The Deathworlders

7—Doom and Gloom

13y 10m 3w 1d AV
Military spaceport, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean

Champion & Sergeant Daar (Tigger) of Clan Stoneback

“I dunno,” pondered Daar as he examined the picture, “That’s a lotta green fur. After the stupid bear-snake—”

“Doom-noodle.”

“—bear-snake. Anyway, after that, I’m not really keen on coloring my fur again.” He shuddered slightly at the recent memory. All that…shampooing.

“Aww, c’mon, we both gotta make sacrifices for this!” Hoeff—recently given “Chimp” as a callsign for his super-powered monkey ability to climb—pointed out the skimpy fur costume he’d be wearing. “And I gotta shave everywhere, and wear a blond Prince Charming wig.”

“And cut out the carbs,” added Bestest Friend Tiny. “I mean, you’re pretty ripped already, but…you’re also kinda small for He-Man…”

“Quality over quantity! ‘Sides, you’re way fatter than me.”

“Hey, Tiny isn’t fat! Look at him, he’s the healthiest guy here!” Daar may not have been an expert on the human body but he knew quality when he saw it.

“Heh, no argument here, Chimp’s got a point.” Walsh mugged evilly at Hoeff, who only glowered in a manner that suggested no real anger. Probably. Daar still wasn’t quite sure when the Humans got into their love-via-insult bouts. It seemed so…tricky.

But Bestest Friend chuckled and nodded happily. “Still, he ain’t entirely wrong. I’m definitely a bit on the beefy side these days.” He pulled up his shirt and flexed his big abs and they showed up all strong and impressive, though unlike Chimp’s they vanished under a thin layer of padding when he relaxed.

This of course triggered a long round of “bullshit” from the Humans.

Daar liked to ponder while his friends bantered. Their verbal sparring could go on for several minutes, so while they fought he’d zone out and think about things. Just then? Daar was thinking about Tiny’s abs; Daar was slightly jealous of them. Or, maybe he was jealous of what Tiny could do with them. That thickly-muscled middle was the source of most of a Human’s upper body strength and it let them bend and twist under load in ways a Gaoian couldn’t. Daar had put a lot of work into strengthening his own core to keep up with the way the Humans climbed and moved, but even if he did have an really awesome set of abs himself—they were impressive before, but now they were much bigger and stronger—his would never be as good as Tiny’s.

Oh well. Tigger was a lot stronger in a bunch of other ways that Tiny just wasn’t. Teamwork! He had made so much progress that his middle was now thick and hard with rippling muscle. It made fourpaw a bit less graceful but he didn’t lose any speed or mobility, and some of the females said it made him look more attractive, too! Probably that was ‘cuz his chest, back, neck and shoulders all grew along with everything else. He loved it. Since Warhorse had clued him on the proper mindset, Daar resolved to see just how far a Gaoian could go; the Humans did with the Beef Trio, so why couldn’t Daar try the same thing? He was now so big and strong he was eating like the SOR, too!

Food was another weird thing about Humans. They loved to eat and eat big to the point they could put on large fat stores, which was something Gaoians really couldn’t do. It was a useful survival trait for the Humans but in modern times it made many of them obsessed with being “lean.” Daar had never been anything but—“anatomy chart” were the words Warhorse used—and it was a very rare Gaoian who was even a little “pudgy.” But Humans? Their inclination to grow fat and their need to avoid that made for all sorts of weirdness.

The ongoing teasing between Chimp and Bestest Friend was just one example. Chimp did have a point, though; Tiny wasn’t lean like those models Daar had found on the internet, that’s for sure. “Beefy” was the word he’d heard. But Tiny was fast, strong, could move forever, pretty (or so Daar believed), and healthy, so who cared? It didn’t seem to bother him very much.

They seemed to quiet down. Daar snapped out of his reverie and listened.

Tiny chuckled, “Thing is, I gotta have a bit of bulk to do what I do. Gives me endurance since I can’t compete with Tigger on strength anymore. Also, I ain’t tryin’ to look like a cartoon hero from the nineteen-eighties, either!”

“Bah! How are ‘ya gonna get the women if ‘ya don’t show off?”

Daar perked up. Was this a mating ritual? The holiday confused him; his internet searching suggested Halloween may have been about many things at once, but all of the clearly unrelated aspects of the celebration seemed to have merry-making in common. Daar and the other Brothers heartily approved even if its actual origins remained impenetrable. Candy? Costumes? Mischief? An excuse to play Pounce all day long, anywhere and against anyone?

Halloween was amazing. And now, with a mating contract in the works for the Climber? Daar was focused. He had a Mission.

“Oh, I dunno…” Tiny wore the little smirk that Daar knew meant Teasing. “Maybe with my wit and personality? S’worked fine for me so far. Also, I have a date anyway. I’m going as a priest and she’s going as a pregnant nun!”

“That ain’t realistic! She should be going as an altar boy.” Boss Coombes walked in already dressed as a vampire from human lore, which he had earlier declared was named “Count Blackula.”

Daar was pretty sure he understood that joke.

At least he understood some part of the humor involved. Lore-wise, that particular creature made no sense at all to Daar, especially given how the humans had transformed such an utterly horrifying concept into…breakfast cereal. It was really tasty and crunchy cereal, but still.

Nor could Daar let the statement go by without a comment. “…Alter boy? That makes no sense! Wouldn’t he…actually, whatever.”

On second thought, the assertion was almost certainly a hideously complex cultural reference so Daar quickly moved on. He learned early on to simply file away that kind of human weirdness in his Kwek-trap of a memory and look it up later. And anyway, he decided it made no sense for a man dressed up as a mythical creature to criticize the realism of Bestest Friend’s costume. Not that any of this Human holiday made much sense. Still fun, though!

Back to important matters. “There’s gonna be candy, right?”

“Yup! And the Goldpaw trading post imported a ton of Yatsu, which everyone is buying for the cubs. And themselves. It’s pretty good, heh.”

“YATSU?!” Daar whined happily. “Fuck yes!” Nobody bat an eye at his enthusiastic and proper use of an English curse.

“Yup. I hear they’re pretty tasty, too.”

“They’re the BEST! Especially the stick in the middle. Nice and crunchy!”

“Heh.” Hoeff returned to the matter at hand. “Anyway, you up for it? I mean…I don’t know if you’d let me, uh…” he seemed suddenly embarrassed, “Ride you, or anything…”

Tiny was indignant on Daar’s behalf, which he appreciated even if he wasn’t offended. “Wait, what are you gonna do to Tigger? DUDE. He’s not a fucking—”

“Sure! I’m supposed to be Battlecat, right? Well, He-Man rides Battlecat.” Daar walked over and glomp-hugged his very good friend! “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”

All three humans seemed suddenly nonplussed. Daar didn’t know why.

Bestest Friend broke the silence. He was very protective, like all good Friends. “Bro, are you sure? I know Regaari wouldn’t ever agree.”

“That’s ‘cuz he’s too wimpy to do it! Hell, I’m stronger than you, Tiny—”

“Barely.” Tiny grinned wolfishly.

“I think you mean ‘way, way stronger! And prettier, too…’” Daar returned the grin. Admittedly the effect from Daar was much more impressive, given his enormous, heavy jaws and his massive canines.

“Christ, man.” Tiny shook his head in amusement. “I’m glad I’m tougher than you, ‘cuz damn.”

Daar chittered, “Hah! Smarter and, uh, ‘ape-ier’ too. But I’m still stronger!” The other men chuckled at that! He was getting better and better with Human humor; not too different from Gaoian sensibilities, really. Just trickier.

Back to business. “Anyway, don’t worry, Friend. I’ve got practice and Chimp is really small, it’ll be fine. ALSO!” He bounced a bit, “I’m helping a Brother get laid! Ain’t no Gaoian Brother who wouldn’t help if he could! Why do you think we fight so much?”

The three humans looked at each other again, and shrugged. Good enough for Daar.

“Yeah! Now, you promise this stuff washes out easily…”

Chimp and Tiny headed to the latrines to prepare.


Meanwhile
Female Enclave, Gaoian District, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean

Mother Niral of the Clan of Females

While the spirit of Halloween seemed generally wholesome, at the moment she wasn’t much enamored with the costumes. The Cubs were unconcerned. The Mothers had turned it into a craft project; since the first (very small) group of Cubs were approaching four Gaoian years old, and therefore well into their primary schooling, it was clearly past time for some creative hands-on education and in-depth exposure to Human culture before the males struck for Clans or trade schools when they turned five. Gaoian Cubs developed very quickly relative to Human children, Niral noted with some internal pride, though it wasn’t without its challenges. In this case, ambition.

And what an ambitious costume Niral’s little charge wore! One of the Sisters was a trained nutritionist and came specifically to study Human food—encouraged by Goldpaw and Highmountain males, no doubt—and, with luck, determine what might be tradable between the two species. She discovered that spinach and broccoli, when eaten together, were excellent substitutes for Meeshi greens in both taste and nutritional composition: better, in fact, and more easily digestible. This ended up solving a major problem with food import for their developing cubs, who at that young age desperately needed the nutrition afforded by Meeshi. The Cubs absolutely loved it, the broccoli in particular, and one determined she would wear a broccoli costume no matter how hard it would be to make.

And the males believed themselves strong-willed!

Niral once again asked her charge, “Did you need to pick broccoli?”

“I LIKE THEM!!”

Nirali simply head-ducked in weary acceptance.

The cub was barely four Gaoian years old and had more energy than seemed reasonable. Well-developed, too. It must be this human food, she thought. After all, it was densely nutritious even if the Human’s available foodstuffs weren’t always appealing. Why, they didn’t even have anything quite like Nava and that was just unthinkable. How could they cope? Scallops were maybe a close substitute…Regardless, their lack of Nava was a shame, especially with their strange distaste for its origins; Humans seemed to love the rich meat until they learned what it was. Why that so bothered most of them…

Aliens were alien.

Niral’s ears perked up when she heard Regaari making his entrance. He bantered briefly with the on-duty guard—it seemed only a matter of time before those two would consummate a mating contract—then ambled his way over to the crèche. Niral watched the entrance and in he stalked, wearing a human tuxedo without the slightest hint of awkwardness. It was cut and fabricated specifically for him and, well…it was strangely attractive.

“Regaari! I see your enormous friend finished your costume?”

“Yes, last week! He had help but…” Regaari spun around on his toes, “It’s finished! It looks like something James Bond would wear, huh?”

“Mostly,” she agreed. “Is it comfortable?”

“Yes! Though,” Regaari itched a bit at the collar, “It does take some getting used to. And it’s pretty warm.” He tilted his head, “Will you be dressing up?”

“No, I think not. I’ve had no time to prepare anything.”

“Will you still be coming with us?”

“Yes! I want to meet this ‘Warhorse’ you won’t stop talking about!”

Regaari duck-nodded agreeably and crouched down to play with Hina, Mother Niral’s broccoli-loving charge. She observed the two for a moment and reflected on Regaari’s costume. It really did look good on him, she decided. The stark black-and-white contrast of the strange garment drew attention to Regaari’s pleasing shape and handsome face while hiding unnecessary details, all in a strangely fetching manner. Perhaps the Humans were on to something.

She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Time for adult talk. “Hina, would you leave us be for a moment? The Sisters can help you with the rest.”

“Yes, Mother!” Hina pounced up, hugged both Regaari and Niral, then flounced out of the room, the broccoli-suit not quite perfectly stable atop her head.

“I notice you’re not wearing those human ‘shoes,’ and I bet I can guess why.” She looked at the (actually, quite intimidating) claws on his toes and wondered how the Humans managed without something so useful.

“Yup. I’ve grown my claws out,” confirmed Regaari. “Sharp claws are too important to go without in my line of work, sadly.”

Niral found the reluctant acceptance of his need both comforting and a bit frightening. Woe that the world had such use for violence! But he was not entirely without footwear; he instead wore bright white spats like some human cartoon characters. Somehow, they made the costume complete.

“No need to tear shoes apart, I suppose.”

“Indeed. They’re also expensive, Warhorse is not a, uh, cobbler? I think that’s the word, and my anatomy doesn’t match closely enough anyway. And I have foot-pads, too, so I don’t need them. Humans wear shoes because their world is filled with inhospitable terrain, which means they must wear shoes in many situations, which softens their feet, which means they must wear shoes.”

“…really? That seems like a vicious cycle.”

“Yup, though that’s a recent trend in their history from what I know. Many still go without. Warhorse? He and his teammates rarely wear them at all anymore. ‘Barefoot running’ is apparently better for their health; don’t ask me how, that’s just what Warhorse said. It’s a big trend in their fitness culture, too. And anyway, Humans have no real weakness that makes them use footwear. It’s mostly that they live in places filled with cold temperatures and sharp surfaces.”

“Cold I understand…but sharp surfaces? So does ours,” she pointed out. “So does every rocky world. What’s special about Earth?”

“The microbiology. None is as dangerous. When I was at Roosevelt park, my paws got roughed up by the terrain, nothing too bad. But Daar? He suffered a medical emergency from a fungal infection, all through a tiny little cut in his left forepaw! It’s not as bad for humans; they’ve got an immune system that just…it’s amazing. But their world has pathogens that even humans fear. One in particular that’s very common, something called ‘tetanus?’ It’s one of the most horrifying diseases I’ve ever heard of.” He shuddered a bit at the recollection.

