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Extinction: The Will of the Protectors – Chapter 6
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Chapter 6

 

Seth was doing his best not to breathe too loudly but he was winded and there was no way he could hide it entirely. He did take some solace in the fact that the Shirkas also breathed more heavily than normal, even if it was only a little bit.

Their mixed team of six Coalition soldiers and six Shirka commandos had reached their destination. They saw the warriors eating live game they had captured. The sounds the little animals made as they were being torn and broken apart were heart-wrenching to Seth. Seth looked over to the first son and to his surprise, the Shirka had his teeth bared in anger.

“They have no honor,” First Son spat. He saw the look of surprise on Seth. “We, too, hunt, but we do not dishonor our prey as they do. Respect should be given to the animals that provide you and your family with life. To eat them in this fashion is grothiwgrrr!

“I’m guessing there’s no good English translation of that last word?”

“No. There is not. But our actions will be all the translation you will need to understand its meaning.” First Son then made a few guttural noises and Seth heard a response from somewhere on the other side of the warriors.

The plan had already been made and First Son relayed to the rest of the Shirkas that it was ready to be implemented.

Seth’s team had suppressors for their weapons and the warriors weren’t wearing personal shields, so Seth put forward the idea of his team dispatching the enemy from covered positions. He knew First Son would not like that idea at all but it was the most tactically sound idea and he had to suggest it.

In the end, they agreed that Seth’s team would use his plan on two of the warriors while First Son’s team would handle the other two on their own terms, namely with hand-to-hand combat.

First Son slipped away from Seth to get into position for his part of the plan. Seth gave a solid sixty-second count before he signaled his team into action. Seth set his countdown timer to five seconds and activated it. The rest of his team heard a computerized voice in their commlinks counting down at a steady rate.

Five-four-three-two-one-Fire

The unemotional command to fire was given and three shooters put a single round through one warrior’s head and the other two shooters did the same to their target. The two blue monsters went slack and dropped to the forest floor.

The remaining two warriors did not need time to evaluate the situation. They instantly knew they were under attack. They dropped their still-screaming meals and drew their bladed weapons.

Seth watched as First Son and his sister dropped from above the warriors and landed squarely in front of them. As Sister dropped, she raked one full hand of claws down the face and body of her opponent and opened his flesh like tissue paper. Blue blood spurted across her fur and both creatures roared at each other, feral beasts both.

The remaining five Shirkas took up positions in trees and on rock outcroppings just outside the impromptu fighting ring the two warriors and two Shirkas now stood in. Seth could tell they were going to watch the fight and not get involved unless their family member fell, in which case they would jump in and take over.

Seth wasn’t worried that the warriors might ultimately win and escape, but he was concerned that they might be able to comm their base and advise them of the enemy contact in the forest.

Sister had made the opening strike but the warrior didn’t slow down because of it. He struck back at her with an open palm-heel strike and followed up with a swing of his blade towards her midsection. The strike caught her in the jaw and Seth heard the unmistakable crack of bones breaking as he saw her head flip back.

The blade from his meter-long weapon was deflected downward by Sister’s hand as she reached over the top of the weapon and pushed it down with lightning speed. The sword struck the ground and stuck in the soft soil for a split second, long enough for Sister to bring her other hand and outstretched claws under the shoulder joint of the warrior’s lower left arm, the one holding the sword.

Sister’s claws ripped through enough muscle and other connective tissue that the warrior’s arm went slack and dropped the sword. It was now three arms against two.

Seth was so focused on Sister that he missed the action taking place between First Son and his opponent. When he looked over, he saw First Son tore mercilessly at the warrior; blue tissue and blood flew everywhere and hung from the low-hanging branches. The warrior was as dead as he was going to get but First Son was determined to make him into as little of pieces as he could.

Seth looked back to Sister and saw that she had somehow managed to become ensnared by the warrior. His upper two arms held her close as his remaining lower left arm punched her repeatedly in the ribs. His grip was just above her elbows, which allowed her hands and claws to still move and rake back and forth across his chest. She was not making deep cuts into the warrior’s body; her superficial attacks were nothing more than an annoyance to him at this point.

The warrior lifted Sister off the ground and that gave her the opportunity she needed. With her legs free of supporting her weight, she brought her equally clawed and dangerous feet up her opponent’s chest and dug her claws deep before she slashed and pulled them down his torso. His body opened and his organs spilled onto the forest floor.

The warriors, though tougher and stronger than any species Seth was aware of, still died from the same basic injury patterns that most other species did. The caveat being they tended to not know they were dead for much longer than the average sentient would, given the same set of circumstances. As such, the warrior had effectively been killed by Sister, but he was still upright and still tried to pull her limb from limb.

Sister brought her right foot up and slashed it across the warrior’s throat for good measure. She then placed both of her feet against the insides of his upper arms and pushed out, trying to slash through his muscles to make him drop her.

The warrior succumbed to his other wounds before Sister could rip his arms apart. He released her and dropped to the ground. Sister landed in a crouch and was ready to fight if he decided he was not really ready to die yet. When he did not get back up, Sister stood and looked around at the carnage.

“I see you won the challenge,” she admitted to her older brother.

“I did.” He puffed his chest out. “But in all fairness, your opening attack drew my prey’s attention and he did not see me until after I had already opened his throat. It was over much too quickly.”

“Thank you, brother.”

Seth guessed that First Son’s admission meant he was conceding whatever bet or contest they had to his sister.

“We need to look over the bodies for intel they might be carrying.” Joker began searching one of the warriors.

Shar’tuk and Ratchet went to two of the other felled warriors, leaving the shredded one for Jenson. “Thanks a lot, guys,” Jenson complained.

As Seth’s men searched the warriors for anything useful, the Shirkas scented the corpses for the less tangible evidence the humans wouldn’t be able to detect.

Huj’pa’ul spoke first. “I can smell fish entrails on the hand of this one.”

The first nephew grunted his agreement. “And there is stagnant mud between the toes of this one.”

Joker looked to Jenson. “He’s smelling the dude’s toe jam so I wouldn’t complain too much if I were you.”

“No shit,” Jenson agreed with a laugh.

The warriors didn’t wear armor or uniforms, which made them easy to search. Each one wore an identical belt that had sheaths attached for their bladed weapons. Two also had cross-shoulder sheaths for swords on their backs. A wrist comm was on the lower left arm of each.

Seth took a look at the wrist comm Joker offered him. “Definitely a communications device. Audio only, most likely.” He turned it over a few more times. His advanced electronics and engineering degree kicked in to overdrive as he analyzed the device. “I would bet this is also an identifier, similar to the security badges we get issued.”

“They might also use biometrics. Maybe we should take a hand or arm with us.” Jenson had finished searching the pile of goo he had been left with.

“I don’t think so.” Seth knelt by two of the warriors and compared their hands. “Don’t get me wrong—that was a great idea. I just don’t think they could use biometrics.”

“Why do you think that?” Joker now looked at the hands.

“First off, they don’t have fingerprints.” Seth showed Joker the fingertips of a warrior. “That’s not to say that there isn’t something else in their hands that could be used for biometric scanners, but the second thing is, they’re clones. They are absolutely exact copies of each other. Biometrics wouldn’t serve to distinguish one from another.”

“However,” Jenson clearly was not finished with his body part snatching idea, “that’s looking at biometric scanning from a human or Coalition point of view.”

“I’m listening.”

“We use biometrics to determine personal identity, one person from another. What if they use biometrics in a more general way, such as just to show they are in fact a warrior and not another species? They put their hand or eye to a scanner and it identifies them not as an individual, but simply as a warrior who has access to whatever they are trying to get into.”

Seth mulled it over for a moment. “Okay. Chop off a hand and scoop out an eyeball. Your idea—you’re carrying it.”

Jenson shrugged. It wouldn’t be the first time he hauled something dead from a forest. The task actually made him think of the fun times he had hunting with his father; he smiled as he worked. The Shirkas looked at Jenson and nodded their approval, thinking his positive attitude was due to his task and not realizing it was because of fond memories.

As the team finished getting every last bit of intel from the site, First Son and Seth squatted near a tree as they spoke.

“The scents the warriors carry tell us they have their camp near stagnant water.”

“I don’t believe you are wrong, but I am curious how you know that.”

“It would be too difficult to describe the different scents to you, but a particular scent is on their backs and feet, meaning they are lying and walking in the same area. Where else do you lie down except at your camp?”

“True. What else can you glean from the scent?”

“There are three rivers that flow together to form one larger river. One of those smaller rivers flows around a dormant volcano.”

“I remember seeing that area on the topographic maps. Our original information is their initial insertion point was near the base of where those three rivers come together.”

“They must have decided to move their camp up the river. Their scent tells us they are near only the river from the volcano.”

Seth pulled out his datapad and looked at First Son. “If you look at the map with me, will that violate your beliefs concerning technology being used on a birthing planet?”

“No.” First Son was pleased Seth was worried about the pack’s honor. “I already know what I know; the map will only allow me to show you what you cannot smell for yourself.”

“Fair enough.” Seth brought the holographic topographic map to life. “Yes, I can see why they would move upstream from their initial insertion point. The volcano river comes around this bend here and then down this waterfall. If they backed their camp up to the base of the waterfall, they would have a huge cliff as a protective backdrop.”

First Son didn’t need to look at the map; Seth had figured out for himself what First Son already had known. “The pool below the waterfall is the only stagnant area of the river anywhere near their insertion point. That must be what Nephew smelled.”

“I agree. That waterfall is also in the general direction they came from.”

Seth looked at the map for another few minutes before he closed it. “Alright, we need to contact the sniper team. Davies was sent to the initial insertion site for the warriors. We assumed their camp would be there.”

