Chapter 70: Death Eye, part 2
Date Point: 17y8m1w1d AV
Clan Bronzefur transport ship, Gorai system
Uriigo, Champion of Clan Bronzefur
The greater galaxy might be on lockdown, with Hunter raids being reported at a multiple of their usual rate, but Gaoian space was off-limits to them. On that much, at least, Uriigo felt a degree of second-hand pride. The Grand Army, Clans One-Fang and Fireclaw kicked Hunter tail so hard that they rarely even sniffed at Gaoian borders, never mind trying an actual raid. They knew how it would end.
Balls, the only reason they were hittin’ everywhere else so hard was ‘cuz that was where the Gao weren’t.
So, the three-day FTL journey from Gao to Gorai was safe. But Uriigo would have made the trip anyway. He had questions that needed answering, and he needed them answered fast. In fact, there was no such thing as fast enough where these particular questions were concerned.
Clan Whitecrest had the Great Father’s ear and favor more than almost any other Clan except Stoneback and Highmountain, and they were loyal. But Whitecrests, according to Grandfather Sheeyo, had a less…straightforward idea of what loyalty meant than some other Clans did. They looked out for Daar, they tried to make his world a little easier. They tried to spare him from the most terrible of his duties.
Daar hadn’t shirked from slaughtering Champions before, right there at the conclave table. There were times when Uriigo’s imagination made the flagstones where he stood feel sticky with his predecessor’s phantom blood. Times when he felt dreadfully certain that there weren’t nobody, not even Thurrsto, who’d escape that fate if the Great Father deemed it necessary. He ruled, in part, by fear.
But, Uriigo was satisfied, he didn’t want to. So when Sheeyo had gently pulled Uriigo aside a few days ago an’ dropped some dark hints about a Champion’s duty to really know everything about his Clan’s doings, even on the colony worlds, and fretted about the Great Father’s darker duties…
Uriigo had taken the hint. He’d got on a Clan shuttle to Gorai as quickly as he could.
He didn’t know more than that, and Sheeyo would have been a fool to say more than he did. If there was somethin’ so nefarious goin’ on with Clan Bronzefur on Gorai, even hintin’ at it to the Bronzefur champion was…well, a test. To see what he’d do.
And Uriigo had no idea if he was passing that test.
He didn’t even know what it might be exactly, but his brain was spinnin’ with possibilities and none of ‘em were good. Gorai was slowly bein’ reclaimed from the biodrones, region by region. Balls, every unit in the Grand Army served on Gorai at some point, in the hopes that someday they’d have a planet worth usin’ again. But Gorai was far enough from Gao ‘fer some real bad Keeda mischief to happen.
Bad Keeda mischief involving biodrones? And potentially his Clan? Uriigo could almost feel the fangs in his throat already.
He fretted all the way down to the ground.
Date Point: 17y8m1w1d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, docked at Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“Fuck me, Bruuk, you look like death warmed up. I thought Gao didn’t get hangovers?”
Bruuk uttered an irritable growl. “Not from ethanol we don’t.” He poured himself across the common lounge table with a whimper. “I don’t know what was in that shit I drank yesterday, but Keeda’s cock…”
“Let this be a lesson to you about the dangers of alien booze,” Ian grinned at the surly look Bruuk shot him, and delivered his patented hangover cure. “Here. Fruit juice, chocolate and painkillers.”
Bruuk sniffed at the offered bar. “…What’s that?”
“Snickers bar. Best hangover cure in the universe, trust me.”
“Those pills smell like ibuprofen.”
“Ayup. Eight hundred milligrams.”
“That much?! I thought—”
“Gaoians can handle it, especially big dumb lads like you…”
Bruuk shrugged, tore the end off the bar then thumbed one of the tablets into it. One of the oddities of the Gaoian mouth structure was, swallowing pills and tablets wasn’t easy for them. They needed it tucked away inside something. He smacked and chomped on the chocolate for a second, made an appreciative grunt, and gulped it down hard before lapping at the fruit juice.
Ian left him to it and prepared his own breakfast. He was having an odd time adapting to the vegan diet that most of the crew lived on. In theory, they didn’t object to him having eggs for breakfast. In practice, the nearest eggs were a few hundred light years away. He was making do with gram flour pancakes, muesli, porridge, soy milk and fruit compote, but sometimes…
Bruuk unknowingly echoed his thoughts with a groan as he laid his chin on the table. “….Fuuck…balls, I need some protein…”
“Uh…we have some firm tofu, I think.”
“Fuck that. I need something real.” Bruuk looked up from the table and sniffed around conspiratorially. “…Can you keep a small secret?”
Wilde knew instantly this was a confidence of utmost importance. “They’ll need to kill me first.”
Bruuk chittered wearily, then nodded. “Go to hold three, and look behind the bulk crate of veg I have. There’s a stasis unit hiding there with a warning sticker on it.”
It turned out to be bacon. Dry-cure, smoked streaky bacon. And eggs. Ian couldn’t help himself as he considered the small trove: the grin that spread across his face wasn’t out of relief or hunger, it was knowing he’d made a firm friend in Bruuk if he was willing to share this treasure with him.
Lucky that they were the ship’s early risers, too. It gave him time to cook up a proper breakfast and clean everything sufficiently to hide the evidence. By the time footsteps out on the deck heralded somebody else’s arrival, their secret was mostly safe.
Not that there was much he could do about the smell.
The new arrival was Morwk, who paused in the doorway to sniff the air uncertainly.
“…What is that? It smells delicious!” he stalked into the room and sat down.
“Just breakfast,” Ian told him. He somehow managed to suppress his smirk.
“Hmm. Almost makes me envy you two for how much you can eat…ah, juice.” Morwk grabbed himself a glass of orange juice and sat down.
“How’s our guest?” Bruuk asked him.
“Safely in stasis, and staying there until the Clan takes him. Can’t have him spreading DNA all over the ship if the House comes to do another inspection…”
“Probably for the best with that wound anyway.”
Ian nodded. Rythweth had deployed a fucking hardcore defence mechanism, in that he had a fusion sword literally implanted in the bones of his forearm. Deploying it had sliced and seared the skin all down that arm, and only the careful placement and alignment of the blade had made it possible for him to do that and still have a working arm afterwards.
Still, it was a wound. And he’d gone quite a long time with no better medical attention than he’d been able to give himself. The ship’s small but well-equipped medical bay could probably handle it, but better to just leave him outside the normal flow of time.
“…How long until we leave?” he asked.
“That’s one for the shipmaster.”
Ian finished putting the cooking utensils away and made himself an instant coffee. Bruuk’s nose twitched at the scent of it. “What’s stopping us from just…going?”
“The House knows who we work for,” Morwk explained. “Leaving too hastily will arouse suspicion. Lingering too long will make them nervous. Now that our guest is aboard, I think we will take on cargo and behave like just another freighter. And if they try to take this ship apart down to the last rivet…”
Ian sipped his coffee, then sat down. “Then that’s what Bruuk an’ I are for.”
Ian didn’t even know where the smuggling compartment was exactly. There were more than a few on the ship, and Morwk hadn’t yet told him how to access them all, but he had told him a lot about them. Clan Whitecrest had installed them, shielded them with clever sensor-shadowing equipment and materials so that from the outside they’d appear to be a perfectly standard bit of the ship. A backup air processor (or, for all Ian knew, maybe their main air processor was actually a stash and they were all living on the secondary.) A water filter, a power conduit, an engine…
Morwk and Trrrk’k both seemed confident that so long as Rythweth was safely inside one, he was impossible to find unless the House really did junk the whole ship. Which they couldn’t legally do to somebody else’s property.
Meaning that any attempt to do so would be illegal. Meaning that owning corporation’s licensed security—Ian and Bruuk—would be authorized in using all necessary force to prevent it.
The morning was reserved for meetings, and the skipper made short work of them, once he’d meandered down to the galley for his morning drink. Once they were done and out of the way, once all the others had cleared out and gone back to their respective duties, Ian sighed to himself and attended to his real job for the day.
Bruuk needed to be properly Motivated. Couldn’t let something as simple as a crippling hangover get in the way of the mission, after all.
“Get up, big guy. We have our morning routine to do.”
Bruuk groaned plaintively. “Fuck that, I ain’t working out with bacon and eggs in my belly.”
“Yes you are, mate. Our job is to be fit and ready.”
“My job today is going to be chugging water and rehydration salts. I’ve never been so thirsty…”
“Downing a gallon of straight rocket fuel will do that to you, yeah.” Ian chuckled and held out a hand to help him stand. “No excuses. Come on, moving will make it pass faster, too.”
“Not my first rodeo, mate. Come on. Let’s go sweat the rest of that poison out.”
Of course, Ian didn’t tell him it would also make it worse, but that was all part of the experience, really. One needed to pay for their fun. And for his part…Well, it was a chance to not worry. They weren’t free and clear yet. Best to be as ready as possible.
For whatever happened next.
Date Point: 17y8m1w1d AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“Matching DNA detected. Probability of fugitive occupation: certain”
One step behind again. Eriwyth would have been proud, if it wasn’t so frustrating, or so urgent.
Rytweth was tenacious, that much was certain. He’d lasted a good long time, here in this dank, forgotten corner of the station, sleeping on trash and eating the cheapest food. There was a small pile of packaging in the corner that suggested he’d lived here for some time.
And yet…he’d moved on.
“Most recent occupation?”
“Within two days.”
Eriwyth only maintained her composure through an effort of sheer will. The aliens. The ship. Two days. There was no doubt in her mind what had happened, and when…but how? What had she missed? What angle hadn’t she covered? Every container onto and off that ship was searched, every airlock monitored, a permanent watch kept out for spacesuits coming and going. No ship docked at Kwmrwta-Wrnwm had ever been so closely scrutinized, and yet somehow…
Well, that settled it. The ship couldn’t be allowed to leave Kwmbwrw space. She was already legally blocking their access to the station’s comms synchronizer and suppressing their FTL wake comms thanks to an interstellar security treaty, and the inspection teams had turned up no sign of a wormhole router or any other onboard FTL communications. So the knowledge in Rythweth’s head was probably still not in Gaoian paws.
She needed it to remain that way. And she needed sufficient deniability to cover the House’s ass in the Dominion council. In theory, smuggling a bomb on board in one of the isotainers, crippling the ship, then having a pair of House ships “respond to a vessel in distress” and then “report that it was sadly lost with all hands” would be straightforward, but the Gao wouldn’t buy it. And they had enough clout and goodwill in the Council to push right through the House’s denials.
What did that leave?
“…Drone. Show me my favors list.”
The drone swooped down in front of her and deployed its holographic emitter, showing off a small and carefully curated file she’d built up over a long and difficult career. She perused it for a second, scratching her toes impatiently on the deck plating as she read…
…and found what she was looking for, halfway down. Yes. Perfect. She turned and strode out toward her vehicle. She had a call to make.
