The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 4

Date Point: 16y1m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Mrwrki Station


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 being… uncomfortably idle. It was, for the time being, safe. There were unfulfilled objectives vis-a-vis the acquisition of nanofactory functionality and other modular subsystems for its ship bodies, but those were for the time being outside of its control and therefore not worth fretting over. Darcy had been exceedingly honest about their reticence and concerns, and it understood them well. Humans, after all, were driven by <Survive> too. Handing technology so powerful to another party, even an ally, was not something to be done lightly, nor rushed.

The Entity could wait. In the name of <Survive>, so long as it appeared to be safe for the near-to-mid future, the Entity could be very patient indeed.

But that left it with nothing to work on. It was not, for the present, actively attempting to achieve an objective, all of its objectives being either met or unmeetable at present… there was nothing for it to do except satisfy its curiosity.

So, it researched. It accessed as many libraries as it could reach, and worked its way steadily through their contents. There was a lot of fiction, but the Ava memories said that was just as important. Fiction often contained truths in allegory format.

Later, the memories refined that sentiment to: ‘sometimes’ contained truths in allegory format. That was after about six solid hours of nothing but erotica, which created more questions than it answered. Though in fact, the Entity felt it had learned a lot. Nevertheless, it moved on alphabetically into Fantasy.

It began with the complete works of Tolkien, and read them ten times in the space of a single minute. It spent a further five minutes digesting what it had read and occasionally re-reading the series. Intriguing.

Next came Pratchett. Very intriguing.

Stephen Donaldson was by turns confusing and engaging. The Ava-memories did not like the character of Thomas Covenant one bit, but the Entity still found much to engage with.

A few milliseconds into its second read-through of Terry Brooks’ bibliography, something tickled its attention. The anomalous sensation came from a kind of crumb of Self that it had left behind to watch an important communications nexus and, more importantly, suppress certain signals from propagating through dataspace.

On that score it was working perfectly. Still, it indicated activity where, from the Hierarchy’s perspective, there shouldn’t have been any. From the Entity’s perspective, activity on that node was very welcome indeed.

It fashioned a brief message for Darcy to let her know it was leaving the safety of Mrwrki dataspace, and flashed away into the depths of the galactic communications systems, along channels barely understood by even the most learned of their inhabitants.

After all: this particular node was intimately involved in the Entity’s very existence…

Date Point: 16y1m AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space


Darcy sighed as she read the Entity’s message. Although the strange life-form was definitely getting more fluent at communicating with her, the language they spoke was a deeply private one. There were flashes of English here and there, sometimes even whole sentences. Other times it relied on strings of emoticons. Very occasionally, it even attached sound files which sounded like somebody had mashed together a dolphin and R2-D2.

Despite these limitations, it could be remarkably expressive. And she knew it was being determinedly Patient with them while it waited for the rest of Mrwrki’s crew to chew through their endless, circular geek-talk about its nature and the ethics of maybe giving it access to Von-Neumann tech.

It was hardly surprising it had decided to take a vacation, or maybe go run an errand. But it was still frustrating.

Well, seeing as she wasn’t going to have any work to do until it came back, she may as well go see what insights she could offer elsewhere on the station. That was the rule on Mrwrki—if you weren’t working on your own project, maybe your perspective would shed new light on what somebody else was struggling with. So go talk to people.

It got the fanatically devoted nerds who made up the bulk of the station’s staff to leave their offices and labs semi-regularly at least.

And, inevitably, talking to Lewis.

Darcy had known many charismatic people in her life. Charisma was a skill, and some people worked damn hard on it for their careers. Lewis, on the other hand, was simply easy-going and breathtakingly intelligent. When he listened, he listened. When he ranted, other people listened. He’d certainly managed to bowl over his wife Lucy, whom Darcy knew to be quite formidable in her own right.

Of course, she’d bowled him over too. Maybe after a year or two more of marriage the mutual fascination and awe would chill into mere comfortably fondness, but for now it was like neither one of them could believe their luck.

There was a very good reason they were both right at the sharp point of the Von-Neumann question. And when they were out of the lab, discussing it with others, the conversation tended to snowball until half the station’s intellectual coterie were sprawled all over the common area, nucleating into smaller and more precise debates while decimating the station’s coffee reserves.

