Chapter 61: Violence
Date Point: 16y10m1d AV
Cloaked Hunter observation ship, Spacelane BlueSquare-552, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
Things… collapsed. Spectacularly.
In one instant, the battle had been at a deliciously productive impasse. The Hunters’ own ships were grappling with the Humans’ and Prey-Species’ war vessels, neither side had a clear advantage and for the first time ever the Builders were able to study their foes at length. Previously, every estimate on those ships had been estimates, with quite a wide margin of error.
Precision promised the opportunity to duplicate, or even improve upon, their designs. The prolonged brawl had been eminently desirable from the Alpha-of-Alphas’ perspective, therefore.
The rapid way it fell apart, however… that was a surprise.
It began with a broodship at the half-radian position in the Hunter formation. The battle was elongated and flattened thanks to the prey-convoy, so the formation was not perfectly three-dimensional, and that broodship had been somewhat out of position as the web of Hunter forcefields built up. It had been left with a heat debt, that only got worse as it locked shields with the others and began to help dissipate the battle’s ferocious energies.
As the stalemate had formed, that problem had been left unresolved… Right up until the broodship exploded. Suddenly, spectacularly, and without forewarning.
There was an almost shocked quality to the moment of stillness that followed. As though neither side could quite believe what had just happened.
The Humans reacted first. With almost Eater-like ferocious glee, they capitalized on the new opening and poured on the pressure anew to exploit the sudden weakness on the Hunters’ flank. The Alpha-of-Alphas watched in dismay as the broodships on that end of the formation first recoiled, then retreated under the withering firepower that now threatened to overwhelm their interlaced shields.
The freighter the Hunters had been attempting to secure was abandoned, and the Fur-Faced flung themselves into the gap, seizing the initiative. Swarmships were smashed by the dozen in the space of just a few blood-pulses.
The future played out in front of the Alpha-of-Alphas with mathematical certainty. The deadlock was over, and now that the deathworlders had the momentum they would not be so timid as to hand it back. The Hunters had only one choice, now: Leave empty-handed, or die.
It gave the command to withdraw, in an orderly formation. It would have preferred for the Swarm to jump out, but the big Gaoian ship in the middle of the formation was generating much too powerful a wormhole suppression field for that. The only option was to warp away, and seed the retreat with gravity spikes to prevent a pursuit. Escape the suppression field, then jump.
To the enemy, it would look like a victory. The Hunters would appear to have been forced to retreat and the deathworld forces would reclaim the cargo ships, which the Alpha-of-Alphas predicted would then be escorted to the prey-world.
If so, then the bait had been taken. The enemy were slippery, agile, unpredictable. They arrived quickly and struck hard, faded away in response to serious opposition. Catching them, therefore, had required a change of strategy.
Now, their position would be known. Their course would be known. They could be controlled. Followed.
From the safety of its cloaked command ship, the Alpha-of-Alphas watched, and waited. And it revelled in an emotion that was rare for a Builder: the thrill of the hunt. The jaws of its trap were closing as intended.
It wasn’t the kind of trap its predecessor would have thought of. The Builder had different priorities to the Eater, and while its maw might drool at the idea of getting the Fur-Faced alpha-of-alphas on its vivisection table (after all, what worthier prey was there than the so-called ‘Great Father’ and his secrets?) its real prize was elsewhere.
Time to let the enemy get comfortable. Let them commit themselves, let their inertia accumulate. The Alpha-of-Alphas was patient: It would let them settle on those freighters and protect it well. After all, while seizing those freighters would have been most pleasing…
…The true hunt was still to come.
Date Point: 16y10m1d AV
HMS Violent, Spacelane BlueSquare-552, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
“Can we pursue?”
“…No sir. They’re dropping G-spikes as they go. If we try to go around, they’ll be outside the Farthrow field before we catch them.”
“…Alright. Move Caledonia forward, and get the HEAT over to those freighters. Maybe there’ll be a few survivors…”
There was a forlorn optimism. The freighters had been boarded by the Hunters long before the fleet arrived, and remained firmly captured throughout. Though the Hunters had abandoned them in their retreat, Caruthers knew in his gut that the HEAT would find nothing but blood smears and gnawed bones over there.
He wanted to believe in miracles, though.
Caledonia made slow progress through the debris field around the freighters. While it was certainly within her power to bulldoze aside the torn metal, shattered glass and dismembered body parts that had fallen into close orbits the Hunters’ gravity spike, there was the possibility of escape pods, explosive devices and other things to watch out for.
In the end, she found neither. The first ship in the formation was registered as the Orcoray, and HEAT Team 1 boarded her through a large hull breach where a Hunter assault pod had punched right through into the flight deck.
Their grim report on the crew’s condition was pretty much exactly what Caruthers had expected. Team 2 reported much the same aboard the Toruyn and First Fang had nothing but bad news from the Mokohur. HEAT Team 3, boarding the Erivuhn, encountered a handful of stranded Hunters that had been left behind by their retreating fleet, and dealt with them accordingly. Again, no survivors.
It was that last news that prompted Caruthers’ heavy sigh. A defeat, then. Technically. Yes, they’d sunk a Broodship, forced the enemy to withdraw and saved the cargo for safe delivery to Ugunduvur… But the primary objective had been saving those crews, if they could.
Daar clearly felt the same frustration just as keenly, even if he had a tight lid on it. There was a terrible fire behind his eyes when Caruthers called him and Grand Admiral Ak’kk’brr; his mind was clearly set on vengeance.
“They’re learnin’ faster’n I’d like,” he grumbled. “An’ we can’t get stuck in stand-up brawls like that again. They’ve got more ships than us.”
“We may not have a choice,” Caruthers replied. “If we’re going to salvage any kind of a win from today, these freighters have to get to their destination. We can’t leave them unescorted.”
“…How long to Ugunduvur?”
“That depends on how quickly we can crew them, make field repairs, and how fast their warp drives are,” Ak’kk’brr supplied. Days, at least.”
“Days?” Caruthers echoed.
“The Orcoray in particular took heavy damage to its flight and navigation systems. My war platform has the equipment and facilities to get it moving again, but such repairs are slow work in vacuum and freefall.”
Daar made an unhappy noise. “That’s a long time ‘ta be hangin’ our tails out ‘fer the Hunters ‘ta nip at.”
“Yes.” Caruthers nodded. “And I doubt the Hunters will give up easily. They hit this convoy for a reason, and fought hard to hold onto it.”
“Perhaps we should consider scuttling the freighters to deny its cargo to them, then,” Ak’kk’brr suggested. “Parts and equipment are replaceable.”
“It took months to drum up this shipment,” Caruthers pointed out. “The people on that planet will suffer if it isn’t delivered.”
“An’ the freighter crews will have died ‘fer nothin’,” Daar added.
“I do not believe that the dead care whether they died for something or nothing, Great Father,” Ak’kk’brr replied. “The living, on the other hand, will be left vulnerable.”
“I for one knew damn well when I signed up that my career would mean putting myself in harm’s way for the sake of others,” Caruthers said. “Ugunduvur needs this convoy, gentlemen. A few days’ delay will be painful and difficult for them: the months it will take to replace this shipment if it’s lost could very well be catastrophic.”
Daar’s duck-nod sealed their decision. Ak’kk’brr bowed his head, slowly and gracefully on the end of its long neck. “Well said, and thank you for reminding me,” he said. “In that case, I will maneuver the Strike With Both Hooves into position to begin repairs on the Orcoray.”
“What can we do to speed the work along?” Caruthers asked.
“I think, Admiral, that your people are best used exactly where they are,” Ak’kk’brr said. “While I don’t doubt their skill or intelligence, in this case the repairs will involve systems they are not familiar with. My engineers will complete the work as rapidly as possible.”
Caruthers nodded solemnly. “Very well. We’ll send out long-range scouts and protect the war barge while it works. Sir, should I assume you’ll be returning to Gao?”
“I might hafta. I got a personal jump portal on the Fury if need be. I got about a dozen other irons in the fire right now, and one o’ them’s gettin’ pretty hot…”
“That sounds like you’re looking for a reason to stay, if I may be so bold.”
“‘Cuz I am.”
Caruthers allowed himself a small chuckle at that. At least Daar’s brand of brutal honesty included self-reflection.
“Then as much as I value your tactical acumen, I might suggest that your considerable and irreplaceable presence would be much better utilized elsewhere.”
The Great Father chittered ruefully. “Always did like that ‘bout you. Ain’t afraid to call it like it is… ‘yer right of course. But I’ll leave the Fury here. ‘Yer gonna need her shields if the Hunters come back.”
“I’m pretty certain it’s a matter of ‘when,’ really,” Caruthers said.
“…Prob’ly, yeah. Balls, ‘yer a better mind ‘fer navy things ’n’me anyway.”
“Then I think we all know what we’re doing,” Caruthers finished. “We will, of course, keep you informed.”
“I ‘preciate it. Good hunting.” Daar sketched a small gesture of esteem to both of them, and disconnected.
Ak’kk’brr made a soft noise through his nose and performed his slow nod again. “Are we hunting them, or are they hunting us?” he asked.
“Both, I imagine.” Caruthers replied. “I’ll do my best to make ours the successful hunt.”
“Please do. I should direct matters here. Ak’kk’brr, out.”
Caruthers sat back and rubbed the back of his neck as the connection closed. Then he stood, and slipped out of his tiny cabin-slash-office and onto the deck, back toward HMS Violent’s bridge, mentally compiling the orders he needed to give as he went.
The Hunters would be back. Of that much, he was completely certain. And next time…
Well. He needed to be ready for them.
Date Point: 16y10m5d AV
“Mordor” System, deep in Hunter space
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
“…That’s a lot of traffic.”
‘Mordor’ was very different to the scans and intelligence that Tooko had seen regarding the planet Hell, and doubly different to the wasteland of drifting debris and cratered continents that he’d witnessed for himself.
Mordor was busy. Even passive object tracking using nothing more than albedo and image comparison was enough to tell him that. There were thousands of powered objects out there, and the FTL wake sensors told him that local spacetime was rippling like the surface of a simmering pot.
His mission objective was blunt and to-the-point: Deposit the JETS team safely on the planet’s surface without being detected. Okay. He could do that. It was going to be tense, but he could do it. The issue he was having was that… he was pretty sure there were cities down there on that planet.
Hell had been completely given over to nature. No development, no resource extraction, nothing. Which had always struck Tooko as a waste: Planets were the place to get certain resources that were otherwise effectively unavailable from asteroid mining or orbital production. There were certain classes of organic compound that just didn’t form in a spaceborne environment.
Mordor, it seemed, was the opposite. Spectrochemical analysis of its atmosphere indicated massive pollution. The CO2 levels were so high that it’d be like a stuffy, airtight room down there. Chlorofluorocarbons were in abundance, lead levels were averaging more than half a microgram per cubic meter, and the sulfur dioxide levels were…
Well. Tooko wouldn’t like to stay down there long.
Wilde reacted to the readings with his usual dry, stoic humor. “…Bloody hell. Greenpeace wouldn’t like that one bit.”
Frasier, as ever, was more fatalistic. “What’s the radiation like?”
Tooko glanced at the readings. “…Elevated overall, but it’s difficult to give you a precise idea. You’re going to need to take dosimetry very seriously.”
Ferd and the others were all back out of stasis now. Tooko saw them give each other troubled looks before Ferd spoke up.
“Ray-dee-ay-shun? I remember this. The land-curse, yes? Can’t see it, taste it, smell or hear it.”
“That’s the one.” Wilde agreed. “Reesy? Masks please, mate.”
Rees nodded curtly and vanished into the cargo hold.
“We not do much work, if we stuck in safe-cloth all day…” Nomuk fretted.
“Well, it’s either that, or maybe never have kids. Or maybe die young. And possibly horribly.” Wilde gave him a small smirk. “Your call.”
Ten’gewek and Gaoian alike shuddered.
“…Safe-cloth it is,” Nomuk said, fervently.
“Smart man. Can we get a better idea how bad it is, Tooko?”
“Once we’re closer…” Tooko replied. “Right now we’re still several AUs out.”
“Right. Okay chunky monkeys, I think that means we need to get ready–”
Ferd gave an indignant hoot. “Am not chunky!”
“You’re bigger than me, mate. Anyway, let’s get a good hot meal in, get loosened up, take our medicine, and maybe get going on our oxygen supps. How’s the gravity, Tooko?”
“Point nine-three Earths.”
“Right. That’s not so bad.”
“For you. We have to hold on to ground,” Ferd trilled.
Tooko was unimpressed. “Ugh. You high-G freaks…”
“More reason to get you stronger, little friend,” Ferd told him.
“Not now, mate,” Wilde reminded him. “Besides, we’ve got plenty of gear to keep you weighted down…remember how I said we’re pre-breathing oxygen?”
Tumik sighed, looking crestfallen in a very literal way. “…We bring tanks, then.”
“Exactly. I’ll help Reesy bring ‘em up.” He patted Tooko on the shoulder. “You get us down safely, yeah?”
In this case, that might even be somewhat easier than usual. Even with SBD’s top-tier stealth systems, FTL travel generated ripples in the fabric of spacetime. In this case though, the system was so busy and sloshing like a pool full of playing cubs that SBD’s muted and heavily damped drive would almost certainly be lost in the random interference patterns. So long as Tooko moved with other traffic, there was no way the Hunters’ in-system sensor network would see them.
Still. He kept his approach cautious. There was no need or advantage to being hasty right now. Rather than go FTL therefore, he boosted the warp drive up to a quarter of lightspeed. Fast enough to eat up the distance, slow enough to leave an invisibly faint signature and give the men in the back time to prepare.
There wasn’t as much boisterousness this time. Ferd and his men were in fact deadly quiet. Wilde, Rees and Frasier checked and double-checked their equipment calmly and competently, punctuated here and there with the odd small joke or wry observation.
It took an hour to get close enough for Tooko to have a better fix on the radiation situation. It was a good-news-bad-news kind of thing, really. Globally, the levels were… not unduly terrible. If they stayed down there for a year, they’d get about the same dose as if they’d had ten CT scans.
There were patches, however, that the mapping software pinned with a bright blue triangle and a Gaoian skull. Nobody needed that symbol translated.
“You boys might want to take your potassium iodide.”
The Humans nodded and took their pills without comment. The Ten’gewek were interesting, there: they actually struggled to swallow hard little tablets. Maybe it was just a lack of familiarity, maybe it was their tongues. Either way, it was an ordeal for them… but it passed without complaint.
Tooko duck-nodded and inserted them a low orbit. He’d be safe inside the ship, thankfully.
“So. A whole planet to choose from. Where do you want to land?”
Wilde came up from the table and sat in the copilot seat. “…Somewhere we can hide the ship but that’s close enough to those cities that we can get a good look at them,” he said. “Honestly, that’s about as good as we can say for now.”
“I love a nice, narrow, clearly defined instruction…” Tooko muttered, with a small chitter. Still, that did narrow it down quite a lot. There was a whole planet to choose from, and plenty of cities and lines of communication to pick, so really his choice just came down to finding the optimal hiding place for Silent But Deadly.
Ferd had knuckled up to the doorway and trilled quietly. “We here, because we not know what we not know, yes? Hard to plan if no knowings of knowings.”
Trying to untangle that linguistic knot while flying a spaceship, reading a map and choosing a landing site was one too many spinning plates for Tooko. “…Yes. I think.” He ruled out the largest of the planet’s three major continental masses. It had the most cities, but also the densest pollution and the most flagged radiation hazards. The other two were more or less the same size, on opposite sides of the northern hemisphere. One was dominated by desert, turning a sickly green around the shores. Not many cities… plenty of resource extraction though. Open-cast mining operations seemed to be in abundance. So many, in fact, that an alarmingly large proportion of the continent had the same kind of pock-marked texture as a heavily shelled battlefield.
Too open, Tooko decided. Those mines might be viable hiding spots if they were depleted and abandoned, but a satellite or aircraft passing overhead would see straight down into it. SBD would benefit from some overhead cover, and Tooko preferred some natural cover to go with the camo netting.
The third continent seemed to fit the bill. It had forests, of a sort. Or at least, patches high up in the mountains where large flora still clung precariously to life in places. Some of those “patches” ran for hundreds of kilometers over rough and difficult terrain. Great for hiding the ship… not so great for easy access to interesting things to scout. But promising.
He followed a river north-east out of one particular copse. It was more of a canyon, really. A deep V-shaped notch cut by thousands of years of flowing water, though the water in question quickly became something altogether nastier as it picked up the effluvia and industrial waste of the districts it passed through. No good… no good….
There was a small stream of miraculously clean(ish) water that ran down into a lake of alkaline sludge. Undeveloped, save for a bridge that crossed it. A few kilometers from… he swiped around, examining the area. Was that a rail goods yard? The Hunters did use railroads. And to the west was high ground with views over a sprawling built-up area…
It wasn’t perfect. But he had a whole planet to look at, and nobody had enough time to pore over every last square inch of a planet’s surface, even if it was their full-time hobby for years on end. Realistically, he was never going to find the perfect spot even if it existed. Finding a good enough spot so quickly was encouraging.
He looked a little longer, trying to find a better candidate, and abandoned the search once it became clear that his passengers were completely ready. Time to get them on the ground.
