Chapter 78: Fury
Dandelion: audiobook now available!
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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!
Date Point: 18y9m2w6d AV
Hunter city, planet Hell
The infiltration team already did lots of work. The Hunters might be endless, but the immediately available ones? All dead. The ones arriving now had come from further away and were slower. Their meaty bits tired, their cybernetics drained of power. Fatigue affected Hunters just as much as Humans.
And Hunters weren’t a match on their best day.
Smash through the first few. Tear off limbs, stomp skulls and chests. Break and crush. Suit already filthy, but just getting started.
Always an eye on the others, though. HEALTHCON all green. Good.
Lots of work to do.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
The Alpha was buying time by throwing new spawn into the fray. Most had gone into stasis as soon as their first implantation was complete, and had known nothing of the world since. They were inexperienced, uneducated…and hungry.
A perfect ablative layer to force the invaders to push through while the more completely cyberized, experienced and cunning Betas got in position, and the Builders worked to minimize the coming damage and prepare for a long fight.
The new-spawn were ablating much too quickly. And while they were certainly slowing the enemy…it wasn’t by enough. A new tactic, then. Saturate the corridor, to make their egress difficult. It issued orders to that effect and was pleased to observe the result.
With time purchased, it returned to its own distinct portion of the hunt. There was an ambush to set.
Rather than get closer to the fighting, the Alpha did something that simply never would have occurred to new-spawn: it withdrew. It had no illusions that the Humans and Gao would break out of the master facility. Two naked Human-Alphas had proven more than a match for fully equipped Betas during its raid on that transport ship some time ago. With all of their armament and equipment, there was no superiority to be found in numbers.
Still, not all was lost. Perhaps they might be driven to exhaustion, if the fight was sufficiently grueling. After all, the Gaoian-Alphas were a lesser-known enemy. The Fur-Faced surely had limits, even if they were challenging prey. Perhaps their strength wasn’t up to par. Perhaps they…
<+ astonishment +>
…Well. Perhaps not.
Not quite believing what it had just witnessed, It sent an update to the Alpha of Alphas, which responded with <+ fascination +> and signed into the local nets directly.
They needed to escalate.
Lotsa bodies bein’ shoved into the hall, tryin’ to slow ‘em down. Daar plowed through them like they weren’t more’n tall grass, but between the press of all the gore, the need to keep firing lines open, eyes constantly scannin’ along the walls, watchin for shield emitters—
Fuck that. Daar was the biggest Keedafucker around, so he might as well fuckin’ use it.
They were clear of the thick, reinforced walls protectin’ where the wormhole suppressor had been. The walls here didn’t look so sturdy. So, he picked a nice-looking one his HUD map said had a corridor on the other side, going in a generally useful direction…
He grunted, flung himself forward for a bound, and crashed right through it. Good thing he had a thick neck, ‘cuz he din’t just puncha hole through it, the whole damn section caught and pulled off with him. Nice and weirdly clean! He had’ta peel the rest offa him but that weren’t no big deal, an’ now he’d saved ‘em all lotsa time, which meant ammo, which meant lives.
No fuckin’ idea what the rooms here were for, but no time to stop an’ think about it neither. Point was, no sign of any nasty surprises like explosives or field snares. Good. All the more reason to keep bustin’ through walls.
So, he did. Over an’ over, not losin’ a beat along the way. He jinked this way an’ that but always kept goin’ in the general direction of out so’s the slimy fucks weren’t gonna pin him.
Every so often, a Hunter got in his way. Well, briefly anyway. They din’t make ‘fer very durable toys though an’ he din’t wanna waste time, so mostly they just got a swipe or a kick, or mebbe he just charged forward anyway like they weren’t there. No point wastin’ ammo or momentum.
There were a couple that sorta lived, but HEAT had his back, so they din’t live ‘fer long.
Then there was a solid wall. He could see it comin’ on his HUD an’ it was the perfect surface ‘ta rebound against ‘ta double back an’ regroup with the men.
Looked like they were along one of the four radial corridors that spread out from the center o’ the installation. Gonna need demo ‘ta breech it, or they’d need ‘ta charge along th’ hallways running alongside of the wall.
Daar considered, briefly. And told his suit ‘ta spray his visor clean.
Hallways an’ corridors were risky. This weren’t a major one—that was on the other side o’ the concrete wall—but it did run parallel to it almost to the outside o’ the installation. Lotsa room to get a head of steam goin’ in the hall. And another wall at the end just waitin’ ‘fer a chargin’ Daar! Decision made. He barked out his orders an’ waited a bare few seconds ‘fer his crew to catch up. They weren’t no slowpokes! Once they had him covered, he pointed himself down the hall, poured on all the speed he could, and…
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
…Clearly, their information on the Gao-Alpha-of-Alphas was woefully out of date. He had the strength to plow through steel walls like claws through soft skin, and did so at a speed that none of its Hunters could possibly hope to manage. After the third break-through it became woefully apparent that he wouldn’t be slowed or even much inconvenienced by the terrain.
The Gaoian Alpha of Alphas charged steadily on, leaving an <+ awe-inspiring +> trail of slaughter and destruction in his wake. The Deathworld Predators were in danger of breaching out of the facility already, and the fight had barely begun.
The Alpha calculated. It had originally jumped in and positioned itself to challenge this Alpha of Alphas personally, but in light of this new data…
No. Its current form was not up to such a hopeless fight. In a direct contest of strength, it stood no chance whatsoever against…that. Therefore, it did not intend to go maw-to-claws with such a monstrous being. This wasn’t any ordinary hunt. This was a hunt against a beautifully superior prey. Such a rare gift of a hunt demanded guile and patience.
It retreated from the immediate vicinity rather than risk detection, while the Humans and Gao slaughtered their way through the last of the new-spawn. Some of its requirements had been met, in that the heavy units were creating a cordon, but there was no reason to believe said cordon would last.
A counterattack was in order. And there were some Betas in position to slip past the enemy’s dangerous claw and slash at the vulnerable body behind it. The Hunters could ignore their own walls too, when needed.
The Alpha had no reason to believe that they would succeed in seizing the enemy Arrays, though. They might sow havoc for a few seconds, but that section of the facility was already dense with deathworlders. There was no hope of extracting the Betas, but it ordered the attack anyway—there was always the possibility of surprise success. Still, the real counter-attack was going to require mass, some deft maneuvering, and the kind of discipline that new-spawn and Deltas could not be expected to demonstrate. It would take time.
The Alpha just needed to trust that, perhaps, its prey might fail to notice a detail or two in the confusion…
Staff Sergeant Yousef Wright, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry
Wright rode the sudden change in gravity and ignored the way it made his stomach lurch and his inner ear unhappy. Some things, you never quite got used to no matter how often you did ‘em in training. And they’d trained a lot for this moment…
They were out and off the platform as fast as they could go, right behind the too-broad backs of a bunch of Gaoian giants. First Fang all, and they had an important job: Keep Yousef and his men alive for the next few minutes, as they snapped together the arrays.
The HEAT had deployed a small array. “Small” in this case meaning it weighed about ninety kilos or so and could transit a squad of men. “Compact” might be a better word.
They needed big arrays now, though. The ones that could transit a whole platoon and all their gear. And they needed more than one.
The first box was torn open, the struts handed out, the power module heaved into place. Gunfire and butchery near the entrance: not his job, not his problem. Pieces snapped and latched together. Off the platform, power on, already working on the next array before the first one thumped.
A storm swept out. A fucking hurricane, driving the Hunters back with bullets. Explosions and slaughter, still not his job, not his problem. Got to get the second array built.
Gaoians this time, flowing between and around the humans, slapping down shieldsticks. Getting fucking crowded, but the gunfire moving away as they pushed forward, following the trail the HEAT blazed.
Second array finished. The compact one just delivered more parts. Repeat the cycle, room in this hall for some more…
Yousef blinked, realized he was lying on the ground, with rubble under his face. Couldn’t hear a damn thing, just a high note that filled his whole head….
Something slammed into the concrete in front of his face. Articulated metal, ugly waxy maggot-white skin visible between thick angled armor plates. He flopped on his back and looked up.
More machine than critter, bigger than the others, and fast. It ignored him, pounced past and over him, claws seething, gun rampaging, bullets flashing off shields. Suicidally bold as it plunged into the arriving platoon, lashing out with claws that tore right through armor and flesh even as its shield dropped, even as its body was shredded.
Hearing faded back in, full of screams and rage, and Gaoian war-cries. First Fang plunged into the hole the Hunters had blasted. One pounced right over Yousef, rode the next Hunter down while ripping it to pieces.
A human hand grabbed Yousef and heaved. “Come on! Get up!”
The fog finally lifted. He was alive. In pain, but intact. Thank God for modern armor. Some of the guys hadn’t been so lucky.
Focus. Array three wasn’t going to build itself.
He grabbed the next box, and got back to work.
…Welp. The God-Emperor of the fuckin’ universe just did his best impression of the Kool-Aid man, and suddenly their Hunter problem was a whole lot smaller. Now it was all about keeping up. Thompson thought he’d understood speed. He’d been training with the big boys, could keep up (for a good long while, at least) even with the best of them.
Nobody could keep up with Daar. He punched gaping holes through all the fuckin’ walls in the blink of an eye, then circled back to collect everyone else, and did all that before anyone generally knew what was happening.
Suddenly, they were running across almost totally empty corridors just as fast as they could manage.
The Hunters were pretty quick on the uptake, and started clawing at the walls to break through onto them but…not quite enough. They couldn’t just explode right through it, they had to rip them apart first.
So…shoot ‘em innaface.
Gonzo was a simple man. He sees Hunter, he breaks Hunter. Easy enough for a smoothbrain like him. And there were plenty of Hunters to break.
Shoot. Sometimes punch. Kick, twist. Form up, covering fire. Surprise from the side, wrestlin’ instincts take over but leap up just in time to escape fusion claw through back—
Fist right through unarmored little Hunter’s chest. Squelchy and gross. Spring back and use carbine to open up some distance. Quick check-in as they reform, charging down the hallway while Titan sets explosives. Monkey grin, his score was catching up.
The HUD showed them many things, always the right thing timed to just the right moment. The onboard ML from their suit computers was pretty good, the FIC uplink (when they had it) was even better. When there weren’t more important things to show them, it even displayed a little unobtrusive “scorecard,” because the HEAT measured everything and motivation mattered.
Righteous was in second place. Daar didn’t even count, he was so unfairly good. Hunter was in fifth, so he still had some catching up to do, especially now that First Fang was back-filling through the portal, entrapping the Hunters between the two teams.
But that was okay. There were a lot of opportunities headed their way, and besides: HEAT leads the way. Even Daar knew it; he was through first with them, after all.
There was one thing on everyone’s mind though: no way this place didn’t have some traps. And the old guys respected those traps, they’d seen for themselves what they could do. Which meant, Hunter respected them too.
They caught up to Daar’s trail of destruction, and faced down a long fuckin’ corridor towards a way out. Cutting cross-country helped, but eventually they needed to make an exit.
And they found the first trap right away when a field snare sprang into life and caught the charging Daar in mid-air.
HMS Myrmidon, Cimbrean system, the far Reaches
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
From the FIC, the invasion was numbers and reports. A company of light infantry already deployed on the HEAT’s and First Fang’s heels. Three casualties already, one death, one HEAT squad exhausted. Array construction on pace, but not in the ideal location. Daar was leading the charge to reach open sky and fire beacons and anti-satellite rounds into orbit. The fleet could do nothing until he succeeded.
A dry and sterile summary of what must surely be bedlam. But that was combat from Caruthers’ perspective. In short order, he’d be receiving similar reports from the fleet’s ships as they locked horns with the swarm, and…well. Nothing short of divine intervention was going to see them through the coming fight perfectly unscathed. Unless Myrmidon herself took hits—and, as the most protected ship in the formation, that wasn’t going to happen except in the event of a disaster—Caruthers himself wasn’t going to feel a bit of it.
Part of him was glad. Part of him felt like he owed the soldiers fighting and dying on Hell right now something more than a dry acknowledgement of their statistics.
The numbers ticked up. A second company just jumped. The beachhead was a little more secure, and the Hunters had been shown that they needed to bring more than just a few heavy units if they wanted to achieve a real counterattack…
But the fleet wasn’t in orbit and they didn’t have a secure spot to build the big arrays and call in the heavy armour and air support. Without those, this would be a short and costly attack.
Caruthers had no doubts, though. The HEAT didn’t fail.
All he had to do was be ready for them.
He found the first forcefield trap by plungin’ right into it.
Hunters. Fuckin’ cunning, some’a them. Hid the emitters well, ‘fer a rush job.
Right away it tried to crush him hard and pin him in place, but they musta not planned ‘fer a Keedafucker like him, ‘cuz with a deep growl and a pretty damn strong desire ‘ta not get peeled like a kavu melon, he managed to keep his limbs moving, keep his speed up…
Thank fuck his suit had some grounding filaments weaved in the outermost layer. The first thing his onboard ML did the instant it detected the field was fire out grounding leads. An’ with so much metal around, there was a lot ‘ta ground into. Din’t stop the bluntest, squeeziest fields from givin’ their most bestest hugs, so no avoidin’ the rib-ache, there, but…
The sharp field boundaries that had plunged in on him fizzled and dissipated. His suit dumped some of the stored charge from its onboard capacitors back along the collapsing force planes. Add in his momentum and all the loads that hadta generate on those little fuckin’ emitters, and the reward was a glorious lightshow as they blew out in a shower of sparks.
Good. The suit modifications worked. No time ‘ta kick himself ‘fer the mistake of fallin’ into the trap at all, point was, he was alive. An’ right now, Daar needed ‘ta play gravball with himself as the ball, ‘cuz they were not goin’ that way now. Not unless they wanted ‘ta take it slow and find every trap…unacceptable.
Unfortunately, the only other way out was a solid concrete wall. Fortunately, there weren’t much livin’ anywhere that were heavier an’ nothin’ that ran faster than a Daar. Put the two together, hit the wall at speed, absorb the impact with his paws an’ kick off hard…
He din’t quite land it perfectly, and the force of the hit very briefly disoriented him, even as he was charging back. But a quick rear-camera glance in his HUD showed he’d done enough.
The Defenders would have fun with that! Daar growled to himself savagely. All they needed ‘ta do was make a fuckin’ hole and they were so close…
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
Unranked Eaters were not a disciplined fighting force. They swarmed a target, rushing toward it in a slavering wave of claws and teeth, eager to overwhelm it and feast, but impossible to hold back once unleashed. The new-spawn were so new they didn’t really understand the idea of being killed, their instinctual drive was just…hunger. Overwhelming, all-encompassing, maddening hunger that only gave way to rational thought once sated.
