Chapter 22: Warhorse Part 6—Operation NOVA HOUND
Date Point: First Contact Day, 10y AV
Capitol Station, Capitol System, Dominion Space.
Officer Regaari Clan Whitecrest Attaché to the Mother-Supreme.
“You’re both courting a controversy, you know. A scandal, even, given how close you both are to me.”
Regaari’s head-duck of agreement had an unconsciously immature, cubbish quirk to it that came naturally when Giymuy engaged her Mother’s instincts. The Mother-Supreme was now silver from eartip to foot and thoroughly venerable. Over the years of working together, her relationship with Regaari had thawed from purely professional, to something of a friendship, but she was still the Mother, and when she gave advice, deference was instinctive.
“I know…” he agreed, reluctantly. ”‘Human ideas, eroding Gaoian culture.’ I’ve been staying well abreast of the backlash. We both have, which is why we’ve only…talked about it.”
“Even talking about it is ‘heresy,’ in some camps.”
“That’s a human word.”
“Indeed it is.”
Regaari caught the sad irony in Giymuy’s agreement. “We’re a free society.” he pointed out. “Free to speak our minds, free to act and do as we please so long as we cause no harm. Aren’t we?”
“So it has been since before the females were united.” Giymuy agreed. “But, I note, we have never actually been cunning enough to codify those freedoms in law. And in the meantime some peoples’ ideas of what constitutes ‘harm’ have broadened, spreading out to cover a wider area but, I think, becoming shallower in the process.”
“The humans need those things coded in law.” Regaari pointed out. “In fact they were, from what I gather, something of a revolutionary concept when first introduced. We meanwhile have always taken them as self-evident. You don’t need a law granting people the freedom to.. to breathe, or to eat.”
Giymuy chuffed. ”‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…’” she quoted.
Regaari, being the one who had first introduced that document to her, recognised the quotation instantly. “Missing, of course, the irony that if they really WERE self-evident then they would never have had to write them down.”
Giymuy duck-nodded herself. “Meanwhile, we DID find them self-evident.” she observed.
“And yet you’re warning me that Ayma and I are courting controversy by preferring each others’ company.”
“Dare I whisper the word ‘monogamy’?”
“It’s not…she’s had other cubs since mine. It’s just that we still enjoy each others’ company and…we still feel much the same as we did when we sired that cub.” Regaari stood and paced the room. “And this, somehow, is a brewing scandal. A male and a female liking each other and wishing to spend time together, rather than simply remembering one another as a fond, temporary dalliance? Perhaps those truths aren’t so self-evident after all, perhaps Gaoians have all just…thought too much alike up until now.”
Giymuy chittered loudly and at length at that one. “Oh!” she gasped, trying to recover. “If only we did! There would be no need for a Mother-Supreme and I could retire and live out my time surrounded by cubs and happy young Mothers.”
She regained her composure, and noticed the slightly offended set of Regaari’s ears. “Ah, I am sorry. You may be right. We are discussing the… adulteration of our culture by alien ideas, after all.”
“That was probably inevitable the moment we made First Contact.” Regaari grumbled.
“We know that.” Giymuy gestured to the station they were aboard. “Many Gaoians may not. And this is the root of our problem—–we are being changed by these ideas whether we like it or not. These ideas of ‘heresy’ and ‘taboo’ are just as much a pollution of what it means to be Gaoian as…pizza, pancakes, meditation and monogamy. Then there’s poor Myun. I never imagined that I’d see the day when a young, healthy, intelligent and very pretty female was shunned because no male will court her for fear of the political consequences.”
Regaari snarled a little angry laugh. “Oh yes. they’ll hire her to provide hand-to-hand combat instruction, but mating with the ‘freak’?” He growled a little. “If she wasn’t young enough to be one of my cubs, I might approach her with a contract myself just to spite them.”
“Why not?” Giymuy asked. “You’re already flirting with scandal with Ayma, and you’d be actively seeking it by courting Myun. Why should age make a difference at that point? Maybe your example is all that’s needed to rehabilitate an outcast.”
Regaari fell silent. He was still considering the suggestion when the communicator in his pocket buzzed. He tapped it with a claw. “They’re ready for you in the council chamber.” he said.
“It’s about time…where’s my stick?”
Regaari handed it to her. Giymuy had many walking sticks these days, and each one was a calculated statement. For today, she had selected the natural, knurled one made of Cimbrean Pinkwood, a now-extinct species that had once occupied one small portion of a continent that was now long swallowed up by deathworlder terraforming. The humans had logged the lot rather than let it be ruined by the advancing tide of disease, and had sold the wood to collectors to drum up funds. Giymuy had snapped up three tree’s worth. Craftsmen from every clan on Gao and beyond had vied for the privilege of creating the sticks, desk and curiosities she had commissioned, predicting that the prestige of creating for her would improve their own mating chances.
Giymuy in turn had encouraged them by selecting lesser-known, obscure males for the privilege. The famous ones, she had reasoned, didn’t need the help. Now, the stick tapped sharply on the decorative stone tiles of the Capitol Station concourse as they left the Gaoian ambassadorial quarters. Dominion security guards—two Vzk’tk, two Kwmbwrw—fell in line behind the entourage of four Gaoian guards from Clan Flashfang, all painfully eager young males and all—Regaari had seen to this personally—trained to handle threats up to and including a human.
It was quite the little procession. Giymuy had chosen simple charcoal robes that offset her fur, and wore three loops of fine gold chain clasped to each ear. The effect was venerable and dignified, still understated, but enough to make her stand out next to Regaari’s severe black uniform, or her guards’ combat harnesses.
This was a big occasion: A galactic broadcast that had taken some negotiation to secure. Even Regaari didn’t know what the Mother-Supreme had planned for the address she was about to give to the Dominion Grand Council, but he was looking forward to it.
Every species had automatic membership and presence on the Grand Council, even if they were not Dominion members. Even if that species was an enthusiastic member of the Celzi Alliance, there were dissenters, ones who had chosen to side with the Dominion, representing their species. An unpopular minority at home, perhaps, but still there. The only vacant seats belonged to the declining species, who no longer cared to show up…And to the humans.
There was a space for them, but it remained unoccupied. Regaari wasn’t even sure if the deathworlders knew that space existed.
Giymuy created a stir when she walked right past the podium that had been set up for her, and instead strode into the area designated for humans. The susurrus this move generated soon became a white noise that only subsided when the chairman—a rotund VGork nearly as large as a young Guvnurag—slammed his gavel into the desk in front of him with enough force to dent the wood.
“Mother-Supreme Giymuy.” he began, addressing her. “That place is for the delegates from Earth.”
“The delegates from Earth, Chairman” Giymuy replied, speaking with surprising force and clarity for her age “Do not know that this seat exists. This council has never seen fit to inform them of it nor invite them to attend. I am taking the liberty of speaking on their behalf.”
The chairman slammed down his gavel again as the gathered species took to muttering to one another again. “Can I not persuade you to take the podium?” He asked.
“You can not, Chairman.”
The Chairman considered her for a while, then backed down. “Then please. Continue.”
Giymuy accepted the concession with a slight bow to the chair, then turned to address the Council as a whole.
“Gaoians and Humans share a fondness for Base Ten mathematics.” she began. “Which is why I note that, by the calendar of the planet Earth, It has now been exactly ten years since the Hunters raided their city of Vancouver. Less than three of their years later, the human race achieved faster-than-light manned flight for the first time. Those ten years have been…tumultuous and interesting, and often controversial.”
She tapped her stick down, twice. “The Dominion’s response to this singular deathworld species has been one of fear and mistrust. This stick I am holding is a symbol of why that fear is justified, being made from the wood of a tree now extinct due to them. I am not here to argue against the policy of the last ten years—the past cannot be undone—but to share a vision of policy for the next ten.”
This time, the delegates were polite enough to remain silent and listen.
“The humans are here to stay.” she announced. “Even if we never see one again, even if they were to retreat behind their quarantine field and remain there, they have already changed the outlook of many species, on a great many things. Even now, the questions are being asked ‘why haven’t we united to fight the Hunters?’, ‘Why has the Dominion-Alliance war gone on for so long without ceasefire or negotiation?’, ‘Why do we transport goods in vulnerable freighters and lose their crews to Hunters and piracy when displacement jump drives render the very concept of a freighter obsolete?‘”
“I have seen personally just how powerful and dangerous humans are. I have seen for myself, some of the plagues that our one human visitor—my clan-Sister—could have unleashed on Gao, which would surely have killed our entire species if we had lacked the technology to protect ourselves. Humans are undeniably dangerous. But so too are the tools that were used to build this station. So too are fire, or the knives used to prepare food.”
She tapped her stick again. “Unlike those things, humans are thinking, living beings. Fellow intelligent life, which is a rare and precious thing in this galaxy. My clan-sister would have wept and been thrown into the kind of despair none of us here can imagine, if she had been forced to watch the Gaoian people die through no real fault of her own. They know, or are learning, that they are dangerous. Where it is already too late for them to prevent the damage, they are trying to repair it as best they can. Where it is not, they are taking precautions to prevent harm.”
“On their behalf, given their absence from this assembly, I humbly beseech the council to–”
She was cut off. Blue lighting—the universal colour of emergency and alarm—slammed on and a deep howl filled the council chamber. She was still standing bemused by it, ears twitching back and forth, when Regaari took her by the arm and escorted her with inexorable firmness, towards the exit.
“Regaari? What is happening?” She asked.
The male’s ears were pricked up and his teeth bared—sure signs of stress, alertness and concentration. He was listening to words that Giymuy could not hear, and reading words she could not see.
“The station’s under attack.” He reported, tersely.
“That’s still being…” His ears rose, then flattened against his skull.
”…The Swarm of Swarms.” he quickened the pace. “The Hunters are back.”
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Major Owen Powell
“FALL IN! Fall in and listen the fook up!”
The Operators had been in the middle of tidying up the barracks and doing basic chores like the washing up and laundry. They immediately dropped what they were doing and fell in around him, giving Powell their full and undivided attention. He didn’t skip a beat.
“Ten minutes ago our listening post in the Capitol system sent back its message buoy, reporting a massive spike in activity on Hunter communications channels and several sensor contacts. The Swarm’s attacking Capitol Station. Gear up and get on the shuttle, We dust off in three! Go, GO!”
Gearing up was a simple as grabbing the emergency bags that they all kept in the locker room for this exact reason and sprinting for the waiting shuttlecraft which had set down on the base’s helipad. It was a simple, stock Dominion model, little more than a dull grey cuboid with a window in the front and a door in the back. No human company had yet developed a version that the armed services liked well enough to buy, much to the grumbling of the people who had to use them, who were universally of the opinion that literally anything human-made would have been an improvement.
They were aboard and belted in in less than two minutes. Powell stood towards the front, gripping an overhead strap to stabilise himself as the little craft lurched skyward.
“Right, This operation is called ‘NOVA HOUND’.” he began, raising his voice over the engines. “Lucky for us, we’ve got an OPLAN for this exact scenario. The attack began ten or fifteen minutes ago. Our estimated response time is forty or fifty minutes. By the time we’re on scene, the defending fleet will have been brushed aside and the station itself will have been overrun by Hunters for a good half hour. Safe to assume that civilian casualties are total, and in this station’s case that’s a good twelve thousand people.”
“VIPs—council members, ambassadors, visiting dignitaries—have all got security details with them, which we believe makes enough difference. We have schematics for Capitol Station, we think we know where they’re likely to be holed up. Our mission is rescue and extraction of as many dignitaries and civilians as we can. Secondary objectives include causing as much damage as possible to the Swarm, intelligence gathering, and propaganda.”
“We’ll be deploying on Caledonia, which has been refit as a staging and hospital ship. The V-class destroyers are the frontline, they’ll hold the swarm by the nose. They’ve got the staying power and EWAR. Myrmidon will be serving in its new role as on-field energy support, keeping the V-class’ charged. Meanwhile, USAF TS/2 squadrons will deliver the killing blows and provide close screen. Both of them are there as a big distraction to let the men on this shuttle accomplish the real mission.”
“Our overwatch is provided by JETS, led by Lieutenant Ross aboard HMS Caledonia. Jones, Murray, Price, you’re covert infiltration and assault. Your job is to drive the outboard and dive onto the station, effect quiet ingress as close to the target section as possible. Blaczynski, Firth, you’re on the boat too, as am I. We help secure our foothold then dig in and command.”
“Once we’re in, the Protectors—-that’s Arés and Burgess—-and Defenders-—Stevenson, Sikes, Akiyama and Vandenberg—-Jump in from the shipboard array. That’s the assault team’s cue to go monkey-shit on the Hunters, leave none of them alive. Delta sets up the evacuation Array then maintains our perimeter and runs combat camera. Protectors, you’ll be handling the refugees. Hunters usually kill outright, so there probably won’t be a lot of medicine to do, so you’re also humping ammo and gear for the assault team. The evac Array will be sending the civilians to the deck of HMS Caledonia. We’ll be using our default callsigns. I’m STAINLESS. Any questions?”
“Sir.” Stevenson raised his hand. “Do we bring a backup Array?”
Powell nodded. “Yes. Any further questions? No? Are we clear?”
“Right. Give me your war names!”
“And don’t you fookin’ forget it, lads. Let’s do this right.”
Capitol Station, orbiting Planet Garden, Capitol System, Dominion Space
“Every shot we fire misses—they’re just NOT THERE any more. I don’t know where they learned a trick like this, but we’re losing ships fast out here, and inflicting no damage that I can see.”
“No hope of holding the field?” Regaari was part of a wedge of Gaoians pushing against a tide of stampeding lifeforms. Already one of his men was badly hurt, having been kicked hard by a panicking Vzk’tk. His role wasn’t to push and shove and shout and try to make room—he was too busy co-ordinating with the largest and most senior craft in the Gaoian contingent of the security fleet, the CGC Winter Fire.
“None. Your ETA to the shuttle?” Its captain was a Whitecrest, one of Regaari’s Brothers, both by clan and, he suspected, a half-sibling genetically.
“Everything’s panicking in here.” Regaari grunted, then raised his voice to be heard as a flock of wailing Kwmbwrw became the latest obstacle for them to push against. “Most of them are running away from the escape ships for some stupid reason. How long can you give me?”
“If we let all the others die first? A paw of [minutes], six at the outside.”
Regaari assessed matters. They had made it only a few hundred meters at best from the council chamber since the attack began. “Not good enough.” he declared.
“I know. I’m sorry, Brother, but at this point we have to treat everything aboard the station as lost. We may as well salvage some assets from this, and carry word to Gao of what–”
The link went dead with a sharp squeal in Regaari’s ear.
“Winter Fire, you broke up there.” He told them.
“Winter Fire, come in?”
“Officer Regaari, CGS Winter Fire is destroyed.” one of the other ships sent. “We’re warping out. Nothing we can do—may as well save what we can. Sorry.”
He turned. The Mother-Supreme was leaning heavily against a wall, panting and grimacing with a hand pressed to her chest. “Mother-Supreme?”
She slumped, sliding to the ground. Concerned males gathered round and Regaari rushed to her side. “Giymuy!”
“Oh, don’t…” she coughed. “At least my age is getting me first, before the Hunters do.”
The men exchanged glances, aware that they weren’t to be so lucky.
“We can still–”
“Don’t be so stupid!” she snapped, then her breath rattled horribly. She was clearly in hideous pain.
