The Deathworlders


Chapter 8: Fetch

11y 9m AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean Mission Planning Cell

The Gaoian Brothers had no sooner completed their “run” phase and were preparing to enter Advanced Training, then an urgent message was dispatched to Regaari from Clan Whitecrest. Alarmed, he quickly briefed Powell, who in turn informed his command, which quickly brought a shocking amount of resources to bear on what Regaari hoped would be a fairly small, local affair.

“While I am not ungrateful, and nor would be Gao, I hope this amount of force doesn’t prove necessary.” They walked toward the MPC to meet with the other members of SOR and the Admiral’s command staff.

“Aye, lad, neither do I. But things tend to go tits up quickly, I’ve learned. Best be prepared.”

A fair point. They continued on, arrived, sat down and greeted as the team poured in and sat. Powell waited for everyone to settle in and get comfortable.

“Settle down lads, we’ve got summat of a developing situation we need to think through.” He motioned to Regaari, who stood up to brief. Dozens of pairs of eyes followed him, Gaoian and Deathworlder alike.

“We’ve detected a sudden and very worrisome uptick in piracy along this spacelane near Kwmbwrw territory.” He gestured to the projected map. “It has apparently been ongoing for some time at a low level but the Kwmbwrw have been extremely reluctant to talk about it.”

“Why?” As ever, Burgess asked the direct and immediate question.

“Several reasons. First and foremost, we know from our intelligence sources that the ships in question are carrying critical supplies for ongoing military development, and given their history they are very protective about that type of information.”

“Makes sense.” Blaczynski queried, “Do we know what kinda stuff we’re dealin’ with?”

“The general theme is heavy system defense weaponry.”

“Meaning we can’t let it escape onto the black market.” Blaczynski nodded in understanding.

“Correct,” said Regaari. “Whitecrest would like this handled discreetly, if at all possible. We have a high-priority intelligence source on-board and he is one of our most effective recruiters amongst Gaoian pirates and other Clanless, so if we—”

“Wait,” interjected Baseball. ”Gaoian pirates? You have those?”

“Yes. Don’t you?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Well then. They’re embarrassing, but they exist.” Blunt and to the point, as ever.

“Moving along,” interjected Powell, “This happens to perfectly align with some mutual political goals as well. The Kwmbwrw are, officially, opposed to us and the Gaoians and virtually everything we stand for. But the Capitol rescue has caused that official line to waver a bit, which is why I suspect they approached Gao for help in the first place. Hopefully this can keep some horrible technology off the market and improve relations.”

“Why do they hate us, sir?”

“We’re meat eaters. And their homeworld is near Hunter space.”

There was a long silence as the men reflected on that.

“Yeah…” Arés seemed lost in thought. “I mean, if I remember my xenobiology correctly, they’re actually omnivores.”

“Obligate omnivores, too,” added Burgess as Arés nodded, “Pretty much like us. So how do they square that circle?”

Regaari paused for a moment and nodded at the odd analogy. “I like that, good phrase. Describes an absurdity quite well.” He continued, “They use artificial supplementation and insist they’re pure herbivores. As you may imagine they have an absolute cultural taboo on animal exploitation of any kind. This makes them unfavorably disposed toward your species and not far from enemies of mine. That made the contact surprising to us.”

“Why do they hate your kind more than ours?” Arés gave his quintessential ‘puppydog’ head tilt, “And why not approach us directly? Why go through Gao if they hate you?”

“To answer the latter first, they fear your kind so much they they would rather communicate with mine, whom they view as little better than Hunters on their morality scale.”

There were grumblings about that. “Seems silly to me,” noted Akiyama. “Everything’s gotta eat and you can’t really help what you need. It’s all how you handle it, really. Also, why fear us? As I recall we actually saved their Most Revered that day and we lost three damn good men doing so.” Darker, quieter growls from most everyone.

“Indeed, and that sacrifice is precisely the reason this is an opportunity. They saw that as a deeply honorable act by the most horrifying menace the galaxy has ever seen and it’s causing serious internal political disruption. I believe the term is ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Given the centuries of raids and exploitation by the Hunters I am inclined to offer some leeway, myself.” There seemed to be grudging acceptance of this point.

“As for the former, we have a greater need of animal protein than you do and we digest most plant matter less than optimally. We are obligate carnivores with strong omnivorous leanings. That is apparently enough to earn their enmity.” A shrug of acceptance, “Since our diet is heavily based on our equivalent of insects, fish, and certain prey animals, the Kwmbwrw express their displeasure quite vocally whenever we meet.”

“So…space vegans, then,” chimed in Murray with a friendly smile. It was the first thing he’d said all day in front of Regaari. “They demean people they know won’t punch back.”

“I believe I have heard this joke! Yes. ‘Space vegans’ works well.” He chittered briefly in amusement. “Anyway, the situation is this: they came to Mother-Supreme Yulna asking for assistance and it was her observation that this may benefit our species mutually. Also, we do not have quite the same transportation resources as your kind, at least none as well positioned. If we were to move and provide assistance it would cause fleet disruption and would be noticed.”

“And of course the pirates and this intelligence source of yours are Gaoian,” observed Vandenberg. He had that calculating look about him, the one Regaari had learned to read.

“…yes.” He deliberately sighed a very human sigh, “I assume you’ve already jumped ahead in the story a good deal.”

“Does the source know we’re going to be extracting him?”

Regaari blinked. He hadn’t guessed Vandenberg would jump ahead quite that far.

“Perceptive, as always. Our communication channel has certain limitations we shall not get into. Informing him in time will prove difficult.” He saw no need to elaborate.

Several questions at once from around the table: “Then why trust us?” “And why SOR instead of Navy?” “If you only need transport…”

“Calm down, lads. Let Regaari speak. But so far this sounds like summat your Brothers can handle. What’s the catch? Why do you need SOR and not just the Navy? And how sensitive is this source of yours that you cannot afford to burn him? Not to be crass…”

And now Regaari felt as if they were reading his mind. “How do you do that?! I mean—” He paused, collected himself, and continued. “Right, apologies. There are two parts. The first is that he…” Regaari head-ducked uncomfortably, “There are some unusual things about this agent we would have rather kept confidential but the timeline doesn’t allow it. I must ask your men hold this with the strictest secrecy, Major.”

Major Powell glanced at Admiral Knight’s XO, who had up to now been uninvolved. He pondered for a bit, and then nodded.

“We can promise the utmost discretion for this, unless it drastically affects human interests.”

Regaari considered this. “Very well. Our agent is a member of Clan Stoneback. They are a small and very old Clan who have seen their role change drastically over the millennia. They began as laborers and later became warriors as well, since from very early on their sires were large and powerfully-bodied Gaoians. At some point that became their essential quality, and over the thousands of years they have slowly grown bigger, stronger and hardier. Even as industrialization progressed and the requirement for ditch diggers and longshoreman and warriors decreased, the need for very, ah, commanding individuals has never gone away.”

There were chuckles from around the room. Arés quite naturally queried, “So, basically, these Stonebacks are the muscle of the Gaoian people. I mean, that seems an odd choice for a spy, but what’s the hangup?”

“You do not appreciate the physical difference. A small Stoneback male is at least half again as massive as the biggest fully-grown males from any other Clan and is far, far stronger. Large specimens may be twice as large, or even larger. This one in particular is their biggest and strongest. When last I encountered him it was just before the Capitol Station incident.”

Regaari paused, considering his words. “Now, I am not a small male, nor was I last we met. But at that time he was well over thrice my mass and strong beyond reason, even for a Stoneback that large. He is awesomely gifted. And he’s about Murray’s height. Fast on his paws, too. Incredibly so.”

“That’s…significant. You were, what, ninety pounds when we met?”

“One hundred twenty-seven, definitely on the large end for a normal Gaoian male. But he was still growing, so I have no doubt he’s probably bigger now.”

“…so he’s comparable to a human. A giant human male, too.” Arés glanced at Burgess, who nodded. “Yeah. Major? We’ve never heard of a Gaoian that big. All our medical training assumes they’d be much smaller.” He glanced back at Regaari, “Is that the secret? That you have Gaoians that big? And I assume he has human-like strength, too?”

