The Deathworlders

3 Mitzvah

For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall.
Like heat in drought, You subdue the uproar of aliens; like heat by the shadow of a cloud, the song of the ruthless is silenced.

—Isaiah 25:4-5


Date Point: 14Y 4M 2W 1D AV

AEC Command Center, Camp Outfield, Lavmuy Spaceport, Gao

Colonel Martin Schul

The morning status meeting was a somber affair; enough attendees had gotten the same flash alert that Colonel Schul had, so his opener surprised few.

“We’ve failed to contain the infection, and it’s reached the general population outside the quarantined zone,” he said bluntly. Those that hadn’t heard looked around the table to those that had, and there was a collective intake of breath.

“What’s our next step, Colonel? Gimme some idea where things go from here,” said Great Father Daar, who was for once actually physically in the room.

“So far, I don’t believe there have been any deaths. Yet. We’ve managed to catch most of the infected at this point early in the onset of symptoms, and we’ve been prioritizing them and their immediate social circles for evacuation to Cimbrean. I think that’s slowed things down…but this is going to change things,” Martin said, reflecting.

“This is going to make dealing with the biodrones a bigger problem,” Regaari said thoughtfully.

Great Father Daar just cocked an ear at him, inviting him to go on.

“The sickness will get into the population of biodrones, and there is little we can do to prevent that,” Regaari went on. “They will be an additional vector for disease with any un-implanted they come into contact with who survive.”

A wave of reactions went around the table. Martin himself was under no illusions about the prospects of what would happen if…when…the wave of infection hit the ‘drones.

“They won’t take precautions to avoid infection, that much is certainly true. They’re every bit as susceptible as our own people—more so, in fact, since they’ll try to keep functioning regardless of their condition,” Martin said thoughtfully. “I think we need a new protocol—any troops coming in contact with the enemy from this point on need to go through a bio-field before they’re allowed back in camp. Actually, that’s not a bad idea for the relief workers, as well, of both races. The last thing anyone needs is re-infection.”

There was murmured agreement around the table.

“How fast is it spreading, Colonel?” asked Great Father Daar.

“Our projections put the onset of the infectious stage at about 3 days after infection, and a typical, fairly healthy subject, starts showing symptoms at about seven to ten days,” Martin replied. “Once actual symptoms start, the virus tends to almost overwhelm the immune system’s initial response. We’ve seen some promising results from the secondary stage after that, though, and I…think…that we’re going to weather this with most healthy Gaoians that get infected surviving.”

“That’s the trick, isn’t it? Healthy Gaoians,” said Dr. Marsh, from the CDC’s Xenobiology team. “There’s nothing about a refugee camp that promotes healthy living.”

“On Earth, that’s certainly true,” returned Martin. “Fungi and killer bacteria are in everything, and it’s everywhere; Gao doesn’t have the same kind of extreme micro-life. It’s a much less densely living world, more analogous to Antarctica on Earth than anything else. Their new deathworld rating, in fact, is largely determined from Gao being barren, cold, and inhospitable as cradle worlds go. As long as nothing else comes along… although there is going to be the problem of re-infection for Gaoians that weather it.”

“How so?”

“For the most part, their immune systems don’t do antibodies anywhere as well as ours does. And of course, this is the cold we’re dealing with.”

“How are we coming on the evacuation portals to the new camp on Cimbrean?” asked Great Father Daar. “I want that to remain top priority—‘till our healthy breeding population is safe, we’re still facing extinction.”

“We’re almost finished with all five of the new jump portals and power supplies. The cycle rate remains about ten minutes, so if we’re staggering them every two minutes, we’ll have a pretty steady flow. At our max capacity, I think we can manage nearly a half-million refugees per day. We’ll have to send supplies through as well, of course, but that’s our only real bottleneck,” said Captain Scharff, the CO for the 37th Engineer Battalion.

“We’re still going to get overwhelmed,” Martin said. There was no escaping that fact. “Even if we adopt a lot of the same measures they’ve done on Cimbrean, our footprint here is just too small to make a measurable impact on a population this size.”

“First priority is gonna hafta be the Females and cubs still,” said Great Father Daar. “Nothin’ there has changed. Next is gonna be the Army training camps. After that…prolly the critical infrastructure teams—people on dams, power plants, that sorta thing, and after that, general population.”

“I’ve been in communication with the Israeli teams on the other side. We’re going to do a double bio-field screen, one going into the jump portal on this side, and the other coming out of it on the other side. They’re almost ready as well,” Captain Scharff said.

“Good. Soon’s you can get started, start movin’ ‘em through, fast as you can, safely,” said Great Father Daar. “Everythin’ else comes second to that.”

“We should be ready within the next few hours, Great Father.”


Date Point: 14Y 4M 2W 1D AV

Tiritya Island Refugee Camp, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Rav Simel Moshe Haran, IDF

The IDF troops had been busy to nearly the point of breaking, building the foundations, daisy-chaining power supplies and generators to banks of capacitors, putting up the framework, painting the safety lines, and then double checking to make sure they hadn’t missed anything crucial. For a task like this, the military good enough to get the job done…wasn’t, and everybody knew it.

At last, final checks were done, the test jumps with inert objects had been done, the receiving areas and bio-field gates to control foot traffic flow were erected, charged, and turned on, and they were ready. The violet lights came up indicating danger, the warbling hoot sounded, and…

With a pop, that eye-bending blackness formed and then dissipated all at once. The IDF planners at their end had communicated the layout where refugees would be coming through and their plans for handling it, so everyone had been told before embarking to orderly and quickly file from the platform, form a neat queue going through the bio-field, and then they would get direction on arriving, on where to go next. Nearly five hundred Gaoians stood on the platform, and as instructed, filed quickly off, double-file.

Two minutes later, the next one in the series of portals fired, and another five hundred joined the first. Two minutes later, the next one, and then the next, then the next. The first group had cleared the platform only a few minutes before, when the next arrived.

It was well-planned out and well-executed. The Clan of Females already on Cimbrean had contributed more than enough Mothers and older cubs to guide everyone through, even the little ones who were a mixture of terror, excitement, exhilaration, sugar, and staving off fatigue. They were guided out through the grid painted on grass and shown where to pitch tents.

The press of refugees only intensified as it went on, and on, and on.

“On you come. Don’t slow down, please. Don’t stop,” Moshe found himself repeating. It seemed like almost every Mother had at least two or three little ones in tow; some cubs were old enough to be hanging onto younger, and any time a little one got separated, the cubs around them sorted it out almost before the frazzled Mothers could even notice there was a problem.

All in all, the endless tide of exhausted refugees was well-behaved and orderly. Moshe reflected to himself that they’d probably had lots of practice recently at moving from one place to another. As the day went on, he made the rounds of his people making sure water breaks were taken and food was eaten.

Finally, he had time for his own lunchtime break. A dozen or so Israeli nationals had set up a makeshift food court a short distance away from the main refugee station for rations; mostly for the use of the soldiers, as what they were stocking was Human food that wouldn’t necessarily agree with Gaoian digestion. The entrancing scent of roasting gyro meat wafted past his nose, and his feet found their own way.

The basic gyro—tzaziki sauce, some veggies, a few strips of deliciously roasted meat and a flour flatbread wrapping it all together—was all they actually were serving, apparently. He got up to the counter, standing in a surprisingly short line, and was face-to-face with a harried looking young woman in her late teens.

“So, basic gyro?” he asked lightly.

“Nah. We have basic gyros, too. What’ll it be?” she shot back sarcastically, already putting one together for him.

“Guess I’ll go with the basic gyro, then, but could I get one with extra basic?”

“We don’t do specialty orders, man. Sorry.” She handed him his, wrapped in coarse brown paper that crackled a little, with a little bit of a faint smile. “Next!”

Chuckling, he wandered away from the cart, in the general direction of what sounded like music of some kind. He tried not to wolf down the surprisingly good food and found himself licking the sauce off his hand before it was even half gone.

The music, he found, was being produced by an older IDF soldier on an instrument he belatedly recognized as a hurdy-gurdy to an utterly entranced group of other soldiers and an even larger (and growing) group of cubs, with a few Females keeping a sharp eye for shenanigans. The cubs were wide-eyed, and one or two of the older ones were busily talking in hushed voices about whether that was a string instrument that they could try to play too.

The musician apparently heard some of this, because as the song ended, he opened his eyes and looked at the cubs who suddenly looked both quite guilty about something and excited to be spoken directly to.

“Would you youngsters like to try this?” he asked, holding it away from himself a little.

The cubs looked at their accompanying Mothers, who hesitated and then nodded a little. One took a step towards the man that had been playing for them, and shyly raised her hand about halfway.

“Well, come on then,” the man said, motioning her up. He sat behind her, showing her where to put her fingers and how to turn the crank, and what keys to push. She tried it, producing a horrific squawking noise that was reminiscent of geese with flu having marital relations, and hid her face in embarrassment when the others started chittering at her.

“Now now, none of you would do better. I certainly didn’t, the first time I tried this. Let’s give her another try, and then maybe one of you can show us how it’s done, mmm?”

Moshe wandered away, munching on his gyro, listening to the sounds of Gaoian cubs playing mere hours after they had come walking, stunned-looking and helpless through the jump portals. Life, it seemed, was reasserting itself just fine, with a little help.

They’re going to be okay he thought, for the first time since his boots had hit Cimbrean soil.


Date Point: 14Y 4M 2W 2D AV

Capitol Building, Washington DC, United States

Esther Blum

Getting the tax measure that her employers wanted passed through the House of Representatives had been uncharacteristically easy. There had been the usual unending policy meetings, the planning sessions, meetings about both the planning meetings and planning sessions, and then meetings about that…but in terms of pushing a major tax incentive for US heavy industry through the United States Congress…it was like someone had pushed the Easy Button at some point. The usual hand-wringing for the cameras had happened, been dealt with, and now all that was left were the various floor speeches and debate in the Senate, which was expected by both parties to pass handily once the requirements of legislative kabuki had been satisfied.

It hadn’t hurt that the President was solidly behind the measure, either. He had made a number of personal phone calls to key opposition leaders, employing his characteristic mix of bombast and charm to court the last stragglers into the fold.

The real surprise had come from all three of the Representatives for West Virginia before it had passed in the House. The three of them, despite all being from the same party, could rarely agree on anything and were as contentious a lot as one could find anywhere. When an amendment had been proposed by the three of them in unison at the 11th hour to make the tax benefits retroactive to the beginning of the Gaoian Crisis, it had sent a shock wave around the room. Talking heads on the various TV channels had proclaimed that the bill had just been killed, and the country had watched the drama unfold over the weekend.

Monday morning following, though, it had been adopted with some minor modifications, and public debate on the bill overall had resumed as though nothing had happened at all. The rest of the world shook its collective head at the schizophrenia of American politics on display, and that was mostly that.

At the behest of her employers, Esther sat in the gallery watching the circus below play out. Her assistant, an intern from Columbia was busily taking notes, but it was probably not needed. This was all but a done deal at this point.

She was joined by the Representative who had been the original sponsor, the Majority Whip from Georgia that had piloted that first meeting a month prior. He slid into the seat next to her and leaned over.

“A month, start to finish. How about that?” he asked with a grin.

“For a tax measure like this, yeah. That’s pretty fast,” she said, smiling back.

“Something about never wasting a good crisis comes to mind,” he said, leaning back in his seat and stretching an arm out across the narrow chair on the other side of him.

“I prefer to think of it as an opportunity seized, Congressman,” she returned coolly. “This will not only put extra jobs into my employer’s sector, it’s long-term stability for exoplanetary construction.”

He shook his head a little, mindful that there was probably a camera somewhere pointed at them. “The Byron Group and others are already slobbering at the idea of further tax incentives for stuff like colony building.”

“That may not be such a bad thing, Congressman. At some point, humanity is going to need to leave Sol, and the more incentives there are to support quick development of that effort, the better.”

“I guess we’ll find out, Ms. Blum.” They sat and watched. Below, the last of the speeches had been concluded, and the vote was being called.

Another minute or two, and the Senate President’s gavel came down. It was a done deal, and the bill would be heading to the White House for a signature.


Date Point: 14Y 4M 2W 3D AV

Tiritya Island Refugee Camp, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Sister Naydra

It had been so long since Naydra had received an actual message from anyone that she’d almost forgotten the ding sound of her communicator delivering a priority message. She’d had nobody to receive priority messages from until she’d been brought to Cimbrean, and in the camp, things just didn’t really work that way.

Her heart skipped a beat when she saw who it was from. She opened it, and frowned; it was empty, except for a photo attachment. Confused, she clicked on the attachment to open, and got the usual loading swirly thingy, which then disappeared and gave her the dialogue box of a secured document.

To open this document, answer the following security question: What did we eat on our picnic?

She typed out pot stickers in the text window, and it went away, opening up the picture, finally. Naydra chittered despite herself. The big fuzzy oaf. He’d written her a letter by hand, taken a picture of it, and emailed that. Then again, maybe it was more secure this way. She settled in to read.

Sister Naydra,

I hope my precautions in sending you this don’t seem too much. I had Regaari do some of his Whitecrest shi stuff to make sure you were the only one that reads this. I couldn’t type out an email. Stoneback paws ain aren’t the best for banging on a keyboard. This is more personal anyway, I never liked using email.

When I said before that I can’t share this, and you don’t know what you’re asking, I meant it. I’ve sired hundreds of cubs over the years as Stoneback’s Stud-Prime. Better you find a younger Male.

It ain’t isn’t just that though. Being Great Father means I have to keep the focus where it has to be, to save us all, and that don’t make much room for anyone, or anything, else in my life. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but Stonebacks don’t quit.

Daar

Of course they don’t, you furry lummox. You’re about to find out we have that in common.

She bent to her communicator, and began to compose a response.


Date Point: 14Y 4M 2W 5D AV

Wi Kao City, Gao

Biodrone

The mission given the biodrone had been a little more complex than some. This particular unit had been one of a few given specialized instructions; stash themselves in hidden stasis containers for a preset time period, and when it woke up, seek out and kill non-droned Gaoians.

