The voice was high pitched, gleeful and came from a blue-eyed, black-haired two-year-old that was being held by a dark haired woman with short dark hair and black eyes. She was muscular, almost stocky and her features belied recent generations of Mediterranean ancestry. Her child had inherited her curly hair and complexion.
“Verooo!” a nearly identical child yodeled to the first from their father’s arms.
The father laughed and rubbed noses with the child. He was very tall with long straight black hair tied in an intricate braid down his back. He had the same eyes as the children but was much paler than his wife. They smiled at each other as the children both laughed.
“They’re in a good mood,” Claire said. “Usually he’s fussing for me to carry him.”
Oliver looked thoughtful. He checked the back collar of the child’s shirt. Sure enough, it was marked with a T. This was Theophile, Theo for short. The tags were the latest effort to tell the twins apart. They’d always insisted on wearing the exact same thing every day. When Claire and Oliver decided it was time to get them used to different outfits, the two hadn’t appreciated the plan, to put it mildly.
The first morning of that experiment had been awful. The two had been miserable and hell-bent on sharing their misery on everyone else. When Claire had gone down to pick them up at the end of the day, their babysitters looked like they’d gone through hell but the twins were quiet at least. Then she’d seen their clothes strewn across the room and her children happily playing in their underwear. Claire had laughed and assured the playroom staff that they wouldn’t try this particular experiment again.
That night, she’d been amused and horrified when Oliver admitted that even he couldn’t tell them apart sometimes. She’d teased him gently about it until Oliver put them side by side on the couch and asked her to point out Theo. When she pointed at Emma instead, they started putting an inconspicuous initial on the tags of the shirts. For the last couple of weeks, it had worked like a charm.
Oliver looked at the child he was holding, gabbling at his sister. “Theo?”
The child looked up at him innocently.
“Your name is Theo,” Oliver said.
There was delighted giggling from both of the children.
Claire laughed. “Did you get it right this morning?”
“Yes, I corralled them after their bath,” Oliver sighed.
Theo chuckled deep in his throat. “Flaggle! Gerbasay!” he declared, waving his arms.
“They sound pleased with themselves,” Oliver’s own twin, Amanda, chuckled as she came through the door. She wasn’t as tall as her brother but she was still stood at nearly two meters. They weren’t identical but with the same blue eyes and long, intricately braided black hair, it was obvious they were closely related.
Behind her, a shorter woman with pale eyes and close cropped blonde hair came through the door. She wasn’t as stocky as Claire but was just as muscular. She was wearing a shoulder holster with two pistols.
“What’re the little gremlins up to today?” she asked. There was a touch of a lisping accent in her voice.
“Hiya Mirjam,” Claire answered. “Confusing everyone as usual.”
Theo reached out for her and Mirjam took him. He lifted his face to hers but she looked closely to make sure he was booger-free before rubbing noses with him. He’d gotten her with that one before.
“I was just about to take them down to the playroom,” Claire said. “You think these other two can be trusted on their own?”
Mirjam looked at Oliver and Amanda for a moment. “If we lock them in maybe.”
“I promise we’ll stay put,” Oliver said.
“Then I’ll see you in a few.” Claire kissed him and took Emma from his arms. She gabbled happily as the women took her and her brother out of the lab. Both of the children knew the routine. Now they were headed for their second favorite place in the world.
“Welcome back. How was home?” Oliver asked.
Amanda put her arm around his shoulders and gave him a one-armed hug. “Too much to do, like always. What did I miss?”
He grumbled, flipping the cover off of one of the whiteboards. Underneath, an equation filled most of it.
“As you can see, I found another dead end.”
The large lab was full of familiar and strange looking equipment. Most of it had been pushed to the walls but several test racks were clustered in the middle of the room, surrounded by more whiteboards, all of them covered with sheets of black fabric. Amanda went and began to uncover them one by one, her lips moving soundlessly as she traced the progress her brother had made in the week she’d spent back home with their family.
Oliver, frustrated with the equations, uncovered several test stands arranged in a semicircle around a squat shape covered with another dust cloth. Finally, he began to carefully uncover the low piece in the center that was wired to all the equipment. It looked a little bit like a Civil War era artillery piece, if it had been designed by H.R. Giger and built by Swiss watchmakers. For some reason, a rubber triceratops head covered the end of it.
