The Deathworlders

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Chapter 72: The Reckoning

Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Myrmidon, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches

Admiral Sir William Caruthers

The Kwmbwrw had learned much over their long history of fighting the Hunters. They’d had the misfortune to evolve on the fringes of Hunter space after all, and the Hunters had treated them as juicy prey since prehistory. There were cave paintings on their homeworld depicting the paleolithic Kwmbwrw fleeing as Hunter ships descended from the sky.

In that regard, they had something in common with the poor E-Skurel-Ir. But the Hunters had been satisfied with merely raiding the Kwmbwrw, who had, rather than growing up as helpless slaves, instead grown up heavily militarized and obsessively paranoid. And their first instinct, when under threat, was to bunker the Matriarchs and Grandmatriarchs away behind the heaviest fortifications they could build.

Hence, Eclipse Palace.

In Kwlsh, the place’s name was Mirw-Kwenek Wrrmthwemwnwn, which was a little more accurate for what was really going there. The word “eclipse” implied a moon, and Sir William had learned quite a lot about orbital mechanics as a necessity of his career, which made him fairly sure that the specific combination of a tidally-locked planet with a geosynchronous moon perfectly placed to cast a permanent eclipse on one spot was…unlikely.

The permanent shadow that gave Mirw-Kwenek Wrrmthwemwnwn its name was in fact cast by an ancient megastructure, a titanic solar shade built to alter the fall of sunlight upon the world below and terraform it. Presumably, the terraforming had succeeded: certainly, the seas were cool and full of busily fizzing photosynthetic bacteria, on a planet that should have been baked dry by Mercurial proximity to its star.

The shade’s builders were long gone and forgotten; not even the OmoAru claimed to remember them. But that, apparently, was nothing unusual in the Milky Way. Humanity, after all, had only visited a few dozen worlds at the absolute most. It was a big galaxy. Lots of stars. Millions of years of history. Such abandoned traces of antediluvian life were apparently quite common.

A thought to give pause, that. It made Sir William wonder just how full the sky would be if the Hierarchy had not been around to periodically cull the elder civilizations. Just what would the galaxy look like if there were species around who had been flying the stars for orders of magnitude longer than they had walked their cradle worlds? What would have become of humanity in such a galaxy?

What would become of those that followed when the Hierarchy were gone? Did one destroy the Great Filter without consequence?

Well, if the alternative was extinction, then the civilizations of millennia to come would just have to cope. And in the meantime, Sir William had a more immediate problem: a heavily militarized, obsessively paranoid foe who were quite used to protecting themselves from stealthy, technologically superior raiders.

The solution was overwhelming mass. The HEAT, every JETS team, every ship they had, enough voidrippers to blot out the black sun, human and Gaoian special forces in reserve ready to come through and do their work when the spaceborne specialists were ready for them, a number of regular units for clean-up and occupation…

Sometimes, a sledgehammer really was the most appropriate nutcracker.

“Admiral? Analysis from the FIC, sir.”

Caruthers broke out of his thoughts, accepted the tablet he’d just been handed, and ran a well-practised eye over what he was seeing. Deep-FTL sensors had identified fourteen unique warp signatures in the target system, most of them the high-frequency but relatively slow fields generated by fighters on patrol. There was a fighter base near the Eclipse Palace, the destruction of which was an early and critical objective.

The lower-frequency signatures implied larger ships, probably system pickets roaming in support of the fighters. Their presence, in turn, implied the presence of at least one capital ship, most likely Henenwgwyr’s flag vessel the Apex of Virtue.

Destroying that was a critical early step, too.

There were a lot of critical steps, and the failure of any one could be a disaster. But that was the nature of a military operation. They’d planned this one down to every plannable detail, they knew what they were doing.

All that remained was to strike hard, and not stop until the job was done.

He glanced at his watch. One hour to go.

It was going to feel like much longer than that.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Wormhole suppression field generator, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Henenowsyn

Morale was at an all-time low, and Owsyn’s in particular was in the sewer. High-level defections among the Grandmatriarch’s own daughters and grandsons, a resounding defeat by the Gao within their own territory, total loss of diplomatic face and force, and mounting dark speculation about what was really going on in the bunkers under the palace…

It was a toxic brew. One to which Owsyn himself was hopelessly addicted.

He couldn’t resist the urge to fret over the rumors, even while he dutifully suppressed and punished them. He couldn’t help but feel like his sympathy lay more with Matriarch Eriwyth, the “traitor and defector,” than it ever had with the Grandmatriarch herself.

Duty compelled him to hand out punishment details to anyone uttering that sentiment too loudly at his facility, however. Duty, and the lack of any opportunity to put deed to word. There was no escape from the failing House Henen, now. He was deployed to the House’s innermost stronghold, tasked with defending it, and even if every instinct he had was itching to escape…he couldn’t.

None of them could.

So, the only recourse was vigilance and preparedness. His troops were equipped with the latest generation of weaponry rated to handle deathworlders and Hunter Alphas alike. The facility was new and hastily built, but the House had spared no expense in its defences at least. In time, perhaps they would be concealed behind aesthetically pleasing architecture and landscaping, like the hardware up at the palace compound in the adjacent valley, but for now they were bare, visible and blunt in purpose and appearance.

Owsyn should have felt safe, seeing so point defence projectile weapons, direct-radiation rebound shields, patrols in armored exoskeletons equipped with plasma weapons, and a drone hive prepared to descend on an attacking force in a wave of fusion blades and nervejam grenade launchers.

Instead, the trash basket beside his desk was sticky with chewed cwrffwr gum in a vain effort at stress relief. He needed leave. He needed reassignment. He needed to be away from the Grandmatriarch, away from her incessant paranoid checking that all was well, that the facility remained intact, that the suppression field was still active around them.

She was afraid. How could Owsyn not be? They were coming. Everyone knew they would.

It was only a matter of when.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Starship Drunker on Turkeyer, approaching planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Specialist Hunter “FNG” Thompson

HEAT life was the Eat Life. And the Lift Life. And the Study Life. And the Training Life.

And really…not much more. When he wasn’t doing one of the above, he really wasn’t doing much at all. He was surprised by how much free time he had, actually. And at first that was awesome! Lift all week, pub crawl all weekend? Hell yeah! But, as the training got more and more intense, as Firth and Regaari tried to cram everything into his brain, as Adam eventually noticed that Thompson was filling out fast and could use some extra attention…

When Julian or the cavemonkeys needed someone dumb and tough to smush on the mat…

It turned out, before anything else, HEAT life was the Sleep Life. And sleep was glorious.

He’d gone from hanging with his Marine buddies and wallowing in pretty-people attention most every weekend, to spending a lot of his idle time mostly just sleeping. Eating, too. Eating and sleeping. And growing like a mutant weed while he was sleeping, to the point he had actual growing pains. Bad ones, too. And dreaming about pressure diagrams and firing tables, while waltzing tactical dances with Pokémon or Orks in his sleep. He was a combat luchador in his last dream. With lasers.

That sort of thing was apparently pretty normal, at least for the first year or two.

Sometimes, though, they did a mission. Hunter was about to pop his HELLNO cherry. Well, combat HELLNO cherry, with a complex entry, too. He’d actually done five drops already, three with Regaari, another two solo. But this was his first time doing so in anger. They weren’t ready to trust him in a boarding action yet, which felt a bit insulting even though he knew in his head he wasn’t ready…

But they were sure as fuck keen to let him smash shit in the ground assault. He was a special operator, after all. He wasn’t totally useless. Rumor had it he was a pretty big lad, too.

To that end, Hunter was jumping with Regaari—Dexter—directly into the fray, while most of the team stayed behind initially in case any boarding actions were necessary. He was jumping in with Warhorse, too. Standing next to Adam in his full Protector’s battle-rattle, his helmet a full head-height above Hunter’s own…

Christ, he’d never felt so small and puny. Not even Righteous was anywhere near so… much.

But on the other hand, Hunter was on the opening maneuver of the entire mission, and that had to say something, right? Sure, part of it was because he wasn’t fully trained on spaceborne stuff, and would be more useful down on the ground…but with ‘Horse? And Moho? And Dexter? Abbott must’ve thought he either needed a lot of babysitting, or that he could actually keep up.

Maybe both.

…Probably both.

A while back, that mighta bothered him, knowing he needed some babying. Now, though…he’d seen for himself what he still had to earn.

Now, he had three of the deadliest people there ever was goin’ over every inch of his newly-minted EV-MASS, and that was after Mrs. Arés had personally done the same with ten times more judgemental scrutiny.

Funny how scary a tiny pregnant blonde could be. And it wasn’t just down to her husband, neither.

“Your gel underlayer should have had a chance to redistribute by now,” Moho rumbled. “Any pinch points?”

Hunter bounced on his toes. It was a weightier habit, now—in fact, the Mass he wore was significantly heavier than he was—but it was amazing how fast he’d grown used to the extra burden. Now the added weight made him feel powerful and unstoppable, instead of overburdened and struggling.

It used to crunch down unbearably tight too, like when he’d first started sparring with Julian. Hunter was a champion wrestler, sure, but all that skill didn’t matter much given the huge athletic disparity between them. They played at first, but once they got serious? Julian had, without much effort, instantly pinned Hunter and smashed everything into bruised spasming uselessness. Feeling two of his ribs crack under that bearhug sure gentled Hunter right up.

Julian at least had the decency to be super sorry.

They took it a bit more gingerly after that, but that was the thing; it didn’t take long before they could play hard again. Hunter was still a mostly-hapless chewtoy for the big Tarzan and would be for a long time, but now at least he could fight back. The Mass felt a lot the same, really. Rather than that first weekend when Julian accidentally broke him, it felt…fiercely tight, but manageable. Not exactly comfortable yet, but Hunter was adapting to it all very quickly.

For the hardest lads on the team, the Mass had gone from a terrible trial to a snug second skin. At the furthest extreme was Daar and ‘Horse, who wore the fiercest, heaviest versions. Both had said that these days, on a long mission they might sorta forget they were wearing it at all. It’d be a long while before something like that was true for Hunter. But even still…

“…Yeah, I don’t feel nothin’ shiftin’ now.”

Moho nodded reluctantly. “Still think we shoulda kept you in the lighter armor…”

“Naw.” ‘Horse gave him a quick once-over. “We’re lots better at training up the new guys nowadays. Plus, he’s fuckin’ made for this, he can take it. He’ll be one of our best if he keeps his head on a swivel, I bet.”

Thompson was super glad for his breathing mask just then. The smile that assessment put on his face woulda looked super goofy.

“And you will be keeping that thick blonde head of yours entirely mobile,” Regaari noted, after…well, slinking into his own suit. Which was a hell of a feat for a guy a bit bigger still than Hunter. “You are here to achieve the mission first, but you will also be a peerless student.”

It wasn’t a request, or a prediction.

“Target range in seven minutes,” came the call from their fluffy pilot in the front. “I start depressurizing in two.”

“Helmets on!” ‘Horse called.

Putting his helmet on had been tricky at first. The push-down-and-scoop action needed to get it to engage with the collar at the back of his head wasn’t easy to do backwards and blind, but that was why Hunter had spent an afternoon practicing it. He could feel when it was right, the click the helmet made as it settled into place just felt different.

He gave it a couple of twists to be sure, then tucked his chin in to make room for the mask to settle against the front of the collar. Push, pinch hard—

Chunk.

“Helmet on!” he called. Moho leaned over and inspected it, then nodded and gave him a ringing slap on the dome: the sign that, yup, everything was correct.

“Radio test.” Warhorse’s voice was in his ear. “Set comms for LOS only.”

“LOS only, wilco.”

Hunter checked over Moho’s seals, then they repeated the steps with Warhorse. Once everyone had checked everyone else, ‘Horse gave a thumbs up to the camera, and—

Hunter could feel the pressure start to drop by the way the suit’s pressure eased up a bit, and see it by the way that the couch cushions puffed up as they outgassed. The gauge on the wall dipped rapidly, then slowly as the pumps struggled to pull a high-grade vacuum.

The soundscape changed too. He couldn’t hear the low background sounds of the ship, or his comrades’ shifting and breathing any longer. He couldn’t hear anything. Just the hiss of the air lines in his mask, the distant faint gurgle of water in his undersuit, and a dull thud as he shifted and turned and the sound of his own footstep reached him through his own body. His heartbeat jumped in to fill the silence.

The low-bandwidth mic in the mask transformed even Moho’s tectonic bass chuckle into a tinny rasp. “‘Bout damn time we got more elbow room.”

“Plenty of that outside,” Regaari agreed. He stepped away from the ramp as it shook the deck by unlatching and winding downward. The horizon beyond was a rust-orange skin of sky over a black sea. As soon as it was open, he swarmed four-pawed down the ramp and out onto the hull.

Moho followed him, then Thompson was third out. His boots held him securely to the hull, ‘upside-down’ on Drunker on Turkeyer’s belly. Above him, he could see a dead black sea and rusty brown shores, rolling past quick.

“…You guys ever get used to this?” he asked.

‘Horse’s footsteps rang the hull next to him. “Not yet. I fuckin’ love this shit.”

Behind his mask, Hunter Thompson grinned savagely. “Fuck yeah.”

They released, drifted away from the hull, spread out wide and set their fields to catch and drag in the tiny thin atmosphere they were already rushing through…

…And dropped.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Approaching planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Ferd Given-Man

Ferd had jumped from the top of trees to the ground below. He’d fallen off the side of a cliff, tumbled down a hill just for fun. Even jumped from a plane, to prove they could do a tricky thing. They did it with a huge cloth thing called a para-shoot. They did it with big sky-magic too, using force-fields. And they did it with no magic, because the People were strong, and no heights frightened them. Taught Heff how to jump like the people, too. He was more and more a man across tribes, like Jooyun.

There were times, though, that he wished he could jump from above the sky.

Warhorse and his men spent years training to be strong enough and good enough, and they wore the strongest sky-magic there was to make it happen. Ferd thought he was probably man enough to sky-jump too, but the Givings and learnings he’d need were very, very big. He would probably never get to know what it was like to do what only the gods had done before.

But riding in Silent But Deadly when Tooko slipped her down through the sky like a knife into a throat was the next best thing.

Tooko liked to turn things down to “save power.” Something about how the less he used, the quieter they were. What it meant for everyone on board was the usual cold, high-gravity huddle when Deadly pushed hard against the air. But this time, no cold; they were in their armor. It wasn’t as good as Warhorse’s sky-magic…

But aside from them, nobody else had armor as good. Most sky-weapons would bounce off it like a pebble off his chest. It squeezed hard, covered them from head to toe. Heavy, but it moved with him like it wasn’t there, fed oxygen right into his mask. If he wanted, he could seal himself against vacuum in it too. Unlike Warhorse’s armor, there were bits he could leave behind or swap with less annoying options, if he didn’t need to sky-walk.

“Fireball in ten minutes.”

That was the dangerous moment, Ferd knew. Their ship was named for how quiet it was, but there was no quiet way to punch through the sky from above. They would, for some minutes, be a fireball streaking across the sky as they slowed down. There was no way to avoid that.

If they did it on the far side of the planet, and tried to look like a rock falling from space, then probably they’d be ignored. Rocks fell from space all the time, Tooko said: no reason to believe this one was any different. But it still made Ferd tense, knowing that if this time the enemy was not fooled, if this time they looked at the supposed rock and decided to destroy it…Well, the mercy was that they would never see death coming, nor feel it when it came.

Not a warrior’s death that, though. At least, it didn’t feel like one.

The humans seemed calm about it, though. Even Frasier just sniffed and relaxed back against the wall with his eyes closed. If he hadn’t sniffed, Ferd would have guessed he was asleep. Rees was drumming out a beat on his boots, bopping along to music only he could hear. And Heff…

Well, Heff was a short, dark, murderous rock. Ferd couldn’t tell he was moving at all, except his eyes were open and watchful. They’d all checked over each other’s armor and face masks, made their last-minute mission brief.

It was just waiting, now.

Out front, he saw the first licks of flame at the nose. Within seconds, they’d grown and covered the whole field of view. Tooko’s instruments didn’t care, they showed him the horizon in a bright green line, numbers and letters and runes all around that meant very little to Ferd, but Tooko clearly knew well. Their little Gaoian pilot tapped at something on the console in front of him, then duck-nodded in satisfaction and sat back, folding his paws primly in front of him.

Nothing to do now but fall.

