Meko’Ah could hear the voice of the Ah Clan family matron in his mind during the firefight. “There are ten Commandments of war,” she had said, years ago when Meko’Ah was no longer a fry and was ready to move into the wider world. “They are sacred, they are absolute, and they are without exception. You will remember them at all times, and you will live and die by them.”
Meko’Ah winced as bullets ricocheted off the deck of the ship The Importance of Being Buoyant. To his left, his human friend Helen was firing her pistol blindly over the top of the crates they were huddled behind. He breathed a deep breath full of calming waters, filtered through the tank on his back into his helmet, and closed his eyes for a moment.
Number 1, The opening salvo should always involve words, not ammunition.
The other ship had opened fire on Meko’Ah and Helen without warning, rising from the seas like roaring kraken, muzzle flash and tracer fire searing the sky within instants. The enemy ship was easily twice their size, and their attackers huddled by the gunwales to fire down. Several of their number had leapt over the sides onto The Importance of Being Buoyant, rushing forward with knives and pistols. Helen had slapped the emergency beacon before rushing to help Meko’ah on the deck.
Number 2, Trust your family above all others. Your brothers and sisters were placed in this ocean to protect and love you, and they will be your fiercest supporters during any conflict.
“Are you dead yet, little brother?” came the mocking shout of his sister, followed by a burst of heavy machinegun fire. “Come, stand and receive what is coming to you!”
Meko’Ah fired his Marksman rifle up at his sister, but she had ducked moments earlier and the bullets flashed harmlessly overhead. The closest of his brothers was a mere meter away when Helen dropped him with a shot between the eyes.
Number 3, Do not place your faith in armour, for the sturdiest plates will fail you.
“What do we do now?” asked Helen, ducking back under the crates as several of the Helots above opened fire and the cacophony of bullets increased in intensity. “They’re too gods-damned far away for this peashooter!”
Meko’Ah jerked his head towards a set of crates closer to the edge of their ship. “You keep their heads down, I’ll get closer and surprise the next ones that pop up.”
Helen shook her head. “Too much open space. You’ll never make it.”
Meko’Ah laughed to cover his nervousness. “Come, friend Helen. You told me that Pan-O makes the greatest armour in all the stars. Let us put it to the test!”
He leapt over the crate and began running before she could protest, or before he could think too long about what he was doing.
Number 4, Movement is life, stillness is death. Always be in motion.
Meko’Ah lowered his head and pumped his arms as he ran, his tail flicking wildly to balance his headlong charge towards the stack of crates. He could hear the crack-crack-crack of Helen firing, her long war-cry adding to the din. He dove for the boxes, throwing all his weight forward into a tucked roll a moment before a cascade of fire announced the return of his siblings to their firing positions overhead. He breathed deeply, his back against the crates, as motionless as he could force himself to be.
Number 5, Deception and misdirection are for the weak and cowardly. Be smart and strong enough to never use them.
“Hey, fish-heads!” Helen shouted, her voice amplified through her blue-green Kamau helmet. “Your mothers were mammals, and your fathers were octopods!” She stood and actually shook her fist at their attackers.
It had the desired effect. Three of Meko’Ah’s siblings stood to fire over the gunwale of their ship, their rifles spitting death as Helen ducked again with a yelp.
Meko’Ah was in movement instantly, his rifle at his shoulder as he squeezed the trigger. An eruption of green blood shot from the head of one brother a moment later, but the instant of confusion as they adjusted to his new position allowed him to clip a second sibling before they ducked back under cover.
Sadly, neither of the targets he hit were his sister.
Number 6, Kill the warriors if you must, but do not harm their homes, their families, or their ships.
His big sister, Farli’Ah, was laughing as she rose and pointed her HMG over the side of her ship. There was a roar of fire, and the metallic ping of bullets bouncing off the hull was replaced by more ominous thunks as the ammunition punched holes through the crates.
Where in all the fifty-seven seas had his sister found armour-piercing ammunition for her HMG? What idiot would sell such deadly weaponry to a band of raving fresh-water lunatics?
Number 7, Let no injury sway you from your purpose. If you can fight, you are not wounded enough to require respite.
“AHHH!” Helen screamed over the comms, having switched off the speakers on her helmet so only Meko’Ah could hear her. “Gods-damn that hurts!”
“Friend Helen, are you okay?” Meko’Ah asked, his rifle still at his shoulder and scanning overhead. He could see the glowing barrel of Farli’Ah’s HMG poking just over the edge of the gunwale, but she had stopped firing for a moment.
“She clipped me. I’m fine, I’m fine, but damn that smarts.”
Meko’Ah risked a glance back at the crates Helen was hiding behind. There were holes punched clean through in a hundred places, and he thought he could see a splash of bright red against the metal hull. “Friend Helen, are you lying to me?”
“No, I’m fine! Just don’t let them get the cargo!”
Number 8, Fight when you must, flee when you must, but there is no surrender.
Meko’Ah stood, raising both hands overhead, and switched his helmet back to broadcast mode. “Sister, we surrender!”