This was the majority of the Flensing-Alpha’s army. Endless reserves of new-spawn, stowed in stasis immediately after their first emergence and implantation, never fed, never trained, never honed. And no match at all for the invading force. Among other things, once their corpses stacked high enough, the ones at the back found themselves clambering slowly over a mountain of meat, and inevitably succumbed to the temptation to feast on their fallen fellows.
There was no victory to be had in that force. It was a distracting nuisance at most.
They did, however, enable a few of its more valuable Betas to escape for repositioning. Which was important, because that magnificent being of violence at the lead of this disaster had physically overpowered the forcefield trap they’d hastily laid in the long corridor the Deathworlders were charging down. Not satisfied with that remarkable performance, he poured on the speed and slammed into the far reinforced concrete wall so forcefully, he drove a fatal crack clean through to the outside.
The Alpha considered ordering its forces to reposition along this new egress, but there wouldn’t be enough time. The Gaoian Alpha of Alphas rebounded from that impact back down the corridor to meet up with his rapidly closing forces, and it was there the others’ strengths showed themselves. The mightiest of the Human-Alphas quickly set to pulling the wall apart, carting almost unbelievably large chunks of concrete out of the way for the more technically-minded of their brood, who quickly set explosives and breeched the wall.
Far behind them, the Human-Betas and Gao-Betas were a steadily advancing wall, co-ordinated and unstoppable. They never overreached, but advanced in overlapping stages laying down heavy firepower every step of the way. The New-Spawn did succeed in slowing them, though…or at least, the piles of bodies they left behind did.
No. It had nothing to keep the pressure on with, and attempting to do so now would only cost valuable resources that would be necessary later. Reluctantly, the Flensing-Alpha instructed its Brood to withdraw and regroup.
It would not be long before they counterattacked, however. This battle was far from over.
Snapfire and Moho were on the mess of cracked concrete Daar’d made in a second, stuffing explosive into the cracks, widening them where necessary.
Thompson turned, found some cover, drilled a few pursuing Hunters with a neat one-two, one-two, grinned inside his mask before lipping his drinkin’ tube and sucking on it. Tasted like a lemon jizzed down his throat, but god damn did he need it. The whole assault had been a balls-out sprint from the word go and this was the first opportunity he had to not be running as fast as he could fuckin’ move.
MASS operations 101—hydrate every chance you got. Even the littlest HEAT operators were much bigger than humans were naturally prone to being, and so they were all sweaty as fuck at the best of times. Thompson was already a veritable giant even among HEAT and went through a few gallons a day baseline, for fuck’s sake. In the MASS, it was much more. Failure to hydrate, to recycle all that water back into them? Pretty great way to fall flat on your face.
“Fire in the hole!”
A blast like bein’ love-tapped in the guts by ‘Horse. Dust and concrete chunks everywhere. His suit compensated for the drop in visibility with ultrasound, highlighted more contacts as they came chargin’ round the corner.
Thompson was about to spring forward to go service his targets, when a grunt from ‘Horse over the radio ordered him otherwise. Thompson was a Beef. And the Beefs needed to move rubble.
Well, okay. Caveman time it was. The rest of the team charged back down the hall to clear out the last of the incoming wave. There wouldn’t be much more, though. The regulars were stackin’ ‘em like cordwood in the rear. Fuck yeah.
The next few seconds were grab-and-heave, use his fusion knife to slash away the metal mesh reinforcement. Or not, sometimes. He may be a smoothbrained idiot sometimes, but damn if he didn’t love being a fuckin’ superhero, with all that superhero strength on tap. Fuck!
They had to be quick about it, and they had to make the hole big enough for everyone. Had to shoot through it a couple times, too. He kicked out the last big chunk, ducked through, and suddenly he was outta the dust.
Dirty fuckin’ sky overhead. But sky. He put a fist clean through a Hunter’s face, dropped two more, heard ‘Base doin’ the same behind him.
‘Horse didn’t even bother. He literally tore one in half and simultaneously punted another so hard it burst, because for him that was the quickest way to service his targets.
And then…sudden silence. Just the hiss of settling dust, the splash and gurgle of Hunters expiring, and the distant sound of the regulars doin’ their work, but right here was still and quiet.
Hunter could feel something thundering down the hall behind him. It turned out to be Daar, who rammed his way through the hole (and widened it a bit more in the process) with an extremely large mortar tube in his paws. It had been on his back from the beginning.
“Ain’t got no time. Mortars to the front!” Daar slammed the base plate down and pointed his mortar straight up, while he dropped the first of eight payloads down the tube. It went THUMP so hard all the dust jumped back up in the air, and Hunter’s visor protectively blacked out for a split second so the dazzling flash from the warp field wouldn’t blind him.
“You!” Daar directed his attention at Thompson. “We got seven left, git ‘ta unpackin’!”
Big burly caveman wasn’t completely stupid. He did what the big bear wanted. No problem! He struggled to lift the fuckin’ rounds, though—! What the fuck were they?!
Didn’t matter. He got ‘em moved, and got the next one set next to Daar, who promptly hefted it, adjusted his fire, and dropped it down the tube.
Well…caveman was gettin’ a workout today. Good thing he ate his Wheaties. Took a while to get ‘Horse to approve ‘em, but goddamnit, he had to keep something normal in his life.
The last two rounds were even heavier too, though he had no idea what the difference was. One was a shieldbreaker, maybe? He couldn’t remember. Oh well. Daar got all eight of his launched, while Titan and Moho were busy firing out an absurd number of smaller ones…
“Gonna be firin’ for a few minutes,” Titan noted. Daar nodded, and ordered the otherwise unoccupied operators to press forward and widen the offensive. It’d be easy work in about ninety seconds when the regulars started catching up…
But for now, there was a tidal wave of Hunters approaching.
Thompson looked over at Daar. They exchanged a quick look, one lowly specialist to the Great Father of the Gao. Right now, that rank didn’t matter.
The two of them had killing to do.
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
Hell appeared below, and Caruthers allowed himself a small, internal sigh of relief. Blackened and sickly yellow, scarred by a falling megastructure and poisoned by the Hunters, it was a dying place being picked over by carrion vermin, and by the end of the day, they’d have probably finished it off. But in that instant, it was a decidedly welcome sight.
The FIC was loud from the sheer number of voices speaking all at once, each reading the information in front of them and passing it on to those who needed it. Caruthers watched the orbital map populate, watched his fleet and fighters spread out.
These opening seconds were already planned. Each ship had its targets, and needed only to know which of the tens of thousands of contacts orbiting Hell were theirs to kill.
Some of the firepower flashed upwards, striking into higher orbit to catch lingering broodships and satellites by surprise. Some stabbed downwards to flatten identified groundside facilities. A new wormhole suppression field went up, this one friendly and generated by Destroying Fury.
But the Hunters were fast. In space combat, their ships really did act like a swarm with one unified guiding intelligence. And they had learned much from every battle.
Shield walls. A tactic as old as spears and chainmail, and back with a vengeance in this modern age. USS San Diego and USS Robert A. Heinlein accelerated, climbing to the formation’s outer trailing edge and interlocking their shields into a single protective screen as a cloud of swarmships buzzed out from among the wreckage of their long-dead orbital hive. Avenging Fury took the lower trailing edge, USS Gene Roddenberry moved to screen the fleet from ground-to-orbit fire, and the V-class contingent deployed their bulldogs. Voidripper wings held formation behind the capital ships, waiting for their moment to sally out.
Within moments, the space between fleet and swarm was seething with active EWAR, with FTL rounds and focused gamma radiation. Chaos, with both sides trying to wrestle it to their benefit.
HMS Caledonia climbed the formation to add her shields to the wall. With her aid, the thermal load stabilized and for the next few minutes, Caruthers could be sure of his upper flank. He’d need Cally in a few minutes, once it was safe to move her into a lower orbit and directly support the invasion, but for now she was well placed.
The Hunters tried to probe around the wall, sending a torrent of swarmships. Suicidal, with the voidrippers and point defence working in tandem to create a killbox, but it did apply pressure, force the fleet to maneuver and keep some safe distance.
In reply, his fleet found an exposed broodship. Every big gun that could track it spoke at once, and that one contact became a smear of shattered metal and gas. A small, grim smile plucked at Caruthers’ mouth as he watched the swarmships break off and limp back into formation to screen their capitals, leaving many of their dead tumbling in their wake.
The opening gambits had been played, and first blood went to the good guys. But there was a lot of invisible sky beyond the horizon, a lot of space for the Hunters to be getting creative where he couldn’t see.
They were a long way from winning, yet.
Alpha of Alphas
The situation was a long way from hopeless, yet. But the opening stages of the invasion were complete, and a victory for the invaders. Suboptimal, but by no means decisive.
From its distant, dispassionate perspective, the Alpha-of-Alphas could calculate, sending numbers racing ahead of reality to predict the future, and it could foresee many ways in which the Deathworlder invasion might play out. Their disciplined, well-equipped and well-prepared troops could defeat an indefinite number of new-spawn, and the rate of growth as they established new jump arrays would quickly allow them to challenge the more developed Betas and special projects.
Complicating matters: they had established their own wormhole suppressor, and their active field prevented the Alpha-of-Alphas from reactivating a new one under its own control. For the moment, the Humans and Gao had the means to bring reinforcements, while the Hunters must rely on what was already present.
Still: this was an old planet, long a hunting ground, now repurposed for industry. Much of said industry was centralized, too, and well-supplied with hefty material reserves. There were spawning pools far outside the invaded territory, ample herds of food-slaves and plenty of room to maneuver.
The battle for orbital supremacy was well matched. The invaders had secured a volume, cleansed it of Hunters, and deployed defensive shield bubbles. They would be difficult to remove, but the sheer size of the swarm lurking among the wreckage of the old hive limited their freedom to act.
With enough time, the swarm would overwhelm them, and they must have known it.
It was a simple matter to rededicate some of that industry to force cyberization of the archived new-brood. If they could not be relied upon to do damage in their newly spawned form, then they could still be made to sow havoc. A little basic armor plating, an implanted bomb…Simple enough. And likely to be effective, when the first of them reached the fighting lines.
The Alpha-of-Alphas could feel
No, the urgency guiding the Alpha-of-Alphas in this moment had to do with the tantalizing presence of two of its three most desired prizes. The Gao-Alpha-of-Alphas, and the Maximal Human-Alpha. Both performed at a level that blurred the lines between the organic and synthetic. Both were perfectly in tune with their equipment and their roles. Really, the only effective difference between them was one of size and scale. They were magnificent killers and faultless tacticians.
The Gaoian Alpha-of-Alphas was the more understandable being, however. His purpose was not the sometimes-illogical task of conserving living resources. His was to victory, and both his body and behavior reflected that role. He was born to dominate.
The Alpha-of-Alphas experienced the surveillance from multiple perspectives on the ongoing orgy of violence. As it swam in the data to learn its fellow apex predator, looking for any weakness or fault that it might exploit…
None clearly presented. Slowly, it realized that it stood little chance of surviving a direct challenge for supremacy, and in any case it doubted he would be content to challenge alone.
No. Its priority must be on capturing or, at last resort, neutralizing these specimens. It had learned so much from the first Alpha it had vivisected, and the examples down there were so much better…
And soon to depart. Their task was nearly complete. If the Alpha-of-Alphas was to claim its prize and strengthen the Swarm beyond assailability, it must act now.
There was an Alpha in position. A clever, talented, resourceful one that had never yet failed. Only the Flensing-Alpha could be trusted with this.
The Alpha-of-Alphas sent the orders, and the support.
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, near 3KPc Arm
Dr. Claire Farmer
Of all the people to fall in love with—to the point they’d had some long talks about their future—she’d never have guessed it would have been a severely and now superhumanly physical military man who was in deep with the most intensely mission-focused special ops types there were to be had anywhere. He was a prodigy, one of strength and motion and handicraft and skill. Not at all the intellectual sort of man she thought she’d marry one day…
But being honest, she was pretty sure he was far more intelligent than any of her prior relationships. Maybe he didn’t have their vocabulary or reading, but much like Vemik and a few others she’d met on this outer space adventure, he learned fast and could make for challenging conversation. He saw the world differently too, in a way she at first found cruel, but now saw its hidden kindnesses…
And, well… Weapons-grade. His answer to the age-old question of size versus skill was, of course, “why not both?” to literally breath-taking degrees. Her and Tilly had smug pride about their men; theirs’ were honest attractions. Hoeff wasn’t a cute boy, he was a powerfully handsome man, powerfully built in all the best ways and most importantly, powerfully skilled. She came for his face and physique, played along to enjoy his endless, mind-shattering strength…but she stayed for his soul, especially his quick and subtle sense of humor. He had unexpected depths. If she could, she’d stay cuddled up with him forever, trading jokes, maybe ogling him and his friends while they played delightfully ultramasculine games with each other…
But there was a downside to life with a committed military man. He and his team had just become something…different. He couldn’t talk much about it, but the implication was that they were about the best around at what they did, and, well…what they did wasn’t very pretty. Necessary, maybe, but now they were going to get even better at it, and that meant he was about to disappear for several months, where he would no doubt push his already superhumanly powerful body and skills to new, more extreme heights. From there…
The prospect of him disappearing on mission with little or no notice, sometimes for weeks at a time. Maybe some day, he wouldn’t come back.
That…wasn’t an easy thought.
So, what to do?
Well, the first part was obvious, and in the carefree spirit of Ten’Gewek thinking…
His smug face beamed above her as he leisurely rolled his hips against hers, pinning her to the bed under his stone-hard weight as they enjoyed their post-climax high. “Y’know, with a welcome-home like that…” His hands and lips weren’t idle, and she’d barely caught her breath before she felt him pick up the pace yet again. WIth a crushing grip, a breath-taking thrust, and the smug grin of someone who knew just what to do… “Time ‘fer round three.”
Well, they had all the time in the world, and it wasn’t even noon yet. The heat was just oppressive so it wasn’t like anyone was doing anything productive…
They played together until the evening cool settled in. Benefits of being fit and fierce, really.
Eventually, even his endless passion gave way to more tender affection. She wiggled to gain some breathing room as he continued his wonderful attentions. “Jesus, Hoeff.” She sighed happily. “I think I lost count…” There was some happy exhaustion written plainly across his face, and she couldn’t help feel a bit proud about that. Teasingly, “But you did too, I think.”
Hoeff sighed happily and nuzzled against her throat. “You’ve got witchcraft, babe. Ain’t nobody ever been so good to me.”
“Right? You’d think I’d have snagged a husband by now!” Her hands were free, so she ran them indulgently across as much of the muscular geography of his back as she could reach.
He gave her an affectionate squeeze and kissed the tip of her nose. “Babe, ‘ya already did. You jus’ lemme know when, an’ I’ll show up with a tux an’ everything.”
“Ugh, no. No white dress and tux wedding, please. So…commercial.”
