Chapter 4: Crawl
11y, 2m AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
Indoc: Day One
Senior Brother Regaari (Dexter) of Clan Whitecrest
“Remember Brothers, the humans are actually quite friendly but I am told this will be…stressful. Stressful and very exhausting. Do the Clan proud, Brothers. Do not fail.”
And he wasn’t wrong. He and ten of the most elite of Clan Whitecrest had been hand-picked by the senior Fathers (and approved by Stainless) for the first ever Partnership Indoctrination Course. The humans had insisted on the the six-month program over vigorous protests. “You will see,” came the cryptic reply. All of this was preliminaries before the serious training began. To Regaari, it seemed a waste of time. Were they already not the best Gao had to offer?
Perhaps. But they were not nearly good enough, which the humans demonstrated immediately.
The transport vehicle stopped in front of HMS Sharman very early in the morning. Stainless climbed on board in full service dress uniform and exchanged words with the driver, and Regaari was about to state a friendly greeting when—
“All of you lot, get the fook offa my fookin bus! Quickly!”
“I DID NOT GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO SPEAK!” His face snarled in anger, the very incarnation of rage. “GO GO GO!”
Hurriedly they complied. “LINE UP! ON THE FEET!” They each found a green pair of human feet painted on the exercise pad located in the middle of a large field filled with sand. The feet were much larger than their own, of course, but the idea was obvious. He stood at the Gaoian version of attention as did the rest of his Brothers.
Stainless saw, nodded in approval, and stalked back and forth in front of them like a true predator born, studying his prey. “Today we give you summat to remember an’ a story to tell yer cubs. Hell, I bet we lose two of you before my Protectors are done wi’ their first round! WARHORSE! BASEBALL! FRONT AND CENTER!”
Regaari saw them come charging from the barracks with absolutely blinding speed across the obviously quite deep sand. They covered a huge distance with each bound across the sand and through the strong gravity, practically bouncing across the treacherous surface. In just a handful of those flying strides they reached Stainless and stopped instantly and at attention less than a meter in front of him. Their enormous arms snapped up in synchronicity with crisp, lightning-quick precision and rendered a salute. As one they bellowed, “SIR! PROTECTORS REPORT AS ORDERED!”
Regaari had to blink in disbelief, and his fellow Brothers chittered quietly in both astonishment and no small amount of fear. Both Warhorse and Baseball stood before them clad only in a small pair of exercise shorts and a tight-fitting brown t-shirt with their callsigns stenciled across in faded black letters. It was exactly the same clothing he had seen the men wear on the Caledonia. And both men were obviously bigger: significantly larger in fact, and clearly a good deal heavier than they were just over a year ago. The shirt and shorts seemed much tighter on them, the sleeves not even covering their shoulders and the bottom of their shirts just barely reaching down to their shorts. The effect was more intimidating than if they had worn no shirt at all.
“At ease, lads.” Both men crisply stood to the slightly less formal position and examined the Gaoian Brothers like a Gricka might examine a particularly large Dizi rat. “What do you think of these Gaoians?”
Warhorse sized them up, cold and calculating. “I think there’s potential here.” He was the shorter and broader of the two. His build favored raw power and radiated that fact like no other being any of the Brothers had ever seen. Regaari could already smell their anxiety building.
Baseball was less charitable. “I think they’ve got a lot to prove.” Though not nearly as massive as Warhorse, Baseball was still enormous. His build was much taller and rangier, his powerful bulk stretched across those long bones in a way that suggested incredible athleticism edged out over absolute strength. His almost-black skin gave added contrast to it all and had the Brothers nervously glancing between the two. Regaari didn’t know which was the more intimidating.
“Dismissed.” Another salute, and they charged off with that same blinding, unbelievable speed across the sand. Their prompt and utter obedience was impressive. Most of the brothers noticed and drew their attention to Stainless instead. The nervous scent grew stronger.