She continued In a gentler tone. “Regaari. You can escape. I will only slow you down, and so will these soldiers. Get…” she heaved and coughed, but fought through it. “Get to the diplomatic shuttle, and activate the emergency displacement recall…Tell them…” her strength was failing by the second, and when she repeated “tell them…” she was almost inaudible.
Regaari leaned in close. He only barely heard her last words.
He closed her eyes. “I’ll tell them.” he promised.
“Officer?” One of the soldiers asked him, clearly expecting an order.
“What?” Regaari asked, surveying the ceiling.
“What do we do?”
“First, you stand back.” Regaari ordered. When they did so, he aimed his pulse rifle and blasted the vent cover out of the ceiling with three precise shots.
“Second,” he said, slinging the rifle over his shoulder “you give me a boost up into that vent.”
They did so. Gaoian gravity was just a little higher than Galactic Standard, and between two of them, he was launched to the height of a ceiling that could accommodate even the tallest Rrrrtktktkp’ch or bulkiest Guvnurag. He caught the edge, swung there for a second, and then hauled himself up and into the air duct.
“And…third?” One of the soldiers asked.
Regaari unslung his gun and got his bearings.
“You kill as many of them as you can, and you don’t let them take you or your Brothers alive.” he told them. “Goodbye.”
HMS Violent, Cimbrean orbit, the Far Reaches
Commodore William Caruthers
“Signal from HMS Caledonia, Commodore. They say the SOR is aboard, suited up and ready.”
Caruthers acknowledged the communication with a clear nod and eye contact. “By my estimation, that makes us ready to go.” he observed.
Violent’s Captain—Commander Anthony Miller—nodded. “I agree sir.”
“Signal the fleet to prepare to jump on my mark…”
He was pleased that it took only some five seconds before “All ships ready to jump, Admiral.” was called.
Caruthers always felt cheated by the occasion of a jump. He would have liked a lurch, or a little jolt, or some tingling sensation, or even just a nondescript sense of something having happened. As it was, the only indication that anything at all had changed was the way his operations display began to populate itself.
The untrained eye would have seen only a mess. Caruthers, however, had a very trained eye.
The seven ships of his task group had translated through their wormholes and landed some ten thousand kilometers from Capitol Station. Far enough away that their miniscule signatures would be easily missed, close enough that the EM-spectrum latency shouldn’t throw off their targeting or electronic warfare.
As they arrived, HMS’ Violent, Vigilant, Victory, Vendetta, Vanguard and Viceroy each quietly released their passenger contingent of six BAE Terrier unmanned space vehicles—car-sized lozenges of thrusters, sensors and electronic attack modules designed to multiply their mothership’s electronic superiority and obfuscate the fleet’s exact size, composition and position.
The result was an immediate widening of their sensor net, and the Hunters weren’t bothering with subtlety. Even on passive sensors only, with the full group of seven warships and thirty drones deployed, he had an excellent idea of exactly what they were dealing with.
Capitol Station was a white, glass and chrome broccoli floret twenty kilometers long, ending in a tangled root of rust-brown mooring gantries and docking bays. describing a rough sphere around it with a radius of some five hundred kilometers was the Swarm, consisting of literally thousands of ships, including fifty or sixty which were a match, in terms of tonnage at least, for Myrmidon and Caledonia, both of which were by far the most massive ships in the human fleet.
They did not, fortunately, appear to be reacting to the arrival of the Deathworlders.
“Dragon’s teeth out.” he ordered.
The dragon’s teeth had been modified since the last battle at Cimbrean. Their canisters were now filled with high-pressure air rather than using explosives to disperse the minisatellite jump beacons, allowing them to be deployed without creating an obvious sensor contact. Violent’s hull rang as twenty such canisters were launched away from the ship on random timers, creating a friendly sphere of possible evasive jumps.
At a range of ten thousand clicks, and with the twin advantages of surprise and EWAR on their side, the fleet was now well prepared to weather a sustained firefight.
“Signal the fleet.” he announced.
In the finest of military traditions, ‘Horatio’ was a prearranged code phrase, meaning that the fleet should load a specific type of ammunition, calculate a specific firing solution, and await the second phrase which would be the cue to fire. Caruthers gave them the thirty seconds they needed.
“Nelson.” he ordered.
The answer from all six ships at once was an opening flurry of firepower, a two-to-three-to-one mix of gravity spikes, conventional anti-ship ammunition and specialist ammo that would hopefully go unnoticed alongside the rest of the firepower. Simultaneously, the EWAR opened up, strobing the Swarm with dazzling masers and flooding every band they were broadcasting on with powerful white noise.
Those gravity spikes were necessary. Without them the Hunter ships would just warp to point-blank range in the moment they were aligned along the correct vector, eliminating the human range advantage in an infinitesimal shaving of a second. The only counter to that was gravity spikes, delivered by timed-explosion rounds that filled the intervening space with heavily distorted spacetime against which warp drives could secure no footing, ensuring that the Hunters would remain firmly confined to subluminal maneuvers.
The three parts of conventional ammunition did their job equally well, however. Four of the larger Swarm craft were crippled in the opening volley, spilling the contents of their pressurized bowels as the human guns thumped and hurled their payloads down a narrow warp channel which dissipated mere centimeters from the target’s hulls, allowing no possibility of evasive action.
The Swarm responded with animal speed, showing off just how efficient the Hunter cybernetic communications really were. All of those ships were behaving almost like a single amoeboid organism, spreading out and sending loose tendrils of high-speed ships creeping out and around, questing for a vector from which to try and warp the intervening distance and engulf or snare the outnumbered human task group. Several motes of light actually lifted off the surface of Capitol Station, abandoning their tick-like burrowing in pursuit of the prized Deathworlder quarry.
Caruthers allowed himself a satisfied nod. “Signal Colonel Stewart.” he said “Tell him they’ve taken the bait.”
“Epic to Group: The Brits have engaged. All units fold your WiTCheS and accelerate to combat speed.”
Rylee practically swore with relief. The tension had been killing her, and she obeyed the order enthusiastically, punching Firebird up to speed and aligning for the station as hard as her sled could accelerate.
Lurking near the star to recoup their lost energy from the extreme long-range jump from Sol had swiftly gotten dull. She was a combat pilot, and Firebird and her sisters were combat spaceframes. They belonged in the melee.
The wing reported ready. Stewart’s voice had an eager edge to match Rylee’s own feelings “Epic to Group: Off we go.”
They jumped. Warping to the target station when the British ships had polluted its skies with gravity spikes was asking for damage, which is why the opening salvo had included beacon rounds that streaked through the Hunter formation and slowed to sublight velocities on the far side, inviting the TS/2s to enfilade the Swarm.
The sky went from empty, to being awash with red contacts, painted by the Royal Navy FOF and confirmed by the absence of friendly RFID. Fed by the combat controllers aboard Caledonia, her HUD indicated her assigned box and describing a cuboid some thousand kilometers long. At the kinds of speeds reached in starship combat, she would sweep through a volume that large in seconds.
Semenza was reciting his EWAR and weapons reports from only inches behind her head.
Things had changed in the last couple of years. The missile payload was gone, replaced with electronic attack pods that further multiplied their force’s ability to blind and confuse the Hunters. only the GAU-8/S remained for their onboard weaponry.
A targeting laser speared one of the big ships as she raked its flank with 30mm rounds, shredding its shields. Behind her, Semenza grunted in satisfaction. “Firebird one, fox four.”
Rather than launching the missile, he summoned one. There was a stockpile of thousands back on Earth, and one of them jumped into the fight at Semenza’s call, existing on the battlefield for barely half a second before it slammed into the Swarmship and mauled it.
“Data point. The fuckers are armored now.” Semenza noted. He was right. In their last fight, that exact same class of missile had dismembered a ship of that size. Now it had merely gouged a ragged chunk from its flank.
“Hit it again.”
“Wilco. Firebird one, fox four.”
The wounded Swarmship blinked out of existence, and Semenza’s missile spiralled drunkenly off into the black, too confused and low on power to select a new target.
“Data point. They can evade-jump now.” Semenza added.
An incoming contact became a cloud of gas and light debris as Riley vectored sideways and put a cloud of 30mm rounds in its flight path. Its own railgun rounds went wide, barely a hundred meters to starboard.
“Stay frosty.” she muttered.
The vent did two things for Regaari.
It saved his life, allowing him to walk, then crawl through the narrower ducting, unimpeded and unobserved towards the hangar where the Gaoian diplomatic yacht was landed.
And it let him hear the screams. It caught and amplified them, so that he heard every one in hollow, magnified, metallic detail.
So many of them. Intermingled with the sounds of pulse gun fire, the flash and strobe of Nervejam grenades, and a new sound, a heavy explosive sound that reminded him of the action movies he’d watched with Xiù, years ago.
But mostly screams. Screams of terror. Screams of pain. Dying squeals and pleading. Defiant yells as some of the soldiers and security troopers went down fighting.
Sometimes, when he couldn’t hear the screams, he could hear the eating.
Those were the worst. He hardly dared move at all in those quiet sections, for fear that the slightest sound would give him away. He had to inch past, treated to a full view of what, exactly, the Hunters did with their prey.
But his luck held. Either he was silent enough to not give himself away, or else they were so enraptured by their feast as to not notice.
He crawled onwards.
When it came down to it, the difference between riding an outboard launch wearing a wetsuit, and riding an extravehicular launch wearing an EV-MASS, was basically that the latter was quieter. No waves, no bird call, none of the little noises that had hitherto masked every covert infiltration of Powell’s career. Just silence, save for his breathing.
The craft itself was little more than a conical bank of capacitors mounted on a kinetic thrust plate, with latching points for the infiltration team and any heavy gear they were bringing to be attached and folded inside its little warp field. It almost looked like a black rubber launch. Across the huge distances involved it relied on computer navigation rather than a pilot, so there was little to do but program it, hang on, and hit the button on the control screen at the little vehicle’s nose.
He had never felt so exposed in all his life.
There was no jolt or anything—the inertial compensation provided by the warp field was too well-tuned for that—but it was still jarring for HMS Caledonia to vanish from behind them and for Capitol station—which had until now just been a nigh-invisible glimmer of light, suddenly be there, right in front of them. Twenty kilometers long and only two kilometers away.
Technically, they were smack in the middle of the Swarm of Swarms, but at the scales involved human senses were hopelessly inadequate for noticing that fact. Only the occasional streak of light across the stars—weapons fire, or a ship moving at sanity-fraying velocities—hinted that there was even a battle raging silently all around them.
If their stealthy approach was not stealthy enough, if the EWAR that was theoretically blinding every sensor delicate enough to spot them, wasn’t, then the only mercy would be that their annihilation would be so instant and total that none of them would notice it happening.
The last approach used cold-gas thrusters rather than the kinetics. The Launch was designed to have practically zero sensor signature, after all. It had been a precision approach—they were barely ten meters from the station hull, stationary relative to a large window, though the mirroring on the glass made it impossible to see within, only that the section was not lit.
They detached from the Launch and Powell turned a single gentle somersault to kiss against the hull, absorbing the last of his momentum with his knees just as they had practiced in zero-G training so many times before.
Breaching the glass was simple. STERLING and HIGHLAND hacked a simple square out of the glass with two simple swipes of their fusion knives. Air pressure did the rest, flinging the plate of glass out into space, along with a blizzard of small objects caught in the rush of escaping air.
Legsy heaved himself through. There was a moment of silence.
Powell hit the beacon on his belt as the Combat Controllers propelled themselves through the breach, and an inky cuboid, nearly invisible in space, simply appeared without ceremony next to him. Divorced of its power source, the stasis field collapsed and WARHORSE, BASEBALL, TITAN, THOR, REBAR and SNAPFIRE were hanging next to him.
He let them through the hole first and, once through himself, settled onto the deck in galactic standard gravity. The Deltas deployed a forcefield seal over the breach and, at their nod, Legsy and STERLING burst through the door into the corridor beyond, pushing past the hurricane rush of air that flooded into their entry room. Their SMGs spat out their rounds with a noise that went right through Powell’s chest..
He was pleased to hear it. The silence of vacuum had been getting to him, and any sound was welcome, even if it wasn’t a pleasant sound—shrieking alarms, wailing aliens and the distant hammering of Hunter pulse fire, plus an unpleasant hissing. Apparently their forcefield wasn’t as airtight as hoped.
“Right. Let’s get into an airtight compartment.” he ordered.
They vacated the room and sealed the door behind them. Arés raised his SAW and fired a sharp six-round burst at something, and Powell suppressed some pride when he turned and saw that the kid had just bagged his first Hunter kill. He was in commander mode right now, he couldn’t afford to be sentimental.
Legsy, HIGHLAND and STERLING took point, storming down the corridor and ripping into a knot of Hunters that were tormenting a shuddering Guvnurag. All five of the monsters were dead before they even knew they were under assault.
The huge alien was in a bad way, bleeding horribly from where the Hunters had bitten the flesh right off her living body. Burgess went to work, and Powell took a moment to evaluate their position. It was some kind of a common area, full of benches and tables and the kind of alien-sized furniture that made good high cover for humans. Better still, there was plenty of room for the Defenders to deploy their jump array.
“This is our spot.” he announced.
The Alpha of the Brood-that-Builds
+<Interest> A human Alpha. The first we have seen.+
The Builder Alpha examined the perspective of the little insect-sized spy drone as it settled on the ceiling above the Deathworlder.
The human infantry had appeared from nowhere, storming out of a supposedly empty room on the station’s upper decks without warning. They might almost have materialised in that room fully-formed. Impossible, of course, but then again that kind of stealth was only marginally more credible, especially from a species so technologically behind the Hunters.
This particular specimen was clearly in command, having started by thrusting its arm out to indicate where its subordinates should go and what work they should do, and now poring over a diagram of that section of the station, directing the efforts of the other eleven.
The Alpha-of-Alphas was clearly intrigued also. It had a much more complete view of the battlefield than the Builder Alpha did, ensconced as it was in a kind of command throne that was designed to interface with its neural augmentations and greatly expand its ability to track and consider the situation. It had proven itself in battle against these humans, receiving only minor wounds at worst. Now it was proving itself as a commander and leader.
+<Correction> Not just an Alpha.+ it mused. +<Observation> Notice the markings on their armor. There are three different Deathworlder broods here. Each fulfills a different role. This is an Alpha-of-many-broods. It must be an individual of great importance.+
The Builder broadcast understanding and agreement. +<Fascination> Interesting that their broods function together through division of duty.+ it commented. +<Inspiration> And that displacement device! The possibilities!+
+<Satisfaction> Observing that device in action alone has been worth this trap.+ the Alpha-of-Alphas agreed. +<Thoughtfulness> And the specialised behaviour of their warriors can be translated to our own broods. This is valuable data.+
They watched the Deathworlders slaughter lesser Hunters by the dozen for some minutes. The violence was almost intimidating, even from a cloaked listening post far removed from the action. The lead team of three would enter a compartment, and every Hunter within that compartment would be dead almost too quickly to fathom, cut down by withering volleys of disciplined firepower.
