Chapter 50: Counterattack, pt.3 - Trigger
Date Point: 15y 10m AV
Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth
Camp Tebbutt wasn’t actually a bad place to live, if you didn’t count the fact that it was essentially a prison for innocent victims.
Hugh understood why he was there, and why he couldn’t leave… but after eleven years, he couldn’t help but envy all the people who could be anywhere else. Even though the camp’s surroundings were beautiful, and his cabin was easily the most luxurious home he’d ever had, and even though he had a kind of maybe-a-thing going with Maeena as her English got better…
None of them were free.
All because some alien bastard had stolen their bodies and driven them around like fucking puppets. Because there were gizmos in Hugh’s head that made being hijacked again a very real possibility. And because those implants were so deeply and intimately buried in the depths of his brain that removing them was beyond any human medicine.
The others were luckier, in some ways. Most of them lived with the hope that eventually their more shallowly-installed implants could be safely removed. Only a handful of inmates—mostly the survivors from Egypt like Maeena—were in Hugh’s position.
Unfortunately, one of that handful was Zane. And Zane was either too stubborn or too crazy to accept his lot.
Probably stubborn. Like how he refused to drop his dense patois and instead wielded it like a defiant weapon to carve out his own little one-man nation, aloof from the rest of the internees. On some level, Hugh could sympathize with stubbornness. On another…
“Why do you do this to yourself, Zane?”
The gangly Jamaican was spitting blood and pinching his nose after taking a kinetic pulse shot to the face. He’d tried to escape—again—and been caught by the drones—again—and been shot by the drones… again. And it wasn’t like there was anywhere to escape to out there: The inmates didn’t know exactly where the camp was, had no idea which direction the nearest town was, how far away it might be…
The only thing waiting outside the fence was cold, bears and a slow death. But apparently none of that mattered to Zane, who gave Hugh his usual glare and picked himself up out of the dirt. His alien-made prosthetic arm whined as he used it to dust off his clothes. Poor bastard - whoever had made it for him had decided that the best way to hook it up to his nervous system was with a control chip deep in his brain, and thus the Hierarchy had hijacked him.
“Blood clot,” he grunted cryptically, and stalked off toward his cabin, there presumably to lurk and sulk until hunger forced him to endure human company again. He was easily the loneliest and orneriest son-of-a-bitch in the camp, but as far as Hugh was concerned that was all self-inflicted.
Satisfied that there would be no more escape attempts, the drones returned to their high-altitude patrol. Presumably a medic and security officer would visit Zane in his cabin, tell him off and refer him to the counsellor. Again.
He found Maeena outside her cabin. She was performing salat as best she could, considering her wheelchair. Hugh didn’t know the details of what happened to her in Egypt, only that she’d been biodroned and then crushed by a collapsing building in a firefight. He’d never once got the impression that it slowed her down, though: In fact, adjusting to the culture shock of living in a camp in America had fazed her more than losing both legs, three fingers, and a husband.
He respectfully let her finish, and she smiled at him once she was done.
“I hear drones. Zane again?”
She shook her head. That seemed to be about all anyone could do for Zane. “What does he think he will do? Freeze to death?” She sighed and shivered. Hugh could relate: He’d lived on the Mexican border before being biodroned, and Alaska never felt warm to him even in the height of summer.
“We’ll freeze to death just staying still,” he said. “Wanna come for a… uh… a walk, I guess?”
“Or roll?” she suggested with a light smile and a quirk of her eyebrow. He’d always been in awe of her ability to make light of what had happened to her.
“Or a roll. Should help you warm up.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Actually it turned out to be a pretty good day. The sky was clear, the weather was even kinda warm-ish… Free or not, there were worse things in life than taking a stroll in the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness with good company and the smell of lunch on the air. A nice hearty stew and a warm flatbread, home-cooked by one of Maeena’s countrymen.
Zane, however, raised some eyebrows by turning up in an almost good mood. He didn’t speak with anybody beyond the bare minimum necessary to get his share of the food, and he lurked in a corner, but he seemed almost… chipper. By his sullen standards, at least.
And Hugh couldn’t be sure, but he felt certain that the tall man’s face was less bruised than it should have been. The Internet might treat Kinetic pulse weapons like they were a joke, but the reality wasn’t gentle: they’d break bones, concuss, and knock out teeth with a good hit. A solid blow like Zane had taken should have left him with a couple of black eyes.
The gangly bastard had always been tougher than he looked, though. Whatever. It wasn’t Hugh’s problem. Whatever Zane was up to was the camp security staff’s concern, not his.
Still. It did make him wonder what, exactly, Zane had planned for if he ever did make it over the fence…
Date Point: 15y 10m AV
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Gao
Captain Anthony (“Abbott”) Costello
The only appropriate follow-up to something as oppressively serious as the coronation was a loud, raucous feast, complete with boasting, contests of speed and strength and daring, long bouts of story-telling and general well-meaning revelry.
It was nice to see everyone unreservedly happy. Arés and Firth seem to have finally mended things between them. They were laughing together and generally roughhousing again, maybe a bit too boisterously but Costello wasn’t one to complain; he needed his men as ready as they could be. Firth had even challenged Adam to a series of foot races, which ‘Horse (of course) had handily won. That ended up drawing the stunned attention of the Champions and thus encouraged, things were in danger of spiraling into a bout of violently cheerful rough-housing.
The Lads had a way of doing that, really.
Daar of course could not stand unchallenged in his own domain. He rose from his spot at the high table, stretched lazily, growled fiercely and put in an alarming dash down the length of the enormous dining hall to re-assert his dominance, just to prove who the fastest man really was. He charged along the rows of tables, slammed into the far wall and propelled himself back down the hall without a hint of slowing down, then spun around at full speed and skidded to a halt while facing the assembled crowd. That was hardly dignified of him, but a performance like that had a grace and dignity all of its own. Stunned silence followed him as he pranced back to the high table on all fours and took his spot like a triumphant king of old, crown firmly on head…
The goofball pant-grin at the end might have shattered the illusion, admittedly.
Daar acted more like a mongol Khan than a king in Costello’s opinion, but then again the only royalty he knew much about were British. And the role of Great Father was Daar’s to shape as he chose; If he wanted to be more of a boisterous warlord than follow the reserved warrior-poet example that Fyu had set, that was entirely his prerogative.
Though as Costello discovered after a lengthy exposition following an innocent query, the flower arrangements on the tables were done by Daar personally. He was debating if it would be appropriate to tease him about it when the hulking gaoian ambled alongside with a plate of pershorkies, and settled the issue directly.
“Flowers have a whole different load o’ meaning with Gaoians, y’know.” The simple, shaped and twisted loop of silver shone brightly through his fur.
Costello hadn’t spoken to him since before the coronation, and suddenly found himself at a bit of a loss. “…Forgive me, I’m not sure what the proper etiquette is…”
“You can jus’ call me sir, I think. I ain’t ‘yer Great Father after all.”
“Yessir. How the tables have turned.”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t exactly…regretful. More like…
“…Yeah. I never thanked you and Powell properly for that. It was…good for me. Just, being a simple ‘Back for a time, when all I had to worry about was if I could out-wrassle my friends.”
“I was surprised to see you refrain this evening, if I’m honest.”
A little of Daar’s sly humor crept back in. “I ain’t gonna pick a fight at my own coronation feast I can’t be completely sure o’ winning, captain!” He stood fully upright and surveyed the hall. “The Great Father can’t be seen ‘ta lose.”
“From what I hear, you would have stood a good chance against any of them, even ‘Horse.”
“Yeah, but a good chance ain’t a certainty. ‘Sides, we all need to be ready for tomorrow anyway. Let…let them play.”
If there was more than a hint of regret in the Great Father’s voice, Costello diplomatically refused to notice it. Fortunately, it was just a passing shadow, replaced an instant later by one of Daar’s trademark baritone chitters.
“Also…it’s good ‘fer the Champions ‘ta see who my friends are.”
…Ah. So he was a king after all.
“You were saying something about the flowers.”
“—Yeah! So this is kinda inspired by somethin’ the Japanese do called Ikebana…”
As it turned out, Daar had read up on the three Arts of Refinement from traditional Japanese culture. They apparently had disconcertingly deep parallels in Gaoian culture, and he’d taken a keen delight in blending the two. Whether this was for his personal benefit, or to thumb his nose at the Gaoian sense of Civilization, Costello couldn’t tell.
“I had trouble with Kōdō though. That’s incense appreciation: I like pretty much everythin’ about it, except Human noses need a way stronger hit. I tried some o’ the traditional techniques and it was just…way too much. Fresh flowers are good enough!”
“You, shying away from incense?”
“Accordin’ to our medical people, my sense o’ smell is literally more’n a million times stronger’n yours. I don’t think there’s any way o’ comparin’ ‘tween us with a difference like that. Like… I can’t even imagine what red might be like. When I look at anythin’ you say is red, all I see is a kinda dull yellow. D’you like red?”
“Sure. It’s my favorite color.”
“But would you wanna live in a house where everythin’ is red?”
“Bright, nuclear, inescapable, glowing red?”
“Okay. Maybe not. Is that what it’s like?”
Daar aimed his nose and took a quick sniff. “Costello, I can smell you used Ivory soap with aloe three days ago, which isn’t what you normally use. You had some company that night, huh?”
“You can smell that?”
“She smells healthy. Also, you use latex-free–”
Daar chittered to himself; the bastard knew what he was doing. “…So yeah,” he said. “Incense is a bit strong.”
“And the tea ceremony?”
“That’s more Gyotin’s thing.”
“I’ve seen his tea ceremony,” Costello nodded. “I think he said it owed more to Chinese tradition, however. Not that I’d know one from the other…”
There was a happy jeer of some kind from a table in the corner and the sound of boisterously raised voices. Not shouting or angry, just… party-loud. Daar snorted and flicked an ear. “Fair ‘nuff. C’mon, let’s go rein in the Lads ‘fore they break my Champions.”
In fact, they arrived just in time for a drinking game, which would have proven interesting. Myaku’s legendary Gaoian tolerance for alcohol versus Firth’s ridiculous mass would have made for a hell of a contest.
They needed to be ready for tomorrow, sadly. Daar at least spared Costello from having to point that out by doing it himself.
“This here is a life question we’re gonna hafta ponder another time.”
Still, despite the call for moderation the night was a fun one. It felt like a celebration before they suited up the next day for a terrible mission.
And what a mission. The intel Regaari had sent back said the Hunters had learned a lot from losing their ring structure, and from the battle that raged throughout it.
The tactics were noticeably different. The FIC had concluded there must have been a change of leadership among the Hunters: The new tactics, technology and attitude on display all suggested at the very least that this operation was under the oversight of a commander with a very different way of looking at things.
If only they knew more about how Hunter society was structured and how leadership was selected. From what they could tell, there was a definite hive-mind element to however they ran themselves—Starship Troopers came to mind—but at the same time there were documented cases of Hunter ships and units clearly breaking formation or otherwise failing to heed their chain of command.
It introduced an element of anarchy into the equation that made life all the more difficult, and echoed what the Soviets had once observed of the US military: “A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.”
In any case, those were all concerns for tomorrow. For now, Costello had a lot of meet-and-greet to accomplish. Officers were inherently political creatures after all, and a big part of that meant making connections. He’d shaken hands with the Champions, chatted with the Mother-Supreme. He’d not been prepared for the sheer variety the Gaoians had in their culture, but that was probably a bit racist of him, so he kept his own counsel. After all, the first real opinion humanity had ever formed of the Gao had come through a relatively cloistered young woman who hadn’t seen a fraction of what the whole species had to offer.
Then there were the other guests, the ones whose presence at the actual coronation itself would have been inappropriate, but who were enthusiastically welcome at the feast.
Yan Given-Man, for instance.
Heads of state—and Yan was the closest thing the Ten’Gewek had—did not attend each other’s coronations, investitures, inaugurations, or whatever applied. It was…superstitious, honestly. Yan could understand that, couched in appropriate terms, but he otherwise seemed at a bit of a loss… as did everyone trying to make small talk with him. He’d of course gravitated to the Lads and played with them—gently, thank God—but once he’d indulged himself and moved on, he genuinely seemed out of his depth. Beyond hunting and such, there just wasn’t much in common to talk about with everyone else. The elderly female with him seemed to be managing much better and subtly led him around the room to make acquaintances. Apparently she was more than a match for his flirtaceous proclivities with anything vaguely Ten’Gewek-oid.
In the end he spent most of his time orbiting near Julian Etsicitty, who himself wasn’t particularly comfortable in the setting. They were a pair of hulking gorillas conspicuously unsure of themselves, and whose insecurity had them constantly looking to Xiù Chang for guidance. She looked positively born to it, navigating the social dance with genuine warm smiles and to the fussing delight of the Mother-Supreme.
There was a vulnerability there. If the Ten’Gewek were going to play the Great Game, they needed to learn how to play it. That was maybe unfair to foist on them but needs must. This was the kind of stage to which the heads of all the 5-EYES nations had been invited, and had either attended in person or with apologies sent somebody on their behalf.
Probably, a lot of important things got quietly worked out in the corners. Daar had graciously taken it upon himself to personally lead Yan and the elderly Singer around the room, introducing them to all the important people. Good. There was laughing, probably some stories being shared. Costello only caught snatches of it, but he heard part of a story about Daar being flung along a cliff while smashed up in Yan’s tail…he’d definitely need to ask about that one later.
There were definitely games afoot. Yet political creature or not, that kind of thing was still way over Costello’s grade. Rather than frustrate himself, he figuratively loosened his tie and enjoyed the food with the Lads, just to gently remind them that when the morning came, they needed to be well-fed, rested, and ready to perform.
They were. They woke up, shaved and attended to their comfort, then showered like men who knew it might be days before they got another chance. They accomplished their hygiene while their techs prepared for suit assembly in the other room. Elsewhere in the fortress, First Fang would be going through a similar ritual alongside Champion Fiin.
“I assume we’re gonna get final mission briefing soon?” Firth emerged from the shower while still toweling off his head. Short mohawks didn’t hold much water, but still: the entire point of the haircut was to help deal with sweat inside the Mass’s helmet, and to a man everyone preferred to be as bone-dry as possible before suiting up.
“Sure will. We’re just waiting on Champion Thurrsto and Father Genshi… Speak of the Devil.”
Genshi cut a strange figure in a Whitecrest combat suit. His dual thrashing first at the Great Father’s paws and then those of his Champion had definitely left their marks, and he’d clipped the fur on his face short to cover for it. Presumably at full length it’d look patchy and ragged.
The idea had been floated—and accepted—that he might be HEAT material. After all, the Champion of Whitecrest had to hold his own against the very best his Clan could produce in order to be the Champion, and lately that had meant having to stack up to the likes of Faarek, Shim, Regaari… and of course the new Champion, Thurrsto. For all his scars, Genshi was still at the apex of what his Clan could produce.
For now, however, he was along on his Clan’s behalf. As a senior Father who outranked all of the HEAT ‘Crests, it was his responsibility to ensure the safe return of a valuable agent from the field… and if that meant dropping in alongside the HEAT and fighting at their side, well, he was up to the job. He looked… pleased, so far as Costello could judge. His own indiscretions had seen him exiled to the wilderness a little, and this return to the sharp end of the Clan’s activities would surely be welcome.
Costello’s concern, and Powell’s, was that his proven history of forgetting his place in the chain of command was hardly optimal HEAT material. But after much deliberation, not to mention the good words of both Thurrsto and Faarek, they’d agreed to give him a chance to prove himself.
Thurrsto looked serious and resigned. He wasn’t dropping anywhere with anybody or anything, and Costello knew from his relationship with Powell that such a retirement from the front line was… unhappy. Still, he was there to see his Brothers off if nothing else.
“That’s my cue,” said Firth as he ripped open his undersuit’s packaging. Their makeshift staging area had sheets put down everywhere to keep the dirt and dust under control before they sewed themselves into that unforgiving inner layer, but it wasn’t a cleanroom, so getting the undersuit on quickly was a must. “Y’all swingin’ dicks get out here, briefing time!”
Costello, whose “small” size made his techs’ lives much easier and who was thus already wearing his midsuit, nodded thanks as the vastly bigger men he commanded ambled out of the shower and into loose formation.
‘Horse was last out of the shower as usual, thumping over with his relaxed, business-ready grin. “That’s all of us, boss.”
Costello nodded. “Thanks, ‘Horse. Alright, we’ve been over the situation a dozen times before. Hunters have occupied Rvzrk, we have Dexter on-world ready to destroy their wormhole suppressor. Our job is to get him outta there, and clear just enough breathing space for First Fang to muscle through and obliterate everything else. There’s no real subtlety here: we’re going in via steep-angle EA-HELLNO. The Whitecrests will need to carry extended power packs for their maneuver fields, it’s going to be rough. Everyone will need a max-dose of crude. The shot, not the patch. The physics of this insertion are…daunting.”
Serious expressions all round. They knew the drill.
“When we hit the ground, our target is Dexter, and only Dexter. Laser-like focus here. Protectors, that’s your show. Whatever you need, you ask and we deliver. Baseball will be the assault lead for the first leg of the mission, ‘Horse and Irish will execute on point. Once ‘Base declares his objective accomplished, Righteous will take lead. We establish a Jump Array, and secure our presence. Secure it with extreme prejudice. We’re bringing three Arrays for First Fang to use.”
“I take it their objective ain’t changed?” Firth asked.
“Not a bit, Righteous. Their mission is to scour the area clean and build the really big arrays to get the Grand Army marching through. Depending on our readiness, we may be re-tasked to assist them. If conditions allow, they will almost certainly bully through and attempt to secure additional array sites. The other Fangs will be committed if and when appropriate.
“Once they’re in, we support the Fangs until our resources are exhausted, and then withdraw. By that point the Grand Army should have joined us, and they’ll do the job of really liberating the city. Any questions?”
Heads shook all around.
“Alright. Suit up, gear up. Sooner we’re ready, the sooner our Brother’s out of harm’s way.”
They scattered, leaving Costello alone with Thurrsto.
Best to tackle the bull head-on. “How are you holding up?”
“I think me, Stainless, and the Great Father should form a club and commiserate together.”
“All three of you are at the top of your game, still,” Costello said, trying to be reassuring.
“Yes. And in positions of high or irreplaceable office where we can’t put our game to use.”
“I wouldn’t count on that. It’s important that leadership be respectable by the rough men they command. And, being honest? There are still so few of us, you still need to keep in mission condition after all…”
“When was the last time Stainless came on an op?” Thurrsto asked.
“The last time he was needed. He’s stood active watch after team exhaustion, after all. It’s only sheer dumb luck that’s kept him off the field. We just don’t have enough men.”
