The Deathworlders

8—Tidying Up

Messier 24
Mission day: 3

Sergeant Daar (Tigger)

The third day was always when things settled into routine. Daar didn’t really know why, ‘cuz that was prol’ly some complicated psychology stuff (maybe he should read up?) but he did know how it worked, practically speaking. Daar always pondered morning thoughts like that when he was on mission, in the few minutes before he had to wake up for real and deal with things.

The others woke up, then. Daar stood and stretched luxuriantly, then they prepped for patrol and got everything loaded up. Daar and Bestest Friend had the biggest packs so they got loaded up first, then Boss and Hoeff helped each other. Then they rolled out and got on with the mission. They covered a lot of ground in a day! It was always careful work, though. They didn’t wanna make much scent or sound so they moved kinda slow, and Daar hadta be extra careful ‘cuz he could get sick the easiest.

Well…the stuff on Messier 24 weren’t that bad, really, and Daar’s immune system could handle most of it, ‘specially with a little penicillin to help if Daar’s body couldn’t hack it. But nobody wanted Daar sick. His pack weighed two hundred fourteen kilograms and Messier was a 1.1G world so it felt even heavier. It was all important stuff, too, stuff they couldn’t do without, so carrying all of that was prolly the most biggest and most important Job on the team.

Daar never failed a Job.

Bestest Friend also had a really big pack. His was almost a hundred kilos but it was way denser and filled with mostly ammo and parts for his SAW, and radios, and a “ruggedized” tablet computer, and all the really really heavy stuff he and Boss might need right away. Daar didn’t know why Humans made their field electronics as heavy as they did, but he hadta admit they were durable.

Chimp—Hoeff too, Daar liked both names—he was their scout, more or less. He weren’t a very big Human but he was plenty strong for his size, and that meant he could move over anything if he weren’t wearing much stuff. Boss liked that so they kept most of Chimp’s gear in one of Daar’s sub-packs, right at the back where Chimp could get to it easy.

Daar didn’t mind. Seeing Chimp bounce around without a bulky pack made it obvious why Boss was the Boss. He was smart like that.

And so they marched and marked their trail carefully, and mapped it with the tablet and its suite of attached helmet cameras. It was designed to avoid radio emission so the computer sat in Tiny’s big pack, the camera receiver sat on top of his helmet, and everyone’s personal cameras communicated with periodic and automatic laser-shot back to the receiver. It was a clever system and Daar wondered what Longear and Shortstride could do to improve the idea…

“Tiggs, you wanna rest? We’ve hit our klicks for the day.”

Daar grumbled happily and looked about. They still had a few hours of sunlight left and they were under decent cover, and they were already ahead of their pace ‘cuz of easy terrain. Boss wanted everyone in good shape, and since Daar had the heaviest pack, how he felt sorta dictated when they rested.

But Daar felt great! “We can keep going, Boss. I’m fine!”

“Heh. I know, but let’s camp anyway.” He chin-pointed toward a small outcropping that provided good shelter and a nice view of all approaches. Daar liked it so he pranced up with Chimp, they cleared the location by the numbers, then he found his spot, dumped the pack, and stretched out.

Dropping the pack felt really good. But even better? When Bestest Friend dumped his pack right next to him. They attended to the evening hygiene, and once Tiny felt aired out and ready to go they set up their shelter and set up an appropriate blind, then they relaxed.

They didn’t talk much. They couldn’t, ‘cuz they needed to keep quiet. But Daar didn’t mind, not really. He had Bestest Friend to curl up around and he did, nice and comfy! Tiny relaxed into Daar and stretched out happily, and in pretty quick time, both were fast asleep.


“It’s fuckin’ adorable the way those two are, ain’t it?”

“Heh, yeah. It’s like a boy and his pet bear.”

“Or a bear and his pet boy?”

“I heard that,” grumbled Daar. He flicked an ear amusedly at ‘em.

“Fine, fine. You two be you, I’ll just judge silently.”

“You could curl up with Chimp…” Daar yawned, and snuggled deeper, laying his head on top of Tiny’s.

“Fuck that, he’s too hairy.”

“Hey!”

“It’s true and you know it! …Oh.” Coombes nodded at Tigger and Tiny, who were again fast asleep. He shook his head, smirked at Hoeff, than curled up into his own bag to catch some quick shuteye.

He had second watch in two hours.


Meanwhile…

“Sister Myun, would you like to be a security guard for Mother-Supreme Yulna?”

Myun stared at Genshi for a moment. “Why me, and why now?”

Genshi handed over a tablet. “You really want to know? Read that and agree.”

Myun did.