And a bomb to plant.
Date Point: 17y8m1w1d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, docked at Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Bruuk, workin’ out his aggression
Clobberin’ on Wild felt extra good today, because anyone who would willingly put a friend through that much agony deserved every bit of payback they got. Not once in all his years of lifting had Bruuk experienced such a mercilessly painful bout of training.
Though he did have to admit, smashing several of his personal records felt good as balls. But smushing Wild on the mat? That felt way more better.
At least the alcohol was out of his system, now. And given the miracles of modern medicine…
“Feelin’ better, big guy?” Wild grinned up at him from his prone position on the mat.
Bruuk settled a bit more weight across Wild’s hips, earning a chuckling groan of pain. “I dunno. Comfortable down there?”
“Not with your fat arse on top.”
Bruuk chittered and rolled off, but kept the big Human thoroughly locked up in a crushing leg pin. The gods-damn trickster. Bruuk was tired. Tired in the best way. Wild had a knack of pushing him just a little further each time they trained, and Bruuk found himself looking forward to their daily sessions with a certain tail-wagging enthusiasm he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“You knew how bad I’d hurt, didn’t you? What do you Humans call it? ‘Hanging over?’” Bruuk squeezed his thick legs together a little tighter, just to remind Wild who was boss right now.
“Hnngh… Hangover, mate. And I specifically said it would be over quick.” He grinned evilly, “I didn’t say a thing about how it would feel.”
“Ugh.” Bruuk relented and let go of him. “Maybe you shoulda been recruited by Clan Straightshield instead. That’s lawyer thinking.”
“Oof. Mate, that’s the most painful thing you’ve done to me all day…” Wild chuckled.
Bruuk chittered and flopped over onto his back, doing his bestest to stretch out. “Gotta…pay you back, I guess.” He was suddenly feeling un-clever and the floor felt so nice…
The energy cliff. He’d learned in his training with Wild that, for Humans, that cliff was very far away, and it took Keeda’s own work to even approach it. Bruuk could expend a lot more effort much more quickly than Wild, but he could just keep going. Getting to his level was very doable—Wild said so, anyway—but it would take a long time and a lot of pain.
Well, that was something for them to do during deep space flight, anyway. They spent a long moment letting their hearts slow down, saying nothing and catching up on air.
“Eat, re-hydrate, and do whatever you do for recovery. I’m guessing that’ll mean some Crue-G given your muscle mass. After that, we just…sit ready.”
Fair, really. Bruuk wobbled up to fourpaw and loped back to his room, mixed up some protein, took his medicine, and drank enough water to fill his belly. He took some rehydration salts too, since his fur felt almost crunchy from the mineral loss, even in a day laborer’s to-the-skin cut.
…He took a nice, frigid shower, too. No point smelling like Keeda’s armpit, after all.
He emerged from the blower cycle feeling pleasantly damp and much, much better. Whatever was in that alcohol he’d chugged had definitely done a number to him, but they’d accomplished the mission, and distracted the House while Moj did his thing.
Still. The scent of Robalin worry attracted him to poke his nose in on Dora’s little control blister as he ambled past. She was unusually quiet, no raucous Human pop music, no shrill singing. Instead she was sitting on her cone-shaped seat and considering her instruments, antennae waving gently back and forth above her head as she thought.
She jumped a little. She really musta been worried, ‘cuz normally Dora could see damn near behind her own head, and woulda seen him coming. She waved her left hand vaguely at him and scooted aside so he could see.
“Maybe? I don’t trust those House goons inspecting our cargo. They’ve had me on hold for nearly an hour, now.”
Bruuk duck-nodded and watched through her drone’s camera for a minute as a couple of stern Kwmbwrw in security harnesses stood guard outside one of their incoming isotainers.
“Not like they’re gonna find anything, is it? You already got Moj an’ that Rythweth guy aboard…”
“Yeah, but I still think there’s mischief going on.” She sighed and shook her head. “I just don’t know what.”
She sounded so uncharacteristically stressed that Bruuk just couldn’t take it. “Well…if whatever they’re doin’ is somethin’ you can’t find? Ain’t nobody gonna find it,” he said, loyally.
She laughed a little, then gave him an affectionate scratch behind the ear. He didn’t comment on what that would generally mean between Gaoians…and he managed to keep his leg still, too. “You should be careful, Bruuk. Or people are gonna start thinking you have a soft side.”
“Ain’t nothin’ soft ‘bout me! ‘Cept my fur. The Females love it!”
“Eh. Your charms are lost on me!” She laughed again, a little more convincingly this time, and stood. “…no sense in sitting here watching them, I guess. I’d better go tell Trrrk’k we’re stuck here.”
“They can’t hold us forever.”
“Nope! But we’re not running circles ‘round these guys, either…” she watched the feed for a while longer, then her hands darted over the controls, giving the drones a series of instructions. “I’ll…just make sure these containers sit in the back. Just in case.”
Bruuk nodded agreeably. “I’d better get cookin’. See ‘ya at dinner.”
As he turned away and got back to work, he did admit to feeling a lot better. Still a little tender between the ears maybe, but he didn’t feel poisoned any longer. In fact he felt ready to take on the day and whatever it contained.
Date Point: 17y8m1w2d AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“They accepted it?”
“They don’t really have an option. If they refuse the cargo, that just gives us a reason to detain them for longer. They are being…studiously perfect in their cargo manifest and procedures. The docks have scarcely had a more compliant ship.”
Eriwyth fidgeted with her possessions. She was leaving a lot behind to go out on this particular mission. Badges and clothing that indicated her rank, personal effects and weapons she felt quite vulnerable without. All had to be left behind, of course, but that didn’t stop her from fretting.
“This would, of course, all be simpler if you simply allowed me to—” she began, for the hundredth time.
“I have made my thoughts quite clear, girl.” the Grandmatriarch’s tone was severe. “The Great Game, at its highest level, rests on certain conventions. Certain things that are done, and not done. I understand why you have made your request, and in your position I might even be making the same. But my position permits me to see why it would be a mistake.”
“If they get back to the Gao with Rythweth…”
“I am aware.” Henenwgwyr gave her daughter a stern look. “It falls to you to ensure that they do not, without bringing similar consequences down upon us from other sources. The Gao are not the only danger; do not allow your focus to narrow your awareness.”
Henenwgwyr’s stern expression did not soften for a few heartbeats, but then it did, became more motherly and warm.
“I do have a small gift for you, however. Something to help ensure the success of your mission.” She handed over a small item, and Eriwyth’s nearby tablet pinged as it received a message. “A…hm…a long-term investment is bearing some unexpected fruit today.”
Eriwyth picked up the tablet and studied the message. Her pulse skipped a step.
“…We are certain of this?”
“Entirely. Commit those words to memory, my girl. Together with that—” she indicated the item in Eriwyth’s hand, ”—they should neutralize your worst problem rather effectively.”
Wgwyr gave her a pleased look. “Anything for my favored daughter. Now…I, of course, was never here.”
“Play the game well, and win.”
The Grandmatriarch departed, and Eriwyth turned the little glass vial she’d been handed over delicately in her fingers before pocketing it. She found herself conflicted between frustration that this particular secret had been kept from her, and gratification that her mother still played the game at a higher and better level than any other. Rythweth would surely not see this one coming.
She bustled to collect her things. She had a ship to board.
Date Point: 17y8m1w2d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, docked at Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
The way the docking clamps made the hull ring with a clung sound as they let go was a little jarring, but Ian knew it was normal. Still…he’d almost not been expecting to hear it. A faint powerful thrum through the hull signalled the kinetic engines powering up and backing them out of Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm. They were free.
Beside him, Trrrk’k puffed his pipe and made a probably pleased crackling sound. “Good.”
“There’s no way they let us go that easy.”
“No. They are not stupid. Interspecies law compelled them back at the station, but…”
“…But out in the black, away from any witnesses, that’s a different matter,” Ian finished. “…The Clan’s upgrades to this baby had better be pretty bloody special.”
“We shall see, I suppose.”
He stayed on the bridge regardless, waiting for the other shoe to drop…though he wound up waiting a long time.
They warped out of system without incident. It was four days back to the Gaoian border. Eventually, he went to bed and slept fitfully. It was the kind of half-sleep he’d got used to catching in forward bases while waiting for the shooting to start, rather than a good night’s sleep, but it kept him functional.
Exercise over the following day was little more than maintenance work, enough to keep him and Bruuk primed and ready but rested. By dinnertime, the hours of things going normally were grating on his nerves.
He helped Bruuk fix their food. It was somewhat cramped even in the spacious kitchen, owing to the bear-like cook constantly bustling to and fro without any warning and apparent dire urgency. Food was apparently a thing that had to be rushed.
Moj seemed as phlegmatic as ever. With the ship in warp, his piloting skills were redundant for the time being, so he was hanging out wherever he could get a good conversation, and right now, it seemed, that was the lounge. “About to explode, you. Are deathworlders always so tense-busy when hardship is coming? Wasted energy, seems like.”
“I’d rather be alert and on my toes than wrong-footed, mate,” Ian replied, finally deciding he should just get out of Bruuk’s way.
Moj looked down at Ian’s feet. “…On your toes means…?”
“Uh…Poised. Ready to move quickly in any direction. Probably because we tend to stand, uh, on our toes if we’re on edge, I guess.” Ian looked down. “…Like I’m doing right now, actually.”
“Should drop your heels. Take a deep breath. Good that you’re ready to fight, but…”
“Wasted energy. You’re right.” Ian sighed and followed Moj’s suggestion. He rocked back, dropped his feet flat to the ground, felt the faint vibration through his soles and took a long, slow inhalation through his nose, closing his eyes as he did so.
Moj clapped him familiarly on the shoulder when he opened them again. “Better?”
Ian sat down and grabbed a glass of water, raising a hand to waggle his fingers in a little wave over his shoulder as Morwk and Dora joined them. “Hard to relax when you know you’re being hunted,” he said.
“True.” Morwk said, sitting down.
“Yeah-huh,” Dora agreed. She went to grab a fresh hot bread roll from the batch that Bruuk had just set on the counter, only for him to flick his teatowel at her hand. “Ow!”
“Wait ‘fer erryone else!”
“Okay, okay. Grumpy Yogi…”
Ian snrrked. And he’d dared to think he’d reached the bottom of all the human pop-culture Dora was familiar with. But no: add Hanna-Barbera to the list…
“You look more relaxed,” she commented as she sat. The door opened as she did so, admitting the remainder of the crew.
“The shit’s gonna hit the fan at some point love, but…no sense in driving myself up the wall, hey?”
Bruuk chittered quietly in the background while he continued his cookery bustle.
“Shit? Fan?” Urgug pulsed a nauseated hue. “That sounds…messy and disgusting.”