Ferd Given-Man shut his eyes, and waited.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Wormhole suppression field generator, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Henenowsyn

Owsyn was pretty sure he was about to die, and yet all he felt was perverse relief.

It wasn’t that things suddenly started exploding or whatever. He was simply summoned from his office to the command center by his second-in-command. One of the perimeter posts hadn’t checked in on schedule. Possibly a technical malfunction.

Owsyn knew it wasn’t though. It was the first real anomaly they’d had since setting up. There was no optimism left in him to expect it was something as simple as a blown fuse or a lax sentry, no matter what the breathtakingly naive technician trying to contact the silent post might think.

He said nothing. What was there to say? If he was right—and he knew he was—then there was no fighting what was coming. No orders or words of encouragement he could give now that would change the next few minutes. Nor, frankly, did he want to change what was coming. After weeks of waiting in fear and dread, knowing that the Moment was finally here felt like…

…Like…

He wasn’t sure. Like the moment after a satisfying sneeze? The moment when his ears finally popped and a headache vanished? Like the moment when an unheeded but irritating background noise suddenly felt silent?

Still, his hand drifted to the holstered pistol on his flank and thumbed the safety off.

When it happened it was so blindingly fast, Owsyn could hardly process it. The technician and his second were still pondering their “comms malfunction” when suddenly the door exploded open and flew across the room, crushing the nearest guard with a grisly red splash. It had been punched open by the fist of an absolute colossus of a deathworlder, clad in the infamous “Mass” armor of the “warm” team the Humans and Gaoians had formed. Owsyn was halfway through snatching his sidearm from its holster and aiming when the giant blinked across the room, something hit him like a truck—

Owsyn was on the ground, crumpled. He tried to move. Couldn’t. Couldn’t move his arms, couldn’t twitch his legs. He could see why. Something had done unspeakable violence to his torso. His hips were broken and bulging weirdly, there was a crater in his chest. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t even tilt his head…neck broken, too.

Already dead. He’d have laughed, if he could. All that waiting, that perverse sense of gratitude that the wait was over, and now here he was, already dead without firing a shot.

Exactly as he’d expected, really.

He felt like he was falling. One of the Humans was leaning over him, stasis bag in hand. Was the fight already over?

It didn’t matter.

Owsyn let go, and fell away from himself and the Human into the dark.


“Shit, that didn’t take much.”

Warhorse wasn’t much impressed by the Kwmbwrw troops themselves. Oh, their surveillance was well-designed, and the layout of the facility was sound as fuck. No denying that. Took Moho almost three whole minutes to find a way around the sensor net surrounding the control center. But once they were in? Disappointing. Warhorse had barely slapped the poor fuck and he was already on death’s door.

Still, Adam bundled the poor bastard up in a stasis bag. Hopefully he’d make it through.

He wasn’t much impressed by their exoskeleton suits, either. Probably they made manual labor a lot easier, but they were obviously designed by people who didn’t understand the iron rules of close quarters combat.

The first rule was to be quicker and faster. Only Gaoians were faster than Warhorse, and then only a few. Absolutely nobody was quicker, only Yan and Daar were his match. All the exoskeletons had done was slow down the Kwmbwrw‘s already glacially slow reflexes, and the layers of armor and shielding they’d un-thoughtfully piled atop weren’t nearly enough to compensate.

The second rule was to be stronger. He may not have been in first place (or maybe even second) anymore, at least for now, but that didn’t help his enemies, because he was way ahead of everyone else. It wasn’t even close to a fair contest, and ‘Horse didn’t believe in fair fights outside of sport. Probably meant the fight would turn into a shooting match, if they ever got their wits about them. Which was why a good warrior always paid attention to rule one.

“…You better bag ‘im quick if you wanna keep ‘im,” Moho commented, making a bee-line for where, moments before, some poor flattened fucker had been manning an important-looking bit of equipment. “Who is he?”

“Base CO, I think.”

The third rule was to be smarter. Warhorse was pretty damn smart these days, but that sort of thing was why they had Moho and Regaari along.

“Right…” Moho had a magical way with two things: explosives and alien GUIs. He never needed long to figure out what he was looking at, and the console he poked at was no different. He nodded to himself, tapped the screen in a couple places, nodded some more, then grinned.

“Farthrow generator power to zero percent…Now.”

Thompson grunted. “Huh…y’all feel that?”

‘Horse nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. Farthrow generators could be felt, kinda like tinnitus in the teeth except so subtle you didn’t notice until it went away. “Yup. Means objective one accomplished.”

Moho briskly demolished the console with his fusion knife, effectively ruining any chance of turning the field back on in the next few minutes, then hefted his weapon. “Done.”

‘Horse hefted the stasis bag with his patient-slash-prisoner onto his back. “Let’s go.”

They’d struck the first blow. Next came the hard part.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Myrmidon, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Admiral Sir William Caruthers

“Beacon signal!”

Caruthers turned and watched across the Fleet Intelligence Center as sailors sprung into action. It was clear within moments, however, that this was what they’d been awaiting: the “dragon’s teeth” sown by Silent But Deadly and Drunker on Turkeyer as they infiltrated the target system had finally broken through the Farthrow’s interference and made strong contact with the fleet.

HEAT team 1 had achieved their mission. And whatever rapid violence they’d perpetrated against the farthrow generator’s operators was about to be eclipsed.

He locked eyes with Rear Admiral Manning and they shared a moment of mutual understanding.

“Jump the fleet.”

From inside the FIC, the jump was almost a non-event. An alert sounded, the hull made a slight pop sound, there was a half-second of slight imbalance…

…And Caruthers’ overview began to populate with contacts. The planet below, the solar shade above. The target facilities and terrain they’d expected, exactly where they were supposed to be. Warp signatures on patrol in the outer system, slow to react and therefore maintaining course for now. Three flights of Voidrippers peeled away from the fleet and speared away to high interplanetary warp, thousands of times lightspeed, intent on intercepting and neutralizing the system pickets before they could respond.

Closer to hand, however, was the Apex of Virtue and her escorts, anchored at a small station in a polar orbit. And to their credit, they were not slow on the uptake.

It was telling just how good Kwmbwrw intelligence must be that they ignored the deadly and powerful Vengeful Fury and instead went for a decapitation shot on Myrmidon. A flurry of superluminal kinetic rounds raked the shields, and Cauthers was rattled against his seatbelt when one of them penetrated.

The explosive sound of something actually hitting their armor went right through him, in a way that defied description. It was like being kicked in the face.

There was no second strike. As he shook his head to clear it, he saw that the San Diego and her sisters had rewoven their own shields, interlocking them protectively around Myrmidon. The Kwmbwrw firepower rained fruitlessly against the impenetrable wall they’d erected, before sensibly switching targets. HMS Valiant flash-jumped several hundred meters to evade a withering volley.

Manning’s career had seen him through more than a few hairy engagements. His voice was level and calm despite the hit to their ship as he began to take control of the battlespace. “Focus fire on the capital ship.”

Caruthers watched intently as the command was followed…to no appreciable effect. The Apex’s escorts had already closed ranks and tightly cocooned her in shielding.

He turned his attention from the spaceborne battle to review the report coming up from the ground teams. HEAT team 1 had a clear mission success, the Farthrow facility below was neutralized and repairs would not be feasible in any reasonable time span. They were moving to destroy the anti-orbital forcefield generators and then exfiltrate so the fleet could flatten the facility and make their sabotage very permanent.

JETS Team 2 were radio silent, as expected. Damage report on Myrmidon—port-side aft ablative armour plating destroyed, minor damage, no casualties. Damage control teams responding, and the ship had executed a roll to present undamaged armour to the foe.

“Change of target, escort Alpha-three,” Manning directed the fleet to target one of the enemy escorts that was a bit out of position. Reports scrolling up on one of his monitors suggested the enemy group had just tried to flash-jump to a higher orbit, only to find themselves locked down by a new Farthrow field, generated by the Vengeful Fury.

Good. A shaky start, and not the instant beheading they’d wanted, but the enemy fleet was now pinned down, and the allied fleet had the advantage in numbers and firepower. The Apex was doomed.

But House Henen wasn’t going down without a fight. The targeted escort took evasive action and slipped behind its fellows’ shield wall, its own shields incandescent as it desperately shed heat, but holding. And from below, the first of the fighters from the base on the ground were scrambling.

All, so far, according to plan. Now, all he was waiting on was Hoeff and his men…

And the dark work they were about to commit.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Mirw-Kwenek Wrrmthwemwnwn, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr

Perception was the most critical quality a Grandmatriarch needed to possess. The moment her aide had reported a delayed status report from their new quantum defense station, she knew the enemy had come for her.

She was up and moving with her personal guard into the deep bunkers before the aide had even finished delivering her report.

“Scramble the fighters. And once I’m safely off-planet, you will activate the ferals.”

The aide hesitated. “Grandmatriarch, if we release them without securing the palace staff first—”

“You would rather take on the deathworlders that are surely coming by yourself, would you?” Wgwyr gave the quivering young woman a withering glare. Weakness. Weakness and disloyalty all around her.

“N-no, Grandmatriarch, I just—”

“Then deploy the ferals. You!” She barked at her security team leader as the aide ducked her body nervously and fled. “Tell the jump array to warm up, we’re leaving.”

The team leader was more dutifully composed than the aide. “Yes, Grandmatriarch.”

They took the short route through the gardens, bustling directly across the open circle of cultivated plant life under the glass dome. Wgwyr hissed in annoyance to herself. She loved the dark garden. Plants that flourished in perpetual twilight were rare, and beautiful ones even more so. The sounds, the smells, the bioluminescent glowings all around her, the darting colorful symbiotic insectoids and other fauna necessary to maintain her collection’s health…

The thought of murderous savages trampling through it all made her quite sick.

There was a faint rustle behind her. Alarmed, she turned around…

The guards following in the rear were gone, with only some faintly swaying leaves.

There was a hoot, another rustle, some muffled crunches, and the forward guards were gone too, so abruptly that they didn’t even get to cry out. All she saw of whatever took them was a suggestion of a tail whipping away into the foliage. Panicked, Wgywr spun a third time, and found herself looking directly into a weapon.

What stood before was…Human, probably. Though it was hard to tell, as it was shorter and rather broader than she thought normal. Theirs’ was a disconcertingly variable species. In any case, he—undoubtedly male—was covered head to toe in armor, which did nothing at all to disguise his bestial deathworlder nature.

They stood for a moment, staring at each other until she gathered herself and stood, regally drawing herself to her full height so that she could tower over the tiny deathworlder.

“My guards?”

His voice was quiet, low, and coarse. “Dead.”

“My aide too?”

The small man nodded. “And anyone else likely to help.”

“And I suppose you are here to gloat.”

The short man shook his head before tossing something at her feet. “No. It ain’t personal.”

“…What is this?”

“An opportunity. He offers you one final chance at mercy. Do the right thing.”

Faintly, she could hear the hatchways at either end of the garden clunk into their locked position. She sneered at the weapon he’d offered her, briefly calculated her odds of success should she try to use it against him…

…And relaxed. Well. The end had come. There would be no justice, only murder.

“Mercy,” she said aloud. “I didn’t think you barbarians knew the word.”

“You didn’t think much at all,” the little man said plainly, and acidly. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. In any case, a quick death ain’t something we’re all blessed with. I’d suggest you take it.”

“I suppose the alternative will be you drag me back to Gao? Will the animal king personally skin me alive, as he’s known to do? Torment me? Tear my throat out with his bare fangs?”

“No, you don’t get the satisfaction, especially considerin’ what ‘yer house is doin’ here. You die here tonight, alone and unremarked, like the evil creature you are. Choose quickly, Grandmatriarch. I’m not a patient man.”

Wgwyr glared at him a moment longer, then kicked the gun away.

“The Hierarchy are right, you know,” she said. “Your kind are a scourge.”

The Human’s face was expressionless. All he did was look down at the weapon, then carefully donned his mask.

A…Ten’Gewek emerged from the shadows. A big one too, also clad in armor. He snapped on his mask as well.

“What? Does your pet simian tear me apart, instead?”

It was gratifying to see the way her words at least stung the stone-age primitive. He visibly bristled, obscene muscles surging under all that armor, tail stiffening. But he didn’t, as she’d expected and half-hoped, seize her and rip her in half.

Instead, he sauntered over toward the display case for the Nightmare cave-choke fungus, one of the prides of the garden collection, prized for its beautiful lustre and glow. He considered it for a moment—

His huge fist blinked through the incredibly thick glass. The strike was so fast she couldn’t see its movement, and the impact so fierce it shattered the glass dome entirely. None of the safety systems came alive. No alarm. No force field. No fail-safe air curtain. Silky dust poured off the fungal fruiting bodies from the sudden flow of air, iridescent in the dim light.

The Ten’Gewek ignored the dust cloud as he turned away, and spoke through his mask. “Jooyun showed me these, on Nightmare. We watched it kill a minizilla. Spores get in the lungs, and grow. Very quick…but not quick enough. Bad death.”

Wgwyr coughed. It had to be just the image he painted, surely. Not even virulent deathworld spores could be that quick…could they?

The savage primate turned his attention to the Human. “Not fast enough, Sky-Reaper.”

“Right.” The little human approached, Wgwyr backed away. She noticed suddenly she was surrounded. Three other Ten’Gewek and two more Humans, though none of them were built so dangerously as their respective leaders. She coughed again, feeling dry in her throat.

“Can’t have you making a scene, so…”

He struck like a lightning bolt. There was pain, his blows precise and professional. She fell to the ground, her legs broken. She coughed again, this time…with a worrying load of phlegm.

The big Ten’Gewek sauntered over, bent down, and snarled right in her face. “Am nobody’s pet.” Rather than show any pride or skill in his craft, he simply reached down uncaringly and snapped her arms like dry twigs.

That pain was like the world going away for little moments, too much for her brain to even process. She didn’t know if she shrieked or not. Afterwards, she was too shaken, too broken, too ruined to move. All she could do was breathe…and even that, not well.

The next cough that wracked her hurt, simultaneously less than her shattered limbs, and yet more because it was at least a comprehensible pain.

“Y’know,” the Human said calmly, as he crouched on his haunches next to her head. “It ain’t a good idea to taunt a fella like him. He can jump like a flea an’ toss cars around like they were toys, and he’s strong enough to break me almost as easily as he broke you. Did’ya think I could lead a man like him with insults? Not that this little life lesson’s gonna matter ‘fer long, but…”

She tried to raise up, defy her tormentors…but she was broken. More than just her limbs, too. Belatedly, Wgwyr realised she couldn’t feel anything below her waist. The little Human must have broken her spine, too. Somehow.

“Well,” he rumbled. “In any case, listen up. Had you ended the program and provided discrete proof of its termination, he would have spared your life and your House. We ain’t interested in a pointless three-front war, and that was communicated to you through diplomatic and clandestine channels. You ignored our overtures. That was unwise.”

Pain and the agonizing impossibility of drawing enough breath conspired to stifle Wgwyr’s reply, even if she’d been able to think of one. She simply glared at him, wheezing pitiably.

“But, well. You made your choices, so here we are,” the human continued, indifferent to her suffering. “Either the spores or the shock’ll take about twenty minutes to kill you…well, maybe shorter. You ain’t a deathworlder. In any case, it won’t be fun. So here’s my lil’ offer of mercy. I’m gonna ask some questions about the program. If you answer them to my satisfaction, I say ‘screw appearances,’ and I put my fist right through your skull. Over in a flash. Well?”

Wgwyr managed to wheeze her reply out through the gravelly agony in her chest. “F’ck…you…” She found a little more. “You get nothing.”

He shrugged. “Well, that’s too bad for you.” ‘Sky-Reaper’ picked up his weapon and walked away. Noiselessly, his team followed. She saw one of them handing out packs of what would surely be explosives.

Of course. Deniability. Crushed and broken would be easily explainable if the dome collapsed. As would the poisoning.

Henenwgwyr spat on the ground after them, then rested her head and relaxed. It was over. All that remained was pain.

She let it wash over her like the tide, and carry her away.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Hms Myrmidon, orbiting planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Admiral Sir William Caruthers

In a flare of vaporized armor, one of the alien escorts fell out of formation, not destroyed but lacking power to her engines. Sir William idly noted that they would have four hours to restore thrust before their new orbit became an uncontrolled, and therefore fatal, re-entry. Unsurprisingly, the stricken escort promptly started shooting out lifeboats. Good. One step closer to sinking that flagship.

