The Deathworlders

1—Pounce

11y 9m AV
Staging Warehouse, Chapterhouse of Clan Whitecrest, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao
Final preparations for GAMETIME-FOOTBALL-TOUCHDOWN

Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

The month between the Revelation and the moment Genshi now faced had been an incredibly busy one. He’d had precious little rest as he made all the arrangements surrounding “Yogi,” his mission, and the collection of the “footballs.” To make matters worse, time was short and it was unlikely Daar would receive his instructions in time, given the hazards of clandestine communication and the long periods of blackout the pirate fleets experienced.

That was no small amount of added stress. Out of worry, Genshi had taken Regaari aside and expressed how displeased he would be if any irreparable harm came to his Cousin during the capture. That was probably unnecessary, given the two’s relationship, and it was probably a bit overbearing of Genshi to impose like that. Fortunately Regaari was the model of grace.

Genshi would make it up later, if everything went well.

As it was he had to place his faith in his Brothers and in SOR. The former was easy, the latter…he was nervous, it must be said. With luck all would go as planned, and though he wished he felt as optimistic as his assessment promised, the reality was something less encouraging. In the meantime he’d begun the slow, painstaking process of building his little insurrection.

Activating sleeper agents across every Clan was proving a terrible burden on him. After all, bringing someone out of deep cover had consequences and it would likely result in much suffering. Genshi didn’t enjoy that. But what was he to do? His need was great, his options limited, and moment perilous.

So many lives, all changing forever.

Despite all that he was almost looking forward to his rendezvous trip with the pirate ship; the “footballs” were far too important to be entrusted to anyone else. Thankfully, the quick little ship he would be using was of One-Fang design and was absurdly overpowered and almost too fast for words. It was, in Genshi’s not-very-humble opinion, the very embodiment of what a Gaoian ship should be, but even with that much speed his journey would be long.

I don’t have time for this. He shook his head to free his thoughts and returned to the matter at hand. He drafted more messages, arranged more meetings, and activated more agents. He did as much of the talk-work as he could before he boarded his ship and headed to the mission.

He tried not to be too excited. He hadn’t done proper fieldwork in years.


Network Operations Center—Clan Longear, City of Kan Wo, Planet Gao

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

The room was utterly silent.

“So…now that you know, are there any questions?”

There were none. Perhaps they were too stunned, or perhaps they simply understood their fates were now bound to an impossible mission. In either case, Meereo let it be. They had work to do.

“Alright. We’ve gotta play this real careful, folks. Firstly, the official NOC leadership? They’re not in on this yet, I’m not sure I trust ‘em. Second? We need that detection signature to be absolutely perfect. We need to know everything these Ghosts do and every person that’s compromised, and who, if any, are Biodrones. And thirdly, we need to keep tabs on all of them.”

“That’s a tall order,” said Verik, leader for A-Shift.

“But necessary. I leave the details to you. Me? I’ve got to take care of the NOC Fathers, convert them to the mission if possible…”

One of the younger and more naïvely idealistic Brothers asked a tactless question. “If not? What will you do then?”

Meereo wasn’t pleased. “With what’s at stake? What do you think I will do, Anari? Roll over and expose my belly?”

“He is Champion, Anari.” That from Verik, with a dominant snarl. “He will do what he is bred and sworn to do, and you best keep your nose clean of it.”

“But—!”

“Enough,” snarled Meereo. “Did you not listen? We are facing something truly evil and I will not permit the Gao to die by the claws of bad programming! And given our official classification? Sooner or later—maybe even in our lifetimes, judging from the state of play—we will be labeled Deathworlders. That is going to happen whether it’s true or not. I’m no expert, but have you read the official report? They could do it easily! If that were to happen, how do you rate our chances? If the humans are defeated and the Hierarchy remains, will these idiot Domain herbivores stand with us? Who else? the Celzi? Another undiscovered species? Maybe they’re real Deathworlders like the Humans, not edge cases like us. Maybe they’re not inclined to play along. Maybe they’re more like the Hunters. Do we stand by and allow these risks any possibility?”

The room fell utterly silent. Meereo let the silence hang for a long uncomfortable moment, then grumped in an annoyed fashion. “Return to your jobs and remember your Oaths, or you just might find yourself at the wrong end of a Champion’s business. Dismissed. Except for you, Verik.”

The other Brothers duck-nodded and fled as quickly as possible. Verik gave them a moment to gain safe distance, then asked: “What do you need of me, my Champion?”

Meereo sighed. “I’ve gotta know which of these Fathers is a problem.”

“Miko. He’s got extensive implants and a whole lot of ‘update’ chatter.”

Meereo gave a dark little snarl of appreciation. “I knew there was a reason I made you A-Shift leader. When did you know?”

“Oh, right around the time we started speculating the Ghosts might be an intelligence program of some kind. He’s utterly fucking compromised, Champion. I’m absolutely convinced of it.”

“I need evidence.”

“You’ll have it when I sit down, encrypted to your private key.”

“…Thank you. And going forward—”

“Ask about whom? I have no idea who you’re talking about.”

“Right. Now run along, I gotta do my thing.”