“Yes to both. Clan Stoneback is a vital asset and is something we don’t publicize on the Galactic stage. It seemed prudent when we made first contact and it became obvious the Corti had never learned of the Clan’s existence through their ‘wildlife program’.” He said that last bit with unmistakable hatred. “And given the arrival of humans on the scene it seemed wise to remain quiet about them, and about certain other Clans too. This is so important to Gao, even the Clanless obey the taboo. It is uncomfortable telling you about this even now.”

He paused, letting that sink in for effect. “Stoneback are so rare that most Gaoians will never meet a full Brother in person, though their cubs in other Clans are surprisingly common. Their breeding program is very selective.”

He head-ducked and deftly bull-rushed through that last statement, pre-empting the onslaught of questions he suspected were coming.

“And yes, he is in many ways human-like in physical ability. He is very quick and very strong. But that doesn’t mean he can recover from injury as quickly, or that his skeleton is quite as durable, or that his immune system compares, or anything like that. He is not a Deathworlder. My people are pretty tough compared to the Galactic average and Stonebacks are much tougher still. But that doesn’t mean he can eat this ‘Tabasco sauce’ of yours without digestive distress, or contract your ‘common cold’ without potentially worrisome consequence.”

He raised his eyebrows, “Or easily withstand the kind of rough handling you regularly demonstrate in your training scenarios. After all, if a human would have a difficult time of it…”

“Aye, there it is,” said Murray. “He’s too big for your Clan t’go toe-to-toe with and he’s maybe a wee bit too delicate for our usual smash-and-grab.”

“Yes. Exactly. A non-lethal extraction would be difficult for us. We simply don’t have the time and advantage to do it properly. We were hoping you had a less…violent alternative.”

Murray pondered this. “I’ll see it done. He’ll be unharmed.” There was a humble yet absolutely certain finality to his tone. Nobody questioned it; When it came to that type of precision, Murray was good. The best, maybe.

“Many thanks. Also,” Regaari added, “It would be unwise if he were to see me because he would almost certainly reveal to all present that we’ve met. He is…uncomplicated, in all the best ways. But that simplicity does not lend itself to our purpose here.”

Firth grinned in mild disbelief. “Okay, so, lemme get this straight. You wanted a spy out here amongst the pirates.”

“The Clanless diaspora on the Galactic stage, but yes.”

“So you picked the biggest, toughest, dumbest motherfucker you could find.”

“He is not stupid. He is uncomplicated. I would say he is more like Arés than anything.”

Chuckles all around. Adam grinned and grumbled good-naturedly but held his peace.

“Okay, fine. He’s a big, tough, really obvious Gaoian, out alone in the Galactic stage. And he is, by your own admission, not a very good spy.”

“Those are all true. And Stonebacks have a very distinctive fur pattern as well.”

“So, the biggest, toughest, most straightforward, unsubtle, obvious, easily identifiable spy.”


“So then, and I ain’t meanin’ t’be crass, but why the fuck!?”

Regaari chuckled. “Is it not obvious?”

There was a round of head-shaking and a slightly mischievous twinkle in Powell’s eyes.

Regaari chittered, “You do not know how satisfying it is to outsmart a human, let alone a group of extremely intelligent ones such as yourself. Let me enjoy this moment.”

Good-natured groans and jeers came forth from around the room.

“Careful with that ego, lad, or Arés may need to motivate you on the exercise field.” A rare smile from Powell made Regaari’s victory sweeter, despite the good-natured threat.

“I think I’ve worked through your bottleneck, too. I can’t wait to try this new routine out on one of you!” Arés had a toothy grin that could frighten a gricka to death.

“…Understood.” He returned the gesture with a toothy growl-grin he’d developed just for human interaction, one they seemed to appreciate in in the snarly-playful spirit it was offered. After all, Gaoians and humans shared more than a few aggressively cheerful social cues.

“Anyway, the fact he is an obvious spy was precisely the point. Because it is only obvious to other Gaoians.” He waited to see if they could fill in the details. Sure enough…

“…cultural thing, the Clanless would know he wasn’t there without purpose…”

“…just see him as a big dock worker or engineer…”

“…may assume he was dull and not ask too many questions…”

“You have the idea. He could quite openly recruit amongst the Clanless and possibly offer some of them a path to Clan adoption, and outsiders are unaware of the subtext. All they see is a very strong and sociable engineer on their crew. In return, the Clanless keep his secret, because they jeopardize their prospects by spreading rumors. And we Gaoians are not very trusting of outsiders these days.”

Regaari chuckled, “And, of course, our agent has his Clan’s well-deserved reputation to draw on. ‘A Stoneback is only good for lifting things and mating contracts’.” The Gaoians all chittered in amusement as the humans cat-called and jeered exuberantly. “Unfair, I feel,” added Regaari, “As they also make superb draft animals.”

More raucous jeering. “Calm down, lads,” Powell grinned, “Please continue, Regaari.”

“Right. Stoneback males are very popular with the females but most males do not see much use for them. Jealousy, I suppose…Stonebacks are far from useless, though it is difficult for less fortunate or, less, ah, gifted males to admit that.” More chuckles. Regaari waggled his eyebrows and left his statement open to interpretation. “That in turn means he can play to type without much effort. The stereotype lets him pass as a simple, non-threatening recruiter, one who is only really interested in one thing. That means the Clanless don’t question it much. After all,” he chittered, “It’s mostly true. Clan Stoneback earned that stereotype for a reason.”

Another round of chuckles and good-natured insults followed. But Sikes was unhappy.

“Like you said, stereotypes exist for a reason. He’s part of a very important breeding program, isn’t he?” Sikes made the observation coldly, breaking the jovial mood. “And that implies the Clanless know. And that in turn says interesting things about Gaoian culture.”

The room immediately fell dead silent. Regaari had been worried about this moment.

“Things we do not talk about with outsiders, but yes, he is a prized stud and we want him back safe, intact, and able to sire cubs.” He shrugged, “Breeding pressure is a natural consequence of our reproductive imbalance. We have significantly more males than females, after all. This has been a part of our culture since time immemorial, since before our written history began over fifteen thousand years ago. It is a situation that is unlikely to change. And, of course, the social and genetic benefits of the Clan breeding programs are too great to ignore.”

Sikes was not mollified. “So Stoneback is a stable. The whole purpose of their Clan is to breed studs. Literal studs.”

“Yes. Clan Stoneback appears in our written histories from the very beginning. Even in ancient times they were known for the quality of their cubs. But that is ultimately the purpose of every Clan, including mine, and it is the essential reason most of the Clans are selective about who they admit to their studbooks and who they will advocate to the Clan of Females. Does that bother you?” Regaari said it in a tone that conveyed both a willingness to discuss the issue and a wish that he need not.

Which Sikes detected. “It does. But I’ll maybe ask again later, if you’re okay with that.”

Regaari nodded, and that seemed to satisfy Sikes. I should prepare for that discussion.

“Calmly, lads. We’re different cultures, we must remember that. I am certain there are things about us that Gaoians find uncomfortable.” Powell waited a moment for the point to get across.

He continued, “So to summarize: you have an agent on board who is extremely valuable and you see the situation as rapidly deteriorating. You likely cannot notify him ahead of time of his impending extraction. He is a formidable specimen and that means a non-lethal takedown by Gaoian forces is problematic. And he’s intelligent, but he’s not a good enough spy to risk simply exposing you directly.”

“That sums it nicely.”

There was a pause. “Very well. I think we can manage all of that. What is the second item? You said there was another catch?”

“Ah, yes. The second part is that they have a Qinis on their crew.”

Arés and Burgess both scoffed. “Ha!” Adam laughed, “I’ve taken shits more durable than a Qinis! What exactly are we afraid of here?” Chuckles from the humans and chittering amusement from the Gaoians. Humans could be inventively, horribly descriptive.

“Drones,” said Sikes after a moment. “Lots of them. The best drones in the galaxy.”


“Not all of us can outmuscle every problem we run into like you two meatheads.” With a grin, “Some of us have gotta think now and then, all careful-like!” A round of chuckles.

