Chapter 79: The Long Fight
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!
The Long Fight
Date Point: 18y9m3w AV
High Mountain Fortress
Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao
She could tell instantly that he wasn’t quite himself. It was the little things: the way his movements were cautious and uncertain, rather than bold and carefree; how he sniffed at the room like it was a novel experience instead of completely familiar.
He squeezed through the door, and peered at her almost as if he was re-discovering something he’d treasured long, long ago.
She’d been briefed to expect some disorientation, but that still stung a bit. Though at the same time, the raw confused delight on his face…
“Bumpkin. Come here.”
He padded in gently, approached with his nose twitching wildly…
He wrapped her in a tender hug. “Naydi.”
“Well…you’ve had a rough day,” she said with a gentle chitter.
“You ain’t kiddin’,” he grumbled against her neck. “Balls, my head feels so weird right now…”
“Nuh. Jus’…’s’like I can remember how I think, but I ain’t thinkin’ that way right now?” he shook his head like a fly had just buzzed into his ear. “Or like, like I’m re-rememberin’ everythin’ ‘bout everythin.’ Gods it’s good to smell you again…”
So, he had to remember himself, then.
She’d been watching and listening right from the moment he came back, right as the effects of his ordeal began to manifest themselves strongly. His brain may have been preserved, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t discombobulated by the experience.
Discombobulated was fine. It may take some time to fix that, of course, but his bravery had bought them the time he needed. First thing’s first.
“You’re tired, Bumpkin. I’ve got the nest-bed just the way you like it.”
Daar wagged his tail, once. “Sleep does sound kinda nice…what ‘bout tomorrow?”
“We’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Now come,” she walked toward the nest-bed, and Daar followed automatically. “This bed is too big for me to warm by myself.”
He chittered gently, circled around a few times, kneaded at it for a bit, and found a comfortable spot, much the same as he always did.
He did hesitate for a moment. Still not quite there. But only for a moment. He pulled her in gently and before long, had her wrapped up in a tight snuggle. Her mind was burning with deeper questions: how bad had it been? How successful? What was next?
But those weren’t the questions he needed tonight.
“Better?” she asked instead, with a light chitter.
“This feels more right than anything. I can smell ‘yer worry though.”
Naydra duck-nodded and snuggled into him. His fur was short enough to be almost scratchy, but…oh, she wasn’t going to complain. He was back. He was alive. Bruised and damaged, maybe…but he’d heal. That was all that mattered, for now.
“It can wait,” she said.
He nodded, sighed heavily….and was asleep. Naydra chittered to herself, nipped his nose affectionately, then put her head down and followed him.
Others, she knew, weren’t as lucky today.
Date Point: 18y9m3w AV Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek protectorate, near 3KPc Arm
Vemik was good friends with Ferd. He’d texted Vemik to say he was coming back that afternoon, so with a hoot and a happy growl, he galloped the whole way to the array wearing Jooyun’s heaviest weighted vest. Vemik didn’t have much time to lift that morning, but he could still get a good workout in! He couldn’t close the vest around his body, though, because his chest and waist were way bigger and stronger than Jooyun’s now, but that was okay.
He met Ferd with a friendly hoot and a flying tackle done just as hard as he could, with a quick but strong little brawl in the dirt. Fun! He’d just come back through the jump array with his men after a training mission with Heff. That was nice! Vemik liked them all but Ferd had helped him understand the Fire almost as much as Yan. It was always good when he visited.
It wasn’t a long bit of wrasslin’ though, because Ferd’s men knew that Vemik was ticklish, and nobody could fight seriously against someone when he had three strong friends who know how to fight really dirty.
They had him hooting and trilling so hard, Vemik almost passed out from it. His plan backfired! They kept at it until he somehow managed to pin all four at once (or at least squeeze them hard enough they gave in), and once he’d managed that he collapsed, catching his breath, hiccuping and generally unable to do much of anything for a good, long while.
They were much friendlier and more respectful with Vemik after they’d worked out the hurt he’d given them, and everyone was in a better mood after they had caught their breath. Though, he’d been a bit too rough with Genn, whose belly was cramping and sore from where Vemik had wrapped a leg around and crushed him breathless, but that was okay. Genn could still move and he’d get stronger from it, even if every step made him wince a little.
“I’m sarry,” Vemik offered his hand. He didn’t want any bad feelings, so he was glad when Genn took it, and they pulled each other into a big, friendly hug. “Maybe I forget how strong I am.”
“You didn’t forget,” Genn trilled with a wince. “You enjoyed every beat of that!”
Vemik grinned sheepishly. “Maybe! But I can make up, ‘cuz we have a good roast going with berries and tanew nuts! Wanna eat and sleep before you go home?”
Nobody would turn down an offer of free food and maybe fun with a friendly tribe! Especially Vemik’s tribe. His women were well-known to be young, strong, and pretty, after all…Vemik doubted anyone would begrudge sharing their huts tonight. Ferd and his men were strong and handsome! And good friends. Friends should always play together, if they could.
Of course, Given-Men visiting villages had to prove themselves and their intentions. That was the law of the gods, where taking-magic might happen. They walked back from the array together to Vemik’s new village—it had moved since Ferd had last seen it. The forge was still there, along with the Human’s huts, and a new thing they were building that nobody would tell him about yet. Infuriating! Windows all covered too, so he couldn’t sneak a look, and the Professor made him promise he wouldn’t sneak in before it was ready.
Vemik let Ferd know when they were getting close, and he obligingly climbed up a tree to go berry-hunting for a bit, so Vemik would arrive first. After all, Ferd was a visiting Given-Man. He could only do that on peaceful terms if the other Given-Man was ready to welcome him, so…
Vemik swaggered home, and was instantly mobbed by much of the village, despite having only been gone since the morning. That felt good! Kids climbed over him, Singer pressed herself along his front, whispering promises for later that night…
He bit her ear and promised right back. But first, they had a guest. “Ferd’s coming. His men too, think we can feed them?”
“Oh! That should be a fun match! And yes, we’ll make their bellies ache!”
As expected, Ferd left him just enough time to wrassle a bit with the children and catch up on the basic gossip—and find out who needed a visit that night—when the watch’s shouting-stones let everyone know who was approaching.
Ferd was a big and very strong Given-Man, now with training for sky-fighting. There weren’t many Given-Men he couldn’t have his way with. In fact, Vemik could count them on one hand.
That was okay. The gods had been good to Vemik in the summer Fire. At the lodge, Ferd had been the bigger man, but Vemik was still in his first real Fire, and the gods clearly had plans for him. He’d grown a whole finger-width taller! Even more on his shoulders and chest, and everything else, too! He actually had to be careful when playing with Jooyun now, and that was such a good feeling! At next spring’s Lodge, Vemik would earn a very high rank.
Vemik was better than Ferd now, and getting better every single day. Bigger, faster, stronger. Tougher, much smarter. Longer lasting probably, better senses maybe…he knew all that just from the little-talk and things they did on the way over from the array. A man could learn a lot about his opponent if he paid attention.
Fighting with his own head had taught Vemik how to really pay attention to things.
They lined up, face-to-face. They showed off to each other, and spent a long time doing it to the hooting cheers of his tribe. They had fun doing it too, because what man wasn’t proud of his strength?! Vemik certainly didn’t mind; he saw he wasn’t just taller, he was better and they both knew it…but Ferd was very good, too. Lots of appreciative hoots for him! They traded friendly insults, poked at each other’s bodies, made ridiculous boasts and sweet promises to whoever was interested that night, said the friendliest challenges they could, and when the moment was perfectly ripe…they fought, slamming into each other with all the strength they had. It was just a play-fight of course, because neither wanted a war, but it was still super fun!
The Humans called it “pro-wrassling.” To Given-Men it was just pure joy, because they couldn’t play so hard with anyone else; others would be broken by it.
Or as long. It was good to test your friends, and that was what they did to each other. Ferd was nice and sturdy! Tough, too! They fought on the ground, up in the trees, even in the air when they jumped at each other. Ferd had some really good tricks that Vemik would need to practice with him later on, but in the end it didn’t matter. Vemik won because he was a lot stronger. Every part of him was better, from his bigger, redder crest to his wider, stronger feet. He had his fun, gave some small playful embarrassments, then finally pinned Ferd to the ground and squeezed the breath out of him until he tapped out, ruefully admitting defeat.
Ferd trilled tiredly, “you…you’ve been eating well, I see! Ow.”
Vemik trilled right back, “and training good, too! Now let’s get you and your men fed, yes?” He yanked Ferd up from the ground and they hugged each other tight (…maybe Vemik hugged a whole lot tighter than he needed to…) like the friends and allies they were.
But between them, they knew the new way of things. Vemik was the boss, now.
Still: losing to a Given-Man of any kind wasn’t so bad, as long as they walked away friends. Here, that meant Ferd got second choice of anyone who wanted to play with him tonight. It was a pretty quiet, lazy evening, even if there was a smoldering ember beneath it. The summer heat was at its worst and the sweltering fierceness of it had the redcrests still in the tails of their Fire, Ferd and Vemik still right in the hottest heat of it. There had been a very big hunt that day, as the women began their campaign of making jerky and things for the coming lean fall and winter. Everyone was resting up for the night’s inevitable play, so mostly they all sat around the fire with pleasant company in laps, hugging and joking more than anything else.
It was a relaxing sort of night. Vemik and Ferd sat next to each other like true friends, firmly shoulder-to-shoulder with a leg wrapped around their friend’s, feet gripping each other and tails coiled tightly around each other’s waists. Singer meanwhile draped herself across both of them to their mutual delight, demanding and getting strong hands to massage tired muscles.
Running a village could be very hard work.
“You sure know how to rub a woman’s shoulders, Ferd…maybe you should teach Vemik!”
She was teasing him a little, but he didn’t mind so much. Ferd was a good man, and if that’s what she wanted to do, well. She’d come back. Besides, maybe they would get a strong son out of it! Ferd was good stock, after all…
Or daughter! Daughters were good too. Maybe even better!
Vemik wouldn’t let Ferd have all the fun. He proved he knew what he was doing and went to work on her lower back. “Maybe I can teach him something, too…” His reward was a happy purr from Singer, who relaxed and poured herself more completely across their laps.
It was…nice. They traded stories around the fire, eating meat as it sizzled on the rocks. Kids came to play, while Ferd told his own tales of adventure and mayhem among the sky-tribes. Vemik sighed happily (and a bit jealously) about the stories, wishing maybe he’d been there… But he had his Singer! Vemik moved onto her tail, while her hands found parts on both of them that needed a little attention…
Oh, yes. It was good to be home!
She didn’t do anything too strong, though. She was just teasing them for now, so Vemik had to bite his tongue and resist his building urges. Wicked woman! He’d tried to wiggle it out of her grasp…maybe worm it into somewhere warm and slick, but she had a nice, strong grip…
So when Professor Daniel arrived, everyone sat up, all laziness and indulgence forgotten. A nice joint of meat was offered and gladly accepted, while his own Giving of herbs and precious black-pepper was snatched up by Singer, before anyone wasted it. Peppercorns were for stews and jerky first!
Daniel looked at the two of them, caught suddenly without a delightful woman in their laps, one who had obviously been giving them both the best kind of attention… He laughed, knowingly, and decided to tease them a bit. “Hello! Having a fun evening, I see?”
“Good evening!” they both agreed in hooting amusement, then trilled at voicing the idea at exactly the same time. It would have devolved into wrasslin’ but one of Vemik’s own ran up and pulled at Daniel’s shorts. “Tell us a story!” she said in the People’s words.
“Of course,” he replied in English. “I’ve just memorized this one…” Vemik sat up and paid attention, and suddenly everyone in the village was gathering. The man of the watch sent word out to the other villages by radio, so they would be broad-casting it for everyone to listen in. Professor had a new story for the People! Or, well. New-old.
“Not so long ago, in the village of La Mancha, a place of which I have no desire to mention, there lived one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the rack, a shield, a lean horse, and a greyhound for running…”
Vemik had met both a horse and a greyhound. Horses were impressive animals, and probably tasty! Wouldn’t want to get kicked by those haunches, though. Greyhounds…well, they were dogs, and that was good, but they were never halfway up a tree: they either ran with all the speed, or slept with all the sleep. They didn’t seem to know how to dog like other dogs.
It was a funny story! Vemik hadn’t been keeping notes as he listened, and was worried he might be forgetting stuff…
But, well…no! He remembered everything, just like he always used to. That was happening more and more for him, and this was a good day for that. Before his fight in New York, he’d been able to remember anything anyone ever said to him, exactly as they said it. He’d been able to do that since before his trial of manhood, and he’d been able to remember more than just words, too. Colors, shapes, how things were connected to other things…
That had been Taken from him in New York. He’d had to learn how to keep notes, take a notebook with him everywhere and write down everything so he didn’t forget. Or, re-remember when he inevitably did. That had a ‘silver lining’ as Professor called it; other people could read along with his thinking and Shooster in New York was particularly happy about all that. He’d been so sad about the whole thing, but Vemik had lived, so…
More and more, though, he could sky-think like he used to! Not every day, but he could tell when a day would be fuzzy or sharp. If it was a fuzzy day, he was extra careful to think as mindfully as he could. Singer was a big help too, as were Imi and Laffa, whenever they’d secreted him away from Singer’s gaze…
But some days, his mind was sharper than ever. Today was one of those days! Usually he’d talk with Tilly and her friends, furiously study his pre-calc to beat Ferd, hunt for samples…
But not every day. Sometimes, a good thinking-day needed to be used like this. Stories, play, giving lots of love to his friends, family, tribe. That was just as important as big ideas, he’d learned. And listening to stories was important too. The funny thing about the way Professor Daniel told them was, it didn’t matter that most of the People didn’t know what lances, shields, horses and greyhounds were. Or windmills. He had a magic in his voice for getting the story across anyway. Or at least the meaning and why of it. It was a good trick! Singers would bring their Dancers from other villages to listen to him.
Maybe they should bring Professor to Ferd’s tribe! Was that a good idea? It felt good!
They said goodbye to the day and welcomed the night, as they did every evening. Singer Sang her prayers, Vemik (and Ferd!) led the men in showing their strength to the world with the Dance. They had another Given-Man visiting, so the Dance led to more Singing…
The nice thing about being a good bit better than a very good Ferd, was that by Dancing with him, competing, wrasslin’ and all that, they made each other look even better then they would otherwise. Same for their men; the Giving of the Dance made for better Givings and Takings for everyone in the tribe. Who was Vemik to deny the magic of the gods?
There had certainly been plenty of good, long Givings for them both that night! But Singer wouldn’t be denied. She pulled them both into her hut, and showed them how sometimes, if a woman Gave hard enough to a man, it could end up being a sort of Taking in disguise…
Ferd and Vemik had strength and stamina like few other men of the People. And among the Singers, so did she. They put what the gods gave them and all their training had earned to good, long use, until the three of them were too damn tired to do anything more.
It was a very, very good night.
Vemik and Ferd woke up warm and lazy under her comfy pelts, cuddled together and both happily drained. She was an evil woman when she wanted to be! Vemik woke first, and might have thought about putting Ferd in his place again until, oh, the sun had gone away…
…Well, why not? He rolled on top of Ferd to his trilling objection, they wrassled for a bit…
It was good to be strong, and good to have strong friends to share it with. He pulled the pelts over them and forced Ferd into a nice, good-feeling pin, thoroughly enjoying the heat, their sweat-slicked strength, the slow, intense slide of fierce body contact as he bent Ferd into ever tighter holds. It felt good to win, felt good to take, to dominate such a good rival. The feeling of Ferd’s body surrendering to Vemik’s huge strength was just so fucking right…
“You’re mine,” he snarled quietly in Ferd’s ear, pinning his head with his own, using just the strength in his thicker neck to hold Ferd down. “You can’t stop me even if you wanted to.” He made the point with a full-body squeeze. Ferd’s hard muscles shook under Vemik’s harder strength and went slack, flattened to the bone from head to toe. “Can’t fight back against me at all. You like it, don’t you?”
Ferd nodded a bit fearfully, and that was all the encouragement Vemik needed. He growled as he tightened his hug fiercely, his bigger, thicker chest winning the contest for air.
