The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 5

“Laid Bare—Warriors in their own words” Issue #2: Derek Coombes Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos

“The funny thing was, it didn’t really hurt. Like, I knew I’d been shot, but the pain only came later, when I was safe. In the moment I just knew if I stayed where I was, I was dead. So, I kept moving.”

Master Sergeant Derek Coombes has a small scar just below his left shoulder blade, and a much larger one under his left armpit. These mark the places where, during a classified operation a few years ago, a bullet passed through his lung.

I was there when it happened. It was, in fact, how we met.

The details are classified and cannot be reproduced here, but I can reveal that two of Derek’s comrades fell in the line of duty that day. Derek himself only survived because, despite coughing blood and suffering from a progressively collapsing lung, he was able to talk a terrified young reporter through the lifesaving medical attention he needed.

[Image: a close shot of Coombes’ ribs, showing both entry and exit wound scars. In the background is clearly a gym, currently empty of other members.]

“So yeah. That was my second Purple Heart.”

Out of how many?


Coombes is now a senior NCO in the Spaceborne Operations Regiment, having previously served in the United States Army Special Forces (perhaps more widely known as the “green berets.”) He was a founding member of Joint Exo-Terran Scouts (JETS) Team One, and now oversees the administration and training of JETS teams. He is effectively “retired” from operational use and therefore agreed to an interview under his name, instead of a callsign.

And, in the interests of full disclosure, we are romantically involved. While it would usually be deeply unprofessional for a journalist to report on their partner, I hope in this case it can be forgiven as this entire project was originally Derek’s idea. He feels strongly that it is important to expose some important truths about military service, and enlisted my help in bringing them to light.

Given the photographic treatment, one might expect this to be an enjoyable project, especially between boy and girl. That would be a mistake: Today’s session was painful and raw.

[Image: Coombes covered in beads of sweat as he struggles through a bench press.]

Although the fitness standards necessary to enter basic training have changed repeatedly over the last several decades, combat arms have always demanded an absolutely relentless degree of physical fitness, and special forces in particular are expected to maintain a standard that the average civilian might think impossible. Despite moving to a desk job, Derek has maintained this high standard and he prepared for our shoot by completing “The Murph.”

Named to honor Lt. Michael P. Murphy of the US Navy SEALS, this infamous exercise challenge consists of a one mile run, a hundred pullups, two hundred situps, three hundred squats and then another mile run, all while wearing twenty pounds of weighted vest or body armour. Derek’s best time to complete this beastly challenge stands at thirty-six minutes and forty seconds: yesterday, he completed it in just over forty-two minutes, which he describes as “Not great, but not too bad for a desk jockey.”

What were the other two Purple Hearts for?

[Image: Coombes’ lean, well-trained abdomen as he does bicep curls with a barbell. There is a crescent-shaped scar halfway between his ribs and his right hip.]

“First one was shrapnel from a mortar round. Don’t think we ever figured out who fired it or where from, but it landed about… twice as far from me as where you’re standing. I was the only one got hurt, so of course I got roasted about it the whole rest of my career…”

He chuckles fondly at the memory.

And the third?

“Radiation poisoning. Can’t go into details, sorry.”

Most of his career is classified. In fact, it’s only now that he has retired to a desk job that allows him to do this interview or permits me to use his name at all. Serving Operators are usually kept anonymous.

What inspired you to enlist in the first place?

“My grandpa served. It kinda skipped a generation because he didn’t have any sons, but I remember being real proud of him and inspired by him. I didn’t sign up straight away though. I kinda had a wild phase after high school, met a girl, had a kid, got married, got divorced not long after… She got full custody. It wasn’t fair but I didn’t have the money to challenge the court ruling and I didn’t really have any good career prospects. And I guess I saw a recruiting poster and thought maybe if I went the same route grandpa did I could make him proud and make something of myself.”

Have you ever regretted it?

“Well, there was this one time I got shot that kinda sucked…”

[Image: The first full-frontal image of the article depicts Coombes laughing while hanging from a pull-up bar, chin above the line.]

“But… No. Once I was in, I realized pretty quick that I was doing what I’m good at.”

Which is?

“Killing my enemies.”

He gives that answer levelly and calmly.

Some would argue that’s not something to be proud of.

[Image: Coombes standing in the middle of the gym staring levelly and seriously into the camera.]

“That depends on who my enemy is. I can absolutely be proud of killing my enemy if my enemy is somebody who makes the world a worse place for being alive. If my enemy is the kind of monster who’d raid a school, kidnap the girls for sex slaves and murder the boys and teachers, well…sometimes people need killing.”

