I woke up when Skaalt’s ship touched down on the roof of the hospital, as promised.
“Alright,” Sandra said, “let’s get Acharya up.”
I unbuckled my seat restraints and pushed myself up a few inches. But pain shot through my leg and I stopped with a wince.
Sandra leaned down to me and said, “put your arms around my neck.”
I was still half-asleep, so I did. As soon as I had, Sandra wormed a hand under my good leg and lifted me up with a grunt.
I hissed in pain as she lifted my bad leg as well, though she didn’t put any pressure on it. She was carrying me one-handed.
“Damn,” Nick said from somewhere behind me. “You’re strong.”
“Thanks,” Sandra’s voice was strained. “You okay?” She said to me.
“Yes,” I replied. When had she gotten so strong? Somewhere between Australia and here, I guessed. Perhaps all the walking and lifting and climbing had done something to her body they hadn’t done to mine. Or perhaps her core and legs had always been this strong.
“You’re going to have to hold on to me tighter than that,” She told me. “Nick, you got the bags?”
Sandra turned with me, and I saw Skaalt still at the controls. He blinked half his eyes at me and fluffed out the fur on his chest. He was making fun of Sandra and I.
“Not coming?” I asked.
“The hospital asked me to wait for you here,” he said.
“I’ll be here, talking to whatever humans want to make contact via their internet,” he continued.
“Have fun with that,” I said in galactic common. “They’re very odd.”
“Good,” Skaalt said.
And then Sandra carried me out of the ship, and Skaalt disappeared from view.
There were doctors waiting for us on the ground.
“Here,” I heard a heavily accented voice say. “Set her down on the stretcher.”
Sandra bent down and set me on the edge of a table. “Phew,” she said.
“Which leg is the issue?” The doctor asked me, pushing Sandra aside.
“This one,” I tapped my own thigh.
They stepped in front of me. “Where does it hurt?”
I indicated the place, and they put one large hand on it. I hissed at the pressure as they felt for the break. Sandra stepped in beside me and took my hand. Nick appeared on my other side, looking equally concerned.
The doctor said something in a language I did not understand, but it sounded like a curse. “What happened?” He asked me. I glanced at Nick. He was looking at me sideways.
“Someone accidentally pushed me over,” I said, “I have fragile bones, and this leg has hurt me before.”
“I see,” the doctor said, “you definitely need some imaging.”
“What sort?” I asked.
“We’ll start with an X-ray,” he said, “can you put your legs on the gurney?”
I did so with a wince, wondering how human medical technology would contend with my anatomy.
It turned out, though, that humans had been x-raying all sorts of creatures for as long as they had the technology. Looking inside of me was easy for them. They put me on a metal table in a dark room and positioned my legs, took some images, and then administered a mild pain-killer while we waited for the doctor in a private room.
When, eventually, a doctor came in, she was accompanied by two nurses who were there, I assumed, as witnesses to whatever transpired. I was not a concerning enough patient to need that much supervision.
“I have some bad news,” the doctor told me after introductions had been made. “The bones in your leg have broken. A mild fracture. But there is something wrong with the bone structure in your legs.”
“I know,” I said, “they are synthetic. Do they look sturdy aside from the break?”
“I don’t know how to tell,” she said. “Tell me more about these synthetic bones.”
I did, describing the materials and how they were installed. She listened for a while, then left and brought another three humans who specialized in building prosthetics.
They all heard me out, then began a long conversation in their own language about my broken leg.
I rolled the chair I’d been given back a few inches so I could see out the window. There was a huge city outside, but it was a different sort than the ones I’d seen on Earth so far. It was a sprawl of low, stone buildings. Some of them looked very old indeed. I even thought I recognized one of them from human history books: a huge square building with high towers.
Every detail of this moment feels as if it was branded into my brain, as the moments right before catastrophe often are.
I rolled my chair forward to Nick, tapped his elbow, then rolled it back and pointed. “What building is that?” I asked. I would have preferred to ask Sandra, but she was busy by the door arguing with a doctor over something to do with my treatment.
Nick looked at the building. “It’s a church,” he said, “I think.”
“I remember it from a book,” I said, “so it must be famous.”
“It might be, but I don’t know it.”
We were looking out the window when the floor began to rumble. Nick looked around in panic, but my eyes fixed to the sky. I knew the sound of an interstellar ship blasting its way through an atmosphere when I heard it. Skaalt was leaving early, called away by someone else who needed his help.
That was what I thought, at least.
Instead, what came tearing through the atmosphere was a behemoth of a ship, several times the size of a building. It plummeted out of the sky as if it was a meteorite about to hit the ground, but the thrusters fired, and the ship slowed, then stopped, rose slightly in the air until it equalized, hovering in that utterly surreal way galaxy-era tech has.
Now I could see what I hadn’t been able to in India: traffic stopping, and humans pointing. There were a few errant camera flashes while they all gazed up. And then, all at once it seemed, the humans realized what this meant, and they scattered. They just vanished. All of them. Like they were never even there in the first place.