Messier 24
Mission day: 17

Chief Petty Officer Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

[“What the] fuck [is your problem?”] Growled Daar in the quietest rumbling Gaori he could manage. [“I’ve got, like, two hundred] kilos of bullshit [on my back, I think I’ve got fleas, I’m itchy, tired…”]

Hoeff shrugged. “I just hate it when things go this…smooth.”

[“Maybe that’s ‘cuz we’re just awesome!”]

“Nah, bro. I mean, yeah, we are, but that ain’t it. Shit never goes this smooth.”

[“Why not? Not everything’s gotta go horribly wrong!”] Daar switched to English for whatever Daar-reasons applied. “‘Cept for bear-snakes, those—”

“Doom-noodles,” Tiny corrected Tigger with a barely-suppressed smirk.

“FUCKIN’ BEAR-SNAKES!” The joke had progressed from a fun little tease to something much more annoying. Daar reached the point where he actually turned around and snarled at Walsh, then instantly thought better. “…Sarry.”

Tiny paused, startled, then crouched down next to Tigger’s big ‘ol head and snuggled. “Nah, I’m sorry bro. I’ll leave it alone, okay?”

“…Okay.” Walsh put an arm around Daar’s massive neck and he did likewise.

Hoeff—Chimp to his good friends, whether he liked it or not—rolled his eyes. Those two could be so syrupy-sweet it was just plain disgusting.

“Kids, can we maybe maintain some voice discipline?” Coombes interjected in that quiet way he did. He was a good team leader.

“Yessir.”

“Yessir,” grumbled Daar, a bit sheepishly. That never failed to amuse Hoeff. After all, Daar made for a strange bit of customs and courtesies, because on team he was just another grunt under Coombes…but outside the SOR and JETS he socially outranked everyone in the organization, even Admiral Knight. The protocol office considered him effectively a head of state. Which he was, sorta. How it all worked out was way above Hoeff’s paygrade but Coombes and Daar seemed to have it comfortably sorted out between them.

They continued in silence for a few minutes, with Coombes breaking trail at that moment. Eventually Daar asked, [“We’re about two] klicks [out, right?”]

“Two point two,” corrected Hoeff with a slightly annoying smile. He was the designated navigator since he could climb the best and take sightings. “But that’s a pretty good estimate. Better than last time you tried, too.”

[“I’ve been counting paces,”] Daar preened. “Righteous [and I spent a week figuring out what my actual strides were last time we were on] Cimbrean.”

Daar was good like that; teach him a skill and he’d practice as hard as he could until he’d mastered it. The particular skill in question was a little deceptive; different gravities changed a stride just enough that it could throw off a well-practiced feel. Luckily Daar had the common sense to double-check his paces under Cimbrean and Earth gravity. A good thing he did, because his walking stride under high gravity was almost a fifth shorter! Hoeff chuckled to himself; the massive draft horse of a bear-coon was surprising in a lotta good ways.

Hoeff, though, he didn’t really need the practice. Messier 24 was close enough to Earth gravity it didn’t much matter. But still…“Good, you’re getting better! Coombes, can I climb up and get another look?”

“Sure. Let’s take a quick little rest, it’s about time to eat and police anyway.”

Both Tiny and Tigger groaned in happiness and eagerly dumped their enormous loads next to each other, facing so as to maintain a wide field of observation. Coombes completed the circle and all three attended to the necessities of field hygiene: shirts and socks and underwear were changed, feet and hands (and paws) were checked over, bodies were inspected for parasites, wet naps cleaned where they could, and in Tigger’s case, his pelt was combed out.

And muscles were stretched and massaged as well. Everyone had a massive load to carry since they had to bring everything with them and everything back, even their waste; needless to say, that was sealed away in very durable bags. Tiny’s load was anything but and included their radios, the emergency stasis/jump pack, ammo for his SAW…it added up very quick. Tigger’s pack was a good bit heavier still and a lot bulkier, too

Luckily Chimp had the smallest load, courtesy of Tigger, so he was in the best shape to run around like a monkey. This made him the designated errand boy of course but he didn’t mind. He did it with a smile and a bounce in his step, ‘cuz the payoff was that he didn’t need to carry as much crap.

That was important to a little guy. Chimp was the small man of the group; at only five-foot-five and a buck fifty soaking wet, he was definitely little for a SEAL, but he got through it all on sheer, absolute toughness and being fuckin’ good. He was more than capable of pulling his own weight—and insisted he would—but Coombes was a wise man. It was always good to have someone under-burdened and nimble, and of course Tigger had strength in spades. So all of Chimp’s “extras” went into Tigger’s pack. The weight took its toll, though, and even his massive back could only handle so much. So every chance they got, Tiny and Chimp worked out some of the tension in the big lunk’s back. Big and strong Tigger might be, but two hundred plus kilos really was a lot of weight.