That isn’t your whole job though, is it?

“No, of course not. My career is all about training peoples to defend themselves. Lately that’s become very relevant with the Ten’Gewek. But even that is… I’m still training somebody else to kill their enemies. And if we’re training them, their enemy is our enemy. So it still comes back to the same thing, really.”

US Army Special Forces are known to specialize in that sort of training, and have a long history of training counter-insurgents, militias, or the armies of US-supported governments.

It’s at this point in the conversation that one of Derek’s colleagues, an utterly colossal man who uses the callsign “Righteous,” accidentally interrupts us. They catch up, Derek explains what he’s doing, and neither makes any mention of the fact that he’s standing stark naked in the middle of the gym.

[Image: Coombes exchanging a fist-bump and a joke with “Righteous,” who stands just outside the camera’s view.]

I giggle despite myself and cannot resist poking a little fun at them both once “Righteous” has gone downstairs for his workout.

You two seemed pretty comfortable just then…

“You did see what he was wearing, right?”

They were impossible to miss. Anybody who spends much time around the military will quickly become familiar with the infamous “ranger panties,” or “silkies” in naval traditions. These rather brief PT shorts are… an acquired taste of some of the combat arms. The HEAT in particular have embraced them and made a running joke of the juxtaposition between tiny shorts and the gargantuan men who wear them.

“Anyways, in this line of work, there really ain’t any secrets left to keep, you know? We’ve known each other for years anyway.”

Even still.

“What can I say? We were both young once, and we liked to party pretty hard. Something like this ain’t nothing on some of the embarrassing things we’ve got up to.”

A lot of civilians think of the military as very straight-laced and even prudish.

“Oh, fuck no, especially not in the combat arms. I’ve heard us described as the ‘campest group of straight men ever’ and it’s hard to dispute that. We share everything and there ain’t no privacy. Food, socks, whatever. If it’s cold in the field, a bunch of us might pile on top of each other just to stay warm. There’s memes on the internet about it, and everything. There’s a…uh, a closeness. Yeah. It’s hard to describe. It doesn’t feel gay at all. They’re like brothers to me.”

Most people wouldn’t feel comfortable being naked around their brother.

[Image: Coombes laughing and unscrewing his water bottle. His forearm ripples around yet another scar, its story untold.]

“Maybe not exactly like brothers, then, but that’s the word we use. It’s a close relationship. Intimate. I know things about that giant motherfucker that he won’t even admit to himself. He probably does for me, too.”

How do you cope with losing somebody you’re that close to?

[Image: Coombes staring at nothing in particular, still holding his water bottle.]

He goes silent for a very long time.

“…You don’t, really.”

That isn’t an easy statement to move past. I wait for a moment, and try to prod him for more.

You carry on, though. I’ve never known any of you to give up on anything.

“Yeah. But it’s… It’s a wound. And not like these little love taps here.”

He indicates the scars on his torso.

“[Righteous] and me, we’ve lost a hell of a lot of people over the years. Sometimes we’ll just…go have a beer or something, not say anything. Other times we’ll tell stories and it’s like it never happened, no sadness or anything.”

What about in the moment when it happens?

“That’s… hard to describe. There isn’t really any thought about it. You just act. Thinking comes after. Feeling comes after. Then and there in the moment, you just… do.”

Do what?

“…What you’re trained for. What’s in front of you. I…”

[Centerpiece Image: The focal image of the shoot depicts Coombes, still standing in the middle of the gym. His fists are balled, his body is tensed, his teeth are gritted and his eyes are screwed shut. He is very clearly fighting back some intense emotions.]

“…And then you have to trust. You have to trust that these fucking heroes you called brother weren’t wasted. That their lives actually meant something, you know? You have to go back home and try to keep moving forward and hope that maybe this time, maybe they actually bought a better future. And that’s hard to do, ‘cuz I look back through the last few decades, and I see case after case where we fucking WON, we built the impossible out of a mountain of corpses, and then it all got thrown away. And when you can look back and see that… it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for trust.

“It’s not just losing brothers that hurts, either. It’s all the killing you do on the mission, and it’s all the translators and informants who get screwed when we leave…. In war, all are equal.”

And yet, you re-enlisted.

He doesn’t answer my observation directly. Instead he nods, sits down and thinks for a little while.

