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… more like persuading, than controlling. As far as I can tell, they were intercepted by some kind of an animal, with a Gaoian handler.

++0011++: What kind of animal?

++Asymptote++: Again, unclear. The drone sent a confused impression of something enormously heavy and strong, with sharp teeth.

++Cynosure++: <Grim> Bozo.

++Asymptote++: …What is a ‘Bozo’?

++Cynosure++: Bozo is its name. The animal in question is allegedly a category two bred symbiont species native to Earth known as a ‘dog’ but those are usually smaller than any sophont. Bozo is abnormally large… and abnormally intelligent.

++0011++: Bred for what purpose?

++Cynosure++: Several, but the relevant factor in this case, I suspect, is that their olfactory acuity is several orders of magnitude superior to a Human’s, and even to most Gaoians.

++0004++: Smell. Chemical reception? These new drones produce some kind of chemical trace?

++0007++: Any machine produces waste products, and those must be eliminated somehow… The OmoAru weren’t noted for their sense of smell, maybe they just let the body release it through the skin.

++Asymptote++: Whatever the cause, the Arudrones are just as detectable as the conventional drones. If they’re going to be a viable infiltration tool, that needs correcting.

++0013++: Wait. Wasn’t the Gaoian Arudrone friends with a fellow Gaoian? Why was the scent not detected sooner?

++Asymptote++: The other Gaoian has a developmental brain flaw affecting both his language processing and his sense of smell. He is, by his species’ standards, almost completely anosmic.

++Cynosure++: <Frustration> But the instant the drone strayed within range of a healthy Gaoian…

++Asymptote++: Yes. Now the Corti known as Nofl is picking at it. I’ve initiated the Droud function to ensure the drone can’t give away any vital information, but I’m afraid our infiltration has not only failed, but now the Humans know what to look for.

++0004++: A setback, yes, but not an insurmountable one if we can modify or reprogram the Arutech in some way.

++0007++: <Pessimistic> To smell like a living being, they’d need to be much close to biological in function, and at that point…

++Asymptote++: There’s another wrinkle to consider. The Human I infected is resisting the Arutech.

++0007++: These Arudrones of yours are a resounding success, Cynosure…

++Cynosure++: <Nettled> Thank you for the commentary. How is it resisting? Other Human specimens have not been able to.

++Asymptote++: Unknown. I cannot monitor the situation any further as the drones have been quarantined.

++0013++: So now what?

++Cynosure++: The operation on Earth remains. Now that I know about the scent problem, I can adapt. Having access to the planetary communications network will be helpful.

++Asymptote++: I have an idea on how you might begin, if you’re interested.

++Cynosure++: By all means!

++Asymptote++: This internment camp that your Arudrone escaped from. Is it widely known about?

++Cynosure++: On the contrary, it is a closely guarded secret… And I think I see what you are driving at.

++Asymptote++: A little negative publicity might work in our favor…

Date Point: 16y2m AV
Ceres facility, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Adele Park

Adele’s office wasn’t large, certainly not by the standards of an executive with her kind of wealth and influence. Still, by the standards of offices carved out of the ice and rock of an asteroid two hundred and fifty million miles from Earth, it was downright cavernous. So much so that the two HEAT officers managed to fit in comfortably rather than crowding the place out.

Adele didn’t much like how they’d stormed in and subdued everyone on the base, but she wasn’t really in a position to complain about that. At least they’d taken their helmets off now that they were apparently satisfied there was no imminent danger.

God, Drew Cavendish’s fingerprints were all over that suit. The ingenious way it followed the line of the jaw and skull so that the helmet and mask could lock on and form an airtight seal, the multi-layered construction, the deceptive flex and stretch of the midsuit that you’d be forgiven for thinking was just thick fabric…

That was a C&M Systems suit right down in its DNA, and all of that DNA was Cavendish: Drew Martin was an administrator and foreman, not an inventor. As far as Adele was concerned, they might as well have been sitting there wearing T-shirts printed with her dead friend’s face.

The Gaoian was much easier to look at. His suit owed nothing at all to Drew’s work. He was patrolling the office sniffing at things and running some kind of a sensor around the walls and decorations.

To Adele’s disgust and dismay, he turned up three bugs.