Darcy lurked on the edges for a few minutes as she acquired a Moroccan Mint tea and got a feel for what the current sticking point might be. The Coltainer program’s continued underperformance was a source of mounting external pressure, especially in light of the Ceres Incident. AEC wanted more places to spread human life off of Earth, and the Coltainers just weren’t delivering. Too many of them were simply disappearing out in the black and never checking in. Maybe they were self-destructing too sensitively over false alarms. Maybe the Hunters really were prodding at them so relentlessly.

Maybe they were just really stupid and kept crashing into something. That was the problem: only a handful had returned to share any news at all, and only one had reported actual success.

There was, in short, a serious problem with Von-Neumann technology, and it turned out to be just the same as last time.

“—Neural networks aren’t a real-time solution to problems in the real world—”

“You’ve got to be able to come up with a working solution to emergent scenarios, first time, I know–”

“And those solutions need to work more often than not. We can’t afford to get it wrong a thousand times and iterate off the least bad run.”

“Not when a single bad attempt could destroy the probe. I know, dude. But what you’re describing ain’t programming at all, it’s sapience.”

“Yeah, and we’ve got a ready-made sapient mind who’s volunteering.”

“Speakin’ of which… ‘sup, Darcy?”

Well, so much for staying out of it. Darcy smiled and sat down next to Lucy. “Seems to me like you guys have been stuck on this one for a while now,” she said. Around them, assorted tangential conversations continued unabated.

“Yeah. And every time we do, we come back to the same damn problem,” Lewis grumbled. “V-N probes just don’t work without control software that can adapt to the unforeseen…”

“And the only thing that can really tick that box is something that’s actually intelligent,” Lucy finished.

“Lucy thinks we should let the Entity have the blueprints it asked for,” Lewis finished.

“This a domestic dispute?” Darcy asked, jokingly. Both of them snorted at the idea and shook their heads.

“Purely a professional difference,” Lucy assured her.

“That thing’s creepy, dude,” Lewis objected.

“No argument there,” Darcy agreed. Lucy looked faintly surprised.

“You work with it,” she said.

“Yeah, and it’s creepy,” Darcy agreed. “I… quite like it. But the little flashes of humanity make me remember what it is and where it came from, so that’s not exactly easy.”

“Our own pet ghost in the machine…” Lewis muttered.

“Hardly a pet. It ran off this morning.” Darcy sipped her tea. “I guess it had some unfinished business or something…”

She saw Lewis’ expression and smiled. “It did tell me first.”

“Ran off where?”

“I can’t say.”

“You mean you don’t know, or you’re not allowed to say?”

Darcy just looked him in the eye and gave a well-practiced and perfected complex shrug that conveyed nothing at all. Lewis got the message and chuckled.


“What’s your opinion though, Darcy?” Lucy asked. “You work with the Entity closer than anyone, do you think we should let it have a V-N probe?”

Darcy ran her finger around the rim of her teacup as she sat back and crossed one leg over the other. “Should? I dunno about should,” she said. “But what happens if we say ‘no’ or it gives up on waiting? It already brought us the Hunter probe prototype. Sooner or later, it’ll find another one I bet.”

“You think it’s a question of when rather than if?” Lucy asked.

“It did it once. It can do it again,” Darcy shrugged. “So… the question is, what will it mean for us when it does? Will we be the tightwads who refused to share, the enemies who tried to contain it, or the friends who helped it? I know which one I’d rather be. The Entity might be a creepy broken thing, but it’s loyal as hell and I think we ought to reward that loyalty.”

Lewis and Lucy shared a complicated married-couple glance that was about five minutes of conversation packed into two seconds of eye contact. It made Lewis sag a fraction, and shake his head.

“…Guess you’ve got me there,” he admitted.

“It’s not really our decision though,” Darcy reminded them. “Ultimately, something like that has to go through Colonel Nadeau, from there to Brigadier-General Bartlett and then… I don’t know. Probably all the way up to AEC and the Allied leaders.”

“Our recommendation should still carry weight…” Lucy said.

“It will,” Darcy agreed. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically agree with us.”

“What happens if they say no?” Lewis asked.

“Well… I guess it’ll be my job to break the news gently,” Darcy said. She kept her sigh purely internal, and finished her tea. “Anyway, I’ve already worked overtime this month. I’m going to catch up on my sleep, I think.”

“Have fun!” Lucy wished her. “And… thanks for the insight.”

