Chapter 7: Run
11y, 7m AV
Training grounds, Cimbrean
Beginning of “Run” phase
Monday was a rude reminder of just how arduous their training could be. For everyone, really; the humans had hangovers to overcome and the Gaoians their pleasant rest and heavy food.
Tuesday was much worse.
Admiral Knight’s Office
“Another recruitment delay? What is it this time?”
“Spiraling requirements and budget, of course, The JETS are not turning out to be the ‘low budget’ option the bean counters had hoped for.” Admiral Knight chuckled mirthlessly into his tea.
“‘Course they fookin’ aren’t! We said from the beginnin’ it’d be a difficult qualification. The equipment burden alone…those lads will need to bring everything with them. And they gotta function with that load, too.”
“Indeed. A JETS operator I daresay would be an impressive specimen.”
“Aye. The recruiting challenge is more or less the same as HEAT; we need candidates of essentially the same quality. Only difference, they’re not gonna be on the Crude.” He frowned and considered, “Or at the very least, not training heavily with it. We need very strong men who can survive in the field without support staff. My lads are not that. Their food needs alone…”
Powell fetched a Snickers from his pocket and quickly devoured it without the slightest trace of irony. His constant and unconsciously lightning-quick movements, coupled with his enormous mass and strength, meant his metabolism was an easy match for three very large, fit, active men. And yet despite that he was without question the “daintiest” eater on the team. The other men’s needs vastly outstripped his. The Trio? Lately, they could comfortably outeat anyone.
“Indeed,” noted Knight, who took the wrapper and disposed of it in his deskside trash. “But intelligence, lateral thinking, raw physical ability, aggression…all similar.”
“That seems like a problem.”
“I doubt it. Special operations is filled to the brim with capable men. HEAT’s two biggest recruiting problems as I see it are the Crude itself and the time commitment. For HEAT we’re askin’ smart, capable lads to change their bodies forever, and maybe commit to the mission for the rest of their lives. That’s a big ask. That isn’t so with JETS, it’s an easier sell.”
“I suppose I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“It’s a subject close to my heart and a bloody tricky one. Crude might be like the Spice of Arrakis.”
“…A magic drug that grants incredible abilities…?” Knight mused. “But as I recall, a man dies if they stop taking the Spice. That is emphatically not true with Crue-D.”
“…Isn’t it?” Powell asked. “We don’t know what our old age will be like. How could we? We’ve never encountered a problem like this, yeah? What’s Arés gonna be like in his sixties? The Corti assure us he’ll be fit as his namesake but I don’t trust ‘em.” Powell’s emphasis had all the impressive sneer he could muster.
“It would be disastrously against their interests to anger us like that,” Knight pointed out, to which Powell begrudgingly nodded. “That point was made forcefully during negotiations and they seem to agree. They categorically refuse to sell any more than is necessary to protect the drug’s integrity, and they have assured us that medical support would be available as long as is necessary for every veteran of HEAT.”
“I still don’t trust ‘em any further than one of those little shits could chuck ‘Horse.”
Knight chuckled amiably. “I don’t blame you. Still, all good points.” Knight took an indulgent sip of tea then set the cup down. “There’s also the question of just how big the lads will get. That is bound to have long-term planning consequences. Arés, for example…”
“Aye. He’s so heavy that ordinary scales won’t show his weight and he ain’t slowing down. Not only that, the lad can carry himself, his suit, his gear, and two of the other lads and their suits and gear, and then run with them! Hell, he could do that in supergravity, up a rope, wherever and however we need. Not three years ago he’d’ve struggled with just one of his fellows and they were all much smaller back then, too.” Powell shook his head in amazement. “Did you ever think you’d meet a man so big or strong? Burgess and Firth aren’t unreasonably far behind, either.”
Powell rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw. “Every last one of my lads‘ll be bloody huge, Sir, over and above what they already are, and those three are already redefining what’s possible for a human to do. Especially Firth, maybe. That lad could end up outpacing Warhorse in a few years and not by a little.”
They sat in silence for a moment, thinking. “…And it’s a bloody good thing, too. I’m glad for it.” Powell said, at length.
Knight sipped his tea. “How so?”
“Remember the Red Hunters?”
“How could I not? Ghastly things. But I see where you’re going with this.”
“Ayup. It’s an arms race. And if Firth can be the most dangerous creature to ever live, well, we’ll need it.” Powell grinned slyly, “And there’s summat of a competition going on between those three, which bleeds over to the rest o’ the men. Long as we keep up with their medical needs I think it’s a good thing.”