She stared at them despondently as he laid them on the desk. “…How long have those been there?”

“Impossible to say, ma’am,” the Gaoian replied. English fit him strangely: he pronounced it carefully and precisely, compensating for the shape of his mouth. The overall effect was of a dapper rich man with a slight lisp on the R and W sounds.

“Any idea who made ‘em, Dex?” asked the younger officer, who went by ‘Abbott.’

“No sir. It looks like off-the-shelf electronics. Titan could whip up a dozen of these in half an hour.”

The senior officer, ‘Stainless,’ was a menacing and taciturn sort. He picked up one of the devices and turned it over in his hand without comment at first.

“…Director, we need you to send out an emergency recall and bring My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon back to port,” he said.

“That’ll cost millions…” Adele pointed out. She didn’t expect him to give a fuck.

“Aye. We still need you to do it.”

“She’s the only remaining Hephaestus asset that we haven’t inspected,” the junior officer explained.

Stainless leaned forward. Both men had declined to sit down, and to judge from the way the deck creaked under his feet Adele was glad of it. They’d have destroyed her chairs.

“Director, let me make summat very clear,” he said. “There is a reason we did not send police. I want you to think long and hard about what a military presence in your office implies, and what that could mean.”

Adele did so. Then, with a head full of nightmare scenarios, she carefully turned on her monitor, and accessed the ship listing.

There were three ships in dock for the moment: I Met God And She Booped My Nose, Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat, and Put Back Together With Bits Left Over.

All of their ships had an emergency comms router purchased from Dominion sources. Adele knew they worked on the principle of quantum entanglement, and were basically single-use, but when it came to urgent secure communication across an indefinite distance with a vessel whose current location was unknown, they were the industry standard.

There was a small lockbox in her desk drawer, with a ten-digit passcode she’d never shared with anybody. She opened it, picked out My Other Spaceship’s envelope, tore it open, and carefully copied the code it contained into the message field.

Recalling one of their freighters was a big deal. Investors and customers would need to be repaid, the crew still needed their salary, the ship still needed to undergo maintenance… thank God for stasis containers, or else the cargo of soybeans and feed corn it was carrying would have to be written off as well.

Still, under the HEAT’s watchful glare she carefully double- and triple-checked that the code was correct, and then hit ‘Send.’ Somewhere far, far away, the receiver unit on My Other Spaceship’s flight deck would buzz loudly until somebody confirmed the instruction was received.


“How long for them to get back?”

“They should jump straight to Armstrong Station as soon as they get the message.”

The two officers glanced at each other, then the younger one gave a nod to the Gaoian. Whatever it meant, ‘Dex’ duck-nodded himself and stepped out of the room.

“I guess we’ll wait and see,” the younger officer said jovially.

Adele had a feeling like it was going to be a long wait.

Date Point: 16y2m AV
Corti Directorate ship Empirical Razor, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Third Director Tran

The Razor was many things. It was, among those things, a warship, and the College of Shipbuilders had put a lot of work and talent into producing something that could punch far above its mass. They’d successfully packed defenses and firepower equivalent to a Dominion standard Heavy Picket into something small and light enough to land at any starport in the galaxy.

The Humans had been understandably nervous about that. They’d made certain… requests, with the clear condition that failing to agree to those requests meant no landing in Folctha, and that Tran and his entourage would have to visit the city via the trade station orbiting outside the system defence field.

Tran had, after some thought, accepted the requests. He and the crew had been subjected to the minor indignity of a sweep for neural cybernetics and of being… sniffed by some kind of animal… but once that was out of the way the Humans had been deferential and gratifyingly precise. They did not, so far as Tran could tell, seek to glean any classified information about the ship, and they politely stayed out of the way while the Razor was jumped in-system and de-orbited to land at Folctha’s small spaceport.

Tran had never visited a Human world before. On some level he was rather looking forward to it, and he surveyed Folctha’s street plan during the descent with interest. The layout was not perfectly efficient—rather too much space was given over to green recreational areas, in his opinion—but aside from that quirk the streets mostly followed a sensible grid pattern and were clearly and intelligently zoned.

There was an unfortunate lack of uniformity to the buildings, he noted. No doubt the Locayl would have approved of the architectural variety and experimentation on show, but to Tran’s eyes it looked anarchic.

