The Deathworlders


Chapter 82: Moving Forward

Date Point: 18y11m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Progress and frustration seemed to go hand-in-hand. He was up. Mobile. Training again, but his motor control was still crude, like a man who didn’t quite know his own strength, or fully understand where his body was. Except a billion times worse, because Adam was who he was.

He was still absent-mindedly breaking shit, and nothing was fixing it.

He still had his strength. That was nice, and he could at least preserve that. But he just could not put in any extended work before the wobbles got too bad and he could feel some deep, terrible thing approaching at the edge of his awareness. Something in his brain was giving him the biggest, most terrible warning not to go any further, and he heeded it.

Somewhere deep in his brain was a demon, waiting for him to give it what it needed to trigger a seizure. He could feel it. And he hated it. It felt like all the road to recovery was past that threshold, like if he could only find a way to push himself safely he might make some real progress. But every time he got close, there it was. He was barely managing to do enough to keep his body loose, right now.

And there was nothing to do when he felt those warning signs come on except try and relax. Lie down somewhere. Do breathing exercises. Maybe sleep, but he never felt like he’d burned off enough energy for that. If he managed it at all, it was just half-awake dozing, not really dreaming but not really conscious either. He could lose an hour or two that way, if he didn’t mind not sleeping at all that night.

Which he did.

It was shit. Everything was shit. Could barely fucking move, couldn’t write his own fucking name, couldn’t cuddle his children, couldn’t help his wife do any fucking thing, couldn’t…


Warm lips on his cheek jolted him out of his half-sleep. It was…mid-afternoon, maybe? The blackout curtain keeping the room dark wasn’t a perfect fit for the window, and it left a thin line of bright light on the wall, with Marty’s silhouette in front.

God, she was so fucking beautiful. Exactly the right mix of hard-bodied and womanly, and her favorite black silk bathrobe did a lot more to show than to hide. No makeup on her face today, but she really didn’t need it, with skin like hers. She smelled of cocoa butter, and something that smelled…really nice. Subtle, but it was there.

There was another smell on the air too. One his lizard-brain couldn’t ignore.

“…Hey,” he replied, dumbly.

“Roll over.”

Not an easy operation, that. Took him a minute, as he worked carefully through each step. He heard her rubbing something on her palms as he did so, and then…

God. Fingernails scratching lightly up his spine. Not a massage, there weren’t many people who could make a dent in him and Marty wasn’t among them. But that wasn’t what she was trying to do anyway. This was all about sensation, and he groaned plaintively.

“Thought I’d break up the pattern this time. Go for something…a bit more appreciative.”

“Mmm….Appreciative?” Adam asked, too lost in the feeling of having his back scratched to ask a smart question.

“Yeah. For everything you do…Ah, ah!” she added, as he opened his mouth to reply. “You’re not allowed to feel sorry for yourself right now. Just let it happen.”

Some kind of liquid splashed up him, and she spread it slowly with her fingers. Oil? Fuck had he done to deserve pampering like this? But, he did as he was told and let it happen, relaxed into it…Kinda hard to ignore the feel of skin on skin where she was straddling his butt, though.

“All the work you’ve put in, to keep us safe…” Marty continued. “How much you care, how great a dad you are…”

Adam sighed and shifted. “I know you said no feelin’ sorry for myself…but I—”

“You feel useless right now. I know.” She bent down and kissed his cheek. “It’s okay. Even Superman takes some lumps now and then. Now relax and let me take care of you.”

He exhaled, nodded, and closed his eyes. She kissed him again, and for the next few…forevers, the only sound was their breathing, the soft sounds of fabric, and her hands gliding over him.

“You’re a beautiful man, Adam. Actually, you’re looking better than ever right now, which I kinda wasn’t expecting…”

“It’s the water weight.” He mumbled, dumbly. His lower brain was becoming really distracting…

“Uh-huh. Lean works for you.” There was a silky, fabric sound and her bathrobe landed on the pillow right in front of his nose. He took a deep breath of it, and sighed as her slick hands ran sloooowly back up his spine again until this time there was no barrier between their bodies at all, and she kissed the side of his neck.

Her whisper in his ear was electric: “Roll over again.”

He did, more easily this time. Motivation apparently helped a lot, and as soon as he did, just feeling it spring up and slap along his belly was almost enough.

…He wasn’t going to last long, because it had been far too long. But even still, her hand was so wonderfully delicate and she knew exactly what she was doing. She had him painfully hard in a matter of seconds. He grabbed at the bed, groaning and trying to contain himself. Something buckled under his grip but he didn’t care, all that mattered was hanging on–

“Mmm,” she smiled wickedly. “It’s kinda nice having you under my thumb like this…” The thumb in question moved in a way that made him gasp.

“Hnn…I’m not complaining…”

“You’d better not.” She slid down next to him, face to face, lips to lips, and that was all Adam could take.

He…well, he was who he was. It was a while before he could see straight again. Even still, he was so pent-up, it hadn’t gone down at all.

“There we go,” she purred. “I knew you needed that… though, good to see you’re still ready and willing, ‘cuz I’m not done yet.” She slid down, rubbing the whole length of her body across his achingly hard cock, until at last she could give it a little kiss, and then a little more…

He was much too big for her at this point. Didn’t matter. She was an expert with her tongue, and gave it her full art. “Ohhh…” he chuckled and groaned through gritted teeth. He was feeling a lot better… “I can take your worst, foul temptress!”

In fact, he was already on the edge again. He really, really needed this.

“Oh, can you?”

He opened his eyes to a metallic jangle. She struck a cocky pose, dangling a pair of handcuffs from her finger.

Adam quirked an eyebrow. “Those ain’t gonna last for even a second.”

“So don’t.”


She grinned, slid herself along his cock again and reached up—he got a faceful of her chest, and God she smelled incredible—and then his wrist was attached to the bed frame. A couple seconds later, so was the other one.

…It worked for him. And for her, too. Though, in the end, he didn’t quite manage to avoid breaking one of the cuffs. But that didn’t matter, they did their job. It had been far too goddamn long, with his fear of hurting her…but his beautiful, genius Marty found a solution.

And she made good fuckin’ use of it.

The next morning…he felt drained. In the best possible way. Marty was in bed, next to him. Well. Against his back, just to play it safe…but it was nice. That was a weak-ass word for all that. But it was! It was…nice.

Woulda been nicer still to roll over and cuddle her but…last night still hadn’t changed that. And when he tried instead to snuggle backwards into her a bit, he more kinda shoved himself halfway across the bed and launched her out of it onto the floor with a squeak.


She came up giggling, thank fuck. “Ugh…that’s a rude way to wake up.”


“It’s alright.” She draped herself over him for a reassuring kiss. “How’re you feeling this morning?”

Adam smiled. “Pretty damn good. You?”

“Yeah.” She stroked his scalp. “I’ve missed that. And so have you, huh?”

“Heh! Yeah. A lot.”

She beamed, gave him a pat, then stood up. “Guess I’ll sort out breakfast then go pick up the boys.”

Adam nodded, and worked his way out of bed. It was a multi-step process, hands here, push here, lift there, get his feet there and there…

Not because standing up was hard, exactly. He’d shown plenty of times down in the Dungeon that he could spring to his feet just fine. But doing it gently without wrecking the bed or leaving broken footprints in the laminate flooring, that was the trick. Doing stuff at normal human speeds and power took concentration.

Today was a pretty good morning, though. And there was no danger of ripping the new touch shower controls out of the wall like he’d done with their predecessor. He could just bop it, select his profile, then stand and let high-pressure hot water wash away last night’s lovemaking.

It felt good.

Date Point: 18y11m3w AV
Warren-city of Arms-Spread-Wide, planet Mordor

Sapper Becky Burnett

Hearts and minds were a funny thing. Some, they’d won just by showing up. Some would never be won. But Becky was pretty sure their best tool for winning over the E-Skurel-Ir to date had been air conditioning.

But, maybe she was just biased. Ventilation systems were a niche passion, to be sure, but they were Becky’s passion. Two years in America had sold her on the value of well-ventilated and well-conditioned spaces, and she’d turned that into a career!

It wasn’t like the E-Skurel-Ir were strangers to good ventilation. How could they be? They’d lived underground for generations! And they’d managed some really cool little tricks, like using the cold water from their drinking water wells to drive a heat-based circulation system rather than rely on air pumps. But even so, the air in the warren-cities had always been stale, humid, hot and smelly. Inevitable, with so many people living in such close quarters and having to design their air circulation to keep out ravenous alien beasties.

Now, though, the ‘streets’ of Arms-Spread-Wide were pleasantly cool and dry, without much of an aroma that Becky’s nose could detect.

It wasn’t just a luxury. The city’s population had exploded from both refugees and from the sudden fact that people weren’t being eaten every day. The native-built ventilation simply wasn’t up to the job of keeping so many people breathing, so, in had come the Allied military’s finest bunker-builders to make sure all those people didn’t die of CO2 poisoning.

And, as a bonus, the dramatic improvement in quality of life had finally won over some of the cautious fence-sitters. Though, Becky couldn’t blame them for being wary. After all, the last alien civilization to find them hadn’t exactly been benevolent.

And the funny thing was that, now that they were finally starting to trust, some of the natives wanted to help. Especially the children. So, Becky’s job for the last several weeks had been training up alien rabbit-people in the proper installation and maintenance of HVAC equipment.

And how not to die from four-hundred-eighty volt distribution panels. Big motors needed big power, and there just wasn’t any way better to power them than three-phase alternating current at hair-on-fire voltages. So…best to train the little ones not to lick the spicy wires.

But still. Life was good! Tiring, but good. The only fly in the ointment was that, regardless of species, children were children. And a lot of the kids she’d taken under her wing were orphans, desperate for a mum, or a big sister.

And there was always the language barrier to wrestle with, too.

“You’re leaving?”

“No, no, I’m going on leave!” Becky soothed. “It just means I’m being given some time to relax and see my family and things.”

The oldest of her proteges was Ekavimu, a wiry, skinny little thing—like, even by her species’ emaciated standards—with an endless well of questions. “What do Humans do to relax?”

“Depends on the human! For me, I think mostly nothing if I can help it. But I don’t have anything planned, so…”

A white lie, because of course ‘nothing’ was going to involve a lot of dancing and drinking and hopefully getting laid. But they didn’t need to know that. A lot of the E-Skurel-Ir adults still made grumbling noises about Human sinfulness, though how they’d found out about it—or if it was mostly an invention of their mistrustful imaginations—Becky didn’t know.

…Well, come to think of it, most of their exposure to Humankind had been infantry lads. So…

Yeah. Probably not an invention.


Eka gave her a blank look, and scratched a long ear. “That sounds…is doing nothing that much fun?”

“Depends where and how you do it!” Becky chirped. “Doing nothing is a lot of fun if it’s, oh, on a sunny beach with a cold drink. Or in a nice soft bed, or curled up with a book, or a movie…”

Of course, mentioning books lost them instantly. Books were a serious subject to the E-Skurel-Ir. Reading a book was sacred. The idea of just cozying up with a cup of tea and a novel was impenetrable to them. Though, Becky could understand why. If she’d had to occasionally sacrifice good friends and valuable lives to keep demons from burning down the library, maybe she’d be a bit less casual about literature too…

“What’s a beach?” one of the younger ones, Beviziko, tilted his head.

“On Earth and Cimbrean, the water’s in the rivers and lakes and seas is so clean you can swim in it,” Becky explained, prompting a few awed sounds. “And a beach is a stretch of clean sand next to the water where you can bask in the sun. But they tend to be hot places, so you want a nice ice cold drink, too.”

“I’m going to visit Earth one day,” Eka asserted.

“I’d go with Cimbrean instead. Earth is…it’s nice for Humans. But you’d find it difficult.” She didn’t mention dangerous. The E-Skurel-Ir could survive levels of lead and other industrial poisons that’d have a human drooling themselves to death with no problem, and their immune systems were pretty robust too thanks to generations of close-quarters living and recycled air…but their frames were slight, their bodies adapted for low gravity. Earth would be exhausting, and a fall could really hurt them.

Speaking of recycled air…back to work.

“So! What’s the next step?”

“Purge it and check for leaks!” Bevi chimed.

“Correct! Now this system is going to use anhydrous ammonia—”

“What’s that?”

“Very stinky and very angry chemical. We can’t have any leaks!”

Not that she needed to remind them of that. Every E-Skurel-Ir child learned that Leaks Are Bad at pretty much the same time as they learned to brush their own fur. Bevi and Eka nodded solemnly, and the next couple of minutes passed in silent, working concentration.

They were good kids. Eager to learn, and eager to do their part for a city that was going to need them, and many more of them, for a long time to come. It was going to take years to decontaminate the surface enough for even the E-Skurel-Ir to live up there.

And getting them to accept the concept of birth control was an uphill battle Becky was glad not to be fighting. Breeding like…well, like rabbits…had been their greatest bulwark against extinction. Now, with the Hunters gone, they were in danger of massive overpopulation.

Oh well. That wasn’t Becky’s problem. Her problem was getting this one last unit running, and then she could look forward to some time off. She’d treat her parents to a weekend in Folctha, then treat herself to plenty of nice relaxing leave, and…

Well, then she’d be back. There was a whole city still to properly ventilate, and many more besides. She was going to be at this for a while.

And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Date Point: 18y11m3w AV
Quarterside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler-Etsicitty

Thanksgiving always brought out the best in Allison’s parents. It was the time of year when Amanda started making noises about “being a real family again” and trying to plan Thanksgiving Dinner down to the last detail. Jacob Buehler, meanwhile, had deigned to send a token in the form of a greeting card from himself and his new wife.

Well…at least Amanda—Mom—was trying, in her own damaged, downtrodden, unassertive way. Jacob’s attitude seemed to be that, now that he had a grandchild, it was mission accomplished. He could relax into a lazy, wealthy retirement and presumably leave everything to, uh…whatshername.

Back on Earth it was late fall, the early snow, turkeys and pumpkin spice end of the year. On Folctha, even though it was nominally a British territory, the celebration had slipped into the local tradition but you couldn’t do much about different year lengths and stuff. So, they were having a warm Thanksgiving playing ball in the park in shirtsleeves weather.

Which suited Al just fine. She wasn’t a cold weather gal. And it was always nice to relax a bit at the park. Julian had the Twins down in the grass field, where they were just…messing around, really. They’d started by tossing a football around but that quickly shifted to something more characteristically energetic; Tristan had got into tricking, apparently, which was basically just leaping around and bouncing and kicking in an impressive sort of way. Basically the fun bits of movie kung-fu. Ramsey, being by now a lean and impressively muscular wrestler, was learning remarkably fast, if obviously unpracticed…

Julian was mastering it at an alarming speed and inventing his own tricks as he went, despite making the ground shake every time he landed. Hulking or not, he knew how to use his body in a way that genuinely impressed. The big boy really was a caveman at heart.

And then, of course, there was Xiù, who’d never set aside her Gung Fu and ballet practice. Still as dancer-flexible and precise as she’d ever been, and putting all three of them to shame.

Al wouldn’t have bothered to join in anyway, even if she didn’t have the toddling menaces to watch, who had more important things to do than kick a ball around. Like climb around, walk on and ride the sculptures.

No complaints. Quite the opposite.

Besides, it was nice to have some time to chew over a thought that had been bubbling away in the back of her brain basically ever since Anna’s birth.

Julian was…well, allegedly out of solidarity (but really out of personal ambition) he’d decided to fully commit himself to the Lad life, and…Yeah. It worked for him. Much too well. She’d worried quietly that all his power-bodybuilding and related obsessions would turn him into an ugly meat mountain, but instead the opposite happened. He grew fast, and looked like the studliest nineteen-year-old hulk ever, complete with healthy skin glow and everything!

Except, he was actually closer to forty, with all the dense maturity that age gave his body. And he was heavy enough to shake buildings, shatter furniture, and crush cheap flooring under his sturdy size-thirty extra-wide feet. Which fit proportionally quite well with the rest of him, because he was just so damn big. With all that hypermuscular size came the strength to hurl huge boulders and leap straight up buildings. Yet despite all that, he was still an unbearably hot, perfectly built superstud, right down to the award-winning photoshoots. He might be that superstud for a hundred years or more too, before any effects of aging touched him.

So…where did that leave her? Where did it leave them? She’d effectively married a genetically perfect man, and that was obvious about him from day one. Which, okay. Maybe that was a bit intimidating, especially with all the success that just seemed to happen to them, and to him specifically…fair or not, she was okay with that. Love wasn’t always a kind game.

It was the effective immortality that got to her. Because, while she was fine with being loved by someone well out of her league, the whole extended longevity thing was deeply, massively unfair. Not just between those lucky enough to have access and everyone else…

But maybe more insidiously, between man and woman. Al was content, personally. She maybe would like one more kid, maybe not…it wasn’t a pressing thing. But Xiù definitely wanted more. And that meant she had to choose. Because she could nurse a baby, or take the longevity medication. Not both. The medical advice was crystal fucking clear on breastfeeding while on the treatment: Do not.

That was one of the major reasons the weapons-grade stuff hadn’t hit the market yet, and was only available “on trial” for those in unique circumstances like them. The Corti were unshakeable on that point, and so far had managed clean enforcement. If you weren’t on or directly associated with the SOR’s mission, you didn’t get any.

Spouses had only recently won an exception, and that was the hottest topic of gossip among them. Most…would be going on the medicine. Shallow though maybe it was, if you were going to be married to someone who was functionally an immortal superhuman, well…you needed to be up to it. It was worse in Julian’s case because he couldn’t stop without endangering his health, not after the years of trials and such the Corti had put him through.

And he couldn’t stop anyway. He produced the most potent form of the stuff internally, making his long-term problems even bigger. So, Al and Xiù were going along on the ride. The first generation of the medically immortal. Or, medically indefinitely mortal, anyway.

Again, no complaints. Al didn’t believe in any kind of life after death, so she was going to claim as much time as she could get, thank you very much.

But there were going to be problems that came with that. How long to stick at her job for? Especially given that between the mission pay from Misfit, Julian’s salary and “positional opportunities,” Xiù’s property empire and their investment portfolios, their family was basically never going to be poor ever again. How long to go before letting the kids inherit stuff? And what about getting the kids on it themselves, when they were old enough?

Weird that nobody was talking about it yet. Maybe the ones who could afford it didn’t want the ones who couldn’t to notice.

Hell, how would Past Allison have reacted to the idea of the one-percent getting immortality thrown in alongside all the other privileges? How would she have reacted to the idea of becoming one of the one-percent?

…How much did Present Allison still agree with Past Allison?

Something was definitely itching in her conscience.

A tap on her shoulder brought her out of it: Xiù.

“Ice cream? You look like you need ice cream.”

Al smiled, and gave her a squeeze. “Thought you were enjoying showing off for the boys?”

“Eh. Best I step away early, so I don’t bruise their egos.” Xiù’s cheeky grin wrinkled her nose, and she fished Anna down off the sculpture’s back.

“I dunno, I thought they were doing pretty good…”

“For meathead boys maybe…” Xiú giggled. “…But yes. Don’t tell them I said so, but they’re actually pretty good.”

“My lips are sealed.” They weren’t, of course. She fished Harrison out from under the sculpture’s belly, planted him on her shoulders, and followed Xiù ice-cream-wards.

“Whatcha thinking about?”

“Same stuff as before. The medicine and things. What it’s going to mean for people when some of us are rich enough to afford to be young and healthy while everyone else…Y’know. Little stuff.”

“Yeah, it’ll be a while before the market catches up.” Xiú could be serene about this stuff. “I guess it’ll depend on if they sell it to anyone outside compelling need, and if they do, it’ll be all about how fast the price drops.”

Al wasn’t so sure. “Remember insulin prices? Short-term quarterly gains culture and all that stuff?”

“Yeah…but the people responsible got what was coming in the end, remember? Most of them lost everything, or spent time in jail. And after that, generics came down, then the specialized name-brands did too…and remember, this isn’t the US, it isn’t evil pharmaceutical companies. The Corti control this drug.”

“The people who abducted all three of us for medical experimentation,” Allison noted, drily.

“Well, yeah. But I mean, I’ve kinda forgiven them for that. Or at least, I understand them better, now.” Xiù reached up and poked her son in the ribs, provoking a giggle. “And they need us. Look at Julian, there.”

They watched their giant caveman play about with his much smaller adopted teens. All that size and power he had, flipping around and tossing the two about like nothing…and he was so precisely careful. Like he was with everyone. Nothing but happy smiles on anyone’s faces.

…They’d probably be okay.

“The Corti didn’t spend a thousand years breeding him or his family on a lark, or any of the rest of them either. No, they set about bringing all that potential out in our species for a reason. They’re not going to throw that all away right at the moment they need us the most! Or afterwards! We’re a long-term investment! The Corti are cold, sure, and we especially got the rough end of that. But give them their due, they think strategically. Sometimes you need cold.”

“And what about us, then?”

It was no wonder Xiù got along so well with the Gao, really. She shared their love of mischief, and had what they’d have called a ‘Keeda face;’ a deeply impish expression. “Well, I’m sure they want him to have as many babies by as many women as possible…”

“Tough sh—” Al course-corrected away from a cuss. Gotta watch that mouth around the toddlerbeasts. “Tough cookies. Two is quite enough.”

Xiù turned that mischievous face her way. “Babies or women?”

“Yes. What, don’t tell me you’re getting antsy with just the three of us?”

“No!” Xiù giggled, “Of course not! But I do think it’s kinda hot how he loses like a hundred IQ points whenever people flirt with him—”

Al laughed. “Baby, that has not changed in all the time we’ve known him.”

“So what? It’s a harmless fantasy. I’m allowed! And we’re all fixing to live for a very long time. You never know what the future will bring…”

Al rolled her eyes to unsuccessfully cover a grin. “Okay, fine. Be that way. So while you fantasize over our future harem or whatever—”

“Am not!”

“I’m gonna slurp this ice cream so innocently. That’s all you’re getting from me tonight.”

While Xiù cracked up, the girl at the ice cream stand gave them an adorably star-struck, bumbling service and generous portions—and got a hefty tip. Though, Al stole half the paper napkins. Could never have enough of those when embarking on the dangerous process of combining two-year-olds and dairy products.

God, just how long might the kids live? If they were all poised to live longer than any humans before them, then she’d better enjoy the toddler days, because there weren’t going to be many of them. Even the tantrums, random freakouts, potty training and nappy changes were just going to be a tiny blip if they decided to live a couple hundred years.

…Or longer.

Al didn’t think of herself as a conservative, cautious type. You had to open Pandora’s box to deal with whatever turned out to be inside. But this box…they hadn’t opened this box. It had been opened for them.

Well, the only thing to do with an unknown future was confront it. They’d done that before, no doubt. And so far it had worked out for the best.

She stole one last glance over at the boys. They were all roughhousing in the grass, laughing and oblivious. It didn’t matter they weren’t really Julian’s children, and they didn’t care that he was so much different than them. They loved each other just the same, just as purely and innocently as father and sons should.

She smiled, reached out, slipped her arm around Xiù’s waist, and told all her worries to go shut the fuck up and sit in the corner for a bit. Today was for being Thankful.

And she had a lot to be thankful for.

Date Point: 18y11m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Lance Corporal Viggo Dyer


They were out.

Shit, it hadn’t even been an day since their new LT had rolled up and said hello, and they were out because LT had brought a fuckin’ gift with him:

“We’ll be rotating out of theatre for radiation treatment,” he’d said. “Leaving as soon as our relief arrives, which should be within a few hours. First Sergeant Twining, please rotate everyone through so they can get packed and ready to go.”

Dyer had been one of the first off the line, along with Heembo. All the Gaoians were griping about bein’ basically bald from ears to balls. Stubble didn’t count, apparently. Getting access to follicle stimulation so he could grow his fur back was about the only thing Heembo could talk about the whole time they were grabbing their shit.

As for Dyer’s part, well. It was gonna be nice having eyebrows again. Right now all he had was some fuzz.

The shock came after the jump to Cimbrean, when there was that lurch, the gravity changed, and…

God. Green grass. Trees. And a blue, beautiful fuckin’ clear sky. Dyer almost sagged to his knees, struck by a hammer blow of mixed emotions he just hadn’t seen coming. He’d been fighting under heavy metal skies, in the toxic bone-strewn fuckin’ mud for…

…Shit. He didn’t even know. Felt like eternity.

Least he wasn’t alone in needing a moment. It was like coming up for air after being a second away from drowning. Still, his feet did what feet did, and shuffled him off the jump array’s platform in response to some called instructions.

There was decontamination, with all it’s stinging soaps and abrasive exfoliation. Deep cleaning, Marine-style. Which sucked of course, but he had to admit it’d scrubbed him up what good…

Then there was the medical stuff. Blood samples, some kinda fancy high-tech scanner, then a different fancy high-tech scanner…none of it took long. He got given some pills, different ones to what he’d been taking since the bomb…

Oh. And paperwork for a Purple Heart, along with a Starburst Medal for surviving direct nuclear attack. Fuckin’ hooray. Nice to be fuckin’ appreciated.

And then…they were free to go. Not entirely. They had to stay in the encampment, which was on a corner of the local military base. HMS Sharman? Anyway, they were free to use the amenities, and had open access to both American and British services. But going off-base required a day pass and a stern briefing by the bosses.

Most everyone just wanted to sleep the days away, but Dyer wasn’t feeling it. Neither was Heembo, so after a couple days of recovery, they ended up being day-pass battle buddies.

The way out went past some kind of training course. Looked like serious business, and the sound of nailguns inside said it was in the middle of being rebuilt or repaired. A fuckin’ colossal monster of a young-looking dude was outside looking half-chagrined, half-pleased with himself over something. Shit, he didn’t seem a day over nineteen maybe, and looked strong enough to toss cars.

Dyer was too curious for his own damn good, and went to go say hello.

…Yeah. Monster didn’t even come close to describing this dude. He was wearing just a joke of some silkies, and there just…wasn’t a damn thing about him that didn’t take charge, really.

Except for his dumb happy-looking face.

“Oh, hi!”

“Uh, hi.”

“Heard we were hosting while some guys came back from Hell. You lost?”

“Naw,” Heembo chittered. “He’s just drawn to big strong men.”

“Fuck off!”

The big pretty brute in the silkies chuckled. “Well, that’s me I guess. Broke the run so they’re addin’ more four-by-eight.”

“So, what, you owe the range master a bottle, huh?”

“Nah, we’re kinda supposed to go breakin’ through walls. That’s part o’ the training, though I guess we gotta be, uh, judicious with throwin’ our weight around.” He stuck out a thick, calloused hand the size of a ham. “Gonzo.”

“…’Fer real? Just a callsign?”

“Yeah. You gotta get to at least third base before I share my name.”

“…No thanks. I choose life.”

“Gonzo” smiled like he was used to it. “Yeah, well. It’s an open secret who and what we are but rules is rules. Anyway, What you two up to?”

“Day pass. Oh! Big guy here is Heembo.”

“Howdy,” he rumbled. Paw was a much better-matched word for that skull-crusher of a hand.

“Nice to meetcha. And, you wanna hit up Rooney’s. Home away from home. Best wings in town, beer’s cheap as fuck, and his kitchen can feed a herd of guys like me. Hell, I might be going there tonight…”

“Day pass,” Dyer reminded the young hulk.

“…Right. How long is ‘yer lockdown gonna last?”

“No idea. Also…wait.” A wild idea flit across Dyer’s mind. “Weren’t…so when we first came to Hell, it was right at the beginning, right? There was this…huge HEAT motherfucker, looks like he was takin’ a breather. We whistled at him—”

“Yeah, that was me. Hi again! Shit man, lemme…hang on.”

The big guy sauntered off—and it was a sort of hypnotically three-dimensional saunter too, Jesus shit he was so fuckin’ yoked. He spoke animatedly with someone else that was somehow tremendously hulkier and a lot meaner-looking, then came jogging back at a bounding, land-eating pace Dyer knew he’d never, ever be able to hit even at a dead sprint.

“Keeda.” Heembo whispered. “I didn’t know Humans got that big…”

“Christ, and I thought Walker was a monster.”

“He is, Dyer. The only guy on-team about as big as me. But next to these humans…”

Gonzo looked at them from some distance away and actually tilted his head like a curious dog. When he came thundering back, he jumped right into a question.

“What? Oh. Yeah, uh…big guy over there? That’s Righteous. He’s our biggest, by a longshot.”

“…Okay. Don’t pick a fight with any of you, got it.”

Gonzo laughed with a little embarrassment. “We’re big boys! Anyway, uh, I swear we’re just normal guys under the huge, so…I was wunnering if you two wanted to tag along? I gotta run a couple small errands and I’d be happy to show you around…”

Dyer was still feeling a little lost with the whole thing of suddenly being catapulted back into the world of normal shit—well, maybe ‘normal’ was the wrong word, given their new freakshow friend. He nodded dumbly, not knowing what else to do.

“Cool! Lemme git my bag quick.”

He bounded away again, and his gym bag had in it a pair of sandals and a tank top that did basically nothing at all to cover him up. That apparently fulfilling the local modesty requirements, they made a quick pit stop by his barracks to drop everything off—he was apparently in an on-base rotation for the moment—and then they were off to town.

That surreal sense didn’t go away for Dyer over the next hour or two. Rather than staring at Gonzo, people just…got out of his way, like it was perfectly normal for a literal ton of goofy-ass sweaty supersoldier to just saunter down the sidewalk, making tiny micro-quakes with each step that Dyer could feel through his boots. One kid raised a palm and traded a high-five with him on the way past. They walked past an actual Vzk’tk, the first non-Gaoian (…and non-Hunter) alien Dyer had ever seen, who ignored them.