“Yup. Good metaphor, ain’t it?”
“Nah,” Bruuk chimed in as he ladeled some sort of curry-like concoction into a serving pot. “All I can imagine is the smell.”
“And the sound,” Moj added, fervently. “Good metaphor.”
“Perhaps we could have fewer scatalogical analogies at the dining table, however?” Trrrk’k requested, lowering himself onto his bench seat.
“Yup! Eat.” Bruuk delivered the evening’s meal to table looking pleased with himself. Ian noted that he handed Dora a bread roll first. “This is a Gaoian-style curry, one of the few that’s strictly vegan. I had to use chickpeas instead of kiri beans, but the two smell so much alike it works pretty good I think!”
To Ian, it looked and smelled like a palak dhal. He grabbed a bread roll and broke it in half. “Gaoians have vegan cuisine?”
“…Not really, no. We’re obligate carnivores, so vegan dishes are because we like the taste, or to pad out something else. Both, in this case. Also it keeps a good long while.”
“Thank you,” Morwk said. “Incidentally, you two don’t need to hide your meat supply. We all know about it. Especially after the House goons tore that bay apart and asked us about the dismembered animals in storage.”
Ian and Bruuk glanced at each other. “…Figgered it’d be polite to keep it on the down-low,” the Gaoian explained after a moment.
“Appreciated, but this is a multi-species crew,” Trrrk’k reminded him. “If you two require meat, we understand.”
“Well,” Ian offered, “humans can function on a carefully planned vegan diet…but thank you. Eggs are basically the perfect food for us.”
“And us,” Bruuk chimed in.
“Just please do not cross-contaminate, yes?” Urgug requested fervently.
“Deal.” Bruuk sat down.
They ate. For an hour or so, Ian got to totally forget the stress and tension, or the sword unquestionably dangling somewhere overhead. Urgug seemed to have relaxed a little, and regaled them with a long-winded but genuinely funny anecdote about his time at the Guvnurag equivalent of university, when he’d quite misread one of his classmate’s emotions. Apparently she’d gone very orange whenever he entered the room in the company of his best friend, and it took four failed attempts to set up a date between them before Urgug had finally figured out she was glowing for him.
As it turned out, Morwk was the only “family man” among them, estranged from his partner and children though he was. Trrrk’k’s people were solitary by nature, Urgug was in the prime of life by Guvnurag standards and had plenty of time ahead of him before the biological clock started counting down. The list of Robalin lesbians fortunate enough to escape the Supremacy’s atrocities was so tiny that Dora had basically resigned herself to single life, Ian already knew Bruuk’s sad story, and Moj was…well, Moj was Moj. He simply shrugged the question off as though it was irrelevant.
“What about you?” Dora asked. “Why us and not finding some nice sturdy Human gal?”
Ian took a moment to mop up the last of his sauce with the last of his bread as he thought about his reasons. “I think…Look, fact is, life for Humanity’s a bit bloody precarious right now. We’ve got at least two old and powerful alien empires who’d like to see us extinct,” he said. “If I can, I want to be doing everything I can to stop that from happening. Having kids would be nice, but I never met the right lass and even if I did…I dunno. I wouldn’t want to leave my kids to grow up without me. I’d have to quit the fight, and I’m not ready for that yet.”
Variants on the theme of a nod bobbed around the table, and he stood to clean up.
“…Hey, I hate to burst the happy bubble…” he ventured after a minute. “But I have a question.”
“By all means,” Trrrk’k offered.
“We know the House is lettin’ us go. They coulda snuck anything into one of those isotainers…”
“Probably did!” Dora chirped.
“So shouldn’t we just dump cargo? We’re a freighter second, aren’t we? Doesn’t the mission take precedence over the cargo run?”
“It would,” Morwk said, in a strained tone, “but…”
“But you don’t just dump that many isotainers,” Dora took over for him. “Even if I just had the drones tear them off the rack and throw them away, it’d still take hours, and we can’t do it at warp.”
“Their mass content would be converted to hard radiation the instant they crossed our warp field’s event horizon,” Morwk explained.
“…And nobody has ever weaponized this?”
“Inward-pointing. From the outside, it’s just a big neutrino burst, totally harmless.”
“Cargo racks have a lot of redundancies to make sure the containers can’t come loose,” Dora added. “I literally can’t eject cargo while the warp engine is powered.”
“…And what happens if, say, a bomb goes off in the racks while we’re at warp?”
“Our radiation shielding can protect us from small fragments leaving the warp field,” Morwk said. “And the circuit breakers on the warp drive are wired straight into damage control. If we take any significant structural damage, we instantly drop to sub-light.”
Ian grimaced. “I don’t like this,” he said. “Call me paranoid, but if we have even a snowball’s chance in Hell of making it to the border without something going wrong then I’m—”
What followed wasn’t an explosion, or at least it wasn’t at all like any of the explosions Ian had been in proximity to in his life. A powerful sound—hard to describe, but maybe like the moment a nut fell into a turbocharger except louder and deeper—ripped right through the hull, ringing it like a cracked bell. The lights cut out instantly, stayed pitch dark for a second ,and when they came back up they were on Dominion standard emergency lighting, in eye-twisting blue that cast stark shadows on everything.
The gravity went, too. Ian snagged the table with his foot just before he drifted away from it. Morwk reached out his long tail and coiled it around one of Dora’s legs. Trrrk’k creaked in frustration as he didn’t quite manage to secure himself in time, and was left galloping futilely in mid-air until Moj reached out and helped him.
Bruuk just twisted in mid-air, bounced nimbly off Urgug, and pushed himself toward the door with a growl. “…You were sayin’?”
“That was no bomb, mate.”
“Sounded like…Ergh.” Morwk grimaced as he struggled to push himself toward the door too. He, Urgug, Dora and Trrrk’k were clearly not at home in freefall. “Like an emergency reactor shutdown. I’d better check it. Wild, do you mind–?”
“Mind what, mate?”
“Your ancestors were arboreal, you’re better suited for this than I am…”
“Oh!” Ian monkeyed across the room with a nod. “Right. Climb on.”
Kwmbwrw were all legs. When they stood up tall, they were tall, the longest sapient beings in the galaxy. Their actual torsos, though, were maybe about the size of a skinny whiskey barrel. Morwk turned out to be surprisingly low-mass once he’d grabbed on and wrapped himself around Ian’s shoulders and waist.
“Christ, you guys are just big daddy long-legs, hey?”
“Unlike Deathworlders, my people are not effectively balls of muscle and bone with some prehensile nubs poking out. Quickly, now.”
Actually, the hard part of making the trip down to their reactor core was taking it steady. The last thing Ian wanted to do was accidentally body-slam his passenger against a bulkhead. Bruuk followed behind, pouncing powerfully from wall to wall while using his claws for traction.
“So…what could knock out our reactor?” he asked.
“It’s a Waokai model seventy. Not a lot,” Morwk said. “Given the circumstances…a huge energy discharge through the hull?”
“A bomb by any other name, then,” Ian grunted as he worked the door’s manual release, heaved it open, then swung them both through. He shrugged Morwk off once they were inside and pulled himself up and out of the way toward the ceiling.
The lighting in engineering was a little less eye-gouging at least. The engineering bay itself was big, but densely packed by ET standards. Urgug would have had real trouble squeezing through between the assorted equipment racks and lockers, or around the inspection rails that encircled the power core on three levels.
For Ian, it was about as tight-packed as the kind of old-fashioned music shop that specialized in vinyl. The good ones. The largest open area was immediately opposite the door, where a crescent desk with the main engineering console on it sat under emergency lights, though all the monitors were dark.
Morwk buckled himself into his seat and then tapped experimentally on a touchscreen, eyes twisting back and forth in his version of a scowl.
“Talk to me, mate.”
“…Head up to level three and open the hatch with the large yellow triangle on it. You’ll find a lever inside. Pump it three times, then throw the switch.”
Ian nodded, grabbed a rail, and heaved himself aloft. The hatch in question was a little tricky to identify in the blue lighting, but that was probably why the sign on it was so obvious. His efforts in pumping and switch-flicking were rewarded with a thump of some kind from under the decking, and a relieved-sounding chirp from Morwk. A moment later, a faint breeze through his hair suggested the air processor was running again. When he glanced over the edge, he saw that Morwk’s terminal was booting up and behaving itself, and pretty soon was showing a diagnostic summary.
There was a lot of blue on that readout. A human console would have been covered in red.
“Well…the good news is we’re not completely dead in space,” Morwk reported after a few seconds.
“I take it the good news ends there?”
“More or less…Toothcrack, that’s a lot of charge on the hull. Like we flew through a nebula at half a megalight.”
Bruuk growled, “We need Keeda’s own de-gaussing, then.”
“And soon. This is dangerous.” Morwk sat back and scratched the top of his own head. “…I can’t risk bringing main power back up. Another discharge like that might fuse the reactor containment circuitry, and then we’d really be ass-fucked. We’re going to have to limp to a degaussing station on backup.”
“Is whatever did this still out on the hull?” Ian asked, floating back down to join them.
“Very likely, but there’s no way to get rid of it.” Morwk chortled bitterly. “You remember I said space travel is a great equalizer between deathworlders and the rest of us? If anyone, even you, went out there right now…well, it’d be painful, but quick.”
“And Dora’s drones got bug-zapped,” Bruuk added, reading off a different monitor.
Morwk waved a hand. “They’ll be fine. Probably just need to change the fuses. Which, I can’t do without being carbonized…” he touched the communicator in his ear, and Ian heard his voice echo through the rest of the ship. “Restoring gravity to essential sections in one minute. All crew, brace for gravity.”
Ian sighed gratefully when it turned out that engineering counted as an essential section. The gravity was pathetic, maybe half of Dominion standard at most, but at least it was something. Simian ancestry or not, freefall stopped being fun pretty quickly.
He spent the next several minutes performing odd jobs for Morwk, clambering up and down the chamber to inspect more hatches and lockers, take readings, eject and swap out a fuse the size of a phone. Down below, Morwk and Bruuk talked quietly as they ran through a checklist of some kind.
The final task was to swap out their ruined warp engine for a spare. Warp drives were absurdly small for what they did—the Krr’zkvik’s was about the size of an old laptop—but safely detaching them from their power supply was a multi-step process he was glad to have Morwk talk him through.
Eventually, they reached some kind of ‘good enough’ state where Morwk grumbled reluctantly to himself and restored power to the warp engine. That, as ever, was anticlimactic: A small light came on, and a cooling fan spun up. There was no sense of thrumming power, no heavy throbbing sounds or anything, just the near-silence of something working as it should.
“…Well, we ain’t goin’ fast,” Bruuk commented. “But we’re goin’.”
“Fast enough to get out of Kwmbwrw space?”
“Not this year.” Morwk sighed and pushed his chair away from the desk. It was magnetized so that it stuck to the floor, Ian realized. “…An explosive would have been simpler.”
