It took five hours.
At first blush, this would make sense – you had to put out a tarmac fire, dislodge a couple war-mechs from a few innocent buildings, perform medical triage on the willing humans, attempt to perform medical triage on the non-willing humans, coordinate with multiple ground crews and your city, colony and global governments, all of whom were raising their collective heads from behind their desks and demanding answers to seem as if they were on top of the whole cluster-fuck from the beginning.
That took all of 20 minutes. It was the addition of three generations of pissed off latinos that added another three hours. As everyone within earshot began to feel the heat a few of the more passionate humans/xenos first responders attempted to argue their positions and defend their actions.
This did not work. This did the opposite of work.
This also, somehow, brought in almost every overly-nosy colonist – which as we all know means that group included pretty much everyone over 110 years old who had an opinion. We say “somehow” showed up, but it was a combination of bluster, cajoling, co-ordinated meandering, choreographed misdirection and/or straight-up elevator hijacking to get their way to the top to see what was going on and what the good gossip would be. When they saw the passionate arguing that was going on, and how it was basically open season on anyone within earshot… well. Police officers were told off, children learned the depths of disappointment their parents had for them, electricians were shamed for not fixing the Google so we could watch our soaps, and – of course – emergency personnel were faced with a silver-haired wall of confusion and general grumpiness because they were going after Isabella and we play bingo with Isabella and her children are so well behaved–
So. That added a couple more hours, and would have happily sandbagged the entire cleanup operation for the rest of the night if the local Denny’s didn’t think quick and start their senior’s breakfast a dozen hours early, proving that the only thing more powerful than the military industrial complex are irate senior citizens with unlimited time on their hands and the desire to complain about every perceived slight to someone whose job it is to sit there and listen.
So it took five hours.
– – – – – – – – –
SOMETIME DURING THOSE FIVE HOURS:
– – –
“[I’m uh… excuse me, ma’am? May I speak to Juan Esteban?]” Swipressnssren said, timidly raising his hand in a half-emphatic ‘I’d like to ask a question’ gesture. The smallest human child had of course been the primary target of pretty much everyone once the fire stopped rising; a kneeling, crying, bleeding from the face child still grappled by a wild beast and being literally hen-pecked would be enough to move the coldest of hearts, let alone trained paramedics, extremely concerned xenos or overly-protective parents. While Isabella was busy fighting the demons in the sky, her daughter Sofia saw the issue, vaulted over her progeny-wall, and sprinted towards her youngest child.
It looked worse than it was, and it looked *bad*. Juan’s nose was very much broken, and there would be bruising and swelling – the concussion also didn’t really help, but the important thing was that he was alive – for the moment. After surviving a full-scorpion onto a tarmac he had to survive being crushed by his mother in a deep, protective hug. Then the hug from his father. Then the hug from his abuela. Then the hugs from his older siblings, a smothering from the Dorarizin that were assembled, and eventually the 10,000 trials of “being hugged and mothered over by every old person in the settlement” once they got tired of yelling at the other young people for being young.
All of this was well and good, but Swipressnssren – Persimmon – needed to make sure of one very simple fact that had nothing to do with Juan’s health:
Did the human child remember him pinballing the youth off of the tarmac in the first place?
“[J-Just a moment? Please?]” The Jornissian murmured again as the preteen was passed to a cajun elder who began to mother over him in a deep bayou french, shooting very dirty looks at the giant snake who would dare let such a darling little child come to har-
“Yeth. Onh Thekond?” Juan Esteban slurred, the cold compress and painkillers very much kicking in. The most recent grandmother reluctantly let the child go, but the movement seemed to have broken a spell – the other elderly humans just started to mill about; if the little boy was OK to stand, then he was OK to … well, not die again presumably. The human child stood up proudly, then leaned forward, stumbled a bit, then over-corrected backwards before windmilling his arms about to hold himself steady.
Eggsmerelda clucked and shook her head, staying nearby to keep the boy out of further trouble.
