The Deathworlders

5—Plans and Plots

13y 8m AV
Room 2A, Rent-a-Space, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Champion, Stud-Prime, & Sergeant Daar (Tigger) of Clan Stoneback

Meetings between Champions were always fraught with social and political symbolism. Daar understood it and loved bein’ the best and livin’ the role but even still, he sure wished it could be easier to meet with his Friend. And he wasn’t just any ‘ol Friend. He was the Champion of Clan Whitecrest, one of Stoneback’s strongest and most important allies, and Daar could think of no other Champion (besides himself) who was so completely a walking, talking example of his Clan. He admired Genshi: handsome and strong, really smart, super clever, modest and quiet and maybe a little too civilized…

…and definitely one of the deadliest Gaoians any male might ever run across. Daar considered most of the other, weaker Champions to be pushovers. Their strengths were in different things and he cheerily accepted that was the way of their Clans, but as the Stoneback he couldn’t wrap his brain around a life spent studying. Daar would rather see and do and feel than spend all day thinking about what all those things were like. He just didn’t understand ‘em.

To be fair, the smaller Civilized Champions prol’ly felt the same way about Daar. He could destroy them without much effort and they all knew it, and that did give him respectable advantage in negotiations; Stonebacks knew that Gaoians weren’t so civilized at all. Strength mattered. The will to use it mattered a lot.

Not that he would ever even hint at that, of course; the respect he got from not picking fights was pretty darn useful. And anyway, threatening the weak was so disgusting to Stonebacks that, as Champion, he’d be quite literally torn into pieces for doing such a thing.

And even if he wanted to, it wasn’t like the Civilized Champions would even understand the message! Well, some of ‘em. Clans like Longear had really smart and clever Champions who still knew how ‘ta fight; Daar even lost the occasional friendly scuffle with Meereo! But, say, Wozni of Clan Shortstride? Nice guy but he just did not get it. A subtle threat to him would prol’ly go unnoticed! If it ever came down to open threats—Daar hoped it never would—that missing Warrior code meant he couldn’t gently make a point about intent, or maybe threaten with a quiet little hint. It’d be straight-up violence, first to his unfortunate enemy, then to Daar himself by his Clan’s own claws.

In Daar’s view that was a weakness of all the Gao and he’d been trying his entire adult life to correct it. Too many Clans had forgotten what their ancestors had taught them…but the Clanless remembered. The Traditional Clans remembered too. Way too many of the Civilized spent so much time learning how to Do they’d forgotten how to Be.

That left physical vigor an afterthought in some Clan breeding programs and that was just wrong in Daar’s view. They didn’t know what it meant to work, and work hard, with not much thanks and only simple rewards. They’d never felt the little joys of growing food, of hammering home the last nail, or of hanging the last durasteel beam in a new building. They’d forgotten what it was like to exercise and run and pounce just ‘cuz it felt good and they didn’t understand how amazing it felt to grow stronger or revel in their bodies.

And they didn’t know what it felt like to pad into any situation and know you could kill them all without even breaking a pant. Stonebacks knew. Daar knew that about himself so deeply, so utterly, that even with the Humans and their incredible abilities, and all they’d taught each other, he was confident. If it ever came to it, he could make Warhorse or Righteous pay dearly. Maybe he wouldn’t win or even live, but he’d make it hurt.

He knew he was big and bad, and so did the Whitecrests about themselves. Sure, their work was more tricky and more crafty, but a smart Stoneback had deep respect for that. Skill and strength went paw-in-paw, always and forever. Some Jobs needed a big brute to smash, but other Jobs needed clever hands and careful words. A smart Stoneback always reached for the proper Tool.

The proper tool for this problem was Champion Genshi. It was one of those tricky problems involving Clan politics and maybe a lotta change in Gaoian society and it needed to be thought through very carefully, ‘cuz there were prolly all sorts of little problems Daar hadn’t thought of just yet. Subtle ones, he just knew it. He wasn’t very good at those kinds of things. But he was good at other things and Genshi owed him a Really Big Favor. He knew Genshi would find a way to turn Daar’s problem—well, okay, Gao’s problem—into some amazing solution, and to Daar, trusting your Friends and allies was Important.

Daar plotted his Favor. What he was noodling on (Firth’s word, not his) was a BIG deal. He didn’t have an easy answer but he had a big answer and he could define the problem and it was…the Most Biggest Problem. Like, not even a little bit small. And it needed the Biggest Secrecy, too, and that was also a problem. One of the most singularly (Daar’s new favorite word!) annoying things about being a Champion was how every little thing he did with the other Clans was watched like a Human hunting a deer. And that was no small thing to Daar. He’d gone on such a trip with Firth, just the once, during one of the long weekend breaks from the Partnership Engineering Exchange.


It was eye-opening. Firth, being who he was, swore off a rifle and went hunting with bow and arrow. Daar tagged along with his claws and teeth, intent on proving to Firth what a Gaoian could do. But first they spent two days camping in the Kentucky Appalachia. Nothing but talking, drinking, laughing, and exploring the land to get the forest “used to them.”

For Firth, it was a nice, long weekend out with a friend. But Daar had never experienced anything quite as intense. The smells! The life in the forest, so much of it! Daar wallowed in the adventure; it was almost cripplingly pleasurable to be surrounded by such riches, so completely decadent, that Daar finally understood Regaari’s endless poetic speech about the Badlands.

Even knowing the dangers, “Deathworld” seemed such a bad title for Earth. The whole world was practically exploding with life! Messier 24 had nothing that compared. The Humans, Daar realized, were truly blessed—a word that could not easily be translated into Gaori. It was humbling, and it was amazing.

Firth was far less lyrical about it. “Mother Nature’s good for you! Just make sure you don’t jam your nose in a flowerbed or anything.” Only later did Daar realize that Firth did not let the big Gaoian out of his sight for even a heartbeat while they tromped through the forest, carefully smelling the wind and steering a wide berth from anything they didn’t already know.

Firth approved. “See, I told the fellas you were smarter than the average bear!”

It was a gentle, teasing compliment, but more importantly it was a subtle reminder to Daar of where he was. He needed to be paranoid and trust Firth, because of course Earth was a Deathworld, a beautiful garden that could kill an unwary Gaoian like Biggest Baddest Daar; even Humans could be caught unprepared and every year many paid with their lives. He was nothing but respectful of Mother Nature. His time in the Missouri woods, the almost-deadly incident with his paw…Earth was not a place to let one’s guard down.