“Well, we’re not dead. That counts for a lot, in my experience,” Ian said. “Need me for anything else?”
“No, you’ve done all you can. At this point we just need to dump hull charge…And something tells me, we won’t get to do that unmolested, hmm?”
“You know, I was thinking something similar,” Ian agreed. “…Guess we’d better go clean up and check on people, hey Bruuk?”
As they floated back through the non-essential sections still in null-grav, Ian’s mind turned over. The House had definitely scored a hit there. They were going so slow, with so few potential destinations, that they may as well be sitting still and waiting. And the House knew what they were up against now, too. That element of surprise that had helped him and Bruuk shock-and-awe the goons on Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm was gone: they’d be loaded for deathworlder now. And from what Ian had seen of them, he guessed that House Henen knew what that actually required.
Hopefully Trrrk’k had a plan. The Clan employed him for a reason, after all. And it wasn’t like Ian himself was bereft of ideas…
It was just that all of them probably ended in blood.
Oh well. Time to plot with Bruuk.
Date point: 17y8m1w3d AV
House Henen escort Iswyrr, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“We’re certain the device activated correctly?”
“Yes, Matriarch. They’ve slowed to half a kilolight and are changing course toward the automated degaussing facility in…” the sensor technician swiped and scrolled through the star map for a moment. “…Seven-minor-one, sixty-three Wrrmuthwm”
Eriwyth meant that word, deep in her belly. After so many setbacks, for something to go so right for a change made her feel like a weight had fallen off.
Timing the discharge device had been a tricky balancing act. The Gaoian ship was, as anticipated, faster than stock. Several House analysts had worked hard to come up with an estimated range of warp speeds based on the systems observed during their fruitless inspections, and their estimates had proven highly accurate.
The Wrrmuthwm sector was a backwater, full of nothing but type seven stars, the small, dim three-quarters of the galaxy. No major inhabited planets, no major mining operations. There was plenty there to mine, of course, very few star systems were utterly barren. But they were all inconvenient, and developed only in line with Dominion regulations and in anticipation of the far future.
Really, the only civilization in the sector was in the form of automated degaussing stations, and those barely counted. They were unstaffed and existed purely for emergency circumstances. A docking gantry and field emitters, orbiting a suitable gas giant, stocked with rations, water, medical supplies and spare parts in sufficient quantity as to be welcome to the desperate and dying, but beneath the notice of any Hunters or pirates.
No witnesses. Nobody in range to help. And, thanks to a “system update” that Eriwyth had authorized a few minutes ago, the Gaoian transport would find the superluminal comms systems offline too.
The only thing stopping Erwiyth from swooping on them and claiming back her errant son was that the alien crew undoubtedly knew she was coming, and included two heavily armed deathworlders. She needed more than House security for this.
So she’d called in a favor. The line between pirate and privateer was so very fine, after all. And some of the galaxy’s less scrupulous ship captains lived for the approval and support of people in high places. Some of them, thanks to the Hunters, were desperate for a good score.
Some of them had small armies to feed and pay, and were especially desperate. They just needed a target that sat still long enough. After that…
Eriwyth would bet that quantity would do enough work. Enough armed bodies versus only two? Deathworlders or not, that equation eventually broke even. But why trust to numbers alone? This was the last and only opportunity, nothing could be left to chance.
She took a deep breath and rehearsed what she was going to say for the hundredth time.
And thanked the House for her good fortune.
Date Point:17y8m1w3d AV
Clan Bronzefur central orbital transit hub, Planet Gorai, Gaoian space
Uriigo, Champion of Clan Bronzefur
“The contract has been ongoing since the reclamation began, Champion. We take captured biodrones off the Grand Army’s paws and ship ‘em up to the Openpaw facility on Gorai-Two. Got a catch in transit right now, actually.”
Uriigo had worked long years as a docker, and then as a foreman. Shipping and receiving paperwork was entirely transparent to him, and he ran an experienced eye over the columns of data in front of him.
Unusual and disturbing to see names under the unique cargo identifier section, but that was who they were dealing with, after all: people. Or, former people, anyway. Former people who, if Clan Openpaw could work miracles, might become people again someday.
“Thirty-nine biodrones in stasis boxes, loaded on a light cargo transport and shipped up to orbit, all accounted for,” the Associate showing him around the trans-orbital facility declared confidently. Uriigo could understand that confidence, too. Everything on Gorai was new and shiny. Planned colonies were like that, they didn’t inherit centuries of cumulative inefficiencies and quirks, land ownership disputes, the way cities grew in one technological paradigm with no way of preparing for the ones to come.
So, the Gorai colonial capitol trans-orbital cargo hub was a model of efficiency, and something of a ring in his Clan’s finger.
Still. His nose was twitching.
“…We got footage of them arriving?”
“Security footage? Uh, yes, probably…This way.”
They strolled outside, across the concrete apron. Gorai was only a Gaoian colony by dint of its proximity to Gao, not because it was particularly Gao-like. Up until the war, Gorai’s major export back to the homeworld had been wood, harvested from vast plantations of the native trees. The air, in late autumn, was about as pleasantly warm as a Gao summer, without the cold nip and dryness that Uriigo was used to. Even the scent of ocean water blowing on the breeze from the nearby harbor was warm and pungent with algal life, quite different to what he was used to.
Honestly, Uriigo wasn’t sure why people had wanted to come here. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t a planet made for Gaoians, and he could feel it in his fur and feet.
Then again, he’d had a good job, Clan Brothership and a career. For Gao with less, maybe another planet might seem like a second shot at opportunity. Maybe that was why he had this Associate Preek showing him around, who was otherwise a bit less than the caliber of Associates Uriigo was used to. Again, nothing wrong with him as such, but Uriigo doubted Preek would have passed the first rites for his Clan back on the homeworld.
Security was a densely packed little cube of a building, centrally positioned for easy access to the cargo passing through the facility, but also equidistant from every access point. The cameras fed into a small, crowded room in the basement where Uriigo had to leave Associate Preek outside in order to squeeze in alongside the other Associate at the desk.
A few minutes later, something caught his eye that prompted him to stop giving a Naxas’ ass about the tiny space. He reached out, grabbed Preek with his claws, and reeled him in.
“Thirty-nine, you said,”
“Y-yes, Champion?” Preek’s ears were flat.
“I count fourteen rows of three boxes. That ain’t thirty-nine.” Uriigo turned and growled point-blank in Preek’s face. “You have a miscount, associate. On any other cargo, eh. Miscounts happen. But on live Gaoian biodrones? Now we have a fuckin’ problem. Don’t we, Associate?”
“U-um…” Preek glanced in a panic at the camera operator, who reeked of mounting alarm… “Y-yes, Champion.”
Uriigo turned with a snarl. “You. I want every frame o’ footage o’ that shipment. We’re goin’ over it all, right now.”
And if the two associates were terrified and jumped to it with the vigor of the mortally afraid, that was nothing compared to the surge of panic that Uriigo was keeping down. If the Great Father found out about this…
Uriigo’s predecessor had died messily, but quick. If the worst-case scenario now rampaging through Uriigo’s mind was accurate, then Uriigo himself would be very lucky indeed to meet the same fate.
He willed his paws not to shake, and got to work.
Date Point: 17y8m2w3d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Approaching degaussing station, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Decked out in armor and gear, running the assault course one last time, polishing every last little movement until it was perfect and unstoppable…that was their life for the last week of deep space crawling. Before, it had been something both fun and serious—Bruuk craved Wild’s approval, and was eager to learn all he could. Now, though, things took on a sense of urgency. They might be going into a real fight, not some brawl where Bruuk could show off his brawn and expect them to back off, or maybe just rough up some swaggering guard.
Now, they’d probably come in and start shooting, if things didn’t get played exactly right.
“Fuck me, mate! That’s your fastest yet. I think you’re officially as quick through as I am now.”
Bruuk duck-nodded happily, proud of the praise. “Does that change our tactics?”
“No. We do the exact same things with the exact same logic. We clear rooms and use cover like we’ve practiced. It’s just now, I know I can trust you at full speed.”
“Should we go again?” Bruuk swiped some of the sweat out of his fur. “I’m good for another few rounds.”
“Aye. We’ve got another few days, so…we keep going, as hard as we can and as many dirty tricks as Moj and Dora can muster. You two up for it?”
“I gotta point out, it’s mostly Moj!” Dora called from her computer bank in the corner. They’d had to argue long and hard to get Morwk to agree that their training room was essential enough for gravity and power, but he’d relented. “He’s evil!”
“Evil everywhere. Some folks, more than others.” Moj effected a big shrug, his back carapace lifting several inches. “Not much evil in Dora. Enough, though.”
“…I think that was a compliment?”
Bruuk chittered fondly. “Everyone’s gotta know when to bite, Dora.”
“Yup.” Wilde thumbed a number of pellets into a magazine. “If you’re not dangerous, you’re not capable. So hit us with your best evil side, love.”
Bruuk watched Dora think for a second, then perk up, waggle her fingers theatrically the way she always did just before performing a card trick, and start tapping away on her touchscreens. Clearly, she was feeling inspired.
Moj gave the pair of them a pleased look, and handed Wild a full magazine. “Sorry I can’t keep up,” he said. “Dancing, you. Poetry in violence. A kind of Resonance I’ll never know.”
“You think the Higher’s there in killing folks, mate?” Wild slid the magazine into a pouch.
“Higher is Higher.” Moj shrugged again. “It’s all…allness.”
That last one was said with an awkward flail of one hand, and Bruuk tried not to chitter. Sometimes, it was pretty clear even Moj didn’t know what he was talking about.
Wild just raised an eyebrow at him, then swigged from his water bottle and headed for the starting line. “Gonna agree to disagree with you on that one, mate,” he said. “Ready, Dora?”
Bruuk joined him at the line, they traded glances—in just a few short weeks, he’d learned to read a lot from Wild in a quick glance—traded nods…
Urgug hadn’t stopped glowing a worried shade from the moment the sabotage happened, and watching the deathworlders train was only worrying him more, rather than less.
That was hardly surprising, really. Guvnurag were innately peaceful personalities, pacifists by nature. Violence of any sort made a well-adjusted Guvnurag deeply uncomfortable. Especially, it seemed, well-coordinated, breathtakingly quick and precise violence. Where Trrrk’k found the fact that they had two such accomplished gun hands aboard reassuring, Urgug was showing some worrying signs of stress. Isolating himself from the crew, avoiding Bruuk and Wild especially, being less jovial than he had before.
A better captain might have noticed and intervened sooner, Trrrk’k chided himself. He would have noticed and intervened sooner, not that long ago. Age crept into the mind as well as the bones, though, dulled his sensitivity to brewing trouble that might have been addressed earlier. But, on the other hand, it came with the experience to know how to handle the situation properly, once noticed.