When it awoke, the stasis pod it had occupied told the biodrone that it had been in stasis for 10,512,052 seconds. Its default programming queried for an update of instructions, but nothing was forthcoming, so it first sought out the others and then, reunited, selected the first task.

If the drone had had the ability, it might have wondered why the Controllers had no further instructions, but that ability was unnecessary, and so it did not.

On its first look above ground, it might have wondered what had happened to the landscape, as much did not match with its preexisting internal maps. Instead, it simply made a note of it, updated the current information, and moved on.

The drones had kept to the shadows, and struck only at night. They lost only one or two of their number for several days, ambushing small groups in simple, but effective traps. If the drone could have felt anything, it might have felt satisfaction at following its programming so well, but it did not have that ability. Inside, the suppressed mind of the Gaoian it inhabited began to wither away.

The last week had been…different. The biodrones had, in their decision-making tree, arrived at the decision to clear several buildings of civilians. Inside of each, it had found several hundred living Males who were lying down during the day and did not fight back.

If the drone had been given the ability to recognize illness, it might have balked at the task of going in, unprotected and exposed, but that ability was unnecessary, and so it did not. The sick were efficiently and effectively dispatched, each with a single shot to the head, and the task was complete.

The minimal self-care that the biodrone was permitted did involve rest, even if it wasn’t actual sleep. It had noted a decrease in optimal functioning, faster than was normally expected without a Controller making adjustments. It ate when it registered hunger, it eliminated waste when the urge presented itself, rested when it registered body fatigue, but that was largely the limit.

This particular morning, it noted that its pulmonary functions were significantly impacted by something; its nasal cavity was clogged with mucus, and the body felt the urge to cough, repeatedly. Vision was impacted as well, and it was registering joint pain from odd places.

The anomaly of data presented the biodrone with a problem its creators had not really considered and probably would not have cared much if they had. The data presented enough of a threat picture to the ‘drone’s programming that it triggered an analysis reaction to figure out how it would impact functions. This, in turn, led to the drone remaining unnaturally still while its limited capacity to determine its situation wrestled with the problem. Remaining utterly, totally still resulted in the problem getting worse, as the Terran virus overwhelmed the body’s immune system and it developed something that few Gaoians ever had.

Pneumonia.

This resulted in a fresh set of data that also wasn’t in the biodrone’s reference library. Trapped in a feedback loop of inadequate data or resources, it eventually registered pulmonary obstruction/failure imminent and as its last action attempted to record the death of the drone in systems that were no longer connected or listening.


Date Point: 14Y 4M 2W 5D AV

Tiritya Island Refugee Camp, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Mother Kyrie

The soft glow of a holo-display lit the inside of the large tent currently being used by the Mother-Supreme and her staff as an office and conference room. Outside, the constant bang and whirring of machinery and construction heralded the creation of hardsided shelter/warehouses that were intended for multipurpose use. Inside, a clever usage of some forcefield buttressing attenuated the noise to something far more manageable.

The Mother-Supreme, Mother Ginai, and the delegation of Mothers from the Meeting of Mothers sat in a loose circle around the low display. Along with the Gaoians were a delegation of Humans from a heavy construction and mining conglomerate from Earth.

Mother Kyrie, having been an Ironclaw Associate specializing in architecture and design, facilitated. It was her plan that was being displayed in a wireframe diagram for everyone to look at.

“Lots of digging there,” commented one of the Humans. It was true. Much of the primary design was underground—huge amounts of living spaces in multiple levels, carefully overlaid one atop another to provide mutual structural support from all sides, above and below.

“The material mined will be used for building additional structures on the surface.” Mother Kyrie clicked a control, and dozens of wireframe buildings materialized at the top of the diagram. “It will be reconstituted into stone blocks, using the Dark Eye facility—you mine it out, we’ll send a load over, and then deliver it to the surface for building at the top as well.”

“Slick,” said another of the Humans.

“The test boreholes…here, here, and here,” Mother Kyrie said, indicating several spots on the wireframe, which obligingly zoomed in and highlighted the places in question. “These will get repurposed as conduits for power and waste.” The display zoomed back out, and then back in on another spot.

“Since we’re going to have to depend on desalination for the bulk of our water anyway, it made sense to locate those closest to the waterline. This level here is mostly industrial—waste treatment, water purification, desalination, that sort of thing.”

The Human engineer that hadn’t spoken yet rose and inspected the display at close range.

“Yeah, I don’t think this’ll be much of a problem. Boring machines have come a long way just in the last coupla years. Ours all use fusion bits now, they never need changing out and can chew through, probably a hundred meter length of rock a day, easy. If we use the taillings like you’re talking about for tunnel supports, this’ll go pretty fast.”

Mother-Supreme Yulna spoke up, for the first time since they had all been introduced and seated in what was, after all, her office.

“Mr. Cooper, how quickly can you get started?” she asked.

“As soon as there’s a local jump portal with adequate power supply, Mother-Supreme, we have all of the equipment ready to send through from the New York and Tel Aviv portals. We’ll stage it on the other side until we’re ready to bring it in, of course, otherwise, it’ll just get in the way.”

Yulna looked around the room at the other Mothers. “Understand, Mr. Cooper, what we want here is for the Clan of Females to be doing the work. Inasmuch as we can—your expertise, tools, and assistance are valued beyond our ability to say, but this very much needs to be…our place…from the beginning and throughout.”

The engineer inclined his head. “Of course, Mother-Supreme. We’ll do this legally for our company as an equipment rental of sorts, with our engineers, architects, and so on providing training and assistance.”

Yulna, Ginai, and the other Mothers exchanged a look. It was a pivotal, historical moment, and all of them knew it.

“Let’s get started.”


Date Point: 14Y 4M 3W 1D AV

Secure Dataspace, Office of the Great Father, High Mountain Fortress, Northern Plains, Gao

Daar,

I apologize for the delay in responding. It’s been busy here, as I’m sure you can imagine. I can only guess at the demands on your time, and hope you are well.

I’m pleased to tell you that the primary excavation for the Grand Commune has started! Mother Kyrie’s design met with the Mother-Supreme’s approval, and with the approval of the rest of the Mothers here. Everyone is very excited about it, even if the only thing we’ve done so far is move some heavy equipment through the construction site gate and bore some test holes. Thus far, the column of basalt that we picnicked on seems to go down well below sea level, and we have an estimate on where it’s edges are—in short, it’s very stable, very sturdy, and very big. I’ve attached a quick video sim of what the finished product might look like.

We will very soon need authorization to begin using the Dark Eye nanofactory for materials conversion. Initially, the plan is to use the tailings from subterranean construction as above-ground building materials, and it won’t take much to convert rubble back into stone blocks. Along with that will be timber, from Earth and some of the Cimbrean timber from further along the coast—you may remember the really big trees we overflew?

We’d like very much for you to come see the construction site when you have time. I know you had hoped to assign some Ironclaw or Stoneback construction supervisors to us, but I think what we have already will be sufficient. There’s a strong feeling among the Females here that we ought to build this ourselves—perhaps a break with the past traditions of depending on the Male clans for support, and perhaps it’s simply that we know the effort can’t be spared. Whatever the reason, the interest from Females among the refugee population has been startling, and it’s encouraging.

I spoke with a Human mining supervisor yesterday, who told me an interesting story about her own country’s history. I don’t know Human history very well, of course, but apparently there were two worldwide conflicts about one generation apart, about a century of their years ago, in which the population was mobilized—something like what you’re doing now, I think. There was an advertising campaign that had a female working in shipbuilding, I think, as a central image. It inspired Human females that would never have done that work before to do so, and she credited that image with being one of the reasons she went into mining to begin with. It was a challenge.

Anyway, as that campaign said, “We can do it.” I believe that’s true, and I believe you do as well, for which I think all of us owe you an enormous thanks.

For me, of course, that thanks is much more personal, and in a way, I suppose I see your need for a Female in your life as being a darkness of your own that I can rescue you from, and I can no more ignore your pain than you could have ignored mine.

Naydra


Date Point: 14Y 4M 3W 2D AV

Folctha, Cimbrean

Nofl

The room of human teens was boisterous. Nofl paused before going in; even to his limited nose, the scent of human teenage boys fresh from the field was a little overwhelming. He made an adjustment to the room’s ventilation and went in. The noise subsided, and he suddenly had the room’s attention despite being a third the size of everyone else.

“Good morning, darlings,” he said, flapping his hands a little. “Oh my, this is so exciting. Welcome, welcome.”

Nofl settled onto a chair at the front of the room, which promptly rose on kinetic levitators and put him at eye level with the roomful of kids, who were suddenly much more interested in what he was about to say. Time to get down to business, as that charming Human aphorism went. He tasked a part of his consciousness to cataloguing the humans by apparent height, weight, general health, gender, and extrapolating from there what roles they were likely to be best suited for.

And maybe, just maybe if this went well…

“Well, now,” Nofl said to the room with an attempt at a prim smile. “Everyone ready to talk frisbee?”

“So, you’re wanting to sponsor a team?” asked a fuzzy-cheeked kid with a head of hair that looked like a miniature Vgork on his head.

“Oh my yes. Yes, indeed,” Nofl replied. “And one with a bit more…shall we say…refined taste than the other teams being formed?”

The kids all looked at each other. “Yeah, man, I dunno what you mean by that,” said another boy. “This is, like, frisbee, not a trip to the opera or some shit.” He was cuffed upside the head by a much larger male adult Human standing behind him. “Sorry.”

Even with the occupants of the room being almost entirely juvenile Humans, it was still a little unsettling to be sized up by them like a predator with a snack.

“What I mean is, my team will have better equipment. Better sense of style, certainly. I could never have a team wearing some of those atrocious jerseys I saw the other day…goodness no.”

A ripple of chuckling went around the room, although Nofl noted that it was mostly the kids laughing along. Most of the adults were still inscrutably serious-looking.

“Well.” Nofl said into the silence that followed. “How about you discuss the idea and all of that, while I talk with the adults in the other room. I’m afraid I’ve never sponsored anything like a sports team before, so this will be a learning experience for all of us.” He giggled a little.

The discussion with the adults wasn’t nearly as pleasant. He led the adult Humans into the second small conference room that he’d rented for this occasion and sat. The door had hardly closed before they rounded on him.

“What exactly are you playing at here?” demanded one. “Sponsoring a youth league team, my arse, what are you really doing?”

Nofl winced a little. “I understand your skepticism. Your people and mine have not always gotten along productively.”

“Oh, productively is it? I have a cousin I found out was vivisected by one of you. I got your productivity right…” the man trailed off at a restraining touch from the female standing next to him. Nofl’s quick glance at their hands confirmed the presence of wedding rings.

“Dale, please,” she said. “Mister…Nofl…I think what we’re all concerned about is that you want to experiment on our kids.”

“Oh goodness me, no,” Nofl said, flapping his hands again. “Perish the thought. I will admit, my motives aren’t completely altruistic. I do, in fact, have an ulterior motive, but it has very little to do with children, yours or anyone else’s.”

“And what,” asked another adult male, “might that ‘ulterior motive’ be?”

“For reasons of my own, I appear to be a resident of Folctha for the long term. Becoming a more contributing member of this community is, therefore, in my own best interest.”

The adults all looked at one another, and shared that eerie non-verbal conversation that all humans seemed to be able to do, and which all of them denied doing. Finally, the last man that had spoken spoke up.

“Look. I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, Mister Nofl…but the fact is, none of us trust you not to have another motive here, and these are our kids.”

Nofl sighed, having known that there was a high probability of this from the beginning. “As you wish. I will explain to the children that my sponsorship has not been approved. They need not know by whom, yes?”

The group filed back into the room where the teenagers had been spitballing ideas back and forth with gusto. They took the news well, fortunately, or at least they accepted his word on it. The room was empty within a few minutes, the last children leaving having given Nofl a goodbye wave.

Well. That didn’t work. He left the rented conference room, trusting the automated systems to reset both rooms to their default configuration, and lost in thought, wandered in the general direction of his own shop.

Abruptly, he stopped in his tracks, having had an idea hit him hard enough to derail both of the two thought processes he was working through.

Nofl hurried back to his shop. He had begun over the last year or two to correspond again with a few Directorate contacts with whom he’d worked while developing the original Cruezzir, and one of those was in a unique position indeed…

He hurriedly composed a message and sent it.


Date Point: 14M 4M 3W 5D AV

Three Valleys FOB, Gao

Fang Leader Vuutyo, Grand Army of the Gao

The Stoneback Claw and their Human companions that had been their instructors, guides, and battle-brothers had moved on to their newer recruits, and for the first time, his Fang had been approved to conduct independent operations. Vuutyo had heard stories, and had done quite a few operations with their guidance, but there was a tangible difference when he was the one that was responsible.

Operational tempo, if anything, had been stepped up significantly. Vuutyo’s own command structure, as thin as it was, had been supportive of him taking initiative, and his Fang was eager and willing to go. “Ready to rock,” as one of their Human companions had put it with a congratulatory slap on the back. The frustrating thing was, it seemed like no sooner would they clear one nest of drones out than another would spring up.

When they weren’t actively descending like the wrath of an angry deity on a drone nest, they spent time doing what the Humans called “hearts and minds” work, which both Champion Fiin and the Great Father vigorously endorsed. He didn’t see the connection at first…and then a corner was turned, and suddenly they were getting intel about what was going on where they’d never gotten it before. The connection between that and direction on where to go, what to hit, what to leave alone, and how to hit things was so much easier to see, and he often found himself wondering a little at how deep the expertise was that the Humans were teaching them.

A priority call came through his communicator. He opened an eye, rolled out of his nest-bed, and checked to see what it was.

