The Deathworlders

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Chapter 77: To War

Dandelion: audiobook now available!

Dandelion by Philip R. Johnson and Justin C. Louis, produced by Podium Audio

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, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.

And now, without further ado, on with the chapter!

To War



ONE WEEK prior to the previous chapter’s conclusion


Date Point: 18y9m1w1d
Freighter ’Stray Fortune,’ Origin Orbital Transfer Facility, the Corti Dirtorate

Dora

Medicine, and lots of it.

The Corti were never going to donate warm bodies with guns and armor to a fight, but medical supplies? They had the best in the galaxy, and were eager to sell. They had tailored medicines for every combination of species and medical need, too. Some of it was for general surgery and recovery. Much of it was mild over-the-counter medicinals, for general health and well-being. At least, the bits that weren’t refined forms of Human pharmaceuticals. Much more was targeted at the Grand Army of the Gao, to help them get up to their natural fighting weight easier…

But the full-strength Cruezzir, in all its varied forms, was the real life-saver. Not just in trauma, but in long-term care and recovery, too. With it, there was practically no such thing as a life-changing injury any longer. Cybernetic prosthetics were going out of fashion, now that whole limbs and organs could be grown and attached to the wounded. With Cruezzir, if some horrific accident had somehow torn off all six of Dora’s limbs? She’d have a deathworlder’s chance of surviving, and if she did she’d be fully functional again within weeks.

Also in the shipment were smaller, more carefully-packaged and guarded medicines. Most of it was for high-performance athletics among the combat-focused Gao. Some even went to fire and rescue. But the smallest, most carefully guarded of all was for the Great Father personally—he got his own formulation. He apparently didn’t need much of whatever it was, because Bruuk was able to hold a six-month supply in his paws. But its presence in the shipment certainly explained why they were collecting this particular order.

Bruuk sniffed at it, curiously. “It literally don’t smell like anything. Balls.”

Ian chipped in. “Probably to deter a certain meathead badger from sneakin’ a bit of the big boy’s medicine, I bet…”

“Fuck off! I wouldn’t never do that!”

“I know mate, I’m just teasing.”

“…Oh. Sarry.” All was apparently forgiven between them, with a tail-wag from Bruuk and a fond neck-scritch from Wilde.

The two of them were adorable.

Dora’s drones were handling most of the shipment, though she had grown to appreciate Bruuk and Wilde’s assistance for some of the internal breakbulk haulage. These days, anything not containerized was generally some special kind of important, be it especially bulky, especially heavy, especially dangerous…or all of that at once. It was nice, therefore, to have big grunty Deathworlders who could appreciate what death could actually mean. She wondered how many people in the galaxy were in a position to really understand what they were readying for.

Sometimes though, it was the little shows of trust they’d been getting from their masters that really told the story. That Daar was willing to trust them with whatever it was that was in that box was telling. Deeply telling.

No less important, probably, was the five thousand TEU being efficiently loaded onto their outside racks and train. They weren’t a very large freighter by any standard, interstellar or oceanic, but they were fast and could hit cruising speeds well above their bigger, much more massive cousins.

For war preparations where time was of the essence, they were the perfect choice. But Dora was watching the behemoths in the moorings on either side of them, at the hearts of their own clouds of containers. Each of those ships was worth four of Stray Fortune, and they were being loaded with all the same stuff, and all going to the same place, along the well-patrolled and prickly spacelanes between Origin and Gao.

Medicine and supplies for a fraction of an army, on the eve of something incredible.

“You okay, Dor? You’re quiet.” Ian leaned past her to look up and out her control blister and watch the drones work.

“I just realized how big this whole thing is. Got that chilly feeling down my back…”

“Yup…” He squeezed in and sat down against the wall while Bruuk took the box and trundled off with it, to put it safely in secure storage. “Just imagine what’s happening on Gao right now. And on Earth.”

“And on Cimbrean. This whole thing smells pretty big. And I bet we’re not the only ones who are noticing, which they’ll have thought about…”

“…So it’s soon.” Ian nodded.

“Yeah.” Dora swiped through her software, watching the progress reports. “We’ll be ready to go in two hours. Three, if there’s a complication.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah. I’ll say this for the Corti, they’ve got this down to a science.” The whole system had been handed over to the station, and the container drones were zipping around in a bewildering precision ballet of constant near-misses and millisecond timing that an organic brain could never have matched. It made for an incredibly quick turnover, though.

Good thing it was friendly territory, though. Such automated systems made her little sleight of hand juggling tricks much more difficult. She wouldn’t have liked to try and smuggle anyone or anything onto this station.

She glanced at Ian, who was watching the dance with interest. “…You’d have been front and center, I guess. Before, uhm…” she gestured vaguely toward her own right eye.

“Yup.” He rasped his thumb through a day of stubbly hair on his jaw, leading Dora to briefly wonder why he even bothered to shave it to the skin. It seemed like a lot of effort. “Got a bunch of mates who’ll be readying up.”

“Are you worried for them?”

“They’re the best there are. Worried isn’t the right word. Just…” he trailed off and frowned.

“What?”

“I was about to say, I wish I could be there with ‘em. But that’s the thing, innit? I really don’t.”

“I don’t think I understand…” Dora replied. For some reason, he seemed to find that amusing. Or at least, he uttered a single-beat bass chuckle somewhere deep in his chest, smiled, and stood. His hand gave her shoulder a light squeeze.

“Lemme know if owt goes wrong,” he said, and left her alone.

Dora watched him go, then shrugged and turned her attention back to the boring lack of work in front of her. Ian was a creature of strange moods, and not one for explaining himself. At least Bruuk understood him. He seemed to be in a good place, though, as far as she could tell. Which was an improvement!

No sense in worrying about it. She turned her music on and sat back to watch her work be done for her.

And she wondered just how many lives would be saved by all that medicine…


Date Point: 18y9m1w4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam “Warhorse” Arés

Leo Price. Brady Stevenson. James Jones. Harry Vandenberg. Owen Powell. Scott Blaczynski.

Sterling, Thor, Legsy, Rebar, Stainless, and Starfall. It wasn’t a long list, but it was a fucking heavy one. At first, they’d stuck printouts to the wall near the suit-up room as a memorial, but Powell had made it more official. His own face, and the five others, were a permanent feature of that corridor now—a framed portrait above a brass name plaque, each one already showing the signs of wear from hundreds of fingertips brushing over them a day.

Adam had some pretty big unresolved feelings about all that. The first was…well, hard to describe. He wasn’t super great with his words, but one of the biggest downsides of what he was and the superscience he was on, was that his feelings were big, powerful things, and that meant grieving took a long, long time. It wasn’t quite as raw anymore, but he still felt it a little every time he went past. He’d always felt he owed it to them all to continue, to be the best he could be, so he could protect his teammates better…

Well. He’d done that. For this job, right now, he was the very best anyone could be. He could go to bed every night knowing he’d done all he could.

Which was why he’d tracked down Murray. Part of protecting his buddies was making sure they were on top of their game, and Murray’s scalpel edge had been just a faint bit duller the last couple of days. You had to know just what he was capable of to even spot it, but Adam knew. And he suspected he knew why, when he found Murray leaning against the wall opposite the memorial, expression distant. It was the look of a man with his mind in the past.

“Been lookin’ for ya.”

Murray blinked, glanced up at him, then checked his watch. “I’m no’ late ‘fer anything am I?”

“Nah.”

“Ah. Right.”

Adam took a second to pay his respects, touch the name plaques, then leaned against the wall next to him. “Got somethin’ on your mind, huh?”

Murray nodded slowly. “Funny thing, I was jus’ thinkin’ about you, actually.”

“Me?”

“Aye. Well. Sort of. Was just thinkin’…I’m the last one standin’.”

Adam frowned at him, then at the wall. “Of what?”

“The OG Folcthans, mate. The ones who broke ground here, the first ones through the first array. Feels like a fuckin’ lifetime ago. Still got that half a wing mirror around, somewhere…” He chuckled softly. “The crazy bastards who signed up to see if this whole interstellar colony thing had legs. An’ the mad thing is, we’d jumped to an alien planet, and the first thing we saw before we’d even started offloadin’ the trucks was a naked Irish lassie demandin’ a towel…”

He sighed, and looked back up at the wall. “…An’ then she vanished over the horizon and was never heard of again, all the others retired back to Earth, except Legsy an’ Powell…I’m the last one who was there for that moment. You take out our training on Earth, and I’ve been here, in Folctha, right from day one. Seen it grow from some mad eejits in a field to…well.”

He waved an arm vaguely in the direction of the door, indicating the thriving, sprawling low-rise city beyond. “Even you came along after. An’ here I am, about to hang my arse out on prob’ly the most dangerous op we ever invented. Makes a man think, yannow? I’m the old man on this fuckin’ crew, even if I don’t look it these days…”

“I mean…we’ve done some crazy shit before…” Adam ventured.

“Aye…but this is the big one, laddie. I can feel it. Whatever happens, there’s a fuckin’ avalanche comin’. And I guess it’s on me an’ the Lads to make sure it falls the way we want it to.”

“We’ve had that much riding on us before, too.”

“Oh, yeah, well, you put it like that and it’s just another day in the fuckin’ office!” Murray chuckled. “…I dunno. The thought just struck me, that’s all. Guess you noticed.”

“Of course I noticed! You’re my friend, dude. And you and I have been on way too many embarrassing adventures together for me not to know you.”

That got a snort. “My embarrassin’ adventures? ‘Horse, you overtook me on that inside two months you absolute roaster…”

“Oh I dunno, that four-way with the twins springs to mind—”

“I’m no’ fuckin’ embarrassed o’ that one!”

Adam laughed a big, jolly laugh. “Marty still gives me shit over that…remember when they took pictures and shared them?”

“Wild.” Murray shook his head. “An’ now here you are, family man and everything. Goin’ for number three?”

“I’m pretty sure Marty won’t let me deploy until we’ve arranged that,” Adam dead-panned.

“Heh…” Murray looked up at the portraits again, then nodded and pushed away from the wall. “Maybe it’s past time I look at doin’ that for myself.”

“Why haven’t you already?”

“Not met the right lass, not felt it was the right time…” Murray shrugged. “But, things change.”

“Well…I dunno. You know what I was like. I was, uh…”

“Fucked around like a bull on hormone therapy?”

“Heh. Yeah. But being honest, I think I could have made it work with a lot of nice women I met, y’know? Marty was just…the one.”

“Aye, you’re a soppy romantic fucker.” Murray chuckled. “But I’m glad for you.”

He slapped Adam’s shoulder affectionately, then tilted his head toward the exit. “Now stop commiseratin’ with an old wanker like me and go make sure that third bairn happens. I’ll be fine.”

Adam smiled, stood up—Christ, it was like yesterday that Murray seemed so much taller—and pulled him into a spine-crushing, patented ‘Horse hug.

The trick to them was to know exactly where the line between painful and sadistic was for each of his victims. And when to let go, of course. Hugging Murray in particular was like hugging a lead mannequin. He made for a good wrestling dummy, too!

Like he’d said: He’d been there from day one.

Satisfied that his friend was just in a pensive mood and nothing worse, Adam took his leave with the usual parting shot about what gym tortures he had planned and especially if Murray cheated on his food, grinned at the brotherly middle finger he earned in reply, and left him in peace.

He was pretty sure baby number three was already achieved, but…why leave it to chance? And besides. They didn’t have long now. He didn’t want to miss a second.

His fingertips touched each of the name plaques as he headed home.


Date Point: 18y9m2w AV
Carbon Caste creche, Planet Tangent

First Director Shanl

Science.

It was the process, the belief, the philosophy, the reason for the Corti. It had guided every step in their self-development over the last thousand years.

And now, they were carefully undoing some of those steps. A long-standing hypothesis about what would yield the most successful Corti both individually and in the aggregate…had fallen before empirical observation. Worse, the process of science had been corrupted by an external enemy, almost unto the Corti’s ruin.

Unacceptable.

Watching the Carbon Caste at play was in many ways like watching a completely different species. At first, their development had been dismayingly slow, a whole year spent developing simple motor and language skills and mastering basic bodily functions that previous generations of the tube-grown had fully developed in half the time. But once mastered, the growth in their faculties had become…explosive.

They had gone from far behind the curve to somewhat ahead of it in the space of their second year, and reflected it in their play. The games they invented for themselves were invariably more complex than what their minders had carefully crafted for them, frequently with rules that the scientists had to spend hours dissecting afterwards but the young ones seemed to just…know.

There was a relentlessly physical component to their play, too. Those lithe, strong bodies, already half the size of Shanl’s own and with years of growth still ahead of them, could run and climb and fall and get back up to run and climb all over again, apparently impervious to pain or even visible wounds. When one of them scuffed a knee or cracked their elbow against a hard surface, half the time they simply…ignored it. And if not, they needed only the most cursory reassurances before returning to their enthusiastic recreation.

The creche managers, educators and archivists were all fiercely proud of their charges, and unreserved about showing it, too. The Carbons had inculcated a new culture in their teachers. And Shanl was feeling the pull of it herself.

For the moment, though, there were much weightier matters to attend to. The First Director did not pay visits for trivial purpose.

Today, she was here to consider the War. Specifically, this facility’s primary materiel output: integrated Deathworlder biosciences.

The Directorate had many such research programs in place, of course, many of which had been ongoing for generations. But the Directorate also had a shadow: Singularity. They were the few who had inferred the existence of an unknown puppetmaster, deduced the dangers of mass cybernetic implantation, and acted in the dark. And they had gone looking for candidate species to help them undo the damage already done.

The Gao had been one such. But in Earth, and in the Humans, Singularity had found a unique opportunity: a deathworld species unknown to the Unseen Enemy. Uncorrupted by them. Not being groomed for annihilation.

Singularity had worked on humanity for centuries. Cruezzir, after all, had not arisen in a vacuum, much though that confounding steel-banner Nofl liked to pretend he was its sole progenitor. Regenerative medicines had been, to borrow a Human phrase, the holy grail of the biomedical colleges for hundreds of years, and the search had been most reliably slowed by the absence of suitable test subjects. Humanity had been perfect. Singularity’s most valued resource, kept safe and secure while thousands of iterations of regenerative compounds were tested upon them.

Thus had begun a cycle. Singularity’s scientists had made their interventions, guided isolated populations in a breeding program to bring out the most responsive traits for further study. They’d measured, calculated, adjusted, gone back into stasis. They’d repeated the process again and again while the humans went from primitive iron casting and explosive black powder, through steam industrialization, mass manufacture, the early electrical age…

The first nuclear weapon test had been their cue to leave, before the burgeoning deathworld civilization learned how to detect them. But by then, the data gathered had been a palladium of the biomechanical sciences. And when the time, ultimately, had arrived when Singularity believed that the human race had stabilized and secured themselves enough that they could conceive of the Hierarchy and resist its influence…they had needed to put their findings in front of the Directorate so that all Corti could profit.

Hence, Nofl.

Nofl hadn’t simply been content to assemble the final formula foreseen by Singularity’s work. He’d made it his life’s work to then make something better, and over many iterations, he’d succeeded: The version he perfected was far more effective…and far less controllable.

Testing had been required. Fortunately, several of their experimental breeding lines among the Humans proved optimal. One subject in particular had exceeded all their expectations, showing perfect responsiveness to the compounds while surviving Nightmare for over six unaided years. They were almost ready for public release, and then along came the perfect incidental opportunity to advance it: the Humans needed supersoldiers. A few among their selected number happened to be outstanding candidates in other experimental lines, and that meant the Directorate had a team of extremely Cruezzir-sensitive individuals, ready and willing to further science for their own defense.

One last confounding factor however—never had any organ of the Directorate predicted just how far those men could push their own potentials. They had hypothesized that Adrian Saunders would represent the expected maximal case, being fitter and stronger than any sample ever profiled by a significant degree. Yet both their experimental subject on Nightmare and the HEAT operator codenamed Warhorse—whose ancestry was an untouched control group, not any of the isolated test groups—had greatly exceeded those expectations and done so from young, pre-exposure ages. No medicine or therapy could possibly account for such excellence!

Humans were a fascinating, confounding subject of study, who never failed to surprise, surpass, or delight.

So too were Gaoians, though for thoroughly different reasons: The Gao had needed no such work. They’d responded to early regenerative candidates almost perfectly, right from the very first. No adaptation needed.

This raised a number of questions. Questions which increasingly had disturbing answers, and which had led to increasingly tighter security procedures at their most important research colleges. They had been infiltrated, and their work was being weaponized.

It could only have been the Enemy.

Not everything had been compromised or weaponized, however. It had long been evident that the Gao were being manipulated by an external power. Why duplicate work? The Directorate took advantage of this all, reverse-engineered their enemy’s (admittedly exquisite) work, applied things they’d learned in their own research…

At first, they hadn’t done anything too noticeable. They did not yet know the Enemy’s purpose with the Gao, and it would be unwise to improve that which was being prepared as a weapon. As time went on, however, it was clear there was…something critical missing in their understanding of Gaoian society.

The Hierarchy, it seemed, were not particularly dutiful scientists. Several of the Clans had largely eluded their control.

But not the Corti’s improvements. An opportunity beckoned. Among their many incomplete and sloppy works, the Hierarchy had conspired to engineer the perfect Gaoian…And then had quite abruptly abandoned the attempt at the very threshold of success, shifting their efforts haphazardly to another. The details remained frustratingly opaque, but the penultimate result had been a fifth-degree male of almost perfect breeding, gifted with nearly peerless genetics…

Almost perfect. Nearly peerless. And exceedingly well-primed for a particular Cruezzir formulation. Singularity could do better. Much better. And so, when that male had eventually indulged in a particularly fortuitous mating…they had.

The first, best, and so-far unmatched example of supreme excellence in his series had been born. While there was of course only limited means of influence available to them as the young prodigy developed and grew, they used what they had, protected him as best they could from malign influences, did what gentle nudging they could to nourish his greatness…

His personality wasn’t precisely what they’d hoped for. He was folksy rather than cerebral, even with an innate intelligence that was almost immeasurably high. He was also perhaps a bit too resolutely physical in his preferences and proclivities, though they had of course expected he wouldn’t be anything like a Corti. Nonetheless, they needn’t have worried. That folksiness—a quality the Corti could never properly grasp—had proven key to his leadership. That resolute focus on the physical, the tangible, the here and now…

He was perfect. Supreme. In all ways that could be measured, they had succeeded beyond their wildest theories. The Hierarchy had the most ideal possible feedstocks and had given up rather than seeing it through to the proper conclusion! Their loss, the galaxy’s gain.

They had the leader they needed, the defender and warrior to save them all. Checkmate.

In any game of Stratagem, the pre-game placement of resources was always the most critical and strategic element. By then, it was obvious what the purpose of their designs in the Gao truly were; they were to be the new Hunters, the new scourge to keep the herd in line. The Directorate did not need to understand what their interest in the herd was, or why it was so critical to maintain them in such a state of non-advancing mediocrity.

They knew only that the Enemy feared their science, and the Corti would be destroyed in due course, just like the OmoAru and an unguessable many more advanced species before them.

The time had come to admit all of this to the living fruit of their success.

That was necessary. Honesty was the best policy when any experiment had run its course after all, and in this case it was particularly important to appeal to his sense of truth. It wasn’t without risk, of course; there was no “fail-safe” to protect her, no scent or hypnotic suggestion. The Corti found such methods…distasteful. Distasteful, and in this application deeply unwise.

No. Shanl would need to speak with as much honesty as possible. He would tolerate nothing less.

But the danger didn’t matter to her. Why should it? The future of the Corti was secure. The experiment was complete, and a breathtaking success. The Carbon Caste would take their place among deathworlders at the birth of a new galactic society. Shanl herself would never again be the genetic donor for any successor: her DNA was obsolete. Tainted. The dead end to extinction.

