Chapter 62: Tooth and Claw
Date Point: 417th Year of the Punishment
Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, the Great Ruin
Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant
The Chant had always promised a day when the Punishment would end, but Uku had never imagined she would live to see it.
Perhaps she hadn’t, yet. But there had been a bright flash in the sky, and the Punishers had abandoned their torments to somewhere else, and hope had a death-grip on Uku’s innards. It was a sick, forlorn, desperate hope, and only for something small—that maybe there was a future other than endless sickness and toil—but right now it was turning over in her belly like her babies once had.
For now, she and the rest of her flock did what they always did when the Punishment reached a lull: they prepared. A lull could mean many things. Sometimes, it had presaged raids on the other Libraries, sometimes a vast order from the Punishers to produce more, sometimes a great orgy of slaughter with no clear purpose…
In such times, the Faithful had learned to pack their carefully saved knowledge safely in its crates and prepare to scatter the library deep into the tunnels in the hopes that some texts would survive.
For Uku, there was a new task, however: a Listening. She sat among the frantic bustle as her people locked books away and loaded them onto carts and rails, and she Heard.
Listening and Hearing were more than just being there and letting the flock speak. It involved serious concentration as she committed their words to memory and added them to the Chant, as she had trained her whole life. The Chant was the only sure way to keep the Wicked People’s history and knowledge alive. It was the only way they could ever know what their ancestors had done so wrong that God must have hated them enough to inflict this punishment upon them all.
But this? This was a strange Listening. Ten of her flock had witnessed it, all had told the same story when separated, and her scribes had taken their first notes. Now it fell to Uku, as their Librarian, to add their account to the Chant and pass it on to the other Librarians.
“They weren’t Punishers. There were seven of them, three as tall as trees and quick as the wind, four as big as boulders with long tails. They appeared out of nothing on a whisper of breeze and attacked the three towers.”
The youngest one, barely a child and hardly old enough to be out on the surface toiling under the Punishers’ lash, was almost bouncing with excitement. “One of the big ones jumped over a shock-fence! Just… leapt over it!”
His older brother, whom Uku knew was old enough to feel the cares and hardship of the world as adults did, was just as enlivened. “Then they climbed the towers! Straight up the outside, like their hands were covered in glue!”
The boys’ father quietened them with a gesture, but even he was visibly shaking, from a mix of awe, fear, and that same terrible hope that was wriggling inside Uku. “…Then there were loud bangs and a great blaze of white light and lightning flashes, and the Punishers’ invisible walls just… collapsed. And the attackers ran away again, and… Keeper, it was like the Almighty spoke and told those towers to fall. The ground shook, the sky tore open and everything came crashing down in fire and smoke….”
Most telling of all, though, was the Old Man. A whole forty summers old, and even his eyes were bright with inspiration. Even so, he spoke more cautiously than the others. “The most amazing part wasn’t any of that, though. These…whatever they were, they broke the Punishers, as if they were insects underfoot! They carried death-wands, and wherever they pointed them, the Punishers died. But if they got within arm’s length, then they just… destroyed them. With blades and with their bare hands.”
“After the towers fell…” Uku asked, “then what?”
The four looked at each other. Finally, the old man cleared his throat and spoke for all of them. And his words made the hope in Uku’s belly squirm a little harder.
Date Point: 16y11m1d AV
Conclave of Champions, High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Hiyal, Champion of Clan One-Fang
Champion Fiin in full battle gear was an inspiring sight, even though his image was grainy, janky and low-resolution thanks to the limitations of wormhole comms. He was bloody to the elbows, and his teeth were bared in an unconscious warlike snarl even as he made his initial report to the Great Father’s court.
From Hiyal’s perspective, the impression was heightened by the fact that Fiin’s hologram was standing in front of the great mural of Fyu on the battlefield at Wi Kao. Fiin was Stoneback after all, which meant that somewhere deep in his ancient ancestry was the first Great Father himself. The juxtaposition drove that relationship home quite well.
“Initial deployment is moving along quite nicely. It’s clear we caught the Hunters by surprise. All they seem to have is numbers, and I haven’t yet met a competent tactician on the field. I don’t expect that happy state of affairs to last, however.”
Daar duck-nodded seriously. He was wearing the crown on this occasion with his court in full attendance, and sitting on the floor next to Fyu’s ancient throne—Fyu had been a much smaller Gao, and Daar couldn’t have fit in the throne even if he wanted to. But he’d always refused to even contemplate having it replaced with one in his own size.
Knowing the Great Father, the symbolism at play was far more complex than a first sniff might suggest.
“How d’you see ‘yer situation evolvin’ in the short term, My Champion?”
“…I’ve got more’n enough feet on the ground, what I ain’t got enough of is transportation. Could do with some more experienced leadership, too. An’ then there’s the natives to think about. First Contact is imminent, My Father, an’ I don’t have anyone who can handle it.”
The Great Father’s brow furrowed in thought. “Balls…Champion Thurrsto, what say you?”
“Father Garaaf,” Thurrsto decided after a moment’s consideration. “His experience on the ring megastructure may be of some use.”
“Hmm…yeah. Call ‘em up ‘fer a chit-chat, wouldya? I mean…if he can stand smellin’ me.” Daar threw in a disarming ear-waggle for good measure; a ripple of chittering dispelled some of the tension in the room, and Thurrsto pant-grinned good naturedly.
“I’m sure he won’t comment, My Father.”
“Good. As ‘fer experienced leadership, well…that I can help with, if’n we got the skies secured. Champion Hiyal! I hope you’ve got a report for me…”
Hiyal most certainly did. “The Raining Vengeance and its escorts are already in-system. We have four footballs deployed around the planet, a double layer pointed outward and another double-layer inward. So far, the inter-shield orbital gap appears to be clear of hostiles, though a complete ESDAR sweep will take five days to confirm that. Ground-to-orbit fire missions are already available over the invasion clawhold’s hemisphere.”
“Good. How soon ‘fore we can protect the planet with a Farthrow?”
“The Destroying Fury is resupplying and will be ready to jump in three hours..”
“Good. Some o’ you got a date with th’ Fury in a few hours, then. I have matters here ‘ta take care of, so I’ll be joinin’ ya tomorrow. I know you’ll have things ready ‘fer me.”
Hiyal had wondered what the answer to that question might be: the answer was yes, the Great Father would take the field. He’d been increasingly willing to delegate on numerous matters of military importance, but with his Clan’s Champion wearing three hats and selection still running for Grandfather and General of the Grand Army, combined with a planetary invasion…
Most of the Conclave would remain behind, of course. In fact, only Stoneback, One-Fang, Firefang, and Whitecrest would send their Champions (and their retinue) forward.
Daar looked around at them, duck-nodded once, and straightened up. “…Get ‘yer shit in order. Be on the jump platform in two hours. Go.”
The Conclave was thereby dismissed, though Hiyal had no particular urgency in leaving the room. He’d anticipated this, and put things in order already. He’d visit his private locker briefly near time to collect the bag with the few things in it he wanted to take with him, but other than that…
He toured the garden instead. Despite his assurances to the Great Father, the fact was that their destination was deep in Hunter space, and presumably of great value to the Hunters. As much as they’d done to secure a clawhold and make it as safe as it could be, there was nowhere in that entire stretch of space that a sane being would call genuinely safe. Only comparatively safe. Relatively safe.
What did relative safety mean in orbit around a planet the Hunters had ruled over for Keeda knew how long? Not a lot, probably. But there was nothing to be gained by worrying about it, so Hiyal did his best to distract himself with the sights, sounds and smells of the Fortress garden.
He’d always especially liked the herb garden. So he sat and luxuriated in its gentle, homely scents and was honestly quite grateful when nobody came to offer him words of wisdom or comfort. He was just… left alone, to think and prepare himself.
Sometimes, solitude was best for the mind.
Eventually, a bell over the walls roused him back to duty and wartime. He visited his locker, grabbed his bag, reported to the jump array…
…And went to war.
Date Point: 417th Year of the Punishment
Tunnels under Old-Bent-Leg, the Great Ruin
Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant
Another rumble shook dust from the ceiling, and Uku held her breath. The Penitents had done their best, but the demands of their holy punishment in unholy form had always made it difficult to maintain the ancient warrens and catacombs properly. The Punishers worked the faithful hard: often, the soul might be willing to tend to necessary repairs, but the vessel was too tired and the thoughts too clouded by grief.
Librarians rarely visited the surface. It was too dangerous. If the Punishers found them, slew them, ate them, then whatever they had added to the Long Chant and not yet had time to record or share with the others would be lost. The Chant would diminish, and that above all else was the one thing the faithful worked to preserve.
But she had to see this army for herself.
She saw the sky for the first time in… a moment’s recollection… it had been half a year. Since the last Gather, when the Librarians had been smuggled together to share the Chant, check each other’s memories and ensure that the history remained alive and unspoiled. She hadn’t expected to see it again until the next Gather, but here she was.
It was as dreary as she remembered. The Chant had it that once, long ago, the sky had been blue, and that clouds had been small white things. Not a low, heavy ceiling held up on pillars of smoke.
There were more of those than she remembered, and not coming from stacks and chimneys either. Many of them rolled upwards from oily conflagrations on the ground where some kind of force had decided that Something Must Die.
As she watched and wondered, a pair of somethings clawed the air apart with a fearsome noise as they slashed by overhead. Uku only got the barest glimpse of them, they were so fast, but the impression she got was slim and bladelike. Thunder reached her ears a few seconds later, and as she and her bodyguards crept forward she realized that a new black pillar was now boiling upwards some distance away.
“It’s not safe out here!” Uku’s oldest bodyguard announced fervently, raising his voice over the echoing sounds of destruction.
“It must be witnessed!” Uku retorted. Whatever this was, whatever was happening… it was epochal. The Chant demanded that a Librarian should see it with her own eyes.
There were a series of sharp explosions and the rattle of what could only be weapons fire from nearby, and Uku was immediately pushed to the back of the group, into the shadows where she could be rushed away through the tunnels if the Punishers happened upon them…
Instead, something new rounded the corner. The penitents shrank back in fear, Uku among them, but they were not immediately set upon and slaughtered. Instead, the new… things… noticed them, one of them touched the side of its head, spoke words that Uku didn’t understand, and they moved on. As they did, the one that had spoken gestured sharply at Uku and her bodyguards, pointing firmly back into the tunnels.
The meaning couldn’t have been clearer. ‘Go back. Not safe here.’ And this time, Uku could say nothing to explain. How could she? If this thing spoke her language, it would have… well, spoken.
With no communication possible, how could she possibly let it know what the Chant demanded? Would doing so have been safe, even if she could? Even now, the fear boiling inside her was that this was all some elaborate torment designed to add a cruel new twist to the Punishment.
So rather than try to argue, she committed the thing’s form to memory, thought about how to describe it.
Under its thick protective clothing, she judged it to be tall and lithe, though its legs and arms were slightly short in proportion to its body. It looked a little ungainly and slow when it walked, though when it clipped its weapon to its chest and dropped down to all fours to catch up with the others it became a creature of easy, flowing motion.
Other than that, the details were hard to see. It was entirely covered in armor and heavy mottled cloth, with lots of equipment pouches and pockets on top. The mask covering its face had given nothing away.
But they weren’t immediately descending gleefully on the Penitents and devouring them. That was an unheard-of blessing in its own right.
“…I’ve seen enough,” Uku decided. “Back to the Library.”
With tangible relief, they left the sky behind them again. There would be time later to meet these new things properly. Maybe it would still be a slaughter when they did.
But maybe it wouldn’t. And that was more than Uku could have said yesterday. As they scurried back down into the warrens to comparative safety, she found that the hope in her belly wasn’t a sickly little flicker any longer. Now it was dense and heavy, and felt like it was coiling up her throat to choke her.
She didn’t dare let it warm her, yet. Hope was a kind of poison, in Uku’s experience. But it wouldn’t go away.
All she could do was wait and see.
Date Point: 16y11m2d AV
Private Apartments of the Great Father, High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Garaaf, Father of Clan Whitecrest
“…It’s been a long time.”
Personal invitations from the Great Father for a day of hunting and sport were decidedly rare. It was Champions and heads of state who usually received such hospitality, not haggard old Fathers of martial Clans. That the invitation also came from the all-but-certain future Great Mother was unheard of.
They were sending a hell of a signal of esteem, and that was a thing which would make anyone nervous. But Garaaf was a grizzled Father of Whitecrest, and that meant the reason for his invitation could only be one thing: terrible duty.
They met him at the base of the Fortress’s tallest tower, where Garaaf was subjected to Daar’s infamously boisterous affection. Of course, Garaaf was no stranger to those spine-creaking hugs and Daar’s relentlessly excitable cheer. What was different…was the maturity.
Young Daar wasn’t so young any longer. Wasn’t so blissfully happy, either. Garaaf had known the Great Father for a time, through his close relationship with Regaari and through watching him become Stoneback’s youngest Stud-Prime ever, tied for their youngest Champion.
There was a weight of care on his brow now, a crown that rested heavily there even when it wasn’t, in fact, being worn. He had the air of worries that a kinder life would have spared him, though by the look and smell of him, he was more vigorous and healthy than ever.
He’d grown, too. Substantially. He’d always been a rangy and athletic giant, but now he’d transformed himself both physically and figuratively into an unequaled embodiment of power.
It suited him, Garaaf found himself thinking a bit uneasily. Because if not Daar…then who?
And then there was Naydra, who achieved with grace, poise and warmth what Daar achieved with size, strength and claws. Though Garaaf had never met her, she welcomed him into their private world like a friend. Garaaf would have guessed he’d be immune to charm like that and was a little bemused to find that, in fact, he wasn’t.
Daar chittered at Garaaf’s greeting. “Figgered you wouldn’t stand on ceremony,” he said.
Garaaf duck-nodded and bowed slightly in respect. “I doubt you’d like it if I did.”
“Eh, a ‘Back gets used to it. Whatever people need, yijao?”
“That seems… more accommodating of you than I’d been led to expect.”
“Oh? What tales are they tellin’ ‘bout me these days?”
Garaaf chose to answer diplomatically. “Oh, most good, some a bit more excitable…”
“Well, I do tend ‘ta scare most people I meet no matter how friendly I try ‘ta be, so…”
“Their nervousness might have more to do with how you have needed to, ah, resolve certain problems among leadership.” Which was as politely as Garaaf could possibly put it. The people in general loved the Great Father for all he’d done and all he’d sacrificed to save the Gao. But they also feared him, not necessarily because of his sheer stupendous presence, but because he’d repeatedly demonstrated his complete and total willingness to wield that immense power of his to destroy anything—or anyone—who became a hindrance to the Gao’s interests.
That he’d personally obliterated two impressive Champions and their equally impressive Grandfathers without so much as a grunt of effort didn’t help matters in the Conclave, either. Or so the reports had gone. Conclaves were always secretive affairs. But there was no denying the mangled corpses that had twice come from their meetings.
Daar didn’t flinch from any of the implications. Instead he challenged Garaaf directly. “That’s a polite way ‘ta talk about me murderin’ a pair o’ dangerous Champions.”
“An impolite way seemed imprudent.”
“Was that ‘cuz ‘yer afraid I might jus’ do the same t’you?”
“Not without provocation I think, but this is a test, and many of the tests I’ve been through in the past turned out to be deadly. Such a life tends to make one… perhaps excessively wary.”
“You ain’t needed ‘ta fear ‘fer anythin’ from me, Garaaf. You ain’t a threat to the Gao.”
“Knowing something in your head is not the same as knowing it in your heart, My Father. And I think that bothers you, doesn’t it?”
That was maybe a bit daring, but Garaaf was old, and he could afford to test the Great Father too, maybe just a little. It paid to know one’s leadership, after all.
“…Yeah. I don’t mind bein’ dominant an’ intimidatin’…not so much a fan of bein’ a terror.”
“Well…if it makes you feel better, I’m only a little terrified of you.”
Daar chittered again, and glanced at the Mother-Consort. “Toldya. Honest an’ tactful!”
She chittered too, and gestured toward the doorway at the base of the tower. “You’re not one for ceremony and titles, are you Father Garaaf?”
“I respect the roles, and the people filling them,” Garaaf replied evenly. “When I first heard there even was a Great Father, I knew our people were in trouble up to our ears, and when I heard who he was… well. It was a surprise.”
“Came as a surprise ‘ta me, too,” Daar rumbled. “Yulna pulled out somethin’ there that woulda made Keeda himself laugh his tail off an’ fall in love with her.”
Garaaf allowed a small echo of a chitter himself. “But no, to answer your question directly. I’ll not burden either of you with more pomp and ceremony than is strictly required.”
“Thank you,” Naydra replied, and Garaaf could tell that it was more than just polite acknowledgement: she was sincerely grateful.
“Y’ever rounded up free-range naxas before, Garaaf?”
“I can’t say that I have… should I presume I’m about to?”
“Yup.” Daar rolled on four-paw toward the steps. “My herd needs time out on the moorlands, but you gotta bring ‘em back in now an’ then ‘ta check on ‘em. So that’s what we’re doin’.”
This was not entirely unexpected from Garaaf’s perspective, and nor was it an idle waste of time on the Great Father’s part. Clearly he was taking the matter of the ‘Mordor’ natives very seriously indeed, so rather than just summoning Garaaf and giving him a job, Daar wanted a chance to sniff out whether he really was the right candidate for the job.
Which was fair. Garaaf had already been a well-respected Father of his Clan when Daar first crashed into the stratified social world of the Clans, and he knew there was now rather a hefty imbalance in how much they knew about each other. While Garaaf had a full psychological profile and his own extensive observations to work with, Daar surely had less.
Perhaps that was where Naydra came in. She was less of a known quantity, even to Whitecrest. After all, who could spy on the love of Daar’s life and still claim to be sensible?
And in any case, Garaaf had never herded naxas. Nor hunted kwek, or any other waterfowl, which turned out to be what Daar wanted to do after the naxas were safely back in the corral.
Garaaf learned three things: firstly, that herding was an endurance trial like he had rarely experienced, and he’d found himself with a newfound respect for the rural Clanless who did that for their livelihoods; secondly, he learned the best thing for brushing naxas dung out of fur turned out to be dilute vinegar; and thirdly, that he was in danger of being upstaged by Naydra. She never missed a shot, and she retrieved with a grace that had to be seen to be believed.