“It hurts them, you know. How you keep your distance.”
Urgug tore his dismayed gaze away from the internal camera feed and look up at his shipmaster.
“…The ship has changed, since the human came aboard,” he replied. “More…high-strung. More…” his translator skipped the next lengthy rumble, but Trrrk’k knew enough of the Guvnurag language to notice the syllables denoting a color in a tonal-emotional context. Urgug was describing a hue for which Domain Standard had no word, because the Domain species couldn’t see it. And specifically, he was describing the emotion associated with that hue.
It sounded disapproving, and melancholy.
“They do what they do to protect you,” Trrk’k reminded him. “And the rest of us, too. That is something we should respect. Especially from Bruuk; I must admit to severely underestimating him. Whitecrest must have known his potential, but I did not see it.”
Urgug sighed heavily and prodded the camera feed to turn it off. “I know,” he said, in one of the shortest sentences Trrrk’k had ever heard from him.
“It is not like you to be terse, old friend. Know what?”
“…I know that you are right, of course. I know it here…” Urgug shifted his weight to lift a huge hand to the side of his head and tap it. “Instinct rules us all, however. My body sees small, fast shapes with fangs and claws and violence, and it remembers that there are things that hunt Guvnuragnaguvendrugum.”
“Is that why you watch them? To try to get over the fear?”
“…It was. I think perhaps I am on the wrong course, however. Perhaps I am only reinforcing the instinct that says fear them, and not the instinct to sit beside them, share food and call them friend. I do not want to fear my shipmates, but…” Urgug sighed again and shook his pelt out. “Things change too fast for me, Trrrk’k. To me, the days when deathworlders were a myth, when Gao were just a new and small species and nobody had ever heard of a Human, they feel like yesterday. Since they came, my species have been enslaved and partially freed again, we have been drawn into a war we didn’t even know about, and now they are…everywhere.”
He flashed a wry shade of off-blue. “You can see why I am conflicted, I hope?”
“We are old and set in our ways.”
“And this is no longer a galaxy welcoming of our languid pace.”
Trrrk’k nodded, solemnly dipping his head quite low.
“This is my retirement mission, old friend,” he revealed. “The intent is for Wild to obtain his certifications and replace me. We are doing this because Whitecrest has…riskier missions in mind.”
He watched Urgug carefully. A vast range of his crewmate’s emotive colors were invisible to him, but he’d learned to pay close attention to those shades he could see.
“…I would not have agreed to any of that unless I saw the necessity,” he added, reassuringly. “This mission in particular is urgent. There is a great evil at play, here. We are doing our part to fight a much more dangerous type of predator than either of those two, down in the hold. More dangerous than Hunters, even.”
“Doing your part by stepping aside?” Urgug harrumphed heavily. “…I suppose we all must, eventually. But not yet, for me. I for one am not ready to roll over and let the deathworlders completely take over. Besides, they will need an experienced quartermaster.”
“Then you had better start looking at the friendly side of their nature, rather than the lethal side.”
“…I will try.”
Satisfied, Trrrk’k stepped away to examine the flight controls. They were still most of two days out from their destination, despite that Morwk had worked a few minor miracles to squeeze a few extra multiples of lightspeed out of the backup power systems. This had to happen when jumping was not available. If jumping had been an option then their extraction would already be over, one way or another.
As it was, they’d been trapped. They had an emergency egress code for dire circumstances, but with main power offline they couldn’t use it.
Instead, he had no choice but to fly into the most obvious of traps. Not ideal, and Trrrk’k was personally glad for the violent training now playing out on the lower decks.
He just hoped their shadow was still out there, waiting to step in if needed.
Date Point: 17y8m2w3d AV
Emergency degaussing station 7m1-63 Wrrmuthwm, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“…Fuck me it’s cold!”
Dora’s voice crackled in Ian’s ears as he finished heaving the door open and his boots crunched on a layer of frost. “It’s an unmanned, automated emergency post. You were expecting a bar and a hot tub?”
“No, but that’d be nice…” Ian grunted as he pushed the other door open. From what he gathered, they’d usually have given the station a few hours to warm itself up before coming aboard, but the clock was ticking. “Fuck it, once we’re done, I’m gettin’ a hot tub for my quarters.”
Degaussing hadn’t happened, and it should have been automatic. The station had drawn their ship into its docking gantry as expected, but the expected forcefields had not swept over the hull, nor had charge leapt off them like huge fat lightning bolts and then shot away along a thin filament field to ground down in the atmosphere of the huge beige gas giant they were practically kissing. And, when Moj experimentally tried to initiate undocking, the station refused to let go.
That had to be the House’s work. And while there was no sign of a hostile ship on sensors, that didn’t automatically mean the station was unoccupied. So, to Ian and Bruuk fell the task of clearing and securing it, deck by deck. Starting with a door that refused to open for them.
“Dark in there, too,” Bruuk commented.
“It shouldn’t be.” Dora sounded like she’d have been frowning, if Robalin faces could do that. “I guess they fucked with the lights too?”
“Bet they fucked with a lot more than that,” Ian replied, and put out a hand to stop Bruuk before he crossed the threshold.
Bruuk gave him a curious sniff. “Problem?”
“G-traps. One second you’re floating, the next you fall sideways across the room at six Gs and go splat. HEAT fucking hate ‘em.” Ian opened a pouch on his MOLLE and thumbed a ball-bearing out of it. He flicked it gently forward and watched it float in a straight line right across the open space in front of him and then, quite abruptly, it veered off course to corkscrew drunkenly through the air before smashing into the wall with a sharp crack. “…Shit. Okay. Don’t enter any section until you’ve tested it.”
“Be careful, you two.” Dora sounded tense.
“Careful as we can be, love,” Ian promised. Beside him, Bruuk duck-nodded fervently, his ears plastered flat to his skull. “Skipper? This is going to take a while.”
“I saw,” Trrrk’k assured him. “We shall be patient.”
Ian nodded, took a deep breath, and thumbed a few more BBs out of his pouch. “…Alright, Bruuk, go get the spray paint mate. Let’s go to work.”
’A while’ turned out to be hours. The station was built from modular parts, meaning the deck was at least neatly divided up into square sections of a standardized size with a single G-plate underneath, and it didn’t look like there was any operator actively watching and changing things on the fly. As they worked, Morwk hypothesized that maybe they’d just uploaded a virus or something that scrambled the vector and intensity on each plate individually. Crude…but effective. Some of Ian’s BBs left holes and dents where they struck the walls and ceiling.
Still. With such a regular, even pattern, they were able to find a work rhythm. Each plate currently tuned to zero-G got an X in the middle, and a symbol on each edge to indicate what the adjacent plate was doing. Arrows for sideways, chevrons for up or down, repeated for high intensity. Pretty soon, they had a “safe” route mapped across the floor, even if navigating a labyrinth in zero-G without handholds was hardly safe or easy.
And then they hit a dead end. The station’s main (and only) throughway, with admin and engineering at the far end, and every plate along the whole thing, as far as Ian could tell, all pulling in one direction with enough force that his BB hit the pressure door like a bullet.
“‘Bout how long would it take to pull up a floor unit and cut power to the adjacent G-plate, mate?”
“Normally? About a hundred ri’ I’d guess, without complications.”
Ian converted ri’ to minutes in his head, then did a quick estimate of just how many floor units were between them and their non-negotiable destination, and factored in the quite sizeable complications. “…Bugger.”
“I assume that was an expletive and not a proposition. Yes. Quite.”
“Honestly mate, getting fucked in the arse would definitely be more fun than this. Oh well…” Ian glanced at Bruuk, who duck-shrugged stoically.
“Better get to it,” he said, simply.
Ian sighed, nodded, and pitched in.
The clock was still ticking.
Date Point: 17y8m2w3d AV
Freelance ship Stars of Our Making, Wrrmuthwm sector, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
The Kwmbwrw matriarch was standing on her hind feet again, trying to stretch herself up to Eqan’s own height. Oh well, if she wanted to make herself uncomfortable for the sake of pride, that wasn’t Eqan’s problem.
Pride really was the quintessential Kwmbwrw vice, though. Every species had one. The Guvnurag were too pacifist, the Celzi too bellicose, the Gao too feral, and so on and so on. There was no escaping the vices of one’s own birthright, so why even try?
Eqan embraced the Qinis vices. After all, he ran a successful business venture, albeit slightly outside of the terms and model deemed acceptable by either the Dominion or the Alliance. Why shouldn’t he dress himself finely? Why shouldn’t he ornament his body and his possessions? Why shouldn’t those possessions be plentiful and of the highest quality?
Clearly, his materialism set the Matriarch on edge. And that, in Eqan’s view, was entirely acceptable
“You seem troubled.”
The Matriarch—she hadn’t actually told Eqan she was a Matriarch, but they both understood that of course she was—gave him a restless look. “This ship has been trouble since it came to me, and the two deathworlders in particular—”
“—Are only flesh and blood, you know.” Eqan said, smoothly. He reached out and scratched one of his attendant drones under its ‘chin.’ The little device made a happy purbling noise and flashed an emote at him on its nose screen. “
“You underestimate flesh and blood.”
“Even the Humans have drones and robots.” Eqan smirked. “You’ll see. My little pets have given the Hunters no end of trouble recently, they can handle two ordinary deathworlders.”
“So relax! Have a drink, or something to eat. You gain nothing by fretting to no effect…”
The Matriarch glanced around the bridge, taking in the decor. It was a functional space, of course. No self-respecting shipmaster would ever interfere with the necessary operation of his ship for the sake of aesthetics. Eqan had simply lifted the ambience somewhat.
“I’ll be in my cabin,” she declared, and abruptly left. Eqan shrugged, plucked a glass of his preferred stimulant off the serving drone’s back, and sipped it. He waited a few seconds, then intruded on his guest’s privacy by accessing the camera in her quarters. She must have suspected it was there, because not once had she uttered anything incriminating or revealing even while alone, and she even sat with her back to the wall while working so that he couldn’t make out what was on her tablet. Mildly frustrating, but oh well.
There was one thing she said as she paced fretfully, however. Something that Eqan couldn’t decipher at all, which made it triply fascinating. She sounded like she was rehearsing it.
Whatever it was…it was of no consequence. He shut off the feed and sipped his drink again. “Time to intercept?”
“Fifty ri’, shipmaster,” his navigator replied. Eqan nodded, and relaxed.
And wondered what he’d spend his pay on.
Date Point: 17y8m2w3d AV
Clan Bronzefur central orbital transit hub, Planet Gorai, Gaoian space
Uriigo, Champion of Clan Bronzefur
Uriigo had always thought of himself as a gentle kinda male. Not afraid ‘ta scrap when necessary, of course not, but he’d never enjoyed violence.
