Chronology note: This story takes place a few months after “A Lesson in Humility” and a few months before “Glory Days.”
Predator: Star-Crossed: Prologue
The Yautja Khan’nai, muscular of build, bronzed and spotted of skin, leaned back in the navigation officer’s chair and stuck his taloned feet up on the console. He folded one knee over the other and relaxed. He jiggled about in his blue-and-gold dlex armor to find that perfectly comfortable position – that position he could keep for one hour or for six. Wriggle, wriggle; clank, crunch… There. The individual plates settled around him without digging into his back, and the leather breeches were not bunched up beneath one buttock. Much better.
Khan’nai turned his attention to the stringed instrument in his lap and began to tune it and pluck the twelve strings. The warrior strummed the lute and hummed thoughtfully to himself:
Not on a night hot with stars
But cool as death and dry as dust
Came two warriors
Great warriors and old
Great warriors and quick
Great warriors and true
True to the Path
Quick as the Path
Quick as the Path of Lightning’s Way.
They came not alone
No not alone, Great warriors
They came not alone but in legion
In legion and in league with Legends
Legend meets legend meets legend
To do battle with Legend
To do battle with cold blasphemy…
The warrior twiddled the strings of the large lute as he warmed to his song, and his heel spur began to tap out a jaunty little rhythm on the console.
The console beeped at him, suddenly and insistently. Khan’nai’s mandibles spread wide and he hissed at it in irritation. The infernal thing always seemed to catch him mid-composition. He glanced at the main readout, then at the viewscreen, then at the readout again. Proximity alert. Ship coming in fast and furious, screaming out of the void on a collision course. Stupid kids…
The intruding ship came to a dead stop less than a thousand meters off the starboard bow. His ship’s Gkinmara lenses automatically switched over to get a look at the intruder as it propelled itself right alongside him.
The intruder was an old-style ship that resembled the offspring of a fish and a large gourd with an engine tube rammed up its stern. It had a large, convoluted landing spur on its underside and a huge, jerry-rigged mass of sensors, antennae and weapons along the bow – port, center and starboard. What had to be the original large-bore plasma guns sat nestled in their recessed nooks in two spots on the ship’s flanks, but these were nearly overshadowed by the new, larger and flashier “lightning guns” and what appeared to be an extra set of engine nacelles. It was a warrior’s ship, and what a warrior’s ship! But it was a fighting ship that had been converted to do double-duty a science vessel.
The bronze warrior knew this ship. Nobody else in Khan’nai’s circle of acquaintances had anything like it. Nothing was faster or deadlier; nothing was smarter, for this intruding ship contained a self-aware artificial intelligence.
As if that ship knew what he thought, it waggled several of the port-side antennae in a way that was unmistakably a greeting.
The proximity alert had finally gone silent after the intruder sent its call letters to Khan’nai’s ship. No doubt now: The communications console now identified the intruder: Night Runner. This ship belonged to the lady-Arbiter known as Chaunn’tne-di. His daughter.
Khan’nai leaned back in the nav seat again and stuck his feet up on the console. He tucked his arms behind his thickly plaited hair and waited for the inevitable, loving tirade to begin.
“DO YOU KNOW…?” Chaunn shouted over the ship-to-ship commlink, “DO YOU KNOW THAT YOUR PRECIOUS LITTLE DITTY ABOUT MY GRUDGE-MATCH WITH THE ‘EVIL DWARF QUEEN’ HAS REACHED AS FAR AS THE L’QOAQU’NAA FRINGE SECTOR?!”
Khan’nai rumbled deeply, with satisfaction. He said quietly, “I’m extremely flattered. I will have to thank your scholarly friend, Bak’udrin-de, for making sure that everyone had a chance to hear your marvelous tale. What a wonderful storyteller that folklorist is!”
“SIRE, YOU ARE A JERK.”
Khan’nai heard the female breathe heavily on the other end of the comm. Her ship had to be augmenting the pickups for her breathing to sound so terribly agitated like that… Night Runner was obviously enjoying the hell out of himself. Khan’nai knew that, deep down, she still got a thrill from hearing the humorous, if somewhat humiliating tale told over and over in every way-station in known space. He did not pity his daughter one bit.
Chaunn inhaled again, deeply, before she continued. Her voice returned to its normal low resonance, a musical, purring growl tuned a couple of octaves below Khan’nai’s lute.
“Khan, why don’t you come on over here so that I can thank you properly…”
Khan’nai fell out of his chair as he doubled over in laughter. Both ships caught the roaring bray and let it echo back and forth across the link for several seconds before the older warrior pulled himself together to say, “Let me go strap on my armored girdle and the heavy weapons array and I’ll be right over.”