“Yeah yeah,” Arés grinned ruefully, “Yuk it up. But still, I mean, Gaoian gravity is enough to practically kill ‘em. No offense—”

“None taken. And for the record, they’re not quite that fragile.”

“—fair. But even then, it’s heavy for them and they can’t really move in it. Also don’t they prefer hands-on control of their drones? Ain’t that somethin’ you briefed, like, two years ago? One of our cross-training days?” He looked at Akiyama.

“Yes. It was one of the more surprising intel bits, actually. Their drones are very advanced and can be programmed for repetitive tasks on the fly, but they deliberately limit the types of problems the drones can process in AI. The intel guys speculated it may be a cultural taboo but I don’t buy it. I think they just don’t have good AI. Which, to be fair, nobody really does.”

“Well, okay,” Adam pressed his point, “But that’s what I mean. There’s only gonna be so much he can really do, right? I mean, even if aliens don’t have cool AI like we dreamed, how much can one Qinis do, even if he’s, like, the best drone operator ever?”

“‘Cool’ artificial intelligence strikes me as an exceptionally unwise idea, ‘Horse. But to answer your question, he is ‘like, the best ever’ and was decorated for it.” He keyed in something and brought up a file.

“Nisi Val, wanted by the Celzi Alliance for deserting his post and stealing an interplanetary shuttle. Got the hell out of the war and went rogue. While he was still in the war, however, he was decorated several times for his performance as a demolitions expert. He’s shown himself to be extremely adept in much the same manner as your Defenders.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Fuck, man. This is gonna suck balls.”

“Aye, Burgess. That it likely will. Drop the other shoe, Dexter.”

All eyes were on Regaari.

“We suspect one of the pirates had previous contact with Adrian Saunders and Jen Delaney, two infamous criminals I suspect you are familiar with. This is troubling because, amongst other things, that pirate would have been exposed to some very, ah, ‘creative’—” he curled his fingers in an exaggerated fashion, “—anti-human defenses. Things I am quite certain my Brothers would be fatally challenged by.”

There was a round of quite vocal grousing.

“I’m gonna get broken ribs, I can tell already.” Adam was clearly not pleased. “I bet he has three blender hallways.”

“And electrical traps,” grunted Akiyama unhappily.

“That he might. And we have no idea what we’re in for until we get there.” Powell prompted Regaari, “What is your mission plan?”

“Two-pronged. We utilize HEAT as both a distraction and a major assault force. This keeps Nisi Val occupied while myself and my Brothers neutralize the Gaoian engineering stations and crew. Our theory is that we wouldn’t be as worrisome or well-noticed.”

There was a round of nodding at that. “That may have some merit. Continue.”

“We also hope to capture the ship unharmed if possible, or at least somewhat spaceworthy. Our secondary goal is intelligence exploitation. Since weapon shipments normally come with tooling and documentation—”

“—improvements and such. I like it.” Regaari had expected that one and managed to contain his annoyance.

“Indeed. And we do not have long; we expect the next shipment will occur in less than a week. We were hoping to get planning and staging accomplished before then. Questions?”

There were many, all at once.

“Oi, lads! One at a time!” Powell’s rebuke rendered his men instantly sheepish. It never ceased to amaze Regaari just how much respect he commanded with these men, given how powerfully dominant (especially Adam and John) they all smelled. Powell was a rare leader; he commanded their loyalty at a deep, primal level. It was more than a little intimidating.

Gently, now with a smile, “They’re all good questions, but let’s do this properly. First, ingress…”

Planning continued through the night.

After that it was a matter of waiting on appropriate intel. To that end advanced human and Gaoian probes were deployed, discreetly searching the spacelane for their target. Five days later they found it, lurking about a degaussing station. Perhaps it was merely awaiting its turn. Perhaps it had its target in mind from the outset. In either case there was no mistaking the craft; it had a suspicious amount of surface damage, some unique customizations that were uncommon in the ships of the Dominion, and more importantly it had a bogus transponder. The code was valid, sure enough. But it didn’t match the vessel.

Both human and Gaoian were dismayed at the apparent lack of diligence at the station.

Shortly thereafter the order was given and the Brothers found themselves piling aboard the shuttle with the HEAT. Gaoian and human alike donned their environmental encounter suits, though naturally the Gaoian suit was much lighter owing to extremely advanced composites and design methods. Sadly, it didn’t offer nearly the same protection or capabilities as the human equipment, but nor did it crush with lethal force or burden with incredible weight. There was only so much the Gaoian body could do. Best optimize for that and move forward.

Shipboarding “the SOR way” was an interesting contrast to the latest Whitecrest game theory on such actions. The humans approached the pirate ship in the cloaked Caledonia and waited until the pirate ship had degaussed and was preparing to debark. At the perfect, most mundane moment, the Aggressors flew off on their boarding launch and quietly ingressed to the target. It was a laughably single-purpose craft and frighteningly exposed, but the advantage was in stealth. And it must have worked, as there was no reaction to their presence.

Until the moment they boarded. That was as violent and unmistakable an action could be: they blew a hole in the hull, entered, snap-beacon’d in the rest of their men and in less than ten seconds Humans and Gaoians were boiling forth and causing mayhem. Shortly thereafter, Regaari and his Brothers had the necessary opportunity to fade into the crew spaces and they did so, their suit camouflage pattern closely matching their fur. To a casual glance on a display screen it should look pretty unremarkable. They advanced calmly, not drawing attention to themselves as they made their way to engineering.

And then, from the general direction of the humans, the screams began.

The mission brief was to minimize casualties if at all possible, but the first group the SOR encountered didn’t really allow that option. This group aggressively responded to SOR’s loud and violent ingress and were already positioned opposite the doorway when SOR made their entry. The pirates did the (normally) sensible thing and fired their weapons from improvised cover. Tactically speaking, their quick deployment and engagement was both simple and sound, and in most any other circumstance would have been highly effective.

But today they faced the SOR.

The humans wore such effective armor they could barely even feel most pulse weaponry. Even the pirate’s heavy rifle shots were little more than a rough shove, like a large human male might deliver in rough play. As planned and briefed, the humans simply bull-rushed the pirate’s fire and disarmed them—literally, in the first unfortunate encounter. Regrettably, SOR’s time with the Brothers may have given the men an overestimation of what an untrained Gaoian could handle. The pirates didn’t react calmly to this, as one may suspect, and panic-fire and horrified yowls ensued. This required the Aggressors to use a bit more force than they would have preferred. And this in turn left a big mess for the Protectors to attend to.

This was not an auspicious start to a mission, though in mere seconds the deed was done and the pirates were safely subdued and restrained, suffering in varying degrees of injury.

Excepting one crazed and terrified Gaoian warrior. He was by far the largest Gaoian the humans had ever encountered, as tall as Murray and obviously quite heavy; the decking trembled under his quick and pounding feet. He even looked strong with an extremely muscular, athletic, and distinctly Gaoian anatomy prominently visible under his short, sleek fur. And none of it was for show. He moved quickly and precisely and with a desperate grace only the truly skilled and fearful possessed. And with the characteristic white ruff on his chest, it was obvious he was the Stoneback they had planned for. Murray approached cautiously, weapon holstered and hands outstretched.

Sadly, what the Stoneback had in strength and fighting skill he seemed to lack in calm and collected wits, firing ceaselessly at Murray while dodging and weaving, staring wide-eyed and yowling in terror and defiance. Murray approved of the brute’s spirit but they had no time for shenanigans. He approached quickly, lunged—and missed! He was caught flat-footed at the surprising speed of this impressive specimen. The Stoneback dodged nimbly and flowed gracefully through both bipedal and quadrupedal motion like the finely-tuned predator he was. Hell, few humans could move so quick or with such practiced grace!

But while the big brute’s physicality was impressively human-like, it was not nearly enough to counter a SOR Aggressor. Murray grinned beneath his mask and smartly side-stepped, then almost instantly closed the distance between the two, now showing the big Stoneback what real speed looked like. The brute stood no chance against such awesome ability and before he even knew what was happening he was smashed against the wall, both heavy wrists swallowed up in one of Murray’s enormous hands, the pulse rifle held in his other, and their legs entangled, totally pinning the Gaoian in place.