But that, he reflected, might well be Humans in a sentence: Sensible and intelligent, with a dismaying layer of anarchy.

The official greeting party, such as it was, had been hastily assembled. A dignified-looking elder male with a blue sash across his torso was at the front alongside a hulking shaggy parody of a Gaoian who could only be the Great Father. There was a small retinue of lower-ranking Humans and Gaoians, a couple of brightly-hued banners…

It was enough to welcome a foreign dignitary without seeming obsequious. The Great Father’s presence was a surprise, however, and Tran watched him carefully as he descended his ship’s steps and glided across the concrete to meet them.

“Third Director.” The Human with the sash smiled gently and extended a hand. “I’m Sir Jeremy Sandy, His Majesty the King’s appointed Governor-General of Folctha and the Commonwealth Colonies of Cimbrean. And I’m sure of course you recognise Daar of Clan Stoneback, Great Father of the Gao.”

Tran shook hands with them both, noting that he could feel in their grips the potential to grind his hands into a slurry of broken bone and meat but that they had merely been firm and confident.

“Thank you for receiving me,” he replied. “The Directorate understands from our associate’s report that there has been an unwelcome development.”

“So I understand, yes,” Sandy agreed. He gestured toward a large vehicle waiting nearby. “We arranged transport to Nofl’s lab. It’s ready to take you and the Great Father to him whenever you wish.”

Tran looked over at the Great Father and cringed internally. “Very well. Will you be accompanying us?” he asked Sandy.

“I think I would just get in the way,” the governor-general demurred. “My position is that this is a grave security threat, and I have taken advice from the Prime Minister to defer to the military needs of the situation. In any case, the Great Father is the only suitable advocate.”

“…Very well,” Tran said, carefully. He turned to the Great Father, who had turned his head to nibble at something itchy in his fur. “I suppose we should inspect the patient, then, and evaluate this new threat.”

Daar duck-nodded, gave the governor-general a warm and almost fraternal farewell, and then trundled toward the car.

“I di’n’t know Nofl had that kinda credit with y’all that you’d come so quickly when he asked,” he said conversationally as they crossed the concrete.

“Nofl is… many things, not all of them desirable or convenient,” Tran admitted. “But he is competent, highly intelligent, and rarely incorrect.”

“You take him seriously.”

“Even if he will not take himself seriously.”

“There’s prol’ly wisdom in that.”

Tran felt mild surprise at the compliment. He’d been under the impression that the Gao in general, and the Great Father in particular, were not overly well-disposed to Corti.

Then again, it was politically stupid to be rude to other members of one’s own faction. And for better or worse, the Directorate did now stand alongside the Humans, the Gaoians and the Rauwryhr in the Dominion’s newly-fledged ‘Reformers’ bloc.

In fact, throughout their brief journey to Nofl’s establishment, he found the Great Father to be unfailingly polite. Traveling with him was…uncomfortable, as he occupied nearly the entire usable volume of the transport vehicle, but even then he was courteous.

Nevertheless, it was a relief to escape the vehicle’s confines and enter Nofl’s lab.

Nofl occupied a decidedly unique position in the Directorate’s structure. In addition to irritating Tran’s sense of orderliness, it also created funding and equipment concerns that the low-caste prodigy had been forced to work around. His equipment was, to an experienced eye, obviously second-hand, reclaimed and repaired, or in some cases built from scratch.

Nevertheless, the quality of his results was vexing. A mere glance at the detailed analysis of a Gaoian’s brain that was being worked on along one wall showed that Nofl’s work was of blue-banner quality, maybe higher.

Anomalies in the caste system like that were always uncomfortable. Thankfully he’d been quite happy to accept this posting on an alien colony world. To Tran, the idea of being assigned a backwater like Cimbrean would have been an unbearable insult, but to Nofl it had been an opportunity and now…

Well. Now he had a Third Director walking through his door.

“Ah. You’ve noticed my other patient!” Nofl chirped happily, emerging from the quarantine and isolated research rooms at the back of the building while sanitizing his hands. “Poor Gorku there really didn’t get enough of certain nutrients during a critical stage in his development and it left him with a severe speech impediment.”

