The Deathworlders

3—Tall Tales

The Next Morning
In bed, Stoneback Free Laborer’s Clinic, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao

Associate Fiin of Stoneback

Fiin opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. Even that hurt. He groaned unhappily and sniffed the air, then froze; Tyal was there. A white-hot flash of dread welled up in Fiin but right at that moment, someone nuzzled at his right paw. Fiin painfully tilted his head down and looked, then raised his eyebrow in confusion. Tyal had his head resting on the bed and he keened very quietly, eyebrows and ears set in deep concern.

Fiin stared at him for a moment. He didn’t know what to say.

Tyal broke the awkward moment by flattening his ears and reaching up with his paws to just above Fiin’s hips, which was the spot he had squeezed the hardest the day before. There were deep claw punctures (now sealed and healing) and the muscles beneath were crushed so hard they would need surgery if they weren’t soon put back into place. So, Tyal massaged exactly where he knew Fiin needed it most. He protested at first in natural fear, but the pain relief that came with the forceful loosening and repositioning of his screaming muscles…

He grumbled happily before he knew what he was doing.

The Stoneback—no, his Brother—chittered in an amused tone, then grumbled ruefully and huffed by way of further apology.

“Awful way to end a day, huh?”

Fiin didn’t have any kind of verbal answer but he duck-nodded feebly in place. He was still coping with deep pain and paralyzing confusion, though he had to admit Tyal clearly knew exactly what he was doing with his paws. The sharpness of the pain just seemed to melt away under his touch, replaced with a dull, much more tolerable ache. He continued to knead and massage where he had so terribly crushed the smaller male the day before.

“How do you know how to do this?”

“My most bestest Cousin is a sports therapist in Clan Openpaw. He wasn’t smart enough for the full Rites in medicine but he is a Father-named natural with this kind ‘o thing. He taught me the basics so I’d stop pestering him, heh.”

Fiin hissed in sharp pain as Tyal found a particularly nasty spot, then relaxed as the tension released. “Ow,” he panted weakly. “Guess he couldn’t teach you a gentle touch, huh?”

Tyal grumbled deeply, “Sarry friend, ‘gentle’ ain’t really a word I’m good with. If he were here I’d give ‘em a call, he’s much better at this than me.”

“Where is heARRGH!”

Tyal pressed down along Fiin’s ribs with quite literally breathtaking force, stretching the fascia underneath. “He’s on Cimbrean,” he said without missing a step, “Doin’ an exchange with a ‘chi-ro-pract-or’ or something like that. He wants ‘ta study human anatomy, maybe see if he can learn anything neat!”

He released, and Fiin panted angrily. “Take it easy!”

“Nope, gotta get this done while you’ve still got relaxants in your system. You don’t want surgery, do you?”

Fiin shook his head sideways.

“Didn’t think so! I’ll be quick and get it over with.” And he was, and Fiin once again bore immense pain under Tyal’s paws.

It was a long, awkward while as he attacked each knot of agony, with Fiin spasming then exhaling in great relief as they progressed. A quick flip over onto his belly with some trepidation, then more suffering, then sweet, sweet release as his back finally relaxed. Tyal made short work of it then flipped Fiin over again and attacked his limbs. That took much longer and hurt even more. He began to suspect pain would be a constant in his new life as a Stoneback and Fiin could already imagine his fellow Housemates chittering in laughter as he mewled in helpless surrender to the monster working him over.

Fiin felt it was time for some humor, if for no other reason to distract from the pain. He chittered weakly, “Do you beat up every recruit like this?”

“Nope! Most of ‘em freak out a lot sooner than you did.”

“…Really?”

“Oh yeah.” He worked out a particularly evil knot along Fiin’s outer right thigh with a disturbing amount of force. Fiin hissed, arched his back, then slumped back down when the knot released. He panted in exhaustion.

Tyal gave a sly little look, “But they weren’t such big wimps afterward, either.”

“That’s not fair! What was I supposed to do, just sit there and take it? I’m surprised I lived through that torment! Were you trying to tear me in half?”

“Nah. If I were trying I’d have succeeded.”

Fiin gulped. “…I believe you.”

“Oh, relax! It was just a joke. I mean, I could,” he flashed a slightly dominant little grin, “But I wasn’t gonna do anything that stupid. It’d be a waste!”

“You could have made a mistake! Look at you, you’re huge!”

“Hey, give me some credit! I’ve been doing this for years and I know my own strength. Besides, you did exactly what a Stoneback should do. Fight back. Why would I wanna break someone that rare? You didn’t succumb to the pain, little one. You fought towards your mission and that’s what matters.”

“Not that it did me any good,” grumbled Fiin.

“You sure about that, Associate Fiin?”

Fiin had to admit he didn’t have a good answer to that. So he grumped instead, then winced as Tyal went to work on his footpaws. Even my feet hurt! How did he manage that? Fiin groaned in pain as Tyal leeched the last of the hurt out of his legs, then sighed in exhaustion and threw his head back. So tired.

Tyal padded up to the head of the bed and sat on his haunches next to Fiin. The Stoneback snuffled his big ‘ol snout towards Fiin’s head, ears still back as he continued his apology. Fiin finally gave in, rolled his eyes, and they sniffed each other in proper greeting.

“There, happy? I forgive you.”

“Don’t be sarcastic! And I ain’t apologizing anyway, don’t get that idea in ‘yer head. I’m sympathizin’ ‘cuz I know how bad it sucks.” He paused, then quietly, “I kinda wish ‘ya didn’t need to hurt so hard, that’s all.”

“…Sorry, sir.”

“Stop that, I work for a living! Call me Tyal, or Brother Tyal if you insist on being formal, ‘kay?”

“…okay.” Tyal shook his head in amusement. A thought struck Fiin right then. “Do all Stonebacks go through this?”

