“Do you really not have anything better to do?” Finn called when he saw Tyohac driving the quad.
“Took you two long enough. Where’s your gear?”
“We traded it for an important lesson on the local wildlife,” Leah said as she got in. “What did we miss?”
“Kid, the defecation has well and truly impacted the rotational cooling device.”
Finn recognized the tone in Tyohac’s voice. “How bad?”
“More shit than fan at the moment. Here, use my tablet to talk to your ship. She’s worried.”
Finn took it and connected to Addie as they drove.
“Captain Finn! Is Captain Leah there too?”
“We’re both here. Sorry it took so long but wait until you hear about it.”
“I wasn’t worried, you both promised to come back. I made a new friend. She used to know you! Are you coming now?”
“We’re on our way,” Finn said firmly, glancing at Tyohac.
“I’ll warm up the shower!”
In the back, Leah laughed. “I think someone has a crush on you.”
Finn grinned over his shoulder at her. “Don’t worry, we’re just friends.”
“You have an unnatural relationship with that ship,” Tyohac grumbled.
Finn laughed. “Really? Weren’t you the one who used to sing to his Redtail?”
“Shut up. That was a cultural ritual.”
“Ah, I didn’t realize Britney Spears was a Ta’avi, my apologies. Was washing it by hand part of the ritual as well?”
Tyohac flipped him off and Leah hooted with laughter.
“So what’s going on?”
“Lykos wants to see you first thing.”
“I’m showering first,” Leah said.
Tyohac nodded. “Good, I’d be happy if you were both heeled. You manage to keep ahold of your firearms?”
“I’ve got spares,” Finn said.
Tyohac shook his head. “Can’t even keep track of a pistol, why am I not surprised?”
Leah sat forward, her head between them. “Tyohac, did you wear short-shorts and a tight t-shirt when you handwashed your fighter?”
He shook his head again. “You started off so polite and quiet. What did he do to you?”
Leah sat back. “Better not say, I don’t want to shock you.”
The massive Ta’avi laughed. “Don’t mess with this one, Pirate. She’s too tough for your delicate sensibilities to handle.”
“It was a hot pink t-shirt,” Finn said over his shoulder. “And he pulled the hem through the neck hole so it looked like a bikini top.”
“Before you get laughing too hard, I stole it out of Finn’s bag,” Tyohac said with a grin.
Addie’s hatch was swinging open as Finn and Leah unstrapped from the ATV.
“Forty-five minutes,” Tyohac said. “Or you’re walking up there.”
Finn waved and followed Leah into the ship. Addie was already telling her about the Monopoly tournament that the Navvi’s were having. Finn smiled and put his hand on the bio-sensor for several seconds. He jumped as there was a slight tingle. Addie stopped talking to Leah long enough to say that Xerxes had taught her how to answer back. Leah disappeared into her room and Finn pulled out a bottle of bourbon and poured an inch into a pair of tumblers. He went into the back and tapped on the shower partition.
“Who is it?” Leah called.
Finn put his arm around the partition, holding one of the tumblers. Leah took it and then leaned out.
“Are we being shy now? It’s big enough for two.”
“I guess we should talk about that,” Finn said.
“Hold on.” Leah’s head disappeared and reappeared after a second. She raised her eyebrows.
Leah spit a mouthful of water down the front of his shirt and pants. Then she grinned at him.
“Give me that bourbon back.”
“Come in and get it,” she said, disappearing behind the partition.
Finn rolled his eyes and stripped off his clothes and stepped around and into the shower.
“Oops, I already drank it, sorry,” Leah said.
He laughed and squirted some soap onto his hands and washed his face.
“What is it we need to talk about?” Leah asked. “Turn around, I’ll do your back.”
Finn turned and stretched as she scrubbed across his shoulder blades.
“You’re making it hard to concentrate,” he said.
“Good. You have your ‘I’m worrying about something’ face on. Relax and talk to me.”
He took a deep breath and the words he didn’t want to say poured out of his mouth in a rush; “So…I have feelings for you, you know that. I think you know anyway. But I don’t know if I can do it. No, wait, that’s not true. I know I can’t do it.”
She turned him around and raised an eyebrow. “That was not relaxed for the record. What do you mean by feelings?”
“The way you guys are with…affection and all that. I’ve tried to get my head around it but I just can’t. I’m kicking myself for letting anything start in the first place.”
“No, go back. You said feelings. What kind of feelings?” she said.
He sighed. “Do I really have to come out and say it?”
She slowly smiled. “Yes.”
He sighed. “Romantic feelings, affection, falling hard for you. Feelings like being happy when you’re around me, feelings like wanting to be near you, to hold you, those kind of feelings.”
“Now, was that so hard?”
She laughed. “Too bad. But now you can’t get your head around these feelings.”
“Leah, are you torturing me on purpose?”
She stepped closer. “It’s just that I’ve never had someone get into the shower with me, admit they’re falling for me, and then break up in the same sentence. Tell me what you can’t get your head around.”
“The whole polyamory thing. I can’t do it. Watching you with someone else would break my heart. And I would never want you to change who you are.”
She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Finn. That’s so sweet. And, yes, it would be devastating to have to deal with something like that. Let me point out two things though; first, it isn’t polyamory. It’s just people having sex. I mean, there’s affection but it’s not like we’re all in love. Yeesh, I can’t even imagine that. Secondly, I have some pretty serious feelings for you as well and there’s no way I would even consider doing something that might hurt you. Okay?”
“This is what’s been bothering you since Water’s Leap?”
“You could tell?”
She put her hands on his shoulders. “Yes, I could tell. Didn’t you listen when Eldest said that our feelings were kind of like transmitters to them?”
“When we’re touching, them, yes. Like when I felt how unhappy you were when Lakshmi carried us the first time.”
She shuddered. “Don’t remind me. When you were with Eldest, Lakshmi mentioned to me that your emotions move with more power than mine do, even if I feel more strongly about something.”
Finn considered that. “You’ve got an unfair advantage, if you ask me.”
She moved even closer, pressing her body against his. “Are you kidding? It’s like you’ve got a superpower. You made me feel so safe with your arms around me. And when we found out about the videos, I felt you get angry and I felt why you were so angry. You wanted to protect me, to make everything okay. And even when Lakshmi did her puffer-fish routine, you didn’t back down, you told her to do her worst. And I learned how much you cared about me. I wish I could do that, to show you how much I care about you.”
