Chapter 63: Torn
Date Point:14y1m AV, two years prior to the invasion of Mordor
A Man. A tall, strange man, with a strange spear in his hand. Fire falling from the sky.
That had been his vision on the day Ferd became a man and was Given his name by the Singer. He’d earned it by doing exactly that in his manhood hunt; his spear failed him at the worst possible moment and, faced with a very angry young werne bull, Ferd did the only thing he could do. Fight it. The werne charged. Ferd met it, and wrestled it to the ground.
And then he broke the werne, with nothing more than the strength the gods had Given him.
That was not something a boy just becoming a man should have been able to do. But Ferd had always been very big and very strong for his age, even if he wasn’t very tall. He’d grown up more quickly than most, too; his crest had gone from yellow to bright orange in less than a season. He’d been proud of how fast and how well he was becoming a man, and decided to prove himself by carrying the entire werne back to the tribe instead of just its head. It was a young bull not unlike himself, still growing into his strength…well, had been before Ferd had Taken him.
Doing that had so tired Ferd, he was seeing his vision even before the magic dust, before the women of the tribe taught him the ways of man and woman, before his father and Given-Man had Given him his knives of manhood. He remembered little of it. A blur of dancing, the fire stretching out into forever. Warm skin pressed against his, the taste of a woman’s body. Holding his knives of manhood for the first time.
A Man. A spear. Fire from the sky.
He’d puzzled over that vision for a long time. Seasons passed. Ferd Werne-Breaker grew into a strong redcrest of a man, though most of that seemed to be sideways instead of up, and tended to thicken him much more than most. The gods saw fit to Give him great strength, even if that meant he’d never be taller than the women. Ferd didn’t mind. His life was happy.
Then he met the tall, strange man. The Humans were much stranger in person than his vision could have ever prepared him for. He learned what the spear was, too. Found himself wondering what the point of all his strength was against weapons like the Sky-People had.
He’d learned that when the fire fell from the sky.
It had been a terrible fight, and his tribe’s Given-Man had died in the war. Luckily, his tribe was allied with Yan’s and that meant they were safe until the gods chose which man would be Given to them. It didn’t take very long. Ferd was one of three redcrests in the tribe, and while he was the youngest, he was also easily the strongest, with the tallest and reddest crest.
Ferd could still remember the day it started. He’d woken up and felt like his whole body was on fire. He’d been drenched in sweat, everything ached from his toes on up. Even his crest hurt. He didn’t know a crest could hurt! All he’d wanted to do was drink water and eat meat all day long. He’d never been so hungry, never known thirst like that. He only stopped when he couldn’t eat or drink anymore, but still the urge was there. His Singer knew immediately what it meant of course, but in the pain of the hunger, he didn’t figure it out right away.
He did figure it out eventually, when he started tasting the magic fruit’s flavor on the air. Normally they were horrible to eat, and people went out of their way to avoid them. Now, though, he could think of nothing but eating them, and so he did, until his hands and mouth were stained bright, bright red.
The red of a Given-Man.
The fruit, when dried, was where the Singers got their magic dust. The leaves, when burned, were how the Given-Men opened their eyes to the gods. But when eaten, the fruit Gave a man the first Fire of his life, if he was ready to Take it. It was…agony. His body hurt so much and it never stopped. He was so angry at everything, even stupid little things like a twig poking him in the foot could send him into a murderous rage. The only thing that calmed him was hunting, and he needed to hunt because his hunger grew, and grew, and grew.
Once he’d tasted the fruit, he’d been Chosen. All he would have needed to do to refuse the Giving would have been to ignore the fruit, no matter how hard its taste tried to seduce him. But honestly…what man would refuse such a Giving? After that first taste, his fate was sealed.
Yan Given-Man took him to the newly-built lodge some days later, once his hunger had calmed. There, every part of Ferd Werne-Breaker was viciously Taken from him. It went on for days. There was work, and an endless series of trials to prove his worth, each harder than the last. There was fighting, real fighting, where the Given-Men showed Ferd the meaning of strength and weakness. There were rites, with cruel visions, where his very soul was laid bare before the merciless Lodge. In the end he couldn’t think, couldn’t move, could hardly talk.
Couldn’t remember his own name. It was Yan who Gave it back. But not all of it.
“We name you Ferd, young Given-Man. Stand up, and be reborn as a man of the gods.”
Ferd. Ferd Given-Man. Heaving himself upright, even using his arms and tail to help, was one of the hardest things Ferd had ever done. For the first time in a long, long while he felt weak, but it was an earned weakness. The weakness that followed Giving all the strength he had until there was none left. A weakness to be proud of. Yan smiled in approval, and embraced Ferd in a powerful hug, one so fierce it crushed the breath out of his chest.
“I knew you could do it. I am proud of you, Ferd. Now rest, and grow strong.”
He was allowed to sleep, then. So much sleep. The Lodge watched him, kept him safe and well-fed. He kept eating like a starving man. The aches in his body were so completely inescapable, he did the only thing he could and started ignoring them. Ferd regained his strength soon enough, though. Regained it, and then after that…
He had become so much more.
When the gods had finally let go of his body some many hands of days later, and Ferd started to feel like himself again, he got up, sprang from his sleeping-nest like he was lighter than a child. Moving was so easy now! He could jump—
So much higher than he’d ever done before! And when he landed, it was obvious that he wasn’t light at all, because he fell onto a big rock and cracked it open just with his weight! When he walked back, he looked down and saw that some small rocks broke apart under his feet, that his footprints sank deep into the forest dirt. His legs, though…he looked at them…
He looked at them in wonder.
Where before his legs had been big and shapely pillars a man could be proud of, now they were huge, all hard deep lines bulging thick with muscle. He stopped and explored himself, and it was the same amazing changes everywhere he felt, everywhere he could see. He looked down and felt in astonishment at the much bigger stack of rock-muscles on his belly. He felt along his huge arms, his thick neck, his enormous chest… everything was so much bigger and harder! Even his hands and feet. Even his cock. Even his tail! All of it had changed so much, it was like he was a new person in a new body, one so much better than the one he had before, and that had been one that could claim the prettiest women, and crush the biggest men.
And all that was just the first of the Givings. He could feel the world better, too. He could see better, in the dark and in the day. Taste the wind more sharply. Hear the tiniest sounds. Feel the crisp sharpness of bark under his fingers and toes, the smooth softness of leaves. The Humans’ strange sky-words somehow came easier in his bigger stretched-forward mouth with its bigger fangs and more room for his tongue. He could find his words quicker too, tell jokes he’d never before thought to tell. Never been quick enough to tell! Not even Vemik’s amazing sky-thoughts were so confusing anymore!
Well, still confusing. A little. Vemik had a strong mind, in its strange way.
Ferd had grown strong like he could never have imagined. He’d learned that the Given-Men almost never showed the rest of the People just how strong they were, how hard they were. Almost nothing could hurt him, now. And he would never stop getting better, until his strength was too great for this world and he was called back to the gods, to the Great Hunt in the sky.
Gradually, Ferd could feel himself settling comfortably into his new world. The spring had come and he was feeling his first springtime Fire. His body felt tight, almost full to bursting with everything he’d been Given. It was like every part of everything about him was crackling with aliveness. He felt like he could do anything! The women had always liked him, but now he could swagger into any friendly tribe and have his pick! Picks! And it was time to think about that, too. New Given-Men didn’t normally take over their old tribe. They protected it for a time of course, but that was only until a different Given-Man, one he judged was worthy, could take his place as their chief and protector. He’d even had a good idea who he’d offer, too…
The Lodge had very different plans for him.
Yan pulled him aside to talk about it. Ferd was…uneasy around Yan. He had been the one to show Ferd the meaning of weakness, and had beat him very nearly to death during his initiation into the Lodge. He did so almost like he was bored. Like he was doing something he had to do, and it was just too easy… A man never forgot a thing like that.
But Yan had also been the one to hunt for Ferd while he recovered. Yan had also taught Ferd very many important things about the world he lived in, now. A man never forgot that, either.
“You will be one of the best of us, in time. I can taste it already. I was much like you when I was young. We were both early and fast to manhood. I was short too!”
Ferd had to look up to see Yan’s face, because Yan Given-Man was the tallest man of the People. “That is very hard to believe.”
Yan trilled, and slapped Ferd on the back hard enough to stagger him. “It’s true! I’ve had many seasons to grow. Every year, a whisker taller…in many years, those whiskers grow tall.”
“Will I be tall like you one day?”
“If you don’t die or lose yourself to the Fire, maybe!” Yan’s enormous fang-filled grin was much friendlier than it had been not so long ago. Or so it seemed.
“That’s a strange thought. You need to duck to get into huts!”
“And turn shoulders! But yes, we are much alike, I think. We were both young to the Fire too. And we both knew this would come to us, yes?”
Ferd nodded. “I always thought it would, one day. I didn’t think it would happen so fast.”
“Most of us, the Fire comes later in life. But I think many more will come to the Fire young, now.”
That got Ferd’s interest. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Yan shrugged his huge shoulders. “I just feel it. Since we came down the mountain, every tribe has two or three young redcrests now, the hunting here is very rich…”
He wasn’t saying something, and Ferd realized that might not have been a thing he would have noticed, before. He wasn’t ever stupid, but, well…he hadn’t really been smart, either. That changed along with everything else. He could feel that more strongly than his own huge muscles, which was saying something; walking upright felt stranger now, with his legs being forced wider apart. He could even feel his own back moving across itself! Distracting.
“There’s something else you want to say.”
Yan gave him a calculating look, and then nodded, satisfied by something.
“Have you thought about the Sky-People and their war?”
“I think…” Ferd…well, thought. He’d never really considered it before. “…I think it isn’t just their war. It’s ours too, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Our friends’ wars have always been our own.”
Ferd nodded. “Our friends have always been weak, too.”
“Not these friends,” Yan warned. “The Sky-People are not like the city-People our grand-sires and their grand-sires and their grand-sires once fought for. The Humans have much strength. It’s just…different strength. Usually.”
Ferd felt like he had to disagree. “Strong weapons are not strong people, Yan.”
“No. But sky-thinking is a strength of its own. They’re not weak, either. Look at Jooyun! Or Heff!”
“Feh.” Ferd was not impressed. “He’s not weak…but a man as tall as you should be much stronger! And Heff is small. My sack is bigger than he is!”
Yan trilled and shook his head. “You say that now. I challenge you, go and wrassle them both, see how weak they really are! And there are two Humans that even I have trouble with. One is even stronger than me! I need to do much training before I can crush him. Soon, maybe! But not yet.” Yan thumped his thick chest, “It is only that I am hard that he does not always win.”
Ferd had strong doubts about that, but he knew Yan to be patient and wise, so he held his peace. “Okay. If they can be strong like you say, then why do they need us?”
“They don’t know they need us, not yet. But you are not wrong either. Most of their people are small. Tough, and clever, but still small. There is much we could do for them. They come here to learn from us, yes?”
“…That’s true. It’s fun scaring their warriors! But without their sky-weapons, they would not stand against even the yellowest-crested man of the People.”
“Don’t be so sure, they would prove tricky for most any of the People. But we will not talk about that until after you’ve been beaten by Heff.”
Yan rumbled amusedly. “You’ll see. But again, you’re right. They have many strengths, strengths we do not have. But they do not much have the strengths we have. This is like the city-People. We can trade our strength for theirs. A Giving for a Giving. And we want you to be the first.”
Ferd stopped in his tracks, and found his tail twitching back and forth on its own. “The first? You mean, like a warband? Like the stories say we once did?”
Ferd gnawed on a finger as he considered that. The stories and songs said that long, long ago—many hands of grand-sires ago—the tribes had sent warbands of their best men, led by a Given-Man, to Give their strength to weaker friends in war, and in hunting and raiding.
“That would mean I would be away fighting for years maybe!”
“It would. It would also mean much glory for you and your men when you returned…”
…That was true. Ferd hadn’t ever had trouble attracting women’s attention, but things would be different when he founded a new tribe. New tribes were risky. The women wouldn’t so eagerly jump into their arms until they’d had a reputation for safety. Among his nieces, none were quite ready to become Singers, either. They needed time to grow. Give them a few years…
…And some brave adventures to his name…
A Man. A spear. Fire from the sky. Maybe his vision wasn’t quite what he thought it was.
“…You said the first. Do the Singers agree to this?”
“It’s not for the Singers to decide, young Given-Man.”
“Well, no, but…” Ferd shrugged. “I can’t see it being a bad thing if they agreed, too. No mother likes to send their sons off to hunt.”
“But she must, if she wants meat.”
“Is this the same? And do they know it is the same?”
“…Hmm.” Yan’s tail twitched to and fro in thinking. “A fair sky-thought. But yes, the Singers know. Only a foolish Chief would not speak with his Singer. And anything she knows…”
Ferd trilled at that. “Only a foolish man underestimates a Singer!”
“And a young man, his friends. Go, meet with Jooyun and Heff. Let them show you what they can do. But keep your purpose close. And pick your warband!”
Ferd had done as asked. And Heff had educated him. Ferd was certainly much bigger and stronger than him, and faster too, but the little hairy Human knew exactly where to grip and pinch to hurt the most or to weaken Ferd’s grasp. And he knew how to toss too. That had come as a surprise! Heff made his point at the end though, when he pressed the back of his knife against Ferd’s throat.
His expression was about half way between vicious and friendly. [“Us little shits ain’t always so nice, huh?”]
Ferd trilled warily, and gave in while he was flat on his back, still a bit confused as to how exactly the little man had managed any of that.
[“I not fight with man who can cut my neck.”]
Heff meanwhile was a surprisingly heavy man sitting on Ferd’s belly, much heavier than he looked. Heff grinned that big, smug grin Humans did when they were feeling very pleased with themselves, and showed off a pair of hard knotted arms about the size of his head. They were short, and not nearly as big as Ferd’s… But they still looked very, very strong. Only Jooyun had bigger among the Humans, and his were big around even for a redcrest!
Heff wasn’t a weak man at all. He was…small-strong. A strange thought, but he couldn’t deny what Heff had taught him, or the rock-like weight of the man sitting on his belly. And Ferd found himself impressed.
“Smart man,” Heff said in the People’s words, and then climbed off Ferd’s belly. He reached down to try and help Ferd up but that was a mistake, because strong or not…he was small.
Ferd had him pinned in an instant and played with his new friend for a good long while, until they had earned each other’s respect and were having too much fun to be angry. He could at least recover some of his dignity.
He didn’t get that chance with Jooyun, though. Jooyun took all those same clever tricks and threw in being just as strong as a good man of the tribes should be. And like Heff, he never grew tired. If he couldn’t win, he just… lasted. Until Ferd’s own strength waned and failed.
The most embarrassing part was when Jooyun somehow managed to pin Ferd face-down in the dirt, locked up in just such a way that he couldn’t use any of his strength to escape.
But Jooyun could use all of his against Ferd…to great effect. “You shouldn’t ever be losing a fight against me, big fella. But here you are…losing.” Jooyun snarled into Ferd’s ear, while that thick, hard arm of his bit deeper into Ferd’s throat. “You’ve been relying on your brawn your whole life, haven’t you? So what do you do against someone who knows how to fight?”
He almost surrendered before he remembered to wrap his tail around Jooyun’s waist and squeeze good and hard. Jooyun grunted and held on, seemingly not bothered too much…
“Hnngh… That right there’d kill most Humans…but not me.” He growled, and that big ball of stone in his arm grew just a little bit bigger. “I can do this all day long…” Another grunt, and that muscle of his swelled up even more. “Can you?”
No. No Ferd could not. Jooyun growled and cruelly squeezed his arm much harder for a long moment, just to show what he could really do, and Ferd felt himself suddenly unable to breathe…He loosened his tail to give in. Joooyun didn’t let go. Instead he grunted and tightened his grip yet again, and squeezed down harder with those thick long legs of his…
But only for a moment. He let go before he gave any real hurt and rolled off, panting. He was big and strong enough to haul Ferd up to his feet and completely off the ground with a quiet grunt of effort. They hugged it out forehead-to-forehead, all slights and insults forgiven.
He did at least get some prestige back when Jooyun put Ferd down. The big Human rubbed his ribs and belly and grimaced. [“Christ, those tails of yours…now, you wanna learn how to beat me?”]
