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 had they made a mess—so finding an untidy kitchen when he got home was… odd.

Okay, by any rational standard it was a perfectly clean and orderly kitchen with a few crumbs and an open snack packet on the counter next to a basket full of untouched laundry. To people who weren’t habitually fastidious, it probably would’ve looked like a tidy house in the middle of the day. But it was unlike Xiù to leave a job unfinished.

He followed the sounds of music and dialog into the living room, where he found Xiù curled up on the couch munching pretzels and watching Mulan.

“…Rough day?” he asked, gently. She still flinched, having clearly been too engrossed in the movie to hear him come in, then smiled, paused the movie, and shifted over for him to sit down.

“My head’s all over the place,” she explained, looking a little embarrassed. “Meditating didn’t work, yoga didn’t work so… screw it. I’m having a hormonal afternoon.”

Julian chuckled and cuddled up to her.

“…You stink, bǎobèi,” she complained after a second of snuggling into him.

“Sorry. Didn’t get to shower at the gym. Something big came up.”

“Something big always comes up at the gym,” she joked, and slapped his bicep to illustrate her meaning.

Julian chuckled low in his chest, “Well, not always…but this time it wasn’t just a barbell. I’m gonna have to go to Akyawentuo for a bit. Might be a week or three.”

She sighed hugely. “…I was really hoping you wouldn’t say that.”

“I know.” He rubbed her back.

“What happened exactly?”

“Can’t say. Security stuff. But there’s some Corti bigwig over in Nofl’s lab right now and I guess the Directorate wants some access to the Ten’Gewek as payment. I’ve gotta head over there and talk it over with the Given-Men.”

“What happens if they say no?”

Julian shrugged. “Nofl said a good-faith effort would be enough, but… well, it’s probably better if I can persuade Yan to at least talk with the Corti…”

That was gonna be an interesting meeting. Ten’Gewek culture didn’t value stupidity, but they put a way higher premium on brawn than brains. To them, weak people weren’t really people. Weak things were beasts or prey. After all, on a world of intensely physical Deathworld fauna, the Ten’Gewek were standouts in every category.

Corti society was pretty much exactly the opposite way around. They practically sneered at physical strength as far as Julian could tell. Corti didn’t care if you could snap a Werne’s spine with your bare hands, they’d just see that as barbarous and unnecessary among a spacefaring, tool-using civilization.

Navigating a culture clash like that was going to be… fun…

“…Actually, I really wish you could come with me,” he confessed.

“So you can keep an eye on me?”

“No, ‘cuz you’d be way better at keeping the peace than me.”

She glowed slightly at the compliment, but gave him a concerned look. “…You’re really worried it won’t go well, huh?”

“Yeah. You’ve got two completely opposite cultures, both real proud… and neither are really known for their tact, either.”

Xiù nodded and thought about it for a second.

“…Well… who says I can’t come with you?” she asked.

“Uh…” Julian didn’t reply exactly, just placed his hand on the baby bump.

“What? I’m not a waddling hippo yet!” she objected indignantly.

“I mean, like… wouldn’t supergravity be bad for the baby?”

“Nah, I looked it up. It’s bad in the first trimester, maybe, but it won’t hurt him now.”

“What about Al? Won’t she want you here?”

“Well, I’ll call her and find out,” Xiù said. She kicked her legs out and stood up. “You know her, she’s not obtuse. If she minds me going, she’ll say so.”

Julian brightened. “Hey, maybe she can come too!”

“Probably not. I think she said the reactor for Misfit Four is coming sometime this week…”

The line of ships now officially known as the Misfit-class was turning out to be a success for MBG. The US Government had ordered enough of them to completely cover the BGEV program’s costs and put interstellar exploration back in the black. More surprising still was that there had been several orders from alien buyers. Apparently Human technology was gaining a reputation for being both high-performance and highly reliable when properly maintained.

Allison spent her working days in a hard-hat and coveralls, and had been promoted to the point where rather than crawling into the tight spaces herself she was now overseeing the workers who did. Chiune Station was expanding its aircraft facility into a genuine factory the equal of the one in Omaha, and when the upgrades were complete Al had predicted they’d be able to build a new Misfit from first part to delivery in a little less than four months.

Three Misfits a year. It was a weird thought. Julian had always thought of the ship as uniquely theirs, but of course now it was out there exploring uncharted alien planets in the hands of a different crew. They’d had some success, too: No first contacts, but half a dozen new temperate worlds added to the map, two of which were Deathworlds.