Niral, though, was thinking of Daar. “Why would he get a cut on his fore—” Regaari favored her with a slightly annoyed look, “—right. Of course. The uncivilized brute.”

Like many females she strongly disapproved of fourpaw movement. Gaoians were supposed to be civilized, not poor imitations of their ancestors!

Regaari set his ears in an amused manner. “I presume Daar isn’t your type?”

“Oh, no, not at all! What good is a sire who can’t read or speak properly?”

“Don’t mistake his crudeness or lack of sophistication for stupidity,” he warned. “Daar’s one of the most intelligent Gaoians I’ve ever known.”

“Well,” she sniffed, “He sure doesn’t act like it.”

Regaari chittered in amusement, “No, sometimes he doesn’t. But he must be doing something right! The other guard—“

“Yes yes, I know. I try not to hold it against her.”

In response Regaari affected a human shrug. “Suit yourself. But something I’ve learned? One should never judge another by appearances. If I had, I’d never’ve made friends with the Humans, nor with Daar, and both have done incalculable service to me personally and to our people. Don’t forget that.”

“Wait, Daar? What has he done besides ‘knock up’ every young Sister within nose-shot?”

“Well,” Regaari chittered loudly in amusement, “He’s definitely done that! Sadly…I can’t discuss his service to us, not here. But, well: I call him both Cousin and Brother. Have you ever heard of that before?”

“…no, I haven’t.”

“Exactly! Trust this silly old Father, I don’t waste my time with useless people anymore. I value Daar. And I am talking to you right now, and taking you to visit my dearest human friends and Brothers. Does that mean nothing to you?”

Niral had no ready answer to that.

Regaari nodded agreeably. “Then let’s get going! Baseball and Righteous will be there, too. Something called a… ‘boy’s night?’ I’m told it’ll mostly be story-telling, snacking, and movie watching. And giving candy out to young ones.”

That did sound like an interesting evening. “Can we bring Hina? We could do this ‘tricky treating’ along the way.”

“Sure,” nodded Regaari, “Why not?”

Niral nodded in reply, they collected Hina (now properly costumed) then they ventured forth to experience Halloween.


One hour later
Warhorse’s apartment building

Father and Sergeant Regaari (Dexter) of Clan Whitecrest

Hina had quite a haul of candy, Niral was exhausted, and Regaari got to show off a bit by carrying Hina up the stairs towards Warhorse’s apartment. The apartment building was in full Earth gravity which was too much after such a long evening for either of the females to properly handle, so he also provided a helpful arm for Niral as she struggled up the stairs. By the end he was almost carrying her as well, a feat which warmed him with a quiet, steady pride.

Niral didn’t fail to notice, either, judging by her furtive looks; Dexter considered it a successful evening so far. He put Hina down just as they reached the landing so she could get one last haul of candy. Who was he to deny her fun?

They arrived and knocked firmly on the door as was the human custom. There was some muffled bellicose jeering—most likely the three were playing a video game of some sort—and the floor shook slightly as a preposterously heavy man thumped over and opened the door. Righteous appeared, standing tall and unashamed in the comically immodest natural state of all SOR operators; virtually naked in the functionally pointless Ranger shorts they all seemed to favor, and in his case, hairy, smelly, and ape-like, too.

That was perhaps not the ideal way to greet two unaware Gaoian females.

“Hello?” Righteous rumbled a greeting in his deep, gravely voice. He looked down at Hina, broke into the most unreserved and enthusiastic smile Dexter had ever seen a human give, then threw the door wide open. “Oh my GOD that’s so fuckin’ cute! Err…” Firth suddenly remembered his language. He switched to perfect Gaori and addressed Hina directly. [“Sorry, little lady.”] He nodded down at her with his wide, toothy grin, [“I didn’t mean to]…Oh.” Hina yipped in terror and swiftly relocated behind Regaari’s legs. Along with Niral. Not that Regaari could blame them.

After all, Righteous—Firth—was a truly enormous man by any measure, even by SOR’s standards. He’d caught up to and surpassed Baseball on the scale and now substantially out-performed him in every physical ability, a point of major pride. And though he didn’t have anything like Warhorse’s heft or power—that was a wide and growing gap to Firth’s resigned frustration—he was far and away the most athletic man alive and second only to Warhorse in strength, endurance, speed, or toughness. He could comfortably outperform any other human to ever live in any of those contests and Base could do the same under Firth. Together, the Beef Trio defined their own category of Human ability.

And in either case, nobody quite filled a space like he did. He was noticeably taller than the door and so broad his shoulders were entirely outside of the doorframe, almost as wide as ‘Horse’s. And unlike Warhorse, whose unguarded movements were usually heavy, solid, and unsubtle, Righteous’ motion was fluid, smooth, quick, and precise, much like a big predator stalking his prey.

To his credit he didn’t seem to enjoy scaring the females and in response to their obvious fear, crouched down to the ground to get his eyes level with Hina. [“Aww, I’m sorry little girl. I know I’m scary. Here—”] He reached toward the bowl sitting next to the door, [“I’ve got Yatsu! I think this one tastes like…something kinda minty?”] His giant hand dug through the pile and found a tiny little wrapped candy in the mass. It was vivid green and shaped like a leaf.

Hina eyed him fearfully and grabbed tighter at Regaari’s leg.

[“Okay,”] he said, [“I get it. Here.”] The big man rolled onto his back in as prone a position as he could manage. Even from that angle he seemed fearsome. [“Ain’t nobody ever been scary when they’re helpless, right?”] Hina cautiously edged forward. Niral emerged from behind Regaari, wary of her charges’ bravery.

Hina wore a worried expression. [“Will he hurt me, Regaari?”]

[“You are probably safer in this room than anywhere in the galaxy, little Sister.”]

That seemed to be all the encouragement she needed. She approached the bowl, which was next to Righteous’ head, picked out a Yatsu and a human candy along with it, then retreated slightly. Righteous, to his credit, smiled with a close-lipped grin and rolled over onto his side lazily.

[“S’all good. What’s your name?”] Again with the immaculate Gaori. He even made a passible version of the adult yip-click that signaled friendly intent.

“…Hina.”

[“I like that! It’s a pretty name. My name is…well, you can call me] Righteous. [Or stinky, that works too.”]

Hina chittered and Firth laughed along with her. Regaari could feel the tension in the room melt away as Righteous levered himself up into a cross-legged position and Hina pounce-attacked. He surprise-laughed like humans do, then raised his eyebrow as Hina thoroughly sniffed his face in the manner of Gaoians meeting new friends. Warhorse and Baseball—also barely clad in their amusingly unmodest shorts—watched from the other side of the couch and visibly struggled to maintain their decorum.

“You are stinky!” She proclaimed at last, now in English. “And fuzzy!”

“Yup!”

Firth nodded happily and stood up with Hina in his arms. She enthused at the high vantage point, so Firth responded by wrapping his mitts around Hina’s waist and raising her up to the ceiling. She chittered happily and poked at the textured surface. “Everything’s little now!”

Firth smirked smugly at Regaari, “Sarry, bud. I forgot to turn off my huge.” Regaari rolled his eyes and walked over to Niral to re-assure the nervous Mother. Meanwhile, Firth walked over to the couch and plopped down in the middle with Warhorse on his left and Baseball on the right. The four made friends as Niral looked on anxiously.

“I told you she’d be fine,” Regaari mouthed his reassurance quietly as the men admired Hina’s costume. “They’re aren’t many beings as good-spirited as them.”

“I believed you! It’s just, they’re so…”

“Much?”

She slumped a bit, “That seems like an understatement.”

“It is, and it’s the only one appropriate for them.”

“Hey, Dexter! You wanna watch a movie with us? We just finished PT and a game of Halo.”

“I thought you smelled over-ripe. What movie?”

“Har har!” Warhorse took it in good grace as always, which seemed to amuse Hina. “Anyway, uh…we were gonna do a horror flick…” Warhorse eyed the females, “But maybe something more, um, funny?”

“Nightmare Before Christmas?” suggested Baseball.

“That one should be fine. It has the Pumpkin King, right?”

“Yeah, we watch that one with you?”

Regaari shrugged, “It was the third movie we watched on the Caledonia, remember? Right after Full Metal Jacket.”

“Oh yeah, let’s watch that!” Warhorse bounded up to his feet enthusiastically to fetch snacks and shook the building as he bounced about, while Baseball busied himself with the large display. ‘Horse returned shortly with an enormous spread of edibles in his arms, carefully dumped them on the coffee table, then sat down on the couch between the other two.

And as predictable as the nightly rain, both Firth and Burgess pounced on Arés as soon as he sat down, keen on wrestling him to the bottom of the pile. The couch groaned wildly as the three strongest and heaviest men across all of humanity played like puppies. This was a routine so familiar that the only surprise to Regaari was that it took three seconds for Warhorse to pin them both; normally, he won so quickly there wasn’t any point counting. In any case, both men suffered as Arés easily crushed them into compliance—Baseball between Warhorse’s legs and Righteous in his arms—and maneuvered them both into submission pins simultaneously. A quiet little growl, a bone-crushing squeeze to both of them, and their quick and rueful surrenders gave Warhorse a decisive victory.

“You ain’t winning on my couch, bros.” A quick nuzzle with both and their brief but impressive combat instantly transformed into movie-time snuggles.

Firth couldn’t help but get the last word in edgewise. “You gotta slow down eventually bro. When you do I’mma catch up and beat you!”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” challenged Burgess. “Hell, Rebar could fit in the weight gap between you two with room to rattle around!”

Adam beamed happily. “Still gettin’ stronger, too!” Then a playful smirk, and a squeeze to both so fierce it smashed the air from their lungs, “I’m the best!”

“Fattest,” wheezed Baseball through the bone-crushing hold.

“You’re the only one who’s ever stepped through a deck,” teased Firth. He got a rib-shattering hug in punishment. “Hnngh, too clumsy for ‘yer own good!”

‘Horse laughed as he casually crushed his friends. “Hey, that only happened the one time! And I fixed it the next day, anyway.”

Firth didn’t let it be. “Nah, Rebar fixed it. You just hauled lumber.”

“And flexed for Ms. Murphy,” quipped Burgess.

“Did not! Besides, it was a flimsy deck anyway. Wait. Why was she watching?” He let them up and they instinctually repositioned into their habitual entangled snuggle pile, nothing but affection and happiness between them.

“’Cuz she’s a creepy stalker and she’s got her eye on Stainless.”

“Oh gross, she’s like eighty now!”

“Major’s awful pretty, though,” noted Baseball. “Almost as pretty as Caveman ‘Horse, here.”

Warhorse just rolled his eyes and sighed. “Whatever dudes. We gonna fuckin watch, or we gonna talk about me winning some more?”

The men chuckled. The bravado was part of their play and Regaari was long used to it. “We’ll see,” said Burgess, “Gives us time to catch up!”

“Nah, you gotta earn it. Also!” Arés gestured happily, “Righteous is way quicker in a fight than me. And you make me look like an idiot, bro!”

“Yup,” said Baseball smugly. Regaari rolled his eyes while Niral chittered.

“Well, ‘course I’m quicker,” grumbled Firth, “That’s my job. But you wait, I’mma beat you in strength too! Also, mind your language.”

“Oh, sarry.” Arés grinned sheepishly and the men settled down. Once they were calm, Regaari clambered over the puppy pile and was quickly absorbed in its depths. The firm and friendly snuggles from all three Deathworlders filled him with…contentment. It was exactly like young Brothers in training or cubs in the crèche. Humans seemed to restrict such familiarity to very close friends or family; that made it all the more satisfying. He sighed, happily, and relaxed.

Soon thereafter the females joined—Hina happily and Niral reluctantly at first. They wriggled into comfortable positions and everyone watched the movie in companionship.


Master Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth

The end of the movie came and the ladies were fast asleep and prolly too tired to head home with any comfort. The other bros were asleep, too, and Firth was tangled up with them pretty good. Oh well, both ‘Base and ‘Horse were heavy-ass sleepers and only danger or an alarm would wake them. He held the ladies steady and wormed his way out of the pile gently as could be, then picked them both up like they were the most precious cargo in the world. In a way they were; Firth loved the fairer sex more than anything besides maybe his bros on the team. And both the ladies were asleep: perfect, content, and innocent.

Sleep was beautiful and Firth weren’t gonna take that away from nobody. So with the smoothest motion he could muster, he stood up and padded over to the guest bedroom on bent legs and giant feet placed with infinite care exactly like he were stalking a deer back home in Kentucky. He was quieter than a field mouse and the ladies didn’t stir at all. Murray would’ve been proud! It was the little things that made Firth happy, and doting on people who deserved it was one of his quiet little joys and he indulged every chance he got. He glowed inside, happy as a fat puppy, then set them down on the bed and turned on the room’s biofilter isolation just to be sure. With Gaoians it was prob’ly overkill but one couldn’t be too careful; ain’t nobody wanted a sick, miserable cub.

Mastering a trick was another of his pleasures. He’d lately been practicing his quiet movement with Highland and picked up some nifty little techniques. Firth weren’t a perfect natural like Murray; the big Scot just did it automatically, everywhere, always, and without any effort, while Firth hadta concentrate all careful-like. And being way more than triple Highland’s weight didn’t help none, really. But when Firth really tried he was pretty much perfectly quiet. And really, who wanted a walking disaster like Firth sneaking up on ‘em? The tactical possibilities…he shook his head and returned to happier thoughts.