Daar was of course an excellent shooter as well, but he clearly preferred charging through the field at a fantastic clip, flushing and then fetching the game, or in a few instances leaping high above Garaaf’s height to catch a pond-kobu mid-flight in his jaws, just out of the sheer joy of outdoor exercise, apparently. Whenever it was his turn he proceeded with just that extra bit of zeal and seemed to relish in the opportunity to preen for his ‘Naydi.’
By the time they flew back to the fortress, Garaaf was beginning to feel the ache in all of his joints. Daar showed him some mercy, though: they went back up to the apartments where hopefully, finally, they would attend to business rather than pleasure…
Though of course, the whole afternoon had been a blend of both, from Daar’s perspective.
“Y’know ‘yer lucky, Garaaf,” he commented as they entered to find the small knee-table well laden with meat cuts and steamed buns. “I was hopin’ ‘ta play wif’ ‘ya in my gym too…but that’d be a bit too on-the-nose, even ‘fer me. ‘Ya got Naydi here ‘ta thank!”
“And I am sincerely grateful for that. My ego isn’t so grand as to think it could hope to keep up.”
“I think you’d surprise yourself,” Naydra commented. “It’s not often that somebody weathers one of these afternoons without a squeak of complaint!”
Daar duck-nodded happily. “Yeah! I think ‘ya did damn good. Y’know. ‘Fer an’ older silverfur.”
Ah. He’d even said it with a respectful tone, but there was no disguising the bluntness of the Great Father’s concern.
“Not so old as… worn and torn, really,” Garaaf replied. “I think I have plenty of years in me still.”
“I think it adds a lovely character, myself,” Naydra agreed.
Garaaf flicked the stub of his left ear and duck-nodded appreciatively. “Mother, I’ve learned to take compliments when and where I can, so again: thank you.”
Naydra looked pleased, and Daar too: Garaaf had been charming, but not flirtatious. She duck-nodded, gestured for him to sit, and went to retrieve a tea set. Amazing how that had caught on so quickly, at least among the powerful and influential.
Daar sat first, picking a couch which was clearly built to handle him unlike most furniture, and picked up a bun by skewering it with his claw. “We’re invading a second Hunter planet,” he said, launching into the reason for Garaaf’s presence with an abruptness that might have been stunning if Garaaf hadn’t been waiting for it.
Garaaf sat opposite him, and took a cut of well-cured naxas. Probably from the very same herd he’d been wrangling only a few hours before. “Yes. One with native sophonts, I understand.”
“I want you to make first contact. I won’t order it, you deserve a less…stressful life. But.”
Suddenly, the enjoyable hunting ordeal made much more sense. Daar wanted to see if Garaaf could hack the upcoming field work, could adapt quickly to novel situations…observe his interactions with Naydra…
Garaaf tilted his head as Naydra returned with the tea. “First contact is… a little outside of my field.”
“There are very few who can claim to be an expert,” Naydra said. “Mother Shoo and her partners, a Human named Daniel Hurt… and that, frankly, is the end of the list, unless you count another Human by the name of Kevin Jenkins. You see the problem.”
Garaaf duck-nodded. “None of them are Gaoian.”
“No. And while you may not be an expert on first contact, you are an expert on evading and surviving the Hunters in their own territory.”
“That’s enough common cause with the natives ‘fer me,” Daar opined. “Not sayin’ it’ll make the job easy but it’s something.”
Garaaf sighed. He was going to do it, he knew. But he had questions. “…Do we know how long they were enslaved?”
“No idea. Long enough ‘ta poison the hell outta their planet.”
“That’s enough time to completely destroy their culture. For all we know they worship the Hunters and are fanatically loyal to them.”
“Could be,” Daar agreed. “Could not be. That’d be one of the things you’d have ‘ta figger out.”
“And if they are fanatically loyal to the Hunters?”
Daar sat back in his couch. “…Then we’ll hafta cure ‘em of that.”
There was an ominous finality to that statement that Garaaf chose not to draw attention to.
“We won’t know what to do with them until after we have a definite answer, one way or another,” Naydra pointed out.
“No. I presume you’ll want me to leave promptly?”
“Yeah. My unnerstandin’ is ‘yer Clan’s ops teams have been gettin’ a head start on ‘yer equipment, an’ they’ve got several teammates staged up ‘yer likely to ‘preciate. But mission command is ‘yers, if ‘ya want it.”
“I do. Always promised I’d die with my teeth in a Hunter’s throat. Anything less than that doesn’t sit right. Depriving them of their slaves sounds… satisfying.”
Daar’s expression was just as ferally eager as Garaaf’s own. “Good. ‘Fer now, stay an’ eat. Prob’ly be ‘yer last bit o’ comfort ‘fer a while. Make the most of it. Balls, spend th’ night! Naydi’s got an engagement wif th’ Females anyway, so I’ll be here, all alone, nobody ‘ta cuddle…”
Garaaf chittered. “If that’s just an invitation then I’ll gratefully decline,” he said. “This is going to be a big mission. Better to get on it as soon as possible.”
“I’d rather I send ‘ya off well-fed an’ well-rested, but I ain’t gonna tell ‘ya how ‘ta run ‘yer hunt.”
“I’ve rested for a long time… My Father.” Garaaf added a little weight to the title. “And I’m sure I won’t arrive on that planet the second I walk out that door. So, I’m grateful for your hospitality, but I’d rather go sink my teeth into the Hunters.”
“Done that. Ain’t much fun. They taste like too-ripe nava.”
Daar duck-nodded seriously. “…Yeah. You would. Very well then. Good hunting.” With that, the Great Father stood, nodded serenely, and then quite literally thumped his way downstairs.
If Garaaf were to indulge a guess, probably towards the gym after all.
He didn’t get to escape empty-handed. Naydra insisted on packing him a boxed meal, and she escorted him to the shuttle pad with a wrapped selection of biscuits and meat for the flight.
And maybe a wrapped selection of inspiring words, too.
“You impressed,” she said. “There aren’t many who’d politely refuse Daar’s hospitality.”
“Most are too afraid to refuse him anything. Which I think is something he desperately hates.”
Naydra duck-nodded. “…It’s been a pleasure to meet somebody else who isn’t cowed by him. Good luck, Garaaf.”
She went back indoors, and Garaaf boarded his shuttle. There was a sparse summary of the Mordor natives waiting for him. He memorized it before they even took off, and sat back to eat in thoughtful silence.
What did generations under the Hunters do to a culture? In his experience, the ordeal destroyed them. Too many of the unfortunates aboard the hive had been barely more than animals, driven uncivilized by fear, deprivation, and for lack of even a basic education.
These natives were different. He’d never seen them on the ring, so they meant something more to the Hunters than just food. They made things, existed in some kind of a transactional relationship with their cybernetically monstrous overlords… even if that transaction did sometimes involve being slaughtered. Could it be that the Hunters valued them in some way? Not as people, obviously—Hunters barely valued themselves, let alone so-called prey—but as a resource…
Something told him the battle for Mordor was going to grow fierce, and quickly. But at least he’d be there to do his part. So, with nothing else to do while he flew, he called up the files from first contact with the Dominion, Humans and Ten’Gewek, and began to study them. He was a Whitecrest after all, and his pride forbade him from approaching this moment without due preparation.
He had a job to do.
He was going to do it well.
Date Point: 16y11m2d AV
’Mordor’ System, Hunter Space
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
That one single emotion was making it hard to think. It was bouncing around the whole Hunter intercommunications network, from brain to brain, picking up ferocity and fervor with every repetition.
The Builder was doing its best to filter out the noise and focus, but the network was intended to resonate and whip all those connected to it into a frenzy when a sufficiently powerful stimulus came along to unite them. That was part of the design. Eaters were at their most effective when the feedback mechanism whipped them into a frothing bloodlust.
In this instance, however, it was backfiring. Impotent anger was ricocheting around the whole swarm. Several ships had approached the system shields and taken to attacking them with their boarding cutters, fusion-edged blades scrabbling futilely over a dense electromagnetic wall of hardened photons.
One of the Sport Worlds—the most industrially productive of them, no less, with a whole captive slave-species—was under attack, and the fur-faces of all creatures were leading the charge. On the ground, they were spreading out from an expanding series of jump portals, taking and holding ground and fighting almost like deathworlders.
In the sky… they had sandwiched a narrow range of planetary orbits between impenetrable shields. Inside that orbital range, their ships were safe… and they could open microsecond gaps in the lower shields to fire on Hunter resources in lower orbits, atmospheric flight, and on the ground.
The Hunters still owned the rest, but they may as well have tried to gnaw on tungsten for all the progress they were making with that shield. The one around the Human homeworld had never been thwarted. The ones around the Large Prey worlds had only been defeated with inside assistance. Every time the Hunters encountered these shields, they represented an impossible obstacle, and the Builders had yet to come up with a solution.
Had they been ordinary shielding systems, overcoming them would have been straightforward. But these shields powered themselves using a respectable percentage of a star’s energy output, and handled waste heat with baffling efficiency. Their operating principles were unknown to the Builders, and therefore so was the means of their defeat.
That left no good options. Setting up new wormhole defenses would take time, and would be vulnerable to orbital strike. Out-system assets were useless, and the fur-faces could strike with impunity across their shields. Reinforcements planetside were ultimately futile, though there was the possibility of retrieving valuable assets—
Until the fur-faces brought in their capital ship. Hardly a moment after it arrived, all data feeds surrounding the planet went silent.
As vexing as this development was, it came with a moment of welcome silence for the Builder. The only signals reaching it now were from its own kind: clearer, colder, more calculating. Without all that anguished emotional noise getting in the way, it could think again.
It realized it had grown so sympathetically angry that it had not run through the methodical approach it usually would have. If the biggest problem was currently insoluble, examine smaller and smaller problems until one presented itself which could be addressed.
The planet was, for the moment inaccessible. But that left a whole star system, and there were resources aplenty here. The Hunters still had asteroid mining operations, still had access to the outer and inner planets…. Still controlled the star itself.
Could any of those be leveraged? System shields easily handled comet impacts, so the rocky bodies in the outer system were most likely worthless as weapons…
A possibility germinated. One that warranted investigation. One that, at the wild extremes of the Builder’s imagination, offered a most delicious variety of options. It would not normally have considered such an extreme avenue of research… But these were extreme times.
The Alpha-of-Alphas issued a command. And, seeing its intent, the Builders obeyed.
Let the Eaters gnaw at the shield. With a shift and a lurch, the Alpha-of-Alphas’ command ship jumped to an in-system beacon near the sun, and flew inwards.
Date Point: 16y11m3d AV
Planet ‘Mordor,’ Hunter space
Ginn, Foot-soldier first class, Grand Army of the Gao
Ginn’s protective gear itched. In fact, it itched maddeningly, to the point where he could kind of understand the idiots who’d taken it off for a good scratch, even though they were now enduring all the wonders and joys of decontamination and medical intervention back at the clawhold.
Clan Openpaw’s war doctors weren’t gentle, or considerate. They wielded their razors and wax strips without concern for the unfortunate soldier’s protests: Every hair had to go. Something to do with heavy metal contamination building up in the follicles.
Not many gaoians could pull off the shaved look, either. At least they’d be back to normal in a few weeks. But nobody ever came back from that treatment and took their gear off a second time.
Ginn had been trapped in his gear for three straight days, now. He dreamed of a dust bath and a proper grooming. Relief was coming in the form of airlocked tents, but they had to get their emplacements taken care of first. Nobody got to sleep in comfort until they were safe against the Hunters.
The Hunters kept harassing the construction machinery, too. A big heavily-armored bulldozer might be great for pushing dirt and rubble around, but as far as the Hunters were concerned it was a giant target, and the hapless operators inside were a snack.
So, that was Ginn’s job: protecting giant, slow-moving, very visible targets.
So far, the Hunter attacks had been more like exploratory prods. They appeared, they hit hard, then faded the second they met serious resistance.
Their officers were getting tired of that piddling kwekshit, and had decided to do something about it.
“We’re going to start patrols along a three klick band extending outward from the base, paying particular attention to the river that runs to the southwest,” they’d said.
The words ‘river’ and ‘runs’ were being used generously there. Sure, it was liquid, and it flowed… It was just more viscous and corrosive than any river Ginn was familiar with. And yellow. Insanely, the Hunters were quite happy to cross it, usually by taking a running jump, but they’d been observed fording it on long cybernetic stilts too. It didn’t seem to slow them down much.
Just looking at the damn thing made Ginn itch even worse. He hoped it was just in his head, and not some kinda protective gear failure. He really didn’t wanna get shaved.
Movement on the far bank put his itching hide straight to the back of his mind. He was manning the top gun on his claw’s Growl armored vehicle, and promptly swung it around to face the disturbance.
The natives made things… complicated. They kept sneaking up out of their tunnels and bunkers to check on the situation topside, and seeing as their language wasn’t known to the translators’ database there was nothing either species could do to talk with one another right now… and for now, the natives hadn’t come out of hiding long enough to actually make first contact.
But they were present, and they meant that Ginn had to be absolutely certain that the movement he was seeing was a Hunter before he could fire on it.
It was. But not like any Hunter he’d seen before. It was huge, as big as an IFV all by itself, and it smashed a stunted, terminally ill tree aside as it charged out of concealment and launched itself clean across the river with an earth-shaking thrust of its armored legs and a burst from four howling kinetic thrusters for good measure. It slammed into the patrol’s lead vehicle and shoved it sideways across the trail: the Growl sagged as one of its axles broke, and was left half-spun across the trail as its gunner desperately ducked a fusion-claw swipe that would have ripped him in half.
The Hunter ignored him, and started peeling the Growl apart like a ripe fruit.
“CONTACT FORWARD!” Ginn yelled, superfluously but as per training. His weapon sector covered the Growl, which meant there was only one thing to do. He loaded an EMP shieldbreaker round into his grenade launcher, pulled mightily on the charging handle…and bounced it right off the Hunter’s head.
There wasn’t much electronic on a Growl, and what little there was lived in huge, chunky metal boxes clearly designed for some giant Stoneback fuck rather than normal people. They could handle EMP just fine, and the way the Hunter’s shielding flashed violently told Ginn his round had discharged properly.
Unfortunately, it seemed the Hunter’s systems were pretty hardened too. The grenade irritated it rather than harming it, and it turned the twisted cybernetic stump of an arm in Ginn’s direction, along with the heavy weapon mounted thereon. A storm of fat, heavy rounds sparked and flashed off his Growl’s armor.
Ginn bared his teeth behind his mask, trusted the shielding around his turret, and continued firing. He scored two, three, four more hits before the Hunter decided it wasn’t interested in the lead vehicle any longer. It delivered a parting swipe that left a partially molten gouge down the Growl’s armor and pushed it a couple paces through the mud, then pounced on Ginn’s vehicle.
A seething fusion claw sank into the armor plating in front of the turret like red-hot steel into ice. Ginn ducked down inside as another claw scalped the turret right off the roof, smashing them aside. He landed on his back, scrabbling on his chest for the carbine strapped there, and fired it upward as the Hunter worked its claws in through the ragged hole where his gun had been and started to tear the Growl open.
Somebody grabbed the back of Ginn’s armor and heaved: he was pulled out the back of the Growl by the scruff of his neck, getting clear just as one of the big Hunter’s limbs speared down and pinned their armored vehicle to the ground right through where Ginn’s belly had been.
Ginn twisted onto four-paw and retreated along with his Brothers as the Hunter wrenched its claws loose from their stricken ride with a squeal of abused metal, and casually swatted the wreckage aside. Behind it, Ginn could see somebody heaving himself out of the shattered first vehicle, weak and covered in blood.
They needed distance. No, balls, they needed to get the fuck out! They didn’t have weapons for this, and their officer wasn’t stupid.
“Fall back, point Ayu!”
Ginn and his buddies didn’t need telling twice. They retreated, sowing grenades in their wake to try and slow the Hunter. At least he’d succeeded at taking its shields down, because the big fucker actually turned and raised a limb to protect its face from fragmentation, slowing its advance.
“The eyes! Go for the eyes!!” Ginn roared, and followed his own advice. The Hunter’s head jerked and weaved as his rounds sparked off and around the plating around its seven sensor clusters: its gun-arm came up to ward off the shots, proving for definite that it was worried about damage to its eyes and head.
Byoo, a burly foot-soldier of obvious Emberpelt heritage, had a man-portable machine gun as his personal weapon. He didn’t often get to point it at a bad guy and hold down the trigger.
He did now.
Having an entire ammo belt sent into one’s eyes couldn’t be all that pleasant, and it certainly persuaded the Hunter to reconsider its approach. Instead of charging at them in a cybernetic blur as it had done just moments before, it advanged cautiously, hunkered down and shielding its most vulnerable spot.
Then it paused. It glanced back down the column, to where two more of its kind were meeting similar resistance… and as one, the three monsters retreated. They shimmered like water, vanished from sight behind the mirage-haze of personal cloaking devices, and the last that Ginn saw of them was their clawmarks in the muddy trail and the crash and sway of foliage on the far side of the river as they leapt over it and fled.
A pair of voidrippers explained the sudden retreat when they hammered past a few heartbeats later. The Unseen keep and bless close air.
Still… they were too late for too many of the unit. Now that Ginn had the chance to look around, he realized that he’d survived a bloodbath. All but one of the Growls were ruined, many of their occupants mown down by the Hunters’ guns or dismembered by their claws and teeth.
Their officer’s voice came through the helmet radio, steely and authoritative. “QRF inbound, cubs! Prep for CASEVAC, we’ve just gotta hold out a couple minutes!”
It was a tense, busy wait. Even with the voidrippers overhead to watch over them, there wasn’t a single member of the patrol who could feel anything less than shaken and vulnerable after an assault like that.
Casualties were… well, there were a couple of wounded, but those Hunters had mostly either killed outright, or failed to even scratch. There wasn’t much middle ground. Ginn watched the medics’ backs as they tended to injured, and counted himself lucky he wasn’t among the dead. He’d come far too close.
The Quick Reaction Force were Stonebacks, mostly, plus a slim wraith of a Whitecrest in that Clan’s light active-camo dropsuit. They arrived in an air transport and had the scene secured in a moment: Ginn managed to overcome his curiosity and kept his eyes, ears and nose open for danger while the dead and wounded were loaded onto the transports first, and the Whitecrest sniffed around the battlefield taking pictures, making sensor readings and apparently replaying the whole sequence of events just from marks, tracks and evidence in the ground.
The Stonebacks were full of garrulous kindness, and even praise.
“They sent the nasty fucks after ‘ya,” said one absolute mountain of a male in a chest-shakingly deep grumble. “Y’all did damn well, considerin’.”