She put her lips against his and they stood under the warm shower for what felt like a long time. But when she let go of him, Finn decided it had ended far too quickly.
Leah smiled at him. “Now you can wash my back.”
He took the scrubbie and put more soap on it. Leah sighed happily as Finn began moving it in circles down her shoulders.
“Oh, god,” he suddenly said.
“Every time we were touching?”
She laughed. “Yes, every time. And let me say, waking up to that kind of desire and admiration is…wow. I had a very hard time not jumping on top of you most every morning.”
He shook his head. “Lakshmi and I are going to have a long talk about this.”
“She’ll just be pragmatic at you. I’m glad that I can finally come out and tell you how madly I’ve been falling for you since Water’s Leap.”
He finished soaping her back and put his arms around her from behind. Leah leaned back against him. “Ooh, I don’t need Lakshmi to figure out what you’re feeling right now.”
“Excuse me, Captains,” Addie said. “Chief Tyohac will be arriving in fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you,” Leah said.
She turned in Finn’s arms and looked up into his eyes. “Tonight?”
He smiled at her. “Definitely.”
“You look happy,” Tyohac said as he pulled up. “That always makes me nervous, get in the back.”
“Just call me Miss Daisy.”
“Miss Daisy now? You know, he made us call him Betsy on the flight line,” Tyohac told Leah.
Finn rolled his eyes. “Were you actually taking us somewhere or did you just stop by to vent about your emotional baggage?”
“Sometimes he even wore a wig and lipstick,” Tyohac said as he pulled away.
The mood around the outpost when they were leaving seemed happy, even optimistic to Leah. In the six days they’d been gone, a lot had changed. Her own mood was darker, mostly because of the borrowed pistol she was wearing. But there weren’t as many people moving around as there had been, especially for a weekend. The ones they did pass on the ride to Owen’s office looked worried.
“There’s no kids out playing,” Finn said to Tyohac.
The big man shrugged. “Parents are keeping ’em close, I guess.”
“Where are we going?” he said. “Admin’s office is over there.”
“Was over there. The maintenance offices are more secure. Don’t give me that look, we’re be there in a second.”
The large inflatable Quonset has designed to be set up next to the two cargo containers that it was shipped in. These could be used for extra workshops or whatever else was needed at the moment. Erewhon had welded theirs end to end and had cut a standard sized doorway into the side of one. Tyohac stopped outside and they went in. The first thing they saw was one of the colonists with a large, homemade looking, shotgun laying on the desk in front of him. It wasn’t quite pointed at the door but he was obviously covering it.
“Captain Morgan, and Captain Jones, Fleet Scouts,” Finn said to the man. “The Administrator wanted to see us.”
“Yup, I remember y’all. Maya?”
A woman with a long dark braid appeared in the doorway through the internal walls. “What’s up, Tom?”
“Two Fleet Scouts to see the boss.”
The woman glanced and them and nodded. “He’s with Captain Westergaard. I’ll let him know.”
“Did you find Kevin and the others?” the man was in a low voice.
“We found them,” Leah said quietly. “None of them made it, I’m afraid.”
“Didn’t figure they had, they went out quite a while ago. Good of y’all to go locate them. Did they pass, uhm…easy?”
Leah nodded. “They did. It was a nice spot, peaceful and very pretty.”
Tom nodded and looked away, clearing his throat. “Thank you, Captain. I knew Kevin from back home. He was a good ‘un.”
“Captains?” Maya asked from the doorway.
They followed her through the doorway. The other container had a couple of internal walls dividing the interior into a couple of rooms. There was a desk and a few chairs around a folding table in the rearmost room. Owen and another man were sitting at the table and got up as they came in.
Finn got a glimpse of some kind of Polynesian tattoo in the collar of the other man’s shirt and a thick braid of black hair hung over his shoulder. He wore a t-shirt from Echo and, of course, he was very good looking. Almost pretty in fact. Finn resisted the strong urge to sigh.
“I was starting to wonder if we were going to see you again,” Owen said as he got up to shake hands with each of them.
“It was a pretty eventful trip,” Finn said. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Leah! I’m so glad you made it back,” the other man said with a wide smile.
After she’d shaken hands with Owen, he went to hug her. She dodged it by putting her hands on his shoulders and touching her cheek to his for a moment. He looked surprised but covered it well
“Kai, I’d like to introduce Captain Finn Morgan,” Leah said, putting her hand on Finn’s arm. “Finn, this is Captain Kai Westergaard.”
The man smiled, his teeth very white against his brown skin, and held out a hand. “Arclight Southern, Captain. Vanguard, ’22,” he said with a slight British accent.
Finn shook hands. “No idea what that means, but hello.”
“Ah. Then my apologies, I did not realize you were one of our latecomers. Just a school thing.”
Leah frowned at Kai. “He’s not a latecomer, Kai. He was one of the Air Force volunteers that taught at Echo. And he flew against the Swarm.”
“I didn’t mean to imply anything negative, Finn,” the other man said, sitting back down. “Just a habit when I see other Scouts, and thank you for your service. No hard feelings?”
“Of course not, your habits are your own business.”
Tyohac went to lean against the wall, not trusting his muscular bulk to the flimsy chairs. When Finn glanced at him, he rolled his eyes slightly.
“Please sit down. Captain Westergaard and I were discussing the political situation, but I’d like to hear what you found first.”
Leah took a small bundle from a cargo pocket and handed it to Owen carefully. He unfolded it to find six name tapes Leah and Finn had recovered from their uniform shirts. Owen gently unrolled each tape and laid them out on the table top. Then he leaned back and took an unlabeled bottle out of a duffel. Six squat pottery cups followed and he put them in a line.
“It’s rum,” Owen said as he half filled each glass. “We call it Erewhon Original. Maya, bring Tom in here, would you?”
The dark haired woman went out and returned with the guard. He looked uncomfortable and curious at the same time. Owen nodded at the glasses and Maya took both and handed one to Tom.
“There’s something Latin that Fleet folks say when people die, right?”
“Ad astra per aspera,” Leah said, picking up two cups and handing one to Finn. ‘It’s a rough road to the stars.'”
“That’s certainly been accurate,” Owen said. “Tom and one of the mappers were close friends.”
“You don’t have to explain anything to us,” Finn said.
Kai took his cup and got to his feet. “Administrator, your honor.”
Owen raised his cup, looking around. “Ad astra per aspera.”