With equal care and concern he stalked out of the room without so much as wobbling the floor; at his steel-bending mass, that was an impressive feat. He closed the door with the quietest click and flowed over to the fridge for a late night snack, then returned to the couch where Regaari was wide awake.

“Thank you.” He duck-nodded in consideration. “I was dreading the return trip.”

Firth nodded and shared his snackage. Kale chips weren’t something Firth ever thought he’d like, but hey! Crunchy and salty was always good.

“No prob, bro. I can sleep anywhere.” He grumbled it as quietly as he could even though the guest bedroom was soundproofed. Not that it mattered. Firth had a voice that carried whether he wanted it to or not.

Regaari munched a few chips thoughtfully. “You know, I couldn’t hear you move at all and I didn’t feel you untangle yourself from the couch.” He gestured at his oversized friends. “The only thing that alerted me was your billowing smell.”

Firth tilted his head curiously and looked Regaari dead in the eyes. “Wait, really? Even with your ears? Just my scent?”

Regaari squirmed a bit when Firth made eye contact. He’d always had that effect on everyone except Adam, the Major, and ‘pa. It took him years to really understand why; he was big and scary but he made a point to make direct eye contact with everyone, and hell, having a set of piercing grey eyes didn’t help neither. It weren’t like he could turn those off. But he was raised to deal with everyone face-to-face and he weren’t about to change now. It was about respect, and Firth was a man who needed to respect the people he loved.

Firth loved Regaari. It was love well earned, too. Regaari understood the meaning and met Firth’s gaze as a brother should.

“Yes. I never thought I would see someone so large and dangerous move so undetectably.” He chittered bitterly, “But you’re human so of course you can.”

Hmm. Firth didn’t like that. Maybe a bit of humor? That was always his go-to. “Well, I’m still stinky as shit, bro. Ain’t anything gonna ever change that.”

“Maybe shower more?” A smile, but it was…weak.

Well, shit. It seemed it was time for Papa Firth to hold a counseling session.

He eased himself onto the floor and sat Indian style. Firth figgered out when he was just a boy—he was stupid big and strong even then—that he scared people less when he was cross-legged on the floor. How that changed things he didn’t know but he weren’t one to question the little magics of life. Scared people don’t talk. They defend themselves in all sorts of little ways so now and then it was best to be as un-scary as a man could. He grabbed a pillow and placed it on the floor next to him and gestured at it with his oversized mitt.

“Bro, something eatin’ at ‘ya?”

Regaari hesitated, than sat down next to Firth. The big man sighed happily.

“The usual. It’s just…” He gathered for a moment, “Look at us. Look at everything we’ve accomplished as Clan SOR. Impressive, isn’t it?”

“Best partnership in our history, I reckon. Best alliance in the galaxy.”

“Burgeoning alliance, but still. I won’t deny that. We’ve both benefitted immensely from this exchange. This joint mission unit will be perfect for what we know is coming, and yet…”

He’s dancing. “Just say it bro, I won’t judge. You already know what I am.” Regaari was the only Gaoian that Firth had ever really opened up to and by that point there weren’t many secrets between the two. Regaari knew about as much as Arés and Blaczynski did about Firth’s heart, both good and bad.

That seemed to sober the little warrior up. “Right. What are we to you?”

Firth tilted his head again and blinked. “Well, you’re one of my best friends and a battle brother I trust with my life, and you’ve already saved it multiple times.”

“No, not me. Us. My Brothers, my people. Where are we to you?”

Firth was genuinely non-plussed. “…Isn’t that obvious?”

“No, it really isn’t. What do you get from us? I mean, sure,” Regaari gestured wildly, “There’s this knowledge exchange. I see that, very useful. But now JETS is finally spinning up and you’ve no shortage of humans to fill the roles. What does my kind actually offer you? Long term, I mean.”

Firth frowned a bit. “Well, Daar’s a good example, actually. He’s bar none the strongest guy on the one JETS team we have. Hell, these days he makes Walsh look like a little girl and the big bastard can carry so much stuff, and he don’t need much more food to do it, neither. For those bros, carrying capacity is really goddamn important. Each resupply mission is a chance at detection, yeah? Daar’s strength gives them another two weeks before they gotta risk it. That matters a lot, man. Only Daar can give them that.”

Regaari nodded but countered. “This is true, but fourpaw movement has lots of disadvantages. He relies on the team more because their hands are usually free. Then there’s the robustness problem; being primary quadrupeds makes us more gracile. You know this, it’s been a major theme in our discussions. Even for someone like Daar it matters. I mean, he’s tough by any reasonable standard—even your own—but he’s no Deathworlder. Rebar could break him. You could dismember Daar as casually as a hunter would eat a Dizi rat.”

Firth nodded. “So? That’s my job. Killing is the thing I’m best at. There ain’t nobody I can’t tear apart in a heartbeat, everyone on the team included. And you’re overplaying the downsides as usual. I mean, sure, Daar’s ribcage is vulnerable, yeah? We found that out when I broke him a while back with a wild backhand. But that also makes him faster than a fuckin’ deer, dude.”

Regaari raised an eyebrow so Firth elaborated. “No, really! Didn’t he tell you this story? When I took him hunting in Kentucky, on break from his engineering courses? I offered and he tagged along and damn he’s good. Me? I hadta use tools and ambush. Not Daar, he didn’t need none o’ that. He just chased the damn thing and bit its throat! No muss, no fuss, hell, hardly any mess! All he did was crush its trachea and wait for its brain to starve. He gave it a respectful, quick and prol’ly mostly painless death. No slow bleed-out agony like an arrow or rifle shot can cause. And it was clean, no blood to lure scavengers…it was a beautiful kill. It’s hard to hunt and not cause at least a little suffering but Daar managed that just on instinct and natural ability. I respect the fuck outta that. No human can do that without gettin’ real clever, bro. And that ain’t all he’s got going, he’s got lotsa things we don’t, like a decent nose, claws, teeth—”

“All things you have,” snapped Regaari, “Or can replace with other tools and do so with superior alternatives. A knife is better than any claw. They’re tougher, sharper, and can be thrown. Teeth are a very dangerous weapon to wield because you must close very intimately with your enemy. A nose can be replaced with snoopers and a decent hyper-spectral camera. And to be bluntly honest? I’ve seen you and Sikes hunting out in the local scrub. I don’t think your nose is nearly as bad as you seem to think it is. Then there’s your color vision, your magical sense of touch, your endurance, your climate tolerance…”

Regaari trailed off and Firth grumbled in annoyance. This again.

“Nah bro, that ain’t the same as having natural tools and you know it. All that other crap is just more stuff you gotta carry. But swiveling ears and a nose? Those’re the most useful goddamn things ever. We’re pretty sure JETS won’t work as good without ‘em, man. It’s part o’ why we’re spendin’ so much money on lightweight gear ‘cuz there just ain’t enough bigass Stonebacks t’spare. Some of ‘em are really fuckin’ impressive too, even if they ain’t nearly as good as Daar. Lessen the load, lighten the gear…and we still gain a lot of the advantages a guy like Daar brings. Do you honestly think we’re so dumb we’d waste this much time and money on something that weren’t worth it?”

Regaari said nothing.

Firth sighed, “What’s really botherin’ you? We’ve gone round and round on this whole ‘complimentary team’ thing Stainless drones on about. I think he’s right. We all do. If we didn’t value you, you wouldn’t even be here!”

Regaari growled and countered. “As what? There isn’t a Gaoian alive who isn’t outclassed by you or the rest. The gap is so wide we won’t ever match you.” His voice grew louder. “And it’s not just physical, either. On this team you have men who are maybe more intelligent than any Gaoian alive. Baseball is so Father-damned smart he might be better than any Gaoian who has ever lived. I’ve seen the tests, don’t try and bullshit me. And what’s worse, he’s handily outclassed by members of your species! Kovač for example!”

Firth listened, silently. Regaari built a head of steam and plowed on.

“And that’s not all! Take you for example. How do I compare? You’re friendlier, more accepting, more creative, smarter, faster, bigger, stronger, tougher, more enduring, more dexterous, more adaptable…and now you have stealth ninja abilities too! All you had to do was practice a little bit and now I’d be hard-pressed to notice a literal car’s worth of muscle and death sneaking up on me!”

Firth wanted to contest most of those points pretty bad—smarter? *Bullshit!*—but life had long taught him the power of just listening. So he did, still silent.

But Regaari was pretty much done anyway. He slumped, suddenly drained. “What’s the point? We’re ‘second fiddle’ as you’d say. Just one of the many colorful analogies we’ve adopted because yours are so much better than ours. Do you know how radically Gaoian speech has shifted?”

Firth didn’t have anything to say, so he just grabbed at his feet and leaned forward, still listening keenly. Sometimes that was the best thing to do.

“Yeah.” Regaari looked down at the floor. “We were the best in the galaxy. We’d always been the best, right from the beginning of our known history. When we finally hit the galactic scene it was just more confirmation of the obvious. It all lay before us, waiting to be taken, ready for our stewardship.”

“And then we showed up.” Now things were gettin’ clear.

Regaari duck-nodded furiously. “Do you know what that’s like? To be the best there was, the top of the pile? Then to be soundly humiliated by an infant race who is better than your own in every single conceivable way besides maybe gathered wisdom? And who had the gall to be confused by it all, as if they had always known the bottom tier of existence? Do you know what your arrival has done to us? Can you understand?”

Time to stop this. Firth looked him dead in the eye. “Yup. Every bit of it.”

“Bullshit.”

“I mean it. ‘Cuz that right there? I’m livin’ it right now.” He gestured to Warhorse. “Wanna hear a story?”

Regaari crossed his arms and looked over at Warhorse who was fast asleep on the couch. His tattoo was animating across his bunched-up chest, fuzzily visible under the short, heavy black hair which covered it. The tattoo could sense the big man’s orientation and draw appropriate scenes: at that moment, a tribute to the team. Along the natural “bottom” of his pecs was a brick wall and little cartoon characters of each team member were climbing it, something Sikes had personally illustrated and animated.

The team got together to do the display as a birthday present to Arés, and he was so happy with it he bear-hugged everyone in twos and threes with enough force to kill a normal man. Each character moved with an exaggerated and organic style that was instantly identifiable and all the characters had pre-programmed comical interactions with each other.

Regaari’s icon had the easiest time climbing the wall. It would playfully swipe at a few icons that periodically floated by on wings which were there at Adam’s insistence. Firth gave full credit to Regaari; he hadn’t known the men for more than a few hours but he could instantly tell which icon was which.

Which made the whole mess just so much worse. Regaari was much better than he seemed capable of understanding and it made Firth’s heart ache to see his friend wallow in self-doubt. Well, that and the winged icons. Those bummed Firth out, too. Such a simple piece of art, and really expressive. It was a masterpiece in its own way.

No matter. Regaari looked back at Firth, made eye contact with his frighteningly intense grey eyes, and Challenged.

“Tell me your story.”


Major Powell’s home, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
Late evening

Major Owen (Stainless) Powell

Like most of his men, Powell had signed a full commitment to SOR and taken advantage of the Homesteading money provided by their home governments. His body and mind were altered forever and his youth was slowly returning to him, so why not? He loved the Lads absolutely and the work was, in no uncertain terms, vital to the future of the human race. Very few were so blessed with purpose and means; it was a mission he’d never walk away from.

And so he’d Homesteaded and built for himself a nice, sprawling, single-story rambler, complete with a well-stocked library and conveniently located close to base. His home was on Persephone Lane, in his opinion one of the most desirable plots in Folctha. It was located well across a wide field from the Lad’s apartments which were built on the loud, busy and increasingly young-man oriented Demeter Way. It was no coincidence he had built close to the Lads, but not too close; they shared ownership and stewardship of the huge green-space behind their properties by a corporate agreement, and there was some small upkeep required, but other than that he had avoided any deep legal entanglement. Let the Lads live their own lives, he’d said to himself.

Which was not necessarily an easy decision; the Lads had built themselves a remarkably lucrative collection of properties with their homesteading money and were only just moving in permanently. They’d all agreed the barracks would be used for the on-call teams and the Cherries as they wound their way through training, and so they all lived near each other in well-appointed apartments, with Arés their “chief slumlord.” He was of course anything but and very much wanted to share the wealth with Powell—a point on which the Lads all heartily agreed—but he (with a small twinge of regret, perhaps) had declined. It wouldn’t do to entangle himself with his men’s private affairs. Legal or not, something about the idea seemed…improper. He needed some affectionate-yet-aloof distance if he was to command such epic heroes of humanity.

But there was no stopping their intrinsic Americanness, no matter how charming or annoying it may be. They threw a housewarming party, found any excuse they could to show up with charcoal and meat for his fire pit and visited occasionally to socialize in ways Powell could not easily refuse. The Lads had also taken to construction as a form of light training (and as a cost-saving measure) and Powell’s house was no exception. The well-appointed private gym on which Arés insisted—and for which Powell was grateful—was a collective gift, making it difficult to decline. It was both compact and astoundingly functional. A good job they’d not built a cellar; there was so much weight piled up in the little gym, Powell would have been endlessly worried about the subfloor.

All of these things floated through his mind as hazy, not-thought musings while he repeatedly pressed the weight on the bar. It was his tenth high-rep set at well over a quarter ton of plates and spring steel, a weight which in most super-heavyweight bench press competitions would be a winning lift. It wasn’t record-shattering by any means; for beings like Walsh or Daar, it was definitely on the “light” side and both could press considerably more. But Powell wasn’t training his maximum lift. After all, he wasn’t as strong or massive as those two and was unlikely to ever match them.