With a silent, fervent wish to the universe that he’d done a good enough job, he flipped the Silent But Deadly around and accelerated into a de-orbit burn.
Time to see what the Hunters did with a world like this…
Date Point:16y10m5d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space
“Okay, so that’s a hit. How much damage?”
“Okay, that cultist’s dead…”
“And I’ll use my cunning action to disengage and step behind Lucy again.”
The party of “heroes”—currently blundering their way through foiling an eldritch ritual and rescuing a hapless maiden because the bounty was good and they owed rather a lot to the local Thieves’ Guild in gambling debts—looked up when their sorceror entered the room. Darcy was always a little late to sessions, and had long since given them permission to start without her.
For the first time in several days, she was smiling.
“Oh, hey!” Lucy stood, temporarily abandoning Morag the Barbarian, and hugged her. “Good news?”
“Yeah. Finally managed to get that monster to talk about numbers.” Darcy kicked her shoes into the corner and sat down with a grateful sigh. “Damn thing has the math schooling of a kindergartener.”
“So, ‘twenshy to power ten’ means…?” Lee asked, from behind the DM screen.
“Two times ten to the power ten. Thank God.” Darcy rubbed her face.
“Oh, only three orders of magnitude difference then,” Lucy chirped.
“Dang thing can’t count, huh?” Lewis noted. Darcy just laughed despairingly and shook her head.
“I tell you, that Hunter is as dumb as a sack of dead squirrels. The only thing it cares about is dominance, and meat.”
“It must have some brains,” Lee frowned. “Wasn’t it an Alpha?”
“Yeah. Turns out the way to become an Alpha is to kill more things, including the previous Alpha.” Darcy shook her head, then accepted her miniature when Lee handed it to her. “…Which pretty much matches the Father Garaaf debrief. There’s a caste of Hunters for fighting, and another caste for the actual brain work.”
“And just our luck, we got one of the dumbfucks,” Lewis finished. He flipped his character sheet and added another tally to Daring Dan’s impressively long kill count. Oh, sure, everything was supposed to be on tablets nowadays, but at this table they stuck to tradition, with paper and dice.
“Well, you know. In this case it’s a win.” Darcy leaned forward and decided to put her sorceress at the back of the room, safely behind all the less squishy characters. She put on the lopsided smile she always wore for sarcasm. “For some entirely inexplicable reason, AEC got nervous when numbers like a trillion started to float around.”
The fourth member of the party, its cleric and healer, rumbled at length before venturing to speak as one of his face-tentacles reached out to pluck up a d20.
“I think I can imagine why,” Vedreg said. Wry purple shimmered across his face and down his flanks.
“Eh. We were pretty confident it was just an error on the captive’s part,” Darcy said. “Anyway. Game.”
They dropped back into the scenario, where some timely spellcasting and a rather fancy bit of footwork on Daring Dan’s part helped them unexpectedly capture the cult leader, who might otherwise have escaped through a hidden door. Conversations about work were never far away on Mrwrki, though: Everyone was so heavily invested in their jobs that nobody could resist the urge to talk shop for long. So when Lee went to the bathroom, the conversation picked up as though it had never stopped.
“So, guess you’re gonna want a captive thinky-hunter next, huh?” Lewis asked.
Darcy nodded. “Garaaf called them ‘builders.’ And… yeah. Honestly, I really don’t think we’re going to get anything more from the one we’ve got. It’s just a crazed murder machine. No personality, no interests, no nothing. I know a lot of ETs—” she gave Vedreg a small smile “—but that Hunter? It’s an alien.” That’s the only word that fits. And it cannot stand the notion that a ‘fur-face’ is what ultimately brought it down.”
“It has some pride, then,” Vedreg noted.
“It has… something. Honestly, the Entity is easier to understand sometimes.” Darcy made a small, listless stack of dice. “…Kinda miss that weirdo thing. How did I get the job of being humanity’s expert on very alien intelligences?”
“Right place, right time, right experience?” Lucy guessed.
“You know what? I’ll take that.” Darcy sipped her green tea. “I’m pretty sure our Hunter is broken, though. Like, not just the dumb, hyperfocussed agression thing. I think it might actually be having their equivalent of a psychotic episode.”
“Like, uh, how can you tell?” Lewis asked.
“Same way I can figure out Entity’s emotigrams, I guess?” Darcy shrugged. “Our Hunter won’t stop fretting about how it was captured. It calls us humans, but it refers to Gaoians as ‘fur-faces.’ And Guvnurag are—sorry about this, Vedreg—’large prey.’ As far as I can tell, we humans are the only species on the scene they refer to using our own name for ourselves.”
Vedreg had shifted and shimmered an uncomfortable blend of green and white. Now his facial tendrils rippled and a more curious pink medley shone through. “Intriguing. So they still count the Gao among the rest of us.”
“This one does. And it’s totally neurotic about the fact that a ‘fur-face’ defeated it.”
“So they can handle losing to us?” Lucy asked.
“I don’t think they’re graceful losers at the best of times,” Darcy replied. “But they don’t see us as prey. They see us as… fellow predators, I guess. But for some reason, they still don’t see the Gao that way. And in this Alpha’s way of seeing things, for prey to beat it and drag it here in disgrace is… its whole universe is upside-down now.”
“Sounds like a recipe for goin’ fruit-loop to me, dude,” Lewis agreed.
“Fruit loop? That’s a new one,” Vedreg rumbled.
“Really? Huh. Funny which ones I’da thought you’d’ve heard a million times before…”
Vedreg’s reply was his best approximation of a shrug, and the rustle of a popcorn packet as he sent three of his tendrils questing inside in search of a snack. Lewis chuckled, then turned back to Darcy.
“…So what are you gonna do with it? Can’t release it, can you?”
“Nope.” Darcy sighed. “But that’s a question for somebody higher up than me to sort out, thank God.”
“What do you think’ll happen?”
“It’ll be kept in a containment cell, probably. Until it dies of… whatever reason. Honestly, the humane thing to do is probably just to shoot it.”
There were nods around the table. Vedreg simple glimmered yellow… a shade Lewis knew well.
“Got a comment there, big guy?”
“…There are many—and knowing what happened on my home planet, and to the Gao, a part of me is among them—who would argue that humane treatment is more than any Hunter deserves. They certainly would not extend it to you.”
“That’s ‘cuz we’re better than them, my dude,” Lewis replied. Lucy and Darcy nodded fervently.
“…And yet, you speak as though it is not going to receive this humane death?”
They looked at Darcy. “…Let’s just… play,” she said, awkwardly.
“That is fair.”
And with that the question of Hunter captives and what would happen to them was firmly dropped. By the time Lee got back, they’d formulated a winning master strategy to cover their gambling debts…
Well. Daring Dan’s gambling debts, anyway.
It was a good night, in the end.
Date point: 16y10m5d AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Gyotin, Champion of Clan Starmind
Humans had a long and intriguing history of temple dogs. Gyotin had looked into them: breeds like the Lhasa Apso had apparently been bred for the twin duties of barking at strangers, and sweeping the floors as they walked. They were small, noisy, fussy little balls of fluff.
Not one single word of that description applied to Chump.
Chump was one of the famous Bozo’s puppies, and frankly looked rather more fearsome than his sire, whose goofy patchwork of whites and browns had done much to, if not soften, then at least take some of the menacing edge off his hulking, muscular physique. Chump, on the other hand, was not only at least as athletically huge and strong, he’d somehow come out with a short and glossy midnight black coat, with eyes like bright cold fire. He looked terrifying.
Much like with Bozo, looks could be deceiving.
Chump’s preferred pastime when his services weren’t required was lazing on his back in the sun with his legs sprawled every which way and his tongue draped down the side of his face. When he felt like Helping, which was most of the time, he could often be seen pulling draft duty in the monastery’s gardens by fetching items, pulling carts, pulling plows…
Or, failing that, and the reason he made such a fantastic monastery dog in Gyotin’s opinion, sniffing out people in emotional pain and doing his absolute doggy best to Make Things Better. He could be gentle as downy fur, or as boisterous and aggressive as the most well-exercised brownfurs…whichever his New Friend required.
In Mother Shoo’s case, he’d settled for lying quietly alongside her as she meditated under the tree in the monastery’s front garden, resting his chin on her knee and watching her with worried eyes. His great bruising baton of a tail occasionally beat a couple of wags back and forth whenever she moved, before going still again.
Gyotin gave her time and space. Everyone knew she’d been close to the Mother-Supreme, and she only came to the monastery when she really needed to escape for a while: A rare event. She was usually entirely content with life, but Yulna’s death had surely hit her hard.
As for Gyotin… well, he had a Champion’s responsibilities to think of, as well as his personal mission to soothe hurting souls. The matter of succession in the Clan of Females was of professional interest therefore, though mercifully compatible with his desire to offer a slightly more refined version of what Chump was doing.
He guessed she’d completed her meditation when she started to scratched the dog’s ears and neck with both hands, rather than just absent-mindedly with the one. He gave her a moment, then ambled across the tiles to say hello.
“…She’ll be missed,” he said, by way of a hello.
Shoo looked up, gave him a small smile. Misery was an old coat for her: She’d worn it many times, and was clearly familiar and comfortable with it, but it really didn’t fit or suit her.
“…For a while, she was like a mother to me,” she said. “But… she isn’t in pain any more. I’m trying to focus on that.”
A tongue like a warm, wet leather belt licked pretty much her whole arm and Chump’s tail thumped the ground a few times. She gave the dog a rather warmer and stronger smile and hugged him. “This guy here wasn’t exactly what I was expecting…but I’ll take it.”
“You were after a serene time and possibly a tea ceremony?” Gyotin guessed, a little self-deprecatingly.
She laughed, and massaged the dog’s ears. “…What’s his name?”
“Chump. One of the original seven, from Bozo and Hannah’s first litter. Doofus, Dingus, Nitwit, Ditzy, Lulu, Gaga… and, of course, Chump here. He was the runt, apparently.”
“No!” Gyotin chittered. “But somehow he ended up the biggest of them!”
Chump of course had to comment on that point. “Wuff!!”
“…His eyes are mesmerizing…”
“They seem to work wonders on our visitors, it’s true. Alas, tea is not among his talents. Only drool.”
Shoo giggled for several seconds, and finally extracted herself from under the dog, stood up, and brushed off her clothes. “Probably for the best. If he could make tea…”
“I’d be out of a job,” Gyotin chittered, glad to hear her laughing. “Shall we?”
“…Tea would be nice.”
They walked side-by-side back toward the main building. Chump dashed ahead and nosed the door open for them, with much wagging of tail and happy grumbles of Helpfulness.
“They’re a smart family. One day they’ll be a smart breed. Now go help our Brothers in the gardens, Chump. Go on, git!”
“Wuff!” Chump spun a circle and thundered off in a flurry of enormous paws.
Gyotin watched him go, chittered again to himself, then turned back to escorting his guest.
“Speaking of families, how are yours?” he asked.
“Two babies are a lot of work.” Shoo’s smile said that this was not at all a complaint. “And Al and Julian are great. Even when they ogle the neighbors.”
She caught Gyotin’s curious head-tilt, giggled, and explained. “We have a new neighbor, she does yoga in her garden. In very tight pants…” She shook her head. “But, no. They’re a rock. They always know how to help me feel better…”
“But I think, a busy household is not the most conducive to meditation.”
“Well, no. Sometimes it is nice to get away for an hour or two. I’m lucky that I can, really…” Xiù smiled as they entered the tea room, and Gyotin parked himself to begin preparing it. One of the junior Starmind brothers was just as serious about tea as he was, and took pride in keeping this space in particular ready for use.
Shoo settled down opposite.
“…Also, Naydra asked me to speak with you,” she added.
“Ah yes? I thought she might.”
Shoo nodded. “Yulna’s funeral is in a couple of days. After that… well, everyone knows Naydra’s going to be the next Mother-Supreme. Starmind is the only male Clan with any serious holdings on Cimbrean, and so close to the Folctha commune…”
“Does she have concerns?” Gyotin asked, rinsing the cups with hot water to warm them.
“A few. Yulna was known to be fairly… um… cool about you guys.”
“She never had much interest in our particular syncretism, though on a personal level she and I got on quite well,” Gyotin recalled.
“Officially neutral, then,” Shoo rephrased. “Nobody ever accused her of undue favoritism. Naydra’s worried that some of the other Clans won’t see her that way…”
“Clan Starmind does enjoy the Great Father’s favor,” Gyotin agreed.
“Which is fine when it’s just the, uh, the pecking order of the male Clans that’s at stake… but when the Females are involved, that’s a different story.”
Gyotin duck-nodded his understanding. “I can see why she asked you to raise this with me. Though she must have a talent for delicacy if she could do that at such a difficult moment and not leave you feeling resentful.”
“…She really does,” Shoo sighed. “I think she really would have liked to grieve for a while, but, um… well, the succession is moving forward. The election is already organized. She doesn’t have time.”
“And she needs to secure from my Clan a token of our assurance that we won’t abuse our proximity to the Females on Cimbrean,” Gyotin summarized. The tea was nearly ready to pour. “As for the Great Father’s esteem, I doubt we could abuse that even if I was inclined to. If he somehow didn’t notice—and the consequences for me personally would be terrible, not to mention my clan—Naydra would.”
“She really would,” Xiù agreed.
Gyotin duck-nodded. “…Please tell Naydra that I fully understand and appreciate the position she is in, and that she has my word as Champion of Starmind that my Clan will only ever seek to be of help to her in her new role, never a hindrance.”
“…No actual specific promise regarding the local Females, then.”
“That would, alas, be a lie. And I believe she’s quite acute at sniffing those out.” Gyotin chittered. “You can’t ask a Clan of males not to aspire to siring as many cubs as possible. We couldn’t even work up the heart to neuter Chump! No, the life of celibacy isn’t the Gaoian way, and my Brothers have a Commune close at hand… and I would point out that the Commune came after we did.”
“She’s not asking you to ignore them…”
“Mother Shoo, there are only a little more than a hundred million Females left alive, of whom barely sixty thousand live on this planet and only three thousand or so live here in Folctha,” Gyotin said, evenly and politely but firmly. “Most of the post-bellum Communes on the homeworld are de facto Stoneback enclaves thanks to the permanent guard. A young male looking to win over a prospective mate and secure his legacy is pretty much required to parade past battle-hardened, well-exercised and well-scarred specimens of the most powerful and influential Clan there is. There are very few who can do that without losing some confidence.”
He poured more tea. “…Of course, it’s for the Females’ protection. It’s practical and necessary,” he said. “I know that. Indeed, I can say that there have been long and difficult conversations behind closed doors about the level of favoritism that demonstrates. So let me assure you—and through you, the future Mother-Supreme—that Clan Starmind shall not abuse our position. But I can’t, out of practicality and necessity, promise that we won’t, ah… be suitably grateful for our good fortune.”
Shoo nodded. “Thank you.”
“…Enough politics, yes?” Gyotin offered. She smiled, and let out some held tension as a sigh.
“…Yes. I… Yulna’s funeral is in a few days. Maybe we could talk about that?”
Gyotin duck-noded, sipped his tea, and then put the cup down. “…You knew her well,” he said. “And her death symbolizes a lot. I think it’s only appropriate if you have a hand in planning her farewell…”
“Yes…” Shoo drank her tea as well. “I had a few ideas…”
Gyotin listened. And after listening, he was completely sold. Yulna would have a fine sendoff, on that point there was absolutely no disagreement or controversy. He wanted it, Shoo wanted it, Naydra wanted it, and the Great Father absolutely wanted it. It was her authority that had elevated him to his rank, after all. And in so doing, ultimately, she had saved her people.
They all owed it to her to remember that.
And so they would.
Date Point: 16y10m1w AV
Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Ferd was trying not to shiver from a mix of the cold and… Wilde called them ‘hee-bee-jee-bees.’ This more-door world was sick, and Ferd could feel the creeping illness all around him, even through the safe-clothes.
The mud was stained, dark with slime and bright with rusty red and sickly green. The waters were often orange, or covered in dense scummy foam like soap bubbles. But not a strong clean bubble, these were…like the froth of snot bubbling from a sick child’s mouth.
The grass was pale, dry and yellow. The trees were short, twisted and skinny, with few leaves. Not even the cleanest water they could find had fish, and Ferd didn’t see any birds anywhere. Sometimes he heard the small scurrying of little things in the thickest foliage near the ship, but…
Other than that, this was a dead place. Or at least dying. He kept a close eye on the ‘doze-om-itter’ screen on his watch and worried at how fast the number was climbing.
And yet, somehow, there were new sky-people here. People that the Humans and Tooko both said they didn’t know. They ran on four paws like Gao did sometimes, but their hind legs were short and their arms long. Their bodies were covered in curly, coarse grey fur, though each one had patches where it was missing or sick-looking. Their large, leaf-shaped ears stuck straight out from the backs of their head and down their backs, and their eyes were placed weirdly on either side of their heads.
And they were skinny. Thin. Weak-looking. But weak-looking like they were hungry, not weak-looking like…the gods might have made a strong people, here, if only their land was not rotten and their bellies had been full.
But they were people alright. They carried tools in bags, talked with one another in voices like the noise glass made when Ferd dragging his wet thumb across it, and drove vehicles. Whenever there was a heavy thing to lift down from a truck, they put on black harnesses around their arms, back and legs and it made the lifting go easier.