Knight again pondered and considered his next question carefully. He steepled his fingers and asked, “How far do you think they will go?”
“Depends on the man. Most’ll see slower, steady gains over many years. Some will shoot up quickly and plateau. A rare few will grow like weeds and not stop for years, like the Beef Trio.” He paused to consider his words. “Burgess, I’m not sure he’ll keep going as hard as the other two. He seems content to simply keep pace. He just doesn’t have that extra…whatever it is that Arés and Firth have.”
“And yet if I hadn’t met the other two, Burgess would be the largest man by far I’d ever encountered.”
“Aye. Arés I think will go as far as his frame will let him. He’s not exactly tall by American standards and that may eventually slow him down, though we reckon he’s got at least several more years of heavy growth ahead of him. The lad just keeps growing denser and wider and deeper, and, well…it’s not much so far but we reckon he’s growing taller too. Burgess is showing the same thing. So…maybe Arés won’t slow down. We just don’t know.”
“Aye. Firth? He goes hard at this, well, he might well see the same frame growth that the Beef Brothers are, except he’s already a fookin’ giant. Medical reckons his limiting factor is prob’ly his food intake. Where he stops…we don’t know.”
Knight arched an eyebrow and repeated himself. “…good Lord.”
“Aye. Bettin’ money’s that Firth’ll eventually pack on at least a big fookin’ lad’s difference between ‘em in size and strength, and Arés is already gonna be so fookin’ big it’s terrifyin’ to think where Firth might end up. Assuming, well, a lot o’ things.” Powell considered the question rhetorically. “There’s never been a man in his place so how could we guess what might happen? But just you wait, someday he’ll be top dog in every measure, I wager.”
“That…is difficult to envision. Arés already shakes the building when he walks, and Firth could be larger still?”
“Aye, or so we think. Which is good because we’re gonna need someone unstoppable like him.” Powell paused and chuckled softy, “In a way I’m glad he’s doing it with Arés. Those two seem to have bonded deeply a while back, which’ll help Firth a lot with what’s coming.”
Powell hesitated, searching for appropriate words. “…Firth’s about the most intense man I ever knew.” Powell explained. “Take it from one who knows, he’s got a lot bottled up in there, good and evil, and I bloody admire him for keepin’ it under control like he does.”
“Ah. And he’s threatening to become the most exceptionally dangerous man to ever live.” Knight concluded.
“Exactly. If he didn’t have a good mate by his side through the highs and lows of that… Well. What Warhorse is doing for him is priceless. Like he’s protecting Firth’s soul.”
“Poetry is the only thing that does the Lads justice, Sir. They’re giving us everything and asking for nowt.” Powell said it without a hint of irony.
Knight nodded in understanding, such as a man who had never served in close-quarter combat arms could. “Right. Moving on, we’ve begun final candidate selection for JETS. We have a dossier on potentials here, if you would care to take a look? You know the community much better than I do.”
Knight handed Powell a folder, which he took and flipped through with incredible speed. The sheer volume of reading he did these days, combined with the Crude’s cognitive enhancing effects, meant he could digest information at a savant-like pace. Knight watched and silently marveled as the major made short work of the hefty document.
“All good so far…oh yes. This lad, definitely.” Powell pulled the sheet out of the file. “In fact we should recruit him first, along with his team. They were on the ‘exploratory committee’ as it were. It’d be a shame to waste that.”
Powell handed the relevant sheet to Knight. “Staff Sergeant Walsh.” Knight raised an eyebrow as he read. “Very strapping. Three hundred seventy-three pounds? Six-foot-two?” He shook his head in a bemused, disbelieving manner. “Those Americans grow them large days, don’t they?”
“Aye,” Powell chuckled. “Lad’s bigger and stronger than me already. Not suit-conditioned of course, but other’n that… Though, I should point out he’s only that size owing to his first swing at HEAT.”
“I see. What happened? …Oh dear. An, er, ‘closed, nondisplaced humeral midshaft spiral fracture.’ That sounds ugly.”
“Aye. Snapped his upper arm in an arm wrestling contest. Fookin’ idiot did it on the day before shipout to HEAT, too.” Powell chuckled in an affectionate manner. “I’m told he was drunk. Celebrating his selection, in fact.”
“How very masculine,” Knight commented, deploying the full might and majesty of his dry wit. “Healed up I see.”
“Yes Sir. Trained combat controller and ops intel analyst. Lad kept busy! Last I heard he was still thinkin’ about another swing at HEAT, which would explain why he’s still growing and lifting so hard.” Powell took back the sheet and glanced it over again. “Oh, and STEP promoted to Staff a bit early, too. Good. Fookin’ deserved it.”