They saw a Ten’Gewek too, from a distance. He looked like a cartoon parody of a roided-out pro-wrestler had a love-child with a comic-book gorilla, and that child was born a punk-rocker.

“Holy shit, look at that mohawk!”

“Yeah! Vemik’s got a pretty bitchin’ crest! It’s natural, too. Stands up like that all by itself. Also you can tell how testosterone-poisoned they are by the color. See how nuclear red it is? Means he’s…pretty much top of the pile. He’s much stronger than he looks, too.”

Which was saying something, given how fuckin’ jacked he looked, even from a distance…

“Not exactly hard to tell,” Heembo sniffed, and flicked an ear. “Shit, feelin’ kinda humble here.”

“Aww, he’s nice people too. I’d introduce you but then we’d not get anything done, ‘cuz he’s basically a bouncing ball of excited and he’ll want to wrestle all of us, which fuckin’ hurts. Dude’s so hard I can’t even dent him and he’s like five times stronger than me at everything.”

“Jesus.” That was hard to wrap his head around. “Fuckin’…f’real? He’s that strong?”

“And heavy too, yeah. Righteous though? He can crush ‘em like a grape. I’m still a baby at all this so it’s gonna be some long, hard years before I’m on Vemik’s level.”

…The fuck kinda freak planet were they on? And who the fuck were the freaks who lived here?! Heembo had his ears flicked back and Dyer couldn’t blame him at all.

Gonzo seemed to notice and grimaced a bit, and somehow reminded Dyer of a giant puppy who wanted to Make It Better. It sure was a strange look on a man with a neck that thick and bulgy. “Shit, man. I swear we’re not assholes. Also if it makes you feel any better, Daar’s pretty much forever gonna be top dog. No offense.”

Heembo chittered happily. “None taken! An’ by how much?”

Gonzo grinned. “Yes. Dude can outrun a cheetah and bitchslap an elephant. Righteous would just be a fuckin’ snack if Daar was ever feelin’ particularly mean.”

“Fuck yeah,” Heembo rumbled, “it’s good My Father can put ‘ya crazy fucks in ‘yer place.”

Dyer could only boggle at that. Gonzo just laughed, “Fuck off! Anyway, first stop: snacks! Ninja Taco’s got some HEAT-friendly fare on offer and I gotta refuel.”

They had tacos. A mountain of them in Gonzo’s case, and another between Dyer and Heembo. They ran an errand at the hardware store, then they went walking about. Gonzo pointed out all the restaurants along North Street, the good pubs “which still ain’t as good as Rooney’s,” some of the more out-there destinations like a shop filled with crystals and sage…

“Oh, and there’s two big dance clubs here. One is actually for-real a dance club. So, y’know. Formal dress and everything. Actually kinda fun! The other though? Best place in town for human or gao to get their krunk on. Or Ten’Gewek too now that I think about it. Anyways, no strip clubs or anything, but this is the kind of town where you really don’t need it.”

No kidding. The whole time he was talking, both Dyer and Heembo had their heads on swivels, noting all the fine goods on offer…

It actually got to the point where Dyer had to stop and ask. “Okay, seriously. Where are all the fat people in this town?”

“Oh, man, so, way it works is, Folctha has basically a lazy tax. You have to register a certain amount of exercise or activity every week here to get a tax credit. It, uh…saved me nearly eight thousand pounds last year since I was able to refund almost all my VAT.”

“No shit?”

“Yup. I mean, otherwise, I mean, you’ve probably felt the gravity vary a bit? There’s three big municipal gravity generators spread out, but the fields taper off, y’know? Every home has some kind of grav plating too, and for us Deathworlders it’s encouraged to turn the gravity up slightly past standard to make up for the planet being slightly lower than Dominion standard. We keep the barracks pretty fuckin’ high these days. Most people go with one-point-two Gee.”

“Gaoian or human?” Heembo asked.

“Either. They’re pretty damn close though so nobody fusses much. Fitness nuts like to crank it, like I said. Turns out either of our kind can handle a pretty high load continuously, once we get used to it. But even so, without the lazy tax and the grav plating, people get atrophy pretty bad. Cimbrean just ain’t made for us.”

“…Still, that seems kinda…”

“Well, we know people atrophy because there’s cases out in the countryside that got pretty bad. Cheapskates that didn’t wanna pay for plating, which yeah, it’s pricey. But still. Do you wanna be out fifty grand? Or do you wanna watch ‘yer bones melt away? And do I wanna pay taxes to pay ‘fer their fuckin’ stupidity?”

Heembo made an uncomfortable growling noise. “Yeah. I see what ‘ya mean.”

Gonzo nodded and changed the subject. “Anyway! I had a sneaky purpose to all this!”

“Wait, big fuckers like you can scheme?”

“Hell yeah we can, about all sorts of things! Cheatin’ on meals, gettin’ laid…”

“Must be brave girls around here…” Dyer muttered. Silkies left nothing to the imagination.

A smug look from Gonzo, but he was still all Super Friendly. “Naw, you just gotta know what ‘yer doin’! Anyhoo. Since you smell like devil-dog, I thought maybe you’d like to meet the local Marines? They’re an embassy security detachment and we met in a kinda ridiculous situation. I’ll let them lie all about it! So lemme…”

Heembo flicked his ear at the ‘lie’ part, but he’d pretty much grown used to human weirdness at this point, supposedly.

A couple of text messages later, and with Gonzo deciding to show off by transforming Dyer into a backpack and running to the park—shit, that was something to experience—they arrived shortly thereafter, Gonzo and Heembo both panting, and introductions were made.

To the Marines, who were a welcome anchor. And the Explorers. Shit! It was actually them! Even Heembo was a bit flustered, everyone knew about the Etsicitty family, the first people on Mars, the ones who’d made contact with the Ten’Gewek and of course the Gao.

They were all…overwhelming. For their own reasons. Allison was cool and aloof, yet somehow friendly. Something in the back of his head warned against pissing her off. ‘Shoo’ was almost unearthly in her grace, and she had a handshake that would humble most men. And they were both beautiful, and beautiful in different ways, so much so that Dyer had to snap himself out of gawping and remind himself where he was.

And who their man was.

Julian was just…unmissable. He was exactly as tall as Gonzo but somehow so much more in every way, it was honestly difficult to believe it even standing there, taking it all in. He too was on team silkies-and-nothing-else, which were somehow even less modest than Gonzo’s and honestly…yeah. Standing side-by-side, the difference between them was somehow like a scrawny late-teen standing proudly next to his absolutely terrifying hulk of an older brother, though they didn’t look much alike. The infamous photography really didn’t do him justice.

In one go, Dyer’s conception of “epic” was re-defined for the second time that day, having leaped from Gonzo to Etsicitty. The beastly ambassador was definitely friendly, though.

“Hey! Nice to meecha. I’m Julian, this is Al and Xiú, my boys here are Tristan and Ramsey.”

Julian’s rough paw completely swallowed Dyer’s hand and a truly painful crush ensued, one just barely long enough to qualify as a handshake, and which came just short of eliciting a wince (or a cry) from Dyer. He got the impression the huge man didn’t mean anything bad by it all, but could have accidentally crushed his hand to a slurry if he wasn’t paying attention.

Friendly, sure. But he sure as fuck was marking his territory.

“Uh, hi. Good to meet you, sir.”

“Eh,” he reached up and scratched the back of his head, “you can just call me Julian if you want.” Okay, fair enough. The Midwestern was strong in this guy, so much so he probably didn’t even realise how fuckin’ intimidating that casual little flex of his arm honestly was. His bicep had a wicked peak and it was fuckin’ huge, as big as his head! Add the rest of his arm, and…

“…Right! Julian. So, how did you and, uh, Gonzo here meet?”

“I’m his wrasslin ‘dummy!” Gonzo blurt out happily, now sans-shirt again and looking ready to go play, while Dyer tried not to boggle at the kid’s physique. “We got paired up as training buddies.”

“He’s an eager fella,” Julian noted, fondly. “Knows how to push me good and hard.”

…Christ. Dyer wasn’t a wimp or a weakling, and he had a pretty good bod for a little lanky guy. He’d never felt self-conscious around anyone, not even Walker’s superman build or Heembo’s massive murder-bear muscularity. But these guys were just so far past all of them, and the ambassador in particular was so ludicrously stacked…

He’d never felt so fuckin’ small or useless. Maybe that was a stupid feeling, maybe it was overly macho, but just standing next to those two made him feel like less of a man.

Neither of them seemed to notice, really. Gonzo in particular was just…this huge puppy of a man, and seemed super excited to share his happy-time with his New Friend. “Fuck yeah I do! Mostly ‘cuz I’m dumb enough to keep volunteering for abuse. Dude here’s a match for Vemik! I’m really just grappling practice and a lifting buddy, and sometimes a wrestling coach, too.”

“Mhmm,” Julian nodded. “Fella’s got mad skills. I only really win ‘cuz I’m much stronger.”


Julian at least seemed to know he was indulging, so with a sheepish and slightly apologetic grin, he stood a little taller, brought his arms forward, and—

Yeah. Gonzo did the same and holy balls it wasn’t even close. Heembo flicked his ears back as the two showed themselves off. Dyer could only boggle at the dominating unreality of their presence, but everyone else seemed used to it. His women giggled and rolled their eyes, and the teenagers whooped and cheered them on…

Honestly, it really was like a surreal cartoon. Feeling overwhelmed by it all, Dyer made his excuses and retreated, despite everyone’s slightly disappointed expressions. But…it was just a lot. Like, he was getting that paranoid feeling like maybe he’d actually caught a bullet out of nowhere and was now being eased into the afterlife? Couldn’t be true, ‘cuz his hand was aching too much after that handshake, but he was starting to get some serious ‘shit’s gonna turn south any second now’ anxiety and he just needed some space to clear his head.

Or something like that. Might just be simple intimidation, too. He couldn’t tell just then.

Heembo stayed behind to play some sort of ball game with the kids (who were also frankly sorta intimidating, and almost mirrored the two men by comparison) along with Gonzo and that absolute fuckin’ unit of an ambassador.

He found a place selling milkshakes, then realized he didn’t have any money. The young lady behind the counter smiled at him, though, and shook her head. “This one’s on me.”


Chat ensued, and Dyer felt…a lot more relaxed. She was normal, not some kinda crazy super-athlete or historic explorer or whatever. Though, even being normal, she was wicked smart, and he’d always had a thing for brainy gals…

Things were definitely more open and relaxed here though, because she asked for his number, for “whenever you can go out for a night.” Had to figure out what “his number” was here on an alien world, which turned out to be the same as back in America, just with a +1 in front. Okay, neat. He’d always wondered what the 1 was for…

“Make sure to get an international plan too, or your bill is gonna be insane. And you need to buy me dinner so we can’t have you broke…”

Solid advice, really. He also remembered he could pay with his phone, and with that out of the way, bought shakes for everyone. Anything to chat her up a bit more…

She had to work, though. Feeling a bit more grounded, he returned to the park with his Shakes of Friendship in a carrier so he could share…

Yeah. Better. The Shakes of Friendship did their work, and Dyer felt like he could…relax, a bit. Take it all in now that he had a breather. They talked, answering some (probably tiresome) questions from Heembo and a few from Dyer: “what was Mars like, what was Gao like, how strong are you really, is it true you scared them all with a shotgun, do you really weigh that much?” And so on. Eventually they moved on to little things like school and stuff, while Julian waxed on poetically about the two alien civilizations that were somewhat under his care.

They were all people, under all the everything. He’d also struck gold with Allison because he had her favorite flavor, which she sniped the moment he sat down.

“Sorry about steppin’ away like that.”

“It’s okay,” the ambassador said, strategically sitting right over the bench’s solid concrete support. Even so, the actual bench creaked loudly underneath him. He…really hadn’t been kidding about his size, goddamn. “I get it. I hear you sorta just ran into Gonzo, here?”

“Well…no. He was running some kind of wicked assault course and fuckin’ broke it, so I ambled over to say hello. And, well…”

“Here we are,” grumbled Heembo affably.

“You look like you’re feeling a bit o’ whiplash though, huh?”

Dyer sighed and nodded. “Yeah, that’s one word for it. I mean…just the other day….shit, that planet’s well named. And now I’m meeting literal superheroes and famous people, and…”

He noted the Marine guards (all stationed discreetly away, but close enough to react) had all subtly cocked their heads so as to hear the story.

Julian noticed it too, and flicked on…shit, a personal forcefield and gestured for them to come closer. “I can tell you wanna listen in, so here. Safe enough now, okay?”

Allison and Xiú flipped on their own, and so did the kids. Damn. Like out of fuckin’ Dune.

The older sergeant seemed a bit relieved. “Thank you, sir. I’d have to beat them later.”

“We Marines are used to beatings,” Dyer added, a bit impishly. “Respectfully of course.”

The ambassador was clearly fond of his protection detail and that said more about his character than anything else, as far as Dyer was concerned. Still…even though it was hard to imagine him needing protection, it was kinda sad that his family wasn’t free of it all. Sad they needed the shields, too. But, right now, they wanted to listen. And Viggo…Viggo needed to get it all off his chest. And maybe telling these people might just mean it was heard.

Maybe the guys who’d all gone into that mass grave on Hell might get a little more of the recognition they deserved, if people like this family heard their story. So, he pulled the last of his milkshake through the straw until it gurgled, gathered his thoughts into some kind of order at last…

And told them everything.

Date Point: 18y11m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Major Anthony (Abbott) Costello

Anthony was a killer, like all his men. It wasn’t always a fun thing to confront, but there was a reason they all did what they did, beyond the nobler motivations. They were killers, in a place they could serve honorably. Good killers. Among the very best there had ever been, who could service a target anywhere, anytime, no matter the resistance or environment. They were death from above with maximum precision and maximum force. They took pride in their capability and their craft, in performing a needed mission nobody else could do.

So, gettin’ blue-balled on a chance to service a fuckin’ Alpha didn’t sit well with any of them.

They were working through the process of de-suiting and de-everything-ing. It had become a bit of a habit to clean up and initially de-brief at the same time so they could wash off the sweat, relax the muscles, and get some rest as fast as possible; they were always on call after all, and Team Two was just in from yesterday’s alert. Plenty of targets to service over in Hell, even for their barely-operational relief team…but it wasn’t the one they wanted.

“I swear the Hunters are becomin’ fuckin’ cock teases,” grumbled Firth, as he wriggled himself out of his upper midsuit and gently set it down on its lifting frame. “Also…sarry, but my Mass is too tight again.”

“Oh, come on,” Deacon complained with a grunt, while struggling to wrestle the half-a-midsuit a mere half an inch over to sit better on the frame. “We only just adjusted it!”

“I know, but I’m a growing space viking boy and I eat all my meat and veggies!”

Chitters and guffaws echoed around the room, but Deacon was having none of it. With a spicy grin, “Your techs know exactly what you eat, Firth. We’re the ones who get to flush the waste management after you’ve used it, remember.”

“And we’re the ones with tubes up our arses,” interjected Murray to further guffaws and chitters.

“Sure. I still gotta deal with your very literal shit, and I gotta rebuild his Mass again!”

“Hey, whaddya want from me? I’m a big murdery bastard, and I wanna be the best damn murderer I can. In this job, bigger is better, so…” He’d finally wriggled free of his lower midsuit and started tearing apart his much-too-small and already halfway obliterated undersuit.

…Yeah. One quick glance across the giant Aggressor told the truth. Firth was a living weapon and looking scary as fuck lately, too. Just…honestly superhuman. To state the completely goddamn obvious. Neither he nor Adam had been kidding when they’d predicted how his training would progress, and progress it had. Hadn’t stopped, either. Or even slowed down.

Everyone had noticed, of course. Firth had been piling it on for over a year, but the last few months had seen a kind of warp-speed progress that was extreme even for HEAT. Murray looked him over too and grinned, “S’what you get, bein’ a purebred Corti experiment.”

“Fuck yeah!” Firth growled with extra cheesy bravado. “Nofl says they worked over my family line ‘fer supersoldering back to th’ vikings, but we were too damn rebellious ‘fer ‘em, heh.”

“So you literally are a viking,” Sikes grinned.

“Yup! Heritage is mostly russian, lotsa scandinavian, s’pecially danish, lotta german…bit of scot an’ english too, which is where th’ name came from. But yeah,” he grinned. “Basically a viking.”

“A super-soldier viking,” Sikes added.

“Mohawk and everythin’ these days too,” Murray snorted.

“Fuck off,” Firth laughed. “We’ve all got mohawks now! Special authorization and everything!”

“A purpose-bred super-soldier viking hillbilly cracker,” John elaborated, to everyone’s jeers. “Fuckin’ whiteboy legs so dummy-thick you gotta waddle everywhere!”

“Goddamn right I am,” Firth quipped, and slapped his giant fuckin’ legs with an almighty thwack! “An’ don’t be jealous ‘cuz I got tree-crushin’ quads an’ you don’t. How’re ‘yer calves?”

“My people ain’t known for that, whiteboy.” John’s grin was enormous. “I’d say mine are pretty fuckin’ good though, even next to your ridiculous shit. By the way, how’s your studyin’ going?”

Groans and jeers all around. That jab was a little cruel, but not all that much; Firth was simultaneously one of their most intelligent members, and the one who had the hardest time studying for anything. Right now, his face was habitually seen buried in books about nutrition science and kinestheology, since he was angling to take a bigger role in training development.

And, well…someone had to step into Arés’s shoes, as best they could. Firth was the only one among them who could do that bigger and better, literally and figuratively.

Fortunately, firth had been in high spirits lately, and it rolled right off his back.

“Fuck off,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “I got a B-plus on my last exam, I’ll have you know!”

“Hey, not bad!” Burgess said honestly. “And you’re finally gettin’ pretty, too!”

“Almost as pretty as me!” Sikes quipped.

Cat-calls and other shenanigans ensued.

“Keep it in your pants,” Costello quipped, as he meandered his way to that glorious shower. “It’s sausagey enough up in here as it is. Don’t need the draft horses gettin’ all excited, especially not you, Firth.”

“Jealousy don’t become you.” He grinned, rightfully smug. “Sir.”

“Nobody would survive him anyway,” one of the Gaoians chittered.

More jeers and chittering, but frankly, everyone wanted a hot shower. They’d been in-suit for about ten fuckin’ hours, having dropped in on-target and not found their primary target. After that it was just clearing out territory while the conventional forces backfilled in…

So a good workout, more or less. A super fuckin’ expensive workout with unnecessary risk and no sight or sound of their objective. For the fifth go in a row. Shit was gettin’ old.

He turned the water pressure right up so it could blast the lingering knots out of his muscles, and shimmied his spine to extract a satisfying crick from his neck. Fact was, he was wearing the Mass well these days. He could probably even hack a bigger, tougher, meaner model if he had to, but…well, that wasn’t his job. Still…a little extra armor wouldn’t be a bad idea…Yeah. Maybe time to push it again. Can’t have a shortstack like Chimp embarrassing him too much.

Still. Given what it took to break the last Alpha, the best Costello could ever personally hope for was a supporting role. He had to responsibly command after all, and he wasn’t Beef enough anyway. The satisfaction of finally getting to break that goddamn Alpha was going to be somebody else’s, sadly. And by somebody…probably Firth, with everyone helping out.

…He felt a little bad about it, but Costello hoped to fuck they’d catch it on video when he did. Them, or maybe those combat camera kids. Low-key brave as fuck, they were…

Behind him, the rest of the Lads filed into the shower, making pleased grumbly noises as the hot mist and water blitzed away the chill from the ice water used in de-suiting. And, as always, Titan had a dumb question to get their minds settled.

“So…Fremen or Sardaukar?”

“Oh Jesus shit you fuckin’ nerd,” Firth grumbled, ducking under the shower head. All of them were a foot too low for him. “We’re HEAT. Better’n either of those pretend psycho spacefucks.”

“Wait, since when have you read the book?”

“I din’t. I just know every single fuckin’ plot point ‘cuz Tiny and Kiwi won’t ever fuckin’ stop babbling about it. And t’be honest, it ain’t that hard ‘ta say we’re better’n two opposed religious fanatic death-cult shock troops, yijao? Leave that shit to th’ idjits.”

“Plus, like, they used swords and knives.”

“Okay, that’s cool, admittedly. But our body shields don’t cause nuclear fuckin’ explosions if someone pew-pews us. So, y’know. That’s nice. Actually,” Firth turned at the waist to face Akiyama. “Are y’all askin’ for swordfighting lessons? ‘Cuz I could make that happen…”

Yeah. Not exactly the sort of statement anyone would want to hear in the shower, especially from him. Probably he’d expected fearful groans and other such banter. Instead…

“Aye, been a while since I last did that. Could be fun,” Murray scrubbed his scalp.

A snicker or two here and there, but Firth understood his meaning immediately.

“God, could you be any more of a Scottish stereotype? Let me guess. Claymore?”

“HEMA! Longsword. No’ touched it in years, though.”

“Swordplay is a noble art,” Regaari noted, slyly. “It forms part of our early training.”

“Dude!” Hunter enthused obliviously. “Can we really learn fuckin’ swords?!”

Firth had a bemused look about him as everyone nodded along. His quip had backfired in the best possible way, and how he had a team of eager students. Task failed successfully!

“…Well, okay then! Hell, maybe I can get Mister Anson to demo kenjutsu ‘fer us! Boss?”

Costello was busy lathering up his strip of ‘hawk-hair. “Sure. But low priority, obviously.”

“Right! I’ll think’a somethin’. An’ remember, y’all asked ‘fer it.”

“Since when do you swing sword?”

The obvious rejoinder went miraculously overlooked. “Fencing in high school! Been a long while though…wonder jus’ how rusty I am…”

“Fencing? Wee dainty foils an’ touché an’ all that shite?” Murray scoffed.

“Yeah, an’ I’m quick as fuck on my feet, ain’t I?” Which was saying something for a man that big on feet like his. “Quicker’n anyone else on-team!”

“Kinda hard to imagine teenage Firth prancing about in a white suit, though,” Burgess snickered.

“Had’ta do somethin’! I been too big ‘fer wrestlin’ since my nuts dropped an’ I was asked nicely to refrain from football ‘fore high school. No unrestricted weight classes then neither, I’m one o’ the old freaks. But fencing? That was different. They let me compete with the adults.”

“And lemme guess. Pretty girl? There’s always a pretty girl.”

“I also ran track an’ field, so I weren’t starvin’ of that sort o’ company. But yes,” Firth grinned. “There was a pretty girl.”

Sage nods around the showers, and they lapsed into companionable silence for maybe a minute before Butler, who’d been quiet so far, finally spoke what was on his mind.

“…So, how long’re we gonna play whack-a-mole, boss?”

Costello didn’t know, honestly. “Nobody else can handle an Alpha. Hell, I mean…not the greatest track record ourselves. Which is why I once again thank everyone for stepping up.”

And they had been, too. Warhorse had brought a lot of different abilities to the team, and it took all of them really upping their game in their own ways to help make up for the loss.

What a fuckin’ tragedy.

“Right. So, we’re goin’ with the ‘we only need to get lucky once,’ approach, then,” Butler observed, darkly.

“Not habitually. We’re definitely going to re-assess. Deploying us costs millions every go, and I’m not going to get into the habit of sending y’all down for something routine. Though admittedly,” he thought while switching to cold water for a rinse-down. “It’s been good training.”

Time to dry off. A moment under the hot-air blast (installed for the Gaoians, but everyone loved it) and he was nicely dry. He ambled over to his locker and most of the team followed shortly thereafter, save Akiyama who’d had the stuffing knocked out of him by a surprise Hunter moment. A little more soak time was always good for that sort of thing.

Getting dry, clean clothes, some food and drink not delivered through a tube…the standard rhythm of coming off a mission. They were good at it now, and their turnaround time was the best it had ever been. They’d be good to go again soon. Hell, if they really had to, they could have climbed straight back into the Mass and done more.

Better to rest though. Next stop: handoff with captain Campbell. He found the man catching up on paperwork in their shared office—space was a bit cramped just now—and settled himself on the First Couch, rescued from the old dayroom which was now their “project space.”

Which mostly meant Ork storage at the moment. Of all the Lads who played, only two had chosen something other than Orks. Both of whom were Gaoian. Costello had often wondered if there was some significance there.

Campbell looked up expectantly, then pulled a face when Costello shook his head. “…No joy.”

“Didn’t leave a goddamn thing alive or intact in the whole area, and the slippery fucker still got away.” Costello sat with a groan. “Garaaf never saw it leave, either.”

“Well, I guess we can take it as a compliment that it tucks tail and runs the instant we show up.”

“Hah.” Costello reached over to grab his tablet and log in. “They’re trying to bait him back out, you know.”

Understandable. They didn’t have any proper intelligence among the Hunters—how could they?—but they did have some excellent xenopsychologists. It was like they wanted to fight the worst that could be brought to bear. They were practically begging for it! Why, though?

Beyond obviously the chance at destroying their enemy’s leadership. It was just…

What exactly they thought of Daar was a subject of much informed speculation. A being like him would rock some of the Hunters’ instincts to their foundation. They’d grown accustomed to being the galaxy’s dominant species. Meeting humanity had shaken that, but could probably be handled by mentally creating a new category. The Gao, though? Most Gao were…not much threat. They had been untrained and undeveloped, kept stunted by Hierarchy action. Outside of Clans, most were simple, friendly, harmless laborers. The great mass of them tended to be small and lithe creatures, rather than robust and hardy types. Of course, they did have claws and fully functional canines…

For most of their spacefaring time, in short, the Gao had been just another “prey” species. A rare and interesting one, perhaps. Even dangerous. But prey, nonetheless.

No longer.

To the Hunters, Daar therefore had to look like something akin to the Antichrist. Leader of their most ancient and most martial Clan, the ur-Stoneback himself. A being of legendary and terrible destructive power from what was then an almost legendary breed of Gao, one that had only rarely been seen off-world by anyone for years, come to uproot the natural order of the universe and bring its burning rubble crashing down.

Or perhaps, he represented a god. A terrible god. Who could know? In any case…

“It’ll work,” Campbell opined. “He and we are the only things that can fight an Alpha, really.”


“If that thing’s rigged with a second nuke and decides to take him with it…”

“If anyone at AEC or among the Gaoians thought it did, we wouldn’t be going anywhere near it either.”

“So…then what is Hell to them? They nuked us, and nothing since. Now a very smart Alpha, or series of Alphas, is back, tormenting us every time we expand our foothold. We’re still reeling from the detonation and our plans to venture out of the shield bubble are well-delayed. Is that about the picture of it?”

“Pretty much exactly. And I think that’s what Hell is to them. Delay. Delay and frustrate us, and keep our attention there. The fleet’s stuck there, we keep going back there to try and bag this Alpha…”

“…Why, then?”

Costello grumbled, epiphany striking. “Because they don’t want us to notice something.”

“Well…shit. That’s ominous.”

“And smart. Because we can’t in fact afford to not play that game. If we take the pressure off and look away, and they somehow do retake Hell…that’s it. We’re never going to get a second shot at it, and they become merely a contained foe, not a defeated one.”

“And so, we must destroy that Alpha. Or Alphas.”

“Which means we need to effectively attack it. Ideally we do that from the air…”

“But they’ve been very clever about how they engage us. And they can get out so quick, too.”

“He has to take the field again,” Costello realized, grimly. “This whole thing is a pantomime to draw out their fucking boogeyman. Boy, do they not understand what they’re asking for.”

“They only fought him a few months ago, right? Don’t they know what they’re getting?”

“If you think you can learn an opponent like Daar in one engagement, then I question your sanity,” Costello retorted, bluntly. “And, also. That’s two-three months he’s had to think about it, to train like the freak he is, to get his armor improved, improve his own forces and especially his elite units and personal guard…all that. Daar is a big believer in keeping inside his enemy’s OODA loop and nobody is better advantaged to do exactly that.”

“And we don’t want to show them that.”

“No, it would tip a strategic hand for them to understand what Daar is, and what he can do.”

“So we better find that fuckin’ Alpha and smash it, before the leader of the free galaxy feels compelled to take the field again,” Campbell summarized. “And that’s why Firth.”

“…Yeah. He’s not ready yet, though. I don’t want a repeat of Adam. I want to smash that Alpha like a goddamn roach, and I don’t want it to be anything close to a fair fight. I want just the idea of what Firth can do to give me fucking nightmares before we try again.”

Campbell chuckled. “You’d better get some sleep, then.”

“Heh! Better had, yeah.” Costello skimmed his messages, found nothing that couldn’t wait, set the tablet aside and stood. “You doing anything interesting tonight?”

“I’m still barely managing a quicker time through the course than Gonzo, and I think I can shave off a second or two. Gonna show him this old dog still has a few tricks he hasn’t learned yet.”

“I think that’s mostly ‘cuz he’s like triple your size now and not quite used to his weight,” Costello quipped. “Don’t delude yourself about that. His conditioning is coming in too, so…”

“Yeah,” Campbell chuckled. “He’ll be making us both his bitch here pretty soon. Still, gotta take what I can get, when I can get it.”

True words, those. And another gentle reminder to rest. Costello nodded and headed out. “See you in the morning…”

He jogged home. Got wet from the night rain, but that was okay. His wet clothes went straight in the washer, he chomped down his last meal of the day, spent half an hour watching an interesting and relaxing video about shoe shining, rolled into bed and, as always happened after Mass time, fell asleep pretty much straight away.

He didn’t have nightmares, exactly. But he did dream of Hell.