And always they watched the sky like frightened bibtaw.
Wilde, Frasier and Rees were angry, and it seemed to Ferd like he’d never actually seen an angry Human before. If this was normal, then Human anger was a terrible, cold, dark, bitter thing that frightened Ferd more than he would ever admit out loud. The jokes were gone, and Ferd had known the three Humans to joke with each other even when things were at their tensest. A Given-Man would just howl and beat your face in, and that would be the end of it.
Or he hated you enough to kill you. But this…
Humans could hate in a way that chilled Ferd even worse than the cold air. They could hate slow.
Not one bit of it was aimed at the furry big-eared people. All of that slow, held-back, smouldering anger was for the so-called Hunters… and they hadn’t seen even one of those, yet.
Rees was the only one who talked almost as much as before, inside the safety of the sound-quiet ‘forz-feeld’ that protected their hiding place. “It’s got to be soon, boys. Unless they’re gonna land a whole fuckin’ broodship all at once to take that stuff…”
“They might,” Wilde grunted.
“What do they make?” Ferd asked. The ear-people had made stacks and stacks of short steel logs. Probably hollow: they moved them too easily for it to be solid metal.
“They’re slaves. They make what they’re told… Probably oil, in this case.”
“Black oil, from the rocks deep under the earth. Very, very useful stuff. Ask Vemik sometime.” Wilde turned his binoculars and pointed. “See those? We call them ‘Nodding Donkeys.’ Dead giveaway.”
“Reminds me of Port Talbot…” Rees muttered.
“Never mind. Just feeling a little homesick…”
They returned to silence, and Ferd settled down to watch again. He adjusted the tank on his back—sky-magic made the air inside so cold it was like water, so it sloshed a little if he got too excited. But he needed it. The air here was thin, and he found himself breathing hard just doing things that should have been easy. The Humans didn’t seem bothered but they had tanks too, and Tooko was inside the ship where the air was good.
Not that he had it soft. As he’d said when they landed: “If they see us, I’ll be the first thing they blow up.”
“…Here we go,” Wilde muttered, suddenly. Ferd looked at what he was watching, and understood: several of the big-ear people were going inside as quickly as they could. The few who stayed outside to wait with the oil were… the way they moved their bodies was strange, but they looked frightened. “Camo nets up, lads. Power our toys down, hand signals only.”
They hunkered down, and Rees turned off the quiet-maker. They covered themselves in the large, green blankets that Ferd knew looked a lot like bushes from far away, and Rees had said had special cloth inside to hide them in other ways too.
After that… silence. They went quiet like a hunt, so that Ferd could hear the few long-ears who stayed outside talking to each other. He didn’t know their words, but…
But they sounded scared.
A few hands of heartbeats later, there was an all too familiar noise: the roaring thundercrack a ship made when it broke through the sky from above. The low, thick, dull clouds above rippled, there was a lightning flash somewhere among them, and then their belly split open and a ship like a steel turd wallowed out into the open air.
It blasted a noise so loud that the little plugs in Ferd’s ears did their thing and damped it down. It wasn’t a natural noise, and it didn’t sound like engines did. It was deliberate: the ship was telling all the things on the ground that it was there, and had come for them.
The trembling big-ears cowered and clamped their paws to the sides of their heads. Still: hands over ears, or little plugs inside them, it made no difference to the heavy rumbling that Ferd felt through the dirt against his belly as the ship swung lazily into place above an empty stretch of ground, and lowered itself gently downwards. As light as it looked, though, the moment it landed raised dust and sent a punch through the earth.
For maybe two hands of heartbeats, there was nothing else. Then brilliant white lights lashed into life along its flank, dazzling Ferd and forcing him to blink and look away even through his shades.
By the time he could look back, great doors had opened, and Hunters were scuttling down from the ship. Hands and hands and hands of them—dozens—most with their arms cut off at the shoulder and replaced with twisted black mockeries that snatched up the oil containers so that their bearer could then scuttle back up into the ship.
It looked like a mindless scramble, with no planning. Each Hunter just swarmed down the ramp, grabbed the nearest containers, and swarmed back up again. Often they got in each others’ way, or two of them went for the same container at the same time.
They didn’t know how to work!
But they did know how to fear. The stupid mass parted around a big one like water around a boulder as it swaggered down the ramp, and Ferd bared his fangs unconsciously. This one was huge, but the only part of it he could see that still looked like flesh and bone was the mouth. Everything else was metal and plastic, and seven glaring red lights above the mouth where the others had eyes. Had it replaced its whole body? How much of it was left in there?
…Too little. Hunters were wrong, and only now that he’d seen them with his own eyes did Ferd really understand that. The pictures and video he’d been shown didn’t tell the story well enough. Only an insane thing would do that to itself.
Wilde put a hand on his arm. It made Ferd look, broke his stare away from the horrors in front of him, and that was enough. When he looked back again, he didn’t see Wrong Things any more. He just saw the enemy.
Whatever the big-ears said to it, and whether it said anything back, that was all lost in the noise of all those lesser Hunters fighting over the oil. But the big-ears were obviously petrified. They sank low, made themselves small and harmless, didn’t look directly at the big Hunter.
Even so… it murdered one.
It happened without warning, as the last of the oil was carried back to the ship, just as it looked like this was over, the big one half-turned… and then lashed out with a claw. One of the big-ears writhed helplessly, lifted off the ground on the cruel spikes that had pierced right through its body. Whoever they were, their struggle didn’t last long: they went limp, obviously dead, and the big Hunter tore off an arm, a leg and half the torso in a single savage, tearing bite before throwing the rest of the carcass to its underlings with a dismissive toss.
The survivors cowered all the more, and remained crouched right to the ground as the Hunters tore their companion’s remains to pieces and vanished back into their ship.
These were no hunters, no matter what they called themselves. The gods themselves would surely retch at a ‘hunt’ like that. The monsters had not chased down a worthy, dangerous beast. They had not Taken it with skill and courage, nor had they honored its spirit. They had just come, bullied, murdered, stolen, and now they were leaving.
The ship’s doors closed. With a pounding thump, it lurched back into the air, and sneered its way back up into the clouds and away. The so-called ‘hunters’ were gone, leaving the surviving big-ears to weep and embrace each other.
And in their wake, they left a changed Given-Man. Until now, Ferd knew, he hadn’t quite understood the Big Enemy. Hadn’t understood Yan’s allegiance to the sky-people, even if they were good friends. Hadn’t seen what they were fighting. But now…
Now, Ferd understood what it was to hate like a Human.
And he understood why they hated.
Date Point: 16y10m1w AV
Silent But Deadly, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
All of the team wanted long hot showers when they got back, and Tooko sensed he should let them have it without comment. Great Fathers knew, his imagination had furnished him with horrors enough to leave him feeling dirty, and he hadn’t seen any of what they’d seen.
All of them came in looking quiet, thoughtful and disturbed. Frasier, when he was out of the shower, curled up in a corner, put his headphones on, and listened to some music. Rees lay in his bunk and stared up at the pictures he’d stuck there, face entirely unreadable. Wilde didn’t even fully dress, just threw on his pants and then sat at the table. He leaned his elbows on its surface, steepled his fingers together, and rested his face against them.
The Ten’Gewek huddled together, with Ferd pulling Tooko right into the middle of it. There weren’t any words, just…a need of some kind that he was fulfilling, even if he didn’t know what.
Wilde broke the silence, eventually. He sighed, sat up straighter, and deployed the greatest gift that Humanity had ever given to the galaxy: the most expressive, versatile and eloquent word of any language, anywhere, ever.
Frasier nodded. “Yeah.”
Ferd’s tail twitched. “Not in the mood right now…”
Despite himself, Tooko did find that at least a little funny. He was pretty sure Ferd had just been distracted enough to take the word at face value.
And, as the least affected one of them—he’d had the fortune not to witness what they’d seen first hand—he was probably the one in the best mind-space to say the right thing and puncture their pain a little.
He laid a paw on the huge Given-Man’s shoulder.
“Give it ten minutes. I’m sure Frasier’s willing.”
That earned a snrrk from Frasier at least. He skewered Tooko with a Look, trying to express disapproval and outrage but there was a laugh somewhere behind his expression, fighting to get out. It was enough to make Tooko chitter nervously, which drew out a trilling hoot from Nomuk, prompting Wilde to shake his head, and his snort through the nose got Rees laughing…
It was dark mirth, all of it. The kind of slightly neurotic laughter that made for the best bitter medicine to the world’s worst evils, and though it didn’t disperse the cloud that had settled on them, it at least thinned it. The shock and trauma was flushed out, and they were ready to act again.
Rees shook his head as they collectively settled down. “…Fuckin’ hell, boys. We’ve got our work cut out for us with this one.”
“Well, Daar wanted something for the Grand Army to sink its teeth into,” Frasier said. “Don’t think he was expecting us to find a whole slave species, though.”
“So what now?” Tumik asked.
“We send our report, sneak off and find a place to emplace the beacon, and get out of dodge. Then Daar marches through with a billion Gao and fucks ‘em right up the arse.”
“Sadly… not that easy,” Tooko interjected. “I’ve been watching wormhole activity, and I think there’s a Farthrow on this planet. Or the Hunter version, anyway.”
“…How certain is ‘I think?’”
Tooko turned and called up the suspicious phenomenon in question. “The Hunters are clearly using wormhole burst communications, just like our W-router,” he said. “Honestly, I had a hard time following Champion Meereo when he taught me this stuff but the way our Farthrows differentiate authorized signals from unauthorized ones is based on something called a Nose Code. I don’t know what Humans call it, and I’m pretty sure the Ten’Gewek don’t have a name for it at all. We embed the code in the wormhole itself in some kind of tricky way that went right over my ears.”
Ferd squeezed a bit tighter and rested his head atop Tooko’s; it was a heavy, almost painful gesture of affection the Ten’Gewek used to mean something like a tease without saying so.
“Sound like Vemik Sky-Thinker.”
“Thank you. I think.” Tooko chittered. “…The Hunters are doing the same thing, and I owe Meereo a big favor, ‘cuz I’d have missed this if he hadn’t told me what to look out for.”
He flipped a screen around for them to look at. “See that? It looks like random noise, just… much much louder than it should be. If we tried to W-comm back to the Great Father from here on the ground, without encoding the wormhole with the right code…might as well stick a big glowing ’come and get us’ sign on the top of the ship. And he wouldn’t get the call either. And if we left a jump array and departed, then come time for the invasion they’d try to open the door and… nothing.”
“So…” Tooko could feel Ferd’s tail twitching in thought. “We both do same sky-magic to far-talk from star to star, yes?”
“It looks to me like the Hunters are copying Clan Longear’s work. Which we need to report immediately.”
“So. Take off, get out-system, phone home,” Wilde summarized.
“Yup. You lads didn’t leave anything out there, did you?”
Frasier looked indignant. “C’mon Tooko, give us some credit.”
“Then… yes. Now.”
“Do we know where this Farthrow is?” Wilde asked. “If they do have one, the first step of the liberation is going to be killing it.”
“No, but we won’t be able to find it until we get orbit anyway. I didn’t know to look for one until now.”
“Alright. Get us aloft.” Wilde stood up, and addressed his fellow Humans. “Tea, lads?”
“Cheers, I’m fuckin’ gasping.”
Wilde busied himself with hot water, cups and little white squares full of dark powder. Tooko could hardly believe how many of those the Humans went through, but the three of them never turned down a ‘cuppa.’ Apparently they were trained not to.
“…If we’re prepping for an invasion, we need more than the site of one oil refinery,” Wilde pointed out. “Command’ll want to have a way more complete picture of what they’re extracting, where and suchlike. So we can’t leave system just yet. There’s a lot to see first, and it’s all going to be just as fucking horrible as that, I’m sure. So steel yourself, lads.”
Tooko duck-nodded, squirmed out from Ferd’s grasp—he’d discovered that if necessary he could tickle a Ten’Gewek with his claws in some spots and be immediately let go so quickly it was almost like being flung across the room. In this case, though, Ferd knew better than to interfere with work. He let go, and pushed himself to his feet with his tail to go grab something to eat himself.
Their rations were efficiently and densely stacked in the hold, each box containing enough food to fuel a Human through one of their 24-hour days with energy to spare or stuff Tooko until his cheeks bulged and he felt too sick to move. It was prepackaged, unprepared stuff that they had to finish in the ship’s galley, but according to Wilde it was at least better than survival rations for the field.
The problem was, a Ten’gewek needed even more food than a Human, and Ferd in particular was voracious enough that even devouring Tooko’s leftovers wasn’t quite enough to sate him. They’d planned on foraging and hunting to extend the food supply, but as Ferd pointed out… that wasn’t an option on Mordor.
“…Food won’t last long,” he said as he returned from the hold with food for himself and his three fellows. “This place too sick for hunting. No prey, and if there was, wouldn’t be good to eat. Box food only.”
“Right.” Wilde nodded. “That puts a pretty hard time limit on things, Pippin.”
With a last duck-nod, Tooko settled in his chair and began pre-flight checks, knowing full well that they had a lot of planet to cover and not long to do it… And that the sooner they were finished, the sooner the Hunters would get what was coming to them.
“I’ll work fast,” he promised.
There was a lot of justice to be handed out.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Cloaked Hunter observation ship, Spacelane BlueSquare-552, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
The enemy had brought in free-floating defence satellites, of the kind that normally protected high-value stations. The Hunters were used to those: they were easy enough to slip past undetected, and a weapon that could not sense its target was no weapon at all.
In this case, however, they posed a vexing problem. If—when—the Hunters did counterattack to retake the freighters, those platforms would unleash devastating firepower. And while normally that wouldn’t have been an issue—a satellite without engines was an easy target to destroy—the new shield-linking tactics that the Humans had developed made it likely that those satellites were a good deal more durable than they had once been.
There was another problem: Available ships. The loss of the Hive had been truly, genuinely devastating to the Hunters, and much of the Swarm of Swarms was now hard at work in the heart of their controlled space, performing duties that had once been performed by the supply ships that came and went from and to the Hive. So many had been lost in its destruction that simply keeping enough meat in enough maws to fight was a logistical harrowing.
Manufacturing capability was grossly down, breeding capacity was a shadow of its former output… A war of attrition was simply not feasible. Too many of the Hunter population were tied up in simply maintaining the species, keeping the slaves docile, and in the torturous process of rebuilding what had been lost with the Hive.
Sometimes, the Builder almost regretted its role in the Hive’s loss. The then-Alpha of Alphas could have crushed the invading assault force, had the Builder not sabotaged it. Could have captured and devoured the fur-faced alpha of alphas, even. Even now, there were Alphas who simmered with resentment over that loss, especially once it became known that some fur-faced meat was as delectable as any Human yet tasted.
The Builder’s betrayal had been a necessary and calculated gamble, trading the Hive and so much power for new and much-needed direction, clarity and intelligence… But in moments like these, it privately questioned its own wisdom.
Not all had been lost. There were still nearly two hundred billion living Hunters, mostly Eaters locked away in stasis where their voracious appetites could not starve the whole species. When the time came to invade a planet, they would be self-sufficient as they feasted on their slaughtered prey.
Furthermore, the Broods still controlled six “sport” worlds. Four were much like the world the Hive had encircled: high-habitability worlds where prey species could be released to breed and be hunted. The remaining two were different, having borne their own thinking Prey whom the Hunters had duly enslaved. Both were vital sources for those materials that could not be easily created aboard space habitats and ships.
If only some of the ancient worlds were still viable. There were hundreds of them, dead, decayed, denuded, utterly stripped of their resources and left poisoned to the bedrock over the long ages. If they were still useful, losing the Hive would not have been so painful.
Instead, their depletion was the reason why it had been built in the first place.
As it was, things were only just balanced toward growth and reconstruction. The Prey, meanwhile, were productive, and those freighters contained sufficient tiny necessities for a whole beleaguered planet. The Hunters needed that cargo to tip the balance even further, accelerate their regrowth even faster. But they could not afford to lose much in acquiring it.
And the Builder was running out of ideas.
It had tried to lure away a few Human ships by allowing a raiding party to stray close, which had been watched but ignored. It had faked a distress signal from some distance down the spacelane: the Humans had dispatched small single-pilot strike craft to investigate, which had been too nimble to catch.
In short, the Hunters were waiting for the other side to make a mistake, and that wasn’t going to happen.
…It was that thought which finally yielded an option, an option so simple that the Builder almost wanted to gnaw its own arm off out of self-directed irritation. If the convoy was unassailable, then perhaps its destination was not!
It gave a flurry of orders. Its underlings, bored and frustrated by the lack of progress, were swiftly stung into action by this chance to actually achieve something, and the cloaked command ship withdrew from the convoy at a slow, stealthy warp until the Builder Alpha-of-Alphas was satisfied that they were beyond even the best of the foes’ sensors.
With that, they applied all power to the superluminal engines, and sped toward the Prey World much faster than most ships in the galaxy could match. Not even most swarmships were so speedy.
The planet itself was obviously unassailable. The system shield was up and whatever good fortune or act of sabotage had allowed the Swarm to assault the Large Prey’s spawning world seemed unlikely to happen a second time. But a system that intended to receive supplies from elsewhere clearly could not be completely sealed off.