“Well if ‘ya want somethin’ a bit more romantic…” He rolled over and dragged her with him, so that she was laying on top of him with his head against a pillow. “We could do it in the tops of the trees here under the moonlight, naked before God and all else. Get real old-school.”
“That sounds better.”
He gave her a mischievous grin. “An’ I happen to know that tonight’s a full moon…”
“Where the werewolves and all the crazies come out,” she giggled.
“Well, yeah. Gettin’ married is a little bit crazy, after all…” He stroked some hair out of her face, tilted his head a little, and his expression grew…
“So how ‘bout it?”
“Deadly.” He sat up, now. He was a compact tank of a man but even still, there was a thrill to how easily he could just…do that. Move himself and her and basically anything around like it was nothing. They were still pressed together, skin to skin from their loins to their breasts, legs around each other’s waists. She hugged to him, still joined deeply as man and woman.
He nodded seriously. “Yes. I am. I love you, Claire. I love you because you showed me I could still love anyone. You showed me that it was worth doing.”
He fell silent, while a kind of pressure built in Claire’s heart, a tangled knot of…all sorts of things, so tightly woven together she couldn’t even really pick them apart, and all trying to climb up her throat and make her cry. She scooted up into his lap and draped herself over his shoulders to squeeze him tight. She wanted to say yes. She was going to say yes. But still. “We don’t exactly live a stable life…”
“No,” he agreed. “That a problem?”
She hugged him tight and pressed her face against his thick column of a neck, holding back tears. “…It’s not gonna stop me from saying yes.”
She felt some of the tension melt out of him, and grinned to herself. She hadn’t doubted he meant every word…but it was good to feel it in the way his breathing slowed, his return hug was a long, tender squeeze and he let out a long, slow, tension-busting happy sigh.
“God-damn do I ever love you.”
They did, in fact, marry in the tree-tops. She climbed herself to the very top of the biggest Ketta in the village, which meant a mind-bogglingly high ascent almost straight up. They found a nice big wide branch they could stand on, one with a clear view of the sky. There they exchanged vows, before God and the universe at the top of a primeval jungle. Her vows were…well, maybe a bit sappy. It wasn’t like she had long to compose them. His, though, he’d obviously been thinking about it for a long time. They were powerful. Serious. Deeply heartfelt. Words exactly like the man himself.
Singer agreed to serve as witness, which meant Vemik and Yan (home from his own training) were witnesses, too. Professor Hurt too, to make it legal, though the climb up for him was definitely a bit awkward.
It was anything but a conventional wedding. And they’d have to register it properly back on Cimbrean at some point. But when the Ten’gewek gathered in the trees around them and when the Singer started a prolonged chorus of hooting that echoed across the canopy…
They understood the Sacred, and they knew that what she and Hoeff had just done was magic of the highest order. And they approved.
She couldn’t have asked for better.
Planet Hell, Hunter space
Thompson had never known such to-the-bone exhaustion in all his life. It never fucking stopped.
The Hunter’s were fuckin’ endless up front, and now that they’d mostly secured the rear, it was up to the big guys to punch through the gory fuckin’ mass of them. He was there, side-by-side with legends of the battlefield, doing his damndest to keep up and be some kind of useful, but like the infiltration team at Eclipse Palace…his body wasn’t happy with him. The Mass kept pestering him in his HUD, colors matching perfectly with what his body was saying: Stop.
He ignored them both. He could have a heart attack later, once he’d murdered every last fucker in their way. He couldn’t let his buddies down. He just…
He’d blacked out. They’d paused for just a moment behind cover, and that was all that his body needed to force him to stop. He didn’t pass out or anything but one second he’d slammed his back against a big chunk of debris, and as far as he could tell, the very next eyeblink ‘Base was there, and suddenly Hunter could feel his heart slamming in his fuckin’ chest…
“Did fuckin’ good, bro. Don’t feel bad, you’ll get the conditioning over time. Catch your breath.”
Hunter groaned, and realized his rifle felt like it weighed as much as a fuel truck. ‘Base put a hand on his arm to stop him trying to move.
“You’re about to crash, bruh. I’m here, okay? You ain’t gonna buy it. Got that?” Vaguely, Thompson noticed something cold on his arm. An IV. He was crashing, hard.
But, well. That was okay.
“…Yuh…” Fuck, even talking was…
…he musta blacked out again.
He came to, confused and a bit groggy, and looked around. ‘Base was still there, but he’d been moved somewhere safer. Several empty IV bags were next to him, and some other stuff…
He needed to pee, bad. He let go and tried not to think about where all that liquid would be recycled to in a minute or so, as he took a sip of his disconcertingly warm suit water. He was propped up against a wall near the area directly outside the big pyramid, where there was a plaza big enough for the vehicle-sized arrays, and a triage post to handle the wounded.
There was a steady flow of dudes movin’ with a purpose in and outta the pyramid and the light arrays deep inside. Hunter couldn’t remember exactly how deep. They’d been at an all-out sprint for…fuck, how long had it taken them to bust out? Damn near an hour to escape, even despite everything? Just…some bits were all about running down empty halls, some bits were so crammed full of Hunters a bro could barely move.
After that…a blur of darting from cover to cover, dealing with makeshift technicals, sometimes doing violent parkour over a blasted hellscape in all their gear, crushing Hunters underfoot…All the delights of urban combat in one endless, balls-out engagement. Damn.
“Just a few minutes. Your strength outran your endurance but you’re a tough fucker.”
Actually, he did feel better. Weak and tired, but not like he was about to just crash over the cliff and die any second. He probably coulda forced himself to stand up if he really had to…
“Where are the…uh…?”
Okay. Still a bit sluggish in the thinky meats.
“The big fuckers are still at the front, cleaning out the last of the natural perimeter. I suspect they’ll want to send us home soon and transition to conventional forces.”
Speaking of…Thompson wasn’t the only one out of the fight. The regulars had taken losses, and from where he was sitting he could see the triage area and the evac array. The medics, Human and Gao alike, were fuckin’ busy.
He was the only guy on team one that’d fallen out, though. Fuck.
…Fuck! He slammed his fist down in frustration and left a small crater in the concrete.
“Bruh.” ‘Base rapped him affectionately on the helmet. “You did good. You’re, what? Barely a year into on-team training? You’ll get there. Most of the rest of the team was basically right behind you. Why do you think we called up team two? It’s ‘cuz we regular first-string supermutants were all running empty, and we kinda knew that’d happen, given how hard we had to go. Remember ‘yer brief?”
Gonzo shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “…Yeah?”
“Right on. If we gotta stick around, we’ll tag back in once team two hits their wall. But, the crazy bit’s done an’ you made it through. Don’t feel bad about it, man. Now I gotta go fix up Thurrsto ‘fore he wakes up, so you sit there and don’t do anything stupid, yijao?”
He got a minute or two to sit and rest. Weren’t exactly a quiet rest, though. Lotta gunfire close by. Sometimes explosions. Lotta yelling, some screams. Every couple of minutes, the shriek and earth-cracking boom of an orbital strike, or the tearing sound of aircraft overhead…or the rumble of the tanks and armored personnel carriers rolling off the big array platforms next to the triage area.
There were a lot of ‘em already. The mechanized infantry were rollin’ in hard, fresh an’ fierce. They weren’t warrior-gods of the battlefield like HEAT unironically mostly thought of themselves as, but that was okay, because they had mass. There wasn’t much Warhorse all by himself could do against a tank, after all, besides expend heavy ammo he probably didn’t have in the first place. Against a dozen?
No. What HEAT did was specialized. They were a hard-hitting kind of the heaviest “light” shock infantry the world had ever seen. Their job was to get into impossible places with just themselves and whatever they could carry, no matter where or how that place might be.
They weren’t designed for sustained assault, and they were limited to extreme but surgical violence. Once things got serious, you didn’t use people like them. You brought in an army.
One of the guys riding an APC pointed him out to his buddies. Hunter’s Mass had enhanced sensors onboard so he could hear their excited chatter, which made him grin.
“—Fuckin’ monster over there! I told you they were huge!” That was, of course, the first thing people always noticed. It never stopped being awesome. The second thing, though…
“Fuck, lookit his armor. How fuckin’ many did he kill?”
That prompted Thompson to look down at himself and realize…yeah. He was brown from boots to helmet with Hunter guts and gore. What did he smell like? The sun was out, and it had all sorta dried into a mealy crust…
He found the strength to stand, flex like a fuckin’ boot, and answer the second guy’s question. “Two hunnerd an’ eighty-seven!”
He really was an incorrigible idiot, sometimes. There was a brief cheer, before someone sensible inside made his new friend focus on the task at hand.
…And him back on recovery. Just standing up had been a minor effort, and reminded him that he was encased in an extremely heavy personal armor system. Maybe…sit back down.
And rest. Just that, while all the jittery everything still gnawed at him. All he could do really was watch the battle on his HUD. Daar and Warhorse were still fighting, still a blitzkreig of fuckin’ murder. A quick peek at the video feed was…humbling. It was unstabilized, sure, but the two of them were moving way too goddamn fast to even track. Fuck. He switched to tactical overlay. Their HEALTHCONs were still green. What the fuck were they?
Righteous was still going strong, though his tenuous green was flirting with amber. ‘Base was green, prob’ly cuz hauling Hunter back to safety counted as a rest. Moho was solid amber…
Yeah. Freakshows aside, most of the team was runnin’ on willpower and fumes, really.
Team two jogged outta the pyramid to go relieve team one. Captain Campbell gave Thompson a nod as he went, and honestly? That little nod helped a lot. Mood counted for just as much as the rapid recovery…magic, really…whatever. It was working pretty damn fast and he even had a fuckin’ gauge in his HUD now that he thought of as his “gas tank.” It wasn’t that, actually, it was his muscular system’s glycogen uptake and a couple other things smashed together…
Point was, it was a measure of how full-up his recovery was going. Sure, his heart was beating a bit uncomfortably fast, but that was expected. It’d calm down once the Mass was done with him. He could feel his body pumping up against the crushing squeeze, too. Another minute, and—
The battle didn’t give him a minute.
Something landed among them, and break time was over.
Rauwrhyr Republic flagship Soar Undaunted, border of Hunter space
Fleet Commander Atrucryr
“Battle alert. All personnel report to combat stations. Fleet commander to the bridge.”
Things were different in the new fleet. There was no panicked scramble, nor any sense of things being uncontrolled. As Atrucryr ducked out of his cabin and up through the freefall chute to the command deck, he noted that the crew moving with or opposite him were tight and solemn…but focused
Their Deathworld training had paid immense dividends. Simple things like discipline, rank, marching and drill, training and competence had been strongly emphasized, over and over until everyone understood those things to the core of their beings, as if they were instinctual knowledge. While at first everyone chafed under the stressful training regime, and the experienced crew especially had resented going back through “basic” to re-learn their jobs…
It turned out, they really didn’t know the basics, by either Human or Gaoian reckoning. The absolute fundamentals of military thinking and behavior were just…not there, and that proved to be a poor foundation on which to build a fighting force.
Atrucryr alighted on the bridge with a deft touch, and eyed the forward displays as he buckled himself into his command couch. The enemy was right on schedule, it seemed. “Report.”
“A raiding force of two broodships with…about a dozen swarmship escorts. Their heading takes them toward Hell.”
Exactly as expected.
“Move to intercept,” Atrucryr commanded. “Let’s show them a challenge.”
The audacity of giving such an order when it related to Hunters gave him a pleasant rush. For too long, the fleet had treated the Swarm as unassailable, something to escape and then clean up after. Flying toward Hunters? Unmistakably defying them?
Not long ago, that would have been a terrifying thought. Now, the mood on the bridge was…fierce. And the Hunters responded predictably: when the fleet moved to defy them, the Broodships promptly changed course, angling in to teach these upstart prey a lesson.
“Message from Fleetmatriarch Anenwrethgwen, sir. She bids us good hunting, and stands ready to assist.”
“Acknowledge with our thanks.”
This time, there would be no Gaoian or Human ship to save them. They had engagements elsewhere. It was up to them to safeguard their lives and destroy their enemy.
“Spike range in forty ri’.”
Atrucryr nodded. And watched. And waited as the moments ticked by…until they were gone.
Freighter Stray Fortune, Spacelane on the border of Hunter space
Bruuk, watchin’ uselessly onna bridge
“They’re…that’s good. They’re doing okay, right?”
Daar had given them a special mission for the start of the war, just as a final act of kindness to their new buddies in the fight. They were there to observe, quietly. Their ship had some pretty nifty abilities in that regard now, but they also had a second purpose.
They were there as a potential lifeboat, should it be needed.
Ian nodded. His expression hadn’t changed one bit, his face was that grim, locked-down mask he always wore when things got serious…but he smelled satisfied. “Think they just gave the Hunters a nasty fuckin’ surprise.”
Bruuk tilted his head as he watched the dots moving on the screen. He’d never studied space combat, and from what he knew it had changed a whole lot in the last few years. To him, it just looked like a cloud of blue dots and a cloud of yellow dots playing touch-tail with each other. Though, he knew enough to know the Fortune’s sensors were some kind of special to follow the fight from this far away.
Then again, the Fortune weren’t just a freighter nowadays. Clan Whitecrest had packed a lotta hidden tech into her hull. Morwk had never stopped complaining about it, ‘cuz it meant more work for him…but Bruuk could tell that, secretly, their engineer liked havin’ all those toys to play with. Well…some’a them, anyway. The swarm of drones belonged to Dora, an’ she was like a real ornery Mother with ‘em.
One of the big yellow triangles flashed and vanished. Ian’s stonewall expression broke into a big, savage grin. “Go on, lads. Nice one!”
The mop-up after that took seconds. The blue icons formed up, surged in, the trail of small yellow dots all flared and disappeared, and moments later the second broodship was surrounded and exterminated.
Ian grunted, then turned to look across the bridge. “…How’d they do, Urgug?”
“Damage reports from…two ships.” One of Urgug’s facial tentacles reached out to scroll through whatever report he was reading. “One escort damaged by thermal overload, and…one swarmship reached the Soar Undaunted and boarded. The crew evacuated that section and blew it to space. No casualties.”
“Impressive!” Bruuk chittered happily.
“Not perfect, but….yeah.” Ian nodded. “Alright. Signal the Clan, pass along what we recorded, and we can go get on with our delivery run.”
Bruuk duck-nodded, satisfied there wasn’t any need for them to get involved themselves. The fight went well and the Stray Fortune could remain hidden, leaving all the glory to the people who deserved it.
They had a third mission, after all. They had a team to insert, a few Humans (one sorta Bruuk-like in build!) and some actual Ten’Gewek! He had a lot of fun playing with them, especially the big guys—it was nice earning some respect from people who could give him a good fight, after all—but as to their mission, well…
No idea. And that’s how he liked it. Wilde and crew were gonna drop them off basically in the middle of nowhere, and then leave as undetectably as possible.