“Let me make proper introductions. For now, you may call me Stainless. I am the commander of the Spaceborne Operations Regiment. You will, perhaps, get to know me and my men by name, but that time is not now. You are here to be evaluated for a potential cross-species initiative, and there we have a problem. We need to know what you are capable of, see? Your assurances will not suffice.
“To that end we have studied your culture, your physiology, your psychology, and your training, such as you will reveal. And now we will test you and perhaps show you summat you din’t think ‘ya could do. Now, first things first. Who is the leader?”
Regaari raised his voice, trying to match the tone that Warhorse had used. “I AM, SIR.”
“Excellent. What is your rank, Regaari?”
“Officer. We do not have rank like your system. Sir.”
“No rank? Outstanding. You are now a Sergeant. Who is next in command?”
No immediate answer was forthcoming. This did not please Stainless. He suddenly appeared in front of and looming over Regaari, showing a speed to rival the Protectors and an agility far surpassing. I ASKED YOU A QUESTION! WHO IS YOUR SECOND?!”
Regaari barely blinked and there he was, huge, terrifyingly powerful, so fast his eyes couldn’t follow. He even smelled like death and power and rage incarnate, far more vividly than many of the tales of his cubhood may have described. Intellectually? He knew he was safe. Stainless was a good and friendly man. But Regaari had never seen this side of Stainless before. Deep down, where instincts and training lie? For the first time in many years, Regaari was frightened.
With great effort he maintained composure. “…FAAREK, SIR.” Regaari had not in fact previously assigned one, but he suspected that this answer would only have further displeased Stainless, and so he selected the most experienced and level-headed of the Brothers.
“OUT-FOOKIN’-STANDING. He is now a Corporal. The rest of your men are now Privates. You may promote them to Lance Corporal on leadership potential and merit. My men will advise you on this.”
He paused, stepped back, and examined the Gaoians for a long moment. They maintained their rigid position of attention, not moving, twitching, or chittering. Stainless approved.
“Good. Now that is out of the way, let us cover the remaining formalities. You will rise every morning and participate in whatever training is required. You will obey all given orders exactly, promptly, and without hesitation or question. You will not quit until you are relieved. You will make every effort to continue, no matter how much it hurts or how tired you may be. That is the mantra of SOR, more or less. You must NEVER. GIVE. UP. Am I understood?”
There was a general susurrus of agreement.
”I CANNOT HEAR YOU! AM. I. UNDERSTOOD?!”
The Gaoians were not stupid or untrained, and so their second response was a unified and loud “YES SIR,” rendered in the Gaoian tongue. Stainless grunted in satisfaction.
“Excellent.” At that moment Warhorse and Baseball reappeared dragging a sled filled with many things. “And now my lads are bringing the toys. Enjoy. Warhorse! These men are yours.”
Regaari’s ears were sharp enough to hear the murmured exchange between the three humans as Stainless departed. He lowered his voice. “For God’s sake lads, don’t go easy on them. For their own good. Clear?”
Warhorse muttered back in his deep voice, “Wasn’t planning on it, sir.”
And he didn’t.
It was, at first, easier than they had expected. But that did not last for long. Under Warhorse’s almost cruel and perceptive eye they ramped up the difficulty of everything until Regaari and his brothers were struggling, and at that point they exercised for hour upon hour upon hour, all under the cruel Earth-level gravity, the mercifully cold water spray, and in the itchy, horrible, heavy, grasping sand. Potable water and electrolytes were provided and plentiful, but food was not permitted, not until they were practically dead Gaoians walking.
The only thing that kept them motivated was their instructors. They were stern, terrifying, relentless, and utterly without mercy. Worse? They exercised right along with them—with enormous weighted packs added—and nothing the Brothers were put through fazed the Protectors. At all. It seemed…routine. As if this was something they might do on a lazy day out of boredom.
Regaari would likely have resented it, had he been in any kind of state to think.
Then they ate, and that meal was so large and rich they felt as if they would burst. Then some of that human “jogging,” and that was by far the most painfully exhausting and debilitating exercise any of them had ever experienced. Both Warhorse and Baseball quite literally ran circles around the Gaoians as they jogged. It was infuriating and humiliating. In fact they seemed to enjoy themselves!