Amanda joined him and helped fold up the dust cloth. “That’s new.”
“Emma is relentless about it being there and they both howl with laughter whenever they see it. Where did I go wrong on the boards?”
“You’ll just get mad if I tell you.”
“Will not. I already know that I’m off in the weeds. Where is it?”
Amanda went to one of the boards. “Lets start over here with your functions. I think that’s where the flaw in your conditional expression creeps in.”
He winced. “That much of it?”
She began to explain, dropping into their native language. Soon, he dragged over another whiteboard, this one blank, and they both began writing on it as they talked.
By the middle of the day, Oliver and Amanda had moved from theoretical equations to the demanding work of applying them to their device. Claire and Mirjam had come back to the lab hours ago and were sitting in their usual chairs near the door. The older pair of twins usually so wrapped up in their work that the lost track of the outside world. So, Claire kept a book with her and Mirjam seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of various firearm magazines and manuals in her bag. They glanced at each other with amused looks when Claire’s tablet alarm went off. It was shaping up to be a typical day, they’d have to remind the other two to eat.
When Claire went over to whatever it was they were working on, Oliver was underneath it fiddling with a test lead while Amanda watched a readout.
“Now that’s interesting,” she said. “It’s showing a perfect waveform, except inverted.”
“What?” came Oliver’s voice from under the machine. “Why? It’s the same exact connection as before.”
“Well, it’s upside down now,” Amanda said, winking at Claire.
There was a sigh. “Little sister, gravitons are far too small to even notice that.”
“How do you know?” Claire asked. “Have you ever asked them?”
There was another sigh, somewhat pained. “I’ll check the wiring again.”
“I just checked, there’s chilidogs in the cafeteria today,” Mirjam said as she joined the other three.
“And don’t get between her and a chilidog,” Oliver said from underneath the device.
Mirjam actually smiled, a rarity for her. “Yeah, they’re a natural prey species for my people.”
“Why are you crawling around on the floor?” Claire asked.
“There’s a strange output on one of the guidance transmitters,” he replied. “We moved it but now it’s emitting upside down.”
“Maybe they’re just afraid of the lizard head on the end,” Mirjam said helpfully.
There was another, more frustrated sigh. “That’s even less likely.”
“Anyway, that’s a dinosaur,” Claire said.
“Uh huh, which were what?”
“Lizards, but there’s a semantic difference….”
“Oh, I see,” Oliver suddenly said. “It’s wired in backwards, the whole upside down thing.”
“I did not wire anything backwards,” Amanda said. She crouched down and looked where he was pointing. “Well, shit. I guess I did.”
“It won’t take ten minutes to fix. No big deal.”
“Ollie, after lunch,” Mirjam said. “Remember the chilidogs?”
“Oh, right. Okay, after lunch.”
Oliver, Clare, and Amanda had finished eating and watched Mirjam demolish her third plate of chili dogs.
“It really is the best Terran contribution to galactic cuisine,” Ollie said and Mirjam nodded happily.
“That’s odd,” Amanda said, looking across the room. “Ian Jones has talked to three different tables of people. When he’s done, they get up and leave.”
Claire and Oliver turned to watch the Project Director. He stopped at a table and spoke quietly to the group there. Almost immediately they were getting up and walking quickly to the doors.
“There go all the Raptors,” Claire said. “Yeah, something’s up.”
“If I could have your attention please?” Ian Jones said loudly and all of the remaining personnel stopped what they were doing and turned to face him. “I apologize for interrupting your meal. A Commonwealth courier just entered orbit and we’ve received some very dark news. Black Swarm ships were detected entering the Te’varvfathi Hoh system. A scout ship managed to get to the Slingshot gate and spread the news to Commonwealth Fleet. It does not appear that we’re a target but our defense forces will be transiting to the Orbital Arrays over the next few hours. Please give combat teams the right-of-way around the facilities and on the roads. I’ll update everyone as more information becomes available. Thank you.”
Oliver and Amanda’s faces had both gone gray and they stared at each other in horror.
“Not the Ta’avi-kin,” Amanda whispered. “They don’t stand a chance.”
Ian Jones saw the group sitting there and came over.
