Looking up at that thing, I realised Id be finding out some truths about the Blacks pretty soon. The type of truths you morbidly wonder about but never really wanted to know. What did it feel like being slaved to a machine? Did it hurt? Could you still think for yourself but be forced to obey?

Those were the positive thoughts. The less positive ones related to the Blacks just killing us all. They probably had the firepower. If they were feeling that vindictive, they wouldn even have to land. A well-placed kinetic shot would do it. It wasn like Qaoloe was valuable.

But the presence of the Destroyer indicated they were landing. That meant we would fight. Surrender wasn an option.

The Kishne spread as ordered. The training ground was oval shaped. There were two major entries but they weren the only points of ingress. Until the Blacks landed, their path of attack would not be clear.

We waited. The night sky lit up as the defences began firing. The streams of light were almost beautiful. A few hit. The ships exploded, the debris falling faster before burning out. The installations took return fire. The Blacks were vicious.

The ground troops could do nothing more than wait. The first Black ships landed. They took a conservative approach. They landed in the outskirts. Above, the Destroyer remained. Its screams piercing into the minds of all present.

”Hold steady, ” I yelled to the Kishne Id been assigned. ”Hold steady. ”

Several Kishne looked sick. I could sympathise. I remembered my first battle. There hadn been a Destroyer there but it had been bad enough. The Kishne might not know what a Destroyer was but they could tell it was unnatural. I listened to the chatter on the comms. Sensor techs were outlining where the Blacks were landing. They weren yet advancing. Why bother when you could come in force?

It was a tense wait. The pain from the Destroyer just got worse. Maybe the Blacks were waiting for us to collapse? This one wasn screaming to be obeyed. It was just screaming. I didn like the implication that I could identify them. That seemed wrong.

The techs announced the first charge. It wasn towards us. I was thankful for that. I needed these newbies to see that the Blacks could be fought before they made it here. It would help them hold. As much as anything would. The initial clash let me reorganise slightly. We now knew which direction the Blacks were coming from.

The Destroyer didn move. It remained above us. The ground defenses couldn hit it. I could see the streams of fire trying. They didn come close. The headache from its cries got worse.

”Hold steady, ” I urged. The words were pitiful. There wasn anything else I could do.

”Need some backup? ”

I jumped at the offer. It was Lieutenant Pickering. I saluted. Even with the field promotion she still outranked me. She waved it away.

”Back up is appreciated, Sir, ” I replied to the earlier offer.

Pickering nodded, and moved into place. It felt odd that she would obey. There was no time to question it, not when one of the comm techs screamed. ”Incoming, training ground one. ”

There was a moment of stillness. Then they all realised. It meant the Blacks were coming here.

”Prepare to fire! ” I yelled. Pickering gave me a nod. She approved of how steady I was. She took aim.

Then the Blacks appeared. They weren normal. Even with the building pain, I frowned. Id never seen these ones. They were quadruped and fast.

”Fire! ”

The guns roared. The leading wave fell. My Kishne kept firing. The second wave got further, yet they didn slow down. The third and fourth leapt over the dead. Like all Blacks they didn seem to feel anything at the losses. I wondered if they had headaches as well, if the Destroyer affected them.

The fifth wave reached our lines. One of the Kishne screamed as they fell. The others kept fighting. They had realised there was no other choice. It was fight or die. Pickering continued to fire. I joined her. We fought as one. I grimaced as each of the Kishne fell. They were just children. I wanted to scream that at the Blacks. They wouldn care.

We fought off the eighth and ninth wave. At least, I thought it was that number. The Kishne had taken out some. Then more familiar Blacks appeared. Bipedal and of course huge in their black armour. I scanned for a Commander. I couldn see one, yet I was sure that one of them was. I wondered if the markings had been changed since my mission.

The Blacks charged. I fired. Pickering fired. We couldn hold that many back. The wave crashed into us. I fell. I kept struggling. I expected a flash of pain, when one of the Blacks stabbed me or shot me. Id long ago given up the notion of dying painlessly. The most Id hoped for was that I would get to pass on my genes to a neuter. That wasn going to happen.