“Why should I care, little brother?” she shouted back. Her voice was growing hoarse, the lack of water becoming more telling as the cold air dried her lungs.
“Without our codes to disarm the self-destruct, you get no prize from us. The moment both of us are dead, this ship will explode.” Meko’Ah kept his arms overhead, holding his rifle by its barrel.
“Meko’Ah! What are you doing?” hissed Helen over the comms.
Five of Meko’Ah’s siblings, but not his sister, stood, rifles at the ready. They trained their weapons at Meko’Ah.
Number 9, Be gracious in victory and noble in defeat.
“Ah, victory clenched from the snivelling jaws of my dumbest brother!” gloated Farli’Ah as she stood. She grinned, all three rows of teeth gleaming, the massive HMG held in one hand and resting against her shoulder. She stood a good head taller than the rest of their siblings, but even so the strain of handling such a beast of a weapon was obvious in the scars lining both arms. Her tail was swishing back and forth in barely contained glee.
She leapt over the side of the ship, landing on the deck of The Importance of Being Buoyant with a heavy thud. She stood and casually strode over the corpses of three of her crew as she walked towards Meko’Ah, her eyes gleaming.
“You’re bluffing,” she said in a low hiss, her smile unwavering. “But I find it endearing, so I’ll let you live for a while longer.”
“A small craft for myself and my friend,” Meko’Ah jerked his head towards the crates that hid Helen. “Once we’re far, far away, I’ll transmit you the codes to disarm the bombs.”
“You expect me to let you leave with nothing more than a promise that you’ll be true to your word?” Her laugh was low and dry. Her lungs must be critically low on water, but she refused to lower herself to the ocean below even for the few moments it would take to refresh herself.
“Do the bond of family mean so little to you, sister?”
The two of them took a brief moment to look around the battlefield at their dead siblings.
“Fair point.” Meko’Ah smiled. “A boat for my friend, then. Once she’s safely distant, I’ll give you the codes.”
“I will consider it.” Farli’Ah strode over to the stack of crates Meko’Ah had been hiding behind. “Let me examine our prize first.”
The crate was thrown open, and almost instantly a flurry of squawking feathers erupted out of the box and across the deck.
“Sky-fish?” his sister said, her shock apparent. “You’re transporting sky-fish for our enemies?”
“Chickens, but yes,” Meko’Ah admitted. “Although, if it helps, imagine they are biological machines designed to convert biomass into protein.”
“Sky-fish that can’t even fly,” she continued, ignoring Meko’Ah. The chicken she had released was flailing its wings as it rushed around the deck, as stupid as it was noisy. “What possible use could they have?”
“Baby feed, believe it or not,” Meko’Ah said, glancing skywards. “Like I said, biomass into protein. Much more efficient than being forced to consume one’s siblings as a fry.”
That made Farli’Ah pause.
“Wait. You’re saying these… cheee-kens… can feed our young?”
Meko’Ah nodded. Ah, there was the star he was looking for.
“Their eggs, actually, but yes. This shipment will allow the Helot of the Ael Clan to triple their successful birthrate,” he said, unable to take his eyes of the bright blue pinprick of light in the sky.
His sister, for once, sounded subdued. “They’d out-breed us. We’d have been overrun by traitorous Helot, loyal to filthy mammals.”
“That is the plan, yes.” Meko’Ah turned his attention back to his sister. Her mouth was agape, her eyes glazed and lost in thought.
“Out of vain curiousity, dear sister, are you aware of how far it is from here to the nearest Snake Eaters Intervention base?”
Farli’Ah looked down at him. She was tired, he could tell, but her mind remained sharp. “About two hundred thousand lengths. If you are waiting for a rescue ship, you have about forty hours to go.” Her smile returned, full of teeth.
Meko’Ah smiled back up at her. In the night sky, the star grew brighter.
Number 10, All war is fought first on the inside, and then on the battlefield. Accept victory within yourself first, because there is no salvation from on high.
The smoke had cleared, and Meko’Ah was unceremoniously dumping the dead bodies of his siblings over the side of the ship. They would sink, to be consumed by wildlife or feral Helot, which is about as good a fate as the Libertos deserved.
“Private Meko’Ah,” said the pilot of the Cutter, nodding down at the Helot. “Excellent work stalling them until I could land.”
“Happy to serve, sir,” Meko’Ah saluted the Cutter. Its landing had dented the deck of The Importance of Being Buoyant like a comet impacting a moon, but the moment of confusion was all the time the giant TAG had needed to reduce the remaining enemies to chum. “How is friend Helen?”
“Assuming we can get her back to base without one of our paramedics being involved, she’ll live,” the Cutter said. “But you’ll have to take this shipment the rest of the way yourself. Think you can manage it?”
Meko’Ah nodded. “The Ah Clan will risk no more ships in claiming this prize, sir.”
“What makes you so sure, private?”
Meko’Ah shrugged, a decidedly human expression he had grown fond of. “We have our own version of the 10 Commandments, sir. They’re quite clear on matters like this.”
“Must be nice. I often feel our human Commandments could use a little work.”
Meko’Ah smiled a grin full of teeth. “You just need to know how to interpret them.”