At least he wasn’t allergic to the pollen. Blood testing had been developed in advance of Daar’s extended visit and, as it turned out, a Gaoian was either not much bothered by most Earth pollens or…quickly and fatally allergic.

Lucking out on allergies meant Daar could pad about without his protective field activated. But that in turn mandated daily penicillin prophylaxis, nightly decontamination in his portable biofield, a full checkup by Firth…

And then they got to sleep sealed up in the tent to keep things clean. Nice and cozy, and Firth was the biggest, strongest snuggler! Really stinky, though. Oh well. Daar would make sure to tell everyone in SOR when he got the chance.

All of that was good fun but it wasn’t without reason. “Camping’s important before this kinda hunt. Helps open my nose and ears up,” Firth had said. Daar wasn’t exactly sure what that meant at first, but maybe it had something to do with how Firth…changed. Daar couldn’t really describe it, only that Firth seemed…more aware, quicker, lighter on his feet. And quiet. How a man as big and heavy as Firth—he weighed as much as a small car—could stalk through the forest without a sound, even in those “moccasins” of his…

That was when Daar realized something: a Human was a terrifying hunter. Firth found the almost invisible sign of the “buck” and tracked it for the first half of the day, and he did so with utter quiet and total concentration. It took all of Daar’s skills to follow along with the same stealth. He wasn’t an experienced hunter but he did have the instincts and the natural tools, which on first sniff Humans seemed to lack. But Firth proved that wasn’t necessarily the case. His nose noticed scents and he pointed them out as they went. Daar’s was way better, but Firth knew what he was smelling, and that mattered a lot. That, along with his almost magically acute vision, proved just how capable of a hunter a human could be. They slowly circled downwind, then Firth climbed a very sturdy tree, wrapped his legs firmly around the trunk, locked his ankles, and settled in.

Then they waited. For hours. During the entire time, Firth didn’t make a noise louder than a shallow breath or a movement faster than a slow, almost undetectable motion. The anticipation was torturous. But at last, Daar sniffed the deer approaching. He was about to say something when Firth saw it too, nodded his awareness, and pointed at the buck with his eyes. Daar had earlier climbed down—even with his claws and remarkable grip, he couldn’t hold on forever and would be useless up there anyway—and was waiting in the bush below, well offside so Firth could have a clear shot. Slowly, carefully, cautiously, the deer approached. It was the very same buck Firth had tracked from the beginning along with a “doe” who seemed interested in a mate. Both were impressive animals and they had a license for each. Good.

Daar looked back up at Firth. He acknowledged with a simple blink, and like a stone statue, slowly brought up his massive bow and carefully pulled it taut. It wasn’t one of the fancy compound bows Daar had seen at the sporting goods shop. It was a custom made traditional-style weapon, one made for Firth by a very good friend, and it needed over four hundred pounds of draw. Daar could pull it and fire. But pulling it hurt, needing all his strength, and holding it taut for more than a few moments wasn’t something Daar could do.

Firth barely seemed to strain. The huge man held it taut as if it wasn’t even the slightest effort. The minutes ticked by and his breathing remained level. They were waiting for something, but Daar didn’t know what. He only knew he was not to pounce until Firth had taken his shot. So Daar waited. And waited. And waited. And then, suddenly, without any warning, Firth took his shot. The arrow slammed into the buck so hard it knocked the deer clean off its hooves, lodged itself completely in the buck’s chest, and killed it instantly. It happened so fast the doe hardly had time to notice before Daar pounced.

There was a chase. A glorious chase, one so good Daar couldn’t think through the pounding of his heart or the haze in his mind. He pounced. He caught it! Daar killed. Then Daar rested for a while. When he came down from his predatory high and had some wind back in his lungs, he bit down on the doe’s neck and dragged it back to Firth, who was still high up on the tree, watching Daar’s chase. Their eyes met, and while Daar dragged his doe back to the tree, Firth lightly leapt down from the commanding height and had his buck gutted, beheaded and almost packed up just as Daar returned. Firth looked up from his work and gave a grin so savage that Daar knew, without any question, he was in the presence of someone truly dangerous and primal.

And friendly. “Good job, buddy! You drop her quick?”

Daar puzzled for a moment. “…yeah? It’s kinda…blurry in my head.”

“Heh, hunts are like that. C’mon, let’s gut ‘er and go back.”


Daar’s communicator beeped, reminding him it was time to head to his meeting. He chirred to himself, storing the happy memories away to enjoy another time. Now he must appear in public with another Champion.

There he would be the metaphorically Hunted but the hunters would be his fellow Gaoians. And they could be just as viciously predatory as a Human. Any mistake in decorum, posturing, or words could seriously jeopardize Clan relations. A risk, to be sure, but no meeting between Champions could be held in secret. They were too well-watched.

Oh well. Sometimes the Job had a cost.


Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

Daar wasn’t one to request meetings on short notice. That was concerning, but Genshi detected no signs of stress, worry, or alarm, and that made the meeting’s purpose an interesting problem to solve. Daar seemed more…annoyed, really. Annoyed and almost apologetic. No negativity, though; he was his usual irrepressibly upbeat self and while the video message only showed Daar’s head, he was clearly, as always, in truly excellent health.

His intelligent eyes were wide and clear as glacial melt, and his thick and impressive fur was just beginning to grow out. It managed the trick of both displaying his body and emphasizing his incredible vitality. It was a good look for him and Genshi wondered why Daar didn’t always wear his coat like that. Daar’s attitude matched, too. His manner seemed…energetic. Youthful, even.

Genshi couldn’t blame the brute; Daar had a lot to show off. It was obvious he’d experienced a recent growth spurt and Genshi could tell that even through the video! Whatever the Humans were doing with Daar was clearly benefiting him. The rougher coat served to emphasize everything; even his jawline seemed even stronger and more brutally perfect than Genshi remembered.

All of that was good. Daar was a friend and Genshi wished him well, and he had no doubt the Stonebacks would soon take what he had learned and spread that knowledge through the Gao, be it through through their workhouses, their hosted sporting events, Stoneback’s network of fitness centers, or through their public service and recruiting efforts. Like all good Clans, the Stonebacks didn’t work merely for themselves, they also worked for all of the Gao. After all, what better way could there be to improve the available recruiting stock?