“[Ah… you… ok?]”
“Am gooh to goh.” Juan said, nodding slightly too-far-to-the-left of Swipressnssren, giving the air over his shoulder a positive thumbs up. Swipressnssren nodded in the manner of humans, slowly, leaning down to coil his body around the boy to support him gently and to give him a small bit of privacy.
“[So… not to… add more burdens on your mind, as it were, but I wanted to make sure you rea- of, ah, what you remembered from earlier tonight.]”
Juan squinted in someone’s general direction before shakily leaning back against the Jornissian’s scales, looking him in the eyes. And forehead. “Whayooh meam?”
Swipressnssren scrunched his nose slightly, looking around before lowering his voice to a bare whisper. “[I was the only… person to notice your plight, and in my haste to save you I may have… ah… not?]”
Juan pondered for a moment, then nodded slightly. “Mbebbm.”
Swipressnssren swallowed, hard. “[And I was… hoping maybe, we don’t… discuss that part?]”
Juan found himself for the first time in his life – and it would not be the last, mind you – where he was wrapped in a Jornissian’s coils and yet had the larger, more dangerous and more desperate xenos wrapped in kind around his finger. Although making high-stakes bets against crime families in the competitive Mothracing circuit wouldn’t come for many more years yet and is a painfully boring story for me to recount to you, dear reader, the only thing to take away from this moment is that he was in charge and had a blank check.
“Whads id worf do yah?”
Swipressnssren coiled a bit tighter as a ripple of adrenaline sparked through him, before relaxing. “[500GRC.]”
“Pive Hunbreb? Steben hunbreb – an dibs is mim.”
“[700? Fine. And what do you mean, this is yours?]”
“Bib.” Juan said, waving at the still-nearby terror-beast moth, who through a complex and confusing cocktail of chemicals that were currently racing through his brain had stayed nearby, waiting for it’s chance to swoop back down and hug the small lightbringer.
Swipressnssren thought for a moment, looking at the terror-beast. “[The… moth? I mean, I guess, sure, it’s yours.]”
“Yeb.” Juan nodded, moving his head a bit too quickly and blacking out. Again.
And so the backroom deal was struck, and casual Mothing – and competitive Mothracing became an official human cultural artifact.
— – – – – – – – – – – –
“HUMMUS, what’s the deal?” Lt. Dan Heinz said, groaning in a mixture of exhaustion and annoyance. It wasn’t so much that he failed his OP – certainly, that was unfortunate, but the definition of “failure” could be stretched or shortened at will, and technically he didn’t die and technically UNIT ZERO ONE is still intact and technically the civilians were saved and CASINO will remain open, so. Technically he succeeded, but the giant fuck-off moth didn’t die so it didn’t matter now did it?!
“CHICKPEA, we’re… well. We’re still trying to figure out what to do next.” CHICKPEA said flatly, the sound of a turning magazine page picked up on the mic. “PDF won’t let us deploy because of environmental concerns – there’s no data on what this thing is, and how to actually… manage it. Second, you’re outside of the colony and therefore outside of our jurisdiction; if you’re willing to abandon ZERO ONE-”
“Over my dead body.”
“Our sentiments exactly.” HUMMUS said, the flip of another page punctuating her sentences. “We’ll detonate that sumbitch remotely with you in it on top of a fucking orphanage before we let it fall into xenos hands.” Flip. “Which means you’re stuck until we can convince them to let a human-led rescue force come and dislodge you from your new mistress of the night.”
“HUMMUS that’s not funny.” Lt. Heinz said, crossing his arms and leaning back into his harness. The Giant Fuck-off Moth, now known as MOTHER, had taken his technically-a-totally-legit-gundam far outside city limits, dropping him off at a dead spot in some ancient old-growth forest somewhere in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere. This apparently wasn’t good enough for the beast, and every so often she would take one of her giant limbs and press down on his vehicle, rubbing him back and forth into the powdery dirt, dead “trees” and dry forest debris.