Daar sighed and duck-nodded knowingly. “It’s a particular weakness of us ‘Backs an’ we ain’t managed t’ breed it out. Lotta us, we have a big growth spurt ‘round four years old, an’ it can be hard t’eat enough. It’s prol’ly a big part o’ why us brownfurs can have, uh, reputations.”

“Alas, it’s trivially easy to fix with cybernetics,” Nofl said. “If those are no longer an option, however…”

Tran nodded, but reluctantly tore himself away from the data. That kind of project was exactly the sort of thing he’d spent his Professorial years on, and there were times when he missed the simplicity of College-tier work. His promotion to the Directorate proper had been prestigious and welcome, of course, but it did sometimes prevent him from practicing science.

“…And your main patient?” he asked.

“Come and see.”

A minute or so later, Daar actually recoiled from the isolation unit when Nofl dropped the stasis field.

“Great Keeda’s burnin’ sack!” He coughed, pawed fruitlessly at his nose, and retreated another few paces. “That smells like a million ass!”

Tran sniffed cautiously. “…I smell nothing.”

The Great Father flicked his left ear in a manner suggesting an emotion of some kind. “Well, the Primary Mushroom you ate ‘bout three hours ago were a bit over-ripe, weren’t it? Which was prol’ly a bit galling since it smelled like it were clean-flavored an’ earthy. I bet it was ‘spensive.”

Tran blinked, and turned to Nofl who nodded.

“A Gaoian’s sense of smell is many orders of magnitude more sensitive than ours,” he explained. “And I gather the Great Father’s nose is legendarily sensitive.”

“Exactly.” Daar again flicked an ear and snorted air out of his nose as though trying to dislodge whatever scent had so assaulted him. “Trust me, I can smell it. It’s…uh, redolent of sour oil, and byproducts of semiconductor manufacture. It’s, uh…a little bit metallic. Yeah. Ain’t no living thing should stink that way.”

“It won’t be a powerful scent,” Nofl elaborated. “His body is releasing the actual odorants in negligible amounts, but I daresay there don’t need to be many of them.”

“Right…Director Tran.” The Great Father rose to his feet and…towered…over the rest of them. Up until this point he’d remained on four paws and thereby seemed smaller than he really was. Now, his head was just shy of scraping the ceiling. “I need ‘yer professional opinion, by which I mean the opinion o’ the Directorate: can…his name?”

“Leemu. Clanless. I gather he was a propulsion mechanic at a deep space layover on the far side of Locayl space before they decided to travel here.”

“Right. Leemu. I’ll have my people look into that. Anyway…what is his prognosis? I need the best answer ‘ya can get me.”

Tran stepped up to the glass and reviewed the information that Nofl had shared with him. It made for pessimistic reading.

“…Nofl. You should reactivate that stasis field,” he said after a moment. Nofl did so.

“Right, yes. Need to minimize his Droud-fugue time.”

“Droud?” Daar asked. “I’ve never heard that word.”

“Direct stimulation of the brain’s pleasure and reward mechanisms,” Tran explained. “It won’t take long to permanently addict him and alter his behaviour. Even before then, he’ll be incapable of doing anything more than just being deliriously happy no matter what is happening to him.”

Daar looked appalled. “That’s…evil.” He growled low in his chest while looking back at the screen.

“It would in fact be a rather humane form of euthanasia…” Tran mused. The Great Father gave him a sharp look, and Tran sensed that now was a moment to tread very carefully. “…Purely in voluntary end-of-life cases to avoid unnecessary suffering of course. This use of it is a perversion.”

“…Prognosis. What do we need to get it?”

“‘Getting it’ will almost certainly not be possible with our current technology,” Tran told him, flatly. “I cannot immediately see a chemical option for flushing this from his system that would not also poison his cells in the process.”

“Cellular surgery could do it,” Nofl provided. “But that’s for excising tumors and repairing minor defects. Nobody’s ever even tried to do a whole sapient being’s body all at once.”

“You’re effectively proposing that we reduce him to a diffuse cloud of tissue, filter the Arutech out and reassemble him,” Tran said.

“Theoretically it’s possible.”

“Yes. Theoretically…”

“An’ practically?” Daar asked.