First Son shook his head. “Uncle would have figured out by now that the warrior camp has moved. He is one of the best scouts in the Shirka militia. Uncle will make sure the sniper team gets to where they need to go.”

“If he has changed direction, why hasn’t he let the rest of the pack know yet? With the voices of the forest and all that jazz?”

“I do not know what jazz is, but if it is some sort of communication device, we do not have those.” First Son cocked his head to the side, unsure of why Seth tried not to laugh. “Our forest songs have their limits. Without other pack members strung out through the hunting area, we can communicate only so far. I am sure Uncle tried to tell us of the change but was too far away for us to hear it. No matter. He will be where he needs to be when the time comes.”

Seth mulled that over for a second. “Okay. I trust your pack. We need to head back to the other group and give them this new information.”

“Agreed.” First Son clapped Seth firmly on the shoulder before he stood and signaled the other Shirkas to disperse into a traveling formation.

Seth was becoming more accustomed to the forest and its sounds. Every minute he spent under the lush canopy he felt more at home and at ease with his surroundings. He even began to see areas in the forest where he could picture building a log cabin and spending the future golden years of his life, with Emily at his side.

Seth was snapped out of his daydreaming when he saw a predator leap out of a tree, grab something from the underbrush, and then sprint off into the distance.

Seth quickly did a roll call and made sure all of his men were accounted for. The animal that had been snatched up had made a terrible squeal as it was stolen from its hiding spot, so Seth knew it hadn’t been one of his men, but all the same he wanted to make sure those he couldn’t see were still okay.

He turned to look for one of the Shirkas, but he didn’t see any of them. He knew they would be within earshot, so he just said aloud, “What the hell was that? And why didn’t you warn us?”

A few seconds went by before Fang swung down from a tree. “That was a dunghotep, a very dangerous predator in this area.”

“I can see that. So again I ask, why weren’t we warned?”

“Huj’pa’ul and I were tracking it. We wanted to make an offering to Father with it. If we warned you about it, you probably would have spooked it.”

“Fang, I know you’re new to my team, but in the future, your commanding officer’s safety and those of your teammates comes before any sacrificial offerings to other packs. Understand?”

Fang’s fur ruffled a little. “Captain. You are my pack leader and I would never let you fall prey to any danger I could prevent. We knew what the dunghotep was tracking and we knew it was not you. The humans of our pack now smell of Shirka since we have scented you and left our scent in return. The smaller predators, no matter how dangerous they are, will not dare attack you until our scent has worn off.”

Seth was still a little unnerved at the event. It reminded him of when he saw Robby, Emily’s brother, attacked and killed by a predator on another planet. That had been during a training exercise and Seth had not been able to do anything to prevent the tragedy. This incident was a little too close to that memory for Seth to just shake it off.

“I have to believe that you two knew what you were doing. So far I have found my respect and awe for your people to be skyrocketing with every encounter we have.” Seth sighed. “But I want you to consider something the next time you decide to make a similar decision. Humans do not have the senses you do and do not see the battlefield in the same way you do. We may have reacted to that predator in an unexpected way, in a way that could’ve compromised the stealth and security of the team and the mission overall.

“I do not expect you to baby us or treat us as inferiors. What I do expect, however, is that you, as a subordinate, will not take it upon yourself to make decisions for this team that I should be making. You should’ve told me we had a predator in our midst and requested permission to hunt it. I would have gladly said yes and then we all would have been on the same page. Are we clear, Fang?”

“Yes, Father.” Fang bowed his head in supplication and apology.

Seth was taken aback at being called Father. It was an honor that he knew Shirkas would not give lightly. “Can you two catch up to it?”

Fang’s ears perked up and his jaw dropped slightly as his tongue excitedly slid out just a tad. “Yes, Father, we can.”

“Then go. Represent our pack with pride and bring us honor.” Seth was sure his words didn’t match a Shirka speech of the same meaning, but Fang knew what he was getting at. He was also sure that he was the only Coalition officer to ever send one of his soldiers on a hunting date in the middle of a galactically important mission.

Seth found Surgeon’s team a short time later at their predetermined waypoint. “How did it go?”

“Great. Sister has a broken jaw that she won’t let us set, but other than that the four warriors weren’t a problem at all.”

Surgeon eyed Seth closely. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Seth put his hand on Surgeon’s shoulder. “Mike, everything is fine. I took care of it.”

“You’re the captain, but let me know if you need any backup.”

“Copy that, brother.” Seth looked around at the operators scurrying around. “What’s with all of the hustle?”

“I was just about to get to that. Father sent out two scouts after we got in position. We have another group of warriors moving southwest of our location. They won’t run into us but we need to move to contact them. This isn’t a hunting party; it’s a fully armed squad. We have no idea what their mission is but we can’t move on their main camp until we take care of them.”

“Agreed.” Seth pulled up his topographic map. “We can’t have an enemy force to our rear when we move on their camp. For all we know, it may be an actual base by now and not just a camp. We cannot risk having those patrol forces out and about.”

“We have already put a plan together. It’s just awaiting your approval, sir.”

Seth still was not completely used to his mentor having become his subordinate. “I don’t think it’s necessary for me to approve it, Surgeon.” Seth used Mike’s combat call sign to emphasize his trust in his friend. “I think I just need to familiarize myself with what we are going to do.”

“No, that’s not it at all.” Surgeon’s sternness caught Seth off-guard. “I appreciate that you trust me, and you should and can. But regardless of how much you trust me, you are the ranking officer in charge. In these situations, you have to act like it and approve preplanned missions.

“Even if the mission is planned correctly, you know things can go wrong. And when things go wrong, the brass wants answers. You can’t stand in front of your superiors and say that you didn’t approve the plan—your career would be over.”

“You’re right, Mike.”

“We are friends, but you have to stop treating me like a friend and start treating me like the team’s first sergeant.” Surgeon sent the plans to Seth’s wristcomp. “I mean, don’t be a dick or anything—I still want some special treatment.”

“You are shit out of luck, First Sergeant,” Seth joked. “No special treatment for you.”

“Alright, Captain, let me know when you’re done approving the plan. Father wants to move out as soon as possible. The patrol is moving fast and we don’t want to have to play too much catch-up.”

Seth nodded to Surgeon and looked at the map and the tactical plan attached to it. When he was done, he found that he actually did want to change a couple of the details; he sent the updates to his teammates’ wristcomps and then went and found Father.

Fang and Huj’pa’ul knelt in front of Father, and offered him the corpse of the dunghotep they had hunted together. Seth couldn’t tell exactly what was going on but he decided to wait until it was over before he spoke to Father. The ceremony or whatever it had been only lasted a few more minutes. The two Shirkas left Father but took the kill with them.

“What was that all about?” Seth stepped up to Father.

“They were asking permission to mate.”

“Wow. That’s pretty fast; they just met.”

Father snorted. “No, human, it is not like that for us. When two Shirkas are interested in each other, they almost immediately get permission to mate from the pack leader or the appropriate family members. They do not actually mate until they decide to become life partners. That could take days or years to happen.”

“Then why ask so soon?”

“If they courted each other for the next two years and then asked permission and were denied, that would have wasted a lot of time for both of them.”

“I understand now. They ask up front to make sure they are allowed to be together, then they can take however long they want to in order to make the final lifelong decision to become partners.”

“Yes.” Father lifted his hand and took a bite out of the heart he held. Seth had not seen the gift pass from Fang to Father. “But I would wager my best hunting bow that these two will become life partners. I can smell their bond already—it is strong.”

“I’m glad my nose isn’t as good as yours is.” Seth smiled.

“If you knew all that you were missing out on in the universe, especially the smell of love, you would weep at your dulled senses and curse your God for making you this way.”

Seth knew that if this were one of his college classes about cultural awareness, he would be failing miserably right now.

“I believe you, Father.” Seth cleared his throat. “I made just a few changes to Surgeon’s plan but my team is ready to move out.”

“Good. Let us go hunt together.”

Father let out a few barks and a howl before he took off at a run into the forest. Seth’s team moved out at a slower pace as per the plan and their human inability to keep up with the Shirkas. Fang stayed with Seth’s team to act as a long-range communication device with the other Shirkas. To Seth’s surprise, Huj’pa’ul was also with his team, left behind by the other Shirkas.

“Niece.” Seth wasn’t sure how she would react to being separated from Fang but there was no need to have two Shirkas on a single flank. “I want you on our right flank, slightly to the rear. I need your keen senses back there in case anything tries to sneak up on us.”

“I will obey, human.”

“You can call me Sir or Captain.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Seth’s team moved at a light jog. “The plan is pretty simple, guys. The faster-moving Shirkas will get ahead of the warrior patrol. They will engage the enemy and get the warriors to stop. We will come up from the rear and box them in.”

Joker was a natural runner and loved doing it. He had a euphoric look as he moved through the beautifully lush forest. “What’s our immediate action drill for warriors with shields?”

“I spoke with First Son about that on our way out to meet the warrior hunters. He is going to pass along our plan to his pack.” Seth took a sip of water from his drinking tube before he continued. “The Shirkas are not using firearms; they are going to be using hand-to-hand combat exclusively. That means they will be up close and personal with their targets, which in turn means we really need to be careful with our weapons fire and we can’t use grenades or explosives of any kind.”

“That’s very limiting for us,” Ratchet added.

“It is.” Seth agreed. “But we are on their turf and we have to play by their rules. So, getting back to tactics, if there are only a few warriors with shields, the Shirkas will go after those guys considering shields don’t protect against raging claws. We will then focus our fire on the unshielded warriors.”

“And if they all have shields?” Ratchet asked.

“Affix bayonets, men!” Seth laughed.

“Great.” Joker’s euphoria left him at that point.