Speaking of, the beast began to rock his mech once again, rolling him from side to side. “This is getting old, HUMMUS.”
“Yeah, well. You’ve got no main gun, you can’t fit through the tunnel-”
“I can dislocate my arms! Crawl through like a snake~” Lt. Heinz said, motioning to the un-powered ammunition teleportation gate behind him. “I’ll be unstoppable-”
There was a pregnant pause as HUMMUS checked on the nitrogen and atmospheric levels in CHICKPEA’s cockpit. Finding nothing out of the ordinary she shrugged, flipping another page of her magazine. “Mmm. Sure thing sport, I’ll pass that along to the admiral himself.”
“I’m serious, HUMMUS. I can do it. I can do it.”
“You’re getting stir-crazy-”
“IT’S BEEN SEVEN HOURS, HUMMUS.” Lt. Heinz roared, punching one of his console screens. “I FAILED my mission, I LOST my hardware, I AM CAPTURED by the enemy-”
The vehicle rocked gently from side to side.
“AND THIS BITCH KEEPS TRYING ME-”
“CHICKPEA, just calm down.” Flip.
“I MEAN IT, HUMMUS. I’ll go out there with a KNIFE-” Lt. Heinz said, making not-at-all crazy-person stabbing motions at the air infront of him. “Yeeeah, just like that, right in the kidneys-”
HUMMUS sighed and put her mic on mute, sharing a pointed look with the on-duty medical officer. Dr.Ngyuen just shrugged non-commitally, scrolling through his tablet. “Still experiencing adrenaline spikes, extreme feelings of shame and inadequacy, stressors of an unknown unknown, cabin fever – and I’m pretty sure his piss bag is full by now, if he’s not already switched to jars he should star-”
“Yeah, yeah, but like… I don’t know. This is normal?”
“For him?” Dr.Nguyen said, raising his eyebrows. “…Yes.”
“Hmm.” HUMMUS turned to look at the rest of the bridge, which was now very much alive with quants, wonks and skunkworks reviewing data, drawing on glowboards and generally earning their higher pay. The top brass was huddled around the Armiral’s console, forming a wall of seniority that no mere midshipman could hope to scale, their words flowing in hushed whispers as they spoke to each other, to Earth, to Gentle Expanse and to a dozen other places besides. HUMMUS was, in essence, an island unto herself; as CHICKPEA’s operator-partner she wasn’t allowed to just bail on him while he was in-mission, and due to the unique situation they found themselves in everyone agreed that keeping her on deck to suffer with Lt. Heinz would be the best thing for everyone involved. Not only was she available for questioning, but the residual exhaustion that CHICKPEA would get over the comms would soothe his blackened soul just enough to stop him from doing something incredibly dumb.
Like attacking a giant moth with a knife. Or an MRE spoon.
HUMMUS’ mind wandered while CHICKPEA continued to growl into his mic about having 2000 confirmed kills and being everyone’s worst nightmare. Something didn’t add up, and it bordered the edges of her memory like an immigrant family trying to find a hole in a border fence to obtain a better life for their children.
Stabbing the kidneys–
“CHICKPEA?” HUMMUS said, unmuting her mic absentmindedly.
“-then crawl through it’s wings gnawing the flight-dust from-”
“CHICKPEA.” HUMMUS said more insistently, stopping the still-not-a-crazy-person-I’m-just-from-Florida monologue.
“What? Am I free? Are you going to orbital strike me? Please orbital strike me-”
“No. Just. You still have your scramble missiles?”
“. . . You do realize those are long-range and the bitch is right here taunting me-”
“Mmm. Why you?” HUMMUS mused out loud. “Why did the beast take you?”
“I don’t fucking know-”
“Think. Why you, though? There were other ships, if she was hungry there were civilians, she could’ve probably lifted that entire tarmac by herself if she fucking wanted to. Why you?”
