Good Training – Survival Part 9

Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Meeting of Given-Men

Yan Given-Man

“When will Jooyun return and take the Rite of Manhood?”

Yan mopped some of the sweat from his crest and loosened up his crushing grip on his challengers. “Soon,” he said confidently. “Soon.”

Fall was almost upon them and the signs were everywhere. The werne were growing restless and some had already begun migrating south for better feeding grounds. The days were shorter and the warmth from the sun had started to fade…it was time to finish preparing for winter. The year’s final Rites of Manhood were well underway and all the Given-Men had grown boys in their tribes to guide through the Hunt, the Singers were helping their girls cross over into Womanhood…

But the Hunt was the most important thing. It was when the tribes drew the line between the good times of spring and summer, and the upcoming harshness of fall and winter. This winter would probably be easier since they had much food ‘canned,’ which all of the tribes had worked hard to make. Or, was it ‘jarred?’ Maybe ‘potted?’ That felt better since they mostly used their little clay pots—now ‘glazed’ which was a nicely buzzy word…[buzzword] maybe? Was that right? It sounded right. He’d have to ask Jooyun because ‘English’ words could twist in strange ways. ‘Potting’ food wasn’t potting because that meant a different way to save meat, which wasn’t ‘canning’ like Jooyun insisted they were doing, even though they were using pots…

Strange Sky-Tribe magic. Useful, but strange. Nobody was quite ready to trust themselves to this ‘canned’ food because of that. Not yet. Let it prove itself over a few winters, like every man needed to prove themselves.

None of that changed the other problems of winter, either. Boys needed to become men to face their first winter without the strength of their parents, and in any case, hunting was a much harder thing when the werne were migrating; the need for fresh meat wouldn’t go away even with all the smoking and ‘canning’ they’d done, so the tribes needed every strong and healthy hunter they could get.

The nearby Given-Men had gathered as they regularly did, but this meeting was special. It was the last before fall began and was the time when the last plans were laid, and when boys who weren’t quite ready were gently dissuaded from undertaking the Rites. Those who had failed were mourned, the names of new men were shared, and stories about their exploits were told around the fire.

And play-fighting, just because. Why not roughhouse while everyone was there? It wasn’t serious fighting like the battles that took place at the Lodge. The Given-Men knew the pecking order and that wouldn’t change until the spring when old Given-Men died and new men were initiated. This was much more…fun.

Den and Arsh had always planned everything out together like brothers. This time was no different, and both had challenged Yan at the same time for a tussle in the dirt. Yan taught them the futility of their idea and ended up sitting on them both to their groaning, trilling protestations. It was fun and nobody was mad…but Yan couldn’t let them think they could ever win against him. Not now. Not ever.

And besides, Yan was so far in the lead he could afford to indulge their challenges. So he did. But not without a little teasing.

“Maybe you two want to be my women for tonight?” Yan grinned and squeezed his legs around them a little bit tighter. “I think you might like it too much!”

They trilled and struggled fiercely like a yshek skewered through the tail; not that they could escape, but he let them recover some dignity and wiggle slightly free. He was in a good mood! They were too, so he let them ask their questions.

“Will he be ready?” Arsh said, a bit more seriously. He was barely pinned so Yan shifted his weight a bit and won a grunt of pain from his old friend.

“He will be ready. His spear-work is almost as good as mine now and he’ll be as strong as a full man of the tribe, soon. Maybe even strong like Wawsh!”

Jooyun wasn’t actually sure he’d be able to get that strong but he was confident he could maybe get close. Which was good. Heff wouldn’t. He was strong too but he would always be a small man, it wasn’t in his bones to be big like it was for the other two. He could climb the highest branches of any tree as well as any of child of the tribes though, which was a strength of its own kind as far as Yan was concerned.

“Is he worth it?” Den was always one to ask the strong questions right away. No softening anyone up for anything. “You have spent much time teaching him our ways, time you could spend with our own boys. We’ve all noticed.”

Den was the stronger of the two and managed a clean, un-hurried question instead of having to fight for his breath. That wouldn’t do. Yan squeezed his tail around Den’s waist a bit harder and earned a pained grunt from him as well. Then he tightened a little bit more, to pay him back for the accusation. But only a little.

“I have taught my boys all they need, Den Given-Man. Jooyun Takes nothing I can’t Give, he is extra work after the boys have learned for the day. And yes, he will be worth it. I hope he will teach me to be a man of his people, too.”

Both the Given-Men nodded in understanding, so Yan let them up and swept them both into a smashing hug, which they gave back just as fiercely. The three of them had cheery spirits and tussled again, then eventually flopped down in front of the fire in a puddle of tangled happiness.

“What about the Magic of it?” Singer had watched their antics with her usual unreadable expression. “Jooyun said he’s afraid of the magic Seeing powder.”

The two other Given-Men looked at him and Yan gave a slightly annoyed snarl. “He’s not afraid of the powder, it’s what it might do to him. He and Professor say, they’re different People whose gods made them different on the inside too. He’s worried the powder may be poison for him, like ‘alcohol’ is for us.”

One thing Yan was glad about was how smart the Given-Men usually were, and for how much Singer’s wisdom could bring that out in anyone. He shot her a slightly apologetic grin and turned back to Arsh and Den.

“That is maybe wise.” Said Arsh. He was always quicker to think thoughts than Den. Not that he was any wiser, he was just…faster. “But how will he See?”

Den looked up at Yan, the re-settled himself a bit closer to the fire and snuggled harder. That made Yan happy. It was getting cold out but nobody wanted to start wearing furs just yet. Why bother when you had warm friends and a warm fire?