“Excellent. I shall keep my eye on him for whenever this program gets out of its bureaucratic hell.”
“Aye. How long?”
“Not soon enough. Some back-benchers are questioning the value of exo-Terran operations. There’s a swell of feeling—and the opposition are seizing on it like sharks with blood in the water—that we really ought to get our own house in order first before we start muscling around the galaxy. At which rate we should be ready to make our mark on the universe, oh… just in time for the sun to expand and swallow the Earth?”
Powell made a disgusted noise. “We need intel, Sir. My lads are not enough men to scour the galaxy, service missions and targets, and maintain training and effectiveness.”
“Powell old boy, you’re preaching to the choir,” Knight assured him.
“Yes Sir. Sorry.”
“You let me handle the politicians, old thing.”
Powell raised an eyebrow in response. “As I recall, Sir, you are in fact older than I.” He gave the barest twinkle of humor in his eyes.
“In your job? Major, By the time I’m seventy, you’ll be a hundred. When was the last time you took leave?”
“…Since before Capitol Station, Sir. And please—”
“Yes. I know. I would remedy that if I were you, before I have to, hmm… make it official?”
“I understand your concern, Sir. I need another officer if I’m to do that, especially now. I trust Sergeant First Class Vandenberg with my life, but this job…”
“…Understood.” He gave the impression that he wished he didn’t.
“Good man. Take some quiet time, maybe find yourself a friend other than Major Jackson and that…titanic dog of yours.”
“One does not own Bozo. Bozo owns the man.”
“Quite. Daft thing followed me all around base yesterday, trying to give me this vile, squeaking pig!”
“That means he likes you, Sir.”
“I’m sure it does, major, but I prefer my offerings of friendship a little less…moist.”
Powell chuckled. “Aye. I suppose I could find a social club on Folctha. Maybe, er…ten-pin bowling?” He scowled at himself. “…My God, I’m getting old.”
“Major, I don’t think they make bowling balls heavy enough for you. No, take my advice and get back to Earth for a bit. If you’re dead-set on focusing on your job, you can at least remind yourself what you’re fighting for out here.”
“Yes, Sir.” Major Powell stood up and to attention, which Knight waved off with a friendly gesture. Powell stalked near-silent out of the modest office and closed the door with a gentle click.
Both men were left to their thoughts. For Powell, his were the more immediate concerns of how, exactly, a man of his commanding presence would re-establish a social life in northern England.
Knight had the far weightier and more long-term concerns. How would he protect a man like Firth from public judgement? Already he was impossible to miss in any encounter, and if Powell was right, Firth would only grow immensely in size, strength, speed, intelligence…and probably aggression, too. Did they need to consider doomsday scenarios? What were the veteran care issues they would face? How would that play out in the political space?
“Perhaps you need a holiday too, Patrick…” he told himself, and finished his tea.
Sergeant & Senior Brother Regaari (Dexter) of Clan Whitecrest
Endless motion. That was the overriding memory that any of the Brothers had of the final two months of their indoctrination. It was much like the previous phases, but, as promised, “squared and cubed and with books added.” Every day was just that tiny bit more awful than the previous. Longer sessions in the gym, in the workout field, at the training sites, in the classroom.
It was such a blur of training and improvement, in fact, that Regaari had little recollection of it, not until the unit’s capstone exercise. They were given a full three days of rest and recovery before they marched out for wargames.
11y, 9m AV
Training grounds, Cimbrean
End of “Run” phase
That time was well spent. The first day was nothing but rest. Rest for all the trainees, Human and Gaoian alike. The original SOR members respected this and left them be, attending to chores and the other small details of living in close proximity.
The next day the Gaoians stirred properly and took stock of things. Regaari found himself reluctant to laze about: a strange feeling, really. While Gaoians were hardly a slothful race they certainly did not turn their nose at appropriate and ample rest. What was the difference, then? Was it the heightened activity? Probably. The Humans seemed to gain energy by spending it and perhaps that rubbed off on the Gaoians as well.
And so day two became one of personal care and reflection; Regaari contemplated, and began to understand some of the changes in personality he and his Brothers had experienced. Adaptation and self-understanding were two of the prime traits required to overcome adversity, after all, and those same qualities were arguably the human’s prime assets, even if they didn’t necessarily recognize it in themselves.