After almost an hour of jogging, Seth’s team could hear the sounds of a distant gunfight. It was a one-sided gunfight with the only weapons to be heard being the distinctive sounding plasma rifles the warriors carried.

Seth saw Fang crash through the forest fifty meters ahead and then stop and turn to look at Seth. At almost the same time, Seth saw Huj’pa’ul racing ahead on his right flank. When she got to Fang, he clothes-lined her in the chest and dropped her to the ground.

Huj’pa’ul had had the wind knocked out of her but she managed to stand and take a swipe at him. “What are you doing? The cubs are in danger!”

Fang growled her down into a vaguely submissive posture. By that time, Seth had come to a stop near the two Shirkas. “What’s going on, you two?”

Huj’pa’ul turned to Seth. “The warriors have found several packs of Shirka cubs and they are exterminating them.” Her ears twitched back and forth. “My pack is joining in the fight. We need to help them now!”

Fang looked to Seth. “The captain is our pack leader right now and we cannot make these decisions on our own. We failed him once and we will not do it again.” Fang nodded to Seth and looked for orders.

“You two go, join the fight. We’ll follow as fast as we can but we won’t be able to keep up; don’t wait on us, get there as fast as you can.”

“Yes, Captain,” Huj’pa’ul said over her shoulder, as she was already at a full sprint by the time she spoke. Fang was beside her, taking his new girlfriend on their second date of the mission.

“Let’s go, men.” Seth started out at a fast jog. He figured the engagement was at least a mile away and his team was running in full gear through mountainous terrain; he didn’t want anyone to be gassed by the time they reached their target.

“From what I remember of our briefing material,” Reaper huffed, “the Shirka cubs are smaller than an average human but a feral version of the adults.”

Surgeon had served with a lot of Shirkas over the years and had more experience with them than anyone on the team. “True, but remember that they aren’t like human children; they are born with genetic memories and information. They are feral but also very intelligent. These cubs are less than six months old but they would be at an overall level of say a twelve-year-old human.”

“How do you know they are less than six months old?” Ratchet was passing Surgeon on the run.

“Shirka parents come back to the birthing planet and pick their cubs up usually no more than five months after their final birthing stage.” Surgeon huffed a little bit.

Seth had Joker next to him and was a little bit jealous that Joker looked like he was on a casual jog around the block. Seth jumped in the conversation. “It is possible the cubs will see us as an additional threat but not likely. First Son told me, now that we have adult Shirka scents on our bodies, they will probably identify us as friendlies or at the very least, not someone to attack until provoked.

“First Son said if the cubs saw us fighting the warriors, they might come to our aid. Their hunting drive is overpowering to them at this stage of their development and they would probably want to join in to help the adult Shirkas.”

“All good things to know. It sounds like we are almost on top of the fight now.” Surgeon had pulled up alongside Seth. He still huffed but made an obvious gesture to show he was not too old for this kind of stuff.

Within a few minutes, Seth’s team crested a hill. Along the slope he saw three dead Shirka cubs. Their bodies were burnt through with plasma rounds; one had a chunk of flesh missing that Seth guessed was caused by a warrior taking a bite out of the cub.

As they reached the top of the hill, Seth’s team slowed to a tactical walk and did a quick survey of the battle already in progress.

There were only two dead warriors that Seth could see and that worried him. This battle had been going on for the better part of twenty minutes and there were only two dead warriors to show for it. Luckily, he didn’t see any dead adult Shirkas mixed in with the bodies. He felt bad for the cubs that had been killed, but in the end he would need the adults to complete his mission on the planet.

There were seven warriors still alive, two of which had personal shields. The warriors were spread out in a half-moon formation; all of them looked away from Seth’s team. The two on opposite ends were periodically checking their team’s rear, but not often enough to be of any use as rear security.

All of the warriors were armed with plasma rifles and a few had sidearms that Seth had not seen before. He assumed they were a handheld version of the plasma rifle; he made a mental note to grab one for the research guys back home. Each warrior also had at least one bladed weapon; some had two. The weapons ranged in size from large knives to swords.

Seth did not see any of the Shirkas but neither did the warriors. The warriors searched the tree lines and randomly fired their weapons into the forest. Seth surmised his Shirka counterparts came in hard, took out two warriors, and in the ensuing mayhem evacuated the Shirka cubs to safety.

The Shirkas were very devout in their beliefs surrounding their cubs, chief among them that the cubs had to be able to hunt and defend for themselves. Seth wondered why the Shirka commandos would betray that belief and rescue the cubs from the warriors. It was only because the Warriors were not of this world that the Shirka government allowed the two commando teams to intercede at all.

Seth’s team had automatically spread themselves out into an offensive firing line. Seth’s visor received target indicators as his team picked out and designated the warriors they would target first. Seth saw that one warrior had four target designators while another only had one.

Seth subvocalized, “Smoke.”

“I’m on it, sir.” Smoke already moved to change his target to the warrior with only one other operator on him.

“Copy.” Seth picked out his own target and put a marker on it.

The forest was too quiet. Seth knew, or maybe just felt, the Shirka team was out there, waiting for him to make the first move. All of the animals in the area must have also known that this was not the time to go about their daily business or make any noise of their own, because not a single one made a sound.

“Alright, people,” Seth subvocalized over the team push, “I think the Shirkas are waiting for us to make the first move. When we do, we’re going to draw all of the enemy fire on us, allowing the other team to come back in to the fight while the warriors are busy with us.

“We need to drop most, if not all, of the non-shielded warriors on our first volley. Get ready for the team countdown.”

Seth received green “Go” lights in his visor from each of his men, indicating that they were ready for his plan. He then activated the team timer and everyone’s commlink started a computerized countdown from five seconds.

The commlink, which was the size of three poker chips stacked on top of each other, was molecularly attached to the operator’s skull just behind the ear on their mastoid process. The commlink sent vibrations directly into the user’s skull and the ear translated the vibrations into sounds. The commlink worked in reverse for sending spoken words from the soldier.

As the countdown hit the number three, Seth heard a scream from someone on his team. He could tell by the sound that someone had just been injured, and for one of his men to scream out loud at a time like this, it had to be bad.

Seth was about to take roll call to find out who had a problem but the scream alerted the warriors to Seth’s team’s presence and plasma fire rained down on their position.

“Fire at will!” Seth put over the team push.

The computerized countdown reached “one” but everyone was already firing. Two warriors went down instantly and several more were wounded. Blue blood painted the forest with a new color that hadn’t before been seen on this world.

Seth looked at his visor’s sitrep and saw that none of his men had been killed in the initial volley between the two forces. He still had eleven green status indicators, so who ever had screamed was still alive.

“Who yelled?” Seth tried to see which of his men were within his own visual range. None of them seemed injured. “Who’s injured? Do you need help? Sound off, damn it.”

“Something bit me.” Smoke’s voice was shaky, even over the computer filtered sound of the commlink. “I…can’t…breathe…well.”

“Reaper!” Seth called out to his team medic.

“Already on it, Captain.” Reaper left his position on the firing line and went for Smoke. “I’ll give a status update as soon as I know what’s going on.”

“Copy.” Seth continued to fire on the enemy position.

“They have a good position of cover.” Surgeon had crawled to the outer edge of their firing line.

In the battle history of human past, a fighting unit’s ranking non-commissioned officer would usually stay close with the unit’s ranking officer in order to discuss and pass along battle strategies to the troops. In the Coalition, team communications equipment worked so well, the non-comm did his best to distance himself from the commanding officer so they would have two points of view of the ongoing battle.

“They’re not advancing on us, and their shielded operators are staying behind cover.” Seth shot at and missed a warrior head that quickly ducked back behind cover. “The shielded warriors we encountered before tended to be a lot more bold and used cover less.”

“It might be because they already lost two warriors to the Shirkas before we arrived.” Joker was somewhere close to Seth’s left side. “The shielded guys know their shields won’t protect them from the Shirkas.”

“That’s a good point.” Seth mulled things over, trying to use the information to create a working strategy. “But, the warriors don’t care about death. They are engineered without fear, so they aren’t hiding because they are scared to die at the hands of a Shirka. And we know that they tend to—or at least used to—just run right into combat and let the chips fall where they may.”

Surgeon performed a magazine exchange and pocketed his empty one. “Maybe they know they have a finite amount of warriors left. The cloning planet isn’t online anymore so they are being more careful with their tactics. Not out of fear, but because for the first time in their multi-thousand year history, they are running out of soldiers.”

Reaper broke into the conversation. “Smoke is dead. Something wrapped around his leg and bit him. I don’t know what the hell it was. The closest thing I can describe it as is a snake with spikes along its body. I found it still wrapped around his leg and pumping venom into him through the spikes. I killed it but I was too late.”

Seth’s heart sank, but he knew he couldn’t linger on the thought for more than a second, at least not right now. “Copy that, Reaper. We need you back on the line.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll fill in where Smoke was at; it’s a little light on this side now.”

Seth saw dozens of dark shapes run through the tree branches behind the warrior line. At first he thought they were the Shirka team but then he saw that they were way too small for that to be true. The second image he thought of was of monkeys jumping through a jungle canopy back on Earth. He figured it wasn’t too far of a stretch to think this planet would have some of its own monkey-like creatures.

Just then, at least twenty of the shadow figures flew from the tree branches and landed on or around the warriors. The juvenile Shirka cubs had not been rescued; they had been recalled to form a more cohesive fighting unit under the direction of the adults. The miniature feral Shirkas tore at the warriors even as several of them were cut down with plasma fire.

The adult Shirkas bounded out of the forest, using the cubs’ distraction to hit the rear of the warriors’ line. Seth could now smell the acrid odor of burnt fur and flesh coming from the newest engagement. Blood from both sides covered the ground. Seth needed to reposition his team if his guns were going to be useful in this fight.