He genuinely missed that ship sometimes. A nice big house, all the elbow room he could ask for and two kids on the way was definitely a step up over living in a tiny box on a tight resource budget, but there were times he felt like the three of them weren’t accomplishing as much as they had aboard Misfit.

Which was stupid, but that didn’t change his feelings.

All of these thoughts kept him distracted and quiet while Xiù found her phone, called Al, explained the situation and had a brief, affectionate chat before letting her get back to work.

“…She thinks it’s a great idea,” she said, once the call was done.


“Yeah. She thinks I spend too much time being domestic anyway.”

“Well, you kinda do…” Julian agreed.

“I like being domestic!”

Julian grinned and shook his head. “Where’s your feminist spirit?” he asked. “You gotta stand up with the oppressed Sisterhood! Don’t let the Patriarchy keep you down!”

She rolled her eyes and smacked him on the arm as she brushed past him toward the stairs. “Don’t make fun of that.”

“Aww, I don’t mean it bad!” he said.

She gave him an amused look. “Shower. Now. You still stink.”

Oh, okay. So that was her game. “Yes ma’am.”

She beamed and turned to sorting out the minor mess she’d left in the kitchen. “Good boy.”

Julian loved showers. He’d gone six years without any proper access to hygiene and that meant he’d been more than willing to spend big money on the best damn shower he could get. He stepped in, turned the water up to just shy of painful, and set the full-body spray on its most powerful setting. There was something almost therapeutic about letting it beat the aches out of his muscles and the sweat off his skin until he felt completely and satisfyingly clean.

He’d also made a point of making the shower big enough for three. Though they’d given up on shower sex as awkward, slippery and difficult, it was still fun to get clean together so he was more than happy to make room when Xiù joined him a few minutes later. She turned the pressure down a little, but left the heat as it was.

“I have the worst itch in the middle of my back,” she announced, handing him the poofy loofah thing and scooping her hair out of the way. Julian was only too happy to help, and she made happy noises as he scrubbed up and down her spine.

“So you’re definitely coming with me?” Julian checked.

She nodded, rinsing her hair until a fat stream of water splattered from the end of it. “Yeah. I’ll have to take it easy and be careful, but it’ll be nice to see them and I kinda want to see how the Singer reacts to my bump.”

“You know Ten’Gewek. She’ll be super excited I bet.”

“Vemik too. You’ll need to keep me safe from him!”

“Hah!” Julian handed her the shampoo. “Nah. He so much as bruises you he’ll have me and the Singer to answer to.”

He helped her wash and condition her hair as they discussed when they were going, what essentials they were going to wear and pack, and went over what exactly they were going to talk Yan into with the Corti.

“So… just to meet them, to begin with, then,” Julian summarized.

“Well yeah. It sounds to me like that’s all we can do. The Corti want to meet them, and we can arrange that. If we do then we’ve held up our end of the bargain and if the Ten’Gewek don’t like what the Corti try to sell them then it’s not our fault. Right?”

“Makes sense…”

Xiù turned the shower off and squeezed the water out of her hair. “They’ll want vaccines.”

“…Yeah. I know.”

“That’s kind of a big deal. The Corti will totally get them hooked and dependent if they can.”

Julian sighed. “Yeah. But there’s not many Ten’Gewek left, either. And it’s their right to choose, I guess.”

“Yeah…” Xiù stepped out onto the ultra-absorbent flooring around the shower and reached for her brush and hairdryer. Julian draped a warm towel around her shoulders before drying himself off too. He caught himself before he stooped this time—Even though his cloned foot was now just as strong, tanned and natural to him as if he’d been born with it, he still hadn’t quite managed to shake some of his old prosthetic care habits, including wanting to take it off after a shower and dry it out.

Xiù still noticed, though. “…Still taking care of the old foot?” she teased.

Julian grinned and wiggled his toes. “Eh, I still think the new model is a bit too big…”

“It’s perfect, dummy. And I prefer it.”

“You do?”

She grinned trollishly at him. “Yeah. Can’t tickle a prosthetic.”

Julian suppressed an evil thought, and decided to de-escalate instead. “Maybe let’s not get into a tickle fight, slip and crack my skull open on the tile before the mission. Also! I think I’m gonna bring the portable TIG welder. I, uh…bet I’m gonna need to distract Vemik when the conversation gets serious.”

“Hmmph. Fine. Be boring.” Her smile said she didn’t really mind, as she turned her attention to drying off.