“Yup! It’s a little different for everyone ‘cuz we’re tryin’ to scare the shit outta ‘ya.” That particular human turn of phrase was becoming very popular; it had a wonderfully satisfying sound. “But the bit that’s always the same is we’re testing for honesty and focus. For most males, best way is a death threat and pain. And, well…you literally crashed yourself into the perfect setup and I took advantage.” Fiin cringed at that. “Hey, not your fault, but that’s how it goes. Anyway, rather than set up some situation like we usually do, I decided to test you then and there. Happy little accidents like that make for a better test.”

“‘Happy.’”

“Maybe not the best word…” Tyal chittered in amusement, “Okay, maybe that’s a little disrespectful, too. But yeah, I hadta do it right then and there to protect you. And anyway I knew you’d pass, I could smell your honesty the moment I stepped out of the car. The air was thick with your truth-stink.”

“Gee, thanks…”

“Hey, don’t knock it! You lived and you passed, and now you’re a brand new Stoneback. That’s a good thing, ain’t it?”

Fiin paused and asked with trepidation, “Would…you have really killed me if I had lied?”

“Yup.” Tyal said it without hesitation. There was an awkward pause.

“…Right. Um, are you hungry?”

“…Yeah. Ow.” The dull aches in his loosened and repositioned muscles were growing stronger. He suddenly felt ravenous.

“Okay. I’ll go get you some food and maybe painkillers, be right back.”

Tyal bounced out of the little room, leaving Fiin alone with his thoughts. Mostly they were preoccupied with the exquisite symphony of pain playing itself across his body. He looked around, found the display remote, sat up a little and grunted with effort, then gave it a press. He asked for cartoons and got them.

Then he slumped back onto the bed, exhausted. Tyal had really worked him over. Fiin didn’t know it was even possible to hurt in so many ways.

And the less said about his shoulders, the better.

But none of that distracted from the central question gnawing at his mind. He pondered, and at last simply stated it out loud: “So…now I’m a Stoneback. What happens next?”

“You eat!” Tyal returned carrying a ridiculous amount of food. “And you eat big, little one. You’ve got the fight in ‘ya but, well…let’s be honest. You ain’t really representin’ Stoneback size and strength. No offense,” he offered as Fiin struggled to form an objection, “It’s just, y’know. You gotta heal, and you gotta grow, and both of those mean you gotta eat. Plus, how old are you?”

“…uh, nineteen soon. Is all that food for me?” He eyed the pile warily.

“As much as you can eat, yup. I’ll eat the rest. And that’s good, it means you still have time to grow! You’re gonna have to work really hard, though. You’ve only got a few years before you’ll slow down, so eat up!” Tyal opened a container and placed it next to Fiin. It was a large pile of peshorkie dumplings filled with a rich, savory mincemeat and herbs from the northern plains, and it instantly made Fiin drool. But it was only one plate of food and Tyal was busy opening the rest—

“Just this one platter could feed me for almost a week!”

“Sure could! That’s the thing about the Gao. We have this habit of eating just enough food to get by, y’know? Good survival technique back when food was scarce. But Stoneback figured out a long while ago we could eat and grow a lot more than most. The other, smaller Clan stock just ain’t got the capacity like we do.” Tyal paused, “Well…okay, t’be fair about it, Straightshields and Highmountains can eat big too. And the Emberpelts I guess, but even still. Nobody can do big and strong like we can, heh. Me? I’m one of our clan Studs and we’re big enough we make most Humans look weak. And Daar is way stronger than me, too!”

“Really?”

“Yeah! Well, most humans, anyway. There’s a rare few that make even Daar look downright puny from what I heard.”

“Really!?”

“Scary, huh? He’s already, like, the biggest and mightiest Gaoian to ever live, and before we met the humans he was the strongest, baddest being in the galaxy. But now he says he had his tail handed to him by a human that was a little smaller but way, way faster, and who moved and fought like Myun wished she could. Imagine that! And now they’re teaching him stuff, and he’s teaching them, too. He didn’t give me details but hey, if everyone learns new stuff that’s good, right?”

“Daar was beaten?” Fiin was having trouble keeping up.

“Yup. He’d never confess that to me unless it were true, y’know. He knows I’ve been thinking on maybe Challenging him someday, when he gets older.”

“Wh—then why would he tell you?”

“That’s ‘cuz the Champion is responsible to the Clan, not his ambition. One day he won’t be smart enough or strong enough to be Stoneback, and one of the younger Studs—maybe me, if I’m good enough—will Challenge him and take over. Not anytime soon though. He’s in his prime and last we fought, he swat me around about as easy as I did you. Think on that for a moment.”

“…He seemed so friendly.”

“He is! It was just a play fight. But hey, I got more scars!” he gestured to a particularly impressive one down his right flank. “Anyway, part of his duty as he sees it, anyway, is to keep close friends with us Studs. There ain’t much we don’t share with each other. Our Clan is honest with each other no matter what and nobody is more Stoneback than Daar. You understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“…Fiin. What did I tell you?”

“…yes, Brother.”

“…I’ll allow it. Anyway. Here’s some pain relief,” he handed over a couple of pills, “And eat up! You gotta heal and grow. You gotta grow a lot.”

Fiin swallowed the pills and grumbled a bit. “Not that I’ll ever catch up.”

“Sure you will! I looked up your pedigree while you were asleep and you’ve got Stoneback, Highmountain, Emberpelt, and Ironclaw purebred stock back to your foresires and foremothers. That’s an impressive lineage! I’ve got a feeling you’ll do just fine. Now EAT, and lemme tell you a story.”

Fiin pulled the tray of peshorkies over to himself and picked the biggest one. It was dripping in broth and fat and it smelled so good! He popped it in his mouth and savored it, eyes closed in pleasure. Tyal snuck one off the tray for himself while Fiin wasn’t looking, then opened another tray.