But there was no pain of death. The Blacks held me down, pinned. I felt a flash of fear. Did they know Id been on the mission to capture that Commander? Did they want vengeance?

I struggled harder. The Blacks didn even budge. From the corner of my eye, I could see Pickering similarly pinned. She was straining. It was disconcerting to see that the Blacks weren moving. I knew the Human was strong. How strong were the Blacks? It wasn fair!

One of the Blacks leaned close to Pickering. They were examining the collar that adorned her neck. It was the thing holding her microbes as bay. Were they going to remove it?

”No! ” I screamed. ”Don ! ” I added. I had no idea if they understood. They were simple words. I hoped.

I found out when one turned to me. The faceless black mask just stared. I would have crumpled beneath the gaze if I wasn already pinned. I don know how but I glared back. It was bravado. ”Don take it off, ” I half pleaded. They had to understand. It was for the good of everyone here.

The barrel of a gun materialised between my eyes. I gulped. The Blacks might not speak my language, yet their message was clear. Even now, I wasn suicidal enough to insist.

Instead, I watched as one of the Blacks reached out. Surprisingly dexterous manipulators, covered in armour of course, grasped Pickerings collar. She struggled hard. She was doing her best to prevent it. They were simply too strong.

The collar cracked. I could hear it from where I lay. Lieutenant Pickering stiffened. Her expression became blank. The collar fell away. It didn fall far. The stiffness in her body disappeared. She collapsed. The Blacks appeared to be expecting that. They rose, releasing her. Pickering didn move. One of them reached to the back of her neck. It pulled out the remains of the collar. Red blood dripped from the probes.

”What have you done to her? ” I yelled stupidly. I liked Pickering. She was one of the few familiars I had remaining.

The Blacks ignored me. I watched as they pushed something to the back of Pickerings neck. It wasn black. It was white. Gauze? I frowned. Why would they be treating her wound?

”What have you done? ” I yelled again. The gun never wavered. One of the Blacks picked up Pickering. She hung limply from the armoured manipulator.

I was ignored.

The Blacks didn appear concerned. Why should they be? They were in control here. They said something. I recognised several voices. They were probably discussing me. The gun still didn move. I didn feel afraid. The worst had already happened. I kept my eyes on Pickering.

”Don take her away! ” I screamed. The one carrying Pickering had turned away.

That got their attention. The Blacks turned to me. I glared into their faceless masks. They were silent.

”Why? ”

The question caught me by surprise. They were speaking the Alliance common tongue. They had understood. Well of course they understood me, they had been reacting to my cries. The real surprise was that they could talk to me. I wasn surprised that they knew the language, I just had no idea that the regular troops had a translator. Or were allowed to speak to us.

”Why? ” the Black demanded again.

”Shes my friend, ” I answered. I glared at the one I thought had spoken, daring them to contradict me.

”Your friend? ” It was sceptical.

”My friend, ” I repeated. My mind stumbled, trying to remember words from other Alliance languages. My vocabulary was not up to the task. I knew how to swear. I didn know how to say friend.

Another Black said something. The one I thought had questioned me turned to them. They argued. I didn understand the words but I knew the tone. I didn know what to do. They were arguing over my life.

The one who had questioned me drew back. I understood the gesture. At least, I thought I did. There was motion behind me, and a flash of pain. It was more than I was already feeling because of the Destroyer, then everything went black.

I awoke. That was mildly surprising. I hadn expected to awaken. I hurt. The pain wasn just physical. My head was pounding. I could remember the Destroyer. I didn open my eyes. Instinctively, I knew that would feel better.

I didn need to try to remember. I knew what had happened. Through the pounding in my head, I wondered what would happen now. I had no idea. Beyond being slaved to a machine. That was probably going to happen. Thats what the Alliance said happened.

I was lying on something hard. My armour had been stripped. There was something covering me so I wasn naked. I didn have any weapons. That was easy to tell.