“That feels like kind words chosen skillfully.”
Of course he’d see through that.
“Look, I get it. Talent like yours is rare company, and you want to do what you’re good at, give what you can offer to the team. I absolutely understand. That doesn’t solve the leadership problem. High office has duties. I won’t presume to lecture you about that.”
“No,” he sighed wearily. “I’ve learned an awful lot about duty lately. But you know what the, uh, ‘worstest’ part is? Something the Great Father clued me in on accidentally. It’s that I’m only likely ever going to see field work again if something has gone very, very wrong. I think that’s why Genshi was so keen to jump back into it. He actually seems a lot happier now.”
“And you’re better than him.”
“On nearly every level, yes. Though,” Thurrsto added with a slightly melancholy chitter, “I admit, the only reason I’m more handsome now isn’t because of my breeding.”
“I’ll never understand your species’ psychology on that point. Anyway. Maybe you should suit up. Or at least keep ready. We’re holding you in reserve but you’re still HEAT, and if I’m honest, something about this mission stinks. I can’t put my finger on it…”
“You don’t need to humor me, captain.”
“I know,” Costello said seriously. “I’m not.”
Thurrsto’s ear twisted strangely, then he duck-nodded. “…Thank you.”
Costello nodded too, and went to grab the last of his equipment.
Whatever else happened, today was going to be bloody.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space
“NAUGHTY CUB, SKY THANE. Brother’s ready to play Big Surprise.”
That was extremely welcome news as far as Regaari was concerned.
His hideout was at the top of a seventeen-storey building a few hundred meters from the wormhole suppressor. The building’s water tank and air conditioning systems coexisted in a kind of thin-walled metal shed that capped the entire roof and which had to be drone-access only for the Vzk’tk. There was no way they could possibly fit inside, even if they could reach it… which meant the same was true for the Hunters as well.
Regaari, on the other hand, had found it a perfect snug little den in which he could safely sleep, eat, and recharge the suit. And if he was found and needed to escape, then his fusion claws would make a mockery of the thin metal walls.
Still. It wasn’t safety. It merely resembled safety, relative to the Hunter-patrolled nightmare outside.
“Copy, SKY THANE. NAUGHTY CUB raiding the kitchen.”
He scrambled outside onto the roof and surveyed the situation. SKY THANE—HMS Myrmidon’s Fleet Intelligence Center—were equipped with the very best cameras and sensors that human science could provide, but they were several light-seconds away. At those kinds of ranges, targeting became a tricky business.
For instance: the guns on every ship in the fleet could easily hit a twenty-meter target from that range. With care and good information, they could reliably hit a one-meter target, in fact.
But providing that good information was another matter entirely. Especially without satellite coverage. If they’d had satellites up there then Regaari’s job would have been as simple as aiming a laser designator at the target and then keeping his head down until the shrapnel stopped flying.
Unfortunately for him, what he actually needed to do was physically plant a high-energy beacon on the damn thing, then disrupt the shields that protected it from orbital bombardment.
If he succeeded, the HEAT were ready and waiting to come get him. He’d go home, presumably get an enormous crushing hug from Daar, and be able to hold his head high in the company of Champions again. Mistake made, but atonement paid.
If he failed…
Not an option. Too many lives were riding on him.
He’d planned his next move extensively. He knew the timing on the patrols, knew the blind spots and opportunities. But as an old Whitecrest adage had it, the best way to ruin a plan was to set it into motion.
He checked his gear one last time, then scuttled down the building’s outside wall, nose-down. The security drones were definitely on a pre-programmed route with no random variation. Sloppy. He darted across the road behind one before its backup turned around from sweeping a corner. Wait, two, three, four, dash–
Over a wall, lurk behind a Hunter prefab refrigerated building of some kind. Contents… probably not worth thinking about. Wait… wait…
He set the suit’s active camo to maximum responsiveness and pounced for a spot in the fence he’d identified as a weakness. He would burn energy stores quickly at those settings, so he needed to work fast.
His claws were all he needed to part a length of wire. Wriggle through the hole and into a ditch, tune down the responsiveness now that he wasn’t exposed in open ground. He had to be careful to straddle the trickle of muddy water in the ditch. It wouldn’t harm the suit, but it could splash or get stuck to him and both would jeopardize his ability to remain stealthy. Circle around the compound, fifty meters. Big stack of abandoned Vzk’tk construction equipment to his right. Up and out of the ditch, squeeze between a digger and a pile of plastic tubing.
Finally, one last stretch of open ground. Timing… perfect.
He felt exposed. He knew he was all but completely invisible. Trust the suit, trust the suit…
No alarms, no shots, no hiss of fusion blades activating or any sign that the Hunters had spotted him. He slid on his belly underneath the generator and tuned the camo’s response time back down. Keeda, he’d burned a fifth already.
Out came the beacon. Its only job was to produce an enormous flare of EM radiation for long enough that the fleet would know exactly where it was, even from half a million kilometers away. Best to install it somewhere with an unobstructed view of the sky, but other than that…
He heaved himself upside-down up the generator’s underbelly. The damn thing was held off the ground by a kind of fat tripod: he clambered up the underside of one of them and, keeping the generator’s bulk carefully between himself and any potential Hunter witnesses, swiftly reached the apex. He tucked the beacon into a spot he judged would cradle it securely without obstructing line-of-sight to the sky, then tuned the camo back up and sprinted back to the cover of the construction equipment.
He made it back to the gap he’d made in the fence before the first wrinkle appeared. There was a heavy thump from a nearby jump array, and Regaari froze in place as a dozen very, very different Hunters swaggered off the platform. These ones were almost completely cybernetic as far as he could tell: indeed, the only organic components he could see at all were, of course, the mouth, tongue and teeth.
Three of them looked almost identical to the behemoth that the HEAT had duelled in the ring’s rail yard. Almost identical—If anything, in fact, they looked like an upgrade. But the ones that skittered around them were even more interesting to Regaari’s eyes. They were smaller, lithe, cunningly articulated… and the first thing they did was turn their myriad cybernetic lenses to sweeping every last inch of their surroundings.
…He needed to find cover, now.
He retreated into the ditch as quickly as he dared. This changed things. This changed things a lot. Just one of those big bastards had given the HEAT as much as it could handle: three, with support from a force of lighter skirmishers, could very well be more than even they could manage. If they jumped in without forewarning and the correct weaponry…
He slunk along the ditch, staying so low that his chest tickled the mud. The long way back out of the compound, avoiding the newcomers, was a bit of an unknown quantity. He knew there was plenty of dense cover and concealment, but by the same token it could be concealing hazards he hadn’t spotted. And it very much was the long way: by the time he got back to his retroreflector and updated SKY THANE, several minutes would have elapsed. That was a lot of time for things to go wrong. If a drone or a Hunter spotted his hidden beacon…
Right then, Regaari’s only mission was to survive and return the intelligence. That was it. The message was the mission, and the message would only happen if he made it back to relative safety.
He paused a third of the way around the field from his entry point, unpacked a small periscope from its pouch on the back of his left upper arm, and used it to peek over the lip of the ditch. The new Hunters had not strayed into the suppressor compound, but were instead patrolling south and east, along the road that ran right past his hiding spot… and the laser retroreflector he’d left stashed there.
He had to presume they didn’t know it was there. If they did, the building would already have been levelled by artillery or an airstrike or something.
Was the new Hunters’ arrival a coincidence? Just bad luck? He hoped so, but his instincts and his cynicism said otherwise. Never attribute to blind misfortune what could be adequately attributed to enemy action.
Which meant he had to take some risks and move.
He packed his periscope, scrabbled up out of the ditch, slunk over to the fence and was through it in seconds. There had once been buildings at this side of the compound, but they were just piles of rubble now. Nothing seemed to be lurking in them fortunately, so he scrambled through them as quietly as he could, taking care not to make any noise by disturbing the fallen chunks of concrete.
At a lung-burning dead run, he sprinted down a back alley that was now little more than a narrow clear channel between piles of smashed brick. The row of buildings had once curved aesthetically around the park—now, It got him ahead of the new arrivals.
He sunk down and took a deep breath. Now was the moment when the suit either saved him or got him killed. Whitecrest’s best had designed it to be the ultimate infiltration system, but the EM spectrum was too wide and varied to cover every possibility. If those Hunters could see in the right band of ultraviolet or whatever then…
He could at least be completely camouflaged in the infrared and visible wavelengths, thanks to suit refrigeration. It was power-expensive and needed several seconds to bring his surface temperature down to the ambient. Several long, itchy seconds where he watched his energy reserves tick down and felt the heat sink against his belly grown uncomfortably warm.
When he tuned up the camo to full again, the power reserves started to drop at a genuinely worrying rate. He either went now or he’d run dry.
He went. Right in front of their noses he went, pouncing across the street in a long graceful arc that made use of the planet’s low gravity so he wouldn’t land among the dust and debris in the middle of the road and thereby disturb it.
Up the wall, up! It was a seventeen-storey climb to the roof and he pawed himself up as fast as he dared. He couldn’t slip and fall, he couldn’t make noise, but he absolutely definitely could not be stuck to the wall when the power ran out.
It flickered and failed just before he made it over the lip of the roof. With his heart pounding, he grabbed the periscope and checked over the edge again to see if the three seconds he’d spent hanging his tail out there for all to see had been a disaster.
Nothing. The Hunters, it seemed, had moved on.
He breathed a relieved curse, activated his suit’s energy collector field to try and claw back some power, and ducked into his hiding spot to grab the retroreflector.
“SKY THANE, NAUGHTY CUB. New Mother in the kitchen, and she’s mean. I stole something sweet, take a look.” He uploaded the footage from his suit’s cameras and sent it.
This time, he folded up the reflector and stashed it inside its pouch on his back. Now he was back on the clock to take those shields down. He checked his suit power. Back up to fifteen percent. Not great. It would probably be best if he took a minute or two to recharge…
There was a heavy scrabbling noise from across the roof. Regaari wasted a second going wide-eyed with alarm, then scuttled back behind an air conditioning unit just in time as three of the smaller new Hunters hauled themselves over the roof edge and left claw-marks in the metal. He risked peeking at them through a gap between the vents as the newcomers looked around the roof, glanced at each other, fanned out…
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Wi Kao commune memorial, Planet Gao
“So, uh…is there anything special we gotta know?”
“I’ve had enough of ceremony,” Xiù said, fidgeting with her fingernails for the twentieth time.
She was procrastinating, and she knew it. She didn’t want to get out of the car at all. She didn’t want to see… The Commune of Females in Wi Kao had been her home. Ayma had lived here. Had… had died, here. She didn’t want to see what had become of it, not at all.
That wouldn’t stop her, of course. She’d get out and see it if it killed her. But she was allowed to prepare.
…As if she hadn’t been doing exactly that all morning.
Julian and Al had a magical ability to read her feelings, sometimes. Allison took her hand, tidied some stray hair behind her ear and gave her a kiss before snuggling up to her. Julian pulled them both into a comfortably tight hug and nuzzled on the top of their heads. Xiù shut her eyes and even found a kind of smile from somewhere. This would have been endlessly harder without them.
Somehow, they sensed when she was ready, too. Al reached over and opened the door, and stepped out first, taking Xiù’s hand as she did so. She stretched in the cool air with a bit of a sigh that became a groan as her spine made a satisfying crunch noise. “Fuuuck… that was a long drive.”
Xiù nodded. Wi Kao was one of “The Five,” the cities that Daar had spared an RFG bombardment and reclaimed the hard way. An ocean of Gaoian blood, biodrone and free Clanless alike had flowed through the streets below them all too recently.
And the first drops had been spilled up here, on the commune hill. Ayma’s.
With an effort of will, Xiù finally turned to look at the Commune itself.
Some kind of a miracle had mostly spared the large wooden doors with their silver inlays. They bore a few scars, but they were still in one piece, and still upright in their stone block archway even though most of the rest of the walls around them had fallen. That archway, the doors, and as much of the wall as had remained intact were still exactly where they had always been, but the rubble had been cleared away.
Beyond them was what had been the grand concourse, and the sight of it made Xiù’s heart ache more than seeing the doors had. It was…
There were still flowers. Water still trickled down the channels in the beautiful natural stone flooring. Delightful little drones still skittered and swooped among the trellises and hanging baskets, tending to it all with chirruping mechanical noises that could almost pass for birdsong.
The fountains were still there, the benches were still intact. If the whole edifice hadn’t been open to the sky rather than cosy under an arching roof, it would have been like nothing had changed.
Were they pretending nothing had ever happened? Or were they honoring what had been? Xiù couldn’t tell, but she stopped dead in her tracks upon entering the space and… sighed. Whimpered, maybe. It was a sad, childish little sound like a little girl who’d just been told to put her dolls away and get ready for dinner.
“…God. Is this what it looked like?” Allison asked. Her question was quiet, but it burst Xiù’s bubble enough to make her nod sadly.
“…Yes,” she said. “This is exactly like it was…”
And that was just it: It was. It was still beautiful despite everything, and Xiù didn’t know if she could handle that. She could have handled a memorial wall, or a monument, a plaque or a fountain. Something abstract. Something that… replaced the Commune.
The reality that the Commune memorial was the Commune, the building itself, kept as it had been lived in… that was simultaneously harder to deal with, and easier to embrace. It wasn’t a clean break at all, but that was because there was still something of what the place had been. It wasn’t forgotten.
…And that was the point of a memorial, after all: To remember. To keep the past, not to pave it over with a platitude.
There was a memorial wall, though. It was a horseshoe-shaped thing a little more than six feet tall, with names engraved on its inner surface in finger-high characters, starting at about knee level.
Julian put his hand on her back as he stood next to her, and she leaned into him while she read.
“..What does it say at the top?” he asked after a second.
“There are two inscriptions. I can’t read the second, I think it’s ancient script.”
“Kinda like the Gao’s version of Latin?”
“Yeah, but just for the Females. The one I can read though… I think it’s a line from a poem.” She read it in Gaori. “Life, once begun, must end; but it will never again not have been.”
“…That sounds beautiful in Gaori,” Allison decided after a second. Julian nodded in silent agreement.
“Yeah, it doesn’t translate well. It just doesn’t sound…”
“…Sometimes, I almost manage to forget that the Gao are aliens,” Xiù mused softly. “Sometimes, though, you can see what’s going on in their heads is a lot different to what goes on in ours.”
Julian shook his head gently. “Well…if I’ve learned anything, it’s that we’re a lot more alike than not. I don’t know if alien is really the right word, anymore.”
“Yeah.” Allison nodded. “Hunters are aliens. Igraens are aliens. Corti are definitely alien…maybe except for Nofl. But the Gao? The Ten’Gewek?”
“…I spent two years pretending to be Gao.” Xiù was still reading the wall, looking for a specific name. “There’s some things… some ways that…”
She gave up. “…I love them very much,” she said at last. “They never deserved this. Especially not here.”
“I’d hate to meet the people who did deserve it,” Allison said.
Julian kept silent; he had of course fought with the Hierarchy directly. Allison didn’t notice but she didn’t mean any harm either. The three had long learned each other’s interpersonal foibles, and a certain incautious bluntness was Al’s signature, sometimes… Though after a second, she glanced at Julian then took his hand. Incautious, but not oblivious.
Xiù finally found Ayma’s name. It was on the top row of the third column, placed there by the weird vagaries of the Gaori equivalent of alphabetical order, and the way their script handled vowel sounds. She stared at it for a few seconds, then…
…then a few seconds longer. And a few seconds more, until the shapes completely lost their meaning and she was just staring at abstract lines and angles in a wall.
It was Julian who broke her reverie by gently wrapping his arm around her waist and hugging her from behind. He didn’t say anything, just lent her his strength and warmth for a moment, just enough for her to center herself.
“…We should get going,” he said.
“Not yet. I’d like to look around some more,” Xiù decided.
Allison looked around. “Okay. where should we start?”
“There’s a courtyard where I used to do my Gung Fu every day. It’s where I first taught Myun… this way.”
The tour didn’t take long. So much of the Commune had been flattened that it was legitimately miraculous the grand concourse had survived. Her courtyard hadn’t—there was just a patch of neglected gravel there now, robbed of the sweeping steps and the tiered balconies that had enclosed it. The old walls were still present as marks and outlines on the ground, but when Xiù looked around she saw nothing but open sky and rolling hills, rather than the snug enclosure that had once felt so cozy.
The kitchens, the room where she’d first got drunk on Talamay, the dormitory she’d slept in… all gone. It made her appreciate how much went missing when the people left a place. This wasn’t her commune any longer, it was… it was the past.
And the thing about the past was that she always had to let go of it, in the end.
“…Okay. Let’s… I’m hungry. Are you guys hungry?”
“Starved,” Allison said. “Think we can find anything good?”
Xiù smiled and thought of their security retinue, hand-picked by Myun and currently waiting by the car. She could always trust Gaoians to sniff out good food, she’d found. “I think so. Shall we?”
Al took her hand as they left. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Xiù smiled at her, then leaned into her for a brief walking cuddle.
“…I am now,” she said.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
HMS Violent, Rvzrk System, Domain Space
Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello
“Well, shit. That changes things.”
The HEAT had studied the huge Hunter variant they’d fought on the Ring of course, and it made for pretty grim research. Even a GR-1d on max power firing their special depleted uranium-core rounds would have a hard time getting through the armor around the egg which they guessed housed the Hunter’s few remaining vital organs, and the shields were multiple-redundant, well hardened against sustained rapid-fire. There weren’t a lot of weaknesses on that frame, and it was fast too. As Moho had demonstrated, the only reliable way of killing one required getting a clean target lock with a javelin, which was much easier said than done.
As for the little ones, though…
“Scout variant, maybe. Or an infiltrator.” Firth mused.
“Could be the Hunter version of our Whitecrests,” Costello agreed.
“And Hunters have much better cloaking technology than we do,” Genshi added.
“Those big ones meanwhile appear to be an upgrade over the one we faced on the Ring,” Thurrsto added. He was aboard HMS Myrmidon, watching the flow of intelligence in the FIC. The system was so efficient, and the men and women operating it were so exceptional at what they did, that an increasingly thorough analysis of the foe’s estimated capabilities was arriving in front of Costello almost in real-time.
Genshi duck-nodded solemnly. He was all suited up, while most of the Lads were in their midsuits with just the Beefs left to go; their suits were so heavy that they needed to help their techs lift its components if they didn’t have the lifting cranes. Now that Caledonia was back in service, they’d hopefully have those for the next op, but here aboard Violent they just had to make do.
“So…” ‘Horse commented while lifting his midsuit’s shirt overhead. “What’s the plan, cap? I kinda doubt we’ll have convenient trains to tip over or whatever this time.”