Julian packed. It wasn’t a big job: they both knew how to travel light and what to expect on Akyawentuo, which was in the middle of the rainy season. The trick wasn’t to try and stay dry, the trick was to have somewhere cozy to dry off after getting wet.

The rains over there were pleasantly warm by a human’s standards. If you could get used to being wet basically all the time, the rainy season wasn’t a hardship at all.

…Well, okay. The mud sucked. And Julian knew that while the rest of him could survive a persistent soaking, dry feet were essential. That meant either going barefoot so they could dry off quick, or wearing superboots.

The problem with that was, well…he had big honkin’ feet, which meant big custom boots. Rich or not, Julian didn’t like the idea of paying a grand for something he didn’t really need, so…

Also, less to carry.

Xiù had no such qualms. Her boots practically had a goddamn supercomputer in the soles.

“I still can’t get over these damn things,” he commented ruefully as he dug them out of the wardrobe. “Don’t let Vemik get a hold of ‘em!”

She ducked under his arm and plucked them out of his hand. “I know how to handle Vemik, bǎobèi,” she chided him. “And you’re insulting him, too. He’s not that wild he’d just take apart my boots without asking.”

“I know, I just…” He caught himself and scowled. “…I’m doing the overprotective father thing, aren’t I?”

“Just a little tiny lot.” She bounced up on tip-toe to kiss him. “It’s sweet, but stop.”


“It’s okay. Go get your boy toys, I’ll finish up.”

Julian nodded, stole a quick little kiss, and thumped down to the garage to find some appropriately Vemik-grade toys. He grabbed up the portable TIG welder, his small supply of welding rod, some appropriate eyewear and gloves, and stuffed it all in a giant, tough Kevlar satchel he’d found at the sporting goods shop the other week.

He threw his notebook and e-Reader in, too. A guy never knew if he’d be somewhere for weeks on end, after all.

“Xiù, you ready?”

“Yeah-huh!” She trotted downstairs in her jungle clothing and superboots. They managed the neat trick of transforming her feet from those of a dainty gymnast into a pair of mallets hammering the floor down. The finishing touch was her boonie hat, a battered and faded thing bleached by the light of several alien suns.

“Doctor Livingston, I presume?”

“Hah hah. I don’t care if I look dorky, just so long as I don’t get leeches and sunburn.”

“You don’t look dorky. I don’t think it’s physically possible for you to look dorky.”

“Flatterer.” She handed over his ruck. It was a little more fully-packed than he’d have gone with for himself—well, a lot over-packed, really—but that was the opposite of a bad thing.

Julian was about to suggest they jog over to the jump terminal when he remembered that Xiù wasn’t exactly in optimal condition for that, so he ordered up a Johnny Cab instead. Three minutes until arrival.

“So, uh, I suppose we go straight to the village? Or do we wanna go to the camp first? It’s a bit of a walk…”

“We’ll see. Honestly, I’m just glad to get out of the house!”

“Fair enough. I’m looking forward to eating Werne again, I’ll be honest.”

“Mm. Yeah. Especially Werne jerky… I’ve been craving that stuff hard.”

“You’ve been craving salty foods in general.”

“Yeah, but… I dunno. Werne is special. You know?”

“Hell yeah it is!”

The Johnny Cab arrived and Julian had to insist Xiù sit down so he could load their luggage himself. He wasn’t really ready to let go of the protective father role completely, and she didn’t object too much to sitting back and letting him do all the work. It didn’t take long and they were underway after only a couple of minutes.

He called ahead to the Array terminal. This was, technically, government business now and he had the authority to arrange an urgent jump to Akyawentuo at any time. He’d need to send a report to the Ambassador explaining why and all that stuff, but right now all that mattered was that the Special Envoy to the Ten’Gewek was on the wrong planet. It was a little disruptive to regular traffic, but the terminal could handle it. Most travellers wouldn’t even notice anything had happened.

It’d still come out of the budget, though. Always there was a budget.

He became conscious that Xiù was almost jigging with excitement as they pulled up to the array.

“…You’ve really been feelin’ cooped up, huh?”

“Well… no…” Xiù paused and thought. “…I just… I mean it, I like being domestic, but you have to admit it’s not as exciting as what we used to do.”

“You mean the bits where we got shot at, or the bits where we had to talk angry spacegorillas down from trying to stab us?”

She beamed at him. “Exactly! Fun times.”

Julian snorted and shook his head, but he was smiling. “Vemik always said, friends shouldn’t spear each other, at least not too hard.”

