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Female of the Species

Originally published in Quantum Muse (April 2003)

Rana Morgan could taste the sweat on her upper lip as she waited inside the entrance to the Art Institute. As a cadet, it was her job to guard an Emedi Prime Defense Force sergeant while he set up the shaped charges that would close all the ground entrances to the Institute, minutes ahead of the invading Tuth force. If one of the giant vulpinoids came through the door before the charges went off, it was also her job to kill it.

If she could. She still wasn't sure about that.

"Okay, we're clear," Sgt. Martinez said.

Rana nodded, hefting the heavy pulse rifle with a wince. Some soldier you are — you're not even supposed to be here, an idiot part of her brain babbled. You're an artist, not a killer.

She didn't bother with the refuting argument drilled into her at the Academy artists could shoot, too, and what was she supposed to do while her homeworld was invaded? Paint a picture?

It didn't matter anymore, she thought as she followed the sergeant back towards the central gallery. Whatever she was, she was also a cadet in the EPDF, and if she couldn't save her homeworld from the Tuth then she could damn well try to save its people. The EPDF had judged the Art Institute to be the most easily defendable building in the capital, now that the Government Center was smoking rubble; eighty-seven frightened civilians milled near last year's Student Displays as they waited for the EPDF drop ships and rescue. The sharp, meaty scent of human fear was strong, even in the cavernous gallery.

Rana ignored the smell it was a familiar background in any area where people gathered to talk about the Tuth. The vulpinoids, particularly the female warrior caste, had been battling mankind over colonizable planets for decades, and the Tuth prided themselves on never taking prisoners. They were meat-eaters, however, and considered their foes to be rather tasty after sufficient preparation.

Trying not to think of Tuth dinners, Rana looked for her Student finals piece, "The Ice Storm." A shimmering view of Emedi Prime's frozen Bardolph Sea, the picture still carried its first place ribbon from last spring's show. It would most likely be destroyed when the invaders arrived - nonessentials such as art didn't even have a place on the evac list. Maybe that was just as well, she thought - the Tuth had already destroyed the reason why she created the picture in the first place.

"Morgan!"

She pivoted. Captain Golec, the head of the remaining EPDF battalion, was signaling her.

"I want you to stay here and ride herd on the civvies," he said when she jogged over. "One of them tried to sneak off because she thought she left her solar heater on. Damnfool woman almost got herself slagged on a mine."

"But"

"That's an order, Cadet. I can't spare experienced men for nanny duty."

Rana bit back an argument and saluted. Golec had a point — the vets were more useful on the perimeter where they could set mines and watch for the invaders. She was, essentially, a half-trained walking uniform. Gritting her teeth, she turned to her new charges and started fending off questions and increasingly panicky demands about the arrival of the drop ships.

Busy as she was, she didn't notice the stocky man standing in front of "The Ice Storm" until he made a noise halfway between a snort and a harumph. Her skin prickled with resentment. I don't believe it. Now that it's going to be trashed, the condescending bastard finally decides to come and see it.

He'd posted the request on the University news system last winter — one geotech in search of someone with a heavy skimmer license to ferry a load of research equipment to the Bardolph Sea, 23 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, no smokers need apply. Rana's art scholarship didn't leave much for necessities like food and clothing; she needed the extra credits a weekend driving job would earn, and sent him a copy of her license. He accepted, and that was how she met Marc Gunderson. She didn't know at the time that the trip out would be spent trading verbal barbs with the cynical young geotech. After the first hundred klicks, however, she started to enjoy the battle of wits, doing her best to top his razored observations with her own acid commentary.

And then the ice storm blew in, grounding them in the skimmer for three days with nothing to do but snap at each other while gale-force winds tried to bury them in ice and snow. She remembered thinking, with black amusement, how it was pretty much programmed into them that this sort of situation had to result in murder or love.

Well, they hadn't killed each other. And the painting was her memory of their first night together, something she'd intended as a gift before the Tuth intervened. She wasn't sure if the fierce desire they'd shared that night was an instinctive reaction to the cold and dark around them, or a result of the hours they'd spent talking about everything in their lives before Marc leaned over and clumsily kissed her for the first time.

Whatever the reason, that night had spawned an intense, intimate relationship with the geologist, right up until the point where he learned she was joining the Defense Force Training Corps. His rejection of "The Ice Storm" still stung: "Why should I bother seeing it? So I can mope over it when you get killed fighting those damned things?" he'd raged. "Play army all you want, Rana, but don't expect me to stay behind and cry over your grave."

Marc's reaction was understandable; his Colonial Marine parents had died in the first (and badly mismanaged) battle with the Tuth, and he'd spent the rest of his childhood in a CM orphanage. Most of the kids he grew up with went into the military, and most of them died the same way. So much death. But that gave him no right to lash out at her for doing what she thought was right.

And he'd continue to harp on it, now that they were being forced to leave Emedi Prime, she thought. Best to get the inevitable confrontation out of the way now while it was still quiet.

Steeling herself, she walked over to Marc. "I thought you left on yesterday's shuttle," she said.

The dark-haired man kept his eyes on the picture. "I was waiting for you," he said neutrally. "Now we can die together on the last shuttle. How romantic."