“We go loaded for bear,” Costello decided. “Javelins, explosives, everything we have that could stop a tank.”
Adam looked at Firth, Burgess, and Butler, and the four Beefs exchanged weary sighs. “Yessir,” said Firth. “Imma load up for bear too. That’s gonna mean I ain’t gonna be as quick as I’d like…but we need the ammo. An’ I also think it’ll mean our extraction mission’s gonna be measured in minutes, or it’s likely gonna fail.”
Costello nodded solemnly. He knew. All that extra weight was going to limit their mobility, which was never ideal, but he’d much rather go big when the enemy went big than try to pull a David-versus-Goliath.
“Right. Titan, you load up too. Starfall, I know you’re basically a Beef these days, but I need at least one of my two giant Aggressors kept as mobile as possible, so you are to load up as lightly as you can get away with.”
“Yessir.” Blaczynski indicated his weapons, which were assembled and ready on his equipment table. “Heavy anti-materiel load-out it is, then. Just me and my hundred-eighty pound best bud…”
Costello rolled his eyes and gave him a friendly smirk. “I’m sure you can handle it, big guy.”
Blaczynski looked down at his custom-made GR-4b and grinned. Originally intended as a very high-power crew-served weapon, a few months ago Blac had realized that with his prodigious near-Beef strength and the compactness made possible by a modern gauss rifle’s power electronics, there was no reason that Black Ogre couldn’t build something better suited to the HEAT’s current abilities. Too bad they didn’t have examples made for the Beefs yet…
Oh well. One fought with the tools they had.
“That’s weapons and loadout, then.” Firth hefted his own midsuit’s shirt overhead and gave a significant look to the armorer techs, who immediately scrambled off to fetch things. “What about manpower? There’s only, uh, like really one other man we might bring on, but…”
Firth had a point. Daar would be awfully useful on the mission, especially considering just how far he and Arés had managed to take his training. It was a shame he was too important to risk.
“As helpful as he would be, and as much as he personally would want to, we cannot risk the Great Father on this mission. He’s already made that decision, our command agrees, I think it’s the right one, and in any case I would not…burden him with the agony of deciding it again.”
Firth nodded agreeably. “Yessir. What about some’a ‘dem First Fang ‘Backs?”
“…First Fang are good, but they’re not yet fully trained for hostile exo-atmospheric insertion. They’re too lightly armored for this scenario, and they lack the necessary countermeasures. Besides, their mission immediately follows ours. No, we’re not re-calibrating.”
“Guess we’re goin’ big game hunting, then.” Firth seemed to relish the idea.
Genshi’s eyes seemed to light up, too. “Sounds like we’ll have challenging quarry.”
“Fuckin’ right. Let’s stack ‘em like cordwood.”
Costello nodded to himself, satisfied that whatever was coming, the HEAT were ready to meet it.
Now all they were waiting on was Regaari.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
He knew how Powell had felt that day, now.
Back at the height of the war for Gao, Daar had held Powell back in reserve for strategic reasons. Being the good officer he was, Powell had taken the decision with dignity and a straight spine, but now Daar had done the same to himself and he found that it…hurt.
Men he commanded and was responsible for were going to go out there and die for him. And he could be there, if he so decided. He could help! He could…
Daar shook his pelt out and cleared his head. He wasn’t a disposable grunt, no matter how much he hated the idea. He was the Great Father. He couldn’t commit himself to the battlefield except at uttermost need. He knew that… but it still hurt.
Still, he needed to be honest about things, too. Those mission updates were alarming, and Daar had the dubious distinction of being a uniquely capable asset. There was nobody else who sat in the same place on the tactical pyramid as he did, and this was a mission perilously close to needing an all-hands evolution.
So, he alternated between bouts of relatively light exercise and restlessly checking in at the command center, just in case he was needed. Hopefully keeping busy would stop him harassing his battle managers into uselessness.
Stoneback’s Grandfather, Garl, understood him at least. The huge old white-back was there in his role as Chief of Staff of the Grand Army, overseeing operations ahead of the invasion with the seasoned eye of decades, and he easily identified that the worst disruption in the room was the Great Father. So after Daar’s third or fourth intrusion he excused himself from the floor to address the problem.
“‘Yer gonna be useless to everyone at this pace, My Father.”
Daar ceased his pacing, sniffed at the older male, then sighed and tried for the thousandth time to relax. “…Y’ain’t wrong.”
“‘Course I’m not! A ‘Back don’t get as old and horrible as me by bein’ stupid!”
Daar chittered despite himself. Garl was a treasure, and it would be a genuine loss to gaoiankind when the ancient bastard finally croaked.
For now, his eyesight was still perfect though. Not a lot of Gao could boast making it to such an age and still being just as sharp-eyed as they had been in their youth.
He paused and faced the Grandfather. “Garl, I gotta ask you somethin’. I’ve been meanin’ to ask it ‘fer years.”
“Yeah. I’m your sire.” The gnarled old ‘Back didn’t hesitate.
“…Balls, I didn’t even ask the question! How did you—”
“You always sniff the air right before you ask anyone anything serious, My Father. It’s a pretty obvious tell. ‘Sides, I think you’ve known since you were fifteen anyway. The nose don’t lie.”
Gaoians generally considered things like that private. Which was weird, really, at least from a Human perspective. Exactly why he felt compelled to ask just then…whatever. Human weirdness rubbing off on him, probably.
“Suspected, yeah. Pretty much knew when you and Myun didn’t happen, talk about bad luck… So, I guess that means I’m gonna live to a horrible, terrible old age, then.”
Garl scratched his flank, then tore a knot out of his own fur with a claw. “Not if you get ‘yerself kilt ‘cuz you wanna be a big damn Keeda of a hero,” he said.
“…Can’t argue with that, either.”
“My Father…Daar. If there’s anything I can offer from personal experience, it’s that ‘yer the kind of ‘Back that gets overwhelmed by his own experience of everything. You have the most biggest feelings, the bestest senses, ‘yer fast and strong like basically nobody else…and I don’t know if ‘Backs like us are rightly equipped to deal with that. I think, sometimes, it keeps you from seein’ things clear, y’know?”
Daar sighed and shook out his pelt again, and decided to prowl back to his gym. Garl followed along comfortably aside. “I don’t think I’ve ever bested ‘yer wisdom, Garl.”
“I’m eighty-eight years old, My Father. At that age, I’d better know a thing or two, right? And now you’re plottin’ to go work ‘yer frustrations away. I get it, but I wouldn’t if I were you. We need you ready. And we need you to stop worrying as much as you can. If anyone can pull off a mission like this, My Father, it’s Regaari. I ain’t ever known a Whitecrest quite like him. Now, as ‘fer you, you have ‘ta march with the Grand Army soon, so please: go dote on Naydra, an’ get some rest.”
The old force of nature was right, of course, and Daar knew it. Still….
“Much easier said than done,” he pointed out.
“Since when did spendin’ time with a Female become a hardship ‘fer you?!” Garl asked.
Daar chittered ruefully, but his worry wasn’t easily assuaged. “You know what I mean, Garl.”
“Aye. And you know what I mean. Go. ‘Yer given a blessing no other male has ‘cuz you’re bearin’ a weight none o’ us could ever hope ta’ manage. Don’t load on any more.”
Daar duck-nodded, exchanged Brotherly paws to the shoulder with the Grandfather, and forced himself to leave the room.
He paused to send Naydra a quick message on his communicator, then prowled towards his private apartments. It was a long trek across the fortress, and Daar couldn’t help but take a little diversion to roll in the snow before it started melting next month. Some of the youngest cub-initiates of High Mountain took the opportunity to pounce, he gave chase…
It helped. Silly distractions reminded him how to be himself in moments like these. When he finally arrived at his apartments several minutes late, he was definitely feeling a little better.
Especially when Naydra met him at the door with a tray of snacks. Just a small one, but she’d got the balance right between giving him a treat and not upsetting his diet; definitely important before sealing oneself up in a Suit. And they were exactly what he needed.
“How’d you know to make these?” he asked as he plucked one up with a claw and ate it.
“I knew you’d be haunting the command center and fretting over things you can’t control,” she said fondly. “And I also happen to know the limits of Garl’s patience.”
“You two are inna conspiracy, I bet!”
She flicked an ear and swept away into the apartments with a deliberately enigmatic expression. “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
“You can’t fool my nose.”
“Oh, I know. I’m counting on it.”
She poured herself onto the couch and brandished a grooming brush at him. “But first…”
Daar had a love-hate relationship with his fur. When it was short it was almost maintenance free, but he found himself often too cold in the winter, his skin would feel dry, and he’d lose some of his natural armor against small cuts and thorns. Long fur, on the other hand, felt much more comfortable but it needed constant grooming. Normally he’d considered that a waste of time, and time had always been the most valuable resource he had.
But then again, he hadn’t always had Naydi to brush him, either. And she could do things with a brush that’d have him purring and falling asleep.
Now there was a happy thought. He cuddled up to her on the couch, effectively trapping her on it but she didn’t mind one bit. Instead, she focused on getting him as well-brushed and presentable as she could, and Daar suddenly remembered just how tired he was all the time now…
He let his stress go for the moment, relaxed into a peaceful interlude, and was very soon asleep.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space
Slow, shallow breathing. Stay. Still.
The suit’s active camo made Regaari effectively invisible if he remained perfectly motionless, and on minimum framerate it could last for hours… If he remained still enough.
The scale had been deceptive before, when he scouted these smaller, lighter Hunters. They were only small and light relative to the literal walking tanks they’d accompanied. In absolute terms though, each one was built to the same kind of scale as a HEAT aggressor and had a body made of what was clearly some kind of high-end synthetic muscle. They had that same unconscious strength behind their movements.
And the same mass. The rooftop groaned under their combined weight as the three spread out in a search pattern. He couldn’t see them, but he could hear them by the tapping of their slender claws on the aluminium roofing, and by the way it creaked and buckled wherever they trod.
Regaari wanted to shrink down, make himself even smaller. But even that movement might have created a visible seam in the air at the edges of his suit before the camo caught up. The only thing to do was to listen, keep his claws ready to kill, and to stay absolutely, perfectly, stone-still.
Two of the Hunters circled clockwise and behind him. The third was patrolling counter-clockwise around the roof, visible only by the dents and scars it left in the metal. They’d definitely caught a glimpse of him, he knew it. There was no other reason for them to be up here, no other explanation.
So, this was going to end one of two ways: Either they decided the rooftop was clear and their quarry had eluded them, or they caught him. In which case…
He’d gone toe-to-toe with Hunters before. He’d learned a lot since then. He was stronger and better-equipped than those previous occasions. But that didn’t stop the seam where his flesh ended and his cybernetic paw began from itching at the memory of having half his arm bitten off. That didn’t stop him from…doubting.
He didn’t doubt his own ability—he was among the very best and he knew it—but he had definite doubts over whether even that would be enough.
The hunters orbited the roof several times. Regaari made sure to record everything with his suit’s sensors, so SOR and Whitecrest analysis cells could glean as much information as possible from the opportunity…
A leg stomped down inches from his face, close enough that he could finally see the subtle imperfection in the cloak as a shimmering heat-haze in the air, like a shape made out of mirages. The sheer weight of it punched a small hole in the metal, which creaked and strained as the Hunter turned, surveying everything around it. The foot moved unconsciously, stepped so closed to Regaari’s nose that he could have tickled it with his whiskers.
Time stood just as still as him. His chest ached with the effort of not breathing as the Hunter half-turned, again…
…And moved on.
Regaari almost fatally gasped his relief. Instead, he held it together, let it out slowly, slowly. He was still light-headed from holding his breath but he forced himself to breathe at a glacial pace that wouldn’t mar his active camo.
That had been far too close.
The Hunters seemed to arrive at a decision. As one, they decloaked and reconvened at the roof access door, where the apparent lead stood in the middle while the others retreated down the staircase. The steps groaned under their weight as they did so; at a rough guess, Regaari figured they each massed somewhere between Highland and Snapfire in their full armor.
So, three ninja Aggressor-type Hunters, each about twice his mass, and he’d be a fool to assume they weren’t Aggressor-like in performance, too. Those weren’t good odds, but at least they were retreating. The leader stood for a long while, clearly unhappy about having lost its quarry, and eventually retreated down the stairwell with an almost sullen turn on its spindly legs.
Regaari waited for a long, long time. Slowly, ever so slowly, he allowed himself a bit of movement to recompose himself. He shifted his weight and tried to let the first prickling pins and needles in his arm fade.
The shoddy roofing behind him creaked.
The decision to move as opposed to freeze saved Regaari’s live. A sharp-tipped leg speared down and would have pinned him to the roof if he’d tried to stay still. As it was, the Hunter drove its leg down into the metal so hard that it got stuck, and Regaari had a second or so to regain his feet.
Long, quadruple fusion blades shot out of the Hunter’s forearms, and it brandished them at him in a clear challenge.
Regaari wasn’t so vain or stupid. He simply rolled his high-powered carbine off his back, tumbled over, and shot the nutless fucker right between the eyes.
High-powered frangible rounds were grotesquely satisfying. The Hunter’s head didn’t so much break as burst all over everything, Regaari included. It was very much dead, but now Regaari was very, very much made by the enemy.
Only one thing to do: Run.
Run, and activate the beacon. Taking down those shields wasn’t an option now. He’d just have to trust that the ships could overwhelm them.
He sprinted for the building’s edge and flung himself off just as the roof access door burst open. Wild shots whip-cracked past him as he flung out his suit’s fields just enough to let him land without breaking every bone he had. It was still a hard landing, and it taxed every ounce of his HEAT-built strength, but he rolled through it and opened up into a furious four-pawed sprint.
Absolutely nothing that walked was faster than a well-trained Gaoian at a dead run like this, he’d learned. That lesson had been driven home in the hardest way, when his unconscious stupidity in running two-pawed had cost Triymin her life. Whether it was a Hierarchy-prompted social affectation or their species’ own home-grown stupidity didn’t matter. Never again.
The first barrage from the navy landed with deafening, bone-shaking force somewhere overhead as it hit the shields. The flashes as those shields dispersed the energy were like a dozen lightning strikes in a second, strobing the whole city. The second barrage was only a second behind the first, and the third was only a second behind that. It became a steady hammering, punctuating his pursuit.
The next strike was utterly, absolutely blinding. To everyone else, anyway. At some point the Navy had seeded a comm satellite constellation, and Fleet Operations gave his Suit the warning for incoming radiological hazard. The timing was perfect. A warning pace blinked in his visor, and at the moment the weapon went off, his visor automatically dimmed.
Everyone and everything else in the city was likely blinded by it. Any that were lucky enough to avoid that would have been blinded by the second. And the third. And the fourth. Clearly the navy had up-gunned to nuclear ammo.
The fifth nuclear warhead brought the shields down, and for a bonus caused explosions and other mayhem at the shield generator’s sprawling site.
It was the first strike that actually hit the ground that really sold the navy’s power, though—it made the bedrock heave. Domain buildings, never designed to handle earthquakes or shifting earth, actually cracked and shifted as the shockwave ravaged their foundations. The kilometer-tall skyscrapers in Lavmuy had fared much better—there were advantages to being a Deathworlder after all.
It certainly helped throw off the pursuit. Between being partly blinded and the way half a building fell on and pulped one of their number, the Hunters fell behind…
…Right up until one of the big ones shouldered easily through a wall up ahead. It contemptuously ignored the chunks of hurtling concrete that bounced off its shields and raised a gun-arm in Regaari’s direction.
Regaari broke out one of his trademark gravball moves: he sprung up on a wall, then bounced off it at a right-angle to his original direction of travel. A hail of bullets chewed up the ground where he’d been as he dared to scrabble into and through one of the damaged buildings, praying to Keeda, God, the spirits and whatever anything that might be listening and interested that the bludgeoned architecture wouldn’t give out around him.
Somehow, it didn’t. He dived through what had once been a shop-front window and his paws skidded on broken glass.
There was a mushroom cloud rising over where the wormhole suppressor had been. A small one, but still the unmistakable signature of destruction. Whatever happened next, his mission had been a success.
With the comms sats in orbit, he could talk to the fleet without the reflector now. “SKY THANE, NAUGHTY CUB! Suppressor down! ”
His reply came from the most glorious voice Regaari had ever heard: Powell’s inimitable growl suffused his earplugs. “DEXTER, STAINLESS. Light the path.”
More explosions from elsewhere in the city. Clearly the navy had jumped in to low orbit and were intent on wrecking absolutely everything the Hunters had. Every time a streak of blue fire connected the sky and the ground, it resulted in a new rolling cloud of smoke and a new shockwave. It was… awful. Full of awe.
It certainly awed the Hunters, who stopped their pursuit quite abruptly. They stood confused for a second, then melted back among the buildings. Regaari saw a squadron of dropships take off from a few blocks away, climb and turn, then vanish with a thump and a flash of pure vantablack as they jumped out.
Three more took off to the south. They banked, climbed….
There was a shrieking roar, and a pair of Firebirds tore overhead with a sound like the universe getting really fucking angry. The trio of dropships disintegrated in mid air, sending debris and mangled pieces of Hunter tumbling.
Regaari had his orders. He needed to find a safe spot for the HEAT to land in all this madness. They’d be coming in right now.
He was a few hundred yards from a spot he’d picked out earlier. Open enough to land in, covered enough for a safe landing, central enough to launch the ground invasion from. He sucked down a desperate gulp of his energy mix and hared toward it, acutely aware that just because the Hunters had backed of didn’t mean they weren’t still hunting him. Time was not on his side.
But he was nearly through this.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Hunter broodship, Rvzrk System, Domain Space
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
Data was flowing in by the gigabyte. Every new explosion, every new weapon… it was all documented. The ground forces were mostly withdrawing in an orderly fashion according to the plan, but of course there were some broods that refused to give up a Hunt once they’d tasted blood. Those were being slaughtered.
That was all part of the plan too. If they could not see the intelligence behind the Alpha-of-Alphas’ leadership, then let their deaths serve as an example to the others of what happened when sensible commands were ignored. The smart Broods would take note.
Still. The Alpha-of-Alphas had to admit to some awe at what the deathworlders were unleashing. They’d lurked patiently, oh-so-patiently, for so very long while they picked their moment. And when it came, they had unleashed devastation in a form so pure and unrefined that it gave the Alpha-of-Alphas the unfamiliar sensation of chills.
Its predecessor had seen fellow predators in the Humans. The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas instead saw engineers who had turned their talents toward perfecting the art of violence. And it intended to learn.
The prey-world invasion had been an unqualified success. They had stripped the conquered territory of useful parts, breeding stock, technology and materials. They had reminded the herd-species to fear once again, and the Builders had seeded the target city with a sensor grid that was capturing everything.