“Slap my head if you want me to stop,” he growled, softly. He’d learned a lot playing with Tilly, who really appreciated Ten’Gewek strength…but it frightened her, too. He couldn’t hurt Ferd as hard as he could hurt her, but she had good ideas about safety, so…
Ferd relaxed too. Nodded more happily this time.
“Good,” Vemik growled happily. “‘Cuz you can’t even breathe unless I let you,” he snarled, and started rolling his hips with as much slow strength as he could manage. “Now I’m gonna play with you, and you’re gonna love it.”
So he did. Vemik took his time and reveled in it. He left Ferd’s arms free because it was just play and not anything too mean, so could fight back for real if he was ever too scared…
He didn’t, not really. Hands gripped hard everywhere, looking for weakness, fists pounded against Vemik’s back…nothing. He just played harder, too stone-bodied for Ferd’s strength to fight. Ferd knew his place, now. He was Vemik’s. His men and his tribe were Vemik’s too, in the same way that every Given-Man and everything that was his, also belonged to Yan.
It was good to be strong.
Some long while later, when things were starting to feel really good, when Vemik’s fierceness was up and he had Ferd flipped over, body defeated and smashed dizzy, just when he decided to crush Ferd even harder and make him his woman, claim the big Given-Man forever…
That was when Singer barged in and put a stop to their fun.
“Get up, lazy men! You have places to be! And bring back a werne!”
She at least spared them the embarrassment of announcing to everyone exactly what they were doing, but there was a mischievous twinkle in her eye that said she really wanted to…
Vemik trilled, let go, and pulled Ferd up into a sitting hug, making sure they were still friends. He winced, sore all over…but put his tail around Vemik’s waist. Still friends.
Maybe a scared friend, but still a friend. That was okay.
“Okay,” Vemik agreed once he’d made sure Ferd wasn’t hurting too much. “We’ll be out in a little bit.”
“Hmmph.” She gave them a knowing look and a playful smile, but left them alone. Vemik would owe her a favor for that, later. That could be fun!
Still, there was no denying her. Singer was in charge of the village, and nothing so little as having personally satisfied two Given-Men the night before was going to stop her from bossing them up and out of her hut so she could make her medicines and spells.
Oh well! Only the stupidest men fought against a woman on a mission, at least not without very good cause, and that was extra true of a Singer.
And she was right. There was always use for another werne.
There was business to finish, though. Play without release was too much for any man. He grinned at Ferd, grabbed his head, and shoved it down where his face could be put to good, quick use. He wrapped his legs around and squeezed too, to make sure he did a good job of it.
It was good to be strong. He was even better to Ferd, too. He’d earned it.
Playtime was over, though. Sated, and with a good-feeling hug between them to stay friends, Vemik and Ferd emerged to the gentle clucking trills of the other women. They knew their power, and they could taste the air just as well as anyone else. They knew.
And Ferd knew it, too. Vemik would have a dependable ally in the east forest, a good friend still and, well…a Given-Man who knew his place between them. His tribe was a little bit safer, now.
Vemik felt himself, felt his thinking. Felt like a good day! He took a good stretch like Jooyun and War-Horse had taught him, drank lots of water, ate a big breakfast of meat and roasted vegetables. He didn’t need to bathe since he was just sweaty and not dirty, so he skipped that, checked in to see what would be forged today: bowls! Visited the children a bit…
It was a good day. His head felt sharp, his body happy, his hands ready to make or write or hunt. He looked at Ferd, and they didn’t need to say anything to each other.
They worked out, then went to fetch the Professor, found he was happy to come visit, and set off for Ferd’s village. There was a hunt with Ferd’s men, there was a neat animal Vemik had never seen! Ferd was fascinated by Vemik’s sketching, and draped himself over his shoulders to watch as closely as he could, legs around waist like the good friends they were. Maybe Vemik would teach him later!
It was a good day.
Date Point:18y9m3w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Major Anthony “Abbott” Costello
Without it, he’d have been looking at probably a couple months of recovery and rehab. A fucking building had collapsed on him. A large building. But, a few shots of Crue-D, a night of bed rest under strict orders from the doctors…
He was only a little stiff and tender. Some of the others on the team, some of the real veteran hardbodies, were already up and training again, even if it was baby steps for everyone, and that to much groaning and grumbling. The exhaustion ran deep, but thank God that was all it was. If they’d been virtually chunked inside their own suit, or had their brain ‘jammed to jelly…
And, well. Adam had the extreme misfortune to experience both. He was on everyone’s mind, right now.
So overall, it was a pretty miserable group who gathered for debriefing. Everyone was nursing whatever comfort item was excepted on their diet plan. Costello had his latte, Firth had a McDonalds, Thompson was slumped over a bowl of wheaties, Murray was bleary-eyed and half-dead with a bottle of Irn-Bru in his hand and Regaari had a Gaoian breakfast wrap that smelled like pure umami from across the room.
None of them were in the mood for small-talk. They wanted to get this done ASAP so they could go back to their recovery training, painkillers, and sleep. Costello was happy to oblige.
And it wasn’t like there was much to say. They’d done the job they existed for. The infiltration team had hung their asses out there and infiltrated where maybe nobody else could, the assault team had taken over and claimed a foothold that an entire damn army was now using. They’d fought hard all day, stacked a laughably huge count of Hunter bodies, and retired from the battlefield covered in blood, dust and victory.
Learning points? Sure. A few of those. There always were. The biggest was around Nervejam. This was the first real encounter where their anti-Nervejam measures had been thoroughly tested, and…
“We can’t fight like that,” Righteous grumbled. “The cure ‘fer this shit’s almost worse’n the disease.”
Weary heads bobbed around the table. The Hunters hadn’t been shy about nervejamming the crap outta them, and everyone had needed at least one dose of the nootropics. All of them were on recovery plans, and all of them had noticed…
“The bullshit anger in my head is annoying as fuck,” rumbled Snapfire. Which was saying something, since Sikes was about the most mellow man on the team.
Sure, that was a relative statement, but still…
“Almost worse,” Costello agreed. “Still, this is the first defence of any kind we’ve had against nervejam. I’ll keep pushing for it to be refined and improved on, but it saved lives yesterday.”
There was an awkward pause the instant he said that. Eventually, Baseball cleared his throat, “We sure about that, boss? What’s happenin’ to ‘Horse?”
“He’s being taken to the College of Xenomedicine hospital on Origin. Nofl’s going with him. As soon as there’s anything to know, I’ll know.”
There was no less tension around the room in response to that, but there were nods. They all knew Nofl. They’d all been treated by Nofl at some point. They trusted him. That might not be enough to soothe their worries, but it was something.
“Well…I guess it could be a lot worse.”
Costello nodded. “Fact is, they’re planning an intervention. Which means they think they can do something for him. We’ll see what, and I will keep you all informed.”
There wasn’t a lot else to discuss. A few extra points, but really what they all needed was time to rest, talk, build themselves back up. He kept it short, dismissed them as soon as he’d got through everything essential, and retired gratefully to his office where he could sit down and take some weight off his abused spine.
Thank fuck for the MASS. And thank fuck for the nootropics, no matter what Firth said. There was no doubt in Costello’s mind that ‘Horse only had the fighting chance he did thanks to that stuff.
Paperwork beckoned. He had a unit to administer, even if what he really wanted to do was go home and sleep. But, there were things that needed doing which he’d set aside for the last few days. A full in-tray, made all the fuller by yesterday’s mission.
He groaned, was briefly tempted by the idea of a second latte, thought of ‘Horse and poured himself a glass of water instead…and got to work.
Date Point: 18y9m3w1d AV
HMS Myrmidon, Orbiting Planet Hell, Hunter warzone
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
As a man for whom one of the ships in Caruthers’ fleet was named had once noted: happiness consisted in getting enough sleep. Not any easy prospect when one was in command of a fleet in hostile “waters.”
In theory, with the fleet protected from above and below by planetary shields, Myrmidon was just as safe as though she was at anchor back at Cimbrean. But those two shields sandwiched an immense volume, and though it was being patrolled and scoured thoroughly by Voidrippers…in practice, Caruthers had a hard time finding the peace of mind to properly sleep.
Instead, he dozed. Rode the strange, vague line where he never quite felt like he’d fallen asleep, but in more lucid moments he knew he must be sleeping because he was dreaming.
Wind in the trees, his nieces running and playing in the distance. The park grounds at Cannon Hall. But he’s still in bed…
…Oh, bollocks to it.
He got up, brushed his teeth, dressed, and resolved that caffeine would do when actual rest failed.
The Fleet Intelligence Centre was busy, but quiet. Everything flowed through the FIC, every sensor return from every ship, every update from the ground forces, all washed through the mighty supercomputers in Myrmidon’s port bay. The stream of information was constant, and demanded constant attention or else, even with the computers, it was meaningless.
It all meant that Caruthers barely needed any effort at all to get a high-altitude look at their general situation, and what he saw wasn’t much changed from when he’d last looked. The Hunters were neatly isolated, their space forces u-nable to support the ground forces, and vice versa. The human and Gaoian beachhead down below was… well, not as mobile or expansive as he or Vark would have liked. But it wasn’t being ground down, either.
The Hunters certainly weren’t giving up. They had their own ground shields, and the war below therefore was being fought without air cover, orbital support, artillery, mortars…Anything, really, except the grim hard slog of building-to-building urban warfare. The only alleviating factor was the total absence of civilians. Frankly, they were going to be here a while. One didn’t conquer a whole planet overnight, after all. And Caruthers was going to have to learn to sleep with that.
He turned as the pressure door behind him opened, and a familiar Gaoian silently ducked through. Thurrsto. The enormous Champion paused and sniffed, then ducked his head in greeting.
“Admiral. I thought you’d be asleep.”
Caruthers chuckled and toasted him with his coffee. “Sneaking onto my ship, Champion?”
“Here for a meeting.”
“Ah.” Caruthers nodded. “Well, you’re right. I really should be asleep, but…” he gestured vaguely to the strategic map on his monitor.
“But you’re going to be woken up by something sooner or later, so you can’t switch off.” Thurrsto duck-nodded his understanding. He sniffed, then chittered. “Of course, you get the benefit of coffee.”
“Doesn’t work on you?”
“Only as a laxative.” The Champion stepped aside to make room for an analyst bustling something out of the room. “Others of us are quite sensitive to it…on which note, it’s strange to imagine what the Great Father’s going through, right now. Altered states of mind aren’t really part of our culture.”
“Not really part of my culture, for that matter.”
“That doesn’t count?” Thurrsto indicated the coffee. “You’ve never got recreationally drunk?”
“I…suppose I just don’t think of those as altered states of mind. I was thinking of narcotics. Drugs. Not this.”
“Doesn’t that speak volumes about just how ingrained in your culture it really is?”
Caruthers frowned and tapped his thumb on the desk a couple of times. “…I suppose I have to concede the point, there. But you have talamay.”
“We like the taste. It doesn’t affect us the same way it affects humans, at least not easily.” Thurrsto made an uncomfortable noise in his throat, a step below a quiet worried keen. “…Between you and me, the Champions are all worried. The Great Father’s presence here was necessary, but the Gao can’t afford for him to be…damaged. We haven’t begun to, uh…”
“Wean yourself off him?” Caruthers suggested.
“Not yet.” Thurrsto watched the calm hubbub of the FIC for a moment, then flicked an ear and tilted his head thoughtfully. “You know, not so long ago, for a Champion to agree with you on that thought would have been treasonous. It’s only by his insistence that we’re openly thinking in those terms.”
Caruthers nodded, drained the last of his coffee, and set it aside. “…You’re very lucky, you know. I could count the number of truly benevolent dictators in human history on a careless carpenter’s fingers. To have one who is actively talking you into considering the future of your government…”
“Mother Yulna was very wise,” Thurrsto agreed. “But here we are. He saved us. Everything is built around him, at the moment. And now he’s…”
“High as a kite?” Caruthers chuckled. “Not to diminish your concerns, but it takes more than one bad trip to ruin a mind, especially one like his. I think you’ll find he comes through just fine.”
“I’m a Champion. It’s part of my job to worry and plan for the worst. Doubly so, as Champion of Whitecrest.”
“Well, yes. Worry about him professionally. But on a personal level, you can take it from me, he’ll be fine…yes?” Caruthers looked up as Lieutenant O’Connell cleared his throat to get his attention.
“We’re ready for the Champion, sir.”
“Ah. Of course.” Caruthers gave Thurrsto a parting nod. “Champion.”
“Admiral.” Thurrsto returned the nod with a duck of his head, and followed O’Connell.
Caruthers checked his timepiece. He’d been ‘asleep’ for three hours, and no amount of coffee was ever going to be a substitute for the real thing…he really ought to return to his cabin and try again. A groan and some self-recrimination pushed him from his chair, and he did exactly that.
He was feeling a little less switched on, though. The conversation, the reassuring calm of the FIC even as they bustled to handle all the incoming data…a nice hot drink…He didn’t bother to undress this time, just took his boots off and lay on top of his sheets.
He still didn’t sleep. But at least this time, his dozing wasn’t so agitated.
It would do, for now.
Date Point: 18y9m3w1d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
Chambliss had read a few gobsmacking reports already during his time in office, but this morning’s was enough to make him sit back and quietly boggle. The strategic details of course would require deeper thinking and conference with his fellow leaders, but…
“So…let me make sure I’ve got this. A HEAT Protector, one Master Sergeant Arés, single-handedly drove off and attacked an Alpha to protect his patients, and having done so, destroyed it with his bare hands?”
Today’s briefing was courtesy of general T.A. Carlson, who usually brought a degree of irreverent optimism to his job. Today, though, his mood was grim and subdued. “That’s about the shape of it, Mister President.”
“Aren’t those things functionally an invisible, highly maneuverable tank?”
“Yes. There are tricks against the invisibility, of course. As for the rest, well…Arés was more.”
Chambliss raised an eyebrow. “…Good Lord. And he saved how many?”
“More than three dozen, sir, and that’s just in the immediate vicinity. We don’t have an exact count yet, we’re still piecing through all the debriefs. If we consider the larger context…he might well have saved everyone, including the Great Father of the Gao. Needless to say the Space Force has taken a keen interest, General Miller in particular.”
“Miller…” Chambliss’ mental filing system needed a moment to turn up a match. “Oh yes. Wait, isn’t he Air Force?”
“Yes, but he commands the nine-forty-sixth air base wing, while general Jackson commands the Space Force’s nine-forty-sixth space fighter delta attached to the same base.”
“Right. Formerly worked with the SOR?”
“Still does. His unit retains ADCON of the Space Force members of SOR, as the Air Force is the parent department.”
“Hmm. No wonder he’s interested…” Chambliss turned the page. “…And this Arés was wounded, possibly killed for his efforts. Well…that’s…a great loss, from the sounds of things.”
That piqued his interest.
“I mean exactly that, sir. We’ll never find another like him, no matter how we try. He is not only a great many things simultaneously that are exceptional all by themselves in any individual, he is in many of those things the very best there is, period. The best the human race had to offer, I would argue, and his role was protecting lives. Forget one in a million, that young man was, or I hope still is, one in ten billion or more.”
“…Surely you exaggerate?”
“Not in the least, Mister President.” Carlson shook his head. “Not even a little bit.”
His tone was so serious, and so depressed, that Chambliss just stared at him for a moment, then took him at his word. “…I see. So a hero in the truest sense of the word.”
“One who took enormous personal risks to build himself into the hero he was, even by HEAT standards. And he may have given it all in an absolutely brilliant piece of heroism, too.”
“…Above and beyond the call of duty, would you say?” Those were magic words, there. Words a President was always proud to say, and often remorseful of the circumstance.
“That would be the general consensus, yes. Miller is no doubt preparing for that as we speak.”
“These things usually take time, don’t they? Years.”
“Yes, but cases are seldom so clear-cut. In any case, they need to be done right. There can’t be any doubt in anyone’s mind.”
“No, but minds change. We need to gather evidence, review reports, conduct interviews…”
“And, not to put too fine a point on it, but it is in your interests that such a thing be as divorced from politics as is possible. The timing matters. And of course, Congress…”
“Of course.” Chambliss put the folder down on the coffee table in front of him. “…Be honest with me, how much bloodier is this going to get?”