ATTN: COMMANDER, THREE-VALLEY FANG
FROM: SENSOR_NET, THREE-VALLEY DISTRICT

A U T O M A T E D   M E S S A G E   F O L L O W S

SENSORS REPORT POSSIBLE BIODRONE INCURSION AT GREEN FALLS SETTLEMENT.
LOSS OF CONTACT WITH SETTLEMENT SECURITY PERSONNEL

RESPOND IN FORCE IMMEDIATELY

So. A small settlement a short distance away was experiencing an attack. Vuutyo followed the example he’d been given and threw on his gear, dropped to fourpaw, and ran as though his tail were on fire to his Talon-leaders’ barracks. The alert to the Weavers on loan from the Humans was already copied out, and as he ran he fancied he could hear the ziiiiip of a recon drone headed in the proper direction already.

Probably the most important thing he’d learned from his teachers was that modern warfare was absolutely nothing like the stories and the Clan video-dramas. It was all about speed. Stoneback had known that since forever, and the Humans understood how to do it at scale in a way that was just…impossible to get his head around. Vuutyo knew, by the time he had troops in the air, he’d have overhead real-time images and some preliminary action analysis for preparation. By the time they arrived, he knew he’d probably have nearly anything he could ask for, including air support or artillery, just a short distance out and a radio request away.

“UP! UP! GO, GO, GO!!” he roared as he burst through the door. He suppressed a pant-grin of satisfaction as they erupted out of a sleeping pile into wakefulness, and without missing a beat, began grabbing and donning gear as they each cocked an ear to get what was going on.

“We have an attack in progress, [thirty klicks] out at the Green Falls settlement. We were there four days ago, so we have recent recon and contact with the locals. Drone images should be incoming in a few minutes—I want the Claw up and ready to board the Weavers in ten.” A succession of yips from around the room, laid over the top of the rattling of equipment, acknowledged the orders.

Vuutyo stood aside as his Talon-leaders boiled out of their barracks, moving smartly on fourpaw to the squat buildings they’d taken over as sleeping quarters. He watched as lights came on, shouting and the occasional yip guiding his still-green but rapidly progressing troops into gear, and out to the flight line. Comm checks were made, the various channels quickly run through, with an accompanying slap to the helmet with each trooper.

He hustled to the awaiting Weavers and checked in with the pilots to make sure everybody knew where they were headed. It’d never been wrong and there had never been an error, but there was one lesson that the Humans had taught him, over and over and over again. Complacency got people dead. Everything got checked, every single time.

In what seemed like a paw of minutes, his people were assembled and boarded, and they were airborne. Vuutyo busied himself getting the stream of data that was coming in from their overhead surveillance, and discussing with his Talon-leaders over comm links on how to properly approach the target.

Green Falls was a modest-sized settlement. One of the main reasons they’d been there several times was that it was fairly important, being one of three main water-routing stations from the rivers out to the farms and fields in Three Valleys. Mostly, it wasn’t drinking water—it was irrigation, which was in some ways far more important. Few of the several hundred residents had been biodroned—implants were fairly uncommon in communities this size, it seemed.

That, he realized, was odd, and it tickled at him. Why was it odd?

…if there weren’t that many drones out here to start off with, what is it that we’ve been fighting for the last month? Where are they coming from?

It hit him like a two-ton heavy thing. Someone, or more likely, something was directing the drones. It couldn’t simply be their residual, somewhat simplified programming that was guiding them—there was agency behind an attack like this, and for the other attacks that they’d been fending off lately. The doctrine thus far was to simply descend on the drones and annihilate them, which his people had gotten good at doing. That was Great Father Daar’s direction, anyway, or at least that was the overall principle. Vuutyo realized, though…he was in command, he had the power to make a somewhat different call, and his troops were good enough now to do what he realized needed done.

He switched over to the channel for his Fang leadership and clicked a couple of times to get everyone’s attention.

“Okay. You’ve seen the overheads. We’re going to deploy in a pretty standard defensive maneuver, put ourselves between the residents and the drones, and I want to move on encircling the drones, but we’re going to try something a little different.”

“I want to see if we can track these things back to wherever they’re coming from. For once, they’re not attacking in the rain, but we’ve had enough moisture in the air to make a damn good scent trail. If we can get them to break and retreat, so much the better, but I want the trail preserved. If there’s a larger nest of these fucking things somewhere nearby, we are going to root it out and burn it,” he said. Yips acknowledging the order came through the comm channel, and the Talon-leader with him nodded.

The Weavers began to descend. The ground looked in places like it was covered in sparklers, with kinetic weapons throwing lethal chunks of metal this way and that. The shielding of the Weavers began to take fire as they moved in, shrugging off mere bullets easily with shielding that was meant to protect against micrometeoroids. They came in hot and fast, and his troops moved out as they touched down, like the disciplined veterans they were becoming.

The next few minutes were a blur; order, move, cover fire, recovery/reload, call for team to advance on the objective, man down, move, covering fire…so it went, as it always went, and before he knew it, it was suddenly…over, and he was left panting for breath as the battle-fever left him.

Two drones, one lightly wounded, had apparently withdrawn and were heading away from his troops and the settlement. Vuutyo gave the order to follow, mindful of the fact that this could also be an ambush. In training, his Human advisers had constantly used such retreating actions as cover for another attack, but the drones didn’t seem to think that way.

In fact, only Humans apparently thought of ways to actively use running away as an attack, which was one reason among many that they utterly dominated engagements like this. Gaoian tactics had always emphasized ambushes, of course; even cubs loved to play Pounce, and it had a definite military use, but they’d never put it together quite the way Human tactics instructors did, and the combination was lethal.

He sent scouts ahead, maintaining contact with the two biodrones via his overhead asset. It wouldn’t do to not be careful about this, precisely because of the Human tendency in training to use ambushes and guerilla warfare generally. Even if drones didn’t typically use those tactics…caution was still a good idea.

The scent trail left by the biodrones, as it turned out, couldn’t have been easier to follow if it had been marked by billboards and set on fire. He monitored their progress, keeping his scouts far enough back from the biodrones that they would probably avoid detection. A third of the Claw saw to coordinating first aid, while the other two followed the scouts at a good distance.

Before they’d gotten too far from the main settlement, he got a message from one of the Talon-leaders he’d left behind.

“Fang Leader, I’m seeing symptoms here of that sickness they told us to watch out for. The human one.”

“Give me a written summary, and contact the controllers at our base—see if we can get one of those portable bio-fields brought out here, and get everybody put through it,” Vuutyo replied. “I’ll send it up with our action report. Make ‘em comfortable—we should be back in a few hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

It took nearly a half hour of stalking behind the two drones to figure out where they were going. At some point in the area’s history, there had been some exploratory mining a short distance from the settlement that had apparently withered away, leaving only the detritus of aging buildings and some excavation. He made multiple passes with the recon asset, getting stills from every angle and a thorough look at the layout of the place. It was deceptively well-fortified, tailings from the mine forming suspiciously well-placed piles for cover in a firefight…and sure enough, there were several heat signatures on overwatch.

Two, however, could play at Pounce.

Vuutyo considered options. His goal, as far as he’d thought it out, was to try to capture this as intact as possible—if it was holding, or Daar-forbid, producing new drones, then it would go a long ways towards explaining where they were coming from and why they kept popping up. That, in turn, ruled out certain options, such as nuking it from orbit, but there were still other ways to be sure.

He moved his Talons to a good angle to enfilade both of the main watch points, and then chittered to himself. There was an element to what he was about to do that always appealed to the mildly-sadistic side of him, like the world’s greatest practical joke that was only funny if you weren’t the one on the receiving end.

The process of teaching and learning with Humans and the Stoneback experts had been somewhat one-sided, but there had absolutely been an element of mutual teaching and adaptation to it. Human weapons were created and intended for use on other Humans, so their lethality tended to be overkill for what was needed for use on other species, such as Gaoian bio-drones. The Humans—and the Stonebacks, for that matter—had strongly insisted there was no such thing as overkill but honestly it was hard to see the utility in a hand-held grenade launcher that would pulp a room filled with biodrones to goo.

Well, okay. Actually the usefulness of that was perfectly obvious, but if what one wanted wasn’t goo, but something more recognizable…

This led to some peculiarities in their use, and quick development of weapons that wouldn’t have had much effect if any on Human targets, but were quite useful otherwise. Vuutyo’s favorite of these was what the Stoneback brothers had dubbed the “popgun” mortar round—a repurposed firework display used in Human celebrations for its fast burn, exceptionally loud bang and overpressure wave, and brilliant white flash of light. It was a flashbang grenade, essentially, only much bigger and more incapacitating, in an airburst.

His mortar teams had been introduced, or perhaps re-introduced, to the idea of a “time on target” barrage of indirect fire, just a week or two before, and he could almost physically feel their eagerness to try it out. A wave of pride hit him when he realized they were already set up and prepped for the order before he’d even given it, and he realized something.

The processes and way of thinking that the Humans and Stoneback had been teaching the Grand Army weren’t new at all. What they had done was to take the instinctive and easy, natural flow of cooperative work that Clanless understood in their own right, and they applied military discipline, processes, and equipment to that already-existing template. The synergy of it was breathtaking.

And in a moment, that was going to be literal. He quit ruminating, gave the order, and watched, trusting his smart eye and ear protection to keep him from being deafened and blinded.

From above, the video feed caught the head-turn of the sentries as they heard the mortar tubes firing with their characteristic foomp. They had just enough opportunity to know that something was happening, when four airburst popgun rounds went off overhead all at once in a flash that dazzled the cameras, lit up the entire mine site in a lightning-quick flash of blinding light, and carried with them an overpressure wave that he could feel in his chest.

He didn’t even have to give the assault order. His Talon-leaders motioned their men forward, and in seconds the sentries were incapacitated, the two drones they’d followed here stuck with sleep-patches and unconscious, and the entire external site secured.

Vuutyo’s radio crackled to life again.

“Fang Leader, Third Talon. FOB says they don’t have a bio-field to send, the two the base has are already being used and won’t be free for a couple of days. Said they’re using them on a commune recovery, cubs and Females.”

Vuutyo sighed. This sickness was really getting out of control. “Do what you can to make them comfortable—Human medic said stay warm, eat, and plenty of fluids, and just ride it out.”

“Acknowledged, Fang Leader. Third Talon out.”

He turned to Mura, his First Talon leader. “I want a couple of Claws to each structure. Get a sweep done, let’s see what they’ve been up to, and watch for booby traps.” He keyed his radio. “Second Talon will stay as reserve, in case we run into anything inside and below, or get stragglers.”

First Talon broke out into multiple sub-Claws of two or three soldiers, and the structures were silently, quickly, and efficiently cleared. The only real coming or going scent trail was to the main mineshaft, and he suspected they’d find whatever it was they’d come for in there. The lack of booby traps elsewhere made his hackles go up. Something about it wasn’t right. Something about it was far too easy. That was never good, whether one was clearing a building or laying plumbing for a building.

Suspicious, he held First Talon outside while a little recon was done.

Gaoian toys in some ways far surpassed the Human ones. Human tools were all about simplicity, often applying effective novel applications to things and doing more with less. Or at least that was the idea. They really had to, though; Human tech despite their expertise, was almost laughably primitive when compared to the Gao’s. One such was a riff on their love of remote imagery, and he deployed a finger-sized drone with a toss through the door. It caught air currents and wafted inside, no heavier than a large bug.

Heat sensors immediately caught the telltale warmth of living bodies, on the first level down. Below that, it didn’t see much using thermal, but there was definitely something there to check out. He waved his assault teams in, noses and ears alert for trouble from every corner, watching their progress through the drone feed.

The assault was almost perfectly done, troops moving in sync without words and coordinating with gestures. It might not have been as fast and tight as something a more experienced team would have done, but he couldn’t see any gross oversights. Rooms were cleared, floor swept, and the first floor was declared secure. They moved down.

At the top of the staircase, they halted. Vuutyo listened to the low chatter between the Talon Leader and two of the Claw Leaders inside.

“[Fuck], what a stink.”

“Smells like a lot of dead. Lot of decomp in the air.”

“Yeah. Everyone, button up and go to your bio-filters. Masks on.” There was a pause while those preparing to assault followed the order and reported ready with a quick radio-click.

“Ok. We’re going in quiet. Watch for traps, anything out of the ordinary, ready, 3…2…1…” In the team went, practically right on top of one another and fanning out at the stairs to move down what proved to be a fairly wide and open corridor with rooms on either side. The life signs had some from this floor, and they were quickly located as unresponsive drones each seated on the floor staring blankly at the walls, with greenish snot bubbling out of most of their noses.

“The [fuck]?” One of Vuutyo’s Claw Leaders was fond of the versatile Human word. He decided to weigh in.

“First Talon, capture one or two of them, but put the rest down. If they’re not moving, I want to know why, but we don’t need all of them for that.” He watched as those massively useful Human flex-cuffs were produced and used, and knives attended to the rest. A gesture from one of the Claw Leaders caught his attention, and he moved the drone to see what it was.

Towards the back of the room, there were perhaps another dozen dead, by all appearances having died right where they sat, like so many gargoyle statues. He activated the infrared light on the drone for better illumination.

“This coulda been way worse, sir,” said one of the soldiers to the drone. “I think these all died right here of the sickness. Explains maybe why we’re getting them in small groups.”

The rest of the Talon had continued clearing the floor, and was preparing to move onwards. In nearly every room it was the same—a few still-living drones seated on the floor and unresponsive, with a number more behind them. Vuutyo started prepping the report he was going to have to flash upwards to Central Command; he had a sneaking suspicion that more senior people were definitely going to want to look at whatever it was he’d found here. This wasn’t a typical nest of a few drones sheltering from weather and randomly striking out.

“Move in,” he said over the radio, following down the lead with his drone. Watching both the front via video feed and the back via his own eyes was a little weird, but he was rapidly getting used to it.

Silently, they poured down the stairs to find one large door standing slightly open. Lights were on down at this level, a knifelike edge of illumination spearing through the door and up the adjacent wall.

“Someone in there,” breathed the lead soldier, crouching at the edge and peeking inside around the corner, gun at the ready. Inside, there was the sound of something moving around, over the soft whir of fans and the whine of electronics. The soldiers on the stairs were poised.