“Wise words!” She sprang out of the car as soon as it stopped and grinned at him. “…You coming?”

There were times when Julian was so much in love that it hurt. He was only too happy to follow her.

“Right behind you,” he said.

Date Point: 16y2m AV
Class 11 planet “Stinkworld,” Messier 24

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

Of all the things Wilde’s mum had predicted would go wrong with his life, playing wargames with talking raccoon-bear men on a planet that smelled like rotting meat probably hadn’t ever featured on the list.

Giant, cussing bear-blokes with tangled fur, even less so. Especially when they looked a bit like angry polar bears in dungarees. Well…overalls, maybe.

Honestly, they were neither one thing nor t’other, as his granddad would have put it, but… whatever.

Garl was a lot like the Great Father. He filled whatever space he arrived in and took it over.

The difference was in tone.

“…Never thought I’d be jealous of a Human’s sense’a smell…”

“We can smell it too, sir,” Wilde told him, wearily. “Believe me on that.”

“Well, that’s lame! What’sa point o’ havin’ a terrible sense o’ smell if you ain’t escapin’ the stink?”

Wilde snorted, and decided he liked Garl. “Karmic retribution?”

“I heard that word on Gyotin’s podcast I think. ‘Ya musta had fun in a previous life!”

“I bloody hope so. Anyway, we’d better go over a few things before your lot rip and tear, yeah?”

Garl duck-nodded. “Alright. Brief me.”

Wilde decided to get the big surprise out of the way first. “First up, we’ve got a friend on the inside. Sort of.”

“…A friend? Oh… please tell me it’s not that weird dataspace critter thing.”

“The Entity? Yeah. Showed up about the same time we did,” Wilde shrugged. “Apparently the only reason the first team succeeded here was because it suppressed the relay’s error reports for ‘em. Did the same for us, too.”

“Is it here now?”

“Not heard from it yet today, but uh… from what I understand, it’s not a question of it being here, it’s a question of whether it’s paying attention right now. There was a whole briefing on Dataspace and all that…”

“I’m too damn old ‘fer this shit.”

“It’s a bloody headache to talk with, I tell you that,” Wilde agreed.

“Any other surprises?”

“No surprises. We’ve mapped out where the local critters live, updated the relay facility’s drone patrol routes, all that stuff… It’s on the map over here.”

“We got what we needed from that thing?” Garl gestured in the vague direction of the relay.

“Yes sir, it’s all loaded on Drunker on Turkeyer there and ready to go.”

“So now we get to smash the defences and bring in Longears and Scotch Creek guys and whoever else to prod at this thing and see what twitches its nose.” Garl sounded like he’d rather just smash it to rubble, but maybe that was just his way. He didn’t react to the ship’s name at all, but presumably he was used to the Great Father’s quirks.

“They’ll have help.”

“Right. This Entity.” Garl shook his coat out at the neck and growled. “…Not lookin’ forward to meetin’ that thing. Seems kinda… Iunno. Morbid.”

“Funny thing is, I thought it would’ve showed up by now…” Wilde began. He smirked when the tablet lying on his map pinged and lit up. Somehow, he just knew that the gods of comic timing had decided to smile on him.

Sure enough, there was a large < 🙂 > on the screen when he picked it up.

“Talk of the devil…” he said.

< ? >

“You know, by the pricking of your thumbs? …Never mind, you don’t have thumbs.”

To his surprise, he got a rare and coherent sentence in reply.

<How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is’t you do?>


< 🙂 >

Well… that wasn’t creepy or anything.

“Keeda’s scorched ‘nads…” Garl muttered. “Uh… hi.”

< 🙂 >

“…Is that all it says?”

“That’s kind of its go-to ‘yes, hello, affirmative, you’ve got it’ thing,” Wilde told him.

“Don’t it talk properly? I heard it can.”

“It can. It doesn’t like to.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“I asked it that. Didn’t understand the reply.”

On the tablet’s screen, the Entity deployed a sighing emoji and then did something that Wilde hadn’t expected: It manifested a face.

He knew that face. She was on Folcthan TV all the time, not to mention hanging on Coombes’ arm. This version was maybe a little younger, and looked a hell of a lot more tired and stressed, but was still unquestionably the same woman.

Garl flexed his claws and cocked his head as the image came to full animated life.

“It doesn’t like to because it means using me,” she said.

“…I know you. I’ve met you,” Wilde said. “Ríos, right?”

“No. You met the real Ava Ríos. I’m just an echo, or a ghost. I’m dead, she’s alive.”

