<<<<<<< current

title: “Chapter 00: Prelude to War” date: 2018-05-13 lastmod: 2018-05-13

author: “P.A.B.Arianis (paladin3712x)”

13 years, 11 months, 2 weeks, 1 day After Vancouver
Hai’yi Shipyards, Gorai Orbit

Marruk

A bit of dirt, or maybe it was dried blood, slipped from under his claws to drift listlessly to the decking as Marruk started excavating grit from the next claw. His mind wasn’t really focused on the cleaning, nor was it given over much to the rather monotonous report being read to him by the Brother standing just to the left of his command chair. The life of a Squadron-Father certainly had its perks, one of which was a prerogative to appear entirely disinterested or even distracted doing just about whatever he wanted, and his subordinates wouldn’t even bat an eye. Still, he should probably have at least the appearance of listening. Marruk shifted up a bit from the slumped posture he’d been holding and let his right hind-claw return to the decking. He still didn’t look at the Brother; there was no need to appear to be hanging on his every word either.

“…components will be arriving in the next two days, but the additional Mag-Lance cannons are now almost a week late, Squadron-Father. We’ve shifted our technicians to working on the beacon ejectors instead, in the interim, which should alleviate…” The Brother continued his litany of information which was entirely superfluous to Marruk who, being who, and more importantly what he was, already had an intimate awareness of everything this supposed update covered. How couldn’t he, through his extensive implants, he’d already received these updates from his contacts on Aetlayus a day ago and made the necessary adjustments to his timetables. Having it all listed to him by his subordinate was merely a facade, a bit of a show to keep up appearances and tradition.

The delays were regrettable but not dire. Marruk had spent the better part of the past few years building and arming his secret little task force which had hit operational force estimates over a month ago. Any additional ships or new Human-inspired weaponry were simply a bonus at this point. The task group was, according to Gaoian records anyway, nothing more than a joint Firefang and One-Fang scrapping program positioned somewhere in the ass-end of nowhere, out past Gorai’s system limits. The Fathers and Champions of either clan had little care for the management of their raw shipbuilding waste and so had happily delegated that responsibility to a rather unremarkable commander, after some careful positioning, of course. The billet was considerable enough to demand that at least a Father of some rank was placed in command of the few light frigates which patrolled the secluded waste heap and so Marruk, a mere Squadron-Father, found himself ‘King of the Trash Heap’. But then that was simply what he and his true allies wanted the Gaoian leadership to think.

Over time, and through some judicious reassignment of key personnel, more and more of the trash haulers traveling from the various shipyards began to arrive to the ‘trash heap’, not with trash or waste, but with state-of-the-art components or even raw fabrication materials. Coupled with ever improving weapons and system equipment secretly shipped out from Aetlayus, Marruk’s simple guard picket was now the 57 ship strong spear-tip for a galactic war not even the Gaoians knew might come. A feral grin spread across Marruk’s face, baring his fangs. This simple Squadron-Father was, in fact, in command of a Fleet-Father’s worth of the most lethal, aggressively designed strike force short of the Swarm of Swarms itself. It wasn’t the number of ships he had which brought dreams of power to his thoughts, but rather the pure malice of their design. Built around an amalgamation of Aetlayus creativity, Gaoian ferocity, and Hunter mercilessness, with just a spice of Human inventiveness thrown in, his ships were the future of his race and it’s rightful place in the galaxy. It had taken near a millennia, but he was now in command of that future; he held the shaft of that spear. His superiors could suck it.

Of course, he wasn’t actually with his little fleet at the moment. Nobody expected him to just float around a trash heap all week, and so he and his pawfull of ships would take turns swinging out to the carefully hidden fleet but remain garrisoned primarily at the station or shipyards in orbit of Gorai. All of the time spent buzzing like stinkflies around the yards and stations was, as one might expect, incredibly dull, despite the covert management of building and equipping his secret fleet. But the boredom of it all actually paid off. It let him claw-pick his real crew from among the many Clanless who saw both a break from laboring as well as a potential path into a Clan. Those who he felt actually made the cut, would soon find themselves not only Associates of the Firefang clan, but also secret members of Gao’s elite new ‘Secret Weapon”. Anyone who didn’t make the cut… well, it wasn’t uncommon for Clanless to die when seeking the rites of a clan. He hadn’t amassed enough of those crew for more than a few of the haulers yet, but there was time for a more aggressive ‘recruitment’ strategy later, anything too big would attract too much attention and he couldn’t risk that; not yet anyway.

Marruk roused from his musings and realized that the Brother who was ‘updating’ him had stopped talking and was now clearly awaiting orders. Marruk performed a quick self-assessment and was glad to find that he’d at least appeared outwardly pensive rather than distracted. He had no idea what the last portion of the update had been, and he didn’t really care to review the playback captured by his implants, so he went with the most pressing need and the current reason why his ship was in orbit of the planet. “Contact the Station-Father and request that he expedite the transfer of mat-, I mean junk, to the Hariyu and the Kinsah. Please remind him that-”

Without so much as a warning, a portion of Marruk’s mind was hurled across time and space as he was connected into an ever-growing gestalt of other minds. He so hated unexpected sessions like these. The rest of his consciousness finished out his orders to the Brother with only the barest pause to indicate anything had distracted him.

System reroute; mandatory notification protocol in effect.

Marruk waited the endless nanoseconds for the imposed session. Briefly he wondered as to what could be so important as to constitute a mandatory summons of this nature; we really should be past all this sort of treatment by now. For a moment he drew an interesting correlation between Terran canines being called to ‘heel’ and the many similarities they shared with his current host, but the humorless smirk on his face was fleeting.

System notification: Users 0063, 0182, 0734, 0885 have joined Closed Session.

++0007++: Standby for immediate changes in directive.

Marruk registered the nature of the other users in the channel, more specifically that they all were tasked with military assets within Gaoian space. A hint of what was coming next burst into Marruk’s mind and a deep rage spread to his face. The Brother who’d been just about to leave and carry out those orders to the Station-Father choked off his response mid-sentence and just left, eagre to be anywhere else.

++0007++: Cleanse and reset protocol on the secondary control species is now enacted. Code: Expose; Cleanse; Regenerate.

A faint whisper of some ancient and long forgotten curse escaped under Marruk’s breath. The part of him which had spent more than one mortal lifetime preparing for the day when the new control species would be unleashed upon the universe, the part known only as Six-Three, silently screamed every obscenity from every language, both lost and dying, that he knew.


13y11m2w1d AV
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Gorai

Goruu

One did not spend as much time around Humans as Goruu did without starting to pick up on their tells. They couldn’t help but to be so expressive! For an up and coming fighter pilot, he’d been practically groomed to watch for an opponent’s flinch. It was a knack that made him pretty good at Ta’Shen, even better in the cockpit, and as he’d learned from the mother of one of his cubs, not too shabby at diplomatic intrigue. It was the latter of those that led him to seek reassignment aboard the Dominion Embassy Station 172 within the Sol system. The request was seen by some of his clan to be a step backwards for a successful fighter pilot, but only a cub could have been so blind as to ignore the potential that fostering relations with the Humans might bring. Other advantages came swiftly as well. The choice brought him further attention from the Females, leading to more than one mating contract, and not the least of the perks was the opportunity to further grow his friendship with Earth’s preeminent superstar pilot; Rylee Jackson. All things considered, Goruu felt like he was making a pretty good niche for himself during his diplomatic reassignment as a mere shuttle pilot to various Gaoian dignitaries, and as an unofficial emissary of the Gaoian people to Humanity.

As a sure sign that he was starting to regain some ground in the eyes of his Brothers, Goruu was approved for a new suite of tactical implants to be fully funded by the Clan. At first, the new implants seemed to open door after door for him. Through his new encrypted communications implant, Goruu gained a direct line of communication with not only the Firefang Brothers and Fathers operating on the station, but also those of other Clans as well. Several of the more influential Fathers even started corresponding with him for insights on the Humans and their doings. This, of course, led to more games of Ta’Shen and Poker with his Human friends, which led to even more interest from the Fathers. Goruu wasn’t so naive as to believe himself anything more than just an informant for many of those Fathers, but he was also very careful not to overplay his friendships either. That included resisting certain Fathers’ insistences that he push his Human friends to be a bit more liberal with their Talamay, or whatever else they might choose to drink. It seemed to Goruu that keeping a deathworlder’s trust was one of the most healthy decisions he could make even if it was hard to explain to his superiors.

After a while, just about every military attached human he encountered, Rylee included, started looking askance at his head hardware. It didn’t take long for Goruu to catch the idea that something was amiss. His new friends started spending less time around him and those that did seemed unhappy about his implants. Goruu took the hint, and he took it fast. Finding someone skilled enough to remove his implants had almost been harder than the look of disappointment his sire and Clan-Father had given him and no sooner had he done so, his Claw-Leader had immediately placed him under investigation, essentially grounding him. Things started happening even faster from there. He was summarily bundled off on the next transport out of Sol, away from his friends, both Gaoian and Human, and reassigned not as a pilot, but as support crew to one of the Clan’s virtually unknown transport services.

In the system, the transport services were considered to be the easiest duties and carried a sort of backhanded prestige. Often, Clan members who’d shown themselves to lack certain… initiative for combat, or who had shown their judgement to be in question but not so severe as to be outright killed, found themselves ‘promoted’ to crew such ships. But everyone knew the truth; anyone serving on a Clan transport had essentially been taken out of the greater view of history. They could call it a promotion all they wanted, it was a figurative dead-end. The swiftness of Goruu’s career suicide though nearly sprained his ears in its abruptness and finality. To round it all off, the Father in charge of the reassignment had made it abundantly clear, if not in so many words, that he’d be doing nothing more important than ‘cleaning the head of just about every freighter from Gao to Gorai’ for years to come.

He thought about his nose-diving career as he finished wiping down another vacuum disposal fixture and rolled back into a squatting position. The unit auto-sealed and voided it’s contents of cleaning solution into the return piping to be reclaimed into the Star’s Bounty’s scrubbing system. Taking a moment to muse further over his misfortunes, Goruu glanced over at the inner hull beside him and chittered to himself. If this were a Human vessel, he’d half expected to be looking out through some ridiculously complex and over-engineered window into space. Why anyone would need to look into space while they took a shit was beyond him, but nonetheless, in some of the more refined suites on station 172 he’d seen exactly that; view portals… in waste reclamation rooms. He shook his head; Humans were strange. Of course, that only brought his mind to yet further Human oddities, like the fact that some of their earlier designed stations and vessels wouldn’t have even reclaimed the waste but instead would have voided it… directly into space! He shuddered both at the waste of it but also at the sheer disgusting risk of throwing what amounted to biological weaponry out into space and thinking not a thing of it.

But Humanity hadn’t known better in those days. In fact, it wasn’t until they finally reached the stars and began setting up their very first colonial world that they truly grasped the effect of something so simple as the symbiotic bacteria living in their bodies. It had taken destroying an entire planet’s eco-system to do it, but they’d learned; and they’d adapted. With amazing speed they’d enacted new procedures and tactics to ensure that the same thing never happened again. As he stood up to his full height, joints aching from the day’s repeated strain, Goruu pondered that it was, perhaps, the Humans’ ability to learn and adapt so fast that he missed the most. At even something as trivial as Ta’Shen, a Gaoian game apparently resembling the Human’s ‘poker’ in many ways, Goruu had watched Rylee go from complete ignorance of the game to handily defeating him within a matter of an evening and she’d done it while mentally impaired by the Talamay as well!

Learning for the Gaoians was at least a little more elastic than many other races, but despite that, most Gaoians’ ability to assimilate and retain new information peaked shortly after their maturity and the declining slope was a rather steep one. Most training programs after maturity, which for Gaoians was only about sixteen rotations, focused more on variation on the themes of their youth rather than holistically new approaches to a problem. And that was where Humans were just down-right scary. It had taken some effort for Rylee to convince Goruu that even Human learning had a peak and that it was also around just after their age of maturity, but their decline in the ability to learn completely new concepts never really bottomed out, it just got slower and required much more stimulus to change. Rylee had laughed it off as being ‘stubborn’ or ‘set in their ways’. She’d also made some strange remarks about aging canines and magic but by the time he and the other Gaoians had figured out that it wasn’t meant as an insult to their species’ similarity to Terran ‘dogs’, he’d missed what the reference was to completely. The frightening truth of it was that, with enough reason or stimulus to change, a Human could completely reinvent everything they did, how they did it, and the psychological structure behind it, within the span of weeks or even days. It was an ability that even the Corti struggled to achieve and one, which given the now constant rate of change that the Humans had initiated on a galactic scale, threatened to overwhelm every species Goruu knew and likely the ones he didn’t. He’d chosen to live with the Humans to learn from them but as he looked back now, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever really had a chance at it; to truly learn. How could his Clan, the Gaoians, or even he himself hope to keep up?

That had been the last fixture of this compartment so he gathered up his supplies and made for the door, still lost in his thoughts. Goruu stepped out of the compartment and came face to face with a rather irate looking crewmate who looked at once of wanting to pummel Goruu or throw him out of the way and leap into the waste reclamation compartment. The flustered crewmate apparently selected a mixture of the two and while Goruu barely reacted in time to prevent his cleaning equipment from scattering about the decking, he heard the rushed thud of the compartment door closing behind him along with a rather nasty curse which he was sure was meant to be heard. He recovered his composure and looked up and down the compartment to see Sister Amyni coming the other way toward him. In what he would later lament as perhaps the most egregious example of just how far he’d fallen, Goruu froze up entirely. The Sister was looking right at him and couldn’t possibly have missed his embarrassing run-in with the other crewmate and what’s worse, she seemed to be walking right toward him. As an Associate of Clan Firefang, Amyni wasn’t really in the chain of command and nor was she his superior officer. But she was a Female, and regardless of whatever honorary position of command she held in the structure of crew, she wielded authority over the greatest and most importantest of any regulations within the command chain, Clan or social; she embodied a direct communications path to the Clan of Females and Mother-Supreme Yulna. And with that communication came the ability to advance or crush any Male’s hopes of ever mating again. As he agonized over just how badly the turn in his career had bombardiered any chance of talking contracts with a Female again even if he could think of something to say to her to regain some sense of composure, he watched her walk right up to him and then past him without so much as even a nod to indicate his presence. In fact, it was a solid eight seconds before he even realized she hadn’t stopped at all and he spun about to watch Amyni and the scowl she wore turn abruptly at the end of the corridor and disappear back towards the crew quarters. He stood there a few moments longer grappling with it all, adjusted his hold on his equipment, and started off again for the starboard head with his muzzle drooping to the decksoles. She hadn’t even seen him.