The black-skinned female greeted her father with a good-natured clout to the shoulder as he emerged from the docking tube. Khan’nai stood almost a head and a half shorter than his hulking daughter, and he looked up at her with undisguised pride. He clouted her shoulder in turn.
“C’mon, Arbiter, you didn’t come all the way out to the boonies to catch me up on the latest law-abiding gossip. There has to be something seriously deranged going on. I see that you’re already decked out in the ceremonial armor…”
Indeed, Chaunn wore the thick armor handed down to her from Khan’nai’s elder sister. It was composed of blue and black tempered dlex, super-hard yet flexible. The armor enclosed her body from neck to spurred ankles in plates that followed the pattern of her muscles. Winding in and out of its surface features was a motif of striated clamshells, coiled patterns of snails and cephalopods, and the occasional tentacle. No armor covered Chaunn’s bulging, jet-black upper arms, but her forearms were enclosed in an array of armor and very sharp weapons.
“Quad-blades on both arms?” Khan’nai observed. “And the big sword – yes, I brought mine as well – and the mid-range burners…” He walked further into Runner’s corridor and around Chaunn so that he could see her from behind and continued, “Incendiaries, frag grenades, plastic explosives, one, two, three…” He lifted up Chaunn’s waist-length plaited hair and counted, “Four, five, six… Seven spare blades… Just what is it we’re going to go tear apart, O Arbiter?”
Chaunn beckoned to Khan’nai, and both Yautja warriors proceeded toward Runner’s cockpit.
“I’ve been having strange dreams – kainde amedha-inspired dreams. Only the most powerful of the Queens could ever do that to me, and I used that to hunt down most of them. Only the young’uns are left, because I can’t hear ‘em very well. But there’s another layer of weird to this. There’s stuff I can’t identify – writings on stone. Stories told with pictographs, stories told with cuneiform and hieroglyphs… Snakes – yeah, an Ooman word, ‘snakes’. Snakes that curl up in your belly and keep you safe, and snakes that curl up inside your spine and skull that make you a god…”
Khan’nai gave a low whistle. “Strange dreams indeed. Did you write any of it down? Draw any of the story-language out?”
“Of course,” Chaunn said with a shrug. “I showed the drawings to Baku and he’s running it by his colleagues at the universities. I also told him to run it by my old Ooman contacts – Steve Torres knows way too much about Ancient Things, and General Hays can confirm whether or not Steve’s right.”
Khan’nai snagged Chaunn’s armored elbow and turned her to face him. He looked her in the eyes. They glowed like embers, like two stars in miniature. Geeze. He could see that she was halfway in trance even though she was only hitting the highlights of her strange dreams.
…And those dreams were so unusual, even to Chaunn, that she had resorted to asking the Oomans for help with their interpretation!
“How much literal meaning do you think these dreams contain?” Khan’nai asked her. He did not want to betray his misgivings about Chaunn’s traffic with those alien creatures. Not now, at least.
Khan’nai saw Chaunn’s eyes flare white-hot for a moment before she answered, “Too much of it was concrete in my mind. Too much of it remained in my memory when I woke up. These were ‘sendings’ of some kind. Visions. Paya Steg’a’ctde is being much less obtuse than he usually is with these things, and that makes me think that we are in some serious trouble. I received some real-world confirmation of that suspicion recently, too.”
Chaunn released her spiny elbow from Khan’nai’s grip and resumed walking. Khan’nai followed silently.
“Runner picked up a distress call from a deep-space relay beacon,” Chaunn explained. “It cut off mid-transmission – very cliché. But all the same, my instinct is to take this one very seriously.”
“Where did it come from?” Khan’nai asked.
Chaunn exhaled sharply before she said, “Mnen’noq’qtde star system. It’s closer to the galactic core than most of our other inhabited systems. It’s hard to keep an eye on this one because of all the extra space-fluff.”
Khan’nai chuckled low in his belly. “Is that a technical term? ‘Space-fluff’?” His upper mandibles arched wide as he considered, “Fluffy little baby space… Cute little stellar clusters with satin bows and cotton booties…”
“…And a world full of dead Yautja,” Chaunn concluded grimly as she shook an admonishing finger at her father. “Dead suddenly and mysteriously, vanished underground without a trace. Three or four survivors get off a distress call, talking about slimy, squelching death and things with too many mouth parts that live in tubes and tunnels deep beneath the planet’s surface. Kinda like that mess with those flying polyp things from about ten cycles back, remember that?”