Which, really, was about the same thing.

Date Point: 19y AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

The decline had well and truly begun, and it fuckin’ sucked.

It all came down to the fact he couldn’t do anything more than light cardio or short and heavy lifting. That meant his conditioning was rapidly disappearing, more or less like he expected it to go. The human body liked to optimize for resource preservation; it only let guys like Adam keep a hulked-out working body under constant and severe duress, which is why the training never ended. Huge muscles were super useful if properly maintained, but they were also super expensive to keep well-stocked and well-hydrated.

Adam couldn’t put in that persuasive work anymore. And, so, his body wasn’t. There was nothing he could do to stop it, all he could do was brood on it as he literally pissed a decade of hard work away, and his muscles shrank and shrank. Every day he looked in the mirror, he was a little smaller. Every day he stepped on the scale, he was at least ten pounds lighter. Some days it was much worse. While sure, he knew somewhere in his heart he wouldn’t need to sprint marathons in the Mass again, loaded down with armor, supplies, ammo, and the like…he was still losing that heroic ability, pissing it away fuckin’ twenty times a day, to the point he always had to hang around where he could suddenly take a leak if the need hit.

Some mornings, it took everything he had not to just bawl his face off about it.

Yes, he knew he was lucky to be alive, that he’d get through this, that he had friends, all that. ‘Base was there every day, helping him exercise and stay mobile. Firth checked in every day too, and even if the pretext was for his training, he never failed to ask. All the rest of the team found excuses to “meet with their training coach” that were pretty flimsy, which was heart-warming really…

But none of that changed that he was on a rapid decline. It hurt. Physically, and emotionally.

Having that size meant having work capacity, both in the sense of massive endurance and the ability to use his strength continuously. It meant resistance to injury, meant extra mass to anchor himself to do useful things. And hell, he’d looked pretty fuckin’ shredded even while swoll, especially with how he had virtually no fat under his skin. Marty liked it, and people really into lifting were impressed as fuck. He was symmetrical, well-proportioned with good shape…but it was definitely an acquired taste. Up close and personal in full 3D? People appreciated and understood pretty quickly what it was all about, especially if he got to perform. From any kind of distance, though? Or, like, by photograph or video? Bulgy bulk tended to put people off. It’d made him look like he was almost literally bursting with muscle.

Now, though? He was “flat” in bodybuilding terms, which as far as normal people were concerned was pretty damn good-looking. All the water weight he’d pissed off meant he didn’t have that same swollen musclehead look any more. A little recently-gained subcutaneous body fat had taken the crazy hard edge off too, so now he looked more like an intensely hulked-out gym rat, or dense like a marble statue rather than the living, breathing, unbeatable power-athlete he had been not even half a year ago.

Sure, that was nice, but next to what he’d been, it was all evidence of lost ability. Those who knew what they were looking at could see it, too. His consolation for losing useful function was some transitory added pretty, or something like that.

It wouldn’t last long. At the rate things were going, the coming weeks were gonna fuckin’ suck ass.

He’d found pretty quickly that the best way to keep his thoughts from dwelling on it was to help someone. Whenever he could, he went up to the base, sat in on the training, shouted encouragement, worked on their development plans. And helping the team really did…well, help. Both them and him.

It was odd how the anyone SOR-adjacent divided, really. You had the Beefs of course, then you had everyone else, and the divide between them was actually pretty significant. If someone could hack the four-digit life, they did sooner or later, and for them the sky was the more or less the limit. If not, well…they were still quarter-ton-plus freaks, and usually considerably bigger…but they weren’t Beefs. Except for Tiny, who for the moment was consciously staying smaller, the team just naturally split into the exceptional and the unbelievable.

Peak human versus legitimately superhuman. Or supergaoian. And supermonkey now too. It was a hell of a thing to see. Knowing that, Adam had tailored plans for all of them to fit with what they could do. But two of them—Julian and Christian—were each their own Corti-bred category, maximum adaptability versus maximum ability. Adam had no idea what their limits were.

And with Firth, the biggest problem had always been motivation. Being so naturally, utterly talented had influenced his ambitions from an early age. He could skate by on what he was, so he sorta did, and he was so damn good that nobody ever really noticed.

The lucky bastard.

Of course, there was his age, too. Firth was fifty-two now, with the body of a twenty-one year old athlete. That age gave him a huge wellspring of experience, but it also made him a bit set in his ways, so chipping away at that had been the project of some years. He’d always been open-minded though, and maybe the younger body had helped knock loose old habits…

Thank fuck he’d finally got serious about it, some months before the Hell mission and Adam’s tangle with the Alpha. Firth had been making some dire grumblings about the “switch-off” of the resistance factor. Everyone was feeling the difference pretty much immediately, like they were fresh in the pipeline again, and it was obvious he was casting about for something…maybe something to do about it? Whatever it was, Adam knew what he needed.

He’d given Firth one of his favorite toys.

“Here.” He’d set it down on Firth’s desk with a nice solid whump. “Take him home. This guy, right here? You’re gonna look exactly like him before we’re done, and then you’re gonna get way fuckin’ better. You ready for this shit?”

It was a goofy fuckin’ thing and he’d been made fun of by the whole team for it at some point or another, but for the longest time, Zangief had been the image in Adam’s head when he pictured what he was working toward. He’d never managed it, exactly. He’d sorta matched the muscularity—which was scary, in retrospect—but he never had a body shape or proportions as completely fucking perfect as the Red Cyclone. Firth, though…

He looked at it and raised his eyebrow. “…You serious? I mean, I’m fuckin’ big but this dude is…”

Huge. Monstrous. Athletic. Unstoppable. Superhumanly powerful. Built perfectly to be the strongest possible fighting man. Swift. Tough. Proud. Unbreakable. Flawlessly muscular—

“Seven feet tall, over three feet wide across the thighs, over four across the shoulders. Has to duck and turn sideways to squeeze through doors. Sound familiar?”

Firth had given the statue a nonplussed look. “He’s a fuckin’ cartoon.”

“Yeah, and so are we, and especially so are you! Look at him, dude. He’s framed and built exactly like you are, right down to the smallest detail. Face even sorta looks like yours too, same giant head, even the same sorta shape to your skull! All you gotta do is fill out to match and you’ll look exactly like that. Take it home, look at it every day. That’s gonna be you soon. Except you’re six inches taller, so you’re gonna make Zangief here look like a little bitch by the end of the year. Got it?”

Years ago, way back in the pipeline, Adam had spent an embarrassing sum of money on his statue of Zangief—the huge hand-painted one, which depicted the big guy in mid-run at his biggest and most impressive-looking ever, with his giant arms outstretched and everything all flexed out in anger and nasty as hell. It had a dust cloud where he stomped, two different swappable heads with two different expressions…hell, they even had a crushed-in bootprint on the stand’s faux-steel decking, right where Zangief’s huge foot slammed down, and that made it perfect for the kind of ultimate bro-lad goals that Adam had running in his head.

Zangief had been Adam’s personal mascot for years. Now, the statue needed a new owner.

“Why, though? He’s so fuckin’ big! How does he even move?”

“Same way I did. Better than you. In this game it’s all about power-to-weight and work capacity, man. I never shoulda been able to beat your face in for all those years, except I was so overwhelmingly strong that it didn’t matter how much more skilled you were. Being that strong made me faster, quicker, made it easier to take hits…the rest I fixed with yoga. Now imagine what you could do with all that added to all the skills you already have. What the fuck would stand any chance against you? Now…nobody’s ever gonna physically outperform Daar, or even fuckin’ approach what he is now, let alone fifty years from now. But I bet we can make you so fuckin’ fast and strong, not even his future badass self would wanna pick a fight. You’re gonna pimp-slap the next Alpha you meet, man. And it ain’t even gonna be a workout.”

“…Weird-ass torch to pass, bro.” Even so, Firth had stood, and came ‘round the desk to hug him with full Beef Force. Teasing or not, what mattered was that Firth got it. He looked Zangief over, looked back at Adam, steeled himself, and nodded seriously.

Then cracked a nervous joke. “…Okay. Fuck me up, fam.”

That bit of motivation was turning out to have been fuckin’ timely, given how Adam had picked a fight with an Alpha and lost everything. Now, thanks to the most bleeding-edge Corti science, Adam’s relentless coaching, Firth’s ludicrously perfect bred-for-purpose genetics, and his own ever-growing willpower and confidence in his strength?

“Fffuck… I never thought I’d look this fuckin’ insane. How the fuck did this happen?”

“Been happenin’ for years, bro. We got you healed up and rebuilt, then we built up your base, tested your limits, didn’t manage to find them…and for the last few years we’ve been pushin’ hard. This last year I got merciless, but now? It’s time to show you what you’ve got. So we leaned you down to get a better look at where you’re goin’, and now here you are.”

“…Not even a month ago I didn’t look this evil, fuckin’ hell. And I’m still growing!”

Things that once took years could happen now in mere months or sometimes even weeks. it turned out that Human beings had enormous innate potential, and that potential could go in a lot of different directions. With Crude, superscience, and an athlete who was officially the very last word in human physiological potential? Once he started leaning out, he leaned out fast and now…


“Well,” Adam nodded. “Benefits of your genes and the spacemagic. There’s Zangief, right there in the mirror. Hell, you’re already bigger and better! So what do you think?”

Firth had taken to posing pretty quick, once he understood how to use the mirror as a training aid. Hell, it was hard not to when you looked as good as he did. He twisted this way and that, experimented a bit, looked down at himself in disbelief…

He threw a couple punches then, and threw them so fast, the air thumped loudly from his motion. Adam was once the only guy who could do that, but Firth was already faster than Adam ever was (and that despite being stockier too) and the big monster wasn’t even trying.

Benefits of being a purpose-bred supersoldier, really. Fuckin’ hell. It said something that the only guy out there who could humble him was literally engineered to do exactly that.

Another look in the mirror. “Jesus fuck. Is…is this really fuckin’ me!?”

Guys like him treated their bodies like tools for a job, not as purposes in their own rights. On-team, it was pretty much just Adam, Sikes, and now Hunter who thought that way. Julian too, which was a big part of why Adam wanted Firth playing along with the committed ‘rats.

Hopefully, that attitude would rub off. So far, so good!

“It sure as fuck is! Fuckin’ Alpha-breakin’ bod right there! How has sim time been?”

“…Fast. Like, fast enough I can outrun my own thinking. Which is the weirdest fuckin’ feeling. Also kinda uncomfortable, to be honest. I’ve had to change how I walk.”

“Yeah, the bro-swagger thing. It’ll get worse too, until you limber up, but you’ll get used to it.”

“Fuck!” Firth looked down at his huge legs and spread his hands across them. Not even his giant paws were big enough to span his quads. “I’m already cracking brick walkways under my bare fuckin’ feet if I ain’t careful. But at the same time I feel nippier. Like, I don’t feel heavy at all. I feel light as fuckin’ air! Hell, I tried for a high jump the other day and I coulda made my fuckin’ apartment in one leap! I was not expecting that shit!” He laughed, a bit embarrassed, then asked earnestly, “Is this what it was like when you were doin’ this?”

“Yeah. That’s why yoga and posing and stretching and running and all that is so important. Hell, climbing too! I took it up as a hobby to improve function and fell in love. Your body is changing so fast from the Crude and your own genetics, you need hobbies that train your movement. It will slow down eventually though, which I bet your suit techs can’t wait for.”

“They’re re-fitting me twice a week now!”

“Ayup. That’s how I was for years. You’ll probably be the same. Hell, I bet you’ll be worse.”

“…The fuck kinda insanity you puttin’ me through?”

Adam gave him a bit of a wan smile. “The most desperate kind.”

“No kidding. They even took away my fuckin’ boots. Now I’ve been relearnin’ how to fight with whatever it is you and the Protectors use.”

He’d also been focused on re-learning how to move on a near daily basis as he grew thicker and stronger. Adam knew that feeling well; simultaneously feeling lighter and quicker, yet your own bulk started to work against you. Lots of stretching, lots of work to get it under control, lots and lots of practicing and re-practicing movement as you got faster, got stronger…

Firth had always had the swagger-walk down, though. It’s just that now, it wasn’t ego. His legs really were that big, especially his massive cable-like hamstrings, which sorta forced him into a constant predatory prowl everywhere he went. Didn’t soften his image much, that.

“They’re basically armored booties, with flexible soles so you can use your feet. Mostly it’s because they actually last, but at your size you can’t let your feet grow weak, so you better get used to them. ‘Cuz even with your wide-ass fuckin’ size-fifties, you’re too damn big and dense now to be stomping around without proper ground contact. You’ll put boots right through most floors at full combat tilt. These, though? You’ll start instinctually wrapping your feet around whatever you’re standing on, start really paying attention to surfaces. I had to do that even though I was a lot lighter than you are now, ‘cuz my feet weren’t so huge. With you though, you’re just so fuckin’ heavy. Trust me, it’s better. They’ll make climbing easier, too.”

“Well, that’ll be nice at least. I’m kinda worried about rolling my ankles, though…”

“Don’t be. They’ve got some roll protection in them, and you’ve got calves the size of beachballs anyway. There’s a reason I don’t let y’all have any wimpy body parts.”

“…It’s a lot of change,” he grumbled to himself. “Shit, though. I can out-sprint the gaoians now, it’s a fuckin’ head trip! Well, not Thurrsto at a full tilt. Or Daar of course, but…”

“Lots of pros and cons, yeah. The strength and speed to pulp damn near anything, but now you got a waist as wide as a doorframe, a chest that same measure deep, legs and shoulders even wider. Getting through normal doors takes practice, doing so at speed takes even more. But aside from all that, just one measurement matters: your sim runs are getting easier, right?”

“…Too easy, maybe.”

“It’s gonna get a lot easier, too. You ain’t close to done growing. But you better fuckin’ keep up on your stretching, posing and all that, or this’ll end badly. Double-edged sword, right?”

“Yeah. Noticed that too. You weren’t kidding when you said this would be a full-time job.”

“Right now you’re forcing your body to change and the human body really doesn’t want to do that. It wants to be maximally lazy if it can, even though that hurts it long-term. But when you do hit your limits, it’s not such an ordeal to maintain, I promise.”

“…Okay. I trust you. Also, uh…” He looked down, awkwardly, then flexed an arm bested only by Daar. “I’m grumbling, yeah, but I really ain’t complaining. Fuck.”

It was…a perfect arm. As good as Julian’s but hugely bigger. Had a perfect body to go with it too, scaled way up and stockier than anyone. Firth craned his neck to look over his chest and investigate the abs below. He’d always had a pretty wicked eight-pack, but now? He crunched down on them, strummed his fingers over his belly to a loud washboard sound…

“…Yeah. I think I could get used to this shit.”

“Right.” Adam stood, carefully, waited for him to relax and without warning slammed his fist as hard as he could right into Firth’s gut. It collided with a SMACK!‘ loud enough to reverberate around his office and down the hall.

But all Firth did was grunt, and step back.

Adam’s whole fist was throbbing.

Firth seemed legitimately curious, instead of anything else. “…The fuck you do that for?”

“Prove a point. That was with everything I had, dude. And I haven’t lost my speed or strength yet. If I’d thrown that punch into literally any other human, even Julian, say? It’d probably kill him. But you? If you’d actually braced yourself I woulda pulped my wrist.”

Firth looked down again at himself in obvious wonder. “…Fuck.”

“Yup. You’re the king, now. Don’t you dare rest on your laurels.” Adam shook out his fist and picked his way back over to his backpack. “You’re in the danger zone, too. At your level, either you keep at it and keep improving, or you might crash and burn like I am. Understand?”

“…Well, that’s kind of a buzz-killer, but…” Firth nodded seriously. “Yeah.”

“Exactly. It’s a huge risk. A huge risk, man. Trust me. Some day if you ever wanna step back some, we can manage that. But you get hurt like me? Holy shit are you in for a world of suck. So: remember why you’re doing this shit. Enjoy it! But don’t let ego be your reason, yijao?”

Firth nodded, gave Adam a serious look…nodded again. “Yi. I get it. My body is a weapon, and like any weapon it can be dangerous to wield.”

“Exactly. Respect what got you here, and never forget the knife-edge you’re riding.” Adam hauled up his backpack, checked he had everything. “I’ll update your training and meal plan tonight, be ready for another long push. Get everything entered in, okay? Go get weighed on the new scale and don’t break it please, get your measurements in, fill your food and exercise logs in…oh, and bloodworks. I can’t plan without good data.”


“Good. Keep at it, man. And study this shit, too. I’ve got a reading list, ‘cuz If you really want it, you’ve got the potential to set the standard forever. You’re already humbling Yan.”

That cavemonkey was quite possibly the most ideal possible HEAT operator ever, just waiting to happen. It really would come down to his schooling, and how well they got a handle on his training and nutrition, all that…but he was promising. Nobody had his combination of fast, strong, and tough in a usefully compact actually-a-monkey frame. Dude was their Donkey Kong. And actually starting to embarrass them all on the training courses.

For now, anyway. Firth was competitive as hell and give him a goal he cared about…

He grinned fiercely, “I’mma make him my bitch on the course, too! See ‘ya tomorrow, ‘Horse.”

“Hasta luego.”

Welp! His Official Meathead Successor had been appointed and judged worthy. Which was…tolerable. Adam woulda preferred to not be passing the torch at all, but he had to and that was the end of it. He’d saved a lot of lives in doing it, though. And, really…He was okay with that. Hell, maybe there’d be more lives in the future.

He was changing, and it sucked…but he wasn’t done yet.

Not by a fuckin’ long shot.

Date Point: 19y AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

LCpl Viggo Dyer

Leave in Folctha had been pretty good. The town’s reputation was, yeah, pretty well deserved. All the things a Marine could want, and a few he didn’t even know he’d wanted. Gonzo—Hunter actually, what a badass name!—turned out to be a pretty fuckin’ good buddy, and the embassy Marines knew all the right ways to get into just enough trouble.

Medical sucked. There was a big briefing on total dosage and lifetime cancer risk and all that…but the good news was, between the MOPP and the medicine and stuff, and the estimated dosage they’d received, none of them was staring down the barrel.

In fact…they were going back. Not for a little while yet, but they’d got the news that morning. They were moving all the units into rapid rotation to manage radiation and environment exposure. Two weeks on, six off, of which three was mandatory testing and lockdown, including some new Corti wizardry or something involving forcefields.

Maximum fun.

Dyer’s feelings about the whole thing were thoroughly fuckin’ mixed. On the one hand, it was fuckin’ Hell. They’d picked the name goddamn well, and he couldn’t say he was lookin’ forward to being back there one goddamn bit. But on the other hand…shit, what the hell good was he, otherwise? And maybe by being there he’d spare some other poor fuckers from it?

He wasn’t even sure what the feeling was, exactly. Just that, yeah, he’d go back again with no complaints. See it through.

At least he got the chance to celebrate Contact Day at Rooney’s. Even made some new friends when a group of British Army guys came in, all of them still wearing that same tired look he’d had that first day, and looking like they needed some sympathetic faces.

As it turned out, the new guys weren’t from Hell. They were from Mordor. So, on the one hand, they hadn’t got nuked…But on the other hand, they’d been tunnel fighting. Complete with all the nastiest traps the crazy fuckin’ natives could think up, suicide bombers, perimeter security when any approaching caravan from one of the other warren-cities might have some psycho fuckhead hiding among them strapped with napalm…

They swapped stories. Compared notes, kinda. Raised a lotta glasses to a lotta good people.

Got to talking about just how weird serving with Gaoians could get.

“I tell you mate, I’d be dead twice over if we didn’t have Geyki and his nose. Like having a K-9 who can yell at whoever smells wrong.”

“Silver or Brownie?”

“Neither! He’s got this dense curly coat so he’s apparently Emberpelt somewhere in his lineage. Tell you what though, he can bark like a brownie.”

“It’s been nice having Heembo and corporal Walker. The two of them together are a fuckin’ wrecking crew.”

“Wait, wait, wait. His name is Himbo?”

“Heembo. But yeah, we give him shit about it. And it honestly fits, too. Kinda ditzy, kinda spaced out…”

A quiet growl in Dyer’s ear: “Ears a lot better’n ‘yers, ‘ya little shit.” Heembo rumbled playfully, then slid up to the table and set his talamay down. “Don’ mind bein’ called a wreckin’ crew, though. Where is Walker, anyway?”

“Found someone,” Dyer grunted. “Y’know. Like he always does.”

“Do I smell a hint of jealousy?” Heembo chittered, then thought better. “Oh. Right. Well, uh…”

“S’okay.” He wasn’t feeling terribly up to it, anyway. Tonight was a night for hard drinking.

The HEAT Lads appeared. One could always tell by the faint thumps through the ground right before they squeezed their way through the front doors, this being one of the places safe for people of their scale. You grew used to them, sorta, because they were just people under it all and weren’t looking for trouble.

But you had to get used to them. And the Brits here hadn’t met them yet. It was kinda nostalgic really, watching their eyes go wide and their backs straighten. If a fuckin’ general had just walked in, they’d have been more relaxed.

Heembo had an evil streak in him. “Hey! Gonzo!” he yipped at their friend. “C’mere ‘fer a tick!”

Hunter, being Hunter, tilted his disgustingly handsome head at them curiously, then with a gormlessly happy grin came thumping his way over with all the subtlety of a rhino on a drum.

He wasn’t crazy tall by HEAT standards. But he was still six-foot-three-plus (and not much narrower), making him a good inch taller than the biggest guy the Brits had. About two feet wider, too. And their smallest—Burnett, a cute blonde with an infectious smile—practically squeaked and tried to make herself inconspicuous behind Dyer.

“Aww, c’mon!” Somehow, Hunter’s voice was both deep and boyish. “I don’t bite too much!”

“Anyway, this is Gonzo—yeah, gotta stick ‘ta callsigns,” Heembo noted. “He’s pro’lly the best tour guide here in Folctha. Knows all the fun bits ‘yer never gonna get from upstanding folk.”

The biggest Brit, Corporal Hill, was the first to relax. He toasted Hunter with his beer and sipped it. “Dare I ask where the callsign came from?”

“I don’t worry too much ‘bout things that don’t need worryin’,” he said, charmingly, and as usual he flashed that distinctly lets-go-play smile at everyone present. “Mos’ly I wanna have fun!”

“And lift,” Dyer added. As expected, almost nobody picked up on Hunter’s intent. Burnett did though, and quietly shuffled just a bit more behind Dyer’s back. Quite what he’d done to become her human shield he didn’t know, but he wasn’t complaining…

“I just said that!” The big man added, as per tradition.

“Ah,” Hill nodded sagely. “So a true meathead, then.”

“Gotta put us somewhere! ‘Scuze me—” he added to Burnett. “That’s a HEAT seat ‘yer sat in. Can’t use the others, they break.”


“You wouldn’t believe how heavy I am even if I told ‘ya. I barely do. So, uh…while I wouldn’t mind sharin’ I do gotta grab that stool.”

Rather than argue, Burnett transferred herself into Dyer’s lap. So…okay. That was happening!

…Look from Hunter, after he finagled himself around the crowded table with his freshly acquired seating treasure. He did that on purpose, Dyer realized. To confirm it, the giant winked at him when nobody else was looking—

Okay. He didn’t mind this at all. Carefully, he re-positioned an arm to be a bit more comfortable–

She let him. Okay. Moving fast, but fast was okay. He smiled down at her, as friendly as he could manage. “Sarry. I’m not a very good stool.”

“You’ll do just fine.”

“Aww,” Hunter pouted from across the table, absolutely no regret on his face at all. “What does that make me?”

Best wingman ever was all Dyer could think. Though, he did reach out and give Heembo a slap to stop the big brute’s wagging tail from slapping him in the side.


“You’re beating my leg to death, bud.”

“Y’know, among us gao that’d be a pretty good challenge ‘ya just leveled…”

“Yeah, well, you’d snap me in four so I’m obviously not that stupid. Plus, isn’t Walker your boyfriend anyway?”

“What? No!”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” Burnett chimed in. “I’ve seen when human and gaoian boys cuddle up, it’s bloody adorable!”

“Yeah, they cuddle up alright. Heembo here curls right around him like a scarf…”

“I cuddle you too,” Heembo pointed out. “Don’t’chu be writin’ ‘yerself outta this tale.”

The rest of the Brits were clearly bemused and a bit lost by the banter. Good. Confusing Brits was practically a sport. Though, they got their own back in short order as the beer flowed, when Hunter ordered and then vanished an eldritch horror he called a “Salad” and somehow, by the dark powers of the universe, they instantly recognized it not only as “food” but “delicious” food, at that!

Heembo too, the traitor. Dyer could only barely suppress his gag reflex when the smell hit him. Greasy doner meat, tuna, anchovies and an incongruous blast of spice. To him, the smell approached a bit too close to active decay, but the Brits promptly ordered a second one to share among themselves.

Burnett, thank fuck, did not partake. She had the Jalapeno poppers instead, like a civilized human being. Dyer ordered the fish and chips, because delicious, and Burnett started nomming on it without even asking.

They didn’t talk too much. They were already pretty far past that, really, if she was already pilfering his fries. He put an arm around her waist and she felt it up pretty thoroughly, made an approving noise when he tensed up what he had…snuggled into him a bit deeper, looked up at him with a smile…hand feeling along his abs, now…

“Mmhm…You’ll do.”

Well. Dyer was pretty firmly fucking claimed at this point. There were cheers around the table and a knowing nod from Hunter. “My man,” he rumbled, while setting in on his second Salad.

The boys started asking him questions befitting his status of Beefiest Meatiest Boy at the table. Dyer tuned it out, really. He was much more interested in her. At some point they moved onto the Exchanging of Tales, for which Dyer was dutifully dragged in a few times…

But somehow, by the dazed magic of not really paying attention to the surrounding conversation—and by the magic of several beers, too—the night dissolved into flashes. They played a round or two of pool. Then they were outside, dodging the rain. Then they were both soaking wet, making out in an alleyway. Then making out some more in the back of a cab. Then checking in to a cheap hotel. And after that…

After that, the night got really good.

Date Point: 19y2w AV
Spacelane GreenLine-076, Trailing Edge


It wasn’t that Dora minded all the deathworlders on the ship, or the fact they were all male. It was just…well, her antennae were picking up a lot of pheromones and chemical traces. By themselves, they weren’t actually unpleasant. Ten’Gewek, Gao and Humans went everywhere in a cloud of chemical signals, and she’d even grown to associate them with home, and safety.

But they were, for lack of a better term, loud. So much so, she’d set up a weak biofilter forcefield around her work blister to keep the air within cleaner and give her some olfactory peace and quiet.

Then she’d added a privacy screen when she realized they felt much the same way about her music.

♫I, I feel like fuckin’ somethin’, But we could be corny, fuck it, Sugar, I ain’t no dummy, dummy, I like to say, what if, but if, We could kiss and just cut the rubbish, Then I might be onto something…♪

Plus, it filtered out the headbanging, ear-bursting sonic assault they listened to down in the converted cargo hold.

There was a lot of competitive energy between the boys. Bruuk was among people who could keep up with him and there was no disguising his delight in that. Wilde of course had his old friends to catch up with, and finding himself on the wrong end of Bruuk’s physicality had definitely re-kindled a fire in him. Ferd was jovial as always, even if his…face…was buried in study books lately…

She was happy for them. She just needed a curtain to give her some breathing room, and help her concentrate.

After all, when she wasn’t juggling cargo, it fell to her to keep an eye on the space around them. Or, well. To take a closer look whenever the AI flagged something. Which it did maybe twice, three times a day? Really, she could have been out in the rest of the ship but…why? She had a cozy spot with the best view on the ship, it wasn’t saturated with deathworld pheromones, and she got to play cute Human pop music as loud as she liked.

And if anyone needed her, all they had to do was poke their head through the fuzz-field. Though, it was usually best when Wilde did it. He was courteous enough to wash first, so that the scents he carried into her blister were clean and soapy.


“Hi Skipper!” she turned down the music. “‘Sup?”

“Need your vote for movie night, and, uh, wanted to know if it’s still following us.”

“Oh yeah. Ever since Cimbrean. Like a lost puppy.”

“Aye, more like a sheepdog I reckon.” Wilde pulled himself fully through the fuzz-field and Dora turned a screen his way for him to look at. Sure enough, there was a tiny signature trailing directly behind them, right in the ‘baffles’ of their warp signature where normally a spacetime distortion would be drowned out by their own wake. Dora certainly never would have seen it before the Whitecrest’s upgraded the ship. Now, though…

“You wanna talk to it?”

“Eh, no. Weirds me the fuck out, but I’m glad it’s there…”

Dora tilted her head at him. “…Are you getting nervous, Ian?”

“Oh, what’s to get nervous of?” he shook his head wryly.

“The, uh, fact that we’re going right back to the place where a squadron of unidentified alien stealth ships tried to kill us?” Dora suggested.

“Oh, that. Yeah. No, not nervous, just…planning. Making sure I know what cards we’ve got in our deck, you know?”

“With you.” She glanced at the tiny sensor blip again. She had to hand it to the entity following them, it knew how to be tiny and quiet. Probably a third party would never see it. You’d have know Stray Fortune’s unique warp signature pretty well to spot the extra ripples. “Why d’you think it’s not talking to us?”

“Eh…it doesn’t think like a meat creature. Sometimes it’s downright chatty, other times it’ll go months without talking to anyone, sometimes it does a fair old job at communicating, other times it can barely manage an emoji.” Ian shrugged, and turned the monitor back Dora’s way. “Not even the supposed expert on it really knows what’s going on with it. But it seems to like us, I guess.”