None of which answered Genshi’s immediate question. What did Daar need? They’d gone back and forth a few times to discuss the public meeting, of course, since everything Champions did was on a stage and one could never step off. Daar suggested their meeting be “boisterous.”

Daar was unabashedly proud he’d used that word, too, and Genshi found himself readily agreeing to the meeting because of Daar’s naked and contagious enthusiasm for everything. His was not a sophisticated delight, it must be said; many would write him off as an unlearned fourpaw beast—and they’d be right, in a sense—but they would be fools to think him stupid or unintelligent. He was a careful and cunning brute who learned from the best.

That pleased Genshi; clearly, some of the better Whitecrest habits had rubbed off on the thundering monster, whether through Regaari’s faithful friendship or recent developments. And having hand-picked and kept in touch with the Whitecrest team assigned to “Clan SOR,” it was obvious the influence was mutual. Daar was teaching them the meaning and spirit of his world and the benefits were clear and obvious. Clan SOR were without any question the finest combat forces that either Earth and Gao had to offer. A delightful arrangement, really; allies in a beneficial relationship, and all with minimal cost.

Genshi’s careful, subtle nudging over the years was finally bearing fruit. Accidental and terrible circumstance aside, he was well-pleased that his long work left his favorite Brother in position to take advantage. Regaari didn’t disappoint. And with some gentle maneuvering…neither did Daar. Genshi wondered if the biggest Stoneback had ever deduced the true nature of his mission amongst the pirates or his opportunities with the Humans. He hoped so. There was so much potential in Daar that could be put to clever use.

Anyway. He had a meeting to attend. He took one last look at himself, straightened out his fur, and walked to the park.


Daar (Tigger) of Clan Stoneback

Daar didn’t need to wait long. Genshi showed up right on time like always and damn, was he magnificent! Daar was maybe a little jealous; he’d never admit it out loud but the right kind of civilized Gaoian could cut a very impressive profile. Genshi was the most Civilized. He moved like water flowing over rocks even when walking on his rear legs. Daar couldn’t do that. Like all well-bred Stonebacks he had a longer torso than most Gaoians and that meant his bipedal motion was more utilitarian than graceful; for any genuine physical performance, he was far more comfortable moving about on all fours.

Oh well. Genshi arrived at the park, instantly and discreetly drew all attention to himself like they’d planned, and waited while Daar pretended not to immediately notice. But Daar wasn’t much of an actor, really. Little plays like that worked best when Daar could be honest, and Daar was honestly happy to see his friend! Very happy. Happy enough to pounce.

Let’s see how you handle this, snowtop!

He yipped a greeting across the park, caught everyone’s attention, sank to all fours, crouched down and wagged his tail in a friendly gesture, then charged forward with all his speed and strength.


Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

…Damn.

Daar was no young cub anymore, but that apparently did not mean he was finished growing. Genshi betrayed no reaction but inwardly boggled at how much of a specimen Daar proved he could be. The friendly oaf was always extremely impressive but now, with the Humans training him? Whatever Clan Stoneback had missed, the Humans found, and it made an immense difference. The transformation was as impressive as Regaari’s! Daar was much more massive than before and his muscles had filled out, leaned out, and hardened to the point that his amazing body would put the legendary heroes of Gao’s ancient stories to shame.

Maybe the Keeda tales weren’t entirely silly after all…

At that moment Daar noticed Genshi, grinned, and charged on fourpaw with that same speed the Whitecrest always found impressive and alarming.

But he’d quickly recovered. Because anything that heavy moving that fast had a lot of kinetic energy. It was time to put some of his Gung-fu to the test.


Sister Myun of the Clan of Females

The Gaoian section of the Alien Park was just entering full bloom. The environment on Cimbrean was, by happy chance, in many ways like Gao and the Mothers decided to take full advantage. The gravity, day-length, and orbital period were very similar, and that let the Sisters—with assistance from many in Folctha, Humans and Gaoian males alike—plant a quite spectacular garden. Its vibrant colors and subtle scents were a comfort under alien skies and amongst the potent, raucous, almost brutal scents of human life. Myun walked through the garden and drank in the flavor of it all, on break from lessons with the newest Cubs. Some fresh air and sunshine would do her good and of course, she could maybe practice her forms.

She scanned for threats amongst the people out of long habit and perked up; Champion Genshi was admiring the park, seemingly alone. He didn’t usually appear alone in public and that was surprising all by itself. It was almost as surprising as their martial arts contract some years back! Her ego was punctured a bit by his existing skills and his ability to learn; he was an excellent student. She was about to walk over and say hello but he was up to something. He caught her eye and warned her off with a subtle look of mischief.

Myun chittered fondly. He’d expressed a mating interest during their training but she had been recovering from her first cub and hadn’t felt ready. He was a perfect gentleman about it, too. Why had she never followed up? Oh well. He was the only male who had ever defeated her, and that was pride enough.

The Whitecrest Champion!

And then she noticed Daar was also in the park. She couldn’t help but sigh happily at his mere presence: two Champions in the park and three were on Cimbrean! It was a good sign and that meant the Gao’s interest in effectively the “third” Gaoian colony would only grow. The local Gaoian community was still quite small but that kind of exposure? Awesome. Too bad Myun had never met the massive Stoneback Champion. Both of them seemed very busy and there was just never time to say hi! Oh well. One day…

She watched as Daar ambled around the park. He suddenly noticed Genshi and the happiest expression spread across his face and ears. They’re friends! He play-bowed and sprang forward with so much speed and power he was almost a blur. She thrilled, both from the excitement of males at play and the worry that Genshi may be hurt from the impact. She watched. Genshi didn’t budge. At the last moment he gave a vicious little grin, they collided—

And somehow, it was over in only a few seconds. They tumbled end-over-end in the grass, there was a pair of incredibly primal snarls, and suddenly Daar was back on his paws with Genshi standing right alongside of him looking none the worse for wear. He wore an expression that was somehow serene, smug, friendly, and dominant all at the same time. But above it all, he wore an expression of fondness.