Ferd had learned a lot from those fights, and soon enough he was happily squashing them both under his strength! Usually. To beat them it wasn’t enough to be big, he had to be smart against the two tough Humans, and he couldn’t miss any trick or they’d squirm free and maybe win. And if Ferd ever let Jooyun get a good hold, it went from a contest of strength (which Ferd always won) and skill (which he was getting better at) to one of pain tolerance (…a tie) and sheer, gods-blessed endurance. Which Jooyun almost always won, and enjoyed winning thoroughly. A hand of days later Ferd talked about it with Yan.
Yan, of course, just hooted smugly at him. “I told you, didn’t I?”
“How do they know how to fight so well? They’re the wrong shape for wrasslin’! Their legs are too long, their arms are too short. No tail!”
“Heff spent years learning how to fight. That’s what he did for his Sky-Tribe, it was his purpose. And before that, he played at wrasslin’ and something called foot-ball to win honor for his ‘skool,’ which I think is like a bachelor tribe for young Humans to grow up in.”
“Fun game! But sometimes the rules are strange. Has a ball, but they carry it with their hand. Or sometimes they kick it. They charge into one another a lot and fight over the ball too. Heff says he was big as a young man and that he was very good at it.”
“But wasn’t he a very small man when he first came here?”
“Yes,” Ferd nodded. “His kind of warrior is called a ‘see-al’ and the kind of fighting they do means that being a very heavy man could be dangerous. So, while he was a ‘see-al’ he stayed little. Now he lives with us more so he decided to grow big again. Now he’s bigger than he ever was, and he was easily the strongest man in his skool. He’s still growing too!”
“Okay.” That was a strange idea, of fighters who could be too strong to fight. “And Jooyun?”
“He was born very strong, and his life has been one of hard work and trials. And he is good friends with Heff, and other Humans who are like Given-Men. Except not. It’s hard to explain.”
“…And Professor Daniel?” Ferd was having a hard time understanding how a people could be so different in their own tribe. He liked the Professor, especially his stories in strange, magic-sounding words…but Daniel was very weak.
“Smarter than Vemik.”
“Once, when we first fought the big enemy and when your old Given-Men went back to the gods, I was bigger than Daar, and much stronger, and I thought it would always be so. But Daar and his people had their very thoughts poisoned by the Big Enemy, and it turned them away from the gods, away from their own strength.” Yan grew angry just talking about it, and Ferd felt himself growing angry too. How could anything do something so evil?
“And…now? I know he is a great leader of the Sky-Tribes…”
“He is their greatest leader. He has re-learned the strength the gods gave his people and is helping them all re-learn it for themselves. This is good! He has also earned a strength they Gave only to him. I think maybe he was Given to us all by the gods to be the Sky-Chief of all Sky-Chiefs. Now he is the strongest man in any Sky-Tribe and he could break me like a twig.”
“Oh yes. I…do not like this. I will beat War-horse soon I think, and maybe beat him by very much. Next spring, when the Fire fills me full again, I will go to Folctha and win. I train very hard to beat Daar too…but I may not have enough seasons left in me to ever beat him again.”
Yan trilled at the disbelieving look that Ferd gave him. “If you learn one thing from the Sky-Tribes but especially the Humans, Ferd Given-Man, learn that there are many kinds of strong. The People were made by the gods to be very, very good at one kind of strong. The best at it! But we’re so good at that one kind of strong, it’s easy for us to forget to be strong in other ways. That is the real reason we want you to fight for the Humans. Learn their strength, and make it ours, because we can be strong like them too. Bring it back and teach young men, so we can one day be mighty among the Sky-Peoples. Is a good thing! Will be very good for your new tribe, too. But I…”
Yan was nervous about something, because he was suddenly playing with the end of his tail. The sight of Yan doing that, whose crest was turning almost black from his sheer might…
“…You heard the Lodge argue over this. I worry what this will mean for some. I especially worry for Vemik, he’s not much younger than you, and if you go, so will all the other men…”
“And Vemik would definitely be Chosen by the gods, if he leaves your tribe.”
Yan’s nervousness suddenly made a lot more sense. Everyone of the tribes knew of Yan’s fondness for Vemik, and knowing what Ferd knew now, he wouldn’t wish the trial of becoming a Given-Man on anyone, let alone someone he loved. Sometimes, the gods Took everything.
“…Yes. He’s too much of a man now to avoid that. And I worry. There is a lot of strength in him, but he’s got strength the rest of us don’t. I don’t want us to lose it.”
“Have you said this to him?”
“…Not yet. You haven’t left, you haven’t made friends with Wild, haven’t been trained by the Humans, you haven’t even picked your warband yet.”
“But I will. And you will have to say these things to him one day.”
“Yes. And I will have to respect his choice no matter how it hurts. He is a strong man, even if I only want to remember him as a curious, strange runt of a boy.”
That conversation stuck in Ferd’s mind through all the months and training that followed. It stuck with him when he learned to fight at the hands of gods-blessed masters of the game, and when he re-learned the meaning of weakness under Daar’s unbelievable speed and strength during one of his visits. It stuck with him when he was sent to Cimbrean to fetch things on a strange training errand. It stuck with him when he met Tooko, an absolutely tiny barely-man from Daar’s Sky-Tribe, who was nonetheless stronger than them all when he was seated in his many-buttoned ‘cock-pit.’
Strange name for it, but a good pilot could fuck things hard so maybe that was why. Sky-Tribes were allowed to be strange.
Yan had made his point well. And by the time they came to visit the poisoned, sickly wrongness of ‘more-door,’ Ferd had long ago put aside his ideas about what being strong meant. There were many, many kinds, and he was proud to bring his kind of strong to the sky and put it to use.
Now, the only thing left to find out was what kind of strength the people they were saving had…
Date Point: 16y10m AV
Correspondence between HMS Sharman and the Corti Directorate
FM CMOemail@example.com// TO 5TH DIRECTORfirstname.lastname@example.org// INFO HIGHCASTLEemail@example.com/ STAINLESSfirstname.lastname@example.org/ BEEKEEPERemail@example.com/ RINGMASTERfirstname.lastname@example.org// C O N F I D E N T I A L SACRED STRANGER ORCON REL FVEY CD5 BT SUBJ/ Query regarding Cruezzir-D formulation//
Our thanks once again for your department’s timely delivery of this month’s supply of Cruezzir-D.
While I’m pleased to say that the batch is good, my colleague Commander Mears and I have noticed some changes in the men since this batch arrived. While many of these are minor, they cumulatively represent a significant change from what we have grown accustomed to seeing.
In particular we have noticed:
- A minimum of a 5% increase in haemoglobin levels, with an associated increase in oxygen-carrying capacity;
- Increased appetite among all the operators but particularly with IRISH, BASEBALL, RIGHTEOUS and WARHORSE;
- Heightened emotional intensity, above even the elevated norm for HEAT operators;
- Cruezzir byproducts in their urine and stool samples have been reduced to nearly undetectable levels;
- An increase in the incidence of pranks, “shenanigans” and other minor mischief, indicative of restlessness and surplus energy;
- A plethora of minor changes in their bloodworks and urinalysis too numerous to list here (see the attached documents for the complete data);
- Marked decreases in liver stress indicators, combined with elevated androgen signaling and improved hormonal stability;
- They broke their most recent gravball goal (a crane tyre) more quickly than anticipated;
- A broad and sudden improvement in body mass and strength gains, observed athletic performance, endurance and resiliency, and effective suit conditioning;
- RIGHTEOUS and WARHORSE in particular have shown the most notable changes, which, considering their singular capabilities, is a special point of concern.
Would your department confirm for us whether the Cruezzir formulae has been altered in some way? While none of these changes seem deleterious, we find we cannot explain such a drastic improvement in their general well-being by any other means. Almost as soon as they began coursing on this batch, all of the human operators reported significantly improved feelings of health and vigor. We note the Gaoians on their Crue-G-HEAT have not reported a similarly dramatic health increase, though they too have noted large improvements in their performance.
We feel compelled to remind the Directorate that, under the terms of our contract, any changes in our medical formulary require advice and consultation beforehand. These men each represent millions of pounds in strategic investments in their personal development, to say nothing of their substantial ongoing expenses, custom equipment, and our lifetime medical commitments to them and their families after retirement. The US Department of the Air Force goes so far as to consider their Protectors and Aggressors as weapon systems, and runs a formal program office (complete with dedicated staff) to that effect. The US Department of the Army similarly has a PEO covering the American Defenders.
However, the monetary considerations are only part of the story. Men of their caliber and willpower are exceptionally rare. Less than one percent of all applicants (who are themselves often already capable special operators in difficult disciplines) prove suitable for the pipeline, and of those, upwards of ninety percent will fail entry training. Attrition through the rest of the pipeline remains unavoidably arduous and in the end, less than one in a thousand applicants make it through. For those that do, training to minimum competency requires five Earth years, and full mission capability requires even more. That has made them priceless strategic assets at the absolute bleeding-edge of sports medicine, mental conditioning, and physical and military training. They have sacrificed much to achieve that status and it would be deeply unethical of us to compromise that achievement. We would like this matter addressed promptly.
Lt. Wyndham Phillips Chief Medical Officer, HMS Sharman
Date Point: 16y10m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Julian wasn’t really a fella to wake up by an alarm clock. He wasn’t a morning person, and he wasn’t a night owl. He mostly just…went with the rhythm of life. He woke up when the sun was up, and he felt sleepy when it was dark outside. Often he would wake up in the middle of the night and busy himself for an hour or two, which was a habit he’d picked up on Nightmare and it hadn’t ever really left him. There was usually some small chore he could attend to or something, but not tonight. They’d had everything taken care of.
So, he gently rolled out of bed. He smiled at the way Xiù, without waking up, shuffled into his warm vacated space to cuddle up to Allison, who responded by giving her a squeeze and a kiss before falling asleep again, and pulled on some running shorts. He clipped his personal shield to the waistband, notified his security team, padded downstairs, and got ready for a run.
He had things on his mind to clear out.
After the Lake Incident he’d been much more careful about his personal safety. There wasn’t nearly so much threat anymore, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there, and he wasn’t a fella who could be replaced these days. In a few years maybe, if Ten’Gewek attitudes shifted…but that time wasn’t now. He had a family to keep safe, too. Which was what was really on his mind.
So rather than do what he really wanted, which would have been a nicely strenuous set of interval sprints around town, he instead picked up the heavy weighted vest he kept in the mudroom, shrugged it on, and went to his little backyard exercise pit to get warmed up.
Hoeff had made sure the security detail could keep up with Julian at a reasonable jog, though he would admit to some ego about the vest. None of them were avid lifters but they weren’t small men either, and there wasn’t a man among them who could even lift his vest. Being able to pick it up one-armed and then lightly throw it around his shoulders had definitely established the pecking order, and Julian wasn’t ashamed to admit that made him feel pretty good.
They weren’t morning fellas either, but still, they were good guys and it was nice to have someone to run with. They were tall, serious-looking men who somehow radiated danger in something like the same way Hoeff did—impressive fellas!
Still…Hoeff could pick up the vest, with a quiet grunt of effort. And wear it too, and even train in it for a while. ‘Horse had made the little fucker strong as all shit, honestly. So Julian got his blood flowing with some calisthenics and pull-ups, which filled a good few minutes before the security guy arrived wide awake, alert, and ready to go. Which was good, because pull-ups while wearing that vest could tire Julian out pretty quick. Things were starting to burn nicely in his back and arms…but some part of his pride just didn’t want to let his bodyguard see him tire out. More macho ego, really. Which was kinda dumb…
…But still fun, though.
The jog gave him some time to clear his head. Nofl had something to tell him. Apparently the Directorate had completed their analysis on his “situation” and had prepared a plan forward. The thing was, Julian pretty much knew what that plan was going to be. And he knew what it was going to mean for him. Well, no. He knew what it already meant for him, if he was honest. So, he jogged, and jogged, and jogged some more. Several times he avoided Nofl’s lab, even though he knew the little grey fella was wide awake inside, doing whatever he did when the rest of the city was asleep.
Why was Julian avoiding him?
Actually…yeah. Why was he? A few years ago, the prospect of what he was going to do would have put him off. Did put him off, and with Adam’s serious recommendation, too. But now? He’d grown so crazy, ridiculously goddamned strong even before the psycho-woman had got him infected with Cruezzir, how much difference would it honestly make? He’d been apparently marinating in the prototype medicines since Nightmare, and he was a freak of nature even before that, too…
Christ, he’d been HEAT-sized for years now. Well, not like, huge HEAT, he’d been more like Costello…but Costello was a fucking big man: just a bit shorter than Julian, and literally bigger than any athlete outside of HEAT. Heck, Costello handily outweighed the biggest competitive strongmen there were…and Julian was a lot bigger than him now. In fact, at this point he was well above the team average, and in the same league as Akiyama and Blaczynski.
And given what he was like before his abduction, at eighteen? He couldn’t have played school sports even if he could have afforded it: he was too big, and naturally too big, too. He didn’t look it, either. What would have happened if he’d fallen into training anyway? It wasn’t hard to think he’d have made himself into something special. Maybe not quite HEAT-big, but…well…maybe…
Because that was apparently what he was made to do. And the thing about it? That wasn’t something he could really run away from. Even if he was almost literally doing just that right then. Julian was the man he was made to be and there was no avoiding that. He was damn good at it too, and heck, he not only enjoyed it all, he was well and thoroughly addicted. A day where he couldn’t run or work or lift or anything like that was honestly a miserable day.
So, with a shake of his head and a bit of a chuckle, he checked in on his bodyguard—gamely soldiering on, but he clearly didn’t have much left in him—nodded encouragingly, and thumped off towards Nofl’s lab.
He had to protect his family. And that meant he had to embrace being the purpose-bred freak of nature the Corti made him to be.
No, that was the wrong way to think about it. He should do like Xiù said and not dwell on how he got to where he was. What happened, happened. Was it right? No. Was it evil? Well yes, absolutely. But was it malicious? …Probably not. Does a researcher hate their mice? No. But does he let their suffering stop the study? …No. Far too many would benefit from the science. That stuck in the craw. He and his entire family were just…well, they were just a science experiment.
It was an experiment whose goal was to see just how good a human being could be. He’d shown them. A lot of his family was pretty dang impressive too, so it wasn’t just him. Whatever their reasons were, the practical effect of all that was that Julian really was special. He was made to be the best. He had about the best genes any athlete could ever want, and the best background and experience to survive practically anywhere, in any conditions where life could cling on. Whatever made the Corti decide on those traits specifically, seemed in retrospect pretty dang prescient. And now through a twist of fate, he knew most of the details.
So no. Julian resolved he wouldn’t wallow in the tragedy of what happened. Instead, he flipped that on its head. He was one of the absolute best and he would be damned if he didn’t show the Corti, the Ten’Gewek… hell, the whole dang galaxy just what they were messing with.
Feeling buoyed, Julian put on a grin, strolled into Nofl’s lab, and faced his fate.
Date Point: 16y10m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
There weren’t many Clanless who could claim a personal friendship with the Great Father of the Gao. That had enjoyed (and survived) cuddly afternoon naps with him. Or really knew that the pictures or even videos didn’t do the in-person experience any justice, not even a little bit. That, yes, his mere presence could fluster pretty much literally anyone and that his musk was strong enough to make even a Human feel a bit overwhelmed. That he could so effortlessly court any Female, that he was so ridiculously shameless about it and that it worked every single time…
…Well. Not every single time. Somehow by some absurd twist of fate, Leemu had won a Female’s heart, and it was one the Great Father himself had been courting for months. And by some unspeakable miracle, Daar wasn’t even mad. Balls, he was happy for them!
Sister (now Mother) Leela had just the other day confirmed that she was pregnant. With a female! Leemu had been so over the moon, he’d done something that, in any other situation, would have been beyond stupid. He once again sent the Great Father a text message.
It’s a girl!
Leemu immediately regretted that decision. Had he overreached? Presumed too much? It was so easy to think of anyone who treated him so well and so easily as his friend, but…
…Well, Great Fathers didn’t have friends. Did they? Could they?
When Daar finally replied, though, he was nothing but cheery congratulations… and unbelievable ego, too.
Balls! Good job ‘lil guy! We’ll see what happens when I get my turn!!
His unreserved happiness for Leemu, combined with his absolute certainty that he’d eventually win her heart…balls, he was like a Keeda tale come to life! She liked him, too. She liked him a lot, but given what had happened in the War…well, it would take time. But Leemu had won her heart first. Won against the greatest Gaoian and ‘most bestest’ male to ever live, and had done so in the context of what was becoming a genuine friendship.
