The Deathworlders

6—Beginnings and Endings

13y 9m 2w AV
The Third Ring, Clan proving grounds, undisclosed location, Gao
The Final Rite

Officer Fiin of Clan Stoneback

Fiin was the only member of his original training Claw that remained. Only half of the original cohort made it to the Second Ring, only half of them passed, and of the remaining few? Only two were recommended for the Third Ring…and only Fiin had made it to the end.

He had mixed feelings about all of that. On the one hand he took immense pride in his accomplishment. Who wouldn’t? He’d managed to beat out two purebred Stoneback cubs who were raised for the task! The ranks of the Brotherhood had very few “mutts” like himself, for good reason: the Third Ring was hard. His little buddy Kryu had made it all the way to the end but, well. He was small and only thirteen. But! He’d be able to strike the Third Ring again in two years and Fiin hoped to be the first to welcome Kryu to the Brotherhood. Fiin wasn’t a Brother yet, but he would be. He knew it.

He felt worse about his bestest friend Baru. He did end up passing the Calculus and completing the Rites of the First Ring—All ‘Backs had to, or they didn’t stay in the Clan—but he wasn’t Recommended for advancement and that was that. Baru himself wasn’t sad about it and was already happily working on a new dam as one of its pour engineers-in-training. Fiin wanted his big friend to come along for the rest of the ride, as it were…but Baru just didn’t have it in him. Fiin often wondered: Do I? He dimly reflected on that sobering thought on the rare occasions where he could rest his weary body and addled mind.

Not that it would do him much good. He was tired. So very, very tired. After completing the First Ring he went straight into the Second, which was also a full year long and served as an aggressive exposure to all the many things Stoneback Provided to the Gao at large. Anyone initiated to the First Ring was expected to be a capable Associate and a skilled tradesman. But initiates of the Second Ring were expected to understand the workings of Stoneback in great breadth and depth, and they earned the title of Officer.

However, halfway through the Second Ring, Fiin realized he couldn’t settle for that rank. It was prestigious to be sure, leading teams doing…what, exactly? He knew he wouldn’t be content as a finish carpenter, or a construction foreman, or (as an Officer) being in charge of a general contracting office. With everything he’d learned about what Stoneback was and what they did? He knew that an Officer’s life would bore him to tears, so Fiin accepted his Recommendation and struck for the Third Ring. Only initiates of the Third Ring could be called Brother, or Father…or maybe Grandfather. Stud. Champion. Fiin didn’t know where his ambition would lead him but by then he knew he had much more to give, and he knew he would never be happy if he didn’t try.

Along the way he’d discovered something about himself, too. Fiin had a mean streak in him, an aggression way beyond most males’ power to rage. It wasn’t something he worried about but it was there, tucked away in a corner of his mind, and it would pop up occasionally when something would frustrate him or a problem could be solved with decisive action.

That quite naturally drew him to the martial side of Stoneback. The Claws were highly selective and only Brothers could even apply, which meant he needed to pass the Third Ring with a rare Recommendation to Combat School. And that meant he needed to work harder than he’d ever worked in his entire life.

And so the newly minted Officer-Initiate earned two weeks of study-free rest and recuperation (and a pair of mating contracts!) to ponder his choice. He did a lot of sleeping, and eating, and far too much vigorous exercise with his mates, too. Really, what more could a red-blooded, thick-pelted ‘Back want?

Friendship.


He did send lots of messages to his friends and acquaintances, many of whom seemed genuinely happy for him. Even some of his old workhouse friends had written back to congratulate him though Fiin suspected that was more about their own future prospects than a genuine expression of happiness.

He didn’t like that thought but he’d learned to use his nose in the Second Ring, and a Stoneback’s nose never lied. Gaoians could infer many clues from each other’s scent—big lies weren’t common because of that—but for most people it was an intuitive sense. Not so for Fiin, not any longer. Now strong emotions were nakedly obvious to him, the subtler notes were coming with practice, and there was even hints he’d develop a full Nose and detect injuries, sickness, associates, travels…most every Gaoian could do it, but not every Gaoian was a natural, nor had the time to practice or the training to master it.

Fiin knew why, too. It was a skill deliberately not taught to the public. His Social Theory class had been dismayingly illuminating, especially the bit about how mild deception needed to be inexpensive and pervasive for complex societies to function at all. Gaoians called them downy lies while the Humans preferred white lies. Fiin didn’t much care for the whole idea but once he got his nose in, his meetings with old “friends” became…educational. Many of his “friends” were anything but, as it turned out, and Fiin couldn’t say or do a thing about it; it was well known that Straightshields could smell big lies, but the Clanless did not know how far those abilities had been developed and none of the Clans who trained their Noses wanted to risk the social consequences.

It wasn’t easy, knowing beyond doubt how many lies one had been told.

Some of his old friends were genuine, though. Fiin was more grateful for that then he had the capacity to express and Fiin was very good with his words. He repaid that loyalty the best way he knew how: he talked them up to the Females and it especially paid off for Moro, who could scarcely contain his excitement that a female was paying him attention!

“Of course she is! You’re a good and decent person and a damn hard worker.”

Fiin decided not to reveal his involvement. Moro needed more confidence in himself and Fiin, well. Maybe it was selfish, maybe not. But he sure felt better about himself, knowing what good he could cause. And Moro deserved it.

Still, friends were good, they could help with tricky decisions! Especially hard ones like: “Should I strike for the Third Ring?”

Baru was typically blunt. “You gonna stop at Officer? Fuck that, you’re too good. You keep going or I’ll find you and bite your tail!”

Fiin chittered darkly to himself about that one. Baru didn’t realize that “little” Fiin had grown mighty and strong in the last year and had learned some serious skills in intermediate combatives…but Fiin decided to keep that to himself, too.

Baru’s reaction was the same as all Fiin’s real friends. Kryu? He was painfully excited at the prospect and yipped in glee when he’d heard. Moro, too.

With that kind of encouragement, what choice did Fiin really have? He decided not only to strike for the Third Ring, but to strike the combat option as well. He needed a recommendation from both his sponsor and a Claw Leader—not a small problem—but he needn’t have worried. Tyal was truly delighted, “I knew you’d go for it! Don’t worry ‘bout the Claw Leader, I’ll take care of it.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. I know one who would love to have you at his side, don’t worry.”

Fiin couldn’t contain his happiness and pounced Tyal in playful abandon! He lost the tussle immediately but he didn’t care. He was gonna join a Claw.