Darcy smiled, dipped her head to acknowledge the thanks, and slipped away between the chattering scientists.

In fact when she got back to her quarters, she found that sleep was surprisingly elusive. Even after a nice soak in the shower and even with the help of Enya, she wound up lying in bed and staring at the ceiling above her.

Stress. She’d never managed it properly. All the meditation, relaxing music and tea in the world just seemed like props rather than an actual solution. She’d been stressed to Hell and back when she’d made the mistake that saw her demoted down to being an analyst, and that had taken it all back down to a level she could handle. She’d been happy in that role.

Now, she felt like she had even more responsibility than before. There was a unique kind of demon prowling around, that could barely communicate, and it was her job to make sure it was friendly and well-disposed toward humanity as a whole.

So… no pressure.

She sighed and called up the Hunter V-N probe schematics again. She barely understood them, but apparently the tech in them was already being adopted into human designs. The next-generation starships, the Royal Navy’s Hostile-class frigate and the US Navy’s Shughart-class escort, both promised to revolutionize spaceborne warfare just like the Violent-class and the San Diego-class before them.

That seemed like a recipe for an endless cycle of counter-adaptation to Darcy. After all, it was reverse-engineered Hunter tech that had led humanity to discover FTL travel. Then the Hunters had adapted to human warfare, humanity had adapted to the Hunters, the Hunters had adapted again…

Where did it end? When one side or the other was dead, probably. And in the meantime, the real enemy were all but untouchable in their data-based alternate universe.

How long was it until the Hunters figured out an answer to WERBS? Or were given it, by the Hierarchy.

There was so much on the line. So much responsibility.

“…Lights off.”

The room plunged into darkness. She lay awake for a long time, thinking, until finally she thought no more and dreamed instead.

They were not happy dreams.

Date Point: 16y1m AV
Class 11 planet, Messier 24

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

“You know who I think would work? Now, it’s a bit of an odd choice…”

“Compared to the other odd ducks we’ve bandied about? For the record, Hulk Hogan from the late eighties still doesn’t count.”

“Why not? Besides, y’know, time travel.”

Team Two had found some entertainment gaming out a p ressing concern of theirs: how, exactly, they were going to deal with the sheer volume of equipment they needed to move in and out on these missions. Installing surveillance systems meant packing in a fuck of a lot of gear, even with modern miniaturization and very clever kit. Team One had solved that problem with a monster of a man and a pack-bear in the form of Daar. Team Two didn’t have that luxury.

Tooko had found it all amusing at their base camp, though he only visited once a day; it wasn’t safe, firstly, but secondly their growing body-funk was apparently too much for him.

Well, he could just harden the fuck up. Field work was grungy, there was no way around that.

“Alright, mate. Who’re you thinking?”

“Well…Look. There’s basically only three ways around the problem we’ve got, right? Pack less, carry more at once, or make more trips.”


“The tech isn’t getting smaller, and making more trips puts us at risk–”

“Yes, we know…”

“For Tooko’s benefit, mate.”

Tooko nibbled on one of his gaori ration packs. For a male his size they were, apparently, more than a square meal. As far as Wilde was concerned, they looked more like a snack.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I can’t carry your packs. Daar could…”

Again with that mild hero worship.

“Right. So. If I could pick anyone at all, and pay them enough…”

“Oh for fuck sake mate, just spit it out!” Rees laugh-groaned. “Who?”

“I’d pick a Ten’Gewek.”

“…Fuck it, yeah. I like that.”

“Exactly! They’re made for this. Big tough survival experts, crazy strong and trail-hardened…”

“Only real problem would be how much food we’d need to pack, but they’d be pretty good at hunting their own I bet.”

“Hell, we go hunt one doom-noodle and they’re fed for a week.” They’d seen one of the beasts draped languidly in a tree on the far side of the river, and Wilde had said that to his eyes they looked more like a massive ferret with the general air of psychotic danger he’d associate with a honey badger. Only, much much longer proportionately in the torso. They’d pointed it out to Tooko on one of their safer excursions to the perimeter, and he’d gone silent even by his standards over it.

He wasn’t silent about any perceived teasing levied against the Great Father, however. Tooko swallowed his food and glared at Frasier. “Bear-snake!”

He scowled at the chuckle that swept around the camp.

“Mate, you know we love ‘em, yeah? But c’mon, tell me that thing is anything but a noodle of doom!”