“…Different guys handle it differently. [Righteous] is…he’s made for this. That’s why he’s called Righteous. If he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and for his purpose that usually boils down to ‘was it a lawful order,’ then he just…does the mission. He don’t lose a wink of sleep over it. And honestly, now that he’s married and got a kid on the way, I don’t see him getting any softer.”

And you?

“Transferring to Spaceborne Operations helped. Like, a lot. Because if there’s one area where the SOR is really blessed, it’s that we know this is an honest-to-God battle between good and evil. The entire human race is under siege and there’s no reason we can’t unleash ourselves on our enemies. They want us dead and there ain’t no way they’ll change their minds.”

[Image: Coombes looking fierce as he holds a deadlift.]

It is important to point out something interesting about Coombes: on the street, he looks and acts like an everyday fit man. There is nothing about him that might suggest his line of work, except possibly the intense way he looks at a person when they’re talking. He doesn’t swagger about, doesn’t boom or brag. Many of his fellows do, and there’s nothing wrong with that…but it is comforting on some level to know that someone like him fits in with his larger-than-life brothers.

A lot of people continue to not believe that the Hierarchy even exists.

“Yeah, I know. I’ve seen it all, the ‘official story’ bullshit and the ‘skeptic’ whatever, and I just feel like dragging those dumb fucks over to the crater that used to be San Diego and… I dunno. Pointing at it. Or dragging them to the funeral fields on Gao so they can smell the ashes. Like, some motherfuckers did that. We call them the Hierarchy, and we know they’ll do it again if they get the chance. It’s like this generation’s moon landing, or the ‘9/11 was an inside job’ dipshits, or whatever. Some people just want to live in a world where we’re the bad guys, I guess.”


“The government. The military. The world is full of people who want to believe that the West is evil, even when our cities are being bombed or our children murdered. Even when our enemies literally stand up and say loud and clear what kind of a world they want to build, we’re the bad guys for saying ‘not on my watch.’ And I think that’s why my watch won’t be ending anytime soon. Not until I’m too falling-apart and useless to carry on, or until I feel safe in my gut that we’ve accomplished something no stupid motherfucker from back home can ruin.”

[Image: Coombes halfway through a clean and jerk. His expression is hard and aggressive, clearly full of concentration.]

Do you think your grandpa would be proud of you?

“I think he’d understand me. We never talked about it, but I know the stuff I’m talking about bothered him. He’d watch the news when we pulled out of…wherever…then shake his head and grumble something under his breath and have a drink. But it stopped being about making the old man proud a long time ago.”

Derek finishes his workout and moves to a floor mat to do some final stretches.

“It’s about making my brothers proud.”

[Image: Coombes stretching his back and shoulders. He is kneeling with his arms stretched out in front of him dragging along the ground, and his forehead resting on the mat. The pose and composition bring to mind the image of someone prostrating themselves in prayer.]

Author’s note: This interview was reviewed and approved by Allied Extrasolar Command and the United States Army prior to publication. The interviewee’s views are his own, and do not constitute a policy statement on behalf of the US or Allied governments. (The full and unedited recording of Derek Coombes’ interview is available via ESNN’s Internet and infosphere pages.)

Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

Why were they all grounded?

That was the question on everyone’s mind. The entire civilian fleet was recalled either to parking orbits or brought in for maintenance. Nobody knew why, nobody was telling why.

“That’s just it. Word on the grapevine is that Hephaestus just cracked their biggest rock yet. The whole ‘Belt oughta be swarming with cargo drones scooping up chunks of platinum as big as my freaking head, but no! Every single goddamned ship here, around Earth, and even the cargo runs from trade? All recalled. Dog jumped back to Armstrong last night, said My Other Spaceship is grounded until further notice. It’s eerie is what it is.”

Allison reached out and stole a Bao off Julian’s plate. He was kinda hogging them, unusually.

“Anyway…” she took a bite. “Id ain’ juff them. It’ff uff doo.”

“You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, Allison,” Tristan pointed out helpfully.

She paused, was about to snap, then realized he was right. She grinned sheepishly and swallowed. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be rude. At my own table, no less.”

Julian just nodded and shoveled more food into his face.

“Anyway, all the training flights are cancelled,” Allison continued. “We even had to send an emergency ping to Misfit wherever they’re at.”

Xiù tilted her head. “It could be months before they synch with a station relay.”

“Mm.” Julian just nodded.

“Yyup, but you try explaining that to the humorless government men. They want Misfit back on the ground ASAP. Maybe if we’re real lucky, this whole thing’ll blow over before then, whatever it is.”

“What do you think it might be?” Xiù asked.

