The Deathworlders


Chapter 11: Shenanigans

12y, 3m AV
Rooney’s Pub

Champion and Sergeant Daar of Clan Stoneback

Daar most certainly did not slack on his training. As with the Whitecrest Brothers he learned quickly and grew faster, stronger, and more cunning on a nearly daily basis under the skilled and relentless tutelage of Warhorse, Rebar, Snapfire, and crew. Daar’s own progress shocked him; the isolating exercises especially proved a breakthrough, enabling him to blast through old injuries and existing limits like he was thirty-five years younger and at the cusp of adulthood. He gained weight and muscle tone almost as fast as he could eat, dropped what little unhealthy excess mass he had, and improved across all dimensions of his physical ability so quickly and so completely he could only look back ruefully at the years of opportunity missed without the training insights he’d learned.

Clearly, Clan Stoneback had much to learn from the Humans. They treated pain as an old friend and used medical science to its best advantage. Gone was the notion of “toughing it out” in Daar’s mind, and in its place was a more calculated science, one adapted to maximize Gaoian ability.

He enthused about this excitedly with ‘Horse and ‘Base as everyone else watched amusedly; meatheads will be meatheads and that seemed to cut even across species. How could his Clan have gone so long without such an obvious approach to training? What else had they missed? Regaari only chittered ruefully and explained the facts of Human life.

“Not only are they better than us, Cousin, but they can make us better too. It is simultaneously inspirational and humbling.”

“But we have much to teach them in return,” objected Daar as he took another swig of his beer. “We’ve seen that many times!”

“Indeed. And then these fine gentlemen,” he waved his paw expansively at the gathered SOR cadre, “They will take those lessons, greatly improve upon them, then re-teach us our own knowledge far better than we ever managed!” He grinned as he said it; he was not particularly bitter or resentful about any of it—not anymore—but he felt a bit cowed by the experience nonetheless.

“Oh, don’t be like that, Dex.” Baseball reached over and roughly noogied Regaari’s crest in precisely the way it irritated the snarky Gaoian. “We both learn a shitload outta this. Ain’t that good?”

“And you fellas are the best wingman that there ever was, too.” Sikes gave a lecherous grin. He and Daar had, over many beers, formulated one of the most ridiculously transparent come-on routines anyone on the team had ever seen, and to the frustration of Gaoian and Human alike, it was tremendously successful. They watched as Daar ambled over to a group of attractive human females while Sikes sat behind with the group, attempting to act as nonchalant as possible.

Firth—himself a man with an impressive record of romantic success—was the first to open fire. “Heh, so entry level. I mean, I’m not mockin’ it, but the pet dog routine has been around forever.”

And sure enough, a glance over at Daar showed him chatting and chittering with the ladies, who were by that time fascinated by his chest and head fur. They paid him an almost obscene amount of attention and he drank it up like the happy, simple being he was.

Neither Regaari nor the rest of the Brothers took much offense to the comparison. Perhaps they might have, months ago, before their perfect immersion in human culture and its quirky worldview…but no longer. Nor would Daar take offense. In fact, he seemed to embrace it. He was dog-like in many ways, so why should the comparison be objectionable? The humans saw many positive qualities in Daar and his fellows and projected those qualities through an adopted canine affection. It was meant well! Why such consternation about “civilized” behavior, especially when it was actively detrimental to doing?

The “civilized” Clans could stand to get a little dirty now and then.

“I note he’s consistently luckier than any of us right now,” remarked Titan. Another glance over at Daar revealed the three ladies were now aww’ing and complimenting him, scritching deeply in his chest and stomach fur, and affectionately rubbing his ears and neck. His eyes were closed, his tongue hung out of his mouth, and his tail wagged furiously. He even grumbled happily like Bozo did from a particularly good belly rub.

Regaari had to look away. There were limits to the Brothers’ indulgence.

The humans did not notice. “Well, I mean, he is pretty as fuck.” Firth grinned a toothy, shit-eating grin. “Just look at ‘dem cheeks, all blushin’ n’ shit!”


Sikes was much like Arés in that he had an easy trigger for embarrassment. For him it was any remark on just how painfully country-boy handsome he was, even with his almost grotesquely enormous muscles that were the pride and price of any SOR operator.

“What? It’s true. The silly boy is just too good-looking for his own good.” Firth nodded towards Daar, still in the throws of scritchy bliss.

“Wait, who are you talking about, Daar or Sikes?”


The men all nodded their heads in agreement. Sikes blushed harder. At that moment Daar came quite literally bouncing over like a giant, hulked-out Tigger, excited to share his new friends. His movement was very unlike the other Gaoians; he was perfectly at home on his hind legs, on all fours, or some flowing transition between the two. It gave his movement a very purposeful, organic, and competent feel that, frankly, the Whitecrest Brothers seemed bound and determined to avoid.

At least, they avoided it whenever other Gaoians were present. Alone with SOR and their fellows? They too moved like a Gaoian was clearly meant to move. It was their guilty pleasure and a thing they sorely missed whenever they returned home. Which, it must be said, maddened them to no end.

“Snapfire, look! I made friends! This is Stephanie,” he gestured with his huge paw, “And this is Melissa, and this is Ashley!” He looked back, “Did I pronounce them right?”

“Yes!” Stephanie giggled as Sikes gave her a slightly embarrassed, boyish grin. “And who are these?” Daar had scored a hit if the happy faces were a tell. It was surprisingly easy to read the humans when one could smell their mating pheromones, and of course, there were enough similarities between species that Daar could make educated guesses at who would like whom.

Accurate guesses, by the scent of things. All the Gaoians could smell his success. Daar practically purred with happiness. “These are my friends, and they’re the best men you’ll ever meet.”

The Brothers left the humans to their devices. After Daar got goodbye hugs. And more scritches.

The Gaoians left the humans alone to make acquaintances with each other, which, to Daar’s resounding credit, seemed to be progressing quite well. The general feeling was not overtly primal like so many evenings; instead it was perfectly innocent and friendly. As the Brothers left there was talk about going for a walk around town, maybe seeing a movie at the local theater. Or, perhaps, just a nice evening in the park, talking and holding hands.

A delightful idea! One the Gaoians decided to copy. They went to the small park near the Alien Quarter which was slowly becoming a preserve of native life from many worlds, including Cimbrean. It was beautiful, pleasant, a protected island away from Deathworld life, a serene fairy tale in the midst of something far more beautiful and terrifying.