“Try for nonlethal if you can,” Vuutyo said. Biodrones operating independently, when there were others nearby, was highly unlikely. A click click on the radio of acknowledgement, and he watched as they readied themselves, flashbangs and sleep patches at the ready. At some signal his camera didn’t catch, they exploded through the door.


Inside

++0887++

0887’s task as a minor player in the Cleanse and Reset for this Control Species had been almost an afterthought. He had been recruited just after getting assigned his Hierarchy number, and had been assigned the responsibility for coordinating the biodrones in this area to wreck the agriculture and farming industries.

For the first few days, things had gone okay; he’d been left with a goodly sized stash of resources to draw upon for it by preparatory work done by previous Agents over hundreds of years as a contingency measure. The disconnection from his home network by whatever it was the Control Species had done had come as a rude shock, and then the evidence of the space battle overhead, even more so.

He had dispatched drones to take out the survivors of the wrecked starship, with only moderate success. He hadn’t quite reckoned with having Humans to deal with, and once they’d dug in, he had worked to discredit them with the population by using Human weaponry to pick off the un-Implanted whenever possible.

The real treasure was the small nanofactory he’d gotten connected and running. With that, he’d been able to construct a robotic implantation suite, and had been able to, carefully, expand his ranks of minions even after getting cut off from the Igraen network.

Then, somehow, impossibly, the Humans had done whatever it was they had done and had driven off the Hunters, put up a system defense shield, and had started to push back against him. One after another, his carefully-created drone nests had been found and put to the torch. He had more drones, of course…lots more, in stasis below in fact, but he’d realized something just a few days before when one of his drones had reported pulmonary problems.

There were other ways to fight than going out and sniping off one or two civilians at a time.

Some work with the nanofactory had produced a passably good genetic lab; 0887 had studied genetic modification, and although he’d never gotten to work with a virus as potent and resilient as something from Earth before, he had plenty of material to work with now, and had had no trouble isolating the virus. He’d spent the last week or so trying to enhance its effects on Gaoians, and had had several test batches running upstairs.

Unfortunately, with the disconnection from the Igraen data network, he was also not able to monitor the goings-on upstairs, and so the sudden apocalyptic flash of light and noise actually knocked him from his feet and stunned him completely. The following surge through the door of armed and armored Gaoian soldiers didn’t even have time to register. He felt a prickling sensation at the back of his neck, and everything went black.


Upstairs

Fang Leader Vuutyo

Vuutyo had never sent a Flash-alert to the Great Father’s office directly before. He had hastily been writing and re-writing the brief message, getting almost ready to hit send and then rethinking it.

Was he really sure he wanted to do this? It was necessary, but…

Yes.

Closing his eyes, he accepted the inevitable and sent it.

FM THREE_VALLEY COMMAND/vuutyo.FL@army.gao.smil//
TO OFC THE GREAT FATHER/daar@clans.gao.sgov//
INFO QUARTERBACK/quarterback@sharman.mod.uk.smil//

S E C R E T

BT

SUBJ: GREEN FALLS INCURSION / SANDSTORM / BIG HOTEL//

INCURSION ALERT RECEIVED BY LOCAL 3VALLEY GARRISON, RESPONDED VIA AIR,
INCURSION NEUTRALIZED W/2 CASUALTIES, 12 ENEMY KIA, 9 ENEMY CAPTURED.

REASON TO BELIEVE ONE (1) DETAINEE IS HOSTING BIG HOTEL AGENT,
DETAINEE UNDER GUARD AND SEDATED.

SANDSTORM FACILITY DISCOVERED, ASSISTANCE NEEDED TO ASSURE
NEUTRALIZATION AS IT APPEARS TO ALREADY BE IN PRODUCTION. FACILITY
EQUIPPED WITH CLASS 6 NANOFACTORY.

SEVERAL HUNDRED DRONES ALSO RECOVERED, CURRENTLY IN STASIS.

PLEASE ADVISE.

Date Point: 14Y 4M 3W 5D AV

Office of the Great Father, High Mountain, Gao

Father Regaari

Regaari vetted literally hundreds of messages a day from the field for the Great Father, in the normal course of his duties, deciding which Daar needed to see, which he could answer on Daar’s behalf, and which needed to go elsewhere. Much, if not most, of the traffic ended up in summary reports that the Great Father got with his morning meal.

An alert from near AEC’s FOB in the Three Valleys region saying that they had captured an active enemy bioweapon lab and a possible captured Hierarchy demon under sedation was the sort of thing that Daar didn’t grumble about a bit. Regaari tried extra to find those nuggets in the message traffic. It was fortunate that it was coming in at the beginning of the day.

Daar, he knew, would be up; the Great Father was an early riser, despite often going to bed after Regaari himself. He scratched perfunctorily at the door and was opening it even before the rumbled, “Enter, Regaari,” came rolling through the door.

“Word from Three Valley Fang, Cousin. They had some action this morning, I gather.” He handed his data tablet over, which was promptly and utterly swallowed up by a massive paw.

“Huh. Interestin’. Wonder how he captured nine, when my standing orders have been to put drones down immediately.”

“Creative thinking, no doubt. And perhaps he smelled something on the field that caught his attention. We’ll have to ask.”

Daar scratched himself unselfconsciously. “Mebbe. Can’t have people gettin’ too creative with those standing orders, we ain’t got the time for it. Awright. Gimme a coupla minutes to get up, eat something, an’ we’ll head out there.”

“I’ll let the Fang Leader know we’re coming, and get the human CDC people waiting with a claw from First Fang.”

“Y’know, I seem to ‘member a report about two, three days ago in that summary that drone attacks had decreased overall. They shut down when they’re gettin’ sick,” Daar mused.

“This group appeared to be behaving differently. Perhaps that’s what occasioned Vuutyo’s initiative.”

Daar grunted. “Mmm. Maybe. Good thinkin’ if so. We’ll have to see.”


Date Point: 14Y 4M 3W 5D AV

Hierarchy operational base, Three Valleys Province, Gao

Fang Leader Vuutyo

The first actions Vuutyo had taken after sending his message was to order Fourth Talon, back at the FOB, to relieve Third, and for Third to join them in securing the site. Medical stasis units had been kludged together out of some inactive ones that had been inside, and they’d put all nine of their captives into stasis as an added precaution.

Vuutyo had been one of the first Clanless recruited, when Great Father Daar had come to the Three Valleys Province months before. He’d met the Great Father, and only the Great Father’s overwhelming friendliness and honesty had kept Vuutyo from being terrified of him. The Humans that he’d trained with thought highly of the Great Father, and more than one of them had mentioned that anyone who could roll with the HEAT team was, “a fuckin’ badass.”

The sound of the incoming Weaver shuttle overhead got everyone’s attention, and Vuutyo had to reassert what they were supposed to be working on. He wasn’t completely sure whether or not Great Father Daar would personally come out to inspect the site, but he was reasonably certain of it, simply based on his recollection and experience with him. The Weaver landed, the side doors slid open, and….yes. That colossal shambling wall of muscle could only be Him.

He wasn’t alone of course; he was escorted by a Claw from Stoneback’s First Fang, his Whitecrest attache, Father Regaari, and a group of civilian Humans carrying all manner of gear. Vuutyo resisted the urge to gulp, and stood at attention.

“Fill me in, Fang Leader. What’d you find out here?” Great Father Daar asked, in a low and dangerous rumble that was just short of a growl. Vuutyo suddenly realized something else. The enormous proto-Stoneback had positioned himself downwind and was actively sniffing. He screwed up his nerve.

“We responded to an automated report from a sensor cluster we put out here about a week ago, Great Father. I considered it likely that there would be a further incursion here, based on its remote location and the periodic attacks we had had approximately a month ago. Once on scene, we identified the main body of attackers at the southwest ridgeline. I placed my men between the attackers and the civilians at the settlement and began an envelopment maneuver.”

“So far so good,” growled Great Father Daar.

“Two of the drones attacking retreated when the rest were killed. Seeing excellent scent-trail opportunity, I elected to follow them back to their point of origin to see if there were additional drones to be dealt with. I ordered nonlethal methods be used to incapacitate the two drones that had fled the firefight, as well as the sentries, because…I can’t explain better than this, Great Father, but the pattern of behavior of these drones was just different, and rather than steps that would permanently damage them, if they needed to be treated as specimens, I wanted to ensure that was a possibility.”

“Interestin’ line of thought, Fang Leader. You’re aware of my standin’ orders on drones?” the Great Father asked in a rumble that carried.

“Yes, Great Father. To continue…?” The only response was an assenting grunt.

“We cleared the buildings using a standard envelopment and breach, saving the main building at the center there for last. Inside, on the first subterranean floor, we found several rooms full of inactive drones. I’ll…have to show you where and how we found them. I saved two of the living ones, as they show visible signs of illness. The rest appear to have expired where they sat. Once that floor was secure, we continued downward.”

“Go on.”

“On the second floor, we found one male Gaoian biodrone and a room full of genetic resequencing equipment with a civilian-model nanofactory. He was incapacitated at my order, as I believe there is a high probability he is hosting a Hierarchy agent. We secured the second floor as well, and below that in several of the old mine tunnels, we found several hundred biodrones in stasis.”

“Mmm. Fang Leader, I suppose I don’t need to remind you how serious I take my standin’ orders, do I?”

“No sir. I take full responsibility for the order to incapacitate rather than kill outright. My men followed my orders.”

The Great Father leaned forward and inhaled deeply, taking a deep sniff of Vuutyo. “You do, don’t you?” he asked, half to himself. He turned and gave Father Regaari, who was standing next to him looking inscrutable, a long look.

There was a deep whuffing sound, and abruptly Vuutyo realized Great Father Daar was….laughing….chittering fit to burst in that enormous bass voice. It continued to escalate, and others began to chitter along with him, mostly out of a mix of relief and sympathy. Daar laughed until he had tears coming out of his eyes, with his ears laid back and bent over with his paws on his knees, hardly able to get a word out.

“Damn….damn me, Vuutyo, yer a ballsy motherfucker. I ain’t never had someone under my command outright contradict one o’ my standin’ orders, give me such a reasonable description of why they done it, and then have the stones to tell me to my face. Jus’ about anybody else woulda taken that order literal, and all’s we’d have is dead drones here and one maybe dead-Hierarchy-body,” he chittered. His laughing petered out to a low, rumbling, continuous chuckle.

“This…this’s really good work. Three Valleys Fang has done some excellent work this morning. I brought in some human infectious-disease experts here, and Imma let them get down into the guts of this place and tell us what we’re dealin’ with.”

Vuutyo fought the urge…hard…to lay his ears back in relief. Around him, he could see that the Great Father’s comments were having an effect; his people stood just a little straighter, and had just a little more pride in their bearing.

“Honestly, Great Father, I wasn’t certain of it at all at the time…it just seemed like the right move to make. Something about things seemed…off.”

Great Father Daar gave him a hearty back-slap that nearly knocked him over. “Nah. You saw the situation fer what it was, and your people carried out those orders great—standin’ orders like that have to be pretty clear an’ simple to get followed, but there’s always gonna be exceptions. Like this.”

“Yes, sir.”

He gave Vuutyo a sly look. “If it wouldn’t set a totally wrong precedent, I’d give you a scar or two ta’ be proud of, but you’ll have to settle fer a commendation, I think. Havin’ a professional standin’ army is gonna have to change summa our customs.”

“It appears that Fang Leader Vuutyo is correct, Great Father. The Human team inside says that the lab clearly was attempting to modify the Human rhinovirus,” Father Regaari said. The Great Father duck-nodded.

“They were trying to capitalize on it, make it into somethin’ more lethal. Fyu’s nutsack, I hate these motherfuckers,” Daar snarled, mirth gone abruptly. “Damn, this was close. You done good, Fang Leader. You done real good work here.”


Date Point: 14Y 5M AV

Tiritya Island Refugee Camp, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Sister Naydra

Naydra,

Had a near miss a couple of days ago. Three Valleys Fang found a lab with a H agent in it that was weaponizing this Human cold virus. Mighta gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that damn young cub runnin’ the Fang. He disobeyed almost all of my standing orders about drones, captured a bunch of em, and in the process, might have saved all of us. Ain Isn’t that something?

Father Gyotin and I had a chat yesterday. He had a suggestion for me that I’m gonna try. Didn’t sound too hard. If it works out I’ll send you a picture!

I’m so proud of the Clan of Females for stepping up and carving a place for yourselfves out of this mess we’re in. You probably already know this, but when I got your letter, I made real sure that Dark Eye knows anything from the Grand Commune that comes thru has top priority.

We’re moving Mothers and cubs through the portals as fast as we can. Gao is gonna seem real fuc strange without Females on our home world, but it’s the best thing for everyone. You were all right about that.

I’m afraid if I visit the Grand Commune, I’d take away from the image of the Females doing this. All of Gao is watching, and while I want to see it and the progress you’ve all made very much, I think it’s probably best if I not come unless I’m invited by the Mother-Supreme and it’s a state visit (which I hate). I have a long, real dark shadow these days, and I don’t want you getting caught in it.


Date Point: 14Y 5M 6D AV

Racing Thunder, Outer-system picket, patrolling in vicinity of Gao

Ship-Father Yefrig

Every time the Racing Thunder passed close enough to Gao to again pick up the tumbling hulks of Hunter derelicts on sensors, Yefrig again found his thoughts returning to the final day of the conflict, when the Humans had deployed the system shield for good. How any species that had only been spacefaring as long as Humans had could have come up with…whatever it had been that they’d used to disperse the Hunter fleet, he had no idea. By this point, he’d resigned himself to the fact that he would never know.

The Human reactions were interesting to read as well. Yefrig would have bet his chances of ever mating again that almost none of the Humans he’d had hushed conversations with had known, prior to the weapon being deployed, that it existed at all, and not a one would say anything even if they had. AEC’s Fleet Intelligence people had descended on every ship that had been in sensor range of the conflict, and had forcibly stripped every sensor record from at least ten minutes before the event to about ten minutes afterwards, erasing as they went. Nothing flying was spared; that command had come from above the highest levels of the theatre commander, from what he’d gathered.