And the brute kept struggling, showing so much power he very nearly broke free! Murray’s smile grew broader. Who didn’t like a good fight? And how could he not appreciate the spirit on display? But they were lacking time so he needed to end this. He pushed forward firmly, just enough to press the struggling Stoneback into the wall and wind him. Even then, Murray was inwardly impressed with how much force it took. This was a seriously strong being; it was much like tussling with Sikes or even Blaczynski. This Stoneback would put virtually any man to shame—even one well-trained.

But Murray was trained well past civilians. “Easy there laddie. You’re in a diff’rent league now.”

He said it without malice. With good humor, even. His friendly tone (and probably his strongly dominant scent) seemed to penetrate the awareness of the frightened Stoneback, who was seemingly trapped between instinctual submission and abject terror. The big Gaoian paused and considered his predicament for a moment and looked up at the enormous human, studying his expression intently. While the brute couldn’t see Murray’s face, the twinkle in his bright, intelligent eyes was an expression that crossed all boundaries. There was no murder or rage to be found. Only the joy one might get from a good fight and vigorous exercise.

I’m not even a challenge, the Stoneback realized suddenly and bitterly. This is play for him.

That thought must have decided things for the struggling Gaoian. Realizing that this day was (maybe) not his to die, he inwardly whimpered and laid his ears back against his head in total surrender, hoping for mercy. The human chuckled and the fatal strike did not come. Slightly reassured, the Stoneback relaxed a bit and the human did so in turn, though he didn’t break the pin.

Meanwhile, Murray found himself growing quickly and oddly fond of the brave and terrified Stoneback beneath him. He couldn’t help his sympathy for the poor being’s plight and relented enough to alleviate some of the discomfort of being smashed into a wall. As soothingly as he could manage, “Atta boy laddie, you did good. Now let’s get you taken care of.”

He backed off and the Stoneback conveyed his agreement as only two warriors can. He remained docile while Murray gently secured the Gaoian’s paws behind him with a clever double-loop of wide and soft zip-tie, and led him towards the group where Warhorse and Baseball were triaging the casualties. The almost gentle manner (after the engagement, anyway) in which the humans were handling the Gaoian pirates was, to say the least, very disorientating for the Stoneback and his fellows. They had expected to die horrible and glorious deaths but that was not the case. The humans here were so far beyond their combat capability it almost wasn’t even a fight at all. It was more akin to crowd control. And once the Stoneback recognized this, his curiosity got the better of him.

“Wh—what will you do with us?” There was a certain brave trepidation to the big Gaoian’s voice, obvious even through the translator. The pirates all perked up and listened.

“For now, restrain and remove you from th’ ship. What happens afterward isn’t for me to decide.” Glum acceptance from some of the pirates, which the humans did not fail to note.

“What will happen to Chiilek?” He glanced at the unfortunate Gaoian and his missing limb, which Baseball was carefully wrapping in gauze and plastic.

“Surgery. I’m sure they’ll either re-attach the arm or get him a prosthetic. Now play nice.” He grinned a wolf-grin, “Warhorse and Baseball here? They’re much scarier than me.” Murray took his leave. He was a full minute behind the rest of the Aggressors and that was unacceptable.

Meanwhile the Stoneback fell into the loose group herded together by a pair of bigger humans. They had a different patch on their shoulders than the giant who had so easily bested him, and though they were shorter—a bit shorter than him, in fact—they were significantly broader and obviously much stronger, and moved with a heavier, solid thud he could feel through the floor. They served a very different combat function then the tall, terrifying warriors who so easily defeated he and his fellows, though their purpose wasn’t immediately clear to the Stoneback.

He waited with the group and silently observed the men, his wrists bound behind his back, until one of the third types of human approached. They were easily identified by the pair of green, human-shaped footprints on their mission patch. That, and their size. The Stoneback stared at them both and boggled; these were much bigger men than the other two groups. The one approaching was the shortest human present—slightly shorter than most Gaoian males, in fact—and was so hugely broad and thick and heavy the floor actually rippled and creaked under his incredible mass. He was so obviously big and strong the Stoneback wondered if he and this monstrous green-foot human served vaguely similar roles.

Warhorse grunted in a deep and very human grumble. “You hurt?” He gave the Stoneback a hard, professional glance. It was a deeply unsettling gaze, like he was visually dissecting the Gaoian. The Stoneback felt such a gaze could almost frighten a non-warrior to death.

“…no.” Truthfully, he was not. Murray had been rough but harmed nothing besides ego.

The human’s expression softened much as Murray’s had. “Alright bro, lead your fellows down there,” he gestured to a large portal machine down the hall, “And don’t cause trouble. You play nice, we’ll play nice, okay? You guys have any medical problems you let the medics on the ship know immediately.”

The human’s attention immediately turned to packing up his massive pile of equipment, ending the conversation. The big Defenders quickly ushered the pirates toward the portal.

The Stoneback glanced back at the taller of the green-foot medics, who was finishing up his medical care on the injured Gaoian and preparing to transport the poor pirate. While he was much taller than and maybe not quite as massive as his fellow, it was clear the green-foot humans required enormous strength and size to perform their role.

Which the Stoneback could well appreciate; strength and physical ability had always been his Clan’s specialty. But compared to any of these humans, and especially these green-foot hulks? The Stoneback felt like a tiny cub again, staring up in awe at his future Brothers during Evaluation Week. Worse, for he knew he was nearing his physical limits and stood no chance of ever closing such an enormous gap. The Stoneback, a champion of his people, consistently ranked the very strongest of the strong, quick and skilled and clever and deadly, handsome and a sire of many cubs, in many ways a living embodiment of the very best his people had to offer…never had he known such utter defeat in anything. He was so much smaller, so much slower, so much weaker, and so completely outclassed in body and skill that he could scarcely comprehend it.

He and his clan had thought him a rare and precious equal for human athletic ability; he was selected and trained almost from birth to further his Clan’s breeding program, and he and his young (and very small) generation of Brothers were certainly bigger and stronger and faster than most human males, according to Stoneback research and the few humans he had met. But this small demonstration of the human’s apparently limitless potential put even the Clan’s remarkable achievements to absolute shame. He trudged forlornly forward, brooding on how useless he was before such adversaries.

He stepped through the strange portal, was thoroughly searched, his paws (finally!) uncuffed and he was given a resting mat and some water. And a little packet of some dried, rich, spicy meat. He opened the tough plastic container and took a bite…

Maybe things weren’t so bad after all.

The Aggressors encountered the first trap pretty quickly. It was an electrified doorway, much as their scenarios had predicted and the Defenders had feared. Fortunately, the SOR were wearing their newly-integrated sensor suites, which enabled the enormous Watson cluster on the Caledonia to notice the unusual field pattern and alert the team on their in-helmet heads-up displays. The Aggressors saw the warning reticle almost as soon as they entered the room and were suitably cautious. Even with the suit’s natural insulation, one could never be too careful.

A quick examination of the situation by Highland (by now caught up with the Aggressor’s advancing front) made it clear this was a job for the Defenders. Highland tapped the Defenders button on his wrist panel, opening a radio channel.

“Laddies, I think we need your toys up here.”

Watson and the support staff monitored all team radio and telemetry feeds. Seeing a change in mission, they quickly processed and displayed the relevant location and situational information to everyone’s HUDs. The entire team was therefore up to speed before the Defenders even arrived at the door. Everyone instinctively knew their roles and the correct tactics due to the SOR’s continuous and brutal training, and all three Defenders snapped to the job. The mission? Bypass the trap or cut through the wall to the hallway on the other side.

Titan and Snapfire examined the door very quickly, waving a multifunction field probe near the handle and glancing with a practiced eye at the nearby wall. “That’s over a half-million volt charge on that handle,” said Titan, “If you’d been unsuited it’d have zapped you from a meter away.”

“Through the wall?” Snapfire was already unpacking his demo gear.

As the team NCOIC and overall mission commander, Rebar did his best to embody the team’s combat mantra: Keep Moving, Never Give Up. They could ill afford to be still, for stationary targets are easy targets.