Sure, maybe it was a bit distant—Daar was the Great Father after all, and Leemu was just a random Clanless with a knack for painting, starship repair, and the occasional bit of hard labor—but still. Leemu was happy to take what affection he could get. And he certainly wasn’t complaining about being on a first name basis with the Great Father, even if that more than occasionally meant being inescapably mashed up against his giant steel-like furnace of a body for a nap, or a play-tussle, or because he was feeling affectionate, or…
Daar had peppered him with questions and Leemu had happily shared, and from there…they struck up a regular correspondence. Sort of. Daar was a busy man and he only checked his communicator very occasionally, so it wasn’t exactly a quick conversation. But still. Leemu had a long and increasingly pun-filled text chat. With the Great Father. Who wanted to know everything about Leemu’s life. The Great Father was interested. In him!
Him, how Leela was doing, his art, how his roommates were getting on…
Which led to the matter of Gorku.
Preed was doing just fine pottering around, tending his garden, living off his abductee resettlement fund and generally just enjoying being around his own species again, albeit in a foreign nation. And Leemu was finding that his art sold as fast as he could make it, for values that had his ears twisting in bemusement. But Gorku…
Gorku had grown restless. He’d gone from being an honest workin’ brownie to being Leemu’s carer and helper, to being… what? Leemu was actually quite happy with life, nowadays. Looking back on his experience with the Droud had taught him how to appreciate the real pleasures in life, the ones that were more than just mindless, overpowering stimulation of his receptors. There were still times when he’d find some small thing that used to bring him some joy only to find it… flatter… than before, and sometimes he got depressed about it, but mostly his new abilities and senses had added so much to the world that he was finding new ways to be happy.
But that journey had for a time cost Gorku his purpose. Daar had eventually mentioned how valuable a trichromatic ‘Back might be in the Clan, and hinted in that uniquely un-subtle brownie way that Gorku might think about that…
The big lunk managed to get the message. Nowadays all he did was train like a demon, and study until he couldn’t keep his eyes open. Clan progression was fiercely competitive.
Leemu had wound up taking care of him for a change. Reminding him to eat all (eight!) of his daily meals, since he had to pack on a lot of muscle to be where the Clan thought a fifth degree male should be nowadays, in the aftermath of the War and their return to their martial roots. Prodding him to get out and do his runs, no matter how much he hated looping Folctha; they wanted crazy endurance too, on top of all that crazy strength. They also didn’t want idiots, so most evenings Leemu found himself helping Gorku study with mini-quizzes and flash cards…
Sometimes, Leemu helped by pulling a blanket over Gorku’s shoulders, when he was crashed out at his desk and snoring louder than a naxas bull. He’d tried moving him to the nest-bed once, but, well…Gorku was a fifth-degree brownfur, after all. Even if Leemu could more or less consider himself a ‘gym rat’ these days, and keep up with some of the fitter Humans, that didn’t mean he was up to moving a big shaggy brown puddle who could probably squat a small car.
So, he helped as much as he could, with big things and little. Another one of those pleasures the droud hadn’t been able to emulate. After all, how could a device which did nothing but electrochemically stimulate his brain capture a melancholy, bittersweet kind of happiness that came with helping a good friend move on with his life… and potentially out of one’s own?
It couldn’t. But paint could. Leemu knew the day was coming where they would part ways and he wasn’t looking forward to that. But he could paint Gorku at the desk. Big, handsome, exhausted, a bit naive…definitely bittersweet. The trick to painting him, though, was getting just the right shade of brown. Which was a very tricky color, actually; brown was just orange, but darker. He’d learned that the hue itself was more a product of perception than a trick of light, and Gorku had a nicely rich color to him. It definitely edged toward the red end of brown.
The scent of the paint eventually woke the slumbering lunk. Thanks to the Nofl, Gorku had eventually regained his full senses. Nowadays his nose was even more sensitive than Leemu’s.
“Mrrf …das’ the ‘spensive red paint ‘yer usin,’” he said, without opening an eye.
“Painting something important.”
Gorku’s tail thumped once, but he didn’t bother to stir from his semi-liquid somnolent posture.
“That’s all? Just a tail thump?”
“‘Yer charmin’ but I ain’t that kind o’ male.”
Leemu sketched in a few whiskers with his liner brush. “Very droll. I thought you were looking at a third-ring career, not a comedy gig.”
“Gotta get the Second Ring first an’ I gotta get a recommend ‘ta go further. One paw down at a time.”
“You’ll get it. And you do know the Great Father…”
“No.” Gorku growled quietly. “That’ll actually make it worse, cousin. Ain’t nobody wanna say they favored a ‘Back ‘cuz o’ who he knew.”
“…You’ll still get it. You’re barely even twenty!”
“And thanks for staying still so I can finish this…”
For a little while, the only sounds in the room were the rough, soothing noise of bristles on primed canvas, interrupted by a prolonged gastric growl.
“You don’t say.”
“Shaddup, lil’ guy.” Apparently hunger was sufficient motivation for Gorku to pour himself down across his desk and sort of meander his way toward the kitchen.
Leemu chittered, and cleaned his brush. “Fine. Why don’t we go visit Leela?”
“We could…but I was kinda hopin’ we could stay home an’ grill some steaks.”
Leemu nodded, and considered his painting. It wasn’t finished, but he’d discovered that sometimes a half-finished painting had qualities all its own. He’d already captured everything important. Sometimes, that was all he needed. He duck-nodded, took it off the easel and put it aside to dry.
“That sounds good too,” he said.
Date Point: 16y10m3w AV
Correspondence between HMS Sharman and the Corti Directorate
FM 5TH DIRECTORemail@example.com// TO CMOfirstname.lastname@example.org// INFO HIGHCASTLEemail@example.com/ STAINLESSfirstname.lastname@example.org/ BEEKEEPERemail@example.com/ RINGMASTERfirstname.lastname@example.org// C O N F I D E N T I A L SACRED STRANGER ORCON REL FVEY CD5 BT SUBJ/ RE:Query regarding Cruezzir-D formulation//
We have received your queries and concerns regarding the latest delivery of Cruezzir Derivative Serum (Human high-performance formulation v4.01) and direct your attention to the product update information included alongside the shipment, which detailed in full the expected consequences of this most recent iteration.
Cruezzir Derivative Serum is subject to constant ongoing refinement, in keeping with both the strict terms and intent of the contract between the Corti Directorate’s College of Regenerative Xenopharmacology, and Allied Extrasolar Command. Our highest priority in all cases is the safety and health of your personnel, and it is our mission to provide you with the most excellent possible medical solution to their unique needs.
You may rest assured that every iteration of the serum has been thoroughly studied and quality-tested prior to release, and that we will not release an iteration of the serum unless we are perfectly content of its safety and lack of deleterious side effects.
For full details, we advise you to closely study the release documentation.
Fifth Director Ebrit, Dean, College of Regenerative Xenopharmacology
Date Point: 16y10m3w AV
The Dog House gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Jesus, fellas…the hell get you going today?”
Julian lay on the floor, desperately struggling to catch his breath. He felt like he’d been run through a meat grinder and then stuffed into a sausage casing. And then smashed with a hammer. By the two biggest, most gleefully crazy meathead sadists the human race had to offer. And he felt like that because it was exactly those two men who had just thoroughly humiliated him down in ‘Horse’s personal high-G torture dungeon.
It was Julian’s first day back at the gym after switching from gut-manufactured Cruezzir to a twenty-year prescription of Crue-D, and he’d noticed two things immediately. Firstly, he felt much, much better. He just felt…cleaner, somehow. Julian didn’t really know what Cruezzir actually felt like, but he knew how it felt when it was absent. He couldn’t think of any words that didn’t sound like a raging hippy describing a detox treatment, but, well…that’s what it felt like. He felt clean.
So, instead of pretending like he could come close to keeping up with those two, he was trying to hang with Blaczynski, who was near-Beef himself—not far behind Butler and just ahead of Akiyama—and probably Julian’s closest match on the team, ability-wise. Hands-down the toughest member, too. And next to someone like him? Julian was…doing pretty good. Heck, he was proving to be just as strong! Being that kind of strong sure as heck made up for the inconveniences of being so ridiculously heavy: he ate like a Given-Man and couldn’t trust chairs.
All of that and he looked good doing it…honestly, it was awfully hard not to let that go to his head. Fortunately, he had friends who could help. Vemik was significantly heavier still and considerably stronger…and he was still a young teen probably. Adam and Daar were of course so completely insanely fit that it was almost like being friends with actual comic-book superheroes. Firth too, and all the rest of the HEAT had an edge over Julian in something. Blaczynski? The walking tattoo was so ridiculously well-conditioned, he never stopped. Ever.
Maybe all that extra energy and inspiration was ‘cuz he’d finally run out of space for more ink. Every square inch of him that could be tattooed under the military’s rules, was. It was a chaotic jumble of styles and themes: there were trashy meaningless tribal-style shapes, videogame characters, lots of skulls, a few names, some genuinely beautiful works of art bumping elbows with whatever crap he’d spied and thought ‘that looks cool’ and, bizarrely, the Ninja Taco logo on his melon-sized left deltoid.
All of that on one of the few guys around who could keep going longer than Julian, which was honestly saying something. Blac grinned at him, not breaking his rhythm as he benched… well, Julian had given up calculating the effective weight they were using, given grav-plating. He just went by which plates on which bars. A lot of the special plates, this time. And the big bar. Which was bending alarmingly. Blaczynski was definitely lifting like a Beef these days…
And the most insulting part was how he wasn’t even winded when he stopped. He just…couldn’t push anymore, but that was due to his strength failing, not from sucking air.
He sat up and without skipping a beat or even so much as breathing hard, decided to taunt Julian. “Fuck yeah, man! You ain’t fuckin’ worked ‘till these fuckers’re done with you! Ready to go again?!” The big fucker immediately went to go lift something else.
Julian, after a minute of catching his breath and slamming down some blissfully cool water…
…Yeah. Yeah he was ready.
Which was scary as heck, really. Kinda scary how good he felt for leaving the Cruezzir behind, given that Crue-D was by all measures the much more potent medicine. His recovery was much faster, almost scarily so. He was gaining about a kilo a day with his body now properly adapting to the stress he was putting it through, rather than simply healing up faster than he could break it. He could feel it in his mind, too. Things were sharper, more intense. His feelings were wildly powerful, all in just a few days. His strength was growing like crazy! It was a heady feeling, like he was finally building himself into what he was always meant to be…
He could see right away why Crue-D was a dangerous miracle drug. A fella riding this dragon needed a heck of a support system, and that was true even for him. Maybe even especially for him. But with the right friends, and the right people around him…
Boy, things were gonna get really interesting whenever Crude became everyday medicine.
But for now, he was one of the few blessed to use it, and also “blessed” to have had a part in making it. So, he put himself under that ridiculously overloaded bar once Blac was done, settled in and with a grunt, got to pushing. He didn’t manage as many reps. But he managed so many, keeping track at that point was honestly only dick-measuring; they’d need to go a lot heavier next week. And he felt pretty faint for a bit, at the end. There was yelling, and encouragement…
And then the bar was back on the stand. Somehow. Did he put it there?
He lay and drew in some air, before forcing himself to sit up. Eventually, when things started to make sense again and his pulse wasn’t pounding quite so hard…
“Seriously though…” He grunted. “What’s set you fellas off?”
Adam shrugged, and grinned that goofy grin of his. “Slabbin’! What more do you need?!”
“I mean…sure. I get it. But today I can pretty much literally smell the testosterone dripping offa you three. And I’m only half-joking.”
Firth, as ever, had little shame. “Damn right. Smells good, huh?”
“I mean, I don’t kink shame but that ain’t my fetish. Blaczynski though…”
Blaczynski laughed. “Hey! What we got goin’ is a beautiful thing. Don’t you judge us.”
“Uh-huh. Don’t you have a girlfriend these days, anyway?”
“That don’t count ‘fer nothin.’” Firth rumbled with his tremendous viking arms crossed across his chest and a smug smirk on his face. “He’ll always be my best bottom-bitch.”
Adam and Julian both rolled their eyes. Love in the combat arms was often expressed through insult, and the bigger the insult, the greater the love.
Firth would do anything for Blaczynski, and vice versa.
“Well, whatever gets you two off, I guess…” Julian teased, and then groaned a bit from the pain. Those last few reps had absolutely kicked his ass.
“Right,” Blaczynski grinned. “You get all your grabass with the cavemonkeys! Hey, is it true their dicks’re bigger than—? Ow!”
Adam had given him a brotherly clout in the back of the head.
“Hey!” Julian grinned, “Vemik’s my good buddy! He hardly ever means anything by it!”
Blaczynski chuckled and grinned, “Sure, but you didn’t answer the question!”
“…It’s not like I’m gonna actually whip out a tape measure, or anything,” Julian replied.
“C’mon man, I need to know if we’re still champions of the galaxy!”
“I swear to god you’re the most cock-obcessed man on the team,” Firth rumbled. “And you’re only a little gay, too…”
“Fuck you! I was drunk and it was just that one time!”
“Wait,” interjected Adam. “I thought you two were a thing!” He knew damn well they weren’t, but of course the team never stopped ribbing the two bromances in their ranks.
“Only in the bromantical sense of the word.” Firth pulled the (relatively) smaller man into a firm bear-hug. “‘Sides, a puny ‘lil dude like him couldn’t possibly satisfy me.”
“Fuck off!” Blaczynski wriggled free, laughing, then turned his attention back to Julian. “And you still didn’t answer my question!”
Julian slipped into a troll grin. “…Can’t say I feel much threatened, if you know what I mean…”
“Don’t tease tiny-dick here,” Firth grumbled. “It’s not nice to make fun of the handicapped.”
“Fuck you, I ain’t tiny! Most girls can’t even get their hands around—hey!!”
“Hush, child.” Firth had grabbed him at the back of his neck like a wayward pup and dragged him toward the pull-up bars. The size difference between the two was frankly ridiculous; Firth was a goddamned giant. “Anyway. You, get back to Slab. An’ you, stop encouragin’ him.”
“Fine, fine.” Julian chuckled, and took another prolonged drink of water. “…But seriously, holy fuck, fellas. You’re normally at least friendly about completely kicking my ass…”
“…Shit, sorry bro.” Adam was the first to speak up. “It’s just…” He looked to Firth for help, who thought about for a moment, and then shrugged. “…Iunno bro. Just… been feelin’ good and strong all week. All of us are…so, y’know. We can all pretty much guess why, but…” Adam shrugged again.
“Probably, yeah. The Gaoians got the first improvements with Crue-G, Daar and First Fang got the second round, so this is probably just…iterating on things.”
“…Man, if I was in your boots, I would not be happy at being used as guinea pigs like that. Well, no…I guess I am now too, huh?”
The two giants looked at each other, then Adam looked down and helped Julian back up to his feet. “Yup. There’s no backing out now. Not for you, anyway.”
“Why did you do it, anyway?” Firth leapt up to the pull-up bar and started cranking out reps. The readout behind him said he’d turned the gravity all the way up, which would have been impressive as hell without the already insane workout he’d already done.
“…Well, uh. I’m gonna sound like a broken record but…remember the whole Cruezzir problem I had? With my family, specifically? Well, the Corti came back with an answer.”
“Yeah. It turns out it would probably have been fine for me…but it absolutely would not for Al and Xiù. So, we gotta get them off it before it does all the long-term harm. Which means I can’t be full of it either, or I’ll just re-infect them. But I can’t wean myself off it without risking major problems, so… I have to start taking Crue-D to replace it. For the next twenty years. At least. Which, y’know…”
“Puts you in the same boat as us.”
“Yeah. Maybe worse though, because of my history. And then there’s the kids, ‘cuz they’ve got chronic Cruezzir Gut themselves, and we’ve gotta figure out how to safely get them sorted out. ‘Cuz maybe they’re genetically adapted to it like I am…or maybe they’re not. And I can’t take that risk. So I can either do this, save my family and deal with what that’s going to mean for me, or I gamble my kids’ futures and I never get to be intimate with Al or Xiù again. And I’m not gonna let either of those things happen. So…here I am.”
Adam joined Firth at the pull-up bar, but with a ridiculous amount of weight hanging off his waist. Annoyed, and obviously feeling competitive, Firth dropped down to go load up the same. “Just don’t forget that playing at this level is fuckin’ dangerous, dude.”
“I know. I have been paying attention to you fellas. And reading up.”