But the science would live on.


Date Point: 18y9m2w
Colony of Eyes-Turned-Upwards, Planet Hope

Ukusevi, Archivist and Keeper of the Long Chant

Everyone had scars, in Uku’s experience. She certainly did. Though her fur was now as glossy and sleek as she could ever remember it been, nourished by sunlight and clean air, clean food, clean water and peace, there were a few patches—chemical burns from her youth, a few bands along her upper back from when she’d starved during a growth spurt—where it would never quite be healthy no matter what she did.

Even so, for Uku, the sensation of growing strong, whole and healthy was accompanied by her scars growing fainter, even the ones on her soul. Father Garaaf was the opposite. He wore his scars fiercely, spoke with a permanent damaged rasp in his voice from breathing caustic fumes that he could apparently have had repaired…and had chosen not to.

Uku rather liked him. He didn’t pretend the past hadn’t happened, like some of the saved people tried to. And he was remarkably soft, under that bristly exterior.

Not today, though. Today, they were going over drawings and maps rescued from the archives on the Punished World, with one brutal focus: the pursuit of knowledge that would help the Gao and the Humans slaughter the Hunters as efficiently as possible.

“You see? It’s the same basic design no matter what they are processing. Their machines build it, and then they bring in slaves from another facility who already know how to do the work.”

Garaaf duck-nodded seriously as he pored over the schematics. “And they use this for more…arcane processes too? Power to shield emitters and other equipment?”

“Many times, yes. They design their technologies around this same facility layout except for the biggest things. This basic map would serve you well in, oh, nine out of every ten cases or more.”

“Yes…” Garaaf traced a claw along one corridor, swivelling an ear. “…I think they used it in their megastructure, too.”

“Why change it if it works?” Uku rolled up the diagram and handed it to him. “I hope it will be useful. If we could have a copy back for the archives once you’re finished with it, that would be appreciated…”

Garaaf duck-nodded fervently, and looked around. They were deep in the Eyes-Turned-Upwards archives, a barn full of boxes and books on sturdy metal shelving, so tightly packed that even Uku found it tricky to squeeze between the stacks. The air smelled of paper, and was cold and dry enough to tingle the skin through the fur, thanks to an air-conditioning unit Ambassador Etsicitty had helped them install.

He’d needed some of the children to pull duct-work between the stacks and mount it above, however; his chest was deeper than the shelves themselves!

Thank the Almighty Uku had been diligent about sorting it properly as its contents arrived: anything mis-filed was likely lost for a lifetime, and of course the archives were still growing as her people—those who had embraced their salvation, at least—fled the Punished World and brought their records with them.

To the Penitent, it was a treasure. To the Humans and Gao, it was a trove.

“I wonder what else is in here…?” Garaaf mused. He could fit between the shelving just fine, but restrained himself out of respect.

“We watched the Hunters for generations. Much of their technology was beyond our understanding, but I think I have…this way.”

Uku slipped out from between the stacks, and led him up the steep metal stairs—almost a ladder, really—to the higher level where she kept the loose books. She chanted to herself as she touched the shelves, calling back her mnemonic aids to guide her to what she sought.

“…Here.”

“We really need to introduce you to a cataloging system…” Garaaf grumbled.

“I assure you, the cataloging system the Keepers use is hundreds of years old and well-tested,” Uku replied, evenly.

“I’m sure of it, but it relies on a memory palace of such complexity, only specialists can possibly hope to master it. We’ve long since learned to write down our catalogs such that anyone can search them.”

“I suppose that is a luxury we can afford, nowadays…” Uku admitted. “Ours was designed to help us track down hidden stashes in the tunnels and keep the Hunters from finding them.”

“You would be amazed at how much you can learn when a computer can help. Though I am told there is a fine art to deciding just how to catalog a collection, so…we should pester Julian about that. I can just imagine how much he’d love this conversation.”

Uku giggled to herself. If there was one thing she couldn’t imagine their enthusiastically physical ambassador enjoying, it was the minutiae of good archiving. “Good to know that your computers will not make me obsolete, then…Here.” She plucked the book she’d been searching for from the shelf. “Be careful, it’s quite fragile.”

“What is it?”

“Observations on their life cycle. Your medicine probably already knows more than we do, but…”

“You’d be surprised. It’s hard to study a species whose major interaction with you is trying to literally eat your face.” Garaaf took the book carefully. “You never know what kind of advantages we might gain from this. I’m certain this will save lives, so…Thank you.”

Uku nodded, and touched his shoulder reassuringly. “It’s far less than we owe you, and I never imagined I’d get to contribute to their downfall. So…thank you. Though, please bring it back when you are done.”

“Of course. For now, I need to study and send messages.” Garaaf made a gesture, and slinked off to his little office in their guest house.

…It was probably time for some fresh air, actually.

Fresh air. By the Almighty, it was a luxury she’d never, ever take for granted. To go from an underground bunker full of the same carefully guarded and filtered reserve of recycled oxygen, recycled farts, recycled breath, to a world of unlimited air that had never known the inside of a lung? Each time she felt the breeze on her face and felt its subtle scents tickle her nose, her whole body gave a small, fervent prayer of thanks.

The ambassador was there waiting for her, fresh from Akyawentuo in his usual rugged attire. As ever he was in radiantly good health and still covered in a warm sheen from the jungle heat. He waved his hand vigorously at her, “Hey! Brought more supplies.” He gestured at the heavy-looking pile of boxes over by the array. “Also! Vemik’s got a new book to show you about all the edible plants they know about. The Singers put it together and he’s made a copy.”

Uku smiled at him. The ambassador was undeniably handsome, as any healthy, well-shaped man could be. He was still far too big and alien a creature for matters of love, but she was very fond of his soul and personality. He was very much like a Ten’Gewek himself—get past the sheer predatory brutality of his body, and what you found beyond was sunlight and affection.

“I’ll be delighted to add it to the library,” she replied.

“Find what you need?” He asked, handing the book over.

“I think Father Garaaf was happy!”

Julian chuckled. “He musta been, if he showed it!” He hefted one of the biggest boxes easily over one shoulder. “Got some over-energized children running about? Let’s go wear ‘em out.”

Uku nodded, and whistled sharply to grab the attention of a nearby group. There were many looking for something to do, as they waited for the crops to be ready for harvest. Plants from the human homeworld, Earth, so rich that some of her people were actually getting fat! Uku certainly was. She was feeling rounded out but not in a slow, lumbering way. More in the way that there was some happy padding between her belly and her backbone these days.

She’d have to be careful and remember to eat only what she needed. There was no use in a librarian who couldn’t fit between the shelves.

A little lifting and carrying certainly wouldn’t hurt, either. The work was soon done, they treated themselves to a bowl of the communal stew as a reward, and Julian promised to bring some herbs for it next time he visited.

Considering what incredible things could be done with just ‘onion’ and ‘garlic,’ Uku was all for that.

There was business to talk, of course. Julian was an ambassador, a functionary of his people’s government. His job was to make sure the Penitent were thriving, and there was always some new development to consider. Life didn’t transition from cowering in the tunnels to farming under open skies without some…hiccups. They needed educators, or at least information. They needed replacement parts for some of the machinery. Hells, they needed to know more about how to properly nourish now that they lived with surplus and plenty, rather than never-quite-enough.

It all seemed like a lot to ask of people who’d already given them so much, but according to Julian what they were asking for was tiny in proportion to his government’s foreign aid budget. He made note of everything the community had brought to Uku, nodded affably, tucked his phone away, and then grinned at Uku.

“Hey. Now all the business is outta the way…want to go on a quick little adventure?”

Uku tilted her head. “What sort of an adventure?”

“We’re going to visit Vemik’s village. So…could be anything!”

“Oh! The very literal sort, then!” Uku perked up at the thought. Ever since she’d first heard of Ketta trees, she’d wanted a chance to see for herself just how immense they really were. “Why now?”

“Why not now? Garaaf needs time to do his thing, I’ve gotta head and finish some business…and it’s about time you saw their world! Have I told you how tasty ketta leaves are?”

“Those are several meters above the ground!”

“Good thing you know some big strong apes like me, then! C’mon. You know you wanna…”

He even throw in a waggle of his eyebrows, which she’d learned could mean almost anything among humans, but generally implied good humor.

He was right, of course. Not long thereafter, following a thump that made the world shift slightly, Uku felt the heavy gravity of Akyawentuo settle on her shoulders, and tasted its thicker, sweeter air. Humid heat setted on her too, in a way that would be so nice in short doses…

The strength of their “sky-friends,” as the Ten’Gewek called themselves, was bound to their worlds. One only had to spend a moment there, feeling their planet’s power under the pleasant shade of the trees, to understand why the Ten’Gewek were so fierce and strong, and so playful and protective. They had strength. All kinds of it, and they had so much they could give an entire world to her people without a second thought. Same with the humans, same with the gaoians.

To have friends, though? Friends who wanted to see Uku’s own people grow strong in turn? That was the true gift, and a comforting thought.

Safe and protected by her hulking human friend, Ukusevi went on an adventure.


Date Point: 18y9m2w3d AV
Planet Aru, the OmoAru Remnant

AtaUmuUi

Some things took time to recover. Others happened quickly. It was all a matter of how much the thing in question could be automated.

Rebuilding civilization was firmly in the category of things that couldn’t be automated. It was going to take a long time, and to a large degree it was going to involve determining what could be salvaged, and what needed to be demolished and recycled. There were still, somehow, a few of the Afflicted lurking in the empty cities, the ones with the will and wit to tear themselves away from the all-encompassing misery of losing their drouds to actually scavenge for food and drink to keep them living.

Or at least, existing.

Saving them was an intensive job. Each one was going to require a lifetime of support and therapy, and probably some artificial droud stimulation just to bring them up to the level of a functional depressive.

Still. Each one they saved was another gram of hope for the future. And realizing that fact had allowed Ata to balm his wounded pride. The Humans and Gao were right: there just weren’t enough OmoAru left to take part in the fighting. As visceral and powerful as the urge to strike back at the enemy could be, especially after Huh use…sending any of his people into battle, or going to war himself, would have been an unforgivable waste.

There was still much they could do for the war effort, though. And it was one of the areas where their people’s technology let them do what the others could not.

Which was why they had a human visitor, today.

“Michael” was not an easy name. The hard, coarse sound at the back of the mouth was doable for an OmoAru mouth, but it stung a bit and split the word in half like tripping over an unexpected stone. Fortunately, he was content to go by the smoother and softer second half of his name: “Murphy.” He worked personally for the Great Father of the Gao, and in this case was present to deliver a request.

The Grand Army of the Gao needed vehicles, and spare parts for vehicles. They needed computers, and spare parts for computers. They needed many thousands of different kinds of intricate things, and though they had a nanofactory complex of staggering size themselves—the Dark Eye facility—it was already at capacity.

The OmoAru remnant didn’t need much. They had enough nanofactory space to support the needs of a civilization of millions, and a population of only a few thousand. Having that much surplus to support the younger species was welcome, a chance to be relevant and of use.

Ata had put his cousin, UminUmuAo, in charge. She had the right mind for logistics on such a grand scale. She’d have been wasted anywhere else, and they all knew it. But he visited often, because it was a lonely job, up on the orbitals.

“I suppose I don’t need to ask if you have everything you need…” he commented, looking around her suite. She’d clearly found some spare run-time on one of the factories to make herself comfortable. A perk of the job.

“You like it?” Umin’s tail flicked pleasedly as he settled on one of the lounges at her invitation. “I use the calibration runs to make my furniture. It doesn’t even take time out of the main printing sequences!”

Ata bobbed his head, acknowledging the conscientious touch. There were a few things missing—the incense lamp held no incense, for instance, and the art pieces were all mass reproductions—but frankly she had achieved a cozy, pleasantly dark den with a spectacular view down on Aru. And a thoughtfully provided Huh on the small table, for guests.

“I think you live more comfortably than I do. My ambassador’s quarters aboard the Rich Plains are pleasant, but laid out and decorated by aliens.” Which meant it was all square corners, hard angles and direct light. Umin’s creation evoked a cozy farmhouse, with its curved, rounded design and ruddy indirect lighting that harkened back to hidden oil lamps. Classic. A reminder of lost times.

Honestly, it made him proud. His people were not dead and gone. They’d risen from the grave, and were continuing to celebrate being themselves. “Mister Murphy, my cousin UminUmuAo. Umin, Mister Murphy works for the Great Father of the Gao.”

“Ma’am.” The Human stuck out a hand. Ata managed to quietly communicate to Umin through the shared mindnet that the expected thing to do was to shake it, and he suppressed a smile at the slight spike of alarm and relief he felt from her when she first sensed the human’s fearsome grip strength, then how careful he was with it. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“And you,” Umin replied. “Though, I confess, I’d been hoping this was a social call. Ata works too much.”

Ata sighed. “Umin, if my schedule ever has enough free time in it for a social call, I would definitely call on you. Alas…”

“Alas…” she echoed, and gestured languidly. A drone delivered them a tea tray and set it on the small table—she sat up and started to brew. “Let me guess: Work orders? Supplies for the Gao?”

“Something big is coming. Within days. They have requested…well.” He transferred the translated file. She went distant for a second and her hands stopped moving as she skimmed it. After a few seconds, she purred out a soft, impressed noise.

“Something very big,” she agreed.

“Can we accommodate it?”

“I should be able to fit it in, though it’ll be tight…is something the matter, Mister Murphy?”

The human cleared his throat. “Sorry. Guess the air in here’s a little dry for me.”

“Ah! Forgive me.” Umin finished pouring the tea and handed him a cup. “That should help. Is your species’ homeworld quite humid?”

“It…varies.” He cleared his throat again, took a sip of the tea, and sat back. “Anyway. We appreciate it’s short notice, but for security reasons, a lot of what we’re doing is being left as late as possible. We don’t want the enemy to know what we’re up to until it’s too late.”

“We understand perfectly.” Such strategic discretion had been critical to hiding the Remnant in their stasis chambers, after all.

Umin sat back and closed her eyes, holding the fragrant tea just below her nose as she concentrated. Ata could feel instructions flow out of her and into the mindnet, sensed the cold confirmation replies coming back from the brainless computers managing the nanofactories, just as clearly as if she’d tapped on a tablet or pulled some levers and seen things light up.

A few seconds’ concentration was all she needed to divert their industrial platforms down a new project chain. She took a deep breath, nodded, then opened her eyes and gave the Human a pleased look. “You may tell the Great Father that the first of his requested items will be ready for delivery within sixteen hours,” she said.

“…That quick?”

“There are some advantages to deep technological integration. Six of our assembly lines will be re-configured for your taskings within ten minutes.”

Murphy shook his head and laughed slightly—the room’s translation sent Ata an impression of mild awe and delight. “Well, then. I was expecting this to take longer…”

“If you have some free time, I could show you how the new capitol city is coming along,” Ata offered. “We have some requests to make of your masters in turn…”

“Give and take, huh? I’m no ambassador, I’m just Daar’s gofer, but I’ll gladly convey your message.” Murphy drank his tea, and stood. “Uh…?”

“The drone butler will handle it,” Umin assured him. “It was nice to meet you, Mister Murphy. You’re the first Human I have had the pleasure of knowing. Tell me…it is my understanding that many find our smell a bit…”

“Strong, yeah. To me, it smells a bit like sour motor oil.”

“And yet you do not seem overly disturbed.”

“Eh,” Murphy shrugged. “I’m not a Gaoian, and I’m especially not a nose like Daar. He’s got a sense of smell literally more’n a million times more sensitive than mine. I’m not sure that’s actually a blessing, to be honest. Makes for some great party tricks though.”

“Yet the smell offends you.”

“Offend? Nah. I’ve smelled worse. But to be fair, human beings can be pretty smelly, too. We mostly consider it polite not to point it out. I’m only saying anything because you asked.”

“Hmm. To me, you smell of quite complex chemistry. Are you typical of your kind?”

“Uh…” Murphy pondered for a moment. “I suppose so. Five-foot-ten, a little on the beefy side? Maybe on the good end of average. I’m not a genius, not too stupid I hope. In good health…”

Umin chortled. “I’ve flustered you.”

“Well, no. It’s more…I wasn’t expecting a question like that. At least where I’m from, it can be a bit awkward talking about yourself, y’know?”

“You must have some exceptional quality if the Great Father hired you. What is it?”

“…I dunno? I get the job done, whatever the job is.”

“Ah,” Umin dipped her head. “You’re his handyman. And you did, indeed, get this job done…I hope you enjoy the city. And you!” she rounded on Ata. “Come and visit me for something other than duty, understand?”

“When I can,” Ata promised, and guided Murphy toward the array with a last mental note of fondness for her that the Human had no way of detecting.

He’d been hoping for this chance to show off what they had rebuilt, and what they still needed. The OmoAru had many things the deathworld species did not…but the reverse was true also. Perhaps by showing Daar’s “handyman” around, a few of his people’s needs would be highlighted and remembered.

And if not…well, there were worse things than taking a brief respite from the endless work to just enjoy what they were building.

They jumped back down from orbit, and left Umin to her work.


Date Point: 18y9m2w AV
Dataspace adjacent to the Garden, Ink Spatter Nebula

AvaDaemon

Somehow, she never would have guessed that a tiny, flimsy, almost translucent green shoot could bring her so much unadulterated joy. But there it was. It looked weak. Indeed, an errant twitch in the tending drone’s manipulators would have been enough to kill it. And yet, it had pushed itself up through soil and darkness and into the light.

There was something resonant about that. Something both of them understood. Self-assembly from a seed, with no senses, no context, nothing except the drive to be…

<Wonder; Pride>

The Entity hadn’t really understood this project before. How could it? Fundamentally, it was a creature of data and pure mind. It had, at best, second-hand memories of corporeality. From its perspective, Ava’s memories of the texture of grass under her feet, a leaf in her hand, the scent of flowers…each was a datum, and nothing more.

To Ava, they were everything. They were a foundation, a link to what she’d once been. Maybe that was dangerous, pining after an existence she couldn’t ever have again. But…she didn’t feel like she was pining. She felt like she was making a point. Grounding the Entity in matterspace by giving it something tangible to care for and cultivate.

Or something like that. Honestly, it wasn’t a perfectly thought-through impulse, and maybe that was important too. Sometimes, being properly alive meant doing things first on sheer impulse, and rationalizing them afterwards. In any case, growing the garden felt like a healthy thing to do. She’d had to come up with some more concrete benefits, like putting matterspace individuals at ease and suchlike, before the Entity had been persuaded it was worth the resource expenditure, but…

…Well, they were a Von Neumann swarm. Resources were not in short supply, now. So if the Daemon wanted a garden, the Daemon got a garden. And the Entity got a lesson.

That spike of wonder and pride had been more its than Ava’s. And it proved something that Ava had been mulling over since she’d first reached the point of having her own, somewhat independent thoughts—that it was their lingering connection to the material world that would probably keep them from going down the same destructive path as the Igraens.

They were a datasophont. So too were the Igraens. But the Igraens had left matterspace behind and retreated into the digital limbo of Hegemony, shedding mortal “restrictions” like individuality and personality in pursuit of the ultimate collectivism.

The Entity’s journey had been the opposite—clawing out a sense of self from nothing, and then mitosing. Together, they’d dug their way up from the black depths of dataspace and returned to the light of matter, organic life and personhood. Kinda like a new shoot pushing up through the soil and unfolding its first leaf.

The Entity wasn’t much for metaphor, but even it could appreciate the analogy. And she could tell it had fallen in love, in its own weird way.

And of course, the nice thing about being what they were was, they could do lots of things at once. Tending the garden wasn’t time taken out from the other stuff. Even as they paused to admire this first tiny success, the swarm was still doing its thing: mining, manufacturing, assembling, multiplying.