It was favored by the Gaoians for it’s delicate and simple aesthetic. It was also an ideal space for the small detachment from Clan of Females who had recently arrived. Many friendships and mating contracts blossomed in public spaces where Gaoians could meet in friendly surroundings. This park seemed particularly good, for several new Mothers were already with cub. The detachment was mostly young and adventurous Sisters just entering their age, dipping their claws in the waters of the mating game.

A pleasant and peaceful place, all told, which made Faarek’s outburst more than a little inappropriate.

“You are truly without shame.”

Daar ignored the accusatory tone and grumbled happily to himself, pleased to see everyone around him socializing so well. “Of course! I’d do anything to help my Brothers win mating contracts. I mean, it wasn’t hard, really. All I had to do was get the best belly rub of my entire life. What’s not to like?”

“But…A belly rub, Daar. You were practically mating with them!”

“Fah, it ain’t anything to humans. It was perfectly innocent!” He gave an amused and defiant little growl. “Besides, she smells wrong for a mating urge anyway. It was just…nice. Really, really nice. You should try it!”

That seemed to upset Faarek beyond his capacity for self restraint. “How can you disgrace yourself like this!? You prostrate like one of their pets for their amusement and wallow in their conceit. It’s as if—”

Daar growled dangerously. Every Gaoian in the park noticed immediately and watched the sudden confrontation keenly.

“I do what I do, Brother, because that is who and what I am. I do not pretend to be anything but a talking animal.” He growled deeper, “I don’t really care what you think.”

He crouched back on his hind legs, ready to accept a Challenge. The crowd was deathly silent.

Faarek flattened his ears and snarled for a moment. His fire was up and he, too, was primed for a fight, quixotic though it may be. But a thought struck him right at the moment he was prepared to attack. He visibly calmed and regarded Daar with a contemplative eye.

This confused Daar. “…What?”

“You…just called me Brother.”

Daar paused and regarded Faarek warily. “I…guess I did.” There was really only one word to convey the sudden confusion. “Fuck.”

“So…are we Brothers, Daar?”

Daar stood, paralyzed with indecision. There as a long, pregnant pause. But finally, Daar deflated and slumped to the ground, all aggressive energy gone. “Yeah. I think so. An’ I don’t fight Brothers. Ever. Against Stoneback code.”

Cautiously, Faarek approached Daar and sat down on the ground with him at a comfortable (and safe) distance away. “Well…neither do we.” He regarded Daar for a moment. “Still. How does one resolve conflict in Stoneback, then?”

Daar stared for a moment, then his eyes lit up and he wagged his tail. He answered with a very playful growl and a full-bodied pounce, then playfully pinned Faarek to the ground and nuzzled happily. “We wrestle!”

And so they did. It wasn’t even a contest. Within seconds Faarek was laughing and wriggling in a futile attempt at escape, while Daar effortlessly held him pinned to the ground. He upped the ante by snuffling in Faarek’s head-fur, which was for most Gaoians a particularly ticklish spot. He surrendered instantly.

“Oh Fathers, stop!” Daar did so and grinned down at his hapless victim. “Oh…whew.” Faarek gradually caught his breath. “I concede, you massive thing! Get off!”

He didn’t. “I win!” He settled his bulk down on Faarek more firmly. “Now, usually, I’d just demand you buy me my favorite snack, or something.”

Regaari chittered amusedly. “He likes roasted Nava cutlets. On sticks.”

Daar nodded vigorously. “It’s gotta be on the little sticks!”

“But we can’t get Nava here.”

“Exactly! So instead…” Daar grinned evilly, “My coat is getting long and I need a good clip, an’ I know you Whitecrest have some fancy tools…”

Faarek blanched. “…must I?” Stonebacks were legendary for the pungent smell their undercoats could accumulate no matter how much they groomed. All laboring males had the same problem but Stonebacks were defined by hard physical exertion in terrible environments.

Fortunately for Faarek, Daar understood, even if the stereotype wasn’t entirely true. “…no. Not if you really don’t wanna.” He sat on his haunches and considered. “Okay. Maybe…just a small favor later. Or a snack.”

“I’m returning to Gao shortly. Maybe…I can bring some Nava back?”

“Would you!?” Daar’s wiggling became almost intolerable.

Faarek chittered amusedly. “Yes, now get off!” Daar did so, and the sudden awkward pause that hits after any such encounter made itself known to the Brothers.

“Well.” Regaari studied his now expanded group of Brothers. “Maybe you should make Stoneback’s position on the matter clear, so there are no future misunderstandings.”

“Oh! Uh…” He paused, as if recalling something. He recited, “We of Stoneback believe we should not deny our animal nature. It is to our advantage to perform across the full range of physical capability. Civilized behavior has its place but it should never interfere with living or doing anything. To us, that is Important.”

He grinned slyly, “And just ‘tween me and y’all, a female don’t pick a Stoneback like me for my refined manners or my favorite poet. She’s after my muscles, fur, claws, and teeth. Why shouldn’t I show it off?”

The Brothers duck-nodded in agreement.

“What about Whitecrest?”

Regaari replied, “The sharpest tool a Gaoian can possess is their mind.”

Daar duck-nodded agreeably. “Why not both?” He pounced and growl-hugged Regaari, “Just don’t forget us dummies, heh.”

Regaari chittered in feigned annoyance and escaped. “You are far from stupid.”

“I know.” Daar thought for a moment. “I mean, yeah. I suppose we are Brothers. Ain’t we in the same, uh, ‘Clan’ by now? These trials are certainly on par with anything I experienced in Stoneback.”

“So…‘Clan SOR.’ Makes sense.”

“Hmm. Should we talk about this with the humans?” Thurrsto was, as ever, concerned with formalities and protocol. “Can… can males belong to more than one Clan at the same time?”

“Father Fyu did.”

“To be fair,” said Faarek, “He was in his own way even more of an exceptional Gaoian than Daar. But…yes.” Daar shrunk into himself a bit in embarrassment at the unexpected compliment.

The reaction by Faarek was one of shock and sudden, newfound respect. Gaoian males were, as a rule, a little vain, especially Clan members. It was always good and wise to accept praise with grace but seldom does a male act like such praise wasn’t his due.

That was not the case with Daar. He had a massive ego, of course; as arguably the most important Stud alive, he had every right. But his fundamentally grateful nature had been set long ago as a young cub, already an astounding physical prodigy but struggling with his studies. Regaari, being a bit small for a Whitecrest, needed to strengthen up, so he helped Daar study in their spare time in exchange for some extended training.