“The fight is taking place behind the warriors’ cover. We need to adjust our firing line if we are going to be of any use to the Shirkas.” Seth already moved forward and waved to the men on his left.

“I’ll take the four shooters on my side and we’ll move to flank.” Surgeon used his visor to designate who he wanted to come with him. The five operators left the line, disengaged from the shooting offensive, and began their movement to the enemy’s left flank.

As Seth’s detachment moved to a better firing position, he was able to see the combat between the warriors and Shirkas more fully. To describe the event in his after-action report would later prove to be almost impossible to do. Seth couldn’t get an accurate sense of who engaged whom with the furry miniature attackers jumping all over everything and everyone.

“We are not going to be useful with our guns.” Seth slung his weapon and pulled out his fighting knife. “We can’t shoot around all that fur. We need to get in there and go hand-to-hand.”

Seth heard weapons being slung and knives being pulled from their sheaths.

The first warrior Seth engaged had his back to Seth and tried to fight off five cubs that clung to him. The cubs weren’t producing anything in the way of life-threatening injuries to the warriors, but they caused the warriors to have to switch from their plasma rifles to hand-to-hand or edged weapons.

Seth got behind the behemoth and sunk his blade deep into the warrior’s back. The Coalition was still studying the warriors’ anatomy but initial research indicated that the most common lethal striking points among the known Coalition species would also be debilitating or lethal to the warriors.

The strike may have been lethal, but the warrior wasn’t yet aware of that fact. When Seth’s blade entered the warrior, he turned and hit Seth square in the head with a back-fist. Had the warrior not had two cubs hanging from his arm, the blow probably would have killed Seth; as it was, it knocked him back a meter and made his world spin.

The warrior saw Seth was still alive and moved towards him to finish him off. Two cubs came from somewhere else in the fight and crouched between Seth and the warrior. The cubs growled and barked at the warrior to protect Seth’s struggling form.

Seth could barely see through his blurred vision but he knew the cubs had come to protect him. One of them launched at the warrior and was easily batted away by the warrior’s lower right arm. The second cub used that moment to get past the warrior’s defenses and scrabble up his body and sink his teeth into the warrior’s throat.

The cub shook his head and tore at the warrior’s throat. Blue blood soaked the cub’s fur until a chunk of blue flesh came away from the warrior’s neck and the cub fell away with the flesh still in his mouth. The warrior tried to step towards Seth but his body finally realized that he had already been killed and he fell to the ground. Cubs swarmed the corpse; they tore at it and ensured it wasn’t going to get back up.

Seth felt a furry arm around his neck and warm breath on his face. When he looked to his side, Huj’pa’ul lifted him to his feet. She helped him walk but Seth protested, “No. I can’t leave the fight.”

Huj’pa’ul looked at Seth with what must have been the Shirka equivalent of disdain and shock rolled together. “Captain, I would never lead you away from battle. I am helping you up so you can get back in the fight and die with honor.”

“Die?! Are we losing that badly?” Seth knew his vision was blurry but he didn’t think things were that bad for their side.

“No, we will win this fight. But you cannot hope to keep fighting and stay alive in your current condition.” She walked Seth over to the fallen warrior, pulled Seth’s knife from the fallen enemy’s back and placed it in Seth’s hand. “Come, there is a weakened warrior over here. You will fight him to the death.”

Seth was only beginning to realize just how out of it he was when he couldn’t physically resist Huj’pa’ul’s ushering. He was thankful when First Son appeared out of nowhere and stopped her.

“Our ways are not theirs. Take him to safety and then rejoin the battle.”

“But First Son,” she sputtered, “he has asked me to not take him from the fight.”

“That is because he has been hit so hard that his head thinks less than yours done when you are around Weh’op’gar.” He laughed at her.

Huj’pa’ul growled at the teasing but did not protest any further. “I will protect him, First Son.” She then left the fight with Seth slung over her shoulder.

Seth came to sometime later, though he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. “Mike.” He barely got out as he sat up. “I don’t remember bringing any bedding with me on this mission.” Seth was confused as he moved his hands around his body and felt the blankets and pillows around him.

“That’s not bedding, sir.” Joker laughed. “Several of the cubs took a real liking to you after you saved them from a warrior. They have refused to leave your side while you’ve been unconscious.”

“Save them?” Seth was now able to focus a little bit better. He looked down into the eyes of the cubs all around him.

He felt kind of bad for thinking of them as dogs—he knew they were highly intelligent and sentient beings—but at this stage of their development, they looked exactly like several of the dogs he had had growing up.

“The last thing I remember I was being pulled from the fight after getting what I assume was a concussion.” Seth rubbed his aching head.

“You were being pulled away, by me.” Huj’pa’ul came over and crouched next to him. “You were slung over my back and I carried you. Then you saw a warrior fighting these cubs and killing one of their littermates. Somehow you squirmed away from me like an ishfugna.”

Seth looked to Fang for a translation. “A large slimy fish from a Trizite world.”

“Ah. Thanks. Go on.” Seth drank greedily from his water tube.

“When I turned around, you were already on top of the warrior. You fought well and then collapsed.” Huj’pa’ul was definitely impressed with Seth’s action.

“So what are your names?” Seth addressed the cubs. One of them cocked his head and whimpered.

Fang came over to Seth. “They do not have full language abilities yet. They understand the native Shirka tongue, though they cannot speak it. They do not understand human basic at all and they have no idea what you are saying. They can understand your tone of voice, but not the content of your words.”

“Okay. Can I pet them?”

“They are not pets.” Fang growled before adding, “Sir. But they are affectionate as all Shirka are and enjoy being close with their littermates or others they bring into their pack.”

“Shirkas are affectionate?” Joker couldn’t keep a straight face. “Yeah, you’re just one big cuddle monster, aren’t you?”

Seth ignored the two and pet the cubs. They were very affectionate and happy that Seth was now awake. After a few minutes of getting to know his new friends, Seth decided it was time to try standing up.

As he stood, he asked Joker, “Where’s Mike?”

“He’s over there with Father.” Joker pointed to where Reaper could be seen crouching over the Shirka leader.

“How bad is he?”

“Bad.”

“Why didn’t you get me up sooner?”

“Surgeon ordered us not to. Besides, Reaper said you really needed to rest so the brain swelling would go down. And brain swelling is not something to mess with, ya know what I’m saying? Sir.”

“Who else?”

“From our team, just Smoke. From their pack, the two nephews and one cousin. Ultimately, Father also.”

“Copy that.” Seth was shaky on his feet but three of his cub friends did their best to help support him. “If it hasn’t already been done, I need you to get an equipment and supply update from everyone. I need to know what assets we still have and how much of our expendables are left.”

“Yes sir.” Joker shoved the rest of his half-eaten ration bar into his mouth and then set out on his given task.

Seth finally made it to where Father lied on the ground, with his head and shoulders slightly propped up against a tree. Reaper had already wrapped the wounds he could and had nothing left to do other than to wait by his patient’s side and be with him at the end. Mike talked with Father, listening to and telling war stories of missions past.

“You’re awake.” Mike turned to Seth.

“Sort of. My head is still…” Seth couldn’t think of the best way to describe it. “Muffled? I’m not sure if I’m so dazed I can’t think of the right word or if there’s just no way to describe what I’m feeling.”

Reaper motioned for Seth to sit down next to him and Father. “Let me take a look at you. I also need to give you another dose of meds for your concussion.”

Seth nodded his consent to Reaper as he leaned over Father. “It has been an honor to hunt with you, Father.”

“Thank you, human.” Father coughed blood and wheezed in a breath of air. “My pack has learned much from working with yours. I hope you feel the same.”

“I do, without a doubt.” Seth wasn’t sure whether holding Father’s hand was acceptable in Shirka culture, but Fang had just said they were a very affectionate species. Seth held Father’s massive clawed paw in both of his hands. “I will tell stories of our hunt and your braveness in battle.”

Father looked sternly at Seth. “You will speak of my family’s sacrifice and honor, of how my nephews and cousin died well. A Father’s honor springs from the deeds of his pack, not of his own.”

“I understand.” Seth smiled and added, “But you did kick some major ass out there.”

Father’s lips snarled and showed most of his huge teeth. “I did indeed.” Father’s eyes rolled back and his body shook with several rattling coughs. “I am done; my story is told. Now you, Seth, now you are Father. Take our packs and become one. Do you hear me, First Son?”

Seth thought the dying Shirka was delusional but then he heard and saw First Son drop to the ground from the tree above them. He had been there the entire time, looking after his father and pack master.

“I do, Father.” First Son took his Father’s other hand and placed it on the side of his own face. “I love you more than my own honor.”

Father’s arm went slack and Seth could feel Father’s death in the hand that he held. Seth stood and watched as each of the remaining Shirka walked by Father and gave their last respects. Each one knelt and put their cheek next to Father’s and whispered something into his ear.

Seth walked over to First Son. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I thank you. He was a good man, a great father, and an even better pack master.” First Son looked directly at Seth. “Now Father, what would you have us do?”

“First off, I am also sorry that he named me Father of the pack and not you.”

“Do not be. I am not offended at all.” First Son put his hand on Seth’s shoulder. “We talked while you were still unconscious. The last battle made Father realize that we needed to make our packs become one for this mission to succeed.

“Father had hunted with humans many times before, and so he was able to make our packs work together based on what he knew of your species and your abilities. The rest of our family has had very little experience with humans and we would not work as well with your team as he did.”

Seth and First Son now walked together as they spoke. “Father thought our united packs would work better together with a human in charge, a human with a first sergeant who has had many hunts with Shirkas.”

“Mike.”