He had to hand it to the Kwmbwrw. Their ships were sturdy, agile, and packed a respectable punch for their size. And his opposite number, whoever she was, knew every trick in the book. She was pulling hard for higher orbit, fighting for the kinetic energy advantage, and her escorts were stripping dragon’s teeth out of the sky by the hundred with point-defence energy weapons, suppressing his own fleet’s ability to maneuver.

The pursuit could only end one way, and they both surely knew it, but stubborn pride was a terrible thing. Clearly the fleetmatriarch intended to drag their clash out to the bitter end.

Things were, at least, less hectic than they’d been in the battle’s opening minutes. He had time to think, to take stock, to be briefed on the ground operation.

It was interesting news.

“ADELLE has been neutralized, but the team reports that there are likely biodrones in the bunkers under the palace.”

Carothers raised an eyebrow. “Really, now? How did they learn that?”

“Overheard from ADELLE herself. She ordered them released in the palace.”

That changed the tactical situation considerably. What was hoped to be a punitive smash-and-grab had now become something worse.

“Update the warning order for our supporting conventional forces, put them on high alert. Admiral Manning!”

Manning’s head turned. “Sir.”

“The situation on the ground has changed, we need to seize the palace.”

Manning understood instantly; the fleet would need to redeploy to a new set of orbits, and that would take time. It would also require the opposing fleet be neutralized or held at bay: Supporting the ground operation would require Caledonia to drop into a low orbit where she was vulnerable.

“Understood,” he replied, and refocused on his role in all this. Caruthers felt a touch of G-force as Myrmidon boosted, obedient to the admiral’s new orders.

Hopefully, they wouldn’t need to send more HEAT down. That was always expensive, and risky. Hopefully, the bunkers underneath the palace would be manageable. But ‘hopefully’ had no place in a comprehensive plan. He needed to prepare for all knowable contingencies. He needed to prepare for casualties, for the need to rapidly drop the deadliest men in the galaxy on the target, and for the possibility of smashing that whole palace from orbit. Caledonia was the ship for all three jobs. He just needed it in the right place: low, and exposed.

A report came up from the HEAT team already deployed: shields offline, target area clear. A minute later, USS Robert A. Heinlein obligingly sent a Rod-From-God to flatten the offending facility.

Good. There was now no obstacle to invasion. And they were going to need a lot of men for this one.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
valleys south of Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Specialist Hunter Thompson

“Where did you learn to hotwire an alien cargo truck?”

Moho gave him a Look that Hunter could see even through the visor. He shut up.

They were bouncing along the gravel road between the Farthrow and Twilight Palace, the suspension riding dangerously low and Warhorse driving like a possessed demon. Seemed as good a time as any to talk a bit; Hunter kept his sector clear and his eyes peeled of course, but his training was so intense lately, that the day’s breakneck pace was, somehow, both less hectic and more draining.

“I taught him,” Dexter was riding on the hood, nose lifted into the wind and looking for all the world like a dapper but armor-plated wolfhound who knew they were going to the park. “…Flash shields, lads. RFG strike in ten seconds.”

Hunter slapped down the gold-plated over-visor that let him stare into a sun or his own reentry plasma without being blinded, and hunkered down in the truckbed a little. Still, like Moho he couldn’t resist looking back toward the base they’d just hit and left.

Three mississippi, two mississippi, one…

There was the briefest suggestion of something moving ridiculously goddamn fast, then a flash so bright that Hunter’s eye protection went totally opaque, safely blinding him for a moment.

It relaxed a second later, and Hunter’s jaw dropped inside his mask as he watched the land just kinda boil upwards where a whole buncha buildings had been just seconds earlier, in eerie silence.

He was about to say something when the intervening miles of loose dirt rushed at him and hit the truck with a force that made it bounce worse than any pothole. He clung on tight, grimaced when his fingers crunched the metal and plastic, then looked around in disbelief at the hundreds of small landslides the shockwave had knocked loose all around them.

“Jesus!” Hunter could barely contain his nervous excitement. “That was fuckin’ awesome!”

“Wait ‘till you get nuked for real,” ‘Horse remarked, distractedly. They had to be going close to two hundred klicks an hour.

“When did you get nuked?”

“Technically, never,” Moho rumbled. “The Gao’ve got way bigger shit than nukes.”

“We got to watch Daar blow up a giant space donut.” ‘Horse suddenly veered around a pothole, not bothering to slow down.

“From below,” Moho added. He sounded like that one had made an impression. “Made the atmosphere all fucky. Auroras an’ shit in the middle of the day. An’ big-ass chunks of the fuckin’ thing burnin’ as they came down.”

“That was a hell of a day,” Regaari agreed, solemnly.

“That musta been cool to watch,” Hunter commented.

“Yeah. Nothin’ like watchin’ billions die.” Warhorse’s tone was…warning.

Hunter shut up, and accepted Moho’s not-unkind slap upside the back of the helmet as what he owed for speakin’ before he thought.

The cargo truck was weird. Sure, it had all the basics—flat bed at the back for hauling stuff, a wheel on each corner with big chunky tyres for handling on loose dirt and gravel. But it was built by, and for, alien quadrupeds who stood more than three meters tall when they straightened up, and whose spindly bodies were mostly legs. The seats and controls didn’t fit a human driver at all.

The first problem was the cab. It wasn’t needed, so ‘Horse and Moho just ripped most of it off, leaving the hood covering the truck’s beefy electric motor intact. They’d left the control column too, and luckily the Kwmbwrw didn’t seem to use foot pedals. It was all hand controls, and a self-drive function that Moho disabled easily—he ripped the camera off, and the truck automatically switched to manual-drive mode.

Even still. ‘Horse was a tall sumbitch, and standing up—he ripped the driver’s seat out, too—he was only barely in a position to comfortably operate their sudden dune-buggy.

Which was why Regaari was riding on the nose, gecko-sticky gloves and boots keeping him safely anchored to the metal and nose into the wind, calling out upcoming twists in the road like a rally navigator. The fact he was obviously enjoying it was just a side benefit, he said.

Suuure.

He looked up when Regaari turned his head, cocking it to listen to something.

“…Hostile air coming our way,” he warned. “North-west. Friendlies intercepting…We should find some cover.”

‘Horse twisted the wheel, and Hunter grabbed on hard as they bounced right off the “road” and down onto lower terrain. On Earth, it would have been a creek choked with trees and stuff: here, there was a creekbed and a trickle of water, but no plants.

That said, there was a nicely tall undercut along the bank, which they could put between them and the flyboys to the north. The truck, though, had reached its limits. ‘Horse cursed and slowed as something under Hunter’s feet went crunch, and the ride suddenly got a whole lot rougher before coming to a halt.

They dismounted into calf-deep water: Dexter sprang off the hood, clear to the bank, and paused. His suit was full of all kinds of fancy communications tech, Hunter knew, and he saw more of the bigger picture than the rest of them. He duck-nodded sharply after a moment’s consideration.

“I think we’re good. They won’t have a clean angle on us, and Drunker’s on their ass.”

“Our truck gonna be problem?”

“Nah. Should be hidden, given the line of sight.”

“Works for me,” ‘Horse decided. He plopped himself down with back to the bank, and attached one of his liquid meals to his eating tube. “Keep your helmet on, Thompson.”

Thompson hadn’t been planning on taking it off, but he nodded, and copied what the older guys were doing. He’d figured out early on that if they stopped to eat, he stopped to eat. The liquid lunch was kinda nasty, though. Like baby food with added fat. He slurped it down as quick as he could, chasing it with the high-intensity energy drink while a pair of sonic booms rocked past overhead, fleeing for the eastern horizon.

A moment later a louder, sharper, faster boom followed on their heels.

“Ride’s fucked,” Moho opined, after lifting one corner of the truck to peer underneath. “Drive shaft’s bent.”

‘Horse snorted. “Congratulations, Thompson. You just broke your first vehicle.”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one driving it!”

“Nah, but you’re a big kid already. Hell, we’re all big dudes in bigger armor. Added up I bet we’re way over whatever this jalopy was designed to deal with.”

“Better than staying on the road and being a nice easy target,” Regaari said, in between slurping a brownish-grey paste through a tube. His own field meals, Hunter knew, were some kind of slurry of anchovies and stuff. He’d tried it once on a dare and damn near vomited.

“So…what do we do now?”

Hunter waited while ‘Horse was on the radio, using his narrow-beam uplink to whatever was up in the sky. A few moments later, “For now, load up. Moho, we try and bend that back into place? I can hold the car up for you while you work. If not, we hoof it. It’s only like twenty klicks at this point.”

Moho lifted the truck’s corner again and considered it. “…Hoof it.”

“Fair ‘nuff.” ‘Horse reached into the bloodworks pouch on his hip and checked his canisters. “Make sure y’all are topped off, we’re gonna need it. Fill your bellies, too.”

Hunter grabbed a second meal pouch, despite not feeling remotely hungry. Twenty klicks on foot, in the Mass? This was gonna suck every kind of ass. No sense in complaining about it, though.

Regaari’s only comment was a heartfelt groan. “Will this at least count in our PT logs, ‘Horse?”

“No.” The big man stood, bounced around, and proceeded to stretch. He was surprisingly flexible, even inside his suit. Hunter sprang to his feet and copied him. “Whatever gave you the idea I was that kinda merciful?”

“Foolish of me, you’re right…” Regaari chittered ruefully, checked the seat and settle of his equipment, tightened a strap, then dropped to four-paw and set out upstream.

They trotted along at a comfortable pace, while everyone finished drinking their nutrition and waited for their combat medicine systems to report they were happy. Twin columns of black smoke on the eastern horizon suggested Drunker had caught her quarry.

That was all ‘Horse needed. With a single springing leap, one that was an almost casual mid-stride afterthought to clearing the three-meter embankment, he flung himself well over the top of the bank and set to pace, stasis patient strapped to his back. The rest of them followed behind, perhaps not with as much effortless grace. Or, in Hunter’s case, not without a bit of a scrabbling climb.

‘Horse set a hard pace to follow, one that would be a flat-out sprint in normal everyday terms. He’d obviously mastered the trick of running in lower gravity, which seemed to involve some kind of flowing, almost long-jumping sort of gait. Hunter found himself breathing hard almost immediately, and knew instantly that he was the lagging man in the group.

Well…fuck.

But that was okay. The Mass would keep him physically going. He just had to endure, and get better. He could hack it, he knew he could. He’d already hacked worse.

Hunter Thompson focused on his breathing, fumbled his way into matching everyone else’s stride, emptied his mind of worries, and ran.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, planet Gao

Uriigo, Champion of Clan Bronzefur

His day of reckoning had come.

Uriigo hurt. All over. From exhaustion and effort, but also in his soul. After weeks of purges, investigations, and ruthless excisions, whatever it was that called itself Bronzefur was already a radically different Clan. It had to be, with its leadership facing the Great Father’s wrath.

He’d uncovered so many dirty deals in the last few weeks that he wondered if he’d ever feel fresh and clean again. And a few of the Fathers he’d caught red-pawed had put up a fight. Honestly, he’d come close to losing a few of those: Uriigo’s hide was still itching with new claw-cuts and he’d come much too close to losing an eye.

And now, he had to face the Great Father. In open Conclave, not merely the small standing committee Daar had taken to calling his Cabinet.

It was a severe affair. Daar stood tall and fierce on the dais, crown upon head and his short athlete’s coat freshly groomed. He was, as always, flawlessly magnificent in all his terrible, maximum glory. He had a throne this time too, new and intricately carved from a single massive piece of ultra-rare burled ironwood. It was a priceless display of wealth commissioned just for this moment, to underscore how serious and public the occasion truly was.

In front of the full artistic expression of Gaoian pride and civilization, and of the living embodiment of the Gao, the avatar of absolute strength and unrestrained power…Uriigo felt like a reeking beggar. He’d bathed, there was no blood in his fur, but he knew he looked ragged and tired, and there was no hiding the dressings on some of his nastier new scars.

Daar sat, and the rest of the Conclave sat in turn. In his biggest, most powerful voice: “Uriigo, Champion of Bronzefur. Attend me.”

Damaged as he was, Uriigo still wouldn’t let his Clan down now by shuffling forward with a bent back. He stood, summoned up what pride he had left, his hope that he’d done enough and his confidence that there was still plenty of merit worth keeping in his Clan, and stepped forward.

Still: before the Great Father, there was no option except for abject prostration. He bowed low. “My Father.”

“You have taken an accounting of your Clan’s crimes.”

“I have, My Father.”

Daar sat forward in his throne, the huge, primal shapes of his powerful body shifting dangerously under his fur. “List them.”

It was a long list. So much smuggling, so much theft, so much corruption, so much war profiteering. So much complicity in so much suffering across Gao, and beyond. Uriigo’s was the only voice that spoke for several long minutes, his shameful report echoing hollowly off the old stone walls.

He’d never felt so dead inside.

The Great Father sniffed toward Uriigo, and considered him for a long moment.

“That is a great shame upon your Clan, Champion. A shame upon all the Gao.”

“Yes, My Father.” He couldn’t contest the charge. It was true.

There was another long moment, while the Great Father considered matters.

“Champion Reeko, does Straightshield have anything further to add?”

The Champion stood from his seat in the front. “No, My Father. His accounting was complete.”

“Are there any further grievances any Clan wish to levy? I would counsel you,” Daar growled, “to consider carefully the merits of your case before piling on.”

There were none. As Reeko had said, the accounting of Bronzefur’s sins was complete, and accurate in every particular. Daar swept his gaze across the chamber, then duck-nodded when his call was met with silence.

“Very well.” Daar sat up on his throne, and everyone else straightened up as well. Once the rustle had calmed down, “Champion Uriigo, are you prepared to receive judgement?”

“…As much as I can be, My Father.”

The Great Father gave a small chuff at that honest statement of Uriigo’s personal terror. “You need not fear much for yourself, Champion. I am impressed by your honesty, your forthrightness, your thorough investigation, and your unflinching loyalty to the Gao. I ask you: do you believe your duty discharged and complete?”

…He was being tested, Uriigo knew. But it wasn’t much of a test; the answer was obvious.

“No. No…My Father. I don’t think it ever will be.”

“No.” It was then that Daar did something almost unimaginable. Rather than kill or maim Uriigo on the spot, as he’d done to others for less terrible crimes…

He slid off his throne, padded over on all fours and pulled Uriigo into a hug. “There’s no escaping duty, Uriigo. Not for any of us.”

That was…an unthinkable display of mercy. Uriigo felt himself fall apart, right then and there. Daar buried his face against his mighty chest, and shifted to the side…to shield Uriigo from view, and spare him the shame of a breakdown before the Conclave.

He needed sparing. It was all he could do to hold in the shame, the relief, the gratitude and the exhaustion and not keen until he was spent.

Somehow, somewhere, he found the strength to pull himself together, and pull away from Daar’s mercy. “What…what of my Clan?”

“Right.” Daar stood again, the personal moment over. “It seems to me that the vast majority of your Clan is guilty of at least some petty crime. There is a pervasive culture of graft. Do you accept this charge?”

He didn’t have any choice, but it was fair. After everything he’d seen, he’d have called it something worse. “Yes, My Father.”

“Well…as a trial of a Clan millions strong would be logistically…difficult…and might have a calamitous impact on the Gao, I am pleased to accept your humility and continued leadership in its stead. Nonetheless…Champion Reeko! I order all members of Clan Bronzefur to be publically shaved, and for those I do not command otherwise, let the matter be done.”

There was some quiet chittering in the room, quickly suppressed. Few things would be so embarrassing, but, well…it was the gentlest possible punishment.

The Clan would live.

“And…the rest?”

Daar sobered up. He had his duties, too. “All officers of any rank greater than Associate shall be scar-marked by degree appropriate to rank and offence, then demoted to Candidate. I shall leave it to their personal honor on seeking cosmetic treatment. At an appropriate time, you, Champion, shall cause these Candidates to prove their continued value to the Clan.”

Uriigo accepted that with no issue. There would be those among the Clan who bore their judicial scar with dignity, and in years to come he’d probably favor them. Leaving it to the individual would help him ensure the next generation understood what had happened and why.

Daar wasn’t done, however.

“All former Brothers of the Rites and higher rank shall face castration, on judgement of Straightshield. You will choose a cadre of Fathers who best preserve the ideals and customs of your Clan, compatible with your honorable leadership. They shall not escape any punishments Straightshield may levy, but they may keep their rank, title, and authority, as only we Crowned or Our Champions may take those things, as it has always been, and as it shall always be.”