“Our own guardian eldritch horror.”

“Where did you learn that word?”

“Ferd, believe it or not!” Dora preened her antennae.

“…No shit?”

“Last week he was reading…whatsisname. Lovecraft. I guess it freaked him out a bit? He said, uh…” Dora did her best to drop her voice into the Given-Man’s ponderous bass register. “‘Humans are very fucked up, sometimes. Whole book is a mind-Taking.’ So, of course I had to read it!”

“Hmm. And?” Ian was smiling. “What did you think?”

“Oh, goodness. A huge and terrifying universe full of sleeping civilizations, ancient monsters and inscrutable powers with no physical form and alien morals? Ferd’s right, Humans have such imagination…”

“Do I detect a hint, nay a smidge, of sarcasm, Dora?”

“I would consider it cheaply allegorical except it was written over a century before you made contact, so…” Dora grinned, then gestured out the window. “But, hey. At least our unthinkable lifeform that steps only partially in our reality is friendly.”

Ian snorted. “Alright. Movie night?”

“Hellboy, obviously. Give the funmonkeys even more questions.”

“You don’t have to wrestle them, Dora…”

“Good exercise for you, then! We need someone who can keep Bruukky challenged.”

“Hmm. Maybe I’ll take a page out of your book and put a forcefield up on my quarters, too. A nice powerful one.” He grinned, then stepped back through the fuzzfield. “Food’s in an hour.”

“Yup! See you there!”

Ian nodded, ducked completely out of the blister, and left her alone. Dora giggled to herself, turned the music back up, set a reminder alarm, and sat back to watch the space go by. She kept their follower’s signature up to watch it, though.

And she wondered what it was thinking at that moment…

Date Point: 19y2w AV
Entityswarm Dataspace


Does this count as spying on them?

The Entity found that sudden thought confusing. Of course it was watching the Stray Fortune. They were friends. Friends going into danger. Why wouldn’t it watch them?

Yeah, but…they don’t know we’re watching them. So it’s spying. Which is hostile.

The Entity considered that, and conceded that it certainly felt threatened by all attention directed its way. But on the other hand, its monitoring of the situation in Hunter space had facilitated its timely and well-received intervention.

That’s different. We were monitoring the Hunters. You know. Our enemies?

Hostile activity in Relic Space implied the presence of enemies out there, too. And the Entity was quite fond of the mismatched crew that had come to visit and brought along the seeds of its garden. It felt it owed them some repayment for that favor. Surely they could not complain if a ‘guardian angel’ kept watch over them?

The memory of a full-body frustrated sigh flickered through its awareness, but didn’t come attached to any useful or persuasive insight. Maybe there would be one yet. Sometimes the daemon required time. So, prompted into remembering by its own thoughts, the Entity turned the focus of its awareness away from a certain light bulk freighter full of friends and back to its garden.

In the fullness of time, maybe people would live on the station it had built. It had made sure there was plenty of room for them. And it seemed a shame not to share its garden, somehow.

At first, the plants had all been the same shade of bright, young, slightly translucent green. Time, and the successful establishment of a balanced life cycle, had changed that. In the same range of color vision employed by humans, it was an intriguing medley of many shades of green, some vivid and bright, others darker, shading here and there to purple-red patterning, or pale variegation. And then of course there were the flowers and fruits.

In trans-human color ranges, it was so much more than that. Near-ultraviolet was especially interesting, but in Guvnuragnaguvendrugun-approximate color vision it was…well, the Entity suspected it knew what ‘breathtaking’ felt like, now.

Intriguingly, Ava’s daemon couldn’t process it. Experimentally trying to show her the world as the Guvnurag saw it had only led to mis-signalling. She’d experienced their extra color reception as varying shades of touch instead, a confusing, disorienting and highly uncomfortable experience which they had quickly curtailed. Humans—even the reconstructed memories and personalities of one—were not meant to receive tactile sensation via the retina, or the subjective mnemic equivalent.

Despite that, quote, “horrible” experience, the Daemon loved the garden, and the Entity let her whims dictate its layout, development and tending. It was very much an Ava thing. A carefully cultivated kernel of human warmth amidst what was otherwise a sprawling, distributed and alien machine awareness.

Poetic, isn’t it?

Poetry was a thing the Entity did not suspect it would appreciate, yet it had found its logic, well, ‘tickled’ by the wordplay, the creative use of layered meaning. Some poetry it thought of as perhaps a puzzle to solve, much like the Daemon’s memories of such things.

Curious. The Entity considered human puzzles to be trivial and uninteresting. Most were mere logical problems at their core. But language was a riddle. It was software. At its lowest level, the Entity was a being of symbols. But so, it seemed, were Humans. And their symbol-play was boundless.


The Daemon’s explanation for why watching the freighter was so uncomfortable wasn’t only a word. It was a feeling. The desire to be alone and unseen, even—perhaps especially—by loved ones and friends. The expectation that a shut door would not be barged through without knocking, that a window would not be peeped into, that a shower curtain would not be suddenly and shocking pulled aside. A safe feeling. A trusting feeling. The security of knowing that important secrets could be safely shared, because they hadn’t been acquired through intrusion.

The Entity understood.

It was still, however, left with the fact that there were friends on the Stray Fortune. So far, they were the only ones to see inside its swarm-body, visit its station, meet it (for lack of a better term) face to face. Not even Darcy had such close contact. The idea of leaving friends to face danger alone was…shameful.

Once upon a time the Entity could not have conceived such a thought. Not so long ago, its only motive had been < Survive > and all other considerations depended from that. Alliances and friendships had been nothing more than a stratagem to maximize its own probability of survival.

It was shocked by the depth of feeling it had now at the thought of abandoning the Stray Fortune’s crew to whatever awaited them, without being ready to provide help. Or anyone else, for that matter. It maintained a permanent patrol near Erebor for the same reason, even though the system was fully shielded. Likewise near Cimbrean, near Earth, near Gao and now near Hell.

Guess I’m a good influence.

So how was watching the ship any different?

I guess just watching it isn’t. But you were thinking of how you might infiltrate a microdrone on board and listen in.

Among many thousands of other things the distributed fringes of the Entity’s awareness were calculating, yes.

That would definitely be an invasion of privacy.

It would be valuable data.

Yes, that’s why spying happens. But what happens if they find it? They won’t be happy. Besides. I have a better idea.

The Entity considered the idea. It had…merit. And there were probes in range…

It’s a better use of our resources than trying to sneak on board and listen to board game night or whatever.


That settled it. The Entity refocused its attention again, picked out a couple of its component probes, and redirected them.

After all, however valuable the data aboard Stray Fortune might be, the data at their destination were even more so. It could scout ahead and guard them at the same time.

Perhaps they would appreciate it.

Date Point: 19y2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge

Renting an apartment was a strange experience, but it made sense. A Giving and a Taking, though thinking of a hut in terms of money was still a new taste in his mouth. He ended up renting in Adam’s building, even though it was slightly more expensive. Partly it was because it was closer to the places he was interested in going, but mostly it was because Adam needed someone strong nearby right now, so…friends help friends. Also, for the gym. Free access.

He needed to beat Criss-chin, too. Needed it more than anything besides maybe good food and good fucks. He hadn’t wanted to win something so strongly in his whole life.

Which was strange. He liked the big Human, so maybe that was part of it? Gods only knew.

Or maybe it was because War-horse had made such a big Giving to save them all, and now he was suffering the Taking. Everyone loved him, but his strongest wish was that they get better than he ever was, so Criss-chin had done everything he could to Give that wish.

That seemed right. Yan would make that Giving too, and do everything to keep his People the strongest. Their strength was their Giving to the Sky-Tribes. He loved Criss-chin and respected everything about him, but Yan would not let him Take that from his people!

Though…right now, Criss-chin was so big and so unbeatably strong, it might be a very long while before Yan could manage that. Righteous wasn’t Daar and wasn’t a god…nonetheless, the big human was everything Yan was, but much, much, much more. Righteous was so fast, so strong, so hard and tough, so endlessly able to fight and teach, so skilled…

War-horse taught him well, and Yan would earn that strength, just like they did.

So he lived in Folctha, but lived in his own apartment, with his own pots and pans, and his own ‘futon’ to lie on, and his own comings and goings away from Ferd and the younger men. It gave him some distance, which was good. A blackcrest had to keep apart from the tribes if other Given-Men were to flourish. They were on-mission right now so it didn’t matter much, but since more than half their time was spent away, it was important to observe the magic. Given-Men needed to be dominant in their tribe. If they ever lost that, because the gods saw they were being led by a bigger, stronger Given-Man, they might stop growing in strength, or even wither away and die. The gods rewarded strength after all, and the strongest led.

Ferd had people to lead, and Yan Given-Man would not take that from him.

It was good Ferd had strong friendships with his neighboring Given-Men, and with Vemik. Or at least, Vemik liked him, and Yan suspected they had settled their strength between them. Ferd was deferential and that was telling. Good for Vemik! Yan had a strong nephew and now a strong ally. Ferd’s tribe would be well-protected while he was out protecting them all.

Which was what Yan intended to do.

Blackcrests weren’t common. He was the first in a long time, the first almost in living memory. Why the gods sometimes gave them plenty of blackcrests and sometimes none was one of those mysteries they may never have the knowings to understand, but at least part of it seemed to be about prey abundance and sickness. That made sense. The Ten’Gewek were not a sickly people, he’d come to understand, but the crossing from one part of the forest to another on the far side of the volcano had let a lingering spirit of sickness pounce upon them.

Which…he knew wasn’t a spirit in the same small, specific way the Sky-People used the word, but that was okay. The People had their own ideas about things. Who was to say they weren’t a different way of thinking about the same thing? Why did a spirit need to be magic? Could it not also be real? Even if tiny and strange? How else could such tiny, thoughtless little specks of life do the things they did, if they did not somehow have a spirit of their own?


Now, the People had grown strong on the other side of the mountain and filled out with good, hard muscle. The prey were healthy and numerous, with tasty blood and meat and good, supple leather. They multiplied in such numbers that the People would not endanger them anytime soon. The People’s numbers increased slowly anyway, at least compared to Human or Gao. It would be long before they had to consider such things carefully.

And that, right there, was why Yan Given-Man needed to make a change. Everything was changing for his people. They could not be exactly as they were, if they were to survive the goings of the world and the whims of the gods. They were being tested, he knew.

What was a blackcrest’s purpose?

Before, that was easy. A blackcrest was the strongest man, one who could wrassle a hand of the biggest Given-Men at once and win, every time. He sired the strongest children, had the biggest Fire. The gods honored his strength and gave him more and more every year, that he may keep the forest free of the Brown One’s cubs, the grasslands safe to glean from.

In times of war, the blackcrests would remind the City-People that the forest was not theirs to Take, a lesson they had never learned in all the tellings of all the People’s stories. Sometimes, they even fought wars for the City-Peoples, in exchange for good paints, interesting foods, good knives (which Yan suspected were probably some kind of metal like copper or bronze, now that he thought about it), and lots of good fuckings with the prettiest women inside their mud walls.

But now? There were no City-People. The Brown Ones were stronger than ever, but Vemik’s ballista meant ordinary men had the strength to protect themselves from them now. The People didn’t need a man who could fight such a creature himself, leap up on its back and crush its skull with just the might in his arms and legs, or drag it back home to share among the tribes. War between the tribes was mostly play now; they all understood the stakes, and play-war was more fun anyway. Why fight to the death when everyone had strong lands and could just fuck instead?!

No. The gods had plans for the People, that much was obvious. They had seen fit to Give the People a fighting chance against the Hierarchy, by causing Jooyun and his wives to find them. They had given them the choice to learn and adapt, by putting vaccines before them, so they would not be weakened too much by the sickness they had found crossing the volcano.

They had been tested a hand of times now, and tested hard. So far, so good. The gods were smiling at the People’s strength. But now, the biggest test was before Yan. It wasn’t a test of math, or of science, or of philosophy or other big strange Sky-Thoughts, or of Human and Gao history, that the People may better understand their Sky-Friends. No.

Yan himself was the biggest clue. None of his people were bigger or stronger than him, none more handsome of muscle or face. His body was prettier and stronger and harder than any, thicker in every part and shape, better in his arms, legs, tail and cock. He was so blessed by the gods that it took a man such as Righteous to best him, or a god like Daar to defeat him.

That thought made him feel better. Righteous was not a god because Human gods did not work that way, but he was maybe not much less. To stand honorably next to him—and to think that one day, he might even beat him—was a good feeling. After all, Yan had time to build his strength, and the Humans had not yet begun their strongest Giving-magics on him. Age had not marked him in any weak way. A few of the Lodge were smarter, and a hand of them like Vemik were hugely much more so, but none had Yan’s experience or wisdom. He was old among the People, now. Old, well-fed, and he could feel in his bones he would live very, very long. Not even Noff-fell could say otherwise.

The gods did not Give such ample blessings without a cost. So, what cost was Yan to pay? It was not the normal cost of a powerful blackcrest. He would not live alone in the forest, protect the People for a hand or two of seasons, then be Taken by the Gods. His price was bigger.

This was a test of growing. The People needed to become more. The Lodge had many talkings about the idea, many visions under the magic of the smoke. They had decided: Yan was to become one of the Sky-People, to be their Chief in the Sky.

He needed to earn money now, regularly. It didn’t feel right to glean from their sovereign fund; that was for the People when big money was needed. He only needed some basics in the city. He needed to pay for e-lec-triss-tree, for his apartment, for his fone and his food. Next to the big payings they might need to make, that was a tiny amount, but still: ‘compound interest’ was a big math-magic. Best not to weaken it before it worked its biggest Givings.

And he wasn’t on the team, yet. Training for it, yes. But there were learnings and provings to be done first. It wasn’t enough to be strong in body, or even the strongest in body. He was already that, but he also had to show he was strong in mind, in spirit and more. The HEAT needed to know he was all of those things, not just take it for granted because he was a friend.

As it should be. But until he earned his place and they started paying him, he needed to find his money somewhere else. Also good. It would build character!

He got a job working for the farmer he’d met outside the city, some years back. Strong! Also, it was far enough away that it tested Yan’s long-strength to gallop there every morning, and that was good. The HEAT demanded strength of every kind, and Yan would not be lacking. Moving bales was good work, persuading cattle to move without hurting them was interesting. There were things to see too, snakes and small animals and nice-tasting plants and things.

Lessons, too. The Humans cared for their cattle even though they would one day eat them and wear their skins. Much was done to make them comfortable. There was even some affection; the bull in particular had become a “farmer’s pet,” though he didn’t much like Yan. Probably smart. It was hard not to think of how good a prey these cattle were, and how tasty…

But, they were not for hunting. Too bad. At least they got to roam and eat the grass! It wasn’t a life Yan would want for himself, but he was of the People, and did People-things. Cow-things were their own, and that was to be respected. Strange, raising your own prey…

But the family was nice. Good teasings with them! Maybe teasings that would become more…

It wasn’t all-day work, either. Just some mornings, and only when they needed extra muscle. Still, it was enough to pay his bills, since the HEAT were feeding him and he’d discovered he could do “odd jobs” too. There were uses for a big strong Given-Man! Not big hero jobs, but building a village was as much about clearing space, getting rocks, weaving roofs and such as it was about hunting and protecting their territory from other ambitious tribes.

Construction jobs were interesting learnings, too! He knew how to weld from Awisun and Vemik, and there was good teachings in a local school about all the many things a man needed to know to do it right. All that math-work helped him! He and Vemik went to that school, and after that, a certification test was all he needed before they could help put together big metal buildings. They had other credits too from all the other learnings, so it wouldn’t take much to get a degree in construction technology! Daar would be proud of that, Yan knew. Still, they only did building-work sometimes, because both had other things to do, but someone who had his own safety rigging with his tail, or could hang upside-down by one foot instead of use a boom lift…

Mister Rod-dreeg-uss was always happy when Yan had some spare time and wanted money! He kept looking tellingly at Yan’s body, too. And as humans went, he wasn’t so bad. Tough, good-looking! But Yan didn’t think he could make the foreman his woman without maybe killing him. That would not be good for anyone.

But, other than that…

Wake up. Work out, run out to the farm maybe and help. Train all day with HEAT, study that night. Work out more, sleep. On weekends, sometimes he did construction work, or other welding things, or just whatever needed doing on the local “help wanted” board on his fone. Busy, but…

Missing something. He went back to Akyawentuo often, had many good fuckings, but…

…Lonely. lots of people to meet all day long, but still he felt alone. Strange.

Or he did, until Loor’s Singer decided to move in with him. And she did it the way older women knew best: by doing it, and ignoring whatever he had to say about it. Just showed up at his door one morning, bustled inside with all the things that were hers over her shoulder in a bibtaw-skin bag, took one look at the place and immediately started putting it right.

Of course, as Given-Men were to men, so were Singers to women. And as Yan was to other Given-Men, so she had become to other Singers. Not black in crest, but strong red on a woman, so it was the same thing in spirit. In time, just as blackcrested men moved away from the villages and served all the People, deep in the forests, sometimes an old Singer would feel the same call.

And she, it seemed, had decided he shouldn’t be alone on this distant, alien place.

She was lovely. Strong like a good man, and knew it, too. Almost strong like a Given-Man! And old. Old enough that the gods had decided her time for children was over, though she obviously had many years left in her. Age had given no weakness nor ugliness to her either. It was time for her to make room for her young Dancer to become Singer, and so here she was. Before, Old Singers would form small tribes of their own, and often they would live together with any blackcrests. Right now though, she was the only such Singer.

And he, the only blackcrest. And she was so lovely, he could feel his Fire roaring back to life…

It made sense, and just the idea of someone to squeeze at night was good. Still: a sudden change, and he had to claw back a little dignity after she arrived and ‘took charge’ of him…

“It’s not a mess in here. They inspect my room every week!”

“Pheh,” she twitched her tail as she went digging through the kitchen cupboards. “Men looking at other men’s mess, proclaiming it good. No hut-sense in men, never has been!”

“Is not messy!”

She trilled, then. “No, it isn’t. But do you even live here? There is nothing of home! Just a squishy thing where you sleep I think? And some…okay, the pots are very nice, I give you that.”

“It’s all I need.”

“It’s like a day without night in here. All man, no woman. All Take, no Give. You’re limping by on just half of life’s magic!”

“Yes, because I must pass inspection every week, and you do not know what that means yet. If they find a speck of dirt anywhere it will be god’s own fury upon us!”

“There’s a whole world between ‘no dirt’ and ‘no life.’ Where’s the magic here? How do you live in such a…pale home? People can’t live like this.”

“I am a man,” he said simply. “We are made to live and hunt in hard places. I believe your words, now believe me, woman! This is big Taking-magic. You do not understand what I mean. Before you fill my apartment with incense and herb and powder and paint, wait and see. In a big fight, keeping clean is more important than you can know. Following orders exactly as given, matters. I was ordered to keep this room CLEAN. It is a test!”

It was, of course, a useless argument. He knew the Taking that would come, and he knew that a Singer was even more headstrong than the boldest man. She would not listen to his silly man-thoughts about a working home. No sex that week, at all, to her confusion and frustration. He was angry.

He did share his bed, though. He was angry, not evil.

And some small part of him was gratified when Righteous came to inspect. He ducked, turned sideways and squeezed his way through the door, stood with his head nearly brushing the ceiling…

Singer had believed Yan to be the meaning of strong. Yan though, he knew how weak he was before the truly mighty, and one of them was standing tall in his apartment. His shoulders were narrow and tiny by comparison, his chest and back boy-like and thin, his arms and legs puny and soft next to Righteous. The giant of a Human gave Singer an expressionless look, who recoiled a bit at the sudden attention…

“Who are you?”

“She is Singer, senior master sergeant.”

He whipped his attention back to Yan, who found himself standing at attention suddenly. Righteous narrowed his eyes slightly. “I wasn’t talking to you.”

Back to Singer, neutral expression back on his face. “Who are you?”

“…Old Singer, of Loor’s tribe. I come to live with Yan.”

“Do you, now?”

Righteous had that same big-quiet as a Brown One in his step when he stalked across the room. How a man so big could stalk his prey so quietly was Taking-magic not even Yan had mastered. Righteous inspected the shrine she’d made, with its paints and incense and herbs.

“All this stuff is yours?”

“Is a hearth-shrine. To the gods,” she replied, then blinked when he glared at her. “…Yes. Is mine.”

“I see there is a trail of dust across the floor.” He came over in sandals but left them outside the door. His big bare foot left an unmistakable print in the dust, and Yan cringed internally; one of many details he likely missed, in his panic to tidy up before inspection.

The hurt would be big today.

“This apartment has no hearth, firstly. Secondly, while you are free to do and worship as you please, Trainee Yan is not free to disobey his orders. Did he instruct you as to the requirements he must meet?”

“He said place must be clean, and—”

“So you chose to ignore him, then. That is going to cost Trainee Yan dearly.”

“But he didn’t—”

Righteous…looked at her. That was all he did. But it was enough to silence her instantly. Despite himself, Yan was impressed. Though, he didn’t dare show it.

“I don’t care that you made this mess and not him. He was ordered to maintain this apartment in a perfect state of cleanliness, as part of the respect we paid him by allowing off-base living. He has not done so and this displeases me. I don’t care how it happened. I care only that I was disobeyed. What other violations am I going to find, hmm?”

Righteous prowled over to the controls by the door, and turned on the active soundproofing. That done, he turned around and rolled his massive neck, which popped loudly in the silence.

“Right. You’ve officially wasted my time. So now, I’m going to waste yours.”

…Oh, gods.

He found many violations. With the fury of the gods, he tore the apartment apart, turned over everything, pointed out every speck of paint-crumb, trail dirt, shed crest-hair and scattered herb. He found soap scum in the bathroom sink, a splash of grease behind the cooker top, toe-prints on the tiles, finger-marks on the mirror, a smudge of incense smoke-dust that marked the tip of his finger when he ran it along the top of the door frame. He found everything.

And then turned his fury on her. But not with muscle and pain like he would soon to Yan. He was quiet, and so deadly angry in his voice, he did the impossible. He humbled her.

“I did not instruct Yan to be clean for idle torture, Singer. In the EV-MASS, dirt can kill him. Do you think he would breathe long in space if his helmet was not clean enough to seal? Do you think he would fight well, if his dirty undersuit was tearing great gouges into him because a sand grain snuck in to lie against his skin? Do you think we do this out of simple cruelty?”

Yan did not know how much she understood, but she understood enough. “…No.”

“No.” He folded his massive arms across his chest to drive home how important this was. “He must be ready to face the deadliest and strongest of sky-magic, where the smallest mistake could get him and everyone else on the team instantly killed. We must trust him to reliably perform dangerous, complex work every time, without question. Lives are at stake! And before we can trust him to do that we must know he can do the simple, basic things without supervision! Nobody can wipe his ass for him. Or wash his undersuit. He cannot be babied along like a helpless little boy, because we cannot trust a man who can’t care for himself! He must be ready, and we need to know he’s worth it before we spend more money than all the tribes of your People are worth, just to fit him in armor!”

He finally turned Yan’s way and now he was so angry, veins and sinew were bulging in that werne-thick neck of his. Yan steeled himself for what came next. “Trainee! Report to the Grinder! You and I have a date until the sun comes up! And you,” he swung back to the Singer. “You will watch for a while and learn what you’ve cost him.”

Never before had Yan witnessed the fury of a woman in the strength of a man. Righteous was truly his name, and none could ever question it. The rest of the day was pain, and misery, and exhaustion. He suffered greatly in the sand. Righteous crushed him on the mat with such strength, he felt near breaking with each new practiced pain-learning. Righteous wasn’t even much trying, either. He could have smashed Yan apart like a bibtaw, many times over.

Proclaiming that Yan was far too weak for his liking, they lifted until he ached deep in his body, then played on the rings until even swinging from his arms, the most natural thing in the world, was a sack-kicking agony. Then they did it again, and again. Righteous never tired, never relented, never for a moment lessened in his fury. They played like this until there was no thinking, just doing until everything he had was Taken from him.

And then they did it again, and again, until the sun was rising on the horizon.

He was so weak at the end of it all that Righteous at last showed him the tiniest flicker of sympathy, and escorted him back to his apartment. He didn’t help, but he did encourage as every painful step drained at Yan’s soul. He wasn’t cruel, either. He was almost friendly. “One foot in front of the other, Trainee. Just keep doing that.”

They stopped at the door. Righteous rumbled at him, but this time…there was care in it.

“You have not gone through basic training, Yan. You have not suffered indoctrination. If you truly want to be one of us, today will be just the beginning. Our training lasts years, and much of it is far worse than what you’ve felt today. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“…Yes, senior master sergeant.”

“Do you? Be careful. We all like you. Even I do, but I cannot be nice to someone who is unproven, Yan. If you really want to do this, it only gets much worse.”

“I understand. We do same in the Lodge, to new Given-Men. Not as hard, but same reasons.”

“Good. Indoc for HEAT normally takes two years. The first year is this, every single day. Does she understand? ‘Cuz I will not have her making life any harder for you than needed.”

“Yes, senior master sergeant.”

Righteous had doubts. “…If you say so. I will be inspecting again next week, Yan. You will impress me so much, I will feel embarrassed and filthy by comparison. If you fail I will end it then and there, and if we decide to continue, you will live in barracks. You do not want that, trust me. Do not fuck with me on this.”

“She will understand, or she will go, senior master sergeant.”

Righteous grunted. “…Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a classroom day.”

The big man thumped his way down the staircase without a backward glance, shaking the entire building as he went.

Yan had his doubts too. Doubts that stuck him to the spot outside the apartment door for many heartbeats before he finally put out his hand and opened it.

What he found waiting for him was a spotless apartment. There was herb, and her magic-workings and the shrine put back together, and other things…But it was clean this time. Perfectly so. She even had the air-taste of soap and shampoo around her, which Yan took as an apology all by itself.

“…Thank you.” He fell onto his bed, and didn’t even have the energy to refuse her. And it was nice, even if he was too tired to fuck properly. Too tired to even think.

Inspection the next week was…long. Long, and thorough, with Yan standing at attention all the while. Not at all comfortable to do that, which he suspected was the point.

Righteous was satisfied, this time. It was hard to see on his stony face, but Yan could tell.

“…Okay. Are you two going to be a thing, now? Living together?”

The Singer gathered up her dignity. “Yes.”

“Then I will trust you both to keep this place clean.”

Inspections stopped after that. Another test. They both knew it. They both kept their home perfect. Gods, Righteous even smiled at Singer once, at the grocery store.

But in the end, even after all that, she turned out to be right. Yan had been missing half the magic. And there was a place where clean and life came together to make something more. It was nice to learn that even in their late years, there were still things they could teach each other, although mostly they did it by arguing. Then making up for it, powerfully, the way his people knew better than anything.

A fight by other means, really. But with a much happier ending!.

There was much of that, at first. Then less, with time. Less arguing, more…not arguing. They learned about each other. Learned how to live together. They had more than good fucking, now.

Even managed to joke about it all, in the end.

“Well, you needed someone to talk sense to you! Men can grow very stupid if a woman isn’t there to challenge them!”

“And women always think they know all the knowings in this world and more.”

“We know the important things,” she said, demurely, with a fetching fangy smile.

On that point, Yan couldn’t argue. He often came home sore and tired, and she knew how to fix that, oh yes…and she learned good new cooking with “her” pots and pans.

And he didn’t feel lonely any more. He didn’t need much, here on this big adventure.

But he’d learned that he needed her.

Date Point: 19y3m AV
The Great Father’s private quarters, High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Gao

Vark, Grandfather of Clan Stoneback

Everyone on Hell got shaved. Weren’t no way around it, unless you wanted radioactive dust stuck to ‘yer hide. Which, Vark didn’t.

At least he looked good naked. But even better was one o’ them weird Christmas sweaters the Humans seemed to love. This one had a five-pointed star design on the front and a jolly fat guy with the words “HAIL SANTA!” It had taken a bit of research to understand that joke, but that was okay! Humans liked their kitsch, too. Balls, they even had a monosyllable word ‘fer it!

Nice thing about Human weirdness was how compatible it was. He had a really hideously green pair of overalls that let the sweater poke through, too. He’d be nice and warm ‘gainst the cold breeze of High Mountain while his fur grow’d back, and most bestest of all he’d confuse the balls offa anyone who got a good look.

Well. Almos’ anyone.

“Ha!” The Great Father chittered deep in his belly when he saw Vark for the first time. “Did you fuckin’ plan that shit?!”

“If I gotta look like Keeda’s nutsack, I’m gonna own that shit,” Vark replied, happily. It was true, though. He’d picked the most absurd combo he could pull together precisely because he guessed the Great Father would appreciate it.

Fuck knew, they all needed somethin’ ‘ta laugh about. The memorial fields had recently, finally been able to step down the number of pyres they were lighting as the last of the biodrone uprising’s dead were honored…only for one weapon to fill up their schedule again.

And Daar had, of course, been true to his word. Every one of those pyres was lit from a parent flame he’d lit himself, by hand. That flame was now kept Eternal at a shrine they’d built next to the field. The ash from all the burnt wood would one day make it among the most productive forests on Gao, but not until all the pyres had been burned.

After a solemn duty like that, a little mischief was important.

Only a little, though. Vark was there to deliver his report. It was informal, up in the Great Father’s quarters, where snacks were offered and the big man himself felt free to stretch out and lie across the well-padded floor.

“C’mon, Vark. Take a load off.”

Vark had the pleasure of hearing the Great Mother chitter when she saw him, too. It was a sympathetic chitter, at least. “Oh, no. Well, at least you’re making the best of it.”

