Lone Star – Chapter 13

Morgan walked his SAMAS out to the flight line, but not to his usual lift-off point.  His team fell into ground formation behind him, awaiting his cue to lift off.

“Ok, folks, for these last-minute flights I usually brief you in the air, but it looks like we have a minute before the air clears out here.”  He pointed to a large ship preparing to lift off.  It was 45 meters long, shaped like a hangar designed for flight.  The front end of the ship was built in the shape of a monstrous black skull.  It was a Death-Head transport, the standard troop carrier for the Coalition military.  Its engines had been idling as the team approached, but now they added power and gently lifted the ungainly ship off the ground.  The sound sensors in Morgan’s suit attenutated the sound, but because the noise level was so high, he wouldn’t hear anything else happening outside.  His comlink was clear.  “Simple mission this time- escort that troop carrier North, and into the wild.  They have three teams to drop, three different points.”

“Why us, and not a regular-army squad?” Connor asked.  “I mean, if they’re MCR teams, that’s fine, but who cares who their escort is?”

“I think it has something to do with our uncanny ability to keep our mouths shut,” Sergey replied.  Morgan heard a muffled clunk and guessed that one of the SAMAS on his team had elbowed another.  He didn’t turn to see who had hit whom.

“All right, kids, play nice,” Morgan said.  “They wanted as small an escort as possible- they don’t want to call any more attention to these drops than they have to.  The normal escort for one of these,” Morgan pointed to the ship as it slowly turned Northward, moving away from the pad, “would fill the sky for 10 kilos in every direction.  Your computer systems have the three drop points programmed in, but all we really need to do is fly formation for about two hours.”  He looked up, watching the transport slowly moving North, and estimating that they had enough clear sky for their own lift-off.  “There are two aerial surveillance birds that will have us on scope, Apollo 4 and Hawkeye 7.  Transport call-sign is Sigma Heavy 114.  Shadow team, sound off for flight.”

Each of the others in his squad chimed in, signalling their readiness to fly.  Morgan felt his own flight engines kick in, then watched the ground fall away from him.  They flew lower to the ground than usual this time, forming up on the transport ship three-on-a-side.

Over the radio intercom, another voice sounded.  “Shadow Flight, this is Sigma Heavy 114, turning west to Drop 1.  We have a passenger aboard who would like a word.”

“Copy that, Sigma Heavy, this is Shadow Lead.  We’re listening.”  Morgan and his flight followed the transport ship through its slow turn.  The next voice on the radio was a low, feminine purr.

“Shadow Flight, thanks for joining us today.  We’ll be passing over some territory that will be familiar to you,” she said.  “I hope your captain has passed my team’s gratitude along to you all for your work out here last time.”

“Roger that, ma’am, although I believe it was our insane captain who did the hard part,” Sergey replied.  “Just glad we got out of there without any shots fired.”

“I agree.  Well, that night we did come back with four escaped prisoners, but one of them wasn’t one we expected.  Apparently they had picked up another stray somewhere, and the one we expected was somewhere else when we went in.  Our first team will be going out after her.”

“Is that why it’s our squad out here?  Covering your team from the air?” Connor asked.

“No, our team isn’t going,” she replied.  “I’m riding herd with the drops, that’s all.  The major wanted your team to escort us- he didn’t say why.”

“Shadow Flight, this is Sigma Heavy – we’re beginning our descent to Drop 1.”

“Roger,” Morgan replied.  “Shadow Team, flight perimeter Delta, keep your eyes peeled.”

The six SAMAS deployed in a rough circle, facing outward and hovering 75 meters off the ground.  The huge transport ship dipped down just above the treetops, bending over the upper branches with the wash from its engines.  Morgan’s eyes darted back and forth from the treeline to the display on his helmet visor, showing both a radar display and the status of the transport.  His display showed the drop-cords, but only two figures were preparing to descend along them.  Morgan caught himself wondering what kind of troops would take a two-person mission this far into the wild, but quickly decided he didn’t want to know.

“Lead, this is Shadow 3,”  CC’s voice broke the silence.  “I have a pair of heat-blooms on the ground, 500 meters north of the drop point.  Computer’s guessing some kind of feral demon, but it doesn’t have a hard match yet.  They’re moving toward the drop point fast.  I’m afraid they’ll be on the ground team in a few minutes.”

“You hear that, Sigma Heavy?” Morgan called.  His on-board computer was already receiving the information broadcast from CC’s perspective.  Whatever those things were, they were moving a lot faster than humans could- maybe faster than anything bipedal could.  There was no magnetic signature apparent on them, so they weren’t vehicles.