“Right.” Firth returned with one more plate than Adam, and jumped up to the bar to resume his pull-ups. “You can’t miss ‘yer meals on any day you’ve been hard at it. You gotta get regular bloodworks, now. You gotta…hnngh…stay on top o’ this shit, y’hear me? No slackin.’”
“Good.” Adam nodded, and sped up to annoy Firth. “Also I see you aren’t lifting anything…”
“Heh…. right…” Some part of Julian wanted to play up being half-broken and exhausted, but the truth was that the short rest had done a lot to restore him. He doubted there was room on the bar for one more though, and he’d already done some of those, so he grabbed his notebook and checked. What had he exercised the least recently? Something less… full-body for a bit. Maybe…calf raises, or neck bridges? Heck, why not both?
Time for round four.
Date Point:16y10m4w AV
ESNN Extraterrestrial news article
Sino-Indian treaty promises surge in migration to planet Lucent Author: Ava Ríos
After years of lengthy negotiations, the Chinese and Indian governments today announced that they have finalized a mutually agreeable solution for dividing the continental landmasses of the planet Lucent between them.
Colonization rights to the planet Lucent, which was originally charted and surveyed by BGEV-11 ‘Misfit,’ was jointly purchased by the two governments shortly after its existence was made public, and both governments have already installed a number of small scientific outposts and civilian operations on its surface for the purposes of exploration, survey and xenobiological research.
Although early speculation suggested that both nations would view the planet as a golden opportunity to relieve their intense domestic overpopulation concerns, the expected exodus did not materialize as quickly as expected, in part because of a dispute over how much of the planet’s available landmass and resources was due to each power.
Complicating matters further, the Interspecies Dominion has been slow to recognize the Chinese and Indian governments, neither of which are members of the Allied Extrasolar Defence Coalition or 5-EYES.
Despite these speedbumps, Chinese President Han Zhanshu and Indian Prime Minister Raj Shastri both seemed full of good cheer today when they announced the planet-sharing treaty, and promised the long-awaited surge of extrasolar colonization would go ahead “soon.”
At this point, it’s not clear what kind of defensive measures will protect the Lucent colonies. It seems unlikely that China in particular would be happy to depend on AEC in the face of Hunter or other nonhuman threats. Nevertheless, for the millions of prospective colonists who have been waiting for this day to come, and for the millions more looking forward to having a little more elbow room, this treaty will be a cause for celebration.
The treaty is not without controversy, though. Alien conservation groups have expressed concern for Lucent’s native ecosystems, especially the bioluminescent forests and insects for which the planet is named. The fact that the treaty places neither government under any obligation to protect the planet’s unique ecology has prompted fears of another rampant microbial contamination event as happened on Cimbrean, mass extinction, or wholesale eradication of Lucent’s native species.
Neither President Zhanshu nor Prime Minister Shastri would be drawn to comment on such concerns at today’s press conference, instead choosing to focus on the bright promise of all the good that colonizing Lucent can do for their countries, rather than the potential damage.
One thing is for certain, though: as thousands of buses and trains start threading their way across India and China, carrying pioneering first-wave colonists to the jump arrays and the prospect of a new future on an alien world, life has firmly changed for everyone on Earth. Cimbrean was just the first of humanity’s extrasolar colonies.
And now, she isn’t alone.
Date Point:16y10m4w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Julian was technically on leave. Which didn’t mean too much, honestly. He was still working as hard as ever, since there really wasn’t anyone else who could step into boots as big as his, figuratively or literally…but it did mean that he could spend more time with his family.
Most people might just loaf about and relax while on leave, but not him. It was a lovely sunny day in Cimbrean’s early spring and they’d had a nice long run of low-drama weeks, so he’d decided to spend them pursuing his favorite hobbies with particular zeal: hardcore Slabbing and other strenuous training of course, but also one that was a bit surprising: gardening.
He’d rented a truck, bought a pile of…stuff…and set to digging a garden plot in their backyard.
A big plot. By hand.
Xiù and Al indulged his inner caveman and let him more or less order them to relax and take it easy, which wasn’t something either of them much protested: mothering two demanding and excessively energetic babies was draining. They weren’t unhappy with the view either, oh no. Julian practically glowed with happiness and muscular exertion as he stood resting against his garden fork for a moment, all big, bare-chested and barefoot country boy stud in a pair of worn-out, wonderfully flattering basketball shorts. Man-candy just didn’t come any better.
He still didn’t have much in the way of clothing. Partly that was because of how massive he was these days, but mostly it was because he’d never had a lot of concern for that sort of thing in the first place. What he did have tended to either be well-made and practical…or comfortable, but also old, threadbare and probably ill-fitting. Today’s basketball shorts were from when he was merely a big rangy teenager, but now…well, they were a bit more modest than his usual.
But not by much, happily. Julian never skipped leg day.
He bent down to pick up his jug, took a big and very photogenic swig of water, then glanced over at Xiù and smiled that big heart-melting sideways grin of his…and went right back to work. If he was maybe going at it a bit harder than he needed to impress the boys—and his girls for that matter, who were certainly not complaining—well, Xiù wasn’t going to dissuade him. He’d gone straight from his early-morning Slab to their big backyard, then proceeded to laboriously break and turn the soil over with a spade and garden fork. Both the boys (and Amanda!) were helping a few hours later, right as he was finishing up the most back-breaking bit of the work.
“That’s it, we’re almost done! Just a few more feet to go…”
The boys both looked dead exhausted, but they also practically hero-worshipped Julian too, and neither seemed willing to “wuss out” in front of him. If he noticed them struggling, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. He was a big, encouraging font of cheery praise…
And he didn’t let them stop, either. Tristan and Ramsey would both be sore tomorrow.
“So, once we get this all broken up, we’re gonna dig it all out and put in a protective barrier in so we don’t contaminate things too bad. Then we’re gonna shovel it all back in and put a good few inches of mulch over the top, then turn it over again so it’s nice and mixed up. We gotta inoculate it too, and get all the Earth microbes and worms and beetles and stuff all in there.”
Ramsey didn’t much like the prospect.
“Don’t they make machines to do this?”
“They do, yeah. But I grew up tough and strong partly because I had to do all the work myself. Turns out, that’s been a heck of a blessing for me. You wanna grow up tough, right?”
Allison predictably rolled her eyes at “macho boy things” but none of the boyfolk noticed, and it seemed to be exactly what the two needed to hear from him.
And, sure enough…Julian showed off for them a little more blatantly, now. He curled his arm low down in front of them, and that great big bicep of his had them both excitedly freaking out, their comparatively tiny hands feeling it and all complaints suddenly forgotten. Xiù couldn’t help but giggle; it was such a laughably macho bonding moment! Still, it was exactly the right thing to do, and the boys loved him for it.
“The ounce of hurt you’re feeling now is a ton of pain you maybe won’t need to pay down the road, too. Plus, how hard is your competition working, Tristan? I bet they couldn’t hack this, so…how bad do you want to win that meet?“
A little more showing off…and Tristan was nodding his head seriously, all eagerness to work restored. Ramsey too, though he was always a bit more of a hero-worshipper and was more interested in impressing Julian than crushing his competition.
Still. It got the two back to work. They definitely deserved extra dessert.
Xiù tapped Allison’s arm, and indicated with a tilt of her head back toward the door that as fun as watching Julian work might be, they had other responsibilities to worry about. Al nodded, and followed her indoors
There was always stuff to do in running a house and keeping it. Especially seeing as there were still social workers hovering around the Buehler family, they were all determined to keep their household looking unimpeachable. Normally, changing the bedding and stuff like that would have been Tristan and Ramsey’s job, but they were working hard enough already. By unspoken agreement, Al and Xiù took the job on instead.
If Xiù could get away fast enough, she’d whip up a nice little treat for them, too.
“…How’s your stomach?” Al asked, picking out one of the neat little bedding packages from the closet. One of the few things she’d unhesitatingly picked up from her mother was the trick of keeping bedding sets together by packing them inside one of their pillowcases.
Xiù grimaced. A total gut biome replacement was the opposite of fun. Or dignified. Thank goodness they had a house with three bathrooms, and thank double goodness that modern batteries could last days between charges, because she’d been worried that she might have to set up shop permanently on that toilet.
Life as a hermit queen, on her own personal throne. In hindsight, that thought was enough to make her giggle, which got a raised eyebrow from Allison.
“…Better now. Yours?”
“Nofl had better be right about us never needing to do that again, or I’ll use his coffee set for clay pigeons. I went through three cans of air freshener… Do you ever miss the days where we were glamorous space explorers?”
Xiù laughed. “…Not really, no. I mean, I enjoy remembering them wistfully…but Julian’s sleep-farts could be epic.”
“We haven’t escaped those, baobei.”
“No, but the room is bigger and I make all his food! They’re just loud now, instead of deadly.”
Al grinned, and with a shake and a flourish she flapped the duvet and got it square over the bed. “This is a glamorous, highbrow conversation we’re having.”
“We’re glamorous, highbrow gals.” Xiù cuddled her from behind and nipped the back of her neck. “Allegedly.”
Xiù squeezed her tighter. “What’s on your mind?”
“Just… All this extra energy Julian’s had lately, and the Crue-D and stuff… “Al ran her hands up and placed them over Xiù’s “…I’m scared for him. And for our babies.”
“Your mom’s not that bad of a babysitter.”
Allison begrudged her an amused snort. “Shut up, that’s not what I mean.”
“I know what you mean. But… come here.” Xiù led her to the window, and gestured downwards. They were play-wrestling in the very specific flip-over-shoulder, boisterous-living-junglegym way that dads the world over somehow all learned to do. “…Tell me he’s anything other than an amazing dad.”
“…I mean, I think he is. But I don’t exactly have a lotta good dads to compare him to.”
“Oh, hush up and listen to your instincts,” Xiù chided her. Al nodded, but gave her a quizzical look.
“…What’s that have to do with his health, though?”
“I don’t think he’d take a stupid risk with his health, ever. He’s got four kids to love, and us…”
“And he’s an actual spacemagic gorilla now!”
“He was basically that since the day we met him, babe. He’s just more now, because he has to be. And don’t lie, you enjoy it too.”
Allison’s expression went complicated. “…Story of all our lives, huh? Being what we have to be?”
“Exactly. Remember, he’s doing it for the people he loves, Al. Not just us either! I mean, look: does he get off on being a gorilla freak and a glam magazine stud? Of course he does. He’s a guy. And… I won’t lie, I do too.”
“That makes three of us,” Allison agreed.
“…But I’m pretty sure he’d forego all the extra work if he could, too. What he’d rather spend all his time on is right out there, and back on Akyawentuo.”
“I know. But would you rather I didn’t worry?”
“Of course not.” Xiù gave her another squeeze. “I like that you care. But let him carry that worry. It would make him feel better.”
“Fair enough…” Al picked up the laundry basket. “C’mon. Two more beds to do, and then we can have some fun.”
“What have you got in mind?”
“Something involving lingerie. I’ll work out the details as we go.”
“Oh! That kind of fun!”
“Been too long, don’t you think?” Al asked, pushing the door open with her butt.
“…Two days?” Xiù thought about it, then grinned, and followed.
“…You’re right,” she agreed. “Far too long.”
Date Point: 16y11m AV
Correspondence between HMS Sharman and the Corti Directorate
FM CMOemail@example.com// TO 5TH DIRECTORfirstname.lastname@example.org// INFO HIGHCASTLEemail@example.com/ STAINLESSfirstname.lastname@example.org/ BEEKEEPERemail@example.com/ RINGMASTERfirstname.lastname@example.org// C O N F I D E N T I A L SACRED STRANGER ORCON REL FVEY CD5 BT SUBJ/ RE:RE:Query regarding Cruezzir-D formulation//
We are gratified by your assurances of product safety, quality, and effectiveness. I direct your attention to Chapter 2, ¶7, §4:
“Any modifications to the Contracted Formulary must, upon the advice and consent of the Purchaser and after review of the proposed modifications, be submitted for evaluation to the Centers for Disease Control and Public Health England, excepting those changes deemed critical to the ongoing safety and/or efficacy of the Contracted Formulary, which shall require prompt and timely notification to the Purchaser.”
Does the Directorate suggest these recent changes were “critical to the ongoing safety and/or efficacy” of Crue-D? As this is a matter of deepest importance, I have referred the case to our Ambassadors, who will be contacting their counterparts among the Directorate, as appropriate.
Lt. Wyndham Phillips Chief Medical Officer, HMS Sharman
Date Point: 16y11m4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Work done, head hosed down, feet clean, hair toweled dry. Babies blissfully asleep, and a long and very welcome bout of fun with Al and Xiù, while Amanda and the boys went shopping for supplies. Then a pleasant evening walk to escort her home, and a quick, easy jog back to encourage his boys—he didn’t care what anyone had to say, Tristan and Ramsey were his now. They closed out the evening cuddled up with him while he was stretched lazily across the couch, watching what must have been Gaoian cartoons. Both had been so starved for any kind of real affection growing up, they were making up for lost time every chance they got.
Julian didn’t have words for how good that felt. It was…the best. He almost wished he could sink into that big soft couch and just stay there forever, watching cartoons with his boys and smashing them into giggling fits with great big bearhugs.
But he wasn’t watching the cartoons, actually. He was watching Al and Xiù.
The thing that always warmed his heart was looking at them and seeing how much in love with each other they were, just as much as with him. It was all in the little gestures, the small generosities and, yes, the familiar comfortable bickering over nothing important. And the kisses. Lots of those, like little punctuation marks so common and unconscious that they probably didn’t even notice them tick by.
And of course they were gorgeous. Kind of a study in physical opposites really, but that just meant he got to appreciate them both for their own reasons. Xiù was sturdy. Tough. Just curvaceous enough to be hot as all hell, but with a genuine hardbody underneath. He wasn’t afraid to admit that was a big factor in their play, too; they both played rough as heck. She was paler of skin too, with long, glossy black hair that she somehow had super-mom powers with. It never got in the way, it never had baby puke in it, it never seemed tangled or dry or… bad hair days just weren’t a feature of Xiù’s life.
Julian had never once had a good hair day, but they both said it looked good on him so who was he to complain?
Al was tall enough to rest her elbow on Xiù’s head, a cocky gesture she sometimes pulled out when she was feeling dominant. Which was odd because all her toughness was in the mind. She was a creature of long graceful legs and narrow body, with a sharp diamond-shaped face that was better described as “striking” than pretty. Still…hot. She hid it under a baseball cap and shooting glasses when she was out and about, and they suited her. Like a Scandinavian shieldmaiden dressed up to take on the Terminator.
He loved the way they put up with him, too. Julian had discovered that he, uh…well. He liked to play. He liked to play pretty hard, apparently. The more he lived with them, the more he’d learned how lucky he was, how good they were for him. He hoped he was good for them.
He could just lie there and watch them forever.
It was Al’s turn to cook today, but there wasn’t a power in the galaxy that could keep Xiù out of the kitchen when she wanted to be there. She loved cooking, and days when it was somebody else’s job were just an opportunity to treat it as fun instead of a chore.
Of course, the problem was that Al just… wasn’t as good a cook as Xiù. And Xiù wanted to Help. And Al could get prickly about that, sometimes.
“Hey, hands off!”
“But the potatoes need to—”
“Babe, am I cooking this thing or are you cooking it?”
“You’re cooking it, but—”
“Right!” Al claimed the potatoes, then put them on to boil. “…Thanks.”
And that was the charm of it all. Julian loved Allison’s prickly side, but it rarely became full-blown jerkdom. Besides, if she ever took it a little too far, then Xiù was no pushover. So Julian watched them kiss, smiled to himself, and returned his attention to the cartoon, where the protagonists—a trio of intrepid Gaoian cubs—were blinking at each other in bemusement as their human mentor, a mad scientist of the old school right down to the wild Einstein hair and Doc Brown manic energy, scurried around the giant robot he was building.
Its inevitable smashy escape from the lab was kinda predictable, but the Gaoians managed to put their own comedy spin on things by having it run up to a semi truck and sniff it in what was, by Gaoian standards, a decidedly amorous way.
Julian couldn’t help but snort, which caught Tristan’s attention. “What’s so funny?”
“Just thinkin’ about how hard Xiù would slap me if I tried that…”
Julian just grinned.
“…Ohhh.” Ramsey frowned at the screen, tilted his head slightly on one side, then the penny dropped with a splintering crash. “….Oh!! Oh. Wow. Um… is that…?”
“That’s Gao for ‘ya. They aren’t so fussy about some things.”