“…If I destroy a thing, and then reassemble it again from all its component parts, is it still the original thing?” Tran asked. “We had that conversation years ago when we discovered how to encode a living mind as a digital sophont. There’s no reason we cannot reverse that process and map a living brain from the digital sophont, thereby effectively ‘downloading’ them into a new body.”

“That sounds like a pretty bad dung-heap o’ ethical problems,” the Great Father grumbled. He made eye contact with his aide standing discreetly in the corner. “Make sure Champion Gyotin is summoned, too.”

“And practical problems,” Nofl said.

“Like what?”

“Legal, mostly. Property rights, possessions, inheritance… not to mention identity. If you have two of a person with the same memories, opinions, life experiences and so on, which copy retains the original’s identity? Which one, from their perspective, has just lost everything they remember ever havin g and must now build a new identity and portfolio from scratch?”

“…This is gonna hurt my brain, I can tell.”

“The Directorate is still wrestling with the implications to this day,” Tran revealed. “In short: Yes, in theory we could potentially reduce Leemu here to a puddle of organic slurry, filter out the invasive nanotechnology and then put all the cells back where they were. In practice… we would not be able to reconstruct the ephemeral running-state of his brain. We’d first need to copy his mind-state into the digital realm, which is…deeply problematic. We’d then need to restore that mind-state into a living brain. If we did that, what do we do with the digital copy? And what would the implications be for the re-assembled being? Did we murder a mind-state already present in the body in favor of another?”

“…Right. I’mma speak with Gorku an’ his Human friend, if ‘ya don’t mind. In private.”

“Indeed.” Tran stepped away from the cells. “I will discuss treatment options with Nofl.”

In fact, when they returned to the front of the lab, there was little to discuss. The fact was, the patient was effectively a loss.

Tran’s thoughts instead turned to detection. “At least we can design a detector,” he said. “You have a Foundry suite?”

“Of course.” Nofl ushered him toward the volumetric projector in the middle of the room and summoned. “Do you prefer ItemChip, or Sculptor? They’re both last years’ editions, I’m afraid.”

“Are you not subscribed?”

“Income, dear. I can’t simply charge my expenses against the College budget.”

“Surely you can afford–”

“Do you know how much an individual subscription costs? I suspect not.”

“…I can see that if you are going to become a peripheral Campus we will need to arrange an appropriate expenses account for you,” Tran sniffed. “Very well. I prefer Sculptor.”

He let Nofl handle the actual manipulation of the software as he patrolled around the projector, making observations and corrections as they went. Both of them settled quickly on a sensitive chemical sniffer that could be mounted in a standard security drone chassis. That part wasn’t difficult—similar technology was already available on the market—but any Arutech drone thus detected was likely to create an immediate hazard, meaning that they needed to pack the sniffer in alongside an appropriate less-lethal suppression system.

Tran favored a sensor scrambler, a device intended to bewilder and dizzy the target with dazzling light and powerful directed noise. Nofl preferred physical restraint via a rapid-drying sticky foam originally developed to contain escaping Human abductees.

Eventually, with some creativity and negotiation, they managed to squeeze all three systems in.

Tran found himself enjoying the process immensely. A Director’s work was mostly paperwork, funding, negotiations and grant reviews, so on and so forth. He hadn’t had the chance to apply his talents to a simple mechanical problem in far too long.

They were applying the finishing touches and flourishes that made the difference between a merely competent design and one worthy of their talents when Daar returned in a somber mood. Clearly his conversation with Gorku had been frustrating and agonizing for him.

“…That don’t look like a fix ‘fer Leemu’s problem,” he rumbled after a second of considering their design.

“It isn’t. It’s a detection tool for protecting those civilizations that have neither dogs nor Gaoians to sniff out infiltrating Arutech drones,” Tran replied.

“You’ve given up on him?” The Great Father scowled.

“We’ve presented the prognosis, and both the ethical and practical difficulties. If you desire us to proceed–”

Daar growled, but it seemed to be directed at himself rather than at either of the Corti.

“…Not ‘til I’ve consulted my Champions,” he said.

“As you wish,” Tran agreed reasonably. “In the meantime, I think it would be sensible to transfer Leemu to the Empirical Razor. The facilities there are better-equipped to handle him, however you decide to proceed.”