“Roger, Shadow Lead,” the feline voice replied.  She was getting nervous.  “Our team can take them, but it may compromise their mission.”

“Copy that, we’ll take care of it.  Hold off the drop until we’re secure.  Shadows 3 and 6, move to intercept.”

“Roger that,” Connor replied, breaking from his place in the formation to Morgan’s left and heading North.

“Roger,” CC called out, her SAMAS dropping to the treeline.  “Now 350 meters out.”

“I’ll come in high and circle them, Shadow 3.”  Connor pushed his engines hard, gaining altitude as he swung around to move toward CC’s position.

The remainder of the squad closed their formation, the four of them moving closer to the transport to compensate for the two that had broken away.  Morgan kept his eyes on the trees, but his mind was following events on the ground.

“They’ve changed direction- I think they spotted me,” CC called out.  “I have a visual- they’re some ugly beasts.”  Her computer relayed more information to the team, and Morgan’s display pulled up a small overlay window with an image from CC’s sensors.  Its skin was dull grey, mottled with green.  It indeed walked on four legs, with what looked like hands on the front two.  All four feet brandished evil-looking claws.  The head was wide, held up by a thick neck, and looked as though it was all mouth.  Morgan couldn’t see anything that looked like eyes, but it wouldn’t be the first creature he’d seen that relied on senses other than sight.  It had a cat-like gallop as it ran, charging between trees at close to 70kph.  If they’re agile, Morgan thought, they’ll be able to dodge rail gun fire between the trees for a short while, but they won’t be a threat to anyone in the air.

The moment that thought formed in his head, both his on-board computer and his soldiers reported a change.  CC got on the comlink first.  “Lead, this is three- they’re starting to change their shape.  They’re sprouting what looks like bat wings from between their shoulders.”

Regis reported the same, showing a graphic relayed from Connor’s perspective.  The process only took a few heartbeats, but soon the creatures both had large wings protruding from their backs.  They measured 2.5 meters long, not including the long tails, and the computers estimated that they were at least a meter high at the shoulders- roughly the size of a natural lioness.  Their wingspans were about 5 meters.  The two creatures looked dangerous before; now they were certifiably terrifying.

Morgan kept his eyes locked on the horizon.  “Apollo 4, Shadow Lead- are you linked into our data stream here?  Can you tell us what we’re fighting?  My computer isn’t recognizing it.”

A moment later, a young woman answered him.  “Shadow Lead, this is Apollo 4- we have your data stream, but there’s no match to anything in our computers here, either.  I’ll pipe it back to base, but I believe you’re the first to encounter this particular breed of beast.”

“Copy that, Apollo 4.  We’ll get all the data we can.”

“Six, take the one on your right!” CC called out.  Her SAMAS gained altitude again, and laid down a stream of rail gun fire as the two beasts leapt into the sky and flapped their wings to intercept her.  She hit the one she was aiming for, slowing its flight and spinning it in mid-air, but not stopping it.  The other was almost close enough to claw her when fire from Connor’s weapon hit it.  His burst of fire walked from its torso up to its jaw, turning it upside down.  Its wings seemed to fold and crumple, unable to function properly when the body was suddenly turned upside down.  It disappeared behind the trees for a moment, then leapt back into the air and flapped its wings hard, gaining altitude to chase Connor.

“Shadow Lead, this is four- I think I should warn you, sir, there’s a good chance that when Apollo 4 queries the base computers, they’ll get new orders for us to bring back the bodies of these things.”  Gavin’s tone was a little sarcastic, as if he thought that sort of order was preposterous.

Morgan shook his head, slowly.  “That happens a lot out here?”

“Not too often, lead, but when we come across something unregistered, it happens often enough.”

Sergey piped up next.  “As long as they don’t tell us to bring one back alive.  We’re not equipped for that.”

Connor and his opponent were still 2k away, and 300 meters off the ground now.  Connor was shooting downward as the thing kept trying to get close enough to grapple.  The rail gun was pushing it down, punishing it brutally.  After another 30 seconds, and at least a dozen direct hits, the creature slowed its ascent. Then it fell hard as a final burst of fire impacted its shoulder and head again.

CC and the creature she was engaged with continued to close on the transport and the rest of the squadron.  Her computer relayed more information, especially as it got closer to her.  “Sir, my computer is getting vital organ readings from this thing.  It’s not a magical construct or a demon, it has working, living parts inside.  The arrangement is odd, but its still 85% comparable to a natural organism.”