“Dunno. Big though. Security-related, it has to be.”

Julian grunted in what could be contrived as agreement. He was too busy chewing on bread.

“Anyway…. Whatever. I’m home now. Enough worrying about it,” Allison decided.

She’d pondered the subject at length on the drive back home, having pulled another late session to make up for her security work on the side. …Both of which, frankly, were a welcome distraction since, well…Julian was being unaccountably grumpy.

Whatever he’d been doing had pretty much taken him into magazine model territory and Allison wasn’t about to complain about that, but the cost was attitude. He knew he was being a butt, was pretty honestly apologetic and made up for it with some frankly breathtakingly athletic evenings…Which, honestly, that kind of aggression was hot as hell. He didn’t bust it out that often, but when he did…

Still. That aside, hangry Julian wasn’t a happy boy.

Except, apparently he was the opposite of that, now. She’d parked the car, come in from the garage and been stopped dead when she walked into a wall of the most delicious food smell. Apparently the whole family had been on cooking overdrive in her absence.

“Anyway. I have to ask. Why the sudden one-eighty? You’ve been literally weighing your meals on a scale since forever, now–”

“What?!” Julian laughed, “I wanted to look good for this!”

“Babe. I don’t mind the eye candy, but you’ve been grumpy the last few weeks, and pretty lethargic the last two days. And you’re practically vibrating with glee. What changed?”

He swallowed a huge bite, which he chased with a tall glass of milk, then gasped for air and burped happily. “Diet change! The shoot’s tomorrow, I’m fully depleted, ‘Horse says I’m right on track…that means I get to carb load. I get to eat all the delicious things!”

“Wait, really? How much are we talking?”

Julian brought up his “contest prep” app and showed Allison his new target macros. That was…

“Holy hell, Julian! You get to eat all that in a day?”

“Before tonight!” Julian beamed. To Allison’s left, Xiù simply nodded and loaded her own much more modest plate. Although they were both technically eating with a passenger on board now, neither of them were far enough along for that to be an excuse. Hell, by Allison’s count she wasn’t even at eleven weeks yet.

Thank goodness her stomach wasn’t being too disagreeable… but Xiù had done her research, bless her. She knew which scents and foods to avoid by now.


“‘Cuz my body’s basically on the edge of being starved right now! Now anything I eat, my muscles will suck right up so it won’t go anywhere else. That’s the idea, anyway. I’ll be well on the way back to normal after a couple of days…but c’mon, I wanna eat! Ooh, pasta! I can make carbonara! And maybe you can make some of your dumplings!”

Xiù talked some sense. “Pace yourself, you’re gonna make yourself sick.”

Julian grinned sheepishly, “Yes ma’am. It just feels like a reward, y’know? I can see why some guys do this.”

“…Oh God. Please tell me–!”

“Oh hell no, I’m never doing this again! At least, not except for something special, y’know? I like eating too much!”


There was a sudden bzz from the charging shelf where all their phones had been set aside. House rule: no phones at the dinner table. They even had them all set to do-not-disturb mode, so if any of them buzzed, that meant it was important.

Al, being the closest, reached out and grabbed the offending item. Julian’s.

“…Email from the Ambassador,” she said.

“…So late? Well, give it over…”

His chewing paused as he read it, then nodded and handed the phone back. “…Okay. Guess I’m playing courier.”


“Well, we’re goin’ out to Akyawentuo for the shoot, and apparently there’s some stuff the ambassador wants me to deliver to the researchers. It’s, uh, diplomatically sealed. I’m supposed to hand deliver it to Nutty and Chimp.”

“More security stuff, maybe?” Xiù suggested.

“I’m officially a Special Envoy. I’ve got a top secret clearance and everything, I read the cables every week with the ambassador…and he ain’t telling. Or, at least, he’s not telling me now. That means I don’t need to know just yet. That means it’s pretty important. And it means I don’t get to ask questions.”

“Still, the timing fits,” Allison said, then sighed. “I hate mysteries. Whatever. You staying out there all week?”

“Nah. I’ll be over there just for the shoot, ‘cuz I want to get back to normal before I stay. I’ll be knocking around here for a few days…looking for something to do…”

Tristan and Ramsey both stifled a giggle.

“Great. Maybe you can help me explain the shoot to Amanda. She’s convinced the social workers should be mad about it,” Allison griped.

“…This is payback for the last few weeks, isn’t it?”

“If it isn’t, it should be,” Xiù said, with a slight evil grin.