“I think he will find an answer. He…his gods have a wisdom, something like ‘your body is your prayer,’ I think. He says, maybe magic powders offend his gods, so he is Sky-Thinking about it. Professor Daniel thinks he will end up bringing back a magic powder for Humans anyway.” Yan looked at Singer, “Would that be okay?”

Singer thought about it for a long while, then sat on Arsh’s lap to warm herself. “I think, the gods want to speak to us, how they do that isn’t as important. That is why we take the magic powder. Their words are too strong for us to hear otherwise. I think, if this Human powder lets him listen to the gods, then they won’t be angry. As long as he doesn’t anger his gods, too.”

That seemed wise to Yan, and it seemed wise to Den and Arsh too. They all nodded their heads in agreement then snuggled a little closer. Sundown was coming soon and Singer would need to Sing the night’s song, but that wasn’t quite yet. Right now it was cold, and they were friends, and friends helped each other fight off the chill. Others were gathering too, and before long his whole tribe relaxed around the fire, pressed together in warmth and happiness with the children climbing over everyone.

Yan hoped Jooyun would come back soon. He missed him.

Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Total Combat Fitness, southwest Folctha, Cimbrean
Early afternoon

Dr. Marc Tisdale

Marc’s master plan to exhaust Julian with a nice, long run hadn’t exactly been a smashing success. The dude strapped on that murderously heavy vest without any fuss and bounded down the trails like it wasn’t much of a challenge. Marc ran a pretty good pace for a big man but he’d decided to push himself a bit too far that day…

Up against Julian that ended up being a mistake. Marc would eventually pay for that error in pain, but that was for later. For now, he wanted to enjoy himself. It was a long weekend and he had nothing planned for a change, so Hayley had gently kicked everyone out of the house, left Hope with a babysitter and told them not to come back until late evening so she could enjoy some well-deserved alone time. She hadn’t sent him empty-handed, either; There was a tenner in Marc’s lunchbox, and a card that simply read ‘Get yourself a McDonald’s <3’

Considering Hayley’s lifelong commitment to vegetarianism, Marc wasn’t going to complain at all…though if he was honest with himself he probably indulged a bit too much nowadays. He was dangerously close to the line between “dad-bod” and “chubby.” Marc took another look at Julian, then down at his growing spare tire, considered the run he’d just been humiliated on…and decided to get a low-carb wrap instead.

He really needed to get back into good habits.

Julian’s lunch on the other hand was a series of containers heaped to bursting with grilled chicken, guacamole, brown rice, and what looked like sautéed peppers and the like. Rather then eat them separately he simply dumped everything in the biggest container and enthusiastically stirred the contents together with his fork, then shoveled it all into his face with reckless abandon.

“It seems you learned how to eat from Adam, too.”

Julian grinned and nodded. “Uh-huh,” he managed between gulps of a protein shake. “Meal number five for the day.” He cleared some more of it out the way, swallowed hugely, and gasped slightly for air at the end. “Kinda got in the habit of bolting my food down on Nightmare too. Never knew when something might want to steal it. Actually…I did that as a kid, too. Grandpa never much liked it.”

“You do look a bit like a squirrel.”

“Ha!” Julian laughed and took a much more civilized bite. “Guess I shouldn’t be such a pig.”

“You’re an American,” Marc replied drily, “We’ve grown accustomed to it.”

“Mhmm.” The two ate in silence and then walked back to the gym to settle their meals, Julian’s vest slung over one shoulder. It was a fairly long walk back to the gym, more than enough time to get everything settled.

Then it was time for round two. Marc tried every trick he knew to wear the bastard out. The run hadn’t worked, it ended up exhausting Marc instead. Plyometrics of any kind didn’t seem to work either, at least, not enough to be worth it. The weights, though, those ended up doing the trick once Julian finally showed off what he could really do. Marc, at that point thoroughly humbled, gleefully worked Julian as long and as hard as the big man could stand. No rest, hardly any pause between sets. There was just the lift at hand while Marc either spotted or set the next station up ahead so Julian had no reason to stop.

Just keeping up with him was exhausting and Marc felt half-dead from the effort, but he’d finally managed the trick. They ended up collapsed next to each other on the mat, both struggling to cool down and calm their breath.

Julian caught his first. “Man. You’re evil when you wanna be.”

Marc panted a little bit before replying. “Where…do you think…Adam learned?”

They took another couple of minutes to recover. When his pulse had slowed down to something less frenetic, Marc sat up and gave Julian a once-over. Julian also chose that moment to sit up, pull his legs in, reach over and stretch his back in a seated twist. He flexed and his spine popped loudly with a happy sigh. Marc gawped and found himself somewhat enviously staring while every annoyingly perfect shape on the young man’s body popped into sharp relief.

“Christ.” He grumbled to himself, “You’re put together a lot like he is.” Which wasn’t any kind of exaggeration; Julian was a lean and these days heavily muscled man, but instead of a lot of showy bulk it was crammed onto a compactly dense frame like Marc had only ever seen on Adam.

“Yeah,” Julian mumbled in embarrassment and scratched the back of his head in exactly the same distracting way he’d done before. “Same basic frame and everything, he showed me pictures from when he wasn’t such a tank. He thinks it’s a big part of why I was able to get so strong.”

Also true: the two took after each other’s habits and body shape like training partners often did. Julian had grown to become a relatively smaller, more sanely sized echo of Adam.

“…Right. Anyway,“ Marc moved on before he ended up embarrassing himself, “So you’ve discovered you’re one of the very best there is at this game, eh? I think that is a good thing, you need to be that physically dominant to live on Akyawentuo. It sounds like it’s about the toughest place around.”