Verik duck-nodded in reply, turned tail, and left. Meereo retired to his office and decided to check up on his “business” for Genshi. He ran the reports, stifled an inner yelp at their alarming contents, encrypted them, and forwarded them to Genshi, who was preparing to depart for some business he wouldn’t speak about. Oh well. Perhaps he would have time to respond before he left.

Meereo considered his options. And while he was at it, he began a discreet investigation of Miko.


11y 9m AV
Onboard the Nimble Spark, near the pirate ship, unclaimed space
Immediately after SOR’s raid

Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

His ship comm beeped, the message received. The SOR had departed several minutes prior and in their place was a small “handover” crew from the Royal Navy, whose mission was to scrub the ship down, extract, and document any evidence or technology the Humans or Gaoians might find useful. It was a job that would take quite some time and the Kwmbwrw weren’t due to arrive for several weeks. That would give all the time in the world for the Gaoian crews to arrive and sweep as well, and maybe clean up anything the Humans missed.

Well, that was the mission brief, anyway. The reality was a little different and Genshi needed to make his visit quick. He chirped his response and uncloaked, then approached the ship and docked. Atmospheric pressure was restored before he made it to the hatch, and as he stepped out, three packages on a hover pallet were already waiting for him. He scanned them quickly, seeing they matched his supplied code. He checked for any tampering: none. The seal-tape was exactly as described in the secure mission brief. All was in order.

He picked up his precious FOOTBALLs, loaded them onto his ship, returned the pallet, and made preparations to leave. The entire exchange took less than five minutes. A thought struck him just then. He decided to take no chances and moved the three FOOTBALLs into the stasis locker, then activated it. Satisfied any potential threat could be dealt with elsewhere he chirped his departure request and was immediately granted leave.

Only when he’d cleared the projected sensor net did he engage his FTL, and then only towards his false destination. Circuitous travel was always a hassle but one could never be too careful.

Not with the future of Gao onboard.


Darcy

“We’ve lost the tracking beacon,” said one of the collection operators.

“Yup, I bet he put them in a stasis cage. Goddamn that boy is clever.”

“He left the pallet, too.” That from her partner, Jake.

“Mhmm.”

“Where is he going?”

Darcy thought about it. “Well, I would assume a Whitecrest listening post or safehouse, somewhere.”

“Doesn’t Longear do their signals intelligence?”

“Not really, no. Longear would be more like the FBI and wiretapping. Whitecrest operates their own systems. We think. Our intel on how exactly the two Clans interoperate is a little sketchy.”

“Okay. Now the real question. Will his ship notice the tracker we shot up into its landing gear well?”

“Only one way to know.”


Three days later
Listening post, Whitecrest enclave, undisclosed location

Genshi

“Do not deactivate the stasis box when you move it to the other ship!”

“Yes, Champion.”


Four days later
Control, the Farm, undisclosed location, northern Virginia, United States, Earth

Darcy

“I guess he noticed the tracker.” Her supervisor made a resigned sound.

“Yup, that or he’s paranoid. Either way he’ll know now.”

“How will that affect our relationship?”

Darcy snorted. “With the devices we found in Regaari’s wake after his first visit to Earth? I imagine it won’t at all, or if it does, it will be a small quid pro quo. Given the packages we secured for him I think he’ll let it slide.”

“I hope so. I’ve never been comfortable with tradecraft against allies.”

“Friends keep tabs on each other. Politely, of course.”

“Of course. What did we glean?”

“We know where that marvelous ship of his stopped but that will be less than useless in short order. Once they discover the tracking device…”

He sighed. “Indeed. Oh well, it was worth a try. What next?”

“We wait.”


11y 10m 21d AV
Chapterhouse of Clan Whitecrest, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao
Office of the Champion

Champion Genshi of Clan of Whitecrest

Catching up on correspondence was always a time-consuming affair, but after the previous sleepless weeks spent secreting away the Footballs for their eventual use, securing their deployment avenues…Genshi was glad for some “boring” office work, where all he had to do was relax, read, and reply.

Genshi snuggled deeper into his huge and comfortable chair as he worked, claws tapping away at his ancient mechanical keyboard. Holoscreens were fine and infinitely flexible but there was something comfortably tactile about the centuries-old device, and he found himself more relaxed and productive when he was ensconced in his chair, happily typing out his work with tasty snacks and refreshing drink on hand. He would need to import some tea, he decided. Or perhaps something on Gao would make an acceptable brew? They had plenty of medicinal herbs and a long history of use; maybe the notion of a drink for general health and flavor simply never caught on. If so, was any of it palatable? Would the Humans buy it? He made a quick note to investigate whenever he had the chance. The potential profits for the Clan and himself…

Some perks of seniority were worth it.

And his messages were mostly good news, too! While he was, by that point, grimly certain of the irreversible compromise of key individuals across the many Clans of the Gao—and the data from Meereo wasn’t any comfort, either—the toll was much smaller than he had feared. He happily chipped many of his suspects off his initial list and plotted how he might dislodge the remainder.