Beside me, Nick said, “By God, it’s the Canteron.”
“It must be,” I agreed. It was so soon, but not that soon. I hadn’t really believed they were coming. And here I was, caught literally off my feet, off my guard, and off my game.
I’d been in combat before, but never on a planet. Never on a deathworld. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
But the humans provided an answer to my question almost immediately in the form of a homing missile that impacted the side of the warship. There was a colossal explosion, and the ship rocked in the air. The hull was blasted black and caved in where the missile had struck.
I swore, and pushed myself away from the window as another bombardment struck.
“Sandra,” I ordered, “How many are there?”
She was ahead of me, already staring down at the screen, “Twenty? Maybe more? I can’t tell.”
“Fucking blood-suckers,” I swore again. “We need to get out of here.”
We all ran. Or, rather, most of the humans ran, and Sandra and Nick stayed behind to push my chair. Alarms were beginning to blare in the hospital. People filled the hallways, pushing towards the stairs.
I looked through one of the passing windows and saw the Canteron warship sliding towards me over the city. Like it was, for some reason, headed right for this hospital.
We got to the stairs and found them packed with humans. There were even more pushing to get into the elevator.
“Fuck,” Nick said, “fuck, fuck!” He hauled the chair back from the crush of the crowd with Sandra’s help and all three of us ducked into the space between two support pillars.
“If we try to get out now, we’ll be crushed,” Sandra said to me.
Her pupils were blown so wide they sucked up all the space in her irises. She was panting and flushed. Nick looked much the same.
I realized with a jolt of instinctive terror that I was seeing humans at their most primal, their most unhinged. I had no doubt they would have tried to fight through the crowd if they hadn’t been more worried about keeping me safe.
“We should hide,” I said.
Without even replying, Sandra grabbed the push-bars on my chair. Nick ran ahead, jiggling door handles until he found a door that had been left open. There was an electronic locking system, and each room required a key card to be presented to enter. The door locked behind us.
It was some kind of small laboratory, and it was lit only by emergency lighting. The door closed behind us and blocked out the noise in the hallway.
Sandra, Nick, and I went around one of the lab tables. I still had my head above the counter because of the wheelchair, but in the darkness I would be invisible anyway.
Another explosion rocked the building, and both humans gasped. Sandra found my hand and held on to me. She was shaking so hard I was worried it would make my scales rattle.
“What now?” Nick asked no one.
“We wait,” Sandra supplied. “And when everyone else is gone, we leave.”
“Okay,” Nick said and then again, “okay.”
I squeezed Sandra’s hand, trying to listen over the sound of my own heartbeat pounding in my head.
It felt like hours that we waited, but it was probably only a few minutes. I ached everywhere, and after the shaking had subsided, weighed down by exhaustion.
Someone tried the handle on the door. It rattled, but didn’t open.
“It’s alright,” Sandra said, “it locked automatically behind us.”
The faint glow of the emergency lights faded, leaving all three of us in perfect total darkness.
I felt Sandra and Nick both go absolutely still. My own heart began to race again, as we all waited and listened.
The doorknob rattled again. Hard, purposefully. Then it turned. There was a distinctive click, and the door swung open. I didn’t have time to see what was on the other side, caught only the broad shape of the being: rounder than a human with many more limbs. I only just recognized it as a Canteron.
It stepped into the room, and I saw that it was armed with a laser weapon often found on space ships. It swept the room once with it, lazily, and then the muzzle dropped.
Sandra launched herself over the countertop with a roar. I’d never heard a human make a sound like that before, but it made me want to burrow into the sand and hide.
Nick stood up more slowly, peeked over the top of the counter. The light coming through the doorway threw his face into profile. His eyes were blown wide and his lips were drawn back from his teeth. Light reflected off something in his hand, something he had picked up without me noticing. He threw himself towards the door and the alien figure in it, who wasn’t even reacting to the humans yet.
I shouted, “Get down!” I was thinking about a shot from a spaceship-safe laser rifle going right through both of them with one trigger pull.
But the Canteron hadn’t even raised one of its limbs before Sandra and Nick reached them.
Sandra had a head start, so she got there first. She slammed a fist into the Canteron’s torso, heedless of the armor plating it was wearing. Nick broke a large glass beaker against it. It wasn’t the only thing I could hear breaking. There was a series of soft pops and cracks as the Canteron’s armor dented inwards with the force of the blows.
Sandra threw another punch, then ducked down to avoid a flailing limb as the Canteron finally began to respond. Nick grabbed another beaker and threw it at one of the Canteron’s several eyes. Blood spattered the wall and the lab equipment.
Sandra had grabbed a large shard of broken glass. With another furious shout, she swung it up, putting all the force of her human body behind it, and plunged it up, under the armor, right into the central mass of the alien’s body.