“…Eh, depends on how you mean.” Julian sprang up and prowled over to the chin-up bar. Like Adam he seemed to enjoy motion for its own sake and didn’t sit still for long if he didn’t have to. “I’d say that’s still Earth.” Marc watched while Julian repeatedly pulled himself up and down, smooth and slow.

Marc decided he’d stretch himself instead. “What makes you say that?”

“Well…you gotta be strong on Akyawentuo…sure enough.” He paused at the top after an honestly frightening number of reps and held himself upright, then did hanging leg raises. “And if you ain’t strong…and you need real food…you don’t get to eat…so you die.” A huge count of very rapid muscle-ups, and again he paused at the top. “But the thing is, that’s really all there is to it. Things on Akyawentuo aren’t as…evil.”

“…Evil.” Somehow, that seemed like an appropriate thought to voice while contorted backwards into a bridge.

“Yeah.” He did more pull-ups, these as fast as he could manage with his legs straight out. He did some absurd number then held himself at the top and caught his breath for a moment. “…Evil. Like, nothing really venomous. Or exploding bomb-fruit. Or plants that’ll give you a deadly rash. Well. No.” Another minute of rapid pull-ups. “Okay. They do have those things. But it’s…kinda obvious when something’ll fuck your life up. Bright colors or whatever. And anyway,” he hopped down to do some plyometric push-ups. “I don’t think the Ten’Gewek could hunt enough food to feed themselves on Earth,” he commented with a frighteningly steady voice between claps. “There isn’t enough big prey anymore.”

“So…” Marc puzzled on that, “Your thesis is that you—we—humans, could adapt to life on Akyawentuo, but the reverse isn’t true for the Ten’Gewek.”

It was another minute before Julian stopped and answered, slightly winded. “Yeah. Like, I’m this big, uh, ‘meatslab’ these days. Fine. I’ll admit it’s been fun as hell. And if I was alone and wasn’t this kind of strong, and I didn’t have my rifle? I’d prob’ly slowly starve to death.”

“Sounds pretty rough to me.”

“Sure,” Julian countered, “But on the other hand if I had to, I could, like, drop a hundred-fifty pounds and move to Nightmare and still be a healthy, strong dude. That…doing that would probably kill Vemik.”

“Really, how so? He seems clever and strong.”

“He is but he’s also an apex carnivore. I mean, we think of him like he’s this young kinda puppy fella, right? And he is! But he also eats enough meat to go through the equivalent of a deer in about a week, organs, bones and all. That’s on top of anything else he forages or whatever, too. Imagine what a tribe of them is like. And imagine that fellas like Yan can go through a deer in, like, maybe a couple of days if he’s been busy.”


“Mhmm.” Julian thought quietly for a long moment. True to form he hopped over to the pegboard and climbed it, then back down, then up again, then back down…

Marc tried not to ogle but it was hard not to given both the man he was watching and the effortless way he hauled himself up and down. Eventually Julian slowed down and did a seemingly endless number of pull-ups at the top. When he was finally winded he leaped down from the top and thumped heavily next to Marc, then crashed on the ground next to him.

It took him a few moments to get his breath back. Marc waited patiently.

“You know,” he said eventually, “I think maybe the Corti’s algorithm, well…I think the scale’s all wrong, because maybe they’re looking at the wrong stuff.”

That was an intriguing idea. “Or maybe there’s multiple axis that need to be expressed.”

“Right, like caloric requirements, or maybe how scarcity and surplus work. Stone-Age human cultures nearly all had the ability to preserve food, for instance. The People really…didn’t. Well. Okay. They could. But only by smoking. And sometimes just drying things out. We just taught them how to use salt properly, and how to can things in little crocks. We’re, uh…still working on glass. Turns out that’s a really hard skill to learn.”

Marc nodded. “I see what you’re saying. They hadn’t really developed that capability, that we know of, because they hadn’t really needed to. We don’t know what the ones that got antimatter bombed were like.”

“Well, they were quite a bit less robust, we know that from skeletons. Similar cranial capacity, too. Maybe…a bit less, actually.”

That reminded Marc of some papers he’d read long ago about humanity’s own paleohistory. “…So the survivors are something like neanderthals. Almost literally.”

“…Yeah. I guess they are. You gotta be the best at everything to live like they do. But that means they need food and an environment that can support them.”

“Which means…they’re specialized well past the point that, for instance, Homo Sapiens developed. We’re one of the few species on Earth that can eke out a living and thrive everywhere. So…you’re thinking that the Corti’s algorithm doesn’t take any of that into account?”

“…Eh, I dunno. I wasn’t thinking that far. I ain’t smart like you are.”

“What did I say about false modesty?” Marc said, annoyed.

“I know, I ain’t bein’ like that.” Julian shrugged, “I mean it’s not my kind of smart.”

“Well, fair enough I suppose. What were you thinking, then?”

I guess what I was thinkin’ was…well, we and the neanderthals, we didn’t exactly wipe them out. We interbred. European men being hairy and having red hair is proof of that. I think it’s more…well. Yeah. We’re both adapted to a nasty-ass deathworld. It’s just they try to kill you different ways. And Earth is sneakier.”

That was an interesting idea, admittedly. And it prompted unbidden a sudden realization: “So they’re the equivalent of neanderthals for their world, they’re adapted to very hard living…and we just froze their development. Permanently.”

“We saved their lives, Marc.” Julian growled it with no small amount of annoyance.

“Of course! Hats off for that. But how do we help them now? I mean, think about it. You’re proposing to help a people adapt to a new reality who may be unable to, in some ways.”

“Well…why not? They’re reasonable fellas.”

“One of the greatest heresies I ever learned that was actually deep truth: in the end, you can’t win over your own nature. You can master it, or you can adapt to it. But it always wins.”