…Actually, no. Not everything, and the success was not completely unqualified. One single Gaoian had slipped the cordon and been active and undetected inside the occupied zone for an unknown length of time, despite the sensor network. Clearly, there was still much room for advancement.
It drooled at the thought of sinking its teeth into the coming research.
But the real prize was yet to enter the picture. The sensors had acquired detailed scans of the Human trans-atmospheric fighter craft, which were valuable of course. They had even managed to capture blurred snapshots of the incoming munitions, granting insights into how Humans designed their ammunition and ordnance.
But the elite ground warriors were yet to arrive, and those were the true goal. The Alpha-of-Alphas had gone over footage from previous encounters with those creatures, and had realized that many of the individuals that had destroyed the Hive were also those who had intervened in the raid on the Prey-Station, years before.
There were newcomers, and an absence or two—possibly from casualties or possibly from obsolescence—but it seemed that the Humans had only a tiny supply of these elites.
The Alpha-of-Alphas wanted to know everything about them. Their tactics were well-recorded, but equipment and their biology warranted scrutiny. If the Hunters could assimilate some of what made them so exceptional and apply them on a large scale to create their own elites…
Ideally, of course, it would be best to return their corpses for dissection. And sensing that the Gaoian intended to summon them, the Alpha-of-Alphas had pulled back its contingent of elites, promising that their quarry had become bait for an even more succulent prize.
It had worked. The Eaters, it seemed, could learn, and could think with the right guidance.
All that remained now was to see if they could fight.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space
Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello
The trick to extremely aggressive EA-HELLNOs was in the field-wing braking. Not all of the operators could hit the ground with the same fierce force, but today that played to their missions.
Righteous and the Protectors hurtled past everyone else, their assault computers deploying their braking fields in the last few seconds, just enough to take some of the re-entry excess off their descent. They slammed into the ground faster than terminal velocity and hit like goddamned meteors, cracking the concrete when they hit. Warhorse landed first among a group of five of the greasy fucks, right on top of a big Red Hunter. He hit with so much force, the impact left a crater in the road and exploded his first victim into a cloud of gorey mist.
‘Horse moved like a flash of lightning and literally tore the rest of the group apart with his bare hands. He did it so quickly, Costello almost couldn’t follow the action; no wonder Righteous stood no chance in hell of winning. Christ he was fast, and in armor that dwarfed Costello, too! Just as ‘Horse was finishing up by palming the last Hunter’s head and exploding it, another Red charged over to attack. He looked up, growled, whipped his rifle up and fired, but instead of destroying his foe, those deadly rounds bounced harmlessly off its shields.
No matter, Arés was easily the fastest human being alive. Undaunted, he blitzed over and in only two strides, built up so much insane speed that the Red couldn’t even react to the incoming impact. ‘Horse could break pallet scales with his sheer weight, so a tackle from him could be pretty much exactly like a car pulping a pedestrian at speed. He hit the Red Hunter with so much force in fact, its shields collapsed instantly. It must have died on impact but ‘Horse didn’t stop moving, in fact he ran right through the tackle like he hadn’t hit anything at all, and rather then bend down and finish the job, he instead stomped a massive foot right through its chest and charged off to find more foes. His move didn’t even look like deliberate, more like…it just happened to be in Warhorse’s way, and he couldn’t be bothered otherwise.
Arés had just effortlessly obliterated a group of Hunters by himself and with his bare hands, and two of them were Reds. He did all of that in just a few seconds and was already engaging more. Jesus.
Baseball hit the ground just after ‘Horse finished his first group, and Righteous slammed into his own group maybe a split second behind and right alongside Irish, whose weapon tore two Hunters clean in two at the same moment Righteous dispatched the remaining three with his fists. Baseball, meanwhile, closed with his objective and in a flash, Dexter was enclosed by a protective wall of man, muscle and murder. ‘Base tackled him to the ground hard enough to kill a normal man and utterly pulp most Gaoians, but Regaari had armor and had spent years building himself into an extremely sturdy specimen by either human or Gaoian reckoning.
Still, that tackle couldn’t have been pleasant. Baseball practically sat on him—they had to assume he’d been compromised until proven otherwise, and that meant a hostile takedown. It was a fine line between rescuing him and capturing him, really.
Primary objective complete, ‘Base chirped the signal to the command net, which caused FIC to transfer talkover to Righteous; the show was his, now. It only took them a few more seconds to secure a suitably large opening for the portals, which in turn cued up Titan, who was loitering above the carnage with his Defenders. They dropped their fields and fell like meteors, landing only marginally more softly than the big guys. Snapfire fired his drones out immediately, while Moho heaved the portable Array off his back and kicked it, hard.
Portable Jump Arrays had come a long way since Capitol Station. The version used there had been more like a collection of tent poles and cables, with a power pack like four car batteries taped together. It had taken minutes to assemble.
This version was a self-deploying pack: drop it, trigger it, get the hell outta the way as it unfolded in a violent series of snapping motions. It could pack up just as fast, too.
Titan was carrying the power pack: Bigger, heavier and more advanced, with enough juice to handle half a dozen jumps before swapping out. He grabbed the cable that Moho threw his way, plugged it in, and that was it: the Array was up and ready before Costello had even landed.
Costello’s own impact was still pretty fucking meteoric, and there were plenty of hostiles left to service. He snapped his rifle up and dropped two, stepping sideways into the relative cover provided by Baseball’s armored bulk. There was a surprise to his immediate left, no time for weapons. He pounced, punched, and yanked its head back so far its neck snapped. It happened so fast, so naturally, and so easily, he couldn’t help but indulge in the rictus grin that spread across his face.
Costello was a proud officer of the HEAT, one worthy to lead the finest team of elite combat armsmen ever assembled. He was the smallest human on the team by a hefty margin—which also made him the smallest on the whole planet at that moment—but that still meant he was a six-foot-two, broad, lean, and teak-hard quarter-ton of sheer Deathworlder prowess, one who could handily outlift any strongman, dance like the finest martial artists, outsprint any Olympian, or outrun any marathoner. He could do all that while festooned in heavy combat gear, layered atop three-hundred-plus pounds of the toughest personal armor ever devised. Against someone like Costello, a mere Hunter was hopelessly, utterly outmatched.
That kind of power was a hell of a thing to possess, and his enemies seemed to know it, too. Best not to get too carried away, though; there was work to do. Besides, these were only ordinary Hunters, not the Super-Hunters Regaari had spotted.
Starfall, Highland and the Whitecrests landed on nearby rooftops, seemingly light as a feather. Starfall in particular absolutely dwarfed Costello by height, mass, and sheer physicality, so how exactly the nearly Beef-sized Aggressor managed to do that was a question for another day. He had his long-range rifle up in an instant and squeezed off a shot at something Costello couldn’t see: a threat indicator in Costello’s visor lit up, then blinked out to show where his target had been, a few dozen yards away in an adjacent street.
Genshi was last to the ground. No shame there: it was his first drop. Nevertheless he flowed through his landing and was up and dropping Hunters like he’d done it a dozen times before.
The Hunters retreated in disarray, and they were hardly a half a minute into the fight. Once he had the barest safe moment to do so, Burgess tore Regaari’s helmet off to scan his brain.
Regaari nodded and immediately re-seated his helmet. Costello also nodded, relieved. Firth was leading the others to secure their position, even as another orbital strike lanced down a few blocks away with the kind of force he could feel through his boots. “You good, Dexter?”
“About damn time you showed up…” Regaari replied. He’d been fending off the attackers for a few seconds before they arrived, and his suit had quite plainly stopped a bullet. He dusted himself off as Baseball helped him up. “That was almost gentle. You’re getting sloppy.”
Burgess chuckled and levered him toward the Array. “Love you too, bruh.”
“You can make out later,” Costello said. “Get him outta here.”
“Array in twenty seconds,” Moho reported.
“I think the Hunters are retreating,” Regaari reported, putting his helmet back on. “The second the strikes started, they— LOOK OUT!!!”
Costello turned desperately and felt an impact on his head as a fusion claw slashed past an inch from his face. He heard the outersuit helmet sizzle as it was cut through.
Two more Hunters decloaked behind the first one. These ones had long claws, they’d cut even a HEAT operator in half and Costello’s burst of firepower went wild as he felt somebody grab the back of his suit and heave him out of danger—
The Hunters lunged.
A Gaoian-shaped blur pounced past Costello’s shoulder with his left paw lit up by fusion claws. He slammed into the lead hunter and eviscerated it.
The other two tore him apart.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Arthur Sartori
“A vacation? Now?”
Sartori nodded. “As soon as possible, anyway. I know you never really take a vacation in this job, but if I don’t go and let my hair down sometime soon I might forget how.”
It had been a quiet day… at least, quiet-ish. Quieter. Heads of state, out of a kind of superstition, didn’t attend one another’s coronations and investitures, so as much as Sartori would probably have enjoyed another visit to Gao, he’d been compelled by decorum to remain on Earth… only for nothing very much to happen.
His schedule had been cleared ahead of the operation on Rvzrk, just in case presidential authority was required… but nothing had come up that hadn’t already been planned for and approved. It made for a refreshing change… and an opportunity to discuss something with his most valued special advisor that he really should have discussed earlier.
Oh well. No time like the present.
Margaret White laughed softly. “Arthur, I hate to break it to you, but letting your hair down stopped being an option for you years ago,” she said, and waved a hand vaguely at her own scalp.
Sartori laughed. “Yes, thank you for reminding me…” he grumbled. He’d learned to take jokes about his baldness with good grace: nothing was more embarrassing than a thin-skinned politician, after all.
“Still… is now the best time? Between the war, planning for the mid-terms, the Colony Bill…” Margaret’s tone of voice made it clear she could think of a thousand more things if she needed to.
“If I hold out for the best time, I probably won’t recognize it when it comes,” Sartori countered. “There’s always something. But I need to… go skiing, fishing, hiking in the woods, something. And I want to do it somewhere that’s not in line-of-sight of a building.”
Margaret nodded. “Well… I sympathize. The Secret Service aren’t going to like it, though. I’m sure they’d much prefer it if you went and played golf on a ranch somewhere.”
“I’m sure they would,” Sartori agreed drily.
“Did you have anywhere in mind?”
“I thought Cimbrean. I could visit Franklin and then spend some time enjoying the wilderness.”
Margaret thought about it. “That… would work nicely, actually. Yes, I can see the Secret Service being happy with that, you get your unspoiled wilderness, and Franklin gets a Presidential visit. Good proximity to interstellar concerns…”
“I’m glad you approve,” Sartori said. He stood up and took a gentle stroll around the room to loosen his bones, feeling that ideally he’d have liked to drink a bourbon or something. Unfortunately, not only was it far too early in the day for that but he preferred to remain sharp when Minot were releasing nukes for allied use.
Besides, the issue of the Hephaestus nuke theft remained unsolved, and he didn’t feel comfortable with drinking until that was resolved either. His earlier point about ‘waiting for the right time’ notwithstanding, he somehow knew that right now was the wrong time to indulge.
“Who knows, maybe you’ll meet our next First Lady out there,” Margaret teased. As a friend, she liked to encourage him to remarry. As an advisor, she had added more than once that a First Family did several things for the President that he couldn’t do alone. Sartori shrugged the comment off with his usual wry smile.
“Margaret, I think the only way I’ll ever get to go somewhere without you suggesting that is if I go on an all-male retreat.”
“That’s a good idea. Maybe you’d find a First Husband instead,” she retorted.
Sartori snorted and shook his head. “I can’t be America’s first gay president,” he said. “I’m not qualified.”
“Hmmm… you know, statistically, at least one or two of your predecessors…” Margaret began.
“Well, there’s some speculation about Buchanan…”
“He was a lifelong bachelor, and he had a very close ‘friendship’ with, um…” Margaret frowned as she rifled through her impressive memory for political trivia. “…King? Yes. William Rufus King. ”
Sartori sighed. “I can’t be the first openly gay president, then,” he corrected himself. “There’s a whole qualification that I lack.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find some pioneering colonist rancher who’ll break your heart,” Margaret said. “Just think, there’ll be plenty of strapping young men to ravish you!”
Sartori shook his head with a silent laugh, and decided that he’d take a sip of water in lieu of that drink.
“You seem to like this idea a little too much,” he accused.
“I get my fun whenever I can find it,” she said primly, though there was nothing prim about the accompanying smile. “But who knows?”
“For the record, Margaret, I am not gay. I feel I need to remind you before you ‘ship’ me with, I dunno. Whoever you’re crushing on right now.”
She shrugged. “Oh well. Plenty of cowgirls in Franklin too. I understand most of them are…quite handy, you know.”
Sartori laughed in earnest. “If the public knew how scandalous your mind is…”
“Then ‘half’ of them would love it, and the other ‘half’ would find some way to complain about it, and the overwhelming majority wouldn’t care one bit.” She giggled and stood up. “Well, fair enough. I’ll find out who you have to buy a coffee for around here to make a Presidential vacation happen.”
“Of course, you know the moment you step out of the office there’ll be another crisis,” she pointed out.
“There always is. There always will be,” He agreed. “Better for everyone if I face it feeling relaxed and happy, right?”
“That’s fair. I’ll see you tomorrow, if not sooner?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Margaret.”
She smiled and let herself out. He wasn’t sure, but he could swear he heard her chuckling to herself as she headed back toward her office in the West Wing.
He glanced up at the wall, to the framed photo of his late wife Emily. The truth was, she’d probably have sided with Margaret. Hell, she’d have joined in with the teasing and taken it much further. And he’d have got lost in watching the way her hands moved and her eyes sparkled, smiled at how laughter made the end of her nose twitch slightly, and…
Anyway: Happier thoughts. He tore himself away from Emily’s portrait and decided to grab his laptop. Time to research what adventures he might partake of on Cimbrean.
It’d be good to get away for a while…
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space
Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello
A hail of gunfire. The two Hunters retreated, fading into invisibility even as bullets flashed off their shields.
Regaari sprang out of Baseball’s grasp and dashed to his former Champion’s side with a frantic keening sound. Baseball was an instant behind him, already grabbing his medical kit but….
Futile. Fusion blades killed too quick and clean: there was no life-saving intervention to be done on those steaming pieces, and ‘Base knew it.
Dexter actually howled.
“‘Horse! Get him through that array now!” Costello spat. He ran a shaking glove up the side of his helmet: there was a deep gouge in it that had come a finger’s width from lobotomising him.
Arés didn’t need telling twice. He grabbed the squirming Regaari by the back of his suit and hauled him away from Genshi’s remains with a grunt of effort, ignoring his thrashing objections. It took a ringing slap upside the helmet to stun Regaari into submission: he landed on the jump platform in a keening mess. There was a flash of true-black stasis field, and he was gone.
Champion Fiin ducked out of the Array in his place, flanked by his First Fang brothers. They fanned out with their weapons ready, but it was the tableau with Costello’s damaged helmet and Baseball tending to their fallen comrade’s remains that caught Fiin’s attention.
“…Keeda! What happened?”
“Hunters. Cloaked ambushers, with fusion blades. Stay alert.”
The Stonebacks took that seriously. They spread out in a search pattern, alert for the first hint of danger.
“Who is that?” Fiin asked.
Fiin paused, then hardened. “…They’re gonna fuckin’ pay ‘fer that.”
The Array thumped again, delivering more Stonebacks. One of them handed off another power pack to Moho, then set to deploying a second Array.
Costello checked that the Hunter that Genshi had killed was really dead, then gave it a kick. “Base. Pack this up for Scotch Creek. ‘Horse, Moho, go catch up with Righteous and the others. We’re gonna kill ‘em all.”
‘Horse’s voice was a vengeful growl. “Vamos a chingarlos.”
They took off toward the sound of gunfire, and Costello switched over to the command channel. “STAINLESS, ABBOTT. Target secured, but we have a casualty. PACINO has fallen.”
The reply was about a second late.
*“…ABBOT, STAINLESS. Copy target secure. Confirm PACINO is KIA?”
“…Copy that. I will inform TIGGER. Do you require additional fires?”
Costello reviewed all the intel his suit was gathering from the HEAT, their drones, the firebirds and the ships overhead. The FIC’s supercomputers were working overtime creating a detailed map for him, and it painted a triumphant picture. The Hunters had obviously been planning an orderly withdrawal, but the fleet had smashed their jump arrays. Right now, the deathworld forces had the advantage… but not the numbers. He needed to keep the initiative, and the best way to do that was to let the Aggressors do what they did best.
“RIGHTEOUS and STARFALL will call it as they see it,” he decided.
Of the big ones and the kind of stalker that had got Genshi, there was no sign however.
That was… troubling, actually. The competent hit-and run, and the obvious intent to withdraw both marked a serious change from previous Hunter tactics.
Something was very fucky here. And Costello didn’t like it one bit.
There was only one solution.
“Let’s go to work,” he said.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Hunter broodship, Rvzrk System, Domain Space
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
The elites returned via their onboard jump systems. Three of the stalker variants were dead, two having fallen to Gaoians rather than Humans. That suggested a need to upgrade them. Other than that, however, they had performed admirably.
Their discipline was especially pleasing. When ordered to withdraw, they had done so without hesitation or complaint.
Not without frustration, however. The Alpha-of-Alphas could feel them emoting it among themselves as they swapped out their war components for more everyday cybernetics. Rewarding their loyalty would be simple, however: they were Eaters. Give them first pick of the choice prey, and they would be satisfied.
The Alpha-of-Alphas would return them to the fray soon. This was a test run, after all: more data was required. Perhaps, if they moved quickly, there would be time to install some upgrades.
Nevertheless, the first trial of the stalker variant had been a measured success. They had come within a fraction of a claw-length from decapitating the Human commander, and that would likely have been a devastating blow. Certainly the individual in question was the same one that had led the assault on the Hive, which implied that the Humans did not have many at all.
They would target that one specifically whenever they could. One such assault would inevitably succeed eventually. And when it was, they would…
A distracting new note joined the communications channels, and the Alpha-of-Alphas tuned into them with a growing sense of interest. It had expected to receive intelligence and insights as the stranded Eater forces were surrounded and crushed. It had expected mounting panic.
Instead… there was something different on emote feeds. Something entirely unexpected.
<Delight> <Ecstasy> <BLOOD FRENZY>
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space
Brother Taro, Warleader of First Fang
Things all started to go wrong when Brother Durn fell.