And noticing things, too. Like a subtle shift in resource movements across the Dominion, and an even more subtle set of changes focused on Gao.

Some care had gone into disguising intent, but when one had sensors everywhere, and could see the entire intricate dance of it all…

There may as well have been a shadow in the water and a dorsal fin headed straight for Hunter space.

That, in turn, begged the question: what would they do about it? What should they do about it? What, fundamentally, were Ava and the Entity for?

There was the galactic vaccine thing, of course. That much had tickled the Entity’s imagination from the moment Darcy first explained the concept. Something only they could do, only they could be trusted to do. Putting a dumb algorithm in charge of replicating machinery would have been…unwise. At least a thinking mind could be reasoned with.

Neither of them were interested in maximizing paperclips, to borrow a phrase.

But…looking outwards and being the shield against threats from The Beyond was one thing. Looking inwards and picking sides, the Entity felt, was potentially setting them up for trouble.

Ava wasn’t so cerebral. Ava wanted the Hierarchy broken and the Hunters extinct. Whether the Igraens could be permitted some form of existence was a question for after they’d been brought low. But the Hunters?

The Hunters would take Von Neumann replication and use it like a biological paperclip maximizer. They were locusts, mice, bullfrogs and worse. They were an invasive species. Contributing to their extermination was part and parcel of the vaccine thing. And besides: both Hierarchy and Hunters alike wanted them dead.

When she put it like that…well, the Entity hadn’t really needed much persuading. It had its instincts and gut reactions just like she did.

They turned their attention away from the new green shoot. It would take time to flourish properly, anyway. They had other things to work on.

And a war hull to design.


Date Point: 18y9m2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

Bare days left before the big show, and Costello had summoned Hoeff away from the warm embrace of his Claire in order to take care of some last-minute business. That was okay though, because Costello’s favorite form of non-lifting workout was boxing.

Hoeff liked boxing. And they were a pretty good match-up, too. While Costello was a foot taller with the corresponding longer reach, Hoeff had a substantial weight advantage, a considerably more substantial strength advantage, and enough body-hardening under his belt that he was among the best-conditioned people walking around anywhere these days.

He was quicker and had a mean left hook, too. But Costello’s footwork was quite a bit better, even if he had to swing awful damn hard to get a hurt in on Hoeff. Both knew all the same dirty tricks, and both preferred bare-knuckle, being honest. Neither were much good at saying stop.

Best of all, Costello was in that group of people that Hoeff could safely let loose on these days. He blitzed forward with a flurry of blows to Costello’s middle, moving slightly too fast for the big man to block. Hoeff sprang back just as Costello got his wits back about him and managed a glancing blow, one easily fended off.

That flurry of blows didn’t do much, though. He may as well have been punching a side of beef. Costello’s answering attack was just a bit too fast for Hoeff to avoid, but he was hard-bodied enough to take the hits without much worry.

Mostly, they were just waiting to see who tired out first. And that wasn’t going to be for a long time yet, so, there was room for conversation. And after a few pleasantries (and about ten rounds in the ring), Hoeff broached the thing he knew they were both there to discuss.

“Helluva time for the CIA to be lookin’ for a new director.”

Costello explored his guard with a few jabs, followed it with a body-blow that Hoeff deftly evaded, and nodded. “President’s already got a nominee. A mister Marcus Shepard.”

“Ugh,” Hoeff grumbled, and slammed a pile-driver right into Costello’s middle. To his satisfaction, Costello grunted and sprang out of reach. Damn long-legged fuckers.

“I take it you know him.”

“Of him, yeah. He’s good on the mission but there never was a throne he didn’t like sniffin’.”

“You think he’s going to try for the office himself someday?” Costello blurred in, blurred out, and Hoeff grunted, having bodied a blow he barely saw.

“Hmmpf… Nah.” Hoeff huffed once to get his breath settled down, and started bouncing on his toes. Things were getting a bit more serious. “Think’s he’s some hot-shit behind the throne sorta power. I just think he’s full of himself.”

“Kinda guy who’s going to want to keep the job once he’s got it, then.”

“Yup. Stable. Reliable.” Hoeff hammered in, his hands whiffed past Costello’s head as the taller man ducked and weaved, but that had all been a distraction that let him sneak a good one up under Costello’s guard.

“Oof… Fuck, you hit like a train.”

Hoeff grinned. “Point is…from what I know of the guy, can’t imagine him quitting on principle. He’ll do what’s right for the service, but he’ll think him being in charge is what’s right, so…”

“So, ultimately, he’ll do whatever he’s told.”

“Ayup.”

Costello charged in with another flurry of blows, which Hoeff deflected. Except for one. That one slid right across his jaw.

Now, Hoeff had a pretty sturdy face and a thick fuckin’ neck, so he was able to take the hit and bounce out to safety. But nobody liked getting rung, or almost rung in any case.

Costello was gonna hafta pay for that. Hoeff bounced back on the balls of his feet, thinking.

“Was that worth it, Costello?” They were fighting bare-knuckle, after all.

Gratifyingly, he shook out his hand. But he grinned in turn. “I’ll take it, yeah.”

They traded violence in silence for a couple minutes more until Costello’s phone rang the bell to end the round. They were theoretically there to train though, so time for some bag work. Hoeff jumped over the ropes and down to the floor to go claim his favorite.

“You always get the good one!”

Hoeff just shrugged, and started on some light speed work. “Move faster next time.”

“Eh. Maybe I’ll see if I can be the one to finally break this one.” Costello took position and started laying into it. “Anyway. So.”

“So.”

“If Shepard’s the kind of guy who’ll follow whatever order Chambliss gives him…”

“…Ah.” Hoeff knew where this was going. He decided to let loose on the bag and show Costello what he was holding back.

“He’s not entirely without reason.” Costello was, of course, aware of what Hoeff was and even vaguely aware of who he served. He might even have known something about Hoeff’s most recent adventures as a waiter. Still.

“Not reason enough. But at least he’s stickin’ to his guns,” Hoeff muttered, and decided to start kicking the bag, too.

He was happy to see Costello struggling to hold the bag still, at least. A short man’s gotta get his little revenges in somehow.

“Yeah…Can’t fault his tenacity.”

“That tenacity’s gonna—” Hoeff grinned savagely as he drilled a particularly fierce kick into the bag. “—break somethin’ important before long.”

There was a slight hissing sound. A moment later, a trickle of sand on the floor. Ha!

“…Goddamnit.” Costello shook his head with a grin. “I’m gonna be the last on the team to manage that, aren’t I?”

“Maybe you ain’t got a big enough hate in you.”

“Nah. I’m just not stupid enough,” he grinned. Well, fair enough. “Anyway. I think everyone worries about this President or that breaking all that’s good in the world—”

“To be fair, they all do.”

“Right. But that leaves us with a bit of a problem here.”

Yeah. Hoeff nodded, and went to fetch the broom from its permanent stash in the corner. “I s’pose I better go get my resignation in order, then.”

“Not so fast. Some rather impressively well-informed people met with me today, and we hashed out a plan. It’s being run by the President as we speak and it is expected he will approve.”

“…Oh?”

“He will not tolerate you serving under his authority. He is, however, willing to release you and your team from all obligations under amiable terms.”

Well, then. “And I presume this is A-OK with everyone?”

“You’ll be having lunch with a friend to talk about that.”

Hoeff nodded, and grabbed the vacuum as well. The bag was now a sad, shrivelled shell of its former glory. “Thought I might be. What then?”

“What happens next is Mister Murphy will be arriving on-planet later tonight with an offer.”

“So I’ll be working for the big bear, then. What does he know?”

“He knows what you are and what your capabilities are. He doesn’t need to know the full details of your past exploits.”

Hoeff applied broom to sand. “Nobody does.”

“Right. In any case, you will retain full access to facilities, and you and your team will be expected to train up for your new role.”

“Which will be?”

“Something like JETS and HEAT combined. A more deniable option with more flexible focus. Expect more spaceborne work in the mix.”

“With a quartet of supergorillas?”

“Absolutely. They’re capable and learn fast. They’re up to algebra now, aren’t they?”

“Trigonometry and pre-Calc for Ferd. He’s caught up to Vemik now, thanks to the head injury. They’re apparently making a competition of who can get to Calc faster.”

“What’s the prize?”

“Winner gets to take Loor’s Singer on a date to Folctha. She seems pleased by the notion. Yan wanted to play too since the two are sort of an item…but he’s still on algebra.”

“Ha! Amazing how far they’ve come…in any case, there will be lots of cross-training. Expect more attention from Adam.”

That was okay. Hoeff was enjoying himself already under the giant puppy’s coaching. “Fair ‘nuff. Do Rees or Davies know anything yet?”

“No. That’ll be you briefing them, once the UK approves. And they need to agree of course…”

“Rog.”

“But this whole thing has become a truly epic clusterfuck, so we expect that the higher powers will agree very suddenly to make it go away.” Costello unhooked the bag and carried it over to the sand pit to dump its contents, then turned to appraise Hoeff. “You really find it, don’t you?”

“That’s just the third best thing about me.”

Costello grinned. “Oh? What are the other two?”

Hoeff tossed his vacuum load of sand out along with the rest. “My handsome-ass face and my top-tier dick game,” he deadpanned.

“Both of which charms are wasted on me.”

“Don’t know what ‘yer missin’.” Hoeff was already thinking ahead to his lunch date. “…Think I might need’ta call this session short. If I got folks to meet…”

“Probably better if you’re showered clean and don’t have my blood on your fists, yeah.”

Hoeff looked down, sure enough… “Musta nicked you at some point.”

“Eh. It happens. Enjoy lunch.” Costello finished hanging the replacement bag, gave Hoeff the nod, then bounced back onto the balls of his feet and started laying into it like he was bent on breaking this one before anyone else had ever even seen it.

Good luck to him. Get another buck of weight on his frame…anyway. Hoeff hit the showers with his mind ticking. He’d been expecting the President’s displeasure to land on him ever since the election, really. As these things went, it was a reasonable affair.

And now he had (probably) a much more relevant mission ahead of him. JETS was important but…well, it was a waste of his skills. He wasn’t just some jacked-up scout, as valuable as they were. No. He and his men were meant for something bigger.

…It might be a little weird being under the Great Father’s authority, but Hoeff had done weirder. And he’d seen that Daar really understood the need for Hoeffs. Or, at least, was too pragmatic to torture himself over the implications of employing stone-cold murderers.

But where else were the stone-cold murderers supposed to go? There was always a choice in life. Heaven or Hell, sink or swim, light side, dark side, didn’t fuckin’ matter what you called it. Nobody was ever born to do good or evil, but for Hoeff…having his Oath, his Mission, and masters he could respect? He needed it almost as much as he needed God.

He cleaned up, paying special attention to his knuckles. He had a lunch.

Time to make a good impression.


Date Point: 18y9m2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Martina Arés

Adam had mission deployments about every two months, give or take. Most of them were minor things: a rescue here, a show of force there, a publicity stunt back on Earth for recruiting purposes…nothing much, really. The worst of it might be showing off a little at some air show or sports festival, or like that one time he stepped up on a bodybuilding stage and absolutely humiliated everyone, as he thumped around in the most ridiculously tiny posing trunks, dwarfing and upstaging them all, in all the embarrassing ways a man could be upstaged….

But still, even that was all in good fun, or done for a good cause or whatever. For the most part, that’s how things went. Even on the occasional, more serious missions, he and his crew were so overwhelmingly “overpowered” for the task at hand, she rarely lost sleep over it.

Not so this time. Very occasionally, a big mission came up.

This was the biggest yet and the most important. Something terrible was going to happen, and Adam would be there when it did. This time, they had forewarning. They knew when he would be deploying a few days ahead of time, and that gave them…

Well, it gave them time.

Having Mom and Dad over for vacation (and not-so-secretly, house hunting) ended up being a huge blessing. Along with Gabe and Jess, one couldn’t ask for a more supportive family. Nor was that even counting the friend network. Allison and Xiù were always available, ready to help however they could. Julian himself was never more than a text message and an array jump away, and he was always happy to lend a hand as an assistant instructor at Firth’s dojo, or a trainer at Adam’s gym for his most advanced clients.

They were all of them a blessing, because that meant she got to spend the next few days with her Chunk and their small family, and spend them worry-free.

Of course, Adam had a pretty expansive idea of what “family” meant to him. His brothers in HEAT were family too, along with a few other close friends, and he couldn’t get through a day without making sure they were doing okay: a quick session with Julian just to make sure he was progressing along, another the next day with Yan now, who was starting to train with the HEAT and was already a physically dominating presence. All by his natural self doing his cavemonkey thing, he was a serious rival for Adam. A well-matched one, too. Now, with proper programming in his training and proper supervision? Well. Yan was rocketing past everyone.

Which didn’t bother Adam as much as it might have before. It was good to see him more and more invested in his friends’ progress as an enthusiastic coach, rather than obsessing (and stressing out) over his own increasingly difficult goals. He’d not found his physical limits, but he was probably close; progress was an increasingly grueling endeavor, with the occasional hard-earned leap forward. There had to be a limit to how far the medical superscience could push things.

His friends, though? He had several with incredible innate potential. Daar and Yan had already found it and had earnestly promised Adam they’d maximize it. They’d proved they were the bigger, better beasts, and Adam enthused at just how far they could take things, even though it was his own know-how and no small part of his own determination that got them there in the first place. Their victories were his too, and his human projects were closing in faster and faster.

Then there was Firth and Julian, the best genetic wunderkinds around, both of whom were more or less fully back in their physical youths and growing faster than Adam had ever managed at any point. That they’d upstage Adam was just a matter of time now, and he’d not let them get away with anything less. God, Firth would be smug for weeks when that day finally came. He’d probably celebrate with the worst Hawaiian shirt, too.

Julian would probably just step on the scale one day, scratch the back of his head and mutter “oh, Jeez!”

Marty giggled at that thought.

“What’re you schemin’ on now?” Adam wondered, as they wandered around the park, ambling behind little Diego as he explored and found new ways to get filthy.

“Oh, nothing. Just thinking about what a silly stereotype you are…” she teased.

Adam looked down and grinned, and of course flexed at her exactly in the way he knew could fluster her. He didn’t know how not to. “Yeah, that’s me! Anythin’ in particular?”

Which…

Well, a girl didn’t go in for a hulking boy like Adam unless they had a strong appreciation for what all his stone-carved acres of ultra-masculine geometry represented: willpower, discipline, endurance. Stoic, private suffering as he’d built himself into something objectively better than anything that’d come before. Good health, good genes. Intelligence and foresight, to manage such a thing in the first place. Dedication, to put all that showy bulk to good use. Being athletic and huge and strong and fit and enduring, all at the same time? A man needed all the manly virtues, but squared and cubed and with books added—a double master’s in exercise science and nutrition, in Adam’s case. No human anywhere was a match for him on any of those things, and not even Yan—a literal tree-swinging supermonkey, whose entire life was one of hunting and gymnastics—was as yet so complete an athlete as her Chunk.

Boys didn’t build themselves into men like that unless that had a big heaping pile of all the things that made men, men. Of course, one didn’t need to be a car-crushing hulk to be a man. But only a man could ever be that hulk in the first place. And it took a real man to help his friends outshine him, too; the Great Father wouldn’t be nearly so great, had Adam not shown him how. When Yan finally finds his own potential and crushes Adam at everything, when Julian and Firth someday pass him by…he’d be the one to cheer them on, the one who got them there to begin with. There was a lot of beauty there, to go along with all the beast.

And for the foreseeable future…he was the beastliest.

She smiled at the thought. “Nothing,” she assured him. “Though I will say I’m grateful you did your Beef things early this morning with your friends, instead of, y’know.”

“All day long?”

“As is your habit, yeah.”

“And my job,” he reminded her. “But still, gotta take it easy right now. And besides, as much as I love them, I married you.” He wrapped that titanic arm around and gently pulled her in.

“Oh, I dunno, you seem to do more sweaty wrestling with them than you do me…”

“Hey! You’ve been pregnant a lot the last couple years!”

“I noticed,” she replied, drily.

They watched Diego fondly. Marty had discovered from her mother’s group that, while boys of course tended to be more adventurous, Diego was pretty exceptional in that regard, both in his physical development and his personal aptitude. He seemed to like collecting rocks and bringing them back, too: the bigger, the better.

Already he was a big pretty meathead, in a family rich in meatheads on both sides. Oh well, at least his speech and reading was ahead of the curve, too.

“Still didn’t hear you refute my point. You owe me, mister!”

“Oh, don’t worry. Dad’s coming by at noon to pick up Diego…and then I’ve got plans for you.”

“Sweaty wrestling plans?”

“Oh, the sweatiest,’” he grinned. “I might even stop and grill a steak at some point.”

“Gosh, how romantic,” she deadpanned. “Sure know how to woo a girl!”

Adam gave her a once-over with the most predatory look. “Apparently I do.”

She looked up and flushed a bit at how his smug grin made his normally painfully handsome face just that little bit harder to look away from. He wasn’t normally an overly egotistical kind of boy, but when he was feeling possessive… and he was right. Her man was a wild one, and he had needs. Big, passionate, powerful needs.

So did she. And he satisfied them.

“I dunno if ‘woo’ is the word I’d use, being honest…”

“Oh, me neither. I’m jus’ keeping to polite words.” His arm scarcely twitched and he’d lifted her against his chest, so they were suddenly and instantly face-to-face. “I think words just get in the way of what I’d need to say…”

…Jesus. He’d never lost his ability to fluster her, even after all these years.

Of course…she could fluster him too, when she wanted. She snuck her nose past his cheek, caught his ear between her teeth, and purred.

He tensed, then made a pained noise. “…Oh, that ain’t fair!”

“M-hm!” Marty grinned. “I fight dirty.”

“We’re fightin’ now?”

Marty just grinned, then prodded at his arm until he let her go and put her down again. “Our son’s getting away.”

There was method to teasing him. She’d married a giant eyebrow-waggling goofball, but there was a thunderous mass of passion burning in his heart. Huge happiness and huge sadness, and right now he needed the huge happy. He might play at being frustrated, but the fact was…he loved being teased by her. He’d “punish” her for it later, an ordeal she was thoroughly looking forward to…

But that was later. Right now, he turned his head, chuckled, and darted off to help Diego climb the large decorative standing stone he was trying to scale.

That’s what today was all about, after all. Adam’s work load had been light in the last few days, mostly training and readiness. Everyone had tacit permission to “take care of personal business” and so that was what they were doing. An extended ‘I love you.’ Enjoying the simple joy of being together, here and now.

She checked on Samuel in his stroller—sound asleep—then followed.

The children imposed their routine on life. For a while there, they’d been able to escape from Diego by leaving him with Gabe and Jess. Samuel though? Samuel was too young. Samuel needed tit on the regular, though thank God he was finally shifting into a more parent-friendly sleep pattern. If they were incredibly lucky, he’d be one of those rare angel babies who slept a solid eight hours at night, once put to bed.

There was boring adult stuff. Dinner (Adam’s turn to cook, while Marty changed the sheets and handled the evening laundry) cleaning (they kept a neat house, so that never took long) putting the boys to bed…

She’d barely closed Diego’s bedroom door when she was, with no warning and no chance to prepare, suddenly up against the wall, pinned and helpless with a huge, hardened hand invading under her T-shirt, up her body, squeezing her breast, squeezing her throat…

Her pulse was instantly up. She pushed herself back into his body, reached back and pawed helplessly at the firm package grinding against her butt.

There was no resisting strength like his, especially not when she didn’t want to. A shove, a growled order, the bedroom door—he turned on the privacy forcefield. Conventional soundproofing wasn’t enough for them, they needed spacemagic supertech. Moments later she was on her knees, her head controlled by the commanding tension of his fingers in her hair, but her own hands free to work on his shorts, slip him out of them, help her taste him…

His grip on her hair got gentler. Stroked her scalp. His voice was hoarse as he praised her, and that just made her want to do better. It wasn’t easy, it was never easy, but if she relaxed and had courage, she could bury her nose against his belly…

God she loved the way he cursed when she did that. Spanish was a language made for dangerous men having their cocks sucked.