This thought was vindicated when, a quarter of a day-cycle later, the command ship stole quietly into the target system’s outer reaches and made passive observations of the activity in its orbits.
In-system traffic was more sluggish than expected. Despite clear evidence of considerable development on the three desolate rock worlds, the many moons of the three gas worlds, and in the system’s two asteroid belts, the number of ships trafficking back and forth was somewhat depressed.
The system field itself was projected by a remarkably tiny object deployed at the third gas giant’s outer gravitational conflux point. It was inside its own shield, and therefore unassailable, but outside the shield there was indeed a processing station. Quite an old one, to judge by the many repairs, expansion and patchwork additions.
Ripe prey if ever there was any. And more importantly, prey that the Humans were likely to defend, if forced.
Yes. Time to really test them…
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
HMS Violent, Spacelane BlueSquare-552, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
“It’s a trap.”
Ak’kk’brr looked skeptical, at least according to the translation software’s best attempts to interpret his facial features. “…Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. They’re trying to lure us away again, only this time they’ve chosen bait we can’t so easily ignore.” Caruthers grumbled. “If we go to relieve the receiving station, they’ll pounce on the convoy. But if we don’t then a lot of people die, and offloading the convoy’s cargo becomes much slower and more difficult.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” Ak’kk’brr asked. “If we must choose, I would choose to stay here. Better to secure one objective than risk losing both.”
“I agree. But fortunately, I think we have an alternative. Right now, I have the HEAT sitting on Caledonia’s deck and First Fang on Sword Of A Poet, both doing absolutely nothing. I think it’s time they earn their keep…”
“You propose to send them alone?”
“Not unescorted, no. But Cally, the Sword, one of the V-destroyers and a few fighters should suffice.”
“So few against so much?”
Caruthers nodded, allowing a small, tight smile. “The HEAT have come through much worse. They have a habit of turning traps back against the trapper. But don’t worry, we have plenty of tricks that we haven’t used, yet. I don’t waste lives, especially not theirs.”
“You know what you’re doing, of course.”
Caruthers nodded his thanks. “I’ll keep you informed.”
He closed the line to Ak’kk’brr, and opened the one to Caledonia’s deployment deck instead, where Lt. Col. Powell answered him. He listened as Caruthers explained the situation.
“Yes indeed. Seed the field with them, then get indoors to repel the boarding parties. Between the hotballs and Caledonia you should have an unexpected firepower advantage.”
“They’ll never know what hit ‘em. I’ll go along on this one, though. You’re going to want somebody senior over there.”
“I thought you’d say that… I have every confidence in the HEAT, Powell, but this isn’t going to be straightforward. Be sure you understand the risks, and the priorities. The Hunters might well come gunning for you. Certainly if I were in their position, I’d think destroying the HEAT and First Fang was more strategically important than a few freighters.”
Powell nodded seriously. “Aye, but if we sit around and play cargo all the time, we may as well be dead and gone anyways. So we’ll be ready to deploy in five minutes.”
Caruthers nodded. “Good hunting, then. Give them Hell.”
“We already took that from them, sir.” Powell grinned, and that was the end of the call. Caruthers found himself chuckling as he made sure that the fleet and the Deep Space Weapons Reserve were ready to link with the hotballs and show the Hunters a new trick.
Time to be in two places at once.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, planet Mordor, Hunter space
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
Three observation missions in, and a kind of rhythm was beginning to establish itself.
First, came decontamination. Humans and Ten’Gewek alike inevitably returned to the ship coated in filth, disease, poison and contaminants. The first order of business was to essentially pressure-wash them the airlock, until all the muck had sloughed off of them.
They’d already had to change the filter twice.
Next, they stripped down and soaped up with an evil-smelling decontamination detergent, rinsed with extremely hot water, and then spent some time basking in strong UV lights. The Ten’Gewek quite liked that bit. The Humans…not so much. Lastly, the decon fields swept them, and they took an anti-radiation supplement, before finally being allowed back into the main cabin.
The Ten’Gewek were always itchy afterward, and needed rubdowns with lotion.
The Humans were more concerned about the UV light. “We’re gonny get a fuckin’ melanoma or some shit…” Frasier grumbled as he scrubbed his scalp dry.
“It’s not that kind of UV,” Wilde assured him.
“Oh aye? And since when were you a fuckin’ dermatologist?”
“I pay attention to briefings. You might try it some time.”
Meanwhile, Ferd had half-asked, half-pulled Tooko over to the corner to help with the lotion. In general, Humans had quite strong personal boundaries, gaoians less so and mostly with strangers…
Ten’Gewek had none. If you were any kind of friendly, then hugs, cuddles, wrestling, and personal hygiene were all in the cards, and expected.
Oh well. At least he got a good brushing out of the deal.
Wilde sighed and checked The List as he dressed. “Alright. That’s oil production, lubricants, rubbers, and now fissile material. We’re going to need a thorough check-up after that last one.”
Ferd was understandably nervous, and hugged Tooko close—painfully so, but Tooko knew that now was not the moment to complain. “Friend…if ray-dee-ashun gets us, there is sky-magic to help, yes?”
“…Maybe. That’s part of the danger. We did our best to brief you on that…”
“Yes, yes…but….maybe I think more with cock at the time.”
“I remember.” Wilde chuckled. “Relax. The dosimeters aren’t yelling at us, so we’re probably okay, and we’ve been on top of our anti-radiation meds, too.”
“This planet’s gonna be a fuckin’ nightmare for the Grand Army though,” Rees observed, slurping a cupful of water.
“They’ll be able to deal with it a lot better. A lot more logistical tail than we have.”
“Maybe, but a lot more Jack bellends who don’t listen properly too.”
Ferd looked down at tooko and flicked his left ear; universal hulkmonkey body language for ‘what did he just say?’
Tooko flicked both of his to the side. They understood each other pretty well by now.
Wilde’s response was a lop-sided grin, which was a gesture only a Human could make, with those fantastically plastic faces of theirs which more than compensated for those sad, immobile ears. “You do realize I can read your ear-dance just as well as anyone, right?”
Ferd shrugged, and re-applied the brush with rather more force than Tooko would prefer. “Don’t care! I think you like to use strange words!”
“That’s just Reesy. He is Welsh after all.”
Rees snorted into his cup of water and splashed it all over himself. He somehow found time during the ensuing coughing and self-cleaning to aim a middle finger at Wilde, though he was chuckling.
Victory secured, Wilde turned back to Tooko. “So what’s our next target, Pip?”
“You got the trackers onto those trains?”
“Yeah. Stuck ‘em on good,” Frasier promised.
“Then for now, we wait and see where they end up.” The local rail network went everywhere, far too many places for Tooko to even guess at where the isotopes ended up. The only way to know for sure was to watch where the trains actually took their cargo.
But one thing was certain: the Great Father, the Grand Army, and everyone else involved in the coming invasion would want to know where several tonnes of enriched uranium had gone.
Which meant, sadly…another trip back up to an observing orbit, where they would wait.
The Ten’Gewek spent most of that time in stasis—their special high-density, high-protein rations only lasted so long. Two of them would probably stay out though, and a Look passed between the four of them. Without any further words, Tumik, and Genn decided it was their turn, and ambled off to the stasis pods.
That left Nomuk and Ferd, who looked down at Tooko with a playful head-tilt.
“You put us in orbit, yes?”
“Yeah, big guy.”
“Then we lift,” he proclaimed. There would be no escape for Tooko.
Oh well, it wasn’t like they’d be doing much of anything else for the next day or so anyway…
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
HMS Caledonia, Ugunduvur System, the Guvnurag Confederacy
Lt. Col. Owen Powell
The system wasn’t too target rich. Admiral Caruthers’ assessment that the Hunters were planning to hit the convoy if the allies abandoned it was quite clearly on the money, and the Hunter raiding party was nowhere near as big as the force that had contested them for the freighters. But that didn’t make the situation outside a picnic, either.
Cally was outnumbered three to one by broodships, though there were more Firebirds and Voidrippers than Swarmships. Hopefully, with the hotballs, that averaged out to an Allied advantage.
A hotball was a specialized jump beacon, built with exactly one job in mind: weapons targeting. Rather than jumping ships like the so-called ‘dragon’s teeth’ microsatellites, a hotball provided a more specialized, carefully configured jump that maintained the incoming object’s kinetic energy, carefully aligned on the desired vector.
In short: incoming ammunition.
That fact seemed to surprise the Hunters, who clearly weren’t expecting one ship to strike with the power of a whole squadron. Powell grinned at the ensuing mayhem playing out beyond Cally’s hull, then turned his attention to the actual job at hand.
The target was two space stations, loosely tethered to one another. They handled customs and transit for interstellar shipping that wanted to transit the system defence field. Both were under siege.
The HEAT were hitting one, First Fang the other. It was going to be a little strange, going into battle with them nearby rather than immediately alongside, but Powell wasn’t at all concerned. They knew what they were doing, and that wasn’t praise he gave lightly.
With the deck being a little clearer of hulking Gaoian bodies, it gave him a clearer view of his own men’s respective preparations. Warhorse, for instance, was literally shaking with anticipation. That young man was a lot more bloodthirsty than he cared to admit, and the fact was he’d have been the best fookin’ Aggressor on the team, if he wasn’t already an even better Protector.
Sikes, Burgess, Murray and Coyers—the team’s four levelest and quietest heads—were going through their routines deftly and without comment. Akiyama, Blaczynski and Butler, the three merry jokers, were happily psyching themselves up, Newman and Parata were grabbing some last-moment nutrition before their masks went on…
Dexter…was eerily calm. Then again, not so long ago he’d volunteered for a suicide mission, and come home from it. His hatred of the Hunters was so far beyond anyone else’s, it had become a strange kind of serenity. He’d come out of that fire as a true Gaoian killer, with the calm of a monk and the physical presence of an unsheathed knife.
Between him and Arés, it was hard to know who was the more dangerous man.
His example seemed to inspire his brother Whitecrests to imitate him, too. Even Thurrsto, his Champion and in most ways a far superior combatant, seemed to feed off that energy.
Firth and Costello were watching everything, seeing all. Powell shared a satisfied nod with them.
“We’ve engaged the enemy,” he told them.
Firth nodded sharply, then raised his voice: “Masks on!”
Newman, Parata and Arés hastily chugged down some last gulps of their performance drinks, and the masks went on with a series of hiss-click locking sounds. There was a brisk, efficient round of seal inspections, double-checked by Deacon and her techs before they vacated the deck.
Powell’s own mask settled into place over his face easily and familiarly. Deacon checked it for him, then stood back. “Air check.”
Powell took a deep breath. The air hissed softly past his ears, and he heard the regulator’s valves clicking appropriately. It tasted cold, clean and safe. “Good air.”
Deacon nodded, tapped her tablet, then charged back toward the airlock. She was the last out: the lock cycled, the lights went red, and with an alarm hoot the bay began to depressurize as the air was pumped out.
Coyers and Sikes hauled the launches over to the door. They were little more than naked warp drives in a skeletal frame with some maneuvering thrusters and plenty of handholds, but they were quick, stealthy and perfect for rapidly deploying everyone and their gear.
Absolutely everything about this operation were per standard procedure. They’d drilled this kind of thing over and over, and done it more than once. A station full of vulnerable ETs, being boarded by Hunters? Practically the HEAT’s bread and butter. Still, nobody was complacent. The Hunters had a nasty habit of bringing a new surprise to every fight.
They would just have to see what new nastiness they brought this time.
Date point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Gateway Station 2, Ugunduvur System, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
Fiin, Champion and Stud of Clan Stoneback
Fiin’s paws met the gateway station’s outer hull with a solidity that reverberated through his whole body, eerily loud in the soundproof confines of his suit.
Electrostatic sticky fields in the palms and soles stuck him firmly to it, and he scuttled along the surface to plant a sensor, ensuring that the compartment he was about to enter didn’t contain a civilian: when it turned out to empty, he peeled the hull open with his fusion claws and forced himself inside against the flood of escaping air.
Life for Fiin had been unspeakably busy as of late. He was wearing triple hats as the Champion of Stoneback, effectively its Grandfather while they figured out a replacement for Garl…and unofficially Daar’s chief of staff for the Grand Army as well.
Fiin was desperately looking forward to Hunter gore on his paws. He had some frustrations to work out.
Brothers poured in through the hole he’d made, behind and alongside him. One of them paused to slap a sealing field over the hull breach. The power was out, and the station was in null gravity, but that wasn’t the kind of thing to slow First Fang. Especially not Fiin. No other ‘Back but Daar was better-conditioned then him. Nobody else could mimic a Whitecrest’s acrobatic magic quite like he could.
In fact, the freefall environment just gave him more angles to play with.
The gateway stations were mirrored pair, each resembling a stack of flat, mismatched, asymmetrical plates. Each had a long docking and cargo handling rail thrust outward from their notional underbellies, perpendicular to the system shield, and it was these that the Hunter swarmships had burrowed tick-like into.
First Fang and the HEAT went in via their respective targets’ notional topside. They were vulnerable while out in the naked void, and none of them fancied being instantly and ignominiously deleted by a swarmship’s point defence before they got a chance to lock their jaws around the enemy.
That approach also meant they were able to safely put the civilians behind them in cleared territory as they swept through the station. Cowering Guvnurag flinched in worsened terror as sinewy, deadly Goaian bodies flowed through their homes and public spaces, made sure all was clear, and moved on faster than the inhabitants could react.
They met their first enemy three decks down, clawing at a door with a herd of panicking Guvnurag behind it. It was one of the big, grossly enhanced ones with the exposed muscles.
For Fiin, hammering into one of the big Hunters like a flying boulder was just….so satisfying. He clawed its head clean off and broke its spine for good measure. His Brothers poured past him, weapons out: a disciplined volley of accurate shots left Hunters dead on the deck.
Fiin wasn’t at all jealous of the way Kodiak simply plowed straight through another big Hunter like tissue paper, killing it on impact with none of his momentum lost. Not many big ‘Backs knew how to use their size so effectively and it was a treat to watch.
Even fewer who could tactically command while doing so.
Fiin had been leaning heavily on the bright young male as of late while he juggled his myriad responsibilities. Definitely gonna need to talk with him after this…a Champion’s work never stopped.
Speaking of which, he’d bloodied his claws and that was necessary, but now his responsibility was to direct his attention to the bigger picture. A monosyllabic bark of a command to Kodiak, and all was understood. The team would endeavor to keep Fiin unharassed as the front progressed.
There were still a lot of Hunters to kill, and a lot of lives to save.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Gateway Station 1, Ugunduvur system, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
Silence. Waiting. Heartbeat and breath, data on his HUD… otherwise nothing but the wait.
Then the green light.
Sudden nothing all around as they push out of the ship. Little puffs with the maneuvering thrusters, cluster up, grab hold of a launch. Cally vanishes as she accelerates, falling away like a dropped rock, disappears in the dark.
Launch handles getting them close to the station. Come a long way since the first time they did this: carve through the hull, forcefield over the breach, in like battering rams. Quick, smooth, clean.
Signs of combat beyond. Flashing blue lights, gouges in the walls and floors, dented metal, broken doors. No blood, though. Weird, but good.
Move, ordered by ABBOTT. Good to have STAINLESS back.
Station has a main access shaft for cargo handling. Fastest way in. Wide doors, high ceilings for big aliens. Easy to move, lots of room, still no contact…
…Sound of gunfire, muffled, not close. Coming from where they’re going. Move faster. Deck squealing underfoot, not fast enough.
Plunge down a ramp, turn, down the next ramp, open space up ahead…
Dead Hunters littering the deck. Some kind of heavy-ass gun down that access shaft, filling the air with death. Hunters advancing into the teeth of it, keeping their heads down and using cover, gaining ground…Notice the HEAT coming, but too little too late.
A handful of gorey seconds later, ‘Horse stopped to think for a second and take stock. The Hunters had clearly had the same idea the HEAT had: hit that main arterial shaft and penetrate deep into the station.
Problem was, these Guvnurag apparently didn’t go down without a fight. And while they were surprisingly light for their size, and kinda fragile for something so big, there was still a lot of real estate on those guys to cover in Fun.
Back ‘em into a corner, give ‘em a defensible position with clear lines of fire, and they’d turned the Hunters’ easy road into the station’s core into a shooting gallery instead.
Problem: three fighting forces, no communication, busy environment. Now ‘Horse and RIGHTEOUS were in that shooting gallery themselves. Good cover, but still stuck.
Dex had it covered. He may have been a big fuckin’ boy these days, but he’d lost none of that nimble Gaoian ninjaforce that made them so damn good at what they did. Fuck, he was way better, even. He and his Bros swarmed down through the ceiling, carving their way through with fusion blades, scuttled on the roof with those sticky gecko-gloves, then dropped among the frightened Guvnurag.
The green-on-blue firepower faltered, then fell silent. Gotta love those Whitecrest stick-n-sleep patches. ‘Horse gave them a nod of approval, and pounced on the Guvnurag wounded while the Defenders secured a perimeter.
There were a few. Triage mode: He’s just winded, she has a broken leg—bad news for a Guv, but not a right-this-second problem—this poor fucker here bleeding a lot. Priority.
…Well, fuck. He was gonna hafta be rough on him. IRISH was by his side, very smart but still a bit inexperienced with big xeno trauma.