“Shadow Lead, this is Apollo 4.  We have instructions from base to pick up one of the bodies after you’re done.”  Morgan sighed at the news.  “Orders say bring it back dead, but as intact as possible.”

“Roger that, Apollo 4, confirming new orders to retrieve a body.  Three, take the thing out, but don’t mess it up too badly.”

“Shadow 3, this is 5- is your computer able to identify the lungs?” James asked over the comlink.

“Yes it is, 5, and I was just thinking the same thing,” she replied.

“Shadow 5, why the lungs?” Morgan heard Sergey ask.

“Because it’s probably got two of them.  Take one out, and it will probably kill the thing, but the cutters back at base can still get a good look at the other one.  Take out the heart or liver, on the other hand, and they don’t have another one to study.  For the really strange stuff, they sometimes pay bonuses for bringing critters back with less damage.”

“Copy that, 5, I’ll keep that in mind.”  Sergey’s voice wasn’t quite sarcastic, but Morgan could tell his LT felt a bit of disdain for anyone back at base who thought it was more important to bring the bodies back intact, rather than just get themselves and their power armor home in one piece.  The captain couldn’t help but agree.

CC was close enough to the transport for Morgan to have a good visual look at her.  The thing had finally caught up to her, or she had let it catch up to her.  It gripped her armored shoulders with its claws, and tried to wrap its legs around hers- then realized too late that this was just what she’d been waiting for.  Her vibro-blades snapped outward, glowing dimly and cutting deeply into her opponent’s chest.  The strike was precise, and the effects on the beast were immediate.  Its wings faltered, and it dipped earthwards for a long moment before CC retracted her blades and caught the thing.

“Now that was a special-forces move,” Sergey said, half to himself.  Morgan agreed silently.  There was no telling which creatures out in the wild could tear through the armor of a SAMAS and which couldn’t.  CC had just bet her life on the outcome.

Her engines increased power to compensate for the sudden added weight, but she easily carried it back towards the transport.  Her computer relayed information to the rest of the squad, monitoring the creature’s vital signs as they waned, finally ceasing altogether just before she reached the transport’s air-deck doors.

“Shadows 4 and 5, this is lead.  She’s done this a few times before, hasn’t she?”

“Roger that, lead,” Gavin replied.  “You’ll get your chance soon enough.”

“Yeah, just wait until we come back from a mission and find out that the real reason we were out was to capture something they’ve been monitoring for a few weeks,” James added.

“That’s special forces for you,” Connor replied.  “Finding out the real mission when you get back from it is nothing new.  Lead, this is six, my beast is down for good.  Vitals almost to zero.  Its messed up pretty good- think I should pick it up and bring it back?”

“Four, five?  What do you guys recommend?” Morgan asked.

“Lead, five- the general rule is that if you need to bag up more than half of it, then leave it – and three’s already got a specimen.”

“Lead, six- there’s a lot of pieces to pick up, and it looks like some of the local wild-life is already getting a meal out of it.”  Connor’s computer shared its imaging with the rest of the squad.  The beast was close to dead, if not dead already, and it was missing two limbs.  And sure enough, a few smaller carrion-eating animals had already converged on the body.

“Six, lead- leave it and rejoin formation.”

“Roger that.”  Connor’s SAMAS popped up out of the trees to the east, and moved back into its place.  The formation shifted, then shifted again as CC rejoined them.

“Well, that was exciting,” Morgan thought aloud.  “Sigma Heavy, I read the area as clear.  I recommend you proceed with your drop.  Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“Roger, Shadow Lead, proceeding with drop,” the transport’s pilot replied, chuckling.

The drop doors of the transport opened again, on the opposite side from where CC had entered with her prize.  Morgan had a good look for a moment, but turned his unit back to face outward toward the horizon again.  His scanners picked up everything that was happening around his squadron and the transport, including the two huge humanoid forms that tossed the drop-cords back out and slid down them between the trees.  They were loaded for heavy combat, it seemed- by the look of their packs, and the weapons bags slung over their shoulders, Morgan guessed that they could take on at least a company-strength unit if they had the right terrain.  He also guessed that they weren’t human- each was close to 3 meters tall, powerfully built, and looked as cat-like as the sergeant he’d met after their last retrieval mission.  But where she had been svelt and graceful, these two were hulks.  They hit the ground hard, falling to all fours, but didn’t seem to care about the impact- they were sprinting northward through the forest within 5 seconds of touching down.