“Difficult to say. The big problem is nervejam, and the Hunters use it liberally. Only the HEAT have any real resilience to it, thanks to their suits. For everyone else…where it doesn’t kill outright, it leaves men with permanent brain injuries. We simply cannot afford the level of rehabilitation that would be necessary. And before you object, it’s not a monetary issue. Rehab for a close nervejam hit requires intense intervention by medical staff we barely have, and the ongoing therapies, and so on.”
“And it’s a whole planet we’re talking about.”
“Yes. And for now, we only hold a small part of the largest city. Just claiming the city is going to cost…well…thousands, probably. And then, it’ll only be so few because we’re very good at this sort of work, after the last several decades. The Grand Army will likely see modestly heavier casualties, owing to training and, well. Exceptional Clan and so forth aside, most Gaoians just ain’t human infantry.”
“Why not just nuke the city?”
“The Hunters build fast, breed faster, and as much as they love centralization they were still salvaging a debris field that covers basically the entire equator. Nuking that one city was never going to finish the job, and now we’re tracking large convoys moving out of the city under cover of shield emitters, carrying God-knows-what. Our best guess is they’re going to ground, setting up breeding bunkers.”
He moved a few papers around, and showed Chambliss a map. “We don’t want to get into a game of nuclear whack-a-mole. It won’t work. Besides, we need a foothold and the city is the only one we’ve got. The HEAT had to hang their asses out and take a terrible risk to earn that much—it won’t happen a second time.”
He handed over a final document: casualty estimates and projections. “There’s no shortcuts here, Mister President.”
Chambliss stared solemnly at the paper, letting that assessment and the numbers on the page sink in. Felt the weight of it. God…that was a lot of bereaved families in the near future. A stack of coffins he’d been so certain could be avoided, when he’d run for office. Maybe he had avoided a great many.
Didn’t feel like it.
Outwardly, he picked up his coffee and sipped it. With both hands, so they wouldn’t shake and betray his feelings. “I sense a conference with the Great Father in the near future.”
“Once he’s recovered, I imagine.”
“He’s the only other one, uh, capable enough to match our own, so…naturally, he was involved. He killed the Alpha the second time. Hopefully permanently.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Their brain and some other bits are kept in an armored escape pod. It’s a bit sci-fi. But Daar physically crushed it. And took the skull home as a trophy. I can’t imagine it’ll come back.”
“…Proof that heroes aren’t always nice, I suppose.”
“Is…what about his recovery? I presume he was nervejammed as well?”
“Repeatedly, yes. Gaoians are not as sensitive to nervejam as us despite having comparable neural capability. They are, however, markedly more sensitive to the medicines involved. He is lucky he can afford the level of care that will be needed, Mister President.”
“So we have two irreplaceable operators, one of whom is a critical head of state, both of whom have had their brains attacked, and we do not know the status of either of them?”
“Daar’s status is reportedly good, sir. He, uh…had an interesting night, I gather, thanks to the medication. But he walked off the battlefield otherwise uninjured, nonetheless.”
Figures. “And our Warhorse somehow did not.”
“Different fight, different circumstances. Daar was, ah…his situation was less desperate and he had the opportunity to prepare. He’s also basically his own category of being. Physically, well. You’ve met him. Nobody is his match. Not really fair to compare them or their fights.”
“…Right. That was probably a petty thought.”
“A natural one, sir. We always root for our own.”
“Is he not our own? At least in a sense that matters?”
“On a certain level, sure. Deathworlders against the galaxy? I’m a fan. But, he ain’t human.”
“That’s not how they feel, from what I can tell.”
“No, and that’s one of the ways they may be better than us. They’re intensely loyal and they feel they owe us a great deal.”
“I hope that does not set any unreasonable expectations…”
“It might, in time. For now we’ve done right by them. You in particular, Mister President; they know the politics of the thing are much more difficult for you and your party, and they are nothing if not a practical people.”
“Hmm.” Chambliss considered things in silence for a moment. He had a lot of thinking to do later. “Well, thank you for the update. We will arrange appropriate communications on our end.”
Carlson nodded, stood, said his goodbyes and left Chambliss to his thoughts. Not that he’d get long to be alone with them. There were meetings to attend, pieces of paper that needed his name at the bottom, policy and suchlike to review…the President was on the clock. It didn’t go away just because he was feeling shaken and dismayed.
Still. He had some control over his agenda at least. If only in terms of adding things to it.
He headed to the desk, sat, grabbed one of his letter papers, selected one of his best pens, and sat a moment with it touched to his chin in thought…
The words came. He put nib to page, and started his letter to Daar.
Date Point: 18y9m3w4d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao
Daar took his duty to the cubs ‘most seriousestest,’ a turn of phrase that nearly caused Naydra physical pain when he used it. He was always a bit of a troll, as Humans would say, and he knew exactly how to tweak someone without being too malicious.
And when it came to the cubs who came to High Mountain, that kind of playful, ultra-childish streak had a purpose. It was trust-building. He got more severe with the older ones, challenged them to produce the very best of their young lives while on his grounds. But all of that started with building trust. He must be severe but kind. It was a delicate balancing act.
Today, though, the balancing act had completely toppled over.
It was Naydra’s fault, really. She’d thought that keeping the cubs’ visit on schedule would be good for him. A bit of normal routine to remind him. Instead…well, it was like he’d completely forgotten the severe and challenging side of his role.
Right now, the fierce, dangerous side of him was just…gone. Missing. Or switched off. He was all Daar-back rides and fetch games, galumphing around the grounds and chittering for the sheer joy of play. The actual tasks and training scheduled for the day were tackled distractedly and half-heartedly, interrupted constantly.
One of the older cubs had noticed, too. Feem, a particularly impressive young silverfur who had a head full of engineering, was visibly distressed that his hero seemed so…
…So not there.
Well. One day wouldn’t be so bad for the cubs. Everyone needed a vacation after all, even ambitious cubs who had much to prove; they really did grow up all too soon, and that was a quality Naydra quietly envied Human mothers. They had three or four more years to work with.
Gaoian cubs, though…one day wouldn’t be so bad. But seeing him like this more than once could be damaging.
Gyotin had done his job a little too well. He’d certainly calmed Daar’s mind and helped him retain his composure. A fully functional mind drew appropriately from all the tools in the emotional box, including aggression, anger and impatience. Not permanent, happy, excessive agreeableness.
A Great Father needed to be a force. Not the world’s most biggest cub.
So. That left the question of how to remind him of that. An example, presumably? But how? He needed a challenge, not something he could immediately win at. But Daar…won. Effortlessly. He’d pushed himself to that point over long years, to the point where nothing Naydra could think of would actually frustrate him…
…A thought presented itself. Or rather, the thought of a person. Someone Naydra had wanted to meet for the longest time anyway. From that idea grew a plan, and from that plan, other examples presented themselves…
She had a brief conversation with Tiyun. He liked it. In fact, he chittered long and loud at her suggestion, and promised to keep doing what he was doing while she was gone. Daar would be well cared-for in Naydra’s brief absence.
She loped upstairs on four-paw to grab her travel bag, then back down to the basements and the jump array. It took a few minutes to clear the schedule, but Great Mothers had the power to politely request such a thing at any time. And, well. It was important.
She jumped to Cimbrean.
Date Point: 18y9m3w4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Everyone had their limit. Even somebody like Martina. And Allison knew from experience that her own limits had kinda…snuck up on her. The strongest people in the world could fall apart if they hit a wall they never saw coming.
Marty’s wall, apparently, was uncertainty. Allison was pretty sure she could have handled it if a chaplain had walked up the stairs and told her Adam was gone. She could have handled knowing he was wounded but alive. This…limbo state, where he was in stasis and nobody knew a damn thing about whether he was alive or not? Yeah. Al could see how that would be hard to deal with.
But moms didn’t get to just fall apart.
Diego was old enough to get the idea that mommy was very sad about something, and even wanted to help, but he still needed looking after. And Sam? Sam had only just gotten the hang of sitting up and stuffing things in his mouth. Marty didn’t have the option of just feeling and processing and all the rest.
Since when did Al become such…hell, a mom herself?
Well. Self-answering question, there. Duh, Allison. But really…helping was a no-brainer. Grandparents were one thing, but Gabe wanted to be there for his son too, Marty’s parents wouldn’t arrive until the morning, and the huge sprawling HEAT uncle-dom had their own duties to deal with first.
That left Al, Xiù and Julian. He would take care of the Maximum Bro side of things, which just left…
A crushing hug like only somebody who lived in ‘Horse’s orbit could deliver, a profoundly grateful, tearful, whimpering one, and then Marty was gone to go grieve or celebrate or whichever and Allison’s home now had a hundred percent more Baby.
Big, curious, dark brown eyes looked up at her. Adam’s children were his spitting image, and only really took after Marty in the small details. Fortunately, Diego liked the same TV shows as Anna and Harrison, and the three were regular playmates. Between that, Xiù, Julian, and the twins…it was almost a routine kind of night.
Except everyone had a certain big someone on their mind.
Ramsey broke the question first, as he helped clean some potatoes. “Will he be okay?”
Al shrugged helplessly. “That’s just it. We don’t know. Marty doesn’t know, anyway.”
“Okay…well, when will we know?”
Al sighed. “When the Corti finish their review, little bro. Wonders of stasis and all that.”
“So it’s gonna be a while…”
“Could be they already did it,” Xiu added. “I mean, this is Nofl we’re talking about. He’s pretty, uh, decisive. In a good way! But still…”
“Yeah, but he’s workin’ with some bigwig professor,” Julian chimed in, climbing out of his basement cave and fresh off his evening workout, toweling himself down so he didn’t drip everywhere. “And he’s fond of Adam, too. We all are. In any case, uh, I’ve already made some arrangements to help out. Y’know. Just in case.”
“…In case what?” Ramsey asked.
“Recovery. Support. He’s a big guy, there’s not a lot of people out there who’ll be able to help him, if he needs it.” Julian sat down, sighed, and closed his eyes. He looked tired, which was unusual for him after a workout—usually they energized him. Today, he looked like worry had beaten all the fizz out of him.
“Well. He’s lucky to have you, then,” she said, and leaned over for a slightly salty kiss. “Now go shower.”
That was the rhythm of their night. Normalcy, tinged with concern and worry for a mutual friend. Dinner, evening playtime, babies to bed, a movie, the twins to bed…
Xiù curled up in Allison’s lap once the three of them were alone. She’d spent half the movie in her office, taking a call, and from the looks of things it had added a whole second layer to her troubles.
“So…that was Naydra,” she explained.
Julian shot her a concerned look. “Daar’s okay?”
“Better than Adam…” Xiù stretched. “I guess. He’s…I guess the best way to put it is he’s a bit loopy right now.”
“Loopy?” Allison asked.
Xiù nodded. “Kinda…dazed, confused. Medication did a number on him, I guess. And she wanted to…well, hear my experience with nervejam, hear my thoughts, offload…”
“She’s havin’ a rough time with him, huh?”
“Yup. And I guess even the Empress of the Gao needs somebody she can vent to.”
“God.” Allison gave her a squeeze. “Has it ever struck you how weird our lives are? I’m a spaceship engineer sorta these days and I’m the most normal of us all.”
“Well,” Julian chuckled. “The twins are pretty normal…”
“Ramsey decided he’s going to try for the Folctha olympic tryouts, babe. Even in the world of normal, that’s pretty damn special.”
Julian nodded, scratching behind his head in slightly embarrassed pride. “…Tristan’s going places, too. I keep telling him he should join one of the engineering contests or something.”
“He’s not that kind of guy, babe. Same reason you never did any of that in High School. Money aside,” Al added quickly. “I think you were a bit of a loner back then.”
“Well, yeah…” Julian agreed. “I think in my case, uh…oh, hell.” He sighed, “I guess just, being what I was even then? It would have drawn all sorts of attention that didn’t sound nice. I think the same’s sorta true for him, just for different reasons. He’s got us as adopted parents, and his own brother is already an olympic-grade wrestler and stuff…”
“Not like miss ballet and drama club here,” Al poked Xiù in the tummy, drawing out the first giggle to grace the room in several hours. “Miss ‘the Great Mother calls me up to gossip.’”
“Mm. When you put it like that…” Xiù nodded. “Or y’know. Who we’re babysitting for tonight…”
“God. I hate that Nofl was right,” Julian muttered.
“Well…us. This. Don’t just look at me or us, I mean…look all around us! Ramsey is just a normal kid with good, healthy parents. Look at him now! Same with Tristan, have you seen how smart he is? He doesn’t like to show off, but when him and Vemik are at it…”
“And that’s showing up a lot, lately. In a lot of people.”
“Yeah. And the thing about it? He swears up and down there’s not just a bunch of Corti bullshit going on, except, y’know. With me and a few others. Not Ramsey! Not the rest of Folctha! Now, what the hell are we gonna be dealing with when Ana and Harrison grow up?”
“So…what was he right about, exactly?”
“He said…’cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ This. Us. Human potential. He says Folctha is really an experiment to unleash humankind to its fullest, somehow. Maybe he’s getting a bit religious about it which is weird as fuck, but still! Look at what we’re becoming without all that much of a nudge! Are we even ready for it?”
It was clear this was something that had been gnawing at him for a while.
“Well…I mean, babe. You’re literally a superman and you make out fine. And we’ve got an entire team of them, just down the road a few miles. We’re managing, aren’t we?”
He never did much enjoy talking himself up, no matter how exceptional he was. He again scratched at the back of his head, and as if to prove her point, that utterly, freakishly massive arm of his balled up huger than his own blocky head, and his bicep smashed up against his ear. Only two men had bigger arms, and even then they simply weren’t shaped so…well, perfectly.
He was a superman, and as much as he was proud of himself, he almost hated the notion.
He sighed, noticed he was doing the head-scratch thing, grumbled at himself and sighed again. “Sure. I am. They are. But that’s just dozens of us. What’s it gonna mean when hundreds and thousands and more start showing up? Look at Jack Tisdale! The kid is a fucking genius and thirty years ago he’d have a record-breaking bench press! Hell, look at Thompson! He was this absolute out-of-nowhere freak like I was, except training since he was five. Not only did they make an unlimited class so he could wrestle, he had competition. Firth, too. Hell, Adam! He was exactly the same, except bigger’n all of us at five-foot-fuckin’ seven! And look at you two!”
He gestured to them. “I mean…a teenage mom who ran away from home, and a schoolgirl with dreams of being a movie star. And now look at you! Building starships and developing cities on an alien world, changing the course of history a couple times over, and some of the most important people in the whole fucking galaxy turn to you for support!”
“Babe…” Al pulled in for a hug. “This is obviously eating you up. But why? I mean…if it’s happening, it’s gonna happen, and so far it’s been a good thing, right? What are you really worried about?”
Julian ran an agitated hand through his hair, achieving more mess. “…Tristan is a good kid. They turn eighteen here pretty soon. But the thing is, he’s smart, he’s fit and handsome, he’s ambitious…and thirty years ago he’d be a world-conquering standout. Now, we’ve got, just…how is he supposed to compete with the deck stacking against him like it is? What’s the world gonna be like when bruisers like me and Thompson are almost everyday normal, and geniuses like Lewis are just, everywhere?”
“I think the people you hang out with are skewing your perspective, Bǎobèi,” Xiù told him.
“Yeah, it does. That’s my point. A guy like me should be a one in a billion freak, which is weird to even say out loud. I know a dozen guys in my league, one of whom isn’t even twenty-one yet. I know there’s a hundred times that number out there, quietly getting through life, making families…and I know that because Nofl told me so. That was the entire point of what they did to me. I wasn’t just there to test medicines against.” He growled, “I was there to prove out a bloodline. One that has a whole lot of people in it, and who are almost all exceptional.”
Ah. She understood now. “And you weren’t the only experiment, either.”
“No. How much you wanna bet the SOR is just filled with them? I wouldn’t be surprised if Firth was the same story as me. Have you heard his family history? Hard to ignore the parallels. Lotsa weird happenings, they had a whole clan of freaks going back several generations living up in the hollars…he’s just the first to escape.”
“Tristan will be fine, babe.” Al soothed protectively. “Even in a world filled with turbo-meatheads like you. He’s more dangerous than you know. He’s just…he’s dangerous the way Rockafeller is. Or the Great Mother. Y’know, the way you’re completely helpless in.”
“Cute how he’s worried for his boy, though. Isn’t it?” Xiù added.