“You’re pretty chatty for a dead thing,” Garl rumbled. The fur on the back of his neck was standing up.

The ‘echo’ ignored that jab. “The Entity has captured a Hierarchy agent,” she said.

Garl pricked up his ears as Wilde leaned forward over the table. “…Captured?”

“He surrendered. He’s in a dormant state right now, it just needs somewhere to contain him.”

“…Well, that makes life more complicated…” Wilde muttered. He looked to Garl. “…Any ideas?”

“Y’got me. We already got one captive Agent on Gao… Think the Whitecrests are takin’ care of it.”

“Okay…how would we transport this agent anyway?”

“The Entity will take care of that. The problem is Substrate. The agent is going to need it if you want him to stay sane and be useful.”


“Darcy at Mrwrki Station can explain. The Entity’s said everything it wants to say through me, now.”

“I don’t get it. Why not just use you allatime?” Garl asked.

“Because it wants to be itself. Goodbye.”

The image faded. After a few seconds, there were a couple of pings, and the Entity deployed a shrug emoji and another < 🙂 >

“…Well… Now what?”

“Now, I guess we get our hands on a really big flash drive or something and take it over to Mrwrki,” Wilde said, trying to ignore the slight crawling feeling all over his skin. Something about the encounter had just been wrong.

Then again, that was the Entity in a nutshell. It was a Wrong Thing that happened to be on their side, sort of.

It certainly seemed to rub Garl the wrong way. The old Gaoian scratched at the side of his neck and grumbled softly to himself before duck-nodding.

“…Right. Let’s… make sure I’m clear on all the other stuff first…” he said.

Briefing him didn’t take long. He’d come well-equipped and ready, knew the job he was there to do… Wilde could see why he’d been put in charge. The wily old bugger was still sharp as a scalpel.

“Is there anything further you need from us?”

“Nah,” the polar bear waved an enormous paw distractedly. “I gotta study. Y’all get back’ta Cimbrean. I betcha have plans ‘fer R-and-R…”

“Assuming our friend hasn’t scuppered them…” Wilde said. “Have fun!”

“Oh, I will!” Garl bared his fangs menacingly, flicked his ear happily, then stepped aside and let Wilde rejoin Tooko, Rees and Frasier at the ship’s ramp.

Tooko was eyeing the Grandfather with an expression Wilde couldn’t read.

“Something on your mind, Took?” he asked cheerfully.

“Just thinking how unfair it is that Stonebacks age so gracefully,” Tooko sighed, then shook himself and scampered up the ramp and into the pilot’s seat. Wilde met Rees’ eye and they shared a mutual amused shrug before piling aboard themselves.

“So what’d Computer Cthulhu want?” Frasier asked.

“It turned into a hot girl and gave us a prisoner,” Wilde said, throwing himself onto the ship’s nest-bed. He’d catch hell from Tooko for stinking it up later, but for now the pilot was too busy with pre-flight checks. God he was looking forward to getting back to civilization…

“…You taking the piss, or…?” Rees asked.




“Wildey, c’mon mate. Don’t keep us in the dark…”

Wilde sighed and bent to undo his boots and change his socks. If he couldn’t be clean, he could at least let his feet breathe.

“Okay…” he said. “Let me explain.”

He was still going over the details when Tooko jumped them home.

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

Adam “Warhorse” Arés


Titan peered into the little smuggler’s hole they’d found in the suit maintenance room one last time, angled his fiber-optic camera back and forth just to make sure there really were no further nooks or crannies in there that he’d missed, and reluctantly closed it up again.

Shim had found it. Apparently it had the Arudrone scent all over it from where Sam Jordan had repeatedly accessed it, but its innards were totally bare.

“Hopin’ to find something?” Adam asked him.

“Yeah. The theory is that Jordan was using a portable temporal accelerator of some kind, that’s how he was able to have an alibi when the bomb went missing. If we could get our hands on it…”

“Damn. Just imagine if these suits could make us move like the Flash.”

“Yeah.” Titan sighed and gave up. “But, it looks like he took it out to the bomb site with him. So unless by some miracle it survived being at ground zero when the nuke went off, we’ll never know how he built it.”

“Uh…is it maybe behind the wall or something?”

“…You just wanna rip into it, don’t lie.”

“A little, yeah. I don’t like missions like this.”

“Why not? We’re just terrorizing a bunch of blameless civilians and stomping all over the place like the fucking Gestapo, what’s not to love?”