“. . . Look this is not the time to play riddlemaster with me-”
“Fuck if I know! One moment I’m firing at her-”
“CHICKPEA I want you to listen to me-” HUMMUS said, the sudden shift in her tone snapping Lt. Heinz back into work mode. She sat up, her fingers beginning to run across her console in a slow, halting, but determined fashion.
“What’s the game plan, boss?”
“I’m going to re-open energy transmission to you beyond background emergency-”
“Ayy, ok! So we are going with plan: KAIJU KOMBAT-” Lt. Heinz said gleefully, clapping his hands together before flicking on a few switches at his console.
“No. I want you to find your orientation-”
“Alright. Prone, of course-” Various indicators began to flicker to life as more power was beamed into his mech, redundant systems crackling back to life. “I’m… let’s see. Well apparently 220, but again; prone.”
“That’s fine.” HUMMUS said, unaware that she had gained the attention of a few of the bridge crew, who sensed that something was about to happen. “Crown cameras still good?”
“Good. Point them up – I want to see what your missiles can hit.”
Lt. Heinz sighed, the sound of a few systems being kicked on literally echoing into his mic. “I mean, sure. Data should be xmit back to you – nothing, nothing and oh look – nothing.”
HUMMUS scanned the cameras before nodding to herself. As she leaned back the ghostly and unblinking visage of Adm. Smalls stared at her, unflinching. “Surely you weren’t about to do something without running it by me, Lieutenant.”
“Aye sir, no sir. My thought was, sir, that since we’re still weapons-free that we would use UNIT ZERO ONE’S scramble missiles to ignite brush ah… here.” HUMMUS said, pointing to a part of the satellite overlay.
“And why would we start a brushfire on purpose?”
“Sir, my thought was that MOTHER was attracted to the fire that UNIT ZERO ONE caused with his impact landing.” HUMMUS explained, and a flash of a question rippled under the Admiral’s stony face. “If that was the case, sir, then that would explain why MOTHER took UNIT ZERO ONE – it believes it can start another fire, for whatever purpose it needs.”
Admiral Smalls looked at HUMMUS, looked at the screen, and then back at HUMMUS. “Officially I cannot condone the discharge or launch of any weapons system outside of colony jurisdiction or not in an emergency setting, under UNSC/IGS Codes 12.8. However-” Admiral Smalls smiled, just slightly, but it was enough to cause HUMMUS to break out into a wide grin. “-if due to the abuse of our weapons system there was an accidental discharge, we would not be held liable. Understood?”
“Good. I and my Officers will be in Meeting Room 1-A, taking calls from various governing bodies if you need to alert us of any changes in the next 30 minutes or so.”
Admiral Smalls gave a small nod, stood back up, and promptly walked off of the bridge.
– – – – – – – –
It defied HER, and it paid for it’s insolence.
Broken. Like the others that came before HER, from the times before memory, that fell before HER, or ones like her, a million million days ago.
However, maybe this one was a little too broken. SHE had brought it to a prime place; old, dead wood that should have been cleaned, rejuvenated, countless nights ago. Soil rich for HER eggs to be planted into, detritus heavy to cover them well, stalks dead and fat with richness for them to feed upon, to grow. The back of HER mind was very very pleased with this spot, and HER body ached with the need to use it, before the sleep came upon HER, before she ceased to be until the stirring awoke HER once more.
But this thing. It did not cooperate.
It made the fire – it makes fire – that SHE knew. Yet, it did not make fire again. Tentatively, SHE reached out and prodded it with HER forelimb; it rocked, playing dead, but SHE could still feel the life inside it, the hum, the heat.
So SHE poked it again. SHE would wait.
So SHE poked it again. SHE would wait.
So SHE poked it again. SHE would wait.
So SHE pok-
It’s back erupted in glorious heat, the sudden scream of fire and fury triggering HER to take flight, HER impossibly large body lifting off of the thing as it’s hot claws scratched against the sky, tracing, tracing, tracing –
There was a deafening explosion.
There was a massive conflagration of heat.
So SHE left it alone. SHE had waited long enough.