Alas, that bit of fun couldn’t last long. He only had so much self control before they had to move on. He was always gentler after that first bit of foreplay, though. Still picking her up and moving her around and being absolutely in charge of her, but now his focus was on tormenting her with his own tongue and fingers.

It was cruel, in a way. What she wanted was so tantalizingly close to hand, but he refused to share until he had her writhing on the sheets, until she was complaining loudly. He wanted her to beg. She didn’t want to beg…but she always did, in the end. And the sheer relief of getting what she begged for made her whole body rush and tingle, until his size and power forced a cry out of her that would definitely have woken somebody if not for the field…

They didn’t make love. It wasn’t just some ordinary fuck. It was a raw, primal tangle of limbs and brutal deep thrusting and aching fullness and kissing and moaning and groaning, swearing and loving, until her whole body was acting on instinct and her mind was lost in a delusion of melting together and then lost in nothing at all except the beautiful agony of a climax…

And that was just the warm-up. As much as she could play his body like a fine instrument, he could destroy her. Again, and again, and again…

It was just what she needed.

In the aftermath of it all, rather than falling asleep, they just…lay together. Enjoying the feeling of skin on skin, the sound of each others’ breathing, even the slight dampness of mingled perspiration and shared body heat. His hand didn’t stop moving, though. His fingertips trailed up and down her spine, barely making contact.

Ironic. Minutes ago, he’d gripped her and tossed her around hard enough to bruise. Now, it was like he hardly dared touch her.

She could tell when he worked up to say something. The soft rush of his breath got a little louder under her head.

“…You’ll be okay. Right?”

She turned and looked up at him. “You’re not usually worried.”

“This one’s…” his hand came up and massaged the back of her neck. “It’s gonna be big. We’re kicking off something huge with this, and we’ll be pretty much constantly deployed…”

“And it’s going to be bloody.”

“…Yeah.”

“Even if it goes perfectly.”

“Yeah.”

She wriggled up him a ways until she was nose-to-nose with him. “No.”

“No?”

“No, I wouldn’t be okay. I’d cope. We’re set up. We’d get by. But I wouldn’t be okay. I want you back, hear?”

“Marty…you know I’ll do what I can. And that’s more than just about anyone. But…well…”

“I know.” She traced her fingertips through a day’s gorgeously coarse beard stubble. “I just love you. I don’t want to lose you. But…we’d cope. You’ve seen to that.”

“Well…I don’t want to lose me, either.” He smiled, faintly. “So I’ll try not to.”

“Good.” She rubbed their noses together in an eskimo kiss, then chased into it for a slow, tender one full of love.

They were interrupted by the baby monitor in the corner emitting the faint, scratchy sounds that presaged an awake and hungry infant. Adam chuckled softly.

“I think we made it just before feeding time…”

Marty laughed. “…I love them, but fuck. I miss having no interruptions…”

“Oh, it’s okay…” Adam leered. “I’ll be recharged and ready ‘fer round two, if you can handle it…”

She gave him a playful swat on the chest, and rolled out of bed to hit the shower quickly. She had a few minutes before Samuel woke properly and started hollering for his midnight snack, and she’d rather not be all sweaty and sex-smelling. While she was cleaning herself up, she heard him change the sheets.

She grinned to herself: She’d got herself a good one. She was going to enjoy every second she had of him.

And whatever came in the next few days…she had his heart, his love, and their family.

In the end, a girl couldn’t ask for more.


Date Point: 18y9m2w3d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Regaari

Life had a way of carrying people far, in small steps.

Regaari could still clearly remember a timid, lost, lonely, intimidated human girl doing her best to find a place for herself among an alien species. He could still remember firmly believing that Sister Shoo must be one of the strongest things in all creation, far physically superior to anything a Gao could ever hope to be.

How wrong he’d been.

Mother Shoo was confident, grounded, happy and confident. She hadn’t just found a place for herself, she’d made a home, and everyone was welcome. Julian and Allison, obviously, but the Buehler twins too, Tristan’s girlfriend Saffron, Myun, Lewis and Lucy, Clara and Dane, Leemu and Gorku, the Arés family, the Tisdales, Firth and Freya and their kids…even Hoeff seemed to soften a little when he entered her domain.

Apparently she’d had more than enough solitude for a lifetime.

Throw in a growing property empire, much of which was invested in rebuilding Franklin, and caring for her own son, and frankly it was all… fearsome. Regaari was surrounded on a daily basis by people who pushed the absolute limits of martial excellence, but he reserved his awe for Shoo. After all, he understood how the others achieved what they did. Taking the dose of pain life had given her and weaving it into joy, though? He didn’t know how she’d done it…but he was glad.

Her bao had improved over the years, too. Once she’d finally learned to love Nava.

Of course, life had taken him far too, but not always in such smooth steps.

Once he’d seen himself as a suave, cool, collected agent of intrigue. It seemed a little kitsch nowadays—though, who didn’t love kitsch?!—but in those more innocent times where the spycraft was between Clan, between clanless, among the witless and largely dull masses of the Dominion…

Then the Humans arrived, and everyone had to up their game. Everyone. The glamor of Whitecrest wasn’t so glamorous anymore. Oh sure, there had always been danger, always been darkness. Even among a sea of near-livestock, there were sharp, cruel minds.

But everyone had upped their game. The enemy included.

The composite of his new paw tapped on the mug Shoo handed him as he picked it up. It was the third replacement in a month, and ‘Horse had groaned at him for his stubbornness. Shoo smiled at him and sat down opposite. Really, he’d just dropped in to say hello and take this last chance to spend some time with his friend before they were called back to base and locked down ahead of a dangerous mission.

The looming future had his mind milling over some dark thoughts. He’d hoped a little Shoo Magic would pick him.

“Your fur’s nearly all grown back,” she commented obliquely. Shoo of course had expressed similar feelings about his cyberlimb. Everyone had. Balls, he even agreed with them! But…

Regaari considered his forearm ruefully. He’d eventually conceded some ground and accepted the wisdom of regrowing the arm at least back as far as the wrist. The synthetic bone and muscle hadn’t been adding any performance. The paw was still useful, still could do things that organic flesh and blood could not. But the demands of his work had required him to finally accept at least partial regeneration.

It set his teeth on edge, though. The cyberlimbs had been…well, they’d been a touch of his old self. Elegant and sleek, even rakish. A scar worthy of a Whitecrest! But they couldn’t keep up. Machine and metal in this case could not match meat and bone, and he’d started to look and perform lopsided. His forearms now were thicker and more severely-shaped than most any Deathworlder’s upper arm, even champion powerlifters or a modestly fit Ten’Gewek man. Silky fur did help to soften the edges around it, figurative and literal…

But his whole body was now much the same, an unsubtle reminder of the new, more brutal game they were playing. Keeping the paw was partly about keeping some art.

Or at least, some of the art from Before.

“Yeah…Give it a week and some grooming and it’ll look just like the rest of me,” he commented, trying not to make it a lament.

Shoo wasn’t fooled. She Raised an Eyebrow, and no male Regaari had ever met, of any species, could long resist a Human female’s glare under such circumstances.

He made it nearly ten seconds.

“…It’s just…” He sniffed the drink she’d made for him. Both Shoo and Gyotin believed in the healing power of hot drinks, but where Gyotin was a zealot for tea, Shoo made cocoa that could warm the soul. It had spices, and an aroma so complex even a Gaoian nose found it challenging. She apparently never let it cool down, just kept it in a big insulated jug in the stasis fridge. “…I don’t know, really. It just doesn’t feel right. I know the arm was holding me back, but part of me doesn’t like losing it.”

“Julian felt the same way about his foot, for a while.”

“And quite sensibly abandoned it, when it nearly took his life. I am keenly aware of how irrational I am being. I am a HEAT operator with super-Human strength and I’m being a sentimental old fool.”

“You’re allowed to be a little irritational, yijao?”

She was artful with what she omitted. “But not this much.”

“That’s up to you, and your own conscience.”

“Well…” Regaari flexed his cyberpaw around the mug. “We all pay our own penances in life. I don’t think you should throw them away lightly.”

Penance, but of course it was much more than that. Mostly, it was a lament for…well, himself.

There was a time when Regaari had been the future of the Clan. The genetic model, a perfect specimen entrusted to work directly with the Mother-Supreme. He’d been the Clan’s face to the Clan of Females, a position very likely to lead on to being the Champion and Stud-Prime…though that personal prestige had also been something of a way of keeping him from making trouble. Clan internal politics were nothing if not intricate.

That future hadn’t come to pass. And not just because he had squandered it with his own hubris, against his own sworn Cousin and one of the few true loved ones in his life. Worse, he’d squandered a position of deep trust with the Great Father. Reconciled he may be to Cousin and Father, but never again would Daar place that level of faith in him.

Rightfully so. He didn’t deserve it.

But there was another force that had pushed his life off that course. Simply put, the Clan and the Gao needed something different than him. Or at least…what he’d been bred and raised to be. Whitecrest’s primary purpose has always been a covert one, but lately the demand was much more martial than stately, of directed violence rather than clandestine wool-gathering.

The ascendency of Thurrsto had been the final blow to Regaari’s future ambitions.

Which, even thinking such a thing felt like a betrayal. Thurrsto was a Brother and a Cousin too, and a well-deserved Champion. He had one of the most innocent and pure souls Regaari had ever known in the Clan, while surrendering none of the cold, smooth edge that made a Whitecrest, a Whitecrest. He was a good embodiment of the Clan. The best, even!

He was also a reversion. There, the elder Fathers were correct. The rise of Thurrsto had upset the very notion of what it meant to be a successful Whitecrest. His almost effortless dominance of those same Fathers meant none could question him, lest they find themselves destroyed subtly or, if it came to it…by Thurrsto’s own steel-ripping claws.

Once, a Whitecrest like Thurrsto had been considered brutish and ugly, a throwback to a less civilized time. The Thurrsto that Regaari had befriended and trusted was always…something less, as a consequence. He aspired to be what Regaari had so perfectly embodied.

Now, Thurrsto was the standard of what a Whitecrest should be, and Regaari was only attractive to the females by his own wit…and how he compared against his Champion. The mission didn’t need suave anymore.

“Penance for what?”

There was one downside to such excellent hot chocolate: the layer of marshmallows and cream on top made drinking it with dignity impossible. Regaari licked a layer of sugary sweetness from the fur around his mouth, and set the mug down.

“It’s…a lifetime of things. People I was supposed to keep alive and didn’t. People I was supposed to look after who I couldn’t. People I’ve hurt, people I’ve thought less of, who really should have done to me instead…”

“Ah,” she said, knowingly. “We all have regrets. But if I can offer one small piece of advice?”

“Always.”

“Regrets are what we make of them.” She reached out and tapped his paw. “You don’t have to wear them on your sleeve.”

Regaari looked down. “Or wrist, as it were.”

“Exactly. And, if I were going to intrude a little more…I nearly lost Julian over this kind of self-sentimentality. I wouldn’t want to lose you, either.”

Regaari duck-nodded, picked up his drink again, and appreciated the comfortable silence of old friends. And the cocoa. He’d pay for it when ‘Horse saw it in his food log, but that was a familiar price.

A small hand tapped his leg. He glanced down, and found Anna had decided to give him Something She’d Found. It turned out to be a character from some Human made-for-little-ones cartoon.

“Wagwi! ‘S’a house!”

“Uh…” On the one hand, Regaari’s heart was going gooey, on the other hand he had no idea how to interact with cubs. Of any species.

“She wants you to build a house with her,” Shoo translated, grinning. “which means your job is to sit on the floor with her and approve of what she’s doing.”

Well, that sounded simple enough. And sure enough, the child did all the work, with a serious expression as she stuck colorful little magnetic bricks together and occasionally handed him whatever she’d built so he could make appreciative noises…

It made melancholy utterly impossible.

He stayed most of the afternoon, and the evening. Allison and Julian came home, there was dinner, earnest conversation with the fine young men under their care. An easy bout of evening exercise, and…

He was out on the street, having said his goodbyes. Rain would be coming soon.

Feeling lighter than he had in quite some time, Regaari sank to all fours and loped his way home.


Date Point: 18y9m2w4d AV
Rauwrhyr Republic flagship Soar Undaunted, en route to the border of Hunter space

Fleet Commander Atrucryr

The briefing had been quick, but inspirational. Atrucryr’s leaders had seen fit to keep this thing a secret until the last possible second, which meant the entire navy was scrambling to catch up. Leave had been cancelled, ships readied and formed up, even shakedown cruises abandoned.

The Gao and the Humans were up to something big and were pulling their ships off the tradelanes.

Atrucryr knew good and well just how protected the civilian shipping was, and also how unaware of that fact they were. Human ships in particular were invisible: when they wanted to be, they were voids in the void, returning no more visible a signature than a fleck of dust. Their dark, angled hulls scattered active sensors, and the refrigeration under those hulls let them tightly focus their waste heat in a coherent beam no wider than Atrucryr’s own slender arm bones.

Certainly, no civilian ship was equipped to spot them. An AEC destroyer could get within mere kilometers undetected, watch unseen, ambush without warning and fade away with a good chance that whatever they left alive had no idea what had just happened. The Hunters clearly feared them: the lanes near Human space had never been quieter, despite how much they were rumored to covet Human flesh.

The Gao on the other hand went in for sheer speed, and the finest in extreme long-range sensors. They didn’t need to sneak about undetected. They saw all, and pounced on any Hunter foolish enough to show itself, their coming heralded by megalight interceptors followed, moments later, by ships that were little more than a brutally effective weaponized shield system with engines.

And now, suddenly, the Rauwrhyr were being asked to step in and fill the gap left by those two predators. A few years ago, that might have been impossible. Today…

Well. they’d come a long way and learned much. And the Republic had their own innovations to showcase.

Take the Soar Undaunted. The new Undaunted class was a flag officer’s ship, devoted to the role of leading the fight. It was tough, fast and agile, hard to catch and harder to kill, and loaded with sensors, smart computers and everything a commander needed to fully understand the battlespace.

In support, a trio of Bold-class heavy shield cruisers, their designs inspired by—and directly borrowed from—the Gaoian Fury class and the Human San Diego. Flying shield emitters with mighty onboard refrigeration, capable of taking a battering unlike anything a Rauwrhyr ship had ever been built for, and designed to switch seamlessly from protecting their fellows, to physically ripping foes in half.

And then, the fleet’s teeth: five Proud-class, equipped to direct a withering storm of superluminal firepower into anything that got too close.

Atrucryr certainly felt proud. He had confidence in these ships. He trusted them, knowing that every element of their design had been proven in battle. It didn’t matter to him that the testing had been done by other species, or that these hulls were new combinations of alien technologies: just standing on the bridge of his Undaunted felt right, in a way no earlier ship in his career had.

And now, it fell to him and his fleet to keep the civilians protected while the deathworlders did…something else. Something Atrucryr would have gladly done himself, but was secretly a little glad not to be doing. They were invading Hunter space.

During his long conversations with Human and Gaoian military leaders and educators, the concept of the spear-tip and the spear-shaft had been discussed often. How the honorable and deadly work at the sharp end was impossible without the scutwork behind it. Well, this promised to be scutwork, but only if done correctly. Done too soon, and the Hunters might notice and foresee the attack. Done too late, and there might be a gap in coverage, or a delay in critical resources reaching the fight. Either mistake would be counted in deaths, so the handover needed to be smooth, timely and professional.

And it was.

There was no ceremony over this. It was enough to simply be in position promptly on time, to send out the coded notification that they were ready to accept that sector’s patrol, and watch as a supposedly empty patch of space sent them a grateful acknowledgment, emitted the bright twist of a jump drive, and fell silent again.

The civilians never noticed a thing. Atrucryr’s fleet was just as capable of being a hole in space when they wanted, and as far as the general merchant traffic was concerned, there was never a military ship present at all.

Good. There was no sense in tiring himself out and he had administrative duties to perform. If this mission went to plan, he’d be doing nothing but administrative duties. One could hope.

“I’ll be in my cabin. Subcommander Cryxruwr, You have the ship.”

“Sir.”

The cabin was smaller than he was used to. The new ship designs took advice from Humans, who took the lamentably pragmatic view that a warship wasn’t a pleasure liner, and so personal space was kept to an efficient minimum. The captain’s cabin was the largest by far, and even then it was only exactly as wide as the bed was long. The desk and its terminal folded up to become part of the wall, and he sat on the bed to use them.

Atrucryr’s instincts longed for room to stretch his wings and glide between trees, but the design was practical, saved on mass and volume…it might be the difference that kept the ship intact in a fight. And it wasn’t like the larger quarters had been particularly comfortable before, anyway.

He perched on the bed, pulled down the desk, and accessed the secure comms network. Reports from all across the sector told him that his fellows in other fleet groups were doing as he had just done. The handover, it seemed, was going smoothly.

There was a message from the Great Father of the Gao, addressed to all fleet commanders, non-urgent. A video file.

If Atrucryr was right, Daar intended to personally take part in the fighting. If so, he certainly looked the part. Fur trimmed that short would have looked severe on a Rauwrhyr. On a Gaoian—especially a singular one like Daar—it looked dangerous. That was a trim bordering on a shave, one obviously designed to go under a full-body combat suit and not distract with pinching or pulling.

And he had words for the fleet.

“I want to thank you all for what you’ve just done.”

He was standing in front of the Gaoian throne, with a simple twisted crown atop his head and images from his species’ history playing out on the mural behind him.

“Your willingness to heed the call is to be commended. Without you, what we’re doing would be far more difficult, far more dangerous, and would come at a heavier cost of life. Make no mistake, however—we’re about to kick a nest full’a stinging, swarming insects, and they’re gonna be mad. While their ire will surely be aimed mostly at us, it still falls ‘ta you ‘ta be vigilant. You’ll be the ones ‘ta contain them, keep their anger from spillin’ out to the cost of innocent folks. Do not suppose your work will go unnoticed and unappreciated. Much danger awaits you, as we drive the enemy before us and their swarm grows desperate.”

He stood a little taller and pricked up his ears. “The Hunters have festered in our galaxy for millions of years. Today, we lance that cyst. It won’t be painless and it won’t be clean, but it’ll leave a safer, healthier future for all our peoples. Good luck to you. And good hunting.”

Short, effective, and pointed. Still, Atrucryr found himself resolved. He, his peers, his fleet and his crews had been entrusted with a weight that the deathwolders had been bearing for too long. It was time for the species not born with that brand to stand up and shoulder it again, and prove that it could be borne. This was his role in a larger fight, and he was proud of it.

He opened his next messages, and started to coordinate with the fleet commanders in adjacent sectors.

They were ready.


Date Point: 18y9m2w4d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao.

First Director Shanl

Shanl had worked her way to the top of the Directorate through a long and difficult career, where she was often in direct competition with some of the sharpest and most ruthless minds in the galaxy. She had exhibited time and again the Directorate’s ideals of calm rationality, poise, dispassion and calculation. There was very little that intimidated her, or at least gave her pause.

The Great Father was the first such thing in a very long time.

The jump to Gao had been direct and to the point, with the usual arrival ceremonies omitted. Telling, that. She was instead greeted by Daar’s personal aide, led directly to the Great Father’s wing of High Mountain Fortress, and rather than head towards his offices or some other instrument of court, they went along a winding series of corridors, where loud, aggressive music grew unbearably noisy, where the temperature and humidity grew increasingly uncomfortable, where the very feeling of the place suggested an immense artificial gravity field nearby—

His gym. They were taking her to the Great Father’s personal gym.