Now, though…Now, the only thing stoppin’ him from tearing a throat out and liking it was knowing he had a duty to drag the whimpering, bleeding Brother he’d just clawed senseless all the way back to Gao, to drop him tied up in front of the Great Father.
A full Brother of the Rites. Keeda freeze to death. He delivered a kick to the ribs for good measure.
It was a slick operation, broken open only by the fact that the list of people with both the access and opportunity to falsify the shipping paperwork was short. Fourteen rows of three biodrones arrived, went into storage while the transport up to the Openpaw hospital on the moon was arranged, which took a few hours. During that window, the paperwork was tampered with, three of the drones relocated and put on a waiting interstellar courier with an entirely benign and uninteresting manifest of mail and parcels…
And, somewhere between Gorai and Gao, the drones in their stasis pods were jettisoned for collection. Keeda alone knew what happened to ‘em after that.
The full list of those involved numbered nineteen, two of whom—the courier crew—had caught Uriigo’s scent and bolted. He’d sent an urgent request to Clan One-Fang, asking them to detain the ship and return the occupants on capital crimes.
With the One-Fangs spread so thin, though, most likely that courier would escape. It was a big galaxy. They might never be brought to justice. Most of the guilty Associates, Uriigo simply worked alongside Clan Straightshield. They were in a lockup now, one that reeked of terror as they realized just what they were destined for. But the Brother? Brother Irkin? That was personal. To see that kind of opportunistic disloyalty rotting in the belly of his own Clan? Uriigo was glad to get his claws bloody over that.
“Where in the balls-lickin’ fuck is my Grandfather? Find his mangy tail and detain him.”
There were Straightshields all over the compound now, detaining, questioning, taking forensic samples, going over the computers…ripping the place apart in search of every scrap of evidence, basically. Two of the Associates Uriigo had personally cleared—Preek, who’d become effectively his impromptu aide, and Taku, the Associate from the security office—bothe duck-nodded solemnly and bustled out of the room along with a pair of judge-fathers.
The senior of the remaining judge-fathers in the room took a step forward. “Champion. Your prisoner requires medical attention now.”
Uriigo snarled down at the whimpering former-Brother on the floor, and signalled his assent. “Sure. Make sure this sack’a shit lives so the Great Father can deal with him.”
The whimpering got louder, “No…Champion…Please…”
Uriigo restrained himself from replying. He stepped aside and let the Straightshields drag the prisoner away.
For the first time in a couple of days, he was alone. He put out a paw and steadied himself against the wall, partly from the fatigue of days without proper sleep, partly from sheer emotion. Unconscious and unbidden, his free paw came up to his throat and massaged it.
He noticed, and shook it away with a growl at himself. He knew what he had to do. And he was fuckin’ well gonna step up and accept the consequences like a Champion oughta.
Daar was a wise man. He’d see through to the bottom of this.
Maybe he’d be merciful.
Maybe Uriigo shouldn’t have been such a thorn in his side…There was nothing for it but to face judgement. But Uriigo resolved in his heart of hearts, if he lived through the coming days, if Daar did show mercy? He’d have a loyal Clan for all of Uriigo’s living days.
And if he didn’t…well, it might just be that Clan Bronzefur would pass into history and be forgotten.
Time to return, and find out.
Date Point: 17y8m2w4d AV
Emergency degaussing station 7m1-63 Wrrmuthwm, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“Which button do I push, now?”
“The large round one at the top of the console with the two parallel lines. That will trigger a full system restore and restart everything in safe mode.”
“Which means…?” Ian had exactly one thing in common with Warhorse: technological ineptness. Or at least, ineptness regarding things like phones, computers and such. If it had a touchscreen it was basically an impenetrable magical slab as far as he was concerned.
Morwk sighed over the comm. “Safe mode,” he repeated. “As in, everything should be safe afterwards.”
“What’s stopping them from, uh, un-safing it right away?”
“No comms in safe mode. They’ll need to be physically present and in front of the machine you’re gormlessly staring at this very second. Now…the button, please?”
“Right, right…” Ian pushed it. Nothing very much seemed to happen, except that the monitor above his head went dark. A few seconds later, alien text that he probably couldn’t have read even if it was in English scrolled right-to-left across it, a bar filled across the top edge of the screen…
…And the gravity came on, the lights came up, and warmer air started to rush out of the vents. He heard dozens of discarded ball-bearings rattle and bounce onto the deck plating back behind him.
Ian didn’t need to ask twice. The big Gaoian was on all fours, checking and then surging through the corridors to verify no new surprises were anywhere to be found. Ian did the same, from the opposite direction. They knew nobody was onboard, but…
With gravity on, it didn’t take them long. The plates along the worst gravity trap reset, too. Both of them honestly needed a bit to recharge, so having that taken care of…
“And you’re sure we’re safe?”
“For the last time, yes.” Morwk let out a shrill, irritated whistling sound. “Are we clear to board yet?”
“Yup. Come on over and get the ship de-whatsited.”
“You’re doing that deliberately now,” Dora accused, with an amused note in her voice.
“You already know me too well, love.” Ian chuckled, while through the comms he heard Morwk make that same whistling sound. A minute or so later, the two of them came down the ramp, accompanied by a small tracked drone that Dora was piloting.
“What’s that for?” Bruuk asked.
“I need parts from the supply stores to repair the reactor,” Morwk explained. “You two musclebound brutes should have no problem with loading it, assuming you can follow basic instructions…” He shot Ian an indignant look.
“It’s just computers are my Achilles heel, mate. I can read a shopping list just fine.”
“Who’s Achilles?” Bruuk asked.
“Think Keeda, except somebody cut the tendon in his heel.” Which was as much of an explanation as they had time for. “Means a weakness, a personal flaw.”
Bruuk shuddered at that. Gaoian were plantigrade, like humans…but on all fours, they ran digitigrade on well-adapted foot-paws. That big tendon at the back of their heel was a major part of how they were so pouncy and the mere thought of losing that seemed to give every Gaoian he’d ever met phantom pain.
“In any case, here’s the list.” Morwk handed him a tablet. “Unless you’d prefer it on paper? Or carved in stone, maybe?”
Ian chuckled. He was pretty sure Morwk was just taking the piss, rather than being genuinely bitter. “This is fine.”
“Excellent. The sooner we get loaded up and repaired, the sooner we can get out of here…”
“You think we’ll get out of here before the House arrives?” Dora asked, following Ian as they headed for the parts storage.
“Fuck no. But maybe we can have a working ship by the time they do.”
“Maybe.” Dora tapped on her tablet and the crawler drone stopped near a door. “Alright! You two do what you two do best!”
Ian was in the middle of wondering just how in the hell most of the other species in the galaxy handled these components as he and Bruuk heaved a crate onto the drone when a worried-sounding Urgug called in. “Wake sensors can see a ship…no, three ships coming in. I believe the House is here…”
Several things happened quickly. Bruuk and Ian got the crate on the drone immediately, Dora came skidding around the corner from the engineering section at an ungainly tripedal canter, and Morwk swore viciously over the open comm.
“I don’t have control of the docking clamps, yet!”
“So we’re stuck here.” As soon as Ian was sure Dora had the drone in hand, he took off for the ship’s ramp. Within a few paces, Bruuk shot past him at a Gaoian’s trademark greyhound sprint. “Any idea what kind of ships?”
“Non-standard,” Moj sounded strangely amused. “Big power, small mass. Modified like us, maybe. A battle of the changed!”
“Focus please, mate. What does that mean?”
Trrrk’k sounded grimmer. “Mercenaries, probably. Pirates, privateers, whatever you call them.”
“Well, at least it’s not the bloody Hunters…” Ian grumbled. He was about to start up the ramp when Dora tugged urgently on his sleeve.
“I need that open!” she said fervently, using two arms to point at the crate on the drone.
Ian didn’t ask why: Dora only acted scatty. He slipped his knife out of its sheath, jammed it in under the crate’s lid, knocked it in twice, twisted, and the lid popped with a crack! Dora rummaged in it the second he heaved the top aside, grabbed two somethings from inside and darted up the ramp with surprising speed for a wobbly three-legged alien.
“No problem.” Ian trotted up after her, hung a left and stormed up the ship’s external deck to the front. He didn’t bother with preamble as he barged onto the bridge. “Alright. How long do we have?”
“Coming in fast, they,” Moj reported. “Two minutes.”
“Can’t jump, can’t undock?”
“Still no to both,” Trrrk’k creaked out a heavy sigh, and suppressed a cough. “They will force-dock with the station and try to seize the ship.”
“Be simpler for ‘em to just blow us up, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, if they do that then there is nothing we can do. So let us hope their desire to recapture our guest exceeds their sense of expediency.”
“…Great. Moj? Gear up, mate. You’re no good to us there.”
“I took the liberty of acquiring my own weapon,” Trrrk’k said, indicating an oddly-shaped rifle strapped to the small of his upper torso’s back.
“Pukka. You can keep an eye on Urgug.” Ian turned back toward the door, just behind Moj.
“You do not want every available hand?”
“Skipper, you’re a ten-foot, geriatric, asthmatic glass giraffe. Moj has an inch-thick carapace, while Bruuk is like twice my weight and can outrun a car. This…isn’t your fight.”
Trrrk’k watched him solemnly for a moment, then nodded, slowly. “…As you say. Good luck, then.”
And that was that. He passed Morwk on the way back down the ramp, hugging a sack full of more parts to his chest. They traded nods. He found Bruuk shoving crates and stuff into place to make them some cover, and pitched in.
Moj joined them just before loud, resonant sound through the station’s hull told them one of the other ships had docked.
“Emergency air containment’s working, right?”
”First thing I fixed.”
After that…silence. And waiting.
And the sound of a hostile airlock, cycling.
Date Point: 17y8m2w4d AV
Freelance ship Stars of Our Making, docked at degaussing station 7m1-63 Wrrmuthwm, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“Watch and learn, my esteemed employer. This is how you deal with deathworlders!”
Eriwyth had to admit, the swarm of drones that Eqan controlled would have frightened the tail off her if she had been facing it down. Individually, none of them were particularly imposing: a small quad drone, each remarkably stable in the air as its miniature kinetic engines hummed and kept it aloft.
Most were fitted with pulse guns. Nothing wrong with that: pulse weapons were quite capable of crushing skulls and haemorrhaging organs in most species, though Humans in particular were notoriously resilient to them. Fortunately, the list of firepower did not end there.
Among the swarm were bigger, heavier drones fitted with projectile weapons. They worked in a team with another heavy drone, one to carry an ammo supply, the other bearing the weapon. Eriwyth didn’t know how effective they were, but considering that deathworlders used such weapons themselves, she imagined that Eqan may indeed be onto something.
Finally, the shield drones. Unarmed themselves, but providing the others around them with cover and protection. They, in Eriwyth’s estimation, transformed the drone swarm from merely alarming to genuinely terrifying. A storm of firepower was one thing, but a storm of firepower that couldn’t be diminished by return fire?