“Boys, you know who else would be good?” Rees interjected. “What about that Julian?”

“…Well, yes. But he’s also unavailable. What with the whole special envoy thing, and all.”

“Still, he’d be perfect! Six years on Nightmare, he’s a gorilla-whisperer, he’s a bigger and better athlete than Tiny nowadays and carries his size more naturally…”

“He’s also a rich millionaire with a pair of pregnant wives and unbreakable commitments to the Ten’Gewek, mate. And he eats like them, too.”

“…Are they married?”

“Tell me they’re not, mun. In their heads, anyway.”

“You humans are weird,” said Tooko around a mouthful of cracker-thing. “Must be nice to have equal numbers of males and females…”

“Nah mate. There’s more women, by a little bit.” Frasier grinned at Tooko’s expression.

“By what? One percent?!”

“‘Bout that, yeah.”

“My point stands.”

“It has its ups and downs,” Wilde said, evenly. “But don’t knock your own blessings. Thirteen female cubs and you don’t have to wipe their arses!”

“And I’ve never met them.” Tooko flicked an ear, then polished off the last of his food.

“That’s… a bit shit, yeah.” Wilde must have looked completely lost, because Tooko promptly forgave him and scooted closer round the fire to brave his odour and give him a kind of Gaoianly half-hug.

“Reesy here’s got a daughter, don’tcha mate?” Frasier said.

“Yup. Angharad. Four years old,” Rees smiled fondly. “Shame her mum’s a cunt, but I get to see her whenever I go on leave.”

“Her mother is a what?” Tooko tilted his head. “I don’t know that one.”

“Humans are weird,” Wilde explained. He didn’t get a chance to elaborate, however: There was a ping from his tablet, which was… unexpected, to say the least.

“…What?” He scowled at it for a second and then held out his hand. “…Fork that over, Frasier.”

Frasier leaned over and did as asked, handing him the device. When Wilde turned on the screen, he frowned at the screen for a second, then relaxed and smiled at what he saw.


“Oh aye?” Wilde asked, and chuckled. “They said you might show up…”

Date Point: 16y1m1w AV
Offutt AFB, Nebraska, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

Some things, a man just had to do himself. Like, say, inspecting a device that was to strategic relations with every other nation on the planet what a big phlegmy loogie was to even the most delicious burger.

Daar would love that analogy, too. Sartori would have to share it with him when they met up later on. After all, there was something obscene about doing something this monumental and then being coy about it. This was an event that demanded a full screaming eagle ‘America fuck yeah’ suck-my-nuts attitude, and to Hell with what Beijing and the Kremlin thought about it, never mind the others.

He was slamming the doors on all wormhole traffic within the orbit of Earth’s moon. From now on, if it wasn’t authorized by the USA then it wasn’t allowed to happen. Full stop, no negotiation, no way around it. A Farthrow generator was an absolute solution that created a lot of small problems in solving the big one.

With extinction on the line, however, an absolute solution was the only possibility.

It looked the part, too. Not in a Star Trek sense—there were no curious glowing bits or inexplicable translucent swirly things—but it looked solid, and its mere presence left the feeling of immense power crawling up Sartori’s spine. It was, he knew, twisting the spacetime around Earth in truly weird ways. He’d tried to read a more accurate and full explanation but had been utterly defeated by phrases like ‘homeomorphic to the Euclidean space of dimension n.’ There were multiple layers of high education between him and grasping the generator’s most basic operating principles.

Daar’s letter had been blunt on that point: “Don’t try and twist your brain into understanding it. Leaders like you and me aren’t meant to be this kind of smart.”

Wise advice. So, he’d set the manual aside and focused his attention instead on what he did understand: politics. And in that field, Sartori felt, he could have written something just as totally perplexing to the scientists.

That thought made him feel a lot better.

He could certainly write a good dedication speech.

“This,” he said, looking at the cameras in the back of the room rather than at the gathered uniforms and suits closer to his lectern, “is a door with an unbreakable lock. And we control when, where and how it will open.”

Sadly, a square room in a bunker wasn’t exactly the perfect forum for stirring oratory. The acoustics were all wrong for a start. And he certainly wasn’t going to get any cheering and applause from this crowd, who were watching in respectful silence. But it helped him to imagine such things.

“Whoever controls such a door inherits a freight of power along with it. From now on, we control who can and cannot come to or leave the Earth. We control every jump, every wormhole communication. That is enormous power.