“…Yeah. Third Director, I ‘spose I don’t need ‘ta re-hash our history on this point…so, I’m sure none o’ that is gonna be an issue, is it?”

Tran decided that his dignity, and indeed that of his whole species, demanded a straight back when he turned to face the Great Father.

“…Our species’ shared history is neither here nor there,” he said levelly, looking the enormous furry brute unflinchingly in the eye. “We are not prejudiced, Great Father Daar, nor do we hold grudges. We simply act in our own best interests. Right now, we have a patient whose successful treatment to your satisfaction would benefit the Corti. It is therefore in our best interests to be good partners to you, no matter what the past may hold.”

“I’ll take ‘yer word of honor on all o’ that,” Daar rumbled neutrally. “As ‘fer what we’re gonna do…well, we’ll see. An’ on that note…” He looked toward his aide, and seemingly communicated with him solely through ear-flicking. “I think I better get goin.’”

“We’ll keep you informed!” Nofl promised chirpily, and ushered him and his aide toward the door. Daar gave him a decidedly less cool nod of acknowledgement, and padded his way out.

Nofl returned a minute or so later and rather than rejoining Tran in his work, he instead poured himself a steaming cup of some kind of beverage. The smell was potent enough that even Tran noticed it from across the room.

Nofl raised the cup toward him. “Coffee, Third Director?”

“…Why not?” Tran decided. “So that was the Great Father. Intriguing.”

“Forceful, isn’t he?” Nofl chuckled and turned to make another cup.

Tran harrumphed. “‘My word of honor…’” he muttered. “Dealing with aliens is always strange.”

“Do not be so flippant as to disrespect him on that point,” Nofl warned. “Honor is a Deathworlder concept that can be…entangling. He meant, in this instance, that he has no reason to believe your promise, but he will expect you to do the right thing anyway. He is giving you the opportunity to overcome suspicion and acquire trust. We can profit from that, dear.”

“How so?”

“Their societies function on mutual trust. Building that oh-so-subjective quality in our relationship can be thought of as acquiring social capital. Like anything it is a resource, except this particular resource can serve as a shortcut through bureaucratic delays. With trust, they begin to assume a mutual concern for the relationship, and that certain details can be glossed over.”

“That hardly seems logical. Simple obvious self-interest is not sufficient?”

“Think of it as social lubrication. The downside is that one can spend ‘trust’ much, much faster than they can acquire it. Worse, squandering trust with any one party effectively squanders it with everyone in their social graph. Among both Gaoians and Humans, that can yield an impressive perturbative effect. The Human word for that is, loosely, ‘karma.’”

“Hmm…” Tran considered that momentarily, then shrugged and returned to his work. “Well. Let us prove our case, then,” he said.

He ignored the slight smirk on Nofl’s face as the junior and lower-caste Corti researcher rejoined him, handing him a drink.

“As you wish, Third Director.”

Date Point: 16y2m AV
HCS My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, Wryhuor System, The Rauwryhr Republic, Perseus Arm

Dog Wagner

“…You have got to be fuckin’ kidding me.”

Dog looked up and out of the ship at the distant speck of their tractor tug, bringing them in on final approach to Wryhuor Gate. They were less than ten minutes from mooring and offloading their cargo, and Ceres had just pinged them with a top-priority recall order. There was no ignoring that.

“Problem, Dog?”

Dog realized he hadn’t actually read the message aloud. He opened the lockbox under the emergency quantum receiver and dug out their codebook, just to double-check… but he doubted there was a mistake.

There wasn’t. The code was very clear on that: Immediate emergency recall, on the authority of the Ceres director.

“…Hail traffic control,” he said. “Inform them that we’re jumping out. And ping the Armstrong beacon.”

That woke everybody up.


“You’re kidding!”

Dog slapped the message and codebook down on Mitch Baker’s workstation. “Read it yourself, brother. You tell me if I made a mistake.”

Mitch grabbed it and scanned both the message printout and the book while his partner Cathy looked over his shoulder.

“…You didn’t,” Cathy said after a second.

Their new pilot was Mason Pitman. He was ex-Navy, having spent his military career at the helm of a guided missile destroyer. Dog thought that going from that to an interstellar freighter sounded like a downgrade, but Mason had shrugged that observation off with just two words: “Pay’s better.”