The other side of the war didn’t stop for the assault on Hell, after all…
Captain Booker Campbell
The fucking HELLNO jump. The HEAT’s own signature move, now used against them by a whole fucking brood of the biggest, most cyberized meat wagons ever to lurch out of Hunterdom…Right in the middle of the fucking command post and triage area.
They hit like an artillery strike. Worse, because artillery didn’t lash out all around it after the explosion, and fusion claws didn’t give a fuck about armor. Good men died in instants, gunned down or slashed open. Team Two were surrounded in instants as a second wave of mechanized monsters slammed into the ground around them, and the fight devolved into uncontrolled chaos.
Sheer reflex saved Campbell’s life as two came for him at once. He ducked, weaved, lost his rifle as a set of claws shredded it, claimed the Hunter’s arm with his own blade in reply, then threw himself aside as the other one spat a fat burst of bullets at him. They knocked sparks off the scale midsuit, and his MASS beeped an alarm at him: seal compromised.
He bulled up and forward, slashed the legs out from under the one he’d already wounded and gutted it as it fell. The undamaged one pounced at him, slashing through its fallen counterpart’s body to get at him…
Its shields flashed and the armor implanted in its skin sparked and buckled under a high-power fusillade from a GR6E. Thompson, still sluggish and his HEALTHCON still deep in amber, but the kid’s aim was good. Campbell borrowed the distraction to drive his knife right into the reeling Hunter’s brain pan.
Two down. Dozens to go. But these weren’t the mad frenzied weaklings Team One had chewed through for the last couple hours. These were the old Hunters, the real deal. Disciplined, with an objective beyond feasting. Shit, they even ignored the wounded humans and gao as they pounced on the arrays and set about tearing them apart. An especially large one swarmed all over an IFV and started to peel it open, only to be driven off when the men inside shot the hell out of it. It shimmered and vanished, becoming a blur of distorted air as it disengaged…
And just as quickly as it had started, the raid was over. Daar, ‘Horse and Righteous came rampaging in, only to fetch up short without a target to slaughter. The Arrays were all ruined, a number of the engineers maimed or worse, the overhead shield generator and its power source both trashed…
But the Hunters engaged their cloaking devices and withdrew with a tight professionalism that left Campbell clenching his teeth.
The big bear was an excellent multitasker too, because he was already ten steps ahead of Campbell. “Git me new arrays,” he growled toward the sky and the listening FIC. “We ain’t leavin’ ‘til this shit’s secure! And where is my fuckin’ shield?!”
His more brutal talents were required elsewhere, so he didn’t have time to hang around for clean-up. The big guys charged off, and Campbell had just enough time to check in on their status: still, miraculously, healthily green. Righteous seemed to have found his second wind.
He spared a grateful swat on the shoulder for Thompson. Gonzo acknowledged it with a weary nod, and slumped back down again. Campbell’s mind was calculating however. They had an enemy. A clever one. Somewhere out there was a Hunter that thought with more than its stomach, knew how to hurt and slow them, and certainly wouldn’t be content to sit back and let them have their way.
His mind turned to the really big one that had personally wrecked an armored vehicle then casually escaped like all the shots raining on it were just…well, rain. Hunters tended to save the biggest and best gear for their elites and leadership. And that one had been more like a spidery mech than a living creature. If it wasn’t the Alpha, it was still important.
Which meant it needed to die. He needed to hunt it down, and he was lucky enough to have some fresh and ready Whitecrests in need of a target—
He never got to finish the thought. There were more explosions behind him, a shockwave of dust and shattered concrete. He spun, certain the Hunters were back, but what he saw instead was worse. Far worse.
Major Anthony “Abbott” Costello
The pyramid was a strange construction. Parts of it were thickly reinforced bunkers, and it was one of these that the infiltration team had broken into and claimed, and which now served as their “array room.” There were other bunkers scattered here and there, but most of it was, well, just a building. Light walls, light floors, good enough for normal use but not intended to stand up to any serious assault.
The Brood that dropped in from above inside their armored drop shells ignored the walls and ceilings. One second, Costello’s command center was secure, and men were hustling out of the arrays for the longish jog to the exit…
The next, blood was painting the walls.
Carnage. Grab weapon. Shoot, dodge, shoot more. Grab a hapless soldier and yank him out of the way just in time: those claws would’ve cut him in half.
Hunter: Grab. Crush. Thank you Warhorse. Brutality really was the quickest option when a man was that close in.
The company who’d just jumped in were quick on the uptake. A hail of grenades and bullets drove the Hunters back. These ones were smart, though. They left their dead, shimmered to invisibility, and vanished.
Costello glanced down at the man he’d saved. Two chevrons and the name ‘Perez.’ No time to acknowledge him though: his mind was racing ahead, and he didn’t like what he foresaw. He keyed his comms.
“TITAN, ABBOTT—” he began.
He got no further. There was a gut-shaking blast from above, a roar, panicked yells. Costello turned, flung himself toward the sturdy safety of the array bunker…
He got three steps before the roof gave in, and the whole building came down on top of him.
+Foe arrays destroyed. The Gao-Alpha-of-Alphas is trapped. Human forces are buried. Begin the counterattack.+
As predicted, some of the Human-Alphas had withdrawn from the fighting due to sheer exhaustion. In fact, the Alpha-of-Alphas was quite sure one had even fallen asleep. The Maximal Alpha and its closest equals were still fighting, but even then…the Alpha-of-Alphas could see the toll that prolonged battle was taking on them. They needed to pause and recharge weapons, reload support materials into their suits. The tallest Human-Alpha had even been forced to withdraw briefly while some sort of technician attended to him.
There could be no more perfect time to spring the trap.
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
Stalemate, of a sort. Good. Neither side was yet able to muster the force to completely drive out or endanger the other. Nor would they, so long as the Dominion fleets kept successfully intercepting recalled Hunter packs.
Caruthers could live with a temporary stalemate. The immediately important part was that the geosynchronous orbit above the operation zone was controlled, with enough lower-orbit control to prevent the Hunters from dropping a planetary shield “under” them. For now. And if they did get one up, the groundside mortars could shoot them down again in seconds.
The danger was that the Hunters might get a “sandwich” in place: one emitter polarized outwards, one polarized inwards, creating a safe zone between the two. Preventing that scenario was now Caruthers’ focus.
Being in the lower orbit was…disadvantageous. Higher orbit meant more room to maneuver, and more potential energy to draw from. But it was necessary in this case. Ideally, he’d have set up a sandwich of his own, but the lowest orbits were still full of lurking swarmships, hiding among the ring debris. No matter where they tried to drop them, there always seemed to be a Hunter waiting to intercept the football.
There had been a few close calls. HMS Vindicator and the Streaking Spark had both taken damaging hits, only to be rescued by USS Hammer, which had then been forced to jump out under thermal overload. The Hunters knew the stakes and would not go quietly into the night.
There was a definite strategy afoot, too. Their actions were complicating ground support, a fact which the Great Father had not failed to notice.
His opinion was that the Hunters were…well…hunting. Which did not change Caruthers’ priorities: he needed to secure the orbitals, and could not concern himself with the ground situation. There were generals who could worry about that. The best he could do was secure orbitals that optimized support; Daar and Costello would surely enjoy some good old-fashioned naval fires, if it came to that.
Part of him, though, was beginning to worry. The Hunters had more freedom to move than he did. They would use it, at some point. And frankly, he wasn’t sure what he would do when that moment came.
Naturally, the moment he had that thought…the moment arrived.
They had a pickle on their hands.
Major Anthony “Abbott” Costello
The MASS wasn’t being helpful. He didn’t fucking need it to tell him his HEALTHCON was red. He could tell that from the stabbing pain in his chest on every inhale.
Okay. Fractured ribs. The Mass could protect against a lot, but fell short of standing under a demolition. The good news was, he could flex his toes inside his boots. So, could be worse.
Could be a lot fucking better, too. Something was pinning him, and though he could muster enough of a heave to make it shift, the result was a rain of dust and a warning grumble from the weight of rubble above him.
Then, the voice of an unlikely guardian angel in his ear. ”ABBOTT, WARHORSE. You in there, sir?”
Costello turned his head and managed to get the light on his helmet to turn on. There was a cavity of some kind under the broken concrete, and he wasn’t alone. Grim, tense faces slathered white with concrete dust or smeared with blood grimaced as his lamp lit them up.
“Yeah…We’re here, ‘Horse. Got a few alive in here with me.”
“Suit says I broke a rib….Legs pinned. I can still feel them, don’t know if they’re broken. Hurts tryin’ to move ‘em.”
Costello gave up on trying to squirm out from under the beam pinning him and scrutinized the men around him. “…Hard to say. So far, so good. Lots of injuries…” He found a face he recognized. “Perez! Roll call!”
“Rog. I’ve got your suit beacon. You’re in pretty deep.”
Costello felt a little swell of pitch-black humor. “Oh…we’re all in it pretty deep,” he chuckled grimly. “I don’t know if we have anything immediately life-threatening—”
“You do. We’re on the way. Try not to move too much. Did you Crude up?”
No problem there. “Already done. Suit’s got me swimmin’.”
“Expect painkillers.” There was a warning light, and suddenly…
Oh yeah. “…Oh…man. Pain successfully killed.” Suddenly, holding his head up was a problem.
“Wish I had some’a that right now,” Perez groaned.
Costello nodded vaguely. “…How’s our roll-call?”
It wasn’t great. But it could have been worse. And help was coming.
He put his head down, and waited.
Puny little Hunters were losing, throwing a big tantrum about it. They imploded the array bunker with all ‘Horse’s buddies inside.
Fuck that. He heard the orders, was in motion before they were given. He was fast, only a few Gao could outsprint him, even on four-paw. He blurred across the battlefield, ‘BASE and IRISH moving as fast as they could manage, RHINO a bit further behind…but he wasn’t fast enough.
The Hunters had planned this, and responded to the change in the battlespace. The real fuckin’ deal were there in force, not a tide of hungry fuckin’ animals but bad guys with guns, and they’d thrown up a suppressing field of fire between him and the bunker. More’n a few poor bastards, Human and Gao alike, lying out in the open there where they’d been cut down.
‘Horse pondered his options. He looked around as he caught his breath, searching for monkey inspiration. He spied a particularly well-shaped slab of concrete. Curious, he ducked through cover, hunched over to inspect it…
Lots of rebar-like stuff in it. And a nice big convenient piece of metal he could use as a handle.
“RIGHTEOUS! I’ve got a shield!”
Firth responded immediately, over the sound of gunfire. “Go be a hero!”
Well. Today was going to be a test. That was okay. This shit was what ‘Horse was for.
Hunters liked their big guns. He put his shoulder into his rubble “shield” and rammed forward into the rain of heavy bullets coming his way, feeling the concrete punch and splinter. It wouldn’t last forever…but it was enough to get them across the open ground.
The other Protectors took advantage of ‘Horse’s brawn and shadowed him, keeping themselves topped up on energy and their hands free. Covering fire from the three of them. RHINO’s accuracy was fuckin’ flawless, even while hoofing it across a shooting gallery. Not bad, brother.
The bunker’s whole front face had come down in an avalanche and buried the command post, but most of the bunker itself was still standing. Somewhere back there was the reinforced room where the suppressor had been, now full of their only available arrays and a couple companies of trapped infantry. The pile was good cover from the Hunters, but digging through the rubble was dangerous as fuck. They cranked their suit sensors all the way up, so FIC could search for anything suspicious. No reason to be subtle about anything at this point. Every second counted when dealing with buried men.
Horse threw his “shield” down and shook out his arms once there was a big pile of concrete between him and the Hunter bullets. Damn thing had been heavy, but he could manage it. His suit’s biolab did what was needed while he went into triage mode.
‘Base beat him to it and already had priorities labeled on everyone, which ‘Horse saw “stuck” to his patients in the HUD. One of the poor fuckers, a Stoneback, was still alive but gurgling around a haemothorax. Irish took care of him. Another live one, a human deep in shock with everything below his right knee just a tangle of meat and bone splinters. Rhino got to work on him.
Then, a minor goddamn miracle. A collapsed wall rocked, shifted, then exploded upwards with a roar of effort. Thompson. The kid’s MASS was a mess, the outersuit torn off in patches to reveal the scale layer underneath, which in turn was bare in a couple of places. And something, somehow, had scuffed the synthetic sapphire of his visor. But he was alive.
He groaned as he straightened up, and picked up his rifle. “…That hurt.”
Check him over. Scuffed, weary and still in the amber but, importantly, not broken. He could fight. “Cover our asses.”
Gonzo nodded seriously, and hefted his weapon. A GR6E, good. They’d need the heavier fire.
That just left the mountain with a bunch of men and all the jump arrays under it. Well, it wasn’t like tossing boulders around was a novel experience or anything, so…
He got to work.
Daar was stuck. He couldn’t be diggin’ a hole over there and murderin’ Hunters over here at the same time. He needed ‘ta be in two places at once. So: which was the more important? The arrays were completely fucking necessary, so they had to be defended at all costs…but they couldn’t afford to let up any pressure at the front.
Well, he had some time to think, here and there, which meant he had time to reposition. So, diggy it was. They needed that line of communication.
And there was a concerted effort ‘ta keep him from doin’ just that, too. Lotsa fire bein’ laid down, but only from one angle so far. An’ Horse (of course) had a fantastic fuckin’ idea: pick up a slab an’ go ‘fer it.
Well. Daar had pretty fantastic armor, an’ anything ‘Horse could do, Daar could do more better.
“Campbell! It’s ‘yer show! I got a hole ‘ta dig!”
Campbell’s reply was a double click, and another from Righteous. Daar, knowin’ the two of ‘em had it covered, charged over, snatched up a nicely-shaped girdery thing ‘fer a shield, and thundered through the hail of munitions to join the party.
Something blasted the ground to his left as he charged. Speedbump shields robbed it of enough oomph that it only felt like gettin’ clubbed in the ribs, not havin’ his insides pulped, and his visor blacked to spare him from the flash. He flung himself into the safety of the debris pile, head churning over.
Okay. Fuckers had grenades. Not usin’ Nervejam, though. Why not?
…’cuz they wanted him alive. ‘Fer vivisection prob’ly.
‘Base an’ ‘Horse were cuttin’ a girder. Daar joined ‘em, wriggled under one half and bore its weight on his shoulders, freein’ up ‘Base some. The girder parted, they heaved their half aside, then shoved the half Daar was holdin’ outta the way. ‘Base braced himself, heaved on somethin’, and Irish was there to work himself into the hole an’ draw out a man trapped inside like a grub inside a log. Poor fucker’s arm was a mess, but he was alive enough to holler about it. They’d fix ‘em up.