“Do it.” Rebar prepped his plasma cutter. “Aggressors, advance the front.” Over the radio, “Protectors, this is our new staging point. Set up as quick as possible.” Acknowledgements from everyone either present or over radio quickly followed. The Aggressors immediately charged off to probe the boundaries of their cleared area, both searching for missed paths and crushing any hidden resistance. This was partly to ensure a safe rear area, but mostly to confuse their adversaries who were undoubtedly watching remotely.

Rebar and Snapfire did their usual double-team act; Snapfire deployed an incredibly thin bead of explosive compound into a door-shaped rectangle onto the wall and rigged it for detonation, working it quickly and precisely with his strong, dexterous fingers. Rebar didn’t have such a fine touch; his hands were thick and rough and favored brute power. He instead warmed his cutter and fished out his collapsable sledgehammers while Snapfire worked. The trio had done this many times in training and grown very, very good at this. The explosive was rigged in less than ten seconds, just as Rebar ignited his cutter and handed a hammer to Titan. Everyone stepped quickly and safely out of the way.

Creative destruction was what the Defenders lived for.

Snapfire triggered the explosive. There was a sharp pop as the wall was mostly cut through. As expected, it triggered alarms, dimmed lights, and generally induced localized bedlam in their immediate vicinity. In all the cacophony the returning Protectors went nearly unheard, heavily laden with all their personal gear and the portable “field hospital” in a set of four massive satchels, one to each hand.

Alas, not even modern technological advancements had done much to reduce the mass or bulk of common medical materiel. The satchels were both awkward and extremely heavy, and would be difficult for a normal man to even lift, let alone run with at full tilt. And with the huge pile of ammo they were also shouldering? They were moving so much mass that each slamming footstep left permanent, gigantic impressions on the relatively thin metallic flooring.

Later, they would joke that a Protector left his footprints everywhere.

They slammed down their gear loudly just as Rebar went to work and Titan and Snapfire began hammering away. In less than thirty seconds they had cut through the wall and closed all conduits, crimped off any wires or power cables, and cleaned up the edges enough to permit safe movement. A textbook forcible entry, completed just as the Aggressors returned from their blitzkrieg patrol of their cleared zone.

Long corridors were a genuine hazard for the SOR. It was only here where a sideways gravity trap could be rigged, since a series of parallel grav plates was required to generate such an odd field configuration. That point was forcefully driven home as Righteous charged through on point, plowed forward for about five steps—and found himself tumbling sideways at incredible speed. His lightning-quick reflexes enabled him to twist around just in time to look down a very long hallway.

But even this had been planned for. His suit, recognizing the danger, used his kinetic thrusters to slam him into the wall as hard and as quickly as possible. He was able to slow, and then stop, and then anchor himself firmly to the wall. That done, Righteous had a moment to moan in pain; something was definitely broken.

“Uh, fuck. Rebar, I’m down for the moment!”

The gravity immediately reversed direction.

“Arrgh! And now I’m upside down. Ow.” Righteous sighed internally. Of all the members of the team he was the worst off in this situation. He was by far the biggest and heaviest of the men outside the Protectors and had boots and gauntlets ill-suited to the task, but worst of all he was simply not a great climber. His Protector-like strength was of little use where he could neither gain any purchase nor do much useful with it anyway. It was all he could do to hang on for dear life, fumbling for his emergency piton gun while maintaining a death grip on the wall.

The gravity suddenly switched direction towards the proper floor, hard. Much harder than they had ever trained for. The gravity was so strong it almost pried him loose from the wall. And then almost immediately thereafter it switched directions and repulsed with equal force. Their distant adversary had clearly thought this scenario through.

For good measure, the Qinis also cranked up the gravity in the staging area as well. Snarls of annoyance were heard from the Aggressors and Defenders. The Protectors just grunted, as if the tripling of their load was hardly an inconvenience.

Rebar growled, “A’ight, you clamp onto that fuckin’ wall. ‘Base! ‘Horse!” They were already preparing their rescue. “You know what to do. Get that fuckin’ pilot line run. We’ve got a little bitch to punch.”

It was at that moment the drones appeared.

The thumping noises in the adjacent hallway made Regaari wince. He knew that was the SOR being tossed around in gravity that would crush him to goo, and that they were enduring this all so he and his Brothers could sneak in and cripple the ship. It was a long path they traveled, being denied the central hallway, but they were making excellent progress even despite the highly annoying and exhausting gravity shifts they were indirectly experiencing. Resistance was minimal. And they were almost there, just a short run from Engineering.

A locked door. Faarek and his second made quick work of it using their engineer’s mindset and the collection of tricks and techniques drilled into them on and off over the last two years. They blew the door open and entered aggressively, and set to work.

It was a systems support room off the secondary hallways running along the outer spine of the ship. The pirates within were caught completely flat-footed. Regaari charged in and his Brothers followed, and they tore through the pirates like they were but cubs challenging a fully-grown male.

It was…quick. Their close-quarters training incorporated two- and four-legged movement flowing freely between stances as the situation warranted, and with a weapon strap that held the M-4 close to his chest at all times, he was hardly encumbered. He dodged and weaved and slid right past any fire. He was so effective, in fact, he didn’t need lethal force. He merely sapped the pirates unconscious.

In less than a minute the room was neutralized. And very little blood was shed; two pirates had wicked clawmarks on their face, and another suffered broken ribs. None died, so fast and skilled were the Brothers. Inwardly Regaari was beaming with pride at their skill. But they weren’t done. They need to “tag and bag” quickly to avoid detection. And so far, their strategy seemed to be working. But they needed to be faster. Every second they dawdled net the SOR more pain, more injury, and more risk of a serious casualty.

The Gaoians pressed onward. They would not let their Human Brothers down.

Artificial gravity fields—and the necessary plating layout and design—have interesting interactions. These complex interactions had the consequence of standardizing certain elements of ship design. Most ships had a single or paired set of major corridors running down their “keel,” with a series of work bays and rooms stationed alongside. Minor hallways branched off the corridors, but for gravity design purposes, they were the same as rooms. Why this configuration? Mechanical stress from conflicting gravity loads.

To minimize this stress, it was generally necessary to minimize the number of field interaction nodes. Most designs achieved this by configuring each deck as a pair of very large gravity plates, or at least limited field nodes to room-sized areas. The practical effect of this was that gravity control throughout most of a ship was usually coarse-grained. Given this, and with the aforementioned mechanical considerations and the obviously necessary survival of the crew, the highest gravity load a ship could generally produce was around 2¼G, or triple Galactic Standard. Impressive to be sure, but hardly a concern for SOR, who routinely train hard and play aggressively in even deeper wells. And on multi-deck ships, the stacked nature of the fields prevents antigravity effects, because those fields would destructively interfere with other intersecting fields alongside, above, and below.

In other words, ship gravity can be very annoying, and even strenuous. But in an EV-MASS and with bleeding-edge training, none of that was beyond the ability of the SOR to handle. Where things got dicey was the central corridors, for those had much more gravitational flexibility. Their field plating was generally laid out as a series of narrow plates running end-to-end, much like a sidewalk is divided into squares. This enabled the hallway to provide antigravity assist for equipment movement or inertial protection for crew during very high-G maneuver.

Or, if one was a creative and sadistic individual, one could use field interference to simulate a sideways gravity well, one with strength proportional to the length of the corridor. Such an immensely powerful field currently tormented our Protectors as they attended to different tasks. Warhorse was the stronger and steadier climber, so he hauled Snapfire, both of their combat loads, and a massive pile of engineering and medical equipment up to the next room, punching through the wall paneling and anchoring safety and ferry ropes as he went.

But Baseball was the faster, bolder climber, and they needed to rescue Righteous before his grip gave out. And it was not easy going. The gravity field was strong, definitely on the high end of their training experience. And it kept switching directions, either towards or away from the plating, or sideways down the longest part of the corridor. In the former two configurations, the gravity was bad enough. But down the corridor it was so much worse than his strength was prepared for, he felt a bit light-headed the first time he felt it.

Warhorse hardly seemed to notice the difference.