13y11m2w AV
Caldron’s Cradle Station, Dominion Space

Pooja Sadana

She squeezed back out of the narrow conduit and beamed through the communicator to Enivieri. “Told ‘ya I could get it!”

“Yeah, you did… it still would have been safer to send in Vetig.”

“But then I wouldn’t have gotten to see how it had gotten lodged in there in the first place.”

“You could see it just fine on the holo… you know what, never mind. I’ll never understand your confusion over the concepts of ‘touch’ and ‘see’, I’d swear your brain was deficient.”

“Those grey assholes certainly thought so.” The line went suddenly very quiet as Pooja slowly floated down the corridor. Despite having air and at least emergency level lighting, the total lack of gravity only seemed to enhance the deadness of the moment.

“I.. I’m sorry Pooja, I shouldn’t have…”

“Forget it.” Her tone certainly implied that she hadn’t forgotten but was at least trying to. “I’m across the threshold, you can fire up the grav plates in that section, mama”

Enivieri hesitated for a moment. Calling her ‘mama’ was clearly a peace offering, but she just couldn’t place whether it had been a backhanded one from a sullen child or an honest request to drop the subject. She decided to bank on the latter and flipped on the plating. The few bits of debris which had been floating around the primary dorsal corridor of the Xkkttkrrkk drifted quickly to the floor plating and several of the warning indication lights which had perpetually flared red ceased their strobing. Enivieri had made what must have truly been a titanic effort by most standards to acquire every manual or spec sheet she could on Humans, especially on their children, but the truth was, she had long since discovered that even the very rare Human-authored literature offered little insight into the wildly mercurial operation of such a bewildering child such as her own adopted daughter. This, as always, brought a look of amusement to her face. “Looks good, come on back Pooja, we’ll look at the next one.”

As Enivieri ticked off yet one more item on her anachronistic note board, she thought back to the fateful decision she’d made in rescuing the young child. Only a few short years had past, and they’d certainly been good years. Enivieri’s initial fears that the child was going to eat her entirely out of business within a week soon turned into wonder as day by day she watched this nearly helpless young girl chase an even more insatiable curiosity on a meteoric trail through just about any device or problem the child encountered. It’s true that those first years had been tight, and Enivieri’s midsection had certainly lost a bit of girth, but somewhere after about the second or third year of her unexpected parentage, that child had learned to harness her curiosity into ideas, and ohh such ideas they were. Most, of course, were entirely unusable in any stretch of applicable science or industry; trying to explain to an adamant youngling how a cannon which repeatedly fires dizirats across space as a means of resupplying carnivorous food stores might have detrimental consequences had been a particular highlight for her. But Pooja’s propensity for ignoring conventional logic had tripped more than a few advancements in Enivieri’s own problem resolution process and that was how she was now the proud Concept Owner of more than a few local system improvements, such as the little design she was currently commissioned to build out of this wreck. The Mark 2 was a niche ship, to be sure. But it was based on a now proven advancement; rather than having to completely write off a minorly damaged freighter or haul it complete back into the docks to repair it, why not send a repair collier out to meet it? At least that had been the initial idea. The first several old freighters that she had refit into Mark 1s were already out supplementing a few locally based industrial fleets. Staffed with technicians and boasting retrofit outboard nanofacs, they were proving their worth. It was, in fact, the scrappers who really took to this idea though and posed the question ‘but what if the original owner of the mostly-intact ship that they had to leave comes back?’

Enter the dizirat cannon; the Mark 2 would soon mount about four large projectile launchers loaded not with squishy little ‘paintballs’, but rather pre-programmed and networked construction drones, some of which would have their own onboard nano-factories placed surreptitiously in the rear of their fuselage. The drones wouldn’t boast the size of nanofac that the Mark 1 did, but with six to ten of the little ‘Lepore’ drones swarming over and through a wreck, they could simply excrete what they needed in its smallest and most malleable form and make repairs layer by layer or component by component. It took a little longer, but should someone come snooping by, they could also be remotely destroyed leaving no trail back to the would-be property thieves. It wasn’t quite as ‘on the up and up’ side as the work that Enivieri liked to do, but it certainly offered better pay, and perhaps a bit more food and more comfortable living arrangements for the two of them.

Pooja stepped back into the bridge, breaking Enivieri from her thoughts. “I think we’ll go after the ventral engine relay next. If we need to up and move this hull for any reason, we’ll need more than just the single set providing thrust right?” She said it with a sort of playful tone, hoping to peak the kids humor but in return she only got an even more sour look.

“I thought we were going to eat, I’m starved,”

A few years ago, Enivieri would have balked at such a ridiculous comment, now she just waggled her head and motioned to the few satchels sitting in their usual spot in the corner of the bridge. “Fine, you know where they are, but make sure you leave me some this time, right?”

“You know I always do, mama.” Pooja did that rolling giggle of hers, which Enivieri had learned meant that she thought her adoptive mom was making a funny, and skipped over to the food stores.

“Always?” The skipping paused for just one of Pooja’s rapid heartbeats. It was just enough reminder of the more than a few occasions when Enivieri had, in fact, gone days without food due to the insatiable appetite of her charge. Enivieri thought to say more but Pooja resumed her skipping and she knew the message had gotten through with just enough bite to hopefully make it stick this time. She turned back to the puzzle of the ventral engine relay. Now, just how do we get the drones into that?


13y11m2w1d AV
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Gorai

Amyni

Amyni let the field close behind her and go opaque before letting out a frustrated snarl. She looked about her solitary compartment, which might previously have been charitably called a storage pantry, and fumed; this mission was turning out to be nothing but a disappointment. She’d been carefully positioned onto a freighter which was ultimately scheduled to take a turn through one of Gorai’s shipyards and then from there she was to assert herself into service with one of the trash haulers. Well that goal had just about shriveled like a runt Naxas.

She’d never really expected to end up on a freighter at the ass-end of nowhere in the first place. Amyni thought back to her cozy little room in the Commune where she’d been assigned to investigate a significant amount of Firefang resources being directed into trash as well as some very curious personnel reassignments. These things may have seemed perfectly normal to any Clanless worker, but to someone with any concept of navy logistics, they were simply baffling. Yet, whenever she’d tried to look into it remotely, every lead led somewhere entirely innocuous. Mother Yulna wasn’t one to suffer fools, and she suffered deception of her Clan even less so. When Amyni had brought the puzzle before her, her exact words had been; “If they are content to behave like petulant cubs sneaking peshokies, then I will happily treat them as such.” Strings were pulled and orders were signed to bring one Sister Amyni, Associate of the Firefang Clan, onto the Star’s Bounty as an acting claw-leader. Her orders, at least the ones revealed to the Firefangs, were to be reassigned upon arriving at the shipyard. But the Fyu-bitten nest-pricker of a Ship-Father, Yalick, was already threatening to blow the whole Tiritya-damned mission out an airlock. ‘But you’re a _Female…_’ and ‘These orders can’t be correct, you couldn’t possibly serve on a trash hauler…’ She’d argued as much as she dared but rank within Firefang was a pretty sticky thing, and when speaking about Clan freighters it got even stickier.

The chain of command aboard any ship typically fell to the One-Fangs who crewed it. Firefangs usually kept to their fighters and shuttles and maintained a separate chain of command to match; Claw-Leaders on up through Squadron-Fathers and maybe even a Fleet-Father or two at the top for planetary starfighter garrisons. But any Clan relied on logistics as much as the next Clan and while most of those roles were often filled with Clanless or the occasional One-Fang transport, for the more sensitive cargo or destinations, the Clan would use it’s own ships crewed by Clan personnel. It was generally one of the least desirable billets in the Clan, but for those rare few who acted as captains, or ‘Ship-Fathers’ of such vessels, it came with near autonomy from the regular chain of command. See; a Ship-Father within the One-Fang structure had rank upon rank directly above them to answer to within the context of the task force or fleet, whereas a Firefang Ship-Father had no immediate superior between him and the Officers of the Clan. For all intents and purposes, he was the undisputed Master of his ship and crew with a capital ‘M’. If she’d been one to give a yip about the new Human culture craze, she might have compared such a Ship-Father to the wet-navy captains of Terran history in an age when Men of War raged through the Atlantic; captained by those with the will to be ‘Masters before God’. But she had no yips left to give, and so she continued to fume over the stupidity of a system which provided so much potential for communications lag that would require and invest the authority into Ship-Father Yalick such that he could re-write her orders without so much as a ‘by your leave’ from his superiors or the Clan of Females.

The Star’s Bounty was still in route to Gorai, provisioned with mundane commissaries and a stasis-held herd of Naxas. Their destination however, was a bit more secured than their cargo; a small and recently onlined orbital factory which was beginning to pump out fully assembled starfighters based on an experimental new chassis. Leadership within the clans was usually pretty good at keeping secrets and the Firefangs were better than most at operational security. And thus, only Firefang assets were allowed to service the installation. That had a bit to do with why Amyni was on this particular ship, yet much of the ‘why’ behind her mission required a lot more analysis and insight into the dance of inter-clan relationships. Often, in trying to maintain an edge over another clan, some of the more information centric clans, such as Whitecrest, would closely guard what little secrets they had gleaned from association with the other clan. But all of that meant little to the Clan of Females who, like the others, placed clan loyalty above any sort of Associate status they may carry with a Male clan. It was part of the reason why males resisted Associates from any other clan, even the Clan of Females, sniffing too closely around their secrets. Males. Amyni rolled her eyes and flattened her ears at the thought of any Male being more useful than distance between his nutsack and his brain.

The introduction of Humans into the mix, however, was having a very interesting impact on at least one aspect of all this though, as more and more Gaoians watched Human Females performing their duties in close conjunction with Human Males, many of the already pathetic arguments about ‘keeping Females safe’ or ‘protecting them from harmful information’ got thinner and thinner. Already, more and more Female Associates were making inroads on some of the most traditionally Male enterprises, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the information gathering practices of the Whitecrest who, due in likely part to their increased contact with said Humans, were beginning to see even more value in Female sources, despite knowing that their information might be shared with the rest of the Females. And, it just so happened, that that was precisely what had led to Amyni’s mission. While digging through some rather boring records and intercepts within the Whitecrest files, an industrious and bright young Sister had matched up some previously anomalous figures garnered from her Goldpaw Associate Nest-Sister and passed both of these along to the Mother-Supreme’s attention. That, in turn, had led to Amyni being tapped for an assignment to go in and find out just exactly how several destroyers worth of material was being fabricated into something the size of a few spaceborne fighters smaller than a shuttle, and why crackshot pilots were suddenly and gleefully signing on as trash haulers.

And all this just brought her right back to fuming in her nest-bed and getting absolutely nowhere near where she was supposed to be. With a long and measured breath in and out, Amyni tried to regain some sense of perspective. She was too ruffled to think creatively about the problem now anyway so she resolved to sleep on it and start hacking at a new approach in the morning. A few turns about the compartment to be sure everything was in order, a quick flip of the padding in the bed itself, and Amyni slipped into the solitary nest like one might pour liquid into a bowl. Not for the first time she lamented the lack of other Sisters in her chosen course but she certainly wasn’t about to go bunking up with any of the Males; mating contracts were not a factor in her plans and cubs even more so.

Amyni curled in on herself just a bit tighter and as she started to drift into sleep, her mind began to play back snippets of her day. Flashes of arguments and forgotten conversations played out; things she maybe should have said differently or managed better. But more than not it had been a decent day in reflection. Self-assessment and correction was almost a mantra for her now and the nightly ritual calmed her. It gave her hope for something she could do better tomorrow. There were bits without ambition as well; a certain meal she liked, or a raunchy Keeda joke that impressed her, and almost before exhaustion took her, she recalled a rather diminutive seeming Brother in the corridor outside her nesting compartment; he’d been kinda cute actually, in that funny way Males were when they were embarrassed.


10y4m1w After Vancouver (3 years earlier)
Longji, Guangxi, China

Huáng Chúní

Chúní looked hard at the picture in front of him but couldn’t make out enough of the figure in the background. He adjusted the tablet in his hands hoping that a different angle might help, but it didn’t. He swiped to the next image and boggled yet again at the subject of his fascination. The tablet was new to the house; a ‘luxury’ that he’d finally convinced his father to get on the idea that having a more modern source of weather updates must surely be better than the dying radio in the corner. His father had held out as long as possible but after a few fluke storms had almost destroyed the western terrace last season, Chúní had finally gotten his wish. And with that wish had come a whole new gateway to the world beyond, so long as he woke up early enough to allow time to use it. A rice farmer’s life didn’t exactly abound with free-time.

It was getting harder and harder for his father to work in the rice fields and, as he glanced again at the clock in the corner of the tablet, harder for him to get up in the morning. Chúní’d been up for a while, already eaten, and was filling time while he waited for his father by perusing the internet. Much of the news he could easily access was filtered by the government, and he did have a news site playing on silent in a small window to the lower left, but he prefered the less filtered sub channels of various social media sites. What had drawn his attention this morning though was the prodigious explosion of memes about a pair of men that the internet had dubbed the “Beef Brothers”. They were huge! Almost inhumanly so. Even more exciting though were their companions; the first ever true Aliens to actually set foot on Earth, peacefully. The fleshy termite-Hunter-things which got their asses handed to them in that Vancouver hockey stadium hardly counted. Not that they had really lasted long enough to be considered a ‘first contact’ anyway. He smiled at the humor in a bully picking such a losing fight; Chúní was not a fan of bullies. He swiped through meme after meme and picture after picture but try as he might he just couldn’t get a good image of the aliens, not a clear shot anyway.