One of his Brothers apparently could not take the implied insult, lost his discipline and chittered hatefully. This was noticed immediately and earned the Brothers an hour of “flutter-kicks” in the sand while the giant humans sprayed water at their faces.
“Not familiar with group discipline? We find it a useful motivational tool. Disrespect any of your instructors at any time, for any reason, and this is the kind of thing that happens. Fun, huh?”
Those were even worse than the “jogging.”
Then more calisthenics. Then weight training. Then another meal. And that was only the first half of the first day. There was a brief sports evaluation by the medics, one that was rough and no-nonsense but very thorough. Satisfied everyone was whole, the training resumed, and now it was even worse. It mercifully came to an end with the sunset, and the Gaoians dragged themselves toward the barracks in full-body agony, too tired to waste energy complaining.
This was not basic training, of course, so some dignity was permitted. But there wasn’t much space available. HMS Sharman was, after all, a small installation, and one-on-one monitoring was critical for the “crawl” phase of training, so the solution was to set up mats and shared spaces with the SOR.
To the surprise of the other Gaoians, by the time they arrived at the barracks broken and exhausted, the humans’ moods had changed substantially. They weren’t in training mode any longer. Now they were concerned for the well-being of their guests and made every effort to accommodate. Regaari had worried about how the men and his Brothers would get along but as it turns out Warhorse had thought ahead for this.
“Okay, let’s have a hotwash. How are y’all feeling? You’re probably all hurtin’ so let’s get that all taken care of.” And so sprains were treated, muscles massaged, Crue-D and painkillers given, and joints stretched and properly aligned as necessary. “Okay. Feeling better?” There was a general indication of agreement.
“Good. Here’s the deal. Today? That was about setting expectations. I gotta say we weren’t expecting y’all to perform as well as you did. So well done!” He smiled, genuinely, and that had a profoundly uplifting effect on Regaari and his Brothers. The Deathworlder approved?!
“So here’s the next part. Nobody here likes to be a hardass, y’know? But we gotta keep the quality and standards up and that means we’ve really gotta push you hard. So here’s our promise. We’re only gonna go hard and heavy if you aren’t performing like we know you can. You’re all pros, right? You wouldn’t be Whitecrest’s finest if you couldn’t hack some stress. So if you push yourselves we won’t need to be jerks and we’ll all get along better. Fair deal?”
There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by head-ducking in agreement.
“We understand,” said Regaari, “We will not disappoint, Staff Sergeant Warhorse.”
“Heh, I know you won’t. And just call me ‘Horse, kay? Unless we’re training. Then you best not be anything other than proper or Stainless will be…unhappy.”
“Okay, so let’s get rooms sorted out. Sergeant Regaari, you’ll be sharing a room with me, Corporal Faarek, you’re with Baseball. Everyone else will be on mats in the common area.” He shrugged his huge shoulders, “Sorry guys. Baseball and I are the lowest ranking guys here ‘cuz we’re so young. Everyone else has a lot more time in service. I ain’t about to ask a Sergeant First Class to double up, y’know? I mean, he’d be cool with it, but still.”
He looked at Regaari and Faarek, “We don’t have much space in our rooms but we’ll see what we can set aside. Rank has its privilege. You two we can give a bit more privacy, if you want it. Given how leadership and rank works with us? I’d suggest you take it. You’ll understand why as we progress.” He waited expectantly.
“We…will do as you recommend. I assume my Brothers will be well treated?”
“Of course. Everyone gets the same mat, the same food, everything. You just get some desk space and a lockable door. Trust me, you’ll need it.”
He turned to the Brothers, “You have any medical issues, any at all at any time whatsoever, you tell me or Baseball immediately. Seriously. Today was just a taste and it’s gonna get much harder. Understood?”
A round of agreement followed.