He was a lot less high-strung than Sam Jordan had been, that was for sure. So while the rest of the crew had minorly freaked out, he’d just done his job.

“Jump’s keyed up, Dog.”

“Well… hang on, I mean, we’re gonna be docked in five minutes!” Mitch said. “Did we come this whole way just to jump all the way back again without delivering?”

“Don’t matter if we dock in five, offloading takes all week,” Dog pointed out. “We’re supposed to jump back ASAP. Shit, if we were actually docked they’d expect us to jump out and leave the containers behind. Some serious shit musta gone down.”

He turned to Mason and nodded. “Jump.”

“Okay, but–” Cathy began, then paused as the stars blinked. “…Whatever.”

“Holy–!” Mason took his hands off the controls like they’d just shocked him. “Navy just landed on us, point blank.”

“They’re hailing,” Mitch said.

“Well, put ‘em on!” Dog insisted.

“Hotel-Charlie-Foxtrot-One, This is USS Gene Roddenberry. Heave to and prepare to be boarded. Do not adjust your orbit.”

“Jeez. Something big went down,” Dog decided. “Mason, lock out the—”

Mason’s eyes went wide and he sprang up from his chair, shoving Dog firmly aside. Dog tumbled to the deck, and felt a fire extinguisher flick painfully against his ear as it missed his skull by an inch.

“What th’—?!”

He didn’t have time for more than that exclamation as Cathy launched herself at him like a berserk thing, biting, kicking, and scratching furiously. She was a hell of a lot stronger than Dog had thought, too.

They rolled and scrambled furiously across the deck. She had youth on her side and Dog was an old man, but he was taller and heavier. Cathy had something else on her side, though: the look in her eyes was psychotic and she fought like a fucking demon, heedless of pain or her own limits. When Dog got a good punch in that made her head bounce off the deck, she didn’t even seem to notice.

Her hands clawed for his face, tried to dig into his eyes. He got a firm grip on her throat and held her at arm’s length. She kicked furiously, trying to get him in the groin, he heaved at the waist and threw her down on the deck, she swiped at his elbow, knocked it, and then sank her teeth into his wrist.

With a pained roar, Dog punched furiously at her head, but he may as well have been playfully slapping her.

Somebody tripped heavily over the pair of them and crashed to the deck. The jolt made Cathy let go and then there was a resounding metallic CLANG!!! as Mason drove the fire extinguisher into her face.

She collapsed unconscious, with blood dribbling profusely from her nose and mouth. Mitch’s crumpled form was sprawled along the deck next to her, and Dog had to watch for several seconds before he saw a slight rise and fall to suggest he was still breathing.

Mason was in a bad way. One of his eyes was already swelling up, his knuckles were cut and bleeding and it looked like Mitch had nearly succeeded in biting one of his ears off. He stood breathing heavily for a second and gave Dog a disbelieving stare.

“…You gonna go crazy too, brother?” Dog asked him.

“The fuck was that?” Mason asked, rhetorically. He reached down and helped Dog up.

It occurred to Dog that he was nearly as badly beat-up as Mason. Between the deep bite wound in his arm, the fingernail gouges in his face and several sore spots where his aging bones had taken several solid kicks, he felt half-dead.

“…Lock the door,” he ordered.

“Right.” Mason limped toward the door and sealed it while Dog threw himself at the captain’s desk and hailed the warships outside.

“Gene Roddenberry, this is Captain Wagner. You boys better get over here quick, we just had some kinda mutiny…” He flinched at the sound of a heavy impact on the door. “…Think the whole fuckin’ crew’s gone berserk!”

The voice that came over was grim. “Aye. We were expecting that. Prepare to be boarded. We’re going to be forceful about it. Advise your crew to surrender immediately, or suffer the consequences.”

“Will do.” Dog’s fingers left a smear of blood on the controls as he opened the shipwide intercom. “This is Dog. For the love of God, you fucking idiots, stand down before somebody shoots you!”

His reply was another, heavier blow to the door. Mason gulped and backed away from it, hefting his fire extinguisher.

“They’d better hurry…” he said nervously.