And to Daar’s immense credit he didn’t seem to mind at all. His expression was one of shock, and then delight at his Friend’s victory, and then perhaps rueful acceptance of his defeat. Very few males were so sure of themselves they could let such a sting to their pride go without blood and fur flying. But Daar? He just smiled. That tussle, along with the Champions’ attitudes, virtually guaranteed mating access for both of them with the Cimbrean females. Impressive!

But even with Daar’s good attitude, to Myun it was obvious he’d barely but definitively lost the fight. Most of the onlookers were quietly and confusedly debating the outcome, clearly unsure of themselves. Myun couldn’t blame them. The fight had been almost too quick for her to follow. Meanwhile, the supreme males of their Clans exchanged friendly greetings and nipped at each other like the oldest of Friends. They play-fought back and forth in the luxuriant Earth grass, that time gently and with obvious good humor, and Daar even gave a massive hug that lifted Genshi completely off his feet…there was absolutely no bad blood between them.

That was good. That was how males should play. If only all of them were so friendly with each other!

They chatted briefly with each other, then greeted the few males brave enough to approach them. It was pleasant but the two clearly had business and were keen to conduct it. They playfully tussled one last time—again with no obvious victor—detangled, and stood to leave. As they turned to depart, Genshi looked her dead in the eyes and winked—a very Human expression—and they set off at a brisk pace, Genshi proper and Civilized on his legs and Daar on all fours.

But Genshi didn’t escape with his pride entirely intact. He took one confident step forward and winced, favoring his left leg. Everyone noticed as he walked away with a very slight limp but he smiled and accepted it. Perhaps Daar hadn’t lost their opening bout after all…

It was an incredible impact and a graceful dodge, an artful display of power and skill. That either of the Champions could play so hard and escape with so little injury…they were perfectly matched, both Champion and Clan. Myun purred happily. Daar was no simple brute! Genshi, meanwhile, gave her a coy little flick of his ears, admitting to his minor defeat…

But he slyly did not admit that to Daar, who didn’t seem to notice his companion’s limp. His mind was naturally on food and adventure. The humans had little stands near the park selling things the Gaoians could eat and far and away the most popular item was the “corn dog.” Deep-fried and breaded meat on a stick? Best snack ever!

With the rare spectacle of two allied Champions playing in a park over and past, the on-lookers began to disperse. The first to leave were two One-Fang males, who left quickly with with an aggressive set to their ears. Myun would report that to security when she got back; one could never be too careful, and she knew the One-Fangs and the Stonebacks were anything but allies.

She lingered until the park had returned to normal, decided things were safely status quo, then stood up to leave. But right as she did she glanced at the corn dog stand, where Daar stood towering above Genshi who was carefully examining his snack. She watched for a moment but Daar noticed, and while Genshi was taking his first tentative bite, Daar looked her dead in the eyes and smile-panted with his ears forward, as if to say “Did you like the show?”

She had to admit…she did.


Room 2A, Rent-a-Space, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

The meeting room had a very comfortable couch and variable gravity controls along with an excellent air filtration system. It was tailor-made for aliens visiting on business and even had a small “minibar” of comestibles safe for Gaoians: all human food that had been carefully screened for toxicity. Everything was pre-packaged and bore a tiny stamp of a stylized Gaoian-like head on the label indicating “safe for consumption.”

Daar had already eaten half of everything before their park encounter. This was on top of the four “corn dogs” he’d consumed at the stand while Genshi savored his single order. Of course, Stonebacks were known for their massive appetites, and at Daar’s size and strength, food was important. The ongoing training and deployments with his JETS team kept his metabolism very high.

But Daar was sated for the moment. He paid no attention to the remaining food, prowled in, hopped up on the couch, sprawled out luxuriantly and let out a great belch of contentment. He settled in and awaited Genshi’s attention. It was polite and respectful to await one’s guest, after all, and Genshi approved. It meant Daar considered himself in the inferior position; he would clearly be asking a favor or a boon, or perhaps he was seeking counsel. But he was also being rude and Uncivilized; by sprawling out like he had, he showed he considered Genshi to be no threat to his person, or that the massive Stoneback presumed a deep and extremely familiar friendship.

True though that was, it could still be considered uncouth to display such trust—or such disdain, depending on context—so readily. Genshi considered that while he contemplated a “ham sandwich” from the minibar. With most Stonebacks it would be safe to assume there was nothing deliberate or calculated about any of that; Daar was the Stoneback, after all, and they had a well-deserved reputation of being ill-mannered yet well-meaning and friendly louts who were difficult to hate and who formed animosities very slowly but with absolute conviction. Their behavior was just “one of those things” other males accepted.

But Daar was a Champion, and that meant his presumption was a carefully calculated display. Genshi learned long ago to never underestimate the big brute and he was reminded of that earlier in the park; Daar had quite deliberately hyperextended Genshi’s left leg just enough that it would not be immediately noticed, and to Genshi’s growing frustration he wasn’t sure when Daar had managed that trick. And he’d done it at a small cost to his own ego, too. The message there, and now in the room: don’t fuck with me.

The message was well-received. Good friends they may be, but they were of different Clan, and their roles were inherently adversarial even if they were allied. Genshi wasn’t upset. In the layered language of the Champions, Daar’s message—and its subtle delivery—was one of utmost respect. That wasn’t something Daar gave freely. He was always friendly but rarely did he accord such high esteem.

Which, now that Genshi considered it, was itself a message. Regaari had been an excellent influence on the big lout over the years. Good.

Genshi decided to try the “ham” and opened the wrapper. He grinned, took a bite, and spoke with his mouth full of the strangely sweet and savory meat. “What do youtf need of me?”

Daar chittered amusedly for a moment. “I need to pick your brain.”

Genshi swallowed and raised an eyebrow. “That’s an…evocative phrase. I can only assume it’s Human…?”

Daar oozed off the couch and slinked over to the fridge, intent on finding something to munch. “Yup! Means I want your advice.”

“Ah. Something must be bothering you deeply, then.”

Daar sighed, loudly, and fetched a glass bottle of Coca-Cola from the fridge. He flicked its top off with one of his enormous claws and sampled the drink. “Yeah. And I’m gonna hafta share some pretty serious Clan business with ‘ya, too. Stuff I don’t wanna share.”