But he didn’t mind. He had far more endurance. Walsh would struggle to complete even one circuit in Powell’s workout before his muscles screamed in agony and Daar would have it even worse. But to Powell, the weight made for pleasantly strenuous volume work and served to stretch his muscles, warm his body, and help his mind blank in something akin to meditation. The Beef Trio had turned him onto the idea; there was definitely something to it. Focused and repetitive activity could clear away the day like little else.

Of course to Firth or Burgess, Powell’s pitiful little weight barely qualified as a first-lift warmup. The weights those two could move were mind-boggling. Arés? He didn’t bother with such a puny mass in any lift, even bicep curls. What he could do was…best not said in unprepared company.

Powell was about to move onto another lift, warmed up, pumped up, and feeling pleasantly energetic, when the videophone rang with its extra-special angry tone, the one reserved for high-priority calls. He racked the barbell, thumped over in his state of undress and answered the phone, unable to conceal his annoyance at having his groove interrupted.

“Yes?”

One of the base long-range communications operators was on the other end. She seemed distracted for a moment but recovered quickly. “Oh! Uh, priority call from Admiral Knight, sir.”

Damn. “Arright, put him through.”

“Yes sir.” She lingered for slightly longer than warranted, then disconnected. Powell managed not to notice.

The screen blinked. As ever, Admiral Knight looked alert, bright-eyed and impeccably groomed with a cup of Earl Grey in hand. Did the man ever let himself go? Or sleep? Powell wiped the copious sweat from his face and nodded in salute. “Sir. What can I do for you?”

“Oh…apologies major, but this cannot wait. General Tremblay’s men have received tipoff that there’s a maintenance window opening in the Hierarchy’s systems. We have a very narrow window of opportunity. If we move quickly we can make contact before there’s any possibility the Hierarchy would notice.”

Generally speaking, major Powell was not a fan of late-night decision-making, especially when it was a long weekend and things had finally calmed down enough to permit some badly-needed unit R&R.

But this was fookin’ Important.

He raised his eyebrow and checked his light green field notebook off-screen. “Aye, we can move quickly, sir. How much time do we ‘ave?”

“This weekend, certainly, but please make sure everyone remains available. That Daar fellow, too. Some of the equipment will be heavy.”

Powell sighed with mirthless humor. “It always is, Sir. Us lowly grunts are used to it. And anyway I’ve asked Daar to stick around just in case. He agreed.”

Knight smiled graciously, as always. “Good man, major. I worried about asking, well, a prince of the Gao to be on our teams but you’ve managed it beautifully.”

“Chalk it up to Champion Daar, Sir. He don’t stand on pretense.”

“Quite. Let your men have their weekend, but spread the word. We need to get to business first thing Monday and we have no room for delays. The next maintenance cycle won’t open for another month.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Carry on.”

The call ended. Powell sighed again, looked at his gym, pondered for a moment, then sent out a text message to his staff to run the recall roster for pre-deployment. And make sure they enjoy their weekend, he noted.

That done, he re-gathered himself and continued his workout.


Christian (Righteous) Firth

“Lemme tell you a story about a boy named Christian and what happened when he met a man named Adam.”

Warhorse grunted over on the couch and stretched, then groggily opened his eyes and looked about. Firth noticed. He had seen Warhorse sleep right through a loud action movie and wake up only when his name was called, and that seemed to be what happened right then.

He stood up to tend to ‘Horse. “Bro, you want some somethin’ to drink?”

“Nnn…I’ll get it.” ‘Horse yawned and detangled himself without any of the care Firth had shown. Baseball stirred, gathered his wits, and followed Warhorse.

“Guess the whole party’s up. Oh well. Anyway, story. It starts when I was really young, right? I guess I was what you might call a prodigy. Puberty slammed me over the head when I was ten and by the time I was thirteen I was the biggest and strongest dude I’d ever met outside my family. I played all the sports I could. I was the fuckin’ best and I was so good at wrasslin’ and football I hadta quit. The first ‘cuz I got way too big and couldn’t make weight, and the second ‘cuz they was afraid I’d kill someone without meanin’ to.”

“I believe it,” said Baseball as he returned with a glass of warm milk. “I remember when you showed us pictures and stuff. Scary, man.”

“Heh. So the thing about puberty with us humans? That’s kinda when we really start thinking and noticing stuff. Was for me, anyway, and that’s when I really figgered out I was top dog. ‘Pa was bigger and meaner but he loved me and I loved him, and I knew I’d beat him too, one day. Jus’ the natural order of it.

“Anyhoo, I had so much natural strength and energy it musta driven everyone crazy! I’d do farm work in the morning, run five miles to school and take as much gym and sports as I possibly could, do martial arts classes in town, run five miles back, do more chores, then lift, punch and kick the bag until it was dark. I did that every day except Sunday since I was twelve.”

“Every single day?” Baseball chugged his milk in one big gulp, then settled back on the couch with ‘Horse.

“Yup. Only way to work my aggression out during the week. Later on I’d start dating girls…and maybe gettin’ into too many fights…but nothing big.” He gestured at his face, “I was a lot more handsomer when I was young, heh. But so many guys’ve beat my mug in over the years it’s all lumpen now.”

“Why were they fighting you?” Regaari curled up on the cushion and stretched out, paying rapt attention.

“Y’know, I kinda think it’s the same reason Daar gets into so many. Male jealousy. I mean, I almost never started any fights—sensei woulda beat m’skull in then ‘pa woulda straight murdered me—but I dunno. Guys with somethin’ to prove? But that’s pretty much my point. I was absolutely cock of the walk since before I was a teenager and I’ve always known girls were the best thing ever. That sorta showed, I guess, made me a target. Anyway the boys may’ve been a lot older than me but they didn’t care. They beat me ugly but I broke their bodies and the girls just kept coming. Oh, and here’s the important part: when I was thirteen I already knew that what I wanted ‘ta be I was the meanest sumbitch there was, so I fixated on CCT or something ‘badass’ really early on.”

He paused and reached for the water that ‘Horse had set on the table. “Thanks bro! Anyway, by the end of middle school I sorta dedicated my life to being the biggest, baddest bastard ever. Like I said I couldn’t play group sports and I was at that point so heavy I couldn’t even wrassle varsity for the high school. So I did my own thing. Hunted in the woods, dated all the girls, learned to fight, life was a fuckin’ blast. I did pretty good in school, too, but that was mostly so I’d finish up before I was seventeen so I could get the fuck on with it, right?

“Fast forward a bunch. At seventeen I was so fuckin’ diesel they had to waiver me for height and weight to even enlist, waiver me again for CCT, and they put me through so many fuckin’ tests I swear they musta cloned me in a lab or somethin’ stupid. I even hadta sign an affidavit swearing I weren’t taking any steroids or nothin’! Know what that does to an ego? Felt fuckin’ awesome man! I was such a fuckin’ specimen the doctors didn’t believe their own tests!”

‘Horse and ‘Base chuckled and rolled their eyes. Whatever. Firth loved spinnin’ yarns, especially when he could brag and teach. That bit came next.

“And things just got better at basic, too. When I got there I was the biggest hoss they’d ever had by a longshot and I smashed every single training record they had. Did it easy, too. The TIs flat couldn’t smoke me with PT and man, did they ever try. I graduated with honors, totally fuckin’ hyped on myself. Who wouldn’t be? I was the best at literally everything I’d ever tried. Well, at least anything I cared about. That came back to haunt me, too. We’ll get to that.

“So I graduate, see ‘ma and ‘pa and my brothers in the stands all fuckin’ proud of me hulkin’ outta my uniform. They hadta order my uniforms ahead of time ‘cuz I was bigger than even the special sizes and they still fucked it up! But I didn’t mind. I was the baddest motherfucker on the field and everyone knew it. Then I got to CCT indoc and won it all again. The classwork was really hard but I’m pretty fuckin’ smart so I kicked ass there, too. I made it through without any washbacks, got out into the teams, did my thing, made a name for myself…life was fuckin’ good and I could claim to be the best of the fuckin’ best.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “And then I met these two motherfuckers.” He gestured at ‘Base and ‘Horse. ‘Base grinned big and cheesy while ‘Horse smiled with an embarrassed pride. “And ‘Horse, in particular. And for the first time in my entire life, outside of church and God?”

He looked at ‘Horse, who squirmed a bit in embarrassment. “I was humbled.”


Staff Sergeant Timothy (Tiny) Walsh

“Should we let Daar and Hoeff do this?”

“Oh, lay offa him, Walsh. Daar’s a big boy and can fuck up on his own. ‘Sides, you can’t tell me you don’t wanna see those two clown it up!”

“Heh, yeah, you’re right.” Walsh grinned ruefully, “I really am overprotective of him, aren’t I?”

“Mhmm. I get it, though. He’s hard not to like. And as the guy ostensibly in charge of this little team,” he gave a dark little chuckle, “I gotta say I’m sorta the same way with y’all. Too bad y’don’t wag your tails when you’re happy.”

“Heh.”

The two attended to their costumes in silence while Daar and Hoeff prepared. It would be a lot of work. Daar pranced about his daily life resplendent in his full pelt, long and tangled and glorious, which he had grown out to guard against the cold wetness of Messier. And being easily the “most biggest thing” on the team…it was a lot of fur on a whole lot of Gaoian to sort out. Meanwhile, Hoeff was a hairy little blond Texan of germanic descent. Shaving down for the sake of a costume was gonna take work, even with Daar’s help.

Coombe’s comment had prompted some introspection on Walsh’s part as the clever team leader’s words so often did. He shucked off his street clothes and paused before the mirror, observing himself and thinking.

Suddenly: “Why am I so protective of him?”

“Well, I mean, that’s kinda obvious ain’t it?”

“Maybe?”

“You’re each other’s pets, man. You were since you two first met in that field exercise. Remember when you scratched the mud out of his fur? And then later he massaged out that kink in your shoulder?”

“…y’know, now that you mention it, it’s weird how that didn’t seem weird.”

“Well, no shit!” Coombes chuckled, “You two are like litter-mates, man.”

“I’m not sure I like that phrasing,” said Walsh warily.

“You ain’t gotta, but it’s still true.”

“I…guess? But there’s gotta be a better way to put it,” objected Walsh, “I like the guy an’ I don’t wanna, like, demean him or anything.”

“Dude.” Coombes walked over and put a hand on Walsh’s big shoulder. “DUDE. Daar is the kinda guy who would embarrass himself just because a friend asked nicely. Really,” he chuckled, “I don’t think Tiggs cares much.”

“Well maybe he should! And doesn’t it bother you that he’d agree to almost anything we ask? Like, shouldn’t we be more responsible?”

Coombes’ face hardened a bit. “Daar ain’t a dog, Walsh. He’s his own man.”

“…Fuck.” Walsh rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. “But that’s the thing! He’s bringing out the dog lover in me ‘cuz he is so dog-like! I mean, he makes a lot of the same sounds, has a lot of the same tics, he wags his tail…”

“And got the equivalent of an A in calculus, as I recall. He’s proud of that one.”

“Yeah, well, I got an A+, so…point taken, though.” Walsh shook his head. “Man. Did ‘ya ever think we’d be worrying about how not-dog-like a race of talking dogs is? Except they’re not?”

“Not talking dogs? Or not dog-like?”

“Yes.”

“Heh. No, I ’spose I didn’t. Now quit looking at ‘yer pretty self and put your fuckin’ costume on. The night awaits and I’m gonna get krunked!”

Walsh chuckled, flexed and mugged ridiculously for himself in the mirror, and set about donning his costume. A task trickier than one may suspect. Walsh, after all, had once been an accepted candidate for SOR and had only grown since then. He was legitimately huge and had many of the same clothing problems Powell, Murray, or even Sikes had. His sartorial difficulties weren’t nearly as bad though; huge he may have been, but his frame was still that of a massive human unaltered by Crude. Still, very few men could compare.

As a result Walsh was a big enough specimen that he couldn’t find a cassock that fit, nor a priest’s collar that would circle his thick bullneck. He had to improvise with a cheap, black, still-too-tight dress shirt from the newly-opened Walmart, a pair of scissors, and a sewing kit. The result didn’t look perfect but it got the point across. He fiddled incessantly with the plastic collar until at last it settled into place and stayed put.

He turned from the mirror and asked Coombes, “How do I look?”

“Like a priest at the Church of Bro.”

“Haha! Well, I’m not complaining, then!” Insults didn’t work if the target happily agrees and Coombes was right anyway. Combined with a pair of black slacks and black shoes, Walsh looked like a superhero parody of a priest. Awesome!

“What about me?”

“You look exactly like a male blaxploitation version of ‘Cunt Sexula.’ Pro’lly the stupidest and awesomest porn I’ve ever seen on Skinamax!”

Coombes wasn’t entirely pleased with the description. “Gee, thanks…”

“Well, what effect were you going for?”

“No no, exactly that, I guess. Just…man, did ‘ya hafta be so crass?”

“…Yes?”

Coombes chuckled and shook his head. “Fine, fine. Serves me right for asking someone so young and tasteless.”

“Hey!”

“It’s true and you know it. Anyway—”

At that moment Daar stalked in from the bathroom, fur colored a livid green and highlighted exactly like Battlecat. Combined with a bit of a trimming to emphasize his shape and strength…he looked impressive, to say the least.

The same could not quite be said of Hoeff. He did look like He-Man, with his very fit anatomy on glorious display, but…well, Chimp was short.