Rumor had it not even Great Father Daar knew what the Humans had done.

At any rate, the aftereffects of the weapon’s use had been …interesting. Racing Thunder, as the primary superluminal patrol vessel outside the system shield, passed through the debris field’s sensor vicinity often enough that their records were “collected” every time they came in. As a result, to prevent too much ransacking of their databanks, Yefrig tended to steer his ship clear of that area. It was, as the Human saying went, a pain in the ass.

At the moment, they were in deep interstellar space, running quiet and simply trawling for contacts. Merchant traffic was nonexistent, which made things simpler—everything that came up on sensors was possibly an enemy of some kind, and warranted checking out. Yefrig sat in his command chair, trying to set a good example and remain alert, but by the First Mother’s teats, this job got boring when things were this quiet.

A sudden stir from Brother Duri at the sensor console got his attention. “Report, Brother.”

“Father, I have superluminal traces from several ships, bound directly for Gao. It appears to be two, perhaps three heavy escorts, and one…very large vessel they appear to be escorting.” He raised his head from the sensors and looked at Yefrig. “They’re Corti vessels, Father.”

Yefrig growled softly. “Usual intercept protocol; peaceful message, but order them to halt. Dispatch message buoy back to Gao.”

Yips of acknowledgement accompanied his orders, and the Racing Thunder accelerated, no longer interested in hiding. Yefrig watched on his display. As ordered, the approaching ships halted, and in a moment, they had IFF readings.

“Father, the escorts are the Exquisite Proof and the Rational Binomial…and they are escorting the Common Denominator, which registers as a…a biological research vessel, Father. One of their big terraforming ones.”

Yefrig’s ears were erect in undisguised surprise. Corti vessels like that were rare, and with the system shield up, there could only be one reason that they would be headed in Gao’s direction. Almost as if prompted, his comms officer spoke. “We’re being hailed by the Common Denominator, Father.”

Corti in general always looked to Yefrig’s eyes vaguely like they were somewhat constipated, and the face greeting him was no exception. He adjusted his chair so that he was a little more squarely in the view of the camera.

“Good morning, Common Denominator. I am Ship-Father Yefrig of the Racing Thunder. What is your business in this area?”

“Greetings, Racing Thunder. I am Ship-Master Kvan. We have come to assist with the Gaoian relief effort at the suggestion of the Directorate’s Varos College. The escorts are simply a precaution.”

“You won’t be permitted inside the system shield, Ship-Master. The Human command is busily sanitizing this area and are still on a threat-response footing. You are also about to enter the wormhole interdiction zone; I mention this as a caution, because you will not be cleared to jump out if the Hunters make a sweep through this area.”

The Corti blinked slowly. “The caution is appreciated, Ship-Father. We have no intention of requesting entry past the shield.”

“There is a substantial debris field ahead of you from the Hunter attack, just be aware. The interdiction field may not cloud your sensors, but it’s best to know it’s there nonetheless. I will alert the system pickets of your approach and let the Human command know you’re coming. You’re cleared to approach the Gaoian system.”

“Your diligence is commendable, Ship-Father. Common Denominator out.” The screen darkened, and the Corti’s face faded out.

“Unexpected, but not unwelcome. Helm, get us within superluminal comm distance of the system. I think I should have a word with General Stewart and Great Father Daar.”


Date Point: 14Y 5M 6D AV

Office of the Great Father, High Mountain Fortress, Gao

Father Regaari

Humans had a term for what his job consisted of that sounded way cooler than the job actually was, Regaari reflected. Being Batman was something you were supposed to feel awesome about. Or..a batman, anyway.

Regaari, as Great Father Daar’s personal assistant/attache/gofer was in a unique position to get nearly all of the communication traffic intended for and from the Great Father routed through his desk, and as such it was a Whitecrest coup, of sorts, that was unparalleled in the history of the Gao. Regaari saw everything…which of course, meant that he was rarely at liberty to pay attention for very long to much of anything.

His own priority message list had gotten quite a bit longer than it had been since Operation NOVA HOUND, and it had a lot more humans on it than it had. Now, he had an entire list of people who might be sending messages to the Great Father to pay attention to as well, and most of those were what he paid attention to.

A priority message from Ship-Father Yefrig on the Racing Thunder, copied to Brigadier-General Stewart and others, definitely fit into the category of things that should interrupt the Great Father’s deliberations, and so, with little hesitation, he arose from his desk in the outer chamber of Daar’s office and scratched at the plate. Daar had left him a very explicit and pointed general directive about what not to interrupt him for earlier.

”…Enter.” It came with a sigh.

“I apologize…but this could not wait,” Regaari said. “Some good news, apparently for a change, and something I thought you’d want to see right aw…” He trailed off, then with head cocked, couldn’t resist. “What are you doing?”

“Gyotin suggested I try a human art form. It’s called ikebana, and it’s hard as fuck.” Daar stood, bracing his massive knuckles in his back and stretching.

“It looks like…flower arrangement.” Regaari said, nonplussed. It did—there was a vase, water, and several types of Gaoian flowers sitting in an evident state of disarray between the table and vase.

“It is. And it isn’t.” Daar rumbled. “Gyotin said it’d teach me inner peace, but I kinda think he’s fuckin’ with me. It’s a human thing. Like everything about human things, it’s one thing, and it ain’t actually that, it’s somethin’ else.”

He looked up at Regaari. “You came in here for somethin’. What’s going on?”

“Yes. You have a message from Yefrig on the Racing Thunder. There is an enormous Corti bio-research vessel coming into the system with a couple of heavy escorts. With the shield up and the Human fleet out there, there’s only one thing a ship like that can be here for.”

Daar nodded. “Aiding the relief effort…and makin’ the Corti more money while they’re at it.”

They stood, thinking for a moment. Regaari had long since learned that simply letting the Great Father think about a problem for a minute or two usually had better results.

“Fuck. I ain’t got the mental energy to do what it’s gonna take to keep from getting raped by those little grey pricks,” Daar said finally. “I ain’t got the time, neither.”

“Send Champion Yeego,” Regaari suggested.

Daar duck-nodded wearily. “That was gonna be my go-to. What’s ‘yer read on ‘em?”

“On the Corti? I have no idea, beyond the usual follow-the-money advice.”

“I meant Goldpaw.”

“You wonder about his loyalty.”

“Eh, it’s just…I ain’t ever smelled a more oily kinda male in my whole life, Cousin.”

Regaari chittered. “I think I know what you mean. Maybe it’s not his loyalty, so much as just…his priorities?”

“Goldpaws and Corti have some things in common. They like money a lil’ too much,” Daar said darkly. “An’….he smiles. Like a human does, only not in a funny way.”

“You smile too.”

“No, I grin an’ you know Keeda-damn well that ain’t the same thing.”

“Daar, you have the biggest fangs I’ve ever seen. Calling that a grin is a bit much.”

“Yeego winds gold in his whiskers!” His contempt could not be contained.

“Then perhaps a firm emphasis on what his role needs to be. Have a private chat with him, Emphasize the importance of the task,” Regaari suggested. “I think you might be surprised by what he’ll accomplish.”

”…Yer prob’ly right, as usual.” Daar took the opportunity to flop to the ground with a calamitous thud and scratch his back on the rough wooden floor.

“I’ll request Champion Yeego attend you. Here at High Mountain, I think? After all, he may weave gold into his whiskers but you have a timber-beam, unfinished wooden floor over two thousand years old, from when Gao was still rich with forests. He’ll appreciate that better than anyone.”

Daar grunted in amusement. “I can’t scratch my back on gold whiskers. Ain’t practical!”

“Yes. I’ll leave you to your eminently practical floral arrangement,” Regaari said with a teasing ear waggle. He closed the door behind him before Daar got any pouncy ideas.

He did, however, hear Great Father Daar mutter something very un-Great-Father-like as he went.


Date Point: 14Y 5M 1W AV

Office of the Great Father, High Mountain, Gao

Champion Yeego, Goldpaw

Yeego had never been invited to the Great Father’s private chambers. Most of the Champions hadn’t, and to have been so was considered somewhat of a dubious honor; Daar preferred to do his business on the move. In his suite where he slept, ate, consummated his daily mating contracts…if the Great Father felt the need to interrupt any of that to speak to a Champion, there could hardly be anything good about it.

There was nothing to be done. Yeego glanced in the mirror one last time and made sure he was impeccably groomed. It wouldn’t do to insult the Great Father with anything less than perfection, and while it was well known that Daar had rather more…primal…tastes, it was also a well-known fact that he was vastly more perceptive and intelligent than he generally let on.

And that made him exceedingly dangerous.

He reached the top of the interminable staircase, finding the outer office manned by Father Regaari, with a pair of Stonebacks guarding the entrance like a pair of…something hulking, furry, and savage. The mental comparison he’d been about to make shorted itself out in what was probably primal self-preservation.

“Champion Yeego, thank you for coming,” Father Regaari said. “It will be just a moment, the Great Father is attending to something.”

“Send ‘im in, Cousin.” The Great Father’s powerful, booming voice could be heard through the stonework and yet it was obvious he hadn’t raised his voice.

The Whitecrest stood, and gestured towards a heavily scarred…wooden door bound with iron that looked like it had been there since Fyu’s time. Which, come to think of it…it probably had. The door creaked open on heavy oiled hinges, and he was ushered inside. Then it closed, leaving him alone with Great Father Daar. Regaari, he realized after a moment, hadn’t come in with him.

Daar leaned against a heavy table, his back to the door and fiddling with something. “Be with you in a moment, Champion.” The delicate gossamer-like scent of ekasi blossoms wound its way through the much heavier scent of the Great Father’s overwhelmingly potent musk. It was an odd contrast, really.

Yeego stood, unsure quite what to do with himself. Habits learned over a lifetime of evaluating situations asserted themselves, and he took inventory of what and where he was. The room had an almost primal, aggressive simplicity—all hard lines, deep stone windows, furniture heavy enough to probably even support a Guvnurag…and an actual unfinished wooden floor. The casual ostentatiousness of it nearly took Yeego’s breath away, and he found himself once again reproaching himself for misjudging the Great Father.

Clearly, this was not an accident at all. Which meant…what?

Daar stood abruptly, turned, and leaned against the table corner. “There. Think I got that just right finally. Took forever, I’m so used to doin’ heavy things with my hands and claws, bein’ all delicate takes me some doin’.”

”…My Father?”

Daar turned a bit further at his waist and flashed his gigantic bestial paws, then extended the biggest claws Yeego had ever seen by a long shot. Daar examined them for a moment and somehow extended them further. Yeego swallowed and laid his ears back in unconscious submission, which provoked a dark rumbling chitter from the Great Father.

“Like I said…Anyway, I gotta ‘member to thank Gyotin for the idea, ‘leastways after I’m done bitin’ his tail ‘fer suggestin’ it.” He rumbled a deep chuckling chitter. “What d’ya think?”

Yeego looked at Daar’s handiwork. It was a sparse arrangement, very clean of line with a wide, open vase in which the plant sat. Austere yet…beautiful. It seemed a very Gaoian thing. Once again Yeego realized he had greatly underestimated the Great Father, and once again he reminded himself how dangerous and foolish that was.

”…I think Fyu would be proud,” Yeego said honestly.

Daar’s expression was complex. He wasn’t angry and he wasn’t amused. He was…thoughtful. Not something one typically expected of a Stoneback, especially not one as obviously purebred a brownfur as Daar.

“Yer prob’ly wondering why yer here, ain’t ya?” he asked Yeego, appraising him finally in turn.

“I am, Great Father, yes,” Yeego said.

“We got a problem, Champion, an’ I think it’s one you and your Clan are our best…only…bet at finding a solution on,” Daar said bluntly. “There’s a Keeda-damned big Corti ship with a coupla escorts sittin’ right outside our system shield right now. That’s one problem.”

“That is…concerning, yes.”

“The other problem is, I can guess why they’re here. The line they fed Yefrig and the Racing Thunder was that they’re here for the relief effort. I think they wanna make a profit off us, and I ain’t feelin’ real charitable about it.”

“Whatever it is they’re selling, it could certainly aid with this plague. At what cost though?”

The Great Father stood away from the table, and walked over to look out the window. “We can’t allow our people to get taken advantage of by war profiteers, Champion. I’d bet whatever that ship’s carryin’, or can make, could make the difference between us making it through this year okay an’ not. It’s one of their big biological research vessels that they use for terraforming.”

Yeego’s ears splayed out in shock. “That’s the equivalent of an industrial nanofactory, but for medication, crop seed stocks, and almost anything else we could need.”

Daar looked back at him. “That’s right. An’ I’m about to hand you the task of cutting a deal with them for it. You must succeed, Champion. Whatever they have, you need to get, an’ we have to be able to afford it.”

Yeego bowed in a daze, echoing the ceremony from several months before when he and the other Champions had knelt before the Great Father. The promise of almost literally unlimited wealth, prestige, influence…all of the things he had always valued and fought for as Goldpaw’s Champion, paled utterly before the task he was being given. The risk of it…entering into negotiations with the most notorious technological merchants of all, for a prize that could save the Gao from sickness, death, and despair…it was unlike any challenge anyone had ever been given, and it made his answer stick in his throat a little, for all that it was an easy thing to say.

“My Father, Goldpaw will not fail you. We will not fail our people.” There was nothing else to say.

“Outstanding,” Great Father Daar rumbled. “I won’t keep you, Champion. Hurry.”

Yeego turned and left, not even closing the door behind him and pattering down the stairs. Daar followed a few steps behind and hung in the doorway as Regaari gave him an inquisitive look.

“Well? He looked excited.”

“You’d think I’d just offered him a mating contract,” Daar said.

“I doubt very much he would survive such an encounter with you, Cousin.”

Daar sniffed. “I’m too much man for him anyway.”