“I should be pleasant to behold in a week or so, Unseen willing. Until then…”

“Until then, at least you can be festive.” She duck-nodded amusedly. “Well, I should let you two discuss your matters. I have paperwork and letters…”

She and Daar traded affectionate nips, and then she was gone, sliding her office door shut behind her.

Vark panted happily as he sat. “It’s always a marvel, seeing you two. You’ve got a precious thing together.”

“Believe me, I know. I hope I’m worthy of it. Anyhoo…” Daar stretched out again. “Let’s get the serious stuff taken care of. You have a report for me.”

“That I do.” Vark adjusted his ridiculous Human garment for comfort. “Pleased ‘ta say, as of this morning, we’ve retaken th’ last o’ the lost territory. Hunters are still puttin’ up plenny o’ resistance, but we’re seein’ less an’ less o’ the big newbie swarms. The survivin’ ones are smarter, better equipped, an’ fuckin’ cowardly. An’ they’re definitely under the command of another Alpha. Father Garaaf got some good footage.”

“He’s on the battlefield again? I coulda swore I made it clear I’d be happy if he retired…”

“I reckon I’d have ‘ta break his back to get him out.”

“Oh, I could arrange that…” Daar grumbled darkly. “But, fine. It’s his life, even if he ain’t gotta prove anything ‘ta anyone. An’ I ain’t gon’ say no to that kinda damn good intel.”

“Hmm. Think he’s goin’ big game hunting.”

“Alphas are tricky, deadly things. One o’ them nutless greasefucks got Warhorse in a bad way. I hope he ain’t pickin’ a fight he can’t win.”

“Doesn’t seem ‘ta me like he’s bein’ stupid about it. And if I thought he had a death wish, I’da dragged him ‘ta the Array personally. But beyond that, I ain’t sure. He’s a Whitecrest’s Whitecrest. Can’t even smell his mood half the time.”

“True enough. I have me a lil’ verbal an’ probably actual sparrin’ session wit’ Champion Thurrsto comin’ up later today. Mebbe I’ll bring it up wit’ him.”

“While you’re crushin’ his head in ‘yer armpit?”

“No no, just a simple pin. Gotta be civilized wit’ Whitecrests!”

“What, they get all bent outta shape when that fluffy fur o’ theirs gets ruffled?”

“Naw, it’s more that he’s got sharp claws an’ knows how ‘ta use ‘em,” the Great Father chittered. “There’s ritual ‘ta ‘Crest-smushin’!”

“You will need ‘ta teach me one day, My Father. As to th’ rest…we’re still in a rebuild posture, an’ stockpilin’ everything for another assault ‘ta break free. We hope ‘ta be ready to assault the whole of Hell within a few months.”

“How ‘bout navy support?”

“They’ve been slowly an’ steadily cleanin’ out th’ orbits ‘fer us. I don’t know much about out-system.”

Daar waved a colossal paw at him. “No worries, I’ll git that brief later. How ‘bout Mordor?”

“…Slower progress. We’ve pacified most of the warrens. The oldest have come to warily accept that we are not, in fact, going to eat them.”

“Hrmm. Only took two years.” Daar shook his head ruefully. “Can’t blame ‘em, considerin’ the last time aliens came ‘ta their world it was the start o’ centuries o’ slavery, misery an’ murder.”

Vark nodded his agreement. “Still. I don’t think they really know how valuable their knowledge and experience is to us. The few E-Skurel-Ir advisors we’ve managed ‘ta find can tell us shit about Hunter operations we can really sink our fangs into. Woulda been nice if we could win ‘em over quicker, get more o’ that knowledge.”

“What about that schism o’ theirs?”

“Most of the population’s stayin’ out of it or embracin’ the Saved message at this point. The True Penitents ain’t got many people left, they’re isolated out in the peripheral tunnels an’ they don’t have much food. At this point, the ones left are probably more willin’ ‘ta starve themselves ‘ta death than surrender. We’ve tightened security so they can’t do somethin’ stupid like poison the water supply or bomb a warren-city an’ take the ‘blasphemers’ with ‘em.”

“What a gods-damned fuckin’ tragedy.” Daar shook his great head.

“They ain’t extinct.”

“Yeah. There’s that. Whole lotta other species ain’t so lucky. But they won’t never be the same again…what about the Hierarchy?”

“Bupkis. No confirmed relay signals, no biodrone or agent activity come ‘ta light. They’re either dead an’ gone without even a whimper, or they’re in deep hiding. Only thing that might be them is some weird reports outta EiMeYrU-Uym Relic territory o’ fast, quiet, sneaky ships that don’t take kindly ‘ta visitors. Blew up an archaeological dig and took a swipe at the Stray Fortune.”

“They’re okay?”

“Yeah, they jumped out. An’ now they’re on their way back ‘ta the area with Hoeff an’ his men.”

“Good…what’s ‘yer gut tell you?”

“Well, I wouldn’t bet either o’ my nuts on it bein’ Hierarchy,” Vark growled. “But I don’t believe they’re just gone all quiet-like, either. An’ it’s hard ‘ta see who else it could be.”

“And what if it does turn out to be them?”

“That’d depend. It ain’t a relay world out there, the Fortune woulda noticed if there was a relay signature in the area. Unless it’s really, really new…Hmm…”

“If I were in their position, I’d be buildin’ new ones as quick as possible,” Daar noted. “Whole reason we’ve bin blowin’ ‘em up is ‘cuz they’re vital…sounds like more questions ‘fer Thurrsto. Balls, I’mma have fun wit’ him, sounds like.”

Vark duck-nodded and plucked a dumpling from its basket with his claws. “Almos’ feel sarry for ‘em.”

“Naw, I’m careful wit’ my toys! Don’ ‘chu worry though, I’ll squeeze all th’ info outta him.”

Vark gave Daar a once-over. Even reclined and relaxed as he was…

“Poor Thurrsto,” he chittered. “He has my prayers.”

Daar chittered with him, and duck-nodded. “…My nose is itchin’,” he said. “Somethin’ tells me them relic space ships or whatever are important. Makes me glad ‘ya put that crew on it, ‘cuz they’re better’n they know. How long ‘til they’re back out there?”

“It’s remote, an’ they’re gonna approach more carefully this time, seed th’ region with beacons so they’ve got backup if needed. Gonna be a couple months’ wait before we get anythin’ ‘ta bite on.”

Daar duck-nodded. “Quality takes time. Though speakin’ o’ time…I think it;s high time ‘ta re-assess what we’re doin’ on Hell. My intent was ‘ta deny th’ Hunters a critical resource an’ pin them down. How’d you estimate we’ve done?”

“Mission accomplished on the denied resources thing. They gave us their best shot an’ it weren’t enough. Pinning ‘em down, though…We ain’t seen a whisker o’ the Swarm in a long time now. Most likely they’re regroupin’ in a system they still control, but they’ve lost the Ring wreckage. Destroyin’ the Ring in the first place fucked their economy. Now they can’t pick over what’s left of it ‘fer parts an’ advanced materials, they’ve basically gotta build a whole new industrial base from scratch.”

“Any reason you can think of we shouldn’t just nuke that shitscape ‘til it’s a nice ball o’ glass?”

“The Humans are still making noises about technological salvage from the debris field, but I don’t think they really believe it’s worth it. They lost a lotta men. Shouldn’t be too hard ‘ta persuade ‘em that they don’t wanna spend more lives ‘fer a big pile’a scrap.” Vark sniffed. “Other’n that, the only obstacle is the Hunters’ve still got planetary defence shields up.”


“It’s been a grind. We capture a Farthrow generator an’ shield complex, they already had another one built further behind th’ lines. But they can only keep that up ‘fer so long before runnin’ outta what they need to build more, an’ the newest one…ain’t quite the same. Smaller radius, some flickers in coverage. Best our analysts figger, it’s built outta bottom-o’-the-barrel salvage, the damaged shit that ain’t workin’ right.”

“So the day we get to start bombin’ is close,” Daar growled eagerly.

“Yeah, though hard ‘ta say exactly when. But, I feel comfortable sayin’ we can start pullin’ out, make room ‘ta withdraw fully when the time’s right. And when it is, we’ll start bombin’ an’ won’t stop ‘til you say so.”

Daar duck-nodded. “‘Good. Don’t rush it. Do it right.”

“You can count on that.” Vark duck-nodded. He plucked another dumpling from the basket and tried to relax. “Anyway, that’s the high-altitude look at things.”

“Right. So at this point, really my big battle is still public relations. An’ on that note, I got a good friend I gotta go check in on, see if he’s up ‘fer some wrasslin’.”

“Seems like ‘yer gonna spend the whole day wrasslin’.” Vark chittered, steeling himself for the inevitable pounce.

“Yyyup.” There was that pant-grin, the roll of steely tension into his titanic muscles, and…

Yup. Wrasslin’. A bout Vark was doomed to lose, of course, but he was ready for it, and he’d been thinking up some tricks. And besides. Weren’t many who could give the Great Father any kind of interesting play. He might be old, an’ so outmatched it was dark comedy…

They tussled about, quasi-mythical beast cavorting with a speck of a man by comparison. He “won” a few times to Daar’s delighted chittering, and Vark could still manage a few surprises too, mostly playful escapes which took advantage of the gentler nature of their brawl. Surprises were good! Even Great Fathers needed those.

But they were tricks, only. Cleverness of tactic may have been Vark’s gift to ground Daar’s ego, but power was Daar’s gift to him, in the form of effortlessly crushing force that was so fierce, Vark couldn’t take a breath, couldn’t feel anything but full-body pain and his own pulse hammering against his skull as the Great Father mercilessly tied him into shapes and pinned him against his unyielding body. Any tighter and Daar would have broken him totally, any longer and his heart might just explode…

“‘Yer slippery, Vark. Worthy of a Whitecrest, that…but I got the answer ‘fer slippery…”

A compliment that was also a bit of a jab. And a tighter squeeze too, which was agony in a powerful way. Vark couldn’t wiggle, couldn’t breathe, body numbing, felt a panic build in him—

But no. The Great Father knew how far he could go. With a dominant snarl and a reassuring nuzzle, he let up bit by bit, sparing Vark the shock of sudden release.

“I win. And ‘yer a tough ol’ tail. Knew you were the right ‘Back ‘fer the job. Wanna stick around ‘fer sum good cookin’ an’ drink?” Heavy tail wagging up a storm. Vark chittered in pain, but brightened up with the offer of Talamay and an evenin’ catchin’ up. How could he say no? Daar was good friend and a good entertainer.

An’ it was damn good ‘ta be home.

Date Point: 19y3m AV
Starship Stray Fortune, entering Relic Space

Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

Approaching the unknown. Everyone who could was encased in their Grass. Bruuk finally got his helmet fitted properly—he was apparently pretty handy, as luck would have it—and Wilde himself was suited up, too. The two of them had taken to the armor and all its demands pretty damn well, actually. That was good. They needed all the toughs they could get these days.

And the thing was…the Stray Fortune herself was kinda in that category.

Knowing in an abstract kinda way that the ship was a lot more than the big lumbering cargo hauler she appeared to be was one thing. Seeing it was another. When they dimmed the lights on the bridge to get a better look at the holographic sensor map of nearby space…

“…Jesus. What are we tracking?”

Urgugvuneg waved his facial tentacles through the controls in front of him. “Every object larger than fifty centimetres in diameter within ten thousand kilometres. Every object larger than five meters in diameter within one light second. Every object larger than twenty meters in diameter within fifty AUs, and every spacetime field distortion stronger than five Bartletts within ten lightyears.”

“How many of those last ones?” Wilde asked.

“None, so far. Not counting ourselves and our shadow. If you’ll bear with me, I can begin eliminating irrelevant contacts…” He leaned over slightly and voiced a request to Dora in technical language that Hoeff couldn’t follow. Something about increasing the technobabble field by Startrek percent?

Whatever. Hoeff was a murderous shortstack, not a treknobabblist. Whatever the fuck it was they did, the snowglobe in front of them immediately started to get less busy.

“So, what, we’re pinging the hell out of local space right now?”

“Nope. This is all passive,” Wilde grinned. “If we were going active, you’d see a lot more shit than this…”

“Pinging would prob’ly be dangerous as fuck,” Bruuk added. His role in any all-hands situation was generally damage control, but for the moment he was on the bridge for their briefing. They hadn’t crossed into dangerous territory, yet.

All those little light motes sparkled away until none was left. Urgug rumbled, turned a satisfied shade of greenish, and looked up. “Nothing of interest, captain.”

“Alright. Recall drones, and soon as they’re in…Slow and quiet please, Moj. In we go.”

Hoeff nodded. It wasn’t like he was any kind of a stranger to moving slow, quiet and wary into hostile territory. One step at a time, head on a swivel, watching his step, leaving no sign…

‘Course, on the ground you had shit to hide behind, foliage to blend with and hard terrain to walk on rather than leave prints. In space, the only concealment was the fact that everything was really really goddamn small next to all that big out there. And you never knew if the other guy was just doing it better than you.

Wilde apparently read his mind, because he chuckled. “Kinda feel like the Scooby Gang right now, huh? Tiptoeing into Old Man Henderson’s house or whatever.”

Ferd twitched his tail. “What is a ‘Scooby?’”

“Oh, mate, I see you’ve had part of your education neglected!”

“He’s a big talking dog,” Hoeff grunted.

“Oh.” Ferd’s tail twitched the other way. “…Okay.”

“Take human weirdness as it comes,” Moj buzzed amusedly. “Right mind, that.”

“Is cartoon, I’m guessing.” Ferd hooted amiably. “Lots of Human weirdness is cartoons.”

“It’s a fucking classic cartoon, mate.”

Ferd gave a vindicated nod, and grinned at Moj. “See?”

“You never did like cartoons, did you?”

“Just see flicking pictures. Makes my eyes hurt.”

Bruuk tilted his head. “Really?”

Hoeff grunted. “Yeah. As if winning in every fuckin’ other category wasn’t enough, they’ve got an insanely powerful sense of vision with those big-ass eyes in their big-ass heads. Wide-spectrum tetrachromatic color, so they see into the near infrared and the near ultraviolet. They’ve also got really good night vision, they can see light polarization and they’ve got much faster neuro-response. Need at least a hundred frames a second before the motion illusion kicks in. Really sharp resolving power, good farsight and nearsight…only thing they can’t really handle is super bright light.”

“Is why I wear light shades!” Ferd noted happily. “Ship lights very bright.”

“And they can even handle that too, if you give them a minute. It just makes it hard for them to see in the dark for a long while after.”

“Almost as good as mine…” Urgug rumbled, and flashed some smug luminous pink.

“We haven’t tested that yet,” Wilde added. “So be careful…”

“Says the man who definitely loses the depth perception contest,” Bruuk chittered affectionately.

“Ay, fuck off! I’ll challenge you to a bench press next and only lose almost instantly…what’s that?” he pointed at the sensor display, indicating a new contact which had popped into their conversation to pulse at them as their slow warp carried them closer into the target system.

Urgug was already poking at the controls, the mirthful hues on his body flickering and becoming serious. “It appears to be…diffuse metallic wreckage and vented gases. Shipwreck.”

The mood sobered instantly. Wilde pulled a face, then gestured to Moj. “Slow to sub-light. General quarters, please. Urgug, have Dora send out a drone. Let’s get a look at it…”

It was a long wait, and Hoeff was well settled in at his station on the shuttle by the time it was over. Dora sent the drone in cautiously, and nobody took their eyes off their local sensor display in case a sudden fleet should jump in or decloak or whatever around them. None materialized, but that did nothing to relieve the tension, not even once the drone was in visual range and inspecting the debris.

The largest part was a broken spine with a few engines still attached, buried deep inside a shattered pressure hull. Half a Vzk’tk crewmember was frozen to the metal. The entire front half of the ship was gone, present now only as an expanding cloud of condensed molten globules.

Morwk must have been watching too. “Well, that’s…excessive,” he commented over the intercom.

“Same big gun that hit us and the dig site, you reckon?” Wilde asked.

“Probably. That is about what we would have looked like if it penetrated our shields…”

Hoeff exchanged a look with the guys waiting beside him in the shuttle. Behind their helmets, everyone looked grim.

In the end, they just wound up waiting for nothing. They got a careful record of the entire shipwreck, recalled the drone, left the stricken civilian ship behind and swept the entire system before Wilde finally stood down from quarters six hours later, when they were well out in interstellar space and en route to the next system of interest.

It was a nasty fuckin’ reminder that they were up against something that didn’t fuck around out here, though. Hoeff wasn’t about to forget the sight of that wreck in a hurry. It felt good knowing the Fortune’s shields could handle firepower like that, and they wouldn’t be snuffed out in one blow like the poor bastards they’d just left behind…

But for now, Hoeff and the others were cargo. And if shit did go badly wrong…

Some gym time worked the kinks out from time in the Grass and helped settle his mind. Movie night—Scooby-Doo, of course—helped him relax the rest of the way.

But he dreamed of shipwrecks that night.

Date Point: 19y3m2w AV
Clan Whitecrest infiltration ship Chasing Whisper, FACAB 22.6° 06-17XBAPS G7 3, Deep Space

Sergeant Kenneth Kohl, JETS team 3

To use an old cliche, it was quiet…too quiet. In fact, if Kohl had his way, then this modest class-ten deathworld, out in the middle of nowhere around a very ordinary yellow sun with only four other planets for company, would forever be known to Human and Gaoian star charts alike as the planet Too Quiet.

For good reason. They’d come out here expecting a relay. They’d followed the signal damn near half a galactic radius, and then in the last few lightyears it had just…blipped out. Gone. Totally dark.

They’d approached cautiously. Weeks spent anchored to an asteroid, monitoring the situation and seeing nothing at all. A slow, slow drift through the planet’s orbit, looking like a tiny harmless fleck of a space rock on an orbit that would decay in about seventy years and burn up without incident…

Still nothing. It had actually been a goddamn relief to take a look at the images from their ship’s ultra-powerful telescope and see the neat, regular squares of a Hierarchy relay compound. Other than that, though, nothing. No signal, no warp signatures, not even any tiny atmospheric ripples from drones and abrogators moving around.

Which was fucking freaky, but it wasn’t a contraindication to landing. So they’d slipped in, low and quick and quiet, put down in a nice sheltered spot a good distance from the compound…

Still nothing. Mission handbook was pretty clear, there: if there was no sign they’d been detected, they were to approach on foot and scout. So while their Gaoian pilot, Royshu, stayed cooped up in the ship and listened out, Kohl and his boys had saddled up and headed out.

It was a nice place, really. Reminded him of that old martial arts movie with the bamboo forest. The closest thing Too Quiet had to trees—or at least, this bit of it—was, yeah, almost-but-not-quite bamboo. With thorns, and leaves with edges as sharp and serrated as bread knives. Fuckin’ outstanding, that. The Ten’Gewek weren’t happy about that of course, since even the smallest of them could crush the proverbial eight hundred pound gorilla, but what could you do? Thorny grass forests do be like that.

Their progress was fuckin’ slow too, ‘cuz the soft loamy soil underfoot left sign like a motherfucker. They had to clean up after themselves every inch of the way. Kohl would have given anything for an approach over hard rocky ground, but nope. Big Hotel had built their shit right in the middle of the thornboo forest, and there was no other way to get close.

The thorns and sharp leaves didn’t much bother the Ten’Gewek. Slick leathery skin and all. It was the fact the thornboo wasn’t strong enough for them to climb that set them on edge, along with the obviousness of their passing. All their instincts yearned for a stealthy, elevated perspective.

Weird, how ambush hunters and skittery prey would want the same exact thing. So which were they right now?

It was right at that moment when one of the native critters, a fancy fucker like a bird of paradise (except lizard), decided to accost them from high above, apparently unhappy to have their nest disturbed. It squealed loudly at them, flashing some kinda reflective patch of scales, and that wasn’t good—

Doog Bow-Breaker leapt straight up as if gravity wasn’t a fuckin’ thing and his field pack was filled with helium. He soared through the air and caught the critter in his fangs. He’d refrained from devouring it, remembering his training…

He landed with a hefty thump, dark pleasure written all over his face.

“Quiet, now.”

They all turned to examine the critter. Whatever it had been, it was not just dead, it was flattened.

“…Holy shit,” Kohl whispered excitedly. That had to be, what, thirty goddamn feet? Straight up? More? Doog was their youngest and smallest Ten’Gewek and hadn’t even been trying. He’d just reacted instantly and leapt on fuckin’ reflex!

Williams scanned the forest in the direction of their target with a tense expression. “I don’t like this, Kohl. We’ve left a fuckton of sign already, and after that…”

Fair point. Kohl had felt Doog’s landing in his boots. A good seismograph network would have localized that, easy.

And yet, the thornboo forest remained silent. No whine of drones, no Royshu yelping at them over the net to get the fuck back to him…his skin was crawling with danger-sense, but the forest gave absolutely fuck-all sign that they’d been noticed.

“Hard landing, too much sign. Noise-risk now, from critters.” Berm Werne-Slapper muttered. He was the troop’s redcrest, and a big one at that, already at least Ferd’s size, and Ferd wasn’t at all small as Given-Men went. Berm had earned his god-name by having been caught by surprise on the hunt. In a panic, he’d open-palm slapped a young bull werne so hard across its forehead that it’d died instantly from the blow.

As a result of that terrifying encounter, nobody could sneak up on him, and many had tried. He’d be a Given-Man soon, no doubt. “…Still hear nothing, though. I do not like this.”

Kohl nodded, eyes and ears wide open. “We need to see over this.”

“Eh. I can climb it.” Mercado tested the thornboo, found it sturdy enough for his purpose. “Bet I could get most of the way to the top.”

…Maybe. Mercado was their “small” guy at five-foot-five, though this was still JETS, so even he was a pretty stacked little muscle hamster at a buck-ninety-eight. Still, he’d always been a surprisingly good monkey, and since Doog was like three times heavier…who else could do it?

“Don’t get too stupid.”

Mercado had already shucked his boots and socks and was on his way up, running his gloved hands up and over the thorns, and carefully stepping around them with his bare feet like a lemur. He made it look easy, actually, but the Ten’Gewek all twitched their tails in admiration.

“Small-strong,” Berm had said admiringly as he watched Mercado steadily make his way up. “You teach us many good things.”

Kohl didn’t reply. Was that a flash of movement? …No, just another lizard of paradise. Another crazy-ass supermonkey leap by Doog before it could make any noise, but this time his landing was purposeful, and so gently executed he didn’t rattle the ground. And it was silent.

…God, what allies they’d made!

Up above, Mercado had reached the point where his vantage point was starting to sway. Still, he was high enough up that hopefully he had a good look…sure enough, Kohl saw him secure himself and aim his binoculars.

A few seconds later, he was coming back down, shaking his head.

“No drones in the air. And we’d be hearing the Abrogators coming if those were on the move…” He said. “But the relay’s right fuckin’ there…Kohl, I think nobody’s home, man.”

“The signal did cut out before we got here…” Williams mused.

“Well, we’re not dead, so, fuck it.” Kohl signalled forward with a hand gesture, the murmured conversation ended, and they pushed on.

Mercado jumped down like a fuckin’ boss, grinned, and pulled his boots back on. Team Human could impress the cavemonkeys too, now and then.

The forest ended like somebody had laid down a ruler and cut along it, but that was just the end of the old, tall, thick thornboo. There was another twenty or thirty meters of short, skinny, young stuff ahead of them. Lots of useful microterrain among the younger plants, though, so they got down low, wriggled forward on their bellies. Kohl blinked as a young thornboo shoot’s knife-sharp leaf opened a cut on his cheek. That shit was going to sting later, but he ignored it: they’d found the Relay, alright.

Or at least, they’d found the classic tall skinny pyramid in the middle of a boxy fortification, surrounded by ranks of Abrogators. But the twisting ball of non-space atop the relay’s spire? Absent.

He got his first glimpse of a deathbird drone when he peeked over the bank he was prone behind. It was lying about thirty meters away, half buried in the long grass, offline and speckled with bright orange rust. Then his eyes got their shit together and he saw another, and another, and another…

The whole fucking swarm of them was just lying there, and it looked like they’d been there a good long time. Throw in the tangle of vegetation encroaching the site’s perimeter, which had already entangled dozens of the unmoving Abrogators, and there was only one possible explanation.

The Hierarchy were no longer present on Too Quiet.

There was no better possible summary of their feelings than the one Williams whispered. “…What a fucking cock-tease!”

They grew a bit bolder after that. Carefully, working up their nerve, they’d picked their way around the compound, at first cautiously, then a bit freer…

He’d had to set shit straight after Berm had picked up and crushed one of the deathbirds into a considerably smaller ball. Ten’Gewek had a deep, bitter hatred of the things.

Beyond the cleared perimeter was the compound wall. It was…formidable. And smooth. Not a problem for the monkeys of course, who could simply make handholds as they needed. So, no need to bust out climbing gear, and Berm didn’t even need that. He just jumped over the fuckin’ thing like a goddamned flea, much higher than Doog had managed, and did so both effortlessly and repeatedly to shuttle the human members of the team over, two at a time.

….Kohl and his fellow humans were all pretty exceptional power-athletes, but they were leading monsters that could crush them all like fuckin’ grapes, by accident. Fuck.

Berm knew it, too. He didn’t show off too much when he was done, just a smug grin and a glance down at the steel-like cables writhing sinuously in his cartoonishly muscular legs…

“Sometimes, work stronger, not smarter!”

Bigger Ten’Gewek men preferred knuckling about on all fours over upright walking, since their legs were so thick they couldn’t stand with them straight under their pelvis. Always they had a wide-legged stance, and Berm’s were so massive, his gait was like an over-exaggerated swagger. Still, all that bulk gave them unbelievably explosive speed and strength, so it was hard to argue his point. And having failed to arouse suspicion with that level of calamity…

It was intel gathering time, and having the Ten’Gewek wrecking crew on-hand was helpful. They could rip metal doors right off their hinges, or if Berm was feeling particularly cramped, just donkey-kick a concrete wall down and widen some holes.

Kohl didn’t really expect the bad guys to have left anything too sensitive behind, though. He was expecting they’d bust through a few doors and find the place cleaned out. That’d be the smart thing to do, wipe the computers, burn the paper files, or whatever the dataspace version of that was.

And that was mostly what they found. But not entirely. There was still plenty of materiel left behind, stuff the big-brains would love to get their hands on. Stuff that probably wouldn’t have been left behind if things had gone totally to plan for the other side, maybe.

But it basically meant their job here was already done. They were scouts: they’d scouted. The job of securing the site, digging through all the tech here, and putting it to good use was gonna fall to somebody else.

Kohl grabbed his radio, reflecting as he did so that Royshu was in for a hell of a surprise.

“SILKY, this is SMOOTH. Reckon you’re gonna find this hard to believe…”

Date Point: 19y3m2w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

Vemik Given-Man

Sometimes, a problem needed knowings, and those knowings made more problems, which needed more knowings…and that was the spiral Vemik found himself in. He was stuck in their new library, reading three books at once to find a bottom to his problem.

All he wanted to do was make a cart!

He was being a bit obstinate, of course. He wanted a steel cart, hopefully with rubber tires. Strong! His friend Umuk over in Eb Given-Man’s village could probably make one all out of wood now, or at least figure out how, but that meant more than picking deadwood. It would mean chopping up trees, and the People were not keen to do that for small things.

Steel had seemed like such a good answer, at first. All it needed was rocks they could dig from nearby caves, coke they could make from charcoal, charcoal they could make from dry, fallen wood they couldn’t use for anything else. No need to Take living trees!

Probably he could make it out of bar and tube (if he was feeling lazy, and wanted to just buy it in Folctha), using steel like Umuk would use his wood. But why? Would still need panels for the inside! They’d need to be wood anyway. Gods, Vemik had even seen pictures like that in human history, old trucks and things built like carts. He wanted to do a sheet steel cart!

But while a steel knife was easy enough, making a big flat square all the same thickness all the way through? Not so easy. Not easy at all. Lots and lots of hammering for days on end, many re-heats. Wasteful! Same for slim, straight, perfectly round rods. And bearings, which the easiest would be brass but he had to have brass first, which needed things they didn’t have…

And that didn’t even begin to answer the problem of paint.

Turned out, you didn’t just learn the secret of steel and make anything you wanted. The tools just to start were a problem, and the tools for sheet steel were…not going to happen, sadly. Those were generations in the future, even knowing what to aim for, and knowing that just left Vemik sulking over his books, learning things that were worth knowing, but that he might never get to use.

Which was how Professor Daniel had found him sulking over his books one day, and did what he always did: asked a prompting question. “Why not ask around Folctha? Surely there has to be a machine shop there?”

Well, Vemik already knew that. There were two, actually. He’d traded knives for tools with both of them already! Still, this was a problem he wanted to solve, something to get his hands busy again. And more than that, he needed somewhere to point his Fire.

His Fire hadn’t calmed. It was a long, hot year, and this was the hottest part of the year. None of the redcrests were out of their Fire yet because of the deep heat and the plentiful food, and his Fire was at the fullest blaze he’d ever felt. The good food, good sky-thoughts, and the good, long summer Givings from the gods had done much to build up the People. In Vemik’s case, it had built him into such a man that if he let himself give into the Fire, the whole village would wake late the next day, happily worn out and maybe a bit too sore. Strong! But weirdly, with all that Fire raging in his belly and in his cock, he had learned at long last how to calm it down to an ember. How to tend the Fire, instead of either snuffing it out or letting it rage out of control.

Gods, it was a glorious Giving to have!