“Doesn’t feel that way right now…” Ginn muttered, watching the CASEVAC take off with more than a few of his friends in it.
“Yeah.” Ginn felt himself being pulled into a friendly sideways hug, one which was mercifully quick. And the Stoneback won his immediate gratitude for not saying anything more, or trying to make him feel better.
Ginn was on the last transport out. He was unharmed, able-bodied, still calm and alert. It wasn’t until they were in the air en route back to the clawhold that he started to really understand what he’d just been through…
There was no mockery or disdain from the Stonebacks, though. In fact, he’d never felt more understood.
But then and there, on that flight, he let go of worrying about surviving this war. It was a clear, cold, sharp sort of moment, but it set him free. Whatever came would come, and he’d meet it. And if it killed him, so be it. It was as the Great Father willed.
But the Hunters wouldn’t take him down without a fight.
Date Point: 417th Year of the Punishment
Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, the Great Ruin
Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant
Uku woke from restless, bizarre dreams of the Before. Normally, those dreams brought her a measure of peace and comfort. She knew so much about the Before, having memorized everything the Chant said about it, that her imagination always fancied it could bring it to life in the dark behind her eyes.
Maybe it was a delusion. But normally, she found those dreams restful, but this time when she imagined the fine brick buildings and majestic, clean steam-powered tools her ancestors had made for themselves rather than the poisonous engines the Punishment forced upon them… this time she had seen strange figures in sealed clothing prowl the streets with weapons, and the Punishers clinging to the sky above.
She sat up, and her journal slipped off her pillow and fell to the floor. She recovered it and set it on a table with a whispered prayer of apology before answering the knock on the door. Books were precious, and new books that a Keeper could actually write in were… She revered them.
With the precious tome safely away from any dust, dirt and damp which might accumulate on the floor, she opened the door to her room and peered out. “…Yes?”
The boy outside chattered his teeth nervously at her. “One of the newcomers, Keeper. It’s… here. I think it wants to talk.”
Ukusevi stared at him for a second, then gestured her understanding with a jerk of her head. “…I will… note its coming in my journal,” she said. “And then I will come.”
“Yes, Keeper…” The boy scurried away. Uku watched him go, then closed the door and leaned against it heavily, turning her face upwards to the ceiling and the sky beyond.
“…Have we been punished enough, Lord?” she asked, quietly. “Is this deliverance?”
The stones didn’t answer her, nor did they shake with words of divine forgiveness. Not that she’d expected them to. So she took a deep breath, and opened her journal.
There was no such thing as scribbling a note in a Keeper’s journal. Even the hastiest, shortest entry was a record for the future, the memory of a moment that other Keepers would learn, and maybe enter into the Chant. It was, to Uku’s way of thinking, the highest kind of sacrilege to record carelessly and illegibly. So her visitor, whatever he she or it would turn out to be, could wait while she first meditated upon, and then inscribed, a few careful sentences on the page.
With that, there was no delaying any longer. She put on her cleanest robes, groomed her ears and face, chattered her teeth nervously together to compose herself, and then swept out to meet their new visitor.
It had a bodyguard, just like she did when she ventured to the surface. Those were dark, quiet, dangerous things like moving shadows, who stayed behind him and almost blended into the background. The guest, however, wore loose cloth over his protective gear. It was humbler than she’d expected—a simple gray wrapping, already bleached and stained from the poisons outside—but it still made the newcomer seem less fearsome than the ones behind it.
It had no weapon, too. Though Uku was quite sure it didn’t need one.
They stared at each other for a long moment after she arrived, in quiet. She could hear its breath hissing through some kind of valves or filters in its mask. Its ears—the guests had ears like the Penitents’, though shorter—swivelled back and forth expressively for a moment, and then it raised a hand to its face.
The mask came off with a click and a brief hiss of air pressures settling. The mask’s owner shook its head, sharply, and allowed the mask to dangle down its front.
The face Uku looked into was… familiar, in some ways. Familiar enough to be alarmingly ugly from scars and old wounds. And she trembled to see that their guest’s mouth was full of sharp meat-tearing fangs.
Its hands—more like paws, really—were full of a book, however. And without yet trying to speak, it took a half-step forward, and offered the book to Uku.
Ukusevi could hardly believe it. Numbly, she reached out, then paused, fearful that she had misunderstood this stranger’s intent. Its ears tilted slightly, then it ducked its head and placed the book in her palms before stepping back.
…What a book! Bound in black, embossed with a logo of some kind that looked rather like the newcomer’s own head over a crescent moon. The pages inside were perfectly neat and even, covered with a faint grid of regular blue dots, and the paper was crisper and whiter than any she’d seen before. She’d never held a treasure remotely like it.
The visitor spread his palm and laid it across his chest.
It was a guttural word, nearly all of it made at the back of the mouth except for the final sound where he was forced to flash his teeth. Uku couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with those teeth. They were so very different from the jagged broken-glass things that filled a Punisher’s mouth, and yet so clearly designed for a similar purpose.
But he—she decided the visitor must be male, though she honestly wasn’t certain—had come peacefully, and brought her a priceless treasure like none she’d ever held. Teeth or not, that made him…
…What? A friend? No. She would not dare hope for that much. But he was no Punisher. So she spread her own fingers, pressed them to her own chest in imitation of his gesture and spoke her own name.
“ Ookoo-suvi.” His mouth didn’t fit the word right. But it was close enough. He reached into a bag on his hip and produced a fist-sized shiny black cube, which he considered for a moment before muttering something in his own language.
To Uku’s immense surprise, the cube spoke a few garbled words of her own tongue. Most of it was nonsense, but the words “hope…. worth…paid for it…” came through. Garr-avf seemed just as surprised as she was, if she judged rightly from the way his stubby, ruined ears moved.
“Huh.” He looked her in the eye, made a curious ducking, shrugging motion, and sat on the floor. He spoke clearly and carefully, and a moment later the cube did its thing again.
“We speak. It learn words.”
Uku nodded her understanding, then turned to the boys behind her. “…Fetch my pens,” she instructed. “Carefully.”
There was only one thing she could possibly record in a book like the one he’d given her. So she waited, itching to ask the most burning question, while the boys darted away to fetch her pens. They were back swiftly, and she sat too, opened the book to its first page and, with a glance at Garr-avf to confirm that she was free to write in it, she put pen to page.
It accepted the ink gracefully and smoothly, held it well. The pen flowed easily over the paper, leaving behind clear letters.
‘Librarian and Keeper Ukusevi records that today is the four hundred and seventeenth year of the Punishment,’ she wrote. ‘The third day since the towers fell and new people came to wage war on the Punishers. And a guest has come. He—I believe him to be male, though in truth I do not know—gave me this book as a greeting, and named himself as…’ here she switched to the phonetic alphabet that Keepers used to record the exact pronunciation of a word, right down to its accents and intonations. She noted Garr-avf’s name, tested it silently in her mouth to be sure she’d recorded it exactly as she had heard it, then nodded to herself.
‘I do not know how his tools know our language already, but they do in a crude fashion. He says, quote: “We speak, It learn words.” So we shall converse. But first, I must ask the question that has burned my insides from the moment these newcomers first appeared…’
She looked him firmly in the eye.
“…Are you here to save us?” she asked.
Garr-avf’s reply was simple, direct, and left no room for doubt. And finally, the hope that had made Uku feel so sick in the preceding days turned into genuine relief and wonder. He duck-nodded his head again, looked her back just as firmly, and spoke a single word.
Date Point: 16y11m3d AV
Clawhold, planet Mordor, Hunter space
Fiin, Champion of Stoneback
“The same model from the ring?”
“Same general design. Some upgrades. The HEAT and First fang had Keeda’s ass of a time with the first model, and now we’re seeing several of them. They won’t brave our anti-armor, but they can cut a Growl open like I’d gut a kwek.”
“Casualties?” Fiin asked.
“…Significant.” Father Giru growled and flicked his ear. “They’re shy about letting us shoot their heads, but those shields of theirs can take a couple of EM grenades before failing. Plenty of time for them to cause mayhem before they retreat, and the voidrippers can’t catch them once they’re cloaked.”
“How many are there?”
“Maybe two dozen that we know of. Hard to tell: they’re fast. Minimum of eighteen. More soon, probably.”
Fiin considered his map. “We need to get our own armor on the field in response.”
“Our own armor’s a lot slower, Champion. The Hunters will run circles around them.”
“I need options, Father. If I assign claws to the Grand Army, that severely limits what we can do elsewhere.”
Giru made a thoughtful noise. “…Refitting the Growls might help. A different weapon. The EM rounds drop their shields and make ‘em skittish, but from what I’ve seen so far the best counter to these nutless fucks is to send a sackload of bullets their way. They’re not that heavily armored once you’re past the shielding.”
“So…bigger guns, more bullets, more EMP grenades. Still gonna be a meat grinder.”
“Those fusion claws take our armor apart. And they’re quick enough to close the distance if they ambush from cloak, and while they’re cloaked we can’t see ‘em. Wish I had a good option for you, My Champion, but the only solution I can see is up-gunning the Growls.”
Fiin restrained a sigh. Hopefully the Whitecrests would succeed in bagging one and then they’d have a more direct counter, but until then Giru was right. There wasn’t an ideal fix, just a step in the right direction.
“…Right. Make it so. I want every Growl comin’ through the Arrays from now on to have the meanest, biggest guns we can fit on ‘em. While we’re at it, re-deploy Third Fang as direct attach to the patrolling claws. If we can swing it, I want ‘em able to respond in a few heartbeats. Get First Fang on hot standby too, and get ‘ em ready for big game hunting.”
“Yes, My Champion!” Giru ducked his head respectfully, and departed.
That was one order of business addressed, at least. Fiin shook himself to try and relieve some of the itching under his protective gear, then turned to the next issue.
“Any news from Father Garaaf?”
“He’s made peaceful contact, Champion.”
“Good…” Well, that was one fewer concern at least. Not that Fiin had been really worried that the natives would turn out to be fanatically loyal to the Hunters, but it was good to know that there was a dialogue happening.
Back to the Huntertanks. Those were by far the worst threat to his invasion, which meant he needed to attack them, decisively. To do that, however, he needed to know where they were coming from.
He contacted Fourth Fang. Their motto—‘Sniff Around a Bit’—was entirely relevant right now, and indeed missions like identifying the source of an enemy armored force was exactly what they were for.
They had leads, thanks to the JETS team. With luck, one of those would be a jackpot.
It had better be.
Date Point: 16y11m3d AV
Tunnel warren near the Clawhold, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Garaaf, Father of Clan Whitecrest
Ukusevi reminded Garaaf of some of the other aliens he’d seen during his time aboard the ring. Many had been broken by the knowledge of where they were, what was inevitably to become of them, what they saw around them every day…
…Others, however, had hardened into something hot and sharp. Those had been the ones who dreamed of a slave uprising, who stockpiled resources against tomorrow, who tried to find places to hide where the Hunters could not find them. He’d been one such himself.
The difference was, Ukusevi was more than just a person. She was a walking, talking, passionate library. Her faculties of recollection were staggering, and the precision and clarity with which she recounted her people’s history was… well, Garaaf hadn’t expected half so much. Though a lot of what she shared was more than a little alarming.
For one thing, there was the literal translation of her species’ name. As a rule, a species only named themselves once they became conscious of the existence of other intelligences, and so the word “Gao” for instance served both for the species, and for the planet where Gao lived. The same went for the Rauwryhr, the Locayl and the Robalin. There were a lot of xenopsychology papers on what it meant for a species to use the same word to refer both to themselves and their homeworld, and the degree of connection such behaviour implied, but Garaaf had hitherto considered most of them to be speculative nonsense.
He was beginning to reevaluate that opinion.
Most species had a self-name that more-or-less just translated as “Us” or “people,” and then a word for their homeworld that effectively meant “place where the people live.” That was the Guvnurag, the Vzk’tk, the Chehnash, the Versa Volc… and the Corti, whose homeworld-name “Origin” was perhaps the most bluntly on-the-nose of anyone’s.
Humans and Ten’Gewek shared a quirk in that their homeworld-names mentioned their species only obliquely at best. The latter lived on All-Things-Under-Sky-Place, while the English word Earth had more than thirty synonyms, none of which directly referred to Humanity. Both species thought of their planet as something other than themselves, something bigger and grander and more, while they themselves were just guests… or custodians at most.
But the natives of Mordor? Their name for themselves was unique, to Garaaf’s knowledge. They had a word for “people,” but never used it to refer to themselves. Instead, their species in the distant past were E-rith-ir, “The Wicked/Vile/Wrong/Sinful People,” and their species in the here-and-now were E-skurel-ir: “The Penitent/Regretful/Contrite/Sorrowful People.”
According to Ukusevi and her Long Chant, the Hunters were divine punishment: The Wicked People had Sinned, in some great way. By some hubris or fault, by some disorder of thought or some failure to hit the mark, they had angered the Almighty sufficiently for Him to send down the most awful of His angels, and Correct them.
And now, here was Garaaf, playing the role of… what? A different kind of angel? A divine parole officer? Justice incarnate? Whatever he was, his entire species was, too. That was going to make the inevitable contact between the E-skurel-ir leadership and the Great Father…
…Garaaf had no idea how they were going to navigate a minefield like that.
Well, start small. Be truthful, but be artful about the truth. Be gentle, like water in a stream. Even the gentlest of currents could erode mountains, given enough time…
“I cannot truthfully claim to know or understand the history you have told me. I can say only that the… Punishers, as you call them, are a great enemy of ours, and we would do very much to see them destroyed.”
Ukusevi looked confused, if the translator was reading her right. Or at least, her head-tilt and the faint twitch of nose and ear were conveyed to Garaaf’s heads-up display alongside a probability table, with confusion firmly at the top.
“…Do you not serve the Almighty?”
“I cannot honestly claim to have directly received orders from the Almighty…” Garaaf ventured.
“Then you are here only because your enemies are here.” Ukusevi’s expression shifted, and the probability table, after a moment’s thought, reshuffled ‘crestfallen/disappointed’ to the top of the list, with a healthy dose of ‘worried/troubled’ as a secondary modifier.
Dangerous ground this. Very, very dangerous ground. To be an enemy of the Punishers was to be an enemy of divine justice. To be an enemy of divine justice, conceivably, was to be another Wicked People. Best to address that before it became an issue.
“There is…very much we will need to teach you. I think it will be eye-opening and painful. Best we take it slowly. So, let’s start from the beginning. My people are here to liberate this world from the Punishers. Whatever else that may mean to you and your kind…well, one of our allied peoples have a saying: ‘The Almighty works in mysterious ways.’ Take that as you will.”
“We know that lesson well,” Ukusevi agreed, morosely. “…There are others like you?”
“Good friends, who came to my people’s aid when the Hunt—the Punishers descended upon us.”
“And they know of the Almighty and His ways?”
“Different people…know the Almighty by different means. I can’t speak for them.”
The translator completely gave up on trying to process the succession of emotions that paraded across Ukusevi’s mobile, expressive features. There was a lot of troubled in there, though. Garaaf had some inkling by now of what was going on in the Keeper’s thoughts, but he was wrestling with an alien intellect, an alien way of looking at things.
Perhaps Gyotin would have been a better choice for this.
But then again, how could they have known? No, Garaaf’s selection made sense, at least for first contact. Second contact and later might well be somebody else’s responsibility, somebody with the theological insight and mindset to really engage with the so-called Penitents… But here and now, the responsibility fell to Garaaf.
He decided to move back onto more firm ground. “Let’s lay aside the why and whether for now,” he proposed. “And focus on what. What do your people need? We can bring food, and medicine for the sick. We can provide air filters, and make these tunnels safe.”
Ukusevi looked almost stunned. “…You have already given us a priceless gift,” she breathed, laying a hand on her journal, “and you offer more?”
“We came here to aid your people,” Garaaf reminded her. “That book is a gesture of intent, not the limit of our ability.”
Ukusevi glanced behind her, as though the hovering, poisoned figures watching from the shadows might have something to contribute. She tilted her head, slow-flicked both ears, then looked back to Garaaf.
“…Garaaf of the Gao… We have lived a long time under this Punishment,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I want to believe that our deliverance has finally come. But much of what you have said raises difficult questions. There are many who will worry that you are a temptation, a chance to return to the sinful past. I thank you for your gesture of intent, but I cannot accept any more of your aid, for now. Not hastily.”
“I… understand your caution,” Garaaf said out loud. “I should warn you, though: the war outside is not going to stop. Not until the Hunters, as we call them, are driven from this place or dead. We will do what we can to do no harm to your people, but they will not be so honorable. Long delay will place your people in jeopardy.”
Ukusevi stood, slowly. “My people are in jeopardy anyway,” she retorted. “In body and in soul. I thank you for your warning, and your gift. But I think you should go now. Please… return tomorrow.”
Garaaf duck-nodded. He stood to, gathered the translator, reciprocated Ukusevi’s cordial bow, and retreated back toward the surface, putting his protective gear back on.
“That could have gone worse,” Brother Asku opined through his mask as they climbed the steps back toward the surface access.
“You’re an optimistic cub at heart, Asku,” Garaaf replied, wearily. “That could have gone a lot better.”
“Peaceful contact, honest truth, a respectful parting…” Yaamo mused as they reached the door at the top. “I’m with Asku, that could have gone much worse.”
Garaaf sighed, and accepted their encouragement with a duck-shrug. “…I suppose,” he agreed after a second. “But there are thorns coming, I know it.”
“There always are, Father.”
Garaaf chittered. “When did this Clan get so upbeat?” he asked. “I went away for a few years and they stopped teaching you pups how to be properly pessimistic.”
“I don’t know how ‘there are always thorns coming’ is optimistic, but okay… Surface access is clear. Camo active.”
Garaaf took off the robe he’d put on to soften his profile, and duck-nodded appreciatively as their suits shimmered and activated their active camo. A Whitecrest who knew how to properly remain still could blend almost seamlessly into his surroundings in that suit, and while he’d first grumpily thought of them as a technological crutch… the truth was, they took the Clan’s already effective training and added a little something more.
“Forward Base Kuro, Envoy. We’re coming up.”
In efficient silence, they exfiltrated the native warrens. The surface was the same warzone it had been when they entered: a Grand Army platoon had established a forward operating base above the entrance, with overhead shields, an interceptor turret for destroying incoming mortar rounds and missiles, a couple of anti-tank missile launchers, and plenty of good cover. Garaaf’s escort acknowledged them with a raised paw, the loaded onto their vehicle, and head back to base.