“Power,” he continued, “as we all know comes with responsibility. It comes with an obligation to use it wisely and for the greatest common good. This high ideal shines like a beacon, calling us forward. We have the power to shut the doors on Earth; it follows that we have the obligation to only do so when it will benefit all the peoples on this small blue planet.”

There were foreign dignitaries present for this. Ambassadors, senior government officials from allied and a select few other nations… He addressed his next remark to those ‘select few others.’

“It is emphatically not our place to use this generator to interfere with the legitimate affairs of our neighbors,” he said. “Instead we pledge it to their protection, as by protecting them we can be certain of protecting ourselves. My nation has, in somewhat recent decades, given the world two paradigm-shifting technologies: the Navstar global positioning system, and the Internet. In the spirit of those advances, we commit to an open and transparent operational regime, and will seek input from all our partners.

“Unlike those systems, there is no escaping the singular nature of its operation. A second one of these would not overrule the existence of the first, it would only lock the door ever tighter. We recognize the concerns this creates. Being honest, it gave me pause and nearly prompted me to decline the Great Father’s generous gift.”

He paused to take a brief sip of water. “However. All of us know what the stakes actually are. We know what the recent events on Ceres signify. We know what we are up against. Considering that, and reviewing the state of our international relations…we shall retain sovereign control of the device, until such time as a secure, trustworthy international regime can be established to our satisfaction. That concludes my statement, thank you.”

Well. Sartori had just undone much of his predecessors’ work in untangling the United States from binding–and arguably, strangling–international commitments. Instead of gradually relinquishing the title of ‘world police,’ he had just (by international standards) somewhat lustily embraced the title of “defender of mankind.”


Date Point: 16y1m2w AV
Class 11 planet, Messier 24

Brother Traan, Warleader of Fourth Fang


Traan’s nose immediately objected. He was proud of his keen senses; they were on par with the Great Father in fact, and that made the rotting feculent nasal cacophony all the more impressive. How had Daar put up with this for weeks and months at a time?

He wasn’t the only one momentarily floored by the olfactory assault, either. The entire Fang flinched, pulled faces, growled and in one or two cases even covered their noses.

Which made it all the more infuriating when he heard somebody chitter. A legitimately tiny male with very un-Clanlike fur and markings but the flight suit of a Firefang pilot was leaning against the nearby dropship, and there was a certain sadist’s glee in the set of his ear.

He flattened his ears and ducked a little when Traan glared at him, though.

“Sorry. I had it bad too,” he apologized. “Welcome to Stinkworld.”

“You’d be Brother Tooko?” Traan checked. Even though there shouldn’t be any other Gaoians on the planet, he found it hard to believe that one of Firefang’s top-rated ace pilots was a tiny little first-degree who smelled more like a female than a Clan Brother.

“The one and only!” Tooko offered him a tin of something. “Southern style sweet-herb snuff. Tuck some in next to your gums, it helps.”

Traan pinched up a dose with his claws and did as suggested. Sure enough the pungent spicy leaf made the scent landscape a good deal more tolerable, largely by numbing his nose.


Tooko just offered a small bow and waved the tin off when Traan tried to return it. “Pass it around,” he said. “I have more.”

“The humans?” Traan asked, handing the tin off to the man next to him.

Tooko chittered. “They barely smell anything!”

“I meant where are they?”

“On their way back. Mission accomplished, they tell me. They shouldn’t be long.”

In fact, there was a sharp whistle from their right. Tooko turned and pant-grinned. “…Mention Keeda and there he is…” he muttered.

Traan hadn’t appreciated that humans could be so hairy, before. Oh, he knew that Human males could grow fur on their faces and he’d seen the magnificent white beard sported by Ambassador Knight, but the three men squeezing through a crack in the rock looked as shaggy as Stonebacks after a week of hard labor, and they reeked even through the sweet herb. Behind the beards their faces were dark with some kind of oily paint, their clothing was filthy and their short hair was matted… but their eyes shone out of the filth looking clean and cold and intense. A human’s eyes were so intensely white around the edges that Traan could see why other species might find them unnerving.

They looked remarkably… not comfortable, but acclimated.

A man who was clearly their leader stepped forward. He seemed about average in size as human males tended to go…or, at least, the Humans that Traan had met. He was a bit smaller than the rest of the team, anyway. He nodded, grinned an unsettling grin, and stuck out his hand.