The Third Ring was short compared to the First and Second Rings. It was about six months long but it was so utterly intense he later wondered that he’d survived it at all. His time challenging the Ring was a non-stop whirlwind of…well, everything. He hunted and killed. He recited. He solved math, ran a race, performed experiments, read books. Wrote essays, told tales, found a target in a crowd. He worked, so many jobs so quickly with so little experience. Then on some of those jobs, he led. He didn’t know if he was doing anything right. There was just the input, the task, the mission, and the need to keep going.

Sleep came very, very easily and there was never enough of it and the testing never relented. It only grew worse by adding more duties, more work, more lessons, more demands on his body and time. By the second phase he was back into military maneuvers. He needed to march in formation, fight with spear and sword, lay covering fire, breach a building, call an air strike, wrestle and fight and seek and destroy. Then get up and do it again, without stop, forever.

Then the field maneuvers switched to combined arms doctrine and live weapons. As did the assault courses. Explosives were added too, though he wasn’t specializing in those. It wasn’t easy and even with all he’d gone through, he was still small for a Brother—larger than a very big Straightshield but still significantly underweight compared to Tyal—but he was lightning quick and nimble, and he was clever. Brother Tyal was his partner in their little training Fang and despite it all, despite Fiin’s constant aches, his weary mind, his continual, never-ending hunger for food and for improvement, he grew better. The Challenge was immense and to Tyal’s great pride, Fiin rose to it beautifully.

He was becoming a Brother.

The last few days had become an absolute blur. Fiin couldn’t recall much of it. There was sleep but it was the instant collapse of someone pushed right to the breaking point and not allowed to recover, and the final day was just that: a full day of evaluation and stress that he scarcely comprehended. It all melted together in a frenzy of doing that he would later be unable to explain. The experience stripped him bare, right down to the kernel of what he was.

He completed the Final Rite after he passed into that state of mind, where only rage and instinct and the will to succeed could guide him through. Fiin didn’t know it—he didn’t know much of anything at the moment—but he was already a Brother of the Rites in fact, even if not quite in title. Not yet.

Only one thing remained.

He was taken aside at the absolute peak of his suffering and delirium and ushered off to a field he’d not visited before. The cadre told him to wait so he did, for what seemed like hours, desperately trying to remain something like attentive and alert. The field was yet more scrub in the vast preserve of the northern plains and he could only dimly wonder what new and sadistic evolution he would be put through. But he was ready. Fiin would win.

A van appeared over the hill, carrying Bestest Friend Tyal along with someone Fiin didn’t recognize, and stirred him from his daydreaming awake-rest. Fiin loved Tyal. He had personally guided the hapless young Stoneback through the Second Ring and had been by his side all the way up until…whatever it was Fiin going through right at that moment. He didn’t know anymore, not really.

The van stopped and Tyal leapt out and stretched luxuriantly in the mid-day sun. He turned his head and spoke quickly, then someone so much bigger jumped out. The barge of muscle and fur looked happily at Fiin—

“My Champion!” Fiin stood instantly to attention while sneaking surreptitious glances at Daar. He nodded and waved Fiin to parade rest while he continued to discuss something in low tones with Tyal. Fiin managed to restrain a pathetic little whimper and stood stoic and proud while he quietly boggled.

Great Father Fyu! Now that Fiin knew the real stories behind that particular legend he was reluctant to invoke Fyu’s name for any ordinary thing. Daar deserved it. He was so big and so impressive he made Tyal look as small as Fiin felt when he went through his First Rite. Even through a nearly full-length coat, there was no way to hide the thick obscene bulging muscular reality that was Daar’s body, or the way even his tiniest movements were predatory, animal-like, light, graceful, and perfect.

Fiin felt subdued and mildly frightened by Daar’s mere presence and he hadn’t done anything more than give Fiin a friendly little glance.


In the exchange with the Humans, Daar of course taught the Humans many things, especially when it came to the Gaoian way of team and work and training. Apparently there were lots of neat little tricks being taught in both directions and Stonebacks liked to teach! But they liked to learn, too. And one of the things Daar learned was an entirely different attitude to training.

That attitude took up quick residence in Clan Stoneback at every level of their training, though none of the “revised” programs were anything really new. What changed was the focus and the idea behind the training itself. Training plans were personalized and every Stoneback was encouraged and given time, food, and resources just to exercise for his own sake, just to grow better.

And they did. Quickly.

Before? Any training program one would find in Stoneback was always with a job, task, or function in mind. That’s how most Human athletes trained, too. All that got impressive results but the Humans’ SOR saw things…a little differently. They saw their training much more like a Human bodybuilder or dedicated strength athlete might. SOR of course trained for task but they also deliberately trained solely for the purpose of growing bigger, faster, and stronger.

The improvement itself became the goal, not just work to meet mission need. And that goal, being focused and competitive, broadened what they could do. The SOR saw each new level of ability open up new tactics, new possibilities, new capabilities to use. And now, Stoneback was beginning to see the same benefit. It made a kind of sense that seemed blindingly obvious once the idea was introduced, and Daar and the Clan ran with it.

The downside was that it cost time, medical attention, and lots more food, and of course the athletics department had a new universe of skills to master. But food wasn’t scarce anymore, Gaoian medicine was practically the best in the galaxy, and the Clan had vast wealth and resources to fund their ‘Back’s development so really, what was the counter-argument? Fiin couldn’t think of one. They could sell the new results in their fitness centers and their ‘Backs got better. Win. The cultural difference was subtle but the results were profound, and all Stonebacks—Fiin included—greatly benefited from the dedicated, personalized, and mandatory training time set aside on their schedules.

But nobody took it as far as Daar. Nobody else could. Daar was one of a kind.


Tyal and Daar finished their conversation. He glanced over at Fiin, play-bowed, wagged his tail furiously, then charged. Daar moved so fast and so aggressively Fiin couldn’t react before a high-speed wrecking ball of the Most Biggest Stoneback was speeding toward him as fast as a car weaving dangerously on a highway. He braced himself as Daar barreled straight into—

He flowed up to his feet and came to a dead stop a hair’s length in front of Fiin, with a very dominant growl on his voice and a playfully wagging tail. Daar stood a full head taller than Fiin, even in a habitually crouched posture, and in sheer size there was absolutely no comparison between the two. Fiin had been proud of just how much he’d grown, how much progress he’d made…and now, his ego was checked. He had a long way to go if his ambitions included Stud.