I guess I’ll need to thank ‘Horse for those grip trainers, thought Baseball ironically. And here I thought my forearms were big enough already. As he climbed he looked up and noticed just how little trouble ‘Horse was having in the insane gravity, even as heavily burdened as he was. Baseball inwardly sighed. That was probably more weight than he could handle at all in gravity that deep, let alone comfortably. He couldn’t help but feel his competitive urges hit him, even now, even while climbing in a genuine rescue scenario. ’Horse is pulling too far ahead. Can’t let the midget win that easily.

But he was not distracted from his mission. He quickly slithered down and around the hallway surfaces, affixing safety lines as he went. Unlike the Aggressors, the Protectors were equipped for climbing. Their suit gloves had thin, durable, silver-impregnated rubber outer linings with a carbon-titanium-aramid inner weave, and heavier armoring on the back of the palms and digits. This gave both the necessary compressive pressure against vacuum and preserved a sensitive and sanitary touch for medical work. The grippy gloves, when combined with a Protector’s immense strength, gave their enormous paws the surest and most powerful grips on the team.

Likewise, their shoes were made of similar material and built with much the same construction. These fit over their armored undersuits but allowed full flexibility in their ankles and through the soles of the foot. This preserved full function and mobility for the Protector’s huge, wide feet, since like any good climber they were apt to use them almost as a second pair of hands. The shoes were as close to barefoot as any powerlifter or rock climber could ever want, effectively wrestling, climbing, and lifting shoes all rolled into one, designed with vacuum exposure and maneuver in mind. And using similar material to the undersuits’ compressive load-bearing fabric stripes, the shoes also had anti-roll protection built into the ankles, thus eliminating a Protector’s need for boots. With such tools and physical ability, and with the training and experience every PJ possessed? The Protectors were practically made to climb.

But this was no easy face to tackle. A misstep from the outset immediately taught Baseball that the wall and floor panels were far too weak to bear any weight at all, let alone the epic mass of himself, his suit, his gear, Righteous, his suit and his gear, especially in gravity that would crush most ETs to death. So, like Warhorse, he’d taken to punching his fist into each panel and simply ripping it off its supporting surface so he could identify the structural beams. He wasn’t quite strong enough to crush the panels up one-handed and wedge them back into the wall like Warhorse was doing, so Baseball instead drove his pitons directly into the underlying structural beams, right through the destroyed panels. Both men secured the panels so they would not become a material hazard the Qinis Asshole could exploit.

Baseball crept along, and the gravity kept shifting, and a few minutes later, he reached an exhausted and desperate Righteous. A quick check with the in-suit medical scanner revealed Righteous was in extreme lactic pain and suffering a fractured rib but was otherwise fine.

One of the prime differences between the SOR specialties is the mode and manner of their endurance training. For a Protector, their emphasis is the ability to relentlessly wield their superhuman strength under crushingly heavy loads, over countless miles of terrain and for endless hours of exertion, until the mission was complete and the patient saved.

That enduring, mind-bending strength served Baseball well, as he simply latched onto the wall and positioned himself over Righteous, flipped him around, attached him to the safety harness and began the climb back. It was an arduous effort at the limits of Baseball’s strength but he would not fail the job. He wrestled their combined mass back to safety and denied Asshole the victory he desperately sought. Baseball even administered a combat-grade Crue shot through the outer thigh safety port, so by the time they had struggled their way back to the relative safety of the landing, Righteous had a mended rib, loosened muscles, and a rage-born readiness to finish the job, no doubt fueled by the pain of his fall and of such rapid healing.

But the Defenders were hunkered down under the incessant, annoying fire of Asshole’s drones.

“How much more time?” Rebar was getting tired of this shit. It was all he could do to keep his tools and their gear secured to the floor while playing inside Asshole’s gravity funhouse.

“Couple of minutes,” grumbled Titan. “If these FUCKING DRONES would get off my nuts—!”

It was at that moment that Baseball and Righteous appeared in the ‘doorway,’ ready to kill.

“Righteous! Kill those fucking drones! The others are busy elsewhere!”

And that was where the Aggressor’s endurance shined. The drones were little more than a harassing annoyance at the moment—the EV-MASS protected the men completely from the drone’s puny weapons—but the little fuckers proved devilishly difficult to engage and greatly harassed the Defender’s work. Normally, that would be a problem the Defenders would self-solve, but the constantly shifting and inverting gravity had them effectively pinned in place, unable to move at combat speed until they had the gravity plating under their control.

Speed is the keyword. It means different things depending on context. On raw power and ability? Both the Protectors and the Aggressors were so blindingly fast it was effectively superhuman. But while the Protectors had their speed through sheer muscular strength and the realities of athletic performance at their level, they did not have the endurance to keep it up indefinitely. Their strength was geared towards work, after all. At full speed a Protector very quickly tires, even if he could, say, comfortably outsprint nearly anyone. While wearing a combat load.

But an Aggressor? He can maintain his blinding speed for as long as he has calories to sustain himself. And with their in-suit booster juice, their limiting factor was how many bottles they carried. And he had another quality the other members lacked: superhuman agility. It wasn’t enough to be merely fast. if it were down to, say, a one hundred meter dash between Aggressors and Protectors, the Protectors would almost always win. It’s very difficult to overcome strength that overwhelming. But that same dash through a twisting obstacle course? With no end in sight?


Righteous grinned savagely and growled an acknowledgement of his orders, bounced a bit to loosen up, and exploded toward the first drone. He leaped up and grabbed it, jinking to the right to dodge its fire. He snatched it out of the air, spun it around, and threw it so hard into the wall that both exploded open, exposing their inner workings. He did not see this as he was already in motion towards the second drone.

At that moment the gravity decided to invert. The Defenders grunted in annoyance but this was of no concern to Righteous. His reflexes and perception were so highly keyed-up that he was able to sense the field shifts taking place and adjust before the full force of the change was upon him. He was the biggest, fastest, and most physical of the Aggressors, truly Legsy’s protege in the realm of close-quarters combat. Against him the drones stood absolutely no chance. Righteous sensed the field inversion, leaped up into the drone, carried through the powerful antigravity and smashed the drone into the ceiling with the full weight of his substantial mass and momentum. It too exploded into useless bits.

Another field shift approached. Still bouncing along the ceiling, he leaped up to the wall and ran along it, his mass carried through by his momentum and the field shift. He thudded back to the floor and spin-kicked a third drone, smashing it to bits with his armored combat boots. Every part of him was a weapon, and his shit-kicker combat boots were designed with smashing, fighting aggressiveness in mind. They kept him sure-footed and able to land at the most awkward angles and on the worst surfaces without fear of injury.

Before he even landed he kicked off with his other foot and tackled the fourth and largest of the drones to appear, all while dodging its fire. This one was too big to simply smash so instead he punched and stabbed and kicked and ripped it to bits. His gloves, too, were engineered as weapons. They were perhaps best described as a pair of armored maces, and were solid and weighted to maximize the force of his strikes.

He paused. The drones were dead. The fields weren’t shifting any longer; Titan, freed from harassment, made quick work of his override with Snapfire assisting from the ‘upstairs’ room. Righteous trembled in anticipation, keyed up and raring to go. He needed to break things.

Not bad for a few seconds of work, he thought. “What’s next, boss?”

Rebar keyed his rally button. “Gravity is locked down shipwide, boys. Get back here and ride ‘yer Horse up to the next room.”

There were chuckles over the intercom and a deep, amused grumble from Warhorse. “Defenders, let’s get staged up and ready. The room ‘upstairs’ should take us pretty much straight to the bridge, according to the ISG.” An updated map appeared in their HUDs, unobtrusively positioned in their preferred location. “Aggressors? Get your ride upstairs and go fuck shit up. System gravity is stuck where it is so we ain’t fixing the corridor anytime soon.”

There was a pair of smug chuckles over the intercom and brief groans from everyone else. But fun cannot get in the way of the mission. Even as they indulged in a bit of banter, the men were already moving, already positioned defensively as they prepared their next maneuver. Warhorse had his ferry lines run and cinched off, so he descended back to the ‘downstairs’ landing, having muled Snapfire and all his gear up in the minutes before. With the lines in place, Rebar and Snapfire began hauling everything upstairs, one heavy toolchest at a time.