He heard a noise from the other room to herald his father’s return to consciousness and nodded. They’d be late into the fields, but not horribly so. The sun wouldn’t yet be up so the timing wasn’t too bad yet. Breaks would be a bit shorter though. Chúní turned his attention back to the tablet and swiped onto a meme featuring Left Beef, the shorter and larger one of the pair. The text read, in english, “I Remember San Diego…” and featured the insanely muscular young man photoshopped heroically over a shadowy skyline of what was once the American city of San Diego. Chúní looked a little closer at the image; the soldier looked of hispanic descent, it was possible that he’d been one of the few survivors of the anti-matter blast which had turned the entire city into a crater. Then again, it could also just be more American Propaganda. Chúní shrugged. The social media spaces seemed to let a bit more of that sort of thing slip through than the traditional news sources but even they were carefully sifted for ‘problematic content’. They were, however, more raw in what one could find for content and to Chúní’s mind that meant they were likely closer to the truth even if that truth wasn’t always outwardly apparent.

“That thing will rot your brain, put it down and get ready.”

Chúní lowered the tablet slightly and looked over it at his father entering the dining area which doubled as the primary family space. “I am ready father.” The response was about as close to petulant or ‘lippy’ as a good son was ever likely to get with his honored father and his tone and eyes tried to convey as much patience as he could muster. After all, it wasn’t really his father’s fault that his health was failing him.

“Hmph” His father dropped the subject and walked into the kitchen space to retrieve the bowl of rice that must have gotten cold by now. Whether out of stubbornness or just lack of caring, the man scowled and started into the bowl without so much as a ‘thank you’ to the son who’d prepared it for him nearly an hour ago. “What’s so important on that thing anyway?” Chúní started to look up to respond but something in the lower left feed caught his attention and he tapped it, unmuting the commentary and enlarging the window. “…just received this exclusive drone footage from one of our American affiliates. Sources are yet unclear on why…” Chúní wasn’t paying attention to the sound anymore anyway. The banner at the bottom of the screen spelled out ‘Aliens visit Roosevelt National Park’ but as the camera on the news drone slowly zoomed in, Chúní finally got the image he’d been searching for. There, standing on a rocky ledge overlooking the burnt reds and golds of the American Badlands with his bio-suite finally off, was the Alien. He stood what must have been almost a half-meter shorter than Chúní and beside the massive slab of a man, that was Left Beef again, he looked even smaller. A light breeze caught the Alien’s fur and Chúní could see the pronounced white tuft of fur? hair? along his head. Two ears which looked altogether canine swiveled and splayed from his head, clearly taking in every bit of sound and motion around him. His snout and nose were also moving, breathing in all that there was. The Alien… no, they were called Gaoians the news had said; the Gaoian’s eyes were momentarily closed but when they opened Chúní saw something very familiar in them. There was a life, a curiosity. He knew that feeling. It was the feeling that he got whenever he’d stand at the edge of the northern rice paddies and look out over the valleys. It was a longing, a drive to go and do. And yet knowing that he couldn’t. Chúní nearly jumped out of his seat as he felt his father’s hand land on his shoulder. “Wǒmen qīng qīng de fǔmōzhe nǐ, dìqiú, wǒmen de xīngqiú hé wǒmen de jiā.”

He didn’t even look up as his father spoke the whispered prayer over his shoulder. He didn’t have to. The wonder in his father’s voice, so uncharacteristic of the traditional and way-set man he knew, reflected something in Chúní too. The day’s planting all but forgotten, father and son watched as the world changed, as their world changed forever.


13y11m2w2d AV
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Gorai

Goruu

The gentle hum of electronics and efficient military precision greeted Goruu as he stepped over the threshold and onto the bridge of the Star’s Bounty. Only the minimum crew stood at their stations now; the ship was due to arrive at Gorai soon, at which point the full bridge crew would replace those currently on duty. It was the best part of Goruu’s day though. Bringing the Ship-Father’s Talamay was meant to be a degrading assignment, just another example of what happened to those who made stupid career choices. But while his various rivals chittered over the depths to which they’d laid Goruu low, he got a chance to stand in the bridge and just… be.

The Star’s Bounty was not a military vessel, despite it’s naval employ. Where any real ship of war might have bristled with station upon station of sub-command within the medium compartment, Star’s Bounty had come only with navigation, helm, communication and internal operations, and a Ship-Fathers station set centrally and to the left. Almost as an afterthought, the Clan had added in a tactical station to handle the minimal defensive capabilities and armaments which amounted to nothing more than a few enhanced pulse deflection emitters and two anti-vehicle pulse cannons, mounted ventraly. But a bridge was a bridge, and like the cockpit of a fighter, it was where a pilot belonged, even one who flew a cleaning cart more often than anything else. Just standing in the nexus of command felt right.

Ship-Father Yalick took the cup of Talamay without so much as a glance at Goruu, which was usual. As he looked about the con, taking in what time he could, Goruu’s face froze just a moment as he noticed the same Female to which he’d so horribly embarrassed himself yesterday. She was clearly trying to talk quietly with the Brother who stood, rather rigidly, at the Tactics console. That, in and of itself, wasn’t too surprising. Brother Curraj had been sweet on her since she boarded the ship and with his tenure and rank within the Clan, most of the other Brothers hadn’t tried more than a bit of play-fighting in challenge. His approach to having a Female Associate among the ship’s complement boiled down to two things: She was to be treated with respect, and if anyone but the Ship-Father himself even sniffed at approaching her for a mating contract, they’d be doing it through Curraj. Given that the Ship-Father wasn’t even remotely interested and not a single other Brother, Goruu included, dared to tangle with Curraj, this had led to a sort of political and playful dance between Amyni and the de facto second-in-command of Star’s Bounty. She gave him the hope of a mating contract after her current mission was done, and of course the possibility of better status for Clan Firefang as a whole in the eyes of Clan Female. He gave her peace of mind, freedom from being overwhelmed with gifts and brutish displays from the other Brothers, and access to the chain of command which the Ship-Father wouldn’t. The last of those was a pretty big risk though. Should Yalick decide that his relatively young second-in-command was overstepping himself, or giving the Female too much access to Clan secrets, he wouldn’t hesitate to take it out of Curraj’s hide, literally. Gorru hadn’t yet figured out why, given the Ship-Father’s obvious mistrust of Amyni, Yalick had allowed Curraj so much leeway, especially on the bridge of all places.

While he mused, Goruu also watched as the Ship-Father’s cup slowly emptied. He didn’t have much time on the bridge left so he stopped paying attention to tactical and instead closed his eyes to focus once again on the sounds and smells about him.

“Curraj? Hey, Curraj!” Gorru heard Amyni’s whispers as they broke through his odd meditation. He looked up to see that the Tactical Brother had gone a bit stiff and was looking around as though momentarily confused. “Are you ok?” She was clearly keeping her voice down as to not bring the attention of others but the bridge wasn’t exactly expansive and other Brothers were starting to take notice.

Brother Curraj looked at the Female as though only just noticing her and turned squarely, almost gracelessly, to face her. “You are now restricted from the bridge Associate Amyni. Please return to your compartment and remain there.”

All sound seemed to cease as Amyni turned to look now at the Ship-Father with a glare that was at once both plaintive and accusatory. Yalick only duck-nodded, the equivalent of a shrug in the affirmative, and gestured his nose to the corridor leading back out of the bridge. With no reprieve from the Ship-Father, Amyni was left without options and, with only a confused glance back at the one Brother who had, until just now, been her sole ally, she walked solemnly off the bridge.

It took a few solid minutes for everyone to remember themselves and shift their attention back toward their work. The sounds of the compartment returned to a normal efficient din but the smell of the bridge remained stiff. Ship-Father Yalick finished his drink.

As Yalick reached out to hand off the now empty cup though, his attention spiked quickly to the read-out at his left claw and then immediately toward Curraj. With no warning at all the Ship-Father sprang from his chair, fangs bare and claws extended and seeking directly for the Tactical Brother’s throat. The empty cup fell unnoticed to the decking.

Seven-Three-Four took its host’s paws quickly from the tactical console and snarled. Feeding heavily on the marvelously ingrained fighting instincts of the new host, it leaped to meet the incoming Ship-Father. It wasn’t going to be enough though. Already Seven-Three-Four could see in the trajectory and agility of its opponent that its short acclimation into this body would play heavily against it. This host was going to die much faster than Seven-Three-Four’s needs permitted.

It calculated options by the nanosecond. Getting rid of the Female had been relatively easy, if a little more obvious than Seven-Three-Four would have liked, but attempting to reroute full ship control through the tactical station had most certainly been the wrong move. It hadn’t anticipated the elder Gaoian’s physical response at all. Rather than trying to digitally prevent and lock-out command functions, the Ship-Father had pounced without even a warning. It wasn’t the sort of solution that would have come easily to a digital being such as Seven-Three-Four. Immune to the fear that it’s host would otherwise have been feeling as Yalick bit viciously for it’s throat, Seven-Three-Four selected one of its back-up options. It’s host managed to barely deflect the bite from fatal to merely a maiming. Perhaps this body could still be useful.

Yalick took the Brother’s retributive claw to his face, turning just at the last second and pulling his eyes out of range. The added moments before the turn left his momentum in tact as he dug his claws deep into the Tactical Brother’s chest and pulled them both heavily to the decking. The crash only deepened his attack before both of Yalick’s upper claws retracted from Curraj’s chest with a twist and flashed in and up to strike for the vital arteries under Curraj’s arms while they were still thrown back from the momentum. For such mutiny, there could be no mercy; Clan Brother or no.

Seven-Three-Four finished its programming and wrote off the last two directives to its soon-to-be erstwhile host. The already maimed tactical officer had no hope of defeating the Ship-Father now, but perhaps his death might buy Seven-Three-Four enough time yet to recapture the advantage. Like some demonic ether, Seven-Three-Four slipped through its host’s implants and back into the dataspace supported by the ships robust digital substrate. Behind it remained only a shell, a husk of the Clan Brother who’d once been called Curraj. Within that biological drone now resided only two objectives: Ignore pain. Kill the Ship-Father.

Goruu, and it seemed the rest of the bridge crew, didn’t know what to do. The Ship-Father had given no command to indicate that this was anything more than purely a disciplinary matter and so no one else dared move. Such sudden action wasn’t unheard of within the Clan, though it was very rare and often followed with rather significant consequences for the victor, be they in the right or wrong. In the end, he decided that it was better to be ready and wait for orders. However, despite the rarity of such demonstrative acts of discipline, something about this one seemed wrong to him. The orders Curraj had given to the Associate Sister earlier didn’t sit right. Goruu had known Curraj, even liked him. What’s more, Goruu had played Ta’Shen against him a few times and the Brother he’d seen behind Curraj’s eyes across the gaming table had not been there a moment ago. But if that hadn’t of been his Brother, then who was it? How was it?

In the few moments it took for Yalick to bear what was left of Curraj to the deck and for Goruu to take only a few steps back towards the corridor, the rest of the crew started to break from their shock as well. As Goruu watched Curraj’s hind-claws find purchase on the Ship-Fathers thighs, ripping them heavily, he also barely noticed first the internal operations officer and then the navigator stiffen. With his attention otherwise riveted to the ongoing fight, Goruu failed to notice the same sort of deadening look come over his other brothers as it had Curraj. Goruu found himself bumping up against the corridor entry still lost in confusion as the operations officer pounced into the fray as well. He fought to understand if some order had been given, some plan enacted and if so, how? How could they communica… the implants. Curraj and the other Brothers must be communicating by implants. But then that would mean… Goruu’s fears crystallized as he watched the operations officers claws dig viciously into the Ship-Father’s side, producing a blood churning roar from Yalick.

With barely nanoseconds to settle in and acclimate to its current host, Seven-Three-Four wasted little time. Three new hosts in such short time wasn’t really a stretch, but each one took time to properly acclimate to, time that Seven-Three-Four didn’t have. It had to win this struggle and do so fast to have any hope of taking the ship as a whole. But first it needed to ensure itself the time to do that. Focusing on the digits of its new navigator host, Seven-Three-Four quickly, if not too efficiently, plugged in the coordinates to a new location previously unknown to the ship’s computers. That done, it set a command to immediately turn and jump the Star’s Bounty back into hyperspace on the new heading immediately upon arrival at Gorai. It had originally planned to pick up additional… crew, at Gorai, but taking possession of this pathetic freighter was proving more time consuming than anticipated. Oh well, it could always return for needed bodies later. Seven-Three-Four made one final entry into the navigational computers to lock out its most recent changes and turned to assess the ongoing effort to put down the ship’s rather resilient commander. Surly two and a half on one will be enough, right?

Nobody had been at the helm console and the only other creature on the bridge was maddeningly un-implanted. Seven-Three-Four would have to do what it could with what it had or risk alerting others on the ship by trying to pull additional bodies from other compartments. It waited for an opening and dropped its host to all fours as it raced in to catch the Ship-Fathers right hind-claw just as he was regaining his feet. The first biodrone was out of action, it’s attack on the Ship-Father’s legs having been the last of its contributions to the fight as it lay exsanguinating on the deck.

The Ship-Father had anticipated Seven-Three-Four’s attack though and even as its swipe seemed to take out the wiley old Gaoian’s leg, the Ship-Father shifted weight into a twist that brought the operations officer biodrone around, slamming heavily into Seven-Three-Four’s current host. The maneuver not only disengaged the operations biodrone but also pinned Seven-Three-Four for a precious few seconds. The momentary respite for the Ship-Father shifted a cascade of momentum against Seven-Three-Four as it registered a sudden all-ship bust communication go out. Before ‘droning the operations officer, it had had the foresight to lock down innership communications from the bridge, but Seven-Three-Four obviously hadn’t anticipated that the Ship-Father would have an emergency override in his antiquated communications implant. Another costly mistake, but not a terminal one. Seven-Three-Four needed to end this, and fast. Calculations flashed through its processes until it found one; one chance. The Ship-Father’s implant didn’t have quite the level of cerebral integration for Seven-Three-Four to take him as a host… but just maybe there was another option…

Klaxons sounded as blue strobing lights shifted the bridge into a sudden and grim tableau. A general alarm only added to Goruu’s confusion. Only one thing was certain though, this was no longer some disciplinary action. But which side was the right one? Heavily wounded and flagging, Yalick was actually holding his own against the remaining two officers but just barely. Their fighting was lethargic and showed a strange lack of form to explain the mismatch. The Ship-father, on the other hand, was lethality incarnate. Every swipe of his claw either maimed an opponent or deflected his doom. He took hits, to be sure, but even as Goruu watched, they were not dire, merely scars to tell the tale of it all. He heard a noise growing in the corridor behind him and turned just in time to see Amyni sprinting full out at the head of five other brothers, all of them armored. “Out of my way!” she snarled as he flattened instinctually against the corridor plating. Without so much as a word in explanation for the bewildered Goruu, she leapt into the fray… and in the defense of the Ship-Father.