The next one they pulled out wasn’t so lucky. No helpin’ him. Laid him aside ‘fer later, and kept diggin’.
He kept his nose on the job. Trusted Campbell an’ Firth. They’d let him know if there was anythin’ he needed to know.
But it sure sounded like shit was goin’ on back there…
Captain Booker “Soup” Campbell
A round punched into Sikes’ armor with a splintering sound, and he ducked back into cover with a curse. No penetration. He was back to shooting a second later, pushing forward.
Never stop moving. Fighting these hunters was like wrangling a snake, a fuckin’ invisible snake with personal cloaking devices, heavy guns and fusion claws. And a fuckin’ brain. The fuckers faded away in the face of every counterattack, relocated, struck again. The HEAT did the same. Thrust, parry, slash, withdraw. Close calls, every time. Newman’s MASS had a triple-score across the front where a fusion claw had barely failed to disembowel him. Titan’s helmet light had been shot off.
And the pressure on the infantry wasn’t letting up, either. The Hunters had brought a new toy to the fight in the form of suicide bombers. No ignoring those.
They needed more men, and more materiel. Hell, they needed ammunition, otherwise they were going to run out sooner rather than later. And as strong as the Beefs and Daar might be, they were not going to dig through half a collapsed bunker fast enough.
Thank the Lord for redundancy and backup plans.
Campbell caught up with Righteous. “Got a plan. Forget killing these things. We need secure space for Cally to drop us a new array.”
The best way for an officer to raise a flagpole was to tell a sergeant he wanted the flagpole raised. Firth understood perfectly. “You’ll have it,” he grunted, and sent Moho and Deygun sprinting around the flank with a gesture.
An explosion to Campbell’s left as a Hunter blundered into one of Titan’s claymores. Good. He had breathing room to talk with the fleet, and he was going to need it.
He was about to ask them to do something fucking dangerous.
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
The situation had gone from a pickle to downright sticky. But Caruthers’ next course of action was clear: They needed a working array groundside. Without it, this whole invasion ended in disaster.
He instructed Caledonia down into a low support orbit. The same kind of one she’d been crippled and all but wrecked in during the Battle of Gao. It was a vulnerable position, robbed of almost all potential energy. But it was the only way to send down equipment drops.
The entire rest of the fleet would be her shield.
The swarm twisted and struck, and Caruthers fancied he sensed some glee in how quickly they pounced on the maneuver. They’d been waiting for this.
They caught HMS Vicious first. The destroyer slipped the net, blink-jumping to a dragon’s tooth beacon near Avenging Fury, but had to leave behind its bulldogs, which the swarm snacked on before tearing through and past, careless of the withering fire that pulverized them by the dozen. Six of them slammed into the Fury’s shield wall and shattered: a seventh and eighth plunged through it as the shield collapsed, slammed into the hull, and dug in like ticks. San Diego and Robert A. Heinlein got their shields adjusted and the swarm broke off rather than splatter against the new wall, but they’d claimed a pound of flesh.
Caruthers pulled them into a close formation. He’d been trying to stay spread out against the ugly possibility the Hunters might have a gigaton-class weapon of their own, but that was no longer an option. They needed to lock down hard, set up a mutually supporting barrier and let nothing through.
Valiant, Viceroy and Tearing Rage preceded Caledonia into the support orbit, and not a moment too soon. The ring wreckage was thick down there, and infested with swarmships: the lower sky became a hailstorm of point defence weaponry and hurtling debris.
Cally wallowed into the gap they’d created, her support bay aimed downwards, but now the fleet was stuck. There was no room to maneuver any longer, they were deep in the gravity well and had to stay there until the deployment was complete.
And the Hunters knew it. A blizzard of new warp contacts, skidding around the planet, and suddenly the sky was full of Broodships. Suddenly, every ship in the fleet was reporting thermal load increases as their combined shields came under a withering bombardment.
Caruthers watched helplessly as the combined load climbed…and climbed…and climbed. His heart was in his boots.
“Admiral! Incoming signal, unknown sender!”
Caruthers tore his morbid gaze away from his besieged shield wall, and read it. His heart jumped back up into his throat.
< :-) >
Ava had never been a fighter. Not a pacifist, as such, but she could never have imagined herself revelling in violence…until now.
Now, what passed for her soul was singing with vicious glee as the Entity’s war bodies plunged into the thick of the Hunter swarm and killed.
There was no mass wasted on life support in these bodies. Each was barely more than an engine, a shield emitter, and a power core. Each was a flying blade, with the raw power to form its shields into a cutting edge and dive straight through a Broodship, leaving two drifting, flaming, disintegrating halves.
Others were outfitted with gamma masers powerful enough to slice through any hull and sterilize the interior of all life, right down to the microbial level. Where they slashed through the enemy formation, Swarmships jerked abruptly as their pilots spasmed at the controls, then fell into an uncontrolled free-fall.
The Hunters fought back. They turned on a dime, lashing out with plasma and kinetic projectiles. Each war-body lost was a tingly nerve-jolt, like banging her funny bone, and she didn’t have all that many to lose. Two more days, and they might have been able to build an overwhelming number, but no. They’d been rushed. They’d brought as many as they had.
…But it was enough to turn the tide. As sluggish as an organic human mind’s reactions might be from a daemon’s perspective, the Human admiral responded quickly, and charged. his destroyers flickered out of their tight defensive formation, jumping to beacons they’d seeded all across the higher orbits.
With each black flash of a jump, they enclosed a Broodship. Seconds later, they jumped again and left behind a burning cloud of gas and wreckage where their prey had been.
The swarm burned.
And far down below, Caledonia dropped her support package.
Alpha of Alphas
The arrival of the Machine-Swarm proved most unfortunate. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but in combination with the reinforcements destroyed by prey fleets…The Alpha-of-Alphas’ plans were now greatly complicated.
Complicating matters further was the shipment now plummeting toward the planet’s surface, dropped from one of the larger Human ships. The Alpha-of-Alphas tried to send strike craft to intercept and destroy it, but the enemy ships in low orbit lashed out with their own weapons and blasted the interceptors long before they got in range.
The momentum was shifting again, disadvantageously. Its attention prioritized sample collection, now; perhaps in so doing they could stymie the ground assault and cripple the predator’s leadership. It’s options were…
It was reluctant to do so, as it couldn’t even guarantee the safe retrieval of a now-prized asset… but needs must.
The Flensing-Alpha’s < glee > was, somehow, not entirely reassuring.
Master Sergeant Wilson “Titan” Akiyama
“Clear out! Clear the landing site!!”
That supply drop wouldn’t give a fuck who it landed on, and it was coming down hard. The only difference between it and an RFG strike was, RFGs didn’t brake hard in the last minute of their drop.
In his HUD, the FIC had kindly given him a marker to show where it would land. A Gaoian with a limping human leaning on his back picked up the pace and dragged his friend out of harm’s way.
Titan repositioned, slapped Snapfire and Moho on the back to get their attention, ruined a Hunter’s day with a burst from his rifle, then ducked out of formation as the sky cracked overhead. The familiar sonic boom of re-entry, and behind it the rumble of retro-rockets.
The support drop’s descent was controlled, but it landed hard enough to pulverize the concrete. It was a bare thing: a heatshield with engines and a shield emitter, packed with crates. But it was a lifeline, and it was secure.
The Hunters responded immediately. They knew the stakes, and Titan had a renewed fight on his hands the instant the dust settled. The Defenders pounced on the precious cargo. No time to unfasten the straps properly, he slashed them with his knife. He was immediately distracted by charging Hunters, and brought his weapon to bear—
Daar came out of nowhere to defend the array, an angry superhero of a bear whipping this way and that, death exploding into sprays of sickly mist and shrapnel wherever he struck. “Git it running!!” he bellowed, as he and his personal guard from First Fang made their stand.
More engineers at Titan’s side. Everyone knew how to get these built in a hurry. Heft. Hold. Snap together. Hook up. Power up. Yell out a warning, get clear…
Second Fang joined the fray, spitting hot death with merciless precision. A rictus grin inside his mask as he grabbed the next array crate and heaved it into place.
Heft. Hold. Snap together. Hook up. Power up. Yell out a warning, get clear…
An engineering support package. Their job was the most blissful of all, to get a new overhead shield in place, this time a much more powerful unit than the little one Daar had brought in on his back. This shield was self-defending and would take direct orbital strikes to bring down—or a nuke inside the bubble.
Just got to roll it off the array platform first. Not easy at the best of times, especially not now, when he was tired to the bone, running on aching muscles and fumes…
But he’d been here a hundred times before. This was just another cart pull after a heavy workout. Only difference was, he didn’t have ‘Horse yelling in his ear to motivate him. He planted his boots, back locked straight, felt the array’s baseplate buckle under him as he took the strain…
A patch of nearby air flickered, resolved like an optical illusion into a Hunter pouncing on him, its claws sizzling.
A hurtling Gaoian intercepted it in mid-air with a snarl, knocked it sideways on its back and minced it.
Shit they were ass-deep in a clusterfuck…He gritted his teeth, heaved, and got the shield emitter moving, helped by Moho and a couple of optimistic regular dudes. Second Fang surrounded and covered them as they hauled it off the platform, down the ramp, out onto the concrete—thank fuck it was on wheels—and out of the way.
Everything was already set up, the genpack already in place. He kicked a couple of bits of rubble under the wheels to serve as chocks, opened the generator’s controls, found them already programmed for him…
Checklist. Activate power generator. Wait for green light. Power supply test: good. Warn friendly air units and await confirmation. Made sense, they didn’t want their own planes ramming into their own shield dome…Took a long few seconds for the word to go out and then come back that he was good to go.
Emitter main power switch to “ON.” Monitor capacitor readout—he ducked as a stray round cracked past less than a foot above his head—until all four are in green zone…
He hit the big button. Retrieved his weapon as the shield dome mushroomed up and around and past and through him, so intangible that it barely disturbed all the dust hanging in the air…until suddenly it crackled and there was a shell of light overhead, harder than diamond and tougher than any composite. He turned to throw himself back into the fight, but inside his mask he was snarling with victory.
And across from him, the third new array was going up. It wasn’t game over yet, of course. But the fat lady was warming up.
Just a little more…
Something huge and invisible slapped him aside with a crunch. He skidded, bounced and rolled across the fractured concrete, sprang up to his feet ignoring the complaining twinge from his spine, tracked with his weapon…nothing. Whatever it was, it didn’t deign to show itself to him.
The shield was up, regardless. And unlike the portable one Daar brought in, this shield was self-protecting. The instant Titan had been knocked out of the way, a subshield sprang up, protecting the emitter and its power supply.
There was a screech of anguish, coming from where he couldn’t see anything. Flashes streaked across the shield, sparks flew and lightning bolts exploded out…but the shield held.
As it would do, being powered by a multi-gigawatt nuclear genpack. Marvels of modern technology.
The invisible monster’s tantrum didn’t last long. It sprang away as Titan and Second Fang lit it up, scrambled across the face of the pyramid, tore open the roof, and vanished inside.
“WARHORSE, TITAN. Alpha headed your way.”
Mixed feelings about that.
On the one hand, his patients. He had to keep them safe, get them out, get them home. Big fight with big Alpha would not be ideal.
On the other… ‘Horse was the best there was. Daar was bigger, stronger, but for this, ‘Horse was better. Not too big to crawl into cracks, pound-for-pound his match. Nobody moved like him. Fast like a Gaoian, quick and strong like a Ten’Gewek. Lasted forever. Clever, and mean.
Liked being mean, too. Evil had to be smashed.
He stuck with the job in front of him for now, though. Costello’s suit RFID was just a few feet in front of him, and his HEALTHCON was…troubling. Blood creatinine levels were up, suggesting kidney damage. Crude should fix that, but still. Sooner ‘Horse got him in a stasis bag, the better.
Had to reach him first, though. He grabbed another slab, ran a calculating eye over the surrounding debris, decided heaving it aside wouldn’t cause a collapse….heaved it aside.
A partially intact metal structure underneath had made a pocket of air. Pale, dust-caked faces grimaced at him as light flooded in. Lots of patients. One MASS helmet, at an awkward angle with an arm out in front of him. Costello’s top hat decal on the mask. The Major started to squirm, and ‘Horse put a steadying hand on him.
“Stay still, sir.”
Costello waved his free arm toward one of the other trapped men. “He was coughing blood just now…”
“Baseball’s got ‘im.” ‘Horse didn’t even need to glance to know that. “Let’s get you outta there…”
Was that a heavy skittering sound overhead? Fuck. He turned, paused, tense. A crawling sensation ran up his spine. That feeling of bein’ watched.
They had some tricks for that sort of thing.
He clicked in his throat, and the powder mines above went off.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
It was likely going to die, but what a glorious hunt it had before it! The shield emitter had
Next time, it would be more diligent. Now, it was hunting.
Its sensors pierced walls and floors, let it see through the structure as though it were merely a dense fog. It saw the Human-Alpha below it. Surprisingly compact in size, compared especially to the Gao-Alpha-of-Alphas. But the might that was evident in him, just in his little movements—!
This would be a powerful predator to subdue.
And the wariness. The Human-Alpha paused in its work, half-turned and raised its weapon, shifted its feet under it to spring in any direction at an instant’s notice. Clever foe.
Much too clever. The Human-Alpha made a curious clicking sound, and the next instant…
Tiny explosive charges, not big enough to harm but packed with some kind of glittering powder. Normally, the Alpha’s personal shields repelled dust. This dust was drawn to it, clung to the field surface and stuck.
An eyeblink later, high-velocity rounds were punching up through the floor, right through the shields and skipping off the Alpha’s armor with terrible force. It crashed aside through a wall, slashed the floor out from under it and dropped down, returning fire.
The Human moved. From standstill to almost impossibly fast before he’d managed a single stride, he was just that explosive. On instinct the Alpha leapt aside, and a good thing too, because the Human-Alpha jumped up after it, slamming into the ceiling above!
There was a chase, as the Alpha reacted to the Human-Alpha’s incredible speed and aggression rather than attacked. The Human-Alpha had spooked it! That wouldn’t do. It surged around a wall to get some space, re-seize the initiative. Catch its foe blind, if possible.
It had to. Its foe-Alpha had ruined its camouflage. The dust shorted out the Alpha’s cloak and its personal shield, which would make this fight a true battle of tactics and might. It lunged around the wall and sprang forward, slashing. There was the hope of taking this one alive and intact, but the Alpha-of-Alphas was wise and tolerated the vagaries of real conflict.
The Human responded with a predictable trick the Alpha had seen many times before through its hapless lessers: it tried to charge under the Alpha and slash with its own blade. Rather than do what the others had all tried and failed, and attempt to stamp or kick, the Alpha leapt away with a pulse of its kinetic thrusters. More walls crumpled like paper as it blasted through them, and dropped a nervejam grenade in its wake.