Time to earn my keep. While the big boys sorted themselves out, Chimp did the thing that earned him his callsign. He shucked off his boots and socks and left them in Coombe’s care, dropped his pack, fished out his mapping tablet, went to the tallest nearby tree, and he climbed.

Daar usually wanted to watch and always positioned himself so that he could do so without breaking his sector. The big monster was endlessly fascinated by that kind of thing. Why? He could climb pretty well himself…

Whatever. Time to focus. He climbed the tree carefully, one foot after another, each hand seeking branches and holds as he ascended. The first five meters was always the hardest part on those trees, and the most dangerous, but there were lots of nooks and crannies to grab onto and jam his feet into so he made quick progress. Getting up into the canopy was also tricky. He had to weave through branches, avoid the locals as it were, and slither from one spot to another, until finally the branches thinned out and things got wobbly.

He judged he was far enough up, maybe twenty meters or so, and ventured out onto the last large branching trunk. It was still nice and (mostly) steady but had a nice, clear view in the direction they were aiming for, and…yes, a clear view of the transmitting array in the ancient city core. He looked and tried not to go queasy. The array’s faceted dome had a rippling ribbon of something emanating from it up towards the sky which seemed to accelerate off into infinity at a strange angle that made it also look like it ended a few meters from the dome’s surface. Just one of the many ways in which that something was just wrong. There weren’t any other words to describe it. The shape, color, its ripples and undulations…he was watching spacetime itself warp and tear under the terrible energies of the FTL communications system.

Lovecraft came to mind. All four of the team hated looking at it, though Tiny had a much more boring take on it: “It’s just gravitational lensing, bro. It feels wrong because you can see what’s behind it along its surface. I guess, technically, that’s also stuff a little bit in the future…”

So still Lovecraft, then. Wanting to get it over, Hoeff reached for his tablet, opened its cover, and…

“Wat.”

The screen was locked and would only show a smiley face. He couldn’t unlock it, and repeated attempts to do so only made the face animate and wave a cartoon finger. “What the—hell.”

He fingered his radio and whispered, “Coombes, Hoeff.”

“Send it.”

“I think our contact just made, uh, contact. It took over my tablet.”

“Wat.”

“That’s what I said. Wanna see?”

“You good, got your sighting?”

Hoeff took a good long look at the terrain, mentally corrected their course (they were mostly dead on) and decided he was ready. “Yessir.”

“A’ight. C’mon down.”

He did. At the bottom, the rest of the team was cleaning up and policing the area, having already eaten and finished with their personal care. Hoeff handed off his tablet while he inspected his hands and feet, wiped them down with a proffered wet nap, checked his boots, changed his socks, shucked the boots back on, then reached for his treasured chicken tetrazzini which Coombes had already warmed up. Hoeff nodded his thanks and inhaled his food.

Small teams were the best.

Like anyone with field experience he could wolf down food in the blink of an eye. That he did while Coombes and Walsh discussed the tablet.

“Well, we were told to expect contact but we didn’t have any details.” Walsh looked at the smiling emoticon. “Given everything, I suppose a digital contact isn’t out of the question…”

The emoticon changed to a thumbs-up.

Coombes raised his eyebrow. “Are you listening to us?”

A new icon, that one a green checkmark.

“Well. That’s creepy.” Now a sad face.

“Whoever you are,” asked Walsh, “We came for information. Do you have it?”

In response the file browser on the tablet suddenly appeared and a folder started filling with PDFs, videos, and other such data. It finished right as Hoeff shouldered his pack and everyone was ready to set off. They gathered around the tablet, which then appeared to function normally.

“Are you still there?” Asked Coombes. Nothing.

“Does the tablet look normal?”

Hoeff tapped around and noticed his map was now much more complete. “I guess…whatever that was, it just shoved a whole lotta data on-board.”

“That tablet is compromised,” said Walsh. “We should power it off and put it in the Faraday bag we brought along. Ain’t no way that should be opened up again except in a forensic lab.”

Coombes nodded in agreement. “You good without your map, Chimp?”

“Yup. Landmarks are pretty easy to see from up top.”

Coombes sighed. “Well…” He looked around. “I guess we head home.”

The four of them collectively shrugged. Sometimes, missions could be weird.


Seventeen days later
Starship Drunk On Turkey, vicinity of Messier 24

Departing Messier 24

Champion and Sergeant Daar (Tigger) of Clan Stoneback

The most bestest part was dumping the pack forever! It felt so good to be able to just scratch all the itchy spots where the pack rubbed in exactly the wrong way. He scratched, and scratched, and they even had a nice bristly mat he could roll on! Mostly it was to scrape mud off of paws and boots, but if you shook it out and fluffed it up it was good for lotsa things!