Warhorse and Baseball conversed briefly and looked at the assembled men. “So. Who’s first?”

The Gaoian Brothers moved between rooms and avoided the major hallways, quickly subduing each knot of crew they encountered. Many of the pirates took one look at the fierce and very strong-looking Brothers, charging towards them on all fours with enormous speed and practiced skill, and surrendered on the spot. A set of nylon quick-cuffs kept them disabled and ready for the Defenders to heft back to the shuttle. Others resisted, and their end was quick and violent, be it by their silenced M-4 or by knife and claw. Fortunately, very few needed such encouragement.

One pirate escaped undetected. Which was fortunate for him; he had a signal to send.

“I believe this is the room, Regaari.” Faarek said it with a wry tone and gesture.

“What was your first clue?” He gestured to the standard-issue engineering works.

“My mechanic’s intuition, of course.” Faarek and his team were already moving to disable the ship’s propulsive systems. And in very short order, they achieved their mission.

It was a bit anticlimactic, it must be said. Regaari sighed and checked in with the SOR.


There was a bit of a pause. Rebar replied, “Fighting through the last of their defenses before the bridge. They’re not—NERVEJAM!!”

An agonizing radio silence followed.

“—FUCK! Errrrgh, we’re all fine. My head…”

Akiyama chimed in. “It’d be useful if you could disable power shipwide, guys.”

Faarek’s crew was already on it. Suddenly, power and gravity everywhere was cut. There was a loud whump in the distance, and—

“Target is secured. Let’s attend to the mop-up.”

In the end, it took less than twenty minutes to secure the ship after initial boarding. The crew proved little challenge and the obstacles were, thankfully, mostly failures. Once the SOR had secured Nisi Val (severely injured from the takedown) and the cooperation of the bridge crew, the humans wanted nothing more than to get out of their suits, shower, and sleep. Even brief missions were exhausting.

They take their toll in more ways than one, sometimes. Warhorse was the worst of all. His suit was absolutely drenched in blood and the bridge crew stared in undisguised terror. Regaari attempted to converse but the look in ‘Horse’s eye was…unsettling.

Regaari waited until ‘Horse left, carting the last of his gear. To Rebar, “What happened?”

“Someone tried to shoot Snapfire when ‘Horse was treating him. He was just a bit too close to the Nervejam and got knocked out, but we got to him in time.”

“Is he fine? Will he—?”

“Yes, full recovery. Crue-D is remarkably effective. He’ll probably be fixed up before we get back to Cimbrean. It’s ‘Horse I’m worried about.”

Regaari could tell he didn’t like where this was going. “Explain, please.”

“Well, ‘Horse didn’t take kindly to his patient being shot at. Not one little bit. So he had just finished with the emergency Crue injection, right? Just as he was cleaning up this pirate guy popped up outta nowhere and shot at Snapfire. I think he missed, maybe? Going for someone else? Well, ‘Horse just exploded towards the little Gaoian, and…” He gestured at the red, chunky mess spread all over the floor, up the walls, and across the console. Once Regaari looked at it…

“Oh, Father Fyu.” He made a gesture of respect.

“Yeah.” An awkward pause. “I ain’t never seen anyone move so fast or act so violently. Neither have any of us. ‘Base said it was even worse than the fight in Egypt, which…anyway. ‘Horse obliterated that pirate and did it so fast it was done before I even realized what was happening. Then ‘Horse just sort of…stood there.” He cleared his throat. “We, uh, had to nudge him outta it. Then he was back to business but…quiet.”

There was an uncomfortable pause as they contemplated the horrific scene. Baseball sidled up alongside as he packed his medical kits, also about to return. “He’ll be fine but he’ll want some alone time away from everyone. Except probably you and me, Regaari.”

“Wh—why me?”

“Because he loves you, Regaari.” Baseball gave him a rueful grin, “And he’s afraid of what you may think of him right now.”

Regaari chose his words carefully. “…I think he’s incredibly dangerous, If I am to be honest.”

Baseball smiled sadly, “You’re not wrong. And sometimes, he’s afraid of what he’s become these days. Believe me, I get it. ‘Horse…” He paused and gathered his thoughts, “He’s got a lotta anger, man. More than he ever lets on. And if there is anything at all that is absofuckinglutely guaranteed to set him off it’s hurting the helpless.”

“But that, I mean,” Regaari gestured helplessly—almost frightened—at the remains, “How?”

“We’re stronger than we’ve ever really shown you or almost anyone, man. There’s a reason for that.” Baseball turned to leave, the last of the pirates gone and his gear packed. But before he left, he looked sadly back at Regaari. “We’re monsters, he and I. Real, honest-to-God monsters. And we can’t ever go back.”

Daar—our intrepid Stoneback—sat patiently in the room. Or, at least, as patiently as he could manage. He was very much a being of action and sitting still was testing his self-control. It was a smallish room, barely three by four meters with a table and chairs in the middle and what he suspected was a large semi-transparent mirror on the wall. It was a room he found slightly cramped. While he was certainly not as massive a giant as human males could apparently be, he was nonetheless an impressively large and strong being by either Gaoian or Human standard, and the room had a low ceiling as well. Standing at his full height, his ears were unpleasantly close to the hanging light fixture. He sat, mostly to suppress his growing feeling of claustrophobia.

Fortunately, the humans provided a pleasantly enormous bag of “teriyaki beef jerky” and a sizable container of cool water, so he really had little to complain about. He waited for the “being of interest” to arrive and happily munched his way through most of the rich meat.

He wondered, Who might this individual be? He closed the jerky. I should save some, in case they’re hungry.

He waited a while more. Soon he was bouncing his legs and drumming his tail against the legs of his chair. He cast about futilely for paper or anything to amuse himself with. Nothing.

Fed up, he decided on a bit of exercise, just simple one-legged squats. He found the exercise pleasingly challenging in the high gravity and began an interval routine while he waited.

I hope this mission concludes quickly.

“He’s right this way, Sergeant Regaari. He wolfed down most of his food and then got twitchy. He’s been doing calisthenics now for quite a while,” she noted with amusement. “He’s been practically bouncing off the walls since he arrived. I get the impression he’s easily bored.”

“Yes, that would describe him well. How long has he been waiting?”

“About thirty minutes,” she replied. A pause, “He certainly is high energy, isn’t he?”

“The males of his Clan are known for that and he embodies his Clan traits more than any other Stoneback I’ve ever met. Now, if I may have at least the veneer of privacy…?”

“Of course. We will be in the observation room.”

“Thank you.”

Regaari calmed himself and entered. This was a tricky greeting. While he had no deep secrets to keep from his human allies, he felt strongly that all such things should be revealed in their own appropriate time. He only hoped Daar would maintain some decorum, or at least not discuss anything in public.

On the latter, he needn’t have worried.

He opened the door and Daar was doing the Gaoian version of push-ups at an impressively rapid pace. And in Earth gravity, too. Regaari was impressed, but not just by Daar’s strength. His awareness was commendable as well. The instant the door opened he stopped, sprang to his feet and stood motionless and huffing, ears erect and facing forward, and his tail locked straight-out. His entire manner was one of deep surprise and practiced caution.

Already far better than Regaari had feared. You surprise me again, Cousin. Excellent!

“Welcome back, Daar. Consider your mission a success.”

Almost before Regaari could react, Daar rapidly closed the distance, pounced on the much smaller male and swept him up in a tight, friendly hug, their noses so close they almost touched. They stared for a while, ears listening to each other intently, then delicately sniffed in the manner of a very friendly greeting between two favorite Cousins. Daar growled low and happily, words maybe a bit too much for him just now. The sense and scent of joy radiating off of Daar was intense. They touched noses, gently, and closed their eyes.

Regaari could just barely hear the desperately muffled squeal of delight from the observation room. He tried not to hold it against her.

Briefly, Regaari reflected on his recent acquaintances. It would seem most of my friends these days are all large and overly exuberant beings. When did this become routine? Daar suddenly snuggled much harder, tightening the hug considerably and making it slightly difficult for Regaari to breathe. The massive Stoneback had always been an extremely (and perhaps overly) affectionate Cousin.