Connor’s voice came over the comlink.  “And they were worried that those two wouldn’t be able to handle the things we brought down?”

“I think it was more a matter of keeping them focused on whoever they’re going out to retrieve, rather than wasting time and ammunition,” Sergey replied.  “We’ll be back at base soon enough, and get re-outfitted by sundown… I get the impression those two will be in the field for a while longer.”

“That impression is correct, Shadow 2,” the feline voice said over the comm-link.

“Shadow Lead, this is Sigma Heavy- drop one complete.  We’re moving to second drop point.”  The transport turned slowly, then began moving west-southwest.

“Roger, Sigma Heavy, we’re right with you.  Shadow team, escort formation Alpha.  Form up on Sigma Heavy.”  His squad obeyed instantly, following the huge transport over the trees.

*****

The next two drops were uneventful. The comlink was quiet, aside from situation chatter between the transport, Morgan’s SAMAS, and the two aerial sensor birds in the area.  Even Connor was keeping quiet; the whole team seemed to agree that talking about the engagement would be best over beers, back in the officer’s lounge.

They were 20 minutes from home when Apollo 4 was out of sensor range.  The SAMAS squadron had again formed up in threes on either side of the transport, and Morgan found himself lazily watching the treetops.  They were coming up on a clearing when his attention snapped back to what he was doing.

“Sir,” Regis said quietly, “I show a magnetic and heat signature on the ground, 7.5 kilometers ahead, near the middle of a clearing.  I can’t yet match it to anything in the database, but from the shape and size I estimate it is a mobile anti-aircraft weapon.”

“Shadow Team, heads up on that clearing ahead.  I’m reading a possible anti-air weapon parked down there, now 7k out.  Shadows 2 and 4, move in to investigate.  Sigma Heavy, I recommend we reduce speed.”

“Roger, Shadow Lead, reducing speed.”  The pilot was nervous- the huge ship he was flying would not avoid anti-aircraft fire very well.  Sergey and Gavin sped ahead, one from each side of the formation, and quickly closed in on the clearing.

Morgan saw the shots before he heard the reports.  “Lead, two- we’re under fire from the ground!”  He saw the shots stream upward toward his squadmates, peppering both of them but not hitting very hard.  The two broke apart quickly, gaining altitude and executing evasive manouvers to avoid the continued fire.

“Lead, 4- I’ve taken 4 hits to the torso, but the computer is reporting no damage.  Whatever it is they’re shooting isn’t penetrating, just gripping the outside of the armor.”

“Shadows 2 and 4, this is lead- weapons free.  Return fire and knock that weapon out before the transport gets there.”  Which won’t be very long, Morgan thought to himself.  But even if the anti-air gun was on the back of a truck or tank, it wouldn’t take long for two SAMAS to destroy it.  The surprise came over the comlink.

“Belay that order, Shadow Flight.”  The voice was unfamiliar- female, and a high officer who was used to giving unexpected orders.  Worse, this one expected no delays in following those orders, no matter how surprising.  “This is Lt. Colonel Jannis, and I have Major Clavall here with me.  Weapons tight on my authority, acknowledge.”

“Shadow 2, acknowledge weapons tight.”  Sergey’s unit gained more altitude, still dodging fire from the ground.

“Shadow 4, weapons tight,” Gavin said, breaking off to the other side of the clearing.  He held his position, floating 80 meters off the ground, until the anti-air gun swiveled around and began firing on him.  He dodged all but a few of the shots, then backed off and gained altitude again.  His computer was relaying information and graphics on the shots that had hit him- small, circular plates with three claws around the perimeter, gripping tightly to the skin of his SAMAS but not penetrating.

“Base, this is Shadow 2,” Sergey called out.  “With all due respect, Lt Colonel, we’re still receiving ground fire.”  His SAMAS spun in a sideward helix as another burst tried to hit him.  One shell clamped onto his leg, the others passed harmlessly.

“Roger, Shadow 2,” came the reply.  This time, it was Major Claval.  “Shadow Team, you are gaming against a CS anti-air weapon.  This engagement is a test.  Your weapons remain tight, ground fire is non-lethal and will not penetrate your armor.  Reform and approach the ground weapon from the west.  Your goal is to land within 10 meters of the weapon without taking another hit.  Ground units goal is to tag you.  Aerial recon indicates your area is clear- you have until the transport ship makes it 2 kilos past the clearing, and be advised- if any threat approaches that transport, you are under your own authority to terminate the exercise to protect the transport.  Game starts now.”