It wasn’t far back to the Clawhold, and nothing particularly eventful happened except for the heavy roar of a fire mission from Grand Army artillery, and a pair of voidrippers coming in to land.
“The problem,” Garaaf said, resuming the conversation, “is that what they say to each other is out of our control. If they collectively decide that we’re a kind of Wicked People ourselves, here to tempt them and defy their god’s will…”
“That will, sadly, be their decision to refuse aid. That does not much impact the larger mission.”
“It directly impacts the mission the Great Father gave me,” Garaaf retorted. “Which I intend to carry out as well as I possibly can.”
“He would have it no other way, I’m sure.”
“Even if he would, I wouldn’t.” Garaaf wished he could take his mask off and scratch a small itch on the side of his muzzle. “All this religious stuff is… I’m out of my depth. I didn’t get through the Ring on faith, I got through it on practicality and sound tactics.”
“You aren’t a whole civilization, Father.”
“…No. I’m not.” Garaaf looked up as they approached the Clawhold’s security checkpoint. “…Who do we know who’s good at thinking on that kind of scale? Other than the Great Father and the Mother-Consort? And Champion Gyotin?”
“Why not Gyotin?” Yaamo asked.
“He has enough responsibility and very little room for more.” Garaaf shook his head. “Besides, if I let him he’d stick a funnel down my throat and pour tea into me until I burst.”
“…There are worse ways to go, I guess.”
“Be that as it may, although Champion Gyotin makes a point of having time for everyone, I think this particular problem would consume more of it than he can afford,” Garaaf said. “I need somebody who can devote an indefinite amount of time and thought.”
“A Brother from his Clan, perhaps? They’re not all meek little males, after all…”
“Maybe…” Garaaf considered that. “If some unit can spare their chaplain…”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“I don’t believe in spirits or gods. But many do, and I am nobody to dissuade them. Besides, some random Grand Army Starmind-associate chaplain is probably no more qualified for this than I am, really. Gyotin and the Fathers of Starmind might spend their time in high contemplation of the deep mysteries of the Infinite and all that stuff, but right now what I really need is somebody who understands religion as a tool that cultures use. Somebody who knows how faith works on the level of whole societies. And it needs to be somebody who actually has the time to hear this situation out and think about it good and hard.”
The two Brothers looked at each other, then produced identical helpless duck-shrugs.
“If that person exists, it will be someone in Champion Gyotin’s orbit. You’ll need to ask him anyway.”
“…Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Garaaf sighed.
“What’s the problem, Father?”
“…I hate tea.”
Asku and Yaamo chittered at that one, and Garaaf allowed a small one himself. He’d call the Starminds, of course he would. This was the sort of problem they existed to confront. But he was allowed to grumble.
He just hoped that they could move fast enough and come up with some good advice before the natives made up their own minds…
Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
Planet ‘Mordor’, Hunter Space
Traan, Warleader of Fourth Fang
Some words just weren’t up to the job. Like… there were times when a ‘Back ran into something so perverse, so twisted, so wrong that none of those words even worked any more.
For those situations, Traan had to fall back on ‘fucked up.’
Turned out the Hunters weren’t bringing their tank-things to the planet, so at least the farthrow up on Destroying Fury was working properly. But the process of turning a regular Hunter into one of those tanks was one hundred percent, undiluted, jaw-dropping fucked up, ‘cuz as far as Traan could tell it involved throwing away most of the Hunter’s body.
Like… a whole Hunter went in. And what came out the other end was a mouth, a brain and a digestive tract buried deep inside an otherwise entirely mechanical creation. As far as the Hunters were concerned, it seemed like literally every other part of their anatomy was disposable.
So whatever was going on in that factory was basically an insane surgical abattoir married to a high-tech robotics plant.
And it was powered by a fission plant. Great.
At least, it was probably a fission plant. Atmospheric readings said it wasn’t producing any CO2, and the warning signs up around the place were the ones the analysts thought the Hunters used for radiation hazards, which wouldn’t fit with fusion. And there were plenty of advantages to a fission plant over a fusion plant.
The visible overhead forcefields were a pretty good hint, too.
Fourth Fang used Whitecrest active camo tech in their reconnaissance missions. After all, the Whitecrests were the undisputed masters of slippery slinking and sliding. The major difference was that Fourth Fang could “go loud” in a more Stoneback way.
Still. Up until the War, Clan Stoneback had focused mostly on civilian pursuits. Engineering, farming, skilled heavy labor, all the fundaments of a working civilization. Traan himself had been a highway maintenance engineer. The Clan’s military tradition had been just that: a tradition, kept alive in peacetime and mostly used to pad out mating pedigrees.
But the Whitecrests had always been dedicated to security operations. Which was why Fourth Fang never went anywhere without a couple of their spooky little friends.
Brothers Neeyo and Akuuvi were some distance forward of Traan’s vantage point, inserting themselves fully into the facility while the Stonebacks watched from the perimeter, being the eyes in the backs of their heads. It was tense, quiet work: terse, whispered instructions in Whitecrest battle-cant, delivered via line-of-sight infrared laser.
“Mother doesn’t know,” for instance, told Neeyo and Akuuvi that the Hunter patrol they’d remained absolutely still for was now past, and the enemy was not alerted, meaning they could move again.
The cant was all monosyllabic and playfully guttural. Much like Stoneback’s own, though they were so completely different they were effectively separate languages. Traan didn’t know what weird quirk of Whitecrest humor had turned ‘mother’ into their universal term for hostiles, but then again the whole Clan liked to pick the most mischievous cubs. The earnest, honest ones who did what they were told and scrubbed up properly for lunchtime were of no interest to Whitecrest: They wanted the troublemakers, the scoundrels, the pantry-raiders and prank-players.
Neeyo and Akuuvi must have terrorized their commune-mothers.
All that skulking around was necessary, though. Although the Fury and the Vengeance overhead between them had the resources to atomize the factory, shields or no shields, there were two obstacles in the way. First, the fact that it had that fission power plant, so smashing it from orbit would have just added to the local environment’s already severe hazardous materials problems…
And second, there was a warren of the natives nearby. Traan wasn’t shy about how much he enjoyed killin’ him some Hunters, but their little defenseless victims? Balls no.
All of that meant they needed a kinder, gentler approach to their vengeful, bloody rampage. And the first step of kinder, gentler slaughter was recon.
The two Whitecrests froze halfway up an outside wall as a transport ship lumbered in overhead. It swung fatly round in the air and parked itself directly outside a huge door, which promptly rolled up to reveal another half-dozen of those modified Hunters. They, unlike their transport, moved with speed and grace as they scuttled up the ship’s ramp and into its yawning interior.
Those were more tank-Hunters that were gonna tear through Traan’s little buddies in the Grand Army. They’d seen enough; time to do something about it.
But those damn shields…
The invasion was a helluva big operation, and there was a lot Traan didn’t know. But he’d learned the art of seeing the patterns in his knowledge gaps. And right now…
“…How exactly did the Humans earm us our foothold, anyway?”
Date Point: 417th Year of the Punishment
Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, the Great Ruin
Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant
For the first time in living memory, the library was in uproar.
Libraries were silent, not just out of reverence for the knowledge they protected, but out of fear that the Punishers might detect them if their inhabitants moved or spoke too loudly. The Long Chant was the loudest thing the Penitents ever dared to utter, and even that was only ever a little louder than an ordinary conversation.
For now, however, Ukusevi was whispering it fretfully to herself as bedlam boiled all around her.
The Long Chant was… it was lore. It was the truth. It was history. It couldn’t be wrong.
Garr-avf had called the Punishers “Hunters” instead. He’d known them as something different, as… well, as a mere foe. A mortal and hated foe, to be sure, but just an enemy. Not an instrument of divine will. Not judgement incarnate.
None of the possibilities opened by that attitude were pleasant ones.
Possibility number one: That these “Gao” were another, subtler kind of Punisher, sent to test the Penitents. Everything Garaaf had spoken had been a lie, or a distortion of the truth calculated to present Ukusevi and her people with an opportunity to step backwards, to fall back into the wicked ways of the past.
Possibility number two: That there was a war in heaven, and the Almighty had no control over His angels. That the Almighty, in short, was not almighty.
Or… and perhaps worst of all… Possibility number three: That the beings that Ukusevi had known as Punishers her whole life were nothing of the sort, and that her people, rather than paying the price for some past crime, were simply the victims of cruel, blind misfortune. That the Almighty was either blind or indifferent to their suffering…
…Or else didn’t exist at all.
And so she whispered the Chant feverishly to herself, searching fearfully, desperately through all the syllables she had so diligently learned in her childhood and repeated so fervently throughout her adult life. The clear space around her was strewn with books as she hunted for the question that had always scratched away at the back of her mind.
What exactly had her ancestors done?
That was the great mystery, of course. What exactly was the crime the Penitent had inherited the punishment for? For all any of them knew, they were still perpetuating it, somehow. The Punishers had certainly never uttered a word on the subject, they simply demanded fear and hard work, and slew as they pleased. No-one and nothing had ever communicated to the Penitents exactly what they should change. It had been an article of faith for so long that it fell to them to identify and repair the fault in their souls by themselves.
Garr-avf was the first voice from a third faction that anyone had ever heard. And rather than deliver a message of what exactly it was that the Almighty wanted of His faithful, Garr-avf had instead delivered confusion, and diplomatic caution.
She briefly entertained possibility number four: that the Punishers had instead been sent by an adversary of some kind, and it was the Gao who were the Almighty’s angels of vengeance, sent to correct matters. But then.. Why so late? Why more than four hundred years?
Or was that just the second possibility seen in a different way? A war in heaven? Limits on divine omnipotence? Or could it not be a different angle on the first possibility, with the Gao as agents of this adversary?
The Long Chant contained no answers. None of the books did, either. All they helped her find were more questions, until her stomach boiled with anxiety.
She became aware that somebody was trying to get her attention. One of the children.
Children were raised in the libraries. Ukusevi certainly had been. It was the only way for them to grow at all safe and strong from the poisons and slavering jawed teeth that waited on the surface.
It was only after having a litter of children of their own and becoming an adult that the Penitents took on their Punishment on the surface. Until then, they tended the books, kept the place clean, learned to read, learned some of the Long Chant while the Librarians kept an eye on them and selected the ones who showed promise and good memories for training.
That had been the system for four hundred years, and it had, so Ukusevi thought, worked.
Now, her whole world was so disordered that even something as simple a child trying to respectfully get her attention took her several stupid seconds to process.
“They… they want the Librarian’s insight, Keeper…” the child informed her. Teeisyo, Ukusevi remembered. The little one’s name was Teeisyo. A boy, which meant that in a few years, after he’d fathered some children, he’d be off to the surface to work hard and die young.
…That thought crystallized something in her mind.
She thanked him with a tilt of her head, respectfully closed and stacked her books—Teeisyo hastened to collect them and return them to their proper place—took up the journal that Garr-avf had given her, and joined the bickering dozens gathered in the middle of her library.
Everyone was inside, for a change. For many of the adults, it was a chance to care for themselves: to cleanse the sores and wounds on their skin, to sleep properly, to eat enough. But everyone had an opinion about the Gao and what their coming meant. The hubbub died as she joined them.
“You’ve been thinking hard, Keeper,” one of the older women, Kuesevari, said. “We’ve missed your voice.”
Ukusevi nodded wearily. Thinking was exhausting work, and the weight of it was settling on her now that she’d landed on something resembling a conclusion.
“I imagine I know the question you want me to answer, but ask it,” she invited, finding a table to perch herself on.
One of the young men, Defeesk, looked around at this fellows, then took the initiative.
“…We’re worried,” he said. “The Punishment is… it’s meant to be a holy thing. Right? But we all know what this Garr-avf said, and…”
“And you’re wondering how anything holy can be fought,” Uku finished for him. “You’re worried if it means that these Gao are wicked ones themselves, or a temptation or test. Or worse, you’re worried sick by other nagging ideas that won’t go away that you can’t help but worry are blasphemy.”
Bobbing heads told her that they were all singing the same chord.
“…Here and now,” she said carefully, “nothing is blasphemy. Nothing is true. Not even the Chant.”
There were a few shocked gasps, which she raised a paw to intercept. “I know. I’ve been agonizing over this myself. But I think we have come to a moment where we must question everything. We are just mortal after all, and we are Punished. We know ourselves to be flawed… Maybe we have been misinterpreting things. We must at least consider that. Maybe that is what the coming of the Gao means: that we are still wrong, and we must correct ourselves again.”
She considered the book in her hands, then waved it at them. “…Garr-avf gave me this,” she said. “A blank book, to record history in. Not a single word on any of its pages. No history, no parable, no advice. And I think… I think sometimes, a blank page can say much. The Gao have come, and the first thing they gave us is a blank page to write our future on.”
She looked around at the whole library, then stood up again. Suddenly, she was no longer exhausted.
“Look at what we built! Look at what we protect so fervently!! Look at this very library!!!” Ukusevi swept her arm around to indicate all that they had protected from the Punishers for so long. “…If we truly believe we are being punished by the Almighty, then why do we cling to the past so? If the past was wicked, and vile, then is preserving it not wickedness?”
Shocked silence. She gathered her robes and took a deep breath. “…It’s time we stopped… lying to ourselves,” she said, more quietly. “We know what is right, and what is evil. Ask yourself, in your belly, does it feel evil to wish to preserve ourselves through our knowledge and our history? Does it feel wrong to hide from the… things above us? To wish for a life without fear? To long for something more than a childhood spent cowering and an adulthood spent dying?”
She asked that last question while looking toward Teeisyo. The boy noticed, glanced around uncomfortably, and moved closer to his mother for comfort.
Ukusevi sighed heavily. “…The Long Chant says only that we sinned,” she said. “It doesn’t say what our sin was. And search as we might, no Librarian has ever found something so terrible in our past that this seems like a fair reply!” she gestured around her, and above toward the surface. “Maybe that’s blasphemy, but… is there anybody here who will look me in the eye and tell me they haven’t doubted? Those of you who’ve held your children in your arms, will you claim that they deserve to be punished when we don’t even know what they’re to be punished for?”
She looked around. A few met her gaze. Some looked away. A few were coldly, silently furious with her. One or two muttered among themselves at the back, nodding their agreement.
But, there was no taking back what she’d just said At long last, a lifetime of doubts had been set free, and as Librarian and Keeper she was duty-bound to record her own words. Everything she’d just spoken, for better or worse, would become part of the Long Chant.
That being so, there was no reason to take back her words. She kept her head up, rather than lower her gaze and thereby rescind her challenge to the congregation. “…For all we know, the test the Almighty has given us is to reject the Gao… or the test might be to embrace them,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t. All I have is my belly, and it screams at me that these Gao are…”
She hesitated, realizing that she didn’t know what the next word was. So, lamely, she cleared her throat and settled for ending the sentence on an inadequate “…something good.”
Now, the library was utterly quiet. Her faltering confession resonated softly among the books, and faded.
“Choose for yourselves,” she said, once it was gone. “Go and suffer, if you feel that is what the Almighty demands. Stay, if you hope as I do. May those in the right be uplifted, and those in the wrong be shown mercy. I do not know which I am…”
And on that timid, unsatisfying note, she ran out of composure. She hugged her new book to her belly and fled to her private room, a luxury that only Keepers were afforded. The ghost of an unspoken, unresolved ‘but’ hung in the air behind her.
The silence was louder than mere uproar could ever be.
Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
Planet ‘Mordor,’ Hunter Space
“Looks like we get to repeat our last trick, Superchunk. We’re already on our way. C’mon, up you go, gotta get suited up!”
Sky-People waged big war. Big, and fast, and too much of everything for Ferd to wrap his tail around. And it was tiring. The People had been Given strong and blink-quick muscles by the gods, and that meant they had tough bodies that could do much more than any of the sky-peoples. Ferd himself was gods-blessed with huge strength and good, stone-hard shape even next to most other Given-Men. But the Taking that came with such a strong Giving, was that the People needed…more. More food. More sleep. More air, and Ferd needed lots more than his men. The gods had blessed the People’s place-under-the-sky with much of everything the land could Give, but there was always a Taking to ensure the balance.
Humans, for example: they mostly had small and soft bodies, not enough meat on them to be quick and strong like the People. But, they were clever, with clever hands. They were wise and perceptive. They could go and go and go. Long after Ferd’s arms and legs felt dead, long after his whole body was too heavy to lift and his every muscle sang with pain, Humans could keep going. And they barely needed to sleep, it seemed! They liked a good full night as much as any man of the Tribes, but a Human could get by on very little if he really needed to.
And Gaoians could make do with even less! Most of them were very small and even weaker, but speed was a strength too, and so was their nose! Tooko ate almost nothing!
The Humans Ferd knew could do plenty with not much, and they were the kinds of things Ferd appreciated: climb trees, knap knives, hunt food, travel the land, move all day. He found himself jealous of that at first, though the Humans had shown him that he could be strong at that too. But it took so much painful and tiring work to train up!
Wild seemed to love that slow-run they called ‘jogging.’ Ferd…didn’t, but he worked very hard so he could keep up with his little Human friends. He wasn’t far behind now. Soon! He’d never thought of slow-running as strong, but he’d never thought he’d be able to keep galloping along for an entire day either, or that it would be so gods-blessed useful.
The Humans had much they could teach the People. Ferd was a good learner.
After their glorious raid, and after decon, and the celebration, and after Wild had strongly said no to any other kind of play…too bad. Maybe next time! Ferd enjoyed himself wrassling everyone until they were crushed into submission, but before long, tiredness fell upon him and his men fiercely. The Humans grew sleepy too, but they seemed to recover so fast…
But! They’d had a couple days to rest. They’d had a chance to eat good food, and Ferd’s belly was hard with a hearty meal gurgling happily inside him. Pretty soon he’d have wanted to do something strong to put that food to good use, and he knew that would start to annoy Wild…
Now they had another raid, where the People’s strength could help the sky-tribes. So Ferd heaved himself out of his bed and pushed himself upright, using his tail to bounce to his feet. The ship’s gravity was turned up nice and high to help keep them strong. Good! Ferd bounced in place and enjoyed the weighty feeling of strength it gave him.
“What’s the mission?” His ‘English’ was getting better every day.
“Pretty similar to last time. Check it out.” Wild had maps on the table, sent up from the world below.