One might suspect Daar and Adam would be fast friends.

Regaari froze for a moment, smashed up in the powerful hug, and then surrendered to the primal joy of the embrace and the mild breach of decorum. He squeezed back as hard as his strength allowed, which Daar acknowledged with a deeper, happier growl. As always Regaari enjoyed the affection even if it was a bit embarrassing; his human friends also liked to hug fiercely, a social mannerism shared between the species and a very good one in Regaari’s opinion. What was less comforting was how easily humans could sometimes read Gaoians; much of their emotional body language mirrored that of the humans’ canine companions, and as a result they found many of his species’ mannerisms cute. That never failed to irk him.

But he ignored all that for now. He too growled happily, “…I missed you as well, Cousin.” They scritched each other’s ears and held for a very long moment in a friendly embrace of companionship, nuzzling and lightly nipping in pleasant familiarity, scenting each other’s happiness and enjoying what was, sadly, rare social contact in Regaari’s line of work.

But enough indulgence; back to business. “Would you please put me down? I fear the humans may be unable to contain themselves.”

Daar growled in deep pleasure at their hug-greeting and didn’t immediately respond. No surprise there; he was always one to get a bit lost in his animal side. But a few seconds later the words penetrated his awareness and he snapped his head toward the two-way mirror. “Are they well? It sounded like the female was maybe in trouble.” He dropped Regaari somewhat unceremoniously, now concerned for his handlers. “Should we do anything?” He looked, trying to observe anything, ears again pricked forward.

Regaari dusted himself off as he recovered from the sudden drop and listened. He noted the silence from the observation room with a slightly malicious inward mirth.

“They are fine, Daar. You will find their reaction is related to an endearing yet annoying trait humans share regarding our kind. I shall explain later. For now…can you debrief here?”

Inwardly, Regaari feared this part. He wanted to share with the humans but this needed to be managed with great care. In particular, he must keep the newly-developed intelligence network confidential. And this meant he could not give the impression he was keeping secrets, and that further meant Daar must remember his part. Subtlety, sadly, was not something Stonebacks were known for, and Daar was as pure and unapologetic a Stoneback as any alive. Big, strong, and surprisingly intelligent? Oh yes, he was all of that, to such a degree he was the pride of his Clan. But clever or sly? Absolutely not. Daar had all the subtlety of a heavy kinetic pulse weapon aimed at a porcelain cookware shop.

Fortunately Daar understood the situation well. “Not here, Cousin. I do not know this new ally and I do not know the rules. I must hold my silence until I speak with my Grandfather.”

Direct, honest, and phrased in exactly the correct manner. Well done, Cousin. Inwardly Regaari was delighted with how thoroughly he had underestimated Daar. This was one case where he was quite happy to be proven wrong. I will need to buy you some human food when we arrive.

“Very well. Then come, let us see to more suitable arrangements.” He opened the door and led Daar out of the room who bounded happily behind him (jerky and water in hand), immediately joined by the woman from intelligence. Her expression was both utterly professional and slightly mortified.

“Right this way, gentlebeings. Daar, we will need you to vouch for prisoners, provide recommendations for their disposition…”

They left, and set to the details.


<System Notification: Session established>

++0103++: The humans have engaged their SOR against the shipment. It is lost, along with access to this Daar and what he may know. And my arm.

++0008++: That is alarming.

++0103++: <+Self-pity+> I have no idea how I will function without it.

++0008++: <+Disgust; rebuke+> I wasn’t concerned with you. How, exactly, did the humans learn of this shipment?

++0103++: <+Submission+> Unknown, but they had Gaoian counterparts. Highly effective members of Whitecrest, I believe. More effective than our files would suggest.

++0017++: What is the status of your host? And of 309? We received his report and his gestalt but nothing further.

++0103++: 309 escaped and is presumably amongst the Gaoians. As for me, this body will shortly undergo surgery to re-attach the arm. <+Trepidation+> It was ripped clean out of its socket by accident! How strong are humans?

++0008++: Extremely, and their SOR vastly more so.

++0017++: You should terminate the host during surgery. We cannot risk the humans discovering this operation.

++0103++: Ill-advised, the spike in implant activity is equally likely to reveal our presence. This host will simply need an “accident” elsewhere. For now I shall observe. We may gain valuable insight into their medical technology.

++0008++: Likely irrelevant, but as you cannot do otherwise at the moment, I agree. Pay full attention to the proceedings and especially to your surroundings. I am more interested in these Gaoians they deployed with. Do you think them allied? We have no available data on their dealings.

++0017++: Gaoians are not Deathworlders. They have little to add to such an alliance.

++0008++: Quite likely. However, more data is always beneficial. Prepare a full report and transmit with your next upload.

++0103++: <+Affirmation; obedience+>

<System Notification: 0103 has disconnected>

<System Notification: Session closed>

<Redirecting: Subnet mask ????????? port ?????>

++????++: Well, that was informative. 103 is, as ever, useless.

++????++: Indeed. However, I suspect his report on the Gaoians will prove enlightening for those who can mine its meaning.

++????++: How so?

++????++: Have you looked at my little survey project of the human’s potential allies?

++????++: Accessing now…that is interesting. Gao is becoming a Deathworld?

++????++: Yes, and this benefits us greatly.

++????++: <+Incredulity+> How? If they team up it severely disrupts our maneuver space. Gaoians were proving to be very useful and industrious hosts. What will they do now, once the humans share what they know?

++????++: Oh, I am not worried about that. I suspect the Gaoians would have eventually figured it out on their own. They’re much more dangerous than our “benevolent” organization suspects.

++????++: <+Trepidation+> How so? Are they mis-categorized? Will the humans make them into Deathworlders as well?

++????++: <+Amusement; vindication+> Oh, no. It’s far, far worse than that. Look at their culture. Look at their breeding programs, which no other species has. Look at the selection pressures this places on their people. And now, look at their alignment with the humans. Do you see what is happening?

++????++: <+Resignation+> I must confess ignorance or an inability to see your conclusion.

++????++: <+Benevolence+> Commendable honesty. As for the Gaoians, they are doing something utterly unique in our long, long history. They are deliberately engineering themselves into Deathworlders, and have been since before they were aware of their pressing need to do so. And what’s more, they are not far from succeeding.

++????++: <+Curiosity+> please elaborate.

++????++: Have you studied them deeply? They are already a formidable people. <+Admiration+> In a few generations I predict they will be genuine peers with the humans. Quite possibly sooner, in fact; already their mental faculties are comparable, their senses are complimentary, and even their bodies are grossly aligned, adjusting for the rather large differences in mass and function. One of the few things they lack is anything like a human’s immune system, yet I suspect they will find a solution. They are not a species to be underestimated.

++????++: <+Fear+> How can that possibly end well for us? <+Confusion+> You said this was to our benefit. How so?

++????++: <+Self-satisfaction+> Is it not obvious? Humans and Gaoians are socially compatible and share many of the same social restraints. Gaoians are perhaps a bit more bloodthirsty, admittedly, but their loyalty to allies is unshakable. That is useful for the struggle to come. After all, who better to destroy a weak, sickened, bloated carcass of a governing organization than vicious, merciful predators?

++????++: Would that not cause problems for the humans? Why would they align with a species deliberately engineering themselves? Are they not worried the Gaoians would eventually surpass them?

++????++: <+Amusement+> I highly doubt that. The humans are quite possibly the single most competitive species we have ever observed. They are so competitive it is woven into their very instincts and manifests in quite literally every aspect of their civilization. Should the Gaoians ever prove a genuine threat, I imagine the human response would be total and profound, and I suspect the Gaoians would be likely to share any advances they developed anyway. No. Their alliance does not concern me. They’re far too inclined to admire each other.

++????++: <+Doubt+> That seems an incredible risk you are taking on behalf of our people.

++????++: It is a risk taken for us, whether we prefer it or not. The Humans and Gaoians will ally and there is little we can or should do to stop it. We should be doing the opposite.

++????++: <+Realization+> You cannot mean what I think you mean.

++????++: <+Commitment+> Of course I do. We must contact the Gaoians directly.