But Regaari did. Reflection had made Whitecrest the success they were, and what was Whitecrest but Gao’s most successful security and intelligence force? Full-spectrum defense required more than one-on-one combat and physical prowess. It was limited to neither tactics and maneuver nor logistics and planning. Other Clans could handle those requirements; Stoneback, One-Fang, Highmountain, Fireclaws, Goldpaw…all vital to the protection and advancement of Gaoian interests, but none could match the complete range of competencies that Whitecrest had on offer, be it in the field, through the shadows, or across the realms of information. Specialization was for other Clans. Whitecrest were about getting the job done.
Regaari and his Brothers were immensely proud of this heritage as any Clan Brother would rightly be of their own. But even so, with their legendary Forefathers in their mind, none of the Whitecrest Brothers could scarcely recognize themselves or what they had become at the hands of the humans. Regaari had this revelation when he took a good look at himself in the mirror—a really good look. He could hardly recognize himself.
Firstly there was the physical changes; he was a very fit and athletic male before—an excellent specimen, if he were an accurate judge—with a lithe and fluid strength under his long, silky fur. That had changed, dramatically. While he was by no means human-like in physique with their extremely robust frames and almost magically impervious constitutions, by Gaoian reckoning he was now a top tier specimen, with a body that would put most laborers to shame. His shoulders bulged prominently and the tone of his chest and arms was visible through his fur! He boggled at the reflection, not believing it was him. He was nowhere near Stoneback strong—that was a flat genetic impossibility—but he was impressive nonetheless. All his Brothers were the same.
Those physical changes weren’t superficial, either. As he finally examined himself properly (noting dispassionately that his fur was a total disaster and would need a good clip) he reflected on the things they had done and the tactics they employed, feats that would have been unthinkable even a month previous. He knew in that moment, beyond any doubt, that he and his Brothers were the most dangerous Gaoians alive.
At least until we share this with Stoneback. Imagine what warriors those would be!
Their minds had improved, too. This wasn’t the same thing the human trainees were experiencing under the power of Crue-D and, frankly, their own frustratingly superior biology. It was more…an opening to a different point of view, and Regaari in particular eagerly soaked up this rich vein of knowledge. He spoke perfectly fluent English, an incredible feat and well past the level their at-home Brothers had so far managed. In fact, all his fellow Brothers were so fluent they were almost fully aware of the full, rich web of implied context and insinuation that the humans so very much loved to weave. The occasional reference would slip by but now they enjoyed the game and played it readily and with confidence. They were finally in on the joke and the joy of the human viewpoint, and it was invigorating.
It was truly revelation and the final bit he needed to properly grasp the human mindset. Everything clicked into place. His head swam with so many novel tactics, combining them with existing Whitecrest doctrine into something new, better, deadlier…and he shared with the humans. It became a feedback loop of improvement and, looking back at the previous six months, it was undeniably special what the two species had accomplished.
All that remained was their final evaluation scenarios where they would go into the field and demonstrate all they had learned. Major Powell assured the Whitecrest that this wasn’t a make-or-break exam; in his words, “We’re more interested in how you react.” Nice sentiment, but the truth was obvious.
Regaari wanted to win.
Assault course, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean
The previous four scenarios had gone various degrees of…unsatisfactory, by Regaari’s reckoning. The first, Spaceborne team versus team, was a disastrous and almost immediate loss. Not surprising, really, but still deeply humbling. The timed assault course…well, nobody died, barely. They did better on the active shooter scenario, but it wasn’t quite up to their standard, Regaari felt. Lastly they challenged the recently upgraded and improved obstacle course. This course was definitely more difficult, and all completed it, but did so barely within the target time. All in all, a serviceable but mediocre performance.
Or so Regaari felt. What he did not realize was the humans had designed the scenarios to weaken, exhaust, confuse, and confound. The Brothers were expected to do poorly, and to the human’s delight they were not. Later on, that revelation would be one of the more emotional moments of their graduation, but for now, they knew only a grim determination to finish.
And grim was exactly what was needed. All four scenarios were exhausting. But the fifth and final scenario was the one they had been eagerly anticipating, for it was was a simple game of cat and mouse, and it was outdoors, in Cimbrean gravity, and most importantly, it was in the scrub. This, thought Regaari,is a scenario we can dominate.
Early on in the PIP, Regaari and his fellow Brothers learned something interesting about the humans: they were stinky. Not necessarily in an offensive manner, it must be said. Rather, they were powerfully and pungently musky, especially after exercise or other exertion. This was true of all humans but it was more so for large men, and it was extremely so with HEAT.