Goruu was less familiar with the alert codes as he might once have been, and being entirely un-augmented, he’d failed to receive the direct communication of the Ship-Father’s specific order to defend the bridge against hostile insurgents, but seeing the Female jump into the fray was finally enough to jog him out of his confusion. There was just something inherently embedded in his genetics; anyone fighting against a Female could not truly be a Gaoian. His thoughts cleared and his conviction finally aligned, Goruu started running into the fight as well.

Seven-Three-Four was desperate. How had that Female bitch been so close at hand and with armored Brothers as well?! The exchange it’d had with her earlier as the Tactical Brother… she’d suspected something then. It must have been. But that didn’t matter now. It was losing. Leaving the host of the navigator, Seven-Three-Four doubled down on it’s last chance. Firewall after firewall, it tore at them until finally it found what it needed. It wouldn’t take much and it would certainly require a little work after-the-fact, but one of the armored brothers was implanted. Seven-Three-Four couldn’t hesitate. It struck with everything it had and then made the dataspace equivalent of a flying leap across the bridge.

Goruu was only about two strides behind Amyni as she jumped back from the heap of claws and death to dodge one of the navigator’s suddenly clumsy swings. He thought to yell to her, plead with her to get behind him but he didn’t get the chance. With a roar of defiance the Ship-Father suddenly clutched his temple as though to rip out the mechanical devices embedded within. But it could never have been enough; the Ship-Father’s head exploded at the same time as one of the armored guards armed a pulse grenade. In the span of nanoseconds all four of the un-armored bridge officers, including what was left of the Ship-Father, were pulped. The armored Brothers escaped the lethal force of the concussion but were each thrown heavily against the walls of the compartment. Goruu, who was unarmored and had been running toward the explosion, was saved only by the fact that he just happened to be directly behind one armored Amyni.

When Humans first reached the stars, officially, one of the things which immediately dumbfounded most of them, was just how incredibly reliant every other species was upon forcefield tech. There was just something unnatural about placing so much faith in something so utterly transient. Most other peoples throughout the galaxy found this an odd opinion to have and generally laughed it off as some silly ‘deathworlder thing’. Humans, on the other hand, were quite adamant about reinforcing any of their vessels with heavy bulkheads, reinforced hatches, and generally a whole muck of metal and composites. The Star’s Bounty was, however, not a Human ship.

Conventional thought had placed the Bridge at least a couple layers within the outer hull of the Star’s Bounty and so, when the wave of destruction flew out from the pulse grenade, combined with the mass of several armored bodies turned shrapnel, and struck the interfaces allocated to gravimetrics and forcefield power management, just about everyone within the bridge and the surrounding sections survived. Those who happened to be unfortunate enough to find themselves near any of the cargo bays, instead suddenly found that they were, in fact, no longer in the cargo bays or corridors at all but flung into space. As those unfortunate souls had but a few moments to reflect upon their fate, it’s possible that some had the time to mourn their Brothers who instead had been in compartments which were only partially open to the internal corridors of the ship. These compartments had, at least, the structure to prevent solid objects from being thrown out into the corridors-turned-explosive-vacuum-tunnels but relied instead on forcefields to enact air-tight seals for those compartments. As such, their occupants weren’t thrown into space but suffered a fatal case of sudden depressurization as they were squeezed suddenly into gaps about each compartment door and stunned unconscious to boot.

The designers of the Star’s Bounty hadn’t been entirely without foresight though. Within moments, a secondary emergency forcefield system took over and reasserted a mandatory partitioning of each of the central, and therefore primary compartments. Engineering control, the officer’s nests, several duty stations, and of course the Bridge, along with the corridors in between, were immediately sealed off.

Unconscious to all of this, Goruu finally emerged from blackness to find himself crumpled beside one of the forcefields at the other end of the central corridor from the bridge. It took him a moment to realize where he was, but upon seeing Amyni crumpled just in front and partially on top of him, and upon feeling the set of clearly broken ribs he now had from her impact, much of the past insanity came back pretty quick. He glanced up at the emergency emitters above and exhaled painfully. Thank Fyu the forcefield hadn’t bisected him, the emergency type weren’t designed to quibble over something so mundane as organic matter on the principle that slicing one crew member likely meant saving many others.

The unbidden whimper from his movement was enough to rouse Amyni though, and for a brief moment of dissociative amusement Goruu’s mind remarked on the fact that at least she was bound to notice him this time. “Are… are you ok?”

Her eyes came open and she slowly turned her head to look back and down at him. “What… happened?” Her eyes cleared suddenly. “The Ship-Father!” She tried to spring to her feet but the armor’s reactive shielding had only been enough to divert most of the blast from her head, it had done nothing to cushion the impact of her landing. Amyni came back down beside Goruu with a thud and clasping her head almost like she’d meant to do that all along. “My head… Great Mother that hurt.”

Goruu could now see past her and down to the bridge end of the corridor. What he saw did not fill him with hope. “I think I see someone at the navigation station, wearing armor.” He said it in a whisper. “He hasn’t noticed us yet.”

“In armor?” Her voice brightened.

“Hsss” Goruu tried to move towards her, to beg her to keep quiet, but the movement only sent pain blossoming through his entire chest and resulted on landing him snout-first into the decking and curled upon himself.

“But he’s with us then.” Goruu could only shake his head. Blessedly she was watching and had lowered her voice anyway. “Why not? Oh, here…” She carefully scooted over and very slowly helped Goruu back into the sitting position against the corridor wall that he was struggling to on his own.

He was still shaking his head. “If he was Clan, he would have already checked on us first. Besides, look at him. He is only focused on one thing right now, not panicking, not trying to assess damages.”

“If he’s not Clan, then who is he?”

“I don’t know, but he is not our Brother. If he sees us…” He let the response fade, unsure whether he even had the capability of understanding what might happen. “We need to know what he is doing though.” Goruu started to push himself up the wall but winced heavily.

Amyni saw that he was trying to stand and offered an arm in support. “How do you propose we do that exactly?” Her tone was light hearted but falsely so.

He looked askance at her and, for the first time in his life, pondered saying something entirely too acidic to a Female. He decided on something a bit more useful instead, “Engineering, we can figure out what’s going on from there. Besides,” he glanced back up at the emergency emitters, “these aren’t designed to hold forever. We’ll want to be in the room where we can manage energy use if they start failing.”

“Yep, that’s what I was afraid of.” Goruu looked through the lense of a camera placed, ultimately for communication purposes, at one end of the bridge. Standing almost motionless at both navigation and at the tactical consoles, were two of the five armored brothers. The three other armored brothers lay at awkward ends of the bridge, their throats slit by a single claw each. It was hard to make out through the muck and gore plastered into the fur of the remaining two, but Goruu wasn’t surprised to see the tell-tale markings of full implant suites in their temples. “Ballsacks” Amyni threw a surprised expression his way at the language but he barely noticed. “And the bridge’s fields are locked-out from the bridge too. We couldn’t get in there even if we could take them.”

The short trip into engineering had highlighted just how few of the crew’s already low complement had survived the venting. Only a few compartments even held survivors; these included the two mechanically trained Brothers who’d just happened to be in engineering when they arrived. A quick trip to the medical kit stored to one side of the compartment and the four of them circled up to assess. Goruu leaned back from the console and looked first at the generalist who sat still catching his breath in the corner and then over to the engineer standing only a few paces away. Amyni was the first to ask. “Brother Ishif, could we re-route the power from the emitters enough to- ” Goruu finally saw what he’d missed as they’d entered. It was a very good imitation to be sure, but as one of Ishif’s eyes started to glaze over, Goruu saw the other one zoom out like a telescopic lens. “He’s implanted!”

The painkillers he’d taken weren’t miracle makers and neither were they sufficient to allow Goruu the kind of response timing he would have needed to defend himself, much less attack Ishif who was a full two meters across the compartment. Luckily Amyni wasn’t slow, mentally or physically. She realized the danger and threw herself at the engineer even before his claws had finished coming out. Amyni had never received any kind of paw to paw combat instruction, nor had she ever imagined that she would ever truly need the gung-fu that a select few of her Sisters had raved of learning from Sister Shoo. Under normal circumstances even her faster response wouldn’t have been enough to save her from a one-on-one fight with a larger, stronger, and clearly meaner opponent. But she still had armor, and he didn’t.

It was over quickly. There was little form or art to what Goruu watched Amyni do, but she didn’t hesitate. She came away from the pounce and brief tussle with a few scars in inconsequential places, but Ishif came away without a throat.

“Remind me to never storm a Commune.”

“Especially if Myun is there…”

“Huh?”

Amyni didn’t repeat what she’d said under her breath but instead tried to wipe the gore form her claws. “What about him?” She twitched her nose at the one still breathing heavily in the corner.

It was hard to say whether it was the shake of Goruu’s head or the sudden keening wale of ‘I’ve got no implants!’ from the Brother in the corner that registered first, but after one last glare to be sure, Amyni let her claws resheeth and she stepped back over to Goruu. “How many other brothers are implanted on the ship?”

Goruu glanced back at the various compartment readouts and his heart sank. Several more compartment forcefields had just deactivated followed by the forcefields next in line from those compartments to engineering. “More than one.”

Amyni increased her pace over to the console. “Can we lockdown the remaining forcefields from here?”

“Um… yeah. Here.” Goruu selected the necessary processes.

Amyni’s paws slipped in almost on-top of his to follow the commands up with her personal security lockout codes. They weren’t exactly Whitecrest level codes, but they had nothing to do with anything Clan Firefang. They should hold against any known anti-encryption software for at least a while. She had no way of knowing whether the things that Goruu feared could take over another being via their implants was normal, so maybe it was an empty gesture anyway.

Goruu’s thoughts were running much along the same lines. “I don’t think that’s going to hold them, whatever ‘them’ is, for very long. We need a more permanent solution.”

“Well, we can’t really get through the corridors anymore now that we’ve locked them down.”

The generalist in the corner spoke up, startling both of them as they’d very nearly forgotten he was there. “Well, the life support systems still run through. What about those?”

Amyni responded first, “Life support? What, you’re saying we can turn it off?”

The Brother shook his head. “No, that’s got failsafes upon failsafes that we can’t get to from here. I don’t know, you just asked what we hadn’t blocked off and the life support ducting is independent of the forcefield system is all.”

“We could gas ‘em”

Amyri turned to regard Goruu with a look of utter confusion. “Do what?!”

He heaved a huge sigh and instantly regretted it as he remembered his current condition. “Gas them.” He coughed painfully. “This is a Dominion designed ship right? Well, the environmental controls were designed to cater to all manner of species and not all of us breath the same composite of gases right?” Neither of the other two said anything. “So tell the system that something other than a Gaoian inhabits those rooms, something that doesn’t breathe ‘air’ air like us.” Still neither of them responded. “You can do that, right?” This time he addressed himself directly to the engineering generalist, or the closest thing the Gaoians had to a ‘handyman’, who was starting to stand up in the corner.

“Uh… yeah actually, I think I could.”

“And you can can exempt this room too?”

The generalist, Geeran was his name, duck-nodded.

Amyni was looking again at the console. “You’d better hurry then, I don’t know exactly what’s happening but I think our friends just figured out what we did to the emitters.”

Brother Geeran stepped up to the console, displacing Goruu. “Yeah, I think I can do it. Where’d you come up with this anyway?”

I saw it in a [movie] once.” He’d used the Human word for movie.

“What in Fyu’s name is a [movie]?”

“Don’t care, just do it! Fast!” Amyni’s eyes went wide as her lockout codes were swept aside as though they didn’t even exist. The progression of emitters deactivating suddenly resumed.

Geeran’s claws gained speed as he gained confidence; a natural with the interfaces. Goruu watched as he made the final adjustments and then suddenly stopped dead with his claw just over the command to execute. “Wait, what about the ones that aren’t implanted?”

Goruu didn’t answer him, he didn’t even think an answer. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw only one set of fields left up between engineering and corridors and compartments that were about to become very, very unfriendly to Gaoian life. He slammed Geeran’s claw down and took the largest, most painful breath of his life.

He needn’t have, as it turned out. Geeran hadn’t chosen carelessly with his atmospheres. Goruu would never really know from which planet or species the alchemical mixture which descended upon the rest of the ship originated but it certainly acted fast. With only a few careless breaths the two things pretending to be Gaoians on the bridge collapsed, motionless. It was only as his heart slowed back to something resembling normalcy that his conscience could finally register what he’d done. At least a half-dozen of his Brothers, most of them completely innocent and unimplanted, were now dead because of a call he made. But he’d make it again in a heartbeat. Amyni was alive. He and Geeran were alive. The ship was no longer in enemy hands, whoever, whatever that enemy had been.

It took longer to reset the environmental controls to something survivable by Gaoian standards, and even then there was a painful acidity to the air as the three remaining crew of the Star’s Bounty flat out ran to the bridge, or in Goruu’s case hobbled. From engineering they’d managed to at least purge the current navigational actions which the intruder, whatever it had been, had automated into the system. They wouldn’t be forced into a jump into some unknown location anymore so at least that was good right?

Unfortunately, they also couldn’t put any new navigational commands into the computer, or easily pilot the ship, from the limited engineering consoles. None of them really fancied the idea of coming out of hyperspace into Gorai’s system pickets without anyone actually in command, and so as the ship shuddered and shed the last remaining eddies of faster than light travel, each of them stood panting as the initial readouts came in to their instruments. At first there was nothing, a dead calm that seemed impenetrable as the instruments tried to sort what they had received. Once sorted though, the cacophony of horror which shattered that calm almost caused Goruu to vomit. Death incarnate had come to Gorai.


A HUGE thank you to my wife for her support and editing, to Hambone for allowing me to play in his sandbox, and to ctwelve who helped a ton with hosting setup and jverse cohesion. A thank you as well to D. Volka for convincing me to listen to my gut and look for better hosting options.