“Yes, Mike.” First Son paused a moment. “I believe you humans have a phrase—a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

“And you think we are the weakest link?” Seth was getting the feeling he was being talked down to.

“Not as soldiers, no.” First Son tried to choose his words wisely. “As a species, you cannot deny that humans are physically inferior to Shirkas.”

“I’ll concede that point.”

“As hunters, you are also inferior.”

Seth didn’t like it but he had to nod in affirmation to that statement as well.

“As a species, though, we are no better than you are. And there are many soldiering things that humans are better at than we are.”

“Such as?” Seth needed to hear something positive from First Son to cancel out what he was feeling about the negative comments so far.

“We do not employ snipers in our militia. We shoot well in close-quarters combat, but not in sniper roles. Most of our fighting abilities are tied directly to our heightened senses. If we cannot feel, smell, and hear our enemy, we do not fight as well as you do.”

“Okay, that’s one thing we do better. So why am I, the weakest link, in charge of the pack now?”

First Son was frustrated. “Our words are not the same. Our intentions are not the same. I am not trying to offend you. I am finding it difficult to tell you my thoughts so you can understand without losing honor.”

Seth took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s start over. No offense taken and no honor lost. Speak to me as your own brother.”

First Son growled something and then said, “A Shirka plan to attack the warriors would not work with humans by our side because you cannot do what we do. You cannot run through the trees, you cannot smell your enemy in darkness, you cannot hide in the open.”

“Agreed.”

“Good. However, a Shirka can follow any plan that is made for humans. We must follow your lead because you cannot follow ours.”

Seth mulled this over for a moment. “I understand and no offense is taken. I will, however, be relying on you to give me suggestions on how I can best use the Shirkas in my plan. If we don’t use your abilities to their fullest, we will be hurting ourselves in the long run.”

“Agreed.” First Son slapped Seth on the shoulder for emphasis.

With First Son’s help, Seth set up a perimeter watch schedule for the evening. Seth wanted to move out at first light and make it to the enemy camp by nightfall. They would take a few hours of rest before beginning their assault.

Seth still hadn’t been able to raise Davies or Boddie on the sniper team and hoped that it was just a communications issue or purposeful radio silence on the snipers’ part. If the team was in place, Seth would include them into his plans when they finally made contact. But for now, Seth had to leave the sniper element out of his mission planning in case the worst happened: Davies and Boddie were dead and unable to join in the fight.

Seth, Mike, First Son, and Mother sat around the campfire and finalized their assault plans. Seth still had his entourage of four Shirka cubs with him. They played and nipped at one another near Seth and took turns sitting with him. They made sure that one of them was always by his side.

Mother just laughed at Seth. “I did not take you for the motherly type.”

“What can I say, animals love me.” Seth hoped his joke hadn’t crossed any lines and was happy when First Son and Mother looked at each other before they laughed heartily.

“I like you.” Mother growled. “With your permission, I would like to send your cubs on an errand.”

“Sure.” Seth really didn’t think of them as his cubs, but something in Shirka custom might make them his because of their fight together. “What do you need of them?”

“I am going to send them out into the forest to gather more cubs. They were very useful in the battle today. There are probably between one hundred and two hundred cubs close by that could come to our aid.”

“I can’t allow that.” Seth answered without even thinking. “They are children, not soldiers. Almost half of the cubs that helped us today were killed.”

First Son put his hand on his mother’s leg to stop her from answering. “Brother, our cubs are warriors from the moment they claw and chew their way out of their birthing sacks. They are natural hunters and eager to prove themselves and become strong.

“This is their birthing planet and they would do anything to protect it. We are not human and you are not Shirka. I do not expect you to understand our culture in its entirety in this briefest of moments we have shared. But I do want you to trust us when we tell you that this is our way and there is no dishonor in asking for our cubs’ help. Their parents will be filled with joy when they find out what their cubs were a part of.”

“Even the parents of the multitude of dead cubs?”

“Yes, even them. More so even.”

Mother leaned forward. “In my life, I have left three birthing sacks in the forest. I have left twenty-seven cubs and come home with a total of twelve children between the three sacks. I am proud of those who fought their hardest but still did not make it. But if I were able to choose how my cubs died, I would rather they die in a battle against warrior enemies rather than to become a meal for a stronger predator. Every Shirka mother in the universe would tell you the same thing.”

Seth looked at the cubs, who were now lying near and on him and knew he had already become attached to them. But this wasn’t his species and it wasn’t his culture. Seth knew he had to trust his allies, his pack, to tell him what was best for their own kind.

“Okay.” Seth sighed. “But tell these four to come back to us and fight with our pack. They already have roles in our plan and I don’t want to have to explain it to other cubs who haven’t had the experience of fighting against the warriors yet.”

Mother called the cubs to her and gathered them in a huddle. Seth could see their tails wag and bodies shiver with excitement as she gave them their instructions. The tails would eventually be absorbed into their spinal column as they grew another three to five feet taller, but for now, they wagged with happiness.

Each of the cubs walked by Seth and rubbed their head on him before they left the camp. One female in particular paused a bit longer than the rest and waited for Seth to rub her head and neck before she left with her littermates.

Seth turned back to Mother. “Do you really think there are two hundred cubs in this area? I haven’t seen any sign of them.”

“You are thinking in human terms when you think of this area.” Mother gestured with both arms outstretched to the forest. “This area I speak of is roughly two hundred square kilometers.”

“How will they cover that entire area and still meet with us tomorrow?” Mike had finally joined the conversation.

“They do not have to cover the entire area. Their voices will be heard and passed on to others, who will pass on the message again and again. They will do this until there are no more cubs to hear the message or their time has run out. They were told to pass along our request for help and to meet us near the waterfall tomorrow evening.”

Seth stood. “I don’t think there is anything left for us to discuss tonight. I’m going to see Reaper before I hit the sack.” He turned to Mike. “I’m also going to have Reaper do an individual check on every operator tonight. Just to be sure no one picked up an injury they are trying to work through.”

“That’s a good idea.” Mike stood and stretched. “I’ll make sure the men don’t rack out before they get checked. Good night, Father.” Mike gave Seth a lopsided grin.

“That better not stick after this mission.” Seth jabbed his finger into Mike’s chest.

The next day started early, before sunrise. The now joined pack headed out into the forest, eager to make the journey to their final objective.

The pack was almost to their final waypoint when they found a single warrior by the river. Seth viewed the warrior through binoculars and relayed the image to his teammates who wore visors.

The warrior sat on a log; he held a flower in one hand and some sort of fruit in the other. The warrior ate the fruit while he turned the flower around between his fingers and looked at every aspect of it.

“What in the worlds is he doing?” Seth whispered.

“I don’t know. We haven’t seen this kind of behavior in the warriors before.” Surgeon had pulled out his binoculars and watched the scene from a different angle. “He is armed, though. There is a plasma rifle leaning up against the tree, near his left leg.”

“Good to know. I can’t see that from my vantage point.” Seth lowered his binoculars and thought for a moment. “Do you think we should attempt contact with him?”

There was silence for longer than Seth had expected there would be. Joker was the first to break it. “I understand why you’re putting the question forward, sir, but no, I don’t think we should. Even if we are seeing aberrant behavior in this warrior, that doesn’t mean he’s any less dedicated to his empire than his non-flower-smelling compatriots.”

“I agree with Joker.” Surgeon chimed in. “If this were a different mission, and we could risk being detected, then I would say yes. But we need to win this planet and let the warriors know that their grocery store is closed. The potential supply line of food from this planet is too important to let them get a foothold here.”

Seth put his binoculars back to his face. “Agreed. Who’s in place to take him out quietly?”

No sooner had Seth finished his sentence when he saw the warrior’s head turn into a canoe as a bullet parted it in half.

“I think we just rendezvoused with our sniper element.” Seth chuckled.

“Uncle must have hidden them well,” First Son whispered. “Our scouts have not detected them yet.”

Seth turned to First Son. “You don’t know Davies. That shot doesn’t mean they are close; they could still be very, very far away. Send two Shirkas over to the warrior’s body, search it, and hide it.”

“Yes, Father.” First Son took his brother and headed off to perform the task himself.

Seth shook his head as Surgeon’s voice came through his commlink. “Yup, I think that’s gonna stick even after the mission.”

“Son of a bitch.” Seth pulled a ration bar from his vest. Over the team push, he said, “If you’re in a good position of concealment, now is the time to grab a ration bar and hydrate. Once First Son comes back from the warrior’s body, we’ll be moving out again.”

Seth finished off his ration bar just as First Son returned. “Report.”

“He was alone. We tracked his path and found no others. His body will not be found without an extensive search for it. We scented him and confirmed he smelled as the other warriors did. We still think they have camped near the waterfall by the volcano.”

“Good job. I need four scouts to head out in front of us.”

“To where, Father?”

Seth still wasn’t used to the title, especially coming from the Shirka whose actual father had just the day before died in combat.

“I want them to scout in a pronged fashion.” Seth drew in the dirt to make his plan clear. “Here is the waterfall where we believe the enemy camp is. I want two scouts to either side of this area and then meet us at our final waypoint position here.” Seth marked everything on his impromptu map.

“I see.” First Son twitched on his heels.

“You can tell me if you don’t agree or have a different idea.”

“Our scouts will do better in this changing terrain here,” First Son indicated an area on the dirt map, “if we send out three scouts instead of four and send them as individuals instead of teams.”

“What if they get spotted?”

First Son growled. “They will not be spotted. The warriors are formidable enemies, but do not mistake their superior strength and size for superior hunting skills. They hunt with brute strength, not skill. We have found in the last two engagements with them, they have no idea how to talk to or listen to the forest. They will never know we were there.”