The rest of them raised theirs and they drained them.
“Sic transit gloria speculatores,” Owen added. “Which roughly means ‘So passes the glory of those that search.’ I’m sorry Tom.”
The guard shook his head. “Like their saying said, Owen. I’ll get back on the door.”
“I think it would be valuable to get Leah and Finn up to speed on what’s been happening here,” Kai said as they sat down.
“Not that I’m unhappy to see you, Kai,” Leah said. “But what are you doing here? Last I heard, you were on Saint Johns.”
“Ah, right. You haven’t heard. Unbelievably, we encountered a sentient race of Others. So, the surveys were shut down and we evacuated. Saint Johns is now whatever the natives call it. They’re water dwellers, I can’t even begin to pronounce their name.”
Leah glanced at Finn and quickly flicked his eyes at Maya, who was staring at Kai as though he was the Second Coming. Leah blinked twice in response.
“Right in the middle of the cocktail hour,” Kai was saying. “One of them popped up a few meters from the beach. There was a bit of a stampede before anyone figured out what was going on. A Xero’pah warship was in orbit less than a planetary day later.”
“I’ve never had the pleasure,” Finn said. “What are they like?”
Kai frowned. “Very formal and very polite, usually. This bunch were somewhat less than polite, but I was glad they were there. We had one of those Res-Dir ‘liaison teams’ with us and they didn’t take the news very well at all. They refused to leave and the Xero’pah had to deploy a combat team to make their point. Even then, two of the Directorate goons were ‘detained.’ We were told they’d be released to the proper authorities, whatever that means.”
“It means the shit-storm on Hub is going to be even worse,” Leah sighed.
“Yes, that’s why we were all sent here instead of back to the deep freeze,” Kai said. “La Direction de la Réinstallation will not take the news lightly.”
“Especially since they’ve already launched colony barges,” Finn said. “When Addie and I docked at the Orbital, there were four Plymouth class barges loading. They were gone a few hours after we arrived.”
Kai leaned forward to look at him. “You saw them too? Ser Tyohac mentioned the same thing but I had assumed, hoped really, that he was mistaken. My apologies, Ser.”
Tyohac waved a hand. “I’m just a Technical Chief, Captain.”
Finn was amazed when Kai blew a raspberry. “And I’m the Lady of Flowers. But this is serious. Did you happen to document it, Finn?”
He nodded. “Addie got lidar and optical recordings of them loading. Sorry, that’s my ship.”
Kai smiled. “We’ve met. But, launching ships before a world is officially opened is specifically forbidden by the Colonization Agreement. I served with a small Xero’pah unit. They take that order very seriously, especially with humans.”
“The Directorate doesn’t take kindly to Fleet protocol,” Tyohac rumbled. “They’re worse with Commonwealth directives.”
“The story of this outpost proves that point,” Kai said. “I’ll get a message out to Hub. I can have your recordings, Finn?”
He nodded. “I also dropped them in the Big Office common drive so I didn’t have the only copy. I’ll send the address along with the files.”
“Thank you, sir. I apologize about hijacking the meeting, Owen.”
The administrator shook his head. “Hearing more details makes me wonder what’s next for us here. Especially now. Captains, you’ve noticed our change of venue of course. We’ve had an eventful week since you left. When I stepped into the leadership role, we all agreed on a formal compact that stipulated that I would step down once more qualified people arrived and a new election would be held.”
“That’s not us though,” Leah said. “Our orders specifically forbid taking over any settlement.”
“Unless there are specific extenuating circumstances, I know. Captain Westergaard and I have already discussed it.”
Finn noticed Leah’s eyebrows going up for a moment but she didn’t say anything.
“Our neighbors have chosen to interpret the letter of the law, rather than the spirit,” Owen said, anger creeping into his voice. “Since it was not explicitly stated that the more qualified new arrival would step into the leadership role, the neo-Puritan elders are calling for an immediate election.”
Finn sighed. Wherever they went, the Puritans seemed to stir up trouble. But this was crassly opportunistic, even for them.
“I’ve managed to hold them off, saying that the mapping crew needed to be back before anything that important was decided. Now that you’ve confirmed them as dead, I don’t have any other excuses.”
“Why did you move out of the hab?” Finn asked.
“There have been several incidents of late night vandalism,” Maya said. “Including arson while Owen was inside.”
“That’s a little more than vandalism then,” Finn said. “Seems more like attempted murder.”
Owen shrugged. “Can’t make it official though. I’ve got my own hab, I just don’t use it.”
“Any suspects?” Finn asked.
“Tension between the Utopians and Puritans have been getting worse since the Pioneer ships arrived,” Owen said. “Maya is actually the only member of their community that interacts with our side of the settlement.”
“I want to say, on the record, that I do not support what’s going on over there,” Maya immediately said. “If my partner had not joined the Puritans, I would live here full time.”
“Three of our techs have been injured in fights with the Drabs, one of them seriously,” Tyohac said.
“Ser Tyohac, we’ve talked about that particular name,” Maya said, a little primly.
Finn saw Kai almost roll his eyes and looked over at Tyohac. “What happened?”
“Folks walking back to the connies after drinking up here. Ambushed out of the dark by people wearing masks.”
Maya cleared her throat. “Which is why there is no actual confirmation that the attackers were Neo-Puritans.”
Finn ignored her. “You’re sure, Ty?”
Tyohac glared at Maya before looking at Finn. He nodded once. “The kids got in a few licks of their own. Noticed a few of those fine young Puritans limping around. They’ve also been tryin’ to interrupt the Greeting the last few mornings.”
“I told you, that’s being addressed,” Maya snapped. “Dammit!”
She got up and stormed over to Tyohac. Leah and Finn looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Maya barely reached the Ta’avi’s shoulder but didn’t seem to care.
“Yes, there are troublemakers!” she said loudly. “Yes, more than a few of them are fuc…really difficult! But they’re residents of Erewhon and like I’ve told you for the last three days, they’re stuck here, same as us! Why can’t you be patient?”
“Let’s all take a deep breath,” Kai said.
Maya looked over her shoulder and was immediately embarrassed. She muttered apologies as she went and sat back down.
“We ain’t stopping the song,” Tyohac growled at Maya.
“No, you’re not,” Finn said. “I’ll be there tomorrow morning to explain the benefits of tolerance.”