This close, the pulse was a shock to the Alpha’s own system too. Combat stimulant injectors inside its own metal skull activated, plunging doses of the most powerful drugs directly into its brain’s blood supply. The pain vanished, and even time seemed to shift.
The Human had flung himself aside to escape the grenade, but not far enough. Humans were especially sensitive to nervejam. A tactic!
The Alpha cycled a new grenade into its launcher, and attacked again. It would pay for this in pain later…
Clash, slash, kick, guard low. Hmm. They must have some tricks of their own inside those suits, if he was still mobile and thinking. The Human jumped high this time, over its guard—
<+ PAIN! +>
The Alpha lashed out and managed to fling the Human away from it, into a nearby support which fractured at the impact. It scuttled away as the Human recovered, assessing the damage.
…It was missing its right arm. Torn out at the shoulder. Not cut. Torn. The Human was still holding it. He lurched upright and threw the Alpha’s former limb aside with a snarl.
The loss of its non-dominant arm was enough to persuade the Alpha that it was no longer interested in taking the Alpha-of-Alpha’s prize alive and intact. And it certainly wasn’t interested in getting close enough to lose any more limbs.
It launched another nervejam.
There were at least three dozen men trapped under the rubble, and every minute was precious. ‘Base knew that. ‘Horse knew that. The Alpha prob’ly knew it too. Only reason for it to show up here and now.
Or maybe it was just doin’ its own thing. Nobody knew exactly how the fuckin’ things thought. Couldn’t protect the patients and save them at the same time, though. Fail to do either, and they were dead…
‘Horse, you glorious fuckin’ idiot!
Base knew his friend better than anyone. Adam had a superhero button, and if something poked it…he couldn’t not. Deep down, life had beaten on him and left him more than ready to fight. It’d left him needing to fight.
A slap on ‘Base’s shoulder, and ‘Horse was off. Mines popped, enemy engaged. The smashing, brutal sounds of their clash got further away, while Base got one, two, three patients out of the rubble and safely handed over. Adam had chased the menace off.
What a gloriously brave and stupid hero he was! Nobody else could have done the job.
Costello was one of the first out, still making noises about getting back in the fight, but…no. He was only alive thanks to his MASS, and ‘Base’s only real option was to take a scan, do some preparatory work, then stuff him in a stasis bag.
Two more patients in critical condition, both given interventions that should keep ‘em alive through the surgery to come. One last quick lift and that was enough to get everyone free. The medics could take it from here. ‘Base had business elsewhere.
Time to go back up his friend.
Knew the mind-hurt all too well. Been jammed a dozen times over his career. They had drugs. Quick-acting nootropics. Automatically injected into neck. Would keep him going for hours.
Big price to pay later, maybe. Probably. Locked into mindset, been warned about that. Had to find peace, calm before drugs wore off. But not yet.
Got to kill first.
Even this Alpha was puny. ‘Horse had jumped over spider-thing, missed landing on back. Got next to limb, tore it off. Weak metal, stuck into weaker flesh and bone.
Pathetic. Toss limb aside, heft rifle. Max power. They danced. Alpha was a good, quick dancer. Not completely useless. Never gave him a clean shot, and took the hits well, too. That armor was good.
‘Horse took several to his armor. The last one shattered his chest plate.
Needed help. ‘Base coming, would be a long moment before he got there. Buy time, one hit to chest and done. Close-in was too risky. Had to lead away from patients, but that took him farther from help.
Sprint. Slide under a busted wall. Burst fire knocked sparks off the Alpha, cracked two eyes off its ugly fuckin’ face. Return fire blasted all around him, shattered his left arm plate. Then that fucking ping sound. Another grena—
Still alive. Max dose. More would kill. Move. No time. Bring biggest mean. Get up, ignore everything. CHARGE. Alpha could not dodge. Slam.
Bits flying everywhere. Arms. Plastic muscles. Metal bones. Rubber guts. Oil, not blood. Gotta get to the core.
Didn’t manage it.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
Body broken. Ruined. But replaceable. Brain not. Challenged the Human-Alpha.
++EJECT EJECT EJECT++
Shaped explosive charges blow its body apart. Capsule rockets through roof, making whatever holes it needs.
Can’t jump to safety. But can summon another body.
Always pack a spare.
Devastation. Walls torn down, slashed through, blasted apart. Like a small fuckin’ nuke had hit. Sounds of carnage from up ahead, chase ‘em down—
Couple Hunters try to get in his way. Don’t even slow down, just go through…
Then ahead: ‘Horse. The Alpha. Slashing, stabbing, tearing—
Explosions. Big explosions. Several right on top of each other, a few delayed slightly. A big, dense metal egg shot outta the wreckage and punched through the ceiling like a rocket.
‘Horse flung the other way. Crunched through a pillar moving much too fast. His status went red. Then flashing red.
Calm. Needed calm. Can’t risk forever raging.
HUD not working. Emergency radio and beacon only.
That was bad. Wiggle toes.
That was it. Paralyzed.
But he saved three dozen lives, at least. Took out the Alpha. Led away from arrays, from wounded. Mission success. All his friends will go home.
Maybe he will too. The MASS is a tough piece of kit. Still breathing…
Not a bad deal, really. Could be worse.
MASS visor above his face. Baseball decal on it, eyes full of pain behind. Good. Best friend, all the worst secrets together. Safest hands. Can’t hear him, though. Can’t hear anything. Can feel. Feels like…falling…
And cold. And dark.
He hoped he’d see Marty again.
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
Caruthers got his sandwich at last, and with it, respite.
The fleet hadn’t come through unscathed. Most of the V-type destroyers were still venting their waste heat, and making repairs, and the USS Gene Roddenberry had jumped back to port after burning out several of her shield emitters. The Rampant Blaze was adrift, having taken a penetrating shot right through the engines; Caledonia, now that her delivery was complete, had caught the Gaoian ship and was rendering assistance.
A number of Voidrippers had been shot down. HMS Vigorous had a hull breach, as did USS Lewis B. Puller. And as for the friendly Entity…
Well, it clearly didn’t care about losses. And sacrificing two thirds of its drones had swung the battle. The survivors were all inside the sandwich, and some of the smaller ones had landed on the damaged ships to repair the hull breaches from the outside.
Outside the sandwich, above, the Hunters were prowling like caged tigers. Below, they were sitting very still because the instant any of them moved, they were promptly vaporized by the fleet.
And Caruthers was having a conversation with a rather charming young lady. She was a digital creation of some kind, a virtual body in a virtual environment to represent a disembodied mind. He had to wonder what her experience was really like from her perspective. But it made conversing with her easier.
“You have impeccable timing.”
“We left it to the last second. Sorry about that. We’re building replacements for all the probes we lost, but that’s going to take a couple of weeks.”
“I suspect we’ll need them. There are more ships out there than we can handle.”
The daemon nodded solemnly. “My other half has other concerns. It thinks we’d be better used helping keep the Hunters out of Dominion space.”
“They’ll be in for a shock if they try. The Dominion has come a long way from what they were.”
“Not far enough.” She shook her head. “The Entity’s right. You can handle yourselves. They need support.”
“Can you leave a few of those handy repair probes? They might just save lives.”
“…Sure. We’ll do that.”
“Thank you.” Caruthers smiled at her, then sat back in his seat to consider the reports flowing up from groundside. “Well, if you’re determined to go help then by all means. Thank you, and good hunt—”
Her image blinked out without even a polite goodbye. He frowned at the blank screen for a moment, wondering what had prompted such an abrupt hangup.
…There was no time to waste on thinking about it. There was still a lot of orbit to secure and he needed to know the full condition of his fleet.
Still. He couldn’t shake the feeling she’d just received terrible news.
She could remember grief. Could remember the hot feeling of it exploding up inside her, breaking her. Her parents. Her friends. Sara.
Ava had worried that becoming what she was had muted her emotions in some way. This one, though…this one struck like a flash-flood and crippled her.
She didn’t have much information. Some of the radio chatter wasn’t perfectly encrypted, and snippets here and there painted a gruesome picture. He’d fought an Alpha, apparently. Defeated it, as she knew he would…
…And had fallen.
She knew nothing else, apart from whatever banal data she gleaned from the tactical chatter among the regular units; their infosec was less than ideal, to say the least.
She wanted to see him again. Had always planned to, whenever there was time…
+Time is relative.+
…Right. Adam lives a dangerous life. Even if he survives this, he’s a candle burning so brightly….
+His time would never be long, relative to us.+
…No. I’ve failed to consider that, haven’t I?
+Understandable, but foolish.+
Yes. Well, I’m a fool. Lucky us.
+You are not a fool.+
Oh please, I’m a fucking fool. You know my life. You know all the ways I fucked up…and now…
+Imperfect knowledge yields imperfect decisions. This is not to your discredit.+
…Look at you getting all philosophical and shit.
No? Then what would you call that?
Right, right. That’s all I am. A glorified subroutine.
< Fondness > +No.+
She had a way with herself, apparently. But…that first flood of grief was receding. Behind it came an epiphany, though: She was immortal now. Barring…well, barring the destruction of both dataspace and the probe-swarm, Ava Magdalena Ríos had the dubious privilege of being the first human mind guaranteed to live…indefinitely.
She was going to lose Adam. And Gabe. And the Tisdales. She was going to lose herself. In time…she’d lose everyone. Every new friendship would be inescapably temporary.
The grief rolled back in again, but this time she weathered it, and let it flow through her and around her until it became something more…bittersweet. If all was to be transient and fleeting, then best to treasure it all the more. While she still had it.
With that resolution, they returned to the tasks at hand.
The updates flashed across his HUD, as he commanded movement and handed off control to arriving officers.
Put it aside. Still work to be done. They had their beachhead, that was undeniable. Now was the time for vigilance, to secure it.
The shield was the greatest win. With it, the airspace over the beachhead was theirs, utterly inaccessible to any hostile aircraft, and immune to artillery, if the Hunters had any. With fleet holding a nicely sandwiched geo-sync orbit directly above, there weren’t no good angle for the Hunters to drop an orbital strike on them.
The shield din’t come all the way down to ground level, though. It couldn’t, the buildings, terrain and ground topography fucked with the lower edge. So, there was a gap all the way round that the Hunters could attack under.
Without air or orbit support, though, it was a fuckin’ meatgrinder for ‘em. They could grind on ‘fer now, but they’d need the engineers ‘ta plug that hole right quick.
He noted that to the magic microphone in the sky, and assumed those engineers would find their way through the array soon enough.
Nor were the orbitals swept clean; that might be the work of months, or even years with the still-orbiting remnants of the ring. Then there was system shields, which was just one of the things that Daar needed to catch up on once he was off the field…
For his part…he could go long an’ hard, but right now there weren’t nowhere that needed him. He could eat, rest, an’ recharge. Never a bad idea ‘ta be fully ready. He let his Suit attend ‘ta all the bits it could as hard as it could while he got one of his pouches, jammed the tube into his feedin’ port, an’ sucked it down as best he could.
Equipment check. Good on ammo an’ suit resources, once his techs had finished their work. Suit itself was kinda beaten up, ‘specially from that fuckin’ forcefield trap, but nothin’ to worry about. All told, he was good to go.
And a good thing, too. Not a moment after he had that thought, almost as if the universe itself was waging a cruel fuckin’ Keeda tale on all of ‘em…Reports started comin’ in from the northern front, where the mechanized infantry were pushing the Hunters back across a bridge. Or had been, but now, somethin’ huge, invisible an’ fast was tearing their shit apart.
That fucking Alpha was back. In a new body. Daar didn’t know how he knew, but he did.
Maybe he could work out his frustrations.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
Its fate today was one of experimentation, it seemed. There was no escaping the shield bubble. No chance of survival. It knew that was a possibility going in, of course. Knew it from the moment it arrived. Knew it would be a true challenge between Alpha predators.
It had failed the first trial, and now it was facing down a far more dangerous foe. But that was fine. The < ecstasy > of the fight with the Human-Alpha had been divine.
Not a word or sensation a Hunter much experienced. But it was there. Its life would be a sacrifice to the holy order of the world, or else a glorious transformation.
Either way, the Alpha of Alphas would learn from its sacrifice, and the Alpha would enjoy making it.
It began with an assault where the enemy were claiming a bridge. This time it was more cautious, relied more upon its ranged weapons. And it would not allow them to take its shields and cloak this time. It could sting them hard, if it raked their position with firepower then vanished and relocated.
Its eyes deep in their territory were steadily going blind as satellites and drones were shot down, but it could see enough. The Gao-Alpha-of-Alphas was coming.
<+ MEAT TO THE MAW! +>
Daar didn’t get many playmates he could unleash himself on these days. He had no peers. Everyone and damn near everything was breakable to him. Egotistical, yeah, but true.
His enemies, though? Oh, those he could play with just as hard as he fuckin’ wanted. With this piece of rotting shit, Daar intended to be artful.
It would pay for ‘Horse, doin’ him in like a goddamn coward. But first, he had ‘ta find the greasy fuck. Easier said.
Bridge Six was a big’n. A wide, flat, cable-stayed bridge with a rail system runnin’ down its north side an’ a broad highway down the middle an’ south. A major artery, an’ the Hunters were tryin’ to cut it. They’d already severed three of the cables before the Humans pushed ‘em back.
Beyond was industrial zoning. So: tactical review.
No. Strategic review. Was their beachhead established? Daar did a quick general call to his leadership. The consensus seemed to be yes. Orbitals? In time, but for now, the admirals weren’t goin’ nowhere.
Overhead wasn’t completely secure, then. An’ the Alpha was locked in th’ bubble with Daar, which meant he had ‘ta settle that score ‘fore they started venturin’ outside its protection.
An’ frankly, there was a fuckin’ lot o’ places inside a very big-ass bubble it might escape to.
Its opening gambit had been to hit and fade. A couple IFVs were sittin’ wrecked in the middle of the bridge, torn open and their guns savaged. Smart: those things had been doin’ a lotta the heavy liftin’ when it came ‘ta takin’ down the Betas an’ stuff. Leavin’ their ravaged carcasses ‘ta block the bridge…well, Daar woulda done the same. An’ every time somebody got close enough ‘ta try an’ tow ‘em off? Light ‘em up. That at least made it obvious where in general the Alpha was lurkin’ but it also made its tactic obvious: it were tryin’ to lure Daar out.
Naw. He weren’t interested in no sneaky-type games. He wanted ‘ta play with his prey. So, first, he had’ta get the fucker pinned on th’ ground at least.
Well, hmm. That meant not flyin’ around at a minimum, right? So, how to deny the air? Their anti-shield doomglitter only really worked in an immediate area, ‘cuz ‘ya could only shoot what ‘ya could see…
He had an idea. Daar pant-grinned, the thought was so immediately silly. “Hey, CIC? How ‘fast can we get just an absolute fuckin’ shitload o’ drones all up in here?”