“Well of course I am!” He blurted, a bit angrily. “I never asked for the world to just fuckin’ level-up and suddenly drop him into hard mode!”
“Oh god, he’s becoming a videogame meathead,” Al quipped. “But seriously. I’m his sister. Maybe I’m not the best big sister, but I know he’ll be fine. He doesn’t need to be a half-ton bruiser to make it through life, babe. He’s already smarter than you anyway.”
“…I mean…yeah, he is. And I’m not exactly dumb.”
“And he knows how to dress,” Xiù added.
“…I hate that it matters, but yeah…”
Allison grinned, and played the trump card. “And he’s smooth. Dude’s got three double-dates next week.”
“Yeah, really. Trust me. He’ll be fine.”
Julian thought about that for a moment, then sighed, and nodded, and relaxed. “Alright…I guess we’d better get to bed ourselves, huh? Gonna be a long night with four little ones in the house.”
“A long week, I suspect.” Allison nodded, and gently pushed Xiù off her lap. “Not like Marty and Adam are coming home tomorrow…”
“We’ll give them as long as they need,” Xiù said, firmly.
“…You think he’ll be okay?” Julian asked, not meaning Tristan this time.
“This is Adam we’re talking about. You ask me…I don’t think he’s done yet.”
That seemed to be all the reassurance Julian needed. He nodded, brightened just a little…then changed gears, stooped, and scooped both of them up over his shoulders.
“Well, now that I got that off my chest…this ‘turbo-meathead’ has got plans for you two…”
Not all-night plans, sadly. Slow, lazy, tender plans tonight. Nice having three parents who could take turns, really. Because although they had no problems falling to sleep…they weren’t ever going to sleep through tonight in one go.
They made do. Most importantly, they were helping.
And they did their best not to worry.
Date Point: 18y9m3w4d AV
Emergency trauma surgery unit, College of Xenomedicine hospital, City 03, planet Origin
Forln, surgeon first class
Forln had been on call for the last ten days. He had slept, eaten, hydrated, and optimized his physical and mental condition before entering stasis in anticipation of the scenario now awaiting him in theatre. There was something…telling… in the fact that he, the College’s pre-eminent xenosurgeon, had been asked to put in such a long stint.
No matter. He had his assistants to bring him up to speed as he stepped out of the stasis pod.
His assistant transferred the files before even that one word had finished leaving Forln’s mouth.
“Human male, twelve-year history of intensive Cruezzir Derivative therapy for bodily development reasons. Senior member of the Hazardous Environment Assault Team.”
Forln nodded as he stepped up onto the control podium and looked inward to the filthy, dirt-encrusted stasis bag lying in the middle of his otherwise pristine operating theatre, and called up the patient’s scan.
The pre-emptive scan of the Human in his pre-mission physical condition was…striking. It must have taken something terrible to land this specimen in his care…a story told in its entirety by the post-injury scan taken by the bag just before it activated its stasis field.
What he had, for the moment, was not so much a patient as several pieces of a corpse.
Forln was not in the habit of emotion. He understood that indulging in it was becoming increasingly in vogue with the younger generations as the Directorate released more details of Project Carbon, but Forln saw no reason to join in. Nevertheless, he noted that he felt considerable surprise: an unlimited budget meant either the coffers of a government or one of the galaxy’s wealthiest individuals were available in this case. With an unlimited budget, he could keep the theatre occupied indefinitely, procure whatever materials, tissue samples, tools and outside services he deemed necessary, subject to later review of his decisions.
Still…there were some things that no amount of funding could resolve. As he studied the scan, he noted the expert preparatory work. A truly skilled doctor had performed quickly and efficiently, and the Human body was notoriously durable. Plenty of Cruezzir-derived regenerative compounds saturating the patient’s tissues, too. This would not be the most difficult resuscitation of his career…
Nor the easiest. The presence of extensive nootropic-countered nervejam damage greatly complicated matters. That kind of damage was…tricky…to address.
He begun the preliminary work, programming the target post-operative state his surgical suite would pursue. It was not a short process, but the patient was safely in stasis and the bag directly powered. He could work on this for as long as he needed, given the unlimited funding.
Forln worked for most of the day, taking occasional breaks to rest while considering some of the more complicated details of this presentation. Where necessary, he sought second opinions. The work continued into the second day as he brought in specialists from elsewhere on the planet and even one from planet Perimeter to assist him.
The problem did not lie in physical reconstruction. At least, not immediately. The suite’s power capacity had to be upgraded, given the number of simultaneous interventions required, the patient’s combined size and density, and the desire to restore his body to an absolutely pristine state before it left his theatre. There was an immense amount of tissue that needed repair, and not just from his fatal trauma. Given this man’s obvious importance, a full “refurbishment” was absolutely in order.
While those upgrades were being handled, they prepared and scheduled the autolabs nearby for major level-ten intervention. Appropriate stem cells would be plentifully cultivated from the patient’s genetic sample. Several organ systems would need replacement entirely: his liver and kidneys had been ruptured (and were worse for wear, anyway), his knees needed some extensive attention. The same story for his ligaments and tendons, every major muscle group, most of his bones. All of it had been pushed well past their extremes, and he’d been living just slightly beyond the edge of regenerative medicine’s capability for far too long.
Forln wondered if he’d even been aware of the chronic pain. Well, that could be minimized…though likely it would continue after this, with different causes.
Rebuilding him would be an extensive and intricate process, especially considering the need to compensate for the inevitable systemic and metabolic consequences. Nonetheless, the patient could endure it, and therefore would.
The nervous system, however, was a very different matter. While most of the Human body could be induced to heal via carpentry when necessary, the Human brain was…challenging. And poorly understood despite decades of research.
This one was particularly abused. Multiple nervejam exposures, toxic buildup of ruined neurotransmitters, not to mention swimming in aggressive nootropic agents calculated to do only one thing: prevent death, and not gently. The long-term consequences were secondary to that objective.
The brain trouble extended the process by days, by which time his surgical suite had been upgraded, replacement organs had been grown and placed in stasis, and all other preparations had been put in order.
The neurology, however, demanded second opinions. He had time. He traded correspondence with multiple colleagues and, ultimately, sat down for a face-to-face meeting with the two consultants who came most highly recommended. A Primary Professor of xenoneurology named Maf…and the infamous Nofl.
“Preserving his faculties completely intact may not by possible,” Forln explained. “By any standard we are dealing with an exceptional intellect. His general score was last measured at one-seventy-four.”
Professor Maf absorbed that news with a thoughtful expression. “Commendable. And that’s adjusted against species average?”
“I see.” She reached into the projection floating between them and indicated a particular area. “…In your message, you expressed particular concern over this well-developed area. The primary, supplementary and pre-motor cortices.”
“Indeed. Physicality is partly a mental talent in Humans. And as you can see, in our patient’s case, that region has some of the greatest toxic buildup.”
“That is unfortunate.” Maf agreed.
“My concern is how much we can do to alleviate it.”
“Hard to say. This much damage is likely to have permanent chronic sequellae. But, Humans are known to be quite capable at physical rehabilitation. I would be less concerned over his motor prognosis, and more concerned with the emotional regulation centers in his old-brain regions. Our therapeutic priorities should be focused there, if possible.”
“I considered that. Past experience with Human subjects suggests that their emotions can greatly motivate them. In a Corti patient, this kind of damage would obviously be a priority, but in a Human I suspect powerful emotion may be useful and necessary in his long-term rehabilitation.”
The other consultant in the room—one who’d been something of an outcast for long years, only to return with considerably expanded prestige thanks to his direct work with deathworlders—shook his head. “You misunderstand. Emotional regulation is an absolutely necessary skill for humans, particularly aggressive, physically powerful males like himself. Their masculine culture emphasises stoicism precisely because of the dire consequences of not self-regulating.”
Forln gave Nofl a curious look. “I had no idea. I have yet to see any of this emotional regulation.”
“Oh,” Nofl emphasized, “you have.”
Forln and Maf blinked at him for a second. “…I see your meaning,” Maf said, shortly. “I take it you concur with me then?”
“Absolutely. The greatest good for our patient will be to prioritize his emotional stability and self-control above all other concerns. That is a foundation he can build on in rehabilitation. All else will handicap him.”
Forln considered the poisoned brain before them. “…Tricky. The best we may be able to do is a flush and some targeted cellular therapy. These structures are in particularly vexing locations in his brain.”
Maf gave the projection a thoughtful look, then leaned forward and compiled a procedure. “…This,” she suggested.
They considered it. Tweaked it. Made minor refinements. Concurred.
It was, admittedly, an incomplete intervention. They could only engage in so much nano-surgery, and their ability to replace brain tissue was quite limited.
Still. With time, discipline, and continued therapies…
“So, are we in agreement on prognosis?”
“He stands a fighting chance,” Nofl nodded. “And that is all he would have asked for.”
“In that case,” Forln stood, “I shall take my rest and prepare. I would…appreciate…if both of you would remain as online consultants.”
That was a form of honor that would have its consequences, given their ranks, but no matter. The patient came first, and the science would follow.
Six hours later, everyone was rested, the staff were assembled, everything was in order. Permission secured, and (in respect of Deathworlder customs) his significant others gathered to await the outcome.
Begin: the suite’s new much more powerful fields lifted the stasis bag into the center of the operating volume, and Forln executed the single quickest, most violent dismemberment of his medical career. In less than a second, they had his head severed and sedated, the body broken into its primal divisions, and multiple interventions underway as aggressively as possible.
This patient could take the aggression, and in such things, quicker was always better.
A naked Human brain was quite a sight. Astonishing to think it was so efficient, because it certainly wasn’t large, especially in comparison to body mass—particularly in this specimen. Instead, it was intricate and clearly an evolved structure; no engineered organ would have such a strangely laid-out design, nor would any be so remarkably well-adapted.
Forln had a good surgical suite and a deeply skilled team. He did little more than check in occasionally at the many actions going on in parallel across the Human’s immense body. His attention was almost entirely focused on the brain, where Maf was supervising the intricate neural surgery underway, and Nofl was providing running commentary. Rarely was such a thing necessary in modern practice, but rarely was a surgery so complicated.
Gently, ever so carefully, forcefields divided the complex folds of his brain just enough to make their entry. This would inevitably cause some damage but that could be repaired, if they were sufficiently cautious. The automapper did its work, identifying each neural region and its function, building up this specimen’s cognitive catalog for feedback into the suite’s computers, and review by the three surgeons present.
What they had before them was a magnificent, ruined specimen.
Nervejam. A cruel weapon. Brief, targeted quantum-field distortions that did terrible things to the electrical activity and chemical neurotransmitters alike. It wasn’t just the brief haywire scrambling of the brain’s activity that made it so terrible—most life forms that survived that would have recovered quite readily on their own.
No, the long-term damage came from the way it twisted neurotransmitters, locking them long-term in their receptors and distorting their chemistry. The damage was much akin to prolonged toxic metal exposure, and led to a delicate conundrum: the Human’s body would naturally flush and metabolize the compounds, if he survived, which was likely to be the safest and most long-term effective solution. But he could not survive the current situation.
Forln’s responsibility, therefore, was to find the acceptable balancing point where he could wash out sufficient of those ruined neurotransmitters to avert irreversible harm, without causing irreversible harm in the process.
And, of course, there were time limits. They only had so much time with the brain in this state before death of personality became a concern.
Progress on the patient’s body was comparatively easy, and advanced well. Forln had high confidence they would give their patient an immaculately repaired, restored, and “refurbished” body, one more than fit for someone like him.
They worked, as fast and as gently as they could manage, with an awareness on the clock driving their ongoing triage. Basic repairs had been effected everywhere. His cerebellum would probably recover, in time. Limbic, endocrine, and other systems no longer looked like processed nutrient slurry. Most of the toxic build-ups had been flushed, but not all…
And they were out of time. They had done as much as they could with the time they had. Carefully, they withdrew their field instruments from his brain, nano-suturing and regenerating as they did so. Not perfect, not even satisfactory.
The rest of the paragon’s body had been flawlessly attended to. All of Forln’s assistants would be awarded icons for their banner over this. One for Nofl too, his advice was invaluable.
They re-assembled their patient, dosed him, lowered him carefully on his oversized, reinforced gurney. And then came the moment of peak tension: resuscitation.
One jolt proved sufficient. Autonomic functions took over, breathing and circulation resumed. Brain activity went through the chaotic, subjectively indescribable process of returning to…well, not normal function. Not for this patient, not after such grievous damage. But function nonetheless.
Metabolic indicators were strong, regenerative uptake was truly excellent…A few minor interventions to ensure that nothing went off-course, but overall…a smooth resurrection. Gratifying, considering that this patient had effectively been a dismembered cadaver when he arrived.
Whatever happened next was in the patient’s own sturdy hands.
Date Point: 18y9m3w4d AV
Ferd’s village, Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3KPc Arm
Ferd’s village was higher up in the hills than Vemik’s, where the streams ran shallow, clean and clear with no Yshek to worry about, no water-sickness…sure, it was further to go to find good hunting, and further to carry a kill back, uphill…but no real man worried about that. Good exercise!
Besides, there was good ore in the hills, just lying around in chunks on the ground. The boys of Ferd’s village picked it up and carried it in baskets for trade.
Vemik’s tribe, on the other foot, never strayed far from the Human research camp and their jump array. They just followed the werne around in that valley, really. Never far from the forge, either, which wasn’t really a thing that could be moved around. It had become a place where the People came together to swap things. Ore from Ferd’s village, knives and bows from Vemik’s apprentices, clay from Toog’s village, baskets and mats from Nep’s village, where the women had a secret way of weaving they refused to share…
Even the Humans traded at the forge, sometimes. And so did Ferd, when he came back from offworld. He brought Human and Gaoian sweetmeats and toys, gave them cheaply for the fun of it, and took back useful tools and things to his tribe.
Vemik went with him. There was the usual fun when he arrived. They wrassled, he won, but this time he was very careful not to be too aggressive in front of Ferd’s tribe. Vemik was an invited friend, even if Ferd was his now. That was private between friends and Given-Men, after all.
Also, things were very interesting near his village! Higher in the hills, where the trees stopped and gave way to smaller stuff…up there was a lot of new things to see. Vemik didn’t know if he’d sketched and collected half the plants and things up there yet, and Ferd’s Singer said now was the best time to see some of the bushes.
She was right. The bushes grew flowers in a hundred different colors, and Vemik had a challenging time painting one! He had to use his smallest brush, and work slowly so the paints wouldn’t mix.
“How do you have the patience to do that?” Ferd was watching just like before, head over Vemik’s shoulder, legs around waist and weight on his back.
“Sky-thinking. Still a part of me, even if I Gave the name. Also, helps with my head-hurt.”
“Why paint them, though? Pick them, press them. Seen you do it.”
“I could…might still. But taking the time to really pay attention means you know a thing better.”
“Yeah?” Ferd watched the bushes with a frown. “…what’s to know?”
“See these? Stay-mens. You remember Nightrot blooms from over the mountains? Same shape, even though these are pink. So, probably just as nasty. But! Eck still like them.”
Funny how things turned out looking a lot the same on many worlds. Humans would have called an eck a moth, except moths liked night-time and eck liked whenever. Their larvae were happily munching the leaves, even though Vemik was pretty sure he’d regret it if he even licked the sap.
Ferd watched a moment longer, then shrugged and grunted. “Guess so.”
“You Sky-Think too! Just, about guns and tactics and fighting.”
“Mm. Think Yan sky-thinks even more than both of us, these days…saw him a hand of days ago. Said his head was feeling full.”
Vemik nodded, and added a very thin little line in black to highlight the petal’s sharp edges. “Still wants to beat us to calculus, too!”
“No!” Vemik trilled. “But you might still beat me. Fell behind when my brain got shook.”
“Don’t know about that. Humans turn numbers into a…I don’t know. Language. Or a map? Makes my head spin. I know numbers like ‘a bull and three hands of cows, two fingers away’ or whatever.”
“No, you know numbers better than that! You finished trig, you can solve a triangle, you can use that to figure distances, all that.”
“So believe in yourself! Numbers are just a thing like anything else. They have rules, and they can stand in for things. Three bulls is just an idea. You don’t actually need three of anything to see that. And so lamb-da and thee-tha and all the rest just stand in too!”