There was an objective to it, though—they weren’t killing for the sake of killing. Instead, every time the humans surged forward, it was to claim another little knot of surviving Prey, plucking them from the Hunters’ grasp and securing the meat the opportunity to escape. Dozens had escaped already, most of them the important, high-value individuals whose deaths would have so demoralized the Prey across the galaxy. Each dignitary that escaped to whatever sanctuary the Deathworlders had established beyond their displacement array was a personal insult to the Alpha-of-Alpha’s plan.
Why they should do so was incomprehensible to the Alpha of the Brood-that-Builds. Why would superior lifeforms put themselves in harm’s way to rescue inferior ones that were not even the same brood or species?
It sensed that there was no answer to that conundrum within the remit of engineering.
For their part, the Hunters’ responses to human weaponry just didn’t seem to be giving them the edge that the Builder had hoped for. The guns were just too heavy, and needed to be held in too specific a way so as to avoid injury. If only they could capture a working example of the weapons the humans themselves were using…
As they watched, a family of spindly blue Prey were herded into the territory the humans had seized and vanished through the displacement device. Just behind them was the wounded Large Prey, actually being carried by two of the Deathworlders. The Builder revised its estimates as to human maximum muscle strength upwards by several percentage points.
+<Curiosity> Those two seem to prioritise the repair and evacuation of wounded Prey.+ it noted.
+<Contempt> Yes. While that is an obvious sign of weakness and wrong-thinking, it will also potentially undermine our intimidation of the prey.+ the Alpha-of-Alpha’s thoughts were tinged with anger at this damage to their propaganda victory.
+<Suggestion> I submit that we have gathered enough data. Those humans should be eradicated, their displacement device salvaged and we should capture that Alpha-of-Many-Broods.+ the Builder proposed.
It did not take the silence that greeted this idea for hesitation or contempt. The Alpha-of-Alphas had demonstrated its intelligence and cunning time and again. It was undoubtedly mulling the suggestion over, considering the merits and potential risks.
+<Resolve> Agreed.+ It sent, at last. +I will deploy the Strongest Brood.+
Regaari’s luck ran out the instant he dropped into the diplomatic yacht’s hangar. Only the Whitecrest training that the Mothers would have so despised had they known of it kept him from dying the moment he dropped from the vent and onto the deck. He hadn’t seen the three Hunters feasting on a brother of Clan Farflight, but his pulse rifle snapped up and was firing the instant he saw them. Three solid hits pulped the one holding a bizarre long gun in a shock-absorbing assemblage, and he dived aside, throwing down a shieldstick to cover his retreat. Retaliatory pulse fire splashed against it.
The latest generation, available only to Whitecrests, could admit pulse fire from the defenders’ side, and he used that feature to return fire, killing the last two even as their final pulse shot shattered his barrier. That had been too close.
He turned to the ship and froze cold, realising that the Hunters had already crippled it, recognising the fact that it was a possible escape craft. He had no way off the station.
No, there had to be an alternative, something he’d overlooked…
A crawling sense of paranoia made him look up.
The Alpha dropped from the ceiling like something obscene from one of Xiù’s movies, and smashed his gun out of his hands. Half as big again as its subordinates and much more heavily augmented, it kicked him and Regaari felt a rib jar painfully inside him as the blow flipped him through the air to slide on his back halfway across the hangar.
Winded and injured, he still fought to find his feet, scrambling at his belt for his backup pulse pistol. That too was slapped aside by the Alpha, which used its other hand to grab him by the scruff of his neck and lift him off the deck, feet kicking and dangling.
He wouldn’t have been Regaari if he hadn’t fought for every last second though. Down to just his claws, he raked the nightmare’s face, costing it two eyes and badly lacerating the flesh around a cluster of cybernetics that replaced three of the others.
It replied by biting off his left paw just above the wrist.
It was an almost dainty gesture, and Hunter teeth were so sharp that Regaari was almost able to see it happen without feeling it. One moment it was his paw, the next it was a meaty morsel, frothing blood in the creature’s mouth, crunching and splintering as the hunter bit through the bone to swallow what had once been a part of him.
It laughed. There was no epithet in Gaori to describe how much he hated it for that. The… beast gloated, savoring its kill. He snorted nasal mucus and spat it into the creature’s remaining eye, too proud to give it the satisfaction of fearing it. He hated it, hated everything it stood for, and his last thought was to hope fervently that it would choke on him.
Instead, its head twitched to look over his shoulder, and it dropped him, bringing up one of those large long guns.
Those guns were clearly heavy though. Too heavy to respond in time. Its head exploded, painting a grisly slurry of meaty matter and cybernetic parts all over the deck, and the most glorious sight in the galaxy double-timed across the hangar, gun snapping from corner to corner in case of any lingering threats.
By all the clans of Gao. An actual human. Built like a bunker and faceless in an armored vacuum suit layered in technology, but unmistakably a Deathworlder. Nothing else could conceivably have moved so easily while carrying so much.
“You’re late.” he chided, out of pure bravado.
“You’re alive.” the human replied, setting to work on the stump of his arm. Regaari reached across to retrieve his pulse pistol with his remaining hand and holstered it. He was keeping on top of the pain, barely, and having that little task to focus on while the human stopped his bleeding by injecting some kind of foam directly into the wound, which hardened and stopped the blood flow almost instantly, kept him from crying out from the agony and fainting.
“Come on compadre, you’re not getting out of here on that shuttle.” the human said. He slung his gun around his shoulder, tugged a smaller one from a belt holster, tucked an arm under Regaari and hoisted him firmly but gently off the floor. It was like being a cub again, riding on an adult’s shoulders.
The diplomatic quarters outside were exactly the kind of hell his imagination and sense of hearing had suggested as he’d crawled through the vents. There were bodies everywhere, many of them clearly cut down from behind as they tried to flee. Intermingled with them were Hunter corpses, however, clearly fallen where they had been feasting, many still with dripping shreds of flesh caught in their fangs.
Two more humans in those armored vacuum suits were firing stubby little black weapons at something through a doorway. Not missing a beat, his rescuer dropped his shoulders and surged past their firefight, shielding Regaari with his own body.
This brought them into view of another human, just in time for Regaari to watch him sidestep a charging Beta and punch it so hard in the side of its jaw that the head was all but torn off. The huge corpse crashed into the bulkhead and left a purplish blood stain.
“Whe–” Regaari began. He made it no further than that, because an explosion an order of magnitude larger than anything that had previously rocked them punished the deck. The lights died, and artificial gravity went with them for just a second before the damage control systems found an alternate power source for them. Emergency lighting, dark and blue, at least robbed the carnage of its more stomach-turning hues.
The humans clearly heard an order via some means he wasn’t party too, because all of them began to fall back under fire towards the recreational concourse. The one carrying him picked up his speed to the point where Regaari could feel a breeze in his fur.
There were Hunters on the concourse, but unlike any that Regaari had ever heard of. Gone were the usual cruel cybernetics. In fact, gone were whole limbs, and in place of the “natural” sickly white of Hunter flesh was a horrible wet meaty redness which bulged and pulled in grotesque ways as they moved. Whatever these Hunters had done to themselves had granted them the strength to move confidently and swiftly even layered in thick armor plates and while carrying large weapons.
They were huge, as big if not bigger than the Alpha that had nearly killed him, and moving with a sturdy, graceful precision that was more like a human’s motion, and these ones seemed to be handling their guns just fine, pouring a hail of firepower into the water feature that three more human soldiers were using for cover.
His rescuer’s gun hand came up and the pistol’s sharp crack was a very different noise to the heavy, explosive, industrial thunder being made by the Hunter weaponry. Unlike them, his aim was sharp and precise. One of the abominations choked and collapsed as the rounds ripped into exposed gaps at the sides and flanks, but two of its friends turned to face the new threat, with bullets sparking off shields and armour plates as they returned fire, squinting against the glare from the bright light mounted below the pistol’s barrel.
Regaari was jolted badly when his carrier then jinked into cover, and he was let go of. Even if the human was trying to be gentle, being carried by a Deathworlder was clearly a dangerous experience.
He kept his head down. There was more gunfire, shouting, the deck plating shook.
“They’re coming up the left!”
“They’re fucking suicidal…BASEBALL, REBAR, get up on the right there!”
The deck plating dented under their weight as the pinned three dashed from where they’d been hiding and made it into cover beside him. “Good shooting, Hoss.”
“I took a hit, didn’t penetrate. Those guns of theirs hit hard though.”
“Watch the ones coming down the middle…fuck! NERVEJAM!”
“Oh no you don’t!”
Regaari felt like an icicle was pounded into his brain as a grenade went off nearby.
“Get him back here! Suppressing fire!”
A storm of shooting. Heavy footfalls, more shouting, and something large was dragged into cover alongside him, one of the humans convulsing and twitching in his armour.
“They’re still coming!”
“Throwing grenade…FRAG OUT!”
An explosion that left his ears ringing in protest. Station damage alarms started wailing nearby, adding to the chorus of violence.
“How is he?”
“He needs to be jumped to triage right now, sir.”
There was a deadly, horrible pause. “Fookin’….can we make the array?”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
”…THOR, demolish it. We’re EA jumping.”
“Major. He’s dead, sir.”
”…Aye. Grab the ETs and fall back, that way. Legsy, HIGHLAND! Cover the retreat.”
Regaari was hoisted up with Deathworlder strength and carried. There were three others with him: a Corti and two Kwmbwrw, who seemed to be equally as petrified by their rescuers as by the Hunters.
He could see over his carrier’s shoulder as they ran. The one in charge paused long enough to tap some commands out on the computer he carried, and the dead soldier’s armor started smoking, then burst into flames.
The one carrying him muttered something. His helmet decided that the sotto voce delivery was not intended for translation, but Regaari understood just enough English to understand him.
“Get in this bag, quickly now.”
The Corti was clearly one of the political delegation, and not accustomed to taking orders gracefully. “What exactly is an ‘EA Jump’ and why am I being stuffed into a bag for it?” he demanded.
The human commander clearly had no patience for Corti games. “It means Exo-bloody-Atmospheric. We are going to jump out of this station and land on that planet, so put on the fookin’ bag!” he snapped. Behind his pressure helmet, his eyes promised trouble the likes of which no alien could comprehend if he was not obeyed.
The Corti squeaked and practically dove into the bag. Regaari had already been mostly into his, but he balked upon hearing this. “Jump?”
The human whose chest the bag was strapped to nodded, and pushed him down gently but firmly, helping him curl up inside it. “Yep.” he said.
“Is that safe?”
“Hell no. Beats being eaten by Hunters though.” He tugged the bag over Regaari’s head and sealed it. It instantly pressurised, filling with sweet atmosphere that was a welcome relief from the meat-tasting foulness he’d been breathing.
There was a little transparent window for him to see out of, and through it he saw two of the humans each stick a large brick of something to the outside station wall.
There was muffled speech, then shouting as the humans who had stayed behind retreated into the room, still shooting. They slammed and sealed the door—an instant later, a titanic detonation shook the room.
“Claymore?” the commander asked.
“Yep. There’s more coming, but they’re being careful now.”
“Right. Last seal check, blow it on my go.”
The humans scrambled to check each other’s suits, and all loudly declared them satisfactory, then the one carrying him turned away and hunkered down and…
Losing his hand turned out to be only the second most violent thing that happened to Regaari that day. The first was any station-dweller’s nightmare—the total catastrophic failure of an outside wall, and the resulting depressurisation that flung them and everything else in the room out into space. Crushing G-forces caused him to black out for a second.
“Hey. Hey, you still with me in there?”
The voice was coming from a small hand-held device attached by a coiled wire to the same panel on the inside of his bag that was providing Regaari’s breathable air. Tinny and quiet as it was, it still seemed loud inside the bag, which was basically silent apart from the faint sounds of the air being exchanged and of Regaari’s own body.
He grabbed it and tentatively pressed the button on the side. “Yes. I’m still with you.”
“Good news, man. We’re alive and reentering just fine.”
Regaari had to produce a bitter chirp at that one. “Oh, yes. Everything is absolutely perfect.” he commented.
“Better than being eaten. What’s your name, compadre?”
“Regaari. Officer Regaari, of Clan Whitecrest.”
“Cool. Call me WARHORSE.”
Regaari pushed his nose up to the window of his bag, which was now a taut cylinder. He could just make out the human’s arms on either side of him and beyond that, only Capitol Station and tumbling, burning lights. ‘WARHORSE’ sounded more like a codename to him than the human’s real name, but he wasn’t going to argue. Goodness knew, he’d gone by plenty of assumed identities in his duties.
“So. Atmospheric reentry without a spacecraft.” he said. “I assume this suit of yours is equipped for it?”
“Technically, everything about this suit is so classified I can’t tell you shit about it, man. But, y’know, you’ll figure out if it is or isn’t by the way we do or don’t burn up.” WARHORSE told him.
They fell in silence for a while. There was a pale blue glow just building up past the limb of WARHORSE’s limbs when Regaari finally spoke. “I’m curious. Why?”
“The Dominion’s treated you–” he spoke in English as best as a Gaoian mouth could ”-like shit. You lost a presumably elite soldier today…”
“One of the very fuckin’ best.” WARHORSE agreed. There was an emotional edge to his voice, but Regaari couldn’t interpret what that edge might be. Not that it was difficult to guess.
“Not to…belittle his sacrifice.” he said, carefully. “But why?”
“Hey, I don’t know the why of it, man.” WARHORSE replied. “But my whole thing is saving lives. That’s, like, my job, my purpose in life. So, I’m just doing what I do, you know?”
“You lost a man.” Regaari repeated.
“Yeah. And I’m going to miss him like crazy, he was one of my brothers, man. But we SAVED like…what, fifty? Sixty?”
“Still, risking twelve elite human soldiers to save fifty or sixty ungrateful politicians…”
“A life is a life, man. Doesn’t matter if it’s human, Gaoian, Kwmbwrw, or that little grey fuck on BASEBALL’s chest.”
There was a flicker of orange light. “Re-entry plasma?”
“Yeah. Forcefield should handle it just fine. Sit back and enjoy the fireworks.”
“Ah, fireworks.” Regaari nodded. “I had a human friend once. She showed me video footage of fireworks. I always thought it would be fun to see them.”
The translator spat out WARHORSE’s response in the form of the Gaori word for “footwear” with a questioning uptick.
“Her real name has this awkward sound at the start. Like shhh but more…buzzing.”
”…Wait, not Jew? You had a Jewish friend?”
“I don’t know what that is. Her name was a longer and…flatter sound. She said she was Chinese-Canadian?”
“Aah, right. Gotcha. Yah, most other humans struggle with Chinese names too.”
The plasma outside was now a steady orange torrent. The bag’s window was clearly photosensitive because it had darkened to welder’s-mask black in order to protect his eyes from the contrail’s incandescence.
Then the shaking started.
“Is it…meant to do this?”
“You got me, compadre. This is the first time I’ve done this.”
“Not even in training?”
“Too dangerous for training. Hold on!”
Regaari curled up, resisted the urge to let his claws out, and shut his eyes, wishing against all rationality that he could be a cub again as he and WARHORSE became a fireball together, and fell.
The eternity of being about to die ended in a metallic noise, the wheeze of cloth against cloth, and a jolt nearly as violent as the one that had flung them from the station.
“What? What was that?!” he asked.
He hadn’t thought to press the button on the communicator, but now WARHORSE’s voice came through to him from outside the bag, slightly muffled but no more than that. They had atmosphere. “Parachute. Worst part’s over, compadre, we’re almost down safe. You okay?”