Daar growled that last bit with a note of bitterness, but to his credit he then qualified the statement. “I mean, I trust you with it, but still…”

Genshi listened carefully as Daar talked. The big brute stalked back to the couch and lightly leapt onto the cushions and sat upright so he could enjoy his drink. That particular posture made him look preposterously large. Which of course he was. “Have you thought about the war with the Hierarchy? And the Hunters? And what we’re gonna hafta do t’win it?”

Genshi tilted his head in quizzical annoyance. “It’s occupied my every waking thought for over two years now.”

“Yeah yeah.” Daar waved off the implied insult. “I mean, have you thought about what we’re gonna do after we secure Gao? I mean…we can’t let the Hunters live. We gotta kill them off I think pretty much completely. I dunno what we’re gonna do ‘bout the Hierarchy, that’s big-brain stuff I ain’t so good at…”

“Agreed,” Genshi said with a gentle, teasing humor. “But this has also occupied my thoughts. The logistics alone…”

Daar duck-nodded, “Yup. Lemme jump ahead a whole bunch. You think about personnel count? Like, recruiting goals and all that?”

That grabbed Genshi’s interest. “I have…” He decided to go fishing for intel. “You have a pressing concern. What?”

“Oh Cousin, I really do. And I don’t know if we can solve it.” Genshi kept a perfectly neutral face but Daar’s little slip-up was…warming. He seldom spoke so openly or honestly about their relationship, which was understandable given the needs of Clan politics. Neither of the Champions had much freedom to simply Be. But…to be Cousin, talk as Cousins…it was wonderful.

That statement, though: it broke Genshi right out of his little reverie. He analyzed the situation and realized, suddenly: “I’ve missed something.”

Daar paused for a moment, woolgathering. At length he sighed and said, “How many of us will it take to win this war? Gaoians, I mean. How many?”

“I imagine it would take many teams—”

“Stop. How many teams do you think Whitecrest can muster?” There was an increasing urgency to Daar’s questions and Genshi rarely saw this side of his Friend and Cousin. He loved it when Daar got thoughtful; Genshi always learned from Daar’s perspective. They were excellent foils for one another.

“Well, that depends on a number of factors. Our current caseload—”

“It ain’t gonna be enough.”

Genshi stood silent. Daar was clearly agitated by something and needed to speak, so he pondered, then stood up, set his bottle down on the table, and paced the room. “It won’t be enough no matter what number you say. We’ve been so busy thinking about saving Gao we haven’t been thinking about killing every single one of those motherfuckers and we gotta. We gotta think about that right now ’cuz once this goes down we’re on war footing.”

Genshi thought about that. “My assumption was we’d simply bombard their homeworlds and destroy their space stations.”

“Nuh, that won’t finish ‘em.” He kept pacing. “We’re gonna hafta dig these evil things outta places, Cousin. They’re gonna get smart an’ do stuff like take over cities, get us into urban conflict…”

“That would be drastically outside of their character.”

“Says who? Some of ‘em gotta have a survival instinct. Like their Alphas.”

Ah. “A good point. Still…hmm.” Genshi realized suddenly that he was out of his depth. His Clan’s tactics and doctrine had always been focused on modern security needs and the complex, lower-intensity battlespace of Clan relations.

The problem before them needed more…traditional considerations.

Realization. “You’re talking about an army. A real army, like we’ve not had…”

“Since Father Fyu. Yeah. I’m thinking we’re gonna need to raise an army and it’s gonna hafta be big. Really big. You ever study this kind of military theory?”

“Briefly, as contrast to current security practice.”

Daar tilted his head. “Did you know I was once on a Fang?”

“Yes, which is one of the reasons I sent you to the pirate fleets.”

“Ha, I knew it!” He splayed his ears in amused contentment.

“Well…why waste an opportunity? You can’t have been on a Fang for very long though. You’ve been a very busy Champion.”

“Yup, just four years. They put me on a Fang as soon as I made Brother and Stud, then when I made Stud-Prime they sent me to High Mountain for War College and made me a Fang Warleader. I was good at it too, ‘bout the first time I ever felt really smart, yeah? Then I took advanced combatives, someone suggested I challenge the Champion, I did and I won…”

“And you were still Fang Leader?”

“Champion, Stud-Prime, and First-Fang Warleader!” Daar said it proudly and wistfully. “For a while, anyway. I was a very young Champion, only nineteen, remember?”

“I was one of your mentors, Daar. I know this.”

“I was a handful if I remember…” He splayed his ears again.

“Yup.” Genshi flicked his in a complex semaphore of exasperated amusement.

“Heh. So anyway, Stoneback Champions are supposed t’be experienced Warleaders and qualified Warfathers on top of everything else. But I was too young to earn Warfather the traditional way, so after I got some leadership experience with First-Fang, Grandfather wanted ‘ta school me up really hard while I was still good at learning, y’know? They sent me back to High Mountain Fortress to finish my studies and earn Master of War. I really liked it, Cousin. And the thing I studied the hardest was armies, and tactics, and logistics and stuff. Did my dissertation on it, too.”

“We only briefly had modern armies like the Humans, though.”

“Sure, but those armies got used. The Riverplain Clan feuds had ‘ta be suppressed ‘bout three hundred years ago.”

“Your military was less than ten thousand strong, Daar. The Humans would consider it like their ‘American Marine Corps’ but much smaller.”

“Still worth learning from, too bad we had to disband ‘em. You know why?”

“The political repercussions.”

Daar duck-nodded solemnly. “Yup, the Mother-Supreme at the time wasn’t happy with us. She thought we ‘didn’t give peace a chance’ or something.”

Genshi rolled his eyes. “Of course she did, she was a fool.”

“Mhmm. Anyway, both Clans were bent on murderin’ each other to the last Brother. It took our total military capability to suppress it along with Firefang air support and we were seriously considering nuclear weapons ‘cuz we were afraid we didn’t have enough ‘Backs ‘ta actually do it.”

Genshi considered that thoughtfully. “Really? The general consensus is that your victory was decisive.”

“Yup, and it was a lie. There was just too much area to control and too much resistance in the cities we hadta dig out. And it was gonna spill over into the general public, too. We hadta stop it, hard. That’s why we got so…aggressive.”

Genshi chittered darkly. “That’s an understatement of a lifetime. You executed the Brotherhood of both Clans and spared only the Associates. You castrated any Clanless who were of any assistance to the belligerents. The death toll was vast, Daar. Was that really…necessary?”