That was…not good, but survivable. The Great Father would preserve the power of the Clans. But he still wasn’t done, and he saved the worst for last.

“The former Fathers of Bronzefur bear principal fault for your Clan’s dishonor. I command that those not spared by your choice shall be executed, on Straightshield’s judgement. It would please me if these sentences were carried out swiftly and mercifully. However, those directly complicit will face the Hundred Cut. You may grant them the mercy of death as you see fit, but not until their pelts are laid before my feet, and their lives shall be preserved until then. The ringleader of this scheme shall receive no mercy from anyone of any kind, on pain of death. You, Champion, will remember always that it is your honesty, honor, and zeal that spared you the same fate, and your Clan its destruction.”

Uriigo duck-nodded, solemnly. That, he’d entirely expected. “And…myself?”

“You have experienced punishment enough, Champion. You shall be held free and pardoned on this matter.” Daar’s signature wry humor crept in slightly. “You may keep your fur, your balls, and your dignity. But that is contingent on your future excellent leadership of your Clan through this trial. Do not disappoint me. I have no desire to destroy another Champion.”

“I understand, My Father.”

And that…concluded matters. Formally, at least. Court didn’t just stop without some small amount of ceremony, but it was only a small amount.

Uriigo enjoyed the Great Father’s and Great Mother’s hospitality in their private rooms afterwards. A sign of renewed trust, and a chance to share some thoughts unofficially. And, frankly, a relief from exhaustion and physical pain, thanks to Naydra’s caring touch.

And Daar’s incomprehensibly powerful grip. Uriigo was one big ball of spasming stress after it all, so the Great Father took it upon himself to smash all that right out of him as only he could. It was…well, agonizing, albeit effective. Daar truly did not know his own strength. It was worth it though, for the profound relief that came after every inch of him had been flattened into submission.

Pain seemed to be a common theme with Daar.

“Balls, ‘yer wound up tight as hell…there. That feel any better?”

Uriigo only had enough strength to mumble vaguely in the positive. Daar chittered, pulled him in for a friendly snuggle—well, okay, more like a friendly crush, with a leg that dwarfed his entire gods-damned body pinning his hips—and joined him in a brief rest.

Only brief, though. Uriigo had too much on his mind. Naydra seemed to have a magical sense for these moments and brought drinks at the exact right instant; a mug for him, and something vastly larger for Daar. “Here. Something to soothe the pain.”

“…Thank you.”

She chittered, and curled up with them. Daar pulled the three of them together, and they enjoyed the silence for a bit longer.

After a while, though, after Naydra complained about being too warm and wriggled away to make and serve a few more drinks and snacks, Uriigo felt comfortable to get the one last thing off his chest that he felt he needed to say.

“When I became Champion…This isn’t quite what I expected. I never thought I’d be the one to change things up.” He considered the warm, spiced talamay in his paws. “…I’m as guilty as all the others of some of that petty crime, you know. A little cash on the side, when I was an Associate, to not inspect the cargo too closely. A few shipments ‘off the books.’ It was…normal. The expected thing. And any Associate who made too much fuss about it would never have been considered suitable for advancement. And by the time I passed the Rites…the shared culpability was part of the initiation.”

Daar nodded without judgement. It was a cozy setting, made better by snacking on some tasty cheese curd fritters. “I figgered, yeah.”

“…I should present myself to be shorn.”

Daar nodded approvingly. “Would help, I think. Share some o’ the burden. And you’re a fit good-lookin guy so, prob’ly might have some happy side effects ‘fer ‘ya, too…”

Uriigo could hear the Great Mother’s eyes roll from the other room. He couldn’t help but chitter too, which he did nervously…

But all he got was a fond rib-bending hug in return.

“This isn’t what I was expecting, I’ll admit.”

“What were you expectin’?”

“Well…you did justice.”

“You were expectin’ a rampage,” he said, not unkindly.

“Not…I mean, yes, at first. But not more recently. I don’t mean I was expecting you to be merciful, but at the same time, I think I knew you would be…” Uriigo scratched his own ear at the half-baked thought. “…but justice is aloof. I wasn’t expecting warmth afterwards.”

“I am the font of justice, not justice itself. I’m allowed some feeling,” he said with some gentle humor. “Uriigo, you just went through a trial that coulda broken ‘ya, and instead you came out showin’ all the qualities I admire. I can’t not appreciate that.”

“Still, you were the force behind that trial.”

“Trials build us, if they don’t destroy us. One’a my Human friends damn near breaks his buddies on a daily basis, but he loves ‘em all the more for it. I should know, I’m one o’ those broken buddies.”

“…All this to make us better.” Uriigo duck-nodded. “I don’t think I understood before. I think I do now.”

“Yeah. I get it, ‘cuz in the years after the War, I had a sorta personal journey with who I am. I resisted the Crown for so long…but y’know what? I was doomed to fail. I am the Great Father, an’ there ain’t nothin’ I or anyone can do to change that. I ain’ jus’ a more bigger version o’ regular big ol’ Daar, neither. I gotta embody a terrible majesty, Uriigo. Mind, body, an’ soul. None of us can escape duty. Least of all me.”

Uriigo found himself keening very slightly, then flicked his ears back in mild embarrassment. Daar chuffed, swirled his talamay in its cup, then drained it.

“It’s a fuckin’ thing, huh? On the one hand, the whole of the Gao and all her people are mine, just as much as this land, as much as my fuckin’ livestock. No other ruler in the fuckin’ galaxy is so terribly absolute. I am the Gao. I can do anything. But for the sake of all of us, an’ really, myself most of all? I cannot permit myself a thing, if duty intercedes. Bein’ so unfettered an’ powerful, I gotta live up to the majesty o’ my rank. ‘Cuz if I don’t, then…what happens to us?”

Uriigo…understood. Before, he hadn’t, and probably couldn’t have. But now, after the events of the last few weeks, he felt the shape of what Daar was saying, in every knotted inch of his muscles.

“I just wish I’d caught the biodrone export sooner. Stopped it.”

“That,” Daar said, “is bein’ taken care of. You’ve learned, Uriigo. That’s the bit that really matters. Now…tonight, at least ‘fer a little while…I wanna jus’ be a ‘Back an’ a Brother. Of all the riches an’ power I have, that’s the only blessin’ ‘sides Naydi I ever wanted, an’ it’s the thing I almost never get. An’ right now, it’s what you need too, I think.”

On that score, Uriigo couldn’t argue. He plucked another fritter out of the bowl, duck-nodded, and, somehow, set his worries aside for the night. Daar grumbled in a friendly sort of way, smashed Uriigo affectionately against himself, and the two drifted off into a warm, comfortable sleep.

And the pain, for just a little while, went away.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Ferd Given-Man

“…Now that’s a big bloody door.”

Ferd didn’t always see what was so funny about understatement, but Frasier loved it. They weren’t just facing a “big door,” they were facing a wall of metal that probably opened, somehow. Deep under the palace, sunk into the rock, the gods only knew how deep everything behind it went…

And that was a problem. They needed to be inside. After what they’d heard Oo-Gweer saying, the day’s Taking wouldn’t be complete until the bunkers were open and the biodrones inside dealt with.

“Hotball?” Nomuk suggested. Ever since he’d seen a demonstration of those destructive little death-callers, he’d always been looking for a chance to use one for real. But Heff was shaking his head.

“That thing could tank a nuke,” he said. “We need engineers. Or, fuck, an engineering unit.”

Ferd twitched his tail as a pair of fighters streaked past above them, rattling the glass ceiling. “Or smash the bunker from the sky. Mercy death for the biodrones.”

“Could. That wouldn’t get us our objective. I better make a call.”

Ferd nodded, and without speaking they spread out and hunkered down. Koom-boo-roo were weak, but a man was weak next to a Brown One, and Ferd had seen one of those brought down. Never be idle, never stop listening.

Beside him, Tumik had their array on his back. If he set it up, they’d have their engineers soon enough. If not…the palace was a pretty place. A shame to smash it. But they would, if they had to.

Time to see what the ones above thought.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Myrmidon, orbiting planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Admiral Sir William Caruthers

“We have an on-site report from the JETS team. Eclipse Palace has a hardened bunker which will require heavy assets. They’re requesting an engineering unit or an orbital strike, if that’s not available.”

Caruthers didn’t need to consider those options for long. Their objectives for this operation had always involved gathering intel on the House Henen biodroning operation. Striking the bunkers from orbit was a sure way to damage or utterly ruin whatever they contained.

“We have an American unit on standby, I believe?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want their opinion on how quickly they can affect entry into that bunker.”

Time, after all, was not unlimited. The other Great Houses were officially unaware of this strike against House Henen, and perhaps even accepted it as a necessary sacrifice if they wished to avoid embarrassment in the Security Council, and widespread political damage. But appearances could only be kept up for so long. Sooner rather than later, they would need to either officially sanction the operation, or retaliate.

Sir William had hoped to achieve all objectives before that moment arrived.

“Have the JETS team fall back to a more secure position, deploy their array, and consolidate forces. Have the on-ground HEAT do the same. No use burning them up over country. I want us able to offer a comprehensive option in the next fifteen minutes, and provide whatever the engineers will need to evaluate.”

Out in high orbit, the Apex of Virtue was down another two escorts, their broken hulls tumbling and leaking gas. A dozen voidrippers were slingshotting around the planet at high acceleration, on course to come up behind her defensive formation and sink her, but without being able to warp—gravity spikes were locking down space for tens of light-seconds around—their maneuver was going to take the best part of an hour. How much time he had after that was anyone’s guess.

Hopefully, the engineers worked fast.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
valleys south of Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Specialist Hunter Thompson

‘Horse bounced to a sudden stop. “Change of plan. Moho, the array please.”

Hunter internally celebrated the end of his torment. His legs were pain and worse, because of the blood lab built into his Mass kept him ready to perform, at the possible cost of injury. His wrist computer had his HEALTHCON at yellow, so he was already pushing it—

“Was about to call in anyway,” ‘Horse said, kindly. “It’ll be a few years ‘fore you’re fully conditioned. Don’t stop moving, though. Keep walkin’.”

“Bet….bet I’ll be….a fuckuva lot better…after this…” Hunter groaned, and clipped a fresh powder cartridge into his drinking water. Normally, he’d have checked which flavor, but right now he just needed the top-up. By pure luck, he got his favorite sour cherry.

“Fuck yeah, dude.” ‘Horse’s tone was all business. “Moho, looks like we’ll be joinin’ back up with the rest of the team an’ re-deploying to the Palace. Can offload my patient too.”

“Why for?”

“Gotta big door needs smashin’.”

“I thought I sensed Snapfire’s raging boner.” Moho flicked open the array case and it sprang out, unfolding itself into a massive cube, two meters on each side…and ‘Horse still had to stoop a bit to fit himself and all his gear under it.

Though Hunter had to admit, the cube did feel a bit more claustrophobic than he’d imagined it would…

A flash of absolute black, the feeling he’d suddenly moved a tremendous distance without moving at all, and he was back aboard the Caledonia.

Deacon favored him with special attention, at his side and inspecting his medical readouts before he’d even properly got his bearings. Tisdale and Miller were all over Moho just as quickly, and ‘Horse traded a few easy jokes with Hargreaves and Doyle as he stepped off the platform.

The bastard barely seemed fatigued at all. Jesus, Hunter had some work ahead of him.

“…Okay, computer’s just bein’ panicky,” Deacon declared, applying an extra shot of Crue-D through his MASS’s medical port. “You’re good. But chill out for a few minutes, okay? Just walk around the deck, let the Crude do its thing. Yell at me if you feel dizzy or anything.”

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Hunter promised her. She nodded, slapped his arm, and darted away to check on Moho.

Regaari joined him in his slow lap of the bay. He’d been loping alongside ‘Horse the whole way since they’d left the truck behind, and Gaoians—even HEAT-conditioned standouts like Dexter—just weren’t built for distance running. He looked about as sore as Hunter felt.

“I never enjoy long runs. Warhorse loves them. No accounting for taste, is there?”

“How!? Big guys normally hate jogging!”

“I think in his case it’s precisely because it’s more of a challenge.”

“Yet another thing I’m hopelessly behind in, I guess…”

Dexter was perceptive, Hunter had to give him that. He knew exactly what was grumbling in the back of Hunter’s mind. “Don’t get too worked up about the HEAT’s home-grown Keeda. He’s a very high standard to compare yourself to, Hunter. The highest, actually. So don’t worry about what he can do. Worry what you can do, and how you can be a bit better every day.”

“I know, I know…”

“I mean it. I nearly drove myself crazy trying to compare myself to others in the past. My first encounter with a human was an entirely normal young woman, and I didn’t stack up to her at all. I’d improved much since, once I’d begun to glimpse the cage of mediocrity put around my people, but then some years later I met ‘Horse, watched Daar blossom…they both ended up eclipsing anything I could even dream of attaining, and it…” Regaari paused, sighed, and wobbled his head back and forth, gathering his words. “…it put things in perspective. Taught me to see the ways I constructively differ from them.”

Hunter looked across the bay toward ‘Horse, who was conferring with Campbell over a tablet. “…I’ll never come close to his level, will I?”

“I didn’t say that. I said, don’t worry about it. Do what you can, at the highest level you can. If it’s meant to be, you’ll get there eventually. If not, why feel bad about it?”

“I guess.”

Regaari chittered. “Everyone on the team compares themselves to ‘Horse and Righteous at first. Everyone on the team has to drop that bad habit. And you’re not alone. Righteous envies ‘Horse, ‘Horse envies Daar…there’s always someone.”

“And Daar?”

“…I think he’s psychologically better suited to it, given his history. He was bred and raised to excel, yijao? But even still, he admires ‘Horse quite a lot: his work ethic, his skills, his unmatched toughness and athleticism, his effectiveness as a coach. Daar thinks of them as a team and what he can do these days as a team effort. So even he’s not immune…which is good, really. Would you want to meet the man who truly believes he’s the best in the universe?”

“Even if he is?”

“Especially if he is. A creature like either of them without humility or a higher cause to serve…”

“Y’know, you put it that way? Now I’m honestly a little scared of ‘em.”

“Exactly. But you can help them both by being their friend.” Regaari stopped walking, stood up, and stretched. “Everybody needs other people, Thompson. Everybody.”

Hunter nodded, slowly. “I think I get it.”

“Good. How are you feeling?”

“Better. Fuckin’ love Crude, right?”

Regaari chitter-sighed. “I love the results, certainly…but that’s a philosophical question for another day. We should meander back and see what’s next.”

Hunter nodded, and followed. “Thanks.”

“No worries. I understand better than most what it’s like to get knocked down a few pegs.”

They re-stocked on ammo, food, drink powder and stuff, slammed down another fatty baby-food pouch, and topped up their suits’ power cells. Back at the jump array, ‘Horse gave them a nod. “Feelin’ recharged?”

Hunter grinned inside his mask, pulled off his best Big Cornfed Pose, and hammed it up. “Ready and fuckin’ able, sergeant!”

“Dude. Did you seriously just flex on me?” ‘Horse laughed genuinely, and back-slapped Hunter right into the array. “We’ll work on your meathead skills later.” Once he stepped in himself, though, he flashed instantly into a more serious persona. “Got corpses to stack, now.”

Hunter nodded and fell in alongside him. “Right.”

And that was all that needed to be said. ‘Horse knew Hunter had his back.

There was a black flash, and a thump.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
House Henen Grand Battlecruiser Apex of Virtue, above planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Fleetmatriarch Henenawryen

Losing one escort had put more stress on the others, until one of them had finally failed, then another, and now another…

Awryen watched its shields reach white-hot incandescence and then fail spectacularly, dumping their accumulated energy inwards. The ship fell out of formation, no longer accelerating, no longer firing or shielding, hull glowing hot and shedding droplets of molten metal. Softened and weakened by the heat, its pressurized innards burst, scattering smoke, superheated air and cooked crew into the void.

That was her fate, soon.

And…for what? Was help even coming? Her desperate message to the other Great Houses had returned only silence, and considering the total absence of any comms traffic from the planet below, or even from their own scout satellites…

Their comms were jammed. They couldn’t warp, couldn’t jump, couldn’t out-accelerate the Humans and Gaoians, and if their shield wall didn’t fail first, there was surely a rapid strike group circling the planet to come up from behind.