“What’s left of me is doing fine.”
“Bueno. Last hit coming up in three…two…”
Regaari grimaced as there was a thump and several jolts, before the human fell down backwards, careful to let Regaari fall on top rather than the other way round.
There were some more metallic clinks, a rustling of fabric, and then the top of his bag tore off. WARHORSE looked in. “You okay?” he asked.
Regaari climbed out of the bag as best he could with only one paw and collapsed on his back, gulping like a stranded fish. “I never want to do anything like that ever again.” he stated.
WARHORSE just lay beside him and chuckled. The chuckle turned into a laugh and he surged to his feet and ripped off the helmet and mask of his pressure suit, revealing a stubbly fuzz of head-hair on deep nut-coloured skin. Still laughing he threw the helmet high into the air, shrugged off the parachute harness and rucksack, and then spread his arms and howled.
The noise was agony, a primal roar of defiance aimed at the universe which impaled Regaari’s sensitive ears and straight through into the pain centers of his brain. WARHORSE seemed to have gone mad, jumping and swearing and punching the air, always returning to that same “WOOO!” sound. Regaari watched in alarm as the human did a double backflip in what must, to him, have been extremely low gravity, then stooped, ripped a stone from the turf that was as big as Regaari’s head and threw it hard at a nearby tree before collapsing, giggling, on his back.
The stone hit the tree with such incredible force that it lodged in the wood.
A second later, creaking, crackling, hissing and groaning, the tree fell over.
WARHORSE’s laughter died and he sat up. “Jeez.” he said. “Did I do that?”
Regaari scowled at him. “This is the only known class two planet. You’re a native of a class twelve. You could probably ruin this planet’s whole biosphere just by breathing on it, if you aren’t careful.”
WARHORSE blinked at him then stood up. “Didn’t catch one word of that, man.” he looked around “Where the fuck is my helmet?”
Regaari picked it up and offered it to him, feeling his arm wobble from the weight.
“Thanks, man.” WARHORSE wriggled it back onto his head, muttering angrily to himself. “Fucking amateur, Arés, don’t be stupid…Never remove your helmet, dumbass.”
“I said.” Regaari repeated, when it was back on and the translator was working again “That we’re standing on the only known class two planet in this galaxy, and you’re from a Class twelve. You could do serious harm if you’re not careful.”
“Shit.” WARHORSE nodded agreement. “You’re right. Sorry.”
“You’d better not do that either, or you’ll definitely kill this world.” Regaari added.
“I know man, I live on Cimbrean.” WARHORSE told him, twisting the helmet back and forth until it was firmly in place and the docking collar re-engaged with a solid ‘snap!’
He checked it was seated properly by throwing his head back and forth a bit and wriggling his shoulders. “Thanks for the reminder, though.”
“How heavy IS that helmet?” Regaari asked.
“Twenty-five pounds base weight.” WARHORSE replied, “Which, yeah. Sucks.”
He rearranged some of his equipment and shrugged the ruck on again as if it was nothing, causing Regaari’s boggling over the helmet to intensify. He’d experienced for himself just how strong Xiù had been, but between the stone, that rucksack, and the easy way he had carried Regaari himself and all that other gear back on the station, it was plain that WARHORSE vastly outstripped her.
The human pressed firmly on the side of his helmet. “STAINLESS, WARHORSE.” he announced. “Arrived DZ, one healthy ET in tow, I’m at, uh…” he checked the device in his hand and reeled off a string of numbers. “Seeking cover and awaiting orders.”
There was silence for a few seconds and then -
“WARHORSE, STAINLESS. I have your DZ. Seek cover, rest up. Turn to tac-net three niner four Tango November Juliet and await further. Out.”
WARHORSE grunted and looked around, scanning the horizon with those predator’s eyes. “There.” he pointed. Regaari squinted, and could see the shimmer of water cascading down a rocky outcrop, carving a little tree-haunted valley.
“How far is that?” he asked.
“Eh, three clicks or so. I jog further than that before breakfast.”
“Ah, yes. Human endurance running.” Regaari sighed. “I’m going to slow you down, aren’t I?”
“Nah, man. Climb on.”
Regaari flattened his ears disbelievingly. “You can’t be serious.”
“Gravity this low, I need something to weigh me down” WARHORSE replied. “Besides, what do you mass, like ninety pounds? I could lift you one-handed in twice this gravity, no problem.”
The translator fed him a Gaori measurement that sounded about right, so he nodded, imitating the gesture he’d often seen Xiù use. WARHORSE just returned the gesture and waved a hand towards the pack on his shoulders.
Regaari paused, then twitched his whiskers resignedly and did as the human suggested, clambering up the bag to sit atop it. It wasn’t dignified, but WARHORSE didn’t appear to notice the extra weight.
“Man, we should put a machine gun up there for you or something.” he chuckled.
“How about optics, or that map of yours?” Regaari suggested.
“Good thinking. Binos are in that front pocket there.” WARHORSE handed up the map device. It was alarmingly short on detail, and Regaari said so. WARHORSE just nodded. “Relax, intel’s got our back. We’ll have a better map pretty soon.”
They headed out. WARHORSE quickly settled into a steady rhythm of big, long bounding strides that ate up the ground, and just kept going. It wasn’t quite running, so much as a vigorous, fast march, and it was deceptive. Regaari wouldn’t have guessed they were moving very fast, but when he glanced behind them he saw that their landing site was already distant, and receding.
He played with the ‘binos’, adjusting their width, having to set them to their widest to fit his own face, but once he did so and toyed with the wheel on top and its functions, he swiftly got the hang of it. It was…strange, handling a piece of human technology, made by humans for human use. It certainly didn’t feel like a lower-tech species’ gear, either. It may have lacked a few of the advanced features that he’d have found in a Gaoian equivalent, but optically it was superb. The only real burr in his fur that he could find to complain about was their heaviness.
WARHORSE wasn’t even breathing heavily when they stopped again.
Regaari chittered a little on a surge of cynicism. Their resting spot was as stereotypical of a low-class world as could be—a gentle glade fed by a clean bubbling stream with a pool in which slender, silver little fish were undulating. Idyllic.
WARHORSE ignored it. Instead he let Regaari off his back and shucked off the ruck, before examining the dressing on Regaari’s arm. “Any pain or itching?” he asked.
“No. But it feels like the paw is still there.” Regaari said. It was a strange sensation, he could still “grip” and move his “fingers” but of course nothing happened except that what was left of the muscle sheath in his forearm twitched pathetically as it tried to flex and twist to pull on the now-absent tendons of his now-absent paw.
He sat down and stared at the dressing as WARHORSE made a satisfied noise and pottered about, setting up a basic camp.
“You okay?” he was asked after a while. Regaari chirruped a bitter little laugh.
“I’m supposed to be one of the elite.” he said. “Clan Whitecrest, foremost commandos and security specialists of the whole Gaoian species, but next to the Hunters I may as well be a cub. Next to you…”
WARHORSE had set up next to the pool and was digging through his bag. “Nah, man. You’re a fucking badass.” he replied.
“What was that expression? Pull the other one. Only, please don’t because I’d like to get off this planet with at least three whole limbs.”
“Totally serious, compadre. What did you do to that hunter? Clawed out two eyes and spat in the third? And that was a fuckin’ Alpha. You’ve got spirit, bro.”
Regaari snorted. “Spirit doesn’t count. Only results matter.” he snapped, dismissively.
“You got the result, though.” WARHORSE said. When Regaari twitched a disbelieving ear at him, he nodded insistently. “Seriously. You’re alive. You held out long enough for the cavalry to reach you and you saw that son of a bitch dead. Result.”
“You’re just trying to pep me up.” Regaari told him.
WARHORSE nodded. “‘Course I am. Best way to do that’s with the truth, though. You’re still kicking, it’s not, and the difference was you going down swinging. Spirit gets results, man.”
Regaari sat silently and watched. The human soon made a satisfied noise and pulled out a handful of flat brown packs of some kind, and scooped up some water from the pool in a little bottle. There was a pump of some kind in the bottle’s end, and after a few enthusiastic strokes of that, the water was forced back out through the filter nozzle.
“Are you… filtering and purifying that?” Regaari asked. “This is a class two planet, you don’t need to.”
“Basic survival rule where I’m from, never trust the water.”
“We’re not on where you’re from.”
WARHORSE paused, then shrugged. “Eh, a good habit’s a good habit.” He held up the little brown packages from the ruck. “Hungry?”
“You’re eating now? We only just landed.”
“Every chance I get. Never know when the next opportunity’s going to arrive in a situation like this.”
“But how are you going to cook it without a fire? If you build one, won’t the Hunters–”
“Relax, we got that covered. Besides, there’s a long way to go ahead of us, I’m going to need the nutrition, whereas the Hunters only might come looking for us.”
“Oh. Well, I do like human food…”
“Eh, this is just an MRE, not fine dining. Kind of the tastier alternative to those ration balls.” WARHORSE said, opening the package and tipping most of the contents out onto his lap. He tipped a little sachet of white powder into his bottle and shook it, turning the water a vivid pink, then took off his breathing mask and sipped it.
“What’s that?” Regaari asked.
“Juice. Electrolytes, sugar, hydration.” WARHORSE sipped again and licked his lips, frowning. “Supposedly it tastes like cherry.”
“Look, you want one of these to try? Because I can eat whatever’s too much for you.”
”…If it’s safe.”
“It’s all been treated with gamma radiation man. Totally sterile, I promise.”
WARHORSE nodded and examined the available options, “…I warn you man, this shit’s…this is the high-performance version, it’s meant to get a fuckload of energy into me first and foremost. The culinary experience is, like, a distant second.” he pointed out.
“I’ll try it anyway. You’re right, nutrition in a situation like this is important.”
WARHORSE nodded, and stuffed the rest of the MREs back into his pack. “Damn right.” He ripped the top off a couple of transparent plastic bags, slipped the unappetizing green pouches of food inside, and then added a little water before returning the bags to their cardboard box and leaning them against a rock. Within seconds, steam was rising from the boxes.
“How does that work?” Regaari asked.
“Clever.” Regaari commented. “No flame, no smoke, minimal heat signature.”
“That’s the idea.” WARHORSE agreed.
Regaari watched him cook, silently calculating how to eat his meal one-pawed. His nose twitched involuntarily when WARHORSE kneaded a little sachet and then spread the off-white paste it contained onto his dry crackers—the scent thus unleashed was creamy and rich, hinting that his dismissive assessment of the meal’s quality had probably been unfair.
Sadly, when Regaari sampled the crackers while waiting for the main course to be ready he was sorely disappointed, and WARHORSE was right—while the beverage was clearly supposed to taste like fruit, what it mostly tasted of was chemistry.
“What’s this?” he asked, opening and sniffing it. The scent was pungent and sugary.
”’s called a HOOAH! bar.” WARHORSE said. “I wouldn’t, man, that thing’s got, like, a thousand calories in it.”
The translator paused while translating that figure, and Regaari could see why. It must have been doing an internal error-check to make sure there wasn’t some mistake. That was half a week’s nutritional intake for a Gaoian male. “That many?”
“Yep.” WARHORSE took the bar off him and bit into it, chewing vigorously. “Giveff your jaw a workout, too.” he added, around the mouthful.
“Exactly how many calories do you need?” Regaari asked.
“Me, on a light day? At least ten thousand or so.” WARHORSE replied. “But this is gonna be a really active day, so…a lot more. Anyway, main should be ready.”
Between a small rock and leaning the bag against what remained of his left forearm, Regaari was able to hold it steady enough to poke at it with the spoon. While it certainly looked appetising enough, his nose was practically being overwhelmed by the rich scent. He tried it.
One mouthful was enough. “Great…Father Fyu!” he coughed.
WARHORSE just laughed. “You okay?”
“It’s like eating a candle!”
“Like I said, man. Performance first, pleasant eating experience second. Don’t worry, you gave it a pretty good go for an ET.” he said, ripping his own bag open and mixing in the contents of a tiny glass bottle of red sauce.
Regaari licked the sauce out of his fur, regaining his composure. “ET?”
“Extra-Terrestrial. It’s a friendly way of saying ‘non-human’.”
“You have other ways?”
“Sure. ‘ET’ is friendly, ‘non-human’ is all formal and proper, and ‘xeno’ is an insult.”
WARHORSE inhaled most of his meal in three efficient scoops. “Ffo–thiff human friend off yourff.” he said, around the mouthful, before swallowing. “Joo?”
“How’d you meet? There’s not a lot of us out here. She an abductee?”
Regaari made an affirmative ducking nod. “Yes, about…eleven Gaori years ago now, one of our settler transports was raided by mercenaries working for an–” he raised his paws and made a ‘finger quotes’ gesture that Xiù had been fond of, only realising that the effect was spoiled a little by his missing paw after he’d done it. ”‘Unauthorized researcher’.”
He snorted. “So the Corti Directorate claims, anyway. They killed all the males and abducted the females and cubs.”
WARHORSE’s expression darkened, even as he leaned over and stole Regaari’s leftovers. “Coño de madre.” he snarled. The translator didn’t seem to have a readily available equivalent, but the intent was clear.
“Shoo was picked up separately, but kept in the same holding cell.” Regaari continued. “Thanks to her, they were able to escape.”
“Where do you come in?”
“There was…political fallout. Ayma—the leader of the abducted females—fought fang and claw to get Shoo adopted into the Clan of Females. Most of the other females sided with her, of course, but some of the male clans…”
“Yeah?” WARHORSE took another mouthful “I thought you guyff mofftly went along with the Femaleff?”
Regaari chittered. “I thought ‘you guys’ were dangerous disease-ridden predators?” he countered. “Granted, many of the clans are ruled more by their testicles than by their brains, but the females don’t hold absolute power, just a strong influence. They may hold the veto, but they still want to mate as much as the males do.”
WARHORSE chuckled again. “Yeah, that sounds about right.” he agreed. “What did you think?”
“I didn’t. I was too focused on the blow to my career.”
Regaari made an uncomfortable noise. “It’s…complicated.”
“I’m a medic, compadre. I can handle complicated.”
Regaari wobbled his head sideways in a ‘fair enough’ gesture. “I…had some disagreements with the clan.” he said. “This was early in our negotiations with the Dominion, and I was part of the inquiry into the missing transports. We had all of the circumstantial evidence we could have wanted that proved there were Dominion species involved, and that this ‘unauthorized’ researcher was anything but, but nothing concrete. Meanwhile, I found out that the Whitecrest Clan—and several other powerful Clans—were all preparing as if our membership of the Dominion was a foregone conclusion. Buying shares and equipment, training and indoctrinating our new Brothers a certain way, that kind of thing.”
“You suspected corruption in your own ranks?” WARHORSE guessed.
“No. I wasn’t so cynical back then. I was appalled, of course. As far as I was concerned, even circumstantial evidence that the Dominion was involved in our transports going missing—and complacency is collusion, as far as I’m concerned—was reason enough to abandon the negotiations on the spot and approach the Celzi Alliance. Of course, now I know that the Alliance is just as bad, but…”
He shook himself. “…Rather than discussing the matter with some of my more seasoned Brothers, I took it straight to one of the Fathers, convinced that it was an honest oversight, and that when they saw the evidence we had gathered, the mistake would be corrected.”
“The Father I approached was one of the…hmm…quiet conspirators. Not one of the obvious beneficiaries of the deal, but still very much involved, and who stood to gain.”