Silent But Deadly was resting in a large chamber aboard another ship, the Raining Vengeance. They were protected and well-supplied inside the bigger ship, but pretty much stuck on the smaller ship by rules and by the way everything in the Vengeance was built for slim little Gao. Most of the ship-paths were fine, but some of the little holes they climbed through were much too small. Ferd couldn’t even get one of his legs through some of them! And most of the buttons and things were too small for his hands anyway.
He’d spent most of his exploring-time stuck to the food-room and the big nest-bed rooms, whenever his little friends invited him. They fed him well with lots of good meat, and they’d started to tell boasting stories to each other…
Ferd wondered if he’d meet them again. He could wrassle them too!
Frasier, Rees, Tooko, Nomuk, Tumik, and Genn were already at the table, studying the maps, and Ferd leaned in over Tooko’s head to take a look.
It was one of those ‘sat-a-light’ pictures, the ones from a long, long way up, and it showed a square compound of big ugly buildings around a yard with steel rails running into it.
Wild tapped the picture. “This maximum fun-and-sunshine land is a Hunter tank factory,” he said, simply. “Regular Hunters go in, have most of their body amputated, come out as a rapid armored assault unit that’s playing merry hell with Grand Army patrols near the Clawhold.”
Ferd shivered from the top of his crest right down to his tail. The ‘Hunters’ sinned against their own bodies! How could anybody do such an evil thing?!
Tooko squirmed a bit in Ferd’s grasp, so he grunted and loosened up. He hadn’t even realized he’d hugged his little friend close and he had to be careful; it wouldn’t take much to hurt him.
“There’s a Fourth Fang unit and a couple of Whitecrests already watching the place, and the Whitecrests have successfully infiltrated the compound. Problem is, their mission was recon, so they didn’t have dump webs with them. Which wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since they’re also not nearly strong enough to carry the big dump webs like we have.”
Ferd, Nomuk, Tumik and Genn grinned at each other knowingly.
Wild indulged them for a second, then got back on task. “So, we’re going to meet up with them and bring our toys. We’re going to go in quick and quiet, kill the shield emitters on the roof and deploy targeting beacons for precision orbital strikes, then get out so the Vengeance can put the factory out of commission.”
He reverse-pinched outwards with his fingers, and the picture zoomed in. “The large building in the south-west seems to be the actual production facility. That’s our first and most important target. Adjacent to that is shipping and receiving, our secondary target. Third target, up here in the right-hand corner, is believed to be quarters and admin. Finally, this in the south-east corner is a nuclear power station, which we are leaving intact.”
“Only raid important bit like last time, yes?” Ferd checked.
“That’s right. We have friends along for the ride this time, and they’ve already done some of the work for us. It’s thanks to them that we know which building is which and what we’re going to hit. But the stakes are the same as last time: keep it quiet, quick, and clean. Last thing we want is a Barney with those bloody tank things…. Though just in case, we’re taking along some Javelins.”
Not long ago, Ferd would have bounced excitedly at that news. He’d only got to use those weapons once, in training! And in his heart, he was still a little eager to see what they did to a real enemy…
But he’d seen too much since coming to more-door to really feel that way, now. This was a serious fight to the death, not just a playful raid to let another tribe know who was stronger and more cunning, who got the first fucks with the prettiest women. If they needed those javelins…
Wild caught his eye, held his attention for a second, then nodded and carried on with the briefing.
“…SBD will drop us here, south of the facility, an hour after local sunset,” he said, pulling the map back out. “Fourth Fang, Second Claw are waiting for us here, in this stand of trees. Two Brothers of Clan Whitecrest have infiltrated the compound and are hidden among the atmosphere filters on the roof of the cargo building, here. We’re going to link up with Fourth Fang, hand them some Javelins, and then together you’ll be climbing the building. We’ll be keeping the perimeter clear.”
Ferd and his men nodded seriously. They knew this was something only they could do.
“When you get up there, hand off the targeting beacons to the Whitecrests. They’ll place them for best effect. Each of you find a buddy and stick to him, got it? You’re their egress because you can just jump down and you won’t even notice the added weight. You focus on getting to the shield generators here, here and here. All of them are in protective shacks, so…hulks smash. Wait ‘till the signal, then tear it apart, emplace your dump web, grab your Whitecrest buddy, and get the fuck down.”
“That will be like punching a stinger-nest again, yes?”
“Yup. When those shields go down, they’ll bring out absolutely everything. The orbital strikes should do most of the work for us, but our first priority will be getting back to the ship alive. No showing off, lads.”
“We won’t!” Ferd said a bit indignantly. He knew the Humans were wary of their ‘monkey-fun’ as they named it, but still. “Raid not time to flex or fuck! We fight first.”
“Relax, mate, I was talking to Reesy.”
“Fuck, and I was going to whip it out and have a quick wank just to show them who’s boss…” Rees snorted.
Genn slapped his back. “Is okay, Rees. I hold you like woman when we come back! Show you what real man like…”
“Just make sure to lube him up beforehand,” Wild said in his not-laughing way of joking. “Anyway. That’s the outline of our mission. Questions?”
“Any idea how many tanks are on site?” Frasier asked.
“They ship four at a time, a couple of times a day. The Whitecrests think they’re sending all the ones they have every time, and we’re timing this so in theory there won’t be any around. In practice…”
“Natives?” Tooko asked.
“There’s an unknown number living in an underground bunker over here to the east. That’s part of the reason we’re disabling this facility with precision strikes rather than turning it into a crater.”
“Keep new Sky-People safe, then.”
“We’re here to liberate them so… yes.” Wild nodded. “With any luck, they’ll be smart enough to keep their heads down…” he looked around. There were no further questions.
“Good. Then let’s go get our equipment inspected. We go in four hours.”
It didn’t take very long to get everything ready. Ferd and his men hauled up the heavy things while Wild and his men went over everything. They never missed anything and Ferd watched closely, to try and see things like the Humans did.
Once they had everything laid out, they each ate some of their rations, the ones that made Ferd feel like he had endless energy. They used the last of their time to get good and warmed, get their muscles hard and ready for the work ahead, their joints free and happy. Being away from trees meant they had to be careful about that sort of thing, like War-horse had taught them.
Then it was time to squeeze into those tight-fitting ‘en-bee-see’ safe-cloths. Ferd felt almost excited every time he put them on, but not in a happy way. Putting them on, fidgeting to get all comfortable…it was like when Singers painted war-colors on their skin. He could feel his body ready to fight, to do for the little sky-peoples what they couldn’t. They would raid. They would smash the god-hated ‘Hunters.’ Ferd would prove again that the People were strong.
Then he sat in the middle of the floor, and watched as Tooko took them down into the fire.
Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
The Clawhold, Planet Mordor, Hunter Space
Garaaf, Father of Clan Whitecrest
To Garaaf’s surprise, the jump array’s heavy thump delivered not just Champion Gyotin to him, but two Humans as well.
Garaaf had met Gyotin a few times: the founder and Champion of Clan Starmind had been highly interested in the Hunters’ victims aboard the Ring, and especially in the case of the Humans who’d escaped from the planet below and aided Garaaf in his own escape. These Humans, however, were unknown to him.
One radiated danger, even inside his protective gear. He was short for a Human male, built squarely and powerfully, and his eyes took in the whole array room in an expert instant.
The other was taller, older, but still hard in that way that only Humans managed. Ten’Gewek might be harder, but they had more of a stonelike, boulderish quality to them: Humans could harden like knotted wood.
“Father Garaaf!” Gyotin was as cheerful as ever, and greeted Garaaf like they were old friends rather than acquaintances, sniffing his nose and embracing him.
“…Hello, Champion. It’s good to see you again.” Garaaf did mean it, despite everything. Gyotin was difficult to dislike.
“And you. Don’t worry, I didn’t bring any tea.” Gyotin chittered mischievously, then indicated the Humans, starting with the tall one. “I’d like to introduce Professor Daniel Hurt, and his personal security Mister Hoeff.”
Hoeff was a lot more than just personal security if Garaaf was any judge. That man was a Human Whitecrest. Hurt, on the other hand, he sized up as the sort of academic who eschewed the high isolation of offices and universities for real practical access to his subject. He looked a little nervous at having been brought to a warzone, but shook Garaaf’s hand with a tense smile behind his transparent full-face air mask.
“You can take the masks off, gentlemen,” Garaaf told them. “This facility is air-sealed and decontaminated. Just keep them to hand in case of an emergency.”
“Oh, thank God. My nose was itching like hell…” Hurt muttered, releasing the catches that held it snug around his face as though he couldn’t possibly be rid of it fast enough.
“That’s what the bit of velcro in there is for,” Hoeff told him. “Little trick I picked up from the HEAT.”
“Velcro…?” Hurt inspected the mask. “…Huh. I completely failed to notice that.”
“Professor Hurt advises the Allied governments of Earth on matters to do with the Ten’Gewek culture and religion,” Gyotin explained. “Alien culture clashes are his specialty.”
“That’s… probably overselling my expertise,” Hurt demurred. “But the situation you described is the kind of thing I study and work on with the Ten’Gewek, so when Champion Gyotin asked me for my thoughts on these people…”
“Thank you,” Garaaf duck-nodded. He gestured out of the jump room. “We should sit and talk. I don’t want to take up more of your time than I have to.”
There was a briefing room set aside for them. Garaaf scrounged up a couple of extra tablets and handed them out, along with his dossier on the E-skurel-ir. Gyotin and Hurt read it thoroughly in serious silence, pausing to occasionally trade comments and point out important details to each other: Hoeff paced calmly around the room, taking the opportunity to stretch out and discreetly search the corners for items of concern.
Garaaf watched all three of them.
Finally, Hurt sat back in his chair, and nearly overbalanced: Gaoian chairs were entirely wrong for a Human’s long legs. He was sitting low with his knees raised high, and it looked uncomfortable. He cleared his throat awkwardly and stood up as Hoeff had done.
“…Delicate,” he commented. “They went looking for meaning in a meaningless tragedy, and as unflinchingly self-flagellating as their dogma is, they managed to find some. Just coming here and even trying to liberate them is going to kick that meaning out from under them.”
“They’re going to schism,” Gyotin said.
“Yes. Inevitably, I’m afraid.”
“What does that mean for us?” Garaaf asked.
“That the Grand Army is going to have to keep the peace between the sects,” Hurt said.
“Or rather, protect one sect from the other,” Gyotin differed. “If they schism along the lines of those who trust us versus those who decide we’re somehow the Enemies of God…”
“What if we took a more forceful approach?”
Hurt frowned at Garaaf. “…Define ‘forceful.’”
“We do not need their approval for anything we do here, beyond our own sense of propriety. If it comes to it, ignoring them, forcible relocation. Whatever. A religion like this would surely interpret that differently, wouldn’t it?”
“Hmm.” Hurt had obvious moral objections to the idea, but he didn’t voice them yet. Instead he wandered back and forth at the back of the room with his hand on his chin. “I suppose that depends on how interested you are in preserving their culture and unique heritage.”
Garaaf decided it was time to be a bit more blunt. “I am not. I am interested in their survival. The Great Father, however, has concern for their souls. That’s the purpose of this. How do we keep from injuring their souls further?”
“Whose survival, Father Garaaf?” Gyotin asked. “A people are more than just genes and biology. The Great Father is entirely right to be concerned for their souls: destroy their heritage, and you destroy them.”
“Their heritage is one of self-destruction, and one which is very likely to keep them from their own salvation, to borrow a word.”
Hurt made a dark noise that was some humorless cousin of a laugh. “‘Be saved, or die.’”
“More like, ‘take the opportunity to save yourselves.’ There are limits to what we can do.”
“Okay. And what about your souls, in all this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to be the angels of divine mercy? Is that the role you want to play? Is that the story you want to tell them?” Hurt scratched the side of his head, just in front of his ear. “A little white lie to lift them out of hell, and then a hard truth later to maybe plunge them back into it.”
“I sincerely doubt the Great Father would approve of such a grand deception.” Garaaf said.
“No,” Gyotin agreed. “He wouldn’t.”
Garaaf duck-nodded. “Besides…I learned long ago that the biggest lies of all are told using nothing but truthful words. I need an unvarnished truth, Professor Hurt. One that is nothing but truth, is as complete a truth as possible, and will guide them away from their self-hatred.”
Hurt leaned his hands on the back of his former chair. “…They are just another species, the Gao are just another species, and the Hunters are just another species,” he said. “The E-skurel-ir suffered the grave misfortune of evolving on the wrong world in the wrong place during the wrong galactic epoch, and a bigger and crueller species found them and enslaved them. There’s no punishment or meaning to this, they committed no sin. They were just unlucky. That’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.”
“Bitter fuckin’ pill to swallow…” Hoeff muttered.
“Well, exactly. I don’t think there is a way to guide them away from self-hatred without challenging the foundations of their entire religion. The E-skurel-ir faith runs smack into the Theodicy problem: Their suffering can’t be explained in a universe governed by a compassionate and all-powerful interventionist god. God either did intervene, in which case this cruelty is clearly His will, which rules out compassion, or else He didn’t intervene, which means he either won’t—in which case, again, He isn’t compassionate—or He can’t, in which case He isn’t all-powerful. Their entire culture is built on a stool with one of the legs missing.”
“…How do Human cultures get around that problem?” Gyotin asked.
“Depends on the denomination.” Hurt sat down again, in a kind of cross-legged posture rather than trying to sit down with his knees up to his chest. “For most? God, in His wisdom, stays out of mortal affairs. He lets us chart our own course, and our judgement and punishment comes in the next life, not in this one.”
“Is that our angle?” Garaaf asked.
“Is that what you believe?” Hurt countered.
“Well… no. I don’t believe in that kind of a god at all.”
“Then it’s not your angle, no.”
Gyotin spoke, carefully and mildly. “What do you believe, Garaaf?”
Garaaf gave him a disgruntled look. “I’ve answered that question for you before.”
“Have you?” Gyotin flicked an ear. “…What kept you going, on the Ring? What reason did you have for opening your eyes every day, climbing out of bed, and enduring?”
“What kind of a question is that?” Garaaf almost growled, but restrained himself. He didn’t intend to disrespect Gyotin, but the question was infuriating. “It was that or die!”
“Was merely living your reason to go on?”
“No! Escape! Maybe even vengeance! Or just living to see one sunrise on Gao again,” Garaaf did snarl this time, but it was directed at the Hunters rather than Gyotin, and the Champion ignored it. “…When I met Ray, and when I spoke to her after…. She would say ‘we’re still here.’ That was her mantra. It wasn’t resignation, it was defiance! It was her way of saying ‘you haven’t beaten me yet.’ Well, the Ring didn’t beat me, because I didn’t let it!”
He realized that he’d surged to his feet. Slowly, he calmed himself and sat down again. “…Maybe you can tell me what I believe,” he said. “All I know is, I don’t believe in giving up.”
Gyotin’s ears twitched back and forth for a few seconds before he sniffed, glanced at Hurt and Hoeff, then chittered.
“Father Garaaf,” he said. “I do believe you’re an optimist.”
“And I believe we’ve found your angle,” Hurt said, the beginnings of a wry smile creeping up his face.
“…Have we?” Garaaf asked, skeptically.
“Oh yes.” Hurt leaned forward and rested his elbows and the table. “Let me explain…”
Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
Planet “Mordor,” Hunter Space
Thurrsto, Champion of Clan Whitecrest
There were many reasons why the Hunters had successfully terrorized the galaxy for aeons, With the most popular explanation among Gao and Human alike being that the Dominion species were just too incompetent and weak to handle them.
Which was true.
But it wasn’t the whole truth. Hierarchy interference, and the Hunters’ undeniable technological superiority in a few specific fields played their part too, and when it came to cloaking devices in particular the Hunters were the best in all the galaxy.
Keeda, the only reason Gaoian ones were so good was because of a prolonged and painstaking reverse-engineering program, and even then there were elements of their design and function that weren’t yet fully understood. When it came to turning invisible, nothing in the galaxy was better than a well-equipped Hunter, with the possible exception of Hierarchy equipment.
This made Thurrsto’s ‘big game hunt’ a dangerous proposition. Those tanks were deadly, and they were invisible. Tracking them involved more than a trivial amount of danger, therefore.
Fortunately, dangerous did not mean impossible. The cyberized Hunters might be invisible, but they were not massless. They left footprints and claw-marks in the mud, broke branches, scraped the bark off trees, left small shrubs crushed behind them, and left a chemical trail that no Gaoian could have failed to sniff out.
…If only they hadn’t been wearing activated charcoal filters. Thurrsto accepted that as the price he paid to not inhale a lungful of sulfuric fumes, nerve gas, formaldehyde, lead, chlorine, airborne hydrocarbons and a litany of other contaminants, but he wished he could use his nose right now.
Even so, the hunt was on.
“…What do we think?” he asked, watching their possible target through his scope. He was about… eighty, maybe eighty-five percent sure that the little patch of ailing trees downhill of his position contained a tank. Lots of little details added up to make it seem likely, including the torn-up ground, the way one branch had either grown very strangely or else was currently bent out of shape by the presence of something large or invisible.
He was less confident about whether or not it was alone and unsupported.
“That copse is a little small for there to be more than one…” Brother Asku mused. He’d been hand-picked for this operation, they all had. Thurrsto would have liked to bring some of the HEAT Whitecrests, but they were needed where they were. So he’d selected the best of the best who hadn’t quite made the HEAT cut, and was pleased to find that they viewed this as an opportunity to really prove themselves.
He’d also picked two who might well go on to become HEAT, with just a little more experience. Toran and Tybal, two of the most talented troublemakers he’d ever had the chance to forge into something more useful. This wasn’t to be their first blooding, but it was going to be a real test of their abilities…
…Nuts, it was a test of Thurrsto’s abilities. He acknowledged Asku’s comment with a slow nod, and slowly tracked his scope along a nearby ridge, where some kind of pipeline cut through the diseased landscape in a dead-straight line. Fiin had sent a couple of patrols out along that pipeline and its service road, and it hadn’t taken long for one of them to be hit… but not heavily.
“The patrol reported only one in the attack…” he muttered. “…Alright. Cubs, play crawl.”
The team set their active camo to dynamic mode, and stalked forward, low on four-paw, noses to the ground, backs and hindquarters slinking slowly and cautiously. Toran and Tybal were easily the smallest males on the team and so found themselves at the front with Asku. Thurrsto…well, there were some downsides to being a big brownie-sized HEAT veteran. He kept toward the rear and far enough apart that he wouldn’t give away the team if he made a mistake.