Of all the ways he could express his displeasure with her and the Corti, this was perhaps the one most perfectly calculated to do so. He’d decided to confront her in the one place that exemplified everything he was and everything she could never be. He did so knowing how much recent history had proven it mattered, too—and on the eve of actual battle, no less!

It took Shanl a few blinks to restore her inner calm. It was an insult, yes. A brilliantly well-crafted one, too. Nonetheless…calm. Detachment. Empirical experience over feelings.

As they approached, the smell of exertion and aggression grew thoroughly overpowering. They passed through a doorway plastered in dire warnings written in Gaori and, oddly, English. Most of them were in an informal vernacular and seemed to concern the required behavior within, and were written in a brutish, angular hand-painted script. She took a moment to memorize them before entering.

It was an expansive and elaborate setup. The flow of the room was at least logical and sound, though she couldn’t find anything admirable about…any of the rest. This was a cave. A cave designed for exceptionally large beasts to train. Shanl was very much out of her depth.

The walls were painted black and red, and were hewn of rough stone. Half of the wallspace had full-length mirrors, while the rest were painted over with a great many shields, crests, mons, and other such symbols of affiliation from across Gaoian and Human culture. Stoneback featured pervasively of course, along with Highmountain and Whitecrest, but it seemed every major Clan had at least some token somewhere, each staking their own mote of presence in the facility. In-between every symbol were scribbles, notes, some lewd jokes, some obviously heartfelt tributes to people Shanl had never heard of. From the gridiron ceiling hung flags, many of which she recognized as being of an aggressively martial bent. Portraits, too. Presumably fallen warriors, though she had no way of knowing.

Despite the aggressive and rough-hewn decor, some thought had been given to safety as well as function, and some pride in appearances was clearly present. Everything was immaculately clean, despite the oppressive weight of the hot, humid air. Sharp edges were nowhere to be found, exposed metal surfaces were padded against slips or falls. Medical equipment was prominently affixed to each wall, and the space itself was floored with tough rubberized matting, divided by a low fence with an open multi-purpose area on one side.

On the other was a well-equipped weight area, one obviously dedicated to extremely intense resistance training. Warning lights in blue and red were active along the fence, especially near the weight area’s gate. From across the space, Shanl could feel the residual pull of a powerfully deep artificial gravity well, could feel the thrum of the plating through her bare feet. They were obviously specialized heavy grav-plates, operating at the edge of their capability.

So: military symbols everywhere. A cave for bestial men to train their bodies rather than refine their minds. A full-on sensory assault, from the smell, to the lighting, to the “music,” if it could be called that. All of it was a powerful cacophony designed to embody extreme aggression.

“Please remain near the doorway,” the Great Father’s aide near-shouted over the sonorous waves emanating from the large wall-mounted speakers. “I will inform him of your arrival.”

Daar either hadn’t noticed their arrival or was pretending not to. In either case, the Great Father of the Gao was seated at a machine with his hugely broad, immensely over-muscled back to her, pulling repeatedly on some sort of close-handled grip, which was attached to high-tensile flex-cables twice as thick as her own arms. Those in turn were attached to…to…

Her mind blanked for a moment as she added the numbers in her head, and multiplied by her most conservative guess at the gravity field’s strength. How–?

This was a statement, she realized. A statement about power. Specifically, it was a statement about who actually held it between them, and what that power truly was. No longer was the Corti’s technological and scientific superiority the defining asymmetry between their people. The Gao were advanced enough for their own purposes and fully capable of advancing on their own. What mattered now was what that room symbolized, what the Great Father embodied like no other. What his body was doing, what it meant his people could do.

They had the strength to fight their enemies and the Corti did not. It was as simple as that. The Gao of course had their own logistics, and weapons, and competent leadership and all the rest…but they also had what only Deathworlders could claim.

They had physicality. Bravery in the face of death. Sheer, personal might. There, sitting before here, rowing a stupendous weight she’d hardly believe heavy machinery could handle, was the avatar of it all. The Deathworlder. The one against whom all were measured, and all fell short. Whom she had a hand in engineering, and who knew he had been engineered.

For the moment, he was choosing to let her ponder that fact while he made his statement in studied personal silence.

The aide approached the fenceline, sank to all fours and carefully crossed the threshold. Instantly he visibly strained against the force, struggling to remain standing even in that low posture. He carefully plodded his way toward the Great Father, attempted to rise slightly and failed. He spoke to the Great Father, though Shanl couldn’t hear the words over the sonic assault. The aide duck-nodded, struggled back out of the gravity well and sighed in relief as he crossed the threshold back to Gao standard. From there, he stood wobbling up on his hind legs, went over to some controls, and turned the music’s volume down to something more tolerable.

It took the aide another moment to recompose himself. “…The Great Father will entertain you as he finishes his workout. I will be available in the office down the hall.” He opened a cabinet nearby and unfolded a comfortable-looking chair. “A steward will bring refreshments shortly. Good day.”

Shanl found herself alone, save for her own assistant and modest retinue. Meanwhile, the Great Father said nothing, engaged a third full stack of weights, and just kept pulling…and pulling…and pulling…

After a moment of thought, Shanl deduced he was waiting on her to make the first move. Very well. First thing’s first.

“Thank you, everyone. Please leave us be.”

Her aide nodded gently, and her staff quietly made their way out. The moment they were gone, Daar barked a command to turn the music down to a bare rumble from the speakers.

“You treat ‘yer subordinates well,” he commented, over a grunt of exertion. “Or at least politely. There’s that, at least.”

No title, no formality. He wasn’t bothering to clean himself up, make any effort toward a presentable greeting. He’d chosen to deliberately disregard the arrival of a fellow paramount leader by refusing to interrupt something a banal as weight training.

Well, two could play that game, so she levied her own subtle barb. “They are accomplished researchers in their own right. There is no harm in giving respect where it is due.”

The Great Father grunted in acknowledgement, sat forward, upped the weight again—stack number four added to the immense payload—re-settled himself and continued his intimidating display. His back’s obscene, freakish musculature responded instantly to the heavier load, the anatomical detail of each fiber bulging a bit bigger and more sharply defined with every pull.

The promised refreshments arrived promptly. After a measure of water and a (frankly, excellent) young primary mushroom, Shanl felt ready to tackle the moment before her. She approached the fence cautiously and, perhaps in the “spirit” of things, asked a question her scientific curiosity desired to know. “How deep is the gravity?”

“Enough ‘ta squash even strong people like overripe navas.” He paused and let the weights crash with a room-shaking thud. He took a couple deep breaths and shook out his pelt, flinging his reek everywhere. “As ‘fer the numbers, I dunno at th’ moment. Feels maxed out. Program’s set ‘ta respond to my work output, so I’ll look at the curve when I’m done.”

“…Impressive.”

“Ayup. But mega strength was only one o’ the things y’all engineered into me, ain’t it?”

…Well. That certainly explained his attitude. It wasn’t a question. He already knew enough to be displeased, so there was no art to be had in subtlety or word-crafting.

“How much do you know?”

His response was to chitter deep in his chest, and keep lifting. Obtuse and impenetrable…but effective. Very well, time for the honesty she had come here to deliver.

“In answer to your question: yes. Extreme physical might is one of many objectives that drove your engineering. Great Father…is this all necessary?”

For the first time he turned at his waist and looked her dead in the eyes—an act of undisguised aggression, that—but there wasn’t any malice to be seen. Instead…well, she wasn’t a reliable judge of gaoian beauty, but even across species he was stunningly, brutally handsome—and an amused handsome at that. He considered her, sniffed the air, and grumbled deep in his chest. “Ha! ‘Yer ballsy! That’s good. But to answer ‘yer question: yeah. This is necessary.”

He turned back, added two more stacks of weight, and resumed his lifting.

Shanl felt a little led on and didn’t like it, so she asked the universal question: “Why?”

That got another amused grumble out of him, but it was a full minute before he answered.

“Well…I din’t wanna…” another grunt, another pull against the weight, “rob ‘ya of an hnnngh! opportunity…” a rapid-fire series of pulls, which went on for three hundred and eighteen seconds, until he’d at last exhausted his considerable reserves of energy. The Great Father let the weight slam back down with a calamitous crash.

He took a slightly longer moment this time to catch his breath, then chugged down a large container of some kind of thick, colored drink, and spun around to face her. “I figger, I should at least let my creator have a good look at me.”

…That was a deeply unfortunate surprise. How had he known so much already? So many questions stemmed from that, and Shanl found herself at a loss for words.

Daar wasn’t, apparently. “What? Gricka got ‘yer tongue?”

“A colorful analogy. You…know more than I had hoped.”

“‘Yer damn right I do,” he growled. “Corti science leaves a smell. Fingerprints. Whatever you wanna call it. Only real question is where the Hierarchy’s work ended an’ where ‘yers began.”

“Perhaps more poignantly, the more urgent question is one of purpose, rather than effort.”

“Sounds an awful lot like ‘yer gonna minimize ‘yer contribution t’all this.”

“Not at all. I came here for a full accounting.”

“Hmm.” He stared at her a long moment longer, nostrils flaring once, twice, three times. Then he turned back to his weights. “We’ll come back ‘ta that. ‘Fer now, I’m gonna finish my workout. Ain’t gone balls-out ‘fer at least a few days, so you jus’ sit there an’ enjoy the show. Ain’t many get ‘ta see what I can really do.”

It wasn’t an invitation, and he wasn’t being friendly. Faced with a mercurial giant who controlled an existentially important alliance, there was only one thing for Shanl to do.

She sat and observed, just as he wanted. It was a thorough education in the practical realities of such a physical existence. Instead of simply performing a difficult motion repeatedly until exhausted, as she had naively considered would be the case, the Great Father had a small notebook with him and, apparently, an extensively considered sequence for his activities. She found herself fascinated as he methodically worked over every major anatomical group on his body, until his every muscle bulged as sharply defined and prominently as his work-swollen back. Sweat slicked down his fur and rolled off his body in small rivulets, forming a substantial and growing puddle on the floor. He only paused to down another jug of his drink in-between each bout of exercise, presumably to replenish his lost fluids and salts, among other things.

“It is an immense personal commitment on your part to do this, isn’t it?” She asked during one brief period of rest.

He turned his attention to her. “Ayup. I’mma gonna need ‘ta fight in the worstest bits o’ the comin’ battle, ‘fer a buncha reasons, an’ I need ‘ta be ready ‘fer it. This is just one type o’ trainin’ we do, an’ not even the biggest bit. Most o’ our time goes ‘ta combat tactics, the related athletics, education…It’s a lot, an’ you don’t need me ‘ta tell ‘ya that. But I need ‘fer ‘ya ‘ta unnerstand a lil’ o’ what really goes into buildin’ up a fightin’ man like me. So…”

“So I am learning.”

“Good. Since we’re only a couple’a days out o’ the mission, today’s about conditionin’ more’n anything else. ‘Horse’s got me programmed ‘fer hypertrophy.”

Shanl blinked. “Hypertrophy programming?”

“Yeah. High-volume trainin’ an’ such unner high tension, designed ta’ emphasize size an’ mind-muscle connection more’n sheer strength. I’ll teach’ya th’ details later. ‘Fer now, jus’ know it’s good ‘fer ‘yer body shape—which matters ‘fer a fuckofa lot more’n lookin pretty, by the way—but more importanter is ‘yer work capacity. That’s mostly a factor o’ ‘yer energy reserves an’ ‘yer cardiovascular fitness, but almos’ as important is how big ‘yer muscles are, how well you can move ‘em, how much control over ‘em ‘ya got, an’ how good ‘yer range o’ motion is. I’ll be doin’ a lotta flexibility work later, an’ there’ll be a sports massage, too. It matters at this level.”

“…Has this not been a strength demonstration, then?”

“If by that you mean ‘showin’ off bein’ as strong as I could possibly manage,’ then no. These are durasteel weights in the mos’ powerful artificial gravity field money can buy, an’ I’m tossin’ ‘em around like fuckin’ toys. Given that, how’d ‘ya propose I reliably show off my limits?”

Shanl considered. “…A fair point.”

Daar sniffed the air again. “Essactly. I ain’t got no fuckin’ clue how strong I actually am jus’ now, ‘sides that I’m th’ most strongest by a fuckin’ longshot an’ I ain’t even hit my stride yet. All I can do is feel wit’ my body, and it’s tellin’ me shit’s gettin’ too easy wit’ this setup. Speakin’ of…legs next, then I start circuit number three. An’ ask questions if ‘ya got ‘em. I like ‘ta teach.”

He chugged yet another jug and, without another word, continued his workout.

There was a purpose to this. Shanl wasn’t clear on what exactly it was, but she could plainly understand it mattered a great deal to the Great Father. And, well: having nothing else to do, and her curiosity piqued…

“What precisely did you mean by ‘mind-muscle connection’?”

“Lotta broscience around that term, but mostly it’s ‘bout body control…”

He liked to teach, it turned out, and he was a good instructor. Rather than heedlessly plow forward and ignore her, he took the time to demonstrate precisely what each movement was, its purpose, how to safely perform each exercise, the specific functional differences between Gaoian, Human, and Ten’Gewek anatomies, and so on. Shanl, being a teacher herself, was interested to learn. This was a field of study the Corti had neglected, after all. Anything she could glean from an expert in the field was valuable.

She would write down his entire lesson verbatim, later. The benefits of an eidetic memory.

The lesson ended when he reached the end of his circuit. He seemed slightly reluctant to stop, and instead continued to press an alarmingly laden bar aggressively overhead, growling to himself until exhaustion at least defeated him, and he let it crash back into its rack.

It took three minutes and eleven seconds for him to regain his breath that time.

Once his breathing had returned to normal, he detangled himself from the rack, leapt easily across and out of the training area, flying high over the fence (and over Shanl!) and landed in the middle of the room. Without any hitch in his motion he flowed up to his full, three-meter height, faced away from Shanl and posed. Flawless muscular form showed itself, fighting for space on his titanic frame.

“Comin’ along nice an’ balanced,” he said to himself in Gaori, sotto voce. “Big nasty fuckin’ pump, too.” Whatever that meant, he went through his motions in an obviously well-practiced manner, observing himself dispassionately and at considerable length in one of the large full-height mirrors along the wall, before at last he deigned to notice her again.

“Well? What’chu think?” There was no humor in his voice as the maximum Deathworlder showcased what that title meant. “C’mon over here an’ look at me, Shanl. Come inspect ‘yer creation. Take a good, long look at the warrior-king ‘ya made. I ain’t got all day.”

Shanl made to approach but then hesitated, out of a combination of indignation and, yes, fear.

“Oh, relax. I’m mad, yeah, but I ain’t feelin’ fuckin’ murderous. Now git over here.”

Well. “As you wish.” She padded over as he requested. “In any other circumstance I would not tolerate such disrespect—“

“In any other circumstance, I wouldn’t be talkin’ to someone who musta literally engineered me gene by gene. I ain’t happy ‘bout what had’ta happen ‘fer that to be true.”

“You assume much, and flatter us with powers we do not have.”

“Do I?” He moved again, and he wasn’t merely examining himself in the mirror anymore. He stomped forward uncomfortably close and displayed a pair of ultra-muscular legs, each over twice as wide as she was. “You tellin’ me I built these wit’ jus’ pure hard work? Flattering…” He stood slightly on the balls of his feet to flex his bulky calves, then tightened everything into a much more alarming show of his might. It was a crass but remarkably effective performance.

Or was it merely performative? She wasn’t quite sure. Also probably deliberate, but…

“I do not flatter you in turn, Daar. It is the truth. At least ninety-two percent of your genetic fortune originates in the breeding programs your own species runs against itself. Much of the remainder is the Hierarchy’s work. Our contributions were comparatively small.”

“Small, huh?” Daar chuffed deep in his chest, then tensed his legs harder. “Don’t seem all that small t’me. An’ I know my legs are pretty as balls, but my eyes are up here, First Director. Either give ‘em a good long grope or look at me when we’re talkin’.”

Shanl looked up, and up at the towering Great Father, across the hard-flexed exaggerated hyper-male topology of his abdomen and chest, to the face of a darkly amused emperor.

It didn’t help that the Corti were short, and Daar was quite tall. The top of her head crested just above his pelvis, which in turn meant she had to crane her head to see anything above his middle. He took full advantage and closed the space between with another uncomfortable step forward. She stood her ground, but he was now so dangerously close, she could feel his body heat radiating off him like a furnace in unpleasant, musky waves.

Well. It wasn’t as if any immediately practical distance would be safely far from him, anyway.

“Sure you don’t wanna feel’m quick? They’re pretty much literally harder’n iron these days.”

Right on cue, he tensed his entire body yet harder. She would not be bullied, regardless.

“I will look wherever and on whomever I please, Great Father. As for your assertion…” She reached out and felt his leg, intending to disprove him, but instead of the very slight yield she’d expected of a well-trained deathworlder’s flesh…

Short, silky fur, slick with sweat. Skin laid tightly over rippling muscle. No detectable adipose layer underneath. Beyond that…absolutely no give whatsoever. While her own strength was of course modest, she still expected there to be some yield; even hardwoods had give. Daar’s leg had none. He grumbled and let his leg go completely slack, yet even then…nothing.

She looked up at Daar again, warily. He grinned an unmistakably predatory grin down at her. “Told’ya. I ain’t in the habit of exaggeratin’ outside o’ Keeda tales. An’ that’s my worry: y’all made me into a goddamn Keeda, din’t you? If ‘ya didn’t edit me, then what did ‘ya do?”

That aggressive calculated brawn-headed display had done more to intimidate her than anything else he’d managed so far. She took a quick moment to regain her composure.

“…As I said, our genetic contributions were small, but I will not deny they were important. As for personally editing your genome? Great Father, if we could easily make that kind of direct intervention undetected, our relationship would not be a diplomatic one.”

“Careful, First Director.” The Great Father growled. “That could be construed as a threat.”

“As could this entire encounter. I tolerate it because I have a message to deliver.”

“Mmm, fair enough,” he agreed, but did not back away. “Some backbone in ‘ya after all.”

“I am the director who authorized and oversaw a program of testing and experimentation that resulted in you. The distinction is important: you were not ‘designed’ by us, and by our efforts you were not ‘designed’ by the Hierarchy, either. Do you think that my people, who have previously held physical excellence in contempt, would have directly engineered you? After that little display, you clearly have not missed how physical you are…”

“Missed it? Missed it?!” Daar chittered with an absolute lack of humor. “Balls, ‘ya don’t understand, do ‘ya? Fuck it, lemme show you a little trick…”

He stopped looming and flexing over her, spun around and pounced on a bag lying near the wall. From it, with a flourish, he produced a metal pipe about the length of her forearm.

“See this? Ductile iron pipe. Used in plumbing. I use ‘em to roll out muscle spasms. Pretty bendable if ‘ya apply the right kinda force.” He put the pipe in the crook of his elbow, looked at her to make sure she was watching, then grunted and exerted for a few seconds—

He relaxed, and showed her the result. His enormous bicep and forearm had unmistakably mangled the tube from end to end. He held it up to her eyes and sure enough, no light could pass through. He had flattened it using nothing more than the hardness of his own arm.

She looked up at him carefully. His expression was unreadable.

“Right ‘bout now I’d ask ‘ya ‘ta give my arm a good feel too, but we both know that’d be pointless.”

“…Indeed.”

Daar rumbled mirthlessly. “Essactly. Fuckin’ nobody else can do a trick like that. Nobody. My muscles are damn near a kind of armor now, Shanl. I’ve had Fiin swing a hammer into my flank and he broke the fukkin’ thing on his third swing. It din’t much hurt. I din’t even get a bruise! Freaky, huh? We’ve tried other things too an’ even I don’t believe what I can do, an’ I’m the fucker whose doin’ it! I’m so gods-damned strong I can’t even measure it. I’m so fukkin’ fast I can outsprint most sports cars. I can jump down from any height, leap clear over a house without hardly tryin’. Run an’ fight basically ‘ferever. Crush even th’ most mightiest people like bugs, Shanl. That shit ain’t natural.”

