surrounding terrain, standing silently, spears by their sides. His hands slid along the shaft of his own spear, suddenly slick with sweat. He heard a low murmuring sound and realized that Sergeant Singh was praying, perhaps a final benediction before death.

“You put on your damned show, now just do it and get it over with,” Nassar got out between gritted teeth as the Izkop stood silently.

Then the leader raised his hands once more, shouting another command. Just as the first small group had, the masses of Izkop raised their spears, holding them high canted toward the building, then shouted as one before reversing the weapons and driving them point first into the ground like those already planted around Archer.

A third command from the leader, and all of the Izkop began moving back, leaving their spear shafts standing like a low forest bare of branches and leaves. The long ranks of Izkop all around as well as the small group with the leader marched steadily away, leaving Archer lying amid the spears thrust into the dirt around her.

The Izkop had almost vanished over the surrounding ridges when Singh shook his head like someone coming out of a dream. “Nassar, you and Goldera go out there and get Archer.”

Holding his spear as if that could still help cover the others, Johansen watched Nassar and Goldera hastily shove aside the bodies blocking the doorway, then trot quickly to Archer. Nassar knelt and examined her while Goldera stood on guard. “She’s been cut up quite a bit,” Nassar called back to the others. “Not deep wounds. Like she was sliced with knives. Can’t tell if there’s any internal injuries but I can’t spot any broken bones. Hey, Archer’s still got the comm unit.”

“What?” Singh demanded.

“Yeah. She’s holding the damned comm unit in both arms. Won’t let go.”

“Let her hold on to it. Just bring her in.”

They got her inside, where Ariana rushed to help treat Archer. Johansen saw that Archer’s face was almost unmarked except for long cuts down each cheek and on her temples leading down toward her eyes but stopping short. “Get her awake,” Singh ordered. “We have to know what happened and what all of that meant.”

One of the injections from the first aid kit did the trick. Archer’s eyes shot open and her mouth trembled as she looked from side to side. “Crazy,” she gasped.

“No,” Singh assured her. “You’re back. The Izkop brought you back. Why?”

“They…what?”

Adowa leaned in closer. “Hey, princess, will you let go of the damned comm unit so we can work on your arms and chest?” she demanded.

“Huh? That really you, Addy?” Archer seemed incapable of unclasping her hands, but with the help of Adowa managed to release the comm unit. She looked around again, her eyes tearing up. “What the hell?”

“You’re s–“ The sergeant broke off the word ‘safe,’ apparently realizing how absurd it would be to say that. “You’re okay. Tell us what happened,” Singh said, his voice more gentle but still commanding.

“What…” Archer closed her eyes, her mouth slack for a moment, then rallied. “I was…fighting and something hit…my head. Woke up, being carried –“ Her voice rasped to a halt.

“Water,” Singh ordered, waiting until Archer had drained a cup before speaking again. “Then what?”

“Uh…” Archer seemed unaware of the others working on her many minor injures, instead staring up at the ceiling as if seeing recent events there. “Camp of some kind. Thousands of Izkop. Tens of thousands. Some held me.” She looked over to one side. “Comm unit. I still had it. Some Izkop…wanted it. Kept… asking . ‘Give.’ Wouldn’t give it to him. Said no. Hell, no.” Her eyes rolled back to Singh. “My job. You said hang onto Aimee.”

“That’s your job,” the sergeant agreed. “Aimee’s fine,” he added to reassure Archer. “Doesn’t look damaged at all. What happened next?”

“They tried to take it. Kept pulling. I…wouldn’t let them. Others came up and asked. I told them all no. No way.” Archer swallowed. “They…cut me…hurt…but figured they’d…kill me anyway. I wouldn’t let go.”

“That’s all?”

“No. Some other Izkop…” Archer struggled for words. “Told me they wanted me to…to…show them how to use it. Kept saying that. ‘Show us use it,’ over and over. I said no . No frickin’ way. They…uh…” She paused again, looking even paler. “Gonna kill me, they said, held spears. Hurt me real bad…if I didn’t. Cut me more. Face. Other places.”

“Did you show them then?” Singh asked, his voice calm and steady.

“No.” Archer managed a ghastly grin. “Told them…go screw yourselves. Why not? Kill me anyway…right? Maybe make them mad, they’d…kill me quick.”

Singh looked at Ariana, who shook her head in bafflement. “What happened then, Archer?”