Daar passed and he never forgot the favor. In his mind, he would not be in the position he was without Regaari’s assistance, and Regaari had no need to help. It was pure altruism and Daar loved him for it, and ever since that incident, Daar held a kernel of humility within him that Regaari treasured. Most people did, once they saw it. Daar’s acceptance and training in Stoneback further fanned that aspect of his being. Stonebacks believed in the value of honest, hard labor, and in the redeeming nature of teamwork. Glory was to be shared, not hoarded. Big jobs required many Backs, and why should anyone get more credit?

Many males did not truly believe in those words. Daar did.

Regaari looked fondly upon the slightly embarrassed Daar and returned to the business at hand. “I agree fully,” He said “Sadly, we must keep this to ourselves for the moment. We will need to see what the Clan Fathers would think, and inter-Clan alliances are always complex things.”

“Our Clans are already aligned,” pointed out Daar.

“Should make it easier.” Regaari stood up straight and smoothed his now permanently unruly fur. “Let’s sleep on it, as the humans would say. We’ll talk tomorrow. And after that…we will see.”

They nodded their agreement and continued their walk through the park. The conclusion they would reach the following day was almost foregone; one only needed to watch them interact. After the awkwardness faded, and Faarek and Daar were no longer nursing a grudge, nor Faarek’s leadership challenged…

Clan SOR enjoyed the outdoors, together.

12y, 6m AV
Quarterly Physical Assessment/Bioergonomics measurements

Master Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth

“Whenever you’re ready, Firth.” Kovač made a disinterested gesture at her scale.

He sauntered over with a cocky lop-sided grin, naked, free, stinky, and uncaring. He had just sprinted the five kilometers over from his exceedingly strenuous performance assessment and had his shorts off the instant he arrived at the lab. “You gonna measure me while you’re at it? I bet mine’s the biggest now!”

The other operators chuckled and rolled their eyes. Firth, Burgess, and Arés, being the supreme athletes of the team, were the last to be evaluated owing to their longer and harder courses. They were just arriving at the body metrics lab and were therefore about to perform for a captive audience. Not that anyone cared; the others were too busy completing the remaining indignities of their examinations. By now this had become so commonplace and so mundane in their lives, there was not a trace of modesty or shame to be found in anyone.

Kovač, for her part, gave him a look that was simultaneously amused and annoyed. “No, Righteous, I’m not going to be an accomplice in your ridiculous dominance games. You get measured in private like everyone else.”

“Aww, you’re no fun!” He glanced over at Warhorse with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Afraid I’ll upstage your boy?” ‘Horse had just returned from his physical and was, if anything, even more ripe and disheveled than Righteous.

“I somehow doubt that, Christian.” Everyone could hear the smug pride in her voice, which earned the both of them cat-calls and jeers. “But since you insist I will say that you and Adam have the exact same groin plate. We literally just manufacture two of the same size. There, happy? You both win.”

“I note you didn’t answer the question,” grinned Firth.

“Nope, sure didn’t.”

“You evil woman, adding fuel to the fire!” He clucked in mock indignation. Firth and Arés took the teasing with good grace as always.

But for once Adam had a comeback line. “Before you ask: no, I’m not going on another bender with you, and no, I’m not gonna whip it out like last time, no matter what Skinamax is showing!” He chuckled, “You’re never getting me that drunk ever again.”

Militaries had a way of changing a person’s perceptions and priorities, a handy bit of alliteration Righteous was fond of repeating. And like everyone else in the room, he was more perturbed by ‘Horse avoiding a drunken adventure than of any notion of what might happen. After all, it was all in fun, right? Who cared?

Firth certainly didn’t, especially when he thought he might win whatever game was afoot. “You huge pussy,” he chuckled. “How am I supposed to beat ‘ya if you won’t play?” There was nothin’ more fun than teasing a best bud!

“I don’t wanna embarrass you.” Another grin, “And I’m still bigger. Deal with it.”

Kovač rolled her eyes in silence as the men bragged and bantered, which Firth noticed and teased her about. After all, it was her opinion that such vulgar behavior was probably their coping mechanism for everything they endured. Firth found himself agreeing with the idea. It was a fun distraction that seemed easy to fall back onto. And, hell; if women could be irrationally insecure about their attractive friends, couldn’t men do the same?

At least the men had a clear set of measurements to compare. That made it easy for even a crude caveman like Firth to play along. It a was stupid and macho game they played, every ridiculous alpha-male stereotype all rolled into one…so why did they, even knowing what it must look like to outsiders?

Because it was fun, obviously.

Firth chuckled to himself, bounced on his toes a bit to keep the blood flowing and prevent lactic acid buildup, and presented himself for the techs to examine, arms outstretched and feet planted wide.

“Awright, fine. Let‘s get this show on the road.”

One of the major disadvantages of being, essentially, trailblazers on a bleeding-edge sports medicine program was the frequent, intrusive, and omnipresent probes into their daily lives. Blood, saliva, urine, and stool samples were collected in alarming quantity. Their diets were very carefully monitored right down to the last gram of rice and milliliter of milk. ‘Horse (and his full-time kitchen staff) did all of the food preparation, logging, measuring and so forth, which made the experience far less burdensome on the men. But that did mean that every scrap of junk food or snacks that weren’t on the “eat sheet” for the day must be reported in excruciating detail.

Woe betide anyone if Kovač found evidence of unlogged snacking in their samples. The resulting “remedial diet adjustment” was a Motivational assignment crueler than “tending the Zen garden” or “walking the red truck.” Or even the dreaded “buckshot sandbag pyramid.”

Nor did the data collection speak to the equally onerous burden of simply eating as much as was needed. All of the men were enormous. Vandenberg and Blaczynski were titanic. Burgess, Firth, and especially Arés were unambiguously monstrous. And all of the men were extremely active. Food was therefore a constant fixture in their lives. They had to eat so much and so often that, on their more active days, simply moving their food around was a major logistical challenge for ‘Horse’s motivated but overworked kitchen staff.

Consider Firth’s daily routine: wake up, grab a pre-workout shake. Sweat for an hour in “light” group exercise, followed by a post-workout shake and breakfast. Then first formation followed by individual physical training. Another meal. Then, on an active day, scenarios back to back until noon. Before and after each, there would be a shake or a hearty snack. Comfort break, rest, lunch. Then classroom time, perhaps, with snacks provided. Then the second scenario block, much as before. Another meal. Retreat ceremony, followed by another quick meal, his real exercise session for the day, a big post-workout meal, then finally, relax for a couple of hours with his brothers on the couch, too tired to do much of anything else.