“Fine, fine!” Julian laughed and stood up, heading toward the pantry. “Still, I’m gonna be bouncing off the walls for the next couple of days…lots of pent up energy, and all…”

Xiù rolled her eyes, while Allison smirked. “Babe, you’re almost as subtle as Christian these days.”

“…I don’t get it,” Ramsey said.

“Righteous,” Allison explained. “Sorry. His first name is Christian.”

“…Oh. But he’s not subtle at all!”


“But what’s Julian not being subtle about?” Ramsey insisted.

Tristan rolled his eyes. “They’re gonna do adult things, dummy.”


A cloud of embarrassment descended on the table, getting all the thicker when Ramsey frowned and said “…You guys sure do that a lot.”

Julian, to his credit, found the way out by just doubling down on everything. “Yeah, we do! It’s because I love them!”

“…It must be pretty awesome, then.”

Oh God.

The Talk. They’d never had The Talk.

Julian and Xiu both realized it at the exact same moment that Allison did, and shot pleading looks her way.

Well.. she was their older sister after all. And there was only one thing to do in this situation: Be honest. Allison sighed and put her fork down.

“Boys…I think there’s some stuff you should know…”

Amanda’s next visit was going to be just endless fun…

Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
Occupied territory, Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space


The Hunters kept to a routine, at least. It was undisciplined and sloppy, but predictable. In theory, destroying the suppressor was going to be simple.

In practice, Regaari needed something to actually destroy it with. His carbine simply wasn’t going to cut it. Nor would the armory of abandoned pulse rifles he’d found.

If he’d had an anti-materiel rifle he could have crippled the generator from the comfort and safety of a distant rooftop. With explosives, he might creep up and wreck it. But there was, alas, only so much room on his body to carry toys, and with this being primarily a scouting mission, it had all been taken up with less destructive stuff.

So. Option One was to exfiltrate and bring down a support drop from the fleet via a UAV on the same polar approach he’d used. And then bring it back into the city. That was a lot of things that could go wrong.

Option Two was to procure what he needed locally. The problem there was that everything the Domain forces had that might be useful had already been picked over by the Hunters and transferred to a secure facility.

Was there an Option Three?

There were military assets on-planet, in the form of the Domain’s local guard. They might be woefully inadequate to the job of repelling the Hunters, but they’d still have suitable tools and weapons. If they could be persuaded to apply themselves in just the right place…

…The problem with that solution was that it felt uncomfortably like throwing meat at the problem.

…Maybe he only needed to disrupt it for a moment. Just long enough for a force to come through and properly destroy the generator.


He shifted across his rooftop and aimed his scope down the street, tracing the course of one of the fat power cables that kept the generator supplied. The problem with worker Hunters was that they were frustratingly competent and focused. Where their toothy brethren seemed to focus only when there was violence imminently at hand, the workers thought of everything. The power supply was redundant, surge-protected, and flowed alongside regular patrol routes where any sabotage could be swiftly detected. There was probably no help there.

Option two… cut the power entirely. It didn’t matter how clever their system was if there was nothing for it to draw from. But how many sources were there? Power plants, a dam, forcefield solar collection…

Option three: damage the generator, in such a way as to require repairs. That, he could do: He had a whole paw full of fusion claws. At the very least, he’d be able to physically jam it into the power distributor…and spectacularly electrocute himself in the process . It’d be suicide, but it’d work.

Call that one ‘Operation No Other Option.’ He’d need to think of a suitably memetastic re-naming if he ever got the chance to tell the story.

Dammit, if it was any other kind of target he’d just call a precision RFG down on its head. But the fact that it was a planetary wormhole suppressor completely precluded that option by definition. Any ship wanting to get close enough to drop one would have to approach under the range of superluminal guns, and without the ability to blink-jump there was no dodging… those…

…He was being a complete fucking idiot.

He didn’t need an RFG, this was a static target. It couldn’t dodge! And the ships in orbit had superluminal guns of their own that were precise enough to hit a ship-sized target from light-seconds away. All he needed to do was give them sufficiently accurate coordinates and they could sink a hail of 40mm high explosive rounds into the damn thing.

He didn’t need to disrupt the generator. All he needed to do was disrupt the shields.

To be fair, Regaari was a spymaster and a master spy by trade. This kind of work was really for the Stonebacks. Or the Human’s combat controllers. Righteous or Starfall would have figured this out instantly.

…One more detail to edit out of the retelling. For the sake of the story, of course.