Also Bestest Friend and Chimp helped him comb out his pelt while he worked on Boss Coombe’s aching everything. He had a really neat scar, too, but Boss—no callsign for him, just Coombes—couldn’t tell the story. Oh well. The first couple of hours after a mission were really nice, just stretching, and resting, and ‘unwinding’ which was a neat Human phrase. He did feel like a spring wound up too tight after all the stress…and so did his Human Clan.

They watched bad movies, sometimes. That time they watched a stupid Gaoian ‘soap opera’ as the Humans called that staple of Gaoian culture. Daar didn’t know what the ‘soap’ reference was all about—he’d ‘Google’ that later—but the general story was about two rival workhouses and the big revelation about which Clan secretly controlled them…

Daar didn’t pay much attention to the plots. It was pointless. They were decades long and so twisty and silly, only the younger Brothers in niche fields had the time to keep up. Daar never did, his life was always busy.

He did need a flea treatment, though. He knew that bear-snake was infested! Daar got to spend some unhappy time under the awful shower gettin’ the itchy, burny shampoo all in his fur, and Bestest Friend had ‘ta help him, too. Daar could reach everywhere but a spot in the middle of his upper back, and that was the most itchiest! At least the conditioner would make his fur all glossy and stuff.

After a while though, the ship had made enough ‘quiet’ progress that it could go FTL and get them home. They didn’t have enough food to be awake for the full fifteen-day journey, so they hadta stasis bubble. They gathered in the room, pressed the button, and—

Knocking. It was Cimbrean Customs and Border Patrol. Annoying, but completely understandable considering what was at stake. He assumed a prone position against the wall, they called out they were ready, and after a quick, tense little standoff where the burly (but not scary like Highland) security officers scanned their skulls…they were heading home.

Not twenty minutes later they landed at HMS Sharman. The whole Clan was there! Rebar, silly Bozo, and Thurrsto and Faarek, and Genshi and Meereo…

Oh. That wasn’t good, was it? Nope. Daar saw Stainless come stomping up with his most serious face—the one Daar knew was for Big Important News—and Stainless didn’t waste any time.

“Did you lads make contact?”

“Yessir,” said Boss. He stepped forward with the tablet in its ‘Faraday cage.’ Weird name for a copper mesh bag…

“Whatever ‘it’ was, it made contact in a weird way. It took over Chimp’s tablet and downloaded a bunch of stuff. We turned it off and stuffed it in the bag…”

Stainless gave it straight to Meereo. “Aye, thank you. Now for the bad news. We’ve got another mission for you already so you only get two days turnaround. And Daar?”

Daar stood up as tall and straight as he could. “Yes sir?”

“I’d go back to a short cut if I were you. It’s hot and humid where you’re going.”

Daar whimpered very, very quietly. “Yes sir.”

Powell gave him a rare look of sympathy. “Aye. Go rest up, lads. We’ll take care of your stuff. Meet at the warehouse tomorrow afternoon at 1400, we’ll brief the mission and all your gear. Ship should be turned around and ready by then.”

He gave them that scary look of evaluation, and maybe Stainless liked what he saw, ‘cuz he did that really faint not-smile he sometimes did. “Dismissed.”

They left together in silence. There wasn’t much to talk about, really, and they were all suddenly very tired.

But mostly, Daar was annoyed. He had to shave down again.


One week later
Intelligence Analysis Cell, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

There was a tremendous amount of data to review. He had Niral with him, which was lovely; their cub, Hina, had grown beautiful and boisterous, and their friendship remained strong and enjoyable. They had a professional relationship too which was rare and something to be treasured. He did.

He looked over at her and admired her form. She lately glowed in that special way every Mother did in the early stages of pregnancy, and though he didn’t know who the sire was, he was sure she chose well. He was happy for her, in fact, though deep down he wished the growing cub was his. Thankfully she didn’t notice his attention at all as she was too busy reviewing the intelligence dump. He had a free moment as he waited for his code to compile and harmlessly fantasized. Meereo and his human counterpart, Mr. Williams, had been tasked with prototyping a processing signature for Hierarchy communications traffic. It was an interesting problem since they didn’t use—

All the blood drained out of Niral’s ears and nose, and the sharp, acrid scent of fear was suddenly overwhelming.

Alarmed, “Niral, what’s wrong?”

She bolted up and ran towards Sharman’s headquarters. On fourpaw, which from a female of any station, but especially one of Niral’s caliber? That was so alarming, Meereo felt his heart seize in his chest for a terrifying beat. He recovered his wits and chased after her immediately. “Niral!”

“Go find Genshi!” She barked out, “The Swarm of Swarms is coming to Gao!”


TO BE CONCLUDED IN DEATHWORLDERS, BY /U/HAMBONE3110