Walsh could not contain himself. “Oh. My. God! You’re tiny and almost naked and shaved! Hahaha!”

Hoeff’s reaction was to smirk and prance around a bit in his furry underwear.

Daar’s ears flattened backwards. “Hey! He looks exactly like the pictures, sorta. Why wouldn’t the females shower him with attention?”

“Oh God, do I gotta answer that? I mean, first off—“

“Nah, he’ll do fine,” reassured Coombes. “Walsh is just bein’ a horse’s ass.”

Daar processed that for a moment, decided it was okay, duck-nodded and dropped to all fours. “Well? Don’t we got a party to go to?”

Hoeff nodded solemnly. “Yes. Let us slay, Battlecat!” He hopped on Daar’s back and together they loped off with suspiciously well-practiced form.

Coombes and Walsh could only laugh.


Firth

Regaari chittered, “It is difficult to imagine you ‘humbled,’ Righteous.”

“Heh,” Firth chuckled. “You do know most of my attitude is straight fuckin’ bullshit, right? Adam and John know why.”

Regaari looked over at John, who shrugged massively. “He’s a scary dude. Being ridiculous kinda takes the edge off, y’know?”

Regaari duck-nodded. He was a smart one, the little shit. Firth loved ‘em.

“Heh. Anyway, you gotta understand that ‘fer pretty much all my life, I was generally the biggest, baddest, and smartest dude anywhere I went. I mean, I wasn’t perfect at everything but I guess you’d say I was pretty fuckin’ alpha. Same thing on the teams. Caused me some, uh, interpersonal problems too, always butting heads. Looking back I understand it a lot better now. But I’d never really known what it was like to be anything less than the fuckin’ best.”

He chuckled darkly to himself, shook his head, and finished his water.

“Remember when I said that’d come back t’haunt me? Well. All that made me complacent.” He snapped at Baseball who raised his eyebrow behind Firth’s head, “Yeah, it’s a big word. Shaddup ‘ya goddamned brainiac!” Both men chuckled. “And that right there’s what I mean. When I first met the team? My overriding impression was honestly something like ‘they’re really good, it’ll just take longer t’beat ‘em.’ I always liked hangin’ out with winners so that part felt natural. And when I met these two? I was bigger and stronger than ‘Base, and ‘Horse was about level with me, or maybe a tiny bit bigger. No big deal.”

Firth stood up and carefully stalked over to the kitchen to refill. “And that’s what ultimately fucked me up,” he called over his shoulder. “Adam and John showed up, we sized each other up, made friends…and I just kept doing my thing like my sheer awesomeness would carry the day. It always had before, right? And then, when I wasn’t paying attention? They just blew right the fuck past me. Like, not even by a little. By the end of the first year, both these ridiculous mofos were so far past me that when that I finally realized it, I was mad.”

He sat on the floor and grabbed at his feet like always, leaning forward earnestly. “I was mad at myself, let me point out. A man never blames anyone but himself for a fuckup, yeah? And anyway that weren’t all. I sulked for a bit and when I finally noticed the rest of the guys? I mean, really noticed them? They were all better than me, at least at something or another. So I pushed myself. I pushed really hard in every single way I could. I don’t like to lose, not even a little bit. You get me there, right?” He looked at Dexter earnestly.

Dexter duck-nodded. “Nobody likes to fall behind.” He tilted his head, “Is this the point of your story? Because if it is—”

“I know you’re good at jumpin’ ahead, Dex, but don’t, not this time.”

Dex sat and waited with his ears set forward. Gaoians were funny that way. It were real fuckin’ easy to see when they were listenin’ good an’ hard.

“Right. Anyway. Let’s step back a bit ‘cuz this next part means I gotta talk about Adam a little.” Right away the big brown hulk shrunk into himself a little. Firth chuckled, “Don’t worry bro, nothin’ but good stuff!”

“That’s what I’m afraid of…”

“Heh. See that, Regaari? That right there’s prol’ly the biggest difference between me an’ him. He is the fuckin’ best and it makes ‘em uneasy. And he’s the best by so goddamned much it’s straight terrifying. But see, it was different for him. I grew up knowing I was fuckin’ awesome. But Adam?”

Firth smiled fondly, “Well, he grew up on Cimbrean, right? He showed up right around his fifteenth birthday, didn’t play sports or anything in San Diego but he stayed in really good shape, did lot of skateboarding and general fooling around…but here? There were no kids his age, really. So what does he do? Physical training is mandatory here for all humans so he goes and lives in the gym and makes friends with all the dedicated ‘rats. That’s who he grew up with, yeah? All his friends were serious trainers an’ meatheads and he’s been living an’ breathing this shit since then. Holy fuck did that set him up for success.”

Adam squirmed more into the couch while John noogied him affectionately.

“I won’t get into the details, you’ve prol’ly heard it all before. But he spent every single day either in the gym or doing sports like wrestling, boxing, or swimming, and he did that right until his seventeenth birthday when he enlisted. Two fuckin’ years of balls to the wall training in a dream gym and situation. And!” Firth laughed, “He did it with a fuckin’ competitive powerlifter-slash-research scientist, too! Also! Don’t forget his ridiculously perfect genetics! Or the unlimited free food! Or the supergravity! And all he had to do was school! Fuck!”

“So I got lucky!” complained Adam, “I mean, that’s hardly—“

“Bro, you got the luckiest in every fucking possible way, and you had the discipline and sense to actually use it. That shit right there is rare as fuck. Anyway, here’s the sneaky bit, Regaari. Pay attention, ‘cuz Adam here? He wasn’t the only one on Cimbrean doin’ the exact same thing. I mean, you’ve been to Earth. I’m sure you noticed the difference…” Firth raised his eyebrow.

“It was a bit shocking at first,” mused Regaari. “I mean, I suppose I had presumed Cimbrean was typical of humanity.”

“And it turns out we’re a lot more slovenly and slack-thewed back home.” Firth decided he was gonna troll ‘Base with really good words that night. Brainiac couldn’t know all of ‘em, could he?

“I think it would be more accurate to say there is a much wider distribution of fitness on Earth. I certainly saw many healthy specimens in addition to the…”

“Land whales?” suggested Adam. Laziness was one of those things ‘Horse just could not abide in any sense, and it showed.

“As you say.” Regaari knew enough not to step in it.

“Right. Anyway, you see the point I’m about to make?”

Tellin’ a story was always best if you could get the listener to guess a little ahead. Makes ‘em learn the point better, and in any case Regaari were a lot smarter than dumb ‘ol meathead Firth.

“His relative success wasn’t immediately noticed because he was on a world where everyone focused on fitness, and the resultant population’s health significantly distorted the distribution. Huh,” Regaari thought, “That would mess with perception quite a bit, I imagine. And not only that, the selection process and available work distorted the intelligence curve as well. Hmm.”

“Right, exactly! And it sorta…snuck up on everyone, too. Legsy, bless his soul,” Firth paused and crossed himself, “He had the easiest prep job ever. When Adam came to him to ‘get ready,’ well, Legsy didn’t really need to do much ‘cept kick things up a bit. Adam showed up at the perfect fuckin’ moment to just explode with a little nudge. And he did. Fuckin’ hell, did he ever.” He turned to Adam, “Remember when you went to Seattle? What was that like?”

Adam squirmed briefly, than sighed. “It was a shock. The worst was in the coffee shop when I took my coat off. Everyone noticed, like, right away. It took me a second to figure out what they were freaking out about.”

“How did that feel?” Firth looked at him earnestly.

“…Not too good.”

“Why?”

“Dude! I was suddenly this, uh, this big freak in the crowd!”

“Sure, but you were a freak because you were hands down the best in that room and everyone knew it instantly. Everybody except you.”

“Wh—dude! How can you say that? I don’t know what any of those people did! I mean, it’s Seattle, right? They could be engineers, or, like, CEOs—”

“So? That don’t matter bro, ‘cuz people don’t think like that. Your intelligence matters more than your smarts and bein’ strong an’ athletic matters more than any trade or skill. And being pretty? Matters more than a good personality.” Firth raised his hand to forestall the obvious objection, “No seriously bro, it absolutely does. All those things matter more ’cuz people can assess them instantly. The other stuff? I mean, it does matter, and it matters a lot, but you gotta get to know someone before it even factors in. That’s the trick, right there. First impressions matter. I can tell if someone is sharp and strong pretty much by jus’ glancin’ at ‘em. I can identify many genetic and developmental problems just by looking at their face. True story, bro, and research backs it up. And the thing is? When you walk into a room, you’re usually the prettiest, sharpest tack there and you’ve always been the strongest by a fuckin’ longshot since before that day at Starbucks.” He paused, “You gonna tell me I’m wrong?”

Adam grumped unhappily but didn’t reply.

“Okay. How ‘bout when you got to Basic?”

“Oh, that was different. There were competitions and you could get honor grad and an extra day of liberty!”

“Mhmm,” muttered Firth. “Never mind that you also had to get weight waivers to join just like I did. Also, didn’t you break the pull-up bar at MEPS?”

“…Yeah, but only later, when the recruiter wanted to brag me to the Marines.” He grinned sheepishly, “I could do sets with him hanging on. He was a big dude! But then I, uh, broke the bar when another little dude hopped on wearing the vest.” More puppy-grin, “Okay, that did made me feel good.”

“No shit,” laughed Firth, “Really? Hell even I didn’t manage something like that! How heavy were you when you signed up?”

“Um…not all that far behind where you were when you joined.”

Adam blushed again. Adorable.

“Dude,” enthused ‘Base, “This motherfucker was so fuckin’ impressive, when we all showered that first night? He took off his shirt and the whole bay went dead silent. He wasn’t, like, bulky-huge like he is now but he had this fuckin’ density that scared the piss outta us. I’d grown up buying Flex an’ shit and I’d never seen anyone like it. None of us had. Even the TI whistled!”

“They told me to get my steroid-eating ass in the shower,” grumped ‘Horse.

“And then you took the top bunk. Damn thing squealed so loud every night, I thought your fat ass would fall through and kill me!”

“Haha!” Firth could only laugh. “I did manage somethin’ like that but that’s a story for another day. Kid under me wasn’t happy at all, heh.”

All three men shook their heads and chuckled. Righteous, on the top bunk?

Firth turned to Regaari. “Anyway, that there is a big clue for you. ‘Horse here? He’s a fuckin’ specimen but he’s, like, weirdly proud and embarrassed at the same time about it. Me, I’m embarrassed I fell behind. Comments?”

Regaari considered. “The psychology here is fascinating.”

Burgess laughed, “I know, right? I’ve been stuck between these two idiots the whole time, too. Let me sum it up, you mind?” He looked at Firth, who nodded.

John cleared his throat. “Right, the point here that Firth’s making is that we’ve got, between these two, the extremes on either end of the headspace. Firth is the fuckin’ Gaston-like character—” Righteous snorted at the comparison, “—It’s true and you know it, bro. Anyway, he’s pretty much you. Gaoians, I mean. And Adam is, well he’s us. Does that seem fair?”

“I object,” said Regaari, “On the grounds that you’re not working from an irredeemably inferior position. You are amongst peers of similar capability and you three represent, arguably, the pinnacle of your race. The difference in situation isn’t remotely comparable.”

Firth grinned evilly. “Yo ‘Horse, you hear that? You’re the best of the best! How do you feel about that?”

“Bullshit! Kovač is so much fuckin’ smarter than me it hurts. Baseball, too! Highland is the sneakiest bastard ever, Titan is a goddamned monkey, Rebar is the best practical problem-solver ever and his grip strength is almost as good as mine or yours, Sikes can bring down buildings and shape terrain like a goddamned artist, Faarek is easily the most mobile of us, Regaari is better than our own goddamned intel analysts, Blaczynski has a battlefield map in his fuckin’ head, and you are so fuckin’ quick with your hands and feet that I can’t even see when—GAH! LIKE THAT!”

Firth couldn’t resist, and like an exploding lightning bolt, kicked from his cross-legged position and slammed the side of his foot against Adam’s jaw…except without any impact force. He did it so fast neither Adam, nor John, nor Regaari could see or react to Firth’s motion until his stomper was hovering a millimeter to the left of Adam’s face. After all, a super fast kick was scary. But sometimes Firth felt it was scarier to show what he could do instead.

He loved stoking fear. But with friends he only did it a little. “Yup.” He grinned smug and happy at the slightly scared expression he got from all three, than decided he’d had his fun. He got up and sat on the couch between ‘Horse and ‘Base and snuggled all happy-like. “An’ I love havin’ buds like y’all.”

It was very important to stay friends. He loved his brothers and he didn’t want anything to hurt that. So he looked at Regaari earnestly and asked, “So, does that make Adam’s perspective clear?”

“I suppose…” Regaari conceded, “But that doesn’t answer my original, well, feeling, I guess. I didn’t claim it was rational.”

Firth nodded, “Fair ‘nuff. So lemme end it by finishing my story. I decide to stop feelin’ sorry for myself—”

“I honestly don’t remember any of this,” muttered Baseball.

“I’m good at keepin’ stuff to myself.”

“…Ah.”

“Anyway. So I decided to get serious. I ask these two for help, things start getting’ better! Then I plateau for a while, and right before y’all showed up, I asked ‘Horse to help me be like him, right here on this couch.”

‘Horse nodded solemnly.