The feeling of having his mind back was impossible to describe. Instead of tribe-thoughts or horny-thoughts constantly hammering at his brain, and his body screaming at him to dominate and fuck and hunt and play, smile at every girl, steal away every woman, crush every man…now he could will the Fire to settle down, sit back, bide its time for better Givings. It was all still there, still as loud and pressing as ever, but he’d learned how to think around and through it, and use the Fire in his sky-thoughts, instead of being driven by it like a beast.

For the first time in a long while, his sky-thoughts were flowing again. Next year’s fire would probably be even worse for him, according to the other Given-Men, so he wanted to use the time he had well. Maybe Professor was right. Maybe now was a good time to go to Folctha.

So, he went! It wasn’t difficult. There were two jumps every day now, regular as sunrise and sunset. Knives, blankets and things from all the villages for the Humans to buy, and stuff coming back the other way too: mail and supplies for the human researchers, more books for the library, vaccines and sky-medicines, Jooyun coming and going…

Easy enough to make room for Vemik to ride along.

Walking Folctha was a mix of feelings, though. Good to be back, good to see all the wonders of Human technology again, but also…it stoked his Fire a bit, and not in the good way. Too many Humans had attacked him now. And Humans weren’t weak. Jooyun needed men following him for protection all the time now, and so did Awisun and Shyow and Anna and Hawisun. He’d not met the new ones yet, but not even a drunk bibtaw could miss them.

They were trying to be seen. Vemik didn’t think Jooyun would like that for long. But if they were…maybe they were worried. Which meant Vemik worried. So now, Folctha was a place to walk carefully. Stand tall so people would get out of his way. Try not to feel sad about it.

It was early morning when he arrived, still dark with only a little blue in the sky. Too early for any of the Human places he wanted to go, so instead he went to see Nof-fel, who didn’t sleep much. They had regular Givings to the strange weak little sky-thinker, to pay for the vaccines and other help they’d been Given. Vemik didn’t mind, and there was always something interesting to look at in his lab-or-a-tory!

He didn’t know why Nofl kept flirting with him, though; Vemik was pretty sure he’d tear the skinny little…man? in two, even if he tried not to. How would they anyway?! Nofl wasn’t stupid though, so he probably didn’t mean it. But it was silly, and fun, and looking inside his own body was super interesting…

Nofl was busy, though. Didn’t have much time to show Vemik interesting things, and without him explaining it, Vemik couldn’t follow any of what he was working on at all. Still, he tried his best until a blood sample from Warhorse arrived inside a courier drone and Nofl shooed him out of the lab claiming ‘patient confidentiality.’

Vemik didn’t argue. It was late enough now for the city to be coming alive: time to go shopping!

Next stop was the art store. She had new markers! These had shimmering ink which was exactly the sort of thing Vemik needed; he couldn’t carry little bottles around. Lots of life on his world was Ir-a-dess-ent, but she wanted twenty pounds for a set of twelve!


He bought them anyway. She’d just need to make up for it later. Maybe go on a date! That seemed like a fun Human tradition to try. Maybe she was curious! Maybe not. Humans were fun like that. You never knew who was interested and who wasn’t, until you asked.

Next: Friends. He didn’t have much time, so he always did his chores quick, and kept an eye on his watch that Jooyun had Given him. It showed the time on Earth, on Cimbrean, and on Akyawentuo. It could even show the sun and moon for each world, and tell him the current weather. Neat!

He had a good several hours before the jump back, and another couple after that before he had to be back for Noma’s first Taking. She’d been traded into his tribe early in the spring from far away, and had been living with one of the older women (and near Vemik’s hut) for her protection, until she was ready. Now, she was becoming a woman, and it was a Given-Man’s duty to teach new women the strength of men, because nobody else could be trusted to do it without maybe Giving a dangerous hurt.

The Humans all joked about the People being incurably horny “swole-monkeys,” but this wasn’t about muscle and fucking, not really. Well, okay, yes it was. But it was important, because…well, Humans mostly weren’t built to fuck as powerfully as the People, so they didn’t understand in their breath how much it mattered to teach it properly. Big strong cocks with big strength behind them meant good fucking was an important life-skill, both in the Giving and Taking. An important one, like spear-making, sewing, hunting and tracking, cooking and preserving. Big hurts could come if any of those were done poorly! Or writing, nowadays. A tribe that didn’t teach life to its young people—all of life—had failed them.

Vemik had learned how true that was with Tilly. She was…soft. Tough too, but… well, small, and that made her so delightfully tight around his cock, it took everything in him to be the right kind of careful. If Vemik hadn’t been a good, practiced lover that first night, he’d hate to imagine what terrible Taking he might have done. But with patience, and lots of attention…

With big strength came big responsibilities. It mattered a lot, and not just with small Human women. All of that was much the same with their own women, too.

So, Vemik had to be a good, gentle teacher for the next hands of days, and he couldn’t miss their first night together, because the moon was just right, the Singer had everything ready, and Noma already had a young boy she had her eye on, who hadn’t ever felt a woman’s touch himself. They were new-loves, and learning together was sacred before all good and tricky gods. Men needed to know their strength too, and what it meant for the gods to claim them in the Taking. A man could lose himself in it for a very, very long time if he wasn’t strong enough to wrestle the gods’ mischievous whispers, long enough to​​ Take too much with a smaller woman, so Singer (being much stronger than the boy!) would be Giving for him that night.

He couldn’t anger the gods for something that important, so straight to Adam’s without delay, because Jooyun had said the big man maybe needed some cheering up.

Also, Adam let him climb the building, so that was fun!

When he climbed up to Adam’s home, he knocked on the window. It startled Mar-tee who jolted at the sink, but she smiled at him and pointed up to the roof. Vemik trilled, climbed up to the rooftop, and met her there.

“Do any of his friends use the stairs like normal people?”

“The boring ones, maybe!” Vemik trilled, and knuckled over to give a nice, big hug. Friends!

“Oof! Yes, hello. What brings you here, big guy?”

“Wanted to say hi! Also, maybe ask him questions. Where is he?”

“He’s in bed right now.”

“Asleep?” Vemik stared confused at the bedroom door, tail lashing. “Is nearly midday! Should get him up and working!”

Marty grabbed his tail to stop him before he could move. “He’s hurt. Badly. He’s not being lazy, he’s resting!”

“…That bad?”

“You can go see for yourself. But gently, Vemik Given-Man.”

In fact, Adam was awake. He was lying on his side, with Diego snuggled up to his chest. The young Human was doodling in a large book of blank paper while Adam held the crayons for him.

He looked…smaller. And not in any good way. The loose-skin smaller look that old men and women who were never Given to the gods got, but too young. Especially under his eyes, which were tired and suffering even though he was smiling for his son, and even though he smiled at Vemik.

“…Thought I heard somebody climbin’ on my roof,” he said, and leaned over to very carefully kiss Diego’s head. “Hey, niño. Ayuda a mamá, okay?”

“Okay, papá…” Diego still squirmed around to give Adam a cuddle, then hopped down from the bed and took the paper and crayons with him.

Vemik shut the door behind him. “…You look like shit.”

Adam snort-laughed, wearily. “Yeah. Feel worse.”

Vemik perched on the bed next to him. It was a huge, heavy, steel thing built to take a lot, but between the two of them it still made creaky noises. Or maybe that was the floor? Better not risk it: he stood up again. “Why not move and work? You know how good it is…”

“Really, really wish I could, bro.” Adam groaned and flopped on his back. “But it’s gettin’ worse. I can feel another seizure waiting for me to fuck up, you know?”


Vemik had heard about what happened. Big brain-hurt, but even worse than his own. He hadn’t expected this though. “I hear, has been very hard two moons for you,” he said, after a while.

“Started hard. Don’t even fucking know what it is, now.” Adam sighed and closed his eyes. “I’m just so fucking tired all the time. And moving around hurts. And on a good day, yeah, I can do a little light pilates or yoga or whatever until I start getting that feeling like bad shit’s gonna happen if I keep going…but days like today…”

Vemik hooted softly, and wished he could think of something helpful to say, or do. Nothing came to mind, so instead he sat on his tail next to the bed.

“Heard what Yan’s been going through,” he said, after a while.

“Mm. He’s barely started.”

“He said, you went through days like that every day for a whole year.”

“…Yup. And days almost as bad for many more.”

“And this is worse?”

Adam sighed, then with a groan he heaved himself into a sitting position, swung his legs out of bed and paused to catch his breath. “…All that shit made me stronger. I could cope with it ‘cuz I was gaining. You know? Now I’m losing and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do about it. I can’t even fucking get out of bed.”

Despite his words, he got his feet under him and stood up with a long groan. “…I gotta piss. Again.”

He didn’t retreat to privacy like Humans usually did, which Vemik knew meant he was badly hurting. Humans rarely forgot their privacy. Adam lumbered over to the sink in the corner of the room in obvious pain, pissed like a Given-Man who’d drunk a werne dry, and found his way back toward the bed.


“Let’s go walk. Nothing hard. Just…go outside.”

“…You’re carrying me back if shit goes wrong.”

Vemik trilled quietly. “Can do.”

Actually, he pretty much had to carry Adam down the stairs, too. And it was slow. Every step was careful, with a solid hold on both rails, one stair at a time.

“Should put a fuckin’ cargo elevator in…” Adam grumbled, halfway down.

“Where would you put it?”

“It was a rhetorical statement.”


“Yeah. Means saying it just to say it, sorta.”

“…Oh. So, then root word is ree-torr-ick?” Probably it meant more than that, but his friends knew to just give the important bit then and there. Vemik would look the word up later.

“Rhet-oric. Mff. Emphasis changes…based on whether it’s a…hm!”

“On part of speech!”

“Yeah, big guy.” He found some humor though, even if weakly. “So there is more in your head besides bows and sex.”

“Also paints, and weights, and gears and steel! And math and knives! And werne, and—”

Adam stopped walking so he could laugh, leaning on the rail. “Alright. Alright, I get it.”

Vemik tilted his head. “…You’ll be okay, yes?”

“We’ll see. Sure fuckin’ wanna be, but I’m not outta the woods yet. Not even close…”

Vemik knew Human voices very well by now. War-horse didn’t know.

“…Need a different analogy with you guys, huh? Y’all like the woods.”

“I know what you meant,” Vemik said carefully.

“…I’m that obvious, huh?”

“I don’t think sneaky is something you could ever do.”

“….Right.” Adam glanced up and down the stairs to see if all the doors were closed, then sighed. “Vemik, I’m falling the fuck apart, and I don’t know where or when it’ll stop. But I can’t stop yet. I’ve got family, I’ve got people who need training…so I just…keep going. If I didn’t have them…”

Vemik hugged him. Both arms and tail. The hug he got back was a shadow of the old Warhorse-strength. Like it was mostly still there, but locked away inside.

Then Adam was walking again.

He didn’t say much—or anything, really—as they did a slow lap of the green field out back of the building, but let Vemik talk about whatever came into his head. It took a long time, so Vemik got to say plenty. Hopefully it helped. Then there was the climb back up to the top floor—well, really Vemik carried him up, like a good-sized Werne up a steep hill. More pissing when they got there.

Marty invited Vemik to stay for dinner, but there was no time. He was going to have to run back to the jump terminus already. But there was time to say goodbye politely.

Adam at least looked like he was feeling better for the visit. “Come see me first next time, we’ll go shoppin’ for art supplies. You wouldn’t believe how many crayons Diego and I go through.”

“…Why are you using crayons?”

“Therapy. Helps me practice my grip.” Adam shrugged ruefully. “But I break ‘em a lot. Especially when I’m drawin’ something difficult like a ducktopus.”


“Little joke with me an’ Diego. It’s a duck with octopus legs. He thinks it’s funny as hell.”

They shared the laugh of parents discussing something cute one of their kids had done. But, time was short, and Vemik didn’t have much of it today.

Strange, how life with the sky-tribes could be all rush and hurry. Didn’t feel right, somehow. Anyway, Vemik glanced at his watch, made his apologies, and took off.

He gave thanks to the gods as he went. It was a guilty kind of gladness he had, that his brain-hurt hadn’t been half so bad. But also a gladness that his friend was alive, and still doing his best to live. Vemik could guess all too well how it would go if Adam ever gave up…

But, Adam probably didn’t know how to give up. Probably. Hopefully.

A different Human interrupted his thoughts, this one a man in a suit who just appeared in front of him, holding up a hand as he was about to reach the jump terminus. “Sir—”

A new bodyguard. Young too. Strong-feeling as humans went, but not really big…

Before he could really stop Vemik, though, Jooyun’s voice called over from nearby. “It’s alright, Hernandez. You can let him through.”

‘Her-nan-dez’ nodded and stepped aside, and Jooyun swept over to greet Vemik with a hug. “I didn’t know you were in town!”


“Oh, he’s fine. Vemik is always fine by me. Tribe-brother! What’chu up to, big fella?”

“Uh, shopping…” Vemik watched the suited men suspiciously as Jooyun led him toward the Array. “Who are they?”

“Full-time security, now that Hoeff is officially moved on to other things. They’re pretty good fellas, though Hernandez must be brave as heck if he thinks he’s going to stop you…”

There was sly play in his voice, so Vemik showed off just a little…but just a little. Enough so they knew. Her-nan-dez understood the way of it between them instantly. So, not entirely stupid!

“Anyway. These fellas are just getting out on-job with me and, uh…I tried to warn them…”

“They’re going to die of sweat, wearing heavy cloth like that.”

“I know. They didn’t listen. Meanwhile I’m gonna be reluctant to even put on silkies. It’s over a hundred-twenty there right now! And it’s humid enough to chew.”

“Good heat!” Vemik burbled. The men looked between each other, subtly. Vemik saw it, though.

“We, uh…just need to scope the place out, sir. For planning. We know you’ve refused security over there,” one of them said. From the way the others nodded and looked to him, Vemik guessed he was in charge of them.

“Should bring lighter clothes,” he teased, then turned back to Jooyun. “Anyway. Wanted to come shopping for steel, but…went to see Adam.”

“And lost the whole rest of the day, huh?” Jooyun nodded grimly. “Yeah. We’re all trying to keep his spirits up, but you’re doing well if you can get him out of bed at the moment.”

That made Vemik feel a little better.

“So what kind of steel?” Jooyun asked as they parked themselves among the boxes and stuff headed back home. Still a few minutes to go before they loaded up and jumped. “Something you can’t make back home?”

“Sheet steel.” Vemik explained, settling opposite him. “But, had a thought. Big thought, I think.”

“Oh?” Julian’s bemused smile was there, and that was all the encouragement Vemik needed.

“Yes! Wanted some now for a wagon I’m making. Proof of con-sept, right? But I think long-term, we need more tools, sheet steel, all sorts of things. But how? Took me a whole moon to get people together, build dam and stream for meet-village! But then I think, bunny-people made it down civilized path more than we, yes?”

“The E-Skurel-Ir? Near as we can tell, the Hunters found and enslaved them sometime in the middle of their industrial revolution, round about the time they were starting to play around with electricity and mass production. What are you thinking?”

Vemik trilled, and tackled Jooyun for a quick wrassle because he felt smug and happy. “Easy! We should trade!!”

Jooyun was not easy to wrassle. At all. He knew all Vemik’s tricks, and had those long, thick-muscled legs. But Vemik’s were thicker, and bigger, and quite a lot stronger. More flexible! The People had the best bodies and senses, and had better proportions for wrasslin’, too: legs a third shorter, arms usually a third longer. Torso just as long, with everything much wider and thicker. Had better feet too, and Vemik had way bigger and better forearm and foreleg muscles than Jooyun! Vemik was tougher, heavier, and much stronger, so he could wrassle the big human pretty hard. He usually won because of that…but not always. Jooyun was cunning in a way Vemik couldn’t quite figure out. He’d been catching his strength up again, and now…

Well, Vemik still won, as was good and right in the world. But he had to work for it. Good!

Of course, his security people were very not happy, and reacted like they were supposed to…but Vemik, maybe, wanted to prove a point here. They couldn’t. He felt their grip on him like children play-wrasslin’ with a grown man, and that felt good to know. Maybe it was his Fire, but there was more behind his instinct. They needed to understand his strength. Jooyun was safe with the People. And they were not man enough to protect him among them.

One had to know where they were strong, after all.

“Guys!” Jooyun laughed from under Vemik’s armpit, as he crushed the big human’s head with his bicep and forearm. “It’s okay! I mean—”

There was a twist, a heave, and Vemik was left blinking as he got body-slammed into the concrete. Now with Jooyun sitting astride his belly. Strong!

“—I can handle the big guy.”

Vemik shook his head to clear out the blow, and coughed. “…Good trick!” He re-pinned Jooyun again, just to set things right, and growled next to his ear. “Won’t work again, though…”

Then he let go and rolled back up to his feet. Fun!

He reached down to help Jooyun back up, but instead he kicked through his legs and flipped himself back up to his feet. Even that was a little bit of showing-off among Humans, but that was good. Let them know their ambassador was strong! And so were his friends!

“Yeah,” Jooyun chuckled, not even breathing heavy. “So, now that you’ve established dominance or whatever, let’s not give the poor guys any more heart attacks, okay?”


“We do this like ten times a day,” Jooyun said in his ‘fond-but-exasperated’ voice. “I win, uh…sometimes. You’re gonna have to get used to it with the Ten’Gewek.”

“Then…pardon my asking, but…”

“The People aren’t going to shoot me from a distance, or scheme, or bomb me, or any of that. They can’t. Anything they would ever think of doing will be right there for anyone to see. And honestly, if you just assume they all play ridiculously hard, it’s easy to see when it ain’t play.”

Again, the bodyguards looked between each other, but after a second there was a collection of nods.

“Also, I’m not evil. If you wanna stay for a bit I have spare clothing y’all can wear. Maybe Vemik here can show you a hunt so you can see what an angry Ten’Gewek is really like.”

“If they can be quiet, maybe. And if not, the library has air conditioning,” Vemik added. He grinned at them, and sat back down. “Anyway. Trade.”

Jooyun chuckled, stood up, and dusted himself off. “Right…trade. Trade is good. Question is, what do you have that they want, and what do they have that you want? If you’re after sheet steel and stuff, some of their workshops on Mordor can make it…”

“I saw video about this. Big rollers! Not easy.”

“No, it isn’t. Their rolling mills are hand-cranked things though, so…hmm. Y’know, I bet there’s a place for some big burly monkeys to offer help.”

“Thought their world was poison?”

“It is, so we’d bring a mill back with us. Maybe? Just spitballin’.”

That was a strange word for sky-thinking-play, but he understood. “You talk to Keepers about it, yes?”

“Yup. Goodness knows, they feel like they owe your people back for Eyes-Turned-Upward. They have their own sense of Give and Take…”

They looked up as a voice called out from somewhere overhead. “Now loading for Jump AKY-202 To Akyawentuo Meet-Camp. All passengers please take a seat in the marked area.”

It then repeated in the People’s words, with not a bad sound to them! Too slow, though. Vemik should record a better one for them!

Yan came bustling in right as they called, looking both tired and mighty these days. Vemik hooted happily. He’d missed Yan! They all had. And it was a blessing he was still around, still himself. The Singers had songs about years past, when a man as old as Yan might kind of…forget. Sometimes a Blackcrest lived very, very long, but others he might become nothing but a hungry hunter, stalking the forest until he either starved or lost himself in the thrill to pit himself against bigger, stronger predators.

The Humans, though? They knew how to feed even an old Given-Man enough, and how to work him hard enough. Yan always seemed tired but happy in his messages home, and still himself. Still sharp, and with a head full of things none of the People before him had ever learned. Still bigger and stronger than them all, still Chief of the Lodge.

Would probably be too buried under women to talk much, though. Hah!

They talked a bit (after a wrassle and hug) about Vemik’s idea, they maybe schemed a bit…

It was a good sky-thought, Vemik knew it. The bunny-people needed to rebuild much, and the People needed access to tools. Not to make life easier, no. There had been much talk among the People about that, and the wise voices all thought an easy life would ruin them.

So…no. No big machines to carry them up or across the world. They would not enslave Werne to eat, or flee from the dangers of the Hunt. They would not grow fat and gassy on grain because they didn’t want to climb high for herb and fruit. They needed tools to make life more livable. Maybe it wasn’t a big difference, but like Jooyun and the professor said:

Sometimes, it was all in how you looked at it. Or maybe it was in doing the same things better.

…That thought needed work. But it was good to work on thoughts. He’d missed it. Coming out the other side of his mind-hurt felt like warm sunlight on his back, and maybe he’d share that thought with Adam later. Too bad he hadn’t really had time today.

He’d make time, somehow.

For now, there was home, his village, his children, his Singer. Yan, who was becoming a mighty Sky-warrior for his people. He was blessed in his family, in his friends, in the world he lived in.

And together, they’d make it even better.

Date Point: 19y3m2w AV
Clan Whitecrest infiltration ship Chasing Whisper, Planet Too Quiet, Deep Space

Father Royshu of Clan Whitecrest

“You found absolutely nothing in an operative state?”

“Aye, and we spent hours crawling up and around everything. The only things we found were all wildlife stupid enough to bother our gorillafriends up in the trees.”

“Tasty, though!” Berm Werne-Slapper added, nodding amiably. “Good thick blood too!”

…It was always wise to remember that their friends were also monsters, and uncomplicated ones at that.

Another of the team’s humans, Mercado, shook his head at Berm’s antics, then expanded on Kohl’s assessment. “There’s nothing down there, man. There’s some kinda local lichen or whatever growin’ all over everything, there’s thorny plants choking the place up. Either shit grows fast down there, or they abandoned the relay a couple years ago.”

“Probably the latter. It’s a pretty straightforward Ten on the Corti index.”

“Beats me why the fuck we even still bother with that thing. It puts Earth and Akyawentuo on the same level but c’mon man! Earth don’t have fifty ton dinosaurs runnin’ around!”

“Mammal-form hyperpredators, at that! Earth does, however, have diseases that would rip through the entire Ten’Gewek population in a month.”

“Naw. I don’t really believe that. We’ve found some nasty shit on Akyawentuo too, shit that’ll make Oregon Trail look like a fuckin’ jaunt. Now Nightmare definitely is a thirteen though, if for no other reason than the fuckin’ exploding trees and their antifreeze pigs.”

Typical Human, always selling his own species and homeworld short. Royshu flicked his ear indulgently, then jerked his head meaningfully toward the ship’s decontamination showers rather than argue further. “Well, anyway. Speaking of deadly diseases, alien pathogens and awful smells…”

They took the hint and headed that way, though, perhaps with too little concern for quiet. The team’s third human, Williams, contributed a thought as he unzipped his gear and started to shrug out of it. “Well, maybe they’re all level thirteen. Or twelve. Or maybe it’s a stupid-ass system that tries to measure the unmeasurable.”

“Or maybe it doesn’t accurately encapsulate risk past a certain point.”

“Or that. It was always kind bullshit how it didn’t put Gao as a level-ten right away.”

“Nine point nine-two-one. Widely regarded as a ‘dick political move.’”

“Dick?” Berm asked.

“Y’know. That fuckin’ lamp post all you monkeyboys got?” Mercado asked.

“I know, but why is a bad thing?”

“‘Cuz it means they got fucked,” Williams explained.

“…Still don’t see problem.”

“Ever fuck someone badly?”


“Oh, c’mon,” Mercado scoffed. “You’ve never once given bad sex?”

Berm uttered a mortally offended hoot. “Would be insult to gods! We all learn good fuckings in our trials because of that! Sex is sacred.”

“Huh…Hey, Kohl, you ever get the impression humanity went wrong somewhere along the way?”

“All the fuckin’ time…”

Royshu tuned them out and started charging the jump drive. Or tried to, anyway. The latter, he managed successfully. The former, he failed dismally at. One of his ears swivelled to listen to the conversation with a kind of disturbed fascination, despite his best efforts.

“I dunno. They’re just put together differently, man…and, uh, not to hate on our friends here, but their idea of consent and especially, uh, safety… It ain’t something we agree on.”

“Different gods, so different rules, different bodies,” Berm noted sagely. “We understand.”

Royshu couldn’t help himself. “See, this is why we’re different people. Sex among my kind is dangerous. That’s why we don’t do it casually.”

“Yeah, but…fuckin’ paperwork? Really?”

There was a certain…disdain in his tone that Royshu didn’t like. Fuck that nonsense.

He turned to face them directly. “…Okay. Let me share with you something we don’t like talking about. We’re never going to speak about it again, understand?”

Everyone looked at each other, nodded, then looked back at Royshu.

“Before accurate record-keeping and accountability? And an independent Clan of Females? Nearly ten percent of virgin females died in their first encounter, and injuries of some kind or another were common. Still are, though obviously we have better medicine. I won’t elaborate why, I’m sure your friendly internet can tell you all about our anatomy. But as a consequence, it is important that any female know exactly what she’s getting with a male.”

Berm stared at him for a long time.

“So while you huge gorilla-males and gorilla-females are so tough you can happily rape each other silly and it’s just impolite instead of a guaranteed fatality, and while you hairless jogging apes are so all over the place it makes you neurotic, with us…yeah. It’s a sensitive topic. So yes: Paperwork.”

“…Shit, I’m sorry.”

“Is sort of same problem with us. We teach all our young people, remember? Not just for fun.”

“Right. God, in Human society that’d be institutional pedophilia…”

“Not that young! As part of their rites! At line between boy and man, or girl and woman. When they’re ready!”

“…Kohl, I’m beginning to think we’re not so fucked up after all.”

“It’s not fucked up!” Royshu corrected him. “It’s intense. Even though we go our separate ways afterward, it forms a lifelong bond! I still trade messages with my first female!”

“Okay, okay…I didn’t mean anything by it. Shit, I just…I had no idea it was like that with either of you. Um…right. Lesson learned.”

“…Change of subject?” Kohl suggested.

“Please,” Royshu duck-nodded. “We’re about ready to jump, gentlemen. Better get ready for the HEAT welcoming party…” He couldn’t quite leave it at that, though. One more point, and one he’d sort of grown bitter about over the years.

“Also…be thankful for what you have. With my people, it’s actively dangerous. With theirs,” gesturing to the Ten’Gewek, “they’re so tough it’s completely casual. You get to sit in the happy middle, like no other species we know of anywhere. Be grateful for that. You get the meaning without the danger.”

“We have meaning!” Berm objected.

“Change of subject,” Kohl insisted, pushing Berm firmly toward the shower. “And now you are being insensitive. They wouldn’t have rites about it if it were meaningless.”

“…You’re right. I’m sorry. I should have thought that through a bit more before saying it.”

Berm looked at him intensely for a bit, then nodded and twitched his long tail. All the Ten’Gewek’s crests flattened a bit, Royshu noticed. They’d been bristling.

…Balls, he’d almost stepped in it pretty hard.

Williams gave him a sympathetic look. “This ‘interspecies sensitivity’ bullshit ain’t easy, huh?”

“I don’t think it’s even that. It’s just…we’re aliens. And deathworlders at that. There isn’t much more core to a species than sex. But…you do get what I meant, I hope?”

“Yeah. Better way to put it may have been ‘you need to create your meaning’ because to me, that seems like what they do. They’re too tough and strong. Sure, there’s all sorts of dangers in their world for the unwary, don’t get me wrong, but they’re all manageable. They send young boys out to hunt werne after all, and those could gut and trample cattle! The only real danger they have is from each other. They don’t fear falls, they don’t get broken bones. They have nothing at all to worry about from most of us, or most of you. That has to put a stamp on their psychology, y’know? What’s it like for a people to have so little fear?”


He got a heavy, comradely pat on the shoulder, then Williams vanished astern to clean up as well. The drive charge crept over the green line at last, and Royshu was honestly glad of the chance to just fly the ship again.


One world vanished from around them, to be replaced by the gantries and cargo handling systems of Armstrong’s inspection platform. There was the usual handshaking, talking to control, being parked on a platform and quarantined until the HEAT showed up…the usual jovially painful head scan and search. Not pleasant, but routine. And it was nice to know that all the brutally dangerous men he’d just insulted weren’t secret datasophont infiltrators now.

Berm came up to him while he was doing his close-out checklist.

“I should say sorry, too.”

Royshu turned his chair and ducked his head. “Yijao. We won’t truly learn each other’s ways by being shy and watching every possible word out of our mouths, will we?”

Berm hoot-trilled. “Hmm. Some humans think so. Had to take a class.”

“I’m guessing you fell asleep.”

A long and musical trill, this time, the equivalent of a deep bubbling chitter, or a human roaring belly-laugh. “You see me! Maybe I felt sleepy…but important. Some things, we Give meaning, yee-shyow? Maybe you not so wrong about us.”

Coming from a mouth the wrong shape, with the wrong tongue and no nose, Royshu was happy to let his abysmal attempt at Gaori pass without comment.

“We, the Forest-People, we kept the gods, kept their learnings. Maybe that is why we live and the City-People did not. Some forest tribes, they forget too. Also gone.”

“Perhaps. Don’t lose it, you understand? Because you’re right. It is sacred. Never forget it.”

“Never.” Berm gave him a hearty thwack on the shoulder—gentle, by his culture’s standards, but painful by Royshu’s—then turned and disembarked. Royshu finished his checklist, closed the ship down, then turned to the other half of his job: his report to the Clan.

Something told him this one was going to go right to the very top.

Date Point: 19y5m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Regaari, Father of Clan Whitecrest

Regaari didn’t get to spend much time with his dearest Cousin, and he’d learned to treasure every moment of it. Even if it did mean being snuggled mostly to death by a titanic, sweaty mass of brown fur.

Daar was nothing if not a predictable friend.