All around it was good news. So, naturally, as if there was a cosmic force bent on tormenting him, one of the final messages he read was also from Meereo and it knocked him right out of his rested serenity and back into the mission.

He sighed. A voice call was really the only way to fix the problem. He keyed it up and waited as the device on the other end got Meereo’s attention.

“Why’s an old relic like you calling me?”

“Oh, I hear you’re in it deep these days.”

“Nothing a little ancient wisdom couldn’t cure! How are things?”

The little exchange was all the verification he could afford right now. Unless Meereo was suddenly and secretly biodroned…

“Are you alone?”

“Yes. I presume this is about my little issue.”

“Indeed. You are absolutely certain about him?”

“I’m sure, our new filter is very good. And you’ve seen the data yourself.”

Genshi grimaced a bit, “Indeed. Leave it to me, Meereo. We’ll take care of it. Just make sure the Ghost won’t be able to escape.”

“We’ve already done so, discreetly. He won’t notice because he’s experiencing some ‘routine admin access problems’ and the resolution is being held up for the usual bureaucratic reasons.” Meereo’s distinct chitter carried over the line.

“Yes, well. Give me a spare shake and I’ll have something arranged. Do not dirty your claws in this.”

Meereo sniffed audibly. “I’m not completely helpless, you know.”

“Of course not, but a Whitecrest has the dirtiest claws of all. Let me do what I was made to do. You need to remain above reproach, you know this.”

“…yeah. I feel like, sometimes, the old ways were best, though.”

Genshi sighed. “Meereo, old friend? Be careful. You may just get your wish.”


Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

The call ended and Meereo flicked his ears in a distinct display of annoyance. He knew he was being silly; the job at hand really was firmly in Whitecrest’s domain, but he couldn’t help the irrational feeling that he was being a coward and avoiding his duty. He was Champion after all, and taking care of that kind of problem was his essential purpose. It was why he kept fit and practiced his combat forms even if he was laughably defenseless against some of the more impressive of his fellow Champions. Genshi could tear him to ribbons. Daar could simply pick him up, bend him backwards, and snap his spine. Reeko of the Straightshields, Hiyel of the One-Fangs…all vastly superior fighters.

Meereo shook his head clear of those thoughts and made the arrangements on his end. It was a tricky bit of work but it would mostly involve a lot of waiting on his part, so while he watched systems reconfigure and progress bars jerk forward erratically, his mind wandered across his Clan’s history.


Longear was a relatively young Clan, who unlike their more ancient counterparts arose from Clanless workers and market forces rather than from the cauldron of battle, conquest, or protection. Longear started as fishers and sailors, added diving and underwater repair to their offerings, and eventually they shifted strongly into information systems. Quite how that transition took place was a bit of a mystery, but their best history had it originating from underwater cable laying for telegraphs, and from there, more advanced systems beget further progress, and Longear capitalized, becoming a full Clan.

Longear’s was an advanced and sophisticated craft. But even such utterly and thoroughly “civilized” Clans needed a Champion. At their best they were the spiritual embodiment of what it meant to be Clan, a walking, talking, perfect example to Brothers and everyone else of what a Clan member should be.

But a Champion’s role was not a strictly pure or pleasant one. In the early days of a Clan’s existence it was critical for a Clan to defend itself, even in the peace and prosperity of the modern era. More often than not the Clanless resented the rise of a Clan on their turf and would contest it, sometimes violently. Longear in particular had a protracted battle with another Clan (now absorbed and extinct) whose function overlapped with theirs. But they were slow to adapt to the changing winds of fortune, and though their name lived on in Longear, their genetic heritage and traditions were largely subsumed.

The founding Studs and Champions of Longear were not a gentle breed. They came from the most rough-and-tumble of the Clanless world and that hard edge stuck with them. Meereo was no exception. He was as friendly and easy-going as any male could be, but beating in the heart of every Champion was a long and proud legacy. A Champion was a ferocious fighter and defender of his Clan and kin and Meereo counted himself proudly in those ranks.


It didn’t matter that Daar had once punched a hole through Meereo’s ear entirely by accident during a friendly bout of wrestling, and that Meereo was utterly helpless beneath the giant, furry monstrosity. Nor did it matter that Daar was play-growling against Meereo’s ear, the great mass of the Stoneback crushing him so firmly into the ground he couldn’t breathe, especially with an iron-hard and calloused paw wrapped around his comparatively much smaller neck; it was a bestial paw so massive, Daar could completely encircle and casually crush Meereo’s throat with powerful, thick digits and tickle at his major arteries with massive, sharp, and strong claws.

None of that mattered. What did was where Meereo’s claws were positioned. When he wiggled his foot and Daar finally noticed what was at stake? That little victory earned an amused, wagging tail and a chuff of respect from the oversexed brute. After all, what use was a Champion without his balls?

Meereo chuckled at the memory. He would have died in a real fight; Daar had “killed” him dozens of times in the quick minutes of their play and Meereo’s gambit was merely the amusing end to a fun, private little get-together amongst like-minded Champions. But creative solutions against a complex adversary was Meereo’s stock in trade, and that was what Meereo plotted.

He would catch a Hierarchy Ghost, and then he would get…Creative.