“And like six months later, that’s when I had my epiphany.” Another big word and right on cue, ‘Base made the tiniest grunt of annoyance. Victory. “I start piling on the mass and the strength, right? Just blowing everyone outta the water ‘cept for ‘Horse, ‘cuz we’re both gaining and growing pretty much fast as we could, and I was slowly startin’ to put on the muscle like he does. Awesome! I don’t think much of it at first. Too busy learning all the skills from everyone else, yeah? If you’re gonna beat the best you gotta be the best, and learnin’ from ‘em is how you do it.”

“But you’ll never master all their skills.” Regaari had the look like he did when he’d just made a massive leap of logic. “At best you’ll merely be proficient. And it doesn’t matter if you really are better or not, because nobody can be all things. As for Warhorse, you ‘got serious’ when you were already in a training deficit so you’ll never pass him by, because he’s not slowed down.”

“Yup, and he’s only kept getting better. I’m still not puttin’ it on as fast, either.” Firth grinned. “I see enlightenment decided to visit and tickle your nose, eh?”

Regaari raised an eyebrow. “That’s a Gaoian expression.”

“Yup, and it’s a good one, too. Saw it on the Tonight Show the other day.” Which was maybe a teensy little lie. Firth didn’t remember exactly where he heard it from first, but he knew just by its flavor that it was Gaoian.

Regaari nodded very slightly, which was Gaoian body language for “you win.”

“Anyway. Just to wrap things up, on this team I know I will never be the smartest guy. In fact, of everyone on the team? I’m unambiguously the dumbest. Which don’t make me any kind o’ stupid, but…”

‘Base grumbled again, slightly louder. Trollin’ him was just fun.

“The least of the greatest, as it were.”

“Eh, something like that. We’re not super-geniuses but we’ve all got plenty of raw fuckin’ horsepower up here.” Firth tapped the side of his head. “But the one that really hurts is ‘Horse, ‘cuz I know without any fuckin’ doubt I’m better. Well, that I could be better. Woulda been better if I hadn’t been so stupid. That’s important to me, ‘cuz I feel like we owe it ‘ta God to be the very best we can be, and ‘Horse showed me I was slacking off, taking God’s gifts for granted. I know you don’t cotton ‘ta religion, but…does that make sense?”

“It does. I might relate it to Clan but the idea is much the same.”

“Damn straight. ‘Horse and me? An’ all of us? And you, too? We’re truly fuckin’ blessed and I thank God for that every day. I sorta feel…He tests us, but only as much as He knows we can handle. He’s helpin’ us be better by keepin’ life interesting, yeah?”

“Think of ‘God’ as a metaphor,” interjected ‘Base. Firth grumbled a bit but held his peace. “When a guy like Righteous here talks about God he usually means a whole bunch of things at once. It’s easier to wrap our brains around the idea if He is a person, but that ain’t necessarily what we actually mean. Depending.” He looked at Firth, “Is that fair?”

Firth nodded. Close enough for government work.

“Anyway, without more sidetracking…the point is, me and ‘Horse? We think we’ve found the absolute fuckin’ limit on how fast a man can pile on muscle and performance, and we’re both advancin’ at almost the same damn rate.”

Regaari gave that look again. Firth loved it when his friends were smart! “Which means for you to ‘win,’ Warhorse has to ‘lose’ and the only way that’s likely to happen is injury or death, or some other medical issue. Hmm.”

“Which would make me feel like shit! That’s not how you beat a friend. If I hadn’t slacked off at the start and had taken him seriously? I’d be at the top, or it’d at least be close y’know? But I didn’t, so now I’ll prol’ly be in a distant second place forever and it’s my own damn fault.”

Regaari sat silent, contemplating.

One last little point to make.

“‘Horse,” asked Firth, “What’s your eval score right now?”

‘Horse blushed red again. “…Seventeen.”

“How high does the scale go?”

“…Fifteen without bonus. C’mon, bro, you know that don’t mean anything!”

“Yes it fuckin’ does, it’s worth money and it measures who’s best! And it’s makin’ the point for Regaari.” Firth turned back. “You know the scale, right?”

“Not really. We are evaluated differently.”

“Right,” Firth nodded, “Different system for different abilities. We have our own because the normal military PT scores don’t work. We’re too good, we break the scale, so for us there’s three categories: strength, practical movement, and endurance. Each go from one to five with one being basically a really good athlete, three being something you need coaching staff and medical help to get, and five being fuckin’ Superman on Crude. Adam, what are your scores?”

“…Six, five, and six.”

“Mine are five, six, and five, so I add up to sixteen. Six is the special score. You get a six if you would normally earn a five but you performed best on the team, and that’s important ‘cuz it effects our pay and promotion. A lot of motivation to score as big as you can, right?”

“And you’ll never get a higher score.”

“Nope. In fact, there’s a good chance freak-pony over here’ll beat me on all three next eval and score straight sixes. ‘Horse! You’re gunnin’ for it, right?”

He nodded, grinning his embarrassed grin. “I’m not sure I’ll get it, though.”

“Don’t matter. You’re tryin’, and I’m tryin’, and that’s what does matter. Forces us all to get better! Meanwhile I’m teachin’ y’all proper hand-to-hand combat, Sikes is teachin’ me how t’program, Rebar is gonna teach me welding…”

“So that’s your consolation prize, as it were.”

Sigh.

“No, you dumb fuck, listen! I already mentioned that intelligence and fitness matter the most. Everything past yer’ raw brainpower is earned, you just need discipline. And being on this team, where I’m the dumbest motherfucker here, and I’m not even the strongest ‘cuz I fucked up? What am I?

“Well, that’s the thing, I use my fuckup to my advantage. What I train like a motherfucker is my speed and my agility. There ain’t no human alive who can move like I can, not even ‘Horse with his perfect fuckin’ body—”

“Bigger dick an’ nuts, too.” ‘Horse grinned a shit-eating grin while ‘Base laughed along. Righteous grumbled ruefully.

“—Yeah yeah, fine. Goddamn, you’re super fuckin’ proud of that, ain’t ‘ya?”

“Bro, you’re the one who made it competition back in the fuckin’ beginning.” ‘Horse crossed his arms over his titanic chest in a smug display of victory. The tattoo adapted and now the little characters peered over his arms, as if playing hide-and-seek. “Well, we just remeasured the other day and now my groin plate’s a full size bigger. Deal with it.”

“Fuck,” chuckled Firth, “Guess I reap what I sow.” He grinned wolfishly, “ But I bet walkin’ sucks now!”

“A stiff breeze could set ‘em off!” ‘Base piled on. It was always funny when the Humans bantered over something so banal. “I hate to think what his Ranger panties do…”

“Not a goddamned thing you fuckin’ pervs. Ain’t bothered me none and my lady ain’t complaining.” More smugness. It seemed like ‘Horse was grinding the point home. “Don’t be jelly, breh.”

“Oh, fuck off!” Righteous launched a pillow and the banter ended in chuckles…but ‘Horse had managed to get under Firth’s skin. It was obvious to everyone, especially ‘Horse.

“Um…lemme go get some drinks.” He thumped to the kitchen to work.

“…Anyway, ‘fore ‘Horse decided to grind his cock all over everything—”

“Hey!”

Firth shrugged, “He’s got the best body there is in basically every way. The fucker. But I’m still the best goddamned all-around athlete there ever was, ‘prolly always will be. I’m not the fastest or strongest but I move the best and nobody compares, not even Blac anymore, ‘cuz I took my God-given natural talents and I found my skill, my interest, and I push it as hard as I fuckin’ can. ‘Horse helps make my muscles the biggest and strongest so I can move the fastest, dodge the quickest, last the longest, and kill the hardest. He beats me on raw power and speed but we both know that’s part due to circumstance. And besides…I don’t mind losing to him.” He beamed happily at Adam, who blushed even harder while returning from the kitchen, arms full of refreshments.

Firth stood up to his full, towering height. “You can’t win it all and it took me way too long to learn that. But now I’m on a team and we’re teaching each other how to be the deadliest swinging-dicks there ever was. Up close I am the scariest thing you’ll ever meet. And all this?” He gestured broadly, “Having people I can compete with? I can love? I can respect? People who can humble me? Dude,” Firth grinned his manic-happy grin, “I fuckin’ LOVE it.”

He walked over to Dexter and scooped him up in a big, smashing hug. “If you guys weren’t here our team wouldn’t be nearly as good, you know that. Don’t get bummed out ‘cuz of circumstance, man. It ain’t even reasonable to compare Humans and Gaoians straight across anyhow. You’ll never be as big and strong as us, and we’ll never perceive the world like you do. That matters.”

He put Dexter down. The little warrior at least seemed like he understood. Firth knew the hurt of failing; it never goes away. But one could channel it. “So c’mon, let’s go back to sleep. I’m annoying ‘Base over there with big words—”

“HA! I knew it!”

Firth giggled, “You’re so easy, bro.” He plopped across the two and forcefully snuggled. “Anyway. Really? You can’t win it all, ever. Nobody can, not even the best. So don’t fix up on it, bro! Use that to get Motivated and kick ass!”

Firth gestured at Regaari to join them. They were already stretching out for sleep, and ‘Horse (the silly shit) was already snoring softly. Regaari chittered ruefully, climbed atop the pile, and soon thereafter, all four were fast asleep.


Meanwhile Enroute to party, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Champion and Sergeant Daar (Tigger) of Clan Stoneback

“Chimp, stop bouncing around up there!”

“I can’t help it, you’re not like a horse, man.”

“Well, just squeeze with your legs then—ow, not like that!”

“Sorry. Better?”

Daar sped up. “Yeah. It’s easier when you tuck forward like that.”

He chittered, then loped forward at a comfortable pace. The human on his back was dense and absurdly strong (like they all were) but he wasn’t too heavy. Daar knew he could handle the human’s weight; Hoeff was less than half Daar’s mission load, well within the big Gaoian’s strength to manage. The problem was just the two figuring out how to make it work. Daar’s motion was something like a bear, a wolverine, and a wolf combined; his spine was long and mobile and flexed wildly in and out while in fourpaw motion. It was awkward, at first, but once Hoeff got the hang of it…

“That’s way better! Just don’t squeeze your legs around my waist, keep them tucked up. You can hug tighter…still good…you got a good grip?”

“I think so?”

“Good. Let’s see how fast I can go!”


Shortly thereafter
Penthouse apartment, Delaney Row, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Chief Petty Officer Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

“I think she likes you, Tiggs!”

Daar turned his ear towards Hoeff. “Oh? Who?”

“Look over in the corner, bro! She’s been eyeballing you the whole time.” Hoeff took the opportunity to slide off Daar’s broad back and stretch. He didn’t make a very good mount (way too bouncy and wide) but together they made one hell of an entrance, to the raucous cheers and jeers of everyone.

Daar looked back at Hoeff, pant-grinned his thanks, flowed up to his rear legs, and ambled over towards the Gaoian female in the friendly and blatant way that Daar did everything. She was impressive; an enclave guard if memory served, and if anything she was definitely a feminine match for Daar. Before long they were moving and talking in that adorable way all Gaoians did when they were happy and unawares; quick speech filled with yips and clicks, with much full-body motion and plenty of indecipherable ear-flicking.

Mission accomplished for Daar! But what about Hoeff? He got lots of smiles when they arrived and he aimed to turn that into a pleasant bedroom romp or at least some entertaining conversation. He got looks from some of the guys, too, but Hoeff didn’t really swing that way. Still good for the ego!

He too ambled into the crowd, heading towards the bar. The atmosphere promised a fun night for all.


Sister Myun of the Clan of Females

“Halloween” was probably Myun’s most favoritest Human holiday. It was hard to choose between it and the American Fourth of July—*Fireworks!*—but anything with candy, costumes, and loosened inhibitions was okay by her. Humans were so strange sometimes; why did they need a holiday just to loosen up? Why couldn’t they be like that every day?

There was a commotion by the front door. She peered over out of long habit brought on by her security training, which for her was easy. She was big, and being slightly over [six feet] tall meant she could look over the heads of most everyone and see things before they became unmanageable threats.

But she wasn’t prepared for what she saw. A human male dressed in practically nothing—*He-man? Yes!*—arrived riding on a fellow Gaoian. The Human was extremely fit and moved with an assured, predatory grace that told Myun he was probably a military man of some kind, which raised her protective instincts. She knew much about what they did on “Sharman” and had met some of the operators stationed there, and that meant the man was likely a very skilled combatant. She watched, then relaxed as his behavior seemed friendly.

The military-Humans were a very occasional but worrying source of grief for Enclave security. They were usually well-meaning but when “drunk” they could be a problem, especially near cubs. Boisterous play was all well and good but when the Humans were not in perfect control of themselves? Nuh-uh. She’d sent more than a few on their way with bruised egos and minor scars. Nothing more; Gabriel wouldn’t be happy. And anyway, they may not have meant anything bad but they could go lick their wounded pride somewhere else.

The Human wasn’t very big, though. While size wasn’t everything in a fight it did matter, and that along with his relaxed body language let her label him as “probably harmless.”

She couldn’t say the same for the Gaoian. He was BIG. Bigger than she had ever seen, way bigger than her! She studied him intently. His fur was colored green with yellow stripes to match Battlecat, and he’d grown it out into a full luxuriant pelt that did absolutely nothing to hide his sheer ridiculous maleness.

Then she saw his face. Great Mother, that’s Daar! Between his frequent off-world trips to Earth and other places the Females had gossiped about, and her trips back to Gao for her own ongoing training with Whitecrest? The two had somehow never had a chance to properly meet. She looked him over; the intervening years had been very good to him. He was always the most biggest but now? Whatever he and the Humans had figured out, it sure was working!