“They’ve been feedin’ you good!” he enthused, as he settled himself in on a comfortable bit of floor, Regaari somewhat considerately but inescapably pinned partially under his bulk. “I bet I could toss ‘ya about all kindsa ways now!”

Regaari chittered resignedly, “Please refrain. I’m tired enough as it is, these days.”

“Ayup. S’why I’m here. When are the rest showin’ up?”

“Shortly. It takes ‘Horse a while to get around, at the moment.” Regaari duck-shrugged sadly. Six months on from his injury, ‘Horse was definitely responding to therapy and rehab, but he was still definitely falling short of every unspoken expectation the team had about how well he’d do. After all, he’d pulled out some mythic fortitude and strength when the occasion demanded in the past.

It was stupid and unfair on all their parts to have expected he’d recover quickly and fully. But even Regaari had rather imagined he’d be bouncing around, shifting tonnes of metal and generally still showing them up by now. It was very clear that ‘Horse had imagined that, too.

Instead…he’d not. Attention had shifted to Firth and a few others, and the general unspoken consensus was that he was finding replacements on-team for all the different things he did.

Telling, that it took building Righteous into a never-before-seen monster, Baseball into…whatever he was, now. The almost desperate emphasis on the younger Lads…

“He’s never going to fight again, is he.”

Daar knew. They all knew. But none of them wanted to voice it.


“But will he recover?”

“I wish I knew. None of us do. That’s all outside of anything we do.”

“He gettin’ the best treatment?”

“As far as I know. But…Daar, you know how expensive Corti services can get. There will be a point, eventually…”


“It wouldn’t be fair, My Father. Not every soldier or Brother gets infinite care. This could easily cost hundreds of millions—”

“Wouldn’t be fair, that’s true. But it wouldn’t be right ‘ta let ‘em fall! I’mma see he gets whatever he needs and I don’t fuckin’ care what it looks like. How many times has he saved the Gao?”

Regaari didn’t answer. He couldn’t say it was any different than he’d have done, in Daar’s position.

In any event, the sound of heavy feet outside and deep Human voices brought that specific conversation to a close for the time being. That and the aroma.

Keeda bless Humans, but they knew how to do things to meat that would make the livestock glad it was slaughtered. Marinades, rubs, smoking, stuffing, glazes and sauces, herbs and cheese and condiments…

Maybe it was an appreciation of the new and exotic, since Gaoian cuisine was reportedly very popular on Earth these days…but whatever the reason, the smell was of a slow-smoked deer cooked with all of Firth’s considerable skill, and behind that Regaari could smell the creamy richness of Gran’ma Burgess’ famous mac…

They’d pulled out all the stops for his birthday party.

“Like that smell, Cousin? Me an’ Firth went an’ hunted it last season, an’ we’ve been lookin’ ‘fer the right excuse…”

“My birthday? Well, it’s as good an excuse as any other, I suppose…” Regaari chittered.

They’d been granted the use of Brigadier Jackson’s house in Folctha, which was pretty much normal for the SOR. She didn’t use it much, spending most of her time on Earth or over in Franklin, but it had belonged to Colonel Powell before, and had seen many HEAT social functions. No doubt it would see many more before she finally retired and lived there full-time. But the point was, it was a place they actually could get together privately. Big and roomy, with sturdy concrete floors throughout. Not even Firth at his stompiest could do it any real harm.

Daar was watching his step, though, especially through doorways. Everything had its limits.

The crowd started to show up, one-by-one, and all of them had a small little gift for Regaari. He had specifically requested nothing ostentatious, and ethics compelled them on that point anyway, seeing as he was a foreign agent in the direct employ of a sovereign…

But they never went wrong with books. Signed books, many of them.

And of course there was food, some roughhousing, games, the simple joy of socializing…The unique, and wholly unwarranted experience of Daar singing birthday well-wishes…Diego cracked everyone up by slapping his hands over his ears and refusing to remove them until Daar promised to stop singing.

Daar thought it was hilarious, and gladly made it up to the tiny human by giving him a gleefully galumphing ride around the field. Not many beings could claim such a boon from such a leader, but of course that was why Daar was Daar. Protocol and decorum only mattered when it mattered. If there was anything he’d taught the galaxy, it was that real power was about setting your own terms.

All in all, it was a good day. It was good to see that ‘Horse was actually doing better than Regaari had thought, too. Apparently he was receiving therapy and interventions that were taking the edge off for him. Good.

And late in the night, there came a moment when it was just the team. The wives, girlfriends and children went home, the doors were locked, the last of the food grazed on.

Time for the galaxy’s finest killers to talk a little shop.

“Got some news I know y’won’t be too happy ‘bout,” Daar rumbled, once they were all lounging around and nursing full bellies. “I know there’s a certain Alpha y’all want a piece of.”

Costello, savoring a beer as he leaned against the wall, made a disgruntled sound. “Bastard got away by an inch last time.”

“Yeah, it’s a slippery one. I been quietly hopin’ ‘fer a shot at it ‘fer a while now, too. But there’s strategy there, an’ I can see it. Fuckers want us payin’ attention. Too much attention. ‘Cuz really, we got what we came for. Ain’t no reason ‘ta keep spendin’ lives no more, now they ain’t got shit ‘ta fight back wit’. They ain’t escapin,’ there ain’t no rescue for ‘em in th’ orbits…”

“Hmm. The day’s finally come, has it?” Costello’s tone was resigned. Around the room, the others made various nods and sounds of agreement, but there was definitely some reluctance.

“It’s the right call,” Firth rumbled. “Don’t git me wrong. Feels like leavin’ unfinished business.”

“Naw, that’s ego speakin’,” the Great Father rejoined. “It weren’t never ‘bout personally servicin’ it, like it were some duel ‘tween worthy opponents or somethin.’ It’s jus’ a speedbump, a thing. A smart thing mebbe, but a thing nonetheless. You exterminate things.”

There were uncomfortable looks around the room, especially between the humans.

“Daar,” Costello ventured—

“I know ‘yer objection. Shouldn’t think or speak ‘bout sapients that way, eh?”

“It’s not gone over well in either of our culture’s histories, no.”

“Sure. An’ how many industralized foes did we ever have that ate people?”

“We came pretty functionally close,” Costello noted, grimly.

“Yeah, ‘ya did. Only mercy to it was ‘yer consideration ‘fer the average German, who prob’ly weren’t down wit’ that bullshit an’ jus’ tryin’ to keep them and theirs alive. But what is an average Hunter? An angry mouth, nothin’ more. Since when has our goal ever been anythin’ but their complete and total obliteration?”


“Essactly. They ain’t people worth th’ honor of personhood. It ain’t even genocide, ‘cuz that implies there’s a culture worth savin’.”

“The fuckers dinnae even have a sense o’ self, most of ‘em,” Murray agreed. “We’ve all seen it. Shoot the one next tae them, an’ they don’t even notice. May as well be boilin’ a fuckin’ anthill.”

Daar nodded at him, then looked back to Costello. “Ain’t nothin’ on Hell ‘fer us now. Jus’ a distraction. One that claims lives erry day. So, now the time’s come.”

“I presume this is all approved strategy and all that.”

“Ayup. Had the big-wig meetin’ jus’ ‘fore I came here.”

Costello shook his head. “God, it’s easy to forget who you really are…”

“That makes me glad.” Daar stood, releasing Regaari back to gloriously cool air and freedom from all his many tons of iron-meat pinning him in place. “But yeah. I’m sure y’all be seein’ relevant orders here shortly. Th’ withdrawal’s gonna need force protection, an’ who knows? Mebbe you’ll get ‘yer chance. I know I’ll be there on th’ last day, wit’ the last group.”

“We’ll prepare accordingly.”

“Good. Think tha’ss enough serious talk, don’t you?” Daar chittered, and indicated the table in the next room. “I seem ‘ta recall I got a slight winnin’ streak at Ta’Shen…”

There were nods, and those who wanted to play stood up. Regaari watched Costello a moment longer though. Watched him drain his beer aggressively then visibly decide to treat himself to another one. It was clear he was disappointed.

But Daar was right, of course. And they all knew it.

Sometimes, you just had to get blueballed.

Date Point: 19y6m AV

Garaaf, Father of Clan Whitecrest

The order had been given. Most forces were withdrawing from Hell, back through the Arrays. Garaaf felt like year-old ass over it, but…well, he wasn’t the sort to disobey orders. Especially not this one.

Even so, leaving without claiming his prize was a hard blow. But somebody was always going to be disappointed, there. The HEAT had been gunning for his Alpha just as hard. From the looks of things, their informal contest was going to end in a mutually dissatisfactory draw.

Daar would get the Alpha in the end. But it wouldn’t be by his own claws and strength.

It would be with the press of a button.

Still, Garaaf could retire with pride in a job well done. He’d stayed out here longer than anyone else, kept himself clean and healthy throughout somehow, led dozens of Clan Associates and young Brothers in blooding their claws for the first time and, most importantly, had been a set of eyes, ears and nose where the FIC and command needed him most.

And he’d personally slaughtered every single kill squad the Hunters had sent after him. He was particularly proud of that, since by modern Whitecrest standards he was almost a small slip of a thing—a hundred kilos, more or less, and to think that had once been considered big! Now he had a kill count tall enough to stack a fortress out of, and none of the fashionably big Brothers twice his size had a record to match. Not even the HEAT Brothers could match his count.

It wasn’t enough, of course. It’d never be enough. But it felt some kind of good nonetheless.

If he had a request, it would have been to watch from orbit in a few minutes. Maybe that would have finally been some kind of catharsis. Looking down and watching Hell burn away…

It wasn’t to be. There was no room in war for an old and damaged Father’s indulgences. Life wasn’t so kind as to hand out every last thing Garaaf wanted. Or anything, really. He’d clawed out all he’d won by himself, and if that didn’t include an Alpha’s head for a trophy…well, that just meant he could have done better.


He glanced at the Human Marine waiting impatiently for him. The young man indicated the Array. “Clock’s ticking, sir.”

Garaaf duck-nodded, turned, and walked away.

He had no idea what he’d do when he got home.

Date Point: 19y6m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam Arés

Nine months into his recovery, nine months on either medical leave or light duty. Nine months where shit was on an absolute fuckin’ rollercoaster of decline. For a while, it was so bad he was honestly in fear for his life.

It wasn’t that bad, anymore. They’d got the worst of it under control with a crazy fuckin’ litany of medications. The physical side of things, well…

Well, he was jumping back to Earth twice a week for hydrotherapy at a bariatric physiotherapy center, something Folctha just didn’t have. Which was a strange feeling. He really was in a lot of ways like a extreme bariatric case. The most extreme, actually. Which…well, he could see a bit of humor in that. “Fathorse” he’d quipped one day, and Sikes had promptly sewn together an absolute chonker of a stuffed palomino for him, and left it on the counter for him to see.

It was Diego’s favorite stuffed animal, now.

But, it made sense. He was so heavy and so uncoordinated, his safety demanded a big fuckin’ hoist to get him in and out of the pool. Especially ‘cuz if he had another seizure in the water, how the fuck was some little physio trainer supposed to haul his ass out otherwise?

Then there was the dialysis.

Modern cybernetics meant dialysis machines were almost a thing of the past. Nowadays, nobody needed kidney transplants, they just got a little biomechanical gizmo installed and slept on a wireless charging mat. But Adam didn’t need new kidneys, it was just his physique was breaking down at such a huge rate his kidneys, even though they were working perfectly, couldn’t keep up. So, he got the dubious honor of having to spend four hours plugged into a machine once a week to make up the difference.

Felt fucking weird that day, felt like half-whipped shit the day after, but the third and fourth days…on those, he actually felt human. Slow, clumsy and still struggling to coordinate, but functional.

Those were the days he got light duty done up at the base.

And of course, every time he came back from Earth, he had to check in with Nofl. There was a lot more to manage than just literally pissing away all his life’s hard work.

At least he got to enjoy Nofl’s coffee now. It was good coffee. Brewed with a Corti’s pride and a genius chemist’s attention to detail. Like Breaking Bad for caffeine junkies and decaf enthusiasts alike. And being an avid lifter…well, was at any rate…Adam had a strong love for all things caffeine.

And he was coming to actually enjoy Nofl’s unique bedside manner, too.

“‘Horse, darling! You’re prompt as ever! Come on in, keep off the grass, shine your shoes, wipe your face…”

“Mierda, who showed you Shrek?”

“Oh, it was one of the first Human movies I ever saw! A classic, dear! A cultural contribution to galactic civilization that will surely outlast all of Humanity’s other works!” Nofl flashed his trademark cheeky grin (with his tiny Corti mouth) and flapped an arm vaguely in the direction of his examination chair before bustling over to the corner to titrate the perfect cup o’ Joe.

It was a thoughtful gesture on his part. It took Adam that long to cross the room and maneuver himself into the chair. ‘Cuz the fact was, all that hard effort, all the drugs, the physio, the dialysis and all the rest of it hadn’t fixed him, it had just made his situation…

Well, manageable.

It wasn’t a fix. In fact, he was still shedding weight like crazy, to the point where he didn’t look healthy and ripped anymore. He looked…like a big, strong man fighting a debilitating illness. Which was true, really.

At least it wasn’t slowly killing him, like it had been for a while there.

Nofl bustled back with a scientifically immaculate hot Americano in the special big reinforced cup, pressed it into his hands, then pottered around setting up, sticking on and aiming his usual assortment of scanners and gizmos. “Drink it while it’s hot, that’s when it’s best!”

“It’s gotta be good to know that if the alien super-doctor thing falls through, you’ve got this to fall back on…” Adam rumbled, and took a sip. “…Shit, that’s good.”

“I’d almost certainly earn more, too. But! Fascinating as the Bean may be, you and my other patients are endlessly more so….hmm.”

His tone changed. The sunny act slipped, and left behind a very Corti expression of intense focus as his large eyes wandered over the display beside the chair.

“…Bad news?”

“Possibly. I’m seeing little random spikes on your EEG…” Nofl watched the screen a few seconds longer, then reached out and tapped it, calling up the scanner’s other, more detailed functions. “Sit back, enjoy your brew. This will take a minute…”

Trying not to feel nervous, Adam did just that. He rested his head back, looked up at the ceiling and, as he’d done many times over the years, waited patiently.

Nofl didn’t rush things. Didn’t chirp or banter, either. He just ran methodically and thoroughly through a series of examinations before affecting a sigh and hopping up on his stool nearby.

“Bad news,” he confirmed.

Well, shit. “…Lay it on me.”

“Those spikes I mentioned are very typical of epilepsy, and up until now we’ve been keeping them nice and small and infrequent with medication. Unfortunately, you’ve developed rather more scar tissue on the brain than we’d hoped, and it seems the drugs are no longer sufficient. Your readings are all now outside of acceptable bounds.”

“…In other words, there’s another seizure in my future.”

“Very likely, I’m afraid.”

Adam sighed. “There any good news in all this?”

“There’s mitigating news, let’s say.” Nofl managed a wry look. “We’re not out of treatment options yet. There are surgical interventions we could perform.”

“Like what?”

“Most obviously, using a laser to abrade the neural scar tissue. It’s actually a technique Humans had already discovered pre-Contact; Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy. Though of course, the Corti version of the procedure is far superior.”

“That’s safe?”

“I wouldn’t even suggest it if it wasn’t acceptably safe, dear. I had hoped we could go a little longer before we revisited surgical options, or better yet not need them at all…but, ah, the decision isn’t mine to make. That will be Professor Forln’s responsibility. You get to enjoy his sparkling company again!”

Despite himself, Adam snorted. “I dunno. By Corti standards, he seemed pretty personable.”

“Oh, yes, he only has a small pole up his pucker. The smallest they issue, in fact.”

Adam chuckled, now. That was praise. Nofl liked Forln, apparently. But then again…Adam kinda doubted he’d have let the Professor anywhere near him, otherwise. He didn’t know a whole lot about the Corti’s colleges and their dynamics and their caste system, but he had picked up that Nofl had a lot more influence than somebody like him usually did.

“So…I’m goin’ to surgery.”

“I doubt Forln will disagree with me. I won’t lie, acceptably safe though the procedure is, and as wonderful as our technology is, one does not poke lightly at brains. Especially not human ones. They are remarkably efficient, clever, powerful, dynamic and endlessly fascinating organs, and remarkably tough, too…but in other ways, quite sensitive and fragile. As evidenced by…” he indicated the readouts on the wall.

“Right. But, if I don’t go for it?”

“Then your prognosis is less than sparkling. You’ve survived the worst and most complex nervejam injury known to me. It would have been miraculous for you to have an uncomplicated recovery. If you suffer another seizure—and you will, if we don’t do this—then it will be the start of a rapid and painful decline.”

Adam nodded, grimly. “…How soon?”

“You have time to prepare. And maybe Forln will come up with an alternative.”

“But don’t put it off too long.”

Nofl nodded.

“Alright…guess we’d better take care of all the other stuff, huh?”

“Oh, psh. I already did.” Nofl flapped a hand. “In every other regard you’re doing wonderfully considering the state you were in when you first arrived on Origin. Frankly, you’re a testament to Human resilience, dear.”

“Except for the busted brain…” Adam grumbled.

“We’ll fix that too. You’ll have a long and comfortable life yet, mark my words.”

Coming from anyone else, Adam would have just nodded politely. Coming from Nofl…he smiled. “Alright. Well. Today’s a good day so far. So, I’m gonna make the most of it.”

“Absolutely!” Nofl chirped. “You know how to get hold of me if you need me. But take it easy, yes?”

“Will do,” Adam promised, as though he had any other fucking option right now.

No, he chastised himself as he stepped outside. That kind of negativity was bad for his recovery, Mears had said. Some amount of bitterness was natural, but indulging it was self-sabotage. Gotta keep that mental attitude positive.

That wasn’t too difficult though, when he found Marty and the boys waiting for him outside the Alien Quarter’s gates. If there was ever a sight to lift his spirits, it was them. And she had ice cream for him…

He creaked, ached, shuffled and stumbled his way over like an old man, sat on the concrete bench next to her—and, God, being able to use normal-people furniture again!—accepted the ice cream, gave her a kiss.

And he didn’t chicken out. “Bad news.”

Marty sighed, and steeled herself. “How bad?”

“Gotta go back to surgery on Origin or I’m headed for a seizure.”

“How soon?”

“Sooner the better.”

“…Alright.” She took his hand and squeezed it. Very, very carefully, he squeezed back. Managed to get the amount of force right, this time.

“Maybe they’ll fix some of the other stuff while they’re at it,” he suggested.

“They tend to do that, yeah…” She leaned into him. “But it wouldn’t be bad news if they thought it was totally safe…”

“Well…let’s face it. Totally safe has never been in my job description.”

“Heh. No. No, I guess it hasn’t.” She gave Diego a reassuring hair-stroke, then a similar one for Adam. It was getting downright long, now. By uniform reg standards, anyway, even for a helmet ‘hawk. Maybe it was kinda dumb he was still keeping it like that, seeing as even if things worked out perfectly from here they’d never let him put on the Mass again, but…

He’d fuckin’ earned it. That haircut was part of him now, a symbol he’d earned. Alongside the SOR black beret, the green feet, and all the rest of it. He’d done all that, and earned…well. There was recognition coming, nobody was pretending otherwise. No injury could take any of that away from him.

And it wasn’t going to take him away from his sons, either. Living and getting better for them was his mission now.

And he was ready for it.

Date Point: 19y6m AV

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

The Hunters saw it comin’, o’ course. There was only one reason ‘fer the allied forces ‘ta withdraw, so when the withdrawal began, so did the desperate last-ditch offensive.

It din’t work. How could it? They were attackin’ over blown bridges, through minefields and prepared lines of fire. All the Humans and Gao had ‘ta do was fall back in an orderly manner, blow shit up as they went, leave behind death an’ killing fields in their wake. The HEAT and Second Fang ran force protection right the way back ‘ta the Arrays. They were leavin’ a lot of equipment behind…but not a single man.

By the time they were back to the footprint of the base itself, there weren’t too many Hunters left alive. They were even throwing Builders into the fight.


Firth’s angry rumble drew Daar’s attention to the river’s far bank. An oversized white beast stood calmly among the rubble, not joining the attack. As much as Daar could read Hunter body language it looked…relaxed.

“Fucker’s laughin’ at us,” Burgess agreed.

Daar duck-nodded, staring the Alpha down, then turned away. “Ignore it. It’s about ‘ta die anyhow.”

The last of the regular units jumped through the Array. The last trickle of Hunters tried to swarm them…

They ignored those too.

They triggered their suit jump drives, and left Hell behind.

Date Point: 19y6m AV
Secret Location, deep Hunter Space

The Alpha-of-Alphas

One of the Alpha-of-Alphas’ basic assumptions about the nature of reality was beginning to crumble.

Correction: many of its basic assumptions were crumbling, but perhaps the most foundational was its preconception that more data equaled more room to maneuver. It had never previously encountered a situation where learning more equated to having its options reduced.

Now, though, every new datum seemed to violently amputate a future limb. Avenues that had previously seemed viable became, in light of new evidence, clearly and obviously unavailable.

It had gambled all remaining hope of salvaging the hive-world on scrounging together a warhead from the available materials. The weapon had been low-tech, as basic as any mass-energy reaction weapon could be, had consumed all available fissile material in its construction…

And had failed.

Now, with the last planetary shield destroyed, the last wormhole suppressor demolished and no replacements available, all it could do was watch helplessly as the enemy fleet that had held orbit so long began to fire downwards, and never stopped. The Alpha-of-Alphas’ last few listening posts had only moments to record a marching wall of fiery oblivion before going offline.

The Hive wreckage was lost, reduced to useless slag, and with it went every desirable future from the probability space. All that remained now were the merely not entirely unacceptable.

Fortunately—if the concept ‘fortunate’ was even applicable at this point—the Alpha-of-Alphas had already activated some of its worst-case contingencies. Its prouder predecessor might have refused to do so, or never even calculated their need, but the Alpha-of-Alphas was still fundamentally a Builder. Its driving instinct above all other concerns was the continuation of the species. It could not be pridefully blind to reality.

And the reality was that the Hunters…had finally lost. After millions of years by any species’ calendar, finally the galactic landscape had shifted so completely, and so abruptly, as to destroy them.

There was almost a catharsis in accepting the fact. It could not meaningfully rage or lash out in desperation. Instead, the universe had crystallized around that fact.

It was facing a foe that was better than it. By every measure. One that had built a coalition to fight, had taught the prey how to defend itself! Had even shown his own superiority on the battlefield against its finest Alpha, possibly just to drive deep the bitterness of their defeat.

He was coming for them, for the Alpha-of-Alphas personally. It knew it could not possibly withstand such an assault. There was only one course of action, unthinkable thought it was.


Another galaxy. One that had never known the Hunters and was not united against them. One where the Hunters could lurk in the dark, pick off the weak and the alone and the vulnerable, and rebuild slowly. Ignominious as such skulking would be…

The alternative was extinction. The ultimate defeat. The only truly unacceptable end state.

Ideally, it would pursue multiple extragalactic escape routes. In practice…there were now only enough resources for a single hive. A surmountable problem, upon reaching safety. Build more scouts, more hives, spread further. Flee, and never stop. Grow. Outlast. And perhaps, in time, return with the numbers and resources to reclaim this galaxy.

But right now, even escape was not guaranteed. The Travelling Hive was still under construction, and required components that would normally have been seized from the Prey. The Prey were more resilient to raiding, now. They fought back. Successfully.

Each thwarted raid—and each successful one—was a datum to the enemy. Another clue. When they put it together, if they found the vengeance machine, or worse, the Travelling Hive…

All of the Alpha-of-Alphas’ efforts were bent on obfuscating the Swarm’s remaining weak spots, and especially the existence of those two projects. It could not do so forever. It wasn’t clear whether it could do it for long enough.

But it no longer had alternatives. They would build the Travelling Hive and flee, or they would die.

And the signals between the stars were dark. The Old Minds, if they still lived, were no longer talking to the Discarded Forms. The Hunters were on their own for this. And even though it couldn’t really spare the attention, the Alpha-of-Alphas had to wonder…

Had the Minds already fallen?

It resigned itself to never knowing. But it hoped, one way or another, that it might find out, before the end.

If they had, then the Hunters’ vengeance would strike for the Minds as well. And that was already, almost, ready. It just needed a suitable target, and patience. It was a parting shot, a way of making the Prey regret this change they had allowed to creep over the galaxy.

Let the Deathworlders consume the Prey, for they would nonetheless, it was inevitable. It was their nature, and a fundamental truth about the order of the universe.

As for the Hunters…they might not win here…but they would endure.

And that, in time, would be victory.

Date Point: 19y6m1w AV
Combined/Joint Advanced Simulation Lab, Lavmuy City, Gao

Daar, feelin’ well fuckin’ exercised

Another wave, another endless wave of enhanced Hunters, another group of evil zambified Whitecrest snipers, another wall of mind-controlled super-‘Backs, all fresh meat from the zambificating factory. The gravity was so oppressive he could feel it in his bones, his suit crushing the life out of him, his muscles shaking bad. He was tired. But he couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t stop fighting or wrestling until he’d made it to the Big Red Button.

It had been hours. He was out of juice, out of ammo. His every muscle screamed at him for mercy but he couldn’t stop or the zambies would git ‘em! Kick, stomp, charge. Tear, wrassle, crush. Slam up against a wall. Bounce through a wall, keep destroying, keep killing—-


Fuckin’ gods-damnit. One of ‘em finally scored a kill.

The simulation ended, and for the first time in years, Daar felt fully, happily, gloriously exercised, right to the core of his being. Shit, he’d needed this! He looked up at the scorecard floating in the room. He’d broken ten thousand. That was good! Wasn’t it? It sounded good.

Real-life killing on that scale would be…well, him during the War. Damn.


He triggered his new Suit and it unzipped itself, falling around his paws in a many-ton puddle of sweat-soaked nastiness. Holy balls it was such sweet relief, and the cool air of the room was the most refreshingest thing ever, like a cold mountain breeze right through a freshly combed clip. His staff ran up with Juice and water and the Champions gossiped, while he stretched out his wunnerfully sore muscles and fought to catch his breath.

…Yeah. Daar was fuckin’ sold on this holodeck thingy. His wildly wagging tail prob’ly gave it away, but oh well. No point tryin’ to control it at this point.

It wasn’t quite like the Star Trek version—probably it wouldn’t be takin’ over his ship every other episode an’ having weird existential crises—but the real thing’s creators were proud of it anyway.

Black OGRE. Maybe kind of a weird reach to go from gauss rifles to a loving tribute to classic sci-fi, but on the other hand it was potentially military training equipment in the future. Once they’d got the funding to turn their demonstration prototype into something even bigger an’ better. Their rep with his tablet looked pretty fuckin’ happy as he ambled across the floor. The disorienting thing was, although Daar had run ‘fer miles while the scenario lasted…it’d dropped him perfectly back in the middle of the room. He had to give ‘em credit there, the feeling of the ground under his feet had been flawless. He’d not let himself so off the leash in years!

He wondered if they’d eventually manage to get the feel of wind in his fur, too. Not that he’d feel it inside his suit, but…

He looked back. Well, uh…okay. Not quite flawless. The floor was covered in a shiny powder of some kind, and now that he was out of his mask, he could definitely smell overworked power electronics. He couldn’t quite tell where from, so that probably meant it was the grav plating covering the walls, the floor, and the ceiling.

Somehow, he felt a bit proud of that. “Did I break anythin’?”

“Nothing broke,” the Black OGRE rep grinned. “But you stressed the hell out of the emitter arrays and their power delivery. You came close to overpowering and outrunning the simulation too, but we held together. I’m sure our engineers will be learning a lot from this.”

Daar caught a look at himself in the mirror. Damn he looked studly, all pumped up like that! He just had to pose a bit, get his haunches angled just right in the mirror…

Nervous chittering from the Champions. Good. Impressed noises from the humans. Better!

“Shit, can’t complain ‘bout what it’s doin ‘fer my body! An’ the glitter everywhere?”

“The dust is there to lend the forcefields some opacity. Nobody wants to fight ghosts.”

“Fuck yes I do!” Daar chittered happily, still keyed up and bouncy from his adventure. A sparkle caught his eye, and when he looked down…Well. Shit. Loads of the powder was stuck to his paws now, and it was creeping up his forearms and forelegs too. They’d definitely need to fix that. “I’m hopin’ this ain’t gonna be-glitter me permanently…”

“Ah. Sorry.” The rep grinned sheepishly. “Obviously, there are some kinks to work out. And, right now we just took a map from a popular videogame and plugged it in pretty much out-of-the-box…”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a zambie defense game!” Daar chipped happily, still panting like mad. He was feeling really friendly and snuggly but restrained himself, since he was a swamp monster at the moment and humans weren’t generally so keen on sharing that sorta thing.

“We also tweaked the game significantly. This system doesn’t have fields really powerful enough to, uh, match what you’re capable of, so we had to go for quantity.”

“Yeah, I could feel that. Also, it’s weird breakin’ a sorta polygony-like hunter who’s hard and heavy when you slam into him, but disappears into air when he’s dead.”

“More reactor power, more simulation power…all things we know we need doing.”

“Still. I ain’t had a challenge like that in…well, never in training. You got a lot’a potential here.”

“The idea always did, ever since it was first dreamed up. Honestly, it’s a little surreal to be turning it into a reality.”

“Heck of a leap from makin’ guns ‘fer the HEAT ‘ta makin’ this, ain’t it?”