Marc chuckled. “Eh, just an old hippy grousing about some hard life lessons. Tell you what,” he proposed, “Let’s put that aside for the moment and spar, clear your head out. I’m interested to see if you can somehow manage to escape the clutches of a fat old man.”

Julian nodded and grinned somewhat savagely, then sprang to his feet. “I’m feeling good! Bet I finally pin your tricksy ass.”

“You’re a few inches shorter than I,” Marc remarked with a blunt smile, “But you have a longer reach and outweigh me by enough that it’s almost embarrassing. If you somehow don’t manage to pin me today, I shall be greatly surprised and you should feel bad about it.”

That seemed to do it. Julian snarled happily and went for it. And lost, immediately. But that was okay, because Marc hadn’t yet figured out what was bothering Julian so much that he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—talk about it. What could Marc do but listen and build trust?

Not much. But until Julian decided to open up, Marc could teach him how to fight.

Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Western battlefront, Gao

Corporal Michael Murphy

Another raid, another cleaned out village. Michael was getting bone-tired of it all.

On the one hand, there was tangible progress every single day. The Great Father hadn’t been lying about anything, either: once the Army hit a certain size, things had mushroomed really fucking fast and now Michael and his troop were more or less only on as advisory units. They followed the front, occasionally participated when a particularly tricky objective was in the way or when the Gaoian troops were dan gerously green. Casualties had been quite high at the start of the war, but the numbers were getting better and better all the time.

Which was weirdly depressing, because the reason for that was they weren’t fighting biodrones en masse much anymore. They had largely retreated to the cities just as Great Father had predicted they would, although every so often they’d pop up somewhere they hadn’t been expected. These days, most actual fighting was rogue Gaoian “Clans” that had sprung up in the chaos, and which had survived the initial planetwide culling by Stoneback’s Claws. Those that had hidden, or sprung up later, or which had just not drawn notice…some of those had grown well-emplaced. And, in the process, some did things out of desperation or sheer uncivilized evil that could not ever be forgiven by any sane person, of any species.

To the credit of most of these regional Clans though, they handled themselves quite honorably. Those that did often received the Great Father’s public praise and some were even permitted a continued existence. Clan Forestnettle, for example, had formed along one of Gao’s last wild forests and viciously guarded it from any misuse. They kept their harvest to deadwood and managed things so well, Stoneback had allied with them as an associate Clan.

Some of these upstart fake Clans, though, they didn’t have any honor. Those were targeted for destruction, and steamrolling them was…depressingly easy. They didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t have any tactical understanding of the land or their own forces, and they were very easy to demoralize. Put one hulking goddamned Stoneback Brother at the front and have him go completely horror show at the beginning of things, and gutting their Clan became the work of minutes. Terror did most of the work. No hive-mind coordination of a biodrone, no complete disregard for life or safety, no deliberate expenditure of forces just to bleed the Army dry. They were still people, and people could be defeated instead of simply destroyed.

They weren’t brave people, though. They were cowards. Frightened, untrained, weak, half-starving cowards. And slaughtering cowards wasn’t good for anyone’s soul, but all of that was generally in the countryside amongst critical resources, so it had to be done up close and personal rather than simply flattening their enclaves from orbit. There were Females to consider too, and the Gao could not afford any female casualties.

That meant they had a justice problem they had to deal with. Justice amongst the Gao was swift and brutal. Many of the helplessly entrapped Clanless males would end up ritually scar-marked and sent to the Army’s training grounds, where life for them would be extreme and unpleasantly educational. They had a lot to prove if they were going to be accepted in the new Army “Clan” but they were nonetheless offered the opportunity. “Everyone worthy of a chance gets one,” Daar had said. Nobody had the balls to argue the point with him.

Things got much worse as justice worked its way up the leadership. The so-called middle management were often scar-marked, ritually shaved, and castrated at a minimum. They had no future with anyone, anywhere. Woe betide any who were credibly guilty of crimes against Females. What happened to those cases was…best not shared with the unprepared.

The leaders of each “Clan” had it the worst and as far as Michael was concerned, deserved it. They went to the Great Father and their death, if they were allowed one, could take many days. Each such case was tried by the remaining Judge-Fathers of Straightshield. One or two were found guiltless, and the females responsible were named and shamed by the Mother-Supreme herself. Another few were guilty of minor crimes at most. But most, well…

Michael had nightmares about them, some nights. He suspected he’d need a hell of a lot of counseling when everything was said and done and he finally got to go home.

Tonight was a big raid and a very dangerous one. A “Clan Ironsides” had emplaced itself in a deep-shaft mine and had enough supplies to last for years. They had females with them too, and negotiations had failed once a flybot had descended the mine and captured evidence of exactly how their self-declared Grandfather treated their women. That made Michael’s blood boil. He had no problem whatsoever bringing death to scum like that. Neither did anyone he worked with, and they weren’t shy to say it, either.

[“Don’t be nice to them,] Michael.” Pinky was too blind and, honestly, too dumb to be trusted in combat, but he could cook, he could work, and he was surprisingly strong for his size, so he ended up following along as a ‘camp rat’ in the rear. He was good at it too, and liked to help his friends get ready for a fight.

“We won’t, Pinks. These guys fuckin’ deserve it.” By now they were all fluently bilingual. Everyone preferred to speak their mother tongue, though. It was easier.

[“Good.”] A little heft, a bit of a twist, and Michael had all his gear seated and ready.

That just left the actual mission. The mine wasn’t of much strategic importance. It wasn’t yet depleted but they had much richer sources of heavy metals on Gao and in their star system. Were it not for the Females, Great Father Daar would likely have left them at peace.