“What storyth youf gonna tell?”

Tyal swallowed before answering. “The First Story, about how Stoneback and the modern era came to be. It began before the days of writing…”

Fiin listened and ate, and learned the tale of the Gao.

History class was a lie.


11y 10m 21d AV
Apartment, Delaney Row, Foltcha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Melissa

“He’s coming back?”

“Yes!” Niral squeaked happily and wiggled into her pillow. “I got his message this morning! It won’t be for a while yet, but there’s some research he wants to do on Human networks. He didn’t really give details but…he’ll be here a while!”

“Hmm,” teased Melissa, “It’s about time you had a cub, too!”  

“H—hey! That’s a little soon, don’t you think?”

“I dunno, that big Daar fellow seems to move fast. Didn’t he just arrive?”

“Well of course he’s already seduced someone, the uncultured Kwek-brain.” Her snort of contempt transcended all boundaries of language and idiom. “No doubt she saw a recruiting poster of him in some ridiculous pose.”

“Wait a second,” laughed Melissa, “Daar? On a recruiting poster? Why?”

“He’s the Champion of Stoneback and he really is the ultimate example of a stupid, flexing lout. Here.” She fetched her tablet, “See for yourself.”

“Oh…oh my!” Melissa couldn’t help but giggle. The picture showed Daar in a high contrast photo designed to highlight his many scars and cast very dramatic shadows across the rolling topology of his body. His mouth was opened in a sort of half snarl, half pant expression of aggressively playful manliness, and the background was filled with all manner of unmistakably boy-centric and hypermasculine imagery. But the best part was how he stood posing ridiculously in a taut, full-body flex. He was on all fours like Melissa had only ever seen Daar do, and his left arm (foreleg?) was curled up into an impressive shape, bulging all the way from the wrist up to the shoulder.

Melissa burst out laughing.

“Oh! Oh that’s so…what does the text say?” She giggled as she asked.

“The top just says ‘Stoneback’ in their corporate branding. It’s in that really chunky ‘strong’ font that males seem to like, because males are weird, I guess.” She chittered, “They made it look like metal plating, too.”

Melissa nodded, “Right, like an advertisement for a Ford truck back in the day.” She read along the bottom. “What about this? That looks more like regular Gaori but I can’t quite read it…”

“It’s in a very old-style phonetic system that only ancient Clans use so you don’t see it much. It says ‘The Strong are Few,’ I think. They’re using some really old language there. And the rest is a infosphere node address.”

Melissa couldn’t get over the visuals on the poster. They seemed exactly like something a ten year old boy would dream up in a bad Photoshop project.

“Oh, man what a corny poster! But you and I aren’t the target, are we?”

“No, obviously not. But that right there is basically everything that’s wrong with Stoneback! They’re crude, un-cultured—”

“Farmers, builders, world-class tradesman and civil engineers…”

“…Yes, fine, they’re all of that to forestall the rest, but, just…” she sputtered, “LOOK AT THAT!”

Melissa chuckled and shook her head, “Oh girl, don’t get upset. So Daar’s not your cup of tea, then. Has he been pestering you?”

“…Well, no. He’s been unfailingly polite, actually.”

“Has he been pushy or unwelcome, anything like that?”

“No no, he’s kept his distance!”

Melissa raised an eyebrow. “So lemme get this straight. He ain’t your type, he’s left you to your peace, and some of the other females like him and seem pleased by it all. So not to be rude, but what exactly is your problem?”

“…” She flopped back on the cushions. “I dunno. I guess it’s irrational.”

“He’s a boy, you don’t need to be rational! And you went for Meereo pretty quick as I recall…”

“He’s different!”

“He’s an Anubis sex god nerd-boy.” She waggled her eyebrows to Niral’s chittering protests. “And a Champion. We seem to have a lot of those traveling through here…”

“Well, Cimbrean is important to our mutual interests in trade and diplomacy.”

“Well said. But you’re dodging the point and I won’t let you!”

“No, no…I get the point. I dunno, he just…something about Stonebacks and him in particular just doesn’t ‘do it’ for me.”

“Ha! Well, fair enough. But he’s gotta have some charm if he’s so successful.”

“Oh he does. I’ll admit he is really easy on the eyes, and on the nose, too. Actually, maybe a little too pleasing…and then there’s the Clan history.”

“What history?” Melissa stood up to go get some warm beverages. Niral was easy to get on a roll about the Gao—especially their history—but the payment was always a mug of hot chocolate.

“Oh, that would be the bit where Stoneback created the Clan of Females.”

Melissa stopped in her tracks. “Wait, what?”

“Yes! Why else would we tolerate them?”

“Okay. You need to tell that story from the very beginning.”

“When I get my drink!”

Melissa nodded and busied herself while Niral got comfortably situated. The human returned with two big, steaming mugs, then settled herself in as well.

“So.”

“Right! So, okay. This story starts over a thousand years ago…”


Brother and Stud Tyal of Clan Stoneback

“The first bit ‘ya gotta know is how the bloodlines happened. Remember the stories they taught in the crèche?”

Fiin swallowed his seventeenth peshorkie. That one was made of a meat he didn’t recognize but it was incredibly rich and flavorful, and Tyal noticed.

“Like it? I had ‘em sneak a couple ‘beef’ peshorkies in the mix.”

He licked his chops and enjoyed the afterglow for a moment. “From Earth?”

“Cimbrean, actually, part of their agricultural offworlding project. A whole planet for growing food! We’re also looking at raising some Naxas out there, see how they take to the environment, y’know? I’m told Humans really like the meat and they’re super excited for the pelts, too. There’s this whole cottage industry around knitting, I guess…anyway. You didn’t answer my question.”