“That one keeps offering,” Tyohac said, nodding at Kai. “But Ta’avi for Ta’avi, you know that. We don’t need guards to sing.”
“Then we’ll guard them from you,” Finn said. “Stop being such a stubborn bastard.”
There was another long silence.
“Okay, everyone done?” Leah asked. “Owen, what’s your plan going forward?”
Owen shrugged again. “The loss of six more of my people means that they officially outnumber us. The outpost will shift to Puritan leadership. They’ve been planning a series of religious freedom ‘reforms’ that look an awful lot like purges.”
“Don’t hold the election then,” Leah said.
The Administrator shook his head. “I’d rather lose than abandon my principals. There is such a thing as honor and I…”
“Goddammit!” Finn exclaimed, slapping his hand against the table. “That is why you got your asses kicked on Hub! You’ve got people out there depending on you because this is reality! You’re not running some fucking philosophical experiment.”
Leah put her hand on his arm and Finn took a deep breath.
“I’ve been arguing the same thing,” Kai said. “A little less forcefully but Finn is right.”
“No, he is not right, and neither were you,” Owen growled. “Blind obedience to authority is what got humanity in this mess to begin with. Someone, somewhere has to stand up to hierarchy. People must consent to be governed, not be blindly led into disaster!”
There was a long silence that Tyohac broke by sitting down at the table.
“Listen up, Lykos,” he rumbled. “You can spout John Locke or whatever political views you want, I don’t care. What I do care about are facts. The fact is that the Bugs landed your people in this mess. They did the same to us and, I assure you, there was no arguing about political organization among the Folk.”
Owen rubbed his face and then sighed. “You’re right, Chief and I apologize to all of you. I’m not getting enough sleep. Obviously, I’m not up to the task here, maybe new leadership will do some good.”
“No one really knows that we’re back,” Leah said. “Take a couple days and think it over, okay? Just a couple days.”
Owen looked at the table and finally nodded. “I’ll announce their deaths the day after tomorrow. The weekend will give people time to mourn, we can hold the election on Monday.”
“Administrator…” Kai began but Owen held up his hand, not looking up from the table.
“Thank you, Captains, and Chief.”
Finn and the others got up and left the office without saying anything more.
“I really want to punch something,” Kai said quietly, once they were outside. “Goddamn Utopians!”
“You’re as bad as he is,” Leah said, nodding at Finn.
“That’s because Finn is a smart man. I’m going to go for a run to burn some energy.”
“No, you’re going to get in the quad,” Leah said. “We don’t need another joker running around loose.”
Kai stopped whatever he was about to say and got in the quad. Tyohac was visibly impressed.
“You are gonna be so whipped”he muttered to Finn.
“What was that, Chief?” Leah asked, getting into the passenger seat.
“Nothing at all, ma’am,” Tyohac said, getting behind the wheel.
“I didn’t think so. Take the scenic route.”
Tyohac drove away from the outpost’s buildings, parallel to the runway instead of toward it. When they’d gone a couple of kilometers, Leah politely asked him to stop. Tyohac stopped the quad without comment.
“Thank you, Chief,” Leah said, patting Tyohac’s arm. “We have something serious to discuss.”
“Want me to take a walk?”
“No, I want you in on this, it concerns the Pioneers too.”
They got out and Tyohac opened the hatch over the engine. The four of them gathered around it to talk.
“What’s going on?” Kai asked.
“We’re not alone here,” Leah said. “There are natives, highly intelligent with a complex culture. They are tech users, roughly steam engine phase, minus the steam engines.”
“Oh, shit,” Tyohac and Kai said at the same time.
“Oh, it gets better,” Leah said. “Yuri Bogdanov and Ben Schwartz were both on that mapping team. Yuri left a letter, it’s in Addie’s safe. It looks like ranting and raving but he called a Joker Loose. I want you to look at it, maybe there’s more I’m not seeing.”
“Did you get his tablet?” Kai asked.
Leah shook her head. “He gifted the team’s tablets to the A’nek. Finn managed to get a full image of the drive though.”
“Nice job,” Kai said. “There’s no way they were both here by accident.”
“I’m not a Scout, so how likely is it that sentient natives popped up both on Saint Johns and here?” Tyohac asked.
“It’s not likely that it would happen on either planet,” Kai said. “Twice? No way. Something is going on here.”
“Okay. Just for the sake of argument, could it be because the Saint Johns natives were underwater? And I assume these new folks live under the trees.”
“I think that’s why the elves were so pissed,” Kai said. “There were scans of the seabed, or there should have been. Whoever did the first surveys should have picked up tech use, even under water.”
Finn nodded. “And the A’nek settlement we visited was visible from a kilometer away. Plus, they’re on a major waterway, right at the edge of a major waterfall. There’s no way to miss something like that by accident.”
“The elves are going to flip their shit,” Kai said. “Missing two native cultures in a row, I’d bet humans are going to get restricted to Hub for a long while.”
“Why did you get so pissed at Owen?” Tyohac asked Finn. “Since this outpost is going to be evacuated it’s not like there’s going to be a government here to argue about.”
“Same reason we didn’t bring up the A’nek when Kai was talking about Saint Johns,” Finn said. “There’s no way that Maya isn’t relaying info back to whoever her partner is.”
“Gavin,” Tyohac said. “Big bastard we met the first day.”
“Mr. Diplomacy, right. Like I said, there’s no way first surveys accidentally missed the A’nek. Then, Leah recognizing the secret agents or whatever they were? Kai is right, something big is going on.”
“You faked being mad?” Leah asked him.
Finn laughed. “No, Owen pisses me off, has since I met him. But something tells me that keeping the news about the A’nek quiet is best for now.”
“I mostly agree,” Kai said. “What about bringing a select number of people in? There’s specialists, Scouts and Pioneers both, that would make things a little easier.”
“Totally,” Finn said. “I’m more concerned with the settlers here.”
Tyohac nodded. “I didn’t say anything to the princess, but Drabs showed up today and are watching our camps constantly. They’re hidden up near that little group of trees. Not very well, you can see their binos when the sun is in the right spot. I’ve got some folks in camp keeping an eye on them.”
Kai sighed. “Why can’t humans get their shit together? We should be worrying about survival, not who gets to run the show.”
Tyohac laughed. “You think that way because you’re on the side running the show.”
Kai looked startled and then laughed. “Damn you and your common sense, Chief. Would it be okay to use the party tonight as cover to meet with a few more people?”