And again…for what? For a House falling apart at the seams? Her own sister, Awryen’s predecessor in commanding this very ship and fleet, had defected to House Icwd. For a paranoid and domineering Grandmatriarch who should have have been pushed out years ago, and who was probably dead or captured now anyway?

Awryen had daughters and nieces on the Apex. Could she really bring herself to fight to the death and take them with her?

…No. No she couldn’t.

The moment her will to fight broke felt like the moment she decided to live, and save their lives, rather than like failure. She leaned forward heavily on her command console, and gave a command that had been growing inside her like a hot ball. “…All ships…cease firing. Signal to the enemy that we wish to surrender.”

The hail of firepower ceased. A few last rounds completed their trajectories, but then the guns fell silent. No more directed radiation, no more missiles. A moment of peace fell.

Then, the translated message from her opposite number.

“Apex of Virtue, disperse your formation, drop your shields and cease acceleration. Prepare to surrender to our boarding party.”

Awryen took a deep breath, then gestured to her subordinates to follow the command. This was a moment of…not trust, but testing. Their shields would have failed and they would all have died eventually anyway. If the Humans chose chose to execute them now…well, it was only hastening what would have happened anyway.

No treacherous storm of firepower followed their shields lowering. Of course, it was still possible they intended to execute everyone on board and seize the ships as trophies, but…

But the only way forward that she could see where there was even any hope that her daughters might live through today lay in trust.

“Unload the guns, eject the magazines, discharge the capacitors,” she ordered, going above and beyond what the alien commander had ordered. “I want all handheld weapons and security equipment surrendered and locked away. Offer no resistance.”

The boarding party, when it came, was escorted by a screen of fighters. They didn’t dock, but instead spacewalked. Awryen watched them on the hull cameras near the airlocks: the infamous Heat.

It was an acronym in their language, she knew. If so, it was a good one. It implied fierceness, fire, intensity. All the qualities they showed when they barged through the airlock and seized her ship faster than she’d have imagined possible. She knew the Apex quite well, and she’d never have imagined that a boarder could get from the main dorsal airlock to the command deck so quickly.

Then again, she’d never have imagined that somebody so short could be so imposing, either. The Humans who took control of her bridge were compact balls of condensed violence, layered in weapons and armor and glaring at her silently from behind yellow-gold visors, and made her feel quite weak just to look at.

Two of them swept the room, checked that none of them were armed, and restrained them brusquely and firmly but with surprising restraint considering how easily they could have broken an armor or leg with careless roughness. The third was apparently their leader. Though, there was nothing on his equipment to suggest as much.

“You’re the fleetmatriarch?”

Awryen inclined her body. “I am Matriarch Henenawryen, yes.”

The Human nodded. “I am Major Costello. On behalf of the allied nations and the Clans of Gao, I’m here to accept your surrender.”

Awryen inclined herself curiously. “No violence? No summary punishment?”

“No.”

“…Then I surrender to you, Major.”

The ensuing takeover of her ship was brisk, to put it mildly. Within minutes, her crew were rounded up and under guard in a cargo bay, and the Humans had encircled them on all sides, forcibly separating her formation and isolating them so that if any of her escort captains suddenly felt the futile urge to continue the fight, the only possible outcome would be immediate slaughter.

The process of securing the escorts too took a while. Awryen was permitted to enjoy the relative comfort of her quarters, albeit under the watchful eye of a guard.

The flow of humans onto her ship was remarkably brisk. The Heat swiftly handed over to more conventional marines in lighter equipment, who jumped across via small, portable arrays. Technicians and crew too, who neutered the weapons and took control of the other systems. Something similar, no doubt, was happening to the remaining escort ships.

The thought that perhaps these deathworlders considered her ship a worthy prize to claim and integrate into their own navy gave Awryen a little pride. Or perhaps they intended to return them to the other Houses as a diplomatic gesture. That would be welcome too. The Apex had been built to keep House Henen’s holdings safe from Hunter raids, not to get dragged into this senseless argument. Whether in Human hands or Kwmbwrw hands, it would be nice if the ship got to fulfil its purpose.

As for Awryen…the promise of living to see another day and perhaps fight another, better fight. In light of that, she couldn’t regret her decision, even knowing that it meant the fall of her House. Though, considering what she suspected the deathworlders would find in the bunkers below the palace, she no longer cared.

If they found what she thought they would, then the House’s fall was self-inflicted, and deserved.

And she wanted no part in its continuation.


Date point: 18y2m AV
Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Master Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Snapfire this excited, Righteous.”

‘Horse (and the rest of the band) were gathered at a small distance from the sudden swarm of engineers. The enemy was pretty much buried underground and unwilling to come out—honestly a particularly stupid tactic, since no fortress holds forever—so while the team was providing the engineers some extra cover and security, the engineers were figuring out how to de-door the area with maximum expediency.

‘Horse was gonna be learning about explosives again today, he could tell.

The big guy slapped ‘Horse on the shoulder. “He don’t get to play at the same kinda scale, usually. Mosta what he does is small things, breaching and stuff. They’re usin’ literally tons of explosives ‘fer this.”

‘Horse nodded. ‘Course, the engineers weren’t just packing on the plastic explosives any old how, no. There was method to it. Drilling and shaping and stuff. From the looks of it, they figured the surrounding concrete wall was weaker than the door itself.

Until they pulled the trigger though, ’Horse’s job was a whole lotta standin’ around and staying sharp.

“How big a boom is this gonna be?”

“I ain’t ever seen ‘em use forklifts ‘ta move their boomputty around before.”

“So…big, then.”

“Yyyup.” Righteous was definitely grinning like a maniac behind his mask.

“We’re about to find out,” Titan told them, joining them after peeling away from the demolition work to rejoin them. “Might wanna back up a bit.”

“How far?”

“See that guy?” Titan indicated one of the engineers. “At least as far as he goes.”

“…Right.”

They backed up a bit. The last two men down the corridor were Titan and the guy leading the engineers, who backed them down a little further to be sure. And of course, he got the pleasure of pushing the button himself.

“Fire in the hole!!”

‘Horse had seen, and been close to, some pretty big booms in his life. This one reminded him of the time they’d exited Capitol Station by blowing out the hull. It had that same violence to it, the whole-body punch of the explosives followed by something more solid as the pressure equalized between the palace’s pressurized interior, the bunker, and the outside.

It was followed by a small earthquake as the doors, their hinges and locks neatly cut, toppled over and crashed to the ground. Dust and smoke boiled down the hallway, so thick that he couldn’t even see his feet. The EV-MASS could handle that, though: it had surface-scanning sensors on the helmet, for the perfectly black shadows of a spaceborne environment. Inside his visor, the walls and floor, his buddies, the engineers and their equipment, were all picked out with a grid of light, giving him all the information he needed to move.

They barged sure-footedly through the dust cloud, which thinned rapidly. By the time they were back at where the doors had been, it was nearly clear.

A flurry of pulse rounds punched holes of clear air through the haze. Wall-mounted turrets in the atrium beyond the ruined doors, firing automatically. ‘Horse wrecked one with a burst of three rounds, Snapfire silenced the other.

Nothing else in the atrium. Somebody had set up some crates and furniture as a barricade, but abandoned it. Two exits, left and right. Righteous took his guys left, ‘Horse went right.

Long corridor. Pause, kick some debris into it. It scattered normally across the ground, so no grav-fuckery. At least not yet. Titan’s dump-drone shot forward, trailing a grounding cable with its many coppery leaves unfolding. Nobody forgot about Starfall. No forcefields yet, either.

Advance.

Doors on either side, each room in need of clearing. Stack up, one, two, three, four, ready, breach, in–

Kwmbwrw body on the floor. What was left of it, anyway. Slam forward, scan up for surprises. Clear.

On to the next one. The biodrones were loose, though. Loose, and feral.

They had Gaoians to put down.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Reskn, bannerless exile

It was the eyes in the dark that unnerved him the most. Gaoians had reflective tapeta at the backs of their eyes, a useful evolution for vision in low-light conditions. That had the effect of slightly reducing their resolving power, but greatly enhancing their motion sensitivity. And from inside his secure lab, via the security cameras, Reskn could see those eyes gleaming in the shadows.

When Gaoian biodrones reverted to their feral instincts, they hid. They found dark corners, preferably elevated, and huddled up together in a tight furry ball. When they moved, they moved low and quick, slinking along near the walls and shying away from well-lit areas. And they watched. On most of Reskn’s monitors, those watchful little mirrors were the only visible sign that the biodrones were even there.

He’d seen what happened to anyone unfortunate enough to stray into such a room, too. The tight ball of bodies would slowly unwind. The ferals would advance to the threshold of their hiding place…

And then, as one, they would pounce. Claws and teeth did the rest.

He’d seen Henenrotwth die that way, the arrogant, servile fool. Everyone else working for the House had been a little wiser to the Grandmatriarch’s growing derangement, a little more aware that they were working for a paranoid psychotic so utterly blind to her own mania that she hadn’t even seen that she was steering her ship right onto the rocks.

Reskn had planned to leave. In just eleven more days, he would have. Now, if the ferals didn’t tear him apart, the mixed Human, Gaoian and Ten’Gewek assault team now entering the complex would surely either smash him flat or haul him away to a prison of some sort.

Still. Of the three options, a prison was the least terminal. And he had some time—not long, but some—before they reached his lab. Time to prepare, and think how best to meet them.

Warning them of the trap would probably be most prudent…


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Airbase south of Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Master Sergeant Adam “Tagg” Shearsby

Tagg had never in his life imagined he’d be assaulting an airfield on an alien world. And yet, here he was. Doing work that the big damn heroes didn’t have time to do. And frankly, after having met them, and been subjected to their hospitality, and a tour of their facilities, a quick fun-fam of the EV-MASS…well, he didn’t begrudge them any of it.

Also, Tiny really didn’t fit the callsign anymore, not that he ever had. Which was why it was fuckin’ perfect.

Things had progressed really goddamn fast. He’d infiltrated the target area with, well, fairly laughable ease. He and his team even had time to cast a fuckin’ tactical weather balloon for the air-breathers, and an enemy that didn’t notice that on a dead, coverless world was ripe for the reaping.

They’d sent back their air density reports, and Tagg had just finished his soil densitometry not ten minutes ago on what would be the perfect goddamn landing strip. The gravity was all fucked up of course, and the air density didn’t match up, but modern avionics could take all those readings and produce a compatible flight envelope for just about anything a person could walk and breathe on, these days. The fixed-wing aircraft still had a lot of life left in it.

The numbers were taken and in the flyboy’s hands, now. They were probably already simming up their models for the heavies. The lightweight fighters, though…those had enough power to just say fuck you to most of that. Those crazy motherfuckers just needed the raw numbers.

Who the fuck ever thought actual fuckin’ fighter jets would see duty off-world? Needs must, when the purpose-built Firebirds were all but extinct.

Tagg’s Air Force boner could not possibly be harder. Fuck. Yeah.

And there were the Voidrippers, too. They weren’t air-breathers, strictly speaking, but they had forcefield wings and could aviate just fine. And Gaoian pilots were some fluffy little badasses, from what he’d seen.

They just needed some human friends to fly alongside them, since the air-breathing stuff had equipment much better suited for attacking the ground. Which meant Tagg had the privilege of pulling off one of the most fuckin’ badass moves in the history of Combat Controlling.

He was about to jump planes from one planet to another, while they were in flight.

A lot of neat stuff had fallen out of the tight-knit alliance between America and the Commonwealth nations over the last fifteen years. Among them, the sixth-gen fighters, and lately, creative new uses for them in an age where everyone was focusing on space. Maybe he felt a little…prideful? Pride that the ground-walking, air-breathing military still had value, even stacked against alien supermen like First Fang, hulks like Warhorse and all of his brothers…

It all came down to the Jump Mortar. His Special Recon buddy gave him the nod, the eyes-in-the-sky aboard the ships above did the same…

With a THUMP, a shell packed with tech speared the sky, shaking dust up all around them. The shell hit minimum safe altitude in seconds, hit the apex of its flight a couple seconds after that…

There was a flash of black in the sky. A lot happened inside that flash of black, Tagg knew. Forcefields created a bubble of vacuum, stasis fields locked it, spacetime twisted and swapped it for somewhere else, and a strike fighter dived straight into alien atmo with its afterburner roaring.

A second thump and blackflash summoned his wingman.

“ADDER ONE-ONE, jump complete.”

Things progressed very rapidly from there. The initial strike package was there to achieve air dominance, which couldn’t be done precisely from orbit. The Navy’s ships were too far away, their fires were big enough to cause severe collateral—Tagg didn’t like being collateral—and they were orbiting tight and fast, so most of the time they were beyond the horizon or too low on it to shoot anyway.

Fighters, though, they could be fuckin’ surgical. And they were. The alien air patrol doing a wide lazy loop around the palace’s airspace barely had time to notice they were under attack from a completely unexpected direction before they were gone.

Stage two was sustainment, bringing in more air superiority, keeping the pressure on with fresh and fully-stocked planes. Four fighters became sixteen, and now they had enough power in the sky to make things safe for the rapidly-snowballing chain of forces needed to insert the assault force proper.

They were four minutes into the assault, and the ground base had just begun to notice they were in deep trouble. It was too late. Next up were the first of the heavy assets. A big fat fucker with big sensors was there for air battle management—something like an AWACS and a JSTARS combined, he forgot exactly what it was called—along with the first refueler. Fighter jets were thirsty motherfuckers, and already two needed to drink.

Five minutes after that, the air battle net had been fully established. Next came the Weavers. They weren’t very big, not even as big as a C-130 these days, but what they lacked in size they made up for in spaceflight. And anyway, if you had enough of them, they were more than big enough to drop a battalion worth of paratroopers on some hapless fuckers’ noggins.

Ten minutes after that, Tagg’s first job was basically done, and his second was underway: tactical air traffic controller. The airspace was rapidly becoming very crowded and somebody had to keep the flyboys stacked and sequenced so’s they didn’t crash into each other. Once they had proper AWACS on-station, he’d transfer authority, but for now his life was on the radio.

Meanwhile, the Rangers they’d just dropped on the base’s noggin did their work quickly, methodically, and without mercy. Poor doomed fucks didn’t stand a chance.

And an hour after that…the first C-17 blackflashed in, looped around, and landed on Tagg’s freshly-measured strip of dirt road, carrying the most basic fundaments of a working airstrip. In all likelihood, they’d be there for a week or so. He wasn’t privy to exactly what they’d be doing, but most likely there would be discreet tours by various Houses to see what Henen had been up to…not his show. That was for the big-hero tier-0 types, and whatever they were doing over at the Palace.

And for once, Tagg was perfectly content to leave them their glory.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Father Regaari of Clan Whitecrest

During the war on Gao, Regaari had been spared the worst of the grim duty of putting down feral biodrones. He’d hoped never to have to do it again. Now, there were hundreds, presumably gathered from far corners of the galaxy. Wave after wave of them.

They broke like waves, too. Again, and again, and again. What did not fall under fire, fell instead under his claws and strength like so much grass underfoot.

He knew something about how Cousin Daar must have felt, now. He’d been like them once, even had implants in his head. There but for the grace of God went he, but his life had built him into something more. Something that could end an ordinary, average Gao with a single swipe of his claws. More than just a Gao. There were few of any species who could stand against him.

He was an agent of death, a dark poet of violence. Sometimes, he hated what he’d become.

The drones had come boiling out of their hiding places as if triggered by some signal. From hiding like frightened cubs, something had abruptly changed, driven them mad. Whatever it was, Regaari couldn’t sense it. The air reeked of fear musk, but that could be the trigger or it could just be dozens upon dozens of crazed biodrones in a mindless frenzy.

Sheer quantity did have a quality all its own. His armor had already borne a few claw-marks. None of them seemed to have anything more than ordinary Gaoian claws, but if any of those had been fusion-edged like the ones on his own prosthetic…

No time for second-guessing. Keep pushing, pile on the pressure, be there at his Human brothers’ backs.

Reach a junction of hallways. ‘Horse levels his weapon, opens up. His is one of the big guns, the largest and most powerful version of the gauss rifle, an LMG by any other name. Fat, heavy bullets, lots of power behind them. More than enough to rip straight through a scrawny underfed biodrone and the three behind it. Enough weight of fire to put the poor bastards down in an instant and leave a bloody haze in the air.

Storm through it. Know it’ll have to be cleaned off, later. Brothers already gore-dark from mask to boots…

And then, suddenly, silence. Scurrying claws in the hallways suggested survivors fleeing to find somewhere dark to hide, but the frantic melee was over.

