The Long Night Between Stars
Part 1: "Humility"
Bak-udrin'de remained near the Hive's main tunnel entrance. Chaunn's communications petered out after a few minutes as she and the pfaukal moved into the deepest sections of the aliens' labyrinthine territory. He trusted the older warrior and the pfaukal to take care of themselves; meanwhile, he surveyed the large cavern carefully through the different lens functions in his helmet. He found no anomalous areas of warmth, save the opening behind him. He saw no movement or the static discharge given off by the aliens' bodies. Nothing there at all. Nothing but a cool, still silence. Too bad; he'd wanted to have some physical evidence to show Chaunn to prove that she didn't need to consider him a liability.
Baku enhanced his external audio pickups with a tick of his upper mandible, trying to hear past the silence. He could hear only a low, electronic background buzz at first, then the staccato tap of dripping water, and the strangely metallic music of small rivulets of water flowing down channels of stone. Beyond that, the thinnest of air currents that didn't even register on his exposed skin and body whiskers.
! Did he hear a faint noise just at the threshold of the helmet's microphone? It sounded like a sort of shifting, stretching sound. It came from the same direction as the carven pillars he had come to investigate, way on the other side of the huge cavern. He resolved to keep his eyes and ears on that area until his bodyguard returned; Chaunn depended up on him to remain at the tunnel post until then. Unless something compromised the research
Baku strained his electronically enhanced helmet to its utmost, but he didn't hear any other sounds. He huffed to himself, but remained at his post.
A series of sudden, booming crashes nearly startled the young scholar out of his skin. With a brief hiss he dialed down the helmet's pickup to its normal range. He turned back toward the warm tunnel and with his ordinary hearing detected the sounds of Yikyik's peculiar, squelchy movements and the almost careless clumping footsteps of Chaunn.
"Did you get all of them?" Baku asked as the slightly bloodied warrior ducked through the tunnel entrance into the antechamber.
"They're all toast," Chaunn replied as she checked herself over for deep claw-scratches and bite marks. She added, "And if we've miraculously missed any of them, Yik and I made enough of a racket on our way back that they'll be sure to come find us. Looks to me like they spent all their energy inside the Hive; I'd expected at least a couple of them to give you some target practice. Huh. That's too bad."
Baku cocked his head slightly to acknowledge Chaunn's veiled compliment. Most of the Hunter-Warriors assumed, for some strange reason, that the academic community could not hold its own in a fight. Did they not realize that no yautja would be allowed off the homeworld without several years of combat training? At Baku's native academy, he attended survival and combat training courses before he ever began his linguistics studies.
Chaunn did realize this, Baku thought with some marvel, and had not only complimented him in her offhand way, but also had depended upon him to watch her back. She and the pfaukal might have had to fight their way back out of the Hive otherwise, and who knew what could have been waiting for them out here in the grand gallery? Baku provided insurance for his more seasoned partner, and he felt a rush of pride in that small revelation.
The yautja pair resumed their original purpose for this trip: Baku steered the anti-grav sled through the cavern entryway, then followed behind Chaunn and the pfaukal toward the carven pillars at its far end.
Yikyik stopped suddenly, mid-stride, and held its position on pointe. It made a querulous noise in the back of its throat and relayed to Chaunn, Bookfriend did hear bugsbugsbugs. Tricksy Queen not so crunchied.
"Baku, did you hear anything scrabbling around back here before we exited the Hive?" Chaunn asked the scholar. She had already crouched down in a battle stance, ready to defend Baku and his fragile imaging equipment.
"I thought I did," Baku replied, "But I could not pinpoint the source. It was a faint noise, like a stretch or like an exhalation. Then nothing. Can you hear anything?
I mean, with the ear-of-your-mind?" He grumbled at the way the voice synthesizer garbled his question.
"Nope," Chaunn said with a chuckle, "and that's what bothers me. There and gone, cut off suddenly. Be ready. Turn up your audio again and watch out for movement especially along the ceiling."