“Oh!” Fiin reached for another dumpling. “Yeah. Something about how, uh, there was a population bottleneck, and then an adaptive radiation, I think, and the two breeds evolved, then later teamed up?”

“That’s only a little true. It’s what we can get back from the archeology…but here’s what we know, and this is really old knowledge. It ain’t secret but we don’t talk about it with just anyone, got it?”

Fiin duck-nodded and popped the morsel in his mouth. It was Kwek. Yum.

“Okay. So, our Clan has oral histories going back really far. We’ve got them going back to when we were all brownies and before the breeds separated.”

“…You’re serious.”

“Oh yeah. You’ll be getting the full story from our Loremaster when we can arrange it, but he’s doing research at the moment and can’t be disturbed.”

Fiin didn’t pick up on the hint. “Okay. So we have actual stories and we remember when we were one breed. What happened?”

“Well…”


Sister Niral of the Clan of Females

“Just ‘tween us girls? The Females and the Stonebacks go way back.” Melissa curled up around her pillow and nursed her hot chocolate, ready to listen. “You are of course aware of our gender imbalance.”

“Yeah, it’s the defining feature of your culture.”

“Yes. It puts us females at a disadvantage and encourages violence and conflict, and it cheapens the value of the males. We only advanced when we found a way to ‘balance the unbalanced,’ is how Grandmother used to say.”

“I had thought about that. What you have now is…well, it works. I can’t say it’s perfect but then, what society is? We certainly have our share of problems.” Melissa pondered her chocolate. “You mentioned the Stonebacks. How are they involved in all this?”

“Well, they helped us gain our freedom.”


Brother Tyal

“There was a mass extinction. We’re not exactly sure what caused it but it was almost certainly a solar event, or maybe a gamma ray burst or something. You’d need to ask the Loremaster when you get the chance. Anyway, our world went from a rich garden to the planet-wide chilly savannah it is today. Good so far?”

“They did cover that a little in our early history class. There’s evidence…”

“There is, but like I said we have oral stories from that time period, too. There’s…well, a bunch of them. But my favorite has gotta be the Keeda tale.”

“Ooh, tell me!”

Fiin sat up, distracted from the pain. “Keeda tales” were a staple of old (and new) Gaoian culture, wherein a morally ambiguous hero with otherwise admirable qualities finds his schemes for mates, revenge, or advancement thwarted by the black comedy of existence or the well-deserved fruits of his actions, or the schemings of other Keedas. They were meant for cubs and could be considered to be moral fables or simple entertainment. Every story had its own unique character and that character’s name was always Keeda.

Nobody really knew why.

“Okay! So. Keeda, well, he’s not findin’ a female and he’s got a powerful itch, y’know? Like you ain’t been laid in a month?”

“My very first mating contract was only a few days ago, so…” Fiin couldn’t keep the annoyed growl out of his voice.

“Ha, first of many I bet!” Fiin preened and chittered happily. “Anyway, there’s something really important you gotta know first. Back then, when this tale got made up? Birthrates for cubs were equally male and female.”

“Wait, what!?”

“Oh yeah. We’ve got genetic evidence for that, too, and it’s not in doubt. I actually have source material if you want. Anyway, the extinction event happened. The hardier animal life persevered but all of it was changed. Us? We suffered a bottleneck down to the hundreds of breeding pairs. The number of defects and sicknesses in the survivors was huge, and that meant our tribal elders had to enforce matings by as many partners as possible.

“One male in particular had a very serious mutation in his sex chromosomes and he had the good luck to breed with a female with an equally serious—but lucky for us—compatible set of mutations. Their cubs bred true and the mutation spread like wildfire…but they noticed that the pairings from their line resulted in almost all males. By the time everyone noticed it was too late.”

Tyal paused for a moment. “Kinda blows your mind, huh?”

“Why…” Fiin struggled for a thought, “Why, uh, wasn’t this taught?”

“I’ll get to that. Anyway, back to Keeda. Nothin’ he’s got is impressing the females no matter what he tries. This was an old Keeda, back when the tales were mighty, so he had some serious males to compete with! Keeda, though, he’s a clever tail and he decides, ‘If I can’t have a female, nobody can!’”

“Wow, Keeda. You’re a jerk!”

“Haha! So Keeda, he looks around. I guess we hadn’t figured out fire yet so he decides he’ll grab the sun and burn everyone’s balls off!”

“Well obviously!” Fiin chittered and reached for his water, “Grab sun, run around and shove it into everyone’s crotch. What could possibly go wrong?”

“Wait, it gets better!”

“Really?”

“Yeah! So Keeda goes around and burns everyone’s balls off, right? I mean, you’d think that kinda feat would impress the fuck outta even the pickiest female, but I guess back then they were harder to please.”

“Great Fathers, the smell!”

“Oh yeah. Especially since nobody back then knew how to clean themselves. Can you imagine? They didn’t even have the Comb”.

They both shuddered.

“Anyway, somehow Keeda manages it. He’s the only male with working nuts left! So, victory, right? Nope. The females still won’t mate with him, and now they’re extra mad ‘cuz Keeda ruined all the cute guys. So they catch him and decide to burn his balls off!”

“I think I see a flaw in their plan.”

“Well, females, when they’re triggered and in heat…”

“Yeah yeah. So I presume there was an intervention?”

“Yeah. Apparently Keeda had the biggest Father-damned orbs ever ‘cuz somehow, the Wise Mother stopped them before they’d completely burned ‘em both off. I mean…those gotta be pretty big, right? When the sun takes its sweet time to do the job?”

“Haha! So this Keeda was like Daar, then.”

“Ha! Imma tell him that and make sure he knows it was you!”

Fiin whined quietly, “…Please don’t.”