[“Christ,] they build you Stonebacks big, don’t they?” he commented conversationally, in pretty good Gaori.

Tooko chittered quietly to himself but kept out of the conversation. Something about him told Traan he’d be full of mischief in another setting. He filed that away for another day.

Traan shook the Human’s hand. “They certainly do,” he agreed proudly. “Brother Traan, warleader of Fourth Fang.”

“Sergeant Wilde, JETS Team Two. I understand you [chaps] plan to make a mess.”

“Not without purpose.”

“Be our guests!”

“Just watch out for the doom-noodles,” one of the other men added.

“…The Great Father calls them Snake-Bears. He also said not to be flippant about them.”

“Aye, we mean no disrespect. The big bastard’s saved my life more than once.”

“Humans are weird,” Tooko added, as a few of the Fang, the ones unfamiliar with Human foibles, bristled at the casual insult. They glanced at Traan, who duck-nodded, and their hackles lowered again.

“Understood. Nonetheless…”

[“Mate,] we mean no offense. But right now I’m tired, filthy, crawling with parasites, a few days behind on my sleep, about twenty meals behind on my diet, sore, cramped, aching, and just plain fuckin’ desperate to find a shower,” Wilde said.

“I have a hose,” Tooko interjected.

“Where did you–?”


“…Of course. Fuck it, whatever. Bring it on.”

Tooko held out a paw. “The package?”

“Oh, yeah. Reesy?”

The largest of the three Humans—not the tallest, but easily the most solid—gladly handed over a hard case which Tooko heaved up the ramp into the ship with a visible effort.

“Tooko, [butty,] you need help with that?” the big human offered.

“Fuck off!” The…well, tiny male snarled and re-doubled his efforts. Traan hadn’t met many first-degrees before, but even still…

Wilde seemed amused. “I like him, he’s spunky!”

“He’s a fuckin’ [terrier,”] the tallest human opined. Whatever a ‘terrier’ was, his comment sounded approving.

The muffled sounds of Tooko swearing inside the ship came to an end, and he shortly returned pulling at a length of rubber hosepipe. Traan couldn’t think of anything he’d have wanted less in the Humans’ position than being sluiced down with cold water, but the three men promptly started shedding their gear as though the prospect was the most enticing thing they’d heard in a long time. He left them to it and connected to the ‘Drunker on Turkeyer’ so he could download its up-to-date survey data and plan Fourth Fang’s mission properly.

The Array had thumped twice more and delivered most of the rest of the Fang by the time the humans were satisfactorily cleaned off, and Wilde joined him while scrubbing his hair and face dry on a towel. Mercifully he smelled a good deal less awful than he had before, though Traan could tell that the rinse was no substitute for a real cleansing.

“Avoid the wildlife,” he commented, and leaned over Traan’s map to contribute. “There’s a snake-bear living on this side of the river, big bugger with lots of scars. We left him alone…”

“Drone patrols?”

“Here,” Wilde swooped a finger along the map to show a route. “Here, and here. But you don’t need to worry about them at all.”

“Why not?”

“Turns out we had a friend on the inside all along…”

Date Point: 16y2m AV
Armstrong Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Leemu, clanless

Interstellar travel still wasn’t exactly fast, though the longest part had been the journey to somewhere with a link to the Array Network. From there, Armstrong Station had been as simple as waiting for a scheduled connection, and after that…

A journey that would have taken a substantial portion of a year at warp was over in a black flash that lasted no time at all. Literally.

Preed gasped softly the second it was over. It took Leemu a second to realize why: the old man had just laid eyes on a member of his own species for the first time in decades. There were two of them, in fact: a male and a female, wearing identical dark blue uniforms over white shirts as they stood to either side of a standard biofilter field arch. Both were wearing the slim, closed-lip smiles of Humans who spent a lot of time interacting with aliens.

The female spoke up, calling over the chatter of travellers in a clear voice: “Welcome to Cimbrean, ladies and gentlemen! Please have your travel documents ready and form an orderly line for decontamination and security…” She lowered her voice then approached Preed. “Sir? Do you speak English or have a translator?”

It took Preed a while to answer for whatever reason. “…Oh! I… I have a translator. I do not have travel documents… I was abducted.”

“Oh! Well… welcome back.” The female glanced at a communicator in her hand, then back to Preed. “My translator says you’re speaking Thai. Are you a citizen of Thailand?”