Then bed time. And before that…a final meal. All of the men had a similar schedule, the differences being primarily based in nutrition content, dietary preferences, and size of the individual meals. Their food plans were so utterly individualized, in fact, the men typically only ate together at lunch. During the work week this was the one time the men had any freedom to plan their own food, and Titan and ‘Horse took full, absolute advantage. One needed variety in their lives, after all. The tedium of planned food—no matter how tasty or well-prepared—would quickly drive anyone mad. Shakes, rice, chicken, fish, and supplement powers, pills, drinks and so forth grew old very fast.

All of this eating, training, and exercise, with recuperation time nearly eliminated thanks to the Crue-D, meant their bodies could grow as fast as they damn well pleased and grow all parts of themselves in response to the stresses experienced, all without the typical resulting inflammation. Just like with that crazy idiot Adrian, this “tricked” their bodies into growing far, far larger and hardier than they normally would. Bones thickened, frames broadened and deepened, muscles and tendons hardened, organ systems adapted and hormones increased, sometimes quite dramatically.

But Firth had grown up experiencing a genuinely extreme state of body and mind so none of that was an entirely new experience for him. He had been a hulking example of “testosterone poisoning” since middle school and it had taken years to learn the discipline and self-control a man like him so desperately needed. Quite how his “little” best friends handled the rush of hormones flooding their brains so late in life was a thing Firth never failed to marvel at. He at least had years of familiarity on his side.

He had to admire them for it, especially Arés. His transformation was the most extreme of them all, growing from a dense, wiry, iron-strong, short little super-heavyweight powerhouse teenager into a much taller and hulking specimen of manhood. And while neither he nor Vandenberg were exactly vertically challenged—both were pushing six feet these days—they were both the shortest men on the team. And yet, there was absolutely no question who was the biggest. ‘Horse was far and away the most physically powerful human being to ever live, and probably the very heaviest to walk under his own power.

And despite that, the boy was so athletic and light on his feet he practically bounced off the walls anywhere he went! Who else could perform an iron cross in triple Earth gravity, repeatedly, with weights? Blac and Akiyama could, and of course Burgess and now Firth, these days…but they were all so much lighter than ‘Horse. Not even ‘Base compared. Nor could they match ‘Horse’s added weights, either absolutely or relative to body mass. That boy was a fuckin’ stud and Firth knew it’d be a long, hard slog to ever match him.

Compared to that sort of experience, Firth’s Crue-D changes had been mild.

That was beginning to change, though. Firth noticed his feet had started to widen and his shoes were growing uncomfortably tight, something he’d not felt since he was seventeen. More and more he found himself going about his daily life totally barefoot, just like the Protectors. He was pretty sure his shoulders were suddenly a little broader, too. Some of the narrow hallways in SOR’s warren-like office building had lately gained an acute claustrophobic quality to them; both his shoulders and his head lightly brushed against the narrow walls and the low ceiling. And he knew beyond any doubt his pants were getting uncomfortably tight in every measure. He suspected they were getting too short as well. Perhaps he was finally beginning the same transformative journey as Warhorse and Baseball had experienced; where would it take him? Would the rest of SOR follow? He could not say.

But despite their enormity, the growth the men had experienced was not, it must be said, past the theoretical realm of what was nominally possible for a human male to achieve. Though Firth was a truly gigantic man these days, he wasn’t—at least for now—inconceivably beyond the largest strongmen competing in the circuits. Vastly bigger, stronger, faster, and far more athletic? Absolutely. But, given exceptional luck, lots of time, appropriate medicine and a team to plan every aspect of their training, diet, and lives? The strongmen of the public world could probably come surprisingly close. And one must remember, those enormous specimens couldn’t cheat their way around injury like the men of SOR could. If that restriction were removed…

One got a Warhorse, or a Baseball. And these days, a Righteous, too. It wasn’t all upside, of course. Beyond the enormous demands of nutrition and the relentless body growth came all the inconvenience that entailed. This was particularly consequential for the EV-MASS techs, who were constantly re-working or periodically re-fabricating the suit’s components and layers from scratch. And finally, all the growth and change meant that, every quarter or so, the teams needed full body measurements taken in painfully intimate detail.

They started with a relaxed full-body laser scan. Then they directed the men through an arduous routine of full-body motion much like they were a gymnast, bodybuilder, or perhaps a vain party boy (Blaczynski in particular made light of this ritual) but with the purpose of recording how the men’s muscles moved and bunched in concert. They took detailed measurements of every conceivable body part from every angle in every state of relaxed and flexed, all to ensure the more-than-skin tight undersuit and body-smashing midsuit perfectly conformed to the men’s anatomy, and would move correctly as they moved.

Firth enjoyed this bit just as much as Blaczynski did. The giant Aggressor was probably the leanest man on the team and it showed, with all of his muscles shaped and lined like a bodybuilder preparing for competition. Firth was shamelessly egotistical about showing off—all the men were to varying degrees—but he was both very cocky and very good-humored about it all, even if his enormous and impressive musculature was maybe not quite as model-perfect and magazine-cover pretty as some of the others.

His copious body hair probably didn’t help, either. But manscaping was totally out of the question so he’d just have to live with it. Let Blac and Sikes have their flawlessly symmetric abs. Firth looked damn good too, and he was bigger and stronger in every measure and liked it that way. If you lined up everyone and compared? Everyone had their high points but Firth was the best overall.

Except for Adam. That stumpy shit’s body was just so fucking perfect despite his absolute stocky hugeness, that he didn’t really count in the first place. Nobody surpassed or even equaled his body in any way: speed, endurance, toughness, strength, symmetry or aesthetics…anything. The perfect fucker.

And yes, the men’s very favorite measurement was also frequently repeated, much to Kovač’s annoyance and the Beef Trio’s increasingly smug and bemused views on the entire subject. Sadly—or happily, depending on one’s viewpoint—given how the Crue-D affected the rest of the body it was only prudent to ensure every critical measurement remained current. What were the results? Only Kovač knew the overall trend for certain, and the suit techs of course knew their men, but whatever the numbers were, nobody was telling.

Funny, then, how the female barracks gossip seemed to know exactly what details were felt pertinent to the rumor mill’s goals. The weekend after Measurement Day generally proved a satisfying adventure for everyone.

Firth personally found the entire thing hilarious. For as much shit as the rest of the dudes gave the Beef Trio about their blessings, the other bros were awfully protective about their own. Which was silly, really; none of them had any secrets between each other, given the close proximity of their living and the nature of life in the combat arms. And none of them were exactly petite to begin with. They had nothing to be ashamed of! ‘Course, Firth was tied for top dog with ‘Horse so maybe it didn’t bother him so much. Whatever. ‘Horse was the one dude in the whole world Firth didn’t mind a loss or tie with in any contest. Maybe Blac, too. Yeah. Blac was good people.