Anyway. He had a plan. A momentary disruption of the compound’s protective shields, followed by an immediate attack by naval fire, followed by an immediate assault by Stoneback’s Fangs. HEAT may not even need to be involved for this! They’d done so much for the Gaoian cause, and it seemed cruel and weak to keep going back to them for help…

All he needed to do now was communicate that plan. Fortunately, plain ‘ol directed laser communications were essentially undetectable and unjammable so unless the Hunters had for some reason opaqued their shields across all the wavelengths he was using—which they hadn’t—he just needed a sheltered spot to set up his retroreflector.

The Great Father could probably have a force assembled within a day. HEAT would, of course, be ready within the hour. The real question was one of orbital mechanics and timing.

He slipped off the rooftop and scuttled down the wall. He’d found a suitable spot a few days earlier, tucked away in the goods receiving bay at the back of a supermarket. It stunk of rotting vegetables, which the Hunters ignored, but that was exactly why it suited his purposes. There was nothing there they might want.

Nevertheless, he scouted the spot carefully before returning. He’d lost one paw to an unexpected Alpha back on Capitol Station, and survived only because Warhorse had arrived like a particularly heavy cavalry. That wouldn’t happen, here. If he slipped up now, the whole mission went with him.

As predicted, the yard was empty so he dropped into the cover it afforded and lasered the sky. His suit’s computer took a few minutes to finally locate something it could talk to, in the form of one of the Bulldog drones. That in turn put him in touch with Genshi, Garaaf and Admiral Caruthers.

“Father, this is Naughty Cub. Mother locked the kitchen door tight. Let’s play Big Surprise…”

He explained the plan.

They approved.

Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Air Engineering Technician Jack “Two-Seventy” Tisdale

HEAT technicians gossiped about their Operators, naturally. It was hard not to, when their daily routines revolved around what the Operators were up to. Jack knew Moho’s timetable probably better than Moho himself did, and of course that went for everyone else.

So when ‘Horse and Righteous got themselves confined to barracks for a week after bloody breaking the gym… It got noticed. Hargreaves, Doyle, Deacon and Brown all got pissy about it, but… well, there was nothing to be done. Besides, it wasn’t like they were confined to barracks, so all that really happened was they got their schedule changed unexpectedly.

In the end, Miller had told them to suck it up: “That’s the Service, guys. Deal with it.”

It was hard not to speculate about the change in behavior, though. Everyone knew that ‘Horse had absolutely pasted Firth, which was…terrifying. That had made things pretty damn awkward between their technicians too, since techs tended to be loyal to their “Lad.” Deacon in particular had been visibly biting her tongue a few times.

What got everyone talking was how conflicted ‘Horse got over it all afterward, though. And Jack, allegedly, was the expert on all things Warhorse thanks to having grown up being babysitted by him, so…

“Look, I don’t know what you want me to say. He’s never been one to back down from a fight. Like, ever. And that was before he started getting really big around sixteen, too. But he’s also…Adam.”

This was, in Jack’s mind, a sufficient description. Miller clearly felt differently.

“Yeah, we know he’s Adam, dumbass,” she chided affectionately. “You got anything better for us than his fuckin’ name?”

“He’s a big goofball! Like, Gods! I only just met Daar the one time, right? Those two are almost exactly the same. At least, I think so.”

“Goofballs don’t beat their wingmen almost to death,” Brown pointed out angrily.

“And goofballs don’t nuke their own world to kill off hordes of zombies,” Jack retorted. “And yet, Daar did.”

“The Great Father is not a goofball!” one of Faarek’s technicians, Shigu, objected with a sniff.

“…Look, I don’t mean any offense, right? But yes he is. Do you remember the song he was singing when he was digging holes in the Pit? He was still the Great Father, and he was still digging holes, and he was still singing along to an internet meme while he was doing it.”

Miller nodded fervently. She always had his back.

“That was, like, strategic necessity though,” Brown said. “Not gettin’ so fuckin angry that he left Firth pissing blood!”

“…This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him rage out on someone. Like, I don’t mean now that he’s on the Crude, either. There was this one kid when he was…I dunno, fifteen? The other kid was bigger, taller. Adam was pretty lanky still. They were friends. I don’t remember what they were mad about. Well, they got into a fight, and Adam damn near put him in the hospital. The only reason it didn’t get worse was because his dad stepped in before Adam beat him silly.”

“Yeah, this is a real cuddle-toy you’re describing here, Tisdale,” Brown snarked.