Besides. The Clan couldn’t really afford to lose him right now. He’d be no Champion at all if he didn’t get out in the field and do some of the work himself, but he’d be no Champion at all if he got sliced in half by a Hunter’s fusion scythe, either.
Crossing the scrubby open ground took several tense minutes, especially given the need to pause every so often and let their suits recharge their energy reserves. Dynamic camo was a significant drain on the power cells, and the sunlight through the dense overcast cloud didn’t replenish them fast enough… though on the other hand, it meant they didn’t cast strong, visible shadows.
Tybal’s voice vindicated Thurrsto’s decision in the last stretch. “Cubs, Mother’s home.”
“What do you smell?” Thurrsto asked him. In the Clan’s battle-cant, ‘smell’ filled in for all the senses, just like ‘Mother’ filled in for hostiles of any type. In the Cant, his query was only two syllables long.
“Movement. Brave cub playing alone.“
“Be careful…” Thurrsto warned him. He got a radio-click in reply, and Tybal moved forward, taking point while the rest of them hunkered down in place and let their camo completely blend in.
Tybal’s next words had the flat, uninflected tone that said he was subvocalizing through the contact mic pressed to his vocal cords, uttering no actual sound. “Mother’s alone.”
“What shall we play?” Thurrsto replied, inviting the young male to give him a plan.
“…One, three, five, left; Champion, two, four, right. Play hide-in-the-grass, play touch-tail, play pounce.”
“Big cub likes that game. Let’s play.”
They peeled apart. Thurrsto thought he could see what Tybal had spotted. If he was right, the Hunter was resting, dormant among the trees and facing leftward, watching the pipeline and road. Tybal had sent the smallest and quietest of them around that way, while the heavy hitters went right to attack the Hunter from its blind spot.
‘Touch-tail’ was the risky bit. A favorite game among mischievous cubs who liked to sneak up on an unsuspecting Mother, tweak a little pinch of fur off the tip of her tail, then run chittering for their lives from her startled and slightly tormented retribution. In the Cant, it stood for getting the enemy’s attention and holding it with a daring hit-and-fade attack. If it went to plan, the Hunter would never see the other three pounce on it from behind until too late.
It went to plan.
They got in position, inching closer one paw at a time until they were ready, clicked their radios to signal they were in position, and the three who’d gone left—Tybal, Toran and Ikuy—riddled the dormant Hunter with a trio of specialized grenade rounds: two shield dumps, and smoke. The Hunter was instantly invisible inside a cloud of dense white smog and a haze of highly reflective particulates that was opaque across pretty much the entire EM spectrum.
But not to the ultrasound sensors in a Whitecrest’s suit mask. From Thurrsto’s perspective, the tank became a big, bright blue contact as it moved, made noise, and dropped its cloak. Alongside Asku and Yaamo, he pounced into the fog.
A moving, thrashing, furious bulk became visible at immediate range. Thurrsto dived between its legs, rolled with his own momentum, and slapped one of his special toys onto its underbelly. Then his momentum rolled him onto his feet and he slipped out from under it again. A couple of other clong sounds behind him suggested the other two had succeeded, so he grabbed the detonator on his shoulder, flipped it open, and squeezed it shut again.
The devices triggered. They weren’t explosives. Instead, a number of fusion-tipped needles punctured the Hunter’s belly armor and injected a dense bundle of tightly compressed smart wire, which unfolded rapidly into its systems, infiltrating the tiniest cracks, hunting for electrical signals, especially the rapid low-voltage flicker of electronics. The degree of compression was incredible: each wire was much thinner than a hair but several meters long, and as relentlessly invasive as tree roots…though much, much faster.
The Hunter emitted a weird, strangled, mechanical squealing noise, jerked, and crashed to the ground spasming as many of its vital workings short-circuited and failed.
Down, but not out, and certainly not safe. The next bit required a brute’s unique skills.
Thurrsto drew his fusion knife, activated the sticky pads on his suitpaws, and sprang onto its thrashing, kicking back. Hunters had a physical limitation in that they couldn’t reach behind their own backs, and these big cyberized ones had inherited that flaw. He’d have been reasonably safe up there even if the monster’s limbs had been working properly.
As it was, it was the work of a simple moment to swarm up its back, stick himself securely to its spine, and drive his blade deep into one of its few remaining fleshy bits: the brain. They didn’t need that intact, after all.
The Hunter bucked hugely, and the only thing that kept Thurrsto from being flung several painful meters was his suit’s incredible adhesive technology… but after that one spasm, it was as dead as dead got.
Now came the tense moment where they waited for retribution from any friends it might have nearby. The moment stretched and hung in the air like the plucked string of some musical instrument…
Don’t relax yet, don’t relax yet…
…Nothing. Thurrsto bid himself remain alert and tense a little longer, then finally let go of his healthy paranoia enough to exhale.
“Right,” he said, and dropped the Cant. “Call in the dropship. If Second Fang want this nutless piece of kwekshit so bad, they can load it themselves. We did the hard work.”
There was a round of chittering, and Asku promptly turned away, keying his radio to call in their evac. Thurrsto gave the Hunter a last kick, then slapped Tybal on the back.
“Well played,” he said.
He didn’t need to see the young Brother’s face to recognize the delight there. And he didn’t need any more proof that the future of his Clan was looking good. As the clouds overhead parted and a Stoneback dropship wallowed out of them, Thurrsto looked back at his quarry and pant-grinned inside his mask.
It felt good to be the best.
Date Point: 417th Year of the Punishment
Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, the Great Ruin
Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant
Ukusevi woke at her desk. She’d only put her head down for a moment….
But no. The fire-safe oil lantern beside her had burned dry, and was going to need a new wick. Her back was sore, and the fur on her cheek was matted with her own saliva. She scrubbed at it with her fingers to try and restore some dignity, stretched her back which went crrrunch so hard that she gasped in relief, and turned to face the door.
The boy, Teeisyo, poked his head around the door. “The Gao is back, Keeper…”
She considered the wax tablet she’d been using to draft her thoughts before writing them in the journal. It was a mess of crossed-out aborted passages, backtracking and hesitation. But, that was why she drafted her thoughts first. It would be a sin to deface a record of history with such disordered scribblings…
…Or at least, so Uku felt. She was feeling a lot less certain about what was and was not sinful than she had just a few days ago.
She tidied the journal safely away, took her note tablet and stylus, and followed Teeisyo back up the tunnel toward the surface. The library was excessively quiet today… in fact, when she looked around, there were fewer people than there ought to be.
“Where…?” she began.
“They left, Keeper,” Teeisyo said, in a subdued voice. “Some of them said you were blaspheming. Others said you were right… the angry ones took their things and went into the tunnels during the night.”
Ukusevi sighed. That wasn’t unexpected, but…
…But she didn’t even know what they thought she was right or wrong about.
“Fourteen, I think.”
Fewer than she’d feared, more than she’d hoped… Almighty bless and keep them safe.
Garr-avf was waiting for her just like the last time. He’d removed his hood and mask, and the blunt stubs of his ears—where had he lost them?—tilted and angled subtly in what might have been recognition to match the duck of his head.
“Keeper,” he greeted her, via his translation device.
“Garr-avf.” Ukusevi sat opposite him and for the moment two very alien cultures considered each other carefully.
Garr-avf spoke first. “…We’re just mortals like you,” he said. “We aren’t divine beings, we weren’t sent here by the Almighty as far as I know. I know that raises… questions. Difficult ones.”
“Yes, it did,” Ukusevi agreed. “Some of my people left last night. We had a… difference of opinion, you could say.”
He tilted his head curiously. “You’re here talking with me. So I assume that means…?”
“I’m… confused,” Uku confessed. “I don’t know what to believe right now. My belly tells me one thing, the Chant tells me two or three others, and my head is pulled taut between all of them. If you aren’t divine beings—If—then… how do you know you aren’t defying the Almighty’s plan?”
Garr-avf made a duck-shrugging gesture. “I don’t. I doubt we are,” he said. “I don’t know what the Almighty’s plan is, or even if He has one. My people don’t even think about the Almighty in the way you do. All I can say is, we don’t claim to be divine beings, and we doubt the Hunters are either.”
Inwardly, Uku was trembling. If the Hunt—if the Punishers were not agents of divine justice then… then that left a hole in her core where her whole sense of the world and the way of it had once stood. The very idea sent dreadful cold tendrils along her limbs.
Out loud, though, her voice was level, calm and mild. “If you are not—and if they are not—then that would mean my people have suffered all of this—” she waved her hand at everything around them to indicate the whole world, “—for no reason. That the last four hundred and seventeen years were just… misfortune.”
Garr-avf ducked his head solemnly. “It would imply that, yes.”
“That seems a… a bleak way of looking at things. Don’t your people believe in meaning? In structure?”
Garr-avf tilted his head. “Do you want the Almighty to be angry with you?”
He may as well have stood on his head. Uku gave him a bewildered look. “What does what I want have to do with anything?”
Garr-avf sat forward and looked directly into her eyes. “You want there to be a purpose to all this. You want all the millions and millions of suffering and dead to have suffered and died because it was necessary. You want the Infinite and the Unseen to make sense. You want the universe to be just.”
Each repetition of the word ‘want’ stung like a papercut. Garr-avf watched her for a second, then sat back again. “But, you’re right. Why should what you want matter? Why should things make sense, or be just? Are you the center of all creation? Does the world dance to your desires? It certainly doesn’t dance to mine. So what does what you want have to do with anything at all?”
“You speak… harsh words, Garr-avf of Gao,” Ukusevi managed, around the sick icy knot in her stomach.
“We don’t have time to be gentle. And we will not be dishonest. Our great leader…abhors dishonesty in any form.”
“Just a leader. No kind of divine being himself, and he’d say so even more strenuously than me. His actual title is ‘Great Father.’ I don’t know how well that concept translates for you.”
Uku took up her stylus and tablet. “Tell me about him. And about your people.”
Garr-avf chittered darkly. “The Great Father is…personally, he’s a big, powerful, cheerful parody of a male, and would gleefully admit to it, too. He is…a good man. But.”
She was learning to read the movements of Garr-avf’s body. Some were almost familiar, others very strange indeed. But she guessed that the way his head lowered and tilted back and forth meant he was composing his words with just as much care as she would before writing in her journal.
“…A Great Father is…my people were severely tested by our great enemy. He was created Great Father at the moment of our greatest crisis, and his purpose is to obliterate all that threaten our people. He is…unequaled at that task. Which is why we are here.”
“The Punishers threaten your people?”
“The Hunters would have gladly done this to us,” Garr-avf said, gesturing around them. “But they’re the lesser foe. The greater foe are subtle, conniving, invisible and patient. Everything your tormentors aren’t. They are merely…more powerful than your people; the greater foe shaped my people, long ago. Worked our bodies like clay, shaped our culture, deleted our history, and tried to strike the very idea of the Almighty, the Unseen or the Infinite from our minds.”
Ukusevi boggled at him. He simply nodded solemnly, and waited for her to remember herself and write down his words.
“The Hunters are the discarded corporeal husks of that enemy,” he continued, once her stylus was scratching through the wax again. “They left their bodies behind a long time ago, and learned how to hide invisibly in people’s heads, control them, prod them in their desired direction, even take them over and pretend to be them.”
Uku listened. She didn’t know whether to believe him, but she recorded his words as he told her his people’s history. Whether he was speaking the truth or not, she couldn’t know, but she could at least faithfully and accurately record his exact words.
Until one of them jumped out at her.
“Your box didn’t translate that woord hoomun.”
“The name of our good friends, the ones who came up with that quote about the Almighty working in strange ways. I call you E-skurel-ir, you call me Gao, we call them Humans. They’re younger and less advanced than the Gao, but our good friends nonetheless, and they exposed the Hierarchy.”
Ukusevi put her tablet aside. “…Everything you say tears at the truths I built my life on,” she said. “You paint this picture of a sky full of civilizations—”
“Dozens of them,” Garr-avf agreed.
“…And you left us here to suffer alone?”
“We only learned you exist less than forty days ago.” Garr-avf shook his head. “This whole attack is rushed and dangerous. If it had just been our enemies on this planet, we would have watched, and planned, and got everything in place more methodically and carefully before we struck. As it is… a lot of Gao are dead. Many more are wounded, or sick. And we’ve only just started.”
Uku deflated. That much was true, at least. A few brave Penitents had snuck above ground to watch the fighting, and the Gao weren’t emerging from this conflict unscathed, far from it. There were wrecked vehicles littering the paths and roads near the facility, new and terrifying kinds of Punisher lurking among the rocks, rubble and foliage, and it seemed like there was a whole corps of Gao whose job was to retrieve the injured and dead.
“…I… suppose I should be grateful then,” she said.
“Yes. But you’re conflicted, I understand that.” Garr-avf sat forward. “…Keeper Ukusevi, we are not going away. We are here to defeat our enemy and to liberate your people. The Great Father was very clear on that point: When I asked him what we would do if you did not wish to be liberated, his exact words were ‘Then we’ll have to cure them.’”
“Somebody I know said to me earlier that a people are more than their flesh, which is true. Your people are sick, Ukusevi. In both body and soul. The air they breathe up on the surface is laden with heavy metals and harmful gases. The land is poisoned with radioactive and chemical contaminants, the water is corrosive… Your bodies get sick and wither the longer you spend up there. Well, your souls are in just as toxic an environment. You’ve adapted, found a way to endure… but yes. You have grown sick in a poisoned environment and we intend to heal you.”
Ukusevi drooped. “…So no matter what we do, we are in the grip of a higher power,” she said. “Either you, or the Almighty.”
Garr-avf let the silence last before speaking, quietly and carefully.
“You have it in your souls to heal yourselves,” he clarified. “I was a slave to the Hunters once myself. The difference, Keeper Ukusevi, is that I never blamed myself for it. I trusted myself. I had—and this is a concept the Great Enemy tried to eradicate among my people—I had faith. Not in the Almighty as you know Him, but in my own rightness. I knew that I had done nothing to be punished for, and neither had the slaves around me.”
Transfixed, Ukusevi could only watch him warily as he looked her unwaveringly in the eyes. “Your people were never so wicked and vile as to deserve this, and you know it,” he said. “What does that mean for you and your relationship with the Almighty? I don’t know. But the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can help yourselves.”
“Help… ourselves?” The thought was almost impossible. “I don’t even know if that’s… how can we?”
“You can.” Garr-avf asserted. “I’d much prefer it if you did, and I’m sure the Great Father would too.”
Garr-avf interrupted her. “Helplessness is like a heavy blanket: It smothers at the same time as it comforts. It takes an effort of will to get up and face the cold, exhausting, awake world of agency and empowerment where you have to actually take responsibility for your future. But that is where your people must go, Keeper Ukusevi. We hope you will take that step for yourselves, but if we must drag you out of bed and force you to stand, then we shall.”
“Is that how you see us? Asleep?”
“Asleep, and in the grip of a nightmare. But the thing about nightmares is, you have no control over them. At least when you’re awake, you can do something about your problems… so wake up.”
Ukusevi watched him for a long moment, then recorded that in particular for posterity.
“…I appreciate your words, Garr-avf of the Gao,” she thanked him, and rose to her feet. “I will pass on what you said.”
With that, she turned to go. He stopped her after only three steps, however.
She didn’t turn back, though her ears did. She heard him rise to his feet,. “Remaking oneself is what survival is all about,” he said. “On that topic…my people know much. And so do yours, I think. So I will give you time.”
He placed something on the ground. “When you are ready to talk again, just use this and ask for me.”
Ukusevi turned around as his pawsteps trotted away up the tunnel. Sure enough, he’d left a small black box on the ground. She hesitated, then collected it and hid it under her robes.
Then, with a remarkably clear and quiet head, she trotted back down the tunnel, and back to the library.
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Planes, Gao
Naydra, Mother-Consort of the Great Father
“I think your scars are fading, Bumpkin…”
Daar had a decidedly functional relationship with his fur. In general he didn’t pay it much mind, leaving Naydra to fret over it when it was long and prone to tangling, or to slick it glossy when he was shorn short. Left to his own devices he’d look maddingly unkempt…and it was somewhat irritating how well that worked for him. The ‘scruffy’ look made most males look a bit worse for wear, but not him. In fact, he’d transformed ‘scruffy’ into the mark of a well-bred brownfur; if a male could pull it off, he’d definitely score highly in most female’s lists.
Daar didn’t pay much attention to any of that. Probably. Though he was more than a little vain…in any case, today he was heading off to lead his military into war, one where he’d likely end up in battle himself inside that personal armor of his. That demanded the shortest coat he could get away with, and that in turn led them to the private moment they were sharing.
She was helping him shave right down to the undercoat, and then clipping that back to barely a tick long, too. It was a weirdly intimate moment they were sharing; anyone a gaoian trusted with shears was a close relationship, indeed. There wasn’t anything a person could hide when they were shaved almost down to the skin.
Not many males could pull that off, even fewer looked better short-clipped. Her Bumpkin certainly did, and that was no small part of her enjoyment. She could appreciate every inch of him, give him one last comb-down before he marched off…
…And notice things. Like his fading scars.
“Yeah,” he grumbled discontentedly, “they prol’ly are, ‘cuz of the regimen I’m on. In not too long I prob’ly won’t have any left. Gonna be somethin’ when th’ rest o’ the Males find out.”
That would certainly be a change. Gaoian males took pride in their scars. Naydra had always had a conflicted relationship with them. On the one hand, scars worth keeping were always from dangerous encounters, and that seemed just reckless from her admittedly Female perspective. Why should Males endanger themselves for a few token trophies?
But on the other hand, a big strong lacerated brute like her Bumpkin had an interesting life story to show and tell. Having come out of all that, wiser and stronger at the other end…
“It seems a shame to lose them,” she decided out loud.
“Can’t be helped. Th’ Corti are improvin’ their tech by leaps an’ bounds now that they’ve got the sample sizes they need, and I ain’t about to ask for deliberately worse medicine.”
“No.” Naydra felt along the thick topology of his dense, muscular flank and applied the trimmer to some rough spots she’d missed. If he was going to be shorn, then he would at least look as perfect as he actually was. There was a strange pride Naydra took in his vigor and general appearance: part motherly, part proud life-mate, part vain Sister showing off her prize…
She maybe spent a bit longer feeling him than was strictly necessary.
Daar chittered deep in his thick chest. “I hate ‘ta say no to ‘yer attentions Naydi, but I gotta get goin’ and we ain’t got th’ time.”