That was pure Marc. "I know the shuttle pilot," she replied, keeping her irritation under control. "If he can't get us to the rendezvous point, nobody can."

Marc snorted. "Still the military cheerleader, I see."

"No, just confident in our troops." She checked the room. "Marc, I'm on duty. I'll see you"

"later, I know," He waved her away. "Go, play soldier. I'll be here when the shuttle ar"

A blast of smoke and fragmented building materials erupted from the main entranceway, fogging the gallery and knocking them to the floor. Rana felt her exposed skin tighten painfully at the backwash of heat.

The charges sealing off the ground entrances, she realized - they'd been set off by the Defense Force, which meant the invasion must be underway. "We have to get out of here," she yelled, dragging him to his feet.

The shockwave sent pictures tumbling off the walls and a massive vacu-sculpture bouncing off its stand, scattering the screaming civilians with its deceptive size. As the lights flickered and died, clouds of dust and EPDF personnel poured into the room from the side entrances. Rana could just hear Golec shouting orders to get the colonists to the Institute roof.

"Shuttle's here! If you want to live, get your asses topside now!" Sgt. Martinez yelled.

She pushed Marc into the civilian pack and fell in with her squad. They started herding the panicked civilians up the narrow staircase to the roof, using shoves and threats as necessary. The rest of the soldiers followed, driven by the approaching sound of Tuth light artillery.

Her squad was last up the staircase, with Golec bringing up the rear. Through the hatch, she could see the dropship hovering like a huge, armored beetle over the Institute's roof, pitted armor reflecting bursts of light from the nearby bomb blasts. It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

Martinez was waiting with a litepad as they reached the roof. "Headcount," Golec snapped.

"All military personnel present, sir" Martinez replied. "Two civilians missing E. Martinson, K. Martinson."

Rana recognized the names as two of the Institute professors. The Martinsons were probably the oldest members of the colony, and universally loved by their students. "I know them, sir. They might've gotten stunned by the explosion," she shouted over the dropship's rumble.

The captain swore. "All right - you know what they look like, get back down there and look for them," he ordered. "We can hold on for five minutes — after that, we take off. Go!"

She was already running down the stairs. Dust and acrid smoke turned the gallery into a murky maze, lit sporadically by the emergency lamps. "Professor Martinson!" she shouted. "Professora! Where are you?"

The haze cleared for a moment, showing something moving at the far wall.

Her throat dried. Sweating, she brought her rifle around as she advanced on the movement. The Martinsons, or Tuth

The haze shifted again, revealing Professor Martinson. He crouched over the form of his wife, looking up in panic at Rana's advance. "Help me! I can't get her up!"

A stanchion had fallen from the roof, pinning Professora Martinson to the floor. The old woman was conscious, however, and pushing at the metal trapping her. Rana saw that a large chunk of native granite, originally part of a statue, had taken the brunt of the stanchion's weight. If it hadn't been there. . .

Shuddering, she slung the rifle back and grabbed the far end of the stanchion, using the knee servos in her battle suit to add extra lift as she hauled up. The metal creaked as it rose. "Pull her out!"

Martinson slid his hands under his wife's armpits and dragged her to safety. Gasping, Rana let the stanchion fall. "Professora, we have to get out of here now. Can you walk?"

"I think so," the Professora wheezed, as her husband helped her up. Counting seconds in her head, Rana half-carried the couple across the gallery towards the staircase, the bone-shaking thumps of Tuth artillery now rattling the building. Please God, let the dropship still be there.

They'd reached the staircase when she heard the noise behind them, just barely above the rumble on oncoming artillery. A high-pitched chittering whine, the sound of Tuth battle armor.

Rana turned. A huge shape was leaning out from behind the vacu-sculpture, a short-barreled weapon aimed at her head.

There wasn't time to think. She brought her rifle up and fired twice.

Howling, the vulpine Tuth soldier staggered back, then fell to her knees, clutching at the bloody, smoking hole in her chest. Another howl was softer, almost melancholy as she died.

Rana stared at the fallen alien, then up at the staircase. Marc stood on the top landing, waving frantically for them to come up.

Later, think about it later. She grabbed a professor under each arm and hauled them up the stairs to the dropship and waiting EPDF medical personnel. There was just enough time to fall into seats and strap in before the ship leapt spaceward, leaving Emedi Prime and its new owners behind.

Muscles tensing against the increasing G's, she managed to turn her head and look at Marc. "You waited."

He did something that would have been a shrug in one G, but his eyes were serious, with the look she remembered from their first night on the ice. "I know what I said about not crying over your grave," he said. "I lied."

Rana gave him a rictus grin and turned her head, letting gravity press it into the padded rest. They could talk about it later, after the remains of the EPDF reported to Colonial Administration. With the war, her unit would almost undoubtedly be rolled into another larger force somewhere along the battleline.

But before that, there would be time with Marc, and maybe even enough time for a new painting. The huge, graceful Tuth as it — she — stood in the smoky gallery, her alien grace and deadliness captured forever on canvas. A reminder of what mankind faced, out here in the stars.

The Female of the Species. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

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