“Ian, we’ve got to do something,” Oliver told him. “The Ta’avi don’t have a highly industrialized base. Garradya outfitted their defense group with some light patrol craft and fighters but that’s all they have.”
The new Director nodded sadly. “The Commonwealth is responding but that gate has a long transit. I don’t know what we can do from here, Dr. Cosineau.”
Claire put her hand gently on her husbands arm but he didn’t notice. He was looking at Amanda as though something had just dawned on him.
After a moment, she nodded slowly. “That could work, but it’s not fully calibrated.”
“But it’d be better than dying. Let’s get back to the lab.”
Without another word, both of them got up and jogged toward the doors. Mirjam swore and got up to chase them, leaving the last of her lunch behind. Claire shook her head and got up to clean up their table, Mirjam could keep an eye on them in the lab. Facility Support had more important things to do than cleaning up their lunch mess. She was surprised when the Project Administrator began to help.
“I’m assuming they know someone on Te’varvfathi Hoh?” he asked.
“Ollie’s family has some business interests there but I doubt that’s what he’s worried about. The Ta’avi and the Garragh cultures have a long history as allies and friends.”
“I’m still getting situated here,” he admitted as they carried everything to the kitchen. “I haven’t gone through the exo lectures yet.”
“Garradya, that’s the Garragh homeworld, and Te’varvfathi Hoh are only a few light-hours apart and they’ve been in contact for a long time. When my husband’s family refer to them, they use a word-form that indicates a close kinship bond.”
“Oh, right,” Ian said, as they stacked the plates. “I read that you’re human.”
Claire chuckled as she wiped her hands clean. “I’m a little short for a Garragh, yeah. When I became Ollie’s Warden we fell in love pretty quickly.”
“That’s all that matters,” Ian said. “When you get to the lab, please tell the Doctors Cosineau that anything they need is theirs. From what I read, if anyone can pull off a miracle, it’ll be those two.”
Claire impulsively kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks Ian, I’ll let them know.”
An hour later, Ian Jones was watching Oliver finish connecting the cannon-like device. Beside him, Amanda was verifying his progress on a computer.
“That’s going to actually move people?” he asked Amanda.
She nodded, entering some commands on a keyboard. “The Architects used something like this to move around, it’s a modification of the Slingshot technology. This hasn’t been tested on anything but static test objects, but we know it works. It’ll be a rough ride, we’re still working out issues with the signal-to-noise.”
“What do you mean by ‘rough?'”
“Our models predict mineral and water loss mostly. It’ll be safe enough for one trip but they’ll be dehydrated, maybe sick.”
“I’ll get exo-med ready for that,” he said, striding towards the door.
“I’ve got some targeting data,” one of the astronomers said, coming over to the computer. “Safest will be that small village, Doc. The others are city centers, probably primary targets for the Bugs.”
Oliver nodded as he finished hooking the device up and looked at one of the attached screens. He whistled quietly. “Look at this heat bleed.”
Amanda looked over his shoulder. “We can massage that with a little time. Or an orbital platform so we didn’t have to adjust for atmosphere.”
“Even if Alpha was operational, it would take way too much time to get everything up there,” Claire said. “What does heat bleed mean? In small words with big pictures for us lesser mortals.”
“Basically it’s going to look like a ball of flames at the other end,” Amanda said. “But because…physics and stuff, the heat is only on this side. They’ll be perfectly safe coming this way. Going out, much toastier.”
“What’s that mean?” Mirjam said.
“It’ll look like a stationary explosion. I think.” Ollie said, attaching another computer to the system. “Theoretically anyway. Got the tracer ready, Dhammie?”
Amanda pointed at a backpack with several strange antennae sticking out. “Good to go.”
“I’m not sure anyone will equate rescue with a ball of fire,” Claire said.
“That’s why I’ll be there to tell them,” Oliver said, pulling the backpack on. “I’m going through the gate with this. It’ll give our signal something to lock on.”
“Wait, I was going to go,” Amanda said.
“Dhammie, you’re better than I am at the math. I need you here so we can make it home again.”
“And you’re not going anywhere without me,” Mirjam said firmly.
Oliver looked at Claire and she raised an eyebrow. “Don’t even think I’m staying here, mister.”
“It’s just a simple hop, I’ll only be a few meters from here with the gate open.”
Claire smiled sweetly at him. “Then it’ll be a walk in the park with both of us.”