Naydra chittered teasingly, “Not even a quickie?”
“I ain’t never managed quick,” Daar growled suggestively, “an’ I ain’t ‘bout ‘ta start!” He spun around, found the good light like the smarmy Keeda he was and struck a pose. “Well! Do I pass ‘yer inspection?”
“…Yes.” Yes he did.
“Good!” Daar’s smug contrabass chitter practically shook the floor. “Walk wit’ me?”
They made a brisk pace since he was running a bit behind schedule, and he took the opportunity to shift his four-paw gait into a bouncy, powerful prance. He always showed off for her every chance he got, without fail, and no matter who else might be watching.
Still. As much as she enjoyed the attention, her mind drifted back to her earlier observation.
“Regenerative medicine that good is going to change society, I think.”
“Yeah. Mebbe jus’ as much as better color vision an’ all the other unlocked bits we’re gonna start seeing crop up en masse here in the next few years. The trials are goin’ super well…”
“Yes. Leemu seems to have made a full recovery.”
“Not unscarred, though. I mean…in his soul.”
“No. And Gorku?”
“He’s gonna challenge th’ Second Ring here right quick! I’m super proud o’ him!”
That was good to hear. She’d found herself particularly fond of the unlikely friends, and wished them well. After all, their relationship did bear a passing similarity to Daar and Regaari’s…
“Do you think we’re ready for this?”
“We still gotta expand th’ sample size to a few hunnerd more gao an’ make a public announcement ‘bout essactly what it’s all gonna mean—”
“No no, I mean…are we ready?”
“…No. Don’t think we can be, though. Balls, the Humans ain’t an’ they’ve built th’ HEAT entirely around dealing with this stuff, yijao? An’ honnestly, If it weren’t ‘fer ‘Horse I don’t know how they’d manage. Trainin’ at this level is intense, ‘specially inside ‘yer head.”
They rounded the corner to the jump array’s access corridor, deep in the side of the mountain abutting the northernmost face of High Mountain Fortress. Daar rose up to his hind legs and continued along at a stately walk. After a moment, he resumed his thought.
“He’s the heart an’ soul o’ the team,’ y’know. An’ he’s the big-little bro o’ all the old crew. Err’time the Corti improve their science on this kwekshit, he jus’ figgers it out, does the work, an’ gets on with it. That’s super important ‘cuz any improvements we get, they get not long after, an’ vice-versa. I admire the fuck outta him, Naydi. He’s why I can do all this in th’ first place.”
“You are very blessed in your friendships.”
“I’m blessed in my everythin’ Naydi. ‘Specially you.”
“Blessings get blessed,” she retorted.” She snuggled up to him.. “And you’re a blessing to me, the Gao and the Humans, Bumpkin.”
He opened the door for them to pass through the empty, echoing Conclave chamber. “I hope so… ‘cuz it looks like I got a third species on my hands.”
“Yes, I’ve been reading Garaaf’s reports. It’s… I can see why they need it, but something inside me chafes at the idea of deliberately and knowingly destroying a culture. Even theirs.”
“Not all cultures are equal, Naydi. Y’ever want proof’a that, go look at the way some Humans live.”
“You don’t need to tell me that, Bumpkin,” she reminded him. “I’ve seen the worst of Gaoian cultures, remember?” She indicated the huge tableau of of Fyu’s life that dominated the wall opposite the great table. They were passing the scene where Tiritya’s skinned hide was delivered to him, the moment that transformed Fyu from a soulful warrior-poet and general into the vengeful and terrible figure of a Great Father.
Daar paused to consider it, and she rested her head against his arm. “…That kind of barbarism isn’t so far away,” she mused. “I know these ‘penitent ones’ will need deprogramming, but…”
“But there’s a fine thread between healin’ them an’ enslavin’ them,” Daar duck-nodded. “Even ‘fer the right reasons, an’ even if we don’t spill a drop o’ their blood doin’ it, it’s a violent thing we’re gonna do ‘ta these people…”
“A violent blessing.” Naydra considered that, then chittered softly. “That’s… apt, for you.”
He scritched her back, considering the scene in front of them. The stylized mural wasn’t true-to-life accurate in its anatomy or perspective, but it conveyed the emotion in big ways through color selection and framing.
“…This one hurts ‘ta look at,” Daar said. “Now I know how he musta felt about her…” He shifted his arm and held her close. “…If anythin’ ever happened to you… I don’t wanna think ‘bout what kinda monster I’d become.”
“I think Fyu became what he did because Tiritya would have wanted it,” Naydi replied. “She loved his passion, his poetry, his rage and his love. Fyu was so ruled by his passions that he inscribed love poems on his armor and sword, conquered cities for her and burned the world down to avenge her. That’s… romantic.”
“An’ in response, the Females banned love.”
“Yes.” She turned her face upward to look Daar in the eye. “What I love about you is that you have all that passion but you rule it,” she said.
“Because you want me to.”
“And I’d want you to even if anything happened to me.”
He duck-nodded, slowly and sadly, then looked toward the far door. “…The jump’s waitin’ ‘fer me.”
She duck-nodded, understandingly. “Go. Be a blessing.”
He didn’t go immediately. There was always time for a last tender moment. But then he went, and she watched him until the door closed behind him.
Once it had, she turned back to consider the next scene in the tableau—Fyu going to war. And if the previous scene had been painful to look at for the raw grief and anguish it conveyed so well, the next one was painful for a very different reason.
…Because it was all too familiar.
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
Orbital Superiority Platform Raining Vengeance, In orbit around planet ‘Mordor’, Hunter Space
Hiyal, Champion of Clan One-Fang
“What are they building?”
“Anything that close to a star is Keeda’s own matted ass-fur to make out from this distance, Champion. We’re doing well to see that they’re building something in the first place.”
Hiyal growled to himself and watched his sensor technicians do their best to filter out a clear image from the glare of low orbit over a white-yellow star. They were making progress, at least.
He was acutely aware of two important points. First, that the Farthrow wormhole suppression field being generated by the Destroying Fury was only good enough to cover the planet below them and the surrounding volume of space out to about half a light-second, which left a lot of star system for the Hunters to jump in and out of unmolested…
And second, that they weren’t doing what he’d expected. He’d seriously anticipated that the Hunters would evacuate resources, stations, mining equipment and other spaceborne infrastructure. Which they were certainly doing, in a frenzied rush, but a not insubstantial portion of that equipment was being diverted in-system toward the star rather than being safely evacuated to some other stronghold.
Finding out exactly what they were building down there was, therefore, a priority. Fucking with stars? Not on Hiyal’s watch.
“What assets do we have available for a stealth flyby?”
“The Silent But Deadly is preparing to hit a facility on the surface. The… Drunker on Turkeyer …is on mission turnaround and can be ready in three hours…”
“Three hours it is, then,” Hiyal decided. “Keep me informed. I’ll be over on the Destroying Fury to receive the Great Father.”
Hiyal gave his Clan-Brother an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and left the Intelligence Center, which was always a bustle of noise and activity as the Vengeance’s small army of analysts and technicians tracked and filtered the flow of information from the ground war far below.
He took a minor detour on his route to the jump array to take a quick mental rest. There were two observation decks along the Vengeance’s lateral hull, tucked away under the overhanging dorsal armor. Each existed purely for the purpose of giving the crew somewhere to escape the claustrophobia of life aboard a starship. While Human crews apparently just had to suck it up and endure, Clan One-Fang had learned a long time ago that setting aside a long, narrow space where a crewman could run up and down to burn off some energy, or sit and meditate on the void outside, had great benefits for morale.
Naturally, they pulled double-duty: the Vengeance’s bulky refrigeration units, the ones that shunted waste heat into the shields so it could be harmlessly radiated into space, needed some hollow space around them in order to work efficiently. So the observation decks provided that space and were kept pleasantly warm as a result.
Right now, they also afforded an excellent view of the planet they were liberating.
Planets were always beautiful when seen from above, and this one was no exception. Hiyal had seen plenty of planets in his life, and no two were ever quite the same—even the most standard of barren, airless rockballs had their own unique features.
Temperate worlds came in all kinds of hues. Gao’s seas were steely and dark, the land a rugged yellowish-green fading to white north and south of the tropics. Earth, though he hadn’t yet seen it in person, was a vibrant riot of greens and lustrous blues in every picture he’d ever seen. He’d seen the Corti homeworld, however: Origin’s arid landmasses shaded much more to the yellow, tan and brown thanks to the dominance of fungi, while the seas were a rich emerald green and almost syrupy with algae.
Mordor, like Origin, was browns and yellows and greens to his eye, but not so vibrant or well-curated. Even the heavy, nearly omnipresent clouds had a faint dull off-white cast to them. The whole planet looked unwell, though perhaps that was just prejudice brought on by Hiyal’s knowledge of the conditions down there. He tried to put that knowledge aside for a second, imagine what his impression would be if he found this world and knew nothing of where it was, what it was like, or how life was for its natives…
…No. Still sick. Beautiful, yes, but only in a damaged, dark, morbid kind of way. If there was any kind of beauty to be seen in a diseased thing, Hiyal could see it from where he was standing.
The trip to the observation deck performed its function at least: it cleared his head and focused his mind. He duck-nodded to himself, waved down a Brother who was off-duty and meditating at the forward end of the observation deck, and headed directly to the jump array.
The Destroying Fury and the Raining Vengeance were effectively opposites in their role and design. The Fury was a Stoneback in starship form, all claws and fangs and deadly speed. Her whole design was built around making her presence felt on the battlefield, as quickly and as overwhelmingly as possible. Her Farthrow generator, her incredible shields that could literally smash lesser ships down into a ball of scrap metal, her overcharged engines… she was a pouncing, tearing, killing predator.
Raining Vengeance’s job was perfectly described by her class: Orbital Superiority Platform. She could maneuver, certainly, and was equipped for evasive blink-jumps, but her job was to provide orbit-to-ground fire support over an entire planetary hemisphere while keeping that planet’s sky clean of hostiles. Her shields were every bit as fearsome as the Fury’s, but were firmly defensive, and supported by a hefty shell of advanced armor plating. That shell in turn bristled with superluminal weapons, megalight drone launchers, microsatellite cannons, and all the other tools of battlefield superiority.
Placing both of them in orbit over one planet would be what was known in Human culture as a ‘flex.’
A crude word for a crude act of dominance, but sometimes that sort of show was necessary. The Great Father wasn’t the kind of male he was purely for ego’s sake, after all, and when it came to things as crude as the Hunters themselves… Hiyal could appreciate the logic.
His jump from one ship to the other was uneventful, and none too soon, either. Had he delayed much longer, he’d have been forced to wait or come over in a shuttle instead, as the Great Father’s jump from the homeworld took priority. As it was, the timing was good enough for him to arrive, and for the Array to fully charge again just in time.
Champion Fiin was waiting for him.
“You have a fine sense of timing.”
“Thank you,” Hiyal duck-nodded his gratitude. “Have you been waiting long?”
“I’ve been up here long enough to take a proper dust bath and change into something that doesn’t stink of acid rain and chemical spills.” Fiin made a frustrated growling noise. “We’re suffering a lot of attrition to the environment. It has a way of creeping in through the seals. Even my piss is showing elevated toxin levels, and I’m sealed up inside the command post most of the time.”
“How do the natives survive?”
“They’ve adapted to it. Garaaf tells me their oral history says that when the land first started sickening, the birth rate declined, people died… the ones who could have kids wound up having a lot of them, so their people ‘could pay their penance.’ Natural selection in action.”
“First contact has been a success, then.”
“…Hasn’t ended in blood yet.” Fiin’s ear-flick said everything else.
“What do we do if it does?”
“The Great Father was pretty clear on that point, I thought,” Fiin sniffed. “…Surely you’ve occasionally had to give an idiot a few new scars for his own good?”
“That’s our way,” Hiyal retorted. “I don’t know if we have the right to treat them like upstart young associates!”
“Champion Hiyal, I speak with love as your friend and ally, but if you think those people are anything other’n broken then you’re a fool,” Fiin growled, pouncing right up to the line where Hiyal’s dignity and that of his Clan would demand a duel. Hiyal’s hackles raised and his claws came out on reflex, and several nearby officers and technicians subtly moved away from them before Fiin offered a mollification. “…Which I know you ain’t.”
That was enough to take them back from the edge of violence, and Hiyal drew his claws back in with a deep breath, but his hackles were still up when the Array thumped and the Great Father strode onto the deck. He sniffed the air, then gave his two Champions a semi-amused but dangerous look.
“…There a problem?”
Hiyal settled down. “…Champion Fiin was…” he paused, glanced at Fiin, then sighed and shook his head in capitulation. “…Speaking a hard truth that I didn’t want to hear.”
“As the Champion of Stoneback would,” Daar rumbled approvingly. “Though tact is somethin’ that’s awful useful too.”
“As you say, My Father,” Fiin agreed, evenly.
“…Not that I was ever any good at it,” the Great Father chittered. “Anyway. We’re at war, ain’t time ‘fer pleasant catchin’-up. Brief me.”
Fiin and Hiyal looked at each other, and Fiin made further peace by gesturing for Hiyal to go first.
“I just came from Fleet Intelligence over on the Raining Vengeance. We’ve detected Hunter construction activity in close stellar orbit. They’re building something near the star. We don’t know what, but they’ve been suspiciously quiet otherwise so I don’t like it one bit. Drunker on Turkeyer will be taking a look at it as soon as she’s ready.”
“Why not Silent But Deadly?” Daar inquired.
“They have a groundside target. Champion Fiin?”
“We’ve lost a lot of troops and vehicles to these cyberized Hunters, even with the change in weapon loadout,” Fiin reported. “Claws from Fourth Fang are joining up with the JETS team to take out what we think is their primary production center. That operation should be going ahead any minute now.”
“And the flyby on this thing the Hunters’re buildin’?”
“Not for a few hours yet, My Father,” Hiyal said.
“Then we’re gonna watch our people work,” the Great Father decided. “An’ enjoy watchin’ the Hunters get what’s comin’ to them…”
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Planet ‘Mordor,’ Hunter Space
Tooko, Pilot and Stud of Clan Firefang
Combat was infinitely more stressful when it was your friends doing the fighting, and there wasn’t a Daar-damned thing to do about it.
Tooko had a commanding view of the factory, though that by itself wasn’t good enough to see his team, nor the Fourth Fang claw. Stealth operations were… well… stealthy like that. He had no idea if things were going well, if they were going horribly wrong…
All he could do was silently orbit and watch. And wait.
A small spasm of relief flooded his soul when the telephoto cameras observed his testosterone-poisoned monkey friends swarming up the side of the cargo handling facility, just about as fast as Tooko himself would have run the same distance horizontally, and as effortlessly as if the bulky and insanely heavy packs on their backs were of exactly zero concern to them. They were approaching from an angle where they would be all-but-invisible from the ground, which was in turn a particularly difficult to access bit of dirt. If they’d made it that far…
Two shadows on the rooftop moved, and with a jolt Tooko realized that they’d been a pair of Whitecrests the whole time. The cavemonkeys handed off the targeting beacons to them and the pair darted off across the roof to deploy them while Ferd and his men hauled their dump webs toward the shield generator.
Four extremely heavy Ten’Gewek knuckling around on the roof probably wasn’t all that quiet from the inside though. It was just a warehouse after all, and they hadn’t been up there for even half a minute when a rollup door at ground level opened and a pair of Hunters emerged… right into Rees and Wilde, who’d taken up position on either side with silky precision. Four swift and synchronized stabs to the spine reduced the Hunter population of the base by two.
The shield generators were protected by metal cages on the roof, which they’d been briefed about. Each cage got its very own Ten’Gewek, who looked to the Whitecrests for the signal—
Tooko’s HUD pinged. The beacons were up.
The Hunters noticed that alright, especially when the cavemonkeys tore the shield cages right out of their concrete foundations and tossed them off the roof. Almost faster than Tooko could follow, Hunters were boiling out of doors or even clawing through the thin sheet metal walls to make their own egress, ravenous for blood.
Fourth Fang shot them sideways in the ass with an absolute storm of firepower from their concealed position on the compound’s west side. Caught between that and the Humans’ disciplined, accurate shots from the east end of the compound, the angry swarm wavered, faltered, then fell into disarray and scattered, trying to find some cover.
The cavemonkeys meanwhile had only one job: get out, with their Whitecrest buddies along for the ride. Ferd unceremoniously scooped both of them up in his tail and flung himself off the roof—they were up so high!—and sailed through the air like he’d done the deed thousands of times before. Probably had, given they were a tree-dwelling people. The trees on Mordor weren’t anything like as sturdy as his native Ketta though, so Ferd crashed into one and rode its splintering, disintegrating form down, bleeding off momentum so that when he alighted he did so almost lightly among the collapsing branches and leaves.
That done, he gave his two passengers a hefty congratulatory slap on the back, hoisted his weapon, and added its weight to Fourth Fang’s contribution.
At the other end of the compound, Nomuk, Tumik and Genn didn’t bother with such frivolities. They just jumped off the roof and landed hard on some kind of a Hunter cargo container, which dented spectacularly.
The plan was for them to grab the three Humans and withdraw at speed. The Hunters still had something to say about that, sadly.
Two tanks smashed their way out of the goods yard. No frills, no messing around with fusion claws, they just barged through the thin metal like it was a cobweb.
Ferd was a bit distant from the fight. He charged in, much faster than Tooko ever would have guessed a Ten’Gewek could move. His speed certainly foiled the tank that turned his way, which raised its gun arm and tried to track him, only to lose him behind some containers. It opened fire anyway, riddling them with an alarming number of very large holes, but it was tracking behind him and the burst only succeeded in reducing the concrete behind his heels to gravel. Thwarted, it scuttled forward to hunt him.
The other tank went the other way, stalking Wilde, Rees, Frasier, Nomuk, Tumik and Genn. An anti-tank missile speared out of the trees courtesy of Fourth Fang, and to Tooko’s dismay the Hunter ducked and half-turned with stunning speed for something so big while its shields flashed some kind of ECM: the missile slashed past it, missed the tank by inches, and shredded a nearby wall section.
That distraction was all the opportunity the deathworlders needed, though: hooting war cries, the three Ten’Gewek slammed into it, grabbing its limbs with their hands, the segmented armor plating along its legs and back with their feet, and heaving. The tank struggled and wrestled, spinning and bucking as it tried to dislodge them.
Spurred by the presence of anti-tank firepower, the one pursuing Ferd abandoned its pursuit and turned to rake the Fourth Fang position with a blizzard of bullets. The Stonebacks flowed like air, first recoiling from the firestorm then maneuvering sharply to find a better position.