=======

title: “Chapter 00: Prelude to War” date: 2018-05-13 lastmod: 2018-05-13

author: “P.A.B.Arianis (paladin3712x)”

13 years, 11 months, 2 weeks, 1 day After Vancouver
Hai’yi Shipyards, Gorai Orbit

Marruk

A bit of dirt, or maybe it was dried blood, slipped from under his claws to drift listlessly to the decking as Marruk started excavating grit from the next claw. His mind wasn’t really focused on the cleaning, nor was it given over much to the rather monotonous report being read to him by the Brother standing just to the left of his command chair. The life of a Squadron-Father certainly had its perks, one of which was a prerogative to appear entirely disinterested or even distracted doing just about whatever he wanted, and his subordinates wouldn’t even bat an eye. Still, he should probably have at least the appearance of listening. Marruk shifted up a bit from the slumped posture he’d been holding and let his right hind-claw return to the decking. He still didn’t look at the Brother; there was no need to appear to be hanging on his every word either.

“…components will be arriving in the next two days, but the additional Mag-Lance cannons are now almost a week late, Squadron-Father. We’ve shifted our technicians to working on the beacon ejectors instead, in the interim, which should alleviate…” The Brother continued his litany of information which was entirely superfluous to Marruk who, being who, and more importantly what he was, already had an intimate awareness of everything this supposed update covered. How couldn’t he, through his extensive implants, he’d already received these updates from his contacts on Aetlayus a day ago and made the necessary adjustments to his timetables. Having it all listed to him by his subordinate was merely a facade, a bit of a show to keep up appearances and tradition.

The delays were regrettable but not dire. Marruk had spent the better part of the past few years building and arming his secret little task force which had hit operational force estimates over a month ago. Any additional ships or new Human-inspired weaponry were simply a bonus at this point. The task group was, according to Gaoian records anyway, nothing more than a joint Firefang and One-Fang scrapping program positioned somewhere in the ass-end of nowhere, out past Gorai’s system limits. The Fathers and Champions of either clan had little care for the management of their raw shipbuilding waste and so had happily delegated that responsibility to a rather unremarkable commander, after some careful positioning, of course. The billet was considerable enough to demand that at least a Father of some rank was placed in command of the few light frigates which patrolled the secluded waste heap and so Marruk, a mere Squadron-Father, found himself ‘King of the Trash Heap’. But then that was simply what he and his true allies wanted the Gaoian leadership to think.

Over time, and through some judicious reassignment of key personnel, more and more of the trash haulers traveling from the various shipyards began to arrive to the ‘trash heap’, not with trash or waste, but with state-of-the-art components or even raw fabrication materials. Coupled with ever improving weapons and system equipment secretly shipped out from Aetlayus, Marruk’s simple guard picket was now the 57 ship strong spear-tip for a galactic war not even the Gaoians knew might come. A feral grin spread across Marruk’s face, baring his fangs. This simple Squadron-Father was, in fact, in command of a Fleet-Father’s worth of the most lethal, aggressively designed strike force short of the Swarm of Swarms itself. It wasn’t the number of ships he had which brought dreams of power to his thoughts, but rather the pure malice of their design. Built around an amalgamation of Aetlayus creativity, Gaoian ferocity, and Hunter mercilessness, with just a spice of Human inventiveness thrown in, his ships were the future of his race and it’s rightful place in the galaxy. It had taken near a millennia, but he was now in command of that future; he held the shaft of that spear. His superiors could suck it.

Of course, he wasn’t actually with his little fleet at the moment. Nobody expected him to just float around a trash heap all week, and so he and his pawfull of ships would take turns swinging out to the carefully hidden fleet but remain garrisoned primarily at the station or shipyards in orbit of Gorai. All of the time spent buzzing like stinkflies around the yards and stations was, as one might expect, incredibly dull, despite the covert management of building and equipping his secret fleet. But the boredom of it all actually paid off. It let him claw-pick his real crew from among the many Clanless who saw both a break from laboring as well as a potential path into a Clan. Those who he felt actually made the cut, would soon find themselves not only Associates of the Firefang clan, but also secret members of Gao’s elite new ‘Secret Weapon”. Anyone who didn’t make the cut… well, it wasn’t uncommon for Clanless to die when seeking the rites of a clan. He hadn’t amassed enough of those crew for more than a few of the haulers yet, but there was time for a more aggressive ‘recruitment’ strategy later, anything too big would attract too much attention and he couldn’t risk that; not yet anyway.

Marruk roused from his musings and realized that the Brother who was ‘updating’ him had stopped talking and was now clearly awaiting orders. Marruk performed a quick self-assessment and was glad to find that he’d at least appeared outwardly pensive rather than distracted. He had no idea what the last portion of the update had been, and he didn’t really care to review the playback captured by his implants, so he went with the most pressing need and the current reason why his ship was in orbit of the planet. “Contact the Station-Father and request that he expedite the transfer of mat-, I mean junk, to the Hariyu and the Kinsah. Please remind him that-”

Without so much as a warning, a portion of Marruk’s mind was hurled across time and space as he was connected into an ever-growing gestalt of other minds. He so hated unexpected sessions like these. The rest of his consciousness finished out his orders to the Brother with only the barest pause to indicate anything had distracted him.

System reroute; mandatory notification protocol in effect.

Marruk waited the endless nanoseconds for the imposed session. Briefly he wondered as to what could be so important as to constitute a mandatory summons of this nature; we really should be past all this sort of treatment by now. For a moment he drew an interesting correlation between Terran canines being called to ‘heel’ and the many similarities they shared with his current host, but the humorless smirk on his face was fleeting.

System notification: Users 0063, 0182, 0734, 0885 have joined Closed Session.

++0007++: Standby for immediate changes in directive.

Marruk registered the nature of the other users in the channel, more specifically that they all were tasked with military assets within Gaoian space. A hint of what was coming next burst into Marruk’s mind and a deep rage spread to his face. The Brother who’d been just about to leave and carry out those orders to the Station-Father choked off his response mid-sentence and just left, eagre to be anywhere else.

++0007++: Cleanse and reset protocol on the secondary control species is now enacted. Code: Expose; Cleanse; Regenerate.

A faint whisper of some ancient and long forgotten curse escaped under Marruk’s breath. The part of him which had spent more than one mortal lifetime preparing for the day when the new control species would be unleashed upon the universe, the part known only as Six-Three, silently screamed every obscenity from every language, both lost and dying, that he knew.


13y11m2w1d AV
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Gorai

Goruu

One did not spend as much time around Humans as Goruu did without starting to pick up on their tells. They couldn’t help but to be so expressive! For an up and coming fighter pilot, he’d been practically groomed to watch for an opponent’s flinch. It was a knack that made him pretty good at Ta’Shen, even better in the cockpit, and as he’d learned from the mother of one of his cubs, not too shabby at diplomatic intrigue. It was the latter of those that led him to seek reassignment aboard the Dominion Embassy Station 172 within the Sol system. The request was seen by some of his clan to be a step backwards for a successful fighter pilot, but only a cub could have been so blind as to ignore the potential that fostering relations with the Humans might bring. Other advantages came swiftly as well. The choice brought him further attention from the Females, leading to more than one mating contract, and not the least of the perks was the opportunity to further grow his friendship with Earth’s preeminent superstar pilot; Rylee Jackson. All things considered, Goruu felt like he was making a pretty good niche for himself during his diplomatic reassignment as a mere shuttle pilot to various Gaoian dignitaries, and as an unofficial emissary of the Gaoian people to Humanity.

As a sure sign that he was starting to regain some ground in the eyes of his Brothers, Goruu was approved for a new suite of tactical implants to be fully funded by the Clan. At first, the new implants seemed to open door after door for him. Through his new encrypted communications implant, Goruu gained a direct line of communication with not only the Firefang Brothers and Fathers operating on the station, but also those of other Clans as well. Several of the more influential Fathers even started corresponding with him for insights on the Humans and their doings. This, of course, led to more games of Ta’Shen and Poker with his Human friends, which led to even more interest from the Fathers. Goruu wasn’t so naive as to believe himself anything more than just an informant for many of those Fathers, but he was also very careful not to overplay his friendships either. That included resisting certain Fathers’ insistences that he push his Human friends to be a bit more liberal with their Talamay, or whatever else they might choose to drink. It seemed to Goruu that keeping a deathworlder’s trust was one of the most healthy decisions he could make even if it was hard to explain to his superiors.

After a while, just about every military attached human he encountered, Rylee included, started looking askance at his head hardware. It didn’t take long for Goruu to catch the idea that something was amiss. His new friends started spending less time around him and those that did seemed unhappy about his implants. Goruu took the hint, and he took it fast. Finding someone skilled enough to remove his implants had almost been harder than the look of disappointment his sire and Clan-Father had given him and no sooner had he done so, his Claw-Leader had immediately placed him under investigation, essentially grounding him. Things started happening even faster from there. He was summarily bundled off on the next transport out of Sol, away from his friends, both Gaoian and Human, and reassigned not as a pilot, but as support crew to one of the Clan’s virtually unknown transport services.

In the system, the transport services were considered to be the easiest duties and carried a sort of backhanded prestige. Often, Clan members who’d shown themselves to lack certain… initiative for combat, or who had shown their judgement to be in question but not so severe as to be outright killed, found themselves ‘promoted’ to crew such ships. But everyone knew the truth; anyone serving on a Clan transport had essentially been taken out of the greater view of history. They could call it a promotion all they wanted, it was a figurative dead-end. The swiftness of Goruu’s career suicide though nearly sprained his ears in its abruptness and finality. To round it all off, the Father in charge of the reassignment had made it abundantly clear, if not in so many words, that he’d be doing nothing more important than ‘cleaning the head of just about every freighter from Gao to Gorai’ for years to come.

He thought about his nose-diving career as he finished wiping down another vacuum disposal fixture and rolled back into a squatting position. The unit auto-sealed and voided it’s contents of cleaning solution into the return piping to be reclaimed into the Star’s Bounty’s scrubbing system. Taking a moment to muse further over his misfortunes, Goruu glanced over at the inner hull beside him and chittered to himself. If this were a Human vessel, he’d half expected to be looking out through some ridiculously complex and over-engineered window into space. Why anyone would need to look into space while they took a shit was beyond him, but nonetheless, in some of the more refined suites on station 172 he’d seen exactly that; view portals… in waste reclamation rooms. He shook his head; Humans were strange. Of course, that only brought his mind to yet further Human oddities, like the fact that some of their earlier designed stations and vessels wouldn’t have even reclaimed the waste but instead would have voided it… directly into space! He shuddered both at the waste of it but also at the sheer disgusting risk of throwing what amounted to biological weaponry out into space and thinking not a thing of it.

But Humanity hadn’t known better in those days. In fact, it wasn’t until they finally reached the stars and began setting up their very first colonial world that they truly grasped the effect of something so simple as the symbiotic bacteria living in their bodies. It had taken destroying an entire planet’s eco-system to do it, but they’d learned; and they’d adapted. With amazing speed they’d enacted new procedures and tactics to ensure that the same thing never happened again. As he stood up to his full height, joints aching from the day’s repeated strain, Goruu pondered that it was, perhaps, the Humans’ ability to learn and adapt so fast that he missed the most. At even something as trivial as Ta’Shen, a Gaoian game apparently resembling the Human’s ‘poker’ in many ways, Goruu had watched Rylee go from complete ignorance of the game to handily defeating him within a matter of an evening and she’d done it while mentally impaired by the Talamay as well!

Learning for the Gaoians was at least a little more elastic than many other races, but despite that, most Gaoians’ ability to assimilate and retain new information peaked shortly after their maturity and the declining slope was a rather steep one. Most training programs after maturity, which for Gaoians was only about sixteen rotations, focused more on variation on the themes of their youth rather than holistically new approaches to a problem. And that was where Humans were just down-right scary. It had taken some effort for Rylee to convince Goruu that even Human learning had a peak and that it was also around just after their age of maturity, but their decline in the ability to learn completely new concepts never really bottomed out, it just got slower and required much more stimulus to change. Rylee had laughed it off as being ‘stubborn’ or ‘set in their ways’. She’d also made some strange remarks about aging canines and magic but by the time he and the other Gaoians had figured out that it wasn’t meant as an insult to their species’ similarity to Terran ‘dogs’, he’d missed what the reference was to completely. The frightening truth of it was that, with enough reason or stimulus to change, a Human could completely reinvent everything they did, how they did it, and the psychological structure behind it, within the span of weeks or even days. It was an ability that even the Corti struggled to achieve and one, which given the now constant rate of change that the Humans had initiated on a galactic scale, threatened to overwhelm every species Goruu knew and likely the ones he didn’t. He’d chosen to live with the Humans to learn from them but as he looked back now, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever really had a chance at it; to truly learn. How could his Clan, the Gaoians, or even he himself hope to keep up?

That had been the last fixture of this compartment so he gathered up his supplies and made for the door, still lost in his thoughts. Goruu stepped out of the compartment and came face to face with a rather irate looking crewmate who looked at once of wanting to pummel Goruu or throw him out of the way and leap into the waste reclamation compartment. The flustered crewmate apparently selected a mixture of the two and while Goruu barely reacted in time to prevent his cleaning equipment from scattering about the decking, he heard the rushed thud of the compartment door closing behind him along with a rather nasty curse which he was sure was meant to be heard. He recovered his composure and looked up and down the compartment to see Sister Amyni coming the other way toward him. In what he would later lament as perhaps the most egregious example of just how far he’d fallen, Goruu froze up entirely. The Sister was looking right at him and couldn’t possibly have missed his embarrassing run-in with the other crewmate and what’s worse, she seemed to be walking right toward him. As an Associate of Clan Firefang, Amyni wasn’t really in the chain of command and nor was she his superior officer. But she was a Female, and regardless of whatever honorary position of command she held in the structure of crew, she wielded authority over the greatest and most importantest of any regulations within the command chain, Clan or social; she embodied a direct communications path to the Clan of Females and Mother-Supreme Yulna. And with that communication came the ability to advance or crush any Male’s hopes of ever mating again. As he agonized over just how badly the turn in his career had bombardiered any chance of talking contracts with a Female again even if he could think of something to say to her to regain some sense of composure, he watched her walk right up to him and then past him without so much as even a nod to indicate his presence. In fact, it was a solid eight seconds before he even realized she hadn’t stopped at all and he spun about to watch Amyni and the scowl she wore turn abruptly at the end of the corridor and disappear back towards the crew quarters. He stood there a few moments longer grappling with it all, adjusted his hold on his equipment, and started off again for the starboard head with his muzzle drooping to the decksoles. She hadn’t even seen him.