“Oh, don’t worry, he wouldn’t mind and I wouldn’t embarrass you to the Champion. That just ain’t right, y’know? Anyway. They stop, just in the nick of time! But, and this is kinda where the stupid goes full power ahead, they almost burned off his female-making jewel, but the male-making one was only a little damaged. I guess. Also now some of the cubs were ‘burnt’ or something, and they never grow up. And it just gets weirder and weirder from there.”

“Oh,” chittered Fiin desperately, “That’s amazing!”

“Mhmm. But I guess it makes sense if you don’t know how testicles work.”

“Does it have an ending?”

“Yup! Not a good one for Keeda though. The Wise Mother fixes all the males by bashing Keeda’s nuts off with the World Tree—apparently this doesn’t make things worse—and then she grinds them into a paste, and the females make little clay models, and they slide them down a rainbow into pools of…I forget, actually…and yeah. But the thing is, Keeda’s balls were already too broken to fix up so now there’s always more males than females. Thanks, Keeda.”

“…Wow.” Fiin chittered desperately as he slowly regained his breath. “But, uh, he kinda did win, y’know?”

“Oh?”

“Everyone’s shiny new pair were his.”

“…Y’know, I never thought of it that way.”

“Heh. But still, that’s one of the dumbest Keeda tales I’ve ever heard.”

“Really? Oh! I’ve gotta share a book with you later, I have the worst and they’re great fun to tell the cubs!” He cleared his throat. “Anyway…”

“Yeah, so our sex chromosomes changed. What happened next?”

“Several things. At the same time as our numbers changed, the silverfurs began to emerge. We know from other tales that it wasn’t, uh, well appreciated at the time. Most were killed in their adulthood by the elders as Abomination, but some of the silverfurs escaped persecution and grew up to be very, very clever. They seemed to, well…keep their cub-like ability to learn. They were creative and experimental and it’s around that time our civilization truly began.”

“Wait. You’re saying the silverfurs made civilization?”

“No. Yes. Well, sorta. Some of the smarter brownies took a liking to the silverfurs, right? It’s obvious the silverfurs were valuable because they saw things differently, they came up with new tools, all that sort of stuff. So these brownies decide to team up and protect the silverfurs. Help them prosper, yeah? Well. Those brownies get a reputation. Maybe it’s us praising ourselves, or whatever, but those first protectors are said to have been so tough and unwavering in their protection, their backs must have been made of stone.”

Tyal paused and attacked another tray of food while Fiin contemplated.

“So, lemme get this straight. We’re one people, male and female are balanced. A catastrophe happens and we have lots of evidence to back this up. At the same time, the genders go out of balance, the silverfurs emerge, civilization starts properly, and a group of brownies starts calling themselves the Stonebacks. Am…I missing anything?”

“Little things. We were the first named Clan but Clans didn’t exist yet. Of all the Gao we suffered the least genetic damage and are, I suppose you could say, the truest to our kind’s original spirit. We and the Females made sure of that.”

“…What?”

“Well. Here’s the thing. That shift? You know how it musta changed society, right? That wouldn’t happen overnight.”

“The Clan of Females.” Fiin knew where the story was going now.

“Yup.”

“Okay. Before you get into that, though, I gotta ask: why weren’t we taught any of this in the crèche?”

“‘Cuz the Females know something about the Gao that most of the Clans don’t even know.”

“And that is…?”

“We Gaoians ain’t so civilized at all.”


Sister Niral

“There’s big gaps in our knowledge about how it all happened, because our written history starts long after genetically modern Gaoians appeared. Females were little better than well-regarded slaves and didn’t have easy access to books or anything. We also don’t know the stories of what it was like from the Deep Before and the Clans that might aren’t telling. I personally think Stoneback and Highmountain do know.”

“Why wouldn’t they share?”

“Who knows? And, to be honest? We’re not really in a position to demand answers, given what they did for us. They’d resent it. All the Clans would, even the Females. We try not to pry in each other’s business.”

“But surely your origins are your business!”

“Our origins as a Clan, sure. But all of this is stuff that happened long before that. What I know I’ve learned talking to historians and they’re generally a pretty reclusive group. A few Females, a lot of Highmountains, and none of them like to talk to anyone except Grandfathers, Champions, and the Mother-Supreme. Us low-status Gaoians just gotta accept it, I guess.” Niral didn’t even try to hide the disgust in her tone.

“Okay…so what do you know?”

“What we do know is that there was a major genetic change in our very ancient history and that the gender imbalance has always been a part of our civilization. For as far back as we can remember, Females have been ‘protected.’ Some times it wasn’t so bad. Others…”

Melissa sipped at her chocolate. “We have roughly similar examples in our own species, even today. Some of our ‘civilizations’ are anything but.”

“…Why haven’t you fixed that!?”

“Because we would need to kill so many to do it.”

“So? That didn’t stop us and it certainly didn’t stop the Stonebacks.”

“It would stop us.” Melissa skipped to the end as humans so frequently did. It was a marvelous time saver, even if it took a while to get used to. “We have…I dunno. You’re not a democracy or a republic, for a start, you don’t have to worry about public support for a war. Where I’m from if we pushed that hard then forces inside our own ranks would start pushing back harder. And I’m not sure they’d be wrong to, either.”

“Maybe. I don’t think you appreciate the scale of what Stoneback did, though. It wasn’t some little skirmish. They…”

Melissa caught the hint. “Well…how bad was it?”

“Here…there’s a good book on the subject…”


Excerpt from “A History of the Gao: Volume 9, the Clan of Females”
—by Father and Stud Kureya, 266th Loremaster of Clan Highmountain

By the end of the late Clan-States era, combat prowess was a central theme of all but the most modern and Civilized Clans, and even then it was rare for a Clan to entirely escape that essential role. The purpose of a Clan was to defend and advance their own interests first and those of other Gao second. This was achieved through selectively advocating Studs for breeding, developing skills and knowledge in their domain, providing their services to the other Clans as was befitting, allying with related Clans and providing for their collective defense against upstarts. For many of the “military” Clans, securing their own interests often required them to maintain a careful equilibrium by ensuring that no Clan-State grew too large or dominant, and that the Clans vital to their survival were not threatened.