Daar was of course nothing but friendly, despite everything. Why would he be anything else? The little display of just what he could do was more than enough to get his point across. He sniffed at the air around Fiin, and now that he knew what Daar was smelling for, Fiin steeled himself and hoped for the best.

He didn’t expect an inspection by his Champion!

Daar circled around Fiin and inspected with a quick and practiced eye and nose. He meandered back to Fiin’s front, planted himself, gave one more quick little sniff, then pant-grinned and said, “I knew you had it in you, Brother.”

Fiin’s world shattered.

It was a surreal feeling when Tyal approached with a well-worn Naxas blanket—the symbol of the Brotherhood and a reminder of the armies and hardships of old—and handed it to Daar. “This one’s been mine for a while. Real good one, too. It’s kept me warm on space stations and, more recently, on alien planets. It’s yours now, you take care of it.” Daar threw the blanket over Fiin’s shoulders.

Fiin practically vibrated with emotion! “Yes sir!” I made it!

Daar stepped back and admired his newest Brother who stood tall and proud and strong, all weariness gone. The moment was Daar’s most favorite duty as a Champion and he took every opportunity he got to induct new Brothers.

Though that time Daar maybe had ulterior motives. He needed to see if Fiin was the Brother ‘Back that Daar needed for the Most Biggest Thing…which didn’t distract from the purity and joy of the moment. Fiin had Become.

And I know just how to make Fiin’s year, too.

Daar tilted his head, “I hear you wanna do Combat School too, right?”

!! Fiin couldn’t believe his luck! “Yes sir, as soon as I can!”

“Good! I’d like to be your sponsor…that is, if you’d have me?”

It wasn’t so much that the Champion himself decided to sponsor a lowly Brother…it was that Daar seemed genuinely hopeful Fiin would accept!

Fiin’s world remained shattered. He couldn’t do much but gawp at the sudden…everything. In what seemed like an instant he’d gone from hypnotized by his suffering, to terrified for his life when Daar charged him, to elated to suddenly join the Brotherhood…and now Fiin was Daar’s personal trainee.

“…Why me?”

Daar chittered a deep, rumbling roll of amusement. “Lotsa things are ‘bout to change, Brother. Young and smart is what I need and I hear ‘yer ‘bout the smartest ‘Back in the pipeline these days. So, wanna go to Cimbrean?”

“…”

More chittering. “I’ll take that as a yes. But I gotta ask first, ‘cuz this is kind of a deal breaker: are you okay with oathing some serious secrets? Like, the most biggest secrets?”

Fiin was suddenly nervous and Daar sniffed that out immediately.

“If you think it’s best,” Fiin answered carefully, “I will. Sir.”

“I do, but you gotta read something first. C’mon.” Daar bounded back toward the van with speed. “I’mma wait ’til you’ve slept a bunch though.” He climbed onto the big backspace in the van and curled up. “Well?”

Fiin hesitated, then climbed up into the van warily. Daar immediately pulled little Fiin into himself for a nice, comfortable nap. “I’ve been travelin’ a lot so I’m kinda sleepy too. Tyal? Can you drive us back, please?”

“Yes, my Champion.” They drove off.

Fiin found himself on the precipice of unconsciousness almost immediately. He did have the wit to ask a question above the strangeness of the experience: “What next?”

“Lotsa travel for you and me. And then,” Daar yawned, threw the blanket over them and curled around Fiin, “I show you something that’ll change everything.”

“…What?”

“You’ll see. Sleep.” Daar passed out almost immediately. Fiin followed him.

Three days of food and rest and Fiin had recovered to Daar’s liking. The non-disclosure agreement was given, read, agreed and signed. Then Daar talked. Like others before him, Fiin learned that Revelation had no translation.


One month later
Headquarters—First-Fang, White Rock Lookout, the Northern Plains, Gao

Fiin of Clan Stoneback, Brother of the Rites

Fiin learned more about his chosen profession in the month before the present mission than he had in the previous two and a half years. All of that, everything he went through, it was just primer: a coat of paint to make him ready for a new layer of knowledge. So he watched, and he paid attention.

And he learned.


Three weeks prior
SOR barracks, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

He met the SOR and Daar hadn’t exaggerated at all. The HEAT were filled with men so physically superior to Fiin it went way past their overwhelming scent and dominant attitude and vast abilities and back into something academic; he could only marvel. They were like walking Keeda tales, he remembered thinking. He also saw that Daar stood as a peer amongst them without embarrassment, even if he was only middle of the pack at best. And yet, having seen what they could do? That weirdly filled Fiin with pride like he’d never felt; his Champion was among them. Humans changed everything.

He also met Daar’s JETS team and the Whitecrest operatives and watched them all train together, then played along on some of the easier evolutions. He marveled at them, too; in that subgroup Daar was without question the biggest, fastest, and strongest, but what did that matter? It did not make him better, it only made him useful. They all had differing abilities which made them useful too, and all that only proved the Humans’ philosophy was right. Fiin of course knew that, but a Gaoian’s instincts could be powerful things. Seeing the truth helped. He would be the littlest Brother on his Claw—at first, anyway—and it was motivating to know someone’s size wasn’t everything.

Daar had all of that in mind when he arranged the visit, because nobody understood Stoneback psychology and culture better than him. His SOR Brothers impressed him so much with their ability and their attitude, he wanted to spread that “gospel” to all of Stoneback. And to the Gao.

Fiin would help do it, by being the shining example to First-Fang.

To that end, Fiin received the SACRED STRANGER briefing in addition to DEEP RELIC. He read some of Daar’s training updates in their first-draft form, along with Stoneback and Whitecrest doctrine ahead of Combat School. He studied Human doctrine too. He absorbed material fast and though they only had time for a quick once-over, SOR provided reading material for Fiin to take back.

He drank it in like a sponge, and he craved for more.

His body also got attention. He trained with all the HEAT but combatives fell to Righteous and Warhorse, who gave Fiin potent lessons in their utterly dominant superiority…then showed him exactly how to win against them. They were friendly and loved a good tussle! ‘Horse was the more physically imposing of the two, though at their scale it maybe didn’t matter that much. He was impossible to trip so the only thing to do was get him to screw up on his own.

Easier said than done. He was too quick, too heavy, and too strong for any direct challenge. Righteous was even trickier! He wasn’t as overwhelming to body or nose as Warhorse was, but Righteous was taller and had longer reach, and he could move in just unbelievable ways. Even if ‘Horse was maybe a little faster, Righteous was just better. It took a long time before he managed any kind of a fall against the stinky Humans, but the first time he managed to trip Righteous and score a “kill” he was so happy he yipped like a cub!