“Good. Now, who’s hungry? I’ve been studying Gaoian nutrition and cooking…”
And so the first several weeks of the “crawl” phase progressed. Every day, they would wake up before sunrise, eat, exercise to within an inch of their lives, then eat and rest and study. Then exercise and eat. Then rest and study. And eat. The pattern would repeat until almost sundown, then they would retire to the barracks, too exhausted to do anything. And eat again.
As promised the difficulty rapidly increased. Warhorse and Baseball had an uncanny ability to push the Brothers just slightly past their failure point and into the realm where pain, time, ego, and mission all blurred into the background. There was only the mindless task and a timeless æon spent executing it. Then they were relieved, given the tiniest reprieve, and immediately set to another task, this one challenging a whole new set of muscles and creating a different symphony of hypnotic pain.
It was hell in exactly the same manner as the Rites of their cubhood, except without any mercy and conducted at the hands of absolute experts. But despite the challenge, or perhaps because it so was similar to things the Brothers had experienced so young, not a single Brother dropped out or was removed from the course. Regaari couldn’t help but be proud.
The newly-arriving humans had a very different experience. They too were well-trained on arrival and were undergoing their own ‘indoc’ program at the hands of the Protectors. But when the Brothers had brief opportunity to compare? The humans were far harsher on their fellows. Their day was just as long but their training was much harder, as evidenced by the loads they carried, the games they played, and the injuries they sustained. The two terrifying Protectors pushed the new humans so much harder, so much more violently, and with such a total lack of restraint the Brothers thought it needlessly cruel. But as they would learn, it was anything but.
“You cannot even imagine the shit we’ve had to handle already. LIEUTENANT COSTELLO! WHY DID YOU STOP KICKING!?” Baseball was clearly displeased. “Do you think the suit will give a shit about your cramping abs?”
“NO, TRAINING SERGEANT!”
A spray of water to the face, “Would you rather have your guts crushed into your head?”
“NO…TRAINING SERGEANT!” He sputtered in reply, this time in obvious pain.
“GOOD! Because the suit will do that if you let it! If you can’t last a few hours out here how can I trust you at my back? I ain’t gonna be happy rescuin’ your ass if you can’t hack it!”
Crushed by his own suit? The brothers chittered nervously about that revelation.
But despite all that the humans were practically fizzing balls of energy in the evening, and much of SOR’s shenanigans had to be directed outside to give the Gaoians time to rest and recover. There they played rugby in the sand with the three new recruits, or perhaps practiced tumbling, or wrestling, or hacky sack, or medicine-dodgeball, or maybe combatives—really anything at all to burn off some of their boundless energy. It was incredible to watch.
Even they couldn’t go forever. On day two, as the Gaoians recovered and the humans calmed, someone suggested Movie Night. It quickly became an every-night experience.
It was inevitable they would eventually watch Guardians of the Galaxy.
“Is this why humans look at us so strangely?” Eleven pairs of humans and Gaoians piled onto and in front of the groaning, recently-reinforced couch in a tight, tangled knot of bodies and friendship. The difficult weeks of training and the natural gregariousness of everyone ensured they would be fast friends.
“It’s one of the reasons. Y’all just look so much like, uh, raccoons and dogs it messes with us.”
Faarek couldn’t resist. “What is a dog?”
The humans all launched into their own highly individual explanations at once, talking animatedly across one another but with undisguised enthusiasm.
A ‘dog,’ as far as Regaari could tell, meant Friendship. Friendship in terms that seemed to transcend the boundaries of language or species. When the Operators had finally calmed down enough to provide a coherent explanation, it turned out that as well as domesticating various species for meat, fabric and other resources, just as Gaoians had done with Nava larvae and a range of other Gaori animals, humans had gone a step beyond and domesticated a fellow apex predator.
The result had originally been an animal that was front-loaded on teeth and protective instincts, but which adored humans and was adored in turn. In recent centuries, the emphasis had shifted to a purely companionship role, and so the once-fearsome guardians had become a branching family tree of assorted little yappy cute things.
Some of them, anyway. Others ‘breeds’ were even more fierce than their wild cousins, and bigger and stronger to boot.