Regaari’s nape tingled with that. Something was wrong. ‘Horse sensed it, too. A single gesture and everyone was falling back—

Not a moment too soon, it seemed. There was a snap, and the corridor in front of them experienced an energy discharge of some kind. Flat planes of infinitely thin darkness seethed through the air for half a second, then vanished.

“….Well, shit.”

Titan was forward instantly, as bloody as the rest of them and wiping his visor clear as he stepped up to consider this new trap. Experimentally, he picked up an empty magazine and tossed it into the hallway.

Snap.

Shreds of metal rained to the ground, their cut edges gleaming cleanly amid the foulness.

“…Urgh. Stasis mine.”

“As I would have warned you, had you not been preoccupied.”

They turned, training their weapons toward the source of the new voice even while Regaari knew instantly it was coming from a wall intercom. A Corti face peered at them from the small screen, alone in quite a small laboratory room.

“And who are you?” Regaari asked him.

“Reskn. Formerly a researcher here, though as thanks for for all my hard work they left me to die. If not for some quick thinking on my part…”

“Alright, I get it. And you thought you’d give us information on the facility’s security in exchange for amnesty, right?”

Reskn blinked solemnly. “It seems like my best chance of surviving this day.”

“Spill it.”

“There are three levels to this facility, of which you are on the uppermost. The security here is comparatively light, intended to prevent the test subjects from escaping to the surface. These ‘stasis mines’ as you term them are installed at three major choke points through which all traffic to and from the lower levels must pass. I believe they have redundant power sources in both the ceiling and floor.”

Regaari saw Titan nod, and deal with the problem in his favored way of bypassing it all together: he, Snapfire and Moho immediately ducked into an adjacent room, presumably to blow a hole in the wall. “And the lower levels?”

“Much the same on the second level. The biodrone reprogramming lab itself is rigged with a self-destruct mechanism, however. The idea being to destroy the test subjects and all evidence.”

“What kind of self-destruct?”

“A secondary sprinkler system loaded with a particularly vicious corrosive oxidative agent, Chlorine Trifluoride.”

“Pinche pendejos locos…” ‘Horse muttered.

“…Indeed. I assure you, your suits would offer no protection whatsoever, and I am certain their fingers are on the button. Fortunately, it was intended for containment and demolition, not as a defense: the storage tanks are outside the covered area. There should be a shutoff valve.”

“I need a specific location,” Regaari told him, even as ‘Horse shook his head in further disbelief.

“On the second level, in the zone marked with green flooring. Most of the facility’s plumbing, heating and air systems are in that zone.”

“If the idea is to destroy evidence, why haven’t they triggered it already?”

“I suspect they hoped to catch you in it. If you wish to preserve what’s down there, you will need to disable it before they know you are aware of it. Fortunately, the security cameras do not pick up audio, so they will not know the content of this conversation. In fact, considering your faceless helmets, they hopefully do not know you are conversing with me at all.”

The sound of a detonation punctuated the end of the conversation: the Defenders had cleared a path.

“You sit tight,” Regaari instructed Reskn, and darted away.

One of the truly great things about being plugged into the Fleet Intelligence Center was that command saw and heard everything he saw and heard. Major Costello was happy for them to act on the intel, and as for the problem of disabling the toxic sprinklers before the enemy saw them coming…

Well, passing unseen and silently was what Whitecrests did best. Especially when there was a handy distraction available.

“Cubs, big brothers make Mother mad. Naughty cubs raid the pantry.”

Time to do what the Humans could not.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Daniel Hoeff

Deniability.

It was the main reason Hoeff and the monkeys were even there. Hoeff knew that he himself was one of the blackest agents there was, and the Ten’Gewek? A people with no modern infrastructure, a spaceborne population of less than a dozen, no written records, so broadly beneath the radar of most galactic species that few would even remember they existed.

The ideal men to clean, in other words. And while the HEAT ransacked the bunkers below, did their big damn hero thing and ended a galactic evil, there was still plenty of evidence to gather and destroy up in the palace proper. And of course, the bunker was a bunker, a place that most of the science team retreated into for work or in emergencies. Most had simply not had the chance: the emergency had come upon them so quickly and quietly that very few had found the chance to flee to its temporary safety.

They were hiding in the palace. And each and every one of them had a head full of knowledge that could not be permitted to exist.

This wasn’t what the HEAT did, or maybe: not what they were made for. They weren’t cold-blooded and really couldn’t be. They waded into dangerous places, overcoming the traps and well-armed hostiles within. They weren’t exterminators. This wasn’t even a hunt, not by Ten’Gewek standards: the Ten’Gewek prided themselves on only hunting strong prey that posed a real danger to the incautious huntsman.

This was murder, plain and simple. Deniable murder, done without bullets, calculated to leave no conclusive evidence that their victims had died of anything other than trauma when the palace fell in around them. After all, some of the people they were killing today were important: it would be diplomatically inconvenient if there was any proof they were personally and selectively exterminated, rather than merely being unfortunate collateral damage.

Hoeff to hand it to House Henen, the palace was fuckin’ gorgeous. Hoeff had picked up an eye for decoration and architecture while doin’ property development work on the side for Xiù, and now it was hard not to notice and appreciate it, even when he was on a mission. Part of him was honestly kinda sad he didn’t have the chance to stop and admire the decor, which was all about circles, and halos of light. Tributes to the permanent eclipse that dominated the sky whenever he happened to glance up through the glass roofs and domes.

Lotta Kwmbwrw artwork, too. Long intricately decorated carpets to soften the polished stone floors. Painted bas-reliefs anchored firmly to the walls. Alien paintings, the color palettes muted and strange.

And all along the wall to his right, windows into the domed garden and its eerie riot of glowing plants.

All along his left, state rooms, offices, bedroom suites. A palace.

Genn gestured for a pause, stooped to examine a scuff on the floor. His tongue lashed out, forked end flicking up and down, tap-tap-tapping the ground as he swayed his weight from one foot to the other, taking his prey’s scent trail. A flick of his tail was the gesture to follow.

One thing ETs did differently to humans: most of ‘em didn’t wear clothes, beyond strappy pockets, belts, harnesses and stuff. No wardrobes. No closets. Beds were different too: for mostly-quadrupeds like the Kwmbwrw, a bed was cushions on the floor. The rooms were bigger, too, with bigger doors.

All of which meant fewer hiding places, and a door wasn’t so nasty of a choke point to move through. Hoeff wasn’t gonna complain about blessings like that. It made clearing any room they entered pretty easy.

No, the bitch was, the palace was fuckin’ immense and they didn’t know exactly how many people they were rooting out. What’s more, they had to be quick enough and quiet enough that nobody had time to raise any particular alarm. The big distraction HEAT were making helped, certainly…

He had the right team for the job. Quiet and skilled in the case of Rees and Davies, both of whom were Royal Marines Commandos and some other things besides. Unbelievably quick and strong with his monkeyfriends. Both of those things, in Hoeff’s case…

And an absolute fuckin’ juggernaut of death in the case of Ferd. He didn’t so much service his targets as instantly erase them from existence. They never heard him coming, and never felt their death.

Their latest was a Corti, cowering in his room with a tablet clutched to his skinny chest. This one had an honest-to-god banner hanging on his wall, the bright blue-green of copper caste, and dense with geometrically precise Corti symbols. The full list of his achievements, accolades, awards, rank, college, faculty, discoveries, patents, publications and more hung clean across one wall.

The other Corti they’d found had been bannerless exiles. One had still clung to the tattered remains of a steel-caste banner, all its records ripped off leaving only ragged fabric behind, but this guy had been a fucking hero to the Directorate. The others, Hoeff could understand: desperation would drive people to stupid ends. But this guy?

What a fucking waste.

Hoeff blinked across the room, slammed the tiny alien up against the wall with a crunch of breaking ribs, and put his fist right through that thin, oversized skull. A long, prestigious career ended in a single grisly instant.

Frasier gathered the fallen tablet and added it to his bag. Rees was busy sticking little self-destructing “bugs” into every computer he could find, which were theoretically loaded up with enough software to ransack and destroy anything of interest anywhere. FIC was likely having a field day via their remote feeds.

There were others, too. An immense pair of Vgork bulls in their prime, most likely the hired muscle. Mature Vgork bulls were big and incredibly strong by any standard, and these two were high-end breeders, with enough herd rings drilled through their nasal ridges to make Daar blush. Hell, they were even kinda quick, or at least could move with some urgency. In an animal-style fight they’d each fuck up a decent-sized bull on Earth, probably.

Ferd took all of two seconds to fuckin’ break the first of them. Nomuk and Tumik descended on the other, grabbed, twisted and damn near pulled his head off. The fleeing bull’s remains crashed to the floor looking unnaturally down his own spine.

All of them had been quick, and relatively quiet. One, however, was noisy.

A Kwmbwrw scientist, a female, had somehow got her hands on a pulse rifle. The sound of its shots echoed off the walls, though of course a pulse weapon was wasted effort against them, even if she’d been an accurate shot, or they’d been incautious enough to give her a clean target.

Ferd saved the day. Ten’Gewek were gifted with an explosive strength matched by nobody, and with it, could move with the kind of short-range speed that would make any Gaoian or Earth critter jealous. While they couldn’t sustain that kind of zip for very long…

He hit her all too literally like a truck. What eventually slid to a halt a dozen meters down the hall didn’t bend in any of the right ways.

Rees and Davies were busy dressing the remains, giving everything a quick go-over to remove any sign they’d been there that might survive the Palace’s imminent collapse, or couldn’t plausibly be written off as caused by the collapse. But they were also listening, watching, staying alert

They couldn’t stop moving. Hoeff gestured, and the team efficiently paired off, and moved on.

They had plenty more roaches to exterminate.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Father Regaari of Clan Whitecrest

The sound of gunfire through the halls suggested his brothers had found more ferals to put down. Regaari noted that fact, but only peripherally: his focus was more immediately on the problem of moving without being seen.

Security on the bunker’s second level was tighter. Clearly, only certain authorized individuals had been permitted beyond a checkpoint after the elevator, and the security measures to punish unauthorized visitors were robust, to put it mildly. The Defenders were earning their keep today.

But Regaari’s team had to stray outside of the Defenders’ protective reach in order to do their job. The distraction provided by the humans needed to be seen going on way, away from the green zone Reskn had described. Regaari and his Brothers needed to head toward it…and that meant handling the security obstacles themselves.

Not that this was anything new, for a team who specialized in stealthy infiltration. But it did create awkward moments, sometimes.

For instance: the gauss turret aimed straight down the tunnel toward them. By itself, not really an issue, Regaari’s suit contained countermeasures that helped him crawl right up to a motion sensor if he did it slowly enough. But he didn’t really have the luxury of going slow. The clock was ticking until his Human brothers cleared the floor: he needed to have the chemical sprinkler system disabled by then.

Shooting out the turret would have been most expedient, but that too would have drawn unwanted attention. So the only thing to do was inch forward, trust the countermeasures and camo, and pass it by. They could deal with it the expedient way after the sprinklers were deactivated.

It was a tight squeeze. Awkward, too: navigating a doorway upside-down and slowly took the kind of core strength and control that Regaari had simply never had, before the HEAT. Even now, his abdomen was strongly reminding him that he wasn’t a primate by nature, and that it was only doing what he asked under strenuous protest.

Being a big armored bastard over-laden with equipment didn’t help, either.

But he made it, and slithered along the ceiling into a side hallway with considerable relief. There were a lot of pipes on the ceiling, here. One was the actual fire suppression system, he could tell: it had Dominion-standard symbols and color-coding. An extra set of pipes running alongside was almost certainly the fake sprinklers full of ClF3.

He followed them, moving with speed to make up for lost time. Up ahead, the second pipes diverged abruptly from the main ones and vanished through a wall.

“Cubs, oldest smells treats.”

Shim was alongside him. They scuttled to a stop above the door, and he fished a sticky sensor off his belt before pressing it to the wall. He was the smallest and comparatively lightest Gao on the team, and that meant he could go places Regaari or anyone else couldn’t risk.

“…Big tanks, seven hostiles minimum,” he subvocalized, ditching the Clan’s cant for this unique situation.

“Hold fire. Nasty shit in those tanks,” Regaari told him. “Claws only.”

Shim duck-nodded, silently inched down the wall, and injected a little blasting gel directly into the door’s lock: just enough to trash it and blow the door open. The moment to pounce was upon them. Regaari slid down opposite him and took point because, frankly, this was a situation where speed and power really did make the difference, and he was the biggest HEAT Gao besides Thurrsto. Ergan and Deeko made it past the doorway and turret, they stacked up behind him—

The gel detonated with a pop, shattering the lock. Regaari was first through, knocking the door off its hinges. A scared-looking Kwmbwrw male standing near a control console had just enough time to look up at him before Regaari was past, the fusion claws on his cybernetic sizzling as they carved lethally through meat and bone, striking the hapless alien dead instantly.

Regaari pounced past the collapsing body, clawed the spine out of a second, gutted a third, spun, sprung, killed.

Shim serviced the last target, right as the little Corti was beginning to move. A dozen console operators dead, all in less than three seconds. And, importantly, there was no sign that the tanks were now venting their lethal contents all over the levels below. Deeko swiftly found the shutoff valve and made certain.

“TITAN, DEXTER. Sprinkler control room secured, valve closed.”

“Copy that. Proceeding.”

With that, the HEAT resumed its breeching sweep, which meant it was time for phase two; the secondary forces would be securing the installation behind them, and that meant anything on their target cards had to be destroyed or sanitized before anyone had a chance to see anything.

Daar wanted as little exposure as possible. Nobody needed a war, least of all because some idiot private took a picture and shared it to all his friends.

Which meant he and his Brothers had work to do.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Gyotin, Champion of Clan Starmind

Chump had turned out to be a magnificent teacher, in his unspoken canine way, for there was nothing in the universe happier than a dog with a job. In Chump’s case, he had two, the first of which was pulling things.

It didn’t seem to matter much to him what he pulled. Sometimes he pulled a cart when Gyotin or one of the other Brothers went shopping for supplies to keep the monastery fed. Other times, he pulled a small plough through their kitchen garden. If there was nothing else for him to pull, attaching a small parachute to his harness seemed to satisfy as he zoomed up and down the vegetable rows, pausing for an occasional carrot snack, or perhaps an unfortunate rodent who had wandered too close to his territory.

They’d tried all sorts of canine occupations on him. At first they’d tried the more martial pursuits, in line with his heritage. Schutzhund, et cetera. While he certainly excelled, and none could ever claim he was anything but fearsome when he wanted to be…the fact was, Chump wasn’t a fighting dog. He’d dutifully tackle his trainer, shake him about violently…and then promptly slobber all over his face, all ferocity forgotten.

No, he was the opposite of a fighting dog. So as much as Chump loved the training and especially loved his first job, his second job was where he truly shone: he had a nose for people who needed some unreserved and unconditional love. When Gyotin set him loose in the park to run with his parachute, and Chump failed to come back, it invariably meant one thing.

On this occasion, a familiar figure was slumped against a tree in running shoes and leggings, sipping from a water bottle and watching the dawn, running her hand down Chump’s spine. She glanced up at Gyotin and smiled, raised her bottle in a sort of welcoming toast, and massaged the dog’s ears.

“Good morning, Ava.”

“Morning, Gyotin.”

How could they be on anything other than first-name terms, when she was the one who’d first set him down his life’s path? Gyotin plopped down next to her comfortably. It was a pleasant morning, the air still moist from last night’s rains and the ground a little damp as a result, but the result was fresh rather than unpleasant.

“You’re up early.”

“Bad night.” She yawned.

“Dreams again?”

“Yeah. Been a while, but sometimes I’ll smell something, or hear something, or spend the day thinking about something, and…” she glanced down at her bottle. “…You never really heal from some things, you know? There’s always a scar.”

Chump’s tail rapped against her hip and he shuffled his paws a little closer, trying for Maximum Comforting. Ava smiled and scratched his ears again.

Gyotin duck-nodded agreeably. “Oh, I know. I saw a movie the other day, about a plane crash? It took me right back to how I first arrived on this planet.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you mind if I ask what brought it on this time?”

She sighed. “…I spent the afternoon writing up an opinion piece on the whole Clan Bronzefur situation. Between the fact there was a trade in biodrones, the fact the ring-leaders are facing the Hundred Cut and the punishments handed out to some of the others…” She shivered. “…Sometimes your people scare me, Gyotin. You can be fucking evil to each other.”