But that did motivate Firth to lift harder and eat bigger. He was convinced he would finally “win” one day against the shortstack freak and finally outlift him. Firth couldn’t wait! He’d celebrate, too. Maybe make ‘Horse the perfect steak dinner. Yeah! And afterwards he’d drag the boy out to a really fine strip club. He’d take his girl, too! Someone’s gotta educate those two, after all.

Firth was extremely fond of them both in his own hypermasculine way of things. He was so lucky to have such good friends!

The final measurement taken was generally their mass and its distribution. This was critically important because the balance of their gear changed as their weight increased and their centers of gravity shifted. Getting weighed was, consequently, not a particularly simple process, but even here the men could make a game of it. What better way to endure an embarrassing situation than by making light of it? Firth certainly did. He pranced his way up to the stations with all the cocky showmanship of a pro wrestler peacocking for his fans.

First, he sauntered over and squeezed himself onto a medical-grade digital scale under Earth gravity. The platform was clearly sized for extremely large and obese people and yet it was simply too small to accommodate either his enormous feet or the epic mass they bore. It creaked loudly under his weight and flat refused to report his weight: the display showed EEEE. He smirked at it and mugged for the rolling-eye amusement of his techs.

“Goddamnit,” complained Kovač, “You too? All three of you mutants are bustin’ outta my gear!” She shook her head, “Guess we’ll need to find a better scale to weigh you three…” The variable-G pad could of course calculate their mass based on their motion and reactions, but that was hardly ideal.

Firth smirked. Just the idea of being too much for any mortal scale filled with him with smug giggles and silly self-congratulatory happiness.

“Hey, congrats dude, welcome back to the big boy’s club!” Adam delivered a painfully loud and congratulatory bit of back-slapping macho affection, which caused Christian to stumble off the tortured scale and grumble good-naturedly. ‘Horse and ‘Base were best bros with Righteous and together they were the undisputed, unapologetic alpha-meatheads on a team filled with gym rats.

“Eh, it’s just a number.” Firth was not a modest man but he did try to keep himself in check, at least a little. “Well, okay, I don’t get a number anymore, heh. But anyway what matters are the speed trials and I’m still the fastest.”

“And your lifts are way better lately. Time to upgrade you to heavier armor!”

“Heh,” he gave a smug little smirk, “Yup. Just starting to beat ‘Base’s lifts now. Feels good!” He pulled John into a crushingly tight bro-hug and nuzzled affectionately. “And if you both hadn’t helped I’d would’t be here. Thanks!”

“Heh.” The three had long suspected Baseball would eventually be left behind in the strength game. He simply did not have the same fanatical motivation to continuously push his limits, at least not quite as hard as the other two. Happily he bore no ill will or jealousy. He could still keep up and he was still stronger and faster than the rest of the team by far; he had to be, as large as the men were growing these days. And he was a damn good medic, after all, and Adam insisted he was the best there was. Whether that was true or not…it was a warming thought, and one Adam held genuinely.

Meanwhile Firth moved on to the variable-G pad, which was designed to locate and measure one’s center of gravity. The techs applied retroreflective stickers along all his major joints and key landmarks on his torso, head, and extremities, making quick work of a surprisingly precision-oriented job. But for Firth, his work was just beginning. It would be an awkward thirty minutes of ridiculous birthday suit prancing in an unstable high-gravity field and a shifting floor, all to force him to balance aggressively against the competing forces on his body. It wasn’t necessarily pleasant for most people; the unprepared could find themselves violently dizzy in a matter of seconds. And it wasn’t easy. The men half-joked it was the hardest workout they had outside of skin-rules Gravball.

All the men loved it, especially the Aggressors. Nothing else demanded so much self-awareness and constant, fully-body tension just to stay upright. But the resulting measurements were fantastically precise and would be used to fine-tune the equipment positioning on his revised suit, and perhaps slightly redistribute his protective armor. Balance was king for a Spaceborne operator, and that went triply so for an Aggressor.

“Step on over, ‘Pony, I need to get your gross measurements.” Kovač gave Arés a little smirk, and he blushed in response and grinned his goofy puppy-dog smile. “You need to perform for me!” Firth chuckled under his breath, happy to see the two interacting so happily.

Adam decided to have some fun. He too had stripped down and endured the preliminary measurements by the techs, laughing and joking all the while, and decided to troll Kovač a little.

“Hey, I’m already buck naked and now you get to poke and prod me. You enjoy this, don’t you?”

“Damn right I do. I always said left beef was best beef—Goddamnit, ‘Horse.” Her joke trailed off as Adam squeezed onto the scale, wrapping his oversized feet over all its edges simultaneously. The poor scale squealed alarmingly as it took his weight; he was considerably heavier than Firth and everyone knew it. He grinned an evil grin, knowing full well it wouldn’t show anything useful. The scale’s EEEE stared accusingly at its tormentor, as if begging him to step off and show some mercy. He didn’t. Adam looked at the screen and grinned huge and smug, obviously proud of his achievement. Kovač sighed in annoyance.

She quickly recovered her wits, rolled her eyes, and chuckled in faint disbelief. “Good God man, it sounds like it’s gonna explode! I guess you’re still the biggest fucker around.”

In response Adam grinned bigger, then flexed and alternately roll-bounced his gigantic pecs, earning a giggle and another friendly insult. Adam was feeling particularly trolly that day, with his display tattoo scrolling various ego-boosting fake messages like “My face is up here” with an arrow pointing up, or “Choking hazard” with an arrow pointing down.

He wasn’t really that kind of personality but sometimes he enjoyed playing one.

“Beat that, Firth!” He loudly slapped his chest with enough force to break a smaller man’s bones, flexed his bowling-ball sized arm and then slapped that too. “I’m still king shit!”

Firth grinned wolfishly. “Gimme time, shortstack. I’ll get ‘ya yet.”

Kovač chuckled along with everyone else. But then she gave ‘Horse an evaluating glance. “I gotta say, you don’t look anywhere near as big as you actually are. You look like you should be maybe half as heavy.”

The men all sniggered but Warhorse only grinned. And it was true. Despite his mind-boggling size and titanic appearance, he and the rest of the Beef Trio simply did not look like they massed enough to confound a scale with a four-digit screen. All the men of SOR were like this to varying degrees, but Adam was far and away the most extreme example. His muscles were quite literally more solid than hardwood, even totally relaxed, and a crushing hug from him was much like one from a warm and sweaty marble statue.