Oliver started to get a stubborn look on his face but Claire simply pointed a finger at him and he sighed. “Fine. Stay near me though.”
The Project’s chief of security had arrived with a detachment of guards. They were waiting just outside of the lab with the heaviest weapons they had. The plan was for them to follow Oliver and Claire through and establish a secure zone around the portal. If there were invaders on the ground they’d be able to hold them back. A large rectangle on the floor had been outlined in duct tape, Claire and Oliver waited at one end, wearing wet towels as well as bunker coats borrowed from emergency services. A quiet hum filled the room and quickly built in volume and pitch. Then a mirage-like shimmer appeared at the far end of the rectangle.
“We’re ready,” Oliver said.
She put her arms around him and they shared a long kiss.
“Anything special we need to do? Run through?”
“Shouldn’t have to, you’ll have zero momentum. Just be careful of the heat.”
She nodded, taking his hand. They walked into the shimmer together.
Claire thought she’d tripped over something at first and was falling forward while her inner ear insisted that she was on her feet. A roaring and intense heat washed over them around them and she pulled a towel over her head and face. They staggered a few steps forward and the heat was suddenly gone, replaced by the warm air of Te’varvfathi. It felt like a polar wind after the heat but her mouth and throat were stone dry and she coughed. Her face felt strange, almost like leather.
Lowering the towel, Claire looked around. It didn’t look all that different from home, she could’ve been in Greece maybe. The houses looked like plaster and were all painted brilliant white with large round windows set deeply back into the wall. All of the houses looked a little lopsided and she noticed that the flat roofs were all tilted slightly. Claire looked over her shoulder and this end of the gate the shimmering spot was surrounded by long tongues of fire that looked like they were being blown back by a hurricane wind.
They had arrived in an open area, kind of a town square or market. People had stopped whatever they’d been and stared at the pair of them. Oliver yelled something to them in a different language as something big roared across the sky, trailing smoke and flame.
Whatever Oliver had been yelling, people had responded. The first to arrive was a man and his family. He asked something Claire didn’t understand but Ollie answered, sounding reassuring. He took a deep breath and stepped forward. His family followed him through and disappeared. Reassured, the Ta’avi began running past them, disappearing into the shimmer. Then she saw a woman running with two children in her arms. The ground shook underneath them, knocking the woman off her feet.
Claire immediately ran to help and saw that she’d probably sprained her ankle. The kids looked okay but were obviously more than she could handle. Then Oliver was beside her, helping the woman to her feet and saying something. The woman clutched the infant and Claire scooped up the other child. It was a little girl that looked close to the same age as her twins. She clutched Claire’s neck as she and Oliver helped the mother limp to the gate. Claire handed her the toddler as Oliver explained something to her. She nodded at Claire and stepped through the gate.
Oliver saw a man leading a small group of black haired Garragh into a house and called to him. The man changed direction and ran toward them.
“What is that thing?” he gasped in Colonial Common.
?” Claire said, surprised.
He stared at them. “Master Oli’vehndra? And Lady Claire! How is this?”
“This is a gate to our lab on Terra.” Oliver said. “The Ascendancy is behind the attack.”
The man paled and made sure his daughter was with him. Without a word, he pushed her into the shimmer and began yelling orders at the rest of the Garragh. Claire tried to push him toward the gate but he shook his head.
“I am a Tulani Steward! They are my responsibility!”
Claire let him go and started helping people go through as Oliver kept fiddling with the equipment in the backpack. There were just a few people left when there was a crackling roar, so loud that Claire felt it in her chest as much as she heard it.
“Holy god,” she whispered, looking up.
There was a massive cloud, boiling black and gray, lightning strobing all around it. It grew rapidly along with the roll of accompanying thunder. Claire took a step toward the Tulani manager, spun as she grabbed him and threw the larger man over her hip and through the gate.
The fire was nearly on top of them now and her husband was yanking wires out of the device. The shimmer disappeared and Claire nodded, understanding. He grabbed her and they hugged tightly.
Goodbye, little ones. We love you both so mu…
Amanda looked up as Jhendrui slid across the floor, crashing into the little group that had just staggered through, adding to the chaos in the room. Then there was a sharp pop as the gate disappeared.
“Get it back,” Amanda said to the engineer on the targeting board but he was already punching in commands.