Khan’nai waggled his whole body, clanking the armor plates together as if he could shake off that particularly nasty memory. “As I recall, unfortunately enough, we had only three or four survivors come out of that debacle, too.”
“Lucky for me,” Chaunn said with a small smile. “Because we may need for you to survive again.”
Khan’nai stumped after his daughter as they entered the cockpit. Chaunn indicated the navigator’s chair (always his favorite). The old male dropped a large case of weapons to one side, then unstrapped his long-sword and his lute and set them carefully on the covered nav console.
“We’re just going to go take a quick look at this place to see if it’s any of the tentacled creeps that’ve eaten the boys for lunch. It could just be an especially active hive of kainde amedha, too. The guys-in-charge just want to make sure, and they recommended that you tag along since ‘old and slimy’ is your area of expertise.”
Khan’nai mimed a big, wide-open-mandibles-grin with his hands, though his facial expression remained closed and sober. His amber-gold eyes glittered. Creeps or bugs, it didn’t matter. There was something strange and dangerous going on – he could feel it in his bones as surely as his strange offspring could feel it in that hypersensitive spot in her mind when she slept.
Night Runner dropped into low orbit around the fourth world in the Mnen’noq’qtde system. His scanners could not see much from this height, owing to the level of stellar static that he picked up from the galactic core. The core itself he saw with his topmost sensor array. Though it was thousands of light-years away, it shown almost as brightly as the star that warmed this small planet. The whole daytime sky would seem full of sparks when viewed from the planet’s surface, and the sky at night… The core would provide an iridescent gloaming like the fae-folk kingdoms of the Ancient Stories. It was a pity that the two Yautja would not be able to see it without their helmets’ lens augmentation. “Sparkly bits” didn’t show up with infrared vision.
Night Runner landed swiftly. He took quick air and soil samples, tested them, and judged the world habitable by Yautja life forms. The two warriors would go in with full re-breather and filtration gear, however, just to be on the safe side. There was no telling what foulness might await them in the tunnels of their presumably deadly quarry.
The two warriors, a riot of bronze and black and blue and gold, ran down the ramp and toward the nearest of dozens of tunnels with all blades extended. Both had shoulder-mounted plasma blasters at the ready; both held matching and deadly long-swords in their gloved hands. Both sensed danger within those tunnels and both would be fools to be caught with their guards down.
Through silent signals they guided each other along the large tunnel, scouting ahead a few steps, dodging behind ridged interior walls, dancing as quietly as they could through the damp muck that coated the tunnel floor. The place looked like the interior of some kind of living thing – the ceiling had a central spine that ran its length without a break. Supporting beams like huge, curved ribs supported the ceiling spine, and between the ribs… Thankfully, mere stone. Chaunn had almost expected to find semi-living tissues.
Not far into the tunnel, however, the material and texture changed for the worse. Stone became beaded, corded resin such as that used by the kainde amedha, the Yautja’s race-enemy. None of the long-headed, double-jawed hellbeasts shot forth to do battle with the two formidable intruders. Neither Chaunn nor Khan’nai could even sense their presence in this place. Too much static… Far too much static. The creatures could very well be around in some of the shallower tunnel offshoots and the two sensitive warriors might not even suspect it.
Chaunn and Khan’nai, not even breaking a sweat, now ran at full speed through the main tunnel, dodging the mangled and partly eaten bodies of fresh Yautja dead; they raced through three or four intersecting chambers which contained all sorts of bits of decay, the ancient and dried as well as the oozing and fresh. They finally stopped in a birthing chamber full of the wall-mounted carcasses of Yautja hosts – hosts that had evidently been here for quite some time, as they looked like they were practically mummified.
“So it is the kainde amedha after all,” Chaunn said quietly. “With Yautja hosts – this may be an interesting fight.”
Khan’nai snorted quietly over the helmet commlink. “No tentacled creeps, thank the gods. Just good ol’ bugs with extra mandibles. Walk in the park, eh?”
“Eh,” Chaunn echoed mechanically. “Here comes trouble.”
Out of the three largest tunnels that opened into the birthing chamber streamed a dozen of the lizard-insect monstrosities. Their skin had an almost crystalline sheen to it, like cut obsidian. They came on all fours out of the tunnels, but then stood up on hind legs and gained a couple of heads in height over the two Yautja warriors. Their fringed tails lashed and flared, gouging chunks out of the walls and the bodies of the spent hosts. Their long, obscene heads had huge jaws full of teeth; both internal and external sets held wriggling mandibles. As one, the swarm of hybrid creatures gave a hiss like metal-on-metal, loudly enough to make Yautja ears bleed.