It was a moment of sheer bad luck that got him. He was on the charge, chasing a trio of Hunters along the shattered terrain made by flattened buildings. Up, across, a flying leap–
He landed with a thud, but Durn was one of their most biggest ‘Backs. His sheer size broke something underfoot, he yelped in surprise, and the rubble collapsed under them. By stupid bad fortune he landed on his back, stunned, and one of the nut-greasy fucks found itself lucky. It bit down and snipped off Durn’s brawny arm before Taro could react, and then…
The Hunters… changed, suddenly. They stopped acting so much like thinking sophonts, and became more… animal. Feral, even. Suddenly, it was like they didn’t give a shit about whether they lived or not, they just became intent on killing. Poor Durn vanished under an avalanche of biting teeth as all the nearby Hunters seemingly forgot every other target and descended on him in a feeding frenzy.
Taro didn’t need to voice anything. All his ‘Backs reacted immediately. They cordoned, attacked, and ripped the nutless shit-stains apart from the rear.
Too late for Durn, though. When they dug him out of the body pile… there wasn’t a lot left. What remained, however, had his fusion knife buried in a Hunter’s gut.
Taro and his ‘Backs weren’t so nice to the stragglers, after that.
But something had definitely changed. Something dramatic. First Fang fought on the principle of shocking and awing the enemy: engage ‘em, tear their shit apart, scare the balls off’a them and scatter ‘em to the winds.
That all fell apart when the foe charged recklessly at them in a slavering wave of fangs and fusion claws, the ones in front falling by the dozen, but by the time their bullet-riddled carcasses slumped to the ground, the unharmed ones behind had closed half the distance.
Well. No ‘Back worth his salt was gonna be ‘scared of vermin like the Hunters.
Shieldsticks. So useful. They rattled to the ground and created an instant barricade, which the hunters flung themselves against with slavering, thirsty desperation. The fight descended into hand-to-hand combat, in which neither Stonebacks nor Hunters had a clear advantage. It wasn’t so much any particular advantage in skill or tactics, it was the sheer overwhelming numbers they had. All of First Fang’s two hundred Brothers were through the portal, and they were standing against literally thousands of Hunters, with more and more coming every second.
What was it that Murphy human-Brother called this? “Zerg rush” or something?
Taro would definitely need to get Mister Murphy drunk on Talamay when he got back. If. There had to be at least fifty thousand Hunters streaming down through the wreckage of the surrounding city. They needed air support, now.
The human’s Fleet Intelligence Center pinged him with a happy suggestion. It would be too long before Firefang established operations, and several of those Keeda-ass HEAT Brothers were combat controllers, after all…
He yipped his agreement, the FIC patched him into a new command channel, and a deep, aggressive voice came online.
“Name’s STARFALL,” He said it in perfect Gaori, though with a bit of a Whitecrest accent, sadly. That’d need fixing later. “I hear you got shit you need blown up?”
A new icon on his visor showed the human was closing with his position. The FIC was truly a marvel, sweeping all the clutter aside and telling him just what he needed.
“Got a bit of a Hunter infestation over here.”
“Copy that, I’ll be over soon. You ‘Backs protected against radiation?”
“We’re deployed in a nuclear environment, STARFALL…”
“Yeah. I plan ‘ta make it more nuclear.”
That sounded like a very welcome idea as far as Taro was concerned. “Be my guest.”
“Alright.” Taro flicked an ear inside his helmet. The human sounded… grim, rather than the fierce anticipation Taro himself would be feeling about the chance to play with the big guns. “Enemy’s thickest toward the city center, that’s about five [kilometers] away from your position. That’s gonna be danger close…hold out for a minute more. STARFALL out.”
Easier said than done. Still, the shields were holding, even if his ‘Backs were running out of ammo, even if they’d need to press against the shield wall to force the horde away. With nothing else for it, Taro fell into ranks and managed their tactical retreat towards a more open space. Hopefully open enough that air support could strafe it eventually.
There was a warning pip in everyone’s visors.
A shieldstick’s height was adjustable, but that added functionality came at the cost of power drain. Hopefully it would only be needed for a moment—
Double flash. Everyone’s visors blinked dark for just the bare and exact moment needed to stave off blindness. The Hunters weren’t so blessed, and were clearly stunned. It would have been great to take advantage but they wouldn’t need to.
The shock wave did most of the work.
It also took out the few walls that remained with one brick on top of another. It made the ground buck like an itching Naxas, and gave Taro a full-body punch in the gut. If they’d been standing in the open without shield protection, it would have pulverised them.
As it was, even the rebound shockwave off the splintering walls behind him, even the sound was like a battering ram.
There was a resounding thud as an absolutely gigantic human jumped down right next to him, carrying a weapon so large he must have been compensating for something.
Everything Taro knew about the HEAT, and his own instincts, said the big Human should have been whooping and grinning over what he’d just done. Instead he threw a drone in the air and surveyed the area around them in silence.
“…Alright. That fucked ‘em up good.”
“That’s nice.” They moved forward together as Eight Claw re-took some lost ground and dispatched all the dazed, blasted, burned Hunters they could find. The orbital strike had taken the pressure of, but the fight wasn’t over. “We could still use some air support.”
“Rog. They’re inbound right now. HEAT’s got release priority but we’re always willin’ to share.”
Air support really was a beautiful thing. Taro stood back with Starfall and together, the two of them spent a wearying long time shaping the fight towards something more advantageous. Firefang eventually deigned to show their pampered fluffy silver asses, of course right as the local fight was turning into a rout. Whatever bloodlust frenzy had gripped the Hunters finally broke, but it took a long-ass time and a heck of a lot of work… not to mention a few lives.
But in First Fang, a few lives—any lives, really—was a big loss. Each one represented at minimum three years of setback. Candidates were rare, the training was arduous, few of those selected to try would ever pass, and few of them made it to the Third Ring. Every Brother who fell greatly delayed rebuilding the retired Fangs.
In human parlance, they were raiders and special operators. They couldn’t afford to heedlessly wade into melee. They didn’t have the numbers.
And that was true of HEAT, too. “That’s my cue,” the tall human said as a trio of Voidrippers lanced down what had once been a perfectly serviceable highway but was now a series of blasted holes in the bedrock, intent on delivering death to something at the far end. “They’re good, I’ve trained with ‘em.”
Starfall shrugged. “Can’t always be helped. I’m being recalled by my captain, so…”
“Go. We’ve got a long few days of killin’ I think.”
“Ayup.” Starfall nodded behind that dark, glowing mask of his, and without another word he vaulted over an obstacle and charged back towards his own men. Something must have gone badly wrong somewhere.
For the moment, they had a moment to breathe, tend to the dead and wounded, and much more importantly than even that, jump in more ammo and supplies.
“Roki!” he called out to his second-in-command. “Let’s take advantage of the lull and set up camp. Get those portals through and built, so the Grand Army can come and play.”
The Hunters descended into probing attacks against the perimeter while the portal techs attended to their work. First Fang kept them at bay with skill and discipline, and relative ease: the probing attacks didn’t amount to much for quite a while.
That all changed when something the size of a tank abruptly exploded through a nearby building, ignoring the disintegrating walls around it like they were made of nothing more than air and insults. It was accompanied by three flickering dark shadows that lanced and zig-zagged strangely and unpredictably through down the street never following a straight line.
Firefang proved their mettle right away. The orbiting pilots immediately dropped down and harassed the giant fuckin’ nightmare… which waded through the explosions like they were a light snowfall. It raised an arm and a fuckin’ blizzard of bullets shredded one of the attacking Voidrippers on the wing. The stricken craft slipped sideways trailing smoke and fire, and Taro didn’t see the pilot eject before it was lost from view and a fireball bloomed into the air several streets away.
In response, the other Voidrippers rocketed up to altitude and switched to missiles. They were courteous enough to warn everyone over the radio, though being honest, nobody was too keen on closing with the tank-thing anyway. Especially not when those flickering shadows hinted at something equally nasty just waiting to slice them sideways in the ass if they tried.
Taro had a dark thought, suddenly. “Disruptor nets! We need nets on the ground!”
He’d barely got that order out when FIC joined him to yet another radio net. “First Fang, this is IRISH. I’ve still got vitals on that pilot, gonna have a lash at rescuin’ him.”
“I’ve got a walking barn and some invisible crawlies to worry about here. They bite.”
What was going on with the HEAT today? They were usually so optimistic and fierce…
In any case, it would be a few ticks before ‘Irish’ showed up, so in the meantime—
A lot of things happened very, very fast. One of the Voidrippers let loose a missile. The instant it did, there were three flashes of jump-black, and suddenly the menace was gone.
Great. So these Hunters had personal jump ability now. Fuckin’ great.
The regular Hunters on the ground decided as one in that creepy biodrone hive-mind way of theirs to give up the hunt, and beat a rapid, crawling retreat.
The missile, suddenly bereft of a target, was remotely commanded to steer upwards and detonate harmlessly overhead. The Voidrippers scrambled like a Nava had just exploded in front of them and flew off to go sort themselves out.
Right. Re-assert command. The situation needed solidifying now despite anything else going on, so Taro barked out orders to that effect, then engaged in a long radio dialog with his Champion. Fiin was…not pleased.
Irish and one of the HEAT’s Whitecrests showed up a few minutes later, both absolutely covered in blood. Most of it was Hunter blood if Taro was any judge, but Irish seemed to have a share of Gaoian blood on him too.
The Human was easily carrying a rigid, powered stasis bag on his shoulder, which he set down next to the array platform. Both men were radiating anger of the most profound kind and Taro looked to the Whitecrest for insight. “Did something happen?”
The Whitecrest sighed. “…Father Genshi has fallen,” he said.
Having no idea what else to say, much less what to do about it, Taro instead gestured down at the stasis bag and the pilot within. “Will he survive?” he asked.
Irish nodded. “Should do. Your man night need a new set o’ legs, though. Guess that big fecker hit a lot harder than the last one we ran into.”
“They’re adapting to us,” Roki said.
Taro surveyed his surroundings as the array they’d just built fired for the first time, sending the stricken pilot home and summoning the first elements of Second Fang and the Grand Army.
“Well,” he said grimly as that thought sunk in. “That’s just gonna make this more fun…”
“Sure.” Irish stood up. “I’ll take all the fun I can feckin’ get. We’ve got a lotta payback to give.”
The Whitecrest—Taro hadn’t yet learned his name—rapped him on the chest with the back of his paw. “You see that?”
“I see it.” Irish gave Taro a respectful nod and again, like Starfall before them, the two HEAT operators made themselves scarce. No doubt the FIC had found something for them to do.
Taro turned his attention to the Grand Army’s deployment. His own job wasn’t even close to finished, yet…
They had plenty more payback to arrange, first.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar got precious few peaceful moments, and Naydra had learned how to nurture them, sustain them, and let him enjoy them. After all, he badly needed every opportunity he got.
Sometimes they were vigorous, other times… quiet. Simple. The only thing he loved more than doting on her was being brushed and taken care of in turn, and sometimes—like now—it even managed to put him to sleep. That was usually a sign that he was exhausted from stress.
She kept his communicator turned down too, at times like these. Not silent—anybody who called needed to be listened to—but enough that he’d wake gracefully rather than with a jolt. Which would spare her, seeing as she was completely trapped with him curled around her and on top of her.
Still. It was a shame when the device did inevitably chime and wake him.
“…Nnnf…balls.” Daar grumbled himself awake, snuffled in the top of her headfur, and detangled from their comfortable pile. He reached out a long arm and hooked it toward him with his claw.
She could smell his anguish hit before he gave any voice to it. “…I unnerstand…no, no. I’m sure they did what they could…yes. I’ll be there. Full honors, you hear me? Yeah. Sorry. I’m…yeah. Gimme a few. Yeah. Bye.”
When he hung up the phone, he crushed Naydra tight to himself and keened his agony like she’d never heard him do before.
A terrible suspicion struck her and she cradled him close. “Oh no… Is… Regaari…?” she couldn’t bring herself to ask the question in full, but he shook his head.
“…No. It was Genshi.”
That was maybe worse, as Genshi was… had been… one the most important males in Daar’s life, growing up. He was a mentor, he’d sponsored a certain troublemaking, high-spirited cub into the Gao’s elite social life, and probably had a claw in getting Daar in front of Stoneback’s recruiters in the first place. Disciplining him after his… incident… had been profoundly and personally painful for Daar. He’d even mentioned unhappily that he’d felt more personal anguish over it than over the order to nuke most of Gao’s cities.
“After all,” he’d said, “That was… strategy. It needed doin’ and there weren’t no other way. This was… it was personal.”
It had been difficult for him to wrestle with his guilt over that.
And now Genshi was gone. There’d never be a reconciliation, not that Daar had ever held much hope that there could be. She keened softly with him, sharing his grief.
There was a hitch in his voice as he growled to himself. “I…I dunno yet.”
He keened again and fell silent for a long time.
“…I should…I should go,” he said more resolutely. “They got Regaari home safe, I need…”
“Go, my love. I’ll be here.”
He whined gratefully at her, and was gone. Naydra heaved a huge sigh and slumped on the couch with a soft keen for him, and for Genshi. She hadn’t known the former Champion well, but…
…Whatever else had happened between him and Daar, she hoped he’d died a hero at least. He deserved to be remembered well by the Gao.
She shook herself and stood up. There was a lot for her to organize, and never enough time. Peaceful moments like they’d just shared were just as important for her as for him, though she’d never let him know it.
If being a Great Father was a heavy burden to bear, then being his consort was nearly as bad. But she never regretted it, not for a second.
She sighed, stood up, and got back to work.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1d AV
Lavmuy Spaceport, Gao
Somebody had pressed a mug of sweet-herb tea into his hands and gently nudged him along toward a comfortable waiting room. He followed, numbly, his senses overloaded with the sounds and smells of the Stoneback Fangs ready and raring for deployment. He could sniff out their high-testosterone eagerness to join the fray, their indomitable sense of superiority…
The waiting room was a sudden, jarring calm space. The mere act of being escorted into it felt like being wrapped up in thick cloth and insulated from… everything. Regaari finally had the mental and physical space to take in his surroundings and realized that his escort was actually his suit tech, Yarro. He’d been so totally overwhelmed by the bustle, the smells and, and…
…to even notice.
“…Yarro.” He tried to think of what else to say, and gave up with a shake of his head. The young male was one of Whitecrest’s associate members, meaning he hadn’t quite made it through the trials to become a full Brother but had shown enough promise, skill and tenacity to still be very valuable to the Clan. “I…”
Among Yarro’s virtues were tact and understanding. He shook his head no and set about dismantling Regaari’s suit.
“Just rest,” he advised.
Good advice. Now that he was here and safe, Regaari was quickly realizing that he felt tired. Tired to the bone, tired to the very core of his being.
He drifted into a kind of fugue as Yarro expertly took the suit apart. Soon enough it was disassembled and set aside, and the very, very mandatory post-suit grooming was underway. Between the petroleum jelly necessary to slick his fur down so that it could be zipped up in the first place, plus days of accumulated oils and bodily grime, the first step after any prolonged session in the Suit was a vigorous brushing.
On happier occasions this would often be with his Brothers or, if he was very lucky, with a Female. Not today. But Yarro was pretty good with the brush, and the gentle massaging pressure of it was enough to all but knock Regaari out. Especially when combined with the gentle scent of his tea.
He was brought back to alertness by a heavy scratch on the door. Yarro apologized, put the brush down, and slipped out.
After a few seconds Regaari could hear the Great Father’s unmistakable rumbling basso profundo voice attempting to hold a “quiet” discussion just outside the door. Yarro was no doubt arguing (respectfully) that it would be best to leave Regaari to rest.
“Send him in, Yarro,” Regaari called wearily. “The Great Father waits for nobody.”
The Great Father’s nose peeked through the door trepidatiously. “I’d wait ‘fer you, Cousin.”
Cousin. That one word said everything about the conversation to come. It should have filled Regaari with joy but here and now he was too drained to do more than lift his ears slightly.
Daar seemed to understand, and approached on all fours almost as low as he could. By his standards, this was an abject apology.
Regaari went to stand up, only for Daar to rise to two-paw and shake his head, putting a paw on Regaari’s shoulder to stop him. Wordlessly, the Great Father picked up Yarro’s discarded brush and picked up where the young Associate had left off.
“Rest, Cousin. We’ll worry ‘bout all the naxas dung later.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Regaari noted that Daar had left the door open a crack and made no effort to close it. He did that deliberately, his inner Analyst commented snidely. Regaari had never been able to turn that part of him off, and there were many occasions he wished he could.
And he had to admit… Yarro was both a softer and defter touch with the brush. Daar truly had no idea how much of a brute he really was, sometimes.
….But the thought counted. It counted for a lot. So, he tried to relax into the rough treatment and let a moment of comfortable silence settle on them. At least his fur would be inescapably clean.
Eventually, Daar set the brush aside and sat down to Regaari’s left. The bench complained loudly as he did so, but Daar paid it no mind; it was a massive thing built to seat a claw of heavily laden Stoneback Brothers, which stoically withstood the Great Father’s weight. Barely.
“…Y’know you prol’ly saved millions’a lives over on that planet,” he said.
Regaari sniffed, and duck-nodded solemnly. “And maybe with time, I’ll find that thought comforting,” he said. He heard the faintest, quietest keen he’d ever heard from Daar, and a huge paw hugged around his back.
“…Maybe I will too, someday.”
Regaari turned his head to look at him, then keened and leaned into the hug.
“…We lost Genshi.”
“He saved Costello’s life, probably.”
“…Powell din’t mention that.”
“Costello didn’t tell him… He saved my life, too. There were… some kind of advanced Hunters, with cloaks and fusion blades. I saw them decloak, and I… he pushed me back mid-pounce, then jumped in himself. Took one of them down with him.”
Daar duck-nodded gently to himself and thought silently for a long moment.
“…How does Whitecrest honor their dead?”
Regaari sighed. “…A lot of them died in the dark, doing something covert, off-the-record, that the Clan denied any knowledge of… Historically, at least.”
Daar grumbled unhappily, “Heroes shouldn’t die forgotten.”
“Sometimes, heroism means accepting that you will.”
“Still… you musta honored them, right?”
Regaari duck-nodded. “Much like how the American’s intelligence corps does. There is…was…a wall in our central commune. A crescent moon for each who had fallen, to be filled in with polished wood when they were eventually named.”
“For reasons that Thurrsto will have to explain. I’m a Father of the Dark Rites, I know the reasons, but only he has the authority to, ah… shine some light on it.”
Daar grumbled and shook his head. “…You ‘Crests sure love your secrets.”
“No. We do not.” Regaari looked solemnly across the room and through the door as though it wasn’t there, recalling his oldest schooling, once he’d passed—survived—the first level of initiation. “‘A secret is a burden.’ The first words I ever learned as a member of Whitecrest. Our First Rite.”
“…Fuck. I’m sorry. I just can’t stop shitting on my most bestest, can I?”
“You meant well.”
“That don’t matter. I can’t just be a well-intentioned galoot, ‘specially not with what y’all do…can I tell you something?”
