The Deathworlders

Chapter 5.5: Interlude/Ultimatum

Author’s Note: While I think this interlude stands on its own, it was written in response to the events described in Rantarian’s “Salvage: Positions of Power and you may benefit from reading that series up until then first.


By long tradition, the Alpha of Alphas’ place of repose during a Grand Conclave of the Broods was atop the skull of a Vulza. This was not an inherited throne—Hunters did not recognise inherited authority, they recognized only the skilled and tenacious. The Alpha of Alphas therefore rested upon the skull of a Vulza it had personally slain. To their culture and psychology, there could be no better indication of fitness to lead.

It accepted a cup from its personal meat-slave as it listened. For now, it was patient. It had found, over the long years of incumbency, that the patient stalker that surveyed the land, watched its prey and set its trap, could succeed at tasks that the brash predator that simply attacked and counted on its own superiority would be crushed by. Best to let the lesser Alphas bicker and argue and make their declarations and then strike when the meat was sweetest.

Usually. As it listened, as still and patient as the day it had ambushed and slain the Vulza whose skull it now straddled, the burgeoning susurrus as more of the Alphas arrived and added their thoughts to the debate turned first into a roar, then a mental cacophony of Alphas all broadcasting at once. Isolating individual words was impossible, and in any case not necessary—each thought was accompanied by a set of emotional tags, qualifying sentiments to convey the full emotional weight of what its articulator had meant, rather than merely what it had said. The result was a blizzard of emotion swirling around the trophy-hung Conclave chamber, its intensity swelling with each pass.

Ten brood-transports. A thousand hunters. All sent to kill a single human: all dead. The shock and dismay was palpable.

Alpha of Alphas decided that the time had come to settle the Brood of Broods.

It broadcast: +< Impatience; anger; command >+ “ENOUGH!” The mental noise ceased. Lingering emotions hung on the air like brittle harmonics.

It broadcast: +< Resolve; statement >+ “These new things have stolen what is rightfully ours. They have stolen the fear of the Herd. They have slain five broods of our finest hunters.” ++ “I name them Predators, the first species we have known that is not prey.”

Barely-suppressed shock rippled through the minds of the gathered Alphas, but Alpha of Alphas noted the undercurrent: lack of surprise. It was gratifying to know that at least some of the gathered Broods were led by hunters that could see the future pattern of things so acutely.

It broadcast: +< Statement >+ “There can be only one Predator.”

Only one of the senior and most respected Alphas, leader of the Marrow-Gnaw brood, dared respond to that.

It broadcast: +< Agreement; frustration; Query >+ “The Alpha of Alphas has the truth of it. Yet it has not offered an explanation for how the barrier around their world may be bypassed. The humans are beyond our grasp. Must our vengeance wait until that obstacle is destroyed?”

The Alpha of Alphas acknowledged the point with a gracious tilt of its head, away from the Marrow-Gnaw—a gesture of respect.

It broadcast: +< Rebuttal >+ “The Herd erected that barrier, the Herd will be coerced into lowering it.”

Several others broadcast at once: +< query >+ “How?”

The Alpha of Alphas did not answer them immediately. It instead turned to the meat-slave, which cowered at his attention, naked and wretched as was appropriate.

It was pleasing to the Hunter sense of morality, and to their unique sense of poetry, that a meat-slave should be young and female. As such, young females only just entering their breeding age were prized meat-slaves, reserved as tokens of prestige for only the most powerful Alphas. To devour the Prey was Right: to symbolically devour the future of the prey was Righteous. It was a gesture of supremacy, an enactment of the reality that the Predators held the true power. It was also a test of wisdom—to glut on and waste the future of the Herd might be to deprive the future of the Hunters in turn.

The Alpha of Alphas extended a claw, and hooked the slave gently under her jaw bone, dragging her forward by the delicate exposed tissues of the throat. She was a fur-face, scarcely a morsel to a Hunter of the Alpha of Alphas’ size, but the newness and novelty of their species—and thus their rareness among the meat-stock—only served to enhance her value.

The Alpha of Alphas vocalized, speaking in sound waves for the benefit of the quivering being which did not have the Brood-Mind implants.

It said: “You have served well, Meat.” the word “meat” rippled backwards along its jaw as a wave of cruel teeth, and the slave shook on the point of its claw.

“I grant you a boon. What would you request of me?”

The slave closed her eyes and squeaked her reply, in the proper respectful form.

“If it may please the master of masters, I humbly request that my death be painless.”

It dragged her closer, and she rose on to the very tips of her little paws, standing as tall as her species could, to resist the talon that threatened to open her flesh.

“Your boon is…denied, little one.” the Alpha of Alphas told her, and relished her sob, relished its power over her. “I grant you what you truly crave—your freedom.”

The slave practically fell over then and there, but remained upright still teetering to avoid the cruel point that was dimpling the flesh of her throat.

”…F…freedom, Master of Masters?” He was pleased to see that the light of hope in her eyes was dim. This prey knew not to rejoice until the meat was in the maw, at least.