“So can you.”

“…Yeah…” She swigged her water. “I think it’s…I know Daar. I’ve traded dirty jokes with him! He’s this big, playful cartoon character of a guy, and then…”

“Chump there has an incredibly powerful bite, you know. He’s given more than his share of small injury in his training.”

“Chump’s smart, but he’s just an animal. He doesn’t do what he does for rational reasons or ideals like justice. If he bit someone, it’s ‘cuz he got overexcited and did what excited dogs do. Daar can’t claim that. He’s doing what he does because he thinks it’s what’s required of him.”

“You don’t think it is?”

Ava swigged her water again before replying. “I think that’s just it. Maybe it is. Maybe humans are content with just locking monsters up and leaving them to two hots and a cot until their dying day, forgotten and alone, but your people I guess need something more, uh…”

“Visceral.”

“Yeah. That’s exactly the right word.” She gave Gyotin a wry look. “You can see how that would be a little disturbing?”

“I have long pondered that side of our nature. We are ambush predators by evolution, a soldier species by design. We grew up more like cats, but were shaped into something more canine.”

“Eh, you don’t really fit a terrestrial mold at all.” Ava shrugged. “I dunno. I wrote my thoughts down for the article, then had bad dreams about it, took a jog to clear my head. It’s not important.”

Gyotiin chittered. “Yes it is! You would not have written it otherwise!”

“Sometimes I write things just to get them out of my head.” She stretched, then looked at him. “But I guess it is. I think a lot of humans still think Gaoians are cute. They see fur and whiskers and clever paws, and think of raccoons and foxes and little bears and stuff. And you’re not, you’re an alien culture with your own way of thinking and doing things and sometimes your idea of justice is our idea of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

“That goes in two directions. We consider solitary confinement to be almost incomprehensibly evil. Most of us would rather die than face that.”

Ava nodded. “…I had a nightmare once,” she confessed.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. In Egypt, when I signed a non-disclosure with some pretty heavy consequences for breaching it. That night, I dreamed I was on death row.” She shivered. “I just imagine what those Bronzefurs are facing and I guess I put myself in their position.”

Gyotin knew his ears were drooping sympathetically. “They face…a terrible end, it’s true. Particularly the ringleader. Daar can be a magnificently cruel being, when he needs to be.”

“Why? What’s that for? Is it vengeance? Deterrent?”

“Justice. What they did is so deep and fundamental a betrayal of the Gao, it is difficult to put into words. If they were not strongly and publicly punished, I fear the zeal to find every last offender would rapidly sweep out of control. I believe you call that a ‘witch hunt.’”

“So it’s to make sure innocent bystanders don’t get caught up in a moral panic.”

“Partly. I can only say that it is necessary for us. Gao are intensely social beings, and that is not always to our benefit. Maybe we will grow past such a need, eventually. But we are what we are, and there is no sense opining that we are not yet the better version of ourselves we may one day become.” He put a paw on her arm. “I think it’s better to work with our nature, rather than against it.”

“So you support their punishment.”

“You know the answer to that, Ava.”

“Right, yes. The Great Father has spoken and you as Champion couldn’t possibly contradict him, especially to somebody who might write about it afterwards.” The words themselves might have been bitter, but her tone wasn’t: her tone was understanding.

“I wouldn’t anyway. Besides, their punishment is mild compared to historical norms. My Father has explicitly commanded swift and merciful justice for most of them. By the standards of warlords and Great Fathers, Daar is very much a progressive, enlightened being. Six hundred years ago, their flayed pelts would have been paraded around every city.”

“Whose pelts?”

“Every member of the Clan, right down to the cubs.” He flicked an ear. “Don’t judge. Six hundred years ago, humans were burning heretics at the stake, or drawing and quartering traitors. Six hundred years is a long time. Both our peoples have come a long way.”

Ava sighed despondently. “And still a long way to go.”

“I hope so!” Gyotin chirped. “It would be terrible to think we’re already at the end of moral progress! Just think how different we’ll be in another six hundred years.”

“Hmm.” She looked at him. “You know, the people who lived six hundred years ago would think we were all spineless, godless heathens, probably. Who’s to say what we’d think of the people six hundred years from now?”

“A people have the morals they can afford. I am content in the idea that our descendents will be able to afford a kinder, gentler world.”

She tilted her head, then drained her water bottle with a thoughtful expression. “…I like that.”

“Are you going to use it in your article?”

“Probably.”

Gyotin chittered, and stood up. “Well, I have a dog to exercise, and an empty obstacle course beckons. And I think your mind is resting a little more easily now, yes?”

“Much. Thanks, Gyotin.”

Chump, sensing that his duty was done here, sprang away from Ava, uttered a tectonic “Wuff!!” and thundered away across the grass toward the doggy park with a turf-tearing enthusiasm that made Ava giggle. Gyotin, chittering, waved goodbye, dropped to all fours and followed him.

Some of his Brothers, when they first joined, were always a little scandalized at the idea of their Champion chasing a dog around on four-paw, but one of the great joys of civilization, in Gyotin’s book, was knowing when to set it aside and just enjoy the simple pleasures of running in the park. Sometimes, life’s troubles needed earnest thought. Sometimes they just needed to be put away for a little while so honest fun could put them back in perspective.

He prided himself on knowing when to use both approaches to best effect. Though, he did check discreetly as he followed, and watched Ava stand, stretch, put her earphones in, and set off jogging down the path again.

Good. Like Chump, he’d done his job.

And now he could go play.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Caledonia, orbiting planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Major Anthony Costello

The space side of the battle was over, now that the flagship had been surrendered. Presumably the Allied forces would seize it for reverse-engineering and refit, then use it themselves. A third originally alien ship in the fleet, to go alongside Caledonia and Myrmidon.

The Apex dwarfed both ships, though. She was huge, nearly three hundred meters long, and most of that volume was to manage the needs of her physically large crew. By human standards she was the right size for an aircraft carrier, but Costello couldn’t see how she could be made to work in that role, or even why such a thing would be needed, given that fighters could jump to join the fleet directly from their ground bases.

Oh well, that was a problem for the admirals to figure out. And it was a distraction he’d only had the time to consider briefly, as he returned from the Apex to Caledonia, where he could keep an eye on the bunker assault.

There had been some minor friction he’d needed to soothe. It came down to ego, partly. Operators came in tiers, by the American (and by extension, Commonwealth) reckoning, and the so-called tier-1 operators were used to being the king of their arts, based almost entirely on a particularly relevant measure of merit. They routinely worked in the most covert and clandestine missions, did things nobody else could do.

Whichever jackass in the Pentagon thought terming the SOR and its allied forces “tier-0” operators would be a good idea, needed to have some sense and tact shoved right up his ass. Especially since, by the logic of the stupid tiers themselves…it was true.

For the most part, of course, it wasn’t really an issue. Everyone was mostly professional about it. They’d had a good time at Rooney’s, everyone got along. But always there was drama, and tier-1 guys weren’t used to being preempted in anything, nor kept out of the loop on certain matters.

“It’s not a matter of trustworthiness, major. I’d trust my life to you and your men. It’s a matter of exposure. I am fully aware that their help would make this go much faster. Nonetheless, there are equities at play here that you want nothing to do with. Trust me on that. Please.”

He couldn’t blame Major Breckenridge. The poor fella was in charge of a team of exceptional men, all champing at the bit to get in and do what they’d spent months training and preparing for. They’d whetted their appetite on the fighter base; after the Farthrow went down and ADELLE was dealt with, a Weaver carrying JETS team two had been escorted down, they’d deployed an array…

In that corner of the battle, Breckenridge’s men had the full weight of priority and command they were used to having. Now, though, they were being denied permission to pursue their prey; the fighter base was too close to the Palace, which wasn’t sufficiently sanitized, yet.

Team two hadn’t reported back in. They were still…doing their work.

“A significant force has escaped via convoy, major. If we do not neutralize those forces—”

“I cannot permit anyone else near Eclipse Palace. That’s not negotiable.”

Breckenridge wasn’t happy, but accepted that statement with little more than a brief frustrated tic of his mouth. “Well, then, your men at the palace have a convoy headed their way they need to deal with.”

“With luck, we’ll be able to RFG the entire complex shortly. If not, we will deal with it. I promise you, if we get task saturated, we will call on you, equities be damned. But right now…”

“Right. I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“Thank you.”

Costello returned to monitoring his men. He’d have preferred to be down there with them, of course. Hell, he’d have preferred to be down there with his men, and Breckenridge’s men too. But neither were options, for various reasons. Not until Campbell was fit and able.

He was close. Damn close. God knew, the guy was working at his development with impressive zeal. But when put on the spot, ‘Horse and Deacon had both shaken their heads. Not quite. Not yet.

But they both predicted he’d get there soon. Though, even when he did, Costello’s lot would probably be to watch from a distance from now on, just as Powell had.

Down below, the Lads broke through onto the lower floor of the lab, and Costello leaned in close to watch every detail.

What he saw turned out to be even more appalling than he’d feared.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Specialist Hunter Thompson

Racks of Gaoian fetuses in plastic bags. Hundreds of them, in every stage of development from motes of unformed flesh, all the way up to fuzzy little blind cubs ready to be born, squirming softly as they dreamed in their artificial wombs.

He felt sick. Hunter took a deep breath, willed his stomach to settle. Nothing worse than a mask full of puke. Everyone on the team had suffered that once. Nobody wanted to endure it a second time. Pretty sure most of the others were having the same trouble.

Even ‘Horse seemed unsure and unsteady. Over open comms, “Uh…boss, you seein’ this?”

The major’s tone was dark. “Yeah.”

“The fuck we s’posed to do now?” Titan asked.

“…Standby.”


Date Point: 18y2m AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, planet Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

“My Father? Urgent Q-Comm for you from Operation WICKED BIRD.”

Daar was out and about among his people, at that moment playing with a passel of cubs on his back for some bouncy “Werne-wrangling” fun, much to the conflicted delight and concern of the nearby Mothers. He’d allowed himself some optimism in hopin’ the operation wouldn’t find anything that needed his direct attention…always a mistake, that.

Inwardly, his heart sank. Outwardly, he kept his tone light and only mildly disappointed. “Aww. Sarry lil’ ones, I gotta go do serious Daar things now.”

“But you’re not serious!” One of the littlest had his number, for sure. And weren’t afraid to say so.

“I mean…you ain’t wrong, but sometimes I gotta be serious anyway, yijao? Now offa my back…careful, don’t—OW!” Daar chittered. “My ear ain’t a pawgrip!”

“Sowwy.”

“‘S’alright. Now, back ‘ta ‘yer Mothers. G’on, shoo!”

He allowed himself a brief sideways look at the trio of wunnerfully pretty young Mothers an’ mebbe gave ‘em a lil’ thrill wit’ just the quickest lil’ showy prance, before he couldn’t justify any further delay.

“What happened?” he asked, as they bustled away to a secluded spot in the garden where important matters could safely be discussed away from innocent ears. Thurrsto was waiting for him there. Not a good sign. Even less encouraging was how they privacy-bubbled the instant Daar was within range.

Thurrsto told him.

Keeda’s burnt nuts. Was there any bottom ‘ta Wgwyr’s fuckin’ depravity? She might be dead, but she’d left her fuckin’ mark. Actually…

“Did they—”

“Yes, My Father.”

“Well. At least she’s dealt with, then. Thurrsto…” Daar sighed, with a bit of keen in his voice. “We can’t let anything there survive.”

“…My Father…”

“What do you think they’ve done to alla those unborn, Thurrsto? How can we know? How are we even gonna save ‘em?”

Thurrsto cleared his throat. “I was thinking this could be the answer to our population crisis, My Father. With the technology in that lab, we could breed enough females to avert—”

“No.” Daar put a flat stop to that idea. “That is a sword I will not unsheath. We saw what it did to the Corti; they’re on the edge of extinction because of it. We cannot be certain such a weapon would not be used against us. An’ I especially won’t drink that brew from this cup.”

Thurrsto ducked his head. “Yes, My Father.”

“And may the Unseen have mercy on all of us. S’pecially those poor fucks down there.”


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Yan was a lot of things Vemik hoped he could be one day. Stronger and more handsome than any other man. Wise, calm, playful and beloved. Fierce in body and mind. He was what every man wanted to be, had everything a man could ever want.

But he was something else, too. Yan was a blackcrest, the first one for a long time. Not even the eldest Singer could remember meeting one. Vemik knew the stories, had snuck a read of the Human’s writings about it. Theorized that they only came when a particular Given-Man had been very successful, with good hunting all his life.

He’d read the rest, too. Knew that, when Yan stayed away for long enough, his taste would fade from the village, and that would trigger someone being Taken to become a Given-Man. Vemik knew it would be him. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, because the one thing Yan was completely not was subtle.

Some weeks ago, Yan and Jooyun and Heff had a big talk out in the forest. Yan stayed away for longer after that, then longer, until finally he stayed away long enough that his taste faded completely from the village. He timed it for a bit before the springtime rut would start ending, too. Everyone else was happily settling down into the long, steady rhythm of the summer, but Vemik was still feeling the spring full force. That was because he was a big, full-size redcrest. A “dominant” one too, in the Human’s writing, and for men like him, “spring” could last maybe halfway through summer. Strange, they could figure out how the gods would choose.

They were right. A hand of days after Vemik couldn’t taste Yan even near his hut…he could taste the magic fruit on the wind. Taste it all day and all night, no matter what he did, stronger and stronger with each passing day.

He knew what it would mean, if he ate it. He’d talked to Singer, too. She knew. The Singers had their own magic about it. And she explained why, despite everything, the name was Given-man, not Taken-man.

The Singers and the Given-Men were like root and branch. Opposite yet similar ends of the same tree. Both walked a path somewhere between man and woman, the Singers never surrendering their femininity, nor the Given-Men their manliness, but each taking into themselves some of the magic of the other side.

Singers walked as Takers, hunting and killing, and raiding too sometimes (though rarely: they were rare and precious, after all.) Given-Men gave of themselves, put themselves in harm’s way, left their sons, brothers and fathers behind to become the heart of a new tribe, learned the songs and stories to pass down to children.

And becoming one itself was an act of Giving. Because Vemik was not alone in the tribe in tasting the magic on the breeze. He tasted it stronger than the others, he felt…but others felt it too. One of them would Give himself. And his life would end, in a sense. He would give his name, give his past, give his works and passions, and though he might pick them up again afterwards…they wouldn’t really be his, any more. They would be what he played at when he was not being a Given-Man.

Vemik didn’t like the sound of any of that one bit.

But who was he to say no? He had been Given so much by the gods, and by the tribe who tolerated their strange, scrawny son with his head in the clouds, thinking about the unknowable. Now, he wasn’t scrawny. He was a strong man of the People. Shouldn’t he Give back? Shouldn’t he show his gratitude, do his duty, pay back his debt?

For the first time in his life, he was feeling…anxious. The battle in his mind over what he feared, what he wanted, and what he felt was right was enough to make his hands shake and his body chill. He didn’t think he had a sickness, but the guilt in his stomach still made it churn and turn like he’d eaten bad meat.

And while he did want to talk about it with the Singer…the first person he wanted to talk about it with was Yan.

But if Yan came back, of course, Vemik wouldn’t be in this position any longer. If any Given-Man came to the village, the taste on the air would fade in a few days, if one of them stayed—as one eventually would, because a village without a Given-Man would always gain one, one way or another—then the problem would go away. But every day, the taste on the breeze got a little sweeter, a little more distracting, a little harder to resist.

So Vemik turned to the one man around who was enough like a Given-Man.

Jooyun returned from Cimbrean an agonizing two hands of days after the cravings started. And he brought his family with him, this time.

Vemik was gleeful when he returned. His children were all growing up fast and growing strong, Shyow was still as pretty as ever and had some more neat new ‘kungfoo’ to show off too! Awisun brought him a stack of magazines, and Jooyun was a strong man to wrassle…

For a while, it was a distraction. The gods let him have his fun. But once things calmed down a bit…the gods went back to tempting him. This time they were insistent. Vemik was hungry, now, but for the first time in his life, there was only one food he could even think of eating.

Jooyun took him aside while the meat was roasting, to gather some things to go with the meal. He hummed and sang and chatted about nothing much until they were far enough from the village that the songs and sounds of the tribe preparing for the evening were lost among the trees, then finally gave Vemik a knowing look in the failing light. “You’re in a bad way, huh?”

“Is it easy to see?”