Regaari gave him his full attention. “Of course.”
Daar fairly reeked of… well, of a lot of things. Of his signature unshakeable honesty, of grief, of weariness. He was an astonishingly earnest creature, even at his most subtle; Now, in their moment of reconciliation, the scent of sincerity was almost pouring off him.
“I admire the Whitecrests,” he said. “Truly. What your Clan does is brave. Maybe the most bravest. And I think you’re the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
He meant it, of course. Daar never lied. But Regaari couldn’t find it in himself to have any reaction at all to those words. He couldn’t work up the energy to be either proud of them, or to be uncomfortable. They just… floated past him, noticed but not felt.
“…What happens now?” he asked, rather than address the sentiment. “Do we pretend there was never a rift between us?”
“That’d be a lie,” Daar rumbled.
“That rift got Genshi killed, I ain’t gonna pretend like it was never there.”
“Yes,” Regaari repeated. “I… don’t know how to put things right.”
“You already did. But… Regaari, I need you ‘ta know one thing. There was never a rift between you an’ me. The rift was between you an’ the Great Father.”
“I thought they were one and the same?”
“There’s a bit of metal on my head says otherwise.”
Regaari looked up and, sure enough…balls. He had a crown.
“…I missed the coronation, I see.”
That entire subject seemed a bit raw, just going by Daar’s ears and general scent. Best not to push it. Regaari stared at it for a long moment, unsure how to proceed.
Daar eventually sighed and resumed his train of thought. “I’m two people at once, Regaari. I can never not be the Great Father, except maybe in the most private moments. If I were still jus’ a Champion, what you did wouldn’t even have made me mad. But…”
Regaari duck-nodded. “…But I disrespected that, and everything it represents.” He pointed at the crown. He’d never understood crowns before, never understood why the man in charge wore what was, after all, just a very impractical hat. Now, he could see that it was much more than that.
“And I had ‘ta wear it.”
“I thought I was doing my duty.”
“Balls, maybe you were, too.” Daar took the crown off and turned it over in his paws, sighed, and then put it back on. “I sure as shit know I did mine. An’ I fuckin’ hated it.”
They sat in silence for a second or two, before Regaari felt a little surge of positivity at last. He turned to Daar and cocked an ear at a mischievous angle.
“You know…” he said, “…the lesson I’m taking from this is that Duty can lick my nuts.”
Daar’s chitter started off slow, then it gained momentum. It was infectious, and something to be proud of, so Regaari didn’t even try not to join him.
It had been a long time since they’d enjoyed a simple moment of mirth together. It was the best kind of mirth, too, the kind that took all that was wrong and painful in the world and helped them see past it. They weren’t laughing to make light of what had happened, but to make sense of it and to take the next steps forward. Shared humor like that could mend any rift, with time.
Things weren’t right. They’d never be right, they’d never been right. But for a few minutes…
For a few minutes, they could laugh. And somehow, that made things a little better.
Date Point: 15y 10m 1w AV
HMS Violent, Rvzrk System, Domain Space
The ground battle churned on for days.
That was the problem with Hunters. There was no surrender involved, it was a kill-or-be-killed fight where smashing their will to engage in war simply didn’t achieve enough. Any Hunter left alive would just keep murdering and eating. Any group of Hunters allowed an avenue of escape would just regroup and resume their bloody feast, and the concept of surrender seemed completely foreign to them. POWs? Even a wounded, dying Hunter would lash out too violently to be safely captured.
They had to be surrounded and destroyed. All of them. And that made for a series of desperate last stands, each one of which came with a heavy cost. The navy could drop all the bombs and RFGs it wanted, but some poor bloody infantry inevitably still had to go in there and make sure everything with more legs than fingers was dead.
And as the survivors starved, their bouts of blood-frenzy got more frequent. When that happened, the Grand Army had no trouble finding the enemy, but holding out against the resulting wave of teeth and claws was no small feat. Casualties were heavy.
The city itself was a casualty too. In fact, it was effectively gone: There was barely a wall still standing within six kilometers of where the Hunters’ suppressor had been, and cleaning up all the nuclear debris, conventional munitions, corpses and whatever nasty surprises the Hunters might devise would be the work of years, probably.
They hadn’t even begun the liberation of the planet yet, but today was the symbolic day that began. It was the final push to sweep the city remnants clean, where the first truly enormous wave of infantry from the Grand Army would jump in and make their presence known, and the planetary suppression field would finally come online.
At the head of that would be the Great Father. There was important symbolism involved—Gaoians very much needed to be led personally by men they respected. Of course, it would have been preferable if the only male capable of leading their species didn’t need to take the field. Endangering an irreplaceable head of state wasn’t a good option.
Though, if Caruthers were honest with himself, there weren’t any heads of state like Daar. He had a billion-strong, fanatically devoted army. His personal Claw-Brothers were chosen from among the most elite warriors that could be found, including a few trusted human “contractors.” If all that failed, he was himself one of the most dangerous beings alive, clad in a set of personal armor matched only by the HEAT.
So, of course, several of the enormous “Super-Hunters” had made themselves known almost as soon as he stepped through the array.
They had become a recurring thorn in Daar’s and the Fang’s sides in the lead-up to the Grand Army’s march on Rvzrk. Their tactics were…vexingly effective, and deeply dissimilar to those of conventional Hunters. They seldom engaged seriously and preferred harassment and probing forays. Daar saw through their gambit and was cautious about deploying his forces so as not to yield any information of import. That did not deter them. They skirmished, probed cautiously…
So, the Fangs set a trap. After a number of these hit-and-runs, it became obvious the new Hunters weren’t interested in causing any real harm. They had left important lines of communication unharassed, and only attacked relatively soft targets when their opportunity for escape was maximized.
“They’re studyin’ us,” Daar had growled. “We need ‘ta study ‘em back.”
They hatched a plan: enticing the Hunters into a situation they could neither resist nor escape. In the end it was only half successful: the Hunters certainly couldn’t resist it.
But they did escape, via previously un-demonstrated ability to fly. Daar himself along with the rest of HEAT—Powell and Thurrsto had been pulled in for this, too—had engaged once the trap was sprung. It was a short, brutal, fast-moving fight that lasted all of two minutes. Caruthers found himself slowing down the footage during his after-action review, the combatants moved so fast.
Right at the moment they had managed to isolate one of the giant tank-sized Super-Hunters and drop its shield, and just as they were about to pounce…it rocketed into the air with its fellows, rained ordnance down upon the blasted terrain, and made a beeline for the edge of the portable suppression field. They winked out of the battlespace with a pulse of blackest black, and they were no more.
The probing attacks had ceased after that incident, and Allied Command was of the opinion the Hunters had learned more about Allied capability than vice versa.
The HEAT had left Rvzrk with a dent in their morale. They’d bounce back quick enough no doubt, but losing Genshi and then being vexed by these new Hunters had clearly left them feeling that they’d failed to meet their own nigh-impossible standards.Their replacement, however, was the Grand Army, which had the undeniable quality of sheer quantity. Deploying them in full would take weeks, but by the end of the first day there was definite grounds to call the operation a success: The city was secured.
Nevertheless, an unknown number of Hunters remained on the planet, trapped behind the field disruptor and seemingly impervious to the notion of a tactical retreat. The HEAT were spent and needed to recuperate. All four of Stoneback’s Fangs were in need of relief, and the fight with the Super-Hunters had tested Daar’s mettle.
He was, however, unscathed and victorious and his legend as a warrior had certainly been burnished. He was the last to leave with the first wave, and gave a rousing, quick speech to the sustainment forces that were streaming near continuously through the jump platforms. He had made his point to the Gao, the Hunters, and the Galaxy writ large.
The Gao were not to be fucked with.
Of course, the HEAT had made their own point…for enemies that were clever enough to decode the message. The Hunters had made their point, too. That message had been heard loud and clear.
For now, though, the task was recovery. The Great Father had pyres to light, and a friendship to mend. There would be relatively little rest for the HEAT, as their next wave of recruits was due soon, and their arrival would finally bring the team up to full strength. They even had an extra Defender and Aggressor, who would likely find themselves as part of Team Two in a couple of years…
Clearing out the remaining Hunters would take months, probably. They were scattered and disorganised, their lines of communication severed and their command structure utterly demolished. Any other species would simply accept that they were beaten at this point…
But Hunters just didn’t know how. Their invasion would only end when the last one was dead.
It had all been… not easy. Not remotely close to easy. But it had been smaller than they’d anticipated. In fact, the inescapable conclusion that Caruthers had to draw, which he did alongside Daar, Powell and Kolbeinn, was that this had not in fact been a full-blown invasion.
….Just how many Hunters were there if an operation on this sort of scale was their idea of a probing, guerrilla-type attack? Had destroying the Ring hurt them as much as the Allies had hoped? Or had it simply reduced a problem of insurmountable proportions to a merely very, very big problem?
And nagging away at the back of Caruthers’ mind was the certain knowledge that if the Hunters were this intractable when surrounded, isolated and hopelessly outmatched on a single planet… then it didn’t bode well at all for the war against them in space where they had room to maneuver.
They were going to be doing this for a long, long time.
Date Point: 15y 11m AV
Ceres base, asteroid belt, Sol
Drew was down to just three suspects. And, God damn her, Adele had been right: Drew M was among them, alongside Sam Jordan and Shinji Aida. All three shared the same damning trifecta of opportunity, means and motive.
Opportunity: they’d been aboard and in the right part of the ship between the last known moment when the missing bomb had been logged in inventory, and the probable moment when the heist had taken place.
Means: a pulsed spacetime distortion of some kind. The physics behind that one was all kinds of screwy, which for Drew’s money took his Aussie counterpart out of the running: Drew M was a damn clever man, but his talents ran to foremanship, workplace safety, scheduling, logistics and geology. He was no kind of a physicist… but then again, neither were Jordan and Aida. A pilot and a drone operator respectively. Hardly the kind of people who could reprogram a warp drive on the fly to create precisely-shaped eddies in the flow of causality.
And that was really the sticking point. None of the three men had any kind of a good reason to steal a nuclear physics package. Hephaestus’ security department had dug into all three of them with voracious intensity and turned up absolutely fuck all. No terrorist connections, nothing worrying in their psychological profiles—and Drew now knew a lot more about all three men than he felt completely comfortable with nowadays, right down to the kind of freaky porn that Aida liked to watch—nothing.
Jordan was kind of a cocky smart-ass with a chubby for his own talents, but who could blame him? The man could take a freighter and literally park it on a penny. He’d landed I Met God And She Booped My Nose on the target asteroid with its drill array aligned to within two or three millimeters of perfection.
A bloke who could walk his talk like that had earned the right to mouth off about how great he was, as far as Drew was concerned… And he suspected that anybody so lippy and egotistical wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to drop hints and little taunts if he was behind the theft.
Aida? Aida was a relentlessly practical sort, utterly dedicated to perfection in everything he did. He was kind of obsessive about things being just so but that was a virtue in an asteroid miner. Theirs was a job doing dangerous things in a remorselessly hostile environment and yet they had a so-far perfect safety record when it came to injuries and fatalities.
It had to be said that that statistic owed something to luck, but it owed a lot more to diligence, precision and professionalism, and everybody wanted to keep the record going. So, there was nothing to raise an eyebrow at over somebody having a bit of a stick up their arse.
And Drew? Drew very literally trusted Drew with his life.
So either the real culprit had slipped the net, or one of the three wasn’t who Drew thought they were.
He sighed, and set the investigation aside as an email from Drew M popped up bottom-right in his screen. Subject: “SUIT MAINTENANCE”
He clicked it open while rubbing a thumb through the hair of his temple in a futile attempt to relieve the sensation that had settled in over the last several days that his cranium was stuffed with cotton wool and bees.
“I know you’re busy with the you-know-what that I can’t discuss. Just don’t neglect your first job, mate. Maybe catching up with suit safety will clear your head and help you figure some things out. C-team suit 12 needs some attention.
Well. There was a resounding clanger of a hint. And seeing as it was the only lead he had to go on, Drew wasted no time at all in levering himself up out of his office chair and heading straight for the surface team workstation, pausing only to grab a coffee along the way.
Surface facilities felt very different to the rest of the Ceres complex, which after all was effectively a very roomy bunker modelled to give the illusion of big open spaces. While the sprawling multi-level facility under the ground felt like the better kind of shopping mall, office building and high-rise apartments rolled into one, the surface…
Well, it was a place where people came to work in hard vacuum. There were no compromises or illusions here, everything was a hard-learned lesson in safety. Bare valves to shut the oxygen off because a fire was a much more imminent threat than suffocation. Little maintenance labels on everything detailed exactly when they were last inspected and by whom.
Including, as Drew discovered when he opened its storage unit, EVA suit C-12. Trace Freeland’s suit, distinctive in that he’d foregone helmet art in favour of a white-red-white stripe down one arm in tribute to Mass Effect.
Freeland had an utterly unchallengeable alibi - he was on his downtime and education rotation, spending six months on Earth where he could enjoy the fruits of his six-figure salary and seven-figure bonus. Right now, if he wasn’t living it up on a beach surrounded by bikinis and alcohol, he’d be brushing up on his own education and earning some extra few thousands by mentoring prospective future ‘roid miners.
So why the hell was there regolith on his suit’s boots?
There wasn’t much of it, just the faintest of dustings like what might accumulate on a car after driving down a gritted road… but enough for Drew to scoop up on a fingertip and rub with his thumb.
EVA specialists did not tolerate for their suits to be in anything less than absolutely pristine order. It was literally a matter of life-or-death, and they took it so seriously that they even touched up their distinctive decorative art after every jaunt outside. And yet, Freeland’s N7 stripe was scuffed and faded. This suit had seen more than one trip outside.
Drew ran a quick query through the suit commission logs. Nothing. The suit had, allegedly, remained exactly where it was since the last time it had been serviced, which according to the bright orange tag on the helmet was about three days before Freeland had jumped back to Earth.
Unlogged suit use shouldn’t be possible. But then again, unlogged nuclear package theft should be impossible too.
Drew turned back to the suit and considered it for a second. None of the three men on his suspect list were suit-qualified and frankly if Drew M was the thief then he was playing an utterly insane game of refuge-in-audacity by dropping hints. Besides, he was way too big to fit the suit.
…and Shinji Aida was much too small.
But Sam Jordan? If Sam Jordan was Goldilocks, then this suit belonged to Mummy Bear.
He turned, digging in his pocket for his phone, only to be brought up short by the frowning face of Sam Jordan himself, barely two feet away.
The young man looked genuinely upset.
“…I’m sorry, Drew,” he said.
Then there was a flash of metal. And pain, but not very much. Something strange happened in Drew’s chest, like something cold had touched his heart.
Sam’s voice in his ear: “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt…”
Date Point: 15y 11m AV
Ceres facility, asteroid belt, Sol
Oh God, oh… shit.
In the heat of the moment it’d been so obvious, so simple. Problem; solution. And it had been simple. Up, and under the ribs. Drew had just… he’d looked confused, and then he’d looked dead. Like his brain hadn’t had time to catch up with what happened.
On the one hand, Sam wanted to vomit. On the other hand… he was glad that Drew hadn’t suffered. He was—had been—a good man. A kind man.
And innocent, too. At least, innocent of anything that deserved… this. That was the bit that made Sam’s skin crawl and made him feel like a monster. Drew had just been doing his job. He wasn’t part of the problem! He wasn’t one of humanity’s jailors, he was just a…
…Well, it was too late to second-guess now. Monster or not, innocent or not.
Sam dug in his hiding space above the airlock and retrieved the makeshift causal accelerator he’d built. He’d be needing that, whatever happened next. The second thing he grabbed was the phone with the special app on it.
He locked the doors and waited in pulse-pounding agony for far, far too long before the reply made his phone chirp.
With shaking fingers, Sam typed the most damning words of his life.
The reply came quickly, inhumanly so. The sheer speed lent it the air of a sharp interrogation.
How many? Just one?
This time the reply took a few seconds.
That’s not good. But okay.
We can fix this.
Even here, on this most secure communication, Sam couldn’t dare to name his victim.
First, hide the body. Somewhere secure.
The most secure place I can think of
would be out on the surface, with the
Sam glanced at the EV suit.
That depends. I’ll work on options.
For now, just worry about the body
I’ll figure out what we do next.
Well, that really wasn’t great. This whole situation was completely fucked, actually. And maybe Sam’s friend Cynosure was just being tactful about not having any ideas.
But so far, he hadn’t led Sam wrong. The blueprints for the causal accelerator, and the forcefield focusing rig that’d let a NPXL reach out as far as the Sol Containment Field generator. The precise timing and planning of what to do, when and how to do it…
Without Cynosure, he’d have failed a thousand times over already. Cynosure would come through. They always did.
Don’t worry. It’ll work out.
Sam nodded and hurried to suit up. Visions of somebody blundering in and catching him red-handed crawled up and down his spine, and he still felt utterly nauseated at what he’d done. Putting the suit on wasn’t easy at all with shaking hands, nor was checking the seal integrity and making sure it was good to use. Once he was wearing it, however, the powered exoskeleton made lifting Drew’s body and slinging it over his shoulder feel trivially easy.
Blood dripped to the floor. Shit. but there was no point in trying to clean it up when the body producing it was still in his arms. He’d just have to work quickly and pray he got back in time to clean up.
He knew, rationally, that he had no reason to be so paranoid. He’d done this a dozen times before without being caught, he knew damn well that with the Accelerator active he’d be gone for mere seconds from the outside perspective, and C team weren’t due to suit up for twelve hours.
He did his best to force his thoughts out of panic mode and ran his little log-beating trick like he’d done so many times before. It shouldn’t have surprised him that he worked, and he was able to cycle the airlock unchallenged.
Like always, he almost stumbled during the clumsy moment when the gravity changed. He had no idea how the EV workers made that transition look so graceful, when for him the mere act of stepping forward nearly sent him drifting clumsily up off the ground. Ceres’ surface gravity was pathetic.
But that worked to his advantage, too. He turned, oriented himself on what he thought of as the “mountains” which in reality were little more than jagged hillocks of ice and dirt, rucked up by some antediluvian impact. Carefully, he bent his knees, drifted downward, tilted forward… and then shoved hard.
A jump like that, in gravity like this, meant it would be minutes before he made contact with the ground again, by which point he’d be kilometers away from the base. From there, a few smaller jumps, some hops, skips and a shuffle would hone him in on the Device.
It seemed… He didn’t like the thought of destroying Drew’s body in a nuclear explosion. It wasn’t…. Drew deserved a proper funeral. And Sam didn’t know if it would really help him escape capture.
But Cynosure knew what he was doing. All Sam needed to do was follow the task in front of him.