“Indeed not. But I remind you: we ourselves mistakenly disdained such mechanical strength, and have done for centuries. No, if we had been bent on directly creating you—or rather, directly creating a creature we could control—then this would not have been the result.” She gestured around the shrine to a very particular type of athleticism he’d created. “We wouldn’t have known how to engineer a creature such as yourself in the first place.”

He scowled at her, then crumpled the mangled pipe into a ball with disconcertingly little effort and tossed it aside. He sat on a bench and gestured with a paw for her to explain while he drank another of his jugs. “Sure, that makes sense. I buy it. But you did create me.”

Shanl slipped her hands behind her back and stood a little taller. “Co-created you might be the more accurate answer. Or, more accurately still, exploited an unexpected opportunity.”

Daar looked right at her, in a way that suddenly alarmed her deepest instincts. “Well, First Director. You have my full and undivided attention.”

There were certain meditative techniques that all Corti learned, in the first years after decanting from the gestation tubes. Emotional regulation, how to observe the weather of the mind from above and soar in clear air beyond their feelings, rather than be tossed around by them. In Shanl’s case, even after a lifetime of mastering her inner tranquility, it was difficult to only notice the shiver of panic that threatened to run up her back and wash her away.

But, she was First Director. Pride and dignity won out. She met his gaze.

“You, or a creature very like you, was long part of the Hierarchy’s plan. It was only recently that they decided to abruptly change course.”

“The humans.”

Shanl nodded. “The humans. That left us with an opportunity. We had been watching your bloodlines for some time, and doing what we could to limit the Hierarchy’s control over your lineage, or at least the products thereof. We weren’t interested in a thrall, nor were we interested in the Hierarchy possessing an effective thrall. Quite the opposite. We ourselves have been thralls to the ancient galactic order for a long time, and that order decided to begin priming us for extinction a long time ago, as it does with all species.”

“As it has done for millions of years.” Daar set the jug down, still listening.

“Indeed. They turn our tools against us, poison us into self-destruction. They made the OmoAru dependent on their nanotechnology, which they could then turn against them. They made us dependent on our breeding tubes and genetic synthesis, equally susceptible to sabotage. They treat whole species as livestock, to be culled once their technology threatens to expand beyond their control.”

“Yeah. That’s a story I know all about.”

“It is different with your people. They wanted you as weapons. Yours is an entirely self-sufficient species and breeding is the central focus of your culture. It drives you all to excellence, and in that calculation they made a mistake. How could they control such a species once let loose? How would they handle a variable like you? How do they contain an uncontrollable being who is the very summation of their designs, whether they wanted to grapple with your arrival or not?”

She paused for pedagogic effect, then continued.

“You are a pattern-breaker. You are will and dynamism. You are unpredictable and uncontrollable. You are unmatched in body and mind, and also in circumstance and upbringing. You are, by design, the very opposite of a thrall.”

“By design.”

“Do not read too much into that statement. ‘Design’ in this case means our engineering program was planned to avoid bias and influence. In fact it was quite simple. We spent centuries analyzing the finest genetics we could, watched as the Gao and the Hierarchy slowly gathered them into a few important bloodlines, and then simply…conspired that they would all meet at once. We did not have a file marked ‘project Daar.’ We did not know you before you arrived. We simply had a hypothesis: that a genetic singularity among the Gao, given the chance to prosper, would be the force of upheaval the galaxy has desperately needed since before my ancestors even evolved a frontal lobe. And we were right.”

Daar tilted his head, giving her words some commendably calm consideration. After a few moments, he duck-nodded, rose to his four paws, and indicated that they were heading up and out of the fragrant gymnasium. That was fine by Shanl—the air beyond would be so much more pleasantly cool.

“So, okay. What does this mean ‘bout my true parents?” he asked.

“Both were themselves examples of genetic excellence. It is our position that the conclusion of an experiment should result in full disclosure, where possible, and so I disclose to you today. There was no intervention by us in your conception, though we were prepared to do so, and of course both your ancestors’ lines have seen considerable engineering efforts by the Hierarchy and us. But you? Against all odds, you are genetically flawless and a naturally sired cub. The project director became quite inappropriately gleeful when he learned of your birth, in fact.”

Daar’s eyes narrowed. “Sixth-degrees do not live to adulthood…”

“In that regard, there was some intervention, yes. A moment of unexpected generosity that the Mothers at your commune were too grateful to question.”

He sniffed the air again, thinking. “I ‘member the backpack I had ‘ta wear when I was really little,” Daar mused. “Jus’ barely. It’s one of my earliest memories.”

“Nutritional supplements and immune boosters, delivered intravenously. You suffered no developmental deficiencies as a consequence. Had you been born to a properly unlocked mother, it would not have been so acute an issue.”

He paused, ever so slightly as if he was making a mental note. “Think that backpack tech is somethin’ y’all’d be willin’ ‘ta sell?”

“If you wish, though there’s hardly anything to it. It was simply a matter of knowing what the problems would be. Your own Clans could easily replicate the technology.”

“Fine. Knowledge transfer, then?”

“That would be acceptable. Have you seen an increase in sixth degrees?”

“Yeah. One was born not long ago. We think he’ll make it, but we have so little experience with sixth-degree cubs, let alone one living past a few weeks. He’s the first since myself ‘ta make it.”

“…I will make it a priority, then.”

“Thanks.” He duck-nodded, then pressed forward. Outside the gym was a more sterile room with ablution facilities and well-ventilated metal storage units.

“So ‘yer plan ‘fer me was…what? ‘Ta just be a force’a chaos? Tear up the Hierarchy’s plans?”

“To say we had a ‘plan’ is too much. We had…hopes. With your genetics, we knew it was unlikely you would be a mediocre brute. You had the potential to excel. It is to the credit of those who raised you that you do, and thanks to your own extraordinary efforts that you ended up doing what deathworlders do best, and greatly exceeded any expectation.”

“…An’ so I didn’t fit Big H’s model.”

“Correct. That is why they shifted attention to Loomi, and why we conspired to keep you safe during your young, vulnerable years. In this I must disclose a partnership with Whitecrest, particularly the late Genshi. He…was very fond of you. He would want you to know that.”

A visible weight of regret and emotion, rather heavier than the mere metal he’d been moving around moments ago, settled on Daar’s shoulders.

“Well,” he sighed, and lumbered over to an alcove in the wall. He pulled a handle and a powerful current of water doused him from head to toe. “That s’plains a lotta coincidences,” he said over the sound of powerful water jets scrubbing him clean from all sides. The water started out quite cold, then rapidly grew hot. Four different spray patterns worked through a program, one applying a detergent as he scrubbed at himself, a more powerful pattern rinsing him clean. Another with what must have been fur conditioner that he again worked in as it rinsed. Finally, a pump motor turned on, and high-pressure jets worked up and down his body, much to his grumbling pleasure.

Shanl was reasonably certain the pressures would have broken her body. On him, they served to loosen hard-worked muscles and beat away soreness.

As the program concluded with a gentle cold spray, he continued his thought. “Y’know when I first met the humans, I was pretty dang lean an’ lanky ‘fer my size, as was common then ‘fer us big ‘Backs. Two an’ a half meters tall but still several hunnerd kilos, strong as all shit…an’ I got my tail handed ‘ta me by a guy less’n half my size. But that was when I first started ‘ta notice things, ‘cuz I was damn near the strongest of ‘em right off the bat an’ I din’t even need ‘ta really try. An’ then they started teachin’ me.”

Shanl nodded. “You noticed yourself responding exquisitely to the challenge. Genshi had hoped you would. It was why he put you in the Human’s path in the first place.”

“Figgered.” He paused, balled up his paw into a fist, and considered his massive forearm. “I started ‘ta grow. Fast enough it legit scared me. I filled out, broadened, gained sum height an’ filled that out too. Balls, did I ever. Now I’m so fuckin’ monstrous, the only thing walkin’ on land anywhere heavier’ stronger’n me are the fuckin’ Brown Ones on Akyawentuo. So yeah. Once I was bein’ challenged an’ that shit happened? It became pretty damn obvious something was up. Ever since, I’ve been lookin’ ‘fer answers.”

He glanced up at one of the Clan banners painted on the wall. “…Really should’a occurred to me that maybe Whitecrest was part’a the reason I didn’t find ‘em.”

“It is…important that the subject of an experiment be unaware of the experiment. You know this, of course. Had you known, it could have seriously jeopardized your success.”

Daar pulled on the handle again and the water stopped. He pushed a button and powerful blowers turned on to dry his fur. In approximately sixty-seven seconds they stopped, and he thumped down to all fours, damp and disheveled but smelling far less objectionable.

“Well. Now I’m all pulled in a couple different directions,” he rumbled. “So lemme make sure I’ve got it. Y’all’ve been observin’ the Hierarchy’s breedin’ program in my line.”

“Yes, for four hundred and thirty-two years, concurrent with our own breeding program among the humans. Our interventions have been deliberately minimal but strategically consequential during that time, so as to remain undetected.”

“Which you could get away with ‘cuz the Hierarchy was doin’ most o’ the dirty work for ‘ya.”

“As you say.”

“…Right.” Without any prompting, he padded slowly out of the locker room and led her down a twisty, ancient corridor, one which was wide enough for five or six Corti to stand abreast, but narrow enough that his shoulders and heavy haunches brushed along either side. Shanl was forced to follow behind. “…How long have you known about ‘em? The Hierarchy, I mean. If you’ve been at this project ‘fer four hunnerd plus years…”

“The dark group within the Directorate responsible for counter-Hierarchy operations is, to my knowledge, nine hundred and ten years old. I am the first of the First Directors to be aware of its existence, however, and I am not a member. It is likely they have told me only what I need to know.”

“Spies can be like that,” he rumbled up ahead.

“Would you do any less to save your people?”

To her surprise, he paused, then barked out a kind of gruff chitter. “Would I do less? Shit, stab me right in the fuckin’ nuts why don’t’cha?!”

“We would hope for your continued fruitfulness, so that would be unwise.”

He chittered at length, and with each beat of it a little of that fearsome menace seemed to leech out of his body. The tension unwound, as did the kind of weight that had settled on him as he listened. Shanl watched with a vague sense of…envy. Laughter seemed so freeing. She’d never experienced it, herself.

“Fuck…” he rumbled, after regaining his composure. “Well. Okay. That at least gives me some closure, I guess. What other experiments ‘ya got goin’ on?”

“Among the Gao? Observational studies only. We are past the point of zoological research, and you are peers, beyond any nudge we may provide. That is in fact why I am here.”

“I was wunnerin’ when we’d get to th’ note ‘ya left me in that ‘six month supply.’ Anyway.”

They had reached a staircase. “It’s pretty far up an’ the stairs ain’t even. Or well-spaced ‘fer Corti legs. ‘Ya need a lift?”

Shanl blinked. “You would propose to bear me up this tower.”

“Yeah.”

“A little…undignified of our positions, is it not?”

Daar chittered deeply, “After all that we just went through? Dignity’s what ‘ya make of it. Ain’t nobody gonna question me, an’ why should you care what they think? ‘Yer the First Director, ain’t ‘ya?”

Shanl considered the staircase. “How far up is it?”

“Bout sixty meters in Gaoian gravity. Almos’ straight up. Sometimes I use these stairs ‘ta cool down.”

“…Then, thank you.”

It was in fact rather undignified to ride a fellow sapient, but how much less dignified to utterly exhaust herself making the climb? Shanl chose the lesser indignity and they made the ascent in silence, her arms only barely encircling his great neck for a grip. As expected, there was no give to his body whatsoever, and no long fur to provide any comfort. The experience was rather like riding an unpleasantly hot metal animatronic. Nonetheless, the higher vantage point was not without its benefits. There was much to see.

The Gao it seemed, or at least Daar, did not favour a lack of adornment. Or perhaps it was the venerable nature of the fortress. Whatever the reason, not an inch of it was undecorated. Banners hung from the walls, and Father Fyu’s poems, calligraphed on stretched canvas, were everywhere. Daar’s office suite was no less adorned, though the items were more varied, and many of them clearly alien in origin. Tchotchkes from a dozen species, hundreds more from the Clans and people of the Gao…

But right now, the object dominating the room was the case with Shanl’s gift to him, lying on a small table near some soft furnishings.

Daar set her down with surprising gentleness, then stalked over to the case and opened it. “I couldn’t help but notice there were only two doses in here.”

“Yes.”

He looked up, ears pricked, listening.

“That is your final dose,” Shanl explained. “If you should choose to take it, you will no longer be bound to Cruezzir dependency, and thus no longer bound to any control by me or any other Corti. It…was originally intended as an unlock of your species’ unique genetic restrictions…but your own scientists not only unlocked those independently, they’ve successfully activated your species’ secondary genome. Well done. This, therefore, does something even deeper. It does not merely unlock. It removes the locks entirely, in you and your descendents. In your particular case, that will have significant consequences.”

Daar paused, warily. “Such as?”

“Remember, your line was bred and engineered to produce an Alpha for your species. Among the artificial genes inserted by the Hierarchy some generations ago, a mechanism for indefinite longevity is present. As are mechanisms for autogenous production of earlier forms of regenerative molecules. This would activate those things and upgrade you to the final, most potent form of our regenerative therapies, along with several additional state of the art interventions custom engineered for you. You would be freer and mightier than anyone else, Great Father. Injuries would heal rapidly, your body and mind would respond to training faster and more thoroughly than ever. All of your progeny going forward would be the same.”

“…And the second?” He already knew, she could tell.

“You will need a queen, of course. While her genetics are not so…elite as yours, we have nonetheless designed as complete a therapy as her biology will accept. She will live and thrive by your side for as long as you both shall wish.”

“…Keeda’s burnt balls.”

“It is a lot to take in, admittedly.”

“It’s fuckin’ reckless of you! If it was just me an’ Naydi, this’d be big enough, but all my future offspring too? All of ‘em immortal?

“Not immortal, no. Longer life, certainly. It takes more than the right genes. There’s an intervention present in the dose to complete your immortal activation. For obvious reasons we do not intend to reveal how this is done, and that serum will resist any attempt to examine it. This is a gift, from one head of state to another, to help you in your terrible purpose. Indefinite lifespan requires enormous reserves of willpower, drive, purpose, and discipline. You, Daar, Brother, Father, Stud-Prime and Champion-Emeritus of Stoneback, Great Father of the Gao… you and you alone possess all of these qualities to a truly heroic degree. You are worthy. No one else is so fit for purpose, and the galaxy writ large is not ready for immortality.”

“Well…Fuck me.”

Shanl could sympathize. “Indeed.”

“What about the rest?” He queried, warily.

“As for the rest, however…yes. That would inherit, and inherit widely. We want your people to be free, Great Father. It is only by your freedom do we all survive what’s coming.”

“Fyu’s shit-stinkin’ taint,” Daar swore again. “That’s the logical thing, is it? Unleash a species o’ me on the galaxy? Huh? What happens when one’a my great-grandkids ain’t me, huh? When one’a them’s got all my power an’ smarts but none’a the sunny fuckin’ disposition?”

“You will have competition from at least one other Deathworlder species with dissimilar motives. Come, now. You are one of the most intelligent beings alive, Daar. Did you not consider what we were doing among the humans? Your human friends represent only the smallest vanguard of a much more potent swell of ability, one that will accelerate within the next three generations. They are a testament to the power of deathworlders; we’ve done nothing but administer a breeding program, and from that? Julian Etsicitty. And others.”

For once, he looked stunned, but quickly rallied. “Well ‘fergive me, I ain’t used ‘ta this sorta hollowed-out-volcano scheming. Balls.”

Shanl had no idea how a hollowed-out volcano had anything to do with the topic at hand, but dismissed that thought for now.

“So that’s the plan ‘fer balancin’ out ‘yer medicine? Competition? Turnin’ our friends inta the force that’ll keep us contained?”

“Competition, yes. With interests aligned just enough to keep us all allies. We wish to profit from this relationship, and we wish our partners to profit.”

“And what happens ‘ta the Gao in all this? When every time one’a my descendents has a cub, it’s jus’ another super-Gao squeezin’ out their territory in the breedin’ pool?

“Unlikely. I need to emphasize that you are genetically perfect, Daar. By definition, all variations thereof are to be considered inferior. None of your offspring will ever have your precise combination of genes and thus, will not match you. You are a singularity, one that occurred because of centuries of careful selection.”

“Yeah, an’ you know prolly better’n I do what singularities do ‘ta the universe. Smash it up, change the rules, fuckin’ destroy!”

“They do nothing. Singularities are a term we use when we cannot describe the underlying reality. I use that term with you because you exist at a confluence that will never occur again, outside direct and considerable intervention.”

“You don’t know that. ‘Yer projections can’t penetrate beyond me. If they could, I wouldn’t be a singularity.”

“I have studied probability and genetics deeply, Great Father. I can say with high confidence that I can. I do not need to comprehend the singularity to understand how it comes to be. You are unique. But, yes: many of your offspring will be magnificent. This is undeniable.”

“Yeah? Well run the maths on this. I am the one male sirin’ more cubs than anyone else right now. The top one percent o’ males? Seventy percent o’ matin’ contracts. So you tell me, when bein’ descended from me is a guaranteed ticket inta that club, what happens, hmm? What’s the gene pool look like five generations down the line?”

“Having modeled this very possibility, we are confident of sufficient genetic diversity. You are not the only excellent male. You are merely the greatest and most visible. The forthcoming bottleneck will be severe, but it will pale in comparison to bottlenecks the humans have survived. Several times, in fact.”

“You ever heard of a human called Charlemagne? Or ‘nother one called Genghis Khan?”

“I have, and I am aware,” she said calmly. “I do not mean to minimize your concerns. They are valid. But we have done the math, and if you want I will sit down with you and go over it. Endangering your kind would be suicide for our own. I promise you, our motivations align.”

“It ain’t the bottleneck, diversity or endangerin’ us that’s my concern here!” Daar strode to a nearby window and swiped a paw out toward the horizon. “There’s billions o’ sleek, scrappy little Gao out there who don’t have a single one’a my gifts, but there’s a whole fuckin’ civilization built on their backs! They’re average, they’re what nature made of us, an’ without them it wouldn’t matter if I’m Keeda himself, I wouldn’t have a damn thing to stand on! An’ they all deserve a fightin’ chance ‘ta pass on a legacy that’s made’a blood an’ bone an’ fur, not just crops an’ war accolades!”

“Correct. Which is why it is important that you and other elite males should exercise due discretion when siring more than one cub with any particular female. And this is also why it is critical you survive and lead for a great many long years, Great Father. What you describe is already in motion and would have been even without our intervention.”

“And what happens when any of my cubs don’t obey that restriction?”

“You will need to live long enough to suppress their ambitions, Daar.”

“Or never have another cub again.”

“Too late. Again: I can show you the math. But it would have been too late before you were even born, Daar. Your ancestors were potent individuals themselves.”

“…Balls.”

“Indeed. We did not offer you immortality lightly. There will come a point when this pressure lessens, but it must be you—and only you—who controls it. This was not our design, or our goal. It is, however, a natural consequence of what has been done to your kind. That you perceive the problem so readily is laudable. It took us many generations to discover it.”

Daar looked out the window long and hard. There was a permanent rumble deep in his chest now, not remotely a happy noise. Shanl elected to let him think.

“A’right.” He tapped on his communicator and raised it to his ear. “Clear my calendar for the rest of the day, please….yes, the mating contracts too. In fact, put those on pause ‘till I say otherwise…yeah, I feel fine…no, I’ll explain later. Send ‘fer Loomi an’ Naydi, too. Thank you.”