Nothing drove that point home quite like a recent incident at Rooney’s. One of the locals—big, burly, and utterly plastered—took a strong and inexplicable dislike to Adam and without any warning, punched him right in the gut. There was a very loud smack followed by a pained expression, then tears, as the man shattered his fist against Adam’s iron-hard abs. The idiot needed reconstructive surgery and a month to recover. He couldn’t have done more damage to himself if he’d punched a concrete wall.

Warhorse, for his part, was caught completely unaware. But given the man’s inexplicable aggression, the resulting self-injury, and the perverse ego-boost Adam got from the incident? He wasn’t inclined to press charges, especially since he wasn’t even flexing. Karma had been served.

He nodded happily. “Yup! Dad always told me I’m a dense motherfucker!”

Kovač’s laughing grin was all the reward he needed. He flexed a little more in his happy, cartoonish display of male bravado to the jeers and cheers of everyone present. But as usual he had trouble containing his exuberant energy. In short order he was up on his toes and bouncing as he showed off for his friends, encouraged by their good-natured taunts.

Sadly, the motion caused by his peacocking was too much for the scale to bear. It groaned, the EEEE melted into a half-broken mess as the electronics inside gave a dying gasp, then there was a loud snap as something within blew apart under the stress. There was a very brief pause, then Adam fell about a quarter-inch as the device effectively disintegrated beneath his mass.

Everyone in the room paused and looked over at the weigh station in the pregnant silence. Kovač looked at her ruined scale, then at Adam’s slightly mortified face.

She burst out laughing, and so did everyone else, even Adam.

“Look at that, my ‘Pony’s all grown up!” She sighed, “Well, I suppose we’ll need to find something more appropriate for you Lads. I wonder what—“

“Get a cattle scale.” Murray, as always, had the sharpest wit.

Another round of laughing. Adam grinned, red-ear embarrassed yet a bit proud, perhaps, but such was the reality of his job. When absolute strength was far and away the overriding qualification, mass became the price. And by extension, clothing, destroyed furniture, care when entering elevators or rickety old houses…

No one ever said it was easy being big.

Shortly thereafter
Operator’s Barracks

Corporal Faarek of Clan Whitecrest

“Daar! I brought you something!”

A brute of a creature came bounding around the corner with his best cross-species friend on his heels. Seeing a creature as big and heavy as Stainless come bounding along on all four paws was an amusingly terrifying thought. Fortunately, everyone here were friends.

But enough about Bozo. He was only a dog and meant no harm. Daar, on the other hand, was heavier, stronger, and apt to pounce, especially given Faarek’s slightly tenuous relationship with the massive…creature. While on friendly terms, their previous conflict left Daar a little mindful of their mild rivalry, and inclined to tease slightly more aggressively, or perhaps to wrestle just a bit more enthusiastically at every opportunity.

In fact, the growl and friendly-aggressive set of his teeth suggested a tackle was likely, until he sniffed the air.

“Wait. WAIT.” He skidded to a halt and bounded upright. “Is that Nava?”

“Yes. Fresh from the butcher, too.”

Daar whined a bit out of pure happiness. “Thank you! Let’s go cook some right now!” He bound over to the kitchen in four efficient gallops, slinking down to all four paws and then back upright almost like a sapient fluid. Faarek couldn’t help but chitter happily; Daar was so very easy to please.

“Maybe we should try it in a human stir-fry? Yeah!”

Faarek helped the big brute cook.

“Hey, ‘Horse! Try this.” Daar offered a chunk of white meat on a stick.

“Yuh?” Adam took the offered food, sniffed and examined it carefully, took a little nibble…“Hey, this is great! What is it? Something like a scallop?”

“Nava cutlets marinated in…what did we use?”

“We improvised,” said Faarek. “The traditional sooba paste wasn’t available. Sooba is, uh, maybe something like a teriyaki? And you already had teriyaki sauce on-hand, so we tried that.”

Adam swallowed his bite and grinned, “Well, it works! What’s a Nava?”

Regaari answered. “It is the reproductive form of an insect we breed for food purposes. A single fertilized female transforms into a massive Nava grub. It grows to a dozen kilograms or so and when it reaches the critical mass, tens of thousands of individual larva nucleate within and eat their way through the female, then consume her utterly. Right before that happens, we harvest the Nava.”

“Messy work, too, especially when they start to slough off the superbody.” Daar shook his head at the memory. “Moving those pallets around all day was just super, super gross. And smelly. And gooey, too.”

Regaari duck-nodded. “I can imagine. They go bad quickly, don’t they?”

Daar growled. “The worst is when you’re not quick enough getting to the farm and they pop. Pus and flies everywhere.” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “So…yeah, that was my fourth-grossest Job.”

Remarkably, nobody bothered to ask what could possibly be worse.

Adam, meanwhile, could not contain himself. “Wait. So…that’s a bug.”

“Loosely, yes.”

“And they eat their way out of their host.”

“After a fashion.”

Adam blanched and contemplated the remaining meat on his stick. He handed it to Daar. “Uh, thanks…you finish it.”

“Wh—don’t you like it?” Daar seemed slightly crestfallen.

“No, it was fine! I just…dude, it’s fucking parasitic bugs.” He shuddered at the thought.

“Naw, it’s healthy protein! Nice nutty flavor, too. It’s only ‘parasitic bugs’ once they’ve grown up, I think?” Daar told him. “And I’ve seen human food that’s gone bad. All that green…fur…”

There was a distinct shudder amongst the Gaoians.

“And the smell,” remarked Faarek. “Just awful.”

“Dude…we don’t eat moldy food!”

“Bleu cheese,” Regaari observed. Every pair of Gaoian ears in the room flattened involuntarily.

“…Fine. Okay. So you don’t eat Bleu cheese, and I don’t eat…bugs.”

“Fine by me.” Regaari took the stick, popped it into his mouth, and stripped the morsels from it with obvious relish. “Mmm!” He chewed luxuriantly while Warhorse dry-heaved.

“…Imma leave you guys to it. Make sure you clean up. Everything.” He left to spread the warning.

Bozo didn’t seem to care. The smells had him begging from a respectful distance during the entire preparation. The three Brothers looked at each other and the large pile of cutlets they’d prepared, shrugged, and shared a taste of home while Bozo cleaned the pans.

Humans had strange taste in food.

As soon as Adam left, Regaari quirked his eyebrow at Daar, who sighed dramatically. “Fine. You win. What’s your price?”

“Oh, that’s easy. You’re gonna help me leave our mark on Sharman.”


Regaari flashed a wicked smile. “Yes, but not yet. We will wait until after they run us through their advanced climbing course.”