The human engineer grinned and shrugged. “Ownership’s been investing wisely,” he demurred, and Daar chittered appreciatively. “And, y’know, fundamentally we’re just half a dozen nerds who want to build cool shit. So…”

“Hah!” Daar emptied his water jug, duck-nodding. “Can’t argue wi’ that.”

“”But, uh, no. Not as big a leap as you’d think. Our gauss rifles and these emitters have the same kinds of needs—big power draw, in a compact package, with good heat management. Different applications, but same kinda engineering, in a gross sense. So from that perspective, the hard part isn’t making something like this, it’s programming.”

“And fortunately ‘fer you, there’s a whole multi-billion dollar industry ‘ta draw from, there.” Daar duck-nodded.

“You make it sound easier than it was, but…yeah. Basically.”

“I’m an executive these days,” Daar chittered. “Gotta dumb it down or somethin’ like that.”

“You’re hardly dumb…”

“An’ flattery is fun, but as you can see,” Daar gestured a sweat-soaked paw across the room, “it ain’t me ‘ya gotta butter up. I got some’a my most bestest Champions here ‘fer a reason.”

He indicated Champion Sheeyo especially with a wry look. “I’m sure his staff’s gonna be thorough.”

“I’ve brought the fur oil,” Sheeyo joked to hearty chitters and guffaws. “Additionally, I’m sure there will also be safety concerns. Needless to say, a system which can simulate enough force to challenge Our Father…”

Good point, actually. But the Ogre rep was nodding already. “Well, yes, needless to say network and system security will be top priorities…”

“Somethin’ ‘fer Longear an’ Shortstride ‘ta get their claws into, then. I’m meetin’ with Champion Meereo in a couple hours too, so I’ll do ‘ya a favor an’ remind him you exist.” Daar chuckled kindly. Considering how big an intact Hierarchy relay was, he’d be unsurprised to discover Meereo was forgettin’ to eat and pursue Females.

Well, he could fix that!

“It is an intriguing system,” Champion Wozni mused. “With some rapid iteration, I’m sure we could elevate this concept to something truly spectacular.”

That got the company rep smiling. “Well, we did have some ideas—”

“Sounds like good research potential,” Daar interjected with a pant-grin. “I trust y’all will work it out. Please keep my staff appraised,” he commanded to the room in general, “an’ I’d be happy ‘ta see what the production variant o’ this can do!”

There. Goal set, direction set. Strategic objective made clear to the Champions (and the Conclave by extension), so…time to move on.

Besides, he’d been itchin’ all day to see what the Longears had pulled out of the relay on Too Quiet.

Two things left on his agenda. Well, mebbe three! First, go bother Meereo, refrain from wrasslin’ him prob’ly…somehow. The sacrifices he made ‘fer his Champions! Get a good sniff o’ him, anyway. If the poor boy ain’t been laid in a while…

Date with Naydi, too. There was a very nice restaurant she’d flicked her ear at one day when they were doin’….well, Leadership Stuff. She’d not said anything but Daar knew her very well, and she did enjoy bein’ spoiled now an’ then…

So he’d made arrangements. Middle of the week, yeah, but he din’t wanna cause ‘em too much hardship just ‘cuz he wanted ‘ta woo his Naydi!

So, definitely no wrasslin’ Meereo tonight—or at least, only a minimum of wrasslin.’

Okay. Not so much he couldn’t swing a double date, if he wanted. So no smushing.

…Maybe a little smushing. But just a little!

But, Meereo was pretty tough. Just a little should be good ‘nuff ‘fer him! And anyway, Daar had a Secret Motivation hidden in there, too! Social outings with his Champions were good. But if they came off as just a little put upon by Daar, it seemed ‘ta give their companions extra sympathy! And frankly, what male didn’t need sympathy?!

Just a little. Strategic careful smushing, ‘fer date improvement purposes!


His tail was already wagging wildly, and Tiyun gave him a Knowing Look. Couldn’t hide nothin’ from the little guy! He’d be gettin’ smushed too, later. But not until he’d arranged everything!

Priorities. A Great Father had ‘ta have priorities!

There was the usual thing where he basically had to walk out or else he’d be stuck in an endless loop of pleasant stuff, but he’d had practice in makin’ that look busy an’ professional rather’n rude. Not that it’d really matter, but why give off a rude impression when he didn’t hafta?

So, thump his heavy-ass self outta the room ‘ta end the conversations, ‘cuz sometimes unsubtle were subtle as balls. Leave ‘em all feelin’ happy. Nod to Tiyun, who knew essactly who Meereo was sweet on right now. Already he was messaging on his tablet while they bustled over ‘ta the Father’s Flight ‘fer a quick jaunt up country. Over to Nerd Central!

Time to go see what kinda treasures they’d scored.

Date point: 19y6m1w AV
College of Xenomedicine hospital, City 03, planet Origin

Forln, surgeon first class


The jump from Earth arrived precisely on schedule, and the subject of Forln’s interest—a large and slightly rotund human by the name of Doctor Johnson—disembarked with a certain bouncy lightness that belied his size.

“Forln! A pleasure to meet you at last, sir!”

Human patients—patients of any species, really—required specialists of their own kind. Although there were some universalities in organic life, evolution on distant and utterly unconnected alien worlds did inevitably mean that each species had its unique challenges, and nowhere was this more true, Forln thought, than in the field of Human neuroscience.

Hence their guest.

“Greetings, Doctor Johnson. I presume you are briefed?”

“Fascinating case, yes. I caught up on the notes while I was waiting to jump. I’ve needed to consult with colleagues in sports medicine, endocrinology and a dozen other fields over this.”

“It is a complex case, yes. And…perhaps, a bit beyond our experience to manage.”

“Considering the precautions I’ve had to take to travel here, that doesn’t surprise me.” Johnson looked around. “…It’s a shame, I was hoping to see more of Origin during my visit,” he added.

“Impossible, I’m afraid. Although the hospital is a clean environment and everyone living here is appropriately implanted and medicated against an Earthling microbial outbreak, the general population, and the planetary ecosystem, are not so protected. Nor, frankly, are our cities equipped to handle a visitor of your size and mass…” Forln trailed off as he realized that Johnson was making a reassuring hand gesture.

“Have no fear, I won’t try to go sightseeing,” the Human assured him. “But we’re hardly the largest species in the Dominion…”

“Correct. We do not permit visitors. The hospital and the Great Forum are the only, and tightly controlled, exceptions…this way, please.”

Of course, as one of the few places on Origin which did welcome aliens, the College of Xenomedicine Hospital was calculated to give a good impression. The wide, clean hallways between its wings were windowed to afford a view of the surrounding levels of City 03, and the College owned much of the area. The plazas and properties facing the hospital were carefully curated to maximize the impression of bustle, wealth and culture.

Not that it was a lie exactly. City 03 was a bustling center of wealth and culture. The exercise was akin to carefully placing the furniture, windows and mirrors in a room to get the best of natural light. There was no falsehood, just optimum representation.

It certainly worked. Johnson ambled along towing his wheeled bag behind him, head craning back to look up at the cityscape above. “…How high up are we?”

“Not high. This hospital’s tallest building is about fifty meters in Human units.”

“And the tallest building out there?”

“One thousand two hundred meters.”

“Good God…” Johnson craned his neck to look up again. “I don’t know if we’ll ever build anything that tall on Earth…”

“With field reinforcement and advanced materials science, I see no reason why you couldn’t.”

“I doubt we’ll ever agree to active structures like that. Earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, derechos and other severe weather…and that doesn’t even consider the elevators and such.”

“I suppose Earth’s high-gravity nature and hostile climate would pose additional challenges,” Forln agreed, leading them down a left-hand fork toward the youngest wing.

“The foundation pilings for our tallest buildings can be as much as a third as deep as the building is tall. For some reason we have a habit of building tall in our windiest locales…”

“If true, that seems irrational.”

“Oh yes. They’re often vanity projects, rather than a practical use of space, mostly…Ah. I’m guessing this is Deathworld Studies.”

A reasonable deduction, considering the multi-layered biofilter forcefields on the entrance, the sturdy backup shutters and the multitude of blue warning signs with the Directorate’s standard symbols for biohazard, virulent disease threat, supergravity, toxins, and allergens much in evidence.

“How welcoming,” Johnson commented, in what his translator rendered as a deadpan so flat that Forln had to admit to a small stab of amusement.

They swept into the conference room adjacent to the operating theatre, where their patient’s scans, notes and latest condition report were waiting. Forln considered the images of now Senior Master Sergeant Arés with concern. The Human supersoldier was shedding mass at an incredible rate, to the point where his silhouette had already changed noticeably.

The changes were even more pronounced when one glanced at the data scrolling alongside the images, from items as elementary as his weight and body fat percentage to the precise chemical balance of his blood, the panels stacked neatly into columns of Cortan and English. Every last one showed the chemical evidence of a body optimized by evolution for energy conservation, doing everything in its power to shed a massive and now obsolete load.

Of course, evolution being an unthinking mechanism, there was no contingency in the Human body for shedding so much so quickly. The rapid loss threatened his liver and kidney function, with an intricate series of commensurate complications. Things as peripheral as his eyesight were in danger. And if allowed to happen uncontrolled, this total system crash could very easily prove fatal. Really, the worsening control over his epilepsy was merely the most immediate and pressing of Warhorse’s concerns.

Johnson looked at the life-size holographic projection and made an impressed noise. “I wish I got to work with tools like this back home…”

“In time,” Forln replied. “Alliance and survival will increasingly compel exchange.”

“Well, then I hope you like a good scotch, because that’s about all I can exchange back…”

“I fear your sense of humor is wasted, Doctor,” Forln replied.

“Humour is never wasted, my dear colleague!” Johnson declared, then sobered as he ran a practice eye over the data on the wall screen. “But I fear this lad’s hard work might be. Rapid weight loss onset to enforced lower activity. We don’t really have ideal expertise for a case like this, so I went about and met with the best sports medicine specialists I could find. Cases like retiring bodybuilders and strongmen, extreme bariatric cases, and so on.”

“The complications are…numerous. Prognosis?”

“Let’s have a look at his activity…”

Forln nodded and waved at the gesture interface, narrowing down the totality of information in front of them to just those streams of knowledge relevant to the Human consultant’s field of expertise. Johnson tucked an arm across the roll of his belly, cradled the opposite elbow atop it, and rubbed a finger back and forth through his beard as he considered it.

“…Hmm,” he declared after a while. Followed by an equally solemn “right.” Forln waited patiently.

Eventually, Johnson nodded. “I…wouldn’t normally consider him a candidate for LITT. His one seizure to date didn’t have a tight local origin, and nor does the subclinical activity.”

“In this case, we have highlighted the problem areas,” Forln said, and called up the marked brain scan. “The scarring is colored in green. You will note it is especially bad in the precentral gyrus, and the thalamus.”

“…No wonder he’s having so much trouble. And you can safely excise all that?”

“We have stimulated regrowth techniques. I fear at this point the damage to his voluntary motor control may be permanent, but mitigable. It is the diencephalonic scarring I’m more concerned about. We are going to have to tax the limits of our equipment’s resolution to safely treat that.”

“How fine are those limits?”

“We can interact with individual cells, where necessary. In this case, I imagine we will have to do exactly that.”

“How severe will his motor control impairment be?”

Forln shook his head. “Unknowable. With time and effort, perhaps it will be impossible to tell he was ever injured. Your species have highly plastic brains, until very late in your adult lives. Were he a Corti like myself, I would consider it a wild success for him to be walking unassisted in five years, a mark which Mister Arés has already passed.”

He handed Johnson a tablet. “You’ll find my full request of what information I require from you on here, and I would be grateful to receive all insights, suggestions, opinions and advice you have, no matter how tangential. Whatever resources you require are at your disposal, and quarters have been prepared for you down the hall that way,” he pointed. “You’ll recognize the room easily enough, it’s the one with our symbol for Human on the door. You’ll even find the power outlets and conveniences are compatible with any devices you brought with you. No doubt there will be a letter from our legal department waiting for you.”

“Oh yes, we can’t forget to involve the lawyers, can we?” Johnson chuckled.

“As obstructive as they can occasionally be, they are also necessary if we are to ensure that all your peoples’ procedures and laws will be duly adhered to.”

“Then I’ll get settled in and start reading, I suppose.” Johnson picked up his bag again, then frowned at the readouts one last time. “…I hope we can help him. From what I gather this young man saved a lot of lives.”

“He may have saved civilization itself.”

“…I thought Corti don’t exaggerate.”

Forln blinked at him in mild indignation. “I am not.”

Johnson blinked, stared at him a moment as if waiting for Forln to elaborate, then cleared his throat “…Well, I better get to it, then.”

“As had I.”

Once the Human was gone, Forln padded over to the tablet he’d left lying on the conference room table, picked it up, and called up the message he’d already written in anticipation of this scenario. He truly had hoped to never send it, or at least not send it yet.

Still. His patient would get the very best treatment, even if that treatment was dangerous. He made a few small adjustments, and sent it. Without waiting for the reply, he retired to his office.

He had an operation to plan.

Date Point: 19y6m1w AV
Clan Longear Chapterhouse, fisherman’s wharf, Heng Bi’ city, southern isthmus, planet Gao

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

Keeda was a weird figure, in some ways. He was about the closest thing to a god the Gao really had left, with all the rest having been quietly influenced out of thought and memory by the Hierarchy over the long years of their meddling. Keeda the mischief-maker, though, had kinda lived up to his characterization. The wiley, often-the-bad-guy, frequently-malicious prankster god had pulled the ultimate trick on all the other gods of Gao by being the only survivor.

It was a mighty prank, to be sure. Mightier even than the legend that Keeda stole every other male’s balls, then bet them on a game of Ta’Shen and lost. Alas, that the identity of the victorious party now sailing the universe with a sack full of Gaoian testicles was forgotten. Perhaps the game had gone to his Human cousin, Loki?

Whatever the case, Keeda’s vengeful brothers, understandably upset, had nearly doomed the whole race by plucking the sun from the sky and using it to roast his nuts. But the females stepped in, stopped the madness and confiscated Keeda’s own abused nards to restore fertility to the whole race…though the damage was done. The half-scorched left testicle, the one that supposedly fathered female cubs, was nearly destroyed, hence why females were so much rarer than males.

It was a story that never failed to get rooms full of cubs—and adults—chittering merrily. But Meereo had often wondered privately why his people, so fixated on fertility and reproductive success as they were, had preserved their neutered god over all others. In any case, the idiom “as valuable as Keeda’s balls” had endured alongside the trickster himself, and grown with time to mean something of utterly incomparable, unattainable value.

Like, say, an intact and abandoned Hierarchy relay.

Of course, the device wasn’t about to give up its secrets quickly and easily. Even if it hadn’t been older than any recorded galactic civilization—a fact which itself raised questions about what it was made from, how it was maintained, and more—the technological base on which it rested was tens of millions of years old.

How did you even begin to reverse-engineer something so ancient and advanced?

Well, frankly, it was more like archaeology than technology. Methodical, thorough, and slow.

Which wasn’t something the Great Father quite understood, deep in his huge furry head. He was there, fragrant from a long day’s work and exertion (Thurrsto being a recent visit, by the smell of it), resting his noggin over Meereo’s shoulder like the biggest curious cub, nose snuffling wildly and open wonder on his scent as he read in everything Meereo was examining. He was hoping for a magical performance, really.

As was the way with the technologically lay. His knowledge was in levers and wheels and gears and chemicals, the fundaments of concrete and crops. And of war and state, too. How a CPU did its thing was at best an academic awareness for him. Functionally, it was more like a magical artifact, as such things were for anyone who wasn’t balls-deep in the gory details of bits and bytes. And that despite him being arguably the most intelligent meat-being alive.

Everyone had their strengths and foibles.

“I’m not going to have a catastrophic moment of revelation anytime soon, My Father.”

He chittered, nuzzled along the side of Meereo’s head (quite friendly, that) and backed away.

“I s’pose ‘yer tired o’ that sorta thing, huh? So this is gonna take, a few, what? Weeks? Months—?”

Meereo was lucky enough to escape the painstaking business of documenting everything at the first and most superficial level. Though there was an army of techs swarming all over the relay on Too Quiet, to date their reports had been an extensive series of pictures, measurements, and carefully accurate diagrams. Here a power network, here an air handling system, here a module of unknown purpose that may as well be a cryptic black box. And in many cases, literally were.

Instead, he got the pleasant duty of informing the Great Father that the dusty work of cataloging all this technology was going to last years probably before they could even begin to think about which of the relay’s many components to consider poking at first.

Well. Not merely years.

“—Centuries, My Father.”


“As a safe estimate, yes. This is an entire technological civilization left intact, likely with all the software wiped. Only the hardware remains. Each and every piece will need to be painstakingly documented, modeled, then carefully removed, examined with our full arts…and then re-examined in light of new discoveries, again and again.”

“…Guess that explains why they felt comf’table just leavin’ it there ‘fer us ‘ta poke at.”

“Assuming they had a say in the matter, but…yes. I’d say by the time we’ve finished extracting all the relay’s secrets, our business with the Hierarchy will be old history.”

“So, what I’m hearin’ is, we’re not gonna get any clues here about where they’ve up an’ vanished ‘ta.”

“I can’t even give an answer on that, My Father. This is complete unknown territory. So unless we find a note taped to the fridge…”

Daar chittered resignedly. “Fair ‘nuff.” Daar sniffed toward the corner where, yes, Meereo kept a small refrigerator filled with snacks.

“The Humans are in the same way with all the technology they pulled out of Caledonia and Myrmidon. They had to strip those ships almost down to bare structure to make use of them.”

“I thought we helped ‘em with that?”

“Later, yes. But only just. We have our own advantages we must maintain. All the stuff they salvaged from those ships? The two Injunctors they captured on Earth? Those aren’t going to give up their secrets for lifetimes, yet.”

Daar grumbled a bit unhappily at that. His instinct was to Give the Most Biggest Helps, but of course…he knew what mattered, here. The Gao had to survive first, and that meant maintaining some technological advantages here and there, against the unfortunate possibility of a rift in their friendships.

“Well, if it’s gonna take centuries, you can spare an evenin’.”

…Oh dear.

“Daar,” forgetting protocol for the moment—they were very old friends. “What did you do?”

“Oh, I jus’ know you’ll lose yerself in ‘yer work here if ‘yer not careful…”

True enough, Daar knew him very well. Still.

“I appreciate it, but—”

“Th’ Oceanside, with me an’ Naydra tonight. Bring Meenya!”

“…You have excellent spies.”

“I got eyes, ears an’ noses everywhere, you know that.” Daar chittered benevolently. “Speakin’ o’ my nose…th’ translation ‘fer this city’s name. Here-It-Stinks? Gotta say, it ain’t all that stinky…”

“They used to ferment fish sauce the traditional way here, long ago. Nowadays they do it in more controlled…Actually,” Meereo’s brain caught up with his ears, “how did you translate that?”

“Yeah, yeah…Clan secret language…’cept it ain’t. It’s really old local dialect, until Northern Standard was, uh, enforced everywhere by Fyu. Had’ta learn a lil’ bit ‘bout it in th’ Third Ring. Though if it makes ‘ya feel any better, I only catch the odd word here an’ there, and the bestest of Highmountain’s linguists ain’t much better. Y’all get ‘ta technical gibber and it sounds weird, like…it’s all fishing and sailing analogies ‘fer shit like fiber optics and all that. Fuckin’ magical.”

Meereo shook his head, duly impressed. “You always seem to know things…so firstly, I ain’t teaching you our Clan’s language. You or anyone up at Highmountain!”


“And secondly…how did you know about me and Meenya?”

“Y’had her scent on ‘ya a few weeks back in Conclave! Weren’t that hard ‘ta put two an’ two together.”

Meereo shook his head again. It wasn’t that Daar knew her scent that amazed him, it was the fact he remembered. He was the most-bred male in all of Gaoian history and yet somehow he still remembered each and every single one of them.

…Maybe that was part of why he was such a success.

Meereo chittered in…what? Bemused resignation? “How long ago?”

“Few years back! An’ it weren’t what ‘ya think, ‘fer once! It was…well, y’know how it was immediately post-War. So I put her at ease ‘bout it, and we ended up jus’ doin’ a book club.”


Daar chittered with some mild exasperation. “Why does everyone assume th’ only thing I’m capable of doin’ near a pretty Female is shovin’ my dick all up in her?!”

“Well, to be fair…you seem to be better at it than literally anyone ever.”

“Damn right!” Daar preened, and of course instantly struck a pose on all fours, all the better to flex that incomparable physique of his. Meereo in turn chittered out of mild envy; he was more than a little vain and quite proud of his own sleek, toned and well-muscled body, but next to the Great Father, he may as well have been a sickly cub. How Daar managed to carry such an impossibly hulking mass on his frame—to the point it seemed he might burst if he flexed too hard—while looking every bit like an exalted sculptor’s carved marble masterwork…

One could only accept defeat in the face of manifest perfection.

“Right,” Meereo shook his head and flattened his ears. Some signals were very primal, after all, and his instincts knew his place between them, even if he consciously felt no fear. “But given that, you can maybe understand people’s assumptions.”

“Well…sure. But I got lotsa Female friends I ain’t ever mated wit’ an’ likely never will! I’m just discreet ‘bout it, yijao? Spare ‘em the embarrassment.”

“And you the reputational damage…” Meereo added slyly.

“Naw! Mebbe when I was younger I mighta cared, but…anyhoo. She really likes old histories an’ such. Also wrote a book on Clan politics post…ah, me.”

“Well, yes, I know, I’ve read it, but…you never cease to amaze.”

Daar had never been embarrassed or shy about his many abilities, but he wasn’t abrasive about it, either. No smug look this time, since it wasn’t him clowning about. Just an acknowledging ear-flick and a brief pant-grin, accepting his due with brevity and grace.

“Thankee! Now I know I’m bein’ an annoyin’ busybody but someone’s gotta care ‘fer ‘ya an’ I can smell you ain’t exercised in two fuckin’ days. I bet ‘ya weren’t gon’ sleep tonight, neither…”

“I do have staff,” Meereo objected half-heartedly.

“Not a butler or a personal aide, which ‘ya really need at this level. ‘Yer a much more importanter Champion these days then ‘yer used to. So mebbe think ‘bout that. I’d appreciate havin’ one less friend ‘ta worry ‘bout, if ‘ya catch my not terribly subtle suggestion…”

Meereo chittered in acquiescence. “Fine! I’ll hire someone.” Though, speaking of Daar’s friends and worries… “How’s Regaari doing?”

“Better,” Daar sighed. “Still can’t get over it. Even when he’s lookin’ me in the eyes, in his soul he’s really lookin’ down at his feet.”

“Well…healing can be slow and painful. Especially from self-inflicted wounds, as it were.”

“…Yeah. An’ Regaari heals more slower’n most. At least he’s given up his cybernetic paw, finally. Took ‘em long enough.”

“He was always one to brood. Even in the creche, he was the moody one among us.”

“Kinda weird how so many o’ us grew up together, huh?”

Meereo gave him a fixed look. “Considering what the Hierarchy had planned for us…no it isn’t.”

“…Well, shit. That’s a downer right there.”

“A bit, yeah.”

Awkward silence for a moment.

“Look, lemme level wit’ ya. My plan was ‘ta wrassle ‘ya ‘fer a bit an’ drag you out in ‘bout twenny minutes, all nice an’ roguishly disheveled, an’ mebbe jus’ the right kinda stinky.”

Meereo gave him a knowing, sly look. “That goes without saying.”

Daar chittered, shook his great head…and pulled him in for a tight hug. “‘Ya know me too well. So this’ll hafta do, I s’pose.”

Meereo chittered in turn. “I look better when I’m properly sleek and groomed anyway.”

“Well, then, change’a plans! Do ‘yer devastatin’ worst, show me up ‘fer the raggedy country bumpkin I am!” Daar’s mood lifted again and he shoved Meereo toward the door. “G’on!”

Meereo chittered fondly, and allowed himself to be bullied a bit. Friendship with Daar had always been a bit taxing. He was big, brassy, pushy, so hyper-dominant it could be stress-inducing…but he was ultimately well-meaning. He cared, and that had a remarkable way of smoothing out all the sharp, exquisitely superior edges that made him what he was.

And he was right, too. The Too Quiet relay wouldn’t give up its secrets for a long, long time. Meereo could afford a night off. Especially in Meenya’s lovely company…

Speaking of which…

He dug his phone out and sent her a message. And it turned out she already knew. One of Daar’s people had worked that benevolently intrusive charm on her, and the flirty selfie she sent him was from half-way through her own grooming regime.

It boded well for a good night with good company and excellent food and if he was very lucky…All the things that made life better.

He rushed to get ready, and completely forgot about the relay for the rest of the night.

Date Point: 19y6m2w AV
College of Xenomedicine hospital, City 03, Origin, the Corti Directorate

Martina Arés

She was invited to watch, an invitation which she respectfully but firmly declined, though not without some hard thought and soul-searching. It came down to two things.

One: she didn’t want to see Adam’s bare brain and body being sliced apart in mid-air.

Two: On the other hand, if the surgery did go wrong and he slipped away…she’d want to be holding his hand. Or something.

Except, she didn’t really believe for a second that this would be what beat him after all those other things hadn’t. And even if it had…well, they wouldn’t have let her hold his hand anyway. And metaphorically holding his hand wasn’t the same at all.

So, she decided to spare herself the trauma of seeing him being medically brutalized, and wait. And have faith. But she was there with him as they put him under. He squeezed her hand, closed his eyes…and then if it hadn’t been for the steady readouts floating holographically above him, and the reassuring steady pace of the green feet pacing around on his chest, she’d have had a minor moment of terror at how still he became.

Then he was carted away on his big mechanized bed, and she was left alone with her thoughts, wishing she’d been allowed to bring somebody else with her. Her dad, or a friend, or hell, even the kids. Looking after them and keeping them entertained would have given her something to occupy her mind.

An announcement in Cortan, translated by the little earbud translator she was wearing, briefly paused her restless patrol around the room: “Attention all departments. Scheduled Class Nine procedure in Deathworld Studies. High draw forcefield equipment critical to patient safety is now active: A power usage caution is in effect. Please consult with Facilities Maintenance before initiating any procedures of Class Seven or higher.”

She realized she was biting her fingernails, and dropped her hand to her side with a small snarl at herself. But…

“No, for God’s sake, Marty, you’re allowed to fucking worry, you idiot…”

She wondered if Corti spoke to themselves while alone. Or would they think that was irrational? A defect suitable only for low-banner castes? She had no way of knowing, but it was distracting enough that she thought about it for a few minutes anyway…but it couldn’t distract forever.

Then it was back to the pacing, in a room far more torturously dull than any human waiting room. No cellphone signal, no magazines, only a Corti clock on the wall to torment her with its passing “seconds.” Each of which incremented slowly, at a rate of about once every three-and-a-half Mississippis or so.

She spent a minute working out the numerals, deducing that the Corti used a base-10 system, a hundred “seconds” to the “minute,” a hundred “minutes” to the “hour,” and a hundred hours, which added up to…some quick mental math…about a month and a half.

…And then ten of those to a year, presumably? She remembered Origin had quite a longer year than Earth. Weird timekeeping system, though. Totally divorced from the diurnal rhythm. Very…scientific. And utterly useless to her. She was adrift as to how long had actually passed. Not long, probably.

She counted the ceiling tiles, multiplied the floor tiles, spent a while staring into an abstract and incredibly minimalist piece of artwork that might be something profound to Corti eyes, but which to her looked more like the kind of meaningless decoration you might find in a newly built office building. The visual equivalent of On Hold music.

Back to pacing. God, what she’d have given for the freedom to just walk down the corridor and grab something from a vending machine…Or some music! Corti had music, right?

…She’d probably have found it intrusive and irritating though. Her thoughts kept coming back to Adam. Every time an announcement broke the monotony, was it him? No, just a doctor or medical associate being called to such-and-such a department, or a or–

“Notice to all departments: Power usage caution no longer in effect. You may resume normal protocol.”

Marty’s heart skipped a beat, and she turned to face the door. It remained stubbornly inert for nearly five alien minutes before her ears picked up the slap-slap-slap of bare Corti feet on the tiles outside, then a polite knock.

“C—” her throat was dry. She cleared it, licked her lips. “Come in.”

Nofl poked his head through the door. For a moment, his face was the same cold, emotionless, inscrutable mask as any good Corti wore, and Marty’s heart froze solid…

Then he smiled, and she got to go on living.

“He’ll want you to be there when he wakes up.”

Somehow, somehow, she didn’t collapse from sheer relief. Her feet staggered toward the door of their own accord. “It…he’s okay?”

“We shall see, dear! But…yes, I believe he is.”

The door to Limbo closed behind her, and only the absurd desire to not be rude kept her from running and leaving Nofl behind. He was far too slow…but they didn’t need to go far. Just a few doors down, through a biofilter field, and then…he didn’t look any different to how he had before he’d gone in. Irrationally, she’d half-expected to see some sign of the medical miracle they’d just worked on him. Some new glow of vigor or something…

She padded across the room, “Excuse-me’d” her way past a Corti orderly, and took Adam’s hand. He twitched, grunted, blinked his eyes open, looked at her.

And when he squeezed her hand, his grip was firm, warm, and gentle.


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

Dandelion: audiobook now available!

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

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

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

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

Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.

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


This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


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



Sally and Stephen Johnson

Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker

36 Humans


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His Dread Monarch

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John Norton

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As well as 59 Deathworlders…

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73 Friendly ETs, 141 Squishy Xenos and 314 Dizi Rats. for whom I’m very squish-ful

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

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

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

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Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 83: Singularity