“Has anyone challenged our will since then?”

“…Admittedly, no.”

“Yup, ‘cuz we won. How many Fangs do you think we have right now?”

Genshi squirmed uncomfortably, because of course he did have a pretty good source which claimed the actual numbers were modest. “Not many.”

Daar sighed and slumped on the couch, deflated. “We only have four, Genshi.”

Genshi wasn’t expecting a number that small! “What!? Only four? But how?”

“Demand for our other services is really high and so are our standards. The population boom has put a lotta pressure on our civil engineers, our tradesmen and our farm production…and everything else, too.” Daar sighed, “It’s not easy to make a ‘Back, Genshi. We’ve had to shift resources towards, y’know, what’s actually needed an’ what the likely threat is.”

“That doesn’t explain how you’ve maintained such a fearsome reputation with such a small force.”

Daar gave him a sly little flick of the ears, “Or how we’ve fooled you?”

“…And everyone, it would seem.”

Daar shook his head and rumbled a deep amused grumble. “Genshi, my Clan has been practicing war for tens of thousands of years. We haven’t forgotten ANY of it and neither has Highmountain. Didja think we couldn’t pull off a little deception and planning? That kinda thing is what we do. Why d’ya think we do civil engineering?”

“…It’s pretty obvious, when you put it that way.”

“Mhmm.” Daar again oozed off the couch, slinked toward the minibar, and snuffled for more snacks. “Ain’t nobody do quiet small unit tactics better than y’all. But large scale stuff? Shock troops? That’s us and we’re good. Too good. We’ve been able to get away with doing more with less…so we have.”

“And you won’t be able to grow fast enough. None of us will.”

“Nope, and we gotta do the same thing to the Hunters that we did to the Riverplain Clans or when we united Gao. But think about the scale! It’s gonna need millions of ‘Backs, Genshi, at least. This war won’t be won even with every Whitecrest operative, or every One-Fang ship, or every Firefang pilot. There aren’t enough of us to do it. Not even remotely close. And don’t even get me started on civic defense. Straightshield would need to be a hunnerd times bigger and their job really needs well-trained people.”

Genshi had a sudden insight. “There are enough Clanless, though.”

Daar duck-nodded agreeably. “Yup! Millions of ‘em. Billions! We can’t make ‘em Brothers, though. We’d need ta’ cut corners and that wouldn’t sit well with any of my ‘Backs. What about your Clan? Can you just make a bunch more Whitecrest?”

“We all suffer from the same problem, there,” Genshi agreed. “Our standards are exacting and we all look for the statistical outliers who are perfect for our needs. But what can the average Gaoian do, I wonder?”

“Amazing things, ‘specially in number. You really need to spend more time in workhouses, their teamwork rivals any Clan!” Daar chirred in pride-by-proxy.

“So really, all they are lacking is formal organization and clear leadership.”

“Exactly! It’s just…where do we get that leadership?”

He’s asking rhetorically, thought Genshi. Best to play along.

“Surely there are already respected Clanless with influence and experience?”

“Nuh, not really, not like we need. Lemme ask you this: how much experience and everythin’ did it take for you to put my happy tail on a pirate ship? I mean…I know you planned the whole thing, like, twelve steps ahead. You’ve been doin’ this your whole life in a Clan where that’s all you do.”

“Indeed, and that’s why I know you’re selling the Clanless strangely short.”

“Nah, I’d never do that! I love ‘em, but they—”

“Daar. The fact that you love them so much is exactly why.”’

Daar sighed. “Cousin, you’re missing the point. I ain’t sayin’ they can’t do it. I’m sayin’ we gotta teach ‘em. Which, good! But who? I mean, if we’re gonna do a modern army again, this one’s gotta work with the Humans, right? We’d need ta’ organize along the same kinda lines…”

Daar obviously knew what he wanted to discuss, Genshi was certain of it. Clever though he was, Daar was dreadfully artless when it came to leading the witness, as it were.

“As I understand the way Human militaries are organized, you have the Officers leading young Associates, as it were, but you also have leaders with a smaller focus and none of the political influence. Something…in between.”

“Yup! Enlisted, ‘NCOs’ and Officers. Not too different from the Rings in Stoneback, really. Enlisted would be your Clanless. ‘NCOs’ would promote from there…something between an Associate and an Officer?”

“Taking on additional responsibility without changing their core mission.”

“Yup, that’s how Clan SOR is organized. Works pretty well! I’m a sergeant, though we’re also ‘special operators’ so that’s a little different…”

“You’re confusing the issue.”

“Sarry. But that’s the problem, where do we get the officers?”

“Appropriately knowledgeable leaders from…any Clan, really. I presume it would be the militarily competent Clans who bore the brunt of this.”

Daar stole the remaining ham sandwich from Genshi with a playful growl. “Nah, it’d be all of ‘em. Look at Human armies, they need everything a city does. Food, computer stuff, industry…That’s where this gets real tricky though. How the fuck do we get all the Clans to agree to this? They’d prolly worry we’re war-mongering, or it was a ploy to do…I dunno, something.” Daar grumbled, “Some Clans still ain’t happy with us for what Fyu did. How do we fix that?”

Genshi had an answer immediately. “Well, what do Clans want?”

“Mating contracts!” Daar waggled his eyebrows.

“You’re exactly right, but think up a level, Daar. What are mating contracts?”

“Well…I mean…that’s what they are.” Daar gave Genshi a look like that was the most obvious thing and couldn’t possibly have escaped Daar’s notice.

“Yes,” said Genshi a bit exasperatedly. “Buy why do Clans want them?”

“To mate! What’s your point Genshi?” Daar was losing patience.

Genshi sighed. Sometimes the ‘brownie’ stereotypes really were true. Daar (despite his best efforts to appear otherwise) was one of the most intelligent Gaoians that Genshi had ever met. But Daar was also practically-minded to a fault, so much so he sometimes failed to apply imagination where it counted most.

I best spell it out for him. “What we all want, Daar…is a future.”

Daar pant-grinned with sudden realization, flomped onto the floor next to Genshi in a deliberately provocative display of Uncivilized behavior and stretched out luxuriantly. “That’s a real silverfur way t’put it, but I like it! Succinct? Is that the right word?”