Tourniquet on, fluids in. Keep the blood pressure high in the core, limbs don’t matter so much. Medicine’s pretty fuckin’ sweet these days, just gotta live long enough to make it to theatre. Big core, though. Lotta fluids needed. Not so much painkillers though: ETs OD easy.
“No opiates for Guv, IRISH. Fatal. Gotta use a megadose of NSAIDs. Like morphine for ‘em.”
He knew of course, but mistakes happen. Always good to make sure.
Butler acknowledged that, applied intravenous ibuprofen, and with that their patient was basically stabilized. ‘Horse glanced up to check the status of their jump array: it was online.
They had a Guv-sized stretcher stuck on ‘Horse’s back, which he snapped open with a practiced flick. There was a trick to gettin’ the big dudes onto it without hurting them, ‘cuz lying on their side really wasn’t a healthy position for them: they found it hard to breathe.
First time for IRISH, but he knew what to do. Good. The real problem was hefting the patient. Warhorse knew (and personally trained) all four human beings strong enough to do it.
Time to test number four. “You good for this, bro?”
Butler’s helmet bobbed in a nod. “‘Course I feckin’ am! Are you?”
Adam grinned, stepped to his side of the stretcher. They heaved. Enjoyably weighty for Adam. Butler struggled fiercely under the Guv’s mass but that was okay, just more training in his future. They got it done, and they got the patient moved. Back on Cally they had a crane for this.
Move on. Catch up. Got a station to sweep. Caught up with Defenders, leave IRISH to assist. Not fast or nimble enough yet to hang with Aggressors.
Warhorse poured on the speed. Aggressors at end of main shaft, sprint forward to catch up, floor breaking under pounding feet, boots splashing in Hunter blood.
Icon in HUD. Sealed hatchway not so sealed, danger between Aggressor’s rear and Defender’s front. By coincidence, ‘Horse in exactly the right place.
Swat aside hatch and move like only Warhorse could move. Rictus grin—rarely does he get to unload so hard. Nobody tough enough to take what he can give. Three targets serviced without trying. No stopping, no slowing down.
A bunch more Hunters, bearing teeth. Stupid. Break like twigs in hands, smash like overripe fruit underfoot. Red or white, Hunters too puny. Meet Aggressors at other side of corridor.
Everything smashed, ‘Horse hardly winded. Grin.
Nod from RIGHTEOUS. Part respect, part brotherhood. Part jealousy. Warhorse understood.
No time to jack off.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
HMS Caledonia, Ugunduvur system, the Guvnurag Confederacy
Petty Officer Sachi Patel
Things were so smooth now that shield-sharing was a thing. It added a little heat load for Patel’s team to manage, but more than compensated for that by exponentially growing their radiating area. When linked up with two other ships, the limiting factor became Cally’s own ability to refrigerate herself and pump the heat around internally.
And… Cally was good at that. There had been nuclear warheads flying around in the fight at the freighter convoy. Enough firepower to turn a large chunk of Europe into a radioactive wasteland had bounced off their mingled shields, and that had raised the heat pressure to worrying levels, but in this fight?
In this fight, the Hunters were badly outmatched, despite having a numbers advantage. Cally, HMS Vindicator and the Sword Of A Poet had chained up and that was that. The Broodships just didn’t have the firepower to break them.
There was another rattling series of bangs through the hull as the launchers on the surface fired out another few dozen hotballs. Each one fired was… a missile, a really big gun, a storm of shieldbreaker rounds, depending on what Gunnery wanted it to be. Combined with Caledonia’s own jump receivers, not to mention her on-board weaponry, and…
Well, Patel guessed that the Hunters were getting slaughtered out there. She couldn’t actually see for certain, but she could see their own power output and heat management, both of which were ticking over comfortably with plenty of room to spare.
A small spike in power consumption indicated that they’d just jumped. Probably a micro-jump to a dragon’s tooth, dodging some incoming fire. Not completely a slaughter, then… but they weren’t taking hits.
She felt good. She felt calm. And below it all, she felt satisfied. There was nothing better than giving the Hunters a hiding.
This one was for the old crew.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Gateway station 1, Ugunduvur system, the Guvnurag Confederacy
Lt. Col. Owen “Stainless” Powell
The space battle outside the hull was just a series of dry reports as far as Powell was concerned: the hotballs had done their job perfectly, driving the Hunters back in the teeth of a withering barrage as though the Allies had brought a fleet ten times the size.
Good. He liked not having to worry that others could do their job.
As for the Guvnurag themselves… mixed feelings. As it turned out, when news of the Hunters hitting the aid convoy had reached them, they’d deployed some of their most well-trained and tenacious troops to the gateway stations in anticipation of exactly this.
Take a platoon of van-sized alien quadrupeds, layer them in shield emitters and mount weapons on the powered exoframes they wore, and you wound up with a slow-moving but bloody solid combatant. Each one was more like a mobile heavy weapon emplacement than an infantryman… But against Hunters, though, the key was constant motion. They’d been surrounded. In a few minutes more, they’d have been overwhelmed. If this was the Guvnurag best, then while the Hunters would have paid in death for their victory, they’d still have won.
The Gurv, in short, had got lucky that a force of spaceborne killer apes and their beardog friends had shown up to slaughter the Hunters and pull their shaggy mountainous arses out of the fire.
“This everyone?” he asked.
The Gurv officer was more-or-less the equivalent of a captain, still reeling from surviving his last stand and from the tender mercies of the stick-n-sleep, which in Powell’s experience tended to mean a real skullsplitter of a headache. Too many colours were racing over his body to make sense of, even if Powell had understood their chromatic emotes.
“A-as many as we could save,” he stammered. “There, there might be others. I don’t know.”
“You have access to the internal sensors, don’t you?” Powell reminded him.
“Uh, y-yes? Oh! Yes!!”
Better late than never. Powell watched the officer call up what he had. He forwarded the pertinent information to Costello, trusting that from there it would reach Firth who would in turn ensure that hostiles were appropriately serviced.
And God help the poor sod who had to clean up after.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Cloaked Hunter observation ship, Spacelane BlueSquare-552, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
An Eater would have been angry enough to smash things, or kill any lowly Omegas or slaves that got too close. Many of the Brood-Alphas were doing just that, wailing impotently at the string of ‘losses’ they were enduring. First the freighters and now the stations? Unbearable!
The Alpha-of-Alphas, on the other hand, was getting exactly what it wanted.
There was bountiful data to pore over, though for the time being it didn’t care. There would surely be interesting secrets to glean, but the important part was that opening a second front had worked. A few of the enemy ships had peeled off, forced away the Hunters probing those stations, and were now stuck there.
That was important. The Humans in particular had only a mouthful of their elite boarders, each one by now known to the Hunters and cataloged. Specimens Alpha-1 and Alpha-2 were the largest and most destructive, capable of speed and ferocity that eclipsed even the most heavily augmented Hunters. They were accompanied by the many Beta specimens, each of which was a terror in its own right. Categorized into Fighter, Trapper and Sneaker variants, they divided their efforts according to clearly understood mission profiles.
Yes, each individual was known and tracked. And while destroying them would have been a sweet victory, they were not vulnerable right now.
But they were accounted-for, and the Builder knew that they could not rapidly redeploy. They hit hard and fast, when ready. But once used, it took a while before they were ready again.
The surrounding systems contained dozens of small stations and outposts. Mining facilities, for the most part, producing minerals and water for the Large-Prey planet and its many satellites and stations. Each was occupied by only a small few, but each one was also a wealth of technology and spare parts… the very things that the swarm had hit the convoy to secure.
Frustratingly, the Fur-Faced Alpha of Alphas had declined to join the battle. That was against forecasts and a bit of a disappointment, but the Builder did not base its stratagems on the assumption that the foe would be foolish. Some preliminary analysis had suggested this so-called ‘Great Father’ —a title which translated somewhat confusingly as [‘alpha spawner’]— possessed a personal combat effectiveness completely unmatched by any other. The previous Alpha of Alphas had been defeated by him, after all, and that had been an earlier, lesser version of this Fur-Faced Alpha of Alphas against one of the finest augmented forms the Hunters could produce. So much ability in a purely biological form—!
That such a thing was demonstratively possible was…hotly debated amongst the Alphas, who were only now coming to terms with the idea of Humans. The further notion that the Fur-Faced could also be not merely predators, but Deathworld predators…it was almost…
A vivisection would have proved most informative. But it was not to be.
The Builder gave its orders. Now that the enemy’s fleet and combatants were locked in place, the time had come to secure a victory. For now, they needed incremental progress. They would gather resources, husband their Prey-stocks, rebuild and repopulate. Those mining outposts were not as grand a prize as the freighters themselves would have been, of course…
But they would be enough to feed the Swarm.
Date Point: 16y10m1w4d AV
Gateway Station 1, Ugunduvur System, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
Regaari, Father of Clan Whitecrest
Something was… off. Regaari could smell it, metaphorically. They’d come with Jump Arrays and everything they needed to get the hell off the gateway stations quickly if the Hunters swarmed them. That had been Regaari’s working hypothesis, in fact: that the enemy would take a stab at eliminating both the HEAT and First Fang by bringing in an overwhelming swarm of ships and vaporizing the stations.
Oh, the broodships outside had put up a fight, engaged and tussled with the allied warships, retreating under the hail of supporting fire from the hotballs and then returning to take another swipe. But while the danger they posed had certainly been real, it hadn’t been convincing.
No. Hunters didn’t half-ass a juicy target. They threw everything they had at it in a slavering toothy wave until it was either consumed, or they were all dead. So the moment the Broodships abruptly disengaged and streaked out of the system at a few hundred kilolights set alarm bells ringing in Regaari’s brain.
He saw all, of course. That was his job. Scouting, intelligence gathering, being aware of the bigger picture. While his Brothers both Human and Gaoian got to focus on a small and clearly-defined job right in front of them, cunning, deadly DEXTER had no such luxury. His role was defined by bigger-picture thinking.
Hence the highly sophisticated virus he’d slipped into the gateway station’s network seconds after arriving.
Powell, of course, knew everything that Regaari did. He left the last of the sweep-and-clear in the capable hands of Costello and Firth, and kept half the Whitecrests by his side as he claimed the station’s core operations center for his own.
“Every bloody one?”
Regaari duck-nodded. “Gone. HIGHCASTLE says the same thing; all quiet. The Hunters just let us claim two valuable targets, almost unresisted.”
“…Well that smells fookin’ fishy.”
Curious that Humans, with their far less sensitive noses, would have such an olfactory idiom for suspicion. But Regaari had always found it very apt.
Powell ‘s brows beetled behind his visor as he watched Regaari’s tablet. The virus was working perfectly: Thanks to it, the Fleet Intelligence Center on HMS Myrmidon would now be milling the gateway stations’ logs, sensor readings and comms through their massive supercomputing resources.
Moments later, the results—and the answers—started to come in, plucked and prioritized right from the local out-system comm channels.
Dozens of them.
There was a strained silence as the board filled up with desperate pleas for life and limb that they were entirely powerless to answer. Powell gripped the edge of a table so hard that it creaked and bent as, one by one, the distress calls began to cut out.
“…They played us,” he growled. “They fookin’ played us.”
There was nothing they could do.
Date Point: 16y10m2w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Matigu, Champion of Clan Longback
Arguing with the Great Father was always something to be done with the greatest respect. None of the Sea-Clans would soon forget what he had done to Clan Bronzefur, or how thoroughly—and easily—he had broken their previous Champion. Because of that, disagreeing with him in the slightest, especially when that magnificent crown sat upon his head, was an act of near suicide both political and personal, at least to Matigu’s mind, anyway.
The Great Father didn’t see it that way, of course. He prided himself on his honor and his reasonableness, and took pains to be even-handed in his dealings with the Clans. He stood heads above his Champions like a serene, towering colossus and, rather than wrestle Matigu or anything like that, asked the mildest of questions in reply. “I can understand ‘yer frustration, but what d’ya think my presence would achieve?”
It was a disarming tactic, and Matigu momentarily forgot himself in it. “The Swarm of Swarms took thirty-seven out-system mining posts! Thousands of souls!”
“‘Yer right,” Daar duck-nodded agreeably. “An’ what could I have done? Our people were pinned protectin’ a much more important resource. What benefit would my presence have brought? An’ what risks?”
“I…” Matigu paused and sagged, not really knowing how to put his thoughts into words. He could sympathize with the plight of out-system miners, having spent years as a young Associate out on a Clan Longback oil platform in Gao’s frozen polar seas. It was lonely, claustrophobic work and the weather rarely behaved well enough to go outside and enjoy the air.
He’d had a nightmare last night, about being back on the rig while Hunters smashed in through its tiny, storm-proof windows and clawed after him in the tight, close confines.
But whatever his objection might be, he couldn’t find the right words. They faltered and fell apart in the face of the Great Father’s not-unkind look.
“‘Yer passionate, an’ I can admire that. S’wat the Longbacks’ve been known ‘fer since the old days,” Daar said. “but…well, I’m a lotta things, but omnipotent ain’t one o’ them. I can’t be everywhere at once, either. None of us can. We’re not gonna win every skirmish an’ we can’t get hung up about it. An’ as much as I wanna personally crush every Hunter fuck unner my paws…”
A voice to Matigu’s left spoke up: Uriigo, Champion of Clan Bronzefur. “Nonetheless, My Father…we must answer for the loss.”
Daar’s snarl was a thing that made everyone reel back on their haunches. “Says who? Do you again presume to set our direction?”
Champion Uriigo was a master of needling the Great Father, and the only member of the Conclave who was quasi-openly antagonistic to the new order of things. Hardly surprising, really: Bronzefur’s previous Champion had openly defied the Great Father as ‘a matter of Clan survival’ and, for daring to show himself in council, was without any warning tackled, bodily picked up and quite literally broken in half by Daar as easily as one might snap a twig. Their Grandfather he dispatched with a spine-shattering kick that bounced him off the far wall, followed by a standing leap across the room, landing in an earthquake of a stomp right through his ribcage. It had all happened so fast, nobody could react.
The Great Father didn’t even take a moment to drop the former Champion’s ruined corpse to the ground, nor wipe the gore off his hind-paws, before he appointed Uriigo as the Clan’s new Champion… and did not accept his submission immediately. No, Daar had taken his time about it. In fact he’d ignored all of Uriigo’s attempts at abject prostration and made his displeasure thoroughly known. Acceptance hadn’t come until the new Champion lay broken on the floor and at the brink of death himself.
Uriigo had always stopped himself just short of open contempt ever since: he remained bloodied, but not broken. “It’s what will be expected… My Father.”
“They—if indeed it be ‘they’ and not a figment of ‘yer imagination—can expect whatever they want. Fuck ‘em. We can only do so much ‘ta defend the galaxy. They gotta learn. An’ that’s why I’m here an’ not wallowin’ in it like I really wanna…”
There was just… something in his growl at the end which clearly suggested the Hunters weren’t the only thing he wanted to destroy.
“Some might question your…resolve…My Father, if you make a habit of commanding from the rear…”
…Balls, that was a reckless thing to—
The Great Father exploded across the room so precisely and so unbelievably fast, it was almost literally blink-and-miss-it: his brutal muzzle stopped a mere inch from Uriigo’s throat.
“Question my resolve, eh? Tell me…are you afraid, Champion?”
The snarl he made was so deep and so menacing, Matigu could feel it reverberate in his chest from across the room. Daar touched his nose against the suddenly shock-still yet defiant Champion’s jugular before giving his throat a long, threatening sniff. It was an extremely loaded question too, with only one possible, humiliating answer. There was no doubt in Matigu’s mind that Uriigo was courting death.
“Not completely stupid, then…” Daar gave another reverberating growl as he prowled around Uriigo, searching for any weakness. “It ain’t often I smell suicidal bravery so strong on somebody…which is awful damn strange ‘fer a Champion that ain’t never soldiered through any kind o’ combat, huh?”
That was a vicious jab, and touched on some unflattering rumors that frequently provoked rage on Uriigo’s part. Anyone else would have found themselves scarred for life over that comment. Uriigo was a brownfur after all, and not a small one. But against Daar…
What could he do but stand there and take it?
Uriigo, somehow, found the way. “Not true, My Father. I survived a duel against yourself.”
“Hrrm.” Daar sniffed again, then straightened. “Ballsy. I can respect that. Jus’ don’t mistake my charity as anythin’ but. Do ‘ya remember why I broke ‘yer predecessor?”
“I remember the reason given, yes.”
Matigu had to stifle his disbelief. How reckless was Uriigo going to be…?
“Cute. An’ you somehow got the balls t’wonder why I had my fun bouncing ‘yer weak lil’ body off the walls that day…the Females ‘member just fine, an’ it’s only by their mercy that ‘yer Clan still exists. ‘Ya might consider some honest contrition if’n ‘yer Clan is gonna have any hope o’ breedin’ itself a future. Who knows? Bronzefurs with humility? Stranger shit’s happened.”
“I will not be lectured about humility from the Stud-Prime of Stoneback…My Father.”
Daar’s tolerance was truly awesome. Matigu was so incensed by the lack of respect, he and several others had to restrain themselves from leaping at Uriigo’s throat…but they needn’t have worried. Daar’s reply was growled quietly against Uriigo’s ear…and it was devastating.