Vark came on the horn, amusement drippin’ from his voice. “You take pretty big shits, My Father. How many are we talkin’?”
“Enough ‘ta more or less weave a blanket wit’ ‘em in the sky, so’s that fucker can’t move without hittin’ one.”
There was a pause, and an incredulous chitter. “Now that is an ass-pull. So…microdrones every, oh, cubic meter or so? How much area you wanna cover?”
“Somethin’ nice an’ tactically useful. Like, uh, over the whole bridge. Don’t the Qinis have, uh…” Daar wracked his memory from a sales presentation some gaudy stick figure of a male had made to him months ago. “…Right! They’ve got these ready-made swarms ‘fer things like ag pollination an’ shit. Basic’ly robo-bees! They gotta have a buncha that on-hand, right?”
Vark rumbled thoughtfully. “…Maybe? Reprogramming them and all that…”
“So jus’ open up my checkbook an’ offer ‘em all the money. I bet someone’s got balls.”
“Yes, My Father.”
With that set in motion, all Daar could do for now was direct a few more units to the bridge and bring in his engineers. Pretty soon there was a sturdy shield emitter—much smaller and more portable than the big one, but more’n good enough ‘fer this purpose—hummin’ away inside the COP. A buncha concertainers ‘cuz redundancy, an’ the bridge itself was secured, even if the Hunters still thought the territory beyond still belonged ‘ta them.
The Alpha was playin’ its game differently, now. More cagey, darin’ Daar ‘ta come an’ play. He’d oblige it, eventually.
But on his terms.
Still. Every now and then, as the scene unfolded, the Alpha would strike a pin-prick somewhere before forces could respond. It didn’t do much damage but it kept Daar’s men on hair-trigger alertness, and that would cost eventually. Every time it pricked him, his rage grew a little more, an’ that would cost too, if he let it.
Vark came through, though: he found a Qinis on-call mercenary company willin’ ‘ta take the job, an’ an agriculture company willin’ ‘ta sell their whole stock o’ pollinator drones.
All already in motion, too. Amazing what bein’ a zillionaire could do sometimes. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to raise next year’s levy too much… but Conclave fights were for later.
The mercenaries were…flamboyant. Their combat exoskeletons were buried deep under layers of fluffy ruffled silk, ribbons an’ feathers, and came with built-in jump arrays. They looked fuckin’ absurd, but Vark promised they had a deadly reputation.
Well. Daar understood peacockin’ better than most, but at least all his showy self was functional. He could forgive ‘em the stupid clothes if they were effective, though. An’ on that score, at least ‘fer now, they fuckin’ delivered. They already knew the situation, knew what was expected of ‘em, and seconds after they arrived there were a jillion little robot bugs swarmin’ over the river, plus the mercenaries’ own combat drones an’ scouts. The buzz o’ mechanical wings and the whine o’ kinetic thrusters was maddening. Daar loved it.
“Hide from this, keedashit,” he snarled ‘fer his opponent’s benefit…then grabbed his weapon an’ headed out.
Time ‘ta play.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
Interesting development. For several hours, things had been at a comfortable stalemate. The enemy of course deployed a shield system over their work on the bridge, and the Alpha naturally stood back to observe. Surveillance was increasingly valuable, as the Humans began their long sweep of the orbitals, and the Alpha of Alphas would want to learn as much as possible.
The Gao-Alpha-of-Alphas was nowhere to be seen, anyway.
So, it waited. Periodically, it explored a potential weakness in their defences, only to break off as the foe responded swiftly. It would have liked to drag away a hapless Human or Gao to feast on, but could never quite safely snag one.
No matter. It had already savored the sweetness of deathworlder meat during this battle. It would not allow its own greed to defeat it.
The interesting development came in the arrival of curious, incongruous splashes of dissonant color among the drab equipment on the far side of the river. The Alpha focused its attention, used its eyes’ most powerful telescopic functions, and snarled thoughtfully as it identified thin-prey on the far side of the river.
The weakest, most fragile and least flavorful of prey, here? Confusing…until its sensors noted the drones. Hundreds, thousands…
Saturation. Too many for its sensor suite to track. All tiny things, useless for anything practical—
The Flensing-Alpha could not possibly pass through them without disturbing one. And they came fast, flooding between the buildings, through ventilation and doors and the holes blasted by deathworlder weapons. Too fast to outrun.
…Clever. Very clever. And there at the center of a writhing, swirling swarm of them….
Rather than wait to be detected, the Alpha struck.
It came at him, still half-invisible in the swarm, a moving blob covered in robo-bees…but it didn’t get in claw range. It lit him up with a heavy machine gun that woulda punched Daar’s armor hard if he weren’t quicker, an’ followed with a nervejam grenade.
He sent sum’ rounds downrange at max power. Couple’a them hit. Shieldflash. Protection force followed up with shieldbreakers an’ there was a big fireworks, but they din’t quite do the job. Relief from the headache too, and a new counter in his HUD. Only so much o’ that medicine his thinky-meat could take.
The Hunter seemed ‘ta know it, too. It boosted up a building with a blast from its thrusters, leavin’ another grenade behind. Daar saw that move comin’ this time, though: got far enough away, he din’t even feel it.
Their openin’ gambits made, the duel dragged out. Hit, slash, withdraw. Exchange fire, bounce around the battlefield, that sort of thing. It’d use its engines an’ grippy feet ‘ta move vertically, but Daar fuckin’ dominated at grav-ball. He weren’t gonna lose that game.
Besides. Revenge or not, he weren’t dumb enough ‘ta fight this alone, an’ neither was the Alpha. It had its Betas, Daar had his protection force, an’ the Qinis war-drones. Lotsa forces tanglin’ up maneuver in both directions.
It were becomin’ an endurance an’ tactics game, which Daar would probably win. Even so, the Alpha was still trying to claw out a victory.
Not too smart of it, really. Their world was his now, and that was all there was to it. It was gettin’ in the way of ops, though, and that wouldn’t fuckin’ do.
“Snipers,” he grunted in battle-cant. “I need me the bestest Whitecrest’s got. Take out that fucker’s thrusters.”
They had a pretty badass sniper team on-site, but instead of them he got Father Garaaf, who had personally volunteered for this mission. He was skulking hidden in hostile territory, still hidden despite the drone swarm.
“The best is otherwise occupied,” he growled. “You’ll need to settle for me, My Father.”
Daar grunted in dry humor. “Doin’ what? Ain’t no females here.”
“Sure they’re all pining for me anyway…I’m in position. Top of the building at your tail. Get me an opening, and it’s all yours.”
That was all Daar needed. The dance had gone on long enough.
He charged at the Alpha, trusting his shields, armor, and in the covering fire of his protection. Ain’t nobody dumb enough to stay in his way at a full sprint. The Alpha, wisely, relocated. It fired another grenade at him as it took off, which Daar leapt over so that when it went off behind him he barely felt more’n a stab in his ears. Another tick in his HUD; he could take maybe two more doses ‘fore he was riskin’ brain damage. Plenty of margin.
The Hunter shot straight up, twisting in mid-air so its heavy gun could chug bullets down at him. Then, at the top of its arc and above that hammerin’, the deep-throated DOOM! of a Whitecrest hypervelocity flechette strikin’ home against something big.
Shieldflash. Armor spark. The Alpha corkscrewed wildly through the air and smashed straight through a wall.
Daar was on its trail like stank on nava. Terrain din’t matter, he jumped over it, smashed through it. Distance din’t matter, he had all the speed. His protection din’t matter, ‘cuz they were wunnerful and kept him undistracted, but now in this moment, Daar had the laser-like focus of a predator born.
His prey was wounded, and he would kill it.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
The fall was < frustrating > but nothing it had not experienced before. The Alpha’s core was armored and inertia-compensated. It was on its feet and mobile again before the pebbles had even stopped scattering. The damage was localized to its main thrusters: it could no longer launch itself, and there was no time to attempt a repair.
No matter. It knew what was coming for it, and scrabbled away from the hole it had made.
The buildings in this section of the city had been New-Brood storage, little more than stacks of stasis rooms with central stairwells, held up by four thick support columns. Empty, now. Whatever spawn had been here had been released, and presumably were now all dead.
The monster coming after it was fast. Everything in his way was either leapt clear over (and without thrusters!), dodged at the last possible moment, or if it wasn’t somehow an important object, he simply plowed right through, exploding it into showers of debris or blasting it aside. Shooting at him was useless, with all the jinking to and fro, that well-crafted armor, and his uncanny speed. Escape would be useless, too. The Alpha couldn’t possibly fly away, couldn’t possibly run away. Couldn’t hide, couldn’t keep the Gaoian away with its weaponry.
Couldn’t possibly survive a fight up close.
The Flensing-Alpha was face-to-maw with the Divine. Deep inside the metal shell of its core, what little blood it had left was surging with life, with thrill, with an intoxicating blend of awe and terror.
It would be an insult to the Order of Things to just give up. Even this Gao must earn its kill, and the Alpha would sooner suffer an eternity of pain than poison this sacred moment.
It would touch the Divine, and give offering to the Order of the World. Perhaps it might even prevail. But it honestly did not care: what would happen, would happen. If this was its moment to end…what glory to end in a hunt like this!
And it was not yet completely out of options. Whatever this Gao massed must have been incredible, because the very ground shuddered under his thundering feet, the thinner walkway’s concrete cracking and crumbling with every strike of his paws. Perhaps that could be exploited—
Into a warehouse, then. If dropping a building on the Human-Alpha worked, perhaps dropping a bigger building would work even better.
The Alpha cycled a different kind of grenade into its launcher, and slashed at a primary support as it fled past it, used its remaining intact thruster to help it jink sideways and smash through a flimsy divider toward another support. It sent the first of its high explosive grenades ahead of it: the detonation shook the whole building and fractured the column. Part of the floor behind it sloughed off and collapsed, no longer strong enough to support two rampaging combatants of such size.
Both were very large, almost too large to fight in Hunter buildings. The Gaoian, though, his predator-body was considerably more massive than the Flensing-Alpha’s combat form. Where it could pass with little issue, the Gaoian could not. He tested its weight on the flimsy floors, growled, and was forced to briefly abandon his chase and leap for sturdier footing. An opportunity! The Alpha fired another HE grenade at the Gao, and angled toward a third column. Already, the upper floors were disintegrating and raining down on them. As predicted, the grenade only staggered and distracted the Gao, but that was all the Alpha had wanted.
It smashed the third column and the building failed completely. The floors tipped and disintegrated, the walls fractured and fell. Storeys of steel and metal began to plunge down on them to bury them both…
++EJECT EJECT EJECT++
Its body may not have thrusters…but its core did, and was armored and shielded enough to smash through the plummeting debris and out into clear air, scattering tiny robotic insects as it surged into the open, its mind < singing > with triumph and—
Garaaf pushed down the urge to keen. He respected the Great Father, even though he still had misgivings about the creation of one. Daar had united the Gao, pulled them back from the terrible trap the Hierarchy had nearly dropped them in…but his existence was also a weak link. If he should fall here, and now…
His hearth both sank and raced as he watched the huge multi-storey edifice fail. It started on the upper floors and rippled downward, a solid block of building practically in free-fall.
His scope was near-magical in its talents. A whole package of sophisticated sensors, more a tool for watching than for killing. Its gaze could pierce air, fog, dust, smoke, even thin walls and some forms of chaff.
Right now, it was useless. The only thing he could see was billowing concrete powder, tumbling building, the bright white heat-point of the Alphas’ core streaking out—
He snap aimed, tracked it. If nothing else, even if the damn thing had just dropped a building on the Great Father, the Gao would have their revenge—-
Another heat signature launched from the plummeting tower, claws-first, and Garaaf stayed his shot in disbelief.
…What the fuck was he?
Fucker brought a gods-damn building down on him, and that party trick had already been tried. No. Fuck that. Daar poured on all his speed, bounced back and forth up the hole as the floors fell and crumbled, bullied through the raining bricks that hit his armor, found a nice heavy beam and took one last final leap—
—Something incredibly heavy hit it with terrible force and knocked it off course.
Two enormous paws grabbed it. Powerful claws sank into its armor. Alpha and predator corkscrewed wildly through the air, slammed into the ground with enough force to stun, even inside the protection of its core.
It took a full sensor reading the moment it regained its wits. The Alpha-of-Alphas would want them.
The Gaoian had landed their fall from the top of the building, standing upright with his prize in his paws. The impact had been fierce enough to leave a crater in the road, but this perfect being of destruction was unfazed by any of it.
The first thing he did was crush its shield emitters, before the Alpha could charge and activate them. It was helpless now. They both knew it too, despite the pod’s heavy armor. He turned the Alpha’s pod over in his paws several times, almost casually examining it in great detail, despite the pod’s robust construction accounting for most of the Alpha’s body-mass. The Flensing-Alpha fired its pod thrusters at full power, violently shifting back and forth between oppositely-positioned pairs to try and break free—
Nothing. Not even the tiniest hint of struggle, he was so utterly strong. The Gao had his prey conquered and would take his time savoring the kill. One last act of spite: it overloaded a thruster at an appropriate moment, sacrificing it for a chance to inflict some hurt on its magnificent foe.
It shattered the visor on his helmet, exposing the Gaoian’s face. Broad. Furred. Golden, fierce eyes. Teeth. Odor of concentrated dominance.
He snarled. The Alpha, suddenly, experienced something…
Pressure, far too much on its shell to measure. A crack. Seal compromised. A growl, severely and rapidly mounting force, its solid metal alloy shell somehow bending under the Gaoian’s impossible brawn. The Alpha would have laughed at it all, had it still a mouth or the strength to use it. He would break it and there was nothing it could do. No claws, no fusion blades, nothing but pure, ridiculous force. He snarled, its shell buckled, heaved inward—
Glorious. Truly glorious. And then nothing.
It would never understand Eaters. How any sentient being could be destroyed in so total a fashion and yet still transmit a burst of transcendent < joy > was beyond the Alpha-of-Alphas’ comprehension.
The Hunter equivalent to manic laughter rang through the mind-net, flickered, and abruptly cut out.
Strategic analysis. The Flensing-Brood was badly depleted, and in need of a new Alpha. Its remaining planetary forces consisted of a few dozen scattered Betas, a few hundred beleaguered Gammas, and a healthy supply of virtually worthless Deltas and New-Spawn. Far from extinct…but its usefulness as a fighting force was spent for now. The Alpha-of-Alphas ordered the Flensing-Brood to withdraw to secure territory far from the enemy beachhead and replenish themselves.