12y 9m AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean

Champion and Sergeant Daar of Clan Stoneback

Advanced training progressed very quickly. Both Stoneback and Whitecrest possessed active warrior and soldering traditions and that proved critical, since it gave them a strong aptitude for the tasks at hand. And all the Brothers were, of course, effectively the very best Gao had to offer, each in their own ways.

Whitecrest were the consummate problem solvers and masters of tactics and deep perception. Their minds were every bit their greatest weapon, and they had their now greatly improved bodies to back their thoughts and stratagems with force and skill.

And if that was not enough? Daar, the pinnacle Stoneback, a supremely physical being by either Human or Gaoian standard, stood with them. He may not have possessed the deeply analytical and clever mind of a Whitecrest but he was far from stupid. He consistently showed a cunning and an intelligence the humans found impressive. Book smart? Absolutely not. But give him a practical task or problem and he would amaze. He was a born engineer and took to his studies with relish, rapidly working his way through the many practical exercises and scenarios almost as fast as Sikes could recall or devise.

He knew the men by name, now. They delayed the briefing as long as they could but, alas, given the environment and the nature of the training, they could not hold out forever. When he had finally received the DEEP RELIC briefing it was one-on-one with Powell and Vandenberg. It affected him deeply, and personally, for he now understood the nature of his intelligence assignment and what it may have cost him, had his cover been blown. That of course didn’t even consider the cost to his people that would have eventually fallen, if the Humans did not survive.

It made for a quiet evening. Daar sat on the bed with Rebar as they watched videos in silence. Not even stupid cats could cheer the two males. Eventually Rebar gave up, put his tablet away, pulled off his shirt and shorts, and made for bed. Daar quietly curled up on his favorite spot, which was right at the foot of the bed, against the wall.



There was a very long pause. “Why did you share this with us?”

If one struggled mightily, it would be difficult to ask a more loaded question.

Vandenberg sighed and turned over to face Daar. “Honestly? This ain’t necessarily a popular opinion, ‘kay? But, uh…you’re the only species worthy of it. I mean, who else?” He scoffed, “All the rest o’ galactic life, ‘cept maybe the Celzi, they’re, uh, either too alien or too useless, or too compromised. An’ the Celzi, well, they’re prol’ly too violent, too.”

“So…we’re your last resort, then.”

“Wh—no! Dude, we see the best of us in you. You…okay. We’re aliens, right? But here we are, sleeping in the same goddamned bed together. Why? Because we like you. That ain’t no accident, and there ain’t no other species out there that matches up as well as we do. And, um…” he groped for words, “I don’t think we’d really learn as much from anyone else, either.”

Daar imitated a human gesture and raised an eyebrow. “After everything you’ve showed us that’s hard to believe.”

“Well, you showed me how to flip a truck!” He grinned and pulled Daar into a hug.

Daar produced a frighteningly deep, rumbling chitter. “That hardly counts as revolutionary.”

“Maybe not. ‘Know what it showed us? A training deficiency. We Defenders, we’re all about altering the terrain to our advantage, right? Be it space or land. A lotta times that’s with tech and explosives or whatever. But honestly? Most of the times, it’s just muscle power.”

Daar pointed out, “You’re way stronger than me!”

“So? We ain’t being good at it if we’re not thinking about the process of work, are we? I mean, most of what we do is pushing, pulling, punching, hauling, digging, smashing…it’s a lot of work. And, y’know? You were right. You saw immediately we were relying too much on being strong and not enough on being smart. We needed someone like you, who was trained since forever to be both. Make sense?”

“I suppose…”

“Naw, don’t suppose, dude. Know. And that right there? That’s just the first thing you taught me on the first fuckin’ day we met. Watching y’all learn has taught us as much as we’ve been teachin’ you. Trust me. We sometimes feel like we’re getting the better end of the deal outta this.”


“Yeah really. C’mere.” A quick noogie and an affectionate neck scritch communicated more than words ever could. “We fuckin’ love ‘ya guys, man. And that means something. It’s gotta, right?”

“…I suppose.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced.

“Okay.” Rebar knew enough to let it ride, for the moment, “Let’s get some sleep. Just…think about that. You don’t gotta believe me, but watch us tomorrow, man. See if I ain’t right.”

Rebar rolled over to sleep, ending the conversation. “Goodnight buddy.”

“Goodnight.” Daar curled up into a ball, tucked his nose under his tail, grumbled a bit, and followed Rebar to dreamland.

12y, 9m, 3w
After graduation

Master Sergeant Harry (Rebar) Vandenberg

“We have you literally red-handed.” Rebar gave the angriest look he could muster.

“Pawed. Whitecrest have hands like yours. Stoneback, we have paws.”

He held up his massive mitts to illustrate the difference. While they were, indeed, still hand-shaped, and had proper digits and opposable thumbs, the construction was vastly more rugged and calloused well beyond the point that simple hard work could induce. That gave them a frankly awe-inspiring toughness and a grip strength to rival any man on the team. The tradeoff was an almost comically non-existent sense of touch, along with a slightly clumsy precision grip that relied heavily on his claw tips. Calling those meathooks ‘hands’ was clearly inappropriate.

Regaari chimed in. “And anyway, it was good training. We rely too much on claws for climbing and honestly? Whitecrest never considered it a utility skill to teach all our Brothers. We do now.”

“Plus,” added Daar, “You already have your giant castle up there and Adam and John have their little Feet everywhere, and then there’s that hidden dagger you can only see from on top anyway. You can’t tell me we’re wrong.” By now Daar had learned that Rebar’s very worst Motivations for pranks and such were generally benign.

Unpleasant, yes. But not ultimately so terrible as to dissuade anyone from hijinks. Putting their mark on the most important human installation there was? Totally worth it.

Vandenberg knew they knew, of course, and he couldn’t maintain his scowl. “Oh, I’m not mad.” Quite the opposite, really. “Personally I think it’s pretty awesome. I take it those are Whitecrest and Stoneback logos?”

“I think ‘mon’ would be a better term,” said Regaari. “A Clan’s symbol is always reproducible with a single color and avoids intricate detail.”

Rebar stroked his chin. “I gotta admit, they’re pretty. I assume the one with the big mohawk is Whitecrest?”

“The crescent moon atop a stylized Gaoian head.” Regaari corrected him. “The symbology is elaborate. Light the darkness, but do not reveal too much…”

“It’s pretty abstract…but I see it, now. Stoneback’s is very different.”

“Our name and motto in our ancient Clan script, inside a diamond,” said Daar. “The diamond is the traditional shape of a battle flag.”

“What’s the motto?”

“Can’t tell you, sorry.”

Rebar raised his eyebrow at that. “Serious?”

“Part of the Rites. It’s a tradition of the very most ancient Clans.”