“WHO DARES?! WHO DARES DEFILE OUR HOUSE WITH LIVING PRESENCES? THE VOID HOST DEMAND AN ANSWER! THE VOID HOST DEMAND THEIR SACRIFICE! ANSWER YOUR GODS, FEEBLE, MORTAL CREATURES! ANSWER AND DIE!”
The message, driving into both Yautja’s brains with the force of a jackhammer, came not from the Queen, but from something that spoke through the Queen with unimaginable power. Something alien and unknown. Something totally unfamiliar even to these two strangely-seasoned warriors. They had no time to analyze the words in their bruised minds, and though they both felt disoriented from the onslaught, neither warrior cringed from the horrific noise. Indeed, both gave the swarm their answer as they twirled their long-swords in graceful arcs over and around their taut, armored bodies. The Yautja moved as if they were a single being; they stood back to back, facing the huge kainde amedha with sublime rage. Both answered the swarm with a single, deep and deafening voice of their own:
“WE ARE WARRIORS AND WE MOVE WITH HONOR AND FEROCITY. WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION THE MIGHT OF THE VERY LIGHTNING AND THUNDER WHICH FORMED EVEN YOUR WORLD, YOUR WILL? NAN DE-THAN GUAN! NAN DE-THAN GUAN! NAN DE-THAN GUAN! MIDNIGHT BESTOW UPON YOUR WARRIORS THE BATTLE-DREAMTIME; WE WILL PARE OUR LOST BROTHERS’ SOULS FROM THESE UNHOLY SHELLS!”
The swarm hissed and frothed throughout the Yautja’s pronouncement, and at the words’ cessation, attacked with all of their hellish might. Claws and teeth, tails and frilled heads and massive bodies – all rushed at the two warriors at once. The Battle-Dreamtime enfolded them all.
The two powerful warriors fought in a spiral-blur of black and bronze, blue and gold and flashing steel, slicing and spearing, a whirlwind of razor-sharp fury. They danced the Midnight Dance, the Dance that felled the gods of darkness aeons ago, and which no enemy had withstood since. Within seconds, the Yautja had covered the floor of the birthing chamber in smoking, acid-drenched kainde amedha limbs, tails and heads. Within two minutes, Paya Steg’a’ctde’s Chosen had utterly decimated the swarm of hybrid creatures.
The Battle-Dreamtime dissipated and the Yautja warriors exhaled, still as if they shared one body. As if their wills had been set aside on a shelf, they now picked those wills up and reclaimed them. The Chosen became once again Chaunn’tne-di and Khan’nai, the old father-and-daughter team.
“We need to do this kind of thing more often…” Khan’nai mused. “That was cool.”
“Cool though it surely was,” Chaunn added, “I would rather face a dozen and walk away grinning than face forty thousand that I still don’t know are here.”
“No, I don’t know how I know that there are forty thousand of the damned things here. But there are. There weren’t even that many Yautja stationed on this world. They’ve been using something else as hosts, or somebody…” Chaunn stopped suddenly as if stricken by lightning.
“Oh ye gods and goddesses,” she said in a bare whisper over the commlink. “…Or somebody has been importing Yautja in order to build up the kainde amedha into an army…”
Khan’nai cocked his helmeted head and asked her, “You really think that?” He nudged one of the still-intact insectoid heads with his toes. “They’re not just random hybrids?”
Chaunn growled low and said, “We aren’t that lucky. The damned Paya Asshole has upped the ante considerably.”
“The rest of the Arbiters are going to need to know about this,” Khan’nai said as he hefted up the head with which he had been fiddling. “I have this sneaking suspicion that this isn’t the only world that’s facing this scale of devastation.”
“Your sneaking suspicion will end up being our keyword search when we get back on board Night Runner. We need to find out if you’re right, because if you are, we got a crisis on our hands and we’re going to need a great deal more muscle and might than you and I alone can carry.” Chaunn turned and walked up the tunnel. “We need to move out of here now,” she said quietly over her commlink. “I couldn’t feel the bastards before, but now I can. They’re gathering. They know we’re here.”
Chaunn and Khan’nai made it safely back on board Night Runner, and the small ship swiftly left the planet behind them.
Once both of his Yautja occupants had cleaned up their armor and returned to the cockpit, the ship announced, “I received a coded summons from the High Council. No Chaunn, really. Don’t look at my view screen like that. You’ll freeze that way.
“The summons says that we’re going to meet up with a couple of other extremely skilled and varied sets of warriors,” Night Runner continued. “One set rides forth to battle in the good ship Dachande. The other blazes toward glory in the Moshathra… And they’re expecting us in two days’ time.”