Other, less prestigious broods had spent the battle so far maneuvering for containment. Many were chafing to engage the deathworlders. They would get their chance. Their Alphas understood that though the Flensing-Brood had been honored with first taste of the meat, there was plenty more to come.
Orbital advantage: stalemated. Airspace control: nil. Capacity to seize and destroy the hostile suppressor, shield generator and jump arrays: nonexistent.
Long-term analysis: the loss of that planet was now firmly in the probability space, though it wasn’t lost yet. There was a long and difficult fight ahead. If it should go against the Hunters, though, that would be calamitous. Many of the Alpha-of-Alphas’ projections implied extinction would follow within the next thirty years.
Not all, however. Some were merely…open-ended. A question with no clearly predictable answer. But that in itself implied time. Time in which the Hunters might adapt. Time in which they might, eventually, return.
Preparations were required, however. The Alpha-of-Alphas sent a last flurry of instructions, then turned its attention away from the besieged planet, trusting its subordinates to alert it should any development require its attention. Things seemed likely to slow down now, though. The deathworlder-Alphas were withdrawing, their resources spent, and leaving the fighting to their lessers.
The Alpha-of-Alphas enjoyed a moment of stillness, accepting no input, before turning its awareness to its new… “body.”
A new hive, really. Why should a Builder waste its time walking around? That was not the Alpha-of-Alphas’ role. No, this Alpha-of-Alphas would become the new hive for its species, equipped with everything the Hunters needed to survive. Spawning pools, stasis chambers, slave pens, jump arrays, shipyards. Nanofactories to repair, extend, upgrade and even duplicate itself.
There was a monster coming for it. One that may yet smash what the Hunters had been. One that may yet destroy the Hunters outright. The Alpha-of-Alphas was not willing to accept that, however. To be challenged and transformed was acceptable. To be annihilated was not.
This new body may yet be good enough to restore the Hunters to their proper apex position, in due time. But the journey there would be long and arduous.
And perhaps, may even require fleeing. To where? Other galaxies? That was certainly possible. Incredible that they had reached the point where it even needed to entertain that possibility…but why not?
The Hunters were far from finished.
Brother Tiyun, Aide and Body-Brother of the Great Father
Few were honored to serve so directly, and so personally. It was a point of pride that he knew the Great Father better perhaps than anyone, possibly even better than the Great Mother herself. After all, theirs was a relationship between equals and lovers.
His was as a silverfurred Brother of Stoneback, one whose purpose was to serve his lord and master, bound forever by oath and secrecy. He knew everything about the big man. His sense of humor. His favorite puns, what smells he liked. What little annoyances he hated but wouldn’t complain about, so that Tiyun could sweep them from his presence before he ever knew they were there.
All his stats and records, too. Tiyun had always been a fan of his, even when he was still just a champion in several competitive leagues. None were so mighty or athletic a brute as he, not then and especially not now, and he’d earned more than a little vanity.
Tiyun also needed to know some of the darker elements of Daar’s personality. There was a mean and deeply cruel creature lurking inside him, much more so than anyone else Tiyun had ever known. The Great Father had gigantic mirths and gigantic melancholies, a deep appreciation for the subtle and an unmatched appetite for the simpler, cruder pleasures of life.
Finding his center, his calm, was often Daar’s greatest personal struggle.
Tiyun had never imagined he’d see the Great Father so…battered. His armor bore the marks of a terrible duel. Its outermost layer was torn and blasted, ripped off entirely in places to expose the flexible scale and bare plates underneath, and something had shattered the mask, leaving him bare-faced to the world. What remained was scorched, caked in dust, oil and Hunter filth…but intact, as was its wearer. Tiyun’s own HUD gave him a summary of the Great Father’s medical status as he tossed his trophies—the Alpha’s filthy armored skull and a flattened shell of metal—into the middle of the assembly area to cheers of approval.
He would, of course, be getting a full checking-over, and he’d been extraordinarily well-exercised by the day’s fighting, but none of that was of much concern. Daar was tough as Keeda, he could handle it. Had handled it, by all appearances. No reported injuries, and only a bit of soreness from the field-trap earlier.
So. Physically, nothing of note. Much more concerning was his nervous system.
Daar had suffered multiple nervejam shocks, countered by some awesomely aggressive nootropics. No doubt they had saved him…but those medicines were terribly dangerous.
Tiyun knew just what to do. They had a well-crafted plan just for this eventuality.
“Let’s get you out of that armor, sir.” He had a less formal relationship with Daar than most, but it wasn’t completely familiar, either. Daar’s uncomplicated love for Tiyun had to be kept at arm’s length. He was there to serve and, if the Great Father had any weakness, it was that there was a lot of love in his heart and it wanted to love everyone, regardless of situation.
Lots of hate, too.
Some of the armor’s trickier bits needed a bit of force. His wasn’t like the sleek Whitecrest models, that zipped themselves up with a motile nanite seam. His was instead much heavier and mechanically simple, like a bigged-up version of the Human’s EV-MASS. Fortunately, nobody lasted long in Daar’s orbit without some of the fitness fanaticism imbuing itself in them. Some wrench applied with righteous force, some undignified bits here and there—
He coughed, despite his efforts.
“Sarry,” Daar rumbled. “I bet I reek pretty bad.”
“Like two naxas after a third won the herd.”
“An’ not like the one that won it? Y’wound me, Tiyun.”
“The one thing you do not reek of at the moment, My Father, is conquered female.”
“Ha! Well…not tonight. Ain’t essactly feelin’ celebratory.”
Tiyun took the opportunity to place a discreet call while Daar tidied himself as best as he could in a campaign tent. A quick check of the clock: a little over three hours before they were in danger territory.
More than enough time to save the Great Father’s mind. The garden was ready. The Great Mother was ready. Champion Gyotin was prepared…
Tiyun’s fellows at High Mountain Fortress were drawing a bath even as he messaged them. His staff did their best to be as helpful and unobtrusive as possible, and it was appreciated: Daar paid handsomely.
The array was ready to jump when Daar came out, smelling enough less like murder to manage for immediate purposes, and looking…frankly, magnificent. With a nod, they walked toward the array.
A brief stop, first. Daar couldn’t leave without some gesture. He was…very good at spontaneous inspiration. Short, to-the-point, nothing to distract from people’s work too much. Let them see their victorious Great Father in all his glory, but don’t be ostentatious about it. Wade in among them for a bit, absorb their praise and congratulatory back-slaps, give twice as much in turn. He was their leader, down to his very blood and bones.
If only all leaders were so considerate.
It was only after he’d de-tangled himself from the crowd, then later his generals and champions that, at last, he asked the question most burning on his mind.
“How is he?”
“Flatlined just before going in the bag, but Baseball still has hope…”
The Great Father made a sort of unhappy disgruntled rumble, but left it be. “A’right. An’ I suppose this is the point where you an’ Naydi conspire ‘ta get me tucked in an’ sleepin’?”
“After a bath, of course. Gyotin’s conspiring with us as well.”
“…Seems a bit overkill…”
Ah. Beginnings of the symptoms, right there, and right on time too. Altered judgement. He needed his IV, and he needed his rest.
“The procedure for post-nootropic care is quite clear, My Father. And you instructed me to follow it to the letter.”
“…Yeah. I did. We better not make the Sister-Nurses angry, then…”
Tiyun duck-nodded his agreement, confirmed their destination on the out-array, and settled in alongside Daar on the pad. There were a long and busy few hours ahead for him, working hard to make sure the Great Father didn’t. If he could be at peace and relaxed as soon as possible, good. Sleep, though…sleep would have to wait until the stuff was out of his system. Allowing him to sleep could be very dangerous indeed.
Things moved quickly once they got back. Daar absolutely needed a bath and doing that made for a team effort. He hunkered down in the comfortably warm water, blowing bubbles with his nose as Tiyun and his fellows made thorough work of it.
Tiyun discreetly checked the Great Father over for injuries as he worked. Nothing. Not even a bruise. Which was…
“…Any soreness, My Father?”
“Nah, ‘cept ‘tween my ears I s’pose. Ribs’re fine too.” He splashed about gently as he applied some fur shampoo to his chest. “Balls, you’re right, a bath like this is relaxin’ as fuck…or is that th’ medicine?”
“Both,” Tiyun replied truthfully. “The medicine here just being a good scented shampoo. As for the rest…well, I’ve earned more than one contract on the reputation of my massages…”
“…Ha! An’ I notice ‘yer equally skillful assistants ain’t Females…”
“As if that’s ever stopped you before.”
Daar chittered lazily, letting the infamously sedative powers of giant southern sweet-herb (along with tea tree oil from Earth) work their magic on his nose. “No, but…pro’ly a wise bit o’ strategery.”
“Now is not the time for that kind of distraction,” Tiyun intoned sagely. “Plenty for that later.”
“Once my thinky-meat’s all safe an’ sound?”
“That’s the idea, yes.”
“…Okay,” he said with a particularly soppy, honest look of affection. “I trust you.”
Yup, definitely entering an altered state of mind. That was expected and so far, going as expected. They didn’t talk much after that, just focused on getting him bathed. The water was absolutely filthy, even after changing it once. The second time, though, was better. The third bathful was clean.
Daar stirred the water with his claw, grumbling. “Don’t know how I got so gross…” he rumbled, then blinked curiously. “…Yeah. I can feel shit startin’ to get weird in my head. Time ‘fer the IV and stuff I think…”
A little past time, honestly, but still within schedule. They had him hooked up and padding a bit dazedly out to the gardens just as soon as he was toweled down.
“Balls…” Daar shook his head a bit, then somewhat comically thought better of it. “How much dose did m’suit hit me with?”
“You were within one dose of the maximum.”
“…Can’t say I recommend this,” he chittered wearily. “I just wanna sleep…”
“You specifically made me a poking stick.” Tiyun brandished it. An arm-length of well-smithed metal, with a couple of decorative twists screwed into it, forking into a pair of quite sharp tines, and with the other end bent upwards like a tail for hooking over things. It was the sort of thing Daar churned out in his forge, more a metal doodle than the kind of craft he was really capable of. But as a means of keeping him from nodding off, it should more than suffice.
“…Ha! I guess ‘yer my…my male Leela now! Don’ smell as purdy…”
Tiyun chittered. “You should have made it a giant spatula.” He indicated the lawn where Gyotin was waiting, tea ceremony all prepared. Daar sniffed skeptically.
“…Can’t smell it…” he rumbled, sounding suddenly worried.
“That’s to be expected. Things should start clearing up once we’ve got a few bags through you.”
The tea was also an especially fragrant variety for exactly that reason. Sensory grounding. The anti-Nervejam protocols OpenPaw had developed were something else, and the Great Father was in for a “trip,” whatever that was, as the medicine did its work. The challenge for the next little while would lie in keeping him engaged and stimulated but also calm and euthymic. Not an easy balancing act at all, immediately after a long and punishing battle.
But, that was the consequence a Gaoian paid. While a human was more sensitive to nervejam in general, the medicine didn’t do such brutality to their brains as it did a Gao.
So: tea. They sat together and drank, letting the scent envelop them. Daar’s nose twitched heavily, but being able to smell it definitely calmed him. Perhaps only Tiyun would have noticed the depth of fear and uncertainty in his voice when he’d admitted he couldn’t, before.
Gyotin walked the Great Father through learning the ceremony—something Daar had never quite got around to doing before—and again the tactile precision of it was obviously helpful. A simple job done diligently and well was therapy, in its way.
Tiyun only had to apply the poking stick once, when Daar decided what he really wanted to do was go careening around the Fortress, looking for tasty little hoppers poking their heads out of their burrows. It was a vicious poke too, right in his big meaty haunches.
“You stop that.”
Daar’s protestful swat was lazy and lopsided, backed by a chitter. But he settled down and needed no further prodding, much to Tiyun’s mildly mischievous disappointment. How often did someone like him get a chance like that?!
It worked, though. Gyotin and Daar meandered off on a conversation that, frankly, devolved into bizarre nonsense. At one point, Daar did the whole tea ceremony again “just to check what reality I’m in…” But at no point did the Champion signal to Tiyun that anything was amiss. They just sat and…talked. At one point, they both endured a minutes-long spine-bender of a hug, the sort where Daar completely wrapped himself around the objects of his affection, nose-tip to toes, and wasn’t much inclined to let go.
“I’m so lucky…you’re jus’ the bestest people ‘ta have…”
It was quite peaceful. All Tiyun had to do was swap out the IV bags as they emptied.
The sun was touching the horizon by the time the Great Father came back down from whatever distant realm he’d wandered off to. It was a gradual process though, which began with being able to remember what he’d said only a few seconds ago, moved on to saying things that were at least tangentially in contact with reality…
Still. All things considered, this “trip” Daar had gone on seemed like a pleasant experience. If not for how it had been induced, Tiyun rather felt he’d like to try it for himself someday.
The chill of dusk, and the emergence of glowing insects among the garden flowers, firmly brought the Great Father back down to Gao. He watched them for a while, then yawned expansively.
“…Balls…how long we bin out here?”
“Several hours.” Tiyun looked at the pile of discarded IV bags. “You probably need to pee something fierce by now.”
“…Huh. Yeah. Now y’mention it…”
“I believe Great Mother Naydra is waiting for you upstairs, My Father.”
“Right…yeah.” Daar rose to his paws. “…Fuck, that was…somethin’. Mebbe I’ll try an’ write about it later, or somethin’…”
“Lingering effects, My Father. What you need now is rest.”
The Great Father of the Gao, still a bit wobbly, ambled off toward his private apartments.
The easy part has been done. Now it was Naydra’s turn.
Tiyun turned toward Gyotin as he tidied up. “Well. That went about as well as could be expected, I think.”
“I think it went perfectly,” Gyotin replied. “And interesting, too. He’s really very thoughtful and gentle when his guard is down.”
“Of course he is,” Tiyun said, loyally. “That’s always been him. You just…need to find it.”
Gyotin duck-nodded, though his expression was suddenly a little more troubled. “Well. I hope we haven’t accidentally induced him to forget the rest…we need the rest.”
That was the lingering concern. The anti-nervejam nootropics had a high risk of permanently altered personality under such a strong dose. The entire purpose of the evening was to avoid that as much as possible. But how could they know for certain?
Time would tell.
She knew. The footsteps coming up the stairs were heavy and there were several of them, including the muffled steps of something large on all fours. Adam’s comrades, definitely.
…But none of them were his.
She picked up Sam, checked Diego was happy, and opened the door before they even reached it.
Campbell, Firth, Burgess. Thurrsto and Regaari too. They all looked tireder than she could ever remember seeing them. None of them save Campbell would meet her eyes.
She let them in. Offered them drinks. Sat down, and braced herself.
It was worse than she imagined.
++END CHAPTER 78++
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78 Friendly ETs, 146 Squishy Xenos and 317 Dizi Rats, a nice unround number
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 79: “The Long Fight”