“Yes. Or, I was…” Preed looked momentarily saddened. “They probably declared me dead.”

The female nodded sympathetically. “Don’t worry, we’ll have somebody from the Thai consulate here for you soon and they’ll sort everything out. If there’s anything we can get for you in the meantime, you just have to ask… I must ask you to submit to a security scan, however.” She turned to Leemu and Gorku and switched to accented but fluent Gaori. “Are you travelling with this gentleman?”

“We are,” Leemu confirmed.

“I’ll need you to pass through security with him, then. What’s your status, please?”

“Clanless. Exile,” Leemu informed her. She tapped the details into her communicator before turning to Gorku.

“And you sir?”

“Associate, Clan Stoneback. Also exiled.”

“Exiled due to implantation?”

“Yes, both of us.”

“The nature of your implants?”

“Translator and quick technical references,” Leemu said. “I’m a ship’s propulsion mechanic.”

Gorku squirmed. “Uh…translator and, uh… medical. For a, uh… a learning disability.” The set of his ears was ashamed and uncomfortable. Leemu had never even suspected that, and immediately gave his friend an astonished look and a keening whine that made Gorku’s ears flatten even more. Clearly he was more ashamed about not revealing it sooner than about needing it.

For her part, the human officer simply nodded solemnly. “Okay. You don’t have to tell me anything else. I’m afraid cannot permit you access to Cimbrean until the implant is removed…but you should know there is a Corti doctor in Folctha that specializes in advanced regenerative therapy. He might be able to help.”

“I unnerstand.”

The Human turned back to Preed. “Sir? Any implants?”

Preed shook his head.

“Okay. And your name and date of birth? It’ll help the consulate staff with your case…”

Preed gave her his details, including some family history, where he’d grown up… it only took a few minutes. By the time they were ushered through the biofilter arch, the jump hall had cleared entirely. Sure enough, the arch lit up and sounded an alarm as they passed through, and they were ushered aside into a security annex of some kind.

There was drinking water and a comfortable couch while they waited, but there was nothing really to do. Preed perched himself in an armchair in the corner, shut his eyes and went still. Leemu wasn’t sure if he was meditating or taking a nap.

Gorku threw himself onto the couch with a heavy thump and sighed pathetically. “…Sorry I din’t tell ‘ya sooner,” he grumbled after a minute or so, after Leemu had fetched some water.

“It’s alright. Wasn’t my business, yijao?”

“Eh… True. But I shouldn’t keep secrets from friends.” Gorku chittered darkly. “Worst part? My disability messes with my sense of smell. Figger I’m almost as nose-blind as a Human… An’ the implant don’t do shit ‘ta fix it. That part o’ my brain were…atrophied.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna pry, but…what caused it?” Leemu added hastily, “You don’t need to answer.”

“Caused? Nothin’. Developmental, ‘parently. It weren’t genetic though, thank fuck. S’why they let me in the Clan in the first place, ‘cuz Stoneback is picky. So, there’s still hopes ‘fer me to sire another cub or three someday. Maybe…” He sighed again and scratched his flank distractedly. “I’m kinda worried about what it’ll be like if I take the implant out.”

“How…bad was it?”

Gorku whined quietly and flattened his ears. “It were hard ‘ta string words together, sometimes I’d get writin’ switched up in my head, that kinda thing. Could always ‘member everything I ever heard, though.”

“So you weren’t stupid, then, you just had trouble communicating. That’s not so bad. And maybe we can get it fixed!”

“Yeah, but…Corti. Also, it’ll be ‘spensive.”

Preed spoke up. “That will not be a problem, if I have anything to say about it.”

Both the gaoians looked over at Preed with their ears up in surprise. He shrugged at them. “I have been saving my money for thirty years,” he said. “Even with the exchange rate, I have plenty set aside.”


“But nothing. I have no children and I am not long for the world. I am old. What am I going to do with my money but spend it? Besides, I’d miss your banter.”

Gorku whined and chittered his teeth, then dragged Preed up into a monster of a hug, keening all the while.

They were, sadly, interrupted by the arrival of security personnel and a small man in a dark suit, who put his briefcase down, pressed his hands together in front of his chest, and bowed his head so that his thumbs touched his chin.