He landed pretty close to the work site, by some small bit of good fortune. When he glanced up the hill, he could see the dark little lightless hollow where he’d stashed the rig and the nuclear package. So far the lay of the terrain and the solar radiation had kept any sensors from picking out the device, and there was a lot of landscape out here to cover. Even a dedicated sweep by survey drones would… probably not find it. Not at first, anyway.
He shuffled up the hill and dumped Drew’s body in the hollow, next to the spindly intricate rig he’d built. Vacuum was… not agreeing with the poor man’s remains. Some detached part of Sam’s mind found a moment of grotesque fascination in seeing the way Drew’s blood had dessicated and clotted in vacuum, or the way pressure was distorting his face and cheeks. Drew’s eyes were more than glazed over now, they were gray with cataracts and reflected the distant light of the Milky Way.
Sam knelt and closed them. “…I’m sorry, Drew,” he repeated. “I hope… I hope there’s…”
He sniffled back the urge to weep, which would have been hellish inside a helmet in low gravity, and stood up. “…Rest in peace.”
With that, he called up his comms app.
Cynosure replied promptly this time.
Check the rig while you’re there.
Good idea. Glad for something to do, Sam shuffled over to it and ran a diagnostic. Everything came back green.
Okay. I think I have a solution.
Just stand by where you are
for a few minutes longer.
You’ll like this.
Well. Whatever it was, it’d have to be pretty spectacular. Miserably, Sam shuffled over to a rock and sat down, facing away from Drew’s corpse. After a few bored seconds he picked up a small rock and threw it: it shot away from him in a practically straight line and vanished. Oh sure, it’d come around in a long parabola and land on Ceres again in probably a few hours, but to human eyes its trajectory was utterly flat.
In chasing its path, though, his eyes alighted on the stars.
…There was a view that never got old. The stars never looked like this on Earth, there was atmosphere and light pollution and dust to dull them and make them twinkle. Out in the hard vacuum of an asteroid’s surface, they shone steady and clear. Far, far too many to count.
It was actually kinda comforting to know that whatever fuckups and trials might be going on down in Sam’s life, the stars would always be there. It was a tiny optimistic note of sorts, and he focused on it.
Yeah. Stars. Stars were pretty awesome. He smiled softly. He’d come out here to work in space, after all. And why not? Space was just the coolest! It contained so much potential, so much future! And thanks to Sam and his Device, the whole of humanity would soon be free to benefit. It wouldn’t just be the US and their toadies with the codes to jump out: everyone would have the galaxy at their fingertips, ready to seize.
That thought made him… happy. Truly, blissfully happy in a deep way like he’d never really felt before. It warmed his whole body from the belly out and he lay back to consider the stars some more. It was a rare moment of peace and certainty, and he knew he should appreciate it while he had it.
So beautiful. So many! Counting them was a fun game that didn’t get boring, though he lost count and started over a few times. That didn’t matter though, it was all… part of the…
He blinked dozily at the large red letters in his helmet’s HUD: “O2 WARNING.” Below them in smaller text were the words “LIFE SUPPORT RESERVES CRITICAL.”
Huh. He’d… he must have been out here a while. Without noticing. A long, long while. Like… hours.
…Shouldn’t he be concerned about that?
But he was so happy here. And so comfortable… He turned his attention back to the stars and smiled at them again. They really were beyond cool now he thought about them. Except, he’d lost count again.
He started over, drumming out a happy rhythm on his thighs and humming a tune in time with the beeping.
After a while, the beeps stopped. It got kinda hard to breathe after that, but… that was okay. He was flying, and there was nothing but him and the stars.
And then there were just the stars.
Date Point: 15y 11m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Observatory Station, Neptune, Sol
Sam Jordan’s suit reported complete life support failure six hours after he’d first set out onto the surface. By then, Drew Cavendish’s absence had been noted, his emails checked, and the blood spatter in C-team’s suit maintenance bay discovered.
Ceres was on lockdown while they hunted desperately for Sam Jordan, as Six had known they would. A panicked murder blew any remaining cover or hope of stealth they had, and after that point Sam’s capture and interrogation would have been inevitable.
A pity. He’d been a valuable asset. But that translated to being too valuable to leave alive.
At least it had probably been a pleasant death. And importantly, it’d leave no marks or clues. By the time Sam Jordan’s body was discovered, if it was discovered before the bomb went off, there’d be no evidence whatsoever to say that he hadn’t just committed suicide.
Now, the only thing Six could do was wait, and hope. If the Humans found the rig and the missing suit, it’d all be a tragedy for naught.
It was out of his hands, now.
Date Point: 15y 11m AV
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
The air smelled of devastation, the strongest and least unpleasant note of which was the dry, powdery scent of pulverized concrete.
Behind it though was a nostril-torturing medley of burnt rubber and plastics, blood, innards, rotting flesh, diesel, gunpowder, and the musk of working Gaoians who’d gone too long since their last dust bath.
When Knight glanced up at the two aliens beside him, he saw their nostrils flare once then close protectively. Both of them tossed their heads and flicked their ears in a disarmingly equine manner as the olfactory assault hit them. Even Kirk, who was usually so composed, pranced a few nervous paces backward before recovering his dignity with a slow shake of his head.
“That…” his translator gave his voice a pained croak “…is… I’ve never smelled anything like that.”
Beside him the Domain’s representative on the Security Council tossed her head. To his shame, Knight had never properly got a handle on her name, which sounded like somebody had stuck a handful of dog biscuits in a smoothie blender, but somewhere in the ticking, rattling mess of Domain syllables he’d picked out something that vaguely sounded like “Kara.” Or maybe “Katie,” but he preferred Kara. She’d been gracious enough to let him use it.
“No…” she agreed.
Last in their little lineup was Ambassador Sheeyo, Champion of Clan Goldpaw, and his nose was easily the most sensitive. Nevertheless, his reaction was to sniff the air just once, flick an ear, and sigh.
‘Kara’ took a number of tentative steps forward. The Jump Array was snug in the middle of a bustling camp, but she was much taller than any human or Gaoian. Presumably she could see over the tents and fortifications around them.
It was good thing the Hunters had, so far at least, declined to field snipers. Presumably such a tactic was too detached and dispassionate to occur to them. Besides, the camp and all the surrounding area were supposedly safe and secure.
“…There’s nothing left standing,” she said after a few seconds of looking around.
“This wasn’t a subtle operation,” Knight said. He couldn’t see what she saw, but when he glanced up at Kirk, the lanky alien nodded solemnly, confirming what she’d said.
“Clearly not,” Kara lamented. “Mister A’ktnnzzik’tk has assured me there was no subtle option.”
“Not when dealing with Hunters, Councillor,” Knight agreed.
“No. I suspect there isn’t.” She released a prolonged creak that was the Rrrrtktktkp’ch equivalent of a sigh, and shook out her mane. “…I’m sure the Kwmbwrw Councillor would be looking for the slightest excuse to blame all of this on you,” she added.
“And you, Councillor?” Knight asked.
“I’m known to disagree with the Kwmbwrw Councillor on several important matters.”
Knight caught Kirk’s eye. He’d learned a lot about Rrrtk body language from Kirk during their time working together, and Kirk had in turn adapted his mannerisms to humanity’s little foibles. It was amazing how much they could communicate without either of them speaking.
Kirk inclined his head slightly and shuffled his foremost pair of feet with a flick of both ears. He might as well have raised his eyebrow like Mister Spock: it expressed the same sentiment. She’d effectively, though diplomatically, expressed the view that her Kwmbwrw counterpart was a fucking idiot.
“There is an inspection tour lined up,” Knight said, carefully stepping back from any further discussion on that point. “It’ll take in… well, a lot of what we had to destroy, and a lot of what we were able to save.”
Councillor Kara nodded, in her species’ languid way. “Let us see how much there is of each…” she said.
In fact, Knight felt as the tour by Weaver dropship took them all over the surrounding region, there was a lot more saved than destroyed to see. Ultimately, the damage from the battle amounted to a single smallish city. Which had, yes, been variously flattened, demolished, shattered, scorched, melted, irradiated and obliterated but other than that…
The twin hydroelectric dams upstream of the city had been liberated without significant damage, as had much of the surrounding farmland. Pockets of hiding, traumatized survivors had even been unearthed in some of the outlying villages. An entire division of the regional defence force had been saved from a massacre by the way the Grand Army had smashed into the Hunters from behind.
Councillor Kara took it all in… not impassively, but certainly with an excellent poker face. She met the defence force’s commanding officer with the same gravity of expression as she surveyed the damage done by the orbital nuke strikes, and kept her opinion close to her chest.
Knight let Sheeyo do most of the talking. The Goldpaw Champion had a gift for putting the best spin on everything without turning it into an insulting sales pitch, and more importantly he knew when to say nothing. Whenever a military matter needed clarifying, they turned to Knight for his insight, but mostly the tour was in the Gaoian’s paws.
If Kara was phlegmatic about the tour, though, then Kirk was downright sanguine. To the point where, when he had a quiet moment while Kara and Sheeyo had wandered some distance ahead, Knight confronted him on it.
“You seem quite chipper,” he observed. “Considering how many people died…”
“I’m considering them in relation to how many people could have died, Ambassador,” Kirk said. “…you know, I grew up on a deep space trade station. You’ll have heard of ‘Outlook on Forever’ of course.”
Knight nodded, and Kirk continued. “It’s nowhere important, really. The sort of station that forms naturally at the intersection of a few major trade routes, the galaxy is full of such outposts. And even though Outlook was deep in civilized and well-patrolled territory, we always knew a Hunter raid was a possibility. Spacers like me lived with that knowledge all our lives… Planet-dwellers don’t. Or, didn’t. This will change that.”
“The attack on Gao didn’t?” Knight asked.
“The Hunter attack on Gao was thwarted.”
Kirk sighed, and shimmied his neck. “You must remember the psychology of nonhuman species,” he cautioned. “A thwarted attack on another species? Even if the attack was barely thwarted by a militarily superior species? That’s not an imminent threat. Species like mine are generally content to… well, to graze and only pay attention to immediate danger.”
“With respect, I think you have too cynical a view of your own people,” Knight replied. “They built cities, they have a standing military reserve… they’re clearly capable of foreseeing a long-term threat and planning for it.”
Kirk swept his head around, then harrumphed and indicated the columns of smoke on the horizon with a slow wave of his cybernetic arm. “And there is the fruit of all our planning,” he retorted.
Knight tugged on his lapels to get his coat seated a little more comfortably on his shoulders. “This isn’t your homeworld. It’s your third colony world, as I recall.”
“It seems… unfair, to me, to suggest that a species capable of bootstrapping themselves off their homeworld to settle not one but several alien planets, is incapable. The mere existence of this world is a triumph, wounded as it is.”
Kirk did not seem convinced, so he pressed his point. “We didn’t come up with… this… so as to fight the Hunters. Ninety percent of everything my people did here, we learned and refined from fighting each other. There are many cities on Earth that have been razed just as flat as… what’s that one called, again?”
Kirk’s answer was a strangled rattling sound that Knight gave up on even approximating. “And yes, I know. Berlin, Stalingrad…”
“Aleppo, Warsaw, Nagasaki, Kabul, Sarajevo… It’s a long list. This is what war looks like, Kirk. But we didn’t learn its ways because we foresaw the Hunters, we learned its ways because that’s what we grew up with. It’s not your people’s fault they were too peaceful for a warlike galaxy.”
“We had wars,” Kirk retorted.
“And what did they look like?” Knight asked. He’d done his research on Domain history. “Your last major land war was decided by a formation of troops with pikes, and the losing side quit the field after losing barely a hundred men. And in my professional opinion, that was the smart decision on their general’s part. He elected to preserve his men to fight a better battle elsewhere, and his sovereign turned out to be a nincompoop who mistook one lost battle for a lost war and capitulated.”
Kirk’s ears swivelled: he was clearly impressed. “That was thousands of years ago,” he said.
“Yes. And after that your people developed the communications technology to sustain a peaceful global federation which eventually became the Domain. In many ways that’s admirable, Kirk. Your people are peaceful and inclined to grow together. They weren’t to know it would leave them woefully unprepared for… this.”
Knight took a deep breath. He hadn’t exactly rehearsed this speech, but he’d certainly mulled over versions of it when he was alone, after every time Kirk got depressive over the innate superiority of deathworlders.
“Meanwhile,” he continued, “my people’s perpetual squabbling did prepare us for it. And the cost was hundreds of millions dead in awful ways. If we lived in a nicer galaxy, we’d be the monsters. As it is…”
“As it is, you’re the only ones who know how to properly deal with the Hunters.”
“Your people will learn how to deal with them too. And honestly, that saddens me.”
Kirk sighed heavily, then gave Knight a sidelong look. “…You’re a hopeless romantic, Ambassador.”
“And you, my friend, are far too melancholy.”
“Melancholy? A few minutes ago you said I was chipper.”
Knight chuckled. “True.”
Kirk made a whickering sound in his throat that was his own version of a chuckle. “I’m not melancholy, Knight. Far from it, I see a future where nobody has to live in fear of being dragged away screaming by monsters. And if the cost is a few flattened cities, and a generation with their innocence in tatters having learned how to become monsters ourselves when needed…”
“It’s a terrible price.”
“The alternative is worse.”
“I suppose it is,” Knight agreed. The Hunters had been around for all of the Dominion’s recorded history. When he thought of the scale of their ring orbital, and imagined something like that grinding on for thousands and thousands of years…
“…We should catch up with the others,” he decided.
They bustled to catch up, and Knight noted with satisfaction the way their Gaoian escort didn’t miss a beat in adapting to what the VIPs were doing. They’d been trained well, and even though the Gao had a much more bellicose history than the Domain species, it still boded well for what the Vzk’tk and Rrrrtk might learn, with time and proper guidance.
Hopefully, Councillor Kara would see things the same way.
Date Point: 16y AV
Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth
Of course, snow in January in Alaska was hardly surprising, and this one threatened to be heavy. At first, Hugh had thought it was probably just an seasonable dusting that’d add a couple of inches to the foot or two that had already accumulated since October, but by lunchtime, well…
Fat flakes were landing in such numbers that they made a soft white-noise hiss as they settled, and the thick cloud cover had cast them into a kind of flat twilight at noon.
At this rate, it’d be pitch dark by mid-afternoon.
The camp internees were used to weather like this, of course. They’d seen plenty of heavy snowfalls and outright blizzards over the years, and even though everybody’s cabin was well-insulated and well-heated, some instinct always made them huddle together in what Hugh jokingly called the “town hall.”
That was the cafeteria, in more mundane language. The folding tables, when pushed aside, exposed a smooth wood floor with the line markings for different sports picked out in yellow, blue, red and green under the varnish. Right now, though, a kind of carpeted island had been assembled in the middle with rugs and couches borrowed from people’s cabins, and a big TV. Probably they’d just take it down again when the weather cleared but hell! It was something to do!
Hugh had spent the late morning helping to move couches and beds. Tonight would be kinda like a sleepover, really, and a heck of a lot warmer and cosier than bedding down alone only to wake to a snowed-in cabin.
The camp’s staff didn’t seem to mind the change of pace, either. Most of them were on good terms with the internees even though their job, ultimately, was to keep a couple of dozen innocent people confined.
Not even Zane, mooching around at the edges and being typically antisocial, could spoil the atmosphere. In fact he even reluctantly pitched in to move a few things.
By mid-afternoon, Hugh’s prediction that it’d be dark outside was vindicated. The clouds were scudding along so low that they were actually lit by the camp’s outdoor floodlights, and the air bit like a scared dog. The gossip from the guards and other camp staff was that a huge mass of arctic air had come down from the north and they were probably going to be stuck with it for a few days.
By early evening, Zane was missing.
The result, as soon as somebody mentioned it, was of course a manhunt. The guards checked his cabin first, then used their powers to search everybody else’s cabins too. Then there was an argument of some kind. Curiosity got the better of Hugh, who managed to “innocently” get close enough to overhear it.
He had to angle his head slightly to hear properly over the bustle and conversation, but a few sentences stood out.
“No sir, it doesn’t work that way. If I send the drones up now, they’ll just get lost in the snow and crash.”
And: “—can’t fly VFR in this. My helo’s FLIR will be blinded by the snow, too.”
And: “—late now. He’ll either come back or he’ll freeze out there—”
And, echoing his own thoughts: “—cking idiot…”
On an impulse, Hugh braved the flakes and chill outside on the pretense of grabbing some stuff from his cabin. Sure enough, when he checked around back of the cabins he found a line of widely-spaced footprints making a bee-line for a stretch of fence where somebody had flung a rug over the razor wire.
Still, it was hard to believe. That was a tall fence, and there was an electrified outer fence as well. He couldn’t possibly have really managed it, could he? And why? Not even the guards and their dogs were braving the weather.
…But of course, by the time they could, Zane’s trail would be long gone.
It was still insane: There was nothing out there but the prospect of freezing to death. Nothing at all. Zane must have known that…Which was why Hugh was certain that the surly bastard must have had a plan for surviving it. As impossible as it seemed, he had a gut feeling like the world wasn’t rid of Zane Reid yet. On some level, he even wished him luck.
He bustled back to his cabin, grabbed his Playstation, and headed back to the “town hall.”
Prison or not, he’d rather remain where he was.
Date Point: First Contact Day, 16y AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Watching the HEAT recover after a mission was always educational. Marty could have written a paper if it wasn’t all classified.
It started with the strongest, most physically capable men alive feeling as weak as kittens. That passed fairly quickly, thanks to Crude and the HEAT’s absolutely cutting-edge understanding of their bodies and how to properly use and abuse them, fuel them, and care for them.
This had been a particularly long deployment for them, too, which was why Powell had called her in; she was a “dirty, war-profiteering” civilian contractor these days, after all.
She was making more cold hard cash than Adam did these days, even with his monthly stipends and bonuses. She’d teased him about it too, to which he’d pointed out his property empire, homesteading bonus payment…
Teasing him like that never got old. And it always made their private moments better too.
Grampa Gabe, meanwhile, had been more than happy to babysit, while Marty babysat a bunch of groaning Operators.
All of them came out of their suits pinched, bruised and sporting the early beginnings of pressure sores. Which was honestly a little terrifying, since their extensive training had given even the smallest among them bodies literally as hard as teak.
In any case, recovery proceeded as it always did. The more savvy and experienced techs wore dust masks for the moment when the suits came off; the Lads all been marinating in their own stink for over a week, and the resulting aroma was foul enough to turn even the most hardened stomach.
While the suits were taken away to be sanitized, there were long, thorough, steaming hot showers for the Operators, a veritable feast of easy-to-digest meals, full doses of Crue-D… and rest. They’d all piled into their rooms, human and gaoian alike, and fell into the restful almost-comas of men who had given it their all.