But nobody screwed with the Females. Among the Gao that was the ultimate, unforgivable crime, and it was one Daar would not overlook. Everyone down in that mine knew it, too. If they lost they would all die horrible, protracted deaths. They had no incentive to surrender, and Daar had no mercy left to give. Both of them saw the fight as one of survival.

Both were right.

Michael sighed. The time for those thoughts were over. Right now he needed some Sabaton, some Snickers and some Rip-Its. He needed to go zen out with his battle buddies.

And in an hour, he would be the Reaper.

Date point: 14y 9m 1d AV
Total Combat Fitness, southwest Folctha, Cimbrean
Late afternoon

Dr. Marc Tisdale

It had taken more work than any tough case Marc had ever dealt with, and the task had left him feeling like a bowl of wobby pudding with promises of entire symphonies of pain awaiting him in the morning…but finally, at last, Julian had managed to work off enough frustrated energy to just lie on the ground, chat…and think.

And flatten Marc like a bug, repeatedly. Julian had finally learned how to use his huge weight and strength advantages to his benefit. His technique was basic, sloppy, and needed a lot of refinement…but given that he was so physically good, that ended up not mattering as much.

It was getting pretty late in the day when Julian finally decided he’d had enough revenge on Marc and allowed him to escape from his clutches. They both flopped over and panted for a while…then just sat there, staring at the ceiling.

It was some time before Julian spoke. “I’ve been worrying about the People a lot, haven’t I?”

“Yeah.” Marc mused, untying himself and stretching out. “I think that’s a good thing, though. You referred to yourself as a ‘meatslab’ earlier, but I think it’s pretty evident you’ve been thinking about this a lot. I see why the Byron Group picked you.”

Julian chuckled and flomped over onto his back. “Hey, I never said I was dumb! I’m a thinkin’ slab! I’m writing book reports and essays and everything these days, too.”

Marc grinned. “You know, Adam once said almost the exact same thing to me.” He paused for a minute while Julian briefly considered something involving movement, and then flomped back onto the mat. “I wonder sometimes if I could have done better by him as a young man. Hayley and I have really tried hard not to repeat some of the parenting mistakes I think we may have made with Sara, but the truth is, there’s no manual for parenting at all.”


Marc sighed. “You can’t help but blame yourself when your little girl dies, Julian. Let’s…leave it there, please.” Even confessing to that much brought a sick feeling to Marc’s stomach. “At least I know some more of the truth nowadays…”

“…Shit, I’m sorry.”

“It’s been ten years. I…somehow we carried on. That’s all there is to say. But thanks.” God, she’d have been twenty-four just weeks ago…

Julian for his part had a look like he desperately wanted to Make It Better. That helped.

“…Hey, so. Uh… you and your lovely ladies. Any plans?” Marc rallied.

“…Uh, yeah!” Julian rallied happily, awkwardness forgotten. “Lots of plans. They all seem to involve spending a lot of money these days…” Julian flopped over onto his belly and talked sideways into the mat. “Which is kinda dumb of me, I guess. I’m still thinking like the only income we have was my grampa’s pension. Now I’ve got a portfolio manager.” His tone wasn’t exactly contemptuous so much as…disbelieving.

“You earned every penny.”

“…If you say so.”

Marc chuckled. “I do say so. You’re not some fat-cat banker taking a yearly bonus, you explored alien words, got shot at, probably a whole bunch of other stuff you never told about…If anybody deserves to be a millionaire…”

Julian shrugged hugely and nodded along. “I get it. It’s not guilt. It’s just…weird. Like, this!” He sat up and pulled his foot off. “This right here? You wouldn’t believe how much it cost. I just…I grew up on commodity cheese and powdered eggs, and whatever I could hunt, y’know?”

“Hayley and I used to live in a teepee village in rural Wales,” Marc retorted. “Which, okay, was self-imposed poverty as a lifestyle choice, but there were a lot of people in that community who could barely afford to pay attention.”

Julian gave him an unmistakably wary yet politely neutral look. “Hey, whatever floats your boat. Actually.” He brushed his hair back and turned to face Marc more directly, and took a deep breath. At long last, Julian seemed ready for whatever was bothering him.

“I do got a question. It’s one I think you’re, uh, better equipped to answer. And it’s a painful fuckin’ decision for me.”

“Fire away.”

“Okay. So. That manhood hunt I mentioned earlier today.”


“There’s a ritual at the end. It involves a hallucination. With a drug. I don’t want to insult them, but I really do not want to take that powder of theirs. I’m…at a loss.”

“Have you asked them about it?”

“Yeah. Yan is pretty adamant that it’s not a proper Hunt if I don’t See at the end. So is Singer.”

Hmm. That was a conundrum. Probably best to get to the root of it, first.

“If the objective is the Vision…Would they let you use a different substance? Or a different technique? There are other ways to go on a vision quest.”

“I…suppose so. It’d need to be pretty similar. And it’s a pretty vivid hallucination. I’ve watched one of their men in the throes of it.”

“So…peyote, then. It’s pretty safe. And ah… sorry if I have this totally wrong, but isn’t that right up your cultural alley?”

Julian sighed. “My Grampa was Navajo,” he said patiently, as though he’d explained this a thousand times before. “I’m not. They made that pretty clear.”

“…Oh. Well, um…I can tell you from personal experience it’s an eye-opening experience. And safe, as long as you have people you trust with you. Or there’s Salvia I guess…that’s quick, but intense. Peyote is…gentle. But it’ll last until morning. Both are very well-understood and safe if you don’t overdose. There’s also Cimbrean Tea, but we’re still…well. We don’t have centuries of historical use to draw on. We don’t yet know if it’s safe.”