Julian shrugged. “I dunno. They do grow up fast, though. Maybe that’s why? In fact if you were a Gao, you’d already be an adult. For them, that’s fifteen…in Gaoian years. So about twelve for us.”
“Must be nice…” Tristan muttered.
Julian chuckled. “Let’s revisit that idea in a few years when you’re paying taxes…” he said, and glanced into the kitchen again, where Al had finally relented to allowing Xiù to slice the vegetables, and was bobbing and rocking around the place with a baby on each hip. She saw him watching, pulled a complicated eye-rolling face that Julian took as conveying fond tolerance for Xiù’s foibles, and smiled at him.
He smiled back, and a kind of vague hugging gesture and a lift of his eyebrows asked the question ‘want me to hold them?’
She nodded, brought them through, deposited them in his arms, and then arched an eyebrow at the… vigorous chase scene on the TV. The truck’s self-driving AI had decided she didn’t want the robot’s affections, and was doing her level best to escape while the robot pursued her in an unhurried way. It was like if Pepe le Pew was made of steel and weighed eighty thousand pounds.
The sudden crashing heroics of an Emberpelt-like superhero blasting laser beams out of his whiskers added just the right level of Gaoian kitsch to really take it over the top.
“…What’s this show called?” Allison asked.
“…Uh, I’m not sure. I don’t read Gaori very well and it’s all stylized…wait, is it over already?”
“Yeah. The supergaoian just put handcuffs on the robot. And the mad scientist is very sorry.” Allison shook her head bemusedly. “Hey, can you get Xiù out of my kitchen? She’s helping.”
“Preferably in a way that leaves the babies attended and you two ready for dinner in ten minutes,” Allison clarified.
The boys both rolled their eyes. They were used to him by now.
“Just order her out,” Julian said. “You know she’ll yes ma’am and quit if you actually mean it.”
“Yeah, I know…” Allison tickled Anna behind the ear, grinned at her, then went back to try and reclaim the chore she was supposed to be doing.
Sure enough, a few seconds later Xiù beat an apologetic retreat and left her to it. She slipped in behind the couch and draped herself over Julian’s shoulders like an oversized cat.
“Bǎobèiiii….” she half-complained, and nibbled on his ear.
Julian reached up behind his head and massaged her scalp. “Stop making Al feel useless, babe.”
“Ugh, do all adults act like little kids?” Tristan groaned, rolling his eyes. Ramsey giggled and leaned a bit harder into Julian’s flank.
“Just the smart ones,” Julian opined.
“No reason why growing up should stop you from having fun!” Xiù agreed. She pulled a huge happy face at Anna. “Is there?! No there isn’t! No!”
“You can have all kindsa fun that you miss out on as a kid… Chores do kinda suck though.”
“Riiight…” Tristan rolled his eyes.
“Like art!” Xiù chirped.
“Not what I was thinking of, but sure…” Julian chuckled, then flinched as she tickled his ribs.
“Hey, we like art!” Ramsey protested.
“You like art,” his brother corrected him.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with art! I mean, I modelled…”
Al’s voice cut through from the kitchen. “That’s just ‘cuz you like showing off your huge—”
“Ego!” Julian interrupted her, at the same time as Xiù finished the thought with “Muscles!”
Goddamnit. Sure, all three of those were true, but still…
Tristan giggled again, while Ramsey squirmed a little. He’d always been the more straight-laced of the twins. Where Tristan had a sarcastic, cocky streak that was very much like Allison’s, Ramsey was more… earnest. And a bit more squeamish.
“…Sure. Exactly what I was gonna say.” Al grinned at them and then returned to whatever she was doing with that spatula.
“Actually…” Ramsey tried, in a valiant attempt to end their flirting again, “…Did you hear about that Gaoian artist? The one who’s actually got tri… triwhatsit vision? Like, he can see red like we do?”
“Oh, Leemu? Yeah, Daar won’t stop talkin’ the fella up! Haven’t met him yet…”
“He’s putting on an exhibit of his work at Oriel!”
“Boring…” Tristan muttered.
Julian shrugged. “Nah, that sounds interesting to me, actually.”
“And me!” Xiù agreed. “I bet Ava’s going to cover it.”
“It’s next week!” Ramsey enthused. “Can we go?”
“Sure.” Julian promised. “I’ll make time. You gotta come too Tristan and be polite about it, okay? Ramsey comes to every one of your wrestling meets…besides. I doubt it’s all artsy-fartsy stuff. There’s probably some cool posters too, I bet!”
Xiù hummed softly as she poured herself onto the back of the couch to lie across Julian’s shoulders. She scritched behind his ear with one hand, while murmuring a quiet warning into the other ear. “Careful, there’s a chance you might be in that gallery, too…”
“…Oh. Well.” …Yeah. That was a thing now. “Uh. Oh well, I guess.”
“Oh please, I’m not gonna buy one of those.” Ramsey had an impish streak, when he wanted.
“Maybe they have sports car posters!”
“Maybe! I always thought those looked cool…wait.”
Julian’s phone pinged with a breaking news alert, so he grumbled a bit, dug the remote out from under his butt and flipped the TV over to the local news channel, to the boys’ half-hearted protests.
Xiù quieted that protest with a gentle gesture. Ava was in the ESNN studio, talking with the anchor. That always meant some kind of big extraterrestrial news.
Julian had a sudden realization. “Y’know, Adam hasn’t texted me all day…”
“Marty and Freya both made apologies on our moms group, too…”
Goddamnit. Julian pulled his boys close into a big protective hug. They seemed to sense something was wrong because neither of them protested any.
“–mobilized a few days ago for offworld activity, but until now there’s been no official word on where they were or what they were doing. Now, we’re waiting to go live via real-time wormhole to Washington where the Gaoian Ambassador to the AEC nations and Supreme Allied Commander General Greg Kolbeinn are about to make a statement.”
“Did I hear that right?” Allison ducked through from the kitchen. “Live from Earth?”
“Holy crap,” Tristan agreed. “Isn’t that really difficult?”
“And stupid expensive, yeah…Al, you might wanna put everything in the stayfridge for a second.”
Al nodded, and briskly transferred the pans into the stasis fridge. They’d come out just as hot as they went in, even if this broadcast went on for an hour. She parked herself on the couch, sideways across Julian’s lap, and watched with the rest of them as the ESNN studio went respectfully silent to hear what the general and the ambassador had to say.
There were three emblems at the back of the stage: The mon of the Gaoian Conclave of Champions, the seal of the US Department of Defence, and the AEC logo. While Ambassador Shano of Clan Goldpaw took to the stage wearing a protective biofilter forcefield harness, general Kolbeinn stepped up to the podium and knocked some papers on its surface to straighten them out.
He acknowledged the reporters in front of him with a nod, cleared his throat, and set the papers down. “Thank you for being here. I know there’s been some speculation going around about a deployment of our spaceborne assets and the Grand Army of the Gao, and today I’m going to clear up what that’s all about.”
He glanced down at the papers again, then nodded, abandoned them, and addressed the room with increased certainty. Clearly the general was a little uncomfortable in front of cameras. “A few weeks ago, a joint spaceborne reconaissance operation was launched into Hunter space to determine the disposition of their forces and planetary resources. This was a historic mission, in that it represents the first time in known history that scouts have successfully operated within Hunter territory. The mission was a success, and the brave men who went on it were able to report back a startling find.”
“They found an enslaved species,” he said. Xiù’s fingers tightened on Julian’s shoulder. “We’ve established a few facts about these people: they call themselves the E-skurel-ir and by their calendar the Hunters first found and occupied their home planet a little more than four hundred years ago. They have lived in unimaginable misery and cruelty ever since, and their home planet has been poisoned, stripped of its natural resources and utterly devastated by Hunter industry and tyranny.”
“Upon learning of this fact, the Great Father of the Gao decided to liberate them. Even now the Grand Army has established a firm beachhead on that planet and is prosecuting a full-scale planetary invasion, with the intent to deny the Hunters access to the planet, its resources, and its people. To that end he intends the complete eradication of every Hunter in the system. As the Great Father is sovereign in his own right and beholden to nobody, we of course must respect his decisions, and as allies, we are honor-bound to offer support.”
“Jesus…” Allison muttered.
“Fortunately, the Great Father’s military acumen is well-respected and rightly so. Upon review of the developing situation, the President has decided under the War Powers Acts to offer our aid, and will be addressing Congress as soon as is reasonable to discuss further action. The other Aliied nations are also making their own preparations, but I can confirm that AEC assets, including elements of the Spaceborne Operations Regiment and some of our ships, are already active in support of the mission in accordance with the Extrasolar Defence Treaty. Our intent, with the advice and consent of Congress, is to secure the liberation of the E-skurel-ir. We do this not only because it is a moral imperative to act, but because this will strike against one of our great enemies, against whom Congress has already declared a state of war. That completes my statement. Now, myself and the Great Father’s Ambassador, his excellency Father Shano, will take your questions. We are necessarily limited in what we can speak about—yes?”
Julian became aware that Xiù’s fingernails were biting into his shoulder. He put his hand up and squeezed hers, and after a second her death-grip on him loosened. She turned her hand over and gripped his instead. He didn’t need to ask what the problem was: she was the only person he knew who’d actually shoved her arm down a Hunter’s throat, whereas Julian and Allison had both been fortunate enough to never encounter Hunters. She hated the fucking things…
“Come sit down, babe.” That seemed to be exactly what she needed. He swallowed her up in a full-body hug and the boys leaned against either side of him while they watched the news.
The ESNN stream cut back to the studio—presumably because staying live to Washington to follow the questions would have been way too expensive and difficult—and Julian turned the volume down. He decided to add the comforter to the equation and wrapped them all up into a loose burrito of warmth.
Al scooped up the babies and sat down on the couch’s arm. “Not a lot of detail.”
“No,” Julian agreed. “That Goldpaw fella probably can’t say much either. I bet I know what that does mean, though.”
“Means I’m gonna get re-deployed back to Akyawentuo here pretty soon…yup.” A shadow flit along the living room window, and Hoeff let himself in without knocking. He looked like he’d been interrupted in the middle of a workout and had his all-business expressionless demeanor plastered on.
“Ambassador Rockefeller wants to talk with you, big guy.”
“Right now, or does he have time for dinner first?” Allison asked.
“I’m in my running shorts and dripping sweat, so…”
Julian sighed. “…Right.”
He did insist on taking the time to hug everyone and assure them he would be fine. That done, he gathered up his bug-out bag, threw it over shoulder, and thumped back out into the evening.
The jog over to the embassy wasn’t too bad. “Things moving that quick?”
“Yeah,” Hoeff huffed. “Get you safe on monkey planet.”
They arrived a few minutes later. Hoeff did need to catch his breath a bit, being a short guy, but the ambassador met them at the door and there was apparently no time for pleasantries.
“Mister Hoeff, Clan Whitecrest have made a request. They’d like to consult Professor Hurt about the first contact situation.”
Hoeff understood immediately, even if he was panting. “So…I’m…gonna be his…bodyguard?”
Rockefeller gave him a sympathetic look. “If Julian permits it, yes. We’d normally arrange for additional protection but we don’t have time. This is a pressing request and in any case, Hurt already trusts you. That should make it…easier…to manage his protection.”
Hoeff smirked at that and shot Julian a look. “Well, think you’re gonna be safe for a bit, big guy?”
Julian sighed, and injected a little humor. “Not from Yan’s armpit, but there’s nothing anyone can do to save me from that. If anyone can keep Hurt safe in a warzone, it’s you.” He turned back to the ambassador. “Yeah, I’m okay with it. What’s my role in all this?”
“Ferd Given-Man and his men are part of the JETS team that first scouted the planet and found the natives. They’re still active and carrying out missions. Having talked with the archeologists, and with the professor…my staff thinks the Ten’Gewek have a keener interest in this than we think. Your job is going to be to feel them out on that.”
“Talk with Yan. Got it.”
Rockefeller nodded. “You have a very simplifying way of doing things.”
“Yan’s the kind of clever man who likes to keep things simple. He doesn’t like saying ten words when one will do.”
“Well, then. I’ve requested an urgent change in jump traffic. The Array folks tell me they’ll be able to send you in two hours. I suggest you use that time well!” Rockefeller shook their hands. “Good luck, gentlemen.”
Well. So the cozy home life was over for now. Julian had known it wouldn’t last forever, these weren’t the kind of times where a guy like him could just stay at home and be a dad. But on the bright side, he enjoyed his time on Akyawentuo. There was always something interesting to help Vemik tinker with, a conversation to be had with the Singer, a humiliating wrestling match followed by a conversation to be had with Yan…
Or just the chance to get out in the forest and hunt. Be part of nature again for a while. So all things considered, he wasn’t exactly facing a hardship here.
Funny. When he was at home with Xiù, Al and the kids, he missed the forest. When he was in the forest, he missed being at home with Al, Xiù and the kids. One day, he hoped, he’d get to take the family with him to Akyawentuo, and then have the best of both worlds.
But for now…
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
HMS Caledonia, Mordor System, Hunter Space
Colour Sergeant Robert “Highland” Murray
“HIGHLAND, slap him for me, wouldya?”
Murray chuckled, reached out, and gave Blaczynski’s helmet a firm clout. He hadn’t been listening to what was going on, but he knew with religious certainty that STARFALL deserved it. He and FORREST always deserved whatever they got.
“Thanks bro!” Burgess grinned at him, then went back to grimacing at the shock of cold water his techs gave him to help squeeze him into his suit. That was a new technique, chilling the suit before putting it on, to buy a little extra time before the inner lining expanded and compressed in response to the operator’s body temperature.
Deacon was looking bloody serious today. She was in charge of the suits after all, and they were about to be put through a serious trial. Nobody had ever gone EVA within sixty million kilometers of a star before. Whether or not they all got the worst sunburn ever was resting on the poor lass’ shoulders a bit.
She was up to it, though. They were in safe hands, with Deacon and her techs.
Safe, but remorseless.
“I still fuckin’ hate that ye’re started wi’ the cold water now,” he grumbled, hissing as the liquid salty slush was pumped into his undersuit. It was like having an icicle run firmly across his skin, all over his body at once.
“Aww. Big strong lads afraid of a bit of chill?” She teased, reading something off her arcane tools as she drove the long probe into his life support pack to check its inner chemistry was all in order. “And don’t you do the ice bath thing after workouts sometimes anyway?”
“I don’t fuckin’ like it then, either…” Murray grumbled, bouncing on his toes to try and keep his muscles warm. One small and slightly irrational point of pride was that, despite everything, he wasn’t quite Lad enough to shake the decking doing something like that. He was the ‘smallest’ one among the fighting Lads: squint and look at him sideways, and he’d maybe almost pass for normal human size. Even FORREST was passing him by these days, that fat American fuck.
Still bigger’n ABBOTT and STAINLESS, though. Gotta keep those officers in line.
“Man, I am sure am glad I don’t gotta put up with that.” That was Kodiak, a giant bear of a Gaoian who was just now stepping into his own Suit. Murray watched with some jealousy as the Suit self-zippered all its layers together right up his spine. Apparently, there was some pretty sophisticated nanotechnology involved, so the entire suit—or at least the air seal layer—was effectively one giant molecule encasing its wearer.
“No cold water? No nothing?”
“Naw. The Suit don’t squeeze down until I tell it to.”
“I feel like that’s the kindae tech that allies would share wi’ their mates…” Murray told him fervently.
“You get talkative when you’re cold, doen’t you?” Kodiak chittered. His real name was Gurrum—with a growl over the syllables, and therefore almost impossible for most non-Gaoians to pronounce—and it was kind of an open secret among the Lads that he was eyeing up challenging Fiin to take over as Stoneback’s Champion. So far he was holding off, probably because a good champion had to be a good judge of when the time was right, and for now it wasn’t.
Murray knew when he was being given a good-natured no-sell, so he returned his attention to the chuckling Blaczynski, who was already suited up and comfortably warm again. “So what’d you say this time?” he asked.
“Just tellin’ ‘Base he oughta be glad of the ice bath. Might actually shrink his nuts down to size.”
Murray snorted, and slapped him upside the head again.
“Aye, don’t be jealous, laddy. An’ don’t provoke the other big fuckers.”
“I’m not jealous! I like bein’ able to walk straight!”
He was totally jealous, even though by any normal standards the lad was practically a bull. On this team, though…Murray just gave his old friend a knowing look, then shivered as the water reached his own groin. Right next to the femoral artery, he could feel the chill seep into his bones. “…Sure could use some of that insulation myself… Christ…”
“I woulda thought you’d be used to this. Aren’t you from the frozen bonnie northlands, where the freezing wind goes up your kilt?”