Twelve hours later, they’d begun to stir. They weren’t quite as happy as they might normally have been, given the loss of Genshi, but there was no power in the galaxy that could completely damp their enthusiasm. In any case, Genshi would rather they had fun instead of moping all over the place, or at least that had been Faarek’s opinion.
From there, recovery training beckoned. This was “light” activity, mostly meant to get their blood moving and pump the fatigue toxins out of their enormous muscles. It took a lot of exercise to do that, and inevitably some of their usual attitude returned… by the three day mark, when they started slotting back into their readiness training schedule, they’d more or less bounced back. There were a few trips to the chaplain, Adam went and had one of his chats with Commander Mears…
Marty had always been very proud of him, there. A lot of men in Adam’s position might have treated mental health as a weakness they were supposed to “man up” and ignore, but Adam’s definition of manning up meant fixing whatever was troubling him, not sweeping it under the rug. To him, the base counsellor was basically just another training specialist whose job was to help him stay in peak condition.
…Overall, that attitude seemed to rub off on all the others, too. Between Mears, the chaplain, and the wisdom of Champion Gyotin, the dents and scuffs in the team’s morale were soon polished out.
Regaari re-joined them about a week after they returned from Rvzrk, escorted in person by the Great Father who gave him an enthusiastic personal recommendation. That was a class act on Daar’s part, but it came with a tacit message: firstly, that all was forgiven, and secondly, that it would maybe be best if the two kept their public lives at an arm’s length, to avoid any future conflicts of duty. If it ever happened again, things wouldn’t end so happily for either of them and everyone knew it.
By the end of the month, the whole unit was back at fighting readiness… just in time for the new guys to arrive.
Walsh practically swaggered through the Array, so goddamned pleased with himself it was almost impossible to bear…. Though after basically obliterating his pipeline competition from start to finish, who could blame him? Fortunately, the HEAT knew exactly how to tame him: combatives with Murray, who had a way of humbling men twice his size.
Walsh was a good sport about being put in his place, at least. The new team members who arrived with him were good-natured about it all too, and were fairly geeking out about the group they now found themselves in. Gaoian ninjas! Left Beef, in person! Right Beef, in the flesh!
Firth took a little longer to warm up to, of course, but he won them over when it turned out three of the cherries were avid Warhammer geeks themselves.
Throwing a First Contact Day party was Jack Tisdale’s idea. They’d had an influx of new techs accompanying their Operators of course, and that meant a lot of names to learn, a lot of new stories to hear, and a lot of embarrassing anecdotes to share, so they may as well throw in some drinking and feasting to go with it.
First Contact Day was a holiday in its awkward infancy. There’d been a lot of different suggestions from all over Earth and Cimbrean about the best way to celebrate it, most of which were just gimmicky. Burning Hunters in effigy on a bonfire of hockey sticks, for example.
Tisdale cut straight through the bullshit and kept it simple: plenty of booze, a big fire, some music, and a roast beast. He got some good-natured ribbing over his pagan ways which went away when he showed up at the party with a fucking Werne wrapped up on a trolley and a smug grin on his face, embellished by a cast-iron refusal to explain how he got it.
Watching Firth’s surprise at the critter’s sheer weight was a priceless moment that Marty knew she’d cherish, and the meat was amazing once roasted over the flames.
They had plenty of reasons to celebrate. For the first time in HEAT’s history, they had a full team. Three Protectors, seven Defenders and ten Aggressors, with the newest Lads already trained and conditioned to a standard well above what the original team had reached for Capitol Station.
That inevitably provoked plenty of banter and figurative dick-measuring, with Blaczynski musing on whether the Walsh of today would have been a match for the Adam of six years ago. At some point it devolved into theorycrafting over how various fictional heroes would stack up if they tried to make it into the HEAT, and by sunset the original conversation had been totally forgotten in favor of writing up a list of who’d make the cut and who wouldn’t.
They didn’t stay up too late: the Lads didn’t really have the luxury of partying into the small hours of the morning. Training discipline aside, two of the new guys had brought families with them, Marty had Diego to get back to, and Freya was big enough now with her impending child that she was waddling rather than walking.
She was a towering, statuesque gal herself, and Firth was… well, he was Firth. That was going to be a monster of a baby when it arrived. Ninety-ninth percentile, which was… well. Marty certainly hoped her next child wouldn’t be anything like that big.
So, shortly after sunset, the couples started drifting away, the singletons either found somebody to go home with or headed off into town to continue the party elsewhere, and a handful stuck around to help clean up. The last to leave were Tisdale and Miller, with Miller still badgering her counterpart over where he’d got the roast.
The silence that ensued was a genuine relief. Marty had truly enjoyed herself, but the moment of peace felt like a weight off her shoulders, or like taking off a too-tight shirt after a long day. As soon as the door was closed and she could no longer hear Miller’s voice echoing up the stairwell, she turned and leaned against it with a sigh.
Adam groaned and stretched on the couch. “Yeah. Love ‘em all, but…”
“But I’m glad their gone,” Marty finished for him.
He chuckled. “Yeah. Ain’t had some actual quiet in…”
“Too long,” Marty agreed. On a slightly tipsy whim, she straddled his lap and sat down. “We should leave Diego with your dad more often.”
He chuckled and ran his mitts up her legs. “And do what?”
“Well…” she laughed as he goosed her and pulled her a little closer, and trailed a fingernail around the collar of his tank-top. “I can think of something we’ve not done in far too long…”
Adam gave a languid, goofy grin. “Uh-huh. Mighta forgot what I’m s’posed to do…”
His hands moved down, suggesting that was a lie.
She kissed his nose. “I’m sure it’ll come back to you.”
“Well, you know me…I may not be the smartest, but I’ll practice anything ‘till I’m the best!”
“You promise? That’s a lot of practice.”
Adam did that unfairly sexy thing where he moved so fast she didn’t know what happened until it was over. Marty suddenly found herself pinned against the wall with her fingers splayed over his chest. He nipped gently at the side of her neck and then made her shiver with a snarling whisper right against her ear.
“As much as you can take…maybe a little more.”
Perfect. Marty wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.
Life was good.
Date Point: 16y 1w AV
*Ceres facility, asteroid belt, Sol
Adele hadn’t really appreciated just how close two straight men could be until she’d met Drew M and Drew C. Or so she’d thought. The two had always been rough with each other, trading the most vicious insults and mockery with a disarming grin that spoke to real affection.
In fact, their relationship had inspired Adele to think on several occasions that if the English word was lacking anything, it needed more nuanced variations on the word ‘love.’ Those two men had loved each other.
Now that Cavendish was missing and presumed dead… Drew M was a changed man. A grieving brother, bereft of a body to mourn. The fact that his name was completely cleared didn’t matter one bit now, he just needed answers… or possibly vengeance.
He’d taken to scouring the surface of Ceres with a fleet of survey drones until he collapsed at his desk, and only the intervention of his friends and colleagues would persuade him to look after himself. “Drew Watch” had become a thing, where somebody checked on him every hour to encourage him to take a hygiene break, drink something, eat something or… hell, to sleep.
At least he listened, even if he grumbled about it. So he was still clean-shaven and showered, wearing clean clothes. He ate, and hydrated, and all those little normal things had probably kept him just on the right side of sanity.
Adele could sympathize. She’d had to lock the door and cry in private several times over the last few weeks as the feds bore down on them over the nuke, as it settled in that Cavendish really was…
…Things had gone wrong. Badly wrong. And now all the walls around her, everything she’d helped build, it all felt wrong. Ceres was one of the human race’s crowning achievements, a towering monument to what people could do when they pulled together. Now it was a haunted house.
She was going to retire. Take all her years of salary, bonuses, investments and more wealth than she really knew what to do with, and get the hell out to somewhere peaceful where she had no responsibilities and no press would come knocking on the door.
Colorado, maybe. Somewhere with big open skies, and a view. She’d have a nice place with a porch, where she could drink tea and listen to the wind chimes.
…Assuming she didn’t go to prison instead.
Her daydreaming was interrupted by Drew Martin, who hammered on her door like he wanted to break it down and yelled through it. The door was thick, designed to soundproof Adele’s quarters and give her some privacy, so she couldn’t make out what he said… but it sounded urgent.
Grateful that she hadn’t changed out of her workwear, she opened up.
“You found something?”
“I found the bomb!” Drew declared. He was out of breath, like he’d just sprinted all the way from one end of the complex to the other. “Radiological signature, purified metals… the drones found it. It’s… a click or two north-east. Bottom of a crater.”
Adele grabbed her shoes. “Show me.”
She followed him at a brisk stride, which was nowhere near fast enough for Drew. He dashed ahead to summon the elevator, then dashed back when he saw she wasn’t inches behind him.
“Come on! Strewth, you’re slower’n a landie with a bad axle!”
“Save your strength, Drew,” Adele advised.
“You wouldn’t say that if you could see what I saw on that drone feed, Adele,” he muttered darkly, but forced himself to slow down.
“What did you see?” Adele asked as the elevator arrived.
“…Two bodies. Looks like Freeland’s suit and… and Drew.”
“…Shit.” Adele wasn’t normally prone to cursing, but sometimes she just had to. She reached out and put a hand on his arm, just above the elbow. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head, but put his hand over hers by way of a thank-you.
“The, uh… the bomb’s… looks like Jordan built some kinda rig-a-majig around it. Fuck if I know what it is, but—”
He never finished the sentence. From Adele’s perspective, what happened next felt like getting slapped sideways by a giant. She shrieked and fell to her knees as the elevator slammed on its emergency brakes and came to an immediate halt. The lights failed, to be replaced after a terrifying second of pure darkness by the dim orange half-light of the emergency illumination.
The noise though! It had been… it hadn’t been a noise. It had been a physical force hammering through the air, and it left Adele’s ears ringing. As they cleared, she became aware of external sounds penetrating their little metal capsule from outside: sirens. Alarms. People shouting.
Beside her, Drew staggered to his feet, shaking his head. “…Oh no. No, no, fuckin’ NO!”
“What—?” Adele began, but he broke the glass on the emergency door release and painstakingly opened it with four or five pumps of the handle. They were halfway between floors, but there was just enough room for him to wriggle down and under, out to freedom.
“C’mon,” he grunted, and helped her out of the elevator.
There was a pall of smoke in the air, and that was definitely the fire alarm. And the decompression alarm. Somebody was making announcements over the facility’s tannoy, sounding altogether much more calm than Adele felt.
“Damage control teams to Level 1: Fire in Hangar Two. All staff to your emergency stations.”
She looked around and got her bearings. They were on the same level as Central Operations at least, which was where she was supposed to go in an emergency. Drew led the way, and it turned out that with miners, admins and every other category of facility staff scurrying to get to where they were meant to be, the best place to be if Adele wanted to get anywhere was right behind him.
The smoke was present in Central Ops, too. The room wasn’t bedlam, it was much worse than that: it was the chilly competence of highly-trained people putting everything they had into a crisis that might kill them all.
Drew dashed across into his office, and she heard him curse loudly.
“Talk to me, Drew,” Adele reminded him as she rushed to her own spot and took a look at the facility map. She was seeing a lot of fire alarms, and an inadequate number of firefighting teams.
“I think the bloody nuke went off!”
Adele had figured as much. It was either that or a meteor had hit nearby, and the facility had several layers of weak shields designed as “speed bumps” specifically to detect and deflect such impacts. “Can you confirm that?” she insisted.
“All my drones are fucked…” Drew tailed off and when Adele glanced over, he had an awed look on his face. For once, he was silent.
He glanced at her, then beckoned her over. She trotted over and stopped dead when she saw what was on his screen.
His drone was orbiting a floating tableau of shattered rock and ice; Sharp, stress-fractured edges glittered strangely in the sun’s distant cold light. The pieces were tumbling slowly, having clearly been kicked aloft by incredible forces, and they were going to make a hell of a mess when the crashed with glacial slowness back to Ceres’ surface in a few minutes. For now, though…
She’d never seen anything like it. It was… terrible. And she felt awful for finding it beautiful.
“Oh God…” she muttered.
Drew sagged, and slumped down into his chair. He rested his forehead on his crossed arms and made a tortured sound of grief and loss.
Adele put her hand on his heaving back and crouched next to him. There was else to do, nothing to say that would help him. He’d just lost not just his closest friend, but any hope of a proper funeral.
She glanced over her shoulder. By some miracle, the firefighters were getting things under control, and the damage control teams were reporting that the major air leaks were all sealed. Hephaestus crews worked fast when lives were on the line. She ought to be proud.
But right now, all she felt was failure.
Date Point: 16y 1w AV *Hierarchy Injunctor -class starship, inbound to Sol
This was the last step, the moment when the plan either worked or failed. Either way, the results would be spectacular.
If the bomb on Ceres detonated on schedule, then the resulting X-ray laser that Sam Jordan’s makeshift rig had gathered and focused in the microseconds prior to its atomization would arrive at exactly the same time as any other causal indication of its detonation. In other words, Six would have no way of foreseeing if his plan had worked.
If it did—when it did—several things would happen on a time scale that organic life simply couldn’t perceive.
The timing was obscenely tight. In fact, the fleet’s margin of error was so small as to be fractal. Six would have given much to be able to warp faster and thereby widen the window of oportunity, but stealth warp was sharply limited in its maximum speed and he was forced to err on the side of caution. Humans were paranoid, tenacious and competent: he had to assume that the Sol system’s outer reaches were littered with sensor satellites.
Had he been corporeal, he might have paced, or bit his nails. He might have fidgeted and checked the nearest timepiece. He might have watched the countdown. He did the data-lifeform equivalent of all of those, and more.
This was… there was still time to abort. To not throw away whatever minor progress he might have made in building Human-Igraen relations. With Sam Jordan dead and his body and makeshift temporal accelerator all presumably reduced to plasma by the weapon’s detonation, there’d be no conclusive proof of Hierarchy involvement in this incident. And the Humans would surely never notice the intended consequence.
But self-replicating automated devices were the primary threat the Hierarchy had always existed to counter. They were the very reason that Deathworld civilizations had been suppressed for all those millions of years. Deathworlders inevitably invented them, and their creation was the Hierarchy’s idea of a nightmare scenario.
Replicators were the twilight of life. They threatened the total conversion of all matter in the galaxy into more replicators. The existence of even one was unacceptable, and thus so was the existence of any species that would build one.
Six had truly hoped that the Humans were imaginative enough to foresee the consequences of such hubris. He’d honestly believed they weren’t so stupid.
He’d never been more shamefully wrong. And while his logic stood that one day they would need to find some Deathworlders with whom the Igraens could partner rather than exist in a state of perpetual antagonism… The Humans had proven they could not be that species. And they would surely drag the Gao and the Ten’Gewek along with them in their folly.
It would have made him weep, if that was an option for a dataform.
He’d toyed with many ideas for how to resume their Abrogation. The Hierarchy could, with effort, induce stars to go nova… if they were the right kind of star, which Sol was not. He could have lined up a particularly large comet from among the billions that orbited Sol, and accelerated it toward Earth… but the Humans had probably set up a few duplicate shields in low orbit around their homeworld as a hedge against just such a scenario.
As for infiltration? That required biodroning. The Humans knew all about biodrones and how to detect them, making effective infiltration at any meaningful level a practical impossibility.
And everything had depended on finding some way past that damnable shield the Guvnurag had put up.
So, he’d gone to the Guvnurag, locked away in safety behind their own shields. A team of pseudo-independent biodrones had been turned to the task of finding a weakness, any weakness no matter how tiny, in the Sol Containment Field.
They’d found one.
The shield emitter had been hastily wrapped up in its own creation. While this meant that it was indeed completely impervious to all harm that might come at it through three-dimensional space and conventional causality, it created an unexpected side-effect due to the interaction of quantum effects not yet known to human science: a building kind of resonance. If allowed to build for too long, the result would have been that the shield collapsed in on itself and crushed the emitter into a very short-lived black hole.
This being an undesirable trait in a system that was intended to last indefinitely, the emitter automatically purged the resonance on a regular basis, again via a quantum-mechanical process reversion as-yet unknown to Human physics.
If the right amount of energy was applied in exactly the right place at exactly the right time…
The countdown ticked down through the last second, and several things happened on a time scale that organic life simply couldn’t perceive.
First, the emitter entered its reversion phase. A few attoseconds later, the leading edge of an X-Ray laser pulse fired from in-system struck the crease in the Sol Containment Field where the shield twisted around the emitter.
Those high-energy photons didn’t—couldn’t—reach the emitter itself, which would survive this moment totally unscathed. But the result was that the whole shield convulsed violently under the unexpected load at exactly the most inconvenient moment. It rang like a gong, shivered, wavered…
…And a tiny hole appeared at the field antinode opposite the emitter as it stabilized. It lasted for a tenth of a microsecond before the emitter finished its reversion cycle, the excess energy was discharged in a massive neutrino burst, and normal operation resumed.
‘Tiny’ on the scale of a sphere with a radius of twenty AUs still meant a million kilometers across. And a tenth of a microsecond, to a ship at warp, was enough time to travel a few hundred meters.
The window snapped open and snapped closed at the very limits of what even an Igraen could perceive at maximum frame-rate, so that Six really didn’t have time to notice it happen at all. There was just the looming wall of the shield edge plunging toward his ship, and then it was behind and receding.
He felt a frisson of relief and anticipation that was almost physical, and allowed himself to relax. He’d done it. A quick check confirmed that the other Injunctors had all made it through as well. His plan had been an unqualified success, in the end.
The Hierarchy had returned to Sol.
++END CHAPTER 50 PT. 3++
If you have enjoyed the story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:
Becoming a patron at http://patreon.com/HamboneHFY
Buying some merchandise at http://teepublic.com/HamboneHFY
Dropping a one-off payment in the tip jar at http://paypal.me/HamboneHFY
Voting for The Deathworlders at http://topwebfiction.com
This chapter was brought to you with the help of…
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
ELLIOTT S RIDDLE
His Dread Monarch
Joshua Mountain Taylor
Graham Lynk Austin Deschner Brian Berland Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Adam Shields Alex Hargott Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Arnor atp Bartosz Borkowski Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Buck Caldwell C’tri Goudie Cadwah Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Elizabeth Schartok Eric Johansson Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Gygax Fan Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick Jon Kristoffer Skarra Krit Barb Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. Mikee Elliott Morgan Barnes Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Saph Sintanan SourMonkey Starky Stephane Girardin Sun Rendered theWorst Tyler Kelloway Woodsie13 Zachary M Lunstrum
As well as Sixty-nine Friendly ETs, 74 Squishy Xenos, and the Grand Army of 278 Dizi Rats.
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.
This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.
The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.
The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behavior of the characters.
Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in the next chapter.