Genshi rolled his eyes. “You know perfectly well that it is and you’re just pretending to have a limited vocabulary.”

“That’s only mostly true,” Daar grumbled, though by the way his ear flicked Genshi suspected he’d scored a hit. “Regaari’s been makin’ me study!” He wiggled on his back with a happy expression, scratching against the carpet.

Genshi’s eye twitched slightly.

“Good! You most assuredly need it.” A gentle insult helped, and he said it with a fond set of his ears. Daar chittered and pawed at Genshi from on the floor. He was growing playful which was a good sign; the talk had served its function. But Genshi wasn’t done, he wanted to explore the concept.

“Let’s think this through Cousin. I think we agree: we need an army Clan. I think it needs to be strongly tied to the existing Clans.”

“Would keep anxiety down,” Daar agreed. “But…it’s gonna be a really different Clan. Like, totally different. I hate ‘ta say it but the standards…”

“Will demand nothing less than perfect teamwork and discipline. Phrase it right and it wouldn’t feel inferior at all. They’re just…selecting for different things.”

“Fair ‘nuff.” He tugged at Genshi’s legs, trying to pull him down gently. “How’d they feel ‘bout not being independent, though?”

Genshi ignored Daar’s play invitation and pressed forward. “The Humans largely exercise direct civilian control over their militaries. This is analogous to that.”

Daar nodded thoughtfully. “In the case of the Americans they’re actually proud of that, too. ‘Army Clan is for Gao First.’ Or something.”

“A good thought. STOP IT!” Daar had escalated and gently clawed at Genshi’s legs. He stepped aside and Daar grumped and retreated back to the couch.

“Fine fine, killjoy. Needs t’be career advancement, too.”

Genshi shook a bit and resumed the conversation. “I suppose Clans could recruit from this new Clan’s Brothers. They’d need an officer corps of their own but…for safety we need to keep this new Clan firmly under everyone’s control. That’s especially true since Stoneback will be dominating the leadership.”

“Yup. We’re the only Clan who’ve ever had Warfathers or Generals, and we’re the only Clan that still studies these kinds of formations. Maybe each Corps is led by the appropriate Clan?”

“Yes, but we’re getting into the details. Do we agree it’s possible?”

“Yeah. But, uh, okay. So I learned a phrase from the Humans. ‘Sanity check.’ It’s basically…does this all sound like a good idea to you, Genshi?”

“Good how? Good-necessary, or good-ethical?”

“Yeah.”

Genshi combed his whiskers thoughtfully. “The necessary part, I think, is not in dispute…”

“I didn’t think so. I’d pretty much thought we’d need t’do this, I just didn’t know how ta’ start, or if you’d agree.”

“As for the ethics…who would we harm? We might upset the status quo of power among the Clans but a status quo is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Sometimes, instability is necessary.”

“Yeah.” Daar flomped around on the couch a bit, then sat up and invited Genshi to sit. Genshi politely declined for the moment.

“Meanwhile, we enfranchise potentially millions of Clanless.”

“Yeah.” Daar fixed Genshi with a look. “And Whitecrest will support? It’s not going anywhere if y’all don’t throw in.”

“We will. I must first make amends with Grandfather…”

That was a long-overdue action. Genshi’s actions as of late had greatly exceeded his authority as Champion and he’d promised to meet with Hyarrin at the earliest opportunity. Hyarrin had shown exquisite patience…but it was time.

Daar understood. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

He’s so earnest and open. “No, thank you. I need to fix this myself.”

“…Okay. You’re always welcome at any Stoneback Enclave, you know that.”

That was telling; Daar was very worried for Genshi’s future.

“Thank you, but I doubt that will be necessary. Hyarrin will either forgive everything or he’s compromised already and the entire project is doomed.”

Daar shook his head. “Never thought I’d see something’ like this in my lifetime. I’m gettin’ too old for this kinda thing.”

“I am older yet,” said Genshi in an amused tone.

“Yeah, but we ‘Backs don’t live that long most times. You know that.”

“…You have decades left, Daar, and you are in frankly unbelievably good health. There is also that new Cruezzir-G compound coming onto the market. Surely your prospects are bright?”

“Heh, ‘prolly. I dunno. Ain’t ever been a Stoneback who pushed it as hard as me though.” He flexed outrageously in place, “It’s been a lotta fun! But all this, it’s gotta have consequences, right?”

“That’s another big word! Regaari has been a good influence on you.”

“Ha! He has, I love ‘em! But…”

“Daar,” said Genshi honestly, “I suspect you and I will grow very old together.”

“…” Daar stood up, walked over, picked Genshi up, and scooped him into a full-body hug. “Thank you.”

Genshi returned the hug. “It is nothing but the truth. Now put me down…?”

A playful chitter, “Nah.” Daar stomped back to the couch and dragged Genshi with him in a forceful happy-snuggle of looming chocolate hulk. Genshi sighed. Such indignities were the price he paid for their friendship.

“Anyway,” he said as Daar stretched out lazily, and dragged the smaller Champion along. “I think the concept is there. Details matter but we’ll hash those out later. The pitch is there, too. We just need an appropriate salesman, really.”

“Yeah. There’s only two. We need someone who can call a Conclave.”

That surprised Genshi. Even he wasn’t prepared to suggest so drastic an action; the last Conclave was called nearly four hundred years prior with the advent of nuclear weapons. But he thought on the problem…and Daar was right. What they were contemplating was that kind of serious.

“And Mother-Supreme Yulna is right out, meaning we must convince Champion Loomi. And Loomi is…notoriously difficult to move on any topic.”

Daar grumbled irritably, “Yeah, you’re right like usual. I’m just worried on how we’d hafta do it. I don’t like where my mind is goin.’”

“If I know you well enough, your mind is turning to the possibility of violence.”

“…Yeah. That’s why I worry, Cuz. I’m not a very nice guy sometimes.”

“Incentives come in all forms, and violence is often a necessary incentive. The Humans call it ‘carrot and stick’ I believe.”

“Mhmm.” And amused grumble from Daar, “By the way, carrots’re really tasty! And crunchy. BEST veggie!” Daar snuggled a little harder.

“Are you also this enthusiastic about sticks?”

“Sticks are lotsa fun! You can snap ‘em, toss ‘em, catch ‘em, beat Brothers with ‘em…”

“I think the idiom in this case intends for the stick to be a bad thing.”