Chaunn suited action to words as she scanned the arched, crenelated roof of the cavern with her helmet's enhanced visual range.
"Still got nothin'," she huffed. "But I trust the slimeball's instincts. Any idea where the microbitch is, Yik?"
Silent to you, silent to Yikyikyik, replied the pfaukal. Notsafe here. Notsafe to stay still, notsafe to move.
"Then we move," Chaunn ordered. "Make her come to us if there's any fight left in her."
Chaunn picked up her pace as she strode forward, with her handheld blaster and blood-streaked spear at the ready. She, the pfaukal, and Baku and the equipment arrived at the first line of dark, carven stones without any hint of an impending attack. Chaunn glanced around at the likely hiding spots in the texture of the ceiling, and with an irritable skirl coloring her voice, she announced, "FINE! Bugs, I reclaim this chunk of real estate in the name of AIIIIIIIIIIGH!"
Chaunn's howl sounded in the split second it took the pfaukal to leap hissing through the air and into the miniature Queen, who had dropped undetected from the ceiling with six limbs'-worth of sharp little claws aimed right for the warrior's head. The pfaukal slammed into the alien with a loud thunk, dislodging it from its perch, then it continued to bash her around as she scrambled to regain her feet once she hit the floor. She flailed at her slime-coated assailant with her tail, which bought her the time she needed to right herself. With short, vicious strikes of her tail she tried to impale the pfaukal, but Yikyik danced nimbly in and out of her strike zone, too quick to catch and too quick for the Queen to out-maneuver.
In less than two breaths, Chaunn had trained her plasma gun on the Queen and she fired a shot at the bug's feet in order to distract her. Chaunn readied her spear with an overhead twirl, then launched back into the fray. The Queen anticipated her, however, and leapt over the plasma bolt to lunge at the warrior. The Queen feinted left, then with a flick of her tail for counterbalance, jumped sharply to her right. Chaunn aimed a kick at the bug's head, but the Queen used her momentum to crouch and launch herself up and over the kick, straight toward Baku's equipment sled. With a resounding crash, bug Queen, camera, and lighting stands hit the ground.
Baku, with an inarticulate shriek, used one of the metal tripods to lever up the Queen and flip her away from his recording tools. The Queen, once again on her feet, would have none of it. She stomped the long pole to the ground, and with a short hiss, launched herself straight for Baku's head. Baku ducked down out of her way, then flicked out his short spear in lieu of the light stand.
Chaunn, meanwhile, still had her blaster trained on the Queen and waited impatiently for an opening that wouldn't put the scholar's life, limbs, or equipment in serious jeopardy. The midget bug just would
Baku successfully fended off the Queen's attacks with swift and complex movements of his spear. He landed one good thwack on her chin that sent her tumbling away from the fragile equipment, back toward the waiting blaster and blades of the more experienced warrior.
Perfect form; someone actually trained this scholar to fight, Chaunn noted somewhere in the back of her mind.
The Queen again found her feet and her balance, and she launched a new attack against the female warrior. In that moment, Yikyik tried its best to assist by sending a large, quick burst of information Chaunn-wards:
KILLKILLKILLKILLKILLHERE!! Came the information on about four hundred separate kill points, adapted to the reduced size of their assailant.
Chaunn, who already had a great deal of battle-lore actively engaged in her conscious mind, could not take in the pfaukal's enormous sending. It overwhelmed her for a crucial couple of seconds, and in that time, the Queen managed to land squarely on the warrior's head once again.
Yikyik hissed in alarm as the knee-high xenomorph Queen's long tail whipped around spastically. All that wild movement prevented the pfaukal from leaping to the warrior's rescue.
Chaunn shrieked in surprise and anger as she tried to dislodge the alien's weight with rapid shifts of her fighting stance. She whipped her head and shoulders back, then forward to try to flip the clawed demon overhead, but the tenacious creature would have none of it. The Queen dug in, seeking more secure holds in the yautja's tightly-bound dreadlocks and in the creases and chinks in her shoulder armor.