“Rrgh, let me grumble!” Ferd trilled. “I know all of this stuff! Just know what Yan means about having a full head. Brain gets tired too…except yours, seems like.”
Vemik didn’t really know what to say to that, so…so he finished his painting. Washed the brush, set the journal aside to dry before he closed it.
“…‘sides…” Ferd rumbled after a moment.
“There’s sky-thinking and then…then there’s whatever you do. Making up bows and stuff. Inventing. Turns out sky-thinking is something anyone can do, but thinking up a whole new weapon? And killing a big bull with it for your Trial? When you were so small, too? That’s rare. And brave, like leaping out of a tree and not even knowing if there’s another tree out there to land in.”
“You’re doing that. Joining JETS, finding out where our people fit in that, paying back what we owe…”
“No. That’s more like…like knowing I can reach the branch, not sure if it’ll take my weight but knowing there’s other branches to land on. Humans and Gao did it all before, I’m just figuring out how to do the same thing our way. Not the same.”
Again, Vemik didn’t really know what to say. Was that his brain-hurt? Or just…normal?
Probably normal. He hoped. So, he stuck out an arm and pulled Ferd in for a hug, because hugs were never the wrong answer.
Also. “I think you are, Ferd. You’re showing them how we fight, with big sky-magic and all their knowings. They don’t have your strength. Or your senses. Or your tail! I watch you train, try to learn it all, and I see how you make Heff think! That’s brave, what you do for all of us.”
He tried not to let that weak jealous sound creep into his voice, but…Vemik was never a good liar.
Ferd, for his part, trilled in amusement. “You, jealous? What for?! You invent the bow, you visit Earth and survive attacks, you met Jooyun and Shyow for the first time and sat down with them before anyone knew what they were! And then, just yesterday? After you beat me and claimed me, you were nice enough to hug back, leave me my dignity, visit friendly, do all this? You’ve got Yan’s strength flowing in you already and you’re not even four hands gone! Vemik, what man wouldn’t be jealous of you?”
“…” Vemik extra didn’t have an answer to that, which just made Ferd trill harder.
“See?! Let us weaker men have something, Vemik!” he trilled again, then rose to his feet. “Come. We go hunt, you spend the night and get a full belly. Go back tomorrow, okay?”
Well, okay. Vemik cleared up his paints and journals, they went hunting, he stayed the night and enjoyed the women, Singer especially…and Ferd again, too.
He set out at first light, though. Had a full mind, and it was a long way back home. Plenty of time to move and think and clear his head.
He decided to gallop home. It was good hard work and nothing was better for a busy mind. Plus, Ten’Gewek had to earn long-strength just like humans had to earn good muscle. He wasn’t going to let any skinny too-tall strangefoot beat him at anything if he could help it!
He arrived at the village nice and early, tired but importantly, not worried half to death.
But he was worrying now. He had a meeting he was dreading. Test results. They’d been testing him every two hand of days since his big fight, and every time there was the chance that he’d learn something bad about his fate.
Oh well. Stupid to torture himself all day worrying about it. Get it done early, and either get good news, or have longer to deal with bad news!
He checked in on the forge on his way past. His former apprentice had apprentices, now! The bowls…could use some work, but that was something he might check in on later, if he could do it without hurting anyone’s feelings too much.
Up at the Human camp, the thing they were building was taking shape. They’d talked long with many of the Given-Men and Singers about building a permanent building instead of the pree fabs, and the People had said yes…but what they were building didn’t look like it was there to live in. Somehow. It just wasn’t…shaped right. It was shaped interesting. Kind of round on the north side, and the upper floors stuck out over the doors on the north-east corner.
Also, the doors were People-wide. Vemik had tried to look in, but they had tarps and stuff up to keep the rain out, and…well, he didn’t really feel like going into a construction site again just yet.
He did make friends with the builders, though. They were men like how humans were really meant to be, Vemik thought: about a head taller than him, wiry and light but strong in their size, you could tell just by looking. Had that same work-forever attitude too, and they liked to tell dirty jokes! It seemed like a good, sensible way to put a people together in Vemik’s mind, if you never knew what kind of a place you might be living in or what kind of work might need doing. Their god was a clever one. More muscle would be nice, but…
A couple of the women had taken to flirting with them, too. That would be fun to watch. Would the humans survive his tribe? Haha!
They wouldn’t tell him anything though, “or the Professor will kick our asses.” Lots of gruff laughter there.
Not that Professor Daniel couldn’t kick an ass these days, in Vemik’s mind. He’d come a long way since first coming to them. Back then he’d been soft, clean, pale and smooth. Smooth skin, smooth voice, smooth soft hands. The years on Akyawentuo had fixed all that. Tanned him brown, burned off the fat, built up the muscle, roughened his hands and even changed his voice from telling stories. Not made him big like Jooyun, but Vemik knew a good hardened bit of steel when he saw one. He was what Human man should be, too.
Didn’t quite have a blacksmith’s grip yet, though. Just the voice of one. “Vemik! Decided to get your test out of the way early, huh?”
Vemik turned, trilled self-effacingly and nodded. “Sooner done, the better, yes?”
“Right you are.” Hurt led the way with a jerk of his head.
The tests went…well. Best results yet! Vemik tried to fret it was just a good day, but Hurt wouldn’t let him.
“You’ve been having more good days than bad, lately. Face the facts, Vemik Given-Man: you’re healing well. And a good thing too! That brain of yours is too damn good to waste in a fight.”
Vemik ducked his head and grinned. Professor wasn’t wrong. “I didn’t ask to be blown up!”
“I’m quite sure nobody who ever got blown up was asking for it.” Hurt chuckled, then waved a hand at the building. “What do you think?”
Vemik’s tail twitched. “It’s…nice. Don’t know what it’s for, though. Looks built to be nice first.”
“Well, not necessarily. Form very much follows function here. On that note, you have a special visitor coming next week with the first deposit…”
Vemik’s mind had no trouble catching up with that word. And suddenly, it snapped into place where he’d seen that kind of are-key-texture before. He turned and looked at the building again, tail lashing excitedly.
“You built us a library?!”
“Not just a library. It’s more of a forum, really.”
Professor laughed, “No no! forum. A place to meet and talk, share thoughts, sky-think…” Hurt beamed proudly. “Not your big meaty arm-hooks! Plus, this has all the usual library’s amenities. Shelves full of useful books, climate-controlled so nothing rots, flexible spaces with computers and tables, writing and art supplies, the middle bit can be used as an impromptu stage…”
He sighed, happily. “We’re building it so it’s expandable too. All the services that might need to grow bigger are each along their own wall so we can just stick on more building later. And of course we’ve managed to find a professional librarian willing to come here from Earth.”
“So everything will be well looked after.”
“More than that. A librarian isn’t just a custodian of books, they’re a researcher. Curating knowledge is a skill all by itself, just ask the E-Skurel-Ir. And you’ve seen a glimpse of it for yourself with your note-taking, yeah?”
True enough. He’d had to learn how to organize everything as he wrote it or he’d forget where to even find things. That wasn’t so easy a thing to do; sometimes he thought more about thinking than actually thinking.
A strange thought.
“Your people….aren’t ever going to give up your lifestyle, I think,” Hurt said. “You’re too much of the forest to leave it forever, and far too magnificently physical to ever give it up. And with the world as it is, maybe you shouldn’t anyway. Lord knows it can be a violent place, and…well, I am told you bring unique ability to the battlefield.” He clearly wasn’t happy with that bit, but quickly moved on. “Anyway, I think—I hope—there’s a happy medium where you can live as you are and still taste of the fruit, as we say. You’ve started that already with the forge. This library is another step in that process.”
“…Humans really do have strange ideas. Given us so much, and still Giving. I know you don’t see it that way, but our people will.”
“I know. And I respect that. From our perspective, it’s different.”
Vemik nodded. He knew Humans well enough by now: to them, it would be a deep and uncomfortable Taking to have all they did and not Give even a little of it. And they had so much that this really was just a little…
But he’d have to bend a few arms at the lodge again, when they started making troubled noises about how much larger the debt was getting. Some of the Given-Men just couldn’t grasp the idea that Humans were so completely different in the head. A few—the most insular and backward-thinking, who’d moved their villages far away—fretted they’d just traded an enemy who wanted to destroy the People, for somebody subtler and smarter who came as a friend but would Take everything in time.
Professor tapped his hand. “You drifting off there?”
Vemik shook his head. “Just sky-thinking.”
Hurt chuckled. “Good man. But…you have a village to get back to, and I have my own work to do.”
“Singer will probably come up later to see it,” Vemik predicted.
“Good—oof!” Hurt chuckled into Vemik’s hug, squeezed back as hard as he could (a lot harder than he used to could!) and Vemik left him alone.
His mind turned over as he headed home. Wouldn’t do to arrive empty-handed so he veered off toward the river. The Werne would be drinking at this time of day. Maybe he’d catch a lone male…
But he took a moment to notice how sharp everything was. How clear his head was being. And he grinned to himself as he hunted.
Today was a good day.
Date Point: 18y9m3w4d AV
Ninja Taco, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Leela, Grand Mistress of The Dark Taco Arts
The funny thing was…the Great Mother had a familiar scent. Leela had smelled it on Daar many a time before. And she, of course, smelled much like him.
They both radiated power, in their own ways. But the way they wielded it couldn’t possibly be more different.
Daar was, of course, a big, brash, brazen, bold, boisterous sort of a leader. Everything wonderful about males…and perhaps maybe to a bit of an exasperating degree, sometimes. He was not shy about embodying the most ridiculously grunty stereotypes and he seemed to positively delight in needling Leela in particular. It often took all she had to keep from chittering, or just giving in to his ridiculousness. It was charming almost in spite of itself.
Naydra, without even saying anything, already felt like an old friend. Like someone Leela had grown up with, got into mischief in the commune with, knew of old and shared some secrets with.
She definitely did have a mischievous streak, from the way she poked her nose through the window just like Daar. “I presume you will spatulate me as well?”
“You’re not filling half the stall with a giant shaggy head.” Leela replied, though she did chatter and brandish the Spatula appropriately.
“And I’m not attempting a parody of a seduction, either.”
“Why does he do that?” Leela wondered, chittering. “He’d probably have won me long ago if he’d just tone it down a little!”
“I think that’s exactly the point.” Naydra chittered warmly. “…It’s good to finally meet you.”
“And you.” Leela promptly started assembling the order Daar always took home for Naydra. “Though, I was kind of hoping when you did finally come visit me, it wouldn’t be because you’re worried about something, yijao?”
“…You do have a good nose.”
“It’s honestly why I can’t do anything but like Daar. I can smell there isn’t the tiniest hint of anything but playfulness on him. Well, beyond, y’know. What every male smells like when they see a Female.”
Naydra chittered, pulled her nose back out the window, and moved round the front to sit down: Leela gave her a bubble tea, which the Great Mother lapped at for a moment, made an approving noise, lapped some more, then set it down for the moment.
“I was wondering…well, hoping…if you’d like to come visit.”
“Visit…where? High Mountain?”
Leela looked around. “That’s a bit sudden, don’t you think? What of my business?”
“I understand it’s important to you. But surely you need to take a break sometime? And…and I’d appreciate it.”
Leela stared at her a moment, then turned the burner off, and moved to the counter to be closer. “…What’s wrong?”
Naydra’s paws fidgeted on the cup. “…He’s…not well. He got nervejammed in battle.”
Something cold slid down Leela’s innards. But Naydra didn’t smell of grief, and the world wasn’t crashing down around their ears, so…
Naydra drank some more of the tea, miserably. “…And he hasn’t quite been himself, since.”
“…What do you mean, exactly?”
“Exactly that. He’s having to…re-learn who he is, sort of. It’s hard to explain. But what he needs right now are people who are important to him. His anchors.”
Leela considered that for a moment. Then she turned back around and re-lit the burner. “Okay.”
Naydra made a confused sound, a second before understanding struck her and she chittered. “…Of course. Tacos.”
“Exactly! Never underestimate the healing power of a Kōga Clan Deluxe.” Leela chittered over her shoulder. “…I’m going to need some help cleaning down and locking up, too….”
“Gladly.” Naydra was on her feet in an instant, and quickly proved she was no stranger to scrubbing a well-used kitchen. Though, she did sneeze at the rather strong cleaning chemicals. Human antibacterial sprays were potent.
Leela had to turn away a few customers before they were done. A shame, but, well, people were pretty understanding. Between them they had a solid meal for two, and a banquet for Daar, bagged and ready and the stand appropriately sterile pretty quickly, and from there…
…Well, travelling with the Great Mother was an interesting experience. She just breezed right through the border as though it didn’t exist. And the jump schedule? Well, for the sufficiently powerful and wealthy, there was no schedule except their own.
“I presume, of course, you are in compliance with all their border laws,” she added. “There’s responsibility that goes with this level of convenience.”
“Uh, yes. Yes, probably. I mean, they let me immigrate and not much has changed since then, so…”
Okay. If that was good enough for Naydra, it was good enough for Leela. She rode out the jump with a little trepidation though—this was to be her first time back on Gao in years. Weird, that it had felt so far away but in actual fact was so close. Just a walk around the corner, a jaunt past the border and…
Well, except Leela’s home on Gao hadn’t been this. The commune in the small town of Doshai where she’d grown up and lived until the war had been basically a two-storey apartment complex with rows of greenhouses out the back. Pleasant, especially with the cladding on the building’s outside to make it look like wood…but nothing like High Mountain Fortress.
Even the jump room, which Leela knew from Daar’s storytelling was a heavily armored bunker in the basement, was as lavish as its function could allow. Its walls were a tribute to all the Clans of Gao, painted with their emblems: the Clan of Females was represented centrally, above the door, and Clan Highmountain’s crest had special place as a floor mosaic.
Out the vault doors and up the ramp to the surface, Leela almost stumbled at the wave of nostalgic emotions that washed across her. She’d…forgotten what Gao smelled like, after living on Cimbrean for so many years. But there it was, a background scent she’d never noticed her whole life here, and only noticed now by coming back.
It dredged a lot of memories to the surface. Some awful. The good ones made bittersweet by the tragedies that had come after.
But the garden… Oh, the garden drove all those bad thoughts out of her head in an instant.
It was explosively lush, its paths winding among flowerbeds, hedges, little tree groves and water features, opening up here and there into a bigger sitting area or monument of some kind.
They found Daar sniffing around near a marker commemorating Grandfather Garl, enjoying the flowers with a wildly wagging tail. As always…it was hard to look away from him. He’d been the Gao’s most desirable male since the day of his adulthood and there were obvious reasons for that. Those reasons had only grown vastly more impressive over time, and now…
Her breath hitched in her chest. Beauty and god-like power rippled in huge stone-carved waves across his body with deceptively graceful motion. He was light on his paws, looked carefree and poised like the most delicate dancer…but the ground shook under his strength.
Her heart was torn in two. It ached to give in, to be loved by so terribly magnificent a man…
It remembered what another, lesser male had done to her. How power could simply take.
People thought she was too picky. They were caught between awe and exasperation that she would turn down the Great Father’s advances. He was only ever half-serious about any of it, she knew, and his ego was so magnificently huge that it was all a big game to him, but…well…
They didn’t understand. Leela was a little silverfur. It wasn’t easy for someone who knew how dangerous a big male could be. Her own lesson in that regard had nearly taken her life.
Well…time for courage. And Naydra was gently pressing on her back, urging her forward.
“Daar! I brought tacos!”
He looked up. His nose twitched…and then a happy blur flashed across the garden and bowled Leela off her feet before she even knew she was being pounced on.
He was so gentle though! He rolled through the pounce, scooped up Leela and Naydra both, and rather than being smashed into by literal tons of brown-furred menace, they just…went for a chittering tumble on the lawn.
Fortunately, Naydra had been carrying the food, and had known to set it aside.
“I’ss my two favoritest females!” Daar’s chitter had a dopey note to it that Leela hadn’t heard before. As if he was blissfully happy—which he clearly was—but unfocused, which he never was. Even at his most clownish, there was always the deep Daar alert and clever below the surface. He wasn’t ever so…simple.
“My Father!” She chittered in spite of herself. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah! But my head’s all fuzzy, ‘cuz I can smell ‘yer gonna ask. Not as bad as it was. Jus’ real hard ‘ta keep a line o’ thought goin’.” His nose twitched and he looked up. “You brung tacos!”