13y11m2w AV
Caldron’s Cradle Station, Dominion Space

Pooja Sadana

She squeezed back out of the narrow conduit and beamed through the communicator to Enivieri. “Told ‘ya I could get it!”

“Yeah, you did… it still would have been safer to send in Vetig.”

“But then I wouldn’t have gotten to see how it had gotten lodged in there in the first place.”

“You could see it just fine on the holo… you know what, never mind. I’ll never understand your confusion over the concepts of ‘touch’ and ‘see’, I’d swear your brain was deficient.”

“Those grey assholes certainly thought so.” The line went suddenly very quiet as Pooja slowly floated down the corridor. Despite having air and at least emergency level lighting, the total lack of gravity only seemed to enhance the deadness of the moment.

“I.. I’m sorry Pooja, I shouldn’t have…”

“Forget it.” Her tone certainly implied that she hadn’t forgotten but was at least trying to. “I’m across the threshold, you can fire up the grav plates in that section, mama”

Enivieri hesitated for a moment. Calling her ‘mama’ was clearly a peace offering, but she just couldn’t place whether it had been a backhanded one from a sullen child or an honest request to drop the subject. She decided to bank on the latter and flipped on the plating. The few bits of debris which had been floating around the primary dorsal corridor of the Xkkttkrrkk drifted quickly to the floor plating and several of the warning indication lights which had perpetually flared red ceased their strobing. Enivieri had made what must have truly been a titanic effort by most standards to acquire every manual or spec sheet she could on Humans, especially on their children, but the truth was, she had long since discovered that even the very rare Human-authored literature offered little insight into the wildly mercurial operation of such a bewildering child such as her own adopted daughter. This, as always, brought a look of amusement to her face. “Looks good, come on back Pooja, we’ll look at the next one.”

As Enivieri ticked off yet one more item on her anachronistic note board, she thought back to the fateful decision she’d made in rescuing the young child. Only a few short years had past, and they’d certainly been good years. Enivieri’s initial fears that the child was going to eat her entirely out of business within a week soon turned into wonder as day by day she watched this nearly helpless young girl chase an even more insatiable curiosity on a meteoric trail through just about any device or problem the child encountered. It’s true that those first years had been tight, and Enivieri’s midsection had certainly lost a bit of girth, but somewhere after about the second or third year of her unexpected parentage, that child had learned to harness her curiosity into ideas, and ohh such ideas they were. Most, of course, were entirely unusable in any stretch of applicable science or industry; trying to explain to an adamant youngling how a cannon which repeatedly fires dizirats across space as a means of resupplying carnivorous food stores might have detrimental consequences had been a particular highlight for her. But Pooja’s propensity for ignoring conventional logic had tripped more than a few advancements in Enivieri’s own problem resolution process and that was how she was now the proud Concept Owner of more than a few local system improvements, such as the little design she was currently commissioned to build out of this wreck. The Mark 2 was a niche ship, to be sure. But it was based on a now proven advancement; rather than having to completely write off a minorly damaged freighter or haul it complete back into the docks to repair it, why not send a repair collier out to meet it? At least that had been the initial idea. The first several old freighters that she had refit into Mark 1s were already out supplementing a few locally based industrial fleets. Staffed with technicians and boasting retrofit outboard nanofacs, they were proving their worth. It was, in fact, the scrappers who really took to this idea though and posed the question ‘but what if the original owner of the mostly-intact ship that they had to leave comes back?’

Enter the dizirat cannon; the Mark 2 would soon mount about four large projectile launchers loaded not with squishy little ‘paintballs’, but rather pre-programmed and networked construction drones, some of which would have their own onboard nano-factories placed surreptitiously in the rear of their fuselage. The drones wouldn’t boast the size of nanofac that the Mark 1 did, but with six to ten of the little ‘Lepore’ drones swarming over and through a wreck, they could simply excrete what they needed in its smallest and most malleable form and make repairs layer by layer or component by component. It took a little longer, but should someone come snooping by, they could also be remotely destroyed leaving no trail back to the would-be property thieves. It wasn’t quite as ‘on the up and up’ side as the work that Enivieri liked to do, but it certainly offered better pay, and perhaps a bit more food and more comfortable living arrangements for the two of them.

Pooja stepped back into the bridge, breaking Enivieri from her thoughts. “I think we’ll go after the ventral engine relay next. If we need to up and move this hull for any reason, we’ll need more than just the single set providing thrust right?” She said it with a sort of playful tone, hoping to peak the kids humor but in return she only got an even more sour look.

“I thought we were going to eat, I’m starved,”

A few years ago, Enivieri would have balked at such a ridiculous comment, now she just waggled her head and motioned to the few satchels sitting in their usual spot in the corner of the bridge. “Fine, you know where they are, but make sure you leave me some this time, right?”

“You know I always do, mama.” Pooja did that rolling giggle of hers, which Enivieri had learned meant that she thought her adoptive mom was making a funny, and skipped over to the food stores.

“Always?” The skipping paused for just one of Pooja’s rapid heartbeats. It was just enough reminder of the more than a few occasions when Enivieri had, in fact, gone days without food due to the insatiable appetite of her charge. Enivieri thought to say more but Pooja resumed her skipping and she knew the message had gotten through with just enough bite to hopefully make it stick this time. She turned back to the puzzle of the ventral engine relay. Now, just how do we get the drones into that?


13y11m2w1d AV
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Gorai

Amyni

Amyni let the field close behind her and go opaque before letting out a frustrated snarl. She looked about her solitary compartment, which might previously have been charitably called a storage pantry, and fumed; this mission was turning out to be nothing but a disappointment. She’d been carefully positioned onto a freighter which was ultimately scheduled to take a turn through one of Gorai’s shipyards and then from there she was to assert herself into service with one of the trash haulers. Well that goal had just about shriveled like a runt Naxas.

She’d never really expected to end up on a freighter at the ass-end of nowhere in the first place. Amyni thought back to her cozy little room in the Commune where she’d been assigned to investigate a significant amount of Firefang resources being directed into trash as well as some very curious personnel reassignments. These things may have seemed perfectly normal to any Clanless worker, but to someone with any concept of navy logistics, they were simply baffling. Yet, whenever she’d tried to look into it remotely, every lead led somewhere entirely innocuous. Mother Yulna wasn’t one to suffer fools, and she suffered deception of her Clan even less so. When Amyni had brought the puzzle before her, her exact words had been; “If they are content to behave like petulant cubs sneaking peshokies, then I will happily treat them as such.” Strings were pulled and orders were signed to bring one Sister Amyni, Associate of the Firefang Clan, onto the Star’s Bounty as an acting claw-leader. Her orders, at least the ones revealed to the Firefangs, were to be reassigned upon arriving at the shipyard. But the Fyu-bitten nest-pricker of a Ship-Father, Yalick, was already threatening to blow the whole Tiritya-damned mission out an airlock. ‘But you’re a _Female…_’ and ‘These orders can’t be correct, you couldn’t possibly serve on a trash hauler…’ She’d argued as much as she dared but rank within Firefang was a pretty sticky thing, and when speaking about Clan freighters it got even stickier.

The chain of command aboard any ship typically fell to the One-Fangs who crewed it. Firefangs usually kept to their fighters and shuttles and maintained a separate chain of command to match; Claw-Leaders on up through Squadron-Fathers and maybe even a Fleet-Father or two at the top for planetary starfighter garrisons. But any Clan relied on logistics as much as the next Clan and while most of those roles were often filled with Clanless or the occasional One-Fang transport, for the more sensitive cargo or destinations, the Clan would use it’s own ships crewed by Clan personnel. It was generally one of the least desirable billets in the Clan, but for those rare few who acted as captains, or ‘Ship-Fathers’ of such vessels, it came with near autonomy from the regular chain of command. See; a Ship-Father within the One-Fang structure had rank upon rank directly above them to answer to within the context of the task force or fleet, whereas a Firefang Ship-Father had no immediate superior between him and the Officers of the Clan. For all intents and purposes, he was the undisputed Master of his ship and crew with a capital ‘M’. If she’d been one to give a yip about the new Human culture craze, she might have compared such a Ship-Father to the wet-navy captains of Terran history in an age when Men of War raged through the Atlantic; captained by those with the will to be ‘Masters before God’. But she had no yips left to give, and so she continued to fume over the stupidity of a system which provided so much potential for communications lag that would require and invest the authority into Ship-Father Yalick such that he could re-write her orders without so much as a ‘by your leave’ from his superiors or the Clan of Females.

The Star’s Bounty was still in route to Gorai, provisioned with mundane commissaries and a stasis-held herd of Naxas. Their destination however, was a bit more secured than their cargo; a small and recently onlined orbital factory which was beginning to pump out fully assembled starfighters based on an experimental new chassis. Leadership within the clans was usually pretty good at keeping secrets and the Firefangs were better than most at operational security. And thus, only Firefang assets were allowed to service the installation. That had a bit to do with why Amyni was on this particular ship, yet much of the ‘why’ behind her mission required a lot more analysis and insight into the dance of inter-clan relationships. Often, in trying to maintain an edge over another clan, some of the more information centric clans, such as Whitecrest, would closely guard what little secrets they had gleaned from association with the other clan. But all of that meant little to the Clan of Females who, like the others, placed clan loyalty above any sort of Associate status they may carry with a Male clan. It was part of the reason why males resisted Associates from any other clan, even the Clan of Females, sniffing too closely around their secrets. Males. Amyni rolled her eyes and flattened her ears at the thought of any Male being more useful than distance between his nutsack and his brain.

The introduction of Humans into the mix, however, was having a very interesting impact on at least one aspect of all this though, as more and more Gaoians watched Human Females performing their duties in close conjunction with Human Males, many of the already pathetic arguments about ‘keeping Females safe’ or ‘protecting them from harmful information’ got thinner and thinner. Already, more and more Female Associates were making inroads on some of the most traditionally Male enterprises, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the information gathering practices of the Whitecrest who, due in likely part to their increased contact with said Humans, were beginning to see even more value in Female sources, despite knowing that their information might be shared with the rest of the Females. And, it just so happened, that that was precisely what had led to Amyni’s mission. While digging through some rather boring records and intercepts within the Whitecrest files, an industrious and bright young Sister had matched up some previously anomalous figures garnered from her Goldpaw Associate Nest-Sister and passed both of these along to the Mother-Supreme’s attention. That, in turn, had led to Amyni being tapped for an assignment to go in and find out just exactly how several destroyers worth of material was being fabricated into something the size of a few spaceborne fighters smaller than a shuttle, and why crackshot pilots were suddenly and gleefully signing on as trash haulers.

And all this just brought her right back to fuming in her nest-bed and getting absolutely nowhere near where she was supposed to be. With a long and measured breath in and out, Amyni tried to regain some sense of perspective. She was too ruffled to think creatively about the problem now anyway so she resolved to sleep on it and start hacking at a new approach in the morning. A few turns about the compartment to be sure everything was in order, a quick flip of the padding in the bed itself, and Amyni slipped into the solitary nest like one might pour liquid into a bowl. Not for the first time she lamented the lack of other Sisters in her chosen course but she certainly wasn’t about to go bunking up with any of the Males; mating contracts were not a factor in her plans and cubs even more so.

Amyni curled in on herself just a bit tighter and as she started to drift into sleep, her mind began to play back snippets of her day. Flashes of arguments and forgotten conversations played out; things she maybe should have said differently or managed better. But more than not it had been a decent day in reflection. Self-assessment and correction was almost a mantra for her now and the nightly ritual calmed her. It gave her hope for something she could do better tomorrow. There were bits without ambition as well; a certain meal she liked, or a raunchy Keeda joke that impressed her, and almost before exhaustion took her, she recalled a rather diminutive seeming Brother in the corridor outside her nesting compartment; he’d been kinda cute actually, in that funny way Males were when they were embarrassed.


10y4m1w After Vancouver (3 years earlier)
Longji, Guangxi, China

Huáng Chúní

Chúní looked hard at the picture in front of him but couldn’t make out enough of the figure in the background. He adjusted the tablet in his hands hoping that a different angle might help, but it didn’t. He swiped to the next image and boggled yet again at the subject of his fascination. The tablet was new to the house; a ‘luxury’ that he’d finally convinced his father to get on the idea that having a more modern source of weather updates must surely be better than the dying radio in the corner. His father had held out as long as possible but after a few fluke storms had almost destroyed the western terrace last season, Chúní had finally gotten his wish. And with that wish had come a whole new gateway to the world beyond, so long as he woke up early enough to allow time to use it. A rice farmer’s life didn’t exactly abound with free-time.

It was getting harder and harder for his father to work in the rice fields and, as he glanced again at the clock in the corner of the tablet, harder for him to get up in the morning. Chúní’d been up for a while, already eaten, and was filling time while he waited for his father by perusing the internet. Much of the news he could easily access was filtered by the government, and he did have a news site playing on silent in a small window to the lower left, but he prefered the less filtered sub channels of various social media sites. What had drawn his attention this morning though was the prodigious explosion of memes about a pair of men that the internet had dubbed the “Beef Brothers”. They were huge! Almost inhumanly so. Even more exciting though were their companions; the first ever true Aliens to actually set foot on Earth, peacefully. The fleshy termite-Hunter-things which got their asses handed to them in that Vancouver hockey stadium hardly counted. Not that they had really lasted long enough to be considered a ‘first contact’ anyway. He smiled at the humor in a bully picking such a losing fight; Chúní was not a fan of bullies. He swiped through meme after meme and picture after picture but try as he might he just couldn’t get a good image of the aliens, not a clear shot anyway.