Dog never got to reply. There was a jolt and an explosion from somewhere on the ship, and several alarms went off. Another jolt and blast doubled the alarms and then there were heavy crashes and the sound of absolute mayhem unfolding deep within the ship’s innards.

Dog groaned and hauled himself up to his feet. “…Put that thing down, Mason,” he said.

“…Right.” Mason dropped the extinguisher which clanged and rolled across the deck a short way. “…You know how to assume the position?”

“Yeah.” Dog limped over to a bare patch of bulkhead and pressed his palms to it at ear height, fingers splayed. Mason did the same, and not a moment too soon: The third impact on the door was way heavier than the previous two: It completely overwhelmed the lock, which broke and the door was wrenched aside with a crackle of breaking parts by a living tank of a man in an armored spacesuit, plus three of his buddies.

What followed was nearly as violent as Dog’s scrap with Cathy. He was grabbed, his ankles and wrists were zip-tied, and he was unceremoniously left on the deck while Mason, Mitch and Cathy got the same treatment.

He and Mason were given a good sniff by an armored Gaoian. Dog had no idea how the alien trooper could smell a dang thing through his suit’s mask, but apparently he could because he tapped them both and announced. “Clean!”

As abruptly as it had begun, the violence was over. The big guy who’d wrecked the door musta been some kind of medic, because he thundered ‘round the room triaging their injuries and dealing with them. Dog got an antiseptic spray and a bandage for his bite wound, Mason got something similar for the damage to his ear, and even Cathy and Mitch were checked before being stuffed into stasis bags.

The last arrival was the smallest, being only marginally larger than the Gaoian. Apparently he was in charge, too.


“Southpaw says these two’re clean, sir. Those two—” the big guy gestured at the stasis bags, “—aren’t doing so good.”

“Right. We’re bagging all the laughing men down in the mess. Get ‘em down there.”

“Yes sir.”

Once the two largest humans were gone, the flight deck felt a little more roomy again. The officer produced a pair of clippers to cut the cable ties, and helped Dog and Mason to stand.

“…You’re Captain Wagner?” he asked. He had an earthy British accent, and the eyes behind his visor were intense and piercing.

“Y-yeah,” Dog agreed, rubbing his bandaged arm. He surveyed the damaged room and the remarkably large blood smears all over the deck. “…The fuck just happened? We got a recall, jumped back, then my whole fucking crew went nuts, man!”

“I’m sorry. I can’t say… You look like death, mate. Better sit down.”

Dog did so, crashing down into the nearest chair and running a shaking hand through his hair, heedless of the blood that still coated it. Mason looked back out through the ruined doors with a pinched, anxious expression.

“…Are they gonna be okay?”

“I can’t say, mate. Sorry.”

“You mean you don’t know, or…?”

“Little o’ both.”


“Aye.” the officer looked at Mason quizzically. “ …What’s your name?” he asked.

“Pitman. Mason Pitman. I’m the pilot.”

The officer paused and looked away slightly, as though reading something only he could see. “…You weren’t on this ship a year ago, were you?”

“No sir. I took over from Sam Jordan about eight months ago.”

“Hmm.” The officer gazed thoughtfully at them, then gestured to the Gaoian. “…Southpaw. You’re sure the captain’s clean?”

“Pretty sure, sir.”

“Only ‘pretty sure’?”

“Call it ninety-nine percent. It’d help if this was a, uh… cleaner environment.”

The officer nodded slowly, stared at Dog for a moment longer, then nodded again more firmly. “…Right. Gentlemen, we’re going to stasis you up and evacuate you off the ship. You’ll be unbagged at a medical facility in Folctha and evaluated there. Got that?”

“I got it.” Dog groaned and stood up. “This fuckin’ ship’s cursed, brother. I’m ready to get the hell off it.”

“Don’t blame yer. Hamlet?”

The last of the HEAT troopers backed away from the door and unrolled a pair of stasis bags from his belt. “Yes sir.”

“See you on the other side, gentlemen,” the officer said, and stepped away as ‘Hamlet’ helped Dog lie down in the unzipped bag.

Dog lay his head back and tried to relax as he was zipped up. He wasn’t claustrophobic, but the damn thing felt way too much like a body bag. He gritted his teeth as the zipper closed over his face and braced himself—

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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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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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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