Those boys smelled so powerfully it was actually intimidating. The Protectors (and these days, Righteous) were muskier still, so much so even their fellow humans noticed. Their scent would have been straight terrifying had they not been so friendly and considerate.
But the strangest part of it all was that the humans didn’t seem to consciously notice, at least not usually. Once again, Regaari reflected on how their sense of smell seemed so woefully underpowered compared to Gaoians, and yet…their behavior suggested otherwise. Subtle cues of personality and situation were clearly there to the trained observer, all matched and signaled by their scent.
Physical fitness, personal dominance, even mood and recent activity, all there to be smelled. And the humans reacted accordingly, without fail. The leaders smelled like leaders and the men obeyed and deferred. The fit and dominant radiated waves of power and people seemingly noticed before eye contact was made. The humans acted, in other words, exactly like a Gaoian would expect any Gaoian to act given the same scents.
Yet the humans claimed they smell nothing like that, except sometimes in the most extreme examples of emotion, like fear. And as it turned out this worked decidedly in the Gaoian’s favor. In woodland exercise they had become almost wraiths, barely detectable to even the more seasoned members of SOR. The Gaoians had the instinct for hiding in shadow, and through trial and error, honed this skill to absolute perfection.
The humans, being clever, countered the Gaoian’s natural camouflage with new camo of their own, leveling the visual playfield. They were amused by this; it apparently had very bright blazons of “hunter’s orange” across much of the uniform, invisible to the Gaoians but almost painfully visible to their fellow humans.
That subtle and complex human humor was present here, Regaari could tell.
In the end the human’s excellent camo and clear understanding of its use was only of marginal benefit, since the Gaoians simply used the human’s stink against them. Obviously a precise location required eyes on target, but their general direction and relative proximity was given away by the odors on the wind.
Or would be, as long as the Gaoians prepared correctly. First things first: they had to get rid of their own scent. Humans absolutely could scent the Gaoians given their dietary choices, so during their three-day rest the Brothers took pains to eat bland, near-flavorless food.
Secondly, they needed to get downwind. The course made this an easy and natural factor to exploit and the Brothers ensured they had this to their advantage. And the HEAT unknowingly cooperated; Snapfire and Righteous were clearly annoyed by Rebar’s chosen starting position. The HEAT took position at the top of a gully, with the wind carrying their scents down into the scrub below.
Both men have backwoods hunting experience on Earth, recalled Regaari. Perhaps humans aren’t entirely scent-blind after all.
And so, as before in earlier woodland scenarios, the Gaoians quickly entered the field, assumed positions, hid, and waited, their blinds carefully chosen to allow quick, discreet movement towards or away from nearby positions of cover, should that be advantageous. While the humans were better “reads” of terrain, Regaari and Faarek were getting very good.
The humans appeared shortly thereafter in their full EV-MASS, with Snapfire and Righteous following what imperceptible sign the Clan had left as they skittered about. They are incredibly effective trackers, Regaari reflected. And being burdened with full mission weight, the humans were already huffing and sweaty and smelly, and not even bothering to approach quietly yet.
Or perhaps not. He smelled Warhorse approaching from behind, so distinct and potent was his scent. Of the men of HEAT, he, Righteous, and Baseball were easiest to identify and the humans knew it. Seeing his position and Firth’s clear hunting skill…that could not be an accident. Could it?
A distraction, then. Maybe. By this time Regaari was effectively running on fumes but if the humans had taught him one thing, it was to trust his instincts.
Not that Warhorse was particularly quiet or invisible anyway. On stealthy matters he was terribly ineffective, being so heavy and dense he tended to sink right through mud and crash through shrubbery. But stealth wasn’t his intent. Perhaps they are attempting to panic us?
Then the third squad approached so quietly and invisibly it was only Stainless’s scent that gave them away. Decision time. Do the Brothers move and give up their cover? If so, which direction? It was clear the humans were not quite sure where the Brothers were sitting, because the humans didn’t head directly for the Brother’s hiding spot.
Best to sit and wait. It paid off. At some point the humans bunched up against their training and one of the Clan Brothers lobbed a simulated Nervejam grenade from behind his cover. They rounded on the position lightning-quick, as expected, and destroyed the attacker with simulated fire. But their trained and instinctual reaction didn’t matter as at that moment the simulation reported all the humans dead.
The rest of the Clan brothers survived. Game over! Stainless was the first to recover. He turned, removed his mask, and smiled so genuinely it threatened to paralyze Regaari with joy.
“Good job, lads. Welcome to SOR.”