“You’ll stand there an’ take whatever I wanna give, Champion. You’ll take it ‘cuz I’m better’n you. I am Stud-Prime because of my fitness ‘fer the title. I have the confidence of a leader born of over fifteen thousand years o’ faithful service, an’ I come from an honest tradition of hard work since time immemorial. My humility stems from the blessings I have inherited, an’ for which I am but a steward in a long line o’ servants. But humility ain’t the same thing as modesty. I won’t pretend ‘ta that.”
Daar pressed himself against the comparatively tiny Champion and rested one of his huge paws over Uriigo’s shoulder. Those rib-breaking claws were fully extended and resting lightly over the Champion’s heart.
“After all, it was my Clan that brought the liberation of the Females, and who protect them even today against the honorless an’ the evil. And it was us who remade the Gao. That faithfulness brought us the power we enjoy today. That esteem ensured our consequent genetic perfection an’ blessed my unbroken line in particular with its superiority. You ain’t got none o’ that, an’ you fuckin’ well know it. So…mebbe consider why the Females chose ‘ta spare ‘yer lil’ Clan after what ‘ya did, and think on what y’all might do to be worthy o’ that mercy. ‘Cuz my patience with ‘yer unearned arrogance is wearin’ awful thin…Champion.”
Uriigo’s teeth chattered very slightly; he was just shy of abject terror, and now everyone could see it, if they somehow couldn’t smell it.
But credit where credit was due; the defiant Champion somehow found a liferaft of dignity on which to escape. “I shall take your words under advisement…My Father.”
Daar chittered darkly. “How gracious o’ you. An’ as ‘fer what ‘some’ might question and what ‘others’ might expect an’ all th’ rest, you fail to unnerstand.”
He prowled away, and Uriigo swayed back with a well-restrained sigh as he let out his held breath. Nobody wanted the Great Father’s teeth that close to their throat.
Daar ignored him. He returned to his place at the head of the great table, expounding as he went. “One day y’ain’t gonna have a Great Father, an’ things can’t go back to the way they were. So…what then? My purpose ain’t ‘ta rub my huge nuts all over everything an’ claim it as mine. I already won that game. My purpose is to ensure the survival an’ prosperity of the Gao, and if I can swing it, her most bestest allies too.”
Matigu listened, not yet ready to give up on his own feelings that something more could have been done, but not able to disagree, either.
Daar knew, and turned his terrible gaze back to Matigu. It softened instantly into something much more kindly.
“‘Yer young. I get it. I wasn’t much younger when I was called to be Champion. But the kwekshit awful thing ‘bout high office, is we’ve got responsibilities beyond ourselves, yijao? Gettin’ kilt ‘cuz I wanna personally squish sum Hunter fucks is the pinnacle o’ stupidity. I have duty that goes past all that, an’ that means I can only take to the battlefield when I’m needed. But even more’n that? Spendin’ my forces like cheap peshorkies when I ain’t advancin’ th’ goal is straight-up evil.”
He glanced back at Uriigo and his expression hardened again. “Part o’ doin’ that is knowing what’s signal, an’ what’s noise. Even if ‘ya gotta smash the noise now an’ then…”
Uriigo, wisely, didn’t react in any way. He just stared back, ears up, back straight. Daar held his gaze for a moment, then duck-nodded and addressed the rest of his Champions.
“An’ another part is knowin’ when ‘ta delegate. Champions Fiin an’ Thurrsto are out there right now, an’ they in turn are learnin’ what they need ‘ta delegate even further. If there’s anythin’ we gotta learn from the Humans, it’s that we can’t govern ourselves like a pile o’ competin’ Clans anymore. That means my Champions gotta learn ‘ta let go. An’ ‘yer Brothers, they gotta learn ‘ta let you.”
He sat, which was an invitation for all the Champions to take their seat. Where the Great Father sat directly on the floor, however, the Champions sat on actual wooden furniture, in a series of expensive groans, squeaks and creaking noises.
It was both a gesture of high esteem on the Great Father’s part, and also an unsubtle reminder: he was still eye-level with all of them.
“I trust they’ll git ‘er dun proper-like. An’ the gaoian world don’t stop just ‘cuz of those greasy nutless Hunter fucks. So…unless anybody’s got more they wanna git outta their fur…shall we?”
Business concluded swiftly after that. The Great Father was in a bad mood, Uriigo remained very carefully silent and attentive for the rest of the session, and the same went for many of the others.
Champion Meereo got Matigu’s attention when Daar finally dismissed them, a small gesture with his paw and ears that said ‘walk with me.’ They left through the doors at one end of the room, while the Great Father made his exit through the other doors with the kind of inexorable speed that he only used when there was somewhere he intended to be, soon.
Clans Longear and Longback had always been close: the Longears were the offspring clan, descended from the much-rewarded deep sea divers who’d first laid the great undersea communications cables across the Equatorial Gulf toward the end of Gao’s industrial age.
They still looked much the same, but there were differences. Longears were sleeker and a bit taller, with much longer ears and slightly broader shoulders; they were naturally graceful athletes. Longbacks had shorter legs and stouter bodies that were noticeably more muscular; hard work at sea was their forté. Both still had dense glossy black fur and partially webbed fore- and hind-paws, though Longbacks had the thicker fur and retained more functionally useful webbing.
Both enjoyed the salt and the sea, and had little patience for kwekshit.
“You know, I think in another life the Great Father would have a lot of respect for Uriigo,” Meereo commented, once they were safely out in the gardens. The Great Father had personally guaranteed that the gardens were not monitored—a quirk of his particular sense of honor that had always left Matigu a little bemused—and that concession freed the Champions up to speak freely among themselves. Maybe that was the idea.
“Hard to believe,” Matigu replied.
“Is it, though? It’s pretty obvious he respects Uriigo’s personal bravery, if not his Clan.”
“And integrity,” Meereo added.
“—and integrity are going to get him killed.”
“He has little choice, I think. He has to earn a certain reputation in the Great Father’s eyes if he’s ever going to redeem his Clan of their sins.”
“There’s one of those words again.” Matigu sighed and looked up at the sky. “A lot of old words going around in the Great Father’s court these days.”
“Like, for instance, ‘Great Father.’ And ‘Court.’”
“Yes. Lots of… hmm… little steps into the past.”
Meereo shrugged, and stretched his arms over his head. “Maybe. I dunno, I think it’s more a step backward to take stock, myself.”
“I hope so. They say the future is built on the stones of the past, but sometimes I think we’re being a little too… literal about it. Reliving old ideas, rather than refining them.”
“Maybe. We did, after all, vote to crown him. Even Uriigo voted for that in the end. We can’t claim we went into this blind, he warned us what that crown properly meant. And in any case, whether you prefer ‘sins’ or ‘crimes,’ the Bronzefurs have been straddling the line between Civilized and Privateer for a very, very long time…” Meereo mused, following his own unravelling thread of thought while his ears weaved back and forth above him.
“…You wanted to talk with me about something.”
“And the war isn’t close to over yet. War is always an old-fashioned kind of time, I suppose. However modern the methods may be, the psychology is the same as it ever was…” Meereo continued, obliviously.
Matigu snapped him out of it with the gentlest of claw-touches to the arm. “Meereo… cousin, if I may. I’ve had enough of Bronzefur and Uriigo and the war and…” Matigu waved his paw vaguely back toward the council chamber, “…that, for today. What can I do for you?”
“Well… This is what I wanted to discuss.” Meereo said, turning to face him. “…You seemed shocked, back there.”
“Isn’t that natural? The Great Father seemed… I don’t know. Darker than usual, today.”
Meereo sighed. “Cousin… have you forgotten what his other duty today is?”
“He’s saying goodbye to an old friend…”
Date Point: 16y10m2w AV
Wi Kao city, Planet Gao
Yulna’s pyre was huge, and fierce. And, in a mark of Daar’s considerable respect, it was a wooden pyre rather than the industrial, gas-fired thing that was how the Gao usually said farewell to the dead.
Wood, to the Gao, was about as valuable as the same weight of silver.
There was probably some gas-fire trickery in there too, to make the flames so hot and so high that they completely obscured the body: It was supposed to be a dignified farewell, after all. Yulna’s cloth-wrapped remains had been laid among the logs with care and reverence by ceremonial guard-sisters, led by Guard-Mother Myun, but when the flames went up they had hidden her from sight, and when they subsided there would be nothing left but ashes.
Xiù had expected to cry. Instead, she found, she’d already done enough of that. There was a hollow feeling in her stomach, but also a warm little nugget of relief that at least her good friend—her Mother, in so many ways—wasn’t suffering any longer.
There weren’t many males at the ceremony. Gyotin and the Great Father of course, along with a few of his guard, plus Julian and Harrison a respectful distance back, but apart from them it was an almost exclusively female event.
Gaori tradition was to wait until after the flames were down to coals and embers before speaking. That meant a lot of silence. A lot of reflection. Plenty of time for quiet words and conversation.
Xiù spent much of it in conversation with Naydra, who kept looking over at Harrison.
“…You know, it’s a funny consequence of Giymuy’s decision to make you an honorary Gaoian that your cub—child, sorry—could technically be an honorary Gaoian too.”
“I…don’t know how appropriate it would be to stake ownership on his soul like that, as it were…. Besides, don’t forget his daddy’s an honorary Ten’Gewek.”
“A child of three species…” Naydra mused. “…I can’t decide if he’s fortunate or cursed… Oh my!”
That last was in response to Julian hoisting the baby aloft and swooping him around on his palm, which was Harrison’s idea of a great time and never failed to prompt a huge smile. It looked kind of alarming at first glance, but Xiù had grown used to it.
…Of course, Gaoian cubs were raised almost exclusively by females at this stage in their development. Naydra had likely never seen a male interact with an infant before. “…Do all Human males play so rough with the cu–the children?”
“Julian’s hands are the safest place in the whole galaxy,” Xiù declared, confidently.
Naydra watched him wrangle the baby a little more, ears twisting back and forth in the fascinating way a Gaoian’s ears always did when they were far away in thought, then shook herself and turned back to the present moment.
“…Thank you for bringing them,” she said. “I think it’s important to see the living examples of Yulna’s legacy. And her story.”
“She had quite a life.”
“Again…” Naydra managed a small, discreetly appropriate chitter. “I’m not sure if that’s fortune or a curse.”
“Well there’s an apocryphal curse that goes ‘may you live in interesting times.’ So, I guess we’re all cursed right now,” Xiù said. “But I don’t feel cursed. I feel very, very lucky.”
Naydra duck-nodded, slowly, then again rather more sharply. “…Yes. I know what you mean,” she agreed. She sighed and looked back at the pyre. It was dying now: soon, the speeches and eulogy would begin.
“I wonder how different things would have been?” she mused. “If you hadn’t been in that holding cell, where would we be? I’m sure it was miserable for you, and I don’t want to say that I’m glad it happened… but I am.”
Xiù gave her a small hug. “Don’t worry. I’m glad I was there too. It was a nightmare at the time, but now…” She glanced back at her son, her partners, and her daughter. “That’s life, really. At the time it might be terrifying and awful, but years later you can look back and see that, actually, you have something that you’d never give up because of it.”
Allison saw her looking at them, and probably gleaned a lot of what she was thinking just from her expression. She stopped playing with Anna, who was in a baby-carry on her chest, long enough to make a heart shape with her thumbs and fingers.
“I suppose…” Naydra agreed. “…Though I can’t help but feel that Yulna’s suffering was unnecessary. None of us are richer for her pain.”
“But she bore it.” Xiù watched the pyre carefully. The hidden gas was definitely being turned off, now. What had once been a head-height stack of logs was now a waist-high mount of black, white and glowing orange. The heat coming off it was skin-drying, even from several paces away. Of Yulna’s shrouded remains, there was no sign.
“Yes. That’s a lesson she taught everyone by example: how to bear it.”
Naydra’s thoughts trailed off as Gyotin tapped his staff on the stones at his feet, calling everyone’s attention his way and putting an end to the soft murmur of conversation. Without it, there was only the crack and snap of the wood.
He let the silence sit for just long enough, then duck-nodded toward the pyre.
“A Mother-Supreme,” he began, “Is tasked with many responsibilities. She is a leader both temporal and spiritual. She is a guide, a teacher, a care-giver and sometimes a source of stern discipline. She is, indeed, a mother. The mother of mothers, and thus mother to all the Gao… and in that sense, Mother-Supreme Yulna can rest easy knowing that she succeeded. Without her…”
He paused, then swept his staff around at all the gathered Gao. “You are alive because of her decision. Our people are alive because of her wisdom and vision. When she saw what the Gao truly needed, she had the courage to give it to us. Yulna, in our time of need, was mother to our future.”
He lowered the staff and rested his hands on it. “…Hers was a life characterized by pain,” he said, more softly. “Both of the mundane, physical sort, but also more intimate. She lost Sisters, and close friends, and cubs. She lost friendships. And always she kept her head up, her back straight, and her eyes clear. She was an example I will strive to emulate for the rest of my time… As should we all.”
The gathered mourners made assorted gestures of agreement. Gyotin duck-nodded, and concluded his speech.
“…Remember her well.”
Date Point: 16y10m2w AV
Out-system mining colony near Ugunduvuronagthuregnuburthuruv, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
The Hunters had stripped out everything they could carry. There wasn’t much left. Just the biggest and densest mining equipment that couldn’t be quickly disassembled or cut apart, left behind to tumble in null-G above the foundations and robbed-out walls.
With literal days to act, unharassed and unhurried, the Hunters had figuratively picked the carcass to the bone. There really wasn’t going to be much to report. In fact, the ransacking was so total that the difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ had become entirely academic in this case.
Dexter and Warhorse had something in common. They could hate like nobody else they knew. Oh sure, some people like Tigger or Righteous could rage harder than anyone, but rage was an ephemeral thing, a power of the soul that reveled in the moment. It was transitory.
Hate was forever. Neither of those two men truly understood it. And as for the real ice-bloods like Highland and Carebear…
The Unseen bless them, they were lucky to keep their balance the way they did. They were…well, they could choose who and what they loved, and that was that. They were natural killers to be sure, but that still wasn’t the same thing.
They lacked commitment.
Dexter and Warhorse could choose, too. But for Dexter, he’d chosen to hate the Hunters. He’d poured a little of his soul into the prospect of their destruction. They were evil.
Very few had seen just how evil for themselves.
He’d talked about it with Commander Mears a few times. The Human counsellor was no expert on Gaoian psychology, but when it came to darkness… well, he’d seen its many shades, through many men’s eyes. He was an expert on that at least, and that was what Regaari needed.
The search of the ransacked mining outpost was a formality, really. They’d known not to expect survivors, but it had to be done.
He had Warhorse by his side to help shift debris and generally serve as the first-rate medic he was. They were both armored up in case of traps. So far, they’d not found one…
…Nor more than a few dark mats of frozen blood stuck to the outpost’s remaining skeletal bulkheads.
There was, in short, nothing for Warhorse to vent his frustrations on. No wreckage to move, no obstructions to cut away, not even any bodies to bag. He was rapidly building into a great big ball of frustration, and woe betide anyone who got in his way when he finally got to unleash.
Regaari hoped it would be soon.
They had vengeance to dispense.
Date Point: 16y11m AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Another day of watching.
Ferd knew why. Only a foolish hunter took his prey too early, and foolish hunters died young. But after hands of days of watching the Big-Ear people struggle and get sick and die when their monsters came from the sky to take everything…
Well, his hands were itching. They wanted to make things right. They wanted to restore the balance. They wanted to kill.
But the Humans were very, very patient hunters. They watched, and they watched, and they noted things that Ferd wouldn’t have known to see, and they thought. Back on the ship, Wilde showed him on a thinking-stone how the stack of things they’d seen and watched was growing deep and wide. They were gathering a great Knowing, and if Ferd had learned anything in the last hand of years, it was that Knowing was a weapon.
That thought kept him calm, and kept his mind where it should be.
Still. It was a relief like the moment a storm broke after a hand of stifling days when Wilde finally announced, after a day spent watching old, sick and weak Big-Ears being herded into a big building and not coming out again, that he’d had enough of waiting as well.
“It’s time we phone home.”
Tooko had been dozing, curled up on the big bed with his tail over his nose. But his ears sprang up like young saplings and he raised his head looking like he’d never been asleep.
“Yeah. Get us aloft, Pip.”
Tooko flowed off the bed and through the cabin on four-paw, poured himself into his pilot seat, and started to do the many things he did with buttons and switches that made the ship work.
“We get to fight, yes?” Ferd checked.
“I bloody well hope so, mate.” Wilde’s voice had a growl in it. “I didn’t do all this work just to get blue-balled.”
Ferd hooted appreciatively, and went to sit by the seeing-stone that let him watch the world outside. Even on a sick and wounded place like this, seeing the ground drop away and the clouds roll out below, until even the mountains were so small they looked flat with the ground…
He watched every time, and this time he watched as the sky went dark, as the world curved and grew small behind them.
And then, when Tooko used the ‘warp drive’ it sped away behind them like a startled bibtaw and vanished. Just another light among all the others.
“…Two kilolights,” Tooko announced. “Minimum safe distance is one parsec. ETA… fourteen hours, eighteen minutes.”