The Humans found that endlessly hilarious. Then they both taught him new ways they could beat him, he countered those…and so it went for the week.

In between reading all the things, eating all the things, and having his tail regularly bitten by everyone, including Daar? Warhorse gave Fiin a physical evaluation that was cruel beyond words but equal to anything Stoneback’s coaches could do. Warhorse didn’t have a gentle touch, but he spotted every weakness Fiin had, and even helped tweak his training plan to overcome it all.

Fiin was pleased to see his own planning (with Stoneback’s help) held up to the scrutiny well; very little needed to change. A small tweak here and there, and Fiin felt himself pushing through old limits almost immediately.

And the food! Fiin had a thing for Human foods. Maybe it wasn’t always his favorite but it was tasty and there were lotsa crunchy foods! He tasted sushi. And carrots. Daar was right, carrots were the BESTEST.

Sadly the visit didn’t last long. They needed to get back quickly, though with the new (very much secret, heavily guarded, in trials) wormhole portal to Gao freshly installed…


Unremarkable warehouse, Clan of Females, City of Kan Wo, Planet Gao

“…Who was that massive female?” Fiin looked back at the portal, as if he could see the enormous female who guarded it at the Cimbrean end.

“Oh, that was Myun, you like her? She seems fun!”

“She…is very impressive.” Fiin flicked his ears in obvious interest. “And enthusiastic. And thorough, I didn’t know the Female’s guards were so good!”

“Of course! We taught ‘em, then they taught us!”

“Is she…”

“Ask her!”

“Oh.” An ear-flick of relief, “I thought maybe you two…”

“Somehow we never seem to meet up,” Daar mused wistfully. “Even this time I got the other Sister for Customs instead. Bummer. You gonna make a move?”

“…I might have considered it. It’s just she smelled a lot like—” Fiin didn’t get to complete his thought as their transportation arrived at that moment. There was much bustle and activity as they loaded up their cargo—last minute materiel required for Champion Genshi’s plan—and hurried off to their destination.


“Nervous?”

“…a little.”

“Good! Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. Just remember what a Stoneback is, they’ll accept you.”

“Even without Combat School?”

“Most of ‘em joined before they went to Combat School, they’ll get it.”

“…Okay.”

Daar grumbled and pulled Fiin’s face towards his. “Hey. I know maybe this seems kinda silly comin’ from me, but size ain’t everything, Brother. The biggest reason I took you to Cimbrean? And why I’m throwin’ ‘ya in like this? It’s this, and I’mma prove it to you.”


The next morning
Headquarters—First-Fang, White Rock Lookout, the Northern Plains, Gao

Grandfather Garl of Clan Stoneback

Daar loved reunions with the First-Fang. Most of his original crew were gone, died, retired, or moved on, but he regularly visited and regularly Challenged and maintained his (honorary) position as First-Fang Leader. It was important for a Champion of Stoneback to be a capable leader; theirs was a more active role than in many other Clans, and they were full partners with the Clan Grandfather. Which was important, ‘cuz Stoneback Grandfathers didn’t last long.

Daar had a lot of Grandfathers over the years. In Stoneback, being able to do mattered a LOT. Fathers, when they weren’t capable of doing anymore ‘cuz of injury or age…they retired. At that point in a Stoneback’s life they didn’t generally have long left to live anyway so it worked out well. A quiet, dignified end in a comfortable home with his respect intact and his reputation admired.

Grandfathers ended up being the retired Fathers who simply didn’t die off too quick and knew too much about everything to abandon. But even still, they didn’t often last more than a few years. Grandfather Garl, though: he’d lasted over ten years, was still physically vigorous even if he wasn’t quite in peak form, and he was so old that the only brown left on him was along his cheeks. He was entirely white otherwise, and he knew every trick and every Job in Stoneback.

He sat on his chair, watching the First-Fang play-brawl before Fiin was formally introduced. A Meeting was always like this. It was a good way to keep the ‘Backs playful and happy, and it was also the bestest time to meet someone new. Daar decided they were loosened up enough and happy. He looked over at Garl, who nodded solemnly then stood up and bark-yipped loudly.

“Havin’ fun?” Garl’s voice was deep, gravelly, and commanded instant respect.

A cacophonous series of barks, yips, growls, and chittering followed. He nodded at Daar, who stood up and addressed the Fang.

“Good! I found someone I want y’all to meet! Brother Fiin, step forward.”

He did, tall and proud with his Naxas blanket as a cloak over his shoulders.

“Fiin here has traveled with me to Cimbrean and learned from the SOR, even as we taught them our ways. He’s new and he’s not struck Combat School yet but I believe in him! Will you join me in welcoming our newest ‘Back?”

The ‘Backs responded by opening a spot in the crowd and growling in Challenge. And Fiin rose to it. He snarled happily, cast off his cloak, and charged right in.

He was defeated instantly. Garl knew that would happen but he always held out hope that the new young ‘Backs would prove as epic as Daar. That wasn’t really fair, but a Grandfather could dream, couldn’t he?

And besides, Fiin fought well even hopelessly outmatched. He escaped, attacked, was rebuffed, flanked and tried again. It was all in good play and he was fast and clever like Grandfather had rarely seen. Not unlike Daar, in fact.

Grandfather was pleased, Daar had chosen well.

Things came to a climax when Daar joined in. Few ‘Backs could even approach him in size or ability so it was much like a Father playing with cubs. Before long, Daar and Fiin were in the middle, fending off all efforts.

Then things got much friendlier as the Brothers accepted their new member. The greeting was a test, really, but only a gentle one; any ‘Back at that stage of their career was perfectly qualified. All the Brothers wanted to test was the new member’s spirit, and Fiin had it. Tyal, the permanent Warleader of First-Fang, hung back while everyone sniffed noses and complimentary words were exchanged.

“You’re fast Brother!” One particularly large ‘Back observed. “How did you get like that?”

“Always have been!” Fiin preened a bit, still on all fours and not pretending to any Civilized effrontery. “I’ll get bigger too, just gotta work harder!”

Garl flicked his ears happily. He’s a keeper.

All that pleased the Brothers and much happy ear semaphore ensued. Fiin had lots to say and he complimented them in turn, and within a few minutes, everyone was good friends. Fiin looked deliriously happy…just like Grandfather remembered it was like. Lucky Brother.