It released her, and she collapsed, grovelling before it.

“You will be granted a trophy, a ship of the Herd species. You will fly it back to the territory of the Herd, and you will thank me for your life by delivering a message.” It declared.

The slave contrived to bow even lower than she already was, striving to dig into the solid stone of the Conclave chamber. “Command me, master of masters.”

The Alpha of Alphas checked that it had the rapt attention of its subordinates, and broadcast its next words with the full force of command and proclamation that it could project.

“Tell them that any place known to harbour a human will be raided, not by a pack-ship, nor even a brood-transport, but by the Swarm of Swarms.” it said.

“Tell them that any such place will be destroyed, any Prey that lived there devoured. If it is a world, it will be poisoned. If it is an orbit, it will be seeded with mines. Tell them that I shall lead every such raid personally. Tell them that, once there are no humans left abroad in the galaxy, we shall begin the Hunt of Hunts, culling and consuming all that we find until such time as the barrier around Earth is removed.”

It paused. “And tell them that we shall only be satisfied to return to our quiescence once the humans are all devoured. Tell them that the Hunters WILL be feared above all others.”

The prey-slave could not hear it, but in its mind, the combined shout of ten thousand Alphas was deafening, despite containing no words. It was just a simple emotion.

++


Poker continued to give Kirk problems.

Memorizing the values and suits of the cards had been trivial. Memorizing those combinations which were valid for Poker and their hierarchy of value, simple.

Memorizing the bidding rules, easy.

Learning to read the possible combinations that every player at the table might potentially have held had been something of a challenge, but he had mastered it Doing all of that AND trying to make snap decisions about the relative value of his own hand compared to every other player’s while simultaneously attempting to both mislead them and avoid being misled by them was where things descended into the downright hard. His sole advantage was that he had a cybernetic translator assisting him in reading their expressions and body language, while his own remained impenetrable and alien to the humans.

Or so he hoped. That particular theory was starting to look a little shaky given that his bluff had been successfully called four times in a row now, and while he did have two pair, Nines and Queens, the river card had opened up the possibility of a full house.

Would they suspect that he was bluffing again? It wasn’t a weak hand, and only the possibility of a full house after all….

“All in.” he decided, pushing his last few meager chips into the middle.

Maria was looking much better for her time aboard Sanctuary. She’d been able to get some proper nutrition and vitamin supplements, exercise properly, and have an actual social life with interpersonal interaction thanks to the translator she now wore constantly on her wrist.

She was also terrifyingly good at cards, which was why her expression didn’t so much as flicker as she considered Kirk’s move before pushing part of her own, much larger stack into the middle.

“Call.”

She turned out to have two pair—threes and Queens, and Kirk allowed himself a subtle gesture of relief as he collected the pot. He was still in the game.

They had dealt the next hand and Kirk had thrown in the little blind when there was a soft but obtrusive chime that rang through the whole ship. The four humans at the table all looked around bemused at the sound, but Kirk was already standing up when Amir—who had refused to join the game on the grounds that gambling was Haram, forbidden by his religion, called through from the flight deck, where he was learning how to fly the ship with the aid of the simulator systems that Kirk had installed for that very purpose.

“Uh…Kirk?”

The rising, querying note in his voice was one that Kirk knew from long movie nights indicated alarm, warning and an urgent need to draw his attention to something. He was quite impressed with himself that he even managed to beat the other humans to the front of the ship.

Amir was examining one of the most important devices on the ship as they entered. “What’s this thing again?” he asked.

Kirk gritted his teeth. The unit in question was one of the most recognizable on the ship, as it looked almost aggressively low-tech compared to everything else on the flight deck. It had no volumetric projection, no tactile gesture interface, just buttons and a simple, hardy text box designed to weather anything up to and including the destruction of the ship itself.

“The Dominion Emergency Notification System” Kirk told him. “Every Dominion ship has one.”

Inside the device, a handful of Helium ions had ceased to be entangled with another handful stored at the network’s central repository. Centuries of experimentation had finally found a loophole in the principle that quantum-entanglement could not carry information—namely, that it was possible to tell whether or not a particle was in an entangled state and, by breaking that entanglement, send a single bit of data. The process of creating such entangled pairs in useful quantities was hideously expensive, and so the system was used only to send terse and urgent messages that needed to be known immediately by every Dominion ship everywhere, no matter where it might be or what it might be doing.

This particular message read:

ULTIMATUM FROM HUNTERS: DEMAND ALL HUMANS BE TURNED OVER ELSE QUOTE SWARM OF SWARMS ENDQUOTE WILL RAID KNOWN HUMAN LOCATIONS. ALL SHIPS, STATIONS CARRYING HUMAN PASSENGERS ADVISED: JETTISON IMMEDIATELY. NOTIFICATION ENDS.

There was a long, shocked silence, broken finally by Allison.

She spoke quietly and her voice was choked with emotion, but the one that dripped from it like deadly acid was contempt.

“Those cowardly sons of bitches.”