At that time, the first, most ubiquitous, and most openly mercenary of these Clans—and therefore the most influential—was Clan Stoneback. Like all mercenary Clans they had a strong relationship with the landed brown-furred farmer factions, both for food and access to their females. It was therefore necessary to maintain an uneasy truce with allied City-Clans and to very carefully choose their contracts.

Naturally this was not a one-directional process. The City-Clans sought whatever leverage they could over the Stonebacks and soon discovered that, as Stoneback kept no females in their mountain fortresses and were utterly dependent on the farmers for recruits and cubs, a City-Clan’s most potent leverage was their ability to limit Stoneback’s access to females.

Although effective, this method caused resentment. Each such provocation generated a response, be it political re-alignment, raids, or skirmishes. While these were zero-sum actions in the short term, in the long term the conflict generated compounding instability, and Clan Stoneback began to consider how to bring about a change in the status quo.

Enter Great Mother Tiritya.

Little is known about Tiritya’s early life though much can be inferred. Like nearly all females trapped within the walls of a city at the time, she would most probably have been an illiterate breeding slave of a City-Clan and was likely of modest farmer stock. Whatever her origins, Great Father Fyu, then Grandfather of Stoneback, wrote extensive poetry about and to her. Sadly, the exact details of their relationship in private will never be known. Whatever transpired between them, however, triggered the greatest upheaval in the history of Gao: the breaking of the Clan-States and the founding of the Great Alliance of Gao.

The uprising began with the emancipation of Tiritya and her sisters over a thousand years Before First Contact. First came the surprise sacking of her city by a small Claw of peerless warriors, who slaughtered the guard and freed the females before the city could properly react. Their identity was unknown but given the known and speculated details, and the speed and brutality of the strike, the aggressors could only have been an elite Stoneback Claw.

It is believed that, after their freedom was won, Tiritya and her sisters retreated to a Stoneback fortress where a grand Conclave was called. They overwintered while word spread and tensions between Stoneback and the outside world grew. According to his poetry, Father Fyu took great pleasure in teaching Tiritya and her fellow females the secrets of writing and the combat arts of his Clan. Other loves blossomed as well, many just as important, and the essential binding between Stoneback and the Females was forever sealed. After all, Stonebacks have always had strong protective instincts and the realities of the harems must have offended them.

Over the next seven years, Tiritya and her growing army of “claw-sisters” would, at great personal risk, infiltrate hostile Clan-Cities and prepare them for liberation. They would sabotage defenses, assassinate officers, and scout covert routes past the walls for the Brothers to exploit. It was during such an operation in the city of Wi Kao that Tiritya was finally caught: She was executed, and her pelt delivered to the Stoneback fortress at High Mountain.

The contemporary writer and chronicler Sister Mayem wrote that “From that moment on, Great Father Fyu forgot the concept of mercy.” He summoned the full strength of the Clan and razed Wi Kao to bedrock, sparing only the females and cubs. The Stonebacks have never commented on the matter. Nor has Stoneback ever discussed the later stages of the Great Change, but they were of course crucial to its endgame. But the outcome is known. The campaign went from merely tactical to utterly brutal and no city was spared their combined wrath.

It came to an end four years after Tiritya’s death when the final city surrendered to the growing alliance. Along the way their army swelled enormously, with Females fighting alongside the larger, stronger, and far more numerous males. What they lacked in physical prowess they made up with a ferocity matched only by an enraged Stoneback male in his absolute prime. Where that failed, they had Motivation: lose, and their lives would be unpleasantly short and everyone knew it. After Wi Kao there would be no quarter from anyone.

According to Sister Mayem, at the campaign’s close Father Fyu threw his armor into the mud and returned to High Mountain Fortress unarmed. There he devoted himself to a life of intellectual pursuits and eventually led a small faction of generals, strategists and Stoneback intellectuals towards other endeavors. So well-regarded was Great Father Fyu that he became the first and only Grandfather in the history of Gao to lead two Clans at once: Stoneback, and the newly-established Highmountain.

But despite all their military success, the conflict was truly won by the simple realities of biology. Females are, of course, induced ovulators and a stressed, fearful female is much less likely to bear cubs at all, let alone healthy ones. Everyone recognized the impact of a drastic decline in birthrates, and once the Females were united in sufficient numbers the battle was all but won. In quick order all but the most violently-inclined Clans either joined the Alliance and gained mating access to the newly-forged Clan of Females, or they were mercilessly torn asunder by the Stonebacks, often literally.

And so the Stonebacks—with strong Female assistance and approval—destroyed the Clan-State alliances and brutally and systematically de-fanged the City-Clans, leaving only a very small core of competency in each for their own self-defense. They executed generals, publicly castrated officers, and shaved and ritually scar-marked any who so much as smelled of rebellion, making his history known to any Female who might court him. And to actual plotters and insurrectionists, they got…creative.

But then they did something very clever. They sought out the males who embodied the spirit of their Clan and who would defend it, but whose worldview had an enlightened and modern bent. Those they proclaimed to the Females, who rewarded their zeal for Clan and the new direction of the Gao with the greatest gift a male could get: cubs. Lots of cubs. Those lucky males became the unofficial spiritual leaders of the reformed Clans. The rest would take years to resolve, but none denied that those males…were Champions.

Naturally, none of that was entirely without negative consequence, and by the end of the Great Change the collective defense was reduced to a theoretical and ceremonial role. At first the Stonebacks kept the more rebellious Clans in line, usually gently, sometimes with bloody and brutal suppression. Those Stonebacks performing that duty grew into the Straightshields and, over time, merged with an offshoot of the Highmountains and became the judiciary and police of the Gao.