Deacon grabbed Murray’s arm before he could slap Blaczynski a third time.
“The more you wriggle around,” she cautioned him, “the longer this takes.”
“Right, aye… Don’t mind me…”
“I got you,” Kodiak rumbled, and a paw the size of a dinner plate bounced off the back of Blaczynski’s helmet.
Deacon snort-laughed, let go of Murray, and a minute later his armor was being sealed around him, tepid water was being pumped in to flush out the arctic stuff, and the ordeal was passing.
“Might just be because I’m a real man, mate. I see you aren’t complaining…”
All the Gaoians flicked their ears simultaneously, and Kodiak was as ever just…mildly amused. “Oh gods not this again. Y’all Humans sure think awfully highly of ‘yerselves…”
“They really do…” Regaari agreed.
“Yeah, well, the ladies seem to like me when I go out clubbing! Might be ‘cuz I’m not pretending to be a draft horse in my pants…Actually,” Blaczynski turned his big manic grin toward Adam. “How the fuck did you ever pull as hard as you did, ‘Horse? Didn’t you manage to smash every willing woman in Folctha like three times over before Marty tamed you? It’s not like they didn’t know what they were getting into…”
“Size matters, bro! You just gotta know what you’re doing!” Adam bounced his huge slab of a chest, and the anime characters fighting across his big e-tattoo reacted as if they’d just been knocked down by an earthquake. Neat little bit of tech, if a bit tacky…
“Can it, Lads.” Powell called from the other end of the room. “You’re all pretty and too big to handle. Now, shall we get suited before the Great Father shows up?”
“Naw, too late.” Daar prowled in with a notable lack of deck-shaking bounciness; his humor was still there, but he was in a much more serious mode of leadership. “Briefing time.”
Everyone who could, gathered round. The rest, being stuck having their suits bolted on, their fur slicked down or their EVA packs tested, perked up and listened from where they were standing.
“Our naval friends have identified a superweapon being built in orbit around the star,” Daar explained. One of his assistants scurried round, handing out printed reading material with all the details. “Looks to be a giant forcefield array. The concern is, it can pack enough energy into one coherent beam that the system defence field won’t be able to block enough in time. It’s not yet online, but as far as we can tell it’s structurally complete, so it won’t be long. We need to capture and destroy it before that can happen. Plan is to board, penetrate to the core, drop nukes, learn what we can, an’ pull out. Thing is, the mission ain’t actually that simple.”
The Great Father looked to Powell. “Colonel?”
“The array orbits this system’s star at only fifty million kilometers or so. That’s about the orbit of Mercury. Temperature in the open is as high as four hundred degrees Celsius, and stellar radiation is as high as nine thousand Watts per square meter. Staff Sergeant Deacon assures me that our suits are rated to handle such an environment. Sergeant? Any specific advice?”
“We’re adding BoPET sheets to your outersuits to protect you,” Deacon said, lifting her voice over the sound of Tisdale bolting on the last of MOHO’s armor plates. “Your suits are rated to handle the radiation, but only for a little while. Shielding you from the high-energy stuff, refrigerating you and dumping the heat spends energy from your onboard pack, so spend as little time as possible in direct sunlight. You need to get in the shade of that structure ASAP. Be aware, your visors are going to be in maximum glare reduction mode while you’re outside, so transitioning into the structure is likely to leave you effectively blind for a couple of seconds while the visor adjusts. You’ll want to rely on your helmet’s sensors.”
Adam, being cleverer than he looked, raised his blunt hand and asked a question. “Won’t BoPET make us shine like fuckin’ stars?”
“Your suit could have the albedo of charcoal, you’d still be lit up like Christmas with that much light bouncing off you. We figured protecting your equipment and maximizing your safe exposure time was the higher priority.”
“What about the ‘Crests fancy-tail active camo?” Kodiak was also much too clever for his size. “Or am I just wishin’ an’ this is too much ‘fer it to handle?”
“Definitely wishing,” said Shim.
“So…no element of surprise, then. Smash and grab as fast as we fuckin’ can.”
“That’s the shape of it,” Powell agreed. “This is another one of those short-notice ops where everything’s bein’ done according to our training. No specific instructions, and we sure as fook don’t have any worthwhile intel, so just keep your eyes open, your wits about you and your arsehole puckered.”
“Y’all know I don’t like deployin’ ‘ya ‘less I gotta. ‘Specially when it’s so short notice.” Daar gave them all a steely look. “But you all—we—are the fuckin’ best of the very fuckin’ bestest. Ain’t nobody else could even dream o’ doin’ shit like this, yijao?”
There were serious nods and duck-nods all around the bay. The banter was over, playtime was over. Everyone was listening closely.
“Space and entry are gonna be limited. We’re keeping the rest o’ the operators on hot standby in case anythin’ goes wrong, ‘cuz this mission cannot fail. We don’t have time to evacuate everyone an’ everything that are vulnerable. Colonel Powell an’ Champions Fiin and Thurrsto are in command of our standby forces. This group…well, I don’t need to tell y’all what you already know. You’re the bestest, most seasoned operators we have. ‘Cuz like I said…”
Daar held up his paw. “See this? We figger the shield can react mebbe within a nanosecond, an’ that ain’t even enough time ‘fer a beam o’ light ‘ta cross the width o’ my paw. But even then, this thing could mebbe throw so gods-damned much energy down range, it’d be enough to flash-vaporize even th’ Destroyin’ Fury inside her shields. So we absolutely cannot fail this mission.”
Powell nodded, though he looked rather less grim than usual, anticipating the mission to come. “Time to play big damned heroes again, Lads. As the Great Father said, I’ll be commanding standby forces, Captain Costello will be with the assault team. Between the suit thing and other factors we won’t have the element of surprise on this one, so hit ‘em hard and eyes peeled for every dirty trick in the book.”
There were nods all around, though they were grim. There were few environments in space deadlier than a space station whose owner was alerted of a pending attack and had time to prepare. This one was going to be fierce. Murray was suddenly glad of his suit. It might be a pain to get into and out of, but it had kept him alive through some shit in the past. It’d do so again.
“That is why it’s us,” the Great Father rumbled. “I want people with the bestest chance o’ comin’ back alive on this mission.”
“Let’s make sure we all do,” Powell agreed. “Finish your preparations, see the chaplain if you need to. We go in twenty.”
And that was that. Everyone moved with a renewed sense of purpose, the chatter dropped off to just business. Murray was glad of it. He’d always done his best preparation in the peace of his own mind.
He took a deep breath, prepared himself, and went to work.
Journal of Keeper Ukusevi, Librarian of the Old-Bent-Leg Archives 9th hour of the 206th day of the 417th year of Punishment.
”Helplessness is like a heavy blanket: It smothers at the same time as it comforts.”
It has been five days since the coming of the Gao, and Garr-avf’s words will not grant me any peace by leaving my head. I hear them when I sit and compose my thoughts. I hear them when I try to comfort the faithful, and when I recite the Long Chant. I put them to the page now in the hopes that perhaps my pen can do what thought alone could not, and make sense of them.
How can helplessness be comfortable? What does that mean?
My late teacher, Iskoritr, taught me to work backwards in these situations. “Begin at the end,” he would say, “If an answer to the big question eludes you, ask smaller questions. You may find that even small questions are very large on the inside.”
What is comfort?
That is a small question. What is the definition of a common word? And yet, as Iskoritr foresaw, I find that it is much bigger on the inside. The light of the bigger question shines in from outside, illuminating whole new warrens of meaning that I had not considered before. What is comfort?
When I am comfortable I do not wish to rise from my bed. When I am comfortable, I have no need to move myself so as to alleviate an itch or ache or numbness. Comfort, in that sense, is inertia. An unwillingness to change anything about one’s condition because the alternative seems worse.
I am sitting comfortably. Why should I change my posture and risk an aching back?
I am comfortably warm in my bed. Why would I wish to rise and be cold?
The Answer: Because I must. Sooner or later, the Almighty delivers to me some task or obligation that cannot be resolved from my comfortable chair, or my warm bed. But there is the paradox at the core of Garr-avf’s words. To be comfortable is to be inert until compelled to act… but to be helpless is to be unable to act.
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
Hunter stellar array, mordor system, Hunter space
The hard part was the light. It was everywhere, and stepping out in it meant being exposed to a flood of radiation and enough heat to melt lead. The shadows meant life, but with the suit’s eye protection turned almost fully opaque to handle the glaring stellar radiance, the shadows were impenetrably dark. Anything could be in them, totally invisible. Not even the contrast-enhancing vision augmentation system in his helmet could do much in such a fierce EM environment.
There were other sensors in the helmet to help, but they could only do so much. And if the Hunters had any of their cloaked heavies out on the hull…
…Best to get inside quickly. Regaari’s paws touched metal and he felt the heat even through his suit. The Hunter array would have burned his exposed skin to touch, but his suit was designed to handle temperature extremes far worse than that. He stuck on, drew his fusion knife, and started to cut into it, sawing through the thick inches of armor plating to get at the hollow space the ultrasound sensors in his paws promised him was there underneath.
The hull was thick, though. Far too thick for him to move by himself, and his Human friends weren’t available for this part; they were all forcing their way in at the other end of the hull.
But that was okay. His best friend in the universe also happened to be its strongest. Daar dug his claws in and tossed the gigantic hunk of metal aside with almost insulting ease. Adam was doing much the same with his breaching team. Once that was done…First Fang and the HEAT swarmed in with all the aggression they could muster. They didn’t have time to do anything less.
Regaari was a lucky male. He was privileged to fight the darkness alongside his best and most loved friends, and there was absolutely no moral ambiguity to be had. The Hunters were evil.
But he could maybe have done without having to fight them on the surface of a tiny bunker much too close to a star for comfort. And a flimsy cloak of crinkly reflective material did not feel like adequate protection from the unrelenting stare of a main sequence white-yellow monster like this one.
Wriggling through into the hole that Daar made, therefore, was entirely welcome, even if it was a horrible moment of perfect blindness. There was no air to hear, his visor was still black against the stellar glare, he couldn’t have smelled anything through his mask even if there was air to sniff…
He felt a heavy vibration through his paws and flung himself aside. A fusion scythe slashed down and carved a molten channel in the deck plating where he’d been, missing him by whiskers.
Regaari lashed out with his own fusion knife and cut its legs out from under it. The Hunter fell, its scythe briefly lit the room as it swiped at him, but Regaari wasn’t going by vision right now. He was going by training, instinct and intuition. He sprang forward, parted the monster from its weapon with another stroke of his claws, then finally went for the kill with a stroke that opened sizzling gouges in it from belly to eyes. It died without further exertion.
Daar had been on his heels, Shim behind him, and others still pouring through the gap. Regaari sprang to the door and ferreted through it as Daar wrenched it open. There was no time to pause, gather his breath, or reflect. The facility was small, the Hunters would know they were here instantly thanks to their shared network. To surrender any momentum at all was to gamble with death.
Thought stopped. There was just flow. Knowing things, seeing things, doing things.
Knowing: Where he was, where the enemy was, where his friends were. First Fang and fellow Whitecrests behind and alongside him, HEAT humans seventy meters that way, making their own violent ingress.
Seeing: Opportunities, moments, movement, victims. A Hunter too slow on the uptake: Delete it. Another, too reckless and panicky in darting forward to counterattack. Slip under and past it, trust the heavies to catch and destroy it. If Daar was perhaps thoroughly enjoying himself more or less literally crushing his inferior foes, they could boast to each other later.
Doing: Killing, gathering intel, mapping the facility and its vital systems even while dancing through its halls in a blur of blood, bullets and blades. No time to count the near misses, stopping to even notice the danger would be fatal.
All the mundane complications were there, of course: zero-g, super-G, shifting and popping to and fro, even the occasional dose of hyper-G, though not much; probably the platform couldn’t handle it for too long.
And the usual wall of Hunters, most small and puny next to his hard-earned Deathworlder body, some more of a challenge. None quite so bad as the Tanks from the Ring. And drones. That was fairly new for the Hunters but not for other enemies they’d faced before.
The danger, as always, was in the unknown.
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
It had been quite clear to the Alpha-of-Alphas when the foe noticed its stellar superweapon. An extremely fast warp signature departing the star’s vicinity, where there had been none before, was a sure giveaway of a stealthed scout completing its mission and returning data to its Alphas.
From that moment, the gambit was foiled. There would be no rapid-fire of stuttering light-pulses to devastate the system fields and the deathworlder capital ships. The loss of the system became a certainty, and it was a painful loss in a long string of painful losses.
…But not yet catastrophic. And potentially, hidden in the belly of this loss, was a gain.
The Alpha-of-Alphas had prepared for this contingency. It set its Builders to work inside the array, dramatically altering its profile and function. The very concept of using it to send overwhelming bursts of coherent solar radiation into the outer system was abandoned, in favor of constructing something… else.
Something that was only feasible with the most powerful of forcefields anyway. Something that demanded extreme and expensive field geometries, which in turn demanded high-precision alignment and complex mechanical calibration within an appropriate suite; not, therefore, typically the domain of ship passageways.
Fortunately, the Alpha-of-Alphas had foreseen this need, though for entirely different purposes. Its design for the array had included an appropriate antechamber for the field-expedient repair of large modules. After all, tooling was difficult and time-consuming to rig for any project.
Even so… it had come down to the narrowest margin. The Builder brood lessers were still working feverishly on the modifications even as the Eaters flung themselves futilely at the deathworlder invaders and were slaughtered. Their sacrifice was barely enough… but it was enough.
A Fur-Face and a Human, marginally forward of the others and leading the assault, burst through the Eaters and obliterated the Builders.
The Human was designated Alpha-4; a worthy specimen in its own right and significantly superior to its lesser-ranked fellows. The Fur-Faced was, if anything, an even better specimen, and that was a concept the Alpha-of-Alphas still found itself straining to adapt to. It would clearly need to re-classify its inventory of enemy spaceborne broods at some point.
Either way… it could barely ask for finer specimens to fall into its trap.
STARFALL was the first to the array’s core, and the first to ken that something was wrong. Some instinct, something sharper and more aware than mere sight and sound, prompted him to twist, turn, and slam his shoulder square into Kodiak’s chest so hard that the big brownfur was thrown back to safety in the instant before the trap sprung.
They saw the forcefields snap taught, then delicately peel all his equipment apart, layer by layer.
Then they did the same thing to Blaczynski himself.
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
Humans were so… vexing. They seemed to have senses that extended beyond mere sound and sight and scent. There was no conceivable way that one designated Alpha-4 could have seen the trap, and yet… somehow it did. Not quickly enough to rescue itself, but quickly enough to save its counterpart. Perhaps they could sense building electromagnetic fields? Even through their armor? If so, that would be a valuable new trait for the Swarm to learn and incorporate.
The Alpha-of-Alphas would have to be content with one Alpha instead of two… But what an Alpha it was!
The analysis began with the twitching, struggling and defiant Human’s equipment. Forcefields and crystalline nanoblades peeled the armored suit apart, inspecting every intricate layer, noting every detail.
The outermost layers were fabric-based camouflage, equipment carrying systems, power systems and utility forcefields. Below that, a thick stratum of metalloceramic scales so refined, so elegant and simple, and so perfectly functional that they inspired in the Alpha-of-Alphas a rare feeling: its sense of artistic beauty.
Beneath that, thermally activated shock-absorbing gel performing the dual function of keeping the suit gripped tight around its wearer’s body, and also of distributing impacts over a wide area. It was no wonder these Alphas could weather even heavy hits, when they wore armor like this.
Below the gel was a surprise: water. It squirted out in zero-G, and a pair of forcefield capillaries siphoned it up for analysis, but it turned out to be just water, with a few trace additives like fluoride that may have been contaminants. The water system was spread through the whole suit, visiting both a dispenser in the helmet where it could be combined with a soluble powder (Some kind of stimulant or nutritional supplement) and a heat exchanger in the armor’s outer layer. And, as the investigation concluded, the water supply could be restored using the operator’s own filtered and purified excretions from both the skin and orifices.
Ingenious. One simple system handling four different roles at once. Incompressible structural support, cooling, hygiene and hydration/nutrition.