Date Point: 14Y 5M 1W AV

Grand Commune Construction Site, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Sister Naydra

Naydra,

So I said I’d send you a picture. I don’t know how much more engli elnig englightened I feel now. My paws ain aren’t very well suited for stuff like this, so I suppose I got some exercise in patience out of itt at least. Looks cool, though, don’t it?

Sorry about the spelling. Guess what else I don’t get lots of practice with?

Had an unexpected thing happen yesterday. A couple of Corti ships showed up at our front door! The big ship they brought is a bio-research ship. I don’t know what they want or they’re offering, but I sent the Goldpaw Champion to go find out. I can’t let them make a profit off us, but at the same time, I don’t know if we can turn away whatever they’re able to bring in. Things are so precarious now.

The sickness is starting to pass, I think. We haven’t had very many deaths. The key seems to be staying active while recovering. Sitting still or lying down gives the virus too much of a grip on a person’s ability to breathe. Most of the deaths have actually been biodrones, which I guess could be worse, but we’ve had a few cubs and elderly that couldn’t fight it off. I think we’ve evacuated almost a million and a half Females and cubs now.

I don’t know what else to say about what you’ve suggested. I know you want it, and I but I can’t. The title puts me in a place that…I don’t know how to put this. The Great Father has some really fuc ancient obligations, cuz Fyu, he weren’t actually the first one. It would put you in a position of always being alone, being cut off from your sisters as well as other Males. You’d never be able to take a contract from a male other than me, ever again, and that just ain’t right, because I can’t make that same promise to you. I’m still Stoneback’s Stud-Prime. I have several mating contracts everyday now, I don’t wanna hurt you with that.

I hope you understand.

Daar


Date Point: 14Y 5M 1W 1D AV

Conference room, High Mountain, Gao

Champion Yeego, Goldpaw

Yeego examined the tips of his claws and wished, not for the first time in the last five months, that he hadn’t lost his gold claw-sheaths. They had been a gift from a particularly fruitful mating contract a number of years before, and had always helped him focus just that little bit more. Or at least it seemed that way.

The Goldpaw Fathers that were available at short notice had gathered to High Mountain with some annoyance. To a man, every last one of them had multiple projects aloft that they were juggling, whether it was speculation on Naxas dung or jockeying for control of huna juice futures. Taking time out to actually physically travel was an irritation, and although they knew that Yeego wouldn’t have gathered them together without good reason, it was hard to think what in Keeda’s name could be this important. Once they were assembled, Yeego, brought the lights down and activated the 3D viewer.

“This is the Corti bio-research and supply vessel Common Denominator, and its protective escorts. They are currently hanging just outside our system shield,” he said bluntly. “Two days ago, they were intercepted on route here by the Racing Thunder and apparently told Ship Father Yefrig that they are here for the relief effort.”

“Corti philanthropists?” asked Grandfather Margu archly.

“Hardly,” Yeego said, amused. “Great Father Daar and I spoke yesterday, and he and I are in agreement. I believe this ship is here essentially as a war profiteering venture. Great Father Daar feels, as do I, that only Goldpaw has the expertise to negotiate with them for their supplies and support. He has assigned it to us.”

“That kind of support certainly could make a difference, for the population and for the Grand Army the Great Father is so intent on creating,” said Margu.

Yeego duck-nodded in acknowledgement. “We must not fail. I will lead the negotiation team, but all of you are vital to its success. The shuttle leaves in two hours, and in that time we must plan an attack as well as compile an accounting of our assets. We dare not approach negotiation with the Corti from anything other than a position of strength.”


Date Point: 14Y 5M 1W 2D AV

Office of the Great Father, High Mountain, Gao

Father Regaari

Receiving an actual package was odd enough that Regaari put aside what he’d been working on when it arrived. The return address was a Cimbrean one, and it was in a definitely feminine hand…handwritten no less…on a flat but somewhat lumpy package that had a heft to it.

His sharp ears caught what sounded like a conclusion to the Great Father’s meeting, and knowing Daar would want to get whatever this was, probably sooner rather than later, he went ahead and slit it open. He wasn’t always in a great mood following this kind of appointment, and Regaari hoped that whatever was in the package changed that.

Out slid an actual printed picture, a sealed letter, which he cut open without reading it, and a lengthy flat gold chain with a claw-sized and shaped nugget of polished black rock that sparkled a little as he picked it up and turned it, little flecks of gold light catching the overhead lamp. The picture he turned over, as it had landed upside down on the desk; it was of a stylized female Gaoian, wearing a red kerchief and a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a wrench in one hand. Above and below, in English were the words, “We Can Do It!!”

Daar,

This time I went ahead and sent a letter in a physical form, since I had the other thing to send you as well. It is from me to you, but it is also from the Clan of Females to the Great Father (I was told I needed to make that clear, but of course I agree with it completely). It’s one of the first pieces of stone cut in making the Grand Commune.

I wonder sometimes if you understand how much you’re overthinking things between us. I know you’re still Stoneback’s Stud-Prime. I haven’t forgotten that for a moment…indeed, I don’t think there’s a Female alive that’s capable of forgetting it. You need to be what you are, my Daar. Do not ever stop pretending to be anything but the most bestest Stoneback.

I’ll admit, I didn’t know about the obligations you spoke of. It doesn’t change anything for me now that I do know.

The flowers are wonderful! What was Gyotin’s inspiration for it, do you know?

Oh, something else I wanted to show you. You remember the ad campaign I mentioned? It looks like someone picked up on the idea. The picture I enclosed is a meme that has been making the rounds of the Human internet, I’m told. A journalist with ESNN thought I’d find that interesting and gave me a copy of it in exchange for some comments that she said she wanted to publish.

Naydra


Later

“Your engagements for tonight have arrived, My Father. Should I send them up?”

”…Don’t feel right, somedays. Yeah. Send ‘em up.” There was a heavy-sounding sigh from the other side of the door.

Regaari paused. “…Daar?” That didn’t sound good. The door opened, with the hulking form of the Grea…no, Daar on the other side. He’d dutifully tidied himself up and combed out his short coat of fur in anticipation of his evening’s company. Most days Regaari could smell Daar’s legendary eagerness and it was enough to drive anyone to distraction, but tonight…

Daar gave him a serious look, thought for a long moment, and sighed again. “Regaari, Cousin…I think I’m falling in love.”

Regaari returned the serious look, with a sense of sympathy. “I wondered how long it was going to take you to admit it.”

“Cousin…” Daar trailed off. Abruptly he thumped the doorframe with a meaty paw balled into a fist, hard enough to cause dust to fall, but not hard enough to permanently damage anything.

“I can’t fall in love. Or…well, no. I can. But I can’t do what needs t’be done about it. I can’t do that to her, an’ it’s killin’ me. It ain’t fair to every other male, neither! Why do I deserve somethin’ our species had ‘ta abandon?”

“You’re the Great Father. You are suffering for us all, Cousin.”

Daar chittered a little, although there was no mirth in it. “You know what the worst part is?” Regaari just cocked an ear at him. “The worst part is, just a year or two ago, it woulda just been a scandal, right? What’s this do to us, if I set this kinda precedent? We can’t go back to that kinda…arrangement, even if the Females would allow it, which they won’t.”

Regaari thought for a moment. “You know, having their Grand Commune on Cimbrean is going to change things. A lot.” Daar nodded soberly.

“It will. I see things changin’ already. I s’pect they’ll end up settin’ up some kinda facility in their Commune for it, and Males will need to go there, to them. They ain’t said, but that’s my guess.”

“So, to your problem…”

“What about it? There ain’t a solution, far as I can see, other than what I’m doin’.”

“Then perhaps the rest of this conversation is something you need to have with her.”

Daar rested his massive forehead against the door frame. “I know. Problem is, every time I’m ‘round her, my brain turns off. How’m I supposed to talk when I can’t fuckin’ think?”

Regaari reached up with one consoling hand. “One problem at a time, I think. And that question is one I don’t think anyone has the answer to.”

“I’m gonna have to just keep doin’ what I’m doin’. There ain’t a solution I can see that doesn’t hurt anybody other than me, and I ain’t gonna do that. That ain’t the Stoneback…fuck. That ain’t my way.”


Date Point: 14Y 5M 1W 6D AV

Construction site for the Grand Commune, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Mother Kyrie

The Dig was going remarkably well, Kyrie thought for perhaps the hundredth time that day. As the architect and construction supervisor, she’d thought her role was going to be much more looking at a screen, making “hmm” noises and suggestions, and be generally hands-off. Apparently, that wasn’t how it was done on projects like this when Humans got involved. Instead, to her utter delight, she found herself almost constantly busy, far below the surface. She ended every day with muddy paws. Every day, there was dust and rock and mud in her tightly-curled ruddy fur, and every day she ended up taking a dip in the ocean or a river to wash it out, and she loved it.

Human industrial machinery was a study in brutish elegance, much like Humans themselves. Gaoians had invented such things, to be sure, but their designs were somehow less…solid, less elegantly simple, and, well…

There was no easy way around it, but the boring machine and the way it thrust into the rock, moving forward inexorably, with its lubricating slurry and the screw hauling out the excavated stone was just…sexual. Uncomfortably so. The first time she’d seen the thing operating, she was involuntarily catapulted back to her first mating contract for a moment and had had to take a deep breath and focus.

The major excavation was going on in several directions at the same time. First in had been the massive central shafts for transportation up and down, water, hydroponics, and some light. That was still ongoing, the massive machines chewing up rock as though they were heated knives going through chocolate, moving ever downwards until they were ready to turn and begin carving out the bottom level for the industrial machinery that had to support the Commune.

At a higher level, far enough below the surface that surface buildings could still be supported, was the first of the primary living levels, with long, wide hallway tunnels that would have suspended floors above the support lines, snaking out to larger dormitory halls, kitchens, and classroom/gym spaces, offices. Finally, at the edge of the digging area, she had designed a space for the Mother-Supreme, an office complex with bedrooms, an outer defense perimeter, and a private balcony with deep-set porch overlooking the north sea.

The humans’ tunnel boring machines were only the first step. Finer work, with remaining pillars and arches of living rock, would have to be carved over the next few centuries as the Females truly moved in and made the space their own. First, they had to have enough space to live in. As the machines bored out tunnels, then turned again and again to carve out living spaces, they left behind tunnels buttressed with segments of natural-looking basalt, formed out of the tailings by the clever engineers of Dark Eye and shipped back in exchange for raw material. The inside of the tunnels, when one hit it with light, was a deep interstellar black, but with flakes and flecks of gold everywhere, like tiny stars.

“Kyrie!” called one of the human engineers, waving her over. When she was close enough that they could hear each other clearly past the hearing protection they both wore, he leaned in and continued loudly.

“He’s moving along pretty good today. I think we’ll have this one done in about an hour, and then we can move on to the major side passages.”

He? Kyrie looked up at the backside of the enormous drill head, upon which was hung a sign spray painted in an obscenely bright orange spraypaint, “RASCAL”. Oh. The machine.

“That’s good!” she yelled back. “As soon as this level is ready, the Mother-Supreme’s orders are to start moving refugees in.”

“Well, that’ll take longer than it looks. Still have to actually carve out the living spaces, and that takes longer ‘cause it ain’t just a tube that we can put reinforcement cladding into. It’s amazin’ what these babies can do, innit? Rascal here bores over spec so far now he’s practically in his own class.”

Kyrie duck-nodded. “Watching them work has been amazing. We have tunneling machines, but they don’t work like this, and the process of excavation isn’t quite as well…thought out.” For the Sisters that had experience doing excavation and mining, watching the human boring machines had been an exercise in figurative head-slapping. It wasn’t what was being done, it was the thought process that put it into practice that made Human ingenuity so…so frustratingly obvious in hindsight.

“Your Sisters have been amazing at this, though, I gotta tell you. Sister Leelo. That girl’s a natural born miner, man. She’s, like, a mechanical genius or something; I didn’t think it was possible to get this kinda performance outta Rascal, but lookit him go!” He gestured up at the enormous bore head, turning and slicing away rock in a steady churn. Doing away with the conventional bits and using fusion cutters had actually not only sped the thing up, it had noticeably lowered the amount of ambient noise it put out.

If only everything could be improved that way.

“Why are you building everything underground, anyway?” the human asked her. “You Gaoians are such…I dunno, above ground types, living underground just seems odd.”

“A bunch of reasons, I think,” Kyrie said, motioning him away from the enormous machine straining and grinding at the rock face. “The material we’re mining out here is getting used as building material here and elsewhere, and this is essentially an armored bunker. The Great Father sent us here to be safe, and I took that literally when I was designing the base for the colony layout.”

“Kind of a hard way to go about it, Sister,” he said.

“That’s true,” Kyrie returned. “Maybe it’s easier to think of it as a den. I suspect as time goes by, we’ll want to move above ground and put whatever industry we want to build here below…but I thought of this as a three-dimensional complex of buildings, not just building on the surface.”

“By the time we’re done here, Sister, you’ll have room for probably at least a good half-million, maybe even a million Females and cubs underground. That’s pretty well fortified.”

“If you notice, I included space for jump portals to be built underground as well. The Females will never be slaughtered like we were again.”

“I noticed the armories labeled on the diagram. You’re serious about all of this, aren’t you?”

“Wouldn’t you be?”


Date Point: 14Y 5M 2W 3D AV

Tiritya Island Refugee Camp, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Mother Ginai

Even with all of the additional refugees that continued to stream almost uninterrupted through the jump portals from Gao, Ginai found herself at the center of attention for younger Females needing guidance, direction, instructions, life advice, cub-raising advice, and all manner of other subjects. She’d asked for and had gotten a larger tent as a sort of office for exactly this sort of thing.

One thing she hadn’t prepared for in her long life, however, was a Female so scarred from her time upon Gao that she never wanted cubs again, and never wanted to lay eyes on a Male again.

The Female in question sat in the corner of her office. She was a broken-looking little thing, scarred from her ordeal and from the rough attentions of the violent Clanless males that had taken her and her Sisters hostage for months. They’d been freed after months of daily, often hourly violations, and many of her Sisters had died in the process.