But even that became largely unnecessary. Over time, breeding pressure tamed the fire of even the most hot-blooded of the Clan lineages, and within four generations the Great Alliance was in full effect. No longer were Clans oriented to a single city or region like the Clan-States of yore. Instead, they became much more business-like and focused on their core competency. The males discovered they had much better breeding success and personal happiness in a life spent fulfilling a purpose instead of defending territory, and that allowed for rapid Clan specialization.

And life for the Clanless greatly improved as well. The great masses now had a good chance at a legacy, previously an almost unheard of possibility. No longer were the existing Clans terrified of their crèche being raided, their females stolen away, and their cubs being murdered in the night. With the threat of raids gone, everyone got more cubs, and that made everyone happier. Life with a unified and secure Clan of Females was safer, friendlier, and more productive.

Which was a point the Females never failed to make, even if they maybe glossed over the significant male contributions to the process. And the Stonebacks? Well. They never much complained. Partly that was their nature; they could be strangely stoic about certain things, particularly anything involving their past. They would far rather brag and boast about their abilities and achievements in the present. But mostly? The Females gave them a very wide berth to be themselves in a way few other Clans could get away with, and that let them pick the absolute cream of the genetic crop from the very beginning of the modern era, which served to compound their ancient and already formidable breeding legacy. Stonebacks have never wanted for cubs.

In the end the females tamed the males, both through their own guile and the eager cooperation of the Stonebacks and others. But that did weaken the Gao’s military prowess over the centuries of peace. Most of the ancient Clans slowly faded into the background, either being selectively absorbed by Stoneback (and later, other Clans as well) or fracturing and dividing into ever more specialized and esoteric Clans, until many simply disbanded, their remaining genetic legacy absorbed by the Clanless.

That was all ancient history in the Clans’ deep past but the traditions—and their value—remained, preserved and enhanced by the surviving ancient Clans.


Melissa

“That’s…a hell of a story. The Stonebacks sound like Genghis Khan and America during World War II, except both at the same time.”

Niral duck-nodded solemnly. “I won’t pretend our past was pleasant. Sometimes social progress only comes at the tip of a claw.”

Melissa looked down at her mug thoughtfully. “So is that why you don’t like Daar? That he represents something in your ancient past?”

Niral blinked non-plussed. “…No? Melissa, honey, you had it right the first time. I just think he’s a lout!” She chittered amusedly and set her ears in mischief. “Calm and poised, upright and straight-backed? Now that is sexy! Like those Whitecrest fellows…”

“Or Meereo.”

Niral affected a shrug, “He’s smart and handsome and considerate. He’d make a great sire and our cub would be impressive. And it’s not to say I hate Stonebacks. All that story I just told? We Females grow up reading it. We’re predisposed to like them—don’t tell any of the other males that—and, well. Look at them. Look at the bodies they have, especially Daar! But…I dunno.” She sighed, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s more to it. But males like Daar aren’t for me. I’ve only really talked to a couple and both were only interested in one thing, and that felt…” She struggled for words.

“Objectifying?”

“Yes! That, that exact word!”

“Oh honey,” laughed Melissa, “You’re complaining that a big strong man thought you were pretty and didn’t bother to hide it? And then you have the gall to complain about objectification, despite all we’ve said about them tonight?”

“I don’t publicly tell males I’d like to claw their ears and rub their belly!”

Melissa filed that bit of mental imagery away for later.

“Well, why not? Is it uncivilized? Look—” She raised her hand to forestall further protest. “Look, girl. I’m just pointing out how silly the game is in apparently both our species. I ain’t judging ‘cuz I do exactly the same thing! All I’m saying is be honest about it and don’t write off guys until you’ve talked to them. Who knows, maybe you’ll just be friends! Maybe he’s actually a nerd. How would you know unless you talked to him?”

“…I can’t see anything wrong with your advice…”

“Or don’t. Up to you. Just know it was your decision and if you’re gonna be subjective and irrational about it, just admit that to yourself. Do that and you’ll be way ahead of the curve.”

“…I suppose so. You’re right, maybe I am being unfair.”

“And hey, maybe it widens your prospects! After all you’re a Gaoian. Once you and Meereo get it on…”

“I intend to enjoy this courtship! I mean, I even removed my implants!”

Melissa perfectly disguised her surprise. “Oh?”

“Yeah. He couldn’t tell me why but he had some worry…I guess that’s what his Clan are like. They’re worried about network security and stuff but me? I’m much more comfortable with a trade deal!”

I’ll need to inform Control.

“Anyway,” Melissa interjected to keep the conversation flowing, “Just keep your options open, that’s all I’m saying. Who knows? I bet a lot of those Stonebacks are really sweet and sensitive if you give them the time of day. I mean, they’re engineers and builders, right? They can’t be all that bad, can they?”

“No!” Niral seemed enthusiastic about the idea. “I’ll keep a more open mind. You’re right, Melissa. I’ve been unfair.  Maybe…I have been missing out.”


Associate Fiin

“So we did it for the nookie?”

“Of course we did!” Tyal chittered as he finished the last of the food. Between the two of them they’d finished it all and they were both feeling lethargic. “Why else do we do anything? Everything is about the Females. It’s the basic purpose of our Clan, remember? ‘Protect and Provide.’ It’s all for them.”

“And we get cubs.” Fiin’s eyes were bright and his ears were forward.

“Damn straight. What’s not to love?”


Melissa

Evening drew to a close but it was a nice, lazy weekend, and the Gaoians aligned their local rhythm with the human calendar. It was close enough, after all, and everyone needed a break from the daily routine. Why not share?