Jhendrui was looking around, bewildered. Amanda went and helped everyone up.
“Lady D’hamandhau!” Jhendrui yelled when he recognized her.
“Here you can call me Amanda, old friend,” she said quietly, helping him to his feet.
“Lady Claire, she…threw me,” he said indignantly. “I must go back, there was a giant black cloud…”
“Amanda!” the engineer yelled over the din of panicked refugees. “I’m not able to locate the planetary mass. Did the beacon change the targeting sequence somehow? I’m not even sensing the interference from the mass of the moons…”
Amanda’s chest clenched and there was a pain in her throat. Her oldest and best friend, her confidant and colleague, her other half, was gone. With him went the brave woman who had sworn to protect him and had willingly borne their children. She closed her eyes, feeling the tears run down her cheeks. Goodbye Oli’vehndra and goodbye dearest Claire. May you find eternal grace and mercy beside quiet rivers. Oh Mercy’s tears, the twins! What am I going to…
“Doctor? Should I reenter the coordinates manually?”
She took a deep breath and looked at the man at the jury-rigged controls. “Don’t bother. They’re gone.”
The man looked at her in dawning horror. “The whole planet?”
She nodded, the numbness sweeping over her. “Just…shut it down.”
Amanda turned to Jhendrui who was looking around him, trying to understand where they were.
“Mistress, what about the gate?”
Amanda realized he didn’t speak English. Why would he? He’d never been to Terra. “Oli’vehndra closed it from the other side. Otherwise, the explosion would have followed you through. You remember Nikolai? He’s trying to get the refugees settled. Will you help him?”
“Of course, Lady…Amanda. We’ll be able to get to Garragh from here?”
“Of course you can,” Amanda said, patting his arm. But she doubted either of them would ever set eyes on Garradya Hoh again. Their system was so close to Te’varvfathi Hoh, it would be hard for the enemy not to find them. The Garragh had better armaments than the Ta’avi but once the Swarm found a Commonwealth planet, it only could end one way.
Four days later, a captain pulled her car into the circular drive of the security building and beneath the canopy that sheltered the front door. They were all supposed to park in the lot behind the building but she wouldn’t be here very long. The Iowa sky was a deep blue and a warm breeze made the fields of corn toss and rustle. She decided it was an omen, the winds of change were here.
Outside the door, she paused, emptying her mind of extraneous thoughts. There was only the path forward, she had planned well. Once focused, she took a deep breath and stepped through the front door. At the desk was one of the young interns. He looked up from whatever he was reading and smiled at her.
“Hey Captain Jenkins, I heard you were on leave.”
His eyes barely had time to widen in surprise as she pulled the silenced pistol out from behind her back and shot him. The kid slumped back in the chair, the look of surprise still on his face and a wisp of smoke coming from the black hole in his forehead. She waited but the sound hadn’t been enough to alert anyone else in the building. Captain Nina Jenkins pulled out her key card and headed for the armory. She had to time this perfectly and the clock had just started ticking.
Eight minutes later, Captain Jenkins was back at the front door with a large duffel bag over her shoulder. She pushed a detonator into the block of composition explosive and pulled the tab before tossing it into the lobby behind her and got behind her car. Fifteen seconds later, an explosion blew the glass out of the doors, showering the care with small fragments. Her back against the fender, she saw the shockwave racing away, pushing the corn tassels over as it went. After a second explosion from deeper in the building, she stood up and dusted herself off.
She’d used two blocks of the enhanced plastic explosive here and it had destroyed the building. There were four more bricks in the bag, more than enough to erase the High Energy Research building.
Forty minutes later, Jenkins rolled the window down, letting the roar of the wind fill the car. She dropped her issued cell phone out the window, consigning it to the desert night flying past the windows. After a couple of miles, she shut the frigid rushing air out and pulled out a cellphone she’d never used before. It had been secreted in the bag along with her weapons, she’d been warned to leave it alone until she needed it. Nina hadn’t charged it but the screen immediately lit as soon as she pushed the button.
“Yes.” The dry, almost sibilant, voice filled the car and she shuddered slightly in spite of herself. If one of the desert creatures spoke, it would sound like that. A voice of snakes and scorpions.
There was a long pause and she thought he’d disconnected.
