The evening after our first day of training was interesting. We were all billeted together. There was no separation of men, women or neuters. Why bother? Most Alliance species aren compatible. Pregnancy wasn an issue and for this unit, we were all different species. There were facilities for us all.

We ate. The Sergeant made sure of that. Then he left us to our own devices. No one was quite sure what to do. That led to the introductions.

”Well, its obvious we are going to be stuck with each other for a while, ” the Opar said. ”So instead of calling everyone hey you, or your species, we should probably know each others names. ”

The Zarthan nodded. He was still sipping lightly salted water. ”Did anyone know a Human could do that? ” he asked, still almost breathless. It was an affectation.

The Opar shook her head. ”If there were more of them, the war would be over, ” she said, reiterating the gist of Major Iaels lecture. Her voice made it clear she was pretty thankful there weren more of them. Her attitude had changed from earlier in the day. Being run into the ground by a member of a species you called cowardly would do that for you. ”Anyway, Ill start, ” she added, bringing the conversation back to introductions. If they got stuck on what a Human could and couldn do, theyd never get anything else done. ”My name is Quanna na Karanta h Sarnitina. Just call me Quanna. That is my synth claws and armour over there. I was with the 148th Mobile division. ”

”What planets? ” the Gryna asked.

”Aberdon, Krashin and Bitrana, ” Quanna said the last softly. The group winced. Bitrana had not been a good battle. The Blacks had wanted the planet. Their assault had been brutal. It had only taken them two months to take possession of the planet. Most of the defenders had been captured. There wasn much hope for them.

”Sorry, ” the Gryna said. The apology sounded genuine but everyone here had memories they didn want to recall. ”My public names Fannar Dackaede. Fannar is fine. I was with the 859th generals on Krashin- ” He nodded to Quanna at that. ”-Ster, Mestepho and Igreun. ”

Mestepho and Igreun had both fallen. They were still fighting for Ster. There were a lot of planets being fought over.

”Any specialities? ” The Brydon asked. The general divisions were just that. They were front line fighters. They did what they had to, but some units were better at certain tasks than others. If they were to work together, then they had to know each other.

”Explosives, ” Fannar flared his hood half way, the equivalent of his species shrug. ”But nothing great. I don know why they bothered to call me. ”

”Some big wig picked us out, ” I replied. ”Im Dranitor Dranith Drantala. ”

”Yeah, we all know about the Dranta, ” Quanna muttered.

”Best naming conventions, ever, ” I said, giving them the equivalent of a grin. I meant it. To a Dranta, not naming things after your species doesn make sense. I don know how they can tell what things are meant to be. ”I was with the 38th flight support unit. ”

”Flight support? ” Fannar seemed surprised. Flight support was mostly a Zarthans job, or a Kishne. They were natural fliers. And lighter. There were times when every kilo counted and Dranta weren light.

”Flight support, ” I confirmed. ”The list of planets is long, ” I added. Flight support went a lot of places.

”You didn run like flight support, ” Quannar accused. Id kept up with her at the end.

”I started off in the 1085th Ground, ” I admitted.

They stared. The 1085th Ground and all support units had been lost when Haldra fell. It had been a long battle. Years of fighting before the Blacks managed to gain supremacy. The end had been slow, but still fast enough to catch some unawares. The Blacks had brought in a space fleet. It barricaded the system. The last few transports hadn made it out.

”I was convalescing. ” I sighed at the explanation. It was better to answer before they asked.

”Looks like they are putting you back to ground, ” the Zarthan said.

”Maybe. ” I looked to the ambush predator. He got the message. He would be on the front lines as well but answered anyway.

”I wasn with flight support. I was with the heavy artillery, ” the Zarthan explained. It was a long distance position. It made sense of his physical condition, though the heavy artillery had an unfortunate habit of going boom when the Enemy blew them up. The Blacks were fond of irony. ”Klahan Radisha Trantiro, at your service. Call me Tiro, ” he added. ”I got called off Ster, ” he gave his last posting.

”Ouch. ”

”Eh, the battle was going okay, ” Tiro indicated. He didn seem concerned. There wasn anything he could do now anyway.

”Which unit? ”

”523rd. ”

No one had heard of it. You didn hear about a lot of units, and keeping the numbers straight was difficult. Only those who did something big really got known. The group turned towards the Brydon.