She congratulated herself on choosing this pirate in particular. Eqan maybe be a lavish showoff, but his reputation and success were no accidents.
The docking clamps engaged solidly, the airlock collars locked, and she heard the airlock below her on the next deck down begin to cycle. Eqan waggled his fingers delicately in the air, and descended them onto his control screen with a murderous smirk that totally belied the silk-wearing dandy he’d been only a second earlier.
Then he blinked in confusion, and tapped on the controls. His expression grew more confused and astonished by the heartbeat, his movements more erratic and panicky. “…What?”
“What?” Eriwyth felt her whole body tense up. She should have known this wouldn’t go to plan…
“I don’t believe this…”
From below Eriwyth’s feet came the sound of gunfire.
“…They are boarding us!”
Date Point: 17y8m2w4d AV
Gwei Shee Woodland Preserve, equatorial Yinan Gwei, Planet Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Daar was a leader, not a micromanager. He wasn’t suited to running people’s lives for them. And it had taken a massive personal effort to escape that mantle.
A Great Father was an almost god-like figure in the gaoian psyche. When one came around, it was because singular purpose of action was both dire and necessary. That, yes, meant that in the beginning, all decisions of any import had to pass through him. That was doable in an all-out crisis, where the only decisions to make were about the fight, and the immediate aftermath…
But afterward? No man could govern a civilization alone. His staff grew, and grew, until he’d grown fed up with the increasingly impossible workload and managed a neat trick: separating the ideas of leadership and management—a borderline alien concept to the Gao—and then moving the latter out of his person, and into a structure in the form of the Conclave.
Well, specifically: his shiny, almost brand-new Cabinet. Formally a standing subcommittee of the full Conclave and made up of the most senior and powerful Champions, all of whose Clans held vast global powers, the Cabinet had, with Daar’s fierce and exuberant encouragement, re-assumed their suited aspects of leadership, and had begun to properly re-delegate management among their Clans themselves. What had once been ad-hoc and informal (and largely forgotten with his ascension to the Great Throne) had been restored, and made formal.
It had been an open question if Daar could do such a thing. After all, the Great Father and none other was in charge. There would be consequences. Long-term consequences, all of which Daar fully intended. Such as accountable mechanisms of state, for example.
The traditionalists grumbled about such things of course, some even going so far as to label the entire idea as decadent and ‘un-Gaoian.’ Daar had responded by pointing out that, in feeling comfortable to voice such a thing in the first place, the confidence and trust to begin self-governance was already there; Daar wasn’t disemboweling anyone for the crime of voicing their opinions, after all…
That shut them up, ironically.
In any case, the solution to all the nervous complaints was simply for Daar to order the new structure into being. The Cabinet had Daar’s full confidence to govern, and he’d made a public proclamation to that effect. The Conclave could decide to meet whenever it felt wise, and they had full authority to bring matters of import to the Cabinet. Anyone could speak with the Great Father directly, if they wanted. He went out of his way to be both fierce and approachable by anyone. But, well…the tacit understanding at that point was pretty clear, no matter how he felt about it…
He was happy to listen to anyone, mighty or meek, but it damn well had better be important. About the only thing worse than angering Daar was, apparently, mildly annoying him, because even though he’d never dream of retaliating for an honest but misguided petition, everyone else did on his behalf and no amount of protest seemed to stop that.
Weird. Abject submission for everything else, no matter how much he hated it, and unswayable zealous defense of his honor…no matter how much he hated it.
Anyway. The practical upshot of all that was his in-the-weeds time had been reduced to a mere two or maybe three hours a day, and most of that was simply briefings. He had more time, now. Much more, to visit his people, live their lives as much as he could, know their needs and their pain and their dreams…time to mate, time to train, time to be the thinking brute he truly was. Time to love the people that deserved it, that he needed to love.
Champions seldom permitted themselves the time to do that. But Daar did, once again. And that mattered. A man couldn’t lead if he didn’t live his leadership as fully as he could, after all. Leading a people meant he had to be the people, as much as he possibly could.
At the moment he was prowling the woods with the young Champion of Clan Forestnettle, who was a fine and lithe specimen of a silverfur if Daar was any judge. Humans might even call him elf-like. He’d been a bit of a nervous wreck all day, and despite all Daar’s attempts to be, well…less of a murderous barge of muscle and doom, none of his bestest attempts at harmless friendship seemed to work, at least not until they’d finally made it to the last wild forest on Gao. Now, though? In the gloom of the woods? Maybe it was just the familiarity of home, but the Champion was in his element and finally opened up.
“So you’ve lived here all ‘yer life, I hear?”
“From as soon as I left the commune,” Champion Paru agreed, and looked around at the woods with unbridled fondness. Couldn’t blame ‘em, really. The forest felt right.
From what Daar remembered, trees had once grown all across Gao, in dense forests that stretched from northern ocean to southern sea. Not a single landmass had been bald of them.
Then, quite abruptly, the forests died back enormously at about the same moment as the Gao were taking their first steps into civilization. Nowadays, wood was a rare and unbearably precious resource, harvested with care and attention from the few equatorial forests and plantations where trees still thrived…these days, under the dutiful care and protection of Clan Forestnettle.
Ironically, having such authority on the supply of wood made the Clan disproportionately wealthy. Paru was clearly rich, in a practical, woodsy way. The long crest of fur over the top of his head was braided, with a few highly polished wooden beads woven into it before the braid vanished down the collar of his hard-wearing shirt. He kept a walking stick made from a branch or sapling, but used it mostly to point things out as they walked. The belt that kept his clothes cinched tight around his waist was clearly a custom work of master craftsmanship.
In any other context, if he let that crest unwind a bit and showed it off, he might even border on being ostentatious, which Daar didn’t much care for. But Paru had made his living managing the land, walking the woods, cutting down trees and sawing planks. Small, noodly, tastefully decorated and elfin he might be, but there was a fuck of a lotta practical there, too.
Daar could appreciate functional an’ purdy. Two good things that went better together! After all, nobody would ever accuse Daar of modesty on that point. He had fur good an’ glossy enough that he rarely bothered with clothes at all, ‘cuz what was the fuckin’ point if he couldn’t show off how pretty he was?! A ‘Back had priorities. If Paru was the type o’ gao to show off his taste and success, Daar wanted to show off his discipline, athleticism, and his absurd genetic fortune. He knew what kinda hulked-out stereotype of a ‘Back he was an’ he thoroughly enjoyed livin’ it, an’ really there weren’t no point in doin’ otherwise. Too bad all his scars were gone now…
Anyhoo, both favored the practical, and that, Daar suspected, meant they’d be good friends.
“Having the weight of Clanship has changed things a lot for us,” Paru continued. He paused to claw a flake of bark off a nearby tree and sniffed it. Satisfied, he flicked the flake away and carried on. “It’s taking a long time and lots of legal expenses, but we’re working out the ownership rights, the land’s lawful stewardship…if things go well, we’ll be able to buy some of the neighboring farmland and return it to woodlands over the coming decades.”
“I’m sure Straightshield has been happy for the business…”
Paru chittered. “I think land disputes are where they sideline all their unpopular Fathers,” he confided. “Nobody has a passion for property law.”
Daar, of course, could not comment further, less he endanger his neutrality. He merely chittered noncommittally and changed the topic. “In any case, it’s been a strange thing, re-visiting our forests after Earth. They’re just different enough it messes wit’ ‘yer instincts a bit.”
“You’ve been to an Earthling forest?” Paru sounded like Daar was claiming to have visited a magical land of mystic fantasy.
“Yeah! Went huntin’ too! Hard ‘ta describe. First thing is the scent, I guess. It really clobbers ‘ya over the snout with everythin’ goin’ on. So many differn’t kinda things growin there! I think mebbe it’s easy ‘ta notice just ‘cuz none of it smelled familiar, yijao?”
Paru nodded earnestly. “Oh, absolutely! Was there much wildlife?”
“Yeah! Everythin’ from tiny little skitterin’ bugs, ‘ta small tree-lovin’ things called ‘squirrels’ which are super tasty by the way—cronchy!—up through birds o’ every kind, an’ big prey animals like deer…”
“And bears!” Every gao knew about the famous Earthling bears, along with the dinosaurs.
“An’ bears, yeah. I never met a grizzly bear, an’ at the time one o’ them woulda been trouble ‘fer me…balls, that woulda been a hell of a fight. They got claws like I do!”
Paru glanced down at Daar’s footpaws, and he just couldn’t help but extend his claws all the way…Paru’s nervous ear-flick was just too good not to savor. Daar din’t much like bullyin’ guys around, s’pecially little fellas, but he sure as balls enjoyed bein’ alpha as fuck.
But, well…he liked makin’ friends, too. He reeled ‘em in, pranced over playfully and gave an affectionate lil’ rub of his head against Paru’s side.
“Anyhoo, you should visit one day! I bet we could make that happen, when things calm down!”
“Yeah! Assumin’ ‘ya ain’t allergic, an all. I’d love ‘ta hear ‘yer experience of it! Mebbe when I go huntin’ with Righteous next!” Daar growled happily at the thought, and felt himself prancing along the path, wagging his tail…
Maybe he should share a story! ‘Fer me though, biggest thing I’ll ‘member ‘bout it all was gettin’ some dirt into an open cut an’ almost losin’ my forearm ‘ta some random fungus…”
Paru boggled at that. “Really?!”
“‘Ta be fair, I sorta bet it’d have ruined a Human’s day too, but still. Don’t take nothin’ ‘bout a Deathworld ‘fer granted…ah.” Daar sniffed behind him. “I think I’mma be callin’ this short.”
Sure enough, Paru turned his head, flick an ear as he listened, then duck-nodded. Somebody—Champion Thurrsto, by the smell—was stumbling through the woods like a blind Naxas through a canyon, and hurrying to catch up.
A few moments later he rounded a tree, plucked a leaf out of his crest, cleared his throat, and duck-nodded respectfully in greeting.
“…My Father. Champion.”
Daar chittered resignedly. “‘Cuz, I’m gonna need ‘ta teach ‘ya how ‘ta stalk ‘yer prey a bit more quietly’n that…ain’t you never hunted?”
“I hunt people in their natural habitat, My Father. Much less dry crunchy kindling in a city.”
Daar turned to Paru sympathetically, and offered him a gentle affectionate hug. “Sarry, I really wanted ‘ta walk this whole forest wit’ ‘ya, tip ‘ta tail today…”
“Another time, perhaps.”
“Okay. Feel free ‘ta visit sometime! I grill a mean steak!”
And with that, Daar nodded goodbye, hopefully with one less antagonistic Champion stuck in his fur. Nice guy, Paru.
Daar shook out his pelt and turned to Thurrsto. “Only thing ‘bout forests is ‘ya get pollen all up in ‘yer fur, yijao?”