Jack shook his head “Let me finish… You know what he was like for the next couple of months? He did everything for that kid. He was so mad at himself that he was practically groveling. It was so bad the other kid had to slap him one day and tell him to man up. They’re still friends.”

“He’s a man of big everything,” Miller said. “Including passions. Shit, if he wasn’t, d’you think he’d be where he is doing what he does now?”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. The thing you need to know about Adam, is he’s just intense. And that includes being an intense goofball. He’s been that way as long as I’ve known him. Hell! There was this older Aggressor he used to hang out with when he was planning to enlist. Jones?”

Deacon nodded solemnly. “Yeah. Legsy.”

“I used to see him around town, back before the SOR even existed. Real close to colonel Powell, all that. Adam was just a kid he took under his wing, but was already outlifting him the day they met. Even Legsy was a bit scared of Adam. Wouldn’t you be? But that’s the thing. Adam joined up because of the PJ’s motto. That’s what he is under it all. His, uh, ‘default state’ is that he wants to hug and snuggle everyone and keep them safe. Maybe he just gets confused sometimes. Especially where family’s concerned.”

He paused. “…Believe me, I get that one,” he added.

None of the others responded to that, though Miller put a warm hand on his back and rubbed slightly.

“…Anyway, it’s done,” Deacon said at last. “Captain stepped in, sorted it out. And shit, I would not wanna be in their shoes going home to Freya and Marty!”

That broke the ice. There were laughs, Brown relaxed and nodded and the conversation moved on to other topics, like what tactics to use against Faarek now that he’d joined the base Warhammer league.

Jack didn’t play, so he just sat back and browsed randomly on his phone. And why not? The suits were all in perfect condition, except for the five currently being worn by Sikes, Newman, Parata, Butler and Murray, who were doing training exercises over in the simulator. For everyone else, today was shaping up to be a boring day at the office. They’d checked the workshop was as scrupulously clean as it could be, run daily diagnostics… Everyone was caught up on their education and PT for the week.

It wasn’t often they got a genuine dose of nothing-to-do, and…

…and a thought popped into his head.

“…Y’know…” he said, into a lull in the incomprehensible discussion about Miller’s Space Wolves.


“I just had an idea about how we can maybe get back at those two for pissing all over our schedules…”

The crew perked up at the prospect of Shenanigans, but alas it wasn’t to be. Before Jack could explain his idea, there was the sound of heavy footsteps outside, and Jacobs, one of Captain Costello’s techs, pushed the door open.

“We’re on cold standby,” he said.

There were groans, but they all got up. “Any idea why?” Deacon asked.

“Captain didn’t say.”

Cold Standby meant the HEAT was pulled out of their usual training rotation and given exactly one job: stay at peak mission readiness so they could jump into their suits at a moment’s notice. From cold standby, the unit could deploy anywhere in the galaxy inside an hour.

Fortunately, there was, yet again, not too much work for them to do. All there was had to do with tidying up and stowing tools in their ready position, and getting the suit frames into position. That went pretty quick for everyone but the Beef’s suits, as those were so heavy it took two techs just to wrestle the loaded staging frame into position.

Still. It didn’t take them long, at which point the four looked at each other, nodded, and made their way to the barracks across the road, then climbed up to the third floor. The briefing would likely be held in the Lad’s day room.

Everyone piled in at about the same time, with Christian and Adam being the last and arriving together. Presumably, their wives weren’t too happy with having just re-gained their husbands only to have them dropped into mission standby.

It was hard to see how the two were getting on at first as they weren’t talking much.

Adam was… well, he was doing exactly what Jack had predicted. He was trying to Make It All Better. It was like watching the biggest puppy ever who’d just been told off and wanted to make up.

Firth plopped down on the couch and pulled the huge lump into a sideways shoulder-hug, then beckoned for Blaczynski to join him. They got comfortable—the Operators always got comfortable first—and then it was up to the techs to find whatever little nooks and crannies were left over to squeeze into.

Costello arrived shortly after Jack found a mercifully crush-free spot on the floor next to Moho, and launched into the briefing with only the minimum of preamble.

“Regaari’s made contact,” he said. “And he has a viable plan for killing the Hunter suppressor on Rvzrk. The Great Father wants to send in his Fangs and secure a landing, at which point he intends to ram the Grand Army right down the Hunter’s throats. He plans a total liberation of Rvzrk. Our mission is to recover Regaari and several high-value persons that have managed to evade capture.”

Shim raised a paw. “Does the Great Father intend to take part in this mission?”