”I was with the Heavy Mobile Units on Krashin. ”

”We still had units there? ” Quanna seemed surprised.

”They hadn taken it when I left. ”

”Its got to be getting close. ” It was a bit morbid to be talking about a planet the Blacks would be taking. We were used to that. It was a reality of the war. That made the new task force all the more important.

The only reason the war wasn already over was the Bright Ones. They drove the Blacks away. They kept morale high. That, and the fact that the Enemy consolidated. Every single planet they took, they consolidated on. That took years, especially with harassment. And if you timed it right, it was possible, barely possible to retake the planet. There was only a small window on that. It didn always work and wasn always tried. The Bright Ones decided when was best. If you took the planet, the main one anyway, you generally took the system. Thats how the war had been fought. There were a few systems with multiple planets that were fought over. They were odd. It was possible for the Blacks to have one planet, the Alliance to have another.

Those situations were tense. It didn happen often.

”Theyll hold out, ” the Brydon was confident. ”Call me Wibowo. Its the closest youll come to actually pronouncing my name. ”

The group chuckled. That was true. The Brydon were herbivores. They had long, drawn out names that the other species just couldn vocalise. ”Thats my claws and armour there, ” Wibowo added, indicating towards a significant pile of gear.

”So we have the heavy hitter, ” Quanna stated. ”The skirmisher, ” she pointed to herself. ”Then generalists, flight support, and artillery. Interesting choices. ”

”And they want us to capture a Black, ” Tiro muttered.

”One of us anyway, ” I corrected.

”One of us? ”

”Didn any of you listen? ” I asked. ”The Lieutenant said she had another training group to go. We aren the only team. ”

”They really want one, ” Quanna murmured. ”I wonder why. ”

”Its better not to, ” Wibowo suggested.

”Hm? ”

”Its better not to wonder, ” the Brydon explained. ”Better to consider what training we will be put through. Or if we will have to work with another team. ”

They were silent for that. It was obvious the Human was going to train us hard. The Major had said there were other groups but no one knew if wed been training with them or even working with them.

”She can possibly expect us to run again tomorrow, ” Tiro groaned.

”I think she can, ” Quanna wasn sympathetic.

”I can , ” Tiros voice was urgent. ”I just can , ” he repeated more emphatically.

”What did you discuss today? ” I asked. ”The Lieutenant said something to you. ”

Tiro snorted. ”She said not to kill myself. ”

Wibowo laughed. The sound was deep. ”Shell do it for you. ” I wondered what the Lieutenant had said to him.

The rest stared. They hadn expected such a droll sense of humour.

”We can always drop out, ” Fannar pointed out. It wasn a good suggestion. Dropping out would mean returning to our homeworlds in shame. It wasn like being wounded. That was different. That was honourable. To return home and say that you failed to make the grade in training that was painful. They all had more pride than that.

”I still can believe she did that, ” Tiro said, ignoring Fannars statement. ”Has anyone met a Human before? ”

”There was one in Intel that gave us a briefing once, ” Wibowo admitted. ”It was on Krashin. Obviously, they never mentioned anything about themselves. ”

”Did they have that collar? ” I hadn seen them before.

”Yeah. Said it was a new thing from the Bright Ones. ”

”The collar? ” Fannar asked.

”The Human touched us, ” Quanna was shocked that she had to explain. ”You heard the Major. The list of biohazards is long. The collar is whats controlling them. ”

”Oh, ” Fannar had the good taste to appear ashamed. That much translated between species. ”So what do we know about Humans then? ” he asked, to shift the subject.

”They come from Earth. Its a Class 13 planet. They got tool making as their primary adaptation, ” Quanna repeated the lecture.

”Anything more than what the Major told us? ” Fannar pressed.

”They hate the Enemy more than us, ” the Brydon said. ”On Krashin, the way the Human spoke, you knew, if it could have gone out there, it would have wiped them out. ”

”Their homeworld was the first attacked, ” I reminded them. Earth was still deep in Enemy territory. It would only make the Humans fight harder. The only thing that gave them hope was the fact that the Enemy didn appear to strip mine planets. The few planets that had been regained showed very little damage. The Blacks kept them in good condition. Presumably, Earth was still in good condition, though I had no idea how the initial battle had gone, how much damage might have been done then.