“They make clothing for that.”
“Eh,” Daar dismissed the idea. “Jus’ one more thing ‘ta worry ‘bout. Speaking of…”
“It’s about the Gorai matter. Champion Uriigo is out there as we speak.”
It was always quietly amazing how sneaky Thurrsto was with his privacy bubble. Daar never quite noticed it was up and functional until he heard the big Champion speak.
“Getting increasingly angry and upset, as far as I can tell. He discovered the miscount.”
Daar duck-nodded, satisfied. “Knew he would. Jus’ needed a little nudge. So, what’s he up to now?”
“Hunting. I’m not clear yet on what his prey might be…”
“Well,” Daar sighed. “He better choose carefully. You think y’all can help him find the right answers?”
“”Respectfully, My Father, I think this is a test for him alone. We can help him find his prey. The right answers are his, not mine.”
“…’Yer right,” Daar conceded. “I can’t let my hope he does the right thing get in th’ way. Anyway,” he sighed, “that can’t be th’ only thing that brought ‘ya out here…”
“No. I also have news on the team of Friends we sent to Kwmbwrw space. We received a coded update via Q-comm—‘subject acquired, extracting’—but House Henen has been doing everything it can to stop them. They apparently instructed every one of their ships, stations and surface facilities to construct farthrow generators, and their entire territory is now a no-jump zone. Our Friends tried to warp out, and the Avenging Fury reports they were crippled, presumably by a bomb or something on board. They’ve limped at low warp to a nearby degaussing station for repair…and of course, mercenaries hired by the House have joined them.”
Daar uttered a frustrated growl. “Well, that proves it. House Henen are involved, if they’re goin’ that far ‘ta stop ‘em.”
“It does not prove a thing, My Father. It says only that they believe they possess a powerful interest in that vessel. They may well know what the ship is and who its crew are, and frankly that’s reason enough. We’d take similar measures against known Kwmbwrw spies in our space.”
“Why ain’t they just blown it up?”
“The only thing more dangerous than a successful spy is his sources and methods. Those may leak again, after all. It is in their interests to capture our Friend and torture everything out of him, and possibly offer him for exchange.”
Daar duck-nodded. It all made sense. The “Trade” was one o’ the few things Daar couldn’t quite wrap his brain around, and it weren’t for a lack o’ trying. Din’t matter how much turbogenius a ‘Back might have up in their thick skull—Daar’s was the most thickest too, heh—none o’ that mattered if’n ‘ya couldn’t grok the problem in the first place. Too sneaky-sideways for his tastes. Thurrsto had a Keeda-given knack for guiding Daar’s dumb tail through the tricksier bits, better even than Genshi (rest his soul) or Regaari.
“Right, right…this is why I learned years ago ‘ta have a spymaster I can trust and whose balls’re big enough ‘ta tell me the truth. Anyway…what d’ya need from me?”
“Real-time authority, My Father.”
“We might need to intervene, and the consequences…” Thurrsto left the precise consequences unspoken. His tone for the next sentence was heavy, however. “…Or, frankly, we might want to be merciful with our Friends. The Kwmbwrw are masters of the arts.”
“Right.” Daar sighed and looked around at the forest. He’d been enjoying his walk, but duty came first. “I owe it ‘ta them to order it myself, if that’s how it’s gotta be.”
Thurrsto duck-nodded in that very specific way he did when he disagreed, but would comply. “That is noble of you, My Father.”
You shouldn’t take this upon yourself, seemed to be the message. If only. But, well…Wild was a friend. And what kind of leader would Daar be if he delegated the fate of a friend?
“Arright. Back to High Mountain,” Daar grumbled. To his ever-present aide, “Wouldya make conciliatory arrangements on my schedule ‘fer me?”
“Of course, My Father.”
Having good people helped. It helped more than he had words to say. That, however, was the price. If he was going to have more free time, then he had to be prompt and dutiful when the time came to be a Great Father in the sanguine and terrible sense.
On the inside, though, as they returned to his transport and left the forest behind, he hoped and prayed that, this time, it wouldn’t be.
Date Point: 17y8m2w4d AV
Emergency degaussing station 7m1-63 Wrrmuthwm, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
A lumberfooted dance, his own. Pale echo of the Death-Eye and the Claw. Knowing the steps, knowing the tune was more than half, but the rest?
Grace. Speed. A body made for Dancing, evolved to thrum in harmony with this aspect of the world. A mere sea of drones was just the dance partner, the parchment for their poetry. Dead, dumb things, built to kill, doomed to burst in to shards and sparks before the living bullets and blades.
Step two three, shoot two three, kill two three…
Confused, the drones. Stupid things. Made to attack, knew how to attack. Didn’t know how to defend. Didn’t know how to deal with three bodies in their midst, dancing and destroying, attacking. The narrative turned on its head, the whole plan turned into a lie and a dream.
Moj laughed as he killed.
His own part was the fundamental note, the beat that set the pace of the dance. The drum, the bass, the steady slow at the center. The relentless attack of the song belonged to the Claw, all speed and power and constant, restless movement.
The melody belonged to the Eye. Virtuoso, soloist, grandmaster. A privilege to behold, a blessing to support and enable. No note wasted, no step wrong, no dissonant phrases. If this was how Humans warred, then Human war was awe in its purest expression, and not even drones were immune.
They recoiled. They tried to reform. They shifted and tried to dance, but the dance changed. The beat shifted, and they couldn’t keep up. Their role, to go silent and lend the crunching of their broken hulls to the percussion.
Still, enough buzzing flies could drown out a symphony, and not even Humans were tireless. The dance slowed, the melody dampened, the poetry trembled…
Until somebody new changed the beat. Drones of their own. Dora. Two could fight as the pirates fought, and Dora? Dora knew how to dance in her own lopsided way. Dora knew how to be the white noise that finally silenced the enemy and let the song flourish in its full splendor, until…
…Anticlimax. And Then There Were None. Only a room, and two who didn’t know how to dance at all, and the song was over.
And it was all Moj could do not to weep for the loss of it.
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“You are illegally interfering with lawful commerce,” Wilde managed while catching his breath. He’d even managed to keep some menace in his voice. Bruuk wasn’t quite ready to talk yet, but he didn’t need to, really. He was menace enough just standing there.
It certainly worked on the Qinis shipmaster, whose attempt at regal elegance in his half-cloak and diaphanous silks was completely ruined by the way he was staring at the three of them and trembling.
Neat trick, with the drones. A couple of them had dinged Ian pretty good, but pulse weaponry just didn’t do shit to a man who’d been trained into a brick shithouse by Warhorse, and who was used to sparring with beast-men like Ten’Gewek and Bruuk. Through his armor, even a heavy pulse felt more like a wild attempt at a shove, and as far as he could tell, Bruuk was so solidly built, he might have felt them even less.
The rockets were a spicy addition, no doubt…but only an idiot freely fired rockets in a pressurized tube, so they didn’t get as much effective use as they might have otherwise. They did let Wilde score the neatest kill he’d ever managed, though: he charged forward, kicked himself up the wall and managed to get on top of one of the drones, crashing it to the ground with his weight. Even Bruuk was impressed.
He didn’t repeat the trick. God only knew what prompted it in the first place, but point made, and besides: Bruuk just had to prove that anything Wilde could do, Bruuk could do better. Or at least bigger. He leveled two more with pouncing tackles that looked entirely too much like big cat attacks for comfort…
Dora got the last one. Her little zippy drones had been a fucking blessing, right at the moment things got hairy, and if pulse fire was pretty shit at hurting any moderately sturdy person, it still fucked a flimsy drone up pretty readily.
All in all, the element of surprise had worked in their favor. Their enemy hadn’t had time to get really nasty and that was what really cost them; if they’d added depressurization or gravity fun to the mix, this would have been a HEAT problem, something too deadly for a mudfoot out of his depth like Ian. Sheer pressure had kept the Qinis on the back foot and panicking until it was too late.
Now, there was just the question of what to do with them. Especially the Matriarch, whose reply to his accusation was the closest thing a Kwmbwrw could give to an icy glare.
“You’ve hidden behind your lawful facade long enough, Human. Drop the pretense.”
“What facade? We’re an interstellar light bulk freighter, nothing more.” Ian indicated the trembling Qinis with a nod of his head. “So for his sake let’s not, hey? Wouldn’t want to see what you’ll do to the likes of him in your vendetta against us.”
“Are you accusing me of murder?”
“Let’s go with attempted murder and piracy. Or did I imagine that drone horde just now?” Ian turned slightly aside and indicated the door. “Anyway. There’s a bounty out on pirates. Good bit of extra profit for us this run if we turn you over to the proper authorities…”
Bruuk shivered suddenly, and shook his head as if something was distracting him. Ian had no idea why that caught his attention suddenly, but…
“You will do no such thing, Human.”
“Yeah? And who exactly is going to fucking stop us, love?”
The Kwmbwrw smiled.
“It’s okay,” she said, clearly and carefully…in perfect Gaori. “Mother Kiya said you can see him when you get back.”
There was a snarl from his right.
Ian had been around Gaoians long enough to know their ways. He’d never heard one utter a sound as tortured and feral as the murderous rumble that forced its way up Bruuk from his hackles to his fangs. His gun clattered to the floor, he dropped to four-paw, his fur bristled and his lips curled back to reveal a rictus grin straight out of a nightmare. The deck plating under his feet shrieked as he flexed his claws and left gouges in it.
“…Bruuk?” Ian stepped sideways and gained some perspective distance. “You okay—?”
The massive Gaoian exploded across the room faster than Ian had ever seen him move. Before Ian had a chance to properly react, Bruuk had bowled the stunned Matriarch over with a crunch of breaking bones, pinning her down and sitting atop her, snarling into her face and poised at the edge of violence.
“…Bruuk!” He obviously wasn’t okay. He really, really wasn’t. But Ian had no idea the fuck was going on or what to do. Heneneriwyth batted desperately at him, gone from smugness to panic in a heartbeat.
“No! Not me! You’re meant to—!!”
Bruuk’s claws found her soft underbelly. His fangs found her throat. Whatever Heneneriwyth had been trying to shriek out was cut off with a shocked gurgle as blood painted the floor around her. Moj and Ian alike both took a stunned step back, and the Qinis fainted.
Bruuk obliterated the Matriarch in barely two seconds.
The Qinis had it even quicker. He basically snapped apart like brittle kindling when Bruuk pounced. He looked down on his prey, seemingly disappointed…Before his gaze turned toward Ian. His entire head was dripping blood.
And Ian saw only madness in his friend’s eyes.
END CHAPTER 70, PART 2
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…Eighty-eight Friendly ETs, 139 Squishy Xenos and 315 Dizi Rats, who are really just the most bravest.
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The Deathworlders chapter 70 will continue in part 3