Julian grimaced a bit. “Could I do some kind of trance? I sorta already get that working out…”

“It’s not the same. The whole point is the altered state of mind, right? You might insult them if you try something too different.”

“…And it’s safe.”

“Yes. If someone experienced is there with you to help. And if you have loved ones with you, too. Falling off the infinite can be terrifying the first time you do it.”

Julian gave him a skeptical frown. “Falling off the what, now?”

“See, that just proves you’ve never done it. I can’t explain it, but anybody who has knows exactly what I mean. Remember, mind altering drug. You literally can’t comprehend what it’s like until you experience it for yourself.”

That seemed like a decision he wasn’t ready to make just then. “I…gotta think about it.”

Marc hmmed thoughtfully to himself. “Of course…you could go on a vision quest here on Cimbrean first,” he suggested. “Among humans. Folctha has zero drug regulations, just a public safety and awareness service. There’s a sweat lodge out on the lake. I know—” he held up his hand to forestall the protest, “It’s warmed over hippy crap and cultural appropriation and all that. But there’s something to it. It’s still an experience and you need that experience if you’re going to make an informed decision, I think.”

Julian looked torn. Desperately so. Marc considered the big man opposite him; he was clearly a bit conservative on some things and it was plainly obvious from their entire conversation that he preferred to take no drugs at all, not even things that would probably benefit him. He avoided sports pharmacology altogether—Marc would probably always be a bit jealous of the massive genetic gifts that let Julian do that—and went for a prosthetic foot at enormous expense rather than have that “charming” Nofl fellow grow him a new one. That spoke volumes.

But he seemed determined to accomplish his mission, too. After some deep thinking, complete with thrashing his head back and forth and growling to himself…

Julian looked over at Marc with an almost pleading expression. “Would…you help me?”

Date point: 14y 9m 2w AV
Dog House Gym, Adam’s building, Folctha, Cimbrean
Early afternoon

Julian Etscitty

He’d made it. Finally. Julian had climbed up a nigh-impossible mountain, one made of soreness, a broken foot, a couple near-tears of muscle and tendon, exquisite pain, and a constant feeling of overstuffed nausea which one day flipped into constant hunger. Also: a genuinely hopeless amount of rice. Dear God the fucking rice!

Along the way he’d bust out of his clothing and his relationship with Allison and Xiù had been tested. Not strained—they understood the why under all of it—but nobody liked living with a man who was either grumpy and in pain, or frenetic and desperate to move, or “cutting” and therefore constantly cranky from carb depletion, or goofy from too many…

But that was mostly behind him. Adam’s coaching and his frankly cheerfully sadistic approach to training had given Julian results, fast. So fast, in fact, that he’d plateaued a month prior and was now firmly in what Adam referred to as a “steady state.” No more evil manipulation of his diet—for which Xiù sighed in relief when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. No more hateful playing with his training, either; It was all solid, well-tested and routine stuff, now. Put in the work, do the daily grind, keep his size, slowly build his strength, don’t get too crazy. “This is your new normal,” Adam had said. “We just have to teach your body to believe it.”


“Yeah! I’m serious, man. Hang onto your gains for like a year and it’ll be way easier to stay in shape. Trust me. Where you’re at is something a lotta pros would kill to get! And if you keep it up and you’ll never hafta worry about losing it. Just eat enough and keep lifting!”

Adam’s enthusiasm was really infectious and had honestly been the thing that got Julian through the hell of it all. But it was totally worth it. His strength, speed, and endurance were something he could hardly believe. “Remember when you asked if you could ever match with Walsh?” Adam asked, pleased as shit and his usual ridiculous and aggressively happy self.

“Wait, he wanted to match with me?” Walsh was there too for his check-in with Adam; he was planning to join the HEAT still and that meant his progress had to satisfy Warhorse.

“…I admit I did.” Julian scratched at the back of his head. He’d been told that was one of his nervous gestures but he really didn’t see any need to stop. The back of his head got itchy. Why wouldn’t he scratch it? “And?”

“Well,” Adam grinned, “I was wrong. You did end up matching with him. Well, where he was at the time, anyway. You wanted to get fuckin’ beastly and we got you there, man. ‘Grats!”


Adam showed him the Little Black Book, the one that tracked Julian’s progress. Actually seeing the numbers was, in a way, a little intimidating, but they had gotten more and more familiar. Even so, the sudden in-your-face presentation of it would have been humbling if Marc hadn’t beaten some reality check into his thick skull. As it was, he had…serenity? Was that the right word? He thought so. Professor had been teaching some good ones just by all the talking and essays and stuff, and if he were honest, he was kinda starting to like that, too.

He’d never admit that to Daniel, though. Not ever. Or the girls. A man had to have some secrets, even if they probably knew anyway.

“Sh’yeah bro!” Walsh’s Californian surfer-bum could not be contained. “And I had a little help to get to where you are now. But not you, man! Look at what you did! You’re the perfect fuckin’ ambassador to our cavemonkey bros!!”

“Envoy,” Julian was careful to say. “Apparently that has legal meaning. I’m a Special Envoy.”

“Right,” Adam said. “Ambassadors are scrawny fucks anyway, right?”

“…You really are the Alpha of Meatheads, aren’t you?”

“Yup!” He bounced on his toes and shook the concrete slab floor. “And you’re one of my best students!”

Now he was deliberately embarrassing him. Even if, well, it was maybe true. “Right. So, in your opinion,” Julian dragged things back to business, “Am I healthy enough to take this Rite of Manhood?”