Time to move on. “Daar, let’s brief ‘em on the mission.”


Champion and Stud-Prime Daar of Clan Stoneback

“Right.” Daar detangled and ambled over to the front of the group. “I know we all wanna eat so I’ll keep it short! You were briefed on DEEP RELIC, yeah?”

“Yes, Champion.” Tyal answered formally for the group.

“Good. Our mission in the next few weeks will be risky. We will, uh, ‘encourage’ Champion Loomi to call a Conclave just as quick as he possibly can.” Daar cringed internally. That got a reaction just like he knew it would, and there was much nervous shifting on foot and paw.

“Yup, I kinda feel the same way. It’s risky. But Champion Genshi has a plan, one I’m fully behind, and we’ve gotta follow through. Purging the Clans of Hierarchy has gotta happen now and that ain’t gonna happen if the Champions don’t agree. And, well…Loomi will need persuading. Nothing bad, but we need to secure the Conclave Hall, and Genshi and I need to chat with him. Got that?”

There was reluctant nodding. Mission intent delivered. Now the rough outline.

“Okay, good. Here’s the loose plan, we’ll get into detail laters. We will assault and secure the original part of High Mountain Fortress with the minimum amount of force and the maximum amount of stealth. Whitecrest will be assisting us—don’t worry, we’re gonna delineate responsibilities. The objective is the installation’s security, firstly, and the detention of all Highmountain personnel, secondly, and for myself and Fiin to secure the Champion.”

That caused more reaction, so Daar explained. “I am personally taking Fiin for two reasons. This is a Champion’s game so I owe Loomi my personal attention. And Fiin, well, no offense—” Daar looked at the little ‘Back, “You’re too small and inexperienced t’be trusted just yet without paw-holding, which the rest of my ‘Backs can’t spare just now. But you’ll be watching my tail and keeping me safe, and I trust you for that. Got it?”

“…Yes, my Champion.” He seemed slightly deflated.

“Heh, don’t worry. It’ll come in time and this is good experience! Also? You and I being a separate mission element keeps us outta Tyal’s fur, ‘cuz Tyal is still Warleader. I will be answering to you, Brother. Sound good?”

Daar could see the tension fall out of Tyal’s posture. Taking his command would have been acceptable, given Daar’s status…but it would’ve caused problems.

“Sounds good to me, my Champion.”

“Good. That’s honestly as much planning as I’m gonna do, ‘cuz this is Tyal’s Fang, not mine. He and I’ll talk this over real good, then we’ll plan, and we’ll all train for the mission. We’ve got a few weeks, you’ve all done stuff like this before…I expect a successful mission. Questions?”

Nobody asked any. They knew the time for that was later.

“Good, then let’s eat!”

And from there, they ate, they caroused, then they slept, and it was good.

Planning began the next morning.


13y 10m 2w AV

Champion’s Sanctum, High Mountain Fortress, the Cold Steppes, Planet Gao
Early morning

Champion and Stud-Prime Loomi of Clan Highmountain

Loomi was unhappy. Anyone would be if they had experienced a morning like his. After all, what depraved person would enjoy being assaulted in their own domain—by Champion Daar himself, no less—“asked” to call a Conclave, “persuaded” to undergo immediate invasive surgery…and then receive the Revelation of a lifetime? A good word, that. A suitably epic term which matched well with his mood.

Genshi was there with a small Claw of Whitecrest operatives along with Daar and a full Fang of Stoneback assault troopers. The Fortress security didn’t detect their infiltration until it was far, far too late, which Loomi found personally insulting. After all, nobody wants to be surprised in their own office and he had personally installed the security in the Champion’s Sanctum. It was good. “Was” being the operative word. Annoying. But as he quickly came to understand, eminently necessary.

At least he was the tallest male in the room. Daar may have been as wide as a door but Loomi was a tick or two taller, and that small fortune gave him just enough gravitas to retain his dignity. He put aside his pride for a moment and asked the most pertinent question. “How long have we known?”

Genshi was forthright. “For some time. It has taken a great deal of maneuvering and dirty work to prepare for this moment. I will not bore you with the details but I assure you, this is the earliest we could safely escalate to this level.”

Loomi glanced over at Daar, who duck-nodded agreeably. “It’s all true. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it weren’t important.”

Loomi accepted that. Much like the Stonebacks, the best breeding lines in Highmountain had exceptionally keen senses. Loomi was Stud-Prime because all of his were excellent. Not even Genshi, the master of self control himself, could easily lie in Loomi’s presence, and in any case the little Whitecrest wasn’t controlling his poise like normal. Given the subject matter…

“Do you have proof of this? You’ve given me only the barest details. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“Yes.” Genshi looked over his shoulder and Loomi gasped when a Human appeared from seemingly nowhere. He moved with a powerful cunning that belied his Deathworld origins—or maybe he was gifted with that predatory grace because of that. Regardless, Loomi recognized the man instantly.

“Templar.”

[“That I am,”] he said in excellent Gaori. [“As you might imagine I did not make this trip on a whim. Champion Genshi has been running himself mangy to arrange everything leading up to this, and Champion Daar is taking time out of his arduous training—and incurring extra hardship—to help make the point.”]

Daar duck-nodded but otherwise remained silent.

Loomi looked the Human over. [“And you appear before me in the full regalia of your station. Is this meant to be an official visit?”]

“As official as it gets,” this time in English.

“Understand.” Loomi’s English wasn’t particularly good, but he would try. “Make big point?”

“Yes. I have evidence as well.” Genshi translated Templar’s speech to save Loomi from any potential embarrassment.

‘Good. Can see?”

Knight duck-nodded and handed over a tablet. “I realize this was not the most dignified way to spring this on you—”

Loomi waved a huge paw dismissively. “Dignity for young Clans. Highmountain want truth.”

Templar nodded agreeably. “Very well. There is much we have not told you yet. For that, we need your promise of secrecy.” He looked down at the tablet, which had the Gaoian version of the non-disclosure agreement.

Loomi read it very quickly, which raised an eyebrow from Templar. “Is too late for make nice. I agree.” He pressed his thumb and signed his agreement.

Templar took a breath while Genshi handed him a bottle of water. “Very well. It begins in San Diego…”

Revelation was not a pleasant experience.


“You were right to do this, Genshi. My only shame is that Stoneback and Highmountain were not leading the charge on this fight.”