Tyohac nodded. “I like your paranoia, Kai.”
“Okay, great we’re all in love, let’s get this quad ‘fixed’ before anyone notices us out here,” Leah said.
Finn and Leah went back aboard Atalanta that afternoon. At the same time, they looked at the berthing area and then at each other.
“I can’t tell you how tempted I am right now,” Leah said.
“Oh, I think I can guess,” Finn said. “And I get the feeling that when we start we’ll be busy for a quite a while.”
Leah kissed Finn on the cheek. “Okay, documentation first.”
“Okay, Addie. Ready to get to work? We’ve got a lot to transcribe. This will be restricted to our voice access for now.”
“Full encryption confirmed, Finn. I’m ready,” Addie said.
When they’d finally finished narrating everything, it was nearly time for the wedding party to begin. Leah appropriated the bathroom, kicking Finn out.
“You just showered,” he muttered.
“My models suggest that you have a nearly zero percent chance of achieving your goal in this conversation,” Addie said.
Finn rolled his eyes. “You’re not supposed to be on her side this fast.”
“I am neutral, merely advising you on your current task.”
“Good girl,” Leah said from behind the partition. “Finn, do you know the people getting married?”
“No, they’re both from skyborn clans,” Finn said, looking through the small collection of clothes he had.
“What’s that mean?”
“Just Ta’avi that were born on one of the stations instead of the homeworld,” he said, pulling out the dressiest things he had. “It used to matter for whatever reason. You can usually tell by the clan name. The folks from Echo are all Flame Bridge or something close to it. Skyborn usually have the station name or celestial sounding names.”
Finn heard the shower go on, then almost immediately it shut off and shook his head. He unrolled one of the few collared shirts he had, a cream colored guayabera and shook out a pair of three-quarter length linen pants. After thinking for a second, he took out a carefully hoarded bottle of cologne and put a little on the back of his neck.
“Do they wait to get married on a planet or something?”
“I think it’s something of a surprise party. Tyohac mentioned that their ship exited the gate this morning. They’re due in the middle of the party.”
“Did you need the bathroom?” Leah asked.
Finn rolled his eyes again. “I’m fine.”
“Okay, I’m ready if you are. Do I look okay?”
Leah was wearing a sleeveless gray-blue dress that hung from a metallic collar. It fell to just below her knees and was slit almost to the hip on both sides. She’d tied it around her waist with a belt the same color as the necklace. She don’t something to her hair, usually she wore it pulled back. Now it was loose and tousled, hanging to just above her shoulders. And she looked different; she’d always been very pretty but now Leah was on a different level entirely.
“By the look on your face, I’ll assume that this is okay,” she said, smiling at him.
“You’re gorgeous…no. Astounding. Breathtaking. Devastatingly gorgeously breathtaking.”
Leah blushed slightly, the first time Finn had ever seen it. “Thank you. And you are ruggedly beautiful. It’s just a little makeup and some hair goop.”
“Wow,” Finn said.
“I second that!” Addie said. “You look amazing, Leah.”
“Thank you Miss Addie! Finn, you smell very nice. Now stuff your eyes back in their sockets. The sooner we go, the sooner we can come back.”
A few of the Scout newcomers had been pulled into a semicircle. A noisy crowd of people, Pioneers and Scouts by the look of it, were gathered inside the arc created by the ships. Leah and Finn headed that way and passed a teenaged looking Ta’avi scuffing the runway with some kind of pole.
“Evening, Olontaya,” he said as they passed.
“My name is Finn,” he replied automatically and stopped. “You’re one of Tyohac’s mob?”
The young man laughed. “Yes sir. I’m Yalin, Jaana and Kurel’s youngest son.”
“You’re kidding! You were like three feet tall the last time I saw you. What are they feeding you? And my name is Finn, if you didn’t hear me. Call me sir again and I’ll turn you over my knee.”
The Pioneer grinned and suddenly spun the pole around his arm. It made a whirring sound through the air and snapped to his shoulder with a sharp thwack.
“Are you sure?”
Finn laughed. “Showoff. Look, I know y’all are standing guard. I want to know if anything happens, after you tell whoever the OOD is.”
“Sure, no problem there, Finn.”
“Smartass,” he growled at the kid who grinned at him and touched his eyebrow in a loose salute.
“What does Olontaya mean?” Leah asked as they walked on.
“Just a Ta’avi nickname. Probably something obscene.”
Leah took his hand and stopped. “You really are a terrible liar.”
He laughed. “Maybe I’m just really good and I’m just…”
“Okay. It’s some kind of raptor creature from the Ta’avi homeworld.”
“It’s an honor, isn’t it? All of them treat you with a lot of respect.”
“Some of that has to do with Tyohac, I’m sure. Back at Echo, I hung out in Ta’avi town a lot, so their parents probably told them to be nice to me.”
Leah smiled and started walking again, keeping his hand. “I’m sure that must be it.”
Tyohac bellowed cheerfully when he the two of them joining the crowd of noisy party-goers. They worked their way over to him and Tyohac put a ceramic cup in each of their hands.
“Drink up, drink up!” he roared and there was a cheer from everyone.
Finn didn’t smell the usual eye-watering fumes that went with Tyohac’s offerings and cautiously took a sip. It was water. Tyohac was making fun of him to the delight of everyone, so Finn drained the cup and coughed.
Leah shook her head at him and tossed back her water. She held it out for more and the laughter turned to delighted cheers. Tyohac refilled it from a ladle and his eyes flicked toward some tarps that had been hung between a pair of Scout ships. After refills, they both headed that way.
Leah started to take another drink and pulled her head back suddenly. “What the hell is this? Fuel?”
Finn laughed. “That’s what everyone else is getting. Don’t pour it out around open flames.”
“Does he hate everyone or something like that?”
“I’ve wondered that myself a few times.”
They casually strolled away from the party, into the shadows around the parked ships.
“Hi Xerxes,” Finn said quietly. “Congrats on the backgammon win.”
“Thanks Captain Finn!” the ship whispered loudly.
Leah was looking at him with that same smile as they found their way through the tarps.
“What? She’s best friends with Addie.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Leah said.
Kai and several other people were sitting on camp chairs arranged in a rough semi-circle under dimmed work lights from the overhanging ship wings . Everyone got up as they came in.
“I’ve got something I want you to try,” Leah said to one of the men, a dark haired man with a long curling moustache and soulpatch.