“Uh…” Archer tried to focus on him again. “They kept trying to take Aimee. I wouldn’t let go. ‘Show us use it.’ They kept yelling that. ‘Show us use it.’ I kept yelling no. Go to hell. Go ahead. Kill me. Screw all of you. No show, you bastards. You’ll have to…to kill me if you want it. Over my frickin’ dead body.” Her voice rose slightly, gaining force, a shadow of the screams she must have thrown at her captors.

Nassar appeared baffled. “Thousands of Izkop and they couldn’t take that comm unit from her?”

“They could have if they wanted to,” Ariana said. “Easily enough. It must have been a ritual.”

“A ritual?” Singh asked.

“Yes. They keep asking her something, and she keeps saying no, and they ask her and seem like they’re trying to take it, to force her, but as long as she keeps saying no, keeps fighting them to hold it, they don’t kill her and they don’t actually tear it out of her hands. They hurt her, but the wounds all seem superficial. Painful, but nothing that would kill her or maim her.”

“You’re saying that Archer did something right?” Johansen asked.

“But what?” Adowa demanded. “What did she do?”

Singh looked at Ariana. “Show us use it?”

“That’s got to be the key,” she agreed. “That and Archer’s refusal to give it up.” Ariana sat looking at Archer. “Actions. Not words. What mattered with Horatio was what he did. What matters with Prometheus, how they identify Prometheus, is what he does. Test. That’s what the old Izkop meant. The ritual was a test. To see if she was aligned with the gods, or with Prometheus.”

“I don’t get it,” Nassar said. “If the Izkop are judging us by what we do, then why didn’t they run us down after we got out of the valley? That wasn’t what Horatio did. Why didn’t the Izkop kill us when we ran?”

Something clicked in Johansen’s head. “We happened to head this way by chance. And you kept us going toward here, Sarge. The right way. The Izkop nailed anyone who tried escaping in other directions. Maybe to the Izkop it looked like we were going to make sure we died defending others, like Horatio.”

“That open path,” Goldera said. “After we got here and I scouted around and the way south looked wide open? They gave us a chance to keep running, to see if we’d do it.”

“Damn.” Singh’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah. Like you said then, Johansen, too easy. They wanted to see if we’d keep running, or if we’d dig in and defend the civs. If we’d headed south they would have cut us up right then and there.”

Adowa shook her head. “So we did the hero thing. Archer did the hero thing. The Izkop think that’s cool. But the rest of the battalion…what the hell did they do wrong? They didn’t even get a chance to head this way.”

“Prometheus,” Ariana murmured. “Legions of demons.”

“What?” Singh asked.

She met the sergeant’s eyes, her own eyes so wide with a dawning realization that Ariana looked like some tragic cartoon figure. “The Izkop believe that you know good and evil by their actions. They tested Archer, and they’ve been testing humans without our realizing it, because we thought we were supposed to the ones observing and evaluating them. Every time the Izkop asked a human to show them something it was a test. It wasn’t curiosity, every time it was a test to evaluate our actions. Despite our explanations, the Izkop must still think our equipment was something from the gods, and every time we showed them how to do something we failed a test. Bit by bit we kept showing them more as they kept testing us, until someone in Amity must have crossed a line, shown the Izkop whatever was necessary to convince the Izkop that we were aspects of Prometheus, or working for Prometheus. That’s why they’re cutting open the bodies! To release the spirit inside and reveal the true nature of it to the gods in the sky for their judgment! Why didn’t I understand that before?”

Singh watched her, his expression grim. “Because you were thinking of physical things being stolen, or scientific concepts. Not something as simple and everyday to us as how to use the stuff we carry around. They decided you civilians were working against the gods, trying to corrupt the Izkop.”

“Yes.” Ariana’s voice had sunken to a whisper. “The Izkop destroyed everything we’d brought in order to…save their souls. And using that same equipment to attack you…the hand of the demon turned against it. There’s a myth about that. When you soldiers landed at the valley it looked to the Izkop like you were there to defend the other humans, us, the agents of Prometheus. After all, we’d called you, hadn’t we? You were coming in to seize the secrets of the gods again. That made you demons, too. To the Izkop, it must have looked like Armageddon.”

“An army of demons from the sky,” Goldera said. “Yeah. No wonder they fought like crazy.”