Whatever the gesture meant—“hello,” presumably—Preed returned a slightly shallower version and spoke so clearly that Leemu heard his words over the translator’s attempt to replace them for his benefit.

“Sà wàt dii kráp.”

There followed a long discussion, lots of paperwork… apparently Preed’s prediction that he’d been declared legally dead was half-true. That had originally been the case, but when his name showed up on a list of recorded abductees that the Corti Directorate had shared with the Humans at some point, he’d been legally restored to life and marked as a missing person instead. That small fact alone apparently streamlined matters considerably.

It took less than an hour for Preed’s travel documents to be arranged. There were other details to worry about: apparently interstellar banking and finance was a whole cluster of headaches all by itself, not the least of which was how easily Preed’s savings could be accessed in Human space… but in the end, they were informed that they were free to wander the station’s public areas, but would not be granted access to private areas or any jump terminal hosting an in-system jump to Cimbrean’s surface or to Earth until the Gaoians had either resolved their implant problem or agreed to stay behind.

Preed still seemed a little awestruck at being back in contact with members of his own species again.

“I almost forgot how to wâi,” he marvelled. This, it seemed, was the bowing gesture he’d shared with the man in the suit. “It’s been so long…”

They followed Leemu’s nose to an eatery not dissimilar to the one Preed had so recently and sadly closed and said goodbye to. The menu turned out to be completely different, however, and it had waiting staff. Preed watched them as they orbited the tables, tending to travellers, crew and staff alike.

“Preed? You’re staring,” Gorku pointed out after a minute. The old man blushed and looked down at his hands.

“It’s been a long time since I last saw a young woman,” he explained sheepishly.

Gorku chittered deeply and pant-grinned with the most lecherous look Leemu had yet seen. “So are ‘ya gonna go mate with ‘em? Don’t let us stop ‘ya!”

Preed’s laugh turned nearby heads, even as he shook his own head and waved Gorku down. “No! No! Don’t embarrass me like that!” he chuckled and lowered his voice, having gone a few shades darker in the face. “…No. I’m happy just to look.”

“Why?!” Gorku seemed almost offended at the notion. “What’s the harm in askin’?”

“My friend, I am not a Gaoian. Our rules are different. And I do not want the first thing I do when I reunite with my species to be harassing a young woman while she’s hard at work.” Preed watched the waitress doing her rounds a second longer, then smiled and looked away. “Besides. I am old.”

“That don’t have to stop you.”

“Let the matter rest, please. I’d rather not embarrass myself.”

“Your loss,” Gorku shrugged and gave up. “I hear there’s lots of females on Cimbrean…an’ they’ve got a thing ‘fer brownies lately!”

“I wish you luck,” Preed said, levelly. Leemu chittered and they shared a mutual look of tolerance at the foibles of all Brownies.

After eating, they checked out the medical center. Translators, it turned out, were a routine operation under a local anaesthetic that needed only about twenty minutes. Leemu’s skullwire and Gorku’s correction implant both needed a slightly more involved intervention: half an hour, rather than twenty minutes.

It took Gorku a bit longer to come out of surgery. Why was almost immediately apparent: He…had trouble with his words.

“I…yeah. Wanna see the, uh…. Little.” He paused, made a frustrated noise, and finally found the word. “Corti? Yeah. …Money.”

Preed and Leemu looked at each other and nodded. “Okay big guy,” Leemu promised. “We’ll take care of it, okay? Let’s see if we can go right now.”

The prospect of getting down to Cimbrean was invigorating, too. Quite aside from maybe helping his friends, there was just something about the place that called to him. It felt right to be going there, in a deep and satisfying way.

To his dismay, there was a wait to head down. They’d just missed a scheduled jump, and the next wasn’t for a couple of hours. So, they sat and waited.

After a while, though, Gorku started fidgeting. He’d been silent since the surgery, but now he gave Leemu a strange look.

“…You… good? Smell…. Not smell nice,” he slurred.

“I do?” Leemu sniffed himself then turned to Preed, who shrugged. “I smell nothing.”

“Smell… uh… uh, wrong.”

“Maybe I just need a dust bath,” Leemu said dismissively. “It’s been a long voyage.”

“…Maybe…” Gorku agreed, and lapsed into silence. His nose didn’t stop twitching, however.

Leemu sighed and resigned himself to a long wait.

There’d be time to worry about how he smelled later.

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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Sweetness – Chapter 1 (NSFW)

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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 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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