“Put it down to circumstance, more than anything.” Templar discreetly switched back to Gaori. “Regaari of Whitecrest was a happy accident. We built trust with him first and it is trust well-placed. Then Daar of Stoneback fell into place by Genshi’s clever paw. From there we’ve expanded our network of trust, and now we have reached you.” He nodded in a manner which Loomi interpreted as respectful. “We are immensely grateful you are now involved. Because, frankly…your Clan will be the most, ah, problematic.”

“Yes.” Loomi duck-nodded in weary agreement. Despite all their history, in the modern era Highmountain was devoted primarily to science and research, and that made them far and away the most heavily augmented population of Gaoians. Virtually no Brother was without.

“Will ‘ya need help, Brother?” Daar filled his corner of the room; he was so big and heavily muscled these days, he dwarfed even the human with much size to spare. Daar crossed his huge arms over his chest and stood on one thick leg, which in Gaoian body language it implied a skeptical but friendly intent.

Loomi chittered darkly. “We’ve maintained the old traditions because some of the secrets we protect here could be devastating to the Gao. I assure you, we have the means and the will to guard them. Once Grandfather learns of this, he will move swiftly to sequester or exterminate every last Brother of the Clan.”

Daar also chittered darkly and nodded approvingly.

“Quite.” Templar cleared his throat. “Well. There is another point we must discuss. Lads?”

Loomi smelled an air current shift and he gasped, for around the corner emerged four Humans of astounding physical presence. Suddenly, Daar wasn’t the biggest creature in the room. Loomi recognized them immediately—all four were prominent in the Human’s propaganda—but to see them in person—!

“Loomi, allow me to introduce Stainless, Baseball, Righteous, and Warhorse.” The four nodded, with the shortest and largest grinning and bouncing in place.

“…Well met. Are these your bodyguard, Templar?”

“Yes. But they are also here to illustrate a point, to show how far we felt we needed to go to defend against these threats. You will find few Humans who are a match for Stainless in either body or mind. Note that he is the smallest member of the HEAT. The ‘Beef Trio’ are in a league all their own. We have paid a terrible sum in treasure and otherwise to enable and sustain their physical and professional development, and the Lads themselves—especially these three—have made great personal and permanent sacrifices to achieve this.”

Templar paused for a moment, to let the point sink in. “But as supremely capable as these men are, what we cannot do is make them in quantity.”

“Ah.” The point became clear. “Whereas the Gao number over twenty billion and we have massive infrastructure, owing to recent colonization efforts…but no single Clan has the means. Stoneback and Highmountain combined have preserved the necessary traditions. Whitecrest, Ironclaw, Firefang, One-Fang…all have parts of what is needed—”

Realization struck him hard. “You cannot be serious!”

Daar chittered deeply, “Toldja he’d figger it out quick.”

“Oh, we are.” Genshi grinned in a nakedly aggressive gesture. “Together we’re gonna found a new Clan, and that Clan will be the Grand Army of Gao.”


The next morning
“Pre-game” before the Champions arrive for the Conclave

Technical Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

“Are you sure we’ve gotta step out like this?” The four were wargaming what would be the most psychologically useful uniform to appear in and Genshi wasn’t quite sure what might work best. At the moment they were trying their ubiquitous “light PT uniform” which consisted of their infamous Ranger shorts and nothing else. Normally, Adam wouldn’t care about any of it, but…

“You, of all people?” Powell shook his head, “Gettin’ cold feet, are we?”

“Well, yeah. It’s awful drafty here, sir.”

Burgess and Firth both chuckled.

Powell’s eyes twinkled. “Aye, but we need t’put on a good show, lads. And anyways by Gaoian standards this is formal attire.”

“Almost,” noted Genshi. “A truly formal occasion would require no clothing or accouterments of any kind.”

“I don’ think bein’ buck nekkid would make ‘em any more scary,” added Daar, leaning against Stainless in a very Gaoian mode of friendliness. “Y’all are already so stinky they’re gonna know Humans’re here ‘fore they set foot in th’ hall.”

“Only if they know what a Human smells like,” noted Loomi.

“…Oh yeah. Still gonna smell scary, though.” The Gaoians duck-nodded. Daar’s communicator beeped, “Ooh, gotta go! We should be ready in a few.” And with that, Daar, sank to all fours and galloped out of the room at an impressive clip. Fiin, Daar’s impressive counterpart, shrugged his shoulders and chased after him. Fiin hadn’t said a word the entire time, too bad.

Everyone paused for a moment and Firth, ever the man to murder silences, broke the ice. “Y’know maybe we should just prance out there in our birthday suits. As much shit as we get about ‘em from Dex and crew? Serve ‘em right.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “I swear you have some sorta streaker fetish.”

“You’re hardly one to talk! Didn’t you run across the green the other day—”

“They do seem functionally pointless,” interjected Genshi, in a desperate bid to pre-empt another round of banter. “Why even bother?”

“Nah,” countered Firth. “They keep m’ big boys from floppin’ outta control!” He said it with his trademark shit-eating grin, and the rest of the men smiled too.

“Easy, Lads.” A rare and treasured smile twitched at the corner of Powell’s mouth. Adam was always happy when the Major smiled; it was a good reminder of why he and the rest of the Lads loved him so much.

“How much longer?” Burgess was maybe feeling a little more self-conscious ‘cuz of his acres of curly body hair. He wasn’t being obvious about it but Adam could tell and felt slightly guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t tease him so much.

An idea! “Y’know I’m kinda jealous right now. I bet you’re feeling nice and comfy!” He shivered, “This is maybe a little too cold for me.”

“You, cold?” Firth raised his eyebrow suspiciously.

Adam shrugged hugely. “My people are meant for warm weather.”

Burgess blurted out, “Bro, so are mine—WAIT. Are you—?” And sure enough a closer inspection revealed goosebumps all up and down Adam’s mighty arms.

“Well fuck,” laughed Burgess, “I finally win at something!” Firth smirked and cast a knowing look at Adam, who smiled in return.

“Heh, laugh it up, bro! Imma wrestle you tonight for PT.”

“Bring it, midget!” Burgess was suddenly in a much cheerier mood.

Adam smiled and bounced in place; he liked it when his friends were happy. Another idea! He dropped to the floor and cranked out some pushups, switched to handstands, flipped onto his feet and did one-legged squats—

“What are you doing?” That from Genshi.

“Keepin’ warm and pumpin’ up,” Adam beamed. Powell sighed but joined in, as did the other three. “I mean, the mission right now is to help Loomi sell the Army Clan, right? And we’re here to look fuckin’ badass, right? Well…” He switched to one-armed handstands. “May as well have fun doin’ it.”