And like that, his mind was indeed on a totally different agenda. Leela could see why Naydra was worried. Still…she had no idea what to do except treat him as she usually did. “Yes, and my spatula didn’t even get used this time! You could learn a thing or two!”
“But that’s th’ most funniest part! Ooh, Keeda’s Sweet Revenge sauce!”
Leela didn’t really understand the appeal of hot sauces, but the mango habanero sauce made for her by one of Cimbrean’s locals was a perennial favorite with Humans and brownfurs alike. Allegedly it was more sweet than hot, and it was sweet…but far too hot for her.
Then again, Humans liked things so pungently spiced you could hardly taste the meat, while Gaoian spices enhanced it in subtle ways that Humans barely noticed. One of the hardest aspects of her work was keeping the two spice blends separate…and not sneezing whenever she opened the Human blend.
On this occasion, the war between Daar’s stomach and his desire to play with his two most favoritest females was won by his stomach. Naydra, by some kind of Great Motherly magic, summoned a groundsheet and blanket for them to sit on. They ate while Daar, whenever his mouth wasn’t full, recounted his memories of Grandfather Garl. Apparently the old ‘Back had passed away peacefully on the very spot his memorial marker now stood, after storytime with a group of cubs.
It sounded like a nice way to go.
The food and the setting seemed to help. He was focused and clear-headed while he talked, and somehow…
He’d wrapped them both up in a tight, full-body hug somewhere along the way. Normally, Daar’s colossal…everything conjured up the worst of her wartime memories, which never felt fair to him; he was always so considerate, even his ridiculous preening was calculated to be harmless. So maybe that was the difference. Right now, he wasn’t calculating. Even when he was scheming entirely for her benefit, he was scheming nonetheless, with the world’s most obvious end goal in mind. She didn’t mind—in fact she appreciated his deliberate concern—but, no.
Worse, he had to do all that because he was such a manifestation of threat, and they both knew it. But now? That dangerous, calculating male was sleeping. What was awake was so purely innocent and affectionate, not even being wrapped up in his stone-shattering powerful limbs and pinned under such a monstrous creature felt dangerous.
And that, right there, was the problem. It was good to know Daar’s nature was fundamentally a big, soppy cub…but that wasn’t the Daar they needed. And it certainly wasn’t the Daar she found to be so simultaneously terrifying and so heart-breakingly attractive. That aggressive potential was what she made friends with, what she desired (if she could ever get over herself, being honest) and more than just her selfish concerns…
The Gao needed Daar back to his fierce, calculating self. They didn’t need a huge softie. They couldn’t survive that.
Her chance to sting him into remembering it came after the tacos were polished off and even the plastic carrying trays licked clean with a wide pink monolith of a tongue. He sighed, rested his head, snuggled them more tightly against his body—which was a feeling Leela could certainly get used to—and flicked an ear as he considered Garl’s memorial.
“…Nearly lost a good’n on Hell. Nearly lost ‘Horse. Real glad he’s okay. Or…well, no. He ain’t. But, the Corti doctors say they’ll do their best, and they don’t bullshit about that stuff. They might steal folks, experiment on ‘em, have given up on fuckin’, an’ all that shit…but they’re honest in their weird way, and their best is real fuckin’ good…” He chittered suddenly. “And, wow, you should see their new Carbon Caste shit. Give it twenny years an’ we’re gonna have jacked fuckin’ little Corti runnin’ around!”
“So another group you can flex on, then,” Naydra teased.
“An’ not feel too bad ‘bout it!”
“Too bad?” Leela shared a knowing look with Naydra. “Please. You won’t feel bad at all.”
“Probl’y not! An’ lookit where the Humans’re goin’ too! There’s some real fukkin’ freaks showin’ up among ‘em now. Guys like ‘Horse an’ Gonzo an’ Righteous, an’ Julian an’ Hoeff an’ stuff? An’ kids sports too! People like ‘em just weren’t around a few generations ago, an’ now lookit! I mean yeah, it’s the Corti whut dun some of it, but still! It’ll be good ‘ta have people who ’preciate what all this hard work means…” He flexed one of his mind-bogglingly muscular forearms and studied it for a second. “Mebbe it’d be better if this sorta thing weren’t actually so important, but it is, so I’m glad we got it, yijao? Bad guys don’t care ‘bout rules.” He gave her an amused, happy look, but then a thought crossed his mind. He pant-grinned, growled mischievously, rose to his hind legs, and…
Firstly, Mothers he was tall! It never failed to stun. Not even Loomi or Gorku or that colossal First Fang brownfur…Gurrum? Went by Kodiak? nobody was so towering. Or so stocky and huge!
Secondly… “Oh my…seriously?!” Leela chittered in exasperation. “After all that, the instant a wild hair gets you, you’re up on your feet and flexing?!”
He spun around and showed off…well some pretty damn impressive (and impressively pretty) muscles, which had to be about the biggest understatement of all…
But still! Every damn time!
And his reason, bless him, was exactly what they needed to hear. “I flex ‘cuz it’s fun! And I ‘membered all-sudden I do this ‘fer you every time I go get tacos! You love it. Naydi does too!”
She looked over at Naydra who, sure enough, wasn’t pretending to anything and openly appreciative of the show. Honestly, the two were made for each other.
Still. Dignity should matter! “Daar!” She shook her head. “Seriously! Why?!”
His reply was both gratifying, as a genuine show of his old personality…and simultaneously exasperating. “I flex an’ strut ‘fer you ‘cuz I’m the biggest most bestest badass there ever was! An’ ever will be!! At everything!! What’s th’ point of anythin’ if ‘ya can’t show off ‘fer a pretty Female?!”
“And that’s all you’ve ever done!” Leela chittered, “Just flex and strut for me every time we meet!” A wicked idea crossed her mind, “Is that it? Are you just all show and no go?”
A slightly hurt expression played across his face, but he rallied immediately. “Me, just ‘fer show? ‘Ya wound me, Leela! Or mebbe that’s what ‘yer really holdin’ out ‘fer, huh?” He growled fiercely, and now Leela was wondering just what she’d set in motion…
“So I guess I better ‘show ‘ya!”
Things were a blur of activity all-sudden. He pounced excitedly over to his bag, dug out his communicator and messaged a bunch of people, and the instant he was done with that, scooped them both up, (somehow!) rolled them both on his back, and charged toward the north field in a blur of, well…a high-speed trainwreck careening through High Mountain with a purpose.
It was all she could do to hold on. Naydra was clearly exhilarated by the speed and power he was sharing with them…Leela was a bit too terrified to properly enjoy it.
Luckily, he was so ridiculously fast, the ride didn’t last long. There was a growing gathering of burly types on the field. Brownfurs of course, some exceptional silverfurs, a couple of Humans, oddly…They were playing pounce-ball, which was apparently much like the human games of rugby and field hockey combined.
Daar joined them. Though, ‘joining’ was putting it generously. He was more like a team unto himself. His arrival changed the game instantly.
Before, it was friendly and casual. Now it was serious and everyone wanted to see exactly what the Great Father could do. The other players wanted a shot at beating him, even if they had to gang up to do it…and Daar was hungry to dash that hope.
He obliged them. And not just on the field. After claiming his victory, he dragged them all, Leela, Naydra, Brothers and Humans all, to his…Mothers, his sweltering cave of a gym, and showed off there too, with impossibly heavy weights and impossible feats of ape-grade gymnastics on heavy rings suspended from the industrial ceiling, all in gravity fit to compact a car. It wasn’t just about him, either. He was encouraging and genuinely interested in helping some of the smaller males play along, say by lifting them up onto the rings to try their strength, teach them how to hold themselves, what they’d need to do to improve… He was a big friendly coach, and excited about all of it…and something about him just seemed…
And every second of it, with occasional glances back at her, back at Naydi… All of it was meant for them. He was preening like a jovial, carnal god and having an absolute blast doing it.
It was earnest spectacle enough to warm Leela’s heart. But the warmest bit came during a moment when he was distracted, roaring one of the Humans through a particularly strenuous lift. Naydra scooted up behind her, and gave her an affectionate nip around the ear.
“Thank you.” She gave Leela a hug. “I spend so much of my time soothing him, reassuring him and helping him relax…motivating him like that isn’t so easy for me. Challenging him. After all, he’s already won my heart…”
“How did that happen?” Leela realized suddenly that was probably a bit too personal. “I mean—”
“No, it’s okay. He and his daughter rescued me from a terrible fate. He’s seen me at the most vulnerable a Female could possibly be, and his response was to keen, offer comfort, and later give me justice. How could I not love him after that?”
Leela…didn’t know if that sounded like enough for her. “I think…I’d be grateful, sure…”
Without missing a beat, the Great Mother dived unflinchingly into hard, terrible honesty.
“You weren’t there. When he found me, my tormentor had very nearly raped me to death. Was in the act of finishing the job, as it were. And, well, there’s psychology at play there I hope no other Female ever experiences. Males have a terrible power over us, if they’re strong and evil enough. I would have loved him, Leela, before his attentions finally killed me. Just as strongly as I hated him. Was beginning to. I had no choice in the matter. The old stories are true.”
“….I’m so sorry,” Leela keened. “I didn’t know.”
“My Bumpkin rescued me from that fate. Maybe those feelings just…transferred over. I don’t know. But I don’t think so. They’ve never diminished over time. If anything, they’ve grown.”
“…You don’t need to share this, I’m so sorry—”
“No, I do. Because you’re one of the few Females who gets him. He needs you, and…well, I would never command your help on this. But I will ask it.”
Leela duck-nodded. “I think…I think that’s the thing. You wouldn’t. Not couldn’t. You’re his equal, I’m his subject. Just like everyone else. The whole thing with turning him down, even smacking him on the nose with a spatula…I get to do that because he allows it. Because he enjoys the game.”
“Yes, but more to the point? You and any gao can take those sorts of liberties with him because he is so utterly unthreatened by them. He knows it, we all know it. And he needs it.”
“Still…it’s a power dynamic.”
“Yes, and you have all the power in the relationship,” Naydra chittered…wickedly. “He wants many things from you, all good and well-meant, but at the bottom of it he wants one thing more than anything else. You have power because he is a male. The ‘mostest’ male. There is virtually nothing he wouldn’t do to earn your love, Leela. I know you’re interested…so, just consider the game as it is, not as you fear it to be.”
Leela sighed heavily, and watched the workout going on. The fact was, Naydra was right. About everything. All the males were preening for them…well, except the Humans of course. They were preening for each other and didn’t even know it.
“…I don’t think I’m ready to give up that power, yet. Somebody needs to keep it.”
“Exactly. I’m not asking you to, either. But, well. See how much your gentle tease has set in motion? He’s more focused now than he has been in days. He’s remembered why he does this, I think. It’s all about us. The Females. And that is why we’ve never needed to fear the Great Father at all. His entire being is ultimately in our service.”
“Well. I’ll be here to help him get back to service, then.”
“Thank you,” Naydra repeated. “I know you worry about the stand, and your customers.”
“Don’t offer to cover me,” Leela cautioned her. “I don’t want that, and I’ve got savings. I’ll just…help. I don’t want to be indebted to you.”
Naydra duck-nodded, and tidied her fur a little. It was a sisterly, affectionate touch. “Okay. But…before he’s done playing, I have a question.”
“Is your interest more than simple attraction?”
Leela duck-nodded “yes” pretty much by reflex. No hiding that feeling. “But…it frightens me. Maybe…” She looked over again at the pure joy he was experiencing, just enjoying time with his much smaller playmates. “Maybe not so much, anymore…”
Naydra made an understanding noise. “For your own sake…have courage. Give him a chance, if you can. I think you both need it.”
“I…I worry. Won’t I just be another of his trophies?”
“Daar doesn’t invest this much time and energy in casual mating contracts. He’s perfectly honest about those kinds of engagements, with me and with them. If all he wanted was a good long fuck and a nice healthy cub, he’d have told you.”
“…And you don’t mind that I’m something more than that to him?”
“Many Females are something more to him. Even if I were the jealous type, I can’t afford to be. He’s got more love in him than any one person could possibly handle. That, more than any other reason, is why he is the greatest of Great Fathers.”
“Besides,” Naydra added, and put a finishing touch on grooming Leela’s fur. “Seeing him happy makes me happy. And so does seeing my sisters happy. So…go, be happy.”
Leela duck-nodded. And wondered whether this whole affair hadn’t just been about healing Daar. She felt like she’d let go of something, somehow. A little heavy piece of fear, or a need for permission of some kind, from somebody. She wasn’t sure. She’d…sleep on it.
She looked back. He was still preening for her. For them.
And for the first time…she allowed herself to simply enjoy it.
Date Point: 18y9m4w AV
Beachhead, Planet Hell
Vark, Grandfather of Clan Stoneback
Hell’s skies had cleared a bit, today. Or at least, the smog had thinned enough to show some blue. As the allied forces expanded and seized territory, Hunter factors became battlegrounds, and then piles of rubble—the Hunters had a habit of demolishing them as they withdrew, rather than permit the invading force to claim an intact building.
Each such facility destroyed was one less set of stacks pumping unfiltered contaminants into the air, but each demolition sowed the area with, among other things, asbestos. Not to mention the live electrical wiring, and whatever corrosive, toxic or even radioactive nastiness had been processed there. The conditions weren’t quite as bad as the E-Skurel-Ir homeworld had been…but everyone was still fighting in MOPP.
And of course, the Hunters didn’t give up an inch easily. They had no compunctions about using weapons that any civilized species would ban in a heartbeat. Every so often, a mortar round packed full of sizzling white phosphorous would slide down the shield dome overhead, a sight that sure as shit had Vark gritting his teeth.
And, of course, the nervejam. A weapon that the Dominion reserved exclusively for anti-Hunter use and which otherwise was a war crime. Gaoians were less sensitive to its effects than Humans, but the recovery was a riskier problem. Thank the Unseen that Grand Army units were so intensely brotherly. They’d taken the best of Clan life and made it their own in that regard, so when some poor lil’ fuck got it bad, he had good friends to help.
Each advance had to be covered by shields, and pushing up against Hunter shields. Which meant, no air support. Both sides were feeling that limitation.
Vark was feeling it, for sure. He was short on sleep, short on rest. Well-fed, but the food was nourishing first and foremost. Pleasant wasn’t a priority, yet.
Still. Better than tryin’ ‘ta do this thing on an empty stomach.
His thoughts were interrupted by a new eruption of explosions and gunfire on the far side of the river to his south. Din’t need the flurry of chatter over the tacnet to tell him who was gettin’ hit, where, an’ by what. Question was, were the Hunters feinting this time?
They did that a lot. But not all the time. Fuckin’ vexing. There were stretches of ground they’d taken an’ then lost again ‘cuz o’ that.
Even so…Vark’s territory was gettin’ bigger, an’ the Hunters were losin’ ground. So the momentum was on the invasion’s side.
And he was gonna keep it there or die tryin’. Once they got this bubble cleaned out, had time to build up properly, the space navy got their orbitals swept free and clear…
The Hunters would fuckin’ pay for what they were.
Date Point: 18y9m4w AV
Inner Sanctum, the new hive
Something new was needed. Something the enemy had not seen before. Something they had no counter to.
Ideally, the Alpha-of-Alphas would have relied upon a superior rate of manufacture and replenishment, but the Prey had united, pitting the industrial and economic resources of every tool-using form of life in the galaxy against the Hunters. Coupled with the deathworlders’ deep reserves, and the way each of their troops was worth as much or more than most Eaters, and the Hunters simply didn’t have superior manufacture and replenishment.
That was…new. Unwelcome. Dangerous. And it spelled slow but inexorable defeat unless countered by innovation.
Knowing the need for innovation was very different to actually innovating, of course. The Alpha-of-Alphas was tired, despite having no real body to speak of beyond its brain and alimentary tract. Astonishing how much energy a naked brain could expend when thinking hard.
At first, it had gone looking in information gleaned from the deathworlders themselves for inspiration, but that way was barren. Anything gleaned from the enemy would be something the enemy already knew about and had countermeasures for. But to think of something completely new?
…The Hunters had not needed such inventiveness in a great long time.
What it needed was inspiration. Something to kick-start an imagining.