“But they had to present a chance for some of you soldiers to prove you were not demons, but agents of the gods. Hiding among the demons, just like demons hide among the gods. They left us alive here to see if any of you would come to aid others rather than try to steal back the secrets of the gods. It wasn’t the adults here that mattered, it was the innocents, the children. When you headed this way, toward the children, it seemed your particular group might be working for the gods. And then you acted like heroes of the Izkop, laughing in the face of death and fighting to protect the children. You didn’t waver when they attacked. So they captured one of you for a last test, the most important test, to see how that one soldier would act. And Archer didn’t act like Prometheus at all. She refused to give any secrets away. She defended the gods’ secrets and showed a willingness to die in that defense. The Izkop have decided that you soldiers, your small group, are agents of the gods. I think that’s right. It’s only a guess, but it fits what happened.”

Adowa leaned wearily against one wall. “So what happens if you’re right? Are they still going to kill us?”

“You didn’t understand what they just did? I’ve only heard it described, but now that I know what the Izkop must have been thinking I’m certain that I’m correct. That ceremony where they saluted you and then left their spears. The Izkop surrendered to you.”

It took Johansen a moment to realize that his jaw had fallen open.

Singh managed to speak first. “They…surrendered to us?”

“Yes, sergeant.”

“Wait a minute,” Nassar demanded. “We won ?”

“That’s right. Or rather, the defenders of the gods won. But that’s you, so to us it’s the same thing. I’m using the human term surrender, but I think the Izkop would call it ‘acknowledging superiority in this struggle.’ They won’t take orders from you, but they accepted you as the victors. The moral victors, that is, because you’re on the right side. The…fight…is over.”

“Well, hell,” Singh commented. He looked toward the bodies in the room, then out in the yard and back in the direction of the valley. “I sure wish someone had figured out some of this a little earlier. It would have saved a lot of humans, and a lot of Izkop.”

“We couldn’t,” Ariana said. “We didn’t share the right mental or cultural references with them. It wasn’t until I saw you, talked with you and saw what you did, that I began to understand part of how the Izkop were thinking.”

“And civilian researchers wouldn’t call in soldiers until hell had already broken out,” Johansen said, “because how could we know something they didn’t?”

“Yes.” Ariana nodded to him, seeming drained of all emotion now. “If this planet had been a university campus or a research lab, full of people who thought like we did, then everything would have been fine.”

Johansen shook his head. “No. The Izkop did the same thing. Instead of really trying to figure out humans, they plugged all of us into their own mythology. After all the humans and Izkop that have died, the Izkop still don’t know why you civilians or we soldiers really came here, or why we did what we did. They just think they do.”

Sergeant Singh sat down heavily. “What do I always tell you guys? Mistakes cost lives. Helluva big price, though.”

“All of those soldiers dead, and it was our fault,” Ariana said.

“Even if it was, you paid an awful price, too. Some victory. But at least we’re still alive.” Singh gestured to Adowa. “Pass me that comm unit. Let’s see how close the cavalry is, or if it’s even shown up yet.”

Goldera laughed, giddy with relief. “They’re going to come charging in to save us, and you’ll get to say, ‘they already surrendered to me.’ What do you think the general will do then?”

“Try to take credit for it,” Adowa said. Outside, the cow mooed forlornly. “Why the hell didn’t they kill that cow?”

“I have no idea,” Ariana said. “But we’d better not kill it ourselves.”

“Damn right. Anybody who wants that cow,” Adowa replied, “is going to have to go through me.”

Adowa and Singh started checking the comm unit for damage while Goldera and Nassar sat together, grinning and talking. Later they’d be depressed, later the extent of their losses would sink in, how many friends and companions had died, later the stresses of the last few days would haunt their nights, and they’d need everything the shrinks and the docs could provide, but for now that was forgotten in the joy of unlooked-for survival. Archer lay asleep under the influence of the meds, the visible parts of her body almost covered with strips of heal-tape.

Ariana looked at Johansen. “There’ll be other sunrises for you to see.”

“Yeah, I guess so. You going to be okay?”

“Someday. Like you said, my husband would want me to go on.”

“What was his name?” Johansen asked.

“Eric.”

“If you, uh, want to talk about it, about him, I’ll listen. Sometimes talking helps. When you’re ready for that.”

“Thanks. I’d appreciate help with the children if you can manage that, too. You’re a good man, Horatio.” Ariana bowed her head into her knees as if trying to shut out everything for a little while.

Johansen moved his head enough to watch the sun rising higher. An amazing thing, seeing the sun rise. It didn’t help you understand anything, but it made you believe in all sorts of things again.