He immediately shook his head. “I’ve tasted Ser Tyohac’s goods before,” he said, with a strong French accent. “Perhaps Noel is feeling adventurous.”
“Adventurous does not mean suicidal,” a woman with ash-blonde hair answered. “Leah, you look spectacular!”
Leah blushed again and Finn was strongly tempted to kiss her just then.
“Hello, I’m Henry Cassies,” the musketeer wannabe said.
“Finn Morgan,” he replied.
“Hello, Finn. I’m Sasha Parvathi,” a shorter Indian looking woman said.
“Lars Coventry.” He was a tall man with very little hair left.
“Noel Berdran-St. Martin,” a woman with ash-blonde hair said with a French accent far lighter than Henry’s.
The last woman to shake his hand had large dark eyes and a similar braid of dark hair, this one streaked with silver, over her shoulder. She held onto his hand a little longer than necessary. “Hello Captain. My name is Marie Lemaitre-Cassies.”
“Pleased to meet all of you,” Finn said, wondering why she’d looked at him so intently.
“Marie and Noel are both exo-biologists,” Leah said, after trading cheek kisses with Marie.
“System analysis,” Lars said.
“I work in Threat Analysis and Prediction,” Henry said. “Don’t let them tell you that TA&P stands for anything else.”
There were chuckles.
“I’m a tactical specialist,” Sasha said. “Not sure what I’m doing in here with the big brains.”
“Scenery perhaps?” Noel asked and Sasha blew her a kiss.
“Because you’re the only one here that has any training in First Contact protocols,” Kai said. “Here’s Chief Tyohac, let’s get started.”
The rest of the Scouts glanced at each other silent as Tyohac strode into the circle. He nodded at everyone and set his own heavy-duty chair in the circle.
“Leah, would you begin?” asked Kai.
She got up and walked to the center of the semi-circle. “Hello brothers and sisters. If you’re not aware, I was paired with Finn recently. We met up here on Erewhon and before the rest of you arrived, we were assigned to rescue, or retrieve, a survey party that entered the surrounding forest seventeen months ago, at the same time as the staph outbreak. Their trail was marked and we had no real problem following it. We made camp beside a stream that was less than two meters wide. Some kind scary-ass ambush predator emerged from the creek and tried to grab us.”
“Could you please define ‘scary-ass’?” Noel asked.
Finn saw the Scouts around him smiling. Leah pointed at him.
“While I had a panic attack, my brand new bad-ass partner emptied a clip of 9mm into it. He probably got a better look than I did.”
“So, we have a bad-ass shooting the scary-ass,” Kai said. “Finn?”
Everyone was chuckling and turning to face him.
“We nicknamed it the tentacle slug,” Finn said, staying in his seat. “The skin was dark, probably black. From what I could see anyway, things were a little rushed. I noted ten to twelve appendages, all of them moving independently of each other. They ranged from about twenty centimeters at the tip to maybe a meter at the central body. They looked to be well muscled and the underside had what looked like suckers, maybe, as well as hooked teeth or claws set in rows that it used to pull itself up. It was a large critter and displaced a lot of water when it emerged from the creek.”
No one was smiling anymore.
“I apologize for making light of this,” Kai said. “I thought we were talking about something much smaller based on the stream size. How deep was it? You managed to kill it?”
“My pistol didn’t seem to bother it very much,” Finn said. “It was fast, I’d guess the tentacles covered fifteen meters in just a second or two. We’ve since found out that there are large underground rivers winding all over the forest. What we thought was a small surface stream was actually a gap in the in the intertwined root mass. No idea how deep the water went but I got the sense that it was a long way down.”
Tyohac whistled. “Mercy had her eyes on you both.”
“She had some serious help,” Leah said. “Even with Finn’s pistol, we didn’t stand a chance. Luckily we were rescued by a native of the planet.”
All of them froze.
“Sentient?” Noel asked quietly.
“Very sentient,” Leah said. “Tool users, we guessed that they’d be roughly equal to the steam-engine phase of technology, except they don’t bother with engines. They use muscle power instead. They also possess an advanced culture with multiple population clusters across the forests here.”
“You managed to communicate with them,” Noel said. “How difficult was it?”
Leah looked at Finn. “This one is yours.”
“They seem to be mildly telepathic when there is physical contact,” he said. “We were able to confirm that because they speak pretty good English as well.”
Finn had to bite his lip so he didn’t laugh at the looks on their faces. The other Scouts looked at him, then at each other, then back at him.
“I won’t offend you by asking you if you’re sure,” Henry said. “But are you serious?”
Leah nodded. “Completely. They have been watching the outpost here since the first survey landed. They tracked the mapping team and attempted to help them when the infection started taking people down. The settlers gave them the tablets as gifts. They were able to learn English, Spanish, and French from teaching programs.”
“That’s amazing,” Marie said. “Did they figure out how to fully utilize the tablets?”
Finn shook his head. “Voice commands only. They don’t seem to have developed a written language but they don’t need one. From the description out contact gave, it sounds very much like they have racial memory. They refer to it as listening to the song of the ancients.”
“How long were you in contact?” Kai asked.
“We were taken to their town for several days,” Leah said. It’s referred to as a ‘Meeting’ and it was spectacular.”
“Were they angry that we set up an outpost here?” Marie asked.
“More confused than anything,” Finn said. “They are a completely arboreal species and are baffled why we come down from the sky to live on the ground. Having seen the tentacle-slug, I can understand their reluctance.”
“We need to do intensive interviews with you both of course,” Marie said. “Did you manage to get any pictures?”
“Our tablets were destroyed with everything else by the slug,” Leah said. “Luckily, Finn here is pretty handy with a pencil.”
Finn pulled out his sketchbook and showed them one of the many sketches he’d done.
“I’ll get these digitized as soon as I get another tablet ready to go,” he said.
“They’re that big?” Sasha asked.
Leah moved to see the page they were looking at and smiled. “Yes. That’s our friend. She calls herself Lakshmi and from what I could see, she’s pretty typical for an A’nek.”
“We need some time to get our heads around this,” Kai said. “No one else is aware of their existence yet?”
“Just us so far,” Finn said. “We’ll have to tell Lykos soon.”
“Kai, we’re going to have to lend him some staff,” Henry said. “The man is already over his head with just the Drabs. Announcing evacuation on top of that will be too much.”