The Queen's tiny claws didn't seem to be doing much damage, but interspersed with Chaunn's wild flailing and howling, Baku could sear he heard a hysterical-sounding giggle confirmed a moment later when, after a round of foul curses, Chaunn shouted,
"She's trying to dig through my armor, but the beast is tickling me! Get 'er off get 'er the hell offa me NOW!"
Baku didn't waste a moment more he holstered his spear as he ran to Chaunn's rescue. With a mighty lunge of his own, he grabbed a hold of the Queen's whipping, blade-tipped tail with both hands and hung onto her for dear life. He dug his heel spurs into the floor of the cavern and yanked back, trying to dislodge some of the Queen's claws. Chaunn dove forward at the same moment and crashed Queen-first into one of the stone pillars. The Queen merely hissed and growled in her high-pitched voice and gripped even harder. Chaunn howled invective as she spun back around and ran into the more open area of the cavern so that she could maneuver better. Baku kept his grip on the Queen's tail the entire time, and Chaunn, with desperate speed and strength, dragged the scholar off his feet and along the floor.
Chaunn stopped abruptly and twisted around again, this time starting to pummel the Queen with her spike-covered gloved fists. She managed to get one clawed hand loose from her hair and, though she knew it for folly, tried to pull the bug's arm clean out of its socket. The Queen squealed in pain and dug two more sets of claws into Chaunn's unarmored right armpit, doing little damage but tickling the warrior horribly. Chaunn lost her balance in a fit of hysterical cackles, but this had been just the opening Baku needed. While the Queen's grip had shifted, he used her tail like a bull-whip and flicked her body off of his erstwhile protector. With a deft overhead swing, he brought the Queen hard down onto the floor with enough force to stun her. He didn't pause for even a moment he yanked Chaunn's thin boning knife from its sheath on her shin and lodged it firmly between the Queen's skull and her topmost vertebra. She died instantly.
Chaunn sat up, still stunned herself, and ran her fingers over the new dents in the spiral design of her helmet.
Baku scraped Chaunn's knife along the edge of the Queen's arm to remove the worst of the acid blood, then he presented it to the dark warrior with a cheeky little flourish.
Chaunn finally recovered her voice and said, absolutely deadpan, "Somebody has a nice little trophy to take home and stick on his bookshelf after all, doesn't he?"
Baku merely mimed a grin with his fingers.
Chaunn continued as she stood up, "And he has a nice little story to go with his nice little trophy and if a certain guitar-playing forbearer of mine catches wind of this nice little story and makes a bar-ditty out of it, do you know what I'm gonna do to this poor sod?"
She climbed to her feet so that she could tower head-and-shoulders over the scholar; Baku, for his part, could not be certain that he should take her posturing seriously. He glanced at the pfaukal to see it making an effort to completely ignore both of them. Not a serious threat, then, even though her oily scent suggested otherwise. He decided to give his warrior partner tit-for-tat; he matched her stance-for-stance and scent-for-scent. He told her, "I can make a couple of educated guesses about what you would do, and if you do, I promise you that I will personally contribute a verse concerning the whereabouts of your groin armor, and the newest and most favorite chew toy of my pfaukal."
" Chaunn glared daggers at the scholar; her golden eyes flashed fury and amusement in turns. "
You little bastard
"And I would make sure Fleh'renne gets to hear it next time I see him at the officer's club," Baku concluded with a polite bow.
Chaunn smacked her helmed forehead and crumpled back to the ground in mock-defeat.
The pfaukal finally chimed in with its own cheeky comment, Bookfriend wins. Goofygoofygoofygoofybutt! It had stopped licking the rents in its rubbery armor to roll around on the ground with all four feet in the air. It writhed with gleeful pfaukal-laughter, though the re-breather muffled the noise. Goofygoofygoofysillybutt! It thought at the warrior as it giggled to itself.
"Thank you very much, the both of you," Chaunn growled from deep in her chest. "I've regained a proper sense of humility today and shan't "
" ever live it down." Baku finished for her with a cocky salute.