Ferd, however, wasn’t going to let the tank have its way. He vaulted a container and crashed onto its back with enough momentum to stagger it. His feet grabbed into the armor plates below its armpits hard enough to crush and buckle them, he grabbed hold of its fusion scythe arm, above the elbow where it wasn’t spitting with lethal energy, and heaved.
The scythe’s power flickered, and died. Tooko almost imagined he could hear the squeal of tortured metal and splintering composite from where he was as Ferd wrenched, twisted, torqued, and heaved again to fully separate the bucking Hunter’s arm from its body.
His men and the Humans were achieving something similar with the other one. Nomuk, Tumik and Genn weren’t Given-Men, but they were still absurdly strong by anything else’s standards. Strong enough that the Hunter they were rodeoing could hardly move its arms. Wilde, Rees and Frasier ducked between and under its legs with their own knives out, fusion blades sizzling as they cut upwards into its belly, crippling its legs. Frasier swarmed up the Hunter’s writhing body to stab deep into the gun and scythe arms for good measure while Rees and Wilde planted explosive charges, and then all six men withdrew.
The Hunter, its legs useless and its arms disabled, sank to the deck, twitched pathetically as it tried futilely to turn and murder them, and then burst in half when the charges detonated.
Tooko punched his seat’s arm and barked a victory cry, then corrected the minor wobble in his orbit. His hackles were up, his teeth bared and his blood racing. When those dump webs went off—
As the factory’s overhead shielding sputtered and failed, he wrenched the controls, flipped SBD through a turn that no mere stunt plane could ever have achieved, and fed capacitor power to the engines while the ship got a solid lock on the remaining tank.
“HILLFOOT, PIPPIN. Shields are down, can I shoot?”
Wilde’s voice was as level and calm as always. “Cheers, PIPPIN. CHUNKY, fall back and let him have his fun.”
Ferd gave the Hunter’s gun arm a last tug that thoroughly broke it, punched it in the back of its armored skull so hard that he stunned it, then sprang off its back and out of harm’s way taking its fusion scythe for a trophy. Fourth Fang were busy mopping up the last few Hunters now that they weren’t under heavy fire…
“PIPPIN, HILLFOOT. Kill that big bugger for me, would you?
Tooko grinned and armed his gauss cannon. “Roger, HILLFOOT. Firing.”
When it came to precision-killing one hard target, nothing beat a gauss cannon. It was deafeningly loud even within the safe confines of the hull and shaved off a pretty significant amount of Tooko’s speed with a jolt that strained the inertial stabilizers, but the result?
The result was that the tank, limping as it turned to try and raise its damaged gun arm, was struck by a hypersonic slug of white-hot tungsten wrapped around a very molten copper core, and ceased to exist.
Tooko nosed up, threw on the retros on full power, and peeled out of his attack vector to come around for a more gentle landing to pick up his team. His reward came from Rees, in a rare moment of lax radio discipline.
“…Fuckin’ ‘ell… Uh, good hits, PIPPIN. Well done.”
That was a feeling of triumph like no other. Tooko bled off the last of his speed through a wide swooping turn, and brought Silent But Deadly in for a landing in the clear ground south of where his target had been.
“Ready for pickup.”
They were up his ramp in moments. Fourth Fang had their own transport, already coming forward to collect them, so Tooko lifted off the instant Frasier had backed up it with his weapon trained outward for any miraculous surviving threats, and radioed to the Clawleader.
“DARKFANG FOUR, PIPPIN. We’re ready to light the fireworks.”
“Understood, PIPPIN. We’re clear, send it whenever you’re ready.”
His passengers hadn’t spent all that long outdoors and needed far less decontamination than they normally did. A quick high-temperature, high-pressure spray followed by a powerful blow-dry, and the men were already through the airlock, stripped down to the compressive underlayer of their NBC gear, pulling out the maneuver couches and strapping themselves in.
Tooko climbed, turned, accelerated, and switched comms channels all in one slick movement, while running an eye over his last visual of the target. Nothing Gaoian, Human or Ten’Gewek was left down there, so he sent the call. “Raining Vengeance, Silent But Deadly. Target prepared, beacons active. Fire when ready.”
“Copy, Silent But Deadly. Rounds away. Beware of turbulence.”
Tooko didn’t have time to reply before the clear and awesome proof of where the Raining Vengeance got her name lanced down behind him. Strobing pillars of superluminal blue radiation raked back and forth through the target facility as the Vengeance sent down thousands of rounds in just a few heartbeats.
The burst lasted only moments, but left a mushroom of dust and hot air blooming into the sky. SBD lurched in Tooko’s paws as a prolonged rumble of a shockwave passed her, leaving the air boiling and unsettled once it had gone.
Over the comms, the pilot of Fourth Fang’s dropship grunted a tense “Fyu’s ass…” as his larger, heavier, less agile vehicle bullied and jolted through the storm rather than surfing it…
But then they were back into clear and calm air. Tooko sideslipped, fell in alongside and behind the dropship at a higher altitude, then allowed some of the ice water to drain out of his veins so he could think again.
“…You lot certainly know how to wreck shit,” he commented over his shoulder.
The reactions were interesting. The Ten’Gewek were of course boisterously proud, with Ferd showing off an impressively brawny stone-hard arm whose bicep alone balled up to roughly the size of his own massive head. Much hooting and general macho braggadocio ensued, which made Tooko chitter. Theirs’ was a very uncivilized sort of charisma…but hey, it worked for them!
The Humans were a fair bit more restrained. For them, it wasn’t so much about displays of dominance and strength, though there was a certain quiet smugness about them. No, for the Humans, the overwhelming feeling seemed to be one of professional pride in a job well done.
All of them were seriously wound up, however. Since they were stuck in their chairs, the best they could do was review the mission footage. There were plenty of constructive critiques to go around, but it was all minor, incremental improvement they could think about for their next mission.
Ferd’s single-handed takedown of one of the Hunter tanks got many rounds of praise. “Christ,” Wilde shook his head with a grin. “That right there is why I don’t wrestle you, Chunky!”
“Good knife-work!” Ferd replied in turn, tapping the footage of the three Humans ducking under the other tank to carve and slice it apart. “How do you spin blade around hand like that?”
“Practice.” Frasier gestured with his hand. “But don’t try it with a fusion knife unless it has a grip safety like ours.”
And so on. It wasn’t long before they were cleared to un-belt, and that was the moment they all practically sprang out of their seats to burn off the manic tail-ends of their energy.
The Ten’Gewek didn’t even bother to remove their undersuits before they set into their usual wrestling games. Apparently, the slippery fabric did much to nullify Ferd’s unassailable strength advantage; all the cavemonkeys agreed this was a considerable improvement.
The Humans were, again, much less boisterous, but they too energetically attended to their post-mission cleanup, and after they’d finished with their own weapons and equipment, (eventually) managed to break up the wrestle-pile. It took Wilde nearly twenty minutes to wriggle free of Fred’s grasp, but once they’d had their fun, he reminded the Ten’Gewek to clean their gear.
And took the newfound opportunity to, if not relax, at least rest for a bit.
Wilde sauntered over into the co-pilot seat, clearly pleased with himself and his team.
“Went well, overall…but it got a bit hairy down there for a moment,” he confided.
“You made it look almost easy.”
The Human issued a tired sort of almost-laugh, and nodded. Clearly the adrenaline and lingering energy were fading. “Glad you think so, Took.”
Ferd hooted from the equipment station, “Easy because Wilde teach us good!” That was mildly infuriating; on top of everything else they were blessed with, they also had exceptionally acute hearing.
And essentially zero sense of privacy. They meant well, though.
“How long back to base?”
Tooko glanced at his map. “At the speed that bucket Fourth Fang are in flies? Five hours.”
“You staying up here?”
“Have to. It’s a long intercontinental flight. We’ve got friendly guns overhead, but if the Hunters send anything our way, fighting them off is my job…”
“Right.” Wilde stood again. “I’ma get some Egyptian PT in, then.”
“Some sleep, mate.”
Tooko glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, Frasier and Rees were both already out like lights in their individual bunks. He had no idea how they did it. They were barely out of a furious fight to the death with two oversized super-Hunters followed by the kind of fireworks display hardly anybody ever got to see… and once given the chance they could fall asleep almost instantly.
Wilde clapped him on the shoulder and headed back to his own bunk.
That just left the Ten’Gewek, whose exuberant hooting displays of victory had wound down quite sharply too. Once they’d accomplished the all-important task of cleaning their weapons, they’d collapsed together in a tangled knot of limbs and tails, and were already nodding off to sleep. Of course, they liked to keep their reserves topped off even more aggressively than the Humans did.
The transition from lightning-fast, sustained, focused violence to seven men slumbering peacefully in his ship as they rose above the smog layer and emerged into beautiful clear blue skies was a little surreal for Tooko. He sipped some water, ate a little jerky, and, after checking one last time that they were well-protected under the Vengeance’s umbrella, he turned on autopilot, grabbed his tablet, and sat back to watch a movie that Frasier had recommended.
It was a long way home.
Date point: 16y11m5d AV
The Clawhold, Planet ‘Mordor,’ Hunter Space
Ginn, Foot-soldier first class, Grand Army of the Gao
Ginn waited until the forcefields and physical barricades that formed the Clawhold’s entrance were firmly closed behind them before he cut the power to his weapon, unplugged its ammo feed and returned it to the forward-facing position.
The multi-barrelled, spinning, howling thing he’d been given to replace the machine gun and grenade launcher from his previous Growl was a lot more intimidating to the Hunters. With a two-thirds-one-third mix of full metal jacket to shieldbreaker rounds fired in a deafening buzzsaw torrent, it tore their shields down in a flash and mauled the armor beneath for good measure. If Ginn aimed for the weak spots like the eyes and joints, the Hunters didn’t like it at all.
They were still a danger… but they were now a danger the Gao had a counter for. That was a much better situation to be in, but Ginn was still almost numb with relief from knowing that he was safely in here rather than out there once again.
Fortunately, vehicle maintenance wasn’t his job. He and his squadmates left their Growl to be decontaminated and checked over by the mechanics, and instead trudged over the open ground toward the mess facility.
The Mess, out of necessity, was one of the few places in the Clawhold where NBC gear could be safely removed, the others being the barracks, field hospital, and command center. Entering any of those involved a hefty rinse with high-pressure hot water from tail to top, and a scrub from two decontamination specialists with long-handled foaming brushes.
But, considering the alternative was like taking a good huff from a diesel vehicle’s exhaust, Ginn wasn’t going to complain.
The next step for everyone after getting out of the protective gear was a dust bath. Even with their bellies rumbling, they’d endured the itching for far too long. Ginn actually whimpered in relief as he finally got to roll and rub his back into the warm sand and soothe a particularly irritated spot. He wasn’t alone. The NBC gear was torture.
They didn’t take longer than they needed to genuinely relieve their suffering, however. Their bellies were empty and once their fur was dry and brushed and their skin soothed, the smell of roast kwek was like a hook in their noses.
There were a Claw of Stonebacks at one of the tables, joking and chittering and boasting as they tore into a meal twice the size of what was on Ginn’s tray. Second Fang, from the unit insignia, and not to be mistaken as any less fearsome than their brothers in First Fang. The difference was specialization, not talent.
Ginn had seen more Stonebacks in the last couple of days than he’d seen in his whole life prior. They were a big and influential Clan but…
Well. Before the homeworld war, Stoneback had been engineers and farmers working on big projects out in the country, while Ginn had managed stock at a supermarket in a suburb of Do Wun. Neither the supermarket nor the city existed any longer, and only the good fortune of living outside the quarantine perimeter had saved Ginn from sharing their fate.
His was a fairly typical story, in that regard. Most of the Grand Army had been left with no other future after the biodrone uprising, when the communes they’d grown up in, the businesses they worked for and the workhouses they lived at were all gone. The choice was stark: serve in the Grand Army, or starve.
That hadn’t been an ultimatum. That had just been the truth of it. And so Ginn served. He’d even met a female, shortly before coming to ‘Mordor.’ She’d politely and gently turned him down, but he’d still been left feeling good. There were so few females nowadays, even just getting to meet Sister Shoyma and have a conversation, even the chance to try and impress her, had been fulfilling. It had reminded him what the Grand Army was fighting for.
The pleasant memory distracted him so much that he didn’t notice the hulking figure approaching the table at first. When he did, it was because one of his squadmates nudged him. He looked up at the big brown mass of one of the Stonebacks and pricked up his ears in surprise.
The Stoneback pant-grinned down at him, smelling of friendliness and good humor. “Hey little guy, I hear ‘yer the one figgered out those big fuckers don’t like it when you shoot ‘em innaface. My folks tellin’ me good?”
Ginn’s brain short-circuited, but something about the huge, friendly face hovering above him drew an answer out of him before he could properly think.
“Well… I guess?”
“Thought so. My Brothers said you kept ‘yer head an’ kept shootin’, so they seemed ‘ta think ‘yer pretty good!”
“I haven’t died yet…” Ginn ventured. That earned him a hearty, baritone chitter and the Stonebacks joined him and his squadmates at their table.
Hanging out with Clan was a novel experience for most of them at the table. It was one thing to meet Clan brothers in official capacities through work, but another thing entirely to be treated like friends and brothers-in-arms. Ginn had worked in the shadow of Clan Goldpaw all his life, but always a long way down the hierarchy. The Clan were bankers, investors, owners, board members and executives. A mere shelf-stacker wasn’t the kind of person they interacted with. They lived in different worlds.
The Stonebacks didn’t. It didn’t matter to them that Ginn was entirely Clanless, that he had sired no cubs, or that he had been basically nobody before the war. They liked him. They said as much, and everybody knew that Stonebacks had a code against even little white lies. Here and now, they were just soldiers serving on the same polluted pit of a planet, taking on the same dangers and the same foes.
It had to end eventually of course. In time, the Stonebacks went on their way, but their parting encouragement to Ginn that he could ‘mebbe take a shot at the rites if ‘ya got good an’ big enough’ ran through Ginn’s head as he went back to the barracks and curled up with his friends in their nest-bed area. They still had safety gear to hand in case a Hunter attack breached the sealed environment, there were still the distant sounds of war going on outside…
But for the first time since arriving on the planet, Ginn felt good about things.
He slept well.
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
Orbital Superiority Platform Raining Vengeance, Orbiting planet ‘Mordor,’ Hunter Space
Hiyal, Champion of Clan One-Fang
“This is what you were worried ‘bout?”
“Yes, My Father. We’re not sure what it is exactly.” Saying that it couldn’t be anything good would have been redundant.
The Great Father leaned in and studied the display. “How big?”
“About the size of a small outpost or mining platform. We think they actually reconfigured and moved a station from the outer system.”
“Drunker on Turkeyer should give us a better idea in a few minutes.”
The Great Father duck-nodded, took a step back, hooked his claws comfortably into the carrying harness he wore, and waited patiently.
Drunker on Turkeyer may have been marginally surpassed by the Silent But Deadly, but only marginally. In absolute terms, she was still one of the fastest and quietest stealth ships ever built, and even her position marker on Hiyal’s system map was based on where she should be if she stuck to the mission profile, rather than actual sensor data or a tracking device.
The approach was a stealth-warp, at only a few kilolights. Below the threshold where her carefully tuned drive would generate any ripples in local spacetime that would stand out from the ordinary gentle ripples caused by the interplay of planetary, lunar and stellar gravity wells.
Her egress was not so silent. At exactly the expected time, there was a strong gravimetric contact as the ship surged up to nearly half a megalight and streaked away from the stellar well before vanishing into a jump fold.
Moments later, her telemetry came through, and Hiyal growled.
The Hunter facility was basically just a bunker, stuffed full of cooling equipment… and forcefield emitters. Titanic ones.
“…Am I lookin’ at what I think I’m lookin’ at?” the Great Father growled. “‘Cuz that looks like one giant-ass forcefield array.”
“Yes,” Hiyal agreed. “Fyu’s sword, if they get that thing operational, they could focus stellar output like a giant lens…!”
“…Would system shields protect against that?” Daar asked.
Hiyal had no idea. Fortunately, knowing such things wasn’t his job. That role fell to one of his technical analysts, who considered the question solemnly for a few moments, commendably calm for a young male with the Great Father himself looming over him.
“…System defence shields are superluminal, they have to be in order to do what they do. But there is a little latency internal to the device’s own electronics, even with the internal time dilation. So when the shield opaques to prevent an energy burst from penetrating, there are always a few nanoseconds of leakage. Normally, the amount of energy that can leak through in that window would be insignificant, even for quite large events…”
“But a nanosecond burst of the focused energy of an entire stellar hemisphere is still a fuckova lot,” the Great Father finished.
“Exactly, My Father.”
“Enough to damage a ship?”
“Uh….” The technician grabbed a tablet. “…Yellow-white star, so stellar output is about… three hundred and eighty-four yottawatts… cut that in half for one hemisphere…”
Hiyal and the Great Father waited for him to calculate. After a few seconds the technician’s ears went flat, and he cleared his throat. “About… twenty exajoules per nanosecond.”
“That much energy in a nanosecond? That ain’t even enough time ‘fer a beam o’ light t’cross my left forepaw. Ain’t that gonna fuck wit’ the pulse?”
“It would force the pulse to have a maximum wavelength somewhere in the far thermal or near microwave, My Father, but… well, if I was building this weapon I’d want to use gamma or X-ray anyway.” The technician ventured an apologetic set of his ears. “It wouldn’t have any real effect on the total energy delivered.”
“…Well then. I s’pose the answer to my question is yes,” Daar observed, drily. “How much damage would twenny exajoules do ‘ta my ship?”
“That’s the equivalent of a couple of gigatons, My Father. If the Fury’s shields were opaque in the correct frequency before the shot landed, she might be able to deflect enough to survive, but more likely she’d just be instantly vaporized. The firing time is effectively instantaneous, and the optical qualities of a forcefield array are infinitely variable, so they could split the beam, or stutter it, direct… millions of heat rays per second at targets all over the system, depending on how well they handle the waste heat…”
“Welp.” Daar nodded, interrupting the technician’s increasingly worried babbling. “That’s a fuckin’ superweapon if I ever saw one.” He rose to his full height, turned and barked his orders.
“Get me Father Regaari, Champion Fiin, an’ my armor. We need the HEAT. Now.”
++End Chapter 62++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 63: “Torn”