The taller man nodded, making notes on a tablet. “We’ll ask for volunteers. I’ll get the messages set up for the next pass of the communications relay. Leah, would you talk about the other issue you discovered?”
She nodded. “Yuri Bogdanov and Ben Schwartz were both on that mapping party. They were both Echo alumni. Last I heard, both were on unnamed offworld assignments.”
“Section Tango?” Lars asked.
Leah nodded and something like a sigh went through the group.
“Mon dieu, I am not going to any more parties with you, Leah Jones,” Noel exclaimed.
There were a few chuckles but no one was smiling.
“Boggy left a letter that uses Joker and Loose in the same sentence,” Kai said. “In another place, he misquoted commonly known poems to include stars and planet.”
“Which poems were used?” Henry asked.
“Sailing to Byzantium, and Second Coming,” Finn answered. “Both by Keats.”
“Rather ominous choices,” Henry said.
“Even though Yuri’s tablet wasn’t recoverable, Finn managed to get us an image of the memory,” Kai said. “There was an encrypted file called Neil Armstrong School that required a password.
“For Wayward Children,” several people said at once.
“Exactly. I think Yuri hoped that one of us would find this. It’s an audio message, not very pleasant but I think you should hear it.”
Kai opened the file and held up his tablet.
“Not say obvious,” a voice with a Slavic accent rasped from the tiny speaker. “Notes on video, give to Radiant. Protect tree people, kulturny souls, tried to help.”
The voice coughed several times, each cough getting more choked and liquid sounding.
“Listen Vanguard,” the voice has barely recognizable through the gurgling. “Your joker is loose, brings storm….”
There was one more gagging cough and then silence.
Kai cleared his throat. “Radiant most probably refers to the Imperial Radiant Guard, a Xero’pah black ops group. I was…. I’m familiar with them.”
“Kulturny doesn’t have a exact translation,” Lars said. “It’s something close to cultured or being proper.”
“That would describe the A’nek,” Leah said.
“And the joker bringing us a storm is all too clear,” Henry said. “We need to get this file out to the Big Office and the Xero’pah.”
“Let’s set up interviews with Finn and Leah,” Kai said. “We can do that, quietly, over the next few days.”
“Not much point in having us do much here anymore,” Tyohac rumbled. “I’ll give them busy work and we’ll start loading. We’ll keep it on the down low.”
“I’m expecting that we’ll hold here to provide whatever support the colonists need,” Kai said.
Tyohac shrugged. “We’ll hang out with you, I doubt anyone is in a hurry to get back to Hub. The newlywed’s ship is due in soon, I should get moving.”
“Good idea,” Kai said. “Let’s keep everything as calm as we can for as along as possible. That’s all I’ve got, anyone else? Thanks siblings, enjoy the party.”
People got up to leave but Kai made a subtle hand motion and Leah took Finn’s hand and they stayed behind. Henry did as well.
“I had a question about Boggy’s tablet,” Kai said. “I saw that there were nine files deleted three days ago?”
“I did that,” Finn said. “They had nothing to do with the A’nek or anything else.”
“What was this data? How can you be sure it did not relate?” Henry asked.
“It didn’t,” Leah said. “Finn is protecting me. Bogdanov secretly recorded bedroom videos back at Echo. I was in most of them, I’m pretty sure you and Noel made an appearance along with a few more of us. I wasn’t happy about that but I got very upset when I saw that the shithead had shared them with the rest of his group. Not professional but we were pretty wrung out.”
“Then there are likely more copies out there,” Henry warned.
Leah shrugged. “Probably. If it becomes an issue, I’ll deal with it. It’s not like we’re trying to hide anything, guys. You can probably find a copy of tablets around here. Cross check memory fingerprints.”
“Not necessary,” Kai said. “It was just odd. I noticed that you looked like you want to spit whenever you referred to Yuri. It makes sense now.”
“If you don’t need me, I need to chat with Marie and Bryn before we leave,” Leah said. “I’ll meet you back here, Finn?”
“It is dark here and I want to drink,” Henry said, winking at Finn. “He will be at the beer.”
Leah smiled at Finn and rubbed her nose against his. “I’ll be there to collect you in a few minutes. Don’t wander off or drink too much, there’s some things we still need to discuss this evening.”
“I’ll be right right where Henry says,” Finn promised.
“C’mon, I’ll buy you a beer,” Henry said.
Finn followed him out into the crowded party. Things had calmed down a little and they were able to find tables next to counter where several kegs of Ta’avi homebrew had been tapped.
“Save us a place,” Henry said, taking Finn’s cup.
Finn sat down and watched the other man to try and get a clue what he wanted to talk about. He hadn’t been kidding about wanting beer, that was for sure. Henry filled his mug and quickly drained it as Finn’s cup filled. Henry then refilled his own and came to the table and sat down.
“Nice trick,” Finn said.
Henry grinned. “I learned that in America, I attended Yale University for a time. I don’t think I will ever tire of the Ta’avi’s take on beer and I’ve been stuck on Hub for the last few months.”
“Far better than Tyohac’s hooch, that’s for sure,” Finn said.
“Salud,” Henry said they tapped rims and drank.
“What did you want to talk to me about?”
Henry carefully wiped the beer suds from his moustache before saying anything.
“As I said, a personal matter. Specifically I wanted to thank you but I realize it may be a sensitive subject.”
Finn’s eyebrows went up. “Okay….”
Henry met his eyes. “It is something from our past, Major Morgan.”
Finn took a long sip of beer but the man’s eyes were still on him when he put the mug down. He raised an eyebrow.
“That’s from a long way back, Henry.”
The other man nodded deeply. “Yes, and a long way away. The biologist you met with the dark hair, Marie? She is my wife.”
“I noticed the last name,” Finn said. “I’m a little surprised, I didn’t think Vanguard got married.”
Henry waved his hand. “Vanguard, it’s an old name and inaccurate at best. But we certainly have a reputation as libertines, and well deserved, if one is honest. But marriage isn’t unknown, just more uncommon. Marie wished to be married, so we were. A month later, the attacks began.”
Finn nodded, unsure of where this was going. Henry sat up straight and wiped his moustache again.
“Major, I want to thank you for saving the life of my wife,” he said, all humor gone. “To say that I don’t know what I would do without her is cliché perhaps but I assure you, she means more to me than…well, everything else.”