That was… a longer wait than Ferd had really wanted. Frasier seemed to see his thoughts, there, and gave him a smile.
“Hurry up and wait,” he said. “No’ exactly fun, is it?”
Ferd stood up and found himself restlessly bouncing on his feet. “No. But Tooko ship-knowings keep us safe, yes?”
“Got to take it slow,” Tooko explained. “Too fast and we make ripples. Too many ripples, and they’ll catch us.”
Tumik nodded wisely. “All best things in life, take slow…”
“Not everything,” Frasier disagreed.
“What is best when done fast?”
“Driving, drinking and pulling, mate.”
“I hope none of those at once.”
“Hey, drinking and going out on the pull go hand-in-hand.”
“That explains the fuckin’ goblins you keep waking up next to…” Rees chuckled.
“Fuck off, mister ‘Happily Married…’ how is Rhoswen anyway?”
“She’s good. Thanks for asking.”
Ferd sighed, put the seeing-stone away, and flomped over onto the bed. There were only so many things he could do while waiting. He could work out, or he could sleep, or he could wrestle, or he could play Professor Daniel’s learning-games on his extra-strong thinking-stone.
…Or he could make the time go away in a blink with the stay-sis, but he didn’t like doing that. Something about it felt like strong sky-magic, and a smart man didn’t overstay his welcome with anything that powerful.
He settled for eating. The food in the boxes still tasted strange to him, but it was hot, and filling, and he was finally figuring out which bits were supposed to go together. Humans had strange rules about how some foods were for different parts of the day. That didn’t make much sense to Ferd, but he’d quickly learned that some of the things in the box did not go well when mixed.
He’d learned that the hard way when he tried to dip ‘apple stroo-del’ in his ‘mini-stro-knee soup.’
So, he ate. Then he cleaned up. Then he exercised. Then he (reluctantly) washed. Then he sat and tried some of the learning-games for a while, and got a new high score. That put him in a good mood so he spent some time wrestling with Nomuk until Wilde wearily asked them to ‘pack it in.’
When he glanced at the clock, Ferd found it had been… About four hours.
His groan made Wilde chuckle. “You were fine the whole way here,” he said.
“Was different!” Ferd replied. “That was travel. This is waiting.”
“Mate… either sleep or hop in the stasis crate. But you’re gonna go mental if you try and wait this out.”
He was right. Ferd sighed, and headed for the cargo bay, where he packed himself into the stay-sis, and pushed the big button. He wasn’t ready to sleep.
An eyeblink later, and the wait was over. Rees opened the box, gave him a friendly slap on the arm and jerked his head toward the front of the ship. “Pip says we’re past minimum safe,” he said. “Time to call in.”
Ferd nodded, and followed him back up the ladder. “…Who are we calling?” he asked.
“The Great Father,” Wilde replied, as he fiddled with the call-machine.
Even Tooko looked surprised and nervous at that. “…We can just call him up?” he asked.
“Well, no. We call the watch officer at the Pit, and he puts us through. But yeah… Go for W-link, Pip?”
Tooko nodded and did something with his buttons. “…Go.” He sounded almost afraid.
“Why so nervous?”
“Well, it’s just… he’s the Great Father. You know? I know he tries to be all approachable but…”
Wilde gave him a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, Pip. He asked us to call, remember?” he asked, and opened the link. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Date Point: 16y11m AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar was having one of his silent days, and the thing about him was that his silences could be very loud. Naydra’s Bumpkin was a sentimental sort of male, and she’d learned over the years that, if left to his own devices, he would be inclined to brood on those huge, deep feelings of his.
A Great Father couldn’t afford to indulge himself like that. He knew it of course, but he was only a male after all, and sometimes a boy needed a little help to pull himself out of a rut.
Fortunately, Daar had a couple of very big and very easy buttons to press.
They were walking from their personal transport toward the northern tower of High Mountain fortress, the tower where their personal apartments were perched high above the many courtyards and ancient battlements. She was strolling comfortably, upright and enjoying the sights and smells while Daar thumped along on all fours beside her and did his best to keep with her pace. He had a tendency to move quickly, but even that was subdued tonight.
The silence was, as the Humans said, deafening. Enough of that. Naydra chittered to herself and, before her nerves got to her, jumped up onto him and laid herself across his broad back.
That earned her a deep-chested chitter and a bemused look over his shoulder.
“…Kinda undignified ‘fer you, ain’t it?”
“I’m allowed to be undignified when I want.” She snuffled into his fur. “We all are.”
“Even you an’ me?”
“Especially you and me.” She squirmed forward up his back and playfully nipped at his ear. “Or is being whacked in the snout with a spatula every time you go to Cimbrean particularly dignified?”
Daar chittered at that. “Guess not. ‘Yer right. As always.”
It was Naydra’s turn to chitter. “How does that girl resist your endless charms?” she teased.
One of those charms was that Daar was in fact very much self-aware of his eccentricities. That never stopped him from playing them up, of course…
“Right?!” Daar chittered gleefully, “I got the most biggest muscles an’ the most biggest… wallet!” He threw in an ear-waggle to convey what he really meant. “What more’s a gal gotta have?!”
“Tell me it ain’t true!”
“Oh, those things help, certainly…but not with her it would seem!”
“Bah, she don’t know what she’s missin’! Tell ‘ya what though, it’s gonna be fuckin’ sweet when she finally gives in…”
“They all do eventually.” Naydra sighed and stretched out along his back. “Just don’t forget about me.”
“Never. Not ever.” Daar sped up to a trot now that he wasn’t keeping pace with her, and Naydra found herself enjoying the gentle wind between her ears.
“So what was on your mind?” she asked, now that she’d at least punctured the problem a little.
“…A whole chain’a things, startin’ with Yulna. I miss the crap outta her… Kinda regret I didn’t make peace with her sooner.” He sped up a bit as he spoke, though it was still a leisurely pace for him. “Gyotin was right, what he said at the funeral. If she hadn’t’a done what she did, there wouldn’t be Gao no more. But… Well. You know how much I don’t like the crown. Well…wearin’ it, anyhoo. An’ I hadta wear it today…”
“And she was the one who put it on your head,” Naydra duck-nodded. “Figuratively speaking.”
“Mmm.” He sighed heavily. “…But I shoulda got over my resentment sooner. She did the right thing. I shouldn’t’a been so angry with her for it, she din’t deserve that.”
“Did she know that, before the end?”
“Then you have nothing to regret, Bumpkin. Maybe you could have made up with her sooner, but how much worse would it be if you’d never come to terms?” Naydra scratched him behind his ears. “She gave you that crown because she knew you’d wear it well, and she was a tough old thing. I think she’d have been okay with it if you hadn’t ever forgiven her. But you did. And you parted as friends, yes?”
“Focus on that, then.” Naydra scratched behind his ears some more. “…It suits you, you know.”
“The crown. It looks good on you.”
“…Y’know something funny? Gyotin had the damn thing made o’ solid osmium so’s it’d be as heavy as fuckin’ possible. It’s like ten kilos or somethin’!”
“Hmm,” Naydra said playfully, “Far too heavy a burden for anyone else.”
“That’s a pretty unsubtle bit of analogy there…”
“Gyotin rather enjoys being unsubtle, when he can be. And you’re a very unsubtle foil.” She pinched his ear, playfully. “But you said you were thinking about a whole chain of things. What’s the next link?”
Daar sighed, more heavily than she’d heard him sigh in a long time. “You. Takin’ over from her. Everythin’ that means…”
“I haven’t been elected to that position yet. The election isn’t for another month.”
“‘Yer gonna be.”
“…Yes. Is that why you’re still wearing the crown?”
“…Maybe. ‘S weird, ‘ya sorta get the sense o’ when ‘yer s’posed ta’ wear it, yijao?” He gave her a complicated look over his shoulder and shook himself gently mid-stride, enough to communicate his feelings but not enough to dismount her. “Also, I ain’t s’posed ‘ta let anyone but me ever touch it. Easier ‘ta wear it than carry it…”
“Always so practical…” she teased.
“A crown ain’t practical! But they’re important. An’ the thing is, I gotta warn ‘ya, ‘yer gonna be crowned ‘yerself here pretty soon. The election’s gonna happen sooner’n ‘ya think, an’ after that…”
“…I know. It’s all happening very quickly, but… I feel ready for it.”
“…Might be you’re in ‘fer a nasty surprise,” Daar replied. “But… then again, you’ve had time ‘ta prepare. If anyone can be ready, it’s you.”
His words might have sounded patronizing, if Naydra didn’t know him so well.
“Well…if this thing is going to be, then I have a couple of requests.”
“Yes. The first…” Naydra tightened her arms around his neck. “How fast can you really go?”
The answer turned out to be… much faster than she would have guessed, but the really thrilling part was how agile he was even at speed. He had the strength and, between his immense weight, the sheer size of his rough paws, and the length of the sturdy claws that came with them, the grip to quite violently change direction as he took her on a three-lap circuit around the sprawling fortress’ outside walls.
She was too tired for a fourth lap. Simply staying on his wildly undulating back had made her paws hurt from gripping ‘round his neck and hips.
He knew exactly when to stop too, with no shortage of smugness in his voice.
“Coulda gone way faster, too…” he teased. “Hadta take easy ‘fer someone super important!”
Naydra massaged her aching paws, almost regretting her little moment of play. But, one didn’t play with a Brownfur if they weren’t okay with some exhaustion.
“So…” Daar shimmied his body happily, which was the real point of the activity. He wasn’t made to sit still, or be poised and regal for too long. He was made to move, and he’d be feeling better for what was, by his standards, a little light exercise. “…What was the second request?”
The crown was still there, still settled firmly on his head. His expression was…happy. Serene. Almost radiant. By the Mothers, for the first time since the coronation…it seemed right.
Nadrya sidled up closer and nuzzled against his strong neck. “I want another cub.”
That seemed to surprise and delight him, but as always he was concerned for her well-being.
“You’ve smelled ready ‘fer a while now…but are ‘ya sure? The next week’s gonna be busy Naydi, ‘fer both of us…an’ not to be crass, but conceivin’ a cub ain’t exactly light work…and, uh, I definitely ain’t an easy mate, even at my most gentlest…”
That last bit—his power, in every sense of the word—was one of the things that was most attractive about him…but he had a valid point, and he had always been one to worry, especially with her. Humans it seemed paid the cost of motherhood more toward the end, in their aptly-named Labor. With gaoians it was very much the other way around. There was a very good reason why Females were traditionally picky, and why a mating contract really was a signed, legally binding contract.
Among other things, it included an injury clause.
But she was ready. She’d already completed her half of the paperwork, in fact, and filled in as many of his details as she could, as she showed him when they reached their apartments and she indicated the small pile of documents on her desk.
“…Paper? We coulda just bumped our communicators together…”
He was touched, she knew.
“Some things are worth doing with a little more ceremony, don’t you think?”
“That they are.”
The pen was a gift from President Sartori. Made by Pilot, with a technique called Maki-e, it was a one-off “Emperor” sized writing instrument that would be preposterously large in anyone else’s paw.
Daar picked up the pen and considered it. Then he considered the forms.
He turned and looked her dead in the eye.
“If you ask me, I’d set aside all tradition, step down as Stud-Prime o’ my Clan, an’ swear myself t’you an’ you alone. ‘Ferever.”
That was…she ached to accept his offer. But she couldn’t. It was a moment of personal weakness that prompted him to offer, but she knew in her very soul it was genuine.
And… she also knew that his love of the Females was the most important thing there was. She couldn’t jeopardize that, under any circumstances. No matter what the personal cost may be.
She knew, then, what it truly was to be a Great Mother.
“Bumpkin…” she sniffed his nose, and nipped tenderly at it. “…I already have more of you than anyone else ever will. Don’t make offers you know I won’t accept.”
He nodded, signed the forms, and flowed around her like the loving predator he was. “Ain’t never met a stronger woman. Gods an’ the Unseen, I love you…”
He snuggled into her, sweeping her thrillingly toward their nest-bed, overwhelming her in the most beautiful way. She was ready, he was ready, everything was absolutely perfect. They wrestled as one: friends, soul-mates and lovers true. This was her Bumpkin at his most tender, his most fierce, the very best of any—
…And of course, that singular, perfect moment was when his communicator rang.
Date Point: 16y11m AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Sergeant Ian Wilde
Daar’s snarl was about the most terrifying thing Wilde had ever seen or heard.
“…’Yer one o’ only three people I’d let interrupt me right fuckin’ now, so…what’d ‘ya find?”
Tooko’s tail shivered nervously, and Wilde knew why. That was not the greeting a lowly Clan-Brother would want to hear from the most powerful Gao to ever live…
…Not the situation, either. Daar was sitting up in bed on full magnificent display, and the camera’s field of view told the full story about what exactly a Great Father did in his evenings.
Wilde stood straight-backed to give his report with as much dignity and discretion as he could muster. “The planet has natives, sir. A whole enslaved civilization, industrialized to a crazy degree with no regard for the environmental impact. As far as we can tell, the Hunters are taking that world for every resource it has, and they’re happy to snack on the slaves while they’re about it. Tooko also isolated the location of a Farthrow generator.”
The Great Father shifted and the camera went flying for a moment. After some grumbled protests, the image re-centered on his face, and mercifully kept…anything else…out of view.
“…Rapin’ a planet ‘fer resources, then. How wary d’ya think they are jus’ now?”
“Swaggering and confident, from what we saw. Every single facility we watched, it’s the same story: Slaves churning out fossil fuels, metals, plastics, whatever, and then the Hunters come and take it and maybe butcher a few by way of a thank-you.”
“Puny sick-skins murder sky-people for fun like little boy smushing bibtaw,” Ferd snarled. He’d changed since witnessing that first incident. Wilde reckoned the young Given-Man had a much firmer grasp on the stakes and the evil they were up against than he’d had before.
Then again, Ferd’s tribe had fled the fighting during the Hierarchy war on their homeworld, and their previous Given-Man had died fighting the Igraens’ machines. He hadn’t seen the enemy first-hand, before this mission. It had been harrowing enough for Wilde.
Their subsequent reconoittres of other facilities had followed much the same pattern. They’d seen other hapless, helpless aliens being literally worked to death, poisoned by the side products of their own labour, or cruelly eviscerated by their overlords.
One population stood out in Wilde’s memory: They’d been processing lead, or some other heavy metal. That was the only station the Hunters hadn’t fed at, but it made little difference: some of the workers had been so palsied and so obviously dying that leaving them alone was very probably the crueller option.
Daar’s deep eyes watched through the camera, he flicked an ear once, sniffed, and duck-nodded. Clearly he could see what they were all thinking.
“‘Kay…now riddle me this: how bad’ll me rammin’ the Grand Army down their throat make ‘em squeal?”
“…I imagine losing a whole industrialized planet, all its resources and a slave species would very painful for them, sir,” Wilde ventured.
“Is it worth killin’ a million Gao? ‘Cuz that’s gonna be the opening bet.”
That question was well above Wilde’s pay grade, but the answer he gave came quite guilelessly from the heart. “…Sir, after what we witnessed down there? I’ll lead the bloody charge myself.”
Daar duck-nodded. “Sarry. That weren’t fair. But I’m kinda in the mood ‘fer gettin’ to the point, yijao? So: can ‘ya knock down that Farthrow an’ get a beacon emplaced?”
“…Tooko?” Wilde turned to their pilot.
“I can flatten the generator, but SBD doesn’t have the firepower to break the shield around that facility. We’d need to deploy a Dump. A big one.”
“And ‘ya got literal tons o’ barbarian cavemonkey fun on-board with you, so…”
“We can do it,” Wilde affirmed. “We have the dump-web packs in their biggest sizes.”
“Good. I’ll call my general staff in’ the mornin’ when I ain’t busy an’ we’ll set things in motion. Anythin’ else?”
“Clan Longear may want to look at the signals I recorded, My Father,” Tooko said. “I’m no expert, but it looked to me like the Hunters are basing their work on our technology.”
“Okay. Fine. Make it so. Now, is there anythin’ that needs my undyin’ attention right now?”
Daar sighed. “Right. Good work, I mean it. Now you sit ‘yerselves in a nice, safe orbit an’ git me all the surveillance ‘ya can. We’ll be in touch in…balls, what time is it?”
A muffled voice mumbled something from off-camera…Wilde did his very best not to listen. “…Right, less’ say twelve standard hours, ‘kay? Git sum shuteye. Now if’n you’ll ‘scuse me…”
There was the beginnings of an obviously playful growl, and the video mercifully cut short.
For the Ten’Gewek, of course, that was pretty normal. They hooted appreciatively, made a few innuendo-laden comments in their own tongue that Wilde barely followed, and then went to follow his advice to sleep.
As for Wilde….
“Well. Now we know why he’s called the Great Father, I guess…”
“You had to go there…” Frasier muttered, though Tooko was chittering.
“Jealousy doesn’t become you, Wilde!”
“Dunno if I’d be jealous o’ something like that… I mean, how do any of his partners…?”
Tooko chittered again, then turned his attention towards the ship. “It won’t take me long to get us into a safe surveilling orbit. We can’t image the entire planet in ten hours but we can make a good first pass over the main continent.”