“He promoted me.”
WARHORSE paused in pouring the last of the gravy into his mouth. “Come again?”
“To the rank of Whitecrest attaché to the Mother-Supreme, part of her executive staff and, if need be, her bodyguard. A prestigious career move, on the face of it. The reality…” he sniffed.
WARHORSE just sat and listened, so Regaari pressed on. “The reality was I was now not involved in the investigation, was no longer part of the Clan’s decision-making process, was a pariah in the inner circle and, though I theoretically had the ear of the Mother-Supreme, actually using it might have been seen as meddling in Female affairs, which would have politically and reproductively ruined me.”
“They de-clawed you.”
Regaari winced. The turn of phrase was intimately disturbing for Gaoians. “That’s an…accurate description.” he conceded.
WARHORSE nodded his understanding, starting in on the second HOOAH! bar. Regaari shook his head in disbelief. “What do you have in there? A black hole?”
“So what happened?” WARHORSE asked, ignoring the jab.
Regaari grinned, emulating the human gesture. “Shoo did.”
Date Point: ten years earlier, 12d AV
Yei Wa City, Wi Ko Yun province, Gao
“So why are you bringing this to me, and what is it?”
Kinoro’s ears swiveled uncertainty. “Security footage from the Corti facility those females escaped from.” he said. Regaari’s own ears signaled his skepticism.
“I’m not involved in the investigation any more, remember?” he pointed out. “Father Taaru saw to that.”
“This is…relevant. We may need you to, ah, influence the Mother-Supreme.”
Regaari’s ears flattened. “This footage had better give me a compelling reason to do so.” he said.
“You’ve heard that the leader of these escapees, Ayma, is petitioning to have the alien recognised as a Sister?”
Regaari ducked his head. “Yes.”
“This is footage of that alien in combat.”
They watched it. The alien was very definitely alien-—long of limb, compact of body, and remarkably poised, but it wasn’t until she almost ripped one of the Locayl jailers in half that the source of that poise became apparent.
“So strong.“” he muttered, watching as the alien darted across the room and practically flattened the second Locayl.
“We’re still working on theories as to how biology like that is possible.” Kinoro told him.
Regaari watched as the footage cut to the alien female cutting a swathe through an assorted grab-bag of the galaxy’s mercenaries. “What’s the best one?”
“I’d bet five years of celibacy that the Dominion’s assertions that deathworlds can’t support intelligent life is wrong.” Kinoro replied.
“Plausible.” Regaari conceded.
“And terrifying.” Kinoro continued. “If I’m right then that… thing …is a bomb waiting to explode.”
“Is she? Look here, she’s fighting differently now that she’s figured out the strength disparity.” Regaari slowed down the footage to point out the subtle changes in the alien’s fighting style. “Wounding, rather than killing. Showing restraint, despite not having a good reason to.”
“I’m sure its compassion will be a great comfort when the deathworld plagues it undoubtedly carries get loose on Gao and kill millions of our people.” Kinoro sniped. “Billions, perhaps.”
“Have any of the females shown signs of infection?”
“Then you know what I see, Brother? I see a poor pre-contact life form, who-knows-how-far from home and probably feeling very confused right now.” Regaari looked his Brother in the eye. “And I intend to say as much to the Mother-Supreme.”
“You’d defy our clan Fathers a second time?”
“What will they do, crown me the Emperor of Gao and call it a punishment?” Regaari scoffed.
Kirono growled. There was a flash of teeth before he restrained himself—in older and less civilized times, that would have inevitably led to a snapping, claw-bearing fight. “Your own Brothers and Fathers…” he began–
“Are wrong, Brother.” Regaari interrupted, ejecting the little crystalline data wafer that Kirono had brought him, and pocketing it. “I’m loyal to the clan, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with the Fathers automatically.”
“You DO have to obey their orders, though.”
Regaari’s ears pricked. “They’re ordering me to influence her?” he asked.
“Well…no…Not ordering as such…” Kirono backpedalled, and with good reason. The whole clan’s mating fitness would suffer if the Females felt that Giymuy was being bullied by the Whitecrests.
“Then I shall use my best discretion and judgement.” Regaari asserted. “Just as the Fathers trained me to.”
Date Point: 10y AV
Planet Garden, Capitol System, Dominion Space
“You fought back.” WARHORSE observed.
“You’re damn right I did.” Regaari said, spitting the English word. He couldn’t see WARHORSE’s mouth any more—the human had replaced his breathing mask and was reclining against a rock, but he saw the way the skin around his eyes and face stretched and wrinkled. There was a smile under that mask.
“Dude, you’re fuckin’ scrappy, I like it!”
Regaari didn’t get the chance to respond, as the radio chose that moment to flare.
“Operation NOVA HOUND, STAINLESS. Our Evac’s arranged, see your tablets for RP Alpha. You have five hours to get there. Individual orders follow.” there was a pause then: “WARHORSE, STAINLESS. Your route to RP Alpha takes you near THOR’s projected LZ, and I can’t raise him. Determine his status.”
WARHORSE nodded, though of course his commander couldn’t see it. “STAINLESS, WARHORSE.” he replied. “Orders received and understood. Out.”
The second the link was cut, he swore, loudly: “Me cago en Dios!”
Regaari scrambled to his feet as WARHORSE lurched upright. “Is that…?”
“I fucking pray his radio’s just out.” WARHORSE replied. He scowled at the intel tablet, looked around to get his bearings, then grabbed the ruck. He’d diligently re-packed it after they were done eating, and Regaari winced at the sheer weight of it as the human shrugged it on before stooping and offering him two linked hands for a step. “climb on.”
Regaari didn’t argue. Wherever ‘RP Alpha’ was, it was nowhere nearby and he would just need to rely on WARHORSE’s strength and endurance if he was ever to get out from under a thundercloud of Hunters. WARHORSE handed him the binoculars and intel tablet as soon as he was settled.
“Keep me on course.” he said.
HMS Violent, Capitol System
Commodore William Caruthers
“You’re certain they’re after you, STAINLESS?”
There was a delay in the response. With the strike team having made an exoatmospheric exit from the station and abandoned the rescue operation, the fleet and spaceplanes had scattered to extreme distance and gone dark. In practical terms, with each one being most likely alone inside a radius of several light seconds, they were impossible to find. Violent was nearly six light seconds from the planet now, and that meant plenty of time to wait for the photons of their conversation to wing their way back and forth.
“Completely, sir.” Powell’s voice was low-resolution and distorted by distance and the audio compression, but perfectly intelligible. “The weapons they fired at me looked like a ripoff of that Irbzy-whatever stun gun, but they were aiming the lethal stuff at the lads. They’ve got me pegged for a commander, and they want to know what I know.”
“We’re prioritizing your extraction.” Caruthers decided. “The Yanks are at DEFCON two right now, with the armour the Hunters seem to be using right now it’s the only sure way to secure orbital supremacy long enough to extract you. STAINLESS, your men are secondary to the objective of preventing your knowledge from falling into enemy hands. We cannot afford to give them any more inspiration.”
He counted out twelve seconds under his breath.
“Understood completely, Commodore. I also recommend that we ready an RFG strike to my suit beacon should my vitals show I’ve been incapacitated.”
Caruthers turned to Violent’s captain and raised a finger with a nod, indicating that it should be made so.
“We’ll go at fourteen hundred hours as per your recommendation.” he said. “Good hunting.”
Planet Garden, Capitol System, Dominion Space
“There. I see…” Regaari worked the focusing control as best he could one-pawed. “It’s hard to tell. A dark patch that shouldn’t be there, that way.”
WARHORSE glanced up, and corrected his course, puffing like some ancient steam contraption from Gao’s early industrial era.
Regaari lost sight of the anomaly as the terrain dipped, and when WARHORSE pistoned up the rise on the far side of that dip, Regaari nearly fell off him because the human stopped dead.
Humans were so expressive in their grief. He’d seen it with Shoo, and now WARHORSE was projecting his sorrow even through a bulky suit of fully enclosed armour. He sagged for a moment and then pushed forward, until they reached the edge of what was, unmistakably, a fresh crater.
The suit at the bottom of it was effectively intact, though it had been badly ablated by re-entry: blackened, melted and burned away. From the contortion of the limbs and the crushed flatness of the torso, its operator had not survived. WARHORSE sat down with a thump.
Regaari climbed off him, sketched a gesture of respect with his remaining paw, and let WARHORSE grieve. The same shields that had allowed WARHORSE and him to reach the ground safely had plainly failed in THOR’s case, or else never deployed at all. In either scenario, the suit had demonstrated that it was a hideously tough piece of equipment, having reached the ground and still recognisably being the same object. To fall from space and leave an impact crater and STILL be identifiable? Not a pleasant way to die, but as a technical accomplishment it was daunting.
He hadn’t really considered what Deathworlder engineering might accomplish, before. Shoo’s intelligence and insightfulness had been obvious, as had her culinary artistry, but her sheer physicality and intensity had frequently overwhelmed those qualities, with the result that Regaari had simply never turned his thoughts to humans as engineers, builders and inventors.
He was still ruminating on the fallen suit when WARHORSE moved, slowly raising his hand to the communicator on his shoulder.
“STAINLESS,” he said, voice thick with emotion. “WARHORSE. THOR is KIA. EAR field failure.”
”…WARHORSE, STAINLESS. Copy that. Did the field jump array he was carrying survive?”
“Uh…that’s a Negative, STAINLESS.”
“WARHORSE, STAINLESS…Grab a memento, mate. Destroy the suit and continue to RP Alpha. Out.”
WARHORSE stood up again, then stepped down into his fallen comrade’s crater and ripped something from the front of the ruined suit, a patch of some kind. He did something Regaari couldn’t quite see and then stepped back as, again, the suit began to smoke and then burst into seething, angry flames. There wasn’t much left to burn—the destruction was already pretty well total.
WARHORSE sagged, and spoke to the charred thing in the crater. “…Vaya con Dios, brother.”
He knelt and gestured Regaari up onto his back again, checked the intel tablet, turned north, and marched.
WARHORSE was clearly in no mood for talking for most of the remaining distance to RP Alpha, wherever it was, and Regaari let him work in silence. Instead, he pulled out his pulse pistol and, with some difficulty thanks to his missing paw and the human’s steady gait, made a few tricky adjustments that he’d first learned when he was barely out of cubhood.
He was becoming seriously impressed with the medical technology the humans had brought with them. His missing paw should have been a source of debilitating agony. Instead, it was a ghost, a phantom presence on his wrist that felt, when he wasn’t paying attention, like the real thing. If nothing else, the anaesthetic in the dressing was highly effective.
It was probably designed for Deathworlders, he decided. That meant he was trusting the human not to have badly miscalculated and given him an overdose, but he was beginning to seriously trust WARHORSE.
His thoughts were broken by the communicator.
“WARHORSE, LONGLEGS. I have eyes on you, pal, and you’re being stalked.”
Regaari’s fur started crawling instantly and he put a hand to his holster. “Stalked?” he asked.
“Don’t look around.” WARHORSE told him. “LONGLEGS, WARHORSE. Hunter?”
“Reckon so. One of the big fuckers that got STERLING. See that stream to your left? Take a water break, lure it out in the open when it catches up with you.”
WARHORSE looked left, and Regaari did the same. The surface of the stream in question was an invitation all by itself, and he realised he was growing really quite thirsty.
“Will do.” he said. “WARHORSE out.”
They paused. Regaari couldn’t sense anything amiss, but apparently WARHORSE could, because he stood still, listening for a few seconds, then grunted and stooped by the water unclasping his mask.
Regaari watched. Where he would have had to lie on his belly to lap at the water—undignified and uncivilised to a modern Gaoian—WARHORSE just carefully put his gun slightly aside, ready to have it up and firing at an instant’s notice, and dipped both hands into the stream to form a shallow bowl, which he raised to his mouth.
“Not filtering it this time?” Regaari asked.
“Appearances.” WARHORSE muttered, not actually drinking the water. He tilted his head slightly. “Hear them?”
Regaari was interrupted by a pulse round, which glanced off WARHORSE’s upper arm. From the size and sound of it, it had been a heavy pulse, the kind with enough juice to fling humans about and break limbs. Sure enough, even the winging blow spun the bulky Deathworlder around his axis and dropped him sprawling in the local grass-equivalent.
Regaari’s dive for cover saved his life. The bolt aimed at him would have reduced him to a nasty pink paste.
WARHORSE was up, though. Aside from knocking him around a bit, the pulse weapon hadn’t apparently done anything at all to him except make him angry. He returned fire, gun producing a heavy slamming sound that Regaari could feel with each shot as a hammer-blow in his chest. One of the Hunters was torn to bits, dismembered by the firepower that ripped through it.
The other, as ‘LONGLEGS’ had predicted, was one of the big, grotesque, wet-red naked musculature ones, and it was layered in heavy shield emitters that spat and flashed as WARHORSE’s bullets hit home but failed to penetrate.
It lunged forward and WARHORSE took a smart step away as deadly fusion-edged talons raked out, neatly shearing off the end of the gun.
The Hunter was fast, nearly as much so as a human. Two pairs of those fusion claws swiped and slashed, and WARHORSE survived only by throwing himself backwards and then scuttling away on all fours, staggering to his feet to gain distance. The Hunter followed, and that would have been the end of WARHORSE and Regaari both, had a lightning bolt of berserk and mountainous Deathworlder not erupted from among the shrubs without any warning.
The Hunter had just enough time to register the existence of this new threat before it hit home, and after that there was no more Hunter.
“Coulda sworn you did better’n that in training, pal.” the cavalry declared, once the Hunter was in several pieces. Both men extended their gloved hands and bashed them together.
“These ones are gonna be trouble.” WARHORSE replied. “I- LOOK OUT!“
The third Hunter—another big one—had a cloaking device and a plasma gun, and that would have been the end of LONGLEGS and WARHORSE both had Regaari not shot it.
The humans, in fairness, took the way that the beast disintegrated in a horrible slap of wet matter in their stride, and did a thorough check of their surroundings for threats before turning their attention to Regaari, who was licking the burn on his remaining paw and kicking out the grass fire that was threatening to burst up around the glowing puddle that had once been his pulse pistol.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell.” LONGLEGS declared, while WARHORSE scooped up some water and dumped it on the ruined gun, producing a fog bank and an angry hiss. “The fuck was that?”
Regaari licked his burnt paw again. “If you know how to rewire a pulse gun the right way…” he said, then gestured to the nasty mess of former Hunter that was swirling away downstream. “You only get one shot, but better one shot that counts than a thousand that don’t.”
The humans exchanged glances. “I like this one.” WARHORSE said.
“I can see why.” LONGLEGS agreed. “We’d better get moving. They’ll know where their mates were. Our best bet is to get to the RP.”
“Right. Let me just fix his paw. He needs at least one working.” WARHORSE agreed, then turned to Regaari. He grabbed something on his harness and the bag fell off, clearly designed for quick release. “Legsy, If you need ammo, check the pockets on the left side.” he added.
WARHORSE’s thick, armored fingers were strong enough to accidentally crush Regaari’s bones to powder, but his trust in the human medic was well-placed. WARHORSE’s grip was merely firm, and he applied the dressing with paradoxical precision and delicacy while LONGLEGS reported the contact to STAINLESS and grabbed some of the offered ammunition.