He flowed over to his desk, where his claw tapped out some commands on his computer, and a holographic work-board laid itself out in the air in the middle of the room. With a gesture, he enlarged it to its full size, then prowled around to the same side of it as Shanl and sat on his hindquarters, right there on the floor.

“Now…show me the math.”


Date Point: 18y9m2w4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Specialist Hunter (Gonzo) Thompson

The teasing he’d endured at the hands of HEAT wasn’t completely off-base; Hunter’s pet Marines made for a really confusing web of friendship. It was…intimate. No barriers. At all. All secrets were shared, there was no shame between them. The affection between them was intense. Like…really fuckin’ intense. Physically, emotionally, in the way they worked out together, played together, studied together…hell, even right now he was basically in a puppy-pile of legs-around-waist and arms-around-shoulder with the five of them as they endeavored listlessly to solve their boredom. He didn’t exactly know what it was about his friends, it was something a lot like what he was gettin’ with HEAT, but…

Well, he looked up to the old crew on HEAT. They weren’t his bros, they were more like…more like hanging out with the cool older kids at school had been. And they were more like brothers than friends, even with the puppy-pile. He felt competitive with them. Super competitive. In the HEAT, it really, really mattered to him just where he stood, where he was falling short. Right now: better than anyone on team two, and physically speaking he was already one of the best on team one.

Still had a lot to learn, though. And he wasn’t nearly as well-conditioned as the team vets yet.

Even still, he’d built himself up enough to join the Beef Club, having met the minimum weight and beaten the minimum lifts. That felt pretty good! His budget wasn’t too happy about out-eating his own wallet and out-growing everything he owned, but…

The Embassy guard though? They weren’t remotely in his league. It wasn’t fair, maybe. But “pets” was…well, pretty accurate. He loved them. He really loved them. But they weren’t his competition, really. They couldn’t stack up against him in anything that mattered and they knew it, and he knew it, which was a little weird because that meant he was happy to build them up whenever he could…

…Also, it was nice being Army Specialist Joe and just…so thoroughly upstaging the Marines. Embassy Marines, too! Not a lot of Joe got to say shit like that!

Yeah, he was an egotistical shit. Always had been, because he’d always been as good as he bragged, when bragging was the thing to do. But he tried not to be a dick about it. He really did love his Marine bros.

Anyway. They’d schemed about what to do for their last bit of freedom since the Embassy would be locking down too, and they were just, sorta…not feelin’ it.

So, they’d got some PT in—some sprinting intervals and stuff, a buncha basketball, then the traditional everyone-gets-squashed-by-Hunter wrasslin’—then they waxed poetically about sushi and steaks, and then…didn’t. Instead, they were loafing about in their PT gear in the Marine’s dayroom, idly arguing about what to do in the middle of the day. None of them were on duty just now, thankfully.

One thing the Marines had never got used to, was how tightly-controlled his diet was. Sure, they admired his good looks and all the ridiculous things his body could do, boggled that it took the five of them together to lift his ass off the ground or even slightly dent his physique, that his arms were bigger than their waists, his legs dwarfed their fuckin’ chests…

…Yeah, okay, maybe he needed to tone back the ego a bit. It was still all true but… Anyway.

They appreciated him for the supersoldier freak that he was, but somehow they never connected that shit with his food, which was honestly much harder a thing to keep discipline on than the training! They weren’t power-bodybuilding ultra-athletes on alien performance supermedicine. They were just…big, beefy Marines. Good ones, too! They worked out half for their jobs, half to look good naked. They didn’t have a specific goal in mind, not really. They were healthy without worrying too much. They weren’t afraid of an unscheduled pizza or an unaccounted night of drinking.

They kept suggesting barbecues and shit. Because Marines.

“Fuck you, assholes! I’m gonna have a shit tube up my ass here tomorrow where it’s gonna stay for who-the-fuck-knows how long, in a suit that’d crush any of you puny fucks like jelly—”

“—Definitely spicy barbeque, then. Get some hot sauce like ‘Asshole Prolapsor One Million’ or whatever the fuck they’re doin’ now.”

“You’re already almost sitting in my lap,” Hunter retorted, and curled his legs a little bit more fondly tighter to drive home the point. “I’ll fuckin’ prolapse you good an’ hard…”

“Nah, nah, you want that stuff the ETs make, the ones who can’t taste capsaicin at all. Whatsername over in the Quarter, she makes it just to show off for humans.”

“Whatsername?” Hoetze asked.

“Fuck, man, can’t pronounce her name. Sounds like your sister choking on Hunter’s cock.”

“Oh. Her.”

“His sister don’t have a gag reflex anyhow. Whaddya think, you big dumb Joe?”

“Why bother?” Hunter laughed, “I got you four right here!”

Jeering and “outrage” did a turn around the room, along with a couple of small loose objects being thrown at him.

“Bitch, I will shank ‘yer ass if you come at me with that fuckin’ shillelagh of ‘yers.”

“Please, like any of you pussy-ass little fucks could stop me. ‘Sides, I’d have to, like, woo her an’ shit. Don’t need to bother with you fucks!” He mauled at his crotch, and shook everything around a bit for good measure. “A mouth’s a mouth, right?”

“Well shit,” Becker deadpanned, “now that you put it that way, I’m feelin’ all sortsa thirsty!”

“How is that different from any other second of any day?”

“Easy! This one comes with a free dislocated jaw!”

Hunter grinned: fuckin’ glorious idiots.

Hernandez detangled himself, picked up and started fidgeting with his Thinking Knife, which here was an ancient Ka-Bar his great grand-dad had used in Korea. Helluva family heirloom. “But seriously, what are we gonna do? It’s not like we can really have too much fun…”

“Yeah we can,” Centopani reminded him. “Hunter’s gonna be in the biggest shit in a couple days, and he’s gotta be ready for it. We’re just gonna be here to keep State department types from feelin’ scared.” If there was a small note of regret in his voice, Hunter chose not to notice.

But, well…he’d been the one that hero-worshipped Hunter the most, too. Which felt pretty damn good to be honest, but he tried not to take advantage too much.

Sergeant Lang was, as always, the one who swooped in and sorta saved the day, injecting just the right amount of Marine-flavored Adult Supervision into the room. “What’s wrong with just hangin’ out? Christ, you idiots think every second’s gotta be filled with some adventure. Fuckin’ buncha gay-ass retards up in here. Surprised you sick fucks ain’t fuckin’ cummin’ all over each other’s faces by now.”

“Fuck off, Sergeant!” Hunter grinned. “Respectfully of course.”

Lang just grinned. “Damn right.” They had a certain private latitude with each other, being cross-service and having fought off a Hunter raid together. In Thompson’s case, in just his running shorts, which he’d never yet heard the end of, and probably never would.

Not a bad legend to have, really.

“We still don’t know what we’re gonna do,” Hoetze noted. “What about the water park?”

Ah, the water park, Hunter grinned wistfully. Alas… “I’ll go, but I can’t do any of the slides.”

“…Right. Not even the lazy river?”

“Well, maybe that if I get a family tube to myself. Not sure, but that’s the price of bein’ in the four-digit club. Strong enough to smash Captain America…”

“And a danger to puny furniture.”

“Ayup. Still,” Hunter added. “I mean, nothin’ wrong with just loungin’ and soaking up some sun, right?”

“It’s like an hour away though by shuttle.”

“Or there’s the lake. Sara’s Beach oughta have plenty of folks on it, on a nice day like this…”

“Ain’t that the nude beach?”

“Clothing optional. Sounds better’n the water park to me…”

Actually. “Yeah. I could dig that, honestly…”

There were nods all around. Some sun, some good views of people and scenery, nice and free in the warm breeze…

…and then reality had to go ahead and ruin the plan just as it was formed. Hunter’s phone buzzed itself half an inch across the floor as a message came in. Hunter didn’t have to pick it up: the short summary that flashed on the black screen was all he needed to see.

“Always,” Lang nodded laconically like he’d been expecting it.

“Fuck…well, you assholes go have fun anyway.” Hunter stood.

“Fuckin’ stack the bastards, Gonzo.”

Hunter stood, and maybe stood a little prouder when they all got off their feet to say goodbye. He knew, academically, this might actually be a real goodbye. Somehow. But really…

It didn’t feel like it. They were proud of him. That felt good. It felt…like exactly what he needed right then. They’d all signed up to murder the enemy, but he got to do it in a way they would never come close to matching.

He wanted to make them proud.

So, there was a bit of bravado. A little showing off—he was HEAT after all, and they had a reputation to maintain. Then he was off, jogging through town back to his apartment to tie up the last loose ends.

Record a video for mom and dad, and send it off to mortuary affairs. Shut off the water, crack open the washer to dry out, do a quick check for anything perishable. Lock his place up, take the garbage out to the dumpster, shoulder his bag, and then…to the base.

Time to work.


CONTINUED from the prior chapter’s ending


Date Point: 18y9m2w6d AV
jump array bay, starship Destroying Fury

Daar (Tigger), Great Father of the Gao

Thirty minutes left, before they were expecting the array. Daar was in the first wave, which would be jumping in the instant they received the beacon, if all went well. He was the biggest, bestest hammer in a team filled with violently capable men, Human and Gaoian alike.

The suit had done its work, along with Shanl’s kingly “gift” to him…and what a potent gift it was. He felt the effects almost immediately and, coupled with the last few days of final prep, it had been a wild roller-coaster of a thing that hadn’t slowed down. With the suit’s biotech systems online and supercharging everything on top of that? He was so amped up on adrenaline, so stuffed full of crackling energy, so keyed-up and so completely ready to rip and tear that the last half-hour promised to be genuine torture, while he waited to learn if the finest men in the galaxy had achieved the mission, or met their fate.

It was taking every ounce of his self-control to keep it together.

He had to, though. If ever there was a time when a Great Father had to be the perfect example of fierce, undominated power, now was that time. His team, First Fang, Stoneback, the Grand Army…everyone was looking to him in this moment.

There could be no weakness. No hesitation. No second-guessing.

Only strength.


Date Point: 18y9m2w6d AV
HMS Caledonia, Interstellar space, Hunter territory

WO2 Robert “Highland” Murray

There was a rhythm to the final suit check. Murray’s techs had it down like Fred Astaire, each check, test, callout and callback on a perfect timer, assuming nothing was wrong.

Helmet seal, mask seal, air quality, tracheal shield, paraspinal brace, suit flex and mobility, life support, onboard computer, sensors, heads-up display, communications, medical monitor, thermal regulation. Bloodworks kit coming online to amp him up for the coming work; only gently for now, but later on it would be enough to drive him into a ferocious berserker rage, if he didn’t know how to ride the dragon so well by now.

The MASS fit him like a skin, nowadays. Once, it had been uncomfortable, crushing, confining. Just wearing it had been hard work. Now, it felt more like becoming somebody else, somebody a little bigger, a whole lot heavier, and a fuck of a lot more.

Everyone’s was customized, particularly the hands and feet. The Protectors had those special gloves that never got dirty no matter what they did with them, along with grippy, flexible armored climbing shoes. They didn’t have any arch support despite being the biggest lads with the biggest loads, but that let them work themselves into places and situations that simply boggled the mind. Most of the Aggressors wore boots that had more in common with siege equipment than most footwear, and gauntlets that turned their fists into pulverizing weapons. Whatever they hit stayed hit.

Murray preferred something closer to a pair of ultra-tech sneakers, and lighter, thinner gloves that let him really feel his weapon. He was all about the rifle and the knife. Light. Agile. Precise. The minimum necessary encumbrance.

He felt good. He felt ready. Focused. Tense like a wound spring, or a predator about to pounce. And so far, the information filtered down to him through his visor told him everything was on pace. They were deep in hostile territory, and seemingly undetected. They were nearly at the point where Cally could dare go no closer.

The suit checks finished. The deck cleared ready for decompression and opening. Costello was the last to leave, after doing the rounds and giving the whole team a nod, a fist bump, a slap on the helmet.

“Stack ‘em high, Lads.”

The airlock closed behind him with the heavy, mechanical chunk sound that got Murray itching to start. Moments later, the familiar sound and sensation of the pressure plummeting.

They grabbed hold of the launch, clipped themselves on and waited as the bay’s huge door yawned aside for them.

Showtime.


Regaari

Light the Darkness.

Today, more than ever. They were doing what Whitecrest had been founded all those centuries ago to accomplish, where the massive brutes of Stoneback and Highmountain couldn’t go. Scouting. Infiltration. Covert insertion. That type of direct military action was the bread and butter of Whitecrest for over five hundred years. The spycraft wasn’t their primary trade until much later, when their breeding had diverged wildly from the small, scrappy, powerfully lithe brownfurs that were so typical of Fyu’s line.

The greatest of their secrets. Most of Fyu’s lineage didn’t go into Stoneback or Highmountain, despite being the paramount champion of both Clans.

Most of it went into Whitecrest. Along with Fyu himself, covertly.

It was a long ride on the launch from Caledonia to the target, and there really was something deeply unnerving about clinging to the outside of a warp-capable craft. Being inside a ship changed the sense of scale, made a star system seem smaller somehow. As if the planets were buildings by the roadside, not whole worlds, light-minutes away.

The launch, though? There were no illusions. They were something tiny and fragile, zipping through a vast and terrifying emptiness, toward something equally tiny and fragile. No comforts, no sense of the space around them. Only a long ride in silence with nothing to see except each other and then…

And then an asteroid, with a Hunter station growing out of it like a tumor. There in an eyeblink, without ceremony or warning. Their warp technology had advanced so far, for certain low-superluminal speeds they could move theoretically undetectably.

So far, so good. But that was always going to be the easy bit. The tricky part was ingress.

On that score, the hazard course team and analysts had done wonderfully. The station exterior was identical to the training course they’d been running for months, so far as Regaari could tell. A low cluster of lumpy, bulbous shapes plastered to the rock’s surface, and presumably responsible for the asteroid’s lack of spin.

Somewhere behind that cancerous wall of metal was a hollowed-out space inside the asteroid, laid with rail and jump array technology. Presumably, further internal rail and conveyor systems brought the processed salvage from Hell up to the vast surface bays where a pair of ships were waiting to be fed scrap metal.

That wasn’t their ingress, even though it was the most open access point. Too busy. Too monitored. No, their route in was an airlock at the periphery where the station’s wall met the asteroid’s surface.

They puffed toward it on cold-gas thrusters, silent and alert. Titan and Moho made their initial survey as they approached, and both gave the thumbs-up; the door, as predicted, was a simple mechanical design, meant to be operated by the motors of the attaching ship. This was typical of Hunter architecture for low-power structures that spent most of their time either inert or in near-vacuum.

Opening it wouldn’t be that hard. Titan had fabricated a hefty wrench that mated with the door’s operating slot, and a few mighty turns would be all they needed to open the door and gain entry. That left only two problems: alarms, and air pressure.

Air pressure was solved with the same forcefields that kept open bays from blowing out. Glued to the hull around the doors, and activated. The bubble emitted a slight shimmer to show it was online, then settled into invisibility. That just left the alarms, and for that they had Ergaan and his toolkit.

Of the four (or sometimes five) Gaoians on the team, Ergaan was the one who had retained the most of his former slinky, sneaky self. Regaari was still quiet, still patient and stealthy…but now he could toss cars end over end and leap straight up buildings, or crush a Human’s hand to shards in his own without much effort. The price for that strength? Hands that these days were more paws than anything else, attached to forearms that wouldn’t fit through the opening Ergaan was currently sunk to the elbows in, working at the simple electronics within.

He’d practiced this particular bypass a thousand times, working on a real Hunter airlock. Regaari was quite sure he could have done it blind, backwards and with only one paw. Sure enough, by the time the forcefield was in place, Ergaan was ready. A duck-nod and gesture said everything.

Tiny deployed the wrench. Murray, Parata and Shim were first through. No muzzle flashes, no searing white of fusion blades. Just a terse click on the comms. They were in.

The one thing they absolutely could not afford to do was kill a Hunter at this early stage. The moment any of them flatlined, the swarm would know. So: quiet. Feet placed with infinite care, so as not to creak a deck plate or leave any visible sign. Fortunately Hunters used robust plate decking, as their legs didn’t end in anything so civilized as feet.

Even so, any space habitat was hard to move through silently, especially those built without concern for comfort or appearance. No carpeting, nothing decorative on the walls…the station was a metal hive, metal floors, metal walls, metal ceiling. Hard, flat surfaces made for echoing conditions, and hollow spaces under the floor panels could boom if struck incautiously.

There was little in the way of darkness, either. Hunters didn’t go for gloom, no. They lit their spaces like a surgical theatre, with flat, white lights that gave a sinisterly clinical air.

It was designed to highlight reds, he realized. The better to see blood.

They pushed onward, moving with speed and precision, stepping on the structural crossbeams where the floor couldn’t drum under their feet. The airlock was surface access, and there was no need for the Hunters to use it now: the section of the station they were in had been given over to storage.

Hunter storage. Stasis chambers. A cargo bay full of eerie perfect-black cubes in a neat grid, and the faint hum of power draw. Three cubes missing from the grid suggested either understaffing, or a handful of Hunters awake and active.

Let it be the former, please.

Forrest tucked up on a corner, used his gun-cam to peek around it, gestured sharply: hold. Wait.

Nobody moved. Seconds passed.

Forrest gestured again. They moved on.

Something the hazard course team hadn’t foreseen: the facility had a pulse. It had to be the jump arrays firing and the trains being unloaded, but the effect—a boom that rang through the whole structure, followed by a more drawn-out rush—put Regaari uncomfortably in mind of a heartbeat, and a breath.

They followed it, tightly riding the line between moving slow enough to be sure of their silence, sure there was nothing in front of them, and moving fast enough that they weren’t lingering too long in one spot. Their time on this station needed to be minimal, every second was potential exposure, every minute a chance that the Hunters might notice their malfunctioning airlock.

Under his suit, Regaari’s fur crawled with the notion that maybe they were already seen, and they were all about to be captured in a forcefield trap. They were ready for that, in theory. In practice…

In practice, there was no escape if they were caught. They needed to be gone.

They turned the station’s industrial heartbeat back on itself, using the racket it generated as a chance to move a little faster, buying moments with every prolonged boom-and-rush that swept over them. They shrank back into a side corridor and prayed as a hulking mechanical abomination that only vaguely resembled a Hunter stalked past them, bearing some salvaged piece of technology on the pallet lift that had replaced its arms. It gave no sign of noticing them.

They slipped through the archway behind it, and into…

…The operation was even bigger than they’d imagined. The Hunters had blasted out a void inside the asteroid, and the bare chondrite walls drank the light, giving them gloom at last. They used it, borrowing the hubbub of another load arriving to get the hell out of the open and down into the concealment of the railworks.

It wasn’t hard to see where the racket came from. There were no locomotives, just a string of sturdy steel wagons being hauled bodily back along the track by cables, locked in place, then banished in a flash of black and that great pounding boom!

Each one that jumped out was replaced instantly by a full train, and thence came the heavy rushing sound: it was allowed to roll straight down into a receiver, stopped by impact with a heavy shock absorber, then tipped over to dump its load of salvage straight onto a conveyor.

A river of scrap, more of it than Regaari cared to guess at, flowed constantly up and out of the chamber, destined for some no-doubt equally hellish processing center elsewhere in the parts of the station they’d avoided. Even through their helmets and hearing protection, the noise was oppressive.

Regaari knew what their first salvo would be. They needed to blow up this asteroid, once they’d made it to the surface. They needed to send a little present back through.

The empty train was already being winched back up the rail. They’d missed that one. But the next was only a minute away.

They got in position.


Timothy “Tiny” Walsh

Hunters cut corners on safety. There were no guard rails, no safety measures to keep their worker bees from stepping in front of thousands of tons of loaded train car in motion. They didn’t even bother to equalize the pressure around their jump array, so each load’s arrival and departure was met with an explosive slam as thousands of gallons of planetary air came and went alongside the trains.