“Yeah. That’ll have to do.” Wilde turned toward the sleeping area. “Don’t neglect your own rest, Tooko. You’ll need it tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
Wilde nodded, and went to bed down. Worrying, sadly, was going to be a definite feature but he’d learned a long time ago how to not let that keep him from a good night’s sleep. After all, nothing his imagination could possibly create would be made better by fatigue and tiredness.
He hadn’t bothered to decorate his bunk much. Frankly, he hadn’t expected to use it much give Gaoian and Ten’gewek sleeping habits, but in fact they’d largely come to respect that humans had their own way of doing things. He settled in, noting with wry amusement that Rees was already snoring softly, and watched the ceiling for a minute as he filed away and sorted his own feelings.
Nerves? No. Well, some. But a lot more of it was anticipation. After all the horrors he’d watched over the last few days, he was itching to give the Hunters some much-deserved pain. It wasn’t going to be easy…
But it was going to be right.
He nodded to himself, shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and slept well.
Date point: 16y11m1d AV
Headquarters of the Grand Army of the Gao, planet Gao
Fiin, Champion and Stud of Clan Stoneback
“It’s dangerous over there. Never mind the Hunters, we’re going to lose more troops to the environment than to enemy fire if we aren’t careful.”
Fiin made a disgruntled noise as the analyst—a young, genetically conformant Whitecrest associate named Mekuulo—showed him a summary of all the environmental hazards the Grand Army would face on Mordor. The younger male had passed through the rites of Whitecrest’s First Ring and was now working on his qualifications to challenge the Second… one of which was spending some time here at Headquarters.
Champion Thurrsto and Father Regaari had given him strong recommendations. That all but confirmed the sleek young male he was looking at was an initiate of the Dark Rites.
Which meant Fiin had to watch his every word around him. Fiin didn’t know what the Dark Rites entailed, exactly—he was one of few outside Clan Whitecrest to even know they existed—but he knew they were…challenging, to put it mildly. One attempted them by invitation only, and rumor had it that many did not survive. If two of the more intimidating Gao he knew had gone through them and lived, then Mekuulo was one to watch.
They’d certainly resulted in a competent, sharp analyst.
“….Do we have enough protective gear?”
“For the first campaign wave, yes. Almost a million full sets of equipment. Most of the Grand Army will find it…burdensome…but then again, that would have been their complaint no matter the balance. Always, there is more ammo for the soldier to carry, more gear, more rations…”
“And most of the Grand Army are on the small side,” Fiin grumbled. That was unfair, really: the Grand Army trained hard and were almost universally strong and sleek, but against a well-conforming Stoneback…
“Logistics are confident they can keep the troops supplied with what they need to survive the poisons and radiation over there. Personally, I suspect we’ll see more than a few casualties due to simple negligence.”
Fiin sighed. “Ain’t nothin’ we can do ‘bout that. They’ve been given training, if they wanna risk irradiated balls that’s their own lookout.”
Mekuulo duck-nodded solemnly. “Anyway. The second and third cohorts are active and ready. Fourth, Sixth and Seventh are being called up, and should be ready by the end of tomorrow. First and Fifth have been recalled from field training exercises, they won’t be ready for at least five days. The rest aren’t yet trained and equipped for the environmental hazards.
“I presume they’re mustering at their parade grounds, ready for jump?”
“That’s right. Clan One-Fang are ready to jump seven heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, thirteen escorts and the orbital superiority platform Raining Vengeance. With its jump arrays and heavy lifters, we’ll have heavy armor on the ground within thirty minutes. Three wings of Voidrippers will be on hand for air support and interception.”
Fiin duck-nodded, satisfied that all was proceeding as smoothly as it could on such short notice. “…Right. Well, give the lockdown order, get everyone ready to go. I will brief the Great Father in our next meeting, where hopefully I will have a new Grandfather to announce…”
Mekuulo didn’t show any undue interest at all. No ear-flick, no sudden look, no nothing. He was the picture of perfect self-control.
As the Humans would say, bullshit.
Stoneback still kept a few secrets, and one of them was their Nose: specifically just how far they’d developed it over the centuries. Fiin took a surreptitious sniff of Mekuulo as he prowled past. The faint note of excitement was impossible to disguise, though the slightly ionized after-scent on the air suggested he was trying.
Most anyone else would have been fooled, it was so faint. But a ‘Back who’d mastered the Third Ring? Mekuulo still had a few things left to learn.
Not many, though.
Fiin left the young Associate to his work, and stalked back towards his shuttle car. He’d need to be on the parade grounds soon, and fully armored. Establishing the clawhold was going to be a Stoneback job, the kind of thing Third Fang was made for, ably supported by the urban assault specialists of Second Fang.
He’d be no Champion at all if he wasn’t there in the first jump. He’d be a pretender, an impostor. In that regard, Human leaders had it easier.
But they’d all have wanted to be there too.
The time to go to war had finally come, and the Grand Army was ready.
Date point: 16y11m1d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Sergeant Ian Wilde
The thing that Wilde never got his head around was the idea that a spaceship could be as quiet as a breeze. Deadly could fly supersonic, and that obviously wasn’t quiet, but at low speeds she could be pretty much entirely silent. And of course, her cloak made her entirely transparent across the visual spectrum, with not even the faintest blurring or distortion around the edges to give her away.
The intersection of these two capabilities meant Tooko could drop them right next to the target facility, pulling a lazy aerobatic slow roll between two fat cooling towers before alighting as softly as a falling leaf, as close as he could possibly get while still having some concealment to hide the three humans and four Ten’gewek who promptly disembarked. The only noise Deadly made as it took off again was the faint sound of her ramp closing. It was… eerie.
The Hunter wormhole-blocker was a staggeringly ugly bit of architecture. The actual field emitters at the epicenter thrust up from the ground on the most bare-bones of functional scaffolding, and drew power from a trio of what they guessed were nuclear power plants, equidistant around it and sealed away inside blank concrete tombs that the acid rain had stained yellow. Electrified razor fences sealed the gaps between the buildings.
All told, it was almost like the Hunters had deliberately set out to build the most egregious eyesore in the universe. It certainly didn’t impress Ferd, who made a quiet sort of disgusted noise in his throat. Granted he was also wrapped up in a sealed, full-bodied set of nuclear-biological-chemical warfare overgarments, but the sentiment wasn’t wrong.
They darted forward by the numbers, wasting no time. Tumik, Genn, and Nomuk had the dump webs, all six of the ones the ship had in cargo. Although they only planned to use three, they were only going to have one shot at this, and had to prepare for the possibility of redundant shielding. Best to not half-arse it.
This wasn’t a facility run by the natives. This one was all Hunters, and it showed in the architecture, the signage, the weird dimensions. A species with six legs designed their stairs a little differently, building them deeper and less steep. The doors were tall and square, all the equipment mounted on it at at head-height, for a human.
The hump up to the facility wasn’t so bad. They had to play it carefully of course, sticking to the twisty bits of terrain and the occasional half-dead clump of foliage to conceal their approach. That part was the bit that had worried Wilde the most. Ten’Gewek in general were…well, they were naturally better athletes than anyone at basically everything, but that weirdly worked against them, because they didn’t really need to work at anything to be good at it. That meant that, beyond trained skills, their real practical weakness was their conditioning. Or, lack thereof.
For ambush hunting? That was just fine. A long walk carrying something well within their strength to carry? Not so bad. But soldiering, though? That involved a lot of force-march and weird movement across long stretches of awful land. Exactly how much that sort of thing sucked was a rude awakening for his cavemonkey friends, who didn’t much like the idea of their “weak” little humans so easily upstaging them over distance.
So, they’d trained, and trained hard, and done so because Ferd refused to let Wilde beat him at anything. The result was…well, they still didn’t quite have a forty-mile ruck in them, but if any group of cavemonkeys ever would, it would be Wilde’s crew. Oki hadn’t proven up to the task and had to part ways with the team, but the remaining four proved they could hack it. Not bad at all. The approach was therefore…almost entirely free of drama. It was certainly no fun in NBC gear but, well, it could always be worse.
They pulled up into cover right next to the facility with everyone ready to breach. And if Wilde and his men seemed to have executed the approach a bit better, he didn’t gloat about it. Practice would no doubt eventually make perfect.
Besides, the Ten’Gewek got their moment to shine, because as it turned out, hulked-out talking apes could do things with the architecture that humans couldn’t. They could climb like Peter Parker himself and jump like a goddamned salmon. Perfect for overcoming fences. Nomuk ignored one electrified razor-wire fence by the simple expedient of charging at the wall beside it, scrambling up it, grabbing the top and swinging one-handed around the corner, then dropping back down again.
From there, cutting the power was easy for him, and a mere wire fence was no obstacle at all after that.
The first Hunter—a Builder—blundered into them within a hundred yards of the shield boundary. Wilde’s team saw it coming a mile off and went to ground, laid a trap that it promptly stumbled into.
Ferd landed on it from above like an angry boulder with hands. Killing a Hunter had to be done before they had a chance to signal alarm, and having a Ten’Gewek’s explosive quickness along with four literally rock-crushing hands turned out to be a big advantage in that regard.
In one perfect moment of impact, Ferd simultaneously crushed and snapped off its head, used his fookin’ ridiculous weight to pulp its torso and his feet to crack its spine apart like a glowstick, just in case it had any neuroelectronics that might’ve given them away; they’d all enjoyed that bit in training. The builder died instantly.
Decon was going to be an absolute bitch tonight, but…
They moved on without any celebration. For the Ten’Gewek, this was like the most serious of tribal raids, the kind where they would descend like reavers and none would be left alive. It was very rare they went that far—war for them was usually a sort of extreme contact sport more than anything else, and almost always ended in a playful orgy rather than pillage—but when a tribe had so transgressed that they needed to die, Ten’Gewek were a species made to be vicious.
For best results, they were going to attach the dump webs in three spots, just in case the shields were segmented. That way, they could give Tooko a clean shot from pretty much any southern approach. By pure dumb luck—or pure dumb architecture—the Hunters apparently didn’t appreciate windows in their buildings, so every facet of the complex was nothing but towering grey concrete things that made a Soviet Khrushchyovka look decorative.
Wilde and his men rapidly secured the perimeter and got some practice in with their knives. Two blades in exactly the right places could do much the same as Ferd’s insane strength, if not as easily or immediately. They took the opportunity for some sensor emplacement too, because while they were dealing with patrols before the locals noticed…
The Ten’Gewek were climbing those flat, featureless walls after having easily leapt clear over the tall underhangs along the bottom of the wall. They climbed by simply gripping the concrete so hard, their fingers crushed handholds in as they swarmed effortlessly up the corners faster then Wilde could jog across the ground. They’d climbed a very tall building in full gear and with more equipment on their backs than Wilde could even budge, and done so as easily as he would by just standing up.
That feat of monkey-muscle all by itself made the mission possible. Just getting up to the wall would have been a major challenge without them; the start of its flat surface had to be about two storeys or more off the ground. And after that, Wilde and his men would have needed to carefully scale a flat concrete slab of a wall, break out ropes and pitons and hoist the dump webs up one by one…all of that would have taken far too much time. Ten’Gewek didn’t need pitons. Or rope. Hell, Ferd didn’t even bother climbing at the corners. He ran straight up the wall using just the fierce grip in his feet, keeping his arms free to wield his rifle in defense of his men, who were stuck on the semi-exposed corners using all four hands. The big bastard had by far the heaviest load too, and didn’t bother with any prep. He just jumped up like a flea and rammed his toe-fingers straight through the concrete almost like it was cork. Jesus.
The first dump was emplaced without issue. They looked and worked rather like an oversized claymore mine, complete with “this face toward target” printed clearly on one side. When triggered, they would explode an electrostatically sticky mess of superconductive fibers all over the shield in front of them, grounding and short-pathing the shield while simultaneously dumping an enormous stored electrical charge into it.
There was absolutely nothing more effective in the whole galaxy at completely and instantly overwhelming a forcefield and leaving its emitters as a half-molten smoking mess.
The second, too, was in place before the Hunters noticed anything was amiss.
When the Hunters finally responded there was nothing like a commotion, a klaxon, flashing lights or anything of the kind. The only thing that gave them away was when, as one, every Hunter in line of sight immediately stopped whatever they were doing and made a beeline for the concrete building.
Time to start shooting. Ice-calm, with perfectly steady hands, Wilde spoke the first words he’d uttered since leaving the ship.
They sent it. Hunters died.
Wilde’s men were fantastic shots, and their targets were serviced with maximum economy. The cavemonkeys were pretty good too, especially considering they had leapt down from the top of the building, which was high enough up that they had time to pull their rifles and send pinpoint-accurate fire downrange for a shocking count of seconds, before their ground-shaking impacts shattered the concrete under their feet.
Monkeycommandos were the best thing ever.
Still a bit raw on tactics, though. They didn’t start moving until Rees’ own motion jogged their memories. Not a good mistake to make, but if they lived through this they’d probably not make it again.
That next bit might be tricky. Firstly, Wilde and crew needed to bug out without getting perforated or otherwise dead. Secondly, they needed to do that before the Hunters noticed the special packages they’d left behind, one of which still needed to be placed.
And they needed to get clear so Tooko could send the real fun.
Wilde led the push up. The first actual Hunter—the white ones with the teeth and claws, rather than the nerds—put in an appearance as he did so, barging out of a large steel door thirty feet in front of him, premature and too eager. He dropped it with a neat triple-tap then put a grenade through that door in case it had friends.
The slaughterhouse aftermath said it had.
Behind him, Genn set up the third and final dump web and sang out his success. Time to go, before this turned into a real cake-and-arse party. They dropped smoke grenades, and pulled back under its concealment.
Another awesome fact about monkeycommandos: while they didn’t necessarily have a human’s all-day endurance, they could move like the wind when they needed to, and do so across three dimensions like gravity wasn’t even a thing. This they used to great effect when they made for cover. Ferd snapped up Wilde like a rugby ball and flung them both behind cover, up over around down and sideways across all obstacles, sprinted across the open terrain jinking all the way, then finally slammed them both ignominiously into a fetid ditch, well behind cover.
Thank Christ for their overclothing. It was hot, annoying and itchy, but at least it kept them fully sealed against whatever slimy diseased radioactive horrors they were wallowing in now.
Back around the target, the dump webs went off. Strobing, white-blue light like a fuckup at a power substation made the Ten’Gewek wince even through their ballistic eyepro, and Wilde plainly saw a writhing ribbon of plasma climb into the air.
He keyed his mic. “Pippin… ACTION!!”
That was Tooko’s cue, and their diminutive Gaoian pilot delivered. Barely two seconds after the word left Wilde’s mouth, there was a rip-tearing noise and the Angel of Death himself smashed by overhead.
Wilde had always appreciated air support. Hell, he’d even had occasion to thank the Yanks and their wonderful aircraft in distant sandy wars. He’d never quite appreciated the artistry of it all… but Tooko was clearly a Jedi fucking master at his craft. No wonder the Great Father had personally picked him for this mission.
He wasn’t quite sure what that said about the rest of them.
The whole complex went up, beginning with the all-important Farthrow apparatus in the middle. Those concrete monstrosities around the edges folded and tipped inwards as whatever invisible destructive force Tooko had at his clawtips gouged their supporting walls out. It was the fastest, most crushingly effective demolition job Wilde had ever seen, and it happened in a very literal flash.
Where the greatest obstacle to the invasion had been, a pillar of pulverized concrete dust unfurled lazily into the air.
Now, they were in a race against a second clock. When one Hunter knew a thing, every Hunter knew. The entire planet knew what was going on the instant the fight got started, and that meant they had to get things taken care of right fucking now.
This was Ferd’s biggest job. He had by far the heaviest pack on him, a compact device that, when deployed, would fire megalight drones into the air, snap a jump portal into being, and bring forth the hammer of Daar’s Grand Army. He wedged the package firmly down in a patch of damp, soft earth, heaved the cover off, pushed the very appropriate Big Red Button, and stood back.
He sprang back a little further when the ground-to-orbit mortars fired with their characteristic gut-kicking WHAM!! and streaks of superluminal blue light flashed into the sky. That done, the package violently ejected the mortar tubes and unfolded like clever LEGO origami. In a handful of complicated, clicky seconds it had unfolded into a twenty foot cube.
There was the edge-of-hearing whine of capacitors, and….
The liberation of Mordor began.
++End Chapter 61++
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This chapter is dedicated to the memory of CHESTER, who was a Good Boy.
It 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
Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker
(â˜ ÍœÊ– â˜)
Joshua Mountain Taylor
Nicolas Gruenbeck Ortheri
As well as sixty-two Deathworlders…
Austin Deschner Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Alex Hargott Alex Langub Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Arnor atp Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. Dar David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso Elizabeth Schartok Elliott Riddle Eric Johansson Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jason Dyer Jim Hamrick Jon Kristoffer Skarra Logan Rudie lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. mihkel miks Mikee Elliott Myke Harryson Nathan Wentworth NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Phil Winterleitner Richard A Anstett RJ Smiley Ryan Ryan Cadiz Sam Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin Stephen Prescott Stratigan theWorst Tyler Kelloway Volka Creed William Kinser Woodsie13 xxarmondxx
…Seventy-six Friendly ETs, 119 Squishy Xenos and 294 Dizi Ra -(splat)
Please note that the above patron information is incorrect, and will be corrected after the holiday season
“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.
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Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 62: “Tooth and Claw”