“Roger that, base.”  Morgan sighed.  He pushed his SAMAS forward, turning west.  “Shadow Team, form up on me.  When we come in, Shadow 2 and 3, break north.  4 and 5, come from the south.  6, come in low to the trees.  I’ll drop right down on top of it.  Remember, weapons remain tight.”  It was hard for shooters to remember not to shoot, but the people on his team were professionals.  They had circled now, keeping the transport within their line of sight as they approached the clearing.  Morgan had pushed his thrusters as hard as they’d go.  They had just passed within 2k of their objective when they started receiving fire again.

“Break now!” Morgan called, angling upwards.  His team split up beautifully, and fire from the ground tried to follow Sergey as he went North.  It tagged him quickly, then turned its fire toward James.  Directly below him, Connor looked like he had the best chance of making it.  The team angled again, converging on the ground weapon at a dizzying pace.

For being outnumbered 6-to-1, the anti-air gun did excellent.  As Morgan came directly down on it, he was impressed not only by its rate of fire, but the speed with which it changed targets.  It tagged five of them before Connor streaked in over the treetops and landed within 3 meters of the weapon.

Morgan landed beside him, clapping his LT on the armored shoulder.  “Good work, soldier,” he said.  Then he turned to look at their opponent.  The rest of the squadron stayed in the air.  “Shadow 2, take the others back into the formation with the transport.  Connor, stick with me a minute.”

“Roger that, Lead,” Sergey replied.   The other four SAMAS sped off to rejoin their charge.

The weapon was a tracked tank, lightly armored and agile-looking for a tank.  It was mostly a low, flat box, a standard chassis that would be compatible with several weapon systems.  In this case, it had two hemispheres mounted onto the back half of the chassis.  From each of these, a pair of gun barrels protruded, now pointing at a low angle.  The forward crew hatch popped open, and a tank officer climbed out.  He saluted the two SAMAS pilots, then set himself down on the front of his machine, legs hanging over the front.

“Nice approach, Captain,” he called.  “You did precisely what we expected, and our targeting computer almost kept up with you.”  He nodded to Connor.  “When your man there came in over the treetops, we almost had him.  Just couldn’t get there in time.”  He pulled a small pack of cigarettes out of a pocket, and drew one out.  “If we’d had both turrets going, we’d have had you.”

Connor turned his comlink to the outdoor speakers.  “That was only one turret?”

The tanker nodded, lighting his cigarette.  “We try to keep one of them for contingencies, just like that- in case something sneaks up on us.”

Morgan looked down at his armor, then peeled one of the projectiles off his chest.  It was about the size of a human fist, a short cylinder, of fairly heavy alloy but not entirely steel.  The three claws folded inward as he pulled it free.  The leading face of the projectile had a small opening- almost an orifice, Morgan thought- and coming through it was what looked like a writhing, pinkish-grey tongue.  It lashed at his armored fist, slapping against the armor wetly, until he dropped in on the ground.

“Regis, you awake?”  Morgan hadn’t noticed it until the projectile hit the ground, but he had been subconsciously waiting for the on-board systems to begin scanning the thing, or give him a readout on it from the database.

“Of course, sir,” the computer replied crisply.

“Got any information on that projectile for me?” he asked, beginning to get impatient.

“No, sir, the database reports a descriptive match, but has locked me out of any and all data regarding that object.  I apologize.”

The tank officer smiled.  “Not getting a readout on it, are you?”

Morgan shook his head.  The SAMAS copied his movement.

“They didn’t let us know what they are, either.  We’re just out here to test the tracking software, and the capacity of these turrets.”  He pointed back to the gun emplacements behind him.  “They’re a standard unit, overhauled for these projectiles and the tracking systems.  The guys at the weapons labs figured that we can fire the projectiles fast enough with what we had- we just had to work on tracking multiple targets and switching between them quickly.”

“We’ve got to rejoin our unit, Captain,” Morgan said.  “I’m sure we’ll see you at an after-action meeting back at base.”

“You might, Captain,” the tanker replied.  “But if not, you and your team did well.  Better than the last couple teams they tested us against.”

*****

“So what I don’t get is, why did they only need to tag us once?” Connor asked, taking another sip of his beer.  “I mean, when those A-A guns are shooting for real, they’ll hurt, but one shot?  They’re not that powerful.”