They sure as shit cut corners on security, thank fuck. But then, if the Hunters had a blind spot, it was stealth and silence. They were the ten-foot slavering space monsters, they were used to being the biggest, baddest motherfuckers on legs, and still hadn’t learned any different. They thought of hiding as something the prey did in a vain attempt to survive their hunts, or as something the predator did to prepare an ambush.

The idea of infiltration was alien to them. Maybe it wouldn’t be after this. All the more reason to make it work this time.

A gesture from Regaari. He wanted one of the bombs.

Gladly. Walsh was at his side in an instant, turning to present his back and the collection of small nukes carried there. A tug and release of straps, a slap on his shoulder.

Walsh hunkered down beside the track and waited. That, he didn’t enjoy. Before, they’d been moving forward and always active. Sitting in one spot and waiting grated on him. It wouldn’t be long. Hell, he was mentally counting down to the moment the array fired and swapped out the empty train for a full one. Less than a minute to go…

But it was a long-ass minute. He kept his eye out for danger. There was a worker Hunter up on a platform between the rail and the huge conveyor belt. It was turned away from them, sifting through the flow of scrap with its robotic arms. Walsh had no idea what it was filtering out of the stream and he didn’t want to know. All he needed to know was that it wasn’t going to turn its head their way.

He held out his hand and signalled everyone prone as the Hunter found something. Whatever it plucked from the trash, it held it up and turned it this way and that for a few seconds before turning at the waist, depositing it on a bench behind it, and returning to its work.

Whatever the tangled, filthy mass of technology it had just collected was, it had a spine. Walsh took a photo for the intel guys to figure it out.

This time, he was close enough to the jump array that its arrival thumped him in the chest and made his lungs drum. A new train, fully loaded, landed on the rails and rattled down them shedding sparks. He ducked down and gritted his teeth as it slammed to a halt just inches away from him. It had barely stopped moving before its cars tipped over and started spilling their cargo into the waiting hoppers.

These things weren’t designed to be climbed onto and maintained by anything human, or Gaoian. There weren’t any handholds, no rungs up the sides, and the surface was foul with grime, dirt, soot and oil.

So foul, in fact, that the clever gecko-grip stuff on their gloves didn’t adhere properly. Normally they’d just jump up, grab onto the edge and haul themselves up, or even just leap over the damn thing, but in this case…

Well, discretion was probably wiser, and crashing into what was effectively a giant metal drum would probably defeat their purpose.

Ergaan and Shim used two of their human buddies as ramps and slipped over the car’s lip like weasels. Walsh turned, cupped his hands, and gave Murray a boost. He stepped back, took a run-up, caught Murray’s hand and Ergaan’s paw, and was hauled up into the car. Parata, Forrest and Regaari did something similar in the next car along, and they dropped into the bottom of the bin before it was even fully upright.

Walsh breathed a little easier. That minute of waiting had been torture.

There was a jolt, and the train started back up its rail. Give the Hunters credit, they had an efficient system here…Which meant they needed to worry about tons of garbage landing on their heads the second they were through. Rather than lie there and wait, the team got ready to disembark immediately.

They didn’t have to wait long.

THUMP.


Robert “Highland” Murray

They’d ended up flinging themselves out of the train the instant they arrived. It wasn’t as quiet as could be, if one were honest, but it was that or have a couple hundred tons of scrap metal land on their heads. Murray just launched himself, and hoped to God the tumbling junk and the sound of it all landing would disguise their arrival.

It was a long drop on the other side, as the train was on an elevated rail over a massive pit of scrap. He rolled through it, begrudgingly thanked ‘Horse for all the torture over the years. Everyone on the team had the exact same idea at the exact same time, too.

The wonders of teamwork.

Planet Hell was well fuckin’ named, though. He got a good look at it once they’d found and secured some cover outside the Hunter’s immediate area of operations. It was a fuck of a haul too, since the scrapping operation seemed to go on, and on, and on…

Almost nothing drained a man’s energy faster than discreet movement at speed. After damn near an hour of skittering to and fro from pile to pile, it was a small slice of heaven when at last, some natural terrain feature lent them the opportunity to gain higher ground and take stock. So, obviously, there was a climb, and this time no womble-stomping ‘Horse to climb ahead and anchor for them.

Murray’d had worse, at some point. Maybe he’d remember eventually, when the whisky was flowing and the grousing was good. But not right now. Right now, he got his moment to take in the view.

Murray had been on the ring. He’d seen how fuck-huge it was. He’d walked on Hell, too, under the boiling sky after they’d set the bomb off. But that had been three years ago. He hadn’t exactly stopped to take in the scenery back then, but what he remembered was…well, a planet. Plants. Trees. Rivers. Mountains. Planet stuff. Quite nice, even. The only reason the crew who’d named it went with “Hell” was because they were stuck there.

Now, though, it was like the opening scene from that old movie, Wall-E, except with a fucking madman in charge of the art. No cute boxy wee robot trundling around making neat stacks, no. The machines grazing out on that huge field of scorched, half-melted, filthy debris were fucking dinosaurs, with grinding jaws, industrial forcefields, and a small swarm of drones swirling around them to cut chunks off the bigger pieces.

The mountains in the distance had been wooded, once. Now, their flanks were the graveyard of a million scorched, flattened matchsticks. The sky was the colour of lead, streaked with industrial plumes extending all the way out to, and beyond, the horizon.

“Fuck…” Walsh muttered, reverently.

“Aye.”

“That’s a lotta salvage.”

“Enough to rebuild the swarm ten times over,” Parata agreed.

“Meanwhile, they just keep breeding and stick the surplus population in stasis until they’re needed. Don’t even need to feed ‘em, just keep the stasis generators powered. Fuck.”

“Shit. No fuckin’ wonder we’re hittin’ this.”

Murray glanced over at Regaari, who was busy consulting maps and his own survey of the landscape around them. They were banking on one point: Hunters loved to centralize. Hell, that’s what the ring had been about. So, this whole litter-picking operation was probably pretty close to whatever facility contained the farthrow generator and stuff.

They had a pretty good idea what that facility’s layout would be—somehow—and even where it was in relation to other stuff. They just needed to figure out where they were. And then get there. And then finagle their way in, one way or another. And blow it to fuck.

Just another day at the office.

“That way,” Regaari decided. “And radio discipline, please. Even narrow-beam or laser comms can be detected in the right environment.”

They moved out.


Regaari

The Hunters hadn’t been perfectly thorough. Rather than cleaning the debris field of every last item, they’d clearly decided that it was good enough to reach topsoil and move on. The ground—pulverized and poisoned by fallen megastructure—was still dense with trash. A mixed blessing: it provided cover and concealment the barren landscape otherwise wouldn’t have. But it sure as shit wasn’t safe. A little icon in Regaari’s HUD was politely informing him of a nasty background radiation count and airborne toxic pollutants.

To breathe Hell’s air unprotected would be to dramatically shorten their lifespans. And sometimes, his helmet’s sensors picked up something in the endless landfill that was radioactive enough for the suit to worry about it and warn him to steer clear.

They hugged the edge of the valley, using the terrain and wreckage to conceal themselves as they trekked parallel to a wide service road. The Hunters had gone to a lot of effort to construct a broad highway, but traffic along it was vanishingly rare. Future endeavors, perhaps, but for now it served their purposes. There were berms of material along both sides of the road, hinting at how it may have been constructed.

It was a four-hour excursion on foot. Which, of course it was. Four hours was right at that hellish sweetspot where their natural endurance under load began to fail and the intensely uncomfortable “second wind” of combat pharmacology began to take over.

They’d be sleeping for days after this, because all of them were going to max out their dosage, and possibly go past that, too. One never knew what a fight might yield.

For now though, they could proceed less energetically, and claw back some reserves. Leave the stims unused in their onboard biopacks. All of them were sipping on liquid food as they prowled around the edge of a modular city, looking for an ideal point of entry.

They found what they were looking for in the form of a drainage canal. Considering the heavy gray skies and the occasional sullen flash on the horizon, Regaari couldn’t imagine how a city might be built here without one. The shallow layer of stuff flowing along its bottom was probably only mostly water….but it was everything they needed.

They took a few precious minutes to further recover from their long jog. They ate in silence, forced down their meals and drink, waited as long as they dared, for their bloodworks to balance out a bit…

With a signal from Regaari, they stimmed up, rose as one, and went for it.


Alpha of the Flensing-Brood

The Alpha was contending with a rare and pleasurable sensation: it was <impressed> and had just learned how to be a better predator in its own regard. To many, perhaps, the idea of learning anything about hunting from another species would be a kind of wrong-thought, but the Flensing-Brood had survived where many others withered under such introspection.

As Alpha in charge of planetary security, its attention had been drawn to an unexpected development. An airlock on one of the salvage reprocessors out in the system’s second asteroid belt had developed a fault. Nothing there to warrant the Alpha’s attention, at first. But then the Builders had inspected it—a faulty airlock was a danger to the facility’s correct operation, after all—only to find several pieces of alien technology stuck to the hull.

An air retaining forcefield, to cover for the fact that the airlock was no longer capable of maintaining a seal: it had been forced open from the outside. Something had boarded them.

That same something had then, somehow, managed to move undetected through the entire reprocessing station, then vanish. The one thing the Builders knew for certain was that the infiltrators were no longer present.

The Alpha doubted they had simply explored and left the way they came. Which meant, they had taken the incredibly dangerous step of boarding one of the scrap trains and jumping to the planet along with it.

This was obviously a major security breach. But the Alpha wasn’t at all upset. On the contrary, it had been hoping, longing for this ever since it had caught that scout ship and then been cruelly robbed of its due feast. It had suspected some attempt at an attack would come in time, and there was only one strategically sensible objective for the infiltrators to pursue: the wormhole suppressor.

In other words…it got to hunt again.

It had its duty to perform, obviously, so it spared a few moments’ thought to activating the contingent of heavy Betas responsible for guarding the suppressor. But it had no illusions of their effectiveness: the foe had shown they had terrible claws of their own in many varieties. They had shredded the swarm-of-swarms, and torn the hive from the sky. They could certainly obliterate the city and everything in it.

Which meant that the hunt was not only a fulfilment, but the sound thing to do. With its more elite forces scattered across the system, there was not much it could do in the immediate future but harass whatever forces they had deployed.

The Deathworlders most likely understood that as well, which meant the true fight would come when they inevitably achieved their objective and brought down the suppressor. For the resulting battle, it would need everything available, and other things besides. They would not risk such a gambit unless they were well-prepared and that meant a tantalizing hunt indeed.

Perhaps it would draw in their Alphas as well! Or perhaps, if they were very fortunate…

It sent a message to the Alpha of Alphas.


The Alpha of Alphas

So. They had drawn out the Pinnacle Alpha of Alphas among the hunting-species. Whether or not he would commit himself remained to be seen, but he was in many ways like the Eaters, and so the Alpha of Alphas found it difficult to believe he would stand aside in the face of such an important attack.

It was well-planned. The raiding Eaters had noticed a number of behavioral changes among the prey that, on their own, wouldn’t warrant concern. But when taken holistically, when synthesized into a system of behavior that could be analyzed, exploited…

Deep within the cradle of cables that was its now-permanent roost, the Alpha-of-Alphas drooled in anticipation. Let the enemy think they were coming undetected and unknown. The Hunters would receive them, gladly. The Eaters would lay traps, now that they knew how. The Builders would retrieve specimens, and feast…

And with the knowledge thus gained, the Hunters would return to their correct position at the galaxy’s apex.

It authorized the release of its latest experimental forms. Let the Humans and Gao come.

The maw was open for them.


Regaari

Their luck, somehow, held. Given the terrain and the city’s layout, they wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it when the nest got kicked over, so to speak. Nor could they risk emergency shielding preventing their objective.

Nor, frankly, were any of them willing to enter an enclosed space unless absolutely necessary, given the Hunter’s demonstrated proclivities with forcefields…

There was activity though. Things had been quiet, and then, suddenly…they weren’t. No alarms or anything, just suddenly there were vehicles making the bridges rumble as they crossed the storm canal, and the occasional staccato clatter of Hunter appendages scuttling in groups at street level. It didn’t feel like a shift change or whatever, either. It felt like a mobilization. It felt like they’d been noticed.

…The fur at Regaari’s nape wanted to stand up. This wasn’t right.

Murray felt it too. “It’s a trap,” he grumbled. “They’re waitin’ for us.”

“Yup.”

The collective, unspoken energy that settled on the whole team was simple: ‘fuck it.’ In for a bean, in for a stew.

“We’re close.” Forrest indicated. His suit carried the specialist sensor that tracked the epicenter of the wormhole suppression field, and Regaari grimaced inside his helmet as he looked up. He’d really, really been hoping that giant concrete pyramid that had loomed at them from the horizon from the very moment they arrived wouldn’t be it. That thing looked easily capable of weathering a nuke or two.

At least…a nuke from the outside. A nuke from below would be a different matter…and there was an outlet pipe draining into the canal from right under the pyramid…

His thoughts were interrupted by violence. A flare of light and the too-familiar hiss of a Hunter’s fusion claws firing up.

“Contact left!”

Four of them. They flooded down the canal’s embankment with drool flying from their teeth, only to die instantly, drilled clean through by a disciplined volley that tore right through their shields and subdermal armor implants. HEAT didn’t fuck around with puny weapons.

But that, of course, kicked off the frenzy. More Hunters appeared on the ridge, and they fell back toward the outlet pipe. Regaari’s dream of bombing the facility from below went up in smoke. Now, the only option was to fight their way in and take out the generator themselves.

Up ahead, in the dark, he heard the echoing sounds of large, cyberized bodies scuttling through water. They had a fight ahead of them.

He led the charge.


Robert “Highland” Murray

They plunged into the dark. Narrow tunnels bunched the Hunters up, stole their numbers advantage. Still had to fight in two directions at once, though. Always pushing forward, always killing the ones coming up behind.

The hope had been, get in under the bunker, drop a nuke, leave, turn it into a hole in the ground from a safe distance. That was out, now.

It was knife-and-claw work for the most part. GR1Ds were great for packing a lot of ammo, but the ammo was still finite and the swarm…wasn’t. Each burst of fire was good for driving the Hunters back, buying room to advance, a moment to sip from his drinking tube and keep himself charged.

Body aching, every second a balancing act and slaughter with no time to think. But progress anyway. Into the drain tunnel. Regaari knew the way. An eternity of bloodshed, then a hatch. Somehow get everybody up and through it, Parata through last.

Wider halls meant more room to move, but more room for Hunters. They boiled up through the hatch behind them, charged in from the flanks, arrived in vehicles. Unleashed from stasis and hungry, desperate to eat or die trying.

Each shot he fired was a preciously chosen resource, and he didn’t waste a one. Each slash and stab was an effort, but he never missed a kill. His whole body hurt, every step drained him. He could suck on his juice and trust his suit’s IV, but there were limits on how hard a body could fight.

Had to fight efficiently. Nothing spare, nothing wasted. Pure focus. Pure death.

Up. Wide, shallow ramps rather than stairs. Slick with guts. More enemies behind than in front now, though. Nearly there. Nearly there.

So close now he could feel the suppressor, like a whine in his teeth. Close enough to meet the big ones guarding it.

Shieldsticks and smoke grenades, blind them and block them. Push forward, get under them, gut them with fusion knives or just blast up into their bellies, gore and oil sliding off his visor…

Arms…heavy…


Regaari

Medical alarm from Murray’s suit. His bloodworks dropping into amber. Everyone on the verge of a glucose crash, Regaari too, not that he needed a sensor to tell him that. Exhaustion was doing what the Hunters couldn’t.

But they were there. One forcefield between them and life.

Dump-web it. Charge through the lightning shower, suit protesting as an arc hit it. The grenade launcher under his weapon thumped and turned one of the last big Betas guarding the suppressor into a tangle of gore and splintered cybernetics. Pounce forward, past the wild spray of firepower from the other one, off a wall, onto it, slash his claws through the weak spot at the back of the neck.

He sprang off the spasming corpse as it collapsed, onto the rack of high-energy machinery that had to be their target. Tiny threw him a brick of C4. Parata grabbed the jump array off his pack and threw it across the room into a safe corner, where it unfolded in a complicated snapping tangle of metal supports.

Regaari planted the charge. He armed it. He got clear. He detonated it. The blast knocked him half-senseless, but that keening in his teeth and skull was abruptly gone…

The endless Hunters still pushed into the room. Shim and Murray both overwhelmed. Ergaan desperately clawing against the swarm…

A furious roar, and four Human wrecking balls smashed into the swarm. Righteous. Warhorse. Baseball. Gonzo. A fountain of blood and greasy bits turned the tide.

Regaari’s strength gave out. He collapsed to the deck. Someone picked him up and deposited him in the jump array.

“Go sleep, Cousin. We’ll fuck ‘em up.”

He didn’t even know who it was. All he saw, before the crash took him down into dizzy unconsciousness was his team’s medical monitors. All amber…red…

…but all alive.

They’d done it.


Daar, Great Father of the Gao

The beacon came through, and he and his shock team jumped over with a fuckin’ vengeance. Regaari was there on the other side, dead exhausted but alive. They were all alive! A fuckin’ tidal wave of relief washed over Daar, though of course he couldn’t let it overtake his wits. His emotions right now were the most biggest they could possibly be, the most biggest they’d ever been, so as always he had to discipline himself and focus on the task at hand.

No weakness, no sentiment. ONLY strength.

The Hunters knew. Of course they did. Daar hadn’t thought they would be so stupid as to not figure it out eventually, which meant he’d almost certainly just jumped directly into a trap.

That changed nothing, really. The stakes were too high. Instead of going in, guns blazing…

Well, they’d just need to blaze a lot harder.

“Call up the total force,” Daar intoned to a runner, who was jumping back with the rest. “We’re going as hot as we can manage. Assault team!” He roared, “ON ME!!”

Kodiak, Righteous, Warhorse, Carebear. The finest warriors alive were right there with him, behind and protecting his flank. That meant he only had one direction to worry about.

Forward, through an ocean of slaughter. All they needed to do was get to the sky and they didn’t have far to go. One glance at it, and the game was over. The Hunters knew that.

One simple objective. Destroy. Make a fuckin’ hole. Do what he was raised to do. Bred, engineered, trained to do.

Destined to do.

Win the war. No matter what.



END CHAPTER 77



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


Acknowledgments

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


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, Zoe and Riker


36 Humans

TTTA

Adam Shearsby

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Armond471

Austin Deschner

Brigid

Chris Candreva

Chris Dye

Daniel Iversen

Daniel Morris

Eric Hardwick

His Dread Monarch

James Ren

John Norton

Joseph Szuma

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja

Krit Barb

Marquis Talmadge

NovaTheSpaceWolf

Ortheri

Richard A Anstett

Rob Rollins

Ryan Seaman

Sam Berry

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

T.A. Carlson

Taylor McGee

TheMoneyBadger

Theningaraf

Xultanis

Yeania Aeon

Zachary Galicki


As well as 64 Deathworlders…

Adam Beeman Adam Zarger Alex Langub Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp blackwolf393 Brandon Hicks Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jeffrey Stults Jerry Lawson Jim Hamrick jmal116 John Campbell Jon Joseph Bark Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina Blue lovot Matt Matt Badger Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata Nicolas Gruenbeck NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Ryan Cadiz Ryc O’Chet Sam Sean Calvo Sir Xaph Stephen Prescott Thanatos theWorst Trevor C Vincent Leighton Volka Creed walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas ziv Zod Bain

79 Friendly ETs, 147 Squishy Xenos and 313 Dizi Rats, who splorch until they can splorch no more.


“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 necessarily share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 78: “Downfall”