It was infuriating. The Alpha-of-Alphas understood the existence of the concept, but upon reaching into its own mind to search for it, had found only…methods. Procedures. Interpretation and iteration. As it reviewed all its own works and those of its Builders, previous Alphas-of-Alphas, the entire history of its species, it found only a process of taking what the Prey had made and improving on it, at best.
Something about that thought alarmed it, viscerally. It was reaching out to grasp something and realizing that its hand was gone, without ever having noticed the moment of losing it.
No. No, it was just out of practice. The capacity to create something new must exist somewhere in its faculties, just…dormant. Unused. Surely it couldn’t be gone?
That would mean the Hunters were lacking something, relative to them. Which would make the Hunters…lesser.
No. Wrong-think. It chastised itself and focused, set such treacherous anxieties aside.
This was an engineering challenge like any other. It had an objective, an inventory of resources that could be used in pursuit of that objective, and complicating factors that required mitigation or bypass.
Walk backwards from the complicating factors. Complication number one: a logistical, industrial and economic disadvantage. Mitigation? All its efforts so far had been fruitless. Bypass? Not without radically changing the objective.
…What about radically changing the objective?
The objective so far had been to hold the planet and repel the invasion. Their objective, after all, was to deny the Hunters the use of the planet and the incredible riches lying on its surface from the destroyed ring hive.
And then…what? What was the enemy’s next objective after that? What, ultimately, were they trying to achieve?
Galactic conquest? Why should it be, though? Not even the Hunters desired that. The Dataminds had achieved a high degree of control, but not even they openly ruled all the sapient species, and their recent losses were crippling.
And yet…and yet, that was functionally what these deathworlders were achieving, so far as the Alpha-of-Alphas could glean from its watching scouts. Not bloody conquest, but conquest nonetheless. The Prey adopted their strategies, technology and tactics. The deathworlders changed how the Prey thought and behaved. Turned them into a following version of themselves.
What was that, if not conquest?
How was it even relevant?
It wasn’t. Not compared to the continuation of the species. What the deathworlders ultimately intended was only important in regards to their objective of destroying the Hunters. They could have the galaxy, as far as the Alpha-of-Alphas was concerned.
At least, for now. There would be a reckoning, in due time. A righting of the wronged Order. Here and now, it had been trying to save a valuable planet, and failing to think of an appropriate stratagem.
But perhaps that was the wrong objective. Perhaps the long-term goal might be equally well served by…
It dug through its files. Considered again the lone specimen of a Human-Alpha it had dissected. Much of that individual remained a mystery, especially the detailed and varied markings on its skin, which had stubbornly refused to yield any pattern or reason, and could therefore only be decorative.
The Humans had feared that station, the solar focusing array. Feared it enough to deploy their best and most valuable unit. The Alpha-of-Alphas had discounted the idea of building a second one this time for reason of simple economy—its use would do terrible things to the very world being saved, and it would therefore have taken more resources to build than it would have rescued.
But the Humans feared it. That alone was encouraging. Fear was useful. Terror was useful. And though the Alpha-of-Alphas still did not dare risk burning half of this useful world to bedrock in a focused solar flare…
There was no particular reason why it couldn’t burn some other world. And in so doing, perhaps show the Prey their folly in allowing these deathworlders to conquer them so softly.
Date Point: Ow
…Felt like whipped shit. Pain.
Drugs. Strong drugs.
Thirsty. Mouth too dry. Groaned, felt wrong. Shaky-weak.
But…waking up, in a hospital bed. Knew he would. ‘Base was the best medic there was.
Adam managed to get a little focus back. There was a hand in his. He gave it a squeeze, shaking off a vague memory of the hand not even being there, last he’d checked…
Well. He was Adam. Still, somehow.
And that was Marty. And then Marty was on top of him, face buried in the side of his neck, squeezing him as hard as she could.
Felt nice. Warm. Hugged—
Arm wasn’t working.
Date Point: 18y9m4w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
SPC Hunter “Gonzo” Thompson
Sleep and recovery didn’t help. Wheaties didn’t help, not even with bananas and strawberries. Beating the shit out of his teammates didn’t help. Breaking all his PRs didn’t help. Clubbing didn’t appeal to him, not right now. Getting thrashed by Julian wasn’t as fun, nor was being super-thrashed by Firth; he didn’t have it in him to bring his mean, either. Hell, not even being turbo super-thrashed by a visiting Vemik really broke him out of his funk.
Nothing seemed to distract him from…fuck, the depression. ‘Horse was like the biggest brother Hunter never had, and he’d never really considered the possibility that the big goofy giant of a Protector might fail at anything.
Hanging out with his Marine buddies helped a little, mostly by their quiet understanding. No fun beat-em-up games there either, but maybe that wasn’t what he needed.
What he needed was news. One way or another.
“Dude. That’s the fifth time in five minutes you’ve checked your phone.”
“Everyone’s still talkin’.”
“And what’s the first rule of mancave time? Put ‘yer fuckin’ phone away.”
Despite that, Hunter glanced at the phone one last time. Murray had just posted an update: he’d gone climbing. Not that there was anything that big to climb near Folctha, but the peak of Mount Ohbother was pretty technically challenging.
‘Horse loved climbing. He and Murray had a thing where ‘Horse would sneak a pair of green feet up top of something tall, then Murray would go up something even taller and leave behind one of his daggers, and back and forth.
That usually resulted in a painful bout of body-knots by ‘Horse, but that was the price you paid on HEAT. Literally nobody else could affectionately break your bones.
…You really had to be on the team to understand, probably.
It was a good picture. Nice view from up there. He’d have to go with sometime. But, he nodded, turned the phone off, and skimmed it across the floor into the corner.
“Good meat,” Centopani teased. “See? Who said Joe couldn’t be trained?”
Hunter chuckled tiredly at the age-old reference to young army bucks en masse. “Brave thing to say to a guy who’s got thirty-plus inch arms.”
There were quiet guffaws around the room, but nobody was really feeling it. They all knew ‘Horse too, maybe not as well, but…
“Fuck this,” Sergeant Lang said, at last. “Remember how we were gonna go to the beach and get some sun? Well, fuck it. Master Sergeant Warhorse wouldn’t want us sulking around inside on his account and I sure as fuck wouldn’t, either. We’re all healthy, young, and pretty. If we’re gonna loaf a perfectly good weekend away, we may as well go get some sun.”
“I don’t know—” Hoetze started.
“I wasn’t askin’ ‘yer opinion. Get up, go get ‘yer shit. We’re going.”
Well, okay. Fair enough. Hunter was just in basketball shorts and a tank-top—really the “uniform” of off-duty HEAT lads—so all he needed to do was check in to let Righteous know where he was going. They were still on post-deployment control.
He got approval immediately.
Good fuckin authorized Go get sunburnt or laid or both Just go duck off okay don’t be turbo
That was loving, by Firth standards. Like with bone-breaking ‘Horse…you had to know him.
And honestly, Sergeant Lang had some old-man wisdom in him. Being thirty-two made him positively ancient on-team, and having divorced about a year ago, was very much enjoying the single-Marine life. Sucked about the divorce, but honestly, it was kinda nice having him around.
Getting up to move was a good idea. And it was a good long walk anyway, so why not? The local Johnny-Cabs were too small for Hunter, and the Hefty-Hauls were more money than he felt like paying. He had a perfectly good set of legs and big sturdy feet to jog on, so…
Some competitive energy re-asserted itself. His buds were always up for that sort of thing among themselves, and Hunter loved showing off, so after they’d jogged to the beach, things devolved to foot races in the sand where he got to show off what HEAT-fast really meant, later some volleyball with some smokin’ hot women who were looking for someone to play with…and they were damn good, too. It was fun, and flirty, and a good distraction.
But only a distraction. There were some hopeful boys waiting at the beachside bar for the gals—no idea if they were boyfriends or whatever—all of whom were predictably spiky until they saw Hunter and his Marine buds, at which point they pretty much wilted. And, well, on any other day he’d happily play that sort of game, or at least play along for a bit. but…well, he wasn’t exactly in a jovial mood. Sniping a girl rode a really fine line, he had to have his head in the game prop’ly and right now it just wasn’t. That wouldn’t be fun for anyone, so…
“Sarry. Good game though!”
And that was it. Stephanie (the tall one who was basically oblivious to Hunter’s mood) took offense to that, and decided quite loudly he musta been gay or something. Because why else would he say no, apparently?
“Sure. Whatever.” Suddenly, she was a lot less pretty.
He decided to just bask, so he put on some sunscreen (he was blond, after all), laid out a towel, and ended up taking a nap. Nice thing about Folctha. The sun was…gentler? If that made sense? A fair-skinned boy like him could fall asleep out on the beach and not really have to worry about burning too much. He got a nice golden tan out of SPF-15.
Even managed to doze off, sorta. Or at least, he kinda lay there and didn’t care about anything goin’ on around him for some long-ass time he didn’t really notice, until his phone started goin’ nuts.
He was starting to understand a little why the really old fucks on team halfway despised the things. They demanded your attention and not always at the most bestest times, either.
This time, though…well, he forgave it for intruding on his nap. This time, it was good news. Well. Not great news. But good.
‘Horse had survived surgery. More info on Monday at their unit briefing.
Jesus fuck that was a load off his shoulders. He sat up, took a deep breath, felt himself smiling all-sudden.
Hernandez was sitting not far away, watching. “Good news?”
“Yeah! He’s out of surgery and recovering. That’s…”
“Best you could ask for at this point.”
“Musta been bad.”
“…Yeah. But! He’s alive. We can deal with the rest.” Hunter let out a sigh he’d been holding for…fuck, for a couple of days and realized he suddenly had energy again. Like, all the jogging and volleyball and whatever, that had just been ticking over. Now, he wanted to…somethin’. Anythin’! Go dancing, maybe? He musta dozed a while…
“…Shit, I gotta be more careful. I nearly missed a meal!”
“Jesus, you fuckin’ meathead.” Hernandez reached behind him and pulled out Hunter’s pack. “Don’t worry. I gotchu.”
“Dude. Thanks!” He tucked in (chicken fajitas with key lime rice) and downed the drink mix that went with it–seven of ten for the day, down. Hernandez watched him eat but didn’t say anything, which was nice; it was hard keeping a conversation going with a full mouth.
Maintenance achieved, he bounced up to his feet, knocked the sand off…
“Well, the girls have a beach house down the way rented, and it’s Friday night after all…”
“Ha! What about the other fucks?”
“They knew they couldn’t compete. C’mon, let’s go meet up with everyone.”
Now that sounded like a plan. And a decent end to a long day! They’d kept him alive. That was the important bit. The superscience would take care of the rest, and whatever came next, ‘Horse could handle it.
Hunter had no doubts.
Date Point: 18y9m4w AV
Planet Origin, the Corti Directorate
“Well. You did fine work, Professor.”
Forln’s eyes never left the readouts of their patient’s waking brain patterns, though he did dip his head in the slightest of nods. “Your assessment is appreciated, but I am not sure I agree. I would have preferred…”
“Why, professor! Are you emotionally investing in Warhorse’s outcome?”
“Professional pride, nothing more.” The barest hint of a restrained uncomfortable shuffle exposed the professor’s lie quite clearly.
Nofl gave him a Look.
“…Perhaps a little. His is a…compelling…case.”
On Forln’s far side, Maf was far less reserved. She gave Nofl quite a smug look in fact. “In any case, an honest assessment. The restorative surgeries on his body were flawless by any reasonable definition of the term, here. You have effectively erased a career’s worth of wear and tear, and given him the best possible chance at success.”
“Noted, and accepted. Neurologically?”
Nofl reviewed Adam’s motor function readings and pulled a face. The gentle squeeze he’d intended would in fact have obliterated Martina’s hand, if not for some foresighted medication in his IV. “As anticipated, motor control is severely impaired. Dosing him with the paralysis agent was unquestionably the correct move, there. The few things he’s tried to do so far would have been… dangerously uncoordinated. Potentially hazardous to his spouse.”
“We will need to brief them on this, and plan rehabilitative therapy.”
“Which is going to require customized equipment. In fact, virtually everything will need to be made to order, so we ought to get started on that immediately.”
“Are you serious?”
“My dear professor, you have no idea how strong this man is. Right now, he almost certainly cannot regulate a strength that could, say, flatten wrought iron in his grip with an errant twitch. So yes, we will need to plan appropriately. Durable equipment, an appropriate wheelchair—”
“A wheelchair? Surely something so primitive—?”
“Will be the most convenient option in his circumstance. Simple, and can be made enormously sturdy. He’s too big and too heavy for the taxis in his hometown, and he will be damned if he’s stuck at home. Mobility will be essential. Also, a wheelchair can be pushed by his friends, if needed. Do not underestimate the social dimension of his recovery.”
“….You have given this much thought,” Maf observed.
“I know humans quite well. They are, after all, my primary expertise nowadays.”
Through the observation glass, Nofl watched Marty reassure Adam and stroke his forehead. She’d followed their discussion on his reconstruction and treatment at a level high enough to draw a compliment out of Forln, especially once she asked some pertinent technical questions.
He was in good hands, there.
“In any case. His personality seems largely intact. Some considerable emotional distress, but that’s to be expected…”
“We should begin planning the next phase,” Forln decided, and turned away from the observation window. “What is your facility equipped to provide? This hospital can handle difficult Guvnuragnaguvendrugun cases, and his mass is roughly comparable to their very largest. You are correct about therapeutic equipment, which should prove an interesting diversion for our engineering colleagues…but in due course, he will need to be returned to Cimbrean. The less time these deathworlders spend on our homeworld, the better.”
“Oh, don’t you fuss. My clinic can handle him, I assure you,” Nofl replied.
“Even in his state of limited mobility?”
“Between the United States military and the Great Father of the Gao, I’m sure I won’t have too hard a time funding whatever equipment I need. He has several exceedingly strong friends as well. We should not be short on help.”
“Good.” Forln studied his notes for a moment. “Now…Your second opinion, if you please. The computed projections for his motor function recovery suggest a time scale of—”
“—Doctors?” There was a note of sudden and mounting alarm in Maf’s voice.
Nofl turned his attention back to the observation window, swore violently, and darted back to the readouts and controls as several icons on the glass shifted from soothing blue to alert yellow. Through the window, in his bed, Adam’s eyes had rolled back in his head and Martina was desperately patting at him and calling his name.
Unfortunately for them all, there was no reversing the cascade of neural activity now unfolding, though Nofl deployed an emergency dose of medication anyway. If nothing else, it should soften the blow. Through the observation window, nurse drones swooped in and pried Marty off Adam’s body as he started to shake and strain, rocking and ravaging the bed even through the paralysis agent.
There was nothing much they could do but watch helplessly as the seizure ran its course. The medication helped, though.
At least, he didn’t snap his own spine.
Overall, the fit lasted a little longer than fifty seconds, and Martina shrugged off the drones and was back at Adam’s side as soon as the tremors subsided. Nofl watched his patient’s neural activity return to within acceptable bounds, but he’d really, truly hoped that this particular complication would not come to pass. It changed everything.
“…What next?” he asked, aloud.
Forln’s impassive, old-school Corti emotionless mask was back in place. Thank the Universe for it. “If the patient survives we will need to adapt,” he mused. “We didn’t plan for seizures.”
The room went silent for a moment, as everyone contemplated the development.
“Cause?” Maf asked.
“Difficult to say,” Nofl replied, glumly. “Human neurology is beyond anyone’s full understanding. If I were to hazard an informed and perhaps obvious opinion, though, I would suspect his reconstructed cerebellum and its connections to the rest of his brain were the root cause.”
“Further surgical correction is not an option,” Forln stated. “We cannot operate again this early, it would do more harm than good.”
“Perhaps.” Forln thought for a moment, then shook his head. “But by then, likely too late.”
Maf hung her head. “We are no longer rehabilitating him for military service, are we?”
“No,” Nofl sighed from the bottom of his heart. “No we are not.”
Date point: 18y9m4w1d AV
Freighter Stray Fortune, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system
Associate Bruuk of Clan Stoneback, big brawny brownie for hire
“Already? Didn’t we just pick them up from their last adventure?” Bruuk queried, while trimming up some exquisite beef steaks from a small Cimbrean farm. Beef and Naxas really were the bestest meats, and any chance he had to just indulge in a nice, thick cut ribeye steak, well-seared but barely cooked, basted in butter and its own fat, gently seasoned to enhance the flavor…
Gods. Heaven. If there was such a thing, anyway. He and the Skipper had earned a treat.