“Okay.” First Son nodded and turned to go before Seth stopped him. “Not you. I need you with me. I’m sorry to hold you back, but you need to send someone else.”

First Son’s ears dropped and he nodded. “Yes, Father.”

A short growl and a few hand gestures later, three other Shirkas, including his sister, headed out on the scout.

“Alright everyone, we’re on the last leg. Let’s move out.” Seth stood and headed back into the forest.

The birthing planet was not the world of origin for the Shirkas, but based on the intelligence Seth had read about the Shirka home world, all of their birthing planets were very similar to their original home. Even their home world maintained its forested landscape through their industrial and spacefaring phases.

The forest canopy swayed high above them and a gentle breeze eventually made it down to the forest floor. The undergrowth of fern-like vegetation was thick but luckily not sturdy and it gave way to the soldiers’ march.

Seth realized that his sense of smell and hearing had steadily improved since he’d arrived on the planet. Without the machines of man to add noise and chemical pollution to the planet, Seth felt like all of his senses were getting cleansed of years of abuse.

As Seth pondered the new smells that floated on the breeze, he stopped suddenly in his tracks. “All stop,” he subvocalized over the squad push. “Something is wrong.”

First Son came to Seth’s side and scented the air. “Father is correct. I have a warrior’s scent and something else I am not familiar with.”

Seth looked to First Son. “Scout the scent and report back. We have to keep our timeline so the rest of the squad will keep moving. If we contact just a few warriors without shields, we will shoot them from a distance. We are too close now to risk them firing their plasma rifles and alerting our target of our presence.”

“Understood.” First Son leapt forward and signaled for Fang to accompany him on the scout. Huj’pa’ul, disappointed, stayed behind.

After traveling another kilometer, Huj’pa’ul came to Seth. “First Son is just behind that large boulder there.” She pointed to a rock outcropping fifty meters away. “The way is safe and they found the warrior. He is dead.”

As Seth came around the boulder, the scent he had initially detected became even stronger. On the other side of the boulder lay a dead warrior; wrapped around him was the same snake-like creature that had killed Smoke.

“Shit.” Seth startled a bit when the creature flicked its tail in Seth’s direction.

“Do not worry.” First Son pointed to the intertwined creatures. “Once they are feeding, they do not come off their prey until they are finished. It is the best time to kill them.”

“I don’t even know how I smelled this thing from so far away.” Seth was amazed at his own senses.

Fang smiled at him. “You must have Shirka blood flowing through your veins, Father.”

Reaper used his field medical sensors to capture data on the snake and the warrior. “The scent you picked up is from the snake’s venom. It’s pretty pungent up close. You probably smelled it after Smoke was attacked but your brain couldn’t catalog it properly. Your subconscious filed that scent away and associated it with something bad. When you got a whiff of it again, you knew on a primal level that something was wrong.”

“The science of that theory makes sense,” Seth said, “but I’m still not sure how I smelled it from so far away.”

First Son raised his arms to the forest canopy. “The forest is cleansing Father. Even Shirka senses are heightened when we leave our space vessels and our homes to clear our thoughts and souls in our birthplaces.”

Seth wasn’t sure if First Son’s theory applied to humans, but he could tell something was different within himself.

“This is the second attack from these creatures. How do we protect ourselves from them?” Surgeon was still on the outer perimeter but joined the conversation via his commlink.

Because the Shirkas did not have commlinks, whenever these conversations took place, one of the Coalition soldiers had to relay the statements or questions to the Shirka team.

Huj’pa’ul shrugged her massive shoulders. “We do not. If they attack you, fight back. One will win and one will lose.”

Reaper put his hand in the air to interrupt. “I cannot argue with that succinct examination of the facts, but I can offer an alternative. I can synthesize an antidote from the venom samples I’ve taken. Initial scans show it to be a very simple, if not highly effective, compound. But it will take time.”

“How much time?” Seth liked Reaper’s plan better.

“Give me ten minutes to set my kit up to start working on it. It will create the antidote on its own while we finish moving to our final position for the assault. I can inject everyone before we rack out tonight. It won’t do us any good between now and then, but at least it’s something.”

“That will have to do. You’ve got ten minutes. Get to work.” Seth looked around and still felt uneasy.

“What is it, Captain?” Joker was forty meters away but he could still tell Seth fidgeted over something.

“This is the second warrior we’ve found out on his own. I know we have very little intel on the warriors, but this doesn’t seem right.”

Seth wasn’t sure what bothered him, but he knew dwelling on the problem wouldn’t let him solve it. He needed to put the problem to the back of his thoughts and let his subconscious chew on it while he focused on the mission.

Eight minutes had passed and Reaper was ready to move out. He packed away his field synthesizing kit as it continued to make the antidote on its own. “Ready when you are, boss.”

“Alright everyone, let’s get the Shirkas on point and to our rear. Move out.”

Seth loved watching the Shirkas move effortlessly through the forest, flashes of fur and muscle moving almost without a sound. As Seth became more attuned to the forest, he started to be able to pick out sounds that didn’t belong, such as the Shirkas or his own soldiers moving through the underbrush.

Hours later, Seth’s team reached the rendezvous point. He pulled up his holographic map and studied it with Surgeon and Joker. After they committed the area to memory, they put the map away and sat down with First Son to go over their assault plans. First Son waved Fang and Huj’pa’ul over to join the conversation.

“We have already begun to hear from the cubs,” First Son began. “They are gathering in the trees here.” First Son drew a line on the dirt map and showed a three-quarter circle around the enemy camp.

“How many do we have?” Seth was anxious to get his own cubs back beside him. He felt an immediate bond with them and was already worried about them.

Fang smiled a toothy Shirka smile. “Over two hundred. And they are not even all here yet.”

“I don’t think we even need to be here.” Joker laughed.

“You would leave cubs to fight in your place?” Huj’pa’ul growled.

“Note to self,” Joker said. “Shirkas have no sense of humor.”

Huj’pa’ul growled even deeper.

“That’s enough, you two,” Surgeon cut in. “And for the record, Shirkas have a great sense of humor. They just don’t get human wit until they’ve been around us for a while. But if you ever get embedded with a Shirka company, they do some crazy shit to each other. They are probably some of the biggest pranksters in the galaxy.”

First Son laughed. “You know us well, human. After we crush our enemies tomorrow, and we sit around the fire and tell stories, I will tell you of when I lost half my fur because of a joke my father and brother played on me.”

“Sounds good.” Seth waved his hand above the dirt map. “But we need to get back to the important stuff, if that’s alright with everyone.” His pack nodded their affirmations.

“Good.” Seth put small stones on the map. “We will deploy shooters to these areas. Instead of going in teams, I want all nine shooters to spread out on their own, doing their best to maintain overlapping fields of fire.”

“I’ll take the southern flank and you can go north.” Surgeon pointed to the map. “If you don’t mind, sir.”

Seth knew from the topographic map they had viewed earlier, the southern flank was the more perilous area. The ground was higher and more rugged than the area to the north. Seth felt as if Mike was trying to prove something by taking the harder area, but he didn’t think now was the time to address it.

“I’m good with that.” Seth looked to his other senior operator. “Joker, I want you in the middle of the formation. If Mike or I go down, I want you to take over as the second command element.”

“Yes, sir.”

The group finished the primary brief and then gathered the entire team to discuss the details with them.

“I know that most of us are used to having so much intel before a mission that we actually complain we have too much stuff to look through,” Surgeon began. “But in this case, it’s just the opposite. We don’t have satellite overviews, we don’t have heat imaging, we don’t have an engineering analysis of our target structure, and we don’t have a hard or even a soft enemy count. We don’t have anything other than a topographic map and an idea of where the enemy is.”

First Son stepped forward. “When our scouts return, we will have an idea of some of this information, but still not what we are used to.” To the humans, he said, “I know that our ways seem backwards to you, but understand this is not our normal operational standards either. We do not purposely blind ourselves before we go on a mission; we are used to getting all of the same information from the same technology that you use. This mission is different because of where it is and our beliefs and traditions surrounding our birthing planets.”

“That being said,” Seth took over, “the Shirkas are much better at impromptu fighting without weapons, especially in this environment. That is something we are going to capitalize on.”

The dirt map had grown and was now at least four square meters. Seth walked around it while he pointed things out to the team. “We are going to bring our shooters in to these marked positions. Again, because we don’t have aerial imagery, we don’t know what kind of cover you’ll find there, so these positions are suggestive. Find what you can and go where you need to go.

“If there are a lot of warriors that are visible, we will engage them with guns from cover. If there are only a few out on guard duty, we will create a commotion to get more out into the open.”

Joker added, “Our joint attack with the cubs went very well and we’re going to use the same strategy here. We shoot as many of the warriors as we can and when our element of surprise runs out and they start taking cover, we unleash the cubs, with the adults leading the attack.”

Jenson raised his hand until Seth acknowledged him. “Sir, I know the Shirkas are a different species and have a different sense of everything, but I’m honestly not feeling good about sending the kids in on purpose. I know they fought well in our previous engagement and I’m sure they will do well again, but last time they were fighting for self-preservation from a direct attack. They weren’t being ordered into battle.”

“Thank you for your candor,” Seth began but was waved down by First Son.

“You are correct that we see many things differently,” First Son said. “But the love we have for our cubs is no less than yours is for your children. It would take many hours, maybe even days or weeks, to help you to fully understand how we feel about our cubs and our beliefs surrounding their hunting and self-preservation abilities.

“But make no mistake, they are being directly attacked by the warriors. Our enemy’s very presence on this planet is a direct attack on them. Because all of the Shirka birthing planets are similar to this one, we have to believe that they are all in danger of being attacked and used by the warriors for their dietary and supply needs.”