Adam gave him an annoyed look, which through their masks probably wasn’t exactly visible but whatever. Titan got the message—no snark.

He wasn’t wrong, though. He was enlisted, there was always scut work and all that, and hell, maybe being the literal best of the best was going to his head. Still seemed like a waste to send guys like him for something like this, though. They weren’t trained in being nice.

Then again, if Ceres had been a seething pit of Arudrones…

…Yeah. Seen that way, it wouldn’t have been fair to send up policemen to their doom. But still.

He’d gone around and helped mend fences with the civilians as best he could. Break cuffs off, help them to their feet, tell a corny joke or two. It would probably work better if he was, oh, in his usual Utilikilt, or, like, whatever. Not a mostly faceless armored spacesuit. There was only so friendly he could be when all folks could see of him was his weapons, the outlines of his muscles, and his eyes behind a baleful blaze orange visor. The Mass made them all look like…sci-fi nightmares, sometimes.

Which was fuckin’ great for putting the fear of God into the actual bad guys, but kinda backfired in this situation.

“…I hear you,” Titan said instead. “I know why we’re here, but fuck I’d rather be up against Hunters right now.”

“I just wish we could take the fuckin’ mask off. It’s hard to be nice when you’re a damn Space Marine.”

“Aye.” Murray had somehow snuck up behind them without making a sound. How someone who weighed well over a quarter-ton buck naked could make no sound whatsoever on plate metal flooring was…

Just part of the Magic Angus Act. Which was really a way better callsign than Highland. Angus. A big scottish side of beef!

Adam found himself quietly giggling to himself while Murray sidled up to their little group.

“…Is your oxygen feed alright, ‘Horse?”

“Har har. You and I have a spar scheduled tomorrow, Highland. Be careful.”

Murray chuckled. “…Right. I’ll behave.”

…Well, okay. Adam wasn’t too self-involved to admit that kind of thing felt good. He grinned and bounced on the balls of his feet, and the deck immediately groaned under his weight. He stopped.

Anyway. Masks. And mission. And stuff.

“What’s left?” Murray asked.

“Think we’re just waiting on Righteous, Moho and Irish to get back from Ground Zero now,” Titan said.

“Think they’ll recover anything?”

“Nah. Boom that big? Just instrument data.”


“That’s it? We’ve swept the whole facility?” Adam checked.

“Top tae bottom,” Murray confirmed. “Think the Whitecrests wanny go lie down now and rest their noses.”

“To be fair they’ve been scampering about all day sniffing all the things.”

“Scamper isn’t the word I’d use,” Titan said. “Every last one of them’s way bigger than anyone on the station.”

“Prowl, maybe?” Adam suggested.

Murray nodded agreement. “Aye.”

Shim interrupted them via radio. He was down in the next suit bay, sniffing it down for signs of Arudrone activity. “I can hear you, you know.”

Titan chuckled and keyed his radio to reply. “Then scamper your ass over here! ‘Horse wants to know if there’s anything inside the walls.”

“There isn’t.”

“So, no excuse for ‘Horse to go all Hulk Smash and rip the wall apart?”


“Not one that I can give you. He’s on his own.” There was definitely a chitter threatening to break into Shim’s voice.

Another voice joined the conversation. “Net, ABBOTT here. I take it this means you’re all done down there?”

Titan replied. “Yes sir. Looks like the drone took all its secrets with it when it self-destructed.”

“Alright. The Ground Zero team are nearly back in. Come on up to central ops, we’re about done here.”

Adam nodded to that and set to bundling up his gear. The new guys weren’t completely acclimated to the Mass yet, so while the old guys like him could wear the stuff almost indefinitely, the rest would be hurting and he’d need to help them through all of that.

Most of the team had already filtered back up to the main concourse by the time they got there. They were slightly diminished, with Powell, ‘Base, Southpaw, Kiwi and Hamlet—Parata and Newman—having had to run off on an emergency call elsewhere.

Central Ops had large windows overlooking the concourse, and Adam could see Costello talking with Adele Park. She looked… subdued and unhappy, but not angry or whatever.

She also looked tired as hell. Then again, the big clock on the wall said it was 04:30 local time, so she’d been up all night. Throw in the stress and fear of being raided by the HEAT and she was honestly holding up like a fucking trooper.

She still managed an exhausted smile and a handshake for Costello though as they said goodbye. The captain could be goddamn charming when he wanted to be.

He trotted down the stairs—not really the right word to describe such a weight of man and equipment in motion, but whatever—and joined the team, looking pleased behind his mask.