“Okay.” Adam got serious too. “As a certified personal trainer, I believe you are fit enough to meet the criteria you laid out in, uh…” He searched around frantically, then found a stack of paper. “This! Right. I think I can count on my fingers and maybe my toes every dude who could meet the standard, and you’re pretty firmly on that list. So yeah. You’re a go from me.”

That was the huge relief he’d been waiting for, been working towards for…years, now. It washed over him like a wave. He’d done it.

Now to take care of that other thing. Julian said his goodbyes, finished his business with the clinic and did all the other sign-offs and medical approvals and God-Knows-what-else…

And went camping with the Tisdales and his girlfriends. On any other evening, the prospect of some outdoors fun would have lifted his spirits. But right then?

He’d never been more nervous about anything.

Previous Chapter

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CopRit Empire, Halfil Sol 14 Of Race 4 Year 4958 Frostal Secondary, New Baltimore Sitting down in the chair across from the Principal’s desk I nervously swallowed and tried to calm my heart. The Principal could probably hear it, and smell my perspiration. Which was only making me more nervous. “Thoomaas,” squeaked the principal from

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Sweetness – Love and Kiing (NSFW)

CopRit Empire, Halfil Sol 14 Of Race 4 Year 4958 Frostal Secondary, New Baltimore Sitting down in the chair across from the Principal’s desk I nervously swallowed and tried to calm my heart. The Principal could probably hear it, and smell my perspiration. Which was only making me more nervous. “Thoomaas,” squeaked the principal from

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Rising Titans – Chapter 46

9 Years, 6 Months, 14 Days After Eridani Landing Jikse Diana blinked in surprise as the jungle was suddenly lit up by a fantastic reddish glow, glancing behind her towards the city Diana watched as another blast of energy, identical in color to the flash fell from the sky. Unable to see from her vantage

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 5

Date Point: 16y2m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches Julian Etsicitty The house was a mess when Julian got back, which was rare. Nobody in their household was naturally untidy—living on Misfit had driven Allison, Xiù and himself into an ingrained habit of orderliness, and the boys had lived in fear of their father’s belt

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 4

Date Point: 16y2m AV Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1536 ++Asymptote++: I have bad news. It would seem our new drones are detectable. ++0004++: <Dismay> you’re certain? ++Asymptote++: The force I sent to Cimbrean was captured immediately upon arrival. ++0007++: How? ++Asymptote++: Unclear. The Arutech drones don’t report as concisely as conventional biodrones. The connection is…

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 3

Date Point: 16y2m AV The Thinghall, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Gabriel Arés Every civilization needed its icon of executive power. The UK had the black door of Number Ten Downing Street and, somewhere behind it, the Cabinet Room; the USA had the White House, and the Oval Office; Folctha had the Alien Palace. The

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Good Training – Survival Part 1

You may also want to read Pyrophytes in The Deathworlders series. Same story, different angles. Date point: 14y 7d AV Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Professor Daniel Hurt “You want me to read it by next week?” Julian mopped the sweat from his face and bounced loosely in place. “What was it

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Rising Titans – Chapter 45

-7 Hours CHRONT THE CANADA “More contacts!” said Arik as she flashed every monitor on the bridge a bright red. Stagg glanced up at the monitor, “How many more?” “I’m counting!” “You’re counting!?” A grainy image of the approaching Empire patrol vessel was quickly displayed, a small box around it. Additional boxes quickly filled the

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 2

Date Point: 16y2m AV Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Nofl Leemu had become unresponsive. Nofl’s quarantine facility had alerted him after the patient had been anomalously still for twenty minutes, and the reason why became obvious upon a quick inspection of the cell: Leemu was sprawled on his back, staring blissfully up at

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Good Training – April Fool’s

13y 3m 29d AV One-Fang workhouse, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Sergeant Regaari (Dexter) of Clan SOR One of the best things about the humans was that they had a springtime holiday dedicated to mischief. Before them, only the Gao could claim to celebrate such a thing and it was one of the

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 1

Date Point: 16y2m AV Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Nofl Nofl’s lab was spacious, but inevitably finite. When it contained an alarming number of alarmed Humans, not to mention one particularly sculpted canine and a Gaoian brownie who was doing his best not to loom at everyone… well, there were times when Nofl

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 5

Date Point: 16y2m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Allison Buehler After a lifetime of helicopter parenting, Tristan and Ramsey seemed addicted to every opportunity they could find to do something their mother would have scooted them away from. And who could blame them? Amanda had never managed to get her head around the idea

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Rising Titans – Chapter 44

9 Years, 6 Months, 28 Days After Eridani Landing Deep Space The Russia shuddered again as the engines slowly powered down and the ship slid out of the red blue haze that was the tachyon FTL corridor. James blinked several times trying to clear the haze from his eyes as the regular black background of

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 4

Date Point: 16y1m AV Dataspace adjacent to Mrwrki Station Entity The Entity understood the concept of boredom in an academic, abstract way. It could even vaguely summon up Ava’s memories of being bored. But understanding the idea and actually feeling the emotion were two different things. The closest it could get was the sensation of

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 3

Date Point: 16y2w AV Air Force One, somewhere over Asia, Earth President Arthur Sartori “…You want to give us a Farthrow generator.” Daar’s image was janky and low-resolution thanks to the vagaries of current wormhole comms, but the audio was a lot clearer now. Technology marched onwards. “It’s loaded up on a train and ready

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Good Training – Pecking Order

13y, 8m AV Operator’s Barracks, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean Officer Regaari (Dexter) of Clan Whitecrest “I got an idea, Regaari.” Regaari flicked his ears forward in annoyance. “This again?” “Well, yeah. I gotta win that bet, Cousin!” Regaari duck-nodded wearily. Not long after Daar had received the SACRED STRANGER briefing, he’d sulked off to think