I kept still. I didn know how long I lay there. I tried to listen for something but there was nothing to hear. The silence was unnerving. Eventually, I had to open my eyes. The light was dim. It was blurry. I strained. Some things came into focus, others remained stubbornly fuzzy. It was a function of the light. It was diffuse, the kind of light that filtered through semi-transparent material. I couldn tell what time it was.

There was enough light to recognise where I was. It was one of the barracks. I wasn alone. There were others here. It was too early to say if that was a relief. I moved. The pain redoubled. I kept from crying out by my bodys needs were becoming urgent. There was no choice. I had to move.

I swung my legs over, letting them fall to the ground. My joints felt strong enough. They would hold me. I rose. I only staggered once, but remained upright. Thankfully, Alliance barracks were the same. I knew where the facilities were. My head never stopped hurting but I made it in time. I got some water as well. That helped my headache.

It was only after my needs were taken care of that I looked at the others. I didn recognised anyone specifically, but I knew the species. They were all Alliance. There were Kishne, Zarthan and Opar. They were still unconscious, or asleep. I didn know which. I wasn sure if this was a good thing or not.

The Alliance didn exactly tell us what happened to captured troops. I went back to the pallet I had been lying on. That seemed the safest option. As I sat, I looked around, examining those who were with me. That Kishne looked like one of the newbies Id been assigned. I hadn known them for long. I didn know the markings well enough. There was a Zarthan I knew Id seen before. The pattern in their short fur was distinctive.

Pickering was absent. Of course, she was. The Blacks had shown her special attention. Had they known she was an officer? I was still in my regular gear. Battlefield promotions in the face of Black attacks tended to be swift but short lived. It wasn like rank conferred the ability to fight. Wed all be Generals if it did.

The silence left me time to think. I remembered the gun at my head. It hadn wavered. The Blacks questions stuck in my mind. Why had I answered like that?

I realised the truth. I considered the Human a friend. Not a good one. There hadn been time for that to develop but she was someone who understood what I was going through. She was a friend. I had been hoping to get to know her better on my break time. Shed still outrank me but Id been on leave. Rank didn matter when you were on leave.

Except she wasn here. I didn think shed be in another barracks. Not with the way the Blacks had carried her. Not with the way they had argued. I didn know the words but I understood the actions. They had wanted her. She was the reason the Blacks had captured us.

That left one question: why?

No answers were forthcoming. Answers didn come for some time.

And thats how the training planet of Qaoloe fell. A Destroyer over the facility. A short battle. The Alliance made no effort to retake Qaoloe. It wasn worth it. It was a relatively small facility. Of course, I only found that out later. If Id have thought about it at the time, I would have realised. I didn . Which is not to say I lived with the hope of rescue. That would have been stupid. I knew how many planets had been retaken. The number wasn high.

So the survivors of the battle were taken prisoner. Thats what I was. A prisoner of war. I didn know that term yet. It was an interesting one.

Prisoner of war. An enemy soldier captured by their foe. I could see other meanings. We were all prisoners. The war had gone on and on and no one remembered why. Did that not make us prisoners of the war? Because we knew no other life? Being the first to awaken gave me far too much time to think. I didn like my thoughts. I was still stuck with them. The esoteric ones were in some ways better than the others. If I was thinking them, I wasn thinking about the future, and all the possibilities therein. I was feeling morbid.

There was a Black machine with my name on it. I tried not to think about it. I didn have the imagination to truly envisage what it might be like, but in captivity, your imagination runs wild with all the horrors that could be inflicted.

These weren battlefield horrors. Id seen enough of them to be relaxed. These were real. These were more ephemeral and transient, yet they never stayed away for long.

When the others started waking, it was a welcome distraction. I was shocked when they turned to me for instruction. I wasn an officer. The battlefield promotion hadn been that well known. It would probably never be recorded in the Alliance. I realised it wasn that.

They knew what mission Id been on. That conferred seniority. That was scary in a whole new way.

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