“So. Final verdict is the facility is clean of Arutech,” he said. “Especially the shipyard workers.”

From the HEAT’s perspective, that meant the next-gen ships they might be deploying through, and the refurbished Caledonia in particular, probably weren’t potential deathtraps fitted with Hierarchy booby-traps or bugs. That had been their personal skin in the game, and it was good to have that question cleared up.

“Now for the bad news I just had to share with Director Park up there,” Costello added. “My Other Spaceship Is the Millennium Falcon turned out to be a different story. The whole crew was Arudroned, pretty much.”

Adam wasn’t the only one to utter some variant of the word ‘fuck’ in response to that, and Costello nodded grimly. “Yeah. No idea what’s going to happen there, but something tells me we’ll be retracing that ship’s footsteps soon. That’s unofficial, but… keep it in mind if you’re making plans.”

Dexter was the first to see the problem and reacted with a growled curse. [“Nuts.] That is…a geometric problem, sir.”

“Yup. Gonna probably trickle down to everyone else, too. I think this little incident just bought a decade of work for special operations teams all across our services.” He looked up as the trio who’d gone to explore the nuke’s detonation site finally showed up. Their suits were still glistening with water from the decontamination showers. “…Alright. Time to go home and recover.”

With an assortment of low chatter, the team picked up their stuff and headed back toward the jump array. Adam glanced back at the Central Ops room as he went: Park was standing in the window with her arms folded, looking small and old and fatigued.

“…What happens to Ceres now?” he asked, mostly to himself.

“That’s for Hephaestus to decide, I guess,” Costello replied.


They went home.

Date Point: 16y2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Dog Wagner

—Only to blink in confusion as the zipper came straight back down again, allowing harsh white light to dazzle him.

…Right. Yeah. Stasis.

No sooner had Dog sat up than a truly gigantic nose was pressed right up against his ear and a titanic snuffle tugged at his skin.

The owner of that nose straightened up with a kind of satisfied growl. “…Yeah, he’s clean,” he said in a gravelly bass tone.

From Dog’s other side came the officer’s voice, and when Dog looked to his right he found himself looking at those same intense blue eyes from before.

“Why, though? He was on the ship at Origin, why the fook didn’t they infect him when they got the rest of the crew?”

“Beats the fuck outta me…” The gargantuan Gaoian shrugged.

“…Aren’t you the Great Father of the Gao?” Dog asked him. It was about the only thing his brain could latch onto.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“And you’re confusing my patient, darling,” a new voice interjected. The Great Father stepped aside as an especially small Corti clucked up to him and climbed some steps to get a good look at Dog. “…Hello, Mister Wagner. I’m Nofl and you’ve been in stasis for six hours.”

Dog latched onto that number, grateful to have something concrete amid the upside-down wacky horror show his life had suddenly become. Ten minutes ago he’d been about to moor at a port and offload millions of dollars of food. Now he was sitting on a steel table being prodded by the HEAT and sniffed by the most powerful individual in the galaxy.

Nofl pressed a hot mug into his hands. “Coffee,” he explained jovially.

“…Thanks.” Something else concrete and familiar. He sipped it, and found to his surprise that it was about the best coffee he’d ever had in his life… or at least, it sure tasted that way in the moment.

“…Aye, sorry about that,” the officer said. “I should introduce myself. Call me ‘Stainless.’ Didn’t have time for a proper hello before.”

“…My crew?”

“Alive. We had to get bloody rough wi’ some of ‘em, but for the time bein’ they’re all in stasis while we figure out what to do wi‘ them.”

“I mean… what happened to my crew? Mitch tried to brain me with a fire extinguisher!”

“Well, that’s what we’re tryin’ to piece together,” Stainless explained.

“We think they were exposed to an… influence, during your little hiccup over Origin,” Nofl explained. “The one in which Director Park was abducted.”

“Yeah, I’m not gonna forget that one anytime soon…” Dog shivered.

“Aye, well. Neither you nor she were affected,” Stainless said. “Bit of a head-scratcher, that one.”

“Why the crew, but not their captain or the director?” Nofl agreed. “I have a question for you: did you notice any inflammation or fever after that incident?”

Dog shrugged. “Not really. Just my arthritis.”

“Rheumatoid arthritis? Not osteoarthritis?”


“Was it worse than usual?”

“Uh… yeah. Couldn’t hardly use my left hand for like two months.”


“You got a theory there, Nofl?” Stainless asked.