“Prolly,” chittered the massive oaf. “But…okay. So how? We’re gonna need ’ta get drastic with Loomi. Like, show up uninvited. Forcefully. Really forcefully.”

“Unsubtle, but…yes, I think you may be right. He seldom grants audiences.”

“It’ll get people’s attention, that’s for damn sure. That news would spread fast.”

“Then we should strive to amplify the sense of gravitas. We must convince them all that their Clans simply will not have a future unless they join us in this.”

Daar had that calculating look he occasionally wore. “I think we prolly should get First-Fang t’throw their weight around, ‘cuz we’ve also gotta tell ‘em some DEEP RELIC an’ that means securin’ a buncha posturing Champions’ skulls.”

“In that case, why not really bring in the nuclear option?”

Daar tilted his head exactly like a cub in a bout of genuine curiosity. “Huh?”

“If we’re going to persuade them to commit to building a Human-style military precipitated by Human findings and Human actions in response to Human intelligence in the face of the Humans’ enemies…”

Daar paused for a moment, face blank. Then an utterly savage grin spread across his huge, blunt muzzle. “Oh, that’s evil.”

“I’m not completely civilized, you know. I imagine this will be fun.”

Daar crushed the breath from Genshi and rolled over into a pin, then snuffled in his crest playfully. “Yup! An’ if we’re careful nobody’ll get hurt!”

“An admirable goal. Hrrf. Let go!” Genshi play-nipped against Daar’s throat and he dutifully complied. Suddenly a bit hyper, he sprang up and panted furiously as if a massive burden had been lifted from his back.

“This feels so good, I’ve been worryin’ ‘bout this for weeks!”

“You’re full of energy,” chittered Genshi. “Shall we go for a walk?”

“Nah, that’s just the sugar. C’mon, wanna watch cartoons?”

“Maybe later, I think we need to be seen in public.”

“Ooh, good call. We can walk over to Sharman and say hi! I need to go to clothing issue and get some more field socks for Tiny anyway…” Daar bounded about the room and gathered up his Adventure supplies.

Genshi shook his head in bemusement. It was good to have good friends.


Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest

“Is everything prepared?”

“The trap is set, Champion. The Ghost will not escape.”

“And it will have no inkling of this?”

“No.”

“…Is the assault team ready?”

“Yes.”

“…Very well. Proceed.” Genshi calmed himself with a quick meditation and proceeded to the meeting.


“I had wondered when you would deign to explain yourself.” Grandfather Hyarrin was anything but pleased. And he was right, Genshi’s actions over the past several months strongly pushed the boundaries on what a Whitecrest Champion could do. Hyarrin was in charge of operations, not Genshi, and both knew how important that was.

“I have needed to set much in motion to protect us both from something…quite terrible. Grandfather, would you consider removing your implants?”

A noise binged in his earpiece. The Ghost was attempting to leave. Good.

“Why?”

“We are aware of a security concern. There is a potential cryptographic flaw that we find very, very worrisome.” That was a tricky thing for Genshi to communicate. He couldn’t say anything about what the genuine concern was, not even in code language, because of course he didn’t know if Grandfather was truly compromised.

“…Are you to tell me your activities are nothing more than a concern? All of this? You’ve activated agents in every Clan, spent favors like they cost nothing, and your response to me is…you suspect me.” His claws came out. “This will not end well for you, ‘Champion.’”

His earpiece told him the transfer was complete. “No. It won’t.” He quick-drew a pneumatic pistol and fired before Hyarrin could react. The round activated a stasis bubble the instant it made contact with Hyarrin’s chest. Challenge won.

Genshi sighed to himself very quietly. “Cubs help friends.”

“Yes, father.” The assault team bustled in, collected the Grandfather, disguised him in a cargo float, and discreetly exited the room. Another set came in and scrubbed the room of all evidence, and a third whisked away the receptionist and other immediate witnesses.

Time was against them.


Fifteen minutes later

Gaoian medical technology was extremely advanced by most any standard. To the Humans it was almost magical and the idea that a Gaoian surgeon could extract a deep-brain series of implants faster than a cup of tea could be prepared was…well, it gave Genshi some pride.

They were already speeding towards the nearest Whitecrest safehouse.

Hyarrin regained consciousness during the ride and quickly assessed his situation. “…What have you done?”

“Removed your implants and captured the Ghost living in them.”

Hyarrin eyed Genshi warily. “Explain.”

“A digital sapient has occupied your mind for many years now. Be thankful: we were worried we might have needed to eliminate you, because amongst the things this sapient can do is take over the body and mind of any being with sufficiently extensive implants. Such as you.”

Hyarrin attempted to move and found himself utterly restrained. The van continued its journey at an inconspicuous high speed.

“That’s an incredible claim, to say the least. Why not simply tell me?”

“Everything you know, it knows. We have rather incontrovertible proof on this point, but it comes from the Humans and requires a secrecy contract. Would you like to see?”

“And if I refuse?”

Genshi said nothing.

Hyarrin shook his head. “Well, what choice have I? Tell me this tale.”


Grandfather Hyarrin of Clan Whitecrest

“Our entire network is compromised. All of our contacts, every one of our agents…”

“None of mine, but I’ve activated them all.”

“The Hierarchy must know of this by now.”

“Our actions tonight will have certainly tipped them off, yes. We needed to wait until we had measures in place.”

Hyarrin rolled his head in an expression of utmost annoyance and malice. He did it in a way even Genshi found frightening.

Genshi squirmed in place and dithered. “Secrecy is important to the plan…”

“As are logistics,” snapped Hyarrin, “Which you cannot provide.”

“And which you cannot secure, Grandfather. Everything you know…”

“Oh, that will be fixed immediately.” Hyarrin growled, then relented a bit. “But your point is well made. Grant me time to fix this.”

“Of course, Grandfather. I have contacts with the Humans that could help…”

“No. This is a Whitecrest problem and we will solve it.”

Genshi tilted his head, “…How?”

Grandfather snarled wickedly. “Like the warrior Clans of old.”


Meanwhile…

<System Notification: Session established>

++0103++: We lost contact with 626.

++0008++: That is alarming and we will need to respond. Expect reassignments shortly.

<System Notification: Session closed>