The process took only a few seconds before WARHORSE stood and hoisted his bag back on. “Okay, hop up. That’ll do you for now. Let’s go.”
Regaari didn’t argue. Right now, the safest possible place in the universe seemed to be WARHORSE’s shoulders.
RP Alpha turned out to be a cluster of buildings atop a gentle swell in the ground. the planet Garden was a park world, Class 2, with only the bare minimum of tectonic activity that was necessary for life to arise in the first place. It had no impressive rocky up thrusts or great slabs of broken crust resting at angles atop the layers below, only gentle swells and rolls and grassy hills.
“Ruins?” WARHORSE asked.
“This planet used to be the embassy world for all species.” Regaari explained. “Then the station was built, and because it’s more convenient to dock with a station than land on a planet…”
“Right…” The humans paused to sip from their water supplies. The water was strangely coloured, like the instant juice had been. There must have been something in it to replenish them, Regaari supposed.
“Whose was this then?” Legsy asked.
“I don’t know.” Regaari told him. “My people are nearly as new to the galactic stage as yours, after all.”
“Right.” WARHORSE repeated.
“STAINLESS, LONGLEGS. I have eyes on RP Alpha, one ET and WARHORSE with me.”
“LONGLEGS, STAINLESS. Better get down here quick, we’ve spotted ground forces approaching from the north.”
Legs raised his binoculars to the north, and nodded, before turning to WARHORSE. “Double time.”
“Hold on, scrappy.” WARHORSE said, and set off at an actual run.
Regaari turned his own borrowed binos to the north, and felt his hackles rise. “They’ve got tanks?” he asked. “I’ve never even heard of Hunter tanks before.”
“Tanks we can handle.” Legsy assured him. “Or rather, the angels can.”
“Nah mate. Fuckin’ spaceships.” Legsy raised his own binoculars and examined the approaching Hunter column as they jogged.
Regaari imitated him. “Why aren’t the Hunters landing directly on top of us?”
Regaari did so. Nothing much happened for some seconds.
“What am I looking-”
He winced and shielded his eyes as there was a tremendous flash in the sky. It faded almost instantly, but left a purplish-green blob of afterimage behind. “…for?”
“Our angels have got orbital superiority.” Legsy’s translated voice had a note of satisfaction in it.
“Tactical nuclear…fusion warhead.” WARHORSE spoke. He was labouring worse than Legsy, but then again he was carrying at least twice as much weight, and it certainly didn’t seem to be slowing him down. If not for his heavier breathing and the sheen of moisture beading on his face, Regaari might have guessed he was almost finding the run easy. “RIGHTEOUS’ll be…having fun, eh Legs?”
“Too fuckin’ right he will. Nobody ever gets to play with the big toys.”
“Fusion weaponry is not a toy!” Regaari protested.
“It is when it knocks those big swarmships out.” Legsy pointed again. It was hard to see in daylight, but there were definitely distant bright trails describing stately lines in the sky. Wreckage, falling from orbit.
They burst from the brush and shrub and picked up the pace across the open ground around the buildings, pounding up the shallow incline onto a paved road surface.
“LEGS and WARHORSE, STAINLESS. I see you. Third building on your left.”
Both men angled for it.
“Last in?” Legsy asked as they came to a halt in a heptagonal ground floor lobby. Eight other men were at work inside, taking the stairs four at a time in the low gravity as they shuttled ammunition and equipment higher up into the building.
“Nothing like a fuckin’ Corti on your back to make you want to get where you’re going ASAP.” One of the soldiers said. He and WARHORSE exchanged one of those fist-slam greetings. “Yours seems cool.”
“He’s cool as shit! Scrappy, this here’s BASEBALL.”
“Scrappy? My name’s-”
“Nuh-ah, man. We’re on mission.” BASEBALL interrupted. “We’re using your war name.”
”…Scrappy seems like the kind of name you’d give a pet.” Regaari protested.
“How ‘bout ‘DEXTER’?” WARHORSE suggested. “With the arm, and he’s a killer, bro.”
The reference—and Regaari knew enough about humans to know that it almost certainly was a reference or in-joke of some kind—went right over his head, but he decided that ‘DEXTER’ sounded much more dignified than ‘Scrappy’. “It’ll do.” he agreed. As he’d suspected, the humans all grinned behind their masks, indicated by a creasing of their eyes.
“DEXTER it fookin’ is.”
This human could only be STAINLESS. He gave Regaari an interested look. “You think he’s worth summat, WARHORSE?”
“He’s a soldier sir.” WARHORSE declared.
“Right. If you’re up for it, mate, I need somebody up in a window keeping an eye on the Hunters. We’ve got a range marker a click out, a little bridge. Let RIGHTEOUS know when they start crossing it, okay?”
Regaari gave him a human nod. “Can do.” he declared.
STAINLESS handed him a communicator. “Press this bit to talk. It’s made for us so you’re gonna have to push pretty hard…”
Regaari squeezed it. As predicted it needed some pressure, but he could do it. “STAINLESS, DEXTER. Communications test.”
“Loud and clear, and translated too. Our evac’s incoming but we need air and orbit superiority first, that’s what the holdup is. When I call that it’s coming, head for the roof. Got that?”
“Good man. WARHORSE, TITAN’s rigging explosives along the north road, resupply him. Legsy, nick BASEBALL’s SAW and get yourself set up in a ground floor window. Understood?”
Regaari snapped a “Yes sir!” that was identical to the two humans’. This seemed to meet everyone’s approval.
“Shuttle’s away, escort form up.”
Rylee swung Firebird onto the little ship’s wing and, not for the first time, cursed that no Earth corporation had yet produced a satisfactory craft analogous to the role filled by the cheap, boxy models sold in their millions across the Dominion. It was a flying brick, spaceworthy and airworthy only by dint of excessive reliance on its forcefields. No jump drive, no emissions dampening, no nothing. If she’d had her way, they wouldn’t be using them.
She was going to have to use all the clout she could muster to get that shortage fixed.
They’d at least been able to slave the useless little thing’s navigation computer to the network that allowed them to warp and jump in the vicinity of their own gravity spikes by shutting the traps down just long enough. Without that, the ground-pounders would have been fucked.
They aligned, blink-warped, and the planet Capitol went, in an infinitesimal moment that contained nothing more than the suggestion of incomprehensible speed, from being a nigh-invisible turquoise dot in the infinite night, to a great curve of blue and white that filled half the world, garlanded by smashed swarmships.
The bastards were fighting back hard, and they’d learned a few tricks, but she indulged in a grim smile inside her helmet at knowing that they had lost only two TS/2s in the battle, while Hunter casualties must surely be numbering in the thousands.
“RIGHTEOUS, FIREBIRD.” She called. “We’re in your box.”
“FIREBIRD, RIGHTEOUS. Got an incoming heavy column down here, line up for an RFG drop on my call.”
Semenza made an eager “Oooh!” noise. “I’ve always wanted to do one of those.”
Rylee lined up, while her wingmen swept out to clear the box of any lingering hostiles. “So have I.” she agreed.
<Delight> +Fusion weapons deployed via wormhole, too close to evade! ExoAtmospheric deployment of individual ground units! And the communications cyphers! I salivate to sink my teeth into those!+ The Alpha Builder was broadcasting joyous paroxysms like a messy eater spraying prey-blood all over its fellows.
The Alpha-of-Alphas radiated a good mood. It leaned forward slightly in its throne <Amused rebuke> +Continue to pay attention, and you will be fed further morsels I am sure. These deathworlders are not stupid, they will have many secrets in reserve that they have not yet revealed.+ it declared.
<Regret> +A shame that Alpha-of-Many-Broods is going to escape capture.+
<Query> +You are certain?+
<Assertion> +It is the most likely outcome. They move with remarkable speed across terrain.+
<Observation> +The Broods are closing in on their refuge…+
The Alpha-of-Alphas gestured resignation. <Dismissive> +But we lack air and orbital control. There will be more deathworlder surprises. I do not doubt that the capture will fail, but we will learn more from it.+
It snarled, baring all of those vicious teeth. <Anticipation> +Every such secret gets us one step closer to devouring them.+
Regaari set down the binos and gripped the communicator’s button for all he was worth. “RIGHTEOUS, DEXTER. They’re crossing the bridge.”
“DEXTER, RIGHTEOUS. Copy that, y’all watch this shit and tell me how much it hurts them.”
Regaari’s fur rose a bit. The human ‘Combat Controller’s voice had been full of a kind of malicious anticipation which was equal parts infectious and worrying. “RIGHTEOUS, DEXTER…watch what, exactly?”
There was a pause. RIGHTEOUS was presumably busy. A few seconds later, he got back on the line.
“DEXTER, you sir are lucky enough to have a front row seat for the first ever deployment of a Rod From God. Enjoy the show. RIGHTEOUS out.”
“RFG dropped!” Semenza crowed. Rylee hit the retros and shared his glee at watching a tungsten-tipped steel bar the size of a telegraph pole leave them behind and streak down into the atmosphere.
“Shuttle escort, let’s follow it down.”
Regaari first saw it as a star in the western sky.
It hung there, low and proud, drifting only a little to the north for nearly a minute, while a flood of Hunters crossed the little bridge he had been watching. He had been wondering what was so important about that bridge, but suddenly he saw the genius of it. Those tanks could only cross one at a time.
The star was drifting a little faster now.
Then it wasn’t drifting. It was a streak of light, a blaze of pure heat that-
He averted his gaze just in time, but even so the reflected flash off the back wall of the abandoned office he was sitting in was dazzling. When he looked back, he could see the ground settling back into place, and an expanding orb of displaced air and water vapour racing outwards.
It knocked dust from the floor of the office and shattered windows when it swept over them with a gut-punch of pure volume that ripped an involuntary alarm cry out of him. The bridge was presumably gone, as was the road for hundreds of meters on either side of it, though that was mostly speculation on his part—there was so much dirt and smoke hanging where the Hunter column had been that actually seeing the bridge itself was a fantasy. When he surveyed it through the binoculars, all he could see was a beige cloud and a lone hunter, broken and dying in the road.
He watched it expire, then put the binoculars down. His paw was shaking.
“Humans are crazy…” he muttered.
Alpha of the Brood-That-Builds
<Epiphany> +Of course! So simple, yet so effective! No need for dangerous and expensive antimatter, no need to mine and enrich fissionable elements! Just drop a steel pole from orbit! Beautiful!+
The Alpha-of-Alphas stroked a claw down one of the cables that connected it to the swarm. <Observation> +It seems…crude.+
<Insistence> +Crude it may be, but Alpha-of-Alphas, greatest one: This is the weapon with which we shall destroy them. With the resources needed to build a single swarm-ship, I can assemble enough of these to destroy a hundred cities.+
<Satisfaction> +Then this hunt has served its purpose: I tire of it. We will intercept that shuttle and kill them. Begin the dismantling of the prey-station. Meat to the maw!+
Something didn’t add up, by Regaari’s reckoning.
Nukes notwithstanding, the Swarm-of-Swarms was immense, and the Hunters were always one step ahead of everybody’s best when it came to cloaking technology. If there was even a ship there for the humans to detect and nuke, it was there because the Hunters either wanted it to be, or else didn’t care enough to hide it.
Which meant that the humans didn’t have quite the orbital superiority they thought they did. Which raised two questions: Why linger and lose ships?
And why not just flatten the embassy compound from orbit?
He exercised a little creative interpretation of his orders and decided to keep watch out in other directions besides north. The Hunters hit by the ‘Rod From God’ weren’t going anywhere, and Regaari had seen enough intelligence on Hunter raids to know that they were far from stupid.
Quite the reverse. They had a uniquely sadistic cunning.
Which was why he was able to save the team’s lives. He was looking right at the dropships when they decloaked in the south, on final approach.
“Hostile contact, south!” he reported, desperately squeezing the radio until his claws creaked. Down below in the courtyard, he saw the Nova Hounds look up and south, then dive for cover.
The opening salvo of coilgun fire that marched up the street therefore did nothing worse than punch some craters in the road surface and knock loose some masonry. The humans, whether by luck or incredible reflexes, escaped unharmed, though SNAPFIRE’s outer fabric suit ripped down his arm to reveal the armor scales beneath.
“STAINLESS, DEXTER, looks like…twenty Hunter dropships just decloaked two hundred meters to our south. They’re landing to drop passengers, the column to the north still isn’t moving.” He elaborated.
STAINLESS’s voice was tight, focused and precise. “Roger. NOVA HOUNDs, reform the line, face south. WARHORSE, get the ETs upstairs. DEXTER, how many Hunters?”
“As many as three hundred, STAINLESS.” Regaari told him. The dropships took off again, engines making a tooth-grinding buzz as they angled up and over the roof. The NOVA HOUNDs opened up a rippling volley of gunfire, which the Hunters returned with interest. The street became a bilateral hailstorm of withering firepower, pock-marked with craters and fallen concrete where the Hunter coilguns had blasted the architecture loose to create cover for the advance..
“Where are those dropships going?” STAINLESS demanded.
Regaari calculated in his head, and felt his ears plaster themselves to his head. “STAINLESS, DEXTER.” he reported. “They’re intercepting the shuttle.”
“Multiple bogies! Where the hell did THEY come from?!”
Rylee snapped right and spat two short bursts at the new contacts. Anything coming in like that was definitely hostile. “Stay frosty! RIGHTEOUS, FIREBIRD, I have hostile aircraft on our approach vector, repeat, bogeys in the box!”
“We see them FIREBIRD, plan’s unchanged. Escort that shuttle.”
Rylee threw them into a sideways drift to avoid a coilgun round. “Semenza, light ‘em up!”
Semenza was proving his value again, his voice was as level and cool as a frozen lake. “No missiles, boss. We’re in atmo. EWAR only from me.”
“Shit, yeah. Call targets.”
“REBAR, Low on ammo!”
The Hunters were using something that looked like an old Bren gun. Long-barreled, slow to aim and firing a steady rhythm of fat, heavy bullets that would have hit like a train if they found their mark. Thankfully, the monsters didn’t seem to know a damn thing about bracing or supporting the weapon correctly, and weren’t strong enough to handle the kick.
The human return fire, meanwhile, was savagely precise—every time a Hunter popped its head out of cover, it got blown away, and the cannibal fucks were losing half a dozen for every ten feet of ground they advanced, but there were a lot them still upright and advancing and the air was full of lead. Adam gritted his teeth as two alien bullets punched clouds of grey dust out of the concrete next to him and dropped, skidding on the increasingly gravel-strewn asphalt to fetch up next to REBAR, who slammed his last magazine into his M16 just as he arrived.
“Sure.” Adam left him four mags and then was up and running, delivering ammo to SNAPFIRE.
There was no time to think. With no gun of his own, there was only time to keep the others fighting.
The TS/2s spread out then lanced in, picking Hunter strike craft and filling the sky with ammo, but their GAU-8/S guns weren’t really designed for dogfighting. Two Hunters burst, falling apart in rains of flaming metal, but that left twelve more.
The shuttle pilot was doing his part well at least. Every time the Hunters drew a bead on him, he skipped out of the way, usually creating an opening for the TS/2s, but he was under constant threat.
Four more bogies down, then a fifth. Rylee gritted her teeth against the G-forces as she shunted a jolt of power through the thrusters, sweating away precious capacitor reserves and saving the difference by pulling it out of the inertial compensators, sending them skidding across the sky, rattling as they hit the thermal coming off the RFG’s ground zero.