“I believe I do, yes. Mister Chadesakan also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis… Do you know if Director Park does, Mister Wagner?”

“Uh, yeah. Worse’n mine.”

Nofl beamed and snapped his fingers, which was a wimpy-ass sound from a Corti but he seemed happy. “The Human immune system strikes again!”

“Nofl, what….?” the Great Father asked, tiredly. Dog was no expert in Gaoian body language, but he looked like he hadn’t slept in a while.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition unique to Humans. Their immune system can sometimes begin to attack perfectly healthy and normal tissue… Oh my.”

He hopped down from his perch by the table and darted across the lab. “This implies a possible cure! I need to contact Tran.”

Dog swung his legs off the table, still trying to get his head around the violent gear-shift his day had just taken. “…He always like that?”

“Usually he’s a lot worse,” Stainless growled. It was hard to tell, but Dog suspected he might actually be amused.

“If this cure works on Gaoians, I’ll fund ‘em to upgrade this place however the fuck he wants,” the Great Father added, much more seriously. “Why his own people won’t…”

“Corti have their ways,” Dog said. “I’ve done a lotta business with ‘em over the years. Sticks up their asses, but at least you always know where you stand with ‘em.”

“Unner a microscope, usually. Well…that ain’t fair, not no more. They did my people a big service not too long ago.”

“Totally mercenary, darling, I assure you!” Nofl called over his shoulder. “Call it enlightened self-interest!”

“Sounds about right….” Dog finished his coffee and set it aside. “…Can I see my crew?”

Stainless shook his head. “Not an option mate, sorry. They’re all in stasis. I can show you a room full o’ bags stacked like firewood, but…”

“Mason? He wasn’t affected.”

“Aye, we released him to the hospital. They should be sewing his ear back on ‘round about now.” Again, it was hard to judge behind Stainless’ perpetual slightly sullen mask and tone of voice, but Dog got the impression he was somewhat impressed. “He took a bloody beating, I tell yer.”

“I know, I was there.”

“That’s where you’re headed, anyway. Better get that bite seen to.”

“Don’t worry, it isn’t infected!” Nofl added. “Not with zombifying nanotech, anyway. Just good old-fashioned Staphylococcus!”

“…Oh.” Dog didn’t know what to say to that. “Uh… Good.”

Stainless looked at somebody near the door, a brown-haired young man in a navy blue uniform with a gold anchor on the rank slide in the middle of his chest. “Tisdale. Escort Mister Wagner to the hospital, would you?”

“Yessir.” The lad offered Dog a shoulder to lean on and turned out to be a fair bit stronger than he looked, which was very welcome when Dog stood up and found that his knee really didn’t want to cooperate. He could vaguely remember Cathy kicking him in it.

That had been… minutes ago, from his personal perspective. He was having a hard time keeping up.

“…You’ll let me know what happens to my crew?” he asked.

“You have my word on it,” Stainless promised.

Good enough. Dog opted to limp rather than hop as he was escorted out of the building and to a waiting SUV. It hurt more, but he just didn’t have the energy for hopping.

The back of the car was a welcome moment of silence. No bright lights, nobody interrogating him, no alarms or loud noises. The thing had an electric train, so it slid out into traffic smoothly and quietly, and Tisdale seemed to sense that Dog needed a little peace: beyond checking whether he needed anything, the young man just shut up and drove. Dog could appreciate that.

But in all the chaos and freaking-out that was flooding through his head, one thought stood out above all others.

He was definitely getting too old for this shit.

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 2

Date Point: 16y2m1d AV Chiune Station, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Allison Buehler Allison hadn’t slept well in a couple of nights. It wasn’t that she begrudged Julian and Xiù going offworld, not at all, but it did disrupt the sense of familiarity that made home, well… Home. If she didn’t have her brothers to

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Rising Titans – Chapter 47

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt Part 1

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

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Good Training – Survival Part 2

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 6

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 46

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 4

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 3

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

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Good Training – Survival Part 1

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 45

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 2

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

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Good Training – April Fool’s

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 52: Autoimmune Part 1

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 5

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 44

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 4

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 3

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

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Good Training – Pecking Order

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Tidying Up

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 2

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 43

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 51: Anticlimax Part 1

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 5

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 4

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 4

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 42

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Trigger Part 1

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 3

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 41

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

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The Good Samaritan

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 6

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

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Rising Titans – Chapter 40

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

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Good Training – The Champions – Doom and Gloom Part 2

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

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

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The Deathworlders – Chapter 50: Counterattack – Homefront Part 4

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

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