She was captivated by him and Daar noticed her attention. He flicked his ears in a smarmy sort of way, stood up on his hind legs and approached, radiating happiness and playful aggression. He was even taller than her, and so broad!

He arrived and rumbled a very deep and bassy happy tone. “Hi! I’m Daar.”

“Hello!” She chittered happily and nodded. The Humans’ scent was—as always—overwhelming in the crowded room, so Myun couldn’t get a good whiff of any of the subtler notes and data points a Gaoian’s scent conveyed. All she got was his sheer overwhelming maleness and it was having a pleasant effect on her.

“I hear you taught Regaari how to fight…” Daar said it with a general set of mischief to his ears.

“I did! He never beat me!” She splayed hers in a ridiculously self-pleased moment of indulgence.

“I believe it! I bet he wore you out, though.”

“He did,” she admitted, “You males just have energy to spare. We poor, defenseless females just go light-headed and weak!” Daar looked down and noticed she was flexing her claws.

He chittered in response. “Heh. Whoever says that ain’t paying attention! And they prol’ly ain’t ever gonna get a mating contract, either.”

“Oh? And what about you?”

“I respect females! It’s paid off so far…” Daar radiated a friendly smugness that was so blatant and over-the-top it crossed over into humor.

“Haha! I bet you say that to all your prospects!”

A genuine leer, “Only the good ones. Besides,” He switched to a teasing humor, “Right now I’m really curious ‘bout somethin’ and only you can answer it.”

She was suddenly a bit flustered. “…Oh?”

“Yeah! See, I’m a pretty good fighter too. I wonder…think you can beat me?” He pant-grin-snarled in a way that got Myun’s competitive instincts up.

“Absolutely. Wanna step outside?”

Daar flicked his ears happily. “Yeah!”


Hoeff

Daar and the big female hit it off so well, they left only a few moments after meeting! Too bad he wasn’t having similar luck. The ladies seemed to enjoy his costume and attitude, but only in a fun way, and not in a “get laid” kinda way.

Oh well. He was mingling, and he had beer, and he was happy, and there were people to talk to. It was a good consolation.

At least until a tall brunette walked over, eyed him up, then said, quite simply: “You’ll do.” She smirked like she’d just given him a winning lottery ticket.

Hoeff grinned in response. “Oh? And who would have me?”

She extended her hand. “Natalie. I heard you telling a story about a bad barbecue down in Texas…?”

“Haha! Right! So my friend and I…”

The two found their way out of the party shortly thereafter.


Daar

It was good t’get outta that crowded apartment. It was too hot and the Human smell was gettin’ just awful and besides, Daar had more interesting things to do! Like get pounced by Myun. She tackled him but he saw it comin’ and hip-tossed her to the grass, then sank to all fours and charged away!

Pounce was a fun game, but Daar had always preferred Chase. Myun liked it too ‘cuz she followed right behind him! They ran to a big grass field, than Daar spun around and braced himself—

The impact knocked him over and he found himself wrasslin’ with a blur of fur and excitement. She was really, really good. The best he’d ever tussle’d with, maybe! She couldn’t match ‘em on raw ability—nobody could ‘cept for a few Humans—but her skill was prob’ly the best he’d ever seen on anyone, ‘cept maybe Genshi and Murray and Firth, and maybe—

She managed to trip and pin him! She growled smugly but Daar showed her what it meant to be strong and simply muscled her off and flipped them over, pinning her. She escaped, he sprang up to his paws, and from there it was a brutal play-brawl. They sparred and wrestled long and hard, his incredible speed, power, and freakish endurance against her perfectly fluid motion and precise control. It went back and forth until she was too tired to go on. He pinned her again and again, snarling happily at her ear with a deep, friendly, and super dominant growl.

“I win.” He nipped happy-like and she nodded in agreement.

The best part was he didn’t win on skill; she really was a little better than him and that weren’t no small thing! He won with his sheer overwhelming physicality and that thrilled him in a way he’d never felt before. She’d agreed to a contract right then and there and they’d not even used words. Daar didn’t need them. Game over! He panted for a bit, and she struggled in his grip mightily—Great Fathers, she was impressive!—but he gave her a friendly little snuffle in her head-fur and both quickly collapsed into chittering play-tussling.

But something dawned on him just then.

“Wait.” He snuffled in her head-fur again to her chittering humor, but then she noticed it, too.

“…Really!? Oh Great Mother, of all the stupid luck!” She reached for her communicator and Daar grabbed his, they tapped them together…

Their communicators beeped the warning sound of zero-degree separation.

“Yup.” Daar untangled himself from Myun and chittered ruefully. “And here I thought I was doing so well!”

“You were! Only one other male has ever beaten me.”

“Oh, really? Who?”

“Champion Genshi,” she said with a pleased expression.

“Ha! That’s high praise, thank you!” Daar chirred to himself happily.

“Your technique is impressive, too. I thought I noticed some Whitecrest in that hip toss…” She flicked her ears with a sly little insinuation.

“Maybe a little,” confessed Daar. “But only the last bit, where they use their inner leg to drive forward. The rest is all Stoneback, including the flip I did t’ya.”

She duck-nodded in agreement. “I’ve not seen much of the Stoneback martial arts, just the training videos. In fact you’re the first Stoneback I’ve ever met!”

“Really? We’ve got Associates everywhere!”

“No no, I mean, a full Brother.”

“Ah,” Daar understood. “Yeah. There aren’t many of us. I think by last count there were only ‘bout two thousand, give or take. And full Studs? Less’n a hundred, even today.”

She gaped in astonishment. “So few! Why?”

“Quality takes time,” he preened. “But look at you, I’m so proud! You’re only the second female I’ve ever sired, too. You’re both really, really impressive!”

“…only two?”

“Yup! She never went on to become a Mother, though, and devoted her life to research with the Highmountains. A shame,” he said ruefully, “But she’s happy.”

“There’s always a few who aren’t called to the Motherhood,” Myun mused. “For a while I wondered if I would ever bear cubs. But now…I love it. I love them.”

“Good, the world needs more Myuns! Who was the first sire?”

“Regaari. The cub was…a handful.” She chittered in a fond exasperation.

“Really!? That’s AMAZING! I can’t wait to tell him! I’m gonna pounce nice and hard, too. Got a message for him?”

“Nah, just make sure you tackle him really hard.”

“Oh I will, don’t you worry.” They both giggled in amusement. But Daar wasn’t one to sit still for long. He got up, stretched out impressively, and practiced his katas by himself for a while. His style was thoroughly Stoneback: strikes from a low center of gravity, lots of lightning-quick power movements, and the moves were heavy on tackling, teeth, and claws.

It was a style Myun hadn’t much practice against. She got up from the grass and began her movements, and before long they they glanced at each other, grinned aggressively, and pounced.

They practiced their forms on each other like very old friends.


Hoeff

“Nice apartment.”

And it was: clean, comfortable, yet modest. HMS Sharman had no room to spare so the team needed to acquire off-base accommodations. Which turned out to be a bit of an ethical dilemma; the Lads owned most of the apartments on Delaney Row and housing was a bit scarce at that moment.

They lucked out, though; one of Adam’s “competitors” sold their building and the MoD snatched it up for overflow housing, and after some quick modifications it was good to go. Daar, Coombes, Walsh and himself shared the top floor suite. Each floor had been reconfigured into four very small bedroom-only apartments with a shared kitchen and common area, and that meant the four could maintain some privacy without the need to own much furniture.

Not that any of that mattered. Hoeff and Natalie had their fill of conversation on the short walk over and weren’t keen to discuss the finer points of dorm-like living. Actions and glances did the talking for them. They went up to his room and communed like man and woman had always done.

Morning was a bit of a surprise.


He awoke to a pleasant smell. “…Eggs?”

Hoeff detangled himself from Natalie and the sheets and stumbled towards the kitchen. Daar was busy in front of the comparatively little stove and fridge, humming some terrible Gaoian tune to himself. Seriously, their music was like Chinese opera with extra pain. Some Humans liked it, though…but “atonal” to Chimp meant “hipster bullshit with bad sound.”

Whatever. The food smelled good, at least.

“Chimp! Sit down, I’m almost done.” Walsh stumbled out of his room as well and sat down at the table without ceremony. “Boss should be…”

And right on cue, Coombes stumbled out, too. Daar returned his attention to the massive pile of food he was preparing. “Boss, can you set the table? Seven places, please.”

“Hnn…sure.” Coombes yawned, and everyone succumbed. He stumbled to the cabinet to get plates and cups.

“I made coffee, Tiny. Could you?” Daar was too busy wrangling bacon. All of the bacon, by the sound and smell. In short order, coffee was poured, the table was set for everyone, and Daar marched over and scooped…

“Uh…bud, what’s this?”

“Simmered Kwek roe! Trust me, you’ll like it.”

The three men looked at each other, shrugged, and Tiny tried it. He paused, and then began furiously shoveling it into his face. Daar chittered and dumped a mountain of bacon in the middle of the table for everyone to grab from.

“Toldja. Save some for the ladies, though. I don’t have any more.”

Hoeff thought the Kwek roe tasted a lot like the fluffiest scrambled eggs ever! And eggs needed ketchup. He stood up to get some and Daar looked at him curiously, “Is that any good?”

“It is on chicken eggs.” Hoeff tried it. Delicious. The bottle was passed around, Daar sat to eat, and he tried it too.

“Hmm, not bad! Anyways, It smells like y’all got lucky last night…”

“Tiggs, hasn’t anyone ever told you how creepy that is?”

“Yup! It’s fun though, you Humans are easy to weird out.” He chittered happily to himself and messily devoured his roe, along with his enormous bacon allotment.

“Kinda surprised you’re here though,” commented Hoeff. “Wouldn’t you be at the Enclave?”

“No, why?”

“…Myun? Didn’t you two hit it off?”

“What? No! She’s my cub, bro. We just tussled for a bit. And I showed her lotsa Stoneback katas, too!”

Hoeff short-circuited.

“Wait. WAIT. Myun is your cub.”

“Yup! Isn’t she awesome!? Look at her!”

“That explains everything,” commented Walsh.

“Damn straight!” Daar didn’t seem the least bit offended.

Hoeff, meanwhile: “…But, weren’t you…I mean…”

“Oh! Well I didn’t know she was mine right away. You humans stunk the apartment up so bad we couldn’t smell it, and then we got outside and we were too busy chasing, and this and that happened…”

“…” Hoeff needed more coffee.

“Wait. So how do you know for sure, though?” Walsh suppressed a grin.

“Dude, there’s an app for that. Also you really can smell it, y’know?”

“None of us have kids so I guess we’ll find out later.”

“Heh, fair ‘nuff.”

Hoeff, meanwhile, still couldn’t wrap his head around the news. He decided it was best to simply eat his breakfast in peace.

Which he didn’t get. Everyone’s phones went off at the same time. In military circles that was always an ominous sign.

Coombes looked down at his phone and sighed. “Well. That was fun. Looks like we’re being recalled. Go break the news to your girls. Tiggs, can you…”

Daar was the best sometimes. Without even asking he hunted in the fridge to get the milk and eggs and found a big mixing bowl, too. He cracked some eggs and got to stirring. “Sure thing Boss. Gimme me like ten minutes.”

“Goddamn, I’ve got the best fuckin’ team.” Daar duck-nodded happily. After all, if you’re gonna do a one-night stand, the least you could do is make some pancakes.


Mother Niral

Her communicator went off. She looked at it bleary-eyed, woke up instantly, and padded to the door. She opened it and noticed breakfast was already prepared.

“Regaari’s noisebox went off, too. He already left but sends his regards.” Warhorse set a plate down. “Wanna eat before you go?”

Niral rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Yes, thank you. Do you have any tea?”

“Green or breakfast?”

“Green, thank you. Breakfast tea is a bit too much.”

Warhorse busied himself and prepared a cup along with a plate of breakfast. It smelled very good and she tucked in while he bustled about the kitchen. Hina awoke shortly thereafter and pounced on the massive Human, but he was prepared and caught her one-handed and quickly rolled her up onto one of those massive shoulders. Niral had no idea how he’d managed that movement, and neither did Hina, but she delighted in the attention anyway.

Mercifully the broccoli costume was nowhere to be found. “Eat breakfast quickly, Hina. I’m being called away.”

“Yes, mother.” Warhorse plopped her down on a stool and set a plate down in front of her as well. Finally he joined them, his own plate covered in a truly vast quantity of food.

“I still marvel at how much your kind can eat.”

“Have you seen your own males? Get ‘em good and tired and they can eat, too. You should see Daar, he eats almost as big as I do! Regaari can pack it away these days, too.” He grinned, then started shoveling his food with gusto.

“I suppose. Where’s the other two?”

Warhorse swallowed and drank a big gulp of milk. “Righteous does prayer in the early morning but right now he’s downstairs workin’ out with Baseball. I’mma join ‘em once you two are on your way…”

Hint well taken. “I must be going anyway.” He nodded, and the three finished their breakfasts in quick order.

Warhorse made to pick up the dishes. Niral asked, “May I help?”

“Nah, I’ve got a dishwasher. Best we all get going.”

“Well…thank you for your hospitality.”

“De nada. You’re welcome anytime.” He busied himself with dishes and wore his charming smile. Niral said one last goodbye and walked Hina back to the Enclave.