Then there was Bozo, who managed to be both of those extremes at the same time. Bozo was the “official” regimental mascot, whose preferred activity was to sleep on people’s beds, or on the people themselves, or perhaps to bring toys and things for their inspection, or maybe just roll over on his back and wait for his belly to be rubbed. Or play intimidatingly physical games like “fetch” or “tug-o’-war” or “sled pull” or “chase” or “fight.” That too.
“We should probably introduce them to Bozo, I reckon. He’s been gettin’ mighty restless over in the support facility.”
“Is that wise? I mean…he’s a whole lotta dog. And, like, three hundred percent spaz.”
“It’ll be fine! I mean, if our buddies want to.” Snapfire looked at Regaari expectantly.
Hearing that, Regaari asked to meet this Bozo. Righteous ran off to fetch the dog and in he entered…almost thrice the mass of the largest Gaoian present, covered in far too many disturbingly bulgy muscles not unlike the Protectors, a mouth filled with terrifying teeth, paws bigger than Regaari’s own tipped with strong, wicked claws…and all Bozo did was pant and wag his tail back and forth. Plainly, he was equipped with everything he needed to tear the throat out of a Vulza…except the attitude.
Another reflection of Deathworlders, thought Regaari. That something could be so dangerous and harmless at the same time. In no time the great dog climbed up onto the couch and made himself comfortable, yawned a bit, and looked plaintively at Regaari, asking for something.
“What does he want?”
“Dude,” chuckled ‘Horse, “Scratch his ears!” Regaari did. Bozo melted into him and decided this strange fuzzy-people was a good new friend.
“He’s certainly friendly.”
“Mhmm. He is dog. That’s what he do.”
Bozo nuzzled Regaari’s paw, asking for more scritches. Bozo got them. There was something satisfying about his blissful, dopey pant-grin and the way the huge animal’s eyes half closed in pleasure. Regaari scratched, and Bozo was happy, and his tail thumped solidly against Rebar’s chest. Rebar chuckled and scratched the droolmonster’s flank and the thumping increased.
The big dog decided he liked his new fuzzy-people-friend THE MOST and pushed up more solidly against Regaari and snuffled his fur happily. Regaari in turn snuggled deeper into the couch and against Warhorse as they watched the movie. The Protector’s enormous arm came around to give Bozo some scritches as well, enveloping dog and Gaoian in a carefully mediated but firm squeeze. Of course, both Deathworlders could do serious harm to Regaari with little effort, but they seemed to know their size and strength very well. Regaari didn’t mind. He trusted his friends implicitly, even this new sudden-friend he was reasonably certain wasn’t sapient. They smelled friendly, and Bozo also smelled oddly familiar, like a distant cousin from his deep past. All three sighed happily from the firm and friendly physical contact. The movie played.
Shortly thereafter, and to Regaari’s silent indignation, ‘Horse started absent-mindedly scritching him as well, right in the fluffiest part of his chest fur. He debated objecting but…well, who didn’t like a good scratch? It seemed an unconsciously affectionate and perfectly innocent gesture rather than a rude or condescending one, after all…so he relaxed and enjoyed it, and returned the affection with a deeper snuggle. And he wasn’t alone. The men of SOR were quite obviously an intensely physical group, much like Gaoian Brothers; ‘Horse had his legs up and around Rebar’s waist, squeezing tightly and playfully. Rebar in turn rested his arms on those legs and around his Gaoian friend, his own legs wrapped around Righteous who was sitting in front. Baseball sat on ‘Horse’s hips along with Faarek, both leaning against Rebar to their left and Snapfire behind them. Righteous sat on the floor with Starfall and two of the younger Brothers, vigorously snuggling all three and swallowing them up in his mighty arms and legs. The remaining Gaoians were scattered amongst the puppy pile, also wrapped up in hugs and such…all beings present were so physically close and happy, why ruin the mood?
They watched, and they shared, the couch a huge pile of deadly, quiet brotherhood.