He put out his hand and Finn shook again.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance and grateful for the opportunity to thank you. You look uncomfortable discussing this and I wouldn’t dream of embarrassing you. Otherwise, I would fall to my knees and kiss your…”
Henry peered under the table. “…uhm, flip-flops. Perhaps, on further consideration, I would just nuzzle them a bit.”
Finn laughed. “I’m grateful for your restraint. As for the rest, well, we did some good missions and I like to think we made some small difference. But the Defense still failed and he paid a high price. Tyohac and I are the only pilots left out of the 25 we started with. That’s a lot of ghosts.”
Henry nodded. “I agree. But I don’t believe those ghosts would be vengeful and you do not honor their memories by using them to punish yourself.”
Finn shrugged. “Not punishment, just the burden that any combat commander carries. The shame comes from the fact that there were so many more that did so much more than I could have. They’re gone and being forgotten and I remain as the paragon. That I find shameful.”
“I believe that’s the true hero’s lament. Don’t shake your head, you are a hero as much as anyone else.”
Finn took another drink of beer. “You talk like someone who has been through wringer as well.”
Henry sat back. “Hoist by mine own petard. I’ve seen a fair amount of violence outside of combat. Before Revelation Day, I was a member of a counter intelligence unit. Part of that work included removing problem individuals. It was dangerous work.”
“Would you mind giving me some advice?”
Henry looked interested. “Certainly. You need advice on assassinations?”
Finn laughed. “No. You were in the Project your whole life?”
Henry nodded. “Born at Miroir Forestier.”
“Well, Leah and I have gotten kind of close and I’m wondering how you and Marie dealt with all the….” Finn waved his hands.
“Ahh, that. I’d be happy to discuss it. So, before you get too worried about all the bed hopping, you should realize that it was carefully engineered into our culture. The planners knew that many of us, males and females both, would be serving in long range ships, isolated colonies, similar conditions involving cramped conditions for long periods of time. If everyone has already been intimate or at least is not bothered by it, a potentially disastrous point of contention is removed.”
“Oh. Actually, that’s kind of brilliant.”
“And far more fun than the usual team building exercises. Being from the real world, I would imagine that you’re feeling a little uncomfortable about whether or not we’ll respect the boundaries the two of you will be setting.”
“Uhm, exactly. You’re pretty sharp.”
Henry shrugged. “I’m a very good spook so I know people. Please don’t worry. All of us, men and women alike, will respect your wishes. That’s not to say that people don’t occasionally flirt with Marie or I but it’s more a game between friends than anything serious and there is no pressure behind it.”
“I’m glad there’s still a place for love among the stars.”
Henry smiled. “How cynical of you! Of course there is and I think it has an even higher place of honor among our merry band. Those of us that grew up in the Project will only ever be lonely if we choose to be for some reason. Outside of the Project, physical intimacy is turned on its head, as it were. We didn’t date or have any of the other traditional practices of courtship, so it’s very uncommon for us to be ‘in love.’ It’s a far more mysterious, almost mystical, state of being for us.”
Finn smiled. “Thank you, Henry.”
The other man shrugged. “It is nothing. I’d also like to point out that you neglected to consider a critical, and obvious, issue. If Leah considers herself off limits, woe to any soul deranged enough to press the issue. And congratulations, you are both quite extraordinary people. Can I refill your mug?”
“I’d better now, this is our first night with some privacy and…”
“Say no more,” Henry said. He got up and took Finn’s cup. “I’ll just borrow this if you don’t mind.”
When Leah came back to collect him, Marie was with her. Henry and Finn both stood up. Leah smiled and wrapped her arms around one of his. Marie kissed Henry on the cheek and then looked in his mug.
“How much have you had, husband?”
“Just a cup with my new friend here.”
She laughed and poked him in the belly. “Lies! Do not complain to me about your trousers being too tight!”
Leah and Finn both laughed and Henry kissed Marie.
“Not a whisper,” he declared.
Laughing, Marie turned to them. “Finnegan, it was such a pleasure to finally meet you.”
She took his hand and Finn thought they were going to shake. Instead she leaned closer and kissed one cheek, and then the other.
“Merci, mon ami.”
“It’s my honor, Marie.”
She smiled and turned back to Henry who was finishing the last of his beer.
“Sir, you will come with me before I have to roll you to bed like the beer keg you are.”
Leah and Finn held hands as they walked through the crowd. By the looks of the crowd, the incoming ship would be there soon.
“Can we get across the runway do you think?”
“Yeah, they haven’t even turned on the lights yet.”
They made it all the way back to Addie before the runway approach lights went on. They paused under the wing, Leah’s arms going around Finn as she pulled him into another forever-not long enough kiss. His arms went around her, pulling Leah tighly against him and she moaned her approval. There was a double thunderclap as the Pioneer ship passed overhead. After a moment, Leah took her lips from his and smiled.
“Did the earth move for you too?” she asked.
Finn chuckled. “Let’s go inside and turn off the video feeds. I’ll show you what that really feels like.”
Leah grinned. “Are you kidding? I want a record of this.”
“I want to make some videos with someone I love and trust. We’re going to be amazing together. I might like to watch it later.”
There was another long kiss and Leah moaned again when Finn squeezed her butt.
The whining of the turbines on the approaching ship began to get louder. Leah broke the kiss.
“Let’s go inside, I want to show you something,” Leah said into his ear.
The hatch opened and she ran up the steps. Finn saw his shadow move across the ground as the landing lights of the approaching ship came on. Inside, Leah had unclipped the collar and her dress fell to the deck. Finn followed her up the stairs and reached out for her.
The tortured shriek of metal echoed off the distant trees and through the closing hatch, a red-yellow light bloomed. Finn slammed the hatch open and looked out. He was just in time to watch flaming wreckage cartwheel down the runway, flinging pieces of flaming destruction in front of it. Leah was beside him, hands clapped over her mouth. The largest intact piece of the ship bounced and spun along, barely missing the operations tower, still shedding pieces in every direction. Finn had a split-second glimpse of a construction mech spinning through the air, arms and legs extended, looking like a child turning a cartwheel.
Leah, face white, pointed and Finn saw more of the flaming projectiles bounce and spin through the crowd that had been waiting for the ship. Something exploded, throwing even more mayhem in every direction. He jumped to the ground, sprinting toward the gathered Scout and Pioneer ships. As the roar of explosions died away, Finn heard the screaming begin, a hellish harmony with the fire sirens wailing at the outpost.