Still. Melissa’s curiosity wasn’t quite sated. She made a Hot Pocket for each and prepared more drink. While she worked she asked, “So what about the modern era? After all your armies disbanded, didn’t that cause problems?”

“Until First Contact, no. We were humming along fine. But after…”


Excerpt from “Modern Perspectives on Conflict”
—by Father and Stud Kureya, 266th Loremaster of Clan Highmountain

Everything changed when the Dominion made first contact. Clans like Whitecrest and Firefang took immediate advantage and their fortunes increased drastically almost overnight. Whitecrest in particular went from a niche provider of Clan espionage, intrigue, and personal protection into the premier security provider of the Gao. But they didn’t start with a full paw of tools, owing to Gao’s relative infancy in space. They had much to build: intelligence networks, safehouses, communications networks. And they had other Clans to draw upon: One-Fang for ships and stations, Firefangs for pilots both combat and commercial, Longears for surveillance systems…

What about Stoneback? They were warriors still, but the modern era had little use for vast armies of swift, disciplined, rage-born and overmuscled walls of teeth and claws. Tactics and technology favored the approach used by the modern military Clans: hit hard, hit fast, and hit once, and if one was a Whitecrest, avoid detection as well. The Stoneback’s long history of massive, organized, long and brutal military campaigns no longer made much sense. What armies would they face? Who would even try?

While yes, brute force has its uses, and yes, the occasional workhouse rivalry or Clan feud might spill out of control, such things were not terribly common. Stoneback still provided small Claws and full Fangs of assault troopers for the very occasional threat that needed smashing in the most violent, thorough, and personal manner possible. But that was a specialized service, one rarely sold, and one kept on the books and in active training mostly out of caution. By the present era their focus had shifted almost purely into labor, engineering, and genetic preservation, with their ancient ties to Highmountain as strong as ever and their rivalry with Ironclaw filled with friendly and boisterous competitions.

None of that required great numbers and that left them a Clan with a large cadre of Associate members, a modest set of Officers, a much smaller Brotherhood, and a tiny pawful of sanctioned Studs. They were one of the few Clans still using the old degrees in their complete form and they did so to great effect: Stoneback Associates earned and kept their status through pure merit and were strong and clever at any task they were given; Officers were some of the most sought-after engineers and technicians for both civil projects and extremely high performance, deeply skilled labor, and on top of all that were level-headed and intuitive leaders of both Clanless and their fellow ‘Backs; full Brothers of the Rites were many things, including captains of industry or peerless warriors on the Claws of Stoneback, and all had true mastery of their chosen specialties; and the Clan’s Studs were in constant demand for all of that, along with access to their unrivaled genetics.

When the most valuable service a Clan offered was their Studs—specifically, recruiting tip-offs about their offspring and the females they’d paired with…well. Stoneback recruited the very best cubs for themselves, and left the second picks to the others.

Life was good and they were content with the new order of things, free to revel in themselves and their work. But history has never stood still. Given the advent of the Humans, the Dominion-Celzi war, the Hunters, and everything else? Gao might once again need the power and rage of the Stonebacks in battle.


Associate Fiin

“Do you think we’ll ever be that big again? As a Clan, I mean?”

“No.” Tyal stood up to clean up the mess. “It’s a really hard quality thing, finding people who meet the standards. Maybe that’s elitist of us? Yeah. But that’s the thing, we really are elite. You’ll learn just how much as you get into training.”

“That feels…”

“Yeah.” Tyal understood completely. “I know. The trick is to remember that what we do is in service to the Gao as a whole. The other Clans don’t always keep that first and foremost in their minds, but we do. We’ve gotta.”

“Why?”

“Well…in that history? There’s a trick to it. We Stonebacks, we really are different. We were never tamed by the Females and that right there is the biggest and deepest secret between us. It’s why they let us get away with all the shit we do, like running around on fourpaw, saying and doing whatever’s on our minds, getting into playfights with all these puny little males looking to make a name for themselves…I mean, think about it. You’ve met Daar, right? He’s this big friendly goof who can say and do things nobody else can and that’s more or less true of all the Stoneback Brothers. Ever ask yourself why?”

“No,” said Fiin truthfully. “I really hadn’t.”

“It’s ‘cuz we’re the only living examples of what Gaoians really are.” Tyal paused, chittering to himself. “Well, maybe that’s not fair to our silverfur friends. It’s probably better to say we’re ‘throwbacks’ from an earlier time. That’s a human idiom, by the way. Pretty obvious now that I’ve said it, huh?”

“…Yeah. Why? Why do they treat us special?”

“Well, that’s ‘cuz that original Oath between Great Father Fyu and Great Mother Tiritya is still in force. We’re the Female’s sworn protectors ‘cuz they know that Gaoian males, we ain’t civilized at all. We’re violent killers at heart and we’re covetous, too. Why do you think they don’t like the old love tales very much? How would that play out when only one out of every six cubs born is female?”

Fiin nodded slowly as he processed that.

“That’s why our Rites are so utterly, ruthlessly hard and dangerous. It’s why I hadta be so rough on you. This kinda thing would…imagine if every male knew that, in the old days, we were one to one and we all kept a mate. Would you wanna see a society like that? See us slide back to the old days?”

“No,” said Fiin emphatically.

“Me neither, I love the Females too much for that. So you keep this secret, Fiin. You prove your trustworthiness over time? Well. Only the most disciplined and capable initiates are allowed to earn their way towards Brother of the Rites. Weakness in character CANNOT be allowed. You think you’ve got what it takes? Think you’re good enough to learn the true history of the Gao?”

Fiin nodded without even realizing he did.

“Heh, we’ll see. Now sleep, you’ve got a long road ahead of you.” And with that, Tyal found a comfortable spot on the floor, curled up with a pile of blankets and pillows, and immediately fell into a deep slumber.

He drifted off on a final, half-formed thought: Maybe the Highmountains were right.