The broccoli costume stayed behind.


Later that morning
Briefing room, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Major Owen (Stainless) Powell

“Pack it in, Lads. I’ll keep it short and brief.”

Walsh, Coombes, Hoeff, and Daar were all gathered, awake, alert, and in Daar’s case still a bit damp from a recent bath. All the coloring came out as promised. Joining them were Meereo, Regaari, and Niral, and all three were fresh from a briefing by the growing intelligence section on-base.

“I’ll let our analysts lead on this. Meereo?”

Anubis himself stepped forward with his ears up and alert. “A source with first-hand knowledge of Hierarchy affairs has become available to us and wishes to provide a comprehensive overview of our enemy and the situation. To forestall any questions, the source is a digital sapient. Further details are classified beyond our need to know. In any case, the source will rendezvous with our agents—your team, Master Sergeant Coombes—and has requested we provide it with a high capacity storage device.”

“How will this meeting take place?”

“We are uncertain. The contact was very short and two-way communication with the source is effectively impossible, so we’re including a very high-capacity tablet with your mission.” Meereo gestured towards the table, “It’s got a WiFi radio on-board that will passively listen but will not transmit unless reconfigured to do so.”

“When you meet the source,” added Niral, “Bear in mind this particular entity is…possibly a bit unstable. I believe the word is ‘kid gloves?’”

“Awesome, a flighty computer program,” grumbled Walsh.

“One critical to our efforts,” reminded Regaari. “We are in an extreme information deficit and frankly, we need all the help we can get.”

“What’s this thing gonna look like? Living? Some creepy biodrone? A big stompy robot?” Daar’s comments earned a quiet little chitter from Niral.

“Unknown, Brother. I wish we had more. All we do know is you are to approach the central array you’ve already mapped out. But do not approach too closely; the sensor net you left behind has detected an increase in patrols. They may be aware of us, or at least suspect something. The net itself has not detected any intrusion or tampering but that may not mean anything. Assume the worst.”

“Awesome.” Coombes rubbed his face. “Insertion is gonna take forever.”

“Aye, you’ll be packing heavy for this one. Good thing you’ve been hittin’ the gym bloody hard, eh?” Powell looked at Walsh and Daar, who both shrugged.

“I ain’t called Stoneback ‘fer nothin’ Big Boss.” He grumbled happily, “We’ll git ‘er done, me and Tiny always do.” He rubbed his head against Walsh’s arm, who scritched affectionately in return. Co-pets was perhaps the only way to describe their odd interspecies bromance.

“Right. We’ve already pulled together most of your load and laid it out for your inspection. The techs computed your calorie needs though Daar and Walsh will probably need to adjust. You two need a lot of food these days…”

“It’s been on our mind, sir.” Walsh spoke up. “Luckily, slow and steady has kept us under the point of diminishing returns. But yeah. I’m about at my size limit anyway and Daar’s been slowing down, so really our big concern is fine-tuning and gettin’ this down to a science. For example, we figured out that dressing a little warmer should cut my calorie needs down just enough to fit another three days on the same loadout we’ve been using. So for now, I think we’re fine.”

“That much?”

“Yessir. When we’re creepin’ along all quiet we don’t burn too much energy, but makin’ body heat don’t ever stop. Daar’s got an advantage there with his pelt.”

“Finally long enough to be waterproof!” Daar seemed very pleased.

“But if you get active?”

“Then we burn calories awful fast, sir. We ain’t nothin’ like HEAT but any unit in active combat motors through pretty bad. That’s true of all of us, even Chimp.”

Hoeff rolled his eyes but held his peace. He was the quiet one of the team.

“Aye. Just wanted to hear you voice it.” Powell nodded approvingly. “Any questions for our intel team, Master Sergeant?”

Coombes considered the mission. “None at this time. I probably will later…”

“The team shall remain at your disposal. Anything else?” A quick glance around the room showed no further questions. “Dismissed.”


Champion and Stud-Prime Daar (Tigger) of Clan Stoneback

The prep went quick, ‘cuz the techs were really good at their jobs! The pack was extra heavy but Daar could handle it, and that was why he was on the team. Well, that and his nose and ears and teeth and claws and stuff. He sure wasn’t there for his brains! Not that he was stupid, not at all. Stupid people don’t know how to compute nitrogen ratios for fertilizer! Or make shape charges. Those were the best! But Boss Coombes and Bestest Friend were the really smart ones on the team and if there were anything Cousin Regaari ever taught Daar, it was to pay attention to the thinkers.

Daar paid very close attention. But even still, even being pretty smart himself, he wasn’t expecting Niral to show up all sudden-like. “Champion! A moment!”

Daar always had time for a female, even if they hated him for some reason like Niral did sorta. He tidied up his pack and walked over to her. “Yes?”

She paused, kinda unsure of herself, then hugged! “Be careful.”

Sometimes the Universe could surprise anyone. “…Okay?” He returned the hug very gently, then sat on his haunches to get closer to eye level. “If I’m bein’ honest I never expected a sendoff from you.”

“I maybe never expected to give one. But…I’ve been very unfair to you over the last few years. Being on this intel team made it clear how dangerous your role is and how much you’re sacrificing…so why? Why do you do it?”

Daar was genuinely perplexed. “Um…? It’s a Job. Doing Jobs is what I do.”

“You are Champion and Stud-Prime of the most prestigious and ancient Clan! You yourself are a singular accomplishment of your Clan’s efforts. Why do you risk it all when you could simply return to Gao and lead the coming Army?”

Daar thought about it for a moment. She asked a Big Question and Daar always took Big Questions very seriously. “Well,” he pondered, then an idea struck. He gestured at his team, “Why do they? My team, I mean. Why do they do it?”

“…Champion, you are not them. They don’t have as much to lose.”

“We all die just the same, Niral.”

“…”

Daar affected a human sigh. “Okay. Lemme put it this way. What am I?”

“You are Champion!”

“Yup. Champion of what?”

“Of Clan Stoneback,” she said with a note of exasperation.

Daar nodded patiently. “Yup! What does that mean?”

Niral figured out where he was going. “You embody something. But what are you embodying by this? You are endangering your Clan’s genetic program—”

“I recently sired my three hundredth cub, Niral.” He said it with an amused basso chitter. “Somehow I think my legacy is safe.”

“…wow. Okay, but the question stands.”

Daar duck-nodded agreeably. “Okay, that’s fair. Lemme let you in on a secret. Do you know what my Clan’s motto is?”

“No. Nobody does.”

“Yup! It’s secret, but not for some big conspiracy reason like some of the sillier males post about on the Infosphere. It’s secret ‘cuz unless you really think about it, what the words mean? It ain’t gonna help you none. And, uh…” Daar pant-grinned lazily, “Not all of my brothers are the smartest, let’s be honest. Sometimes we gotta beat their skulls with rocks to get anything t’work!”

Niral chittered happily. “Stonebacks have that reputation!”

“Heh. But here, I’ll tell you ‘cuz I’m Champion and in my Clan, the Champion makes the rules.” Daar looked around conspiratorially. “Protect and Provide. That’s it. Now lemme ask you: what am I protecting, and what am I providing?”

Niral considered it thoughtfully for a long moment. “That motto implies a great deal about your Clan’s wisdom I had, well…”

Daar nodded. “I know, most people do. That’s okay though, it serves our ends. Our mission is really the same as the Females; we exist to preserve and better the Gao. No other male Clan can really claim that Rite, ‘least not like we can.”

Niral pondered that thoughtfully. “The stories paint your Clan much more…”

“Violently?”

“…Yeah.”

Daar chittered darkly. “Yup, and they’re right. We only play at being nice. Didja think we’d stumbled into this harmless overmacho persona by accident? Or maybe how things would work out if every other Clan knew us for the murderous, rage-filled, untamed predators we actually are? And how would we control ourselves? Did ‘ya consider how that happy, simple male we try to be is maybe how we cope?” He got quieter, almost whispered, “Did ‘ya read the report about the bear-snake? And see the pics of me afterward?”

“…Yes.” She began to understand. That made Daar a little sad.

“That’s what I really am, Niral. For a tick I was so lost in it I couldn’t even recognize my Bestest Friend. When I came back to it…well, what I remember is there was suddenly brain in my mouth, and everything smelled bad, and…”

He stopped. Niral had heard enough.

“…Sorry. But I think you need to know this ‘cuz you’re a really smart Female and you’ve got the smell of leadership all over you. But back to my point. What am I? I am an animal that can talk, Niral. All of us are. The Mother-Supreme and your senior leadership put up with us ‘cuz they know we’re maybe the only thing standing ‘tween your Clan and the rest of the males, ‘cuz the greatest thing we ever did was when we convinced the rest of the Gao to civilize or DIE. And I’ll tell you right now…some of the Clans didn’t forget what we did. We keep our Fangs around so those Clans don’t get any ideas. That’s why we don’t tell NOBODY how many there are or where they’re stationed.”

“…Great Mother.”

“Yup. Now, me specifically: what am I doing? Well, here’s the thing. The enemy we’re facing? They’re eventually gonna figger all this out. They’ve already got agents inside the Females and I know they’re slowly learnin’ all the old stories. They’ve got agents in Highmountain, too. Well, had.” Daar chittered darkly. “When they do figger it all out, what are they gonna do first?”

“Drive a wedge between Stoneback and the Females.”

“Yup. And then, once they do that, they’ll trigger a civil war. Stoneback ain’t big enough to kill ‘em all, not anymore. Highmountain has all our nuclear weapons, and I bet Hierarchy ain’t happy they lost that particular lever. So what’s gonna be the likely outcome? If you were Hierarchy, how would you destroy us?”

She gave Daar a look of newfound respect, and a little bit of fear. “They’d set the males loose on us. It’d be back to the old ways.”

“Worse. Much, much worse. Because this time, there won’t be a Fyu or Tiritya, and now we’ll have pulse weapons, explosives, and all sorts of goodies to make mischief with. Our species wouldn’t survive a generation.”

“You believe you are saving the Gaoian race.”

“Tryin’ to. This little JETS team is so Father-damned important, Niral. This right here is the one and only shot we have to get the intel we need to kill this enemy. Talk to Genshi, you’re in elite circles these days and he’ll give you time. Learn everything from him. Same with Meereo, he’s so smart. Me? I’m sorta stuck on the immediate threat, y’know? Those two are ‘big picture’ guys.”

“Given this conversation, I think you’re drastically underselling yourself.”

Daar couldn’t help it; he shrank a bit from the compliment. “…Nah. I’m as brownie as they come, Niral. Look up my pedigree, I am pure Stoneback as far as we can trace. I’m smart—any good Stoneback is—but I just don’t see the world like silverfurs do. Civilization exists ‘cuz of them, and it keeps going ‘cuz of brownies like me. It’s a fair trade.”

She thought about that for a while. Daar waited patiently.

“So you’re protecting an intelligence opportunity.”

“Yeah. I didn’t figger it out right away but I had th’ instinct t’jump in and I always listen to it. It ain’t ever steered me wrong, not ever.”

“So what are you providing?”

Daar chittered smugly and flexed his massive, ridiculous arm. “Ain’t it obvious? I’m stronger than any Human alive outside the SOR and it was the Humans who showed me what I needed to get this big in the first place. I’ve got a big back and a big pack, and the best nose and sharp claws.” Daar chittered to himself. That sounded funny! “Anyway, what I’m providing is a strong back and tools the Humans don’t have. They do the same thing for me. I’m faster and stronger, they’re smarter and tougher. We move totally differently and think about things different, too. Make sense?”

“I’ll grant all that. But why not someone else? You could delegate.”

“I can’t, ’cuz I’m the best there is and we can’t let this fail.”

Mirai gave a pained look. “That’s awfully full of yourself, Champion.”

Dara shrugged hugely. “It’s also true, and you gotta be honest with ‘yerself in this game if ‘yer gonna play. And anyway…it’s good to leave guys like Tyal in charge while I’m gone. He’ll ‘prolly be the next Stud-Prime and maybe the next Champion, Brother’s got good genes and good sense. And I’m gettin’ old. I’m forty-seven, Niral. I’ve got ten, maybe twenty years left unless I get really lucky. Who knows, maybe I will, but we Stonebacks tend to die young. So…before I grow old and start fallin’ apart, maybe I can do this.”

Niral looked at Daar. Really looked at him. “Champion? I apologize. I have gravely underestimated you.”

“Nah,” Daar again shrunk in on himself. “I’m not smart enough to figger this out all on my own. But I am smart enough to listen to the big brains like Regaari and Genshi and Meereo and Stainless and all the rest. But…thanks.”

Niral hugged Daar again. This time it felt…different. “Daar?”

“Yes?”

“…Come back.”

He swallowed. “…Yes, ma’am.”

She broke the hug, turned tail, and left.

Tiny came over having spotted the conversation from afar. “Sup, bro?” He laughed all macho, “You’re not scoring a contract…wait, what’s wrong?”

Bestest Friend was really smart. He noticed everything. “Nothin’ really. Jus’ had a kinda dark little talk, that’s all.”

“What about?”

Daar sighed. “The future.” He paused and sniffed at Tiny a bit. He smelled concerned. “Don’t worry, I’m fine. Let’s go finish packin’ okay?”

“Okay bud.” Tiny put his arm around Daar’s neck. Bestest Friend always knew just what to do. “Let’s get ready.”

They spent the rest of the evening packing, and the next morning, they left for Messier 24.