Great Father Daar hadn’t been there to free her or the other survivors. The fate of the Clanless males had been just as brutal as the fate he had dealt Koruum; the Grand Army soldiers that had found them had literally torn their captors to bloody rags. The Great Father couldn’t be everywhere, unfortunately, and the soldiers that had freed them had said more than once that they felt freeing them couldn’t wait.

Nothing could bring back her sense of self.

“Are you certain this is what you want, Sister Wuuyi?” Ginai asked. She’d already asked, and had been answered, once, but it was best to be sure.

Wuuyi bristled. Her mangled, torn ears twitched this way and that, and even with the best healing that Gaoian medicine had to offer, even with the best attention from the Openpaws, the ropy keloid scars that marred her fur would probably never heal enough to make her beautiful again, and it was evident that she knew it.

“Mother…I want to be left alone. I don’t want to ever have to deal with a Male again. No matter who it may be, I will always remember.”

“May I show you something, Sister?” Ginai asked. The only response was a noncommittal shrug. “I would like to suggest you read something, given to me by a friend of mine at the Folctha camp before I came here. I’ve found an interesting and unique peace in it. Maybe it will help you.” She reached into the chest sitting next to her chair and took a book out.

“This was translated by Champion Gyotin of Starmind. I know,” she held up a forestalling paw as Wuuyi immediately made a gesture and noise of rejection. “I know. But he didn’t write this. It’s a human text.” She handed it to her visitor, who turned it over in her paws to read the blurb on the back, her natural curiosity asserting itself.

“Rose Madder….Stephen King,” Wuuyi read aloud.

“It’s an interesting concept, and story. It’s fiction, but it’s relatable. I think you might like it.”

“What’s the story?”

“You’ll have to read it. I think it may help you think more about yourself, and less about what’s happened to you.”


Date Point: 14Y 5M 3W AV

Grand Commune Excavation & Construction Site, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Sister Naydra

Naydra couldn’t help shifting a little from one foot to the other as she stood with the others awaiting the arrival of some distinguished guests. Great Father Daar, she knew, was coming, and he was apparently bringing along several others…Champion Fiin of Stoneback, Champion Turan of Ironclaw, and a few other specialists in excavation and construction. She had a little more trepidation than some of the Females there, she figured, but everybody was a little on edge.

It wasn’t an “inspection”, and it didn’t need “approval”. The Great Father had been quite clear about that when he had grudgingly accepted their request to come and tour the progress they’d made so far. As a matter of fact, he had all but demanded that they acknowledge that, and it had been the Mother-Supreme that had finally put paid to that discussion by tartly pointing out that they’d already submitted to him formally. His grumbling about that had reportedly been epic.

Naydra privately also thought there was another, major reason. Digging was undignified in a way, and no amount of persuasion could keep the Great Father from trying to help. Daar, quite possibly the greatest Gaoian to ever live, ennobled and dignified as the savior of their people despite his simple, brutish origins…or perhaps because of them…

…could never turn down an opportunity to dig in the dirt.

The designated time arrived, and right on cue, the eye-warping utter blackness of stasis flashed, giving way to the Great Father himself and his entourage. His eyes, set in a head that was head and shoulders above everyone else, flicked around the reception and settled on Naydra. With an ear-flick that would have been uncertainty in anyone else, he and the others stepped down from the platform, and they began the tour.

They didn’t get much of a chance to talk. Naydra didn’t have a lot to say in the tour after all, as she wasn’t involved in the actual dig, or the above-ground construction, or even the burgeoning farms/Naxas ranches that some enterprising Sisters had set up a few miles from the outskirts of the ever-expanding main camp. The flow of refugees from Gao continued, almost unabated despite the camps there being empty; almost in unison, the Clan of Females had determined that its destiny lay in self-determination, and almost to the last of them, they were making it so. Naydra’s role was in administration, for which she had demonstrated an aptitude she’d surprised herself with, in getting people from one place to another and ensure that the logistics of supporting them once they got there were in place.

It took some doing. Fortunately, in the Humans, she had excellent teachers for those rare things she didn’t already have an understanding of.

Great Father Daar insisted on watching the massive machinery brought from Earth work, and it was evident from Champion Turan’s furiously blank expression that he was internally evaluating exactly how much advancement Ironclaw might get for itself in taking on collaboration with Human industry. For the Great Father’s part, it was obvious he was enraptured by the machines, like a cub watching something so massively cool that he had to just nerd out about it a little. She edged a little closer, the opportunity presenting itself while he was getting all googly with the gigantic thing.

Abruptly she realized he was humming something, and…well, not singing, exactly, because that implied the ability to carry a tune.

”…digging a hole….diggy diggy hole…diggy diggy hooooooollle…” was all she could make out. Mercifully, he noticed her coming up behind him and broke off.

“Sister Naydra,” he duck-nodded formally. “Are you well?”

She gave him a mock-outraged head-tilt and crossed her arms. “You know I am, we exchange messages at least twice daily, you hairy lump.” Incongruously, she noticed something. Daar was wearing the pendant she’d sent him, although most of the chain was buried in his fur and the pendant was at exactly the right height to get lost in his chest ruff.

His ears went back, and for a moment she was afraid she’d misjudged his mood. With visible control, he relaxed, his ears came forward, and if she hadn’t been able to smell the wave of frustration coming off him, she’d never have been able to tell that he was upset.

“I’m sorry,” she said as he whuffed a deep breath. “That wasn’t…[ladylike] of me.” She used a Human word she’d learned a few days earlier. HIs ears did a complicated dance atop his head as he sorted that out.

“Sister…” he trailed off uncertainly. Seeing the Great Fath…no, Daar, uncertain was like watching an earthquake decline an invitation to a tea party. There was something fundamentally unnatural about it. The scent of frustration, pain, and, stymied desire roiled off him in a cloud that was almost visible. Absently, she noticed that the other Gaoians had moved their conversation a little further down the tunnel to give the two of them some privacy.

“I know.” She drew close to him and put a paw on his massive arm. “I know. I read every letter you send me, some more than once. I know how you feel about this…but I know you feel the same way I do.”

“Sister…” he began again, visibly struggling with his composure. “I would give you anything. Anything but that. I can’t. It don’t matter if I want it, an’ it don’t matter how much you do either. This’ somethin’ that can’t be. I’m sorry. I hafta be the face of our people, an’ now more than ever, takin’ a mate is…”

She reached up and put a shushing finger across his mouth, not caring at all how scandalous it would look or what the various dignitaries a short distance away trying valiantly not to notice would think. His eyes boggled a little, and she realized absently that this was probably the first time since he’d been smaller than she was now that a Female had shushed him.

“I know there are difficulties. You suffer on behalf of all of us, and it has to be in silence. I understand that, and I welcome it. I’m offering you the ability to set that aside, if only for a little while at a time.”

One enormous paw clenched in frustration, then relaxed. He hung his head a little.

“I…I’m sorry, Sister. It ain’t gonna work out that way.” He keened a little under his breath. “It don’t matter how much I want it or don’t want it, and it don’t matter how much yer willin’….it just ain’t gonna work.” He steeled himself and stood erect out of the slump.

“We need to get on with the tour. ‘Nuff questions are gonna get asked about this already.” He led her back to the group, and the tour resumed, although the Great Father was much quieter and inwardly focused for the rest of it.

Naydra trailed the group at the back, also lost in thought. He’d said something a few days ago about getting advice from Champion Gyotin…the flower arrangement thing. Part of Daar’s problem, she knew, was that he felt like he was so alone…and in a way he was, but he had allies that were working on his behalf that he wasn’t ready to admit existed.

She let herself back up to the top as the tour concluded, and made a comm call.

If she couldn’t get through Daar’s intransigence alone, she’d just have to have some help.


Date Point: 14Y 5M 3W AV

Riverfront Park, Folctha, Cimbrean

Nofl

Nofl had found, unexpectedly, that he rather enjoyed taking walks in the evening. It was odd, and he often found himself ruminating on why he enjoyed it. A simple belt-mounted emitter and power pack kept him shielded from the rain, and he found he rather enjoyed the pitter patter of raindrops on his makeshift umbrella as he walked. His main postulated reason for why he, a result of generations of Corti that disdained physical activity in nearly every way, should enjoy such a thing was that the Humans had simply rubbed off on him, as they seemed to do with everything.

The other benefit, of course, of his shield in dim light was that he was lit up enough to not be summarily trampled by the Humans, Human pets such as dogs, and Gaoians that often used his favorite trail. It made for a nice peaceful stroll, with the relaxing light drumming sound of rain and just enough solitude to be able to think, and just enough people to watch.

People-watching, it seemed, was becoming one of Nofl’s newest hobbies.

He had found himself pacing a group of senior Mothers and listening to their conversation this particular evening, as they, in turn, walked behind a larger group of junior Mothers and…there was nothing else to call it but a horde of Gaoian youngsters tearing about on fourpaw, climbing all the things, jumping, puddle-stomping, and otherwise wreaking havoc.

Wisely, the senior Mothers he was shadowing were keeping enough distance that they were out of the line of fire for errant throws of mud and other unmentionables. He listened, idly ruminating on a vexing theoretical model for the perfect mix of mushrooms from Origin and Terra to make the perfect risotto, when something one of the Mothers was saying caught his ear.

”…Common Denominator showed up. I guess the Great Father thought of the Goldpaws to do the negotiations,” she was saying.

“I have a friend who had a contract with Champion Yeego once,” said another. “By the time those two were done, that contract was fifty pages at least of terms and conditions.”

There was a general round of chittering at that. The second Mother went on.

“I tell you, if they sent out him to do the negotiations, those Corti will be lucky to walk away without having to pay for their own waste reclamation!” There was another gale of chittering.

“Still, it says a lot that the Corti were willing to come and help at all,” said a third Mother, who had been hanging towards the back of the group a little. “None of the rest of the Dominion did, I notice. I guess we know who our friends are.” The others made little yips of agreement.

Nofl fell back so as not to make it obvious he’d been listening, and primly smiled to himself.

It was nice when plans turned out as one projected.


Date Point: 14Y 5M 3W AV

Female Commune, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean

Toran and Tybal, Clanless

Lots of exercise and hard training. Lots and lots of food, all of it rich and dense. Some of it was Gaoian, much of it was Terran, all of it was more than the cubs had ever dreamed they would be eating in a single sitting. And they were being made to eat constantly, it seemed.

It had results, though. Strength. Performance. Thurrsto’s tender ministrations had packed an incredible amount of muscle onto the two formerly-lanky teens, and done so very, very quickly.

They’d finally reached their age of majority, and even if they’d done so in a refugee camp, it was still worth noting. Before the end of their world had descended upon them a few months before, they’d expected the usual series of adjustments, ideally getting snapped up by a Clan they’d tried out for and expressed interest in. More likely, they’d have been Clanless, at least initially; most cubs were. Both, though, had had a lively interest and laser focus on Whitecrest, and the intervening few months under the tutelage of the mostest Whitecrests anyone had ever heard of had done nothing to diminish that in any way.

Which was why they were sitting at the Female Commune, waiting for an appointment. Both had gone through their morning ablutions early, combing out fur and getting generally as visibly ready as they were capable of, despite having little idea what they were about to go through.

Finally, the door opened, and Mother Myun came in, followed by Thurrsto and Faarek, who they knew, and another Whitecrest they…didn’t…but…

Daar’s balls, it was Genshi. The Whitecrest Champion.

They looked at each other, and both gulped.

“And here we are,” said Myun breezily. “Champion, Brothers….these are Toran, and Tybal.” She gestured to each of them in turn. “I’ll leave you to it. And boys,” she said, pointing at her own eyes and then at them with two fingers on one paw, “Good luck.” She winked, and exited.

Champion Genshi, Brother Thurrsto, and Brother Faarek sat opposite them as Myun closed the door behind herself.

“Normally,” Champion Genshi said, “This would be done by a Father. Champions rarely take on sponsorship of recruits, as I’m sure you can imagine. Father Regaari, however, is currently busy with other duties.”

“Tell me why you want to be Whitecrests.”

They’d planned for this, a little, although neither had been expecting who they’d be speaking to. Toran spoke first.

“Champion, I…we…want to make a difference.”

“There are many ways to make a difference. Even the Clanless do—the Grand Army of the Gao would not exist without their perseverance,” Genshi replied.

“Champion, with all of the…darkness…that surrounds us, with everything that’s happened, every light is necessary,” Tybal said. “Whitecrest’s words…speak…to us.”

“And we’ve already had some experience at Brother Thurrsto’s paws,” Toran put in.

“Oh, that was barely a taste of real trials,” Thurrsto growled. “You two have done passably well, but you will have to prove yourself to be Whitecrest material, and that’s not the same thing. The work we’ve been doing is enough to get you admitted to the Grand Army, and probably to one of the labor Clans, but Whitecrests have to be able to think.”

“Then teach us,” Toran said.

Genshi leaned back in his chair and chittered a bit, looking over at Thurrsto. “You did say they’re sharp, Brother,” he said. He looked back at the two no-longer-quite-cubs. “If you’d said you knew already how to think, I would have had some hesitation about this.”

“Understand something, though, young Associates,” he continued, suddenly serious, “Every year, applicants to the Rites die during those trials, and we will not change our standards now. You will be tested, and taught, and forced to learn beyond what you think your limits are now. If you choose to go ahead with the Rites and become full Brothers, you won’t be who you think you are now.”

“Yes, Champion!” the two newest Whitecrest Associates barked.

“Gather your things and be at the jump portal back to Gao in twenty minutes,” Genshi said. “You’re coming back with me to Gao.”


Date Point: 14Y 6M 2D AV

Great Father’s Cabinet, High Mountain Fortress, Northern Plains, Gao

Champion Gyotin, Clan Starmind

Gyotin found that the brisk air at this altitude made getting around just a bit less enjoyable than it might have at a younger age. The comparatively much warmer temperature of Folctha and his monastery made for much easier sitting and thinking on aged bones.