Two bursts. Two bogies down, five left. Four left as FIREDOG rampaged past her, gun howling. The Swarm’s technological superiority counted for squat when the human pilots had millisecond reaction times and could tolerate acceleration that would have killed their Hunter counterparts.
“Shit! That one!” Semenza’s cool cracked. Rylee saw why instantly—it was on the shuttle’s six, and the shuttle just didn’t have the agility to pull off the evasive manoeuvres that its pilot needed.
Only one way to save the mission. Her vision greyed as Firebird leapt forward on a lightning bolt of extra juice to the engines, drawing a groan from Semenza, then they sat on their instrument panels as she fired.
The Hunter evaporated.
The coilgun round that would have killed the shuttle instead took out Firebird’s left wing.
“Fallen angel, fallen angel! FIREBIRD, going down hard!”
Somehow, Jackson kept her sled level on spitting and stuttering yellow emergency forcefields that spread out like the flaming wings of her stricken craft’s namesake. She fell in a glittering halo that lashed out and grabbed on to the buildings, bleeding off the hurtling wreck’s momentum by gouging out torso-sized chunks of concrete and steel from the buildings.
She still skidded half the length of the street once she hit, but the fields had done their job—she landed intact.
Powell cursed, then grabbed his communicator. “FIREBIRD, STAINLESS.” he demanded. “Any survivors?!”
The reply was a few seconds in coming, and came with a grunt of exertion. “STAINLESS, FIREBIRD TWO. Two out of two survivors, but my pilot’s leg is all busted up.”
Time was tight, but they still had two able-bodied PJs on the team and the stricken TS/2 was on the right side of the line at least. “DEXTER, status of that Hunter column?”
“STAINLESS, DEXTER. The column’s still stopped at that bridge and reeling from the orbital strike. Minimal threat.”
Powell had to admit, the Gaoian was proving to be worth a few multiples of his weight in gold. “WARHORSE, BASEBALL, secure that air crew!”
“On it!” The two young men promptly handed off their cargos of spare ammunition and got up and dashed towards the downed spaceplane.
“SNAPFIRE, REBAR, cover them, TITAN, Legsy, fall back and defend the door!”
All four men grabbed their own packs and hustled, falling back in a disciplined pattern under fire, covering each others’ retreat. That left only the combat controllers, who had formed a rifle team in the ground floor window, HIGHLAND, who was up in the third floor window sniping the Hunters wherever they tried to take cover, DEXTER, and Powell himself.
“CCTs to the roof.” he ordered. He touched the communicator again. “DEXTER, STAINLESS. Get to the roof.”
The Gaoian sounded relieved. “Yes, STAINLESS.”
There was shouting from the door and the Protectors returned, with WARHORSE carrying Rylee Jackson over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift, trailed by her WSO. Her leg was a mess, flight suit stained crimson around where it had been cut open and field dressed.
“You’ve always got to be the centre of attention, don’t you?” Powell asked her, falling back on humour to cover his genuine relief that she’d not got herself killed.
She managed a weak, bravado-fuelled grin and extended a fist though she was sweating, shaking and tight-faced from pain. “Good to see you again, STAINLESS. Looks like your boys turned out okay.”
“Don’t fookin’ thank me until we’re home.” he replied, though he bumped her fist in return, then turned to WARHORSE “Get her to the roof, mate.”
More explosions sounded outside, punctuated by chattering gunfire. REBAR and SNAPFIRE fell back into view, firing back down the road before ducking for the door. TITAN was caught in open ground and three rounds sparked against his armour, knocking him off his feet. As he tried to stagger upright, a fourth round hit and penetrated and he collapsed, groaning around a hole in his abdomen.
Powell didn’t even need to give an order. Before he even had the chance, BASEBALL leapt into action, putting the pitching arm for which he was aptly named to work and hurling a frag grenade into the heart of the Hunter advance with such force that it lodged in one monsters’ chest, knocking it off its feet and sending the rest scattering for cover before it went off. He pounced on TITAN and dragged him into the safety of the building even as a burst of renewed firepower missed his head by inches before they made the safety of the doorway.
Fortunately, the Hunters weren’t braving the SAW yet, but that wouldn’t last long at all. Much closer and they’d be in Nervejam range.
“STAINLESS, HIGHLAND. More Hunter dropships decloaking, north. They’re mobbing us.”
Powell grimaced “CCTs, where’s that shuttle?” he demanded.
“STAINLESS, STARFALL, It’s on final approach, landing twenty seconds. Got a lot of Hunter bogies coming in though, we need to be gone in one mike.”
It would have been nice if time had slowed, if he’d had a minute to think through the options carefully. But the decision was foregone. Somebody was going to have to stay down here and hold the Hunters off long enough for the shuttle to take on passengers and dust off.
It was the kind of decision that Powell hated. He hated it especially this time because his options weren’t limited—there WERE no options. Both the CCTs were on the roof, Murray was three floors up, the two PJs had their hands full, and really, this was a job for a close-quarters combat specialist.
But that man was going to die. No maybe, no last-minute rescue. He was ordering a man to his death, and there was only one right option, because the alternative was for everyone to die.
He clamped down hard on his self-hatred and gave the order.
The human shuttle pilot had nerves of steel, Regaari had to give him that much. Hovering level with a building’s roof while aircraft thundered overhead was…
He didn’t have time to think about it further. WARHORSE emerged from the roof access door carrying another human in a flight suit and yelled at him, gesticulating with his free arm. “DEXTER, get in the fuckin’ ride!”
Regaari scrambled in, squeezing as far in as he could while the Corti, Kwmbwrw and the humans piled in behind him. Being built to the scale of Dominion species, they still had plenty of room, but there was one missing, even though the ramp was coming up and they were ascending.
STAINLESS shot a glare at him that could have eviscerated anybody in the shuttle. Then he leaned against the bulkhead, slid down it, put his head between his knees and his hands on the back of his head, and shook.
Master Sergeant James “Legsy” Jones
He would have liked to go down shooting and hollering.
There was no time for hollering. There was no time for anything. Just shoot. Just fight.
Just buy them time.
He’d taken BASEBALL’s SAW and fired it until the box was empty and the barrel glowing. That alone was enough. He saw the shuttle take off and streak into the sky. Mission accomplished.
Then he fought with his SMG until he ran out of magazines. The last of the TS/2 fighters jumped out with thumps of inrushing air, recalled once the shuttle was no longer in danger of being intercepted.
Then he fought with his pistol until there were no more rounds to fire. For honour.
Then he fought with his knife.
Then his fists.
He held out long enough to still be standing when the second Rod From God hit, sent to destroy the wreck of Firebird, and his suit.
The Hunters didn’t get the satisfaction of killing him.
The Alpha-of-Alphas generated a mental note of disapproval aimed at the Alpha Builder, but the lesser being was not paying attention. It had watched a lone Deathwolder fight a hundred of its muscle-grafted experimental “Strongest Brood” warriors, and arguably win.
Everything from the biology, to the weaponry, armour and tactics spoke of wealthy fields of research to come. For a Builder, there was no greater anticipation.
If only that equipment had not been destroyed.
+<Deference> If the Alpha-of-Alphas desires it, this one can begin work on the next generation of innovations immediately.+ it suggested.
+<Blunt disinterest> Do so.+
The Alpha Builder pretended not to notice the emotional context. It simply stood, and departed, already mentally preparing the calculations and experiments.
Left alone in the dark and silence, the Alpha-of-Alphas finally indulged in an unashamed broadcast of its emotional state only once it was sure that there truly were no Hunters within broadcast range..
The strangest part was that they recovered, and how.
Caledonia’s flight deck was different to how he remembered it. The shuttle set down with a half-meter’s clearance in a space otherwise filled by crates, equipment, work benches, tool racks and a structure of piping and plastic sheets in the corner. Medics stepped in, carting the two wounded humans away on gurneys. Regaari’s amputation was examined and declared to be as clean and well-dressed as if he’d had it off in an operating theatre. There was nothing to be done for it, at least not that was available on the ship.
He barely paid attention. He was watching the NOVA HOUNDs.
Once out of the shuttle, they had been attended to by technicians, who helped them remove the outer layer of their suits, revealing a variety of shades of browned and white skin, but uniform hair length.
Beneath that was the armour, gunmetal scales that clearly formed the bulk of the suit’s weight, as each man sighed a profound sigh of relief once they were off.
The suits were taken away to be dismantled, serviced and cleaned as a powerful musk hit Regaari’s nostrils. Each one of the NOVA HOUNDs smelled of sweat, salt and exertion, and the dark grey bottom layer was black with moisture in several places. It was also, clearly, better than skin tight, as they had to wriggle out of it.
WARHORSE’s had worn through at the left armpit. He just snarled like an angry beast, grabbed it with his right hand, and tore the underlayer right off his body in a ragged strip.
Regaari blinked. He’d known the human was strong, but seeing what that strength looked like was something else entirely. It was almost…ugly. Uncomfortably reminiscent of those red-raw Superhunters, he could almost see the strands and fibers of muscle under the skin, so many muscles. Bulging power in places Gaoians didn’t have places.
They surprised him further by removing their garments altogether and then retreating behind the plastic screen for a shower. Xiù had always been squeamish about removing her clothes, he remembered that. Even when bathing, despite being in the company of beings who biologically and psychologically couldn’t find her attractive, and despite that Gaoians viewed clothing more as being practical and useful rather than necessary, she had seemed to go to great lengths to avoid letting any more of her skin be visible than was inevitable.
The NOVA HOUNDs didn’t seem to care. Though they did return from their ablutions wearing loose, comfortable clothing.
None of them had any kind of an expression. They just found an array of mats and blankets in the corner, and sat down upon them still and silent, staring at nothing.
Before long, every last one of them had fallen asleep.
Not long after them, Regaari found a spot near WARHORSE, curled up, and fell asleep himself.
He woke to heat. It was stifling, humid and pungent in the flight bay, and his chest was already heaving and panting cool-ish air across his tongue before he woke up.
Somebody was making simple music by tapping steadily on something, which made a hollow metal thump. Somebody else was syncopating it by tapping on two or three other things—crates, equipment, the shuttle hull. There was an actual instrument involved, the twangy one that Xiù had called a ‘guitar’. He didn’t know very much about human music, but he thought he recognised a genre called ‘blues’.
He sat up.
“Hey. Wondering when you’d wake up.”
Regaari stretched. WARHORSE was sat next to him against the wall. He was putting what looked like pictures back in his pack. “How long…?”
“Eight hours or so.”
Regaari sat up more. “I thought we were leaving Capitol?” he asked. “I was expecting to be in a Gaoian hospital by now. And why is it so hot in here?”
“We’re in low-emissions mode, containing our heat so the Hunters don’t see us.”
“Okay, but why?” Regaari demanded.
“They started dismantling the station. Guess we’re staying here to watch them do it, figure out why. Until then, we’re cargo.” WARHORSE shrugged. “Sorry man. Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on your arm and we’ve got a field hospital set up in the other bay. You’re in good hands.”
Regaari ducked a nod. “I know. And, I’m grateful. Without you, the Clan of Females would never have known who Giymuy’s choice to replace her as the Mother-Supreme is.”
“Is that, like, appointing an heir, or just a recommendation?”
“A recommendation. But one that’s usually listened to, from what I gather. I was only a few days old when Giymuy was appointed.” Regaari shrugged. He’d learned early on that humans and Gaoians had that gesture in common.
“Gonna have to be a few days, man.” WARHORSE told him. “They’re stripping the whole station and…y’know, it’s a big station.”
Regaari chittered, a touch bitterly. “It’ll take them months to appoint a successor anyway, even with her recommendation.” he said. “I’m going to miss her though.”
“Oh yes. She wasn’t just somebody I worked for. If she’d been younger…” he trailed off. “Though, Ayma might not have approved.”
“This the Ayma that fought so hard to have your human friend adopted into the clan?”
“That’s right. She’s also the mother of my most recent cub, and….She and I…” he made a little growling noise, the equivalent of a human clearing their throat. “It’s…complicated.”
“Man, I know how that feels.”
“I doubt it.” Regaari countered. “Monogamy is the norm in your culture. In ours, it would be something of a scandal.”
“You two are exclusive?”
“I’d like to be.” Regaari confessed. “I…haven’t told her as much. She and I went through a lot together, but I don’t know how she’d take it.”
WARHORSE made a loud, explosive sound that was probably a laugh. “Oh, MAN. I definitely know how that one feels!” he exclaimed, then calmed. “At least, the going through a lot together thing.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Brother, I am the WRONG man for female advice.”
They sat in silence for a while, until Regaari noticed that WARHORSE—and some others of the NOVA HOUNDs—were giving him strange looks.
“Well…yes.” Regaari said. “That’s how we deal with heat. We pant, you sweat.” he gestured to the fact that everybody on deck was stripped down to the bare minimum they could get away with, and even that was dark wet and sticking to the skin.
“Just…ah, man, it just triggers some weird instincts I guess. Forget it. Maybe we should fill one of these crates with water for you…”
“Great Father Fyu, no.” Regaari protested. “Wet fur smells worse than you do.”
This caused WARHORSE’s expression to get even stranger. It was almost like a smile, but wide-eyed rather than narrow-eyed. Regaari had no idea what it meant.
“What?” he demanded.
“Fine, keep your secrets.”
He endured the occasional smiling glance for a while longer, listening to the music while WARHORSE sighed and retrieved a few things—hard copy prints of some kind—from his bag and began to flip through them.
“What are those?”
“Uh…Ah fuck it, you’re not human. This is Ava.”
Regaari scrutinized the pictures. ‘Ava’ had plainly set up and taken the images herself, and they were obviously a mating display. It was the only way to explain the curious poses and the odd choice of clothing, both calculated to show off her body to best effect while still hiding away those parts of her anatomy that he knew humans were peculiarly squeamish about. The prints had a slightly worn, often-handled look around the edges.
He had to admit, even across the species barrier, he could see the appeal. When you came down to the mechanics of it, there were only so many ways to be bipedal, and only so many ways to birth live young through a plantigrade biped’s pelvis. The four mammary glands on a Gaoian female were at the waist and small, as opposed to a human’s high and large pair, and the bald skin was totally unattractive, but the curve of flank and hip was almost identical, aside from being more pronounced in humans due to the larger muscles, shorter torso and longer legs.
“Not that I’m an expert.” he declared “but if I had the mouth for it, I think a wolf-whistle would be in order.”
WARHORSE laughed at that, then sighed as he looked at the pictures again. “I hope she gives me a second shot.” he said, wistfully.
“A second shot? She turned you down?”
“We…went through a lot together. Then we went through a lot without each other, and I was dumb enough to think that she’d just…”
Whatever word he was searching for went un-found. There was a general looking-up and then standing-up as STAINLESS stepped onto the flight deck, rather more professionally turned-out than his men in a full body uniform of some kind, rather than the sleeveless, short-legged things the rest of the NOVA HOUNDs were wearing. He was even managing the impressive feat of managing to look comfortable in the heat.
“Fall in.” he ordered, quietly. Everyone gathered around him in a rough half-circle, the NOVA HOUNDs themselves at the front, and all of their technicians, attendants and support staff forming a second row behind them.