“He won’t tell me and we’re Cousins. And Brothers, now.” Regaari saw Vandenberg’s look, “Yes, I know the implications. Call it a less than perfect translation and leave all incestuous possibilities out, please.”

“Heh, okay.” Rebar chuckled and shook his head.

“Anyway, Whitecrest is a very modern Clan and came long after those traditions. We’re less than a hundred years old. Stoneback? They’re—”

“At least fifteen thousand years old, if our archeology is any good.” Daar rumbled, proudly.

Rebar whistled. “…Man. Dude, my home country is only, like, two hundred and fifty years old. Fifteen thousand is… I don’t think we had writing back then. Or even the wheel.”

“Regaari, didn’t the unified script come out around five thousand years ago?”

“About that, yeah.”

“Wow. That’s really, like, past my scale. We forget how young we are, y’know?”

“We do not.” There was a loaded humor in the statement, a suggestion of some of the old bitterness Regaari once felt towards the humans and their manifestly impressive accomplishments in such a short history. He’d since moved on to rueful resignation and acceptance.

It never failed to make the humans uncomfortable, either. Regaari watched with some small satisfaction as Rebar squirmed a bit in embarrassment.

But only for a moment. “Right. Like I said, I ain’t mad. But see, we had to pay a price for our shenanigans. Need t’convince Admiral Knight they should stay, yeah? So I’m thinking…Tigger!” This was Daar’s callsign and one he really hated. “You’re in luck! We have one field left that needs to be plowed up and re-sown with new turf. The original Cimbrean stuff is gettin’ all sorts of dead. Why don’t you rig up a harness and git ‘er dun?”

Daar blanched at the order. “That…it must be a hundred hectares!”

“Should keep you busy all week, then. And weren’t you braggin’ just the other day your legs are stronger than anyone on the team? Prove it.”

Daar deflated, already sensing the pain he would be suffering. “Yes, Sergeant First Class.”

“Good boy.” Rebar smirked a little. “This doesn’t excuse you from training, either. Be lucky we’re entering our light rotation.”

“Yes, Sergeant First Class.”

“Now, as for you, Dex,” he fixed Regaari with his death glare. “You’re gonna help. Someone’s gotta sow all that seed and turn all those rows over. You’re welcome to recruit the rest of your Brothers…”

A trap. It was, of course, a full-team effort to get the enormous mons painted overnight, but only those two had literal red hands (or paws) to show for it. Since Rebar couldn’t prove anything…

“I’ll manage, Sergeant First Class.”

Vandenberg nodded approvingly. “Good. I may send them out anyway, but the responsibility is yours. Now, the way I see it, your week starts tomorrow, so you may as well spend the weekend gettin’ yer’ harness rigged, Daar.” He paused, “I’ll, uh…help you get it rigged. And maybe I’ll help get you started, too. ‘Kay?”

That was the important thing about Motivation. It needed to ride a fine line between “awful” and “punishment.” Generally speaking, this meant the NCO, if he was a good NCO, would suffer along with the Motivated men, at least a little.

Rebar was a very good NCO.

“Yes, Sergeant First Class.” They said it in unison.

“Good, off you go.” They turned to leave.

At the last moment, a thought struck Vandenberg. “WAIT. You said something about a giant dagger?”

“…Yes. Part of the landscaping. You can only see it from on top of the water tower.”

“Hmm.” Rebar stroked his chin. “How long has it been here?”

“How should we know?”

“Fair ‘nuff. ‘Sides, I know exactly whodunit…dismissed.”

They parted ways, Dexter and Tigger without any particular enthusiasm. Rebar, on the other hand, stormed up to the barracks.


It was remarkable how quickly the barracks drained of any Human or Gaoian not in the immediate line of fire. Any other man in the SOR would have obeyed with an air of trepidation or resignation. Murray on the other hand seemed more confused in his polite, mild way.

“Yes, Sergeant First Class?”

Vandenberg studied the big Scot for a moment.

“I have a bit of a pickle and I think you’re just the man to help me out.” He grinned grimly, “Seems someone quite enthusiastic about daggers and subtlety did a bit of landscaping a while ago. I wonder who that could be?”

“I can certainly see why you would come to me, Sergeant First Class.”

“Indeed. Let’s consider our options, shall we? Could it have been Righteous? …Nah. It’s only his adopted symbol, for one, and that kinda quiet little thing just ain’t his style. Would you agree, Colour Sergeant?”

“A fair and reasonable assessment, Sergeant First Class.”

“See, I thought so.” Rebar flashed a bit of a grin; both men knew what was coming but that wouldn’t stop them from enjoying the play. “Could it possibly have been Stainless? Now, that would be dangerous for me to go accusing my superior officer of disobeying his own orders, don’t you think?”

“That it would, Sergeant First Class, though may I ask which order specifically you’re referring to?”

“Oh, our very favorite, the ‘General order and discipline’ clause. Nice little rule. Makes it real easy to Motivate anyone being a horse’s ass. Particularly, say, when Admiral Knight inevitably learns of this. I just know he’d be tickled pink by the surprise landscaping, wouldn’t he?”

“I’ve always considered the Admiral to be a man with a fine sense of humour, Sergeant First Class.”

“Hmm. Humor from officers, see, that terrifies me. Must be an American thing. Anyhow, we haven’t gone through all the candidates! There’s also Starfall to consider. But… well, I just can’t see him exercising that level of… what’s the word… foresight?”

“As you say, Sergeant First Class.”

“Now, that I think gives some progress! Who else could it be… suggestions?”

“Our list of candidates is definitely getting limited, Sergeant First Class.”

“Hmm, yes indeed. Tell you what, we’re getting big into cross-training these days, yeah? And I always think better after a little Motivation in the gym, don’t you? Go and get changed. We can think about that list while we pump some iron. We’ll kill two birds with one stone! Oh, and I’d strongly suggest you bring your Crude, too. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on any of the Defender experience.”

“Yes, Sergeant First Class.” Murray took the Motivation with apparent good humor, which suggested he’d got away with it for more than long enough to balm his ego.

“Oh, and Murray?”

“Yes, Sergeant First Class?”

“It’s leg day.”

That deflated him. “…Right you are, Sergeant First Class.” He stalked off to change, and perhaps to fortify his mental resolve.

Rebar, on the other hand, ambled over to check on Daar. He was in their tool shed with the two-furrow plow, his harness, some chain, and some eyelets. He was just contemplating the TIG welder—and how he might fit the welding mask over his snout—when Vandenberg arrived.

“Hey bro, put that down for a bit. We got a Scotsman to train.”

Daar growled happily and followed.