“The fires are seen, yes. We are coming. Do you have them?”
Jenkins swallowed, mouth dry. “I could only get one.”
There was another silence in return and she felt her arms and legs start to tremble. She would just kill herself out here. Fast and clean rather than the things they’d shown her. A quick death would be paradise compared to…she jumped when the lizard voice spoke again.
“One is sufficient. Take it to the Curiosity.”
Nina Jenkins almost wet herself in relief. The screen went dark and seconds later she was swearing and fumbling the smoking device out of the window. There was a dull flash on the road behind her and she shook her hand. That was going to leave blisters.
She’d drive straight through, she decided. When the caffeine stopped working she’d use the black wide-awake tablets. Getting her adrenal glands back in order would be a bitch but nothing like what they would do to her if she failed.
Amanda and Mirjam stood on the roof of a prefab building and watched the fires raging across the R&D facility. Footsteps crunched across the gravel behind them and Mirjam turned and saw Lou Morgan, the security service chief.
Until today, Mirjam had allowed Lou and a few of his Special Team captains to approach her Ward without being frisked. They’d been trusted comrades and friends. Until a few hours ago anyway.
Lou had been around Mirjam and other Wardens long enough that he recognized the Warden’s thought process. He’d left his weapons with an assistant and stopped ten meters away, holding his hands away from his sides as he turned in place. Mirjam nodded and he came close enough to speak comfortably.
“Doctor Tulani, we’ve accounted for Captain Jenkin’s team. Six bodies were found at the Citadel along with several Cadets that were on duty. The other four had signed out on leave last night. We got a message to them and all four immediately surrendered themselves to a facility on the East Coast thirty minutes ago. They’ve been separated and all of them appear to be in shock. Medical wants permission to sedate one of them who’s…highly distraught.”
“What’s that mean, Lou?” Amanda asked.
The man took a deep breath. “Sergeant Andy Howard is hysterical and had to be put in restraints, he was engaged to one of the Citadel casualties. The other three have already volunteered for deep interrogation.”
Amanda made a face and shook her head but didn’t say anything. Lou looked at Mirjam.
“You and I both know that smear of filth went solo on this,” Mirjam said in her low, mean voice. “We’ve got enough dead, don’t waste any more assets.”
“Thank you. They’ll be assigned to separate postings when things calm down. There’s one more thing; Ian Jones’ body was identified just before I came up. That triggered automated messages from the Synthetic Intelligence designating an interim Project Director. You are the first living person on that list.”
There was a bitter laugh from Amanda. “Sure, why not? It’s not like I can quit and go home, right?”
Lou didn’t know how to respond to that. Fifteen hours after Te’varvfathi was shattered, the Garragh homeworld was attacked. The Garragh fleet had counterattacked with everything they had but within the day, all three of the planet’s moons had been accelerated into the planet. Like Tevarvthi, there was nothing left but an expanding rubble cloud.
“You’re expecting a follow up attack?” Mirjam asked.
“We’re assuming they’re on the way. All the backups are long gone and the last personnel are loading now.” He didn’t bother to mention sensitive equipment. All the labs with exotic materials were in the center of the inferno.
“Any sign of Theo’s body?”
Amanda flinched and Mirjam hated the words as she said them.
“Nothing. The playrooms were only slightly damaged, we would have found him. My people are looking.”
Amanda took a deep breath and turned to face Lou for the first time. “Get notifications out to the field groups and other centers. We need to get replacements recruited and up to speed.”
“You’ve got it, ma’am. When you’re ready, there’s transport to get you both to Echo.”
“Are you up to the job?” Mirjam asked quietly when they were alone again.
“Why wouldn’t I be? I don’t have anything else left.”
“Yes, you do,” Mirjam said firmly. “You have a niece to take care of, not to mention a large group of frightened refugees. I need to know if you’re up to taking all that on this soon. You’ve already been through…”
“I know exactly what I’ve been through. And as I said, I have nothing else to do. Your job is to watch me, keep me from screwing, so it’ll be fine.”
Mirjam stepped closer. “You’re wrong. My job is to care for you, whatever happens.” Amanda nodded without saying anything. They’d been bonded long enough that Mirjam knew the signs and pulled the taller woman into a hug. Amanda put her face into the Warden’s shoulder and finally wept.