The three scouts returned and First Son gave them a signal to hold on their report while he continued talking. “In fact, that is why we absolutely must use the cubs in this assault.”

Jenson thought for a moment before responding. “You want to show them the cubs will attack if the planet is threatened.”

“Exactly.” Seth finished the thought. “There is no way the Coalition or the Shirka militia can protect each of the sixty-three birthing planets. We want the cubs to descend on the warriors to show them that these planets cannot be taken without the warriors dedicating a huge amount of resources for each planet.”

“And for that reason,” Mike added, “we have to let them get out a radio message to their people. We, of course, can’t control what they say, but when the base is being overrun with cubs, there really are only two options for a military force to transmit. They will describe the attack to include enemy numbers, type, and effectiveness; from there they will either ask for reinforcements or rescue.

“Either way, the warriors will know how deadly the cubs are and how easily they amassed such large numbers to take out the first landing party. It should be a deterrent against future attacks on the birthing planets.”

Jenson shook his head. “Not that you need me to agree, sir, but I understand now and I’m good with it.”

Seth didn’t exactly smile but his face did soften a bit. “Thank you, Jenson. You’re right, I don’t need you to agree but I much prefer it when my men do. And no matter what, I always need my men to speak their minds, so I appreciate you speaking up.” He then looked to the returned scouts. “You three look eager. What do you have for us?”

Sister’s jaw was still broken so she nodded to her cousin. “The warriors are where you thought they would be, at the base of the waterfall on the far side of the river.”

The cousin saw the dirt map and moved forward to make his own additions to it. “They patrol here, here, and here. The main camp is here. They are building solid structures but only one small hut has been completed. We believe it is their communications center.”

“We were just talking about that.” Seth eyed the map. “Once we are on site, we need to confirm that hut is their communications room. If it is, we cannot destroy it and we have to allow at least one warrior to get to it to send their message and relay the battle information.” The scouts looked at one another with confusion. “I’ll explain later. Please go on.”

The cousin placed markers on the map. “We estimate they have just over a hundred warriors at this site. They are keeping to their camp and the patrols have a very tight perimeter.”

First Son grunted. “The forest has taken more of their men than they expected. They are staying closer to the safety of the pack. We will be able to get much closer to them than we had expected.”

Seth didn’t like the numerical advantage the warriors had. The cubs fought well but they were going to have high losses in this next fight. But without the cubs, Seth doubted his combined Shirka and Coalition team could complete the mission.

Seth didn’t like this part of being the commanding officer, but he knew that he had to keep the plan as it was.

The mission briefing finished and Reaper inoculated the team with his anti-snake venom. The watch schedule was given out and everyone put their own personal pre-battle routine into play. Some of the men immediately racked out while others wrote down their thoughts as they ate dinner.

Seth wrote a quick email to Emily, not a goodbye or a just in case email; he just wanted to say hi and tell her about his mission so far. He knew the email wouldn’t be sent until they were picked up after the mission, dead or alive, but he wanted to write it anyway.

As he finished the last sentence, Seth’s cubs bounded out of the forest and tackled his seated figure. Seth was on the ground with four cubs rolling on him, licking him and nipping at various body parts.

When Seth was able to sit up once again, he added one last thought to his email. P.S. I think I’m a Shirka daddy now. I’ll explain later.

Two hours before dawn came, Seth’s pack moved out to make contact. The Shirkas stayed with the group for the first half of the hike and then they took off to meet up with the cub forces. The adults were the only ones who could communicate with the cubs, so they had to be with them to coordinate the attack.

Seth had First Son tell Seth’s cubs to stay with the humans and to watch their backs. Seth wanted the extra heightened senses with his team but it also gave him an excuse to keep his cubs in a less dangerous position.

As they continued on to their target, Seth opened a private channel to Mike and subvocalized, “You know, it’s not too late—you can take the north flank and I can go south.”

Mike subvocalized back, “Why?”

“I just. I mean, I was just thinking…”

“You think I’m taking the south flank to prove I can still do the hard stuff, don’t you?”

“That run yesterday—you were keeping up to make a point.”

Mike grimaced. “You’re right, I was. It was stupid. Look, you know I trust you, and I believe you are the right man to run this team. Not to mention you’re an officer and I’m enlisted.” Mike took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “But no matter how true those words are, I’m still a man, a man who is getting older. A warrior who can see the end of his career. I’ve still got a lot of time ahead of me on this team, but for the first time I can actually see the end of the tunnel and it’s scary.”

“Look—” Seth tried to jump in.

“Stop. Let me finish.” Mike was thankful for subvocalization; he knew Seth was the only person who could hear the conversation. “I pushed too hard on that run and that was dumb. I won’t make that mistake again. I’m not taking the south flank because it’s harder and I want to prove a point. I’m taking it because initially it will be harder but once I’m there, I’ll have the high ground and my fight will be stationary and easier than yours.”

Seth thought for a moment and visualized the area in his mind. “I see your point. My position is more likely to encounter resistance and more of a stand-up fight.”

“Now you’re seeing the whole picture.” Mike would’ve had a conspiratorial tone to his voice if he were speaking normally. “I have a harder position to get into but in the end, it will be an easier position to fight from. You’re welcome.”

“Someday I’ll be as sneaky as you, First Sergeant.”

“Are you planning on resigning your commission and becoming enlisted?”

“Fuck you.”

“Ha. Thought so. Sir.”

The team made it to their final insertion points. Everyone spread out and slowed their pace to a silent creep.

Seth’s senses were still heightened; he could hear faint footsteps from his operators that he knew were far enough away from him that he shouldn’t be able to hear them. He inwardly cringed as he heard the footfalls on leaves and through water, but Seth also knew the sounds were quiet enough they should go unnoticed by the warriors.

As Seth waded into the water, the crashing sound of the nearby waterfall masked all sounds to even his abnormally heightened senses. Seth had set his visor to thermal imaging and he could clearly see two warriors getting a drink at the edge of the river. Several others milled around the camp and at least one group of four warriors patrolled the perimeter.

The four warriors on patrol were shielded and the rest were not. Seth still hadn’t determined whether the shields weren’t issued to everyone because they were in short supply or whether there was some sort of honor-based reason warriors didn’t wear them.

Seth’s visor lit up with targeting indicators as his men got settled into position and picked out their first round of targets. Seth looked to each of the targets and decided on a new course of action.

“Slight change of plans, people,” Seth subvocalized over the team push. “Keep your primary targets designated; however, I want everyone’s first volley to be from your grenade launchers and aimed at that group of four warriors on patrol. We’re far enough out that we can send our grenades and get back on our primary targets before the grenades impact and explode. Nine simultaneous grenades should overload their shields and maybe even take one or two of them out.”

“Good plan. I like it.” Surgeon breathed a bit hard but he was in position and picked out his primary target. “We still haven’t heard from our snipers.”

“Davies, if you can hear me,” Seth began, “pick off that warrior south of Surgeon’s position. He’s all by himself and…”

The sentence wasn’t finished before Seth saw the warrior slump to the ground. Through Seth’s thermal imager, he could see warm blood and tissue spray silently into the air. The warrior had been two hundred meters from Seth’s position but he could tell from the spray that Davies was somewhere at the top of the waterfall.

“Nice. If Boddie can take out the next guy, that would be great. I want to know where his position is.” Seth looked around and found another warrior that was isolated from the rest. “Boddie, take out that one eating at the back end of the camp.”

The warrior was barely visible to Seth; he had to dial up the magnification on his visor to really get a good look at him. Seth could see the warrior holding a struggling game animal of some sort and shoving pieces into his mouth as he ate. Seth was grateful he couldn’t hear the screams of the meal that was being torn and eaten alive.

Seth saw the first round hit low. It went through the meal animal and then the warrior’s chest. Warm blood sprayed into the cold night air and the warrior fell over. Luckily, his mouth had been full of the screaming animal so his own sounds couldn’t be made when the bullet entered his chest. Boddie, or maybe it was Davies, sent a follow-up round that went through the warrior’s head.

Now was not the time to talk to Boddie about his missed shot but Seth filed that thought away for discussion at a later time. Regardless of the missed shot, Seth could tell that Boddie was close to Davies up on top of the waterfall.

“Good job, guys. You can start picking off targets you think won’t be noticed. Once the assault starts, everything down here is fair game. When we—”

Seth didn’t finish his sentence as Joker broke in. “The patrol is coming back with four more shielded warriors. The guy on point is holding a device and they’re headed in your direction, Captain.” Joker was calm but there was a sense of urgency in his transmission. “Wait. Now they’re headed to me.”

The warriors were still at least a hundred meters from Seth’s waiting team but that ground could be covered quickly.

Seth’s subconscious put two and two together. “They’re keying in on our transmission. They know we’re here.”

On cue, the warriors changed their course and headed towards Seth’s position. “The camp is being alerted. All grenades on the shielded warriors; two volleys instead of one. Weapons free. Go, go, go.”

The first volley of nine grenades being launched made a nearly simultaneous whoomph as they left the underbarrels of the operators’ weapons. The second volley wasn’t nearly as uniformed but the nine additional grenades were all in the air before the first ones landed.

Seth transitioned from his grenade launcher to his rifle and brought his sights down to his predesignated target. Before Seth could get a round off, the warrior’s head split open. “Hey, Davies, that was mine,” Seth joked to himself as he quickly moved to the next available target.

As Seth sent rounds into the camp, he saw the eighteen grenades had killed six of the eight shielded warriors. Of the two that were still standing, one was taking repeated rifle fire as he blindly fired his weapon out into the night.

The warriors were genetically engineered to not need light or technological assistance to fight in the dark. Their primary eyes could see in multiple spectrums and their third eye could see by creating images from sound and radiation that was absorbed by the organ.