Sergey had been quiet through the conversation.  CC and James both had finished a beer each, and were waiting for more.  Gavin was sipping at water tonight.  Morgan had just sat down.  They’d picked a table in the corner of the lounge, not in the dark but far enough away from other, louder conversations.

“Anyone else get a look at those things before they peeled them off of us?” James asked.  “The deck hands weren’t even allowed to unlock my helmet until a group from the weapons lab had picked them all off and bagged them up.”

Everyone nodded.  Morgan held up a hand, and said, “I’ve been instructed by the Major to keep all talk of this exercise confined to this squadron.  He did say he doesn’t mind us discussing it as a group, but we have explicit orders not to discuss this with anyone else, even if they outrank us and demand answers.”  This wasn’t all that uncommon for special forces troops, really.  Morgan had half-expected the orders to say they couldn’t even discuss it amongst themselves.

Sergey seemed to have heard his thought.  “Nice of them to let us talk about it to each other.”

Morgan nodded.  “I guess they expect we’ll see such things in the future, and don’t mind us figuring out just what happened earlier, and what we were up against.”

“Non-lethal ammunition,” Gavin mused, “but damned if it wasn’t the strangest projectile I’ve ever seen.”

CC nodded her agreement.  Connor set his beer down.  “Non-lethal, hell- I saw the one the Captain pulled off his chest.  That thing looked like it wanted to eat him!”

Morgan smiled over at his subordinate.  “I bet that’s precisely what it wanted.”  He looked over at Sergey.  “We’ve seen something like that before.”

Sergey nodded.  “Yes, sir, I’ve seen it at least once.  A larger one, though, mounted on the arms of those things we saw hunting the bugs up North.”

“Right,” Morgan said.  He looked over the others in the squad, a teasing smirk on his face.  “You guys all but told us you’d heard of the Xiticix Killers, right?  The bear-sized monsters the guys in the lower labs cooked up to fight off the Xiticix?  We’ve seen them- up close and in action,” he added, motioning to the two he’d worked with in the northern part of the continent.  He took another drink of his beer.  “Their left hand is a three-clawed appendage with a prehensile-looking tongue in the middle.  So basically, the same thing we saw flying through the air at us.”

One of the lounge staff came by with more drinks for James and CC.  Morgan waited until she had left, then sighed.

“How is one of those shots going to take out a Xiticix?” Gavin asked.  “It didn’t do much more than wrinkle my armor where it tried to grip me.”

Sergey took another sip before answering.  “Well, one of the Killers we saw picked up a Xiticix warrior bug with that arm, and the three claws were pretty efficient at getting through its exoskeleton.  Now, the warrior-bugs are about the same size as our SAMAS, but the Killer was almost half again bigger.  When it lifted that bug off the ground, I think that tongue-thing went inside the bug through a crack in the shell, and tore it up from the inside.  That bug was twitching, hard, but not for very long.”

The disgust on the faces of the others was almost comical.  Morgan smirked again, just before saying something he knew would make it worse.  “I’ve heard some people say that’s how the Killers feed.”

James pushed his beer back.  “Oh, man.”

“But that makes sense, I mean as far as our exercise goes,” Morgan continued.  “Using that sort of a thing as a projectile will most likely mean an anti-aircraft weapon, and with the size of the swarms we’ve seen, they’ll need to be able to track a whole lot of targets real fast.  Tagging one with one shot in the torso, at least with that sort of ammunition, is almost a guaranteed kill.”

“Where the hell do they get the ideas for this stuff?” Connor wondered aloud.  “I mean, what kind of sick genius is down in the labs, just sitting around thinking up things like this?”

“I don’t know, LT, but I bet he doesn’t see the sunlight very much.”  Morgan laughed.  “No, that’s the kind of thing that you’d have to get inspiration from an outside source.  Wherever the Xiticix came from, there must be natural enemies of some kind- predators, competing sentients, whatever.”

“It’s almost certain they had some kind of natural balance, wherever they’re from,” Sergey said.  “When you see how fast they’re spreading up there- not just reproducing, but how fast their self-asserted boundaries are moving- they’re either taking over the universe real fast, or they’re used to an environment that requires that sort of reproductive rate.”

Connor shook his head.  “How’d you like to get that mission?  ‘Kids, we want you to go through a rift and find something that eats the Xiticix.  And oh, try to bring it back in one piece, ok?”  They all laughed, but each one of them knew that somewhere, someone had given precisely that sort of order.  And it had probably been given to a Special Forces unit just like their own.

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