That discovery alone opened whole forests of possibility. But the time had come to consider the creature itself. The Human was male. Like all of its kind, he was gifted with a wide range of limb motion, which it tested carefully; it wasn’t interested in harm for its own sake, it was interested in knowledge. He resisted its careful handling with surprising force; it made careful note of that for later. In considering the gross anatomy, it was forced to conclude that Humans had an almost perfectly ideal form. Powerful, versatile hands whose fingers could fully pivot at their base joints. Legs that were adept at a striding locomotion without sacrificing too much muscular power. All his joints were highly mobile, while the extensive musculature connecting it all together seemed perfectly placed for an optimal balance of power, speed, and endurance.
The Alpha-of-Alphas took a bare moment to admire the creature. The more it thought about the evolutionary pressures that led to something so supremely well-adapted to surviving and mastering the world around it, the more it grew convinced it could have never designed a better form itself. Even the compromises were exquisite! The eyes, for example: Humans only had two, but observations and anecdotal evidence suggested they were supremely capable sensory organs, far beyond most Prey or a Hunter’s natural eyesight. The field of view was necessarily more narrow, but their other senses seemed to inexplicably compensate for that. Or perhaps that was just their neuro-processing? Humans were rumored to excel there, as well.
There were some confusing details. The feet had what seemed to be mostly vestigial digits that likely corresponded to the same in their hands. A quick X-ray pulse confirmed that the feet had internal complexity that wouldn’t make sense in an engineered lifeform; Humans were definitely evolved creatures, which only made them all the more wondrous. The genitalia were much larger than would seem necessary, if one considered the Prey species’ reproductive anatomy by comparison. Alas, the Hunters’ method of reproduction was far less efficient in terms of genetic mixing compared to a sexual system. Yet another thing that needed improving about its kind.
Aside from those minor points of confusion, there was hardly anything to critique. The Human body was, for lack of a better concept, exquisite. Only the Fur-Faced were their peers. Finally, with a gross anatomical survey of the Humans, the two could be compared, and the inescapable conclusion was that the Humans and the Fur-Faced were gifted with both Deathworlder and Predator’s bodies, yet they were very different kinds of hunters, with different and complementary adaptations. Alas that it didn’t catch the Fur-Faced Alpha! More study would absolutely be necessary, but for now it would make the most with what it had.
It proceeded with the vivisection very carefully, to maximize the information gleaned.
Surprisingly flimsy skin, with rather a high capacity for subcutaneous fat, though this particular specimen was extremely lean and its skin had been shallowly injected with pigments and nanotechnology of no comprehensible function. It wasn’t protective; it didn’t take much pressure to pierce the dermis, which mostly seemed to serve as a temperature regulator and microbe barrier, not as protection against anything large. The pigmentation must have been for communication, but the precise meaning was a mystery. The Alpha-of-Alphas removed the entire skin in one piece to enable separate imaging and analysis, though the operation was tricky; thin though it may be, it was highly elastic and very firmly attached to the layers below.
It had to increase the field’s restraining pressures significantly during that operation, and turn down the sensitivity of its microphones in response to the Alpha’s suddenly much louder vocalizations.
Human muscle tissue was well-studied, but the difference in this case was that the Alpha-of-Alphas had a live specimen in exceptional condition to consider, not the mangled remains of a malnourished stray caught by the Swarm. It considered the chemical floods it was observing, recorded the way that chemistry interacted with dense fibrous matter to heave and struggle mightily against the forcefields, and dug deeper. Several times, it needed to increase the power output to keep the specimen properly restrained.
Thick tendons with a shocking tensile strength were intricately woven among that marvelous tissue, and eventually anchored in strong, heavy bone. Hydroxyapatite and collagen, literal stone wrapped in an organic matrix. Difficult to break, an impressive compressive strength, and quick to heal if properly aligned. It found evidence of a few past fractures, since healed stronger than they would have been before the mishap.
And beneath those…
The chemical and hormonal splendor of a Human’s innermost workings. In the end it had needed to snip those marvelous tendons to keep the Human still, as any further pressure would end up breaking the specimen before it was done with its investigation. And it wanted the Human alive, if it was to maximize its knowledge.
Alas, there simply wasn’t enough time. The Fur-Faced Alpha of Alphas had teamed up with the Human Alpha-0 and another specimen it tagged as Alpha-1, and together the three were resorting to ripping their way through the walls. That was an entirely unanticipated course of action, but analysis showed it would be effective.
Further examination would have to be rapid. The Builder abandoned slow inspection, and quickly pulled apart its specimen, basking in the wave of data that flowed from its instruments.
The final bit to tackle was that fantastic brain. The Alpha-of-Alphas had to settle for a deep imaging analysis, which would have killed the specimen… but of course, that hardly mattered at this point. It watched the last flickering electrical and chemical signals sputter and fade, then concluded that it had learned all it could today.
If only it could have been more thorough and methodical. If only there had been more time! Even the rushed, crude process had shown the Alpha-of-Alphas wonders. How much more could it have learned? What secrets would the Prime-Alphas of the Humans and the Fur-Faced have revealed? They would now be wary of its intent, no doubt. Catching one of them would be a difficult challenge…
And the specimen’s brood had nearly breached the wall, where they were mounting explosive charges to destroy the forcefields. Its time was up. No matter. It had more than it had ever sunk its teeth into before. And with the knowledge it had gained…
…With that knowledge, Hunters would never be the same again.
The Alpha-of-Alphas re-assembled the former Human Alpha’s form and laid it reverently, even respectfully, on the floor, then ordered its forces to withdraw into deep space. The world and system were lost.
But the Hunters had won a victory nonetheless.
Three dump webs weren’t enough to break the array’s forcefields. Those fields were configured to handle the energies of a star, so nothing even vaguely man-portable could have managed: not even the two-ton full-size dump web Daar was carrying on his back did anything more than give them a light show.
It was…agony. An agony Regaari had no words to describe.
The Defenders quickly identified a wall which might be useful, but which had much industrial equipment in the way. WARHORSE and RIGHTEOUS threw themselves at it instantly, literally tearing it apart with nothing more than their bare hands and sheer desperate strength. The Great Father followed suit without a whisker of hesitation, adding his razor-sharp claws and even greater power to the effort. Everyone else set to clearing debris from behind the three titans. But by the time the three had clawed the wall apart, and TITAN and MOHO had blown the forcefield emitter circuitry to pieces…it was far too late. As a last act of sadistic defiance, the Hunters crudely re-assembled Blaczynski and left him on the deck, thoroughly, utterly dead.
The Humans… became something else. If Regaari thought he’d seen them at their most terrible before, he’d been deluded. Rage, vengeance and grief transformed them into silent monsters, who took the rest of the facility apart piece by piece. Nothing was left to chance, nothing was spared.
First Fang were carrying nukes. Plural. So while the Protectors gathered up their fallen friend’s abused remains and prepared him to go home, the Defenders and First Fang penetrated right into the station’s core, found the thrumming heart of its emitters, deployed their revenge…
…And withdrew. They left nothing alive behind them, and nothing intact either once the nukes went off.
When they were back aboard the Destroying Fury, and when they’d de-briefed, cleaned up, returned to the safety of Mordor orbit, mourned together and taken care of all else…
…It was only then, when Daar was alone with Regaari, that the Great Father of the Gao finally broke down and wept.
Journal of Keeper Ukusevi, Librarian of the Old-Bent-Leg Archives 11th hour of the 206th day of the 417th year of Punishment.
To continue my thoughts from my previous entry, I was roused from the comfort of my writing desk by one of the children. Some minor confusion over proper filing for me to clarify. I tended to my duties, ate and cleansed myself, prayed… but all the time my thoughts were elsewhere.
The boy’s name is Teeisyo, and I have had my eye on him for some time as a potential Keeper. He has a good memory, he learned his letters quickly, he writes neatly, he shows proper respect for the books, paper, pens and ink, he venerates the words properly and he loves nothing more than to read.
He would be… comfortable… as a Librarian.
What does that mean? I see two meanings nested inside that word. I mean to say that it would suit him well. It would be the path of least resistance for him, just as it was for me. He would be treading the path the Almighty seems to have laid out before him, to a service and duty he seems well-suited for. He would be good at it, I’m sure. He would find it easy.
And he would be safe.
To be helpless… is to be safe? How can that be? Our helplessness is in the face of higher powers. We were at the whim of beings from the sky who slaughter and eat us, and now we are at the whim of other beings from the sky who have been unflinchingly forthright in their promise to change us and destroy what we are and were. By what possible definition is our helplessness “safe?”
Impossible. To be helpless is to be unsafe by definition. But what about easy? The more I think about it, the more I know in my belly that Garr-avf spoke truly there, at least. It is so very easy to be helpless.
But the alternative seems impossible. How can we not be helpless? When the Punishers and the Gao alike dominate us so totally, how can we be anything but helpless? And they, surely, are less than the Almighty Himself, in whose sight we are all helpless. Punishers, Hunters, these “hyoomun” friends of the Gao (whatever they are like) and the Penitent alike.
The Long Chant says that we all play our role in the Almighty’s great plan. Is that not helplessness?
And yet… I have always found comfort in the thought that there is a plan, even if understanding it is beyond me. There is comfort in faith, in trusting that I am paying my Penance. That thought has always made the cruelty of the world above make sense. And I am… comfortable, when the world makes sense. It is only now that my sense of the world is disturbed that I find myself uncomfortable.
”Helplessness is like a heavy blanket: It smothers at the same time as it comforts.” I cannot escape that thought, no matter how I try… Because it is true. My faith was comfortable, yet what I had faith in was my own helplessness.
But how can I be anything else?
Date Point: 16y11m5d AV
HMS Caledonia, Mordor System, Hunter Space
Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés
The first Adam became aware of John slumping down next to him was when the deck shook a little and knocked him out of the total zone-out he’d drifted off into, somewhere between post-mission fatigue, grief, sleep and self-hatred.
His hands were still in agony. In fact his whole body was, way worse than usual. He’d thrown everything he had at getting through that wall and it hadn’t been enough. He wasn’t strong enough. Firth wasn’t strong enough. Not even Daar wasn’t fucking strong enough! They weren’t up to the mission…
He’d failed. And the thing was…
The thing was, that old, niggling doubt that had been there from the beginning was there, gnawing away at his soul. If he had been better! If he’d thought to go through the wall sooner!
John just put his arm around him.
“Bro.” A squeeze.
Adam immediately swallowed him up in a hug. Anybody else might have suffered a few popped ribs, but John was the one guy in all the world who could take it, and more importantly… Who knew.
Well. No. There was someone else, but he was in even worse shape than Adam right now, and Adam was being selfish. So, he nodded against John’s chest, blinked the tears out of his eyes…
“He’s… lookin’ after Murray. Think it’s the only thing keepin’ him in one piece right now.”
Adam fidgeted. “I should—”
“Sit your fat ass down.”
Adam blinked. John had a tone he used, rarely, that worked kinda like a heavy slap in the face. It was his Healer’s Voice, carrying more weight of command and authority than even Powell or Costello could muster, and he saved it exclusively for patients who were being dumbasses.
Adam was pretty good at being a dumbass.
“Look at me,” John added, using the same tone, and it worked. Adam blinked at him in confusion. “Everyone on this deck blames themselves right now, bro. Look around. Tell me there’s one man on this team who isn’t telling themselves they coulda done better.”
Adam looked around. The deck was littered with little tableaus of misery: Coyers sitting despondently on his cot, with Tisdale next to him giving the big friendly giant a commiseration backrub while Miller worked listlessly on one of his suit components nearby, her expression far away and pained. Butler deadlifting away his surplus energy and anguish in the corner, his face a mask of empty hatred. Akiyama sitting with his head back against the wall and his eyes closed, cheeks wet. Sikes, pacing a track in the deck, looking like he wanted to explode in fifty directions at once and kill something.
“…I just… I just feel like…” he began.
“I know what you feel like, bro,” John assured him, softly. “You feel like you coulda done more. Like you coulda done better. Well you couldn’t. Fuck sake, you’d blame yourself if you couldn’t jump to the moon to save a bro, and I love that about you, but man… You gotta learn to accept there’s gonna be times when there’s no such thing as good enough. I was there bro. You and Firth were on top of the situation before anyone else, you put everything you had into it… how many broken fingers you got right now?”
“…Three…” Adam admitted.
“Lemme take a look.”
Adam showed him. The pinky and ring fingers on his right hand, and the middle finger on his left had both gone painfully crunch when he’d been ripping at that wall. Thanks to his gauntlets they’d been kept aligned properly, and thanks to the Crude in his system they were already healing well. John rubbed and manipulated them, nodded his satisfaction that they would be okay, then considered the bruising in Adam’s shoulders as well. He gave Adam a serious look.
“Don’t lie to yourself about what more you coulda done, brother. You were literally breaking yourself. We need you strong and healthy, now more’n ever. So don’t you dare be fuckin’ yourself up like that.”
It…helped. Really, it did. He made sure ‘Base knew it, too. But it wasn’t really enough. What Adam really wanted to do was let the Hate out and just…smash. But right now he couldn’t do that. He was broken. He’d pushed himself hard enough to keep up with Daar for fuck’s sake and it still wasn’t enough! He had to rest. To heal. But he couldn’t really heal….
Fuck. He didn’t know what he was thinking.
All he could do was… watch. And hold it together. They’d get their vengeance. They had to. They had a long process of healing and improvement ahead of them before that day came, and Adam had no idea where to begin…
But they would.
It was what they did. And it was what they would do, no matter what.
Date Point: 16y11m6d AV
HMS Caledonia, Mordor System, Hunter Space
Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello
Powell wasn’t one to take losses lightly. He never would have been, nor could he have been and successfully led the HEAT.
But there were losses, and then there was…
Blaczynski’s death wasn’t just a loss. He was a gut punch, a critical blow. He’d been loved, the team’s happy smiling jester, the joker and shenanigan artist, the guy who could get a laugh out of anyone even while they were giving him a blow upside the head for his irreverence. Morale hadn’t just taken a knock, it was in the gutter and likely to remain there. Losing him would have hit the whole team hard, even without the nightmarish scene they’d all been so helpless to stop.
So it was no wonder that Costello found the Colonel slumped forward over his desk with his elbows resting on its surface and the fingers of both hands splayed across his sparse scalp. It was a defeated, exhausted, anguished posture. Entirely right for the moment.
Their shared on-board office-slash-cabin was a small space that had probably once been storage for Hierarchy drones, before Cally’s capture and change of ownership. It had what they needed: beds to sleep in, desks that folded down from the wall above them… And privacy
Powell shifted as Costello entered, looked over at him.
“…Wondered where you’d got to,” he rumbled.
“I can’t sleep.”
“…No. Me either.” Powell sat back and groaned, massaging his bruised shoulders. He always bore a few pressure bruises and pinch marks from his suit, uncomplainingly but always there. “…And I’d do terrible fookin’ things for a drink right about now.”
“…Tea?” Costello suggested.
There was no humor in Powell’s snort. “…Aye, close enough. I’ll make it, you siddown.”
Costello took him up on that. He folded his desk up and sat on his bunk, took off his boots and bent to massage his feet. One of the small curses of the HEAT life was big damn feet, and that more often than not meant big damn foot aches.
“You’ve known Murray longer than anyone,” he said. “You ever seen him like this before?”
“Never. Hard thing to fookin’ see, too.” Powell clicked the kettle on and stood watching it. “…I’m worried about ‘im alright. I didn’t realize they were that close.”
“They’re like brothers, sir. That’s a relationship that’s only grown more intense over time.”
“Aye.” Powell sighed. “…Never thought I’d see that quiet Scottish bastard like that though. How is he now?”
Costello shook his head. Murray had needed sedating in the end, which was no small task when it came to a HEAT operator. He’d got… stuck, in his head. Constantly wired, in full blown restless fight/flight mode and apparently unable to bring himself down.
In any other company, that kind of restlessness wouldn’t have been much of a big deal, but HEAT operators had gone through extensive psychological screening and conditioning, indoc and selection processes with an incredible dropout rate precisely to winnow out the guys who couldn’t hack serious trauma, mental or otherwise. Every man in the unit had a titanium will, and Murray was no exception. Seeing him so shaken therefore was, yes, a big deal.
Though to be completely fair, Costello couldn’t blame him. Highland had been right behind Kodiak, and therefore almost a victim of the Hunters’ trap himself. He’d be badly shaken too, in Murray’s position.
…Costello should probably check in on Kodiak while he was at it. He made a note for later.
“Last I saw him, he was quiet. Firth’s taking care of him. Think it’s the only thing keeping the big guy together. For once, ‘Horse has even managed to keep some therapeutic distance.”