He heard a noise from the other room to herald his father’s return to consciousness and nodded. They’d be late into the fields, but not horribly so. The sun wouldn’t yet be up so the timing wasn’t too bad yet. Breaks would be a bit shorter though. Chúní turned his attention back to the tablet and swiped onto a meme featuring Left Beef, the shorter and larger one of the pair. The text read, in english, “I Remember San Diego…” and featured the insanely muscular young man photoshopped heroically over a shadowy skyline of what was once the American city of San Diego. Chúní looked a little closer at the image; the soldier looked of hispanic descent, it was possible that he’d been one of the few survivors of the anti-matter blast which had turned the entire city into a crater. Then again, it could also just be more American Propaganda. Chúní shrugged. The social media spaces seemed to let a bit more of that sort of thing slip through than the traditional news sources but even they were carefully sifted for ‘problematic content’. They were, however, more raw in what one could find for content and to Chúní’s mind that meant they were likely closer to the truth even if that truth wasn’t always outwardly apparent.

“That thing will rot your brain, put it down and get ready.”

Chúní lowered the tablet slightly and looked over it at his father entering the dining area which doubled as the primary family space. “I am ready father.” The response was about as close to petulant or ‘lippy’ as a good son was ever likely to get with his honored father and his tone and eyes tried to convey as much patience as he could muster. After all, it wasn’t really his father’s fault that his health was failing him.

“Hmph” His father dropped the subject and walked into the kitchen space to retrieve the bowl of rice that must have gotten cold by now. Whether out of stubbornness or just lack of caring, the man scowled and started into the bowl without so much as a ‘thank you’ to the son who’d prepared it for him nearly an hour ago. “What’s so important on that thing anyway?” Chúní started to look up to respond but something in the lower left feed caught his attention and he tapped it, unmuting the commentary and enlarging the window. “…just received this exclusive drone footage from one of our American affiliates. Sources are yet unclear on why…” Chúní wasn’t paying attention to the sound anymore anyway. The banner at the bottom of the screen spelled out ‘Aliens visit Roosevelt National Park’ but as the camera on the news drone slowly zoomed in, Chúní finally got the image he’d been searching for. There, standing on a rocky ledge overlooking the burnt reds and golds of the American Badlands with his bio-suite finally off, was the Alien. He stood what must have been almost a half-meter shorter than Chúní and beside the massive slab of a man, that was Left Beef again, he looked even smaller. A light breeze caught the Alien’s fur and Chúní could see the pronounced white tuft of fur? hair? along his head. Two ears which looked altogether canine swiveled and splayed from his head, clearly taking in every bit of sound and motion around him. His snout and nose were also moving, breathing in all that there was. The Alien… no, they were called Gaoians the news had said; the Gaoian’s eyes were momentarily closed but when they opened Chúní saw something very familiar in them. There was a life, a curiosity. He knew that feeling. It was the feeling that he got whenever he’d stand at the edge of the northern rice paddies and look out over the valleys. It was a longing, a drive to go and do. And yet knowing that he couldn’t. Chúní nearly jumped out of his seat as he felt his father’s hand land on his shoulder. “Wǒmen qīng qīng de fǔmōzhe nǐ, dìqiú, wǒmen de xīngqiú hé wǒmen de jiā.”

He didn’t even look up as his father spoke the whispered prayer over his shoulder. He didn’t have to. The wonder in his father’s voice, so uncharacteristic of the traditional and way-set man he knew, reflected something in Chúní too. The day’s planting all but forgotten, father and son watched as the world changed, as their world changed forever.


13y11m2w2d AV
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Gorai

Goruu

The gentle hum of electronics and efficient military precision greeted Goruu as he stepped over the threshold and onto the bridge of the Star’s Bounty. Only the minimum crew stood at their stations now; the ship was due to arrive at Gorai soon, at which point the full bridge crew would replace those currently on duty. It was the best part of Goruu’s day though. Bringing the Ship-Father’s Talamay was meant to be a degrading assignment, just another example of what happened to those who made stupid career choices. But while his various rivals chittered over the depths to which they’d laid Goruu low, he got a chance to stand in the bridge and just… be.

The Star’s Bounty was not a military vessel, despite it’s naval employ. Where any real ship of war might have bristled with station upon station of sub-command within the medium compartment, Star’s Bounty had come only with navigation, helm, communication and internal operations, and a Ship-Fathers station set centrally and to the left. Almost as an afterthought, the Clan had added in a tactical station to handle the minimal defensive capabilities and armaments which amounted to nothing more than a few enhanced pulse deflection emitters and two anti-vehicle pulse cannons, mounted ventraly. But a bridge was a bridge, and like the cockpit of a fighter, it was where a pilot belonged, even one who flew a cleaning cart more often than anything else. Just standing in the nexus of command felt right.

Ship-Father Yalick took the cup of Talamay without so much as a glance at Goruu, which was usual. As he looked about the con, taking in what time he could, Goruu’s face froze just a moment as he noticed the same Female to which he’d so horribly embarrassed himself yesterday. She was clearly trying to talk quietly with the Brother who stood, rather rigidly, at the Tactics console. That, in and of itself, wasn’t too surprising. Brother Curraj had been sweet on her since she boarded the ship and with his tenure and rank within the Clan, most of the other Brothers hadn’t tried more than a bit of play-fighting in challenge. His approach to having a Female Associate among the ship’s complement boiled down to two things: She was to be treated with respect, and if anyone but the Ship-Father himself even sniffed at approaching her for a mating contract, they’d be doing it through Curraj. Given that the Ship-Father wasn’t even remotely interested and not a single other Brother, Goruu included, dared to tangle with Curraj, this had led to a sort of political and playful dance between Amyni and the de facto second-in-command of Star’s Bounty. She gave him the hope of a mating contract after her current mission was done, and of course the possibility of better status for Clan Firefang as a whole in the eyes of Clan Female. He gave her peace of mind, freedom from being overwhelmed with gifts and brutish displays from the other Brothers, and access to the chain of command which the Ship-Father wouldn’t. The last of those was a pretty big risk though. Should Yalick decide that his relatively young second-in-command was overstepping himself, or giving the Female too much access to Clan secrets, he wouldn’t hesitate to take it out of Curraj’s hide, literally. Gorru hadn’t yet figured out why, given the Ship-Father’s obvious mistrust of Amyni, Yalick had allowed Curraj so much leeway, especially on the bridge of all places.

While he mused, Goruu also watched as the Ship-Father’s cup slowly emptied. He didn’t have much time on the bridge left so he stopped paying attention to tactical and instead closed his eyes to focus once again on the sounds and smells about him.

“Curraj? Hey, Curraj!” Gorru heard Amyni’s whispers as they broke through his odd meditation. He looked up to see that the Tactical Brother had gone a bit stiff and was looking around as though momentarily confused. “Are you ok?” She was clearly keeping her voice down as to not bring the attention of others but the bridge wasn’t exactly expansive and other Brothers were starting to take notice.

Brother Curraj looked at the Female as though only just noticing her and turned squarely, almost gracelessly, to face her. “You are now restricted from the bridge Associate Amyni. Please return to your compartment and remain there.”

All sound seemed to cease as Amyni turned to look now at the Ship-Father with a glare that was at once both plaintive and accusatory. Yalick only duck-nodded, the equivalent of a shrug in the affirmative, and gestured his nose to the corridor leading back out of the bridge. With no reprieve from the Ship-Father, Amyni was left without options and, with only a confused glance back at the one Brother who had, until just now, been her sole ally, she walked solemnly off the bridge.

It took a few solid minutes for everyone to remember themselves and shift their attention back toward their work. The sounds of the compartment returned to a normal efficient din but the smell of the bridge remained stiff. Ship-Father Yalick finished his drink.

As Yalick reached out to hand off the now empty cup though, his attention spiked quickly to the read-out at his left claw and then immediately toward Curraj. With no warning at all the Ship-Father sprang from his chair, fangs bare and claws extended and seeking directly for the Tactical Brother’s throat. The empty cup fell unnoticed to the decking.

Seven-Three-Four took its host’s paws quickly from the tactical console and snarled. Feeding heavily on the marvelously ingrained fighting instincts of the new host, it leaped to meet the incoming Ship-Father. It wasn’t going to be enough though. Already Seven-Three-Four could see in the trajectory and agility of its opponent that its short acclimation into this body would play heavily against it. This host was going to die much faster than Seven-Three-Four’s needs permitted.

It calculated options by the nanosecond. Getting rid of the Female had been relatively easy, if a little more obvious than Seven-Three-Four would have liked, but attempting to reroute full ship control through the tactical station had most certainly been the wrong move. It hadn’t anticipated the elder Gaoian’s physical response at all. Rather than trying to digitally prevent and lock-out command functions, the Ship-Father had pounced without even a warning. It wasn’t the sort of solution that would have come easily to a digital being such as Seven-Three-Four. Immune to the fear that it’s host would otherwise have been feeling as Yalick bit viciously for it’s throat, Seven-Three-Four selected one of its back-up options. It’s host managed to barely deflect the bite from fatal to merely a maiming. Perhaps this body could still be useful.

Yalick took the Brother’s retributive claw to his face, turning just at the last second and pulling his eyes out of range. The added moments before the turn left his momentum in tact as he dug his claws deep into the Tactical Brother’s chest and pulled them both heavily to the decking. The crash only deepened his attack before both of Yalick’s upper claws retracted from Curraj’s chest with a twist and flashed in and up to strike for the vital arteries under Curraj’s arms while they were still thrown back from the momentum. For such mutiny, there could be no mercy; Clan Brother or no.

Seven-Three-Four finished its programming and wrote off the last two directives to its soon-to-be erstwhile host. The already maimed tactical officer had no hope of defeating the Ship-Father now, but perhaps his death might buy Seven-Three-Four enough time yet to recapture the advantage. Like some demonic ether, Seven-Three-Four slipped through its host’s implants and back into the dataspace supported by the ships robust digital substrate. Behind it remained only a shell, a husk of the Clan Brother who’d once been called Curraj. Within that biological drone now resided only two objectives: Ignore pain. Kill the Ship-Father.

Goruu, and it seemed the rest of the bridge crew, didn’t know what to do. The Ship-Father had given no command to indicate that this was anything more than purely a disciplinary matter and so no one else dared move. Such sudden action wasn’t unheard of within the Clan, though it was very rare and often followed with rather significant consequences for the victor, be they in the right or wrong. In the end, he decided that it was better to be ready and wait for orders. However, despite the rarity of such demonstrative acts of discipline, something about this one seemed wrong to him. The orders Curraj had given to the Associate Sister earlier didn’t sit right. Goruu had known Curraj, even liked him. What’s more, Goruu had played Ta’Shen against him a few times and the Brother he’d seen behind Curraj’s eyes across the gaming table had not been there a moment ago. But if that hadn’t of been his Brother, then who was it? How was it?

In the few moments it took for Yalick to bear what was left of Curraj to the deck and for Goruu to take only a few steps back towards the corridor, the rest of the crew started to break from their shock as well. As Goruu watched Curraj’s hind-claws find purchase on the Ship-Fathers thighs, ripping them heavily, he also barely noticed first the internal operations officer and then the navigator stiffen. With his attention otherwise riveted to the ongoing fight, Goruu failed to notice the same sort of deadening look come over his other brothers as it had Curraj. Goruu found himself bumping up against the corridor entry still lost in confusion as the operations officer pounced into the fray as well. He fought to understand if some order had been given, some plan enacted and if so, how? How could they communica… the implants. Curraj and the other Brothers must be communicating by implants. But then that would mean… Goruu’s fears crystallized as he watched the operations officers claws dig viciously into the Ship-Father’s side, producing a blood churning roar from Yalick.

With barely nanoseconds to settle in and acclimate to its current host, Seven-Three-Four wasted little time. Three new hosts in such short time wasn’t really a stretch, but each one took time to properly acclimate to, time that Seven-Three-Four didn’t have. It had to win this struggle and do so fast to have any hope of taking the ship as a whole. But first it needed to ensure itself the time to do that. Focusing on the digits of its new navigator host, Seven-Three-Four quickly, if not too efficiently, plugged in the coordinates to a new location previously unknown to the ship’s computers. That done, it set a command to immediately turn and jump the Star’s Bounty back into hyperspace on the new heading immediately upon arrival at Gorai. It had originally planned to pick up additional… crew, at Gorai, but taking possession of this pathetic freighter was proving more time consuming than anticipated. Oh well, it could always return for needed bodies later. Seven-Three-Four made one final entry into the navigational computers to lock out its most recent changes and turned to assess the ongoing effort to put down the ship’s rather resilient commander. Surly two and a half on one will be enough, right?

Nobody had been at the helm console and the only other creature on the bridge was maddeningly un-implanted. Seven-Three-Four would have to do what it could with what it had or risk alerting others on the ship by trying to pull additional bodies from other compartments. It waited for an opening and dropped its host to all fours as it raced in to catch the Ship-Fathers right hind-claw just as he was regaining his feet. The first biodrone was out of action, it’s attack on the Ship-Father’s legs having been the last of its contributions to the fight as it lay exsanguinating on the deck.

The Ship-Father had anticipated Seven-Three-Four’s attack though and even as its swipe seemed to take out the wiley old Gaoian’s leg, the Ship-Father shifted weight into a twist that brought the operations officer biodrone around, slamming heavily into Seven-Three-Four’s current host. The maneuver not only disengaged the operations biodrone but also pinned Seven-Three-Four for a precious few seconds. The momentary respite for the Ship-Father shifted a cascade of momentum against Seven-Three-Four as it registered a sudden all-ship bust communication go out. Before ‘droning the operations officer, it had had the foresight to lock down innership communications from the bridge, but Seven-Three-Four obviously hadn’t anticipated that the Ship-Father would have an emergency override in his antiquated communications implant. Another costly mistake, but not a terminal one. Seven-Three-Four needed to end this, and fast. Calculations flashed through its processes until it found one; one chance. The Ship-Father’s implant didn’t have quite the level of cerebral integration for Seven-Three-Four to take him as a host… but just maybe there was another option…

Klaxons sounded as blue strobing lights shifted the bridge into a sudden and grim tableau. A general alarm only added to Goruu’s confusion. Only one thing was certain though, this was no longer some disciplinary action. But which side was the right one? Heavily wounded and flagging, Yalick was actually holding his own against the remaining two officers but just barely. Their fighting was lethargic and showed a strange lack of form to explain the mismatch. The Ship-father, on the other hand, was lethality incarnate. Every swipe of his claw either maimed an opponent or deflected his doom. He took hits, to be sure, but even as Goruu watched, they were not dire, merely scars to tell the tale of it all. He heard a noise growing in the corridor behind him and turned just in time to see Amyni sprinting full out at the head of five other brothers, all of them armored. “Out of my way!” she snarled as he flattened instinctually against the corridor plating. Without so much as a word in explanation for the bewildered Goruu, she leapt into the fray… and in the defense of the Ship-Father.