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Good Training – The Champions – Tidying Up

Messier 24 Mission day: 3 Sergeant Daar (Tigger) The third day was always when things settled into routine. Daar didn’t really know why, ‘cuz that was prol’ly some complicated psychology stuff (maybe he should read up?) but he did know how it worked, practically speaking. Daar always pondered morning thoughts like that when he was

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 2

Date Point: 16y2w AV Weaver dropship, Gaoian space Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde “So in all the excitement, we clean forgot about these things. That’s what you’re telling me.” Champion Meereo made a sound that was half a sigh and half a chitter. “…That’s more-or-less exactly right, yes. We had… well, bigger priorities.” Wilde had to

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Rising Titans – Chapter 43

9 Years, 6 Months, 28 Days After Eridani Landing Bellona “Ready?” asked Alpha from where he sat on top of the Captain’s chair. “I’m good!” said Red from where he sat at the controls for the ship. It hadn’t taken much to convince him to pilot the vessel. James glanced down at his own console

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 1

Date Point: 16y AV Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth Zane Reid The cold didn’t hurt anymore. At first, it had been like forcing his way through a wall made of knives that cut through his clothes. Zane’s every breath had blinded him as it billowed and steamed in the air, and when he’d experimentally licked his

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 5

Date Point: 16y AV Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth Hugh Johnson Snow. Of course, snow in January in Alaska was hardly surprising, and this one threatened to be heavy. At first, Hugh had thought it was probably just an seasonable dusting that’d add a couple of inches to the foot or

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I had made my way through the tournament, but most of my matches had been won by the skin of my teeth, and I had only the advantage of being evolved from a pursuit predator to thank for it. Our great endurance had been the one boon that had kept me going, and I was

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 4

Date Point: 15y 10m 1w AV HMS Violent, Rvzrk System, Domain Space The ground battle churned on for days. That was the problem with Hunters. There was no surrender involved, it was a kill-or-be-killed fight where smashing their will to engage in war simply didn’t achieve enough. Any Hunter left alive would just keep murdering

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 4

He awoke to a pleasant smell. “…Eggs?” Hoeff detangled himself from Natalie and the sheets and stumbled towards the kitchen. Daar was busy in front of the comparatively little stove and fridge, humming some terrible Gaoian tune to himself. Seriously, their music was like Chinese opera with extra pain. Some Humans liked it, though…but “atonal”

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Rising Titans – Chapter 42

9 Years, 6 Months, 15 Days After Eridani Landing The [Singer] The explosion hit and [Vann] watched at the lights on the main hologram and different panels flashed a blinding white light, before dying and plunging the entire bridge of the [Singer] into darkness. “What were we supposed to do?” asked someone near the weapons

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Day 1. I’ve made it on board the human trading vessel! They didn’t detect my presence, and I’ve managed to smuggle myself into their engineering bay, and disguised myself within a cluster of cables! My small, serpentine body makes me indistinguishable from a thin, grayish cable, and the Humans won’t notice my existence until it

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 1

Date Point: 15y 10m AV Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth Hugh Johnson Camp Tebbutt wasn’t actually a bad place to live, if you didn’t count the fact that it was essentially a prison for innocent victims. Hugh understood why he was there, and why he couldn’t leave… but after eleven years,

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 3

Firth Regaari chittered, “It is difficult to imagine you ‘humbled,’ Righteous.” “Heh,” Firth chuckled. “You do know most of my attitude is straight fuckin’ bullshit, right? Adam and John know why.” Regaari looked over at John, who shrugged massively. “He’s a scary dude. Being ridiculous kinda takes the edge off, y’know?” Regaari duck-nodded. He was

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Rising Titans – Chapter 41

9 Years, 6 Months, 13 Days After Eridani Landing Jikse Moving down the hallway Diana paused at the double doors, carefully she moved forwards into it’s threshold and they slid open. A woman in an orange smock looked up from her Comm for a moment, and then going back to look at it did a

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The Good Samaritan

I felt a white-hot pain in my back as I was stabbed. Once, twice and then three times. I fell to the ground clutching my new openings, and for a moment I couldn’t grasp what had just happened. I had walked through an alley as a shortcut back home, and then suddenly someone had grabbed

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 6

Date Point: 15y9m3w AV Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Unexplored Space Darcy “Does it seem… different to you lately?” “What?” “The Entity. It’s actin’ different, dude, I swear it is.” Darcy sighed and set aside her work as Lewis sat down. She was sitting drinking a Moroccan Mint tea in the station’s rec lounge, with its

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Rising Titans – Chapter 40

9 Years, 6 Months, 13 Days After Eridani Landing Jikse Popping the restraints off of her legs Diana swung herself off of the table, the two class A’s still in their isolation suits were pounding at the door of the room the three of them were in. “It’s out! Open the door!” shouted the man

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 2

Master Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth The end of the movie came and the ladies were fast asleep and prolly too tired to head home with any comfort. The other bros were asleep, too, and Firth was tangled up with them pretty good. Oh well, both ‘Base and ‘Horse were heavy-ass sleepers and only danger or

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Hell. It’s a completely Human concept. The concept of a realm of eternal torture, to which you are sent depending on the whims of one deity or another, is something only found in Human fiction. And it’s not an isolated occurrence. Almost every human culture since the dawn of humanity itself has had it in

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 4

Date Point: 15y9m2w AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches Senior Master Sergeant Christian (“Righteous”) Firth “Hey, fuckers! Guess what hit the newsstand today!” Adam looked up from his needlework for a second and raised an eyebrow. “Imma guess Coombes’ centerfold spread with Ava?” Firth deflated, somewhat flummoxed that ‘Horse had stolen his

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