Quanna looked thoughtful. ”The Humans see the Bright Ones the most, ” she said finally.

”What do you mean? ”

”They see the Bright Ones more than the rest of us. ”

”We don see the Bright Ones, ” I pointed out. Our governments did, but we didn . Wed seen images, but we had almost no chance of seeing a Bright One in person. They were just too far above us.

”Yeah but the Humans do. ”

”The Lieutenant hasn seen a Bright One, ” Wibowo was sure. ”One of the Human leaders might have, but why would Pickering have seen one? ” The question hung in the air.

”Look, I don know for sure, ” Quanna defended herself. ”Its just something I heard. There was a Wymic assigned to our group for a short period. It didn work. Just didn fit in but they said something about that. Every Human has seen a Bright One. Every single one of them. They never said exactly why, just said it was necessary, for control or something. ”

”I suppose the Bright Ones might be able to better control the Humans microbes, ” Wibowo allowed. The Bright Ones had technology beyond them all. And since the Humans had lost Earth, they had been fighting the longest, it made sense that the Bright Ones might give them some special attention. ”It seems a lot of work when the collar does the same thing. ”

”It might not be true, ” Quanna admitted.

”Dare you to ask. ”

”Eh, no. Im not giving up this posting, ” she snapped.

”Wed better get some rest, ” Tiro interrupted before anyone else could speak. ”0600 is going to come awful quick. ” He didn appear happy at the thought.

”Very quickly, ” I agreed, sighing heavily.

We settled.

”Well just have to see how this goes, ” Quanna said. ”It might be training, but at least we know its for something greater than ourselves. If we can capture an Enemy… ” She didn finish. There were so many possibilities if they could capture an Enemy.

”We just have to take it one day at a time, ” Fannar agreed.

And we did. I don remember much of the days and weeks that followed. I don want to remember. I know Pickering ran us into the ground – literally. She was worse than a Black Destroyer, those behemoths that are thankfully only rarely seen. They usually spell the end of resistance on whatever world they appear on.

Sometimes, we were joined by the other groups in training. Sometimes we were alone. We were always pitted against each other. It made us learn. It made Tiro charge ahead. It made Quanna consider her back up. We learned to work with each other. Our fitness improved. Daily drills did that. Pickering never once faltered.

As time went on, training became more focused. One team would act as the Blacks, one as the Alliance. We had to capture their Commander. Pickering provided the Blacks tactics. She said nothing to those teams being the Alliance. She simply wished them luck. They needed it.

She showed us all why the Humans didn fight. Her tactics were insane. They worked. Sometimes, the Alliance teams got close. They never managed to capture the Black. It looked like all the training meant nothing.

I should have known better. Pickering was using the time to analyse us. She played both sides then. I suspect she consulted with others. The whole Alliance was rooting for our success.

Capture was pretty simple. You had to get a ring around their neck. In training, it was symbolic. The reality would be similar. The rings were designed to short out their slaving. It should render them inactive. At least, thats what we were told.

It wasn going to be easy. At first, we only captured a Black about a quarter of the time. Mostly it was because we didn obey. She made us change sides. For most of the training time, those playing the Blacks had stayed with her. Theyd learned to obey. Winning was good reinforcement. It remained the same when they changed sides. When they played the Alliance, they stuck to her plans. They captured their target. It was a wake up. No one disobeyed after that. Questioned yes, disobeyed no.

Pickering didn mind questions. She always explained. It was odd finding an officer who would explain. She explained that as well. We were here to learn, she was here to teach. Teaching wasn the same as giving orders, so of course shed explain. Orders required obedience, learning required understanding. She explained to make sure we learned.

The plans weren always perfect. Thats what training was for. There came a time when the plans went out the window. We all knew them. Then it was a matter of luck. The Lieutenant made us practice in that chaos. She said it led to faster thinking if we remembered our colleagues. That was difficult. We went back to instincts and they weren always the same.

Training helped. We began to work as one.

Then we were declared ready. I don remember ever being more exhausted. We had a short leave scheduled. Then we were shipped out. Major Iael accompanied us. Intel really wanted a Black to question.

It was our job to get them one. Shipping down to that planet – Mautera – I don think Ive ever been so scared. I wasn the only one.

Then the day dawned, and the mission was all I could think about.

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