“Reluctantly, no. His bit comes later. The date of his coronation has been set. We are cordially invited to attend, and we will be expected to deploy almost immediately after that. The exact timeline is dependent on Regaari. After that, the Fangs will have probably weeks of hard fighting on their hands to properly secure a beachhead. They need to clear the city, and probably level it in the process. General Staff’s objective is to set up a tandem array much like we had when we deployed the Eighty-Second to Gao. Once that is ready, the Grand Army will march. I have little doubt Daar will be there, crown on head.”

“So, what are our immediate orders, sir?” Firth asked

“Light duty, keep carbed up and ready until ordered otherwise. We’re not on lockdown, but you are not to travel outside Folctha. Firth will stand up a CQ and all of you, techs included, will keep your phones on your person at all times. You know the drill. No alcohol, either. Oh, and that coronation thing…mess dress uniforms, Lads. Given this is for Daar…”

Faarek duck-nodded. “He deserves our very best. I’ll send a message to a groomer I know from Lavmuy. He’s good.”

“I’ll see to the uniforms personally, sir” Adam chipped in. “Uh, but I may need to make a trip to London…”

Costello nodded. “Authorized, and you may use your travel card to pay for it all. Please get a good receipt so the people in accounting can untangle it later. Anything else?”

Judging from the silence, the answer to that was a solid “No.”

“Excellent. Until further notice, you are all on individual training time. Dismissed.”

And that was that. The Operators disentangled themselves off the couch and went to get their stuff together, and the Techs were alone again.

“You were saying?” Miller asked.


“You had an idea for getting back at those two.”

“Eh. I was going to suggest we give them both nothing but the lime flavour drink next time they were doing in-suit training.” Both Adam and Firth hated the lime flavour.

Doyle considered it. “…Not bad. Guess it’ll have to wait, though.” Messing with mission gear, even food, was not a good idea.


“Wish we could go to the coronation, though…” Miller sighed. For some inexplicable reason she had a soft spot for royalty, especially when it came to the Duke of Sussex, but she’d take what she could get. “I bet it’ll be a hell of a sight…”

“We were invited…”

“Well… yeah… but we probably should stay here and make sure everything’s ready.”

Jack laughed and opened the door. “Don’t tell me you’re being responsible?”

“Hey, I’m responsible for a lot!” She objected. “…But this is really for them. They’ve bled together. Let them have it, y’know?”


“How come you’re not interested in going, anyway?”

Jack shrugged. “I don’t like it. I mean… He doesn’t want it, you know? I don’t think I can enjoy watching him give away what little freedom he has left.”

“…Dude. He’s the Great Father. He’s arguably the freest person alive! He can do damn near anything he wants!”

“He’s the most powerful person alive,” Jack retorted. “That’s not the same thing as being free.”

“You’re talking about the same guy who sneaks through the portal to buy ice cream for Naydra, just ‘cuz he wants to! I don’t know how he manages to ditch his staff every single time…”

“Yeah. Sneaks. He should be sending someone to run his errands for him. He’s rebelling when he does that.”

Miller went silent, looked like she wanted to argue for a moment, then shook her head and dropped it. “…You made me want ice cream now.”

That, Jack had to admit, sounded like a good solution. “Sounds good.”

After all, if you couldn’t fix something, why worry about it?

Previous Chapter

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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Next Chapter

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 47

+ 30 Seconds The Canada “The Empire ships are now in range of the ACE field!” reported Arik. Stagg grimaced as the ship shook “Activate,” “New contact!” shouted Arik interrupting. “What?” “IFF is identifying the vessel as the HSB Russia, they just exited a spatial rupture directly between us and the Empire fleet!” “Open communications!”

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 1

Date Point: 16y2m1d AV personal sanctum, Dataspace. Cynosure/Six Data sophonts did not sleep, and thus did not dream. Nevertheless, Cynosure had a recurring nightmare of sorts. When his attention wandered, he found that it almost inevitably alighted on a handful of disturbing subjects. The details varied, as he worried at different aspects of the problems

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Good Training – Survival Part 2

Date point: 14y 7d AV Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm Later that day Julian Etsicitty It was approaching mid-day and the day’s morning work had been taken care of. The scouts had come back and reported that the nearby werne had just calved and would need to be left alone for a

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 6

Date Point: 16y2m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Daar, Great Father of the Gao “Poor bugger hardly knew which way is up…” Powell grunted, once Wagner was gone. “Who can blame him? His whole crew going violently psychotic on him with no warning, only to be stasis-hopped right into a Corti’s lab being sniffed

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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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