There were several soft pops and then several soft cracks, and Sandra jammed the shard of glass in again. Blood poured down her arms.
The Canteron made a noise, the first one I’d ever heard one of them make. It whistled, high and loud, and the sound made both humans pause. The Canteron staggered back, rolled backwards on its many limbs and tried to reorient itself. But as it stood, Nick advanced, kicked hard with one heavy-booted foot. Something snapped, and the Canteron soldier made another ungodly whistling noise. It rolled sideways, unable to get any limbs under itself. Blood poured from the stab wound in its underside like a faucet at first, then like a firehose as the weight of gravity shifted and its many hearts began to beat harder to compensate.
Sandra got out of the way of the blast of blood, but not quite fast enough. Now her whole right arm from shoulder to wrist was dripping crimson. She dropped the shard of glass and ran back to me.
Nick kicked the Canteron again, hard. The armor was denting, crumpling, not helping at all against the blunt force.
Sandra grabbed the wheelchair, said, “Sorry.” I didn’t have time to ask what for before she pushed the chair and me with it into the hallway. The wheels were slick with blood.
“Wait,” I protested. “Get the rifle!”
Nick snatched up the long, thin instrument and tossed it to me. I caught it, flipped it the right way around, and made sure it was loaded. Now, I thought, I could do my part.
“Up to the roof,” Nick said, “back to Skaalt!”
We rounded the corner back towards the stairwell, and found ourselves facing two more Canteron. Well, facing might be the wrong word, because they both had their backs turned to us, as much as Canteron have backs to turn anyway.
I raised the rifle before they had noticed us and aimed carefully. My humans had frozen. Apparently, when they were not backed into a corner, they were a lot less likely to attack without provocation.
“You, Canteron warriors,” I called in galactic common to the two soldiers, “You are violating the code of the Quadrant Peacekeepers and the Galactic Library by invading a planet with an active planetary surveying mission. Stand down, or we will be forced to use deadly force.”
Now I got to see first hand what kind of mistake the Canteron had made by coming to Earth. In the time it took them to react, Sandra and Nick could have covered the distance between us twice. I could have killed them both with the rifle. They had been in ships too long, I thought, where all the reacting was done by computers and missiles. Their thoughts might have been fast, but their instincts were slow. So slow that even I could have done them in with my bare hands let alone deathworlders like the two standing beside me.
Nick had edged sideways and was carefully twisting as the metal rod safety bars of a gurney that had been abandoned in the hallway in the chaos. He managed to remove it before the Canteron turned to us and brandished the length of metal like a sword.
The two invaders looked at us: one in a wheelchair with a laser rifle, one unarmed and covered in blood, and one brandishing a metal pipe.
Then one turned, aimed their rifle at me.
I froze for a moment because I had been certain that they would stop when I reminded them of the consequences for aiming their weapons at me. Then my limited combat training kicked in and I pulled the trigger.
The laser rifle kicked against my shoulder and pushed the wheelchair back a few inches. The shot hit the Canteron’s armor and was dispersed by the material, but it hardly mattered.
Nick and Sandra were charging again, much quieter than before. Nick swung his metal rod into the left Soldier, and Sandra went at the one on the right with her bare hands. She ripped its weapon out of its hands and used it as a bludgeon to crumple the armor plating, then jammed the barrel into a seam and pulled the trigger. It wasn’t made for her hands, but she got it done.
As the Canteron fell, the next door along the hallway opened. A human poked their head out.
Sandra and Nick looked up at them over the corpses. Sandra was gasping, but she managed to get words out. “It’s okay. They’re easy to kill.”
“Of course they are,” I said, “they’re paradise-children. They aren’t meant for this.”
None of the humans asked me what I meant, but that was okay. They were all too focused on making sure the Canteron soldiers were dead. I was content to think about it on my own.
The Canteron were acting very strange. They were not built for war. They were not built to fight at all. Their empire had become so large by a combination of resource hoarding, shrewd negotiation, and brazen theft without any consequences. They had never fought anyone on equal ground.
The question now was two-fold: why had the Canteron come to Earth directly, and why hadn’t they just destroyed the planet from orbit with autonomous drones and long-range munitions? What were they trying to do?
And why were they invading a hospital?
Sandra took pictures of the dead Canteron, their weapons, the blood on her own arm and Nick’s hands. The doctors who had been hiding around the hospital emerged and began to examine the Canteron corpses. They slid on masks and gloves and took out scalpels.
“Someone,” one of them said, “bring a camera. Start streaming.”
I watched in horrified fascination while the human exposed the body of the Canteron and began to cut into it while two more humans filmed and provided additional commentary. It was going out live to all of humanity.
At the same time, Sandra’s posts on social media were garnering hundreds of thousands of views every moment. All the fear that had filled humanity when the warships blasted through the atmosphere burned away into rage and excitement.
And the Canteron war fleet, what was left of it by them, had no chance against that.