“Dude, you’ve lost weight, I just kicked your ass—”

“Did not!”

“—and you’re about as listless as I’ve ever seen you. That magic fruit must smell delicious, huh?”

“…I taste the meat roasting, and it does nothing,” Vemik grumped. “The air though…” he looked up into the trees. There was a cluster of the vines right above them, growing out along a Ketta limb, though the fruits growing on it weren’t quite ripe yet. They didn’t fill the air with temptation.

Jooyun sprang up and swung in his strange, leg-tucked way high up into the trees, toward a spot with a good view over the valley. He sat a little further out on the limb, to leave Vemik the thicker part of the branch.

“So what’s on your mind?”

Vemik told him. Everything. They watched the sun sink low and red until it was touching the far hills, as he laid out what he was worried about losing, what he feared, and his guilt over even thinking of turning away when the gods called to him…And how hard it would be even if he chose to.

Jooyun nodded as he listened, and let him speak until Vemik had nothing left to say.

“Yeah. Growing up can be hard.”

Vemik tilted his head. “Haven’t I grown up? I make steel for the tribe, I have children, I hunt well. Others call me a good man.”

“I don’t think a man ever really stops growing up, y’know? You made steel because it’s fun. The duty came later. I met my women because…well. Now, it’s more than just love. Same with my kids, with my job. With you, and your people. You do a thing, and then the thing needs you, and who are any of us to walk away?”

“Needs me.” Vemik nodded, and hooted sadly. “That’s the bit I worry about. Do they need me to be what I am, or do they need me to be Given?”

“You ain’t gonna stop being Vemik.” Jooyun scratched his jaw. Then half-turned on the branch. “Okay. So. I know a lot of men who’ve found themselves in a position like this. Called to give, called to make a hard choice and sacrifice some things for the sake of the bigger picture. And a lot of ‘em said the same thing, they felt like it wasn’t really a choice. They just had a way their life was going, and it was going to be difficult, but they’d feel wrong straying away from that path. Right?”

“Okay…?”

“But there’s one important question you have to ask yourself before you follow that path. Namely: is it right for you? Put aside all the rest for now. What do you want?”

The answer was so clear to Vemik, he didn’t even need to think about it. “…I want the Singer, and my children, and my forge, and this village. I don’t want to leave and start over somewhere else.”

“Ah!” Jooyun smiled. “And it might be a bad thing, starting over. Your people only just got steel, and you have now, what? Three forges?”

“And nobody with a head for it here, but me and Yan.”

“Your apprentices?”

“Learning. Slowly. Bad for them if I leave before they’re ready.”

“But at the same time…?”

“…At the same time, I don’t want to be selfish. The gods are calling me. They Take what they demand, one way or the other. Resisting the taste of that fruit is hard, and getting worse. And if I do, people won’t respect me so much.”

“And you’re getting weaker, too. You stand to lose a lot more than respect.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So what you need, ideally, is a way to answer the call and still keep what you don’t want to lose.”

“Yeah. But how?”

“Well, don’t you see? Yan’s a wily old fuck. He’s set you up to have exactly that!”

“…He has?”

“Sure! Your village just traded daughters, right? All your women are young and available…”

“…Yes?”

“You have a young Singer already, most of the older men left to go join Ferd and Eb’s tribe…”

It hit Vemik over the head like a rotting old forest-father branch.

“He planned this!”

Jooyun laughed in that deep, musical way the men of his people laughed. “Of course he did! Do you have any idea how much the big fucker loves you?”

“…Maybe more than I deserve.”

“Nah. You’re pretty lovable.” Jooyun grinned at him, then gestured toward the smoke rising from the village below. “The Given-Man cycle shakes things up every few years, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s great for genetic fitness—making your people strong—but with steel and all the rest, you’re moving into a world where some things need to survive regular shaking-up. You said it yourself, your apprentices need you here.”

“And I have a chance Yan didn’t. I can come back to this village, be their Given-Man, but still be their Vemik too.”

Jooyun nodded. “You have the chance Yan set up for you. And in due time, maybe you’ll do the same for the next generation. Maybe you can cultivate the cycle, rather than leaving it completely to the gods.”

“…Take back the cycle from the gods?” Vemik frowned at the little slice of sun still burning on the horizon.

“I think the gods want us to take some things, when we’re ready for them.” Jooyun said. “It’s like teaching your son to hunt, when he’s finally ready. We’re both fathers, I know I’m looking forward to showing my kids how to bring home their meat. Aren’t you?”

Vemik nodded, and watched the last of the sun vanish behind the trees. “Makes sense. So…this is what Yan wants, you think? No more building and burning the tribes, every generation?”

“Well…no, I think what Yan wants is striking a balance. It’d be a shame to completely give up the thing that made your people as ridiculously good as you are, y’know? No other sky-tribe can come even close to matching your peoples’ strength or fitness without big and maybe risky sky-magic. Heck, even I’d be puny next to you these days without a little of that magic to help, and that’s with me naturally being a seriously big fella in the first place. But you need steel too, and your tribe’s magic isn’t enough on its own to get you there. You need to learn some of ours and make it your own, just like we’re learning yours. And to do that properly, you need a library, you need Professor’s academy. You need some roots.”

The stars were coming out. Vemik looked up at them and thought furiously for a long moment, then down at the tree he was sitting on. Roots. That was it. Given-Men didn’t have roots. They didn’t grow like Ketta, they grew…well, like the magic-fruit vine, latching on to a Ketta and living there. But maybe that could change. Maybe, if they were careful and thought about things carefully, like Yan had done…maybe a Given-Man could have roots too, while still being a Given-Man.

“…Yan sky-thinks a lot more than he pretends.”

“Uh-huh. He’s got good sky-thinkers around him to learn from.” Jooyun smiled in the gathering dark, then put an arm around Vemik’s shoulders and hugged. “You look better already. Mind made up?”

“…One night with the Singer. To talk, and think,” Vemik said. “She will have things I need to hear too. But unless they’re big things…”

Jooyun nodded, understanding.

They jumped down out of the tree, grabbed some herbs to take back to the fire, and set out toward the distant wind-taste of meat.

“It’s…been nice. Being Vemik Sky-Thinker,” Vemik said, just before they reached the firelight. “I hope being Vemik Given-Man will be as good.”

“I think it will! Well, once you get your feet under yourself. You still have to face the Lodge,” Jooyun warned carefully. “But…you’re man enough for that. Just remember that you’ve got people who love you, okay?”

Vemik nodded, and felt no need to say more. He returned to the fireside, to his family, and to his meat, and feasted with them.

And, for the first time in a hand of days, he enjoyed it.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Specialist Hunter Thompson

Somehow…Hunter had kinda guessed what they’d hear back from Costello. Didn’t make it any easier to hear, though.

“TITAN, ABBOTT. Your orders remain unchanged: Service all personnel within the facility, destroy all equipment, experiments and data.”

There was a rare moment of stillness, before they got back in motion. A few hung heads, a muttered prayer from Righteous.

Then they were moving.

No biodrones on this level. Just panicking scientists trying to activate a deadly sprinkler system that didn’t work no more. No mercy for them, just instant death. A few fought back, briefly. Hunter didn’t mind crushing them.

There was a creche. Cubs. Not like a real creche, though, with big blocks to stack and things to climb. Instead, just stack after stack of cubicles with tiny furry bodies lyin’ still, with wires in their heads and lines in their arms. They closed the door on that room. Titan’s plan was to turn those sprinklers back on, let the fire burn it all away.

There were holding cells, open and empty. A larger one at the end of the block: Hunter’s Mass reported a potent airborne toxin fouling the air. Behind that, an incinerator.

Bright lights, white walls, and clean equipment, though. Somehow, that felt even wronger. Place had a veneer of cheerfulness, but felt like it shoulda been grimy with cruelty an’ callous evil.

He stopped thinking about it. He just pushed forward, did his job. Did what had to be done.

Right to the very end.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

“You’re Reskn?”

The Corti stood up, slowly, keeping his hands carefully in view. “I am, yes.”

Hoeff nodded, and shot him right in the middle of his oversized forehead, with about the same effect as shooting a watermelon.

Rees sniffed as the researcher’s body crumpled to the ground. “That was quick.”

“Told us how to disarm the trap, so…least I could do.”

“Yup.” Frasier finished grabbing Reskn’s files and equipment. “…Think that’s everything, aye?”

“Think so. Back to the surface and we can pull out.”

“Good,” Ferd rumbled. He was just as done as everyone else. It had been a grim goddamn day, and they were all eager for it to be over. The floor outside was sticky with blood, and there was still the occasional sound from deep below as the HEAT finished their work.

At least Hoeff’s team’s objective had been completed: service all their targets, make a deniable mess. Once the RFGs leveled the palace, nobody would be able to tell what the hell had happened here.

…And just like that, he had a ping from FIC. Inbound, numbering about a dozen or so. HEAT wouldn’t be able to re-position in time. No need for deniability in this case.

“…Nevermind. One last bit of cleanup to do.”

They cut back across the midnight garden with their filter masks on. Henenwgwyr was exactly where they’d left her, twisted limbs all pointing the wrong ways, eyes open and staring at nothing. There was a haze of glowing fungal spores smoking upward from her remains.

Their destination was a large garage and receiving complex on the palace’s south side, for traffic to and from the farthrow facility and fighter base. It was how they’d originally broken in, through a shutter door big enough for a big rig, and it provided a perfect ambush site. A couple of vehicles and two thick concrete pillars provided all the cover and concealment they could ask for.

Sure enough, there was a dust trail down the road, just around the bend where it curved to avoid a rocky outcropping. Through Hoeff’s binoculars, a funky jalopy with an oversized cab came bouncing into view, wheels skidding in the dirt and several tense-looking Kwmbwrw troopers in Henen livery riding in the back. Then a second, and a third.

Simple enough. He hunkered down in his position, and Rees and Frasier took up positions perpendicular to each other to set up a crossfire, while the monkeybrothers swarmed up the concrete pillars and vanished among the structural beams high above.

The troops in those trucks were on high alert, understandably. They dismounted in a decent grouping and spread out, wary of the obviously open and damaged door.

Not wary enough. Didn’t look up enough, didn’t spread out enough. Walked right into the killbox.

Two long range carbines and five gauss rifles were more than enough to finish the day’s work. The poor bastards didn’t suffer. A quick run-through to check for any survivors—they were playing by good-guy rules, now—yielded one chewed-up fuck well in the rear. Hoeff threw him in a stasis bag and called up to higher.

Five minutes later, they stepped off the Array platform on Caledonia’s deck, handed over their patient for the hospital on the other side of the ship to handle, handed over what they’d confiscated, and hit the showers. Everyone cleaned up, especially the monkeybros, since nobody wanted pure armpit-sourced testosterone oil all up in their nasal passages. Debrief was gonna take a long time, no doubt…but Hoeff didn’t mind.

It did, sure enough, but it wasn’t so bad. They’d done the job they were sent to do and done it well, which left only one thing for him to do.

He inhaled some chow, found the quiet corner where he wasn’t in the way, and napped away the remaining mission time with an entirely untroubled conscience.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
Bunker under Eclipse Palace, planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Specialist Hunter Thompson

They burned everything, in the end. Once they were sure the bad guys were dealt with, and the stuff that needed recovering had been bagged up, the last step was to sweep back the way they’d come, making certain. Then they turned on that sprinkler system the Whitecrests had disabled, and…yeah. It did what that Corti fella had said it would. The entire lower level, and half the second level, became an inferno. Even the glass burned.

By the time Hunter returned to the surface, didn’t know how long he’d been on mission, exactly. He wasn’t really thinking any more, just doing. Not distracted, just…safer to do nothing but be the weapon he was.

He didn’t pay it much mind when the RFG strikes turned the palace into a series of burning craters. He didn’t seem to notice much of anything on the way back. At some point, he was out of the Mass, ‘Horse working him over to prevent any nagging injury. Then there was a debrief. He answered questions that came his way. Eventually, they were dismissed. They hit the showers. No joking, no talking. Just the hiss of running water and the gurgle of the drain.

No amount of scrubbing got him feeling clean.


Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Myrmidon, orbiting planet Cwdwli, Gwrfwrthwn system

Admiral Sir William Caruthers

They left behind a smashed jewel. The Eclipse Palace had been beautiful, really. But…God. Sir William didn’t know if the Lord had any mercy for the architects of pain they’d destroyed today. He certainly didn’t feel any himself.

He had several painful meetings ahead of him. He’d be meeting with the heads of all the relevant states. The Great Father, the President, several Prime Ministers and possibly the King himself, given the seriousness of what they’d found. Possibly there would be alien heads of state too. That summit was already being planned, this time hosted on Gao, in the most remote and secure retreat the Great Father could muster.

His fleet, and every soul within and around it had done exceptional work, today. In a material sense, they’d lost absolutely nothing except for expended ammunition. And they were going home with a fine prize, too: the Apex of Virtue, surrendered by her commanding officer, was quite a bounty. The mood among his captains and their crews, therefore, was high.

Physically, the damage was minor at most. That ding to the armour would require Myrmidon to undergo repairs, but the plates were designed to evaporate and be replaced. She’d need a day in dock at most. The HEAT would need to go through their usual recovery cycle, but that was routine….physically.

Mentally, it was a different story. Even the Ten’Gewek were releasing their tensions with a hunting-chant and prayer. No monkeyplay, no exercise…they were subdued. The Humans were quiet, each man turned inwards to process in his own way. Some were helping their suit techs, others were cleaning their weapons. Warhorse was helping the new lad, Thompson, get started on his recovery regime early. None of them were saying more than was relevant to their self-appointed tasks.

The Gaoians, though, were seething. All they’d done today hadn’t sated their desire for justice. On the contrary, after what they’d seen it was pretty clear they wanted to claw and bite and ruin. They were a dark little huddle around a table in the corner, nominally maintaining their equipment, but talking low and fervently in their Clan cant. A normal response in most Gao, perhaps, but in the Whitecrests?

Well. Evil, it seemed, had a way of souring even an unmitigated victory. They’d won. But that the thing had even needed doing in the first place was enough to tarnish the soul.

For Sir William, the light on the horizon was that this, hopefully, would be the moment that finally released the logjam within the Interspecies Dominion. Henenwgwyr, Grandmatriarch of House Henen and the most powerful individual within all the Kwmbwrw Great Houses, was no more. The other Houses may not know exactly why, and it may be necessary to show them in time…or it may not. Either way, the great obstacle in the Security Council was gone.

Without her, the distractions of Hierarchy-encouraged bickering were gone. The real threat, at long last, was clear. It was time for the civilized world to exterminate the Hunters. And after that…After that, the Great Enemy would be destroyed.

And the galaxy would finally be free.



++END CHAPTER 72++



MORE BY THE AUTHOR

Dandelion

Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.

When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.

Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…

Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, and you can read it for free on Royal Road where we are publishing each chapter on a monthly basis.

If you get impatient and would like to read the whole thing, then you can purchase it in hardcover and paperback through your local book store or online wherever good books are sold. Alternatively, you can download it for free through Kindle Unlimited.


If you have enjoyed the Deathworlders story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:


This chapter to you with the help of…


Santa

AKA St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle

The SOR

Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker


Forty Humans

TTTA Adam Shearsby Alvaro Gaitan Anthony Landry Anthony Youhas Armond471 Austin Deschner blackwolf393 Brigid Chris Candreva Chris Dye Daniel Iversen Daniel Morris Eric Hardwick HungryWerewolf James Ren Jeffrey Stults John Norton Joseph Szuma Joshua Mountain Taylor Karthik Mohanarangan Katja Krit Barb Marquis Talmadge Nicolas Gruenbeck Ortheri Rob Rollins Ryan Seaman Sam Berry Shane Wegner Sun Rendered T.A. Carlson Taylor McGee TheMoneyBadger Theningaraf Trevor C Xultanis Yeania Aeon Zachary Galicki Zenith


As well as fifty-seven Deathworlders…

Adam Beeman Alexandre Smirnov Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp Ben Thrussell Brandon Hicks Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jim Hamrick John Campbell Jon Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Richard A Anstett RJ Smiley Ryan Cadiz Sam Saph Sean Calvo Sir Xaph Stephen Prescott Stratigan theWorst Valiander Vincent Leighton Volka Creed walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas ziv Zod Bain

…Eighty-five Friendly ETs, 145 Squishy Xenos and 318 Dizi Rats, all hanging on the christmas tree.


“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 73: “The Noose”