“First things first. TITAN’s going to be fine. Was a nasty injury, but he’s had surgery and a Crue-D shot, so he should be up and about in a day or two. Major Jackson suffered a fractured fibula and some nasty lacerations, but her early prognosis suggests a full recovery and return to duty in due course.”
There was murmured relief, which fell silent again as STAINLESS raised a hand.
“We, uh-” he began, then cleared his throat. “We’ve had the unhappy privilege of watching three legendary men burn brightly today.”
Heads lowered. Regaari watched BASEBALL put his arm around WARHORSE’s enormous shoulders and pull him close.
“All of our lights will go out in time.” STAINLESS continued. That mobile, malleable, expressive human face was alive with muscles wrestling under the surface, fighting to maintain dignity. “All of our journeys reach their end. What counts at the end of it all is how that journey was spent, and I for one will consider myself blessed that, for a while, I was able to journey alongside these epic three, and call them my comrades, my friends…and my brothers.”
He swallowed, lowered his head for a second, then raised it again and Regaari admired the strength that he managed to force into his voice.
“Let these mementoes enter the history of this new regiment, and mark the start of a tradition. We will never leave a man behind. Whether he comes back with his shield, upon it, or in keepsake only, he comes back. We all make it home, one way or another.”
As nods of agreement created a gentle susurrus around the bay, he produced three small, battered items from his pocket.
“Staff sergeant Brady Stevenson. THOR.” He laid the little patch of cloth that WARHORSE had salvaged from the crushed armor on the table.
“Sergeant First Class Leo Price. STERLING.” A metal tag on a chain.
“Master Sergeant James Jones.” Another swatch of cloth. “…Legsy.”
By now, all the seven men standing directly in front of him had their arms interlinked across one another’s shoulders or around each others’ waists. Around the bay, deathworlders were standing at attention, some fighting back their emotions, others displaying them openly.
STAINLESS took a deep breath. “It’s still early days for the SOR. We’ve been blooded today, and despite our losses, we acquitted ourselves superbly under the most difficult circumstances, in keeping with the finest traditions of our parent units.” He declared. “I expect that we will go on to great things in due course, which is why I’m going to conclude with what I hope will be the regimental motto, so listen closely. Remember this.” heads raised and gave him their full attention.
”…’What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel: In apprehension, how like a god!’”
He set his jaw and saluted fiercely. Every one of the humans present copied him. “When gods fall, we will remember them.”
Twenty humans spoke as one. “We will remember them.“
Two torturous days passed, punctuated by a steady rhythm. First, a siren would sound, marking the moment when their orbit carried them below the horizon from the Swarm’s perspective, and the ship would wake up, flinging out its forcefields and radiating all of its accumulated heat towards the sun in a concentrated beam with breathtaking efficiency.
Regaari could actually FEEL the temperature drop, until he was comfortable again and the humans were sighing with relief even as their breath condensed on newly chilled air. Chores would be done, the water would be recycled and people would take comfort showers and use the latrines, making best use of every moment that the ship could operate normally before its orbit carried it back into line of sight with the Hunters and they were forced to endure another three hours of mounting heat and humidity as best they could.
In hindsight, not taking WARHORSE up on that bath idea had been wise. He would have been shivering and at risk of hypothermia at the cold end of the cycle.
They spent the time watching movies, huddled around a tiny tablet computer in a way that must surely have made the heat worse, but at least it was entertainment. He wound up sitting on WARHORSE’s shoulders again so as to have a good view.
Regaari had watched a number of movies with Xiù, and had mostly enjoyed them, though he had wondered what in Gao’s name she got out of ‘horror’ movies. She’d mostly watched them from behind her hands, squirming and occasionally shrieking while the poor traumatized Gaoians had been even worse affected. Humans could be dark in their storytelling it seemed.
He’d not watched a movie like this one, though. It almost had a Gaoian in it: too short, oddly proportioned, with digitigrade feet and strange facial proportions and markings that suggested a chromosomal disorder, and clearly built on Deathworlder anatomy, making him stockier and far stronger than any real Gaoian, but still…
“Why would you wanna save the galaxy?”
“Because I’m one of the idiots who LIVES in it!”
It was ridiculous, but also a huge amount of fun, and certainly distracted from the relentless heat.
He was required to check with the hospital set up in the bay on the opposite side of the ship every few hours, and was surprised when they removed his dressings—the stump underneath had healed perfectly, unbelievably fast, though who had snuck him a dose of Cruezzir, when and how were a mystery. When he got back to Gao, he’d be ready to receive a prosthetic the moment he landed.
Finally, orders were given, objects cleared away, loose equipment battened down and everyone settled down ready for the jump, which passed with a barely-perceptible jolt in his stomach.
At once, the cooling cycle started, and this time, the temperature stayed down.
The long wait was over.
Major Owen Powell
HMS Sharman had a few design quirks that had been intended to keep it inside the footprint occupied by the original camp, and one of these was its narrow hallways and corridors. The narrowest of which, Powell was certain, was the one outside his office.
Throw in that SOR men were universally large, and that made getting past one another a challenge sometimes, which was why he paused at the intersection on seeing Arés coming towards him. The younger man picked up the pace to squeeze past him at the corner.
“Shouldn’t you be seeing Ava, Sergeant?” Powell asked. “She’ll be worried about you.”
“We were just…organising the wake, sir.” Adam explained.
Powell nodded. “Good. And I’ll be bloody well upset if you lot don’t drink every drop of alcohol on this planet, you hear me?”
Powell exhaled through his nose, aware that he was going to miss having an NCO with whom he could get away with sharing a joke.
But then again, that hadn’t been the nature of his relationship with Legsy to begin with, either.
“Goodnight, sir.” Adam said, and turned to go.
The young man turned to face him again. “Sir?”
”…Legsy and I were in the habit of sharing a post-mission drink. You’d be…very welcome to join me in keeping that tradition alive.”
Adam blinked at him, then nodded, swallowing. “I’d like that.” he managed.
Powell unlocked his office and led the way in, visiting the top of his filing cabinet and retrieving a bottle of Glenfiddich and two cut crystal glasses.
“One for us, and one each for anybody who didn’t come back.” he explained, pouring just enough for there definitely to be whisky in each glass, but not enough that four of them would actually get either of them intoxicated.
They chimed glasses, and knocked them back. He was slightly impressed that Adam had no worse reaction to it than clearing his throat and a slightly pinched expression for a second, considering it was probably his first taste of whisky.
Powell poured the second pair of drinks. “I’m recommending Price for the Victoria Cross and Legsy for the George Cross.” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, Jackson and Semenza deserve the Medal of Honor, they saved the bloody lot of us…but they’ll probably settle for less. There’ll be a few other decorations getting handed out too…” He paused, and shrugged. “We’ll see how it goes. Not sure I care about medals right now.”
They drank again. Adam had the look of a man who wanted to ask questions but was restraining himself.
“You’ve got permission to speak freely right now, lad.” Powell told him. “Make use of it, I don’t grant it often.”
“Just…a question sir.”
“Go on then.”
”…How are you holding up?”
“Christ, remind me not to let you ask freely too often, you get right down to business, don’t you?”
“Sorry, sir, I-”
“No, no. Fair question…” He appreciated it, in fact. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and drank his third glass while he thought. Adam copied him. “I’m not…I try not to be a weak man, but ordering a friend to his death…” Powell put his glass down and reached for the bottle one last time. “It beats you up.”
“I’d be…kinda worried if it didn’t, sir.”
Powell poured again and nodded. “True. And it’d be a lonely fookin’ job if I didn’t get on with my men, you know? It just…it needs to be understood that the mission comes first. When it’s one man versus every man…I can’t, I won’t be fookin’ sentimental about it. I have to send the right man for the job…whoever that might be.”
“I didn’t get that when I signed up.” Adam confessed.
“Well, what about now you know what it’s like?”
Powell handed him his glass. “I thought we bloody were.”
“Well then…if I was the right man for the job…I guess I wouldn’t just expect you to send me, I’d want you to.”
Powell nodded, staring at his glass for a moment. “Aye. And I reckon Legsy would have said the same.”
They toasted and drank for the fourth and final time.
“Go on, Sergeant. You’ve better things to be doing and prettier people to be doing them with than commiserating with your commanding officer.” He said as he set his glass down. “I’m…coping.”
“Yes sir. Good night.”
“Good night, sergeant.”
“You’re approaching a commune of females and cubs, male. Who comes?”
Regaari knew not to underestimate the females who took guard duty outside the communes at night. Ceremonial though their role was, they took it seriously, and would be expert shots with those pulse rifles. Not that they ever DID shoot anybody, but it paid to respect that fact.
He halted in the light.
“Officer Regaari, of Clan Whitecrest.” he announced. “Formerly of the executive staff of Mother-Supreme Giymuy.”
“Regaari?” one of the guards stepped forward to get a better look at him. “Wā sāi! it IS you! We thought you were dead!”
He waved his left arm to show off his new cybernetic paw. “I very nearly was.” he said.
“You know him, Sister Myun?” The other guard asked.
“He is who he says he is.” Myun assured her. “I’ll escort him.”
“Who are you here to see, male?” the second guard interrogated him, clearly not satisfied with Myun’s reassurance. To judge from Myun’s resigned and impatient body language, this was nothing unusual.
Maybe he should court the young female after all…If nothing else, Myun would benefit from knowing she had allies.
“I’m here to inform the late Mother-Supreme’s chosen successor of her nomination.” He announced, picking the one of the three truthful answers he could have given on the grounds that it was probably the least controversial.
“Hrrmm. You may enter.” The guard finally stopped glaring at him, though she didn’t unwind exactly.
Myun just flicked her ears irritably and walked alongside him through the commune’s doors.
“Did she choose Ayma?” she asked.
“Yulna.” Regaari revealed.
Ayma’s voice made them both freeze on the spot. “That makes sense.”
She had been cuddling and rocking a tiny newborn in the moonlight, almost invisibly still, and chittered a little at the way both Myun and Regaari flinched. “Yulna’s a good choice. She won’t be afraid to speak her mind.”
“I will…leave you two alone, shall I?” Myun stepped away a little, out of earshot.
Ayma made an amused face. “That poor little Sister has watched too many human romance movies.” she declared.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, she’s convinced you and I are ‘an item’, or something.” Ayma growled a little, wryly. “You’ve seen those human movies, you how know they react. They get jealous over mating partners. That’s not us, is it?”
“Well…” Regaari’ paused, then nodded, burying his disappointment. “…No. You’re right. It’s not.”
She stood and gave him a friendly nose-rub, as of old and close friends. “I like you too much, Regaari. I’d hate to fall out with you over mating contracts.”
That, at least, was a dose of welcome, soothing cold water to balm his burned self-esteem. “You do?”
“Oh yes.” Ayma glanced up and down the commune concourse and then leaned in conspiratorially. “If I had to choose just one…wait, what happened to your paw?!”
She’d tried to take it intimately, and had found herself holding smooth carbon fiber instead of fur.
He grimaced at it. “It’s…a long story. I’ll tell you what happened over breakfast, if you’ll do me a favour.”
“It’s about Sister Myun…”
Starship ‘Negotiable Curiosity’, Deep Space
“I think we’ve found one of them.”
“One of them? I thought we were looking for a single escape pod?”
There was a sigh from the ship’s owner and commander. “Yes, Hzzkvk, we’re looking for a single escape pod, but the ship launched two.”
Hzzkvk blinked at his Corti employer. “But…Bedu, if the ship launched two, why are we only after one?”
Bedu repeated his weary sigh. “Because the client is paying us five million Directorate Currency Units for the escape pod with one of your ‘cousins’ on it, and NOT for the other one.”
Mwrmwrwk interrupted him, saving Bedu’s headache from progressing any further. “Client says, client pays, we do. No more questions.” she snapped. Bedu nodded subtly at his Kwmbwrw pilot, thanking her.
“Hzzkvk!” Bedu snapped, then mellowed his tone. “I tell you this as a colleague of three years: the subject of your species’ remarkable intelligence is the focus of frequent discussion among the Corti, and may I say that you yourself are a type specimen for the exact qualities that we find so fascinating. Nevertheless there is a time for not asking questions, and this is one such, hmm?”
Hzzkvk was practically glowing with pride. “Why…thank you Bedu!” he said.
“Indeed. Please be so kind as to man the scoop field should we need to bring them aboard?”
Once the gangly blue shape of their junior crewman had left the bridge, Mwrmwrwk shot her employer a questioning glance.
“What?” Bedu asked her.
“I’ve never known you tell a direct lie before.” she said, quietly.
“Nor did I this time.” Bedu replied amiably.
“So…Vzk’tk intelligence really IS a subject of frequent discussion among the Corti?”
Bedu granted himself the luxury of satisfaction at his own cleverness. The Kwmbwrw was by no means an idiot herself, and that meant that if he’d snuck his veiled insult past her, then Hzzkvk would never notice it.
“Indeed.” he told her. “We often find ourselves wondering how a species so terminally dim ever managed to invent the wheel.”
Mwrmwrk took a second to process that, then made a kind of fluttering, purring noise in her chest—her species’ equivalent of laughter. “I see…And, we’re coming up on the liferaft.”
“Does the transponder code match?” Bedu demanded, examining the little puck-shaped craft on his screen.
“Please.” She clucked, annoyed. “That was the first thing I checked.”
“Very good. Run the disruption and scan their contents.”
“Won’t they notice?”
“If they are who we want, it will not matter, and if they are not…well, they will never find out what happened. Please, run the scan.”
Mwrmwrk raised a hand to acknowledge the order, then followed it. A second later, data poured onto Bedu’s command screen.
“Three deathworlders, alas.” he noted. “All quite badly injured, too. Fine, stop the scan. We had better pick up that other ALV wake.”
“Are you sure they won’t have noticed?” Mwrmwrk asked, already changing course. Behind them, the escape pod blinked away as the slight change in their vector translated to a separation of light seconds in a heartbeat.
“At most, they may have felt a sensation of time…having done something strange.” Bedu conceded. “I doubt they will pay it a second thought.”
Demeter Road, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The little wooden ‘Eden’ sign that Sara had once given them rattled when Ava opened the door. She paused on seeing him and then threw herself straight into a hug with such force that, despite the disparity between her mass and his strength, Adam had to take a step back to absorb her.
“Oh my god, Adam!” she couldn’t even fit her arms all the way around him. She’d been right: things had changed. “Are you okay? People are saying Legsy didn’t come back…?!”
“Yeah.” Adam nodded “He, uh…”
Ava made a sad, almost childish little sound of loss. “Are you…alright?”
“I wouldn’t have come back if not for him.” Adam told her. “Or Leo, either. They…None of us would.”
She retreated into the apartment and sat down on the couch. “Goddammit.”
Adam shut the door as he entered and sat next to her. “Yeah…”
There was a melancholy silence for a little while, which Adam finally broke. “Legsy…gave me some advice, before we headed out. This may not be the best time to follow up on it, but…”
“He…helped me figure out what you are to me.”
Ava blinked at him, then turned to face him, giving him her attention.
Adam took her hand. “You’re…this amazing, gorgeous, talented woman that I’d like to get to know better.” he said.
Ava paused, but then a smile broke through on her face like the dawn rising. “Yeah?”
Ava looked at him for a long, contemplative moment and then sighed, and he could see the tension and misery flow out of her as she wiped away a tear.
”…It’s a date.” she said.
++End Chapter 22++
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