“I never thought I would be reduced to this,” grumbled Powell. Adam noted that Powell didn’t stop his calisthenics.

“Aww, c’mon, it’s fun, sir!” Firth smirked, “Besides, I bet you like showing off…”

“Whatever gave you that impression, Master Sergeant?” He smiled, but the mention of rank was a not-so-subtle hint to drop it. Firth grinned and did so.

“Just a hunch, sir.” Another grin but he didn’t push it any further. He made nice with a mild compliment. “Good thing you don’t, us ugly bros need a chance!”

“Your nose seems a bit brown, suddenly.” Burgess chuckled low.

“Meh. Gotta stay on his good side somehow.”

Adam shook his head and chuckled. All the Lads had an irrepressible burning need to constantly push the boundaries. But Firth, along with Rebar? They were the undisputed grandmasters of riding that fine line between humorous and unacceptable. Rebar was so good, Adam often didn’t even notice.

In any case, at that moment Firth was referencing an incident several months back where the Lads spied Powell in his yard and across their shared field in a state of undress. Nothing lewd or untoward, but he did have company…It made the Lads happy to see their commander loosening up and acting a fool for his lady’s entertainment. Why ruin a good thing? They never told Powell they’d noticed him, and also swore they would never dime him out.

Mostly. Like all of SOR’s shenanigans, a game magicked itself into being, where the Lads would tease the Major by alluding to “the Incident” as obliquely as they could and always in the happiest possible terms. All of the Lads played along but by far the ballsiest was Firth. Nobody else was willing to push the boundaries quite as hard as he. He who dares.

Genshi looked up from his communicator. “The Champions have been secured. They’re all green and the two with implants have had them removed. Rather forcefully, I’m afraid.”

“What’s their mood?” Powell bounced in place, following Adam’s lead. He was a cheery and happy hulk and was by then completely comfortable in his skin and in his role as Humanity’s ultimate meathead. Who better to lead PT?

“Lots of bruised egos. The Stoneback Fang wasn’t gentle when they secured them all at once, and the Champions fought back. Not that it mattered against a full Fang…anyway, Loomi and Knight have their work cut out for them.”

“Aye. What next?”

Admiral Knight joined them, resplendent in his full service uniform. “I stride onto the dais with my personal guard, it would seem.” His eyes gleamed at the humor. “Quite the show we’re putting on!”

“I bet you’re warm in that uniform, sir.” Adam grinned his big, happy grin.

“Quite. Our role is easy Lads, you lot are both exhibit and my honor guard. Security is provided by our hosts and we cannot interfere. Our job is more or less to be a visual backdrop for Loomi and Genshi to make their sales pitch.”

“In Ranger shorts.”

“Yes. Well. ‘Shock and awe’ is the name of the game here. Most of these Champions have never seen a human in person and that makes it vital we show them just what we can be if needs must.” He eyed the men, “Actually…maybe with fatigues, boots, and beret instead of bare-chested. I think somehow that would be more…”

“Ominous?” Genshi bared his teeth in a friendly-aggressive sort of way.

“Dignified?” Offered Firth in a very innocent-sounding yet sharp quip.

“Appropriate. We’re forgetting you’re supposed to be bodyguards as well.”

Adam nodded along with the rest. “With weapons and armor, sir?”

Knight looked at Genshi and the two communed telepathically, like leaders do. “No armor I think. I know it’s a risk but it’s a very small one and we need the visual…” He gestured at Adam, who bounced his thick chest in reply (with no e-tattoo that day) and offered his biggest, most innocent-puppy shit-eating grin.

Knight shook his head, not for the first time reflecting on what a handful the Lads must be for Major Powell. “Indeed! So I think boots, those fatigue trousers of yours, the beret and just the t-shirt, no blouse or tactical vest. We can try and have the best of both worlds that way. And if you will allow it…?” He glanced at Genshi, who considered.

“I’ll allow it, weapons would be a useful visual flair. We would ask you exercise restraint, however.” Genshi brought up the security plan on a tablet. “We’ve already designed coverage from all possible angles and any engagement you might end up in would be detrimental in many ways.”

Powell and the Lads looked over the security plan. It was exactly like they’d come to expect from Whitecrest: competent, well-designed, and discreet.

“All the same, I’d prefer to be armed anyway.”

“Understood and acceptable,” agreed Genshi. “And in any case armor wouldn’t be necessary. Gaoians use heavy pulse weapons and bombs in our combat. The former wouldn’t do much to bother any of you, and the latter…If we’ve missed something like that none of us would survive anyway.”

“Aye.”

“I have every confidence in Whitecrest’s security, Lads. Now let’s change into that fatigue uniform. As much as it pains me to so blatantly strut and peacock you Lads about…well. There is a reason such things are military tradition.”

The Lads nodded agreeably, reached for their duffels, and squeezed into their tan shirts. Genshi watched in fascination as they quickly stripped off their shorts and donned undergarments about their hips and on their feet.

“Why the clothing on your feet?”

“Socks?” Burgess chuckled as he tugged his on. “It’s ‘cuz we sweat and boots don’t breathe. Ain’t nobody like smelly boots! Also helps with the rubbing. Blisters suck.” A round of nodding from the Lads. In short order they had donned their fatigue trousers and were lacing up their boots. The three big ones groused about the footwear, Firth the loudest.

“I used to love wearin’ boots but now I can’t fuckin’ stand it. They’re always too tight no matter who custom-makes ‘em and no matter how new they are or how recently I’ve re-measured my feet. Goddamned Crude, heh.”

“It ain’t easy being huge,” with another grin from Arés. He stood up and bounced about in his boots a bit uncomfortably. Even brand new, he knew he’d ruin them by the end of the day. The Trio considered regular boots almost like disposable items; none they’d found would last long under the stress. In fact, by then the only comfortable footwear they had was what they wore in their EV-MASS, and that was true to some degree of all the Lads.

Powell and Murray were the only members of HEAT who managed to mostly escape that particular fate, which Adam was maybe a little bit envious about. Small blessings. in either case, the Lads were soon properly dressed and took a good look at each other. The admiral was right, they did look scarier in camo trousers and a plain matching t-shirt. Weird.

Firth looked the scariest. Being easily the leanest of the operators and proportioned like a comic book superhero, the shirt more or less clung to his form like a second skin. “I reckon you’re the ‘good cop,’ sir?” He said it with his usual respectful bluntness.