“Good. Was worried we’d have him tearing himself apart.” Powell performed his wizardry with teabags, sugar and milk, and handed over a mug of steaming brown comfort. “…We might have a problem. Murray never took the Homesteading credit.”
“I think that’s just one of several problems we might have, but… what’s so bad about that?”
“Aye, but this is one I can do something about. What’s bad is it means, given his rank, time in service and all the rest… he can walk straight out the door and never come back, if he wants.”
“Yeah. Be a real kick in the balls if we lost two of our best men today.”
“Do you think he would?”
“Christ, I fookin’ hope not. But I could hardly fookin’ blame him if he did, either.” Powell sat and sipped. “Just…fook. I’ve got my two best men in a bad way, I lost another, I might lose another… An’ that doesn’t touch what the Gaoians have going on. Did you see Daar? Fook that, did you smell him? I’ve never once in my life smelled anger, before today.”
“I’ve been worrying about… longer-term things,” Costello admitted. “How we’d deal with that kind of trap when—’cuz it won’t be an if, let’s face it—when we run into one again.”
“Aye. It worked. Which means the fookers’re going to do it again. And they’ll be building them solar focusing arrays up in their other systems even now, bet you anything.”
“Which makes their ships effectively unboardable, and their systems unapproachable.”
“Which makes us…”
Powell slurped his tea. “…Aye.”
They sat in mutual worried silence for a few moments, before Powell chugged the whole hot drink like it was a shot of liquid courage and set it down with a sharp tap.
“Right. That’s not going to fookin’ happen. Not on my watch. I didn’t build up the best fookin’ team o’ special operators in galactic history just for every man jack of ‘em to get mothballed. And I will not let Blaczynski’s death be the sad full stop that ends us on an anticlimax.”
“There’s still much we don’t know,” Costello pointed out, warming his hands on his mug rather than drinking. “Neither of us know anything about forcefields, really. We don’t know what the real limitations are. I mean…why has nobody ever done something like this before? Why didn’t we think to? What don’t you and I know?”
“Akiyama’s your man to ask there. And you know what? I reckon he’ll be glad for somethin’ to think about.”
“Is… this a concern to bother the men with? Now?”
“Not right now, no. But soon. Otherwise we’ll be comin’ to them in a few months with a bolt from the blue like ‘Sorry lads, Brass is pullin’ the plug. Nice workin’ with you.’ We’ll stand down, we’ll mourn, but then? Then we’ll keep doin’ what we do. We’ll prepare for the worst this galaxy has, so we can fookin’ smash it.”
Despite his sombre mood, Costello found a slight inspired smile pulling at his mouth. “…We’ll have Daar’s backing, I’m sure.”
“Don’t knock that. It might be that being ‘bestest friends’ with a man who is effectively the god-emperor of the Deathworlders is what saves us all.”
“I can live with that.”
“Aye.” Powell stood and cleaned his mug. ““In the meantime, send a message to Mears and have him schedule everyone. Possibly a group session too, if he feels that’s appropriate. Then try an’ get some sleep.”
“No promises on that last one,” Costello replied. “But I already drafted the message.”
“Cheers.” Powell sat down on his cot. “…I’m gonna try an’ get some kip.”
“Yeah.” Costello turned out the light, lay on his own cot, wrapped himself up in his blanket, and put his head down.
He stared at the ceiling in the dark. And somehow, in a confused way that left him with no idea whether he’d actually slept or not, night transitioned into morning. It certainly didn’t feel like six hours until the change of watch sounded to rouse him…
And he didn’t feel rested at all.
Journal of Keeper Ukusevi, Librarian of the Old-Bent-Leg Archives 20th hour of the 206th day of the 417th year of Punishment.
I met two of these “Humans” at last. A tall one, rather like a librarian in manner himself, and a short one, who was very much the opposite of a librarian, really.
In appearance, they are even less like us than these Gao. The Gao at least have fur, and proper ears. A Human is… not hairless, but sparsely furred at best. You can see their bare skin, behind the air masks they wear to endure the poisons. And when they took them off to show their faces…
I don’t know what to make of them. The short one seems like a man of violence, but the tall one…
He translated his names for me. He has two: The Almighty Judges Me, and Pain. Dan-yel Hurt. I don’t know what to make of that, exactly. Especially not in light of the things we spoke about.
But then again, I haven’t known what to make of things for some days now, so why should that change? So I opted for honesty, and told him—he assured me that I could know him as “Dan-yel” for convenience—just how confused I am.
It took rather a long time. He listens well, and I could see him filing it all away in his mind, just like I do. He’s a librarian and Keeper of his people, no doubt.
His guard had two names as well. The first was also Dan-yel, but the second meant “one who owns and works a farm.” Heff. It seemed appropriate for him, as he didn’t say much but he watched everyone and everything with an intense, unyielding gaze.
I am told that this name Dan-yel is quite common in their culture. In that regard, I think we may already have a little more in common with these Humans than with the Gao. Garaaf has so far always been diplomatic, whenever the question of the Almighty and His role in my people’s fate and lives came up. He has demurred, and given cautious answers.
He is a Nonbeliever, it seems obvious. And, I think, that is normal for his people.
The fact that this name “The Almighty Judges Me” is allegedly common among Humans tells me much about them. When I said as much, Heff showed me a small icon he wore: A vertical cross, with the intersection well above the midpoint. It apparently represents the suffering, death, and eventual resurrection the Son of God endured to save their people from eternal damnation; an altogether strange idea, but…
…The concept of resurrection stood out. Amid all the strangeness, that is the thought that I cannot let go of. To pass through the fires of unimaginable hardship and suffering, and then to emerge reborn on the far side, into a new life?
Garaaf, from what I know of his past, and from what he has said, views hardship as something to weather stoically. He describes others as having ‘broken’ around him, while he alone was able to endure. And I think that may be where I find him difficult. He is the sort of man who would stand firm and unchanging even when the Almighty pushes him to adapt. I cannot imagine him being reborn and resurrected. Hardened, yes… But not changed.
I do not yet know about Hurt and Heff. I felt a greater resonance with what they described, but…
But I have only just met them.
It was a long conversation, and I transcribed as much of it as I could, entering it into my archives. I will see how much should go in the Chant tomorrow, once I have had time to reflect and sleep. It has been a long day, and my brain aches from thinking.
But I think I am beginning to see answers to my questions.
Date Point:16y11m6d AV
Starship Destroying Fury, Mordor system
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
It was only Daar’s unbreakable discipline that kept him afloat. All he wanted to do was rip and tear and pillage and destroy, over and over again, endlessly, until everything was a haze of red and he’d stacked a pile of corpses big enough to avenge…fuckin’ everyone.
But Daar couldn’t do that. He was the Great Father. He couldn’t enact revenge for its own sake. His actions demanded purpose for more than himself. He could only act on behalf of the Gao.
There could be no weakness. Only strength.
Nothing in his demeanor, his tone, his posture or his bearing could ever betray any hint of softness. His body, his words, his every action had to be perfectly fatherly and perfectly unyielding, every single time no matter where he was or who he was with. Any affection or playfulness with almost anyone had to be in that context, it could never be otherwise. Nothing could hint to any conflict of purpose. Daar had to radiate confidence and strength at all times. He could never waver. He could never show the slightest hint of hesitation, to anyone, ever. If he did, if his people noticed… the Gao’s willpower could collapse like a wet tissue.
He had never felt such blinding, all-consuming rage. And that could not be allowed.
No weakness. Only strength.
So, Daar did what he had to do. He allowed himself to mourn in private. First stoically with the HEAT, and then more personally with Regaari, the single deepest friendship of his life. Daar saw to their medical needs before the two of them fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
He woke in the ship’s early hours, as was his well-trained habit. Then he remembered what he saw. One of his Brothers, an incredibly rare, talented, quirky and beautiful man he was proud to call a friend…peeled apart like a gods-damned onion. The rage and pain returned manyfold.
Most of the time, strength was more of an ideal or a metaphor than a hard requirement. Oh, he prided himself in being a unwavering, stoic father for the whole of the Gao, and of course he was proud of having the most hugest bestest muscles of anyone. But the one time his real strength had been called upon…He, the fastest, hardest, strongest, toughest damned critter in the entire fuckin’ galaxy, a ‘Back good enough to crush tank-Hunters in his paws, he against whom nobody could stand…failed. He failed because all his vast strength was useless against a star-powered forcefield suite. None of his power in any sense of the term could have helped.
And someone he dearly loved had died horribly because of that. Because of his weakness in the face of a clever, determined foe. Because in the rush to destroy the superweapon, he had not the wit to see what else might be done with it. He were too gods-damned focused on the objective and not nearly fuckin’ enough on how to achieve it! They should have just boarded, dropped a huge fuckin’ nuke, and left immediately! In, out, a minute tops! Why the in the balls-licking fuck did they insist on doing what they always did!? Did nobody in either his or the Human’s staff think that maybe, just maybe a fuckin’ forcefield ship in space might possibly have something nasty in store? Were they afraid to voice objections? Did nobody think in time?
Daar certainly hadn’t, and he was inarguably one of the most intelligent people alive, too! And a Master of fuckin’ War! What in the ever-lovin’ Keedafuckin’ hells were they actually fighting?!
Daar was far beyond enraged. He was pissed. At everything. But mostly, at himself.
Even the simple act of thumping over to his wash basin had him unconsciously clawing gouges in the steel decking, which he only noticed when one of the floorplates finally squealed. He looked down and growled at such a pathetic lack of discipline. A brownfur’s claws naturally wanted to sit partially extended to better grip into the ground. Hard surfaces normally caused them to retract, but these days his grip was so fierce, if he wasn’t actively holding them back…
Unacceptable. With the level of political and physical power he wielded, losing control of himself like that for even a moment could have serious consequences. He couldn’t lead anyone in such a state. Some part of him, the part insisting at the edge of the blood-haze that he act like a Gao worthy of his station, slapped him inside his own head and told him to get a fuckin’ grip.
No weakness. Only strength.
There was only one thing to do. Daar growled an update to his aide then thumped off to his gym. He spent many strenuous hours there, exorcising his rage as best he could. He broke a whole bunch of things, tied some other things into knots, crushed yet more in his paws. Burned out the gravity plating, too. By the time he was done, his body was so pumped up, lathered up, and amped up, he felt powerful and fit to fuckin’ burst if he pushed himself even the tiniest bit further. Combined with Adam’s coaching and all the sports science available, Daar would be feeling like that until he finally let himself let go, and that might end up being…well, never.
Just like his soul.
His personal aide knew his moods well and didn’t even bother to comment like he usually did. Instead, Tiyun silently picked up the good brush and set to work, slicking all the copious lather down through Daar’s fur. No point in all that exertion if Daar didn’t look the part, after all. It was about more than his ego. Daar represented an ideal for the Gao to strive toward in all dimensions of his being, even if certain allowances had to be made for personality; he was no anodyne king. He had to be real. All of that could add up to a hell of a burden, but that task was one he could never fail. His darker feelings must have been bleeding through though, because while Tiyun wasn’t usually much perturbed by Daar in any of his moods…
Just then, Tiyun smelled of awe. And fear. And melancholy. But mostly fear.
Daar shook his neck out and asked as politely as he could, “How do I look?”
Tiyun answered with the meekest voice Daar had ever heard him use. “…Mighty, My Father.”
Daar almost keened at that. Tiyun was one of the last people he wanted to scare, but there wasn’t any way around it. Daar was the creature he was, and he wouldn’t be the Great Father if he was anything else. Even if he couldn’t save a friend.
No weakness. Only strength.
He took a couple of calming breaths, and tried to find a serene place from which he could work his retribution. He knew he wasn’t going to find it on the spot, but sometimes the journey itself was worth the effort. A little trickle of calm found its way into his soul. It was an icy calm, a place from which Daar would do very much indeed to avenge Blaczynski and all the rest. It wasn’t what Sister Shoo would consider ideal, but…serenity didn’t need to mean peaceful.
“Thank you, Tiyun.” He gave a slight nod of thankfulness. ”Take the rest of the day off, ‘kay?”
“Yes, My Father.” There wasn’t even a hint of protest in his tone. No matter. It was late afternoon by then, and Tiyun deserved a break. If he was maybe a bit eager to get out of Daar’s presence…well…
Daar could hardly blame him. No. Weakness. Only strength.
Enough self-indulgence. His staff was of course competent and wise, and could handily manage affairs in his absence, but Daar had a war to win. They would need guidance and direction; it was his will that caused all this, after all. Daar growled to himself and prowled purposely down the corridors of his ship, the deck shuddering underpaw and announcing his presence before his heavy musk ever could. He resumed command of the war effort from his battle room.
The room went dead silent when he prowled in. Many even backed away from him from wherever they were standing. He ignored that and commanded his staff, “Brief me.”
They did. Daar called a meeting of his generals. Plans were made and approved. Things were set into motion. Daar praised as appropriate, gently educated on the finer points of a thing here and there, and learned considerably more in return. He made sure to convey that, too.
Top of the list of things to learn was how they had lost the element of surprise. Daar was pretty sure they either tipped their hand too early, or the Alpha-of-Alphas had anticipated a boarding action, and successfully predicted their tactical approach. Either seemed likely, and frankly: there wasn’t much they could have done differently. Fire a gigaton-class nuke again, maybe…
Calm, collected. Cold. An ideal he needed. Think the problem through, don’t spend anger where it would be fruitless. There could be no weakness, especially not of reason. Only strength.
With his generals and staff directed, encouraged, and productively wielding their competence toward the goal, Daar went around to each of them, thanked them for their understanding, and left them to their work.
The implications of all of this were going to have serious repercussions. This new Alpha-of-Alphas possessed considerably greater tactical acumen than his predecessor. He’d weaponized forcefields in a novel way that had previously been functionally impossible on a anything but an (obviously) purpose-built vessel…but having shown the terrible possibilities when insanely powerful fields could be wielded internally…
HEAT was grounded until they knew more, and could nullify or counter the threat. So was First Fang. Balls, depending on just how much could be done with less powerful fields…
The rage hadn’t left him. At all. In fact it had only grown worse, but he was a predictable ‘Back and pushing his body to the brink seemed to help contain it a bit. Time for round two. He sent a message to Regaari and more or less commanded him to come train. Daar needed to be forceful because Regaari was doing what he always did in terrible personal tragedies. He tried to suffer his hurts alone, as if none of his cousins should be burdened by his pain. Noble, but…
…The little genius was really, really balls-damned stupid about these sorts of things. So, Daar did what a brownie did best: he dragged the tough lil’ guy back to the gym and more or less beat the crap out of him. Nowadays that took a long damn while too, which was honestly impressive, but this wasn’t really playful like it would normally be. It was more…needful. Regaari needed someone who could take the worst he could give and egg him on to give even more. Daar took it, and even gained a neat lil’ scar or two. Regaari also needed to remember that he wasn’t a one-man Army. Daar… reminded him of that point. And got his own frustrations out, too.
Besides. Grim though they were, it wasn’t like they didn’t enjoy it. There was just something satisfying about a good fight, about breaking the rest of the gym with his most bestest cousin. Those barbells looked better in a bow-tie, anyway. Regaari didn’t have that kind of brawn, but that was okay. He was a good spotter and knew the iron game as well as anyone these days.
Dreamless sleep was so much easier when a man was dead exhausted. Once they were both running on fumes, they ate big, cooled down, curled up together and passed right the fuck out.
The next morning they ate again, recovered, got in one last quick workout, then took a shuttle down to Mordor’s surface. It was time to take the field and exterminate the Hunter infestation. But something much more difficult had to be done first.
No weakness. Only strength. The strength to crush evil.
They lined up on Caledonia’s deployment deck, Gaoian and Human alike. They kept their backs straight and their eyes open, even filled with tears, as a coffin draped in red-and-white stripes and a blue field of stars proceeded along the length of the deck and was laid, reverently, on the jump array.
A Gaoian would have had a pyre, there on the world he died to liberate. Daar would have had the finest, hardest, most fragrant and expensive wood jumped in to honor him… but Blaczynski had been Human, and Humans went home, because to them, home was much, much more than just a place to sleep, or a place to keep their things. Home was where their soul lived.
Somehow, that black flash and a thump were harder to bear than lighting a pyre would have been. It felt too abrupt, to Daar. He vowed two things, in its aftermath:
First, that he would be there when the time came to honor Blaczynski properly.
And second… that the payback to come would only be the beginning.
++End Chapter 63++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 64: “Survive”