One of the shielded warriors flinched as a round penetrated the weakened field and impacted his chest. He dropped to a knee and continued to fire until his shield failed completely and another round entered his head.

At that moment, another grenade sailed into the gunfight and landed next to the last remaining warrior. The grenade exploded and ripped through the weakened shield to kill the warrior.

Seth now saw the tree canopies come alive with moving heat signatures. “No more explosives. Repeat, no more explosives. The cubs are coming in from the trees. Check your fire. Everyone give me an affirmative on the explosives order.”

Seth’s visor showed eight winking green lights from his men that indicated that they heard his order for no explosives. Seth was relieved when the last light came on. Not that he thought his men would launch explosives into what was about to become a melee of epic proportions, but he just wanted to be sure.

That moment of relief was quickly extinguished and replaced with a primal urge to dodge to the right and turn around. Seth didn’t question his subconscious reaching out to his conscious brain; a person’s deep down lizard brain was usually correct when it came to warning its owner of danger.

Seth rolled to his right and felt a warrior’s sword pass by his side and land in the water where he had just been. Seth realized he had smelled the warrior and more than that, he had heard the warrior even above the endless crashing of the nearby waterfall.

Seth brought his weapon’s muzzle up to fire but had to stop himself as he saw his four cubs launch onto the warrior’s back. Seth slung his rifle; he pulled out his field knife and drove it into the chest of the warrior. The female cub had already reached around the warrior’s neck and tore flesh from his throat.

The warrior went down but still tried to act as though he were alive. Seth knew the creature was dead but the warriors sometimes needed a little more time to figure that out for themselves.

The four cubs finished their kill and then bounded towards the fray of hundreds of other cubs and their warrior enemies.

“No! Wait! Stop! Heel! Stay! Shit!”

Seth knew they couldn’t understand Coalition basic, but Fang said they could understand the content of the words based on how they were said. So in other words, Seth’s cubs were being dodgy little teenagers that didn’t want to listen.

Great, Seth thought as he took after his self-acquired charges.

All around Seth, the battle raged. Some warriors emerged from the woods or their makeshift sleeping areas, wearing shields. Those warriors were quickly identified and swarmed by the cubs. Seth was impressed First Son had given the cubs that immediate action drill and even happier that the cubs followed orders.

Once in a while, Seth would see a warrior get hit with a bullet, but those instances came less often now. Seth knew his men were going to need to leave cover soon and join the fight hand-to-hand.

Seth waded through the fight and realized there was no way he was going to be able to pick his cubs out of the multitude that were running around. A few cubs ran by Seth and muzzle-punched him as they went. Seth guessed they were trying to scent their allies without slowing down.

Seth felt the same primal urge from before but this time it pulled him forward at a dead run. Twenty meters later, he found a warrior hacking a cub into pieces as two other cubs tried to stop it from happening. Seth knew these were his cubs; he had been drawn here by their scent and primal cries of brutality.

Seth came in with his knife but was batted away. The warrior used the hacked-up cub as a weapon; he swung the cub at Seth and struck him in the face. Seth staggered back at the force of the blow. Rage filled his heart as he tasted the blood of his cub.

Seth moved in under the warrior’s attempt at a backhanded swing of the cub. He drove his knife deep into the warrior’s belly and pulled it out while he dragged the blade sideways. The warrior’s torso opened and gore spilled onto the ground.

The warrior pulled out his own knife and impaled one of the cubs that clung to his upper body. The cub howled in pain as she was skewered and then thrown against a tree. Seth hated that the warriors could fight and kill even after their own fates had long since been sealed.

As the warrior brought his knife back, Seth kicked the inside of the warrior’s knee; it buckled outward and brought the warrior to one knee. The warrior still tried to bring his knife towards Seth’s head but their positions gave Seth the advantage. He brought his knife to the warrior’s moving wrist and lopped off his hand.

Seth drove his knife up under the warrior’s chin and into his cranial cavity to end the fight. Breathing hard, he removed his knife and placed it back in its sheath.

Seth looked around and found one of his cubs still in fighting condition, two dead, and the one female badly injured.

Seth went to her side and looked at the wounds. They were bad but he went to work on her anyway. “Reaper.”

“Go ahead, Captain.”

“Are you in a position to get to me?”

Reaper pulled up Seth’s beacon on his visor before he answered. “Yes, sir. I’ve got a bit of opposition between us but I’ll dodge what I can and get there soonest.”

“Good. I need you here, buddy, fast.” Seth tried to keep the worry and fear from his voice but he didn’t do a good job of it. He knew the commlink would scrub most of his emotion from the transmission, but he didn’t need his men to hear their commanding officer’s voice crack during a firefight.

“What’s your status?” Surgeon piped in.

“I’m fine, First Sergeant. One of my, I mean, one of the cubs needs Reaper fast.”

“Understood.” Surgeon didn’t take over for Seth, but he wanted the men to focus on something else rather than the last transmission. “Alright men, we’re doing well so far. The Shirkas are kicking ass and we’ve intercepted a warrior transmission basically saying the same thing. They are reporting heavy losses and already acknowledging that they won’t be able to hold this position. It’s time to kill their communications. They put out the message we wanted them to.”

Surgeon barely finished his sentence when Seth heard an explosion come from the area of the communications hut. The cubs had been told by First Son to stay out of that area and Seth hoped they had all listened.

The gunfire was now down to a slow trickle as Seth’s men moved into the camp and switched to bladed weapons. Every once in a while, Seth heard a finishing shot and pictured one of his men putting his barrel directly to a warrior’s head to get a contact shot and not endanger any of the other friendly combatants.

Reaper made it to Seth and looked at his patchwork. “I’ve got it from here, sir. Get back in there.”

Seth wanted to argue but knew Reaper was right. “Copy that. Thank you, Doc.”

Reaper just nodded as he was already focused on his task.

Seth turned to leave and the brother cub tried to follow him.

“No,” Seth said sternly as he pointed back towards Reaper and the cub’s injured sister. “You stay with them. Protect them.”

The cub looked at Seth, back at his sister, and then to Seth again. The cub whimpered.

“I know. But you have to stay here.” Seth knelt, eye to eye with the cub. “Go protect them. I need you here to protect my friend and your sister.”

The cub quietly and sadly turned to do what was asked of him. Seth stood and entered back into the fight, fearful he would return later to find only one of his cubs left.

It took another hour for the battle to be over and twenty more minutes to sweep and secure the area.

Seth sent Joker, Jenson, and Sister to sweep the camp for intel. Sister was the technogeek on her team and was smart enough to give Bloom a run for his money, had he been on this mission.

Seth gave Surgeon and First Son the task of organizing the remaining forces and performing an assets check. First Son sent packs of cubs out on patrol. There was no need to send out hunting parties; the warriors had already stocked several pens with game animals. First Son didn’t like the idea of killing a caged animal but Surgeon reminded him that there were more mouths to feed tonight than hunting would be able to provide. First Son gave in, if not reluctantly.

Seth began to set up a triage area but Fang stopped him. “There is no need. None of our men are hurt and none of the Shirka will use it.”

“What about the cubs?” Seth could not hide his dismay. “There are wounded cubs everywhere. We can save them.”

“No, we cannot.” Fang put his massive clawed hand on Seth’s shoulder. “Father, if you save the cubs, at best their mother will not kill them herself when she comes back for them, and they will be left here to grow up as outcasts. But more likely, their mothers will kill them rather than see their cubs have that fate.”

Seth was shocked and could not speak for a moment. “One of the cubs that stayed with me when I was unconscious, Reaper is working on her now. He says she’ll live. What will happen to her?”

Huj’pa’ul stepped forward. “We should go kill her now. Save her the dishonor of dying from her wounds after we leave.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Seth shifted to anger. “Reaper said she’s going to live.”

“For now.” Huj’pa’ul asserted herself more fully as she gauged Seth’s anger. “But when we leave, who will hunt for her? Who will get her water? She is too injured to do these things on her own. She will die of her wounds. Either because she cannot care for herself or defend herself when a predator comes and eats her.”

“Her brother will,” Seth protested.

“Yes, he will.” Fang looked sad for Seth. “However, when his mother returns and finds his sister healed by human treatments, she will kill or leave them both. She cannot take her son if he has dishonored himself in this way.”

“This is bullshit!” Seth almost roared. He paced back and forth a few times. “I should just take her. Screw this crap!”

Fang cocked his head. “You would have to raise her. She would never be accepted by a Shirka family and she may never be accepted by any other Shirka as long as she lived.”

“What?” Seth wasn’t sure whether he hadn’t heard what Fang had said or if it just hadn’t sunk in yet. “Wait. What? What are you saying about raising her?”

“If you took her. She would be your cub, your responsibility.”

Seth only vaguely remembered saying just seconds before that he should take her. It was an emotional outburst, not a completely coherent or well-thought-out plan.

“Wouldn’t her parents be mad if I cub-napped their offspring? What about the Shirka government?”

Huj’pa’ul growled back and forth with Fang for a moment before answering. “We should speak with First Son and Mother to get their opinions, but we think you could take the cub without issues. The mother would not allow her cub to live or leave the planet; yet as a mother, she naturally loves her cub. If there was a way to allow her cub to live without destroying her family’s honor or violating Shirka law, she would want that for her daughter.”

Fang added, “You are the pack master for this mission. The Shirka Father died and named you Father, with pack witnesses; this is not contested. You have much greater power and influence within the Shirka community at this point than I think you are aware. If you took the cub as your own, you would not be breaking our laws or traditions because you are not one of us. And yet, as the pack’s Father, your decision will be viewed with respect as though you were one of us.”

Seth thought back to his email to Emily, where he jokingly wrote that he had just become a Shirka daddy. And now, if he could, he was really going to do it.

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