The Champions had assembled, as was their custom, in the room that had always been used for the Conclave, around the enormous ancient wooden table that had served them thus for millenia. Everyone was on time, for once, except…

“Where is the Great Father?” Gyotin asked the room. Looks were exchanged, then finally, Genshi of Whitecrest replied.

“He’s in his private gym at the moment. Working off some frustration, I believe he told Regaari. I’m sure he doesn’t intend to be late and will be in shortly.”

Gyotin duck-nodded. “While…while he is not here, there is something of some importance that I believe we need to discuss.”

Champion Goruu from Firefang was the first to reply. “Discussing something of importance without the Great Father could be taken many ways, Gyotin.”

Gyotin nodded again in agreement. “Indeed. In this case, however, what we need to discuss is the Great Father, and I think you of all of us can appreciate how doing that in front of him might turn out, yes?” Scattered chittering went around the room.

“We have a problem,” Gyotin started. “I’ve been hearing from several directions that the movement of the Clan of Females to Cimbrean and safety is having…an unfortunate effect. They’re becoming almost cloistered. It’s harder and harder to even see a Female, much less socially contact one, and the long-term effect on mating contracts is going to be catastrophic if something isn’t done.”

“That is a problem. What do you propose we do about it? They’ve moved with the Great Father’s full support. I don’t think any force in creation could change that course now,” asked Genshi, who was leaning back in his chair.

“A solution has presented itself. The Great Father, however, is resistant to it thus far.” Gyotin said. “He needs a mate. Not a mating contract—an actual mate in the old way, with everything that goes along with it, both as a Male and Female, and as the Great Father with the Clan of Females.”

A sussuruss went around the room, the Champions looking at each other. All had a mix of scandalized realization and grudging agreement.

“He will definitely not agree to that,” said Champion Reeko of Straightshield. “For one thing, the precedent he would set, with a monogamous female, could be catastrophic in our population ratio. The Clanless could easily conclude, correctly, that there would literally never again be a chance for them to mate and have cubs.”

“He’s also still Stoneback’s Stud-Prime,” Champion Fiin said. “Having a mate in the old way is directly opposed to everything about that. Why would he ever agree to it?”

“Because,” Gyotin said, “he’s already in love with her, and she with him. I received a message from Sister Naydra a few days ago. Apparently they correspond several times a day by message already, the subject has been raised, and thus far, he’s reportedly resisted for many of the same reasons already voiced here.” Genshi and Turan of Ironclaw were the only ones that weren’t visibly surprised, he noted.

“I think this is an opportunity to deal with several problems at once,” Gyotin continued into the silence. “For one, this deepens the ties between the Males and the Females—there are many, many examples of it in the Human literature, and yes, I know we aren’t Humans,” he held up a paw, “But the point is still a good one.”

Scattered agreement went around the room, and Gyotin kept speaking, warming to his subject. He’d thought about what he was going to say for several days. “For another, recall if you will that he is in this position because of all the Clans, the Females demanded it first. Symbolically, the Mother-Supreme submitting to him does not mean the same as it does from us, because the Great Father would never harm a Female, and all of us know it. Symbolically, submission from the Females requires something different.”

The agreement was much more universal at this point. Champion Loomi of Highmountain stood, stretching his spine and arms, then spoke.

“You are proposing something that hasn’t been done since Fyu’s time. He will almost certainly see this as taking away her independence and her connection to her Sisters, and he won’t be completely wrong about it.”

Gyotin acknowledged it with an ear-flick. “Indeed. And if it were a random Female that we were proposing to mate to him, I could not in good conscience support it on that alone. This is not, however, the situation we find ourselves in. Rest assured, Sister Naydra wants this, and so does he. She’s simply the only one that will admit it at the moment.”

The Great Father chose that particular moment to come stalking into the room, still obviously heated from his workout and not in the least bit de-frustrated. His sudden presence in the room put a halt to the conversation, and at the obvious interruption, he paused, then sat at the head of the table. The chair creaked in protest under him when he flomped into it.

“Well, don’ let me stop you all jawin,” he rumbled. “Gyotin, you clearly got a bone or somethin’ stuck in yer gullet, I can smell it on ya.”

Gyotin bowed; that was an apt statement from the Great Father. Now that the moment was actually here to put his plan into motion, he was more than a little nervous. When Daar prowled into the room he pulled with him a musk encompassing exactly what he had been doing and…well, Civilized pretensions aside, that kind of thing had an effect. Everyone felt subdued, and rightfully so.

He would never voice it, nobody would. But Daar was the unquestioned alpha of his people.

Gyotin screwed up his resolve and forged on, with a quick look around the room for support. “My Father, we were discussing a solution to a thorny bramble of problems. I fear…you will not enjoy the conversation.”

The only response was a deadpan look back at him. Finally, the Great Father growled, “Ain’t much I’ve enjoyed since this started, Gyotin. No reason ‘fer it to start now.”

That was an opening, and Gyotin struck for it.

“That is one of the problems. You are suffering, My Father, we can all see it. We can smell it, even Champion Yeego.”

Daar gave a small grumbling chitter at that; Yeego’s nose was hardly better than a Human’s and that small tease had become a part of the Champion’s camaraderie. Yeego himself pant-grinned just a little.

“I ain’t gonna deny it. But that’s what being the Great Father has always meant. Fyu wasn’t the first, an’ I won’t be the last.”

“He was the first to bear the title, but your meaning is understood. We disagree about your self-imposed suffering. Fyu understood this. He had confidants, more than a few. So must you.”

The Great Father bristled a little, and Gyotin’s heart went out to him.

”—Your feelings on this are virtually irrelevant, My Father. The Gao need you in balance. It is not just the Champions who have noticed. The public is beginning to talk. There is muted approval of such a thing, My Father. There is even a workhouse drama being written about you, according to Genshi. It’s likely to enter production soon.”

“What would you have me do, Gyotin?” Daar surged from his seat, which gave up entirely and toppled over backwards. “I hardly ever get ‘ta lift anymore! I ain’t had a solid brawl in damn near a month! How in the name of Fyu’s smelly balls am I gonna justify a consort?!”

The room went dead silent. Daar’s scent was now so overwhelming, Gyotin could smell nothing else. The Great Father growled and prowled over to Gyotin, who stood next to his own chair. Daar sniffed the air around Gyotin, then rose to his full commanding height.

“What ‘bout everyone else? Why the fuck am I special enough ‘ta warrant an institution we abolished a thousand years ago?!” He stood snarling over Gyotin, clearly ready to tear someone or something into bite-sized morsels. Gyotin took internal refuge in his Zen studies and remained outwardly unruffled.

“You are the Great Father and you suffer for us all. No one could possibly miss that fact.”

“I know I am. None of you let me forget it, not even fer a moment!!”

“Because our lives are in your unmatched paws, My Father. This is not ‘throne sniffing’ as you’ve said before. This is a matter of our survival.”

“I can’t take on a mate, Gyotin. I can’t, don’t you understand?? This ain’t somethin’ I’m just makin’ up! I can’t allow myself that!”

Gyotin reacted without thought, without impulse, and utterly out of necessity. He reached up and slapped Daar across his gigantic contorted face with an open paw, his claws pulled back in. If the room could have gotten any more silent as the echoes of their argument faded out, it would almost have been in stasis.

“You will fail as the Great Father, if you don’t allow yourself to also be Daar and love her like you’re meant to,” Gyotin said into the silence.

Daar stood, poleaxed, and reached up absently to feel his face where Gyotin had struck him. Abruptly, his face contorted, and he began keening in a truly awful howl that carried with it a sense of utter loss…loss of his people, his life before, his friends…

The Great Father pounced, scooped Gyotin up and…hugged, in desperation and pain. He squeezed so hard Gyotin felt something pop very painfully in his chest but that was of no concern at the moment. The Great Father needed this. He keened for a very long time into Gyotin’s fur like a cub feeling his first true hurt.

Abruptly, Gyotin felt another set of arms surround them, and another…and another. One Champion after another joined the standing hug-pile until they were all enfolded. They stood like that for several full minutes as Daar sobbed.

“We love you, Our Father.” Speaking was abject agony but Gyotin said it through a pained growl. “Your people love you. Please…”

Daar finally let him go, wheezing a little, and the group separated. Champion Novi of Openpaw laid a concerned paw on Gyotin’s back.

“I heard at least a pair of ribs shatter in there,” he said to Gyotin. “Let’s get you to the clinic.”

Gyotin looked to Daar, who nipped him affectionately on the nose—a gesture loaded with meanings of friendship, apologies, dominance, and more besides. “Go. I’m breakin’ everythin’ I wrap my paws around lately…”

Gyotin allowed himself to be led away, trying very hard not to wheeze while still within earshot of the massive Great Father. His stoicism lasted until he got around the corner, and Novi helped him hobble along.

“You realize you’re going to have to do something to make amends for striking him,” Novi said finally, as they got to the elevator.

Gyotin favored him with a an exhausted ear-wag of pain. “Yes. It’ll be about as much fun as this was, I have no doubt.”


Date Point: 14Y 6M 3D AV

Office of the Great Father, High Mountain Fortress, Northern Plains, Gao

Sister Naydra

Naydra hurtled up the eternal staircase, only just stopping herself from dropping to fourpaw. The message she’d received from the Great Fath…Daar… was simple, direct, and to the point, and she could no more have ignored it or put it off than she could have stopped her own heart from beating.

Naydra,

UYou wereere right. I need uyou. Come to me at High Mountaine.

Daar

She was almost to his quarters, perhaps a floor or two below, when she heard the most awful noise. Daar, she knew, had a booming, carrying voice. Everyone knew that; all one had to do was watch a video of him to see how far his powerful bass voice would travel, and in person it was even more true. She also knew that Daar, unfortunately, liked to sing.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, if it was something he was even remotely good at, and if he didn’t have a tendency to break into basso profundo howls at inappropriate moments. No, the real tragedy was the way he went looking for the right notes and managed to find all of them except the right ones. That, in a way, was almost…impressive.

As she came up the final flight of stairs and around the corner, she began being able to make out words.

“oooowwooowowowoooooOOOOOOO DREEEEEEAAAAAAMWEAVAHOOOOOoooo… I believe yooooowoooo can get me through the niiiiiiiighhht owwwoooooooooOOOOOO….”

The Stoneback guards at the top of the stairs had a profound look of suffering on their normally-impassive faces, wincing visibly every time the massive voice within started a new verse. Naydra’s sensitive hearing also picked up the thump of a rollicking bass line under all of it from an unfamiliar instrument.

Definitely not Gaoian music…and probably not from a Gaoian music player, either, since their music art tended strongly to favor their hearing in higher ranges than, she was pretty sure, whatever this Human noise was.

Father Regaari’s desk sat empty, its usual occupant having undoubtedly taken the excuse of something far more important happening somewhere, anywhere else. The guards, however, were stuck where they were. Naydra favored them with a friendly set to her ears and made her way up the stairs the rest of the way.

“Go on in, Sister. He left orders with us that you, and only you, were to be allowed past this point, and for you to come in as soon as you got here,” one of them said.

“I’ll just see if I can get him to calm down a little, shall I?” Naydra asked. “How long has this been going on?”

“Since early morning, Sister. He came back from somewhere with Father Regaari helping him carry a bunch of boxy old human stuff that he got somewhere. Regaari left, and he spent the next couple of hours settin’ everything up, and then…well, this.”

“This ain’t as bad as the last stuff he was listenin’ to, though, Brother. If I hear that ‘Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive’ song one more time…” said the other guard. The first one grunted in agreement.

“Anyway. You best go in, Sister. He’s waitin’ for ya.”

Naydra gave the guards a grateful nod, and went in, closing the door behind her.


Date Point: 14Y 6M 3W 5D AV

Grand Commune, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Mother Ginai

The first to take up formal residence in the first excavated halls of the Grand Commune had had to be drawn by lottery. With so many wanting, needing entry, any kind of choice would have devolved quickly into arguing and wrangling over who needed it more. It was the only fair way.

“Fair”, Ginai decided, completely fucking sucked, using the Human terminology she’d learned a few weeks before even in her own head. That didn’t detract from the fact that it was the only way to do it ethically, but it still sucked, maybe more than anything that had ever sucked before.

The lottery “winners” and their associated cubs, got to move in, now that the first full level of the Grand Commune had been excavated. Below, the dig continued unabated, and above ground, buildings were already rising into the sky. Supplies flowed from multiple places on Earth and from Gao, and the first of several industrial desalination plants had been installed on the lowest level designated for it. Now, the diggers were digging in both directions at once, excavating at an unbelievable rate.

It was remarkable what could be accomplished with highly aggressive technical knowhow and a truly motivated bottomless source of labor. The latest addition had, at the Females’ insistence, been a factory complex for manufacturing cement, concrete, and rolling out construction-grade rebar steel. Some of their Human advisors had balked a little at that one, observing, correctly, that it was actually easier in some ways to simply jump the materials in, but the Females had stood their ground on it. This was to be a Female Commune, built by Females, using as much of their own labor, materials, and what a Human engineer had aptly called “sweat equity” as possible.

“Good morning!” she greeted the crowd. The rumbling of talk died out except for a few very excited cubs that kept having to be shushed by their Mothers.

“Just over six months ago, our world was attacked, our lives as we knew them utterly destroyed, and everything we knew upended. We discovered new friends,” she motioned to the group of Humans standing off to the side. “–and we discovered who our truest allies are. Through all of it, we’ve managed to preserve our people, our heritage, and our future.”

“This was not our world when we came here six months ago. I say we have well and truly made this corner of the universe our own, and from here, we will preserve the future of our people and the strength necessary to see the awful tasks before us through.”

“The task of our Males is well underway, with the creation of the Grand Army. We Females have a different task—to breed continuing strength, to teach the generations to come, and above all, to see to our own strength.”

“I welcome you all to our new home, the Grand Commune.”

~fin