Goruu was less familiar with the alert codes as he might once have been, and being entirely un-augmented, he’d failed to receive the direct communication of the Ship-Father’s specific order to defend the bridge against hostile insurgents, but seeing the Female jump into the fray was finally enough to jog him out of his confusion. There was just something inherently embedded in his genetics; anyone fighting against a Female could not truly be a Gaoian. His thoughts cleared and his conviction finally aligned, Goruu started running into the fight as well.

Seven-Three-Four was desperate. How had that Female bitch been so close at hand and with armored Brothers as well?! The exchange it’d had with her earlier as the Tactical Brother… she’d suspected something then. It must have been. But that didn’t matter now. It was losing. Leaving the host of the navigator, Seven-Three-Four doubled down on it’s last chance. Firewall after firewall, it tore at them until finally it found what it needed. It wouldn’t take much and it would certainly require a little work after-the-fact, but one of the armored brothers was implanted. Seven-Three-Four couldn’t hesitate. It struck with everything it had and then made the dataspace equivalent of a flying leap across the bridge.

Goruu was only about two strides behind Amyni as she jumped back from the heap of claws and death to dodge one of the navigator’s suddenly clumsy swings. He thought to yell to her, plead with her to get behind him but he didn’t get the chance. With a roar of defiance the Ship-Father suddenly clutched his temple as though to rip out the mechanical devices embedded within. But it could never have been enough; the Ship-Father’s head exploded at the same time as one of the armored guards armed a pulse grenade. In the span of nanoseconds all four of the un-armored bridge officers, including what was left of the Ship-Father, were pulped. The armored Brothers escaped the lethal force of the concussion but were each thrown heavily against the walls of the compartment. Goruu, who was unarmored and had been running toward the explosion, was saved only by the fact that he just happened to be directly behind one armored Amyni.

When Humans first reached the stars, officially, one of the things which immediately dumbfounded most of them, was just how incredibly reliant every other species was upon forcefield tech. There was just something unnatural about placing so much faith in something so utterly transient. Most other peoples throughout the galaxy found this an odd opinion to have and generally laughed it off as some silly ‘deathworlder thing’. Humans, on the other hand, were quite adamant about reinforcing any of their vessels with heavy bulkheads, reinforced hatches, and generally a whole muck of metal and composites. The Star’s Bounty was, however, not a Human ship.

Conventional thought had placed the Bridge at least a couple layers within the outer hull of the Star’s Bounty and so, when the wave of destruction flew out from the pulse grenade, combined with the mass of several armored bodies turned shrapnel, and struck the interfaces allocated to gravimetrics and forcefield power management, just about everyone within the bridge and the surrounding sections survived. Those who happened to be unfortunate enough to find themselves near any of the cargo bays, instead suddenly found that they were, in fact, no longer in the cargo bays or corridors at all but flung into space. As those unfortunate souls had but a few moments to reflect upon their fate, it’s possible that some had the time to mourn their Brothers who instead had been in compartments which were only partially open to the internal corridors of the ship. These compartments had, at least, the structure to prevent solid objects from being thrown out into the corridors-turned-explosive-vacuum-tunnels but relied instead on forcefields to enact air-tight seals for those compartments. As such, their occupants weren’t thrown into space but suffered a fatal case of sudden depressurization as they were squeezed suddenly into gaps about each compartment door and stunned unconscious to boot.

The designers of the Star’s Bounty hadn’t been entirely without foresight though. Within moments, a secondary emergency forcefield system took over and reasserted a mandatory partitioning of each of the central, and therefore primary compartments. Engineering control, the officer’s nests, several duty stations, and of course the Bridge, along with the corridors in between, were immediately sealed off.

Unconscious to all of this, Goruu finally emerged from blackness to find himself crumpled beside one of the forcefields at the other end of the central corridor from the bridge. It took him a moment to realize where he was, but upon seeing Amyni crumpled just in front and partially on top of him, and upon feeling the set of clearly broken ribs he now had from her impact, much of the past insanity came back pretty quick. He glanced up at the emergency emitters above and exhaled painfully. Thank Fyu the forcefield hadn’t bisected him, the emergency type weren’t designed to quibble over something so mundane as organic matter on the principle that slicing one crew member likely meant saving many others.

The unbidden whimper from his movement was enough to rouse Amyni though, and for a brief moment of dissociative amusement Goruu’s mind remarked on the fact that at least she was bound to notice him this time. “Are… are you ok?”

Her eyes came open and she slowly turned her head to look back and down at him. “What… happened?” Her eyes cleared suddenly. “The Ship-Father!” She tried to spring to her feet but the armor’s reactive shielding had only been enough to divert most of the blast from her head, it had done nothing to cushion the impact of her landing. Amyni came back down beside Goruu with a thud and clasping her head almost like she’d meant to do that all along. “My head… Great Mother that hurt.”

Goruu could now see past her and down to the bridge end of the corridor. What he saw did not fill him with hope. “I think I see someone at the navigation station, wearing armor.” He said it in a whisper. “He hasn’t noticed us yet.”

“In armor?” Her voice brightened.

“Hsss” Goruu tried to move towards her, to beg her to keep quiet, but the movement only sent pain blossoming through his entire chest and resulted on landing him snout-first into the decking and curled upon himself.

“But he’s with us then.” Goruu could only shake his head. Blessedly she was watching and had lowered her voice anyway. “Why not? Oh, here…” She carefully scooted over and very slowly helped Goruu back into the sitting position against the corridor wall that he was struggling to on his own.

He was still shaking his head. “If he was Clan, he would have already checked on us first. Besides, look at him. He is only focused on one thing right now, not panicking, not trying to assess damages.”

“If he’s not Clan, then who is he?”

“I don’t know, but he is not our Brother. If he sees us…” He let the response fade, unsure whether he even had the capability of understanding what might happen. “We need to know what he is doing though.” Goruu started to push himself up the wall but winced heavily.

Amyni saw that he was trying to stand and offered an arm in support. “How do you propose we do that exactly?” Her tone was light hearted but falsely so.

He looked askance at her and, for the first time in his life, pondered saying something entirely too acidic to a Female. He decided on something a bit more useful instead, “Engineering, we can figure out what’s going on from there. Besides,” he glanced back up at the emergency emitters, “these aren’t designed to hold forever. We’ll want to be in the room where we can manage energy use if they start failing.”

“Yep, that’s what I was afraid of.” Goruu looked through the lense of a camera placed, ultimately for communication purposes, at one end of the bridge. Standing almost motionless at both navigation and at the tactical consoles, were two of the five armored brothers. The three other armored brothers lay at awkward ends of the bridge, their throats slit by a single claw each. It was hard to make out through the muck and gore plastered into the fur of the remaining two, but Goruu wasn’t surprised to see the tell-tale markings of full implant suites in their temples. “Ballsacks” Amyni threw a surprised expression his way at the language but he barely noticed. “And the bridge’s fields are locked-out from the bridge too. We couldn’t get in there even if we could take them.”

The short trip into engineering had highlighted just how few of the crew’s already low complement had survived the venting. Only a few compartments even held survivors; these included the two mechanically trained Brothers who’d just happened to be in engineering when they arrived. A quick trip to the medical kit stored to one side of the compartment and the four of them circled up to assess. Goruu leaned back from the console and looked first at the generalist who sat still catching his breath in the corner and then over to the engineer standing only a few paces away. Amyni was the first to ask. “Brother Ishif, could we re-route the power from the emitters enough to- ” Goruu finally saw what he’d missed as they’d entered. It was a very good imitation to be sure, but as one of Ishif’s eyes started to glaze over, Goruu saw the other one zoom out like a telescopic lens. “He’s implanted!”

The painkillers he’d taken weren’t miracle makers and neither were they sufficient to allow Goruu the kind of response timing he would have needed to defend himself, much less attack Ishif who was a full two meters across the compartment. Luckily Amyni wasn’t slow, mentally or physically. She realized the danger and threw herself at the engineer even before his claws had finished coming out. Amyni had never received any kind of paw to paw combat instruction, nor had she ever imagined that she would ever truly need the gung-fu that a select few of her Sisters had raved of learning from Sister Shoo. Under normal circumstances even her faster response wouldn’t have been enough to save her from a one-on-one fight with a larger, stronger, and clearly meaner opponent. But she still had armor, and he didn’t.

It was over quickly. There was little form or art to what Goruu watched Amyni do, but she didn’t hesitate. She came away from the pounce and brief tussle with a few scars in inconsequential places, but Ishif came away without a throat.

“Remind me to never storm a Commune.”

“Especially if Myun is there…”

“Huh?”

Amyni didn’t repeat what she’d said under her breath but instead tried to wipe the gore form her claws. “What about him?” She twitched her nose at the one still breathing heavily in the corner.

It was hard to say whether it was the shake of Goruu’s head or the sudden keening wale of ‘I’ve got no implants!’ from the Brother in the corner that registered first, but after one last glare to be sure, Amyni let her claws resheeth and she stepped back over to Goruu. “How many other brothers are implanted on the ship?”

Goruu glanced back at the various compartment readouts and his heart sank. Several more compartment forcefields had just deactivated followed by the forcefields next in line from those compartments to engineering. “More than one.”

Amyni increased her pace over to the console. “Can we lockdown the remaining forcefields from here?”

“Um… yeah. Here.” Goruu selected the necessary processes.

Amyni’s paws slipped in almost on-top of his to follow the commands up with her personal security lockout codes. They weren’t exactly Whitecrest level codes, but they had nothing to do with anything Clan Firefang. They should hold against any known anti-encryption software for at least a while. She had no way of knowing whether the things that Goruu feared could take over another being via their implants was normal, so maybe it was an empty gesture anyway.

Goruu’s thoughts were running much along the same lines. “I don’t think that’s going to hold them, whatever ‘them’ is, for very long. We need a more permanent solution.”

“Well, we can’t really get through the corridors anymore now that we’ve locked them down.”

The generalist in the corner spoke up, startling both of them as they’d very nearly forgotten he was there. “Well, the life support systems still run through. What about those?”

Amyni responded first, “Life support? What, you’re saying we can turn it off?”

The Brother shook his head. “No, that’s got failsafes upon failsafes that we can’t get to from here. I don’t know, you just asked what we hadn’t blocked off and the life support ducting is independent of the forcefield system is all.”

“We could gas ‘em”

Amyri turned to regard Goruu with a look of utter confusion. “Do what?!”

He heaved a huge sigh and instantly regretted it as he remembered his current condition. “Gas them.” He coughed painfully. “This is a Dominion designed ship right? Well, the environmental controls were designed to cater to all manner of species and not all of us breath the same composite of gases right?” Neither of the other two said anything. “So tell the system that something other than a Gaoian inhabits those rooms, something that doesn’t breathe ‘air’ air like us.” Still neither of them responded. “You can do that, right?” This time he addressed himself directly to the engineering generalist, or the closest thing the Gaoians had to a ‘handyman’, who was starting to stand up in the corner.

“Uh… yeah actually, I think I could.”

“And you can can exempt this room too?”

The generalist, Geeran was his name, duck-nodded.

Amyni was looking again at the console. “You’d better hurry then, I don’t know exactly what’s happening but I think our friends just figured out what we did to the emitters.”

Brother Geeran stepped up to the console, displacing Goruu. “Yeah, I think I can do it. Where’d you come up with this anyway?”

I saw it in a [movie] once.” He’d used the Human word for movie.

“What in Fyu’s name is a [movie]?”

“Don’t care, just do it! Fast!” Amyni’s eyes went wide as her lockout codes were swept aside as though they didn’t even exist. The progression of emitters deactivating suddenly resumed.

Geeran’s claws gained speed as he gained confidence; a natural with the interfaces. Goruu watched as he made the final adjustments and then suddenly stopped dead with his claw just over the command to execute. “Wait, what about the ones that aren’t implanted?”

Goruu didn’t answer him, he didn’t even think an answer. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw only one set of fields left up between engineering and corridors and compartments that were about to become very, very unfriendly to Gaoian life. He slammed Geeran’s claw down and took the largest, most painful breath of his life.

He needn’t have, as it turned out. Geeran hadn’t chosen carelessly with his atmospheres. Goruu would never really know from which planet or species the alchemical mixture which descended upon the rest of the ship originated but it certainly acted fast. With only a few careless breaths the two things pretending to be Gaoians on the bridge collapsed, motionless. It was only as his heart slowed back to something resembling normalcy that his conscience could finally register what he’d done. At least a half-dozen of his Brothers, most of them completely innocent and unimplanted, were now dead because of a call he made. But he’d make it again in a heartbeat. Amyni was alive. He and Geeran were alive. The ship was no longer in enemy hands, whoever, whatever that enemy had been.

It took longer to reset the environmental controls to something survivable by Gaoian standards, and even then there was a painful acidity to the air as the three remaining crew of the Star’s Bounty flat out ran to the bridge, or in Goruu’s case hobbled. From engineering they’d managed to at least purge the current navigational actions which the intruder, whatever it had been, had automated into the system. They wouldn’t be forced into a jump into some unknown location anymore so at least that was good right?

Unfortunately, they also couldn’t put any new navigational commands into the computer, or easily pilot the ship, from the limited engineering consoles. None of them really fancied the idea of coming out of hyperspace into Gorai’s system pickets without anyone actually in command, and so as the ship shuddered and shed the last remaining eddies of faster than light travel, each of them stood panting as the initial readouts came in to their instruments. At first there was nothing, a dead calm that seemed impenetrable as the instruments tried to sort what they had received. Once sorted though, the cacophony of horror which shattered that calm almost caused Goruu to vomit. Death incarnate had come to Gorai.


A HUGE thank you to my wife for her support and editing, to Hambone for allowing me to play in his sandbox, and to ctwelve who helped a ton with hosting setup and jverse cohesion. A thank you as well to D. Volka for convincing me to listen to my gut and look for better hosting options.

before discard