“Yeah,” Wilde replied, his eyes never leaving the slabs on the cutting board. “It’s a high-priority activity, whatever it is. Only a few days away so we won’t be bundling them up in stasis. You’ll have some playmates again.”
Bruuk wagged his tail at that. He really liked Wilde, and the big Human had some fuckin’ devious tricks up his sleeve when they were sparring…but Bruuk knew them all by now, so he almost always won just by sheer physical superiority. Wilde may have been a big damn man as Humans normally went, but Bruuk was yoked even ‘fer a fuckin’ brownfur, and that despite only being about one-point-seven meters tall on a good day. He was born a natural tank and had to be anyway, if he was gonna compete with lucky-tail high degrees in Stoneback.
And he had every intention of winning that game. So he was happy to welcome Hoeff, Ferd and their friends for a few days, because Ferd was just an absurdly strong man to test himself against and had endless energy to play. There weren’t many people who could give Bruuk such a good fight, but Ferd was one of them, even while the big monkey was being flirty as balls.
Bruuk wasn’t quite sure if Ferd was serious or just being playful. From what he’d heard (and seen) about the testosterone-poisoned cavemonkeys, though…
Probably better not play along, then. He wasn’t that desperate.
As for the rest, Hoeff and the other monkeys were good, tough playmates, and the other Humans were tricky sparring partners for their own reasons, too. It did mean he’d need to go shopping, though, if he was gonna keep them fed for the next little while.
Which was fine. He could spend some time with his lady-friend! She’d been open to more encounters down the line, and that wasn’t something a male got but maybe once or twice in their life. They’d take their time, if he could help it. Just enjoy each other for, oh, a year maybe…
“You’re daydreaming again,” Wilde noted with one of his sideways grins.
“…Sarry. Anyway! Meeshi greens and a vinaigrette, you think?”
“Crack some black pepper over that and fuck yeah.”
“We shall make herbivores of you two yet,” Urgug commented, glowing a briefly amused shade. “Now, if only we can turn Bruuk’s brain to pursuits other than the vigorously physical…”
“Are you kidding? You know what kinda workouts I can get with those big fucks!? Little Wilde over just ain’t doin’ it ‘fer me lately…”
He flexed a huge arm in and out a few times, admiring himself for a moment, then threw in a bit of extra smarm too, just for Ian. He loved it. Probably. But whatever!
Wilde grinned but strategically ignored Bruuk’s banter. “Just when did you get so bloody optimistic?” he asked Urgug with a chuckle.
“Unlikely, you think?”
“Reckon the heat-death of the universe’ll come first, mate.” Wilde grinned at him, and a heady swirl of purples lit up Urgug’s flanks in the Guvnurag equivalent of a hearty chitter.
“Jealousy don’t become you,” Bruuk accused with a chitter. He also smelled the oil on his iron skillets starting to smoke off, so into the pan went the steaks with a glorious sizzle.
“Mate, I ain’t jealous. I like this size. Big enough to be a hell of a bruiser, normal enough to stay healthy and athletic without anything crazy. And I’m pretty sure I can out-march you, too.”
“Mebbe! We’ll just hafta see about that next time we’re down.” He flipped the steaks over and commenced basting them with all that glorious fat in the pan.
Urgug, good sport that he was, didn’t react. “Anyway, I need to make a supply run. What provisions do we need?”
“Just the stuff on the supply list. For once, Morwk doesn’t have any special requests.”
Urgug flashed the color of amused mock alarm. “Oh my. Is he feeling well?”
“Heard him humming to himself this morning. I think he’s actually happy.” Ian grinned proudly.
“‘Of course!” A pattern of wry amusement flickered across Urgug’s face. “This is the first time in over a year he does not have major engineering work on his agenda.”
“Sign of a healthy ship, that. Good.” Bruuk turned the steaks over. “Still. we’d better add some stuff to the list. Our cargo eats a lot.”
“I already took care of it,” Urgug replied. “I simply used you and the captain as a model.”
“Hey, thanks!” That saved Bruuk a lot of work. “What about the big guy?”
“Arithmetic,” Urgug noted with an amused shade of…whatever-it-was. Guvnurag could see a lot more colors than anyone, and Bruuk’s own red-vision weren’t the bestest yet. It looked orangeish. “Assuming you deathworlders eat mostly to feed your silly muscles, it’s much easier to provision for your species. I simply multiply by your mass, and divide by whatever type of stores each species requires.”
“They’re not silly!” Bruuk objected with a chitter. “And that’s all? Just weight times calories?”
“Calories times mass times activity factor, but yes. Your short guts mean I need not account for fermentation waste or a bulk modulus or any of the complications that go with that, but your bodies need a lot of fuel. The captain is a good model to work from, since he’s lean and quite muscular for a human. He masses one-hundred and fifty two kilos and averages five thousand calories a day, more if he’s extremely active. You are nearly triple on both numbers, thus proving the point.”
Bruuk chittered, “I’m a big boy! What about Ferd and them?”
“A similar rubric should hold, but just in case I ordered extra and avoided too many carb-rich foodstuffs. The delivery is later tomorrow.”
Already ordered, and all he had to do was pack it away when it arrived? Fuck yeah, life was good. And he had steaks! They had seared long enough, so he killed the heat, tossed them in the pre-heated oven, and got his herb-butter ready. Butter-basting was probably the bestest damn thing the Humans had ever invented. Ever.
The salad went together quick, and while the steaks were cooking he whipped up the herbivore’s menu for the evening. Most of it was pre-made because they wanted something cool and refreshing. So: refrigerated, lots of acidity, a riot of herbaceous flavor, some hummus because who the fuck didn’t like hummus?
And the bread, of course. Raisin bread? A raisin was a fruit with all the joy sucked out, but four of the people at the table, including one of the meat-eaters, loved the stuff.
Well, that could be dessert. Gaoians weren’t generally fond of desserts anyway. For the hummus, they’d just go with one of their flatbreads. Every culture had flatbread.
“Urgug, go get some dipping bread from the stores, please! Your choice.”
That sent a delighted ripple down his flank, and as soon as he stepped away, Bruuk pulled out the steaks, butter-basted them right in the pan…balls they smelled so good! Once basted, he put them out to rest, reduced the butter with some talamay and a dash of black-label lokep to make a nice sauce…
It was a feast fit for a king. Or even a Great Father! The bestest part, though, was when he caught their captain drooling.
Bein’ the ship’s chef-and-also-bruiser was a perfect job, sometimes.
Their “cargo” arrived right before the evening’s activities, having been well-fed at Righteous’s infamous backyard smoker. Everyone then was in a good, happy, but not too rambunctious mood, when Dora suggested they all sit around the table and play a board game.
Wilde had the most devious possible answer to that.
It was a simple game, in theory. Everyone got a hand o’ cards with abstract art on them, everyone took turns giving a hint describing their cards, and then got points if some but not all of the other players picked theirs right.
An art interpretation game? With a half-dozen different species at the table? One of whom din’t even really have a visual art tradition?
It was chaos. Though, Moj fuckin’ loved it. And it was goddamn frustrating how he could give a clue that made no sense at all to Bruuk, but the Humans would get it every time.
They were in the middle of the third round, with Moj well on the way to going three-for-three, when Wilde’s phone rang. One of the ringtones he really couldn’t ignore, too. He stood, took the call, listened for a bit…
Bruuk didn’t need his nose to tell his captain had just learned something terrible. He stood and refilled the chips bowl.
Ferd was the first to ask, though.
“Update from the Corti.” Everyone sat up, because everyone knew who they were talking about. “His recovery’s just…he’s had a seizure. One that very nearly killed him.”
There was silence around the room, as everyone absorbed the bad news. Hoeff put his cards down, stood up, and prowled away to the far end of the room with a terrible look on his face.
“This see-sure,” Ferd began, warily. “Is a bad thing, yes?”
“Yeah, mate. It’s very bad. It might have just ended his military career,” Wilde said, sadly. “Even if they get them under control, he’ll never fight again.”
“And, big sky-medicine can’t fix?”
“No. Not completely. It’s a problem with his brain.”
Bruuk keened. He only knew the giant of a man briefly, but even he knew that would come as devastating news. Military service was his purpose and he’d just had it taken from him, probably forever.
…Assuming he wasn’t going to die of the seizures. That was no way for a man like him to go…
The evening wrapped up pretty suddenly. Everyone went to cope in their own ways. Hoeff and his men went to their quarters to commiserate. Dora and the rest went off alone; most aliens were pretty solitary in that regard.
Wilde went to his cabin, as he often tried, but Bruuk knew better, and knew just what to do. He grabbed the rest of the chips, knocked on his door, and without asking walked in, pushed the big human down onto the couch, and curled up with him nice and tight.
All he got in reply was a weary, distant nod. But, Ian settled down and curled up without complaint. Good enough. Bruuk couldn’t fix the problem, but he could be there. And tomorrow, they’d have the job to distract them.
Still…It wasn’t the good end to the night he’d hoped for.
They watched in silence.
Date Point: 18y9m4w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Leela, taco sensei
There wasn’t much that could keep Daar down, and nothing so silly as a brain injury was going to stop him. He was Daar, after all. He didn’t have time for that.
It took him a little more than a week to shake it off completely. It was the little things, here and there, that did the most good for him: visiting cubs, wrestling with his more boisterous Brothers, listening to ongoing proceedings in the Conclave, apparently…all activities carefully programmed by conspiracy of the Conclave and the Great Mother to rehabilitate him, as the medicine finished its work and he re-exercised his personality.
Leela, it turned out, had a big part to play in that. He visited her almost daily, and every day he was just that little bit sharper, that little bit more him. He wasn’t completely the same, though. There had been learning. He wasn’t so calculated around her anymore, not so innocently clownish. Instead, he was more authentically aggressive. He didn’t just play around and prance. Now he would tense up and show off right up against her, taking his growling show as far as he could without actually impeding her movement. Which, at first, had frightened her…
But he wasn’t protecting her anymore from their shared demons and fears. In his own way he was being more honest. The best male there ever was wanted to mate with her. Breed her, make a cub he could be proud of, and there was absolutely no denying how much it thrilled to have such a male so nakedly interested. And more than that, he wanted her love. It wasn’t just play anymore, it wasn’t him doing all he could to shield her from the truth of the world.
It wasn’t all good-going, either.
About a week after her visit to High Mountain, he showed up looking for tacos but clearly so sad that it radiated off him in waves of melancholy smell. One of the Humans he called Cousin had a new, much more insidious fight ahead of him now, one Daar could do nothing to fix, or even help.
He wasn’t used to feeling helpless. Nobody so entirely capable ever would be. Knowing how to cope with helplessness, how to accept it was a skill like any other, and Leela had…well, she’d had practice he never did. The trick was in finding something they could do, even if it was unrelated.
So they made tacos together, to feed the whole HEAT. They were throwing a party of sorts, both a celebration that their brother was alive, and a wake for the full recovery they’d all been hoping for.
She leant against the iron of his flank while his claws delicately sprinkled peppers and lettuce into crispy shells. The simple therapy of making something, even something as fleeting as dinner, worked its magic. And a party for the whole HEAT?
Well. The income from it more than made up for last week’s early close and day off. But it was a good thing they’d warned her a day or two earlier, so she could have enough ingredients to hand.
Daar carried the fruits of their labors in a stasis trunk, and Leela of course was invited. She didn’t even want to protest this time—she closed up early, left an apologetic note taped to the stand’s shutters, and joined the fun up on the military base.
The whole team had pitched in on something, be it carrying furniture around, fetching drinks. Being included in it, being treated like part of the HEAT Clan for an evening…It laid the last of Leela’s demons to rest. These people weren’t gentle. They were gruff, sure, and they looked and smelled like concentrated danger…but they were caring too. They hurt as keenly as anyone else. All the personal power they wielded so effortlessly, as if it were a part of their very being…and not a bit of it saved them from worrying about their friend.
Just like that, she wasn’t afraid of Daar any longer. Or really, of what he was a convenient stand-in for.
So she hung out, was introduced to a variety of Human children, including Sister Shoo’s little male, sampled her way through everybody else’s cooking, learned a few things, traded a few secrets…
And just…relaxed. Got her tail whipped at ta’shen by one of the HEAT operators, got her revenge in Mario Kart, and a whole afternoon and sunset vanished without her really noticing, until the families with little ones went home and the young singletons without families decided to go party somewhere a little more high-energy…
And that left her with the one thing to do. That she wanted to do, if for no other reason than to reclaim for herself what being Female truly was. And it was amazing how discreet huge and rough-edged human males could be, sometimes. Her moment came when, very suddenly and silently, she and Daar were all alone in the HEAT’s massive kitchen, putting away the leftovers for later.
Well. If they were giving her the room and opportunity…
“So…did you have any plans for this evening?” She asked, as nonchalantly as she could manage.
Daar gave her an unreservedly happy look…and a predatory one, too. “I was prol’ly gonna do the usual grunty thing an’ lift my frustrations away.” He showed off a bit, because of course he did, but only for a moment. An eyeblink later and he was wrapped around her somehow, the corrugated iron of his body pressed tightly against hers.
He snarled quietly against her ear. “But I think I got a better idea now.”
“Oh?” She chittered, enjoying the way her heart was suddenly pounding.
“Yeah! Mebbe I’ll take ‘ya back ‘ta the Commune, gitcha nice an’ comfortable, close the door—”
“Daar!” She thrilled at the suggestion, and objected out of play more than anything else.
“—‘An give ‘ta the most bestest shoulder rub you’ve ever had!”
How was a girl to say no to that?
It was a good massage. Of course…he didn’t stop there. Or stop at all, until he was satisfied. The next morning, they woke up in her nest-bed. Well, she woke up in it, while Daar lay curled up around it on the stone floor, pinning her, protecting her….
…There were worse ways to wake up than being pressed against the warm sculpture of the Great Father’s physique.
She stretched luxuriantly, and her own much less robust body immediately complained. But it was a complaint she’d…missed. She’d used her body last night, not suffered its abuse. The difference was profound, and healing.
She complained a little, but only a little. It was a grumble well-earned.
He awoke gently with a sort of luxuriant sleepy chitter and a lazy stretch, which did just unfairly aesthetic things to the huge shapes moving under his fur. “Mmmm… ‘marn. Is it marn?” He peered up at the window to see the world was only just gaining light. “Balls, kinda early, ain’t it?”
“Cubs wait for no mother.”
“True enough,” he agreed. “Too bad, ‘cuz I could thinka all sortsa things we might do this morning…” he followed that up with an affectionate snuffle on the top of her head, along with some delightful kneading attention from his paws. Suggestive, and encouraging, but politely so.
She chittered, wearily, and was honestly tempted… “I’m sure you could, but I’m feeling very thoroughly exercised and in need of some recovery.” She stretched again and flinched from an ache somewhere deep in her core. “Ugh, feels sorta like I’ve been run over by a train…”
“Good!” he said, lecherously. “Means I did my job! Means ‘ya need another massage, too…”
He was really good with those, actually. Precisely because he was the absolute, total opposite of gentle. Those huge paws of his smashed out every last spot of soreness.
As with all good things, the price was worth the reward. And he was considerate enough not to push her after that. “Well, much as I wanna wheedle ‘ya ‘fer even more play…we both gotta git goin’. I’m sure my inbox is s’plodin’ pretty good at this point. Got time later this week?”
“The question is, do you?”
“I do. The secret of bein’ who an’ what I am is that I make time ‘fer what’s important.”
Leela…duck-nodded. She didn’t really know what else to do, considering how warm that sentiment made her feel.
He followed it up with a hug. Because hugs were almost always the right answer. And then…he was gone. Quick and smooth in a way that totally contradicted his boisterousness and sheer size, but which also meant there’d be a minimum of gossip at the breakfast table. Most of the Sisters and Mothers were still asleep.
Leela wasn’t so sure she’d have minded though, now. She felt…good. Like the right time had come, and she’d stepped forward rather than hesitating. That was something to be proud of.
She basked in the warm sensation a little longer, then got on with her day.
And looked forward to later in the week.
++END CHAPTER 79++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 80: “Temper”