“Indeed.”

“Well…here’s hopin’ we ain’t gotta be ‘bad cop,’ then.”


Champion Loomi

Conclaves were very serious things. They were so serious and so rare, in fact, the assembled Champions were grudgingly willing to accept the indignities of a Stoneback Fang attacking and pinning them to the floor, scanning their skulls, then cuffing and carrying them all to the Conclave Hall. Loomi suppressed a wave of pride; his Brother-Clan acted efficiently, powerfully, aggressively, and with utter calm and detached decorum. That made all the difference and that meant Loomi had a chance to turn the evening around.

Of course being Brother-Clans, Stoneback and Highmountain weren’t so very different. They retained much of the same physical presence, for example. Both were very tall breeds, though a Highmountain tended to a big-boned and very lanky frame, while a Stoneback often had a slightly more compact yet much sturdier build paired with a hulking muscularity only Humans could match. Both grew heavy and shaggy pelts, and though a Stoneback’s was waterproof, a Highmountain’s pelt was adapted to the high mountain cold. One could often find a Highmountain covered in frost from the bitter chill of their monasteries.

And importantly, both Clans retained the same keen senses and untamed souls. Loomi prided himself on both and in particular his sensitive ears, which he used to listen in on the Champions whispering amongst themselves.

“He has a furry face! I didn’t know humans could be furry?”

“I’ve heard of this. It’s called a ‘beard.’ It’s meant to denote wisdom and experience.”

“Ah, so it’s like a good set of scars, then.” There was much duck-nodding and self-pleased flicking of ears.

“And he’s wearing all that gold and dangly stuff, too. I think that means he’s important.”

“He looks like a powerful fighter. I wonder if he has scars…”

“I heard Humans heal too quick an’ don’t get ‘em.”

“Nonsense! Maybe he’s just good…”

Loomi managed to suppress a snort of amusement. They weren’t entirely wrong, after all…

“…the four behind him—!”

The hall fell into dead silence when the “Beef Trio” and their commander stepped up behind Loomi and Templar, but only for a moment. The whispers grew into excited speculation almost instantly.

“Aren’t those SOR?”

“He’s bigger than—”

“Where’s Daar?”

“He’s training on Earth I heard!”

“He’s the best, I bet he’s showin’ them a trick or two!”

A proud consensus developed immediately, though the braggart was immediately subjected to teasing and insinuations about his minor Clan’s ongoing alliance negotiations with Stoneback.

“They look dangerous. Who do you think would win in a fight?”

A furious discussion took place, with the consensus being the only way to know for sure would be if Daar showed up and Challenged him. Right on cue…

“Nah, the Trio can usually rip my tail right off ‘less I surprise ‘em. Hi!”

Daar pranced right into the middle of the room all big and bad as always, bristling with that special brand of aggressively boisterous friendliness his Clan was so very good at projecting. In short order the other Champions swarmed him to say hello and sniff in friendly greeting. All by himself he elevated the mood of the room; Daar was one of the few Champions who remained aloof from most of the Clan politics and that proved valuable. After all, with an enormous and undisputed capability to defend Clan combined with a seemingly harmless personality? Genshi was right. Daar really was what a Champion should be and everyone knew it. Not even Hiyal of One-Fang could hold out on their old grudge and he offered respectful greetings and words.

The moment is ripe. “Shall we?” Loomi nodded at Templar who looked the very model of dignified, stately menace. Loomi gathered his wits and strode to middle of the dais. It projected into a large circular room bereft of chairs or any pleasantries of any kind except for four balconies. The room fell silent instantly.

“I call to order this Conclave.” He spoke in his most booming and formal voice. Then, in careful and ancient ritual, he began:

“To all who would witness these presents, greetings: come before me stand Templar, Admiral and Warfather amongst the Humans, joined by Father Stainless of the Worthy Clan SOR, Champion Genshi of the Most Honorable Clan Whitecrest, Champion and Stud-Prime Daar of the Most Ancient and Honorable Clan Stoneback. The protection of the Conclave is given!”

“We agree,” said in unison by all the Champions present. None would dare violate the terms because Daar padded over and stood with Loomi on the dais.

“Stoneback will Protect. Does any Champion offer Challenge?”

None did.

“It is done.” Loomi turned to Templar, and deviated from the script a little. “Honored guest, you have the protection of the Conclave. It will last as long as you live for any matter pertaining herein. All things discussed here are secret. The penalty for breaking this Oath is death. Do you accept?”

“I do, on behalf of my men.” Templar’s Gaori was so perfect, some of the attending Champions chittered in surprise.

“I accept your word of honor on behalf of the Conclave.” Loomi stepped forward and sat amiably at the edge of the dais, then addressed the Champions directly. “Okay. Formalities done, welcome and apologies. This morning was an insult to your dignity and I accept personal responsibility. I assure you it will not happen again. But I must note…” Loomi’s eyes looked up at the balconies, and in them stood Whitecrest sharpshooters with long-range rifles.

The crowd grumbled to itself. “Please understand. Today, the Humans are going to share with us the details of an existential threat to the Gao. I only learned of it two mornings ago and from what I learned, called this Conclave without a second thought. Does this convey the gravity of the situation?”

Loomi had their rapt attention, then looked towards Templar, who sat beside Loomi. He settled in both comfortable and dignified, but even he couldn’t help swinging his legs a bit over the ledge. Physics tested, he spoke:

“First order of business.” Templar grumbled, “Now, I have given this briefing many times and will give it many more. But before I give it to you fine gentlebeings, I must have your oaths of absolute secrecy. Among our people this is a legally binding contract and the penalty is as severe as the Oath I just swore to Champion Loomi.” Some of the Whitecrest Brothers walked among the crowd and distributed tablets with the non-disclosure agreement. “Please read carefully, and sign. If you cannot agree, we require you to leave.”

Within a few minutes all had signed and all signatures were verified.

“Excellent. Champion Genshi…would you do the honors? I find that speaking Gaori for any length of time tires my throat and jaw. There are some very subtle sounds in it!” He threw in an odd facial expression that was—somehow—charming and friendly, even if Loomi didn’t know it’s actual meaning.

“I would be honored.” Genshi stood forward and gathered his thoughts, carefully considering the best Angle for the pitch. “I suppose I should start where Admiral Templar always starts, in the Human’s former city of San Diego.”

Even hearing it all a second time, Loomi still found himself awed by it.